Disclaimer: Maleficent is owned by those who own it, not me.
Constructive criticism would be greatly appreciated.
"Godmother!" Aurora cries. She rushes over to where Maleficent is landing on a moss-carpeted stone, yellow hair streaming behind her in the downdraft from Maleficent's strong wings as she touches down. "You have been gone so long and I have missed you so!"
"Beastie," Maleficent says, stretching her wings with a sigh. They are as strong as they ever were, and stronger still from several months of extended travel, but even though they would never falter they do ache for a good rest. She is glad to be returned to her familiar Moors, and gladder still to see Aurora again and looking so well.
"And Diaval?" Aurora asks, looking around for the ever-present raven.
"Seeing to our belongings, but he will be along shortly. He has missed you, little one," Maleficent says. Her hands curl into loose fists against the urge to pet Aurora's yellow hair. "I have missed you."
Aurora brightens still further, unspoken happiness making her shimmer like the sun on rippling water.
"How were your travels?" Aurora asks excitedly. "You shall have to tell me all about them of course, where you went and what you saw and the people you met and all the kinds of marvelous food you ate!"
Maleficent inclines her head, smiling indulgently. "As you wish."
"Oh, but I am so happy you are back. Nothing has been quite the same without you, you know. The Aunts have been especially silly in your absence."
Maleficent laughs, head thrown back. She can imagine it. "And I think I have not been quite the same so far from my home," she says. "Ah, here comes Diaval now."
"Diaval!" Aurora cries. She sprints to the man-shaped raven, tackling him into an embrace that very nearly sends him sprawling. As it is, he has to scramble to catch his laden pack before it falls.
"Ah! Careful, little one," he says, tapping her on the nose. "Wouldn't want me to drop all these pretty trinkets my Mistress insisted we bring back for you."
Aurora gasps with delight, clapping her hands together. "You have brought gifts?"
"Of course! We thought that, since you couldn't come with us to see strange foreign lands, we should bring a bit of each strange foreign land back to you."
"I can't wait to see! Oh, but you both must be exhausted! Come eat and drink and rest, and you can tell me all about your travels." She takes Diaval by the arm and drags him along the wooded path. "This way, come, come!"
Maleficent trails along after Aurora and Diaval, laughing at the awe in Aurora's expression when Diaval performs some small sleight of hand that he picked up during their journey.
It is good to be home.
Some little while later, while Diaval is narrating a rather exaggerated tale of derring-do, Aurora comes to sit beside Maleficent, who is near to dozing after a full meal and lively conversation.
"Thank you for the gifts, Godmother. They are so marvelous and beautiful that I hardly know how to thank you."
Maleficent waves a hand. "It was nothing of consequence. Just a few little baubles that caught my eye."
"No," Aurora says, wringing her hands together. "It's more than that. You've always been so kind, looking after me and protecting me from afar. You brought me to the Moors and showed me such beautiful and incredible things as I could never have dreamed of. You even offered to let me come live here with you! And then when I found out about the curse- Oh, I was so foolish to doubt you for even one moment! After everything that you had done for me, I called you evil and ran from you. I'm so ashamed of how I behaved then."
"I owed you so much, but repaid your kindness with fear and anger and distrust. What a fool I was!"
"Aurora, stop," Maleficent says sharply, catching the girl's tightly wrung hands in one of hers. "Any debt you owed me was more than paid when you returned my wings to me."
"But that was by accident!" Aurora cries. "Anyone could have done it. I was merely lucky."
"Enough," Maleficent says. "Put such silly thoughts from your mind. You owe no debt to me. Rather, it was I who owed a debt to you, an innocent creature I cursed for the sake of my own vengeance. We shall speak of other things instead, like your prince fellow. I haven't seen him since we arrived. What was his name again? Paul? Peter?"
Aurora frowns briefly, but lets herself be distracted. "Phillip, Godmother. He has returned to his kingdom to report to his father's court, but promised to return within a fortnight."
From the furrow in Aurora's brow, Maleficent can tell that this is not all there is to the story. "What else?"
"He-" Aurora flushes pink and ducks her head. "He said that he loves me and has asked to marry me, Godmother."
Maleficent feels a chill in her breast, remembering the way her own childhood love had warped and ruined her. The instinct to protect Aurora, to hide her away and keep that dimwitted boy far away from her claws its way up into Maleficent's throat, stopping her voice.
Aurora, too wrapped up in her own troubles to notice her Godmother's fear, continues. "I hardly know him, Godmother. And yet, when I look into his eyes, the gleam there is so familiar a gleam."
Maleficent swallows sharply, and again. "What," she coughs against the harsh rasp in her throat, "what did you tell him?"
"I told him that I wished to wait," Aurora says. The tightness in Maleficent's chest eases. "He agreed and said that he would ask his parents for permission to stay here and court me."
Maleficent withdraws her hand from atop Aurora's, belatedly realizing that she has been holding them for some time. "Then you are a wiser girl than I was, when I was your age."
"Really?" Aurora asks, leaning in curiously. "But you are so brave and strong and intelligent. I can't imagine you being anything less than the kindest, wisest person I have ever known!"
Eyebrow crooked incredulously, Maleficent says, "So says the cursed to the one who cursed her."
Aurora flicks her fingers dismissively, a gesture Maleficent recognizes as one of her own. "Yes, well, King Stefan deserved to be punished for what he did to you."
"You seem to place very little weight on your own role in that story," Maleficent says, bemused.
Aurora huffs and rolls her eyes, a gesture that Maleficent is sure came from too much exposure to Diaval's terrible influence. "And you seem to have forgotten that I've entirely forgiven you, Godmother. Either way, I hope that when I marry, whoever I marry, he shall treat me at least half as well as Diaval treats you."
Maleficent huffs a laugh. "Diaval is my servant, little one. It is his purpose to do as I bid."
Aurora blinks in surprise. "But I thought- Is he really just your servant?"
"Yes," Maleficent says slowly. "What did you think he was to me?"
Aurora sputters, turning red with embarrassment. "Well, he protected you so fiercely in King Stefan's castle, and he's always with you, and he is so very faithful to you. I always thought that he was, you know, your husband," she squeaks.
"My husband!" Maleficent breathes, all surprised disbelief. "Goodness no."
"So then, you do not love him?" Aurora asks.
Maleficent turns pensive. "No. There is no more space in this battered old heart for love, little Beastie. It is too burned, to scarred to hold another creature but yourself in it."
"Oh Godmother," Aurora says, catching Maleficent's hands in hers. "Love does not require room in one's heart. Love makes room for itself, blooms in even the most burned and scarred terrains."
"Do you really think so, little one?" Maleficent asks, gently squeezing Aurora's hands. The pain of Stefan's betrayal has eased in the few months since Aurora's sixteenth birthday, but she fears a large part of her will forever be trapped in the agony of that first year without her wings. After all, it has been seventeen years since she was last held in the arms of another, and still she shies away from even the most casual of touches.
"I do, Fairy Godmother," Aurora says fiercely. "And every night I pray that someday you will have someone to love you as you deserve."
Maleficent ducks her head to hide the shimmer of tears in her eyes, pretending to find the sight of their joined hands unfathomably fascinating.
"Mistress. Mistress, the ground is no place for Maleficent of The Moors to sleep. Come, wake up m'Lady, and we'll get you to a proper bed."
Maleficent swats lazily at the hand gently shaking her by the shoulder and squints one eye open. It's Diaval, who looks just as exhausted as she feels. Her magic curls around her fingers so as to turn him into something useful, but she can't decide. A horse would be too much trouble, a wolf too small. A raven would be next to useless, and a worm more useless still. She lets her magic dissipate.
"Shall I carry you then, as I carried our Aurora to bed? But you are much bigger than she is, and I am just a bird who happens to be shaped like a man, and you have those wings to get quite thoroughly in the way-"
Ah, at least a worm would be a great deal quieter. She waves a hand and he shifts into a large dog, dropping with an annoyed bark onto his side to let Maleficent use him as a heated pillow. He is quite marvelously comfortable this way. She can hear his heartbeat thrumming under her ear, the scent of his feathery fur soothingly familiar. Sleep returns quickly.
"They are quite the charming pair," Diaval says idly, watching Aurora and Phillip, who has indeed returned on schedule. The boy takes care to maintain a proper distance between himself and Aurora, which Maleficent strongly approves of.
"Oh, are you done sulking?" she asks, smirking.
Diaval blinks and shifts away from her, face sinking into a scowl. Apparently not, then. "You turned me into a dog," he complains. "A dog. You know I despise being turned into a dog, but you did it anyway, and for no other reason than to make me suffer!"
"Hardly," she says dryly. "A proper servant would know better than to make impertinent comments about his Mistress's weight."
Diaval's mouth gapes open. "I- I was exhausted! I hardly knew what I was saying. You would punish me for that, when you were the one who insisted on pushing us both harder to make it back before nightfall?"
"Well I did turn you back into a man the next morning," Maleficent says. "Though you should take care to keep your wits about you, regardless of how exhausted you may be. No lady likes to hear a man of her acquaintance making comments about her weight."
Diaval cocks his head, eyes narrowing in contemplation. Maleficent ignores him and focuses instead on the young couple.
"Is this even really about your weight? You're light enough to fly, which is all that matters," Diaval says. "It seems unlike you to belabor such an inconsequential little thing."
