The Musician and the Fairies
By Alana Joli Abbott
Once upon a time, in a land south of the Butterfly Queen’s kingdom, there lived a shoemaker’s apprentice named Alfonso. He was not very good at his trade, as he was prone to dreaming during the workday and playing music at night. Oh, but his music! The young man could persuade a melody out of any instrument he picked up. His voice could charm the birds from the trees. And when he played the guitar, it was as if the world faded away, leaving only the music behind.
When Alfonso went missing, the master shoemaker assumed he had run off with a group of traveling musicians, and good riddance to him. But Alfonso’s mother, Elidia, believed no such thing, for Alfonso had always been a good son, and would never have left without saying goodbye. Though many in her village warned her of the dangers of traveling through the woods alone, she set off along the path that led north of their village, searching for a sign of her son.
As luck would have it, two girls, known in the surrounding kingdoms as problem solvers—and probably witches in training—were heading south along the same path. Clever Helen had once freed the Butterfly Queen’s kingdom of monsters. Princess Lucy, the sister to the Arrow Queen in a kingdom farther away, had a reputation for her skill with plants, and her ability to coax just the right herbs from any soil. When they met Elidia, sitting on a stump by the path and looking distressed, Lucy stopped and handed her a handkerchief, and Helen put a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder. Both girls knew that when meeting a strange woman alone in the woods, any traveler should do their best to be polite.
“Are you hurt?” Lucy asked.
“Only in my heart,” said Elidia. “My son is missing, and no one will help me find him.”
As Elidia explained her son’s music and his disappearance, the girls shared a troubled look. They had heard that the fairies of these woods sometimes stole beautiful or talented humans for their courts. “Did he ever play his music in the woods?” Helen asked cautiously.
When Elidia nodded, Lucy tightened her lips. “Can you show us where?” she asked.
Elidia led them back to the village, then out into the woods, far off the path. Both Lucy and Helen were quite comfortable in the woods. Helen was the daughter of a woodcutter, and she knew how to make camp with only rope and a blanket, how to travel in winter without getting frostbite, and how to recognize the direction she traveled by the signs on the trees and the stars. Though Princess Lucy had not grown up in the woods, she had learned how to collect the rarest mushrooms, how to harvest flowers that bloomed only at night, and where to collect bat guano for potions that called for the foul-smelling ingredient. So although Elidia was afraid, Helen and Lucy comforted her with their confidence. When they reached a small grove a good way from Elidia’s house, Lucy noticed the large ring of mushrooms, the type of place where fairies were known to dance.
“We’ll find your son,” said Lucy, and Helen nodded. Elidia thanked them and hurried back out of the woods.
Helen checked their supplies. They each had a wool blanket and plenty of rope. It was warmer this far south, so they wouldn’t need winter clothing. They each had sturdy knives, and Helen wore an axe at her hip. They had plenty of food, as they’d filled their satchels at the village they’d left that morning. Lucy’s herbs had run short, but she was used to collecting them as she traveled. Helen handed Lucy a pan dulce from the bakery, and they split it while they thought.
“I don’t know what the weather will be like in the fairy woods,” Helen warned.
“I’m not sure I’ll recognize the plants,” Lucy admitted.
But they looked at each other in agreement, knowing that despite their concerns, they would go find the lost musician and bring him back from the fairies. They stepped into the fairy circle, and the woods around them vanished.
When the ground settled under their feet and the world stopped spinning, Helen and Lucy held each other’s hands and looked around. The world around them was very like the one they’d left, but everything was slightly off. The leaves and the grasses were tinted red. The sky was the most remarkable shade of orange. A stream gurgled in the distance, playing notes on the rocks like mallets on a marimba. Helen pulled a compass from her bag, but the needle spun and offered no guidance. Lucy pulled a piece of chalk from her satchel, and the girls began to walk, marking the slightly-blue trunks of the trees or the silver-white sides of the rocks they passed.
Soon, the girls stumbled upon a gazelle, its horns twisted in bright pink vines. It pulled against them, but the vines crept forward, twining around the horns so that the more it struggled, the more it was tangled. Lucy and Helen pulled out their knives and got to work, cutting away the vines and murmuring soothing words to the gazelle.
“What happened?” Lucy asked.
“Some fairies enchanted the vines to trap a creature wandering by,” the gazelle said glumly. “I was running so quickly, I nearly broke my neck when they caught me! And I could hear those mean fairies giggling in the distance.”
Helen stroked the gazelle’s neck. “It’s a little swollen,” she said.
