No one calls me Hildegard. I insist that all who meet me and know me call me Gard. I was once a wanderer, but I truly am a guard now. This is the tale of how and when my watch began. For I have set myself the task of watching over a child, my sister’s child, a strange child. My hope is that hers will be a good strangeness. My fear is that it will be a wicked strangeness. She does not care for me, my niece, for I broke a promise I made to her many years ago.
It was mid-summer at the start of my first true fairy tale. I had returned home from my wanderings in the northern mounts. I was born with the soul of an adventurer, but with none of the courage or brilliance of a true adventurer. So I became what was known in my native land as a “vaganto,” a wanderer. We vagantos were more like traveling merchants and entertainers. We wandered from town to city to capitol to village. We learned and we traded. We sang or played. Sometimes we stayed for years. Sometimes we arrived at dawn and left before twilight. We were set apart from unfortunate vagrants or scheming cutpurses by the alchemical tattoos that marked our bodies. We earned them during our studies and apprenticeships. The shapes and placements were well-known. But none could copy the ink, blackest black and tinged with a glimmer of alchemy. Only a vaganto alchemist knew how to make that ink.
When I returned home from my travels that summer, I was greeted by a dozen children, the sons and daughters of my brothers and sisters. I had not been home for many years, and those who were babes biting at my ankles when I left had grown up to my shoulders by the time I returned. They all asked about my wanderings. But most had their hearts set on different futures. Farming, sculpting, trade, or sport. The older ones spoke of finding their loves. The younger ones spoke of living in their own homes and being free to eat as many pastries as they wished (for I had brought far too many pastries than any child was allowed to eat at once).
I didn’t stay long for I planned to return again before the year’s end. I asked all my nieces and nephews to visit me in the days before I departed to tell me what gifts they wanted upon my return. I relished lavishing them with gifts, but I did not wish to spoil or enfeeble my nieces and nephews. If they longed for something, truly and passionately, I thought, they would come and ask.
On the eve of my departure, the last child came to me. She was not particularly quiet, but not particularly forward either. She came into my room and stood politely by the door. When I turned to her, she inclined her head in a bow. She told me that she would be turning seven years old near the time of my return, and she wished to ask for a special present, as it would be for her birthday. She told me that she asked nothing of her mother and father, for she wanted nothing from them. What she wanted only I could give.
“Intriguing child,” I said. “Tell Auntie Gard what you want for your birthday.”
She kept her eyes averted. I could see that she braced herself, for she took a measured breath and pressed her lips together, and though we were the only two in the room, she leaned toward my ear and whispered her wish.
She told me she wanted the soul of a fairy.
I thought she was jesting at first, and what a clever jester, for she did not break into giggles at the sight of my incredulous face. Perhaps she was too shy to tell me what she truly wanted and could only ask for something I could never give her. Then I thought she was perhaps being poetic or fanciful. She must have known as well as I did that fairies did not have souls.
“Promise me,” she said, daring to glance up, before looking down at her feet.
I felt a chill. I could not knowingly make a promise I knew I could not keep. But I could make a promise that was impossible to keep and therefore impossible to break. Perhaps she didn’t know that fairy’s lacked souls. I answered her.
“If on my travels to the east, I chance upon a fairy with a soul, I will bring you the fairy.”
She creased her brow for just a heartbeat, then she bowed again and left.
I was already caught up in the swooping thrill of a new adventure. I would next travel far to the east, where it was said that dragons were wise and the sun set when it chose, and sometimes not at all. So it was not until much, much later that I thought the girl’s request was odd, perhaps even troubling.
It was easy enough for me to collect all the trinkets and toys that most of the children had asked for. I did not carry them with me. I sent them back home to lie in wait at home until my return. I thought often of my promise to my niece, for I needed to find some other gift for her.
I had come across many a fairy in my travels. It was how I learned that they truly had no souls, for I had asked a few of them myself. I even befriended a fairy once or twice, as much as one could befriend the sometimes strange and sometimes capricious people.
But much of what I learned was already known and told in nursery rhymes. I had just learned what parts of those tales were true and what was embellished…and what was left out because it was too monstrous, or sometimes, because it was too enticing.