"Perhaps I am trying to foster good manners in you. The little Beastie does look up to you after all, and I'll not have her picking up your bad habits and making a fool of herself before the other human rulers."
"Aurora brushes her hair perhaps twice a week and gets into mud fights at the slightest provocation. Polishing me up isn't going to make a lick of difference and you know it. What's this really about?"
Maleficent stiffens, her jaw setting. "Leave it."
Diaval, ever obedient, ever faithful, obeys.
She is pitifully grateful for his compliance because the truth is, she doesn't know why she has chosen this particular little grievance to worry away at. Diaval is quite right in pointing out that it is out of character. And yet, she can't quite seem to help herself. Perhaps she is still fatigued from their journey and needs more rest. Or perhaps, she thinks, Aurora's silly ideas about the relationship between Maleficent and Diaval have made her more sensitive to Diaval's words and actions.
It really is quite silly though. Her and Diaval, married.
"Godmother, I have been wondering," Aurora asks, plopping herself down onto the verdant grass next to Maleficent, "How did Diaval become your servant?"
"Hm? I saved his life, I suppose."
Aurora's eyes sparkle at the prospect of a story. "Was he in danger? Caught by a tiger and about to be eaten?"
Maleficent sighs. "What sort of ridiculous stories has Diaval been telling you? You shouldn't simply believe his tales just because he's the one telling them. He's quite prone to exaggeration, you know."
"Why don't you tell me the story, then."
"When was it? Ah, yes. Not long after my wings were stolen from me. I was wandering through the human kingdom when I discovered a farmer about to beat a raven that he had caught in a net. It was but a trifle to turn the raven into a man, thus frightening off the human farmer."
Aurora gasps. "Just like at the castle, when he saved your life!"
"I beg your pardon?" Maleficent says, though she quite vividly remembers the event in question.
"When you were trapped under King Stefan's iron net, and you changed Diaval into a dragon and he was able to rescue you from the net!"
"I suppose they are similar," Maleficent says. She worries at the hem of her sleeve.
"So what happened after you saved Diaval from the farmer?" Aurora asks.
"He pledged to serve me as payment for his life debt. Though, having saved my life from Stefan's men, I suppose my life debt to him quite cancels out his to me."
"What does that mean?"
"It means," Maleficent says quietly, "That I owe Diaval his freedom."
Aurora's eyes widen, glittering with some mischievous intention. "Diaval!" she calls.
Diaval looks away from where he is being soundly thrashed by Phillip in their mock sparring match. He drops the stick he has been using as a pretend sword and trots over, a cold leaden weight settling deeper into the pit of Maleficent's belly with each stride he takes.
"Your Highness," he says to Aurora, dipping with a flourish into a courtly bow. His face gleams with the exertion of exercise. "How might this lowly one be of service to you?"
"Silly bird," Aurora giggles, allowing Diaval to take her hand and drop a noisy kiss on it. "Godmother wishes to tell you something."
Godmother most certainly does not, is Maleficent's first, most selfish thought. But aside from her vendetta against Stefan for what he stole from her, she has always sought to be fair. She watches, heart clenching in her chest, as Diaval falls into a far more reserved bow.
"And what words of wisdom does my Mistress wish to bestow upon this lowly one?"
Maleficent folds her hands in her lap, hiding their trembling in her long sleeves. She tilts her chin up and locks eyes with the raven who has been her most faithful companion these seventeen long years. "It has been brought to my attention that, in the course of your service, you have more than repaid the debt you once owed to me.
"Diaval, raven of The Moors," Maleficent says, "I release you from your obligation. You are once more free to do and go as you please."
Diaval blinks. His head twitches to the side, turns, swivels to look at Aurora. The movement is more birdlike than it has been in many a year, not since Diaval was first learning his human shape.
Maleficent looks away from his dark eyes. "Not your Mistress any longer. Merely Maleficent," she says, a self-deprecating smile curling one corner of her mouth.
Diaval drops to one knee before her. "No Maleficent could ever be mere," he says roughly.
Curious then, that a Maleficent should feel so small and uncertain at the thought of a life without Diaval at her beck and call. Wisps of golden magic curl around her fingers, readying to restore him to his proper form.
Diaval glances down at the familiar glow. "Are you sending me away, then?" he asks. His expression is a complex mixture of emotions that Maleficent can parse no meaning from. There is pain in the tightness around his eyes, helplessness in the angle of his brows, a faint moue of wistfulness in the purse of his mouth. Maleficent looks into his eyes and wonders if it is his uncertainty she sees, or merely a reflection of her own.
"You are free. You needn't stay here if you do not wish to," Maleficent says, caught off balance by the intensity of his regard. "Surely you have family, kin you have not seen in years."
Diaval finally looks away, casting his gaze to the ground. "Distant kin, perhaps. But ravens in the wild don't live nearly so long as those protected and preserved by the magic of a powerful fairy. If I have any family left, it's unlikely to be the family I remember."
Maleficent feels guilt and pain welling up from deep within, for Diaval is yet another innocent to have suffered for the sake of her vengeance. She longs to reach out a hand to touch his hair or face, to comfort him, but keeps them firmly in her lap instead.
"What family I have is here, now. So I beg you Mistress, please don't send me away."
"I wouldn't," Maleficent says. "You are free, Diaval. Free to go, but also free to stay, if that is what you wish. Free to once again be truly a raven, as well. You have but to ask, and I shall make it so."
Diaval drops into a lazy sprawl on the grass with a relieved huff, smiling. "I don't know. I've grown quite fond of opposable thumbs. But perhaps it's for the best that I can't go back. To return after all these years, still unmated? I'd be a laughingstock."
"Then perhaps you ought find your mate," Maleficent suggests, relieved by the knowledge that she will not have to part with her companion quite yet.
Diaval's eyes go hooded, a secretive smile pulling slowly at his lips. "Hmm. Perhaps." He stands up and dusts himself off. "I should go collect young Phillip before he wanders too far afield. Mistress, Your Highness."
Maleficent blinks at Aurora, who has been as still and quiet as a mouse. She had entirely forgotten that the little Beastie was still there, so caught up in her conversation with Diaval that the girl had simply faded into the background.
"What's that look in your eye, little Beastie? What mischiefs are you plotting?"
Aurora's wide eyes glitter with false innocence. "Mischiefs? Me? Godmother, how could you accuse me of such a thing?"
Maleficent turns a playfully suspicious gaze upon the girl, but makes a mental note to keep an eye out for whatever scheme Aurora has concocted.
"Mistress, do you know where Aurora is?"
Maleficent looks up from the grass and flowers she has been idly braiding. Diaval is disheveled and flushed, chest rising quickly with his fast breaths. She scans the meadow; it is empty but for the two of them.
"I haven't the slightest idea," she says. "She was here but a moment ago."
Diaval sighs and thumps down onto the grass next to her, sprawling inelegantly. The pendant hanging from the cord around his neck sticks in his sweat and he twitches it aside to lay on fabric instead of flesh. It's a simple thing, merely a pretty stone and one of his feathers bound with leather cord, but Maleficent created it herself, enchanting it to connect Diaval to her magic so that he might change at will rather than at her discretion.
"And what have you been up to?" she asks.
Diaval folds his hands under his head. "Young Phillip was quite curious as to what it is like to fly. I may have given him a small taste."
Maleficent crooks a brow. "Not as a raven, surely."
"Of course not," Diaval says, smiling up at her. "As a dragon."
Maleficent chuckles. "I hope you left him intact. Aurora will be quite put out if you've gone and broken her suitor."
"I would never. He was perfectly safe, barring a few inconsequential mishaps."
"If you dropped him less than twice, I shall be very surprised at your restraint."
"Well, I suppose I was never known much for my restraint," Diaval says coyly. "And if you guessed any less than four I shall think you don't know me at all."
"On purpose, and once entirely by accident."
"Diaval! For shame!" She tosses a handful of grass seeds at his face and watches him huff and blow and swat them away.
"It was his fault! He wouldn't stay still and squirmed his way right off my back. Besides, he didn't fall very far. That time, at least."
"I assume he enjoyed his little jaunt."
"Enjoyed! Pah, that boy has a bird's heart. Took to the sky like he could fly if he just wished it hard enough."
Maleficent smiles, weaving red wildflowers into the braid. "Birds of a feather. I'm sure Aurora will be delighted to hear that the two of you have become such fast friends."
"You know," Diaval says, turning on his side to face her. "He's not so bad. I think you would like him, if you would just talk to him."
"I'm sure," Maleficent murmurs, mood souring. Unlike Aurora and Diaval, life has not left her disposed to think well of people.
Diaval continues blithely on, "After all, he's much politer and obedient than I am, and you're quite fond of me, so I'm sure you will like him simply by virtue of the fact that he is far more biddable than certain other people you have grown to like."
"So I will like Phillip because he is more biddable than Stefan, is that it?" Maleficent says sharply. At Diaval's shocked expression, she feels guilty, for the words had come out without rhyme nor reason, bursting up from that bitter darkness that remains as a stain on her soul.
Diaval reaches out to touch her. "Malef-"
"Forgive me," she says, pushing to her feet. "I did not mean to- I shall go see where Aurora has gone."
With a flap of her wings, she rises above the meadow. Another flap takes her up beyond the tops of the trees. Yet another, and she can see the shining surface of the lake. Aurora is there, the wind whispers into her ear, and she follows its guiding currents.
