From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Bitterdark

The faerie sleep only a little, a few sluggish heartbeats in bowers of pine and slate—but once-kings not at all.

Aelyn lay awake in his mortal wife’s bed while she snored. He counted the tiny countries bordered by eggshell cracks in the ceiling—six hundred and three, never more, never less. He listened to the ants rummaging on the farmhouse windowsill, their thumping gait anxious and desperate, as ants were in the autumn. Every fiber of the homespun sheets scratched him with beloved harshness, and Baza’s familiar old heat, curled against him, her gnarled hand on his chest, were as welcome as sunshine. In short, it was a night like any other of the past fifty years, until a single instant ended it. Ended all of it.

The instant was a breeze: it lifted the curtains in the windless night, an invisible finger as chill as Faerie winter. A breeze that shocked Aelyn with its scent, with its memory—honeysuckle and brimstone, and a vicious, vicious parting.

Mizein here, outside? After half a century?

Aelyn slipped from the bed. Baza groaned sleepy gibberish, then settled back into sleep.

Old-man naked—white and thin and wrinkled—Aelyn padded down the stairs, out the sturdy front door, and into the night. He squelched across the field of gravel and of dung, shedding the illusion of age only when he reached the cover of the woods that fringed the farm with ragged red and gold. In a lakeside clearing the black coach waited.

Four horned horses snorted mist and jingled their harness. Old Mok was still the driver, a grizzled hound in a purple doublet, paws entangled in reins; his brown glance was disinterested. Disinterest, from a dog that once shook and whined in his livery when his king approached the carriage!

Mok jumped from his seat with a dog’s liquid grace, then balanced on hind legs to open the coach door, and then, oh yes then he bowed, front paws ramped out, nose to the earth.

My child has taken my awe, Aelyn thought, and was surprised to find the realization unwelcome—a mosquito prick of jealousy. With a flicker of will, he clothed himself in remembered finery: spidersilk shirt, sapphire coat, high boots.

A dun chit of a handmaid slipped out of the carriage, moth wings tucked back, and then came Mizein.

Gone was the child Aelyn had fashioned from spit and river mud three-hundred years ago, although she looked no older than Baza’s thirteen-year-old cousin. Mizein had become a summer queen, clad in brilliant color: a gown of iris petals, deep blue veined in purple; ropes of lapis, amethysts, amber; hair as brown as wild earth. The sprite’s smile Aelyn remembered from her girlhood was gone, replaced by a queen’s scowl and a slash of purple lips and bone-straight arrogance.

Mizein looked Aelyn up and down, then met his gaze with pretty contempt. “This is it? This is all the power you can muster?”

It stung. Aelyn assessed his illusion with fresh eyes and realized its thinness: ragged, not rich; scuffed boots, tattered cloth, tarnish. Enough, perhaps, to fool a mortal’s senses, but not a queen of power.

He started to adjust, then perversely quashed the impulse. Instead he drained the illusion utterly, presenting himself in the unembellished reality taught by five decades in the mortal lands: bare brown legs splashed with dung, long black hair tangled with leaves and knotted, arms at his sides, palms out to say here, here I am.

“Oh, Father. Really. Everyone gets the point.”

“Do they?”

“It’s quite pathetic.”

“Yet. . . you’re here.”

Mizein whirled and began to pace. Her skirts dragged through the pine needles, filling the summer air with a crush of scent. “If I’d not tried everything else already, believe me. . .” Her nails curled up into her palms, and Aelyn smelled the heady spice of faerie blood. For the first time he saw the stiffness of her shoulders—not regal posture, but tension driving them up like high crags. Spoiled, this girl, but a queen nonetheless. A queen with a desperate problem.

Aelyn flicked his will, and pine-scented mist rose to cloak him in brown. “I’m listening,” he said quietly.

The black horses snorted, stamped the ground, shook their heads in a flurry of mane and mist. The moth-girl handmaid trembled, and Mok the groom panted, eyes round and black and distressed. Mizein, though, stopped pacing and fell still.

