The air was hot and thick and heavy, nigh unbearable save for the level of pride the Faerie cat possessed; it refused to allow him to so much as pant, as the action was distasteful and unseemly. He was a sticky sweaty mess; and he knew he looked quite a fright and smelled even worse, even though he no longer had the eyes to judge his own appearance. But he took the comb from inside his vest and combed through his hair anyway. Whether it was a habitual instinct or an attempt to look a bit more decent than the tropical bogbeast he felt like, one couldn’t tell, though he probably wouldn’t admit to either.
So he opened the door, and even as he did, her scent flooded into his nostrils. Surely she had her hair up in this heat, her scent was stronger than usual. And even though the scent of human sweat wasn’t necessarily the smell of the mountain roses, the image of the woman with her hair tied back lingered in his mind a few moments longer than most would deem appropriate. Then another scent, a familiar one, invaded the fortress of his mental processes.
Oh dragon’s teeth, no.
“Oh, Eanrin! It’s about time you made it back with those herbs! What have you been doing the whole day, looking for inspiration for a lovesick ballad that you haven’t already used a thousand times?” the woman joked.
The cat couldn’t form words as moments stretched into whiles. So the woman continued, “I’ve desperately needed some of these. As you’ve probably noticed, we have a guest! I found him collapsed in the Wood this morning from the unbearable heat, poor fellow. He looks so bad, I can’t help but wonder what other wounds ail him.”
“Imraldera, wait a second-“
As if by cue, the guest formed a little growl and yawned, stretching. The guest then turned his golden eyes towards the woman, “Well, how d’ya do, my lady? I trust I owe my life to the work of yer beautiful hands?”
Imraldera smiled, “Well, I do my best, kind sir. But you shouldn’t move around too much. I’ve prepared water for you, but drink slowly.”
As the guest ignored Imraldera’s advice and gulped the liquid with all the thirst of a man in a desert, Eanrin could only gape at the scene he dreaded was before him. The stench of the guest was overpowering, the stench of sweat and grime and other substances better left to the imagination. A stench he very much recognized from the furthermost storage areas of his mind, but not a stench he welcomed in the least.
Eanrin slowly turned around to quietly exit the room, hoping beyond hope that he could escape without notice.
It was too much to hope for.
“Eanrin, Little Golden Squirrel, is that you?”
Eanrin flinched at the pet name. He cleared his throat, “Well, now, old girl, I see you have everything under control here, so I’m just going to go…get some more herbs, it seems you’ve run out.”
As he spoke, he casually dropped the armful of herbs at his feet and kicked them behind him. Eanrin then turned around, ready to casually saunter out as fast as his legs could carry him, but it was too late.
“Oh come now, little brother, aren’t you going to introduce me to the lady?”
Eanrin heard the intake of Imraldera’s breath, and he deemed it far past time to make himself scarce. So he did, leaving Imraldera with the “stranger” as he scurried out of the room.
Imraldera, on the other hand, was downright dumbfounded. The stranger in question was surely a Faerie, but he was so different from most of the other typical Fae folk she had met. His hair was black as night, but wiry and scraggly from the prolonged lack of bathing; the clothes he wore were practically burlap rags and he went barefoot. His skin was dark, almost as dark as hers, and leathery, from untold decades spent in the sun. Most of the Fae folk looked so youthful despite their age, and the stranger was not necessarily an exception; but all a person had to do was look into his face and easily see a life lived for centuries. And upon further inspection, the deepest golden copper eyes told clearly all the breathtaking tales from within that life.
And, so alike her Eanrin, she looked at him and simultaneously saw both his man-form and his beast one; a lean, scruffy old cat with saucer-wide golden eyes and a grubby pitch-black coat.
It went almost without saying that he was a rugged, handsome man, or at least he would have been had he actually taken care of himself; but the rotting exterior couldn’t hold back everything, and vivacious vitality still burned in the set of his eyes. And he grinned at her, easily exposing his rotting teeth, “He’s probably too busy pouting to be a gentleman, so I’ll introduce myself. I am known by many names, but you may call me Nyo. And you should probably go console him, I won’t go nowheres.”
A little surprised at the dirty stranger’s cheery manner, she paused before answering, “Very well, on the condition that you lay back down and get some rest. You may call me Imraldera.”
He took a few moments to ponder, then he grinned again.
“Imraldera…Imraldera…Ah, what a beautiful name! Taken after the Fae name for the beautiful starflower, if my memory serves?”
She gave him an appreciative smile and nodded, then glided out of the room to find Eanrin as her curiosity got the best of her. As expected, she found him sulking on the sill of a window, his fluffy tail swinging impatiently back and forth. They were silent for a minute, and she knew he sensed her presence as soon as she arrived, but she was surprised when he was the first to speak. Though quite honestly, his words did not surprise her.
