Muirgen & Other Tales
Tristan finished painting the last star on the ballroom’s ceiling just his alarm went off. He had plenty of time, to be honest – he was even tempted to put the next layer of varnish on the upper balcony – but he wouldn’t let himself work longer.
He stepped away from the dollhouse to admire his progress. This morning most of the rooms had been empty shells. Now they were starting to look alive, to fill up with shadows and textures and the faint trappings of non-existent inhabitants. Really, one more coat for the balcony, and he might be able to see a fine lady throwing herself romantically against it…
But his back-up alarm reminded him that he had a real lady to worry about.
It took him four minutes to lock up his studio and only fifteen to make the walk back to the flat. Twenty in the shower, for good measure; twenty-five to blow dry his hair. Putting on his suit posed something more of a challenge with the tie, and then to pin up his hair in something that looked passably neat…
Still, by the time he was finished, she hadn’t even text to say that she was leaving work.
He had expected it. The reservation was much later than he’d told her it was. She was probably rushing around madly already, but a man had to do what a man had to do.
And if she managed to miss it even then, it didn’t matter. The restaurant was only there to feed them. The real treat were the tickets to the 1920s ball he’d bought them for after, complete with ushers to demonstrate how each dance was performed. She’d been crazy about trying to learn ever since they’d watched “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”; she was still talking about it when he’d bought her that vintage dress last month, “just because”.
Now it was laid out waiting for her return, along with her shoes, her make-up, and everything else he could think that she’d want. He could finally sit and read his magazine.
By the time she finally did throw open the door, he had forgotten he was waiting at all. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, Tristan!” He heard her toss her bag down in the hall. “I swear I was on my way out the door, but a patient went into cardiac arrest and there wasn’t another doctor available.”
He looked up just in time to see her stomping into the living room, her platinum blonde hair now a bird’s nest on her head. He couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s okay, Rhea – we have plenty of time.”
She was already tearing the pins and bobbles out. “No, we don’t! We’re going to be so late! I’ll have to skip my make-up, or something.”
“The reservation is later than I said it was.”
She froze, directing a mock-venomous glare at him. “You bastard.”
He chuckled. “If you want to make it up to me, you can wear the dress I put on the bed,” he tried to say casually, turning his magazine to the next page. He could feel her eyes narrowing on him. “I’d really like to see you in it again.”
Yet she did put it on. Her routine took much longer than his, what with the curling and the eyeliner and the swearing at the eyeliner and removing it all to start again, but it was worth the wait. She always looked a dream in the white she usually favoured, but the beaded black dress gave her a mysterious allure that made his heart skip a beat. Gatsby would have chosen Rhea over Daisy, he felt.
They took the Tube for most of the journey and walked the rest. As they approached the third last street to their destination, he glimpsed the bright lights in the little shop that he’d asked to stay open for him. The owner was a craftsman he’d commissioned to make a 1920s headdress for him, specially made with the colours of the bisexual pride flag that Rhea loved to display.
“Hey, actually… There’s something I want to take a look at.”
She gave a mock roll of her eyes. “We passed an art shop, didn’t we? Alright – but I’m going to go and see if John Conolly’s new book is in yet.”
He followed her gaze to the open shopping centre that she was eying up. He smiled. “Okay. I’ll come find you in five minutes.”
He only let his hand slip from hers when the distance wouldn’t allow them to stay joined any longer. He couldn’t help but look back at her again and again as they walked away, watching her half-jog the length of the street to make it there faster. He laughed to see how she glanced back too, and soft grins passed between them. In the end, he stood and watched her disappear inside.
He had only just pushed the door to the shop open when he was thrown through it.
He heard glass shatter. Rubble fell. When he picked himself numbly up from the floor, he saw that the centre was on fire.
Survivors. His first thought was of survivors – how their chances would be dwindling with every passing second in the smoke and the heat, how fire could rip through rooms in one go in the right conditions, how Rhea had to be the closest to the exit and so much more likely to live than the others… He couldn’t feel his feet under him but he surged forward, stumbling, fighting for those precious few seconds where he could slip in and pull her out, hearing screams distantly through the tinnitus.
The second explosion greeted him at the door.
Tristan wished that had been his last memory. If he wasn’t going to turn up at the gates of Heaven and find her smiling there, the least they could have given him was blissful nothing.
Instead, the fire scorching his skin was instantly replaced with an ice-cold bath of air. The agonised screams of a woman mingled with his own as he was roughly grabbed and bundled up.
They called him Muirgen Belleforte, the fourth daughter of Baron Loki Belleforte and Baroness Arete. In this world of dragons and fairies that would have made his brother weep with joy, he was to be a measly human noble trapped in the meagre human lands that they had somehow scuffled their way into claiming from the Others.
