There was, in a time not too long past, a youth by the name of Nikola, who walked within a wood beside his town. The paths were well-trodden. Nikola met many whom he met often. He gave and received greeting. He strolled past green leaves and hanging fruit in spring and summer. He strolled past fire-gold leaves in fall and snow-laden branches in winter.
Then, one day, he almost strolled past the most captivating sight he had ever seen in the wood.
Perched in a branch whose broad leaves were just beginning to turn from green to yellow was a bird.
Surely, with such brilliant plumage, the bird must be male. And yet, by some instinct, Nikola was certain the bird was female.
She was the size and general shape of a dove, but her plumage shimmered in the dappled sunlight in hues unseen in that season. Sunset colors at her chest and throat. Deepest orange and softest pink. But her wings and body were a majestic purple, dark in the shade, and rich in the sun. Her tail feathers were long and frilled, and they shifted as she sidled along the branch, her gaze seeming to be fixed upon him.
Nikola watched the bird, and the bird watched him. He was afraid to speak, or even to blink, for he feared that the bird would fly away any moment. He wondered if she would speak to him first. Would it be a trilling song she uttered? Or a gentle cheep? He heard only the cawing of crows and the crooning of doves in the distance.
At last, he did blink, and the bird did fly away. And if any of her feathers had fallen, Nikola would have picked them up and held them to his heart.
The next day, as Nikola strolled through the wood, he came upon a woman in bright and colorful dress. She sat on a bench, or rather she was perched upon one of the arms. She smiled at him as he passed, and Nikola tipped his head.
“May I walk with you, sir?” she asked, standing as he passed by.
Startled, but pleased, Nikola agreed and offered his arm to her. They walked in silence, crunching the dried leaves and twigs beneath their feet, and hearing only the sound of the wind whispering through the trees. When Nikola came upon the spot where he had seen the enchanting bird only the day prior, he slowed and glanced up among the branches.
The lady beside him spoke.
“You are looking for the bird you saw?”
Startled again, Nikola turned to her. “You have seen her too?”
The lady smiled and said, “I have not seen her, for I am her.”
Nikola stepped away from her. “You are a fairy?”
“Have no fear. I have been watching you walk through this wood. I saw a golden mist hanging around you that made you glow in the sunlight. I was curious, so I flew closer to see you.”
So she too had been captivated by Nikola.
“But I see no golden mist about me,” he said.
“Nor do I see the colorful plumage I bear,” said the lady.
“Then come.” Nikola gestured to her to follow. “There is a pond ahead in which you can see your reflection. I will show you.”
“Perhaps later,” the lady said. She too gestured, to another bench, and she bid him to sit. “I would speak to you, and learn how you have come upon this golden mist. Even now, I see it about you.”
The two spoke for a long time. The sky began to dim and darken, and the air to grow chill, then biting. The lady rose first.
“I must transform back, and leave you for a while. But I will return. Will you?”
Nikola nodded. He was struck speechless, for he hoped that she would let him watch her transform. But she only walked down the path until he could no longer see her. After a few moments, he turned back and went home, trying to recall all that they had spoken of, the many hours of charming conversation. He remembered laughing. He remembered enjoyment. But he could not quite remember what was said.
Nikola returned to the wood the next day, having slept little, his heart full of eager longing.
The lady was as good as her word. She too returned. Day after day, she returned.
One day, Nikola decided to pledge his love. He was not possessed of a great fortune. But he spent what he could to buy glass jewels in all the colors of the bird. From these jewels he fashioned a bracelet, according to his trade. He donned his best suit. And he shaved his beard. He checked his pocket no less than three times to make sure he had not forgotten his gift.
That day, he waited and waited, but his lady did not come.
Nikola grew sad and afraid. He feared for his love, feared that some harm had come to her. And he feared because he could do nothing to aid her. He did not know the street on which she lived, much less the house. And he found, for a strange moment, that he could not even remember her name.
As he trudged back home, Nikola heard the flapping of wings, and saw perched upon a branch, the beautiful bird.
He called to her.
“Forgive me, my love,” the bird said, speaking in the voice of a woman. “I searched for you, but did not find you.”
Nikola frowned, puzzled. “But I have been sitting all this while in the place where we always meet.”
“Of course you have. I did not mean to be so late. I was preparing for you a gift. The making of it drained my energies and I fell into a stupor. It is no wonder I had trouble finding you.”
