Okay, so... in this chapter there is a lot of magic, and I did my best at explaining it. However, if you still need clarification, feel free to drop a line via a review or a PM. Also, I'm attempting to establish that Emmeline having goblin blood gives her a certain measure of innate maliciousness. I did my best, but this is the first time I've written an "evil child" and am not really sure that I did it justice without taking it over the top. Feedback on this issue would be appreciated.
"What ails her?" Fiore murmured, gently stroking her hand down Emmeline's cheek. The child remained curled on top of her bed, her eyes opening a slit to take in the people clustered around her before closing again. She hadn't moved from her bed since morning.
Fyodor sighed and felt the child's pulse at her wrist and throat, and asked the usual questions. Was she tired? Did she feel too hot or too cold? Was she hungry or else not hungry at all? Did she feel dizzy when she tried to move?
Emmeline whispered her answers, not moving from her prone position on top of the coverlet. That in itself was odd, because the goblin-child was rarely inactive. In fact, it was typically harder to keep her sitting still than it was to stop her from running wild through the keep like one of Baron Gaerth's hunting hounds. If Emmeline had been her usual self she would have been squirming in place and trying to escape the room rather than face Fyodor, the resident wizard-physician.
Finally, the old man made his diagnosis. "It's her heart, my Lady," he said, stepping respectfully away from the bed.
Baroness Fiore went as pale as a bedsheet. "Has it failed?" she demanded in a breathy whisper.
Fyodor shook his head. "Nay, not yet. Merely grown too small for her, I think. When she first received her heart she weighed only seven pounds, but now she is four years old and weighs forty pounds. The heart she has is a machine, and it does not grow with her." The wizard shrugged apologetically. "Get another one," he advised.
Within an hour Baird na' Brand na' Bjorn was riding for the home of Agni the Dwarf and his two brothers, bearing one bag of gold and another of silver as payment. The new heart was larger than the first and it took five days and four nights for Baird to return.
The new heart looked the same as the one that Fyodor had previously handled, warm iron and silver and copper and glass that pulsed with a strange Dwarfish magic no human could ever hope to duplicate. Carefully, the aging wizard put Emmeline's body into stasis, using magic to do what would have equalled hitting the "pause" button on a DVD remote - except that people would have thought you were talking nonsense if you tried to explain it to them that way.
Fyodor removed the old heart, feeling sweat break out on his palms and brow as he fed his strength into the spell that was stopping the blood in little Emmeline's body from gushing into the cavity that currently dominated her small chest. He hated it when this happened.
If one of the Wise applied magic to a person's body often enough, then the person started to become resistant to the magic and it required a stronger spell to achieve the same effect as the previous one. Fyodor was an old man, and he didn't have the sort of strength that he had when he was younger. By the time he had finished inserting the new heart and was suturing the hole closed, sweat was dripping into his eyes and his hands were shaking badly.
And knowing that Emmeline was bound to double her current weight at least once more in her lifetime, it made Fyodor wonder if he would have the strength to repeat the operation a third time. He prayed that he would, when that day came.
But in the meantime, Emmeline grew.
It took her three years to learn how to talk, longer than most children, and her hair grew in gingery orange tufts that refused to be tamed by neither brush nor comb. Her eyes looked slightly too big for her face, and her face itself always had a pinched, hungry look - like a cat who had just seen a big bowl of cream, and was willing to do anything (including murder) to get it. Her limbs were long and spindly, with large feet and hands that grew very long fingers and toes. Her skin, pale as parchment, had a greyish undertone that forever made her look sickly and wan.
But the fire that burned in those unnatural amber eyes belied whatever doubts that anyone had about the child's health.
The governess who had been hired to tutor the child despaired over Emmeline's lack of interest in poetry or reading, marveled at her skill in mathematics (it seemed almost instinctive) and openly wept at the child's dreadful embroidery and even worse etiquette. The embroidery either was done very badly or not even attempted, and Emmeline had made a habit of putting her elbows on the table and chewing with her mouth open.