The only way a fairy could attain having a soul was to steal it from another being who had one, and the most likely such being was a human being. That’s why babies and small children were so well-warded. Their souls were tender and weakly tethered to their bodies. It was true that some unscrupulous fairies did try to steal the souls of children. But most who coveted a soul went after the souls of grown men and women, often through seduction or capture, sometimes both. But to most fairies, it was at best an oddity, at worst an abomination, for a fairy to have a soul. As to why that was, I never could get any answer. I suspected more than fairy mischief. There was some secret to being soulless. Perhaps their magical natures and the ease with which they cast spells and mixed potions resulted from their lack of souls. Perhaps that was why human magicians and alchemists, by contrast, had to practice their crafts so painstakingly.
At last, after many months of wandering, I was on the road to the capitol city of the province. There I would stay for a while, then my wanderings would end, and I would return home. There would I find the last of the gifts for my nieces and nephews.
As I walked along the road on a brisk but bright day, I pondered again what I might get my niece for her seventh birthday. I pondered again her strange request. I considered bringing home a friendly fairy. I knew well that none of my family had ever met one, at least not to their knowing. Though I had no intention of making a gift of something so profound as a soul, my niece’s request had made me curious, curious enough to learn about how fairies stole souls and how those souls might be rescued and restored. Curious enough to purchase spells and potions I would never have considered touching before.
I had in my wanderer’s satchel one such spell, a powerful and dangerous spell, bought at great cost. A spell that upon further consideration I intended to turn over to wiser folk than me. I had tried to use it upon myself, but it didn’t work. That was good. The spell was for fairies, fairies who had souls.
I turned to lighter thoughts, for I had long to walk still, and I needed no further burdens than the travel pack on my back and the satchel by my side.
As it so happened, I heard the sound of an approaching cart just when my feet were beginning to blister. Much to my good fortune, the driver of the cart offered me a lift to the capitol in exchange for some company and conversation on the way there. For it would yet be a few hours, even on a cart drawn by strong and sprightly horses.
“May your day be prosperous,” I said by way of the local greeting.
“And may your night follow my day,” the driver replied. She was a tall woman with a dark complexion for that region. The wide-brimmed hat she wore to shield her face from the winter sun was so large it covered me as well when I sat down next to her. I caught the scent of fresh flowers from behind us. She was carrying a variety of winter-blooming flowers.
“I am Gard. What is your name, traveler?”
She chuckled. “If I tell you that, you might use it to steal my soul.”
I was taken aback at her words. And I snapped alert, for her words were suspiciously close to what my thoughts had been less than an hour past.
“Call me Hana,” she said. The name meant “flower.”
I turned to look at her face. There was some otherworldliness to the sheen of her skin. In one moment, it was as solid as mine, but the next, it seemed I could almost see through it to the veins and sinew beneath.
“Forgive me,” I said. “But you are not human.”
“I am floranfaere.”
I held back a gasp. A flower fairy? She could not be. Flower fairies, much like flowers themselves, were always beautiful and youthful, fresh and typically small. They preferred gauzy, flowing dress in gentle hues, or sharp shapes in bright hues. She must have been a rare type. And she must have read my thoughts in my gaping gaze. She spoke, as if in answer to my unspoken question. Why did she not look like a floranfaere?
“A soul is a heavy burden,” she said. “I cannot carry it and carry my glamour.”
I did gasp then, and jumped off the still-moving cart. I fell to the ground, and willed myself to rise, but my limbs were like jelly, so filled with horror was I. It was as if I feared she would steal my soul, though she had just admitted she already had one. But a fairy who had stolen someone’s soul must be wicked and dangerous. Who knew what harm would befall me.
I scrambled to my feet. I planned to run and hide and try to find something in my satchel—a ward, a potion, a scroll—that might help me to fight her off.
I spun around to see where she was. She had stopped the cart. She descended from it and walked toward me with a gliding stride. She pushed her hat back from her head and held out her hand.
“I intend you no harm, so long as you intend me none.”
It was then, when I peered at her closely, that I saw the violet in her dark hair. In the shadow, the color was invisible. It only shone in the sunlight. I could see the sheer outline of wings emerging from the back of her water-blue traveling robes, but she had no luminescence. Her skin, when it was solid, was marked by nicks and scars, just like mine. She moved with grace, but it seemed a mortal grace, like that of lithe dancers upon the stage. It was not the uncanny grace of a fairy. That was one thing the tales of my youth got wrong. Even the large fairies, and the ones who were described as lumbering and clumsy in the tales told to children, were in truth quite agile. But a troll was terrifying enough, I supposed, that over the years, the elders telling their children the stories may have hobbled the most frightening fairies to make them less frightening.
