BHM What's in a Name? [SSBHM, MAGIC]

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mopsette

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New Zealand
(A variation on the classic "man stumbles upon a strange woman in the forest" story. Magical weight gain, weirdness, and eventual romance. Whenever I read this trope I always think about what happens afterwards. The happily, or not so happily, ever after. This story plays on that question.)


What's in a Name?
by Mopsette

1.

A mist had come up. Stephen crouched in the brambles. His legs ached and he was still bleeding. Every time he tried to ease himself into a more comfortable position a dozen thorns hooked into his clothes and skin. He could still hear them, searching, calling out in the darkness. One of them had a dog. It would only be a matter of time before it caught his scent. He had to move.

He couldn’t believe they had followed him this far into the forest. The shadows of the nearby oaks slowly retreated into the mist. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me. The night air was heavy with the scent of damp earth, tainted with sweat, and the sharp tang of blood. There was a shout, and then another, coming nearer and a howl split the air. No wolves lurked in these woods – it was the bloodhound finding his trail.

Stephen leapt and staggered, one leg prickling – half asleep – and the other still bleeding. He pressed down on the wound and limped onwards, not knowing where he was headed except that it was away from the too close cries of vicious delight as the dog tracked nearer and nearer through the mist.

He stumbled on a tree root and fell, holding in the scream of pain that threatened to burst from his lungs. Crawling now, he dragged himself forward. In the distance, beneath the whoops of his pursuers and the shallow gasps of his exhausted lungs, he could hear the gentle rush of a stream. He could still survive this. Buoyed by desperate hope, he launched himself toward the sound even as his body buckled beneath him. Soft grass gave way to moss-slicked rocks that jarred his knees.

The canopy of shadows yawned open. A shaft of moonlight painted the world in pale and glittering colours. The gossamer threads of a web strung between two trees, the shimmer of water just beyond, and the dark shine of his own blood.

A figure loomed in front of him and he cried out, trying to draw away, but it did not move. A stone – a statue – no weapon held in its outstretched hands. It was a crude thing, its features marred by dirt and lichen, carved with the signs of the people who came before. Stephen used it to get to his feet, smearing blood across its craggy face, breathing hard, looking round for signs of his pursuers.

“Hello.”

The soft voice startled him and he turned to see a woman. Except she wasn’t. This creature had more in common with a moth or butterfly, her tall, lithe figure backed by silvery wings that shone like the palest flame. Her skin, alabaster white, was clothed in silk so fine it was near translucent. Her head was bald but for a crown of flowers and two curling antennae. Her eyes, lashless, glowed like twin opals. She wore no shoes.

Stephen shook his head, disbelieving, stumbling backwards, but then he stopped – unable to move. The ground was ringed in a circle of light.

“I heard something over here!” came a shout, too close, and the bloodhound burst from the mist sniffling around the edges of the clearing. One, two, three of the hunters followed the dog, their bows ready, watching it closely. The strange creature watched too, her eerie gaze flickering between it and Stephen, who held still. He was convinced that if he spoke or shifted the light would go out and he would be caught.

“She’s lost the scent,” one of them said, holding up a lantern. “Look her – going in circles.”

The dog yowled, pawing at the ground, and Stephen shivered.

“They won’t find you,” the creature murmured, suddenly standing beside him even though his straining ears had not heard her move.

Not daring to speak, he looked up at her strange, beautiful face, searching for a sign of kindness or sympathy. Her fine features, sternly composed, held no such trace. “Why?” he coughed out, his throat raw.

“You are under my protection.”

That was enough for Stephen. He let himself collapse, wincing in relief and agony as fear gave way to exhaustion. It didn’t sound like she was about to murder him and – right now – that was all he needed.

She crouched beside him, her gleaming wings closing behind her. “Your blood has bought you time, but if I leave you here you will not see the dawn.” The creature sighed. “I do not wish to ask for more. Give me a strand of your hair and I will grant you sanctuary.”

Hair? He blinked, his eyelids weighted like stones, stars pricking at the edges of his vision. Everything hurt and he couldn’t summon the effort to move.

Something hit him across the face.

“Your hair – quickly!”

“What…?” He just wanted to rest. “Yes, fine… take it.”

He didn’t even notice as her long fingers plucked a single strand from his head.
 
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mopsette

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Joined
Dec 2, 2021
Messages
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Location
New Zealand
2.

