A Midwinter Night’s Dream
The celebrations were over. The wan winter sun had long since fallen and the wood rested in the deep, dreamless sleep of the year’s darkest night. Oberon pulled off his holly mask and laid it at his sleeping wife’s feet.
“Sweetly met by moonlight, fair Titania.” He touched the side of her pale face, cold as river water. He loved her, even still—it was easier to remember when she was asleep. Her dark eyelashes were edged in frost and he allowed himself a brief, forbidden moment of vulnerability. Then soft footsteps padded behind him and the moment was lost.
“Are you ready, my king?” Robin Goodfellow, wrapped in white fox fur, was a smudge against the winter landscape. “The Hunter is coming.”
Oberon disliked the Hunt. There was no order, no elegance. Only the wild winter wind stripping them raw of all pageant and pretension, tearing off their glamours and discarding them like falling stars. The distant howling of hounds preceded, just barely, the whisper of fresh snowflakes. Then the hunters came.
Herne, savage god of the wild places, led in his chariot of frost and thorns. Robin left his fox fur lying on the ground as he leapt up to meet them. Sighing, Oberon caught hold of a screeching wind and took to the back of a hound. Its fur was slick and oily and cold to the touch. The Wild Hunt careened across the sky and Oberon felt his carefully constructed facade slip away; here, in this fraternity of primordial elements, he was once again nothing but a man called True Thomas who had followed a faerie queen into elfland.
The land beneath them shifted from dense, snow-laden pines into patches of barren farmland, which in turn collapsed into the slickly-paved streets of the city. Windows winked at them and automobiles slipped in and out of crossroads. Oberon wondered if his Titania knew how different the world had become. There was a time when men out after dark on Midwinters had to mind their eyes didn’t stray skyward, lest they be taken to join the Wild Hunt’s parade. Now men had no time for the skies, no time for the old stories, and their eyes rarely left the slim little pocketbooks they all carried about.
They flew low over a fountain in a grand city square. The water was frozen mid-cascade and icicles hung from its crest. Two stone lions stood on either side; one of them looked up and nodded respectfully at the Hunt as it passed.
Oberon wasn’t quite sure what happened next. He looked to Robin Goodfellow and found that he was no longer at his side. The hound threw back its head in a mournful howl, and Oberon’s grip came loose, and then—
Then he was falling very very quickly.
Falling hurt. No— landing hurt. Oberon experienced pain so rarely, and it had been so long, that at first he didn’t recognize it for what it was. He merely identified a general feeling of unpleasantness that intensified as he tried to get to his feet.
He was at the fountain’s edge. The lion lay beside it, silent and resolute. He didn’t know how far the Hunt had taken him from his home, or which direction he should take to find his way back. The square was empty and the snow was falling in heavy clumps.
Not completely empty. A bundle of rags shifted, then pulled itself upright into something resembling a man. It smelled like liquor and human waste and forgotten things.
“Alright, mate?” it said.
Oberon could be many things, if he chose, but he would never be rude. “I am well. Your concern is welcome. I will be better once I find my way home.”
“Tha’s for certain. The radio said it’s gonna be cold as anything tonight. Get safe inside if you’ve a home to be inside of.”
“Yes…” Oberon scanned the unfamiliar landscape. “Where is the nearest woodland?”
The man shrugged, a great rumble of jackets and scarves. “There’s a park a few blocks down there, but they lock it up at night and the benches have those divider things on ‘em. Tha’s the only wood I know of. What’s your name, anyway?”
Oberon— he began to say, but that felt wrong in this place, this form. His lost name hadn’t been in his mouth for so long that its shape was all but forgotten. He held it carefully, uncertainly, like something both precious and venomous.
“Thomas. Thomas Rhymer.”
“Ah yeah? I knew a Thomas once, back in school. Awful bugger. Used to put glue on the soles of my trainers. I’m Jerry.” He held out his hand.
Oberon stared down at it. Surely this mortal man couldn’t understand the sacred covenant he was offering. However, to refuse the being who had become his host in this place would be the height of poor hospitality. With a sinking feeling in his chest, Oberon gave his hand in return.
Two hands joined over an exchange of names. The most powerful magic was often the simplest. The man dropped his hand, satisfied. “Right, you’d best be off while you can then. Hope there’s a good woman and a fire waiting for you. You don’ exactly look dressed for the weather, if you don’t mind me sayin’.”
Oberon nodded, indifferent. “The cold does not bother me as it once did.”
“Ah well, there’s a lot to be said for something to come home to. What’s she like, your lady?”
He felt a flicker of annoyance for this street waste who had so easily beholden him, but it was lost under the torrent of thoughts and feelings. How could he describe Titania? How could anyone? “She is ice and thorns and apple blossoms. She is a fire that burns through the darkest nights of Midwinter. Her heart is full of passion and her mind is a labyrinth of blades. I would die a thousand times for her.”
The man in rags nodded sagely. “I’ve known a few like tha’. Love is a tricky thing.”
The snow was falling faster now, painting the square anew as an empty canvas. The slick facets of the frozen fountain burrowed under the fresh snowfall. A hungry winter wind raised its head.
