In a dark wooden house with no flooring or light, Kotone melted a candle, casting frightened glances out the window at the line of villagers forming in the village square. Safflower was a small village, only seventeen families. Though villagers stopped by weekly to trade goods and services. With this influx of travelers, the villagers became worried that faeries were infiltrating their population, and trading babies and adults alike with changelings.
To weed out the faeries, the mayor devised the Iron Test, where everyone in the village would be made to hold an iron bar, and if it burnt them, they revealed as faeries, and sent to prison.
Kotone filled a saucer with the candle wax and lightly skimmed the palms of her hands into it. She grimaced from the heat, but waited patiently for the wax to dry. She hoped this thin film of protection would keep the iron from affecting her. She sighed, looking at the fishing poles mounted to her wall and the ice chest underneath. Char, trout, and one salmon lie within. If only she could sell them quickly. But she knew better: it might be suspicious if she started pushing her goods onto the villagers with a fervor so close to the Iron Test.
The villagers were approaching the line in the square sluggishly, so Kotone matched their pace, resting her hands carefully at her side, hoping not to chip the wax. Kotone’s hair was short and brown, she always wore blue pants and a blue shirt, and many of the villagers had clothes similar to hers. Only outsiders wore different colors. She could spot them right away.
“Hi Ruby.” She whispered quietly to the girl before her in line. Ruby turned quickly, her long blonde curls tumbling with the movement. She wore blue like Kotone, though she was more muscular.
“Kotone, good to see you. Do you think they’ll find any new faeries today? I think that gem merchant from Hydrangeaville seems pretty suspicious.” Kotone tensed for a moment.
“Why?” Ruby walked forward with Kotone as the Tester shouted out “Next!” Then she turned back to Kotone.
“Well, I only ever see her in her shop, from the front, you know? What if she’s hiding wings under her shirt and doesn’t want people to see her back? You’d think there’d be a bump in the back of her shirt where her wings are, right?” Kotone nodded, feeling tense.
“Yeah, I bet it’s obvious.”
“Next!” a guard pushed Ruby forward. He looked at her, a serious expression on his face, intimidating in his full armor and with the silent threat of the sword at his belt.
“Ruby, the mayor’s daughter, right? Come here miss, just cup your hands in front of you.” Ruby obeyed, looking bored. The Tester stepped forward with the iron bar and dropped it into Ruby’s hands. She clasped it, unclasped it, and the Tester took it away.
“Pass. Next!” Ruby walked out of the line.
“See you soon.” She whispered to Kotone. Kotone was a ball of nerves when the guard pushed her forward.
“You’re the fisher, right? Do you have any fresh salmon?” Kotone nodded, business mode taking over.
“Yes, I do have one available, if you want to stop by my house, I can sell it to you, only $17.95.” The guard shrugged.
“Okay, sounds great.” Then he pushed her to the Tester, an old woman with white hair and a red shawl over her shoulders. She lifted up the iron bar and Kotone slowly raised her hands and clasped it. Flakes of wax chipped at the movement, but the wind pulled them away from the scene so it wasn’t obvious. The Tester nodded.
“Next!” The guard said. Kotone left the line and released a held breath. Then she heard a familiar voice scream. She turned to see Fennel, grasping his burnt hands. He built boats down the street from her. In fact, he’d sold her the dingy she fished in.
“Faerie!” Said the guards as they converged in on him.
“Fennel!” She shouted, as if hearing her call for him would offer moral support. He turned to look at her, mouthing “sorry”. Fennel’s mother arrived, her hand over her mouth and her shoulders hunched inward, as if bracing for impact.
“A changling! You stole my baby and took its place! How could you? My poor baby!” Fennel put his arms around his mother’s shoulders, a grief-stricken look on his face.
“No, it’s not like that!” Before Fennel could go on, the guard tackled him to the ground, grabbing his arms and twisting them behind his back. Kotone kneeled next to Fennel, looking into the guard’s eyes.
“This is a mistake! I’ve known Fennel for years! He can’t be a faerie!” The guard stood up, Fennel in hand.
“Look at his hands.” He revealed Fennel’s palms, exposing the burn marks. “Clear evidence of a faerie.” He addressed Fennel then. “What did you with this woman’s child?” Fennel shook his head.
“I am her child! Humans give birth to faeries without knowing it all the time!” The crowd in line gasped.
“No, it can’t be! We’d notice they weren’t human!” The Tester said. Fennel shook his head.
