A long, long, long time ago it was, when Aidan stood in front of Jenny Greenteeth.
“Brother,” murmured Jenny Greenteeth. Her voice was sweet as birdsong, gentle, tender, resonant. “Is that you? I can’t concentrate well. I don’t feel at my best.” She moved towards Aidan. Her hair hung in mossy strips around her shoulders, reaching all the way down to her waist. Her eyes were luminscent, and they seemed sharp enough as she focused on him, raising a hand to drift her fingers across his clothes. “Ah, that fine coat. My brother. Do you need some food?” She waved a hand towards the fish. “I have tried to feed the boy, but… You know how I am.”
“I am not the Widdershins Knight,” he said, his hand moving carefully to the knife, keeping his eyes on her.
“Ah, just what the Widdershins Knight would say! But not to me, not to me… Who are you, then?” She peered at him. “Mother? Or- Could it be?”
“We don’t know each other,” he said, stiff, his arms shaking slightly. “You took the child. I wonder why you did that?”
“Well, why else, why else? To store him away. I caught this child, but the others got away, spirited away by a boy. He seemed to know me… Do you know the boy?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said.
“Oh, no matter, no matter.” She slithered on her belly. “Cannot let the warm ones get him. Only one, but it will have to do. The others, they stay well clear of the water, where I could do damage to them, where I could beat them, where I could snatch all the children they loom over.” She let out a slow sigh. She was, actually, rather attractive- Her figure slender, ending in a long fish tail from the waist down, like something out of a storybook. Her skin was pale as fishbellies, almost translucent, the white of bone visible beneath it. The green scales on her tail looked sharp as nails. And despite all of that- Yes, there was something pretty there. “What is your name, stranger?”
“Nothing special,” he said.
“Well, Mister Special- Or is it Missus?”
“Good, Mister Special. I am Jenny Greenteeth. You must be cold, I can hear your teeth chatter. Is this place too cold?”
“It is. That boy might freeze to death. Why don’t you let me move him?”
Jenny Greenteeth focused on him again, tilting her head, a concerned expression on her lips. “Take him? That’s the whole reason I snatched him, to keep him from being taken. Who are you, that I should trust you? If not name, then title, or deed, or purpose.”
He slipped the iron knife out of its sheath, and Jenny Greenteeth recoiled.
“Impossible. Iron Knight or Winter Knife? What would draw such a being of prestige to our small war?” She coiled and narrowed her eyes at me. “I will fight for the child, if need be.”
“I’m not here to fight. I simply wished to move him somewhere where he will not die of the cold. Humans require special care, after all.”
“True, too true, and true too… You who-” She paused for a moment, blinking. “Forgive me, Iron Holder. The mind wanders. Very well. Keep a pool of water by his side so I can watch over him and leap up if someone else tries to snatch him. But you may take him to where he will not expire over-quick. No good to us dead, after all.” She slowly slithered around him as he stepped towards the child, and he kept his eyes on her the whole time. “Do you know, Iron Holder, what the difference is between Seelie and Unseelie?”
“One is good, one is bad,” he said. She tilted her head.
“Oh? Is that so? Is that what you believe? But which one? What is good, and what is evil? What is right, and what is wrong? How can one divide things so easily?”
“To humans, it’s a very simple thing indeed.”
“Yes. That is why it is a human term. Seelie, or Unseelie. The difference is as fine as a razor’s edge, and far more deadly. It is not as simple as whether they are disdainful to humans, or are cruel or dark or frightening. Those things are mere circumstances. The heart is how they feed. All faeries feed on the stories of humans, the emotions. Happiness, fear, innocence, courage, satisfaction, love. A faerie can feed on these things, whether they are Seelie or Unseelie. A doll that gives selflessly, delighted by the smiles on the faces of those it gifts itself to. A fish-lipped maiden who yanks children under the water, feeling the fear as the pond drips down their throats, as the blackness strangles their minds. A hare that nurtures young love, who plucks the first kiss, and then guides them out into the world, stepping gracefully from the picture when she’s no longer needed. A knight who threatens children and maidens, provoking them into desperate acts of courage to protect those even more helpless, letting them fight to their last breath. A tiger who doesn’t bite, who doesn’t snarl, but who simply laughs as children enjoy life, never expecting something in exchange. A fair-haired spring maiden who brings joy and inspiration to her lover, blessing them with a life of ease and joy. And a bent-back crone, who loves nothing, creates nothing, save for desperation.”
