Wicked Court – May Sage

Every creature in the Murkwood wants to kill me—some for sport, others out of hunger or spite. I leap from tree to tree, outsmarting the branches that slink under my footfalls to trip me up, all of my senses alert. I don’t think the birch, oak, and old ash appreciate being trodden on, but they’ll have to suffer it. The thick cover of their leaves provides a semblance of safety I can’t afford to lose, and most of the things that wish to take a bite out of me are wingless creatures, bound to the moss covered forest ground. The wilder dwellers of these lands could very well wet their teeth with my blood, if I get distracted. The Murkwood’s southern border sprouts at the feet of the Shadow Peaks and edges the seelie kingdoms. It stretches so far north part of the forest belongs to the Wilderness. The gods and monsters of that realm don’t care much for borders. While their dislike for the ways of the courts keeps them off our homes, they can be found wandering our woods. Occasionally, I wonder about my sanity. On such an icy night, close to dawn, I ought to be home, in front of a warm fire, not freezing my ears off in the single most hazardous place of Tenebris, hunting down a shade. A shade! A careless chuckle escapes my lips as I jump to an old fir that seems less bloodthirsty than the nearby ash. Once mortal, the shades were poor halfwits who’d sworn an oath to one of the darker folk; in payment for a favor, they surrender their soul. When the fae claim their due, the mortal victim turns into a shadow of a being, a creature of darkness with a tragic lack of personality. Shades serve their master until they’re released.

If the fae who own them die before granting them freedom, the shades turn rogue and roam the lands, wrapping whatever creature they come upon in their shadow, sucking the life out of them. Shades aren’t much of a threat to a gentry. Their prey of choice are rabbits and squirrels—a weaker puck, if they can get their hoods on it. They avoid the keeps, towns, cities, and courts for fear of knights and princes. The only place where they can be found in Tenebris is the Murkwood, as they instinctively travel north to reach the Wilderness. If I die chasing a shade, my mother would fashion a spell to bring me back to life just so she could murder me herself. While recklessness is seldom lambasted in the house of Bane, stupidity is frowned upon. Through the darkness, my eyes catch movements on my left, near to the ground. A swift shadow glides between bushes, parting trees, and I grin, following its progression as silently as my leather boots allow. Finally.

There’s no grand, heroic reason why I should want that shade. I went to work at sunset and did my chores on my way back; by midnight, I was bored enough to find my way to the Light Market. I talked to Khia, a round, barrel-tall salamander with blood-red hair and eyes. She’s an unapologetic charlatan, but one I happen to like. More than I ought to. Salamanders belong in the Court of Ash, fringing our southern shores. The source of their power is kept in their stronghold; living so far from the rest of her people weakens Khia so much I can barely sense any fire in her. If she’s here, she was desperate enough to leave everything behind. That alone should make me wary. It doesn’t.

I know a thing or two of despair. Khia asked me for a shade’s cloak. What she intends to do with it, I don’t want to know. The folk don’t come to me to be plied with questions about their schemes; if they intend to get tangled in misdeeds, they can justify themselves to knights or queens. I either choose to grant them the wish of their hearts, or I decline their request. My answer is rarely no. In my somewhat brief existence, I’ve built a reputation in certain circles; I am the gentry who can get things. All sorts of things—answers, rare items, spells. Whatever they want. And in return, I demand a boon of equal value.

Or, if I can get it, an unnamed favor. Khia is a valuable acquaintance; it pays to keep her happy. In the Light Market, she hears all sorts of things from all sorts of folk—whispers I might not have learned without her. I am a curious creature by nature. She’s also one of the best at getting her hands on rarer relics, which comes in handy in my line of trade. While she’s given me dragon blood, selkie ink, and poisons aplenty, I’ve never extracted one single favor from her. She’s promised me one if I can get her that cloak by first light. I need her oath. I need it like I need air. Before the first oath I collected, I was nothing.

I was powerless. Now I have warriors, pirates, thieves, princesses, and murderers who would have no choice but to come to my aid, if I demanded it. My friend Esea says I’m raising an army. She’s wrong. I’m erecting a shield of flesh and bone before my meekness. A shield I could never raise against the one enemy I’m truly fighting. I unhook the thin glass vial at my belt, eyeing the tiny creatures inside. A flock of devases, mischievous as they come. I don’t know how they ended up flasked; I doubt their innocence in the matter. They’ve tried their tricks on the wrong fae.