For a single heartbeat, Nikola let himself be angered. But as his lover spoke, he did indeed forgive her.
“I too have a gift you,” he said.
“Let me give mine first,” she said. “For I have decided that I will surrender this form and take only a single form hereafter, so that I may stay with you. Never would I have need to leave you. I could fall asleep in your arms at sunset, and wake in them at sunrise. I hesitate only for one reason. I am not certain that your heart longs for me as I long for you.”
Nikola’s heart raced, for it did indeed long for the same.
The next morning, Nikola stood inside his humble kitchen, nervously worrying the glass jewels of the bracelet that he had forgotten to give his lover the night before.
Foolishly, he feared that she would change her mind, simply because he had promised her a gift that he had failed to deliver.
He would not see her until the afternoon, for he had a trade. It was indeed his own hands that had crafted the bracelet he now deemed unworthy of his lover.
“Its worth is for her to judge,” he told himself, as he left his home, shivering against the coming cold of winter.
As he walked three steps from his front door, a crow landed upon the fence that enclosed his meager garden. The crow cawed at him.
And then she spoke.
“Beware the gray bird. She only wants you for your gold.”
Nikola marveled. For here before him was another fairy, surely. As the crow gave him no greeting, he gave her none. “Why do you come to me with this warning?” he asked.
“You were kind to my sister once, and then twice, and then three times. When we saw you in our wood, she taught me your face. We return kindness in kind.”
“I know of no gray bird. I only know a bird with beauteous plumage of many colors.”
“That is the one of whom I speak. The colors are an illusion.”
“I will not ignore or dishonor your kindness,” Nikola said. “But can you not tell me more?”
“Not as yet. My sister searches for knowledge.”
“Then I thank her as I thank you.” Nikola chuckled merrily, for he was love-struck, and the crow’s heavy words found no purchase in his mind or his heart. “But there is nothing to fear, my friend. For I have no gold to steal. Nor even silver, truth be told.”
The crow cocked her head. “A strange thing to say to one who can see that you are overflowing with gold.”
Nikola had forgotten by then what his lady had told him when first they met, about the golden mist that surrounded him.
The crow reminded him. And she told him what that golden mist truly was.
The golden mist was one of the most precious ethers—the substances that animated most magic, and upon which some creatures fed.
Nikola’s golden mist was made by his heart, a kind and unjaded heart. One that had been protected perhaps from many of the pains in life that condensed, and often drained, the gold from the hearts of his fellows. For most people, the mist condensed and pooled in their hearts, and was only shared with those whom they trusted best and loved truly.
“The gray bird can spin your golden mist into spells, into coins, into thread,” said the crow. “Into resplendent feathers. Into a form that would please her prey. Many beings create a golden mist, but there must be something of your mist that she finds most appetizing.”
Nikola began to find the crow’s company upsetting. “If all you say is true, then I still do not mind. I gladly grant my heart’s joy to my love. What harm does it do me?”
“Much harm, my friend,” said the crow. “Much harm. For now you are overflowing with gold, and cannot feel its absence. But as she takes more and more from you, your heart will begin to grow cold and hard. First you will turn cruel, forsaking all who love you, forsaking all you love. Then you will die.”
“Forgive me,” Nikola said, “but you are a stranger to me. And I am not so fickle as to turn upon my love at the word of a stranger.”
The crow gave no answer to this, but only flew away.
Nikola’s mind was troubled, but his heart soared when next he saw his love.
When Nikola presented his gift to his lady, he had not truly feared that she would find it unworthy. Though she wore dresses in bright colors, she never wore jewels. He had thought it was because her means were as humble as his. But when first she saw his gift, her eyes grew wide, as if with horror. She seemed to recover herself, and before he could place the bracelet upon her wrist, she grasped it from him and clutched it to her heart, and claimed that it was the most precious gift anyone had ever given her.
“My love,” his lady said, “now that we have pledged ourselves to each other, is it not time for me to see your home, and for you to see mine?”
Nikola agreed, and they went first to Nikola’s humble house, which he had cleaned and made comfortable for his lady.
When she left that evening, Nikola noted the black shapes of two crows upon his fence, outlined against the low-hanging full moon.
The next day, he readied himself to at last see his lady’s home.
Outside his door, sitting upon his fence were two crows.