“What about them?” Aidan asked, feeling a chill run down his spine.
“Wouldn’t it be a sweeter, simpler world if that were what things were like?” She stared at him. “You aren’t a faerie at all? You’re a human, aren’t you?” She slithered closer to him, and he wrapped his arm around the young boy, holding the knife out. “I can taste your fear. Sweet as honey.” She came closer still. “But look at that- The closer I get, the less frightened you are. Iron in your hands, steel in your stomach. Could it be-” Her eyes widened. “Oh. Oh, oh, oh. I must not say it, must not brush you too closely, for fear of what it would cost. Go, then. Go now.” She slithered backwards, her head lowered, those luminescent green eyes shining as they focused on him. He kept facing her the whole way, though she did not follow him as he backed towards the entrance. He looked up at the ice.
Lord Martin smiled down. “Need some help, my lad?”
A knotted rope later, Aidan was panting on the ice, putting the stone back into place. Lord Martin nodded approvingly, holding the boy in Aidan’s cape carefully.
“Good lad, figuring out the stone. I take it you noticed the punched holes through the center of it, indicating its status as a block between our world and Fairy?”
“What?” Aidan checked the rock. True to Lord Martin’s word, there was a hole through it- Something that might have been done by a power drill. “Ah. Yes. Totally intentional choice. Not just because it was sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the river.” He shivered, standing up straight. “Where’s Punk Dougal?”
“Ah. Yes. There appears to be something of a confrontation in the center of- Aidan!”
He ran through the ice and snow. The Cailleach- his mother- had been looking for the Leanan Sidhe. As he sped through the town, the ice and snow seemed to leap past him, the winds speeding his gait, speeding him forward, seeming to draw him towards his destiny. His strides grew long, and he flew across the land. Towards the bookstore.
He remembered the bookstore. Had that been where it all started? He remembered, when he had just gone to the orphanage, he found a book lying on the floor, there. A book of fairytales, a book filled to the bursting with the stories he loved. The stories that inspired to make more stories of his own, to tell to his godmother.
It was where it was all going to end. He saw the merry glow of light from within the bookstore, almost obscured by the ice and snow. The Cailleach stood before the door. She raised her hand, and slammed it against the frame. It reverberated like a bell, cracks splintering within. “Leanan Sidhe!” she cried out, her voice howling like the wind around them.
The Widdershins Knight stood behind her, his sword crossed against his chest. Aidan couldn’t see any sign of the Tawny Tiger, Jill, or Raggy, and he hoped they were still protecting the children. He stepped forward, and the Widdershins Knight turned counterclockwise to face him. “Hello, big sister.”
There was a gleam of steel in the snow. The Widdershins Knight spun further, as Punk Dougal appeared out of the storm, his sword up. The great knight leapt forward suddenly, dancing and spinning with the blade, turning like a top, moving like fluid. The Scotsman reacted just as fast, steel flickering out. The two swung their blades and slipped between blows. And unlike any sword fight that Aidan had ever imagined, ever seen described in a story, the swords never touched one another. No clash of steel on steel, no parries, only the deadly whisper of blades as the Widdershins Knight drove forward with merciless power. Punk Dougal responded with a litany of foul-mouthed obscenity every bit as terrifying.
The Cailleach raised her fist against. “Leanan Sidhe!” Her fist came down again like a hammer on an anvil, with as terrible a noise as it struck the frame a second time, bowing it in an inch.
Aidan ran forward as she raised her fist a third time.
“Thrice I say it and done! Face me, Leanan S-!”
Her words died in her throat as he crunched to a stop, half a dozen feet from her, the knife out. “Your Highness,” he said, his voice rough from the run, ragged from the emotion. “Remember me?”
The blades whispered through the air as she slowly turned towards him. There was a strange complex movement on her one-eyed face, the empty socket winking at him once. She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. After a half dozen times like that, she slowly stood up, forcing herself straight, groaning in pain as she straightened up. An easy twelve feet tall, she towered over him, tremendous, fearsome in her hooded robe, snow-white hair hanging around her, wrinkled face focused on him. “No,” she rasped, finally, her face set in a mask of stone-hard contempt.