The flight eases her slightly, just enough for her to be once more composed when she touches down behind where Aurora is looking down at her reflection in the Glass Pool. The girl looks up, excited, at the sound of Maleficent's wingbeats.
"Godmother! Godmother, do you think my hair is pretty?"
Maleficent blinks. "I doubt I'm the most qualified to judge, but I believe it to be so. Why?"
Aurora huffs and turns back to her reflection, fiddling with a coil of yellow hair. "All the ladies of the court have such elaborate and beautiful hairstyles, but I only ever wear mine like this. Do you think I would be prettier with my hair done up like them?" She curls the mass of it into a loose bun.
Maleficent steps up behind her and pulls Aurora's hand away, letting the hair fall free once more. "I think that it does not matter. Hair up or hair down, you are still Aurora, Queen of our united kingdoms, loved by all who meet her."
Aurora turns to beam happily at her.
"But if you wish it, I do know a bit about weaving hair. I'm sure I could come up with something suitable for a mischievous little Beastie."
The offer makes Aurora vibrate with excitement.
"You must do my hair!" she demands. "You must! Oh, I can't wait to show everyone, Godmother. I'm so excited! Will you do it now? Oh please, please do it now."
Maleficent laughs, her mood finally clearing. "Of course. Come, let us sit."
The final product is nothing so elaborate as what the humans wear at court, being little more than a simple braid. But woven in amongst the strands are tiny blue flowers of every shade and hue, making Aurora's yellow hair shine bright as spun gold. She coos and exclaims over it, delighted fairies circling her head like a giggling halo as they too admire Maleficent's handiwork.
Maleficent takes a lock of her own hair between her fingers. It is stiff and unyieldingly straight, and her horns would be quite in the way of many of the usual styles, but perhaps with a bit of ingenuity she could devise something presentable, even attractive. She pauses, considers her own thoughts. She's never been so vain as to worry overmuch about her appearance, not even after years of listening to Diaval squawk about his 'beautiful self', and discards the idea of styling her own hair as a frivolous fancy. She flips the lock back over her shoulder. 'Twould be a fool's errand anyway to be dissatisfied by her own natural appearance.
"What do I have to do for you to put pretty flowers in my hair?" she hears from behind her. Diaval seats himself beside her, smiling his teasing smile. The incident in the meadow seems to have been forgiven, perhaps even forgotten. Maleficent finds herself relieved.
"Aurora did express some interest in learning to braid and weave hair. I'm sure if you offered, she'd be delighted to practice upon you."
Diaval throws his head back, cackling that raven caw of his. "If that is what our little one wishes, then she may practice upon my coarse wires until they fall out."
"Not so coarse," Maleficent observes, taking a lock of his hair and rubbing it between her fingers. Diaval goes stone still under the touch, not even seeming to breathe, and she quickly pulls her hand back to her lap, embarrassed by her lapse. "Forgive me."
Diaval smiles. "Nothing to forgive. I am yours to do with as you will, remember?"
Maleficent purses her lips in annoyance. "Not so. Have you forgotten that I've freed you, you silly bird?"
"Doesn't make me any less yours than I was before," he says with an easy shrug. Maleficent means to ask what he means by that, but he gets up, brushing off his clothes. "Oh look, here comes young Phillip. Perhaps I can convince him to let our Aurora practice on his shaggy head instead of mine."
Maleficent watches him go, confused and curious in spite of her wariness.
As it happens, neither Diaval nor Phillip need subject their heads to Aurora's inexperienced fingers, as neither has the length of hair required to practice upon. A few of the longer-haired fairies cheerfully volunteer. Some learn to regret it, Maleficent is sure, when she is picking messy snarls and tangles out of their fine hair after Aurora has practiced upon them.
Maleficent watches the mud fight from a careful distance. A recent thunderstorm has turned the Forest Dragon's den into a field of thick mud, and it seems like half the inhabitants of the Moors have turned out to wallow in the mess. Only she and Diaval sit aside, watching fairy and Queen alike sling mud at each other.
The raven, for he is currently a raven again, twitches under her hand until she resumes stroking along the feathers of his back and wings, absently petting him as she contemplates more serious matters. Distraction stills her hand twice more before Diaval hops out of her lap and becomes a man.
"Mistress? What is it?" he asks, kneeling at her feet. "What worries you?"
Maleficent's hands move restlessly in her lap, already missing the feel of Diaval's feathers under them. She watches Aurora with keen eyes.
"It seems too easy," she says, "that the kingdoms should be united and suddenly all is peace and quiet. I worry that this is but the calm before a storm. Diaval-"
"I go, Mistress," Diaval says, and in a burst of black mist, wings upward into the sky.
"Be safe," she says belatedly, watching him disappear beyond the treetops.
Some few minutes later, Aurora comes slogging up to where Maleficent sits, dropping down onto the grass where Diaval had knelt just a little before. Maleficent only just manages to twitch the hem of her robe out of the way of the little Beastie's mud-splattered bottom.
"Godmother," the girl wails, "Phillip is just terrible at throwing mud! How could I ever even think of marrying a man who can't throw mud properly?"
In the muddy field, Phillip's shoulders hunch and he turns to the nearest fairy to say something. The wind carries along his question to Maleficent's ears, Am I that bad? The fairy gives a solemn nod and the boy's entire demeanor slumps in disappointment.
"Well, you know," Maleficent says, pitching her voice high enough to carry, "The poor boy probably spent all his life cooped up in a castle before coming here. I suppose he's only so terrible on account of never having had a proper teacher."
Phillip brightens and nods eagerly, and fairies of all sizes cluster around to educate him on the fine art of throwing mud. Aurora giggles.
"Say, Godmother," she asks, no longer loud enough to be overheard. "Where is Diaval? I had hoped he would come join us."
Maleficent flicks her fingers unconcernedly. "He's gone off to run an errand for me. Return to your game, little one, and you can tell him all about it when he returns."
Aurora pouts briefly, but her mood clears as quickly as ever, and she hops eagerly to her feet to rejoin the group.
Diaval does not return for a full five days.
Aurora's curiosity becomes harder and harder to turn aside the longer Diaval is gone, so when Diaval glides down toward her on the morning of the sixth day, Maleficent does not try very hard to hide her sigh of relief. Diaval drops heavily to the ground, stumbling more on his landing than he has done in years.
"Well? Tell me of the land of men," she demands.
"Unrest," he says. He looks pale and exhausted and Maleficent feels a pang of worry for him. "After sixteen years of being told to fear you, Aurora's word that you aren't a threat is not enough to break their fear. Also, there are those who wish to pillage the Moors for its natural bounty and wealth. They claim that because the kingdoms are now unified, they should not be held back from taking what they believe is their due."
"Aurora's court is thick with rumors in her absence. They love her, but they do not respect or follow her. I believe they see her as little more than a child you placed on the throne to be your puppet."
Maleficent glares out at the tranquil idyll of the Moors. The darkness in her rears its ugly head and she longs to go into the kingdom of men to destroy all who would attack her home and her precious child.
"Mistress, what do we do?" Diaval asks, hovering at her elbow. "Perhaps if we trade, our resources for their goods-"
"No. The creatures of the Moors have little desire for the creations of men. There will forever be an imbalance where one kingdom is self-sufficient and another is not. And even if we tried to pacify them by sharing our wealth, their greed would never be satisfied by anything less than the complete subjugation of our lands and people."
"Rest," Maleficent commands. With a flick of her hand and a swirl of magic, grass and moss arrange themselves into a soft bed for Diaval. "I will handle this."
Diaval sighs and subsides, removing his black coat as he sinks into the verdant nest. "If you need me, call."
Maleficent does not acknowledge him as she launches up into the sky. Conveniently, Aurora and Phillip are together, and the wind guides her to them where they play court with the denizens of the Moors. They are hearing the small, benign complaints of the fairies and other folk, and it strikes Maleficent that Aurora is here to hear them more often than she is in her own castle to hear the complaints of her own kind.
"Godmother! Have you come to join us?" Aurora asks from her flowering throne. Phillip is seated to her right, on the seat Diaval often took when the throne was Maleficent's.
"I have not come today as your Godmother, Queen Aurora, but as the protector of The Moors," she says. Aurora and Phillip straighten in their respective seats, their expressions growing concerned. "Diaval has brought news from the lands and court of men. Your lands and court, Aurora, and it is not good news."
Aurora's face twists into discomfort and she looks away. Phillip looks between her and Maleficent, confused.
"Aurora? Lady Maleficent? What has happened?" he asks.
"Prince Phillip, I'm sure you're familiar with court gossip, having been raised in your father's court," Maleficent says. Phillip nods, his brow furrowing. "Aurora has not. She has no experience in maintaining her standing amongst her courtiers, nor of proving her ability to lead to her people. Compounding the issue is the fact that she spends her days here, playing at Queen when she should be in the land of men establishing her right to rule. Which I suspect she already knows."
Aurora nods meekly, staring down at her hands where she is wringing them in her lap.
"Speak, Aurora," Maleficent commands.
"I'm sorry Godmother. It's just so hard to be there, to hear all the things they say about you, to see the way they look at me like a silly little girl to indulge but not to respect. I suppose... I thought if I ignored it, it would eventually just go away," Aurora says, her voice choked by tears. "I will try to do better. Please don't be ashamed of me."
