Short Story: The Three Vows of Marvenna by T.O. Munro
Set about 200 years before the events of Lady of the Helm (The first book of Munro’s Bloodline Trilogy), The Three Vows of Marvenna gives an insight into the origins of Rugan and Quintala – the half-elven.
The Three Vows of Marvenna
Marvenna heard Liessa before she saw her. Her friend’s pure voice filtered through the trees, wrapped around some inane ditty of love and flowers. It wasn’t a piece Marvenna recognised. The tune lacked the sinuous harmony of true elven song, the kind with which Liessa would entrance her royal parents. If the Lord Andril heard his daughter singing this there would be yet another failing to level at Marvenna’s door.
She slung her bow across her shoulder and slipped from the tree top to the forest floor with silent ease. Then she was off and running along a converging path with the unseen singer and her shallow tawdry ballad. Woodcraft was Marvenna’s forte, the skill which had earned her the honour of Steward of the Silverwood, but her talent was wasted on her oblivious quarry. She could have been a boar crashing through the undergrowth and Liessa would still not have noticed until the instant she rose on the path in front of her.
For a moment neither spoke. Liessa’s song was stilled on her lips. She wound a braid of auburn hair around her fingers frowning at her friend’s cold gaze. The faint glimmer of alarm faded into a secretive smile just this side of a smirk, before looking away lest her amusement should deepen the Steward’s fury.
“Three days! You said ‘Three days is all I need’” Marvenna spat out the challenge.
“Was it longer?” Liessa swept the braid behind a cusped ear, lifting her chin in disdain.
“A week! Seven long days, by Talorin. Where did you go?”
Liessa shrugged, her eyes blankly indifferent, her lips pressed together in a dissembling pout. Marvenna grabbed her by the arm, the bruising grip shaking some sense of her anger through her friend’s furtive manner.
“I saw him. I saw my boy, my royal Prince,” Liessa declaimed as though that answered everything. She shook off Marvenna’s hand to spin and dance across the forest floor. “He is so handsome and so fine. My baby boy, so regal.”
“He’s not a baby.” Marvenna coldly doused her friend’s joy. “He’s two hundred and fifty years old.”
“He’s still my baby, my son,” Liesa retorted. “And I haven’t seen him in two centuries.”
“You know why that is.”
“He’s grown a beard now,” Liessa sailed off along a serene tangent. “He is so like his father, but he wears his hair back.” She mimed the style, sweeping her own russet tresses flat against her head to expose the sharply angled ears of her race. “See, he is proud of his heritage.”
“Did he see you?”
The curt demand brought a mournful curl to Liessa’s mouth. She shook her head. “No. I stood in the crowd all cowled and hidden while he greeted that fat Queen Nena. Oh he is so much more majestic than she. He must make women swoon just like his father did.”
“Women may swoon at some mayfly human, but an elf Princess should not have done.”
“Now you sound like my father.”
“Because he was right, he is right. Your place is here in the Silverwood. You should be grateful the Lord Andril let you live at that human court with your half-breed son for the years it took before the weakness of age claimed your husband.”
“My son is no half-breed!” Liessa’s eyes flared with a rare anger.
“He is a half-elf, Liessa. Your blood and the prince’s. By Talorin it was never meant to be. No-one knows what he is. There has never been one before and should never be one again.”
“He is my son.” Liessa repeated obdurately. When Marvenna merely glared at her, she wandered off the path sweeping her fingers through the ferns and resuming the simple love song, some dull witted verse about star crossed lovers.
A deep suspicion surfaced within Marvenna’s mind. “Why did it take you seven days, Liessa? The council of the field of sable was only a day’s travel away.”
The errant Princess stroked a tree, tracing the grooves in its bark. “Human men have a certain charm.”
Again the Steward seized her friend’s arm, this time with a force that could not be shaken off. “What have you done, Liessa? Is there some other bewitched human whom I must cast a spell of forgetting on?”
“I like this one,” Liessa said. “I think I’ll keep him.”
“Which one? Where is the man that has laid hands on an elven princess?”
“I sent him away. But I will find him again, when I want to. You can’t stop me.”
“Your father will.”
