Looking back on it, Taryn wouldn't remember much of the ride to the elf lord's castle. He would remember the blur of trees around them, the sound of the deer's hooves on the fallen leaves, the way the trees went from spring green to deep autumn reds and oranges.
But the memory that stood out to him most clearly was the castle itself. It stood at the top of a hill, overlooking a valley that held a small village. It was not the kind of fairy-tale castles his mother had described to him; there were no splendid spires or waving banners that he had been told the Gentry were fond of. Instead, it was a squat, fortified thing, looking more like it was ready for battle than for grand parties. An enormous wall sprouted from the sides of the castle and ran down the hill, wrapping protectively around the village, as though ready to defend it from the forest itself.
A road, stark white against the grass, ran down the crest of the hill and towards the town and castle. The deer cantered towards the road, and from there, they followed the road up to the city gate.
The elves atop the wall saw them coming and quickly began to open the gate; Taryn saw the metal spikes that served as the door lifting up as men on the wall above worked pulleys and levers, and then they were inside the town. But they didn't stop. Even though people were coming out of their houses in droves to stand by the road, watching as the lord rode past, the lord did not stop to greet them. He steered the deer straight up the road, through the town, directly to the castle. The gate there was already open, and they all but flew into the courtyard until, finally, the deer stopped at the steps to the enormous castle doors.
The lord shoved Taryn off the deer, and he fell awkwardly into the dirt. The lord gracefully slid from the deer's back and, upon seeing Taryn in the dirt, made an exasperated sound.
"Do you not even know how to walk without aid?" it said.
Before Taryn could answer, there was suddenly a rush of people around them both. Someone was thoughtful enough to help him to his feet, and a few were leading the deer away, but the rest were a blur of armored legs, skirts, trousers and coattails surrounding the lord, pressing past Taryn and shoving him towards the outer circle, and all their voices rushed over his head.
"Are you hurt--?"
"--gone for days--"
"Was it the wildlings?"
"News from the capital--”
“-- get the healer--”
“Yes, yes, I’ll see to it all,” the lord said shortly. Many of the voices were silenced by his tone, and it occurred to Taryn that, perhaps, he did not normally yell and growl and snarl everything.
And then, taking advantage of the lull, one of the armored elves, some kind of knight, said, "Who is this mortal child?"
And suddenly all eyes were on him.
The lord breathed in deeply, as though preparing for some great pain.
"That child," he said, "saved my life."
And as one, all the strange people around him fell silent and turned their gaze to Taryn.
"Unbidden?" said one of the knights softly.
The lord nodded curtly.
A whisper went through the crowd, and the lord said, “Find a place for him. Somewhere in the east wing.”
And then the swarm of people was buzzing around him. Nobody spoke to him. In fact, the buzz of conversation quickly abated, leaving them all in awkward silence, but the flock of people walked him inside the castle, surrounding him as though they feared he would escape. They led him down the halls and up some stairs and eventually deposited him into an enormous bedroom.
The door slammed shut behind him, and he heard the turn of a key in a lock, and he was finally alone.
He took in the room in pieces.
The floor was wood, polished and old, and instead of wooden slats or open air, the windows had glass-- real glass! Glass cut into pieces and colored to make patterns, like the ones at the Church of the Heirophance Mama had taken him to when they had visited the city. Only instead of showing religious figures praying piously or suffering nobly, these ones just showed different kinds of trees.
And pushed back against the wall were the only pieces of furniture in the room: a bed, and a little table beside it.
This, more than anything, latched on in his mind. Maybe it was because it was something the closest to home he could process. It wasn't just a straw mattress, tossed on the ground, it was a real bed, large enough to fit an entire family, and it had a wooden frame. When he went to touch it, he found that the blankets were filled with goose-down, as was the mattress itself.
He looked back at the door they had thrown him through. Tall, imposing, ornately carved with flowers and trees. And it was unquestionably locked.
Numbly, he sat upon the bed and stared at the wall.
He had been taken.
He’d heard stories of that sort before; some members of the Gentry stealing away children or musicians for their amusement. He never really knew that those amusements were, but based on the other stories he had heard, they couldn’t have been pleasant. His mind ran through stories he had heard about them. The Gentry, who ran their hunts through the woods and slaughtered anyone unfortunate to get in their way, who lured travelers from the road to drown them in the rivers, who killed the ignorant for their bad manners that only other elves understood.
He thought of Casey and the Kavrish family, and the excited fear in her eyes when she’d told him the story. How the father and son had found a wounded elf, half drowned in the river, and had fished him out, only for the elf to slaughter the father before he could see to his wounds. How that night, the elf had come back, had tracked down their home and had killed the boy, too, leaving the mother behind to mourn. Was that what the elf lord was doing at that moment?
His heart pounded, as though it wanted to run home, too. But no, Mama and Pat were safe. They had to be. They were still in town, still trading at the market. They wouldn’t be back for another day or so.
He didn’t know how long he stared at the wall, numb to everything, when the door finally opened again.
The lord strode in. He had replaced the bloodstained clothes he had been in with new ones that were similar, but more heavily embroidered, with more golden thread accenting the patterns of ivy and leaves.
