My father rounded on us as the door closed.
Me, that is. He apparently completely forgot that Seph had come in too, and rounded on and then focused the brute force of his royal bearing on me.
“What, precisely, did you mean by ‘she can have it,’ Alyssa?”
I tried to meet his gaze directly, but it was impossible to shield from the glower. When my eyes finally settled comfortably on the tops of his boots, I said, “I meant that she can have it. Just that. Pure, simple, direct, no strings attached, give me a marker to color in a dragon on top of her tramp stamp and I’ll just be heading home to Momma. Y’all will have your queen, and the elf lands will be happy, and you can come home to Mississippi and live with us, and….”
My voice trailed off, as I hadn’t any idea how I was going to finish that little rant. I’d figured he would jump in and start yelling. He didn’t, though, and after a few seconds of silence I pushed my eyes back up to his face.
He was crying.
Okay, I admit, crying is a stretch. But I saw a tear; I know I did. Slowly, his hands reached out and grasped mine. He led me gently over to the table in the middle of the small home, and together, as one, we sat. With one hand Dad pushed a tiny lock of my hair out of my face from where it’d fallen.
Finally my father, the ruler of the entire realm of the elves, spoke, his voice rumbling out of his chest like the muted thunder of a spring rain. “Alyssa…. It — it is not fair, what Kiirajanna has asked of you, my daughter. I know, because I said the same thing many years ago in my own training to take the male throne. The idea of being a ruler, of having servants, of everyone bowing and saying, ‘Yes, Sire,’ and ‘Your Majesty’ all the time, is but a siren’s song compared to the reality of the burden of leadership. You, my daughter, are just starting to step into that burden, and yet if the prophecy is to be believed — and I have no doubt that it is — then you have to look forward to the toughest monarchy in our entire history, all four epochs combined. It would be absolutely terrifying to an experienced ruler. I can only imagine how daunting it must be to you.”
“It is, Daddy.” That wasn’t the biggest problem, though. I figured there was no point beating around it. “But my real worry, over and above the weight anyone would feel in the crown on her head, is that this society that I’m destined to lead despises me. Remember the talk we had last time we were sitting at this table?” He nodded; right after we’d returned from the disastrous library-burning trip, his brother had verbally, and strongly, taken me to task over accessing the forbidden powers of outright, visible, magic. I’d satisfied my uncle, and my father had helped me convince High Priestess Naissa that I shouldn’t be banished because of it, but the battle of Ganolog as well as the shunning I’d received in more nearby villages told me that the people hadn’t followed their lead quite like Dad and I hoped they would. Outright attempts on my life had stopped, granted, but the quiet and secretive whispers and the glares cast my way were sometimes even worse than that. At least an attack on my life was overt, and I could see it and deal with it. What had happened up in the northlands, with the outright challenge not only to my own life but to the leadership of my father’s most loyal chieftain, terrified me for the future of my reign on Kiirajanna. There were a group of elves—a large group, it seemed—who were willing to take up arms against what they viewed as a challenge to their traditional way of life, and I wasn’t sure if there was anything I could ever do to convince them that I was not the dire challenge that they imagined.
Heck, sometimes I couldn’t help wondering if they were right. Would I actually become that challenge?
Even here, my father’s own home village, there was a hidden resentment problem. I’d learned enough in my studies on the history of elf government to suspect that Dad was the most popular king there’d ever been. Before my use of magic, that popularity seemed to rub right off on me, with elders and children alike flocking to shake the Earth-born princess’s hand, sharing in an alien-feeling gesture from the exotic and far-off realm of Mississippi. Ever since word of magic had reached their ears, though, they avoided me entirely, only gathering around my father when I wasn’t there.
I saw it, clearly, and it hurt. Just as clearly, it hurt him a little, too.
“Do not worry, my dear daughter; they are only afraid of what you represent,” my father’s favorite attempt at comfort sank sloppily. The logic only went so far. I was afraid of what I represented. If the prophecy were to be believed—and, according to everybody who mattered, it was—then I was bound to absolutely, personally, violently decimate the countryside. I would lay waste to their customs, divide the elves brother against brother, and all sorts of other miserable things. “Alyssa” would soon, if prophecy were to be believed, be the Kiirajanna version of the cursed name “Adolf Hitler.” Back in the library I’d read all these evil outcomes of my reign and figured there had to be some way out of it all, but then I managed to fulfill the first one right then and there by burning the dang building down to the ground. A library. To me, a nearly sacred space. I burned it completely down, and that I hadn’t done it on purpose didn’t matter much. Then I’d gone and answered other prophecies, like lighting the sky up with radiance and starting wars among brethren and so on.
It was really darn depressing, all things considered.
