Note: This story is based off the events of A Branch of Silver, A Branch of Gold. Which while not part of the Goldstone Wood series, is still very much a part of Goldstone Wood.
On the morning of Esmeralda’s tenth birthday, Lume rose with a gladsome heart. He beamed a greeting to the little girl as she ran from the outskirts of the eastern forest. Esmeralda did not notice Lume’s birthday gift of light, for her eyes were fixed upon the trinket clutched in her hand. Moreover, her ears rang with a mysterious song, a song of silver melody.
Collette saw Lume’s kind smile as she emerged from her family’s humble dwelling. She, too, did not acknowledge him, for her mind was fraught with worry. Meme had wept all through the night. Even high within her loft chamber, Collette had heard the stifled cries of pain.
Collette quickly banished these thoughts. Meme’s pain was her fault, and the more Collette allowed herself to think about this fact, the more miserable she became. Today was her sister’s birthday, and there were many things to do. Speaking of Esie, where could she be? Perhaps it was too much to hope that she’d gone to gather—
“Collie! Collie! Look what I have!”
Collette turned toward the excited voice. Esmeralda whirled into view, her disheveled hair bouncing around her flushed face. Her eyes glowed with excitement, and she held aloft a shining object.
“Dragon’s teeth, Essie,” Collette sighed. “Must you screech so? You’ll awaken—“ Her voice dwindled as she beheld what dangled from her sister’s fingers. A chain of silver gleamed in Lume’s early-morning light. A teardrop-shaped stone nestled in the center of the chain, a stone of crimson fire.
Collette swallowed. “Where did you find this necklace, Esie?” she asked.
Esmeralda smiled. “In the eastern forest. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Despite Collette’s unease, her heart warmed toward her sister’s excitement. There were so few luxuries to enjoy. Collette grudgingly nodded affirmation to Esmeralda’s question. The necklace was indeed beautiful. But, how had her sister found it?
“You saw this in the forest and retrieved it? You expect me to believe someone dropped such a precious heirloom and—“
“No!” Esmeralda said, her smile widening. “It was a birthday gift.”
Collette frowned. “A birthday gift from whom?” she asked.
Esmeralda caressed the necklace, her reluctance to answer clear. Finally, she murmured, “I don’t know. A man. He met me just as I reached the forest.”
“A man? What man?” Collette’s mind spun, and she saw the figure materialize before her eyes, the handsome figure of a man with ebony skin, emerald eyes and a kind smile. She saw the shoulder-length jet black hair and the extended hand, the hand that held the—
Collette pointed at the necklace with a trembling hand. “Esie, you have to take it back,” She tried to speak firmly, but her voice trembled. “Please. You have to throw it away.”
Esmeralda blinked. Tears shone in her eyes. “I can’t,” she whispered. “You don’t understand. I heard a bird singing, and I couldn’t help following the music. It was so lovely. The man was so kind. He said the necklace would heal Meme.”
Those who journeyed to the eastern cranberry bog had no way of knowing they were being watched. The Faerie Beast that observed them could make himself invisible. Thus he had little fear of being discovered.
The Beast crouched within the watery bog. His skin was wrought from midnight, and it glinted with sparkling brilliants. This creature was a toad. Those who think this fact is cause for amusement would do well to reconsider. Faery Beasts of any kind deserve respect, and this particular toad was beautiful. Dignity clothed him in robes of magnificence, and his movements were majestic. He raised his head and sniffed. His stomach churned with revulsion at the cloying scent of mortality. The Gates were closed to him. This fact caused him immense frustration. But he was patient. Soon the one he despised would be dead. What need had he for Gates when others could do his bidding? All he need do was wait.
Meme’s sickness had begun the night Collette served cranberries for dessert. The pail of innocent-looking fruit had held Death within its heart. But Collette had not fallen ill. Oh, no. Death was too cruel to kill the one who was to blame. Instead, Meme had been the chosen victim. Death did not strike with sudden brutality, however. Meme lay in fevered agony, a fever that gnawed at her hart.
Collette and Esmeralda knelt at Meme’s side. Esmeralda held a cup of water, and Collette cradled Meme’s head as she tried to spoon pottage into her mouth. Meme’s lips hung limply open, but no matter how many times Collette tried to feed her, the concoction dribbled down Meme’s chin. Finally, Collette abandoned the task. “It’s no use,” she said.
Esmeralda nodded. “Why won’t you let me use the necklace, Collie?” she asked, her voice desperate. “I have to try.” She raised her hand in which the necklace reposed. “Please let me try.”
