Mother Made a Lovely Feast!
Hear! O Man, o wretched of the mortal realms! The stars are right here, the stars are right, here in your wild and wakening sky! Hear then the lay of your mortal Tame Lynn, she who supped of an acorn and was cast to the faerie realm, a poet, a player, a purveyor of pleasantry for the panoply of the Faerie Court! Hear, o hear how Mab fawned upon her, promising freedom when her last song was writ, its final notes dead in the silent spaces of the Summerland, dead and rotting in the dreams of the mad in the mortal realm!
Promises and promises, while the Wild Hunt wheeled across the star-swollen sky, their arrows tipped with the sleeping sickness, making babies cry in their cradles when they heard the tearing open of the earth under the Wild Hunt’s hooves and nails!
Here! O, here!
Here is the forest where Tame Lynn ate her stolen nuts and doomed herself to live with the faeries, play for the faeries, and — ultimately, ultimately, for was she not now one of them? did they not claim her as their own? — she would be their tithe, their teind to the devil; she would keep closed the gates of Hell.
How the faeries love their jokes!
* * *
“Bad moon, bad light, bad night, no rest.” The old woman stumped along, skinny black ankles clanging in their too-large boots, her iron anklets chafing the built-up calluses ground into her skin. “Ain’t no fit place to dig a grave. Them knows. Them knows. These bones here know.” She saw her mother and ran to her, but her mother changed into an oak tree and swatted her away. “Don’t you know me?” cried the old woman. “Say me once, but say it once. Mother, you named my name.” The old woman’s name was Aina but she didn’t use it, in case someone heard and twisted its use from something that defined to something that denied.
Aina’s son called to her from a pairing of bramble bushes, but she knew better than to trust the thorns. Her son was a thorn, in her side and in his heart, and he had wanted Aina to stay with himself and his wife, but Aina would not keep house with a woman so mushroom-faced. Also her hair was red. Everyone knew red hair meant she had strangled her twin in the womb. Aina would not even think her name, and had forgotten it as quickly as she could.
Home was here, somewhere, or if it wasn’t then something else was and she’d know it when she saw it and if she never saw it then it had been taken. She would know it, when she held it. And where were those damned stars?
“Mother, mother,” she cried. The stars were different here and always had been, she’d grown up with stars who’d known her name. Here they winked then blinked then shut away.
Oak and brambles and always mushrooms underfoot. That woman’s face, without the hair. “No blood from me,” Aina said and stomped her foot on a shaggy inkcap. It was good to be rid of that woman at last.
There was no light!
The sun had been out just a minute ago, and now it was out of the sky, out on an errand, out to find what had been stolen. She didn’t need the sun to find her way. The stars would do.
But they were wrong!
Soft yellow stars ahead floated in an uneven dance close to the earth, and Aina thought, for once clearly, Fireflies. There was nothing wrong with fireflies. They were nothing special to trust, but she knew them and they asked nothing from her. They were all right.
Aina approached the fireflies, thick as fog in the mossy clearing, and pushing through them saw—
Such a feast!
Long tables of broken branches and writhing ivy held entire roast deer, wild boar, a bear sliced lengthwise and stuffed with cheese and little red berries. Drumbeats dithered, drummers and drummees unseen. Aina nodded in sudden understanding; the beatings were heartbeats, all the heartbeats of the wood-smoked animals. The rhythm was bad.
“Who are you?”
It was a woman’s voice, a good voice, like a palm-strike on a stretched deer skin. Aina saw the woman standing between the antler-spiked head of a buck and a tower of apples and figs. She was short, her skin purple-cast and freckled. That was bad. Freckles meant liars. Each freckle was the truth worming its way out.
Her brown hair was waving in and around itself as though being knit by busy hands, clumsy hands which got in each other’s way. Her clothes were green and tatty, her lips were stained pink and her eyes were squinted angry. Aina forgot that the woman had spoken and jumped when her voice beat a tattoo again. “A second time, then: who are you, woman? How did you find your way to this grove?”
Aina sniffed. Freckles barely deserved politeness. “I walked. With my feet.”
The woman nearly smiled. The loose fabric on her shoulder was pinched and plucked and smoothed. “And who should I say passed through these parts, guided only by her feet?”
“You tell them,” said Aina, “that Nobody was here.”
A lock of hair fell over the woman’s face. She brushed it aside and two more fell past her nose. “Smartly said, but I’m no faery to be tricked by piddling word-play. I am Tame Lynn, poor me, and Mab herself has cleaved me to her side. You step on faery ground this night, and it is not safe that you should stay.”
