Her father used to tell her stories about the faeries, that hid in the woods and played tricks on travellers who stepped foot in their woods.
Seraphine had not known how much stock to put in these tales. She adored them as a young girl, and still did as she grew, but the world was hard and unkind. How many stories were real, and how many were just legend? They might have come from somewhere once, but that did not mean they still held up now.
It is the desperation the wells in her chest, tearing through her skin and ribcage, that makes her think of the old tales her father would tell her at her bedside. When they were lucky enough to find warm bed to sleep at night.
The bandits had descended on their wagon out of the trees. They had cast her aside and taken her father and poor Buttercup with them. Seraphine supposes they took the sweet, palomino mare to strand her in a strange forest for whatever predators lurk in the trees.
Her father had spoken of faeries that granted wishes, should one choose to summon them. Seraphine was not stupid, she had heard of the dangers of summoning one of the faer folk. The tricks they played on a mortal’s mind. But what could they do to make her predicament worse than it already was?
She didn’t know what she was meant to expect by performing the ritual. She is sure, though, that the faery that steps out of the trees, is not what she had been expecting.
The faery has short, dark hair that curls tight to her head. Her eyes, a colour that is best described as gold, seem to glow from where she hovers just out of the sunlight. Her skin is brown and perfectly smooth. In fact, she almost seems to glow everywhere. There are marks all over her skin that look to be little leaf patterns.
There is something distinctly not human about her, but Seraphine would not be able to point out what specifically is that was different. She does not look dangerous, and Seraphine wasn’t sure if she thought a faery would look dangerous.
No, not dangerous. She’s… beautiful. It isn’t a word that encompasses all the faery is, there isn’t possibly the words to describe her, but Seraphine can only try. And she is beautiful. Though she radiates a sort of power Seraphine had never felt before, and it crawls beneath her skin.
The faery tilts her head, and her eyes narrow. Seraphine swallows, and her throat feels dry.
Her cheeks are warm, and there is something heavy in her stomach. She thinks she knows what it is, but- but surely… not? She liked to watch boys run around the villages, or the men in the smithies, all well-built and messy. Men were rowdy though. Girls, women, were soft, and pretty, and…
“My name is Seraphine, and I-”
“You should not have done that,” the faery interrupts. She is frowning, but Seraphine can’t possibly comprehend what she may be thinking. Her expression betrays no kind of emotion Seraphine understands.
“Sorry?” Her stomach twists. She wonders if she’s out of her league here, if maybe she should have tried to run to the nearest town and look for aid. But the nearest settlement was human-dominant. She’d likely find nothing but more trouble, and she only wanted to find her father, Buttercup, and their wagon.
The faery fidgets. It is oddly endearing and makes her look a little less other-worldly. “You should never give your name to a faery. Give them a name, and you give them yourself.” Her gaze never leaves Seraphine, and she is not sure whether it’s comforting or disturbing. “You lie, but they cannot. You may tell, but you should not give.”
Seraphine blinks. She begins to feel rather stupid. “I don’t understand.”
She tries to stand, unmoving, when the faery takes a step towards her. It’s hard. The power emanating from her is almost overwhelming. “I cannot show you; I cannot lie. But you may call me Adria.” The frown softens from the faery’s, Adria’s, face. “What do you wish for, Seraphine?”
Though Seraphine is not sure she has fully grasped what Adria is trying to tell her – lie about what her name is? Tell them what they may call her? – but is perfectly happy to allow the topic to change. She mustn’t forget her situation.
“I was travelling with my father in our wagon. He’s a leather and furs merchant, and we go from settlement to settlement selling our wares. Bandits ambushed us on the road and-” Seraphine is rather in awe at herself for how steady her voice is. “They took him, and the wagon, and our horse, Buttercup. I wish for their safe return to me.”
She fights the urge to shrink back when Adria doesn’t move at all. She does not even blink. There is something strongly unyielding about the faery, and Seraphine does not know whether to be entranced or terrified.
