Chapter 3 will be posted on (or around) September 23. As always, any comments/critiques would be appreciated!
Chapter 2: The Trade
It took a while, but Amber finally convinced the human to untie her hands. “I need my hands free to do the trade.”
“You’re lying,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You’ll attack me as soon as the rope is undone.”
She sighed. “The only weapons I have are my teeth and nails, and if those scare you so much, then we’re not getting anywhere.”
She finally had to come out and admit it. Neither of them trusted the other, but if they were going to do this, they had to start somewhere.
Afterwards, she instructed him to kneel down in front of her, so that they were face-to-face. “Keep your eyes open,” she said, and put her right hand over his left eye. She felt him shudder at her touch. Amber wrinkled her nose. It wasn’t like she wanted to touch him either. Sitting here now, she understood more clearly than ever just how intimate this magic was supposed to be. It was meant to be performed out of love or generosity, not by force. Everything about this was wrong.
Still, Amber placed her left hand over her own left eye. Then she paused. She wasn’t sure what to do next. The demonstrations only ever went this far.
“Well?” the human asked, fidgeting.
“Shut up, I’m thinking,” she grumbled.
“Do you even know what you’re doing?”
“Well it’s not like we constantly trade our eyes around for a lark! What did you expect?”
He glowered at her and she began to sweat. “Just...just don’t rush me, if you want it done right.”
She needed to do something to kick start the magic. Maybe...
She tried visualizing her face with one of his eyes, but immediately dropped the idea. The very thought of having one of his filthy eyes in her head made her feel sick. She’d sooner have no eye at all.
Fighting back the urge to vomit, she tried again, this time visualizing one of her gold eyes in his face. This seemed to do the trick. Her palms glowed, gradually growing in brightness. “Try not to blink,” she said nervously, as a thought suddenly occurred to her: What if it didn’t work? What if she made a mistake? What would he do to her then...?
The flash took her by surprise. “AH!” She flinched both eyes shut in response, and she felt the human recoil.
Her left eye throbbed. Was that supposed to happen? She knew they had to keep their eyes open the whole time, but...did it work?
Slowly, her hand left her face and she opened both eyes.
She expected to see the human in front of her. Instead, someone completely different had taken his place.
No...not completely different. There were still some features she could recognize; the clothes, the shaggy brown hair, the eyes... His left eye was gold, what used to be her own left eye; and his right eye, which she’d thought ugly only moments before, was now pine green, a color almost soothing to look at.
So the trade worked. But Amber could only stare, confused. Because the human didn’t look human anymore, but more...ordinary. Like a teenage boy. Like...a faie.
“You look human,” the boy uttered in shock.
“What?! I do not!” she exclaimed. Amongst the faie, that was a terrible insult. But a second later, she realized...why would he say that? He thought she looked human, and now he looked like a faie. Did something go terribly wrong...?
Suddenly, the human gasped, and ran to the door. He burst out of the house, not even bothering to close the door behind him.
Amber blinked, wondering why he just left like that, leaving the exit wide open. She could run away now if she wanted. But no...first, she had to make sure...
She got to her feet, shaking, and made her way over to a basin of water. She closed her eyes before looking, steeling herself for the worst. One...two...
She opened her eyes and stared down at her reflection. She let out a large sigh of relief. She looked the same. Only her left eye was different, the iris a pine green rather than the usual gold.
However, when she looked up from the basin of water, she realized that the interior of the cabin looked different. Again, not wholly different; there were the same objects, the same furnishings, but...different. She caught more details-- a bundle of herbs drying on the mantlepiece, a pillow covered in dog hair in the corner, sketches of various wildlife littering the table. And somehow, the soft browns of the walls and animal pelts filled her almost with a sense of relief. She couldn’t understand it. What had changed?
Then she let out a little gasp. The human eye!
She closed her right eye then, suddenly curious. What did things look like from a human perspective...?
Instantly, everything turned dimmer. The house looked no less homely, but without the auras, it was as if a whole spectrum of color was filtered from sight.
