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The Boy who Ran

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“Where do you think you’re going? Julian, come back here this instant and apologise to your mother!”

His father’s shouts rang through the boy’s ears, made him run faster, gave him wings. He climbed out of the window, squeezed his eyes shut and let go. It hurt as his knees hit the ground and he scraped his hands, trying to lessen the impact, but he couldn’t cry out, couldn’t let his father know where he was. For an agonisingly long moment, Julian held his breath, waiting for his father to find him, but the shouts didn’t come any closer. This was his chance.

Without time to hesitate or catch his breath, Julian bolted away from the estate, towards the forest that spanned over the land.

Twigs hit his face, as he was too slow to brush them away. He stumbled over roots and rocks, but he didn’t slow. He needed to get deeper into the woods. He would be safe here. Always had been. Even as a small child, the threatening sounds of forest creatures had been less frightening than the thought of being with his parents. The forest was safe. He could hide here from he shouts, the disapproving looks the endless list of things he had done wrong.

*

That is, the woods always had been safe for him. Until his parents had decided to take even that away from him. Just this morning, Julian’s father had announced that Julian and his brother were to accompany him on a hunt. Julian had been frozen in place, to shocked to argue, as his father had pressed a crossbow into his trembling hands. He hadn’t said anything, but as soon as he had seen his brother shoot and arrow from his bow, ready to kill an animal, he had run. Ignoring his father’s angry shouts, as he did now, Julian had run back home. The forest hadn’t been safe anymore. Neither was his home.

*

The sound of fabric ripping snapped him out of his thoughts. He froze and looked at his ruined doublet, all blood leaving his face. This was bad. Running away had been a stupid idea. His parents would be mad enough as it was, but now he had made it even worse by ruining his clothes.

His mother would be furious and rightly so. This was his fault. If only he had apologised to her everything would be fine by now. He would sit at dinner with his family, silent and uncomfortable, but he would not have to face their wrath.

Maybe he should return. Maybe Julian should go back and apologise now, before he managed to screw up even more. He could show his parents that he could be good; that he could be what they wanted him to be.

*

But then again, he had tried it before. All of his life, he had tried so hard to be enough for his parents. He never was. Maybe it would have been different, if they hadn’t been nobility. It wasn’t really his parents fault how they treated him, was it? Their subjects had their eyes on them. They had an image to uphold. Maybe it would have been different, if Julian’s younger brother wasn’t so much better at everything.

But as it was, it didn’t matter what Julian did. His accomplishments paled in comparison to his brother’s achievements and his failures seemed so much greater. How could Julian ever be anything but a failure, if he was always compared to the prodigy that was his brother?

*

No, going back would be of no use. Not now. Later, when it had gotten dark, Julian might find the strength to return home, but he couldn’t do it just yet. He wouldn’t be able to bear his father tell him how his brother would never be so foolish to run off. No, his brother wouldn’t be, but Julian was. So he continued running.

He ran, until his lungs burned, ran until his face was covered in scratches, ran unitl –

His foot got caught in a root. Julian let out a startled cry, as he fell forward, unable to catch his fall. He panted heavily, groaning, as sharp rocks dug into his skin. His heart sped up when he realised what he was doing. Immediately he silenced himself and looked over his shoulder. Irrational as it was, he half- expected someone to appear behind him and tell him off for crying. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

*
“Behave, Julian. You are causing a scene.” Far too often had Julian heard his mother tell him so, in that sharp tone that didn’t allow any disagreements, no matter how hurt he had been.

Julian had been three years old when he had heard this sentence for the first time, as far as he could remember. He had fallen down the stairs to the dining hall while playing. He had cried, as he had seen the stable boy or the maid’s daughter do, whenever they were hurt. Like them, he waited for him mother to comfort him, to kiss his bruise better.

Instead his mother looked down at him with disdain.

“Get up, Julian. Stop crying.” Hurt had mixed with confusion. Why wasn’t she kissing him better? Why wasn’t she telling him that he would be alright? “Cut it out. You’re just trying to get attention.”

He hadn’t been. But something had lit up inside of Julian that day. It hadn’t been his intention, but this had been the first time his mother had truly looked at him that day, even if it was to berate him.

Julian had started crying more after this incident. Over the years he had deliberately fallen off a horse during his riding lessons; had ‘accidently’ poured hot tea all over himself; had done anything that might get him attention from his parents, even if it was only to yell at him and give him a disappointed look.

*

Here, in the middle of the forest, no one was there to look at him like that. He was alone, free to cry as much as he wanted, with no one there to tell him off for it. Here, he could be as loud as he wanted to be. Even though no one was around to hear him, here he could show the world that he existed. He could show himself that he existed.

His broken sobs turned into laughter turned into a scream. Some birds flew off, startled by the sudden noise. Julian screamed and screamed until his throat became sore.

Julian listened for the last echo of his screams to fade away. They lasted for longer than he had expected. Was it normal for a forest to have such a strong echo? He strained his ears. There was something off about the sound. The closer he listened, the less it sounded like the remnants of his own voice and more like someone else’s.

Julian’s first instinct was to run. He scrambled backwards on the forest floor, but halted when the cold realisation hit him. He had nowhere to run to. If he left the forest now, where was he supposed to get back to? His parents? Definitely not.

He swallowed thickly. If there was someone here with him, maybe they needed someone to know they existed as well. Maybe Julian could be the one to see them. Or he could die.

His heart was beating rapidly, like a metronome for a jig, though nothing could be more out of place at this moment than a happy song.

Julian followed the strange wails until he reached a clearing. Doing his best to remain unseen, he peeked out from behind a tree. His stomach dropped.

What there lay in the grass, surrounded by wildflowers was no human, despite the undeniable similarities. Almost transparent wings were crushed beneath the weight of the creature’s body. Antlers sprouted from its forehead and the hands that clutched at its chest ended in sharp claws. A Fae.

A startled gasp escaped Julian before he could stop himself. The Fae’s eyes snapped towards him. They seemed to bore into his soul, sending a shiver down Julian’s back, as the creature bared its sharp teeth.

“Human!” The hissed word sounded like the worst insult coming from the Fae. No, not an insult. A warning. It resonated deep inside Julian’s chest, telling him to run. Despite everything screaming that he should get as far away from the creature as possible, he instead moved forwards.

Cautiously, he stepped out of the shadows, watching the Fae’s eyes widen almost unnoticeable. For a long moment, they just stared at each other, both unsure what the other would do. The Fae was the first to break the silence.

“You screamed.” It wasn’t the mockery Julian had expected, nor did it carry the disgust he had braced himself for.

“You heard me.” It wasn’t a question; neither was it a simple statement. It was like a prayer finally being answered. Someone had heard him, acknowledged him without chastising him, even if it was a strange creature in the woods.

The Fae nodded slowly. “I always hear souls in need of an escape.” Something flashed in their eyes, but it wasn’t the threatening gleam from before. “And you ran.”

For some unknown reason, Julian had a creeping feeling that the Fae wasn’t talking about the running he had been doing to get here.

“I saw you this morning,” the Fae continued. “You held a weapon. And then you ran.”

Julian tensed. The Fae had seen him with the hunting party? Did the Fae think him a coward – a fool easy to trick? Approaching the creature would be foolish. It might be his death.

Julian’s heart pounded against his ribcage. His nurses had warned him against the Fae. There weren’t many stories Julian had been told as a child, but the ones about the Fae had stuck to his memories.

*

He remembered lying awake at night, terrified of the fairy-folk. He remembered running to his parents’ bedchamber, because he had heard a scratching at his window and had been sure the Fae had come to take him away.

“Maybe I should let them,” his mother had said, not even turning around in her bed to look at her then five- year old son. “Then at least I’d get a full night of sleep.”

“Mama?” His mother had ignored his small voice, had ignored his pleas to please let him sleep in her bed this night.

“Maybe the Fae have already took my child and you are a changeling. You certainly couldn’t be any worse if you were.”

At first Julian had been scared. He had crawled back under his blanket in his own room, staring at the window until slowly, the fear had left him and turned into hope.

For years to come, he had left his window open in the night, even in the bitter winter, wishing with childish naiveté that maybe one night the Fae would come and take him home, to their people.