“Do not go, friend,” one of them said. The voice was calm and measured, and softer than the first. Nikola judged that this was the sister the first crow spoke of. “For I have followed the gray bird and have not found where she makes her nest.”
“We fear for you,” the other crow said, the one he first met. “Let us follow you.”
Nikola, whose heart was so light that he felt as if he were floating upon his feet at each step, grinned and bowed at the crows. “And if I were to refuse, would you follow me nevertheless?”
“We fear for you,” the crow said again, her voice fierce and full of gravel.
“Yes,” said the calm one. “We will follow.”
“Do what you will,” Nikola said with a shrug, “for I have no dominion over the skies. But do not harm my love or me.”
Nikola did not wait for their replies, for he was eager to meet his love that day.
They met under the very branch where first he had laid eyes upon her. And they made their way deeper into the wood, deeper and deeper. At first, Nikola was aware of the two dark shapes that soared beside them. He nervously hoped that his love did not note them. She seemed not to.
They walked for so long that Nikola’s feet began to ache.
But at last they came to his lady’s home.
It was a great stone tower, a watchtower perhaps from a bygone time. Nikola deemed it a strange home, but then he swept such judgment from his mind. And he grew curious as they crossed the threshold into the tower.
Indeed the first floor was quite cozy. A fire burned steadily, and there was a smell of food cooking. Nikola was much comforted.
But he grew nervous again when his lady offered to show him the floors above, where lay many bedchambers. He noted a twinkle in his lady’s eye, reflecting the red flame of the hearth.
“Perhaps we should dine first,” he said. And so they did.
Nikola watched his lady as they ate. Her eyes glinted in the candlelight. He glanced at her wrists, but did not find his bracelet upon them. His stomach fluttered. It saddened him that she did not wear it, especially when there was no one else but him to see.
Evening fell, and Nikola was well-rested. So when his love offered to show him the rest of the tower, he agreed. He felt strong enough to climb up the tower and down, and walk all the way home.
As they climbed, however, he began to grow cold, for the heat from the hearth did not seem to spread to the rest of tower. Upon one wall, he glimpsed water trickling strangely, trickling upward. And as they passed one floor, he smelled foul odors mingled with sickly sweet ones. Out of politeness, he said nothing. And his lady said nothing as she led him farther and farther up. Through the small windows that were scattered along the side of the tower, Nikola glimpsed the dark night sky, lit only and dimly by stars.
They climbed to the highest level of the tower, where she led Nikola into a bedchamber.
Even with chill breezes sweeping through the chamber, Nikola felt a flush of heat across his face.
“You must stay with me,” his lady said. “Tonight, and forevermore.”
Nikola took her hands in his own. “Tomorrow, I will ask for a holiday from labor, then—”
Nikola released her hands and drew back.
His lady pressed her hand upon her stomach. In the dim light of the chamber, her brightly colored dress appeared to be gray. And her amber eyes flashed red.
But there was no fire within that chamber.
She now took his hands. “We have pledged ourselves to each other have we not?”
Nikola tried to smile. “I have watched you go many times. And you have returned to me. So too will I return, tomorrow. You have my word. But tonight I must go.”
His lady stepped away from him. She was smiling, so Nikola did not at first understand the meaning of her words. “I cannot risk it,” she said. “I cannot risk them meddling with your mind.”
She turned and strode toward the door to the chamber. She walked through it and pulled it closed.
Nikola sighed, his heart troubled for upsetting his love. He followed her to the door, but when he turned the knob, he found that the door was locked.
And his troubled heart began to knock against his chest, even as his fists, and his feet, and his shoulders knocked against the door.
Nikola did not know how many days he had been trapped in the tower, for when he tried to count, his mind grew foggy. When he tried to think of ways he might escape, the thoughts slipped away as fast as they came. Some enchantment was at work.
Every day, he gazed out of the one small window, hoping to see the crows who had warned him, whose warnings he had not heeded.
But he saw nothing. Even the forest below stayed the same, unchanging from the day he arrived, though it surely should have turned to winter.
Yet he knew time passed, for his heart felt colder and heavier day by day. His lady, or the gray bird, was draining him of his golden mist, a quality he possessed and yet could not himself see.
Nor did he see his lady, either as a woman or as a bird.