“You won’t tell him!” The retort was spliced with hope and fear in equal measure. When her friend’s expression gave no warmth, Liessa looked away at the motes of dust dancing in the beams of autumn sunlight. “He’s not like Rugan’s father,” she told the forest. “The Prince was harsh, so firm. This man is gentle and he knows how to sing.”
“If that noise you’ve been warbling is his teaching, then I very much doubt he can sing.”
“You don’t know what love is, Marvenna. I pity you.”
“This isn’t love, Liessa, this is a sickness an illness. A disease that your father bid me protect you from. Elven kind and mortal men? It is wrong, just wrong. It cannot be.”
“Are you saying my brave Prince Rugan does not exist?”
“I am saying he should not exist. He should never have been born.”
Bright spots of colour stained Liessa’s cheeks, and then her face twisted into a rage, her mouth opened to draw breath for a scream of rebuke. But the fury evaporated in an eyeblink and she dropped to the forest floor in a deep curtsy to someone behind Marvenna’s shoulder.
The Steward spun round in turn, making her own obeisance and cursing at the silence of the Lord Andril which could still outwit her training and her talent.
The Lord of the Silverwood stood a dozen yards away, the Lady Kychelle at his side. His plain green cloak and simple gold circlet did little to dim the majesty of the Lord of the most senior elven kingdom in the known world. Blond hair was swept back from a high forehead. His fine features were as sharp as his mind, but it was his eyes which drew Marvenna in, deep dark pools of wisdom in which the Steward felt her own wits as slight as drops in the great Eastern Ocean.
“Where have you been daughter?” It had the appearance of a simple and direct question, but Marvenna knew it was spun with hidden meaning. Fizzing with the facts Andril already knew or had deduced, it was a question that could not be answered in easy safety. She glanced at the Princess and marked a nervous swallow as Liessa prepared to deceive her father.
“She has the reek of human about her,” Kychelle sniffed with a shake of her silver hair.
“There was a man, mama, he was injured. I had to help,” the lies tumbled out. She turned to her father. “You say we should help them, these short lived mayflies, they need our wisdom.”
“Was it the gift of wisdom you bestowed on him,” Kychelle snorted. “Or something altogether baser?”
Mother and daughter bridled with anger, but Andril waved his hand. “We will not discuss this here. Come to the court in Malchion.” The elf ladies meekly took the path deeper into the forest. The elf Lord held Marvenna back. “You have your duties here, Steward. We will discuss another time how you let my daughter stray so far and so long beyond our borders.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Marvenna found she was trembling.
He held a hand to her cheek. “Come, Marvenna,” he chided with a smile. “Be not so formal.”
“Yes, I mean no, Andril.”
And then he was gone, disappearing between the trees after his wife and daughter, and Marvenna found she had forgotten to breathe for some long moments. A tiny rustle, to the left broke in on her reverie and she spun to face the unsubtle elven captain. “Solen,” she cried. “You make more noise than a hurricane.”
“Forgive me, Steward, but there is a man, a human man. He has blundered into the Silverwood.”
“A man? What sort? Where is he?”
“Half a league, my lady. Deep in slumber, he succumbed at last to Lord Andril’s enchanted wards, but I have never seen one stray so deep into our domain before.”
Even deep in exhausted slumber the man bore the harassed look which haunted every human intruder in the Silverwood. The baffling mis-direction of Andril’s wards would drive a man in endless pursuit of his own fleeing wits until fatigue overwhelmed him. Torn clothing and scored skin told of the tortured path this man had followed, more so than most for he had come closer than any to penetrating the mind clouding fog of Andril’s enchantments.
Marvenna knelt beside him. His clothes were fine, a doublet sewn with gold thread, breeches of soft calves hide. The one shoe he retained had a thick gold buckle. His right hand was clenched white knuckle tight across his chest. He stirred restlessly as she prized his fingers apart. Nestling in his palm was a lock of auburn hair. Marvenna grimaced and plucked the fine strands from his hand. There was a discordant writhing of distress from the somnolent man which alarmed the waiting captain. However, the sleeper settled as Marvenna rose, raspy breaths the only remnant of his disquiet.
“Where shall we leave him, my Lady?”