There were two other elves with him, a man and woman, both with red hair the same shades of red and orange as shifting autumn leaves, light and dark intermingling in strips. Both wore the same shades of red, brown, and green that the lord did, but with far less decoration. They stood beside him, their heads bowed.
The lord cleared his throat, then began. “I hope you have found your accommodations serviceable--”
“Where is my family?” Taryn said, finding the words. “Are they alright?”
The lord blinked, then quickly replaced his surprise with a disdainful look. “How would I know that?”
“Did you hurt them?” His voice cracked.
The lord glowered at him. “I would like to believe myself not so petty as to hunt down and slaughter a band of farmers for no other gain than base amusement.” Seeing Taryn’s expression, he sighed, though even his sigh sounded irritated. “I have done no harm to your family, and nor do I intend to. If it eases your mind, I give you my word that neither I nor any under my purview will do them mischief. Does that satisfy you?”
Taryn sniffed and nodded.
“Good. Unless you have contrived some way to free me of my debt and release us both from this arrangement,” he paused, as if waiting for Taryn to provide some answer. When he didn’t, the lord continued, “Then it seems that for the time being, we are stuck with one another. As I have stated, I intend to fulfill the spirit of my debt to the best of my ability, as dictated by my own standards and sense of propriety.”
He gestured to the other elves.
"These are your servants," he said. "They will see to your needs. If you have any difficulties, they will assist you. If there is some issue they cannot resolve, only then will I see to you. I do not appreciate being disturbed."
He said the last like a warning. Taryn flinched.
"I trust there will be no issues," the lord said. He nodded to the servants and made as though to leave.
"I--" Taryn coughed, trying to find his voice. "I have to go home. My mama and uncle will be home soon."
"And?" said the lord wearily.
"So I need to go home. They're waiting for me. They're going to be worrying, they'll think I got eaten by a wolf. And, and I think the duck house door is open, so I have to go close it so nothing happens to the ducks."
And as soon as he said it, it became the most important thing in the world. He had to go home, he had to check on the ducks.
But the lord said, "That is no concern of mine, and is no longer a concern of yours.” He sounded bored.
"But I have to go home! Let me go home!"
"If that is all you have to say, then I will take my leave." To the servants, he said, "Let me know if there's any significant trouble."
Then the lord turned to go. Taryn screamed, "No!" and ran after him, grabbing onto his cape. "I have to go home! I have to go home!"
"Get off of me!" snarled the lord. He pulled the boy off him and threw him to the ground. "Cease your whining, child. You will not return until our debt is clear."
"But the ducks!" he said, wondering even as he said it why that was suddenly so important. "I have to go back to the ducks! I'm supposed to take care of them, it's my job!"
Something in his words seemed to take the lord aback, and for a moment, he thought maybe, perhaps, the lord would change his mind.
But instead, all he said was, "I will send someone to ensure your ducks--" he wrinkled his nose as if the word were sour, "--are safe. If they are not, they will be replaced with birds of my own stock. Now, if there is nothing else, I must go.”
But he left before Taryn could get another word out.
The servants looked at Taryn uncertainly.
The elfman was the first to speak. "Would the young master--" the word faltered on his tongue, but he pressed on, "like something to eat?"
Taryn stared at the door. He felt strangely lightheaded, as though all his body were floating upward, and all the blood had drained away from him.
"I want my mama," he said, though his voice sounded distant to his ears. "I want Uncle Pat."
The servants cast each other doubtful looks. The woman stepped forward and said, "My lord, that is outside of our power. What else may we do to please you?"
Taryn shook. He couldn't stop shaking. He sank to the floor.
"I want my mama," he said again. "I want my mama."
Then, he repeated it, over and over, until the words were gone and all he could do was weep. He curled on the floor, hugging himself, and cried for his mother and uncle.
The servants, with the awkwardness of people who did not deal often with children, attempted to comfort him, but it was no use; he was inconsolable. They tried talking to him, but he didn't hear. Someone brought him food, but he didn't eat. People came and went, and still he cried.
He might have slept, he didn’t know. But if he did, he woke still on the floor, and cried upon waking. Voices traveled overhead, and not just that of the two servants assigned to him. He couldn’t bring himself to care, all he could do was try to keep breathing through his stuffed up nose.
Suddenly he was yanked upward by his hair, and the elf lord was glaring at him.
"On your feet," he said, voice harsh.
Taryn stood, but continued to weep.
"What is the meaning of this?" the lord said.
But Taryn was crying too hard to speak.
"He's been like that for hours, lord," said the maidservant.
"We cannot stop him," said the manservant.
"I command you, be silent," said the lord.
It didn't work, Taryn barely heard him, and if anything, the tone of his voice made the boy cry harder.
Then the lord grabbed Taryn's arms and shook him. "I said stop."
Taryn continued to cry. The lord shook him harder, and Taryn cried harder.
"My lord, forgive me for speaking out of turn," said the red-haired servant loudly.
The lord stopped shaking him and cast his eyes to her. "Yes?"
She bowed her head. "It has become clear that the child misses his mother. He has wept for her since morning."