“No.” Collette felt her features harden. She abruptly stood. “Come. Let’s go find some honey. Surely we can find enough to make you a cake. And then we’ll—“
“Why are you so stubborn?” Esmeralda hissed, her face flushing with fury. “He told me to show you the necklace. If I’d known you’d be this way, I’d never have shown it to you! How can you be so cruel? Papa would have let me use--”
“Papa isn’t here, is he?” Collette snapped. She winced when she saw Esmeralda’s face crumple. Sighing, Collette bowed her head in shame. Grandmem’s voice entered her mind. “Beware of strangers and their gifts, child. Faeries seek entrance to this land, and they’ll try any means necessary.” If only Grandmem were alive to help her now. Fool that she was, Collette had not heeded the warning when the gift of cranberries had been given to her. Now she was paying for her folly. If only her people were not at war with Corrilond. Then perhaps Papa could advise her. As it was, Collette was alone. A twelve-year-old should have some guidance. How was she expected to care for Esmeralda when she couldn’t even care for—
BANG! WHOOSH! The cottage door opened with a resounding crash. The sisters screamed as utensils and bric-a-brack flew from tables. Grandmem’s treasured rocking chair began to move; an erratic to and fro motion that made the poor contraption screech in protest. Above this pandemonium, a strange sound could be heard. Was it Collette’s imagination, or was the sound laughter? Strange laughter to be sure, but laughter nonetheless?
“Who’s there? That’s Grandmem’s chair! Stop it at once!” Esmeralda’s voice broke through the laughter with indignant fury. The little girl’s face was pale, but her voice was strong.
“A lovely thing!” a disembodied voice cried gleefully. “I’ve never seen the like!” The chair rocked even faster.
Collette knew she was mad. The sleepless nights were finally taking their toll. But, she would not allow Grandmem’s chair to be broken. Without thinking, she lunged forward, clasping the writhing chair in her arms. A sharp wind tore at her hands, but its touch was not malevolent. “I only want to play,” the voice said plaintively.
Collette swallowed her fear and tried to make her voice as stern as Esmeralda’s had been. “That’s not yours. Who are you?” She sighed with relief as Esmeralda came to stand beside her. The girl put her trembling hand onto Collette’s shoulder.
The voice laughed again. “I’m here for you two. Sent by the Gatekeeper, I was. I’m to take you away.”
“Take us where?” Collette asked.
There was a long silence. Finally, the voice said, “To Here and There, to Near and Far.”
Collette frowned. “Do you even know what you’re saying?” she asked.
“Yes!” the voice said excitedly. Then more softly, “No.” Then, “Maybe?”
Collette looked at Esmeralda. Both girls shrugged. We’re mad, Collette thought.
This thing seems nice, Esmeralda thought. It was she who finally said, “We can’t leave Meme. She’s ill, and we have to stay nearby.”
“Mortals are so amusing!” The voice laughed as if Esmeralda had told the funniest joke imaginable. “You will be nearby. At least, I think so.” The voice paused for a moment and then said, as if just remembering. “Oh, and I’m a sylph.” Without further ado, Collette and Esmeralda felt frenzied hands grab them. They screamed as the cottage door banged against the wall. A kaleidoscope of color danced around them, and Esmeralda cried out indignantly as one of her locks was painfully tweaked. Then the world tilted, and the sisters knew no more.
The toad hopped through the bog, his every nerve-ending screaming with frustration. By Iubdan’s great black beard! Why must he endure the indignity of being unable to pass through the Gates to the mortal realm? Shouldn’t the blasted woman be dead by now? Had the mortal girl not given her mother the cranberries yet? Such dazzling fruit, too, fruit cleverly inundated with his own poison. “It will not be for nothing,” the Beast whispered, his rich voice deep as a shawm’s note. “I am Gushnal, and I will avenge what is mine.”
A trilling song filled the toad’s ears, a song of utter sadness and entreaty:
“Beyond the Final Water falling
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
When hatred seeks to stifle your very soul,
Won’t you call to me?”
Gushnall raised his head and surveyed the vast bog. He saw nothing, although he knew the singer of that silvery song. “Save your voice, Song Giver,” he murmured. “Little good you did for her. I no longer want to hear your false promises.” He trembled, for the song was poison to his ears. He steeled himself for more waiting. Time was irrelevant to him, anyhow.
The Wood always enjoyed observing a sylph’s antics. Now it watched as two mortal girls were deposited unceremoniously in a rather cantankerous blackberry thicket. The brambles, angry at being disturbed, hissed and quivered. They withdrew their thorns from masses of dark hair in an attempt to rid themselves of the intruders.
“Ouch!” Esmeralda gasped. She stumbled from the thicket in Collette’s wake. The sisters gazed around the vast Wood, unable to discern a path of any kind. “Where are we?” Esmeralda asked.
“Near and Far, Here and There,” the sylph sang. Both girls became aware that the sylph had not ceased its mad capering. The wind whirled around trees and bushes, paying no heed to the exasperated quivering of the branches and briars. It laughed with joyful abandon. “You mortals do not listen. I said I’d been told to take you Here and There, and that’s what I’ve done.”
Collette frowned. “You speak in riddles.” She placed a hand to her head, which was beginning to ache. “We have to help Meme. Don’t you understand?”
