The fair filled the village green with light and noise from edge to edge. Most of the villagers were already gathered there, the bright lights and music attracting them like moths in the warm summer evening.
Jonathan had few coins in his purse, so he avoided the food stalls and games of chance and walked directly to the square stall opposite the forge. Bales of hay draped with rugs depicting unusual animals and far-off lands were banked to form a corral. Jonathan had watched it being set up as he worked in the forge, and he thought the stall owner was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
She was small, with smooth skin the colour of long brewed tea, and hair as red as the ripe Cushcush berries Jonathan had squashed between his fingers on the frosty autumn mornings of his youth.
Seeing him approach, her dark eyes sparkled with stars and her full lips pulled back to reveal straight white teeth in a welcoming smile.
“Greetings,” she said, her voice sliding over the double e with an alien sibilance. “Are you interested in adopting a Diae?”
Jonathan followed the graceful sweep of her arm and saw that her stall was full of small furry creatures. He stepped closer to have a better look. Each creature was about as large as his closed fist; some had long hair like a kitten, others had the smooth pelt of an otter, while others still had the glittering plumage of a kingfisher. Despite the difference in texture, each coat was garishly coloured in different hues of the rainbow, starting with a light shade at the ears and gradually darkening as it reached the tail.
The Diae clambered towards Jonathan, mewling excitedly and raising their little paws in his direction.
“They like you,” the stall owner purred, standing close to Jonathan and brushing her bare arm against his. She smelled delightfully of exotic spices.
“What are they?” Jonathan asked.
“Diae,” the stall owner said. “I gather them on the other side of the mountains of Procrast.”
“I love them, how much are they?” Jonathan asked, reaching for his money pouch.
The stall owner placed a hand on his arm. “They are not for sale. Each Diae choses its owner.”
“Do you think one will choose me?” Jonathan asked, looking down at the roiling carpet of colourful fur. One Diae caught his attention. Its deep violet eyes were slightly smaller than its companions, and its ears were erect triangles covered with long tendrils of cerulean hair. As its long coat flowed down its stout body, the colour changed to a deep midnight blue, where Jonathan swore he could see stars twinkling.
“What an extraordinary creature,” Jonathan said.
The stall owner leaned into the corral and whistled softly. The blue Diae scampered towards her outstretched hands and nested into her palms. It cooed as she lifted it to her face and softly brushed against her cheek.
“Beautiful,” Jonathan said.
“This is Sol,” the stall owner said, scratching the creature behind one of its ears. “He is very special.”
Jonathan put out his hand tentatively. Sol opened its eyes and stared at him with interest. Jonathan stroked the little animal behind the ear as he had seen the stall owner do, and Sol pressed its face into his hand and cooed, squeezing its eyes closed with pleasure.
“He likes you,” the stall owner said, smiling.
Jonathan felt giddy. He returned the smile.
“Do you think so?”
“Oh yes, he wouldn’t let you touch him if he didn’t.”
Sol gripped Jonathan’s sleeve with its little paws and scampered up his arm to his shoulder, then pressed its face against Jonathan’s cheek. The tiny animal’s fur was so soft, Jonathan felt like a cloud was stroking his skin. He closed his eyes and he saw a vision of a beautiful landscape populated with creatures and buildings beyond his imagination. His heart beat wildly with excitement.
“He has chosen you,” the stall owner said.
Jonathan reached up and tickled Sol under the chin. In response, the critter crawled under Jonathan’s collar and buried itself against the crook of his neck.
“What do I owe you?” Jonathan said, making another attempt to get his coin pouch.
The stall owner shook her head. “Sol has chosen you. The only payment is that you give him a loving and happy home. He needs to be nurtured, allowed to grow and mature. Listen to him, he will tell you what he needs. Diae are independent, loyal and life enriching, but don’t try to press him to your will too much. He won’t like it.”
Jonathan nodded, pleased with the soft warm presence of the Diae around his neck.
“I’ll do my best. Thank you.”
