Muirgen & Other Tales
“It’s time that I told you the truth.”
It was warm the night that her mother had said those words. It had been the peak of summer, but the servants had been ordered to keep her windows shut. Even the curtains were drawn tight against the outside world.
Vervain waited in captive curiosity as her mother, Queen Aloe, sat on the end of the bed and smiled faintly at her.
“You see, once, long ago, an outsider came to the continent.” Her eyes went wide. She had never even heard of there being a place outside of Coerde Femmes before. “The Goddess had never intended for the Fleurs to be corrupted by the dangers outside of her barriers, but we were ignorant in those days, and welcomed the stranger. The princess even fell in love with them.”
Her mother reached across to tuck a strand of her hair gently behind her ear. She cupped her chin softly with a wistful look. “We should have never angered the Goddess. We were rightfully punished.”
“First, the Goddess delivered us from the stranger by striking them down. But to punish us, she created the Demons, a race of nightmarish beings that live only to destroy, and placed the Demon Queen at their head.” Her mother drew her into her lap. “She ordered the Demon Queen to kidnap the princess and lock her away, torturing her daily with her deepest, darkest fears. At the same time, the Demon Army destroyed the crops, polluted the land and terrorised the people.”
Vervain frowned, waiting for the happy twist to the story.
“Fortunately, the Goddess is merciful. After only a month, she gifted the people a Hero.”
She grinned with relief. “Like mummy?”
“Yes.” Her mother bopped her nose affectionately. “Just like mummy, she was pulled from another world, from a race known as humans. The Goddess gifted her with great strength and holy magical powers and bid her to defeat the Demon Army and rescue the princess.”
“And she did?”
“Yes. Finally, after a year, the princess and the people were saved. And the princess married the Hero and they ruled together, wisely, for the rest of their lives.”
“Happily ever after.” Satisfied, she leant back on her knee. Her mother caught her and sat her up properly.
“Yes… But we could never pay for our sins so easily.” She looked sterner than she had ever seen her before. “So that we would never forget our crimes and grow complacent, the Goddess declared that the Demons would rise again each generation. Each princess will be abducted on her nineteenth birthday, as the first princess was, and suffer a year under the Demon Queen’s torment.”
She felt a prickle of cold fear run over her skin. Her smiled stayed, waiting for her mother to break the tension with a laugh or a Gotcha!
“But the Goddess is lenient. Now, each Hero will arrive before the Demons so that they can train longer, ensuring their success. When you turn eighteen, that’s when your Hero will be summoned – just like mummy was for me.”
For the first – but not the last – time in her life, Vervain found that she couldn’t draw in enough air. She gripped tightly to her mother, panicking as her vision blurred. Her mother took her hands in her own.
“That’s right, my darling – cry now.” She felt her kiss her head. “Because after today, you must never cry again.”
The order stung her ears.
“Every Fleur looks to you for guidance. If they saw how you suffered, their faith in the Goddess might waver, and she may not forgive us a second time.”
Her mother lifted her in her arms and brought her to the window, pulling back the curtain. The twilight was somehow invasive. She buried her face in her chest to hide her tears.
“You must be strong, my love. It is a princess’ duty.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me.”
Vervain flinched. The woman sprawled in the summoning circle had hurled the words so violently that she almost felt it on her skin. She glanced back, half-expecting to see the Goddess glaring over her shoulder.
Her Hero Mother met her gaze with a lazy grin. “Feuvert expects the Heroes to be a little rude to begin with. She won’t do us any harm.”
“Hard as it may be for you to believe, young Hero, this is our reality.” Her Fleur Mother’s commanding voice brought the courtroom back from the brink of outrage. She stepped lightly down from the dais, mastering her posture into an elegant yet dainty promenade that drew every eye in the room. Even the human was quiet with awe. “I would like to entrust you with my daughter’s life. If you aren’t up to the task, there’s no one who can save her.”
The Hero’s eyes slid over to Vervain. She stood straighter, trying to give a soft but encouraging smile. It was hard to keep her head level with the weight of the crown pressing down on her, but she would be unconvincing if she didn’t.
“The Goddess has chosen you.” The queen knew how to make the words sound heavy. “She must have seen a great potential in you. The right qualities for a queen, and to be my daughter’s wife.”
Again, an appraising glance. Vervain’s dress had been sewn by the continent’s best designer three weeks ago, designed in just the right shade of blue to complement the pink of her hair. She’d been treating her skin with rose milk every night for eight weeks. She couldn’t not pass the test, she told herself. Just in case, she tilted her head to show her best side.