“Under stand? Riddles?” The sylph danced around Collette, playing with her hair in delight. “Here is Nowhere, you see. We—“
“Lights Above! Do allow them to collect themselves before you bombard them with more than they can handle,” a different voice said. Collette turned toward the voice. A beaming young woman stepped from beneath the sheltering arms of a maple tree. Collette gaped upon seeing her. The woman’s hair was a hopeless shambles. It was more untidy than Esmeralda’s if that were possible. She wore a simple homespun dress. Stitched along the garment’s border was an intricate design of cranberry blossoms. Collette gasped upon seeing the dress, for Grandmem had always sewn cranberry blossoms along the borders of her garments. The woman’s eyes shone with moisture, and they were strangely familiar. Grandmem’s eyes, Collette thought. But this woman was not Grandmem.
The woman approached Collette and Esmeralda. She extended her hand. Before the woman could speak, Esmeralda said, “You’re crying.”
“You’ve both grown so,” the woman said softly.
Collette frowned. “Who are you?” she asked.
The woman shook her head, her face falling slightly. “No one told you of me?” she asked.
Collette tried to think, but so much was happening today. “I don’t remember,” she said.
“Wait! You look like Grandmem,” Esmeralda said. “She said she had a sister. She said her sister had important work, that her name was—“ Her voice trailed away.
Suddenly, Collette remembered. She remembered sunlit days sitting with Grandmem as she sewed. She remembered Grandmem’s stories, stories that Collette had banished from her mind. She thought of the story about a curse, of how Grandmem had been captured by a mysterious family. She remembered stories of a courageous younger sister. But if these stories were true, how could such misfortune have befallen their family? Why were they suffering so? “You’re Great-Aunt Heloise,” she said.
The woman beamed and nodded. She drew closer to the girls, and Collette knew what she wanted. The woman wanted to embrace them. Yet Collette could not bring herself to hug this woman. Esmeralda, apparently, had no misgivings. She flung herself into Heloise’s arms, babbling incoherently.
“You can help us! Meme’s ill. Her fever will not break, and Collette won’t let me give Meme the necklace. Grandmem says you know magic. Can you—“
“Dragon’s teeth, Esie!” Collette hissed. “Hold your tongue!” She glared at her sister and then turned her gaze to Heloise. The woman smiled at her but did not draw closer. She seemed to know that Collette had no desire to be hugged, and she respected that decision. Collette watched as Esmeralda allowed Heloise to hold her. Both woman and child were crying, their pearlescent tears mingling.
Collette suddenly felt a searing heat in her chest. Burning words scalded her tongue. “I know of your trickery! Grandmem said you were a Gate Guardian, one who kept Faerie Beasts away. Your task is to keep mortals safe. Well, you’re not doing a very good job! I-I’m doing all I can, and still it’s not enough. I—I—“ Her voice broke into crystalline fragments, and she sank to her knees, tears cascading down her cheeks.
A familiar hand patted Collette’s shoulder, and she felt herself being drawn into a two-fold hug. Esmeralda’s arms clamped around her, and she felt the sturdy arms of Heloise add support to the embrace. Collette shook as her grief poured from her in torrents.
Suddenly, another entity joined the hug. Collette felt her hair flutter in gentle hands, and she looked up to see the sylph dancing around them. It was laughing, but the laugh was softer now and tinged with compassion. The sylph itself seemed bewildered by this as compassion was an emotion for which it had no name. Collette smiled in spite of herself.
“Won’t you tell me what’s happened?” Heloise asked gently. “There are times I cannot prevent a Faerie Beast from causing mischief. Many of them are quite cunning. Won’t you tell me all?”
Collette swallowed and prepared to speak. “Grandmem had just died,” she said. “It was during last spring. The Oakwood was not yielding, and the cranberries were scarce. The flax crop was poor. Everyone was so hungry.”
Gushnal dove beneath the bog’s surface, sliding through the water like an eel seeking its hole. He entered a small grotto, a grotto invisible to mortal eyes. “Ashnall, I have come,” he said.
No sound came to Gushnall’s heart , no cheerful voice greeted him. The silence always brought him pain. He hopped to his daughter’s side. As always, his Faerie heart broke at the sight of her deplorable state.
Ashnall crouched in a corner of the grotto, her misshapen legs quivering with pain. Her ebony skin was dull. It no longer shone with the brilliants so common to her kind. Lacerations marred her back. Her body shook incessantly as if she were being dealt continuous blows. Yet it was the absence of her voice that struck Gushnall as the cruelest injustice. He stared at her, observing the crimson tears that flowed from her eyes.
“Why do you waste time weeping over him?” he murmured tenderly. “He cared nothing for you. I have saved you from him.” Gushnall bent close to Ashnall’s quivering body. He dared not touch her, but he had to give her some form of comfort. He watched his daughter’s tears fall to the ground. Ashnall’s tears hardened as they fell. They transformed into vibrant stones. “I will always protect you,” Gushnall whispered. “I will never let harm befall you again.” Using his front legs, Gushnall carefully gathered the teardrop-shaped stones from the grotto’s floor. He hopped to a small chest in the corner of the room, the only furniture the grotto contained. Within this chest, he placed Ashnall’s tears. The chest held so many stones, yet it never filled completely. Gushnall gazed at the stones and began to count them. He caressed their vibrant smoothness. He dared not touch Ashnall, for he would hurt her as he had done before, but he could touch her tears.