Maleficent sighs and approaches the throne. She lays a hand upon Aurora's downturned head, stroking the soft yellow curls. "You forget, silly little Beast, that you were cursed to be loved by all who meet you. Go now and be the Queen I know you are capable of being. Phillip will help you."
Aurora looks to Phillip, who nods, getting down upon one knee. "You and your kind taught me the ways of throwing mud. It would be my honor to teach you the ways of leading your kingdom," he says, quite gallantly in Maleficent's opinion.
Aurora smiles, scrubs the tears from her cheeks, and stands, throwing her arms around Maleficent. Maleficent stiffens, but manages to pat her tentatively on the shoulder.
"You're right, Godmother," Aurora says, squeezing one last time before pulling away. "There are things I need to do that I have been putting off for far too long. I- Will you say goodbye to Diaval for me? And promise to visit me at the castle?"
"The castle is not safe for me, but I suspect Diaval will be along to visit as often as he may. He will bring news of the Moors to you and pass along any messages."
Aurora bites her lips, looking around at the fairy creatures. They all look saddened by the thought of her departure, but are wise enough to recognize its necessity.
"Goodbye then, Godmother," Aurora says, catching Maleficent's hands in hers. "I hope I shall be able to come visit again soon."
"I hope so too, Beastie. But Aurora," Maleficent says, bending to look Aurora straight in the eye. "If the men come to attack the Moors, I will defend this land as fiercely as I ever have, notwithstanding my loyalty to you. Do you understand?"
Aurora nods sharply. "I shall do my best to ensure that it never comes to that, for I could not bear to see any ill befall this place. Wish me luck, Godmother."
Maleficent shakes her head. "The blessed have no need for luck, and the brave make their own. Go. Lead your people and protect what you hold dear."
She releases Aurora's hands and steps away. "And Phillip," she says.
Phillip snaps to attention. "Yes, Lady Maleficent?"
"You shall protect Aurora with all that you have, do you understand? Or you shall learn what it means to make an enemy of the most powerful creature of The Moors."
"Understood, ma'am," he says smartly, his chest puffing up as he accepts the duty Maleficent has laid upon his shoulders.
The farewells are brief, the young royals eager to get underway in that energetic way of youth. Maleficent hopes that they are equal to the task, but makes plans in the event that they are not, considering ways to prepare for a war that may be looming on the horizon.
By the time she returns to Diaval's makeshift nest after a long meeting with the Border Guards, the sun is far in the west, afternoon waning into early evening. Diaval is sleeping still, but not quite peacefully, as she observes. A lock of his hair has fallen to brush the tip of his nose. He wiggles his nose in his sleep, swats ineffectually at it, until Maleficent smooths it back and away from his face.
She marvels at the feel of his hair. It is straight and stiff, more like her own than Aurora's or even Phillip's, but not so coarse as he would claim. Perhaps if he groomed it more often or brushed it properly instead of slicking it back with his hands, it might be even softer than her own hair. She combs the tips of her nails through his hair a few times until it lies suitably flat, then departs again in search of food, for he is likely to be famished when he wakes.
The days seem longer with Aurora gone. Diaval spends them flying back and forth between the castle and the Moors delivering messages and news. Often, he stays at the castle to serve as Aurora and Phillip's covert eyes and ears.
Maleficent, with no Diaval nor Beastie to entertain her, grows quite bored and wonders what it was she did to occupy herself before they came into her life. She recalls that once upon a time she had been quite content to wander alone through the Moors, but now is dissatisfied with the silence of her own company. Occasionally she finds herself perched high on the rock formations staring out at the distant castle and wondering what Aurora and Diaval are doing. It is only when she sees the black speck of Diaval's raven shape approaching the Moors that her melancholy lifts, it seems.
"Did you miss me?" Diaval asks, crouching down before her on the high rocky shelf. The wind throws his hair all about and Maleficent wants to say Yes.
"I had begun to wonder at how quiet it was," she says archly. "Imagine my surprise when I looked about only to see you gone."
Diaval laughs and holds out a parcel. "Well I suppose it's nice to hear that you aren't too lonely without me to order around. I brought you this. Aurora said you might like it."
Maleficent unties the twine and unwraps it, blinking in surprise. "It's a book."
"Wait, you do know how to read, don't you?"
"I... was taught," Maleficent says, opening it to the title page. She does not say, Stefan taught me. "A book of fairy stories?"
"Yes! Aurora is teaching me in her spare time. Which, she doesn't have much these days between squashing rumors and seeing to the kingdom's needs and meeting with foreign dignitaries and such, so I'm not very good yet, but I quite like it."
Maleficent skims through the table of contents. It's been some time since she last read, but it comes back to her as easily as flying, the letters resolving into sounds into words.
"Oh, do sit before you fall," she says impatiently after a gust of wind nearly knocks him off the shelf.
"Not much space," he observes. And there isn't. The rocky outcrop she'd chosen had an excellent view of the neighboring kingdom, but it could only comfortably seat one. She's about to suggest relocating when Diaval says, "Budge over a bit."
Blinking, she obeys, and Diaval squeezes in next to her. His calves dangle out into space, but he seems unconcerned. Maleficent becomes keenly aware of the very narrow gap between his body and hers.
"Would you read a bit to me?" he asks. His eyes look very large from this close. His whole face looks a bit different in fact, and Maleficent finds herself cataloging the differences. "Mistress?"
Maleficent looks hastily away, a telltale heat rising in her cheeks. "Is there any story in particular you wish to hear?"
"Whichever catches your eye is fine with me."
Flustered by his closeness, Maleficent simply turns to the first story and begins reading.
"Once upon a time..."
The story is well told and surprisingly interesting, drawing Maleficent far enough into the narrative that she's startled when Diaval's head lands upon her shoulder. She glances down at him; he's soundly asleep.
She's not surprised. During their travels, though they had flown far and fast, Maleficent's magic had bolstered him, allowing him to keep up where his much smaller wings should have left him far behind. Flying back and forth these past weeks under his own power has exhausted him, though he has done it without complaint. And today, having carried a book all the way from the castle to the Moors...
"Into a bird," she whispers, and catches him in her arms as he shrinks. He stirs, but she soothes him with a breath of magic. Holding him and the book close to her chest, she glides down to her roost in the lone tree high above the Moors and tucks him into a nest of old blankets she's kept from her childhood. She knows his own nest is somewhere near enough to hear should she call for him, but she has never sought it out. He may return to it tomorrow, if he's recovered well enough. She settles in next to him to read quietly until dusk, and the last thing she sees as she falls asleep is his black feathers under the dappled moonlight.
She dreams of black feathers and fur and scales, of fire and iron, of cowering wingless and weak beneath a great black shadow that she has no fear of. A cruel cowl of studded steel, scorching pain, a once beloved face twisted by madness and obsession, a reflection of what was once in her own heart.
Maleficent wakes, feeling uneasy and off-balance. Diaval is gone, a single black feather the only proof of his presence. She twirls it between her fingers, watches the light bring out the subtle shades, and recognizes the emotions that thoughts of him stir within her. She hadn't realized how dear he had become to her and she fears—oh by the sun and moon and all the ancient Goddesses, how she fears!-the power he has over the remains of her fragile heart.
That evening she waits for him in a secluded grove, listening to the wind in the trees. He finds her sitting at the base of a tree, clutching a bright apple in his talons that she knows is not from any of the trees of the Moors.
"For you, Mistress," he says, dropping the apple into her lap. "A trader brought it from the east with promises to bring more in exchange for worked iron. Apparently there was a silver lining to Stefan working his ironworkers to the bone for years on end, and that is that we have far more iron than a kingdom our size could ever need."
Maleficent turns the apple over in her hands, admiring the bright color. "Diaval, when you return to the castle, stay there."
"Hm? What for?"
"You're needed there. Far more than you're needed here."
Diaval goes still, staring at her with wide eyes. "Are you sending me away?" he demands. "Is that what this is? I'm free now. You don't get to send me away."
"Aurora needs you, Diaval. She needs you at your best, not half exhausted from flying back and forth."
"That is my choice to make, and don't you dare use Aurora as an excuse to get rid of me," Diaval hisses, hands curling into white-knuckled fists.
"Leave, Diaval," she shouts. Her nails dig deep into the apple he brought her.
"Then make me. Oh wait, you can no longer command me because you freed me, remember?"
Without thinking, she cries, "But I didn't want to!"
Diaval blinks in shock. "What?"
Maleficent refuses to bow her head in shame. "I didn't want to, and if Aurora had not brought it up, I likely would never have had to."
"You would have kept me forever by your side," Diaval breathes.
"Never let me go, never let me leave."
He kneels before her, looming over her to plant his hands on the bark above her wings, caging her in the shadow of his body.
"Then keep me," he says, staring her down. "Claim me as yours forever. Place your mark on my soul as you have painted it in my flesh. Let not one more day go by where I am not by your side. If you want me, then own me, for I already know that I am yours for as long as I shall live."
Maleficent stares dumbly up at him, frightened by the promise in his eyes and more terrified still by the fervent desire in her heart to reach out and claim what is being so desperately offered.
"Maleficent, please," he begs, sinking closer until she can feel his breath upon her lips. "Please trust me."
Ice overtakes her heart as the memory of another man's plea for trust rings in her ears. Green magic blasts him away from her, sending him sprawling across the dirt.
