The Forest was a place that people generally avoided. There was something–or several somethings–there that gave people the chills and made them call on the old gods for protection. No one actually knew what was in the Forest; those who dared to venture in never returned. Some said that they turned fey, or got lost within its boundaries, doomed to wander until their deaths. Others said the fey killed them, or turned them into wild pigs, but most people preferred to believe the fey were goodly and kind-hearted. It made it easier to sleep at night.
Maevenn lay on the very edge of the Forest, clinging to the real world in a desperate kind of manner. There were few people who lived there, and still fewer newcomers. Folk in Maevenn weren’t fey-led, but there were rumours that speculated about their proximity to the Forest and its effect on Maevenn’s inhabitants, that their lives were somehow affected by the fey aura of the Forest.
This was entirely true. There were some nights when it was unsafe to be outside after sunset and before sunrise: the nights when daylight equalled nighttime, and the shortest and the longest nights of each year. It wasn’t clear what happened in those nights, but something did, and it was fey.
If anyone in Maevenn was fey-led, popular belief was that it was Torrin. No one ever said so outright; Torrin’s sister was as fierce as a lion, and she once chased a man half a kilometre from the village inn for teasing him. But no one could deny that Torrin was a simple man, often distracted and generally useless for practical work; he was very different from Kirla, whom men loved and admired, though she would take no suitors. “Torrin needs me,” she would say brusquely, and no one dared to argue with her.
Torrin had lived in Maevenn his entire life, and had never thought of leaving the quaint little village, as deserted as it might be. Kirla was of a differing opinion, but she knew how much Torrin loved Maevenn and the little house they lived in, and so she never brought up the idea of moving elsewhere. She was always a little fearful on the fey nights–more so than most people, and justifiably so, since theirs was the closest property to the Forest–but Torrin liked the Forest and didn’t mind the four nights of the year when he was virtually locked inside his own house.
One year, on the morning after Midsummer, Torrin woke suddenly and unusually early. His breath caught in his throat and his heart thudded dully in his chest as he sat up and swung out of his creaky little bed, careful not to disturb his sister, creeping out into the hallway, past the sitting room and into the kitchen. Something had happened in the night; something that was distinctly fey. Torrin couldn’t explain how he knew.
He reached the kitchen, and his gaze was irresistibly drawn towards the back door. Trembling now with anticipation, he laid a hand on the door handle and tried to pull it gently open, but it was stuck. His grip tightened and he jerked it open, to find a boy sleeping on the doorstep.
He was small and his frame was delicate; he had fine hair so blonde it was almost white–although if Torrin tilted his head, sometimes he would see shades of green or deep purple. He wore only a rough, undyed loincloth, but fresh flowers the colour of summer skies had been braided into his hair and his skin was clear and smooth. Droplets of dew clung to his lashes, merging when he stirred.
Torrin gaped for a moment, in awe. A real fey boy, asleep on his doorstep! He wondered idly about why he was there, and then he speculated how he had arrived, and then he realized with a start that the boy must be freezing and cold, for he was covered in dew and had probably slept the entire night outdoors with naught but a loincloth to keep him warm. Berating himself for such idiocy, Torrin let the door click quietly shut before sneaking back to his bedroom to fetch his own worn blanket. It had turned a deep grey over the years and didn’t compare to the fey’s beauty, but he hoped it would be enough.
When he opened the door again, the boy was already awake and sitting up, blinking his great amber eyes at Torrin. Torrin stopped abruptly, momentarily stunned by the boy’s brilliant eyes, and then timidly offered his blanket. “Cold?” he asked, before thinking that perhaps the boy didn’t know his language. But he was fey; of course he knew.
The fey looked at him, his expression unfathomable–such eyes! He reached out a tentative hand and felt the fabric of Torrin’s blanket before shaking his head. “I am not cold,” he said softly.
Torrin felt delight and sadness overwhelm him at the same time. The boy had a musical voice, decorated with a wonderfully lilting accent he could define as only fey, but his voice was laced with sadness and grief. He sat gingerly on the porch, settling the worn blanket over his knees. “You–you’re not from… here,” he finished lamely. He didn’t care what he said anymore; all that mattered was snatching glances of the beautiful fey boy beside him.
“I think I may be lost,” the fey said. He frowned, and Torrin thought that even his frown made his face look beautiful–but beautifully sad, matching his voice, and Torrin all of a sudden wanted to make the fey boy happy.
“What’s it like?” he asked. “Where you come from.”
