She lived so deep in the wildwood her existence would never be known except by her own kind, so said Prince Kailen. “You need not flee from forest sounds or hide from imagined eyes,” he said. “The fox knows you, as does the wildcat. They will not harm you. You are not a disturbance to the bees in their den or the hawk in its nest. The humans do not come here.”
Breena believed that until she saw the boy. She recognized him for what he was because she had the sight, which penetrated into the truth of all living things. If she were caught in the web of the black spider, she knew the creature’s intent. More often than not, the carnivorous spiders would flee upon learning they had snared a fairy. But once, she had broken a wing trying to escape the web of an evil and ravenous black spider. Its intent was clear; it would devour her if possible. In her frantic attempts to free herself, an entangled translucent green wing twisted in a manner inconsistent with flight, and broke, but so did the strands of the web.
She fell. An oak leaf caught her and eased her to the damp forest floor where she sat and cried over the broken wing. A yellow finch, knowing her for one of the fey, carried her home, her silken skirt held delicately in its beak.
The wing healed and she flew again by autumn. She flitted among the colored leaves, skimmed above the laughing brook and visited the homes of those who soon must depart because of the coming winter winds. The orange and yellow butterflies had already left on southerly breezes. The humming bird, the purple finch, the red-winged blackbird, the warbler and the wood duck would leave next.
Breena found no sadness in the arrival of winter and the temporary loss of her migrating friends. The cold gray days gave rest to whoever must stay. Many would find warmth and languid peace beneath the snow, in dens or in the mud and sand of ice-covered streams.
Breena felt neither cold nor heat. She slept on a bed of moss high off the ground within the safety of a den tree—an ancient pine with numerous openings created by time and woodpeckers.
From her home in the tree, she saw the boy. He was lean with long gangly arms and dark hair that fell beyond his shoulders. He stepped lightly through the late afternoon red and gold maples. His heart sang with youth and contentment. He walked sometimes beside the brook, crushing the grasses and ferns, and sometimes he waded in the shallows, scattering minnows and crayfish. Breena understood the panic and injury of the small lives he trampled. The boy flung his arms in an odd behavior and thrashed the air with a willowy stick. Attached to the stick was a sun-colored string, which when at rest, floated upon the surface of the water.
He passed out of sight. Intrigued, Breena followed at a safe distance. She winged from branch to branch among the evergreens and hardwoods to keep him in view. She darted closer and risked being seen, an act for which Prince Kailen would punish her for if he knew.
Unfair, that. Hadn’t Kailen told her the humans would never intrude here? Should she not observe everything she might about the human before reporting his presence? Besides, she must be very close to read his heart. Breena knew his course and flew ahead. She hid herself among the branches of an evergreen and watched.
The boy carried a pack upon his back, and atop that, a bedroll. Although she had never seen human possessions, she identified them with ease. She knew their purpose—to sustain the human in a place that was not his home.
As he splashed his way closer, Breena gazed in wonder at his stick with the sun-colored string. And she saw a second string, attached to the first, which surely had magical properties, for it was almost invisible and clung to an imitation grasshopper at its extreme end.
She heard the swish of the stick and strings and saw fake grasshopper floating on a pool of clear water. Breena sensed the danger. The trout had been tricked; it did not know--could not have known—that the grasshopper was a deceptive contrivance. The boy wrestled the trout. He checked the dives and runs, never releasing the tension, hurting the fish. (I need those. Don’t I?) He eventually maneuvered the pitiful fish close enough to capture it with a wooden-handled net.
Breena knew nothing of anger until then. The emotion caused her to lose control of herself. She flew at the boy’s head and flitted back and forth in front of his eyes in a fierce attempt to distract him, but he gave her no more attention than he might have given to an annoying insect.
Surprisingly, he wet his hands before removing the colorful trout from the net. He held it for a short time to admire it, then released it gently to the brook. He stood and smiled and gazed into the current as if he might have another glimpse of the fish he had hurt.
Still overflowing with wrath, Breen stood on a tree branch at eyelevel with the boy. She crossed her arms across her chest. “You must surely be proud of yourself,” she said.
He turned his head in her direction but looked beyond her, surprise in his hazelnut eyes. His gaze darted here and there through the woodlot as he tried to find who had spoken.
Breena felt his confusion, his ignorance and innocence. He did not know he had hurt the trout. She suddenly regretted having almost revealed herself to the human. Her cicada-green wings carried her up and away from his searching eyes. She flew directly away from him and the brook. She stopped in the grasses of a bluebell glade to rest and to consider what she had seen.
