—The Apple Wood—

Disclaimer: I do not own Lords of Shadow or any of its parts. This fic contains lines adapted from the W.B. Yeats poem, 'The Stolen Child,' which is in the public domain (as it was published before 1/23/1923).

This one shot is an excerpt from a Lords of Shadow project I worked on over Nanowrimo 2015. I'm about 70,000 words in and still working, but I really like this part a lot! And it stands on its own quite well. I plan to post the rest of the project later after…lots and lots of editing.

The bigger story this is part of is about telling stories, so I tried for a real fairy tale feel here. Just before this part, Gabriel is traveling by boat with a djinn girl and her adopted brother. The girl tells him how the Grace of God led her to her little brother, her family, so Gabriel decides to tell them how the Grace of God led him to his family, Marie, and this is the story he tells.

I also wrote this to make sure a fairly pivotal semi-original character in the overarching plot has a good rapport with the canon characters. He will—reveal himself immediately.

Please enjoy!

— — —

God showed Himself to the world in sunbursts—in falls of light streaking through clouds over the fields, the woods, the mountains, and one day, God showed Himself only to Gabriel.

Or so He seemed to, as the boy rested in a copse of trees overlooking the highlands. The Brotherhood of Light's compound lay further up the mountainside, while the village lay below, but the sunburst broke over all. In the stillness of the wilderness, it all seemed so peaceful, so solitary, as if the woods and the land had been made holy, silent, and golden—as if no people were left in the hills but him.

Gabriel dropped his pack of tinder-wood and stopped to rest awhile, to watch the sunburst as if it was only for him—since he was an orphan, a foundling under the Brotherhood's gates, and had no father left in the world but God. The Grace of God, in the rays of light, fanned through broken clouds as they swept across the sky, fine arrows of sun sliding out of the Brotherhood's Wood and onto an apple wood below, where the fruit had already begun to swell and redden. It had been a good summer, and all the fields glowed for it, flax fields over the dale turning pale as snow with their yield.

He wandered this whole wood, from edge to edge, from the compound to this copse, but never had he wandered down to the Apple Wood. Supposedly, the trees of the Apple Wood belonged to someone—though it was hard for him to imagine the land really belonging to anyone. But he had finished his gathering for the day and had two hours still before he needed to return, or else get hell and a beating from the grounds master for his lateness. So, Gabriel followed the Grace of God made manifest into the trees of the Apple Wood—

—and found a girl crying there.

She seemed a few years younger than him, perhaps seven, and she did not just sob. She threw a regal fit—stamping her dainty foot, red in the face, just crying in anger at the trees—and someone up in the branches who seemed to be laughing at her.

"You—you are so mean!" the girl wailed from the ground before she wiped her eyes again.

"I don't care, Marie!" said a boy's voice from up in the tree. "I'm not helping you climb up—"

"Then come down!" she shouted. "It's—it's not fair, Mathias! I wanna see the nest too—"

The boy in the tree, however, was his age—and Lord if Gabriel knew how he got up there—in his velvet doublet, his linen shirt, his good breeches, and his shiny boots. The both of them had very fine clothes, and the little girl was clearly grounded not for lack of climbing skill, but for the cumbersome skirts of the little, orange gown and tiny, white cape she wore.

"How come you won't help her up?" Gabriel interrupted. The little girl startled out of her crying while the boy swayed dangerously in the branches.

"Bloody hell!" the boy said with the awkward anger of someone still learning the first order of taking such oaths. "Where did you come from—"

"How come you won't help her up?"

"She'll fall, stupid," the boy said—to them both, really. "She's real clumsy—" This did not help her hurt feelings any, and she began to sniffle again.

"You're making her cry saying stuff like that," Gabriel told the boy in the tree. "She just wants to see too—" The richly-dressed boy rolled his eyes at them, said no more, and climbed some branches higher. Gabriel frowned and looked at the girl. It wasn't fair—who could climb in a dress like that? "Can—can you hang on?"

She stopped crying and gaped at him.

