The Stolen Child
"Come here boy"
My father's voice was softer than usual and that scared me. I was used to his bluster and shouts and there is a kind of comfort in the familiar. I went nonetheless, I knew that no matter what the tone of the command that to disobey was unthinkable.
I kept my eyes down as I approached, there were strangers in the yard and that was another wonder. Our small village was not often gifted with strangers although we were on a trade road. Most travelers didn't stop and I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I had seen an unfamiliar face this closely. Now there were four of them, all at once. And on horses, fine horses, from what little I saw of them. Coats gleaming and hooves shiny, looking very odd in the mud of our yard.
I chanced a quick glance up at the riders and saw that they matched the horses, clean, richly clothed and utterly alien to this place. The long, flowing hair and pale skin immediately proclaimed their race, even without the sight of the pointed ears.
Elves, the fair folk as we named them, usually with a shudder and a sign against evil.
I found my steps slowing without conscious thought; I had heard tales of the soulless ones and none of them good. Whatever could they want of me, of my family?
My parents stood before them, my father looking more unkempt than usual in contrast to the visitors and my mother looking, as usual, harried and somewhat insubstantial, a living ghost. My sister wasn't there. She would be angry later to have missed seeing something new, no matter how dangerous the sight. She was the braver of the two of us, the one who dared. I was more timid, and this trait was making itself felt as I unwillingly joined my parents. My father half turned to glare angrily at my snails pace and I sped up slightly, trying not to look as frightened as I felt.
When I drew level with my parents my mother put her arm over my shoulder and put her head close to mine.
I turned my face to hers to try to understand why she would say such a thing but my father impatiently grabbed my arm and pulled me away from her. I stumbled and barely avoided falling on the soggy ground between my father and the strangers.
"Here, this is Galvyn."
The horses shuffled a little, rearranging themselves and one stepped forward to tower over me.
"Are you certain of your choice?"
I heard my father snarl an affirmative of sorts from behind me and a gloved hand lowered itself into my line of vision.
"Can you ride?"
I nodded, although truly I had never ridden anything but an old plow horse and that only a few times.
The hand stayed there, seeming to demand something. I reached out, steeling myself to touch the creature and the hand gripped mine firmly and tugged. In a second I was in the air and arranged on the horse, in front of the rider. I clutched at the mane in panic, I remember the shock of the silky hair in my fingers and then the horse wheeled and we were off, riding ahead of the others and leaving everything I had ever known behind.
I didn't look back, my mother had asked me to be brave.
As we rode I blinked back tears, wracking my brain for all the half remembered tales told by the fire of these strange folk. We knew they stole human children but I couldn't understand why anyone would want to steal me. I was scrawny for my age and short besides. My father always called me 'delicate' with a sneer in his voice that I didn't understand. And if I were being stolen wouldn't it be more of a sneaky thing, a snatch in the night? My parents had been right there, it made no sense. Perhaps they had been forced in some wise to part with me? A threat of failed crops, of withered livestock? Everyone knew the fair folk could lay a curse on a man, perhaps that had been the way of it. Although we had little enough to curse still, what little we had kept us on the right side of starvation.
The landscape blurred around me as we rode and I tried to recite in my mind all the prayers against evil I could remember. They words chased themselves round and round into a meaningless garbled chant but still, it was some comfort.
We halted at the edge of the great forest; farther than I had ever been although I had seen its shadow along the horizon all my life. The rider behind me dismounted and put a hand on my leg. I tried to move away but I was too stiff and sore to do more than twitch.
"Will you get down?"
I nodded without looking and tried to figure out how to do this. I fumbled around a few moments and one of the other riders spoke up in a language I didn't know.
The one next to me replied curtly and stepped closer.
The hand moved to the horse's neck and a word was spoken softly. The horse began to sink and I cried out.
"He's only making it easier for you, no need to wail about it."
The horse was now gracefully kneeling and I tumbled off gratefully.
I had no choice now but to look at the figures around me and I raised my eyes fearfully.
The man who had shared his horse with me was tall, reed slim and silver haired. He was looking down at me through deep green eyes and his brows were drawn down in a frown. The others were speaking together, one woman, as tall as the men with hair the red of a sunset and a pleasant looking smile. The two men near her were as alike as brothers, both dark of hair and slightly shorter than the man by me. They were all slim and rangy, with pale skin and long ears that fascinated me. I couldn't seem to stop staring at them, they were not only different than mine but also apparently considered a fit place for adornments and all four had many bits of finery pierced through them, made of metal and shiny stones. Their hair was likewise long and adorned, beads and feathers and small carved charms were threaded through the small braids that fell from the main loose mass.
