Long ago—or perhaps just yesterday, for time runs differently in Fairy than in mortal lands—the fairy folk knew nothing of the rest of sleep, nor of the strange wonders of dreams: glamourie created not by fairy magic but by the unbidden mind.
The endless days of mirth and nights of revelry perhaps grew wearisome for some, blending into each other without cease, until it seemed to Lord Oberon their king that he had tasted every delicacy there was to taste, laughed at every jape, luxuriated in every pleasure. He found himself bored.
“I wonder,” he remarked to his Puck, as they looked down upon a changeling child, slumbering peacefully in her bed of thistledown and dandelions, “what it would be like to dream.”
And Puck, that strange, faithful sprite who ever scampered along in his shadow, heard and remembered, and conceived a scheme.
First he brought Oberon milk fresh from the cow, sweetened with honey and warmed by the west wind’s breath; for his troubles, he was stung twice and narrowly missed being kicked, for he had not yet learned the arts of sweetly murmuring the bees to sleep or of soothing a cow with whispered magic in her hairy ear. Oberon thanked him with a puzzled murmur and remarked upon its pleasant flavor, but seemed no sleepier than he ever had.
Next he prepared a tisane of herbs plucked from the most distant realms of the earth, yellow chamomile and sharp lavender, sour date seeds and some shriveled thing which gave a terrible stench but which the old herb woman Puck had it from swore on her mother’s grave would bring sleep like the dead. Well, it certainly smelled like the dead, Puck thought, and held his nose as he tucked it away in his bag.
Oberon eyed it with distaste, nostrils flaring. “I am meant to…drink this?” he asked, holding the steaming cup at arm’s length. “Why? Have I offended thee in some fashion, my Puck?”
“When mortals cannot sleep,” Puck explained, “they often drink various herbs steeped in hot water. You said you wished to dream, my lord, and to dream you must first sleep.”
“I see,” said Oberon, with a curious look that made a warm feeling bloom in Puck’s breast. “Well, I suppose there is nothing to be lost by trying.”
He set the cup to his lips and tilted his head back in a long draught, grimacing at the taste but making no further comment, and then he sank into a brooding—but entirely alert—silence, as Puck crept away again. Twice he had failed, in what had at first seemed a simple task.
The sheep, which at least did not smell nearly so bad as the herbs, Oberon received with considerably less grace. They trampled Titania’s bower, only to be driven out with shrieks of dismay, then milled about in confusion. One of them leapt up to Oberon’s throne in fright, where it took a shit. Puck winced, half at the sheep and half at Oberon’s none-too-gentle grip on his pointed ear. “This,” said Oberon coldly, “is not at all amusing.”
“I know it seems like madness!” Puck cried. Oberon’s grip shifted to his shoulder, fingers digging painfully in under his collarbone. “But I swear I heard a mortal—ow!—tell another to count sheep if he could not sleep. I thought—”
Oberon sighed, releasing him, and Puck rubbed at his sore shoulder. “Take the sheep away,” he said, but Puck heard what he meant, and that was Go away.
Dejected, he waved at his followers to help him round up the stinking beasts again. The object of his quest clearly did not lie in the mortal world, which he should have known from the first. After all, fairies were not mortals. But the journey that lay ahead of him stretched cold and lonely, and he was not eager to set foot on that path.
The realm of His Majesty Death was a cold and barren place that reminded Puck unpleasantly of Fairy without the softening cloak of bright glamour that hid its vast, shattering emptiness. The path before him seemed to stretch onward into endless darkness, its stones rough and jagged, for few came this way of their own will and Death had no need to welcome visitors and ease their way.
The further he walked, the heavier his steps became, his customary lightness of foot fleeing as he shivered, trying to ignore the faded shades of the dead who had not yet moved on, whispering along in his wake, drawn to the warmth of his living flesh.
At last Death’s palace rose up in front of his weary feet, a dark edifice of crumbling towers and rusting metal. But even as he raised a hand to knock, the heavy doors opened; behind him, Puck felt a cool breeze as the shades of the dead fled, the oppression of their presence lifted.
Puck was only passingly familiar with death: the way a mortal might struggle, caught in a sinking mire, later floating to the surface bloated and sightless; the too-short life of some small butterfly or bird snuffed out by winter’s ice; the wilting of a plucked flower. But the fairy kind do not feel Death’s cold touch, his ever-present breath on their necks, the lurking threat that makes mortal life so sharp, so sweet in its frenzied brevity. Puck was unprepared for the being who regarded him birdlike, head tilted to one side, a remote smile fixed on his cruel lips. His pretty speech, so carefully rehearsed on his long journey, froze on his lips.
After a moment, Death stood aside with a gesture of his arm both graceful and somehow stilted, the seeming of life more than the sense of it. “Your kind does not often find my realm,” he said in a voice of remote echoes. “Be welcome and walk with me.”
