Moonless nights are a hurting kind of lonesome. No Danu, mother goddess, for company. No bright face to beam upon my horseplay. Just the humorless black, the faint winking of stars.
But darkness has its uses, too—for a faerie of mischief.
The tide is in, water so shining smooth I can see my reflection: copper forelocks, liquid eyes, a velvety white muzzle. I flash a horsey grin, then stamp the image until it fractures. I keep stamping, just for the joy of it, splashing and braying and frolicking in the surf.
Though I may take any form I please, this one suits me best. I love the jittery power of these dancing legs, the whipping of the wind in my mane. The speed.
Sand churns beneath my hooves as I gallop up the coast. In the distance, the palace of the Sea Court is lit up from within—its spindly spires glowing aquamarine, like pixie wings. Or poison.
I may be young, a mere foal, but I know not to mix with the shee. Those noble fae do not appreciate japes. They do not giggle or shriek or do anything jolly. They are all joyless and brutal, like the Faerie King, and better avoided. I turn away.
Nearer by, I catch the hum of merry voices. Laughter! To a pooka, the sound of laughter is as irresistible as music. I trace the sound to a small cove. There, a group of females dance to the tamping of drums. They look wild and wonderful, wearing nothing but starlight.
How joyful, how wild, how fun! I want to play, too. These are selkie, shapeshifters like me. Though a selkie must climb in and out of her skin to change form. A notion I find baffling strange. If I wish to be a seal, I am one.
Tonight their sealskins are set aside, folded carefully on a large stone. Wouldn’t it be a lark, if I took one and ran? We could have a jolly chase beneath the stars. How we would laugh and laugh!
Nickering so they will hear, I snatch a sealskin with my teeth and prance away. I do not go fast. I want to be caught.
“Pooka!” they cry. “Return that at once, you little fiend!”
They are so angry, and it is marvelous funny. Whinnying with delight, I bound into the surf and let them surround me. But some of them have spears, and they hiss at me with livid eyes. They do not like my joke. I toss them the skin, but they keep prowling nearer. There is a strangeness in my chest, a horrible tightening. I shift into a seal and beat my flippers against the wet sand. See? I’m like you.
“Oh, leave him be,” one of them says. “He’s just a baby.”
“Pooka need to learn this lesson young,” another answers. “We do not tolerate their pranks.”
She jabs me. She jabs me with her spear, and I bleed, and—oh, Danu—it hurts. All I wanted was to play, to laugh, to dance. Why are they so nasty?
With a keen of pain, I turn to the sea and swim away. I don’t know if they’re chasing me. I imagine that they are, that they’ll stab me again—stab me until I am dead, my immortal life ended right at the start. So I swim, heedless of time and distance. Until I am far from land, far from the continent of Faerie itself.
My mind is hazy and my shoulder stings, and it becomes difficult to keep my head above water. If only I had changed into a fish, I could sleep beneath the waves. But now I am too tired to shift, too tired to turn back, too tired to move forward. I float and bleed. Alone. Beneath a black and unloving sky.
Will Arawn, lord of death, collect my soul if it is all the way out here? Or have I traveled beyond his reach? Fear sings through me at the thought.
I am going to die, going to—
Or perhaps not. Before me, mists begin to... to open, like a curtain drawn back. An island reveals itself, a green gem in this vacant place. Beautiful and bewildering, it calls to me. I do so love all things peculiar.
I struggle onward until I crawl onto a strange and unknown shore.
There, I hear a voice of impossible sweetness. “Hello, wanderer.”
And that is when the moon appears.
She looks like a human girl child—short-limbed and soft, with cheeks full and blooming. A riot of ebony curls haloes her face, and starlight twinkles in her night-sky eyes. Even the dark hue of her skin seems to gleam, to shimmer, to shine with some inner light.
She casts not a shadow upon the waves but a silvery reflection. Moonlight.
I am just a pooka, just a pup—a faerie of no consequence and little experience—but even I know Danu when I see her.
“You’re hurt,” she says, approaching with outstretched hands. Her bare feet leave perfect impressions in the sand. “Let me help.”
She touches the wound, and I yelp in reproach. But a moment later the pain is gone, the bleeding stopped.
“There, isn’t that better?”
I bark and drum my flippers. Thank you, thank you! But I am so exhausted, I can barely keep my eyes open.
“Come,” she says with a smile. “We’ll sleep. And in the morning you can tell me how you got so lost, little pooka.”
I follow her up the beach and into a house, too weary to notice my surroundings. The girl who is Danu climbs onto a pallet and opens her arms to me. With a delighted arf, arf, I snuggle in close, tucking my nose into the crook of her neck.
At some point in the night, I wake long enough to realize that I have shifted form. Now we match. My furless arms are wrapped around Danu
She looks like a girl. I look like a boy. Neither is wholly true.
Happily, I nuzzle closer to Danu and close my human eyes. I sleep again and do not rouse until daylight warms my cheek.
The house is spacious yet simple, built of raw wood beams and sheets of glass so faultless clear they are nigh invisible. Danu keeps many strange collections. There are vibrant flowers in vibrant pots. Paintings and sculptures. Seashells, books, and useless human oddities. Her wardrobe brims with beautiful dresses and tunics and nightgowns, all smelling like her, like jasmine and dreams.
There is a whole room devoted to silverware. Old spoons armor an entire wall, arranged by the shade of their patina. I think it is the best thing I have ever seen.
“Giving yourself a tour?” a voice asks from the doorway.
She has surprised me. Oh, how I adore surprises! “You were sleeping. Why spoons?”
“Why not spoons?”
Yes, true. She is wise.
“I want to see the island, all its secret places,” I say. Overhead, a blue, blue sky beckons through the glass ceiling. “Will you show me?”
“No faerie has ever set foot on Breasal before,” she says. “This is not a place that can be found. But I sensed you out there, near drowning, and I made an exception... ”
“Thank you.” I shuffle my bipedal feet. “I want to see the island. Will you show me?”
A slow smile. “All its secret places?”
“Every single one!”
She laughs: a sudden burst of joy and sound, like a thousand shattering glasses, a thousand silver bells, a thousand birds taking wing. My boy-heart is gripped by a—a feeling. I don’t know what it is, only that it has reshaped me.
“Let me change my clothes and find something for you to wear, then we’ll go.”
