By the Flowing Gold, what a night! The halls of Rudiobus echoed with the laughter of a hundred Faeries dancing their hearts out. Not literally their hearts, of course, since none present were dragons. But to all who watched the festivities, it seemed one of the brightest and gayest parties that they had ever seen.
King Iubdan and Queen Bebo looked on with wide smiles, as did many others. Most of those not dancing tapped their feet to the beat of the music or joked with their friends. All but one.
Lady Gleamdrené Gormlaith, her snub nose high in the air, sniffed disdainfully at the crowd of suitors beneath her. She enjoyed the attention, everyone knew she did, but to one not familiar with a typical Rudioban dance, it would seem as if she cared not at all, and that she had never before in her life seen the men staring up at her with adoration.
“Please, my lady, dance with me!” begged one with spiky hair standing out in all directions like a porcupine’s quills. Waving a hand in the air, he attempted to catch Gleamdren’s attention, but the other Faeries soon jostled him out of the way.
“My lady!” all of them were shouting. “Just one dance.”
Gleamdren, still surveying the scene with distaste, suddenly picked out one “My lady!” from the others. Hearing the familiar voice, she soon spotted the dark red hair of the corresponding suitor. She crooked a delicate finger, inviting the man to join her on the dais.
The other suitors groaned and pleaded, but made way for the chosen Faerie as he approached the dais. “My lady Gleamdrené,” he said, and kissed her delicate hand.
“Oh, Valxarr, there’s no need to be so formal with me,” sighed Gleamdren. “I just want to speak with you for a moment.”
She remembered the first time she had met him, in one of the curving, confusing hallways of the palace. Despite having lived there for millennia (or so it seemed, she could never be certain of such inconsequential things as time,) she still got lost occasionally. After she had stamped her foot in frustration, she had turned around and run into the tall Faerie knight. A servant of the Prince of the Farthest Shore, Valxarr was a cousin of Sir Rogan, who had unfortunately perished (he was also one of her suitors, Gleamdren noted with pride.) Valxarr had most graciously led her back to the dancing hall, but not before he and Gleamdren had chatted for a while. It had been, Gleamdren reflected, a much more enjoyable time than dancing would have been. If only all her suitors would take her on long walks instead of fighting for her. It became tedious after too long.
Valxarr’s voice brought Gleamdren back to earth. “Very well, my lady,” he said. “I wish to talk with you as well.” His hand, which still lightly grasped hers, tightened. Slowly, he bent his knee.
Oh dear, Gleamdren thought. This can’t be good.
“Lady Gleamdren,” Valxarr began, “You are a beauty above all beauties, fairer even than your lovely cousin.”
Flattered, Gleamdren fanned herself with a handkerchief she snatched from a suitor on her left. It was true; she was lovelier than anyone else in the world, Near or Far. The only time she had felt ugly was when that silly fool, Eanrin, had left her for that silly mortal girl, and she had to come back with that silly badger. Eanrin hadn’t visited her in—what? How many centuries? How silly.
“I love you, Gleamdren,” continued Valxarr. “Will you marry me?”
Gleamdren’s jaw dropped. Even with all her suitors, she had never before received a proposal of marriage. They all knew that she could never truly love them. Staring into Valxarr’s eyes, she saw only hope and—sincerity? But then, that was normal. Everyone was sincerely in love with her, weren’t they? Recovering her composure, Gleamdren closed her mouth and batted Valxarr’s hand lightly with the handkerchief. “You silly fox!” she giggled.
Valxarr’s expression hardened. “You toy with me, my lady,” he said through clenched teeth. “What is your answer?”
“Well,” Gleamdren started, unsure of the right words, “I really don’t know…”
Abruptly, Valxarr stood up, his hand almost crushing hers. He stiffly kissed it again and bowed, though it was more like a jerk of his head. “Goodbye, Gleamdren. I was a fool to think you could ever love me.” He leapt off the dais and made the change from man to fox. He ran out of the great hall of Rudiobus, but not before Gleamdren glimpsed the hurt in his eyes. None of her suitors had ever left her! Some had died, yes, and Eanrin…
She gritted her teeth as she stared after Valxarr in shock. Maybe Eanrin had left her. But at least he pretended to love her when he came calling, which wasn’t often now. But she had never expected Valxarr to do something like that. After all, wasn’t he a knight of the Farthest Shore? Weren’t they all courteous and calm?
A sudden clamor attracted her attention. The other suitors were back in full force.
“I’m sorry,” said Gleamdren distractedly. “I really must…excuse me.” Pushing her way through the crowd, she made a beeline for the hall that led to her room. Maybe she would just have a good cry. Then, seeing her forlorn weeping, Valxarr would return. And maybe Eanrin would too.