For much of his babyhood, he stayed in denial. For his infanthood, in depression. By the time he began having bursts of anger and desperation, they called it his “Terrible Twos” and patted him on the head.
There was nothing to distract him from his memories because there was nothing for him to do. His nursemaid saw to it that he was fed when he didn’t feel like eating, that he was bathed when he didn’t feel like moving, and that he was dressed in bright and lacey dresses when he wanted to wear black.
Once every blue moon, he and his siblings would be gathered up and dragged before a drunken gathering so that their parents could say: “Here are our children!”
And then they would be forgotten in the nursery again, with the exception of the eldest, Alvis, who was the only boy and who was often brought away to see their father.
In fact, it was only four years after his birth that Baron Loki touched him at all. Their mother had died but six months before and his siblings were deep in grief. That day, their father had swept into the nursery and lifted Tristan onto his knee, gesturing for the others to come close to him.
“My children, I know you miss your mother as I do…” He looked only to Alvis. “But the time has come for me to take a new wife.”
Even their brother wept at the idea. Tristan tried his best to look sad. All he knew about his mother was how she looked and, as a fellow widower, it was hard not to judge the lack of grief from his father. Loki held him tighter.
“I know it’s hard to understand…” At last his eyes dropped to Tristan’s. He was surprised to see the beginning of tears. “I loved your mother deeply. But there’s a saying that one day I hope you’ll come to understand: When a widow’s weeds wither, new life will spring.”
He thought he saw real, deep sadness in those eyes, mirroring his own bereavement. Loki and Arete had, like Rhea and Tristan, been married for many years, and there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t think of his own wife.
He held his father’s hand while he wept.
Tristan wasn’t so sure that his “weeds” would ever wither, but he tried to put faith in his father’s words. He never wanted to forget Rhea. Never wanted to “move on” from her. But he felt that he might, with Loki at his side, find some fulfilment in this lifetime, even as a girl.
First he tried to return to his old hobby of crafting doll houses. However, he wasn’t able to convince anyone to let him build one from scratch and, once the nursemaid noticed that his hands were becoming rough from shaping wood into furniture, he was banned from manual labour and monitored at all times.
Then he thought that he would embrace his studies. After years spent rotting in a nursery, it was soothing to complete maths sums and exercise some intelligence. Plus, he had years that he could devote to learning languages, musical instruments, the art of horse riding and falconry…
And there was something to that, maybe, but the adults went wild to find that he was a “genius” who could perform advanced formulas after only a few weeks. His father paid out of the nose to hire one of the country’s best tutors for him, and his stepmother boasted of his brilliance to all of high society. It was only after he had the attention of everyone in the country that they realised there were limits to his “talents”.
His previous life gave him no advantages in etiquette training. Curtsying was a struggle for his tiny body, and the many customs that he was required to memorise made his head spin. No amount of teaching could make him an extrovert. He couldn’t keep up with the double meanings and two-faced habits of his fellow nobles, and he frequently disappointed his family by making a fool of himself in public.
To make matters worse, he was a very plain girl. Here, in noble society, they preferred women like Rhea: small and plump. Tristan, on the other hand, grew to be almost as tall as he was as a man, and just as much of a beanpole. His hair and eyes were a fallow brown, unable to compensate for his plain features and face full of freckles. Honestly, Tristan still thought that his body was a pretty thing, with soft skin and silky locks, but… In a crowd full of other soft-skinned and silky-locked noble ladies, he was worth less than a cheap wall hanging.
At least he was allowed to paint. He held onto dreams of making it big as an artist or using his knowledge of engineering to have his name go down in history. But his paintings vanished, mysteriously reappearing with his brother’s signature, and his great revelations were credited to Loki.
That was when he tried to put his foot down. If they were going to exploit him, he would keep his knowledge to himself until he was an adult and could fight for recognition. His father scowled, his brother swore, his sisters threw themselves about the room wailing… And his stepmother grabbed him tightly by the shoulders and hissed, “Stupid bitch! Would the king listen to something like you?” She shook him until his head snapped back and forth. “Let your father do the climbing for you, and you and your sisters can marry well!”
So his father pleased the king with all of Tristan’s trump cards and was made into the Prime Minister. His brother gained a high position in politics.
After that, there was talk of marrying the brilliant and clever Muirgen to the second prince. By the time he was 16, he was so unpopular and disfavoured that his sister took his place.
There was talk of marrying him to the fourth prince, and then that too went to another one of his sisters. Then a duke was presented to him – but seen only once.
There was no more talk of marriage after that. Eventually Tristan ran out of “discoveries” to fuel his father’s career and the focus shifted to his half-brothers.
With one last swirl of pink for the skirt, the bedroom mural was finished. The hazy figure of a beautiful blonde looked down at a man from a flower-covered hilltop, the breeze carrying her hair across her face. He had had to paint it that way. These days, he couldn’t remember what she looked like.
