|Pub Date: 2-9-21|
YA - Fantasy
The human world
A long, long time ago
It was almost time
I peeked out of the bushes and grinned. The stage was nearly set. In the tiny, sun-dappled clearing beyond the trees, the crystal-clear pool glimmered, attracting all manner of life to its sparkling waters. A herd of spotted deer bent graceful necks to the surface under the watchful eye of a great stag, standing tall at the edge of the pond. A few rabbits hopped through the bracken scattered through the clearing, and a family of squirrels scolded each other in the branches of a large gnarled oak. Birds sang, wildlife meandered, and the wind gently rustled the leaves overhead. It was a blissful, picturesque woodland scene, a perfectly peaceful day in the human realm.
Boring, boring, boring.
I smiled, reached into my shirt, and pulled the pan flute into the light. It was my own design; I’d spent several days gathering hollow reeds, cutting them, binding them together and making sure the tone was perfect. Now, I was going to see what it could do.
Drawing glamour from the forest around me, I raised the flute to my lips and blew out a single note.
The clear, high sound cut through the stillness of the woods, arcing over the grove, and all the animals clustered around the pond jerked up, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. The rabbits sat up, ears twitching back and forth. The deer raised their heads, dark eyes huge as they gazed around, ready to flee. The squirrels’ tails flicked back and forth as they clung to the branches, their chittering voices silenced.
In the sudden stillness, I took a deep breath, gathering my magic, and began playing.
The melody rose into the air, cheerful and face paced. It swirled around the pond, into the ears of every living creature. For a moment, none of them moved,
Then, one of the rabbits began tapping its foot. The others followed, thumping their hind legs in tune to the rhythm, and the deer began tossing their heads to the music. In the branches, the squirrels bobbed, tails flicking back and forth, keeping time, and the birds added their voices to the song. I bit down a smile and played louder, faster, drawing in more glamour and releasing it into the notes trilling through the forest.
With a bugle, the ancient stag reared up, tossing his huge antlers, and gave a graceful bound to the center of the clearing. His sharp hooves pawed the grass, raking gouges in the earth, as he began stepping and leaping with the music. As one, his herd joined him, bouncing and cavorting to his side, and the rabbits began flinging themselves in wild arcs around the stomping deer. My glee soared; this was working better than I had hoped. It was all I could do to keep playing and not let the song drop because of the enormous grin wanting to stretch my face.
Rising from the bushes, I walked toward the grove, the pan flute moving rapidly under my lips, the song rising and the magic soaring in response. My feet itched, and I started to move them, stepping and dancing to the center of the clearing. Filling my lungs, I played as loudly as I could, my body moving almost on its own, leaping and twirling and spinning through the air. And all around me, the forest creatures danced as well, hooves and horns and furry bodies barely missing me as they bounced and cavorted in a frantic circle, hurling themselves around the grove with wild abandon. I lost myself in the music, in the excitement and ecstasy, as I danced with the forest.
I didn’t know how long the melody went on; half the time my eyes were closed and I was moving on pure instinct. But at last, as the song reached a crescendo, I sensed it was time to bring it to a close. With one final, soaring note, the melody died away, the wild emotions faded, and the whirlwind of magic swirling through the grove fluttered out, returning to the earth.
Panting, I lowered my arms. Around me, my fellow dancers also came to shuddering stops, breathing hard. The great stag stood a few feet away, antlered head bowed, legs and flanks trembling. As I watched, he quivered and collapsed, white foam bubbling from his mouth and nostrils as his head struck the ground. One by one, the rest of the herd crumpled as well, some gasping wide-eyed for breath, some lying motionless in the dirt. Scattered around them, furry lumps of rabbits lay in the churned mud. I looked at the trees and saw the squirrels and birds lying at the bases of the trunks, having fallen from their perches once the music ceased.
I blinked. Well, that was unexpected. How long had I been playing anyway? I looked at the sky through the branches and saw clouds streaked with orange, the sun hovering low on the horizon. I’d come to this grove and played the very first note early this morning. It seemed our wild revel had lasted the entire day.
Huh. I scratched the back of my head. Well, that’s disappointing. I guess I can’t push these mortal beasts too aggressively, or they just collapse. Hmm. Tapping the fingers of one hand against my arm, I gazed at the pan flute in the other. I wonder if humans would do any better?
The deep, lyrical voice came from behind me, and a ripple of magic shivered through the air. I felt a stab of annoyance that someone had been watching my revel; that was why I’d chosen to do this in the human world, after all—so I could worry less about curious eavesdroppers. I turned and saw a procession of horses at the edge of the clearing, watching me from the trees. The mounts were fey creatures, lighter and much more graceful than their mortal counterparts, their hooves barely touching the ground. The riders atop them were sidhe knights, clad in armor of leaves, vines and branches woven together. Part of the Summer Court, I realized. I’d seen them before, as well as the knights of the Winter Court. I’d even played with a few of them in the wyldwood, though they never realized the cause of all their small, annoying mishaps was a forest boy too insignificant to notice.
But the rider at the front of the procession had definitely noticed me, and he was impossible to miss, too. His mount was bright gold, brighter than any mortal steed, but the noble atop it outshone even his mount. He was dressed in armor of green and gold, with a cloak made of blooming vines that left flowers where he passed. Long silver hair flowed from under the huge antlered crown that rested on his brow, and the piercing green eyes beneath it were fixed solely on me.
