(Photo by Neil Rosenstech on Unsplash)
Axes met the hard ground, as deep voices rose in song in the air. The smell of dirt and soot met my nostrils, matching the odor of Tarquin’s filthy shirt and baggy workpants he insisted I wear.
“Do I have to wear this?” I moaned, embarrassed to wear Tarquin’s clothes, instead of my usual green cotton dress.
Tarquin secured the miner’s helmet on my head, his grimy miner-fingers giving off a filthy stench. Then he patted the protective headwear lightly. “It looks good on you.”
“Oh, please!” I rolled my eyes.
But his calculating gaze silenced me, reminding me of only a few days ago when he’d tried to help me after I’d fainted. I needed to guard myself against this strange man. Besides, he was right. Disguising myself as a miner was the only way I’d could be in this mine where Summer and Autumn joined together—where the great healer must be waiting for us.
“So, Prima, use your powers to find him,” I challenged her.
Prima laughed. “You think I can do anything? My wand is very spontaneous. It does whatever it wants. Only when I use my actual gift of soothing does it obey me.”
“So we’ll just have to wait till it gets dark to read the stars?” I said sarcastically.
Tarquin watched us but said nothing as we squabbled back and forth. He set down the “sack of gold” that kept moving restlessly about. Kari was too small to pass as a miner, so he had to pass as our bundle of precious metal for today.
Finally, he spoke. “Don’t you think Gesu would have drawn a crowd by now? Why don’t we ask if anyone has witnessed a great healer perform miracles around here?”
Prima and I laughed in relief at his obvious idea. Of course. You’re right, Tarquin, I thought, half amazed and half embarrassed. You’re always right. You’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, not at all dulled by the fairies’ spells to make humans docile. But that’s not what I said.
I shrugged. “Yeah, sure.”
“Hey, sir, have you seen Gesu?” Tarquin asked a middle-aged miner.
The man was bent over rocks, hacking his axe recklessly in search of the treasure Queen Hazina greatly desired. “Who?” he mumbled, not looking our way.
“Gesu,” Tarquin repeated, firmly. “He is a great healer. Surely you must have seen this human perform miracles—you know, healing the sick.”
“Nah, if I had seen a great healer, my wife wouldn’t have passed on from the plague yesterday. And if there was any great human, they wouldn’t have allowed the fairies to take my children…” Crash. The axe shattered a large rock in half, stunning me.
So, the plague had spread to Autumn as well. What was happening to Istagun? My people, enslaved all their lives, now had to die from a horrid disease, but for what purpose? Why did fate so despise the human race?
“Get your girl out of here, kid,” the man grunted. “This is no place for women.”
Tarquin swallowed, glancing at me for a second. I blushed. So, the middle-aged man saw past my disguise.
Prima fluttered up to the miner, smiling easily. “Well, sir, I am a Summer fairy, commissioned by Queen Hazina to find this man Gesu, and you must tell me the exact truth. Have you indeed never heard of him?”
“How can I think of an imaginary healer when my family is gone from me!” The man spat at the ground. “My wife and I only saw glimpses of our children’s newborn faces. And now even she’s gone. The blasted queen is up to something!” He wiped his hand over his face, shaking his head.
I longed to embrace this poor man who had lost everything. I imagined my parents had felt the same way as this miner when Hollis and I had been taken to Spring as soon as we were born. Bitterness rose like a burning fire within me. Queen Hazina knew nothing of what she was doing to her subjects. She knew nothing of pain.
Traveling deeper into the mine pit, we questioned several other men about Gesu before giving up. They had never heard of such a man. I wondered if one of the miners was my father, but I had no idea how I’d be able to recognize a man I’d only seen vaguely in my dreams, or how he’d recognize me.
By evening, we climbed to the other side of the steep mine pit, worn out from the days adventures. We had every once in a while sneaked Kari briefly out of the sack, so he could breathe more deeply.
Now we faced the main portion of Autumn. I gasped. For a moment I thought the forest was on fire. Then I saw that the trees were not green as in Summer, nor pink as the cherry trees were in Spring. Instead the leaves were glorious yellows, oranges, reds, and browns, like nothing I’d ever imagined. It was beautiful.
“Maybe getting older isn’t so bad,” I joked, though amazement filled my heart.
Tarquin looked at me steadily, and then grinned. “Right, Dahlia. Maybe it isn’t.”
“I’m thirsty!” Prima exclaimed. “You guys haven’t drunk a sip of water all day, and I’m over here dying!”
A breeze cut through my miner’s suit. It was chilly here, the air as cold as the river back home. “I never liked the taste of water, but I suppose the river’s not too far off.” Tarquin studied me. “I never liked the taste either.”
Oh, sure. What a coincidence! I laughed silently to myself. He was just trying to gain my approval.
We found the river, let Kari out, and cupped water into our hands to drink. Prima drank deeply, but Tarquin and I only had a few sips. Kari, too, drank very little.
“You need to drink more than that, Kari,” I urged him.
“It tastes awful!” he wailed. “You said so yourself!”
Tarquin glanced at me and shrugged. We drank heaping scoopfuls after another, eventually racing each other to see who could drink more. Much to my relief, this encouraged Kari to drink as well.
Finally, we sat back and relaxed against rocks, satisfied. I hadn’t realized how refreshing it was to drink water, regardless of its awful taste. I remembered when I’d sent Rhia to the river. I realized with sudden sadness that she’d probably come back to the hut by now, only to find it completely empty.
“What’s are next plan?” Prima asked, glancing between Tarquin and me.
“We’ve got to go to the center.” His voice was deep and quiet. “To Queen Hazina’s palace.”
“Are you crazy?” I burst out. “She hates us all. What would she do for us?”
“She’d take away a great healer, that’s what she’d do. I bet a hundred sacks of gold she captured him or even…” Tarquin’s eyes sobered.
“No one can kill Gesu,” Prima said firmly, though her teeth chattered in the chill breeze. “He is unstoppable.”
Tarquin frowned. “But so is the queen.”
With her insistence to the guard fairies that she was abiding by the queen’s orders, Prima helped us enter the center of Istagun. Of course, we had to be escorted immediately by one of the guard fairies to the queen’s palace. Since Prima could come up brilliant excuses for anything, we were able to let Kari out of his sack to breathe and take in the wonders.
As we followed the curt, no-nonsense guard fairy, we looked around us at the village of fairies—fairies of all colors, shapes and sizes, flying about, chirping, singing, dancing, or hurrying to obey Queen Hazina. The village was in a valley, under the gaze of a towering mountain.
The silver guard fairy grunted as we approached the base of it. “That there is a mountain carved out in the interior, marking the luxurious dwelling of the queen.”
We stared at it in amazement. A large oak wood door elaborately decorated stood before us at the base of the mighty mountain.
“Sure has a lot of space,” Prima said with a short laugh.
The silver fairy shrugged. “She needs it for all she has inside.”
As we followed the silver fairy through the dark stone halls, we gasped. Sharp cries filled the musky air, while torches lit the far ends of the wide halls, revealing prisoners trapped behind bars. Most if not all of them were brown skinned with green leaves for clothes—or were some growing out of their heads? They wailed loudly, so I covered my ears. Was Gesu among them, here in the dark? We could not see.
Then I looked down at Kari and saw he was crying. I bent over and picked him up. I carried him on the side of my hip as he buried his sobbing face in my shoulder.
Prima clutched hold of my hand, her wings fluttering softly, but I knew she was crying, too. I tried to rise above my sadness, to be the comforter rather than the one who needed comforting. I had cried too much today. And I couldn’t let a tear fall in front of Tarquin.
“Dahlia,” he whispered, terror in his voice. “These are the Treelanders.”
I nodded, hopelessness almost overwhelming me. “I didn’t know she did this. I didn’t know…”
“What is the queen’s purpose in imprisoning these people?” Tarquin asked the silver fairy. I knew he was trying to speak only out of polite curiosity, but anger edged his voice.
The fairy laughed harshly as he stepped up stone stairs. “Well, I suppose someone’s going to find out soon anyway. Let me ask you, kid: Why do you think the queen’s killing off everyone with the poisonous water?”
His casual words echoed down the stone staircase. I shivered, and as I held Kari on my hip, I looked down at my hand. Alarm roiled through me. There was a single red tumor in my palm, enflamed as red as a Summer sunset. I stared at my trembling hand. I had probably drunk almost a gallon of water at the river.
Tarquin finally spoke, hesitantly. “I had not realized the water was the problem.”
His formal voice amused me somehow. He could be a little more straightforward. “Sir,” I said to the fairy, “the queen is awfully dense to kill off the people who are working so hard for her.”
I set Kari down, so I didn’t have to carry him up the steps.
“The Treelanders are a stronger species. They will work much harder for her.”
At that, we finally reached the top of the steps, where another large door welcomed us. We stepped into an enormous room, decorated almost entirely in gold. Before us sat the gold throne where the queen sat with her wide rainbow wings and pleasant, unnerving smile. Beside her stood tall, erect silver guard fairies. Behind her a waterfall gushed downward, into a hole that undoubtedly led to the valley. Its sparkling freshness made me thirsty, but I quickly reminded myself of the poison. I would never want to drink water again. Would I even get a chance to before the plague consumed me?
Guilt choked me as I remembered how I’d insisted Rhia should go to the river to fetch water, and how I’d urged Kari to drink more today. By all that has life and breath, what have I done!?
We approached the throne, our confidence shattering at the sight of it.
Prima bowed low. “Oh, queen, I am your humble servant. I have brought these honorable subjects to your abode because they are some of the only few humans left. Please do them a favor and answer their questions.”
“I will hear your questions before I deem them worthy to answer.”
Tarquin stepped forward and bowed deeply. “Your majesty, I ask you one simple question: Where is the man Gesu, who has healed many humans and fairies in your land?”
Queen Hazina’s uncanny smile twisted into a grimace. “Dear sir! What right do you have to ask such a question? Gesu’s in Winter, but now that you asked, you’re going to the dungeon!”
She ordered the silver guard fairies to take him away.
I cried out for him, but it was no use. The one person I hadn’t wanted on this journey was now gone, and I had to admit I already missed him.