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The crowds were thinning as night began to fall on the Rennaissance Faire at Sterling. There was only a lone woman left at the winestall when an actor, a paper mache ass' head tucked beneath one arm, approached. The woman—attractive, with long dark hair who looked to be in her mid-twenties—eyed the mask with some amusement. The actor grinned.
"We're doing Midsummer at the Faire."
She nodded sagely. "Silly bit of business, that. But sad, in the end."
"What, the play, you mean? Well, it is one of the Comedies—"
"No," she shook her head. "The story behind the story."
"I'm not sure what you mean. It's just like Spenser's Faerie Queen, or Ovid or something."
"I think there's some that would like you to think that, that's for certain."
"Are you saying he stole it?"
"What, Shakespeare? I suppose the tale was freely given. I have no idea who told it to him, although seeing the finished product, I can certainly guess whose side they were on."
"Lady, you've lost me."
"Would you like a bedtime story, little boy?"
At the mention of "bed", the young man perked up considerably, though he was even more convinced now that the young woman had obviously consumed far too much of the faire's mead.
"Shakespeare only wrote of half the story, and he gave it a happy ending, as he was wont to do.
"The circumstances was similar. A mortal girl was in love with a mortal man who loved her not. She wandered the moors, crying sweet tears as only a young girl can at the thought of this wretched beautiful man who mocked her love. Oberon listened to her, hidden from her sight, and felt pity for her. But he did not ask his servant to magic the mortal boy, as the poet written. Oh, no.
"It was summer, in the World. Summer after a harsh winter. The Children of Oberon had taken to slipping among mortals then. They had just become interesting, you see, building stone fortresses to replace the wattle and daub halls on the high places above gargoyle rookeries. They had music, and a vivaciousness in the embrace of change that fascinated the Children, who do not change.
"I had just entered the queen's service, having spent my years in fosterage and training. When the Queen learned that Oberon had taken the girl as his lover, she was furious. And why not? It was one thing for her to compete with one of her own kind; a competition that might be fair sport indeed, and generally beneficial to all parties involved, really.
"But a mere slip of a mortal girl? No princess or queen, even, but a pasty faced mouse of a farmer's daughter. Her head was full of poetry, and meaningless ficticious histories, and not a drop of sense.
"Not that I had anything against her kind, I mean, not really. In those days, I enjoyed the sport, certainly. And it wasn't frightening village maids and cows, as some might have you believe. That kind of simple trickery is as far from a puck's normal games as shoots and ladders is from fidchell. You do know what fidchell is, don't you? Chess, I suppose you'd say.
"It was no changeling they argued about, as Will would have you believe. The Queen decided to fight fire with fire. She seduced a mortal man right under Oberon's own pointed little nose, and him too thick to notice. Oberon, that is. Quick thick. And not just any mortal, mind. A king, or price, or something. I hardly remember now. She fed him sweetmeats, and crowned his head with flowers, 'tis true. Now, what happened was this: Oberon, having trysted with his sheperdess or whatever for the night, thought he would come home and sample his lady wife's pleasures.
"So into her bedchamber he trots, crown, cloak, braces, armour, the whole regelia. Thinks he's such hot stuff, a stud, as it were. And what should he find but his wife and her pet, in media res, as it were. And she just looks up at him, calm as you please, and smiles. See, she knows what he's thinking, and she wants him to know that if he's going to play that game with her, it'll be on her terms. And as angry as she was that she'd been replaced by a mortal, he was twelve times twelve as furious when she turned the tables.
"So he drags her out by the hair— Well, he tries, anyway. She wasn't having any of that, let me tell you. She stands there, naked as the day she was born, and she says to him, in a voice such as any queen might use but none ever used so well as she, 'An you take your pleasure with one of the younger races, why then, so will I. If it is a king's perogative, then why not a queen's?'
"He was livid. I have never seen such anger take him as did just then, though I have unfortunately seen it since. And the human . . . . Well, in the face of the King of Faery in all his wrath and glory, I believe he shat himself, and then fainted dead away. Not very princely, if he was a prince. Made a mess of the sheets, though.
"The king swore up and down she would abandon her paramour, but the queen would not have it. It wasn't as if she loved him. To be sure, he was a pretty thing, her princeling, but it had become a matter of principal, you see. And Oberon likewise would not give up his pastoral plaything.