"Into a bird," she bellows, and drops the apple in favor of slashing at him with her magic. He shifts with a pained caw, flapping up into the air. "Away! Get away!"
Diaval flies in a tight circle above her, buffeted by waves of green magic that push him higher and higher until he's lost to her sight beyond the thick foliage. She hears him caw but keeps pushing, and the sound of his calls eventually disappear into the distance.
A ruined apple lays at her feet. The grove falls silent once more, but this time, not for now. This time, for good.
She collapses to her knees with a cry and bites her lips against the wretched sobs that fight to escape. Her wings curl around her, strong and steady as they ever were, but she feels just as flightless and vulnerable as when they were taken from her. But this time, her wings are once more gone and there is no one to blame but herself.
A pall falls over the Moors in the days that follow, a slight dimness as the creatures mourn the departure of their friend Diaval. Maleficent walks endlessly through the wild lands of her home without seeing any of it and the fairy creatures mourn for her pain as well, though none can say what thoughts turn behind her green eyes.
A fortnight after Diaval's abrupt departure a letter arrives at the Moors via terrified courier. The Border Guard accepts the letter, reward his work with a bundle of bright red fruits, and send the young man on his way. None can read the blocky print on the front, so they take it to Maleficent.
She turns the letter in her hand. Fine parchment sealed with a few drops of red wax and Aurora's unrefined penmanship on the front. Maleficent supposes that news had to arrive somehow, with no Diaval to deliver it.
Exciting news! We have just finished negotanegotiating trade deals with our neihbors, and more traders still come from lands further away. But many of the roads leading to the other kingdoms have fallen into dis repair, so we must fix them straightaway before the caravans come. Phillip says that this has pleased many of the courtiers, and many of the rumors have begun to die down, but there are still some crusty old lords who remember King Henry's promise to capture the Moors. Diaval says that they talk in secret meetings about raising an army from their own feifdoms and I worry that they will act without my being able to stop them.
Speaking of Diaval, he seems very sad since his last trip home and he has not left again. I often see him perched on the high walls looking out toward the Moors. I think misses your company, Moth Godmother. I know I do! I wish he would talk to me about what saddens him, for he is not very good at pretending to be happy, espesially to those who know him best. But he refuses to be sent home, saying that he is needed here in the castle. I am glad that he wishes to stay and help us, but I worry more about his happiness than being able to evesdrop on the a bunch of old lords. When you write back, please give me advise on ways to tempt him into going home again!
Weaving is finally returning to our kingdom after many years without! Now that the curse has passed, the ironworkers not busy making things for trade have begun making parts for spinning wheels. I have given them free rein over the scrapped spinning wheels in the castle's basement, and they have found many useable pieces of wood as well. I have also convinced some of the spinners to teach me in my spare time, so that I might proove to the people that I do not fear you, nor spinning wheels. What a silly thought, that I should be afraid of spinning wheels!
Work on the roads is going well, but for a while there were simply not enough people to work on them. Then I saw that the kingdom's army was not doing much other than eating and training, so I offered their services to the road builders, so that they might help restore their kingdom. They are paid wages, of course, which is more than they receved as soldiers! Some have even left the army to become smiths and carpenters and weavers and farmers. I have suggested to the fief lords that they might hold little tournaments in their fiefdoms so that the soldiers who have left might be able to practice their skills and have a bit of fun besides. What do you think, Godmother?
Phillip and I miss you and the Moors and hope to come visit soon, once everything has settled. Diaval still watches from the high walls. I think he watches to see you flying, though I think it would be very hard to see you from this far away, even though your wings are so big! He grows restless with being in the castle all the time, but forces himself to stay. At this rate, I think I shall have to tether him to a courier and have him deliverd to you.
The next letter comes not by courier, but by Prince.
"Halloa, Lady Maleficent," Phillip says, sliding down from his horse.
"Your hair is very short," Maleficent observes. Her voice scratches uncomfortably in her throat and she wonders how long it has last been since she has spoken to anyone.
Phillip rubs a hand over the scant half-inch of hair. It is evenly short, as though he was shaved to the skin. "Yes, well. A trader brought rubber from the south. Aurora and I were playing with it, for it bounces amazingly and goes very soft and almost liquid when heated. Some of the melted rubber landed in my hair and we discovered the hard way that once in one's hair, it does not come out."
Maleficent nods, a pang of emotion tightening her heart. She does so miss her little Beastie. "You look a great deal older without all that hair falling in your face."
"I also feel a great deal cooler. I never realized how much heat it kept in until it was gone!" Phillip draws a letter from the pouch at his hip. "For you, my Lady."
It is another of Aurora's letters. She turns the folded parchment over and again in her hands, fixing a shrewd eye on Phillip. "It is quite unnecessary for a Prince to hand-deliver a simple letter. Why have you come?"
"It's nothing that can't wait until you've read the letter. Aurora was concerned by your lack of reply, and doubly so when Diaval told her that very few in the Moors could read, so she sent me to make sure that you received your letter and read it."
"I see. Well, sit, I suppose," Maleficent says, gesturing vaguely as she turns her attention to the letter.
Can you believe that I am nearly seventeen? It seems like forever since I was living in that little cottage with the Aunties, your shadow always protecting me from a distance. I am having a birthday fete and I hope that you will be able to attend. I wish that all my friends from the Moors could attend! Or perhaps I shall sneak out to the Moors and we shall have a small party all to ourselves, no courtiers or dignitaries or traders trying to bend my ear.
More importantly, Phillip's father, King John, is coming to discuss mine and Phillip's courtship. There are but a few more months before the year we agreed upon runs out, and I should like the man who will soon be my father-in-law to meet the woman I have long thought of as a mother to me. So let me make it very official:
Godmother, you are most cordially invited to the fete celebrating my seventeenth birthday. You shall be a guest of honor, both as my Godmother and as the protector of The Moors. I am so looking forward to seeing you again!
Oh, I hope you can be happy for me, Godmother. I know you were hurt in the past by the one you loved, but over these many months I have seen how kind and generous Phillip is, and how my well-being is always his first concern. I have come to love him as I have never loved another, and your approval would mean the world to us both.
Phillip will tell you all that you need to know about the fete, and I wait anxiously for your answer.
Maleficent folds the letter contemplatively. "So you are to be married," she says.
"Only with your blessing, Lady Maleficent. Aurora was quite clear on that."
She crooks an eyebrow at the young man. "And after the wedding are you to be crowned King?"
"Oh goodness, no!" Phillip says earnestly. "This is Aurora's kingdom and I should never even think of taking it from her. I am quite content to remain a prince. My father doesn't agree, but I am grown now and capable of making my own choices. I choose to support Aurora."
"Hm." Maleficent taps the letter against her palm. "I approve of your decision. You have my blessing, though should you ever break her heart, I will crush your soul and leave you a mindless husk. And I'm sure you don't need me to describe what I would do to you if you ever raised a hand to her."
Phillip blanches and lunges to his feet. "I would never strike a woman, and nothing on this Earth could ever move me to strike Aurora!"
"Well then," Maleficent says with faux cheer. "We shan't have any problems then, shall we. Now, tell me why you really came."
Phillip sighs, expression darkening. "I came because I suspect that Aurora has been glossing over quite a bit in her letters. While it is true that she is doing much good, there is still unrest amongst the people. King Henry's old supporters have been stirring up trouble amongst the dissenters in Aurora's court and the soldiers who see themselves as having been reduced from a proud calling to mere common laborers."
"How many soldiers?"
"As many as half. Many of the soldiers are from families of middle standing, so the wage they receive is not worth the indignity of manual labor. The rest are from poor families, and are generally content with working for pay."
Maleficent turns away. "What else?"
"The fiefs have become divided. Those who support Aurora support her wholly, but those who are against are whispering about breaking off from the kingdom. We have heard conflicting rumors about when they plan to act. Some say at the fete, others at the wedding."
"And what do the people say about me? Do they still fear the evil winged sorceress?"
"Not so much after Aurora's quite impassioned defense of you. They do not like you, but neither do they despise you. Still, it wouldn't take much to tip the balance back to fear, and unfortunately King Henry's old guard know that. Diaval and I suspect that they may march on the Moors simply to force you to fight back, then use that show of force to stir up favor for an all-out war against you."
"Men and their greed," Maleficent says idly, considering ways to halt an army without the use of brute force. If the wind is right, perhaps the burning of plants whose smoke induces euphoria and drowsiness? "Send me reports with Aurora's letters from now on. I have been far too uninformed. Now, when is this fete Aurora has written about?"
"My Lady, I cannot advise that you attend. Too many of the soldiers are of uncertain loyalty and I cannot guarantee your safety."
"Have you forgotten whom you address? I am the strongest of all the creatures of the Moors, my power and skill unmatched by any."
"But you are unwell!" Phillip cries. "You are pale and gaunt and your feathers are dirty and disheveled. When have you last slept, my Lady? Last eaten? If Aurora was here-"
Maleficent whirls and lashes out at Philip with a net of green magic. "You will not breathe a word to Aurora about my condition, understood?"
"We worry about you, and Diaval as well. He does not sleep either, nor eat. If he weren't naturally vain, I think he would neglect his appearance as well. Aurora frets and worries constantly in private for she loves you both as parents and aches to see you both suffering so. Please, Lady Maleficent, whatever happened between the two of you, mend it for Aurora's sake, if not your own."