She took a deep breath. “The Bitterdark Court have risen.”

Aelyn stared at her, but she gave no evidence of humor. “Impossible.”

“You thought you destroyed them. But they were clever, Father. When it was clear the war was lost, the Bitterdark distilled their power. They hid its essence, nurtured it, grew it like fruit for fifty years then drank it like wine and now it’s full in them again and they have taken the Wild. They’re spreading toward Iasperis like a plague, and if they take back the city they’ll have us all. Do you remember, Father? Do you remember what it was like?”

Aelyn’s tongue turned to ash. Outwardly, a mere tremble of his fingers; inwardly, an earthquake, the rock of his soul a sudden and shifting enemy. The two thousand years of his childhood, spent in evernight. Screams and laughter in abandoned streets; shivering moonlight; a vast and random cruelty. Once, scouring an alley for scraps, he’d found the molted bloody skin of a child. Once it had rained teeth.

“You have your Court—”

“Not enough!” Mizein looked at his bare feet, at the needles in his hair, and scowled—and he sensed what lay beneath it, the taut desperation. She and the Alwaystar Court: autumn ants, skittering. “Father, we need you. You have to come home.”

Aelyn peered through the trees at the farmhouse on the hill, with its neat shutters, slightly askew; with its finger of chimney; with the fenced paddock and distant low-slung barn where the sheep were safe asleep. More than sheep, more than the earth, though, his home was Baza. He felt her sleeping, the easy rhythm of her mortal breath, its seasons. Baza, in her own autumn. Baza, whom he’d met when she was a girl, when he was new in the thrall of kingship, stealing minutes of freedom on this side of a border that only the strongest could cross. Baza, whom he’d come to love after a lifetime of horror, after rains of teeth and children’s skins. Baza who smelled like sweat and cabbages, whose rough calluses were joy where they touched him. Baza, his laughing girl of picnics, of green-field dancing and summer rains and a long, slow courtship; his fierce woman, his wife; his crone. The sun to his darkness. If Aelyn left, Baza would die—that was the cost of his staying.

Mizein was watching him. She must have seen his refusal on his face. “You’re being childish,” she said.

“You’ve got plenty of power! Childish is scurrying over the border when the crown gets heavy.”

“The thing is, Father, you made this problem. You. It is more your child than I am.”

Mok fell still. Even the horses stopped their restless shifting. The moth-girl handmaid lifted a knuckle to her teeth, brow furrowed in distress, watching Aelyn, awaiting his anger at such an accusation. Aelyn tried to contain it, but it erupted in a single word, cracking like ice on a frozen river. “Explain.”

“With you out here, the door to Faerie remains ajar. Vibrance from the mortal lands seeps through. It watered the Bitterdark, fed them—and now they’ve blossomed, and they’re moving like blight across the Wild. The door must be sealed. You have to come home. You are a king, despite what either of us wishes.”

Her eyes glittered, sapphire disgust. Rage. Oh, yes. . . she was his daughter. She didn’t want to step down. And it was her time, the daughter’s time, to rise, to rule, to conquer. He’d fashioned her strong, his girl of spit and mud.

But, whispered the thought, is she strong enough?

Faerie. All of Faerie.

Baza.

“I’ll think about it,” he said finally. “They’re not crossing the border this minute, are they? The sun’s coming up. I have pumpkins to haul to market.” Aelyn, once-king, turned his back on his daughter.

He trudged across the fields again, not looking back. As he walked, he renewed the wrinkles, the thin hair and swollen fingers of his mortal form, while the cold mud clutched at his feet.

#

Mizein watched her father vanish into his distant hovel. Mind-boggling! The filthy wretch had said no!

The moth-maid emitted a single sob.

“Into the coach,” Mizein snapped. “Mok, take Azana home.”

Azana wiped her tears with her sleeve in pretty agitation. “But mistress!”

“Shhh. It’s all right.” Mizein touched Azana’s fingers to still them. Azana was only a young faerie, new to her post and created from gossamer, besides: starlight and cobwebs, and fragile, beautiful things.

