It begins with the forest, as it is wont to. Many things begin with a forest. Only this time, it is not just a forest.
There is a girl. But that is not where it begins.
Adria’s nurturers are of the Courts. One, Carling, an entertainer, is able to spin fire and twist the stage of reality to their will. The other, Nanaya, a tailor for the Monarch of Spring, knows how to make thread glitter and sway in the breeze.
Adria, the only child of decent, respectable faeries, has no official place in Court.
They would be nothing, an outcast banished to the Midnight Woods, were their nurturers not held in good standing with Spring’s Monarchy. They have heard the stories of the things that prowl those woods.
And they have seen. The Sentinels of Court, dragging a mutt down a corridor. It wandered too close to the border, Nanaya, explained.
It had screamed, and Adria wondered how something soulless, as was said about those who dwelled in the Midnight Woods, could sound so broken. Maddened, Carling said, they all are that live under those wicked trees.
But this story is not about the Midnight Woods. It does not good to speak of abominable things. This story is not even of the Courts. Adria has no need to speak of the tedious nature of them.
It is of Adria, and the forest, and the invoker.
Adria wanders away from the Realm many a day, seeking solace and solitude in the great greens of mortal forests. Everything is subdued here. The trees are kinder, silent, and do not answer to anyone. The birds sing sweet songs, and do not prey upon the weak. The seasons change, and the rain does not burn the unworthy.
The humans call the woods Adria walks the Paper Forest. There are many old trees, and there are those they call paper birches. The bark peels off in sheets, pale ivory and smooth to the touch. There are other trees, but there are many paper birches, and Adria sometimes has fancies of picking strips up to write on.
They do not know what they would write, and so they do not pick them up.
There is a path that cuts through the woods. It is made of rough gravel that grates Adria’s feet, and so they stay on the lush grass and moss bedding of the forest’s floor. Humans wear things on their feet, called shoes, and do not appreciate how soft the earth is to their soles.
Adria does not let travellers see them. They are not supposed to be here, but that does not stop them. As long as they are not seen, it is not enough to warrant a Sentinel. Or worse, a trial. They are lucky, and they do not take this for granted.
But they watch. And it is this that sparks it.
It is high noon, and the sun carves its way through the canopy that guards the forest bed from the glare of the sky. Guards the weary travellers from the eyes of predators from the sky.
Flowers are beginning to burst from the ground, parting the old fallen leaves littering the ground in a crumbling blanket. Foxes show their kits the lay of the land, and woodland critters do not tread in their paths.
On the road, there is a wagon. Or, there was a wagon. Adria sees the wagon enter the forest but does not follow it to see it leave. There is unrest in the breeze, and it wraps itself around the trees and fresh buds. Adria is disquieted, and it is not clear if it is this or curiosity that propels them to seek out the malcontent like the root of an infection.
It does not take long, but Adria cannot tell immediately what has gone wrong. The grass curls around their ankles, and it is when they pause that Adria sees the girl, or they think it is a girl, and scrambles to duck behind a tree.
The girl is not on the road, but she is not off it either. She is sitting, or perhaps the better way to describe her is half-lying. Adria does not see clear distress, but they can smell the stinging taste of blood in the air.
Her hair, the colour of pale hazel wood, fell over her shoulders the shade of chestnut left uncovered by her draping dress. Her skin was covered in little dapples, like wildflowers in a flourishing meadow.
Faeries didn’t have dapples like those. Their skin was polished, unblemished, and it was cold. Mortals had more flaws, and Adria always gravitated to them before their own kind.
And then the girl is moving. She is scrambling to her feet, shoving her hair over her lovely shoulders – and she is not human. Adria watches, and admires the curl of her ears, and knows she is elven. Adria has heard stories of the elven people. They have heard many stories.
The elven girl is slight of build, and she is scrambling around the forest. Her fingers splay over the mossy bed as she gropes for- what? Adria’s head tilts. They follow the girl as she skitters through the forest. She picks mushroom, collects stones, and uses the bottom of her dress as a pouch to hold it all.