Warm. That was his first thought. Closely followed by soft. Still drowsy, Stephen tried to roll over but he couldn’t move. Opening his eyes, he found his body was cocooned like a fly in spider silk. He was suspended above a bed – a bower? – lined with furs in a wickerwork sphere of flowering jasmine, golden thread, and precious stones woven together as though by nesting birds. He wasn’t the only thing hanging from the ceiling. Chimes, nutshells, dried flowers, pieces of glass, brightly coloured feathers, a string of pearls, and a silver skull.

A circle opened and light poured through. A tall creature peered in with skin the colour of bark and wings like brilliant wildflowers, her gaze opalescent and without expression. He ought to be terrified, but a deep languor had taken hold of him – had she given him something for the pain?

“How are you feeling?” Her voice was like cold water sliding down the back of his neck. The same voice from last night.

“Who - what are you?”

“You may call me Elphyne.” She shrugged, her wings fluttering closed as she stepped inside and slid a hooked knife into the cocoon that held him, frowning as she peeled back layers to poke at his leg. “Your wounds have healed. I am going to cut you down now.”

Lightly, she flitted upwards and he heard her knife go through the strands binding him to the roof of the strange wickerwork room. The wrappings were so soft and thick he barely felt the fall.

“There.” Workmanlike, she began cutting him out of the bindings and he was embarrassed to find himself naked in front of her. The scrawny, bent body of a pauper. A thief with naught to show for his labours but scars.

“Where are my clothes?” They were nothing special. He’d lost, sold, or gambled away every homespun keepsake long ago. But he didn’t like feeling so exposed in front of this dangerous creature.

She looked away. “I needed them.”

“What could you possibly need them for?”

“The blood paid for the circle and your hair wove the chrysalis. But it… wasn’t enough. No one has left an offering in some time. Your garments were falling apart and held so much. Blood, sweat, skin, memories…”

“Memories?”

“Yes. I have put them to good use.”

He tried to wrap his head around her words and decided it was safer not to ask. Seizing one of the pelts, he used it to cover his nakedness. Surely this had to be a dream?

“Have something to drink.” She passed him a golden cup, filled with warm, honey-coloured liquid. It felt wonderful just to hold it in his hands. He didn’t recognise the taste, but it was thick and inviting – like hot milk, mulled wine, or some rich soup – suffusing his insides with that same pleasant warmth. No matter how much he drank, the cup remained filled to the brim. Elphyne, if that really was her name, sat beside him as he drank.

“I will give you new clothes,” she said softly. “There is enough left to make do. Then our bargain is done.”

“Wait, no!” As terrified as Stephen was of this eerie creature and her magic, he was even more terrified of being cast back into the forest, alone and at the mercy of the thief-hunters. “Can’t I stay… just for a while? Your home is so comfortable.”

The lashless eyes blinked, looking oddly reptilian. She reached a hand to his cheek. He fingers were long and clawed but, although her skin looked like bark, it was soft as that of any maiden. “So far from your people – do you really wish for such a thing?”

“Yes, I… I don’t have anything to go back for,” he answered bitterly. “No one waiting for me.”

She tilted her head, musing, looking him over with the air of a horse trader sizing up an old mule. “It would be very costly.”

“What do you need, more hair, um… teeth?” It would hurt, but could spare one or two if they could buy him a few nights of comfort. Enough to regain his strength and figure out where to go next.

“It is magic of a different order.” Elphyne told him. Her own teeth were very sharp. “I would need more blood, to begin with, and hm… what about your heart?”

“No!” He was desperate but not that desperate.

“Very well.” She narrowed her eyes speculatively. “What about… your name?”

What sort of mad bargain were they discussing? Whatever he was drinking had clearly gone to his head. “What, um… what would that even mean? For me, that is.”

“It would mean that, as long as you stay here, you won’t object if I need a little blood or a strand of hair.” She licked her lips. “And your new life would come with a new name.”

That didn’t sound too bad. Stephen made up a new one for every town anyway. “What would I get in return?” he asked breathlessly.

“I am not certain. I have never traded for so much.” Her flat, precise tone made him wonder if she was speaking another language, fitted for his ears by magic. “This would be a bargain in the ancient style. Most humans want something particular. Good luck or a child. Sometimes they are in trouble, like you, and in need of help. They are always in a hurry to leave. I will need time to consider what is possible.”

“Alright.”

Elphyne placed an elegant finger under his chin and smiled for the first time. “Then the bargain is made.”

“Wait, but you said—!”

“Shh…” she hissed and, suddenly, Stephen couldn’t speak. “So long without any sacrifices and then a human offers himself to me for nothing but a roof over his head.” She pinched his cheek. “What is your name?”

“Stephen Smith.” The words seem to fall out of his mouth all on their own.

“Stephen Smith,” Elphyne repeated, as though testing each syllable. “What a horrible name. Smith. It takes like iron.” She wrinkled her nose. “I thought I would keep your name, perhaps trade it to someone else, but I think it will be best to be rid of it all together. In these realms, a name like that is bad luck.” She snapped her fingers. “What is your name?”

His mouth opened but no sound came out. How could he forget his own name? He’d been through a lot, it was true… had he hit his head? He didn’t think so. He thought of his mother, calling him home, but her words were lost on the wind. “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” he finally answered, perplexed. “It’ll come to me, don’t worry.”

Elphyne nodded. “I’m sure it will. A strong name to made me think of harvest time – my own crop of red hair and red leaves – your name is… ah, I know. Pumpkin.”

Pumpkin stared at her. Was that really his name? It didn’t sound quite right. But he could remember it on his sister’s teasing lips, in his father’s admonishing tones, and – yes – hadn’t his mother had named him Pumpkin after his grandfather?

“I was not going to feed you,” she told him. “Just give you a little nectar to help you on your way. But since you are no longer a guest you will require something more.” She snapped her fingers again and a silver tray appeared beside Pumpkin, hovering in the air. It was a platter fit for an aristocrat. Succulent meats, fresh bread, fruits, cheeses, jellies, and clotted cream. He hardly knew when he had last eaten, let alone such luxurious fare. Forgetting Elphyne, forgetting everything, he fell upon the tray, utterly ravenous.

Just like the golden cup, it did not empty. Instead, fresh dishes appeared, some alike and others different. It was only when he finished his second dish of honeyed figs, replaced by another exactly the same, that Pumpkin realised the tray was responding to his desires. The spread was limited only by his imagination. He ate and ate and ate, cleansing his palate with sips of the golden drink. If he’d been tricked into an unfair bargain, he might as well enjoy what pleasures it brought.

Something cold touched his ribs and he looked down, a piece of honeycomb halfway to his mouth. She had laid the pelt aside and was painting symbols onto his naked body. He shifted, trying to pull away, but she held up a hand. “Be at ease and eat your fill. I am almost done.”

“What are you doing?” he asked fearfully, but his body lolled back at the word ease. He wanted to snap her brush and force her away, but his shoulders were limp and instead of screaming he bit into the sweetness of the honeycomb. There were more than a dozen glyphs painted across his body. How had he failed to notice? The brushstrokes, small and precise, tickled his skin.

“I am inscribing a spell.”

“What does it do?” he asked around a spoonful of jelly. His belly was taut and heavy for the first time in what seemed like forever. It was a good feeling. Pumpkin hadn’t felt this way since he was a child. It was difficult to be terrified when his body was so profoundly relaxed.

“The oldest trees whisper of a time when our ancestors enslaved humans and used them to fuel their power.” That sounded… truly alarming… but all he could do was sigh with pleasure as he spooned cream onto a freshly baked scone and shoved it into his mouth. Elphyne, just in front of him, seemed oddly far away and her quiet words drifted over him like distant clouds. “I am unsure how to explain it to you. Here we are… light. But you, Pumpkin, are a human. You have substance. Your flesh is heavy with energy.”

“I don’t mm… mph – I don’t under… hmf… mm… tand.” He forced the words out between mouthfuls of glazed pheasant, his lips sticky with sauce, determined not to let her control him. “What… mff… is the… muh-mm spell for?”

“It will help you grow. Think of a worm pushing through the soil. Eating, digesting, and releasing. But, with this spell, I can make a worm grow like a vegetable. Instead of releasing the energy back into the soil, this stores it up inside the worm – hoarding it – keeping all that potential within. You have given me your name, your power. So that energy now belongs to me.” Her brushstrokes made Pumpkin shiver – and what did any of this have to do with his name? “This increases my bounty. With only one human, I will soon be able to work magic would take the lives of half a dozen.”

He could see the sigils were already fading… disappearing… into his skin. Elphyne leaned back, admiring her work. He took another deep swallow of nectar and, between setting the glass down and bringing a piece of cheese to his lips, asked the question. “Are you going to kill me?”

“You did not give me your life… did you?”

“No!” he gasped out.

“Then you will be my Prince Pumpkin.” He didn’t feel like a prince. He felt like a naked prisoner with a gut stuffed full of magic food. She must have read his expression because she put a hand to his cheek. “I do not forget my promises. You will be very comfortable and may stay as long as you like.”
 

mopsette

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Joined
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Messages
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Location
New Zealand
3.

Pumpkin awoke to the sound of birdsong. Glimmering things chimed gently above him, catching the faint light of dawn. He turned, expecting straw, but found himself tucked comfortably beneath a blanket of the softest fur. He blinked, wondering if he was still dreaming. He thought about sitting up and decided to roll over instead. He felt so heavy. Maybe he would lie here a little longer. It was still early. He reached up to rub his eyes and his breath caught.

His hand was swollen, almost puffy… like that of a child. He wiggled sausage fingers. Had he been stung or bitten by something? He had dimples where his knuckles should be. Disbelieving, he held up his other hand to make a comparison. It was equally swollen. Panicked, he threw off the covers and found his entire body in the same bloated condition. His arms, his legs, even his feet! He examined his face with newly thickened fingers. It too had puffed up. His cheeks were doughy and his sharp jaw had softened into jowls. A man would have to be exceptionally fat to have a face like this and Pumpkin… wasn’t. His stomach had widened as well – but only by a few inches. People just didn’t put on weight like this, evenly spread across their entire body. His hair seemed to have grown by the same unnatural amount, getting in his eyes.

“Good morning,” a soft, cold voice murmured and he glanced up to see eyes like twin opals set in a face that was currently the grey-pink of almost dawn. Elphyne. She was leaning her elbows on the bottom of the window – the door? – looking in at him thoughtfully. “I have brought two friends to look after you.”

A finch – a giant finch! – flew into the room. It was bigger than Pumpkin’s head, staring at him with quick, beady eyes. Another followed, regarding him with equal intent. A male and a female. He backed away. Elphyne flitted in after them on wings like morning dew. “You need more than faerie food if my spell is to hold. My friends will forage for you and bring you the spoils of the forest.”

Pumpkin shook his head, trembling. “Please, stop! Haven’t you done enough?”

“No. You’re plump, Pumpkin, but you’re barely sustaining my incantations as it is.” She caught him under the chin. “One powerful curse and this puppy fat will melt away like snow.” A delicate hand stroked his soft stomach. “At least your hair is growing well.” She gave his gut a playful slap. “Unlike this. But I can help with that, baby bird.”

The two words hit him like a physical blow. He was starving – so hungry it ached – shivering with it, panting, filled with so much emptiness it made him want to scream. The two finches took off. Tears leaked down his cheeks and he moaned.

“There, there…” Elphyne cooed, ruffling his hair and snapping her fingers. “You still have your goblet and tray.”

Pumpkin grabbed for the tray, graceless, stuffing the food into his mouth as fast as he could. But he seemed to grow more ravenous with every exquisite dish. They faded on his tongue like dreams upon waking. The only thing that came close to satisfying him were the berries and bugs brought by the two birds, dropped between his eager lips. Their offerings sat heavily in his stomach and, with each meal they brought him, the terrible hunger eased. He could not tell how much time passed in this way, but eventually he lay back – almost replete – picking at dishes while he waited for one of the finches to return.

Elphyne was quiet, noting down words or numbers in a book. She looked up occasionally, nodding to Pumpkin as though they were, each of them, working on something important. Her lovely skin darkened as the sun rose in the sky and began to pale in late afternoon.

Despite knowing, intellectually, that it wasn’t possible for one person to eat this much, there always seemed to be space for another delectable bite. Not only that, but nothing he ate or drank put pressure on his bowels or bladder. His body simply… found room for more. The feeling of fullness, held for a moment, always slipped away and he seemed to need just that little bit more.

His head fell back and he dreamed about a man named Simon or Steven… or maybe it was Stan? Then a trilling cheep roused him and a determined beak shoved a cherry into his mouth. It was the size of an apple and he choked on it, spluttering awake. The bird tried to force it down and Pumpkin struggled to breathe until a calm voice said “That’s enough. You may go.”

The bird ducked its head and departed. Gentle hands took hold of his cheeks and the berry – pit and all – turned to jam in his throat. He swallowed desperately, still hyperventilating, feeling it go down, thickly sweet and heavier than it ought to be. Delicate fingers moved through his hair and he blinked, not feeling full exactly but no longer compelled to eat more. Something had shifted and, all of a sudden, he became aware that his stomach, which this morning had been soft and swollen but relatively flat, belled out from his body, pushing his legs apart. He tried to get up but he was stuffed like a goose, pinned down by the weight of all he had eaten, and his bloated legs were useless.

He waited for Elphyne to laugh and mock him for allowing this to happen but she simply stared at him, letting her fingers tip-toe across his new flesh. “This is good,” she said at last. She held up a hand and a small blue flame flickered to life in her palm. “Can you feel that?”

She let the fire die and then spring to life again, dancing at her fingertips. He could feel it. A warmth in his gut, blooming and dying with the magical flame. The fire grew, mesmerising, and his whole body tingled. He was the fire, caught between her fingers. “Yes,” he breathed, amazed by the sensation. “I… I can.”

The fire went out. “I should not waste it.” But there was something wistful in her usually flat tone. “Forest food agrees with you. Tomorrow I will ask a squirrel or two to assist us.”

“Don’t! I can’t eat any more – I won’t!

“You will.”

“I won’t be able to walk!”

“You cannot walk now,” Elphyne pointed out. “Do not worry, Pumpkin, I do not expect you to move. I will need all your energy for my spells. Already, I can feel myself the strongest power in these woods. When you are twice as large, who knows what I might accomplish?”

Twice as large? He shook his head, disbelieving. “It’s not possible!”

She frowned. “I fail to see why you doubt me. It will not take very long, either, judging by your present size. I will have to think about a new house.” He moaned and her frown deepened. “It will be very comfortable,” she soothed, “and we will have many servants, songs, and flowers. If you grow big enough, I might be able to become Queen. Think of that, my prince.”

“Please,” he cried, “just let me go…!”

“You wished to stay,” she said, exasperated. “And you cannot go back to eating mortal food. Even the most ignorant fieldmouse knows that. What do you think you have been putting in your mouth? That tray serves desires – you have been gorging yourself on the dreams of all those who have stayed here a night. My friends were not bringing you ordinary tit-bits but the essence of this place. And tomorrow there will be more, and more, until you’re so full of magic – so heavy with it – that you glow like a star.”

“N-no…” he whimpered.

She touched his forehead. “Sleep.”
 

mopsette

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4.

“Pumpkin, look.”

He opened his eyes. The wickerwork ceiling was far away. Wisteria and jasmine vines, perfuming the air, curled upwards towards glimmering trinkets he could hardly see. The soft chimes had become a distant tinkle. Mushrooms fanned out from the walls, creating an elegant staircase. He still remembered their taste. Cherry blossoms half obscured the upper rooms. Everything was awash with white, pink, and purple flowers. Even if he didn’t know that these changes had been pulled from somewhere inside him, he could feel each fresh spore and new bud – their desire to grow.

He lay at the bottom of the faerie house in a birds’ nest of grape vines and silver thread. Elphyne flew down from her bower on golden wings, her skin dark with the midday sun, clutching a long plait of black hair in her clawed hands. Every day, her changing visage grew more beautiful. She shone and, for the first time, he heard her laugh, settling on his wide, wobbling stomach with her narrow legs crossed, holding out the knotted strands with something approaching reverence.

“A tinker offered this to me at the moon market in exchange for a curse,” she told him, smiling. “It is from a girl who asked to forget one who left her. Without you, I would not have been able to spare the power – even for this. The fool didn’t know what he had. Here, touch it.”

He reached out. It took effort. His arm was heavy and his plump fingers were awkward. The hair felt perfectly ordinary.

Elphyne snatched it back, pouting, displeased. “You do not feel it?”

“No…” he mumbled, avoiding her opalescent stare. It was better, when he couldn’t distract himself with food, to withdraw – to say as little as possible and avoid trapping himself further in the web of his own words.

She tossed the plait and it caught, twisting like a snake, in the air between her hands. The magic hummed through him, ticklish, tingling, wriggling like the strands of hair. He flushed, trying to escape the cloying feeling, but he could barely rock from side to side. Elphyne clapped her hands together and the plait vanished.

It hit his stomach like a rock. He bit down a sob. Everything ached. He wanted to die. There was a rustling noise, like slithering vines, and his own red hair began to lengthen, sliding down his face along with the tears. Tender hands brushed through it as it grew.

“Yes,” that soft voice whispered. “This is even better than I had hoped. I will bind it up.” Clever fingers began to knot the lengthening tresses into a braided crown. “Can you sense it now, Pumpkin?”