“I have absolutely nothing to tell you.”
She scoffed, “Eanrin, you do know him, otherwise you wouldn’t skirt the subject so obviously. Your antics were far from subtle, even for you.”
“I have not the slightest idea what you speak of, old girl, and I have not the slightest idea who that scoundrel is, nor do I have any intention of returning to a room that smells of the most indescribably putrid substances this world has ever known.”
“He says he’s your brother…”
Eanrin paused to hop off the windowsill and return to his man form. He towered above her and crossed his arms, taking his time to deliberately lift one eyebrow.
“Really, old girl? You honestly think someone like me could be blood-related to someone like that?”
Eanrin jerked a pointing thumb towards the guest bedroom, and Imraldera instinctively peeked around the corner to see the grubby black feline scratching the fleas from behind his ear with his hind foot, then biting at the ones between his back toes.
The woman sighed, “Point taken, but you’re a terrible liar, Eanrin.”
Eanrin growled and relented, “You know how our clan works, there’s no proof that he actually is my blood brother, nobody remembers anymore, he’s just always called himself that. He’s been around like a bad parasite since before I can remember, always calling himself my elder brother and trying to teach me useless things.”
To Eanrin’s dismay, she chuckled, “Actually, you sound a lot like blood brothers to me. But, I’ve never heard of him before…what happened?”
“He was exiled from our clan millennia ago…”
Eanrin hesitated just long enough for his “brother” to get impatient.
“Squirrel? Imraldera? You chickadees still out there?” he yowled, his meow gravelly and pathetic.
Eanrin groaned, then Imraldera touched his forearm, “Come on, don’t you think he deserves company for just a little while?”
Eanrin harrumphed and his companion allowed herself a mischievous grin, “I’ll make you that seafood stew you love so much…I’ll even let you pick the bones...”
Imraldera could see his cat’s ear twitch, even as he grumbled, “What do I look like to you, woman? Do I look like an uncivilized dog?”
Yet, when the woman spun on her heels and returned to the room, Eanrin begrudgingly trailed along behind her. The black cat rolled around on the bed until he saw his hosts return, at which point he padded over to the bowl of water and gulped at it with a disconcerting gurgling sound. Returning to his man form, he wiped his mouth and grinned again, and Eanrin was glad for once that his eyes were taken, though he could still smell the reek of his “brother’s” breath.
“I bid you welcome back, my hosts! I trust Eanrin told you of my disgraceful excommunication?”
Before she could answer, he continued, “A tragic fate, most would say, but a fate I chose nonetheless, and my life has been full of many blessings because of it.”
“What are you even doing here?” Eanrin begrudgingly asked.
The party in question answered wistfully, “Well, ya see, in between jobs I was whisked away on a whim to see all the fish this world and the next has to offer! I’ve become quite the master fisherman, ya see, been in the business for centuries in every kingdom you can imagine! And, I’ve tasted just about every fish to ever be net by man!”
Nyo paused for effect and lifted one eyebrow, “Ya aren’t jealous, are you, Eanrin?”
Before Eanrin could make any reaction at all, the black cat carried on about fish and the sea and his travels, completely and utterly relishing the sensation of not being the only one to hear himself talk.
Finally, the obnoxious reeking bundle of grime concluded, “So, thus I am traversing the Paths of the Wood to every body of water to be found. And a minor distance and weather miscalculation has led me to collapse at yer doorstep, milady.”
Nyo then stopped and sniffed the air through his clogged and crusted nose, “By any chance, Imraldera, my dear… were you once mortal?”
Eanrin shifted uneasily on his feet as Imraldera answered.
“Well, yes, I was, why?”
The decaying Faerie laughed, “Well, stuff me in a barrel and ship me off to Noorhitam! The tomcat finally got housebroken! And by a mortal, of all things!”
Eanrin visibly swallowed, his shoulders growing stiff and a small feline growl curling at the back of his throat. Nyo either didn’t notice or didn’t care as he carried on, musing, “I suppose I owe Di quite a bit if I ever get to see him again…”
In the light of Eanrin’s growing agitation, Imraldera couldn’t contain her amusement as she addressed her comrade, “I don’t know, Eanrin, he definitely seems like he could be blood-related to me…”
Eanrin quipped, “Then allow me to gouge out my eyeballs for not seeing the family resemblance…Oh wait…”
Nyo paused his string of self-conversation to interject, “Nah, hold on, Squirrel. I think the lady’s got a point. A chip off the old block, ya are. And you got awful lucky!”
Eanrin took a deep breath and a strange, uncomfortable expression overtook his face. He leaned on the doorframe and his head fell towards the ground.