"So here is where the tale truly begins, for me in any case. As I have said, I was new to the Queen's service. Not one of her maids proper, that is hardly a decent occupation for a puck. It was my duty to entertain her in small ways, and make sure she wanted for nothing. Likewise, I was expected to be at her beck and call at all hours of the day and night, so it was thus that I was present, if by virtue of peeking through the connecting chamber door, for the entire scene I have described.
"The Queen charged me to visit upon the maid some mischief. Not in peril of her life, for we were then forbidden to interfere in such a way with human affairs. It is a law older than Oberon's rule, though as he would tell it, of his own design and making. And there are those of us who find ways of bending such laws, that's another tale your Will made famous, but not mine to tell.
"I was sent to set upon the young man the maid had fancied, before she caught the king's eye. It was a clever scheme, really. The girl, for all she desired Oberon, knew that any such life she could have with him would be little more than a dream, being raised on such tales as what happened to the paramours of the fay folk once they began to grey and wrinkle. Oberon was a fancy that overcame her each night. But at dawn, she was still drawn to her own kind, especially this man who loved her not. I suppose you always want more that which you cannot have, though there's not as much pleasure in the having, in the end, as the wanting of the thing.
"I stole upon the lad one afternoon, while he minded his flock, in the shape of the girl. But a slightly more pleasing shape, more how she wished herself to be than what the harsh light of the world made of her. In this dream-vision, he was struck quite dumb with a sudden longing, and chased me from one side of the valley to the other. I did let him catch me, calling out jests and jibes in her voice, bading him woo me. No 'love in idleness' in this tale, save for what man's own mind will convince him of in a moment of passion. He stole a kiss, and I won my prize. The next night, when Oberon appeared, it was to find the once-brute come courting, and the girl all too smitten.
"Now, there was in the employ of Oberon another puck, in much the same capacity the Queen held me. In fact, I had been fostered with him, and it was this puck who had taught me my craft, or at least instructed me in the refining of it. The king set the puck to the task of distracting the reformed-brute, a task which the puck fell to with relish. Let me tell you, I was hard pressed to keep a pace with him.
"First, he made the boy believe the girl loved another. This was not hard; all he had to do was make sure the next night, when he arrived at the girl's house—curiously empty house—that he found in plain sight one of the many love tokens the puck's own lord had given the girl. How, in the face of such evidence as love letters—not much of which he could read, mind you, but the words he could make out were explicit enough—trinkets and the like, could the boy not know he had a rival? And, like most human men, he was incensed, decided to scour the countryside for his rival.
"Next—and this was the clever bit, the puck made certain that—while riding out on his lands, the Queen's own princeling spied a lost sheperdess. He was struck by her beauty, and enflamed with love of her—helped, I assume by a puck's glamour such as the kind I had masteries of and had used to the same effect—gave chase.
"Now the girl—the very same I have spoken of all along—suddenly the object of three seperate affections, each grander than the last, was terrified. It was one thing for a local lad to come to her with flowers, but a prince on his charger? That was beyond her ken, and even beyond that, the King of the Faeries himself, like to the sun himself, bright and burning hot in her arms?
"Now, the puck takes great pride in his work, but so do I, and I set to unravelling the tangle he'd made of matters with the princeling. He was, after all, previously engaged with my queen. And she liked less having this girl for a rival in both corners. So, the first order of business was the draw him away from the girl, which was easy enough. After all, as the world is not made of stories, it is difficult for a prince to marry a sheperdess without someone gainsaying such a decision. His father, who I suppose was a king, forbade him see her, nor even mention her name.
"There was no spell to undo—the puck's compulsion had been brief—and though the princeling mourned the loss of his love, it was more out of his love of the idea of her than any reailty he had faced. As I've said, such is the way of human hearts. But then, at the first sight of my Queen, he forgot the sheperdess entirely, and continued trysting with my lady, though she now came to him, for he would not follow her to her own lands. Not after the last time, and can you blame him? A king in the World is less than nothing in the face of Oberon's kingdom. And he enjoyed being high on the social ladder of his world, almost as much as he enjoyed being favoured consort of Titania.
"This left the boy. He had sworn vengence upon his rival, and using his amazing intellect, finally priced together that it was the prince. Bright boy. Very bright boy. He would have been killed on the spot, of course, and that wouldn't have suited my purposes at all. So I had to turn him from his purpose, to one that suited me more. Therein lies Will's favourite part of the tale, I think.
