on the Orchard-Picker and her creatures
[Notes: epithets in this essay include: 'horned girl/woman', 'the singer', 'lion girl', 'lady of lions']
the Orchard tended by the horned girl was famous among all of Faery. Wide clumps of peach trees encircled the private heart of the grove, blending into pecan and walnut trees that twisted lower into blackberry bushes. It hung in perpetual twilight-nearing-darkness and bordered the hills and forest haunted by dragons, a simple gate formed from branches barring entrance to those who did not have the key. Though a house hung near the Orchard, overgrown with vines and eager plants that poked at its brick, it was rarely used. An Orchard-Picker, predictably, spends most of her time in the orchard.
her Orchards bore the sweetest walnuts to ever be eaten, and she lazed about the widespread trees feeding them to the great horned lion at her side. His name was [
stricken] and he had been crafted from the nuts her trees bore with an extra dash of amber, and the Orchard-Picker adored him most of all beings. He guarded the gates of her Orchards from twilight to twilight, and rare did a creature make it past his gaze.
the Lion was so beloved that the singer took from the very heart of the Orchard a shard of jet and hung it from his neck for all to see. It shone with her love and her power, and all who gazed in its surface were confronted with all their failings. and the Lion guarded the Orchard from twilight to twilight with his great paws and his mirror of black stone, but in the brief moments of pure sun or moon he would run throughout the world and collect the souls of the weak in his mirror.
Stories of the lion and his creator traveled far across plains and river and to sky, and the Clarene adopted another name among her many: “the lion girl”. Her name was passed along the veins of leaves and along the roots of trees, along bloodlines and breath. It traveled farther and farther til it touched the highest point of the sky, and from the sky fell a pinwheeling eagle that trailed flowers in his wake.
He traveled across the snowy mountains and dunes, forests as tall as skyscrapers and chasms as deep as oceans, lakes with snapping serpents and cities with somber attitudes. He traveled on wing and waddled on claw until the Orchard with its dark trees came into view, until the Lion turned his giant eyes onto the bird and placed his paw on the gate.
“Who comes to the gates of the Clarene and the fields of fruit?” the Lion asked.
“I, one with no power of my own,” the eagle answered, and the Lion opened the gates and carried the tired bird upon his back to the lonely house where the Orchard-Picker rarely slept. Baskets of peaches and bright berries lay along the porch, but a mouse dwelt among the harvest and became a warm meal for the bird instead.
When the Orchard-Picker came she was wearing only a fresh basket of raspberries and a wide smile. She invited the bird to her arm and listened to his story, to his plight as he traveled, and nodded to each exclamation. Soon he reached the end of his tale and she asked, “What is it you want from me?” and he said, “I want to be a lion and know your power.”
But the horned woman made no promises. She only smiled and offered her best attempt, and she lowered the eagle to the ground in preparation. With deft fingers she tugged and pushed and stuck and ripped, digging roots from the trees themselves and slicking slime from the faeries themselves and brushing juice from the fruits themselves into every part of the eagle. But he would not change, and his form was tattered and tired, as before.
It was then that one of her children offered up a flower delicate and potent, and she held it to her chest and felt all that could be felt in Faery – which is to say everything and more, far more than flesh can feel – and pressed the flower to the eagle. She crafted and rolled and cooked, and the miracle occurred. The eagle burst forth into the body of a lion. The Orchard-Picker rejoiced as the lion lifted its great eagle head and spread its wings, the flower bursting vines from itself and curling into the griffin.
And so it came that the second most beloved creature of all was the Griffin, who would always and ever come to the call of the lion girl.
the Griffin flew across all the worlds and the Lion guarded the fields of fruit, and time passed and hung still in the way that it does in twilight. A dragon was born and died and the day came that the Lion brought the mirror of jet to the Orchard-Picker and laid it in her hands. She peered into the surface and saw the hundreds of souls trapped within. Each had stared at their weakness and fallen to it and now wallowed in regret and pain and emotions foreign to the fields of fruit. She buried the mirror in the heart of the Orchard.
The mirror grew, slowly. Dark sprouts poked from the earth and grew, twisting in on themselves and growing endlessly, covering the ground in soft dark leaves and flowers that gave glittery pollen. Berries grew where the flowers died, and soon the lady of lions gathered each berry up in harvest.
the Lion and the Griffin stayed with her in the long night. The souls were ripe and full and ready for rebirth, but hesitation gripped the Clarene as she prepared to form new bodies. She could birth no more lions. Crafting creatures of stone or clay with fruit would not survive in the new land of her brothers and sisters. So she sat by the hearth and took the fire from its home and tossed each berry into the fire held in her hands, and from the flames and fruit came forth red-furred foxes that crashed into the furniture and cavorted over the floor. Each shrieked and yapped and the room soon filled with foxes upon foxes, each a reborn soul from the mirror that had trapped them.
Some foxes went with the Griffin, riding or running with the winged lion and bringing back news of the lands of sky. Some went with the Lion and pranced along the gate of the Orchard and harassed each visitor that passed there. the Orchard filled with red foxes and new souls and soon their fire spread across Faery, their wit and stealth and fleet-feet gathering more knowledge than had been known and their noses getting them in more trouble than most.
The mirror that had birthed them split in two, and one hung forever in the heart of the Orchard to call each fox back to its home. The other hung from the Lion’s neck, and all creatures that still fell to their own weakness were reborn into the sure-footed foxes that prowled the land.
So it is that the Clarene adores foremost the lion, the griffin, and the fox.