When at last he spotted some change outside of the window, it was not a bird he glimpsed. Something was growing against the tower wall, creeping and crawling upwards. He heard the crackling and snapping of twig and branch, and the rustling of leaf against leaf.
And then, he spotted a familiar black shape winging toward his window.
Nikola stepped back to let the crow land. She barely fit in the window. She hopped down to the stone floor and looked up at him.
“My sister has gone to trouble the demon that desires you.”
“I have learned much in the days you have been trapped here, my friend,” the crow said.
“How many days?”
“A new moon rose on the day you crossed the threshold. It reached its fullness and waned, and a new moon rises again.”
Nikola staggered back, but he recovered himself. “Your sister! She is in danger.”
“We had to draw the demon away, so that the woodland fairies could grow their firethorn up the tower. It will be your way down. The climbing vines were too fearful to grow along the tower, and I do not begrudge them. The inside of the tower is guarded by gruesome traps. We dare not even try it.”
“But I can’t fit through that window.”
As Nikola spoke, thorny branches grew through the window, bearing clusters of small leaves that looked like large flies with green wings were perched upon the branches. The stones that shaped the window began to crack and crumble.
“You must go and help your valiant sister,” Nikola said to the crow.
“I will, but I must tell you about the demon first, so you might defend yourself.”
The clever crow had learned much about the one who had stolen first the form of bird, then the form of a woman. It was no bird, no woman, no natural creature at all. It was a demon with a name too terrible to utter. The people in the land where the demon was thought to first emerge gave it a harmless, even silly, nickname that was meant to allow the people to speak of the demon without fear, and to spread knowledge of how to thwart it.
“They call it Kopcͮe,” the crow said. “A word that in their language means ‘buckles.’ A strange name for such a fearsome enemy.”
But the name was how the clever crow learned of the many legends about how to fight the demon. Circles to bind. Mirrors to stun.
The crow cawed. “Some have said that lightning can kill the demon.”
“But how can a mere mortal summon lightning?” Nikola asked.
“Do you have the trinket that you gave as a gift to the demon?”
Nikola shook his head. “Is there some use to it?”
“The demon’s love was false, but yours was true—and may still be. A circle that binds. It is why your lady feared it.”
The window cracked open.
“Climb down and hide, friend,” the wise crow said. “I will go to my sister.”
The crow easily flew out of the window, for it was now large enough for Nikola to climb through.
In the fresh breeze, his mind felt clearer than it had in many days. And he began to climb down.
As Nikola climbed down, outside of the tower’s foul influence, his mind cleared even further, and his body grew stronger. He had not seen his jailer, but the demon had left food and drink, and Nikola had eaten to keep himself strong and steady.
He was halfway down the tower, moving slowly though the firethorn bore his weight as well as a thick oak would have. He had made the mistake of gazing down, and had grown dizzy.
Nikola heard a cawing, a frantic cawing.
And he smelled an acrid familiar smell.
Black wings flapped about him. “Hurry, friend!” the valiant crow said. “The demon is burning it!”
Nikola stopped and turned his head to look down.
The firethorn was aflame. Smoke rose and choked his throat. Nikola coughed and climbed down faster, for not all was burning. The thorns unwittingly scratched and pierced his skin as he scrambled down. He did not see the demon or the crows. He only heard their cawing.
Nikola tumbled to the ground, scratched, bruised, and burned. He was surrounded by burning branches. But a crow cawed beside him, and the force of the cry sheared through the burning branches, even as it blew out the fire.
The branches caught aflame again as fire spread from the rest of the great shrub that encircled the tower.
With the help of the clever crow flapping beside him, clearing the way with the force of her cawing, Nikola escaped the tower and fled into the wood.
But he heard the demon pursuing them.
For he heard its scream.
Not like a bird. Not like a woman. Not like any creature he had ever heard.
Nikola clapped his hands to his ears, but the scream slipped through and stabbed at his head. He brought his hands away, and they were covered in blood.
“Hold fast, my friend,” the clever crow said, flying ahead. “I am leading us to water.”
As they ran through the wood, Nikola was again scratched by the firethorn that grew all about. His coat caught in the thorns and in branches that he saw were now laden with bright orange berries.
They reached the edge of a small pond.
“It will stun the demon to see its own reflection,” the clever crow said. “But when full dark approaches, we will be at its mercy again.”
“Then you and your sister must flee,” Nikola said. “I will hide somewhere.”
