TELLING FAE TALES
Ren was hiding.
Ren had been hiding for a few weeks now. The land of Faerie was vast—it contained many nooks and crannies, and not even Lord Velei was aware of them all. If Ren had any faults, which of course he didn’t, one would be his endless curiosity and the way it often necessitated a hiding place.
Hide and seek was his favorite game, and he had played it long enough to know he was about to get caught.
Part of him was sorry to see the game end, but the rest was glad to finally return to more…elegant surroundings. He studied the room he presently occupied, with its gray cement floor and walls, the empty shelves, the sturdy table, and a couple of folding chairs. They did not make for a good seating arrangement—barely any space to sprawl and enjoy life.
He knew he looked incongruent in his old-fashioned—by human standards—garb of billowing shirt, breeches, and high leather boots.
From a poster on the wall, a bizarre cat with a rainbow shooting out of its unmentionables gifted him with a perpetual grin.
Ren shivered. As the Fae liked to say, beware of free gifts.
Whatever the cat was selling, he wanted no part of it.
But, ah! More important things to ponder, he told himself as a black oily puddle formed on one of the walls. There were no portals nearby, so the only way in and out, aside from the human world upstairs, was through a self-made portal or by being summoned. It had taken Ren a lot of cunning and a lot of magic to make it inside.
It had been very enjoyable.
The oil smear grew into a human-sized circle, then expanded outward, as if someone was fighting with the material to try to punch through.
A snot appeared first, and Ren let out a welcome sigh of relief. Not that Ren would ever cower from appearing in front of Lord Velei, but he wasn’t looking forward to whatever his lordship had in store for him.
Lord Velei had played these games even longer than him. He was a master at exacting revenge in subtle but deeply terrifying ways.
A huge green hound popped out of the oily mess. Maddie rode him, a second human behind her. Ren wondered if Maddie had any idea how rare a friendship with a Fae hound was. They knew no masters and did whatever they wanted. They also had no love for two-legged Fae, for all that they came from the same place.
Maddie’s gaze alighted on him, and her smile was brighter than the sun. So bright, anyone else would miss the sharp edge.
Ren stood and opened his arms. “Little donut!”
She pointed at him with a stern finger. “We agreed no more of that.”
Little explosions of pleasure tickled his insides. Ah, how he had missed this. Hiding was entertaining but so very boring.
“Of course, my lovely ring of dough.” He approached the leaves and moss and twigs hound, who ignored him, too busy trying to watch Maddie scramble down its side. The other woman stared at the floor with narrowed eyes, as if mentally measuring how to best get herself off the creature. Ren remembered her well. Her and the sorcerer they’d tied up to one of the chairs the last time he’d been in this room.
He offered her an elegant hand. “And this is your friend from the Institute, yes?”
The woman—Marta—ignored his hand and slid down the hound with a lot more ease than her companion. Maddie was a lot of things, but graceful was not one of them.
“Hello, Fae,” she answered with a curt nod of greeting.
Maddie patted her hound’s nose and suffered a long lick of its tongue. Brrr. Ren shivered inside. Had she no idea of how huge the thing’s mouth looked next to her? How it could take her head off in one bite? Ren wasn’t one to carry a blade around, too unwilling to give up anything nice in exchange for its use, but scenes like this made him reconsider.
“We’ve been looking for you,” Maddie said in her usual cheerful manner. She looked at the room. “Didn’t expect to find you here, though.”
Marta smiled slightly, and the sight of that curve of lips chilled Ren almost as much as the thoughts of Fae hound mouths and what they could do to a person.
“He’s hiding,” she said.
“What a smart woman you are,” Ren exclaimed, no bite in his words or his smile—he’d never been abashed about complimenting others. “Yes, my lady, I am, indeed, hiding.”
“Hey,” Maddie said with a frown. “How come she gets to be ‘lady’ but I’m bakery goods?”
Ren’s grin widened. “You won’t stab me in my sleep.”
“It is the way of the world, my lovely.”
Maddie glanced at Greenie, as if pondering the possibility of sending the hound to murder him in his sleep. Greenie stared back, tongue lolling enthusiastically. Something told Ren it wasn’t the first time Maddie had sent her pup to terrorize people in the middle of the night.
Better to move things along, in that case. “What brings you to my humble hiding spot?”
