When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.
When the birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din—
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.
When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.
Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope—these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.
Fairy Music, by Rose Fyleman, 1919
You wanted something different. Something new. Anything was better than this world, you thought, embittered by your own small problems and nebulous so-called larger issues which now seem so small in hindsight. And you had wanted an adventure of your own, to see if magic truly existed in the world, after all.
You danced at the standing stones, strayed from the paths in the woods, accepted the deal at the crossroads.
You were so happy to find Them at last. You were so eager, so excited…
Besides, nothing which sang so sweetly, which laughed so merrily, could be so very bad. They were so kind to welcome you, so eager to talk to you, as eager as you were to talk to Them. With moonlight skin and silver eyes, They were so wonderful to look at, so compelling to watch as They danced and danced, and you were welcomed to dance with Them in your turn…
Salt and silver, bread and milk, do not give them your name, do not take their deals, do not listen to their songs, do not eat their food, do not listen to their pretty, pretty lies…
You had heard the warnings of your elders, and you remember still their words, although their names have long since faded. Or perhaps they were taken from you? So many things have been taken from you by now, and it is pointless to try to count and trace them all. Time is a thief in its own right, but at least the soft fading away of long-ago memories is painless and natural. Nothing else about your life has been natural is so very long…
Ah, but you were so foolish back then…
But you see… You had so wanted to see another world, wanted magic and legends and something more than the dull grind of a callous world. Different would be better, and nothing could be worse, you had thought.
You have long-since learned that you were wrong. The mouse learns that the cheese in the trap is no better than food outside of it too, much good as the lesson does you both, now that you have learned it.
They liked you at first, you were different to Them. New. Your tongue was one They were unused to and you sang Them songs They had not heard time beyond telling. You showed Them the dances from your own childhood, odd hopping movements, and complicated gestures in the air. They laughed, and you laughed with Them then. They asked and asked and asked for the things which you knew back then, and you gave it all up to Them freely, asking little and less in return from Them. It did not occur to you to bargain, to hold anything in return, to keep anything in reserve should you have need of it later.
You were so foolish back then… So very foolish…
Perhaps you would have enjoyed those days of wonder, of light and sparkle and laughter, but even back then you could see – pushed aside and into the shadows, forgotten for a while in the face of something new – the eyes of those who had come before you. Could see your own future staring back from the corners of the room and the shadows they daren’t creep out from.
Faded beings, empty eyes and grasping hands, mouths slack with hunger or tight with pain, once human and now… not. But still too human to remain unmauled, even once they had been stripped of their colour, their spark and life. What remains of them is uncanny and stilted, but far worse is the sense that they are now … missing pieces. You wonder how they might have come to bargain away anything which you can sense, human as you are, but you just as quickly cast the thought aside. Best not to think about it. They looked at you with envy, aye, but they looked at you with pity also. The new, bright, hopeful auditioner, a new favourite… for a short while. Never for long.
They are like children, you think sometimes, though the words hold only the last remaining dregs of their remembered meaning. You’re not sure, if you try to think about it, if you really know what children are, what they look like, if you yourself were ever such a thing. But still you keep saying such phrases to yourself, trying to remember thoughts from a time when you knew they were your own. Sometimes They play a game where they slot new thought after strange phrase into your mind to see how long it takes for you to realise. Sometimes They take things away until you reach for something and find it is no longer there. Once the game is up and the laughter has ended, sometimes They give you the missing pieces back.
If They feel you’ve earned it.
They are like children, easily distracted, easily charmed and no object permanence at all. Quick to discard a toy once it ceases to entertain Them, and quicker to forget and move onto the next shiny new thing to wander across Their vision…
Except there they are nothing like children at all. They never truly forget about their toys, after all. If they did, perhaps you could hide. But you can’t. No matter how far you push yourself into the shadows, no matter how small you ty to make yourself appear, They come to find you quickly enough.
They took and took and took from you, everything you could think to give, poking and prodding to remind you that there was surely always something more to feed to Their endless curiosity, and you gave it all up with open hands, freely at first and then more and more fearful. You do not even wish to imagine what will happen should you disappoint them. Your fears whisper to you and you determinedly close you ears to them. Your hands tremble as you hold out yet another part of yourself – some small detail, some new thought or memory or secret you had held within yourself for so long – to be gobbled up, sucked dry and you feel some inner core of yourself start to shrivel with the constant plundering by greedy ears and mouths and nothing new to feed it with. You will think of something new tomorrow. You must.
Eventually, the inevitable. You search within yourself for yet more to feed to Their hunger and find that there is nothing left that is new. And you realise that your fearful thoughts are only the beginning. Now comes the true price of your foolishness…
Your voice begins to crack, to dry up, your mind begins to empty. They do not wish to hear the thoughts which They put there for you. They want more from inside you. You have nothing left to offer, and now the real test begins. Your songs become stale to The, the melodies faltering, the verses hesitating, the notes unsure. You have sung this song since Before, surely you cannot forget it now? When they wait to hear it? But no matter how you stretch your mind, it finds only half what is needed and even that you are unsure of.