“One more thing,” the stall owner said. “I ask for no payment now, but when Sol is older you may notice he attracts some benefits. I would appreciate it if you donated a portion of those to me, in thanks for having a Diae in your life.”
“Of course,” Jonathan said. “It is the least I can do.”
The next morning, Jonathan woke from wondrous dreams to find Sol purring on his chest. He could have lain in bed all day, watching the gentle rise and fall of Sol’s chest and stroking the Diae’s soft fur, thinking about the faraway people and places Sol had shown him in his dreams. But the forge needed to be tended, and Sol needed food, water, play and grooming.
Jonathan took Sol to the forge with him, and the Diae played around his feet while he worked, darting out into the sunshine to greet the villagers as they passed by. Jonathan made toys for Sol to play with; little hollow wrought iron balls that the Diae batted with paws that grew larger daily, and cut-out metal animal shapes with their edges hammered smooth and tied on string. He even blew teardrops of glass that caught the light and sent Sol scampering after them with delight.
Every day Sol blossomed under Jonathan’s care. It grew bigger, its body leaner and stronger under its luxuriant soft hair. The Diae, which had been cute, now was magnificent and the villagers stopped and stared when they passed the forge.
“How beautiful,” the baker’s wife said, leaving a basket of freshly baked bread at the forge door in gratitude of the honour of looking upon Sol.
“Terrifying,” the cleric said, pausing to cast a blessing as he hurried towards the temple. “But in a good way.”
“Cor,” the children exclaimed, before approaching the forge shyly to ask if Sol could join their games. Sometimes the whole village would gather to watch the beast try to catch the children’s conkers with its paws, or leap in the air while they practised sword-fighting with rapiers made of tulip leaves.
Being seen with Sol made Jonathan’s chest swell. He liked the attention, and he stroked Sol’s sleek pelt and thought what a great person he was to have been chosen by Sol.
Sol continued to grow and soon the Diae was as big as Jonathan. The colour of its coat became more complex, so that when Jonathan looked into the sky-blue of its belly, he saw birds flying across the downy fur, or when he gazed at Sol’s midnight haunches, he saw the moon waxing and waning across its back.
Its violet eyes grew deeper in colour too, and when Jonathan looked into them he could see worlds revolving, whole civilizations rising and falling in the lazy blink of a long-lashed lid.
Sometimes, at night, when they were alone together at the end of the day, Jonathan would sit and watch Sol sleep, caught up in the majesty of the beast. Sol had chosen him. This amazing, magical creature had chosen him, Jonathan, who worked in a forge and lived in a hovel. It hurt his head to think about, and made his breath catch in his chest.
As the seasons changed, so did Jonathan. When it rained, he became afraid that Sol’s beautiful coat would become tangled and muddy, so he locked the Diae in the forge, or sometimes left it home alone.
He grew jealous of the games the children played with Sol, and the length of time that they played together, acting out adventures inspired by the scenes that rippled across Sol’s body. Jonathan felt those scenes were for his eyes only, and resented the children for having seen them too. When they came to ask if Sol could join them in their fun, Jonathan refused them. He fashioned a collar out of strong leather and chained Sol to the forge so that the wilful Diae could not disobey him and play with the children against his wishes.
He resented the gifts the villagers left when they stopped to look at Sol, reclined in splendour in the corner of the forge. Who did they think they were, paying to look upon what was his? Anger, as hot as the fires he tended daily, grew in Jonathan’s breast. What if the villagers felt that Jonathan owed them something, because of the gifts they left? Sol had chosen him, not them. Their sneaky looks and unwelcome glances were thieves that stole Sol’s image from his eyes.
Worst of all was when the evenings drew in and Jonathan walked Sol home on its chain in the dark. Sol shone like a beacon, but Jonathan was not comforted by its presence. Every bush held a miscreant who wished to harm Sol, every noise was a thief creeping up to steal the Diae.
Jonathan could no longer take the fear of losing Sol. He stopped going to the forge. He blocked up the windows and doors of his little house, so that people could not steal glances at Sol, and when people came to the door, Jonathan hid.
