Pryseis wiped away a tear and stared into the flames as Dax tossed another branch onto the fire. The dance of light in shadows spellbound. She tried to ignore the bloody carcass of the male tree-hare sizzling above it. She’d nibbled wood violet blossoms and a few fiddleheads. However, true to his troll nature, Dax needed meat to live. She accepted that, but still the death saddened her. One less heartbeat in the pulse of a world diminished by its loss.
Beyond the fire’s glow and the edge of the cave entrance, rain fell in a steady chorus. She stared out at the dark, reached for the wind with every fiber of her soul. It alleviated the great looming weight of the cave behind her. Earth and stone and metal. Such foreign elements. So heavy, unmoving.
What was she thinking, traveling into the heart of the darkness?
And now there was no going back. Her banishment was still hard to swallow. What would she do when this was all over?
“Tell me a tale,” she begged Dax. “Of the First Mother of All, of how trolls became.”
He shook his head with a rueful smile. “You’ve heard it a hundred times. You could tell it to me.”
“’Tis a good night for stories.” She wrapped her arms around her knees.
Dax stared at her for a long moment from beneath heavy brows. “They’re fools to do what they did, the council. You shouldn’t be punished for doing what you feel is right. Compassion shouldn’t be a crime.”
“Thanks.” Pryseis struggled to swallow down the lump in her throat. “The story?”
“Afore the earth was new, all was dark and still,” he began. “The earth was solid, but lifeless. In the heavens danced the seven sisters of Light, stars burning bright as the sun. On the youngest daughter’s one hundredth-hundredth birthday, her father asked what gift she desired most of all. She claimed the earth.
“Her sisters scoffed at her, told her ’twas a foolish wish, a lifeless ball of rock at the edge of the heavens. She insisted that was what she wanted. More than anything. Her father, who could deny her naught, let her have it and told her sisters to leave her be.” Dax turned the tree-hare so it wouldn’t burn.
“But they didn’t.”
“Nay, for such is the nature of siblings. They badgered her, asking what she would do with a great dead rock. She danced across the rocks, warming, shaping, until the earth began to sing to her song. It rose up to dance with her, enthralled by her light and her song. The first trolls came into being.” Dax handed Pryseis a cup of rainwater.
“She loved her trolls.”
He nodded and stretched out on the ground across the fire from her, bracing his head on a large hand. Long, matted ropes of brown hair coiled over his broad shoulders. “Everywhere she danced, grass grew and flowers bloomed. Birds and animals gathered to her, and the trolls were never lonely. Their Mother missed her sisters, and every time the sisters visited earth, they begged her to come back and chase them across the heavens again. The trolls built her a mountain, the tallest mountain made from the earth itself, but ’twasn’t enough. She wept for the loss of her sisters, and her tears formed the sacred pool, atop the highest mountain peak, as close to the heavens as she could get, until she could bear it no longer. She left her troll children to look after their home, whilst she returned to the heavens.”
Pryseis sipped her rainwater. Mother’s tears? “And they never saw her again?”
“Aye. Every hundred-hundred years she streaks by, a bright comet in the sky. The earth trembles at her approach, dancing in her presence. Ever the trolls guard her lands and the sacred pool of her tears.”
“Elixir, the pool of neverending life. Why would she forbid her children to drink?”
“We must return to the earth from whence we came, to be reborn anew. ’Twas darkness and light at the beginning, and so it continues even now. The darkness of death. The light of rebirth. As our Mother wishes it.” He pulled the tree-hare off the spit and began his meal.
“And us? What of the faeries?” The trolls had such an interesting theory on that.
“The Mother gave you to the world from the Light and the breath of life, to keep her creatures at peace. The pool keeps you forever young. Forever renewed.”
“For a price. Always to drink from our own hand, to be kept apart from all others. We are naught but a myth to most.” Pryseis rose to stand at the cave’s edge, where the wind blew a fine mist of rain against her skin. Not as cold as the mountaintops, but cool and refreshing.
The myth was about to become flesh.
She thought on the Mother, on Her children—the trolls and the faeries. One, child of earth and metal. One, child of air and fire. Different, yet both Her children, and She loved both. If only Her children could do the same. See the similarities instead of the differences. See how much more the world was for each wonderful and special presence.
“You should sleep,” Dax told her.
She wasn’t ready to face the darkness yet and rubbed her arms. “Sleep brings no rest.”
“Then come sit by the fire and relax. I’ll make some garelbark tea. That should help.”
Garelbark soothed a troubled heart. Not an exact cure, but it wouldn’t hurt. “Sounds lovely.” Pryseis stared across the fire at Dax. “Thank you for coming with me.”
“You’re the only one on that barren rock of a mountain who matters to me.”
What? “That’s not true, Dax. You have your friends in the guard.”
He shook his head and set his jaw. “The true trolls have never been comfortable with me. I’m not as big and strong as a rock troll. I’m faster and a better tracker than even the forest trolls, true, but I’m an oddity. They thought my mother overreached herself by pairing with one of our faerie lords. The faeries wonder what was wrong with my father that he never settled with one of them.”
“What was wrong with your father?” Pryseis strangled on a shout. “Lursa, Dax, there was naught wrong with my brother—or your mother. They fell in love. ’Twas beautiful, magical. They didn’t care about differences, and neither should we.”
“I’m neither one.” He handed her a cup of tea.
“You’re both. A special, unique individual I love because of, not in spite of.”
Dax snorted. “Then you’re the special one. The faeries don’t see any as an individual.” He studied her over his own cup. “How did all this start, Aunt Pryseis? You’re taking a terrible gamble for a gob-child.” He corrected himself in mid-word, and continued. “This has cost you everything. How do you ken you’re not wrong?”
“I don’t.” Pryseis watched the flames dance in wood that sizzled with lingering moisture. “We dream faeries can sense the tenor of dreams, both dark and light. Our nets soften the edges, blunt the extremes. Except for this child ’twasn’t enough. It continues to paralyze him. What if it grows beyond him? Shall it encompass his kin? His tribe? His nation?”
Dax blinked. “Can dreams do that?”
“I think this one can.” Pryseis shivered anew and rubbed her arms. “It already has me. I’m not sure ’tis a mere dream anymore.” But if ’twasn’t a dream, what power could she wield over it? What if it grew beyond her? Would her sisters be next?
“We’ll find a way through this.”
“And the lad?”
Dax started to growl, then sighed instead. “’Tis no secret how I feel about goblins, but I’m not indifferent to the plight of a child. I care more for you, though. You’re the only one who treats me as kin, not some misbegotten half-breed abomination.”
Pryseis wanted to hug him, kenned he’d shove her away if she tried. “Cease! You’re no abomination. You are kin, Dax, the only one I’ve got, and worth a hundred of them. My brother loved your mother and you. He’d be proud of you. Never doubt that.”
“I’m trying. But goblins? I still think there’s a trap in this somewhere.”