Lucy pulled a ginger root from her satchel. “Chew on this,” she told the gazelle as Helen slashed through the last vine. “It will help the swelling go down.”
The gazelle opened it mouth, but instead of taking the ginger, it pulled out a bright red stone, as big as a clam shell, from under its tongue. Helen took the stone, and the gazelle took the ginger.
“If you find yourself in trouble,” the gazelle said, “throw that stone behind you.”
Helen put the stone in her satchel, and the girls watched the gazelle bound off into the woods.
Later in the afternoon, Helen heard the frantic yip of a fox. The girls walked toward the sound, still marking their path as they went, and found a fox kit yipping up the side of the tree.
“What’s wrong?” Helen asked the fox.
The fox kit ran in circles at their feet. “My mother!” the fox said. “My mother is stuck in the tree!”
Lucy and Helen both looked up into the branches high above. There, curled up in the pocket of two limbs, trying to make herself as small as possible, was a larger fox, shivering in fear. Helen knotted her rope around her waist, and Lucy boosted her up to the lowest branch, above both of their heads. As Helen climbed, Lucy attached the trailing end of the rope to a basket. When Helen reached the mother fox, she pulled herself onto the nearest limb and hauled the basket up behind her.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. She helped the mother fox into the basket, took the rope from her waist, and threw the end down to Lucy. Helen slowly lowered the basket off the branch, and Lucy released a little bit of rope at a time, keeping the basket steady as Helen climbed next to it.
The fox kit yipped excitedly as his mother descended to the forest floor, and the mother licked her pup. She looked up at Helen and Lucy in gratitude.
“You saved me,” said the fox mother. “I owe you my thanks.”
From somewhere in her fur, she produced a bright red gem, the size of a skipping stone. Lucy put it into her satchel. “If you get into trouble in these woods,” said the fox, “throw that behind you.”
“How did you get stuck in the tree?” Helen asked.
The fox looked disgusted. “A fairy put me there, playing a joke. They give no thought to the consequences of their actions, as long as they have fun in the moment.”
Lucy frowned. “But surely not all fairies are like that!”
The fox shook her head. “They don’t all have to be if enough of them are.” The two foxes disappeared into the underbrush, Helen coiled her rope, and the two girls continued their journey through the fairy woods, blazing their path as they went.
As the sun was starting to set, and Lucy and Helen considered stopping to make camp, they heard weeping. They changed directions and headed toward the sound, slowly, for they weren’t certain of their path. A stray ray of sunset light dropped through the canopy of leaves, right onto the form of a sobbing fairy. She was about the size of the fox kit, and she was lying on her side, clutching her stomach and crying.
Though the fox mother and the gazelle had warned the girls about the fairies, neither of them could see a creature in pain and ignore it, even if it might be a troublemaker. They approached the fairy warily, because they were not foolish, but it seemed to be no trap. The fairy was genuinely hurt or ill.
“What is wrong?” asked Lucy.
But the fairy sobbed unconsolably. Lucy put her fingers to the fairy’s forehead, and thought she felt warm. Helen sat next to the creature, one hand on her back between her wings, as Lucy ventured into the woods, looking for feverfew or willow bark—anything that might help reduce the fairy’s pain. But the plants were strange, tangled things, with leaves in shapes she’d never seen before: five pointed stars and spirals and the eyes of peacock feathers. She returned to the glen with a sigh and decided to make tea with the supplies she already had. Helen pulled a collection of tinder from her satchel and built a frame from the kindling and fuel Lucy gathered from the forest floor. Soon, they had a cheery fire—though it had a strange purple undertone in its flames—and Lucy boiled water for a chamomile lavender tea she always drank when she was worried. In the light of the fire and the warmth of the company, the fairy soon stopped crying. She accepted a small cup of tea, though it was so large it filled both of her hands.
“Be careful,” Lucy warned. “It’s hot. I don’t know what’s wrong yet, but as soon as we figure it out, we’ll help you fix it.”
With that the fairy burst into tears again. “I’m n-n-not sick,” she stuttered. “The others made fun of my wings.” She spread her wings behind her, long, like a dragonfly’s. They glimmered in the light from the fire, and both Lucy and Helen caught their breath.
“But they’re beautiful,” Lucy said.
“They’re too skinny,” the fairy complained, folding them back. “And they’re transparent. The other fairies of my Court have beautiful colors along their wings.”
Helen considered the shape and size. “With wings like those, you must be really fast,” she said. The fairy nodded glumly. “I bet you can fly forward or backward.”
“Maybe even sideways,” Lucy chimed in.
