For Doyle Mills. As this wasn’t technically a proper submission, I don’t think I have to write a proper dedication.
Ah hell I’m number 11.
Jon looked at the token in his hand, trying to think of some way to see this in a positive light. He could come up with none. He knew how this story went. Slowly, people began to edge away from him, as though he was contagious. After a moment staring at the engraved number, hoping it would morph before his eyes, Jon moved through the widening gap in the crowd to the stage, joining the ten other people who looked no happier than he did.
Eleven. A magic number for the Fae, or so Jon was told. It was told in the stories, therefore it must be true. Eleven months. Eleven hostages. A tradition so old, it must have been conceived with the land itself and remained as unquestioned as the sky above was blue.
And I drew an 11, of all numbers, an 11. Usually I’m luckier than that.
The others on the stage were ordinary, of varying age and feature. The youngest was perhaps ten. The eldest was a woman well over sixty. Jon fell somewhere in the middle at just thirty. The rest were a motley bunch of nondescript people with only the fear on their faces to mark them as a group.
A man in a dark uniform waved them forward and they came with a defeated obedience, a resigned weight on their shoulders. The guard led them to what would politely be called “temporary accommodations.” In reality, it was a holding cell, but that didn’t sound so poetic.
That night they were fed the best food a person could imagine. Steak and pepper sauce. Roast duckling with rosemary and apple butter, tender crab and scallops in bacon, sharp cheeses and wine, mellow cheeses and summer berries. And tray after tray of sweets, meringues, chocolate truffles, caramel tarts and custard pies, sugar buns and cream filled eclairs.
Jon had never seen such culinary splendor. His companions did not speak to each other but ate heartily because that is what they were expected to do. He had the uncomfortable thought they were trying to fatten them up.
Good luck with that, he thought. He had always been skinny, long of limb with sunbleached hair and brown eyes that made him look a little like a Stuffed Man watching the fields. Children laughed when Jon pulled faces and danced in the awkward way the Men were purported to have when bespelled with life. Even his younger sister, solemn Merribeth, would smile.
A lump rose in Jon’s throat when he thought of his sister, his parents, and his grandmother. The hostages would not be allowed to say goodbye to their families. According to the stories, that was deemed cruel. Best get it over quickly. He put his fork down, and imagined what the farewell would be like. Ma would cry. His father would comfort her because that was all he could do. Little Merribeth would look on silently with fathomless eyes. His grandmother would advise that the power of the stories was with him, for whatever that was worth.
That night, Jon lay awake on the feather mattress, lying beneath silk sheets and mulling over the incidents of his life, wondering if they really mattered in the grand scheme of the universe. As the sun rose, he had not yet come to a definite conclusion.
The eleven were herded down into the dining halls. Breakfast was as fabulous as dinner had been. Poached eggs and ham, sausage, warm bread, barley cakes and biscuits, butter scones and jam, hot coffee and cream and trays of luscious fruits piled as high as Jon’s head. Jon tried to picture what they would eat in Faerie and couldn’t come up with anything.
The door to the realm of the Fae was half a day’s journey by wagon. On a series of jolts, shudders, and lurches, Jon and his fellows were taken to the preordained place. The wagons were quickly unloaded and even more hastily driven away. Jon and the others were left alone in a rather plain clearing.
Before anyone could ask what was going to happen, two forms stepped out of the trees. Almost too beautiful to look upon, they filled Jon with mixed feelings of awe, fear, and loathing. They spoke in a flowing tongue that no one understood except them. The gestures with their silver swords communicated well enough.
The eleven were herded through the trees, docile as newborn lambs. Jon thought about running off, disappearing into the trees. Then he thought of all the stories about the wrath of the Fae and decided that wasn’t a good idea. Everyone else evidently came to the same conclusion he did, as they walked with their heads down.
