Once upon a time, in a far away land, a baby was being born. Not just any baby, of course. An important baby. Not that babies in general aren’t important in their parents’ eyes. The thing is this baby was about to change the course of history.
Quite important, see?
In the glittering castle of Palam, the capital town of the land of Arcadia, Queen Hana was breathing heavily in her bedchambers in time with the rhythm set out by the nursemaid. Outside, King Adam was pacing back and forth to the same beat.
In the small hours of the morning, Hana had sat up and matter of factly informed Adam that the baby was coming. He had kissed her softly on her forehead, and called for the birthing group. Soon, a nursemaid, a midwife and a spare pair of hands in the form of a trainee named Gilda were surrounding Hana with hot water, clean linens and soothing voices.
Dawn had broken and the sun peaked over the horizon as a small bleat sounded from the bedroom, and Adam knew it was their child.
The wooden door creaked open and he was beckoned in, where he found the elegant Queen Hana in repose, clutching a very small baby to her breast. Her long ebony hair spread out behind her like a lion’s mane, and he paused for a moment thinking she had never looked so beautiful.
He took a deep breath, because he was certain she was soon going to be the most angry he’d ever seen her.
He perched on the edge of the bed and peered down at the bundle that was their child. Such a small thing, with a mop of hair that matched her mother’s and tiny brown-pink fingers and toes that peeked out of the blankets they’d been wrapped in.
“How are you feeling, light of my life?” asked Adam.
“Quite content, my darling King. We must name her.”
They looked down at the baby for a short while, then staring into each other’s eyes they both whispered the name their hearts had chosen – “Ella”.
They allowed themselves a few moments of silence to just stare at baby Ella, who mewed and wriggled.
“Darling, I have something to tell you that you won’t be quite so pleased about.” Adam’s eyes remained fixed on his boots while he wrung his hands. “Remember three Winters ago, when the coven of wraiths in the woods were finally slain at the hands of Bron the Hunter?”
“What a strange man he was,” Hana cooed in a baby voice at Ella, to protect her innocence from the meaning of the words. “He smelled of week old animal blood and magic.”
“Well, yes. He had to do a very convoluted ritual to remove the curse on our lands, and conjure several elixirs before he could destroy them. I recall him mentioning something to do with the veil between life and death.”
“That’s nice dear.” Ella was feeding at Hana’s breast, her feet wriggling in the joy of food.
“Darling,” he whispered, now looking at her. “I had to promise him our firstborn.”
Hana’s head snapped in his direction, but rather than hatred and anger he saw confusion and fear. “You did what?”
“I didn’t want to! I promise you, I did not want to promise him our child! But the thing is, he said he couldn’t do it without a promise of blood, and the curse was destroying Arcadia. I had to act, as King. It was my duty!” He was pacing again.
“But darling, I promised our firstborn to Nehelia.” It came out like a whisper, somewhat sheepish.
Adam stopped pacing, and stared back at Hana. “Oh. Well. This is a problem, isn’t it?”
Nehelia was a witch who lived out in the Black Mountains behind Palam, and while she performed traditional herbalist duties for the local people, she also was very much a witch with powers beyond salves and ointments. Nehelia had been summoned to court by Hana and Adam when they realised they could not conceive an heir. Unbeknownst to Adam, the cost aside a hefty gold payment was the first child born from Nehelia’s help. This was also three Winters ago.
“But, how can we know who was promised first? What retribution will they bring down on us? Oh gosh, what if the one who doesn’t take the baby wants our second child?” Hana began to wail and, in turn, so did Adam. Ella continued to suckle happily, placidly ignoring the cries of her ridiculous parents.
Suddenly, a knock sounded at the door. The Captain of the Guard, Sir Wellington, strode in, stopped before them and saluted. “My Highness, my Queen. You have visitors who demand urgent intrusion on this blessed moment.”
Adam and Hana looked sheepishly at each other and shrugged. “Send them in here, good Sir.”
Sir Wellington strode fiercely back to doorway, signalled to the waiting visitors, and stood at the doorway inside the room, with his Greatsword before him.
In strode two very different people, but they were also the two people that Hana and Adam were expecting.
Nehelia was a green eyed, tall woman, with cascades of bark-brown hair that curled softly at her shoulders. She wore practical thick boots, and layers of thin black floaty fabric that appeared to be more aura than clothing. Her satchel was decorated with offerings from the forest – acorns, leaves, berries. Her face was very cross.
Bron the Hunter was equally tall, but very broad. His muscles were bound in his thick armour that was rumoured to have been made from Dragon scale, Wyvern hide and Phoenix feathers. His thick black beard and hair was streaked and peppered with silver, and a thick scar ran down the diagonal of his face from right to left. His face was also very cross.
