It’s Ninian. Right now, he’s talking quietly, like he isn’t sure I’m asleep. I open my eyes, a bit woozy. “H’lo.”
Ninian smiles a little. My room is all dark, except for a candle he’s holding. He puts it down carefully and sits cross-legged next to my bed, which is actually not a bed but a nest of blankets on the floor. I close my eyes as he rests the back of his hand on my forehead. “How do you feel?” he asks.
“I’m tired,” I say honestly. My voice comes out scratchy, and I cough.
“Yeah?” He sounds tired too, and he’d winced a little when he’d sat down. “Well, then you should sleep.”
I wonder if he just came back from a fight. Áed had said something about Ninian going out, and now Ninian’s moving like he’s stiff.
I wish I could help.
But I don’t know how.
And I’m tired.
Ninian just brushes my hair back from my face, and I realize my forehead is all sweaty. Ninian doesn’t seem to care, and my eyes sag closed again as he drags his fingers lightly along my head—I can feel his calluses. “There you go, mate,” he says. “Close your eyes. You need to sleep a lot when you’re sick.”
“I know,” I mumble. I think I’ve been sleeping for most of the day, and Áed stayed with me to make sure I was okay. I open my eyes just a sliver. “Where’s Áed?”
Ninian sighs. I don’t think he realizes how much he sighs when he talks about Áed. He gets all smiley, too, these little half-smiles. “He’s downstairs, sleeping. He was up all last night.”
I frown. “He was?”
Ninian nods. “Worried about you.”
“Oh.” I feel my brow furrow. “I’m sorry.”
“Mate, no.” Ninian rolls his eyes. “Don’t apologize for that. And close your eyes.”
“Do you want me to tell you a story?”
I don’t dare open my eyes. Ninian actually doesn’t like telling stories very much—Áed says they make him sad. “Yes, please,” I whisper.
The old floor creaks as Ninian adjusts himself, his fingers still combing through my hair. “Once upon a time,” he starts quietly, “there was a young man. He had black hair and green eyes that look like emeralds.”
I smile. Ninian always makes me the hero when he tells stories.
“One day, he was walking through the forest near his home when, through the trees so tall they could touch the clouds, he heard a woman crying. The boy didn’t hesitate before he left the path to find the source of the sound, hoping he could help.
“It was a strange forest, and before long, the boy was completely turned around. It was dark in the woods, and there were brambles growing between the trunks in a deep, impossible green; between the leaves above, the sky was an eerie yellow, the color that it takes right before the sun sets. But the person was still crying, and so instead of trying to find the path again, the boy pressed on.”
I don’t have to think about keeping my eyes closed. Ninian’s voice does something when he tells stories—it gets lower, I think, and quieter. It makes me sleepy, but I want to know what happens next.
“When the boy found the source of the crying, he stopped in his tracks. It was a young woman who looked his age, with lots of dark brown curly hair, and she was caught in the brambles. But despite her state of distress, there was something about her that made the boy hesitate. Something unearthly and frightening, and he found himself too scared to get any closer.
“The young woman looked up and saw him, though, and when she looked at him with eyes that were full of bright, diamond-clear tears, the boy couldn’t stay away. He picked his way through the sharp thorns, carefully untangling them. As soon as she was free, the young woman sprang to her feet as gracefully as a deer.
“‘Why did you help me?’ she demanded. She looked wary of him, as if she expected him to demand payment.
“The boy, nonplussed, told her it was because she looked in need of help, and asked if she’d rather have stayed there, caught in the thorns.
“Of course, she said she was glad he’d come. But it was with suspicion that she looked up at him sideways. ‘You should know,’ she said, ‘what I am.’
“‘What are you?’ the boy replied.
“Wordlessly, she held out her hand and let flames bathe her dark skin in copper light.
“The boy stepped away as the fire died from her palm.
“‘Would you still have saved me,” the girl said, ‘if you had known what I was?’
“And to that, the boy had to be honest. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I suppose I would.’
“‘Would it be because you wanted a boon?’
“‘I didn’t know boons were involved,’ the boy confessed. ‘So, no.’
“The girl looked at him very strangely. ‘Come back here three days hence,’ she said, and with that, the boy noticed smoke curling from the trees. On each tree he’d passed to reach the girl, there was now seared a spiral. A path to follow.
“When he looked back to her, she was gone.
“The boy visited the spot as he’d been told, and he and the faerie girl began to talk. They talked until dark, and then met the next day as well… and the next day, and the next day. They became fast friends, and, as they grew older, they realized that it wasn’t so far from friendship to love.
“The boy loved the faerie girl until the day he died. They shared their secrets, shared their whole selves, and made each other very happy.”
Somewhere in the story, Ninian’s fingers had stilled in my hair. I sighed gently. “That was a good story.” Just a peek, I open my eyes. “I can’t believe it worked. With the human and the faerie.”
It was Ninian’s turn to sigh, a little half-laugh. “I know, mate,” he says, and brushes my hair back one last time before picking up the candle again. “The world is a very strange place. And…” He shakes his head. He gets in a mood, sometimes, after stories. More distant, but maybe just dreamier. “And sometimes, it’s beautiful, too.” He’s smiling just a little, and my eyes are sagging shut. “I’ll be downstairs with Áed, mate,” he says, and I can hear the affection in his words. It’s wonderful and rosy-colored and it makes me feel warm, to know how much he loves Áed, and how much he loves me. “Sleep well, Ronan.”
E.G. RADCLIFF IS AN INCURABLE WRITER, lifelong imaginer of worlds, and author of The Coming of Áed fantasy book series. An insatiable reader and researcher with a penchant for all things Celtic and a love of the mysterious and magical, she brings a knowing touch to her Young Adult fiction. She enjoys adventure, reading on the train, and dreams about flying.
She is a Chicago native and is based in Illinois.
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