She refused to wear shoes whenever possible, and wore as few layers as she could get away with. The skirts that she did wear often got torn and dirty from crawling through cellars and worming through the family crypts at the lowest level of Castle Highguard. Baroness Fiore was constantly praying that her daughter didn't attempt to climb the trees growing in the courtyard - tree climbing had been her own personal childhood vice, but it didn't seem to be Emmeline's. Emmeline's attention was always focused downwards, into the dark corners of the castle rather than the high and lonely places that Fiore had favored.
Emmeline also avoided the stables and the kennels. Animals, as a rule, didn't like the Baron's daughter. The horses would stamp their feet and roll their eyes when she was near, or bolt whenever she got too close. The dogs would put their tails between their legs and slink away. Cats, on the other hand, openly loathed Emmeline, and Emmeline hated them in return. Litters of kittens had to be guarded with a devotion that bordered on the level of religion if one wanted any of the tiny little things to survive to adulthood. Otherwise, Emmeline would find them and dispose of them.
On the other hand, despite all of the exploring that the Baron's daughter did in the low dark places, she was never bitten by a snake, and rats treated her with polite deference. The servants whispered about her, and Emmeline started playing tricks as she grew older. First harmless ones, but they grew more dangerous as time passed. Switching the mushrooms out for toadstools in the kitchen, or putting a few adders in the cellar to bite the next person who ventured down the steps. Once, a puppy had its eye put out with a sewing needle.
Goblin-born, metal heart, nearly killed her mother... With each cruel trap that was laid and sprang, the whispers grew louder and bolder. With each whisper, more traps were laid. Emmeline's large amber eyes glittered like a wild animal's, and when her milk teeth were lost the adult set that grew into her mouth were too pointed to really pass as human. Still, Fiore loved her daughter and forgave many things, and Emmeline had the decency to keep herself away from setting things on fire or outright killing anyone. In her own strange way, she did love her mother and father. Baron Gaerth had grown more distant as time passed, but Fiore was a warm, benign presence that had never betrayed the half-goblin child.
But others were not so tolerant of Emmeline.
When the girl was ten years old she weighed eighty pounds, and needed another heart once again. Once again, Baird na' Brand na' Bjorn was sent to Agni the Dwarf and his two brothers to make the metal heart. But the dwarf trio could see that something was troubling the messenger as he worked the bellows, and paused in their work to know what was on his mind.
Baird related the things that Emmeline had done, the way she slunk around Highguard Castle at night and had started stealing things. A knife, a woman's ivory comb that had been in the family for generations, some coins of inheritance money set aside, jewelry, books with pictures.
Agni listened, his brows drawn together in an angry furrow. Sindri wanted to cease work immediately and refuse the Baron's daughter her new heart altogether, but Eitri wanted to give the child a chance to reform herself - children often did cruel things, simply because they couldn't realize the full extent of the harm they were doing. Ultimately, it was Agni who came up with the solution.
The dwarves and Baird would make the metal heart, but with a new spell added to the multitude that already graced the contraption. If Emmeline of Highguard was to ever see someone die directly because of her tricks, then the heart would immediately cease to function. And nothing would ever make it start back up again, save the gods themselves.
Baird took the heart and began the long trip back to Highguard. He was not worried and expected no delays, for Baron Gaerth had recently rode out with a quarter of Highguard Castle's garrison and swept the mountain roads free of bandits. However, midway through the journey one of his horses fell.
It happened quite suddenly. The horse that Baird was riding stumbled over a stone in the road, then lost his balance and fell heavily onto his side. The messenger twisted out of the saddle just in time to avoid having his leg crushed beneath the gelding's weight. Cursing, the man quickly got to his feet again and and examined the horse's legs for injuries, praying for each limb to be hale and unbroken. They were, and the gelding quickly got back up again. But when Baird remounted and clicked his tongue to urge the beast to go forward once more, the messenger noted that the animal was favoring one of his feet.
Muttering balefully to himself, Baird slid back down from the saddle and ran his work-roughened hands over the animal's neck and flanks for a moment, urging the animal to be still and compliant. He lifted up the hind leg that the gelding hadn't seemed keen on putting weight on to examine the hoof, then started cursing again.
