by Andrea Phillips
The woman wasn’t old so much as hard-used by life. Crow’s feet tracked deep around her smoldering eyes; the calluses on her hands spoke of long days in the sun eking barley out of soil, wool out of sheep, another year of life out of the searching maw of the inevitable. She wore the green-striped skirts and felted coats of the Robinswood farming folk who lived at the knees of the southerly mountains.
She walked straight past blind Nael strumming in the corner, past the dwarven guard huddled ‘round their fuming lord, past the hearth and its spitting logs. She put three greened coppers down on the bar, the hollow tap sounding of finality. “Wine,” she murmured to Ceph. Her voice was unexpectedly sweet, with a timbre that longed to sing instead of speak.
“Isn’t wine forbidden to your people?” Ceph hesitated, hand halfway toward the coins. “You sure that’s what you want?”
She shook her head. “Any other day I’d ask for clear water and bid you good morrow. Tonight, little lamb, it’s wine for me.”
He lifted a bottle and poured her a flagon. She took it in both hands, hesitating a long moment.
Her face was hard to read, dark to begin with, now wreathed by shadows from the uncertain lamplight. But her shoulders were steady, her back straight, and her hands did not tremble when at last she drank the whole in one long draught. “Another,” she said, drawing more coins from her pocket.
Ceph poured again. “But — why?” he asked.
“I’ve danced before,” she said, “and now it’s time to pay the piper.”
The woman was Raifa Soon, a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife from the proud villages that dwell in the hills of the Cragpeak Mountains east of Theore. New-wed and fresh to keeping a house of her own, she did all of the rites demanded of her with laudable diligence: setting sheep’s milk out to keep the peace with house-spirits, sweeping only toward the door to keep evil at bay, whispering the blessings for kneading dough and curing lamb and banking the hearth at night.
There was the matter, though, of the bottle of sweet wine. She found it tucked in a corner of the root cellar, cool and so covered with dirt she could not make out a label. Wine is, indeed, forbidden to the mountain farmers, who believed they must be ever alert to anything that might weaken their vigilance against the whispering, jealous, tricksome faeries who live just a shadow’s breath away.
But new-wed and newly free to choose what they would, Raifa and her husband thought Dionysus would smile on them. They drank under the full moon in a glade not far from their home where no friendly neighbor would come visiting, and fell asleep entwined together under the summer boughs as innocent as any two children might be.
When Raifa awoke, though, she was alone in the dark. The earth was cold and damp, but her skin was still pleasantly flushed from drink. She lay still for some time, listening for the telltale crackles that would mean her husband was returning to her from making water. No sound came, though, but night animals.
She sat up, brushed the leaf litter from her dress and hair, looked and listened with all her powers of observation. Crickets sang; an owl hooted and winged past. At the corner of her vision, there was a faint gleam of light. She stood and shuffled toward the light, stumbling over unseen hillocks and clutching branches. The light grew brighter, the closer she drew. She knew not what it might be — a lantern? Campfire? But she had no fear.
At last she broke into the circle of light and discovered what it was she’d been drawn to: a rose, blown open to the sky and glowing golden in the night. Raifa reached a finger to stroke a petal. At the last step, though, the world was flooded with light and noise: the faeries were all around her, laughing and dancing, bright with life and happiness and then she was dancing, too, filled with a bubbly joy like she had never known–
“I should go home,” she whispered after a time.
“But we need you,” voices nuzzled into her ear. They whirled her from one hand to the next in a particularly giddy step.
“No — not me. Take me home.”
“We can make you happy forever, Raifa Soon. Just stay with us.” She spun, dipped, spun again.
“I won’t take this bargain,” she cried, finally afraid for herself. She stopped dancing.
“If you don’t want happiness, then we will give you sorrow instead,” they whispered. And then they were gone.
Her husband found her a month after she went missing, asleep like the dead in a faery circle.
