It was the stillness of the night which spoke of things moving. Water lapped at the slight banks of the stream, tumbling over smooth pebbles and slick bedrock as it skipped away to far lands and distant seas. Yet even the water made no sound. The trees were cold and asleep, creatures of worlds both Near and Far were frozen, waiting. Here, where the stream parted the woods, the whir of things magic and Fae sang an ancient tune whose words were long forgotten, and the wood of the Near World strained to listen, feeling the heartbeat of every throbbing note.
There was a bridge spanning the stream, a bridge forbidden, falling into disrepair, a bridge appearing far less significant than it truly was. On one side of this bridge, the trees were lulled into such a deep slumber that they could not awaken, but on the opposite side, the trees swayed as if dancing; they might break off the chains of age-old dreams at any moment and begin to move.
“One does not commonly throw oneself across the bridges and onto the Paths Unknown.” a voice broke through the golden quiet.
“With my leading, sir knight, you will be quite safe.”
“Yes, well, forgive me if I do not place myself willingly into the hands of a mouse while there are still other options to be had.”
“It is not to your liking then? After all, I could be a dog.”
“Hmm, at least a mouse I can eat should it prove too bothersome to deal with in any other way.”
A tawny-hued feline sat in the middle of the bridge, its tail switching, its blind face glowering down at the gray rodent crouched at its feet. The scarred face of the cat was stern, yet amused as it stared unseeing at its companion. The mouse, for its part, seemed not at all worried by the idea that it might get eaten.
“It is quite a stable path, I assure you, Sir Eanrin.” the mouse added. “I've been there before and the way is clear and tame, though a bit gloomy, I must say.”
“Your assurance fails to reassure.”
“Truly,” the mouse said “where is your sense of adventure, old knight?”
The cat bristled at the term 'old'. “I assume it's safe at home sipping tea and lounging on a couch, as any reasonable person should do. I am not 'old', little morsel, but it is true that I know a good deal more about the worlds both Near and Far than you do. It is never advisable to go looking for adventures; they will find you, given time.”
The mouse nodded and said nothing more until Sir Eanrin at last gave in with a growl. “Where is this bridge, Dichali?”
The mouse appeared perplexed. “Why, I do believe we're standing on it, Sir Bard.”
Eanrin unsheathed his claws in a considering manner. “I am feeling a bit hungry at the moment.”
“Touchy, touchy.” the mouse muttered. “Very well, it's just on the other side of the gardens.”
The cat frowned. “In Orianna, here?”
“No, in Orianna of Bauclaire.” Dichali replied.
“Your sarcasm begins to annoy me.”
From somewhere beyond the bridge came the faint voice of a girl calling. “Monster! Here kitty, kitty!”
Sir Eanrin's ears swiveled to lay flat against his skull. “Which side of the gardens?”
“Not the side where the princess is, if that's what you mean.” Dichali replied amid far-away calls for 'Monster'. “Is something wrong?”
“Wrong on a great many levels.” Eanrin growled. He stood and loped to the Near end of the bridge, slipping off the pathway and into the thin covering of trees. “It's bath time.”
Dichali chuckled. “You are looking a bit dusty, good knight.”
“Stuff it, morsel. You are looking tastier by the minute.”
“I think you are in a bad mood, but here we are anyway.”
Eanrin's ears cocked upright again. “Here, indeed.” The bridge lay in front of them. Not a bridge of ordinary terms perhaps, because this one did not actually cross over water, but was merely a slight stone arch crossing from soil to soil. The manicured bushed and ivies of the gardens of Orianna concealed the bridge from most eyes, and Eanrin suspected it was concealed by other means as well.
Dichali scampered to the center of the bridge. “Coming, or would you prefer the bathtub?”
Eanrin hissed but followed.
Dichali stood up on his hind legs and suddenly not a mouse, but a boy with hair the soft gray of silver. His skin was pale, his hands were soft and thin-fingered. He skipped across the bridge in bare feet and clothed in simple brown trousers and a ragged white shirt which hung loose on his shoulders. Like all the Fae, there was something powerful about him, a mystery which made him look old even as he laughed a boyish laugh and whistled jauntily for the feline behind him to hurry.