Chill, too, were the halls of Death’s palace, reverberating with the last fading cries and moans of mortals who clung too hard still to life to pass through that final gate. Puck liked it not, but he had come too far on his quest to turn back.
“Why have you come?” Death’s voice, a silky whisper in the darkness, made him jump, and through long habit, Puck transmuted startlement to caper, the brief stab of fear lending his leap wings.
“A boon, my lord Death,” he said, and licked dry lips, summoned up his most charming smile, the one that made even Titania’s glower soften. Well, sometimes. If she was not too angry. “For my master Oberon the king.”
Death’s face remained still and distant as marble, his winged dark brows raised slightly in inquiry. It was like looking at a mask which sometimes moved, and was all the more unsettling for that movement. “A boon? I do not grant boons. Favors, perhaps, if you have something to offer in exchange. What do you offer, little sprite?” He halted, so abruptly that Puck nearly crashed into him, saving himself from more than brushing the cool silks of his robe only by a swift sideways dance. “I cannot take but a few years of your immortal life.” He reached out, his slim white hand tracing the air by Puck’s cheek as Puck tried not to flinch; Death’s flesh seemed to radiate cold. “I have no need for a jester.”
There, a faint glimmer of dark humor in fathomless eyes, the tiniest hint of emotion in that smooth voice. Puck relaxed; cocked his head to one side in answer, winked. “Well...then what do you want, Lord Death?”
He half expected laughter, but Death only tilted his head to one side, considering. Perhaps he did not know how to laugh, Puck thought. So old, so powerful, and yet such little things escaped him. The pang of sympathy passed as swiftly as it had come; it was foreign to Puck’s nature and found no fertile ground in which to root.
“I want,” Death said at last, “to feel the warmth of mortality, the vitality of life.”
“Ah,” said Puck, after a pause. “I had hoped for some rare plant from the high Himalayas or something of that nature. I'm very good at fetching rarities.”
“Yes. I imagine you are. Regardless of whether their owners wish to give them up.” Death waved a hand, and with alarming swiftness, figures appeared from the darkness, arranging themselves into the semblance of a chair, their white and staring faces eyeing Puck with malicious curiosity. No shades of the mortal dead, these. Sweeping his coat so it flared about his legs, Death sprawled across the network of arms and legs and thighs, at ease as Oberon was on his throne woven of oak and rowan. “What do I want?” His lips curved into a terrible, sharp smile. “What if I want a kiss, little sprite? Would you give me that, in exchange for your favor?”
Such a simple question, from any other being; Puck’s kisses were light as dandelion fluff, blown every which way on the breeze, as wild as the north wind, sharp as claws or sweet as fairy wine, wicked as sin or innocent as a baby's laughter. He bestowed them freely on friend and enemy alike; in some farmsteads a child born with a little red mark on downy cheek or limb was said to be fairy-kissed. But a kiss given to Lord Death, ah, that would be the last kiss of all.
It was not that Puck did not love his lord enough. He loved Oberon as only a fairy could, with a love spanning centuries, the fierce twining love of the ivy for the tree, knowing that without the tree it was only a sad thing creeping along the ground. “Not today, your majesty,” he said, bowing low, “for that is a gift that can only be given once, and if I give it now, for a whim, who will be there to give it when my lord truly needs it?”
Death’s fingers under his pointed chin felt like ice, so cold they burned. “Such loyalty you bear, little sprite.” His eyes gleamed, dark and fathomless, and as he withdrew his fingers it felt like a caress. “Very well. I well grant you your favor: sleep for Lord Oberon of the fairies, and any he wishes to share it with. In exchange, you will show me life for a day and a night. Are we agreed?”
What merry wild journey Puck danced that day with Lord Death is a tale for another telling. Let it suffice that Death tasted the fruits of far lands, the heat of the tropics, the clamor of a thousand voices raised in joy (She will die soon, Death had observed, dispassionately, of one reveler. She is alive now, Puck replied, and draped a garland of flowers around Death's broad shoulders, pulling him into an awkward dance); he saw the birth of a litter of bearcubs and watched a rose open to the sun. For a single day, Death banished his followers from his shadow and stayed his hand from the world. Of what he thought, he said nothing.
And in the dark hours of the night, the revelry ended, Death turned and held out his pale hand, an invitation or a dare, the details of the bargain not yet struck. Puck hesitated, but only for the barest instant. He had always been attracted to the beautiful and dangerous.
Puck found Oberon retired to his bower, reclining on a couch decked with cushions of silk and thistledown, hung about with garlands of flowers. He had one arm flung over his eyes, but his other hand twitched a little in time with the gentle plucking of harpstrings from the mortal boy sitting beside him—dull, tedious music. Puck would rather the raucous joy of the dawn chorus, or even a merry band of minstrels playing in some dusty market square, but there was no accounting for taste. He cloaked himself in invisibility and sidled closer.
