In the Forest of Artemis, a kingdom unto itself where the stag prince wore a wide fan of creamy prongs as his crown and usurper wolves were the sole cause of unrest, a baby cried. Hares perked their ears and the birds grew silent, the foreign sound quickening their hearts.
In the recess of a shallow cave, behind a curtain of ivy, Bronwyn opened one eye and watched the babe, bundled in green cloth. She warred with her mother’s heart, refusing to leap from her hard bed and offer her breast. A tiny hand breached the cloth, groping. Bronwyn reached out a finger and let the pink fingers latch on. She rose and unwrapped the babe she’d named Atheria, the babe she’d birthed into a pile of sweet, decaying leaves on the bed of the rushing stream, her screams sending the stag prince racing from his watering hole. The babe that had parted her from her people.
Atheria’s ears were pointed, but smaller than was desired. Still, Bronwyn often found herself lost in the child’s face. Soft red lips in a bow fit for an elvish archer. Eyes of a blue just darker than the sky and purer than the sea, and rimmed with violet. The father’s eyes. Human eyes. But exceptional. The prominent chin, raven hair, and eyelashes that tickled the rosy cheeks were Bronwyn’s. Now Atheria’s eyes were closed tight, red mouth wide in a cry for nourishment, and Bronwyn offered herself up. It seemed all a mother was able to do: give pieces of herself away to become a new life. Soon she would waste away. Not of starvation. She was an elf. Born into nature. At peace with it. She knew how to take from it without disruption, and how to give back. And she had her magic. No, it would be her mind that would waste. Her soul.
As Atheria suckled, she turned a blue-violet eye to Bronwyn, who cocked her head in wonder. In moments like these, it was the elves she hated, not the child. Her people, who had cast her out. They called it mercy, for dealings with humans meant death. Mating with them was unheard of. But motherhood was sacred in the kingdom of Wisteria, protected by the goddess Ilonwyn. A hateful smile twisted Bronwyn’s face each time she thought of it. She felt no awe for herself, for her duty. Only exhaustion.
When the babe was satisfied, Bronwyn used the green cloth—the tattered remnants of her own cloak—as a sling to hold the baby against her bosom. The ivy rustled as she slipped through. One foot still in the cave, her ankle tickled by the leaves, she froze and then shrank partially back inside. Something disrupted the lines of the forest. Something too straight, too smooth. She felt it before she truly saw it on a distant hill. A large carriage, its wooden sides the color of the forest, but too rigid. A smaller wagon laden with sacks. She heard horses but could not see them. She crouched. The vague shape of a man leaned against the carriage wheel. She squinted. Another lay among the wagon’s bounty, pillowed by burlap.
Humans rarely ventured to the Forest of Artemis. It was on the outskirts of their territories and almost entirely untamed and uninhabited. Fear and hope tore at each other inside Bronwyn’s chest. From birth she was taught to despise and kill humans—destroyers of nature, needless spillers of blood—should they ever wander into elf country. Usurpers and scoundrels. But the young prince, tossed from his maimed horse in a wolf attack, had been kind and intelligent. His party had been scattered and slaughtered by the great white wolves, sacred beasts that patrolled the borders of the elf and human territories. He had called to her, battered and bleeding, as she fetched water from a stream. “Mercy. Mercy, beautiful one. I mean you no harm.” His voice deep and rich like the syrup of the trees. His hair the color of a prized chestnut mare. He had not frightened her.
“Why do your kind hate us so?” he’d asked, his wounds and chest bare under her warm, wet cloth. “We don’t hate you. Children dare each other to try and catch a glimpse of the beautiful ones, the magic ones. Our legends say that once we lived in peace. Perhaps we can again.”
Perhaps… She hugged Atheria to her, head cocked at the humans.
The prince had left with the promise of return, but her unnatural pregnancy was uncovered before the bump began to show, and she was tossed from her home. Perhaps he was still looking for her. Perhaps he’d sent these men.
She looked from the babe to the cave, pondering if she should tuck her away before approaching. But Atheria would cry, and perhaps the sight of the child could garner sympathy should these men not be on a mission from the prince. She walked with head high, feet whispering across the leaf-strewn ground. A hare hopped to match her stride, pink nose testing the air for danger, ready to alert her. As she approached the rushing stream, two green-backed turtles the color of new growth swam into position to act as stepping stones. On the other side of the bank, the hare shook water from its paws and a raven alighted on Bronwyn’s shoulder, head feathers ruffled, silver beak clicking a greeting. She looked at the animals and thanked them softly in the ancient language. Her heart quickened. Why did they feel a need to protect her?
