They had everything they needed in their modest farm except an heir to care for them in their old age. Yet Parson Acke Rahm and his wife Carita, the village midwife, lived contented lives. Though fate had denied them the very joy she had brought to their kith and kin in their village, and beyond, they had no regrets. Then one evening there was a knocking at their door.
(This story first appeared in Antipodean SF issue 292, 21 January, 2023)
A little man, swarthy of face and dressed in thick gray clothes, begged for permission to enter. Upon doing so, he entreated the woman to go with him to his wife who was in the throes of labour.
Man and wife looked at each other with trepidation. For, instantly, they both knew they were in the presence of a Troll. But even to such a creature they could not deny the kindness of her gift. So, the Parson prayed over his wife and they made ready to go with the stranger.
But the moment they stepped outside the door, it was as if the wife and the Troll had been borne by the wind. Soon Carita and the Troll were deep in the forest. A moss door parted for them, leading to a long winding corridor that ended at a wide porch with benches and tables. There they stopped, and the Troll drew from his vest pocket a round tin with an intricately carved lid, containing a clear ointment that smelled of violets. After applying the ointment to the woman’s eyes, she noticed for the first time the wooden doors on the walls of the room, each one colored a different hue of blue.
He again led her forward through one of the doors into another chamber with gates of shining metal that ushered them into a great receiving hall of crystal arches: the entrance to a world of beautiful trees, emerald fields, and crystalline brooks singing across flower-drenched meadows. When she turned to express her wonder to her companion, he was no longer a Troll but a tall and handsome young man. Yet the same look of worry and desperation of the Troll was on his brow.
They ran along a broad street to a palace of overwhelming beauty, every other handsome inhabitant of that country bowing to them as they passed by. The woman attended to the young man’s wife and all went well. A new baby girl was delivered into their world.
The prince, for so he was, offered the woman any magnificent reward she might crave. To everything, she said no. Then he brought a small cake to her in a golden plate. But Carita’s look of disappointment was so severe that it shamed the prince and his entire court. For she had heard that those who eat the food of the fey can never return to their world.
“Nay,” he protested and humbled himself by bowing before her. “Not to eat here. It would be treachery to repay kindness with deceit. It is a gift for when you return.” And then the prince’s wife motioned for her to approach. She took off a necklace of thin pearls, removed the small embossed medal that hung from its end, and placing it in the woman’s hand, she enclosed it with her own. “We will be ever in your debt. This is the emblem of our family. Let your children’s children wear it as a token of our gratitude.”
Servants of the prince led Carita back, retracing her steps until they stood at the edge of the moss-covered door looking out into the forest. She knew she was looking at her world, but the view was strangely oppressive: the moon barely shone, and the night air was stifling in its warmth. She almost turned around. But one of her escorts wiped away the ointment from her eyes with a water-soaked towel and forced her to look again.
It was indeed her world, and beyond the forest she could feel her home. And the thought of that home and husband was more than enough to break the spell completely. She hurried onto the damp grass and looked back only briefly, in time to see two small men disappear into a curtain of green.
Once home she related to her husband all that had transpired. It had been but hours in the world of the fey. But three full days of anxious waiting had passed in her world. Together they thanked the Lord for her safe return, and prayed Saint Paul’s prayer over the gift cake before eating it. It tasted of honey and corn and petals of rose. Nine months later they welcomed their own heir into their home.
Many years passed, and the daughter of the prince grew; and she played like children play; and she went places where she should not have gone, like children do. The meadow led to the doors and the doors to the forest of man. And there she heard the music of home.
Intrigued, she followed the sound to a ring in a clearing. In the middle was a young human child not six years old. The musicians were fey but not like her kind. They were Hairy Dwarves, dwellers of caves and pits. She had been taught never to trust them. They played their music, and the human child danced completely under their spell. And someone said, “Again.”
It was then that she noticed the man in a fine brown coat and white stockings and unkempt hair; a human sitting unchallenged within the edge of the ring! He was clapping his hands and laughing and mocking with them. One of the Dwarves wandered over to him and handed him a small cloth bag, heavy with nuggets of gold.
The man inspected the contents carefully. “It will not vanish when I step outside.”
The Dwarf shared his wicked smile. “You see as we see.”
The man nodded knowingly. He extracted a tin from his coat pocket, and gazed at the intricate patterns of its tarnished cover. He knew there was still some ointment left, but not much. It had brought him great wealth. He gazed at the Dwarf and wondered if he should try to strike the same bargain again. But the Dwarf’s return gaze was too intent; he decided against it and put the tin away.
The princess experienced emotions new to her young sheltered life. She knew the fey had the right to take the lost and the wounded abandoned in their lands. But this human was bartering innocent life for gold, and the Dwarves encouraged his heartless traffic. Her face burnt with indignation but there was nothing she could do. Gentry and Dwarves stayed far apart from each other by mutual consent, the affairs of each outside the other’s command.
It should not be so, the young girl felt. And she almost left that place, angry but uninvolved, except that she noticed the thin strip of leather looped around the child’s wrist, and the small metal medal dangling from it. “Not this child,” she swore to herself.