Loki had finally granted him a collection of premade dollhouses to customise after his last engagement fell through. It was to keep him quiet and out of the way, no doubt, but he was happy to comply.
Some he had tried unsuccessfully to remodel as their old flat. The largest he had set aside to reshape into Rhea’s dream home, just the way she had always described it to him. Or as much of it as he could remember. So much of it was wrong. She had been specific about the shade of violet she had wanted the bannisters to be, but the memory of the swatch she had showed him had long since disappeared. Nothing that he mixed together was right.
He had hoped that the mural she had wanted in the bedroom could redeem him, since she had never told him what to paint… And still it turned out like this.
He brushed an irritating strand of hair away from his cheek with a sigh, not caring about the paint he smeared there. It had been more than 19 years. She no longer visited him in his dreams and her name was like a bitter poison in his mouth, but he wished for nothing more than to hold her one last time.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Loki didn’t wait to be called in before he entered, grinning a charming grin that Tristan recognised as a precursor to trouble.
“My darling daughter – what a sight you are!”
He didn’t miss that his tone was neutral, carefully avoiding any hint of it being a good or bad sight.
“Good afternoon, father. Did you need something from me?” He wiped his hands off on a rag and inspected the state of the library floor.
Loki inspected the whole house from a safe distance. “Must I need something to speak with my clever girl?”
Instead of answering, Tristan began rinsing his brushes. He heard his father sigh. “The queen of Shadowfell Forest has extended an offer of alliance to the king. There will be a large celebration held in her honour. I have an invitation for you.”
The Shadowfell Forest was territory in the Otherlands, guarded fiercely by the all-female Dark Elves. Like most humans, Tristan had only heard wild and brutal tales of the other species, and had never once heard of a human returning from beyond the border in one piece.
“Are you sure that you want to take me? I could cause an international disaster.”
His father tried to scoff like he didn’t believe it. “This is a savage, not an honourable lady like our queen. I’m certain that your… “Striking” personality will be a delightful curiosity to her.”
Loki picked up a modified miniature divan, turning it over in his hand. Tristan watched it carefully.
“It will be a good opportunity to practice socialising. It takes a toll on the sanctity of your mind to isolate yourself with… “Art”.” He put the divan back. “Come: this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to marvel at the uncanny.”
That was how Tristan found himself once again in the royal ballroom, dressed in a gaudy orange gown and weighed down with as many jewels and ostrich feathers as his little frame could support. The ballroom had been redecorated again, painted with delicate cherubs set in heavenly scenes. It felt as gloomy and confining as ever.
There were an unusually large number of women attending this party and the swarm of over-applied perfume was making his head swim. His father had promised that the king himself would introduce him, but so far he’d been left to wallow in the corner and suffer the headache.
“Are you alright?” A jet-black hand with fingers longer than he’d ever seen brushed gently against his forehead before he could answer. “Good – your temperature is fine.”
He snapped his gaze up before he could think better of it. She was as beautiful as a full moon in a clear black sky. Her tall and slender body forced even him to crane to look her in the face. Eyes, white down to the pupil, stared patiently out from a sharp face, and her long, wild hair was as white and reflective as snow.
She was mesmerising, but unsettling. He felt a chill creep into him from being watched by her.
She broke the spell by curling her lips into a casual smile. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve come to help.”
It was then that he spotted the king hurrying towards them. His furious gaze scolded Tristan from behind her back.
“My apologies, Your Majesty.” He tried to dip his head without grimacing. Taking a small breath to help him concentrate on keeping his back straight, he lifted his skirts, crossed his right leg back, and began a slow descent to the floor for a court curtsy. “I didn’t know it was you.”
The king took his cue to step forward and join the conversation. “Ah, I see you’ve encountered the Honourable Miss Muirgen Belleforte, daughter of the Prime Minister.” Tristan could at last rise – fighting hard not to wobble. He didn’t miss the flash of interest in her eyes. “Miss Belleforte, this is our great ally, Queen Zecadus Whitewound of the Dark Elves. She was attracted to Golsennur by our recent technological advancements – led, of course, by your father.”
“Charmed,” said the queen. He didn’t like the way that his stomach flipped at her tone.
“I am the most charmed, Your Majesty.”
He saw the king wince. Reluctantly, he pretended to be called away by another noble, as he had promised Loki. Queen Zecadus relaxed again.
“Are you feeling unwell? It would be my honour to help you feel a little more comfortable.”
“Someone as great as you shouldn’t concern yourself with the likes of me, Your Majesty.” He tried for a tone of humble elegance. He ended up with “clumsily trying to chase you off”.
Surprisingly, she smiled. “Come with me to the garden? I need some air.”