Maddie came over to sit on the desk. “Why are you hiding, anyway?”
“Ah… It appears Lord Velei is not completely happy about loosing one of his hairs to you, sweetness.”
She grinned. “Bet he isn’t.”
“It didn’t take him long to connect what happened to the hair with our visit to the market.”
“Why go after you, though? He’s my boss.”
The other human snorted a laugh. “What would be the fun in that?”
Ren studied her more closely. “How much of a Fae are you?” With humans, it was often hard to tell.
Maddie kicked his leg. “Rude.”
Marta simply smiled.
Ren felt his interest prickle. This human would keep him on his toes in a way Maddie couldn’t. Maddie was a rapier, striking hard and fast but always in the open. This other one, though. This one was a dagger cloaked in shadows—you’d never know when it was coming, only feel the sting after it was too late.
“I apologize,” he said with a bow. His long, black hair streamed forward over his shoulders. He usually wore it in a queue at the nape of his neck, but tidy hair was so not brooding material.
“Hmm,” was all Marta said.
His lips twitched. Yes, definitely a dagger in the shadows. It would come down at some point, but when? How? Ah, what a wonderful game.
“So, how can I help you today?” he asked.
Maddie and Marta exchanged glances.
“We need Fae candy,” Maddie said.
What an endless well of surprises humans were. “Fae candy?”
“Something that makes people’s stomachs upset if they steal it.”
“Or dead,” Marta murmured.
“She’s joking,” Maddie said.
“I see,” Ren said. “Any why would you need this?”
Maddie tilted her head toward Marta. “Every Halloween someone steals her elderly neighbor’s candy, and they can’t figure out who it is.”
Ren had heard of Halloween. Sometimes he’d even hide and watch children go around, knocking on people’s doors or getting stuff from bowls at house entrances like greedy little pests. Fae children were rare, and the thought of having one made Ren break out in a cold sweat. Fae were extremely long-lived, so better to leave the act of parenting to humans. What would he do with a little runt, anyway?
“Last year I set up a camera,” Marta said with some irritation, “but the thief knocked it off before stealing the candy.”
“You wish to leave out enchanted Fae candy so this thief regrets his actions and never does it again?”
“Exactly,” Maddie exclaimed. “Where do we find this?”
“Have you asked my cousin?” Ren asked.
Marta’s eyes narrowed, as if he’d asked something bad, but he couldn’t find fault in his question.
Maddie swatted the words aside like they were annoying flies. “Nah. Aidan is too worried about rumors of a new artifact. Besides,” she added with a sly smile, “he’d tell me to call the police and stop using Fae stuff for human problems.”
His cousin did have a tendency to be a stick-in-the-mud, Ren had to agree. “What you ask of is rare.” He rubbed his chin, lost in thought. “As you know, Fae don’t put enchantments in their food—there are some things that are a haven in Faerie, and food is one of them. Games are well and good, but you don’t interfere with the products of the land.”
“What about the Fae market?” Maddie asked. “I’m sure there’s someone dealing with stuff like that on the downlow.”
“Dealing with poisoned food? Possibly.”
Maddie jumped off the table and approached Greenie. “Let’s go, then.”
Ren smiled ruefully. “Unfortunately, visiting the market is not in my plans at this moment in time.”
She snapped her fingers. “That’s right. You’re hiding.”
A wicked gleam came into her eyes. One that Ren had absolutely no difficulty reading. “You shouldn’t go alone, either.”
“Why not? I’ve been there on my own before.”
“What you want is not something offered in the open. Not all Fae are as straightforward and good-natured as I am. Always remember that.”
Maddie looked at Marta. “We could go to Lockhart.”
“Absolutely not,” Marta said, with something akin to glee in her voice.
Ren didn’t wonder too much about that—someone with her temperament had to keep up her stabbing skills with several targets—but Maddie’s request had intrigued him. And there was one place where they might find what they needed that would keep him in hiding.
“I think I know where to go,” he proclaimed.
Maddie and Marta looked at him expectantly.
His grin turned wicked. “A witch’s house.”
* * *
Aware of the effects a trip through the ley lines had on a full-blooded Fae, Ren warded himself before Greenie took them all three into Faerie. He guided the hound as well as he could, the play of whatever passed for muscle in the mossy creature an uncomfortable sensation under his legs. Fae hounds weren’t made for riding. They were made to be left alone so they wouldn’t eat you on a whim.
