‘Fairest of All’, Ada Hoffmann

Illustrations © 2019 Rachel Linn

 [ Buttons, © 2019 Rachel Linn ] There was once a child whose father tried to burn him in an oven.

“He will not speak,” the father explained, over the mother’s weak and sleepy protests. “Two winters and two summers old, and still he will not speak a word, only stares. That’s faerie business, right enough. There’s only one cure for it. Burn the faerie child. It will leap up the chimney and escape, and the one that you bore will come back to you.”

The child screamed in the flames, and his mother wept, until even the frustrated father knew his true child was not coming back, and reluctantly pulled the false one back out, burned and gasping, but alive.

In the next village over, there was a child whose mother tried to drown her in the river. She would not stop crying, that child; she would not look her mother in the eye. She looked, mostly, at buttons, rolling them round and round in her hands. Faerie business, said the mother, and so it went.

The boy grew older, and his father beat him. He had learned to speak, set the table, chop firewood, but it did not help. He stared into space while chopping. He repeated the other boys’ words. He had taught himself to read in the family’s one threadbare book, which his brothers could not do, but as often as not, he could not remember his simple instructions.

“You think you’re so clever,” said the father, “just because you’re a faerie? I’ll show you clever.”

The girl grew older, and she ran away from home. It was not her home anyway; she was not a human. Her mother told her to stop crying at the sound of iron scissors at the whetknife; or else run back where she came from. So she ran.

She did not know where she was supposed to have come from. She ran until her feet gave out, and she fell next to a thornbush. Before long, she noticed an eye, not quite human, watching her from the tangle. An arm, green and knotted with thorns, reached out. A faerie man.

“Love and obey me,” said the faerie man, “forever and ever, and I will make sure you are never hurt again.”

The boy grew older, and his parents left him in the forest, instructing him never to come back. The boy had learned to speak, but not to disobey rules. He sat and stared into the leaves, and the night came and went, and the morning crawled along. He stared until a beautiful woman, made of rolled and twisted leaves, reached out to him.

“Tell me I am the fairest of all,” said the faerie woman, “and I will keep you safe.”

Time passed.

The girl became a woman.

The boy became a man.

The man made of thorns took the girl, Siofra, to his tower of thorns. He told her to love him, and she did. He had no name, so he told her to call him her King, the fairest of all, and she did.

Siofra loved him. Even when he locked her alone in his thorn-tower for days at a time. Even when he cut open her skin to write his name on her bones. He told her to obey, and she did.

He forgot to tell her not to question.

The thorn-King lived in a high forest more of clouds than trees: clouds that were thick and could be walked across, if you were a sure-footed faerie. Siofra often looked out of the tower’s window at the cloud-animals, pale blue otters and goats and porpoises, running and playing amid the soft white hills.

“Why must I stay alone in the tower so often?” she asked the King.

“My dear,” said the King, “I do love you, but the burden of caring for you weighs heavily upon me. You cry so often, and you never stop speaking, and you are constantly rolling stones and buttons between your hands. You are lucky to have a carer as understanding as I, and even I must have respite. Time to cavort and lie with others, so that I am not entirely drained by your presence, and can protect you as I wish.”

“That sounds very interesting,” said Siofra. “I am glad that you have something interesting to do. May I also cavort with others? Perhaps they could help care for me, and then your burden would not be so great, and I would not have to stay in the tower alone.”

“Oh, no, my dear,” said the King. “Going outside the palace is too dangerous for you. You would fall through the clouds and break on the faraway ground. If a creature of Faerie besides myself even touched you, as delicate as you are, you would instantly die. Stay in the palace.”

“All right,” said Siofra.

Another time, she asked, “Why must you cut open my skin and write your name on my bones, when it makes me cry with pain and leaves such marks?”

“It is a spell,” said the King. “If I do this every month, it will create a shield around you to repel the touch of other creatures. It would save you, should anything terrible ever come into the palace and seek you.”

“All right,” said Siofra.

The King was good, she told herself. He was patient. He put up with her questions. He gave her pleasure at night. And he did such difficult, painful work to protect her, even though she cried. He told her to love and obey, and she did.

The man, Mahon, also lived in Faerie now, with the green and curling leaf-woman whom he called his Queen. They had a cottage high in the greenery of a forest thicker and wilder than that of Mahon’s childhood. Every day he descended five hundred steps down a spiraling bark ladder, as faerie jaguars and monkeys watched and insects sang. He walked the steps carefully, for there was no railing, and it took both hands to carry the heavy clay jug with which he drew water from the river every day. Once, he had found human bones half-buried in the dirt below the cottage-tree: another man, or a woman perhaps, who had pitched off the side of the tree.

Poisonous spines, thin as thistledown, lined the palms of the Queen’s hands. When Mahon was very, very good—when he followed every rule exactly, and smiled, and pretended that there were no insect bites or blisters on the soles of his feet—she did not rake the spines down his burn scars at night.

“You are nothing,” she murmured, on those good nights, touching his cheek with the back of her hand. “A mortal castoff, worthless to them and to Faerie. But I think I will keep you. What am I to you, insect?”

“The fairest of all,” said Mahon. That was the rule.

He had learned the everyday rules: the morning trek to the river, how to clean the bark house, what he must say, what he must not say. But every morning there were new rules, and more often than not, he could not remember them. On those days, the Queen hurt him badly indeed.

One morning, while the Queen brushed her leafy hair, her favorite ring fell from her finger. It was a golden ring, set with a luminous white stone in the shape of a full moon. It bounced across the bark floor and fell hundreds of feet to the shadowed ground, where it was immediately snapped up by a passing crocodile.

“My ring,” the Queen shrieked. “My ring!

Mahon, who had been measuring out a vial of distilled sunlight for the Queen’s breakfast, hurried to her. “Your ring?”

“Do not repeat my words like an imbecile,” said the Queen. “Your banging about in the kitchen distracted me, and my moon-ring fell from my finger. You are to blame. Fetch my ring from that crocodile, or I will tear the limbs from your body like the insect you are.”

“I will,” said Mahon.

Once, Siofra’s King left for a very long time, and she grew restless. Her food, which he had left with her to cover a day or two, ran low, and her stomach began to ache.

A rebellious streak grew in her then, but she kept it down. She would not really break the rules, not yet. She would only toe their edges. If she was still obedient, yet in some slight danger, perhaps the King would hurry home.

She leaned out the window, and leaned, and leaned, until only the clench of her hands on the thorny sill kept her from toppling out.

Nothing happened, but she found that she liked the feeling, the careful balance, the almost fall. So she did it again. Over and over, a distraction from the empty tower and her gnawing belly.