“Take him beyond the forest. Leave him in the marsh.”
“The marsh, My Lady? Andril’s edict is that we do not cause these foolish humans harm.”
“Nor shall we, Captain. If he comes to any harm by blundering off the hidden path, then that will be entirely his doing.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“And Captain, before you leave him.” Marvenna hesitated. “Strip him, of all but his underclothes.”
The Captain bowed low, in a gesture that hid his burning defiance from the Steward. But Marvenna knew he would obey. Everybody obeyed. That was the way of the Silverwood.
Quintor was cold and lost and frightened. He stood in the midst of an upturned bowl of mist, unable to see more than a few yards in every direction. The slight lightening to the fog above his head gave an indication it was day, but he had no idea at what hour. He had been dreaming and he hoped he had still to awaken, but the cold cloying mud between his bare toes was too tangible to be anything but real. He strained to step onto a grassy clump, but the hint of firm ground beneath was illusory. His foot sunk up to the knee in black sludge. Wrenching his leg free he fell sprawling over another patch of treacherous mud. Half splashing half squelching he found the patches of body swallowing mire were joining up in such a web that each lurch seemed only to bury him deeper and to trap more limbs.
In the end he lay still, very still. His body stretched prone across the soft ground, yet despite the spreading of his weight he found he was sinking deeper into the marsh’s embrace. Head turned sideways he felt the mud bubbling against his nostrils. He fought back the urge to panic, but then surrendered to it. What else was there to do?
“Help!” he screamed. “Help!” The second cry half stifled by a mouthful of mud.
Fine strong hands seized his shoulders. A figure dragged him free of the mud, standing and stepping with implausible solidity atop the liquid mire that had been on brink of swallowing him whole. Inch by inch they made their way to solid ground until at last he could roll onto his back and gulp great breaths of mud free air, staring at the lightening of the fog through which the Sun now showed as a pale disc. And then her face loomed over him. Her lovely face. Auburn hair hung down brushing his cheek. “My Princess,” he said. “My lovely fairie Princess. I came looking for you.”
“I told you not to.” She said without ill will. “I said I would find you, I would come for you.”
“I couldn’t wait.” He sat up and took her fine elven hands in his, marvelling at the soft smoothness of her skin, the perfect proportions of her fingers.
“What of your Mistress, Queen Nena?” She asked.
“She can manage without a Seneschal.” He turned her hands over in his, brought them to his lips and kissed them. ” She has other advisors and she rarely heeds my counsel, since it is so ill matched to her inclination. There is another lady I would far rather spend my time, my life, with.”
She laughed and smiled, but he could tell he had pleased her. She let her hands rest in his and leant in to brush his mouth with hers. A memory of her lips flared in his mind, inflaming all his senses. She moved away and he tried to follow, reaching for her with his body, but she pressed a hand against his chest. “Are you serious, Seneschal Quintor?” Suddenly formal, like a lawyer in court. “Would you give up your life to be with me?”
“In an instant.”
“And would you take me away from all who would wish me ill?”
“Who could ever wish you ill?”
She looked around, scanning the white blankness of the mist, before turning back to him. “Where would you take me?”
The earnestness of her entreaty drew a moment’s thought from him. Inspiration struck. “A boat. We would take ship to the Eastern Lands, leave both our pasts behind.”
She gave a girlish grin. “I’d like that. I’ve lived in the Petred Isle for a thousand years and never been across the ocean to the Eastern Lands. No-one would find us there.”
“Where are you going this time?” Marvenna called at the cowled figure a few yards shy of the treeline.
“What do you care?” Liessa shifted the pack upon her shoulder, but did not turn round.
“I care about you. I always have. I cared before. I still care now.”
“Then prove it.”
“Let me go. Let me seek out my own happiness.”
“This is not happiness, Liessa, not love,” Marvenna cried in desperation. “You changed. Those years you spent … apart, they tainted you. You are afflicted, not in love.”
At last Liessa faced her friend. “Damaged am I?” Colour rose in her cheeks as she glared back. “You think me some poor crippled princess to be nursed and shielded from harm.”
Marvenna bit back the instinctive yes, scanning the trees in search of a safer form of words. “This is not love. This is not our way.”
