King Oberon, lord of one of the twelve realms of faerie that ring the worldtree, had, he told himself sadly, not reckoned either with his daughter Celestia’s resentment of her mother’s absence or with her stubbornness—not even with her simple girlish forgetfulness. Now he must, according to the great law of the cosmos itself, consign her to terrible punishment.
The princess and her three friends, Urania, Erotia, and Eumele, all now eighteen and ready for the beds of suitors, had taken little enough heed nonetheless of the lords of faerie who pursued them. Such is the way in the realms of faerie, especially with princesses. Oh, the girls had thought of them, and had talked of them—in the giggling fashion of eighteen-year-olds both fae and human. They had known they would be brought to the bedchamber of one or another of these lords before the year was out, for the youth of the fae learn of the needfulness of such coming together as soon as they come of age, though governesses keep the modesty and innocence of fae girls intact.
To play at archery, indeed, made part of the ancient courtship ritual of Oberon’s kingdom. Once upon a time he had watched Titania draw the string back to her cheek and let the arrow fly. He remembered how the quiet athleticism of the action and the charm of the skill displayed had enraptured him, just as Celestia must be entrancing the eight lords who stood watching the girls upon the royal archery range.
“Celestia,” he said when he had come within ten paces of the girls and their suitors, playing at archery in the park of his great palace. He spoke quietly, but he sent the utterance into his daughter’s mind as well, so that she, about to loose an arrow, sent it very wide of the mark, then dropped her bow and turned with the expression Oberon knew well for the anger the princess put up to cover over her knowledge of wrongdoing and fear of the consequences. This time, the king thought, the consequences might drive that anger away entirely.
Too late. All too late.
He looked upon the fairest princess in the realms of the eldritch magic and he pitied her for all his disappointment, for the law declared that Celestia must not know how severe would be the trials that would bring her, in the end, to the glory of her womanhood.
She stood tall and dark and beautiful, her lavender gown enhancing the glow of her violet eyes and the long braid of her silken black hair tossing behind her back as she turned angrily to meet her father’s eyes. Oberon saw her take in the sadness on his face, so different from the irritation he had always worn before when scolding her and taking away a privilege or a party. Then he watched her grasp, almost instantly, what the sadness meant.
“No,” she whispered, but in her father’s mind she thundered out the word. No!
The eight fae lords standing around the archers in a loose semicircle understood before Celestia’s maids-in-waiting did that something had happened. Because all eight of them truly had come to the archery range to attend upon Celestia, though under the fiction that each girl had two suitors, they all turned as one to see the king. Then the other girls became aware that their princess had stopped shooting, and they, too, lowered their bows to turn and see Oberon standing there in his crimson robe of state, the simple circlet of gold that made him lord of this small but powerful realm upon his brow.
Though he could not see that the crown’s single adornment, a lapis lazuli set in the middle of his forehead, had begun to glow, he watched the lords and ladies widen their eyes at it. Celestia quailed back.
“No, please. Father. I will… I will go and… It cannot be the challenge already.”
Then Urania, Erotia, and Eumele visibly understood. Erotia cried out, tears springing to her eyes, “Your majesty, please.”
But Celestia seemed then to rise to the terrible occasion. Instead of thinking of her own ordeal, she turned to her friends. “I am so very sorry,” she said with tears in her eyes.
But Lord Gerenan turned to Oberon with anger in his face. “Your majesty, can you not show your mercy? If you must not spare Princess Celestia, surely you can spare her maids? I will go to the worldtree if I must, to—”
“Gerenan!” Oberon spoke in barely controlled fury. “Am I some human who thinks in his folly that he can change the laws written upon the trunk of the great ash itself? Do you think that if you scratched out the place where it says that a princess’ maids must go to the witchkind with her, that she might not be without her royal state even in her shame, it would alter no more than that? Do you suppose that you would not do better simply to take an axe to the root of all that is?”
Gerenan breathed fire, then, the flames given by his lineage from the dragons of eld darting from his nostrils, but he held his tongue.
Eumele, weeping, addressed him. “The fault is ours, my lord, as well as Celestia’s. We knew—”
Urania cried out, “We did not know it was the challenge! Your majesty, you cannot… you—”
But Celestia had begun to walk to her father, her eyes glowing like the lapis lazuli upon his brow. As she came toward him, she dismissed the bow and the quiver, which faded into the air like the numinous cloud from which the princess had fashioned it. She knelt before him, silently.