The bluebells were dormant now, their season past, but the long winter grass that has taken their place made a comfortable bed where she could lie on her back and watch the scudding clouds and consider what must be done. Kailen would want to know, of course, so he could report the intrusion to Queen Lorilla. The queen would likely order a flight into the brambles and blackberry bushes where the entire troop would await the human’s departure.
Why were humans a threat to the fey ones? Kailen had never told her. Did they have magic or some other power that could harm? She would ask Kailen. Perhaps she would ask him before she reported the boy’s presence.
What if Kailen knew nothing about humans? How could he know? It might be better to observe the boy a while longer. That would give her more information to report; she would know what he was up to other than hurting the fish and trampling the ferns.
She rose above the glade, her wings luminous in the twilight. She flew back toward the stream and the last place she saw the boy.
Before she arrived, she sensed danger. In the next moment, she saw the fire. Fire! No few fairies had succumbed to the smoke and heat of fire. She would have to alert Kailen at once. Her path to the Prince’s den took her even closer to the flames, which were contained within a circle of large stones. The boy squatted near the small fire. Even though she feared the flames, Breena alighted in a holly bush to watch. He placed a shiny container on one of the stones. It bubbled and smoked. Breena had heard of such odd activity by humans. Fascinated, she watched him.
He had the fire safely contained. Her duty could wait a little longer. Anyway, another fairy had probably already scented the smoke and made a report.
The boy finished his meal and stepped to the stream with his metal pot. He knelt and scrubbed it with sand and water. He returned to the fire and unrolled his blankets, then retrieved an odd leafy item from his pack and lay down. Propped on one elbow, he held the thing close to the fire and stared at it for several moments before turning a leaf. In her mind, Breena heard “book.” He was “reading.” These words, new to Breena, related to humans and to no other creature. Her curiosity and excitement transcended caution. Her luminosity increased. She flew close in an attempt to see over the boy’s shoulder. Hovering like a dragonfly, she tried to make sense of the inscriptions on the pages.
“Pages.” Another human word.
Danger and responsibility forgotten, Breena concentrated on the boy’s heart. She sensed nothing amiss. She felt gentleness, a love of wild places, curiosity, and contentment. Were these not the traits of fairies? Surely, he intended no harm. Her mind made up, she hovered above his head.
“Hello, boy.” She was brighter now than the dying fire.
He did not seem surprised. Perhaps he knew about fairies. “Why have you come?” she asked.
He answered with a question. “Am I unwelcome here?”
“’Tis not for me to say.”
“Who are you? What are you?” He closed the book.
“I am Breena, one of Prince Kailen’s subjects.”
The boy smiled and Breena’s caution lapsed even further. The human possessed a most pleasing intrigue. His dark eyes were playful yet sincere.
“I will have to report you, of course,” she said. “You have disturbed our home.”
“I am sorry, Breena.”
He spoke her name! She could not restrain the flare of light that surrounded her. “How long must you be here?” she asked. Fairies had little conception of time, but it seemed important to Breena now.
“I follow the stream,” he said. “I shall find its source.”
Even Breena didn’t know the brook’s beginning. “Why?” she asked, and hovered closer.
As quick as a snake strike, he snatched her out of the air, bruising her wings and smothering her in his hand. She struggled to move, to bite, to do anything that might release her from his treacherous grasp. His rough hand smelled of fish and sweat. Breena’ exhausting efforts, her panic and the lack of fresh air all contributed to the blackness that enveloped her. Her last thoughts were of guilt and forgiveness—her guilt for not reporting his presence, and forgiveness for his ignorance of a fairy’s fragility.
* * *
Two fey children watched from the concealment of a mulberry bush. The eldest, Celie, fair-haired and female, led her brother away into the coming night.
Breena’s funeral saddened the shaded afternoon glade of cleft phlox. The fairy troop surrounded her, but in respect, no one looked directly at her. They stood in near absolute silence with their heads bowed. Even the forest birds were still. The only sound was the morning breeze whispering through the trees, softly rustling the pine boughs and the colored leaves not yet fallen. Streaks of sunlight dappled the forest floor. As if by intent, a particularly broad sunbeam illumined Breena and her final hour among those she loved.
Dressed in yellow silk, she lay pallid and cold on a perfectly formed scarlet maple leaf. Pink azalea blooms cushioned her head. Goldenrod and purple aster lent majesty to her bed.
Queen Donella stood on a white quartz stone, well above the other gathered fairies. She wore a gown of spun mouse hair whiter than the quartz. Eventually she spoke. Her voice offered no betrayal of her age. “I think perhaps Breena was too lovely to remain among us. The stars have her now. Look in the clear autumn sky tonight, children, for she is there, gleaming with the same love that brightened our glade while she lived among us.” She nodded at the prince. “Now, Kailen.”