Crouched within her corner, Ashnall observed her father. His fury had been so strong. She had been unable to stand against it. I weep for you, Father, she thought.
“So, this man offered to help you gather cranberries?” Heloise asked.
Collette nodded. “He was very kind. He said I looked weary.” She swallowed, suddenly aware of how idiotic her story sounded. “I thought of Grandmem, of how she always sewed cranberry blossoms into our garments. We were so hungry, and I wanted to help, but I could find nothing to eat. I looked everywhere.”
Heloise shook her head. “He came to you in his human form, I suppose,” she said musingly. “He sought to confuse your mind. You met him at the easternmost cranberry bog, you say?”
Collette nodded, relieved that Heloise seemed to understand. “He brought me a pail of berries,” she said. “They were the most perfect cranberries I’d ever seen. I took them home as a treat. He said no payment was necessary. He just wanted to help me.”
Heloise frowned. “Faerie’s always demand payment. I do not know who this beast might be. Perhaps I can journey to the haven and ask—“
“I will, mistress!” the sylph said joyfully. “I’ll go at once! I’ll find the Dame. She’ll give me the answers you seek!”
Heloise smiled at the whirling wind but shook her head. “I need you to do something more important. You must journey back to the cottage and guard it. The mortal girls’ mother must be kept safe. Do you understand?”
“Yes!” the sylph said. Then, more softly, “No.” Then, “Maybe?”
Heloise laughed. “You’ll do marvelously well. Go and make me proud.”
The sylph jigged merrily about its mistress’ head one last time. Then, with a laugh of giddy pleasure, it vanished.
Heloise stared after the departing wind for a moment and then turned back to the girls. “The Lumil Eliasul bid me send the sylph to fetch you both. He told me to meet you here in the Between. We must determine who it is that wants to hurt you and why before we can act.“
“Gushnall is their enemy,” said a voice. Collette’s brain felt as if it might disintegrate. Really! How many strangers was she expected to meet in one day? She turned to see a man standing before her. All attempts to describe this man were impossible. His face was quite plain, its very ordinariness making it unimpressive. Even so, Authority clothed him in its luminous garments, and his eyes were the most probing Collette had ever seen. They seemed capable of seeing into the darkest caverns, yet they shone with kindness. When those eyes fastened upon her own, Collette felt as if the man could gaze into her very heart. She cringed, for she did not want him to see her, but at the same time, she instinctively felt unafraid. Collette watched as Heloise bowed her head in reverence to the man. He smiled and addressed the girls. “Gushnall is a formidable foe, but I can help you defeat him.”
Esmeralda, who had been surprisingly quiet for some time, suddenly said, “It’s you! You gave me the necklace!”
The man smiled at her, and Collette gaped as he clasped Esmeralda’s hand. “I know it frustrated you to wait about using it, my child, but this necklace will serve a two-fold purpose. Your sister was wise to be cautious. I knew she would not allow you to use my gift. That’s why I bade Heloise to send the sylph to fetch you. I have chosen you both to perform a vital task.” He gestured to Esmeralda’s hand, and she opened it to reveal the necklace. It still gleamed, and Collette was suddenly aware that the stone had altered. It was no longer solid. It had softened, its fiery edges reaching to touch the silver chain upon which it hung.
“The stone is liquid,” Collette said in awe. She reached out her hand as if to touch it, but the man gently detained her.
“This stone is one of my tears,” the man said softly. “Look into it, and you will see and understand.”
Collette and Heloise approached Esmeralda. They peered at the necklace she held. The glimmering teardrop stone seemed to expand before their eyes. Scenes unfurled like opening flower petals, and the Wood itself watched all with bated breath. As the scenes appeared, the man spoke.
“Gushnall is a Faerie King. He has always been attracted to beauty. Yet no beauty can compare with that of his daughter. He loves her with a fierceness rarely displayed among Faerie Beasts. His queen had been captured by a Roc. Gushnall tried in vain to save her but was unsuccessful. So, he vowed to protect his daughter at all costs. You can imagine his shock on the day he learned that Ashnall loved a mortal man.
“You must understand that those in Gushnall’s demesne have an unusual gift. The gift is one of healing. The gift is contained within their very essences. The tears they weep are jewels. Their very skins are composed of jet. Wherever they go, they leave behind beauty. One touch from them or from the jewels they weep can bring healing.
“Ashnall had often seen a mortal man come to the cranberry bog to gather fruit. One day, she approached him in her human form, for she was mesmerized by his beauty. She could not banish him from her mind. Ashnall and the young man met often, and over time, Ashnall grew courageous enough to show the man her true form. The young man had a kind heart. He resolved to love Ashnall for herself and not for the treasures she could give him.
“The young man had a sister, and one day the sister became very ill with fever. When the man visited Ashnall again, he told her of his sister’s predicament. Ashnall gave the man a jewel which he took to his home. The man placed the jewel on a simple chain he wore. He gave the necklace to his sister. When the jewel touched her skin, it melted, and its essence brought soothing peace to the sister’s heart. Instantly, she was restored to health, and the man rejoiced.