He hesitated. Following one of the Others alone into the darkness sounded like a dangerous idea, even if the stories of them abducting women and eating children turned out to be false. She offered her hand to him patiently, and he squirmed to see that her fingers had four joints. He risked another glance at her face. Her smile reached her eyes and seemed sincere.
He let her guide him into the palace grounds in a trance. The roses were in full bloom and filling the warm night air with their subtle scent. The queen shot another eager smile at him as she took him into further the darkness. For a split second, he had the strongest feeling of déjà vu.
She stopped at the distant fountain. “There. Now we can talk without anyone overhearing us.” She let his hand go and turned to face him fully. “I know your people think I’m a savage, so you don’t have to force yourself to put on graces for me. I want to talk openly so that we can overcome the myths.”
He held his breath, thinking of the many ways that could go wrong. He would have to obey her to please her like his father expected him to, though. He tried giving one last, smaller, curtsy. “I wasn’t thinking that you’re a savage, Your Majesty. My head hurts and I don’t like parties.”
She laughed. “I thought so…”
She lifted her long fingers to her lips and said a few quick words in a language he didn’t recognise. When she placed them on his forehead, he felt a strange buzz run through his brain and a flash went off like an old-style camera, blinding him in an instant. The headache was gone when she took them away. He didn’t feel nauseous or tired either.
“How does that feel?”
“Completely healed…” he said, stunned.
The queen nodded triumphantly. “Good. This is my first time using that spell on a human.”
He decided not to ask what could have happened if she’d performed it wrong. “Thank you, Your Majesty. Magic is truly amazing…”
A long and awkward silence fell between them. The queen looked keen to speak, but at a loss for what to say. The thunderous music from the ballroom stretched across the garden to them as a distant, dreamlike noise.
“I like your parties, but it’s a shame that I can’t really take part,” said Queen Zecadus at last. “Your dances are beautiful, but I don’t know the steps.”
He had to agree on that part, at least. “They spend years teaching us to get every step perfect. It’s not much fun when putting your foot in the wrong place leads to being mocked…”
Still, she glanced back longingly at the ball. He observed her for a moment.
“I can teach you a little here?” he offered. “Nobody will know if we get it wrong unless we fall over.”
Her eyes snapped to him in surprise and wonder – and, he saw, badly concealed hope and excitement. She seemed to weigh up whether or not his offer was genuine. He curtsied and offered his hand to reconfirm it.
So they danced there in the garden, shielded by the darkness and the roses. He taught her the group dances first, so that she would only have to hold his hand at a distance. Then she insisted that she wanted to know the paired the ones too, and he had to strain to hold the correct posture with a partner several feet taller than him; but it was the most fun he had had dancing in his whole life.
The queen invented their reasons for why they only returned at dawn, covered in mud and bruises.
Tristan came into his workshop a week later to find Rhea’s house gone. All the others were untouched. He even searched through the ones in storage, in case somebody had decided to move it out of the way for some reason.
He was left with no other choice but to ask his father about it.
“Oh, that house!” Loki said without a hint of surprise. “I sent it on your behalf as a present to Queen Zecadus.”
He felt his stomach drop. “Why would you do that?”
Loki scoffed. “Don’t make a fuss – you have so many dollhouses! I was thinking of your future.”
He gave a self-satisfied nod of his head and finished the cup of tea he was drinking. “We might be able to get you a bright future after all, my girl. Just put a little faith in me.”
Tristan couldn’t bring himself to work on his dollhouses after that. It felt pointless and empty – like just another meaningless task that he was performing within his father’s master plan.
Instead, he spent his time going out on long rides, losing himself within Loki’s large estate or daring to creep onto the public forest paths and let the trees hide him. He was always warned that brigands would carry him off if he ever ventured beyond their land without an escort. Now he didn’t care if they killed him on the spot. Sadly, the only dangers he encountered were loose stones and fallen branches.
It felt like Rhea herself had been taken from him again and, with her, all hope.
Four months later, after radio silence from Loki, his father swept into his bedroom in the morning with a servant behind him. “Good news, darling! Queen Zecadus has decided to pick you as her wife.”
His lady’s maids were still twisting his hair into a bun. He shook them off quickly, not caring that his hair dropped free again. “What do you mean “she’s picked me”!?” He glared ferociously.
“She’s decided she’d like you to be the one she marries. It’s not a hard concept, is it?”
Without giving Tristan another chance to speak, Loki invited himself further into the room and motioned to the footman to open the box. He gestured for the maids to bring the contents out to show Tristan.
“Of course, we’ve graciously accepted. This is the dress that you’ll be wearing for your wedding – it’s a Dark Elf custom for the one who proposes to send one, apparently.” Loki gave it an appraising glance. “Not bad craftsmanship, really. You’ve been told to wear it without a corset.”