“He makes me happy, that is enough for me. It should be enough for you.” Liessa shook her head. “How can you take pleasure in my misery?”
Marvenna’s eyes widened at the accusation. “I take pleasure in knowing you are safe.”
Liessa’ seized the steward’s hand. “Remember the vow we made? To guard each other’s hearts with our very souls.”
“I remember,” Marvenna said thickly. “I have kept it always.”
Liessa squeezed her friend’s hand with abrupt ferocity. “Then keep it now, by letting me go.” She stepped backwards, stretching their arms across the gap between them. Then she let Marvenna’s hand fall and turned to stride beyond the canopy of trees.
The Sun’s heat was burning off the morning fog and, in the valley below, the temple towers of Oosport rose like fingers groping through the mist. A smile spread unbidden across Quintor’s mouth as he surveyed the sleeping form beside him. Auburn hair spilled across the granite stone yet her slumber was so deep and peaceful it could have been the finest feather bed that she was resting on.
He had offered her that. “I am Seneschal of the Salved Kingdom,” he had reminded her. “We can take rooms in the best inns on the Eastway.” But she had refused, and could not be moved even by the suggestion of a hooded cloak to hide her identity. “I sleep where I can see the stars,” she’d told him. “They were taken from me once. I’ll not rest without them again.”
So they had followed hidden paths and pitched their simple camp at a different site each night. These standing stones of Oostsalve, ancient monoliths older even than elves, were the last stop en-route to taking ship to the Eastern Lands. Quintor let his fingers brush her hair. It was a touch so light her closed eyes did not stir, but her mouth bent into a smile at which his heart tumbled. The silver elves, so rarely seen by any man or woman of the Salved people. Only ever at a distance, singly, for a moment, in half-remembered glimpses. Yet here she lay, the Lady Liessa, the famous Lady Liessa. And she had caught his heart and, if she spoke true, he had caught hers.
He had lived half a life time of earnest endeavour and simple human pleasures. A life of some success by the standards of his fellows. Yet it had paled into a washed out grey mist of meaningless existence against the fire and passion of a few short days in her company. He had never sung before he sang for her, never seen a flower until she showed him one, never truly lived until she showed him how. He bent his head to kiss her cheek and as he rose his eyes caught a shape appearing through the mist.
The pleasure of the moment was too deep to yield to sudden anxiety and he was still smiling as he looked around and saw other figures, a dozen of them approaching in a ring around him. They were tall and slender like his lady, dark complexioned, cuspate ears. They approached with graceful menace and stopped ten yards shy of the granite rock on which he sat.
Two alone came closer, a tall elf with blond hair swept back from a sharp featured face and at his shoulder an elf maiden with the same ageless youth as his sleeping lover. This one carried a bow across her shoulder and met his gaze with a glare of defiance.
Quintor rocked Liessa’s shoulder gently. “We have company.”
She stretched into languid wakefulness until she glimpsed the new arrivals. Then she sprang to her haunches, eyes wide as she surveyed their encirclement in quick short glances. His lover’s alarm dispelled Quintor’s serenity far more rapidly than had the appearance of a dozen weaponed strangers. He slid from the rock, interposing himself instinctively between Liessa and the two leading elves.
“Step aside, mayfly,” the elf leader commanded.
Quintor pulled his dirk from his belt and waved its point towards the elf.
“Steward Marvenna!” the elf commanded, with the slightest flicker of his eyes towards his female companion.
“Marvenna, don’t hurt him.” He heard Liessa cry. The elf warrior was approaching him, unfazed by the blade he held towards her. Her fingers were flickering at her side, her mouth moving in some half heard mumble. He wanted to glance at Liessa to reassure her, but Marvenna suddenly flung her hand out towards him and Quintor found he could not move, could not stir so much as a muscle.
“Dispel it!” Liessa shrieked. He felt her arms around him, clutching him to her while he stood as statuesque and as useful as a garden ornament.
“Come daughter, come now! Enough of your madness.” The elf Lord gestured to his other companions and they closed with easy grace on the frantic lovers.
“Remember me, remember my love.” She repeated the refrain a half dozen times, her breath hot upon his neck, her voice insistent, but growing more shrill as they dragged him from her.
