Into the Dark Forest

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I have to confess something: 2017 was the year of distractions (as you can see by the lack of posts on this site). I put my novel on hold and I stopped working on The Tales of the Seelie Court. But I still kept writing and I wrote this short story called Into the Dark Forest, which features my favorite magical creatures: faeries! The characters and places and this story are not related to my other works about faeries, but I dare say it is still a magical, little piece of writing. Enjoy! 


 

Into the Dark Forest

 

It was that time of the year when the trees wore their most colorful dresses and the air chilled when the sun set. But while the sun was still up, the weather was warm and the world bathed in a golden glow. In that time of the year, the outside became Hayes’s favorite place on earth.

On one of those golden days, Hayes fled to one of the parks to escape his chaotic home. No matter how much he loved all his brothers and sisters, sometimes he longed for a short break. Here, everything was peaceful, and he could rest his back against the bark of a tree, his long, lanky legs stretched out over the foliage that covered the ground.

He kept his eyes closed so all that he could see of the world around him was the light filtering through his eyelids. He could tell that most people had already left. Apart from the occasional laughter and the rustle of the foliage as people walked through it, it was only the sounds of nature that he could hear. Birds chirping, wind shaking the leaves, and somewhere in the distance the low rumble of the afternoon traffic.

When Hayes opened his eyes again, he noticed someone who he’d never seen in this park before. It was a boy, about his age, but the complete opposite of what scrawny, dark-skinned Hayes looked like; the boy was tall, muscular, and very pale, with fair hair and a face that looked as though it was cut from white marble. Hayes was immediately struck by his extraordinary appearance and intrigued by the way he moved. The strange boy was barefooted and barely made any noise as he prowled through the park. He seemed frantic, as though he was looking for something.

Hayes sat up straight, his eyes now following the boy’s every step. The boy walked up to a tree, examined it, then shook his head and walked on. The more Hayes watched the boy, the more peculiar he appeared. His clothes were odd, too. He wore something that looked like a golden breast plate over his shirt.

Finally, the boy stopped in front of one of the largest trees in the park. He examined the bark closely, running both hands over it. Then, with a jolt, he reached up for the lowest branch and pulled it down.

A veil fell over the world. Dark clouds obscured the sun, and the wind howled through the trees like a dying wolf. The ground shook, and Hayes fell back against the tree he’d been resting against just moments before. Placing his hands against the bark and slowly drawing himself up, he glanced around and saw that the park was utterly deserted. Except for the strange boy, who was still standing next to the tree whose branch he had pulled. But now there was a gaping hole in its trunk and the boy gazed intently into it. Faster than the eye could see, vines shot out of the dark abyss and wrapped around the boy’s ankles and wrists. He made no sound as he was yanked into the tree.

A scream formed inside Hayes’s throat, which now felt painfully dry, but he gulped it down. The storm was still raging, howling in his ears. He couldn’t hear any other sound than that, and he couldn’t see anyone that he could beg for help. Only Hayes was left, and the tree with the hole, which was slowly closing up.

Before he knew what he was doing, his feet carried him forward. First, he walked, then he started running, and faster than he thought he could ever be, he ran up to the tree. He skittered to a halt before it, gazing into the dark abyss of the tree. Looking at the nothingness within caused a shiver down his spine, but before he could reconsider, he was grabbed by his wrists and ankles. Darkness enveloped him.

***

He hit damp soil, scraping his knees and hands. The air around him smelled fresh and wet, like a forest in the summer after a spell of rain. He lifted his head, aching from the whiplash, and took a closer look at his surroundings.

It was quite dark, only the faintest light could be seen in the sky, but he could clearly see the shapes of trees around him. And there, standing amid the trees, his hand at his hips and a displeased look on his face, was the boy.

“What have you done?” he demanded, advancing on Hayes. Something silver sparked in his hand.

Hayes staggered to his feet, taking a couple of steps away from the boy. In this strange new place, in the dark night, the boy suddenly seemed less angelic and more terrifying. “I, uh, I thought I…” Hayes replied.

“You should not have come after me! Why did you? No, how did you?” The boy came even closer, his left hand trembling– the one holding the sharp silver object. Hayes could see the boy’s face clearly now, and he was taken aback by his piercing blue eyes and oddly pointed ears.

“I…” Hayes swallowed hard, trying to calm his heart beating ferociously in his chest. “I saw you being dragged into…into that tree. And there was no one there to help y-you.” As he said the words out loud, realization hit him: this boy, with the weapon in his hand, breastplate on his chest and arms so muscular you could see every sinew, did not need his help. “I am so sorry. I made a mistake, sorry-”

“Do not apologize to us, ever!” the boy said.