They popped into a wide clearing in the dense forest that made most of Faerie. The top of the cave, so high you couldn’t tell it existed, was pitch black. There were no day and night cycles in Faerie, but the lord’s mansions, built within the trees hanging from the rocky top, produced enough light to illuminate their surroundings.
His mother’s favorite cottage was too far to enjoy the brilliance.
The two women studied the outside with curiosity. It had been built with logs and stone, with a thatched roof that made Marta raise her eyebrows and mutter something about a Hansel and a Gretel.
Maddie laughed and elbowed her side. “Witches don’t exist.”
Ah, the innocence of youth.
Ren knocked on the door, and a woman opened it immediately. Tall and beautiful, with her black hair gathered in a simple braid down her back. She wore a shirt not unlike his own, tucked into leather breeches. Her feet were bare—nothing like the feel of the ground and the soil under your toes, as she liked to say.
“Ren,” she said, a hint of a smile on her lips. “Come to visit, have you?”
He indicated the women. “And I bring guests.”
Her eyes lit up. “Guests! How wonderful. Come in, come in.”
They were ushered inside and found themselves standing in a big, open kitchen. A counter and a stove filled one wall, and a spotless table occupied the center of the room. Herbs and bronze tools and pots hung haphazardly from hooks and cords on the walls.
“My lovelies,” Ren said. “This is my mother.”
Maddie’s mouth hung open. “You have a mother?”
“Yes! I was, indeed, not born out of the ground like a potato.”
“Mostly,” his mother said. “Welcome to my humble abode, my dears. I am Kala.”
Maddie gave her a small wave. “Maddie.”
Marta smiled pleasantly. “Human.”
Names were of significance in Faerie, and one did not reveal them unless one wanted to—even the shortened versions and not the full, true ones. Ren had an inkling it would take a lot of trust for Marta to reveal hers in Faerie.
Kala didn’t mind either. “Well, Maddie and Human. Why has my wayward son brought you here?”
“We need poisoned Fae candy,” Maddie said brightly. “Just a little bit. Enough to make someone indisposed if they steal it.”
“Or wish they were dead,” Marta muttered.
“She’s kidding. A little diarrhea will be enough.”
Ren leaned a hip against the table and crossed his arms, waiting for his mother’s reaction.
“How wonderful,” she exclaimed.
“Really?” Maddie said, surprised.
“Aye. Explain to me why you need this candy.”
Maddie told her about Halloween, the custom of giving candy to children, how someone had been stealing Marta’s neighbor’s candy, and their search for retribution.
“I understand,” Kala said solemnly. “This must not be allowed to continue. I will help you.”
“You can make this kind of candy?” Marta asked suspiciously.
“What’s it going to cost us?” Maddie might be an endless well of rainbows like the cat on the wall, but she wasn’t brainless.
Kala thought about it for a few moments. “I wish to hear one of these scary stories humans tell each other during the season.”
Ren wasn’t too surprised by the request. An unfortunate side-effect of the Fae’s inability to lie was the utter lack of made-up stories. There were ways to circumvent lies, and Fae with human blood in them could spin a decent tale when they felt like it, but good stories like the humans created were hard to come by unless you smuggled their books.
Maddie eyed their surroundings, the deep darkness lurking outside the windows. Then her gaze went to the ceiling, as if checking nothing loomed above them. “I’m not sure we know any story scarier than what you can find in Faerie.”
“I’ll do it,” Marta said.
Maddie looked at her in surprise. “You will?”
A slow smile spread across Marta’s face. “Yes.”
Ren wasn’t the only one to shudder at the evil glee in her voice. He was forced to amend his impression of the woman—not just a dagger, but a poisoned one.
Marta pressed her hands on the table and fixed of each of them with a knowing stare. Ren found himself unable to resist leaning forward.
“We will start our tale with Justin Fairhaven.”
They all held their breaths, waiting for Marta to continue.
“Justin was a young man of twenty-five. He was of medium height, lean build, and average face. He had just landed an easy, if monotonous, job at a local accountant’s office and liked to eat Chinese takeout while reading on his phone.”
“Charming fellow,” Ren murmured.
