"Ah Mookaleen, you have come up in the world,” the man thought to himself as he finished the last of a long dinner. “The first time I came here they wouldn’t even let Catlanders in the door and I ate scraps on the back step. How long has it been? Fifteen years? Now here I am warm and comfortable at the best table by the fire, everyone bustling about like I was somebody.” He pushed his plate away and stretched back with a contented sigh.
A serving girl quickly brought him another mug of beer.
"What else can I get for you, Captain?"
"Not a thing more, miss, thank you." he replied. The girl was smiling and pretty. She looked at him hopefully, biting the top of her bottom lip. Captain Mookaleen was well known, rich and successful, an almost mythic figure about whom stories were told of trips to far away places, monsters, dragons, cats and kings. Yet most people, if they did meet the captain of the Moonweaver, were surprised to see, not a great warrior, but a lively young man, wiry as a monkey, best suited for clambering up and down the rigging of a ship. The tips of his dark, shaggy hair were bleached bronze by the sun and his skin burnt dark by years of sailing the open seas. The girl asked again,
"Are you sure? There's berry pie. It's still hot. I could bring you a bowl with fresh cream. Or coffee perhaps?" She waited, wide-eyed and eager.
"No, miss, I'll just sit and finish this fine beer with your permission," Mookaleen replied with an easy grin. The girl looked confused for a moment. No one had ever asked her permission for anything and she wasn't sure how to reply.
"Stay as long as you like, sir," she finally managed to say. "And let me know if you want for anything."
Mookaleen sat back and watched the girl clear the table, the way her hips swayed under her skirt. He almost called her back, to talk, for a little company, but he stopped himself. The tavern was nearly empty and it was getting late, most of the regulars had already left for their homes. A cold rain beat against the windowpanes and the fire was warm. So he settled in to finish his beer before the long walk back to his ship. He had almost nodded off at the table when a freezing splash of air blew the door open.
Four soldiers, world weary and covered in the mud of hard traveling, came in. They carried in a wooden animal cage the size of a large traveler's trunk and set it in the corner, moving away from the box as quickly as they could. Mookaleen caught a glimpse of what looked like a dark tumbleweed with white arms and legs or perhaps a large chimpanzee inside the cage. When he leaned over to get a better look one of the soldiers threw a cloak over the box and scowled at him.
"Don't get curious, you know asking questions leads to trouble," Mookaleen told himself, then laughed. " As if that's ever stopped me for a heart's beat." He sat back to see what would happen next, suddenly awake and watchful. A soldier opened the door and ushered a hooded figure in, a woman, finely dressed in elegant traveling clothes that showed signs of a hard journey as well. When she removed her headscarf and shook out her hair Mookaleen felt his face flush hot because even though she was clearly exhausted the woman was painfully beautiful. Ringlets of dark hair fell down past her waist. Her skin was pale as alabaster with just a hint of pink on her cheeks from the cold. It was if one of the Fairie had entered the room. As she unclasped the buckle of her cloak the woman glanced fearfully around and Mookaleen could see that her eyes were as blue as sapphires, cold and clear. Her movements were measured, full of a slow grace, as she turned to whisper something to one of the men. The innkeeper rushed out to greet them, waving them in to a table near the fire, bowing and wringing his hands in his apron. The woman asked him a question and he immediately pointed to Mookaleen.
She crossed over to Mookaleen was sitting and asked in a voice smooth as new milk, "Are you the captain of the Moonweaver?"
"Aye, miss, that I am, called Mookaleen to my friends." He wanted to stand up to greet her but his legs felt suddenly soft and untrustworthy. So he sat back in his chair and smiled at the woman, as she looked him over carefully.
"I am Aingeal of Ballyfrey," She set a small velvet bag of coins on the table. "I'm looking for safe passage to Ravinsbeak for myself and my men. I would be willing to pay a fair sum, more than fair, to the one who takes me there. Here is a token up front and there'll be much more when we arrive."
"And that bit of cargo as well?" Mookaleen asked, nodding at the box sitting in the corner. He noticed a hint of apprehension in her eyes as she glanced over at the wooden cage and then quickly back at him. She pressed the back of her knuckles against her lips as if she was trying to compose herself and nodded,
"Yes, we haven't much else with us." Aingeal leaned into him close and whispered, "You will help me?" She put her hand on his and it was still cold from riding in winter weather.
Mookaleen felt a warmth rush over him, through his chest down to his knees. He fought the desire to take her and pull her close to him, mindful of a nagging voice at the back of his thoughts. As beautiful as the woman was, sitting close to him, he felt wary, the same feeling that he got when there were rocks or a sandbar hidden under smooth waters, tiny little ripples in the current that hinted at something hidden underneath. He picked up the moneybag and poured the contents on the table.
"It's all I have," Aingeal told him, "I wish it were more."
The gold and silver coins rolled out in front of him, glimmering in the dim light. A large bronze one spun away from the others and Mookaleen picked it up.