"I'll—I'll carry you," he said, getting down on one knee. "You hang on—c'mon." She climbed up on his back and wrapped her arms around his neck without a word before he hiked her up easily—she weighing no more than a heavy pack of tinder anyway. Climbing would be a bit of something, but Gabriel was good at climbing. He hopped up the trunk to hang at the first branch, and she squeaked and grabbed him tighter, almost throttling him—

"We're—not—falling—" he managed through her—squeezing and she loosened her hold, gripping his sides with her knees instead. He climbed faster, carrying her higher, the skirt of the orange gown catching in the fingers of the littler branches—as the boy already in the tree watched them.

"You're both mad, and stupid," he said as Gabriel reached him. He settled the girl on the thick branch where the other boy waited. "How is she going to get down?"

"I'll carry her down," Gabriel told him. The little one, however, was smiling, even with the gold hem of her dress torn.

"Thank you," she said, playing with one of her dark braids while they rested. Her friend frowned.

"Well, it's up here," he said, climbing a little higher, and Gabriel followed, helping the girl after him.

"I am Mathias," the boy told him primly. "The runt is Marie," who looked quite upset when Mathias said this and she cried over Gabriel's shoulder: "So mean! I am not a runt—I'm not—"

"I have to play with her," Mathias told Gabriel in a low and very put-on voice. "It is my punishment for being born before her. Being eldest is such a chore."

"Mathias—" Marie cried.

"Let her see the nest now," Gabriel said, and Mathias scooted aside on the branch.

"Go ahead, girls first," he said and Marie leaned forward, her face brightening at the sight of three eggs, speckled and blue, in a tidy nest.

"They aren't hatched yet," she said to Mathias. "They really aren't hatched yet, Mathias! They're so pretty and blue—"

"I was going to bring one down for you, but with you carrying on like that—I couldn't leave you—"

"You shouldn't touch them at all," Gabriel said. "She won't come back to them." And Marie immediately put her hands behind her back and then began to forget the nest.

"What is your name?" she asked.

"You've seen it," Gabriel told her instead. "We should go down now—"

"But I asked your name," she said again, and still, Gabriel said nothing. Rich children probably shouldn't know his name—for his own sake—

"Let's go," he told her as he helped her on his back again, her arms were more relaxed this time as he anchored them against the tree.

"Is your name Alfred?" she asked. He shot her a look over his shoulder.

"No—"

"Cornelius?"

"Why would my name be 'Cornelius'—" Gabriel said this with unnecessary disgust as he knew a Cornelius back at the compound—who was a prick. (Gabriel was a bit more learned in the practical craft of foul words than a boy of Mathias's blood.)

"You will not tell me your name—what else am I to do?"

Mathias had followed them down the opposite side of the trunk.

"Yes, what else are we to do?" Mathias agreed. "Where did you come from anyhow?"

"I have to go—" Gabriel said as he let Marie down. She sped from him and set her dress to rights over the roots of the apple tree, tucking the tattered hem out of sight.

"Did you come from the Brotherhood compound?" Mathias asked anyway.

"He said he wants to go, Mathias—let him be," Marie scolded. "Thank you for carrying me up and down the tree, Nameless one! I hope we meet again!" It became apparent at this moment that Marie was not seven, and Mathias had been blunt but correct in calling her—undersized.

Mathias ignored her and marched between them.

"I am Lord Mathias Cronqvist, Arthurius Cronqvist—the Prince—is my father. I command you, boy: tell me your name and if you are from the compound—or I will have you arrested."

"Mathias!—" Marie cried, while Gabriel only scowled—the orchard was empty but for them and the trees.

And this Mathias spoke to him—rough and self-important, just as Cornelius did. It—cut the lines from him that might have otherwise held him back.

"Who is going to come and arrest me, princeling? Your father isn't here—"

Mathias pulled back. "How dare—"

"Nameless one!" Marie chided him too, coming between them. "No fighting! Mathias, stop it—we go—"

"But Marie, don't you want to see the Brotherhood compound? If he's from the compound, he could take us—"

"Oh, but I do want to see that!" she said after a pause to consider it. "But he said 'no'—"

"She wants to see it too," Mathias said over her. "If you are from the compound, you should tell us so—"

"—Or you'll arrest me?"