She has collected as many things, almost too much for her to carry, and finally drops it all in clearing doused in sunlight. She begins to arrange the stones in a circle. Adria watches, and has a creeping suspicion of what the girl is doing. It curls in their stomach.
Once the stones have been placed in a shaky circle – the girl’s hands are frantic, though Adria finds themself fascinated by her long and slender fingers, even though her knuckles and palms are caked with dried blood. The blood does not bother Adria, they have seen much more – the girl begins to scatter the rest of her treasures within. The spotted mushroom, the feather of an owl, an undamaged pinecone, and an almost perfect birch leaf.
She begins to speak in a soft, clear voice. She murmurs too quietly for Adria to hear without revealing themself, but they know what she is saying.
The ritual will not work. Adria does not know if the girl knows this and is attempting it anyway, or if she has been misinformed. The circle is correct, as is the feather. Were it the branch of an evergreen, and not simply a pinecone, it would also be correct. She has not gathered the proper stones for the circle, however.
Summoning a faery is tricky business. It is also, to Adria’s knowledge, a largely forgotten practise. The older generations knew it best, and they did not pass it down as some things as passed down. The elves were the best historians, so either it has been lost to even them, or this girl has not lived with her own kind.
When the girl finished the ritual – despite the wrong ingredients, Adria is largely certain that she spoke the right words – she rocks back on her feet, knees still in the damp earth. She glances around, and her face is so earnest and hopeful.
The ritual does not work. No faery appears to this girl, and it is for the best. The girl has no bindings, and faeries are not to be trifled with.
And yet, it does not work. There should be no reason, there is no reason, that Adria should step out of the cover of the trees to approach this elven girl with soft-looking hair and pretty shoulders.
They have seen crueller things on the road before. They have seen much darker things in the Courts, things that could tear a mortal’s mind apart. They are not supposed to be seen.
The girl sees them immediately, leaps to her feet. There is no time to step back into the trees or summon their wings to return back to the stone tree where the entrance to the Courts lies.
“Oh,” the girl breathes, her eyes wide and glittering like crystals. Her dress is ivory and covered in stains of dirt, dust, and blood. It is torn on her left side, and beneath the hem, her leg is skinned.
And then she gets back to the ground, on her knees, and leans forward, bowing her head. Adria has seen lesser faeries do this to the monarchies of Court. To their superiors. Adria is not of a high place in Court, and frowns at such a gesture directed at them.
“My lady,” the girl says. She glances back up, eyelashes fluttering as she looks over Adria. Adria has never before felt out of place in their clothing – it is not-quite fabric, it is soft, and it is not the beautiful outfits the other faeries wear in Court. Mortals would describe it like a tunic, they think – but they do now. It is not mortal attire.
Their face is warmed, in a way the sun might warm it, but they are still in the cover of the trees. “You needn’t kneel,” Adria says, because they do not know what else to say. Ladies and lords do not exist in the Courts, not in the way they do in the mortal realm.
Mortals were quite obsessed with things such as being women or men, Adria found, but did not fully comprehend what this was supposed to mean. Only enough to believe this elf was what they called a girl, or a woman. They were not sure of the difference. Were they mortal, would they be considered a girl too?
The girl slowly rises to her feet. “I apologise,” she says. “I am… not sure how to receive you. I’ve never met one of the faer folk.” Her cheeks are pink. They had not been pink before, and Adria is not sure what it means. “I had always heard you had wings,” she adds. Her eyes linger briefly on Adria’s feet, bare, though covered in earth. The girl is wearing shoes, little lacy things that look uncomfortable.
Adria thinks it is more sensible not to receive a faery at all, but does not think on it enough to say this. “I have wings.” At least this girl knows some things. “They are not here.”
This makes the girl’s brow pull together. “Where are they, if not here?”
Her question does not make sense to Adria. They were not here. Had that not been plain enough? “Why were you…” Maybe it is best the girl not know how to summon a faery in honest, to think she did it right, so she does not try it again. “Why have you called for one of the faer folk?”
The girl lets out a breath and lifts her chin. She could blend into the Courts, holding herself like that.
“To grant a wish,” she says. “My wish.”