Hayes retreated another step. “Us?”

Now it was the boy’s turn to look perplexed. “You see us, yet you do not know who we are?”

“Okay, could you please stop talking about yourself in the plural?” Hayes ran both hands through his short, curly hair, as though he was hoping this way he could keep his sanity inside his head.

“I am talking about my people,” the boy answered. “The Fair Folk.”

Hayes let both his hands drop to his side. “The what now?”

“The Fair Folk,” he repeated. “The people of this realm. I am one of the faeries. You as a mortal should not have been able to see me back in the park. The fact that you did…”

When the boy stopped talking, Hayes kept gaping at him, unblinking.

“You do not believe me.” The boy lowered his head sadly. “Maybe I can gain your trust by telling you my name. I am Iobhar, knight of the faeries. And you are?”

More out of reflex than actually comprehending what the boy had said, Hayes replied, “My name is Hayes, uh, from Chicago.”

Iobhar bowed his head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Hayes from Chicago.”

For a moment, they stood in silence, Iobhar eyeing him with a composed manner. Hayes’s focus shifted from Iobhar’s mesmerizing eyes, to the weapon held in his left hand, then back to their surroundings. Somehow he knew that what he saw was real – he was not dreaming. But what he had now heard was far from logical and realistic, and that was just the guy he was. One of realism and not phantasm.

Finally, Hayes turned back to Iobhar. “Do I have to stay here now?” Even if he did not believe in fairytales, he still knew of them. And the characters in these stories did not always return from the magical land.

Iobhar’s expression grew even more serious. Faster than Hayes could pat an eyelid, Iobhar reached out his free hand to take hold of Hayes’s hand. “I promise you,” he said, “that I will return you to your home. You came here by mistake, and if you wish to leave, then your wish shall be granted.”

“Uh, thanks.” Hayes withdrew his hands

Iobhar bowed his head again. “It is my duty. But your gratitude means nothing to my people. We seek remembrance and –” He paused as a heavy rustle emanated from the nearby trees. As the noise increased, his posture stiffened and the grip on his weapon tightened. He was now holding it in front of his chest and Hayes could see it in its entirety for the first time. It was a dagger, but longer and sharper than he had thought.

A low rumble shook the ground.

“What is that?” Hayes scanned the surroundings the way Iobhar did, but he felt defenseless and without protection. What if the noise was caused by a wild beast? He would be completely and utterly at its mercy.

Iobhar didn’t answer at first. But as a loud crack echoed through the woods, he yelled, “Run!”

Even though Hayes reacted instinctively and started running the very second of Iobhar’s command, he fell immediately behind. He had difficulties to run on the forest ground, which had started to move under his feet like an ocean wave. The previous ruffling and cracking now sounded like thunder in his ears. He struggled to run, and made the mistake of glancing back over his shoulder.

The woods were alive! Trees and bushes, shrubs and moss, everything was moving towards him. It had to be an optical illusion, he thought. It was not possible for trees to move the way those did. They were not running or jumping from one place to the next on their roots, which would have been odd enough; they were sliding and slithering, transforming, turning to liquid and solidifying again.

“Run, Hayes!”

Tearing away his gaze from the monstrosity behind him, Hayes tried harder to work his way forward. He could spot Iobhar ahead of him, even paler in the moonlight. He was slowly catching up with him, but not fast enough. He could hear the forest’s tumultuous approach and he could’ve sworn to feel a breath on his neck, but that must’ve been the wind.

A stabbing pain in his chest slowed Hayes down once more and he realized that he could not outrun the forest. “Iobhar!” he called out. “Iobh-”

Something wrapped around his left ankle and pulled hard. He fell down, face forward, and was then dragged backwards. The cacophony of cracking trees and whipping leaves crashed over his head like a wave, and even though he was on land, he felt like drowning. The fall had knocked all air out of his lungs.

If this was how his life would end, he deeply regretted coming to the park that day.

The grip on his ankle loosened. Instead he could feel a warm hand on his arm which yanked him to his feet.

“And this time, really run!” Iobhar was breathing heavily, his other arm holding the weapon outstretched. At his feet lay a tangle of cut vines. Hayes eyed it for a fragment of a second, then Iobhar took his hand and they started running together.

Several times Iobhar had to whirl around to cut down vines that shot at them, but still they were faster together. After they had run for a while and Hayes’s lungs had started to burn, Iobhar pulled him to the left, into a cave. Deeper and deeper they ran, into the darkness. The murderous sound of the woods subsided, and then they were enveloped in silence.

Hayes could see little in the dark, but he found a wall at which he could steady himself. His breathing was ragged and his whole body shaking. His knees, weakened from the run, gave in and he slumped to the ground.