Red eyes did not improve one’s countenance, Gleamdren soon discovered. She couldn’t recall a time that she had cried, or at least a time that she had cried something other than crocodile tears. And as such, she didn’t remember a time when her eyes had become so puffy. It was a very unattractive look. As she stared into the mirror, frantically trying to erase any signs of distress, the door to her room opened. Gleamdren spun around, her face hidden in her hands.
“My dear?” Queen Bebo asked. Seeing Gleamdren, she immediately crossed the room and took her in her arms. “Oh, darling, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Gleamdren pushed herself roughly out of Bebo’s arms. “For what? I lost a suitor, nothing more. Surely I have enough not to miss one.”
Bebo gave her a long, hard look, implying that she saw through Gleamdren’s facade. Then she sighed. “Maybe it would be best if you were to leave Rudiobus for a time.”
“What?” gasped Gleamdren. “Leave Rudiobus? I don’t believe I’ve ever done that – at least not willingly.” She quickly banished memories of a woman of flame, a humiliating cage, and an infuriating mortal. “And my place is with you! Don’t you need me here?”
Bebo patted Gleamdren’s hand. “Of course I love having you with me,” she said, “but I think you need a change. You need to get away from these suitors, have a chance to learn who you really are.”
“But didn’t I do that?” Gleamdren demanded. “When the Dragonwitch stole me away, didn’t I learn enough?”
“I do not mean to say that you have no experience,” soothed Bebo, “though you could probably use more, but what I am trying to tell you is that you have not had the opportunity to discover yourself. When you have listened to the Sphere Songs as I have, when you have spoken with the Prince of the Farthest Shore, you learn what you are made of, and I want you to do that. You are not only the flirtatious and unloving beauty standing on the dais.”
Gleamdren simmered at Bebo’s words. “Where do you wish me to go, my queen?” she forced herself to say.
“I will arrange for you to stay at the Haven of the Prince, in the Wood Between,” Bebo said.
With a gasp, Gleamdren turned her puffy, tear-stained face to stare at her cousin. “You don’t mean—visit that woman? You can’t possibly—”
Bebo nodded her head slowly, her flowing golden locks shimmering in the lamplight. “It will be good for you,” she stated simply.
“Very well. I will go.” Gleamdren returned to her mirror-gazing, experimenting with her hair so as to hide the ruddy color upon her cheeks. “But I doubt I will learn much – not with her around.”
Darkness blanketed the Wood Between so completely that the shadows of the trees were not visible. Hymlumé was new that night, and in absence of her brilliance, the stars’ light, normally so bright to Faerie eyes, was dimmed.
Gleamdren shivered. Vague memories still plagued her, and she quickly turned her thoughts to the Path that lay before her. Each step brought her closer to the Haven and its Lady. Wishing she could turn back to Rudiobus, Gleamdren regretted the rash promise she had given Bebo. Surely it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, brought on by the crying and her tired mind. Her cousin would understand if she returned, wouldn’t she?
Of course she wouldn’t, the more rational part of her reasoned. She would be very disappointed in you.
Sighing, Gleamdren continued on her way, though a fresh, silent argument materialized with every step. Leagues she walked, and yet not an inch, for in the manner of Paths, distance, like time, was immaterial. But certain trees were left behind, and new ones appeared in the edge of her vision, so Gleamdren assumed she must be going somewhere. She occasionally heard the rustle of leaves, though no wind blew, and once she heard the sweet song of a wood thrush, throwing its voice into the air as if the notes were tangible and could be seen against the darkened sky.
Perhaps she could leave the Path and pretend she had gotten lost, though the trouble with leaving Paths is that oftentimes you end up getting much more lost than you had originally intended. But Gleamdren’s distracted musings were cut short by the archway that had suddenly appeared in front of her.
It was made entirely of leaves, though from another angle it seemed all polished white marble. Yet an archway it remained. Inside, Gleamdren could see light: green, treelike light such as the forest floor looks when the sun shines through layers of leaves and dapples the ground with moving shadows.
“No time like the present,” Gleamdren muttered, “though I dearly hope Eanrin isn’t there to gloat.” And with that, she stepped into the Haven.
At once, Faerie attendants swarmed around her. “Shoo!” shouted Gleamdren, waving her arms frantically. “Away with you!” The Faeries, recognizing her petulant features, scattered immediately. Gleamdren huffed and stomped through the hallway, which was simultaneously a long stone corridor and a narrow, leafy hedge.
“The Faeries won’t bother you,” a low, musical voice said. “They are here to help you heal, if it is healing you need.” A woman emerged from a doorway, which Gleamdren had thought at first merely an opening in the hedge. The woman halted when she saw Gleamdren, a puzzled look washing over her dark features.