"He really was a brute, you know. When I appeared to him in the guise of the sheperdess at the edge of the wood near the castle, after pawing at me, he then showered me with accusations about 'my' royal sutor. Nevermind he hadn't paid the girl a bit of notice until now, even though she'd been throwing herself at him since they were little more than children scrambling in the dirt.
"So I charmed him into running away that night to the wood. He was to meet his sheperdess when the moon had risen near a charcoal burner's hut in the heart of the forest. I took from him his mantle and wearing his shape, knocked at the girl's window. I plyed her with sweet words of love and told her to leave her home for the wood. The two met, and left their hamlet for another village where their tales were not known.
"Ah, Oberon was in such a rage when he came and found her gone. He stormed and swore and tore at his hair. His puck, my rival and friend, reminded his lord she was a mortal after all, and surely not worth such a fuss. Oberon reluctantly agreed, and then his queen came to him.
"She claimed no credit for the outcome—she was not so much of a fool as that—but kept her argument to the simple fact that if he chose to dally with a mortal, it was in truth her perogative to do the same. They were no mortal man and wife, and she little more than chattle. If he respected her, and wished to stay on the throne, then an agreement must be made."
"So they clapped hands in a bargain that lasted—oh, all of a mortal lifetime. That is barely a breath on Avalon. For as long as they remained on the throne, what one would have, the other was allowed, save the crown. Titania would rule at her husband's side, but never in his place—that alone he would keep for himself. She did not wish such a thing—for did she not alreay rule through him as she ruled him? But that is a tale for another day." Rowan laughed, and swallowed the last of the honey liquor in her wooden mug. The actor generously refilled it, despite the scowl from the wine merchant as he flashed his staff pass.
"What about the prince?"
"Ah, Titania's mortal lover? Well, I suppose he became a king, as humans reckon those things. And I suppose he rulled well, if not wisely, and had got sons on his bride, and they grew old and grey together.
"But there was still the matter of revenge, you see. With the mortals carefully removed from the game, that left the two most powerful players. Titania was content to believe that she had served up Oberon his lesson on a silver dish, and required nothing more to feel satisfied.
"But Oberon simmered and stewed, and when we all believed he had grown weary of the game, he hatched his plot. On Beltaine Eve, he and his lady went abroad into the World to celebrate the renewal of life. But unbeknowenst to her, he crafted a clever simulacrum. When dawn cast its warm light across the green fields, the Queen found not her husband asleep beside her in the grass, but an ass. He offered to take a mule as a lover in kind. So died their open marriage."
The actor laughed, but then frowned. "You said it was sad, in the end."
"Aye. The girl whom Oberon loved—her belly became swollen with his get. Her husband, when the child was born with a shock of white hair that did not darken as he grew, cast out both mother and child. She threw herself from the cliffs into the sea, leaving the boy to be raised a foundling. When word of this reached Oberon's ear, he blamed his queen for the loss of life, and his son, who disappeared never to be seen again.
"Oberon's Queen and Children were banished from the island of Avalon for a thousand and one years, that they learn humility among the younger races they so scorned. Alas, Oberon learned no such lesson."
The actor's eyes were round, and then he laughed a little nervously. "Jesus, I almost bought it. You're really good—have you thought about working the Faire? They're always looking for storytellers."
"Ah, but I am already most gainfully employed." She laughed as a toddler threw himself at her legs. She hoisted him up into her lap, and offered him a sip of her mead. He turned his nose up at the smell of the drink, and she shrugged, swallowing the last of it and handing the cup back to the actor. "Now, Master Alex, what mischief have you been up to?"
"I's got a sword!" he thrust a child's toy made of balsa wood at her, and she mimed being pierced through the heart.
"Ah, you've wounded me to the core. Where're your mum and dad?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Xanatos are waiting for us at the main gate," replied a tall blond man in a sportjacket and slacks decidedly at odds with the the crowds in t-shirts, jeans, and garb, who had followed the boy to the winestall. He frowned at the empty cup, and the woman merely laughed.
"It's only mead, Owen. I'm not in my cups yet." She lifted the child into her arms, and turned back to the actor. "It seems we're leaving."
"Thanks for the story. If you ever change your mind—"
"I won't. But someday, you might."
They turned to go, the little red hair boy waving at the actor as they went. The actor raised his hand to wave back, in suddenly found his head was surrounded by translucent green giraffes that fluttered dragonfly wings as they gallopped past his field of vision before fading into ghosts. He looked from the empty cup back to the retreating family, and then shook his head, rubbing at his eyes.
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