Amber looked back down at the basin of water, and recoiled.
Her reflection showed a horrifying visage. She had the same features, but they now looked vaguely animalistic-- her eyes a little wilder, her teeth a little sharper-- with an intensity that made it seem she was ready to strike at any second.
Was this how she looked to the human...?
She closed her left eye and opened her right. Her reflection returned to normal. She looked around. The house looked the same as what she’d seen before the trade, dark and sinister. She opened her left eye. The house looked homely again, and this time, she could see all the auras as well.
With both eyes open, the two different images had melded together.
She turned to the door. Cautiously, she stepped outside. The human was standing on the porch, looking out at the forest, having seemingly forgotten she was there. She went to stand beside him and performed the test again. Right eye open: an oafish monster, auras intact. Left eye open: a normal boy, auras gone. Both eyes open: a normal boy, auras intact.
Taking this in, she felt dizzy. Which vision was real? She knew she didn’t look like...that, so surely the human eye was wrong. But what if her faie eye was wrong too? What if his monstrous appearance was also an illusion? What if the only things ‘real’ she had been seeing all this time were the auras?
And not even all of them. With a gasp, she realized that with both eyes open, she could see the human’s aura. He had an aura. And a rather beautiful one at that, with strong colors of earthy brown and emerald green.
Meanwhile, the human could not seem to take his eyes away from the forest. He had an expression of profound awe. She realized that this was his first time seeing auras, and with the abundance of life and light and color in the forest, it must be an absolutely overwhelming experience.
When he finally noticed her presence, he turned to her, and for a moment they were both speechless.
At last, he stammered, “I...I didn’t realize it would look...so...”
“Different,” she finished for him.
Only now did she truly understand the gulf that separated faie and humans. Everything they saw, experienced...they practically lived in different realities.
Then suddenly, they heard the dog whine from the doorway, and this snapped the human out of his shock.
In an instant, he had grabbed her by the arms, pinning her against the wall of the cabin.
“Ow! What are you doing?! You said you’d let me go!”
“I will!” the human said, searching his pocket for rope again. “But if I let you go now, you might call up your friends and ambush me as soon as I step into faie territory. Once I’m out, then I’ll let you go.”
“Lying scum! I never should have believed you!” She turned her head to glare at him.
Strangely, his cheeks flushed. “D-don’t look at me like that! I keep my promises!” If he didn’t feel guilty for manhandling her before, he clearly did now.
The human tied her to the porch and left her there while he went to get ready.
The dog sat next to her on the porch steps, growling every time she struggled. After a while, Amber growled right back at it, too furious to care if she looked ridiculous.
Of course, the human would probably kill her anyway once this was all over. And why wouldn’t he? Otherwise, she could just tell her people to come attack him as payback. In fact, that was exactly what she meant to do if she escaped. Planning this out in her head now was the only thing that distracted her from the thought of encroaching death.
That, and wondering what the human was up to. There was a small stable behind the cabin, and Amber watched as the human led a brown mare out of it. Next, he hitched a cart to the back of the mare and laid a sheet down on the bottom.
Just what did he leave behind, anyway? Clearly it was very important to him, and from the looks of the cart, not something that he could carry home in his arms...
Her curiosity was piqued even further when he brought out a shovel and laid it in the cart. Did he bury something out there...?
At last, he came to free her from the porch, only to this time tie her to the side of the cart. Crossbow in one hand, he took the mare’s reins with the other, and then they were off.
The human seemed to know at least the direction of where they were headed to. He’d clearly retraced his steps hundreds of times, to the point that he’d worn a footpath in the forest.
For a long while, the only sounds they heard were the crunching of leaves underfoot and the creaking wheels of the cart. The dog ran to and fro, sniffing at things along the path. Amber looked up at the passing treetops, a leafy ceiling of yellow, orange, and red. She let out a deep sigh. It was almost too peaceful, considering she might be walking to her death.
At least she wasn’t the only one feeling anxious. Interestingly, as they came closer to the Golden Wood, the human grew jumpy. Now and then, they would hear a rustle in some nearby leaves, and in a split second the human would turn in that direction, his crossbow ready to fire.