“Boo!” he whispered, reappearing and grinning widely, gratified to see the lad go white as milk, the notes of his music souring. Another grin and a jerk of his head and the lad fled.
Oberon removed his arm from his face and sat up, with an all-too-familiar expression of irritation. “Puck, what is the meaning of this disturbance?”
“My lord,” said Puck, kneeling with a flourish and holding out a box, fashioned of some silky dark wood and carved with figures that seemed to shift before the eye. “I have brought you a gift.”
To his dismay, Oberon did not look pleased, or even curious, but rather wary. He eyed the box with a frown, making no move to touch it. “I feel I have seen such work before,” he murmured. “I like it not.”
“I have journeyed all the way to Death’s dominion in search of it!” Puck cried. It would work this time; he knew it would. There were many stories told of the lord of the cold realms, but in all of them he always, always kept his word. And Puck was flighty, but no fool, and well-accustomed himself to such games; he had taken care with the terms. A taste of life in exchange for sleep and the dreams it brought; the one for a day and a night, the other for eternity. They were unambiguous, no traps or tricks in them for the unwary bargainer.
Oberon began to turn away. “I have no desire for any gifts from that realm,” he said, and the ice in his tone cut at what passed for Puck’s heart as Death’s cold touch had not. Few things could dampen Puck’s merry spirits, save his lord’s displeasure.
But he could not argue with Oberon, so instead he gently set the box down on the moss beside the couch. “If you should change your mind,” he said, “this box will bring sleep, and you will dream. But my lord Death was clear: if once you sleep, then every night it will come upon you again, as it does for every other living creature save us. It is already paid for; you owe him nothing.”
He crept away as he had arrived, silent and invisible, and did not see the startled consideration that passed over Oberon’s proud features as he bent to pick up the box.
It is not in Puck’s nature to hide away too long licking his wounds, and before the full night had passed he had already emerged to tease Titania’s handmaidens. “And then I asked him to dance!” he said, provoking the desired chorus of admiration at his bravery, he, Puck, who had walked into the lands of Death and returned. At least there were some who appreciated him as he deserved.
“As if Lord Death would offend our court!” said Peaseblossom, whose tongue was surely made of sharkskin, no matter that he claimed pure ancestry among the fairies of the forest. “Even such a silly fairy as you was perfectly safe! What nonsense!”
“Nonsense!” echoed Cowslip, who only moments before had been hanging breathless on Puck’s story, fluttering her long dark lashes at him and arranging her slender legs to show to best advantage. She raised her pretty eyebrows in scorn and gave a dismissive flip of her wings. “I am not sure you even went! I'm sure the land of the dead is very far away.”
“I'll prove it to you,” cried Puck, leaping to his feet. “Just wait!” They'd believe if they saw the box; Oberon wouldn't miss it for a few moments. Why, he hadn't even wanted it at all, after all the trouble Puck went to for it!
He entered Oberon’s bower in stealth, in case his lord was still angry, but it took him mere moments to notice that the glow of the fireflies caught in the lanterns was dim and sluggish, the shape on the divan unmoving under the embroidered coverlet.
For the first time in his immortal life, Puck felt fear, a sick clawing thing that drove him to a stumbling run, all grace forgotten, to kneel by his lord. He had been so careful in his bargain, so careful, but Death was known to be a lawyer. Had there been some forgotten detail, some clause unfulfilled? Oberon’s face was pale and still, the sigils curving around his high cheekbones gleaming faintly silver in the moonlight, his hair spilling like a cloud of black silk across the pillows. Trembling, Puck clasped his hand, raising it to his lips.
It was warm. Lord Death had kept his bargain.
As Puck laughed with sheer relief, Oberon stirred, his fingers intertwining with Puck’s. “Puck?” His eyes opened, and he looked at Puck as if he had never seen him before. “Oh, Puck. Such things I have dreamed,” he said, in a voice that husked and dragged like velvet against Puck’s skin. He tugged Puck closer, gentle but inexorable, and where Death's frozen touch had made him burn, under the warmth of Oberon’s hands he shivered. “You ought to try it,” Oberon whispered, “best of Pucks, my most loyal Puck. Everyone ought to try it.” He laughed, bright and joyous, without a trace of his recent melancholy.
“Now?” squeaked Puck as Oberon dragged him down onto the divan and pressed his wrists to the pillows above his head, bending over him in the dark, heavy and warm and alive, so wonderfully alive.
“Later.” That was murmured against his collarbone, and it tickled. His halfhearted attempt to wiggle free was swiftly thwarted, to mutual pleasure.
There were few things better, Puck thought, than to have his lord’s full attention when he was pleased.
And that is how sleep came to the fairy folk: a king's whim, a bargain with Death, a single sprite's madcap love. On such small things fate hinges.