Tren glanced at the woodland fairy on his arm, double checking on her for the tenth time in the past hour. She was a little thing, perched on his shoulder, her delicate hand grasping one of the tiny braids of his hair. Frankly, he’d picked up cats with more heft to them. Her skin was the mottled wood-texture and moss, a chameleon affect that changed depending on their surroundings, the light, and her mood. Tren absolutely didn’t want to lose her or accidentally drop her. She was helpless at the moment, with her legs still hurt and the one wing healing. Any predator would be able to gobble her up without much resistance.
The whole situation was a bit surreal to Tren still, despite him being three days into this journey. He’d been going through town, doing errands, basically prepping for a trip up into the Rockwood Mountains to hunt when he’d spied her. She was gagged but fighting her restraints, her liquid blue eyes pleading for help and spilling tears. Tren hadn’t even thought or hesitated—he’d jumped immediately in and quickly cut down the two kidnappers who had her. Then, knowing good and well the trouble he was in, he’d grabbed her and run.
So here he was, in the middle of a primeval forest, with about half of the equipment necessary to be in the mountains, with a wounded woodland fairy in hand. Tren really wished he’d gotten more shopping done, but there was no help for it. Woodland fairies didn’t survive long outside of a forest. A month, tops, and they lost their strength quickly. He absolutely didn’t want her to grow sick on him just because he took his time getting ready.
Also, there was the very real concern of how badly her family was reacting to all of this. There were many powerful, magical beings that lived in the Rockwood Mountains. A smart person avoided pissing them off. Tren considered himself to be smart and on behalf of his fellow human beings, he wanted to quickly return her before all hell broke loose.
Fortunately, Tren’s father had made absolutely certain that even if someone had dropped his son buck naked in the middle of the mountains, Tren would come through it just fine. So he was able to make do, or catch/make whatever it was that he needed. It was just slowing him down a little as he had to either hunt or gather the materials. The woodland fairy helped him as she could, but they couldn’t communicate with each other, so it was all pantomime and expressions.
Tren wasn’t entirely sure exactly where her territory was, either. She kept pointing him towards the north-west, so she was quite confidant of the direction, but he hadn’t been able to get it across to her yet that he absolutely did not want to walk into the middle of her territory. If her clan thought that he was the one that kidnapped her, Bad Things Would Happen. Tren was all for her taking her to the edge and guarding her until someone came to collect her, but he really didn’t want to go further than that.
Problem was, he had no idea what fairy territory would look like. So far, the scenery hadn’t changed much. He was careful to only gather nuts, berries, and edible roots to eat here, though. Too many things could look like a fairy under the wrong circumstances.
“I’m really wishing we could communicate right about now,” he informed her, sighing in the back of his throat. “Are we near your territory? Do I need to walk another three days? Help a man out, here.”
She cocked her head at him, and pointed again north-west.
“Yeah, the direction I’ve got. We’re clear on that. Never mind, it’s not like the human tongue was really meant to speak the way you do anyway, what with all the trills and interesting noises you make. How about some honey water?”
She accepted the flask he handed up to her and carefully sipped out of it as he levered it up. The honey water, he’d found, was very restorative for her. She treated it like a delicacy but also as food. Aside from the berries, the honey water constituted the bulk of her diet.
They walked some more, Tren talking to her as they went. “I’m not annoying you by talking, I hope. It’s just habit by now. I talk a lot to myself. Gets too quiet out here otherwise. I don’t mind the silence, sometimes, as it’s peaceful. But sometimes I just need the sound of a human voice, even if it’s my own.”
A tiny hand stroked his cheek and he carefully turned his head to look at her. There was a smile on her delicate features, and she seemed amused by him.
“You’re very nice,” he told her sincerely. “My father—he’s also a hunter, been in the business for decades now—he told me to steer clear of the fairies up here. Woodland, water, or fae, just avoid all of you. Said that you never know what’ll happen when a man crosses fairy territory. I expected trouble, somehow, but I couldn’t leave you there. You were so obviously desperate for help. And I don’t want your people tearing the mountains apart trying to find you. That’s bad for you, them, and me.”
She abruptly straightened, her eyes wide and happy, and she let out a high-pitched trill.