The fey paused for so long Torrin was afraid he hadn’t heard his question. Silence stole over them, the kind of morning silence that isn’t really silence at all, and Torrin felt awkward and clumsy sitting beside the delicate unmoving fey boy. He tore his eyes away and gazed at the fence instead, where the sheep were waking and feeding and stirring the quiet stillness of the air.
“It is home,” the fey said finally, his voice even quieter. Torrin strained his ears and tried to match the fey’s stillness. “Here is not home. Here, the earth lies dormant and the trees are sluggish; and the air and water cannot hear me. Here is not home.”
Torrin felt his eyes well up. “It sounds… wondrous,” he said instead, the fey’s words painting an image of the Forest in his mind. The boy agreed.
They lapsed into companionable silence as they felt the sun’s rays pierce above the trees of the Forest, illuminating the tips of the trees and crowning them with a glowing halo. Torrin sighed with unmistakable delight. “Beautiful,” he murmured, almost to himself. The fey shook his head, and Torrin found himself wondering again. “Do you have a name?” he asked.
The fey stiffened, and Torrin felt suddenly awkward again. “I’m Torrin,” he offered, with an apologetic half-smile.
“Names do not hold power here,” the fey said, understanding. “You may call me Zephyr.”
“Zephyr,” Torrin said, tasting the name on his tongue.
Somewhere in the house, Kirla was waking up, going about her usual routine; she would soon discover Torrin missing from his bed and panic needlessly over his disappearance, call his name and run all over the house before finally discovering him in the kitchen with his tattered blanket, wet from morning dew, and a smile on his face.
“I don’t care if he can’t go back to the Forest until Autumnnight. He is not coming under this roof and that is absolutely final.”
Kirla’s voice rang faintly in the tiny kitchen, momentarily flooding the room with sound. She ignored the dull, grey silence that followed, nursing a fresh cup of tea at the table. Tea was her cure-all remedy; it was her weapon of choice against anything from common colds to raging fevers.
Torrin watched her, eyes betraying only simple curiosity. Kirla had often told him how charming his eyes were–so dark they were almost black, and sometimes it looked like there was something shifting in its depths. He didn’t know for certain, of course; there were no mirrors in the house, and he rarely ventured outside. But she told him so often that he thought he knew what his eyes looked like–at least, to her.
She wouldn’t tell him that now, though. She only admired his eyes when she smiled, when her face was bright and shining and radiant, and now she wasn’t smiling; she was frowning, looking into a mug of her favourite tea. Kirla liked tea; Torrin didn’t, but drank it anyway. She seemed happier that way.
“He is lost,” he said, and observed how she snapped out of her reverie, out of her thoughts that were forever closed to him. “He needs–”
“I don’t care,” she said, her voice tight. Shadows in the kitchen danced with the wind and trees outside, as if they seconded this statement. “He’s fey, isn’t he? He can find some place else to stay until Autumnnight.” Her lips curved into a smile, but it wasn’t the one she used when she admired his eyes. “Just forget about him, Tor. He won’t bother you.”
Torrin thought of Zephyr, who was beautiful and awesome: everything else paled into shades of dull grey in comparison.
He thought Kirla looked a little greyer than usual; her face seemed more shaded, and her hair didn’t seem quite like the usual auburn with which he was familiar. He thought the kitchen looked a little darker than usual; drops of brilliant, unfiltered sunlight hovered tentatively against a backdrop of vulgar shadows. He thought the world looked a little more muted than usual; as if he was looking through a fogged up glass, for colours had lost their vibrancy and edges were blurred.
He looked at Kirla, saw her through foggy eyes, and nodded as if in assent.
Later, in the evening, when Kirla had left the house, he sneaked out and found the fey tidily hiding beneath the kitchen porch–a favourite hiding spot of Torrin’s. Nowadays, he hardly used it; Kirla didn’t like him getting dirty, and he only came out of the house after she had left–and then, what was the point of hiding?
He squatted down in the dirt to better see Zephyr, who, looking as though he’d been sitting there all day, still glowed pristinely with an aura Kirla might have denounced as inexplicably fey.
“She says you can’t come in,” he said shyly. “But I can bring you blankets and pillows and a lamp and food when she’s out. And I’ll visit everyday,” he promised, breathless.
Zephyr gave no indication of having heard Torrin’s tumbled speech; he merely pressed his immaculately white hands into the grubby dirt, moist and dark coffee brown. When Torrin hid under the porch, the dirt was dry and crumbly.
