• Karina M. Sokulski

Fae & Frustration: Croquet & Punishment

Inspired by the following prompt: "Begin and end a story with flowers."

Knapweed for overcoming adversity. Honeysuckle for pure happiness. Traveler’s joy for the celebration of life and new beginnings. White clover flowers for the purest wish of good fortune. Amethyst nightshade for inevitable silence. Ah, and red poppies for consolation and the remembrance after death.

All were present and accounted for in the bouquet Gisela cradled gingerly against her breast. The second princess of the kingdom of Ikratus, once known to all as the daughter of summer but now known as the noble sacrifice to the faery summer court.

Making lists was Gisela’s way of pacifying her mounting anxiety as she rode on the back of Sir Humfrey the Mumbler’s equally soundless phantasmal charger. Making lists, of course, was far from Gisela’s only talent. On the contrary, she’d been taught to dance, play the harpsichord, sing, braid her honey-brown tresses, paint her own face for court, capture the eyes of fair princes and proven--more than once--her affinity for mixology. Cantrips, paint, potions, spirits, medicine, anything Gisela mixed always resulted in exactly what she intended. She could even mix lethal poisons and from the concoction produce a stew that would cure a cold overnight. She could even turn water into wine with the proper intent and three rose petals. ‘Twas Gisela’s magical gift, after all. Bestowed upon her the day of her christening by Belladonna Pearblossom, her faery godmother and mother of all pear blossoms.

The charger beneath them, a phantasmal stallion Sir Humfrey gained as a gift from Queen Mab of the winter court for...heroism? Gisela admittedly didn’t know much about the night save for his name and that he was of the few who dealt with the faery courts. Faeries tended not to favor the company of knights clad in metal armor.

Gisela let out a disheartened sigh.

“Hmm.” Humfrey muttered in front of her, true to his namesake and title. There wasn’t much to describe the knight since he always concealed his face and his ‘hmm’s alway echoed through his face guard. He was the type to be spoken at rather than to since he never more than mumbled. Why this was Gisela, and anyone she’d ever known, never could say why. The most she’d uncovered was that somewhere along the line the fey folk placed an enchantment upon Sir Humfrey so anyone speaking to him would understand the meaning behind his muttering. Gisela reasoned Sir Humfrey preferred things this way and she could simply discuss whatever she wanted. The wordless knights’ armor, normally roughed and scuffed from his many adventures had been replaced with a new set of silver plates shined enough Gisela could see her reflection quite clearly in his chest plate. Her eyes had been fixed on her reflection during the ride while she repeated her list of flowers over and over in her head. Her brown locks fell in curling tresses-streaked gold by the sun’s rays beneath her tiara encrusted with sapphires and diamonds. A gilded necklace to match ringed her pale neck, concealing little of the uncomfortably plunging neckline of her pale blue bodice.

Her older sister, Evelyn was the true beauty capable of wearing such ridiculous garments. “The rose lady,” they called her because of how her locks rivaled the deepest red of roses and her eyes shamed the green of their stems. She and her sister looked nothing alike. Blood seemed to be the only similarity they shared.

“Perhaps we could take a rest, Sir Humfrey? We’ve been riding since sun rise.” Gisela asked hopefully.

“Hmm.” Humfrey mumbled back.

Of course not.

Gisella scanned the meadow around them. She listened to the bird song in the lush green canopy above them, the crickets chirruping from the tall grasses surrounding them, watched wildflowers of violet and gold sway in the breeze and scowled.

Everything appeared far too happy for the tragedy that was befalling her.

By the luck of unfair average looks and age, Gisela had been brought here. She realized too late why Evelyn had insisted on all those grand balls. Finding an unwitting husband spared her this intolerable fate.

“Sir Humphrey, if it’s an agonizing death that awaits me wouldn’t it be better if you simply let me wander off into the woods?” Gisela asked, brushing a lock that tangled with her long eyelashes.

“Hmm.”

“I know this is father’s form of an apology for turning the summer court’s vineyard into a spirited croquet garden, but I’m not to blame for the transgression.” Gisela said, craning her head back to look up into the canopy above. Little jewel-colored birds descended from the branches in search of insects in the grass. Sunlight glittered off their feathers casting rainbows every which way.

“If anything, it was Evelyn who went and played a game--or several--with her dimwitted husband.” Gisela grumbled on. “But I digress. It could be our secret. You tell my father you sent me to the faery court, and I’ll walk to town--if you point me in the right direction--and find a ship. I’m sure I could trade for passage with these gaudy jewels.”

“Hmm.”

