On a warm, summer morning, a young knight was wandering far from his home lands. He had been sent out on a quest to slay a dragon for his king, but he became distracted along the way. A beautiful maiden needed rescuing in one town, and she thanked him over the course of the next three days. In another town, a widow under a curse begged for his assistance. He gladly gave it and more. He stayed with her for a week after he undid her curse. A squire, less than a year short of being eligible to be knighted, pleaded with him to help the knight he served escape from a prison. He too was very grateful, and the knight did not refuse the squire's company. The knight, though he always sought to do right and protect his homeland, was an easily distracted man. Nothing swayed him further off course than a beautiful face. He meant no ill will in the trail of broken hearts he left behind him. For each one, he could remember their name, face, and the sound of their voice. All had enchanted him. While he adored them all, his feelings were like a fleeting breeze. He never stayed anywhere long, always finding something new to be enraptured by. The knight rested underneath an old tree by a river. He heard a soft melody coming from nearby. He followed it along the river, reaching a waterfall. There he found the source of the singing. A naiad danced and sang underneath the waterfall. She had hair the color of the sky and eyes that matched the leaves. Her skin was a muted color in between, reminding him of the deep ocean he once saw as a squire. Small, delicate fins shot out from the back of her calves and forearms. Over her breasts and around her waist, iridescent plants appeared to be growing on her. The texture and color were similar to a dragonfly's wings. The colors shifted beautifully as the sun hit against them. Once again, his heart raced and his gaze lingered. He wanted to get closer to her, though he knew she would be far more dangerous to woo than his past romantic partners. The knight thought over how to best approach the beautiful woman. He picked a rose in full bloom from a nearby bush. As soon as he picked it, the nymph froze. He stood still to watch her reaction. The plants along her body lost their translucent appearance, turning a solid, dark green. She slowly went backwards down into the water, watching him. He leaned out from behind a tree. He didn't dare move closer. Any sudden movement might scare her away. The knight spoke softly. "I mean you no harm. I only wanted to see who was singing." The nymph submerged most of her body underwater and swam closer to him. He stayed where he was. Under the surface of the water, he could see the nymph's hands now had sharp claws extended out like daggers. Her expression was fierce and cold. "I am most sorry for disturbing you in your home, my lady. Please, will you accept this as an apology for my carelessness?" He leaned slightly more toward the river, offering her the rose he plucked from a nearby bush. She hissed at him, bearing fangs he hadn't seen when she was calm. He kept holding out the rose. "Please, I truly don't mean you any harm. I wasn't trying to frightened you. You must have many men bothering you. I won't hurt you." The naiad glared at the sword on his side. He glanced down at it and dropped his weapon onto the ground. She sunk completely under the water for a moment, then came back up to inspect the blade. He watched her as she drew closer. Her eyes only briefly left his. Before he realized what was happening, she snatched up his sword and swam back to the waterfall. "Wait! Please, give that back! I need that to defend myself!" He chased after her along the bank. She sat atop the rocks in front of the waterfall. He followed her into the water. He was in more danger than before. This was her territory. He offered her the rose again. "Please, I'll leave you be if that is what you wish. May I have my sword back? I won't hurt you. Will you not return it?" She held the scabbard close against her chest. He sighed and backed away. "I see. Then, I will have to get a new one. I'm sorry I frightened you. Your voice is beautiful. I will leave you be." "Wait." She said. "Are you not going to give me my gift?" He looked down at the rose. "Oh, I didn't think you wanted it." "I will accept your gift." The knight gave a slight bow and handed her the rose. She took it and put it in her hair. With that, she stood up and parted the waterfall. Underneath the water, he saw the image of another place--another river and a massive garden. She stepped through to the other side with his sword in hand. Foolishly, he followed her through the waterfall. "You are a stubborn man. Do you have any idea where you are?" She manipulated the water from the river and surrounded his sword in a cage made of water. "Yes, I do. It may be reckless of me to come here, but I wanted to speak with you." He knelt before her. "I thought you only came to hear my voice. It sounds as if you're more interested in hearing your own." She laughed. "I may not have been entirely honest with you, nor did I lie. I did come to see you because of your beautiful voice, but when I saw you, I wanted to know more about you." He lowered his head. "I know very well what it is you want from