“So, is there something else to your question of my origin? You sounded as though you had something more to say…” Imraldera asked.
A pleased expression crossed the man’s face, “Simple, my dear. I’ve traveled nearly every corner of the world, known or not, and trust me when I tell ya that the world has no sweeter scent than that of mortality, especially a mortal lady.”
Imraldera blinked at him in shock and Eanrin couldn’t help but instinctively wrinkle his nose in what seemed to be disgust. Gathering that his audience had not comprehended the depths of his claim, Nyo elaborated.
“Ya see, my lady, you could scour the earth for a thousand years in search of the most beautiful flowers, and find that the most vibrant and gorgeous of all of ‘em are those that bloom only once in a thousand years. Because their lives are short, they let out all the vivacity and beauty of their existence in one burst. It is the same with mortals.”
The black cat purred, rubbing his dirt-encrusted head against her hand, “And may I just say that I haven’t met a beauty such as you in over a thousand years. The wonders of yer countenance are only exceeded by yer kindness and compassion.”
At this, Imraldera exploded into a fit of chuckles, which she hid behind her hand. She found herself unable to speak for a while, but when she did, she only succeeded in reigniting her laughter, “I’m sorry, Eanrin…there’s no way you can tell me you two aren’t blood-related…”
When she had calmed herself and taken a deep breath, she spoke again, “I’m sorry, Nyo, please continue, I believe I interrupted.”
So he did continue, like an old storyteller quite pleased with himself in front of a gaggle of enraptured youngsters, “I have lived with mortals for many centuries, and lived with the Fae folk countless more beforehand. The Fae care not for time, their lives lived in intentional ignorance. But mortals know. Mortals are constantly aware of their shortage of time, it constantly haunts their steps. Mortals know they’re going to die. So the brilliance and glory of their existence glows like a flickering candle about to be snuffed.”
Like an expert, his gestures were grand, and his voice was addicting to the ears, “So, to witness the bloom of a flower that only comes once and lasts only moments is to see and smell something that you may never experience again, and that is something to treasure for eternity. And make no mistake; the beauty is not simply in the rarity, but in the quality. My dear lady, mortality’s unmeasurable beauty is its desire to not just exist, but to truly live. And for that alone, at least, the scent is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Then Nyo laughed again, “And I can tell you right now that the Squirrel would agree with me, even if he’ll never say so himself.”
A most pregnant pause held the room, pensive yet oddly uncomfortable. It wasn’t a few breaths later that Eanrin leaned over and spoke to his formerly mortal companion, his voice low and serious.
“I’m going to go get some fresh air for a while.”
Imraldera made to stop him, but Nyo shook his head.
“Let him go, milady. It’s alright. I should be heading out anyway.”
This time, Imraldera made to stop the other Faerie in her household, and once again, she failed. The crusty Faerie cat wouldn’t have it, and packed all his belongings, though he did accept the food and water that Imraldera had offered him. As he slung his packs over his back, he smiled at her with the same big old rotting smile he had greeted her with.
“Imraldera, darlin’ lady, you are well met and I am most blessed to have experienced such beauty once more. I wish I had something to give to reward ya for fussing over a crumbly old stray like me. I am most pleased that Eanrin has come to be so close to someone of such compassion and I pray untold blessings and joy over you.”
As he began to leave, he stopped mid-step and turned around.
“One last thing. I have a message for my little brother. And you as well. Will you give it to him?”
Imraldera smiled and nodded, clasping the Faerie’s muddy hand, “Of course I will, Nyo, I am happy to have met you, and your words have comforted my soul. I pray you health and joy in all your travels.”
At this, Nyo looked at her with a lingering smile, “That is precisely what I hope for, my dear.”
With that, he leaned over to whisper his message in Imraldera’s ear before leaving an affectionate peck on her cheek. She smiled again and thanked him, then went to find Eanrin as quickly as she could.
She found him on that same windowsill. The atmosphere was still and silent, save for the breath of a cold breeze. The sky had grown dark and overcast, and the air stale and gloomy, as if the situation had changed the very atmosphere to its whim.
“He’s leaving, you know.”
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“It’s not necessary…”
“So, are you going to tell me now? Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
Eanrin sighed slowly, and his voice was distant, and almost nostalgic, “It happened almost two thousand years ago. Long before you and I met. He was a scholar then, highly intelligent and very well-respected.”
The cat glued his attention to the window, refusing to face his comrade, “He fell in love with a mortal girl and married her. Our clan wasn’t so forgiving then, and to meddle in affairs with mortals, especially relational affairs, was most frowned upon; and he was exiled from the clan forever for it. I would hear about him now and then, and I have seen him once or twice over the years. I do know that he loved her dearly. He said once that he never once regretted what he did, and that the love he shared for a moment was worth more than ten thousand years without it.”
