Despite a good five minutes of protesting that ensuring that Aurora survived past the first sixteen months in order for the curse to actually be worth merit and effort, the Princess was unconvinced with Maleficent’s assertions about her interactions with infants, and so, with a very befuddled Yennifer looking on, and Harvel barely able to keep his hands closed secure upon the reins, Maleficent found herself on the edge of yet another small village in the human kingdom.
Naturally, Aurora brimmed with excitement in her arms and almost wriggled out before Maleficent’s feet had touched the ground. The princess gravitated towards the horse that bore the two humans, and she was gentle hands and soft, encouraging words as she aided Yennifer in dismounting Harvel from his seat.
That should have been the end of it, Maleficent overseeing the ride to the farm on the outskirts of the village and the ensurement of Yennifer and Harvel to their destination, but the elderly man toppled onto the ground with one step. Without him, Yennifer did not have an assistant. She could ride into the village proper, but they had lost so much time already.
Maleficent was gladdened that Aurora did not volunteer her.
Maleficent was not as glad to discover the reason she was left unnamed was because Aurora herself volunteered instead. The faery barely mounted a proper refusal when Aurora’s hair disappeared through the doorway, which left Maleficent outside with the woozy Harvel.
Oh yes, the next baby Maleficent encountered would receive a curse that went into effect sixteen hours after bestowment so she never had to deal with such a presumptuous, precocious child ever again.
“She dresses strange for a girl.” Harvel peered up at her from underneath the sticky blood.
“We were fleeing bandits ourselves.” Maleficent explained without a look his way.
“Bandits going after the Fair Folk?” He squinted her way. “Strange behavior for them. They actually used the Thorn Wall to their advantage.”
Harvel shifted from one hip braced against the grass to the other. “Simple enough. The Thorns only react when they’re actively threatened. Only folks stupid enough to cut faery magic were the King’s Soldiers. Everyone else learned to just pass on by. So long as you didn’t touch, you could run from the northern border to the south without ever crossing a checkpoint.”
“Smuggling.” Her voice went clipped and curt.
He shrugged. “Too old to work the mines. Too old to wield a blade, but I know how to pack so dogs cannot sniff out your secrets.”
“What do you smuggle?”
Harvel sucked on his front teeth. “Depends on the run. Sometimes grain when a harvest went poor. Other times it’s decent tools since the King took the scraps of iron for himself. “
“Neither of which sound as if dogs can ferret out the goods.”
“Aye, true. The dogs are for the slaves.”
Maleficent turned around slowly, uncertain if she heard him correctly. “Slaves?”
“You don’t draft an entire kingdom’s worth of men without consequences.”
“Can your women not provide for themselves?” Maleficent thought of Gemma and the way she trembled as she fought to push a barrel upon the pile.
“They do what they can, sure, but there’s a market for such a product and I need food on my table so my daughter can eat.”
From inside the house, a wailing cry rose up, the sound of a mother in distress. Maleficent likened it to a troubled labor a deer had experienced a few springs earlier. She wondered if the woman inside would wind up as the doe had. It was the cruel side of nature, and one she long grown used to, but at the same time … she remained uncertain if she was willing for Aurora to learn the same lessons.
“I did not realize the Fair Folk were interested in the ways of men.”
“Mm, not usually, no.”
“Matter of fact, I haven’t seen one of your kind ‘cross the Thorns since my girl was about the age yours is.”
“What is mine?”
“The bairn. Is she a Changeling?”
Maleficent frowned. Her wings swept forward, a breeze followed in their movement. Aurora could be considered a changeling in some light. Raised by faeries, away from human contact. Yet, her knowledge of the Moorlands only begun when she had left the impressionable years of humankind. Maleficent remembered Balthazar’s tales of human children kept so long within the Moors, they had practically become like the springtouched fae.
“I did not mean to pry,” Harvel broke her from her thoughts. She waved off the apology.
“I was considering my answer. The child is not mine, nor is she a Changeling. I am charged with her protection, however.”