“The witchkind shall not overcome me, Father,” she said.
Her ladies-in-waiting gasped, as one, at this terrible declaration.
Lord Fedas spoke softly, pleadingly. “Your highness, you must not take that resolve! Accept your punishment and your service, and return to us!”
But Oberon knew his daughter. He must try to dissuade her, but he could see in her eyes how little chance he had of accomplishing it.
“Celestia, I know you think you understand what you are saying. To defy the witchkind, though, will bring sorrow upon you and your friends without any promise of happiness to come.”
“No promise,” she said calmly. “But great hope.”
“Not great!” Gerenan said, shaking his head. “Your highness, you must not.”
But Urania, too, came to kneel before Oberon now, and Eumele followed suit.
“This is folly,” the king said. “Utter and complete. We can only hope that the witchkind will convince you otherwise, for they have terrible means of persuasion of which you have not dreamt, girls.”
Now Erotia came, and knelt beside the others. Oberon could not help the way the bravery and loyalty Celestia inspired in her friends moved him.
“Do you truly intend to do this? To suffer all the punishments and degradations the witchkind will visit upon you, and then to be sent away, through sheer defiance, to wander the human lands in search of the man who will return your fae essence to you, perhaps—no, almost certainly—in vain?”
Celestia spoke in a tremulous voice that betrayed her fear but also, in its clarity despite the quaver, displayed her resolve. “Is it not written on the worldtree that if a princess of fae is cast out into the mortal world, and finds unto herself a true master, a prince of men, she will reach the stars by his side?”
Lord Fedas could not contain himself. “There are hundreds of silly prophecies written upon the ash!”
“And they may all come true,” said Oberon. “If it is written upon the sacred wood, it is law unto the fae and unto the world itself.” He knew now he could not keep Celestia from trying to fulfill this terrible destiny, but he still had hope that the witchkind might, when they showed the girl what it truly meant to have a man unto herself.
“For why else,” Celestia said, looking at Lord Fedas, “would I and my maids-in-waiting have been made to commit them to memory?”
She looked to her left, and saw Eumele’s determined face, then to her right, where Urania and Erotia wore more anxious, though no less loving expressions.
“I choose this, Father,” she said.
Oberon felt despair and anger rising alongside the pride. “It is not for me to judge that choice, daughter. All four of you must descend the dungeon stairs immediately, and ring the bell at their bottom. The witchkind will come for you, and they will, I hope, find a way to help you see reason. It would be far better to serve them, learn your lesson, and return to us, than to try this folly upon which you seem to have set your heart. When your bare bottoms have paid the price for Celestia’s default, perhaps you will be ready to do the bidding of those who hold the cane. My part now is only to see that you make your way downward, and ring the bell of summoning.”
Celestia’s already pale face blanched even further at that, but she rose. She gestured to her companions as imperiously as her mother the queen ever had to her own ladies, and they too got to their feet: fair Urania in her gown of blue, red-haired Erotia in pink, and brown-haired Eumele in green.
“Let us join hands, my ladies,” Celestia said, smiling sadly. Tears stood in her eyes. “We shall go, conquer our fears, and learn the ways of the great world beyond this little realm.”
For you must know that in the realms of faerie, laws are stricter than they are on our side of the great divide between the fae and humanity. It would not tell a falsehood to say that the laws of the fae resemble what we call the ‘laws of physics’ rather than those statutes made by men that courts uphold. If a man breaks a law and escapes his punishment, the world does not shake upon its foundation. Should a princess of a fae be naughty, and escape the strict chastisement decreed by those who keep discipline in the magic realms, the worldtree would fail and all creation perish.
So it was that when King Oberon’s daughter Princess Celestia disobeyed his command that she should weave for her mother, who had departed from his palace a decade before, a web of finding, the necessity that she be punished lay heavy upon him. If he did not have Celestia disciplined to the full measure of her offense, the magical root light emanating from the worldtree, upon which the very life of the fae depended, would fail.
For the souls of the beings who dwell that side of the divide run through the land itself, and a transgression against the cosmic order their lives reflect threatens the fabric of their very being. These are the elder laws, of the ancient powers, and the fae may not break them.
