Once upon a time there lived a girl who wanted to dance with the fae. Her name was Ashleen and she lived on the very edge of the wild woods. Oftentimes she could hear the faint strains of fae music on the night breeze, and her feet would start to tap, her arms would spread wide as she swayed, and her very heart seemed to beat in time to the rhythm.
Of course, she knew such a thing would be the very last thing she’d ever do, were she foolish enough to do more than dream, and so Ashleen suppressed her desire, and went about her life.
At that time and in that place the fae came often out of the woods to torment the mortal folk. They stole water from the wells, drying them up; they took the grain from the fields, and sowed them with salt; and whenever a cow was stolen by the fae, no other cow within three miles would give milk for at least a week.
So the people were on guard. Some left offerings to the fae: water, milk, and grain (usually in the form of strong beer or cakes) in the hope that these alone would be taken. Others left traps out in the hope of catching or killing the thieves – bear traps, with cold iron jaws left in the corn fields. Strong sleeping herbs in the cow sheds, to lull the fae to sleep should they come to steal milk. But no one had yet so much as seen a fae – well, not and lived to tell of it.
Not until the day that Ashleen went to fetch water from the well, early one morning when it was barely light. There she saw a fae leaning over the well, muttering. Quick as a flash, she pushed the creature with all her might, and it fell, down, down, into the water with a splash. Scared that it might yet return, eager for revenge, Ashleen peered cautiously over the edge of the well and gazed down. There, in the water, was the fae – who appeared to be an old woman. Although Ashleen knew that fae could take whatsoever shape they pleased, yet she felt badly for pushing an old lady into the well.
A trembling voice, cracked with age, rose up to her.
“So glad you were here when I fell!
I slipped and toppled down the well.
Help me, child, let down the rope,
Your mercy is my only hope!”
“I know full well you are no simple woman who tumbled into a well. You are fae, and I put you there to stop you poisoning the water, or whatever mischief you were about. I shan’t soon help you out to harm my people again!” replied Ashleen sharply, trying to keep the trembling from her voice.
Now the voice that rose from the well sounded younger, and held a wheedling tone, though there was anger behind it.
“You bested me with a simple shove
Help me out, my little love.
I’ll make your every dream come true –
If not – ’twill be the worse for you.”
“Do you take me for a fool?” asked Ashleen scornfully. “I know full well that you fae are full of tricks, and such a bargain would bring my nightmares to fruit, for sure.”
“Oho, this girl shall not be tricked!
Our bargain must be fair and strict.
I shall not cheat you, this I swear.
Our bargain shall be strict and fair.”
This third time, the voice held grudging respect. So Ashleen replied “If I do make some bargain with you, I will first have your solemn word that no harm shall come to me nor mine, from the bargain we make. That you have no intent to harm me, nor twist the words of the bargain to trick me into harm of any kind. And that you will warn me if you know another fae might do me or mine harm. In return, I shall pull you up, and do no harm to you.”
The fae agreed, and Ashleen let down the rope and bucket to let her up.
“I do not wish to cause alarm
But some fae might well do you harm.” said the fae woman, at the moment her feet touched solid ground.
Ashleen smiled ruefully “Well, I suppose that’s nothing new. I did mean specifically though.”
“I like you, girl. So here’s the deal
I shall protect you, aye, for real.
Tell me your wish, and I shall plan
To grant it, safely, if I can.”
But Ashleen refused. “Tell you my secret wish? Let some fae woman whom I have barely met, know my heartfelt desire? I think not. Why, I don’t even know your name! I’m Ashleen.”
The fae laughed, delighted.
“You give your name, oh so politely!
We do not give our names so lightly.
You want a name? Then call me “Fish”
Now, let me grant your secret wish.”
But Ashleen would not tell the fae that she had fished from the well the foolish hope that had come at once to mind. And soon the sun was high in the sky, and they must both go about their way. And it was not a light beating that Ashleen’s father gave her, for dawdling so long at the well when there was breakfast to be made. But she told him nothing of what had occurred there.
The next morning, Fish was waiting for Ashleen at the well. And again she asked to know the girl’s wish, that she might grant it. But Ashleen, seeing that somehow she had the upper hand, said nothing. And Fish cursed good-naturedly, and said:
“If we cannot a bargain make
Some other boon you must, please, take?
I cannot be so in your debt
Against your will, I’ll help you yet”
And so it was that all that day, fortune smiled upon Ashleen. If she went to milk a cow, it was two buckets she needed, not one, for the milk flowed so freely. If she went to pluck berries, many a fine cluster of ripe berries, with not one thorn in sight, would be in easy reach.