Dichali was half-faerie, his mother having been a powerful Fae, and his father a human mortal of Parumvir. Dichali was not full-blooded Faeri as his mother's kind were, but he had yet to grow old as the mortals do—even though he had lived for some hundred-and-fifty years—so some of his mother's ancestry must have been rushing through his veins.
For humankind the Paths of Faeri were confusing at best and deadly otherwise, while, for the Fae themselves, those same Paths were tread with care. Faeri bridges were another matter altogether, for they often served to separate two lands, and what one might find on the other side was an uneasy question. Dichali, through some gift of his strange breeding, walked the Paths and Bridges without fear and never seemed to come up the worse because of it.
Eanrin, on the other hand, was not much given to bouts of nerves; being, after all, a cat. Still, crossing bridges onto Paths Unknown was a business he did not much care for. That being said, he cared for bath day even less. This particular time caused him to be more surly and standoffish than usual.
Bridges and Paths tended to change the way they looked, or exactly where they began, or even where they led, but they rarely appeared when they weren’t expected. Eanrin the Bard had asked Dichali to act as a sort of spy patrol on some of the more unstable Paths, had been pleased with the result, and was thusly bemused that an entire bridge could up and settle in as pretty as you please—let alone under his own nose. It was with a mild sense of trepidation that the Faeri knight now followed the not-quite Faeri boy, to explore the nature and cause of this new extension to the beautiful Orianna Palace gardens.
In the time it took the two to cross the bridge Eanrin himself was no longer a cat, but a scarlet-clad man with fair hair and scars where his eyes once had been. Stepping from the bridge, the two halted at once.
Goldstone and Oriana were left far behind, revealing instead a broad plain of bowing grasses and painted fog. A few scraggly trees dared to store their roots in the thin soil, but the world was flat and wide, its surface unbroken by hill or cliff in any direction. The bridge was lost in sight behind the travelers, swallowed up by a veil of magic.
“Here we are, then.” Dichali said. “Wouldn’t plan a vacation home in these parts, but its not so bad as all that.”
The ground trembled beneath their feet.
Eanrin cocked his head, staring at Dichali with brows raised as if he still had his sight. “You were saying?”
Dichali shrugged. “So the ground gets a bit grumbly now and then. I do too on an empty stomach. Really, there's not much here to report. Leastwise, there won't be 'til someone comes 'round to explore it fully.”
A shadow separated from the fog and slid across the open spaces to meet them. Dichali froze.
The shadow seemed a piece of the fog but denser, its form holding the vague sense of a tall man with a snaking tail and broad horns. “Welcome to you, strangers from lands away and paths unseen.” a voice wafted from the creature.
Sir Eanrin had the presence of mind to offer an elegant court bow. The gesture somehow offered respect while stating indifference. “Peace to you, friend.”
“Where have you come from?” the wraith asked.
The Knight of Farthestshore hesitated even as Dichali threw an open arm in the direction they had come. “From yonder bridge.” he stated, as if there were any bridge in sight.
The wraith moved its head as if searching for the bridge, and then gave a pitiable moan. “Would that I might see it!” it cried in a voice of stone and water.
“Pray, my friend, what exactly is your trouble?” Eanrin asked, ever the chivalrous one, even after a display of what he tended to verbally rebuke as 'pure melodrama and theatrics'.
The sobbing creature gathered itself somewhat. “I am the once-great Isnnodel, King of the Caluvisci Plains, or rather, what is left of them now in these wastes.” it—rather, he—paused. “Who might you be, then, oh travelers?”
“I am Sir Eanrin, this young calamity is called Dichali.”
“I sensed your presence at once, Sir Eanrin, but your companion I perceived not in the first. The feel about him is different than with you. The little one is not Fae, then...” the self-proclaimed king mused. “a magician of some sort?”
Eanrin flicked an ear. He was irritated. “The 'little one' is half-faerie, half-mortal, and is proving to be more trouble than a full-blooded scoundrel of either line. You were saying...?”
“I and my people have not always been the way you see us now.”
“Your people are here?” Dichali asked. “I admit I cannot see them at all, actually.”
“My people are the Mists.” the king groaned.
Dichali glanced furtively around at the fog surrounding him as if afraid that by moving through it in any direction he might cause some unspeakable offense. “Oh.”