I trail after her, back into the jasmine-scented wardrobe, studying her every movement. Her elbows are dimpled, and I think that is wonderful.
“Pooka, did you rearrange my undergarments?” she asks, frowning into an open drawer.
“Oh, yes,” I say. “I’ve rearranged all your things.”
The Isle of Breasal has many secret places. The girl Danu shows me caverns full of luminous jellyfish; a path through the forest, where the trees are so dense they form a leafy tunnel; hot springs where geysers explode into the air, as if the earth took a sip of water then burst into sudden, spewing laughter.
We eat fruit plucked from branches, and I lick the sticky nectar from my fingers, and then hers. She complains that it tickles.
“I thought you would ask me a great many questions,” she says, sometime in the late afternoon.
“Most would, if they found a goddess living on an isle of legend.”
Now that she mentions it, I do have a few questions. “All right. Why are you so young? Which fruit is your favorite? Will you send me away? Why are your ears round? Is the sky lonely? Are the stars your friends? Can I smell your hair?”
Her mouth purses into a smile. “Perhaps just one at a time?”
Just one, just one. I want to ask about her hair again, but I force myself to pause and think. I remember the hollowness in my chest last night, when I looked up into the black and she wasn’t there. “Where do you go when you’re not in the sky?”
“Oh, sweet pooka. Just because you cannot see a thing, that does not mean it isn’t there. I’m always in the sky. Even now.”
I guess I was lonesome for no reason at all.
Later, we climb the peak at the center of Breasal, and I am tempted to shift into a sure-footed beast, like a goat. But I do not wish to leave Danu behind, so we scramble up the incline, side by side, on clumsy human feet.
The crest of the mountain is a small bowl, like two cupped hands. And at its center there is a lake, covered in a thin, perfect film of ice. It shows me our reflections: Danu, bright and dark and lovely, her curls wild from the wind; and me, with a clump of copper hair falling over my eyes, like a forelock peeping between horse ears.
“Do you often take this form?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “In this form, I have so many feelings I don’t understand.”
The ice is as unblemished as the glass in Danu’s house. I reach for a stone, and I shatter it.
Danu blinks at me for a moment, aghast, then bursts into bright laughter—laughter as lovely as shattering ice.
“In all my many lives, I’ve never had a pooka for a friend.”
My chest puffs up with a sense of bigness, because only something very big can be a friend of the moon. “It’s good that I’m here. Now you have someone to play with.”
She chuckles and shakes her head. “Quite.”
We fall onto our backs and watch the stars prick the sky. The moon appears, a faint sliver in the blue. I don’t understand how she can be up there and down here, both at once.
I ask, “Can I smell your hair?”
“Yes, pooka. You can smell my hair.”
It smells sweet as spring and feels soft against my hand. But it doesn’t taste good at all.
Our first months together brim with new discovery. I seek out all the wonders of Breasal, and all the wonders of the girl-child Danu too.
I discover that she’s ticklish, that cherries are her favorite, and that she looks young because she is young—or, at least, this incarnation of her is.
“Sometimes I like to live a life,” she says. “So I can remember how it feels.”
Because it’s lonely in the sky, I surmise. And the stars are not her friends.
On one sun-bright day, after I smash a sculpture and follow her around saying—Danu, Danu, Danu; look at me, look at me, look at me—she snaps, “Stop calling me that! I’m not Danu! I’m a bit of the goddess, but mostly I’m something new.”
“You’re a bitta Danu,” I say, solemn. “Sorry, Bitta. Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
And so I call her Bitta, and she likes that. She dubs me Crash, for obvious reasons, and I like that too. Before, I’d only ever been called pooka. Now I am more than just a kind of a thing. I am Crash. She is Bitta. And when you name something, it becomes just a little bit yours.
I want to be hers forever.
Slowly, I learn which pranks will make Bitta laugh, and which will make her screech, and which will make her cry; and I learn that one of these things is much better than the others.
One star-bright night, I watch Bitta chase after fireflies. I experience a spike in my chest—a hot something I can’t name—at the sight of her, so delighted by them, not me. So I shift into a firefly myself, and I lead her to the edge of a precipice. She’s so amused by my weaving, dancing flight, that she doesn’t realize where she is. She falls.
I shift into my boy form again. Laughter burbles up from my throat. It was so funny, the way her eyes went wide right before she tumbled.
But Bitta isn’t laughing. She sobs a little, holding her shin. It’s bent in a way that human legs aren’t supposed to bend.
“Crash?” she gasps.
“Oh, no,” I breathe.
I broke her. I broke her. And while I love broken things, I realize that I do not love a broken Bitta. My insides turn jagged and hurting, like I can feel her fracture inside my chest.
“Oh, no. What do I do?”
Tears shine in her eyes. “Help me back to the house.”
I scoop her up, and she loops her arms around my neck. My heart pounds so, so hard. I carry her up the hill, into the house, and set her—gently, ever so gently—onto the pallet.
All night I run to and fro, getting her things she hasn’t asked for: cups of water, bowls of cherries, spoons, books, seashells from the eastern shore, a jar of fireflies, three very fine stones. When she wakes, she blinks at my offerings in faint confusion.
“How is it?” I ask.
“Better,” she says, swinging her two perfect legs into view. “I heal fast.”
But that doesn’t erase the memory of pain, nor that I caused it.
I fall to my knees and press my brow to the floor. “I will never hurt you again,” I vow.
She lifts my chin with her finger, so I will meet her gaze. “I know, Crash. I know.”
It is Beltane, and so Bitta opens a portal to the mortal world and glamours us to appear human. Everywhere, there is chaos. Bonfires and drums, dancing and drinking, prayers and songs. Such odd mortal behaviors, too.
It is all so new, so enchanting. I prance through the festival, giddy as I have ever been, trying to see everything at once.
Bitta laughs and tugs on my arm. “Try not to sprout wings and fly away.”
“But look!” I say, sweeping a hand at all the wild human wonder. “Look at it all!”
“It’s more entertaining to look at you,” she says.
We dance around the fires, along with the humans. We are not the only faeries present. They, like us, are glamoured—either to blend into the crowd, or else to disappear. But I see them: pixies and goblins and imps. There are several shee in attendance, too—looking like mortals but far more beautiful and far more cruel. From them, we keep our distance.