Gisela groaned. “Well, I suppose I knew the answer before I even spoke the proposal, but can I really be blamed for trying? It is my fate, after all.”

“Hmm.”

“Thank you, Sir Humfrey,” Gisela sighed, resigned to the inevitable end of this ride, “your sympathy is much appreciated. I suppose a knight’s word is sacred and absolute. If I had known, I would have come to you before my father could have.”

“Hmm.”

“Yes, I agree.” Gisela said, her eyes scanning the trees above them again. “The canopy is beginning to curl, which means we’re almost to the gate.”

“Hmm.”

“That’s sweet of you, but there’s no need to declare you’ll miss me when we only spoken this day.”

“Hmm.”

“No need to apologize. I didn’t take it as mockery. My sister did an excellent job of that throughout my childhood.” Gisela shook her head, dismayed by the unfairness of it all. “I suppose since this may be the last conversation I ever have, I’ll ask. Did you have any siblings, Sir Humfrey?”

“Hmm.”

“Ah. That must have been lovely to be an only child.” Gisela said, then hesitated. “Are the faeries going to eat me like the boys in the bailey claimed?”

“Hmm.”

“Oh, well. That’s a relief.” Gisella said, no less comforted by the answer. No one knew what went on beyond the gate of the fey realm, but the summer court consisted entirely of vegetarians. The winter court consisted of the omnivorous fey. Thank goodness her father had the sense to send her here, at least.

“How much longer?” Gisela asked, glancing about the gradually shifting forest. They’d gone from a picturesque and pristine forest full of wildflowers and creatures made of jewels to a denser tunnel of trees that curved towards one another. Their branches entangling and blotting out the rays of the sun high above. They were deeper in the woods here, on an unmarked road now to the inevitable circular gate that would open the way to the summer court.

“Hmn.”

“So soon?” Gisela asked, real fear prickled at her breast. “What if I’m not enough to pacify Queen Titania’s vineyard?”

“Hmn.”

“Well, thank you for your vote of confidence but...but surely there are others far more valuable than I?” Gisela could hear her mother’s voice in the back of her head already. Negotiating was the practice of men and peasant girls. Princesses do as they’re told. Gisela wrinkled her nose at the words. Says the woman who became a queen after she managed to spin gold to cheat a goblin so she could keep her entitled first born. If one was to ask Gisela, they traded down.

“Hmn.” Sir Humfrey responded amidst a sigh.

“Oh, very well.” Gisela scoffed. “Could you at the very least grant me a dying wish? Do knights still do that?”

“Hmn.”

“Really? Two for unwilling parties?” Gisela asked, surprised by the condition. “Very well, then the first request is easy. If I’m somehow not enough, bring my sister here next.”

“Hmn.”

“Oh, you’re a good sport, Sir Humfrey.” Gisela smirked, patting at Sir Humfrey’s pauldron. “Then I suppose my second request is...wait, are you married Sir Humfrey?”

“Hmn.”

“Really? Well, then that’s all the better.” Gisela smirk became wicked. She straightened a little and lifted her chin. “After you abandon me to my fate, return to the castle and inform my mother that all my jewels and dresses she think will fit her have been left to your beautiful wife to do with as she pleases. A gift from me as thanks for your noble service.”

“Hmn.” Sir Humfrey turned an ear to her.

“You’re very welcome.” Gisela beamed. Well, if her fate was sealed, at the very least she’d have a touch of vengeance here and there. “Then I suppose those are my two requests. If I had a lover, I’d imagine they’d come galivanting for me, but the princes always chased Evelyn, unfortunately.”

“Hmn.”

“Your sympathy is appreciated but, that’s my fate I suppose.” Gisela gave another deep sigh as she took in the rounding thicket around them. They were almost to the gate, it seemed, and she’d be dismounting this maddeningly silent charger very soon.

“What does the Faery Court want with sacrifices, anyway?” Gisela prattled on anyway, deciding even the briefest silence remained painfully stifling. “I suppose servants because I’m not quite sure what greater use most of us unmarried heirs would provide. It isn’t like I’m being wed to any of them.” Gisela looked down at her fine, revealing gown again, now struck with momentary suspicion. “At least I hope not.”

“Hmn.”

“Oh, I suppose it’ll be my problem once we’ve arrived.” Gisela said, daring to peer around Sir Humfrey’s shoulder to look ahead.

But oh, how Gisella wish she hadn’t.

