Friday, April 10, 2009

Briallan Dreaming of Myrmidons

I was born at the beginning of the faerie feud. They say on the eve of my natal day, two stars -- a red one and a white one -- fell to the earth from the heavens. Bright flashes glanced between them and they trailed glittering sparks as they fell. The white star descended over the foothills to the west and the red one raced across the night sky and came to rest east to the lowland fens. My mother said the court astrologer was in a dither about it for months.

In the following days peasants appeared in my father's court with tales of cattle disappearing and of fruit trees and crops strangely blighted. Dazed travelers were discovered wandering far afield who told confused stories of abductions to hollow hills. Even Father Connor returned from his circuit to report of strange unholy beasts with powers unconfounded by cross or prayer.

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I can hear you chopping through the thicket. Lying in my flower canopied bed, I can hear you. The rattling of the briars has pulled me from my dreams, again. I always wonder how long the dry rattling of the rose canes will go on before the cries for help start.

#

The first fey visited my father's castle about a fortnight after the two stars' appearance. News came that there was a faerie riding with a string of seven strange horses in broad daylight on the old road. The excitement on the castle walls doubled when the fey outrider came into view. She was a twiggy, elfin maid in billowing skirts, not much larger than a seven-year-old child. A silver bracelet with flashing jewels adorned her wrist. If her dragonfly wings and antennae had not marked her as a faerie, her pinched features and impossibly thin waist would have.

The elf halted her trotting string at the gatehouse and gave an outlandish salute, which made her bracelets jingle. She had other worldly eyes: large silvery orbs without iris or pupil. They say there was a scent like rosemary or lemongrass in the air where she stopped. The elfin horses were strange white beasts, six-legged, like the horse of the wild northmen's god, with fuzzy horsehide and a slender white horn out of a narrow forehead.

Father Connor charged through the gatehouse and said a psalm to try to drive the elfin maid away. She chittered to the horses and they chittered back. Then she turned to the priest, who was reaching for a vial of holy water. She held her bracelet up to her face and said in a high, bird-like voice, "Be at peace, I am neither angel or devil, but a messenger of Queen Gloriana. I would speak with your queen."

By this time my father had reached the gate. "I will see that the queen hears your words," he said to the fantastic stranger. "What message shall I give her?"

The elf maid and the horses held another brief, high-pitched conference. Then, raising her bracelet to her face again, she said, "Queen Gloriana sends her greetings and hopes that our neighboring realms may have a peaceful and cooperative relationship. As a token of her good will, I am bidden to tell you that a hand full of borage and nettle steeped overnight in apple vinegar is a potent proof against wicked faeries who have established a domain about half a day's ride from this hive." The maid gestured with her free hand towards the boggy lowlands where the red star had fallen. "I also am bidden to ask her permission to ride through her territory, and to ask for aid in bringing the wicked faeries to justice."

They say my father stood very still. "I will bring your words to the Queen," he said. "And since you are an outlander, I will give you this counsel. This realm is ruled by a king, and it is his lands you ride through."

The elf bowed, then spoke over her bracelet. "I crave your pardon, for I am a stranger to your language. The leader of your ruling clan is called a king?"

"I am Edward, son of Edmond," said my father. "And I am king of this land."

There was another chittery exchange, and then with a short hop the faerie threw herself at my father's feet.

"Forgive me, Edward-son-of-Edmond," she said, dragonfly wings quivering. "As you are the ruler of this place, my words were for you -- please, what answer shall I have for my Queen?" The herbal smell grew stronger as the emissary lay prostrate at my father's feet, her antennae brushing his boots.

"Tell your queen that I thank her for her counsel," he said. I will ponder her offer of alliance. And you harm none, you are free to pass though our lands."

The fey outrider rose, bowed, flew up to her horse's back. With a final salute, she turned her string with a whistle and rode off.