He grunted. In the house, the screams turned to gross sobbing breaths. It drew Maleficent’s interests. “What do you think?”
“I think of many things, and then on many more beyond those thoughts.” Maleficent’s answer is dry. “If you are asking what I think of the occurings within your home; I cannot say. I do not read the future.”
“Simply curse babies, aye?” He offered, a grin on his face. She reared around to berate him that cheek but saw no recognition in his eyes. He was parroting what she had told Aurora, nothing more beyond that.
Harvel grunted again and they allowed the trouble within the house to fill the silence around them. The torches flickered in the night breeze and above them the clouds rolled ever-onward. In the distance, Maleficent picked out the tell-tale flash of lightning and listened for the thunder that followed. Attempting to determine the distance and how long it would be before the storm came overhead made for more interesting fare than the labored affair occurring within the house.
The door clicked open behind them. Aurora looked exhausted, worry pinched her brow. “Are there any knots out here?”
Harvel glanced about but shook his head. “Only the ones keeping the horses tethered.”
“Yennifier wants all of the knots untied.” Aurora did not step outside. She had her head canted to the side as to better hear the women inside while looking out at them beyond the threshold.
Maleficent knew the reason and knew that explaining it to Harvel would only lead to a meandering discussion that would serve no purpose. There were certain secrets that men just were not meant to know. “Does the child move between contractions?” She inquired as she walked toward the door only to be balked when the thrum of iron forced her steps to a standstill.
Of course. An iron horseshoe above the door, and Maleficent was rather certain that a request to take it down would also result in another long winded discussion that would, again, serve no other purpose but to aid in her growing ill temperament.
“Is there a window near the mother?”
Aurora turned to repeat the first question to Yennifer before answering Maleficent’s second. “Yes.”
“Stand by it, Beastie.” Maleficent whirled on the spot, spied Harvel’s worried look, and moved on around the house to spy Aurora.
Maleficent was tall enough that it was a simple task to stare into the house and see the scene cast into the gold flicker of candlelight. Yennifer leaned over the mother, murmuring encouraging words as she rubbed what Maleficent noted as flaxseed onto the woman’s belly. Aurora’s eyes were frightened and dull as she stood, shifting from foot to foot right on the opposite side of the window.
“Yennifer, is the babe moving?” Maleficent called, drawing the midwife’s attention.
“Weakly. She was strong at first but Adalia’s had at least twenty contractions and still there is nothing. I cannot coax her to turn either.” She gestured to the distended belly and Maleficent noticed the push of impossibly tiny feet against the top of the abdomen. “If I delay any longer --”
“Are both feet up near the babe’s head? I cannot tell from here with the light.”
Yennifer’s hands stroked and pressed into the mother’s belly, seeking out the answer. “Yes.”
“Then she can deliver.”
“The babe is ---”
“You will not turn the head,” Maleficent’s wings arched up with her shoulders in a anxious shrug. “Place your hand low on her belly and find the babe’s bottom. Aurora, you as well, Yennifer might need your hands to convince the child it wants to turn.”
Yennifer looked ready to protest. Her body hunched with hours of tension and desperation. It was Aurora who came over from the window and rested a hand gently upon the woman’s shoulder. “I have never seen a breech birth succeed.”
“You will by the morning’s light. If we dwaddle, though, then we will see only a funeral when the sun rises.”
“... all right.”
Aurora followed the instructions without fuss. She knelt near the opposite side of the mother and placed her hands where Yennifer said to. The two humans looked up to the faery for the next step. The mother, Adalia, only stared skyward and murmured wordless prayers to whatever spirits she put faith into.
“All right. This will be difficult. Adalia,” Maleficent called to the mother first. “I know Yennifer has probably told you to resist the urge to bear down, but when the next contraction comes, you will follow instinct. Aurora, Yennifer; when she does this, gently push the babe at an angle.”
“What will that do?” Aurora looked between Adalia and the window.
“Allow nature to take her course, if the spirits are with us tonight.”