"Well, only if you keep saying 'no'—if you just took us—"

"I'm not taking you to the compound—"

"So, you are from the compound," Mathias concluded. "Now, what is your name?"

"You two—don't need to know my name—"

"I suppose," Marie said, "but it feels ever so rude not to—"

"I'm leaving," Gabriel said, almost running from them to the edge of the orchard closest to the Brotherhood's Wood. "Go home." He re-shouldered his pack of tinder, headed out over the field, and found they followed him—and he could have no doubt at all it was them by their bickering. They led a black pony with them—the little prince's mount; its saddle hung with a long dagger in a jeweled scabbard—who bore the children and their bickering with the patience of a saintly mother.

The two bickered up the hills and down them again. At first, they bickered about who would ride the pony, and in what turn, before they ended up both walking alongside the little horse and bickering about following Gabriel. Before too long, they bickered about wanting to see the Brotherhood compound when their fathers had forbade it, and then, they bickered about what precisely their fathers would do to them when they found out they had gone to the compound anyway. They pointedly did not bicker about if they should have woken 'Milly' and told her where they were off to. But still, they were not done. The girl started the bickering as often as the boy did, and as each disagreement came near its end, they started anew. But if the boy ever disagreed too stiffly, the girl threatened tears.

When they found nothing more to bicker about their fathers or their fates, they bickered about if the trees overhead were oak or sycamore, if the flowers growing in the Wood's shade were goldenrod or yarrow, if the apples were still too sour or just ripe enough to eat—

—and about this time, they caught up to him—and they bickered still about apples because Mathias had nicked three from the orchard. To Marie, he gave the reddest of the lot, the greenest he kept for himself, and to Gabriel, he offered a warm, yellow apple and said:

"So, how far to the compound, Nameless?"

Gabriel did not take the apple: "I'm not taking you to the compound. Stop following me."

"That is a shame," Mathias said, giving the refused apple to Marie instead. "Because we are going to the compound—with you. Lead on!"

He trudged on; they followed. They followed and they bickered still—about if Marie had torn her dress, or if the tree had, if a rustle in the brush was a rabbit or a fox—and Gabriel began to realize their bickering was a kind of game. They handed the unending argument off to one another, in turns nearly, until he could count their passes like beats in a tune. They seemed to be dear friends somehow in this. He had never imagined a friendship built so on bickering, but he hadn't much imagined friends. Children at the compound were few, many were older than him and already swept into the ranks of squires—they had their work, and so had he. When there wasn't wood to pick, Cook kept him in to pluck a goose or peel potatoes until his hands ached, his fingers full of nicks. Sometimes, he got to train with the recruited boys, but less and less so lately—after he broke Cornelius's nose—

"What do you do at the compound, Nameless?" Marie started, seeking to draw him into the circle of her, Mathias, and the pony. "Are you a squire?"

"I pick wood," Gabriel said sullenly, and Marie balked.

"Oh, well, that is very interesting—"

"That is not interesting—"

"Mathias!"

"Why are you not a squire?" Mathias demanded. "You are old enough—"

"I'm not," Gabriel admitted. "I'm just—not."

"I think it is because you are bad-tempered," Mathias told him, and Gabriel saw only red and the woods, not hearing Marie chiding Mathias again. He stopped in his trudging, turned on Mathias, and growled:

"I am not bad-tempered—"

"Oh, are you not!" Mathias laughed at him, as he had at Marie, and Gabriel put his back to him and marched. "So, how far to the compound—"

"Yes, how far?" Marie asked, a quake in her voice. "It is getting dark."

It was getting dark; the Wood around them spooked by shadows, suddenly strange.

"Nameless, are you lost?" Mathias asked.

"No, I'm not," Gabriel insisted, "you can see the lights of the compound there." And as he pointed through the trees, they saw the lights through the leaves, the faintest lines of the red fort, and Marie sighed, relieved. Mathias climbed up on his pony.