A green fire sprang to life. Hayes was too exhausted to even question how Iobhar had conjured that odd, greenish light. Instead he welcomed its warmth. They sat in silence for some time, and Hayes could not bear to look at Iobhar. He thought if he didn’t look at him, he would just go away. All of this would just go away and he would find himself back in the park.

When he finally looked up, Iobhar sat cross-legged next to the fire, idly examining his weapon. The green fire turned his pale, ruffled hair a shade darker. His face looked eerily green, too. For a second Hayes thought he looked just as monstrous as the woods.

But his features were far too soft to belong to a monster. And his eyes, even in that light, were bright and curious looking. Hayes had always had a soft spot for blue eyes. Too mesmerized by their color, Hayes did not realize at first that the person to whom the eyes belonged was speaking to him.

“… and your path home appears to be obstructed, I am afraid.”

“Huh?” Hayes forced his eyes away from Iobhar’s gaze, but instead he stared at Iobhar’s lips, which were thin but beautifully shaped.

“I said, my promise to bring you home must be postponed temporarily,” Iobhar replied. There was a frown on his face, but he did not sound worried at all. Just as earlier in the forest, he sounded composed.

Hayes managed to look away from Iobhar entirely and gaze into the fire instead. But that had the color of the forest that had just tried to kill them. “How is that possible? The forest… it moved. It was alive! And murderous!”

“It happened a while ago,” Iobhar said. “A nature sprite from some other world settled in that forest and took over the minds of those poor, unfortunate trees. My king will not be pleased…”

“And this…thing is preventing me from going home?”

“Unfortunately so.”

Hayes was on his feet before he could think, his fists trembling at his side. “I came after you, into that…that tree, because I thought you needed help. God, this has to be some sort of bad joke or the worst nightmare I’ve ever had! Wake up, Hayes, wake up!” He even punched himself for good measure, but nothing changed. He did not wake up, because he was not asleep.

During his short outburst, Iobhar had remained quiet. Now he looked up at Hayes with the curiosity of a small child.

“Ok, so you’re a faerie, right? So you must have some special powers,” Hayes said.

“Nature is our source of strength, but it has turned against us.”

“But there has to be something that we can do now?!”

Iobhar returned his idle gaze to his weapon. “At the very moment a storm is raging in these woods. We are best to remain here, for now.”

Hayes wanted to object, but his exhaustion got the better of him. Maybe it was good after all that they could take a short respite.

“I regret that this is the way you are introduced to our realm,” Iobhar said after a while. “You should see our revels! The most wonderful food and drink, sweet tunes all night. You would dance until your feet felt sore. Oh, and our gardens! The most beautiful ones you’ll ever see.”

All of that did sound enticing, yet Hayes could not picture it after what he’d just witnessed.

“You do not seem convinced,” Iobhar said, and there was sadness in his voice for the first time. From the corner of his eye, Hayes saw Iobhar retrieving something from his pocket. He thought it was just another weapon, but then a mellifluous song filled the small cave.

Hayes lifted his head. Iobhar had his eyes closed and held a small, wooden flute to his lips. At first he played a slow tune that filled Hayes with almost unbearable grief, but then the melody changed and it was one that touched his heart. It made him think of his most precious memories – the last time his mother kissed him good night, his siblings cheering for him the first time he played his saxophone in front of an audience… and Iobhar.

Iobhar? Hayes blinked twice, and the cave came back into focus. Iobhar was now standing in front of Hayes, holding out a hand while his other was still working the flute. Pulled in by the music, Hayes stood up and placed his hand into Iobhar’s – ebony into ivory. He followed Iobhar into the middle of the cave, where they started to dance.

Hayes did not have to think about his movements; his limbs acted as if guided by invisible strings. Iobhar’s hand slipped out of his and to his lower back. Hayes shivered at the touch of the boy’s fingers, but it was a pleasant tingling feeling that filled his whole body.

On and on Iobhar played his flute, and with every changing tune he came closer to Hayes. Now they were so close Hayes could rest his head on Iobhar’s shoulder. Iobhar smelled like pine needles and sandalwood.

What would his lips taste like, Hayes wondered. An urge to kiss him, to taste his lips, surged up inside Hayes, and he lifted his head from Iobhar’s shoulder.

The song stopped abruptly, and Iobhar took a step back. Hayes looked up, perplexed, and saw that Iobhar’s gaze was fixed on the cave entrance. Hayes followed the gaze and startled at the sight of a stranger.

“Am I interrupting your little revel?” the stranger asked, a crooked smile on his face. He looked so much unlike Iobhar – dark skin, dark hair, and two small horns on his head! – that Hayes could only think of him as an enemy. But Iobhar was approaching him with calm.

