Author's disclaimer: This is not for profit, but for love. Not mine, probably never will be.
"Trilly-but how come nobody ever told me fairy tales that good when
I was little?? :)"
(A genuine Trilly quote)
She awoke to a sunlight-dappled green canopy overhead, the smell of loam and bark and greening things, and the soft, insistent press of a wolf's muzzle against her face. Its nuzzling was almost interrogative, as though it were trying to learn something of her, something hidden in the crease behind her ears or the delicate hollow of her cheeks. From somewhere behind her she heard a bass rumble, felt it in her bones. She sat up, turned around, and saw a great, dark cat, all dread and sinew, watching her with unblinking eyes.
"Why have you left the path, Man's Daughter? You have not finished the course." The jaguar's purr was a roar of sound and sensation, leaving her trembling. It was not unkindly said, but for some reason she couldn't quite understand, it distressed her terribly, made her throat close-up and her eyes prick with tears. A gaping, aching emptiness blossomed in her chest, and she found herself falling backwards to the earth, gasping and weeping and dizzy. The wolf whined urgently, soothingly, and a moment later the cat was there as well, its sandpaper tongue surprisingly gentle against her cheek.
"Hush, then, Man's Daughter, and rest awhile," the cat rumbled in her ear. Its deep purr blended with the comforting grumble of the wolf, and she found herself drifting off again.
The light was lower, slanted the second time she woke, and this time she was pressed tightly between the bodies of the wolf and panther. She turned her head from side to side, to find the cat slumbering gently, and the wolf watching her with wide, clear eyes.
"Would you like a story?" it asked suddenly, unexpectedly; its tongue was lolling and she knew, just knew it was smiling at her.
"I like stories," she answered, curling herself over so that she faced the wolf, her back braced against the solid length of the sleeping jaguar. Dark memories flitted, like nightshade moths, battered inside her brain and belly, but she pushed them aside, pushed them down. "Will you tell me one?"
"Now you've done it," the jaguar said drily. It yawned behind her, but didn't move. "We'll be here all day and night and maybe the week as well. Don't you know better than to ask a wolf for a story? They're nothing but stories!"
The wolf growled something she couldn't understand, and the cat grumbled back, but it was happy sounding and so it didn't alarm her at all. "I have time," she said mildly, when they subsided.
"Right then," said the wolf. "How do you Sons and Daughters of Man say it? Once upon a time?"
Once upon a time there was a man who lived his life in a little stone house without windows or doors. Once, he had known sunlight and wind and rain and the taste of apples, but that had been a long time before, and sometimes he thought the dim memories were only things he had dreamed. He remembered, too, just a little, a woman who smelled of flowers and baking, and who touched his brow in such a way that all hurting went away completely. But she, too, was so distant as to seem nothing more than fancy and wishful dreaming.
His father had built the stone house on the farthest corner of his great estate, had used his own two hands to build it. The man could remember that much clearly, how his father had come to him, bound him, his stern face set with grim purpose. He remembered the tall, lean man hauling the river stones in their horse cart, remembered watching as his father mixed the mortar and set the stones until they formed a square, then four tall walls. Then his father had put in the cot, the firepot, the mats and blankets and finally, finally, his stripling son, bound tight in leather wrappings. There had been, the man thought, a ghost of sorrow beneath the icy calm of his father's gaze, but it had not stopped the man from lowering his eldest son down over the thick walls, had not stopped him from building the roof over his son's head, leaving only a small hole through which the firepot's smoke might pass. In all the house, only one stone was unmortared, a square grey stone, big enough for the small chamber pot, big enough for a round of bread and cheese, but not big enough for a head or an arm or even hope to break free.
He had wept the first few nights and days, drifted the next few in the madness that claimed him with increasing frequency as his body has begun its turn into manhood. Eventually, he grew used to the silent, stone house, to the silent hands (never his father's, oh never his father's) that passed him his meals and clothes and water and took his waste away. He curled deep into himself, let himself drift in between those brief contacts. Days became weeks, became months and seasons and years. Sometimes he heard his brother, caught his sound and scent in the distance. Other times the bustle of the road, miles off, echoed through the stone house, in his head, until it ached.
Enough time passed, and he found that he could imagine himself no place else other than the small stone house.
One day, one distant, drifting day, the man awoke from his fugue to find himself nose to nose with another man. He recoiled in terror, looked around to the surety of his four walls, and was astounded to find everything in place, everything intact. He grabbed the man, the little man, and slammed him up against the unforgiving stone wall.
"Who are you? Why are you here?" the man bellowed, heart pierced through with terror.