Oberon turned to the man. “And you? Where is your home?”
He spread his hands and gestured to the square. “My home is where my feet take me. Wherever I can catch a few moments rest, or a kind word. Home isn’ something that exists only within four walls.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “I understand.”
A crash came from behind them and Oberon whipped his head around. A piece of the frozen cascade had come loose and shattered on the ground below. Bits of ice littered the ground like diamonds.
Oberon shifted impatiently. “Have you no woman, no fire?”
“Not for a long time.” The man sat down again and watched the snow collect on his boots. “I had one of the good ones. The good one, the kind they used to write fairy tales about. I know you’re gonna laugh, but it’s the truth. We were supposed to be forever.
“Anyway, I lost my job a ways back—about a hundred o’ us did—and I lost my way for a while. I started blaming her. One day I came home and she was gone.”
Oberon considered the man, already knee-deep in snowfall. “And you live here now? In this place?” There was, he was certain, something not quite right about this.
The man turned his face skywards. Snow clung to his eyebrows. He looked like a drawing that was slowly being smudged out.
“It’s beautiful, isn’ it?”
That winter wind howled.
“The cold.” Oberon seized on it at last. “It will hurt you.”
Even he, king of the summer court beyond the hills, could not take this cold forever. He was beginning to feel it whispering deep in his bones, songs of sleep and darkness. Already he had delayed too long in this place. He searched for the stars to guide him home but they, along with the city around him, were fading into nothingness.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “I’ve no one to leave behind. All o’ my dreams were abandoned a long time ago. This isn’ such a bad way to leave the stage.” He pulled his coat tighter around him. “The snow is awfully pretty.”
Oberon stared down at him. Even under all the layers of hair and clothes, the man looked very small. His face had a bluish colour to it one didn’t usually see on mortal men. Oberon knelt down next to him.
“Jerry.” The word felt heavy and unfamiliar on his tongue. “Look around you. This is madness. The very world is disappearing.”
Jerry closed his eyes, and Oberon fought the ridiculous urge to pull them back open with his own hands—hands which were beginning to feel the bite of the cold as well.
“Thomas,” the man murmured sleepily. “My mum used to tell me stories about a Thomas. Went all the way to fairy land, he did.”
Trust Oberon of the Faeries to bind himself to another madman, he thought. This is worse than that slovenly playwright. What should it matter to him if this forgotten mortal died alone, on the wayside of human consciousness? He had more important things to worry about, like making his way home to his Titania and reclaiming the shape the Wild Hunt had taken. And yet, the panic in Oberon’s chest rose higher as he watched the man slip away into dreaming.
“Return with me. My family will give you shelter until the storm passes.” He could feel the man’s shoulders stiffening beneath his grip. “You stupid humans live and die like fireflies. Your light will not go out today.” Oberon wondered if he was becoming hysterical.
The man did not respond.
The King of Faeries looked around for help. The square was silent, and the buildings around it were softening into the background like a faraway dream. Only the frozen fountain and the stone lions guarding it kept a semblance of their shape. Oberon stood and brushed the snow off the lion nearest him. It gazed back with empty eyes.
“You.” Oberon pointed regally. “Wild guardian of this mortal temple. You who offer sanctuary to the lost people of this city. Your king requires your aid.”
The snow was already reobscuring the lion’s face. Oberon pushed it away impatiently.
“Lord of the jungle of smoke and glass. My host and I must travel back to the woodland. On your feet, I command you.”
There was no answer. Oberon looked back at Jerry. The man’s eyes were still closed. He could have been sleeping.
He knelt down at his side and gently put his fingers to his throat. A pulse flickered, soft as a mouse’s footsteps. Slow. So slow.
He stood again, kicking up clouds of whirling snowflakes. He looked the lion in the eyes.
“Please. Please help him.”
It had been a lifetime since he’d used that word. It scraped his teeth as it came out. For a single heartbeat he thought he saw movement in the lion’s mane, like a play of sunlight on the ice and stone. Oberon held his breath.
He was afraid to let the breath out, afraid that in doing so he would allow the moment to pass. But the snow continued to fall, and the lion’s eyes disappeared with the rest of the world.
Oberon stared at the audacious beast. Everything seemed to be mocking him, the great king unmasked.
“We exchanged names!”
Caught in the empty nowhereland between one midwinter dream and another, Oberon watched the landscape fade away.
It was Robin Goodfellow who found him, in the strained, straggling twilight that came before sunrise. The snow had taken everything before leaving the world in crystalline stillness. Oberon sat at the fountain’s base, a frozen man in his arms.
“Well met, my lord Oberon.” Robin was wearing his fox furs again, but his cheerful face was bright. “We lost you during the night’s hunt. The Lady will be grateful to see you return unharmed.”
Oberon’s limbs were stiff. The approaching dawn had brought back the face he’d worn for centuries, as natural as if he’d never had another. He shifted the man from his arms and laid him down in the snow.
“Go softly, friend. May you find peace.”
He stood, brushing off slivers of ice and the last dregs of humanity, and took the smaller faerie’s hand.
“Let’s go home.”