"Myths are stories that are so true, that it doesn't matter whether they actually happened that way or not. They're so true that they have happened more than once."
- Joseph Campbell
Most of England’s first glimpse of the Faerie came when the Seelie Army landed in Battersea park, the night England fell. But Justice Kasric saw her first Faerie years before, on her sixth birthday.
The night before that birthday was December 25th, 1865. Because she’d been born on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, Father always made a special affair of her birthday. This year, she felt right down to her toes that something especially wonderful was coming in the morning. Father had dropped a number of hints. After a full day of agonized waiting and guessing, and with a child’s understanding of money and practical matters, Justice came to the febrile conclusion that her present was, very likely, a pony. Perhaps even ponies.
She crept from bed very late that night to look for them. Which was why she was on the ground floor, making her way towards the stables when she spied Father moving about the front hall.
It was well after midnight, when both of them should have been in bed, but Father was still fully dressed and clean-shaven. He stood a moment in the shrouded half-moonlight that trickled in through the window, then put on his heavy black naval coat. He didn’t take either hat or stick. When he opened the door and silently slipped out into the night, a cool mist rolled noiselessly past his ankles. The wisps thinned out and died when he shut the door behind him.
She took out her rubber boots and heavy blue woolen coat from the hallway wardrobe, determined to follow. She was in luck! Where else would Father be going except to feed the ponies?
Out in the front garden, the mist hung everywhere in soft carpets of moonlit fleece. Father was nowhere in sight, but his footprints in the snow were clear and she could hear him crunching ahead of her. Otherwise, there was no sound.
Justice paused, sensing even at her young age that some steps took you further than others. The enormity of her actions settled on her as she turned to look back into the comforting warm interior of the house. The rest of her family slept on in a house filled with tea settings, mantelpiece clocks, antimacassars and other normal, sensible things. The proper thing would have been to go back inside, to bed. A little shake of her head sent her braids dancing, as if to shake loose such thoughts.
She followed Father outside in the preternaturally still and misty night.
He was already across the front garden and she watched him descend down the hill and out of sight, into the snow-laden pines. The repeated crunching carried all the way back to her in the still air. She didn’t dare follow too close, and waited as he passed over the ridge. Even then, she followed in his footsteps to make less noise, jumping to keep up with his long stride.
The stables lay behind the house, but clearly, they weren’t heading there.
Descending into the trees, the silence grew heavier, deeper, and a curious lassitude swept over Justice as she followed Father’s distant form through the tangle. The air was sharp and filled with the clean smell of ice and pine. Sixty or seventy feet up, the trees formed a nearly solid canopy, but with a vast open space underneath, like walking through an enormous, solemn building, with each tree a silent sentinel. The thick shafts of moonlight that made it through slanted down through the silver air and emerald shadows.
The crust on top of the snow was thicker here, and dense enough for her to shuffle along top. She glided further and further downhill, still following. In a few places, she had to grab at the branches to keep herself from falling and pricked her palms enough to draw blood, but not very much.
Many times, she had to rush not to fall behind, and ploughed recklessly through drifts to keep up, making too much noise. Father never turned around. And always, he went down. Down, and deeper into the forest, deeper than she’d ever been before, or even suspected, so that it seemed another world entirely.
Where were the ponies?
Justice had expected some kind of shed or enclosure long before this, even a temporary one. Surely they hadn’t been left to wander out here in the woods? Still there was nothing to do but follow. She wasn’t at all sure about finding her way back.
She lost track of how long she followed Father, but they eventually came to an expansive hollow of open space dominated by a large tree fallen across the middle, the black bark of it uncannily free of snow. The silence felt deeper here, older.
Justice crouched at the edge of the ring of trees, behind a particularly large spruce, and blinked her eyes at the sudden brightness. The canopy opened up to the nighttime sky. Moonlight filled the empty hollow like cream poured into a cup. This place had a planned feel, the circle of trees shaped just so, the long black trunk placed in the exact center as neatly as a table arrangement, with two waist-high pale boulders set on either side. Something waited here, expectant.
Father lit a cigarette and stood, smoking, waiting. The thin curl of smoke curled up and into the stars.
