“It’s, uh… smaller than I was expecting.”
The warden bristled at your comment, fixing you with a cold stare. “And pray tell, what were you expecting? Gleaming marble columns? A fanfare of golden trumpets?”
Your stomach twisted awkwardly. “I… well…” You gabbled, desperately trying to voice your concern without being rude – not that you knew what counted as rude among these people. “When you said ‘parlour of the Fae Queen’, I… can’t say that the first thing that came to mind was a… shed.”
You tried to say “house”, but the word stuck in your throat; it seemed entirely too generous to apply to the barely-standing collection of rocks and sticks which stood before you. The peak of the leaf mulch which formed the roof was only as tall as you were, you would have to bend almost double just to fit through the doorway. The structure was barely wide enough for two people to fit inside, perhaps three were they prepared to get comfortable.
The warden scoffed, rolling his thick, muscular neck. “Our Lady has gone to no small effort to create an environment which your feeble mortal mind may comprehend, at least to a degree,” he said, coolly. His face seemed permanently fixed in a scowl; you wondered if it was how he always looked, or if he really disapproved of your presence that much. “I would have hoped you would be a touch more appreciative of her courtesy.”
Your stomach seemed ever more determined to twist itself into a knot which you were unsure even fae magic could undo. “O-of course, of course,” you stammered, nodding perhaps too vigorously, or too many times. “I’m… very grateful for the Lady’s, erm… hospitality.”
“Hmph,” grunted the warden. Even his noises of frustration had a slight majesty to them, like a mighty boulder settling a little deeper into a mountain alcove. “Now, I believe this is your first time entering the domain of one of the Fair Folk.” It was not a question, and he did not wait for a response. “I have little hope you will ever fully comprehend our customs, but… for now, be silent unless you are prompted to speak, and in the presence of Our Lady, never break eye contact. Her Highness suffers discourtesy… poorly.”
Though his supercilious tone rankled against your pride, the warden’s heavy, well-chosen pause added enough links to the chain steadily being made out of your intestines to make you bite back the comment rising in response. You opened your mouth to affirm his instructions, but before you could form a syllable, one of the warden’s bushy eyebrows rose as he fixed you with that stony glare again. You elected to close your mouth, instead nodding to show that you understood.
“Good,” he rumbled, though his relentlessly dour tone gave no hint of satisfaction. “At least you seem to be able to follow basic instructions. Now, if multiple instructions are not too much for you, you will follow me. And closely; I have little interest in going looking for you should you get lost.”
He did not wait for any hint of understanding; without further comment or ceremony, he turned sharply on his heels and ducked into the dark opening to the shed, quickly vanishing into the shadows. You weren’t certain how exactly one could get lost inside a tiny shed, but you bent over and followed him in nonetheless.
Instead of being greeted with your face in the warden’s back, though, you abruptly realised you had stepped onto what appeared to be a bough of a titanic tree, the branch beneath your feet almost as wide across as you were tall. Bewildered, you spun around, trying to find some trace of the shed you had supposedly just entered, nearly losing your balance and toppling into… somewhere you didn’t particularly want to discover. The warden, meanwhile, seemed utterly unperturbed by the sudden change of scenery, not even bothering to give you a backwards glance before hopping onto an adjacent branch with surprising agility for his hulking frame. Remembering your instructions, you followed as quickly as you could, though your movements were considerably less smooth and graceful, your mind more occupied with thoughts like “don’t look down” and “what the hell is going on”, rather than “I must look my best”.
The warden pushed his way through an intervening clump of foliage and, with you in tow, stepped out from behind a boulder onto the edge of a mountain. A sheer drop of hundreds of metres loomed ahead of you, your relentlessly blasé guide practically tiptoeing on the edge of the cliff before rounding another crag teetering on the lip. Without any rhyme, reason or fanfare, the scene abruptly changed again, this time to a set of conveniently-placed stones spanning white foaming rapids. Then another mountainside, this one bedaubed in bright orange from a brilliant sunset. Then back to the tree bough. Your poor brain desperately tried to make sense of the sudden and random changes in scenery, attempting to reconcile the sights and sensations with the fact that you were, somehow, still in a tiny shack in the middle of the woods. You just decided to focus on the warden’s broad back for now. Trying to pay attention to anything else just made your head hurt.
After what seemed like both an eternity and barely a few seconds, the warden came to such a sudden stop that were you not paying such close attention to his movements, you would have collided with him. “My Lady,” you heard him say in a rumbling, obsequious tone, “I have brought the human, as you have ordered.”
“Very good, Vuori,” a melodic voice responded. “Stand aside, that I might inspect them.”
The instant before the warden moved, you remembered his earlier warning; the moment you could see them, you locked your eyes on the ones facing you. They were a bright, brilliant green, two perfect rings of vibrant colour set like jewels within a bronze face. The proportions were... not quite right, her chin too long, her forehead too narrow, her nose too pointed to ever be considered human, but she was still… beautiful, in a strange way. And the longer you stared, the more those features began to warp, twisting into subtly different shapes and forms, as if you were viewing her through some bizarre kaleidoscope. But the one thing that never changed was her eyes. They remained unblinking, unmoving, staring back at you.
“Greetings, mortal.” She spoke with an alto which, though elegantly reserved, reverberated from every direction as though you were standing at the centre of some vast echo chamber. “I bid you welcome to my parlour.”
You felt the instinct to speak rising, but before it reached your lips, it dissipated. Your silence was only half-deliberate; you had to muster a great deal of focus to keep your eyes fixed on hers. The way her facial structure kept shifting and changing was incredibly distracting. Your eyes longed to wander and track the movement, to follow the curling, twisting, turning contours of her face, but you kept your focus. You didn’t dare violate that sacred bond of hospitality.
Her head moved cohesively up and down – you realised she was nodding approvingly, though her eyes still seemed to remain fixed perfectly in place. “I see Vuori has told you something of our customs, I appreciate your courtesy. I hope he was as courteous to you as you are so kindly being to me?”
“Y-yes, of course, my Lady,” you stammered out in reply. You desperately tried to match her perfectly articulated diction, but instead of coming out like an elegant reply, a slightly pompous squawk emerged. “Most kind and pleasant.”
The Lady’s face contorted, her forehead folding in on itself for a moment before it became smooth again. “I have little patience for lies,” she hummed. Her tone still seemed perfectly calm and genteel, yet there was the merest whisper of steel in it which ran a thin blade down your spine. “I would encourage you to answer me honestly. Was Vuori courteous to you?”
Abruptly, you became aware of your heart hammering hard in your chest. It was as though someone had just seized your ribs and was doing their damndest to crush them. You desperately wanted to bow your head in contrition, but you forced yourself to keep her resolute, unblinking gaze. “I… I’m sorry, my Lady. He… he was a little… patronising, to be entirely honest.”
A smile spread across the Lady’s thin lips, and the pressure in your chest suddenly vanished. Your heart rate slowed, the urge to bow vanished. It was all you could do not to gasp in relief. “There, that feels much better, does it not?” Those emerald eyes twinkled – did she know what you had just felt? “I must apologise for my door-warden’s behaviour. Mountain dryads make excellent warriors and wardens, but poor courtiers. I’m afraid their grasp of tact and gentility is… sometimes lacking.”
“W-well, he’s certainly very good at – ” Your voice suddenly stopped. Your lungs still pumped air, your mouth still moved, but no matter how hard you tried to speak, no sound came out. Those eyes gleamed at you, the face swirling. The movements were so disorienting that it almost looked like the air around her was beginning to distort as well, bending your peripheral vision, doing its best to tie your brain into knots. Too late, far too late, you realised your error. You slammed your mouth shut, making absolutely certain that your gaze was not wandering from those twin green rings which faced you.
“Alas, it seems you have some things to learn in matters of courtesy,” she sighed. The note of faint disappointment cut far deeper than you were expecting; even the slight hint of failure made your chest ache. “No need to feel so afraid,” she commented, as if she knew exactly how uncomfortable you were. “It is a shame you feel so bound by courtesy; I find it quite comforting. A simple, easy set of rules for me to administer and you to obey as long as you are in my parlour. However,” she continued, smiling slightly, “you have only been here for a few moments. I will not punish you for such a brief lapse yet.”
Had it only been a few moments? You realised you were quickly losing track of time – how long had you been standing here, watching her eyes, trying to draw your attention away from the world distorting around her? You had been walking with the warden for a while, but how long was that? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Surely not?
“I’m curious,” said the Lady, that smooth, melodious quality returning to her voice. “What do you think of my parlour?”
“W-what… what do I think?” You barely even realised your voice was back. Your head was pounding. The entire scene was twisting around you, making it so hard to focus on the two pools of green staring at you from the centre of it all. “It’s, erm… it’s… very nice,” you forced out.
“Very nice? Are you certain?” asked the Lady. There was no hint of reproach, more of… amusement?
You just barely caught it out of the corner of your eye – something enormous, moving utterly silently. Finally, your resolve failed you and you broke the bond of eye contact, whirling to look at the sudden, swift movement. But the more you turned, the more the world turned with you. The background became a smear of colours, scenes and faces blurring together, twisting over each other. You blinked, attempting to steady yourself in the kaleidoscope of images. The shack careened past you, washed along by raging rapids. The warden’s face frowned out of the cliff face looming before you. You stumbled. You couldn’t even tell why – was it a tree bough knocking you to your knees, or your own mind too overstimulated to make sense of the cavalcade of images? It was too much. Too much to process. Too much to –
“Look at me.”
Two pools of green, blazing through the chaos. It was as though the entire universe was bending around those eyes, the only two fixed things in a world of madness. Everything funnelled your attention onto her eyes, a spiral of myriad colour, a smear of jumbled images, all swirling inwards towards her. Maybe all of this was an illusion, none of it real except her eyes. Maybe all of it was real. You couldn’t know. Your brain felt so taxed, ready to come apart at the seams, the eyes the only thing keeping you sane.
And suddenly the images stopped. You saw nothing. Nothing except the eyes. You stared deep into them, and they stared deep into you. The world was gone. No, not gone. The eyes were the world now. The eyes were the only things that mattered. The eyes were the only things that existed. You were bound to them. Bound to the eyes. You had tried to look away, but all you found was madness. The eyes kept you sane. The eyes kept you safe. The eyes kept you bound to them. The eyes were everything. You needed to keep staring. You needed to keep staring. The eyes had saved you. It was the only courteous thing to do.
So you kept on staring.