The horseshoe had twisted loose. It was now held to the hoof by a single nail, and Baird grimly finished the task of removing it. He put the horseshoe into a saddlebag (let it be the farrier's problem when he got back to Highguard) and mounted the other beast, then resumed his journey.
But it was slower going now, with Baird not wanting to exhaust the one beast that he could now ride and being unable to switch mounts when one horse tired of carrying his weight. Emmeline's life was not in danger, or at least not as much danger as it had been in when Baird had first been sent to the dwarves, but the sooner the heart was delivered the sooner he could stop worrying that he might be blamed for the goblin-child's death.
"I've never known a courier to journey so slowly," a traveler said, rubbing salt into the wound in Baird's pride. The messenger gritted his teeth and turned to the other rider that he had encountered on the road, stifling a cutting reply.
When he saw the rider, the remark died in his throat without need of stifling. The rider was... beyond words, something to take any man's breath away. She was tall, and mounted on a spritely white mare, and her limbs were long and very pale. She had a figure like an hourglass and dressed in sensible traveler's garb, but her face showed her to be one of the elves - immortal and very fair, and in these days a rare sight for mortal men. Baird's tongue got stuck behind his teeth. His reply mostly came across as "agh".
"Pardon?" the elfin woman asked politely, cocking her head to one side. She had a mane of brilliant red hair that fell in ringlets down her back, long and loose. Her lips were full and pale pink in color. Baird was suddenly feeling all of his forty-odd years wearing upon him, and was acutely aware of the grey that was showing at his temples and in his neatly-trimmed beard. He cleared his throat.
"My horse threw a shoe, my Lady," he said lamely by way of an explanation when he remembered how to use his tongue. "And I did not want to cause him any injury by riding him further." He spoke carefully, painfully aware of the western burr that lightly colored his speech and attempting to emulate the polished accent that Baroness Fiore spoke with.
"My sorrows for yours, courier," the elf said with a regal nod of her head. Her hair was the color of fresh blood, and her eyes were the same hue as newly-opened oak leaves. "What message do you bear, or are you bound to secrecy?"
Baird had a feeling that his tongue wouldn't have remained still for long if she asked him again what his business was, oath of silence or no. Fortunately, he had no such promise upon him, and gladly spoke: "I bear no message, but a metal heart for the daughter of my Lord Gaerth of Highguard. His daughter's heart is weak and needs replacing, and I was sent to a trio of Dwarfish-smiths to obtain a suitable replacement."
The elfin woman's eyes glittered with newfound interest. "How very remarkable," she said. "That must make you a hero of sorts, courier." Baird turned away from the elfess as she spoke her compliment, feeling his face heat as blood rushed to his cheeks. That in itself was odd, because Baird hadn't blushed since he had been clumsily courting maidens in his teen years. He was not a man to be easily embarrassed.
Perhaps it was some elfish charm that this maiden was working upon him. Little was known about the Undying Folk, save that they never aged and were steeped in the lore of the world. They rarely ventured outside their woodland realms to the world of men, not since the Age of Legends when Artor na' Athlen was King of Albion and there were more dragons around for the heroes to fight. In fact, just about everything that people knew about elves were stories and myths from long ago.
Well, at least Baird would have a story to tell his grandchildren when he returned to Highguard, unless he was dreaming this entire conversation. The messenger turned back to the maiden riding beside him, and noted again the tips of pointed ears that protruded from the mass of her curling, flame-red hair. She was just as beautiful as she had been two minutes ago. It was very difficult for Baird to stop himself from staring.
"This delivery that you are making," the elfess began, "Is it urgent?"
"Somewhat," Baird began, erring to the side of caution. "The child is not in immediate harm, but she cannot continue to grow with a heart that is too small for her."
"Ah," the elfess said, nodding. "I understand. Allow me to lend you a steed, to speed you on your way." The elfess whispered a word that Baird didn't understand, and her mare came to a halt. She dismounted in a flowing leap, taking the reins of her spare horse and moving to offer them to Baird.
"My Lady, I could not - " Baird tried to say.