*

It was different being face to face with one of these creatures. All of his fears came rushing back to Julian.

He took a step back, but there was something in the Fae’s expression that gave him pause. There was no malice, but something that had it been a human Julian would call hope. And pain.

Julian’s eyes drifted from the creature’s face to its chest that was still clutched tightly by the clawed hands.

“You are hurt!”

Without thinking, Julian rushed to the Fae’s side, hands hovering helplessly over the broken arrow that was stuck deep inside the Fae. He frantically looked around, searching for something, anything that could help.

His eyes landed on the other half of the snapped arrow. His heart stopped. No. No, it couldn’t be.

With trembling fingers, he picked up the broken arrow, touched the blue feathers at the end of it, as though the touch would confirm what his eyes wanted to deny. There had only been one person in their hunting party who had carried blue arrows. His brother. Had the strangled cry Julian had heard as he had run away been the Fae? Had he left, unknowing that it had not been an animal that had fallen prey to his brother?

*

“I don’t want to hunt. I don’t want to kill animals.” His voice had been small, but he had looked his father straight in the eye as he said it, though not out of bravery. Out of fear. If he looked down, he would have to see the bloody trophy his father had brought with him from the hunt. His brother’s doing.

His mother had interjected, before his father could say anything. “Life isn’t about what we want, Julian. Your father and I certainly didn’t want a brat of a son and yet we are stuck with you.” Julian had flinched, but his mother had continued, unrelenting, uncaring. “Do you think it was easy raising you? As a toddler you were always crying, always loud. Even now that you are older, you still haven’t learned to be quiet.”

“If raising me was so horrible then why did you decide to get another child?” He had regretted the words as soon as they had left his mouth, but it had already been too late. His throat had gotten tight, as he had risked a look at his mother’s face, cold fury in her eyes.

“Because maybe we hoped that your brother would become heir instead of you.”

He should have stopped then. He should have bowed his head and promised to do his best to become a worthy heir. Instead he had balled his fists.

“You would rather have me die, so he would become your successor then raise me in a way that would make me want to stay with you? You messed up with your first child, so you just throw me away and get a replacement, is that it? I am to be cast away, because you were terrible parents?”

Sharp pain had spread across his cheek. Gingerly Julian had lifted his hand to touch where his mother had just hit him. It had stung, but not as much as the fact that neither of his parents had disagreed with his accusation. They wouldn’t care if he just disappeared. Hell, they might even rejoice in his death. One problem less.

Without another word, Julian had turned around and left.

“Where do you think you’re going? Julian, come back here this instant and apologise to your mother!”

*

Julian hadn’t thought anything about the trophy had carried. He hadn’t even considered that his brother’s intended prey had gotten away.

Julian dropped the arrow, as if it had burned him and turned back to the Fae, determination steadying his voice.

“How do I help?”

The Fae cocked their head to the side, unreadable expression on their face. “There is nothing you can do, human. Get back to running. The arrowhead is made of iron. Even if you were to get it out somehow, it wouldn’t help. It has already been poisoning me for hours.”

He couldn’t just leave the Fae! The creature had heard him scream. They had not looked at him for longer than anyone ever had. He couldn’t let them die on their own, unseen.

Julian might not be able to save them, but he could make it easier for them. He could comfort the Fae as he had comforted himself so many times before when there had been no one around to do it for him.

He sang.

His voice was rough from screaming, he was out of breath and unsure. But the feral glint in the Fae’s eyes faded and made room for something else, something Julian couldn’t name. He had the Fae’s whole attention as he sang. It felt strange. Suddenly he didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he started plucking the flowers blossoming around them, weaving them into a crown, as he had seen the Fea wear in his story books.

The song ended and Julian didn’t know where to look. It felt like it had been too little. The song hadn’t been any good and the crown of Buttercups looked pathetic compared to what the Fae must be used to.

Julian should leave. He was a human; the Fae didn’t want him around. Being here was stupid and dangerous and it wasn’t helping anyone.

He made to stand up, but was stopped by a surprisingly strong grip on his wrist. He looked down. Though the Fae’s hands were still clawed, they seemed careful not to hurt Julian, as they gently tugged at his wrist.