But animals had always liked Siofra, and soon enough, one of the blue cloud-otters crawled to the tower’s base. This close, Siofra could see that they were large, the size of Siofra or her King, and stood on two legs like a human. She felt a twinge of curiosity—but, of course, it was dangerous for her to speak to creatures of Faerie.

“Excuse me,” said the otter. “You are hanging very alarmingly out of that window. Are you all right? Do you need anything?”

“I don’t know,” said Siofra. The King was always sure what she needed. It had never occurred to her someone would ask. “Wait, yes. If you have any food. That would be splendid. You see, I am trapped here and have no food left.” She paused, and then remembered that, as a human, she had always been taught to ask politely. “Please.”

“Do you like fish?” said the otter. “Hold on a moment.”

The otter flopped on their belly and slid down the flank of the cloud.

Siofra watched them go, worrying. The King said everything here wished to harm her. She did not have the sense of a normal human or faerie, who can tell from the shift of an eye when someone means them ill. The otter might mean her ill, and she would never know. Until she ate the poisoned fish and sickened and died, or was sliced into ribbons by their cruel otter claws.

But she was very, very hungry. Surely not all otters in the whole land could wish her ill. And if this one did, well, perhaps the King would hurry back to save her.

She dug in her meagre belongings, and found the most beautiful of all of them, a tiny button made of a twinkling semiprecious stone. Then she leaned out the window and waited.

The day was hot, when Mahon set out to find the ring, and the air was thick with mist. He carried a small jar of honey to keep up his strength, for it would likely be a long walk before he found the crocodile. He had seen it crawling west, so he walked west until he came to the river. The river was wide, full of dangerous fish. It churned thick and slow toward the crystal crags miles away.

In the mud at the river’s bank, there were two crocodile footprints, veering downriver. So Mahon turned in that direction, looking for the telltale ripples in the water that meant a floating log or stick was really a reptile.

As soon as he turned, he saw a column of ants, each one a translucent creature carved from crystal and gold. They were hurrying up and down a great tree, as fast as Mahon had ever seen ants move.

“Good day to you,” said the ants.

“Good day,” said Mahon. Speaking when spoken to was a rule.

“Ah,” said the ants, “but it is not a good day for us. Our queen was caught in the ruby-and-hematite chelicerae of a terrible spider. We must grow another one, quickly, with all the sweet things we can find, or there will be no more of us. Will you give us some of that honey?”

“I will,” said Mahon. He opened his jar of honey, set it down, and went on his way empty-handed.

The river wound on. River dolphins breached the surface, spraying clear water, and eels crackled with energy in the shallows, but there were no crocodiles to be seen. Mahon walked all through the morning and into the afternoon, until the blisters on his feet opened. Still he walked, disinclined to complain. He was not sure how he would persuade the crocodile, when he found it, to give up its prize.

Presently he found a large frog hunched and shivering in the river.

“You there,” said the frog. “Human. Stop.”

Mahon stopped. Stopping when asked, no matter the activity, was a rule.

“I have been cursed by a terrible witch,” said the frog, “and I can no longer touch my bare feet to ground. Yet I must get out of this river. Give me your shoes.”

“I will,” said Mahon. He handed them over and limped on his way barefoot.

Soon enough, Siofra’s otter returned, with a basket of fish in their jaw. They carefully climbed the wall of thorns that held up the tower, slipping between the sharp branches with an otter’s deftness, until they reached the windowsill and set the basket down.

“Wait,” said Siofra, because she remembered the rules. “I must give you something in return.” She set down the sparkling button on the windowsill, careful not to touch the otter, and they snatched it up.

“You say you are trapped here,” said the otter. “Is the door stuck? Do you need help finding a way down? Should I get help?”

“Oh, no,” said Siofra, “it’s just—”

She tried to find a way to describe the King that did not make him sound wicked, or terribly foolish. She had many words, but she could never quite put them together in a way that suited the King. Without a button to roll between them, her hands flapped and flailed.

“What?” said the otter, leaning in. Siofra had not expected them to lean in when they did, and her hand, by accident, smacked the otter’s side. The otter lost their balance, and went pinwheeling trying not to fall from the tower, until at last they fell forward and straight into Siofra.

Siofra scrambled backwards, shrieking. The touch of a creature of Faerie, the King had warned her, would immediately kill her.

“What?” said the otter. “Did I hurt you? I’m sorry!”

“I’m sorry!” Siofra shrieked back, for she had not meant to destroy herself so foolishly, and that was what the King would call her, when he found her dead body. A fool.

“I’m sorry!” said the otter, who had no idea what might have panicked this strange-looking woman, but was sure it was their fault.

“I’m sorry!” said Siofra again, for she had not meant to strike the otter, either, and striking another creature was terribly rude.

Then there was a pause, and she looked down at her hand, where it had hit them.

A creature of Faerie had touched her, and she was alive.

She had thought she would die if it happened.

No. She had thought that it would not happen. Because the King had built a shield to protect her. If his shield did not even work, then what had the point been of all of those nights of pain, when he cut into her bones?

“What is it?” said the otter.

She explained. Explaining it meant explaining the King, and explaining the King meant explaining everything about herself and where she had come from, and that meant explaining what a human was to this otter who had never seen one. It went on and on. By the end of it her throat was raw and her eyes screwed shut in frustration, but the otter listened. Fidgeting, smoothing down their fur, but out of fear and concern, not boredom. The King had rarely listened to her talk so long.

 [ Thorns, © 2019 Rachel Linn ] “But,” said the otter, “I do not think you are not human. You say you are not the same as other humans, but I am not the same as other otters, either. I fidget and talk too long, and I get too excited about naming all the different kinds of fish. I can climb a tower of thorns and not be pricked, but when I am just walking or playing, I don’t notice where rocks and updrifts of cloud are and run straight into them. And when the other otters talk about otter things—being male and female but never neither or both, and doing the dances of the seasons properly, and raising baby otters—it makes no sense to me. But I am an otter. I am only a strange otter. In truth, I am very glad to speak to you, for you seem to be a strange human in much the same way. That was why I came to the base of the tower to look at you, for you were rocking back and forth out the window back in, and it reminded me of my own rocking, which other otters think is ugly. My name is Brogan. What is yours?”

“Siofra,” said Siofra. “Are you really like me? I do not think anyone here is like me, but then, I thought just a few minutes ago that if anyone here touched me, I would die. I have never met an otter before, or a person who is neither a woman nor a man, or a person who said they were like me.”

“I am not one to question Kings,” said Brogan, “for every realm in Faerie has a Monarch and there is nothing one can do to stop that. I only try to stay out of their way. But your King sounds particularly unpleasant. Why don’t you try to escape?”

“I cannot do that,” said Siofra.