At first, Sol snuggled up to Jonathan, looking for tickles behind its ears and long, slow belly rubs, before asking to go outside. When it realized Jonathan would not budge, it sat at the windows, clawing at the boards with paws the size of carriage wheels, and cried with increasing intensity until Jonathan was forced to block his ears with cotton.
Despite being kept inside, away from the fresh air and sunshine it so loved, Sol continued to grow. It slunk around the house, its ears held low and its violet eyes swirling with dark clouds of purple. It lost the baby fat around its face and limbs, and the leanness that Jonathan had noticed became more pronounced. Its face grew long and sharp, and when it yawned Jonathan saw its teeth were each as long as his fingers, and as sharp and shapely as curved daggers.
Its long, luxurious fur started to shed, falling out in huge handfuls and covering everything with itchy strands of hair that climbed into the food and up Jonathan’s nose, making him sneeze. Ebony scales replaced the pelt Jonathan had once so loved, and when he looked into the shiny, slick armour he saw only his own shrunken face reflected back.
Sol’s personality also underwent a change. The Diae became less affectionate, no longer following Jonathan around the house, pressing its heavy blue head against his leg. Now, when Jonathan went looking for Sol, the Diae would glare at him disdainfully with its clouded purple eyes and stalk off, huffing under its breath.
One night, when Jonathan went to bed, Sol growled at him. Jonathan stood by the side of the bed, looking at the monster Sol had become. Its black, scaly body lay stretched out like a dragon on a thick covering of its former pelt, its hind feet and long sinuous tail falling over the end of the bed and trailing along the floor in inky splendour. Sol’s huge head took up the space of two pillows. Jonathan noticed how enormous its paws were, each studded with serrated gold claws. Sol was lying with its back to Jonathan, and Jonathan marvelled at the muscles that rippled under the thick armoured hide. He couldn’t see the Diae’s face, but there was no mistaking the coiled threat behind the deep throated growl.
Backing out of the room, Jonathan spent his nights after that sleeping in the living room.
He was no longer afraid of Sol being stolen. He was afraid of Sol.
It was bigger than Jonathan, stronger than him, more heavily armed and, judging by the growing number of growls and leg swipes if he didn’t jump to Sol’s bidding soon enough, it was also no longer fond of Jonathan.
Sol had to go.
Jonathan couldn’t cope with it anymore. He was afraid for his life. Afraid of what Sol might do if it got loose. He thought of the village children disappearing one at a time into the gigantic mouth, like peas into a pea shooter.
A year after Jonathan had adopted Sol, the fair returned to the village green, but this time Jonathan didn’t go. He hid in his dark shambles of a house, stuffing cotton into his ears to shut out the angry roars from Sol as it paced restlessly, its mighty footfalls shaking the building with each step.
As evening fell, Sol froze mid-pace and twitched its massive ears towards the door. A second later, a loud knock echoed through the house.
Jonathan shuddered. He looked towards the door in fear. Who could it be? The children no longer called, he got no visitors or deliveries. People feared his shuttered dark house with its rumbling and shaking, and haunted howls.
Who could it be?
Jonathan curled into a ball and hoped that the person would go away.
The knock came again, even louder and more strident than before, if that was possible. It seemed his visitor was not going to take no for an answer.
Sol padded softly towards the door and sat down. Even with its shoulders hunched forward, its head and ears were still squashed against the ceiling, cobwebs dangling from the stubby horns that had sprouted from its temples.
Sol mewled softly.
Jonathan waved at the beast to move away from the door, but Sol paid him no attention. As Jonathan considered whether he could chase Sol from the door by waving a blanket and a pillow or would that result in him being sent crashing through the far wall after a bat from one of the boat-sized paws, the front door rattled and opened, letting the evening sun slant in through the doorway and fall onto Sol, illuminating the Diae with incandescent beauty.
Jonathan scratched his head. He always locked and double bolted the door. Always. How could he have forgotten.