The beat of the music is the beat of my heart and the beat of the world. Bitta and I spin and twirl and stamp and frolic, until I am sheened in sweat and her cheeks are blooming and we’re both panting for breath.
“Can you wait here for me?” she shouts over the drums. “I want to find you a gift. For Beltane.”
I clap my hands. “Good idea!”
I don’t wait. I go in search of my own present, determined to make Bitta smile. It is easy to enter vacant human homes, to shuffle through their drawers. Determination fuels my hunt. Only briefly do I pause to shatter glass or disarrange belongings.
When I return to our meeting place, I am impatient with glee. I have found the best gift. And so I will win.
Bitta returns minutes later. Her present is concealed in an ornate wooden box, tied with a silver ribbon.
“Me first!” I demand, thrusting her gift into her lap.
She studies the spoon closely. It is old, discolored, and covered in dings. The tip of the handle is shaped like the moon. Slowly, slowly, she smiles. “Thank you, Crash. It’s wonderful.”
If I still had a tail, it would be wagging.
I’ve never received a present before, nor owned a possession. So it seems a ceremonious event, to untie this ribbon and open this box. Inside, nestled in a bed of crushed velvet, is a flute. A beautiful, delicate instrument carved with strange and dreamlike shapes.
My throat pinches, and my eyes burn. A happy-pain.
“You’re always whistling such interesting tunes,” she says. “I think you have music trapped inside you that wants to get out. Do you like it?”
Do I like it?
This flute makes me feel like a dragon curling around its horde of treasure. Like a mama defending her young. (A foreign notion, since pooka mamas do no such thing. We are solitary beings.)
I think I would go to war to protect and keep this flute.
“It gives me such a strong feeling,” I say, tapping my heart. “Here.”
Then I bring the instrument to my lips and blow, producing a sweet, crisp tone that resonates through my chest.
A shadow looms from behind me, and Bitta frowns at something over my shoulder.
“Honorable and immaculate Danu.”
It’s a shee, his fair head bent in a low bow. Like all the noble fae, he is beauty made flesh, with silver-white hair and turquoise eyes. His ears are pointed like mine, but that is where the resemblance ends.
“It is a blessing to stand in your presence.”
“How did you know?” she asks, sounding oddly resigned. Not so young as usual.
“The king sensed you the moment you were born, goddess. I have been trying to reach you for years, to extend his majesty’s humble invitation. He would be honored to host you at the Moon Court, as is only right and fitting.”
“I thank you,” she says, in a voice I have never heard before. A voice with a bite of iron. “But I have no interest in visiting the courts, now or ever. Tell your king to leave me in peace.”
Surprise splashes across his face. He bows again. “By your word, goddess.”
She watches him leave with narrowed eyes, then extends her hand to me. “Come, Crash. Let’s go home.”
Bitta opens the veil once more, and we step through a shimmer in the air. On Breasal, it is almost dawn, the sky a dim and ashy gray.
“Why don’t you want to go to court?” I ask, cradling my flute to my chest. She would be worshipped there, afforded every luxury. And I’m not sure I could follow.
She pulls her expression back into a smile, a faint one. “The last time I became flesh, I spent most of that life at the Moon Court. I did not enjoy it, and the current king is much worse than that one. In this life, I wanted only peace and solitude.”
“But I spoiled that,” I say, despondent.
Finally, she grins and looks herself again. “And I’m so glad you did. Now, play me a tune. I want to dance some more.”
I play—not a tune, exactly, but a jumble of nonsense sounds—and she spins and laughs as the sun crests the horizon.
Spooked by the king’s emissary, we do not return to the mortal realm in the years that follow. Not even on Beltane. But we find a thousand other ways to entertain ourselves.
We invent games. Like when Bitta wears a blindfold, and I shift into various animals and objects while she guesses.
A tiger! A spoon! A three-toed sloth!
We swim in the cove, then dry on the shore. We build sandcastles, only so I can kick them down. We tell each other long, elaborate tales. Her stories brim with truth, mine with fancy.
Most mornings, I take my horse form. Bitta climbs onto my back, thighs pinching my flanks, and I gallop up and down the beach, her fingers woven into my mane.
We eat beneath the swaying branches of the forest. The way the leaves rustle in the breeze, it always sounds like the trees are laughing. And I always say so.
“Why shouldn’t they laugh?” Bitta pokes my shoulder. “With you to entertain them.”
Every night, we sleep wrapped together, our limbs a twining tangle. And when we wake, we recount our dreams. All of them, even if they are frightening or embarrassing.
I dreamt that I drowned with a spear in my side, and the sky was empty, I say.
I dreamt that we had a baby, and he looked just like you, she says.
But most often I play my flute. I could play for hours and days and months and years and never tire of it. I don’t know any melodies, and the notes I produce are not rightly a song. Rather, I play the sound of my soul—chaotic and joyful and strange.
One night, after I’ve performed a particularly odd piece, Bitta takes my hand and says gravely, “I have never heard such music as you play. It is a gift. You are so special, Crash.”
That doesn’t sound right. We pooka are all the same, or are meant to be. But who am I to gainsay the moon?
We swim beneath the stars, the water cool and gentle.
“Tomorrow is Samhain,” she says.
“Is it?” It’s difficult to keep track of the days here, where there are no seasons.
“I want to go to the mortal world again. It’s not as if the king can summon me. He has no power to command a goddess. And besides—” She arches her back, letting her arms float on the surface of the sea, and I fail to hear the rest of her words.
Our bodies have been changing. In all my forms, mine has grown longer and leaner, stronger. In this form, I have grown a little ginger hair on my chest, and rather more between my legs.
Bitta has changed too. Her face and arms and legs are not so round, but she has become soft in other places. Her body was never such a distraction before. “Crash,” she says, snapping her fingers. “Where did you go? Looks like you were thinking big thoughts.”
I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling—hot, peculiar, man-like feelings. I don’t know how to hold these emotions inside, so I do what seems natural: I splash her. Bitta shrieks and splashes back, and for a while we flail and kick and wage a wet sort of war, until we are both sopping and short of breath.
Bitta’s hair sticks wetly to her neck and chest. Her face is luminous. “So, what do you think? Fancy a trip for Samhain?”
“Of course,” I say. “I want to play with the humans.”
For a moment, her expression pinches. But then she offers a small, measured smile. “Good. It’s settled then.”