The unmarked road before them darkened from a thicket of trees who branches spread and tangled bizarrely to form an arching tunnel. Unlike the rest of the emerald forest around them, an obvious display of the summer court’s magic painted the canopy ahead of them with splashes of gold and silver that shimmered in the darkness. The very grass that blanketed the ground followed suit with crystalline clusters of flowers that glittered like jewels. At the end of the glittering tunnel loomed a circular doorway covered by interlocking vines. The central knot of the barrier infested with the spindly passion blossoms that glowed in the dim light.

Picking a handful of the metallic flora would prove more than enough for Gisela to gain passage on a ship out of this country but she refrained. She was already being sent as a sacrifice for her father’s land development, she had no intention of having to pay for stolen flora with her limbs.

“Hmn.” Sir Humfrey’s mumble, followed by the halting of his phantom charger signaled the end of their journey.

“Oh.” Gisela mumbled back. Gisela fidgeted with her bouquet nervously, glancing over her shoulder at the way they came. “Oh, I suppose this is the end of the road, isn’t it?”

“Hmn.” Sir Humfrey turned his helmeted head slightly, looking back at her from behind the grate of his helmet. Waiting.

“Sir Humfrey, you wouldn’t willingly be an accomplice to murder, would you?”

“Hmn.” Sir Humfrey offered her a hand to dismount.

“Ah.” Gisela breathed, reluctantly taking his hand. As soon as she did, Sir Humfrey urged her off his steed and before Gisela fully found her footing, the knight and his phantom steed soundlessly cantered away.

Wait!” Gisela called, staring dumbfoundedly after the two. Not even a parting “Hmn” from the knight as he quickly bounded off into the lush thicket of the meadow.

“Well, I suppose I misjudged my half of our conversation.” Gisela mumbled, putting a hand to her cheek. She looked around sheepishly at the metallic thicket around her, now acutely aware that she was for the first time alone. Reluctantly, Gisela turned fully to face the sizable, circular doorway before her. Her bouquet still clutched to her breast.

Even in the dark, the gold and silver flora that blanketed the gate to the summer court twinkled. The metallic forest around her still but far from quiet thanks to the emerald cicadas screeching from somewhere among the golden trees.

Gisela fidgeted. She stared at the circular gate looming soundlessly before her. Nothing was happening.

“It isn’t as thought I expected sacrifices to be announced, much less by a knight who can’t speak but...” Gisela muttered to herself before she glanced over her shoulder. “I suppose I could simply depart. If I’m expected to announce myself, well...what sacrifice would willingly announce themselves?”

The unmarked road was clear before her and... she supposed she could start walking.

“Oh, but this dress is frightfully uncomfortable.” Gisela scoffed at herself. She pulled a little at the layers of her skirt. It was hardly her corset she was worried about. it was the one piece of this weighty ensemble that kept her together. No, it was the petticoats and extensive fabrics that hung from the frame of whale bone fastened about her torso. Gisela pressed her lips together as she willed herself to think.

“Perhaps...” Gisela mumbled, looking to her bouquet, “perhaps I simply discard these miserable flowers and find my way to town. Though...I wouldn’t know how to get there.”

Momentary despair urged Gisela into a fit of pacing across the gold and silver grasses beneath her boots, the train of her gown trailing behind her.

“Oh, but father’s spies are everywhere. They’d recognize me even if I did sell this atrocious garment and wore a peasant’s trappings.” Giselagroaned. “To say nothing of where I’d go in the first place. I suppose I’m no longer a princess if mother and father sent me off to the summer court.”

As soon as the words passed Gisela’s lips, something splintered. Like the groan of strained wood. She ceased her pacing with a start and listened for the sound a second time. Now was the time for decisions, she decided when the noise did not come a second--

Uuuuur!

--Ah there it came again. Only this time, Gisela’s eyes caught the source of the noise. One of the many golden vines that knotted in the center of the Faery door retracted from the central entanglement of the door. Two of the twelve stretches of vines binding the door had retracted, explaining the strange groaning noise she’d heard previously. Gisela couldn’t quell her curiosity as she drew a cautious step forward in time to observe the retracting of another groaning vine. And then another.

The gate was opening.

The realization kicked Gisela’s beating heart into a panicked frenzy. Had she done that by lingering here, too long? Now was her time to run. She’d make a life for herself in this forest if that’s what it took. Deciding her logic proved sound enough, Gisela turned back to the unmarked road.

“‘Lachryma crystals’ they said, ‘the latest technology alchemy has to offer.’ Damn crystals are never charged enough to get the damn door open faster than a snail’s pace.”

The nasally feminine voice came from further up the road before Gisela, but the owner did not emerge until she dared another step forward, her skirts held in her shaking fists.

“Ugh, maybe by next equinox I’ll finally be let--“ A faery emerged onto the unmarked road from between two gilded trees and froze in mid-air at the sight of Gisela standing foolishly in front of the slowly opening gate behind her.

