Ghosts in Quicksilver: Interlude Two: Wechselbalg

tw: child endangerment, parental death/sickness

Long ago, when you were still an infant, our mother took sick. She had been unwell for a long time, but this sickness stole the colour from her cheeks and the breath from her lungs. Our father took her to the village in hopes for a cure, but to no avail. She died soon after.

But during that time, I was given the responsibility of watching over the household—and you, little sister. You were not even a year old, making the sounds of the river and the wind instead of words. We had not yet named you, because it would attract the faeries’ attention—but I, foolish child that I was, began calling you a nickname of my own.

The first day I began to think of you with your name, I kept my mouth shut. The second day, I nearly slipped—but only the first sound escaped my lips, and when I picked you up and held you, you were safe. The third day alone, however, I awoke and looked upon you, and my lips and tongue betrayed me.

At the sound of your name, the west wind blew the shutters open, and burst into the house with its wild fury. It blew me down, and when I arose, you were silent. No more stream-burbling came from your mouth—you lay so silent and watchful that you might have been an owl, or the moon and sun trapped behind a pair of wide eyes.

I knew, then, that you were gone. The little people who ride upon the wind had taken you from me and left a stranger in your place. At first, I tried to ignore it. But your name burned inside me, bright as an ember, fierce as a flame.

I could not leave you there among the faeries, little sister. So I went out to the well, the water silent and still below, and dropped an acorn into its depth, and spoke out the name—Frau Holle, Frau Holle, Frau Holle. I waited, and as the sun set, she emerged from the dark water with her hair dripping and white dress all spread about her.

“Why do you cry out so, little one?” she asked me. “All maidens and all infants are under my purview, but your thread has not ended, and nor has your sister’s.”

“I am blessed to hear this,” I replied, “for the faeries have taken her from me.” I told her of the stranger in my house, fearing all the while that I was wrong and a fool. But when I was done, she nodded with a somber look upon her face.

“They have traded one of their children for yours. It is not uncommon—but it is not a fair trade, for the being in your house will go back to her home in time. This world’s air is not as easy to breathe for faerie children.”

“So why do it?”

“I could lie and tell you that it is out of some natural capriciousness or evil. That answer would sit more easily with you, I think. But lying is not the same as spinning a tale, and men and fae alike make terrible decisions motivated by what they cannot possess.”

I took in her words, then gathered the courage to ask my next question. “Can I win her back?”

“Yes. But you shall have to be very brave.”

I accepted that. I loved you already, enough to trade the breath from my lungs for you.

I came back to the house, and the stranger stared at me from her crib as I took six eggs from my basket, plucked from the coop outside. I cracked the eggs and set the whites and yolks aside; then I set the eggshells as neatly along the fire as I could, and began to brew tea within them.

“I have seen many things already in my years,” came the laugh from behind me all of a sudden. “But never have I seen somebody brew tea in eggshells!”

I turned around to where the changeling sat up in her crib. Once she realized what she had done, she dropped her disguise; antlers sprouted from her brow, and her hair turned to leaves, before she vanished completely, back from whence she came. And—though you will not believe me—she almost looked relieved.

Then the wind screamed through the chimney. Ash filled the cottage. I shielded my eyes, and when I lowered my arm, a great king stood before me. He had the head of a stag, but with an old man 

“You have done a careless thing,” he growled in a thunderous voice. “Ancient rules govern our worlds, and I cannot allow them to be broken.”

My voice fled me at first. Then I remembered what Frau Holle had told me to do. Be brave.

“Then you shouldn’t have taken my sister!”

He paused, startled. “Our ways are beyond your ken and your concern.”

“She’s my sister. She doesn’t belong to you.”

Something like a smile spread across his animal features. “Nobly said, Guthrun daughter of Mariwig. But know you not who stands before you? I am Oberon Erl-King, Father Death, ruler of the wisps and bog-faeries, the goblins and the dwarves who sleep far below the sun’s reach. Would you set yourself against me, child? For to challenge me is to challenge the Court of the Unfortunate and all of its denizens.”

I confess, dear sister, my courage nearly failed me. I was no older than you are now, a girl with no power except the strength of her fists and the fire of her soul. I wish I could tell you that I was determined enough to never question myself, or never consider letting you go. It was the memory of your name on my lips, spoken only the once and that much the sweeter, that steeled me.

“My will is strong as yours, Erl King, and I am no subject of yours. I am no wisp or bog-faerie, nor any goblin nor dwarf. My kingdom is here, among the light and living. And so is hers. Give her back.

Then I spoke your name and reached my arms out to you. Your eyes opened, the enchantment upon you falling away—and the Erl King only smiled some more, and let you return to me. You lay in my arms, gazing up at me with eyes as blue as sky, eyes just as blue as mine, and I swore I would never let you go again.

My dearest Johanna.

I hope you understand, now, why you must allow me this. Allow me this—and let me go.

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