Your stories dull and wandering; you do not remember the endings anymore, cannot always keep the threads straight in your mind. You think at first that the suggestions They call out to you – to the sea, he goes to the sea! No, to the hills, you said to the hills! Ah, but he has wings, so he must fly! – are to aid you, that They have taken some pity upon you at last, mocking though Their pity only ever is. But you begin to realise that you have told the beginning of the same story seven times over and gotten no further than the first of the hero’s tasks, cannot remember now what the task was, nor why they were attempting it, and the silver bells of laughter around you echo so loudly in your ears that you cannot hear yourself think long enough to find and pick up the shivering threads.
You look up, lost and beseeching, but the silver queen stares straight back at you from her frozen throne, her silver eyes which pierce you through like spear-tips, uncaring as you bleed beneath your wounds, and you wonder why you ever thought that she was kind.
“I will have my story, child. Begin again.”
And the air that you breathe cuts into your lungs with icicles but you gasp for it anyway. Speaking with no air in your chest hurts. You bow your head, find your tongue again and begin once more, as you were bidden. You cannot rest until you reach the ending, after all.
You think you may be taller now than you once were. Perhaps. Your hair is certainly longer, but maybe you are only remembering a different style to wear it in. You have become more and more like them and they have hundreds of their own. They do not need you, pale imitation of their own beauty that you are. You are no longer exotic, and far from perfect, and so you are simply… defective. A malformed creature in their eyes. You wonder if you look like your own people, from Before, but you have no way to know and you doubt it all the same.
You are no longer the focus of the evening’s attention, certainly. You think you sigh in relief, but perhaps it is regret also. You miss the chance to dance with Them, and you still pine for Them to smile upon you and laugh, for the days when Their hands were soft and welcoming to you, not tipped with claws and greedy to pluck ever more from your depths. You wish so much to escape from Them, but you also wish you could crawl up and curl at Their feet, sleep in peace again and be loved by Them.
Surely They loved you once? You were so sure that They did…
Ah… But you were so sure of so many things, and you were wrong… so very wrong…
Besides there is always something new out there to be found and collected, something different. There are new children come to Court, bright-eyed and giggling with excitement. They can’t believe that all of this is quite real yet, are sure that it is all some fantastic dream, which they do not ever want to wake up from. There is little enough chance that they can, so perhaps they will be happy for a while.
You pity them a little, but you hope too that they are full of interest for everyone. You are sure that they will have plenty of new songs and stories to share, perhaps even a new dance to teach Them. They like to learn something new, They always do. Things move on so fast, do they not? You have grown, no longer shining and innocent and new. There is nothing left to corrupt, nothing left to shock or bedazzle. You have seen Their tricks one too many times too.
You have not yet lost all use though. You are never sure whether to be glad of it or not. You think it cannot be worse, to be finally cast entirely aside, but you remember you used to think nothing could be worse than your life Before, and now you know better.
They find other ways to take their entertainment from you. Ways you were expecting and ways you weren’t. They change the colours in your hair, your eyes, your skin, changed the shape of your chin, the tilt and form of your ears, until you look into mirrors and even you don’t remember what you once looked like anymore. Your voice is different every day now, and sometimes it is no voice at all but the whine of a frightened beast or the shriek of a trapped bird. They like to rake you with pain and see if They can make you scream in the tongue of every creature They know, comparing the different tones and timbers of growl or whimper, pretending to pet you as They discuss which voice They should ‘gift’ you with next. You are not asked what you would wish for. You do not expect to be.
They took your eyes from you once, and you don’t know how long you spent stumbling without them, feeling your way around and trying to gauge distance from the sounds in your ears, until you remember that They can play with echoes just like anything else, and gave up all hope at last. You have eyes again, but you doubt that they are truly your own. Nothing else is, after all.
Your limbs may be longer than theirs now, but They find interest enough in them all the same. You flinch whenever they bring out the pipes, but you know there is nowhere to run to, and trying only makes things worse.
Come, dance for us! You love to dance! They call, and the pipes drone out their opening notes and you wish They had not taken your tears from you, but even if you still could cry, it would do you no good.
The notes lash themselves around your wrists and ankles and you jerk to your feet, stumbling and flailing a little. They laugh. You spin and turn, leap and bend, body moved by the music, over and over, faster and faster, never ending, never slowing, you are lost to it, until the music should see fit to realise you, and it never will. Another quick spin and you feel the skin on your feet begin to shred, blood beginning to seep out into the dry earth. It soaks the redness up without comment or thanks. You gasp for breath and find too little of it. The air is sharp and hard, you cannot breathe it properly. You need rest. You need to stop.
The music does not care, you begin the sequence again, spinning and leaping and bending. They laugh as they watch. You think desperately to scream for help, for mercy, but there is little help to be hoped for and certainly no mercy to be found. The soles of your feet are covered now in blood, you think it is probably your own, but there are plenty more just like you all around, jerking wildly and leaping and turning and you are all being pushed too far beyond your limits. You are all bleeding, chests tight as you fight for your next breath. And your next. The pipes play on, heedless, tugging you this way and that to the tune of Their fickle whims.
You wonder how you ever thought Their laughter an invitation.
It was a warning.
They did warn you. Back before everything.
You didn’t listen.
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