“Pàrlan! How did you find me?” The two boys embraced in welcome.  “Oh, I failed my purpose!

“You did not retrieve it?” Pàrlan asked. Iobhar shook his head. “But I see you brought something else from the mortal world,” Pàrlan added, eyeing Hayes with amusement.

“He followed me,” said Iobhar. “I promised to return him home, but we were attacked by the sprite. Where are the others?”

“I see. I’d say we keep him.” Pàrlan gave Hayes a radiant smile and a wink. “They believe the heart of the monster can be found by the old well. I thought I would look for you first and we could follow them there.”

“What for? We are weaponless. The last time we tried to bring it down with the weapons we had at hand, we failed. What makes them think we can succeed now?”

Pàrlan shrugged his shoulders. “Perseverance? I never quite understood your people.”

“My people?! Haven’t you been with us for a long enough time now?”

Hayes got the uneasy feeling that Pàrlan had just opened a difficult subject for them both, and them fighting would not get Hayes home quicker. To Hayes’s relief, Pàrlan did not answer to Iobhar’s last question.

“We must kill the monster tonight!” Pàrlan continued. “You know this as much as I do. And you know just as well as I that there must be another ways to defeat it.”

Iobhar lowered his eyes, gazing at the flickering shadow of the fire on the ground. After some consideration, he looked at Pàrlan again. “What about him?”

Pàrlan smiled his crooked smile again. “Well, that can be taken care of in no time.” And he quickly turned and walked toward Hayes, who, perplexed by the satisfactory expression on Pàrlan’s face, took a huge step back. “No need to be afraid. This won’t hurt.” Hayes tried to look at Iobhar for help, but Pàrlan was blocking his view. In fact, he was now really close to Hayes, and he came even closer.

Hayes shivered, his eyes scanning the approaching boy for weapons. He tried to take another step back, but Pàrlan took hold of his hand, leaned in, and kissed him full on the mouth. Before Hayes could even realize what was happening, it was over.

Hayes stared at Pàrlan, who still wore his smile. “Now you’re mine for the night. No one in this realm can harm you now,” said Pàrlan, and Hayes watched him walk back to Iobhar.

His cheeks burning with embarrassment, Hayes tried to avoid Iobhar’s gaze. But he could not. He found himself drawn to Iobhar’s piercing eyes, and was surprised by the look on Iobhar’s face; it was composed. After the moment they had shared before Pàrlan’s appearance, he had expected Iobhar to be jealous of what had just happened.

Maybe it had been the music that had made me hallucinate, Hayes thought. He felt a pang in his chest at the thought that Iobhar had only tricked him into seeing what he wanted him to see. But there was no time to dwell on it. Iobhar had scooped the green fire up and was now holding it in his open palm.

“No harm will come to you,” he assured Hayes.

Hayes stood for a moment, watching the pair walk toward the exit, slowly draining the light from the cave. They were the only hope he had to go back.

***

Outside the cave, the forest had calmed down again. It was still night and everything glowed silver in the light of the moon, which seemed bigger and brighter in this world. When Hayes emerged from their hideout, Pàrlan and Iobhar stood a little bit off, conversing in whispers. As soon as they noticed Hayes, they broke apart.

“Pàrlan gave you some protection, but you also need to defend yourself,” Iobhar said, walking back toward Hayes. “You should take this.” With one hand he took Hayes’s and placed in it a small dagger, the one he had used earlier.

“But what about you?” Hayes asked, because he couldn’t admit what he really thought; that he was afraid of the weapon in his hand.

“Pàrlan brought me my sword,” Iobhar said, nudging his head to the left. A sword’s hilt was visible just above the curve of his shoulder. “Now, I want you to keep close to me,” he continued in a low voice. “It would be most unfortunate if my attempt to bring you home comes to an abrupt end tonight.”

“I thought I was…protected?”

Iobhar’s eyes flickered away. “I am not talking about you. But should I fail, Pàrlan will take good care of you. You need not worry. As long as you stay close to me, or him, you won’t be harmed.”

Before Hayes could reply, Iobhar had joined Pàrlan again.

“Will you lead the way?” Iobhar asked.

“Certainly.”

They waited for Hayes to join them and together they stepped out of the shadow’s protection and onto the worn forest path.

It was as if their footsteps had set off a trigger. The forest roared to life, trees, bushes, and shrubs all moving towards them.

“Run!” Iobhar yelled, and this time Hayes was prepared. Tightening the grip on the dagger in his left hand, he ran after Iobhar, who had drawn his sword and was fighting the forest on both sides. Every time he cut down a branch or vine shooting toward them, there was a blood-curdling howl. Unearthly sounds – hissing, screeching, wailing – pressed down onto Hayes’s eardrums.

