When the Queen of Faerie orders you to do something, you don’t refuse. The lands are filled with the remnants of her commands, for sometimes – make me a boat of dead men’s nails – her creatures die from exhaustion or accident before their duty is done.
We have a lot of ruins here.
Her voice comes to me over the water, ringing like bronze against a stone. You don’t refuse that voice. You strive to fulfil its demands no matter how arbitrary and cruel. This is Faerie, after all, and all of us inhabitants live to serve her. Even if we chafe at our bonds within the secret gullies of our hearts.
Hands-of-Clay, build me a palace of despair. Build it with your own hands, she says.
So I begin to build. I quarry the land in a desolate location; we have plenty of war-ravaged land to sculpt. I carry an endless stream of stones in my amorphous hands through featureless plains, creating the foundation for the palace on this scarred hilltop that reverberates with sorrow. Despair is born of sorrow combined with hopelessness, after all. I have not felt the buzz of hope in my chest for centuries beyond count, and my hopelessness clangs against the sorrow susurrating deep in the hill.
I change to suit my tasks. I am many-armed when I need to carry boulders. My feet meld into the earth when I need stability, although of course, the earth of Faerie is itself an inconstant thing. Not like the earth I remember from the days of my youth, before they stole me here and made me inhuman, made me malleable as wet clay. I don’t remember who I used to be. These days I remember little about the mortal world apart from the smell of the awakening soil in the first days of spring. My mortal-name is lost to me. With it, I might remember enough to find one of the secret paths: names act as anchors, can pull a person back to the sunlit lands.
I breathe in the air of Faerie, its cloying-sweet vapours. I am Hands-of-Clay now. Nothing more.
* * *
Stone by stone, turret by turret the palace of despair grows. No emotion can be pure in Faerie, not if you’ve stayed there long enough, but despair is purer than joy, so my task is not insurmountable. The palace grows grey and gloomy, its towers reaching into the haze of the sky.
I’m proud of my palace when I finish it after countless moments of toil. Months, years? Who knows how quickly time passes here. It is not a relevant concept in a world without a moon.
For a final moment, I allow myself to gaze on my creation. It is glorious in its despair. Something stirs within me, memories fluttering from a long-trammelled chamber in my mind. I have seen a palace like this before. I have seen such turrets rising from the earth.
The mortal-name rushes to my mind, sudden as a sea-squall. Castell Conwy. Yes, Conwy by the sea. I close my eyes. I see the castle with its tall towers, flags torn by the wind. I can almost feel the salt spray on my lips.
I did not know I had such mortal memories locked up inside. If I have remembered this much, perhaps it is not impossible to remember enough to find a pathway out. Hope trembles within me, dangerous and raw. A word surfaces: gobaith. Hope, in the tongue I had thought I’d forgotten, the tongue of my mortal people.
The reawakened memories have made my thoughts leap and bound like hares. I root my toes into the hill, ground myself. Soon there will be time to explore those thoughts.
But first, I open my eyes and call for the Queen.
Who disturbs my revelry?
“It is I, humblest of your servants. I have built a palace of despair for you, my Queen. With my own hands and the sweat of my labours, I have raised it to the skies.”
She is here in the space of a breath: a presence strong enough to make my eyes itch to burst out of their sockets.
It will suffice. Her hand brushes over me in absent benediction. The landscape shifts, the steady hill of sorrow growing spiky crags and treacherous paths. Two armies appear next to the palace I have made.
This is a fitting arena for a war, says the Queen. She settles back to watch in a throne of thorns that shoots up from the earth to receive her.
The armies’ tumult, the clashing of shields and flashing of lightning-swords makes the building tremble. All my carefully placed roof-tiles smash to the ground. The towers sway and crumble.
I know the Queen’s commands seldom lead to joy. Yet my heart is heavier than ever: this cursed heart, still human in spite of all my bodily transformations and the meaningless drudgery that eats away at my days. A dark anger kindles inside me.
I clench my many-jointed hands into fists. I walk away, leaving the fickle Queen’s armies to destroy my creation. I don’t want to witness it. If I close my eyes, I can still see Castell Conwy, standing tall on the Welsh coast.
On the winding hill-path, another memory surrenders itself to me, brought to the surface by the after-quakes of the palace’s demise. By my trembling anger. By the small seeds of hope planted by the newly unlocked doors in my mind.
My name. My mortal-name.
Dafydd. The name rings in my malleable head like a clear silver bell. I shift to a form approximating my long-gone human self.
Lost I may be, lost perhaps forever in Faerie and a thrall to the Queen’s whims. But here, now, I have gained my mortal-name. And with that knowledge, I can begin to seek the hidden pathways that lead back home.