“Don’t worry, newbie!” said her Hero Mother, Tracy, grinning madly. “This a great world with nothing but beautiful women – not a single man. Can you believe it!? And it’s just like a video game. You even get levels and stats!” She gave her a huge thumbs up.
The Hero’s eyes didn’t leave Vervain. There was an expectant silence, so she took her cue. Lifting her chiffon skirt, she tried to copy her Fleur Mother’s grace to make her way to the circle.
When she was promised a Hero, she had imagined someone like her mother – daring and muscle-bound. This woman was so small and thin that even Vervain thought she could break her arm with a single touch. Her skin was pale like sickness, her dark hair hung limply, and she shuffled back as the princess approached.
It’s a princess’ duty to support her Hero. Thinking that, she forced her warmest smile.
“Might I know your name, my Hero?”
“Lorraine… Lorraine Blake.”
“Ser Blake.” She slipped into a low curtsy. “I beg you to save us. Without you, the Demon Army will destroy this land and end our species. If not for me, then for the thousands of innocents who will die…”
There was a long silence.
“Alright, I guess…”
Vervain let her hair tumble out from its bun. With the help of her ladies-in-waiting, it was carefully combed, smoothed out and laid as flatteringly as possible over her loose silk gown. She bowed her head to accept the Crown of the Princess that she would now wear every day until she was queen.
No doubt her hair would catch on everything she walked past, but her Hero loved it best when it was left down. Together, they descended the stairs slowly so that the friction from her legs wouldn’t make it frizzy before they reached the grounds.
Her Hero was hard at work as always. It had been six months since her arrival. Vervain had watched with pride as she had slowly but surely grown out of her shell, making friends amongst the knights and warming up to her mothers. Day after day of dedicated training and good food had tempered her body into a thick wall of muscle.
She had even done the unthinkable and cut her hair almost to the scalp. Sacrilege to the Fleurs, but it had revealed handsome angles to her face that must have been impossible to see otherwise. It gave Vervain a pang of jealousy that she didn’t understand.
The princess paused at a respectful distance while the Hero shattered yet another training dummy. There was a great round of applause from her fellows.
She turned her bright smile on Vervain. It widened. “Vervain!”
Without remembering to toss even a quick goodbye to her friends, her Hero rushed to her side. She thought that, if it had been anyone else, the proud knights of Coerde Femmes would have been greatly offended. For Lorraine, they merely chuckled and dispersed tactfully.
“You’ve been working hard.” She offered her handkerchief to wipe off the sweat. “Thank you.”
“Not as hard as you. You’ve been holed up in your study all day, haven’t you?”
She masked the way her flirty grin made her stomach flip. “I still have a lot to learn before I can serve my people as queen.”
She chuckled. “If you ever want a study buddy, let me know. I won’t be able to keep up, but maybe my struggle can provide some entertainment.”
One of her ladies-in-waiting brought a goblet of water to refresh her. Vervain waited while she gulped it down, risking a sly glance at the beads of sweat that were rolling temptingly down her abs. She was composed again by the time it left her lips.
“That was good. Thanks.” The lady-in-waiting accepted it back with a swoon. “I was thinking, do you have time to go to the garden?”
“Of course.” She contained her secret joy – the garden was her favourite place in the world to go. She always slipped out to it whenever her head began to hurt.
With another charming grin, Lorraine slipped her hand into hers and led the way. Vervain signalled silently to another of her ladies to collect her discarded cloak in case she was cold after the sweat dried.
The garden was beautiful and fresh again today. The gardeners had lovingly grown a sea of flowers to spill over the hills in the grounds, making it feel as if you could run over the top of them and glimpse wide-open freedom on the other side. You couldn’t, but she liked the fantasy of it.
Her Hero slowed beside her favourites, the Snow Blooms. Her ladies fell back to a respectful distance. “How have you been?”
This question always threw her. “Everything is as usual. There have been no unexpected events recently.”
“But how are you feeling today? Happy, sad, anxious, tired?”
She hesitated. Even with the distance between them, her ladies might pick up snatches of their conversation on the wind. She picked a sweet smile and said, “I’m overcome with joy to be spending time with you, my Hero.”
Lorraine was dissatisfied but said nothing more. She bent to pick a flower, returning to her with a smile.
“I’ve noticed that the other Fleurs wear flowers in their hair. Why don’t you?”
“No princess or queen can. We’re too close to the Goddess – if we wore flowers, she would think that we were trying to usurp her as an idol.”
“I see…” She slipped it through the brooch Vervain was wearing instead. “Listen, I’ve been thinking… Maybe I could train you to use a knife a little? For protection?”