“The only thing remarkable about Justin’s life was his love of nature,” Marta continued in a deepening voice. “Every weekend, he’d put on his thermal gear, his top-of-the-line boots, grab his backpack, and go for a hike in the nearby mountains. Some weekends he’d do two hikes—daily trips selected at random from the map mounted on his wall. Some weekends, he’d take the trails through his favorite part of the valley and camp overnight.
“The mountains and the valley were part of a national park, and although one could encounter brown bears and other large wildlife at points, it was mostly just a really beautiful forest, full of color during the day and with enough clearings to give him a view of the stars at night. In the middle of the valley, there was an old cabin.”
“An old cabin,” Maddie whispered, breathless.
Marta nodded solemnly. “Hammond’s cabin. A single-room structure built with timber from the forest with an old iron wood-burning stove.”
“Tell us about this Hammond,” Kala said.
“Nobody really knew who Hammond was, or why he had constructed a cabin in the middle of nowhere with no easy road access. Nobody even knew if he was still alive or who really owned the thing. But it was there, never locked, so it was often used by hikers on especially cold nights. There was only one rule concerning Hammond’s cabin.”
“What rule?” Ren asked, entranced by Marta’s storytelling voice.
“Leave the cabin as you find it. If you use wood for the stove, make sure to replenish it the next morning. If you make use of the canned goods in the closet, bring more provisions the next time. If you break it, you replace it.”
She paused for a second to take a deep breath, and Ren tilted his head, almost straining to hear her next words.
“Justin knew about the cabin, of course, and he had used it on more than one occasion. Using a tent was fun, but some nights even he didn’t feel like sleeping on the cold, hard ground of the forest. This day was one of these, so he headed toward the cabin. Luckily, it was empty, so he made a small fire, heated some canned food, and spent a lovely evening watching the forest through the dirty window. The grime on the glass bothered him, so the first thing he did in the morning before setting off was clean the panes until the view was unobstructed. They’d get dirty again after a few days of rain but cleaning them left him feeling like he was paying it forward.
“So it happens that a couple of weeks later, he found himself on the same trail, heading the same way. And why not? The cabin was cozy, and spending the night there was like a semi-retreat. To his surprise, when he entered the room, someone had left a message on the table. The wood was chipped and scratched from decades of use, but there on its surface, someone had written ‘Thank You’ with a charred stick from the stove.”
“Thank you,” Maddie repeated, eyes wide.
“Now, Justin couldn’t be sure the message was for him, but thinking it might be made him extremely happy, so, figuring it might’ve been because of the windows, he decided to clean up the pantry closet. Two weeks later, he returned, curious now. And indeed, another ‘Thank You’ had been left on the table, this time accompanied by a selection of canned soups.
“At this point, Justin decided that lovely as the thought was, he didn’t want others to feel like they had to pay him for cleaning up the place, so not only did he give the ceilings a good dusting and got rid of some of the bigger cobwebs—” Maddie made a face “—but he also left extra portions behind as a sort of gift.
“This strange exchange went on for a couple of months until the weather grew too cold for overnight stays. He would leave a different item every trip—an energy bar, a jar of preserves, even an old deck of cards—and receive similar knickknacks back, always with a charred message on the table.
“A gift exchange,” Kala murmured, as if the idea was a strange one.
“By the time spring came knocking, Justin had met someone—a lovely new hire at the office. She also enjoyed hiking, so he showed her his favorite trails. To his delight and surprise, when they came upon the cabin for the first time since early winter, he found a message on the table, along with a few items from the forest. His girlfriend found the tale of the exchanges adorable and insisted on leaving some of her own food along with his.
“But when they returned the next weekend, her food lay untouched on the floor, as if someone had knocked it off the table. The message this time thanked him, specifically by name.”
Ren shuddered. Names. Never a good sign.
“His girlfriend was bothered by the slight and refused to come back. A few weekends after, on a solo hike, he decided to check the cabin out. To his surprise, there was another message on the table and even more food piled around it. Something about it felt strange, however. Possessive, in a way.” Marta lowered her head, then looked up at them. Her voice grew deep and intense and Ren felt his heart hitch. “For the first time, Justin wondered how his anonymous cabin pen pal even knew his name. Had someone been watching him? Following him? And then, he read the message.”
Maddie rubbed her arms. “So? What was the message?”
