Deep in a forest, in a land known as the Duchy of the Buttercup Flowers, there lived a man by the name of Indigo. He lived a simple life with his elderly mother and father and his six brothers and sisters, each named after a colour of the rainbow for reasons their parents had never told.
Now I say that he was a man, but in truth he was one of the Fair Folk, the Gentry, or any of the other names by which his kind go. And that land in which he lived was not of the Earth we know, but of another much stranger place which few true men have ever seen. But it will suffice to refer to him as a man, as he was certainly of that appearance, and by our reckoning would have been some thirty years of age at the time our tale begins.
Indigo and his family were very poor, for though the forest provided no shortage of food, they had little to sell or barter for fine things, and the children increasingly had to care for their parents.
His life continued in this way for many a year, until one day, a great war broke out among the kingdoms of the land. News of this did not reach Indigo’s distant home at that time, because travellers so rarely ventured so deep into the woods. But not long after, a recruitment gang came passing from house to house, taking everyone fit and healthy away to fight for their Duchy in the war. Indigo’s older sister Green and younger sister Violet were allowed to remain behind to support their parents, but Indigo and all his brothers were made to leave their family behind.
Indigo was not happy in the army, but he sent a good proportion of his wages home to his family every week, so he knew that they would be living a better life in his absence.
Now in this war the House of Buttercup had pledged their allegiance to the White Roses, who were one side, and their enemies were the Red Roses and their allies. Indigo knew that the Whites were winning and that the fighting was taking place a long way from Buttercup lands, and so he patrolled the borders of the Duchy without fear. But news from the front became rarer and rarer as time went on, and everybody started to wonder if they were really safe at all.
Then, one day, came the news that they had all feared. The officers told the enlisted men that a Red Rose army had attacked the south of the Buttercup lands, and they were being sent there to fight.
Indigo and his brothers and thousands of other soldiers marched day and night across the land in pursuit of the Reds. On the third day they came across a forest that had been burned to the ground by the enemy, and Indigo and his brothers recognised it immediately despite it being black and charred. They split from the army as it marched past, and they searched the forest for a day and a night, but they could find no trace of their home amongst the blackened trees.
Indigo, consumed with sadness and with anger, travelled directly back to the capital city of the Buttercup Duchy. There he presented himself before the Prince and told him how he had discovered his family’s fate at the hands of the Red Roses.
“You are a brave man to tell me this,” the Prince said, “because you have deserted the army, and by law I should sentence you to hang.”
But Indigo was prepared for this. He explained also to the Prince that he had acquired many skills from his days as a hunter, not least the ability to move quickly and quietly without being seen, and knowledge of all the plants of the forest and the effects they could have on a person. Indigo could see the Prince thinking of all the ways in which those skills could be used, and so Indigo bowed deeply and volunteered himself for any mission the Prince had in mind, provided that it would win him vengeance against the Red Roses.
Satisfied with Indigo’s honesty, the Prince gave him a mission of the utmost importance. The Prince explained that shortly, House Poppy, a Red nation, would be returning home after a long journey, and that they would surely throw a banquet in honour of their allies. There would not be a better chance to strike than this, with so many of the Reds gathered together in one place.
Indigo spent days in the forests around the capital collecting roots and berries, then boiled them and drained the liquid into a tiny bottle. His poison was strong enough that even a tiny drop could floor a grown man, so he took great care of it and packed it deeply into his backpack as he set off for the Duchy of the Poppy flowers.
As he walked, he thought of how he would get into the castle to use the poison. He had been told that the castle had high walls, small gates and could be heavily guarded. He also knew that his talent for sneaking around was good for forests, but probably not so good for cities. It looked to be a very dangerous mission, but one night he stumbled upon just the solution.
He had met a man named Albert that day on his travels, and Albert had invited Indigo into his home to spend the night. Over dinner, Indigo learned of Albert’s nature, which was that he could change his appearance at will into that of any animal he chose. Now this may seem extraordinary, but as I have said, the land in which this story takes place is not our Earth and its characters are not quite like the people you know. So this was not an astounding ability by the standards of their world, though it was a rare one, and Indigo knew just how it could be used to his advantage.
Albert himself was not fond of the Red Rose nations, and was alarmed that the Poppies were returning. So, particularly after Indigo paid him handsomely with some of the money the Prince had given him, Albert agreed to help him. Albert would disguise himself as a horse and join House Poppy’s caravan, hoping that they would think him one of their own horses or at least that they would take on a stray one. Once he had been taken to the stables, he would then change back to his normal shape, make his way into the kitchens dressed as a servant, and when no-one was looking, empty Indigo’s bottle of poison into the food they were preparing for the banquet.
The two men parted ways, and Indigo went to stay in a nearby town to await news of the poisoning.
Day after day, week after week, he waited. But news never came.
After a long time, and with news that the Red forces were gathering again, Indigo knew that his mission must have failed. He feared for his life if the Prince found out or if the Reds attacked, and so in case he had not long to live, he went to make peace with his parents and sisters.