"It is true, my lord," said the manservant. "I fear he will not be silent so long as the thought of his mortal family haunts him."
The lord watched Taryn in silence for a moment, a calculating expression on his face. Taryn didn't notice; people around him were talking about him, but all he could do was think about home.
"If the memory of them is causing him suffering," the lord said eventually, "then the correct course of action is clear."
In one smooth motion, he swept Taryn into his arms, then carried him across the room. He deposited the boy, still sniffling, onto the bed. Nose wrinkled, as though he were about to touch something unpleasant, the lord put his hand on Taryn's forehead.
For a second, there was a shining light beneath his palm. Then, he hastily moved his hand away, and the light was gone.
Taryn blinked and sniffed, but slowly, his sobbing stopped.
He looked up at the lord, confused.
"Why are you crying?" said the lord.
"I-- I don't know," he said.
There had been a reason, hadn't there? There had to have been a reason.
A coldness crept over him, as though some comforting warmth had been stolen from him. For the first time, he felt truly lost. Empty.
"Good," said the lord. Taryn shuddered at the satisfied look on his face. To the servants, the lord said, "Ensure there are no further disturbances."
They both bowed and said, "Yes, my lord."
Without another word, the lord left. The door closed behind him with an air of finality about it.
"How do you feel, young master?" the woman said.
"I'm cold," he said.
She smiled at him, looking relieved, and pulled aside the bedcovers, allowing him to crawl in.
"This bell here will summon us from any area of the castle," said the male servant, producing a small, silver bell. He placed it at the bedside table. "We will remain close-- our own quarters are near-- but in case we should not hear your voice, use the bell."
"What are-- what do I call you?" Taryn said, remembering stories of the Gentry, and how they valued their names.
They bowed their heads. "Whatever it pleases you to."
"Oh," he said.
"Your room now is sparsely furnished," the woman said. "Our lord has commanded that, if you should desire anything within reason, we are to provide for you."
"Alright," he said softly. Exhaustion hit him like a wave, and he found it difficult to stay upright. "I want to sleep," he said.
They bowed their heads.
"Do you wish us to remain?" said the man.
A large, desperately lonely part of him wanted to say yes. But the room had no chairs. If he told them to stay, they would have nothing to do but stand there for hours, and there was no doubt in his mind that they would do exactly that.
"No, thank you," he whispered.
“Then we take our leave.”
He buried his head beneath the covers, not wanting to see them go. The door clicked shut behind them, and he was certain that he wouldn’t really be able to sleep, not in this strange bed and in this strange place, with the strange aching in his heart, but he barely had time to think this before his eyes closed, and he was gone.
* * * * *
It was morning when he woke, groggy and strangely tired despite having slept in well past normal. For a moment, he was confused; why was he alone? He wasn’t used to waking up alone. Where was everyone? But then that confusion transformed and turned in the other direction; why wouldn’t he wake up alone? He didn’t share his home with anyone except the birds he farmed, and they stayed in their own houses at night.
Taryn sat up in the over-soft bed and tried to shove away the disquiet feeling.
Silence filled the room, and it was empty except for himself. Outside, he assumed that there must have been people around doing, well, whatever people did in castles, but the walls were so solid, he couldn't hear any of it. It felt, he thought with a chill, like he was the last person in the world.
But wasn’t that true, in part? He was the only human here, after all.
Not liking that one bit, Taryn wormed his way out of bed and went to the door. Yesterday, the lord had locked him in. But the two servants, it seemed, had not; the handle clicked when he tried it and the door swung open easily.
Feeling daring and a little afraid, he crept out into the hallway.
The air in the hallways was soft and quiet, and like the room, it was empty. This wing seemed unused and old, as though nobody had lived here for a long while.
Though he knew he likely should have gone back into the room, curiosity got the better of him, and he padded across the hall and poked his head into the nearest room. It was large and empty, devoid even of a bed or rugs as his own room had, and because of its position, there were no windows to look out, either. The next room down was much the same. By the third, Taryn was beginning to feel grateful for the room he had gotten; at least his had windows to look out of.
He continued down that hall for a while, and each time was the same: the rooms on the left side, the side where his own room was, were empty, but had ornate glass windows depicting trees and flowers, with the inner rooms on the right had scarcely anything at all. Once or twice, he found a room filled to the brim with furniture, much of it upturned on itself for storage, but these lost their charm quickly; there was only so long someone could poke around a maze of tables and chairs, regardless of how good the craftsmanship was.
At the end of the hall was a single door that, when opened, led to a cramped, spiraling staircase, with steps leading both upwards and downwards, running the length of what he imagined must have been one of the squat towers he had seen from the outside.
Skulking down the hall unattended was one thing, but going down into some strange basement was another thing entirely, nor did he much fancy going upstairs and getting stuck somehow in some tower room-- or worse, running into the elf lord.
Instead, he turned around and headed back towards his room, intending to go past and check if anything down that part of the wing was interesting.
His plans were quickly unraveled; the elfmaid was just coming up to the door of his room when he arrived. She carried a tray with cups and a pitcher, and he half expected her to berate him for leaving, but she only bowed her head and said, “I hope the young master is well.”
“Why do you call me that?” he said.
