The man’s name was Alden, but it had been so long since anyone had called him that that he’d all but forgotten it. Nowadays, most called him Stranger. If a fairy saw through the residual glamour that clung to him like a layer of dust, they might call him “Old Man”, and if they were Unseelie they’d probably call him “Catspawn”, and spit at him. Occasionally one of the younger ones would try to lure him into a bog or some similar prank, but most recognized that if a human had survived this long in the Glimmerlands, he probably wasn’t worth the effort. He wandered from place to place on a winding, circular path, muttering to himself, and some of the smaller sprites called him “Whisperer” as well.
“Don’t stray from the path. Avoid nobles, soldiers, gatherings. Never be in Unseelie land during esbat. Keep your glamour on. Hide your iron. Cut up your food before you eat it. Drink only water that floats wood and sinks stone. Don’t trust anything. Remember Daisy. Find the gate. Don’t stray…”
He’d been walking for several days when fatigue cut through the glamour and forced him to find an inn. Inns in the Glimmerlands were dangerous places at best, designed more as catalysts of natural selection than as places of rest. The Stranger had long since learned to avoid the most inviting ones, which were frequented by a strictly closed crowd of regulars to whom newcomers were a source of entertainment and food (usually in that order). Being human gave him the blessed advantage of being inedible to most sociable fairies, but that wouldn’t stop them torturing and killing him out of spite.
Generally, the less noticeable an inn was, the better. If you could barely look at it without remembering five urgent things you’d forgotten to do, you’d found a winner.
This place wasn’t a winner, but it was run down enough that Stranger thought he might be safe there. Of course, “safety” in the Glimmerlands was a relative concept. Stranger pulled the glamour around him like a cloak. It was a gift from an oddly benevolent Seelie fairy in exchange for some favour he could barely remember any more, and his only real survival tool in this wretched world. He’d had it so long that he was used to the sensation of his limbs and fingers and toes growing longer and taking on extra joints, and his ears pointing out of the hair on either side of his faded red hat, and at the same time he could feel that his body hadn’t changed at all. He knew his hair had brightened to red, and his eyes took on a green tint, and the myriad wrinkles that scored his face when he started to tire smoothed away to nothing. The fact that the glamour took effort worried him.
The innkeep – a brownie, like all Seelie innkeeps – opened at his knock and eyed him suspiciously before letting him in. The hallway was stuffy and cramped and reeked of boiled cabbage. The innkeep held out his hand and Stranger took out a copper coin, which the innkeep bit and pocketed before holding his hand out for another, which Stranger gave to him. When he held out his hand a third time, however, Stranger growled menacingly, and the innkeep growled back, but let him in.
The food was alright: solid enough to cut (runny slop was tricky and most likely to try to eat him back), and he only found three greenberries in it. He threw them into the fire, where they popped merrily. He probably could have eaten them, but didn’t fancy the gut-wrenching agony and terrifying hallucinations they might or might not have produced. He had little trouble persuading the innkeep to give him water instead of nectar or winterwine, which was a nice surprise. To be sure, he took out his little stone and wood chip and checked, but it was fine. There was one other customer, an elf staring morosely into the bottom of his mug. Stranger sensed no threat, which was suspicious in itself.
“Where is everyone?” he growled. The innkeep, whose hand was just visible on the tap above the bar, gurgled a non-committal reply.
“It’s esbat tonight,” said the elf.
Stranger turned to him. “So? This is Seelie land.”
“It’s on the border. There’s been rumours of raids on esbats, though nobody knows how they’re getting through the barrier.”
“Added strength,” said the innkeep, emerging from under the tap. He burbed generously and went on, “Dread our dear King hearing it, but the Unseelie are, as a race, more powerful than us.”
The elf frowned, but didn’t protest.
“Aye,” said Stranger, “but that don’t explain how they manage to get through the barrier. Isn’t it supposed to be guarded?”
“‘Tis,” said the innkeep, “but rumours say there’ve been possessions.”
The elf paled visibly. “I hadn’t heard that.”
“I know you hadn’t, elsewise you wouldn’t be here, would you?” The innkeep chuckled and ducked under the bar again. His hand hesitated between two taps, then pulled both of them.
“Maybe it’s just an incarner,” said the elf, trying to look nonchalant. The glamour turned his cheeks bright red before settling. Stranger hid a smile.
“Incarners have to die and be reborn to incarn, and then their stuck until they die,” said the innkeep knowingly. “Possession is the gift of ghosts.”
The elf abandoned his half-hearted glamour and went back to staring into the bottom of his mug. Stranger ordered another mug of water. He felt the elf watching him as he dropped the wood chip in and watched it float to the top. He was unsurprised when the elf came and sat next to him.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
A surprised pause. “A service then?”
Stranger liked honesty. “And what would that be?”
The elf leaned in close, shooting a glance at the innkeep, who was under the bar again. Stranger thought he could see his belly swelling over the counter.
“I know what you are,” said the elf. “Your kind is particularly vulnerable here. You’d do better to enter into my protection.”
Stranger chuckled. “Protection from what? An incarner?”
The elf shook his head, and Stranger noticed the beaded braids in his hair, the sign of a teller. He sat back to listen.
“Once upon a time…”