Autumn came to the Summerlands. The sentinel griffins slept. The Hedge withered. And in the Court of the Queen, the fae assembled.
“What brings death to our eternal lands?” the Queen asked her subjects. She sat uneasy upon her throne, her terrible beauty captivating any who dared gaze on her. “How will we resist endless winter? How will my endless reign continue?”
Kay Vort slithered forward until his massive frame coiled on the Queen’s Seal, the Endless Knot worked in silver on the ground. “The humans poison their world, and the poison has finally reached us. We must cut them off at last.”
The Queen shook her head, a sad smile on her face. “Sweet Kay, they are linked to us, and us to them. Without us, they would lose their dreams and turn gray. Without human hearts, we would wither as fast as our lands. And without the land, my reign would end. No. Our lands must remain linked.”
Kay Vort bowed his scaly head and retreated from the Queen’s Seal. They pretended to not hear his weeping. Even the Queen turned a deaf ear. She had commanded that no tears could reach her rule, but Kay had once been important to her. Also, it pleased her that one would weep over the end of her reign.
Missal danced forward. She bowed, the tip of her long hat tapping the very center of the Seal. “Your majesty, if our lands die, we must find new lands! Take the seeds of the Summer Tree and plant them in a new place!”
The Queen considered and then nodded, a smile upon her pale face. “A wise thought. But to what lands shall we go? Where have the humans gone that we are not already there, dreamed ahead of them? And where could we live if they did not follow?”
The Court suggested here or there, but no answer seemed satisfactory.
Finally Dalus stepped forward on wooden paws, bowing deeply.
The Court gasped in horror. The exile had returned. The Hedge had failed to keep him out, and now he crouched here, in the heart of Faerie, before the very Queen he had sworn to depose. His great carved face took in the horror around him, and he smiled. His growl was like two trees crashing against each other, but then he spoke words that sounded like wind through leaves. “My Queen, I have returned from roaming the world here and there, and I have much to report. I know why the endless lands end, why our homes wither, and why the Hedge allowed me passage after all these years.”
The Queen face was thunder. She waved a hand, and the chattering of the Court ceased. “Why should I not order you destroyed, burned to mud and twigs?”
Dalus’s laugh was like the slapping of ferns against skin. “Because I alone know how to extend your reign.”
The Greatest of Fae leaned toward him. “And why should I trust you?”
“You shouldn’t. You should burn me down. Surely I mean you harm. But if the choice is between your reign or men turning gray, I would rather your reign continue so I might rebel against it later. Have no fear, my Queen. I will outlive you. But today we must ally. And besides that, I know why you are dying.”
“Dying, forgotten exile of an earlier age?”
“Yes, my Queen. Dying. I know the truth of it. As we are tied to the humans, you are tied to our land. If it is dying, so are you. And oh, my Queen, I would return to give you a boon.”
“Me?” The Queen chuckled. No one seemed to notice her cough. “I give boons, Dalus. Not you.”
“Still, I would give it. Will you hear what has happened beyond the Hedge? Would you hear the last story of the earth you saw rise from dust?”
She narrowed her eyes and sat straighter in her throne. “Speak.”
“Kay Vort was correct. The humans’ poison has finally worked to the heart of their world, and they have written the last chapter of its story. But they think they can escape. They have constructed great boats called ‘arks’ and leave our earth behind, great vessels made of metal that will hold all that remains of their world. They have found a star that will let them tell new stories. Stories that don’t remember us. They leave us behind. They forgot who dreamed their dreams for them and who gave them their hopes. Without them, we wither. Without us, they will turn gray. Soon all of them will be gone or dead, and we will die with them. Already snow falls on our summer lands.”
The Queen shuddered. “You stand upon my Seal; you cannot lie. You have spoken death to us all.”
“No, my Queen! I have a plan,” answered Dalus. “And this is my true boon to you. I will tell you how we may survive, and how they may survive with us.” He paused. The gaze of the Court rested on him, a gaze that had melted men and turned women into princesses. He did not flinch from it. “Are you ready, my Queen, for what I give you? Will it save me from your wrath?”
The Queen commanded, “Speak.”
“They bring children on their arks.”
The Queen set her chin in her hand and smiled. “Ah. And you have indeed given us a boon. And you shall have one in return. I rescind your exile and make you our agent. Go, take some seeds from the Summer Tree, and do as you propose. For wherever the fae are, wherever my children live, my reign – and I – continue.”
Dalus stepped away from the Seal and marched to the Tree. Some say he laughed. Some say he wept. Perhaps both are true. He named a madness of fae to join him on his mission, and they flew and hobbled after him. They set out for the Hedge and passed through to the world the humans called “real.”
The next day a chill mist snaked into the Court. The assembled fae clung to each other, mithrals to pixies to shadelings. The Queen struggled up the stairs of the dais to sit upon her throne. Dalus slunk into the Court and bowed before her.
“Speak,” the Queen commanded, her voice strong despite her body’s weakness. “Did you replace their children with our own?”