“A spell of forgetting, Marvenna,” the elf Lord commanded. “Deep forgetting, I think. Follow us when it is done.”
He could hear Liessa wailing as they dragged her away, and the Steward Marvenna stood facing him. Her lips began to frame another enchantment and Quintor screamed within his paralysis that the thing he feared more even than death, was forgetting.
The elf princess knelt, bowed and defeated in the rush strewn floor of the arbour. Marvenna stood to one side an unhappy witness to Liessa’s chastisement by her parents.
“Talorin knows what might have befallen had Marvenna not told us of your flight.”
The Princess turned a baleful eye on the Steward. “You broke your vow.”
“I will not lose you, Liessa. I will not let you fritter away your life on a mere man.” Marvenna’s cheeks burned with rage at the impudence of mortal man to think to steal her soulmate.
The Princess gave a slow shake of her head. “You lost me long ago, Marvenna. I just did not realise it until now.”
Andril paced infront of his supplicant offspring. “There is a corruption runs in your veins, daughter “Some taint you acquired in the long years you…” He paused, consumed by uncharacteristic hesitancy, before finishing, “in the long years you spent away.”
Liessa glared at the elf lord with contemptuous loathing. “He was called Maelgrum, father.” When Andril blenched at the name, Liessa rose to her feet and brought her face level with his. “Say it, father. Say the name of the foul creature you gifted me to in exchange for a few decades of hollow peace.”
“You were to be an honoured guest,” Andril retorted with brittle stiffness.
“The Dark Lord kept no guests, only slaves and servants,” Liessa spat. “I was always his prisoner. You know nothing of what I endured to keep war from your borders.”
“I know enough to see that the malignancy you let him lay on you has loosened your wits and your obedience just as much as it unravelled your morals.” Andril lifted his chin, the better to look down on his furious daughter. “Your stubborn sickness has brought nothing but shame upon my house. Whatever insanity Maelgrum drove you to should have entirely dissipated in the seven centuries you have been free of his malice.”
Liessa nodded slowly, lips pursed in grim agreement with herself. “Aye, father, a freedom that was not bought by any effort of yours. I have the Elves of Hershwood and the line of the Vanquisher to thank for my liberation. They spilt their blood for me and for thousands of others, while you skulked in the unworthy peace you had bought with my sacrifice. I would only wish that they could as easily have freed me from your tyranny.”
The slap was so hard it knocked her to her knees. Marvenna took a step towards her fallen friend, but Andril’s raised hand, reddened from the blow he had struck, bid the Steward be still. Instead it was her mother Kychelle that Liessa looked to. The severe elf lady took a step towards her daughter and, as the Princess reached out for a hand to raise her, Kychelle lashed out with her own long nailed hand to add a second blow for the affront to her husband’s dignity.
This time Marvenna did not heed her Lord and Lady’s command. She brushed past them to lift Liessa in her arms. The Princess was more dazed than angry; Marvenna judged the fury would come later when the shock had faded. There was a thin scratch along her cheek strung with fresh beads of blood, where her mother’s hand had struck deeper than her father’s.
Kychelle saw the wound, and touched her finger tips to her lip, a puzzled frown forming upon her face.
“This cannot stand,” Andril stormed.
“Husband,” Kychelle’s cut glass voice broke in. “The man’s seed has quickened within her.”
Liessa’s grip tightened on Marvenna’s arms. She murmured “please” though the steward knew not what she asked for or of whom she asked it. In the Princess’s expression there was a confusion of hope and joy and fear.
“This changes everything,” Andril declared heavily.
Meg was waiting for him when Quintor came in. The maidservant bobbed in a slightly confused curtsy and took the Seneschal’s cloak with a frown. Quintor pinched the bridge of his nose. He had another of his headaches coming on, they had plagued him for much of the past year. His mind struggled to assemble coherent thoughts like a silversmith working with steel gauntlets on. Queen Nena’s council meeting, another excursion into knee jerk decision making that would have to be unpicked at leisure, had done little to ease his throbbing head.
Meg was still looking at him head tilted, eyes flicking left as if trying to glimpse some half-seen shadow.
