I clutched my ragged blue cloak closer to myself. Shaking with cold, I pushed through the branches of the forest. Deeper and deeper I trudged; so deep that I was soon engulfed in the dark green fog of branches and tree limbs. The old giants towered over me and the knowledge that the wood was thousands of years older than me was becoming more and more obvious. Tears blinded my eyes as I continued to stumble through the forest.
“Bring me a basket of fresh strawberries, Lily. A whole basket full.” My mistress had ordered. Never mind the fact that it was the end of summer and now nearing the middle of the Autumn season. “Bring me some by tomorrow.” She had demanded with eyes narrowed to small slits. If I did not bring her the desired berries, she would have her fiery husband to beat me within an inch of my life. Disobedience was not tolerated with the Lord and Lady of whom I had been sold.
With her words echoing in my ear, I had gathered up my worn out cloak and wicker basket to set out. As I proceeded across the fields to the woods, my eyes had been caught by the sight of an ominous storm moving in from the east. Was not even the weather on my side?
Exhausted, I collapsed at the base of a large oak to rest my weary limbs. I had been walking all day. No berries had been seen by me so far. I shook my head, as if there would be any out at this time of the year. My mistresses’ wish was obvious: to kill me in a way that would allow me to suffer before death. False hope was her choice. Find berries: live. Don’t find berries: die. My heavy eyes had only just closed when I heard a voice directed to me.
“I say, what are you doing out here?”
My lifted eyes revealed a young man high up in the tree at the base of which I sat. He seemed to be of my own age, and devastatingly fair. He sat on a tree limb with a mischievous grin pulling at the corners of his mouth.
“I… I’m looking for strawberries.” I managed to stutter out. The damp air had chilled me to the bone. Yet, the young man looked none the worse for wear despite the rain.
At my answer his eye brows lifted and a rich laugh filled the air, “Well then,” He said as he swung down from his perch, “I’m afraid that I have to inform you that you’re in sore luck if that is what you seek.”
“That is something I already know, sir. But I must find some.” I stated this with much more determination than I truly felt.
“Well then,” said the young man as he offered a hand to help me to my feet, “There is another storm fast approaching, and I know someone who can help you with that which you seek.”
I sat for a moment in indecision. His hand in the air, a question in and of itself. An icy wind blew through the trees and my mind was made up. What did I have to loose anyway? My hand rose up and was clasped in his large one.
“Do you really know someone who can help me?” I questioned in a doubtful voice.
He brought me to my feet and his mouth turned up in a smile, “Yes.” He said it so confidently that I almost believed him.
“If that is so,” I said smiling back at him, “Lead the way.”
With a flourish, he grabbed up my wicker basket and offered his arm to me. After I took it he led me deeper into the woods at a fairly fast pace. In fact, the rapidity of his walk only solidified the knowledge that he acted as though he had lived in the woods his entire life. Sense of direction seemed to be as innate as his sense of sight.
“Won’t be much farther.” Fagan (for that was the name he gave me) said after we had walked for a quarter of an hour. The words had barely left his mouth when we reached a slight knoll in the midst of a small clearing. The rain had just begun as a light drizzle, but the worst was yet to come. For a moment I stood there awkwardly, I could not see anyone there who could help me. And there was no area of shelter in the clearing that would be a reason for us to be here. But Fagan just smiled and knelt at an out cropping of rocks and began to push aside the leaves that covered them. As I watched, a crack soon appeared between two large boulders. This widened to become a large slit through which a human could squeeze.
“Come.” Fagan said as he motioned for me to go down into the depths of the Earth with him. For a moment I stood frozen. My mind was arguing against Fagan, but something deep within my said yes. Even today I can’t tell you what possessed me to put my pale hand into his as he led me down into the darkness.
Down down down we went until I couldn’t even see him as his warm hand pulled me deeper.
“Almost there.” His deep voice echoed in the thin air of the tunnel.
Before I knew it, there was light. Light and sound. I was momentarily blinded, and as I stood there with hands over my eyes my ears listened to the most inhuman sound. Music that I couldn’t even begin to describe was wafting through the air to my unworthy ears. Played on instruments that I am sure no human has ever dreamed of or brushed their hand against. A low hum of voices also permeated the area, lilting accents dominated until all grew into a hush as I realized that more and more saw a stranger in their midst. As my hands nervously fell from my eyes, the sight that met them was utterly breath taking.
My eyes fell greedily on the array of colors and patterns before me. The lightest reds, the most vibrant yellows, the richest browns, and every color in-between were thrown into my face. All these colors clothed creatures my mind raced to name. In one corner, I could see Fauns sipping a deep amethyst liquid from tall thin vials. On the other side of the room hovered Fey Folk of every shape and size knowable and unknowable to man. These were lapping up a richly golden liquid from large cupped flowers. At the head of the hall sat a royally adorned couple on thrones of Autumn leaves and branches. As I looked on at the creatures assembled and how they were clothed I quickly came to the realization that this was the Autumn Court of the Fey Folk. The great king that sat enthroned with the regal woman was the King of the Seelie Autumn Court.
Although all took note that I was there, none approached us. Taking my hand in his, Fagan gently pulled me through the crowd. I soon became self conscious of my state of apparel. Here I stood with dirt and rain streaked down my face. My ragged blue cloak hung limply on me from its time in the rain, and I pulled it closer to myself. I felt utterly unworthy to be here among the angels who filled this place.
“Father,” Said Fagan as he dipped in a shallow bow before the Autumn king. I started in shock at his reference to the king. He was the son of Autumn and his faerie queen? As my head swiveled from father to son I soon saw that the resemblance was not between father and son, but between mother and son. Everyone in the village of Clun knew how the Autumn king had come to be, and my mind went back to the tale.
The story goes that a young man had gone off from his family to find his place in the world. He traveled the country, traversing old roads and forging new paths, but never was he able to find his true place. One night as he sat resting from his wonderings a beautiful woman came to him from out of the thick wood by which he sat. She carried no bag, was escorted by no man, no shoes were upon her feet, yet she walked confidently towards the lone man sitting alone staring at the night sky. His eyes soon landed on the delicate woman who walked to him but made not a sound. Once she approached him she lifted on white arm in a gesture of beckoning. Without knowing why or how, the young man soon found himself following the ethereal beauty into the woods. The legend goes that the mysterious woman was actually a faerie of high rank who sought a mate to hold the Autumn throne and in return she gave a longevity of life that no man reached today.
But all this was just a story told around the fire during the long dank dark months of winter. I blinked at the dignified king seated before me. Could this be the same man who dared the world to give him a place? I looked toward the Fagan, their son. How old was he? The story of the Autumn king had been around for generations. Where did this place their offspring?
All of a sudden, a thudding clap of thunder rocked the hall in which we were standing. My eyes went strait to the ceiling, expecting it to crash down on us at any moment. But the Fey Folk merely tittered to themselves while the Fauns refilled their now empty vials of the purple drink. The prince (for that is what he was) did not even stop mid speech regardless of the storm that raged above us. Fagan told them of how he had found me and brought me here for safety from the storm and for help, while his parents listened on with such blank faces that I truly could not fathom what they thought of their sons’ actions. When at last Fagan had finished, they sat in silence for a moment.
“A basket full of strawberries, you say?" And with that, the Autumn king burst into a fit of laughter that rumbled across the hall.
“Yes Sir.” I answered timidly. Getting laughed at was something I was used to, but at the same time it never lessoned the sting of it.
“And why, might I ask, are you looking for strawberries at this time of year?”
More to come soon! Comments are welcome!