The following day an emissary from the other elfin court came with one of the white horses' heads on a pole. This faerie knight was hairy and green, with large eyes that were a nacreous white. Its beetle-like steed was clad all in dark green segmented armor. A single thick tusk, like a giant rose's thorn, curved skyward from this faerie horse's snout. The knight planted the pole an arrow's flight from the castle walls and bellowed in a voice as deep as a well, "Queen Titania says to the queen of this hive: 'Do not involve yourself with our oppressors.'" Then he rode away. They say horses and other beasts were loath to approach the place where the green faerie knight had issued his warning.

#

I can still hear you. You must be stronger or cleverer than the last one. He was quite the screamer, I think he lasted three days in the thorns. For both our sakes, be quick and merciful. Just start screaming now, please, and be done with it.

I can not hear you now. Ah well, I never hoped you would get to my tower. Please do not take this the wrong way; I stopped hoping after prince number twelve. I guess the thorns -- Is that you in the water? Did you make it to the moat? Clever. Most never make it that far. For the love of God, do not drown before you make it to the portcullis.

#

For several weeks, emissaries from both elfin courts visited my father's castle. Gloriana's slender messengers always brought gifts: advice about the weather, faerie dust that protected apple orchards from pests, or a bolt of fine silk. Titania's messengers -- short, with pine green fuzz showing between dark armor plates -- brought gifts as well, a green crystal bottle of colorless, odorless, tasteless poison; a wondrous plant that caught flies in its hinged leaves; a clear glass sphere which displayed a family of robins in their nest. Both envoys made overtures of alliance. My father accepted the gifts and avoided words of committal.

Somehow the faeries found out about my christening. Three child-sized, wasp waisted ladies from Gloriana's court rode with a whole herd of the white elf horses to the gatehouse and asked for the privilege of gifting me. So far the faeries had visited us with gifts and words only. My father and mother hesitantly agreed to admit them to the ceremony.

The smallest faerie was the first to creep up to my cradle. Her dragonfly wings trailed over her voluminous skirts. Stroking my face with one long slender hand, she brought her silver bracelet to her face and chittered, "I give the baby queen Briallan the gift of flaxen hair that will last throughout her days." Then she brought her elfin face close to mine and kissed me.

The next largest came up and also stroked my face, kissed me, and spoke over her bracelet, saying, "I give the baby queen Briallan the gift of increased constitution, so that no winter cold or ague may find purchase in her body."

She crept away to make room for the third -- who was the most bejeweled fey yet to visit -- when an evil faerie dropped from the ceiling like a dark green beatle, bit me, and shouted above my shrieks, "before Briallan matures she will die of an all-consuming canker!" Then it lifted its skirts and let loose a fart that stunned the guardsmen and set the dogs howling. "Thus will we treat all who side with our oppressors!"

Some of the guardsmen swore they saw four stick-like legs under the skirts before the evil faerie flew out the window, the first two faeries in pursuit.

The third fey exuded a scent like lavender that calmed all -- both men and dogs -- in the hall. I stopped my cries. "Peace," she said, using her bracelet like the others, and came slowly forward to address my mother. "What Titania has done today is a small taste of what she could do if left unchecked. In this hour I must declare myself; I am Gloriana." The faerie queen made another bow towards my parents. "I cannot undo the poison of the wicked faerie's kiss, but I can soften the blow. The baby queen Briallan's canker will be benign. She will not die, but the healing may require a treatment of many, many years. Thus will we redress the crimes of the fugitive, Titania." Then she picked me up in both of her stick-thin hands and kissed me. It was the first of many healing kisses I would know.

#

Sometimes I dream I am truly awake instead of this dark half-dreaming; not this floating like a frog just beneath the water's surface. I will slide out from my dreams and remember that I am a princess Gloriana placed in a tower. "Your people will blame me," she said before she shaped her spell. Now my eyes are locked shut in a protective slumber; seeing only my dreams or the dull red of the insides of my lids, half-waking, unable to move, to hear kings' sons thrashing through roses. Then I dream I open my eyes and walk down the stairs, and there's my father and my --

Thrashing through roses! You have gained the portcullis. Do not fail there! At least two -- maybe more -- have. Do not be a fool! Just because you have made it through the moat, you have not won. It is just a little way through the outer ward, but let the bones of the others remind you to have care.