Eyes squeezed tightly shut, he nodded.

“Do not move your head while I work. Speak like the intelligent creature you are.”

“Y-yes.”

“Do you know how many people ask for love? Most will pay any price. Before, I would have had to choose between trading this hair away or using it myself. But with you, dearest Pumpkin, it will be mine forever. I can sell a lock or three and it will always grow back.” She laughed again, a heavenly sound, but all he could hear was that terrifying word forever. Up until now he had assumed he was still human enough for his great, bloated body to fail – human enough to die. Forever. She couldn’t mean it.

Elphyne caught his expression and wiped the tears from his puffy cheeks. “It will be yours forever too.” She put a hand over the pillows of fat that covered his heart. He could feel it beating, quick with fear. “You did not want to trade this away, Pumpkin, and few do. But it was not just her heartbreak that girl wished to be rid of.”

Magic licked across his chest like hot wax, seeping out from her fingers, cooling to a warm caress. She began to sing in a language he did not recognise, soft and lilting, and his sadness lifted. The scent of the sea washed over him with the sound of the waves and his toes seemed to sink into wet sand. He was happy. There was no past to regret, no future to despair – only this perfect moment carried on the loveliest voice he had ever heard.

Elphyne was beautiful. But, until now, admiring her had been like staring at the night sky. Even if her cruelty hadn’t turned his awe to horror, he would still be wondering at something, someone, so far from himself that every intimate touch might as well be an impossible distance. Now, caught in a daze of sea spray and hope, he saw her anew and a buried part of himself stirred to life.

Lips a shade or two lighter than her skin and tinted with gold. Ears that ended in the most delicate points. Eyes that caught the light like jewels. A fragile collarbone above shapely breasts, their nipples not quite hidden by the thinnest layer of silk. Antennae that spiralled up like ferns, their tips shining with the same brilliance as the wings that framed her like the gilding of a painted saint.

The song ended, but its pleasures lingered. He wiggled his toes, enjoying the ghost of the water and the weight of Elphyne on his stomach. “What do the words mean?” he asked, hoping she would sing it again.

“I do not know.” She shifted onto her stomach so they lay against one another, leaning forward on her elbows. “It too was something the girl wanted to forget, bound to her lover just as she tied her wish to her hair.”

“How could someone ever want to forget… this?” He couldn’t even find words for the sensation.

“Why would a human trade his freedom for a house of vines and flowers? It matters not.”

But it did matter. The world came rushing back and he hated her for spoiling it. “I didn’t – you tricked me!”

“I did not put words into your mouth, Pumpkin. Stop being tiresome. This is a wonderful boon for us. It does not matter how we came by it. Everyone will come to my door begging for a taste of this girl’s heart.” She rested her chin on his chest, shutting her eyes and half-closing her wings. “There are rumours, sometimes… but it always turns out to be a love philtre, a dog’s loyalty, or pangs of lust traded away by some priest or ascetic.”

He wanted to argue but he knew she wouldn’t listen. Still a little caught in the sensuality of the spell, he brushed his hands across her back, avoiding the gossamer wings sprouting from her spine, and felt his way to the curve of her backside. Elphyne’s whole body shivered, like the last twitch before sleep, and she opened her eyes.

“It is so valuable,” she whispered. “I have never thought to try it… for myself.”
 
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FFAscinated

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My! A bit of a Midsummer's Night-mare. Will there be more? (If you're not imagining what comes next, I certainly am.)
 
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mopsette

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My! A bit of a Midsummer's Night-mare. Will there be more? (If you're not imagining what comes next, I certainly am.)

Oh yes! There's *definitely* more - there's even a plot (sort of) if I can stop describing pretty colours and flowers for long enough to get it out. Got another couple of scenes done already. They just need editing. ^_^
 

mopsette

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5.

When she travelled, Elphyne put Pumpkin to sleep inside a walnut shell. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement and it was getting harder and harder to fit him inside. This morning she broke three shells before successfully casting the spell. Soon they wouldn’t hold him at all and she would need to devise something else. It wasn’t that he was too large – her magic was strong enough to bind a giant – it was the power inside him that was the problem. It felt like trying to stuff the moon in her pocket.

She had never been to the Gleaming Caverns before. The dwarves, goblins, and rock sprites who traded here would never have invited a lowly forest spirit as she had been. But Pumpkin, and that lucky find in the moon market, had changed everything. They might look down on her vine-woven tent but they wanted her business.