Adalia groaned, then sobbed. Maleficent watched as her knuckles turned white as she gripped the sheets beneath her. Hours of being told to resist had conditioned her to keep that pattern. She winced, breath leaving her in heavy, harsh gasps. Sweat beaded her brow. When a grimace contorted her features, Maleficent knew it was time to act.
“Now, Adalia. Bear down!” Maleficent ordered, the voice of command she used to bring forth defenders of the Moors and standing against the greed of kings. It worked then, and it worked now.
As Adalia finally pushed, Yennifer and Aurora manipulated the child through Adalia’s belly, turning and guiding until Yennifer ran her hand up. “The babe’s turned to the side!”
Yennifer hastened to settle between Adalia’s spread thighs. She brought the candle carefully low as Adalia pushed. Everyone was silent save for Adalia. Then --
“I see the child!”
Maleficent felt relief like a summer’s breeze waft over her. From the window, she guided Yennifer through every single step. When the babe’s progress stilled, it was Maleficent’s orders for Yennifer to carefully pull upon the child’s leg until one foot escaped the confinement.
From there, the birth moved forward, though it was slower than it should be. “When you see the child’s belly, Yennifer, twist her belly-down, face her towards the sheets. Aurora, fetch a cloth.”
Yennifer did so with the next push. Now the race against time was a sprint, as the pressures of childbirth were bearing down completely upon the child’s chest and head. If not done quickly…
Yet it seemed that Adalia’s prayers were answered, for after the gentle tug and twist, the next push brought the babe from stomach to shoulders, and Yennifer’s hands were gentle as they hooked about the babe’s neck and guided the child the last inches into the world. Resting the baby’s stomach on her other hand, the cloth between midwife and infant so Yennifer’s grasp was firm and unyielding against the slippery nature of childbirth,, Yennifer carefully tilted the baby’s bottom up until the child’s face was visible. The cord was not wrapped around the child’s neck, the babe’s skin was flushed with a healthy shade of color, and as Yennifer instructed Aurora to fetch more cloth and water for the mother and child, Maleficent marveled how humans came into the world as bloody and violent as they experienced it.
Maleficent took one final look to the scene then returned around the house to Harvel.
The old man looked up at her through shaky hands.
“You have a granddaughter.”
Though Adalia pleaded for them to remain until the morning, Maleficent’s patience with the human world had reached its end. She reminded Aurora, with a tight jaw and gritted teeth, that Diaval and Philip rode off with the express intention of drawing away men who seeked nothing more than to kidnap her for ransom. When Aurora had struck up a petulant bargaining to linger a little while longer, Maleficent not-so-kindly reminded her that the longer she stayed in the kingdom, the more likely a woman would be harmed in the attempt to kidnap her. That led into a discussion about the group that accosted Yennifer and Harvel, and how the next group would not have a faery protector swooping down upon them to disrupt their harassments.
The first argument did little to convince Aurora. The second did enough that Maleficent felt guilty at pulling on strings to bring guilt to the forefront of Aurora’s thoughts to win a battle of words with her. The third threw Aurora into a complying silence and a gesture for Maleficent to carry them away.
Maleficent had only spoken nothing but truth though and could not spend too much time dwelling upon the way Aurora stayed silent during the flight back to the Moors. They landed just within the boundary, before the marsh and lakes swallowed up the fields of flowers. Here, Aurora requested time alone and Maleficent granted it. Within the Moors, Aurora was as safe as she could ever be. The girl could not walk far enough within a day to approach the territories of the fae that even Maleficent deemed otherworldly. Still, Maleficent paused in her own travels to whisper soft to the storm nixes who were stirring eagerly for the oncoming tempest. She bade them to keep a distant eye on Aurora as humans were not meant for the elements; and as storm nixes prefered the high currents to anything earthbound, it would allow Aurora her space without being abandoned.
Maleficent herself strolled towards the marshes along the southern bend of the Moorlands, where the Border Guards stood sentinel within the bogs. It was there that the border guards were made and where they went when they were not needed elsewhere. Her destination was the giant oak that had fallen during a winter several decades before her parents were thought of, as that hollowed out shelter was where Balthazar made his home when he was not needed. She expected to wait up until the morning for him and found, instead, a conclave of the wood warriors curved into a crescent around the eldest of them.