“We were once a powerful people, but then the lady came to us, from the paths unseen like you have. She offered us gifts and we, foolish in our own security, accepted them. But they, each and every one, had a price. Once we finally came out of our stupor it was far too late. She asked for payment and we were obligated to give in, yet we could not satisfy her. In her anger and greed, she vowed we would enjoy not a single pleasure for all of our days. We started to fade and now, as you can see, my people have become nothing but a swirling vapor upon the land. Unable to think, to speak or laugh; they cannot touch, they do not know time as others do. Soon, what is left of my own character will vanish on the wind and I will remain the king of these peoples for eternities to come, though none of us be aware of anything at all.” The king bowed his wraith-like head in sadness after this speech.
“Might we ask who this lady was?” Eanrin questioned, a small knot forming on his brow. “And what she wanted from you?”
“She called herself the Lady Fair, and gave no other name. As for what she asked, it was merely adoring praise and sonnets sung in her name, but we refused, and even those efforts we did go to for her did not serve to satisfy her desires.” Isnnodel answered him.
The knot became a genuine frown. “I see.”
“Do you know her?” Dichali asked.
Eanrin heaved a sigh. “I do.”
“And do you yet know how to vanquish my people?” the king asked.
At this, a strange expression fell over the Faerie knight's face. It might have been dread, or annoyance, or amusement, or resignation or any number of other emotions. Whatever it was, Eanrin chose to keep it to himself. His face cleared and he turned to Dichali. “I know why the bridge is in the garden.” he said.
Dichali's eyes widened. “How?”
Eanrin's answer was not direct. Instead, he turned to the mists surrounding and addressed them with a long-suffering sigh. “Afreitezia? I know you are listening.”
A second figure separated itself from the mists and joined the party of three, its shape solidifying until a beautiful Faerie woman stood before them, her hair long and the colors of sunset, her dress a blue so pale it was gray, and gray slippers so dainty they might well have been made of violet petals. She looked quite young, especially for a Fae, her eyes not holding the ancient wisdom so many did. In point of fact, her entire body language radiated an adolescent petulance and her arms were crossed across her small chest with an air of hauteur.
“Hello, Afreitezia.” Eanrin said.
“Took you long enough.” she said, flouncing like a pert school-girl.
“I'm afraid the messages you leave are both confusing and vague.”
“Congratulations are in order, then.”
Dichali and King Isnnodel looked on, as the argument came fast and furious on both sides.
“Not at all; this is the fifth attempt you've made and by far the silliest.”
“But silly is obviously what catches your attention, my dear knight.”
“If you referring to Lady Gleamdren, you would be wise to reconsider your words.”
“But I have. Millions of times, I have. She's silly. And foppish. And not worth your time.”
Dichali and Isnnodel were growing noticeably dizzy during this exchange.
Eanrin had opened his mouth but was cut off by Afreitezia, who was reaching a state of near hysteria. “It's always Lady Gleamdren this, and Lady Gleamdren that, and oh for the wonders of the attention of Gleamdren! Gleamdren the Fair! Gleamdren the Beauteous! Gleamdrem the Perfect! What about me??!”
Even Sir Eanrin was a bit stunned now. “I—”
“You always write songs to her, songs about her, songs about things that are like her, even songs about what she eats!”
“Now, now; I have never once written about what she—”
“What she wears, what her voice sounds like, even that she smells like a fine, crystal dew on morning geraniums!”
“Geraniums are not at all the proper flower. For one thing, the sound of the word is off entirely, and it does not fit her at all in any case.” Eanrin argued, finally getting in an entire two sentences.
“I don't care!” Afreitezia exploded, not very lady-like at all.
Dichali and Isnnodel took a step back each.
“Erm, Eanrin...” Dichali began, as both the contestants appeared to be gathering themselves for another onslaught.
“What now, morsel?” Eanrin asked. He may not have had eyes, but he was more than able to send a convincing glare.
“I just wondered if, perhaps, writing one simple song would not hurt?”
“Simple?!” roared Afreitezia at the same time as Eanrin's shouted “For her?!”