“I prefer the trees as my roof,” Zephyr said. “The Forest will provide–you need not bring me anything.”
The fey sank his hands into the dirt, and Torrin watched curiously, wondering if the dirt would permanently stain his hands.
“What if it rains?” Torrin asked presently.
“I am used to rain.”
There were little tendrils sprouting of the ground, now; tiny, and so very slowly that Torrin had to kneel down and rest his chin on the dirt to get a good look. Yes, there they were; nearly a dozen popping out of the ground. They were a very pale green so as to appear almost a yellow-tinted white, and growing visibly.
Torrin sat back on his heels and gazed at the fey boy, sitting quite calmly in the dirt with his hands immersed in the soil.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
“I call,” the fey said.
Days slipped into evenings; nights dawned into mornings. Torrin sneaked out of the house whenever he could to visit Zephyr, who had moved his temporary abode from the porch to a little grove of trees near (but not quite within the boundaries of) the Forest. The grove had a calming atmosphere for Torrin, who said as much to Zephyr. The fey hadn’t responded; at least, not verbally. It was something they shared; a mutual silence that was more companionable than solitude.
The little plants under the porch grew rampantly in the weeks that followed, much to the puzzlement and consternation of Kirla, certain that this development was somehow abetted by the fey. She only mentioned it once to Torrin.
“Has there always been ivy growing underneath the porch?” she asked, a small frown on her face.
Torrin lifted a shoulder in an imitation of a shrug. “I don’t know,” he said carefully.
“You’re seeing that fey boy still, aren’t you?” she said after a moment. Hesitatingly; as if it was a subject she did not want to broach.
“No,” he murmured, eyes downcast.
She gazed at him, unconvinced, and he dared not meet her eyes. “Where do you go?” He looked at her, completely blank, and she amended impatiently, “You are constantly outside, Torrin. Your skin is red from the sun. Where do you go?”
He glanced down at himself, surprised. His skin–normally so pale, but not as pristine as Zephyr’s–was bright pink, dull red, hinting of but not vibrant enough to be scarlet.
“I sit under the trees,” he said. It was truth enough.
It occurred to him later that it was the first time he recalled having lied to her, and part of him felt guilty for it. He no longer seized every opportunity to visit Zephyr, but his heart felt all the more torn, for he loved his sister and wanted her happy, but he loved Zephyr as well.
“What is love?” the fey asked, when Torrin told him.
Torrin fumbled for words to define it. It wasn’t something he could explain; it was something he knew without a doubt. It was undefinable, intangible, and he said as much.
“Then how can you feel it?” Zephyr asked pragmatically. White, dainty, uncallused hands tended to fragile saplings of ash trees. “How can you claim to feel something you do not understand?”
Torrin struggled. “It–it isn’t–I don’t–I understand it,” he mumbled finally. “But I don’t know how to explain it. It’s… it’s the feeling you get when someone gives you a birthday present, or when someone says something nice about you”–he thought wistfully of Kirla’s remarks about his eyes–“or when you haven’t been outside of the house for days–” But he realized that the closest Zephyr had been to being inside a house was under the kitchen porch, and amended his statement. “Or when you haven’t seen the sun for days and you feel the sunshine on your face and arms and legs,” he finished definitively. “That’s love.”
“So then it is gratification of something you desire,” Zephyr stated.
“No; it’s what you feel when you get that gratification,” Torrin insisted. “When your plants grow. Don’t you feel something?”
“I feel gratitude to the earth for providing for the plants,” the fey said gravely. “I do not know what love is. Is it what binds you to your sister?”
Torrin was taken aback; Zephyr had never asked such direct questions before. “I suppose,” he said. “I love her, and she loves me.”
“How do you know?”
“She takes care of me, doesn’t she?” Torrin struggled inwardly, trying to find some logic, some sense in his thoughts. “She takes care of me because she loves me.”
“But she is so seldom in your house. Do you know where she is, when she is not in your house?”
He didn’t know how the fey had come by that knowledge; he’d been coming less frequently to visit the little grove, and that he knew of the fey rarely–if ever–left his home. “She takes care of me,” he repeated; but it was less firm, less permanent. “She takes care of me because she loves me. That’s what you do to people you love.” But there was a frown on his face as he said it.
Zephyr nodded soberly, as if in understanding.
The days grew hot and humid even as the nights grew longer; the ivy under the porch sprouted pale flowers dyed a greenish white; and Kirla left early in the morning for work and returned late at night to avoid the scorching heat of the sun. It was on one such a night that she found Torrin sitting in the candlelit kitchen, still awake.