"We are still out too far, we won't make it before dark," he said. "I will ride ahead for aid—"

"Mathias—" Marie attempted, but Mathias stood for none of it.

"Look after Marie, Nameless—I'll return soon!"

And he left them, the pony pacing well for such a sleepy animal.

"He is going the wrong way, your friend," Gabriel said to Marie when he was gone.

"Will he be all right?"

"Yeah, the road is still that way, but the compound is—" Gabriel stopped.

The lights had gone. Where the gold windows and lanterns of the Brotherhood's compound had glowed was only trees and trees, patches of paling sky flitting in the summer leaves.

"What's the matter?" she asked. He didn't speak, and the moment he looked back, the lights returned, hanging like will-o-wisps in the trees and coming closer.

"Nothing," Gabriel said, "let's walk—"

Marie grabbed his arm quite suddenly: "What's on the ground?"

Gabriel looked down with her, and serpentine lines appeared in the beaten path beneath their feet. Curling cracks slithered through the earth, meeting and drawing—'flowers?' and leaves and beasts in the dust—all over the path—until the markings wove themselves as thick and intricate as Persian carpets.

"It's beautiful," Marie said. "But what is it—"

Then, there came the sound of bells, and all too soon, it came again—a crisp, cold ringing—

"Get off the road," Gabriel said. He tossed his pack away and shoved her toward the brush. "It's the Host—Move—"

They crashed into the brush as floating motes of light, fey lights, began to drift among the branches, catching in whirls around sprigs, and still sang the bells—

"Move," Gabriel whispered desperately. "Be quiet—be so quiet—"

They crawled deep in the thicket until they came under an old tree, where the roots had hollowed a cave beneath it. Gabriel hurried her inside and slid in after her—the swift-falling evening full of fey lights, like fallen stars. They caught in his hair like troublesome dust, and he pawed them out.

And still sang the bells.

"What if Mathias comes back?" Marie whispered.

"He'll be fine, they can't find him," Gabriel told her. Mathias, with all luck, had probably found the road to the compound while the arrival of the Fairy Host had tripped them into—hidden country. The Host often passed through the Brotherhood's Wood in summer, but Gabriel was rarely out of doors at dusk. "We just—have to hide until morning. They'll go then."

Marie drew closer to him. "I'm frightened—"

"Don't talk," was all Gabriel said. The Host was perfectly sensible to feel frightened of. He pulled her down so they huddled low in the root cave, the children clutching to each other as still sang the bells.

They sang in such even strokes as church bells while figures hooded and cloaked, the vanguard of the Host, walked the carved fairy path. They carried staves roped in silver bells that they struck on the packed earth with each stride taken, ringing every step of the Host—

Other music-makers walked among the Host, a harper and a strolling fiddler; somewhere, further off, a sharp fifer—

—until there came a squad of red horses ridden by veiled women in red gowns. They carried golden bows and quivers of silver arrows with garnet heads—

—and last in the Host, last behind them came a final woman, she too in red, she too veiled, but wearing a crown of red maple and oak leaves and a golden mask. She, the Lady of the Fairy, the Lady of the Host, rode in a chariot of twisted birchwood. Gabriel knew the fateful clatter of her wheels from cold tales, her chariot driven by a team of twelve foxes, as red in fur as her gown, their strange harnesses too strung with bells—

This lady pulled on her reins, the racket of her wheels stilling, as she called out to her host, her voice ghostly: "I hear the breathing of human children—on my road."

Gabriel gasped sharply, and Marie squeaked, and they both covered each other's mouths with their hands, to stop their noise, and huddled deeper in the root cave.

"Find them," the Lady of the Host commanded, and her maiden knights dismounted and broke into the woods. "All of you—search. Bring the little ones here." And at her word, all the ramblers in the Host left the fairy road to hunt. Her foxes even stalked among them, dipping their noses in the underbrush and snuffing without a sound.