“Ah, but you can,” said Brogan. “You see, if you get to the edge of the realm with your heart’s desire, you can cross into a new one, and your King will have no power there. Do you know what your heart’s desire might be? You seem extremely interesting, and I would like to help.”

“I cannot do it,” said Siofra. She sat down heavily on the ground. Tears were coming soon, though she did not wish to annoy the otter with them. She could not think about all of it at once: touching a creature of Faerie and surviving, questioning the King, questioning if she was human, talk of escape. And Brogan would keep talking and talking if she let them. She would have, too, in their place. “Go away now, please.”

Brogan scampered out the window without another word.

Mahon walked by the river until it opened out into a small lake, sparkling with the sun. Halfway round, he came to a branch where a net of thick, hard vines hung down. Trapped in the net, and struggling fiercely, was an otter. They were as large as a woman or man and half-human in form, which was not strange to Mahon, as many faerie animals took such forms. They had long slender limbs and a long slender body, covered in short soft fur, and round paws at the end of their arms, and an otter’s face. The strange thing was their fur, which was not like any jungle otter’s fur; it was thinner and tinted pale blue, like the sky.

“Good day,” said Mahon. He did not normally speak first, but he could see that something was wrong, and he did not know what else to say.

“Oh, not a good day,” the otter lamented. “Not a good day at all. This is a jaguar’s net, and I cannot chew through it. When she returns she will eat me up. But you are a human, with fingers and thumbs. Please, will you free me?”

“I will,” said Mahon. He did not think he could open this net with his fingers alone, but he was not used to creatures saying “please”, and could not think of what else to do but comply.

He worked at the vines and knots dutifully. Mahon was clever with his hands, but the vines were very tough, and very tight. The otter squirmed with impatience.

“Oh, woe is me,” said the otter. “You cannot do it, and I am doomed.”

Mahon did not know what to say to that, so he said nothing, and looked around. He saw the bone of a capybara, half-stripped, lying in the mud by the riverside, and a large rock jutting out from the soil between the trees. He picked up the bone and shattered it over the rock. Then he picked up the largest bone shard, and sharpened it on the rock, until he had a blade sharp enough to prick his finger.

Mahon picked up the blade and sawed through the vine net. The otter tumbled to the ground.

“Oh, thank you,” said the otter. “Thank you, sir!”

“Thank you…” said Mahon. He did not know what to call the otter.

“Neither sir nor ma’am,” said the otter. “‘Otter’ will do. Or ‘Brogan’, as that is my name.” Even now that they were free, the otter fidgeted as if in fear, flexing their paws over their arms and smoothing out their fur. They did not look Mahon in the eye, but that did not bother him. “Where did you come from? I do not often see humans here.”

“A crocodile took a ring,” said Mahon. It took effort to put so many words together, and he said them slowly. “It went this way. I am looking for it.”

“Was it a round ring, by any chance? Round so it can be rolled between the hands, with a round, white stone like the moon?”

“Yes,” said Mahon.

“I know exactly where it is,” said Brogan. “Go west from here, away from the river. Not more than ten minutes into the forest there is a clearing. You will find it there. I would go with you, but I am behind on catching fish for my supper. All you must do is ask nicely, and it will go well for you. Say that I sent you.”

“I will,” said Mahon.

He turned and trudged deeper, on aching feet, into the shadow of the trees.

He found the clearing soon enough. An old, tall tree had fallen. The space it made was already clogging with vines and bright flowers, eager saplings and rainbow-coloured mushrooms, but for now, the sun shone through. A figure sat on the fallen trunk, rolling a small object in its hands. A crocodile lay sleepily, resting its head in the figure’s lap.

The object was the Queen’s ring.

The figure was a woman.

Mahon had not seen a human woman since he entered Faerie. She wore green-brown rags and a pair of shoes clumsily sewn out of leaves. A shock of red hair puffed out behind her head. Scars cris-crossed what he could see of her limbs, not burn scars like his, but thin lines, as if she had been cut open again and again. She was very beautiful, and entirely focused on what she had in her hands. She did not seem to notice him as he stood and stared, and stared.

He was not permitted to stare at beautiful creatures; it made his Queen cross. But then, this woman had the ring, and he was definitely supposed to get the ring back. He remembered that he was supposed to ask nicely for it. There was something else, though, that he no longer remembered.

He wondered where she had come from.

“May I please,” he said, and then stopped. It had been a long time since he had asked anyone for anything.

She looked up, startled. She did not look at his eyes, but at his mouth, and his hands, and then at his bare feet.

“Your feet are bleeding,” she said.

“It was a long walk,” said Mahon.

“Who are you?” said the woman. “You look human. Have you ever noticed how few faeries look human? I am the only one I have met aside from you. Are you in disguise? I cannot think of very many faeries who could take such a disguise. Where do you come from?” She spoke low and fast, and looked only intermittently at him. He did not mind.

“I live with a Queen,” said Mahon.

“Oh,” said the woman. Her face darkened. “I lived with a King, once. It was not very good. I don’t like Kings or Queens anymore. My name is Siofra.”

“She has a ring,” Mahon persisted. He had to speak slow to get the words to come out right. “It is that ring you have there. It fell. She wants it back.”

“I don’t like Queens,” Siofra repeated.

“I need it,” said Mahon.

He wished he could remember the other thing he was supposed to do.

“Well,” said Siofra, tilting her head, “I don’t like Queens, but I don’t much like the thought of raising a Queen’s ire, either. I am able to live as I please here because I stay out of the way and follow the rules. I would not want to change that. Come sit and rest your bleeding feet, and we will talk, and then I will give you back the ring. What is your name?”

“Mahon,” said Mahon.

He felt his way along the trunk and sat a short distance from her, making sure he was not on the same side of her as the crocodile. He could not stop staring at Siofra’s face, but she did not seem to mind being stared at.

The crocodile eyed him lazily, then turned and crawled away, leaving them alone.

“How did you get it?” asked Mahon.

“Oh, that,” said Siofra. “Animals are the only thing I’m any good at. I do good turns for them, and I work out how to scratch them on the heads the way they like, and they do good turns for me in return. The crocodile knows I like round things, so he brought this one to me. I really like round things. How did you come to live with a Queen?”

Mahon haltingly explained. How something had been wrong with him from birth. How his parents had left him in the woods, and how the Queen had found him, and taught him to live by her rules. The Queen had told him that this was the natural order of things. Faeries were resourceful, and there was a use here for everything, even broken, scarred, imbecile men who were cast off as refuse elsewhere.

“I do not think we are refuse,” said Siofra. “I think we are simply not human. We were put in the human world by mistake, so we came back. Maybe the human world is why we look human. Maybe humanity is like ink that sinks under your skin, until you cannot wash it out again.”

“I think I am human,” said Mahon. “I am not very good at it.”

