by Ariana Lussier
Disclaimer: Oh I wish!! No, not mine, just borrowing them. I'll put them back when I'm done. Honest. Rating subject to change, depending on how my mood is while I'm writing subsequent chapters.
Author's notes: Takes place some time (centuries) before Hellboy 2. This is the first part of what I hope will be a multi-part story. I will be posting illustrations for this online and will add the URLs to this story when they're ready.
Nuada was in trouble.
Silverlance, Prince of Elfland and Defender of Bethmoora eyed his opponent during a brief pause in their engagement, gauging for weaknesses or gaps in defense. He was a crafty warrior, with millennia of experience fighting battles behind him, yet this one foe managed to stymie him at every turn. Already they had been at this for much of the morning and Nuada's bare torso was lightly slicked with sweat. He shifted his weight forward ever so slightly, changing his balance on the balls of his booted feet. Black silk was swathed closely to his legs, with only a single crimson sash at his waist. He was taking no chances that anything might impede his movements.
Eyes the color of human blood stared at him, narrowed in similar speculation. Other than that, his enemy gave no sign or movement that might indicate fatigue or waning morale.
In a blur of sudden motion, his enemy rushed at him, moving too quickly for human - and most Elven - eyes to see. He somersaulted backwards, sacrificing some ground to gain a tactical advantage and dropped in a low spin. His weapon flashed out to catch the brash attacker. Incredibly fast, his foe ducked under the haft of his spear instead and darted behind him. Nuada's head jerked back suddenly with a sharp pain. "Ow!!"
He rubbed his scalp and turned to look at the little cilfa'lir. She chirred smugly, a few strands of his silver-white hair in her tiny hands. "How many times must I ask," he said to her, his tone low and mock-dangerous, "not the hair?"
She giggled and chirred again, offering the strands to him with an expression on her vaguely elfin face that could be apologetic, if not for the mirth curving her tiny lips. Except for her, only Wink had ever thought to make a grab for Nuada's hair during practices. Unlike the miniature fairy, though, the two times Wink had actually managed to catch Nuada's hair, he'd damn near torn chunks out of the royal scalp. There was no better teacher than the pain of experience to make one much more adept at avoiding problems. Nuada took the hairs as she hovered before his face and discarded them with a shake of his fingers.
The cilfa'lir lit upon his shoulder and chittered quietly, her face softening with the beginnings of genuine apology. She patted his cheek, her fingers tickling his skin like the breath of a flower, then reached for the hair that fell over his shoulder. Her nimble fingers wove tiny braids into it, making vines in his hair. He reached up and stroked her wings with a gentle fingertip. "I know, little one," he said, a hint of a smile creeping into his features. "I trust I didn't hurt you, did I?"
She scoffed musically and swatted at his finger, teasing him for his large size. He chuckled, "No, I suppose not. Did I at least touch you?"
Her face grew serious as she thought about it, then nodded and chirred again, gesturing towards her spindly legs.
"Three times?" he repeated with a bit of pleased surprise. "It's good to know I'm improving." Sparring, as it were, with the tiny fey had noticeably improved his reflexes and reaction time.
The flower fairy made a rude sound to accompany her expression and he laughed. "What - all I can do is improve? Do you really think so poorly of my skill?"
She nodded emphatically, her scarlet eyes rich with mischief. The fairy left his shoulder, her petal wings fluttering to keep herself aloft as he sighed dramatically and fell back onto the ground, one hand on his chest as if his heart were broken. "What now, for the valiant Prince of Elfland?" he cried plaintively. "To be defeated utterly by so miniscule a maid, what choice now but long, lonely exile into the barren depths of the north?"
She laughed then, the sweet, high sound no louder than a hum. The fluttering of her wings changed and slowed as she drifted down to land on his chest. She sat down, resting her feet on an old scar he'd gotten while fighting humans long ago. The grass on the gentle slope was soft against his back, but had long since turned brown with the approach of winter. Already he could taste the first hint of crispness in the air, the first warning of snow before the land went to sleep. It was why he was here now, after all.
Nuada laced his fingers behind his head, looking down at his diminutive friend. She was one of a type of fairy that was united to a flower - in her case, a hauntingly lovely orchid. The flower's main ribbonlike petals were snow-white, like her wings and skin, and the minor petals were a vivid ruby, like her eyes and the edges of the petals crowning her tiny head. The very center was so dark a red as to be mistaken for black, threading lighter ruby hues along the base of each white petal. The cilfa'lir's features were not as well-defined as his own or those of most other fairies, appearing to be soft suggestions rather than clearly sculpted, but there was no mistaking the cheerful smile she gave him.
Her voice chirred again, the same echoing whisper that flowers use to speak to each other when no one else is around.
"I know," he replied, "winter comes more swiftly than it used to." She nodded with a sigh and he reached out to touch her shoulder. She responded by nuzzling her face against his fingertip. For all of her speed, she was tiny and delicate; the continuing troubles with humans had many of the wee fairies badly frightened and she was no exception. It comforted her a great deal for him to visit when winter approached, and to stay with her until she and her flowers slept so that she wouldn't be alone. Nuada regarded her tiny form with reddish-gold eyes, watching the play of sunlight along her petal skin.