Ren wanted to rub his own arms as well. The air inside his mother’s cabin had grown decidedly chilly.
“The message was…” Marta inhaled deeply. “‘Why…’”
She stopped again. Maddie nearly crawled over the table to get closer and hear better. Kala was staring at Marta so intently, Ren was scared she might do some sort of magic without realizing it. And he? He had forgotten how to breathe.
“‘Why?’” he managed in a half choke.
Marta’s mouth opened and closed, as if she was having trouble getting the words out. “‘Why did you—’”
“Hide from me all this time?” a loud, dry voice finished from the hallway.
Maddie jumped with a shriek.
Ren jolted, startled, and spun to face the newcomer. Kala brought up her hands in a defensive posture.
Lord Velei walked into the kitchen.
Maddie collapsed against the counter, one hand pressed against her chest. “Oh, my God.”
Ren felt the blood drain from his face at his lord’s presence. He bent in a deep bow, watching his mother do the same.
Marta observed everything with narrowed eyes, her mouth pursed firmly with irritation.
“Renwen,” Lord Velei said in a honeyed voice. “You have proven yourself hard to find.”
“My lord,” Ren said. Renwen wasn’t his full name, of course, but it appeared Lord Velei wasn’t in the mood to use shortcuts or nicknames.
“Maddie Dover,” Lord Velei said next. “What a strange place to meet.”
“Hello,” Maddie said, licking her lips.
His gaze moved to Marta. “And a companion. Will you introduce us?”
“No,” Marta said, not cowed in the least.
Lord Velei’s eyebrows arched. “I wasn’t addressing you.”
“Neither was I.”
Lord Velei switched his attention to Maddie, the arch of his brow becoming more accentuated.
Maddie cleared her throat. “It appears introductions are unavailable at this time.”
“Is that so?” Lord Velei asked softly.
A tooth fell on Maddie’s head and bounced onto the counter.
Cradling the top of her head, she looked up and groaned. “Oh, c’mon!”
Ren didn’t need to look up to guess Lord Velei’s strange pet was slithering all over the ceiling. The thing creeped him out, and he’d rather not be reminded of its appearance. Did that make him a coward? No more than hiding from Lord Velei’s wrath, he assured himself.
Leaving Maddie to retrieve the tooth and throw it back to the pet, and apparently giving up on the second human, Lord Velei turned to Ren.
“We must talk. Come.”
He left through the kitchen entrance. Ren let out a heavy sigh and followed, ignoring his mother’s chuckling.
Once outside, he closed the door and joined his lordship in the herb garden spreading from the kitchen side of the cabin. How Lord Velei had known Ren was at his mother’s, Ren would never ask, but he figured his lordship had probably set some sort of warding around the house, then had used her mother’s portal to get in.
A soft thud made him look toward the house. Three faces were plastered against the kitchen window.
Lord Velei seemed undisturbed by this. He faced the forest, hands clutched behind his back.
“Why did you aid the human in obtaining Fae items?” he asked.
“It is not forbidden,” Ren said cautiously.
“I am aware this is not the first time you have helped her.”
It wasn’t, but neither did Ren make a habit out of it. “I have, a few times in the past.”
“This time your help cost me something dear.”
A little melodramatic, considering he was talking about a strand of hair, but Ren would rather kiss the Fae hound than admit that out loud. “An unfortunate incident, to be sure.”
A rustle of leaves claimed their attention. A dark form slunk out of the shadows and walked into the light provided by the cottage windows. A large cat-like creature, white and sleek with orange lines delineating the ridges of its muscles.
Ren swallowed hard. Another Fae beast.
It came up to Lord Velei, who showed no fear. But then, why would he? He was a master of the blade, victorious over many a creature—just months ago Ren had seen him fight a beast as big as a house up on the surface, summoned by one who meant to become Fae themselves.
Lord Velei stroked the creature’s head.
“So this is where my dagger went,” he mused before returning his attention to Ren. “Unfortunate as the incident might have been, I cannot help but think you are in my debt now.”
Ren eyed the creature with misgivings as it bumped Lord Velei’s thigh. “In your debt.”
“Indeed. Such is the way, is it not? Actions must have consequences.”
Being indebted to someone like Lord Velei was never a good thing. Ren searched his brain for anything that might give him an advantage.