“My friend Brogan says I am human,” said Siofra. “I don’t believe it. Humans are cruel, just like Kings and Queens. I am something else on the inside.”

“Brogan,” said Mahon, and the memory came back. “I met them.”

“They are my best friend. They live with me here. They catch fish for us to eat. I make things with my hands and find animal friends who can bring us the rest of what we need. They are also my lover, sometimes. That is how we live.”

“But you lived with a King once,” said Mahon. “Now you are here. How?”

“I escaped,” said Siofra.

“You cannot escape a Monarch,” said Mahon.

“That is only what Monarchs tell you. I escaped. I was in a different one of Faerie’s realms, and I came here. My King could not follow.”

“But it is a rule,” said Mahon.

“I broke the rule.”

“You cannot leave a Monarch’s domain.”

“Yes, you can,” said Siofra. “I left mine. It is hard, but you can do it. There are places where the realms cross, portals. You can cross there, but only if you have your heart’s desire. My King lived in a domain of clouds, but I escaped, and now I am here. Brogan came with me. You could escape, too. Everyone can escape. They just don’t know it, because nobody tells them, but now I am telling you.”

Mahon sat still and tried to absorb this. Perhaps she was wrong, or mad, or an illusion. A temptation. His Queen would certainly have thought it was wrong. Still…

“How?” he said at last.

She told him.

On that night when Brogan had first come to her, Siofra lay awake, long after crying herself out and eating the whole basket of fish. She dropped the bones out the window and watched them sink into the clouds, careful not to leave any evidence that she had eaten something forbidden. But then, she was not sure if she cared anymore about what the King did and didn’t allow.

The King had lied. He had told her that, if a creature of Faerie touched her, she would die, but she had not. He had told her that his magic would repel other creatures, but it had not.

He had told her that he loved her, but he locked her up alone like this so often. He had told her that he had to hurt her, to work his magic, but his magic was a lie.

Everything had been a lie.

She turned that over and over in her mind, spinning it like a wheel.

If she was hungry and hurting here, and her old reasons for staying were lies, then why, after all, should she stay?

Before dawn, she rose, dried her tears, and packed a few things in Brogan’s basket. She slung the basket over her arm, swung her legs over the window ledge, then climbed down the tower of thorns. She was not nearly so nimble as the otter. By the time she reached the bottom, her arms and legs were bloody, but this was no unusual sensation to Siofra.

She paused for a moment before the final step down. The King had said that if she set foot on the clouds, she would fall through. But he had lied about everything else, and the clouds looked solid enough to her.

She closed her eyes and hopped off.

The clouds came up to meet her a second later, soft but solid, like the featheriest bedspread. She fell into them, then scrambled to her feet and fell again, laughing with relief.

A blue otter poked their nose up from behind the nearest cloud.

“You again!” said Siofra.

“You again!” said Brogan. “You changed your mind! I am so happy.”

“I didn’t mean you had to go away forever,” said Siofra, suddenly realizing that Brogan might have thought of it that way. “I only needed to think. Are you upset?”

“Not anymore!” said Brogan. “Do you want to go to the next realm now?”

“Yes,” said Siofra, “but I can’t walk on these clouds, you see?” She fell again, to demonstrate.

Brogan leapt up and belly-flopped beside her. “That’s no problem. You don’t have to walk here. You can crawl, scramble, slide on your belly. There are clouds you can even swim in. That’s what otters like best. There are others that are nearly as solid as wood or stone. You can tell by sight, once you’ve learned the trick. I could lead you to those, if you prefer. But—oh, I should not ask. I should not even have waited here for you, when you had told me to go away, and I didn’t know yet that you only meant for a little while.”

“I don’t mind,” said Siofra. “Can you tell me the way to the next realm?”

Brogan pointed west, where the clouds were slate-blue in the predawn light. “But,” they said, “remember, it is not so simple as that. First you will have to find your heart’s desire, before the King catches wind of your escape.”

“I have it,” Siofra said firmly, and began to crawl west.

“May I come with you?” said Brogan.

She agreed. Soon the two were crawling, slipping, and sliding across the clouds, laughing together, both talking more than either had talked in years. Siofra told Brogan about her family, about the King, about her love of buttons and circles, about the noises that hurt her and the noises that did not. Brogan told Siofra about the otter clans that lived in the clouds, about their childhood growing up with seven littermates, about their love of fish and food and climbing. About all of their favourite fish. About the other otters, who had never tried to drown them as Siofra’s family had, but who had called them funny, then strange, then simply a terrible otter: always saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, always saying too much, always fidgeting, never picking up on others’ unspoken wants. The two found their way to a road of packed cloud like pale sugar, and walked on, talking all the way. Neither had ever had a friend who would listen to them talk for so long, who was delighted to hear what they said.

“There,” said Brogan at last, pointing to a shimmering archway in a topless cliff of cloud. “That is the border of the realm, or so I have been told. I have never been across. Are you sure you have your heart’s desire?”

“Yes,” said Siofra.

“Then goodspeed to you,” said Brogan, “and I hope you find a King who is more to your liking. Though—oh, it is selfish. I should not ask.”

“What?” said Siofra.

“It is selfish,” said Brogan. “But if you are willing, I should like to come with you. I do like many things here in the clouds, but I have not truly felt I belonged here. Not for a long time.”

Siofra smiled. “Of course you can come, if you like. I like being with you. But I should ask you the same question, I suppose. Are you sure you have your heart’s—”

She was interrupted by a rumbling. Far away, in the patch of cloud where the King’s castle grew, something dark arose. A roiling cloud of thorns, as the King returned home to discover Siofra’s absence, and maybe even the hidden fish bones, and began to spread his power over the realm.

“Hurry,” said Brogan, and they ran toward the archway. It was difficult to see what lay beyond it, other than a shimmer. Only the faint outlines of leaves could be seen, a suggestion of green.

“Wait,” said Brogan suddenly, as they reached the arch’s edge.

Siofra skidded to a halt, and looked over her shoulder fearfully. The thorn-storm on the horizon crackled with lightning. They had, perhaps, a minute before it reached them.

“I—I shouldn’t ask. It is even more selfish than before. But—In case. Just in case it does not work, and we do not ever see each other again. May I kiss you?”

Siofra stared at them, nervous: no one but the King had ever kissed her. Brogan shrank away, beginning to stammer an apology. But then Siofra took them by the face and kissed them.

It was a short, fearful kiss, but she drew away smiling. She still liked kissing, after all; perhaps that part had not been a lie.

“Now come on,” she said, and taking each other’s hands, they leapt through the archway.