Maleficent releases him from her magic, dropping him carelessly to the ground. "You know nothing of what happened between us."
Phillip clambers to his feet. "I know enough to guess that you turned him away, which is why he stays at the castle instead of returning to the Moors. I can't claim to understand why, when it is so clear to all that you lo-mmph!"
Green magic glitters around Maleficent's fingertips, sealing Phillip's mouth shut.
"I will attend the fete," she says. "Send word of the time and date via courier and tell Aurora to expect me. Until then, Prince Phillip."
She melts into the trees, leaving Phillip to make his way back on his own. There are preparations to be made.
Maleficent touches down upon the pavilion facing the castle's main hall amidst a cloud of flying fairy creatures, smiling at the awed gasps and whispers of the assembled fete attendees. There are cries of shock and delight as the school of cloud skimmers glides over the crowd low enough that the wind from their passage disturbs the cloth hanging from the ladies' pointed hats. Smaller fairies of all size and color dart amongst the guests, oohing and ahhing over the unfamiliar finery, so much more ornate than Maleficent's usual robes.
Indeed, Maleficent's only concessions to the formality of the event are a low neckline that displays her shoulders and a loose braid studded with drops of amber to complement the tawny gold silk of her gown.
The guests part for her and her entourage, a hush falling over them as they realize who she is. Sorceress, some whisper. Kingslayer. Witch. Enchantress. Maleficent. Maleficent. Maleficent.
The herald's voice catches in his throat when she stops alongside him, bypassing the line of guests waiting to be announced. An older man, hair snow white and thinning, hisses, "You're not welcome here, vile creature."
"Oh? How awkward, then," she says lightly, brandishing the invitation she'd received. "For I was sent an invitation by the Queen herself to be her guest of honor."
The old man flinches, turning mutinous eyes toward the raised throne.
The herald, meanwhile, gathers his courage and his voice and calls, "Lady Maleficent, Protector of The Moors, Godmother to Her Highness Queen Aurora, and entourage."
The main hall falls silent. From the far end of the room comes an exultant "Godmother!" and the rustle of fabric as the guests part hastily for Aurora. The girl's headlong charge does not slow one whit as she approaches Maleficent, and she plows headlong into the unprepared woman, nearly knocking them both off their feet.
"Oh Godmother, I have missed you so much!" Aurora cries, squeezing Maleficent in a tight embrace.
Maleficent stiffens, instinctively discomfited by the sudden contact, but forces herself to relax, draping her arms around Aurora's shoulders to return the embrace. "And I you, Beastie."
Aurora sniffles ominously, burying her face in Maleficent's shoulder. Maleficent stiffens again, hands raising to nudge at Aurora's shoulders.
"Do not cry on me," she commands. "I don't like crying girls, nor crying boys for that matter."
Aurora giggles and pulls away, rubbing her cheeks and nose. "Sorry, Godmother. I'll try not to cry, for your sake. Come and meet Phillip's parents! They are very curious about you, and I wish for them to meet the real Maleficent before the nasty rumors sink in."
The assembled guests burst into whispers, directed at Aurora, at Maleficent, at the fairy creatures flying all about above and betwixt them. Some are discontented, but most seem too distracted by the display to be actively malicious.
"Lady Maleficent," Phillip says, sketching a short bow. "We are pleased to see you've arrived safely. I hope you're not too tired by the journey?"
"Not at all," Maleficent says. The young man seems to have put aside the matter of his temporary muteness, but she wouldn't put it past him to sling a wad of mud at her one day. "I am quite well-rested these days."
"So I see. Let me introduce you to my parents. Father, Mother," he says, standing alongside the finely dressed royals, "This is the Lady Maleficent, Aurora's Godmother. My Lady, this is my Father, King John, and my Mother, Queen Anne."
Maleficent can see the resemblance between parents and child. Here, the long chin, there, the straight nose. Though Phillip's thick eyebrows seem to have come from elsewhere in the family tree. She bows her head to them.
"It is a pleasure to meet the parents of such a fine and well-educated young man."
"Thank you," the King says. "We have heard a great deal about you, Lady Maleficent, though of such conflicting reports that we are not sure what to think."
"The previous King was not well during the latter part of his reign. His obsession drove him into madness, and he led the kingdom down a path that did more harm than good. But my own conduct is also to blame, for I too lashed out at those undeserving of my wrath."
"Godmother, all has been forgiven," Aurora says, taking Maleficent's hand in hers.
"By you, perhaps, but many at the castle suffered in the course of his obsession and I have not tried to make amends to them," Maleficent says.
Aurora pouts, mouth turning down into an unhappy moue.
"A Queen should not pout so," Maleficent says, and flicks a cloud of magic at Aurora's face that makes the girl sneeze twice in a row.
"Godmother," the girl whines nasally, rubbing her nose.
"You and Phillip run along now," Maleficent says, shooing her away. "You have guests to greet and a fete to enjoy, unless I am much mistaken."
"But you only just got here! When shall we have time to catch up again?"
"Later, Beastie, I promise. Phillip?"
Phillip takes Aurora by the hand, drawing her away. "Come along, Aurora. Let's leave our parents to talk amongst themselves."
"Quite an energetic girl," Queen Anne says, watching the pair disappear into the crowd. "Our own daughter is content to sit in the library all day, reading whatever book finds its way under her hands."
"Her primary caretakers were ill suited to the task of looking after a young child, and she often ran about the country largely unattended, except for myself and my servant," Maleficent says.
"Will you tell us the story?" King John asks. "We have yet to hear an account that begins at the very start."
Maleficent dips her head respectfully. "As your Majesties wish. I suppose the story begins when I was but a child myself, growing up in the peaceful Moors..."
As she recounts the long tale, a small crowd begins to gather around, sighing at the sweet romance of the young Maleficent and Stefan, gasping at the young man's betrayal and the brutal theft of her wings, and cringing at Stefan's mercenary deal with the dying King Henry. By the time the story reaches its climax, the trap laid in the castle, her panicked flight up to the high ramparts, Stefan's fall, a sizable group has gathered around to listen, many with expressions torn between empathy and residual fear from Stefan's long campaign against her. Phillip's parents are spellbound by the story, the Queen herself having daubed at her eyes every now and again. She will have loyal allies in them if Henry's old guard are ever so bold as to move against her.
"And what happened after, once Aurora had been crowned?" Queen Anne asks.
"I traveled, reveling in the strength of my wings and the wind upon my skin. Diaval and I explored the kingdoms beyond our own, circling the great inland sea to the south and returning home again."
"The inland sea!" King John exclaims. "Is it as beautiful as they say? I have always wanted to go, but never had the opportunity, nor excuse to travel so far from my own kingdom."
"More beau-" Maleficent coughs, her throat dry from speaking for so long. A goblet is placed in her hand and she takes a sip of the cool, minty water. "More beautiful even than the stories say."
She blinks down at the goblet and looks over her shoulder just in time to see a dark head of hair disappear behind the tall hats of a cluster of women.
"Will you tell us more, Lady Maleficent?" the King asks. He looks a bit like a child begging for a story, and she can't help but accept.
"What would you like to know, Your Highness?"
In the end, it is King John himself who makes her excuses once her voice has gone hoarse and whispery, ushering her to sit and rest as the fete winds down. Many of the dignitaries will be staying for a few more days, including Phillip's parents, but some cannot and thus make their formal goodbyes to Queen Aurora, now officially seventeen.
Maleficent watches her as she moves through the room. She has truly grown in grace and beauty, and now emerges into the full blush of womanhood, the soft roundness of her cheeks having gradually melted away to reveal her adult shape. And to think, soon she shall be wed to Phillip, who stands ever at her side, and then perhaps round with child. Then she shall have her own little Beastie to chase around.
And where will Maleficent be? Alone in the Moors, with no Aurora, nor Diaval, nor even Phillip? She grips the goblet tightly between her hands. The misery of the past weeks threatens to overtake her once more, shattering this fragile mask she has donned for the sake of Aurora's fete. How could she ever think that being alone was preferable? She bows her head and rages inwardly at her stupid, broken, cowardly self. If only she was less afraid, just a bit less fearful of love and its risks...
Maleficent looks up, startled. "Aurora," she whispers hoarsely, surprised.
Aurora's brows furrow together and she daubs at Maleficent's cheeks with a handkerchief. "Oh Godmother, don't cry. You look so wan and tired since I last saw you."
"You glanced at me but minutes ago, Beastie. I think I cannot have changed so much in so short a time."
Aurora's lips pinch to a flat line. "You know what I mean," she says, uncharacteristically stern. "There's a small garden just off my ready room. Maybe a walk in the fresh air will do you good."
"You have guests to attend to."
"It's well past midnight, and if they wish to wake up in time for breakfast they should be toddling off to bed now anyways," Aurora says loftily, pulling Maleficent from her seat and tucking their arms together. "I think we have a great deal to catch up on, and much of that begins with a 'D'."
"Dentistry?" Maleficent muses as they make their way along the edge of the room. "Dawn?"
"Not quite. Think of wings."
"Oh, he would hate that," Aurora says, leading them through one of the doors next to the throne.
"Did he ever tell you how we met?"
"I'm not sure. Tell me anyway."
"Well, he'd been caught by a farmer, you see."
"Under a net! I remember now. That's when you saved his life and he became your servant."
"Yes. But he'd been hunted by the farmer's dogs, I assume, and they were making quite a racket, barking at him as he struggled to get out from under the net."