Well, and so it went on. Each morning, Fish waited, and asked Ashleen to let her grant her wish. And each time Ashleen refused, her luck improved.
But at length came the day when Fish was not at the well. And Ashleen had a day not so filled with fortune. In truth, it would have been a fair day for anyone else, for no harm nor hurt befell her, but things did not come so perfect and easy as they had in the last few weeks…. and it felt a little like suffering after she had grown used to those days filled with fae fortune.
And the second day when no Fish stood by the well, Ashleen went to the edge of the woods, and looked into the trees. She peered about, and called softly: “Fish? Fish? Are you there?” But no answer came. So, with a sigh, Ashleen picked up her bucket and went about her business.
And when it was the third day, with no Fish and no luck, Ashleen went a little way into the woods, and called again for Fish. When no answer came, she sighed. “Ah, I wish I knew you were well, for true it is, you have brought me fortune and I was happy enough to see you.”
At once, Fish appeared by her side.
“A wish, you say? To know I’m well?
The answer is easy to tell –
I would be if I paid my debt.
Our bargain’s made, and must be kept ”
So things continued on, and a strange friendship grew between the women – one mortal and one fae. Then came the longest day of the year, when the sun shone hot down and baked the earth. On that night, Ashleen could not sleep, for she was near feverish with the dry heat.
So she sat at her window and gazed out over the dark mysterious woods. And a tune came drifting to her on the breeze. And she, unthinking, sighed and murmured aloud “Oh, HOW I wish I could dance with the fae.”
And at once, there was Fish, standing in her bedchamber, a smile on her lips and a gleam in her eyes.
“Your wish, my pet, shall soon be granted
Three simple seeds must be enchanted
One for you and one for me
And one to bind the alchemy.”
Then Fish sent Ashleen to find three certain things. Puzzled, but obedient, and ever mindful of the fae’s vow to refrain from trickery, she did as she was asked.
By the time Ashleen had returned, Fish had set up a small cauldron to heat over a flame. She took the spider Ashleen had found in a crevice of the privy, and pulled off each of its legs in turn and placed them in the pot, followed by the body, saying:
“Eight your legs and eight your eyes
Craft for us a deft disguise
Mistress Weaver, twist and spin
Imitate a second skin.”
Then she took the mouse that Ashleen had found, weak and bleeding, but alive, in a trap in the pantry. She twisted it, wringing its small body like a wet shirt on washing day, letting the blood ooze into the potion before flinging the rest of the broken body in after it.
“Mouse’s blood and mouse’s fur
Hide the human stench of her
Let her creep in the fae house
Undetected as a mouse.”
And finally, Ashleen passed her the largest pumpkin that had been growing in her father’s garden. Fish smashed it with her heel, and searched carefully through the splatters of seeds and pulp, at last selecting three seeds.
“From this pumpkin, all I need
In the mix a single seed.
One for her and one for me
And one to bind the alchemy.”
So into the cauldron went just one of the three chosen pumpkin seeds. And once the potion was brewed, Fish poured it evenly into two cups. She bade Ashleen to copy her exactly. As one, the two women each took a seed, placed it under her tongue, then drained her cup dry.
It was all Ashleen could do not to cry out in pain as the change came upon her. She bit down, and felt her teeth strangely sharp. Her eas popped, her hair seemed to crawl back into her scalp, and her eyes burnt as they changed shape and colour, even as tears formed in them.
Then it was over. Ashleen looked up from where she had crouched in pain on the floor to see her own eyes staring down at her. And she saw her own mouth move, and form words, but it was still Fish’s voice she heard.
“No human girl would have a chance
To survive a faery dance
You have my body, and I yours
And I shall do your petty chores.
While you, wearing the shape of me,
Can dance quite safely with the Sidhe.
Don’t lose the seed from ‘neath your tongue
Lest the enchantment be undone.”
So Ashleen ran out of her house and towards the music. Her longing at last released, she ran. Fleet footed and soft soled, she ran. And as she ran, her feet beat to the rhythm of the faerie music.
She ran, and she did not wish to rest, for her breath came easily. Though she ran barefoot, her feet caught not on the stones and thorns, for her new fae body was strange, and not as her mortal body in more ways than she could have ever suspected. Ashleen laughed aloud for the sheer joy of running…but even as she laughed, she took care that the pumpkin seed stayed safe beneath her tongue.