The other side of the arch was a thick jungle, as verdant green as the clouds had been pale blue, humming with insects and birds. They came splashing into a shallow creek and, agape in triumphant surprise, climbed out onto dry ground. A monkey whooped in the distance. Siofra covered her ears, but she could not stop smiling. Brogan, impulsively, wrapped their arms around her, and she embraced them back. The air was thick, humid and hot, but there was no sign of any lightning, no gathering thorn-storm. The King, deprived of the power his heart desired, could not reach here.

“So,” said Siofra at last.

“So,” said Brogan.

“What was your heart’s desire?”

“You first.”

“Freedom,” said Siofra.

“Oh,” said Brogan. They paused. “Yes, that is a good desire. That is quite logical. I approve.”

They did not tell her, then or later, that they had hoped for another answer. That their own heart’s desire, born in the hope of that morning, had been her.

Mahon listened attentively to Siofra’s tale. By the time she was done, he had sewn two large leaves into his own pair of leaf-shoes, better stitched than hers, for Mahon was clever with his hands. He was not quite so clever with words. He had never imagined leaving his Queen, and he was not sure what to say to all these new ideas.

“So you see,” said Siofra, “if you wished, you could leave like this, too. There are many other realms. Would you like to?”

Mahon was quiet so long that he worried Siofra would forget she had asked. He turned the question over in his mind, and stared at her.

“No,” he said at last. “I must return the Queen’s ring. It is a rule. I must go back.”

Siofra’s face fell, but she nodded, and handed over the ring. “Then good journey to you. I hope we can meet again. I so rarely meet anyone who is like me. You are like me, I can tell, even though you do not say nearly so many words.”

“Yes,” said Mahon.

He was about to leave when Siofra sat up straighter on her log. “May I ask you one other thing?”

“Yes,” said Mahon.

“My King lay with any creature in Faerie he wished to,” said Siofra, “and I do not see why I should do differently. I have had many lovers. I adore touch. I am told this is not a thing one should speak of directly, but I do not know another way. Brogan knows, and says it is all right. Because of this, I was wondering. It has been so interesting meeting you. Before you go, will you kiss me?”

Mahon thought about it. She was very beautiful, sitting in her green bower in her raggedy clothes. The Queen would not approve. But he suddenly knew that he did not care. He could not leave his Queen, but he wanted one thing, a small thing, that was not hers.

“I will,” he said, and he leaned in.

 [ Leaves, © 2019 Rachel Linn ] Brogan had not, of course, gone to catch fish. They had waited five minutes as Mahon disappeared into the jungle. Then they had gone roundabout, slipping and sliding through the leaves as otters do, until they found a spot where they could watch Siofra’s clearing undisturbed. Brogan was a curious being, and though Mahon was good and kind, something about him made Brogan’s fur stand on end. A change was coming, for good or for ill.

They watched from the canopy as Mahon leaned in, as his lips met Siofra’s. It was a long kiss, lingering. Both of them smiled as they let go.

No one had ever loved Brogan like Siofra. Before her, they had loved other otters, male and female, but it had never gone well. Sometimes their gender was the problem: You are sexless, insubstantial. I need a real woman, a real man, to raise my pups. More often it was their mind. You move wrong. You are careless. You do not notice what I need unless I tell you aloud. You do not show your feelings the way I show them. It is eerie. It is wrong. I do not like it. I cannot stay. Often, because Brogan could not easily read others’ moods, the first they heard of it was when their beloved had already moved on: when they took everything and set up with an otter man or woman whose mind was right.

Siofra said she loved Brogan; Siofra said she would not treat them like this, even if she loved others too. But this man—he was different. He did not speak as easily as the two of them, but he was like them on the inside, and he was human. Siofra could say what she liked, but even Siofra had not been through this before, to know what she might do.

Yet, it would be shameful to say this to Siofra’s face. An accusation. So Brogan only watched from the trees. They trembled, and felt ashamed for trembling, and trembled still.

After the kiss, Mahon put on his new leaf-shoes, took up the ring, and journeyed home.

His feet ached, and his blisters opened, despite the new shoes. He thought about Siofra, but it already was beginning to recede, like a dream. She was beautiful, but her tale was nonsense, like any dream; how could anyone leave their Monarch and live?

By the time his Queen’s cottage drew near, he had forgotten half of it. Still, he kicked off his leaf-shoes before he ascended the long stairs. They would draw questions, and he did not want questions.

The Queen was sitting in the cottage’s front room, trailing her rootlike feet in a bucket of dew. Mahon knelt before her.

“Here is your ring,” he said.

“Took you long enough,” said the Queen.

Days went by. Siofra waited for Mahon, but he did not return. She had decided her own fate in a night, but it had been the longest night of her life; it had not occurred to her that someone would take longer.

She took to asking the animals of the jungle if they had seen him. Soon enough she found a frog wearing Mahon’s old shoes.

“I know that one,” said the frog. “He’s not a bad sort. I’ll take you to him.”

The frog led her to the foot of the Queen’s tree. There she waited long into the night, as Brogan had waited for her.

In the morning, Mahon made his usual way down to the river.

“Hello,” said Siofra.

Mahon stopped still; then, hesitantly, he smiled.

“How are you?” said Siofra. “How is the Queen treating you? Do you remember what I told you, in the clearing? Have you thought about it?”

“I do not know,” said Mahon. He had nearly convinced himself that it had been a dream, but that could not be right, if she was here in front of him again. And if it was not a dream…

He did not know what to say.

“I have been thinking of you incessantly,” said Siofra. “I like you. I do not want you to stay here and suffer. Why did I not see you again? Did I offend you? I have been told that my incessant talking offends many people.”

“No,” said Mahon. “I like you, too.”

“Do you like your Queen?”

A pause. “She is the fairest of all.”

“Yes, but do you like her?”

Mahon looked down at the dark river, at the hungry toothed fish winding their way through. “No.”

“Then why…?”

“There are rules,” Mahon said, and he turned and went back up the stairs with his clay jug of water.

In fact, Mahon was beginning to plan.

He planned slowly, but the plan’s parts, as they came to him, were sure. Many things were now apparent to him. Siofra had not been a dream. She was real, and would come to him again, and if he did not remember every detail of what she had told him anymore, he remembered enough. She lived free, without a Monarch, and she believed that Mahon could live that way, too.

But Mahon did not want to run without thought, as Siofra had done. He would need supplies. He would need, if he remembered right, his heart’s desire. And he would need the Queen to become inattentive long enough for him to creep away.

He would wait until she flew away to confer with the spirits of the trees, as she did sometimes, for a few hours or a day at most. He would wait until she did it twice. The first time, he would explain his plans to Siofra, slow as he was with his words. He would give her time to ask Brogan, because surely Brogan would need to agree, if Siofra was to help him with something so dangerous. The second time, after that, he would truly escape.