It was clear they had been squabbling about old histories, which were likely very, very old, as no one really knew how old Nehelia or Bron really were. They were certainly older than a normal human lifespan, for they featured heavily throughout Arcadia’s history.
“Look, I remember distinctly telling you not to mix Nightshade with Breath of the Horse but it’s not my fault you are too pig-headed to ever listen to a mere woman,” sneered Nehelia.
“Pig-headed? Speak for yourself, you troll wife! You tricked me, as you witches are want to, and it nearly cost me a month’s wages for all the clean up!” Bron growled and clutched at the sword at his scabbard.
They continued picking at old wounds for some time, until the King loudly coughed. “AHEM!” Nehelia and Bron faced the King with fire in their eyes that cooled very quickly when they spied the bundle of baby.
“It is so good of you to come to us today,” courteously began the King.
“Would have been better if this one had fallen into that volcano last week after the wyvern, though,” muttered Nehelia. Bron kicked her shin to quieten her, but she yowled.
“GOOD FRIENDS,” shouted Adam, urging for peace. “You may recall bargaining with us for our first born, and that day has arrived.”
“Great,” said both Bron and Nehelia. They then turned to each other frowning and pointing.
“Aha,” chuckled Adam. “You have noticed our amusing predicament. It turns out that Hana and I may have promised both of you our first born, at the same time three Winters ago.”
Both Bron and Nehelia made noises of disgust and shock that cannot be spelled, as they certainly also contained very terrible words.
“Without me, she wouldn’t exist!” cried Nehelia. “Clearly, she belongs to me.” She gathered her skirts and advanced to the baby.
“Aha, not so fast.” Bron blocked her path. “To remove the wraiths from the wood, I had to have the promise of blood, of new blood, as part of the ritual.”
“So what, you sniveling oaf?” Nehelia stamped on his toe and tried to push past him, but his iron capped boots shielded him from her insults.
“It wouldn’t have worked if a baby wasn’t possible and so it may have in fact been I that brought this baby into existence.” Bron moved towards Hana and reached for the baby.
“Tosh and nonsense!” roared Nehelia. “You must have done that after I had seen them. I brought the baby into existence!!”
Adam and Hana glanced between each other. “I know this is awkward, but you might also recall that you met us both alone. Darling, pass me the Royal Diary,” requested Hana. Adam brought from the desk a plush red and gold book.
Hana opened it on her lap, tapped it and said, “Excuse me, can you show me December the 17th three years ago.” The book’s pages swirled and shimmered until the week requested was shown. “Ah yes, there it is, written in magical ink.” She pointed at the offending text.
2pm – Queen Hana will meet with witch Nehelia.
2pm – King Adam will discuss progress with Bron the Hunter.
“You see? It’s clearly an administrative error on our parts,” explained Adam. “It’s magical ink, so you know it is the truth.”
Nehelia and Bron sighed. It was magical ink. That meant that Princess Ella had been promised to the both of them at the very same time. “Well, we’ll just have to decide between us who gets the baby,” sighed Nehelia.
“Ella,” Hana helpfully added.
“If I don’t take her, there’s a risk of the ritual breaking and the wraiths returning to Arcadia.” Bron wiped his face with his hand, stress wringing from his eyebrows.
“If I don’t take her, there’s a risk of the magic breaking, meaning Arcadia remains without an heir.” Nehelia rubbed the back of her head. This was too much.
“Oh! I have an idea! Yes, yes I know what to do!” cried Hana with glee. “You’ll both take her and raise her together!” Adam and Hana nodded wildly and grinned at how clever they were after all. They clearly felt this was the best option, given the circumstances.
If Nehelia and Bron had been scowling as they entered the room, their faces took on a darkness, not helped by the gleeful joy of the ridiculous Royal couple. Nehelia’s lip curled back into a snarl. Bron’s frown deepened so much that his eyes appeared to sink into his head. They clearly felt this was the worst option, given the circumstances. Unfortunately, it appeared to be the only option.
“Look hog’s breath, there’s nothing we can do right here without researching this stupid bloody agreement. Let’s take the kid, head back to my place and research how the hell we can sort this out,” Nehelia reached for the baby, and wrapped Ella to herself with a sling she had produced from her satchel.
Bron grumbled. “I have to be in Glinthaven by the end of the week. I was just passing by to collect this child and take her with me.”
“Well, you know, when you become a parent everything changes, doesn’t it honey,” gleamed the King at the Queen. “All your priorities change.”
Bron and Nehelia stared. “You have been parents for approximately -” Nehelia sniffed Ella “- an hour, and you’ve already accidentally created a blood pact that might destroy Arcadia.”
They were not listening. They were doing eskimo kisses and discussing how it felt to be parents.
With a gurgle goodbye from Ella, the new family swept out the doorway, heading for the Black Mountains and Nehelia’s in depth library.
To be continued…