She waited until the man left the scene. The Dwarves played their music again to see their prize prance mindlessly about under their control. She slid across the field under the cover of the forest undergrowth, to the edge of the ring. On his second circuit through the confines of that invisible cage, the boy stepped within her reach. She thrust her arm in, grabbed the sleeve of his shirt, and yanked him out of the ring.
The boy rolled on the grass, startled. To him it had been mere minutes since the man in the brown coat had asked him for directions to the town, seconds since the fluttering bird that distracted him evaporated like a mist, a heartbeat since the music had colored everything with a layer of dreams. His confusion turned into terror as the Dwarves appeared from nowhere out of their circle, forgetting in their anger to reshape their appearance.
A girl suddenly stood between him and the hairy creatures. And holding his wrist high for them to see, she said, “He is mine! Behold the crest of the House of Wroan”.
There were two Dwarves against a lone Gentry child. The thought of violence crossed their minds but something about the brazen daring of the child made them hesitate. Neither side wanted to start a war – the Dwarves certainly not against a Royal House. They put her to the bargain of the law of the fey. One for one, they demanded, and she promised to comply.
After sending the child to his home, the princess returned to the path in the forest. And soon she found the tracks she sought. The man in the brown coat had gone down to the edge of the river to nap. She ensured the coolness of the breeze and perfected the rustle of the leaves and the drowsy gurgling of the water at his feet. Then a hundred yards up the path she set to work.
Creeping vines served as ropes, peeled tree bark as cloth. Fallen branches, rocks, and broad leaves all became raw materials for her craft. And two squirrels and a young doe agreed to her plan.
When all was prepared, the breeze turned into a blustery wind, and the squirrels scampered over the man, breaking him out of his slumber in alarm. With a shake of his face, he forced himself into full consciousness, and then looked intently all around until he was assured nothing was amiss. He had barely relaxed when a racket overhead drew his attention. It was a pair of squirrels quarreling over a nut, nothing to worry about. But then one dashed up the tree limb, toppling a bird nest in a shower of sticks and leaves and dirt, right into the man’s eyes.
He cursed at the animal and stumbled back into the river’s edge. Instinctively, he knelt in the water and scooped it onto his face, time and again, to flush the debris out of his eyes. And as he stepped back on the grass, he wiped his eyes dry on his coat’s sleeve, and set off for the nearest town.
A hundred steps along the path, the man noticed a gypsy’s cart and its horse tethered under a broad tree. The lone gypsy girl called to him from a table full of trinkets. Each was for sale at a fraction of its worth, she said. But none caught his eye except the round tin, with the intricately carved lid, sitting on the shelf behind the girl. He could not believe his luck.
The girl said those were her mother’s things, she could not sell them. At his insistence she opened it for him, and he saw it was full of ointment, to the brim; and right there he placed a large nugget of gold on the table before the girl. How many things she could buy for her mother with that gold, he said. “She will miss it, I will be in trouble”, was her protest. “She will not know,” was his reply.
Taking out the tin from his pocket, he showed her its cover; they were twins of each other. He placed his on the table, the nugget of gold on top of the lid, and pushed it toward the girl. She accepted the trade.
The man snatched the tin and strode away with long quick steps, back to the path, and a future of assured wealth. Something in the rustling of the wind through the trees made him pause and turn. The gypsy’s cart was no longer there. A small doe stood where the horse had been. And sheets of bark and branches and vines, propped against the undergrowth, suggested the shape of the cart and its wares. A cold deeper than the wind seized the man’s heart.
He looked about for the telltale signs of a ring, for he knew that only within a ring they can take mankind, but there was none to be found. Yet music was starting to play. He realized he had washed his eyes clean at the river. In panic, he stopped his ears, and then he remembered. His hand snapped to his pocket. The new tin was still there. Quickly, he dipped his fingers into the ointment and covered both eyes. And the music stopped, and his heart started to settle down.
“Good friend, have you lost your way?” A farmer asked from the meadow across the path. The man nodded his assent. “Then come this way, there is a shorter way to town.” Without question, the man followed the stranger, across the meadow, to a great house. “They wait for you here.” The man in the brown coat bowed to his guide and smiled with delight as he stepped into the hall beyond the door, filled with a crowd and a feast, and a life of dreams among the Dwarves.
There are, you see, two kinds of tins. But men do not know this. Their names, alethein and lethein, are carved right on the lid, if you can read the language of the fey. One is called truth, one is called lie. By the first, man can see in the world of the fey and be protected from their illusions. The second, the opposite, is necessary.
For no man would willingly stay forever in the world of the fey. Inevitably, the taken start to dream glimpses of their former life. And sooner or later the desire to leave becomes too strong. They refuse to understand that their world is long gone; the years pass by as days in the land of the fey. Those that return are never the same. It is best if they never remember their former life.
But only man can deceive himself. The fey are not allowed to apply that ointment; they can only supply it. Man must do the deed.