Faeries came in all shapes and sizes but this one was about the size of a house cat. Her wings were glass like and stained with a bright hue of teal, matching the fine gown of died spider silk that dangled from her little body. The little winged woman stared back at her with diamond-shaped pupils set upon irises stained by the rainbow--a trait unique to the faeries of the summer court. She wore her equally teal hair in a bun above her head with a single red thorn stabbed through the ball of her locks.

“Uh you lost, Queenie?” The faery asked her, offering an awkward mid-air bow.

“Oh, I,” Gisela stammered, “well I suppose you can say I am lost, now. Uh but I’ll simply head back on my way now.”

Well, if she were indeed going to make her escape, encountering one random faery didn’t mean it was too late, did it? The thought perished as soon as Gisela attempted to hide her bouquet behind her back, seeing the faery’s rainbow gaze catch sight of it.

“As I said, I’ll simply--“ Gisela attempted.

Ah!” The fairy suddenly shrieked, pointing a little finger at the bouquet. “No, not again!”

Gisela blinked, confused by the delayed reaction. Before she could manage to speak, the faery’s little pointed finger shifted level to Gisela’s face.

“I saw a knight booking it up the road! Did he leave you here?” She asked, aghast.

“Well, he did--“

“And you have a bouquet for passage on you!” The faery continued before she pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know kings and queens have been sending off their spoiled brats but now I’ve got a princess whose loser boyfriend is ditching her at the gate.”

“He is not--“ Gisela attempted again, offended by the implication.

“Of course not, Queenie.” The faery sighed, fluttering past her with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Alright, don’t panic we’ll get you back to your kingdom.”

“Y-You will?” Gisela asked, shocked by her luck.

The faery let out a sigh and turned back to her, taking a glowing crystal from a concealed pocket of her gown. She flicked it impatiently at the door, though the retracting vines seemingly kept at their sluggish pace.

“Damn alchemists. Say they want to trade transmutation for Faery magic but they’re lightyears behind us! ‘But we’re not wizards!’ They claim and yet Merlin or any of his apprentices would have had me in here by now.”

Gisela fidgeted with the bouquet in her hands as she watched the littler faery ramble on irritably, assuming the faery was talking at her rather than to her. She glanced over her shoulder again, wondering why she herself hadn’t simply wandered off yet.

“You know, I’d hate to trouble you. I’ll lose daylight if I don’t depart soon and I’m sure you’re very busy.” Gisella said, more amazed she managed to get her words out.

“Wouldn’t recommend it. Autumn equinox starts in two days and if you can’t make it out of here on foot you’ll be stuck for the rest of your life. This forest changes every equinox and solstice to keep transient orcs confused.” The faery looked back at her, studying her for a moment before she offered a knowing smirk.

“Transient orcs?” Gisela echoed, though she realized too late she should have inquired about the shifting forest instead.

“Yeah, Queen Mab’s latest prank on Queen Titania. Transient orcs come in and deforest her majesty’s garden--because of course Queen Mab just happened to create totally vegan orcs just after receiving Queen Titania’s gift of spontaneously detonating snow geese.”

They stared at one another for several moments, neither of them speaking until the faery added.

“I know. Drama, right?” The faery shrugged. “Wouldn’t let it bother me so much if their prank war didn’t occasionally result in a portal opening across half of my vineyard. One moment you’re about to harvest what you’ve spent the better part of the year growing and the next, half your vineyard’s right off the shore of swan lake. My grapes eaten up by a bunch of long-necked ducks with an attitude and a princess who’s decided she’s liking her sabbatical. But I’m rambling. So, you’re prince charming ditched you with a sacrificial bouquet, huh?”

Gisela blinked again, so absorbed by the faery’s ramblings, it took her a moment to realize she was being addressed.

“Oh, well.” Gisela hesitated, looking up the unmarked road again. “I suppose, though that knight served my father and...my father was hoping to appease his transgressions.”

“Uh-huh.” the faery sighed again, clearly annoyed, “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.” Gisela answered.

Of course you are.”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t take offense, princess. Any negative remark I make today is directed at your parent, not you.” The faery waved her off again with her free hand. “Alright. Might as well do this now so we can talk to customs and figure out how to get you home.”

“Home?” Gisela asked.

“Yep. Queen Titania’s sick of monarchs dumping their kids on her. She’s not going to be happy when she sees you.”

Kids?” Gisela echoed again.

“Listen princess, you’ve got to stop repeating everything I say. You’re pretty but not pretty enough to be stupid.”