Celestia knew of this ineluctable bond: she had heard from the lore masters in her father’s palace of the strictures upon her otherwise carefree magic life. But the minds of girls, in the realms of faerie, are quick to forget such consequences, for they rarely see them fall. Instead of weaving the web of finding, Celestia had played at archery with her friends.
If only Celestia had understood the consequences of not performing the simplest of tasks for the mother she felt, Oberon knew, had deserted her. He had warned her as much as the law allowed him to do, when he set her challenge of adulthood. Upon the trunk of the worldtree stood the statute, and no fae might break it.
And thou, o king, when a princess shall come of age, shall set a challenge unto her: a thing she does not wish to do, but which thou must command. The sylphs will show that thing unto thee in a dream, and thou shalt set it before the princess, and she shall do it, or she shall go unto the bowers of the witchkind, beneath the earth, there to serve upon the roots of the worldtree.
Oberon had tried to console himself, as he had begun to descend the grand steps from his residential wing toward the carefree scene on the archery range behind the palace, that only a very few princesses of faerie, in the previous thousand years, had passed the challenge of adulthood. Titania herself had spent a year in service to the witchkind.
He wondered now, with his daughter kneeling before him, whether he should have disobeyed the dream, in which the sylphs had danced with Titania in a web of light, and she had whispered Let her find me.
Dreams in the realms of faerie are not as they are in the human world, evanescent and ambiguous: the sylphs delight and admonish the fae in their sleep in equal measure, but when they have a warning to deliver they give it in such a way as to make clear the worldtree’s intent. Oberon had awoken knowing the challenge he must set, and thinking Celestia would certainly pass the test, and need not go to the witchkind but would instead stay by her father’s side until she chose a suitor for her first consort—he who would someday rule Oberon’s realm.
And now all that lay in ruin: his daughter meant to defy her punishment, and who might tell what lay beyond the dungeon door for her?
Celestia did not know from where she had gotten the courage she knew she had just shown—shown without feeling, herself, the slightest bit brave.
Her father thought it folly, as of course he would. Perhaps he had the right of it, but Celestia clung to an idea that had formed in her mind that morning, as she decided that she and her maids-in-waiting would play at archery. For she had wondered whether this command of father’s, that she should weave a web of finding for the mother Celestia hardly remembered, might be the challenge that, if passed, would admit her to an endless life of such sport as playing at archery and hunting the unicorn and feasting with the lords—and taking them to her bed, whatever that meant.
She knew that if the laws graven into the bole of the worldtree were to be taken literally she, as a princess of the fae, should by rights long for that life, which could only begin now that she had turned eighteen, and after she had passed the challenge sent to her father in a dream.
And thou, King: thy princesses shall be unto thee as the gem upon the finger, the adornment of thy court forever.
Celestia didn’t want to be the gem upon the finger. She had wondered whether to tell her friends that they would spend the day in the weaving room, singing the eldritch songs that made the silken knots they tied into bindings of the sheen that flowed in their fingertips. As she had considered it, though, she had felt that to go down to the witchkind could truly not be worse than to serve forever as an adornment.
Now, though, she wished fervently that she had learned her lessons better, that somehow those words that told of the life of a princess had found more fertile soil in her imagination, that the laws of the fae had curbed her yearning to follow her mother into the kingdoms of the stars, rather than to submit to the suit of one or another of the handsome, but hardly exciting, lords who sought her for their beds.
She did not know how Titania had found the door that led to the heavenly courts, but she felt completely certain the queen had learned the way of it when she served the witchkind in the shameful fashion decreed by the law of the fae. For was it not written:
The shameful service of the princess under the chastising hand of the witchkind shall awaken her to hidden knowledge, unto the salvation of her people.
That passage, Celestia remembered, stood just above the one about ruling all the realms of faerie, on the trunk of the great ash tree that grew in the center of those realms, with the humans above and the witchkind below, and somewhere in the branches of the tree the heavenly courts where the stars danced the world’s ever-renewing creation, and her mother with them.
She knew Titania must be there because that was what her mother had whispered in her ear the night she departed, the thing Celestia had never revealed to her father because the words would not come out, locked inside her through Titania’s magic. If the queen had spoken truly to her daughter, no web of finding could do more than that simple knowledge.
