A/N: Warning in this chapter for bad poetry (no, really, I’m no poet and I tried so hard to poke fun at the lofty poetry of old epic fantasy. I’m not sure it really worked).
In Orean, when she could get away with it or thought she wouldn’t be missed, Maebhe spent her time exploring the forests and valleys in the mountains around Orean. She was a hunter — only a hobbyist, but a talented hobbyist— and she felt most herself when she was running, climbing, swimming, training. But even with everything she put her body through on a regular basis, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d woken feeling so sore.
Maybe it was the walking they did yesterday, or the dancing that followed. Maybe it was because she’d jumped off a building into uneasy waters. All she knew was she ached all over. That was one pressing concern, but she had two others. One, she couldn’t actually remember the night before. Two, she didn’t know where she was.
She was lying on the ground, enveloped in a warm quilt. Waiting and listening, she tried to rely on the sounds around her for clues. Something had woken her, and it would make itself known soon enough. Birds sang outside. Nearby, Kieran snored. Neither of those were it. Beyond a closed door, she heard the shuffle of quiet feet and the rustle of feathers.
She rolled onto her back and opened her eyes. The ceiling above her was high, higher than she could reach even if she jumped. Higher than she could reach if she stood on Kieran’s shoulders and then jumped, and that gave her a clue: Home. Oanai. This was one of the massive houses they’d passed on their way in.
She was sprawled at the foot of a bed wide enough for, say, someone with a large wingspan to sleep comfortably, but not quite long enough for an oanai. When she sat up, she saw Kieran and Íde’s sleeping forms curled up in it.
Before she could puzzle any further, the bedroom’s door slammed open with a bang, making Maebhe jump to her feet like a startled cat. With the opening door, the room flooded with sunslight that haloed the tall figure standing in the door’s frame. Maebhe groaned and covered her eyes.
“Good morning!” came a deep voice, happier than it had any right sounding.
“What are you so loud for?” Maebhe asked. She uncovered her eyes to massage her temples, immediately regretting it when sunslight colored the back of her eyelids, even that almost too bright.
“The better to wake you, dear, though I see I needn’t have bothered,” Drys said.
They both looked over at the bed. Íde was sitting up and rubbing her eyes, blinking blearily at the both of them. She looked around the room, then over at Kieran, who’d miraculously slept through Drys’ noise.
“You’re going to have to be much louder than that if you want to wake Kieran,” Maebhe said. Drys nodded and drew in a breath as if to yell, but Maebhe yelled, “Don’t! Please. My head.”
“Mine too,” Íde said. She passed her hands across her face, then tried to flatten some of her bedhead.
“Our wine does tend to have that effect, especially on humans,” Drys said, not sounding particularly sympathetic. “I should have warned you.”
“You should have,” Íde agreed.
Drys’ impish expression turned serious. “I’m not here just to torture you with noise; there’s a Council meeting happening on the field. They’re going to discuss what you told Leihlani last night.”
“What I told Leihlani….” Maebhe repeated. She thought it over, then uncovered a hazy memory of spilling their story to the gentle oanai. “Oh, shit! I told her everything. I’m sorry, Drys.”
Drys shrugged. “Don’t apologize to me. As I predicted, they’re not pleased about the news. You might want to be there to speak for yourselves.”
“What’s the Council?” Íde asked.
“The elected leaders of the six quadrants of Home, and sometimes those of the surrounding families, if they make the journey. The meeting’s public, though.”
“We should go,” Maebhe said, sharing a look with Íde. “Let’s wake Kieran. He’ll want to go, too.”
There followed a long struggle of shoving, pleading, and eventually, Íde jumping on him before Kieran was awake as well, rubbing sleep from his eyes as Drys led the way outside.
Home felt different in the morning. It felt just as free, awake and alive and untainted, but the streets were calmer, emptier, quieter. The mist hung differently, drifting down to them from the bright, cloudless sky rather than hanging low over the streets like it was borne from the earth. A layer of dew blanketed the ground, and the air was crisp and clean.
Back home, Maebhe had to journey far into the mountains to taste air this clean. Orean was no industrial force, but Illyon was, and it tainted Creae valley and the sky above both cities.
On the walk, Drys gave them what advice they could. Receiving advice from a faerie was a strange thing: they didn’t explain anything they said and half of what they did say contradicted itself. Maebhe tried committing it all to memory, but Drys said many things and never reached their point.
