I have had years to write this letter. I have written it many times and each time I have cast it into the fireplace. There are things I wish to tell you and not in all your years have I found the words that ring true, so the truth alone must suffice.
Whatever dowry was meant to be mine my father has turned towards winning power over Marchen. Any wealth I was to inherit of my own accord, I pass now to you. I will live out my days here in the cloister, my earthly needs tended to by the sisters of Our Triumphant Family. I have no need of worldly possessions, and hope only to give you whatever advantage I can. The stars know I have given you precious few.
You know that your grandfather the King is a stern man. He has long felt the House of Borgondhi more deserving than the lineage of Isbrand the 1st, but when I was a young girl he planned to gain their lands and privileges through the courtly ways of peace. I was betrothed to Isbrand III, the king of Marchen. Isbrand sent a painter to our court to make a portrait of me, that my husband-to-be might see the face of his future.
The painter, Thander, was kind and humorous. He made me laugh even as I sat for hours in the parlours, sitting still for his brush. It helped ease the dread in my heart—I wanted no part of a marriage to a distant and older king, an odd man by all accounts. Thander stayed the better part of a fortnight and left to bring his work to Marchen’s king.
Months later my father the king grew impatient. Some ill fate befell Thander as he journeyed back to Marchen, and Isbrand never received the portrait. Lest his interest cool, father sent me immediately to Geirrfast to visit in person, with knights and attendants to keep safe.
I was determined not to marry King Isbrand, and I feared for the fate of Thander, who had become a friend to me in a time when I had precious few. As we passed through the Marchen woods I snuck off in the night and fled the caravan, seeking my friend. Without guides I lost my way. I remember passing through a valley filled with briars, a swamp where the willow trees sang a mournful lullaby, and a great stone arch carved out by the river itself. The river became my road and I followed it to a waterfall that poured from a rocky crag to a hidden lake. A secret path wound behind the waterfall, and a great cave mouth waited there. It was foolish for me to tread there and I paid the price.
Fate was friend and foe to me—I found Thander in that cavern, but worse befell me. He was prisoner to a terrible dragon. Its scales were emerald plates of armor, its teeth yellow spears, its breath a cloud of poisonous death, and its eyes mirrors of dread. Thander told me his caravan was waylaid by the beast, and though it devoured all his compatriots, it snatched him and flew back to its den. In a massive cavern the beast lay for hours while Thander captured its likeness on a canvass as large as a ship’s billowing sails. When the portrait was done, the dragon would devour the artist, and hang it on its lair wall to admire itself.
I was not prisoner there long. The vain monster had a servant—a thin wild elf with tangled braids, of solemn countenance, but not stern. Slender of body but strong of arm and well formed, noble and sad, weary and determined. Dragon and huldra alike spoke the same strange tongue—a hissing language I had not heard before. The wild elf was an attendant and a student, not a prisoner like us..
I have tried so many times to explain what happened between us. Here in the abbey’s tower it feels a far off dream, a children’s fairy tale. Please, daughter, trust me that he was utterly unlike the simpering courtiers of my father’s court, the fearful peasants of the land, all my tutors and suitors and strangers I had ever known. I will never again know his like. Let me say only that in the end he risked everything to defy his master the dragon, and won for me and for Thander our freedom.
The painter and I fled the dragon’s wrath until King Isbrand’s knights found us lost in the woods. Your grandfather blamed Marchen for failing to keep us safe, and insisted that the wedding forward immediately. I refused to tell him what happened or consent to the marriage. He locked me in his highest tower to change my mind.
On a night when the stars shone and the moon cut a slender crescent across the vault of heaven, the wild elf found me in the tower. He flew to the window on emerald wings that vanished when he set foot in my chamber. I could see a change coming over him, the burden of the dragon’s curse. His skin was changing and hardening to become more like his former master. He stayed through the night, speaking of his family, exiled from the court of a strange king. I told him of my father’s wrath and demands. We were both caught in the winds of fate, the whims of the powerful, and we found comfort in each other.
Before morning light crested over the hills, he grew his emerald wings again and flew off. I never saw him again.
I have two precious relics of that night. One of them is you, my greatest love and treasure. Of all the rash choices and moments of defiance in my life, the only regret I bear is that I could not be a mother to you. Your grandfather sent me to cloister when he discovered I was with child, and refused to let you come to live with me after you were born. I pray for your happiness and solace, Aine, with all my heart. I will not ask you for your forgiveness; I have cast you into a life of loneliness and hardship. I am sorry, daughter.
The other relic I now bequeath to you. Your father stole this from the horde of the dragon when he fled that dreadful lair. Thander captured his image and mine, in gratitude for his salvation. I kept it that I might remember him always. Now it is yours. I pray it guides you through the trials inflicted on you by your birth, by my father’s disfavor and my own folly.
Go with my love,
Your mother, Helena von Borgondhi