She blinked at him. “You own my lord’s life debt,” she said, as if that made all the sense in the world.
The manservant was coming down the hall towards them. Like the maid, he bowed his head to him before saying, “If the young master is hungry, there is food downstairs.”
Taryn’s stomach chose just then to gurgle, as though the mention of food had woken it from slumber. “Yes, please,” he said. Then, added, “Thank you, Holly.”
The woman started and nearly dropped the tray.
“I’m sorry,” Taryn said. “Is it alright if I call you Holly? Only you said I could call you anything--”
She quickly regained composure and bowed her head. “As I said. You may call me whatever pleases you.”
He didn’t know what to say to that, so he bowed his head back at her. To the manservant, he said, “May I call you something too?”
“As you wish.”
Nettle. Ivy. Rowan. Thorn. Thistle. Oak. Birch.
Briar smiled a little and bowed his head. Taryn was starting to get a little unsettled by all the bowing going on, and let them lead the way to the dining hall.
The room, like every other room in the castle, it seemed to him, was vast. Unlike the ones upstairs in his East Wing, this room and the ones they passed downstairs was full of furniture, light, and people. They were clearing away a massive table that, despite clearly having been picked over, was still laden with more food that Taryn had ever seen in one place in his entire life. He had no idea what most of it was-- strange looking meats and unrecognizable fruits, stews or soups of odd colors-- but it all set his mouth watering.
Holly led him to a chair that was too-tall for him while Briar snatched up a plate that was about to be taken, and began filling it with food. Around them, the other servants cleaned fiercely, taking away anything near the trio that wasn’t being used and sometimes even as Briar was using it. Many of these servants stared at Taryn, or else they pretended not to notice him in very obvious ways, sneaking glances and looking away when he saw them.
“Are they mad at me?” Taryn whispered to Holly.
“No, young lord. I suspect many of them have never seen a human before.”
He furrowed his brows and frowned, even as Briar reappeared and set a plate of food before him.
“Don’t a lot of Gentry see humans?”
Now it was Holly’s turn to look confused. “Gentry?”
“You all,” Taryn said. “Fair folk.”
She and Briar exchanged confused looks.
“My lord,” Briar said slowly. “We are servants.”
“But you’re--” He hesitated a moment. So far, Briar and Holly had seemed nice. “Fairies,” he whispered. He closed his eyes and tensed up in case the facade was over and Briar and Holly decided to beat him to death.
But they both just looked at him oddly.
“Are you certain you are well?” said Holly.
Part of Taryn wanted to continue, but the other part of him was noticing now how good the food looked, and how, but some magic or miracle, the food was still steaming hot.
“I-- Nevermind,” he said. “May I eat?”
He grabbed his fork and was about to dig in when a thought occurred.
“Aren’t you both hungry?” he asked. “You didn't get yourselves any.”
Briar smiled and shook his head. “The young master is kind, but his kindness is unwarranted. I and your Holly have already eaten before you woke.”
“Oh,” Taryn said, and then began stuffing his face with a free conscience.
The food was as good as it smelled, if not better, and for a while, he ate happily. But soon his appetite soured. There was no reason he could think of why a thing as simple as eating should upset him, but as time passed, he couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong. It was too quiet, he decided. Except that there was plenty of noise; people were still cleaning up and talking among themselves as they did, though Holly and Briar remained silent. He tried to think of why he should feel so unhappy, but only found an aching sadness.
“M’lord?” said Holly suddenly. “M’lord, are you well?”
Taryn blinked, confused, then realized that his eyes were streaming.
“I’m alright,” he said, wiping his face. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why. . .” He stopped abruptly and slid down from his chair. “I’m done.”
Briar began clearing away his plate wordlessly.
"Can I go outside?" Taryn said.
They flashed each other uncertain looks. Then, both bowed their heads.
"It is not for us to say," Briar said.
"So I can't?" Taryn said.
"It's not for us to say," Holly said.
His head began to hurt. He could tell they weren't trying to be unhelpful-- quite the opposite. Something about the way they spoke told him they were trying to give him hints, but he couldn't figure out what.
"I want to go outside," he said. "If I go outside, will someone try to stop me?"
"It is not for us to--"
"Alright," he said. "I'm going outside."
If the lord wanted him to stay in, then he should have given Taryn a better reason to do so.
He chose a direction and tried to act confident, though he had no idea where he was or if he was going in the right direction. When he looked back, he didn’t see anyone following him, though a few people were giving him the side eye.
“Excuse me,” he said to one of the servants openly staring at him. “Which way is out? I want to go outside.”
The man blinked, bowed his head, and then walked away without a word. Taryn took this as a sign to follow, and soon the man had led him to the grand entrance hall.
He hurried out the massive doors and found himself in the courtyard from the previous day, and he wasn’t alone. A group of knights readying their deer. They wore mostly leather, it seemed, though the parts that were metal-- their greaves, their breastplates, their gauntlets and face-covering helms-- were the color of rust, despite shining with a polished gleam.
When he approached, the one on the lead lifted the visor of its helmet and scowled at him. It took Taryn a second to recognize the lord.
"What is he doing out here?" the lord said, looking at some servants unlucky enough to be nearby.