The ground underneath their feet started to move like waves in a stormy sea. Hayes lengthened his stride, at times even jumping over the waves, evading the roots shooting up from the earth. Whenever he could afford to take his eyes off the ground, he looked up to see if he was still close to Iobhar, who was constantly checking back on Hayes as well.

Hayes tried to locate Pàrlan, but he was nowhere to be seen. For his momentary lack of attention he paid immediately; a thick branch hit him full in the face. He staggered back a step, but managed to evade a second blow. He continued running, his face now hot with pain. He could feel something wet trickling down his cheek and throat, into the collar of his shirt.

“Hayes!” Iobhar had noticed Hayes’s momentary stagger and had stopped as well. He swung his sword back and forth with precision, but the forest around him was thickening rapidly.

Hayes tried to run faster, but the forest ground wouldn’t let him. The trees were closing down on Iobhar and his lower body was soon obscured by the shrubbery.

“Iobhar! No!” Hayes yelled. He could not take a single step forward as the waves of the forest increased and threatened to throw him back.

Iobhar met Hayes’s glance through the narrow gap in the trees that were closing all around him. Iobhar had stopped fighting, his sword hanging at his side. Instead he waited, patiently, for the forest to bring its plan to an end. Hayes gave up, too, and focused on Iobhar’s eyes.

And then Iobhar was gone.

The trees closed up, formed their cocoon around Iobhar and lowered into the forest ground. The rest of the woods calmed down, the waves subsided, and Hayes staggered forward.

He fell to his knees, the dagger slipping from his numb grip, and he dropped his head in his hands. He remained in this position for a while. He did not feel he had the strength left to continue. And where would he even go? Iobhar was gone. Pàrlan had disappeared as well. He was alone with the eerie noises of the forest at night. He flinched at every hoot and every crackle, every rush of the wind in the leaves. He feared that any moment now the forest would turn back to live, but apparently the evil sprite was not interested in a petty mortal.

After many dull cracks, a very loud one sounded from in front of Hayes. He lifted his head, peeking through his fingers. Another crack. Every muscle in Hayes’s body tensed, ready to take off. A bush close by shuffled heavily, and Hayes jumped to a standing position, his dagger poised.

Relief washed all over him when the newcomer stepped through the bush. It was Pàrlan.

“Where did you go?” Hayes blurted out immediately. But Pàrlan did not answer. He looked sour and remained standing at a distance from Hayes. Two more faerie men pushed through the bush. They were dressed in the same armor-like clothing as Pàrlan and Iobhar.

“Where did he go?” the taller one of the pair asked. He scanned the area, his eyes settling on Hayes eventually. “Ah, the mortal. Have you seen where Iobhar went?”

“I…he…” Hayes stammered, still trying to wrap his head around what had happened. “It was the forest…uh, that sprite…it took him.”

“Took him?” Pàrlan strode up to Hayes, almost flying at him. “What do you mean to say?” Fury was burning in Pàrlan’s eyes, and Hayes averted his gaze, feeling that he could not stand it.

“It was the trees. They closed up around him and then…he was sucked into the ground. I don’t know how. I don’t know how it happened, I am so sorry!”

“Spare me your apologies!” Pàrlan hissed like an animal. “This is all your fault. You’re coming with us! Maybe an offering will calm the spirits…”

“What? No!”

The two faerie men stepped up to Hayes, as if commanded by Pàrlan. One took hold of Hayes’s arms, twisting them onto his back. The other wrapped a rope of vines around his wrists, binding his arms together. Hayes struggled against it, but to no avail. The two faerie men were much stronger than he was, and before he knew it, another rope was around his waist. The taller of the two faerie men grabbed the end of that rope and pulled forward.

Hayes staggered, almost falling down. “Please, don’t do this!”

“Your begging is repulsive. It’ll make it even easier to hand you over.” The tall one chuckled.

“I bet it will like the taste of this one,” said the short one, grinning.

Pàrlan said nothing. The contemptuous look he gave Hayes told more than enough.

***

As they made their way through the forest, everything remained eerily calm. Hayes couldn’t deny he wasn’t glad about that, because he already had to deal with being dragged through the woods, but it also made him wary. He had thought the sprite was only interested in faeries and that was why it had calmed down around him, but maybe it was only Iobhar it had wanted.

It was still dark and Hayes thought that it had been like that for far too long. As they walked, Hayes stumbled over roots and stones, and whenever he did, there would be a sharp jerk of the rope and he would fly forward a few steps.

Do you even know where you’re going, he wanted to yell at them. But he knew better to keep his mouth shut.