me," she said bluntly. "My apologies. You have seen through me completely. But my lady, can you fault me? Do you not see your own reflection in the water?" His indecent words were spoken in a gentlemanly manner. His blatantness amused her. She laughed again, wearing a grin. "Many have said the same to me before." "Of course. I wouldn't expect someone so beautiful to not be adored by many." "You're a silly one. I still hold your sword, and you continue to attempt to seduce me." She lifted the water cage high into the air with magic. "I can get another sword. How could I care for that piece of metal when you stand before me?" He looked up at her, one of his hands over his heart. "Well, you're determined, to say the least." The plants along her body returned to the state they were in before. Her claws and fangs retracted as well. "If I find you entertaining, I may indulge you. I usually prefer the company of women, but the right man will please me. It's been a while since I've played around with a man." His excitement was apparent on his face. She could very well be tricking him and planning to eat him or curse him, but he didn't bother holding on to those worries. Her beauty overwhelmed him, and in turn, his reason left on the wind. "I don't know how I can entertain you. Please, tell me what you want me to do for you." Her grin widened. "First, I want your name." "My name?" He knew why she asked for it, but he did not care. He gave it freely, but omitted his surname in hopes it might diminish what power she could hold over him. "I am Conrí of Fionúir." "Do you realize what you have done by giving me your name?" She asked. "Yes, I do. I am not afraid." He had already lost himself and forgotten why he was traveling through the area. "You may keep me if you would like." "Are you that lost?" She asked. "When my heart is pierced, all of me is lost to that arrow." "Such empty words, no matter how poetic, will not win my favor." She undid the spell upon his blade, letting it fall to the ground. He did not bother with retrieving it. "I didn't think they would." "I will not tell you how to win me over. You must sort that for yourself." She walked away from him and slipped back into the water. She swam over to a large stone to sun herself. "Very well. I accept your challenge." He bowed to her. Piece by piece, he removed his armor. Then, he tossed aside his boots and gloves. The dagger he kept hidden on him was discarded on the ground by his sword. He joined her in the water and swam to a rock beside hers to talk with her. She listened idly, a little smirk on her face. The hours went on and the sun fell lower in the sky. He was no closer to gaining her approval, but she allowed him to stay the night in her cave. "It's a little cold tonight. We'll be warmer if we sleep closer together." He suggested, his motives plain as day. "If you are cold, mortal, you should put your armor back on or return home." She turned away from him. "I am quite skilled. I'm sure I can please you, if you give me the chance." He said. "Mortal knight, I have lived through millennia. Your handful of decades cannot impress me with newness." She said in response. "Forgive me. You are right. To you, there can't be anything I can boast of." He gave up for the night and went to sleep. Over the next several days, he stayed constantly in her presence. He recited poems to her that he memorized to impress pretty ladies, but she had heard all of them before. He brought her every kind of flower he could find, but she told him all he brought belonged to her anyway. Then, he asked for her to give him a quest to prove his worth. Quests often impressed those he chased after. He was willing to do anything. She denied him that, as she wasn't interested in giving him one. "Please, lady, what can I give you to please you? What must I do to win your favor?" He asked her. She circled around him and played with his braid. With his hair wrapped around her hand, she lightly tugged it and leaned in close to him. A mischievous grin adorned her face. She whispered, "Undress for me. I wish to see your body." "As you wish, my lady." He immediately tossed aside his clothing. His body showed how much he wanted to hear those words. There was an inkling of fear buried within him that he was allowing himself to fall into an obvious trap, but he didn't care. He wanted her. She circled him again, placing her hands on him. She ran her fingers over his chest, down his back, and across his neck. Then, she extended her claws against the nape of his neck. He took her display as a test of trust and did not flinch. She lowered her hand and lightly ran his claws over something much more delicate. This time, he flinched slightly. She noticed and giggled. "Oh, you are nervous after all?" He laughed anxiously. "You can't blame me. Any man would be..." "You're such a silly man. You have entertained me much in the time we have spent together. I would like you to entertain me in a different way now." She retracted her claws and touched him in a more pleasing way. "As you wish, my lady." He pulled her close and kissed her. "I've lived for less than three decades, a meager time compared to you, and your experience with this must dwarf mine, but I will do my best to show