“I forgot you were dexter,” Lissa said as she watched her half-brother coiling the rope he’d been using to suspend their food in a tree. She laughed. “Isn’t that what they used to call you in school?”
“I can’t remember,” Ten muttered, which was an absolute lie. Fae were universally left-handed; the cries of Poindexter! Poindexter! had haunted him throughout his years at Tiganey Hall. “Being right-handed is actually more common among humans, you know.”
“Which is exactly why it’s amusing. Why does that rope look so unusual?”
He stuck the neatly tied black coil next to its mate in his backpack. He had bought the two 50-meter coils, the pack, a tent, and a good deal else in a hurried trip to REI before allowing Lissa to bring him back to Faerie. “It’s nylon.”
“A magic rope, then.”
“A very strong rope, anyway.”
“Stronger than the spider folk’s?”
“I have no idea.” He swung the pack onto his shoulders, a comforting weight. “You ready?”
“Of course.” In usual fae fashion, Lissa carried little more than a bow, quiver, long knife and a light leather satchel tied about her waist, essentially a fanny pack. He had to admit it looked light and comfortable, but what if it got cold? What if it rained, for god’s sake?
They set off down the trail they’d been following for ten days now through the seemingly endless woods. Steadily the sides of the valley closed in, until they were walking in a wooded ravine, right next to the stream. “Why are you always so anxious?” Lissa asked after a while.
“Who said I was anxious?”
“I did. Just now.”
“Do you not remember what happened yesterday?”
“I don’t dwell on the past,” she shrugged.
“You will recall, however, that we passed through a magical gate and subsequently had the hands of the undead try to drag us into the earth?”
“So next we’re supposed to find a ‘green warden,’ whatever that means. And wardens, traditionally, try to prevent you from passing by them.” This was all according to a rhyme given to them by a goblin haruspex:
Pass through the gate of bit white bone,
Ware the green warden still as a stone,
Sign the black ledger in the red-lit fold,
Drink from the fountain of silver and gold.
The fae were huge fans of cryptic verses. They passed them around like joints at a reggae show. Frankly he hated them. Why couldn’t they draw a decent map, or at least write some straightforward directions? Never once had he consulted a fae augur and had them say, Turn right at the big oak tree, walk six miles along the stream, and there you go.
“Speaking of,” Lissa said, suddenly dropping into a crouch.
“What is it?”
She nodded ahead. Together, keeping low, they advanced until they were hiding behind a fallen tree at the edge of a wooded grove where the ravine effectively ended, the land at the back of the grove sloping sharply upward.
In the grove’s center a knight sat mounted, armored cap-a-pie in weathered bronze, green with mottled verdigris. Spookily, his helm had no eye slit, its face a curved green enigma. His horse too wore bronze armor, though the horse itself looked strangely stiff: it might have been made of wood. Both had clearly been standing there, watching the path, for a long, long time.
“Perhaps it’s just a statue,” Lissa whispered.
“Zero chance,” Ten whispered back. “Maybe we can sneak by him?” He thought he could make out a cave entrance through the brush beyond the knight.
“Zero chance,” she said.
“I’ll set a trap,” Ten suggested. “Give me a minute.”
She sighed with exasperation. “You really have been on Earth too long. Let me show you how we fox folk do it.”
She tucked her head, clawed fingers pressing against the moss, and closed her eyes. Very softly, she began to purr, deep in her throat. The tone of the purr rose and fell, rose and fell, becoming a steady hypnotic tune. It lulled you to sleep; it invited you to dream. Ten resisted the drowsiness, and before his eyes his half-sister’s lithe form began to waver, stretching and flowing as her illusion took hold. Gone was the slight fox girl clad in leather and fur; now rose a tall queen, regal in a rich red gown embroidered with gold thread, though the gown was torn and the white face splattered with blood.
The illusion Lissa had crafted stumbled forward into the clearing, and seeing the knight, fell to her knees and began to weep. “Thank the lord,” she said between sobs. “Help me, please.”