“Give him the thing you took from me,” Maddie shouted from the window—which was now open.
The thing? Ah. That thing.
“Oh?” Lord Velei said, smooth as silk.
“Since she took from you, my lord,” Ren said, “it’s only fair I give you something that belonged to her. Surely there would be no debt this way?”
Lord Velei considered this. “Very well. What is it?”
Ren brought out the seeker. In itself, a seeker was a common enough Fae artifact—a device that would guide you to your heart’s desire…or your doom—but this one was especially beautiful, shaped in the form of a butterfly and small enough to fit into a small palm.
He had taken it as payment for helping Maddie get out of the battle with the great beast, and the thing had stuck with him, the temptation of using it just another game in his mind.
“A seeker.” Lord Velei came closer to examine it. “Beautiful.”
“Taken from the human, like your hair was taken from you.”
Lord Velei smiled sharply. “It will do.”
He took the seeker from Ren and put it in one of the inner pockets of his vest.
“Consider the debt nulled.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Woo-hoo,” came from the cabin.
Lord Velei walked back inside and used Kala’s portal to make a grand exit.
Once he was gone, Maddie patted Ren on the arm. “Don’t worry. We’ll find you another seeker. It’ll be an adventure!”
“Please, no,” Ren said with great feeling. “I would like to remain alive.”
Back in the kitchen, Kala got started on her potion. “Mix this with the candies, and I think you will be impressed by the results.”
Marta observed the preparations. “Can you make one that doesn’t need the theft part to activate?”
Maddie took a few steps away from both.
“You’re doing the potion?” Ren asked, confused. “But she hasn’t finished the tale.”
Her mother laughed. “Oh, but she has.”
Maddie winked. “While you were outside.”
“I’ve yet to hear it.”
Kala snorted. “You weren’t the one who made the deal.”
Ren’s inner self wanted to rail at the unfairness of it all. On the outside, he gave them his most charming smile. “Will you end the tale for me?”
Maddie wriggled her eyebrows at Marta. “Will you?”
Marta made a show of studying him. “Maybe, for the correct price.”
Ren lifted a hand. “Tempting as it might be, lovely human, I must refuse.”
She lifted a shoulder. “As you wish.”
“It was really good, though,” Maddie whispered.
It must have been, judging from his mother’s enthusiastic mixing of her tonics. And it was tempting to ask, but…
No. No deals with poisoned daggers. At least not that day. In the future? Ah, who knew? Someone as cunning and charming as he would surely find a way to extricate the end of the tale from one of these three women.
Content with his assessment of the situation, Ren bid them all good night and returned to his room to appreciate the luxury of his accommodations—the plushness of his favorite couch, the wonder of his artwork, the rumors circulating around Lord Velei’s mansion if one knew where to stand and how to listen.
An hour later, he was back in his mother’s cottage.
He ambled into the kitchen, curious. The place was empty, no signs remaining of their impromptu gathering. Except for the writing on the table. Uppercase letters written in dark, angry slashes.
Why did you bring another? My gifts are for you and only you.
The silence filling the room suddenly weighed on his shoulders. It was dense, ominous. It made a shiver course down his spine, as if the cottage had eyes and they were all fixed on him, and nobody knew where he was.
He hurried to the door.
And found it locked.
* * *
Kala watched Ren stumble across the kitchen toward the portal at the back of the cottage and cackled. The human had been right—Halloween was, indeed, fun!
Lockhart entered his shop through the back door.
“Someone dropped this for you.” His assistant pointed at a package wrapped in brown paper.
He studied the package. It was small, light, and things rattled inside when he shook it. With a sigh, he tore the paper to find a box of chocolates with a card taped on top.
Trick or Treat?
Trick, he decided, eyeing the handwriting on the card. Definitely trick.
“You sure nobody we know left this?” he asked.
“Sorry boss, just the usual dude.”
He opened the slim box to find six lovely chocolates. Expensive, from the looks of it.
Another card rested on top of them.
BOO! Scared yet?
Scared? Him? The greatest sorcerer on the continent? A descendant of the most powerful lines of Fae? Wanted by countless organizations, his services so expensive only the top of the top could afford him?
He picked a chocolate at random and popped it into his mouth.
Rumors say he never touched chocolate again.
Copyright © 2022 Isa Medina