“But, word of someone’s good fortune can sometimes produce envy in others. In time, certain men learned of the sister’s miraculous recovery. Thoughts of wealth filled them, of the good fortune of possessing such a valuable creature. So, one night, they journeyed deep into the bog. They called into the open air, saying that Ashnall’s betrothed was in terrible danger. They said he was severely ill. He had sent them to plead for her help.
“Ashnall heard the desperate cries, and her heart lurched with terror. Without stopping to think, she emerged from the bog, and the men were upon her. One carried a net fashioned from iron, which he threw around her body. Others jabbed her back with knives. Her skin of jet fell away in chunks. She wept with pain and terror, and her tears hardened into gleaming stones which other men greedily collected.
“Ashnall screamed and struggled. Her screams summoned Gushnall. He was vehemently opposed to Ashnall’s love for the mortal man, and when he saw what was happening to her, he raised his head and sent forth a curse. ‘By Lady Life-In-Death herself, I will give gifts to all of you, gifts of Death and Disstruction! Your women will suffer, and your children will moan in agony! They will writhe upon their deathbeds, and I will watch their every labored breath.’
“The Dragon’s sister heard Gushnall’s cry, and although she was indifferent to the identity of the sufferer, she decided to help him. Lady Life-In-Death whispered in her solitude. ‘Blood congeal within him. Turn to icy droplets of Death.’ Her whisper carried throughout the worlds both Near and Far, and Gushnall felt the hardening of his veins. He approached Ashnall, whom the men had released. They knelt upon the ground, pleading for mercy. Gently, Gushnall touched Ashnall’s shoulder. ‘Come, my daughter. I will keep you safe.’
“At that moment, Ashnall felt her body freeze. Her legs splayed outward, twisted in a crouch of pain, and her body was as stiff as a statue. She tried to speak, to plead with her father, but her voice was frozen as well. She could say nothing.
“Gushnall cried out in fury, suddenly realizing what he had done and to whom he had sworn allegiance. An icy voice whispered to his heart, ‘You may now always remember what was done to her and how her betrothed caused the assault. Destroy them all, Faerie Beast. Make the mortals suffer. In particular, cause pain to the Gatekeeper’s family.’ You see, Lady Life-In-Death had often sought entrance into the mortal world to wreak havoc but had been prevented.
“Gushnall called for other Beasts of his kind to help him, and he carried Ashnall to his home. There she remains to this day, forever bound in her pain. Gushnall keeps her by his side, and he has vowed vengeance on your family.”
There was a long silence after the story had been completed. Finally, Collette whispered, “Our uncle died of fever before I was born. Meme told me so. She said he was to marry, but his betrothed mysteriously vanished. Everyday, he went to the cranberry bog to search for her.”
The man nodded, his face sad. “He sought Ashnall constantly. So long he had sought her, for he had heard of the story from the terrified men. Moreover, many of the men had suffered from fevers. Gushnall appeared to your uncle. He came to him in his handsome man form. ‘You will never find her, mortal. I will keep her safe from your kind. The Lumil Eliasul forbids me from harming mortals, but I have spilled my own blood to counteract his wrath.’ Gushnall showed his wrists to your uncle. Vibrant scars gleamed upon them. Before your uncle could step away from him, Gushnall placed his hand onto your uncle’s shoulder. ‘My daughter has suffered at mortal men’s hands, and I, too, have subjected myself to the shedding of blood. I gave my first two lives in order to see that justice is done. I vow by my blood that within a fortnight, you will be dead.’”
“But surely Uncle told him that he had not sent the men to attack Ashnall,” Collette said.
The man nodded. “Several times, but Gushnall was beyond reason. He has killed your uncle and now seeks your mother’s life. He blames her for the trouble as well, you see, for it was her recovery that drew the men’s envy.”
Collette shuddered. “What can we do?”
“Come,” the man said. “We must go to the cranberry bog. I will journey ahead of you.” He gestured to Heloise to approach him. When she did so, he pointed to a winding pathway. “Follow this road, and you will reach the bog safely,” he said. Then the man vanished.
As the astonished sisters followed Heloise along the winding path, Esmeralda suddenly asked, “Who was that man? What’s his name?”
Heloise, who was walking by Esmeralda’s side, smiled. “He is the Song-Giver, the Lumil Eliasul himself,” she said.
Gushnall felt the shifting of the bog water around him, and his heart quivered with anticipation. Someone had finally passed through the Gate. He glided toward the sound of voices.
“I met the man just here,” Collette said. Her mind traversed the familiar ground, and she saw the two clusters of bare cranberry vines that she had parted that fateful day. She had passed through them in order to journey deeper into the bog, hoping to find any source of food she could. She remembered the strange feeling that had enveloped her as she stepped beyond the vines, the feeling that the bog stretched on forever. Then the handsome man had approached her.