“He must’ve been taken to the heart,” Pàrlan said. “If we follow this path, it should lead us to him.”

“Shouldn’t we alarm the others?” asked the taller faerie man.

Pàrlan shook his head no. “There is no time. Who knows what this thing is doing to Iobhar…” A visible shiver shook Pàrlan, and he walked even faster.

Parlàn’s determination led them through the forest in no time. They passed thick bushes, tall trees, wide meadows, a small waterfall burbling down a cliff formation. Hayes struggled to keep up, and he found that the farther they went, the more he tried to walk faster, but not because he feared the faeries’ punishment. He feared for Iobhar.

Every step he took brought him closer to Iobhar, closer to saving the boy who had protected him in this forsaken forest. It was no longer Hayes’s wish to go home that urged him to find Iobhar; he felt he owed Iobhar, for taking care of him. Pàrlan had showed him that not all faeries were so benevolent toward mortals as Iobhar had been.

Hayes was pulled out of his reverie as he bumped into the taller faerie. The group had stopped abruptly, and Pàrlan now spoke to them in whispers, “It’s here. I can feel it.”

“I can’t see anything,” said the shorter one.

Hayes directed his gaze forward, past Pàrlan, and indeed there was nothing to see. It was a small meadow, very much like the ones they had passed. Trees and bushes ringed it, and there, in the center, was a massive, moss-covered stone formation – about the size of a car and the shape of an old, hunch-backed man.

“Shh, don’t move,” Pàrlan told the group, while he took a tentative step forward. A branch cracked under his heavy boot, the sound echoing through the otherwise entirely quiet meadow. Pàrlan proceeded with caution, taking one careful step after the other toward the stone formation.

Hayes followed his movements with anticipation. He could only see Pàrlan’s back as he stepped up to the formation and stretched out a hand. There was a pause, and Hayes held his breath.

“Pàrlan, no! It’s a trap!” It was Iobhar’s voice, but Hayes couldn’t tell where it was coming from and there was no time to look for him.

Heart-shattering, deafening shrieks filled the air. A sharp, cold wind picked up and howled through the trees. An all-consuming darkness seeped from the stone, swallowing up Pàrlan and then moving toward the group. Hayes could feel the rope loosening as the taller faerie dropped it. Together with his smaller companion he started to run back into the forest, but the darkness was faster. It slithered around Hayes, who was riveted to the spot with shock, and it drew the two faeries in, drowning out their panicked cries.

For a moment the scene appeared to pause in front of Hayes’s eyes. Then the darkness evaporated slowly, like smoke, and revealed the three faeries lying on the ground. Hayes was closest to Pàrlan, and he approached him warily.

He stopped short at a shuffling noise nearby. He looked around, spotting Iobhar between two trees. Most of his body was covered in vines that bound his arms and legs, but Hayes could see his face clearly. It was paler than ever, as if there was only little blood left in him, and his blue eyes were wide with terror.

“Hayes!” he called. “Run!”

A sharp blow to his head sent Hayes flying through the air. He hit the forest ground hard, and before he had time to locate his attacker, he was kicked into the stomach. Another punch, and he felt his mouth fill with blood.

“No! Stop!” It was Iobhar’s voice again, disembodied. In a moment of respite, Hayes rolled onto his stomach and tried to push himself up, but he was knocked down immediately. “You are k-killing him! No!” Iobhar’s cracking voice now sounded nearer.

“His life is worthless.”

Hayes, still struggling to get away from his unseen attacker, could not tell who had spoken, but the voice had sent a shiver down his spine. It had sounded hollow and inhuman. Once more he was punched in the stomach, and this time he spat blood.

“Enough!” cried Iobhar, very close to Hayes now. Still on all fours, retching and spitting, Hayes risked to glance up. Iobhar was standing before him now, protecting him with his arms outstretched. Hayes pushed himself up on wobbly legs, and he could see his attacker stopping in front of Iobhar.

It was Pàrlan. But his body had been turned into dark smoke, swirling and twisting restlessly, as though it couldn’t wait to attack again. Instead of his face, there were two coruscating white eyes, but no nose or mouth. The eyes glared at Hayes hungrily.

“Pàrlan, I beg of you,” Iobhar pleaded with the creature. Now standing, Hayes could see the bloody scratches all over Iobhar’s body where he must have ripped the vines off himself. His face, darkened with dirt, was contorted in pain. But by the way Iobhar looked at Pàrlan, Hayes knew that the pain wasn’t physical. “You do not need to kill him. You already hurt them.”

At hearing those words, Hayes scanned the area for the other two faeries. Both were lying on the ground a few feet away, unmoving.