“I have never met a fairy with a soul,” I said, not meaning to speak the truth.
Hana smiled and the smile lit her face with beauty. But like a blush, it flushed her face and then faded. And her face looked common again, like mine.
“Do all fairies look like you?” I asked, slipping a hand into my satchel as it hung at my hip.
“Are they all ugly under their glamours, you mean?”
I did not find her to be ugly. But I said nothing in reply.
“You are a Wanderer,” she said. She glanced down at my left hand, on the back of which was one of my vaganto tattoos.
I inclined my head.
“Then you know many stories about fairies.”
Fear and curiosity burned in equal measure in my gut. “How did you come by a soul?”
“I was born with this soul. It’s mine.”
I frowned. “That cannot be. Fairies are born without souls.”
“That is not always so.”
A notion dawned in my mind. “You’re a half-blood then. Half of you is human.”
Hana shook her head. Some of her hair was frizzy. Some of it fluttered like a petal in a soft breeze.
“I would not object if that were so. Perhaps I would be better anchored in this world. But all of me is fairy.”
“We are ill-met, I’m afraid,” I said. “I have a niece I’m quite fond of and she asked me for a most unusual gift for her birthday. She asked me for the soul of a fairy.” I did not want to keep speaking the truth, but I was too nervous to devise a lie. I needed to keep talking to distract her attention away from my rummaging, my searching in my satchel for the particular shape of a bottle filled with a spell that I expected I would not use.
Hana tilted her head. “And you agreed to acquire one for her?”
“I thought I tricked her. I told her that if I encountered a fairy with a soul, I would bring that fairy home to her.”
“You expected to travel the five provinces of my land and not meet any fairies with souls?”
“They are villains, shunned by other fairies.”
Hana breathed in deeply and sighed. She folded her hands before herself. “I suppose you were told such tales by these ‘other’ fairies. And why does your niece want a fairy’s soul? That’s a troubling request. Did you not think so when she made it?”
Even through my panic, I realized she was right. On the eve of my departure, my mind was filled with the journey ahead. I hadn’t truly paid attention to the girl and to her request. My hand gripped cold glass with a particular shape. A bottle carved like a gem, with many facets.
“Perhaps your niece wants my soul, because she has none of her own. As I was born with a soul, perhaps she was born without one.”
“That’s unlikely. All human beings are born with a soul. If she doesn’t have a soul now, it’s because one of your kind stole it, despite our wards.”
“Why, pray tell, did she name the soul of fairy in particular?” Hana said. “Why not simply say she wanted a soul? Does she know the stories that you know?”
“I don’t know what kinds of stories her mother tells her.”
“Then you are not close to her, this niece of yours? You do not know her?”
That was when I uncorked the bottle and sprung the trap, not for the fairy, but for her soul. To my eyes, there was no change. But the hand holding the bottle felt resistance and a great weight. Within moments, my arm was numb from carrying the weight.
“I have you now, fairy,” I said. “While you thought to confuse and confound me with your words, I played along and I have caught you. Rather, I have caught your soul.”
Hana frowned. Her hands went to her throat. “So you have.”
“And I will take it now.”
“For your niece?”
“I will return it to its rightful owner.”
“And what of your niece?”
“What niece?” I said, hoping to take back the truth I had told her.
“Ah, so she was part of your ruse.”
I found an ordinary rope in my satchel and tied Hana’s hands behind her. I helped her up to her cart. She seemed a willing captive, but I feared she had some scheme in mind. According to the customs of the land, being a foreigner, I had to be accompanied and supported by a native to the province if I sought to accuse another native. Hana’s fate might be to be handed over to the fairy authorities. Or she might be abandoned by the fairies and forgotten in some dungeon. Or they might cut off her head.
Her fate would depend on the fate of the one whose soul she had stolen. Sometimes, though it was rare, a person whose soul was stolen simply died. Other times, they lost their purpose and wandered—not aimfully as I did—but aimlessly through their lives. But most frightening of all were the ones who lived and sometimes even prospered, all the while committing atrocities. Human beings were always born with souls, because human beings were meant to have souls. A human being needed a soul. Fairies did not, though many envied and appreciated souls for their power and purity.