Collette turned to Esmeralda and Heloise. “You talked of Faerie Gates and how you guarded them. Do Gatekeepers only keep Beasts out? Can mortals enter—“
“Actually, we Beasts as you call us have ways of diverting the prying eyes of Gate Guardians. Enchantments can be masked, you see, for caorann berries mask all means of glamours.” Collette’s heart froze as the murky water before her parted like a gossamer curtain. A Creature hopped toward her, a translucent creature with dazzling skin. The creature seemed to be draped in a coat of jet, and his large eyes gleamed with ruby light. Collette gazed at the creature in awe.
Gushnall smiled, and his large tongue flicked from his mouth. “Welcome back, mortal girl. I apologize for appearing to you in this form, but I felt disguises were unnecessary. Have you come for more fruit?” His smile broadened, and Collette shivered with fear. This creature was so handsome, yet his very being dripped contempt.
“Y-You tricked me.” Collette spoke without thinking.
Gushnall tilted his large head, and for a moment, sadness seemed to pass over his features. “The deception wouldn’t have been necessary if the Gates had been open to me. I only seek to avenge the honor of the one who is mine.” He shifted his gaze to Heloise, and his ruby eyes bulged with fury as he addressed her directly. “Those men sought to flay my daughter, to cut her very heart away! I had to bind her! I had to give her protection. Do you know what I’ve suffered? I sought entry into the mortal world for twelve years, but I was prevented. I devised a way to disguise the gate to my demesne. Only mortals who stumbled through the gate could be influenced by me. I never wanted to give the girl the poison for her mother, but what else could I do? You are the one to blame!”
Collette’s mind spun, and her lips felt swollen. What could she say? Meme’s sickness was her fault, wasn’t it? She gazed into Gushnall’s blazing eyes. “She’s not the one to blame. It’s my fault,” she said. “If you want to hurt someone, then hurt me. Leve Meme alone.”
Gushnall stared at her. His tongue flicked outward once again as if he were considering her proposition. “I have no quarrel with you, girl. Your mother’s illness is a form of justice. Yet I see that you, at least, know something of pain. You would truly give your life to restore your mother to health?” he asked. “If death is truly what you want, I can grant your request.” He gestured to the water. “Simply drink. The water’s poison will be painless.” He laughed, a laugh of bitter self-loathing. “Those in my demesne who have drunk the water have died painlessly. I am not like the Faerie Queen of old, the one who burned her subjects to death in her wrath. Etalpalli’s people are no more, of course. I still have subjects who live. Alas, my subjects flee from me now, although I never intended to hurt them. Will you drink and save your mother’s life?“
Collette gazed at the water surrounding her. Meme had lain in agony for a fortnight with no relief in sight. Collette was only twelve. Esmeralda needed Meme. What should she do? She gazed at Gushnall’s gleaming ruby eyes. “You will restore her? Truthfully?” she asked, her voice trembling.
Gushnall gazed at the mortal girl. For a moment, he thought of the blood that he had shed. He had cut himself with stones and watched his life’s blood fall again and again. He had screamed entreaties for Ashnall to be restored. Nothing had happened. His plea had fallen on deaf ears. Yes. Perhaps he would honor this mortal’s request. After all, what better revenge could be had than watching a mother pine away for her lost child? Fair was fair, after all. Wasn’t his lot to watch Ashnall suffer? Why shouldn’t the mortal woman suffer as well? “You have my word,” he whispered. Before Collette’s astonished eyes, he changed into his handsome man’s form and smiled at her. He bent toward the water. When he stood upright, he held a jeweled goblet in his hand. He held the goblet of water as a cupbearer might when presenting wine to a queen. The gesture was mocking. “Allow me to give you drink, mortal,” he said.
Suddenly, a trill of birdsong filled the bog. Startled, Collette spun around. She gasped. Esmeralda was nowhere in sight. Heloise, too, was gone.
Collette peered around her, searching for any sight of her sister. All she saw was the vines shimmering before her eyes. Perched atop them was a wood thrush, his speckled breast gleaming. His beak was open, and song cascaded from him in silvery trills of liquid beauty. Collette seemed to hear words within the song. Death resides within his soul. Follow me toward life. Your sister is within. Won’t you follow me?
“Esie,” Collette whispered. Meme was dying. Esmeralda couldn’t be lost, too. Collette darted through the swinging cranberry vines, and the thrush flew ahead of her. Collette heard furious splashing and knew that Gushnall pursued her.
Gushnall heard the infuriating song, but it was not the song that arrested his attention. The very air of his demesne shivered, and he knew that intruders were within his grotto. Ashnall had to be protected. He would deal with the mortal girl later. He entered his demesne, intent upon reaching his daughter’s side. All around him lay the prone bodies of his subjects, those who had succumbed to his poison. Those subjects who remained alive kept well away from their king. But he did not stop to survey his victims now. More pressing matters were at hand.
Deep within her prison, Ashnall quivered with the ever-present pain. The pain of her captivity burned. Yet the pain was not from fire. Ice encased her body. In her mind, she always saw the men with their gleaming knives and felt the iron net clamp around her. Above all, she heard Father’s curse, a curse that confined mortals and herself within its grip. Would she never be free?
Suddenly, Ashnall heard an unusual sound. Strange footsteps approached the grotto.