#

My father threw in our lot with Gloriana's court in earnest. There was a great ceremony in the castle inner ward, where the faeries planted the first of their strange elfin roses. It was a plant of great virtue, able to confound Titania's sprites. The rose was a wondrous bloom, for its pedal-wrapped center was a bee made of flower parts. The flower-bee was so life-like the castle gardeners thought they were actual insects constrained somehow, but Gloriana's faeries told them they were there to attract the real bees.

Assured that Gloriana's blooms would protect the castle from Titania's sprites, my father sent his soldiers into to the fields east of our home. Now that they had mortal allies, Gloriana's amazons -- the very elf women who had visited us from the beginning -- forced Titania's court to entrench in the fens where the ground was treacherous to walk on. Tracks and paths through the bogs became even more perilous places to travel. At night people told stories of beams of green and blue faerie lights flashing from hill to hill.

As the feud played out we learned that both courts were small in number by mortal reckoning and that the faerie warriors were physically fragile -- once their soft spot was known. For every faerie amazon of Gloriana's my father had ten fighting men. But the faerie queen's magic could not take my father's warriors to Titania's boggy fortress, a sodden mound of strangling plants and noxious air. The wondrous white elfin horses were bread for speedily bearing faerie raiders, but could not endure to carry a full-grown man, let alone an armored warrior.

Titania's sprites were hardier, but less gainly and fewer. They had powers that were strangely potent, but as often as not they relied on surprise, stealth and magic more than brute force. We were harassed with illness, blighted crops, or hexed cattle. Our people smashed the elfin webs of Titania's sprites when we found them, and used certain plants we were told had virtue over Titania's brood to protect our kith and kine.

Over the years, Titania's sprites were seen less and less out of the fens. Even with my father's people's help, Gloriana's retainers were not able to drive the wicked faeries from the bogs. The stalemate between the two elf houses lasted until my sixteenth birthday.

#

Sometimes I think you princes are part of my dreams. I have learned not to trust what I can see. When I dream, I dream of Gloriana's kisses, only somehow they become Father's kisses. Or I dream of the hollow hills. Or of the faerie roses with their insect centers. Or of anthills.

#

I was a frequent visitor to the faerie domain in the western foothills. It was a place of winking jewels, brightly polished silver, and many labyrinthine passages. My father would accompany me in the early days, but I think the elfin customs and healing arts of Gloriana's hollow hill disturbed him, especially the leech craft. My mother was always cool towards the faeries; she never went.

The faerie queen herself tended me. She was adept at healing childhood scrapes, and once even mended my broken arm in less than a week. Titiana's venom was a more difficult knot to unravel, however, and required many long sessions. First, Gloriana would would sniff and kiss me, for the faeries could divine much from a kiss. Then, she would test the progress of my healing. She had me breathe on white faerie blooms or urinate onto a blue magic wand. "As long as Titania's venom is working in your veins," Gloriana said, "the bloom will stay white and the wand will stay blue." Some times the charms would change hue, but never permanently.

I became used to lying naked on an underhill bed while enchanted ants carpeted my body, searching it for clues to Titania's poison. On some visits Gloriana would remove strange growths from my neck or gut. At the end of the sessions, my women, bodyguards, and I would feast inside the hidden hall and Gloriana would feed us elf grains and amber honey.

She was kind; it was she who taught me the whistles and clicks of her tongue. She always spoke to me as if I were already queen. When I was nine years old, during one healing session we discussed my father's forces, switching between our two languages.

She said, "Briallan, the magic of Titania's hill keeps my amazons from approaching it too closely. We are trying to train your fighting clan -- and it is not my wish to cause offence -- but some are more easily trained than others. How do you choose the best fighters?"

"They have tournaments," I said. "And the knights fight and the best one wins the prize."

"What do they win?" the queen asked.

"An iron crown," I said, thinking, "or sometimes gold or a horse."

"And then the victors breed?" she asked.

"I suppose everyone does," I said, laughing. Boys were stranger creatures to me than Gloriana's amazons. "Father Connor is always warning the ladies of the court to be virtuous when knights visit."