Perhaps the tent was a little threadbare? She could afford to impress the crowd as others had done with stalls held up by jewels, stalagmites, spider silk, or gingerbread. But thrift had always served Elphyne well and she wasn’t prepared to waste magic on looking flashy. Instead, she busied herself laying down a few furs and ordering her wares. It wouldn’t do to confuse ten years of bad luck with her blessings of fertility.

Then she curtained off a private space towards the back of the tent and conjured a bed of goose feathers and sweetgrass for her precious human. She had promised to keep him comfortable and, after all he had done and would do for her, she would never be miserly with him even as he slept. Cracking open the shell, she settled him in. It always amazed her how heavy humans were. Even ordinary ones seemed to weigh upon the world – full of blood, bones, feelings, and memories. No wonder they flattened the grass as they walked, carrying so much inside them.

Pumpkin, just like his namesake, had grown wonderfully fast. He complained about it a great deal. Somehow, he was still upset about selling himself to her even though it was his idea (there was a human saying, be careful what you wish for, but none of the ones she’d met seemed to have heard it). Elphyne paused in the act of securing a posy of lavender and viper’s bowstring with a spell of protection to look down at his sleeping face. Things being what they were, surely it was better for him to be comfortably cossetted than pacing about like a caged animal?

He looked so snug, like a hibernating bear just gone to sleep, almost too full to squeeze into its burrow. Pumpkin had lovely hair, smooth and strong, perfect for binding spells. It reminded her of autumn leaves and the strands never broke beneath her fingers. His skin was pale for a human and strangely speckled, the tiny marks spreading across his face and shoulders like lichen. Once, she left him in the sun and the same little marks appeared on the crest of his belly.

The human sighed, turning in his sleep, perhaps sensing the thread of power she drew from him, tilting his head from side to side and shifting his legs. The less he could move himself the more movement he seemed to contain. His cheeks and chins jostled the spread of his neck, while his flabby shoulders jiggled his stomach, which rippled like a stream, flowing from one stone, one layer, to the next, slipping down to the loose folds that hid his knees. His weighty legs were like those of a baby, splayed and pliant with fat, gesticulating toes. Elphyne had removed several of his bones. None that would cause him any pain by their absence, only those that were uncomfortable or unnecessary (it wasn’t as if he was using them, after all, and it didn’t do to be wasteful). Others she encouraged to grow thicker and stronger, the better to support him. It was very like growing a tree into a particular shape. He glowed faintly, illuminating the tent, and Elphyne could not resist putting her hands to that glow, feeling all the power she’d stored up inside him.

He’s the most potent thing here, she thought smugly. Oh, perhaps one or two of her fellow traders were lucky enough to have a tame human, swapped at birth or bought for some trifle, but they were so ignorant they used them as slaves or cut them up for ingredients. Today she would try to bargain for magic far from her kin. Things she could never wield on her own. Ice crystals or stone song – a nightmare or two if she could find them. Any power she could feed Pumpkin would now be hers. She pressed herself into his flesh, smiling into that softness. He was already such a strong vessel that holding more would no longer be a struggle.

“Are you open?” a voice called from outside the tent.

She flinched, annoyed by the interruption, and patted Pumpkin tenderly. “You will be very safe,” she told the human firmly. It made no sense, but she had begun to talk to him even when he was in an enchanted sleep – well, especially then. It was easier when he didn’t complicate things with emotions she couldn’t understand. Occasionally, she wished he’d given her his heart instead of his name because then she would know why he was so very irritable all the time.

“Hello – are you in there?”

Elphyne sighed and closed the curtain behind her, sealing it with another layer of protection. If anyone tried to harm or steal her Pumpkin they would bitterly regret it.

An elderly goblin was poking her wares with a stick. No manners, any of them. “They say you’re selling true love,” he sniffed, his grey nose, long and thin, twitching in derision. “But this rubbish isn’t worth more than two fingernails or a snail’s shell.”

“All love is true,” Elphyne said, as politely as she could manage, visualising a time when the rude creature would bow before her.

He dismissed her words with a wave of his claw. “How are you doing it – potions, bewitchment? I won’t buy your so-called love, forest child, but I’ll deal with you for the trick.”

“There is no trick,” she murmured sweetly. “It is an ancient secret handed down from the oaks and elderberries.” And I will trade away my wings before I ever share it with a grubber like you.