They bowed and said nothing. The lord scowled some more and said to Taryn, "Go inside. I have business to attend, and no time for your nonsense."
"Where are you going?" Taryn said.
"You are not the only one to whom I owe my duty," he said stiffly. “Go back to your room.”
“But it’s boring in there,” he said.
The lord looked like he was clenching his jaw. “Then learn to amuse yourself. I will not have you making trouble in my house.”
But the lord was apparently done with him. He lowered his visor, called out a word of command, and all the knights mounted their deer. The lord went to the front of the unit, and with another shout, he led the troupe at a gallop through the castle gate. Taryn watched them go tearing up the white road until the whole lot of them had disappeared over the crown of the hill.
Holly was suddenly beside him. He didn’t know if she had seen the lord yelling at him, but even if she had, he doubted she would actually lock him up in the room.
"Where does he go?" Taryn said. It hadn't occurred to him that lords had actual jobs. He had always assumed their only practical duty was to boss others around, but perhaps elven lords were different than human ones.
"The Marquis must patrol the lands and ensure the outlying villages and townships are safe," she said. "It's a very dangerous position."
"Why?" said Taryn.
She blinked. "Because of the creatures in the forest. Dark spirits, wildfae, dragons. All of us in the march are under threat from the wild creatures that come from the forest or the mountains. It is our duty to tame the wildlands, and the duty of the Marquis to protect us and the kingdom from their threat."
She spoke with a certain pride, and it occurred to Taryn that while he might've hated the lord, the Marquis, for stealing him away, the people who knew him were likely fond of him. It was a strange and uncomfortable thought that someone so awful as the elven lord could be thought well of by someone so nice as Holly, so he changed the subject.
"What can I do? I don't want to stay inside all day."
Holly seemed at a loss for a moment. "Well, there are the gardens, if your lordship would like to see them."
That sounded better than nothing. He nodded, and she lead the way. As she did, Taryn reached out almost instinctively for her hand. She jolted a moment, and looked at him in confusion, but he said nothing, and in the end, neither did she. Together they walked through the grounds to the gardens.
"I have other duties to attend," she said with a bow. From her skirts pocket, she produced the little silver bell. "If you have need of me, or of Briar, ring the bell and we will find you."
"Alright, thank you, Holly."
She bowed again and left him to his own devices.
The castle gardens were divided into neatly organized sections. In one hedged off area, there were plots of vegetables and short fruit bushes, which had some novelty for their foreignness, but were otherwise uninteresting.
On the other side, a winding cobble path led him through ornate flower gardens. Here, it was clear that every decision was made with a consideration for beauty, as opposed to actual need. The hedge here turned from the regular sort to a kind of shifting colors that had petals rather than leaves, and every free space was filled with ornamental plants that looked so perfect, it was as though each bloom had been placed by hand.
He followed the path for much of the afternoon, admiring the strange beauty of the flowers. Every so often, the paths diverged. He would take one and follow it for a time, only to lose interest and double back. It soon became clear that all of the paths, though woven together like some intricate web, were all spiraling around some unknown center, and if he was going to find it, he ought to stay to the main path to get there faster. Once he knew what was in the middle, he reasoned, then he could go back and explore each path one by one.
In the center of the garden, the place where all the paths converged, was a circular island of sorts: a large plot of earth ringed by smooth, white stones. Inside the plot was a cluster of three apple trees. The leaves were the usual green color, but the bark was unnaturally white. There was no fruit yet, but the tree had enormous white blossoms mingling with the leaves.
They looked, Taryn thought, exactly like the ones back home.
The recognition was biting. The homesickness it brought threatened to undo him. Home. How could he have forgotten, even for a moment? How could he be here, looking at flowers when he had to get back? Especially now that the Marquis was gone, and this was likely his only chance?
Some small part of him wondered why this should be important. What was there at home he should miss so much? Was it the ducks? The Marquis had promised to look after them--
But overwhelming urgency silenced the voice. He had to go now.
He all but ran down the garden path, his skin feeling both too warm and chillingly cold at the same time. He had to leave.
He went through the courtyard, following the way Holly had taken him earlier. The castle gate was up still open, and though there were guards milling about, none of them paid him any attention. He walked down the white road, through the town just outside the castle walls.
To his great surprise, not a single person tried to stop him, though many watched him go. They paused in their work to gawk at him, and turned to one another with frantic whispers. Some bowed their heads, though they looked uncertain about it, and stopped if nobody else around them was following suit.
Taryn found himself burning red with embarrassment and hurrying towards the city gate just to get away from their stares.
The knights all left down the white road, he thought. But we didn’t. We had to come in and ride to it at an angle. We came from the trees, so we likely came in around. . . He scanned the forest, looking for something familiar.
Maybe. The trees all looked much the same, strangely large though they were. But it was as good as any a place to start, and so he left the road and headed for the trees.
At home, the nicer foresters would allow him to go through to pick up fallen branches after a storm to use as kindling. The king’s forest was always teeming with life; fighting squirrels screeching at one another, singing birds, chattering creatures. Even when he could see nothing moving, he felt the life in the forest around him.