#

I am damned, you know. Even though I lie here asleep, I know I am. I listen to princes curse me as their bodies and blood feed the briars circling this castle. I have pieced together the stories they have heard about me. They moan that my red lips and white skin and fair hair of gold have drawn them here to die. But it must be this way if I am to bring about Titania's fall.

#

"Look," said Gloriana during my last visit. "I have something to show you." After sixteen years I could read her moods -- her antennae perked up and she smelled happy. She brought out a faeire bloom. It had changed from white to red during my last visit -- and it was still red. "I have found a check for Titania's poison. When her sprite bit you, the venom turned your glands against you, using your womb to coordinate the illness. I can check the toxin; now I have to set your womb's workings to rights to effect a full cure."

The lights dimmed suddenly and a loud whine startled us. The door opened and Gloriana's servants carried a bedraggled elf amazon into the chamber. Through buzzes and clicks she told us Titania's creatures had overrun Father's castle.

Titania had made use of her enforced exile in the fens, lying low and biding her time until she could gather up sufficient force to break her siege. She sent a firedrake -- a wingless, writhing worm of flame -- to climb our castle's outer walls and burn the faerie roses within. The blooms were torched, but the amazon thought the roots were unharmed. The firedrake was a new beast Glorianna's warriors had never encountered before, and they were sorely pressed to stop it from setting fire to the whole castle. Many of the faerie horses and three of Gloriana's amazons fell bringing the firedrake down. The rest were soon overcome by Titania's sprites, who blew a white elf dust into the air. Men and elfin warrior on both sides died. Titania's remaining forces were bringing the battle to Gloriana's hollow hill. They would attack soon. The amazon thought the invaders were no more than an hour behind her.

Gloriana whistled shrilly, and instantly her underground realm was like a swarm of hornets when their nest is threatened. She turned to me and said, "Briallan, as you trust me, leave your bodyguard to defend this place and let me guide you and your women to a secret hall in the hills."

The captain of guard made his youngest fighter ride with us. The defending faerie band numbered a half a score of winged amazons. The addition of my bodyguard brought their number to fifteen.

Gloriana's child-sized form flew ahead of us, alighting from time to time on hillock or boulder. Our horses were sorely pressed to keep up with her flight as she led us higher into the hills. After a half-hour, she stopped at a rough cliff face and touched it. A hidden door, wide enough to emit our horses, swung open. As we passed through the entrance, a sound like a thousand thunders shook the air and a flash momentarily blinded us.

When I could see again, I looked back at Gloriana. She was looking at her silver bracelet. Its jewel was dark. Silently she swung the door closed. I never saw her wear the bracelet again.

#

We stayed in the dim stone hall for what seemed like half a fortnight. The first night, I held my tears and comforted my women. Only while the others slept did I slink off to a far chamber to weep. My home was destroyed by faerie malice. My father and mother and all I knew were dead.

Gloriana did not have the proper resources for her healing arts. She was remote, and spent many long hours sitting on the floor in her skirts, silent as a carving. And she refused to open the door until she felt it was safe.

It was like being in hell. We had too much time and too much confinement. The days slid into each other in a dull procession. I could smell my women fretting in the stone rooms, my bodyguard trying to fathom the door's working. We didn't lack for food or water, but even I grew weary of the store of grains and honey.

At last Gloriana stirred. She walked to the entrance. "Briallan and I are returning to her castle," she said, easing the door open a crack. "The rest of you should head further west."

I was surprised as my retainers. "Gloriana," I began, "my mother's people in Gwynedd would --"

"-- watch you die." She cut me off. "I promised I would heal you and the only way to do it is at your castle."

"But --" I began.

"And I swore to bring Titania to justice. Imagine a whole faerie world -- its people poisoned a hundred times worse than you -- and you would have only a small portion of the magnitude of her crimes."

"Gloriana," I said.

"I need you, Briallen," she said. "I have a plan to bring her down; but I need you cured and the only way to do that is at your home." I could tell she was trying not to use her scent to soothe me. "Trust me," she said.

"Like at your hollow hill?" asked the guard. He smelled angry and frightened.

