Afterwards, he could never be sure how long he had spent under the hills. Less than five hundred years, he was sure, and more than fifty. A hundred years, perhaps. Two hundred. He had never been one for calendars and time, and dancing under the hills had not changed that. He did not go and seek his family, to learn the truth of it. He had not been fond of them before he had stepped beneath the hills, and he could not imagine that the years had changed that either.
He breathed the air, the fresh, ordinary air, felt the sunlight creeping through the clouds, and tried not to fall over. The air felt so thick. So wrong.
They had warned him. Warned him he could not dance and sleep beneath the hills forever. He had smiled and reached out for a cup of their wine, to gulp it down. They had laughed. Our drink traps only those who can shape the mists. It holds no such traps for mortal blood.
A lie, in part. The wine had held him beneath the hills for far longer than his mortal life. And it had given him a longing for their dances that would, he suspected, never cease.
But it had not kept him from leaving, from standing on mortal lands.
He was...crying. He could not remember crying, even before he had stepped beneath the hills. Another memory stolen; another memory gained.
He would return. He would return. He pounded on the hill beneath him, but heard no response.
Money. Food. A roof. Clothes. He needed all of that and more, unless he wanted to stay here on this dry hill and waste into death. A tempting thought, but he knew the anguish of thirst, and did not think he could tolerate that death.
No more than he could tolerate this so thick air—
Mortals have but one road. But what did they know of mortals, after all? He had not met any who had studied mortals at all, who knew much more of them than as occasional lovers, or mere toys, a distraction, taken in the need for something different, something changed—
the scent of her skin and her lips and the faint feel of scales upon her back as they danced and tumbled the laughter as he had desperately sucked at her skin, her breasts, never caring that her skin continually shifted from green to blue or that anyone could and did watch as she played with him—
Not love. Never that, no matter what mortal tales might say.
It must be possible to return. It must.
Golden trees and silver lights.
He cut his finger, to seal the oath in blood. He felt no pain.
They had, at least, taught him the flute—he, tone deaf and unable to sing, before. And had kindly left him one, there in the dry grass when he awoke. He touched it now. It still had, he thought, a touch of other about it, although they had told him that this flute was too dross, too coarse for their ears. They had tossed it into his lap as an unwanted thing, laughing.
He breathed into it, wondering if he could still play, here in the mortal lands, and found himself weeping again when he found that he could. And somehow—it might have been imagination—he almost thought the flute still had a trace of their dancing.
He could see a road below. He might as well follow it, and find a place where he could play for his supper at least.
It did not take him long to find a place that served ale and food and welcomed a small bit of music in the evening. He raised his flute and played a few notes; the barkeep smiled and brought him soup and ale. He nearly retched after tasting both, but kept his face calm and forced himself to eat. He would need strength and food.
Once he choked down the food, he moved to the front of the room and began to play.
The patrons, caught in the food and their own lives and conversations, ignored him at first. At first. As he played, he watched them turn to him, watched their eyes fixate on him. On the flute. Conversation ended. Glasses dropped. The barkeep fell against the bar, his face growing slack.
He might have stopped then, but he found he could not pause his fingers. Another song, and another, and another. Until the clock struck midnight.
He hardly heard, focused on his playing, on the patrons' unceasing stares. But they did.
One by one, they rose, and shuffled to the door, opening it, stepping out into the moonlight. He tried to put down his flute, and found that his arms would not move. He pushed, and still, his fingers danced over the flute.
If he could not move his arms, he could move his legs. He followed the patrons.
They were on the road now, dancing, their movements, to his eyes, gross and awkward. They danced, and danced, and the road, he thought, moved beneath their feet.
Mists arose from the road.
He should have shouted. Could have shouted, but the flute was still upon his lips; he could not stop playing. He watched as they danced and danced, watched as the mists swallowed them, and watched as the mists wrapped around his own feet, his own hands, until their blindness seized him.
When the mortal sun arose, burning away the mists, he found himself alone upon the hills. They were closed against him, yet he laughed.
The world had other patrons, other inns. He would play the flute, and watch them dance. And where they danced, he would follow. The taste of their wine still lingered on his tongue, and he thirsted, thirsted.