“The demon will find you.”
Nikola glanced about. “Can you fly up and see if there is a circle that we can use to bind the demon?”
“You are not an enchanter, my friend. There is no circle you can make that would trap the demon, not before it captured you again.”
“The woodland fairies are enchanters,” Nikola said. He pointed to the firethorn. “Grow a circle of the firethorn around the demon.”
“The demon will only set them aflame again.”
“I will lure the demon into our trap,” said Nikola, glancing behind him at the pond. “A circle around the pond. The demon has a weakness. I think I know it. I have seen it. It will not recognize the firethorn full of berries. Just as it did not recognize me when I shaved my beard. By the time it realizes what we have done, we will have trapped it.”
The clever crow peered at him. “Then we must hurry,” she said. She flew off to entreat the woodland fairies.
When he glimpsed a black bird winging toward him again, Nikola thought it was the clever crow returning. But it was her sister, the fearless crow. Some of her feathers were singed, and she held something in her beak that she dropped into Nikola’s hands.
“The bracelet!” Nikola cried.
“The demon hid it in her corset,” the brave crow said. “It took much pecking to pry it out.”
“You are valiant indeed,” Nikola said.
As he spoke, branches of firethorn grew in a circle around the pond, leaving only a small gap through which he passed. Nikola snapped the links of the bracelet, placing the glass jewels along the borders of the pond.
When the demon appeared, Nikola felt his heart race with fear.
Upon its face, it wore the mask of a beautiful woman. Upon its back, it bore wings arrayed with shimmering feathers. But all was gray.
Nikola feared the demon would scream and shatter the bones of his skull.
But he also hoped that the demon wanted him alive so it could drink of his golden mist, however much of that mist still remained after betrayal and fear had seized his heart.
The demon noted the pool of water. Its true face shown in the dim reflection of dusk, but Nikola dared not look at it. He kept his gaze upon the demon. He stepped back.
“Stay, my love,” the demon said, in the voice of the woman he had once loved.
The demon entered the pool, for it was growing dark, and there was no moonlight, no reflections left upon the water.
Nikola stepped back slowly, back upon the shore. He did not answer the demon. He did not speak at all. He saw the gap in the firethorn closing behind the demon. He walked through another such gap, and then it quickly closed behind him. In his hand, he held one final glass jewel. With his eyes still on the demon, he knelt and set it down.
The demon gasped. It stopped moving.
For the circle was now closed.
Nikola spoke in calm and measured words, even as he felt the heartbreak from losing what he thought was the truest love of his life.
“This will be your prison,” he said, “for you have come to my world to ravage and destroy. You are not welcome here.”
The demon was trembling now. The demon was silent now.
The two crows perched in the branches beside Nikola.
“You have done it,” said the sage crow.
“You have trapped the demon,” said the valiant crow.
But as they watched, the demon brought forth, from within the folds of its wings, a flask full of golden liquid. It brought the flask to its lips and drank.
Nikola’s heart froze as the demon leapt out of the circle and landed outside of it.
The demon did not attack Nikola, or even glance in his direction.
It fled through the forest.
For days after, the friends were vigilant. But there was no sign of the demon.
The crow whom Nikola had named Sage believed that the demon had left their country to trouble another.
“Then I must do as others have done before me,” Nikola said. “I must write down every detail I can remember of my encounter with the demon, and of my heroic allies, the true fairies, and how we trapped the demon. It would not have escaped had it not been for that strength that my golden mist granted it.”
“What happened to your mist?” asked the crow that Nikola had named Valiant. “I don’t see it anymore.”
Sage answered. “It has condensed and pooled within his heart. He will not again be troubled by this demon.”
“I knew that love was worth some risk,” Nikola said. “But I had thought the worst I would risk was heartbreak and humiliation. I feared those, but I was prepared to suffer them. I never dreamed of such a horror as I have known. I cannot bear to feel so deeply again for one whose affections are false, one who means only to cow me into submission, so that I can be consumed until I am spent and broken.”
The crows did not speak, but only cawed softly in sympathy.
Nikola gazed between them and smiled. “But I have gained in love as well as lost. How long will we be friends, I wonder?”
“I suspect till the next time you foolishly fall in love,” Valiant said.
“And will you save me again as you did this time?”
“I suspect we will,” said Sage, “for we return kindness in kind. And love for love.”
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel