A walk in the Hedge [Changeling: The Lost]
Without further ado….
The Hedge is always around the edges of the mundane world. In the lonely places, where yours is the only breath stirring the air; in the uncanny places, where fear quickens your step; in the liminal places, where you hang in the balance between here and there. An abandoned office park, weedy grass breaking through broken asphalt; a graveyard, Spanish moss hanging from the low branch of a tree; a cold beach at dawn, succulents dangling over the lip of a sandy cliff. It doesn’t always rip you away from the world, briars catching you and tugging you into some dark hollow of Hobgoblins and malevolent Fae. Sometimes a fairy glen is lovely and mild, with soft places to tread, or lay down your head.
Traversing the Hedge
The Hedge shapes itself according to need, presence, and the available terrain. There are some constants. Its paths are always labyrinthine and confusing. Time passes according to different stars, and the land beneath you to according to different earths. The character of the obstructions that you encounter there will vary according to what you carry with you into it. Including, and especially, what you are carrying in your heart. The thoughts, desires, or memories that shape you will skew the landscape you navigate. The Hedge will collaborate with your mind to deceive you.
Objects you carry into the Hedge may continue to work, but modern devices will become temperamental and whimsical. A flashlight may throw light, but as a lantern or a candle or a cold flame cradled in your palm. A phone might make contact, but to the person you last told a secret or with your voice translated into a forgotten tongue. An object may choose to obey the letter of the law rather than the spirit, or interpret your actions as metaphoric desires. A lit path may glow with a sudden beam of sunshine, or become alight with flame. A sword might become a serpent in your hand, poised to strike the warrior as well as the adversary.
Sweet wisteria and jasmine vines wrap around an archway to a part of the garden you don’t quite remember. It’s dusk, and the park is closing, but you aren’t quite ready to leave. It couldn’t hurt to have a look, maybe sit a moment on the bit of stone glittering just past the archway. The statue next to it is curious, though. Lifelike, but so modern in dress, with a startlingly expressive face. You could almost swear it shifted slightly to glare at you. The scent of flowers is so heavy and distracting that you didn’t notice yourself walking closer. The statue keeps seeming to shift along the other side of the arch. Facing towards you, then away. Angry, then sad. Hands loose, then fisting. You’re almost close enough to touch it through a spray of flowers when you hear your name being called behind you. As you turn to look, a stone hand wraps around your wrist and pulls sharply.
You stretch out on the steps that lead down to the river that divides your city, and watch the seaweed bob and wave just under the surface of the water. It looks, for just a moment, like hair billowing in the current. You fancifully imagine mermaids and sirens, and elementary school daydreams of fishtails and seashell bras. But, was that an eye blinking at you? The face is obscured by silty water and long algal threads suspended in it. Surely that smooth arc was a stone, the eye a bottle glass pebble floating over it. Even so, you crawl closer to the waterline, which helpfully rises towards you. The seaweed drifts between your fingers expectantly, like softly clasping hands.
You’re sure you’ve hiked this way before, you should have hit the trailhead by now. Of course, trails are a little easier to track in daylight, and night came on so fast. Maybe you stepped off somewhere along the way. Your watch stopped hours ago, that must have been how you so thoroughly lost track of time. The headlamp battery held out for a few hours of darkness, but now all you have is the strands of moonlight filtering through branches so thick they’ve clasped over your head. There’s a rushing, grinding sound ahead, and hopefully it’s the service road, not the sea. The rocky hillside begins to slide underneath you, sending you stumbling down too fast. As you duck to avoid a spiderweb as wide across as your arm, everything goes quiet. No water, no road hum, just a bassoon purr close enough to heat the back of your neck. In the distance, you hear a horn.
Three handfuls of dirt, a stolen grave-flower, a torn hymnal; words you knew from a voice in your dreams. As you threw each into the fire, a door cracked open in your mind. When you spoke, you could hear the wind howling in your skull, rattling your windows. The lights went out, the fire went out, and there was a rustling at your threshold. When you opened the door, the air was filled with ozone, and something rushed past you, riding on the wind. The downed power lines formed a golden spiral, and in the center was a living spark that beckoned to you. The air was heavy as you walked between the cables. Tightening around you until you gasped. When you opened your mouth, the spark leapt in, and burrowed under your skin. A way was opened before you of light and scorched earth with no trace of shadow.
When you first walked into the Hedge, it didn’t resist in the same way it would when you tried to leave. Walking forward, across even the sketch of a path was easier than trying to place where your feet had just been behind you. It’s never easy, exactly, to move through a space where your perception of reality is constantly working against you. Most mortals don’t intend to enter the Hedge. They stumble in, through misadventure or deception, and never find their way back out.
Why would it let you go?