A slender figure stepped over the threshold. Next to Sol, it was the size of a child’s toy at the feet of a giant. Jonathan blinked, blinded by the light, but then the silhouette resolved into features, and he saw the dark eyes and red hair of the stall attendant from the fair.
“Hello,” she said, bestowing her beautiful smile on the room.
Sol lowered its reptilian head and pressed it against her chest. She scratched Sol behind the ears and it cooed in response.
Jonathan felt a twinge of jealousy. Sol was his. The Diae should coo for him, or no one. He stood up, his face flushed with sudden anger, and stepped towards the woman with his fists curled.
“My, how you have grown,” the woman said, stroking the ridge of scales between Sol’s large violet eyes.
“What are you doing here? Get out of my house,” Jonathan said.
The woman cocked her head to one side and looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. She still smiled, but now there was a menace in the smile that chilled Jonathan’s anger and froze him in place.
“I have come to check up on Sol,” the woman said softly, yet her voice sent a shudder up Jonathan’s spine. “And to collect my portion of the benefits he has brought to your life. We agreed, when Sol chose you, that you would give a portion to help other Diae find homes.”
“Benefits,” Jonathan laughed mirthlessly. “What benefits has this beast brought me? Eating me out of house and home, taking my bed, covering everything with his hairs. I have barely had a wink of sleep in the last six months from the fear of him being stolen or of… ” Jonathan bit his lip and snatched his words back into his mouth.
“Or?” the woman prompted.
“Or being killed in my sleep by that monster,” Jonathan blurted out, raising a shaking hand and pointing at Sol.
Sol mewled and the woman stroked its drooping ears.
“You mean to say you have kept Sol within this dark house for the twelve months he has stayed with you?” the woman said, fire flashing in her dark eyes. “You have hidden him away, kept him jealously to yourself?”
“What else was I supposed to do? He’s mine,” Jonathan said.
The woman’s smiled faded with what bore a striking resemblance to a snarl. “When a Diae chooses to spend time with you, it is a gift, one that enriches your life and those of all you touch. It is a gift that grows more bountiful with the more people you share it with. Most people find that having a Diae by their side brings them great fortune. Some in material gain, others in social or spiritual advancement.”
She took one step towards Jonathan, and though she was so small and slight compared to him, her shadow stretched gigantic and alien before her, dwarfing Jonathan and sending him cowering back against the wall.
“But you,” she hissed, and red lights glowed in the depths of her dark eyes “You have hidden your gift, locked your Diae selfishly away and let it grow monstrous with neglect. Shame on you. You do not deserve to share your life with Diae. You have twisted Sol’s kindness into something dark and ugly. Shame. On. You.”
She turned, and Jonathan could breathe again as if her fiery gaze had sucked the air from his lungs. She brushed Sol’s nose in a gesture for it to follow. Without a backward glance at Jonathan, Sol squeezed out the door after the woman.
“No, please don’t leave me,” Jonathan shouted. He crawled to his feet and stumbled to the door, his hands held out to grab hold of Sol’s retreating tail. “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. I’ll change. I’ll be better this time. Please Sol, don’t leave me.”
He stood in the doorway, watching the graceful back of the woman as she walked down the path to his garden gate. She was alone, but her shadow on the grass keeping pace beside her was horrific. She paused at the gate and looked back at Jonathan. Cradled peacefully in her arms was Sol, as cute and infantile as Jonathan had first seen him in the corral of the stall a year before.
Jonathan let out a strangled cry and lurched over the doorstep out onto the garden path. The sun blazed, blinding him, and then sank beneath the rim of the earth and when night fell, Jonathan looked to the road but the woman, and Sol, were gone.
BIO: Iseult Murphy lives on the east coast of Ireland and is owned by five dogs, two cats, and a tiny parrot. When she isn’t tending to her furry (and feathery) overlords, she is usually scribbling something horrible onto the walls, and occasionally her laptop. Magic and science are usually involved too. Her short stories have been published in over two dozen venues.