This forest was much the same, at first, with the added feeling of being watched. The birdsong was different and more varied, and the shrieking of squirrels didn’t quite sound like it belonged to squirrels, but he tried to ignore them. Instead, he tried to turn his thoughts to home and the things that would need to be done upon his return.
See to the birds, definitely. The lord said he’d send someone to check the ducks, but what about the hens? They were likely still stuck in their coop, needing to be fed. And, for some reason, he kept worrying about the woodshed, even though he was certain that it had been at least half-full when he’d last seen it--
And so on. Worry compounding worry, all to hide the must more imminent worry of not knowing which way he was supposed to go. When he grew hungry, he ignored it by thinking of what he would eat once he was home.
Taryn didn’t think at first that he had gone too far into the forest, but when he turned to check and see if anyone from the castle was following him, he saw nothing but trees. The castle, town, and all was long gone out of sight.
Good, he tried to tell himself. That’s what I wanted. To be away from the castle.
But Holly’s words about wild things and monsters in the forest ran through his mind.
With a huff, he straightened his back and hurried forward, thinking that anything was better than just hanging around in one place. If there were monsters in the forest, then he would make them run for their food.
He went on that way for some time before noticing how silent the wood had become, how much darker it had grown. Rustling came from the bushes to the side, and he though his heartbeat quickened, he found himself unable to look away or continue on.
Then, out of the forest came the most mournful sound Taryn had ever heard. It was a moan of pain and grief, of loss and despair. He gasped in pain, real, physical pain, and found his eyes streaming tears again, unbidden, as had happened during breakfast.
Out of the bushes came a corpse.
It was an elf, or would have been once. But its features were half-rotted away, revealing white bone. Its skin was leather-dry and stretched over whatever desiccated tissues and bones remained inside of it. The clothes it wore looked something like the sort the knights had worn beneath their armor, but threadbare and faded with age.
The dead elf moaned again and staggered forward. Taryn winced in sympathy; every movement it made looked as though it were causing it great pain.
Taryn wanted to speak to it. He wanted to ask it what it needed, what terrible thing had befallen it, and why it still remained on earth if it was suffering so badly. He wanted to cry for it, and for his own unknown sadness that had been following him. He wanted to help.
But he found himself unable to do any of those things. He stood transfixed as the dead elf grew closer and closer, and watched helplessly as the corpse reached out for him.
Then, an arrow came whistling through the air and struck the dead elf in the heart. It staggered, its sunken eyes still on Taryn, but another arrow followed the first, and then another, and another. Still, the dead man remained standing. It wasn’t until the Marquis himself came riding by and cut the corpse down with his sword that the dead man finally fell, motionless.
Tarn stared at the corpse. Even in this apparently more-final death, the dead man looked so sad.
He didn’t have much time to look; the Marquis rode by and snatched him up onto the deer, then rode away with him back towards the cluster of nearby knights. Together, they all rode back to the castle.
The entire ride back, the Marquis did not let go of Taryn, keeping him securely in front of him. Not until they had passed the safety of the caste wall and entered the courtyard did he finally let go. When he hopped off his deer, he lifted Taryn from the deer’s back and gently placed him on the ground. Then he knelt before him, checking him all over.
“Are you injured?” he said, his voice full of worry. “Did that abomination harm you?”
“No,” said Taryn, bewildered by the sudden concern. “I’m alright.”
The Marquis stopped inspecting him and took in a deep, slow breath. Then, he rose, and things were back to normal.
"What were you doing out there?" he nearly shouted. "Why did you leave the castle?"
"I was bored," said Taryn, hoping the lie didn’t show on his face. "And when I went out, nobody stopped me, or told me to go back. I thought it was okay."
"You--" the Marquis seemed to choke on his own anger and fell silent for a moment to compose himself. When he spoke next, his voice had the restrained quiet of someone trying, with great difficulty, to be patient. "They did not stop you, and I cannot fault them given the precarious nature of our standing. However, I ask that you not leave the safety of the castle yard again. As you have seen, there are dangers in the forest that cannot be reckoned with by a mere mortal child.”
He wanted to say, but it didn’t seem dangerous, just sad, but the look on the Marquis’ face told him that would likely be the wrong thing to say. Instead, he bowed his head contritely and said, “Yes, sir.”
The Marquis looked like he could have spoken further, but in the end, he only exhaled and said, “Good.”
Without needing to be asked, Briar reappeared from inside the castle and led Taryn away, back to his room.
* * * * *
Dinner was had in his room, that evening, and despite the biting hunger in his belly, Taryn refused to eat until Holly and Briar had both assured him that they had not gotten into any trouble, despite the Marquis clearly not liking Taryn having gotten out. Once reassured, he wolfed the strange food down without a thought, too hungry to care what it was.
When it was time for bed, sleep came slowly that night, and when it did, all his dreams were filled with the mournful eyes of the dead elf. Sometimes, he dreamed of the first time he had seen the Marquis lying in the road, but instead of him, it was the nameless corpse. In other dreams, he was the one wandering the woods, lost and mourning his own finished life.
Taryn woke with a start and found that the night was not over. The moonlight filled his room, and he could see as well as if it were day.