"Oh, so that's why he stays so far away from the castle's kennels. He's probably still frightened by them."
"It's been years and years since then, and it's not like he can't easily become something much bigger than they," Maleficent says dismissively. "It's a silly fear to have."
"Hasn't it been years since the one you love betrayed you?" Aurora remarks, uncomfortably perceptive. "And yet you still fear falling in love again."
Maleficent looks down at Aurora. "You have grown quite wise, Beastie. Then again, you were always wiser and braver than I. Perhaps if I'd had a fraction of your wisdom when I needed it most, I would be as pure of heart as I once was."
"If you were so pure of heart, then who would Diaval squabble with?" Aurora teases. "And besides, I quite like my mischievous Godmother who loves to play tricks on people."
Maleficent looks away at the far horizon. "I think my days of squabbling with Diaval are quite over."
"And I think you are quite mistaken. Come, sit with me on the grass."
The grass is cool and damp under them, the hall protecting them from the blowing wind.
"Have you been well, Godmother? Phillip said you looked ill when he went to see you."
"And I recall telling him not to breathe a word of it to you."
"Oh, he didn't. He told Diaval, and I pried it out of him."
Maleficent huffs. Of course she did. "And as you can see, I am much recovered."
"I see a very healthy glamour, certainly. But you forget that glamours are only illusions for the eyes, not the fingers. I could tell when I embraced you how thin you had become."
Maleficent sighs and releases the glamour. Aurora gasps. "Godmother!"
She knows what Aurora sees. Muddy green eyes set in shadowed hollows, full lips cracked and pale. Feathers once glossy and neat are dull, the barbs disheveled. Aurora reaches out to touch one wing and Maleficent instinctively twitches it away. It will be a long time before she feels comfortable letting anyone touch her wings again, even one as dear to her as Aurora.
"I once asked Diaval to be my wings. I suppose it only makes sense that, when I sent him away from me it felt like losing them a second time."
"You still have them, at least," Aurora says, curling her arms around Maleficent.
"In body, but not in spirit. They feel as lead these days, weights dragging at my shoulders. I could not have made it here without the wind to carry me and the fairies to support me. Once so strong, and now next to useless. See what love has done to me?" Maleficent says hollowly.
Aurora squeezes her tightly. "This is not love, Godmother. Love has the power to break even the strongest curses, can soothe even the cruelest wounds. Paralysis is not a symptom of love but a symptom of fear."
"Love, fear of love, fear of risk-"
"Fear of happiness," Aurora says. "I don't begrudge you your fear, but I know that you can be brave. After all, you walked right into Stefan's trap just for my sake."
"Desperation and bravery are not the same."
"No, but bravery may be a result of desperation. Will you be brave for me once more, Godmother?"
"I will try, Beastie," Maleficent says, leaning into Aurora's embrace. "For you, if you wish it of me."
"I do, but no successful bravery was ever undertaken in exhaustion. Tonight you shall rest, and tomorrow you shall be brave. How does that sound?"
"Acceptable." Maleficent reapplies her glamour and stands. The hall is largely empty when they return, but for Phillip and the staff. Many of the fairies have vanished, likely to find places to sleep, but a small cluster have remained and flock to Maleficent.
"I was surprised to see you with a small army of fairies, Lady Maleficent," Phillip says. The young man is exhausted, swaying on his feet, but his good cheer is apparently indefatigable. "I suppose that is your answer to our problem with the guards."
"They are," Maleficent answers. "And there are enough that they might take shifts as they require."
Phillip sighs with relief. "It is comforting to know that so many eyes will be looking after your safety. I assume you will be retiring to bed now?"
"Yes," Aurora answers. "Come, Phillip, and we will walk Godmother to her room. It is right next to mine, you know, and once belonged to the Queen before she fell ill and passed on. I should have liked to have met her. The court only has kind words to say about her, about how kind and patient she was and how she led the kingdom when Stefan was... occupied."
"Do you wish that she had raised you?" Maleficent asks. An unreasonable spike of jealousy lodges in her heart.
Aurora shrugs. "I'm not sure. I quite enjoyed growing up in the woods along the Moors and being able to run about as I pleased. And besides, you know that I have long considered you to be my Mother, though I thought it would make you uncomfortable for me to address you so. I hope that on the day of my wedding it will be you who walks me down the aisle, Godmother."
Maleficent's eyebrows rise. "You do not want Diaval to walk you, child?"
Aurora sighs. "I suppose, but I wanted you to be the one by my side when I went to meet my husband."
"Then consider it done. If you wish me to be there, to perform this task for you, then I shall."
"Oh, thank you Godmother!" she says, stopping them to wrap her arms around Maleficent. "You've made me so happy!"
"Though I think that it is a bit unkind to say that you will only just be meeting your husband, especially when he is right here. What do you think, Phillip?"
"Hummm?" Phillip asks, peering blearily at them. "What's happening?"
"Never mind, Phillip. Go back to sleep," Aurora says.
"Alright," he says, and appears to doze off while walking.
"Strange boy," Maleficent comments.
"Apparently it's a recent affliction. He says he didn't do it before coming here, and his parents confirmed it. Perhaps something in the air or water?"
Maleficent thinks back to the deep sleeping spell she'd placed on him, once upon a time. It's quite possible that she had been a bit overzealous with her magic. "Perhaps."
They walk on in silence, occasionally tugging the unconscious Prince in the right direction. Maleficent debates the merits of levitating him when they get to the stairs, but impressively, he seems to manage them just fine.
"Here we are, Godmother," Aurora says, stopping in front of an elegantly carved door. She yawns expansively. "I'm just next door. Phillip is a little further down the hall, so I'll take him. Sleep well."
"And you as well, Aurora. I will see you in the morning."
The Queen's suite is dark, lit only by the lights of the fairies that hover around her. She spies the bed through an open doorway and shuffles toward it, her wings dragging with exhaustion.
One of the fairies starts chittering in alarm, then another and another, the cloud of them pulling at her clothes crying out warnings, but it's already too late to stop the iron blade from sinking into her back.
Heat, fire burning from within, fire burning from without.
Maleficent screams, thrashing against the weights pinning her limbs and wings. Voices call out to her but she hears none of them for she burns from the inside out.
Pain, trickling outward from one point of agony, tendrils reaching like thirsty roots.
"Iron filings on the blade. The magnet drew out most of it, but some escaped into her blood."
Feathers, fur, scales, skin, no comfort to be found.
"We will ride on your back with her. We need to keep her calm or she'll struggle and fall on the way."
Hands on her wings. Fight! Get back!
"Catch her, Diaval!"
Encased in ice, burning from within, chains dragging her down.
"Keep her head above the water! We're trying to get her temperature down, not drown her!"
The cool touch of magic, singing soothing, gently peeling away layers of burning pain, uprooting poison.
"Pin her wings, quickly, Diaval!"
Darkness, peace at last.
Awareness comes too slowly and Maleficent grunts in irritation when her eyelids refuse to lift. All of her feels heavy in fact, like she has just come out of a long, deep sleep, but the sound of the wind through the leaves and the dappled light soothes her. Maybe she'll sleep just a little longer.
Maleficent moans in discomfort as she wakes, the joint of her wing aching where it's been pressed awkwardly under her in her sleep. She rolls onto her side with effort and the pressure eases.
"Mother?" she hears.
She opens her eyes to see Aurora perched on the thick branch next to her bed. "Hm?"
"Are you awake?"
"I should think so," Maleficent murmurs, though it's taxing to even say that much.
"Perhaps you should go back to sleep. You've been very ill and you're still recovering."
Aurora's mouth twists. "What do you remember, Mother?"
Mother? "We were sitting in a small garden, I think."
"Do you remember what we were talking about?"
Maleficent digs into the memory, but nothing surfaces. "No. Was it important?"
Aurora shakes her head. "Nothing so important it can't wait until you're well again. Go back to sleep, and we'll talk more when you wake up."
"I feel like I've slept an age. Perhaps I should get up instead."
"Do you think you can?"
Maleficent tries to push up to sitting, but can't even get an arm under her body to push with. "Maybe with a little more rest."
Aurora strokes Maleficent's hair. "Of course. Sleep well."
Maleficent sighs as she wakes. She feels desperately hungry, as though she hasn't eaten in days.
"'Tis I, my Lady. How do you feel?"
"Tired. Quite hungry. What happened?"
"You've been very ill, but you're on the mend. Let me help you sit up and we can get you some warm broth."
"Broth and bread," Maleficent says idly, letting Phillip help prop her up on a heap of pillows. "Balthasar makes the most wonderful rosemary loaf."
"It's your favorite," Phillip says, laying out a slice of that exact bread on a plate. He hops down off the tree and walks a little ways away to a campfire, ladling broth into a cup.
"I don't remember telling you that," Maleficent ponders aloud.
"You haven't been quite lucid the last few times you've woken. A few days ago you gave me quite the lecture on the appropriate seasonings of cabbage soup."
"Tell me what has happened."
Phillip helps her hold the cup up to her lips as she sips the hot broth. "Aurora says I shouldn't. Under these circumstances, I'm inclined to agree."
"Stubborn boy. You never held back before."
"You were lucid before."
"I think I liked you better when you were afraid of me."
Phillip laughs. "And I like you better when you're not scolding me about seasonings. Rest and get better, my Lady."