“What are you doing here?”
Torrin looked up, gazing at her stolidly. “Where have you been?” he asked softly.
He watched her shake off her cloak, watched her hang it up on the rod just outside the kitchen, just outside of his sight. “Pamri assigned me the night shift this week,” she said, her voice slightly muffled.
Torrin said nothing, his eyes following her every movement–even there, hidden in the shadows beyond the candlelight.
“It’s late, and you should be in bed,” she said firmly. Turned around, looked at him expectantly, waited for him to blow out the candle and follow her.
“You haven’t worn that shirt since Father died,” he observed instead.
The candle’s flame flickered, making the shadows in the kitchen jump and dance wildly.
She looked down at herself, as if seeing it for the first time. “What does it matter?” she asked suddenly, eyes snapping up to glare at him. “You spend so much time with that elf boy that you hardly notice anything.”
“He’s not an elf,” he began.
“Does it matter?” she asked, half-shouting. “I never see you anymore–you’re always with–with him!”
He blinked; her outburst disturbed him greatly, and it wasn’t solely because she had discovered the secret he had been harbouring for several weeks. In fact, it was in some small way a relief; the guilt wouldn’t have to plague him anymore.
“Why don’t you like Zephyr?”
He thought she gaped at him, though it was hard to see when his eyes were half-blinded with candlelight and she stood in shadows.
“It’s nothing,” she said blandly, but her voice seemed troubled, choked.
“Can’t you tell me the truth?” he asked, wondering then how many times she’d lied to him in the past. “You don’t have to pretend I’m stupid.”
She sighed unhappily. “He is fey, Tor. No one’s seen a fey since the old gods walked the earth, and now you’re saying you’ve seen one when half the time you don’t even–” She stopped there, horrified, and realisation dawned on him.
“You don’t think he’s real,” he said slowly, his voice devoid of feeling. “You think I’m lying.”
“Tor, I’m just saying–”
“Come to the Forest tomorrow night,” he said, “and then you will see that he is real.”
“It’s Autumnnight tomorrow,” she said, her voice incredulous.
“I know. He is leaving, and I am going with him.”
“No,” Kirla said; firm, commanding, demanding obeisance. But there was a tint of hesitation in her voice; fear, anxiety.
He looked up at her, stricken. “You don’t under–”
Her voice was strong, now; permanent. “I think I do understand. Your fey boy is real enough, and he’s put an enchantment on you, bespelled you somehow.”
“And how do you know, being so seldom at home?” he asked softly.
She flushed. “You can’t trust the fey folk” was all she said. “You won’t ever see him again, if it means I have to lock you up in your room and never leave the house.” And then she smiled; it was a false smile, a forced smile, plastered sloppily on the canvas of her face. “You’re exhausted, and you need sleep. Come; it’s off to bed with you.”
“Do you love me?”
There was genuine puzzlement on her face, now. “Of course I do,” she said, not sounding like she meant it. Then, impatiently: “Time for bed, Tor.”
He went; he had no other choice.
Kirla was true to her word. The following day, she kept him in, never letting him out of her sight. She was all smiles, continually giving him uncharacteristic displays of affection. She even complimented his eyes–“I think they’ve grown lighter, Tor”–though she seemed a little troubled over the observation.
Torrin, inside, despaired. He had thought Kirla would understand, would realise that he needed to go with Zephyr. He didn’t feel whole without him; he felt empty, deprived. There was no vibrancy, no life in the world without the fey boy. Nothing–not even the knowledge of her intense mistrust in Zephyr–had prepared him for her rejection. Inwardly, his grief was black and thick.
But outwardly, he was compliant and obedient; he didn’t protest, didn’t object, didn’t make any attempt to escape the home that had become his prison overnight. If Kirla noticed his sudden submissiveness, she kept it to herself. After all, wasn’t it what she wanted?
He didn’t sleep that night. Lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling of a locked room–he felt the fey aura of the Forest expand, grow, consume. He wondered if Kirla felt it. Somewhere, he thought he could sense a small pinprick of joy of a stranger returning home at last.
In the morning, over breakfast, Kirla smiled at him–a truly genuine smile. “Had a good night’s sleep?” she asked brightly.
Torrin could only nod.
