She was in her twelfth year but had already grown past his shoulders. Her slender limbs concealed a wiry strength that allowed her to scale rocky slopes with ease. She kept her brown hair tightly braided so leaves and twigs would not poke through and hemmed her skirt so it fell to her knees instead of her ankles.
Arriving at the gorge, she flopped down on the smooth cliff top and stared at the glittering objects below. That year, the spring rains had whipped the river into a white frenzy of foam and debris. The water had risen so high that it dislodged a boulder from the bank. In the space where the boulder had rested lay several pieces of untarnished plate armor. There were no bones. No skull inhabited the dented helm, no fingers tapped against the gauntletsat least, none that she could see from her perch forty feet up. The river air was damp and cold. Perhaps it had moldered the bones like old wood.
More than a month had passed since she first spied the armor. Every week she had raced back, sure that the river had swept it all away. But it never budged. It never changed. It was her secret. No one came to this lonely place, and if they did they would not know where to look.
She lay on the cliff top until the river’s dampness started leaching into her bones, then she inched cautiously back from the edge, snatched up her foraging basket, and began her trek back home.
No clear path stretched between her father’s cottage and the cliff top, and the trails that snaked through the trees, forged by animals or her father’s own booted feet as he set traps, disappeared after a hard rain. Some things, however, did not wash away. She passed a fallen oak, half-eaten by ants, and scrambled up the side of a rocky mound. From the top, she could almost see over the trees to the gorge.
As she paused, scenting moss and cedar, the cool, river-touched air, she thought she heard a muffled cry. She held her breath and went completely still.
There it was again, more a whimper than a cry, and so faint it might have been mistaken for wind whistling through cracked rock. Prickles danced down her back and arms. Should she fetch her father?
No. She was too close to the gorge. If he discovered she went there, he might prevent her from going back. Better to investigate it herself. Thrusting her basket into the crook of her arm, she picked her way down the north side of the mound toward a place she called the Devil’s Playground. His toys lay in an untidy heap at the bottom: boulders the size of oxcarts. Some were stacked atop one another, while others leaned against a steep rise in the land, creating a line of tiny caves where animals nested and burrowed. The earth between the boulders was hard and bare, but every corner and crevice leached green, as if someone had painted it that way.
The crying paused again. Merisande drew breath to shout then released it in a hiss of expelled air. Whoever it was must have heard her climb down. If they wanted help they would have approached her. Instead they had kept quiet and hidden, like some small animal in a thicket.
She rubbed her damp palms on her jacket. There was really only one place to shelter, one space large enough to fit a human body. She had crouched there herself once while waiting out a storm. She stole toward it on tiptoe, her breath tight in her throat.
The cave was made up of two massive boulders, which leaned against one another to form a
V shape. The open part faced the rise. Layers of moss and vine closed over the top like a thatched roof. In a few steps she came to a small gap between the boulder and the rise. Stooping down, she peered inside.
A startled shout burst from the darkness, making her flinch back from the hole. After a few breaths, she leaned in and risked another glance.
A childprobably a boy, given the length of his tunicblinked at her in the dim light. He had wedged himself into a corner so that much of his body was in shadow. What she could see shocked her. He was alarmingly slender. Not like the hungry children she had spied near the city docks, whose knees and shoulders bulged like knotty wood, but it was as if the bones themselves were thinner. His hair was a pale spray around his head, like dandelion gone to seed. Scratches scored his dark hose, and as she inched sideways to let in more light, she spied a glitter of blood. She cleared her throat.
What happened to you?
His mouth dropped open.
You can speak.
You can speak. The statement was so senseless that she decided to ignore it.
Are you lost?
Lost. He seemed to taste the word.
She set down her basket.
I’m not lost. He wiped his face with a shirtsleeve and straightened his hunched back. Something pale shifted behind him as he dida knapsack, she guessed. Or a bunched blanket.
I know where I am, but I can’t get back home.
How old are you?
Eleven. Was he lying? Ten would have been a stretch.
And how old are you?
Twelve. My birthday was last month.
His face fell.
Mine was three days ago. I got a horse. But she’s gone now.
I lost her.
I see. That’s too bad. She leaned in farther, squinting through the darkness. He might be from the continent, she thought, but then how had he come so far north? He could not have been shipwrecked. The isle was surrounded by steep cliffs. Ships came in through an opening in the isle’s southernmost tip. From there they traveled up the inlet to the sea port, which was still a good forty miles south of where she stood now. His cracked boots caught her eye. He had certainly walked a distance from somewhere.