Gritting her teeth, Gleamdren turned to stare at the Lady of the Haven. “No, thank you,” she said, in a forced attempt at politeness. “I don’t know why I’m here exactly, but it’s definitely not to heal.” With great satisfaction, Gleamdren noticed Imraldera’s brow pucker slightly as she swept past her. “Just find me someplace to stay.”
Imraldera’s forehead smoothed, though a curious spark had ignited in her eyes. “Of course.” She motioned toward another doorway. “That room is currently unoccupied. You may stay there, if you wish.”
“I certainly don’t wish to stay here at all, mortal,” Gleamdren said airily. “But I’m here now, and that obviously makes anyplace in the world better, don’t you agree?” Pushing through the curtain over the door, she left Imraldera’s presence before more of those nasty memories could resurface. Unfortunately, the smooth exit she desired didn’t quite work out, as the curtain also turned out to be hanging tendrils of ivy.
The last thing Imraldera heard was a shriek, followed by cries of, “Oh! My hair!”
Time seemed to move painfully slowly, though Imraldera assured her that it was continuing its customary pace. To which Gleamdren had retorted, “What pace? That of the Near World or the Far?”
She spent most of her days sulking in her room, wondering when Bebo would call for her to return to Rudiobus. Imraldera was being infuriatingly kind; every day she offered Gleamdren tea or a snack, and asked if she would be willing to help out around the Haven. Gleamdren did not deign to respond to these questions, and nor did she accept the tea – though when the Faerie attendants cleaned the room, they almost always found the teacup empty.
However, on one rare day of adventure, Gleamdren found herself in the Haven’s library. Snorting at the thought of books, she made ready to leave, but one partly-open scroll caught her eye. Almost against her will, she returned to look at it.
Intricately illustrated, it was a depiction of Ruaine Hall. Gleamdren felt a touch of longing as she stared at the picture of her people dancing. There were Iubdan and Bebo, watching the festivities with pleasure. There were the many Faeries dancing. And there on the dais…
There she was, surrounded by her many suitors. Gleamdren peered closer and was pleased to discover that almost every one of them was on the page, depicted in great detail. Most were the golden-haired folk of Rudiobus, but one had redder hair than the rest.
“Valxarr,” Gleamdren murmured. She brought her hand closer to the scroll, and one perfect nail touched the back of Valxarr’s head. Immediately, she was plunged into a retelling of the story before her.
It was not one particular day, since indeed, most days were the same, but the story remained true. The characters, made alive by the breathtaking reality, surpassed even their painted counterparts on the scroll. Amused, Gleamdren watched as her suitors tried desperately to win her heart, or at least, a single dance. How long this continued, she could not tell, but gradually she became aware of something.
Was that really her? The woman who caused men’s hearts to race, but then tossed them aside? Gleamdren began to feel slightly sick as her story counterpart did what she knew was true to life. Finally, unable to bear the shame she felt, she pulled herself out of the story and stood, panting, in the library.
Did everyone see her that way? Was that why Valxarr had left? Gleamdren could feel more tears threatening to spill. Pushing the scroll roughly aside, she stormed out of the room, almost running into Imraldera, who was walking down the hallway outside the library.
“Lady Gleamdren?” Imraldera asked, tender concern radiating from her features. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Gleamdren retorted. She swept her skirts up and headed for her room, but halfway there, she stumbled and leaned on the tree-wall for support. Her breath came in short gasps, and she knew were she to stand, her legs would not be able to carry her.
Imraldera arrived at her side in an instant. “Lady Gleamdren,” she said firmly. “You must let me know what is troubling you. The Haven is a place of healing and rest, and I think you need more healing than you think you do.” She placed a hand on Gleamdren’s shoulder and, still talking soothingly, led her to her room, gently guiding her in the right direction. “Lie down now, and tell me if you feel better in the morning.”
Gleamdren nodded, then collapsed on her bed. She fell asleep immediately, and walked in worlds she did not know.
Silvery notes drift down from the treetops arching above her. Gleamdren lifts her head and spies a wood thrush in the branches. Taking her bird’s shape, she flies into the dizzying heights. The wood thrush greets her. Twittering its song, it invites her to join it in praising the High King.
Gleamdren shakes her head slowly. “I cannot,” she replies. “For I do not think I am capable of love.”
“All can love,” says the wood thrush. “Do you think you were brought to the Haven without reason? Learn from Dame Imraldera. She will guide you in my ways. Then you will find what it is to love.”
“You think I can love?” Gleamdren asks. Hope fills her breast, and song bursts forth from her beak. She hears the wood thrush join in, slowing its wondrous song of love so that it matches with her halting, trembling one. Their praise flows over the trees and into the night sky, until it blends with the Sphere Songs that Hymlumé and her children sing in the heavens above.