Dichali took another step backwards, Isnnodel following suite. To be sure, this was a delicate subject, and one not often stirred up at all. Seeing two historically calm, levelheaded faeries, often called upon for important courts and at queens' balls, acting and reacting in this state was a shock for all present. They stood there, frozen for an instant, and then Afreitezia started to yell again and Eanrin tried—with some calm and no luck—to reason with her.
And then Dichali turned into a mouse.
This went unnoticed for around three seconds. By the time the fourth second came, Afreitezia had shrieked and leaped backwards, which was quite a sight to see. Truly, a Fae such as herself should have known better than to startle at such a thing, but she was a rather excitable Fae; the sort which all-too often ends up in some nonsensical fairytale where nothing is ever explained and the heroine is wooed by a king who tells her such romantic speech as 'spin straw into gold or die'.
In the ensuing peace, Dichali again spoke. “Afreitezia, will you consent to return our good friend King Isnnodel and his people back to their original form and restore their lands, should Sir Eanrin the Bard dedicate a song to your virtues?”
Afreitezia huffed, having begun to recover from her rodent scare. “Of course. That was the whole entire point.”
Dichali turned to Eanrin.
“No.” the Knight of Farthestshore said., to which Afreitezia looked pettish again—or, at least, even more so than normal—and King Isnnodel moaned. “I cannot, in good conscience...” he trailed off as Isnnodel lamented over him.
“Woe is me!” the king cried. “Woe is my land and my seas and my people! To think we have come to this! We, the proud peoples of Caluvisci, are doomed to remain as but dust! As the wind, the rain, the fog, the dew! Oh, my fair city! Oh my dear forefathers! Woe! Woe!”
He might have carried on for some time like that had Sir Eanrin not drawn in a deep lungful of air and breathed it out again. “One.” he muttered. Dichali was sure he had never seen the knight so dejected and out of sorts; he was hardly himself. King Isnnodel stopped bemoaning his fate and Afreitezia clapped her hands in delight. “But,” Eanrin continued, looking down at Dichali. “Must it be...very good?”
Dichali stole a look in Afreitezia's direction. She was near bouncing on her toes with joy, but there was a furrow of hesitation on her pretty brow. “Yes, I think that would be best for all.”
“Fine, then.” the Bard said, though it was obvious that this was not fine. “Afreitezia, be a good muse and return the king and his people to their normal, histrionic state.”
“A muse!” squealed Afreitezia, as the mists fell from King Isnnodel like a cloak and people began to emerge from the fog. “He called me a muse!”
Eanrin turned a baleful face to Dichali. “I will regret this, I'm sure.”
“Nonsense,” the mouse said. “Everything will work out in the end.”
“In the end, I suppose.” the other returned. “But I'm worried about the not-so-distant future, when we all go home and she starts spouting off this new ballad to anyone and everyone who will lend half an ear to listen. Do you realize how long I have been working to capture Gleamdren's attentions?”
“As long as I can remember.” Dichali answered with a grin.
They left King Isnnodel and his people, then, having no further desire to explore that land and having secured Afreitezia's promise to destroy the bridge that had brought them there.
“Eanrin,” Dichali started, once he and the knight—once again a cat—had crossed the bridge and sat in Orianna's garden. “Look at the sun.”
The sun, it appeared, had not changed at all in the hour or so they had been gone. Eanrin's foul mood worsened. “It has not moved.”
“No time has passed.”
“It doesn’t appear so, does it?”
From somewhere nearby, came a voice calling, “Monster! Where are you, you naughty cat?”
“Well,” Dichali began, rubbing his ears with his front paws in a nervous manner. “Let's look on the bright side, shall we Sir Knight? After all, a composition can easily take your mind of the horrid atrocity of a bath!”
“Quiet.” hissed Eanrin. “I am composing already.”
“Ah, I see.” Dichali said. He looked relieved.
“No, I'm afraid you do not.” the cat said. Footsteps sounded nearby. “I am not composing some quaint little ditty for that silly girl.”
“Oh?” the mouse asked, confused.
“Monster! There you are!” More footsteps.
“Rather,” the knight continued in a whisper “it is your funeral dirge.”
“Ah, well...look forward to how that turns out and all, but, I say...think I'll be running along now...”
Princess Una came 'round the corner as the mouse scampered away. “What have you done to get so dirty?” she asked as she scooped her pet into her arms and carted him inside.