"I insist," the elfess said smoothly, smiling warmly at the messenger. Baird felt his face heat again. Baroness Fiore was reckoned to be one of the most beautiful women in all of Albion, but this elfin maid outshone Fiore the way the sun outshone a candle. Baird was no lord with the blood of gods and heroes flowing through his veins, capable of resisting such a thing. Made mute and feeling very small indeed, the messenger slid down from his own winded beast and climbed into the saddle, settling himself and touching his heels to the mare's side.
It was like riding the wind itself. Baird finished the journey with inhuman speed, with the mare beneath him never seeming to flag or tire as time wore on. The messenger was cautious at first, keeping the white horse going no faster than a brisk trot, but soon he had urged her to the smoothest canter that he had ever experienced. The mare seemed to flow over the ground rather than run across it, and she kept up that pace all the way to Highguard Castle. The elfess kept pace with the human messenger, occasionally letting loose a peal of happy laughter as she turned and saw the amazed expression on Baird's face.
"What is your name, Lady?" Baird asked as he dismounted in the courtyard, giving the mare's reins to a stable boy who took them after a nod from the elfess.
"I am known as Nerys of Dim," the elfess replied. She was already attracting stares from the guardsmen posted on the walls around the courtyard, and from the servants who were crossing the plaza. Several stable boys and pages took off, doubtless to spread the news that one of the Undying Folk had arrived in Highguard.
Moments later Fyodor was coming down the steps from the castle, with his salt-and-pepper beard tucked into his belt and his robes flowing around him. "Courier!" he snapped, looking royally peeved. Then he caught sight of the elfess. "I... oh. And good day to you, Lady." A stream of liquid syllables fell from the old man's lips, speaking the tongue of the Undying Ones learned from ancient texts. The elfess smiled and nodded regally, replying in the same language.
Fyodor took the heart from the messenger, and Nerys followed him up into Highguard Castle. The dogs, normally prone to growling at strangers if not outright attacking those that didn't seem to belong, barked joyously at the sight of the elfess as though she was a beloved friend. The hounds moved to rush her, but a sharp word from Nerys had them slinking back under the tables as though they had been kicked. Even the mice came out of their holes to gaze at her, beady black eyes shining and tiny noses and whiskers quivering. Nerys took no notice of them, nor of the servants that stopped to gawk and stare at her as she passed.
Fyodor made his way through the castle, followed by Nerys, as he moved towards Emmeline's bedchamber. Pushing the door open allowed a rank, almost reptilian smell to pervade the corridor, and the elfess wrinkled her nose. Many of the Undying Folk still hunted the orcs that haunted the old abandoned dwarf-mines in the mountains, and the smell was unfortunately familiar to her.
"Open the windows," she instructed crisply. When Fyodor hesitated, torn between performing his task and obeying her, the elfess repeated the order in a sharper tone. The old man put down the metal heart and went to the window, fumbling with the catch on the shutters. When he did so, Nerys picked up the parcel that he had set down and examined it, waiting for fresher air to arrive.
The elfin woman squinted her eyes when she uncovered the metal heart. Unlike mankind, those that were elfin-born could perceive magic as light and color from birth. Human mages could develop such sight, but only after many years of study. And this heart... this heart made from metal and glass practically blazed with magical light, the hues of three different dwarfish smith-wizards interwoven with each other like braided ribbons. But there was one spell, tucked beneath layers of others...
A spell to freeze all of the other spells, to undo them all provided that a certain set of circumstances triggered it. Clever. But then, dwarves were known for their cleverness. They were also known for their wariness, too, and this spell was certainly conservative in nature. A safeguard, to be sure that the bearer of this heart didn't do murder. Nerys whispered a few strange words and carefully undid it, smiling to herself.
Fresh air was finally flowing into the chamber now that Fyodor had finished struggling with the shutters, and sunlight was streaming across the floor. There was a weak hiss of protest coming from the bed, and a lump beneath the blankets sluggishly crawled into a patch of shadow.
"Now, Emmeline," Fyodor chided, in a rather weary tone that suggested he had done so often. "Your new heart has arrived. It's time to put it in."
