Once upon a time, in a land most of us would call imaginary, there lived a young fairy girl who, if you were loose enough with the term, might qualify as a princess. This fairy princess, then, lived in a land in the Unseelie Court called the Borderlands, because it was close to the Seelie border; in a castle that rose magically out of the ground, and looked, from the outside, like a very tall hill with a jagged summit, as though the inside of it had been scooped out by a giant toddler destroying an anthill. But if you looked closer, and weren’t distracted by the ever-shifting dreamclouds above, you’d see the outline of hundreds of spiderglass windows, some huge under their glamour of blue songrass, others tiny and isolated.
And if by chance you were experienced in fairy matters and immune to the sleep the songrass would put on you, you might see figures moving behind those windows. Huge hulking bogle guards, scrawny goblin messengers, and all manner of noble and not-so-noble creatures, some almost human-looking, apart from the ear-points stylishly separating their hair on each side, and the extra joints on their bare fingers and toes. Others sported tiny horns, antlers, rabbit heads or fox tails or goats’ feet.
Arwyn – for that was the princess’ name – was one of the human-like fairies. Indeed, some whispered that she was too human. Her ear-points were easily covered by her sleek brown hair, which was chestnut coloured, a rare colour for a fairy. The extra joints were there, but her hands and feet were shorter than they should have been, whereas the rest of her was too tall for true elegance.
Which would have been all very well, they said, if only she had the grace to hide her flaws. Or turn them into something else, something more interesting, a glamour – but no, the Lady Arwyn wasn’t interested in glamour. It was scandalous.
What was even more scandalous, or would have been had anyone known about it, was her favourite activity, in which she was indulging now. Curled into a vine chair she had coaxed through the window and soothed into obedience with a few drops of her own blood, what Arwyn was doing danced beyond the realm of scandal and into the dangerous terrain of subversion: she was reading.
Oh, but it was so pleasant to read! To lose herself in story, to send her mind out of her body and into lands and lives even more imaginary than her own! The book was almost as dangerous as the act of reading itself, a relic of a world both reviled and fantasised about, that her brother, after much pleading, had smuggled in. Across the cover of it Grimm’s Fairy Tales was embossed in what was once gold ink, though now rather chipped, and it contained 210 stories. Arwyn had counted them. She was up to Rapunzel, and had just decided it was her favourite so far when she heard a buzzing noise.
At first she thought it was a honeybee, attracted by the moonflowers on the vine. She sat very still as it buzzed closer. Honeybees made the honey some of the smaller forest fairies lived on, and they did so by stealing it from them. The bees, none too bright, had nevertheless developed a hatred of all fairykind, and would sting any fairy they crossed. The stinging killed the bees, but it could also kill a fairy. Arwyn could feel her heart beating in her chest.
But when it circled round her chair and came to land on the open pages of her book, she breathed again. It was the size and colours of a honeybee, but it had the long, thin beak of a hummingbird. Hummingbirds were Seelie birds, and even in the Borderlands they were quite rare.
“Aren’t you supposed to be blue?” she asked it. It looked at her through sage eyes. She wondered how intelligent it was. In the Glimmerlands, intelligence was not based on any particular pattern of brain size or evolution; indeed, these were Cat’s Court notions, quite useless here.
In answer, the hummingbird fluffed her feathers, and yellow and black stripes was momentarily replaced by blue iridescence, only to turn yellow and black again once still. It looked outside, at the huge silver moon.
“It’s a question of light, isn’t it?”
The hummingbird looked at her again. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw approval in its gaze.
“Did you come in for the moonflowers?” she asked. “I’m afraid they’re mostly closed in here. They’ll be open outside, though.”
The hummingbird gazed at her a little longer, then set to preening its feathers with quick, graceful strokes of its long beak. Arwyn watched it for a moment, then went back to reading her story.
The hummingbird hopped in front of her eyes and cheeped. Arwyn nearly cheeped herself, but held it in.
“You are lovely, you know,” she told it instead. The hummingbird preened some more. “Are you not going to let me…”
…read my book weren’t words that it would do well to pronounce aloud, even in the company of a hummingbird. Which reminded her of something…
“Aren’t hummingbirds messengers?”
She could have sworn there was amusement in the look it gave her now.
She frowned. “Well, are you?”
The hummingbird went back to preening its feathers, fluffing them occasionally so that her eye caught the odd flash of blue. She sighed, realising she could no longer concentrate.
“I suppose your message to me is that I should stop.” There was definitely approval there now. The hummingbird buzzed into the air and hovered at eye level. Arwyn closed the book.
“Alright, I’ll play with you. Just give me a moment.”