The door appeared at a word from the Fae, shimmering into being in a glorious golden light, magical diamond motes floating from the other side. Jon lined up with the others. One by one, they stepped forward and one of the Fae touched their cheek. A silver mark appeared in their flesh. Then they were made to step through the door and disappear into the terror of the other side.
When Jon’s turn came, the Fae to his left appraised him from head to toe and then smiled the smallest smile. He said something to his companion and the other Fae nodded though he remained as serious as ever. The first touched Jon’s cheek. It burned, then tingled as something spread. Jon’s first reaction was to scratch it off, but the Fae caught his wrist, shaking his head.
Then Jon was pushed through the door. It was like walking into a waterfall of ice. He froze partway through, unable to move. Something warm took his hand and pulled him the rest of the way.
Bright light on the other side made Jon blink, blind until his eyes adjusted. He was standing in a clearing much like the one he had just left, though there was something undeniably numinous about it. The leaves glowed from within and the air sang. A sapphire and jade river flowed in front of them. A huge boat reminiscent of a swan lay majestically moored at the bank.
A slip of a girl with white hair and sharply pointed ears dropped his hand and pointed Jon towards to the boat. The rest of the hostages stumbled through the door behind him, followed by the two Fae. Jon was herded aboard the ship up a slender gangplank and pulled onto the deck of the magical ship by two other Fae. Some supernatural hand had turned their tongues, and they were now perfectly understandable.
“…every time they get more and more melancholic. I don’t know how these Men think they will make the prince smile with those attitudes.”
“The one looks promising,” the Fae nodded at Jon.
Jon frowned at them.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “What do you want us for?”
The Fae were surprised. “You mean you do not know?”
Jon shook his head and the Fae looked at each other with surprised confusion.
“Well,” one began slowly. “For many years, our prince has not been happy. The stories of old tell that men have a unique power to spread their gladness the Fae lack.”
“So that’s why you kidnap us?”
The Fae showed more surprise. “No. You come of your own free will to seek your hand at the reward.”
Jon shook his head. “Nope. Not how it works. We draw lots and are made to come.”
“No,” the Fae said. “That cannot be true.”
“It is,” Jon said. “Why do you threaten us with swords?”
“The stories tell of Men’s trickery,” the Fae said. “Many times they have come only to kill us. We are allowed to defend ourselves.”
“Our stories tell of how the Fae demand a sacrifice every eleven months,” Jon countered.
“Lies,” the Fae insisted. “We were very clear with your kings that it was to be purely voluntary.”
Jon snorted. “Someone forgot to mention that part. What is the reward?”
“One thousand carts of gold.”
Jon whistled. “That would be why they neglected to mention that. You really have that much gold?”
The Fae nodded. “And we know how much men crave that shallow and beautiful stuff.”
“Enough to send people off with no knowledge of what or why in hopes of claiming one thousand carts of gold.”
The Fae shared a look. “So none of these people want to be here?”
Jon shook his head yet again.
“That explains why they appear so gloomy,” the Fae muttered. “What do we do?”
“Can’t you just send us back?” Jon suggested.
“The door takes much effort to open,” the Fae looked pained. “We can not just send you back.”
“But if we don’t want to be here and you keep us here against our will, you have kidnapped us and your words are worthless,” Jon said.
The Fae shared a look. “Yet you are the only one who knows that.”
Jon saw their thoughts reflected in overbright eyes, side by side with his own angry countenance as they drew wicked blades of starlight and ice that sang with Death’s own tongue. They stepped towards him, twin agents of death. Jon didn’t have time to think. He stumbled backwards, missing the kiss of the blades by half a blink.
The edge of the boat pressed against his back. With a vicious twist, the blades came his way. Jon closed his eyes, fully expecting to die. A grunt and a thud, the sound of metal on metal and then a thunk was not explained until Jon opened his eyes and saw the smallest of the eleven hostages on the floor. One of the Fae was pulling his sword from the plank where it had been impaled. The other was advancing on the boy who scooted back.
“Hey!” Jon shouted. “Leave him be!”