Gisela’s mouth hung open, unsure whether to be offended or not.

“Ugh while we wait on this stupid gate to open,” The faery sighed, pocketing her crystal again. “Name, date of birth and faery godmother’s name if you have one. If you do not have one, just say ‘not available.’”

“Oh uh,” Gisela hesitated, “Gisela Ikratus, second princess of the kingdom of Ikratus. The seventeenth of Junis and my faery godmother’s name is Belladonna Pearblossom?”

Fffffff!” The faery said, wincing while sucking air through her teeth. “That’s rough but we’ll get it sorted.”

“What is...?” Gisela asked.

“Belladonna Pearblossom died last week. She and a faery by the name of Spruce Wildcloud must have been on a bender after summerfest that went a little too far. Got a formal complaint from the dragon wranglers south of here of two drunk faeries challenging their dragons to a race.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Gisela asked. “Or...how did this end up killing her?”

The faery quirked a teal brow at her and shrugged again. “Faeries are great protein for their hatchlings.”

Gisela stared back at her, horrified.

“Well, Bella had it coming. She and Spruce never went soft with their partying and for the better half of summerfest they’d get baked off poppy dust spiked with dust from a unicorn horn. Don’t recommend that for humans in case it needs to be said.”

“And... why is that?” Gisela asked, swept away entirely by the ramblings of this faery.

“Because it’s an unparalleled aphrodisiac to mortal beings. Headache medicine to us fey folk in regular dosages.” The faery fell silent again, blinking back at Gisela’s confusion. “I’m rambling again.”

“Y-Yes, I’ve noticed.” Gisela said, offering an awkward smile.

“So, without the guidance of a faery godmother you may be in luck.” the faery said.

So many questions jumped to the front of Gisela’s mind, but she shook her head to clear them. At least for the time being.

“Pardon me, but I don’t think I received your name earlier.” Gisela said, recovering.

“Oh, that’s my mistake. Pleased to meet you, your highness I’m Amaltheia Driftnewt.”

“Really?” Gisela asked after a beat.

“I know, I couldn’t believe it either.” With that Amaltheia swiftly turned to face the gate and gave a relieved sigh. “Hallelujah! The wonders of alchemy, everybody. For what little good it does.”

“Uh, what did you mean I may be in luck?” Gisela asked, staring past Amaltheia at the marvel that was occurring before her.

As the final vine pulled from the surface of the gate, the remaining flora beneath pulled away like the curtains of a stage and revealed a standing pool of swirling colors that rivaled the rainbow irises of Amaltheia’s eyes.

“‘If a faery godmother fails to monitor and protect their christened charge and misfortune befalls them, a new faery godmother will be appointed.’ Abandonment and stranding pretty much fall under the ‘misfortune’ part of things.” [name] said, folding her arms across her little chest.

“W-What if father sent me because he’d--“

“Wanted an appeal for something.” Amaltheia nodded. “Yeah, I heard you the first time. Pff! You should have seen the number Morrigan le Fey did on King Arthur. Begged Titania for an appeal just so his queen wouldn’t find out he’d been seduced by a faery. Hah! ‘le Fey.’ Acts all high and mighty tryin’ to fit in with those winter court witches when she couldn’t be more of a spring faery if she tried. I tell you.”

“You’re rambling again.” Gisela offered, hopeful to finally address the swirling vortex awaiting them.

“Ah, yeah, sorry. Bad habit.” Amaltheia said. “Listen, princess. You’re only way out of here’s going through customs like every other cast out royal and ending up...wherever Queen Titania puts you.”

“What do you mean?” Gisela asked, overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the answer. “I can’t go home after this, so where will she send me?”

“Don’t know.” Amaltheia said, shrugging her little shoulders again. Unbothered as she fluttered closer to take Gisela’s hand. “Sooner we get you into the summer court, the sooner you’ll know. Oh, and I get your world just shattered but please don’t pet the unicorns inside.”

“What? Why not?” Gisela asked, adding to her disappointment as she allowed the surprisingly strong faery to pull her along.

“Ah, because they’re not unicorns.” Amaltheia said, patting her hand sympathetically. “I know. It’s disappointing.”

“W-wait,” Gisela said, deciding her fear regarding entering a faery realm wasn’t unwarranted. She eyed the swirling vortex just mere feet in front of her warily. “How do I...?”

“Oh, I’ve got you.” Amaltheia shrugged, offering no further explanation.

Gisela sucked in a breath, resigned to her fate, and allowed Amaltheia to lead her into the dazzling vortex.

Thus marked Gisela’s first steps taken into the summer court of the fey folk…

 

To be continued...

 

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