Siofra met him at the river every morning, faithfully. Every morning, as he fetched the water, he palmed some small item, an article of clothing or a small bit of preserved food, or a tool, and tucket it away against the day that he left. Meanwhile, time passed, time that he could not properly count, in the neverending mists of the forest.

Apart from Mahon, Siofra’s life carried on much as it had before. Brogan splashed in the river and caught fish; Siofra gathered herbs and roots and built a fire to roast them. It was easy enough, for the jungle of Faerie was full of life and gave freely.

It began to rain, and a jaguar cub limped by their clearing, having slipped and torn its leg. Siofra was not much of a healer, but she knew enough to clean the wound and wrap it in fresh leaves, and she gave the cub a fish to eat.

After dinner, with nothing that needed making or mending, she slipped into the river with Brogan. They splashed and played, despite the rain, and slid on their bellies over the wet ground. At last they rolled back out onto the grass and made eager love, until the rain subsided, and the dregs of evening sunlight warmed their clearing. Yet still, after all this, the shadow of Mahon hung over them.

“I don’t know what it means,” said Siofra to Brogan, resting her head on their furry chest. “I never thought I was human. I always thought there was some realm, somewhere, with a thousand faeries who look and think like me. Where they steal human children and substitute their own, for reasons I don’t understand. I hoped someday I’d meet one and learn. But Mahon wasn’t one of those faeries, just—just another person. Do you think there is any place where it’s all people like us? Or is this all we get?”

Brogan stroked her wild red hair. “I think any place where we are free and together is a place of our own. That’s enough, isn’t it?”

“Then why doesn’t he want it, too? I tried to explain it to him, the way you did for me, but it didn’t work.”

“Maybe he needs time,” said Brogan. “In truth, I was surprised when you changed your mind about your King so fast. I have never had a Monarch, but I have had many otter lovers who did not really like me, who lied to me and left, and it took me a long time to see it. Longer still to see that it was not my fault.”

Brogan did not ask if Siofra was planning to leave them, too. She might, in the end. But other otters had not liked when Brogan asked that sort of thing. Even—especially—when the answer was “yes”.

Brogan wanted someone, just once, to look at them and say: You are the fairest of all. But they could not expect that of the other otters, who despised them. Nor could they ask it of Siofra, whose capacity for affection was vast, who could not ever be tied down to one lover.

But something of their worry must have shown. Because Siofra turned to them suddenly, and said, “You know I love you, don’t you? That hasn’t changed. I want him to be here, but what I mean is I want both of you, together.”

“Of course,” said Brogan.

They did not think Siofra would lie to them, though they had been lied to before. They did not say: But he is human, and I am not, and you cannot tell the future.

Finally the day came, the first of the two days Mahon had planned for, when the Queen left to commune with the spirits of the trees. She warned him sternly that the cottage must be cleaned by the time she returned, and he nodded and said, “I will.” Then she leapt into the air and flew away, leaving an empty, green mist in the air behind her.

Mahon stayed in the cottage a moment, watching until she was out of sight. The green mist remained, barely visible; it would be there until her return.

When he was satisfied that she was really gone, he went down the steps to the river, where Siofra was waiting.

He had not wanted to tell Siofra his plans, before. It was a mess of words, and Siofra liked to act quickly. If he told her, perhaps she would spur him away that instant, when it was not safe, and he would not have the words to object. But now that the Queen was gone, he had time. He could act slowly.

“Good morning,” said Siofra.

“The Queen left,” said Mahon. “She leaves sometimes.”

Siofra looked him—not in the eyes, but in the face—with such a sharp and hopeful glance that his words momentarily drained away.

“What does that mean?” she asked. “Are you planning something? Did you decide—” She then took in his wordless face, realized her mistake, and waited for him to respond.

After a while, when his thoughts felt clearer, he said, “Yes. She leaves sometimes. I want to leave, but not now.” The hope and pain in Siofra’s face startled him all over again, and he could feel the nuances of the plan draining away. “Is… is that all right?”

“Of course it’s all right!” Siofra cried. She ran to him and wrapped her arms around him so fiercely that he nearly tipped into the river. “What do you need? What can I help you with to make it happen? Oh, I so want you to leave and to be with me and Brogan. We could all be happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s soon or late, as long as it happens. And—” She broke off, noticing that she had overwhelmed him, and let go.

“Later,” he said. “When she leaves next. I am packing what I need. You should…” He swallowed hard. This was the difficult part. Brogan had been kind enough to Mahon when they met, but he had not seen any sign of the otter since, and he was not completely sure that they were friends. “We all need to leave. Brogan too. You should ask them if they want to.”

“Of course!” said Siofra. “Of course I’ll ask. Is that all?”

“I think so,” said Mahon.

He did not like words, and making so many of them had driven other details out of his head. He had a vague idea that he had forgotten something, but then, Mahon was always forgetting something.

“Listen,” said Siofra, taking his hands. He loved the feel of those hands, soft like his own, and free from anything that stung. “If your Queen is gone today, that gives us a little extra time, doesn’t it? To be alone together without her noticing. Would you like that? I am so very excited.”

“All right,” said Mahon, as the feeling of forgetting vanished into unimportance.

Siofra pulled him close and, eagerly, kissed him.

It was a more urgent kiss than the one in the clearing. His arm went around Siofra’s waist, and he kissed her back. It was so good to touch someone who was not trying to hurt him, who simply wanted him to be there. It nearly made him forget everything else.

“I like this,” he whispered.

Siofra leaned in to him, smiling. “Then let’s do some more.”

An hour later they lay curled together, hidden under low boughs. Mahon had never had a lover like this. No one had ever seemed happy to see him, happy to listen to his halting speech, let alone happy to touch his scarred body. He rested a long time, unwilling to let go, only looking at her and reminding himself that it had happened. Siofra, smiling and languid, had fallen asleep.

So it was Mahon who saw the storm clouds gather above the trees.

He stared up at them, wondering what this blackness could be, this roiling darker than the jungle’s normal rain. Thunder rumbled above him, and a group of small lizards ran cheeping down the trunk of a tree.

Then he sat straight up, all of it coming to him at once.

The air was dark with thunder, and with no other color. There was no green mist left in the air. The Queen had returned. She had come back to an empty cottage and no sign of Mahon. He had meant to return as soon as he had finished speaking with Siofra, to make everything clean and ready for her, leaving no trace of his planned disobedience. And then, of course, he had forgotten.

His plan had barely begun, and he had already failed.

Siofra stirred, and sat up, peering in confusion at the sky.

“The Queen,” Mahon whispered.

“Oh, no,” said Siofra. “Oh, no, no, no.”

“My servant,” said a voice from the sky, rasping and echoing. It was not close to them, not yet; but it echoed out over the whole forest. Siofra clapped her hands over her ears. “My wicked, treacherous servant.”