Two mortals entered Ashnall’s prison. Ashnall saw a little girl and a woman. She watched in shock as the little girl hurried to her side. The girl knelt and reached toward her. Ashnall felt a strange sensation prick her heart. Could the feeling be hope? No. That was surely impossible.
“Fool! Keep away from her!” The cry of fury filled the grotto, and the very walls shook with Gushnall’s wrath. Ashnall could only watch helplessly as Father bounded into the prison. His front legs shot outward, connecting violently with Esmeralda’s back. The little girl fell to the ground. Father knelt beside her, his face twisted with rage and frustration.
Heloise ran to Esmeralda’s side. The girl was shaking with convulsions, and her eyes were glassy. Heloise glared at Gushnall. “What have you done?” she hissed.
“I defended what was mine. It’s quite easy to kill now, you see. Death resides in my very skin.”
“Esie!” Collette ran into the grotto, her face flushed. She hurried to Esmeralda’s side. As Collette knelt, she saw that a glimmering object lay beside her sister’s splayed hand. The necklace. Trembling, Collette retrieved it.
A voice filled the grotto. Collette recognized the wood thrush’s song, and she heard his insistent cry. Follow me, child. Release his daughter’s pain. In doing so, you will free many. Collette turned toward the direction of the voice and saw that the thrush perched upon the lid of a humble chest. She rose and approached him. The necklace pulsed in her hand, and Collette gasped as she felt warm moisture bathe her palm. Slowly, she placed the necklace on the chest.
CRASH! CLINK! PLOP! The wood thrush flew upward as the chest burst open, and a torrent of gleaming jewels cascaded to the ground. Collette gasped as the jewels began to melt.
“No! You mustn’t!” Gushnall cried with a keening wail and hurried toward the shattered chest. “I cannot touch her. I will kill her if I do. Her tears are all I have to hold. Don’t you see? Please! Please—“ His voice trailed away, and he fell within the deluge of tears, scrabbling to gather them.
Ashnall watched as the mortal girl hurried to her sister’s side. Pity for Father filled her heart, but she also felt strangely light. It was as if a burden had been lifted from her back. The wood thrush hovered before Ashnall, and she knew this creature’s name. Tears fell from the wood thrush’s eyes, and they landed on Ashnall’s battered skin. The thrush sang:
“Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling.
When your tears are bound within another’s possession
I will cry for you.”
Ashnall felt her frozen heart lurch. She looked to where Father crouched by the destroyed chest. She looked toward the mortal woman and mortal girls. There faces were etched with pain.
Ashnall’s tongue suddenly moved in her mouth, and her voice burst forth. “I won’t let you hurt anyone else, Father!”
The grotto grew deathly still. Gushnall’s head jerked upward. Then he flew to his daughter’s side. He gasped as she hopped away from him. She approached the pain-wracked girl. Slowly, Ashnall extended her right front leg and touched Esmeralda’s forhead.
Collette gasped to see the beautiful Faerie Beast before her. The toad’s skin gleamed with moisture, and the gaping wounds upon her back were slowly closing. She looked as beautiful as her father was handsome, but the jewels that adorned her skin were even more lustrous.
Collette suddenly saw that Esmeralda’s cheeks were glowing. Her sister slowly sat up. Trembling, Collette helped Esmeralda to her feet. She smiled tentatively at the Faerie Beast before her. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Ashnall smiled. Then she turned toward Father. He crouched within the corner where she herself had so recently been bound. He was shaking. She hopped to his side and wrapped her front legs around him.
Gushnall stiffened beneath Ashnall’s touch. “Release me, daughter,” he said with desperation. “My poison will destroy you.”
Ashnall only tightened her grip. “I live, Father,” she said. “Your touch has not harmed me, for the Lumil Eliasul’s tears have broken my curse. Won’t you let him help you, too?” She embraced him once more. “I wept for my love, Father, it is true, but I also wept on your behalf.”
The familiar song finally entered Gushnall’s soul, for within his daughter’s embrace, he was able to allow the words to pierce his heart:
“Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling.
When your heart has been frozen by Life-In-Death’s touch,
Won’t you call to me?”
Gushnall shuddered, but words fell from his tongue. “Song-Giver, I am unworthy. You cannot help me. I have sworn allegiance to Lady Life-In-Death, and I am hers. I can’t even weep, for I am frozen.”
“That is why I weep for you, as I weep for all my children who are lost.” The thrush alighted by Gushnall’s side. “You have given up two of your lives, but you still live,” the Lumil Eliasul said. “Ashnall shall rule now as queen. I have saved her, and I seek to save you as well. You will cause no more harm to befall the mortal world.”
Gushnall nodded. He turned to the thrush and bowed his head in submission. “I will stay within my demesne and obey my daughter’s will,” he said. “I will leave the mortal’s alone. This vow I make upon my final life.”
