The words, “once upon a time,” have been used many times over the history of storytellers. Now I, a storyteller of another world, pick them up and put them to use again.
Listen to my story, set Once Upon a Time—whether my story happened in the past, will happen in the future, or shall never happen, who can say? Regardless of time, regardless of where it occurred, I have been sent here to tell it to you, with the hope that you will listen.
The Path led him to a world he did not recognize.
If he were any other, this would have been no notable event, but as this man was no other than Eanrin, cat-man and faerie, Chief Bard of Rudiobus and more well-traveled than any hundred men, it brought cause to pause and puzzle over the strange event.
It was not that he had merely never been there; he knew many worlds, even those he had never set foot in. This world, he had no knowledge of, and the only familiar scent that reached him screamed “mortality,” though the world was not one of the time-bound lands as he knew them.
The Path of the Lumil Eliasul never failed, though—that much, he had learned the hard way, and of this he reminded himself through clenched teeth after he turned to see the Path closed behind him, blocking his return to the Wood.
The sun beat down on his scarlet cap. Mentally throwing an irritated glare toward the sky—a glare that he could not deliver without his eyes—he sat, quite suddenly a cat as he drew his tail around his feet and started to groom one paw.
The ground beneath him lay bare, cracked and dusty, as though the weather had wanted the land to become a desert, but the ground disagreed and cracked instead of becoming sand.
Humming an irritated tune under his breath, Eanrin rose, stretching and waving his tail. He had been going to the Haven.
“Not a very friendly land, is it? Ah, well,” he said, rising into the shape of a man again and clapping once. “Might as well go exploring. Who knows? Maybe there’s a monster to slay, a princess to rescue. Not that I’m interested in the princess, but a monster mightn’t be a bad adventure to liven up the day.”
Another possibility was that he could anger the resident Faerie of the Demesne. But then, what was a bit of danger? Any danger would be a fool to think it could deter Sir Eanrin. Whistling a cheery tune through his teeth, Eanrin turned his face to the sun and strode forward, swinging his arms as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
As though he wasn’t upset that he had not made it to his destination.
The faint scent of people nearby touched him and he paused, cocking his head to the side and using his ears to give himself an indication of what he would be walking towards. Metal clicked on the hard dirt; mattocks, judging by the sound of it. Farmers.
Drawing his best smile out of the mental pocket he kept it in, Eanrin bounded forward, listening as the distance decreased. The air sat as still as the ground beneath his feet, giving him no further indication of the people by smell, but they sounded harmless.
Having no eyes for several hundred years did wonders for a cat’s ears.
A child’s voice split the hot air. “O Gleamdren fair, I love thee true.”
Eanrin skidded to a stop, two conflicted thoughts simultaneously entering into his minds. The child sung his song; obviously, the people must be, at the very least, given the benefit of a doubt.
But dragon’s teeth, who taught that child to sing?
Ignoring how his hair rose beneath his cap, Eanrin recovered his smile and strode toward the people.
“Be the moon waxed full or new.” Five people at least sang now, grating against Eanrin’s ears with the tune they had assigned to the words. The words were his, but the way they sang them sounded more like they were attempting to awaken a dead animal.
Bristling, he moved forward until he stood less than fifteen feet away, dropping the smile altogether. How could they do that to his song?
“In all my—”
“Mama—!” The child who had started the song gasped. “Mama, look!”
The sound of the metal on the ground ceased and murmuring took its place.
“Mama,” the child said again, as though it would help get his point across.
Yes, they had mangled the song, but at least they stopped. And they did sing his song, so surely it could not hurt to be civil to them, mortals though they clearly were. Eanrin slid his most dashing smile onto his face and swept his cap off, though he immediately regretted it when the sun beat down on him more fiercely than before. Sweeping a bow, he stood and cocked his head to the side. “Sir Eanrin, Bard of Rudiobus at your service.”
He replaced his cap.
He smelled no hostility from them, but they continued standing as silent as a graveyard. The wind refused to bring anything but the barest of scents to him, but he did not smell even a hint of fear.
The child who spoke before finally approached, stopping a full five feet away, his voice hushed. “Are you really Bard Eanrin?”
The bard cocked his head to the side and dropped into the form of a cat, looking up at the boy.
“Ooh,” the boy breathed.
The wind blew toward him.