The air shifted. The Faerie King came from nowhere.
First, there was emptiness on the other side of the log, and then, without any impression of movement, a hulking, towering figure stood on the other side of the log, standing as if he’d always been there, waiting, unchanging, eternal. Justice had read enough of the right kinds of books, so she recognized him as a Faerie King right off with a profound thrill of exhilaration.
He looked like a shambling beast standing erect, with huge tined antlers that rose from his massive skull, out and high into the air. He wore very short wooden crown, or perhaps had a ring of horns, but his thick mane made this unclear. The hair ran round his long face, black and thick as lamb’s fleece, flowing into a forked beard off his chin. His face was like a gaunt wooden mask, with blackened slits for eyes and a harsh, narrow opening for a mouth.
Except it moved. The mouth twitched, the jaw muscles clenched as he regarded the man in front of him. Finally, he inclined his head in a graceless welcome.
The Faerie King wore a cloak like a swath of forest laid across his back, made entirely of patches of thick wild grass, weeds, and brambles, with a rich black undercoat of loam where a silk lining would show on a London gentleman’s apparel. Underneath the cloak, he wore armor that might once have been bright copper, now rampant with verdigris.
He leaned on a sword of shaped granite, point-down in the ground, wide as a Roman pillar and long enough so that the hilt came up to his chest.
The Faerie King and Father regarded each other for a long time before they each sat down on the two flat boulders, placed perfectly for this purpose, and faced each other across the log.
A chessboard with carved wooden pieces sat between them. Again, there was no sense of movement, only a sudden understanding that the board sitting there must have always been there, waiting for them.
They began to play.
Father had the lighter pieces and advanced a pawn at once. The Faerie King sat and viewed the board with greater deliberation. He finally reached out to make his move, then stopped. His leathery right hand was massively oversized, nearly the size of the board, far too large for this task. He shifted awkwardly and finally used his more normal-sized left hand to develop his knight.
Justice had the sense that she wasn’t the only one watching the opening, that spectral presences crowded just outside the ring of trees. But they were either invisible ghosts, or else well hidden behind the trees and snowdrifts, for she caught no sight of them. But she could feel their gaze; the weight of their regard hung in the very air.
Whatever the outcome of this game, it was important in a way Justice could feel. However long it took, this timeless shuffling of pieces as Father and the Faerie King engaged in the center, the watchers would wait, Justice among them. No longer moving, with only a dressing gown under her coat, crouching in the snow, she should have been freezing, but she had no sense of cold, or fatigue, hunger or thirst, only the waiting, and it consumed her.
Father and the Faerie King had each moved their forces into the center of the board, aligning and realigning in constant readiness for the inevitable clash. Now Father sliced into the black pawns with surgical precision, starting an escalating series of exchanges. Partway during this stage of the game, it began to lightly snow.
As the game went on, Father lined his captures on the side of the board, like disabled soldiers. He looked to be considerably better off after the exchange. The Faerie King was clearly displeased with things, and he squeezed and kneaded the wood of the fallen tree with his massive right hand the way someone else might grip and tug at a blanket. The wood popped and occasional bursts of wood fragments flew to either side.
Justice kept expecting Father to have some reaction to this violence. It seemed impossible that he did not. But Father only took another Turkish cigarette from his case without any apparent notice. Justice was suddenly very chilled. That kind of calm wasn’t natural. The smoke drifted placidly upwards.
His moves were immediate now, while the Faerie King’s became more and more hesitant, with longer stretches of waiting in between. The barest hint of a smile appeared on Father’s lips.
Justice watched, and the forest watched with her.
Then the Faerie King snarled like an entire pack of wolves, reared up and brought his massive fist down on the board like a mallet. Bits of the board, chess pieces, and wood splinters flew out into the snow. Twice more he struck the log, gouging out huge hunks of wood like a battering ram. But that wasn’t enough. The Faerie King yanked his sword out of the snow with a swiftness shocking in so large a person. He raised it high and brought it down in one motion, one deadly arc, and the log split completely asunder with the terrible flash and sudden clap of a lightning strike that seemed to bruise the very air around them.