Mahon stared at the leaves above him, the darkness beyond. He could not go back now. He had broken the rules, and the Queen would destroy him.

Siofra was not so still as Mahon. She scrambled to her feet and dressed hurriedly, tossing Mahon’s pile of clothes to him. He followed her lead as she babbled, voice distorted by tears of panic. “We’ve got to get away. Listen, I know you didn’t want to leave yet, but we can do it. We can still get out of this. We’ve just got to move fast. We’ll find Brogan. They’re waiting for me not too far from here, by the boulders. Hurry!”

They ran down the river to the spot where Siofra had left Brogan. Meeting Mahon by the river in the morning had become a routine for them both. On a normal day, Brogan would play by themself in the water until she returned. But she had been gone so long this time.

The two large rocks, a jagged pair cleaving the undergrowth, were deserted. There were no otters anywhere to be seen, blue or otherwise, human-sized or not.

“Brogan!” Siofra called. “Brogan!”

But there was no one to answer.

Siofra put her hands over her face and began to shake.

“We can leave,” Mahon said urgently. “Can’t we?”

Siofra shook her head vigorously. Her escape from her King had not been like this. She had already known where she was going, already in possession of the key to escape. And, thanks to Brogan, she had had a head start. She knew where the nearest border between realms was: scarcely a mile upriver from here, where the river cascaded down from a cliffside. The portal was at the top of the falls, if they could get there. But—

“We can’t leave,” she said. “We don’t have Brogan. And you’re not finished preparing or whatever it was that you had to do first. You don’t even have your heart’s desire yet, do you?”

Mahon looked her straight in the eye, with such intensity that she had to look away. “I do. You’re here.”

Siofra could not look up from the forest floor. She wanted Brogan. It wasn’t right for Brogan not to be here. She had always suspected that she was Brogan’s heart’s desire, their reason for being able to cross the realms. But in all their time with her, they had never said it. This man, who scarcely knew her, had said it in an hour.

She was not sure it was in her power to save him. But she could not leave him here.

“Fine,” she said abruptly. She still could not look in his eyes, but she looked up at his face, defiant. “The gate is at the top of the waterfall. I don’t know if we’ll make it, but we’ll try. Come on!”

They ran, stirring the underbrush, with a bloated black cloud behind.

 [ Brogan, © 2019 Rachel Linn ] When Siofra and Mahon had crept below the low boughs, Brogan had crawled away, as far away as they could crawl. They had spied on the two many times, but the act of love itself was more than they wished to see. They had not been able to hear the words that Siofra and Mahon said to each other, but it was clear enough from the way the two embraced where this was heading. They no longer felt like playing at the rocks where they were supposed to wait. They no longer felt like playing at all.

They had not expected it to hurt this much. Siofra had had many lovers before. She had given herself to the creatures of the jungle, to earth and air spirits, to bark-skinned women who lived inside trees. Brogan had learned to accept this. Siofra was who she was, and she never seemed to run out of love.

This man was different. He was shaped like Siofra. He had been driven from his home like her, taken in by an evil Monarch like her. When Siofra spoke of him, and lately it seemed that she always spoke of him, Brogan could see the love in her eyes.

She was equally full of love, of course, when she spoke about Brogan. But Brogan had been loved and left before.

Let her love and leave, then. Brogan would not fawn at her ankles asking again and again if she still wanted them. They would not return to the clearing. They would set out on their own, and if Siofra wanted them, she would go looking. If she did not want them, she would be spared the indignity of having to explain. She would not have to break Brogan’s heart.

She would not have to say, as so many otter men and women had: But, Brogan, you are just not quite right for me. You are not quite right at all.

Brogan was already a good mile east of the river when the thunder began. They paid it little heed, not noticing that it was blacker and more terrible than a natural storm. They did not remember the darkness that had followed them and Siofra across their native realm. Not until the Queen’s voice echoed across the forest, calling for her treacherous servant.

Brogan sat straight up, and their whiskers trembled.

They had made a terrible mistake. They had wondered, privately, if the Queen would catch Mahon and Siofra; but they had not thought it would happen so soon. The two of them would have to run, to hide. Siofra would not have time to go looking for Brogan, no matter if she still loved them or not. And Brogan would take ages to find their hiding place, unless—

No. Brogan knew exactly where they would go.

Siofra had her heart’s desire. She had her freedom. She could cross into another realm whenever she wished. Mahon—well, who knew Mahon’s heart’s desire? He might be trapped here, and recaptured by the Queen. And, as much grief as Mahon had brought them, Brogan found that this thought gave them no joy at all. Or Mahon might be able to escape with her. They could be happy together. Forever.

Brogan, whether Siofra wanted them or not, would never be able to follow. They would never again have their own heart’s desire.

The Queen’s voice rumbled from the black cloud, and flaming coals began to rain near the treetop cottage. Embers touched the ground and slowly licked their way up the trees until those nearest the cottage, despite the heavy wetness in the air, had burst into pillars of flame.

Only then, knowing it was too late, did Brogan turn and break into a run.

The waterfall loomed ahead, a delicate curtain. The Queen’s black cloud loomed only a few minutes behind. The way up was a cliffside, slick with jungle mist and sharp with flint.

Siofra skidded to a halt, panting. She had expected that there would be a way around, but all she saw in both directions were long, high, treacherous cliffs, draped with ivy and moss, stretched to the vanishing point.

She could see the gateway, a translucent archway shimmering at the top of the falls. But there was no way to get up in time.

“Here,” said Mahon, picking up one of the long strands of ivy that hung down from the clifftop. He tugged on it with his full weight, and it held.

“It’s too smooth,” said Siofra. “We can’t climb it. I can’t. Brogan might.”

“Here,” said Mahon again. He picked up another strand, and with slow and deliberate movements, tied two tight, sturdy knots. The first rungs of a strong vine ladder.

Siofra looked back behind them at the black cloud, still expanding. “We don’t have time.”

Mahon looked at her with a strange expression.

The next instant, a horde of ants swarmed out of the ground, crystal and gold, piping to Mahon in eager small voices.

“You saved our colony,” said the ants. “Now we are tens of thousands strong. Now we will save you! Is this the kind of knot you need? It doesn’t look very hard. We ants can pull many thousands of times our own weight, you know.”

The whole crystalline mass of them swarmed up the cliff, and split into dozens of groups, tying dozens of knots all at once.

Siofra watched, agape. Mahon smiled at her, then started up the vine ladder. They climbed, up and up, until they were panting on the solid ground of the cliff’s edge, with the gate bright and beautiful before them.

“Are you ready?” said Siofra.

“Yes,” said Mahon. He clasped her hand. If he felt fear, it did not show.