With a squeal of metal, the knight turned his blank visage to this intrusion. “My carriage was attacked along the road,” the queen explained. “My men fought bravely, but were overwhelmed. I ran. Thank the lord I found you.”
The knight only tilted his head, as though considering her story. “Please, come with me. There may be survivors, but I cannot go myself. If you desire a reward, there may yet be gold in the carriage. We hid it well.”
Ten was half fox himself, and with a bit of squinting concentration saw his sibling exactly where she had been, yellow eyes slitted, mouthing the words spoken by the queen like a ventriloquist throwing her voice. He retained a healthy skepticism about the ploy, however, and as quietly as he could, unclasped the top of his backpack and withdrew the rope. He also had a can of bear mace in his pocket, but he doubted it would do any good. As the illusionary queen continued her piteous pleas (his respect for Lissa’s acting ability rising), he began frantically working on a backup.
The queen approached the knight and raised one trembling hand in imploration. “Please, please, won’t you follow me.” The knight craned his neck forward, in the exact attitude of someone peering intently: but at the spot where Lissa crouched, not at the queen. He straightened up, and for the first time the horse moved, turning to face them. As it did, Ten saw that the knight’s right arm, hitherto hidden from them, was holding a large, curved, green, very wicked-looking axe. It seemed magical wardens could also be right-handed.
Ten finished the knot he was tying and tugged Lissa’s sleeve. “Run!” he hissed.
The knight kicked his heels into his steed’s wooden sides. The magical creature and its rider sprang forward.
Ten and Lissa, with unspoken agreement, ran for a large fir tree ten yards distant that looked like it might provide temporary refuge. Both were fleet of foot and hand, and in seconds had scrambled up the lower branches.
The horse vaulted the mossbound tree behind which they had hidden. Its forelegs, to Ten’s eternal happiness, then encountered the line of high-test nylon cord he had strung between two trees there. The horse fell flat on its face. As it was a very powerful magical horse, and its initial bounds had accelerated it to high speed, its rider went fucking flying, and smashed into the very tree they were climbing helmet-first.
“Ha!” Lissa crowed. “That put a dent in him!”
It literally had, the helmet and visor now showing a visible concavity from the impact. The knight had also lost his grip on his axe, which had flown into a clump of devil’s claw.
The impact had not, however, rendered their antagonist senseless. Shaking his bronze head, the knight was rising to hands and knees. “Grab that axe,” Ten snapped to his sibling, even as he warily dropped back down to the ground.
In his hand was the other coil of rope. Without thinking, he looped it several times about the stunned knight’s neck. The knight grabbed for him, but Ten was fox enough to evade his grasp. He sprang over to the horse, which like its master was finding its feet, and looped more of the rope around the saddle’s pommel. With the remainder of the coil, he slapped the horse’s flank and yelled, “Hyah!”
The horse shook itself but did not go running. The knight stood up, reaching to unwind the rope from his neck.
From behind Ten came a sudden roar. His eyes widened as he saw an enormous bear running toward him. He fell down, scrabbling for the bear mace in his pocket.
The horse, for its part, ran, the rope suddenly tightening. The knight followed his panicked steed with a notable reduction in dignity, dragged bodily down the path, leaving a trail of broken branches and torn moss in his wake.
The bear promptly disappeared, Lissa releasing the illusion now that it had served its purpose. The knight, it seemed, had been able to see through her tricks; his horse, however, had not his discernment.
Breathing heavily, Ten gathered his things, unknotting the trip wire and recoiling the rope. “Thanks for the bear,” he said. “And for showing me how proper fae do it.”
She arched a haughty eyebrow. “Are you always so gauche?”
He snorted. “‘Gauche’ does mean ‘left’ in French. So by fae standards, you’re dangerously close to giving me a compliment.”
A corner of her mouth twitched up. “In that case, let’s agree that you’re quite dextrous.”
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Ali Hoff is UK-based freelance concept artist and 3D Modeller who creates strange otherly worlds, scapes, characters and more.