The cat froze at the smell—what was that? Surely that could not be the people. Indeed, they smelled of dust and dry earth as he had expected them to, but that smell was very nearly buried beneath the smell of too many mortals living too close together with too little cleanliness and too much death.
Even Eanrin faltered when he inhaled, and he had not faltered like that for many years.
“Yes, well,” the cat said, doing his best not to clear his throat—a very man-like gesture that would be for a cat, “be a good chap and just direct me to the nearest exit, will you?”
Won’t you follow me?
The sound of the thrush covered him, hiding even his exclamation of, “Iubdan’s beard. You don’t expect me to stay here, do you?”
The silence carried the answer clearer than a shout could.
Surely the Prince must have made a mistake.
Not that he truly believed the thought, but for a second the idiotic misconception made him feel better. All he had wanted to do was make his way to the Haven. Surely, the Prince did not want him to stay here!
Someone stepped forward and Eanrin stood, regaining his man shape.
“Sir,” a woman said, her voice cracking. “Your visit is a blessing to us. The Lumil Eliasul—he sent you? Oh, bless him, for we are undeserving of your presence.”
“Actually,” he said, “I was just passing through, and do have some important places to be. Be a good girl and show me the way to the way back to the Wood, will you?”
Won’t you trust me?
Eanrin growled low in his throat.
Won’t you trust me? The thrush sang, more insistently.
Sliding back, away from the two people a half-step, the cat-man tried his best to look tolerably thrilled to be there, withholding his grumbling for some other time. “On second thought, ‘tis a pleasure to visit your interesting land. The halls of Rudiobus are scarcely more fascinating than this.”
The woman paused for a moment, her blank silence clearly portraying confusion. “…You’ll stay?”
“Of course,” the bard said lightly, even as he allowed the sarcasm to creep into his thoughts. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.
Ten people stepped forward at once and Eanrin did his best to hide his grimace.
Mortals. Surely, there were no people more miserable than they. How the Prince loved them so much never ceased to amaze Eanrin, though after the Prince had expressed such love for them, he tried to put on a more charitable attitude.
An attitude, however small, that was sorely challenged when fifteen people who smelled of sewage pressed toward him, thirty hands touching his hands, feet, face, and practically every other conceivable part of his body.
He pasted a smile onto his face and stood like a statue for a full three heartbeats. Sliding away from them, he somehow managed to keep the smile’s glue working as the woman spoke again.
“Can we feed you?”
Absolutely not, he wanted to say, but before the words reached his lips, the wood thrush trilled in the distance.
Though the event did not give him the impression of being one he would enjoy, Eanrin smiled his best charm-anyone-within-a-mile smile to mask his thoughts. “If you wish it, fair lady, let it be so.”
Of course they would want to serve him, he consoled himself. Was he not Sir Eanrin, a Knight of Farthestshore as well as the greatest poet to ever live, Bard of Rudiobus?
Shaking free of the hands that wanted to lead him, Eanrin stepped after the woman, following her as she made her way across the dusty landscape and toward the setting sun. A pause, then the rest of the people followed.
After several long moments without speaking, the ground became smooth beneath his feet, and beneath him he heard several people—small, by the sound of their steps—took up impromptu dancing behind him as they followed.
He knew they had entered the village as soon as they stepped into it, and though he was in his man form, he lips formed the sound that immediately came to his mind: “Mreoowwl.”
Even in the dry land, mildew grew on what seemed to be houses hastily constructed out of mud, straw, and rotting wood. The air was foul from uncleanliness, to the point where it stung his nose and throat when he inhaled. Cows bawled and children shouted, running to their parents as the adults and few children that had initially met with Eanrin walked into the cluster of houses. Six or seven small people gathered in a half-circle around Eanrin, but he ignored all of the activity.
Prince, he said mentally, sure that the Prince of Farthestshore heard his words, why do they live like this?
He had seen worse—of course he had! Had not he, Sir Eanrin, battled faerie beasts, monsters in hundreds of demesnes and worlds?
Somehow, though he tried to tell himself otherwise, this seemed different. Where before, it had been the stuff of ballads and songs befitting of his poetic genius, there was no glory in this.
In the background, people were talking; three or so children were shouting, and someone had started singing again. They sounded oddly like the people of Rudiobus. Their voices were coarser, dirtier, and hoarser, but they sounded as happy as the merry folk.
It made no sense. Pushing the apparent inconsistency away, he clapped and turned toward the children, forcing a smile onto his face.