When you first escaped, each step that took you back home bled the soles of your feet and raked at your skin. Each thorn tore a bit of you away. Hopefully you made it through with enough of yourself still intact. When you return (for reasons practical or sentimental), you feel that pain all over again. The parts of you that tore away, trying to find the parts of you that escaped. And that ache in your soul is the least dangerous thing to be found in the Hedge.
Your keeper, for example, and all the hunters and hobgoblins they have to hand.
[REDACTED: DREAMING ROADS]
Dwelling Betwixt and Between
You came to the Hedge by accident or guile, less immigrants to Arcadia than its captives. But the Hedge has natives, too. Hobgoblins are made of the very stuff of Arcadia, but have identities more fixed than that would suggest. They live lives of interest to themselves and their families, and have goals which you might help or hinder — as they might for you. Ghosts are what remains when there’s nothing left of a person but a feeling or a memory. When something that’s been torn off of your soul goes unclaimed too long. Not everything that dies in the Hedge comes back as a vengeful spirit, but to die in the Hedge is to immerse your final emotions in a wood shaped by thought and desire. Many do come back, and have a variety of feelings about having died. Much as you would.
Goblin markets sit somewhere squarely between tourist trap, devil’s haunt, and county fair. What you might find there rather depends on the regional specialties, the frequency of appearance, and the esoteric qualities of the land upon which it stands. Pottery cups glazed with the ash of burnt hedgewood, which give you terrifying visions if you over-steep your tea? Strings of bottle glass beads, which turn black in treacherous water? Booklets of single-use paper banishment charms? Very nice roasted corn with crispy cricket flour? You can find lots of things at a goblin market.
You both served as footmen to a prince of wolves. Throwing yourself over roots that his carriage not be jostled. Sweeping aside dishes flung from his table. Cleaning the long white hair from his many fine suits. Brushing out and delicately trimming the mane he was so vain about. She was turned out for having dirty gloves. You tried to escape after her, but were caught by a lazy hound that had run too slow to catch her as she tried to clear the border of his lands.
You worked hand in hand with goblin maids, sewing and mending the skins of her dancing dolls. He fashioned wax heads, each one a replica of one of her living heads. She liked her dolls to match her face whenever she thought to change it. Your hands brushed twice, and he made a new head that looked a little like you. She had him put to death the next day. Or at least, staged a false trial so persuasive that he winked at you when you tried to take the blame.
You kept the giant bees from which she harvested a silvery wax. The statuettes she made were miniature and lovely, and writhed convincingly when subjected to flame. Your Keeper quite liked them. After a steady rhythm of alluding to other lives, you thought perhaps she might help you escape. She betrayed the plan to your mistress, and she shrugged slightly as you were beaten before the court. Someone collected the wax for her after that.
You were your keeper’s shining jewel, the most lovely of his bird wives, with a cloak made of the very heavens. The goblin who carried your train learned somehow of your real name, and taunted you with the knowledge night after night. Threatening to tell you, and break the spell that hid you from your witch king when he had fallen into a mood. Threatening to never tell you, and let you die with the knowledge that he could have freed you, but wouldn’t.
You were a treasured, if unwilling pet. They were just as unwilling, but less prestigious an object for your keeper to possess. You hated each other a bit, and tried to see each other when no one else would meet your eyes. It was dangerous for them to be too familiar with you, though. Lest they gain too much of your mutual owner’s attention. Most erred on the side of deference, paid to the air slightly to your left. As though nothing was there, but the nothing that was there was also a dangerous monster who should be attended to without quite acknowledging.
But they don’t have to be nice to you now. Now you need something from them, and they get to set the rules by which you receive it. Not every Hobgoblin means you particular harm, but neither do they all wish you luck and fortune on your journeys. If you can find a way to tell them apart, you have quite a few friends and co-travellers who would love to know the trick. Some resent having been expected to be subservient to a creature that’s not even from Arcadia. (That’s you.) And they want someone to take that anger out on. Some sympathize with having been an object to someone else’s whim, and having found the strength of desire to flee. Perhaps you can continue to help each other.
Mara Starcatcher wants a hundred first kisses, and a child’s drawing of a family. In exchange she’ll tell you where your first love has gone, and when they will next think of you. For an actual child, she’ll tell you the words that will shatter their heart.
Toru wants to put his wife’s ghost to rest, or at least help her settle into her new identity as a spirit. If you can find her and bring her home, he’ll tell you where he picked the apple flowers that soothed away the confusion that brought you to his doorstep.
Nutmeg caught you fair and square, and she’ll drain the marrow from your bones if you can’t come up with a riddle she’s never heard before. Maybe she’ll do it anyway.
Most goblins are more interested in managing their own affairs than yours, but an opportunity for a nasty trick is hard to pass up. Contracts are always a little dangerous, but goblin contracts are more like predatory loans. In the moment, they can be powerful and helpful, protecting you when you desperately need the strength they can provide. The costs are higher than you imagined, but in the moment, need is greater than caution.