Her eyes fluttered open. Daylight streamed through the open roof, and a teacup had been left for her. Slowly, Gleamdren sipped the tea, savoring the memory of the lovely dream. She knew the attendants were watching her, so she said, “Could you fetch Imraldera for me?” She paused, then added, “Please?” She heard the ensuing scurry and waited primly for the lady knight to arrive.
“You asked for me, Lady Gleamdren?” Imraldera appeared in the doorway, looking curious.
“Yes, actually,” Gleamdren responded. She pondered her next words before saying slowly, “I…I would like to help you out a little. Not too much, though—it might ruin my complexion.”
Imraldera’s eyes shone as she smiled, and Gleamdren wondered whether the wood thrush had spoken to her as well. “Of course, Lady Gleamdren,” she said. “I would be glad of your assistance.”
Suffice to say, Gleamdren was not a fast learner. Fortunately, Imraldera’s patience never wavered, even after the fifth spilled water bowl, the third smashed cup, and the sixteenth temper tantrum. But as the days went by, Gleamdren’s hands steadied, though her sulky mood persisted. Most of the visitors to the Haven were knights of the Farthest Shore, who normally stayed for only a few days before leaving to serve their Prince. Gleamdren felt a thrill whenever she learned one of her suitors had stopped by, but Imraldera advised her to stay back to speed the healing process.
“Rubbing salt into open wounds does not heal,” she explained. “Neither does resurfacing old wounds when a broken heart is about to be made whole once again.”
Gleamdren sulked, but the memory of the wood thrush led her to nod and make a demure exit.
When Gleamdren had finally begun to be of some help, Imraldera allowed her to greet those who entered the Haven. As she waited by the archway one day, she suddenly heard the sound of quick, light footsteps running in her direction, though judging by the crashes accompanying, this person was carrying something heavy.
“Oi!” a male voice shouted. “Over here!”
Gleamdren blanched. She knew that golden voice, though right now it was tinged with desperation.
Sir Eanrin emerged from the shadowy wood, another figure draped over his shoulder. “Coming through!” he yelled. “Injured Faerie right here!” When he saw Gleamdren, he almost stumbled. “My lady?” he asked, sounding shocked. “What are you—well, no time for that now. Get me Imraldera!”
“Right away,” replied Gleamdren. Hurrying to find Imraldera, she didn’t even mind that Eanrin was asking after the very woman he had left her for all those years ago. For she had recognized the red hair and thin features of the other man, though his face had been white and drawn in pain.
Imraldera, after examining the wounded knight, turned to Eanrin, her face grim. “What happened to him?”
Eanrin backed away, his hands raised protectively, and said, “Don’t blame me! I found him near Guta’s pit. Don’t know how he lost his way. If I didn’t know better, it almost appeared like he tried to kill himself.”
“Tried to kill himself?” Gleamdren gasped. She rushed to Valxarr’s side, almost dropping her water bowl in the process. Smoothing his hair back from his face, she murmured, “This is all my fault. Oh, Valxarr, what have I done?”
“Hush,” Imraldera soothed. She dipped a cloth into the bowl and wiped some of the blood from Valxarr’s face. “Gleamdren,” she said, “it might be best if you leave.”
“No,” Gleamdren replied. She set her jaw and stuck it out firmly. “I will stay.”
“Very well. But I will warn you, I may not be able to save him.”
Gleamdren took a deep breath. “I know. But I need to be here.”
Imraldera nodded, understanding. Eanrin slipped quietly away, but soon returned. “Silly attendants,” he grumbled. “Won’t let me leave.”
As night descended, Valxarr’s breathing became more labored, and Imraldera began to look more worried. “I’m losing him,” she said, a trace of a sob in her voice. “Oh, my Prince, help us!”
Sing, beloved, the voice of the wood thrush whispered in Gleamdren’s mind. And without knowing where the words came from, she sang.
“Beyond the final water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
Even though all you loved has turned to dust,
Won’t you return to me?”
Valxarr gasped, his green eyes opening with a start. “Gl-Gleamdren?” he choked.
“I’m here,” she sobbed. “Oh, I thought you were dead!”
His face clouded. “I wish I was,” he said.
“No!” Gleamdren cried. She took his hand, which lay limply on the leafy covers. “I don’t want you to die.”
“Truly?” he asked, his eyes brightening.
“Truly,” she replied.
Unnoticed by Gleamdren and Valxarr, Eanrin leaned against the wall, stroking Imraldera’s hair as she recovered from the strain of the healing. The female knight’s eyes glistened as she gazed upon the two Faeries, but she looked away to give them privacy.
“I will always love you, Gleamdren,” Valxarr murmured. His green eyes stared unblinkingly into hers, and Gleamdren dared not break the gaze.
Reading the story of love contained there, Gleamdren smiled but did not reply. The wood thrush had told her she could love, and she believed him. But she knew it would take time. And as everyone knows, time in the realm of Faerie is nothing if not incalculable.