Julian looked up and was met with a look so open and vulnerable that it felt his heart would start bleeding. It was the same look three-year-old him had given his mother when he had fallen down the stairs, begging her to stay with him and comfort him.

“Sing me another song.”

The Fae’s voice held nothing of the power, his nurse had told him about. It was no threatening command; no chaos was woven into the words. Julian could easily leave.

He stayed.

“What song do you want?”

A tiny smile lit up the Fae’s face, the sun coming out after a rainstorm that had seemed to drown them before.

“A song of my people. Sing of my home.”

Humans shouldn’t sing the Fae songs. Everyone knew it made them angry, vengeful.

And yet, Julian sang. He didn’t have the right melody and he didn’t fully remember the words he had once read in a neglected book, and yet at he sang of flowers and dances in the moonlight, the Fae’s pain seemed to fade. With every verse, mushrooms started to sprout, forming a circle around them. Jaskier’s voice broke, as the world around him shifted. Colours became more vibrant, the wind felt warmer as if kissed his skin and the faint chirping of birds began to harmonise with Jaskier’s song.

His voice trailed off, as he watched the Fae close their eyes, a content sigh on their lips.

It was impulsive and it went against everything Julian had ever been told about what to do when meeting a Fea, but just this once, he wanted to be heard, to be seen, fully with everything that he was, before it was too late.

“My name is Julian.”

The Fae’s eyes snapped open. “Don’t. Don’t give me your name. I don’t want it. Not from you.”

“Julian Alfred Pankratz,” he said firmly, pretending to be calm, though his racing heart betrayed him. Let me stay here. Bind me to the Feywild. Anything would be better than going back.

The Fae’s eyes didn’t leave him. They just stared at him, unmoving. As before, it felt as though the Fae could look inside of him, but this time it wasn’t unsettling. It was strangely comforting, like the embrace he never got.

The Fae was still for so long, that if it weren’t for the rise of their chest, Julian would have thought, they might have already passed over.

Not knowing what else to do, Julian made to place the flower crown in the Fae’s head. Once again, he was stopped, though now the hand was weaker than before, more fitting for someone on their deathbed. Julian didn’t resist, as the crown was gently taken away from him.

“You sang for me. You abandoned the hunt.” The Fae’s eyes softened and they lifted the crown of buttercups to sit atop of Julian’s head. “You are giving me a good death, my friend, one I didn’t think I would get. Let me pay you back in kind.”

Julian’s breath hitched. He didn’t want the Fae to give him a good death. He didn’t want to die at all. Not today. Not when he had wasted his whole life being someone he wasn’t.

Perhaps the Fae had seen his thoughts reflected in his eyes, for they gave him another smile.

“You are giving me a good death. I will offer you a good life in turn. A new one.”

“I- How?” It came out as little more than a breath.

“A new name. This is my gift. You don’t have to take it. You may take on the name whenever you are ready. It is yours.”

The Fae made a motion with their hand, beckoning Julian to lean in closer. With held breath, he complied, letting the Fae whisper his new name in his ear. Goosebumps prickled his skin and his eyes widened. Though he had never heard the name before, it felt right. Like a million possibilities, a million paths for him to choose. No gates to keep him from walking them and finding himself.

“How does it work? How can I take on this name?”

“If you choose to accept this as your name, the humans will forget Julian ever existed. When they look at you, they will see Julian no longer. They will see whoever you chose to become. It is up to you, little songbird.”

One last smile graced the Fae’s lips, before their eyes glazed over. The boy stayed at their side, held their hand and wept. He wept for the Fae he had known for less than an hour, wept for the one who had given him the most precious gift. An escape. A chance at a new life. A chance to be find out who he wanted to be.

As he wept, there was no one there to tell him to stop, to tell him he was an embarrassment for crying. Sobs wracked his body as he sang again, as he would do for the rest of his life. With every tear that found its way down his cheek, he knew more and more who he wanted to be. He would be someone who would run when people expected him to hurt others. He would sing and he would pick flowers and he would comfort those who had no one else to hold them. This was who he wanted to be, who he finally could be.

“Jaskier.”