“Oy, fuckface!” yelled Dougal. “Never do what a fairy wants you to! Don’t fucking fall for it! She’s trying-” The rest of whatever warning he was trying to offer was drowned out in a howling wail from the Widdershins Knight as the Unseelie pressed its attack even harder.
“Do you remember my father? Do you remember what you did to him? Do you remember having me, mother?! Do you remember how alone I was?!” Aidan’s hand tightened around the knife. Maybe it was a trick. An attempt to get him angry, to make him act out. She was alien. Cold as ice. But he had to believe in prophecy.
“No,” she said, the word a croak.
He screamed, and lunged forward, hoping to catch her by surprise. He could hardly reach very high, but he plunged the knife up, into her thigh. The iron blade flickered out, slashing through her thigh. In, and out, once, covered in red blood. The red trickled down her legs, and she collapsed, slumping to the ground. A smile spread across her lips as she kneeled, her head level with his, her hands falling heavily upon his shoulders.
“My son,” she whispered, softly, her voice soft and clear as a bell. Ringing like crystals, sweet as honey, tender. “My brave, darling son. I am so proud of you.” She kissed him once, chastely, on the forehead.
Then her eyes closed, leaving him staring down as the strength went out of her, her body slumping to the ground.
“Bitch,” growled a voice. The door flew open, and Aidan’s godmother stood there. As beautiful, as fair, as gentle as ever, but her brow furrowed in anger. “That bitch!”
“Godmother?” Aidan said, softly.
“All that work I put into you, and she just ruins it like that! With a single fucking word! Why would she die just to spite me like that?!” She stepped forward, and kicked the Cailleach in the cheek, violently. The giant woman’s head rolled to one side, and she let out a low groan, the cheek purpling. “Not dead yet?! You still will be with that iron in your system! And you!” She rounded on Aidan, her eyes furious. “All that time I spent on you! And now- You’re worthless to me!” She growled, and slapped him once, across the cheek, very hard. Aidan spun, and hit the ground, his head spinning, his heart pounding. “Well. I’ll still have my prize.” She stepped forward, back to the door, and slammed it shut behind her. Aidan stared up at the door, still on his back, his mouth open.
There was a screech of metal, and a low thunk. He turned his head to see the Widdershins Knight, on his knees. His sword rested on the ground in front of him. Punk Dougal’s blade had nearly split the helmet in two- But the Knight, Aidan realized, must have collapsed to his knees before the blade descended, as there was no way that angle would have worked as an attack. No blood dripped down, Punk Dougal’s arms straining as he seemed to hold the sword back from slicing through the Widdershins Knight’s skull.
All around them, the snow was melting, the winds dying down. The clouds receded, the sun shining down, warm and sweet, as flowers blossomed in the corners of every pavingstone, crawling up the sides of buildings, and birds sang in the air. The sun hung on the sunset, golden and bright, lighting the town up brilliantly. A pool of meltwater on the ground shimmered, darkened, and then Jenny Greenteeth leapt through it, curling up by her mother’s head, resting the Cailleach’s brow against her stomach, squeezing her gently. She looked up at Aidan, tears shining in her eyes.
“Were you worth it? Really, truly, were you so unique, Mister Special?” She asked, her voice soft.
“What is going on?” Asked Aidan, his head spinning. He’d killed the wicked queen, brought the spring, fought the monsters. This was supposed to be a happy ending.
“Oh, dear. My good boy.” Lord Martin stepped into the square, his brow furrowed. “The Fae are not fond of simple stories. The simple fae are easy prey for humans. Do you know-” He sighed softly. “Do you know, Hamlet was a tragedy because Hamlet knew how stories worked. So many people die, too many people die, because it was not the story that Hamlet thought it was.”
“But- She was the Queen of Winter, the one-” He stopped, as Jenny Greenteeth raised a finger to his lips, very gently, her eyes down on the Cailleach.
“Winter is barren. That is in its nature. She could make Faeries out of humans, but they were always… broken. A fish-lipped maiden who could not tell a friend from a foe, a brother from a mother, who could not understand other people’s needs. A knight who professed cowardice, even while his deeds made him a liar. And a girl who loved stories, but couldn’t make them…” She looked up towards the door.
