A dreadfully long time ago, far longer than most accountable historical records have kept, the oceans were not always as men know them now. Back then, the ocean was violent and terrible, and sailors dare not take to the sea out of sight of the shore. It was nowhere near as horrifying as it had once been, but still far too dangerous for fishermen to forego thanking the waters for its generosity. It was a wild and tempestuous thing then, and seafarers of the time would laugh at the suggestion of an oversea voyage. Back then, it had been different.
The change was slow, so slow that most did not see it at all until it had already passed, and to this day, no one could ever tell from whence it had come. It began in the days when the Brothers Ashiun walked upon the lands, when the foes of old trembled before the sight of sword and lantern; when a single meeting shaped the oceans into what they are today. A single meeting that one would never find in any history scroll or stretched on any tapestry. No carving or statue would know its likeness and no bard sing its tune; any evidence would be lost forever, unless one already knew where to look.
Oh, the life of a maid. Truly, it was an auspicious thing, to be personal handmaid to a king. Not so, mind you, in this case. To be handmaid to the Mherking was another matter entirely. Now, that wasn’t to say that he was a bad king. He thought of his demesne and cared about his people a great deal. Which was precisely the problem. He cared too much. About everything. And it wasn’t as though he was kind or patient about it, let alone worried. No, he never worried. He was scrupulous. Meticulous and critical; he was positively finicky!
Still, none of that would ever mar the constant frown on his features, as if he always practiced the fierce expression so the artisans would never make a mistake when carving it in stone after he passed. Final Waters forbid they should ever portray the Great King of All Oceans with a smile upon his face; he would cause a cosmic typhoon from his grave at the mere mention of it.
Nonetheless, his meticulousness was lost in the mere shadow of his petulance; and the cantankerous king’s cynicism was matched only by his pride and arrogance. It didn’t take long for the maid to figure out that he was bitter about something. What it was, he would never give hint to, so for a time, she had made the mistake of trying to figure it out. That is, until she was so flummoxed, she wondered if he was bitter about his arrogance or proud of his bitterness.
No one ever dared bring it up to him; that would be sheer suicide. For, while he was quite august and astonishingly good-looking, with his prismatic azure skin that shone in gold and turquoise in the light of the sun, his structured face and chiseled form carved by the sea itself, and an opalescent river of white that flowed from his head and glistened like starlight, he was arguably the most fearsome monster the oceans had ever known.
Or, at least, he used to be. Over many years of aging history scrolls and decaying libraries, the terror of the Mherking had dulled to a legend, save to those that actually knew him. And not a soul among them would ever dare awaken the creature within again. Even still, his presence alone was enough to shake a banquet hall quiet; his chilling reptilian eyes and rows of serrated teeth a testament to the beast he had once been.
In short, the Mherking was a pretentious, fussy, resentful old soul trapped in the body of an infuriatingly handsome man.
The handmaid came into his service new and hopeful to acquire a job of such standing, yet it was only a matter of days before she was dishearteningly accustomed to his…eccentricities. It was true that all Faerie lords, kings, and queens had them, and most of said eccentricities made fey royalty, self-proclaimed or legitimate, difficult to be around. The handmaid honestly had no idea why she had thought the Mherking would be much different. The older maids and soldiers had told her that the Faerie King had mellowed over the ages, and was simply a bit vexing in these later years.
Truth be told, she might eat her own fins the next time someone told her that it used to be worse. The man was positively exasperating! But the pay was decent and it was her only hope for a better station, so she resigned herself to her dismal reality.
Eventually it became a bit of a game, really, to see exactly how predictable he was, and it didn’t take more than a matter of weeks for her to be able to predict his responses to most situations. So, when the messenger arrived to deliver the invitation to the Celestial Ball, held at Queen Bebo’s castle, the maid saw his answer coming the moment the messenger entered the throne room.
His Majesty scoffed, half in amusement and half in thought, “Now, that is something, isn’t it? The land dwellers having another party celebrating something they couldn’t possibly comprehend.”
The Mherking never liked balls, much less dancing, unless they were held in his courts, at which even then he would barely sit and watch. He never explained his reasoning, and no one ever dared to ask. However, in this instance, a dangerous smirk danced on his lips and a deep, wicked chuckle rumbled in his throat, “Even so, it may all be worth it to watch that feline make an utter fool of himself the entire evening.”
The king’s low musings ceased as he addressed the messenger, “Very well. Inform Queen Bebo that I’d be delighted to attend.”
With that, the messenger fluttered away and the Mherking rose from his throne and pointed at his handmaid.
“You.” He called, “Yes, you. Prepare the hot lotions for my back and the scrubs for my feet. And make sure to get them from the southern gardens this time. I’m going out.”
It was customary for the Mherking to check on the borders of his kingdom himself, as he no longer trusted anyone else to do it. So he left without another word, disappearing into the tides on a Faerie Path all his own.
The Mherking’s Path emerged at a nameless stream in the Wood. Instantly, he could feel simply by the streamwater’s ripples that something was off on the border of the lake and the River. It was only natural to investigate. He could hear the River’s whisper when he passed near its shore; that inviting, tempting whisper that desired nothing yet too much all at once.
He ignored the River’s cries and walked leisurely in the direction of the lake. He would have emerged from the lake itself, no doubt, but he could easily sense a presence wading in its waters. A Faerie by the scent of it. The ideal plan would be to catch the perpetrator by surprise and drag it into the lake before it could sense him and flee. Land dwellers were always so useless when it came to water. But this way was so much more entertaining.
Closer. The River continued.
Its plea went unheard as the Mherking muddled about a strategy in his head. Did the Faerie know that it encroached dangerously on the borders of his realm? It probably wasn’t a Faerie king or queen, otherwise he would have felt its presence far earlier.
The River was desperate. Utterly desperate for attention of any sort, whether it knew its intended victim or not. This time, the Mherking did look at the River, just long enough to sneer.
The River did not speak to him after that.
When the slow, wordless gurgling of the River finally subsided, he could feel the draw of the lake water. It spoke to him on a level that he and his people recognized like the voice of a dear friend. It was a comforting sound, a voice that swelled with the lapping of the small waves on the shore. Even now, as its waters were being polluted by a foreign body, its voice was soft. However, though he could hear the voice of the lake, as always, its words made very little sense.
The night was cool and fresh, just the way he liked it. After all, cleaning a warm night’s nasty mucky land scum from his feet was more trouble than it was worth. Hymlumé observed him quietly from her perch in the sky; he gazed up at her and scoffed.
“Since when did they start throwing a ball for you, old friend? As if to disregard your suffering…” he mumbled.
And as always, she was silent. So the Faerie King shook his head and moved on, with the full intent to discover and attend to the intruder. The moment he came upon the clearing, only indignation filled him.
Hymlumé bathed the stranger’s feathers in a light that spared no detail, and her glow on the stranger’s skin only made the Mherking wonder if the mischievous moon thought him too stringent. When the stranger did nothing to acknowledge his presence, he stepped closer. The stranger’s wings ruffled with the breeze.
What was one of the Sky People doing here?
The wings looked rather delicate, the skin even more so, and the limbs were thin and smooth, so he easily concluded the intruder a female. He had gotten worked up over a flighty female Etalpallian bathing her feathers. He almost laughed. Of all the things to get worked up about.
So, as any Great Faerie Ruler worth his salt would do, he approached the situation casually. All it would take would be to spew a few intimidating words to scare the little birdy off. He sauntered over to the shore right where the trees subsided and leaned on one leg, crossing his arms in an aloof and portentous manner. A position that would undoubtedly emphasize the Faerie King’s threatening presence.
“Frightfully cool for a bath tonight.”
To his surprise, the winged woman did not turn around at his remark, but spoke loudly back to him. A chipper, fluttering voice, sounding decidedly like a songbird in the morning.
“A little late for a visit as well.”
He raised his eyebrows, “You were expecting someone?”
The Etalpallian turned around, wrapping her wings about her and wading to shore to grab her tunic. Easily slipping into the tunic and lacing it up without unfolding her wings, she smiled at her visitor, and her eyes glimmered mischievously in the moonlight.
“You, actually, Your Majesty. Rumor had it you would show up if someone meddled about your borders. Though, I thought you’d be here sooner, so I got bored and took a bath.”
The Mherking’s eyes narrowed, “You know it is useless to draw me away from my palace. Do other winged vermin intend to ambush my demesne in my absence?”
A dark and foreboding essence slowly washed in like the tide, a presence that descended upon the Mherking as if he had summoned the most petrifying depths of the ocean simply by thinking it. He drew closer and leaned his head towards her, a sadistic smirk peeling across his face and baring his rows of razored teeth, “Any who venture into my demesne without my permission drown when their lungs fill with blood and water, and they helplessly fall like a stone to the ocean floor. Even a Faerie king or queen could not survive; the ocean is relentless.”
At this, she gave an unladylike snort, followed by a fit of laughter. He waited, feeling just a tiny bit uncomfortable at her amusement.
She laughed until she coughed, “They told me you were a handful.”
Clearing her throat, the winged girl sat down on a huge boulder that jutted out over the lake and patted the space beside her. When the Faerie King stood planted firmly where he was, she shrugged and elaborated, “I am a personal servant to Etalpalli’s royal family. My Lady’s condition has the advisors concerned, and they have tasked me with a quest to ease her suffering.”
The sea king’s frozen expression cracked with a thunderous guffaw. The Faerie maid, clearly startled, waited while the strange man sunk to a seat on the boulder she had claimed as her perch. His expression was mirthful but the gleam in his eyes lacked all warmth. His laughter died down with a smirk, “Is that so? And the Great Ytotia’s lover, a noble knight of Farthestshore, still spurns her affections? Oh, how the proud have fallen, that he should flee at the very sight of her!”
She nearly snorted at the declaration, as if she chuckled at a jest privy to her alone. The Mherking’s amusement, however, was short-lived, as he inquired with a suspicious lift of an eyebrow, “So, what, did the advisors send you to find someone to take her to the ball or some such nonsense?”
Her answer did even less to keep him in a good mood, “Well, yes. They believe it will lift her spirits, though I could not see how they could believe you would be a suitable candidate.”
Slightly intrigued at her nonchalant insolence, the Mherking sniffed, “Insulting those you wish a favor from, such fine etiquette. Did ‘Your Lady’ teach you that?”
“Is that a yes?”
“Far from it.” He spat, “It would take the Hound himself to persuade me to escort Etalpalli’s most eligible maiden to something I do not even wish to attend.”
“You do not wish to go?”
“Brilliant deduction,” he jabbed.
At this, she giggled again, bringing her hand daintily her lips, “I must admit I did not think you would be quite this miserable.”
The Mherking blinked at her, “I beg your pardon?”
The winged woman continued, heedless of his bewilderment, “I cannot say I do not find it both amusing and tragic.”
The Mherking rose to his feet, “Must you prattle so? Noisy little magpie… I have refused your offer, return to Ytotia and leave my borders in peace.”
She hopped from her seat on the boulder and effortlessly hovered much closer than he would normally allow, “Now now, I’m not finished. I have a proposition. A wager, if you will.”
Now, the Mherking was not typically one for wagers, especially since the last debacle with that fluffy swaggering brigand, but if it would silence the flying mouth without causing a war, he would simply have to teach her that little thrushes do not trifle with Faerie kings. The sooner he entertained her, the sooner he would finally be able to go about his life in peace.
“What is your wager?”
She grinned, the impish glint still in her eyes, “There are eight full moons until the Celestial Ball. I will meet you here every full moon, and if I can convince you to dance with me before the Celestial Ball, you must be My Lady’s escort for the evening.”
The Mherking waited for more than a few moments for her to continue, but she never did. Finally, feeling prompted by the sudden silence, he rose his eyebrows, “Is that all?”
She nodded. This would by far be the easiest wager he ever accepted.
“What if I should win?”
“A reward? Hmm, well, you’ll never have to see me again! And I’ll no longer loiter about your waters!”
“So, it is not a wager, it’s a threat.”
She thought for a moment, “Yes, that about sums it up!”
He grumbled, “Very well. Beginning in seven days when Hymlumé bares her full face, I will meet you here every full moon, when the tide is high, until the Celestial Ball.”
A sly smile lingered on the winged one’s visage when she spoke, “Do not try to elude me now; I will simply stomp about your borders until you pay attention to me.”
The king’s exasperation was evident. He sighed, “Very well.”
She gave him a parting smile and a “See you then!” before dropping to the ground and leaping into the air with a massive flap of her cerulean wings. The motion blew a gust of salty air into the Mherking’s face and left him scowling into the night.
What had he gotten himself into? And how? Yes, it would be an easy win and she would disappear forever from his life, but until then he still had to tolerate her nagging for another eight moons…
Needless to say, it was the first time his handmaid was utterly baffled when the king arrived late and retired to his chambers without so much as ordering her to scrub the mud from his feet.
That first moon, it didn’t look like he would come. She waited a great deal and watched the moon’s face rise in the sky. She had just dropped from her perch on the boulder and into the lake when the water began to ripple. It was gentle at first, a slow ripple rising from the depths and floating outwards. The ripple began to bubble, then, and the lake gurgled as something rose to the surface. The gurgles turned to roaring waves in one concentrated area, and for only a moment, that one spot of the lake glowed. Then all was silent for a great and heavy pause, waiting in great anticipation for something.
The moment the Mherking ascended from the Deep. His white hair gleamed in Hymlumé’s light, and water cascaded off his majestic form, allowing the light to shimmer against his scales.
When he approached the shore, he lifted an eyebrow and she closed the mouth she did not know hung open. Yet, even as he caught her stare, she showed no embarrassment and weightlessly hopped up to her boulder. Never touching his feet to the damp earth of the shore, he heaved himself to a seat on the other end of said boulder.
A few moments of silence prompted her to speak first, “So, where did you come from?”
The king nearly rolled his eyes, and spoke as if explaining to a child, “The water has Paths the same as the land does. Any stranger can get lost on one and meet a terrible fate in the same manner, with differing technicalities, of course.”
She nodded in understanding, “The sky is that way as well. But the air currents can be a bit more forgiving than the Paths of the Wood.”
Her lingering eyes on his face and an awkward silence brought about an even more awkward subject matter from the Sky Woman.
“You know, they also warned me you were dangerously handsome.”
“Did they now?”
He approached her statement with the most curiosity he could muster, which was to say, none at all.
“No need to be so languid about it, Your Majesty!”
“I have very little interest in the attractions of chittering—”
“Do you wish to know what I think?”
His broad shoulders slumped, “Not particularly, but why do I feel as though you will tell me nonetheless?”
Suddenly she was far too close once again, standing behind him and bending over to shove her face much too close to his own while she scrutinized his features. Then her thin fingers poked and pinched his forehead and the space between his eyebrows. Instinctively, he jerked his head backwards and his webbed frills flared.
She just stared at his face and frowned, “I think you much too surly. If you keep frowning like that, those wrinkles on your forehead will stay there forever, Faerie king or not.”
This time, his hand jerked to swat her away, and she nimbly hopped back to her end of the boulder. Growing irritated, he snarled, “Was there not a purpose in dragging me out here? Or are you holding my pride hostage just to irritate me?”
The winged one giggled, “A bit of both, I suppose, but I digress.”
The girl rose effortlessly to her feet and extended her hand to him, “Will you dance with me, Your Majesty?”
He waited just long enough to watch her eyes brighten with hope, “Not a chance.”
A feeling of triumph rose in him as he watched her whole being droop in a very slight disappointment, followed by her feathers ruffling in frustration. The Mherking embraced the victory with a smirk and a satisfied sigh. Settling into his position, he eyed her with a decidedly smug and cruel expression, “Is that all, now? I have a nice scrubdown and a massage awaiting my return to the palace.”
The impish girl’s large eyes flashed a roguish twinkle, “Preening, eh? Etalpallians are some of the best masseuses in the Far World, why not relax a bit and let me do it?”
He snorted, “Not a chance.”
A moment, then, “Frankly, you’re certainly not what I expected…”
“What did you expect?” he sighed flatly.
“Where’s your trident?” she pressed.
“Not where you can find it…”
“Do you even have one?”
Another sigh, “I fail to see how that is any of your business, but yes, I do, and no, you cannot see it.”
She shrugged and sat down, “Well, it was worth a try. Tell me then, do you ever dance at parties?”
His hard gaze drifted out to the sky, “No.”
“I loathe dancing.” Was all he said. Given no explanation, the girl gave a little huff.
“Why do you hate dancing?”
He shot only his eyes towards her with a subtle and fearsome scowl that carried all the wrath of an ocean’s fury. Needless to say, she was suddenly apprehensive about prying any further into the matter.
The winged woman smiled and sighed, “I love dancing.”
“I know you will not cease your chittering until you tell me, so I might as well entertain you, despite how I may regret it…why do you love dancing?” he huffed.