It was a pure black dress made of a single layer of silk. Zecadus had worn one similar to the ball. Silver embroidery stitched intricate scenes of forest birds flying and nesting in branches across the skirt, and the loose flowing sleeves were embellished with patterns he had never seen before. It was the mourning dress he’d always wanted.
He took a deep breath and apologised to Rhea in his heart, preparing for the lowest and most desperate blow. “How can I marry a woman? The church will never permit it.”
“The king already has the church’s word that they’ll keep their noses out of it,” he replied coolly. “It’s normal for Dark Elves to marry women. Rather, they won’t touch men at all.”
He rose from his chair to face his father head-on. “How can you agree to this!?”
“Steady on, girl,” he laughed. “Your marriage will cement the alliance between our peoples, so they’re not going to hurt you.”
“You think that’s all I care about!?”
He shrugged. “Why are you so upset? What else were you going to do with your life?”
Tristan hated that he couldn’t think of a response.
His wedding was to take place the moment he arrived at the forest. The journey would take six days, with the king’s guards to escort him to the border and the queen’s guards to escort him through the Otherlands.
It only took a month for it to be arranged. Tristan was left out of the negotiations, as usual.
On the morning that he was due to depart, his maids clothed him in the dress according to the queen’s instructions and pinned up his uncooperative hair for the final time. His family lined up to make a show of saying goodbye. Loki even clapped him on the shoulder with a fatherly smile.
Then he was abandoned to his fate. Nobody had thought to provide him with a female chaperone for safety or for company, although the guards were uncommonly well-behaved this time. There was no one to help him maintain his hair, and no other dress that he was permitted to change into. The silk was so light that he felt like he was wearing nothing at all. He kept a shawl pulled tightly around him to feel less vulnerable.
There was a new carriage waiting for him at the border, made of black onyx and pulled by a team of eight unicorns. A small army of Dark Elves accompanied it, strapped into black armour so heavy that they seemed like walking walls. All of them were female, all tall, and each with varying shades of true black skin and white hair. His human guards shied back, making him cross the final few feet over the border alone.
The travel through the Otherlands was even worse. These guards refused to speak to him except to relay orders, and they sneered at him to his face. Since the elves could see in the dark, they rarely stopped to camp, and he was forced to sleep curled up in the carriage regardless, because there were no inns to take refuge in.
All he had to pass the time was the passing scenery outside. The tidy fields and neat stone buildings that he was accustomed to seeing every day dropped away sharply, becoming wild grass and stretches of plants even taller than him. The birds grew larger, gaining teeth and third legs; at night, orbs of light danced in the distant darkness, whispering his name across the moors to him. Once, they passed a troupe of human-like moths at a distance. They herded a group of strange stag-bird hybrids in front of them, and Tristan was disturbed to see that each one cast the shadow of a man.
“A sign of innocence,” a guard roughly informed him when she met his shellshocked gaze.
But nothing that came before prepared him for the Shadowfell Forest. The trees were taller than any mountain he had ever known, and it filled the horizon for as far as his eyes could strain.
His guards roughly wrenched open the door and tidied him up with their magic before the border. They could restore his hair, dress and hygiene, but they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – make him less pale and nervous. It was almost a mercy.
He expected it to be cold when the real shadow of the forest fell over him and blotted out the sun, but the air was oddly tropical. The deep darkness was lit comfortably by gigantic light-emitting fruits that wound around each tree and strung across the space between them. It wasn’t silent either, but as full of birdsong and footsteps as the cheeriest little wood in summer.
They came to a stop again after only five minutes. This time, he was helped down from the carriage in a dignified manner.
His feet sank softly into the thick moss that layered itself over the ground. Queen Zecadus was there, just a few feet in front of him in a stark white dress. She was like a bright candle in a long, moonless night. An army’s worth of knights, soldiers, guards and ladies-in-waiting stood behind her, lined up for parade.
She smiled at him gently. “Welcome home, my queen.”
As if to make up for his rough treatment and sudden engagement, his rooms in the castle were heavenly. The floor and walls were a flat, hard black, as most of the rooms were, and there was no sunlight, but he had a breath-taking view over the queen’s vivacious gardens. He woke each morning on a bed softer than a mother’s arms to the gentle sound of birds singing beside his window. His bath was the size of a small pool, and it drew clean hot and cold water through taps shaped like roses. He even had four huge mirrors – three for the vanity and one as tall as the room – that were as clear and pure as the mirrors from Earth.
He only saw Zecadus once a week for a strictly scheduled hourly tea, but she seemed to be looking out for him. Although the Dark Elves lived in monochrome and spurned manmade colour, the furniture in his room had been commissioned to be all the colours of the rainbow. When he complained to his lady’s maids that his back was sore from going without a corset, his bath was fitted with healing crystals that very morning.