Justice gasped and ducked as a burning chunk the size of her fist flew and embedded itself in the tree next to her. She lifted her head enough to look around at the bits smoldered in the snow all around her. The scent of electricity and burning wood filled the air, and Justice’s ears rang.
“Perhaps next time,” Father said, standing up, the first words spoken. Debris and splinters had flown about like a ship’s deck burst through with cannonballs, but he hadn’t so much as flinched. He brushed a few splinters from his coat.
The Faerie King stared, quivering, his wooden face twisted and hollowed with grief. Then his legs gave suddenly out and he collapsed to his knees, all his impotent rage spent. He sat slumped, the perfect picture of abject defeat. He did not stir as Father turned his back and left.
Justice could not tear her gaze away from the rough and powerful shape slouched like a discarded shop rag, immobile in the snow. White clumps were already starting to gather on his arms, shoulders, head and antlers, as if he might never move again.
Father stopped on the slope next to her tree and looked down at Justice with something like amusement in his glacial-blue eyes. Justice, busy wiping the inevitable moisture from her eyes, had forgotten all about hiding.
He warned her to keep silent with a gloved finger to his lips, then put a hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the hollow and they both went back up the hill, towards home. He fished his watch out of the waistcoat pocket by the chain and checked the time as they walked.
They walked for a bit in the forest, surrounded only by the sound of crunching snow and the spiced scent of Father’s smoke.
“Well,” he said finally. “This is a surprise, little Justice. Did you follow me all the way from home?” He didn’t sound cross at all, only curious.
“Yes.” She looked back the way they had come. It was hard to imagine that she was the biggest surprise of this night.
“You must be cold, yes?” He draped his coat around her, then picked her up, carrying her bundled like a princess. She was cold, but couldn’t remember when that had started. The soft wool of his overcoat was a needed comfort, as were the familiar scents that clung to it. The Turkish tobacco with ginger or cloves, a hint of oranges. Ordinary things that sluiced away the fear she’d felt back in the clearing.
“Father, what was that horrible thing?” she asked as he carried her back the way they’d come.
“Oh, not so horrible, Justice. Not really. Though I suppose the church might not agree.”
She knew what the church would have to say about a creature like that, and wasn’t sure what to say now.
“Well,” he said after a time, “now I have a problem. This needs to be a secret, you see? But I know how little girls talk. Perhaps a bribe? What would it take to keep you from talking about this night to your siblings? Not even Faith?”
He didn’t need the bribe and they both knew it. She would have done anything he asked.
But he’d asked, so she said, “A pony?”
He laughed. “Well, I don’t have a pony, but…here, hang on tight.” He shifted a little to fish around in his coat pocket without dropping her. He held up a chess piece, one of the knights. It looked like one of the wooden pieces from the game back in the hollow, but it couldn’t be. The Faerie King had bashed them all to bits and she hadn’t seen Father pick anything up. Still, there it was.
“Would this horsie do?” he said.
The flash of disappointment fell away as she looked closer. The piece wasn’t just a horse’s head the way some were, but an entire stallion carved with every detail. It reared up, riderless, beautiful. More than beautiful. The dark wood gleamed almost like the glossy flank of a living horse would. It was warm to the touch.
“It’s wonderful,” she said, taking it in both hands. “I couldn’t feed a regular horse, anyway.”
“You are very wise for such a small child,” Father said.
“Does it have a name, Father?”
“Why, of course it does. All important things have names. Remember your promise here, and I’m sure we’ll discover it together.”
A sudden sleepiness overcame her. She could not have said for certain, but it felt exceedingly late, possibly near morning. He must have carried her all the way home, but she had no memory of it, only of him climbing the steps of their house and then lowering her into her bed, moving carefully so as not to wake her older sister.
She sat up, suddenly confused. It might have been moments later, or hours. Father was gone. It was only Faith and her in the darkened room, but she could still smell cigarette smoke. She was in her nightdress only, with no sign of her coat. In the bed across the room, Faith was in the deepest kind of sleep, immobile, as if it would take a prince to wake her.
Justice looked for the chess piece, but to her disappointment there was nothing in her hands. For many years she discounted the memory of that night in the forest, believing it only a lovely and somewhat frightening dream.