Marie buried her face in Gabriel's collar, her hot tears on his neck. He hugged her closer, almost grateful for her hand over his mouth—keeping him still—

—as a fairy torch spilled into their grove, its light liquid on the dark roots, and the Host's fiddler walked over the roots of their tree, their hiding place. His shadow hung distorted over the mouth of their cave, the silent instrument slung over his shoulder making a monster of him—

And he began to sing, to sing and to play, as he walked, as he searched—his voice low, a soft and elven calling—his fiddle a phantom whistling—

"Don't listen," Gabriel whispered against Marie's ear. "Don't listen to it—" She had stopped crying, and they held onto each other. But even as he knew what would save them, the fiddler's voice came singing, warm in his ears—and he began to listen to the words—

"Come away, o human child," he sang, his fiddle crooning with him. "To her waters, and her wild. With the Lady, hand in hand, from this world more full of weepin' than you can understand—" His voice blurred with others and together softly begged—"Come away, come away, o human child"—as if it were not only the fiddler singing to him gently, but all the ramblers walking in the trees—their voices in the shivering leaves, on the breath of breezes, in the white starlight adrift with fey lights, pale green and traveling, under the night.

And at the heart of their voices was the Lady of the Fairy Host. Her song tempted him with childhood that never ended, every day forever sweet and summer, young and painless, where nothing and no one would dare to strike him or make him cry, for no tears ever fell on the far, fair isle where he would finally have a mother, queenly and eternal—her warm embrace, her silken lap, her velvet hands—a mother who would love him as she loved nothing

Marie hugged him so tight, Gabriel almost lost his breath, and she whispered to him, very small:

"Oh, please—please don't listen—"

The root cave seemed darker, duller than it had been, the fairy torch lying on its far wall like exotic gold.

"I—I wasn't," Gabriel lied—and shamefully, he knew she knew it. She did not let him go. Above them, the beguiling song stopped, and the fiddler rested his bow.

Both children held their breath—and waited—as they heard him kneel, the litter of the woods settling as he did—his torch sinking low to the ground. With as little sound as he could manage, Gabriel dragged Marie back from the light—

"What did you find?" came the chilling voice of the Lady of the Host in the grove. The fiddler rose from the mouth of the cave at her approach.

"Nothing," he said and played three notes from his piece, the shadow of his bow spiking against the wall of the root cave, and then three more—for six drops of sweetest song. The motes of light in the air jittered with the little tune. All the faint melody in the wood seemed suddenly harmless, its cruel charms laid low.

"Nothing?" she asked, unmoved by his music. "How find you no thing?"

"I found things, my Fata Morgana," he told her drolly. "Dust—leaves—a crow carcass—but I found no one."

"But I heard you singing my song, and all the voices of the Host rose up with you—"

"I thought they might be hiding, so I sang out to them, but no one came."

"Search a last time," she commanded before she said with tenderness: "Then, you come back to me, my fiddler. I will have you play for me as we travel tonight."

"As my lady wishes," the fiddler said and pulled more notes—his music pinching sweetness into the still grove as he circled once—passing over the dark hole of the root cave—before he and his torch light slid away. All the ramblers returned to the road, their music straying back with them from the trees, as the bells began to sing, step by step, leading the Host away through the woods.

Gabriel collapsed on the floor of the root cave, gasping, as Marie let him go and he sat up. Even as the Host had moved on, their fairy lights remained, drifting over the cave mouth.

"Do—do we stay?" Marie asked, and he nodded.

"Till morning—when the fey lights go away."

"That is a long time," Marie said and took the yellow apple from a pocket in her skirts. "You should eat." He ate, and she sat quietly, watching the fey lights meet in spirals and turning circles under the tree. Cold crept in with the night, and they huddled together for warmth in the dark. Marie stretched her white cape over both of them, and the lull of sleep came with the velvet, soft and light as a cloud.

"You saved me, Nameless," Marie said drowsily. "Thank you." Their heads leaned together as the night thickened. "I won't tell Mathias your name if you tell me—I promise."

