“What story would you like to hear, then? The tale of the princess and the demon, perhaps?” Shea stuck out her tongue and made a sour face. Brenna laughed, her emerald eyes sparkling with life and mischief. “All right, then, perhaps you would like to hear of the brave prince who fought the witch to save his beloved from her tower?” Shea covered her eyes and made a disgusted noise. “You used to enjoy those old fairytales,” Brenna said carefully, as though testing her daughter.
“They are ridiculous,” Shea said with a shrug. “You never did like them, so do not act so shocked that I have come to view them in the same manner.”
“And why do you think I dislike them, my child?” Brenna gave her a sly look.
“Because they are always about an empty headed princess, who won’t even try to save herself, waiting for some knight in shining armor or a prince to come riding in on his white horse and rescue her.” Shea’s voice was full of contempt. “It’s just silly. Even if knights weren’t more interested in war and protecting their king, and even if all princes weren’t hideously spoiled, helpless things themselves, it wouldn’t be right to just sit around waiting to be rescued.” Shea made another face. “It is better to try and save yourself than to sit around waiting for some man to do it for you.”
“Very true,” Brenna said, smiling until Shea blushed; she felt as though she had passed some sort of coming of age rite and was suddenly much older.
“I did use to like listening to them, but the older I get, the more I see the lie in them. They are what people wish would happen, not what actually does. Why is it always a princess that gets carried off anyway? What use could an evil old witch or a dragon have for some empty headed fool who has been pampered all her life? If you need someone to clean your tower or want an unending pile of thread woven into linens, wouldn’t it be better to take the princess’ maid or her weaver?”
Brenna tipped her head back, laughing until the small cottage was full of her ringing voice and trees outside shifted and turned in their half sleep. “My daughter, you have indeed grown up. As you say, people tell what they wish was truth. They all dream of a world where princesses are full of virtue and resources and princes are heroes, not wine guzzling fools, but reality is sharpest at its highest point. The truth they wish most to deny is the truth that cuts deepest. There is little use for human princesses and princes except to dress them up and trot them out like well-bred horses. Remember that and never shall I fear for you.”
“Why do all those fairy tales have dragons doing such silly things anyway?” Shea asked, warm with her mother’s pleasure. “All the other stories you tell me of them paint them as wise, kind creatures and why they would want to kidnap anyone escapes me.”
“It is true they are wise, but kindness is not always their way, my child. Best remember that if ever you meet a dragon. They are the oldest of Danu’s children and they have little patience for foolishness or greed and certainly none for those who underestimate them.” For a moment, the atmosphere changed. Brenna’s face became suddenly bleak and near to anger, as it always did when Shea asked a question about the elder races that took her by surprise. Brenna leaned in and stirred the thick stew, her mouth turned down in a frown. “So, shall I tell you a tale of dragons as they really are?” Her tone was forced lightness and Shea knew better than to accept. Brenna would only spend the rest of the day trying to look happy while her anger simmered in her eyes. She had never raised a hand to Shea, yet that hidden fury did frighten her. At any rate, it was something else she wanted and today of all days she actually had a chance of getting it.
Shea shook her head and eyed her mother carefully. “I think I would rather like a different story, Mother.”
“You only have to name it, Shea.” Brenna’s face had instantly cleared; of all her stories, ones of dragons had the best bet at raising her ordinarily calm nature to anger, though Shea could never guess why.
“I do not want to upset you. I know how it hurts you to talk of some things and I don’t want to spoil this day.” She glanced at Brenna and away again, putting her thumb to her mouth and biting the nail.
“Ah, so it is a story of elves you would beg from me, so it is.” Brenna bit her lip, looking sad and thoughtful. On rare occasions, when the spring storms were rushing up from the south in black, rumbling waves, when the air in Darkwood was heavy with the scent of fresh earth and rain, when the noon light went from dead gray to dark green twilight, her mother would sometimes speak of the elves and they did not raise her anger like the dragons, but it often made her grow quiet and unhappy for days afterwards.
“It is all right, Mother,” Shea said quickly; she saw Brenna glancing already at the window, where she would sit for hours after talking of elves, as if wishing for another life. “Tell me of dragons if you like. Or princesses with heroic princes to woo them. Any story you choose is fine. I only like the sound of your voice anyway, so the story does not matter a wit.”
Brenna smiled softly. “No, my child. I will tell you a new story, I think. One that is about an elf prince and a princess, and the cruelty of the world that drove them apart.”
Shea frowned. “I suppose she needed to be rescued from some tower.”
“Oh no, my child; elf princesses rarely need to be rescued and there are few who would dare to try and lock them up. Elves are not humans, my girl. They do not wait for princes of any kind, though, if you are going to wish for a rescuer, an elvish prince is a better choice than most. In this story, however, it is the prince that needed rescuing.”
Shea’s eyes widened, a smile forming. “And the princess doing it?”
“Aye, in a way, my daughter, though, in truth, she did not actually succeed. Would you like to hear it?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Shea folded her hands beneath her chin, her eyes shining.
“All right, then, let me collect my thoughts for a moment.” Brenna closed her eyes, the firelight catching on her thick, black lashes. Shea took the time to look a little harder at her mother. The skin of her face and hands did not look quite healthy, though what change there was in it, Shea could not see, but she neither could she deny that it was there. Brenna’s hair did not seem so shiny or her eyes quite so bright green as they had been, but there was no obvious difference for Shea to point at, no one thing that caught her attention and refused to be ignored. Brenna was as she had always been, as far as her eyes could tell; still more lovely than even the lord’s beautiful wife, still as young in appearance as she had ever been, though there might have been the beginning of lines around her cat shaped eyes. Yet there was some quiet nagging in the back of her mind, some whispering voice that refused to be denied telling her that Brenna was sick. Shea studied the pointed tips of her mother’s ears and the way the golden light of the fire shown through the delicate skin there, outlining tiny veins and a tightness grew in her chest. No, something was not quite right at all.