"This coin is used by the Fair Folk, a 'Bug and Blossoms' it is," he said with wonder as he studied the markings on the old coin. There was a crest of a butterfly on one side and a wreath of spring flowers on the other. "These are more than rare. Where did you get it?"
"I don't really remember," Aingeal replied, "but it's yours if you say you'll take me to Ravinsbeak. So are the rest if you get me there safely."
"That shouldn't be hard, miss. We'll leave in the morning tide. Can I get you a drink, something warm perhaps?" Mookaleen smiled what he hoped was a winning grin.
"That won't be necessary." The woman pulled away from him. "I should pay for your dinner."
"Wait, I'll toss you for it," Mookaleen spun the bronze coin in his hand, "'Blossoms' you pay for my supper and the 'Bug' means you let me buy a drink for you and your crew.... Or are you afraid of luck?"
"No," she shook her head, sending ripples down her long hair, "I'm not afraid." Mookaleen flipped the coin in to the air and the butterfly crest turned up in his palm. "Seems I'm buying!" he grinned and motioned to the innkeeper.
"See that everyone is taken care of, my good sir! Some of your best soup and a cup of wine for the lady here"
"I can't let you pay..."
"A bet's a bet and binding," Mookaleen told her. The food arrived and Mookaleen was content to watch her, unable to speak until the woman finished eating. She ate and drank sparingly then said,
"I must get some rest, Captain. You will excuse me, I assume the morning will be an early one?"
"Yes, miss. I'll have everything ready." Mookaleen promised, "Care for one more wager this night? How about 'Blossoms' I take you to Ravinsbeak without pay and 'Bug' you let me take a look at the contents of that box over there. You might as well say yes because I'll have a peek at it soon enough if it's going on my ship." Aingeal thought for a moment and nodded slowly with a faint smile,
"If you're not afraid of luck," she replied.
"There's many things in this world that I'm afraid of, miss," Mookaleen said, as he tossed bronze coin high into the air. "But luck isn't one of them. Ah, the butterfly. Thank you, miss, now I can satisfy my Catlander curiosity as to what's in that box." Aingeal grabbed his wrist hard as he stood up and said,
"Be careful, Captain. That thing killed three of my men."
Mookaleen waited until the room had emptied and the fire had begun to burn low before going to examine the cage. The first thing he noticed was the smell. He couldn't quite place it but the stench brought back memory flickers of the last War of Chaos, pain, blood and death. He carefully raised the cloak that was covering the box and crouched down to try and see what kind of creature was inside.
"Mother Amara, protect us all!" he swore under his breath in Catlander. It was a human form, female and a wretched one at that. Her scrawny white arms were tied tightly to the bars and an old rag was tied equally as tight around her wide mouth. The figure hung limply from her wrists, eyes closed behind a tumbleweed of greasy hair. Mookaleen carefully put his hand to her forehead to see if she was still alive. At his touch the eyes of the captive flew open, milky blue and full of hatred.
"Fear and anger are dangerous traveling companions," he thought to himself, then said softly, "Hush now, little mother, I've no wish to harm you. Hold still." Mookaleen pulled a small knife from his boot and cut the gag from the creature's mouth. As he pulled the rag away from her face he saw hers ears curved to a point and a flash of needle sharp fangs behind her cracked lips. A wave of horror throbbed through his chest as he realized that this was one of the Fair Folk, a Fairie, capable of terrible destruction and earth magic. As he reached over to cut the rope binding her hands she hissed and sunk her teeth into his arm. Mookaleen choked back a gasp of pain and whispered frantically,
"Please Fair One, they don't know! They don't know what they are doing. Please! I promise to set you free, I swear!" But the fangs only dug further into his skin. "Please, have mercy, Fair One. I can't get you out of here with only one arm. There are four of them and only one of me and I'm really not very tall." The Fairie spit out Mookaleen's arm with a snarl and the terrible pain subsided.
"How long have you been captive?" Mookaleen asked, rubbing his forearm.
"Days," she muttered. Her voice was dry and throaty, no more than a whisper.
"Hold still." Mookaleen was almost finished cutting the ropes that dug into her wrists when he felt a huge hand grab the back of his neck and yank him away from the cage.
"Careful now, she'll bite your hand clean off," a deep voice said. "So you've met the Wishgiver. Has she hurt you yet? You're not dead. That's a good sign."
Mookaleen looked up to see the largest of the soldiers, a curly haired good-natured man towering over him. "Be most careful what wishes you make. The lady told you that the Wishgiver killed three of our number. That isn't quite true."
The big man leaned down and offered his hand. "'Twas their wishes that did it. So be warned, brother." He helped Mookaleen to his feet and said,
"I'm called Arek, first man of her ladyship's bowmen."
"Captain Mookaleen of the good ship Moonweaver, at your service, sir."
"So you'll be taking us to Ravinsbeak?"
"Aye, at first tide," Mookaleen nodded.
"The sooner the better. I'm hoping to be done quick with this evil business."