"Do you challenge me, warrior?" Gloriana said, inhaling.

He drew his blade.

She spit in his face, and he fainted into a sleep.

"This is my plan," she said, and told it to me. "Do you want to live?" she asked when she had finished, holding out her slender hand.

I chose revenge.

#

Gloriana pronounced the castle free of Titania's white dust. It had become a deserted place of scorched earth and stone. The twisting body of the fire-drake, now a raven's larder, lay near the inner north wall. I tried not to look too closely at the other forms on the ground. In most of the outer ward the timbers had burnt, but a good portion of the inner ward was still whole. At least from the outside.

If I could have, I would have ridden to Titania's fortress and run her through with a sword right there. But it would take more than one to bring her down. Instead, I slapped my mare's flank to send her away. When she wouldn't leave, Gloriana bit her and the horse bolted.

Withered shoots of the flowers that once protected the castle poked up through the ashes. This was good, without the plant our cause would have been hopeless. Gloriana fed the faerie roses honey, making them burst into a riot of waving briar overnight. Questing tendrils curtained my tower window the next morning. She continued training the plants with kisses and honey. The sudden appearance of the clinging vines with their sharp thorns discouraged looters and the curious even more than rumor of the faerie sickness.

The third morning, Gloriana knocked on my bedroom door. "It is finished," she said. "The blooms are ready -- you need not lack for anything as long as the root mass lives."

I nodded, knowing what was next.

"Briallan," said Gloriana, "I wish I could stay with you through your ordeal, but if any of Titania's brood survived and find me here, all is lost and I will have failed. I hope my last kisses will explain all."

She hefted up her skirts then and I saw her four insect legs, her womb of glass, and the wriggling grubs within. She reached back and massaged the space between her hindmost legs, her hand came away with the amber Faerie honey. Kiss by sticky kiss, she fed it to me, preparing my body for what was to come. When she was done, the world seemed to be far, far away.

I do not know if I closed my eyes. I remember Gloriana's nails -- gently, painlessly -- parting the skin on my flanks and her grafting a shoot of the faerie rose growing through the window into my side. I remember Gloriana above me, crouching on all six limbs as she kissed me with honeyed lips one last time. I remember her flying, naked, out of the window, her womb clear and empty.

She left me lying on the bed in a hazy half-slumber.

#

I cannot hear you anymore. Make some noise. My father used to tramp about making a martial jingle. Make some noise -- a thump, a mutter. Or start screaming; I want to return to my dreams.

I can hear you again! Come closer. I want to see what you look like -- will you be fair to look at? Come up the stairs. Will you have scars on your arms? Not that door, my room is at the top of the tower. Why must I be woken by a stranger's kiss?

Yes. You are rattling my door. Open it. It's not locked, just unused. Just push it open. Push it.

Thank God, I can smell you. You have to be real, you smell like leather and sweat. I can feel my heart pounding in my ears. Your leather boots creak closer. Kiss me. Kiss me.

Why have you stopped? Am I naked? God, I must be one hundred years old. Kiss me. I still smell you. I hear your breath.

That's it. Breathe! I can smell the faerie roses opening, spreading their scent. Through the graft in my side I can feel the false bees stirring in the blooms' centers.

And now I understand, for your sweat has unlocked the message in Gloriana's last kiss. The roses' smell has beguiled you since you entered the briar; but you have survived the grasping thorns in spite of the floral glamour. I can hear you step closer, your breath making my heartbeat skip like a spring lamb; making the faerie roses stir. When you kiss me, I will open my eyes and smile, and the rose scent will enflame us both with passion.

For I can smell that you are the one. The one Gloriana's kiss said would come; the one clever enough and strong enough to win through Gloriana's briars. The other princes had to be culled, their remains rooted through for imperfections and flaws in heredity.

When we make love, the faerie roses will move about us, enclosing us in a cocoon, sustaining us. My kisses will spur you on and on for days. For I am the center of the faerie bloom, and you are the bee. When they have learned all they can from you, the avenging myrmidons within me will have all they need to overthrow Titania.

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