And into the woods she ran, and on towards the music, until at last she came to a place where the trees did not grow, and a circle of stones stood. She stopped abruptly, still in the shelter of the trees surrounding the clearing, and she gazed in awe at the fae who were dancing, so graceful and strange, in the dappled moonlight.
No word of man can describe that dance, but it is said that Ashleen spoke of it only once, to her favourite grandchild’s grandchild, after Ashleen had taken strong herbs to loosen the pain in her ancient joints, and those herbs loosened her tongue and her memory also. And even then, she spoke only in hushed tones, saying that the dancers were swift as scampering mice, and skilful as sly spiders as they wove dexterously between the stones, their feet leaving shining sigils and patterns of great beauty in the dew soaked grasses at their feet, and those very grasses seemed to join the dance, swaying to the rhythm, thought not the slightest breeze disturbed the night air.
And it was not long before one of the dancers approached her, where she stood at the edge of the circle, and she gasped in dread that she had been discovered, and then sighed with relief and joy as he offered her his hand in invitation. When she looked upon him she gasped and sighed once more, for before her stood the most perfectly formed being she had glimpsed, even in her dreams. But with every gasp and every sigh, still she took care that the pumpkin seed stayed safe beneath her tongue.
And she placed her fae hand into the perfect hand, and her fae feet moved as the music bade them, and she danced as no mortal has even done before, nor I daresay, ever shall again. A mortal mind and heart within a fae body, joined in Sidhe dancing. As she danced she tasted salt, for tears of bliss fell from her eyes as she breathed in the music and the dancing and the magic of it all.
The dance seemed endless, yet all too brief, When the sun’s first rays appeared, and the moon sank from view, the music came to an end, and the silence rang like thunder in her ears.
And then the fae bent his perfect face to hers, and pressed his perfect lips to hers, and kissed her with a passion born of the music, a passion that her grandchild’s grandchild fidgeted to hear her tell.
Like the dance, the kiss was eternal and over too soon. When they broke apart, the sun was high in the sky. And the perfect fae looked upon Ashleen’s own true face, and his perfect smile became mocking and cruel, as he took a pumpkin seed from between his sharp sharp teeth and laughed. And it was then that Ashleen knew what it was to fear, as she heard his perfect voice saying:
“One little mouse to dance has come
I’m blind no more, see how she’ll run!
And run she did, with the perfect fae leading in the other dancers in a wild chase, with whoops and mocking calls and hunting horns blowing as she fled though the woods. But this time her body was mortal once more, so she panted for breath, and her bare feet were cut on sharp stones in the path, and her legs whipped and sliced by brambles, and her hair caught on thorny bushes. But on she ran, on for her life and soul, running as fleet as a deer before the hounds. I know not how she out ran them, perhaps the Sidhe enjoyed the smell of her fear too much to catch her and end it, as surely they easily could have, but at last she burst out of the woods into a field near her own home, and Fish was standing there, waiting for her and Ashleen wept with relief ….
It was bear trap of cold iron, left hidden in between the stalks of corn, that was her downfall. It crushed her foot and she screamed aloud. But Fish called to her, and Ashleen pulled her mangled leg from the trap and stumbled into Fish’s waiting arms.
Fish faced the perfect fae as he burst from the woods, holding the mortal girl tight in her arms, heedless of the blood turning the dry soil beneath her feet to dark purple mud.
And he directed his cruel smile at Fish as he bent to the ground and picked Ashleen’s severed foot from the trap, proclaiming:
“The girl whose foot I now do bear.
I shall have her, this I swear.”
But Fish replied:
“This one is mine, not yours to get
Leave her be, she is my pet.”
And he gazed on the foot, stroking it, as covetous a look upon his face as he were a starving man with unexpected bread suddenly in his hand, or a miser with a nugget of pure gold.
“This foot so dainty, this foot so fine
The one who owns it shall be mine!”
And then Fish spoke again, even as he carelessly snapped off a toe and popped it into his mouth like a ripe berry.
“The girl is mine, from head to feet
So I am yours, my debt’s complete.”
A look of fury marred the perfection of the fae’s features, but he nodded curtly, and at his gesture, Fish bowed to him, placed Ashleen tenderly upon the earth, and followed the fae into the wild woods. Ashleen never saw either one of them again.
Once upon a time there lived a mortal girl who danced with the fae. Her name was Ashleen and she lived a long, long life, on the very edge of the wild woods. Oftentimes her wooden foot would tap to the beat when she heard the faint strains of fae music on the night breeze. But she never danced again.