“If you could tell, you wouldn’t have to do tests.” Kotone pushed the guard away from Fennel, standing between them.
“Stop, you can’t hurt him, he’s no different today than he was yesterday. Just let him go.” The Tester came forward, angry.
“Even if you ignore his words, look at his hands. Clear evidence of a faerie. Stop protecting him, all faeries want is to manipulate humans. Don’t fall for his lies.” Fennel put his hand over her arm.
“It’s okay Kotone, you don’t have to do this. I’ll go quietly.” He added the last part quietly. “I’m sorry I lied to you.” And the guards carried him off, along with the other confirmed faeries. She tried to follow but Ruby stilled her.
“Stop Kotone. You’ll only make things worse for yourself, don’t bother the guards, they’re just doing their job.” Kotone whirled around on her.
“But Ruby, It’s Fennel! We’ve worked together before, he’s never used any magic on us!” Ruby shook her head.
“We wouldn’t know if he had. I hear faeries can mind-control humans, our whole friendship with him could be fake.”
“I guess he could have just tricked us.” At least she could say that line with conviction, since he had truly tricked her. Ruby hugged Kotone tightly.
“I’m sorry about all this. But now that the Iron Test is over, let’s go get some candy at the market, that’ll cheer you up.” Kotone tried to comprehend how Ruby could feel so unfazed that a friend she’d known for years was being taken away. Ruby bought peppermint candies for both of them and tried to make small talk.
“Isn’t the weather nice? I think the spring chill is just about gone. And the Harvest Festival is in two weeks. Mom got me a nice purple dress! It’s too bad we can only change our uniforms during festivals, isn’t it. But as long as we all wear a blue hat on that day, it’s fine.” Kotone nodded numbly.
“Thanks Ruby, for hanging out with me. For always being a good friend.” Ruby paused in unwrapping her candy.
“Hey, anytime. You seem quiet, are you okay?” Kotone put on a fake smile.
“Just fine.” Kotone maintained short answers throughout the conversation until she could get home. When she was alone, she entered her home and closed the door behind her. She reached her kitchen chair a few feet away, and slumped heavily into it. Peering at the fishing poles on the wall, she figured she should get to work to get her mind off things. But just as she stood up, she heard the scraping of paper against the floor, and saw a letter had been shoved under her door. She ran over to it, wondering why they didn’t just use the mailbox. She opened the un-addressed letter, and read what was inside.
I saw the wax on your hands at the Iron Test. If you don’t want to hide forever, come with me. I’ll be waiting on Theo’s Bridge tonight when the moon is at its highest. Kotone’s hands started shaking and she dropped the letter quickly onto the kitchen table. Who could know her secret? And why did that person want to meet with her? Could it be a trap set by The Tester? Would she do such a thing? No, The Tester liked to call faeries out before the public, so they could be praised for how effective their work was.
Kotone waited in agony until the moon pierced the sky. She filled a bag with food and her belongings and slid a knife into her belt: she wasn’t sure if she’d have to fight her way out of something, but she wanted to be prepared.
She crept out of the house that night, noting that normal people were fast asleep at this hour. But she didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention, and she walked slowly until she reached Theo’s Bridge. It was a rope bridge, suspended over a long drop into jagged rocks. The bridge was fairly new, and outsiders had been admitted into Safflower via the bridge not that long ago. She stood upon it, waiting her mystery letter writer. Her heart leaped into her throat when Fennel stepped out from behind the bushes.
“Fennel?” She said, shocked. She lit a match she’d brought. From the fait glow, she saw it was indeed him, but with an iron burn across both of his hands now. “How did you escape?” She said, thoroughly confused.
“I ripped bars of the jail cell out. It wasn’t too hard, but it sure did burn.” He grimaced, remembering the pain, but then looked at her sheepishly, like he didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you before, about being a faerie.” She shook her head.
“No, I understand. All too well. Maybe another place would be safer, maybe another town wouldn’t imprison faeries.” Fennel exhaled heavily.
“I’m so glad you agree. I’m not strong enough to leave on my own. But if you came with me…but I don’t want you to give up on this place if you still feel you should be here…”
“Honestly, I’ve been waiting so many years to find another faerie who I could befriend. And you and I can be so compatible; you can make the boats and I’ll sell the fishing poles and fish. We could work together.” Fennel smiled warmly.
“That’s excellent; I always dreamed you’d say that!” They walked hand-in-hand across the bridge, seeking a new village to settle in.