alexconall: the Pleiades (Default)
Alex Conall, social justice bard ([personal profile] alexconall) wrote2015-05-16 11:15 pm

a half-whispered prayer

For the [community profile] crowdfunding Creative Jam.

Other young ladies Etain's age of ten years were helping the war effort. They cared for younger siblings to free up their mothers for tasks more important to keeping the queendom of Danaan running; they tended gardens to free up the fields for growing food for the soldiers fighting the Anglians; they knit socks to keep the soldiers' feet warm. Warm feet were very important, Cliodhna told Etain wisely. Nobody could think or do very well with cold feet.

Etain wasn't very good at knitting—certainly not good enough to make anything better than a tangle of sockweight yarn—but maybe she could knit blankets; soldiers got cold at night too, right? Except she wasn't allowed. She wasn't even allowed to spin little charms of protection to send out to the soldiers, or little charms of healing—she wasn't up to much more than scraped knees, and soldiers got much worse than scraped knees, but she could do something, if only she were allowed. Princesses should have their minds on loftier concerns, Mairead told Etain firmly; if Princess Etain truly wished to help the war effort, she should pray for the gods' assistance.

(But weren't the other side praying just as hard? Etain wondered. And was it really so much more important to pray than knit that she couldn't pray while knitting?)

Queen Aisling didn't seem to have an opinion, but then Etain hardly ever saw her mother anymore—just snatched moments at mealtimes, and not even all mealtimes, usually punctuated by Mother arguing with one or another advisor: "when your ship is sinking, pray as loud as you like, but swim while you're doing it" was one memorable statement of Mother's, and "the gods favor the side with the height advantage and the ranged weapons" was another.

"Too damn bad we don't have dragons!" shouted Lady Muirgen, the third or fourth time Mother said that in Etain's hearing.

Etain looked up. Everyone knew the stories—the Dragon Queen, who singlehandedly fought off an army of invaders from the north; the Dragon's Lady, who gave herself to a dragon man so that he might protect her sister and her sister's children from the children's father, who was a brute; the Dragon Mother Goddess herself, who protected little girls like Etain and Cliodhna and even Lady Muirgen's rude daughter Morag, and who was certainly as strong and cunning as any child she had ever hatched. Etain longed to see a dragon, wondrous and great and beautiful, and real, as the dragons on Danaan's banners were only pale imitations.

Dragons could help the war effort.

That night Etain waited until Mairead had tucked her into bed and was snoring in her room next door to Etain's, then quiet as a cat sneaked out of bed and put on one of her fine dresses—not the very fine ones, which needed more hands than just Etain's to get fastened up properly, but a fine one—and took out of the cabinet the small scepter of Etain's office, which had been Mother's when she was young. Etain took a warm cloak too: it was autumn, after all, and chilly, and she didn't want anyone to see her face or her pretty dress and stop her leaving.

Cliodhna found her anyway. Etain explained in a hushed hurry, and Cliodhna nodded solemnly and—though she didn't herself dare leave, Cliodhna explained (powerful little mages were even more closely kept track of than little princess-mages)—spun her two tiny spells: one to map the area around Etain, one to keep her hidden from unfriendly eyes. Etain didn't know how to do either of these herself, and was glad Cliodhna thought of them.

Etain prayed to the Dragon Mother the whole time she was sneaking out of the castle, through the streets of Tuam, out through a crack in the city walls she'd found two years ago, and along the paths up the mountains to the west. Tuam's best defense from the west was those mountains, which armies dared not cross—the narrow passes, the landslides—but perhaps one small girl could travel safely.

One small girl, after all, had done exactly that, in the tales of young Queen Luigsech.

The Queen-to-be had been coming the other way, though, from Cymru to Danaan, and in the daylight, and the spring. Etain shivered, and her stomach rumbled, and her little mage-light sputtered, and her map showed she was still far too far from the midpoint of the pass, and this really hadn't been a good idea, or at any rate she hadn't prepared for it properly...

Etain found a little cave, out of the wind, and curled up in her cloak and went to sleep.

The smell of honey cakes and bacon woke her. She looked around, confused—where was her bed, where was Mairead, what were the pile of round silvery things, why was there a campfire?