“Alyssa, they do not—” Dad started, but I interrupted.
“Oh, yes, they do, bless their little hearts. Don’t tell me you don’t see the dark looks. Don’t tell me you don’t sense them holding back and away from me. I’m going to be the first elf queen to be ruler of a people who don’t want her rule at all.”
“Not the first,” Dad joked. At least, I hoped he was joking.
“Right. What, the second?” Hey, I’d studied elf history nearly as thoroughly as he had.
“Third, I think, but that is not the point. Do you really believe that I was Mister Popularity when I was crowned?”
He had me there. “Well, yeah. I do, Dad. You’re a pretty cool guy. And you’ve never, that I know of anyway, used magic.”
“You are right, but you cannot keep dwelling on the use of magic. I know, I know, it has been forbidden by your High Priestess Sternyface, and by others,” he said, grinning with me as he used my epithet for Naissa. “And yet, at the same time, it has been prophesied, and it was done, and there is no possible path from where we are except forward through time. It gladdens me more than it should, I must admit, that you think I am a pretty cool guy, but I have not always been labeled so, nor ever by all. It is the nature of being in charge that you garner dislike as you move along. When I was young, it was even worse.”
“He was an arrogant asshole when he was young, I’ll tell you what,” his brother, my uncle, chimed in as he moved past the table. “Like some tea?”
“Oh, yes,” I breathed. My uncle was a smith of soft items—leather and wood—by trade, but he also had a knack with herbology that made his tea incredible. His concoction would make the saddest sad happy, and the gladdest glad even happier. And, as I’d learned the hard way in my first trip to the village, it makes the worst hangover—well, it made it a little less painfully horrible, a feat that I have come to believe is pretty much legendary.
“He is right,” Dad nodded as his brother got busy with the water. “I was—I suppose, an arrogant asshole when I was young. And some would say the same about me even now. That is my point, in matter of fact. You see, it is the norm for rulers to be regarded as arrogant at first, especially when they follow behind someone who is popular. That is the curse of taking over when things are going well. You cannot adopt the same behavior and policies as the one who governed before you, or else you are considered weak and unoriginal. At the same time, doing your own thing marks you as an agent of change, and change is both feared and rejected whenever it is not seen as absolutely essential, and it is often feared even then. That is likely a significant part of the angst you are picking up on, my lovely daughter. You are already taking over for a very popular queen, and it is the change you cannot help but bring that they fear.”
“That, and the magic,” I reminded him.
“Well, there is that,” he agreed, and then the table grew silent as we stirred the tea that my uncle had just warmed up for us.
He finally broke the tea-infused silence by continuing, “Alyssa, as difficult and even painful as it may prove, you must continue to move forward and become the queen you are destined to be.”
I ignored my uncle’s disapproving grunt as I said, “I know, Dad.” I did, really. I knew none of us had a choice, but I didn’t have anywhere near as much to complain about as he did. Here was a man who’d given up years of his life to train to be king, and then years of his life to find a human woman to love and to bear his child as elf custom required, only to be followed by nearly two decades away from that woman, and the daughter they’d made, in order to return to his duty as sovereign over his people. Sure, I’d hated him for it at first, but we got past that as I came to understand the burden he was carrying. Now, the only thing that stood between him and the love of his life—my mother—was for me to put on my big girl panties and take the throne, and then for his own successor to be appointed and trained. If I were to step aside in someone else’s behalf, bless her heart, custom as well as reality said it would be years, if ever, before Dad could join Momma full-time at home.
“And no more public outbursts, okay?”
“Can’t promise that.” I gave him my most precocious smile, but he ignored it.
“You must. For it is that degree of discipline that is required of a queen, dear.”
“Okay, Dad,” I said, getting serious. “I’ll promise, no more public outbursts. Now, drink your tea, and I’ll drink mine, before the water gets cold again.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Dad said with a smile. I couldn’t quite tell if he was lightly mocking me or gently deferring to me, but to be honest, I liked it either way.
“Maybe her standing among the people will be helped once she has completed her hunhymgais,” Seph offered from behind the safety of her own cup of tea.
Dad nodded tentatively and said, “It should, definitely. I cannot say by how much, but our peoples’ opinions should certainly rise once you become truly one of us, Alyssa.”
“Yay.” One corner of my lip twisted up into my best, most sarcastic, smile. “Into the woods naked go I.” Literally, hunhymgais means “quest for self,” and it is the rite of passage to adulthood for the elves. I hadn’t had one, of course. In Mississippi they frown on prepubescent children running off “nekkid as a jaybird” into the woods by themselves. The elves’ quest for maturity, on the other hand, required a young elf to fend for herself for six weeks—thirty-six long, cold, and probably hungry days—using just her wits and nothing else, not even clothes—and then return, hopefully with a story to tell of facing down one or more of her worst fears.