Jon didn’t have a plan for when the Fae turned on him again. Without knowing exactly what he did, Jon dodged the closest blade and pressed close to the Fae, grabbing an arm and trapping the weapon. With a heave, he threw the Fae against his partner. The two fell in a heap of limbs. One was unfortunate to skewer himself on the other’s sword and died in a gurgle of blood and a twitch of limb.
Jon stepped over, shaking and drenched in cool sweat, and pulled the sword from the other’s hand as the Fae stared at his dead companion in shock. Jon stood over the Fae, unsure if he was coldblooded enough to do what he had to do. The Fae watched Jon’s resolve harden in his face and opened his mouth to protest, but the sword stole any plea he could have given for sparing his life.
Jon looked up to find everyone staring at him, including the Fae attendants who had pulled them through the door, two Fae in sailor’s livery and the armed pair at the foot of the plank.
The Fae had not moved. Their shock gave the distinct impression this did not happen. Ever. This was a new story to them. Jon didn’t know whether to be comforted or frightened by this. Looking down, he saw he was holding the red-stained blade en garde and he lowered it. As no stories of this kind had been told, Jon wasn’t sure how it would end.
Jon’s ten companions also had taken note and looked more alive than previously. They all stared at him, awed by the precedent which he was setting. Jon looked at them for the first time. Two old men, one with missing teeth; a young girl hiding a pockmarked face in a yellow bonnet, most likely switched with another who actually drew the tile. Three boys who by their dress had never seen each other before drawing lots stood close together, one about ten years old and Jon’s savior, one twelve years old and the last seventeen. A woman with graying hair and a wattle stood beside a younger woman with a diamond on her finger and expensive lace trimming her tasteful dress; finally two men of varying middle age, one in farmer’s garb, the other in a craftsman jacket.
They began to look more lively and the Fae stirred, the remaining two with swords coming up the gangplank, warily yet with determination. The weaponless Fae shrank back from the confrontation, the sailors disappearing into the hold, the escorts away to wherever they had come from.
“What are we going to do, mister?” a voice at Jon’s elbow inquired and he looked down to see the youngest boy.
“Can you use a sword?” Jon asked, keeping an eye on the Fae.
“I’ve played at swords with my brothers,” the boy said. “But never with a real sword.”
“I can,” the oldest boy said as he stepped forward.
“What are your names?”
“I’m Michael,” the youngest said. “He’s Harry. The other one’s William.”
“I’m Jon. Please to meet you.” Jon handed his sword to Harry and pulled the other one out of the dead Fae.
The Fae did not know what to do in this situation. They looked at each other and conferred in a whisper before they backed away. Jon was left standing in the middle of the deck, his tiny army looking for an enemy that was no longer there. There was a pause, then everyone started cheering. It made Jon uncomfortable, but they did not seem to notice or care.
“Looks like you’re in charge now,” Michael commented.
“I don’t want to be in charge,” Jon said.
Michael shrugged. “I don’t think you have a choice. Why did you fight those Fae anyway?”
“They were going to kill me. We don’t have to come here if we don’t want. Someone back home wants to get the thousand carts of gold for making the Fae king smile or something like that. So we’re shipped off here.”
The boys whistled. “A thousand carts of gold,” Harry whispered. “Wow!”
“What do we do now, captain?” the old man with the uneven teeth called out, looking at Jon.
Jon was about to protest, but Michael tugged on his arm and frowned. “You took over the ship. That means you’re the captain. Who else is going to help these people?”
Looking over them, Jon knew the boy was right. But what was he supposed to do for them? Quite clearly in his mind, his grandmother’s voice ran out. “The power of the stories is with you, Jonny, for whatever that’s worth.” It made Jon feel a measure of strength, though he still didn’t know what he was going to do with it.
“First, we have to learn how to sail this thing,” Jon said, stalling for time. “Then…I suppose…we…we have to find out where this story goes.”