By Kohan Eybergen
Thomas was frightened, and for good reason; all of the fairies had weapons in their hands that looked as if they could hurt him quite badly. Some had bows, some spears, all of them had daggers hanging from their belts, and they were all wearing very angry expressions.
‘Why are you trespassing in our lands, imp?’ one of the fairies asked him.
‘I…I don’t know what that means, sir.’ Thomas knew that grown-ups usually liked to be called sir or missus, and he figured that the fairies did as well.
‘Are you not aware that by passing the enchanted river, you have entered the realm of the Shade Garden? Doing such is a crime against our people!’
‘Of course he doesn’t know!’ said another fairy with a kinder voice. ‘He’s just a youngling. He looks lost,’ she pointed out to the others.
‘Regardless, we need to bring him before the King. He could be a spy for the Giants,’ the first fairy said to the others, who all then voiced their agreement.
The kind-voiced fairy walked over to Thomas and made to grab him by the hand, but Thomas jumped backwards, frightened. ‘I’m not going to harm you,’ she assured him as she motioned for the others to lower their weapons. ‘We just need you to come with us. You look hungry; the solstice feast is taking place in the great hall, and we’ll be able to eat there.’
‘Where are you taking me?’
It was the grumpy fairy that answered him. ‘Deep into the realm of the Shade Garden to await the judgment of our King.’
Thomas was extremely nervous; in fact, he was trembling. He had never met a King before, and the grumpy-voiced fairy scared him.
‘Don’t be so harsh, Crabapple,’ the kind fairy scolded, ‘you’re frightening him. My name is Acorn,’ she told Thomas, ‘and these are Buckeye, Maple, Willow, and Poison Berry.’ She pointed to each in turn.
‘We’re part of the river guard.’
Thomas was confused and he was growing tired. He knew that he was in some sort of trouble, but he didn’t understand why he had to be taken to the fairy King or how the fairies had appeared so suddenly in the first place. Above all, however, he knew that he had absolutely no chance in running away as he was outnumbered six to one.
After walking beside Acorn for what felt like ages, Thomas started to feel outright exhausted. ‘Why do I have to go to the King? I didn’t do nothing wrong. I just wanted to make a fox house to live in where I could be left alone!’
Acorn looked down into Thomas’s teary little face. ‘We have to take you to the King because it’s the law of our people. Humans aren’t allowed in our realm, and anyone who wishes to enter must have permission from the King.’
Crabapple, who was in the lead, stopped suddenly and turned around to hush the others, ‘Shhh! I see something up ahead, a light flickering, and I hear foul voices on the wind.’ He listened for a minute while the others stood still behind him. ‘Giants!’ he whispered, and he motioned for the others to follow him silently towards the light.
Soon they were within sight of a small clearing in which there were two giants sitting with their backs to the fairies, warming their huge hands and feet in front of a large fire. They were at least ten feet high sitting down, and closer to twenty if they stood. Their heads were large and grey with small ears, and they sat on their hunched, fur-covered shoulders with no necks to be seen. Acorn hid Thomas in a berry bush and warned him to keep quiet, and the fairies crept carefully around the clearing to surround the giants and then climbed trees. In their perches above, they listened to the deep voices.
‘The captain said to wait here until he collects us all from our stations for the attack; we can’t afford getting caught wandering about–it’ll ruin the plan,’ the first giant remarked.
‘I’m starving! And I’m tired of waiting around for the captain; he’s never had a plan that’s worked, anyway–we always lose to the fairies!’ the second one said.
‘And you’re about to lose again!’ yelled Crabapple from his tree. The giants turned their confused, ugly faces upwards just in time to receive a hail of arrows from the fairies.
Now giants, despite their massive size and strength, are cowardly creatures whom, when surprised by heavily armed fairies usually turn tail and flee, which is exactly what these ones did. Laughing in their victory, the fairies jumped out of their trees and landed softly on the forest floor, as the sound of the giants crashing through the trees faded away. Thomas ran out of his hiding place to meet Acorn with an awed look on his face.
‘That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen! Real, live giants! And you fought them off so easy!’ he exclaimed.
‘Well we aren’t river guards for the sole purpose of arresting little boys’ Crabapple scoffed, but before he could continue his grumblings, Acorn cut him off.
