The nature of debt is a challenging one. A single debt, a single relationship, is easy. It can be simply seen where one party stands in relation to the other. Add more debts and that relationship grows more complex; each party can easily owe an obligation to the other. Add more parties and the context becomes more ambiguous; a debt owed to one can preclude payment to another. Consider that each party can fill multiple roles, that obligation can be owed to a group as well as an individual, and that not all parties may be aware of the debts involved, and the system grows even more complex.
Small wonder, then, that it requires an immortal lifetime to learn to navigate the game.
Some would question whether I am a player. They point to my appearance, to my behavior. “Look,” they say, “he rejects the politics of the Courts, he rejects the finery of the Sidhe. This must indicate that he is not subject to their rules.”
These people have failed to grasp the nature of the game. Refusing to play is a perfectly legal move.
I slouched along the dusty valley, the sun warm on my back. It was a pleasant day today, though I wasn’t paying it a great deal of attention. My thoughts were on distinctly unpleasant matters.
I smelled them before I saw them, scents of sweat and steel and leather and just a hint of rust and blood. It was an odor I was well-acquainted with.
I heard them next, sounds of tired laughter and jingling harness and slow, plodding hooves. It was a sound I’d heard more times than I could remember.
Vision came third, and was slow and unimportant by comparison. Some habits do not change.
The Son of Wolves, they call me. Most, who haven’t heard or don’t remember the legend, think this is a meaningless title, one chosen for the sound and connotation of it. Others, who do know the story, think that I must surely be a successor to the title.
Those people, at least, have some reason to think as they do. There are not so many left from that time that the existence of another is something to take lightly. Only the third generation of the fae, born at the will of the first when the world was young; that is a thing, in this age, which few would claim. It seems an impossible claim, one so utterly implausible that it could be dismissed out of hand.
It makes it easy to hide the truth, when no one would think to look for it.
These men know nothing of that, though. Of all the stories of the fae, they know only the haziest outlines, old tales told by campfire for so long that they were little more than a vague echo of what they once were. They do not know my title, let alone my history.
They know only what they see, and I know what they see. My appearance is a matter of choice, as it is for all the elder fae, the Sidhe and the Tylwyth Teg and all the álfar. The masks we show the world are more a matter of preference than any sort of necessity.
Most prefer beauty, delicacy, artistry. I choose a more…direct approach, with blunt features and crude clothing that makes no pretense of beauty. In its own way, this is as much a statement of power as any artistry I could display. Taken in conjunction with my position, it’s a way of saying that I can afford not to care what the Courts think of me.
There aren’t many who would say that. But then, who exists to punish me for my impudence any longer? The first generation is dead or gone now. The second, those of them who still exist, are mostly withdrawn into worlds of their own making. The third…even if they wished to oppose me, they could not. I’m older than most of them, and I was trained by Math when the world was young. Next to that, there are few powers on this earth that can matter.
To these men, I was none of that. I was merely a creature of the fae, since while my features were blunt and ugly, they were still those which the various Courts had chosen for themselves. And I was in their way.
Their leader made an effort to be polite. “Get out of the road,” he said to me, his voice husky. They’d been a day on the road now, with little water.
I regarded him calmly, with a slight smile. “They’re close behind you,” I said.
“All the more reason for us to not stop,” he said.
“It won’t be enough,” I said, with perfect confidence. “Their horses are fresh, and yours are not. It seems the hunt is nearly at its end.”
He saw that I wasn’t moving, and pulled his horse up short. The animal stopped, grateful for any excuse to rest. The man riding her glared at me, and in those dark eyes I saw a glimmer of the fire that had brought him to my attention. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and deadly serious. “If you think that I’m going to lay down and die, you’re sadly mistaken.”
“What if you didn’t have to?” I asked. “What if that wasn’t the only choice available to you here?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I could make you more than you are,” I said. “You would be like wild beasts, far stronger and faster than you are now. The three of you would be enough to defeat all of those chasing you.”
The others perked up visibly at those words, nudging each other and muttering. Their leader, though, did not look away from me. “At what cost?” he said. “I know your kind. You don’t do anything for free.”
“Nothing in this world is truly free, child,” I said. “But the cost for this is…relatively mild. All I would ask is that you answer a single question for me.”
Those men were not the first, the eldest, the source. This was before the change became tied to the moon’s cycle, before it became an infection. But they were one of the seeds from which it grew, and in that sense, it would be fair to describe them as the start of something.
I have heard it said that diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way. There are worse ways to summarize it.
To say that the creature in front of me was in poor condition, that it was diseased, would be an understatement. Warped and twisted, each part of his body following its own plan without consideration for the rest, he looked very much broken. Parts of his body had turned themselves inside out, bones broken and fused back together in ways that didn’t have much concern for coherence, skin in some places and a furred hide in others…at a glance, he might well look like some nightmarish fraud more than a living being.
But his eyes, one brown and one yellow, were open. They were aware. And the look they gave me was an intelligent one.
“Oh, you are a mess, aren’t you,” I said, sitting down next to him and resting one hand gently on his head. He flinched away at my touch, but relaxed again a moment later.
It was an interesting experience, looking at him and knowing that I was in part responsible for his suffering. I hadn’t set out to cause it, hadn’t particularly wanted to inflict pain on him, but…I was responsible. I had made choices, knowing that this would be a consequence of those choices.
In the end, I thought, it would be for the best, for him and a great many others. In the end.
Transitions could be difficult.