The Lumil Eliasul nodded. “I accept this vow, and I will enhance the locks on the gate of your demesne so that no mortal will pass through again. Lady Life-In-Death no longer holds you. You are under my protection as is Ashnall. I have sent out a call to your former subjects, and they will arrive here shortly. You will instruct them to listen to Ashnall and obey her.” The thrush flew from Gushnall’s side and perched upon Heloise’s shoulder. “You may go, dear ones,” he said, addressing Heloise, Collette and Esmeralda. “There is one who awaits you in the Near World. Besides,” here the thrush trilled an amused refrain to his song, “I think the sylph has grown rather too fond of your Grandmem’s rocking chair.” He flew from Heloise’s shoulder and hovered above the wreckage of the chest. Nothing remained of Ashnall’s tears. Collette saw that amidst the debris of the broken chest gleamed a chain of silver and crimson.
“The necklace,” Collette said. She turned to Esmeralda and smiled. “Won’t you go and claim your birthday gift?”
Esmeralda grinned and retrieved the shimmering necklace. Both sisters turned to thank the thrush, but he had vanished.
Heloise approached the sisters. “Shall we go?” she asked. Both girls nodded.
Esmeralda’s birthday proved to be the most memorable one of both sister’s lives, for as they neared their cottage, they heard a familiar voice. “Why, you pesky thing!”
“Meme!” Esmeralda flew from Collette’s side. When Collette reached the cottage door, she gasped. Furniture was thrown willy-nilly, and Grandmem’s rocking chair lay in shambles. The sylph hovered above the wreckage, blowing hither and yon in ecstasy. Meme knelt by the broken chair, her cheeks glowing with indignation.
Collette and Esmeralda rushed to Meme’s side. Meme rose and smiled at the girls. She enfolded them in her arms. “You’re all right!” Collette stated the obvious with sheepish abandon.
Meme laughed. Then her smile grew pensive. “A few moments ago, I awoke feeling wonderfully well,” she said. “It was extraordinary. Then I heard the most appalling racket! I saw your grandmem’s chair—“ Her voice stopped as she spied the woman standing in the doorway. “Aunt Heloise?” she whispered.
The two women embraced. Then Meme looked at her daughters. “Have you girls been into mischief?” she asked suspiciously.
Both girls grinned. They began to talk at once. “This sylph burst in, you see, and—“
“I received a birthday gift, and—“
“It was my fault—“
WHOOSH! WHOOSH! The sylph joined in the tumult of talk, adding its laughter to the words. Then its voice rose above all. “You mortals amuse me so! All this fuss about nothing important! I must repair this strange thing, for it was what I was sent to do!” It flew among the wreckage of the rocking chair, scattering pieces in a feverish attempt to fix the damage.
“Oh, Lights Above!” Heloise said with exasperation. She knelt by the chair fragments and touched them with her hands. Instantly, the chair’s pieces flew together. Stunned silence followed. Then the family began to laugh. “How did you do that?” Esmeralda finally asked.
Heloise grinned. “I keep Faerie Beasts from invading the Near World, and you ask how I can repair a chair? It’s just a trick I learned.” She looked at the sylph, who was preparing to use the chair once more. “We must go,” she said firmly.
Collette frowned. “Will we ever see you again?”
There was a long silence. Finally, Heloise said, “Yes. I’ll make certain of it. Time moves differently where I am, but I will always be near. Besides,” here she grinned, “the Song-Giver made certain we saw each other today, didn’t he? You never know what’s in store according to his timing.” She embraced both girls and Meme once more. Then she raised her arms. “Let us go, sylph,” she said.
The sylph touched the chair one final time. Then it approached its mistress. It whirled faster and faster until Heloise was completely enveloped in its touch. The world spun, and Heloise and sylph vanished.
Collette and Esmeralda looked at Meme. Meme sighed. “She comes and goes,” Meme said sadly. “She has a great work to do.” Then she looked at Esmeralda’s hand. “What do you have there, child?”
Esmeralda looked at the gleaming necklace. The stone had hardened once more, and its crimson fire gleamed against the silver brilliance of the chain. “My birthday gift,” she said. She placed the necklace around her neck and looked at Collette with confusion. “I didn’t have to use it to heal Meme,” she said.
Collette thought for a moment. She thought of the pain-wracked Faerie Beast and the chest that had broken at the necklace’s touch. He said the stone was one of his tears, she thought. Perhaps the necklace had heald Meme. Perhaps the necklace’s power reached to many places and touched many people. Collette did not know. She only knew that Meme was well. Perhaps the ways of the Lumil Eliasul were too mysterious to fully understand, but he watched over them all. He shared in the suffering of mortal and Faerie alike. Many chose not to acknowledge this fact. They refused his help. Nevertheless, he was steadfast, and his love would never cease. And, truly, wasn’t that the point? Oh, indeed it was. Collette felt her heart lighten within her. Had she been able, she would have whirled about as exuberantly as the sylph. Instead, she grinned at Esmeralda. “I think he wanted you to keep the necklace as a souvenir,” she said. “I never made you a birthday cake. Let’s go find some honey.” And that is just what they did.
Send your TOP THREE favorite submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your votes will be rated as follows:
1st = 3 points
2nd = 2 points
3rd = 1 point