My worst fear? That would be running off into the woods nekkid, especially in the wintertime. That was just not my kind of thing.
“Not naked,” Dad argued, shaking his head. “A child leaves naked and is expected to return an adult in whatever attire pleases them—fashioned, of course, by their own arts. You, on the other hand, come a bit late to the questing, physically well past your childhood, and I will not have my daughter, our future queen, run off into the woods with her womanhood displayed for all to see.”
“But if I don’t do it just like an elf, won’t that diminish the effect? Won’t people just gripe that I didn’t start it naked like everybody else?”
“No. Well, maybe. But I invited the counsel of the High Priestess before we left, and she informed me that there is precedent for beginning the hunhymgais clothed, especially insofar as the crown princess is concerned. It has always been done, in fact. We will make sure to inform everyone that you wanted to run off naked like your brethren but were prevented by tradition. How is that?”
“Great, Dad. Anybody who knows me will believe it when you say how much I wanted to run off naked like everybody else, or, for that matter, how I was prevented from doing it by that thing I cherish most—tradition.”
My uncle’s snort sounded from the tiny pantry-kitchen combination that was the third room of the house. When he stopped chortling, he added, “One additional thing to consider, my brother, is that she cannot leave Draignerthol behind when she undertakes the quest. It is too precious a relic, and even under the castle’s own vaunted security it’s too inviting a target for thieves. She should wear it with her quest, and of course that means she must wear something to cover it up.”
“Right, Dafydd,” Dad said, his eyes going to the lump on my chest that indicated the hidden presence of the legendary elf pendant. It had been fashioned in the early days of elf civilization, back when magic was cool, by some of the most powerful sorcerers in Kiirajanna. Then, when the great priestess-queen Rhiannon had crossed over to Earth, intending to forever seal herself away from the land of magic and the elves, she’d taken it with her, and the entire elf race had assumed the pendant lost to the hands of time and humans. Somehow, thousands of years later, the striking dragon-shaped pendant had been handed to me by Momma the night before I crossed back into its original homeland. Its blue gemstone eyes flared to life when touched by anyone who could wield magic, and it seriously magnified my own puny grasp on the power. It had protected me from poison when I didn’t even realize it was doing so, and later I’d pulled enough power through it to save us in a fall from a cliff, to defeat Padrig’s foes’ sorcery, and yes, to burn the library down. I treasured it and cursed it, both at the same time.
“Can we at least wait till after Yule?” Since we were talking in English, still, for security, I used the English term. “Like, a few months after Yule? I doubt the people would believe the claim that tradition made me wear an overcoat, too.” In truth, the area of Kiirajanna the castle was located on was pretty close to the equator, and so it wasn’t all that cold, but the possibility of being out in real winter weather without overgarments still terrified the Mississippian in me.
Heck, the whole bit terrified me—all of it, especially the part that involved traveling to the other three clans to gain their approval, after the little war I’d started with Padrig’s clan. That scared me every bit as much as the hunhymgais thing. It was just that I didn’t want to die of hypothermia along the way.
My dad chuckled. “No, Alyssa, we do not specify the timing of hunhymgais to suit ourselves. That is part of the challenge. You must go when the time is right, once you have marched yourself into the hearts of the eastern, western, and southern clans, whether that requires a month, or twelve, to complete. Besides, you can never know where you will end up, so judging the time to leave based on the weather pattern near the castle is an exercise that is entirely useless.”
“What do you mean I never know? Don’t I just run there?” I hadn’t gotten too much into the details; all I’d heard so far was “naked,” “alone,” “woods,” and “six weeks.” That had been quite enough.
“Absolutely not. We hold a ceremony, you take a special staff with you, and you step into one of the ley-gates. It transports you to wherever you need to be to successfully complete your quest.”
“Earth?” I asked, confused. “Or do they go to random places on Kiirajanna?” The ley-gates were the system of energy spots used to transport people from Earth to Kiirajanna and back, as far as I knew. We’d taken one from Memphis when I’d first made the transition. There was another used by trappers far to the north that had both entrance and exit in the same realm, but I’d been led to believe it was a rare one. That, and it always ended at the same two points, just as the other I’d taken did.
Dad nodded and said, “Maybe Earth, but most of us, I think, end up going to another location on Kiirajanna. At least, I did.” Seph nodded from behind her cup; she’d stayed on Kiirajanna, too, apparently.
“How do you know it’s Kiirajanna?”
“Most elves do not know the difference, I suppose, but those of us who have made the journey to Earth do, as do you. You recall the emptiness you felt when you made the trip back to the world in which you were born, yes? It is less a sensation, and more a lack of sensation, the lack of awareness of your surroundings that you have already become accustomed to here.”
