The Nixie Path

The Nixie Path

Fair proud a lad I was, and bold, so when our healer, Allonia, sent me to look for the royal’s berry, “Crimson the fruit, and set upon a throne of three leaves, no more and no less, green shot through with purple, like unto the robes of our fair Duke, who holds the throne in waiting ever” — I rode much farther than wise down the Nixie Path. Legend had it that if night fell while you were on this way, then you would ride into the Hidden End, never to return.

I remembered the story of Bung, a crude and rough man, who traveled with a few companions down this same path, knowing little of its history and legend. Bung saw a great buck deer jump across the path, and so drew his bow and shot the beast. The shadows in the forest, they say, drew longer in a moment, and the day went inky dark, the men stumbling and crying out as unseen hands grabbed them and dragged them to the ground. The men could not move, strive though they might, and fear gripped them even stronger as they heard whispering voices all around in a tongue they could not understand and felt the touch of tiny hands on their faces and hands and in their clothes. So they laid on the cold ground the day and the night, until sunrise, when their unseen bonds melted away. Then they saw Bung, and they shook like leaves on a bough, for Bung was yet alive but was not Bung anymore. His chest was pierced by his own arrow, and his hands were bloody from trying to pull it out, but he could not speak, for from the neck up his head was that of the buck he’d shot, its tongue swollen and black, its antlers marred with its own gore. The thing that used to be Bung died before they got him back to our village. May the Light keep his soul.

Bold indeed I was, and a fool beside, so I spurred my pony into the hanging vines and narrow reaches of that path. The way was gloomy but the air still fresh, as ever it was where the Hidden People live, so once an hour as close as I could judge I would dismount and bow to each corner of the compass rose in reverence. “Faes of the Forest, East, West, South, and North, bear the passage of my humble pony and myself. I come not to harm any creature but in search of your healing gift, as our people have for these many years.” So it was I believe that no harm was done to me and had I no fell vision until the fifth hour of my search. I was off my pony, and pulling aside the bracken, seeing any herb but the berry I sought, when a trail of purple-veined leaves caught my eye.

Eager in my heart, but careless in thought I left the path and followed the restless creeper into a small copse of trees, down on my knees and looking only at the earth. I heard a faint buzzing and felt something like a fly whiz past my ear, and looked up. The air seemed almost intoxicating, and a single beam of sunlight pierced the canopy above to the middle of the copse.

The sunbeam glowed ’round a mass of vines, purple and allied to the one I held, picked here and there in red. I made the Sign on my forehead, stood and approached, puzzled a bit by the bulk of the vines, all by themselves in the clearing, and not run up a trunk or branch. But then, my soul froze, and all fell quiet. I saw the shape, kneeling, with vine-covered arms and torso, and leaf-wrapped helmet bowed as if in prayer. Its hands were holding something straight in front of it, and all over were the berries I sought and no longer wanted, each atop three purple-veined leaves. My own knees faltered and I sunk down into the vines, close to him, bowed my head, and prayed for his soul and my own.

There was a buzz, and a flit, and onto his head hopped something small and shiny. I could not see it aright. It moved and hummed, and was both here and not — which I cannot say clearly, same as I could not see it clearly. But it did speak, like a young maiden’s voice, high and playful and cheery and horrible in that cursed place.

“Fear not! He is happy! He is your King, and you may gather the berries you seek, and heal your kind. It is our Pact. Hee-hee-hee-ha-ha-hah!”
Her laugh was like the notes of a mandolin or like chimes in a music box, or like glass on steel. I shuddered and with shaky hands picked a dozen berries and placed them in my pouch, and began to slowly back away from that fell creature.
She flew three times ’round his helmet and struck the visor a tinny blow.
“Gaze upon his smiling face and rejoice! Ha-ho-ho-hee-hee-hee-hee!”

The visor fell and I shuddered at the empty sockets and bony grin of the skull revealed. I made the Sign again and begged the Light’s forbearance and forgiveness for my sins and carelessness. I closed my eyes. A tiny hand smacked me in the eye and I stood without thought, shaking and cold. I heard a second voice behind me and dared not look.
“T’ziel, you bend our custom and break our Pact. He is no warrior, as you well know.”

The flit and buzz went past my eyes, slowed, and I saw gauzy wings beat, and a trim figure, hands on hips and a bright saucy face, sneering and jeering close to my head. Some sense of curiosity and the horror of the thing, aye, I was stung without a stinger and shaking, for I knew the tales, of many a boy or girl who passed into the woods and out of knowing, and that I was surely in a fog where I might not see the full Light of the World ever again.