you everything I've learned." They moved to the ground, her garden's flowers towering over them. In between kisses, he whispered passionate words while his hands explored her body. The touch of her skin wasn't any different from a human woman's, in spite of her appearance. He teased her neck with his own show of trust, lightly biting her. She replied to his action with a breathy moan and holding onto him more tightly than before. He caressed her breasts as he kissed down her body. In minutes, he brought her to the brink of ecstasy with his tongue and fingers, then stopped. He wiped off his face and hovered over her. He gently slid his hand across her cheek and kissed her once more. "May I?" He asked. She nodded and kissed him again. Getting inside her was easy. She was so wet. Here too, she was no different than any other woman he'd been with. While he moved, he played with her breasts more. She was not shy in the way some younger women were that he'd been with. Her beautiful voice carried through the garden without shame and she let her wants come through in every part of her body. He in turn responded to her body's demands, changing positions as she desired and touching her in every pleasurable area as they moved together. "Tell me...please, let me know your name. I will not use it for evil." He whispered in her ear as he rubbed in between her legs with one hand and cupped one of her breasts with the other. "My name is...Liliana..." She bit her lip. "Don't you dare stop." He felt her tighten around him. He moved faster, lasting long enough to bring her to climax. In the seconds leading up to that, he pondered if he should pull out after she came, as he did not know much about what children between their two kinds were like. That thought didn't last long. Within seconds, it was too late for him to do anything about it. Afterwards, he hovered over her for a little while, taking in the beautiful sight of her. Then, he lay there beside her. His clothes stayed on the ground, scattered where he left them. He held Liliana in his arms and smiled. "I wouldn't mind if I died right now." "What a silly thing to say." She said. She cuddled close. "Will you keep me here with you forever?" He jokingly asked, though he half wondered if that was her true intention. He heard of both men and women being lured away by handsome strangers from the other realm and being kept as theirs until the end of their days or whenever the being grew bored of the human. To stay with her now was extremely risky, and yet, he didn't care. There was no fear within him. 'Perhaps she's bewitched me. Am I under a spell?' She perked up at his words. "Is that what you really wanted? Immortality?" "Ah, you misunderstand. When humans say things like that, it doesn't necessarily mean in the case of living forever. It's more meant as until the end of my life, though I would be quite content if my soul were to stay with you after I died." He kissed her on the forehead. Liliana's mood changed from playful to serious. "Do you not want it?" "I wouldn't refuse such an offer. All men fear death. But I did not come to you wishing for that. I merely wanted to hold you." He held her closer. "I can give it to you," she said. "You don't need to do that. I'm sure you'll become bored of a human like me," he said. Liliana returned to her playful self. She nuzzled against his chest. "You're a very silly human indeed." In the days after that, he spent much time blissfully entangled in her desires. He forgot about his kingdom quickly and his quest to the king even sooner. More than anyone he'd ever chased, this woman had completely stolen him. He thought of nothing but her. He was almost certain she must have cast magic on him to make him desire her so, but he didn't mind. At times, he couldn't believe that. Sometimes, she reminding him he had abandoned his home and people. Other times, she made him question himself about why he was there at all. When he asked her directly about it, she denied using any magic on him. He didn't understand why he wanted her so badly. Weeks turned to months, and he stayed. It was starting to drive him mad. Even in his own kingdom, he was never anywhere for more than a few weeks. And yet, he did not want to leave. The passionate embraces grew further apart as time went on and his lust settled down some. They spent their days talking and sunbathing. She opened up his heart and made him confess to every bit of his past before he knew it, but she remained mostly distant. He should have become distracted again by now, but he wanted to see her true self. It was six months before she let him know anything more about her. One morning, when she was going to cross over the waterfall veil to the human side, she told him she was going out for a very specific purpose. "I will likely bring a girl back with me," She said. "I can hear one longing for company by my river." "A girl? I don't mind sharing space with her." He didn't follow over to her. By now, he'd become accustom to the quiet times between them when she was away for a while. He typically lay in the garden thinking about the wind and all the places he wasn't going to. "I don't think you understand." Liliana moved the water aside. "I am not one who cares deeply over monogamy the way humans do. If someone entertains me, I may keep several lovers at once." Her words didn't shock him. He'd heard stories of some fairy creatures being like that. He didn't mind the idea of bedding two women at once either. "That sounds interesting. I've never tried that before." "As I told you before, most of my lovers are typically female, but sometimes, I keep men as well." She added. "That does not bother me either. I am the same way. Exactly the same, in fact." He lay amongst the flowers and watched the clouds floating over them. "I'm sure anyone you bring in here will be interesting, at least." Liliana's intrigue over him grew by his lack of a strong reaction. She left and returned within a few hours with a pretty human woman. The woman was startled at first, but found them both alluring. Little words were spoken until night fell. The experience was something new for him, and he quite enjoyed it, but his mind was still distracted. Late at night, he took the far end of the cave while the women cuddled together. He muttered to himself, "I am Conrí of Fionúir. I don't belong to anywhere for long. Why am I still here?" Conrí looked back over at Liliana. He couldn't answer himself. He returned to Liliana's side and held her close. Three days from then, the young woman returned to the human realm. "Are you not keeping her?" Conrí asked Liliana after the woman left. "Keeping her? I don't keep anyone." Liliana said. "Everyone is free to leave whenever they want. I alone stay here." "Are you not keeping me?" He asked. "No. What binds you here exists only within you." Liliana caressed his face. "I would not bind anyone to any place. That is a cursed existence, as everything will always flow away in time. You took yourself across that boundary. If you need to leave, I'll show you the way. But I am happy you are here. You're quite good company. If I didn't know better, I would think you were one of us." "Why do you say that?" He asked. "There's something different about you, but you can't see it yourself." Liliana cupped water from the river in her hands. She opened up her palms slightly to let the water drip through. "But you were born to wander. I can see it in your eyes. You will leave me here too, as all do." "I don't want to leave you. I don't know why, but I don't." He hugged her. "I am overcome by this. There is no stronger will within me." "Such nonsense. You don't truly know me at all." Though she laughed, he noticed sadness hidden underneath. From then on, Liliana brought more humans over to the other side for that kind of fun. Conrí enjoyed it, but he was surprised that he was beginning to feel possessive about her. It wasn't in his nature to be like that, much as it wasn't in his nature to stay anywhere for long. He was disturbed by his own thoughts and actions. 'This must be a spell. I am not like this.' He told himself. Liliana continued to deny this. Another six months passed, and another question burned in his mind. He worked up the courage to ask Liliana about it one morning as they watched the river together. "Are we not compatible in that way?" Conrí asked. "What do you mean?" She asked. "We've been sleeping together for a while, but you've not gotten pregnant. Is it impossible for me?" He asked. The bright light in her eyes faded. She spoke softly. "No, it's not you. The issue is with me. I cannot have children of my own. I'm barren." He regretted asking. She looked deeply saddened after hearing his words. "Oh...uh, is that something that upsets you?" "Sometimes, it does. I would like a child of my own, but I can never have one." Liliana submerged one of her arms in the water, letting the river flow around her. Conrí thought about the matter. He offered her a couple of alternatives. "That doesn't mean you can't raise a child. An orphan perhaps, or maybe I can find a woman who'd carry one for you and give you that child." "Do you plan on participating in the conception?" She forced herself to smile. "Ah, well, that's how I saw it in my mind. Ah...but it wouldn't need to be directly related to me...maybe I can arrange something for you." Conrí's face showed a hint of red. "Don't worry over that." She waved her hand. "Thank you for offering though. That is very sweet of you. Did you want to raise a child with me?" In all his years, he never wanted to raise a child. He had too much fun wandering around and meeting new people. A child meant being further tied down to a place. In spite of himself, he smiled and said, "That would make me happy." She sat up and looked him in the eyes. "Are you sure?" "I think it would be nice. This is wicked of me, but I am sure I likely already have some children...I doubt I will ever know them or if their mothers would want me as a husband. I wouldn't mind raising someone else's child. If the child calls me Father and you Mother, that's good enough. The child could stay here in the garden with us." His cheeks turned a brighter red at his confession. It was something he often thought about, but no woman had ever sought him out over that. To ease his conscience, he usually told himself that meant there simply were no children, or the mother's wanted someone else to be seen as the father. "I've lived for thousands and thousands of years, and not once in all this time has anyone left their child by my river. I know I shouldn't wish for a mother to abandon her child, but so many do not want their own for one reason or another. Many end up being killed quietly or kept in misery. I would gladly take the child of a woman who is unhappy having one. Any child would make me happy, but my river's banks are as barren as I am." Liliana stared at her reflection in the river. Conrí held her from behind. He kissed her cheek. "One day, I swear to you, I'll ensure you have a child." "It's alright. I will keep waiting. As I am now, I will for thousands of years more." Liliana pulled her knees in close to her chest. "I feel strange. Will you cheer me up?" "If I could stay here forever, I would use all of my time to make you happy." Conrí whispered to her. "Would you really?" She turned around and rested against his chest. "I should think immortality would make you wander sooner." "No, I love you." He kissed her. His words came out of him without any thought. As soon as they left his lips, they disturbed him. He'd never told any of those he'd fooled around with those words before. He adored all the people he'd met. His body surged with passion in each embrace. Love, however, was something he considered sacred. He wouldn't dare call any of his past encounters as truly being about love. His heart pounded. Liliana ran her hand down his chest. "Do you really? Will you love me when you know eternity?" "I certainly would. To spent all of my time with you already brings me great happiness." He said. "Shall we test that?" Liliana pulled away from him. "I can give it to you, immortality." "You needn't do that." Conrí shook his head. "Are you that afraid of having to live up to your words?" She asked. Conrí heard his heartbeat ringing in his ears. "No, I am not afraid. If you wish for it, I will accept your gift." Liliana smiled slightly, then it disappeared. "I will give it to you, but I know you will leave me." "I will always love you." Conrí reassured her. Liliana pulled the water from the river with her magic. The water took on the shape of an orb, filling with white light. Then, the water burst open. A golden cup floated in the space between her hands. As it fell, she caught it. The cup filled with water on its own. She handed the cup to Conrí. "Drink every drop, and you will be beyond Death's domain. Only you will be able to choose if and when you cross paths with him." Conrí took hold of the golden cup. He drank the contents of it. It tasted like water. When the last drop was gone, he handed the cup back to her. "Is it done?" He asked. Conrí expected something to happen, but nothing did. "Yes. You are immortal now." She turned the cup back into water. "And soon, you will leave. Your spirit will refuse to keep you here. You've already been here too long, and you know that." "No, I don't want to leave." Conrí embraced her. Every part of him felt suffocated staying in that place, but he couldn't deny he did not want to leave either. The scent of her body, the depths of her eyes, the way her voice carried on the wind, all of these were chains he wanted to wear. He felt himself going mad. "I love you more than I have ever loved anyone." "But you know nothing about me, young knight." She kissed him. "You don't even know yourself. How could you possibly love me so deeply?" "I simply do." He kissed her on the forehead. "And I always will. I want to stay with you forever." Conrí spoke those sweet words to her while his spirit called for him to run. He had never stayed anywhere this long before. The land beneath his feet was always changing. Before, he couldn't run fast enough to cover the world. Now, he felt himself sinking inward. He didn't understand what was happening to himself. 'What is wrong with me?' The months went on. People came and left. He alone stayed there with Liliana in the garden, as he had promised her he would. The sun looked farther away each day. As he lay in the garden with her, he felt the world spinning beneath him. He told himself it was fine. All men and women settled down eventually. He was settling here, in this place with her. She was beautiful and kind, powerful and wise. No illness or pregnancy or war could take her from him. He couldn't be luckier. Still, he felt it spinning there underneath him. His soul echoed a single word command within him. 'Run.' The smell of the flowers in time came to sicken him. They never changed. There were no seasons in Liliana's garden. It was always springtime and the same flowers were always in bloom. No leaves ever changed. Neither his nor her hair would ever grey. He was stuck in time and place. One morning, he asked her. "My dearest, wouldn't you like to travel anywhere else? This place is beautiful, but I'd like to see others with you." "I cannot go far from my river. We could travel along it, but that is the most I can go." She said. "Why is that?" He asked. "I am bound to this river. That is why I told you all leave me. Everything flows away from me. No one will stay forever." She said. "You want to leave, don't you? I won't stop you. You are free to wander. No one should have to share my fate." "Is there not a way we can unbind you from this place?" Liliana