"I am, I am, I am," the little man laughed, unafraid, his deep eyes alight and gleaming. "I am freedom."
The man dropped his strange visitor, moved away from him, from the shimmer and sheen and will-o'-the-wisp of him. "Freedom?" he said, and there was no hope, only fear and suspicion.
"Freedom," the short man repeated, nodding. He was motley-clad, with wild, twig-streaked hair and a mouth stained by late-summer berries. The man knew a sudden, irresistible urge to smell the scent of earth on this changeling, this wildling; to feel the warmth of the sun that still clung to his skin; to taste the sweetness of the berry-stained mouth.
"Freedom means madness," the man said at last, dropping his eyes from his fey, fae guest, for that was surely what this one who walked through walls must be. "My father told me that."
"This is madness," the fae said with surprising seriousness. "You're fairy-kissed, manling, and we look after our own, in our own fashion."
"And what will this freedom cost me?" the man said at last, quietly, not quite believing the words coming from his own mouth.
The fae laughed, danced about the edges of the room. "You're right, there's always a price! But we'll talk of that later, manling, madling, moonling manling," he said spryly, sprightly, all-too-brightly. "But you're not convinced, are you? You've built your own walls, haven't you? And you fear so much more than madness," the fae said with sudden shrewdness. "I'll give you a day, then, a day to decide, and decide you must because I am changeable, I am fickle, I am, I am, I am...!" The fae leapt up, kissed the man soundly, tongue and teeth and sunlight and wind and rain and apples. "That's your first taste of freedom, freely given. Choose wisely, manling, moonling madling manling, for whatever choice you make there is a price!"
With that the fae melted into the ground and the man sank down himself, and licked the juice of late-summer berries off his lips.
The fae returned, true to his word, when a day had passed. "Well, then, what will it be?" he asked, hands set just so on his hips, head thrown back to look up at the man, standing silently beside the cot his father had left him.
"Help me," said the man, quietly, eyes downcast.
"I thought you'd never ask," the fae replied, and the man could hear the laughter in his voice, and a thread of something darker, deeper, gleaming. "Now do as I say, and listen to my voice. Close your eyes, and do as I say, my manling, and we shall have you free of stones."
The fae returned each day, and sat with the man, and taught him to use his ears and eyes and nose and fingers so that he didn't drift and lose himself in unbridled sensation, so he didn't suffer under the faery-kiss that had so marked him. Each night the fae would kiss him once, teeth and tongue and sunlight and wind and rain and apples, another taste of freedom to urge him on.
Finally, one morning, he awoke to a breeze that stirred the blankets and rattled the stones, and he realized the mortar his father had set all those years ago was cracking, crumbling, letting the stones shift and slide. He stumbled from the bed and ran to the wall and pushed, and sure enough the stones moved, groaned and grieved and gave way. An hour passed, then two, then three, and at last the man had a hole big enough for his body to pass through. Unthinking, he slid out, naked as a baby, and birthed himself into a late-autumn morning, all rain and grey skies and loud wind.
The fae was there waiting, smiling, holding out a shirt and hose and soft, doeskin shoes. The man grabbed the clothes, cast them aside and caught the smaller man up in his arms, kissed him deeply, searchingly, for he had the wind and rain, but he wanted the sun and apples, too. His teacher pushed him back with firm hands, and his eyes, the man suddenly realized, were as deep and dark and blue as the dimly-remembered sea. They were also unaccountably serious, and just a little sad.
"Welcome to freedom, manling. And now for the price: breathe deep, breathe free, and then give yourself to me, for I have a King who needs a farseer, a farhearer. You are worth your weight in gold, and I have alchemists waiting, maidens in rooms of straw," the fae said softly, without any laughter at all.
The man stood there, naked and wet and chilled to the bone. "But that's just another stone house," he protested, "Another prison. How could you do this to me, give me the taste only to take it away again? That's not fair," the man cried out, and it was a child's cry and a man's grief, too. His belly curled, hungry for promised apples.
The fae shook his head, dark hair flying, wild in the wind, twigs and leaves scattering. "Whoever promised you fair, madling, moonling manling?" he said, not unkindly. "I have given you everything you now have, and I told you I would tell you the price eventually. You always knew there would be a price," he reminded the man.
The man groaned in despair, turned back to the stone house, but the hole had closed behind him; he could not go back. "But this is not worth the price, and I've had no chance at all!" the man begged.
