Long ago, before there were cities or the Internet or roads that linked the world together, there was a lord of the True Fae and his changeling servant. The lord was called the Red Prince of Dreams, and his servant was a cunning little Darkling girl he didn’t deign to name. She called herself Flit, though, and so that is what we shall call her.
The Red Prince was a cruel and terrible lord, a master of nightmares and shadows who could turn the bravest men to quivering jelly with the slightest smile. Flit hated him even more than she hated Arcadia itself, and though she was his servant for many, many years without reprieve, each night without fail she prayed that she would be delivered from her bondage. But each night the Red Prince clapped an iron shackle ’round her neck, and locked it with an iron key that he kept on his person all hours of the day and night, and there was no liberation for poor Flit.
One day, while riding the borders of his lands, the Red Prince happened to come upon Iron in the fields. Now you may ask how it is that Iron, which is a thing but not a singular, unique thing, if you take my meaning, could be chanced upon in the fields, and the truth is I don’t rightly know. It’s enough to know that, when this story took place, you could, and the Red Prince did. And he happened to overhear Iron saying to the workers in the field that men feared him more than any other thing under the sun.
“What is this I hear, Iron?” the Red Prince cried.
“You say that you are feared more than anything under the sun, when you stand within sight of my castle?” And Iron said, “Certainly you are powerful, my Prince, and justly feared, but your terrors are the fleeting shadows of nightmare, easily banished by the morning light. Mine hang upon men even through their waking hours and make of their lives a misery.”
To which the Prince replied: “We shall see, Iron, who is the greater terror. Let us put ourselves to this test: you and I shall go to the Village Beyond the Thorns and see who fills the children of Adam and Eve with more dread. But if I win, you must swear to serve me and only me until the stars pass away.” For in those days the Gentry were quite fond of iron and used it to ornament their palaces and carriages and their weapons of war.
And Iron replied, “So be it. But if I am the most terrible, you must give up your crown to me, for I wish to be a Prince as well.” And the Red Prince agreed, and unnoticed by both, Flit watched this exchange with great interest. She was a clever one, was Flit, and she thought she might see her way clear to an escape in this bargain.
And so Iron and the Red Prince rode on, through the Hedge, and came to the Village Beyond the Thorns just as night was falling. And like a shadow, the Red Prince of Dreams slipped through the window of one of the cottages, and he smiled upon the family that slept there, and they began to whimper and moan in their sleep, caught in the grip of night terror. And the Prince retreated, satisfied. But as he left, he did not notice Flit, who crept up to the window with a lamp and a mirror that she used to shine light in on the family. And thinking that it was dawn and time for the day’s chores, they woke, and cast off the nightmare.
Then it was Iron’s turn, and he made himself into a plow to signify the backbreaking labor the farmers endured to provide for their families. And when they tilled their fields, no crop would sprout, until they all feared that they would work themselves to the bone and their families would starve nonetheless. And Iron won the first contest.
The next dusk, the Red Prince went to a larger house and crept inside like a scuttling spider, whispering honeyed terrors into the ears of sleeping children until they twitched and cried out in the grip of their dreams. But again Flit slipped in, quiet as a shadow and invisible as a whisper, and frightened the poor house cat so that it leaped up with a great yowl and knocked over the pots in the kitchen, waking the family. The cat got a scolding, but only a small one, because in truth they were happy to be woken.
The next day, when the men went out to the field, Iron made himself into a vision of a great sword hanging in the sky. And the men of the village cried, “It is a sign from the gods! Invaders will come and put our little village to the sword!” And they abandoned their plows and their fields, and set to building an earthen wall around their village while their crops went untended and their stores grew lower. And Iron won the second contest.
On the third and final night, for these things always happen in threes, the Prince went to the house of the village headman, and the Prince entered like a cloud of smoke and laid with the man’s wife and daughter, and they were taken with such fits of nightmare that even the village physicker wondered if his medicines would cure them. But cunning, silent Flit crept in and replaced his earthly elixirs with the milk of a poppy that blooms only in Arcadia and that brings peaceful sleep.
And on the last day, Iron made himself into a pair of heavy manacles linked with chain, and laid himself out where the men of the village would find him. And when they did, they cried out “See here! These are the chains of a slaver! One of our neighbors has turned against us, and plots to sell our wives and children to the invaders!” And the villagers turned on each other, and simmering resentments became open hatred, and the Village Beyond the Thorns destroyed itself with no invaders necessary. And though he bitterly wished to deny it, the Red Prince had to admit that Iron had won.
They returned to the Prince’s castle, and Flit was chained up once more, and Iron said to the Red Prince, “So, my lord, we had a pledge. Your crown is now mine, and I shall be the Iron Prince of Red Dreams.”
But the Prince replied, “I will not give up my crown. It was not you that the people feared, but starvation, invasion and slavery. You have no right to my Princedom, and you shall leave my lands and not return if you are wise, for I have no tolerance for cheats.”
To which Iron roared in response: “And I have no tolerance for oathbreakers! You and all your kin are liars and honorless curs! Henceforth you shall not decorate your palaces or your carriages or your weapons of war with me, for my touch will burn you like the heat of the forge!” And as he spoke those words, the iron key around the Prince’s neck grew white-hot, and it seared into his heart, and he fell dead to the floor. All the iron filigree that decorated the palace began to melt as well, taking great chunks of stone with it.
As Iron was just about to leave, he heard a tiny voice calling to him, in great pain. Curious, he followed the voice to find Flit, writhing on the ground as her collar burned her neck. She pleaded with Iron to have mercy, and told how she had secretly aided him against the Prince.
And Iron took pity on the changeling, and he said, “So be it. My curse is lifted from all those whose flesh is of Faerie and of mortal both.” And the pain subsided, and Flit easily slipped out of her bonds, and she ran away. Eventually, after many adventures, she found her way back to the mortal world, where she was hailed as a hero by all the changelings who had escaped thanks to Iron’s curse. And she had many, many more adventures, but those are stories for another time.