"Aye, alright," came a sulky, sullen voice from beneath the bedcovers.
"You speak like a farm laborer. Say it properly, Emmeline."
"I mean, yes, oh great and wond'rous sorcerer," came the voice.
"None of your cheek. My study, now."
"Aye, I'ma comin' ."
"Yes, I will be with you shortly. Please allow me to dress."
"Very well," Fyodor said stiffly, then exited the room and went down another corridor. Nerys continued to follow him, noting with interest that they had descended several staircases. The air had grown cooler, and the elfess sensed that they were now in a portion of the castle that was below ground. Lamps hanging from the ceiling beams provided illumination, as well as candles set in niches in the walls.
Very soon, they arrived in Fyodor's study. There were shelves filled with books lining the walls, most of them written in mages' cipher so as not to be understood by common folk. Spellbooks and texts on healing and surgery seemed to dominate the small library. There were also workbenches with crucibles and thuribles, mortars and pestles, and carefully labeled jars. In the center of the room was a stone table.
Emmeline arrived in a few minutes, wearing a plain wool underdress. Her frowzy ginger hair was going every which way, and her amber eyes still looked too big for her face. That thin, pinched face peered at Nerys for a moment, the thin-lipped mouth hardening into a scowl of dislike.
So your blood remembers the swords of elven-kind, then, Nerys thought, her own face hardening into a mask of polished marble. The hatred between the Undying Folk and the Dark Ones went back several millennia, almost to the very dawning of the world. Even with some human blood mixed into her, this... abomination... still remembered that hate.
"Emmeline, come here," Fyodor said, standing by his workbench. Emmeline sent a last amber-eyed glare over her shoulder at the elfess, then marched stiffly over to the wizard-physician and accepted the cup. She sniffed it inquisitively. "Tincture of poppy?" she guessed.
"Indeed. Drink up, now."
Emmeline drained the cup with a grimace, then climbed onto the table and lay down, arranging herself in such a way that she could watch Nerys even from her prone position. But very soon her eyes began to droop closed as the poppy worked itself through her system, and Fyodor whispered a spell to hasten and deepen the drugged sleep.
"Could you not have accomplished that with magic alone?" Nerys asked, looking at the sleeping child. Even if she had been entirely human, she would not have been beautiful. Not even by the standards of humans.
"I could have," Fyodor admitted, "But I'm neither the strongest nor the most talented of magicians - the opium helps to hold her in sleep once I begin my work."
"I see," Nerys said with a nod of her head. "And the guessing game concerning the nature of your sedative?"
"Emmeline has always had an acute sense of smell, and she enjoys learning of plants and their uses," Fyodor replied, "I see nothing wrong with encouraging the girl to learn."
Nerys hummed a noncommittal agreement. "I have fought several different goblin tribes in my life, and they all coat their blades in poison," she said. "It would stand to reason that this Emmeline of yours would be interested in the uses of various herbs and roots and flowers... But forgive me, I babble. Do I keep you from your task?" She flashed the old wizard a winning smile that made the sun itself look dim.
Nerys watched as Fyodor picked up a scalpel, his hands and the blade glowing with spells, and started replacing the old metal heart with the new. Sweat broke out on his forehead after a time, and his breathing grew more ragged as his strength was leached away by the magic. His old, wrinkled hands eventually started to shake, and soon he was panting openly and using the sleeves of his robe to wipe the perspiration out of his eyes.
Abruptly, the old magician's eyes rolled up into his head, and he collapsed onto the floor in a dead faint.
Nerys smoothly took over, reinforcing the old conjurer's spells just as they flickered and expired, managing to maintain them. She finished the work, feeding strength - more strength than she expected to use, anyway, but certainly not enough to weaken her - into the enchantments.
But there was something wrong. The heart, even when attached correctly with all of the proper binding spells, would not start to beat. It remained a lifeless piece of metal lodged in the goblin child's chest. Nerys frowned at the contraption for a moment, then glanced down at old Fyodor lying on the floor. She crooked her fingers at him in a come-hither gesture, and whispered a few syllables in the Old Tongue that none now remembered save the elves... and perhaps the gods.