I live across the river, he said, as if he had been listening to her thoughts.
But I can’t go back, not without stories to tell the trees.
Mer resisted rolling her eyes.
No one lives on the east side of the river, she informed him.
And trees don’t need stories.
Then how did you cross the gorge? There’s no bridge, and no one comes here.
Ah. Her mouth twitched, but she managed not to smile. She caught the dark tail of her braid and twisted it around her finger. Mad. He was very clearly mad.
What’s your name? he asked.
Merisande. Or just Mer.
Gandel, she mused.
The boy that flew.
You don’t believe me.
I think She paused, sighting movement in the shadows. Suddenly she jerked back, almost overturning her basket.
There’s something behind you. Some sort of creature.
The boy snickered.
There’s nothing behind me but me.
Mer squinted into the hazy darkness. The pale object behind him stretched out until it filled the space and could move no farther. It was still a moment, and then it started shaking, churning up dust, and disturbing the tiny plants that grew out of cracks in the floor.
Mer stumbled back in fright.
Wait! It’s only me. There was a scraping sound, then the toe of Gandel’s boot appeared in the gap.
Are you still there?
Gathering up courage, Mer edged back to the hole and peered in. Light fell on the boy and the creature. Mer, unable to look away, felt a jolting change in perspective as the two things she had taken to be separate merged into one.
The boy was the creature.
You have wings, she whispered. Now that he was closer, she could see them clearly. A bulge of muscle flexed behind his shoulder as he retracted a pinion. His feathers were as dirty as old rags; just looking at them made her want to recoil, though she could not have said why.
Gandel folded his wings back behind him; he glanced up as he did, seeming to gauge her reaction.
I’m not afraid, she informed him stiffly, and wondered if that were true.
Have you never seen a fae? That’s what I am.
Never. There were stories, of course. Sailors claimed to have seen winged men on the eastern shoreline, moving like ghosts in the mist. But sailors saw all kinds of things.
She cleared her throat.
So. You really live in the wood across the river?
In a land beyond the wood.
Then why did you come here?
It was an accident.
She raised a brow, and he went on, leaning tiredly into a hollow in the rock.
It happened yesterday evening. I was riding my horse near the tree line when a snakeor somethingspooked her, and she bolted into the trees.
Into the trees that need stories?
He frowned and licked his parched-looking lips.
No. In my land there’s an outer forest and an inner one. The outer one is safe, but the inner one is cursed; its trees are big and ugly, and it has no animals. He glared at her, as if waiting for another interruption. Mer gestured for him to go on.
Anyway. I tried to rein her in, but a branch knocked me off her onto the ground. When I got up, I thought I saw her grazing beside a far-off tree. I should have turned back then. It was getting dark, and my head hurt. But I couldn’t let her go. I followed her for what seemed like miles. When she finally slowed long enough for me to get close, I saw that she wasn’t a horse at all, but a huge white doe. A peculiar expression crossed his face, as if he had swallowed a bad mushroom. Mer fingered her chin. How could someone mistake a doe for a horse?
I stumbled on in the dark, and before I knew it, I was in the inner wood.
How did you know, if it was dark?
Because I heard the wood wind.
The wood wind. Some call it the wood’s breath. But it doesn’t sound like trees. If anything, it sounds animal.
Mer regarded him with slightly parted lips.
What happened then?
I ran. It was a stupid thing to do, but it was dark and I couldn’t think of any stories.
Why do the trees need stories?
Who knows? Anyway, they aren’t really trees. Trees don’t open their roots like mouths and try to pull you down.
Down where? she asked hollowly.
There was a meaningful silence. Mer inched farther into the cave.
I spent the rest of the night running and tripping, telling every scrap of a tale I know.
Why didn’t you fly?
He exhaled sharply.
The fae can’t fly very high or very far. And it would have been foolish to try it in a forest. His wings twitched a little as he spoke, as if the idea rattled him. Mer tried not to look at them.
When morning came, the trees thinned to brush, and I heard a sound like rushing water. I couldn’t go back. So I flew over the river. And that’s how I came here. He closed his eyes, and his head rested on his bent knees.
After a moment’s hesitation, Mer snatched up her basket and set it into his surprised hands.
You look thirsty too. I can bring water.
You believe me?
She shrugged a little, avoiding his eyes.
I’ve heard tales about the eastern wood. The harbor folk don’t anchor on that side of the river. They say it’s cursed. When did you last eat?
Before Ithat is, yesterday afternoon. He gestured weakly with a finger.
I found a stream over the ridge. There were fish, but I didn’t know how to catch them.