She tried not to let her smile falter. The thought was too tempting to admit in public. As a princess, she ought to know better. “Thank you for worrying about me. However, it wouldn’t change anything. The Demon Queen can only be stopped by the Hero. Nothing I could do would put so much as a scratch on her.”
There seemed to be nothing to say afterwards. She could hear her ladies talking amongst themselves in hushed whispers. She strained to hear what they were saying, conscious that it might spread to others as gossip, but Lorraine began walking again. She was forced to follow, the rustle of their clothes drowning out their voices.
They walked in silence for almost the entire length of the garden. The blooms no longer held any joy for Vervain. Lorraine didn’t seem to see them at all.
Just when she thought that she should come up with a polite excuse for them to part ways, Lorraine stopped suddenly.
“I’ve told you before, Vervain: I think this whole fairytale crap is–”
“Bullshit.” She had heard this countless times before.
“Right! It’s just a shitty little hazing ritual!” She turned just as Vervain flinched. Before the princess could cover for her mistake, her tone softened. “Sorry. But I can’t be part of this.”
Ice clamped over her heart. Her lungs struggled. “You’re giving up?”
“No. But there are still six months. Six months is a long time.” She ran her hand through her cropped hair. “What’s the highest level you can reach?”
She was surprised that her Hero would ask her something like that. “Level? Only Heroes and Demons have those. There’s never been a limit recorded in living history…”
“Then I’ll be the first. I’ll kill that thing in one blow, before she can take you away.”
“It’s impossible. The Demon Queen is always a higher level than the Hero when she arrives.”
She was surprised to see fury bloom on Lorraine’s face.
“Then why am I training like this!?”
“You can’t defeat any Demons as a level 1 Hero. Besides, the level of the Demon Army is always the same.”
“So I can rescue you faster if I train a lot?”
She hesitated. No princess had ever been rescued in less than a year. Lorraine shook her head.
“I’ll stop this before it even begins. Mark my words.”
She walked away after that, heading once more for the training camp. Vervain watched her strong back fading into the distance. She willed herself to have faith in it.
Humour her, her mother had said. Her mothers didn’t miss a beat to do so, plying her Hero with sweet words of support and encouragement and giving her whatever she asked for. That was how her bedroom had been emptied of furniture the night before her birthday.
Now she and a row of resigned guards were waiting against the far wall, the bedroom’s most prominent window ahead of them.
It was the worst wait of her life. If she had had a chair, she could have sat in it to take the pressure off her weakened legs, but she was forced to stop them from trembling now. A book might have let her take at least half of her mind off the fear until the moment was upon her. Instead, she watched the foreboding darkness creep eerily into dawn.
Her Hero seemed calmer, she thought resentfully. She was posted in the corner beside the window with her holy blade drawn. Her plan was to catch the queen off-guard, apparently, and cut her down before she could do more than poke her head into the room.
Vervain knew that she ought to have faith. That she ought to forgive Lorraine for her ignorance, because humans had different ideas about how a world ought to work and she did this out of love for her. She tried, but the feeling festered in her heart.
A lip of sun appeared over the horizon. She closed her eyes, disguising it as a reaction to the light falling into them.
A scream from the guards confirmed her worst fears. The light was gone, but she didn’t dare look. Lorraine roared, no doubt springing forward to do the deed. Something hit the wall.
The hot smell of rot and blood blew into her face. She reluctantly cracked her eyes open.
Oh Goddess, the mouths. Endless, endless mouths with endless, endless teeth. The way it was twisted made sick rise to her throat. She knew there were eyes on her – its eyes, their eyes – but her body wasn’t hers to control anymore. The scream barely made its way out of her body.
It clamped down on her.
She thought that she felt Lorraine try to grab onto the hem of her dress, but she heard a distant rip. The world sped by dizzyingly.
“Wait for me, Vervain! I won’t let them break you!”
She lay on the floor in the darkness. There was never any light, not unless the Demon Queen had something that she wanted to show her. She had long since learned that light should never be looked at.
Closing her eyes wasn’t enough, of course. The Demon Queen preferred to torture her with noise alone, keeping it beyond the walls of her cell, where she was forced to listen intently to guess what was happening. Footsteps in the distance. Heavy breathing and scraping. The screams of Lorraine being disembowelled, followed by the crunch of bone and silence.
She had cried for hours, begging the Demon Queen to spare her. Now that she had collapsed, she came to her again.
“It’s a trick, Vervain. I thought I taught you better than this.” It was her mother’s voice. She heard the carefully measured click of her heels stop beside her head. “Only six months in and you’re reduced to this. How can you call yourself a princess?”
