Melgrin filled the brass pot with water from the well and hoisted it onto her hip. “Come on, Elswyth.”
“Why does he need water from the outside rather than the pump in the kitchen?” Elswyth asked.
Melgrin groaned and laughed with little humor. “Outside wells can be fairy-blessed. Kitchen pumps can’t. That’s all ‘ee’s wantin’, and ‘ee’ll believe anything as gives ‘im comfort.”
“Don’t we all?” Elswyth whispered.
Melgrin snorted. “Ye sound all pretty and understandin’, but you’ll feel differently by and by. And, girl,”—she stopped and pointed her finger in Elswyth’s face—“don’t be starin’ at ‘im. ‘Ee doesn’t like to ‘ear any extra sniffin’, either. ‘Ee used to smell sweet as a posy, and it troubles ‘im to think of anyone taking a second sniff at his stench.”
Entering the room, the sloppy snores and stink greeted the women. Melgrin set the water pot on the floor, and Elswyth placed a towel on the table beside the bed.
“Your Majesty,” Melgrin called. “We’re ‘ere for your bath.”
His pink eyelids fluttered and opened as he gasped, awakening. “’Course,” he gurgled, trying to push his massive form into a sitting position.
Elswyth took the liberty of helping him and nearly gagged at the odors it stirred up. She turned from him, greeted by Melgrin’s twinkling, sassy eyes.
“This is Elswyth, Your Majesty,” Melgrin explained. “She’s new.” She lifted Papa Egrit’s shirt over his head, revealing a raw mass on his back. Melgrin sucked air through her teeth. “It’ll be a ‘ard scrubbin’ today.”
“Get it over with,” Papa Egrit mumbled.
Melgrin looked about her and slapped her head. “I’ve forgotten the salve. Elswyth, scrub the nubs.”
“Silly girl. This!” She gestured to the tender area on Papa Egrit’s back. “Ye take this brush, dip it in the water, and scrub the nubs hard as ye can.”
Elswyth pleaded with her eyes, begging not to be left alone with this task.
“Scrub the nubs,” Melgrin mouthed, her eyes flashing a warning as she slipped out of the room. Trembling, Elswyth took the brush and dipped it in the water. She closed her eyes and placed the brush on the king’s tender back nubs and scrubbed.
“Do you enjoy your work here?” Papa Egrit asked.
She cleared her throat. “ I am thankful for it.”
Papa Egrit chuckled. “Thankful, eh?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Wish I had aught to be thankful for.”
“Is it not a good work to be king?” Elswyth asked.
“It’s an excellent work! ‘Tis my health I am troubled by. This cancer”—he gestured to his back—“it eats me as I might eat stew.”
“It’s a cancer?” she asked. “Is it good for it to be scrubbed then?”
“Good for it? It matters not. It simply must not come back.”
“My wings, woman, my wings! I cut them off.”
Elswyth stopped scrubbing. Many believed the king had a sickness of the mind. Perhaps they spoke the truth. She continued scrubbing. “Ah, the wings, of course.”
“Do you believe in fairies?” he asked.
The door opened, and no-nonsense Melgrin charged into the room with a jar of salve. She set the salve on a table beside the bed and pushed Elswyth out of the way to inspect Papa Egrit’s back. To Elswyth’s horror, Melgrin drew her hand to her mouth and gasped.
“What did you use?” Melgrin asked, sharp as a dagger.
“The brush,” Elswyth murmured, holding the nasty thing out for Melgrin to see.
Melgrin whipped the brush out of Elswyth’s hand and examined it with a grunt.
“What? What is it?” Papa Egrit asked, trying to feel his back.
“Sire,” Melgrin began, “Elswyth has wittled thy nubs down to nary nothin’. Never seen that afore.”
Papa Egrit turned his eyes to Elswyth, looking her over. “Do you have fairy blood, girl?”
“Fairy? No, Your Majesty.”
He turned to Melgrin and whispered, “Fairy blood.” With a nod, he addressed Elswyth again. “Fairy Blood, you will be the cure of me .”
“Me?” Elswyth asked, her golden eyes as wide as a startled feline’s.
“Well! We will discuss this later, eh?” Melgrin grabbed the soap and lathered up a washrag. “Much to do today, Sire, she bein’ new and needin’ trainin’ and all.”
“Then let her be trained in this, Madam,” he said. Looking away, incredulous, he licked his lips and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
Sharp enough to cut through Melgrin’s neck, his eyes sliced at her a few times. His powers were the stuff of legend, but it had been many years, and few witnesses remained. They said the only reason he took the throne was no one could stop him. No one. Since then, he had fallen into terrible luck with his health. Many things could stop him now. But which things? What could he do if Melgrin stuck up for Elswyth too fiercely?