“What is it, girl?” Quintor demanded.
“You have visitors, sir.” She stretched the words out, as if surprised at what she was saying.
“Where? How many?” It was late for house calls.
“I showed them into the front room. I can’t remember how many, sir.”
Quintor grimaced his displeasure and waved Meg away.
A tall cloaked figure was standing by the roaring fire. Quintor was surprised Meg had lit it and wondered what fuel she had added which would give a lilac tinge to the flame. Though the Seneschal had made a silent entrance, the uninvited guest turned quickly at his arrival and pushed the hood from his shoulders. He had long blond hair swept back over pointed ears and deep dark eyes. Even Quintor’s dull senses could recognise an elf of the Silverwood despite never having met one before.
“How may I help you?” The Seneschal began, but the elf waved away the simple courtesy and beckoned another figure forward. This one was a woman, dark complexioned and dressed like a warrior but carrying a bundle wrapped in cloth. Quintor took it, unthinking when she pressed it into his hands. He looked down as the bundle gave a tiny cry and saw a baby, a short thatch of silver hair which refracted the firelight into many colours, and ears as sharply cusped as his two guests.
The woman was mumbling some strange words, a language Quintor could not grasp, and then a tsunami of memory washed through his brain. Liessa! How could he have forgotten her? The headache inducing fog was gone and in its place a storm of recollections so painful that he staggered back and slumped into his favourite chair, still clutching the child too him. The memory of these two emerging from the mist returned with a sharpness that cut through his instinctive hospitality.
“The child is hers?” he said. “Liessa’s?”
“She is yours,” the elf lord replied. “Keep her, raise her.”
“What’s her name?”
The elf lord shrugged indifferently, but the lady answered softly, “Quintala. Liessa named her for you.”
“Where is Liessa? When can I see her?”
“You will not find her, Seneschal. Do not waste your time in looking.” The elf Lord gave his associate a brief nod and then the two swept from the room, while Quintor struggled with his new burden.
The mast was stepped and oars shipped. All was ready. Marvenna stood trembling by the river bank as the party prepared to take ship. Andril was making his farewells, his favoured captains given his blessing and lastly the Lady Kychelle. Lord and Lady exchanged a kiss, lips to hand, mouth to cheek, the setting too public for any unbending in the iron alliance which had led the Silverwood through two millennia.
Liessa walked behind her father in a trance like lethargy, but her face brightened at the sight of Marvenna. She stepped quickly to the Steward’s side. “Did you see him? Is he happy with her?”
“I told him the name you had given her.”
Liessa seized Marvenna’s hands and leant in close. “I would draw another vow from you, if you ever loved me as you say you did.”
“I do.” Marvenna’s vision blurred with tears.
“Then vow to protect my children, to guard their interests, as I would if I could.”
“By my love for you, I will.” But even as Marvenna gave the assurance, Liessa hastened away. With an outstretched arm Andril directed his daughter aboard the boat while he himself approached the Steward.
“You have served me well, Marvenna.”
She flushed at the flattery, not just of what he said but that he should save his last words in the known world for her.
“I have endeavoured always to obey, my Lord.”
“And you have always rewarded my trust. I had not meant to leave this realm for many centuries to come, but the excesses of my daughter have forced my hand. My hope is that in the blessed realm, where all elves may find peace, all sicknesses can be healed. In time my Lady Kychelle will follow, and in your turn, you too will meet us all again.”
“It will be many centuries, my Lord.” Marvenna’s eyes filled again at the thought of a separation so long it may as well have been eternal.
“Heed Kychelle’s guidance and aid her in the governance of this realm.”
“And vow to me, by Talorin, that the taint of my daughter’s half-bred spawn will never infect the Silverwood.”
Marvenna’s mouth worked in soundless response, until a curt dip of Andril’s chin demanded her answer.
“Yes, my Lord,” she whispered. “By Talorin, I vow.”
Satisfied he joined his daughter in the boat and at his command, the rowers moved it out midstream preparing to follow the river to the eastern ocean and then, by hidden paths to the blessed realm, the resting place of all elves. Father and daughter together took one last look at the party by the shore. Marvenna felt the heat of both their gazes, each demanding obedience to her vows.