Centuries ago, he'd been tracking a nomadic tribe of humans, shadowing them, watching what they did to the world around them. His father insisted that not all humans were so corrupt as to destroy everything, but even the King of Elfland could not deny that there was infinite potential within the humans to do exactly that. Nuada had been weighing whether or not to quietly exterminate the tribe before they ravaged the land, or bow his head once more to his father's truce and let them live, when the faint sounds of enraged profanity had drawn his attention.
His spear had surged into his hand and he'd sped in that direction, his passage disturbing nothing - not the blades of grass nor the surface of the water as he crossed to the other island. He left the humans for the time being, his attention focused on the voice. The profanity was in a rough dialect of Troll, and each word was accompanied by the breathless wheezing of a fight. One of his people was in trouble, and the Defender of Bethmoora had responded.
As he'd topped a rise overlooking a tranquil glade near a river outlet to the sea, he saw the source of the noise: a garpin - male, Nuada realized from the elongated arms and the bricklike skin - was slashing wildly at the air with his stubby fingers. The stream of profanity garbled out of its throat like a wooden bucket dragged across gravel. The garpin flinched back, apparently from nothing, slapping at its flattened face with one hand and scratching viciously before swiping at the air again.
For a moment, the prince could only stare. What in...?
Then he saw a pale flicker dart from behind the garpin's head. He squinted to try to see it better, not quite certain what it was in the darkness. He approached more slowly, his head cocked a little to one side as he studied the tiny shape, trying to discern what it was as it darted hither and fro. As he got closer, he realized that the flicker was another fey, and it was tormenting the garpin mercilessly.
At last, he caught a clear glimpse of it in the blur as it flew up to the garpin's face. Tiny twin handfuls of grass were shoved unceremoniously up the garpin's nose and the stone-skinned troll slapped at its own face again. The fairy - a cilfa'lir, he'd realized - barely avoided being crushed and flew out of reach once more. It - no, she - vanished into the high grasses edging the river and came back, her angry chirring like the high-pitched buzz of a furious bee. While the garpin was still trying to dig the weeds out of his small nostrils with fingers too thick for the openings, the cilfa'lir aimed her new weapon, a spear made from a long slender splinter, directly at the garpin's ear canal.
"What's going on here?" Nuada demanded.
His voice rang out into the night, accustomed to commanding nobles in echoing halls of alabaster, and both fey halted in surprise. The garpin recovered his wits first, however, and snatched the cilfa'lir as the latter gaped at Nuada. The troll grunted with satisfaction and shuffled its feet in what Nuada could only guess was a victory jig. The troll clapped his other hand over the first and the cilfa'lir let out a high, shrill scream of terror. The sound seemed to activate every muscle in Nuada's body at once and he charged forward. "Stop!" he barked, catching the troll's wrist before he pulverized the fairy. "What insanity is this?"
The garpin yanked his wrist free and garbled, his voice rough and angry. He jabbed a blunt finger at the fairy in his other hand, then waved at the air all around him. Nuada sighed. "Look at her, you fool."
The troll did, peering at the fairy with his three muddy brown eyes. His sloped shoulders rose and fell in a shrug and he turned his gaze back to Nuada, garbling a question.
"She's a cilfa'lir," Nuada explained, trying to be patient. He felt a strange sense of echoing as he found himself repeating what Nuala had taught him of these small fey. The garpin looked at him blankly and Nuada reminded himself not to grind his teeth. "A flower fairy. Look around yourself."
The garpin turned around, looking at the ground. Right away, Nuada could see the likely source of the fairy's anger: the smashed remains of a white and red flower peeked out from under the garpin's left big toe. The significance was lost on the troll, who gave the prince another blank look. Again, Nuada unclenched his teeth. It was not unheard of for fey creatures to be so rare or so unnoticeable that most other denizens of Elfland had no knowledge of them. However, flower fairies were not rare and while their tiny size often meant they were overlooked, their beauty was by no means unnoticeable.
Then again, garpin were not known to be the brightest of the troll bloodlines. Nuada tried again, "You crushed one of her flowers; that's why she attacked you." Cilfa'lir were linked to their flowers and each blossom that was harmed pained the cilfa'lir as if she had taken the wounds herself. Fortunately, so long as there was even one of that fairy's flower left, a cilfa'lir could not die.
The troll snorted and garbled again, this time indignantly. Apparently, the tiny fairy had embarrassed him by being so difficult to catch and smash. The other trolls would laugh at him.
"Then that is something you will have to endure," Nuada replied, "as a lesson to be more careful in the future. You cannot murder another fey simply for defending her home."
The fist tightened a little as the garpin growled, his opinion quite to the contrary. The cilfa'lir squeaked as the fist tightened and battered at the rocklike hand with her own delicate ones. "Enough!" Nuada spat, his temper finally besting his diplomacy. "What honor do you hope to regain by killing one so much smaller and weaker than yourself?"