Kailen and five others lifted the bed of intertwined honeysuckle vines, which supported Breena’s elegant bed. The troop gathered behind Kailen and waited. Donella flew lightly down from the quartz to lead the procession to the brook.
There, Donella spoke again. “I’ve always thought Breena was more spirit than fairy, but the funeral raft carries neither. ‘Tis merely decoration and custom that we give to the clear waters. May the ripples sing of her forever.”
Breena floated on her leaf and vines to midstream where the current caught her. Her craft fell intact through the first rushing cascade. She was out of sight in moments. The troop stood in silence on the sandy beach. One by one, they started back toward the glade and home.
Kailen lingered. If Celie’s report was accurate, the human that killed Breena said he followed the stream to its source. The prince took to the air. Within minutes, he found human footprints. “A human going upstream will soon come downstream,” he said aloud.
* * *
The troop of fairies convened in the twilight glade. Prince Kailen, whose name meant “warrior,” presided.
“I am not convinced that Breena’s death was intentional. Perhaps the human meant only to capture her. However, we have not gathered tonight to discuss his intent, but only to decide what should be done. Who has a suggestion?”
“Put a hornet’s nest in his path!” came a shout from the assemblage.
“Tell the bear to devour him!” said one.
“A viper!” cried another.
“Anyone else?” asked Kailen.
Donella, who had not intended to intervene, did. “Revenge has no place in a fairy’s heart or in our home,” she said. “Punishment and justice are for humans. Ask not what we might do judge the boy, but what might be done to prevent his intrusion a second time.”
* * *
Shaylee, Aine and Parisa were assigned to gather the dust. Aine used a candle of bees wax to attract the moths. A fairy’s agility in the dark is no less marvelous than during the day. Shaylee and Parisa swooped in among the fluttering insects and carried moth after moth to the ground. They used blades of grass to scrape dust from the moth’s wings. When they had enough, they notified Kailen.
He took possession of the bag of dust and strapped it to his waist. With patience unheard of in the fairy realm, he waited by the brook. Early during his second night of vigilance, a steady glow appeared on the ridge above him. It could be nothing other than the human’s camp. Kailen began his flight. The campfire had burned to a glimmer by the time he arrived.
The boy was asleep on his blanket. He lay on his side, his face toward the dying coals.
Kailen waited. He hovered above the youth, studying the face. He hated what must be done.
An hour in fairy time approaches eternity. Kailen flitted here and yon, but constantly checked on the boy’s position. Finally, the lad stirred and turned face up. The prince scooped moth-wing dust from his bag and sprinkled it on the boy’s eyelids. Kailen rose in the night air and sped homeward.
He sought Donella in her den of bark and moss. “It is done,” he said, and nothing more.
The screams came at first light. Pitiful, they were, wafting in on the dawn breeze and silencing the waking birds. The troop gathered in the glade and listened. Young Celie knelt in the dew-laden grass and wept. Shaylee placed his hand over his ears.
“He is not in pain, children,” Donella said. “He is confused.”
“What will happen to him?” Aine asked.
“He will go home.”
Donella looked at Kailen and the prince recognized the directive. He rose in the early light and returned to the human’s camp.
The boy whose name the fairies did not know sat on the ground crying, rubbing his eyes vigorously. He was bleeding from several scrapes apparently received during his sightless thrashing about.
Kailen hovered at his ear. “Find the brook. Follow it home.”
The boy reached out with both arms to find whoever had spoken to him. “I am blind!” he sobbed.
“Find the brook. It is the only way.”
“I’m sorry I killed your friend,” the boy said. He choked on his words and coughed long and hard. “It was an accident. I only wanted to catch her. I’m so sorry.”
Kailen tried to close his ears and mind to the piteous pleas and cries of the stricken human, but he heard them even after he was well away from the camp.
The sun reached its apex before the human came stumbling down the creek bed within sight of the fairies. He fell repeatedly, but each time he rose and groped ahead for the certain obstacles he would have to negotiate. He departed the fairy grounds in an agony only the blind can know.
Fairies do not leave their homeland. Donella nor any of her subjects could know what lay below them on the slopes and wooded ridges. They couldn’t know that the brook fed many times from lesser streams along its course, that it grew deeper and wider before spilling into the river that split the valley like a ragged wound.
Long before the boy found the valley, he stumbled and fell. He lost consciousness when his head struck a boulder. The strengthened flow flung him into a dark pool. He sank and drowned.
The boy’s corpse settled in deep water upon sand and pebbles. The current, gentle and silent at this depth, moved him and Breena in a slow dance toward eternity.