Samhain is like Beltane, and yet not like. There are drums and feasts and dancing still, but there is also a tang of blood in the air—as animals are slaughtered in sacrifice—and the humans wear masks and hoods, with long beaks and snouts and antlers, turning themselves into grotesqueries. Faeries without beauty.
Everywhere, there is a pulse, a sharpness, a burn—like fear, or hunger. I feel some base, innate part of myself stir. My inherent pooka-ness, throwing back its head and howling into the night.
But then there is a different part of me, centered in the place where my hand is clasped with Bitta’s. And that part wishes for flowers not blood. Laughter not screams.
Scenting humans, I turn sharply toward a pair of them, who stand a little too far from the fires and the crowd. Asking for trouble. I know that Bitta is watching with a frown, but my nature compels me.
Lead them astray.
Take them far from here.
It will be a laugh.
I transform into a shadow and circle my prey, flying into the woods. And then I am a light, a will-o’-the-wisp—a beautiful gleam, bright and silver as Bitta’s soul.
“Look,” one of the humans says, pointing. They both pull back their masks. A man and a woman, young and comely, their hands entwined. As they stare at me, their eyes glaze over. Ensorcelled. I am overcome with a sense of rightness, of purpose fulfilled.
I weave my light deeper into the forest—deeper, deeper. Away from the drums and the bonfires and the human crowds. Away from Bitta too. She may be wroth with me, but she’ll forgive if I ask sweetly, if I smile her favorite smile.
For now, I am a will-o’-the-wisp. A giddy flame in the night. I lead, and the humans follow.
Though I have never visited this place before, I know all its pitfalls, dangers, and snares. A pooka always does. Instinct urges me to guide this couple to a nearby precipice, to giggle while they tumble. But I remember the tightness in my chest when Bitta fell, and I do not want that again. These humans are not her, of course, but they have rounded ears like she does. And breakable bones, too.
So instead, I steer them toward a lake. Drown them, something inside me whispers. Lead them into the water, until their heads go under. What a jape! What a lark!
I take the couple to the shore, right to the edge of the lake, and then I stop them. Even their feet remain dry. The humans gaze unblinkingly at my light, where I hover over the still surface. An urge burns inside me. I need to do something.
So, I explode—a thousand fractures of light slowly raining over the reflective waters, glimmering in the dark of the wood.
In the shadows of the far shore, I retake my man-form to watch. The humans gaze in awe at the falling stars, heads tipped back. Wonder and delight dance across their features.
“You did something good, Crash,” Bitta says. I did not hear her approach, but I’m unsurprised to find her at my side. It’s her usual place, after all. “These mortals will remember this moment fondly for the rest of their lives.”
“That’s not very long,” I say.
She shrugs. “Just because something does not last long, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.”
I study this strange mortal pair, trying to see them as she would. “Maybe it’s more important, because it doesn’t last long?”
Bitta looks at me like she’s seeing something new, something more. My human-shaped heart swells, and I cannot hold her gaze. It is too depthless. Across the lake, the humans present a new puzzle.
“What’s that they’re doing now?” I ask. “It looks like they’re trying to eat each other.” Use your teeth, not your tongues, silly mortals.
Bitta snickers. “They’re kissing. It’s something that lovers do.”
“Humans are so odd.”
She stifles a laugh behind a hand. “Kissing isn’t just for humans, Crash. Faeries do it too.”
She shakes her head, starlight gleaming in her eyes. “A funny question, from the faerie who puts his mouth on everything.”
“Hey! I haven’t done that in years.”
“Let’s go back to the festival. I want to dance.”
She tugs me away, but I spare one last look for this peculiar couple. They seem to be undressing, despite the cold. I’d call that silly too, but I remember yesterday at the cove. The hot wanting in my hands and my blood when Bitta arched her back. So, maybe I can understand these humans, when I’m in this form. Or, at least, I can nearly understand. A light seen through closed eyes.
Really, everyone should try being a horse. It’s so much simpler.
We dance, my hands on her soft waist, our gazes locked. I am caught up in the tide of her, and happier for it. Her jasmine scent fills me up. My man-heart is a drum, beat-beat-beating along with all the others.
When a lull in the music comes, it is like waking from a dream. Bitta plucks the flute from my pocket and presses it to my palm.
“Play, Crash,” she says. “Play for me.”
“Whenever I play, it is for you.”
I lift the instrument to my lips, more reverently than usual, and blow. A curious melody rises up from my depths.
At first, the crowd falls into unnatural silence. All is still.
I play the feeling in my chest—this warm, wanting goodness. And I play the look in her eyes, the dimple at the corner of her mouth, the beauty of this night. I play the tune of old spoons and shattered ice and laughing trees.
As if under an enchantment, the revelers peel away their monstrous masks, revealing sweetly human faces. And when they dance anew, it is with more joy and less frenzy, more laughter and less fear. It seems the festival has reshaped itself around my song; it is riotous and gleeful and strange.
I perform for the next hour, aware of the mortals’ wild delight yet never tearing my eyes from Bitta’s face. There is wonderment in her expression. She looks at me as if I were the moon.
Later, when the drums begin again, we drink ale. After three mugs, my head becomes a fluttering dandelion seed. Make a wish. I’m so dizzy with glee, every face in the crowd seems an old friend. When a shee approaches—the same shee from that Beltane, all those years ago, with his snowy hair and blue-green eyes—I greet him with a wave.
“Honorable Danu,” he says, bowing low. “Forgive me my impudence, but I am ordered by my king to give you this message: he demands your presence at the Moon Court. This is a summons, not a request. I can take you to him at once.”
The shee extends a perfect, long-fingered hand, ready to transport her away. His words would compel anyone else to take hold. The king’s command is a binding magic.
Bitta’s cheeks are rosy and her eyes are bright with humor. “You can tell your king he has neither the right nor the ability to summon me. He is a faerie. I am a goddess. Any power he possesses came from me in the first place.”
Oh. I had never considered... The Faerie King is a descendant of Danu’s. (That is why he rules the Moon Court, after all.) Which means some previous incarnation of Danu bore a child. Who was the sire? Did she love him? Does she miss him, even now? The thought makes me feel so low, I could shift into a worm.
“Run along, emissary,” Bitta says. “I want to dance in peace.”