"I'm called Gabriel."

"I'm called Marie."

"I know that," he said, almost smiling—after all, Mathias had said "The runt is Marie," but he did not echo this—though she seemed to hear it again all the same. She wriggled under the cape.

"I have to play with him!" Marie said mockingly, putting her nose in the air. "It is my punishment for being born after him! Being youngest is such a chore! But he is my friend; he knows it!"

Gabriel chuckled, the smile coming through at last. "He is your friend—"

"You are my friend too! You saved me," she said at once before smiling very warmly with sleep coming over her eyes, her head heavier on his shoulder. "Good night, Gabriel."

"Good night, Marie," he told her. The moon came out over the grove, its beams full of the Wood's shadows, rustling. The fey lights caught in the moonlight winking out like stars. It grew quieter still, with only their small breathing. Gabriel ached to recall the fiddler's golden song, a hollow hurt fresh in his chest from its promises—of happiness, of mother, of a far, fair isle without tears—but he said anyway, even if she slept: "You saved me too."

— — —

Morning woke Gabriel—rudely—some hours later, when Sirs Phillip and Erich of the Brotherhood of Light fished the children from the root cave. Sir Phillip set him standing and clopped him on the shoulder.

"You are not Cornelius, eh, Gabriel?"

He was quiet, rubbing sleep from his eyes. The sky was still deeply blue, birds just waking.

"I'm not—"

"Nor Alfred," Marie said from up on Sir Erich's horse. She sat wrapped in Sir Erich's heavy cloak and looking very small in it.

"Well, young Lord Cronqvist said Voclain's granddaughter was in the woods in the care of a wood-picker who was not Cornelius."

"I think this quite fits his description," Sir Erich said, climbing up behind Marie, so she looked smaller still, and tired, beside the big man. There were fey lights still adrift, on the cusp of dawn, and they clung in Marie's curly, dark hair. "I'll be taking little Miss Voclain back now—I suspect she is sorely missed. A good morning to you, Phillip! Gabriel!"

"Aye, a good morning," Sir Phillip said. "Gabriel and I shall be true brothers and walk back!"

"Now, you boys aren't far," Sir Erich told them, his horse stepping as lingering fey lights fretted around her.

"Good bye, Gabriel," Marie called from the height of the great horse. "We'll meet again!"

"Good bye," he said. The markings left by the Fairy Host's passage still lay in the trail underneath him. Dawn would dust them away soon, and all would be as if the Hidden folk had never passed by. But as Sir Erich's horse nickered and set down the mountain to the village, Gabriel had the sense there were other hidden countries in the world than what came over the forest the past night. That the doors to those hidden countries opened only once in a man's life—before they shut forever.

And that Marie was going back to one such hidden country.

He hoped he would see her again despite, as Sir Phillip took them briskly up the mountain again.

"That was good sense, Gabriel," Sir Phillip said, his hand on his shoulder again, heavier this time. "Very good sense. You did very well."

"Thank you, sir."

Sir Phillip held Gabriel by the shoulder until he stopped on the path.

"Do you know what the little prince told us about you?"

"That he was going to have me arrested?"

Sir Phillip laughed. "He's the very kind, isn't he! But no, not that—he said you should be made squire for your 'services' to Miss Voclain." Gabriel kept very still as Sir Phillip spoke, as if to interrupt the knight was to interrupt a dream he was still having in the root cave. "Now, the word of a little prince is mighty, but I think it time, don't you?"

"Time—to be squire?"

"Aye, I do think it time. I think you've been left to Cook more for our sakes than for yours." Sir Phillip ruffled his hair. "If you will have me, I will have you—for squire."

"Y-you would?"

"I would—but what say you?"

"Yes, Sir Phillip, yes!"

"Right! Let's get on then, and breakfast! Today," Sir Phillip said, with a touch of the fiendishness he reserved for new recruits, "will be a long day for you."

"I'm ready!" Gabriel said, and they set on the path again with knights' pacing.

— — —

Thank you for reading! Again, any comment is welcome. – Some Magician