Changeling first saw Rake making a slow, ponderous path through the glades of the Summerlands, blowing a jaunty tune on an odd, twisted recorder as he plodded along at the head of an overloaded donkey-cart. The sight was terribly odd to Changeling, who had never seen anyone collect such a huge mass of goods in one place. In Changeling’s experience, when you needed something, you reached for it, and it was there—and when you didn’t need it any more, you put it down and forgot it. Such was the nature of the Summerlands, and if Changeling had ever known a world any different than this, he certainly couldn’t remember it.
He was also fascinated by the donkey at the head of the cart. Changeling knew what donkeys were, though he had admittedly never seen one in person. His mother—Titania, Queen of Summer—loathed the creatures for covert reasons that Changeling was never informed of (“Perhaps when you’re older, dear boy…”) and he recognized this one by her description. That said, though the small brownish creature met the letter of his mother’s description, the thing looked far less loathsome than he had been led to expect. In fact, it simply looked a bit bored, plodding along, one hoof in front of the other.
Changeling bit his lip for a moment, listening to Rake’s pipe. Mortal creatures, here! Once in a blue moon one could see them, especially this close to the Faerie-Ring. He had always been told to keep a safe distance. Donkeys were ugly and humans were nothing but trouble, so said his mother.
But… Changeling was human, was he not? He remembered interrogating his mother on this fact one sunny day when he became old enough to notice the differences between himself and the creatures that surrounded him. Titania had revealed that his mother, his real mother, had been a votary of an order dedicated to the Eternal Summer, and she had given Changeling to Titania’s keeping. This had been long ago. Changeling had asked if he could meet his real mother, and Titania had replied that she no longer was, and when Changeling had pressed the issue, the queen had revealed that outside the Summerlands, things simply stopped existing after a time. They grew gray, and haggard, and worn, and then simply stopped working; and when this happened, no hoping or wishing or requesting would bring them back. This had thrown Changeling into a deep brown study, and no pretty swans that Titania conjured out of paper, no berries bursting into fireworks, no sculptures of shaped, living water could bring Changeling out of it. He eventually got better on his own without his mother’s help, learned how to go on living with a small quiet pain in his heart. His adoptive mother was endlessly fascinated with Changeling’s ability to do just that, and Changeling could never quite get her to understand how an old wound could feel oddly warm when inspected after enough time had passed.
At any rate, Titania had been wrong about donkeys, had she not? The creature looked more comical than ugly, with its funny long ears and its soulful brown eyes, and it made Changeling want to pet it. Possibly his mother was wrong about mortals as well?
There was a moment where time could have gone either way, and Changeling chose to not let the caravan pass and to instead call out.
“Hey!” Changeling shouted.
Rake, or the human he would come to know by that name, stopped short, the melody of his pipe faltering to silence. Rake scanned the lush undergrowth of the Summerlands, his eyes sharp and calculating and steel-colored, full of purpose, and Changeling’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of them. Never had he seen eyes so intent, so wanting.
“Who’s there?” Rake demanded.
What to do? Changeling had been taught by the fauns of the Summerland the art of vanishing into brush and passing without trace through the woods. If he was nimble and quiet he could slip back into the deep forest, and the mortal would be none the wiser. He and his steely eyes would pass out of Faerie, back to the world of Men, and there he would grow old and gray and eventually cease entirely to be…
Again, time could have gone either way for a moment.
Then Changeling stepped from the woods and sheepishly raised a hand.
“Hi,” he said.
Rake did not startle. He was a brave soul, Changeling noted with approval. Seeing the other young man’s wary curiosity, and his absence of malice, Changeling felt emboldened to speak again. “My name is The Changeling Child.”
“That’s quite a name,” said Rake.
Rake inhaled, as though to speak. Then he stopped, his brow furrowing and his eyes clouding over. He chuckled. “Funniest thing,” Rake said. “It’s been with me since my birth, but now I can’t bring it to mind. This must be Faerie, then.”
“Yes,” said Changeling. “The outlands of it, at least.”
“I suspected as much, based at the very least on your rather odd clothing.”
Despite himself, Changeling was just a teeny bit miffed. He thought his green broadleaf and cobweb tunic was rather striking, thank you very much. He also was not sure what right the Rake had to call out another’s garments as odd, clad as he was in a sort of ragged motley topped with a cape of many patches. Nevertheless, Changeling thought it best to remain civil to guests of the Summerlands. After all, they likely had very different customs and practices in… whatever impossibly far-off land the Rake came from.
That thought led promptly to another: now that he mentioned it to himself, Rake did look as though he’d been traveling a long time. His deep black hair was somewhat mussed and out of order, his cloak was ragged around the edges, and the funny little donkey looked bone-tired. The Rake would be in need of refreshment, at the very least. Changeling reached out and found a peach tree that had not previously been there. He plucked one beautiful rosy fruit from its branches and held it forward for the other young man to take.
“Here,” said Changeling. “It’s good. I’m sure of it.”
Rake stepped back, his eyes narrowing. “I’m sorry, I cannot.”
“Don’t be silly. Here, I’ll assure you that it’s delicious.” Changeling took a big, sloppy bite. Honeyed juices flowed down his chin. He smiled at Rake, his mouth full of pulp.
Rake did not seem impressed. “Forgive me, good faerie. But my grandfather had dealings with your kind, and he exhorted me to never accept a gift of food from one of the Fair Folk.”
Changeling frowned. “Whyever for?”
“Grandfather said that whosoever accepts a gift of food from a faerie is bound to that realm forever.”
This was new information. As he was processing it, Changeling said, “My country is large, and you cannot cross it in less than a day. What will you eat?”
Rake grinned, dropped the donkey’s lead rope, and then sauntered up to the peach tree, plucking a single fruit from its branches himself. He took a confident bite. “Doesn’t apply to food taken from faerie,” he said, chewing industriously. “I can eat whatever I wish, so long as I’ve made it mine without your help. It has something to do with indebtedness, if I understand it correctly.”
“I see,” said Changeling, who honestly did not.
“So, no offering me things. And no offering things to the beast, either. I’m not in a hurry to pull this cart myself were he to remain forever here with you.”
Changeling laughed. “Believe me,” he said, “my mother the Summer Queen would not suffer to have a donkey in her court for all time. You need not worry.”
“Sensible enough,” said Rake.
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“Well!” said Changeling, wringing his hands a bit. “You cannot accept a favor of food, but can you accept a favor of a tour? There are many splendid things to see here, and I worry you won’t see them all if you make your way through this country unguided.”
“That sounds enormously intriguing,” said Rake. “I do enjoy seeing new things. So long as it’s clear there’s no debt between us.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Changeling. “It will be to my great pleasure. You’ll scarce believe all the things there are to see and to do!”
And with that, Changeling led the way into the woods. He was not a deceiver; it truly was to his own great pleasure, and he felt no debt or obligation to the other young man. But at the same time, there was a tiny, jealous part of his heart that hoped the young man’s grandfather was mistaken, that the Rake could in fact be bound here by his peaches or by his tour. Surely that would not be such a bad thing? Surely there were enough diversions in the Summerlands to satisfy anyone’s appetites, for ever and actual ever.
It’s just that friends were so hard to come by.