“Oh, right. Magic,” I said, and then I wished I hadn’t. Dad had sprinkled the term freely through our first conversation to get me excited about coming back to Kiirajanna, describing the magical realm of magical creatures and magical elves and magical this and that, but as soon as I’d crossed over I’d found that using the word magic was nearly as taboo as the act of using the power itself. They still held that singing the trees to shape and healing each other, in addition to all their ranger powers, were somehow different from using magic, but I knew the distinction was fake. Part of the reason I hated using the word myself was my frustration that nobody would listen to me about what I already knew to be true regarding the true nature of magic.
“Yes,” Dad said, pursing his lips to make it clear he was not using the word on purpose. He rose. “Well, Brother, thank you for the tea. It was wonderful as usual. Do you believe that we could get the men of the village together for some wrestling fun?”
I looked across the table and caught my cousin’s eye; she was as bored with the idea of watching wrestling as I was. She rose, shrugged, and said, “I’m going to head into the woods with Booboo for a while, Alyssa. Would you like to come with?”
I nodded a lie. No, I had no desire to walk through the woods for a while, with or without my cousin and her familiar. The wolverine still scared me, with his looks and actions both. He reminded me of a small bear. He’d proven himself an incredibly powerful, fast, agile, and strong ally, though.
Sometimes he made me wish that I had my own familiar, one just as powerful, fast, agile, and strong, but only a little bit cuter and fluffier. My tree didn’t count. As much as I cherished, and was cherished by, Little Treebeard, my potted elm that I’d somehow found a weird, magical connection with, it was still just a tree, growing in a pot. Oh, it could make its intentions clear enough, and loudly, by smacking the walls with its ever-lengthening branches, but it couldn’t go on vacations with us like Booboo could. I’d had to leave it in the few remaining palace guards’ care, and, weird as it sounds, I missed the little guy.
We stepped out of the village into the open forest. The elves loved their forests to look more like well-manicured lawns, and rangers like my cousin were tasked with keeping everything growing in a neat and orderly manner. Even the grass grew to a uniform height and no farther. It really was pretty, if you weren’t looking for the mangled wildness that a good Southern old growth forest contained. I wasn’t, so it was good.
As we stepped lightly through the trees, I couldn’t help noticing with pride that my own stride was matching that of the elves more and more every day. They were very good at passing through the woods silently, and my cousin, trained as a ranger, was exceptionally good at it. When I’d arrived I had felt like an elephant compared to her cheetah walk, but even she occasionally commented on how much more like an elf I was moving.
As we walked it started snowing lightly. Strangely, I didn’t feel all that cold. Then again, I’d spent much of the winter so far outdoors, with a lot of that in the far northlands. I figured my body was becoming used to the lower temperature, at least more than it ever had in Mississippi.
“Hmm?” I could tell from her quietened, serene reply that she was in her attuned mode. Somehow, out in the woods, I could lightly whisper something and she’d still hear me, thanks to the same powers she used to know exactly where I was without looking. I could do it, myself, out to a limited distance, but her sensitivity was—well, not to overuse the term, but it was magical.
“Gwenda’s not a ranger, is she?”
“No, she’s learning to craft with leather. From my pa, in fact.”
“How does she have a dire wolf as a familiar, then?”
“Oh, Cuddles isn’t her familiar. He’s more of a pet.”
“That’s—not what I expected,” I admitted. “In fact, that’s a little more unnerving than if he’d been a familiar. How does she keep a dire wolf as a pet?”
Seph shrugged as though the answer should’ve been plain to see all along. “She feeds him. Same way you keep a tree as a pet, though I’m certainly not one to judge.”
“L.T.’s not a…. So, what does she feed him? Never mind,” I added quickly, correcting myself based on the glare she shot my direction. Obviously, whatever you feed a dire wolf to keep it as a pet wasn’t something I would want to have described to me.
We walked along in silence, leaving me to contemplate my upcoming vision quest, whenever that would be. We still had a couple more days of relaxation and frivolity left in the holiday for me to worry about it. I planned to spend a few days at some point out camping with Seph learning all I could about which parts of which plants were edible, but not knowing which part of the world I’d end up in made that seem mostly useless. The thought briefly flashed across my mind to ask Seph to start teaching me a little of what she knew now, but it was Yule, and we weren’t supposed to do such things at the end-of-the-year celebration.
Yule time was party time.
In fact, when we’d arrived, Dad had physically, publicly, symbolically, doffed the crown of the Elf King in order to just be himself for the one and only true holiday of the year. I figured it would probably end up being my absolute favorite holiday once I became queen.
If I became queen.