She smiled, and cast her gaze on the moon’s pale face, “My favorite is the traditional Celestial Dance.”
“Indeed. I regret it already...” he muttered while she spoke.
“You know, the one supposedly modeled after Hymlumé’s legendary dance with Lumé, to the tune of the Song of Spheres?”
His insides churned at her answer, but the Sea King said nothing after that. She took his pause as a sign to continue, and brought her knees to her chest as she talked, rocking back and forth on her heels.
“They say the dance was created as a testament to their love, and a memorial to the first dance the two shared together.” She glanced at the distant Mherking, who was frigid, as though he existed half a world away, conversing with the stars. She knew, of course, he was merely trying to ignore her, as she saw his hands clench every time she talked. Which, in turn, made her want to talk all the more.
“To me, that dance is like a promise. An oath of commitment and compassion.”
Her reluctant companion rolled his eyes at her naiveté, but she paid him no heed. She stood from her seat and padded softly to the edge of the boulder, reaching out over the lake as she aimed for the sky.
“I can just imagine Lumé extending his hand to her, ready to take all her sorrows upon himself in exchange for her smile.”
“That’s the first remotely veritable thing you’ve said these last agonizing moments.” He interrupted with a dry, stifled laugh.
“Excuse me?” she blinked.
“Never you mind, little flighty one. Go on about your delusions, there is not a soul about who could think less of you.” The king quipped.
“Dragon’s teeth, you are miserable!”
He suddenly rose to address her at a height from which he was more comfortable: towering over her, “What fine language for a lady of the Sky Court! Oh, but, you said you were a maid, didn’t you? That certainly sheds some light on things!”
The Sky Woman didn’t concede, “Were you always this pleasant, Your Majesty, or is it an acquired trait?”
“If this is your way of achieving victory, I am sorely disappointed. I thought you would present me with a better challenge.”
Oddly enough, the king seemed both agitated and entertained. It wasn’t often he encountered someone who dare to verbally spar with one such as him…without the rendezvous ending in the boiling of organs, that is.
The girl heaved a sigh and sat back down, dangling her legs over the edge. Sufficiently enjoying the night’s success, the Mherking sank to a seat as well. And the two lapsed into another awkward silence, in which the woman struggled to find something to say and the man struggled to find an excuse to leave. A silence that subsequently stretched into hours of awkward agony.
The man managed to break it first, “Well, noisy magpie, you failed this time. I do hope you have a better case next moon, your first attempt was rather pathetic.”
Sighing, she knew it best not to push the matter just yet, “Very well, Your Majesty. I shall hold you to your oath and see you next moon. Try not to be late next time.”
Giving him a sweet smile, she took to the sky, leaving him alone by the lake as the first flush of morning drew in the mists from the mountains while the full moon began its descent over the horizon. The Mherking stood alone on the boulder on the shore, left with only a sickening feeling that this was only the beginning. That one night had been endless torment, and he had agreed to seven more outings just like that one. Indeed, it made him feel quite ill. He would have to tell the cooks to add extra Sea Holly to his meal upon his return.
The second moon brought more dismay than the first, for now he knew what to expect, and had weeks to dread its coming. However, a complicated matter with Arpiar had distracted him just enough for him to forget his disfavor towards his scheduled lunar engagement. Eventually the political matter grew so loathsome that meeting with the demanding, mercurial woman actually seemed like a preferable option.
His punctuality was infinitely better this time, as the idea of arriving early and sitting by the lake alone for a while with no councils and no birdies soothed him. Unfortunately, he never took into account the fact that he never really knew when she would get there, or if she had ever actually left. Thus, his dream of time in blissful solitude was shattered the moment he glimpsed familiar cerulean wings sprawled out over the rock.
The Etalpallian girl was splayed out on her back on her boulder, staring up at the twilight and tracing her finger over the patterns of where the stars would undoubtedly appear. Whether she heard his movements in the wake of the waves or felt his approach, he was unsure; but by then, he’d simply relinquished any concern for his sanity in the wake of the oncoming dusk.
This time she moved the moment she noticed his presence. She sprang up and darted over to the edge of the boulder, waiting for him to come ashore. There was that carefree smile on her face once again, and he inwardly groaned, wondering what had possessed him to think this was more tolerable than a megrim-inducing strategy meeting.
“You are early, Your Majesty!”
He waded over to the boulder, his response saucy and caustic, “Yes, a decision that I immediately regret. I apologize for being so punctual; perhaps I should leave and we can resume another time, or not, if you prefer.”
She uttered an improper growl and reached out to grab him, “You wouldn’t dare! Get your Royal Highness back to shore and make yourself comfortable.”
He easily dodged her flailing hands, but meandered over to the overhanging rock nonetheless. When he was settled, she leaned towards him expectantly. When he said nothing, she prodded, “So? Why are you so early?”
“I could ask the same of you.” He grumbled.
She ignored him, “Well, I could infer that you simply enjoy my company, but considering you don’t seem to really enjoy anything, I quite doubt that to be the case.”
Provoked to retort, he suddenly realized he had nothing to retort with, and simply lifted his eyebrows and stroked his short beard, “No, no, you’re right on the mark there.”
The girl leaned far too close once again, and tilted her head, “So? Why are you so early?”
He easily answered, “I didn’t sense your fetid stench in the waters today so I thought I’d have some time to myself if I came early.”
She drew back from him and huffed, but her curious expression replaced her displeasure in mere moments, “So why did you need time to yourself? Ruling the oceans becoming a burden?”
He sneered, “It is more communicating with nuisances, like nosy magpies, that becomes the burden.”
The winged one scrunched her nose, “Are you going to keep calling me that? That’s not my name, you know.”
“I wouldn’t remember your real name anyway, and this one suits you better…Magpie.”
“Magpie” snorted in discontent, an action that only caused the grin to widen on the Mherking’s face as he leaned his finned elbow on his knee. So as not to delay the inevitable, the Mherking motioned for her to go on, “Well, come now, Magpie, I have not the time for your dallying. What is your ploy this time?”
The girl had puffed out her cheeks in exasperation at her dubbed nickname until he mentioned the reason for their appointments. As if suddenly struck by a grand idea, her face gleamed instantly. She made a little gasp, then cleared her throat and curtseyed before him.
“Will you dance with me tonight, Your Maj—”
“Not a chance. You tried that one already, try again.” He yawned.
“If you refuse to dance with me, Your Majesty, I will simply have to dance for you, until you change your mind.”
He rolled his eyes and murmured, “Hymlumé help you with that one.”
Be that as it may, she once again paid him no heed and stood on the edge of the boulder with her back facing the lake. Hymlumé, as if in cunning defiance to his words, bathed the girl in an elegant silhouette, the breath of night illuminating the faint shadows of her legs through the layers of fluttering crimson sheer. As his eyes lingered just a moment too long, he knew.
That little fowl had it planned from the very beginning.
As the wind struck the chords of the lakewater and sang whispers through the reeds, the girl began, right on cue. He recognized her form instantly as a variation of the Celestial Dance of the Song of Spheres, the same dance that he had explicitly explained to her just last moon that he loathed with every fiber of his being; well, more so than all other dances that he simply despised.
What followed, however, would remain unrecorded by history scrolls, tongues of legend, and romantic bards alike. With only the lake, the moon, and those that walk at night as witnesses, it remained alive only in the Mherking’s memory, where it would linger for all time, long after all other recall had crumbled to sand and ashes.
Her movements began slow and delicate, from the bend in her elbows to the arcs of her wrists. Her eyes were closed as she listened to a song only she could hear. With more grace than a swan on the water, she took her dance to the sky.
To dance like a land dweller was indescribably stifling and stuffy, so much that it was insulting to a dance itself. To dance like a sea dweller was to be a warrior unbound by duty and obligation. One had to be strong, and the invisible anchors of land and body held no oppression over the ocean. To dance like a sky dweller was another issue altogether.
However, the way this sky dweller danced was unlike anything he’d ever witnessed. So many others of her ilk would soar by in their arrogance, or even deign to dance with the land dwellers as a method of charity to the less fortunate. Not her.
She moved with a soul of freedom the likes of which he’d seen only thrice in millennia. She was a willow branch in the breeze, birthed by the winds of liberation and drifting on the zephyrs, only to float across the lake with lissome finesse. He wasn’t even sure if she still knew he was there. She never once opened her eyes, and a joyous smile was etched across her face. Adroit and lithe, she swayed to a mute rhythm. Surely she must have heard something he did not.
Feathered wings swished and sheer skirts billowed, accentuated by the curves and lunges of slender limbs, and she took care not to let her feet touch the lake, much less the dry ground.
The moon’s light caught every feather and sent a scintillating iridescent burst off her wings with every move she made. The stardust shimmered off the lake as she threaded it through her fingers and took it with her, whirling it about her like ribbons. Just once, she dipped her foot into the lake water and flung droplets of starlight into the air, where they settled like glistening dewdrops on her short, windswept mane. Her hair and feathers became the sea that reflected the night’s shroud, speckled in radiant beacons from afar, its radiance with its own lustrous aquamarine glow. The sapphire and byzantium of the lake stirred on the water’s surface, and the lapis and zaffre from the sky lent itself to her hands. And she took them both and, in merely a breath, wove them into one.
The Mherking would never admit it, not even to this day, but for just a moment, his shoulders relaxed while he watched her. And for only that small instant, he allowed himself to think her beautiful.
The next moment easily shook him from his delusion. For after she had finished, she glided over to the boulder, skimming the lake’s surface with her toes, and hopped up to the rock with her elbows. She bit her lip in excitement and waggled her eyebrows in mischief, “So? Care to dance with me now?”
And with that, all attraction he had for her vaporized faster than a pool of rain in a dragon’s den.
His subsequent urge to leave, sit in disgusted silence, and respond with a teasing remark all at once eventually resulted in his immediate departure. She had grabbed his cloak and flown in the other direction to keep him from leaving, but all her weight amounted to about a feather and a half to him, so he ended up shaking her off with just a rotation of his shoulders. As her hands slipped and she fell back to the boulder with the force of her tug, he descended into the lake, giving a parting wave over his shoulder just before he disappeared into the water.
When he returned to his demesne, he was grieved to find the Arpiar situation had only corroded further, and would require far more repair than he would have liked. To make matters worse, there had been a drastic increase in reports of disappearances over the past couple moons, and there were still no leads in the matter.
Much to his dismay, he found himself thinking of the magpie often, many times in the middle of crucial meetings. Her aesthetic form and carefree smile, and that chirping laugh that tickled, that is, grated, his ears. Far be it from the Great King of All Oceans to admit that visions of a beckoning birdy were beginning to seem like a welcome alternative to brainless yapping dignitaries. Farther still be it that he should admit he was beginning to look forward to their rendezvous, if only to entertain himself with a verbal sparring partner that he actually didn’t feel the need to stab in the eyeballs.
He wouldn’t deny, however, that he most definitely felt the need to stab something up until he saw her legs dangling off the rock on the night of the third moon. When he saw her, the feeling subsided, but he knew it would return with a vengeance the moment she opened her mouth. But she didn’t. As he approached, he saw her curled up on the rock, in a manner that suggested she was asleep. The Mherking hoisted himself up on the boulder next to her, trying not to splash her and, consequently, wake her. He enjoyed the momentary silence and would continue to do so until the noisy Etalpallian would inevitably wake up and tear his eardrums asunder with her incessant squawking.
He enjoyed the silence so much that his mind was beginning to drift into concocting ways to keep her from talking, even if that meant he himself would be forced to speak the whole time.
Needless to say, the girl was surprised to awaken from her slumber to find the towering figure of a fierce marine king stationed next to her. His reptilian eyes glinted like a trove of forgotten gold at the bottom of the ocean, and his attention held fast to some indistinct point in between the lake and the sky. She slowly rose to a seat and watched the unearthly Faerie man in silence. He belonged with the ocean. He belonged with the night. That much was for certain. He had no real reason to keep meeting her like this…
Yet, he surprised her again when he spoke first.
“It was the land dwellers that saw fit to choreograph ‘The Celestial Dance’. They filled it with twirls and dips and turns, everything they deemed to be “beautiful” to the eye and the light in the heart. I do not fault the land feyfolk for wanting to create something gorgeous as a tribute to Lumé and Hymlumé, but to claim it a replication of their first dance is…well…”
His eyes drifted downwards then, “It is nothing less than an insult upon them. Hymlumé would have been furious at the disregard and disrespect for her lover, regardless of how he would, in turn, grin and brush off the matter. That is, if they actually still spoke rather than just the rumored rhymes whistling about the Wood.
“Long ago, dance was a call to arms, a symbol of strength, brotherhood, and heritage to my people. Any remnant of that sentiment died many times ago. I do not enjoy dancing, the land dwellers have made it something for parties and jests, something fools do to impress their Queen and woo their women. The nobility of dance and warfare of kings and queens is gone. Now the land dwellers stand about with their wine and extravagant attire, using their frivolous balls as an excuse to coquet and fribble about in inebriated ignorance.” He spat.
When he paused, she would’ve given anything for him to keep talking. The cross edge she was familiar with never left, but a softness and vulnerability crept into his tone. The sound of sincerity in his voice was unmistakable, something that sounded so strange from him, yet it had her mesmerized. So she fumbled about, reaching for anything that would get him to continue.
“Hymlumé sounds like she must be a remarkable Queen.” Her voice was quiet as she drew herself closer to him.
He spared only a glance towards the magpie, seeing her tuck her knees under her chin like a child listening to a nursery tale. The sides of his mouth tugged into what could almost be mistaken as a smile, if one looked at his face in the moonlight at just the right angle.
“Yes. Yes, she was. I imagine she still is.”
His first four words carried far more weight than she had ever anticipated. This one time, he had been honest with her, no sarcasm, no witty comebacks, and no games. She had no idea what had come over him, but she would never complain about it. When he said no more, she scooted a little closer and bent forward to look him in the eye. The weight of his statement had given rise to such a consuming, slow-burning curiosity in her, she could not help herself. She wanted to know this Mherking that sat before her, staring with desolate eyes into the distance.
“Your Majesty?” she gently asked, “How old are you anyway? You sound as if—”
“That’s enough, Magpie. You asked why I detested dancing. You have your answer. No more tonight.”
Yet, despite what sounded like parting words, he never moved. This side of him unnerved her. He was so unnaturally silent, without complaint or criticism. For a moment, she saw before her a king, a man, and the umbra of a broken spirit, all at once. Her hand trembled as she reached across the small divide between them. She felt him twitch when her fingertips brushed over the smooth scales of his arm.
The wind came to her aid and carried her whisper to his ears, “I am sorry…”
For what she apologized, she was unsure; but she suddenly withdrew her fingers, an action that did not seem to induce a reaction of any kind. Not at first.
His gaze was continuously glued to some distant place, but his low voice finally reached out to her.
“You may do as you wish, but do not speak tonight.”
It was oddly gentle, the way he asked. Gentle and despondent. After a moment of thoughtful deliberation, she took this as his way of asking her for her company.
Both her hands slowly wrapped around his muscled arm, gliding over the ridges of his scales, which were cool to the touch. When she couldn’t bear the look in his eyes any longer, she leaned her cheek on his shoulder and nuzzled once. She heard him give a barely audible snort, inevitably to blow her wild, crested mane out of his face, but he never did anything to stop her.
After a little while, she feared discomfort on both sides, so she tilted her head and opened her mouth to address him, but was promptly greeted with the rumble of his voice reverberating through his chest.
“One word comes out of your mouth, and I leave. Am I understood?”
She gulped and settled back into his shoulder, tucking her legs in close and grasping his arm tighter. He huffed through his nose twice, agitated that he had to get her hair and feathers out of his face again, but he did not speak after that.
He stayed at the lake all night that moon, until the oncoming of dawn gave him an excuse to get her fluttering snore out of his ears. His touch was easy and slow as he slid out from under her, prying his arm from her grasp with utmost care. He laid her down on the boulder, carefully wrapping her wings around her, and all the while grumbling to himself about how careless she was. He gave one last look at the girl whose feathers ruffled with each snuffling breath she breathed, then rolled his eyes while descending below the lake’s surface. For only a moment he allowed himself to wonder how long he would have to fuss with a mass of imbecilic diplomats and pointless meetings before he could go up to the lake for another rest.
The palace had a tough time figuring out what had become of their king of late. He seemed quite off, and very often, distant. He was still persnickety as ever, possibly more so, though the details he often chose to focus on were most odd. He ordered his servants to remove all things remotely red from his sight. This his servants easily deduced as the result of dealings with Arpiar. Surely seeing crimson would only make his mood even more unbearable. Not that any of them would ever suspect that the color would remind him of the fluttering skirts of a noisy bird. Then there were details like what shape and color the drapes in the Great Hall needed to be, and a drastic deviation in his lightrock color preference.
Dealing with Faerie kings and queens was a tiring and unpredictable venture regardless of demesne, but the Mherking was always meticulous about specific things in a very methodical manner, so for his normal preferences to suddenly change on a whim may signify something deeper. Of course, it was a truth of life that all Faerie kings and queens were, at their core, unpredictable, so his palace staff members were a little puzzled and more than a bit anxious as to whether they should even gossip amongst themselves about it or not.
His personal handmaid, however, knew something must be amiss. When he was alone in his chambers, he often just stared out the windows, something the other, older handmaids hadn’t seen in eons. Most of the time he would have kept himself busy reading the day’s reports and correcting the scribes’ grammar when all other matters had been settled. And whenever the handmaid would ask him what he needed, normally he would list off a multitude of complaints, but lately he barely acknowledged anyone who came into his chambers any more than necessary.
The Mherking’s mind was indeed very far away. The situation with Arpiar would have no easy answers, and the delicate balance between peace and conflict with the even more unreasonable kings and queens of other demesnes left no room for errors in judgment. They would be absolutely insufferable if this whole issue wasn’t solved by the Celestial Ball. The numbers of his people that had vanished had grown to be quite a concern, especially since there were still no leads in the matter, though the Mherking was beginning to have his suspicions. Suspicions that could only result in mayhem.
Yet, the even greater concern was keeping the obnoxious pestilential magpie from bursting in on his thoughts and parading upon his contemplations on important kingly matters. He managed, though, under the condition that every moment he thought of her, he would think of another way to make her miserable and leave it at that. It seemed to work well enough.
Especially when he saw her perched upon the boulder like an anxious jay on the fourth moon.
“You look like a lovesick fledgling.”
The Mherking’s booming voice jolted her from her thoughts. His approach was slow, and he gave her a mildly amused raise of the eyebrows.
“Did the stars grant your wildest dreams, Magpie?” he teased.
“I told you, that’s not my—Oh, forget it. Fine, “Magpie”.” She sighed. Her eyes then darted up at the stars, and she laughed, “Don’t be silly, Your Majesty. Stars cannot grant anything.”
Nearing their boulder, he smirked, “You might be surprised.”
When she blinked at him, he shook his head and asked, “So I see the beasts neglected to eat you while you slept, though I suppose your snoring would frighten away even the Wood’s most fearsome creatures.”
She puffed her cheeks, “Have you had enough amusement at my expense, Your Majesty? I think perhaps I should have my share.”
He leaned on the boulder, opting not to leave the comfort of the lake this time, “Be my guest, Magpie. Do your worst.”
She shot him a malicious smile and shrugged, “Suit yourself. But first, will you dance with me tonight, Your Majesty?”
“Not a chance. Try again.” He immediately replied.
“You are much too serious, you know.”
The Sea King snorted, “You accuse me of harassing you for my own amusement as you hold me here against my will then accuse me of being too serious? You are going to have to do better than that.”
“Very well. Then I should use a different approach.”
“Is there not somewhere better for you to be? Surely Ytotia must have a better use for you than to pester me to be her escort for an evening…” he eyed her with a lifted eyebrow.
A strange sound that almost sounded like a nervous laugh drifted on the wind, but she never answered. She changed the subject.
“I want to see your trident.”
“And I want you to show me how to use it!”
“Even if that were possible, the answer would still be no.”
“What do you mean “if it were possible”? I bet you don’t actually have one! And I bet all the legends and stories of ‘The Great Mherking, King of All the Oceans!’ were balderdash and you’ve actually been trying to deceive me all this time!”
“It matters not if you actually believe me. I will not satisfy your meddlesome tendencies and show you my trident.”
She was silent for a long time. Too long, by the Mherking’s standards. As he made to look up and investigate the cause of her silence, he felt her fingers on the frills over his ears. The contact made him gasp and jerk away from her, almost stumbling from the sudden movement.
He snarled, “Do not touch the fins. I care not who you are or where you come from, Magpie. There is punishment for all who attempt something so crude.”
She brought her hand over her mouth as he straightened himself.
“Last one to make such an error had his fingers devoured by something even I no longer dare to release from the dungeons.”
“So I can’t touch the frills?” she managed.
“That about sums it up.” He grumbled.
At that, he heard a strange squeaking sound come from her. Her hand was over her mouth, and her eyes were glued to him while her shoulders bounced and halted. A couple snorts escaped her, and it was then that he realized that she was laughing.
The Faerie man narrowed his eyes with a dangerous pressure, “What ails you, Magpie?”
A pressure that she apparently wasn’t intimidated by; her laugh only seemed to seep through her hands further while her eyes were mysteriously glued to his head. Most specifically, the very fins he had just yanked from her grasp.
“Pfft. My apologies, Your Majesty…It’s just—your frills…they flare out when you are cross…Look, it’s so—”
She pointed at his flared fins, and with that, her fit of laughter was imminent. His fins unconsciously contracted and clamped against his skull while he sent a brooding scowl down at the lake. The sound of her hysteric laughter only made it worse. How did he let her get to him? And over something so…silly?
“Are you sure I can’t touch them?” she giggled.
He growled and exhaled, “Indubitably. Now that you have had your laugh, noisy one, have you anything else?”
Magpie immediately stopped laughing and brightened, “Of course I do!”
She laid on her stomach and rested her chin on her hands, waggling her feet back and forth in the air, “Sometimes you gnash those dreadful fangs of yours together and it makes this horrid scraping sound.”
She reached down to try to press her finger against his mouth, an action he easily dodged, and retaliated with a sharp, “What is it with you and touching?”
She withdrew her hand and smiled, “Oh, and I suppose you detested every single moment last moon when you never once complained about me touching you.”
“Of course I detested it. If I’d have complained, you would undoubtedly have started squawking, which I detest further.”
She leaned forward, biting her lip in anticipatory victory, “There’s another thing! You are an atrocious liar!”
“Go ahead and explain that one to me, I am dying to hear your reasoning.” He folded his arms across his chest and waded back towards the boulder.
She leaned over until she was face to face with the Mherking. Magpie gave him a triumphant smile while he raised his brows at her, unimpressed and waiting patiently for her reply. However, when she gave none, he was left to stare into her dark eyes without an answer. As he did, he saw the reflection of the ocean and the depths of the skies all at once. He stood in the lake and she leaned over the boulder, held in an unbreakable eyelock, both so close and worlds away. And, unbidden and without his authorization, he exhaled as an accompanying thought arose in his mind; a suggestion of the beauty of the Etalpallian’s eyes. The thought should have been immediately subdued, but he need not waste the effort. It faded the moment she grinned and started speaking.
“Do you know why you still tolerate me, Your Majesty?”
One moment to quiet his mind and readjust was all he needed, “Of course. I only tolerate your for my own amusement.”
She nearly fell from the boulder as she lurched forward, “Exactly!”
When he blinked at her, she righted herself and cleared her throat, then leaned in close to his face with a confident grin, “You’d be utterly miserable without me.”
He would never underestimate his adversary again. He was speechless. Words could not express how much he wanted to wipe the smile from her face, but he stayed the night nonetheless. Someone had to keep the birdy’s head under the clouds, after all. It had absolutely nothing to do with her ridiculous claim or some such nonsense.
He never had the time to think of her after that, let alone plot some sort of revenge for the previous moon’s travesty. Between strategy meetings with his generals, councils that went on for days, and audiences with everyone from foreign diplomats to local cooks, there was not a moment to spare on frivolities of any sort. He had not been this overworked in centuries. And worse yet, it was all infuriatingly and unnecessarily troublesome.
From having to explain to the tailors for the thousandth time that a formal suit for an event like the Celestial Ball had to include both brocade and hand-embroidered silk with gold and silver thread, all from specific demesnes, as a diplomatic assurance to the less than stable kings and queens with whom he shared a fragile peace; to trying to explain to his new blacksmith why he wanted Birdcage woven mail beneath his scale mail, despite the fact that his own scales alone could serve as a grown man’s plate armor with ease. Not to mention the venture of explaining to his servants that there was nothing strange about him using the term “Birdcage” when he always referred to it by “King’s Braid”. And that was one minor frustration.
Messages poured in like a tidal wave regarding the Celestial Ball preparations, the situation regarding Arpiar, developments in the missing persons crisis, troop assignments, border reports, census accounts, citizen concerns, and even inquiries about suitor arrangements and heir production. After this long, he honestly couldn’t fathom how they could still be pestering him about that last one.
An heir? Did they really think him that old? Did they fear he would die simply because no one else had remembered or lived long enough in the Far World to see if Faeries had an expiration date? Honestly…he was surrounded by imbeciles.
He knew he should have stayed home the fifth moon; home, in a luxurious palace, where he could barricade himself in his chambers with a heated bath and a massage, until the dignitaries found him, at least. That may have been one reason why he found himself out at the lake that night. He was unsure when he had become so capricious, but if he could blame it on the magpie, he most definitely wouldn’t waste the opportunity.
“I thought you hated touching.”
Her voice interrupted his thoughts, so he growled at her, “I do, but I despise this headache far more, so quit talking.”
Rolling her eyes, the winged girl was quiet and adjusted her companion’s head on her lap, an action he greatly protested. Apparently, however, her silence could only hold so long, “You know, I never would have thought—”
“What did I tell you, Magpie? You wouldn’t stop badgering me, so I agreed to let you attend to my headache if it would keep you silent. Now, I believe you have a job to do.”
His retort wasn’t nearly as venomous as he probably had hoped, and its lack of malice caused an unusual sort of smile to cross her face. The Mherking never opened his eyes during the exchange, so her strange expression was lost on him, especially in his pained state.
Her thin fingers were gentle and soft through his hair, and her nails would brush his scalp in such a way that soothed him like none of his palace servants could. The man’s white hair was like liquid silk through her fingers, like she was gliding her fingers through running springwater. Long, flowing, and beautiful, it was, something she really should have expected in light of his regal and perfectionist nature. She was certain that he didn’t grasp the intimacy of the situation, or simply didn’t care; but who was she to deny him, even if he had come to her that night with nothing more than the words “Lend me your lap.”
The atmosphere eased her mind and calmed her spirit, ebbing into the same air that she had breathed a couple moons before, the first time he let her touch him. She softly stroked his hairline, and his sigh of approval was all she needed to know she was doing well to quiet his throbbing mind. However, the more relaxed she became, the less she paid attention, and her hand brushed his frills. Remembering his warning, her hand jumped backwards, as she scrambled for an apology.
He interrupted, “Just keep quiet and stop worrying so much.”
She sighed in relief and chuckled, “You are starting to sound like me now.”
The Mherking moaned, “A dreadful thought.”
“Well, did you ever think you’d be lying near the shore, beneath the stars, in the arms of an Etalpallian woman?” she whispered.
A groan, “Do not remind me.”
As her hands resumed their work, and the Mherking released another audible sigh, the Sky Woman’s attention drifted elsewhere. The smile slowly faded from her face and her eyes locked on the man’s content expression, then darted away when she could no longer bear to look at him. He seemed to truly be enjoying the silence, so it killed her to break it. Yet, she found herself doing so anyway.
Her voice was far less jovial than usual, “I could still be some kind of spy or something, you know.”
She was greeted with an amused raise of the eyebrows.
“Trust me, Magpie, many have tried to assassinate me over many years. Far longer than most historians remember. I know not what has become of the assassins now, but I do hear boiling eyeballs can be quite painful.”
She said nothing more, and her hands were tender and soft. The air became so unnaturally quiet; he could feel the blood pumping erratically through her fingers and he could hear the rippling of the waves on the shore shift to match his own heartbeat, as it always did. Her fingers began to shake in her work.
One did not live as long as he had, especially a Faerie king, and not know when a woman was troubled. But he need not fret about it. Magpie couldn’t keep silent about anything. When he did hear her voice, however, it was much quieter than he had anticipated.
“I cannot take it any longer. I am so—so sorry, Your Majesty…I have done you a great injustice, and I have been most cruel. I am sorry… So, so sorry.”
He opened his eyes and gazed up at her for the first time in a long while, and the pressure of his eye contact was too much to endure. She could be silent no longer, so she hid her face and bore her soul.
“I—I lied to you…I am not a maidservant to Etalpalli’s royal family...and I was not sent to find an escort for the Queen for the Celestial Ball…I actually haven’t been back home in a really long time. I was a coward…I could not bear my life there anymore and I ran away… instead of facing my troubles…To this day I have not the courage or resolve to go back.”
At this, a small smile crossed his face as he closed his eyes. For a while, he did not speak at all. His lengthened silence would be the least of her punishments for her actions towards the Great King of the Oceans. After he resolved that she had waited in agony for his response long enough, he finally spoke, his voice coming in like the low rumblings of the tide.
“I knew you were lying, Magpie. I knew from the very beginning.”
She made a little gasp and started to say something, but he held his hand up to silence her.
“After all, no court would send only a single maiden to ask the favor of one such as I. And even the most vulgar of scullery maids would never address a Faerie king thusly.”
A comforting but arrogant smile stretched across his face, an action that nearly made her laugh, though he would never tell her such was his intention. Still lying on her lap, he stretched his arms behind his head, “So,” he began, “why did you lie to me anyway?”
Her eyes dropped, “I’m so sorry, Your Majesty…I um…I was…”
It was only when he felt warm saltwater fall on his face that he realized exactly how serious it was to her. He opened his eyes and watched as she continued to speak, trying her hardest not to break down, but it was far too late. The dam had already burst.
“I had been so…so lonely…”
It was a noble cry that took her features. Her face only scrunched a little as tears slowly leaked from her eyes, never more than one or two at a time. She stared out at the lake, and her eyes shimmered in the moonlight with all the tears she had succeeded in reigning in; whether she refused to blubber on his account or her own, he couldn’t be sure, but the sight of a pursed line instead of a smile upon her lips wasn’t becoming of an annoying, cheery magpie. Not at all. She frantically wiped her eyes and tried to gain some semblance of self. Coughing and clearing her throat, she continued to speak, her voice shallow.
“Rest assured…you would not have stayed had I told you the truth…”
The Mherking gave a nod and a shrug, “Well, that’s true.”
Most would think his reply rather curt and his efforts lacking in the act of comforting a crying woman, but most would not notice his hand rising behind her back and settling on her wings. She shuddered at his sudden touch, and his rough fingertips caressed each feather with agonizing slowness. The atmosphere grew quiet and consolatory, but ever somber.
“Ergo, you left to find someone to keep you company? And wandered the skies and the Wood in search of anyone who would do?”
She shook her head vigorously, “N-No, I came looking for you in particular…”
His hand grew slower but more deliberate on her primaries, and the feathers fluffed pleasurably in reply. But, she said no more.
So he asked, “Why me?”
This time, she took a great, long breath and took many a moment to begin. Finally, when she gave her answer, her voice was quiet, clear; stretching wide over the lake in naught but a whisper as stray tears coursed down her face.
“Because…you were the only one that I knew would come…even if it was merely to investigate the intrusion on your borders…”
The silence between them then was filled with the unspoken, so they silently resolved to simply not speak at all after that. After all, there was so much, and yet still nothing to say. The air was charged yet oddly comfortable, a state he was content to linger in until she felt the need to once again break the quiet.
“You have no reason to be here anymore, Your Majesty. You have no reason to see me again, there is no wager. It was all a lie…”
He answered without hesitation, “We made a deal, Magpie.”
The Mherking sat up then, just enough for him to draw in close so she could tell he was serious, “And a king never goes back on his word.”
She did nothing to argue against him after that, at least on that point, so he easily laid his head back down on her lap and motioned for her to continue “easing his headache” while grumbling about her mouth ruining all the work she’d already done. He just about barked at her when she giggled about him “never wanting her help with preening”. His protests finally died with a defeated moan when she teased him that his forehead wrinkles had actually disappeared for a moment.
If one were picky, one could argue that the moon stays full for three nights or so, and if one were efficient, one would be ahead in his work, and if one were in good company, one might argue the possibility of staying with such company longer than originally planned. Luckily, or unluckily, depending on the perspective, for the Etalpallian woman, the Mherking was incredibly picky, most efficient, and in decent enough company for him to convince himself to stay. Surely things would not unravel so that they would actually need his presence, not with his excessive preparations.
Little did he know that the matters at hand would go so awry so fast that even the Great King of the Oceans would admit out loud that he was wrong.
And how horribly wrong he was.
He inhaled deeply as he stood in the armory, fitting his breastplate and pauldrons to his mail while his servants fussed about him, trying to attend to his armor themselves. He waved them all away from him; he would bare the weight of his demesne alone, and take on that weight himself. The Mherking would be as the troops beneath him. He could no longer act the king and reason with his peers. At least not one such as the adversary he now faced. There was no diplomacy now that could bargain with madness.
He did, however, close his eyes and allow the servants to place the crested battle helmet over his head. The helmet clanked against his colossal collar, a mellifluous sound that heralded the establishment of the final instrument of the harmony. The metallic clinks and clunks of his gauntlets and vambrances sounded; they had awaited this moment. It had been a long time since he had prepared for battle. If politics had devolved into carnage, if it no longer allowed the parley of kingship, there was nothing else that could be done. If he could no longer act the king, he would act the monster.
The large, intricate armor of the Ocean King was enough to make a man’s blood run cold far before the ancient Faerie summoned his mighty trident or monstrous double-bladed battle axe. And to see the Mherking in full armor approach atop a bulwark in the midst of battle, drenched in dirt and blood and carrying an earthquake with every thunk of his axehandle in the soil; it was a sight very few lived to tell tale of in their hearths and taverns. For, as soon as one saw the Mherking’s approach on the battlefield, all the stories of the Ocean’s Jaws returned with traumatic clarity. The moments when the children’s tales and forgotten legends of the “Great Beast Beneath the Sea” ceased to be a fantasy.
To dare challenge the Mherking and invoke his rage was an action that required a level of arrogance and foolishness some did not think possible. But those who knew the truth were growing old and the young grew ever bolder; even the rumors of the Great Coliseum had drifted into tales for fey babes and firesides. After the fey world came to know the Mherking as a “grumpy curmudgeon that never drank his tea after the sun set below the sea”, as the bards spun it, a matter that the Mherking had wanted to settle with one philandering bard for decades now, the fey had seemed to forget why so many feared the ocean.
It wasn’t a matter of his pride as a warrior, for that had been rent asunder long ago. No, he would not stand for the pain and mutilation of his people, and he would rain a great torrent down upon those foolish enough to invoke the rage of the ocean. And so, at the eve of battle, he could only think of a fair feathered lady once. He knew without question he would live through the battle victorious, but he also knew he would miss the full moon.
So he bid all his servants to leave him, and he sat on the stone, alone in the armory. With a mere sweep of his hand he summoned his trident, the massive instrument torn from the Mherking’s very soul. The three-pronged spear was far more than simply a tool to him, it was a loyal companion, one that he would have preferred to never have to use. Its vitrescent surface pulsed faintly with an auroral glow, refracting light across the armory floor whenever it would hit a crack in the staff. Cracks and fractures that had long since healed over, but never disappeared. And he spoke to the trident.
“What has become of us, old friend?”
He paused, appreciating a moment of dour silence, with nothing but the rhythmic hum of his trident as company. Finally, he stood and stretched out his trident to touch the water at his feet. As he spoke, the pulsing light of the trident began to spread in ripples on the water.
“Listen close, now, this message I send
To a lake by which the River’s voice doth break and bend,
Where sits a maid of smiles and sorrows,
Restless wings and lips awaiting moons of time’s tomorrows,
The maid who came by breeze of dusk,
And looks upon the sea for the foolish king in whom she’s put her trust:
Magpie, friend of wind and sea
Pay close heed to these waters that call to thee,
For when these words find your ears
Let them ease your conscience and calm your fears.
The night Hymlumé’s face doth shine
Whose presence absent from the lake art mine.
Oceans will rise and duties call
But let not your mind be troubled at all;
When seas have calmed and storms subsided
Next moon will come and wrongs be righted.
Pay no heed to how my words doth rhyme,
Else you shall never need fear your words next time!
With naught an extra moment to muddle over the details of his message, he released it into the water, where the ripples carried it off to its destination. Surely she would laugh at him next moon, and he would have not a word to deter her.
With one final sigh, he released his trident and it disappeared as it touched the water, awaiting the next time it would be summoned. Adjusting his armor as he stood, he took his massive double-headed bardiche from the wall and slung it over his back. It would serve him best on the battleground he was about to walk. As he joined his men’s ranks, he could feel their bloodlust. The death and torment of their brothers and sisters at the hands of the land dwellers’ vanity ignited a boiling rage within them. The spilt blood of their comrades would seep into the skin of those slaughtering poachers. The bloodstains would afflict curses upon the murderers, their children, and their children’s children; no line would be spared the cursed wrath of the oceanfolk. The Mherking knew the pain and anger of his people more deeply than they knew themselves, but the thirst for battle suddenly sickened him.
It had been days, and the battlefield still reeked of blood and carnage. It soaked into the soil and bled into the water, ensuring the land itself would not forget what occurred for decades to come. The stench of decay crept through the air as a gruesome reminder to keep wandering minds from ever thinking of happier things. The wails and weeping that still echoed through the valley would ring in the Mherking’s ears for countless sleepless nights afterwards. It was a massacre.
His bruises jabbed and his bones still ached from the battle; his head spun a little and he saw red as his consciousness drifted. Goblin poison of that caliber was not to be trifled with, even by someone as immortal as he. But even as he sat on a large rock by the water, unable to stand, he would not allow a single healer to attend him. It made no difference how long it had been, the healers still had their hands full with the wounded. A Faerie war was very different from that of the mortal world. Faeries made certain their adversaries did not heal so easily. But as a Faerie king, he would heal far faster than most, so he refused all medical attention.
Most of the troops had already left for home, but he resolved to stay, make sure his people would all return safely, and finish the matter off.
“General.” He croaked and tried to rise, then decided against it and sat back down, leaning on the handle of his bardiche for support. The general, a handsome but mute gentleman with silver skin, torn fins, and a scarred face, trudged over to his king as promptly as his shaking legs could take him. The king would not fault his general for his trembling; stonehearted and grievous was any man not shaken by bloodshed, regardless of age or experience.
“General, have the troops finished transporting the wounded and the bodies of the deceased?”
The general nodded.
“How about the rescued prisoners? The ones left alive. Have they all been returned home and given medical attention?”
“Good. Please finish evacuating everyone then report back to me.”
The general nodded again, then saluted. Before he made to leave, he paused, and gave his king a hesitant clap on the shoulder. The Mherking appreciated the man’s gesture of comfort far more than words could have expressed. So he called to the general as the silver-skinned man walked away.
The general stopped.
“On second thought, why don’t you go home? I can handle the rest of things here. The longer you linger, the longer I will be forced to tolerate your riotous lady clamoring in my ears about your absence. And, quite frankly, I think I have enough noisy women in my ears as it is.”
At this, the general just gave a slightly roguish smile and refused his king’s order with a shake of his head, then went about his business securing perimeters, rounding up the remaining troops, and sending them home. One of the very few that dare refuse him and live to tell the tale. In fact, the Sea King was quite sure if the man could tell tale of it, the general’s chances of survival would dwindle quite rapidly. The Mherking shook his head, complaining to no one in particular, “Why do all the people I surround myself with have to be so absurdly troublesome?”
Yet, even when his troops were cleared, the Mherking scoured the area time and again, just to make sure everyone had been evacuated. So, with all matters complete, he stood in the water near the shore and summoned his trident. With a firm grip he raised it high into the air and plunged it into the water, uttering an ancient command as a lock and seal. A shockwave swept the valley with a flash of light and a salty gust, then all was quiet.
As soon as he departed, Arpiar would forever be locked to his demesne, so none of his people would ever drift into its waters again. Just to be safe, he rigged a communication current that would alert him if anyone should try to sniff about his borders. Before he could leave, however, his thoughts could no longer dwell on returning home. Not the moment he felt her presence from the water at his feet, not the moment he smelled her blood on the tide. Even from leagues and realms away, he knew it. Without a thought, he dove into the sea, and allowed his Path to take him away.
He burst forth in an eruption from the lake, coughing and heaving with the effort. The lake’s voice rippled with the waves, and he could hear remnants of his message that remained in the waters. He removed his helmet as his eyes darted across the lake and over the shore; the scent of her blood had vanished and he no longer felt her presence in the tide. Fear quaked him. He couldn’t have been the only one to smell her blood, and he took far longer than he would have liked in getting there, so something could have easily gotten her…
The Mherking’s breathing grew suddenly frantic at all the possibilities raging about his mind. The thought of never seeing her again made his core tighten and ache.
His vision blurred and he shook his head to clear his senses, the lake’s waves growing rough with his thick breathing. Suddenly, in his haze he heard a voice.
With his foggy vision he managed to make out movement on the rocks, followed by a splash.
“Magpie?” his hoarse voice heaved and cracked.
He heard a mild whimper and more splashes, and he quickly waded over to her. When they reached each other, he fell into her arms and she immediately collapsed under his armored weight. They both plunged into the shallows, utterly drenched but laughing in their relief. He took a moment to look down at her while his vision cleared; appreciating her smiling face more than any sight he’d seen for a long, long time. Her hands rose to bury themselves in his bloody, tangled hair, and her smile was flawless.
“You’re all right…”
Her fluttering voice was a songbird after a storm, and he reveled in every moment of it.
Even in the seemingly endless moments that they were sprawled on the lakebed, breathing the same air in ragged puffs of simultaneous pain and solace, there was a heavier matter at hand. Despite her protests, The Mherking managed to scoop her up and carry the dripping birdy ashore, until they both collapsed as soon as he set foot on their massive rock. She rolled to look at him and growled, “Why did you carry me? You can barely stand on your own!”
He scowled, “You’re bleeding.”
She tucked her legs close to her body, glared at the ground, and mumbled, “I was waiting for you and I cut my foot on a rock in the lake.”
He harrumphed, “I noticed.”
He then ran his hand through his hair and sighed, “Come, let me tend your wound.”
She looked over his ghastly appearance and glowered, “As you bleed all over my skirts? Hardly! You must let me tend to yours first!”
She shook and fluffed her wet feathers while he took off what armor he could, until his low grunts caused her to hop over and finish taking off his cuisses and his breastplate herself. He watched her while she worked on his greaves, and grumbled when she forced him to remove his mail. After surveying his condition, she found a few cuts on his head, a nasty gash on his leg, and a stab wound in his side and she subsequently hissed at the sight.
“How long has it been?”
“Three days since battle’s end…four, if you count today.”
Her heart ached. If it had been that long and his wounds were still this bad, the battle must have been like the Dragon’s Flame itself.
“How long was the battle?” she asked as she began to rip parts of her skirts into strips.
“Stop apologizing, chirping one, it’s unlike you!” he grouched.
She simply rolled her eyes and sighed, “So is there any special water you’d like me to wash them with?”
His spirits lifted just a tad, he whirled a finger and the lake gushed forth a geyser that fell into a perfect floating orb of liquid beside him, “As a matter of fact, yes. Yes, there is. This water can help draw out the poisons. But first, you’re still terribly soaked in that grimy mess. I’d allow our fry to bathe in that filth before I’d allow it to touch an open wound.”
He then took the liberty of instantly drawing the “filthy” water from her hair and clothes and flinging it back into the lake with a simple flick of his wrist. She merely shook her head at his melodrama and tore a large piece of her skirt. Folding it neatly, she hesitantly dipped it into the eerie floating bubble of water and lifted his tunic to clean his wounds.
The wounded Faerie man stopped her and pointed to his head, “Where were you raised, noisy one? Always clean the head first, lest you get worse toxins in my eyes!”
She sighed again and closed in on him, gently dabbing the cloth on his cuts, “Enough of your theatrics, else I may stick you in the eyeball with this thing by accident.”
Folding his arms across his chest and releasing a malcontented huff, he allowed her to clean his wounds without interruptions. While he sulked, she decided that probing him for answers was an acceptable course of action, “So, I got your message.”
“Did you now? Then why are you still here?”
“Hush! I’m the one asking the questions! Now, how in the Wood did you send that message anyway?”
He exhaled slowly so he could explain to the Sky Woman in the same way he would a child, “All water can carry messages. Like the Wood itself, water is alive.”
“Then why did you have to—”
“Allow me to finish for once, Magpie. Many bodies of water, though different in character, are utterly incoherent and often filled with mischief or prone to distraction, so when you tell it to carry a message, you must be most specific so it cannot misdirect your message for its own amusement. It is also quite lofty when it comes to diction, so you have to be very traditional with it.”
His tone had drifted to a more serious note, as if he truly wanted her to understand. She nodded as she worked, until he grasped her wrist and held her still to look him in the eye. His voice was quiet, “Lastly, and this is very important, because water ebbs and flows in rhythm, the receiver will only be able to understand the message if it’s spoken in rhyme. Otherwise, the water turns it into a garbled mess and will watch gleefully as the receiver tries and fails to understand it. So, if you ever need to leave a message for me, do as I said, and be clear, and the message will linger about the lake for as long as a few moons.”
She swallowed and nodded, taking his directions to heart then returning to cleaning his wounds once the Mherking released her wrist. He continued, this time with less severity and more informational lecture, “Often water will listen to the voices of the fey, but my people are the only ones who can send messages across distances by water. I alone can send them across realms and demesnes. That is why you heard my voice so far away.”
When she finished cleaning his head, she tore another piece of cloth from her skirts and shifted to his abdomen, lifting his tunic to clean the festering poison and blood from the wound. He inhaled sharply when he felt the water and poison meet, and she apologized. He shook his head at her apology and ordered her to resume her work, gently. This time, it was he who broke the silence.
“So if you received my message, I ask again, why were you still here? It is far past the full moon…”
A nervous laugh, “Well…”
He narrowed his eyes when she wouldn’t give him an answer, “You shouldn’t have waited so…”
Magpie sniffed, “And you shouldn’t have come. How did you know I was still here, anyway?”
Briefly glancing around for a proper response, he resorted to shifting his eyes out to the lake and far away from her, “I could feel your presence, and smell your blood in the water…”
She paused to blink up at him, “All the way from…wherever you were?”
The reptilian eyes shifted to the ground, and the man answered after a pause, “…Yes.”
A hush fell between them, a close, vulnerable quiet in which the fortresses surrounding each of them eroded away. Of course, she was the first to break it, resuming their usual pattern, “So, where were you?”
Meddlesome little pest. War was something a creature like her should never hear of. All blood and screams and anguish, nothing fit for the ears of even Etalpalli’s most impertinent hatchling, regardless of age or maturity. He did not want her to know any more than necessary, not even from where he had come.
“It matters not. Poison meant for my people works fast and drives deep; it dries all liquids and rots the insides to mush, beginning with the mind, until one can no longer function and wastes to death. More of my men have died from the poison than from the battle itself. Many of those infected we could not get back to the demesne in time to retrieve enough healing water and salves...We are a proud and strong race, Magpie, but we are not invincible, and Arpiar has had access to our people for far longer than I had been aware.”
“You were battling with Arpiar?”
“Oh, Dragon eat it…” he cursed.
“Yes,” he sighed, “we were in battle with Arpiar. Facing the mutilation and torment my people endured at the hands of those ogres wrought only bloodshed and ruin.”
“Did you…win?” she winced at her wording.
“If you ask if we were victorious, it offends me that you doubt.” He let her off with that. No need to lecture her on the nature of war right now. His expression grew solemn and distant.
“We were unable to extinguish them completely, but we held their castle long enough to rescue those still alive, and bear the deceased away from that unholy, grisly place. We took the waters and beat their borders back, and sealed off any connection to the demesne. So, unless another has elected to wear its skin, the water in that place will remain dead until I see fit to open a Path again.”
He paused, and his voice grew solemn, “Still, no matter of healing water can mend what has been done. A great cry will come from the deep when my people hear of what we have seen; when they see how few of us have returned.”
When her fingers rested for a still moment on his abdomen, he took her gesture for one of consolation, but her eyes swam with turmoil. Even so, her hand eased his spirit, and he relaxed beneath her touch. It was a few moments before her hands moved to clean the wound again, an action that earned a low groan of misery from the supposedly indomitable King of All Oceans. He sat there and gnarled, completely incomprehensible, for he would never tell the birdy that she had pressed that infernal rag against his infested wound just as he had made to reach for her hand.
This time, however, her voice calmed the tide within him. She whispered, “I’m sorry. I was just thinking…”
“About what?” his low voice returned.
“Well…about my people. I do hope they fare well. Your compassion and commitment to your people is vast and deep; and mine…”
He bent forward and hushed her, “That’s enough, do not think of it now, Magpie.”
The girl’s large eyes lifted to meet him, and begged to ask him questions, but he would allow no more of that. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the rag in her hands, “I believe you have a job to do.”
When she looked in his eyes then, the kingly arrogance had subsided, and a trace of kindness had settled beneath the aureate irises. It was just a hint, but it was enough to warm her from toes to wingtips. She reached around him to bandage his newly-cleansed wound, and she could smell the salt and the steam from his neck, a scent that wouldn’t be so bad were it not tainted with the smell of his blood and the dreadful stench of the poison. He took a deep breath, and in it she felt a slow wince. His breath hitched for just a moment over her shoulder before releasing and ruffling the soft down on her shoulder blades.
He must have been in a great deal of pain. Yet still he led his troops for days as the poison festered in his system. He made sure everyone was safe back home then came to her without ever seeing a medic himself, she knew, considering she had to do it for him. Proud, stubborn, selfless thing.