‘We should get you to the palace as soon as possible; it’s not safe here’ she told Thomas.
They kept walking for a while longer until they reached two ancient trees. They were oaks, and they were growing so closely together that their branches were intertwined overhead like an archway. It was eerily quiet, and Thomas and the fairies stood before the oak trees for a moment before Crabapple spoke.
‘We are here.’ He grunted. He turned and looked at Thomas with a strange expression on his face. ‘You will be the first human to ever enter the Palace of Living Trees.’
It didn’t look like a palace to Thomas. It was simply just two large old trees side by side with enough room for three people to walk between the trunks at a time, or so it seemed. As Thomas walked beneath the boughs, the forest in front of him vanished and was replaced by a bright golden light. Thomas could hardly see, but when his eyes adjusted he realized that he was in standing in a large entrance hall lit by what looked like dozens of small floating suns. The walls were living tree trunks growing tightly together, and the high ceiling was made up of their branches and leaves. At the end of the hall there was a large arched wooden door set in the wall. The door had a detailed carving of an oak in the middle of it, and the handle was shaped like a large acorn.
Thomas had forgotten how tired he had been feeling and was beginning to grow excited. He thought that this place was much better than any home that he could make, and a small part of him wondered whether he could live with the fairies.
‘Now don’t be alarmed, but there are hundreds of us in the great hall for the feast,’ Acorn told him as they walked across the entrance hall toward the door. ‘It’s just through here. The King is there too, but you’ll finally be able to eat and rest.’
They opened the door and went in. The great hall was much larger than the entrance and it was dimly lit. There were massive hearths along the walls that had wood fires burning in them. The hall was filled with around twenty long tables whose benches were crowded with fairies. The tables were covered in dishes of different foods, and many different coloured candles were alight among them.
The rich aroma of cooked meat engulfed Thomas as he stood open mouthed by the door. He didn’t realize how truly hungry he was until now, and he wished very much that he could join the fairies at the benches. Acorn and Crabapple lead him down the middle of the hall towards a table at the end that stood higher than the rest on a raised platform. Behind the table sat the fairy King. He was sitting in a throne that was made up of the living roots of a thick tree behind him, and he was clothed in robes of pale green and silver. A circlet of woven holly, mistletoe, and spruce boughs was perched atop his head like a wreath crown, for it was the solstice celebration and the start of the fairies’ new year.
Although Thomas was still nervous, he was no longer afraid, for the King of the fairies was not a scary-looking elf. He had warm green eyes and a bright face that glowed with kindness and old wisdom.
‘What have you brought before me in the middle of the feast?’ he asked Acorn and Crabapple as he stood up from his throne. The whole of the hall was silent, and the fairies ceased their drinking and feasting to watch the King as he stood peering down at Thomas past his bushy furrowed brows.
‘We have brought a human youngling, sire. We found him by the river–he had crossed it and was trespassing on our lands.’ It was Crabapple who spoke, and he did so while nudging Thomas closer to the edge of the King’s table.
The King fixed Thomas with a curious stare. ‘Why have you entered my realm, human?’ It was a command to speak, but a calm one.
‘I didn’t know it was, sir,’ Thomas answered truthfully. ‘I just wanted to run away and live in the forest, away from my parents.’
‘Why would someone so young willingly abandon their kin? Did they harm you?’
Nobody had ever asked Thomas this before, and he was worried that if he told them the truth that he would be in trouble. He hesitated before answering ‘yes.’ The King looked concerned, and he pondered silently for a moment.
‘So you have come here to seek asylum then?’
‘I don’t know what that means, sir.’
‘It means that you have come here for safety from something.’
‘Sort of, I guess,’ Thomas admitted. He had begun to feel tired again, and he was still very hungry.
The fairy King paused to think once more, something that he seemed to like doing, while everyone waited for him to speak. ‘I have decided that you may stay here in the palace, at least until I have figured out what to do with you. First, join the feast; you look famished. Then I will send a servant to find you a room where you may stay for the night.’
And with those words, the King seated himself back onto his throne, the rest of the fairies in the hall resumed their feasting, and Acorn led Thomas to an open space at one of the tables.
To be completed in part III.