"Good morning, little one," said a kind woman's voice, and Etain twisted around and got tangled in her cloak and it was a moment before she saw who had spoken:

a red dragon.

"Lady!" Etain exclaimed, and the whole story spilled out: Danaan's long war with Anglia, and Etain's desperate wanting to help and not being allowed even though even Morag had a way to help, and maybe dragons could help—

"No," said the red dragon.

"What?" asked Etain.

"No," said the red dragon. "This is exactly why we left human lands: so that we would not be weapons. Go to your Queen and tell her you failed."

Like walking into a glass wall, Etain stopped short, feeling rather slapped in the face.

"She should not have sent a lying little girl as her emissary," remarked the dragon.

"I do not lie!" Etain shouted, and burst into tears. "I am not a little girl, either," she said, punctuated by sobs. "I am a young lady, and Mairead won't let me help, and nobody even knows I'm here, except Cliodhna and she promised she wouldn't tell, she'd get in as much trouble as me if she told—"

The red dragon said nothing.

"—and all the stories say dragons help people, and I don't understand, why aren't you helping?" Etain finished.

"I helped you not catch your death of cold," said the dragon. "I would have been helping you keep from dying of hunger, but you are rudely not accepting my offering of food. I will not help you risk my people."

Etain glanced over at the toasted honey cakes and bacon, neatly plated and sitting on a rock beside her. "Oh," she said. "I apologize. I meant no harm nor offense." She took a honey cake and bit into it. "Oh! These are very good!"

"I'm glad," said the dragon, but she didn't sound it.

Etain worked through two palm-sized cakes and three crumbled slices of bacon before she spoke again, thinking hard as she ate. Finally she looked up at the dragon. "Maybe Danaan has something Cymru needs, too," she said.

"What does Cymru have that Danaan needs?" asked the dragon.

"Wonder," said Etain promptly. "Nobody in Danaan has time to do anything that isn't for the war effort—except me," she added sulkily, "because I am supposed to have loftier concerns. But there isn't anything more important than making sure Danaan survives the war—we don't have to win, but the Queen's Council all say Anglia means to destroy us if that's the only way they can win. There isn't," she repeated, "anything more important than making sure Danaan survives the war—not even making sure anything Danaanish worth the name survives the war."

The red dragon didn't say anything, and she didn't really have expressions Etain could read, but Etain pressed on. "Nobody makes doll clothes anymore, did you know? And nobody plays with dolls. There are more important things than silly games of dolls. But my mother told me when I was very little that there is nothing more important than a game of dolls, because we need good imaginations to make good magic, and we need good magic to do—oh, everything."

"Danaan still has magic?" asked the dragon, sounding surprised.

"Look," said Etain, and spun up a little mage-light. "We don't have much magic," she said, "and all of what we do have is tied up in the war effort, except for a few of the grandmotherly mages who stay at home to teach little mages like me—"

She stopped. The dragon, gazing raptly at the little golden ball of mage-light, was plainly not listening.

"Tell me, little mage-girl," said the dragon, "do you know any magics of healing?"

"Just a little bit," said Etain. "I can mend a scraped knee, but that's all. Cliodhna is much better. I'm very good at protection charms, so that nobody scrapes their knee in the first place," she added.

The dragon pointed one claw at the pile of round silver things, four of them, each large as Etain's head. "Heal my children," she ordered.

"Oh!" said Etain, looking properly at the round silver things. "They're eggs!"

"Where else would young dragons come from?" asked the dragon.

Etain wasn't really listening. She scooted over to the eggs and laid a palm on each of the two closest. The left one was only skin temperature, the right one no warmer than the air. She poked tentatively with her mind, and while the left one had something inside that stirred at her touch, the right one might as well be a rock. "I don't think there's anything in this egg to heal," Etain said, tapping the right egg and glancing back at the dragon. "I'm sorry, Lady—" She stopped. "I don't know your name. How rude of me, not even asking your name!"

"I am Briallen," said the dragon. "Who are you?"

"I am Etain," said Etain. The ritual words were easy to remember: for formal occasions, she had to recite them often. "The skies weep, Lady Briallen, the winds wail, and the mountains mourn your loss, but the flames shine through the gloom, for your child is with the gods."

"Thank you," said Briallen. "I knew—I knew they wouldn't all hatch..."

"I'm sorry," said Etain.