That year, the snows fell early, covering all of Maevenn in a sparkling, white blanket on the night before Midwinter. It remained sparkling white only for a short while, for before long the snow had thawed and melted, mixing with the dirt and turning an ugly brown where people stepped. The entire town turned out after the snow stopped, to clear the roads and paths of the slush before night fell and it was unsafe to be outside. Word said the old gods had blessed the little village with an early snowfall, but only Kirla wondered if it had anything to do with the fey boy that had shown up on her kitchen door half a year ago.
In the three months since Autumnnight, Torrin had grown listless and dispirited. Lately he had taken to his bed, and although Kirla was concerned for him, she could discern no illness or discomfort that troubled him. In the end, she supplied him with litres of her remedial tea and attributed it to the same factors that had caused the early snowfall. He was touched by the gods, it seemed.
“How are you feeling?” she asked him briskly, striding into his room as she did everyday now. She felt his face for fever, but he did not seem warm or cool to touch.
“Good,” he said impassively. But it was a lie, and they both knew it. It was his immediate, unthinking response, and it was what she wanted to hear, what she wanted to believe.
“Have some tea,” she said gently–another line in their daily routine. Holding the cup for him, tilting it gently so it wetted his lips but did not spill, letting him slurp it ungraciously. He drank.
“I have to shovel the path,” she said finally. He looked at her with faint interest. “It snowed last night,” she explained.
Torrin did not respond; he only stared outside the window.
“If you need anything, just yell,” she said, before exiting the room. Not that he needed much. Not that he could yell. Not that she would hear him, even if he did.
It was nearing late afternoon when she was finished; almost sundown. She glanced up at the skies anxiously, somewhat relieved in knowing that there would be more than enough time to return to the house before night fell upon her. There wasn’t time to take part in the village celebrations, but that small pleasure could be sacrificed.
When she arrived at the little house, the kitchen door was open.
She dropped the shovel and raced in, not caring about the mud and slush she tracked into the house. Fear bubbled up in her chest as she turned a corner–saw Torrin’s open bedroom door–saw his vacant bed–turned around and dashed to the open kitchen door.
There, in the thin layer of melting virgin snow, were the tracks of her brother.
Fury was the first thing she felt; a dark red fury that threatened to rob her of her senses. It gave way, though unwillingly, to fear. Torrin was alone; he was probably cold and frightened. He was not in his right mind. He needed her to look after him, take care of him.
But then she looked up and saw the skies darkening, clouding over much too quickly–and remembered that it was Midwinter. She hesitated, fear for herself battling fear for Torrin. She had never had the remotest interest in what happened to those caught in the fey night, but Torrin was her brother, her only kin.
And then there was Arvis, waiting for her in the village. She’d met him during the summer; had really gotten to know him through her night shifts at the inn. But Pamri hadn’t asked her to work every night–the other nights, she’d spent with Arvis. Gentle, sweet, kind Arvis who was more a brother to her than a lover. She would never tell him that, of course; why hurt him when she could act as his protector?
She hesitated for only an instant. Her mind was made up and there was no looking back: she raced out into the night and prayed she wasn’t too late.
It wasn’t really a decision he had to make, in the end. It was a decision he had made all summer, continuously and consistently. He’d never shirked, before; why start now? The choice had been made a hundred times over. He only had to carry it out. So why was he hesitating?
He shivered as a particularly brutal gust of wind swept by the edge of the Forest, making him wish he’d had the sense to bring a cloak of some kind. Maybe even a blanket. More to carry, but he wouldn’t run the risk of catching ill.
Ironic, that he might die on the night he planned to escape.
At least he would be alone. That, at least, was appropriate. He’d always been alone, save for those brief months when the fey had been stranded in his world. Only his world: he was purged from everyone else’s, scorned and spurned even before he had met any one of them. Why, in a world so deprived of love, had he been condemned thus? For it was only with his help that he could see what had been truth for decades: they didn’t love him. She didn’t love him. Tolerated, perhaps, but never loved. And so he had been cast out, in mind and spirit if not in body.
It had never been love. Love was not simply gratitude, or affection. Love was when people understood each other, respected each other, cared for each other.
As Zephyr had loved him.
Torrin looked up into the black inky depths of the sky, shielded in cloud cover that gave it a pearly grey-blue sheen. Glanced back at the little house where he thought Kirla slept, unaware, said a silent farewell in his heart: I loved you. She had tolerated him, cared for him, if she had not loved him.
When he turned around, he was no longer cold, and the first true snows of winter began to fall.
Francesca Leung enjoys reading webcomics, is a fan of Queen, and finds knitting to be rather therapeutic.
© 2006, Francesca Leung