Slowly, he crept out of bed. He padded his way over the carpet to where his sandals were, and then snuck down the hall.
Just as before, he was shocked by how easy it was to leave. Nobody was roaming the castle halls but him. He had always had some vague notion that cities and towns were supposed to be busy at night, but here the village outside was asleep as well. He knew there were supposed to be guards on the walls of the citadel, but if they were watching, they were all looking towards the forest and intent on keeping from getting in, not looking at him inside sneaking out.
The gate was down, true. The metal spikes barred the passage entirely, and he did not want to risk asking a guard to open it; what if they woke the Marquis? But beside the gate, there were stone steps running up the wall for the guards themselves to go up, and on the other side, he found thick ropes.
He surprised himself with the ease of which he chose to escape, at how simple it was to type a knot and throw a rope over the wall, then to shimmy down as though he were home and climbing trees with Casey or Miska.
Outside the city wall, sticking upwards out of a ditch someone had been partway through digging, was a shovel. Without much thinking about it, already knowing what to do, Taryn grabbed the shovel and walked towards the forest.
It didn’t take long.
As soon as the citadel was out of sight, and the trees had blocked almost all the sky from view--though the starlight somehow made its way through the canopy without issue-- there came a familiar moaning from the brush.
Slowly, the dead elf from before stepped out from the safety of the bushes. Its movements, as before, were still and painful looking. It stopped a few feet shy of him, and for a moment, they examined each other in silence.
Taryn knew he ought to be afraid. And perhaps if this was happening elsewhere, he would have been. If this was happening at home, if he was talking to a dead man by the duck pond or the hen house, he would have been afraid. But this was Faerie, and if strange and unnatural things belonged anywhere, they belonged here.
And besides, he didn't think the dead elf would hurt him. It only seemed so sad.
"My name's Taryn," he said.
The dead elf tilted its head.
"Is there something you need help with?" Taryn went on. "Something you want done? You're dead, but you're not sleeping like you should be. Is there something you forgot to do?"
Slowly, the dead elf shook its head. It pointed to the shovel in Taryn's hands.
"Oh. I brought this in case you needed it. Do you want to be buried?"
The corpse nodded, and Taryn could swear he saw pits of its neck flaking off with the motion.
The corpse turned away, back into the deeper forest, and Taryn followed.
* * * * *
The journey into the deeper woods surprised Taryn by how smooth it was, though maybe, he reflected, it shouldn’t have. The trees were still silent around them, but not once did he stumble in the dark, or get caught on brambles as had happened so often at home. The moonlight lit the way clearly, and though there was no true path, the way chosen by the dead elf was oddly free of obstacles.
Eventually the dead elf led him to the base of an enormous oak-like tree.
Like many of the trees, this one was large enough around that it would take three or four men holding hands to encircle it. Unlike the other trees, this one was also clearly dead. The ground was lumpy at its base, where once its roots had been alive.
"Here?" Taryn said.
The dead elf bowed its head.
Taryn nodded and began to dig.
The earth was surprisingly soft; the sparse grasses had apparently irrigated the ground well enough. However, the ground where the corpse wanted to rest was soon revealed itself thick with the gnarled roots of the dead tree.
He struck at them, uncaring except about the inconvenience they presented. As he did, the roots writhed and shied away like frightened creatures, and he yelped and fell backwards into the dirt.
Taryn scrabbled backwards, away in case the roots should attack, but they didn't; they merely settled back into place when no further disturbance occurred. Taryn gaped, then looked up at the tree.
"Are you alive?" he said.
He rose slowly and went to the trunk of the tree. Tentatively, he placed his hand on the bark and felt the rough, dry texture.
"Excuse me," he said. "My friend would like to be buried here, but your roots are in the way. I'm very sorry to have hurt them, but can you please move them so that I may dig his grave?"
For a moment, he thought he was mistaken, and maybe the tree didn't understand him. But then the ground rumbled, and the roots in the grave plot rose up, ripping themselves from the earth and laying on either side of the now-sizable ditch.
Taryn bowed low to the tree, bending at the waist. "Thank you," he said. "I'll try not to take too much time."
The tree didn’t respond, either in word or deed, so he hopped into the ditch and went to work.
Time slowed to a crawl. He didn’t know how long he spent digging the grave. Even if the sun had been out, the thick canopy in this part of the forest blocked out the sky. His arms and back burned with the effort, and the pile of displaced dirt grew taller and taller.
Before he knew it, he was no longer standing in a half-hollow ditch, but a proper hole several feet deep. There must have been some magic at work, he thought, because though he ached from the effort, he didn't feel particularly tired. The dead elf still stood watching him, completely motionless.
"I think I'm done," Taryn said.
The elf stirred.
Taryn tried to climb out of the grave, but couldn't; it was too tall. He held his hand out to the dead elf, who moved to help him. The hand beneath the elf's glove felt bony and stiff, and for a moment, Taryn was afraid the elf's hand or arm would pop right off. But the fears were short lived; the elf raised him easily out of the grave and had just set him down on the grass when suddenly a voice said, "Child. Stand aside."