She turned back to the eggs, setting aside the one that would never hatch to focus on the three that might. Here, the first one—whatever was wrong was a bit nastier than a scraped knee; it was eating at the soul of the little dragon, which didn't seem at all fair as there wasn't much soul in anyone before they took their first breath. Etain thought a prayer to the Dragon Mother. She pushed strength and belief and hope into the egg, much as she might push dirt around a seedling, and took a deep breath and let it out and pushed into the second egg, and again into the third—

you're such a dreamer, said Morag insultingly. going looking for dragons? everyone knows they aren't real. what a ridiculous idea—

But they are real, thought Etain, I found one, I'm helping more—

The soul-eating thing twisted under Etain's grasp—

you're wasting your time, said Cliodhna helpfully. you're not good enough a mage to so much as heal a paper cut, let alone three sick dragonets—

I'm as good as I have to be, thought Etain, and Cliodhna would never say such cruel things anyway—

It twisted again—

princess, you must stop, said Mairead sternly. this is no task for one of high rank. leave it to the lowborn to do what they can, and pray to the gods for deliverance as only you can do, for of all the land only you and the Queen are descended of the god-touched Queen Luigsech—

Dragon Mother, all the gods, help me, thought Etain, and funny how Mairead had never once mentioned before that Etain's royal blood granted her anything more real than prettier dresses than Cliodhna, that Cliodhna really deserved as much as Etain did—

Another twist—

oh, baby doll, said Mother gently. you're going to hurt yourself. that's why we don't let you embroider the banners, because you always stick yourself with the needle. please stop, before you hurt yourself—

Baby dragons, thought Etain, who needed help only Etain could give: finally, finally something she could do to help, to win Morag's respect and Cliodhna's friendship and Mairead's kindness and Mother's attention and love—it didn't matter if Etain hurt herself helping them, because what else did every soldier of Danaan do for Etain—

"Etain! Etain! Stop!"

Startled, Etain lost her grip on the spell. She tried to stand up, then just to look back at Briallen, but her arms were so heavy, her legs like rocks. The nearest of the three surviving eggs was warm like the fire.

"You saved them," said Briallen, some emotion in her voice that Etain was too sleepy to identify. "You and yours can save me and mine."

"That's good," said Etain, tired. "Can I sleep now?"

The next thing Etain knew, Mother was gathering her up in her arms. "You should not have gone off alone," Mother said. "We were so frightened—we thought you'd been kidnapped—"

"Mama?" said Etain, confused.

"Oh, honey, don't ever scare me like that again!" Mother said. "Next time you get an idea that will save two kingdoms, tell me about it before you hare off and do it!"

"Mama?" repeated Etain.

"Lady Briallen's told us all about how you saved her eggs—that was very risky of you even trying," Mother added. "You know better than to throw your whole self into a healing!"

"Yes, Mother," said Etain.

"And you're going to have to tell us how you did it," Mother added, and fell silent.

Etain tried to figure out how she'd done it. "I—it felt like a simple comfort and healing charm at first," she said slowly, "but then there were these voices—people I know—saying I was being silly and I should stop, and I knew if I stopped I wouldn't do any good at all and I must be doing something right or the soul-eating things wouldn't care what I was doing—"

"Soul-eating?" Mother exclaimed. "Never, ever, ever attempt that healing without at least two more experienced mages to supervise, do you understand me? And Cliodhna doesn't count."

"Yes, Mother," said Etain, who hadn't realized Mother knew Cliodhna's name.

"In any event," Mother continued, "Briallen's sister Delyn is going to take you and me and two of the Council to meet the Queen of Cymru and her Council, and we're going to negotiate a mutual aid agreement, and the Anglians will never know what hit them, and it's all down to you, my brave, wise darling!" Mother kissed her on the forehead. Etain squirmed. "But after this, your help for the war effort is restricted to knitting, do you understand?"

"Majesty, Highness," interrupted Briallen. "They're hatching."

"Hatching?" Etain and Mother said at once, both looking up—Etain could see the same excitement on Mother's face that she could feel in herself.

Etain got to hold the newly hatched Meleri. It was no question the best moment of her life to date, and Morag would never, ever trump it.

Creative Commons License
a half-whispered prayer by Alex Conall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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