Brenna opened her eyes at last and sighed. “What do you know of elves, my daughter?”
Shea smiled wistfully. “That they are immortal, that they never catch any diseases or grow old. You have said more than once that they are the most beautiful of all Danu’s creations, an image of the goddess herself. They can die of a mortal wound or fade into death when they suffer a broken heart, but the greatest of warriors may not match them in battle for they are inhumanly fast and strong. I know that their voices are as Danu’s and full of great power.” Shea paused and sighed. “And I know that you grow sad when you tell stories of them.”
Brenna nodded. “All that is true, including my sadness, and let that be a warning to you; if ever you meet an elf beside the road or in the woods, you must be courteous and kind and remove yourself at once from his presence or spend all your days pining for a second glimpse.” Shea started to ask about that, but Brenna did not give her the chance, likely because she did not want to speak of it again. “You must know that a heart can be broken by more than losing a loved one. The heart can also break when certain dreams are lost or something precious is taken away. Like freedom. Elves cannot stand to be locked away from their mother, the earth. They live to breathe fresh air and hear birdsong. Their buildings often reflect that, being far more open than most. They love to run in the grass, to feel spring’s first breath on their skin. They are so close to Danu’s heart that they long constantly to be near her and she is always nearer to them than any, even the human priests who spend their days offering their prayers to her and sacrificing any life they might have that is not wrapped around her words and decrees.”
“The story I am going to tell you today is not a happy one, nor is it one that ends well, so be warned. This is no fairytale that has a happily ever after, my love.” Brenna resettled herself, tucking her long legs tighter beneath her. She stared at Shea, as though waiting for a protest. When none came, she sighed. “Now, to understand all I will tell you, I must first tell you about this elf prince. He was not quite an ordinary elf at all; he was far more trusting and sweet than most, very nearly innocent of all that is dark and ugly in the world. Elves are beautiful and sometimes kind – though they can be cruel enough when it is called for – but they are not innocent. Sometimes, they are even mischievous enough to cause mortals to look at them with outright fear. When the prince was young and his companions played tricks on lost wanderers in the woods, he frowned on their jokes and helped these lost souls back to their true path. When the other elves laughed and danced, he was the most merry, and when they were reverent, he would often irritate them by refusing to listen to dour warnings and portents. Always he was a bright star among them, even when he was making play of what should have been deadly serious. That is not to say he was ignorant or naïve, for elves, like the dragons, are very wise, though they do not keep all wisdom, like those great beasts. He simply wanted all the world to be a bright, happy place and for all its people to get along. He wanted very badly to believe that perfect harmony was possible. Often, so blind was he to the crueler ways of humans that he caused problems for himself, but always he managed to find his way out without ever changing his opinion that they were all good at heart. This, as I have told you over and over through the years, is not always the case. Here in our valley, there is little cruelty, even toward us, though we live in a place they all fear, but outside of this valley, there are plenty who have ugly, sour hearts filled with greed. Yet the prince could not see this. The elves fought many wars in those days, my child, though not so much against humans, for it was a time of uneasy peace between the children of Danu and the human kind; the Three Kings were fallen and sealed away and Chaos had been driven deep into the bowels of the earth. Yet demons, goblins, trolls, and all manner of foul beasts still roamed, seeking to reclaim the world they had so recently ruled. This prince was part of those wars, called the Shadow Wars, for elves are very unlike humans in that respect; their royalty is often first on the battlefield and last to leave.”
“Then they must not have many royals left,” Shea said with a laugh.
Brenna shook her head. “Elves are hard to kill, my love; they have extraordinary reflexes and perception, and they can move like the wind when they choose. Some have said they have the senses of animals and they are not so far off the mark. Elvish royals are not spoiled in the manner of human royalty, but trained from birth to be the very best of their warriors. For the elves, their royalty is the example upon which they found every action, so those who are high born must be the very image of what they would wish their people to be.”
“The prince, whom we will call Liam, after the brightest star in the night sky, was a result of the higher ideals of hisforbearers; he would have his people love the humans, though they found it hard to trust them, and he would have had a lasting peace spring up between them. His father, however, was not always of a like mind. The king did not hate humans, for it is hard for elves to find hate for anything that lives and once they do, they become a lesser creature that eventually fades away. There is no easier way to break your own heart than to let hate settle inside you; it is cancerous. It will start out as a small thing, then grow, feeding on everything inside you until it spreads even to that you once loved. You become hollowed out inside, only a shell that is full of foul wishes and dark thought and no one can live like that, especially an elf. Yet the elf king had his reasons to distrust the humans and could not let them lie forgotten.”
“So Prince Liam could not have his greatest wish and he settled for going among the humans himself and enjoying their company. Often, his greatest friend would accompany him. She was a princess of elves, though not one of the higher, more ethereal breeds, but a shadow elf. Shadow elves are closer to humans than the rest of their kin and often lived among the humans when they could. This princess, Ahrin, was one who did not only live among many humans, but one who ruled. She was the general of the dragon army.”
“Dragon Clan,” Shea whispered, awestruck eyes turning toward the ceiling. “Blessed by the Guardians.”
“Yes, the Dragon Clan. Ahrin loved the prince, though she was not so fond of most elves. Only the ones who served the dragons with her had ever gained her favor before. Prince Liam, however, was different. She wanted badly for him to serve with her as well, but, though he was the eighth child, he had a duty to his father that would end only when his eldest brother took the throne and had children of his own to claim it. So she settled for traveling with him among the humans, and enjoyed his company.”
“Could she not marry him?” Shea asked.
Brenna shook her head. “She did not love