Was that why she had remembered, at the moment when Oberon revealed to her that she had in disobeying his useless command failed her challenge, the prophecy about going out into the wide world of the humans, about the human who might take a fae princess unto himself? As she walked, hand in hand with her maids-in-waiting, she wondered at it: for should she not have remembered instead the hidden knowledge, and thought of how it might let her follow her mother to the stars?
Celestia and her ladies walked slowly across the park of her father’s palace, toward the place under the grand steps where a little wooden door, so blackened with damp and age that it seemed to breathe out an air of menace, gave entrance to the dungeon. In that dungeon, Celestia knew though she had of course never seen it, near the cells where the king confined those from other realms who had plotted against his rule, to learn of their mischief before he cast them back into their own kingdoms, a cavern opened. The bell that would summon the witchkind hung there, and now Celestia must ring it.
Celestia had Erotia’s right hand in her left, and Urania’s left in her right. Eumele held Urania’s hand on the golden-haired girl’s other side. Celestia heard brown-haired Eumele murmur, as she walked, “What will they do to us?”
Urania answered, “Why do you ask, Eumele? You know we know no more than you do.”
“Only,” Celestia said, regretting her bravery, if that was what it had been, more with every step, “that it will be shameful.”
“But what does that mean?” Eumele said, her voice now rising almost to a cry, a plea for mercy, as if she hoped the king, pacing behind with the lords, might relent.
“Naked,” Erotia replied, in a whisper that her friends could only hear because she spoke also in their minds. Celestia turned to see that her red-haired maid-in-waiting had blushed nearly crimson. The princess had always thought Erotia understood more, somehow, about the meaning of such things—shame, nakedness, and the beds of suitors—than the rest of them. She had, after all, turned eighteen first, of the four.
“Naked?” Eumele asked, in a panicked whisper of her own, turning red herself and looking back at the men who walked behind as if to see whether they had overheard.
Erotia only nodded, looking down, and then they had reached the mossy place below the steps, and the black door. As they approached, to Celestia’s dismay, the door swung open, outward.
Her father spoke from behind the little party of faerie girls. “The witchkind await you. Their cavern itself feels you near. It knows your naughtiness and your need of punishment. Go in, descend the stairs, and ring the bell.”
Celestia felt a sob rise in her throat as she turned her head over her shoulder to look at her father, after whose pale complexion, dark hair, and violet eyes she took, rather than the auburn-tressed Titania. She let go of her friends’ hands and rushed back to him, and she saw in his expression for a moment the hope that she would submit to her punishment in the kingdom below, and return to him soon. It made her all the sadder when his face changed, having certainly seen in Celestia’s own the resolve she kept, at least for now, undaunted: she would defy the witchkind, and she would go into the lands of men.
Oberon enfolded her in his arms, and held her tightly for a brief moment. “Go, then, brave one,” he said, using the nickname Celestia had earned at age six, through her defiance of his commands to stay within the palace park. Should her father have been stricter with her, Celestia suddenly wondered? If he had punished her more severely than with a scolding and a dinner of bread and butter, would she now feel this need to rebel?
“I shall return some day,” Celestia said quietly to his crimson robe. “And I shall send my ladies back as soon as I may.”
“Nay,” said Urania, overhearing. “You shall have us for your companions as long as you wander, wherever you venture upon the worldtree. Be it root, bole, or branch, we shall follow you.” She surveyed the faces of her two fellow maids-in-waiting, and saw them firm, though Eumele frowned.
Eumele, though, spoke next. “So say we, all three. Your majesty need not fear her highness’ going alone.”
Celestia felt a final squeeze of her father’s arms around her back, and then he was turning her to face the horrid black door, opened now onto an even blacker space beyond.
“Go, now. You first, daughter, and then your ladies. May the witchkind persuade you, though I could not, not to lay down your heritage so lightly.”
Celestia stepped forward. One pace, two: the open doorway yawning before her showed no light. Would she step into a void, and the stairs be shown a pleasant tale meant to take away the fear of falling endlessly into the dark kingdom? She would not quail: girls returned up these stairs, she knew, well chastened and ready to submit to their suitors; such had been her mother’s fate. Celestia knew she had much more to fear from the shameful naked punishments about which girls whispered than from any darkness, any chasm. She stepped through the doorway, breathing the air of dank caverns where evil things grew in gloomiest, eternal night.