Siofra looked behind her, a final time, for Brogan. The otter was nowhere to be seen. It cut, like a thorn carving something on her rib bones, not being able to say goodbye. But she was running for her life. She was saving Mahon—and herself, for surely the Queen would know who had lured Mahon away. Brogan would understand. There was no other way. Was there?

She swallowed, and refocused on the shimmering gate.

“On three,” she said. “One—two—three!”

They leapt.

Mahon leapt quicker. For a brief, giddy instant, he was suspended in the air, halfway through the gate, his face and limbs fading from visibility as they passed into the next realm.

Then Siofra hit the translucent barrier and bounced back.

She landed hard on the shore of the river, exactly where she had started. An instant later, Mahon, suddenly ejected, hit the ground beside her.

The gate looked the same as ever, shimmering, see-through, mocking. Mahon looked at it, bewildered, and Siofra’s heart sank lower than it ever had been.

Mahon had his heart’s desire. Mahon could pass through the gate. But Siofra, running from the only loving home she had known, without even knowing where her otter lover was—Siofra did not.

And, without her—for she was Mahon’s heart’s desire—neither could he.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Her voice shook, and tears sprang again into her eyes. “I’m sorry, I thought it would work. It would have worked, if not for me. It’s my fault. I’m—We should run. Hide. I’m so sorry.”

But neither of them got up to run. It was pointless; the black cloud was speeding towards them, the forest in flames. Without their heart’s desires, they could never escape the realm. And it was a matter of minutes, hours at most, before there was nowhere left to hide here. Either the Queen would take them, or the fire would.

Mahon, silent, wrapped his arms around Siofra’s waist. She buried her face in his shoulder, crying and shaking. He sat with her, staring out at his death.

Brogan’s lungs were raw and ragged, their legs aching, and still they ran. All around them the creatures of the forest rushed in a panic, desperate to escape the flames that now stretched from horizon to horizon. The gate at the top of the waterfall was still far out of sight. There was no way they would make it in time.

A root rose up below their ankle and tripped them. They went sprawling, scraping the fur from their forearms as they fell.

Their blood trickled down into the soil. Brogan pondered the wisdom of not getting up again.

Just then, called by the smell of blood, a fleeing jaguar paused. Brogan cringed; it was the same jaguar who had caught them in the net, so many weeks ago, when they had first met Mahon. But the jaguar only bent thoughtfully and sniffed them.

“You are Brogan,” said the jaguar, “are you not? Siofra’s lover?”

“Yes,” Brogan wheezed.

“Siofra is a friend of mine,” said the jaguar. “She patched my daughter’s wounds not long ago. She has been calling for you. Hop on my back.”

Brogan, obligingly, did so. The jaguar raced as fast as feline legs had ever gone, outpacing the smoke and breaking out into clear air. The cliffside loomed, and Brogan could suddenly see Siofra and Mahon atop it, next to the gate.

“But why are they just sitting there?” they said in shock.

“I don’t know,” said the jaguar. “Perhaps they are waiting for you.”

She leapt up the slippery rocks with the surety of a cat’s feet, and crouched. As soon as Brogan dismounted, she ran again, without even a goodbye.

Brogan opened their mouth, but before they could say anything, Siofra fell on them in a panic. Her eyes were bright red with weeping, and her voice shook.

“Take my hand,” she urged. “If you want to get out of here, take it. Don’t ask any questions!”

Brogan took it, bewildered. “Yes, but what—”

Mahon took Siofra’s other hand, and the two of them, synchronized, turned towards the gate again.

The black cloud was scarcely a hundred feet away. An evil light shone out of it in flickers, orange for fire, green as the Queen’s body always had been. The cloud suddenly shifted, and the flickers became one great shining light, a huge face like the Queen’s face, distorted and flaming. The wind roared up around Brogan, Siofra, and Mahon’s feet, the vines around them withering with heat.

“I see you,” the Queen hissed, in a voice like dry leaves struck by lightning. “I have you now, my traitorous servant, my good-for-nothing, useless…”

“Jump!” Siofra shouted. “Now!

They leapt.

They landed hard on a rocky hillside. Blue and yellow flowers bloomed in the shrubs at their sides, gradually sloping down to a winding river valley. On its other side rose a translucent white mountain of crystal, with moss and flowers clinging to its edges. There was no flame anywhere; not even a trace, not an echo, of the Queen’s voice reached them.

Siofra could not stop looking around, grinning from ear to ear at this newness. Mahon stared out at it, absolutely still, enraptured. Brogan did not look at anything but Siofra.

“I was your heart’s desire?” they asked at last, when words came.

“Both of you were,” said Siofra. “Not just one. I realized that, at the end. I couldn’t cross with just one of you.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brogan. Now that the words had come, they would not stop. “I’m sorry. I was a fool and almost left you behind, and then you wouldn’t have been able to cross, and me either. We all would have died. I left you in your moment of greatest need.”

“What are you talking about?” said Siofra. “I’m sorry. I put you in danger. I put the whole jungle in danger.” The flames would subside, now that the Queen knew she would not get her prize. She could not destroy her whole realm, or what would be left for her to rule? But that was no excuse.

“Only because I wasn’t there to help,” said Brogan. “I could have helped hide you. I could have reminded you when you’d stayed out too long, only I was too jealous and too sure you would leave me, and I went away, and—”

“And I knew!” said Siofra. “I didn’t know you would leave. But I knew you were frightened I’d run off with just him. I could have slowed down, or worked out a way to make it easier for you, and I got carried away and never did.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brogan again.

I’m sorry.”


They were interrupted by Mahon, who quietly, smiling, placed a warm hand on each shoulder.

Siofra smiled back at him. Even Brogan, after a moment’s hesitation, smiled. The air was pleasantly cool. It smelled like flowers and berries, like something delicate and ethereal, like the dust of crystals carried on the breeze.

“I’m sorry,” they said again, this time directly to Mahon. They remembered how he had sat on the clifftop, his arms around Siofra, calmly staring into the flames. Brogan would not have been so calm. They could stand to be around a calm like Mahon’s, they thought. “I’m very flighty, but you’re not so bad. I’m glad you’re free. I think the three of us could make a go of it here, if you like. We could see what fish there are, what roots and berries, what clearings to live in and make our own way, the three of us, as Siofra and I did on our own before.”

“We will,” said Mahon.

Siofra squeezed both of them briefly in a clumsy hug, then turned to look out at the horizon.

“I wonder how many others there are, out here,” she said. “How many people like us, who think they’re bad at being human, or bad at being otters, or bad at whatever they are, because no one ever told them they could be good at being us.”

“It stands to reason we’ll find them,” said Brogan. “I found you, and you found him.”

So saying, they began to make their way down the hillside, through the blue and yellow flowers.

They all lived happily ever after.

© 2019 Ada Hoffmann

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