I bartered a sphinx pelt for them at the market, and promised to free them so long as they helped my chase tonight. From what I understand of their cacophonous chirping, they spent nigh on a decade in that blue-green prison. Needless to say, they were quick to accept the bargain. It’d better be worth it. Without any fur over my shoulders, the bite of the wind is bitter. When I open the cork caging them in, they burst out of the flask and shoot high in the starry night sky, their inner light glowing so much brighter than it had moments ago. Their airborne dance is beautiful; beautiful enough for me to gasp, although it looks like they might flee without holding up their end of the bargain. But they are fae, and a bargain struck by the mouth of the folk is a law none of us can escape. They soar down to the trees, and fly north, faster than I could have thought possible, illuminating the night. I half regret my decision to bring them with me.

My eyes can distinguish most of what’s in front of me, even in the dark, but I hadn’t been able to see much of the Murkwood from my perches atop the highest trees. The creatures of these parts blend too well in the darkness. Now, I see. I haven’t ventured too far in the Murkwood; ten miles at most. I didn’t expect the worst of the monsters to have crossed my path yet. And they haven’t. I only see wolves the size of bears, serpentine dragons coiled around nearby ferns, ageless hags, bogles, and fachans. No nightmares, dragons, or anthropophagi in sight. There’s that. They’re known to roam these parts, too.

The entire silent forest seems to be watching me. I wonder if they’re bored. I may be their entertainment for the evening. Perhaps they’ve placed bets on when my surefooted run up here will ultimately end. Perhaps they’re fighting to claim my eyes, lungs, and heart. I follow the lights. When I reach them, the shade is writhing on the mossy forest floor, desperate to rid itself of the tiny, bright fairies who coat its darkness. For a moment, it strikes me that forcing a shadow to endure light is rather cruel. My plan was clever; I couldn’t have outrun one of them with ease, but as expected, it’s stopped to defend itself against the devases. The shade is burning inside out, poor wretched thing.

The moment I get to the ground, I take my pouch of salt and throw it in a neat circle engulfing me, the shade, and all the devases, to give anything hunting us pause. Then I unsheathe my iron blade, hand on the wood and leather hilt. Once, the thing on the ground was a mere man of clay, a boring old human; now it’s a creature of the folk, and like all of us, it fears iron. I see it still as the blade draws near. The shade half whines, half screams, stumbling upright to attempt to flee. It cannot cross the salt barrier either, trapped inside as surely as the other monsters of the woods are kept out. I’m quick to end its suffering; my blade flashes to what would have been its throat if it had been shaped like a man, and cuts open the small bead of silver holding its cloak on its shoulders. The shade stumbles back to the ground, the impossibly dark fabric in my left hand. Gazing down, I can only pity it. I’ve never seen a hoodless shade before; I have no desire to ever see one after tonight.

I know mortals—I’ve traveled to their lands more than most of the gentry care to. As I survey what’s left of the shade, I cannot deny that though this thing walks in our world, it’s still one of them in the end. A frail, emaciated, gray-skinned man with twig like limbs. All the blood and flesh seem to have dried up long ago, leaving nothing but bone and old wrinkled skin. I could kill it. Without its hood, it can’t glide in the night, and its one power, darkness, has failed it. I should kill it. Its life is so very wretched. To me, even a wretched existence is better than nothingness, emptiness. I crouch down on the balls of my feet and tilt my head to the side, watching it closely.

There is a life of sorts left to it. “Poor little shade. Do you recall the name you bore?” It hisses and its few teeth flash in its cave of a mouth. I decide not to mention the virtues of brushing one’s teeth. “How would you like a bargain?” The offer crosses my lips thoughtlessly, carelessly— perhaps cruelly. I laugh as the thing crawls away, desperate to flee. Bargaining with the folk is what got him in this state to start with. I’m not accustomed to showing kindness. Kindness has no place in my world. I speak the words nonetheless, although there’s nothing to be gained from them.

“Son of man, servant of fae, you’re free of every oath to the folk.” Dangerous words that I have no right to speak. This thing belongs to a master, and I have stolen it. I can’t say I care. The one thing that matters is that I have the power to do it. I watch with interest as the creature changes, its skin regaining some color, its flesh padding with some muscle. In instants, I’m standing in front of a plain, naked, graying man, not unlike any I might have crossed paths with in the mortal realm. The man continues his retreat, crawling away, fear in his hollow eyes. I stay crouched on my heels, unmoving. He mumbles, madness limning his every feature.