A step down, on the other side, and far off, far below, the barest hint of light that showed a spiral stair. How far down? Celestia had no means of knowing. Farewell, Father, she thought, and she gave a little sob when she realized that she could not feel his mind touching hers any longer. Through that doorway lay the realms of faerie, and Celestia had forsaken them through her folly. She descended now into a different kingdom, and the powers of the fae, it seemed, were gone from her.
Then for a moment Celestia did think it folly, and supposed that she would of course submit to the witchkind, however shameful their discipline. But somehow her step upon the stairs remained firm though the masonry beneath her slippers felt loose and crumbly. She heard Urania enter behind her, and then Erotia, and then Eumele, and Celestia knew she must hold to her resolve if only to show her friends that the witchkind did not frighten her, the princess they loved who had led them through the dark paths of the woods to find their first unicorn, and to take turns petting it—Celestia first, always, showing her maids-in-waiting that there was nothing of which to be afraid.
Erotia spoke, her voice a soft wail that echoed against the hard stone of the stairs. “I cannot feel them! I cannot feel Fedas!”
Celestia searched her mind for some way to comfort them, but Eumele’s voice, confident now for the moment at least, surprised her. “But you can feel us, can you not, Erotia?”
And it was true, their powers had not flown away: the girls could sense one another’s minds just as before—a feeling so familiar that they hardly noticed its presence, though its absence would have been sensed immediately.
Yes, Celestia thought to them, not using her bodily voice at all. We have one another, my ladies.
Urania said aloud, “And shall have, your highness. Come what may.”
They descended then in silence, both bodily and in their minds, for what seemed an hour. The light grew a little brighter, or perhaps Celestia only thought it did because her eyes had adjusted or even because she hoped so very urgently that they would soon reach the end of this first stage of their terrible journey. She began to fear that the witchkind had cast some spell upon them, so that they did not truly move downward but merely thought they did, so that when at last they found the bell their fear would render them pliable.
Celestia had almost voiced the idea to her friends, in hope of stiffening all their resolves, when she turned a final bend, where the steps seemed carven out of the living rock and the dank, cold smell grew stronger, and saw another door, around whose edges glowed the pale light that had illuminated their way down into the earth. Before the door hung a rope, and when Celestia followed its hempen length upward with her eyes she saw it lose itself in darkness.
“It is the bell,” Urania breathed behind her. “Surely. You must pull it, your highness.”
Though Celestia knew her fair-haired friend spoke only out of nervousness, her own anxiety made her irritated to hear the obvious truth spoken out.
“I know I must, Urania. You need not—”
She saw tears in the other girl’s eyes.
“I am sorry,” Celestia said, embracing Urania. Erotia and Eumele had arrived now upon the narrow landing, and Celestia drew back from Urania so that they could hold hands in a little circle, the bell rope dangling at its center.
Let us pull it together, she thought to them, and they released one another’s hands and took hold of the thick rope, which felt damp and cold in Celestia’s hands.
“One, two, three,” Celestia said quietly. “Pull.”
Somewhere high above, when the girls had pulled the rope down almost two feet, struggling a little with the resistance that must come from the weight of the bell, or its disuse, a deep tone sounded. It seemed to make the very stone reverberate, as well as echo back the sound.
Celestia counted again, now. To five. To ten. Should they pull the rope again? Should—
The door crashed open, almost striking Celestia. It must be made of metal… of iron, the metal that the fae must not touch. It sounded much louder than the bell in its striking against the stone of the terrible stairway.
Celestia’s eyes were nearly blinded by the light behind the door, which now flooded in behind a bent figure, then another, and another, and another, all rushing in and among the girls, holding them fast in strong, claw-like hands, one witchkind thing behind each girl, seizing their arms and pulling them back behind them. Four of the things, shorter and much squatter than Celestia and her ladies, but terribly strong. One creature for each fae girl.
And then, blocking the light, a tall figure, as tall as a fae lord. A voice, high-pitched and feminine, but terribly cruel.
“Rip those fine gowns from these pretty ladies,” it said. “They have no more need of clothing.”