Every freedom in the castle was permitted to him. Bare dollhouses, canvasses and paints had been purchased for him to use as he saw fit; here no one forbid him from carving furniture or building the frame from scratch. The librarian and servants were told to provide him with everything he requested, and he could opt to wander deeper into the forest without any guards, if he so wished.
It would never be a home, though. The permanent darkness took a toll on both body and mind, and it was impossible to ignore the contempt that everyone but the queen treated him with.
It was to be their fifth tea together that morning, and he was struggling to fake contentment. He relied on his maids to dress him in white and apply an extra layer of blush to cover over his sallowness.
The queen was already waiting for him in the garden. “Beautiful again today,” she said with a smile as he sat down.
“Thank you… But I could never compare to Your Majesty.”
This was their usual routine. They spoke about nothing in particular as the servants served them tea and cakes. By the end of it, Tristan was simply listening to her explain magic while he admired the way the lamplight softened her features.
Today, though, the queen made no move to leave as the servants cleared away the plates. “I was wondering if you would keep me company for a bit longer today. There’s something I’d like to show you.”
He was already halfway through forming his standard farewell. He quickly choked it back. “Of course, Your Majesty?”
She offered her hand with a smile. “Just Zecadus. We’re wives, aren’t we?”
Holding hands, she led him back into the giant tree that served as the castle and up endless flights of stairs. The gems laced around her wrist shone to open doors that he hadn’t even seen before. Just as he thought that his legs would give way, the final door opened and a ray of sunshine hit him in the face.
The steady rustle of leaves in the wind teased him. He could feel the pleasant burn of the sun on his arm, but he couldn’t take it away to look.
“Of course – I’m sorry!” The far less pleasant buzz of Zecadus’ magic thrummed through his eyes. “Try it now?”
He brought his hand down warily. This time, not even the direct glare of the sun hurt his eyes. A beautiful bright green garden bloomed before him with a canopy of the castle’s foliage; the light easily passed through it and its many large gaps. At his feet was grass rather than moss, and trees and bushes of ordinary sizes thrived, their branches heavy with fruits and splendid flowers. Although he couldn’t recognise the plants, he could imagine them blooming in a human garden.
Zecadus was relieved by his growing smile. “This is the royal nursery. We grow plants here that are too fragile to survive in the wild forest, but that we Dark Elves need.”
She took his hand again, guiding him towards a large collection of bushes. “These, for example…” She gently took the head of a brightly blooming pink blossom into her palm. It was bigger than Tristan’s whole hand. “These are important herbs for triggering reproduction.”
“How is it done?”
She smiled softly at the question. “Spontaneous impregnation does happen, but not as often as we’d like. Usually, when we decide to have children, we mix a special, ancient tonic and drink it before we have sex.”
“But then what?”
“Hm…” She glanced around at the plants for half a minute. “We have excellent books on this subject. Why don’t I have the librarian send them to your room?”
And just like that, she guided him to a tree with triangular flowers to explain those.
Botany was one of Tristan’s least favourite subjects, but somehow it was bearable with Zecadus. She let him taste the fruits while she told him where they’d come from and when their trees had been planted, and he could at least lean his head back and bask in the sun when she listed off too many gardening facts at once.
The sun was high in the sky before he began to tire. Seeing that he was becoming quiet and unresponsive, Zecadus brought him through a circle of trees.
There was a shady clearing in the centre, peacefully cut off from the rest of the world, with a table and chairs for relaxing. There was Rhea’s house too.
She must have felt him tense. She looked back at him curiously, then followed his gaze to the dollhouse.
“Don’t worry – there’s a spell over it and this clearing to protect it from the elements.” She smiled warmly. “I thought that it looked right there.”
He tried to nod.
“Thank you for it. It was a wonderful present.”
“My father sent it.” He couldn’t stop himself.
She snapped her head back at his tone. Her eyes searched his expression. “Oh… But you still made it, right? It’s beautiful.”
He ducked his head. “It was a tribute to… To someone I lost.”
For a moment, only the breeze passed between them.
“Who was it?” Her voice was gentle.
“Someone I loved a long time ago…”
There was silence between them again. This time, he risked a glance at her face. She was staring intently at the dollhouse with a serious expression.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said eventually. “Let me return it.”
Cold, sickening prickles of fear pierced into him. Zecadus’ expression gave little else away about her thoughts, but she had never felt as distant from him. He didn’t know how he could survive in Shadowfell if even his wife resented him.
She must have noticed the change in his mood because she turned to smile. “I have someone I loved and lost too.” She took his hands in her own. “Other people might not understand, but it’s important for us to honour and remember them.”
A wave of relief washed over him. He relaxed and craned his neck to look up at her. Her eyes were soft with kindness, and the wind played with the loose strands of her braid. He moved his gaze to Rhea’s house. Bathed in sunlight and surrounded by greenery, it seemed almost merry. It was a better setting than any painted lawn in a dark room that he could provide.