“Your father and your horse, or the bandits?” Adria asks. Seraphine briefly wonders if she is being tricked, but Adria’s expression does not waver, and it occurs to Seraphine that she has gotten lucky. Incredibly lucky.
If stories were anything to follow, Seraphine might have told Adria of her wish, and been given the bandits who had thrown her against the road and laughed at her misery. Wording seems to mean a lot to the faer folk. Or at least to Adria.
“My father, my horse, and my wagon,” Seraphine says. Then, tracing the glimmering leaf imprints across Adria’s skin instead of meeting her gaze, she asks, “What… what of the price?”
Even though she does not look directly into Adria’s eyes, she can see how brightly they glow as Adria stares at her. Beneath Adria’s gaze, she is stripped bare. There is no shield to her soul, material things like her dress don’t matter. There is something deeper in the way Adria looks at her, and Seraphine should be afraid of something that powerful.
She is not afraid.
“The price,” Adria says. Her voice is low, breathy, and does not sound entirely as though it is coming from her mouth. “The price is that you will tell no one of this, of me. That you will never attempt to summon a faery again.”
Seraphine meets Adria’s gaze. She does not quiver, even though she is sure Adria is imprinting on her the very foundations of her being. “That’s all?” Seraphine asks, knowing it is a dumb thing to say when she is being offered a bargain. Her father always taught her to be careful about questioning bargains. She continues anyway, “Only, you don’t want my- my firstborn, or something?”
Adria’s eyes narrow again. “Do you offer your firstborn?”
“No,” Seraphine says hurriedly. “No, your price is fair. I accept you. It. Your price.” She swallows and wishes she had taken water like her father had always told her to, as often as she could.
For a moment, she thinks Adria may rescind her deal, name a greater price that Seraphine may one day regret paying. Not that she wouldn’t, for her father and for Buttercup.
But then Adria dips her chin forward, and she appears a lot closer than Seraphine thought she was. “Then I will carry out your wish, Seraphine, and return your father, your horse, and your wagon to you.”
A sudden and ridiculous urge to please the faery bubbles in her chest, and she reaches out to grab Adria’s wrist without thinking. There is the shape of a walnut leaf under her palm. Adria’s eyes widen.
“You may call me Sera,” she says. She tries her best to smile and hopes it does not look too wobbly or strange.
Adria peers down at her, chin bent forward just slightly. Then, her mouth curls into a hint of a smile. Seraphine does not know what to do with that, her smile. Only she knows Adria is very lovely, and intelligent, and she thought only men from smithies were supposed to make her pulse flutter.
“Sera,” Adria murmurs. It sounds like a promise. Her eyes are gentle now, and Seraphine is holding her breath without quite realising. Adria reaches up, cautiously, to brush featherlight fingertips over Seraphine’s shoulders, and the touch makes her shudder.
Then, she draws away, pulling her wrist from Seraphine’s pliable fingers. She misses the warmth of the faery as she steps away but does not attempt to follow her.
There is a moment where she can see something. She had heard of faeries having wings, but hardly ever about what they may look like. She doesn’t understand what Adria said, about her wings being somewhere else.
But there is a moment, and Adria is glowing, and there are two shapes shimmering behind her. Seraphine can only make out vague curls to the wings, as they surely are, and cannot truly place what they look like. Only they glitter gold, and distantly resemble the wings of a dragonfly in all but shape.
And then, Adria is gone, and Seraphine is left alone in a sun-washed clearing with a stone ritual circle. She lets out the breath she was holding.
It is later, when her father and their wagon and Buttercup have been returned and they are back on the road no worse for wear, that Seraphine sees the faint outline of a walnut leaf on her shoulders. It is almost hidden by her freckles, but when the sunlight catches it, it gleams golden.
Seraphine, after not much time has passed, begins to regret the price she paid, even though she does not regret what it brought back to her.
She does not look at the men in the smithy in their next settlement. She dreams of dark skin with walnut leaves, and glowing, timeless eyes. And she is not afraid of them, for the first time.
After all, not one can see her dreams.