Taryn turned and saw the Marquis standing a ways away, sword in hand. Though he spoke to Taryn, he had eyes only the dead man.
The dead elf, who had seemed nothing but harmless in all the time Taryn had spent with him, suddenly didn't appear so harmless. His eyes and hands were burning with an odd black fire, and a low snarl was emanating from somewhere in his chest.
"Wait, no--" Taryn scrambled between the two. To the Marquis he said, "I'm trying to help him. He wants to be buried."
"And I suppose he just told you that?" snapped the Marquis.
"Yes!" said Taryn.
"Stand back, child. That thing will kill you once whatever game it plays has done."
"No he won't!" Taryn crossed his arms and glared. "You owe me. That's why you're stuck with me, yeah? Then let me do this! If I'm wrong, I'll never leave the castle again, and I'll never talk or cause trouble."
"If you are wrong, you’ll be dead," the Marquis said. "I cannot allow--"
Taryn turned away and ran to the dead elf. He opened his arms to the corpse, who, with an oddly expressive look of surprise, embraced him in return.
"Child!" the Marquis screamed.
Taryn turned around, still held by the dead man, and shouted, "My name is Taryn!
The Marquis flinched, as though he had been struck.
"We’re almost done," Taryn said. "Let us finish."
The Marquis looked as though he wanted to argue-- no, not even that. Like he wanted to rush forward and cut the corpse down, and maybe give Taryn a lashing too, but he didn't.
"Come on," Taryn said to the corpse.
He stepped away, and for a moment, the dead elf hesitated.
"It's alright," Taryn said. He gestured to the open grave. "It's yours, if you still want it. If not, I'll try to help you in any way I can."
The dead elf looked at him, then to the hole, and it seemed to make up its mind. It undid its belt, letting its sword and scabbard fall into the soft earth. Then, he bowed low to Taryn, then shambled into the open grave. He laid down and clasped his hands over its stomach, and closed his eyes. The roots, which had patiently waited at the side, settled over the corpse. The dead man gave one last and final sigh, and Taryn knew then that he was finally, truly dead.
With his own sigh of relief, he took up the shovel again and started filling in the rest of the grave. He didn't look back; he didn't want to see if the Marquis was still mad at him, but he did say, "will you help me?"
Wordlessly, the Marquis approached him and took the shovel from his hands. When Taryn took the chance and glanced at him, his face was unreadable. He began piling the dirt Taryn had displaced over the exposed roots while Taryn stamped the dirt level.
They worked in silence, and it didn't take long before they finished. When the last root had been covered, and the ground had been settled into something natural looking, the tree gave an enormous crack.
In one fluid motion, the Marquis dropped the shovel, grabbed Taryn, and tumbled the two of them backwards, away from the tree. He dropped to the ground, shielding Taryn with his body, so that Taryn had to wiggle free of his weight to see what was happening.
The dead tree was convulsing. Its branches shivered and shuddered and bent to and fro, as though the entire tree were having a seizure. For a moment, dread filled the boy-- what if he'd done wrong after all? The tree had been so helpful, he hadn't wanted to hurt it-- But the the movement stopped, almost as quickly as it had began.
For a long moment, there was complete stillness.
Then, small movements along the trunk, along the branches. Colors began to appear, striking oranges, reds, pinks and blues against the whiteness of the bark. The branches filled with multicolored blossoms. At its base, where the dead man had been buried, the earth shifted. Taryn and the Marquis both watched in awe as a small sapling sprouted from the grave, a sapling with the same enormous blossoms as the tree beside it.
The whip-like sapling bent forward, and Taryn had the distinct impression it was reaching out to them, reaching out to him.
"I think I need to get up," he said.
The Marquis looked at him, eyes wide, and then hurriedly moved out of the way. He helped Taryn to his feet, and did not try to stop him when he went to the sapling.
Atop the sapling was one blossom that hadn't bloomed out like the others. It remained snugly closed. As Taryn approached, the closed bloom shook, as through gesturing him closer. Hesitantly, Taryn placed his hands beneath the bloom, and the flower opened, depositing an enormous seed in his hand.
"Thank you," he said with a bow.
The sapling bent, returning the bow, and then shriveled up before his eyes. It dried and collapsed into kindling sticks.
"Oh no," he said, concerned. "Did I do that? I'm sorry--"
"Don't be," the Marquis said, his voice sounding distracted. He was looking at the big tree. "I think that was intentional."
Taryn went to him and held out the seed. "Look."
The Marquis examined it, then gently closed Taryn's hands over it. "It is your gift," he said solemnly. Then he gestured to where the dead elf had left his sword. "As is that."
"Oh." Taryn said. He hurriedly put the seed in his pocket and ran to collect the sword and belt. Then he returned to the Marquis and offered these up for inspection as well.
"Perhaps later," the Marquis said. "The forest still holds danger, and we’d best not dawdle." He whistled a clear, high note, and one of the shaggy deer came galloping from the trees.
The Marquis lifted Taryn onto the deer’s back first, then joined him. He said nothing that Taryn could understand as a command, only gave a small gesture and a click of the tongue, but the deer turned west toward and ran. In no time at all, they had broken through the forest line and out into the field, catching the white road to the castle.