Among the nonsense, I hear one word. Royal. Finally, I get to my feet, and lift the cloak in the air. “Thanks for that, human.” I In the Light Market run, eager to leave the woods before the hungrier creatures of the night sniff my blood. I shouldn’t have to worry about sluaghs and ogres this far south, and so close to daybreak, but I’ve been cavalier enough for a night. Besides, I have to get back to the market. Khia was clear: she wants the cloak by first light. If I’m late, she could weasel her way out of our deal—or try to offer me a lesser prize for the cloak. It’s her oath I’m after, and I can practically taste it on the tip of my tongue.

I’m almost at the edge of the Murkwood when I’m knocked aside by something heavy —and fast. I do what I can to keep my balance on the branch where I’m perched. While I don’t fall, I smash face first into the trunk. Dizzy, I spin around to face my adversary, and groan. Never mind staying on this tree. I leap in the air, one hand clutched around the rough fabric of the magical cloak, the other gripping the first branch I can catch on my way down. It’s thin, too flimsy to support my weight for long, and the effort is taking its toll on me. Nature has made me agile, and fast when I need to be, but raw strength isn’t my forte. I can’t hold my body up with one arm for any extended amount of time. Pain already cripples my left side, stretching from my fingers to my shoulder blade.

I feel my claws extend from my fingertips, burning my skin as they plunge into dry wood. The damnable branch creaks, threatening to snap. I glance up at my attacker. Two eyes, as bright as the moon, and a set of fangs flashes above me. It’s a wyrfox, playful as they come. Its tail slowly bats from side to side, and I like to imagine that it smiles at me, its prey. Long ago, gentries cursed some gray foxes, wild cats, wolves, bears, and birds to live as we do, long lives that can only end in blood. An endeavor to fashion themselves companions, I think. Some older families still have wyr familiars in their household, but now most of them live in the wild. Foxes are wicked as cats and smarter than wolves.

They’re day dwellers, usually asleep high in the trees at night so as to not get eaten by stronger predators. I might have woken that one—or perhaps we’re closer to dawn than I’d estimated. I have a human clock, somewhere in my drawers at home, but it ran out of battery at least twenty years ago. By the looks of it, the wyr is young—in time, they turn black, silver-gray, or reddishbrown, surrounded by midnight-black fire. This one still has the gold coat of a juvenile, without so much as a spark around its fur. I can thank my uppity education for my ability to define the many things that endeavor to eat me on a daily basis. The predator’s youth isn’t good news. An older wyr might have thought twice and decided that there were easier meals to be hunted. Young foxes are ludic in their murders. I watch it wiggle its back to adjust its position.

I doubt it noticed how fragile my branch is. I doubt it cares. I have instants to make a decision. Down, toward the ground and all its peril. My blood is air and water; the folk of earth are my natural enemies. Most of the forest is at an advantage on their land. Or I can give the stupid twig a chance. I grunt as I pull my body up with one arm, careful not to damage the cloak. The branch squeals in protest, but doesn’t betray my foolhardy trust. I can count the times where my small frame has been an advantage on one hand.

Tonight adds another instance. There’s no doubt that, slender as we are, it would never have supported the weight of an average height fae. Still, the branch can’t hold me for long. Rather than finding out exactly how long, I fling myself as high as I can in the air. If I wasn’t wearing a leather coat, I would have freed my wings. As we’re late autumn, I’d opted to cover up—like an idiot. I land on a stronger tree and run along its branches, then leap again, and run to another one. I can see light parting the boughs in the distance. I’m close. I focus on that, rather than on the gekkering and pawfalls closing in behind me.

I should be grateful that the wyr is a fox and not a cat; I’m the better climber. But it is faster than me. I’m not inclined to hurt it if I can avoid it, but I’ll most likely have to defend myself before I get to safety. I near the last row of trees when it finally catches up with me. This time I sense it; I have mere instants to block its mouthful of sharp fangs with the leather cuff of my left forearm. I groan when the canines dig deep, feeling thick, hot blood ooze under my tunic. I refuse to use the blades at my belt. The iron would kill the young wyr, now or later, by poisoning its blood. Calculating my options, I choose the least lethal weapon in my arsenal. It might kill it too, but there’s less certainty.

My hand rises, palm up, and I flex my fingers, as though I’m crushing the air in my grasp. A burst of bright green energy coats my palm, becoming brighter, greater at every moment. And then I breathe, perfectly at peace for one precious moment. Nothing quite feels like using my ability. I am myself for once. I am allowed to be. The wyr’s scream could have raised the dead, had they not already been lurking in the Murkwood. It stumbles back, losing its footing, and falls down. I curse out loud. I’d never meant to force it to the ground.

I peep over my shoulder, to the path leading out of the forest. I’m so close. “You’re going to regret it,” I warn myself out loud. My voice sounds incredibly like my father’s just then. I jump down anyway.

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