“Oh? See someone you know?” Tren looked ahead too, peering through narrowed eyes, but didn’t see anything. Then again, a fairy could camouflage perfectly into their environment. A human would only see them when they chose and not a moment before.
An answering trill went up, this one slightly deeper in tone. Between one blink of an eye and the next, there was a fairy hovering right in front of Tren and his passenger. The little fairy on his shoulder reached out a hand and she was immediately hauled into a tight embrace. There were tears there, and the hug was hard, Tren could tell. She did not let go of his hair, though, which was interesting.
The new fairy was slightly larger, and dressed in such a neutral way that it was hard to tell gender. The slick brown hair was in a workman’s plait over one shoulder, and there was an assortment of needles tied to his/her side and back—a worker. Or maybe a scout?
The scout finally eased back a notch, still holding onto one hand, and gave Tren a serious study. His rescued fairy was trilling a mile a minute, good wing flapping a bit, no doubt filling her friend in. Whatever she said was convincing, as the scout’s death grip on her eased and there was an answering, soothing chirp in return.
Tren smiled at them. “There, your friend is here to get you. Good, good. Let’s ease you over to—uh, darling, you need to let go of my hair.”
She stubbornly clung to his hair, a determined look on her face and she pointed ahead again, a command in the gesture.
“Uh, what? No, no, no, I’m not going further than this. No need. Your friend can take you the rest of the way home. Why would I—? Ouch. Stop pulling on my ear. No, seriously, I don’t need to go further than this. Is your friend not strong enough to carry you the rest of the way?” Tren said this last part doubtfully as the fairies were much, much stronger than they looked. Because magic. He couldn’t see how that would be an issue.
Whatever the reason, she was determined. The scout seemed of the same mind, too. Tren was being pulled forward by both of them. Uncertain about this, he decided to go along for now. Maybe they wanted to reward him? Tren didn’t need any more reward than peace in the mountains, to be honest. Although he wouldn’t mind making friends with the fairies up here. Never hurt to have more friends.
They only let up once he started walking again. The scout buzzed ahead, going forward until Tren couldn’t see that small figure, then darting back again, waving Tren impatiently forward.
“You know, humans can’t keep up with a fairy’s flight,” Tren pointed out, although he did lengthen his stride. “And I have tree roots trying to trip me up. I’d like to point out the tree roots that are literally everywhere, tripping me. Rushing me won’t do you any good. I’m—oh. Oh deities.”
Between one blink and the next, the scenery changed utterly. It was beginning of spring outside, winter still clinging in the shadows with snowy patches, but not in here. It was lush and green, almost tropical in feel, the trees somehow even larger and ancient. Tren turned his head this way and that, eyes wide as he took it all in. As he walked, he noticed several different formations in the leaves. It took him several minutes to realize that they were fairy houses. Small, barely large enough for him to stick his head in, but as he walked through multiple heads popped out, tracking him as he passed by.
By the deities, he was literally in the heart of their territory.
Nerves attacked him and Tren came to an abrupt stop. This was not a place that mortal man should be in. “Honey, I’m just going to set you down. How about on that nice toadstool mushroom there? I’m going to set you down and leave because I really should not be in here.”
She clung to his hair with both hands, that mulish expression on her face again.
“No, really,” Tren pleaded with her. “I shouldn’t be in here. I’m just a man. I brought you home, you’re fine now. Please?”
A buzzing caught his attention and he looked up. A congregation of a dozen or so fairies flew in their direction, the head of which was a fairy a little larger than the rest. Or maybe it was the elaborate pink and purple dress she wore, a collection of flowers making up the skirts. Unlike the rest, she was vibrant with color, hair shimmering white and piled up in curls around her face. There was joy on her face as she flew directly to the little fairy still stubbornly on Tren’s shoulder.
Queen Fairy. Had to be. Tren was so screwed.
The two embraced fiercely, rocking with the motion, wings beating like a gentle summer breeze. Tren held himself perfectly motionless as they talked, chirps and trills, like songbirds. Finally, finally, the little fairy allowed herself to be picked up, this time by one of the Queen’s followers. She went with a wince, but still smiled at Tren.
He smiled helplessly back and hoped that she’d put in a few good words for him. Made it clear that he was the rescuer. Maybe he could leave now before he really put his foot where it didn’t belong?