“What was that?!”
Amber looked in time to see a small figure scamper up a tree. “A squirrel.”
A few minutes later it happened again. She rolled her eyes. “Another squirrel.”
As the dog went chasing after it, the human lowered his crossbow just a bit, still cautious.
“There are many more squirrels than faie in these woods, you know,” she added.
The human sent her a glare, then turned back to the path.
After what felt like hours of walking, the human suddenly crouched down, staring at something on the ground. Amber tried to get a look, stretching as far ahead as the rope would allow her.
It was a row of toadstools, forming a line in the forest. Seeing this, Amber knew that they had finally come to the edge of the Golden Wood.
“These weren’t here before,” the human muttered.
“What are you talking about? Of course they were,” Amber said, but then paused. She closed her right eye. The toadstools vanished.
Oh. So humans couldn’t see them. No wonder they could just wander unknowingly into faie territory. Up to then, she’d only assumed it was out of sheer stupidity, but if they couldn’t even see the boundary between realms...they wouldn’t realize where they were heading until it was too late.
Especially in this season. Amber looked ahead. The forest seemed no different. Even for faie, the autumn forest of the human realm was difficult to distinguish from that of the Golden Wood of Perpetual Autumn.
She heard a whine. The dog was sniffing nervously at the toadstools, tail between his legs.
The human stood up, sighing. “I know, Connor. It’s okay, you can stay.”
Gratefully, the old dog laid down, though his sad eyes remained fixed on his master.
“Not very brave, is he?” Amber commented.
“He’s been through a lot,” the human snapped. Then he faced forward again and took a deep breath, steeling himself.
He led the mare over the boundary first. Amber and the cart came next, and as she crossed, she kept her right eye closed, wondering what the Golden Wood must look like from a human perspective.
She gasped. As soon as her feet left the human realm, everything turned pitch black. It was as if she’d been blinded, or dropped into a dark, moonless night. Quickly, she opened her right eye again, and the darkness disappeared. She was in the Golden Wood, with its ever-golden carpet and canopy of leaves. She was home.
It took a minute for her heart to stop racing. Just those few seconds of darkness had left her terrified. She could only imagine what it would be like for a human, strolling in sunny forest one moment, then plunging into inky blackness in the next.
She looked ahead at the human. He’d crossed over with both eyes open, and he was blinking now, as if wondering why nothing had changed.
Leaving the dog behind, they went on further, simply walking straight ahead. Amber thought that the human might become even jumpier now that they were actually in faie territory, but it was rather the opposite. Except for his ragged breathing, the human was deathly silent. Sweat covered his brow. He had a haunted look in his eyes that grew with every step he took. This puzzled her. He’d come to reclaim something he’d lost years ago, and yet it looked like he was actually dreading it.
They had just entered a forest clearing, and Amber was about to ask how much farther they had to go, when the human let out a choking sound and came to a halt. She quickly looked around, wondering if a faie had found them, but the place was deserted. She noticed the human was staring at something in the treetops at the other end of the clearing, and followed his line of sight.
She saw skeletons. At first, she couldn’t tell how many there were; the bodies were in pieces, a ribcage here, a femur there, a skull right overhead. They were hung there deliberately, either strung up by strips of clothing or balanced carefully in the crooks of branches. The bones were white, having long been picked clean by birds and insects.
The human fell to his knees. “Mom...Dad...” he sobbed.
Amber’s eyes widened. Yes...sure enough, those bones looked like they belonged to two skeletons. She looked over the clearing and her suspicions were immediately confirmed. The telltale signs of trees ripped out of the ground, roots and all. Gouged marks in tree trunks in the shape of hands. This was Garvan’s doing.
A memory surfaced from that night four years ago, when the men gathered over cider to tell tales of humans. Garvan, a logger whose acquired magic was that of heightened physical strength, had laughed and said, “Speakin’ of humans, did I mention I came across a few of ‘em some weeks back?”