She skips away, merging into the mass of pulsing bodies. I don’t immediately follow.
“What does the king want with her?” I ask the shee.
He arches one of his elegant brows, as if I am a great simpleton. “Surely you can guess. Haven’t you heard of the prince?”
I shake my head, and the night spins.
The emissary stamps a patronizing smile on his face. “I suppose low faeries do not know such things, hm? Allow me to educate you. For many centuries, the king tried to produce an heir but could get a child on no one. There was a prophecy. It pointed to a low shee of the day court as a viable womb, never mind that she was unwilling. Well, as with most prophecies, it was only a partial truth. Before she slithered back to her own court, she indeed bore the king a son. A son who took after her, not him. A snake, not a wolf.”
I am confused when he stops speaking, as if that is the end of the story. “What does this prince have to do with Bitta?”
Again, that condescending look. “Obviously, the prince is unworthy of the crown. The king needs to purify his line. And what could be purer than returning to the source?”
When I at last understand his meaning, I go terribly, dangerously still. I can barely breathe for rage. “He means to use her as his—his broodmare?”
“She is the mother goddess. Don’t make it sound obscene.”
“He can’t have her,” I hiss, every beast that is a part of me evident in the sound. “She is mine!”
The emissary only regards me blandly. “Know your place, pooka.”
I do know my place: it’s by her side. I am not vain enough to believe that Danu belongs to me, only this one little piece of her.
Bitta is mine because she made herself so. And she will continue to be mine for as long as she wishes. I am not worthy of her, but that doesn’t matter. We chose each other.
I stalk away from the shee, too furious and disgusted for words. My feet take me to her, through the whirl of dancing bodies. Bitta beams at the sight of me. She wraps her arms around my neck. I draw her nearer with trembling hands, fueled by an unfamiliar protectiveness. We press close, swaying, body-to-body. She rests her head against my pounding heart.
I hold her so, so tight.
Our island is always best at sunset, when the sky is a chaos of color. But today those hues are muted, grim.
“You’re in a peculiar mood,” Bitta says, tugging on my sleeve.
“You’ve been in a peculiar mood. Since Samhain. Do you want to talk about it?”
I don’t have the words to describe how I feel, this dark snarl in my chest. And also this—this wanting.
“You know he can’t get to me, right? No one can find Breasal, and even should I go out there—” she gestures, indicating the world at large, “—he has no power over me.”
“I think I hate him,” I say softly. “I’ve never hated anything before.”
She takes my hand. “Sweet Crash. Come, I know what will cheer you up.”
Bitta leads me to a cavern off the beach. It has been long years since we came here. The opening is nearly too small. My shoulders were not so broad before.
Once inside, the space is as I remember. Dim, but full of narrow shafts of sunlight. The roof of the cave glitters with minerals and rough, natural gems. It looks like the night sky.
“Crash!” Bitta calls, cupping her hands to her mouth like we did when we were young. Her voice echoes around the cavern. Crash, Crash, Crash. “Don’t be sad!”
Don’t be sad, don’t be sad, don’t be sad.
My heart pangs and my throat pinches. She is so dear to me that I can barely stand it. She is so beautiful that it is killing me slowly.
“I love you!”
Those are words I’ve never heard before. I want to hear them again, and the cavern obliges: I love you, I love you, I love you.
All I can do is point to my chest, point to this feeling. It’s so much and so strong. I don’t know what to do with myself. Something in my expression makes Bitta laugh, and the sound shatters and refracts around us.
It is the most delicious sound in the world, her laugh. I wish I could take it inside of me. I wish I could taste it.
All at once, I remember the humans by the lake. Is that what they were doing? Was the mortal man tasting his lover’s laugh?
“Say something!” she demands, pulling on my hand.
“Something!” Something, something, something.
She laughs again, and this time I swoop in. My mouth presses to hers, swallowing the sound. Consuming it. Her throat shivers in surprise, and I taste that noise too, finding all of it sweet, sweet, sweet. Headier than ale, more honeyed than mead. I flick my tongue across her lips, to lick up the last traces of her joy.
Bitta blinks at me, startled. Then, ever so gently, she cups my cheeks in her hands, and she claims my mouth. I’m not laughing, so I don’t know what she’s trying to taste. Just me, I suppose. Her lips brush mine and then warmly meld.
This is the best thing that has ever happened.
I feel—I feel...
So much at once. This thing we are doing, it is hot and chaotic and crashing and peculiar and ravenous and joyful—and all the things I like best.
Kissing, I remember.
Bitta pulls away just a little, and then—with twinkling eyes—licks my lips. As I had done. I only realize I am grinning when she grins in return.
“Humans may be on to something,” I say.
“I told you. Not just humans. All lovers do this.”
How have I never noticed before the crease at the center of her lip, that it is lush as a peach? My thumb reaches to touch that spot. As if to feel its ripeness. “What else do lovers do?”
She nips at my finger. “Let me show you.”
Hours, days, weeks, and months pass, all in euphoric oblivion.
Bitta and I, we make love. Make it, let it shatter us, then make it again. In this, I am the thing that is broken. And better for it.
Love must be a creature of mischief, like me.
We are gentle. We are wild. We are strange and curious, learning all the ways our bodies fit together. My hands are intrepid explorers—as are my mouth and tongue and teeth. We learn each other with purpose, all our secret places.
“Crash,” she gasps, nearing the point of bliss.
Smiling a pooka smile, I stop pleasuring and start tickling. She squirms and laughs, yet still manages to glower. “You finish what you’ve begun, or I swear—”
I do. Because there is a sound sweeter than her laugh.
Everything is different now, though little has changed. Our days are much the same as before.
We swim in the cove, then make love on the shore.
We pluck ripe fruits to eat. I lick the sticky nectar from her skin.
We climb up the mountain, to the lake with its perfect film of ice. Under the night sky, we come together again and again—the moon above me and below me.
Passion is not like hunger. It is not so easily sated. Sometimes, I can be inside her and it isn’t close enough. Sometimes, the wanting is so painful I cannot bear it. I shift into a hound and sleep peacefully at her feet.
Until she nudges me with her foot. “Come on, Crash. Change back. Play with me.”
On a perfect star-bright evening, I lead my love astray. She follows my weaving light into the woods, to a clearing where I’ve set a picnic. She’s more interested in unwrapping me than our supper. I gaze up at the swaying branches, at the laughing leaves. My spine arches away from the ground as I shatter.