“I can feel this…hunger,” Pàrlan said in a hollow voice. “It demands…to be fed.” The smoke started to swirl even faster, and parts of it slithered over the ground, toward Hayes.

“Don’t make me do this!” Iobhar cried, tears now flowing down his face. Hayes did not understand at first what Iobhar was talking about, but he understood as soon as Iobhar took a step forward, his sword poised. “I don’t want to do this, Pàrlan, you know that, but if you keep moving toward him, I have no other choice. You know the rules. I can’t let you kill this mortal.”

The smoke continued to slithered forward, even faster now as though encouraged by Iobhar’s words. The creature’s eyes were no longer visible, and the whole body was spreading toward Hayes.

But Hayes did not look at the approaching creature anymore. He looked at Iobhar and the pain on his tear-streaked face. It was the most heart-wrenching thing Hayes had ever seen, and underneath all that pain, Hayes could see a glimmer of love and affection. Maybe Iobhar and Parlàn were more than brothers in battle.

The creature had now shifted its focus on Iobhar, as though daring him to kill it. And Iobhar, even though the expression on his face was torn, seemed determined to plunge his sword into his friend and end both him and the sprite that had haunted the woods for so long.

Something on the ground, a few feet to Hayes’s right, caught his eye: Iobhar’s flute. He must have dropped it there. Hayes moved fast and instinctively, dropping down beside the flute, picking it up, and placing it to his lips. His eyes riveted on the creature, which had its smoky tentacles stretched out toward Iobhar, he began playing. The first tune sounded off and for a second Hayes feared he did not know how to play this instrument. It seemed different than the flutes he was used to. But then the melody steadied, and he produced a lovely tune.

The effect on the creature was instantaneous. It paused, as though frozen in its movements. Iobhar lowered his sword just a little, looking around perplexedly. His eyes met Hayes’s for a second and an understanding passed between them. Then he turned back to the creature, his sword up again.

The creature writhed and wriggled, slowly retreating. It almost looked as though it was dancing, and Hayes changed his song to something faster. It seemed to please the creature. Iobhar and Hayes watched as the smoke collapsed back into itself until finally it solidified into Pàrlan’s body, lying on the ground.

Hayes kept playing as Iobhar approached him, with his sword still clutched in one hand. When he was only a step away from Pàrlan, a cloud of pitch-black smoke shot from Pàrlan’s chest, soaring up before swooping down onto Iobhar. But Iobhar was ready, and so he thrust his sword upward, burying it into the vapor. Both the sword and Iobhar’s hands vanished into the smoke, and Hayes held his breath, watching intently.

“Keep playing!” Iobhar yelled. Hayes remembered the flute in his hands. The music calmed the creature, which had its vaporous tentacles stretched out toward Iobhar. It writhed, almost as if squirming in pain, and then there was a long-drawn shriek. The creature shrunk to the size of a small stone before vanishing completely.

In the silence that followed, no one moved. Hayes stopped playing, but kept the flute between his lips. Iobhar remained in the pose in which he had killed the creature, and neither Pàrlan nor the other two faeries stirred on the ground.

But the forest around them changed. Daylight flooded the meadow within seconds, and birds began to sing their morning song. The buzzing of insects and the soft burble of water close by filled the air. Even the smell changed, from rotten, old soil to fresh grass and wet wood.

The first to move was Iobhar. He dropped his sword where he stood and fell to his knees beside Pàrlan. His head bowed, he spoke in whispers to Pàrlan, so low that Hayes could not understand a word. Just as Hayes was about to turn the other way, Pàrlan sat up and the two faeries embraced and kissed.

Hayes, quickly averting his gaze, started walking toward the taller faerie still lying on the ground. He looked a little bit paler than before, but otherwise unharmed. He was also still breathing. Hayes checked on the second faerie, who appeared to be in the same state as his companion. Hayes turned to tell Iobhar the news, and he found Iobhar steps away from Pàrlan.

“Can we talk? In private?” Iobhar asked.

Hayes shook his head yes without thinking. His mind felt numb and his body exhausted. After all they’d been through, he only wanted to go home even more. He followed Iobhar across the meadow, to a small area secluded by trees. Iobhar glanced back at Pàrlan, now sitting upright and looking a lot better, and then turned to Hayes.

“What you have done,” he began. The words did not seem to come easily, and he sounded more exhausted than Hayes felt. There was dirt all over his face and in his hair, but it did not cover Iobhar’s woeful expression. “You saved his life…our lives. No mortal has done that before, and I am sure my king would want to reward you grandly, but –”

“I don’t need any rewards.”

“But,” Iobhar continued, “he would also want you to stay in this world. You know too much now.”

Hayes’s heart skipped a beat. “Stay? No, no, I can’t stay. I need to go home! My siblings…” His voice broke off, choked by tears now filling his eyes.