Part of her shuddered at a sudden thought. She had no idea how much of that poison was still drifting around in his body, and a bit of “healing water” may never be able to cleanse that much. So, while she held him in a docile state, she suggested softly, “Your Majesty, I think you should go to the Haven. I will never be able to get all the poison with a ball of water and bits of my skirts.”
Needless to say, he was not fond of the idea.
“I’ll be fine! No reason to get those bothersome brothers involved!” He carped, nearly spitting in indignation at the mention of them.
The Mherking’s peevish tenacity had been reawakened from the depths as he glared at her, and all at once every bit of the kingly arrogance had returned. She sighed and lingered close, securing the makeshift bandage and resting her hand against him.
“Please…” she whispered.
His eyes darted away from her, mumbling something about “impertinent whelps”. She moved on, tearing the fabric of his trousers around the wound, an action that he initially vehemently objected; the last thing he needed was shredded linens on top of the aftermath that awaited him back home. She ignored him and soaked a new cloth in the water given to her. A nasty hiss shot through his teeth at the contact this time.
“Iubdan’s beard, woman!”
Magpie bit her lip while cleansing the wound. Trying to find something to say while he recovered, a smile came to her face.
“You know…I actually thought you looked really handsome in your armor tonight…”
She expected him to have a snide remark just waiting behind his teeth, but he was quiet. Too quiet. Curiosity finally led her to look at his face, where he wore a shrewd smirk and a raised eyebrow.
“Did you now?”
The Mherking’s simper extended across the air between them until an identical one curled across her face. She paused from her work to look him in the eye through thick eyelashes.
“Have you…grown fond of me, Your Majesty?”
She gently blotted the wound while waiting for a clever comeback. A sudden pressure spooked her a bit, and she glanced upwards just in time to see him lean in and reach out. His cold fingertips brushed the feathers near her ear first, then extended to thread themselves through her short hair. The feathers ruffled at his touch, and her eyes anxiously searched his face for an answer. A sarcastic quip. An explanation. The smile remained, but his eyes were unreadable. So she leaned her face into his hand as her eyes drifted closed.
Her skin was pliant beneath his palm, and his touch was tender. She smiled when she felt the webs between his fingers against her face. The Sea King stroked her hair and feathers until her feathered crest flared, and when he was satisfied, he shifted so she’d open her eyes just a little. He leaned in close, just as she had done so many times before.
“Not a chance.”
The night stilled, and the voices and noises of the wood had hushed their mouths. Even the lake’s ripples had died. The quiet dragged on, but in it were a thousand spoken silences. For in those three words, flamboyant and tremendously vexing romantic bards could draw any number of unspoken sentiments, any number of other three words that could have been placed in their stead. Whether any of them were applicable was anyone’s guess, but Magpie was not a dimwitted woman. The meaning of his words was not lost on her, and her keen perception only furthered both his admiration and frustration.
“Whatever you say, Your Majesty,” she whispered, her breath fluttering on his face. Tearing her face away from his hands and watching mirthfully as his fingers twitched in disapproval, Magpie’s grin grew. His perturbed glower was only interrupted by her replacing the wet cloth on his leg. She promptly finished cleaning the wound, and he begrudgingly thanked her.
The Sky Woman did attempt to clean the rest of him up a bit, but he refused her.
“If I came back to the demesne looking like a mountain spring, they’d have suspicions over where I’d been. I must endure it this way.” He explained.
She simply chuckled, “Oh, so I am your secret lover? Your hidden mistress?”
He snorted, “Don’t flatter yourself. It’s just too much trouble to get them off once they start badgering me. Rather like you in that way.”
She shoved him with her elbow, and he released what sounded like the beginnings of a laugh.
“Oh, and no one will be suspicious of the Etalpallian muslin wrapped around your stomach?” she inquired.
He had no comeback for her that time.
She wouldn’t let him stay longer than one night that moon, and she would hear none of his excuses until he could go back and try to get his wounds cleaned properly. In exchange, after the Mherking had cleaned and wrapped her foot, he ordered her to stay off it as much as possible, despite her protests. So they spent their remaining time sitting side-by-side on the tip of the boulder, overlooking the lake. And the air smelled fresher that night than it had for a very long time.
If the dress fragments she had used hadn’t been soiled with blood and sweat, he may have considered keeping them. Of course, he, quite clumsily, re-bandaged the wounds himself when he reached the demesne. She did have a point. No need for any suspicions to be flitting about his courts. Not that any of them would have had the time to gossip anyway. The castle swarmed with cheerless activity and all the healers were still swamped with poisoned soldiers, so he figured it best to wait to seek aid for his wounds. He would do far better under these conditions for far longer than his people would.
When he did manage to see a healer, or, more accurately, when a certain general convinced the court to spring a healer upon him and give him very little choice, the healer’s conclusions were less than comforting. Therefore, whatever time he didn’t spend cleaning up the aftermath, he spent brooding. Between the two, the rest of his people couldn’t tell if he was back to his usual cantankerous self or not.
Though, it would be relevant to mention the fact that they had confined him to the palace to keep an eye on his condition, which, in turn, would easily contribute to general grouchiness. And, of course, it was only a select close few that knew of the King’s condition. It wouldn’t do for the whole palace, let alone the whole kingdom or further, to know that the Mherking was under the weather. So he played the part, and no one outside said select few caught on to the ruse.
But doing so was growing rather difficult. He seldom saw clearly and he often grew lightheaded and occasionally had to retire early. He never retired early. His handmaid could easily see his condition worsen. His mind was clearly elsewhere and his senses had dulled. Sometimes he didn’t even notice her come in, let alone hear anything she asked him. So, at the healer’s behest, the only thing she could do was try to force him to go to bed early instead of pouring over paperwork he was too dizzy to read.
After a few weeks of this, though, others in the palace had begun to become concerned.
Magpie tried not to worry. She really did. He explicitly ordered her not to worry. He told her he would see a healer and everything would be fine. But he was such a terrible liar…
He was late. He hadn’t been late without informing her since the first moon. What if he didn’t get any help and he had already passed because he was a recalcitrant cretin that “didn’t need help from anyone”? She didn’t even know how many lives he had left. If he had lost one, did he still have one or two and was simply taking his time in getting there? Perhaps he decided spending time with her wasn’t worth it after all? Most likely, there was a tremendous amount of work to do, so perhaps he just didn’t have time.
But what if he only had one life left? What if he was actually gone? And since she was currently unattached from any demesne, she would never hear if he actually died or not. What if she would just sit there and wait forever never knowing if he lived or died?
She stood by the lake for what seemed like a stagnant eternity, pacing, sitting, standing, fidgeting, and pacing some more. Finally, she settled to stand and lean against a specific tree that had the best view of the water. She sighed deeply and often, eventually resulting in talking to the moon herself. Hymlumé didn’t answer, of course, but she heard a song on the breeze, and it comforted her.
That is, until the Sea King’s head breached the lake’s surface, his breath just about as heavy as it had been last moon. She was about to run to greet him, but she stopped at the water’s edge and watched the gleaming prismatic monstrosity that emerged from the water with him.
A titanic beast at least a head taller than its rather sizable master, the trident stored just as much light as it refracted, splattering moonbeams in all directions. Its light pulsed slowly and rhythmically, and the waves of the lake shifted to match its beat. She would have sprinted over, no, flew, but one detail held her frozen.
He waded towards her slowly, with his head held high and as much royal strength and elegance as he could conjure, but a barely noticeable halt in his step and a tight grip on the instrument didn’t escape her attention.
He was using it as a cane.
With everything inside her, she wanted to bolt out to him; her hands shook and her wings quivered, aching to do something. But she knew his pride would suffer, so she would wait in misery and watch him come ashore while he tried not to let her see the limp in his step.
When they finally arrived face to face, the conversation began with the deepest and most complex of sentiments to ever be uttered in conversation.
“Hello, Your Majesty…”
She breathed deeply and strung a huge grin on her face, “So did you finally decide to bring your trident with you to show me how it works?”
The Etalpallian took to the air and hovered around him; once again, far too close, though this time, the victim of her lack of personal distance was his trident.
“Why don’t you try to take a guess?” he asked.
Her smile brightened, “Yes?”
He gave her an admonishing look. She pouted and recited with a sulky, “‘Not a chance.’ ”
“Good birdy.” He smirked.
She wrinkled her nose and tried to find another route, “So can I touch it? Will it zap me if I touch it? It looks so beautiful. Is it made of glass? Can it control the waves? Can I make a tidal wave with it? Wait—Wait! No! Don’t let it go! No! Stop! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Summon it back! I’ll be good, I promise!”
He nearly laughed and re-summoned his trident from the water, and she glided over to the boulder, waiting for him to join her. He reached the boulder, and, with a flick of his trident, a surge of water came to his aid, lifting him to the rock. He gave her a look as if he was trying to look majestic, but he couldn’t fool her. She knew he didn’t have the strength to get up himself.
Once he was properly seated beside her, his trident lying over his lap, she decided to attend to business posthaste.
“You didn’t go to the Haven, did you?”
He gave her a strange look, “Why would you say that?”
“Oh, come now, Your Majesty, we’ve already established you’re an awful liar. I don’t think I need to point it all out.”
“ ‘It all?’ What, pray tell, does ‘it all’ mean? I’m back to perfect health, Magpie. Faeries heal in the blink of an eye; I should hope you know that by now.”
“Let’s not fool ourselves, here. You’re walking around with that poison still inside you and acting as if nothing’s wrong!”
“What I choose to do should be none of your concern!”
“Well, then I suppose it’s none of your concern that I’m going back to Etalpalli!”
“I suppose s—what?”
His infamous retorts died on his lips.
She sighed slowly, “I’ve been thinking over the last few weeks…after I got your message before the battle saying you wouldn’t come…”
Magpie’s eyes wandered to the lake, “Well, I saw how much you loved your people, how much you gave to rescue them, even if you have strange ways of showing it…But I…I abandoned mine. Without a care to what I could do to help them, I ran off, just because my life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to…”
She looked at him then, “Your commitment, even when you despised everything you did, the things you did even when you didn’t feel like it. I know, I know, ‘King’s duty’ and all that, but…it really inspired me…”
A deep breath, “So, I’m done running away. No more lies. I’m going back. I have to face whatever awaits me.”
A long pause and a low response, “That’s…probably for the best.”
She jerked her head at him, “What? No! Our deal’s not off! We still have one more moon! Don’t you try to get out of this!”
The man shrugged, “It was worth a try.”
“Now you’re definitely starting to sound like me.”
He flicked her nose, “Well, let’s just hope I don’t start to smell like you. When you’re gone, it’s going to take forever to get the stench of your nasty feet out of my lake.”
This time he did laugh. The first full genuine laughter she had ever heard from him. And she thought it a beautiful sound.
“I had to sneak out of my own palace tonight…”
She laughed, “Really? So I really am your secret mistress!”
He shook his head, “Delude yourself all you like and let me know when you come back to reality, would you?”
His jest didn’t faze her.
“So, what did the healers say?”
“What? How did you—No, I’m fine, I told you!”
“You’d be saying that if there was a mace through your decapitated skull. They obviously locked you up to keep you from gallivanting off and making it worse. No, I don’t want you here anymore. Go back home and go to bed!”
A smirk, “Oh? That actually makes me want to stay…”
“Don’t give me that; let me see your wounds then! Prove to me to you’re all right!”
He changed the subject, “Heh, I’d be happy to let you see my trident now, if you wish.”
Her eyes brightened, “Really?”
She huffed and turned away from him. They grew quiet but the air was comfortable. And, once again breaking the pattern, he spoke first.
“You haven’t asked to dance with me lately.”
It surprised her. She never thought he’d bring it up. It actually made her chest ache a little.
“As if I have the right to do that…Besides, it’d be rather heartless to ask you in this condition.” She digressed.
The Mherking’s ornery reaction was immediate, “What condition? I’m perfectly fine, woman!”
No matter how she pushed, he wouldn’t budge. Last thing she needed to know was that the healers agreed with her. If she ever found out someone else thought she was right and he was…less right, he would never hear the end of it.
So he switched the subject back. After all, she hadn’t even allowed him to make his original point.
“You sound like you’re not too ecstatic about the deal anymore. Dancing with me, right? Did you still even want to do something like that?” he asked.
“Of course I do! It’s just…”
“Ask me again when you can walk without the trident.”
He spluttered, “When I can—My Lady, I can assure you I wasn’t asking!”
A playful grin, “Oh, you will. You will.”
He gave up trying to reason with her, “Whatever you say, Magpie. Though, I promise you I do not intend to yield to this particular desire of yours…ever.”
The girl looked quite literally crestfallen, easily catching his serious tone on the matter. He had strictly told her many times how much he hated it, and the memory burned just a little. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but there was nothing to say. For half a moment he considered that he should have held his tongue or chosen his words differently, but it was true. And they both knew it. Looking at her, he knew she understood. Dancing with her, or anyone for that matter, was something he just couldn’t do. Not anymore.
The winged woman licked her lips and frantically searched for a new topic. It pained him, seeing her scramble to cover her disappointment before he could see it, even if her efforts were in vain.
“Y-Your trident…could I just touch it? A little?” she faltered.
He thought it over, and subtly nodded, tilting it so it’d be within her reach.
“Just be gentle…” The Mherking whispered.
She eyed him with a confused expression but did as she was told. Up close she could see its reflections morphing on its surface, like glowing water in a cove. The moment she touched it, ripples erupted where her fingers were, spreading over the whole instrument and bouncing off the confines of its staff. That same moment, she thought she saw her companion twinge from the corner of her eye, but when she looked, he seemed the same, so she passed it off as her imagination. She did begin to hear something strange, however. A slow, deep thumping sound, that she only heard when the trident was close. When she glanced at the man for an explanation, he gave none, neither would he look back at her.
“Are…you done?” his voice was soft.
He took the trident from her and let it fall from his hands, and immediately it melted into a liquid state, falling with a splash into the lake.
“That’s not my name, you know.”
“Well, what is your real name?”
She winked, “You wouldn’t remember it anyway.”
He could never tell if her irksome intricacies vexed him or entertained him. It was so simultaneously both that it only distressed him further. However, before he could turn to her and return the banter, he saw the serious expression on her face.
The lines in her mouth and the way she bit her lip said she was nervous; and the contemplative expression she wore told him her thoughts far before she could open her mouth again. So he filled the space to ease her mind. But he nearly wanted to shove a spear through his foot, for what spilled from his mouth was entirely different from what he had actually wanted to say.
“It’s almost dawn.” He said.
“I know.” She replied.
“Your family probably misses you.”
“I’m not so sure…but thank you.”
A pause, then she asked, “Are you going to leave?”
He smiled, “You wouldn’t let me stay even if I wanted to…”
She smiled back. He was right on the mark on that one. Magpie hopped up, then offered her hand to him, “Come on, get up and let me say goodbye.”
He waved her hand away, doing his best not to let her see how much of a struggle it was for him to stand on his own. Just because he wasn’t what he once was didn’t mean he didn’t still have his dignity. Magpie didn’t seem to take the gesture personally, and he mentally cursed her for seeing through him so easily.
When the Faerie man had risen to his feet, he found himself swiftly yanked towards her from behind. She had enfolded her wings around him, drawing him near. He watched her in momentary confusion, but she gave him no clarification and did nothing to draw away. Instead she took another step and leaned her fingertips on his chest. He noticed she wouldn’t look him in the face, and for a second he reasoned that it could be the height difference. A foolish thought indeed. She leaned her forehead against his chest.
“I’m finally going home…” she breathed.
“How long have you been gone?”
She released a sour laugh, the kind he was far too familiar with, “I can’t even remember…”
It had been so obvious. How had he missed it? She was scared. His hands clenched at his sides as he realized he truly knew nothing about her. A spritely Etalpallian girl with big eyes and wings like the ocean; an impudent, cunning little thing with no manners and a big mouth. He never knew her name. He didn’t know her age. And the fact that she came from Etalpalli was the only history he had any evidence for. He could guess and theorize all he liked, but the truth was clear. All this time, and one could argue that he didn’t know her at all. The notion made something tighten inside him as he looked down at the Faerie clutching his tunic.
She breathed and turned to him then, and a sheepish and all-too-genuine smile crept shyly across her face, “I guess that’s another reason I’ve enjoyed my time with you. You’ve given me something to look forward to. You gave me a life again…”
“Magpie…” was all he could say.
He rose his hands then, but he was completely perplexed as to what he was supposed to do with them. Easily seeing his momentary lapse in charisma, his companion took his hands and placed them both on either side of her face. She held them there, though he was unsure if it was tenderness or to keep him from pulling away from her.
“Let me ask you something, Your Majesty.”
She didn’t wait for him to give her permission, “Tell me. Why did you keep coming here after you knew I was lying? And don’t give me that ‘King’s honor’ bit. A liar knows her own kind.”
Her eyes were earnest, so he inhaled to regain his nonchalance. He thought for a moment.
