Imaerla’s world was confused, warped by her fever. One moment she was dimly aware of blurry figures towering over her, silhouetted against a bright square of light, and the next she was alone in the darkness of her dreams. Occasionally, muted speech would penetrate the silence but it was slurred and in a language she did not understand.
She was dying, of that she was sure. She could feel the disease burning in her veins, spreading from her wound. Warm light would suffuse her dreams intermittently, chasing away the darkness and soothing the ache, but inevitably the shadows and pain would come crawling back.
Imaerla could not tell how long it had gone on before a presence entered her dreams. It was subtle, but this time she knew what to look for.
“What do you want?” Imaerla demanded, turning to gaze into the darkness where the presence was hiding.
The fae emerged from the darkness with the same eerie grace as last time. Her raven hair was still hanging low over her brow, cloaking her eyes, but showed no signs of dreamweave. As far as Imaerla could tell the woman wore no illusions at all, and the transparency of the woman’s form against the roiling shadows behind her was apparent even in the dark.
She still wore a black robe lined with deep red fur, just like the ragged one Imaerla had found on the floor after her previous visit, and even with the muted colors of her translucent presence it contrasted against her pale skin. Her slouching posture combined with her arms hanging limply at her sides made her seem tired, even more so than during their last encounter.
Imaerla’s gaze was drawn to the woman’s mouth, to lips painted blood red; the same color as the mark left on Imaerla’s neck after their last meeting. When they curved into a weary smile, Imaerla realized she had been staring.
“Hello again, Faery Queen.”
“What do you want?”
“To make you an offer.”
“Like your last one?”
“That was… a nudge.”
Imaerla frowned at the woman in silence.
“You are dying.”
Imaerla wanted to snap back an accusation, to blame the woman for forcing her, but she knew better. This woman had used sinister magic to compel Imaerla to leave her people when they needed her, but she had saved Loriana from the brute on her own. Still, she kept frowning at the woman in silence.
“I can save you.”
“I would rather die than accept your help,” Imaerla spat, eyeing the spectre with open hostility as it began to circle around her.
“You think the tribe would have been better off with you still there?”
“I am their leader, the one who guides them.”
Shapes began to coalesce in the swirling darkness. Figures moving, dancing. Their proportions were unnatural, each in their own way; impossibly gaunt, overly round, tall like a tree, small like a rabbit. It seemed surreal, but Imaerla knew it to be a banquet of the Fair Folk.
“Then why did they leave?”
No, not the Fair Folk; their sylvan kin. They were dancing their way into the Wilds and away from her tribe.
“And why do the bogun slumber?”
The silhouettes shifted, taking on the forms of lumbering oakmen laying themselves down among trees and moss.
Imaerla narrowed her eyes, turning her head to focus on the apparition gliding around her. Dreams were like the lands of the Fair Folk, shaped by the dreamer to reflect their state of mind. Without focus, it was all too easy to lose oneself in either.
“They did what was in their nature to do.”
“Yet the trolls would not?”
“Of course they would, but if I had been there-”
“The girl would have been released in the woods, with the trolls let loose to hunt her.”
“No! I would not… “ Imaerla fell silent, recalling how the moot had kept coming back to the suggestion of doing precisely that.
The ghost paused in front of her, its face locked in a mournful expression of sympathy.
Imaerla pushed back her shoulders, straightening her back, and raised her chin as she met its sorrowful gaze with one of determination.
“My kin would have been better with me there.”
“You would slay a throng of trolls alone?”
“Do not be coy with me, spectre. My leadership has guided them for ages.”
Imaerla could not stop her expression from betraying her confusion.
“The old one’s counsel has.”
Imaerla clenched her jaw, watching silently as the shadows formed a dozen version of herself and Jaeworl. Throughout her life he had always been there, offering advice when she needed it and providing support at the moot when it was lacking.
“His wisdom has always been of value, but I made the final decisions.”
Again the images swirled, reforming themselves into a moot. Uragh was there, arguing with one of the fairies; Jaeworl, caught up in some philosophical debate with T’kar the Mossborn; Lare’el absently nodded along with her brother as he passionately recounted the exaggerated account of his latest hunt.
Then she herself arrived, sitting down in front of them all and the moot began. There were no words, but Imaerla did not need them.
One by one they offered their thoughts on the state of the tribe, and their requests for what needed to be done. She would listen to what everyone had to say, then give everyone time to raise their thoughts on the claims of the others. Then she would weigh it all and decide what needed to be done.
Except here she did nothing. Here in the dark of her dreams she just sat there while the members of the moot came to a decision on their own; without even acknowledging her presence. The same decision she had laid forth.
A knot formed in Imaerla’s stomach as she watched scene after scene unfold. Each ended the same: each time she was supposed to make a decision, the decision was made by the moot without her.
“You did nothing.”
Imaerla looked at the apparition, the words barely registering with her.
“They made the choices.”
“I… No, that is not- I was Queen.”
“You was a leaf, rustling in their wind.”
Imaerla’s shoulders slumped.
“Still you would have stayed?”
“My place is with my people.”
“Then the girl would be dead.”
“Why do you even care?”
The woman laughed, as otherworldly a sound as Imaerla had ever heard. Yet it was a mournful laughter, weighing upon Imaerla’s heart and drawing out her sorrows.
Imaerla closed her eyes. It accomplished nothing, for everything around her was already in her mind. Images of Loriana running through the forest, packs of trolls following her. Howls of bloodlust filled Imaerla’s ears as they caught up with Loriana, their claws and teeth sinking into her. The girl shifting to Jae-lagh, Lyara, even Uragh… one by one, she watched her kin and friends torn apart by the trolls.
“Enough! It is over, now. You forced my actions. Loriana is safe with her own kind.”
“And you are dying.”
“Better dead than a pawn to Twilight Rose.”
The woman paused, a look of confusion stealing across her face for but a moment before it was once more clouded by sorrow.
“Did you think that Taral would not speak of your demands? That we would not know you?” When the fey’s response was impassive silence, Imaerla thought she had finally gained the upper hand. “I do not know what you thought to gain by sowing discord between us and the humans, but we know who you are. We will not be your pawns.”
“Then let us finish this game.”
“I shall soon feed the tree, it is already over.”
“You may yet be saved.”
Imaerla wanted to reject the hope she was offered, but she could not. There was still a chance for her, still a possibility that she would be able to return to her tribe. A chance to make amends. But she knew better than to accept the offer of Fair Folk without question.
“At what cost?”
The soft smile that slowly spread across the phantom’s crimson lips as it glided closer told Imaerla that she had lost.
“You must take the girl to the valley where the raven nests.”