Elswyth’s heart raced. “I’ll do it. What is it, Your Majesty?”
Melgrin turned slowly to look over her shoulder at Elswyth. Disapproval ran rampant through her eyes just before she clamped them shut. Melgrin’s whole body appeared to sink downward.
Elswyth’s own body responded, flooding with cold.
Papa Egrit lifted his juicy cheeks in a satisfied smile. “That’s my kind of girl!”
“Shall I leave ‘er with ye, Your Majesty?”
“Finish my bathing, but yes, leave her here.”
Melgrin finished the unsavory task quickly, and with Elswyth’s assistance, held a King-sized golden gown of velvet over Papa Egrit’s head. He put his arms in the air as the women lowered it over him. With Melgrin on his right and Elswyth on his left tipping him side to side, the king struggled to stuff his gown into his bed-clothes and under his rump until he resembled a dressed king rather than a pile of whipped Golden Guernsey cream.
Elswyth gathered the bathing accouterments while Melgrin, hand clasped on the king’s shoulder, gave him emotional support while he panted for breath from the exertion of being dressed.
Elswyth hoped to “forget” what she’d agreed to and turned to leave with the brass pot.
“Fairy Blood,” the king panted, “let the Melgrin take those things. You. Stay.”
Her heart threw itself against her rib cage several times before she turned around to face Papa Egrit. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
As Melgrin headed her way, Elswyth spied the first sign of softness she had yet seen in her trainer’s visage. She felt sorry for Elswyth? Elswyth took a deep breath and set the brass pot down, awaiting her fate.
Melgrin took the pot, gave a nod to Elswyth, and left the room. The door closed with an unusually quiet click.
“Fairy Blood, come here.”
Elswyth had been taught not to clench her fists, so she didn’t. She wanted to, though. Leaving them deliberately relaxed at her sides made her vulnerable. One pose of the hands represented a womanly slap, and the other would be poised for a punch in the nose. She preferred to feel the power of the latter in her soul, but her mother had once been a lady, and her training won out.
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Let me look at your eyes.”
She went closer.
“Closer,” he said.
She bent over.
“Closer,” he insisted. “I can’t see well.”
She leaned forward.
“Closer! Curse it all!”
He stared into her eyes, now just inches away from his own. His stuffy breath struggled through his nostrils. When his mouth fell open to breathe more easily, Elswyth braced herself for the stench of unhealthy breath, but cool air greeted her, fragrant as if it came from a cedar chest filled with cloves and freshly cut grass.
“You are connected to the fairies, even if you are not of fairy blood,” he said. “It’s your eyes.”
Lost somewhere in her consciousness, Elswyth scrambled to get out of her mind to answer him from a more guarded standpoint. Instead, she floated on the sound of his voice. She hadn’t noticed what a nice voice the king had. Smooth and welcoming, it flowed on the undercurrent of an unearthly tinkling. The kind of sound a star would make if stars could sing.
“Fairy Blood,” said Papa Egrit. “My cure can only come by fairies. You will be a part of my cure. How are you connected to the fairies? Tell me.”
Elswyth stopped flailing against the mental barrier and sank into it, comfortable and warm. “I was blind as a child, and when my mother went to gather herbs or kindling, she sat me in a fairy ring so that the mushrooms served as a boundary I could feel with my hands. I met a fairy, and it wasn’t afraid of me. She walked in my palm, and I offered her a leaf as a gift. She blessed me with new eyes.”
“I see them. They are not human. They are a shade of gold only seen in fairies.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Her mind opened up, pouring out the strange warmth, and her consciousness tumbled out onto the king’s bed like warm milk from a broken bowl.
“The fairies will come to you,” he said. “I need them, and no one fears me well enough to get them. Fairy-blessed water and all of these foolish things will only keep the cancer at bay. I must have the fairies themselves.”
“I have not seen a fairy since that day, Your Majesty.”
“Have you gone looking?” he asked.
“No,” she admitted.
“Well? There are many fairies in the birch forest to the south of the palace. Go there with that cage and bring them.” He gestured to a small cage across the room.
“In a cage, Your Majesty?”
“They do not like me. You will have to catch them. Do as I say.”
Elswyth curtsied and picked up the small cage in her hand and looked it over.
“If you go looking, they will come to you. Your eyes will call them as they called me,” he said.
Elswyth controlled her desire to flee and walked calmly to the wooden door, opened it, stepped out, and shut it behind her. Leaning against it, she wiped a few tears from her eyes, cursed the fears that led her to volunteer for this task, and nursed her resentment for her current poverty that forced her to take work in this wretched place.