Later, I pluck my flute from the basket and play the melody of my bliss, giving sound to the tingles of pleasure still drifting along my limbs. She pillows her arm beneath her head and watches me, with stars in her eyes.
When I’ve finished, she takes my face in her hands and brushes my cheekbones with her thumbs. “I have never adored anyone or anything as I adore you.”
I don’t know what to do with this—this feeling. This burning, aching wonder. So I flick her nose, and she laughs.
“I want to visit the mortal world again,” Bitta says. “It must be winter there, now.”
“Me too,” I say. “I want to drink ale and play with the humans.”
“I want to kiss you with snowflakes in your hair.”
I flash her a smile, her favorite smile, the one that makes her go soft. “I wonder if making love in the snow is like making love in the sand?”
“Colder, I’m guessing.”
“I could keep you warm.”
She wriggles her brows. “I know you could, Crash.”
“Do you think the king’s emissary will find us again?”
She sniffs. “He should be accustomed to rejection. Let’s go now. Before the sun sets.”
Caution is not in my nature, so I make no objection. I only press a rough kiss to her cheek, wrapping her in my arms so we both stumble. Laughing, she flicks her hand to open a door between worlds.
And we enter the mortal realm for a third time.
There is no holiday, so all is quiet and still. More so because of the snow—a dense white blanket, hushing the forest and town beneath its folds. The air is cold in my nose and makes my cheeks burn.
Hand-in-hand, we trudge through the whiteness toward a tavern. Within, there are only a few humans nursing drinks. A fire crackles in the hearth.
The barmaid winks at me when she delivers our ale, and Bitta frowns. I am as merry as the bubbles in my mug.
“Why are you smiling?” she asks, suddenly cross.
“Because there are snowflakes in my hair.” I purse my lips and close my eyes. She kisses the tip of my nose instead, just to make me feel foolish.
I do so love to feel foolish.
She laughs at my expression, and we clink our tankards together. The ale is lovely, but the atmosphere here is bleak. Surely there is better fun to be had? We leave glamoured leaves on the table as payment and make for the door.
When we push out into the night, a shee is waiting for us. The king’s emissary. He looks like winter made flesh, with his snow-silver hair and ice-blue eyes.
“You again?” Bitta says, her tone dismissive. She grabs my hand and steers us around the emissary as if he were a mere obstruction in her path.
“I come with a summons from the king,” he says.
“I believe we’ve already sung this song. The king cannot summon me.”
“True,” the shee says. There is something in his voice that makes us both pause, something that sounds like triumph. “But this summons is not for you, honorable Danu. It is for the pooka.”
The words grab ahold of my heart and yank.
A king cannot command a goddess, but he can certainly command me. The compulsion twists like a rope around my ribs. My feet take me to the shee, quite against my will.
“No...” Bitta breathes. Her hand turns viselike around my own.
“You are, of course, most welcome to join us at the Moon Court,” the emissary says, his smile catlike. “You may accompany your... friend.”
He extends his hands to us, palms up. I snatch onto him immediately, incapable of doing otherwise. Bitta hesitates. She and the emissary are locked in some silent exchange—his eyes glinting, her jaw set. Finally, she reaches out and takes his hand.
The white of the world is ripped from my eyes. We swirl into darkness. My ears pop as our feet hit the ground, returned to Faerie for the first time since childhood. Before us, the Moon Palace looms like a mountain of glass and quartz.
It may be a monument in Danu’s honor, but it is the domain of the Faerie King.
As we follow the emissary into the palace, I cling to Bitta’s hand, fearful I might lose her. She squeezes just as tight. Tension vibrates from me to her, from her to me. We are an echo-cavern of dread.
The shee leads us past a towering, glass-roofed atrium, up a grand staircase, and through a labyrinth of hallways. This place is an eye-watering marvel, an impossible web of riches. I crane my head to and fro, trying to memorize the layout. Everything is silver and quartz and white marble. Ornate scrollwork runs along the walls and over the doorways. The roof glitters and the floor gleams. It’s a diamond the size of a city, and all in Danu’s honor.
Don’t they know she prefers simpler things?
As Bitta sweeps by, every faerie pays obeisance—from the lowliest brownie to the noblest shee. Many prostrate themselves fully, belly to floor.
Bitta does not acknowledge them. She marches forward with her chin in the air, her grip on my hand only tightening.
I have a horrible, clawing feeling in my chest.
“You should go,” I whisper. “Go back to Breasal. I will come and find you. After.”
The king’s expectation is a thorn in my mind. It hurts me to remember it.
The king needs to purify his line. And what could be purer than returning to the source?
On that Samhain, when his emissary first explained, I had not fully understood. I was too inexperienced. I grasped the why but not the how. The result but not the means.
Now, I know. Now, I understand exactly what this king wants from Bitta. My Bitta.
Rage has a taste, I discover—like metal, or blood. It vibrates through my body, through every body I carry inside. I would like to shift into a form with fangs and claws and poisonous barbs. I would like to reduce this king to a red smear upon his shiny palace floor.
Bitta squeezes my hand. “He has no power over me. It’s you I’m worried about. Do not leave my side, all right?”
“I never do.”
“Relax, Crash. Everything will be well. I promise.”
I realize I’m crushing her fingers, and I loosen my grip. But my heart is still thump-thumping so very hard.
“Hey.” She nudges me with her elbow, trying to draw me out. “You know, I was jealous of that human barmaid. She was flirting with you.”
Despite my anxiety, a smile blooms on my lips. Not her favorite smile, the one that annoys her. “I know! It was wonderful.”
This time, she drives her elbow into my ribs hard enough to make me yelp. “Wonderful?”
I lean in close, as if to whisper a secret, then nip the shell of her ear instead. She squawks a laugh that makes the emissary stop and stare.
Disgust pulls his face into an ugly shape. So I grin and wave, wriggling my fingers.
“You may rest and refresh yourselves in here,” the shee says, pointing us to a spacious bedroom. “The king will call for you in the morning.”
I have no choice but to follow him; the king’s compulsion still grips me.
“Do you require anything else, honorable Danu?”
Casually, I knock a vase of lilies from a side table. The glass shatters, sweet as a song, and Bitta snickers.