More troll profanity, including one creative phrase that Nuada had not personally ever heard, but made a mental note to remember for the future. He scowled at the garpin and took a menacing step forward. A fair fight between fey he would not interfere with, but this was needlessly cruel and, in the strictest sense, the troll was the one in the wrong. As a prince, the safety of all of his people, no matter how grand or small, was his personal concern.
"What manner of creature," Nuada growled, balling up the shredded remains of his patience and batting them far away, "cheapens his honor with torture? Are you-" he searched for a sufficiently scathing insult, "-a human?"
The garpin snarled in response.
"Release her now," Nuada commanded, "or it will be my blade you face, not hers."
Those muddy brown eyes skipped over to Nuada's hand, holding the shining lance in a deceptively relaxed grip. The light of the crescent moon glimmered white on the silvered head, softening to gray on the crest etched into the blade. It was Nuada's personal crest, and as universally recognized by the fey as his sister's or his father's. Those eyes widened suddenly as the not-too-bright troll finally put two and two together. He garbled again, a distinct whine under the trollish words and held one hand out in a plea. The other hand opened and the cilfa'lir shot free, hovering over the garpin for a moment to shrill her fury at him before arrowing into the tall grasses. The troll growled deep in its throat and took a step in that direction.
Nuada cleared his throat warningly. Red-gold eyes locked with muddy brown and held them. The garpin slouched a little and looked away first, bowing his head to the prince before lumbering along his way. Nuada watched him go, disappointed that the garpin did not provoke a fight, and yet at the same time pleased that no violence had been necessary.
He would not have killed the garpin, but thrashing him soundly was another matter.
Nuada watched the troll leave. Possibly, with that kind of intelligence, the troll was well on his way to forgetting the matter altogether. As the figure of the garpin receded into the night, Nuada finally turned towards the grasses where the cilfa'lir had fled. "He's gone, little one, you can come ou-"
Something whipped across his face, stinging his cheek and nose. He yelped and flinched, one hand flying up to the smarting line across his skin. He glared up at the flower fairy that fluttered just out of reach. She had a long weed with bristled seed pods on the end and was brandishing it like a battle-lance. "Are you mad?" he snapped. "By what right do you-"
She chittered furiously, her ruby eyes almost glowing with rage. One tiny finger jabbed downwards accusingly, and his eyes followed it down to see...
Another of those red and white flowers lay broken against the grass, partially covered by his boot. He lifted his foot carefully and stepped back, keeping one eye on the fairy and the weed she wielded. It took him the better part of the night to calm her down, first from her anger at his own clumsiness, then her frustrated rage at the garpin. However, after that, she had settled quietly on his shoulder, extremely happy to play with his hair while they talked. In one night, he learned more of the cilfa'lir than his twin had ever taught him.
Nuada smiled as the memory replayed itself. The cilfa'lir looked at him curiously and chirred. He stroked the tiny petals on her head and said, "Only a remembrance of our meeting, little one."
The crimson jewels of her eyes blinked twice, then she giggled. Her voice chirred again as she waggled a finger at him.
"Oh, I agree I deserved your anger, but did you have to slap me with a weed?" he chuckled. "I had some sympathy for that troll, afterwards. It was quite embarrassing."
Her chin lifted and she crossed her thin arms, scolding him gently.
"Well, I am much more careful now about where my feet are," Nuada said. She chirred again and grinned, turning to hug his finger tightly, expressing her pride that he could learn so simple a thing. Perhaps there was hope for the big ones after all.
"Cheeky little blossom," he snorted.
Cilfa'lir, like their flowers, sleep during the winter. Some rare fairies are keepers of those flowers that bloom in the snow, and so they remain awake, but most of them curl up in one of their flowers and turn dormant during the cold season. When exactly a cilfa'lir goes to sleep, and awakens, depends on their flower. Nuada lay on the grass, chatting with his friend as the sun sank below the horizon. The twilight brought with it the cooling breeze of night, but the warmth of autumn had faded in favor of the heralding chill of winter.
She moved gradually up his chest as they chatted until she was tucked against his neck under his hair. Nuada continued to talk, bringing up any subject that came to mind, until her wings began to droop and her chirring was interrupted by yawns. He gently picked her up in his hand and stood, glancing around for one of the orchids to lay her in. The fairy chirred again sleepily and curled up in his palm, snuggling up to the spear-calloused mound at the base of his thumb.
He frowned slightly, seeing none of her flowers at first and it disturbed him. Perhaps it was because of the winters that came sooner and lasted longer, but for whatever cause, the orchids she kept seemed to limit themselves to a very small area near a tiny spring of warm water. Nuada searched the ground, stepping more and more carefully the closer he got to the spring. Finally, near the spring itself, he finally found a cluster of the orchids. Most of them had already closed their petals reflexively against the cold. He knelt down beside the largest one, which still held its petals open, and asked, "Will this one do?"
Her eyes blinked open and she looked. Her petal wings fluttered softly and she nodded with a smile. He held his hand steady, helping her with the other hand to the orchid. With a yawn, she curled up in its black center, her petals blending in with the flower's until the orchid simply looked like a fancier bloom than its brethren. As he watched, the petals began to slowly draw closed around the sleeping fairy.
"Dream sweetly," he whispered to her. "We will play again when the sun warms the earth once more."