Out of the palace, she passed through the royal property to the field preceding the birch forest in the south. The white, black-speckled birches held their branches of leaves high, whispering in the warm breeze, swishing them in a flurry of vivid green and mint. She entered its glorious shivelight, breathing in the magic of the air, feeling just as warm and lost as she had in Papa Egrit’s voice.
She hid the cage behind a tree and took a few more steps, looking for any sign of the fabled fairy folk. The thought made her knees weak.
Grasshopper wings passed her ear. She reached to swat at it, but a fairy with civilized qualities, dressed in a lovely leafy gown, hovered before her face.
“You’re the new kidnapper, are you?” said the quiet voice, smelling of honeysuckle and bluebell.
“Yes, ma’am,” Elswyth answered. “I’m sorry.”
Before she had time to swipe at the fairy, the fairy flitted backward and said, “You, a woman of fae eyes, would do this task?”
Elswyth wiped her tears with her sleeves. “I have no choice,” she replied. “I hardly know what’s happening.” The power of Papa Egrit was not just magical, but mental and emotional. He could not harm her with his hands, but he had disassembled her and thrown her into the fairy woods in pieces.
“There is always a choice, even if it is not pleasant,” the fairy scolded. “Those eyes make you a wild one who belongs to neither us nor them. Your allegiance is to none. Take me to him, but no cage! I will stand on your shoulder.”
No one troubled them. Men removed their hats as Elswyth and the fairy passed, and all stopped and stared. Only in the hall leading to the king’s chambers did they walk alone.
“What is your name?” asked the fairy.
“That I may bless you.”
“Courage to hear the crunch of fairy bones and see fairy blood spilt, for you shall hear and see both today. Not a soul alive can bear the sound of that injustice without a broken heart. The danger is that bitterness may hemorrhage into the soul.”
Elswyth’s stomach turned. She stopped and closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Let me take you back.”
“Nonsense. I will live and die for the fae again and again. Let me bless you.”
The little fairy hands touched the place where Elswyth’s heart thundered Like two drops of cool rain resting on Elswyth’s skin. “There,” the fairy said. “I’ve given your mind the strength of an oak, and your soul, the courage of a fairy.”
“Courage of a fairy?” Elswyth asked, wiping fresh tears from her eyes. “I’ve never heard of fairy courage.”
“Anything that is small requires much courage, or else the small things could never live in this big world.” She took a leaf from her skirt. “You must be brave enough to forgive. You can stand against the bleeding in your soul with forgiveness. You will know what to do with it when the time comes.”
Elswyth took the leaf and stroked its smooth, velvety surface with her thumb and nodded wordlessly to the tiny creature.
“Now, where is the Papa Egrit? I have aught to say to him,” the fairy said, stern as a flash of lightning during a soft rain.
“This way,” Elswyth proceeded down the hall with the fairy on her shoulder. At the king’s door, Elswyth whispered, “It’s not too late to let me take you back.”
“I followed you. You do not have the right to take me back.”
Elswyth closed her eyes and swallowed her fears, opening the door slowly, she called, “Your Majesty?”
She waited for the shifting and panting to end, and the king sounded his readiness with an involuntary snort. “Returned so soon?” Papa Egrit called.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Melgrin opened the door to Elswyth, fear emblazoned across her face. “As I live. Ye brought one?” she mumbled.
“She followed me,” Elswyth retorted.
The fairy lifted her feet from Elswyth’s shoulder and turned to look at Elswyth once more. “Be wild in your forgiveness,” the fairy whispered, and then she flew to Papa Egrit. “You fat tyrant!” the fairy shouted.
“Why is it not caged?” the king asked, unfazed, his eyes trained on the fairy.
“It insisted on following me, so I didn’t cage it, Your Majesty.”
“You must work on following directions,” he said. “A tyrant, am I?”
The fairy drew closer. “I have something against you, Papa Egrit, Your Majesty.”
“Say on,” he replied.
“You must repent! The remnants of your fine wings bulge from your back, and the once handsome face and form is now deteriorated into a mass of flesh that can do nothing but stare at me and jiggle. Most fairies cannot but dream to live in the magic as you did. Why, Papa, have you done this?”
“Melgrin, leave,” Papa Egrit hissed.
Melgrin attempted to take Elswyth along, but the king barked, “She stays!”
“Tell me, fairy,” said Papa Egrit. “What do you know of me? How do you know me personally? Come nearer, for I cannot hear as well as I once could.”
The fairy flew a few inches closer. “Every fairy lives in fear of you and the day when you send another of your kidnappers.” She looked at Elswyth. “And this wild one with the eyes of the fae in her face! You are a cunning one, you impostor human.” The fairy spat.
A wild one with the eyes of the fae. Hearing it again made Elswyth feel less like the daughter of a disgraced lady, and more like what the fairy said: wild. Wild with interest, wild with concern, wild with sorrow, and wild with the unearthing of the memory of her fairy eyes.