“Shh.” Iobhar took hold of Hayes’s right hand, clutching it with both of his. “I will bring you back home if that is what you wish. It only felt fair to present you with all your options.”

Hayes stared at his hand in Iobhar’s. They felt warm and calloused. “These are my only options, then? Staying or leaving? Can’t I…see you again?” Hayes did not know what made him say that, but Iobhar’s hands cupping his clouded his mind.

Iobhar hesitated, his eyes flickering before settling back on Hayes. “Not if you keep this.”

“This what?”

Iobhar nudged his head. “What you’re holding.”

Puzzled, Hayes stared at his hand still placed in Iobhar’s, then his gaze wandered to his other hand dangling at his side. He was still clutching the flute! “You want me to keep this?” he asked.

“Yes, I insist. It was you who played it the way only a Gifted could have. There aren’t many Gifted mortals left, and according to our kingdom’s rules, they should be allowed to reach out to us, if need be. This will be your instrument with which you can call upon me.”

Hayes did not respond. He was staring at Iobhar, trying to memorize every little detail of his face. But there were no more words left in him.

Iobhar returned Hayes’s gaze, and then his mouth broke into a little smile. “I am glad our paths crossed, and I won’t mind if they cross again.” He leaned forward and kissed Hayes softly on the lips.

In this split second that the kiss lasted, Hayes went rigid, his unmoving body now the opposite of what was raging inside him. His heart felt a million times lighter, fluttering excitedly in his chest, every single nerve tingled, and no more air filled his lungs, making his head feel dizzy.

The spell broke with the sound of Pàrlan’s voice.

“Iobhar? They are coming!” Pàrlan was now on his feet, although somewhat unstable, and had walked over to their still unconscious companions. “If you need to do it, do it now!”

“Will you be all right?” Iobhar asked Pàrlan.

“I will be once things are again the way they used to be,” Pàrlan responded. His voice sounded strained, and for a second Hayes could’ve sworn Pàrlan gave him a hard stare.

Iobhar turned back to Hayes. “We need to leave now before the king’s cavalry arrives. They would not let you leave.” Iobhar had not let go of Hayes’s hand, and he kept holding it while he guided him through the woods. He threw an occasional glance over his shoulder, to check on Pàrlan, until the small meadow was out of sight, and it was only him and Hayes.

They walked along paths that now looked a lot more peaceful than the night before. Along with the song of birds, there was a lot more life to be observed. Small animals, the kinds that Hayes had never seen before, darted to and fro, and tiny, human-shaped, winged creatures whizzed through the air.

“They are pixies,” said Iobhar. “Usually they are quite friendly, unless you call them small faeries. They do not like that at all.”

They walked some more in silence, and then they stopped. Hayes could not tell why they had stopped exactly on that spot. There was nothing special about it, just another small meadow ringed by trees.

Hayes was too busy looking around, he didn’t notice Iobhar letting go of his hand. And he also didn’t notice Iobhar picking a flower from the ground. When Hayes finally did realize what was happening, Iobhar was holding the flower right under Hayes’s nose. It emitted a strange, sweet smell that reminded Hayes of his own garden.

“May we meet again.”

***

The chirruping of birds mixed with the laughter of children. There were footsteps, some heavy, others kicking dry leaves off the ground. Hayes opened his eyes slowly, and found himself curled up on the ground, in very familiar surroundings.

His head throbbing with pain, he sat up carefully, leaning back against the tree at which he must have fallen asleep. The bright sunlight hurt his eyes, and his mouth felt dry, as if he hadn’t had a sip of water in days. He tried to rearrange his thoughts. Something was not right; he thought he’d been asleep, but waking up was usually less painful.

He looked around, trying to remember anything that had happened before waking up, but his mind was blank. His sleep must have been very deep and dreamless.

Then the first memory rushed into his head: a beautiful, fair-haired boy strolling through the park. This memory was followed by one of him chasing after the boy, and suddenly it was as though he was watching a movie. But everything was blurred and in dull colors, and he wondered if he was remembering scenes from a dream or something that had actually happened.

The whirlwind of memories stopped finally on one: the fair-haired boy cupping his hand. Hayes heart ached in a way it had never done before, and he longed for the dream to be true. His eyes now stung with tears and he shut them, resting his head against the tree. He slipped his hands into the pocket of his coat to protect them from the breeze that swept through the park.

Hayes caught his breath. There was something in his coat! He opened his eyes again and slowly retrieved the object from his right pocket. On his open palm he held a flute, beautifully carved from ebony. As if this flute was the missing piece to the puzzle in his head, he felt something click, and smiled.

Iobhar.

 

 

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