She turned and went ’round my head, and I followed her with my eyes, turning with her. She turned me three times, her pealing tiny bell of a laugh filling me with the coldness of death, and I whispered the words I had learned from our faithful ladies of the Spire, “Source of Faith and Light, savior of our mothers, bring me salvation and strength, that I may live to sing of your Glory, give me the means and strength to live!”

Something touched my hand, and as I turned, I heard the beat of her wings fill my ears, and I swooned, darkness was all, and I fell seemingly into a deep black pit. My wits and faith fled, and I heard not and saw not but the stillness of death.

I woke, bound, but not yet dead. I was grateful and scared at the same time. I tried to open my eyes, and could not, and found I was mute as well. I could hear my own breath, fast and raspy. Then my heart lifted, for I heard her, my teacher and Priestess of Light, Healer Allonia.

“Release his bonds. He means you no harm, and you know this. I sent him along the Path for medicine, with no ill intent.”

My eyelids opened, and my wrists were free. I sat up, and She stood in the copse, the Light shining from her gown, hands raised in the Sign. Dozens or more of the tiny flying fae folk circled her in the brightness she brought to the forest.

“Stand, boy, and come to me. Az’riel, where are you? Talk we must before I leave. There is a mystery from the past here, and my people deserve a telling.”

The horde of glinting, sparkling fae thinned, suddenly, and only two points of light remained. I walked unsteadily to Allonia’s side, still fearful. One fae spoke, and I recognized her as the one who rebuked the cruel, laughing T’ziel.

“Allonia, you do not belong here, the boy does not belong here, you must go. Now.”

My healer, my teacher seemed to grow taller and her voice boomed, the Light flared around her like a flame, roiling and cleansing. A few leaves near her feet crumbled and smoked, and were no more.

“Do you really want to test my powers?! I will clear the trees from this whole area if I need to! Long we have lived in peace, tiny folk, and tho we may have irked you and you us, still we could talk, and still there was a balance. But I see our King long lost gone to bone and creeper, I see this boy, in my service, bound, and I question our balance and our peace! Talk to me about these mysteries, Az’riel!”

The light from my priestess dimmed down to a mild, pleasing hue which lit only the two flitting, fluttering, shiny golden figures before her face.

“Your people’s King came here of his own will, Allonia. He was beguiled and fooled by his own urges, healer.”

“Az’riel, our King, Roneld, the third and last of his line, was riding back to our walls after meeting his nobles at Wightfall Plain just four dozen furlongs away, accompanied by a young squire. A ride home of no more than an hour, before dusk, within sight of our spire, yet he never came home. When our Guard rode out to find him, only his squire, unhorsed and dazed on the side of the road, was found. The squire, poor lad, could give no witness to anything of use. Sixteen years have passed and it seemed our King had passed unseen into the mists. Yet here he is, in a place where he could not be!”

Allonia stretched out her hand and the King’s kneeling form was suddenly in light, terrible in its submission, sword held in his hands like a shield in front.

The fairy spoke again, in grim tones now. She circled the King’s helm while she talked.

“Your fool of a King saw that which he should not. The youngest of our people took a forbidden form, in fun, she thought, a form like any of your folk, a woman, and added the robes of a princess or noblewoman of your kind. So when she saw your King she stepped out, and he then saw nothing else. He was caught in her eyes and her hair and fair skin. Her voice was his only music.”

“She broke our pact then! Have you and I not taken oaths and given gifts from each race to prevent such a thing? No mundane man or woman can resist a fae glamour.”

The fairy circled once more, then zipped over to Allonia again.

“As I say, he saw nothing more but her, glowing and perfect in his sight. She put his companion to sleep, walked up to his steed, and pleaded with him to convey her home. She was so proud, so vain, so prideful when she brought him along the Nixie Path as her thrall.”

I stood, and walked close to our fallen King, to pray and repent my own pride and folly. A small fell voice whispered to me.

“Keep your distance, hee-hee-ha-ha! You know not what you risk. I will have my fun!”

T’ziel flittered across my view and my blood chilled, fear and anger in me. The elder fae’s voice behind me paid out the sad tale of our King’s end.

“She kept him here, though we begged her to let him wake from her. We tried to stop her, but she drew immense power from him. She had him bent, slaved to her, he could not think of any duty, except to her. She was his Sun and Moon and stars. Some of us talked with him, but he would not heed us. Before we knew it, his life faded away… so quickly, like a candle flame in a breeze.”

T’ziel whispered further.

“Yes, he was mine, my font, my laden table. I fed on his adoration. He was delicious. But I am hungry again, lad.”

My head lowered to watch as she landed at my feet, I backed up, quailing from her malice, moving back to the vines, edging back. She grew, slowly at first, then she blossomed in my eyes, suddenly my size, glowing and shimmering, and I backed away more as silence fell in the forest. She took a step toward me and was beautiful, and in my mind insanity grew like a thin twisting root.

She was fire, she was the light in my lover’s eyes, she was a rounded calf of a village milkmaid, a furtive glance at another’s betrothed, she was my weakness and sin, she was my chaste friend in the Sisters, she was the icy water in the cistern on a hot day, quenching my urges and spurring them on. My blood ran hot in my veins, my heart hammered, and I took my last slow step back. Voices receded, the light dimmed, and all I could bear to hear and see was her. I felt her fingers plucking in my soul.

“So… your name is Rainald, son of Sybilla the waitmaid, oh, so sad, passed in your birth. You’re strong and full of vitality, so delicious, so very much mine. Do not back away. I will take the sadness from you. We are going to be so happy, forever.”

Her eyes gleamed beautifully, and my hand behind me touched something cold, hard, real, and gripped it for a moment. I stopped, breathing hard, trembling like the balance Allonia used to weigh the herbs and essences… and T’ziel smiled so gloriously, her bare breasts seeming to swell, the maidenly blush on her cheeks and the glint of light in her hair dazzling me.

“Come let go of that, it does no longer concern you! He’s happy and gone, you’re happy and mine! It’s cold and I’m so, so, warm. Come. Feel my warmth.”

There was another glint in the buzzing, dizzying glow, a colder glint of metal. Just for a moment, my head cleared and I could see again. I stood over the King and held his sword in my hands. The voices around me became real again, Allonia praying, Az’riel speaking slowly and with the voice of command.

“T’ziel, stand down and take your rightful form! Akabtat negat sen buzargabet nostam excertet nilli!”

I gripped the King’s sword tightly and took a step toward T’ziel, lust and hate boiling inside me. I could feel a grin, from the outside and inside, fill my face. There was a great buzzing as if a hive of bees were opened.

She shimmered, so fair and innocent and sweet in my eyes. Her honeyed tones filled my ears and reached down inside me, corroding and melting away my senses.

“That’s my love! Come to me and rest your head on my bosom—”

I carved a furrow in her perfect face with my sword. She jumped back and I moved closer to her. Not blood, but shimmering sparkling liquid fire dripped from her face. She put a delicate hand on her cheek.

“So, I can wound you! Then I can kill you, I think! For King, Land, Light, and Honor!”

I swung the sword, she moved back, and her body began to flow into a different shape, claws appearing, eyes sprouting, and writhing limbs crawling along the very earth. She reached out to hold me in a fatal embrace, grabbing my ankles and arms to drag me close. I could smell the rotting odor of death.

She hissed from a dozen sharp mouths and spat at me as she coiled and clawed at me. There was a harsh clattering sound, and what I saw made my eyes open, more shocked than her foul embrace. She turned, and her arms uncoiled as she saw the King in his armor stand up slowly and throw off the hundred clinging vines. A blue light shone from his helm, as he lifted it and his eye sockets shone with red flames. He stepped towards T’ziel and opened his arms to her, as a lover would.

She shrieked and screamed in her high tinny voice as I swung and clove her in two, and then swung and swung again until she was a pile of quivering viscera. I saw the suit of armor, still standing, but not moving. My attention was on T’ziel. Her many parts dissolved into a golden pool, shimmering and boiling, becoming a whirlwind of sparkles… until the other fae flew into and around it and the whirlwind dispersed into the air with what sounded like a sigh.

I turned, sword still tight in my hands, to Allonia. She stood in great concentration, sweat dripping from her face, a hand held out towards the armor. She slumped to her knees. The suit of armor crashed to the ground and the skull rolled free.

Allonia smiled and made the Sign. “Not all illusions are fae magic. I have a trick or two of my own.”

I heard a buzz and a small figure hovered above my Priestess.

“We have done our part, you have done yours, and the lad has done his. Is our Pact healed?”

Allonia sighed. “It is not my place to say, it is the King’s.” She gestured towards me. “King Roneld loved your mother greatly. They would have jumped the broom in the Spring as is our custom.”

I looked down at the form on the ground, disarranged but free of the vines at last.

“We will make to bring him home. Then our Pact will be healed. Let no one come here alone again. It is a place both fair and foul, I swear by the Light that saves us!”

I drove my sword into the damp patch of earth that had been T’ziel, so beautiful and so terrible.

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