The man held her in eyelock, and his deep voice rumbled from his smile and through the small space between them, “Well, you were the one that said I’d be utterly miserable without you.”
She beamed like a child, hardly containing the hope and innocence that he had never seen in full bloom. Looking at her now, he could see it, easily. And he wondered how many times she had slaughtered herself from the inside to keep the world from doing it for her. How many times she sat in corners alone reasoning that she was unworthy of anyone’s attention. How many times she was simply passed over by those around her until she was convinced that not even the Hound himself would care to look at her, no matter how she begged for his attention. To the point that she had abandoned everything she knew and come to the shore of a forgotten lake as a last resort to see if even one person would pay attention to her, no matter how many lies she had to tell to get him to stay.
But the grin that she currently gave him, unfettered and free, was as contagious as it was beautiful. Had he paid attention, he would have felt a few stray warm drops of liquid leak from her eyes and trail down his hands. The joy spread so far across her features, filling her so fully that the pain squeezed out her eyelids from the lack of space. But he was far too wrapped up in her smile to notice.
She chirped, “All right, then, I’ll give you something before I go.”
Magpie’s wings clenched around him, tugging him into her. He released her face. She then stood on her tiptoes, using his shoulders as leverage, and brushed her feathered cheek against his jaw. Her hair and feathers fluttered against his face, and she pulled back before he could jerk his face away. She smiled that liar’s smile again, and said, “It’s the way Etalpallians say goodbye to friends and family.”
Then she bit her lip again, “So, next moon then? What about…after the Ball? Will I see you again?”
And he only continued to grin when she called him a liar.
The Mherking wasn’t a stupid man, nor was he a hermit. He knew the Etalpallian customs, including the one they used to say goodbye to friends and family. And he knew what her gesture meant to their culture. And she couldn’t have said it better. A liar knows his own kind.
But her secret was safe with him.
Every now and then, he’d wish he had her courage. The moment before she flew away, she gave him that smile again, full of compassion and light. The lake and the moon and the stars…none of them had ever looked so beautiful than that moment when he saw all of them in her eyes.
He would spend every waking moment that followed wishing, wanting that he could give a thousand immortal lifetimes to go back to that instant and yield to the fervor in his spirit. To sweep the sky’s avian windfall off her feet, hold her face, and kiss her until all the grief in the world sank into the sea.
Yet, far too often, the mind crushes the only desires it should heed.
The Mherking returned home to be greeted with a grave predicament. A number of his troops still suffered from their battle wounds, and all the healers in the realm couldn’t remove all the poison. So the court finally convinced him to send word to the Ashiun brothers and ask for aid. The injured were in a condition far too critical to move, so the only option left would be to allow the knights of Farthestshore into his demesne. But he would not allow them to heckle him into tolerating treatment himself. He was perfectly healed.
He was also, as Magpie had acknowledged long ago, a liar. His dizzy spells had grown worse and he could barely walk, even with the aid of his trident. His hearing continued to suffer and his eyesight dwindled quickly. By the time the knight of Farthestshore arrived, he wasn’t even sure who had come. He could only barely make out the green and white, and a voice that distinctly didn’t sound like either of the brothers. It did sound somewhat familiar, however, and the thought was not a pleasant one. Nevertheless, no matter how much the visitor spoke, the Mherking still couldn’t place whose voice it was. The only news that reached through his haze was that the brothers couldn’t be reached and this knight would be attending to the wounded in their stead.
And attend to the wounded was exactly what the knight did. The troops recovered in strides, while the Mherking’s condition deteriorated. The knight approached him personally a couple times, inquiring about his health. The Mherking immediately refused, and went about his business. It only made the restlessness worse now that that thing was prowling about his halls. He appreciated the concern, truly, but the knights of Farthestshore meddled far too often, and the nagging only worsened his condition.
He anxiously awaited the time he could leave and endure nagging far less grating on his ears for a while.
He had never waited for her before. When he arrived early on that eighth moon, it didn’t surprise him that he was alone. Of course, at first he wasn’t even sure, considering he could no longer trust his bleary eyes to tell the truth. When he saw, heard, and felt no movement, he concluded that he had just been early. It was very possible that she would have a difficult time coming back after returning home. But even so, he was certain she would come, regardless of her current situation. He would bet his life on it.
Waiting there on their boulder that night, watching what he could only discern to be a few clouds crossing over the moon, brought back many memories. Good memories, bad memories, recent memories, and ancient ones. He smiled, “Never thought that I would recover, did you, old friend?”
Hymlumé hung her head as the clouds veiled her face.
The Mherking honestly never thought he could tire of tranquil silence. But now it irked him. What could she be doing that would make her so late? If it didn’t hurt so much, he would have eased the tension through a series of impatient growls, pacing, and the incessant tapping of fingers and feet. What was more, the fact that he could do none of those things enraged him.
Soon his head began to throb, and his stomach churned uncomfortably. Easing himself into the water, he laid on his back and closed his eyes. That was when he heard it. Even through dulled ears, he heard it. A voice, broken, and inconsistent. He scanned the skies, not that it would have done any good. Unable to see clearly, he yelled her name to the heavens. Well, his name for her, anyway. He received no direct answer, but he continued to hear a faint voice.
That was when he realized the voice he heard came from the water. His eyes darted down to it in sudden comprehension. A message.
He closed his eyes instantly, and he let his hands settle on the water’s surface, allowing its waves and ripples to approach him. With every ounce of strength he could summon, he cleared his mind and tried to allow the lake’s message to reach his dulled ears.
Over and over, he listened. Words, when they did come, were choppy, infrequent, and unintelligible. For half the night, he convinced himself that it was his hearing and that he just wasn’t hearing it all. It was nearly dawn when he convinced himself of the truth.
And it was just like her. He had to laugh. So like her. He had specifically told her that any message had to be left in rhyme, and she’d mucked up the delivery. It would be nigh impossible to understand what she had said now, as water never carried it properly if it wasn’t in rhyme.
Still, despite the headaches, the dizzy spells, and the sickness, he stayed. For all three days, he stayed, laying on the boulder and staring at the sky in vain, waiting for a speck to appear among the clouds with the melodious sound of her voice.
By this point, the palace staff had grown accustomed to his unexplained disappearances every month. The man deserved some privacy, and he’d boil them all where they stood if they ever asked about it. The knight of Farthestshore, however, was another story.
No sooner had the Mherking entered his halls did the scolding blur of green and white start pestering him about his whereabouts. Three days away from the demesne had done nothing to aid his condition.
He could barely have been considered conscious when the healers started yapping at him about how his webs were dry and peeling and his scales were beginning to fall out. He let the healers do what they could, but he wouldn’t have been caught dead with that agonizingly familiar pest hovering around him with songs and lectures.
The Sea King knew he was far too hard on the knight, whoever it was that he couldn’t seem to remember, but it was far too late to yield.
Most his remaining soldiers were on the mend, and it looked about the time that the knight should leave, yet said knight lingered. He thought the knight would continue to loiter until all were sufficiently healed, or until the Mherking relented to treatment; then a messenger arrived at the palace.
The King figured it must have something to do with the Celestial Ball, which was scarcely more than a week away. The messenger had most likely come to ensure the king’s attendance. He had been awaiting this messenger. He had begrudgingly resolved to inform Queen Bebo that he would be unable to attend. It had been more the kingdom’s decision, really. They had taken it out of his hands and he could barely see or hear to stop them until they clearly and adamantly informed him that he wasn’t going to go.
So, at the messenger’s arrival, the king was not in a pleasant mood. He was sulking. He was sulking terribly. He refused to see the messenger when he arrived. He figured through his illness-stricken mind that the messenger would understand that he wasn’t going if he never allowed the messenger into the audience hall. Last thing Queen Bebo’s people needed to know was that he was ill.
He didn’t take kindly to going back on his word. And it didn’t help the matter when the knight of Farthestshore tried to reason with him. Exactly what the knight was saying, he had not a clue, but if the knight was trying to get him to go or, more likely, get him to endure treatment, the Mherking would not have it. When the knight had grown tired of trying to speak to the king who, in his delirium, ordered the knight away with a voice quite a bit more venomous than necessary, the knight gave up.
However, his hazy vision saw another colored blob rush over to talk to the green and white blob. The green and white blob, which he had deemed must have been the knight, dashed out of the palace. The knight must have forgotten to talk to the messenger about the knights of Farthestshore at the Ball, the Mherking reasoned; they would probably want a couple stationed there for political solicitation.
A few minutes had passed when he felt a presence enter his throne room unannounced and unauthorized. The messenger had returned. Without the knight. The messenger tried to deliver his message, but all the Mherking heard was a garbled mess. Infuriated at the turn of events and the fact that he could barely function under his failing senses, his voice boomed through the halls, telling the messenger to inform Bebo that he would not attend the Ball. After that, the messenger tried to talk some more. Frantically, even. And it only made the Mherking’s anger fester further. He ordered his guards to escort the messenger out of the palace, which they did, and he was finally able to relax in silence.
Until a couple days later when an incessant deafening ringing plagued his ears. The noise gave him a constant piercing headache, and his eyes throbbed any time he opened them.
The night of the Celestial Ball passed slowly. Or at least, he thought it was the night of the Ball, he couldn’t quite tell what day it was anymore. Whatever day it was, he spent it in his rooms alone, trying not to hear a woman’s ancient voice in his mind that he barely endured every year around this time. It appeared in his mind even over the sound of the ringing. He preferred to have his ears torn out with the poison than to hear that voice again. No matter how many years it had been, she kept coming back. And he drew the drapes and plunged his rooms into darkness, blocking the moonbeams that filtered in from the surface.
He dismissed all company, even his handmaid, from his room for days. Most of the time he laid on his bed, alone in his cavernous chambers and staring unseeing at the ceiling. He had to get it together. At the very least before the full moon. If she knew he was still ill, she would probably drag him to the Haven herself, and he might not have the strength to stop her.
He may have allowed them to keep him from the Celestial Ball, but he wouldn’t allow them to keep him inside on the night of the full moon. Even though they hadn’t verbally agreed on it, he couldn’t see why she would miss it. If there was nothing wrong with their meeting time, there should be no reason why she wouldn’t be there.
But she wasn’t. When he finally managed to arrive at the lake, coughing and wheezing at the effort it had taken, there was not a living thing to be seen. Not that he could actually see anything anyway, but it made no difference. He called to her until his throat was raw, then leaned on his trident as if it was the only thing keeping him standing. He only stood upright long enough to drag the trident’s head in a sweep across the water’s surface, an action that caused him to stumble at the loss of stability. The trident’s ripples spread to the boundaries of the shore on all sides and returned to him with no report of any life in which he’d take interest.
It took him almost an hour to make it to shore that night, by which time he was so sick he had no choice but to collapse to his knees before he made it to land and heave gushes of blood and water into his precious lake. The Mherking barely pulled himself off his trembling legs and to the boulder. He never made it to the top, for his strength failed him.
So he sat on the rock’s base, leaning his back on the boulder and his head on his trident. His fins flared and ears perked when he heard a voice on the tide, suddenly hoping perhaps she’d left another message. He listened hard, putting all the effort he had into hearing past the dreadful ringing. Eventually, he dipped his staff in the tide to sense the water’s vibrations.
The conclusion brought a sigh and sag of his shoulders. What he heard was the same failed message from last moon still drifting in the lake. This time, however, he kept the staff of his trident in the lakewater and focused as hard as he could. With his trident, perhaps he could piece together what her message had been. He poured all his strength into it, to no avail. He tried to summon the lake’s memory and even tried to threaten it, but the lake remembered nothing other than what it had already given him.
The Sea King finally sat back in exhaustion. He stared at the sky as long as he could, until his eyes grew heavy. For hours he shook his head to keep himself awake. He couldn’t fall asleep now. He had to wait for her. She had to come. He knew she would. He needed to hear her voice, however muffled, and see her smile, however blurry, and feel her touch, however painful.
He couldn’t allow himself to fall asleep. So he closed his eyes and played her goofy grin and joyful chitter over and over in his head. He knew he had to recover for the sake of his demesne, but his demesne would fare without him if it ever came to that. He would recover on his own, for her. He couldn’t bear to see her frown the next time he saw her. Couldn’t bear to see the worry in her eyes. This was only a passing illness. He would have to be very attentive if he wanted to be in better health when he saw her again. When he grew tired of trying to motivate himself, he decided to entertain his mind by trying to figure out what she could have been up to that night.
It was likely that she had gotten quite busy with her life back home. It made sense. That had to be it. Of course, that had been what the message was about. They probably threw a grand party when she came back home, complete with good food, mild scolding, and week-long celebrations. Any of the responsibilities she had before she left had probably gone neglected, and she would have to take weeks to tend to them all. Likely she was sitting impatiently somewhere while working, whining and grumbling about having to do so much.
The image made him smile, and he slowly drifted out of consciousness with her face in his mind and her voice in his failing ears.
It was morning when he opened his eyes again, only to see a familiar sight right in front of his vision. That little imp’s face was so beautiful, even when she looked like trouble.
It was her.
She was actually here.
She had come.
What the magpie said, he couldn’t catch, but her smile was just as vibrant as it had been two moons before. Her hands found his temples, and his headache melted in seconds. She wore the most beautiful flowing dress, light and fluttering, that gleamed and shimmered like stardust.
And all the pain seemed to flow out of him just looking at her.
She bowed her head over and over, an apologetic expression painted on her face. He figured by her mouth movements that she must be apologizing and talking far too much, as she always did. It eased his spirit. He wanted to ask her what had happened and how she was so late, then he wanted to tease her about it; but he knew he probably wouldn’t be able to hear her answer anyway. A detail that burned and frustrated him to no end, for he actually ached to hear her words. Even so, she looked happy to see him, and that was enough. A little too happy, in fact.
She hopped to her feet and made an elegant curtsy. Then she extended her hand to him. She said something then, and he knew she had probably just asked him to dance again. How he had yearned to hear those words from her once more. Seeing her now, the temptation to take her hand burned strong, and his hand made the first twitch, but he pulled away. Even if he had taken her hand, he would disappoint her in his condition, and she’d find his weakness instantly.
“Maybe someday,” he said to her, “try again next moon?”
Magpie shrugged and looked on him with a sheepish smile. What she said, he couldn’t hear, but he guessed from her body language that she couldn’t stay. Then she yanked him into a reckless embrace, her small limbs clamped around his back and burrowing her hands into his tunic. The Etalpallian nuzzled her face into his chest as if to emphasize her show of affection; then, without warning, she flew away before he could say anything about it.
The Mherking opened his eyes. It was still night, and he couldn’t have been asleep more than a couple hours. The headache returned with a vengeance, and his stomach roiled. She had never come, and it had simply been a dream. All a dream. A trick of the Wood. He shook it off and leaned back on the trident. Perhaps his attraction had gone too far.
He struggled to shift positions, then let his foot hang in the water, ordering the lake to wake him if anything should change. The lake would listen with no qualms, as an ill Mherking was very unpredictable indeed, far more so than usual, and far more terrifying. He drifted in and out constantly those three days, every time waking to the same landscape. He even resolved to stay a day extra, which left him in hardly a functional state.
At the end of the fourth day, he wondered if she had simply forgotten. Or if he simply was no longer worth the effort. Perhaps their little meetings would bore her now that she had her family back. She no longer needed him. Perhaps she had a strapping Etalpallian raptor awaiting her return, and she fell for his charm and striking plumage instantly. Perhaps they had married and she had forgotten all about the moonlight trysts with the pathetic Ocean King.
For some reason, his insides smoldered and the liquid-like prism of his trident boiled at the thought. Left completely irrational from the poison that gnawed on his system, he fumed with rage.
Of course. Why would she need him at all after she went home? All Sky People were the same. They only needed something until they found something better. The airheaded folk were so prone to distraction that it was a wonder she hadn’t left sooner. He couldn’t believe he never understood before. Why would he ever think she was different? That someone could tolerate his difficulties? That someone had truly understood him? She was just like them. Just like her.
With far less effort than one would expect, the Mherking returned to the sea, fueled by the sudden fury that coursed like the poison through his veins. And the lake shuddered in terror at his departure.
Every day that followed was a living nightmare for every living thing in the palace, from chambermaid to the Mherking himself. There was not a soul that he could not make as miserable as he was. The water that everyone used on a regular basis had grown tepid and murky with filth. Any water that came near the King himself became black as night; until it turned to tar.
The knight of Farthestshore returned to a dark fog looming around the palace. The knight tried asking the staff what had happened, but the staff wouldn’t answer.
When the knight burst into the audience chamber, the Mherking sat lounged on his throne, draped over his trident. The King looked positively ghastly. His eyes were clouded and unfocused, his skin was grey and lacked all luster, he had lost quite a few scales on his arms and neck, and a deranged smile was engraved on his face. His trident had turned completely black.