Mok, though, panted, equally distressed. “The girl is correct, Majesty. We oughtn’t leave you here.”

“You ought and you must. I’ll be fine. I insist.” She pointed up at the coachdog’s seat, then saw Mok’s liquid-eyed worry and relented. She tousled his ears with loving disrespect. “Come back for me later, dear one. It’s safer here than in Faerie, anyway, with the enemy on the march.”

“But Majesty, if I may—he won’t listen. He never did.”

“It’s not him I need to talk to. Now go on.”

With a last look back, and while Azana fretted from the carriage window, Mok shook the reins and hied the horses away across the water that separated Faerie from the mortal lands.

Mizein waited among the trees until Aelyn drove his wobbly cart from behind the house and away down the road. Then a lump of woman marched from the back of the house and across the field to where sprites of mist marked the great river. Mizein tiptoed upstream along the riverbank, careful to keep her skirts raised and her slippers dry, lest the river water touch her and try to unmake her. She was made of river mud, and river mud always wanted her back.

She found Baza in the river, among lily pads near a ramshackle dock that limped out into the water. Baza was scrubbing a rag of shirt with vicious force against a washboard. To Mizein it seemed an odd place to wash clothes—the looming cedars stained the water brown, and Baza’s churning stirred clouds of dirt up from the shallow bottom—but what did Mizein know about mortals? Nothing they did made sense. Baza’s scowl certainly didn’t, given the fact that she was blessed to spend her days and nights beside a king of Faerie whom she’d stolen from his home and Court.

Baza was a brown-green woman, a knotty stump of a woman, squat and short and muscular—a lump of a nose, hair like cattail fuzz, fingers like roots clutching her scrubbing brush, no chin to speak of. A troll of a woman, and however did such a thing catch the eye of a hero like Aelyn? Then the troll looked up, saw Mizein, and dropped the brush and the washboard and the shirt into the water with a splash. “Oh, my! Oh, my, my! Is it time to go, so soon? A child saint of the goddess, come to take me home!” Her voice was smoky as aged brandy, trembling with emotion. She thinks she’s dying, Mizein realized, and how peculiar that was, to be taken for some mortal godling.

“Don’t be absurd.” Mizein released her majesty, although with a flicker of will she set her violet skirts to swirling on their own like smoke, a few inches above the ground. Mizein minced her way to the dock, out of danger, and looked down at this toad of a woman, this usurper of affections, this destroyer of the natural order. “I’m Aelyn’s daughter. I’ve come to tell you that you’ll have to give him up.”

“Daughter?” Baza repeated the word, sluggishly, as though it were some foreign tongue, then, “Give him up?”

“Yes, give him up,” Mizein shouted. Some mortals, she had heard, lost the use of their ears as they shambled toward oblivion. “I’m not unmoved by your mortal attachment, and I can grant you a wish or two to ease your distress. Happy sheep, perhaps. Or a chin.”

“Wait. Aelyn’s daughter?” Baza flailed her way through the shallows, heaving aside the fallen leaves and lily pads, and splashed up the bank and onto the dock with Mizein.

Up here, Baza was taller than Mizein, and Mizein felt loomed over. The woman’s face was a fierce scowl, and she was dripping brown water, besides. Mizein stepped back and glanced behind her. The dock wasn’t terribly long.

“I’ll kill that cheating dog,” Baza said, and squeezed a handful of soggy skirt.

The outrage took Mizein somewhat aback. A queen of Faerie was accustomed to deference. This? In Mizein’s rare experience, mortals generally went two ways when confronted with the fey: terror manifesting in loss of bodily control—trembling and various wetnesses—or bright cloying joy that erupted into unwelcome adulation—singing, capering, dancing. Never had a mortal stood before Mizein in anger.

Mizein’s bemusement overcame the urgency of her mission. “Do you know what I am?”

“Well, you’re no saint of the goddess, I see now. All that glitter around the face—some mother you must have, letting you out of the house that way.”