Unwilling to hand her over to unknown justice, I left Hana in an inn while I went to cast another spell. I had bought two. The first spell was the trap for the soul. Perhaps it was the adventurer who lived in my soul and longed to emerge. Perhaps I envisioned rescuing a human soul from a wicked fairy and restoring it.
The second spell was a spell of finding. It would find where the soul belonged, where it first was born into the world. Even if that person was on the other side of the world, I would be able to restore it. For souls did not travel across land and sea. Souls could traverse the earth and ride upon the light.
That I had so easily captured Hana’s soul was in part proof that she had stolen it. A human being’s soul becomes more deeply anchored to that person as he or she ages. But a fairy’s stolen soul was always weakly tethered.
When Hana woke from a slumber that seemed at once commonplace and ethereal, I was sitting by the window on the second floor of the inn. In my hands I held a bottle with the soul of a fairy within in.
Hana was not bound. I had asked her to stay in the capitol until I restored the soul I had taken from her. But I had expected her to regain her fairy powers, vanish behind a glamour, and never be seen again. I had wandered through many a land and met many a different people. My instinct for knowing the nature of a person—human or fairy—had been honed over those many wanderings. I could still be wrong. I did not believe that Hana had killed the owner of the soul. But perhaps she had. I could still be wrong. I did not believe my niece meant ill. But perhaps…
I held the bottle out to Hana.
“Twice now I have cast this spell myself. A third time, I had a vaganto magician cast it for me, thinking I lacked some skill, or that you had succeeded in clouding my mind.”
Hana looked at the bottle, then up at me. Her fairy essence had indeed returned. Her smooth hair was a vivid violet, as were her eyes. Her skin was free of any wrinkle or blemish. Iridescent wings sprung from her back. Even her robes were a brighter blue, and they flowed about her when she glided about the room. She raised a mischievous brow.
“It’s your soul,” I said. I uncorked the bottle. I saw nothing. But I felt the aching heaviness leave my arm as the bottle lightened.
Hana’s hair darkened, though her eyes and robes remained bright. Her wings seemed to melt into the air. Color filled the skin of her face and arms. The otherworldly glow about her dimmed. She released the burden of the glamour as she took up the burden of her soul. Yet she stood straighter and smiled.
I looked down. “It is I who should thank you. I learned that fairies can be born with souls.”
“But you have likely encountered many in your travels. I am just the first to admit it to you.”
“I did not want to trouble you before, when you didn’t believe me.”
I sighed and nodded.
“What will you do now?” Hana asked.
I could only stare at her, stare into her vivid violet eyes. “I will have to break my promise to my niece.”
Suddenly, Hana’s eyes seemed to darken. Her expression turned serious. “What were her words? Remember them clearly.”
I thought of what my niece had said and repeated the words in my mind.
Auntie Gard, I would like for you to bring me the true soul of a fairy.
I told Hana, and even as I did, I understood what my niece had said. She asked for the true soul of a fairy. Not a stolen soul. A trueborn, native fairy soul.
“Beware this child,” Hana said, nodding. “She is at best a strange child, who asked for this gift out of curiosity. But even if that were so, she is on the verge of a path that will lead her to wickedness.”
“And at worst?”
“She may already be wicked. Her soul may be corrupted or broken. She asked for the true soul of a fairy because she knew what you did not know, that fairies can be born with souls. And she hoped for that soul to restore her own.”
“If that’s so, then her longing is innocent. Though the ends might be…unpleasant.”
“That is how such things begin.”
“The path to wickedness. The path that all we beings who possess souls must beware of.”
“I’ll watch out for her.”
“How will you do so when you are wandering far from home?”
Her words pierced my heart, for I knew they were the beginning of the end of my life as a vaganto. Surely, it was my sister’s charge to watch over her girl. Why must I give up my wanderings?
“You will not watch alone,” Hana said. She reached out her hand. “And there are many other ways to wander than with your feet.”
I took her hand and shook it. “After all that I did to you?” A sudden wave of suspicion washed over me. Had I met her by chance? Or had Hana sought me out?
“Let’s go downstairs and have a meal,” Hana said. “There is much you still have to learn about us fairies. You’ve been told all the wrong stories, it seems. And there is much I must tell you about myself.”
“Those who have souls can still lie,” I said, but as I did, Hana turned her face to me. I looked into her vivid violet eyes. I took comfort in what I saw.
I saw her soul.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel