Chapter 9 – The Nature of Men
Ivan led them through the thick undergrowth with a confidence that Matthew desperately clung onto in his partially blind state. On more than one occasion he'd been forced to grasp the King's gloved hand with both of his own in order to prevent a particularly nasty fall. But at no time had Ivan wavered in his determination and he had held fast whenever Matthew had needed it the most.
Despite the continued animosity being directed towards him by the sullen King and the awareness that he still might be a lamb being led to its slaughter, Matthew couldn't help but feel just a little bit… grateful.
True to his word, the King had done his best to find him food and water during their short breaks in the last few days of non-stop hiking through the forest. Matthew had not slept for two nights now and was well beyond the point of feeling the wear on his 'delicate human' system as Ivan would have put it. The King didn't seem to require food or sleep, or if he did, he gave a good show of hiding it.
The journey so far had mostly been spent in silence, their short talks usually only leading to some form of bickering or another. And they were both growing weary of fighting, instead preferring to spend their energy on reaching the border as quickly as possible.
But the silence had inevitably led to thoughts of home, something Matthew tried hard not to think about when he could help it. So, he attempted once more to initiate some form of amiable conversation, to distract himself if nothing else, and hopefully make their journey go by quicker.
"This is the Summer Kingdom and back where I arrived here, we were in the Winter Kingdom, right? And now we're heading towards the Fall Kingdom?"
"Yes," Ivan said shortly and without any signs of patience or inclination to answer his questions.
"Then would it be safe to assume that there is a Spring Kingdom?" Matthew asked, taking advantage of his sudden and developing interest in the new world that he was finally beginning to feel a bit more secure in.
"There is," Ivan admitted, albeit reluctantly, before adding. "Although, you will be sure to never see it."
"Why not?" Matthew couldn't help the expression of annoyance that knotted his brow. It wasn't that he had WANTED to see it, but somehow being told that he couldn't, only managed to irritate him.
"Because… we are travelling directly to my land and therefore we will not pass through the Queen's Country. And as I have promised, I will send you home directly. Unless… that is, you have changed your mind and wish to remain?" The barely veiled threat in King's tone wasn't very well hidden at all. Ivan even turned to look back in Matthew's direction, making sure that his words weren't being misunderstood in any way.
Even through the cloudy haze Matthew could make out those shining eyes growing brighter and more dangerous by the second. "N-no, I swear. I want to go home more than anything. Really, the first chance I can get!" Thinking that this sounded a bit rude and went against his efforts to try and make some type of polite conversation, he quickly added. "Not that your world isn't nice, it's just not… really meant for me."
"No, it isn't!" Ivan agreed with a tone that demanded no argument.
Matthew bit his lip absently and wondered if he should just give up now while he could and remain silent for the rest of the trip. But his stubborn side wouldn't allow it, he hated the thought that he'd managed to take a few steps back instead of the forward momentum he'd originally been aiming for.
"How does your royalty work? You mentioned a Seeley court, is that how you decide who will be a King or Queen?"
Ivan grunted loudly in annoyance, losing what little patience he had for the conversation to begin with.
"What does it matter? Why do you care?" Ivan all but snapped out in contempt.
"I was… I was just curious." Matthew looked to the ground in dejection, narrowly avoiding a fall against another hidden tree root. With words barely louder than a whisper, he added with a good deal of regret in his voice. "I'm sorry… I didn't mean anything by it."
Matthew more than expected that to be the end of their conversion, but his somber tone had somehow invoked some kind of rare sympathy from the King. The large man's shoulders dropped and he gave a small sigh of defeat. His grip tightened momentarily and when the King finally spoke it was with an unusually consolatory tone.
"The humans I have met in the past were not 'just' curious, but had long grown addicted to the power we Fae hold in our being. If I am cautious to trust you, it is because I have learnt that hard lesson well from the past. I do not see how you learning any more about my world will do anything but possibly entice you to remain in it."
Despite the King's intended placation, Matthew titled his chin up defiantly. "We're not all the same you know! And I'm not just saying this from ignorance anymore either. I'm starting to figure out exactly what it means to make contact with your kind and I won't lie, the experience is like nothing else I've ever felt before, but I still want to go home. I do have restraint and I'm not a mindless animal, no matter how many times you keep thinking that I am!"
To his surprise the King didn't deny it and instead nodded his head slowly in resignation. "I will admit…you are a strange human, even if you still do not fully understand your abilities in this world. But you have only your own well being to think of; I have that of every man, woman and child that resides in my borders and even of those that do not."
"I know that!" Matthew ground out, losing his own form of patience. "I've realized that much at least. I know that I make your people act weird and you've said that I can as good as destroy a man without trying. But why would you think that I'd want that? I don't want to see anyone die and I did everything in my power to keep Francis away from me. I don't want this, I didn't ask for any of this!" Matthew's voice was quickly becoming choked; he was letting his emotions get the best of him, the fatigue from their journey slowly creeping in despite his best efforts. Ivan must have seen this for his own stern voice calmed considerably and he reached over with his one free hand and placed it steadily on Matthew's shoulder in a surprising effort to ground him.
"You have to understand, I have seen with my own eyes what a weaker human from your land can do. Without any effort at all she easily corrupted the Fall King, one of the greatest Fae of our times. She single handily caused war, death and destruction wherever she went in a land that was meant only for immortals."
"H-how… how did they stop her?" Matthew's eyes were impossibly wide as he swallowed thickly at the intensity and severity of Ivan's words. He tried to ignore the strong grip on his shoulder, feeling for not the first time the awareness of a great power that he'd only just tasted before. A small part of his mind screamed at him to reach up and take what was so perilously easy for him to have, but the temptation was relatively small compared to the ever present fear of what would happen if he did give in to his baser urges.
"I was forced to challenge the Fall King's invasion of the other lands and to deliver his killing blow myself. It was not a task that I had ever wished for by any means. And I would have killed her too, if I could have." His eyes grew brighter and angrier the more he spoke of the events from the past. "I tried… but in the end it was her own human folly that was her eventual downfall. She was desperate for more power and fled into the woods seeking a way into the Summer Kingdom. The creatures there devoured her along with her thirst for power."
"D-devoured." Matthew whispered back, utterly crestfallen and once again frightened by his surroundings.
Ivan squeezed his shoulder, forcing Matthew's eyes to look back up at the large King. "As much as I wish it were otherwise, I do not understand everything about the connection between our two worlds. We crave your mortality, something we are devoid of in the same way that you crave our magic, something you have none of. The mixing of our two worlds has never ended well before, one of the many reasons we sealed off the border after the Fall King's death. And it had served us well… until you came through it."
"Me…" Matthew let go of Ivan's hand and clenched his fists tightly to his sides. Ivan had right about one thing; it had been Matthew who had come here in the first place and not the other way around. As much as Matthew had not asked to come here, they had not asked for him to come either.
"There is something very peculiar about you… something that differs you from your kin." Ivan's expression grew thoughtful as he contemplated the many ideas that he had formulated over the years about the once small boy that had effortlessly crossed the barriers he himself had created. Ivan brought up his hand to gently stroke Matthew's cheek, brushing back a stray lock of wavy blonde hair. "And I would be very happy, if I never learned just what that was."
Their proximity was suddenly closer than it should have been, closer than the King had originally intended. His face softening as he regarded Matthew's confused one below him with an increasing look of longing.
"You claim you are not like her, that you have control, but I still wonder. Would you still deny your nature if you fully understood what was being offered?" The King's voice began to trail off and an aura of soft blue spread over the King, seeping out from his body in a way that teased and brushed against Matthew's senses like waves on a beach, leaving him almost utterly incapable of pulling away, even if he had wanted to.
There was a hunger building in his belly, the same one that had cried out at him when he'd pushed the King away the last time and it was now demanding retribution; silently urging Matthew to just reach up and take what was rightfully his. To steal that which belonged to him!
For those few short moments that seemed to last for ages, Matthew's vision was no longer blurred as the powerful magic lapped against his body, testing the limits of his abilities to think clearly. But as Matthew gazed up into Ivan's eyes, shining brighter than ever and losing focus by the second, he was somehow able to steel himself and slowly push the man back a few steps. It was not a violent reaction, but it may as well have been by the way it caused both men to respond.
Matthew was now angry in a way he had not previously thought possible. He was angry at the King for trying to force him into a situation that only attempted to prove the Fae's point-of-view and he was angry at himself for not taking what his body had never known it craved so badly until this week alone.
The action surprised Ivan more than it had Matthew and the King's scowl returned as soon as realization and sense returned to him. Ivan was visibly furious at himself for the momentary loss of control and he at once took claim of Matthew's hand again in as an impersonal way as he could before roughly dragging him off through the forest.
Matthew followed along without protest, silently shuddering to himself in order to calm the jitters that were now racking his deprived body
By the time they stopped midday for a rest, Matthew was close to falling asleep on his feet. The endless walking, the lack of sleep and the combination of everything else was more than taking its toll on the young man. Matthew happily fell to his knees at the bank of the small river and splashed some of its cool water on his face and hair, only too happy to wipe away any traces of sweat and dirt.
Ivan wasn't far off, digging in the ground for some edible roots he'd found and ignoring Matthew more than ever if he could help it. Matthew noted with some interest that the King actually took a few bites for himself this time before looking for some more.
Matthew stared down at his reflection in the water, dirt stained features that shadowed surprisingly bright blue eyes. He stared into them as if he were looking at a second person, an act which brought Matthew back to thinking about the strange dreams he'd been having recently.
The details were murky at best and he could just barely remember talking to a strange man… no it was a spirit, a forest spirit. And there had been a little boy… with bright blue eyes like his own.
"It was ME!" Matthew suddenly cried out, unintentionally jerking back on to his rear. The King spun around entirely surprised by the outburst, his eyes darting about to look for some cause for the cry and when he found none, they narrowed into annoyed slits.
"What was you?" he asked without amusement.
Matthew's cheeks turned red from embarrassment, it all sounded so ridiculous when he said it out loud. "The little boy… in my dream. It was me."
The King sniffed lightly, his chin tilting up to avoid the shorter man's gaze. "Is it odd to dream about one's self? Is this somehow cause for concern?"
"Well no," Matthew admitted. "I mean, of course it's not. But I have never dreamt about being a little boy before. I looked so young and the forest spirit had said that I had been through a lot, it didn't make any sense. But you know how dreams are…" Matthew's voice trailed off uncertainly as he muddled the mixed images and stray words together in his mind.
If possible the King looked even more annoyed, pointedly looking back down at the food he was presenting to Matthew in offering. "No, I do not know how dreams are. Only mortals have the ability to escape reality in such a way."
Mathew bit back the exclamation of surprise and realized at once that he'd never seen the King sleep, or even take a small nap. "So your people don't need to sleep at all then?" It would explain a lot, Matthew thought to himself.
"Of course we sleep, when we need to. We just do not possess the ability to dream. And from what you describe, it sounds unpleasant and so I see no reason for the ability to be so coveted."
Matthew cracked a wry smile despite their current situation; remembering some rather enjoyable dreams he'd had in the past and maybe feeling the need to rub in that he was able to do something the King could not. "Dreams are normally pretty nice actually. I think dreams can be very pleasant if they want to be. There are many nights I would have gladly stayed asleep if Arthur hadn't kicked me out of bed. So your kind covets dreams, do they?" Matthew couldn't help but inquire further, but shortly regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.
Ivan gave him an odd look, uncomfortable as always when discussing 'human' matters. "Your ability to dream is just another sign of your mortality. Your mortal soul is what causes us Fae to desire to possess you so entirely. We forever crave that which we ourselves inherently do not have." Matthew turned somber at the King's words. "I have lived for thousands of years without a single dream and in that time I've seen many a Fae driven mad that had been granted the ability, no thanks to humans such as yourself. So no matter how 'pleasant' it may be, I'd thank you to keep them to yourself."
There was a tenseness to the King's posture and Matthew further regretted bringing up the subject in the first place even as he tentatively tried to fix the damage his words had inadvertently caused. "I'm sorry your majesty… uh… King Ivan" Matthew wasn't quite certain how to address him. It struck him odd that up until now he'd never bothered to address the large Fae before him. Their conversations had not lent themselves to such pleasantries before now. "I honestly don't mean to continually cause you more stress; you've made it very clear what a precarious situation this is for both of us. I don't understand this part of me that makes you all want to hurt me so badly. And believe me, if I could turn it off I would. I only brought up the dream in the first place because the Forest Spirit had said some things that seemed to be some kind of warning and I just wished I could remember what they were, because I think it's connected to what's going on right now. I just don't know how."
"It doesn't matter what your 'Forest Spirit' told you, you can wait until you are home to ask him. I doubt he would be able to help you in our world anyways." Ivan said this with a good amount of finality which Matthew promptly ignored. There was something odd about the King's comment and although Matthew wanted to let it go like the King was asking him to, he sudden felt the need to press the matter more than ever.
Guilt and doubt were starting to eat its way through Matthew's consciousness. While at first he'd been sure that his fragmented dreams were about as real as any others he'd had in the past, now he wasn't quite so sure. It was the last one in particular that had put him so much on edge, its similarities to what was happening in the real world maybe just a little too much of a coincidence. He was more than hesitant to bring it up with Ivan, especially as it appeared the King had enough to worry about. But mostly it was because he couldn't remember everything about the dreams. And really, what reason did the King have to believe him about anything?
Matthew could just sort of recall the image of a beautiful young man and flashes of places he'd been, both in Newfoundland as well as in Tir Na Nog. But their conversations were mostly a blur and for the most part he'd not given too much thought to the dreams once he'd woken up; until now that was.
"But you said that I was in a trance before, and I remember the Spirit saying he'd be able to help me get out of here and that his forest wasn't going to hurt me."
The King looked down at Matthew with a critical eye, his expression no longer accusatory and now betraying some signs of worry around the edges.
"We don't have any such thing as 'Forest Spirits'," the King told him cautiously. "A spirit or soul, those are mortal ideas, not something we have in the realm of Faerie. The Forest has no spirit, only the Sidhe who rule over it and has a deeper connection to the land than a normal Fae."
Matthew now felt even worse about bringing up the subject than when he'd first started. He guiltily cast his useless eyes downwards in an effort to make himself look smaller. "It was just a silly dream… I shouldn't have taken it so seriously."
But whatever intelligence Ivan had gathered from Matthew's description of the dream, it had been enough worry the King greatly. "This spirit, what did he look like? Did he give himself a name?"
Scrunching his brow together in deep thought, Matthew tried to take the King seriously and remember what he could about the slight man he'd met only a few brief times in his mind. "He had soft brown hair and large auburn eyes, but they didn't shine like yours do, they looked more like mine. His name… it was…" And there he drew a blank.
"Veneziano? Was it Veneziano?" The King had stopped pretending the matter was trivial and was now pressing Matthew on with all the intensity he could. But Matthew only shook his head in the negative; the name didn't ring a bell at all. The King at once appeared measurably relieved and with a great sigh he heaved Matthew up to his feet again from where he sat near the river's edge, ready to start their journey anew.
But Matthew made no motion to move forward, there was something about the name that had triggered a memory after all. "…ziano… ziano…" he mumbled out loud and then just as much as it evaded him, it was all of a sudden clear to him. "FELICiano!" he declared happily, his smile short lived and fading as soon as Ivan's grip tightened painfully on his hand. Those beautiful and dangerous eyes flickered anxiously ever so slightly before hardening with a new resolve.
"Then we are too late… he's already found you…"
My notes have gotten lazier. I'm never sure what to add. I like all the guesses you make in your reviews. It makes me happy to think you are trying to work out the story. For the most part I haven't given enough to give it away, but a few of you have sharp eyes…