Maleficent wakes and pushes herself up to sitting. She stretches against the stiffness in her body, extending her wings until the muscles complain. How long has she been lying here that she's become stiff as a dried branch?
"Oh, you're up!"
"Well observed, Aurora," Maleficent says. She rolls her head and winces when it bends forward barely half as far as it should. "Something has happened."
"Well, you've been very ill, and-"
"Still on the mend, yes, I know." She flicks her fingers impatiently. "What happened?"
Maleficent concentrates. "The last I remember, we were sitting in the garden outside your ready room."
Aurora straddles the branch next to the bed. "No, I mean that you remember what we told you before."
"Of course I do," Maleficent scoffs. "You only told me every time I woke."
"You do remember!" Aurora exclaims.
"The memories are cloudy," Maleficent says, rubbing her temple, "and I remember some more clearly than others, but I remember. Did I really lecture Phillip on proper seasonings?"
"Twice, Mother. Twice. I had him take down notes after the second time, for you were very thorough."
"Whatever happened to 'Godmother'?"
Aurora shrugs. "I suppose I tired of saying one when I meant the other. And it will be nicer to say that it is my Mother walking me down the aisle to the altar rather than my Godmother."
"I will be walking you down the aisle?" Maleficent asks. "I don't recall agreeing to that."
"Well you did, and you can't take it back," Aurora says stubbornly. "So there."
"I wonder what else I agreed to that I have no recollection of agreeing to."
"All manner of things," Aurora teases.
"I'm sure," Maleficent replies dryly. Aurora smiles brightly.
"Here, have some bread and fruit. I'll go tell Diaval and Phillip that you've begun to remember."
Maleficent looks down at the chunk of bread and unpeeled oranges that have been dropped in her lap. "Wait-"
"Now is not the time for fear, Mother. Now is the time for bravery," Aurora says, clearly referencing something Maleficent has no knowledge of. "Eat up! Bravery is much harder to do on an empty stomach."
Maleficent starts in on the bread first, finding herself ravenous after the first few bites stir her appetite. She digs her thumbnail into the oranges to notch them as she chews the hearty rosemary bread, but leaves them aside for hopefully someone else to peel.
Stomach full of as much bread as it can handle, she lays back down on her bed, staring up at the foliage swaying in the wind as she turns her magic inward. There was a poison in her body, something hot and painful that was slowly leeched from her by the collective magic of the fairies. It had spread far before they were able to halt its progress, spreading up her neck and into her mind where it damaged the portions most responsible for forming memories. No wonder she has so many gaps in her memory.
She places one hand on her forehead and the other at the base of her skull and reaches for her magic. It is slow to respond, sluggish and heavy, but mending is its natural function and she doesn't need much. Words and images flow through her mind as what was damaged is now restored, jumbled up and confused until they fit themselves back where they belong.
Heat and pain, being rushed back to the Moors to be treated. The fairies crying out in alarm. Phillip, sleepwalking up a flight of stairs. Aurora extracting a promise from Maleficent to give her away at her wedding. The conversation in the small garden, where Aurora had proven herself wise beyond her years and experience. Fear and bravery.
Maleficent sits up and drinks in the sight of Diaval after so long without him by her side. He is beautiful, in that way of his, his wide dark eyes pinned upon her.
"That's not your shirt," she says.
Aurora stamps her foot in frustration and pulls at her hair with an aggravated noise.
"No, it's not," Diaval says. "Mine got a bit tattered, so young Phillip gave me one of his."
Maleficent can tell. It's white, for one, and very billowy about the sleeves. She dislikes it immensely.
"Why are you so frustrating!" Aurora cries. She snatches Diaval by the hand and drags him up into Maleficent's tree, then seizes Maleficent's hand, placing hers in his. "There! Much better."
Maleficent watches Diaval's hand move against hers until they're palm-to-palm. He folds his fingers over the back of her palm, and with a curious exhilaration, Maleficent mimics the gesture. His hand is warm against hers, and it feels new and stunning, though her scattered memories tell her he held her more than once during the most painful hours of her poisoning.
She draws him closer, up into her bed until he's kneeling over her thighs. Aurora, sweet child that she is, squeaks and flees.
"Ask me again," she says.
"Ask you what?" Diaval teases, crooking an eyebrow.
She pulls him down until he's hunched over her, his face near enough to hers that his hair brushes her cheek. "Ask me again, you vain, stubborn creature."
"Keep me," he says, gaze darting over her face. "Claim me as yours forever. Place your mark on my soul as you have painted it in my flesh. Let not one more day go by where I am not by your side. If you want me, then own me, for I already know that I am yours for as long as I shall live."
"I will," she answers, "for you are my wings, and whither I go, so shall you."
Diaval smiles, eyes falling shut as their foreheads touch. They share mingled breaths, their clasped hands squeezing, only the breeze in the leaves disturbing their peace.
Finally, Diaval pulls away, sitting up on the thick branch to peel one of the notched oranges. Maleficent watches. It was one of the first tasks he'd learned in her service, for she loved oranges but hated to peel them. The rind comes away in one long, even strip, and Diaval offers her half.
"Eat up. You lost weight during your recovery, not that you had any to spare."
"What did I say about making impertinent comments about your Mistress's weight?"
"Don't rightly recall," he says. "Seems so long ago now. But I absolutely didn't deserve to be turned into a filthy, mangy dog. That was just plain spiteful of you."
"Served you right, rude bird."
"Didn't even mean anything by it," Diaval complains. "You're as tall as I am, and with those big wings of course you'd be a right chore to carry. I'm a raven, not an ox."
Maleficent waves threatening fingers at him, wreathed in gold. "I quite liked the look of you, all furry and four-legged. Don't tempt me."
"Wouldn't even matter to me if you were fat. I'll love you fat or thin, hair up or hair down, ill or at the peak of health," he grouses, shoving a wedge of orange into his mouth.
Maleficent sighs and drops her hand. The magic was too tiring to maintain anyway, and with the pendant he could simply be a man again as easily as anything. She holds out a hand for another section of the orange.
Instead of giving it to her, Diaval puts a piece between his teeth, leaning over to offer it to her from his mouth. She rolls her eyes and pries it free with her fingers. He pouts theatrically as she savors it, slumping in disappointment.
"Oh, come here," she demands testily, pulling him down by the front of Phillip's ugly white shirt. Their mouths meet in a painful mash of lips and teeth, so unlike Maleficent's first kiss that she laughs. The second attempt is smoother, softer, the third positively soulful.
"Mistress, are you happy?" Diaval murmurs against her lips. "For I am. I think I could never be happier."
Maleficent slides her hand into his hair, loosening the strands to fall into his face. Her heart, once a shattered wasteland, sprouts buds anew. "I daresay I am."
The war Maleficent had feared never comes, blessedly. Those who had cheered news of the attempted assassination fall silent when King John throws in his support behind Maleficent and Queen Aurora, pledging his quite sizable army in their favor. Henry's old guard, faced with the possibility of battles on two fronts, fall grudgingly in line.
The assassin, hired by the foremost dissenter amongst Henry's supporters, is publicly hanged and displayed at King John's urging, though it turns Aurora and Phillip's stomachs to think of it. Diaval may or may not peck the corpse's eyes out. They all make sure not to ask.
Maleficent convalesces in her great tree high above the Moors. Diaval dotes on her, bringing her all manner of fruits and breads and sweet pastries from the bakeries of the palace and coaxing her to eat until she threatens to turn him into a dog, or a flea, or a flea on a dog. She also threatens to throw him bodily off the cliff if he does not get rid of that eyesore of a shirt, which results in him spending a long few days utterly shirtless until Aurora's tailors complete his new one. Maleficent vacillates between punishing and rewarding him for his shamelessness.
And the kisses he gives her! Some sweet, some rough, some playful and teasing, others so tender as to bring tears to her eyes. Aurora's wedding is the first time she witnesses them kissing and she squeals loudly, clapping her hands together like a delighted child.
"I knew it! I knew you would fall in love. I always told myself, you see. 'Aurora'," Aurora looks downward, wagging her finger like she's scolding a child. "'Aurora, two people so well suited to one another could not have been brought together by chance,' I said to myself. 'You shall have to guide their stubborn selves, for you know it will be another sixteen years before they fess up if you do not intervene.' And I did not want to be an old lady before my first little brother or sister was born, so I had to be quick about it!"
Maleficent's eyebrows climb high on her forehead as Diaval cackles. "Do you often talk to yourself in that manner?" she asks.
"Of course! Doesn't everyone?" Aurora asks innocently.
Diaval is doubled over from laughing so hard, and a subtle nudge of magic sends him toppling over onto his side with a grunt.
"Stop with your braying, you silly fool. I thought you were a raven, not a donkey."
Diaval lurches to his feet and pecks her on the cheek. "What a child we have raised, Mistress."
Maleficent places a hand on his chest and strokes her thumb over the raised marking on his skin. "Didn't you hear? We are expected to raise a second, as well. You wouldn't want to disappoint Aurora's hopes and dreams, now would you?"
Diaval's breath stutters under her palm and his eyes widen. She can see her reflection in his dark irises and watches herself smile. "I wouldn't dare," he breathes, and pulls her into a kiss so joyful her heart blooms in its radiance. Her wings shiver, her soul trembles, and the last of Stefan's poison is cleansed from her.
True Love's Kiss, indeed.