“Pooka,” the shee sneers as he departs.
We are left alone. I clamber onto the cloud-like bed and flail my limbs with delight. I have felt nothing so plush before. It’s impossible to remain afraid when cradled in a cocoon of snowy-white softness.
Bitta does not relax. She is determined to leave this place, and she spends the next hour trying to sever the king’s compulsion on me. I don’t know what she’s attempting, only that she stares at me with a furrowed brow, mumbling unhappily to herself.
I can’t help but distract her. I tug on her hair. I kiss the hollow where her neck meets her chest. I try to tickle her side, but she catches my hand.
“Crash!” she snaps. “Can you not be a pest for once in your life?”
I go still. My heart breaks, just a little.
Bitta seems to hear it, that decisive crack from within my chest. “Oh, no.” She takes my face in her hands. “Oh, Crash. I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. I’m—I’m just frightened for you, that’s all. Please forgive me.”
Sadness is like a throat-ache.
I shift into a hound, because it’s too difficult to be a man just now. Tears shine in Bitta’s eyes. When they spill over, I lick her face.
“I love you, Crash.”
I wag my tail and curl into her side. Her fingers work into my short fur. It’s a nice, drowsy sort of feeling.
“We’ll just sleep, then,” she says soothingly. “And tomorrow, after I’ve had words with this fool king, we’ll go home.”
I drift toward sleep, thinking of the sea-breeze, of the sound of leaves rustling in the forest.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs a few more times, but I can’t recall what she’s apologizing for. It doesn’t matter. I would forgive her anything.
A voice that is not mine whispers inside my head.
Wake up, pooka, it says.
My eyes snap open. It is still dark, either very late or very early. Bitta is asleep beside me. Dried tears stripe her cheeks, and her lips are softly parted. She always looks so sweet in sleep, but not usually so sad.
Do not disturb her.
No, of course not. Bitta needs her rest.
My paws pad light as a whisper on the marble floors. The palace is a mazy dreamscape, but my heart knows the way. I trot up a winding staircase, then through a door left ajar.
I find him on the balcony, standing with his back to me, hands clasped behind him. He is caught in a beam of moonlight that limns his dark hair silver.
“Shift,” he commands.
I do. As a man, all my emotions sprout thorns. Fear, the sharpest of all, because I was not meant to leave Bitta’s side. She will be so upset when she wakes and finds me gone.
The Faerie King turns, his expression carved from stone. He is not so beautiful as his emissary. He is shorter, broader, with a blunt face and lupine eyes. I see nothing of Bitta in him.
“So,” he purrs. “You are Danu’s lover?”
He circles me, and I am compelled to remain still. “A low faerie. Not even handsome.” I am faintly disappointed to hear it. It would be nice to be handsome. “But I am to understand that she loves you. Danu—goddess of all—loves you. A pooka.” He stops, his face horribly close to my own. As if he might kiss me. “Why?”
“I never thought to ask,” I say.
The king snarls, the wolf in him shining through. His power is a physical presence. Every speck of me strains to keep its shape. Compared to him, I am ash and dust.
He reshapes his expression into a smile, a seductive light glinting in his eyes. Suddenly, he is breathtakingly lovely. My heart thuds an erratic rhythm.
“To save you, would she give herself over?” he asks, his voice a croon. “If I threaten your life, will she agree to lie with me?”
“No,” I say immediately. I have no doubt Bitta would go to extremes to save me, but she would not play his game. She is more powerful than him. She is clever and bright and good. She would find another way. “You will never have her.”
A wolfish rumble reverberates in his throat. Silver eyes narrow. “Well, in that case,” he licks his canines. “What use are you?”
I barely see him move. The pain is worse for catching me unawares.
“Oh,” I say, as blood streams down my abdomen.
The king presses his dagger up and in, piercing my human-shaped heart. “What made you think you had the right to touch her?”
And it hurts. Oh, Bitta, it hurts. This is an unmaking kind of pain. I can’t recall pleasure, I can only recall this. I’m reaching desperately for something, anything, to save me, as if salvation might be tucked in my pocket. My hand finds my flute. I clutch it tight, feel the carvings dig into my palm.
Oh, Bitta, I’m dying. I’m dying. And it is terrible.
And—and—and—I didn’t say goodbye.
The king pulls his dagger free, and my lifeblood leaves me. I stare down at the ruin of my body. Broken things—truly broken things—cannot be put right again.
My knees hit the ground, but I do not feel the impact.
The moon is bright above me.
At least there’s that.
I remember licking the nectar from her fingers. I remember floating in the cove, body weightless in the water. I remember the joyous burst of her laughter.
They dump my body in a wooden trunk.
I cannot roam far from my remains, so I am forced to watch on, a silent and unseen spectator. A mere ghost. At least the pain is gone—the pain, and most everything else. I am a shadow of myself. Insubstantial. Tired.
So, this is death.
I’m gone and yet still here, which seems a rather humorless jape. Isn’t Arawn meant to take me to the otherworld? Guide me to whatever paradise or hell I’ve earned? If so, he’s late.
The king’s liveried servants are not gentle with me.
“Couldn’t he have died in a smaller form?” one grunts, lifting his end of the box. My corpse shifts inside.
“Be grateful. Coulda been an ox. Or a troll,” the other says, laughing.
At least my blood lingers, a black stain upon the marble. An imperfection. I take faint pleasure in that.
The servants haul me away from the king’s chambers. They travel down the same winding stair I climbed last night, when last my spirit was attached to my body. I drift alongside. I have no choice.
They carry me to the throne room. It’s an impressive space, this mountainous prism of glass. Long and narrow, with nothing but sky overhead. Shallow steps lead to a raised dais, where there gleams a throne of peerless silver. The seat-back tapers into a spire and is crowned by a crescent moon.
The servants drop me at the foot of the throne, the trunk thumping heavily to the floor. They depart, and I linger in isolation. Just me and this empty space.
I try to leave, to go in search of her, but cannot. I am tethered.
Dawn warms the room to a pale pink. The palace is rousing, far earlier than I would have guessed. Are the noble folk not a twilight people?
Bitta and I always rose with the sun.
I am relieved when the doors are at last opened, glad for company. The room fills with nobles, who file into perfect rows. An audience. There is an expectant energy about them. I hear Danu’s name on every tongue.
They wait for their ruler to arrive.