smiled at him. "You're the first to ask me that, but no, there is not. You would never be able to find someone who can undo that magic." "Are you certain no one would want to stay with you forever?" He asked. "Why do you think I won't?" "The only one who would do something like that for me would have to be my soulmate. You are not my other half." She said. "How do you know?" He asked. "When you meet that person, you will instantly know. I cannot describe to you the feeling, but you will know it with every part of your being. My other half is a woman, but I do not know where she is or when I will ever see her." Liliana said. She picked a red rose from one of her bushes. "I saw her once, in a vision from a friend who can predict the future. I don't know if she will stay, but she might. No one else will. I can feel it. But I am not angry at you that you will not stay. I will hold onto the memories you have given me." Conrí held her tightly. "I may not be that person, but I will stay with you. I promise you." "You're a silly man." She took his hand and kissed it. Months passed. His mind tormented him. He felt even more strange after Liliana's gift than when he stayed with her before receiving it. His body looked no different. He could still feel pain and hunger. Conrí couldn't place what the difference was, but it was there. No matter how much he appeared to be the same, he knew he was no longer human. He began to keep his distance from Liliana as he lost himself in his thoughts about the land and time. If he really was immortal, how could he be content staying in this unchanging place forever? He had explored so little of the world. With limitless time, he'd promised her all of it. He wanted to run. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to escape with her, but she could not move. Liliana didn't seem to mind his distance as she brought in a young human woman to keep her company at night. There was no jealousy in him over the new lover. Liliana had told him to expect it. It was simply part of her way. She left him to be with his thoughts, already knowing where they would take him. Late one night, as he was stewing in his own anxiety, she finally approached him about the matter on his mind. "Is something wrong, my darling?" "Since you gave me immortality, I have...been feeling strange." He confessed. "How so?" She asked. "I don't know. I feel very...confused about myself. I am not human, but I am not like you. I won't age anymore. I will outlive all humans I have known. What am I supposed to do with myself?" He asked. Then, he let slip the words he wasn't ready to say to her yet. "Am I to really spend all of it knowing nothing new?" "You are the first to ask me that. The others all left once I had a new lover, and had no complaints about that gift." She leaned against him. "I can't answer your question. It is something you must come to know on your own." His face flushed at the words he'd spoken to her. "How am I to find that answer for myself?" "You must go and find out for yourself what it is you want." "I don't want to leave you." Liliana rose from his side. She gathered together his armor and his sword. She placed them down before him. "What you want and what you need are not always the same." His heart sunk looking at the metal before him. "Where will I go?" "Let the wind take you. It brought you here." "When will I know when I've found what I need to do? What if it takes hundreds of years?" He asked. He couldn't bare the thought of not seeing her for so long. "That's barely any time at all. I'll be here waiting for you to return." She sat down in front of him. "Even if you decide you no longer want me, I do ask you to please return. I'd like to know what conclusion you come to." "Why would I stop loving you?" He asked. "You are such a silly thing. How many have you known?" He averted his eyes. "I...You are different." "Am I? Perhaps your restlessness is your affection fading." She joked to him. He denied that immediately. Conrí reached to embrace her. "No, I love you." She stopped him. "It's alright. A hundred years or a thousand, neither are long to me anymore. My dearest, go off into the world and find yourself. You will return to me one day. Whether you love me then or not, time will tell, but I'd like to see who you become. That is my quest to you." "If it is a quest from you, then I must fulfill it. But..." Conrí's eyes reflected the moon. "Let me hold you tonight, at least once more. Let us stay as we were until dawn." She brushed back his long, blond hair. "As you wish." He had eternity before him, but he feared wasting a single minute of that night. The morning sun burned his vision. Conrí put on his armor and kissed her goodbye. "I'll return soon. I promise." He said. "I don't care about the time. I know you will return again." She said. "I will love you more than ever." He promised her. "Whatever the case, return to me as yourself." She pulled away from him. Walking away from her tore at his mind as much as staying with her did. The farther he walked, the faster his steps became. Not once did he stop thinking about her as he wandered, not once until he found himself in another garden that would soon become his next cage.
II. The Lady With Hair Like Fire | TOC