“The bloody Leanan Sidhe?” said Dougal, in a tone of shock, and pants-shitting anger, as he stepped towards the Cailleach. He crouched down beside her.
“She always wanted, so badly, so dearly, to create something truly beautiful. Something that would not be flawed. So dearly that she made a deal with a devil. A terrible, warped creature with hair as red as fire, eyes as green as emeralds, and teeth as gray as iron. All things survive in order that they may reproduce, and for a small span of time, she had that chance. But… She could not be with the child.”
“Why not?” asked Aidan, his mind reeling. “Why the hell not?! Why wasn’t she ever there?!”
“Fairies do not reproduce like humans,” said Lord Martin. “They can- with exceptions- become pregnant, or impregnate, and create more humans, sometimes with some small strangeness. But to become one of the Fair Folk is something that can only happen to children. The presence of a faerie, the magic of a faerie, can twist a human child towards becoming one of the Gentry. A sufficiently powerful faerie, and…”
“The depth of feeling matters,” whispered Jenny Greentooth. “She loved that man so, so much that she desperately wished he could continue on, that some part of him, some part of what made him beautiful, would linger on. But he loved her too dearly to ever lay with another, and so she had no choice. Imagine the cold of winter, unending. The ice age hag, the freezing heart of merciless cold, that looks with no pity upon child or elder, man or animal, innocent or sinner, but takes without judgement from all, equally. Imagine that she still, after a time as long as cold had existed, kept that tiny fire of love smoldering in her heart, in the midst of the snowflakes.” She rested her hand on the Cailleach’s forehead. “Imagine how fierce that love flared that it could live so long. A touch of that love would have made you fae. Broken you.” She looked up at Lord Martin, her expression bereft. “My poor little brother. To become an adult is never easy. It is hard as nails. Hard as…” She moved her hand to stroke the Cailleach’s cheek.
“Bloody hell. That’s what that fucking catholic bastard was muttering about,” growled Dougal. “The ‘Teind’. A tithe to hell. It’s what this whole bloody thing has been about. The Cailleach was fixing to condemn the Leanan Sidhe. The Leanan Sidhe…” He looked up at Aidan.
“She told me she would take care of me,” said Aidan, his head spinning. “That I’d go to Faerie with her. That I’d be safe.”
“Probably wove it through with fucking lies,” growled Dougal. “Martin! Silver pin!” Martin nodded, and reached into his bowler hat, withdrawing a pin, handing it to Dougal. The scotsman threaded it through with a golden wire, and crouched by the Cailleach, lifting her robe. “Bloody hell, wish the woman’d worn some knickers.”
“Dougal!” said Martin, chastisingly, his eyes flicking to Aidan.
“Wot? The fuckface catholic’s an adult now, right and proper!” He looked up, and narrowed his eyes at Aidan. “Your friendly little buddies there have hostages. A lot of them. And if the Leanan Sidhe can’t get you…”
“Ah, yes… A mass transference,” said Martin, tapping his chin, crouching besides Dougal. “Creating dozens of fairies. Very Unseelie… And likely to end poorly for those changed. Samhain… A good time to… Oh, shit.” He looked up at the setting sun.
“Don’t have long,” said Dougal. “And this tough old bitch is barely clinging on to life. Not to mention that if I go anywhere near those kids- Well, the Unseelie are not known for their honorable natures and unwillingness to use hostages.” He looked up at Aidan.
“I- Me?” asked Aidan, his voice soft.
“You brought this on, boy.”
“I didn’t mean-!”
“What you intended doesn’t matter,” said Martin, softly. “What you wanted, what you thought, none of that matters. What you can do, that matters. You are someone that the fairies trust. You must walk among them without fear, without giving even a hint that you know what they are. You can do this. You are a man, a child of the Cailleach, and you have no choice.”
Aidan stared down at the body. At the woman who had made him, who had taken his father away, who had never been there.
But that wasn’t exactly true, was it? Once a year, every year, she had come, to watch him from as close as she could.
She had died, just to save him.
She’d made a deal with the devil, just to have him.
His fingers tightened around the knife. And Dougal shook his head, standing up for a moment from Cailleach, and setting Aislingbane’s hilt in his bloody hands. “You’re a man now, lad. And you’ll need a man’s tools.”
The Widdershins Knight surged to its feet. “My big sister can do this alone. I would be of no use.”
