The forest seemed to end all at once. I looked up, although my head was heavy. In the orange-red light of the setting sun, even the mist couldn’t hide the ruins of the castle that was once the Faery Kingdom’s pride. Now there was nothing left but a few crumbling corners of gray boulders, and a tall stone arch that used to be the gateway to the Faery World. Many a traveler had been discouraged at the sight, and turned back to the world of man with nothing to show for his journey.
I was not a traveler to be discouraged.
The sun was already setting on my second day of travel, and I was running out of time. And strength. The soles of my feet ached in my stiff shoes. My stomach twisted in an angry, empty knot, and the taste in my mouth was sour. I had come too far to turn back.
Blackberry vines snaked around my path, heavy with berries ripe and inviting. It was too late in the year for berries, but they were there, and I had to step over each thorny branch. If I looked beyond the path, I could even see fruit orchards even began unfolding down the sides of the mountain, each tree’s boughs prosperously full and heavy. Peaches. Apples. So hungry. But I couldn’t eat any of it. If I valued my life, I wouldn’t eat it, nor leave the path to look closer. These temptations were only traps to ensnare intruders like me. But the sight of the orchards gave me courage: I was close. Almost to the very top of the mountain, now.
At last, the gate loomed above me. The ancient stone arch, covered in moss and drenched in mist. The sun had set, a hazy orange blob in the sky behind me. On either side of the arch was a low stone wall-- the outer wall of his castle, the enemy that would either bring my death or our salvation.
I walked through the gate.
Two blades of cold, sharp metal touched my neck instantly.
“Halt ye there, lad.” One of the guards said. I could see out of the corner of my eye that he had no armor or mail, but wore the skins of animals. One was bearded, and the other looked young enough to be aching for a fight.
“I seek audience with the king!” My voice squeaked out, despite my efforts to keep it low and under control.
“Ha! Begone before we cut off an ear or two.” One of the spears shifted behind my ear.
“Now, now, there’s no point in getting your spear dirty, Rax.” The bearded guard said to him mildly. “If the boy turns around now, that is.”
“But that’s boring.” the first (Rax) complained. “You always let them off easy, Jonathan.”
They hadn’t noticed I was not a boy, but in fact, female. Well, at my age (I was eleven) it hardly mattered to me. I was still a little wisp of a child with a short crop of dirty hair, and there was no dress to make me seem more feminine. I wore a large, hand-me-down shirt and trousers under my cloak for warmer and safer traveling.
“I have a gift for the king!” I said sternly. “Let me see him!”
“Oho, what is this gift? Let us see.” the second guard (Jonathan) said. He gestured to his fellow, and the blades moved a few inches away.
My stiff fingers fumbled with the bag hanging at my hip, pulled out the gift, and loosened the cloth wrapped around it. The scent caught the guards by surprise, and the harsh expressions on their faces changed. That scent, my grandfather had told me, will be your ticket inside.
“You can leave that here,” Jonathan began.
“I want it!” said Rax, reaching out his hand.
“‘Tis for the king only!” I snapped, holding it close. “Take me to see him!”
They glared at me now. “He would be angry if he found out, Rax.” Jonathan said, twisting a finger in his long, brown beard.
“Fine! Follow behind.” Rax grumbled.
I sighed inwardly with relief, and they led me down the hidden stone steps of the castle that was built beneath the ruins of the former. The underground halls of the faeries.
We walked into the darkness disturbed only by torches on the walls. The guards took me down the narrow passage until we reached two tall, wooden doors that stood open. Rax stayed with me while Jonathan opened the door and shut it behind him.
“Your majesty,” We heard him say. “There is a mortal child who seeks audience with you.”
The guard behind me gave me a push. “After you, lad.”
I stumbled into the Great Hall, the throne room of the Faery King. It was bright and cold, with fur rugs on the floor, faeries sitting by low stone tables, and at the center and back of the room, sat the king himself. His throne was a simple wooden chair, but he sat on it grandly, looking young-but-wise, powerful, and incredibly haughty.
He sized me up with one look and brushed back a lock of his fine black hair. “It’s been many years since a human child walked into my hall uninvited. Don’t tell me you’re here out of curiosity?”
He’s full of himself. This should be easy. I thought, and stammered out: “I- I brought a gift for you, my lord.”
“Did you? Reveal it.”