"How could you let her do this terrible thing? Capture one of the Fair Folk? Are you all mad? Do you know what will happen when her people find out she's missing, that you've treated her so cruelly? What if she dies? Not a child in your family would be safe from their anger."
"Horrible, dark magic to be sure," the big man said. "But soldiers are not often given the luxury of writing their own orders. Aingeal said that we would free her after we get to Ravinsbeak. Her father is ill, is dying and she wishes to see him well again. If he dies his lands will go to her uncle, a hard man to be sure."
"I, for one, am happy to be a free man," Mookaleen poured himself a small bowl of soup from the big tureen on the soldier's table "And now what pleases me is to give a little supper to your captive. I said that I would buy a drink for all the crew and that includes the Fair One if she's to be sailing on my ship."
"I dunna if I should be letting you do that, untie her and all. " Arek's big homely face looked torn.
"She's locked up in that box tight enough, no worries there. You don't want to see her suffer do you?"
Arek shook his head and made a sign of protection, touching his thumb to his chin and chest.
"Does she really grant wishes?" Mookaleen's green Catlander eyes gleamed as a plan of mischief came to him. "I have a coin here, care to make a small wager? No one need know. Flowers side up... you get my purse, heavy with gold, butterfly...." Mookaleen twirled the old coin in his fingers. "I make a request of the Wishgiver."
"Either way you lose, brother. Her wishes are more of a curse."
"I'll take that risk," Mookaleen said as the coin spun high in the firelight. "He caught it and clapped it on the back of his hand. The ornate wings of a butterfly appeared. "Ha! It seems that my luck is still warm tonight!"
"Suit yourself, Captain," Arek replied, "Just don't be surprised if she wishes you into a stone or beetle or some such thing."
Mookaleen took the bowl over to the cage and knelt down. He finished cutting the ropes and the Fairie fell into a miserable heap. As he reached carefully in to raise her up she recoiled fearfully at his touch but was too weak to protest.
"A little soup, Fair One, if it pleases you. You must be half starved." The bowl wouldn't fit through the bars so Mookaleen cradled her head in one hand and carefully raised the spoon to her lips. A few drops slid into her mouth and she swallowed with difficulty. For over an hour Mookaleen patiently ladled drops of soup in to her wide mouth with Arek watching his every move. When the bowl was empty Mookaleen lay the Fairie down and asked,
"Will you allow me to tend to your wounds, Fair One?" A large amount dried blood darkened her clothing and a large gash festered red on her ankle. Mookaleen hoped that she didn't have gangrene.
"Make your wish and let me die," the Fairie replied.
"Ah, that." Mookaleen stood up. "Arek, my friend, I would like a bit of privacy to make my wish. It's a little personal." Mookaleen looked up at the bowman with a sheepish grin. Arek stared at him blankly for a moment and then laughed,
"Little... personal...ha! Go ahead, brother, I'll leave you in peace. May your wish make yourself and many women happy." He went off chuckling good-naturedly.
Mookaleen waited until the big man had left the room and then pulled a set of odd-looking wires from his pocket. "I'm known as Mookaleen the thief in my village and not without good cause." He started picking at the big padlock that locked the cage.
"So your wish is to be taller?" asked the Fairie with distain. With some effort she pulled herself up on one elbow and watched as Mookaleen poked at the lock.
"Neah, little mother. I'm happy with who I am, no complaints there. My wish is for something else."
"The woman? I could get her for you. She is fine to look at, no?"
"She's easy enough on the eyes, but beauty is in deeds, not a fair face. And... " A thought slid into Mookaleen's head as he struggled with the lock. "Why did she not merely ask for her father's health and be done with you? Why risk the long trip back to Ravinsbeak? She used her wish for beauty, did she not?"
"You're clever for a human. I offered her my own beauty after they captured me and she took it without a blink, not that it'll bring her a day of happiness. And her wish was no loss for me. 'Twas bad enough to be made to give wishes for those mortals without having their filthy human hands on me," she said with the anger that comes from grief. "At least in that way they left me alone."
"I'm sorry, Fair One." Mookaleen paused from his work and looked at her with sadness.
"Do you find me fair, mortal?" The Fairie pulled her pinched face up close to the bars with some effort and glared at him with pale blue eyes. Mookaleen felt like she was testing him, reading his soul and struggled to pick the right words.
"You're a living thing and that in itself is beauty."
She looked down at her shriveled hands and ran two claw-like fingers across her sallow cheeks. Her lips pulled back into a snarl,
"If I were free, you would find me so beautiful that you would weep at my feet!"
"Then that is my wish, to see that day. And I will find you most beautiful if you find it in your heart to forgive us poor mortals for the way that we have wronged you." Mookaleen tried another piece of wire and pressed carefully at the inner mechanism. He held his breath as it opened with a click.
"Are you not going to make me swear?" she asked with wonder at his request.
"Then you wouldn't be really free, would you, Fair One?" With that Mookaleen opened the cage, reached down and hoisted her over his shoulder. Then silent as the strays that run along the rooftops of Catsport, he carried her into the night.