“I, Sire?” Elswyth asked, her golden eyes as wide as a startled feline’s.
“Well! We will discuss this later, eh?” Melgrin grabbed the soap and hurried to the king. She 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, chuckling humorlessly.
His eyes were sharp enough to cut through Melgrin’s neck, but what could he actually do? His powers were the stuff of legend, but it had been many years, and few witnesses still lived to tell what they saw him do. They said that the only reason he took the throne was that 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?
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, seeming to force her to clamp them shut. Melgrin’s whole body appeared to sink downward just a little. Elswyth’s own body responded, flooding with cold.
“That’s my kind of girl!” Papa Egrit lifted his juicy cheeks with a satisfied smile.
“Shall I leave ‘er with ye, Your Majesty?”
“Finish my bathing, and then, yes, leave her here.”
Melgrin finished the unsavory task quickly, and with Elswyth’s assistance, held a King-size golden velvet gown over Papa Egrit’s head. He put his arms in the air and they lowered the gown until it covered 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 bedclothes and under his rump sufficiently enough to resemble a dressed king, rather than bowl of Golden Guernsey cream.
Elswyth gathered the bathing accouterments while Melgrin, hand clasped on the king’s shoulder, gave him emotional support as 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 full of bathing necessities.
“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.”
Elswyth could not help but notice the grim expression on Melgrin’s face, quickly followed by 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 feel 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 came closer and looked down at him.
“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. He breathed with his nose, but the sound was stuffy and labored. 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, not some ridiculous thing about a particular tone only fairies hear, as I told Melgrin.”
Elswyth felt lost somewhere in her consciousness. She scrambled to get out of her mind to answer him from a more guarded standpoint, but her scramble brought her to the sensation of floating 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 it could make a sound.
“Fairy Blood,” said Papa Egrit. “My cure can only come by fairies. You will be a part of my cure, once my body is made well. How are you connected to the fairies?”
Elswyth stopped flailing against the barrier her mind faced. She 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 and knew not to cross. I met a fairy, and it wasn’t afraid of me. I felt her in my hand, and I offered her a leaf I held. 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,” said Elswyth.
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. My own power will do nothing for me, for I cannot heal myself.”
“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 turned to the cage. She picked up the small thing 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.
She controlled her desire to flee and walked calmly to the wooden door, opened it, stepped out, and shut it behind her. Leaning against the door, 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 open fields in the south, leading up to the birch wood. 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 in the air. Papa Egrit must be right. The atmosphere here was of the same stuff her consciousness floundered in when he spoke to her. The same warm, lost place of the mind.
She hid the cage behind a tree and ventured a few steps further, looking for any sign of the fabled fairy folk. She often hoped she would see a fairy someday. She never did see the fairy that gave her new eyes, she only felt it. Now, here she was, looking to cage them. The thought made her knees weak.
The sound of a grasshopper’s wings passed by her ear. Before she had time to blink, the source of the sound appeared before her eyes. 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. Her breath smelled 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 tears from her eyes and face with her sleeves. “I have no choice,” she replied. “I hardly know what’s happening. I am lost and in pieces.”
“For those with fae eyes, 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. Nevertheless, I have been waiting for you. Take me to him, but no cage! I will stand on your shoulder.”
No one troubled them. Men took of their hats as they 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.
“Elswyth,” Elswyth answered. “Why?”
“That I may bless you.”
“Bless me with what?”
“Courage to hear the crunch of fairy bones and see the spilling of fairy blood, for you shall hear and see both today. Not a soul alive can bear the sound of that injustice without a broken heart and anger hemorrhaging into their 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 my people again and again. Let me bless you.”
The fairy lowered herself to the place where Elswyth’s heart thundered and touched it with her little fairy hands. 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 the courage of a fairy to your soul.”
“Courage of a fairy?” Elswyth asked, wiping fresh tears from her eyes. “I’ve never heard of fairy courage.”
“There must be a good deal of courage in the heart of anything that is little, or else the little could never live in this big world.” She took a leaf from her skirt. “You will need this after all is finished. 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. Smooth and velvety in her palm, she stroked it 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 pointed straight ahead and 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.”
“You did not kidnap me. 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, her voice low, “Your Majesty?”
After several seconds of shifting, moving, and loud breathing, he 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.
Melgrin closed her eyes and deflated with a slow exhale. “Very well,” she said. “Do what ye wish. She ain’t the farst, and she sure won’t be the last.”
Elswyth felt this would not end well.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. She felt 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.
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 focused on the fairy.
“It insisted on following me, so I didn’t cage it, Your Majesty.”
“You must work on following directions,” he said. Then, to the fairy, “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. Your powers were of such glory that most fairies cannot but dream to live in the magic as you did. Why, Papa, have you done this?”
“Melgrin, leave,” Papa Egrit said.
Melgrin attempted to take Elswyth along, but the king barked, “she stays!”
Melgrin left the room and closed the door, leaving Elswyth alone with the fairy and the king.
“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 knows of you. We live 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 man.” The fairy spat.
“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, your powers mean nothing while the magic rots in your soul, forced to back down, never able to give you your glory again. Your wings. Your wings, Papa! 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, “I have wanted, all my life, to come to tell you this. Great power in small bodies. That is what we are. You seek us for your healing, but your healing will not come through us. It will come through your change of heart. Small power in a big body will not do it, you must return if you can.” 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? She 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 was stunned, but 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 can 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 warm feeling 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?” he asked.
She released her fists, and let the fingers loose at her side, holding the leaf from the fairy’s dress in her hand. She followed her instincts and mashed it between her fingers and approached Papa Egrit. He allowed her, because he could do nothing else, to reach into the top of his gown to his mangled nubs and set the leaf on one of them.
“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 over to put her face near to the king’s face. Fighting down the sound of the crunch, the sight of the death, and stopping up the bleeding of the anger 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.
He stopped his furious, stuffy breathing, and closed his eyes.
She left him without any explanation, and in a short time she had gathered a bundle of leaves of the kind the fairy gave to her. She went about her business as if in a trance, her resolve blocked out her view of all others or their concerns. With fairy courage, she prepared tea, and as it steeped, she mashed several leaves into a paste. Day after day, Elswyth visited the forest to gather the fairy’s leaves, meeting with fairies daily, befriending them, and finding peace with the judgment and glaring eyes of humanity that her peculiar service to the king earned her. Each day she served him 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 permitted her to visit him for her mysterious treatment, refusing all others. 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. It was said to be the deepest red of any blood moon in their known history, and 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. 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?” she asked.
Elswyth smiled sadly and carried on without speaking to anyone else. She heard the thrill go through the crowd behind her 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