Their eyes were jewel bright and of hues I had never seen in a human. As I watched I saw the colors change, shading from green to blue and then from blue to purple, not the change that comes with a difference of light or shadow but a total change. It shook me and I looked down, once again gripped by fear.
The one by me must have sensed this for he spoke again.
"We'll not hurt you."
His tone told me this wasn't something he was pleased about, he sounded angry and the woman walked over and stepped between us, as if to shield me.
"Ignore Derry, he's in a sour mood but it's no fault of yours. Come, walk off the stiffness while the food is cooking."
I walked slowly about the clearing, trying not to groan aloud at the aching of my leg muscles. The others were getting water to the horses and starting a fire. I thought about trying to run off into the woods but I couldn't run far in this condition and if I did manage to get away I was afraid of the harm that might befall my home. So I paced about, trying to stay calm. One of the dark haired men was cooking something over the fire and when the smell wafted to me my stomach grumbled with hunger. It smelled delicious, what ever it was. I drew closer to look and saw that it was a stew of some type, thick with mushrooms and greens of a type I didn't recognize.
He turned to me and smiled as he ladled the stuff into wooden bowls.
"I'm Conn, and my brother here is Ahearn. You'd best grab a bowl before he does or he'll ear your portion as well as his own."
"Don't believe a word of it, if he wasn't so stingy with the servings there'd be no trouble at all."
They continued to banter back and forth, and the woman came up and sat down between them.
"I'm Kaie, and Derry will be along in a moment, he's refilling the water bottles."
Conn raised an eyebrow at me.
"I think that would be Lord Derry to you, but he doesn't make a religion of protocol, don't worry overmuch about it. And you're Galvyn? It suits you."
I colored; my name had never been a favorite with me. I think I blamed it for my small size; a child named Sparrow just isn't destined to be hale and beefy. I reached for a bowl and the first spoonful was on its way to my lips before I thought about it. I froze in mid motion.
Of all the prohibitions and superstitions surrounding these people accepting food or drink from them was right at the top of the list. I carefully set the bowl down and folded my hands in my lap. The good smell of the food was probably a magical lure to catch the unwary.
Lord Derry joined us, eating neatly and silently. I jumped when a hand tapped my shoulder. It was Ahearn. He was holding an empty bowl and looking at me with beseeching eyes. I nodded and looked away as he scooped up my dinner.
Kaie looked at me with concern. Or at least it appeared to be concern. I had to keep reminding myself that I couldn't trust these people, they were not what they appeared and they had stolen me for some purpose I did not want to think about. There had always been a rumor that they ate children but by now I was pretty sure that wasn't true. Unless they were planning on fattening me up first.
"You find Conn's cooking distasteful? He'll sulk for a week over an insult such as that. Worse than scorning his performance in bed to set him in a black mood."
"Hard to tell, no one's ever done that."
"Ha! Not what I've heard. I've had to promise to give you tips and pointers from too many to mention."
"Nonsense, it's the damn family resemblance, I've asked you to stop passing yourself off as me in the dark. It's making it hard to fill my lonely bed what with the bad reputation you've wrongfully brought upon it."
I could feel myself blushing, as the conversation got more and more ribald and both brothers kept appealing to Kaie for a definitive verdict on the matter. From the way they talked it sounded as if she were in a position to be able to judge between them, a shocking thought to me.
While this went on Lord Derry walked over and dropped down next to me.
"I gather you'll not accept food from a demon's hands?"
At these words the others fell silent and I dropped my gaze to his boots.
"No, I can't."
"You'll get awfully hungry as time goes on, but no doubt faith will sustain you."
He grabbed the empty bowls and walked off with them, apparently to clean them although that didn't seem like a very lordly task to me. I found myself feeling obscurely guilty, as if I were the one at fault here. I snuck a glance round the circle and found that the others were looking at me not with anger but with a kind of resigned sorrow.
Kaie shook her head.
"Well, this demon is worn out and ready to sleep off that meal before heading on. Any arguments?"
Con and Ahearn shook their heads and the three were spreading out bedrolls when Lord Derry came back, clean bowls in hand. He packed them away and pulled out his own bedroll and turned his eyes to me. They were a curious amber shade now and I wished I knew what that meant.
