Chapter 1: A New Ward
In the early morning, even before the sun had risen, a hunched figure rushed down the silent cobblestone street. There was a single street lamp illuminating the stones; this was not enough to keep the scurrying figure from stumbling every so often, her thin moccasined feet slapping against the mirthless rocks. At the end of the road, at the boundary of the small neighborhood, was Brodrick’s Wood, the local forest preserve. The trees loomed tall and menacingly in the darkness, the lone street lamp slinging their shadows further down the road. Their limbs looked more like claws, reeling to snag on the ragged cloak the figure hid beneath.
At the edge of the forest, right where the cobblestone faded into dusty dirt and wildflowers and weeds, the figure dropped to her knees and bowed close to the ground. Carefully, so as to not come in contact with even a single blade of grass, the woman laid a bundle at the forest’s fringe. The trees swayed gently, murmuring to one another as if they sensed the gift that had been placed at their doorstep.
Which, of course, in a more literal sense than the personified case that the woman had imagined, the trees had realized this. They had watched the woman approach, could smell better than a hound dog her sweat and woefulness dampening the air around her. Although she was concealed beneath the thread-bare shawl, the trees could feel her weariness, not just worn out from age and experience but also from recent physical exertion. Her hands that had placed the bundle at the wood’s edge were soft with wrinkles, the skin hanging loosely from her fragile bones.
As the woman rose and turned away, a baby’s cry, shrill as a lamb’s bleat on the hillside, rang out through the early morning. The woman flinched harshly, agony slashing through her heart as she made one more unspoken wish for her child. Then she hobbled away faster than she had arrived, disappearing in the maze of small houses just as the swollen clouds in the sky began turning purple from the sun hiding just beneath the horizon.
The baby wailed once again, and the trees silently stared back. Inch by inch, the shadows were pushed back into the forest by the glowing sun rays. Only a moment before the light could touch the whimpering babe, a dusty red-grey wooden mass clacked as it shuffled out of the woods, sounding like an old tree swaying in the autumn breeze. It looked very much like a pile of woodchips all glued together with awkward limbs poking out, and it resembled something of a large crab or a turtle in the way that it moved across the soft forest floor. It had at least thirty stiff, stumpy legs that worked like cilia to carry the lump of bark over the dirt.
Upon reaching the babe, the creature creaked, its small black eyes, no larger than blackthorn seeds, revealed themselves from under two pieces of chipped bark. The creature blinked at the newborn and then crawled forward. Rubbing against the rags swaddling the tiny child, the cilia-like bark, using the disjointed limbs to guide it, hauled the baby on top of the creature before it slowly scuttled back into the sanctuary of the trees.
As they crawled through the woods, more creatures appeared, pulling themselves out of tree trunks and the undergrowth. The forest whispered, the trees coming to life, the fae living within them stepping out of their shells to lurk about the human; their curiosity had overwhelmed their traditionally shy natures. With expressions of awe, they followed their leader back to its home. The creature was also a fae, but it was much too wise to partake in the typical mischief that the Fair Folk were known for. It would rather huddle inside its home and attend to the forest as a spirit.
It took until the sun had fully risen above the canopy of the tallest trees for the creature to carry the child to the clearing where it resided. In the center of the clearing, an ancient wild cherry tree stood firmly and expansively, the oldest tree in the entire forest. Its bark was withered but sturdy, and its branches caved over, providing protection and privacy under the pale green leaves and white blossoms. This tree was both home and body for the creature, for it was the physical representation of the spirit of the tree, the life force that sustained it. As a spirit, the creature could extend itself as far as the wild cherry’s roots could dig, as high as its branches could stretch, but to leave the tree meant to be contained by this lump of wood that rested at the base of the tree’s trunk. With the role of guardian of these woods, this body could manifest itself wherever it wanted in the forest, seeping in and out of the trees and brambles as if it were nothing but a shadow. But it was obvious that a human babe could not travel by the same means.
The bumbling of the fae rose to a quiet rumble, like distant thunder rolling across the sky. News traveled quickly in the forest, especially amongst the tree nymphs and air sylphs, who gossiped about every minute occurrence in the woods. The speech of the fae varies by species: the common language was what the Fairy Courts spoke, using a tongue as the humans do — this often comes out disgruntled and stiff, especially for the fae whose preferred bodies, such as the creature of the wild cherry tree, did not have tongues; the language among the dryads of the trees and the sylphs of the wind sounded like rustling leaves, creaking hollows, and the gusting of air; and the water kelpies and river nymphs used the roars of waterfalls, the gurgles of brooks, and bubbling in their language. All of the fae in this area were also accustomed to traditional Celtic and Gaelic, and some Old English. But the common language of the fairies sounds like all the most beautiful and terrific sounds of nature: the twittering of birds; the sizzling of lightning; the crinkling of a flake landing on snow; the croak of a frog catching its morning breakfast; even the giggling and burbling of human babies, the purest sound of all living things. There is no direct translation of the Faery Common Tongue to any language as it is like the language of angels.
This is the language the fairies of Boderick’s Wood were speaking this morning:
“~~~`~~~<,” one of the drus began (~~~`~~~< being the the wild cherry tree spirit’s name in this language, completely incomprehensible and untranslatable to any human language), “why has this babe been brought into our home?” The tittering of the other fairies supported its outrage.
“The human who brought it to us said nothing,” another dryad commented; its tree was one of those overlooking the human woman’s exchange with the forest. “Is the baby a sacrifice? An offering for a changeling?”
“We have not had a willing sacrifice in centuries,” a sylph whispered from above where its ghostly form drifted about, fading in and out of existence like a cirrus cloud.
“Let our guardian speak,” a sprite squeaked from a low hanging tree branch. The buzzing of the fae died out to give way to ~~~`~~~<’s voice.
With words that clawed uneasily from its wooden tongue, the spirit spoke, “All of you did not hear, but I have an ear that listens far deeper into the soul than any of yours.” It rubbed gently against the baby as it sighed heavily in its sleep. “This human woman did pronounce a sacrifice, something that a fairy she believed resides in this wood commanded her to act upon.” Again, another unsettled rustle came from the fae; many more were slinking out of the scenery where they had been listening from afar. ~~~`~~~< waited once more for the gathering to calm.
“I understand the terrible shock you all must feel, for we have not demanded sacrifices nor sought changelings in many centuries. We have been at peace with the humans here, with the exception of a few younglings who wish to test the legends of their elders.” The spirit guardian released a sigh, wishing it remembered what sympathy felt like; it had lived on this earth far too long to succumb to any emotion, but it would have made this child’s life much easier if it could. “The mother was insistent we raise the babe as our own. ‘Our own precious jewel’ was her exact thought.
The sprite who had spoken earlier flew forward, its wings buzzing like a hummingbird’s, and peered at the baby. Then, it unwrapped the cloth, making the child squirm at the sudden chill. “What shall we call her?”” the sprite questioned before whispering absentmindedly to itself, “This does mean it is a ‘her,’ does it not?” With a thoughtful tilt of its head, it continued, “My, it has been a long time since I have seen a naked human.”
“Yes, it is a ‘her,’” ~~~`~~~< replied in its scratchy voice, “and we shall call her Breena.” ~~~`~~~< paused for a moment before adding to the throng of fairies, “I shall be called Moira, for humans cannot speak my name. I suggest you all choose a human name as well if you are to play a part in this child’s life.” And with that, the fae disbanded, fading away into the forest to ponder what name their new ward should call them by.