The fairy started to smile. “I can turn sharp angles, too.” The grin grew. “No one’s faster than me.”
Helen leaned back against a tree trunk. “Sometimes people make fun because they’re jealous,” she said. “Other times, they’re so caught up in how something looks, they don’t notice its skill or talent or usefulness.”
“And sometimes people are unkind for fun,” Lucy added, thinking of the fox in the tree. “You can’t let that kind of person hurt you. They wouldn’t know kindness if it pinched them.”
The fairy laughed. “I don’t think kindness can pinch anyone,” she said. “But kindness can certainly make a lovely cup of tea.”
The girls and the fairy talked into the night. Lucy explained they were looking for a musician, and the fairy gave them directions to the Court of the Fairy King. “He won’t be happy to see you,” the fairy warned. “He’s one of those mean people who only cares about his own fun.”
In the morning, the fairy was gone, but she left behind a bright red gem, the size of Helen’s fist. In the morning dew, the fairy had written, “When all is lost, leave this behind.”
With that cryptic warning and the fairy’s directions, Helen and Lucy left for the Court of the Fairy King.
It was afternoon when they reached a hill with a large stone door on the side. Though there was a guard in front, a stream of fairies, some monstrous and some beautiful, entered the hill. Lucy and Helen slipped in line among them, and the guard seemed not to notice their arrival.
Inside the hill was a huge hall, larger than the hall of the Butterfly Queen, larger even than the grand hall of the Arrow Queen. Food filled the tables, but both Lucy and Helen knew better than to eat fairy food. At the hall’s far end, the fairies danced, among them a tall fairy with a golden crown and a face bent into a sneer. Behind the dancers was a human, playing the guitar, looking dreamily out at the gathering.
Lucy took a bottle of smelling salts she’d made from her satchel, and together, the girls worked their way around the outside of the gathering. They noticed as they got closer that despite the musician’s peaceful expression, his fingers were bleeding, as though he had been playing for days without being allowed to stop. They reached him as one song neared its ending, and Lucy raised the smelling salts to his nose.
“Keep playing, Alfonso,” Helen urged as his dreamy expression faded.
“It hurts,” Alfonso whispered back.
“Play a lullaby,” Lucy suggested. “We’re here to bring you home.”
So Alfonso played a waltz, strumming through the pain, his sore fingers cascading along the strings. Lucy and Helen both yawned, but Lucy kept her smelling salts open, and the three humans in the fairy court stayed awake as the dancers slowed and dropped off to sleep. Alfonso kept playing his guitar as they walked back through the hall, and they thought they might escape unharmed. But as they passed the sleepy guard at the door, they heard the Fairy King wake behind them.
“Seize them!” he screamed.
Helen threw down the stone the gazelle had given them, and a wind rushed under them, carrying them with the speed of a gazelle away from the fairy hill. Lucy watched for their blazes, and the wind obeyed, rushing them back along their path.
The wind set the three travelers their feet as it faded to a breeze, but they could hear the fairies behind them. Helen looked back and saw a small group of them, both beautiful and monstrous, following their cruel king. The three ran, but the fairies gained. As they got closer, Lucy threw the stone from the foxes, and a river crashed into existence behind them, sweeping the fairies away downstream.
The Fairy King leaped over the river and ran close behind.
They spotted the circle of mushrooms in the red-hued clearing, and Helen threw the final stone. The forest thickened around the Fairy King, trees tangling around him, growing in spirals and twists, until the king was trapped inside. “Perhaps,” a soft voice whispered, “a thousand years inside a tree will teach him some patience.”
Helen and Lucy looked for the voice, but it seemed to come from the forest itself. “It might just make him angrier,” Helen warned.
“Then,” the forest whispered, “he can wait another thousand. Your kindness has filled the hearts of my creatures, and even touched one of the fairies. Perhaps what you have sparked will be enough.”
The winds quieted, and the forest was silent. Helen, Lucy, and Alfonso stepped into the fairy circle and were gone.
When Alfonso returned home, he found he had lost his apprenticeship at the shoemaker, but Princess Lucy suggested he might find a place at her sister’s castle, because the Arrow Queen loved musicians. Elidia packed their things, and the four of them traveled north. As they walked through the forest, they noticed places where the grass was slightly red, or the sky looked slightly orange, and if they peeked under the leaves of the ferns or beneath the shelf of a mushroom, they would find bright red gems, the size of skipping stones or the fist of a fairy. Soon Alfonso and Elidia had enough wealth to start a new life, wherever they chose.
Princess Lucy and Clever Helen continued through the woods, looking for another problem to solve.