“Hmph!” he rapped his stick on the ground and stalked out.

Many such sceptics came to her tent and Elphyne began to suspect that she had been invited not as a respectable dealer in rare items but as an accomplished charlatan.

“It is as though they do not believe a forest spirit could have such fine things to trade,” she complained to the sleeping Pumpkin, sitting on the floor beside him while she prepared a spell to keep away lice. It was an excellent charm, one she’d made for years, but it hurt to be making it now.

“Hm?”

She looked up, surprised. The human’s blue eyes were open and he was staring down at her with the sad, sleepy expression he seemed to always wear. How had he woken so soon? She needed him here, especially if she was asked to perform some great working, but he did not need to be conscious of all that took place. “You are awake,” she said, stating to obvious like a fool.

“Mm.” His body might be slow but his eyes were quick, taking in the little tent and its charm-embroidered curtain. “Where are we?”

“A cavern in the northern mountains. I am here to trade with those who live in this place.”

“Oh.” He wriggled, plump hands testing the edges of his new nest, attempting to manoeuvre himself upwards and then, finding the task impossible, accepting the confines of his position with poor grace. His bent his head and his jaw tightened, pressing into the pillowy flesh beneath his chin. Even if he’d been born with wings, they would be no help to him now.

Elphyne did not consider herself cruel. She took no joy in the harsh realities of the world. But ever since she’d sampled a little of the love she’d bound inside him, she found herself delighted by these small, futile struggles. It was a testament, she supposed, to how resistant her kind were to all such compulsions. Every day he huffed and strained, pulled and struggled against the vast reservoir of power she’d poured into his flesh, as though attempting to will his bloated body into the shape it had been. But ordinary humans, even one so swollen with magic he could barely move, had a not a drop of sorcerous talent. All he could do was pout and sway like a jelly. Perhaps it was the irony that amused her so much.

“Are you cold?”

“A little.”

Now he was sulking. She pulled a sheet of spider silk (he found her furs too warm these days) across him and conjured a dish of wishes she’d planned to feed him later. They had been tossed into a well tied to little copper pieces. The spirit of the well had departed long ago and the pleas had gone unanswered. But they still held power. Instead of coins, Pumpkin would see an enticing dish of ripe, red strawberries. She smiled and placed the bowl within easy reach of his fingers.

“Why don’t they want to buy from you?” the human asked after a time.

Heard that, did he? She shrugged. “Rock-dwellers are stupid. You would think that people who live underground would be better at seeing below the surface of things.”

Pumpkin snorted. “You aren’t very good at this, are you?”

Elphyne narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Look, if this stuff is that valuable, of course no one is going to believe it’s genuine.”

“Why should they not believe my words?” she asked, affronted.

“They don’t believe you because you’re offering too much. Look, I know how this works. Here’s what you do. Spread a rumour that you have one vial, just one, and tell them the story you told me about that tinker.” He reached for a coin, distracted, losing the battle with his appetite, and she watched it go down – the wish so much bigger than its tiny vessel – plumping him up almost visibly, replenishing the energy she’d siphoned away with that morning’s casting. “Mm… yeah, and sell that one vial, secretly, as many times as you can.”

“That would not be the truth,” she told him gravely, “and forest spirits do not lie.”

Pumpkin rolled his eyes. “I don’t know, you seem pretty good at it to me.”

“How dare you. Be silent!”

She took his voice away but he just stared at her, unimpressed, and took another coin, glaring as he popped it between his lips. Whatever the wish had been, whoever had cast it into the well must have pinned all their hopes upon it, for the top of his silk-covered stomach rose a little into the air.

“Perhaps I could suggest something of the sort...” she conceded, lifting the spell, embarrassed by her outburst. “Without resorting to falsehood. But how do you know of such things? You are no merchant.”

“I was far from my best when we met,” he said with an odd sort of dignity. “But you’re right, I wasn’t a merchant – I was a thief. And maybe I don’t know about,” he waved a hand, “all this, but I do know people. And no one trusts anything that seems too good to be true. So make that truth smaller, more believable.”

“Hm.” She couldn’t lie, but he could. Perhaps she could use that to her advantage? And he didn’t look human anymore. She could say he was an ogre child or a homunculus. “Very well. You may talk to those who visit my tent. Tell them your small truths. And we will see if they bear fruit.”

“Me?” he squeaked, looking suddenly appalled. “B-but I… I’m so… I look…”

She tickled him under the chin. “You look perfect.”
 
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