“These meetings have a tradition of lazy beginnings,” Drys was saying. “Play along and don’t get impatient. Commit their stories to memory, enough that you could repeat them back. Remember who they belong to or risk great slights. A story is a sacred thing. It’s your honor to hear it, but their honor to share it. These cancel each other out, so don’t offer additional thanks, or you’ll offend the sharer. Do not clap. Speak your mind if you must, but don’t speak over anyone and don’t interrupt.”
“Right,” Maebhe said, glancing at Kieran to see how he was handling the deluge of information. He was looking down at his feet as he walked, nodding to himself like he understood. But Maebhe could tell from the look in his eyes that he didn’t, and she felt a little better for it.
Drys pursed their lips. “If you can’t remember that, just be your darling, charming selves. I’m sure it’ll work out just fine for you,” they said. Their voice was light, but they shot a stern look back at the trio. “You’re lucky my people don’t usually attend these meetings. They’d be less forgiving of social blunders.”
Drys led the group to the same field they’d danced in the night before. All signs of the previous night’s festivities had been cleared away, and in the morning light, Maebhe noticed how strange the field was. A ring of toadstools enclosed it in a perfect circle and wove through it in swirling but definite patterns, cutting through long grass that wasn’t just green, but turquoise and purple, too.
Two dozen or so oanai lounged in a circle at the center. It didn’t look like any sort of meeting Maebhe had ever been to, but Drys stepped carefully over the line of toadstools and approached the group, so Maebhe and the others followed. One oanai with horns nearly as long as Maebhe’s body looked their way as they approached. He frowned, bushy black eyebrows drawing low over blue eyes, and bared his teeth. Maebhe didn’t consider herself an expert at reading oanai expressions just yet, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t a smile.
“Good morning,” Apa said to the newcomers as the oanai nearest them shifted to widen the circle. Her voice was lower than Leihlani’s, and rougher, and she had more gray fur around her eyes and whiskers. Mani sat to one side of her and Leihlani to the other, with a tall instrument like a twisted harp propped up in her lap. “How do our guests find themselves, after the excitement of last night?”
“Wholly changed, thank you,” Kieran said with a wobbly bow. Maebhe shot him a wide-eyed look, realizing too late he might still be drunk from the night before. It wouldn’t be the first time, in Kieran’s case.
Apa smiled, baring sharp teeth. “Sit, please. I’m afraid you’ve missed the beginning, but there’s much still to hear. Let my daughter soothe your aching minds. Leihlani?”
Leihlani nodded, adjusted the instrument in her lap, and began to play.
Maebhe’s legs gave out beneath her as she sat, immediately caught up in the song. It was like a spell, hypnotic and sweet. The oanai’s long fingers danced across the strings in looping patterns. Their sound was sweeter than Maebhe would have guessed from looking at the instrument, carrying all the way across the circle, all the way across the field. Even though there were no words, Leihlani’s song felt like bright suns in the early morning and warm wind ruffling through grass. Far too soon, it was over.
Maebhe raised her hands to clap, but remembered Drys’ advice just in time, changing the direction of the movement to brush her hair away from her face instead. Beside her, Drys nodded once, as Leihlani wordlessly passed the instrument to the next oanai in the circle, who began a song of her own. So it continued, only a few oanai passing the instrument without playing. By the time it reached Drys, Maebhe had half a dozen new songs swimming through her mind, some wordless, others not, some simple, others impossible.
Despite Drys’ advice to do so, there was no remembering them all. The songs being sung were more complex than the best Orean had to offer, and Maebhe didn’t even know the best Orean had to offer. She was more the kind to stand on a bar and join a hearty drinking song than appreciate an aria. And the faces of the oanai around the circle, too, were too similar to Maebhe’s untrained eye, and she soon forgot who sang what.
Drys passed the instrument to Maebhe without playing. The wood felt warm in her hands as she passed it to Kieran, but Apa interrupted with, “Did Drys explain the rules to you?”
“Know that if you refuse to share, you forfeit the right to speak until you leave this field.”
Maebhe froze. “What if I have no songs to share?”
“Everyone has a song. Even if you do not, you can make one up.”
Maebhe wracked her mind for a song that wasn’t horribly inappropriate. “Uh.”
“Can Maebhe and I sing together?” Kieran asked.
Mani leaned over and murmured something to Apa, who said something back.
“The two of you were born at once, weren’t you?” Mani asked.
“Technically, I’m an hour older,” Kieran said. Maebhe scowled at him.
Apa nodded. “You may share a song. If you don’t know the hearpe, your voice is enough.”
Kieran met Maebhe’s eyes. Without waiting for her to catch on, he began to sing:
O, under the pink morning suns,
I made my way to you.
Maebhe closed her eyes. She should have seen this coming. Of course he’d choose that one. Taking a shaky breath, she joined on the next line. Kieran let her carry the melody, his light voice spinning harmonies around her that she hadn’t known him capable of, especially drunk. She wavered, once or twice, in a way their mother never had when she’d sung this same song.
The road was lone, my bag too heavy,
For you, love, o’er land I flew.
To see your smile, I’d run again.
To hear you laugh, my lark, I’d fly.
And though I may be gone again,
I’ll always return to you.
When they finished, Maebhe closed her eyes. In her memory, she was in her parents’ arms again, holding them after they’d returned from one of their trips. They were singing to her, voices soft and gentle and fond, and Maebhe’s heart was breaking all over again.
Wordlessly, Kieran took the hearpe from her and passed it to Íde.
“That was beautiful,” Mani said gently. “It is a beautiful thing, sharing songs. It’s a way to share joy and wonder and knowledge…and memories, emotions.”
Maebhe nodded and wiped her eyes, opening them in time to see Íde pass the hearpe on without singing. She reached over Kieran and took Maebhe’s hand, and Maebhe held onto it like a lifeline.
Eventually, the hearpe reached the oanai with the long horns that Maebhe had noticed earlier. He strummed a few thoughtful notes, and in a voice deeper than the lowest point of Home’s crater, said, with an awful smile, “I have a song about an orinian. For our guests.”
He started regally, strumming a cascade of flowing notes that reminded Maebhe of a waterfall. Then, he sang:
A girl sang sweet beside the shining pools,
A dragon flew above, was caught,
pulled down, down from the sky. He sought
the song, its source, and as she bathed, he found her there.
The dragon watched her from the bank, and when
she saw, her song drowned out in fear.
“Be calm, my lark,” he called, “And sing
Again. I wish to join your sweet music.”
“You sing, dear beast?” she asked, her fear forgot.
“For you, only,” the beast replied.
The dragon raised his voice, his
Voice like smoke and fire, and joined her song.
their music twined and bound in pale moonlight.
And love, it spread like flames and trees
That night, they fled into the great dark wood
Off to Lyryma to love free
They took their song; t’was all they’d need.
But in our wood, dark magic spreads and
Corrupts in ways sweet songs can’t cleanse. It sank into
Their souls, their hearts, and tore apart —
“Enough, Ioka,” Leihlani interrupted.
Ioka’s fingers stopped abruptly on the strings with a twang, and all the oanai in the circle turned to look at Leihlani. Her voice was colder than the orinians had yet heard it, and all six of her ears were pressed flat against her head. Beside her, Apa tensed.
“You interrupt my song?” Ioka asked. He sounded more amused than insulted. An uneasy wave swept over the assembled council.
“They have all the forest to travel through, yet,” Leihlani said, “And you’re trying to frighten them. You insult our guests.”
“Leihlani,” Apa warned.
“She is right,” another in the circle said. “We all know how the song ends. Ioka knows his choice is inappropriate.”
A few others murmured agreement. Maebhe looked at Drys, wanting to ask how the song ends, but they shook their head.
“Enough,” Mani said. He gave Ioka a sharp look. “I believe no one here would intentionally slight our guests, but Ioka, your song is finished. It does not do to speak of the darkness in the forest, with the things we’ve seen of late.”
Drys leaned toward Maebhe. Quiet as a breath, they said, “Ask what he means.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
“I didn’t sing, remember?”
“Maybe you should’ve thought of that sooner.”
“What do you mean?” Íde asked the oanai, shooting Drys and Maebhe an exasperated look. “What have you seen?”
Mani shook his head, and Apa looked away. Even Ioka seemed cowed, his ears lying flat and hands tightly gripping the hearpe. It was Leihlani who finally answered. “The forest has been restless,” she said. “There’s something dark lurking at its heart, a plague we can’t find, an illness we can’t root out. There are strange creatures here, new monsters and ill omens.”
“Just rumors,” Apa said. “Do not worry, little ones. The path to Orean skirts around the heart of the forest. You will not be in much danger.”
“Much?” Kieran repeated.
“We’ll speak of this no more,” Mani announced. “To speak of dark things is to invite them in, and I will not bring that upon Home. Ioka, pass the hearpe along, and let us finish our sharing.”
Ioka did, and the remaining few oanai played, but the songs lacked the earlier spirit, more a chore to be hurried through and less of a celebration. When everyone around the circle had gotten a chance to share, Mani set the hearpe aside. Finally, Maebhe thought, the meeting would begin. And perhaps it did, but the meeting still didn’t feel like a meeting. It felt like small talk one shared at a party. It felt cowardly and superficial, discussing the roads to Home’s outer clans and the rainfall in the forest, avoiding monsters in Lyryma and Unity’s plans for Orean.
Maebhe remembered Drys’ advice about slow starts, so she made herself sit patiently and wait. They’d get to the important topics eventually; she just had to wait. She didn’t let herself get angry until orinians began to leave. It started with Ioka. He sneered at the orinians as he passed them by, several others following at his heels. As they walked away, Kieran blurted, “What about Unity?”
Ioka paused, turning back to face the orinians. “We do not want to speak about Unity.”
“I don’t care what you want,” Kieran snapped, his usual friendliness dropped in an instant. “I don’t want Unity poking around my city, but they’re probably on their way to Orean right now!”
“So you say.”
“Excuse me?” Kieran asked, clearly trying hard to keep his voice even.
“Kieran,” Íde warned.
“Are you calling us liars?” Maebhe asked, calmer than Kieran – but only by a little.
Ioka ignored her. “You may be allowed to speak at our meetings, but you are not on the Council. I am. I adjourn this meeting.”
“Can he do that?” Maebhe asked Drys in a whisper.
It was Mani who answered. “Any Council member can call an end to our meetings. Ioka is within his rights.”
It wasn’t until Ioka was gone that Apa explained further. “Forgive him,” she said, “Like many of us, Ioka is wary and frightened of Unity. He is worried about the story you bring with you, and worry makes him hostile.”
“But you can’t just ignore the things you’re worried about!” Kieran yelled, likely loud enough for Ioka and all of Home to hear.
“You can in Lyryma. That is why Ellaes made this forest for us. During the Great War, the peoples of this world nearly destroyed us, same as they did the red dragons. When our killers joined together under the guise of peace-making, we knew things would not be better. So our patron Guardian helped us hide.”
“And we’ve been hiding for so long, little ones,” Mani said, voice gentle again now that Ioka was gone. “We’re used to confronting problems at our own pace. Your news came as a surprise, and we are not yet ready to discuss it.”
“When will you be ready?” Kieran asked.
“That’s hard to say. When it becomes truly urgent. When we’ve fixed the problems in our own forest. When we know more. You are our guests and we will not insult you, but Ioka is right. This is too large a matter to take you at your word. We will look into the truth of what you say, of this Unity mission, and when we do, then we shall speak on it more.”
“But—,” Kieran started.
“Tell me, would you have cared about the dangers in Lyryma if you didn’t have to journey through it? If it did not personally concern you?”
“No,” Íde admitted, answering for all of them.
“Maybe,” Kieran said. “Distantly.”
“We’re interested in your story,” Apa said, adding, “But distantly. If your king were to request our help, that would be a different matter.”
“So if we get him to ask for help, you’d give it?” Maebhe asked.
“Perhaps. But I cannot speak for the other Council members,” Apa said, gesturing at the mostly-empty field. Drys sighed, drawing Apa’s attention to them. “Drys, perhaps you can show our visitors more of Home before they leave tomorrow.”
Maebhe blinked at Apa, at the sudden subject change. She hadn’t realized they were leaving tomorrow, but Apa didn’t seem to be giving them a choice. Drys, Íde, and Maebhe stood, Maebhe giving Kieran’s hair a sharp tug when he hesitated.
“We’ll have everything you need for the journey ready by morning, and Leihlani will be accompanying you to the edge of the forest.”
Leihlani started. “I will?”
“Yes, as your punishment for interrupting Ioka’s song.”
Leihlani opened her mouth to reply, then thinking better of it, closed it again.
Mani nodded. To the orinians, he said, “Be at the stone steps at dawn. You have a long journey ahead of you.”
Drys led the orinians away after the obvious dismissal. When they were out of the field, Kieran opened his mouth to complain, but Drys interrupted with, “I know how you must feel, but do not forget how good an oanai’s hearing can be.”
Kieran shut his mouth and followed silently behind.