Why was he here? Had he heard my music and been drawn to the sound? That was unfortunate. I tried to avoid catching the eye of the Summer Court, particularly this faery. I hadn’t been doing anything wrong; the fey cared little to what happened in the mortal world. The deaths of a few forest creatures meant nothing to them. But attracting the attention of one of the most powerful faeries in the Nevernever was a dangerous game. Depending on his mood, he might demand that I “gift” him the thing I’d worked so hard on, play the pipes for him and his knights by for as long as he was amused, or entertain them all by becoming the next hunt. The fey lords were notoriously unpredictable, and I treated them as I would a sleeping dragon: it was okay to tiptoe around and steal their gold, as long as they didn’t see you.
But now, the dragon had spotted me.
The sidhe gentry nudged his mount, and the horse stepped into the clearing, striding across the grass until beast and rider loomed before me. I stood my ground and gazed up defiantly at the noble, who was watching me with appraising eyes.
“So young,” he mused. “And such an impressive use of glamour. What is your name, boy?”
“And where are your parents, Robin?”
I shrugged. “I live by myself. In the wyldwood.” I couldn’t remember my parents, if I’d even had them. My earliest memory was the tangle of the wyldwood, foraging for food and shelter, learning the skills I needed to survive. But, even though I was alone, I’d never felt like I didn’t belong. The forest, the wyldwood, was my home. That was how it always had been.
“Hm.” The tall noble didn’t press the question. He observed me in silence for another moment, his face giving nothing away. “Do you know who I am, boy?” he asked instead.
This time, I nodded. “You’re King Oberon.” It was obvious; everyone knew who the Summer King was, though I’d never seen him in person. It didn’t matter. I had never seen Queen Mab, ruler of the Winter Court, either, but I was certain I would know her if I did.
“Yes,” the Seelie King agreed. “I am indeed. And I could use someone of your talents in Seelie territory.” He raised a hand, indicating me with long, elegant fingers. “You have power; raw, unfettered Summer magic rivaling some of my strongest allies in the court. Such a gift should not go to waste in the wyldwood. You should not be living in the forest like a beast, singing to birds and squirrels. You should be part of the greatest court in the Nevernever. What say you, Robin?” The king regarded me with eyes like pale green frost. “Would you like to become part of the Seelie Court?”
Part of the Seelie Court?
Curiosity battled defiance. I was intrigued, of course. Living by myself in the wyldwood meant I could come and go as I pleased, but it was getting a bit lonely. I wanted to talk to people, others of my kind, not just forest creatures and the occasional scatterbrained piskie. And of the two courts, Summer territory sounded much more pleasant than the frozen, hostile land of Winter.
Still, it was never a good idea to take the first offer. Even I, with my limited knowledge of bargains and deals, knew that much.
“I like it in the forest.” I crossed my arms and smiled at the king. “Why should I go live at the Summer Court?”
The Seelie King smiled, as if he’d expected that answer. “Because, Robin, I am king.” He spoke the phrase like it was the most important fact in the world. “And as king of the Seelie, I can give you whatever your heart desires. I can grant you power, wealth, the love of as many hearts as you wish.” He paused, as I wrinkled my nose. “But I can see you are not interested in these things. Perhaps, then, this would be of note. I have many enemies, Robin. Both within the court and without. From time to time, these enemies need to realize that they cannot underestimate the sovereignty of Summer. If you join me…well, let us say you will have plenty of opportunities to practice your magic on things other than common forest beasts.”
Now that sounded interesting. I glanced back at the pond, at the motionless bodies surrounding it. Poor dumb animals. I hadn’t meant to harm them, but it seemed normal creatures were very fragile. I would love to try some of my ideas on sturdier creatures, maybe even a few fey, and Oberon was dangling that big, bright carrot in front of me. He seemed to know exactly what I wanted. The only question was, did I care?
“So, Robin of the Wyldwood,” King Oberon went on, peering down at me from his horse. “What is your decision? Will you join my court? I will name you court jester, and you can play your tricks and practice your magic without boundaries. All I ask is that you do me a small service from time to time. Do we have a deal?”
Something nagged at me, a feeling that this agreement wasn’t quite what I thought it was. I’d made deals before, but they were with piskies and sprites and a couple local dryads. Never with someone as important as the ruler of the Seelie Court. Was I missing something? This did seem a little too good to be true.
I hesitated a moment more, then shrugged. Then again, why not join the Summer Court? What was the worst that could happen? I was aching for something new, and if I was under the protection of King Oberon himself, think of all the pranks and tricks I could play without fear of retribution.
This was going to be fun.
“All right,” I agreed, grinning up at Oberon, who raised a thin silver brow in return. “You have a deal, king. I’ll join the Summer Court, as long as I get to practice my magic and play as many tricks as I want.”
“Excellent.” Oberon nodded and raised both hands. “Then I name you Robin Goodfellow, jester of the Summer Court,” he announced in sudden, booming tones, and the branches of the trees shook, as if acknowledging his declaration. Lowering his arms, the Summer lord gazed down at me with a sudden, almost proud smile. “Welcome to the Seelie Court, Robin Goodfellow. Wear your name proudly. Perhaps someday the world will come to know it, as well.”
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