How did everything go so wrong so fast?
The King’s eyes widened the moment he noticed the knight’s presence. The Faerie ruler tilted his head, his wide eyes and mad grin easily giving him a quite unsettling presence. A snarky laugh came from his mouth and stopped halfway, further adding to his lunacy.
“Well if it isn’t the mighty knight of Farthestshore…” The Mherking’s voice was little more than that of a hissing serpent, and black mist curled from his mouth as he spoke. Then the Faerie King tilted his head further as his wide gaze focused on the knight directly, a sinister smile peeling across the Mherking’s mouth. And the voice that came from the broken king then was something that did not originate in any world the present fey had ever seen.
“…You’re too late.”
It was merely a moment before the chill that had rushed up the knight’s spine evaporated with a surge of rage. The knight strode unflinchingly forward. The King’s rabid grin vanished. Without a word, he left his throne and stormed out of the room. The knight ignored the guards’ warnings and sprinted after him. The knight caught up and seized the Mherking by the shoulder, shoving him against the wall.
“What happened?” the knight demanded.
The Mherking’s head lolled and his eyes rolled, “How was the Ball, oh knight of Farthestshore?” he rasped.
“The Celestial Ball…How did it go? Regrettably I was unable to attend, not that any of those land dwellers, let alone anyone else, actually missed me.” The Mherking chuckled.
The knight was completely flummoxed. Had the King gone completely mad? Had the poison overcome his ancient mind already?
The knight floundered for words to try to explain in a way the Mherking understood.
“Your Highness…there was no Celestial Ball…”
“Of course there was. It was a few weeks ago. That is what you left for, I presume.”
The knight couldn’t explain why this was becoming more and more difficult.
“Did you not hear the messenger? I sent him back in to give you his message after I heard it myself. I had to take my leave immediately in light of the news.”
“News? What news?”
It was easy to tell that the King had not heard the message at all. There was a trace of confusion in his crazed expression. The knight took a deep breath and grasped the King’s shoulders tightly.
“Your Highness…Queen Bebo canceled the Celestial Ball in light of Etalpalli’s destruction. That’s what the messenger had come to tell you. He came asking for your aid…”
Paralysis took the Ocean King.
For a time, all he did was lean on the wall as his mind tried to comprehend what it had just heard.
It wasn’t possible.
His next reaction was instant. His eyes cleared immediately, and the indestructible mask of the Great Mherking, King of All Oceans shattered. Fifteen colors of wordless horror swelled across his features. He stumbled backwards and sank against the wall. His open mouth moved often, but no sound emerged from his lips. His eyes filled with panic. The knight wondered if the King had even heard correctly, but before the knight could double-check, the Mherking was gone.
The Great King of the Oceans jabbed the currents on until they could take him no faster. He surged through realms and waters at blinding speed, until the current hurled him through the barrier of the lake with enough force to break a mortal’s neck. The sudden stop caused him to lurch and cough blood into his mouth while his eyes burned from the strain. The sky was overcast and the moon hid her face in the shrouds. The lake had grown bleak and bathed in shadows.
His lungs exploded with the sound of her name as soon as he broke the surface. He stumbled and floundered to regain his feet, all the while his eyes never stopped their movements.
They scanned everything.
Back and forth and back and forth, up, down, everywhere.
The waves grew rough and the world began swim around him. Around and around.
Around and around…
She had to be here.
He knew it. She was here. She had to be.
He turned and turned, jerking about to find her.
She had to be here…
He screamed her name until he thought his throat would dissolve to ashes.
By then, his voice had withered to a wheezing hiss.
With all his power he willed his blurry eyes to clear, an action that fuzzed his vision in and out in panic. A vicious throbbing rocked his system. He spun, around and around, his eyes wrenching to every perceivable inch they could see. He could barely breathe. His chest heaved and burned. Any moment he thought it might collapse.
And the silence killed him.
His lips started moving without even thinking, starting at a whisper.
The waves grew to great swells that broke dangerously in an escalating summoned storm. The Mherking’s great claws clenched to mighty fists, and his voice was like thunder over the waves.
He whirled around over and over, his great fists clashing like mountains against the monstrous tides.
His voice rang in emphasis with every pound of his fist through the swells.
“No! No! No!”
The waves crashed and boomed, only moments away from arousing the whole lake into a cyclone.
“Hymlumé’s Blood and Fury, No!”
His lungs heaved and choked. No air reached them, and he sputtered as if the world itself had decided to stifle the air in his throat.
Completely unable to function, he could just barely summon his trident, which felt faint and brittle in his hands. He knew it would shatter if he put any weight on it, so he dropped to his knees and let the surf crash over him. When the wrath he wrought upon the lake began to settle, he had only enough energy to drag himself ashore. The waves continued to pound him relentlessly in the aftermath, and he sunk to his elbows on the shoal as blood streamed from his mouth.
Hauling his practically useless body to the boulder was impossible. No matter how he tried, he could do nothing but crash back to his knees with a splash of sand and water. So he knelt like driftwood on the banks, convulsing while his lungs ached for air. His body was riddled with ceaseless tremors, and he had to swallow blood so he could breathe. When he finally regained some semblance of sanity, he reached out with quivering fingers until he touched the rolling water beneath him.
His trident materialized once again and found his hand, and he lifted it out of the water. The Mherking buried its staff crookedly in the sand, and it was impossible to tell who supported who. The trident’s pulse was weak and dim in its currently colorless depths. The man never looked at the instrument; he no longer had the strength to even lift his head, so it hung lifelessly from his neck.
To whom he apologized, it was unclear. But it sounded no different from a man who would apologize to an entire cosmos and never expect redemption.
“I’m sorry…” he repeated.
“I’m so sorry…”
His breathing accelerated again, fast and heavy, building in heartbreaking crescendo. He lifted his head to the sky and the earth trembled.
A tremendous crack erupted, and the earth shook from its sound. The Mherking’s once-magnificent trident splintered straight down the middle.
A deafening roar burst from his throat and into the sky, a piercing thunder that shattered the heavens and shook the earth from its roots. In it echoed something ancient; the rupturous squall of a colossal giant.
The roar rang through the Wood and the Mherking’s massive trident cleaved in half, from top to bottom. The Mherking grasped the instrument tightly, and it stayed in place, the two halves paired together but infusible. While the Faerie King’s shout bellowed through the skies, liquid dripped from the cracks in the trident. One could barely hear the voice of the man over the sound of the beast. And for the first time in millennia, the world knew the great cry of the Leviathan once more, whose howl alone could turn the land to ruin.
The trident’s trickle never quelled; instead, liquid cascaded from the trident’s cracks in a great flood. His hand shook on its handle, and the warm water that streamed forth shuddered at the movement. The river billowed from the trident even after the thunderous roar had died on his lips.
He doubled over, holding to his broken trident with both hands and leaning his forehead against it as if it were his lifeline. His breath was uneven and shallow, and the trident’s water flowed into the tide in which he knelt. The dying Mherking knelt on the banks all night, alone, save for his last companion: a fractured spear that could dissolve into sea foam with the slightest breeze.
Very few knew the lake as it was then. Anyone that knew it then could never come up with a reason for a change such as the one that occurred that night. And most would not care to think of it. As far as anyone would know from that point onward, things had always been this way. None in the days that followed would ever suspect; for according to all surviving written history, that secluded lake in the Wood had been filled with saltwater since its creation.
The Wood sounded troubled once again that night. The last few nights had been dark and foreboding, so the man had closed the shutters in expectation of rain. His expectations proved right on point when the pattering of the downpour reached his ears. He had been in the study, pouring over scrolls by candlelight. A lantern burned brightly by the window, casting light in the study and streaming through the cracks in the shutters, so those out in the storm would feel welcome by its light. Apparently he was supposed to be expecting a visitor and needed to stay behind, though he felt a bit useless doing nothing in the aftermath of such a crisis. The sorrow deep within him did not help the matter, and he was anxious for a distraction more potent than recording history, which held little comfort. His feelings found no solace in the fact that the task at which he’d stationed himself was the task of recording the actions of those that he felt required his aid the most whilst he loitered about the study.
But, if the man was to expect a visitor, then await a visitor’s arrival he shall. He had already readied what salves and supplies he could, just in case. He really hoped it wouldn’t come to that, and the visitor would simply need shelter, a nice meal, and perhaps some company, but chances of that these days were slim.
It wasn’t long before an uneven knock at the door signaled the visitor’s arrival. When the man opened the door, the visitor was draped lifelessly against the doorframe, fingers digging into the wood for support. And it was impossible to tell if the man was surprised at the visitor’s identity or not surprised at all. He looked the soaking visitor up and down gave a long exhale, “If I may, Your Majesty…You look terrible…”
It was the truth. The Mherking quite frankly looked like a corpse dredged up from a shipwreck somewhere long ago. Blood, dirt, and grime served as the Faerie King’s royal garments, and where one wound ended and another began was an unsolvable riddle. The only riddle more confounding than that was how the Mherking had managed to get to the man’s doorstep at all.
The Mherking’s eyes were glazed and pained, and he tried to muster enough venom to snarl at the man, but it sounded like a plea instead, “Do not call me that, Akilun…”
For the first time in which Akilun had seen him, the Mherking was unusually silent. One could usually feel his menacing presence during other silences, but this silence dragged like the tail of a beaten dog. The Faerie King barely had the strength to make it to a chair, let alone the bed. Akilun had to throw the King’s listless muscled limb over his shoulders and nearly drag him to the cot. Akilun could tell just by looking at him that the King wasn’t exactly thrilled to be there.
But he collapsed in the cot and allowed Akilun to examine his condition. The knight of Farthestshore never asked how the Mherking had fallen into such a grievous condition. Whether that was because Akilun was less invasive than his brother or if that other knight had sent word ahead of time, the Mherking was unsure.
Either way, it didn’t matter anymore.
He allowed the soft-spoken Ashiun to inspect all the evidence of his illness and clean him up accordingly. Akilun was rather perplexed that the obstinate Faerie had let him even look at his wounds, but the King’s mind was far away. Very far away indeed.
The Mherking wished she had just stayed a lying coward. At least she’d still be…
He swallowed painfully.
Thousands of scenarios danced about his skull. Had he only convinced her of this or that, had he simply invited the girl to stay at his demesne when he found out she probably didn’t have a place to go. Had he not gone to her on this moon or that moon, had he never agreed to her ridiculous wager. The wager that ended up getting her killed. Had he just done this, or said that, had he acted on his instincts and rescued his people from the goblins sooner, had he taken her back home with him like he should have, had he found her a place to stay somewhere, anywhere. Had he just said what he had wanted to say before she flew off for the last time…Anything to keep her from leaving…Anything…to keep her from going back to Etalpalli…
Maybe she’d still be…
Everything just seemed so agonizingly close. As if all he would have had to do was reach out and turn back time with his hands. Just a little. It was so close. Like it had just happened. Like he could touch it and change everything. Yet, when he reached out, an invisible wall, like the ocean surface that separated her world from his, greeted his fingers. A wall that could never crumble and could never be breached. And he could close his eyes and see her smiling on the other side of it, right there, just waiting for him to make what happened “unhappen”. However, no matter how he beat the wall, begged and pleaded, that barrier would never fall.
She turned and began to walk away, and he started banging on that wall.
She didn’t seem to hear him from the other side.
“Magpie, come back!”
No matter how many times he called, she never answered. She never even heard him, and just kept walking.
“Magpie, please!” his voice broke.
He kicked and banged and screamed, begging for her to return, but it was too late.
All he could do was stand there on the other side, pressed up against it, and watch as his mind imagined in stunning clarity a thousand ways she could have died. All he could do was stand and watch, over and over, crushing, burning, bleeding, tearing; and his mind concocted all the ways she could have screamed in anguish and repeated them, over and over and over, in his ears. So even when he stood before that wall in his mind and closed his eyes or turned his face so he wouldn’t have to watch all the ways his mind could kill her, he couldn’t stop hearing it.
Any ringing that had been left in his ears morphed into the constant sound of how he imagined she must have screamed.
And no matter how close it was, no matter how close she seemed, no matter how easy it should be to go back, he could do nothing. Nothing at all.
When he opened his eyes, he shivered in the night air. Everything ached. His eyesight seemed to be a bit better, though his ears still rung with a woman’s wails. Akilun was at his bedside when he awoke, a bowl of warm water and a cloth in hand. The knight had been cleaning the wound in his abdomen, which, after over four moons in the Far World, had grown grossly infected; past the archaic Faerie King’s currently failing healing capabilities.
The Mherking moaned, and Akilun lifted his eyes, “Feel any better?”
“Enough to want to give you a good blow to the face and run a spear through my head…” the King rasped.
Akilun allowed himself a small smile, “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Once again, the Mherking thought the man would ask him what happened, and once again he never did. So the Mherking inquired, “How long have I been unresponsive?”
Akilun took a moment to calculate, “Well, you’ve been sleeping for about three days now. I wasn’t sure if you’d pull through. But whatever ails you does not seem to be merely physical…your sleep was fraught with...”
“I know…no need to give me a full report.”
The Mherking thought Akilun might ask why he hadn’t come earlier, but the knight didn’t say a word about it.
“So…where’s that impulsive headstrong brother of yours? I would have thought he would have disturbed me long ago…”
Akilun looked as though he had suddenly been struck. He shook it off quickly with as much subtlety as he could muster, but not quickly enough to bypass the Mherking’s suspicion. Akilun’s eyes lowered, “My brother isn’t here right now…”
Hardly accustomed to other people not giving him information instead of the other way around, the Mherking raised his eyebrows but did not pry. Even a man of Farthestshore should be allowed privacy. But the Mherking felt Akilun’s expression of concealed anguish so deeply that he felt, when he looked at the far-too-gentle Ashiun, he stared into a looking glass. And the thought infuriated him.
When Akilun had finished cleaning and re-bandaging the wound, he rose from his seat.
“You should probably get some more rest. This might take a while longer.”
The sudden flash of images at the suggestion of sleep made the Faerie King cringe. The Mherking found himself mumbling under his breath while the knight of Farthestshore walked away from his bedside.
“Would that I could, but rest is what I fear.”
His fears weren’t unwarranted, not by any means. For every time he closed his eyes, the nightmares lurked in wait amongst the crevices of his mind. Yet, every now and then he would hear a vague voice. Something that sounded akin to a song, trying to pierce through the mental prison in which he suffered. As the days passed, the nightmares still came, but they grew shorter and quieter, and he heard that song more frequently. Whenever he would awaken, he could never remember any of it, but his eyes had cleared and his hearing had improved.
It was in these days that the Mherking’s atrabilious qualities returned at full capacity for the first time in millennia. The Mherking honestly couldn’t fathom how Akilun had been so patient with him, especially since he grew less agreeable with each passing day he was there. Surely the knight had much better things to do than babysit a cranky old sea monster all day. Yet the man never complained about being stuck with such unpleasant company, which made the Mherking feel better and worse at the same time.
When he was well enough, the Mherking convinced his keeper to let him visit the lake on the full moon, under the condition that Akilun remain within a reasonable distance.
The Mherking still had a great deal of trouble walking, and Akilun had lent him a sturdy walking stick. It would take a good deal of time for his trident to mend, and he dare not use it in its current condition. He carefully sat down on their boulder and hung his legs over the side. He said nothing. Not a word the entire time he was there.
He knew without a doubt that she would not come.
But he sat there nonetheless. Listening.
There it was. He heard it faintly on the waves. He closed his eyes. He breathed the air deeply and listened. The fact that he could never understand it didn’t bother him anymore. He sat on the edge of the rock like that for hours, just listening to the sound of her voice still lingering in the breaking of the waves. To him it was the most beautiful sound in the world.
The call came all too soon, but the Mherking did not turn around. He would enjoy this moment to its fullest.
“It’s time to go…”
“I know, Akilun…”
The Mherking delayed turning around as long as he could. When he did rise to his feet, heaving his weight onto the creaking wood of the walking stick, he saw the elder Ashiun holding his lantern up, waiting patiently for the Faerie King to join him.
Akilun had only watched him for only a few moments, seeing the invalid sitting down on a boulder that overhung the edge of the lake and staring out at its surface.
Neither man said a word on the way back, and neither felt the need.
It was a quiet return journey, and Akilun slowed his pace for his companion, though not enough to walk side by side. Akilun allowed the Faerie man to lag a bit. It was abundantly clear that the Mherking needed some time alone. The Mherking trailed behind the lantern-bearer, completely immersed in a world of his own making. This world, however, was far different from the chaotic darkness of the one in his dreams. This one was empty and numb. A silent place bathed in white mist. It was filled with nothing in particular, only a vague sense of melancholy.
All the Mherking’s energy and sorrow had drained from him over the last few days, until that vague, misty melancholy was all he felt. He had made a decision. By the lakeside would be the only time he would mentally allow himself to think of her. Otherwise, he didn’t know if he had the fortitude to go on without the burden of her death weighing on his mind. If he were honest, he feared his judgment would be impaired by her memory.