“You’re too big,” said Jenny, softly. “Too big, and too loud, little brother. You’d just get in the way.”
The Widdershins Knight creaked, its cracked helm low over its eyes. It turned that strange, mad gaze to Aidan. “My big sister. You fought miserably. No spirit at all. You made me ashamed.”
“Thank you,” said Aidan, softly, and found himself strangely warmed by the words. He knew what the Knight meant.
“The Hare is a fighter, vicious and blunt. Love is his shield, desire his bane. Embrace him. The Doll is a loner, cold and distant. He fights honorably, man to man, and will not involve innocents or feign love. The Tiger… The tiger is a calculating soldier, always thinking through every move, but weak as a kitten. Do not beware him.” He looked up. “My big sister. I have no faith in you.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, softly.
“Do not be,” said Jenny. “You know his meaning, now.”
“Yes, but I’m still sorry. If I’d…” He looked down at the Cailleach. Her breathing was so shallow her chest barely moved.
“She made the choice. She acted the monster, so you would do what she believed necessary. She terrified you so that you would strike her down. Sacrifice your innocence, and protect your soul from the Leanan Sidhe, from her machinations and her carelessness.”
“But- She was your mother, too! It’s not fair that she’d… treat you like this, abandon you, for me-”
“Oh, little brother.” Jenny Greenteeth slipped forward, and wrapped her slimy arms around him, hugging him gently against her cheek, her tail resting around his legs, light as a feather’s touch. “She loved all of her children. She sacrificed for all of them. We were already broken when she found us, and she did all she could to make our lives comfortable nonetheless. But did you never feel a shiver run down your spine when you passed a puddle and saw ripples spread across it? Did you never feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise when the clock ticked backwards? We always watched our beloved little brother. We always knew great things would come of you.” She rested her forehead against his for a moment. “We always watched to remind the Leanan Sidhe that she would never take you from us without a fight. I’ve waited so long to be able to hold my darling little brother.” She squeezed him once, and released him. “We will watch from the shadows, as we always do. From the darkened corner, from beneath the bed, from outside the street light. You will not be alone. We will do more than watch.”
“No time to dilly-dally, boy,” said Dougal. “Martin. Give the boy the thing.”
The Lord nodded, and patted his pockets, withdrawing a thick iron cross. It was one of the curious ones that Aidan had seen some of the brothers hide surreptitiously, with a circle around the place where the two lines joined. “Celtic Cross,” said Martin. “Damned peculiar, given the man was Italian. Said it would protect those with faith.”
“I’m pretty sure the Brothers don’t hold with that kind of thing,” said Aidan, frowning. “They beat me once for praying ‘too obsequiously’. They didn’t tell me what that meant.”
“Good god, boy,” said Martin, a tone of polite shock in his voice. “Your life is a Dickins novel.”
“Very Punk,” said Dougal, grinning. “Now go stab those goddamn fairy pricks where they piss. That’s very Punk, too.”
Later, much later, Aidan would wonder about the necessity of all of this. His mother’s sacrifice. His brother and sister’s silence. She could have spoken through a proxy, could have warned him beforehand, could have done so many other things.
That had been when he’d realized why she’d not wanted to make him into one of the fae. Those were the kinds of choices that humans had, the choice to go against your nature. A faerie was a living story. They could subvert expectations, but end the story altogether? If she’d worked through a proxy, the proxy would have to betray her. Or something else would have to happen. Faeries got complicated. It was the gift his mother had given him, to choose his own path.
That’s what Dougal had meant.
Aidan turned, and swallowed, hard, his eyes on the town. The sun was slowly sinking, the darkness falling over the town. The smell of sweet flowers filled the air, warm and endearing, as he walked forward into the night. The laughter of children could be heard in the distance, the scent of sweet pies and giggles and shrieks of delight. The lights were lit up, and there were no adults, and the town was full of life. It couldn’t be any more inviting if it was trying.
And after all he’d been through, that scared the hell out of him. He squeezed the iron knife’s handle, sliding Aislingbane back up into the leather sheath, and slipped the iron cross into his other hand. As he passed a puddle of melt-water, he noticed a ripple in it, and the briefest flash of green eyes. As he walked, the click of his shoes went backwards- clack click, clack click.
And he walked taller.