“But this. . .” Mizein gestured to her hem, wafting inches over the dock like purple snakes.

“Faerie trickery! I’ve lived by this river my whole long life. You think I’ve not heard of faeries before? But none claiming to be my husband’s get. I’ll do to him what we do to the sheep.”

“Shear him?”

“No!” Baza lifted her hands in the air and made a squeezing and snipping motion.

Oh! Oh, my. No, you don’t understand.” Stammering, Mizein took another step backward. The river menaced: eddying currents of filth that would choke her with the weight of mortal misery. “My father made me from river mud and spit. I have no mother. So there’s no need for any sort of violence. And besides, he has to come home now. Nothing personal. I’m sure you’re a lovely mortal in some way or other.”

“Aelyn is no faerie! I’ve slept beside him for fifty years. I’ve made him his meals. I’ve done his laundry. He’s as human as I am.”

“Fifty years? Yet you look nothing close to feeble.”

“Well. . . no. I’ve aged better than most, for sure.”

“He’s gifted you that, by his presence.”

“A long life’s proof of nothing! My own mother lived past a hundred.”

“And your sheep? Did their mothers live past a hundred, too?”

“Don’t sass me, girl!” But Baza’s eyes grew thoughtful. She swatted the gnats that buzzed a halo around her head. “Our sheep do live a long time. In town they’re jealous of it.”

“And not only your sheep. Your vines bear fruit until late in the season.”

“We had one dog who was twenty-seven when Aeyln had to put her down.” Baza’s shoulders fell. She looked down, and folded her arms over her sagging bosom, and sighed as she painted the dock with one wet toe. “That doesn’t sound so natural, when you put it all together like that.”

“No.” Mizein felt sorry for this lump of a woman—her stepmother, one might say, if one were inclined to sentiment. What was it that inspired such feeling, anyway? Baza was ugly, squat, and shrewish. But there was something about her that made her appealing—an honesty, perhaps. A pragmatism. An authenticity of emotion, an immediacy of reaction. A certain vulnerability, for all her toughness.

With a flick of thought and a wave of fingers, Mizein cast a glamour of dryness on Baza’s clothes. They remained wet, of course, but the world cooperated to make it seem otherwise.

Baza looked down in surprise, then ran her palm on her skirt. “Magic.”

“A promise. Let him go, and I’ll give you whatever you want. Fifty years is enough—it’s a lifetime. And now we need him. His staying here has cracked open a war, and countless people will die.”

“Faeries.”

“Your people, too. Wars like this, they won’t be contained. This will burst across the border into mortal realms. Bad luck, pestilence. . . you’ll likely have wars of your own.”

“And all I have to do is give him back? Just like that? After fifty years?

Too late, Mizein realized that the tremble in Baza’s voice wasn’t shock, oh no. It was rage. With hands curled into fists, Baza advanced, a step, another, until behind Mizein was only river. “Let me tell you something, young miss. You faeries are all like this, spouting glitter and promises with no sense of consequence. I don’t believe your pretty clothes, or this. . .” She brandished a handful of skirt that seemed so dry.

“Well, don’t believe me! Talk to Aelyn, he’ll tell you!” The heel of Mizein’s slipper hung over air, over the dark river, the cold promise of her unmaking.

Baza loomed, troll shoulders and cold eyes, with eyebrows sloped in displeasure. Why, oh why had Mizein dismissed Mok? She had no ally here. She wanted to go home. These mortals had their own magic: loud voices and fists and bluster. Mizein didn’t like them at all. They were worse than the Bitterdark, these brutish old women.

“Oh, I’ll talk to Aelyn,” Baza said. “Don’t you worry, my girl.” And she stepped aside.

Forgetting even to waft her skirts with power, Mizein simply grabbed them up over her knees and fled down the dock to the riverbank, and the safety of the trees.

#

Damn Mizein, Aelyn thought as he slammed the mare’s tack on its hooks on the wall. The cart was empty in its barn; he’d left the pumpkins at market with all the other pumpkins, everybody had pumpkins, the market was a sea of pumpkins, and no one was willing to barter with Aelyn for his. The mare sidestepped nervously, and Aelyn marched from the barn. It was late afternoon. In their paddock the sheep glanced up at him in unison, as though sensing a new smell of smoke.

Damn her, and damn Faerie, and damn this life of his that had given him nothing but impossible choices.

In the farmhouse kitchen, he shouted for his wife. “Baza!”

But she wasn’t there, nor was she upstairs in the bedroom, nor in the root cellar. Instead, he found a note nailed to the back door: Care to fish, Aelyn?

He trudged all the way to the river. Baza was easing her old body from the dock into their little boat, where her fishing rod already lay. Stalking down the dock, he scolded. “What are you doing, woman? It’s getting on supper time.”

Baza settled herself, strong and solid and beautiful like the stump of a tree, and she smiled up at him, rocking. “Thought I’d try for a fish, Aelyn. If they don’t bite, well, Aelyn, I’ll wring us a chicken.” There was distance in her smile, something chill. He wasn’t sure what. He never could read her as well as ants; it was part of the charm of her.

Mizein, sighed Aelyn. Well. So he was in trouble, and Baza would scold. Unpleasant as that was, it was better than thinking about the other—the dreadful task that awaited him if he decided to return to Faerie.

So he eased himself down into the boat, ignoring the biting splashes of the river water. He was no young faerie, not like Mizein. Although he too in his day had been fashioned from spit and river mud, his long years granted him stubborn solidity. The splashing nips stung, but this river would need a millennium of chewing to break down his tough old hide.

With practiced ease, he plunged the oars into the water and pulled, plunged and pulled, driving the boat farther and farther into the heart of the river. He and Baza had done this often, floated for an hour in the afternoon, but never with such a conversation looming. If you only knew, Baza, what border lies open on that far shore, what door is cracked and unclosing. It reminded him, too—rains of teeth and children’s skins—and he knew in that instant that he had to go back, or the whole of his family’s life meant nothing.

In the center of the river he rested the oars in their clips and let the little boat bob. The sky was burnt red, choked with stuttering clouds. The river glittered, dappled silver. “Do you remember when we met?” Aelyn asked. He wished he could have mustered a voice not so thin, not so lost, not swallowed by the water, by the splashes against the boat, by the honk of geese overhead, flying away, away, away.

Baza didn’t answer. She glanced out over the rippling water then reached beneath her bench. Up came her familiar basket of lures, bits of fur and feather, bits of dried flesh, the familiar coil of shimmering cord—ordinary things, now dear and bitter. Finally she looked at him, his troll of a woman, his love, and asked, “Has my life been a joke to you, Aelyn?”

“What? No. No! Of course not.”

Even her irritation was dear to him in that instant; it flashed in her eyes and made them youthful in their nests of wrinkles. He eased himself to the edge of his bench, leaned forward and reached for her hands, but she jerked them away and the boat rocked hard. Aelyn gripped the sides and glanced warily at the water while she continued. “Did you think I wouldn’t love you if I knew what you were?”

There was no point to coyness, not after fifty years of marriage. “What exactly did she tell you?”

“That she’s your daughter, Aelyn. That you’re not even human—which goes a long way toward explaining why we never managed babes of our own.”

I’m as human as you, he could have said. He could taste the words, so familiar was the lie to his tongue after fifty years. But the words that slipped out were nuggets of anguish, bleak as hail. “Baza, they need me back. I have to leave.”

“Well, that’s not happening.” She busied her hands, wrapped them in silver cord, not meeting Aelyn’s gaze. “There’s the farm to look after.”

But Aelyn knew it was worse, much worse, than leaving her to manage the work of the farm. All those years he’d kept from her would visit themselves on her head. Frail sheep, frail farm. . . frail woman. The villagers wouldn’t take her in; they were nasty enough as it was, jealous of the farm’s good luck. Her cousins might take her, but to what end? Inheritance. Neglect, sickness, death.