The other Border Guards claimed that Eudeyrn came forth at the same time as the first great tree took root in the Moorlands. Maleficent was unsure of the validity of the statement, but the ancient sentinel had the appearance of having experienced nearly the entire span of creation. Eudeyrn’s bark was bleached white from millennia underneath the sun and his body was riddled with the scratches and war wounds from countless lifetimes. Like all of his kind, Eudeyrn’s eyes were dark and abyssal -- even in the dark night, Maleficent could make out the hollows that served as the ancient being’s gaze.
She bowed low and respectful three meters away from the gathering, unsure of if her presence interrupted something private. To her left, one of the marsh boars rooted against the trunks of the submerged trees in search of whatever sustained such a creature.
The sentinels swayed in position to face her and greeted her in their creaking language of wind and bark. The crescent pulled outward to welcome her into their midst.
“Hello Daughter of Lysander,” Eudeyrn’s ‘face’ was much like Balthazar’s, stretched out to mimic a striking combination of faerie and stag. His crown of bark-antlers rose up and away as grand as the giant elk that roamed the distant wilds. Maleficent could hold her arms out wide and probably only manage touching the ends with the very tips of her fingers.
“A fair summer to you Eudeyrn. Are you awaiting Balthazar’s return as well?”
“Yes.” At Maleficent’s concerned look, he shook his head. The movement was slow and ponderous. “For reasons that do not spell trouble. I simply traveled here to sink my roots into the marsh and listen to my saplings’ journey-tales. There is even talk of bringing forth new feàrna.”
“That would be a blessing to witness.”
Eudeyrn acknowledged her words with a nod. “Sit with me, Daughter of Lysander.”
Maleficent did so without complaint or question. She shuffled her wings so they were comfortable against the rough bark and tilted her head back so her horns did not catch upon Eudeyrn’s own crown. Once she was settled, the ancient sentinel twisted toward her.
“What calls you to our home?”
Maleficent carefully retrieved the wrapped wood carving from her pouch protected underneath her robe and peeled away the cloth until the wood carving was bare. Above her, her magic coalesced into a luminescent disc that slowly spun in place. “I hoped he would understand what this meant.”
Eudeyrn unfurled a hand in request and Maleficent granted it. She placed the carving within his palm and allowed him to bring it closer for inspection.
“Where did you find this?”
“Among the humans.”
“Strange that they would have such a piece.”
“I thought it looked like the language the Tuatha once used. Is it?”
“No. It is the language of the Firbolgs.”
Eudeyrn leaned forward, gnarled hands tracing the carving in a pattern that suggested he was reading whatever story was etched into the wood. “Primordial gods that walked this land long before Danu woke to the stars above her.”
“What happened to them?”
“The Tuatha. The wars upon Ériu’s body shattered the tribes of the Firbolgs, but this carving speaks of a tribe that managed to survive the conquest. They fled to Alba and established a otherworld of their own in the soil toiled by man.”
“You are speaking of the Moors?” Maleficent’s lips twisted into a frown. “That does not make sense. The Moors came to be when Danu took a nap beside the great lake when she discovered that the Tuatha had been banished from Ériu. She wept in her sleep and her dreams of Tir Na nOg came to be around her.”
“Aye, that is the tale we tell the young ones.” Eudeyrn nodded without dismissing her explanation. “This carving speaks differently.”
“Would you not know?”
Eudeyrn lifted his sightless gaze to her own. “The tree in this human carving is my own. It speaks of the Coille and what we were brought forth for.”
“The protection of the Moorlands, is that not your purpose?”
Eudeyrn shook his head. This time the motion held the slightest touch of urgency to it. It reminded Maleficent of the way branches trembled in a mighty wind. “If this carving speaks truth, Daughter of Lysander, then the Coille were not meant to keep the Moors safe from beyond the Boundary Stones."
"Then what is your purpose?"
We were brought forth to keep something locked within them.”