To his left, a little girl broke out in giggles, as though he was the funniest thing in the world. “I like you,” she declared, her voice that of someone no older than three years as mortals counted years.
He swept a bow in her direction. “You do me honor!” The words sounded as hollow as words could manage to sound, even to his ears.
She giggled again, reaching out a hand and catching his, holding it tightly. His smile faltered as her cool hand that felt as thin as paper touched his, but he quickly renewed it, murmuring a soft, “Dragon’s teeth,” under his breath that belied his happy expression.
Two of the children stepped forward, while another inched backwards, clearly in awe of the brilliance of Bard Eanrin.
“You’ve seen him?” The boy who had first spoken to Eanrin said, ruining the mood with his eager voice tinted with longing. “You’ve seen the Lumil Eliasul—Eshkhan?”
“Of course,” Eanrin said cheerily, sitting on the ground. The girl holding his hand sat next to him, releasing his hand.
He let out a relieved breath, drawing both hands onto his lap.
“He’s so good to us,” the boy murmured. “Someday, I want to see him, and thank him, because he’s so good. But he must know that I’m thankful, and he must be so busy…”
So good to them? Dragon’s teeth, these people were practically living a nightmare! The boy sounded so glad of their dust and decay.
“I’m sure…” Eanrin stopped abruptly and took a breath, re-coating his words with bright enthusiasm. “My good Prince would always be glad to see you.”
Mentally, he winced. The tone came out all wrong; not nearly as carefree as it was supposed to be.
“You think?” The boy said breathlessly.
The cat-man took a breath, widening his smile in spite of how it wished to diminish as he smelled smoke on the air from a fire that clearly did not use wood as fuel. “I know,” he said, raising his head.
“He’s amazing,” the boy said decisively.
“Reichan,” the woman said from several steps away. The same area as the fire, Eanrin noted. “Reichan, bring this to Sir Eanrin please.”
“Oh,” the boy lurched to his feet and was there and back in a moment, shoving a bowl made of wood into Eanrin’s hands.
Eanrin accepted it, but set it aside, the thought of eating whatever its contents might be making his stomach churn. What would these people eat, anyway?
The girl touched his hand again. “I’m Leehi,” she said. “I like the name Eanrin. I’m glad the Lumil Eliasul brought you here.”
Eanrin exhaled quickly, sudden irritation making him stiffen. They used the name of the Lumil Eliasul so casually, as though it was of no worth.
Someone clapped three times, and the children surrounding him turned toward the sound. Eanrin cocked his head to the side, listening.
Dead silence filled the village, though he smelled no new person. The signal must be one the people knew.
Leehi withdrew her hand, crossing her legs as the other children did so nearly in synchronization.
“Eshkhan,” a man said, his voice one that Eanrin did not recognize. “We beg you to hear our words, Lord, and we thank you that we know you do. Bring us peace and help us to not walk in the darkness. Thank you for your love, and that we don’t ever have to doubt it, and thank you that no one died today. Please, be with our children as we go through another day tomorrow, and let them learn to love and serve you, let them not fear death. Thank you that you gifted us with death and life, and let us know how to praise you with both. I can’t express—I don’t know how to say just how much we love you. Thank you, Lumil Eliasul. Thank you, thank you, Lord.”
Eanrin cocked his head to the side, quickly calculating how many times the man had used the words, “Thank you.”
Seven times. Forehead wrinkling, Eanrin straightened. That made no sense.
Leehi touched his hand again. “It’s all right,” she said. “Don’t be sad.”
Eanrin turned toward her though he could not see her, his forehead smoothing. “I’m not sad.”
“Sir Eanrin,” the man said, his voice deep and enthusiastic, “will you join us in dancing?”
Dance? Here? With these people? The cat-man laughed even as he felt his heart skip a beat. He could not do that. He did not even understand how they felt the need to dance; how could he dance with them? “I could not take myself away from the food your good woman gave me.”
“You do me honor, good sir,” the woman murmured, though Eanrin thought he heard a tinge of disappointment in her voice. These people were no fools. “If ever you want to join us, please. We will save a place for you.”
Eanrin smiled, but could not bring himself to further comment. The children surrounding him all scrambled to their feet, dashing across the cluster of structures and into the larger area at the center of it. All but, he noticed a second later, one.
Leehi remained, one hand on his.
Letting out a half-irritated mreowl, Eanrin changed into a cat, curling up by her side. His fur felt filthy, but it was nothing a good cleaning wouldn’t be able to fix.