“Let’s leave the house here,” he said. “I think this is where she’d have wanted it to be.”
She nodded to signal that she would. Carefully, she pulled one hand away to slip into her pocket and brought it back to wind several new keystones around his wrist.
“These are the keys you’ll need to open the doors. Come here whenever you want.”
He was surprised. “Is that a good idea? Aren’t these plants here for protection?”
“As long as you don’t pick them, stand on them, or go digging, you won’t hurt them. Besides…” She brushed his hair back behind his ear. “Isn’t this where you belong? As a flower who can’t live without the sun?”
From then on, the nursery was Tristan’s domain. He went there almost as soon as he woke up and stayed each night until he was tired and ready for bed. He found that he could read there without straining his eyes, could paint without the smell staying for hours, and that he could carve whatever little twigs fell off the trees. He was open to the elements but, if he didn’t feel like savouring the rain as it fell it warm on his face, the clearing where Rhea’s house was would protect him.
The daily trek toned his legs and strengthened his body. The colour returned to his skin, tanning him more than he had ever been in his life as Muirgen. Rather than complaining, Zecadus sent him scrolls full of exercises. Soon he didn’t miss his corset at all.
They continued their weekly meetings for a time. Sometimes the queen would stay longer than an hour, showing him this feature of the castle or that, or ruminating about life or science with him. Sometimes she left very sharply – but she always provided some tidbit of insight to brighten his day.
But, after three months, the excuses started arriving. Today the queen had urgent business; today the queen was feeling indisposed; today she simply sent her apologies. They came more frequently as time passed by. Eventually, it had been two months since he had last seen her, and the servants no longer humoured him with an explanation.
One morning, he woke up crying. He couldn’t remember the faces, he couldn’t remember the words, but the fire – he remembered the fire.
“Take me to see my wife,” he told his lady’s maids as they finished applying his makeup. They gave each other a meaningful glance.
“Her Majesty is hard at work right now,” answered Sohdi, the more tactful of his maids.
“Then bring me a drink of warm milk and honey and show me the way to her.” They stayed rebelliously silent. “Or I’ll search this whole palace for her myself.” He touched his keystones threateningly.
Irila, the quiet but ever resentful one, spoke up. “We’ll ask Her Majesty if she has time for a brief visit from you.”
“Then go and ask her now.”
She pursed her lips, but gave a stiff bow and withdrew. Sodhi tried to tempt him away to have breakfast. He sent her to bring two trays of it with the milk. Both kept him waiting: Irila for an hour before she spat out that he could “go up” when he wished, and Sodhi for an extra half hour after that. He wouldn’t be deterred today, though.
He balanced both trays himself to prevent any “accidents” and had them lead the way. There were almost as many stairs to go up as the way to the nursery. He noticed that his maids were walking fast to try and unbalance him.
Unfortunately for them, he arrived safely and pushed open the heavy door with his hips. It was dark inside, even for Shadowfell. The only light in the whole room was a large, glowing ball, about the size of a beachball, that was suspended by seemingly nothing in the centre. The air was heavy with stale sweat. There were no windows and no furniture – only a table running along the edge of the circular room that was carved out of the wall itself.
Zecadus turned her attention from the ball as he entered, smiling. “How can I help you, Muirgen?”
“I heard you were working hard, so I brought breakfast.” He set the trays down on an empty space on the table and breathed a sigh of relief.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
He didn’t know it was possible for a Dark Elf to look pale, but she did. Most of her braid had fallen out and the bits that had were knotted like they hadn’t been brushed in days. Her eyes were sunken and bloodshot.
“No, it looks like I really did… When did you last eat? Or sleep?”
“Oh, err…” She looked hazily back at the ball as she thought. “I’ve been taking naps when I need to. Don’t worry – I’m used to this.”
“That’s not good.” He resisted the urge to cover his nose as he brought the milk to her. She took it gratefully. “You’ll destroy your body if you keep going like that. Shadowfell needs its queen to be strong.”
“It needs its borders to be strong too…” She looked about for somewhere to put the cup down, but there was nothing nearby.
“What does that have to do with you working yourself to death in here?”
“This ball…” She picked it up to bring it closer to him. It floated in her hand. “This is the soul of the forest. The royal family have worked with it to heal and grow the forest since, well… Always.”
He looked at it with new interest. It gave off a soft warmth and he could hear an odd, distant tinkling sound from it.
“I’ve received reports from our scouts that the Light Elves are making strange movements. It could be nothing, of course, but…” She let the ball float back to its original position. “We have to be ready if they’re going to start another war.”
“Why do they want to attack us?”
“I’m not sure. The records of the first war say that they looked down on us for being women, but the fighting has gone on for so long that I’m sure there are many other reasons too.”