But the utter truth was he knew she couldn’t be forgotten.
Akilun did not make a single comment on the Mherking’s absent state, not even when they returned to the Haven. And the Mherking appreciated the man’s silent company far more than he’d probably ever admit. It was as if Akilun himself understood. What exactly it was that the man understood, Akilun never said a thing, but the sense of camaraderie ran thick as oil in water.
The first time Akilun spoke after that was bandaging the Mherking’s healing wounds that night, “It’s been quite a while. The poison wounds are looking well, and your healing abilities seem to be regenerating rapidly.”
The Mherking snorted halfheartedly, “It would have healed faster if you hadn’t stuffed that gruel down my maw. Then I wouldn’t have had to stay in this forsaken hovel for so long…”
At this, a ghost of a smile crept across Akilun’s face, “And if you had come any later, I’m not sure how much I could have done…”
The Faerie sniffed, “As if losing one life really matters that much anyway.”
Akilun sighed, “With all due respect, Your Majesty, I believe that every life is precious. No matter how many you have. After all—.”
“Akilun, please, if I hear one more nugget of ‘wisdom’ out of your mouth, I’m seriously considering just boiling your tongue,” the Mherking interrupted.
Akilun just sighed, then slightly smiled and shook his head.
The Mherking groaned, “Honestly, please tell me you do not spend all your days alone in this musty shack coming up with this tripe, Candle Bearer. I do not wish to have to pity you any more than necessary.”
The elder Ashiun barely gave a visible reaction, save another smile and a shake of the head at the Mherking’s nickname for him. That is, until he replied, “I honestly fail to see how different it is from you holing yourself up in your glorified cave for a few thousand years until politics drag you out kicking and screaming.”
Easily catching the Faerie knight’s subtle uncharacteristic smirk, the Mherking was almost ready to give up and throw his head in the boiler. How pathetic must he have become that even the gentle Akilun should have the courage to tease him? Whatever expression was on the Mherking’s face seemed to induce a mild, almost rueful laugh from his caretaker, then said caretaker took a pause before speaking again, “I for one, am glad you decided not to give one up.”
The Mherking’s eyes narrowed, his voice suddenly shifting, “I didn’t do it for me…”
Akilun allowed another heavy pause, “I know…”
Akilun gave no explanation, and the Mherking did not question him. How much or what else they talked about while the Mherking recovered, neither ever disclosed. And if the Mherking ever actually told Akilun about the reason he came, or if Akilun ever knew about her, the knight of Farthestshore never told a soul until the day he died.
“Lights Above Us, hurry up already!” the older handmaid scolded. Their king had just approved the hiring of additional hands not long ago, what with the flourishing demesne and multiplying workload about the palace, and the new handmaid was having a difficult time trying to adjust. The older handmaid scoffed. She had been in the King’s service since before she could remember, and she knew for a fact she was never this clumsy in her youth.
The young trainee skittered out of the room to catch up with her teacher, dropping bundles of folded linens in the process, earning an aged sigh from the latter. The old handmaid never looked any older than she had in many, many years, and her appearance was as youthful as it always was; but around the hopeless neophyte she trained, she couldn’t help but feel the age in her heart. Truly, the old maid thought she might cuff the girl if she was this sloppy in the King’s presence.
Oh, the life of a maid. To be handmaid to a king was an auspicious thing indeed. Especially so, in this case. To be handmaid to the Mherking was a position of honor and dignity. That wasn’t to say he was an especially exceptional king; quite the contrary, in fact. He had known more bloodshed, deception and violence than any great king should ever have to know. He had made countless mistakes, or so he claimed, that forever barred him from the title of a “Great King”. No, he may not have been a great king, but all that truly knew him would call him a good one.
Despite no one ever recalling his years, the Mherking was just as handsome as everyone had always remembered him. A solemn face, neither smiling nor frowning, was consistently etched across his features. There were times, however, when his staid countenance slipped, and something of an expression would creep across his visage. No one had ever asked him about it, of course, nor did they dare, for to awaken a storm from the calm sea was a reprehensible act indeed.
Even in his most expressive of times, the Mherking was a complete enigma. He, like most of the fey folk, never seemed to age, but a permanent furrow stayed between his eyebrows, and a faint line could be seen on his forehead. They were lines that a Faerie with his immense power could heal without a second thought, so there was no chance that they were unintentional. Why the Faerie King chose to keep these features, no one knew, but they never left his face. It gave his face a pensive hue, and the King’s quiet nature coupled with his expression always made it seem like he was in deep thought about something. Sometimes it was clear that he thought of whatever matter someone presented to him at that moment, other times his thoughts seemed somewhere very distant.
When he did speak, his voice emerged in a low rumble, like distant thunder after a storm. Many times it was serious, and almost gentle, at least in comparison to the Mherking that the old handmaid remembered from generations before.
Some of the younger staff would think the King in a sour mood when his voice would rise and he would make a critical or sarcastic remark. But the old handmaid knew better. She saw the tiny tug of his mouth, and she knew, and it brought relief to her heart every time he did so. The only times the King made snide, rude comments was when he was in good company or high spirits. The old handmaid would often scoff to herself when others would take offense to the King’s incivility. The witless simpletons couldn’t even tell when he was happy.
Sometimes he would talk to her. Long ago, it was not necessarily directed at her specifically, but he would speak into the distance in the confines of his chambers when she happened to be in the room. Lately, he would ask her how her day had been, and how her mother fared. Whenever she would ask her own questions, he would never answer, but she figured he would say something if ever he needed to do so.
The Mherking’s power had intensified significantly over the ages. Whether the growth had been mental, physical, or spiritual, it was difficult to say, but he no longer tried to check his own borders every night. He trusted his guards to do their jobs, and would sit alone in his chambers instead. And yet, the old handmaid wondered occasionally if it was not an issue of trust at all, but a matter for which he had no need of his guards, but simply employed them as an extra precaution. For it seemed that no matter what news anyone brought him, he was unsurprised, as if the water itself had brought him the message before the messengers even entered the palace.
However, once a month, he would disappear. Three days he would be gone, and no one knew where he went, for the Faerie Path he traveled was known only to him. The newer staff always tried to figure it out, but would soon give up when they could come to no conclusion. Anytime anyone would ask him where he was going as he left the palace, his answer would always simply be “Out”.
Those three days were sacred and mandatory. The ocean’s rage upon he who dare interrupt the Mherking from his sanctuary. Whatever happened to those that did was unknown, but the offenders would be unwilling or unable to speak of it afterwards.
“Three days,” the older handmaid instructed, “Three days a month he leaves with the final wax of the moon. His linens must be clean and put away, the chambers and the study must be spotless, the lightrocks must be polished, the past three days’ reports must be waiting on his desk, organized by date and category, a hot bath must be drawn, and a hearty meal must be prepared for the moment he returns. No questions, no excuses.”
The inexperienced little neophyte tried to open her mouth in inquiry, but the elder maid shushed her immediately, “Ah ah! No questions, no excuses.”
The Mherking would never say a thing upon his return. That’s how it always was. Every full moon the King of the Oceans disappeared and came back three days later without so much as a word. Eventually the palace staff just grew accustomed to it. It was no more than how the palace functioned on an ordinary basis.
And so it came to pass, the day arrived that a certain messenger knocked at the door. The messenger’s identity and proposition was something that surprised nearly everyone. Whether the King was surprised or not, no one could tell, but his answer surprised them far more than the question did.
When the messenger had left, the Mherking rose from his throne, leaning close to his old handmaid with a husky whisper, “I’m going out.”
“It’s early, Your Majesty…”
“I know…have a nice bath ready for me when I get back?” his order came in the form of a question.
“Of course, Your Majesty…”
And then he was gone.
A great, massive loch sat nestled in the nook it had carved for itself in between the mountains long ago. It was smaller once, before the rain and wear caused it to double in size and engrave itself into the valley. At the head of the massive loch was a bluff, the name of which Faerie cartographers had been arguing over for centuries. The bluff boasted an impressive promontory, a massive hunk of stone ensconced at its tip.
It was a welcome sight for friend and traveler alike, for the loch held no malice to those who came to visit. One such visitor, a face the loch recognized well, would come periodically, and used to sit upon that headland and dangle his legs over the edge. In more recent years, the visitor had adopted a slightly different routine.
He had arrived early this time, the loch noticed, for Lumé had yet to set below the mountains. The visitor entered through the Wood and walked out to the tip of the precipice, as he always did. Standing on that rock, he took a great, deep breath and began to skillfully descend the cliff face, down towards the coast. When he stepped out onto the beach, the gravel crunched and shifted beneath his feet. He strode easily into the loch’s waters; then, as he always did, he simply strolled down the beach for a while, allowing the waves to lap at his feet. He chose a small boulder amidst the place where the tide and shore converged, as he always did. And, as always, the first thing he did was speak a greeting.
He was answered only by the breaking of the waves on the shore, but it did not discourage him. Instead, he smiled. It was a sad smile, one reserved for when he felt at peace enough to allow the royal robes to drop.
“You would call me a liar if I told you the events of late…”
He shook his head in near disbelief, a more nostalgic smile replacing the sad one.
“The Prince of Farthestshore himself came to the palace today…to invite me to his wedding in person…”
He chuckled this time.
“He also suggested I start making preparations for a possible coronation of some sort. He even said it’d be nice if I trimmed my beard and attempted to be sociable, though I’m relatively certain that he may have been jesting…”
The Mherking ran a hand through his shortened seaswept hair.
“You would surely howl in laugher at me right now, wouldn’t you? Allowing thrushes to trifle with me so…”
Staring out at the loch then, he couldn’t help but smile. Memories of her beaming face and twittering voice danced about his mind, and he closed his eyes to take it all in. The days and nights they had passed on that lake in the throes of conversation; the times he would sit as she would talk the day away, the scrawny elbow that jabbed into his ribs when he made a snarky comment, the way both sun and moon shimmered through her hair and made her eyes simply irresistible. The few times they had spent in silence, with naught a worry in sight; when two people, so very different but far too alike, allowed themselves to bask in one another’s company. The noble king let his walls come down then, and did not stop the surge of romanticized visions from washing over him with all the brilliant detail that his spirit could muster.
Many who visited the loch claimed there to be some sort of fey magic upon it, or that the waters had been so old and full of memories that the water itself couldn’t help but overflow with them. It gave the loch a haunting aura to those who heard tales of it, but those who had experienced it only knew a chill of sorrow. The truth was that those eerie tales weren’t as far off as many would have liked to believe.
But the Mherking reveled in it. Occasionally, when he breathed deep enough, he could still catch a whiff of it. In those moments just when the tide rolled in, he could still smell the whisper of her scent still lingering in the water.
And if he focused just enough, something would echo in the crash of the waves on the rocks, and curl in the whisper of the breeze. The still small sound of a laugh or the fragments of a voice, faint but pure. Those broken parts of the last message she left so many ages ago…
All this time, the lake had kept those things close, through all the changes it withstood and every hardship it endured. Much of the mystery woman’s voice and scent had faded with the shifting of the sands, even as the lake had tried desperately to hold onto them. Its memory faded in and out, but it managed to cling to just enough to wait for the old Sea King to walk its shores every moon and listen, and hope he could hear all of it in the days he spent on its banks.
The Mherking had heard many things upon those shores, some of which he could sit and listen to over and over, and others that were too painful to receive. This particular evening, though, as Lumé bathed the loch in brilliant colors and Hymlumé emerged to welcome the night, he heard something he never expected. Something that brought back far more than he could anticipate at once.
“My favorite is the traditional Celestial Dance.”
It began with the whistling of the breeze against the cliffs, then the hush of the reeds on the eastern shore. The rumbling of the waves came next, until he heard exactly what they were creating.
“You know, the one supposedly modeled after Hymlumé’s legendary dance with Lumé, to the tune of the Song of Spheres?”
…She moved with a soul of freedom the likes of which he’d seen only thrice in millennia.
“To me, that dance is like a promise. An oath of commitment and compassion.”
…She never once opened her eyes, and a joyous smile was etched across her face. Adroit and lithe, she swayed to a mute rhythm.
“Beyond the Final Water falling…”
“I can just imagine Lumé extending his hand to her, ready to take all her sorrows upon himself in exchange for her smile.”
“The Song of Spheres recalling…”
…Surely she must have heard something he did not.
“When all that fails is set before your eyes…”
He heard it…
“Won’t you return to me?”
The song that she had danced to all those years ago…
It had been the real thing.
The song he heard then was no cheap fabrication with halls and instruments. This was the real thing. The song that had brought the celestial giants to their knees, the song that split the heavens, the very song that he had sent, at Farthestshore’s behest, across the oceans to whomever needed its sound.
All this time, it had been the real thing.
And he wept.
The Mherking thought of many things when he was at the loch every moon. He had thought about nearly everything one could possibly think to ponder. And he believed his thoughts had finally reached a possible conclusion.
“You were lying to me right up until the end, weren’t you?”
He looked out over the loch, and a sad chuckle left his lips, “You kept saying near the end that you were the one that needed me, that I was the one who gave you your life back…but…”
“You’d be utterly miserable without me.”
“All along, you were right the first time. It was the other way around…”
The loch had grown dark and Hymlumé had asserted her possession of the night sky. Her children emerged from the darkness, twinkling in the deep abyss.
This time, the Mherking looked up to face the moon again.
“I know we have had our share of troubles, but you will take care of her on the other side of that Water, won’t you, old friend? Just as I have seen to yours…See that she doesn’t cause any trouble?”
Satisfied with the moon’s answer, he believed himself finally ready. The time had come. He turned to face the loch and said, “I can walk without my trident now, Magpie.”
Then he bowed with more resolution and nobility than even the folks of Rudiobus had seen in their grand and magnificent halls, even if it was a little stiff. In a slow and intentional moment, he extended his hand towards the water.
“So, My Lady, would you do me the honor?”
The elder maid had carefully instructed her apprentice of all the things she had to do before the Mherking’s return. The trainee was slow and far too careless, but they had managed to get everything done and slip out of the bedchamber just as the King approached it. The old handmaid didn’t even have a chance to educate the novice on proper conduct towards the King upon his returns to the palace, but she hoped she had been clear enough that the girl wouldn’t do anything rash. She hoped too much.
The girl had an exhausted but cheery smile on her face as she bounded far too casually up to the King.
“Welcome back, Your Majesty! So, where did you go?”
The old handmaid wanted nothing more than to throw herself in a boiling kettle and send herself away to the Near World as an enchanted stew.
One never asked the Mherking where he goes during those three days. Never. She was about to snag the little whelp by the frills and drag her away to give her a long and unpleasant lecture on conduct when the Mherking did something that the old handmaid would never forget.
He shook his head towards his old handmaid, “No need to worry…”
A gentle, wistful smile crossed his face and a weight lifted from his shoulders. His golden eyes gleamed, and he looked from the young maid to his old one.
“I went dancing...”
This time, the subtle smile shifted to a rare but modest grin, “Can’t show up to the Prince’s wedding rusty, now can I?”
The Mherking then squeezed around his handmaids, one joyful and the other completely dumbfounded. As he passed his flabbergasted maid, he rested his hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Thank you for bearing with me all these years.”
Then he was gone, leaving a currently empty-headed and eternally thunderstruck old handmaiden in his wake.
Somewhere, deep in the Wood, there lay a great loch nested in the mountains. If one just so happened to find it, one could sit on its shores and enjoy a peaceful moment away from the worries of the world. And if one paid just enough attention, and listened with one’s whole heart, one could still hear a whisper of a woman’s voice on the waves from a time long ago. A time when the world was young and the seas were wild and violent. A time long past, when a single meeting of two very different worlds shaped the very fabric of the oceans. It was an impossible meeting from the very beginning, doomed by their very nature to be as different as the sun and moon, always so close, but too far away. But the Wood was an impossible place, where the wind and the sea laughed at their skeptics. And in one instant, in a clash of fins and feathers, an untold story wove itself into the fabric of time. Moments whose historian wasn’t an artful scribe or melodious bard, but a forgetful lake that could barely remember more than a few unintelligible sounds spoken by a nameless woman in her last words to a hopeless man. A nameless woman whose influence would never be captured in statues or tapestries. A compassion that had no evidence to speak of, unless someone already knew where to look.
Rumor had it if one visits that loch on a night when the full moon shines over the water, one may be able to see a figure sitting on a boulder at the foot of a bluff, gaze turned to the sky, listening to a voice and a song. At least, that’s what the whisper in the River might say. But to believe the voice of a River would be a foolish thing indeed. So it might be that that place will remain a secret lying deep within the hinterlands of Goldstone Wood, where the two may have danced in dreams alone, every moon when Hymlumé’s face was full. That place where the Sea meets the Sky and all the storms go silent.
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