"I suppose you can't be trusted to refrain from doing anything so stupid as to run off into the woods and into a bears belly?"
I opened my mouth but no reply came out, I shut it again with a snap.
"Right. Shall I tie you to a tree?"
Kaie's voice drifted over from her roll.
"Don't be harsh with the boy, he's scared. Just ward the camp and settle down for a bit of rest."
He muttered something in his own tongue but he walked around the periphery of the clearing, hands moving in flowing motions. A brief flash of silver sprang up in his path and died away as he finished the circle.
"Done. Now, back to you. If you give me your word not to run I'll leave you unfettered "
I looked away; I couldn't bring myself to promise. He sighed and flopped his bedroll down beside me and grabbed my arm. I tried to pull away but I made no headway at all.
He pulled me closer and fished a length of rope out of his pack and made a loop of it which he settled over my head. I scrabbled at it with my free hand, whimpering in fright and Kaie sat up.
"He's not planning on strangling you, although if you don't settle down I might. Just relax; no harm will come to you. He'll promise that if you like."
Lord Derry shot her a look and she shrugged.
"Well, do you mean him harm?"
"Of course not!"
"Then tell him that, maybe we'll get a little peace and quiet then."
He looked at me and his amber eyes shaded to red. I was sure this was a bad sign. He spoke, the words sounding forced from his throat.
"I don't mean you any harm. Sleep."
He had one hand on the end of the rope and when he lay down I had to follow or choke. I lay on the grass, hungry and chilled and thoroughly miserable for a time, listening to the soft breathing of the others. I was startled when a thick blanket was thrown over me and opened my eyes to see Conn standing over me, a half smile on his face. He turned and went back to his bedroll and I clutched the blanket around me, confused but comforted.
We rode on later that night, the elves and apparently their horses having no need of the sun for sight. I could see nothing but shadows and it seemed strange to be up and about under the stars. The horse's gait was smooth and I wasn't so sore this time, the combination of the two made it hard to stay awake. I kept drifting off and pulling myself awake with an effort only to drift off again. Finally my jerking about must have annoyed Lord Derry for he put one arm around my waist.
"Lean back, I'll not let you fall."
I didn't want to but I didn't dare refuse. I closed my eyes and let my weight shift back and that's the last thing I remember for a long while.
I woke on the ground, a blanket folded under my head. I had no idea of the time, or how long we had been traveling. I did know I was hungry and once again the scent of cooking was wafting in my direction.
Kaie carried a bowl over to me as well as a carved cup half full of cool water. I looked away and she stood there for a full moment unmoving.
"Well, suit yourself."
She took the food and water off and I slumped in weariness and despair. I must have dozed a little because when I next opened my eyes Lord Derry was shaking my shoulder.
I rubbed my eyes and he waited with exaggerated patience. When I was a little more awake he held out his hand and I took it without really thinking. He led me out of the camp and I could hear running water somewhere close. Soon we stood on the banks of a shallow stream. He let go of my hand and I half threw myself down the bank and drank, the water was cold and clear and I had never tasted anything so wonderful. Water after long thirst is a blessing beyond description.
When I was finally satisfied I looked back at Lord Derry, belatedly wiping the water from my lips with my sleeve. He grimaced and waved me back. I scrambled up to him, feeling much more alert.
"There are some berries this way, come on."
He set off and I followed him to a group of low growing bushes thick with blackberries. He stepped aside and I dove in, cramming my mouth with the sweet fruit. I slowed down eventually and looked back at my chaperone, he was leaning against a tree, studying the sky.
"Eat your fill, I'd rather you didn't drop dead of hunger along the trail."
"I'm full. Thank you."
"We can stop by the stream again on the way back, unless you truly wish to sport berry juice from chin to forehead."
I swiped at my face with my sleeve again and he rolled his eyes.
"Well, that was worse than useless. Although it does add a welcome touch of color to your shirt."
I blushed, my clothes were old and worn to a dull gray and next to him and the others I looked very much the sparrow amongst the peacocks.
"Come along, the others will think you've drowned if we don't get back soon. Here, I've brought a water bottle for you, you can fill it up after you've washed."
I did so gratefully and when I thought my face was clean, or at least as clean as usual I looked at him and was surprisingly pleased when he nodded in approval.
"Much better. We'll see about new clothes when we get home."