The fae cocked his head a little to the side, as though hearing, as though listening. "True enough. And you've been a fine student, a good soul. I shall give you a chance, a chance, a chance at the dance. If you can tell me my name, my name, then I shall set you free entirely." He nodded decisively. "Three guesses, for that is the way of things. In one day's time, then." With that he disappeared, leaving a naked, wet and very frightened man behind.
It took the man awhile to pull himself together, to pull on the clothes the fae had left him. His mind reeled. Three guesses, and all the little man had ever said was, "I am, I am, I am!" The betrayal of it stung him, spurred him, made him angry. He sat for a while, and let the anger grow, until the sound of his father's servants coming drove him from the stone house to the forest that stood a little ways off. He watched as they came, as they found the stone house empty, and had his mouth not been fouled with the taste of treachery and despair, he might have laughed at their consternation. He opened his ears as the fae had taught him, heard their Jesu's and Virge's, and did laugh, just a little.
A sudden thought occurred to him, and he opened his ears wider, listening for a heartbeat that had become as familiar as his own, and there, there in the deep forest he heard its pulse and echo, heard the heartbeat of the fae. He closed his eyes, and listened, listened hard, heard the fae singing softly, a little sadly. The words washed over him, cleared away the bitterness from his mouth. So that, then, was the answer. He smiled softly, and moved deeper into the forest, made himself a campsite, and then waited for the fae to come to him.
He awoke to find the fae sitting across from him, watching him with eyes agleam and dreaming and darkly deep. "So, manling, have you my name?"
The man scratched his head. "I thought it over, long and hard, and I though, your name must be Teacher, for that is what you are," he replied, biting a smile down.
The fae shook his head, and made as if to stand, but the man held up a hand. "And then I thought, no, that is too pale a name for one such as you, only a half-naming. So I thought, your name must be Friend."
The fae's eyes grew darker, deeper, gleamed wetly in the rain. "That is a good name, but not..."
"Ah," the man raised his hand again. "Yes, you've been my Teacher, and my Friend, but still it didn't seem right, and I thought and thought and realized what you really are, what your name must be." He stood, crossed over and lifted the fae off his feet. "You're Love," he said softly, and he bent his head and there, there was the sunlight and there, there were the apples. He felt something shimmer and slip and slide and snap tight between them. "And there is a price to me knowing that, isn't there, Love?" the man said.
"There's always a price," the fae admitted. "But some prices are worth paying."
The man held the fae apart a little bit. "So, no king?" The fae smiled at him, shook his head. "No alchemists?" Another shake. "No maidens?"
"Maidens are over-rated," the fae replied, standing up on tiptoe, offering yet another taste of freedom to the man.
"I'll take your word for that," the man said softly, in between slow, berry-stained kisses. "So, I have you even as you have me? Just us, from now on?"
"From now on until happily ever after," the other agreed; the man just smiled against the fae's mouth and tasted freedom and knew, deeply knew that it tasted of sunlight and wind and rain and apples, and that most of all it tasted of Love.
She sighed softly as the wolf's voice trailed into nothing. "I can almost taste it myself," she said softly, and there was the emptiness again, the flutter of dark wings.
"You're not going back to the Path, are you?" the jaguar said from behind her.
"I'm tired," she said, the only answer she had.
"I know," said the jaguar, turning, curling, nuzzling her. "It's your choice, Man's Daughter. But it has a cost, a price."
"I know," she said. The dark moth-wings became crow-wings, battered at her brain and belly. "Oh, I know. But it's not the path for me, I can't walk it, just can't walk it any longer."
The wolf stood, the cat stood, and both nudged her to her feet, turned her towards the deepening forest. "Well, then. Until you find your path, come with us," said the wolf. "I know where all the best berries are, and the plumpest mice, and if you liked that story, I have more!"
The cat made a faint snorting noise. "Nothing but stories, you wolves, you!" The wolf flashed him a look, bright and brilliant and breathtaking. The great cat padded over, groomed the dark grey fur of its companion. "But you tell them well," the jaguar added generously. The wolf yipped and bit the cat's shoulder gently, and then they just stood a moment, watching each other with knowing, loving eyes.
Something inside her opened up at the look that passed between them, and she found herself found herself cracking wide, watching in disbelief as a murder of crows spilled from her chest, flew up into the boughs of the trees overhead; a murder of crows, tumbling free from the fragile cage of her body. She watched them a moment, her great dark eyes silent and serious. With a start, she realized that the dark wings of memory were gone, that the emptiness in her chest echoed less with each step as she followed the jaguar and the wolf deep into the forest, leaving the black birds behind.
She wondered if she would find happily ever after where all the best berries were, and the plumpest field mice.
An End, but never The End.
Especially not for Trilly.