I held out the small package and unwrapped the cloth around it. A bit of steam wafted out, and the scent of it caused a shiver around the room. The cloth had been enchanted so that whatever was wrapped in it would stay warm and fresh. I held it up a little so everyone could see the even lattice work and the perfectly etched edges of the crust. Even the king was staring fixedly. I had his attention now. “This is the last peach pie made in my village. It is yours if you would grant a boon for me, your majesty.”
The king shifted slightly in his chair. “It’s awfully small.”
“If it’s worth nothing to you--” I began wrapping it up again.
“Stop! Put it down.”
I slowly obeyed, laying it down on the table in front of the king. He drew his knife, a long, thin blade. I backed away in a hurry, and he slashed it twice.
The small peach pie now had a tiny sliver cut out of it. The king looked at me with cold, gleaming eyes. “Taste it for me, as a sign of good faith.”
I reached for it hesitantly, then plopped it in my mouth. It had been two days since I’d tasted any real food, and the sweet, spicy smell almost made me sick, but-- I chewed and swallowed while everyone watched.
“So it is not poisonous to you. You there!” the king said to one of his guards. “Taste it as well.” He carved another sliver out.
The guard’s face was satisfying. As soon as the pastry’s flavor touched his tongue, all the sternness melted away from his face. He let out a sigh involuntarily.
“Good enough for me!” the king said happily, and shoved the rest of the little pie in his mouth. There was a stifled groan throughout the room as it disappeared.
“That taste.” the king said, a smile growing on his face. “I haven’t tasted that flavor in years...”
“And now for my boon, you majesty.” I reminded him.
“I never agreed to any boon.” the king said haughtily, a smirk on his face. “That was a gift, you said so yourself.”
“I said the pastry would be yours if you granted me one. It was yours, and now you must grant me my wish.”
“My poor child, that logic isn’t binding here.” He crossed his legs, one fine boot over another. “Besides, that was barely a mouthful.”
What a-- ! But I had been warned about him. “In that case, your magnificence, allow me to bargain with this.” I pulled out another peach pie, larger this time. The whole room went quiet.
“What? You said the other was the last one! You dare lie to me?”
“I spoke the truth. The first was made last, and this before it. Grant me a boon, and you shall have it. If not, I shall defile it before you can reach me!” I held it up, as if I were going to smash it against my head.
All the faeries in the room held out their hands to stop me. My head was filthy, after all, and the lattice-work of the top crust was flawless. The king frowned. “I’ll listen. What it is you want?”
I lowered the pastry. “It is not about what I want, but about what I desperately need. Because of the war, my village has become impoverished, and our fields have been trampled by enemy soldiers. Now we face famine and starvation. The last food we had were those preserved peaches, and I brought them to you. Save us from famine, Faery King.” I bowed.
At the end of my speech I heard some murmurs of sympathy from the court faeries. Many of them had lost a great deal in the wars themselves, but the king was unmoved.
“So you want me to defend your village from soldiers?” He raised an eyebrow. “Are the men in your village such cowards?”
“All of the young men went off to war. We are but women, children, and the elderly. Those soldiers haven’t been back in months, so if you would help me trade for a winter’s supply of food, that would be enough.”
“Really?” The king sounded unimpressed. “And what are you going to trade with?”
“That... I would ask of you as well.” I reddened.
The king’s frown deepened. “You ask a great deal for a single peach pie.”
“But as a loan! When we are prosperous again I will certainly repay you!”
“With what? I doubt you have much to offer.”
“You have not heard all. It is the trade of my family to make such pastries as you have tasted today, and that was the mere bottom of the barrel, with a spell for freshness! With prosperous circumstances I could make your highness fifty more, each better than the last! And not just of this flavor. Any fruit or flavor you can name, I can make, be it apple, lemon, pumpkin, or berries and cream!”
The eyes of the attendants were glazed over. Faeries do love their sweets. The king looked at me shrewdly. “And why do you tell me this?”
“If you save us from famine now, my lord, I will repay you with a tribute of such delights, even until every ounce of gold you spend for us is repaid.”
“Payment in pastries?” The king’s mouth twisted wryly.
“Indeed, unless your majesty would tire of such things.”
“How would you deliver them?”
“Since it takes but an hour for one of you to reach our village, and two days for a mortal, one of your faeries would come for them.”
“You’ve given this some thought, haven’t you?”
“Yes, my lord. The details are here.” I pulled a piece of paper from my pouch, shook it open with one hand, and set it on the table. “These are the terms of the contract, your majesty.”
The Faery King stopped and stared at me, displeased. “Contract?”