I stumbled at hearing the word and nearly dropped my water bottle. He steadied me the rest of the way up the bank and only came to a halt when I could hear the low hum of conversation from the camp.
"I know this is difficult for you. I don't wish it to be any harder than it has to be."
He sounded sincere and my tongue took off without thought.
"Take me home! To my home! Please?"
I drew away, my heart hardening against him. No matter what his apparent kindnesses they didn't change the fact that I was a prisoner. I clasped that hard fact to me and something in my face must have shown it because he looked away from me.
"Come on, you should rest."
The rest of the trip was much the same. I occasionally forgot myself and warmed toward the elves, it was hard to stand firm outside the circle of their laughter. When I crept closer they accepted me without question, as though I had not been brooding, or more likely sulking, silently and ignoring them for hours. The Lord continued to tether me at sleeping times but it was a loose tether and more for show than anything else. Perhaps it was a salve for my conscious, since I truly had little urge to run away. I occasionally thought of my family with a pang, especially my sister but these thoughts were more guilt than longing.
Every day Lord Derry led me off to hunt for food and water, always in a manner midway between amusement and exasperation. Sometimes he gathered food for the pot while I gathered food for myself and a few times I helped bring some back for the others. After gravely debating the issue they decided that they didn't mind accepting food from human hands, although it might be terribly dangerous. This seemed the cue for them to all draw back in burlesqued fear of me and offer their version of what hideous fate might befall them, traveling with such a desperate character. I couldn't help laughing along with them that time, although Lord Derry restrained himself to a smile. He didn't laugh as often as the others and sometimes I felt that they were being extra cheerful on his behalf.
One day when the picking had been awfully lean I saw a grape vine wound around a large tree and just out of reach a large cluster of dusky grapes. My mouth watered and I walked around and around the trunk, trying to work out a way up but it seemed totally beyond my reach. Lord Derry watched me with a half smile on his face and when I kicked the tree in frustration he laughed quietly and reached over my head, deftly plucking the bunch free.
My eyes followed it mournfully and he picked one grape free and examined the clouded bloom closely. I could have cried, I was that hungry and the grapes looked so lovely. He paused with the grape near his mouth and then his eyes met mine. He extended the grape to me slowly, like someone offering corn to a wild deer. I held firm for all of a moment and then snatched the grape from his hand and swallowed it as quick as I could.
We stood there for a few moments, in my case wondering if I would notice any difference if I was indeed now cursed. I noticed nothing but the good taste of the grape filling my mouth and the intense desire for more. I reached out again and he placed the whole bunch in my hand.
I tore into them, and then realized he was probably hungry too. I tentatively offered him a handful and he took them with an elaborate bow of thanks. After that I ate with the others and no more was said of my superstitions, if that was what they were. I still wonder if there was some basis to the old caution, but it's been water under the bridge for a long while now.
Chapter Two We passed the border near dawn, the hazy curtain felt chill over my skin as we entered and just for a second I wanted to leap off the horse and run. I shivered and Lord Derry put one arm around me, it was comfort enough to make me relax a little.
The elves seemed given to touch, I had never been touched at home save for the occasional tussle with my sister and I assume my mother must have held me when I was tiny. My father touched only to shove or discipline so this sudden onslaught of touch was difficult to get used to.
They were always touching each other, standing close to lean on one another or throwing an arm around a comrade. Even Lord Derry slid into this behavior sometimes, if not as often as the others. He would still stand or sit close to them, his shoulder against one of theirs. Later I was told that elves take comfort in the closeness of others of their kind, in the same way pack animals sleep better when surrounded by their mates.
They are amazed that humans only seem to touch for fighting or mating; they attribute much of our ill humor to this quirk. They may have a point.
At any rate, we drew near a medium sized manor house, which seemed massive to me at the time. It was low and rambling and somehow inviting. There were several outbuildings and a large garden and orchard and I could see plowed fields farther off. We dismounted and led the horses to the stable where they were taken charge of by a skinny boy with the long ears of a rabbit. I couldn't help but stare and he stared back just as surprised by me. He smiled after a bit though and said hello. I greeted him and Lord Derry introduced us.
"Galvyn, this is Coalan, he'll help you settle in. First we have a few odds and ends to deal with though. Come along."
I gave Coalan a shy wave goodbye and trotted after Lord Derry. I slowed when I saw that we were heading toward the forge.
I had seen slaves taken in a raid once, they had been led through our town on their way to sale in the city. As horrid as their sad plight made me feel the worst of it was the brand that was burned into their cheek. The brands had been fairly new and the sight of them and the nightmare of pain it must have caused had made me almost physically ill, much to my father's disgust.
The thought of that pain lying before me, the heated metal charring my skin made me panic, I bolted away from the place and onto the grounds, no thought in my mind but escape.
Of course I didn't get far, Lord Derry had longer legs than mine and he caught up with me in no time. He held me while I fought and cried and struggled, not hurting me but not letting me loose either. When I finally gave up he took my chin in one hand and lifted my tear- streaked face to his.
"What the hell are you about? What's wrong with you? Have you taken leave of your senses?"
I couldn't stop crying but I forced words out past the tears.
"Please, I'll never disobey you, I'll be good, just don't brand me. I beg you, don't do it, I couldn't bear it, I'm not brave…"
He put his hand over my mouth, gently stopping the flow of words..
"Is that what you thought I was about? Never would I do such a thing to any of mine! It's vile and cruel and I'll not have it done anywhere in my lands. I feel badly enough about taking you but at the least I'll not mark you, not with hot iron or cold fist, you'll not wear bruises here like the ones you wore when we took you. That I can promise."
Sheer astonishment made me stop crying. I had probably been bruised a bit at the beginning of the trip, I usually was. My father had a heavy hand but that was far from rare where I came from and no one thought much of it. That a mere bruise or two had been noted, let alone upset Lord Derry was something of a shock. And then, come to think of it even at my most sullen or resentful he'd not beaten me. He'd not even threatened to in any but a joking manner. Maybe he was telling the truth?
He slid his hand from my mouth and settled down on the grass, drawing me down to sit with him.
"I do have to set a collar on you but it will be a small one, as light a burden as I can manage. Once that is done you'll be given a room and we'll see what you're fit for. Maybe you can help Coalan out or work in the garden. There will be schooling for you, I dare say you won't be thrilled with that but I've a tutor here for Coalan already and he may as well earn his keep. You should learn at least basic reading and math and you might wish to learn more. I've no wish to work you to death or make you miserable. Now, are you feeling better? Can you walk with me? And will you please for the love of light wipe your nose?"
I nodded slowly and wiped my nose on my sleeve. Lord Derry shook his head again.
"As well as the other basic skills handkerchief usage is added to the lesson plan. Top of the list."
We returned to the forge and after a moments pause on my part, we entered.
The collar was extended for our inspection by a centaur. I had never seen one before and I was frightened at first but her gentle manner belied her huge size and powerful build. She told me she had made the collar from a design the Lord had sent her at the beginning of the trip although I didn't understand how this was done but regardless of that it was a lovely thing.
It shone with a soft blue silver light in the sunlight and the links were smooth and without sharp corners. At the front was a smooth lozenge with flowing script engraved around the edges and a small bird in flight against a crescent moon in the center.
The centaur handed it to me gravely and I examined it closely, weighing it in my hands and delighting in the feel of the smooth metal sliding through my fingers. One thing struck me as odd and I screwed up my nerve to question it.
"There's no clasp, how does it fasten?"
Lord Derry dropped his gaze, leaving the centaur to answer.
"It's magic, little round ears, once it's on it will stay on."
"Will it hurt? The magic?"
"No, not a bit."
We stood there in silence and I was uncertain what was expected of me, neither of them seemed ready to put the thing on me nor were they rushing me to put it on myself. I remember the sunlight slanting through the open doors and the way it fell between them and me. I stepped into it and spoke in a shaky voice.
"Would one of you help me put it on? I don't know how."
Lord Derry placed it around my neck while I lifted the ragged hair from the back of my neck. There was a warm tingle and it was done. Lord Derry squeezed my shoulders for a moment afterwards and the centaur bowed to me, which was another shock. No one had ever bowed to me as a freeborn boy, now I was a collared slave and magical creatures were doing me honor? I bowed back, awkwardly as I had no practice but she didn't seem to mind.
"I'm called Devnet, come and see me when you have time to spare and I'll show you my workshop."
"Thank you, I will."
The Stolen Child Where dips the rocky highland Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island Where flapping herons wake The drowsy water-rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berries And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. Where the wandering water gushes From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout And whispering in their ears Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out From ferns that drop their tears Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. Away with us he's going,
He'll hear no more the lowing Of the calves on the warm hillside Or the kettle on the hob Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.