The problem remained. “Baza, if I don’t go back, a lot of people will die.”

“Well, I’m coming with you, then.”

His mortal in Faerie? Never. Never. At least the villagers had no magic to blast her, no cruel tricks to humiliate and torture, no power to drive her mad, to twist her limbs and her dreams and her breath.

She was watching him, with the cord wound in her fists as the little boat splashed and bobbed. She watched him, and when her face changed, when her stricken expression echoed his hollow despair, he knew she finally understood.

“You’d put me down like our old dog,” she whispered.

“Because I love you.” The words tore themselves from him, raw and sharp, they sliced him as they emerged and he tasted rust. Faerie blood. Gingerly he slid forward again, rested one knee on the bottom of the rocking boat. He cupped her cheek in his hand. The shock in her eyes shamed him. For a heartbeat he saw himself through them: a wild old madman who would kill her and call it a kindness. Alien. Monstrous.

Aelyn, Aelyn, he thought in despair. You’ve snared yourself with your own illusions. A dog might wear the clothes of a man, but his beating heart remained a dog’s.

Or did it?

No.

Did it?

No.

No.

Faerie he might be, but this inhuman act he refused. He wouldn’t kill Baza, not even to save her pain.

The failure was salt in his wounded throat. He wouldn’t kill her, he couldn’t, and how she would suffer. He’d given her long life, but his parting gift would be misery, and so perhaps he was inhuman after all.

His hand dropped from her cheek. Still on one knee he started to ease back onto his bench, but Baza shook her head. She scowled, and with the speed of a rattlesnake she looped the cord around his head and jerked him back to her. Their lips were close enough to kiss.

But it burned, it burned, the cord burned like acid where it touched him. Aelyn screamed. His hands shot up, gripped, jerked away from the burning. She jammed her knee into his gut and turned him onto his back in the bottom of the little boat, while it bucked and rocked and threatened to spill them both into the water.

Then Baza was kneeling on his chest; the cord encircled his throat, infecting his body with relentless weakness. A cord of power, a cord of binding, dark and strong, strong enough to fetter a king of Alwaystar, and how had she hidden it from him?

The illusion fell from her.

Her face, gaunt and gray as a skull in marble. Her hair, long and chiseled like granite. Her eyes, chips of flint. Against her gray, his own hands, brown and young and newly feeble, as the magic in her garrote stole his vibrance.

“Bitterdark,” he said, squeezing the word past the choking agony at his throat, and he knew. They’d hidden their essence away, yes, in Baza, and they’d hidden her tools of power. They had shaped her from venom and gall, fashioned her precisely for concealment and to tempt a tired king. What held the door cracked wasn’t him, or wasn’t him alone; it was Baza, too. She was made for him—not for Mizein, not for any other—to keep him here while the Bitterdark rose.

His body was stone now, too heavy to lift. The geese honked. The river splashed, silver tinkling. Aelyn managed a stabbing question before the binding stole his voice. “Did you ever love me?”

Her granite smile was small and bitter and proud. “Always,” she said. “Always.” Then she tied off the cord, the necklace of fire, and she leaned down and kissed him—his Baza, his rock.

Her hands beneath him were strong as she heaved.

A burning slow descent through fire, then Aelyn came to rest on the river bottom amid the hungry muck and ancient rocks, the darkness vast and muffled above him. Baza couldn’t kill him outright—not Aelyn, Faerie’s brightest star—but the river would unmake him over a long, eternal age, and the door would stay cracked always, to let the shadows through.

The faerie sleep only a little, they say, a few sluggish heartbeats in bowers of pine and slate. But wars rage, and in the darkness, once-kings sleep not at all.

Eljay Daly lives and works somewhat northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. She’s an alumna of the Viable Paradise workshop and the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Drabblecast and is forthcoming in GigaNotoSaurus. She likes big dogs, full moons, and sleeping in tents, but generally not all at the same time. You can find her on the web atwww.eljaydaly.com.