She walked to a tray to help herself to toast. He followed uncertainly. “There’s never been peace?”
“I was able to use my half-Light blood to convince them to accept an alliance last time, but we don’t know how long they’ll honour it for.”
That prompted many questions in him – but he sealed his lips when he saw how hungrily she was eating. After a moment, he joined her in silence with his own tray.
She ate much faster than him. Seeing her regretful expression when she realised that there was no more, he pushed the rest of his over to her. When she was done, he spoke again.
“If there’s going to be a war, you’ll need to be able to think clearly and use your strength when it starts.” He carefully took her hands in his own. “You’ll do your best work when you work in moderation, too.”
Surprised, she studied his face. After a moment, she relented. “Okay, then.”
He smiled. “Come and take a bath.”
He had meant for the servants to run her one in her own room but, whether out of sleep deprivation or loneliness, she led him deep into the palace grounds. There was a thick barrier of thorns around the outskirts that he hadn’t seen since he first passed into them, and she guided him towards them now.
Before he could ask if they were going to leave the castle, she turned off and into a tall, thick fortress of bushes, bringing him out to a natural spring.
“This is the Spring of Xuriral,” she said, finally letting go of his hand. “Its waters soothe.”
Without warning, she dropped her dress and freed her hair. His eyes were drawn to her ass before he could help it and he squeaked. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to compose himself in time for her questioning glance back. She grinned.
He cleared his throat to save his dignity. “You should brush your hair before you wash it.”
They hadn’t brought a brush, so he could only do his best with his fingers. There were many tangles and knots in her hip-length hair and he had to stretch to reach them. He tried hard not to push too far through her locks, but his fingers often brushed against her back or the curve of her hips. He sprung back as soon as he was done and turned his back. He heard her chuckle.
He took the part of the spring that was as far away from her as possible, keeping his back turned. At least it was warm and pleasant. “We should have brought soap…”
“We don’t need it. The water will purify us.”
He heard her duck beneath the water and made the mistake of turning to make sure that she wasn’t sneaking towards him. She rose back up like something out a film, hair slicked back and eyes closed, half-gasping. A heat formed in his belly that he didn’t want to think about.
She caught his eye with a smile and leant against the side next to him. She was long like a shark. Her hair stuck to the curves of her body, and her large breasts were left bared…
“You remind me of him so much.”
He was glad to draw his eyes up to her face. “Who?”
“The man I loved.”
It took a moment for his brain to start working again. “Wait, man? You loved a man?”
“Yes…” She relaxed peacefully back in the water. “A human man, actually. Many, many years ago now.”
He gently settled in beside her without thinking about it, letting the water swallow him up to the shoulders. “What was he like?”
She seemed to struggle for the words. “He was… Kind? And calm – although never very organised.” She chuckled at a distant memory. “He was always telling me off for working too hard, too. He collapsed once while working on a project and, after that, he was a real health nut.”
“He’s right. I collapsed once, too – it’s not fun.”
She smiled. “Well, I really pushed him to the edge with my workaholic nature. He had the patience of a saint, but it must have driven him crazy…”
He watched her eyes grow distant with soft love, smiling. “What happened?”
“There was… An incident. We were separated forever. He believes that I’m dead.”
“You can’t send word to him?”
“No, I can’t. Not ever.” She turned to him suddenly. “What about yours? Your special person?”
He hesitated. He had never spoken to anyone about Rhea. “She was… A healer,” he said carefully. He glanced up to see Zecadus’ reaction. She looked surprised.
“Yes…” With a smile, she settled down to listen carefully. He picked his words. “We were friends from childhood. She was energetic and driven, and she had a great ambition to heal people. She always had a plan, too. If we had a decision to make, she usually made it.” Zecadus chuckled. He tried to smile. “I would have followed her anywhere.”
“How did she…?”
He hesitated, not wanting to speak the words. “In fire,” he compromised.
He lay his head back in the water to let it clean his hair. He let the memories wash over him too. Somehow, they seemed a little clearer here. It was strange: they were undoubtedly happy memories and yet, looking back on them now, he felt a little sick to think of himself following Rhea’s plan like a little lamb, after all he’d suffered from Loki.
“I don’t think I’m like him.” She turned to him in surprise. “I don’t have the patience of a saint – not anymore. I’m not okay sitting in my little garden while you kill yourself out here, or never being told anything, or only seeing you when you decide you can squeeze in time for me.”
He sat up to look down at her. “Don’t drive me crazy. Look after yourself and remember me. And I’ll help you with anything you need me to, but the last day of every week belongs to me. No excuses.”
He watched her eyes for the emotion flitting through them – but, though he saw it, he couldn’t decipher it. She watched him back for a few moments. Then, she relaxed and smiled.
“Alright. I’ll try my hardest.”