The Queen lifted up, altering her position so that she was eye level with him. With exaggerated movements, she bit her thumb, drawing blood, then approached him slowly. Tren had no idea what she was doing, but she was obviously trying not to alarm him. It still twisted his stomach into knots of uncertainty but he let her approach. So far, everyone had been kind, if confusing. He could let this play out a little longer.
She touched the center of his forehead, then down and touched his bottom lip. The blood she smeared tingled but pleasantly so and Tren felt a strange sensation in his mind—as if something closed there was opening. He was so perplexed by the feeling that he almost didn’t notice it when she anointed both of his ears the same way. Only then did she retreat, a satisfied expression on her face.
“Can you understand me now, human?”
Tren blinked at her. Then he startled. “Holy shit. Uh, yes, I can understand you.”
“Excellent. I am Aoife, Queen of the Woodland fairies. Our daughter informed me that you rescued her and immediately brought her to us, showing compassion and kindness as you travelled. May I have your name?”
“Trenoweth,” he answered, carefully only giving her the first name. Hardcore rule—never give any magical being your full name. “It’s a pleasure, Queen Aoife.”
“Trenoweth, we are in your debt. We were frantic for our daughter’s sake but could not locate her.”
Tren winced. “Yeah, she was heading for the black market when I saw her. I wounded both men that had caught her. But I don’t want you to feel that you owe me anything. In truth, I did it because she was clearly pleading for help. And I was afraid of what the mountains would be like if your clan was on the warpath trying to find her.”
That was the right answer. Queen Aoife relaxed visibly. “You have been raised well, Trenoweth. Your intentions are good ones. Still, we do not let a debt be owing. What can I give you as thanks?”
What he really wanted to know was something else altogether. “Uhh, the change that you just did to me. Is that permanent?”
“Yes. It was necessary so that I may speak with you.”
“So I can understand all fairies now?”
“That is correct.”
“Then just that is an amazing boon,” he assured her, meaning every word. “I hunt and serve as a guide up here in the mountains. If I can communicate with the fairies, and make sure I’m not tripping through their territories, then my job’s much easier. Not to mention safer. You’ve already given me the one thing I’d ask for.”
Her head canted and there was distinct amusement in the way her brows lifted. “But what I granted you is not limited to fairies. You may speak to all that is on the mountain. Fairies, animals, and anyone else that calls these woods are home. No language is beyond you now, no matter what race, be it fairy or human.”
The words didn’t make sense at first. Then they rushed through his mind like a raging tide, leaving him gaping. “A-all?”
Tren felt like swearing. He didn’t, because he’d already done it once, and you weren’t supposed to swear in front of royalty. He didn’t think. So he felt like swearing, but didn’t, and felt like just sitting down, but didn’t do that either. They had a very captive audience and Tren was petrified of making sudden movements and hitting someone by accident. Swallowing, he tried to get his brain and mouth to work in tangent again. Then tried a second time when the first attempt utterly failed. “I—I’m good. Yeah. That’s seriously the best gift ever and I can’t think of anything else I could possibly want.”
“Are you certain? Many of your kind come here in search of gold.”
Second hardcore rule: If a magical being offers you untold riches say no. Firmly. Mean it. “Yeah, not me. I come up here to search for magical plants and to kill off any bunyip before they can overrun human settlements.”
She liked his denial. “Trenoweth, you are a wise man to not seek for gold. It has only cursed the ones who have discovered it.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Tren looked at his travelling companion of the past several days. “Just tell me that you’ll heal alright?”
“I will,” she answered brightly. “Trenoweth, I can finally tell you my name. I am Blossom.”
“I’m happy to know you, Blossom.” And overwhelmed, surprised, not to mention altered for life. Tren really wanted to sit down. Maybe drink some mead and let alcohol carry him through the day until he could sleep on this.
“Come and sit with me,” Queen Aoife commanded, her smile softening the order. She extended a hand, gesturing further into their territory. “Tell me of the affairs of men. I wish to know you better.”
As long as she wasn’t trying to give him any more cursed gold, Tren was perfectly alright with making friends. Nervous, sure, but this was too good of an opportunity to turn down. “Sure, I’d love to sit and talk.”
Phew. Looked like his good deed turned out alright after all.