Imraldera couldn’t help but smile a little, easily figuring it was something Nyo would say. But she could sense the gravity of the situation, and a melancholy quickly crept upon her.
“What happened to her?” she gently inquired.
Eanrin turned his face towards his companion, and it was as if he still had his eyes, for she could feel them boring into her soul at that very moment.
“The same thing that happens to every Fae-mortal relationship…she died.”
A colder chill fell; it seemed the very air dropped like a stone with his words. Something deep within Imraldera had already known his answer, but somehow it still stunned her, the way he said it.
Eanrin turned back towards the window, even though he had not the sight to stare at the scenery. No one spoke for a while, and the air was heavy with underlying implications and nonverbal communication.
“So all this time he’s been wandering around the world for centuries without any other goal or meaning?” she finally asked.
“I think his goal has been the same the entire time, but yes, from what I hear he’s been a nomad for over a thousand years, doing jobs for a few decades and moving on to the next…”
“What do you think his goal has been?”
The orange cat-man shifted his head to her again, “I thought it would’ve been obvious…”
Imraldera tried not to ponder it too hard as she remembered her charge, “Would you like to hear his message?”
Eanrin shook his head and said no more on the subject, and finally Imraldera pressed on, slightly frustrated, “Why didn’t you talk to him?”
At this, the Faerie smiled, “I thought you of all people would understand, old girl; when you’re blood, you need not say a word to perfectly understand one another…”
Somehow, the words brought the woman little comfort.
“Then, will you at least take a break from your pining and pouting to write a song for him?”
Eanrin laughed sourly, “The best poet and musician in all the known worlds write a song for a flea-bitten diseased foolish old drifter? I think not…What a waste of my talents.”
Imraldera groaned and walked away immediately, throwing up her hands in defeat, “Oh, for the love of Rudiobus, I’m going to my study.”
As Imraldera walked away, the sea cat’s words rang in her ears.
Take it from an old curmudgeon. You could have all the time in the world and your life could be completely hollow. It is not how long we live, my dear, but how fully we live.
Eanrin waited for her to leave, his attention ever at the window; where, had he had the eyes to see, he surely would have seen a scabby black cat walking away in the distance then shifting to give the Haven a parting gesture. Yet, even though he couldn’t see, one had to wonder if Eanrin could sense it nonetheless.
Sure, it was true that he hated being around the scruffy old coot, but his reasons were probably a little obscure. Aside from the obvious lack of any decorum that the decaying Faerie had once had, and aside from his putrid stench and disgusting demeanor, Nyo brought up everything in Eanrin’s mind that the orange cat never wanted to think about again.
He didn’t want to think about it, and he hated the black cat for the flood of flashbacks in his mind’s eye, and he hated every single thought and memory.
He didn’t want to remember the pestering, or the fishing trips, or the multitude of adventure stories, and he especially didn’t want to remember the way Nyo’s eyes would light up when he told a love story, or when he’d ramble on about his philosophical values.
Eanrin didn’t want to remember all the centuries of camaraderie millennia ago that he had willfully and forcefully forgotten. And he didn’t want to think about the path that he and Imraldera could have taken, a path that Nyo had already tread before him.
He hated it. Of course he did. He had to. There was no way he could ever treasure those memories even for a moment, no way. He hated it, he hated the Faerie that called himself his brother, hated everything about that old cat, yes he did. And he would never write a song about someone so revolting and distasteful. Absolutely not.
He waited, then swiveled his head around, making sure all inhabitants were far away from him. Then he picked up his lute from its corner and strummed quietly. When he started singing, his lyrics were soft and quiet.
The scholar and the fisherman’s daughter.
He told her he’d come to her from far away
She asked if he’d come from across the water.
Their love was that of a summer’s day
Full of warmth of a simple loving life.
The kind that chases the thunderstorms away
And keeps the lonely warm on frozen nights.
Like the flowers glowing brightly,
Like a fortress oh so mighty,
The rarest love in the world
Was my brother and my brother’s girl.
Thunder rumbled from the sky one day,
But time couldn’t touch their little world
Until the moment it stole her breath away,
The time he saw the mortal coil uncurl.
It was time that took her from him,
But time couldn’t quell his passion.
He saw countless days and nights go by,
Yet not once did his love for her ever die.
Like a fire burning hotter,
Like an old well full of water,
His love could only go on
Dawn to dusk, and another dusk to dawn.
In his dreams he’d go to meet her,
Hoping one day he wouldn’t awaken.
Now he searches for port to the Final Water,
Across which she’d be waiting to greet him.”
VOTING: If you would like to vote on this or any of the other fan fiction submissions, email your top three titles to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voting is for fans of the Goldstone Wood series only.