In the land in which they lived, what we would call ‘magic’ is a commonplace thing, and likewise it was not so extraordinary that there were witches living there who could talk with the departed. So Indigo went to see a witch in the town where he was staying, and paid her a fee so that she would allow him to talk to those members of his family whom he had lost when the forest burned. The witch searched the place where souls go, and called out for them, but try as she might, she could not find them there.
“There is only one answer to this, sir,” said the witch, “and that is that these souls have not yet passed on.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Indigo.
“Your family are still alive, sir,” she said. “For another three silver coins I could help you find them…”
Indigo had nearly spent all of the Prince’s money, but so desperate was he to find out if his parents and sisters still lived that he paid the witch at once. She cast a spell of sight that allowed her to see anyone in the world, and showed Indigo her vision of his family living in the great city at the heart of the Buttercup duchy.
Indigo now had no money left for coaches or horses, but as soon as he returned to the inn he packed up all his belongings into a bag and started his long journey on foot. On the way out of the city he met a woman whose name was Sapphire, named no doubt for her sparkling blue eyes. She happened to also be travelling to Buttercup lands, and as she too had no money, they set off walking together.
For weeks they walked, through forest and plain, over hills and down into valleys. Sapphire told Indigo about her childhood, her unhappy apprenticeship to a tailor, and how she was fleeing to the Buttercup duchy to start a new life. And in time, Indigo grew to trust Sapphire more and more, until eventually he explained what the Prince had sent him to do, how it had failed, and how he learned that his family were still alive.
When at last they arrived in the city, they went straight to the house the witch had shown to Indigo. Just as she had promised, there they found Indigo’s father and mother, as well as his two sisters Green and Violet, alive and well. Indigo hugged and kissed them and cried for a long time, so relieved was he that they had survived, and so distraught was he that his hatred of the Red Rose army had been in error. Violet told Indigo her tale of how they had received warning of the approaching army and fled the forest, coming to live in the city instead, and how she and her sister were now apprenticed to a butcher and were making enough money to look after their parents.
Indigo and Sapphire slept at their house that night, and rested well after so many nights on the road. But at dawn, Buttercup soldiers came and demanded to take Indigo to the castle. Sapphire argued with them at length, but all it achieved was her being arrested as well, and them both being taken to the castle together.
Indigo was sure that he would be presented to the Prince, who would impose a harsh punishment for his failure. But instead, it was the Duke whose throne they were made to bow in front of.
“You have been arrested under the Prince’s orders,” he boomed, “but as he has since sadly been lost in battle with the Reds, it is me you now face. What reason do you have for your failure?”
Indigo told the Duke the whole story, from the day he thought his family had been killed to the day he discovered them alive again. The Duke looked a little sad by the end of it, and Indigo realised that with the Prince presumed dead, the Duke’s situation was not entirely different to his own.
“And you,” the Duke said, turning to Sapphire, “for what reason do you now stand before me?”
“I was sent to kill you,” said Sapphire.
The Duke stood sharply, the soldiers lining the room drew their swords, and Indigo stared at her, wide-eyed in disbelief.
“Give me one reason why my soldiers should not cut you down right now!” the Duke shouted.
“Because this man changed my mind,” she said, pointing to Indigo. “Because I am just like him. I blame the White Rose armies for what I think happened to my family, but I don’t really know the truth.”
“You lied to me!” said Indigo. “Was everything you told me on the journey untrue?”
“Most of it. And for that I truly am sorry. Just like you, in my anger and despair I sought any task that would bring revenge, no matter how dangerous it would be. And so I was sent here, to kill the Duke Buttercup, with an invented life story to tell anyone who started asking questions. But as we talked, I grew to realise how futile it all is. My mission, your mission, and the war itself. Regardless of the Red and White Roses’ reasons for starting this war, what about us? All their allies, all the individuals, the common people – aren’t we all just doing this because of some petty need for revenge, or even for no reason at all?”
Duke Buttercup sat back down on his throne, and thought for several minutes in silence. Then, at last, he spoke.
“I believe I know the feelings of which you speak. I, too, am grieving at the death of the Prince, and I am pushing this land’s army further than it ever ought to have gone. It is only vague promises and contorted politics that brought us into this war, and I owe my people more than that.”
Not long afterwards, the Duke Buttercup issued a proclamation that ended the duchy’s involvement in the war. Buttercup became one of the few truly neutral duchies, and thrived for many years as a result. Indigo’s brothers came home from the army and settled in the city with their family, found good jobs and could afford a doctor for their ailing parents. Sapphire told Indigo the truth about her past, and in time, Indigo grew to trust her once more. They were last seen heading for the borders of the Hyacinth duchy, Sapphire’s home, on their own quest to find out what became of her family after all.
And of course they all lived happily ever after, because they are of a kind we refer to as the Fair Folk, and those Fair Folk are creatures of story, and that is how their stories have always ended.