Fyodor's breathing slowed, and then stopped entirely. His heart ceased its beating. And the spark of his life, when it attempted to pass on to the next world, was caught by Nerys, who deftly bound it into the metal heart and made a few adjustments.
The dwarf-carved runes and sigils on the metal heart pulsed once, then shimmered, and then the heart started pumping blood through the body. Nerys smiled, then sutured shut the hole in the girl's chest. She made a few more spells, scrubbing the opium out of Emmeline's body and removing the enchanted sleep.
Emmeline woke up slowly, blinking her overlarge eyes and seeming vaguely confused as to where she was. However, when the goblin-child caught sight of Nerys, she reacted immediately by scrambling to her feet and crouching down on the stone table, lips peeling back to reveal pointed teeth. Her wild hair fell around her eyes, and she growled low in her throat.
Nerys arched a brow and leaned against the wall, then studied her nails for a moment before replying. "Very attractive," she commented dryly, "But I've seen worse."
Emmeline spat out a string of words that would have had Fiore washing her daughter's mouth out with lye soap for a week.
"Don't ever think that you can become my better in any field, goblin-child," Nerys said. Though her voice was soft and musical, it had a core of steel. And her eyes, as green as her forest homeland, were as hard and uncompromising as twin emeralds. "I wouldn't advise becoming my enemy - I was old when your mother's mother's mother was still in swaddling clothes, and I am wise. I have fought in wars and defeated opponents far stronger than you shall ever be. If you dare to cross me, I will destroy you utterly."
There was the sound of running feet outside in the corridor, and then the door was flung wide open. Baron Gaerth and his wife stood there, taking in the scene of Emmeline perched on the table, the wizard lying prone on the floor, and Nerys the elfess leaning against the wall.
Baron Gaerth immediately bowed to the elf maiden as a gesture of respect, his eyes hungrily drinking in the sight of her as any mortal would take in the sight of one of the Undying Folk. Baroness Fiore dropped a curtsy, demurely lowering her eyes but peering at Nerys through the fringe of her hair.
"My Lady," the Baroness murmured.
"May the stars forever shine on your happiness," Nerys said, giving a shallow bow in return. "I am sorry to be here when tragedy has struck you twain."
"Tragedy? There is no... oh," Gaerth said, catching sight of the body of Fyodor lying on the floor. He was rather obviously dead. "How could this happen?"
"I think his age caught up to him," Nerys replied smoothly. "When he was replacing the heart of your... darling child... he weakened quickly from the strength that his spells sapped from him, and eventually his own heart failed and killed him."
"But then how did Emmeline...?"
"I completed his work. It was the least I could do," Nerys said, modestly inclining her head as she accepted the praise and gratitude of the two mortals. From her position on the table, Emmeline glared sullenly at the elfess. Something was amiss, and only an ignored bastard daughter of dubious morality could detect it.
Albion: the country that this story is taking place in. Highguard is a barony within the kingdom of Albion.
Age of Legends: a poetic term referring to the Golden Age of Albion, which lasted roughly two centuries and occurred nearly three thousand years ago. Great progress in science, art, magic, and general ways of living was made during this time. Artor na' Aleth was king of Albion for the majority of this time.
Artor na' Aleth: a famous hero, warrior, and king. Known for his sense of justice, as well as his mercy, bravery, and wisdom. Most of his deeds have been lost to antiquity, but the legends paint him as the greatest of all kings who have ever ruled. There are many stories surrounding him. He bore the sword Calabrundum.
Mage Cipher: because of the fact that wizards (and elves) can see magic as light and color, there is a way to make writing with only magic, and not ink. Humans, dwarves, and all other races that haven't been tutored in the magical arts therefore cannot see it or detect it. Since magicians are also very secretive, they tend to impose their own personal codes within this writing itself.
Dark Ones: Orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres, vampires, werewolves, demons... the forces of chaos, anarchy, and hatred. They fight against the forces of good and seek to destroy all order and reason.