She rubbed a mushroom on her apron and held it out.
Eat this, she commanded.
What I need is stories.
Eat while I think of some. She bit her lip, watching him chew mechanically. A wisp of hair the color of moonlight slid down his face. Hair.
I remember one.
She waved to the basket, and he dug in.
A long time ago in a country far away, she began, trying to recall the exact wording,
a rich lord was granted a portion of land worked by poor farmers. The lord moved himself and his men into a castle he had built. He loved fine, luxurious things, so he took those things from the farmers: their richest wine, their finest cheese. Then he noticed their women’s hair and wanted that too. So he ordered his men to cut it. The women mourned the loss of their hair, for it was the one beautiful thing they owned. The lord used it in the mortar for his walls and ordered tapestries to be made from it, and great carpets.One day, a soldier who had turned to farming forbade the lord’s men from taking his daughter’s hair. Amused, the lord asked to be taken to the man’s cottage.
The farmer came out with his sword ready in his hands. ‘I will not let you have her,’ were his last words before an arrow caught him in the chest.As he fell down dead, his daughter ran out of the cottage and threw herself over his body. She looked up at the lord with hatred, but the lord didn’t see her face, only her flaxen hair. He ordered his men to bind her and bring her to his castle at once.
They took her to a room on the top floor. A single window shed light over the threads of a tapestry hanging on the wall. The girl trailed her fingers down it, marveling at the red hairs woven through. The lord’s men entered.She turned to them and said, ‘I swear if you touch even one of my hairs, that hair will turn to flame, and it will burn everything it touches.’
They laughed at her, but one frowned and went to tell his lord what she had said. ‘Do you think it’s possible?’ he asked.‘Of course not,’ the lord answered with amusement. ‘The child has unmanned you.’
Later that evening in his own chamber, the lord ran his hands over the freshly shorn hair and dreamed of a blanket made of starlight.‘Make me starlight,’ he commanded his weavers, offering them the maiden’s hair. ‘Something bright and glittering.’
When the blanket was finished, the lord laid it out on his bed. He slept among the stars that night, but when dawn came, and the first golden tendrils of light fell on the blanket, it burst into flame, and in a short time the entire castle was engulfed.The farmers and their families watched the blaze. The flames seemed to dance in cords, following the morning breeze.
Mer chewed her lip. She glanced sideways at Gandel.
I told it badly, she confessed.
You told it well. But I’ll need more than just one. He poked at a mushroom.
These grow in the wood.
Yes, she sighed,
but some are poisonous. You must learn the difference between them.
I wasn’t taught.
You never learned to forage?
Starving people forage. I’ve always had enough to eat.
Mer let the rude comment pass. She wondered, as her eyes lingered on the round moons of his fingernails, if he might not have an excuse for such ignorance.
Are you of the gentry? she asked.
Gentry? I’m not sure what that means. They call me prince in my land.
Mer did her best to hide her surprise.
If you’re a prince, then you must have been missed. Your family would have sent a tracker.
He considered that a moment then shook his head.
Maybe, but he wouldn’t know where to look. I went off on my own.
She hid a smile behind her hand. He obviously knew nothing about tracking, but then why would he? Princes hired men to do that.
What’s your country called?
Thorsault, he replied smoothly, though the word sounded strange to her ears,
is the name of the castle and town, and there’s a village beyond… His face soured then, and he peered into the basket, as if he had found something interesting there.
Tell me about your land. I haven’t seen anyone but you.
That’s because everyone lives south of here. She paused, glancing at the sun.
I can’t stay much longer.
A mushroom rolled out of his hand onto the floor.
But I must have
Stories, she finished, nodding.
I know, but I can’t give you them now. Tomorrow.
His mouth opened; a sound hovered there. Mer waited for it, half-smiling.
At last he seemed to master himself.
You’ll return tomorrow?
I said so. She dumped the remaining mushrooms into his lap and rearranged the cloth.
At first light. She rose, bending to avoid the low rock.
Tomorrow, she promised again, glancing once more into the cave. His pale eyes watched her in the darkness; they did not look hopeful.
Mer barely remembered her trek back home. Her heart was full of the land across the gorge. She imagined the castle and the town, the sounds of wings filling the air like a sweet wind.
Her basket was brimming again when she opened the front door. Her father took it wordlessly from her. Rives was a lanky man with dusty blond hair and eyes the color of a fall sky. His wife, from whom Mer had inherited her dark eyes and hair, had died giving birth a decade before. The child who survived was Mer’s halfwit brother, Jan.