Dalus heaved a great sigh. “O Queen, I took the bravest of us and fifteen children not yet awakened from their husks. We set ourselves a glamour that would allow us access to the great ark. But, my Queen, they built the ark with cold iron.”
The Queen hissed.
“We were beset as soon as we set hoove, paw, and foot on the ark. Three of your warriors died, nothing but sticks and mud now. But! But, my Queen, I have thought all night long, and I have a plan. We need only wait until minutes before the ark departs on its voyage. If we are strengthened by the speed of joy, we can enter the ark, replace the children, and return before the humans are any wiser.”
The Queen nodded wearily. “Go, take some seeds from the Summer Tree, and do as you propose.”
Dalus turned again to the Tree. He plucked the honored fruit, warm against his paws, and tucked them into the saddlebags he wore. He breathed on each one: The hope of those who gave hope, the future. The Summer Tree was almost bare; when he turned from it, only thirteen seeds remained. The last of that generation.
He gathered more allies to help him in his mission; the fastest, those borne up by the fire of joy that would not be destroyed by the fiercest blizzard. Tintia, Morestes, Whisper, and more. They set off through the Hedge. It did not resist their passing.
The next day flakes fell in the Summer Court. The sun shone weak through heavy clouds. Dalus slunk before the Court and bowed before the throne.
“Speak,” the Queen commanded. “Did you replace their children with our own?”
“Yes, my Queen. But those on the ark sleep in beds of ice, to grant them eternal youth as they travel between worlds. We took their children and linked them with our own, placing our own young fresh from their husks. But my Queen…” Dalus set before her a human child, small and still.
“He does not breathe?” the Queen asked.
“He does not. It is so cold there. By now all that remains of our young is sticks and mud. Because these humans are dead, we know our own children are the same.”
The Court hissed and screamed that Dalus be ripped leaf from limb, but the Queen held out shaking hands. “Have you learned anything from this attempt? You have a final boon. Would you use it now?”
Dalus nodded. Some say he chuckled. “I have learned that there is but one ark left on the earth, and all remaining humans will board it tomorrow. The last of them. When it leaves, the planet they think is theirs will sleep and never awaken. All of the humans will sleep in ice. We know we cannot set foot on the ark until all sleep, or we will be found out. We know we cannot replace their children in those beds of ice without protection. And so, my Queen, this is my plan:
“We know that they send women who yet carry their young within them. Our young will be safe placed within those mothers, and they will remain undiscovered until they reach a new earth, where they will plant a new Summer Tree.”
The Queen frowned. “A Tree that I will not know.”
“No. You will die with this world. But our people will live on.”
“These fae will be too young. They will not know my reign. They will name a new Queen.”
“And so it must be if we are to survive.”
The Queen folded her arms. “Then let the humans go gray. Let them fade as we do. Without my reign, the fae are nothing. Without me, there is no Summer Tree.”
The Court mourned.
Dalus bowed. His sides shook, whether in triumphant laughter or fear, none could say. The Court fell silent as he huffed once, and then again. And then again. “Ah, my Queen. My elegant, selfish, childish, predictable Queen. You have given me your boon. You have chosen the death of all you love and the humans you tend because you can’t have your way and live forever. And this is the laughter. The one who would exile me would choose to go herself into darkness and leave not a match behind to light what remains.”
The Queen’s face wrinkled in her rage. “Dalus, if I were not dying, I would destroy you.” She pouted. She whined. She hissed. And finally, she commanded, “Go, take the last seeds from the Summer Tree, and do as you propose. And you will finally have your wish: A Court where I do not rule.”
Dalus skipped to the Tree. He took the last of the seeds. The last of the fae children. The last of those who might laugh through nightmares and lure men to their deaths. The last who might inspire greatness or poetry or spires. And he took the Seed. The Seed of the tree itself. And as he took the husk from its branch high atop the Tree, the endless plant curled in on itself and blackened.
He strode alone through the Hedge.
The final day the Court slept. The sun broke the horizon but rose no higher. The Hedge stood bare. Dalus stumbled into the presence of the Queen and fell on his face. “I have done it, my Queen.”
The Queen did not answer.
“Thirteen of our children sleep in the wombs of unsuspecting women. Their children have been cast out. And now our world is empty. The ones we dreamed have left us behind, but we have not abandoned them.” He wept.
“We will not die. The Summer Tree shall be replanted. Your reign has ended. And the idea I sewed to save us all bore fruit. The children of the dust, the humans, have escaped the dying world.” He gasped for air. His heart beat slowly, ever more slowly. “My Queen?”
The Queen did not answer.
And Dalus smiled, but he did not rise from where he lay.
The Summer Lands blew away.
But far away, a different world beckoned with a different Summer. And dreams would be reborn.
[Jonathon Mast lives in Kentucky with his wife and an insanity of children. (A group of children is called an insanity. Trust me.) You can find Jon at https://jonathonmastauthor.com/.]