The Faerie King is not so pedestrian as to walk into the room. Rather, he appears in a flash of blazing light, already lounging on his throne.
All the gathered shee fall to a knee. It is rare to see such proud fae kneel. I wonder if it chafes.
My attention is drawn not to the king but to the small boy-fae sitting near his feet, tucked into the shadow of the throne. A thin silver circlet glints in the child’s green-black hair, marking him as royalty. The Faerie Prince.
His crown is the only clue to his identity. In no other way would anyone know it—certainly not from his stained and unkept clothing, his hungry face, his hair that needs both washing and trimming.
This prince has the look of a feral animal, poorly treated and liable to bite. When he sweeps the assembly with a slitted gaze, his pupils elongate. He coils into himself, like a serpent prepared to spring, but flinches at the sound of his father’s voice.
The king addresses his people in languid tones, “I am certain our honored guest will arrive any—”
The doors fly open with such force, they crack upon hitting the walls. The being who enters is not my Bitta. She is Danu. Goddess of all.
The raw power of her presence flattens every shee in attendance to their belly. A sourceless wind ravages the room, ripping at fabric and hair. Her dark skin glimmers. Her black hair is wreathed in divine light. Her eyes contain not just stars but the feelingless void that swallows them. She flies to the foot of the dais without seeming to move her feet.
Only the king remains upright, but I see the way he trembles. I suspect he remains so at her will, not his.
“Where is he?” Danu hisses in a voice that contains a thousand voices, an infinity. She is ancient in a way I will never comprehend.
But still, she is Bitta. Bitta who likes cherries best. Who collects spoons. Who loves me, even when I’m a pest.
I’m here! I cry.
But even she cannot hear my voice. And though I wave my hands, she does not see me either. Only now do I understand that we have been cleaved from each other. It is a sadness deep enough to drown in.
“Had you been reasonable, you would not have forced my hand,” the Faerie King says, speaking through gritted teeth. Straining against the force of her anger. “Now it is time you heard my offer—”
“You will return my pooka to me, unharmed, and I will not eviscerate you. That is the only offer that matters. Where—is—he?”
With an effort, the king kicks over the wooden trunk at his side. The lid was not latched, so my body spills out and tumbles down the stair. My flute travels further, rolling all the way to Bitta’s feet.
I have not been dead long, but already my fair skin has turned gray, the blood darkened into a blackish stain. My brown eyes are open and sightless. A roguish clump of ginger hair falls over my face, like a horsey forelock. My mouth is twisted up at the corners, as if I somehow had the last laugh.
A ragged sob rips from her throat, a sound of exquisite sorrow. It hurts me to hear it, even though I have no body left to feel pain.
It’s all right, Bitta, I want to tell her. I’m only dead.
It is then that I notice the dark presence hovering at my side, watching the scene unfold. A figure shrouded in shadow, hooded so that only his mouth and chin are visible. Even just that small slice of him is viciously beautiful. Arawn, lord of death. About time he showed up.
Bitta kneels beside my body. Her hands quiver as she smooths back my hair. One perfect tear falls onto my cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs.
I would forgive you anything.
“I love you.”
The king observes Bitta with a cruel smile. He thinks he’s won something. He thinks reducing a goddess to tears is a victory. Even as a child, I knew better. “Now, you see. I have no power over you, Danu, but I can take anything, anyone, away—”
Beneath her hands, my body transforms, reshaping itself one last time. My limbs branch and reach wide. From the tips of my pale fingers, color sprouts. The same shade of red as my hair, my mane, my animal heart. My trunk grows tall, tall, taller still. Creaking, groaning, I rise up like a silver-scaled giant. The Faerie King flees his dais as my body twists around his throne, swallowing it.
I am a tree, a mighty sycamore. My roots crack the perfect white floor. My branches thrust all the way to the ceiling and sprawl to the far corners of the room, so that every shee present is under my shadow. My ruddy leaves rustle in the breeze. It sounds like—
“Laughter,” Bitta sobs, head tipped back.
Wind gusts through the room, harsher than any storm. Bitta rises up off her feet, levitating in mid-air, hair whipping wildly around her face. She gleams so brightly, so terribly, that every fae in the room must shield their eyes. But I do not.
The moon throws her head back, and she screams—a cry of grief and rage so terrible that even Death, hovering beside me, shrinks from it. A moment later, the king screams too, staring in horror at his own hands, at the bits of himself drifting away from the whole. He is crumbling, like the sandcastles Bitta and I once built.
The king of all Faerie dissolves, the flecks of him catching in the wind, until there is nothing left.
The wind stops. The room goes quiet. Danu no longer screams. She drifts back to the floor, her bare feet gently landing on the broken marble.
“You,” she says.
The Faerie Prince stands, his narrow shoulders squared. He looks unnervingly cool, for a boy who just witnessed the disintegration of his father.
“I will give you fifty years to prove this royal line is not irredeemable. Find in yourself some shred of love, some scrap of decency, or I will curse you and your kingdom. And, oh, how you will suffer.”
The boy-fae only cants his head. “We folk are not a loving sort.”
Bitta glances up at my swaying, laughing leaves. Her voice is soft and sad. “If a pooka can develop a conscience, so too can a king.”
I whimper, and Death places a hand on my shoulder.
If the child meant to say anything more, Bitta affords him no time. She bursts into a flash of blinding light—washing the room in white—and when the blaze dims, she is gone. Little gleams of silver rain over the heads of the shee, like falling stars.
I have seen this before. It is what I did for that human couple, when I did not wish to cause them harm. I remember the odd expression Bitta wore that day, and only now do I understand it. Pride. Because I had shown empathy, despite my nature.
I long to tell her that it was all her influence. But she is not here and will not return, I know it. This life of hers is over. My Bitta is once again a part of the whole that is Danu. Gone.
“Well,” says Arawn. “Quite a fuss you’ve caused, for one little pooka.” He grins like a creature of mischief himself. When he turns to face me, I catch the gleam of silver eyes beneath his hood. “In fifty years’ time, things will finally become interesting around here.”
Through the windows, I can see the faint sliver of the moon, still lingering in the morning sky.
I love you, too.
I am not alone. And though I am sad, I am not afraid. So, when Death offers me his hand, I take it.
And hope that, somehow, she’s waiting for me in the otherworld.