Weeks and months passed, and if Raifa and her husband never forgot what had happened, they at least chose not to speak of it. In time, Raifa got with child, and in time, the child was born: a boy, healthy and strong. They named him Renna for her father. He grew fat and rosy-cheeked as babies do; he slept soundly and smiled broadly and laughed at the wonders of being alive.
Until the day that he didn’t. Raifa woke to find him thin and pale, weak and prone to crying. He still had his father’s eyes and his mother’s nose, but she could swear he wasn’t the same child. He was prone to fits of ill temper, and as he grew, trouble hung around him like a fog. Milk would sour faster, sickly lambs would die, fields would turn up dried and brown after weeks of rain.
Raifa watched him, troubled, but dared not give voice to her fears.
And then one day, as Raifa chased an errant lamb, she stumbled on a circle in the woods, mushroom by mushroom stood together like a summoning. In the center she saw her boy, her real boy, and at last knew what has happened. You could count the bones in his spine and plant fields in the hollows of his collarbones, just a poor starveling puppy with a pot of wine in his two hands. His eyes were circled red from tears and blue from being awake when he oughtn’t be.
Those who had taken him were dancing and drinking and whoring all around, dim at the edges of the vision, but the boy — the true Renna — was there lonesome and starving, while none of them cared to look after him. They took him as a plaything, she thought, and then just cast him off again when he wasn’t fun any more.
And then the vision was gone, the mushrooms withered at her feet, and Raifa set out with a new sense of purpose.
She looked up and searched Ceph’s face. “You look a little like my own boy would,” she said. “If he were just a little older.”
Ceph shrugged, and mopped at the bar with a scrap of old linen. “So now what? You’ve run away from your troubles? Giving yourself to Dionysus?”
She stuck her chin out. “So now I’m searching for another faery circle, and wine’s the only way I know to find one easy.”
“What will you do then?”
“Get my son back, of course. A fair trade. They’ll be expecting their own back again, thinking he’ll have caused us enough grief in soured milk and withered apples that we won’t want him any more.”
“So you’ll give the changeling back?” Ceph stared into the guttering wick of the lantern. Above him in the rafters, the crow shifted from foot to foot and furled her wings a little closer.
Raifa drew herself up, haughty. “Course not. He’s my boy, now, too. No boy of mine is staying with the likes of them.”
“But… he’s feytouched. He’s given you nothing but trouble.”
She smiled, and at that, her face grew younger and more beautiful. No, not so very old at all.
Her next words rushed out of her like a stream at spring melt. “Oh, to be sure, Renna has caused us no end of grief, but what child does otherwise? And now that he’s a little older, now he loves us and misses his faerie parents less, he’s become such a happy boy, with a big laugh and big hugs and—“
She ducked her chin as she turned over a particularly happy memory. “Well, he isn’t the child who makes the chores go faster, but that smile of his could make the chores he isn’t doing seem lighter for the rest of us.”
Her faced aged again, all at once, “And if we gave him back, he’d fare no better than our true son. No empty arms aching to rock him, and nobody to keep him fed and warm.”
She toyed with the flagon, tracing circles around the rim artlessly. “No, he’d fare no better than our true son,” she said again. “No baby deserves to be with those creatures what couldn’t love any thing more than themselves, not even a feytouched one.”
“So what will you trade, then?” Ceph asked.
“Myself,” she said, soft. “It’s a mother’s duty and privilege to sacrifice for her babies, by her body born or by her love claimed. My sister will see right done by them.” She touched her fingers to Ceph’s shoulder, light as starshine. “Don’t grieve for me, little lamb. Surely your mother would do the same.”
He flinched back, wordless.
“Or did she already?” The woman nodded, slowly, then took one last draught. “Don’t grieve for her, either. If she gave herself so you might live, the best way to honor her is to live. Use the gift she gave you, lamb.”
She pushed the flagon away. “It’s time,” she sighed. “Wish me luck?”
“May Dionysus find you joyful,” Ceph said.
She nodded and drew her coat higher on her shoulders. “Good enough.” And then she left, leaving behind the faint perfume of wine and a bright, happy song about love under the moon.