She turned her head to know. Her mother’s feet were really there. “It’s been six months…?” Despite her better judgment, she looked up. It brought fresh tears to her eyes to see her mother’s face.
“No, you fool. One day.”
The blood exploded over her before she could brace herself. The cell shook violently, tossing the head into her lap; an ear-splitting roar drowned out her screams.
Then it was gone. Sobbing, she curled up in a ball to wait for the next one.
Endless silence. Endless darkness. Nothing scraped the walls or hissed in her ear when she tried to sleep. Nothing interrupted her next dozen or so rests. She paced the cell and nothing slithered over her feet. She didn’t put her hand in a single river of blood.
Who knows how long they went on like that. She had half a mind to call out to the Demon Queen, to ask if she was still there, when the door swung open and sunlight blinded her.
“Vervain!” Lorraine’s figure was there. Real or not, there was no knowing. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
Without waiting for her to make up her mind, Lorraine strode into the stale room and swept her into her arms. “I didn’t mean to take so long to rescue you…”
Vervain looped her arms around her to enjoy the contact, even just to delude herself with. “Has it been a year already?” By the Goddess, she hoped so.
“No, only a month.” Her Hero kissed her head. “The journey here was long.”
She prepared herself for another explosion of blood. Perhaps even a more brutal death. “How did you get here so quickly? You have the whole army to fight.”
“They’re just the Demon Queen’s puppets. I cut their strings right when I cut hers.”
“See for yourself.” She turned so that Vervain could see the half-rotten mass that had once been the Demon Queen. Bile rose in her throat. “The Demon Queen was never the threat – she was just a sock puppet for the Goddess.”
She shakily turned her head away. “Now that you have defeated the…” It was harder to maintain her persona than it had ever been before. “The evil that was here… The Goddess will bless our marriage…”
“Ah. About that.”
She tried to focus only on Lorraine when she looked back at her. She was glowing with a confidence she’d never seen before. “I defeated her.”
Vervain thought she’d misheard. “Yes, no other Hero has ever defeated the Demon Queen so fast…”
“Not her. Feuvert. Look.”
She shifted Vervain’s weight onto one arm so that she could fish something out of her pocket. She brought out a small purple orb, containing a tiny, unearthly beauty with long, flower-filled hair. She seemed to be sleeping.
“This whole shebang has been done so many times, I thought that somebody had to know a way to cheat the system. So I asked your mothers to tell me all about their time and the first Hero’s.”
She tried to settle the ball in Vervain’s hand, but she wouldn’t take it.
“It turns out that the outsider the princess loved brought more than just a little knowledge. This thing here is the Orb of Heresy, an extremely High Level item. It can trap any deity for… Well, forever?”
“You have to let her go!” This time, when she tried to take the ball, Lorraine moved it far out of her reach. “How could you!? Fleurs depend on her!”
“But you don’t have to.”
To her dismay, Feuvert was slipped easily back into her Hero’s pocket of holding. Lorraine lifted her higher, carrying her out towards what seemed to be the exit.
“Listen, Feuvert was never sustaining this land for you. She’s a lazy goddess – everything on Coerde Femmes will run itself in her absence.”
“But the Demon Army’s destruction!”
“There’s minimal damage this time. Nothing that hard work won’t fix.”
Vervain could feel the air rushing out of her lungs again. Lorraine gave her a small squeeze, continuing to carry her out of the Demon Castle. The hills here were singed from fire and churned up by war machines, but tufts of grass and blooms clung stubbornly in small depressions. The sky was so blue that Vervain thought she might float away into it. She wished she could.
“You’ve lived in fear your whole life, princess. Now she’ll never terrorise you again.” She set her carefully back on her own two feet. They were weak, but Lorraine supported her in her arms. “You can cry or laugh as much as you want. Put flowers in your hair – or cut it. I know you want to.”
“But you love my hair…”
“I love you.” The look in her eyes was so sincere that Vervain’s legs almost gave way beneath her. “The real you, who works hard for her country every day and disagrees with me all the time, and who sneaks out to roll around in flowers when she thinks there’s no one looking.”
She caught her hand to press a kiss to it. Vervain shifted at the uncomfortable heat it sent through her.
“Don’t hide from me, Vervain. Marry me if you want me, but you never have to pretend to be something you’re not to earn my love.”
Tears formed in her eyes again. It was getting pathetic, really, and she wished that she had a free hand to wipe them away. When she looked at Lorraine, she was smiling. It was hard to say what she felt. Was it hope?
She rested her head against her Hero’s strong, reliable chest. Her heart beat against her ear.
“Who will bless our union?”
“Us, of course. We’ll be the ones to write our story now.”