“Am I? You see, my fairy friend, I have power in man’s world. I am no impostor. I hold power over our enemies. Do you not find this a point worthy of celebration?”
“Do you find your bloody nubs, soaking through your royal dress, to be worthy of celebration, Papa?”
Papa Egrit’s face contorted into a snarl. “Yes,” he said. “They represent to me my willingness to sacrifice for—”
“Sacrifice for your pride, you fool! To mercilessly hack your wings so that you might grow into this buffoon of a man. People fear you, and this is your only power now. Though you call lightning down from the sky, or turn the moon into jasper, the magic rots in your soul. Your struggle for power among the humans has made you a deformed creature of no people ”
The king turned his face aside and hid it in his great hand. He shuddered and let loose a few quiet sobs. “But,” he said, “I will become small again. I will be nothing again. I will—”
Drawing closer, the fairy said, “All of my life I have wanted to tell you this. Fairies are great power in small bodies. You seek us for your healing, but your healing will not come through us. It will come through yourself.” She touched his wet cheek.
“Dear fairy friend,” he said through his teeth, snatching her wings with his hands. He sneered and turned his face to Elswyth. “I have always liked to eat them like a strawberry. The leaves between my fingers, and the interesting part dangling below.”
Summarily, he ate the interesting part and tossed the so-called leaves aside.
Had he truly eaten that sacred little creature with glory in its eyes and flowers in its breath? Had he done it? Elswyth saw the courage of a fairy now. The fairy had done its best to convince a wicked man to alter his course, knowing full well what would happen. If that was not courage . . .
Elswyth quickly recovered her senses. With the strength of an oak in her mind, and the courage of a fairy in her soul, she strode forward and took the magical “leaves” from the lap of the great Papa Egrit. When had she last faced fear without heart palpitations?
“Bring me another, Fairy Blood,” he said. “I feel the healing powers in my depths.”
“I would prefer to scrub your nubs,” she said, “So that you may remain this way and die a horrible death.” She held the little wings to her face and mourned them in her heart.
The star sound twinkled in the king’s voice, and the warmth enveloped her when he said, “Fairy Blood, you need to be tamed.” Though she felt its warmth, she did not lose her wits. It flowed over her thoughts like a river flows past a mountain. Feeling it, but unconcerned with its effect.
“The fairies have been gracious to me twice. In their name I will be gracious to you once,” she said.
Papa Egrit’s eyes opened wide with horror when she spoke. “Gracious to me? How, Fairy Blood?”
She released her fists and let the fingers loose at her side, holding the leaf from the fairy’s dress between her thumb and forefinger. Following her intuition, she mashed it between her fingers and approached Papa Egrit. She reached into the top of his gown to placed the leaf on one of his mangled nubs. “I will get more of these, Your Majesty,” she said. “For I think you are not evil, but that you must find healing in your mind.”
“And you intend to do that by putting your little leaves on my back?” he barked.
Elswyth left the leaf and bent to put her face before the king’s. Fighting down the sound of the crunch, the sight of the death, and stopping up the bleeding in her soul, she shed a tear, closed her eyes, and rested her forehead against his. The smell of the fairy’s blood still lingered near his mouth, mingling with the cedar, clove, and grass. “Yes, Your Majesty. You are not what you are supposed to be. How can your mind be well?”
He stopped his furious, stuffy breathing and closed his eyes.
Day after day, Elswyth visited the forest to gather the fairy’s leaves. Each day she served the king tea and applied her poultice to his sore magical cancer. She never said a word to anyone but Papa Egrit and gained reputation in the palace as a quack, but the king accepted her and refused to see any but Elswyth. He communicated with his council by note, and none saw him but the Fairy Blood.
Several months passed in this way. On a fine night after a harvest feast, a blood moon hung low, and all the inhabitants of the palace took leave to stand outside and look on it. The deepest red of any blood moon in their known history, the whole kingdom scrabbled for a chance to see it in its finest hour.
At that time, Elswyth left the palace, ready to return to her home. Her task was complete and she no longer had work to do here. She stopped beside Melgrin who gazed into the sky. “You know,” Elswyth said, “the king told me that the blood moon is fairy-blessed. It rises in honor of fairies who’ve been murdered.”
Melgrin looked at her, frowning. “Is that so?”
Elswyth smiled sadly and carried on without speaking to anyone else. Behind her, a thrill went through the crowd as a twinkle, like a star, flew from the palace, over the field, and into the Birch forest. She only smiled and turned to the east.
So goes the legend of Lady Fairy Blood.
-Sarah Joy Green-Hart
Photo by @sandranoor320