She had looked at him as if he were some kind of animal. Worse. A monster. The terror in her eyes crushed his heart, as though the rockslide that closed the cave entrance had also fallen on it.
He had waited for her for so long. He ran the moment he heard the noise, that same gusting howl he remembered from his first night in this world, coming from the very same spot. The night he would never forget. Just how long had it been? The years felt longer for being unable to count them, but shorter for his time spent with the fae. So long, lost in that forest, doubting he’d ever see her again, that his memories of her were even real. But here she was, looking just the same. Same age, same hair, same clothes, even the same bruises as the day he had lost her. He no longer doubted.
The dust from the rockslide cleared and the hunting men who had chased the girls still surrounded him. Them and the dragon. It circled above, waiting for something. To give the men their next order? He shifted his eyes upwards uneasily. He’d never seen a dragon before. They were legendary, even to the fae he knew, and scarce.
The men coughed and swore, wiping dirt from their eyes. They looked at him, wondering how he fitted into their chase, turning to their leader for guidance. He’d been mistaken as an animal by hunters before. He didn’t like hunters. A growl rumbled from his throat.
If it hadn’t been for him, those men would have caught her. He would not let anyone hurt her again. Not now that he was stronger. Getting out of this corner himself mightn’t be so easy, but he had the advantage. This was his forest.
He sized up each of the men, picking the weakest of the herd. That bald one, who stood there puffing with a little too much weight and already winded from the chase. He sprang at the man without warning. Landing on his rounded shoulders with both feet, he pushed off, using the man’s height to launch higher. He burst through a spray of leaves and wrapped a hand onto a thick branch, swinging himself up onto another. Behind him the men milled about, delayed by confusion, too busy yelling at each other over their lost prey.
Their voices grew dim behind him. He ran across branches as though they were solid ground.
His mind raced even faster. Why didn’t she recognize me? Have I changed that much? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a mirror. That sort of thing lost its meaning out here in the woods, until today. Seeing her again made him think of things he hadn’t thought of for half a lifetime. Things like mirrors, showers, soap.
The hunters were far behind by the time he slowed and dropped back to the forest floor. He brought his hands up in front of his face. Black earth and muck painted his pale skin. He picked up his pace again, heading to the nearest stream.
He stopped abruptly. He wasn’t thinking straight. He’d finally found her again, and lost her within the same moment. Washing could wait. He had to go after her, and he would need help.
“Mina?” He didn’t call loudly. She always heard him anyway. It was up to her if she came or not. He knelt down on a patch of moss between the vast trees and lichen-covered boulders, preparing himself to wait for her arrival.
“You didn’t have to call me. We’re already here.” She giggled behind him, her voice more familiar to him than his own.
He stood back up and turned to see Mina, accompanied by a large host of other fairies. No matter how often he saw them, he never got over the sight of the fae. It made his heart ache and beat faster just to be in their presence. He’d learned names for some of the forms of fae he had seen in his life here. Piskies, elves, sprites, fairies, gnomes, names he knew from the myths of his childhood. Mina would have been a sprite. Her true form was tiny, glowing, a dazzling flicker of sparkling light. But he knew she could take other forms, as could most of the seelie fae. Despite their names, their categories, they were each unique, changeable and perfect.
Before him now, Mina stood as tall as he did, able to look him straight in the eye. Her vibrant fiery hair lifted around her with a life of its own. She flashed a heart stopping grin at him. A dozen more sprites shimmered in the branches nearby. Watching from behind tree trunks, a few also took larger forms, some with skin tinted green or gold, some with wings, some without. He recognized Yvainne amongst them, walking – gliding – toward him, her clothes woven from strands of cobweb silk, blossoms and dew drops that drew delicate patterns across milky skin and hung in flowing waves.
“Something new has come to the forest that will affect us all.” Her voice tingled in his ears.
He knew his place, and bowed. “It’s her. The one I waited for.”
Met with silence, he continued. “Men too, and a dragon. They chased her and another girl into the troll caves.” His heart lurched. That split second decision he made could have killed her. He’d planned to follow, keep her safe, but then the cave entrance crumbled, separating him from her again.
Yvainne’s eyes fluttered, irritated maybe, or bored.
“I want to find her. Can I... Could you help me?” He knelt down, bowed further, holding his breath.
“You should know she is not right. Within her there is something unnatural, something dangerous. She is not the way you remember her.”
Yvainne turned her back on him and began gliding away.
He jumped to his feet, taking a step after her. “Please!”
“We will be following her.” Irritation clear in her voice, she didn’t turn back to look at him. “She needs to be watched. Mina is coming with us, so I assume you will too.”
She faded out of sight while her last words still rang through the air. Other sprites around her twinkled and vanished like stars disappearing at dawn.
Mina remained standing next to him. “Her.”
He turned around with an apology on his lips, but Mina already grinned at him, her eyes sparkling. He was used to it now, how her moods shifted so fiercely. He smiled back at her. He couldn’t help it.
“They know where she is. We’ll follow later,” Mina said, all chimes.
He itched to leave now. After so long, he didn’t want to wait a moment when she was so close. He started to wonder what he would do when he found her again. So long... and he’d never thought of that, only thought of finding her, making sure she was safe. Could they go home? She didn’t even recognize him... But those men chased her as though they knew her. And that dragon. Why?
Mina leant up against him, toying with his arm, tracing the muscles and scars with a long finger.
“Do those men follow the dragon? Is that why they chase her?” he asked.
“Her!” Anger flared in Mina’s eyes and her orange hair lifted in matching flames. She let his arm drop and stalked away from him. “Those men try to leash the dragon. They give him orders. How could they? Fool men! Better to leash fire or thunder! Using that desecrated flute, that abomination. They will burn for it one day.” Mina growled, and a shower of glitter dust shook from her.
“The men control the dragon?” He couldn’t understand. He knew the sort of power the fae had and even to them dragons were of unimaginable might. “Tell me how, I don’t understand.”
“Maybe later.” Something shifted in Mina’s eyes and she smiled again, bringing her hands up in front of her. Luscious berries of rainbow tones spilled from them. “Come and eat with me.”
His flesh shivered over his bones, his whole body pulled with desire. He had no words to describe the flavors of fairy foods, the magic they made him feel. Mina stood in front of him like a picture straight from his memory. The very first time he’d met her, she stood just the same way, holding wondrous food when he had been so, so hungry. With an almost painful effort he closed the hunger away. He tried to sound neutral when he replied. “I can catch my own food now. I’m not hungry.”
Mina hissed, and threw the food on the ground. It grayed and rotted in an instant. In a flash and a blink, she was small enough to stand on the tip of a finger, and shot away into the forest like a shooting star.
“Mina, I’m sorry.” No sign or sound of her returned. “Mina?” A clammy sweat crept over his skin. He had to stay on her good side, or she could - she would - leave him behind. She’d left him on his own countless times before, for days, weeks, months, as punishments for the slightest affront. He didn’t mind being on his own, but now he needed her help. He looked around wildly for a sign of the fairy’s trail, running after her, faster than he’d ever run in his life.