Leehi giggled, running her hand up and down his back and then nestling against him.
Where the rest of the people stood, two or three people started clapping in rhythm, others joining in as their feet started to pound on the ground. They danced in a circle, moving slowly at first, then gaining speed.
“With all my soul, his praise I give,” the men sang.
“Hallelu, Lumil Eliasul!” The women sang back.
“I will praise my Prince with all my life.”
“Hallelu, Lumil Eliasul!”
“I sing his songs as long as I live.”
Eanrin bristled, the hair on his neck rising. These people knew nothing about singing.
“Don’t you like to dance?” Leehi said.
“Rmmph,” Eanrin said, rubbing her hand with his head.
She giggled, squirming away from him. “You’re a silly kitty.”
He sat up as a man. “I am Sir Eanrin of Farthestshore. ‘Silly kitty’ is not a good description.”
She giggled again. “I don’t care. I think you’re silly, anyway.”
Eanrin turned and leaned against the same doorpost she leaned against. She laughed often; more often than most people that he knew, even the Merry Folk.
Strange that she was so happy, when she lived here.
“When I put my trust in men.
Trusted them to cure my strife.”
Both men and women sang now; their voices, blended together, did not sound quite as bad as they did separate.
“My foot fell near the dragon’s den.”
“Are you sad?”
Eanrin did not move, though if he had been a cat, his ears would have tilted back ever so slightly. Why didn’t she just go away? He did not feel like talking to the perplexing girl any more than he felt like being in her perplexing village in the whole dragon-fired perplexing world. “Why aren’t you dancing?”
“I can’t dance. My legs aren’t that strong.”
Eanrin halted, confused by the abrupt, simple way she said the words. “You would be the sad one, then,” he said, pushing a smile onto his face as though he verbally sparred with Captain Glomar again.
“No,” Leehi said, “I’m happy.”
“But blessed is he who calls the name,”
“Hallelu Lumil Eliasul!”
“For when I called his name, he came.”
Eanrin straightened, getting to his feet. The music was too irritating, strengthening the headache that the intensity of the smells had produced. He did not like the people, did not like the area, and definitely did not like the fact that his path led him nowhere but to the very spot he stood. The people abruptly stopped clapping, but their feet pounding out a rhythm on the earth informed him that they still danced.
“To the blind, he gives true sight.”
“In the dark, he shines live light.”
“To the tired, he gives rest.”
“To the hungry, he gives food that’s best.”
Leehi’s hand felt so thin. How could they say the Prince gave them food, when he could smell how badly they lived, and feel how malnourished their children were?
“To the stranger he gives a home.”
Leehi stood, grasping his hand. “Will you dance?”
Eanrin stopped, unsure of how to react and at the same time wanting to answer in no uncertain terms. These people—they had nothing. What had they to dance about?
What had he to dance about, when experiencing this?
The voices of both men and women joined together, swelling into a rising sound that covered the village. “Hallelu, Lumil Eliasul!”
Hallelu Lumil Eliasul. Praise to the Lumil Eliasul.
Leehi said she was happy. The boy said the Prince was good to them. Eanrin felt his head spin and he raised his hands, massaging his temples. This made no sense.
Even he, who had so much more than they, did not feel the happiness they seemed to have.
“I don’t think,” Eanrin said finally, haltingly, “I don’t think I know how.”
Though he wished he could change his meaning, he knew that what he really meant was, Please, explain to me what this means!
She lifted her arms toward him, and he bent, lifting her into his arms as he would a kitten. She was bone-thin, her whole body as small and fragile as her hand. “Yes you do,” she said. “You’re Sir Eanrin. You’ve seen the Lumil Eliasul. You know how. You know how to praise him. You know how to dance, because you know how good he is.”
“My heart goes to him,”
“Hallelu, Lumil Eliasul!”
“That He should be glad,”
“Hallelu, Lumil Eliasul!”
“He who makes my love cup brim.”
“Please?” Leehi said. “Please, dance?”
Eanrin paused for a long moment, listening to the people sing their song of praise, and then, wrapping one arm around her, walked toward the people. They split to make room for him and then closed around him again in a circle, throwing their arms around his shoulder.
Cradling Leehi with one arm, Eanrin put his other around the man to his left, and though his feet faltered, they soon found the rhythm of the people he had not at first understood, and he danced with them.
“Hallelu, Lumil Eliasul!”