“Yeah, yeah, fifty times already,” the other men laughed, rolling their eyes.
But Garvan went on with his story anyway. “I found ‘em on the outskirts, wanderin’ ‘round shoutin’ their heads off. And I said, ‘What do you think you’re doin’ here, eh? Think you can sneak into faie territory and get away with it, do ya?’ And they started screamin’ like little pigs, so I taught ‘em a thing or two. Make no mistake, they’ll never walk in our lands again...or anywhere at all!”
The men burst into laughter. Garvan downed his drink, spilling cider down his front as he guffawed.
“Good man, that’s the way to deal with them!” Crevan grinned, slapping him on the back. “For that, you deserve some of my best cider!”
Garvan’s mug was promptly refilled, and soon, the conversation turned to other encounters. But not before he let slip a final comment: “T’was too bad, though...the kid got away.”
And now, Amber stood looking at his handiwork. Garvan had probably arranged the body parts this way to serve as a warning for the boy, in case he ever came back. A warning he wouldn’t even be able to see, were it not for her eye.
She glanced at him. His fists were clenched tightly in the grass, tears streaming down his face.
Why hadn’t she noticed? How odd it was for a boy his age to live in the wilderness all alone, so close to faie territory. How his shirt sleeves and trouser legs were rolled up, as if he were wearing an older man’s clothes...
Now she understood. For four years he had been alone, living in terror day to day, clinging to every scrap of iron in his possession to protect himself from the dangers next door.
All this time, he must have feared her as much as she feared him. He’d only managed to mask that fear with a show of strength. And just as she risked everything to steal that apple, so did he to retrieve his parents’ remains. But in comparison, her own motives now seemed remarkably selfish...
The human wiped his eyes on his sleeve. The mare nuzzled him, grunting, and he patted her on the nose as he stood up. He approached the cart and took out the shovel, purposely avoiding Amber’s eyes as he did so. Then he trekked over to the other side of the clearing and began climbing a tree.
It took him over an hour to collect all the bones, compounded by the fact that he was a clumsy tree climber. At times, he had to resort to knocking bones out of the branches with his shovel, and they would tumble to the ground below, falling into bushes or getting caught in more branches along the way.
It was hard to watch. Amber almost offered to help, before realizing that he probably wouldn’t want her touching the remains anyway, considering it was another faie from her realm who did this to them in the first place. So she held her tongue.
By now, the sun had begun to set, setting the world ablaze. Up in the treetops, the human was silhouetted against the crimson sky as the dying embers of the day seeped through the forest, casting long shadows.
Finally, he brought the final piece, a skull, and laid it with the rest in the bottom of the cart. He was drenched in sweat. For a few minutes he just stood there, staring at his parents’ remains as he caught his breath, looking completely exhausted.
Amber gulped, not sure what to say, if she should say anything at all. That alerted his attention. He considered her for a moment, and then a hardness returned to his eyes. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a pocket knife, flicking it open.
She gasped, and tried to back away, but her back hit the side of the cart. This was it. He was going to take revenge. Maybe he would dismember her too, leaving her parts to be found in the trees.
Amber shut her eyes, waiting to feel the sharp blade of the knife in her flesh.
But instead, she felt him grab for her hands. There was a brief sawing sound, and suddenly, the rope fell away. Surprised, Amber opened her eyes. The human snapped his knife shut and put it away. Without a word, he went to take the mare’s reins.
Amber stared at her hands. She could hardly believe it. She was free.
The human was now leading the mare back through the forest. That...was it?
She called after him. “So what now?”
“Now, you can go,” he answered.
“No, I mean...what are you going to do?”
He paused. “...I’m going to give them a proper burial.” He gave her a quick glance. “And set up twice as many traps, so don’t ever think of coming back.” He said no more.
Amber watched him go until the sounds of creaking wheels and crunching leaves grew faint in her ears.
Finally, she looked down at her hands again. In the end, she didn’t get the apple after all. She’d come away from this encounter with only burned hands and a human eye. And her life.