“I stay where I wants,” the old woman said. “Tell me where I’m welcome, but you’ll be talking to a stone. I see you, you liar. You think there’s wealth in your land.”
A look of sadness crawled over Tame Lynn’s face. “One of the mad, then. Did the Wild Hunt catch you with its arrows? Are you sleeping even now? Poor thing. Still, you mustn’t stay. There’s worse than red caps and bogles out tonight. Go home, poor thing, and wake up.”
“Go home?” Aina bared her yellow teeth and reached into the pocket of her skirt. In the pocket was a hole and through the hole was where she kept her secrets. The most physical of these was a knife, old and unchanged. It was a little thing, and conscious of it. “You dare speak of my home with your spotty tongue? You’ve taken it!”
“She’s been elf-shot,” a giggling voice affirmed to the left of Tame Lynn’s ear. A bluish smudge appeared on the poet’s brow bone. “There’s no reasoning with them kinds. Let her stay, let her stay! She will make such funny noises!”
A voice to Tame Lynn’s right gave a huff. “She’s not been shot. She can’t see us, see? She’d be clawing her eyes out by now if she could, she would. Stay or go, stay or go, it’ll make no difference to that one. Lost, lost, lost.”
“Quiet, sprites. There’s still a little time, I think.” The poet smiled at Aina, but Aina saw the lie-worms wriggling under her skin, about to poke their noses through. “Let me lead you out of here. I’d been a silly girl to dance with the fey, but at least I’d my wits about me to choose my fate. Will you come?” She stretched out her hand, and when Aina stayed still the woman hopped onto the bench and bent a knee to the table. “It’s all right,” she said. A tiny green inchworm dropped out from under her eye.
Aina watched it fall onto the table. Her hand was around the hilt of her knife, a narrow fox bone her mother had found that fit perfectly in her grip. “Is my mother nearby?” she asked.
“Why not?” said Tame Lynn. Her hair continued to be plaited and curled, her clothes smoothed, her face painted. Whispers and giggles rode her shoulders. “But we must go.”
More inchworms fell, from her face and her shoulders. They looked harmless. Aina thought, Whiskey looks harmless, until it bites.
Her withered throat managed a war cry. Her knife ripped free from the hole in her pocket and she swung it wildly at Tame Lynn’s face.
Tame Lynn reared back, surprised at the old woman’s sudden fury. The invisible handmaidens rolled and crashed, sending plum juice squirting across the table.
“Fire!” cried a handmaiden, her voice high and delighted. “Put out the fire!” A honeycomb was thrown at Aina, and an apple.
“Enough!” cried Tame Lynn. “You lunkheads, desist! I tell you again, Madame Beldame, take your so-clever feet and leave this forest!”
Aina had clambered up onto the table, her boots catching in the ivy. A sticky mélange covered half her face and turned her curls into clots. “My mother will give you such a hiding,” she snarled. She spat into her hand and rubbed it across her honey-sticky lips.
“Do not taste that!” Tame Lynn launched herself at the old woman, knocking them both onto the table. Tame Lynn clutched Aina’s wrists, heedless of the sharp little blade she swivelled about which nicked her knuckles and made them bleed.
“Keep still!” Tame Lynn snapped and lowered her face to Aina’s. Aina’s teeth snapped back, few but fierce. One lick, then two before the old woman’s teeth caught the poet’s tongue, spilling saltiness over the sweet.
“Eugh!” Tame Lynn shied away from the mad old woman, who did not advance but stayed down and defended her body-shaped portion of the ivy table. Tame Lynn released her and scrambled away, her bloodied tongue checking itself for injury on the roof of her mouth. “Idiots, the lot of you! You gibbering crone, this feast was not meant for you!”
With much flailing and fumbling, Aina sat up, her mouth working busily. “Flah, flah! Sour juice from rotten fruit!”
“Hearken, poet!” called a handmaiden. “You’ve an audience with the Queen!”
For while the fight on the feast ensued, the forest surrounding them bubbled and boiled, the trees bending tentacles to caress the decaying grass. Tame Lynn, chin red, stared up at the topmost branches and saw weaving among them a crown of crows.
A terrible voice: “The stars are right!”
Tame Lynn jumped again onto the table and grabbed the old woman’s arm. “The Queen herself!” she shouted. “Run!” When she moved Aina moved as well, her knife forgotten in the twinings of ivy and branch.
“Run! Run!” the handmaidens yelled in delighted mockery, while the drumbeats took up a new rhythm and texture, wet digits slapping not deerskin but blubber.
The poet ran like a fox and Aina kept up, neither noticing nor acknowledging the ease with which her muscles moved. Stone plinths, bizarre in shape and stature, rose up among the oak trees which had themselves softened into something pulpy and strange. “You can’t trust time in the faery realm,” Tame Lynn yelled. “I thought we’d longer, but the stars have aligned.”
Aina looked up at the sky, still running; still her balance stayed true. “No they haven’t,” she said. There were no stars, not even fireflies.
Arrhythmic footsteps, rolling like earthquakes, shuddered in their wake. “Not in the Summerland,” said Tame Lynn, “but in the mortal realm. The stars would never be right in the Summerland, that time passed by long ago, before the faeries learned that man could dream. They can’t dream themselves, you see, the blasted feyfolk. That’s why they steal mortals and arm the Hunt with those sleeping-arrows. They needed a way into your dreams!”
“Dreams are dead,” said Aina. Tame Lynn still hadn’t let go of her arm, and her grip felt as though it had suckers.
“Are they! Not for Him, and He’s the one who counts. Mab knew the Summerlands could never open the gate for His return, but! the Summerlands can move. How else is it that mortals stumble upon it? It overlays the mortal realm, digs in its fingers and twists it ‘round… and Mab has made the same happen for R’lyeh.”
“Aye! Where do you think we are now?”
Running was harder now. The two women found it easier to swim. Tame Lynn finally released her grip on Aina’s arm and their flippers moved smoothly through the jellied air.
A gargantuan nudibranch glided overhead, its belly white, now green, now scarlet to match the sky. Its shadow reached farther than the forest. The women still swam, but slower now, trying to remain hidden from the overhead scoutings of Queen Mab.
“The feast was for me,” whispered Tame Lynn. “They say it’s part of the ritual, a merry send-off for their sacrificial lamb. Their toast: ‘To Hell with you!’ But it’s not the devil who gets his due.”
“What are you on about, snippet?” Aina snapped. The shadow overlaying them was cold and uneven, swallowing their own shadows in its turgid bulk.
Tame Lynn’s eyes, though barely more than buttons now, still looked at her with sadness. “You must never eat anything in the Summerlands,” she said gently. “It digests you. That feast was meant to celebrate my apotheosis and fully change me into one of the Hunt. You may yet escape that fate, if you can return to the mortal realm in time.”
Clarity unknown for years tickled into Aina’s mind. “How long have I been here?” she asked quietly.
Five of Tame Lynn’s eyestalks retreated into her head. “Time runs differently between the realms. After a day of delight with the faeries, you’ll go home and not know your own doorstep.”
“I may have spent a day here,” said Aina.
A pause. “I will die if I go back.”
“One can dream,” said Tame Lynn.
A slurping sensation enveloped their backs. “We’re found!” Tame Lynn shouted. Their small vibrations had finally caught the Queen’s attention and she hung above them like the ceiling in a cathedral, defining their space. A metre or a mile above, and neither woman could claim which was true. Small figures weaved around her like an aurora, pointing at them and howling. Queen Mab undulated, swirling the jelly-water into a whirlpool which dragged them to her.
“Flee!” cried Tame Lynn. “You might yet make it!”
But Aina twisted herself belly-up, entranced by the ripples of the Queen’s cerata. “What are we?” she murmured. “Are we prisoners? Are we offerings?”
A great chasm, like the opposite of an eruption, split open the nudibranch’s headspace. From the chasm: Mab’s voice, pinging with the precision of dolphin-clicks and whalesong.
“We are brownies and goblins and godmothers,” she said. Her tiny black eyes were ringed in sharply delineated yellows and blues. Even at a distance, Aina could see her eyes. “We are the Wild Hunt, who cannot be named or numbered. We are your chaos and your bogeymen. We are what passes beneath and betwixt, and what is not ours is not known. We are inimical. We are inevitable.
“We are the lokkn-sidhe, and we grew tired of waiting.”
The Wild Hunt moved around and through the Queen’s cephalic tentacles, humming and laughing and shrieking, antlers clashing against coral armor. Comets, once fireflies, spun about her surface, blazed and crashed and rose again.
Past her, behind the hypnotic pulsations of her swollen body, behind the writhings of the Wild Hunt and the frantic dance of the fireflies, Aina could see a shape greater than theirs, one whose membranous wings stretched out to darken the watery sky. “Mamau! Mamau! Ll’ dach chi wedi bod mor hir?” sang the lokkn as the giant creature swung its head to drape its tentacles over the host.
Aina felt her iron anklets slip off, no longer moored by a knob of bone, and she forgot the face of her son.
“You can still die,” Tame Lynn whimpered beside her, but Aina was not listening, not when she knew she was finally found, not when she could see the face of her mother.