I fell asleep, she lied, sliding past him.
The three of them ate in silence that evening. Her father speared a mushroom and held it up to the light, as if he could read the truth on its shriveled rind. Mer waited until he had taken Jan to bed, then she scraped some leavings into a napkin and tucked it into her skirts.
She lay awake a long time, listening to Jan snore in his bed across the room. Nothing at home had changed while she had been with Gandel, and yet it seemed as if everything had. The river, the harbor, the ragged forest, the isle itself was stretching to contain the borders of an entire kingdom filled with fae.
And no one knew.
She sat up and crossed her arms over her knees.
No one knows, she whispered to the darkness. Somehow the secret was not as gratifying as the one at the bottom of the gorge. It felt…almost as if she had stolen something. But who would believe her? She could hardly believe it herself.
At last she rose, unable to wait for dawn. She lit a candle and snatched an old leather sack from a peg on the wall, heavy with her grandmother’s handwritten stories, which she had scavenged from the back of her desk drawer. Lantern swinging in hand, she padded down the hallway to the front door. She carried her boots and jacket outside so she would not wake Rives putting them on.
A soft rain was falling. Mer found the trail with ease. Following it was not so easy. The lantern, swaying back and forth as she moved over the uneven ground, almost went out several times. The path seemed narrower in the dark, the trees wider and more encroaching. The rain eased to a light mist that did not let up until she reached the mound.
It was now dawn. From the top of the mound, the hunched, pale boulders of the Devil’s Playground stood like an army of sleeping giants taking shelter from the rain. Gandel leaned sleepily against one. He must have heard her coming.
You look better, she commented, noting the warmth in his cheeks. His legs were clean but swollen; he had torn off half his hose in an attempt to cleanse the wounds. She tilted her head at his wings, as if seeing them for the first time. Washed, they appeared fuller, brighter. Stronger. A low-backed tunic allowed them to drape freely. And they did, almost to his knees.
I went to the stream again, he explained.
Mer wiped rain from her eyes, unslung the sack, and drew the strings for him.
Scrolls. The word spluttered out at the end of a yawn.
Can you read them?
His slender fingers darted in and drew one out. The painted sheets were bound on two sides by ribbons. Their once-vibrant color had faded with age and humidity. She helped him untie them and unroll the paper. The script was small and uniform.
He held her lamp over the words.
The spelling is different, but I can still make it out. He peered at it more closely.
‘The Story of the Three Blind Princesses.’
Mer grinned tiredly.
My grandmother collected these. She wrote them in her own hand. There are at least ten in that bundle. She glanced up at his scrunched up eyes.
Will it be enough?
It will. Once I’ve read and memorized them.
You can keep them.
No. I’ll leave them in the cave when I’m done.
Mer remembered the food and unbuttoned a pocket in her dress. Some of the juices had leaked through the cloth. She would have to launder her clothes as soon as she returned home.
She set the leavings into his hand.
This was all I could sneak out.
He opened the napkin a crack and set it on a nearby rock. Their eyes met again; his seemed uncertain, balancing one thing against another. At last, he reached behind his neck and untied a string that had been concealed under his clothing. Hanging on it were two stones shaped like wheels. As he pulled them apart, they emitted a sharp burst of light.
Don’t be scared, he said as she gasped in surprise.
What are they?
He slipped one off the string and gave it to her.
They come from a place deep in the earth, from a land that was lost to us.
They came out of the earth looking that way?
His brows puckered.
I don’t know. Maybe. He retied the string around his neck. The single stone that hung from it seemed to blend into his skin.
It responds to my name. If you’re ever in danger, just say itmy name, into the stoneand I’ll come to you, wherever you are.
Mer tipped the stone into the light. It seemed improbable that a stone could respond to a name, that it could summon someone from a distance…
Thank you, she managed.
This is more than my help was worth.
He shrugged and added nonchalantly,
You may never need me.
True. But I do hope we’ll meet again.
His smile slackened.
I sincerely hope we do not.
They eyed each other wordlessly. Mer opened her hand; for a moment she considered returning the stone, even throwing it at him. Her face warmed and cooled again.
She closed her fingers.
Then I hope for your sake that I’m never in danger. Farewell, Princeling.
He bowed deeply.
She turned before he could straighten, snatched up her lamp, and staggered forward on tired legs. She did not look back, even as she reached the top of the mound and stood facing the carpet of trees. All that wonder lay behind her, secreted away over a gorge that no one crossed and beyond a wood that was not.
Walk, she commanded herself sternly, and took a slow step into daylight.