Only a hill separated her from the men. She had planned to wake them with a greeting, but now she looked down at Atheria to make sure she still slept and crept close on feather-light tread. The thought of help was too tempting to turn back entirely. She could live among humans. She could have her prince. But the threat that these were not the sort of men she sought turned her into an animal of the forest, nose sniffing the wind and ears tuned for approaching danger.
When she was but fifteen paces from the men, one of them snored, and she ducked behind a tree. She wanted to laugh at herself, but did not dare risk the sound. She peered around the thick bark. The man by the carriage wheel was burly and dark, his black hair scraggly and coarse. The scent of spirits carried to her from his open mouth. The man sprawled amongst the sacks was ruddy in both skin and hair, and of slimmer build. She wondered how many were in the carriage itself. Snores told her at least one slumbered there.
A breeze rustled the underbrush, and a piece of parchment danced from behind the dark man. The raven left Bronwyn’s shoulder and snatched it up, offering it to her in its beak when it regained its perch. She unfolded the creased page and a soft gasp left her lips. The page bore the image of a female elf in ink, the hair a solid black mass, holding a baby to her chest. In careful red lettering, the parchment called for the capture of a young elf maiden with raven hair who had a babe four moons old. Said to wander the Forest of Artemis, the parchment read. Wanted, by order of Her Majesty Queen Fawna of Barellia, for crimes against the crown. Reward for both mother and child, 5,000 gold coins. Dead or alive.
Bronwyn almost lost her legs. Her prince wanted her dead? He knew of Atheria, and this was his answer? She read the words again. No. The queen wanted them dead. Of course. She did not want illegitimate heirs, especially not with an elf.
We don’t hate you.
Her prince was either a liar or a naïve child. She could suffer neither. Not anymore.
Atheria stirred and cried out. Bronwyn pressed the babe closer to her chest, muffling the sound. She dared a peek around the tree and met the eye of the dark man, startled from slumber.
“It’s her!” he cried. “Get up! It’s her!”
Bronwyn fled, bare feet hardly touching the ground, leaping fallen logs and dodging trees. Her hare friend kept pace, the raven flying overhead. She heard the men thundering after her, shouting to one another. One had hopped atop their carriage horse, and she didn’t need to look back to know it was gaining fast. There was a twang. An arrow bored into a tree inches from her head. Atheria was screaming now, jostled inside her green cloth cocoon. Bronwyn’s fluttering heart grew hard and angry. Power warmed her fingertips, and she flung one hand over her shoulder, producing a blinding flash of light. The horse screamed and reared, tossing its rider, who screamed in pain. Bronwyn chanced a look, and the sight of a blond man with his arm bent and broken beneath him brought a cruel grin to her face.
Another arrow shot from the dark man’s crossbow, aimed for her head. The raven dove and then plummeted with a squawk, the arrow through its broad chest. Bronwyn pushed her burning legs onward, trying to shush the baby. If Atheria did not stop her crying, they had no chance of slipping into a hiding place.
A howl chilled Bronwyn’s blood. The timber she-wolf stood on a ridge up ahead, and she eyed Bronwyn with yellow eyes before calling to her brethren once more. They appeared. Five of them, nearly as big as their matriarch. Bronwyn switched her course to avoid their ridge, but the pack bounded down the hill, heading straight toward her. She heard the men behind her curse.
Men at her back, wolves at her front, she froze, unsure which was the worse fate. Her fingertips warmed with crackling magic, ready to blind and burn the wolves, but the hare brushed its soft pelt against her ankle. She looked down in wonderment as the hare watched the wolves’ approach without fear. Bronwyn’s raised hand fell limp. The alpha she-wolf’s silvery side brushed Bronwyn’s arm, and then the wolf pulled up short, a barrier of snarling fangs and quivering muscle between Bronwyn and her pursuers. With a bark, she commanded her pack onward. The ruddy man, who had frozen in fear and confusion, took to his heels. The dark man fired an arrow at the closest charging wolf, buckling it with a whimper, but its fellow leapt and buried its teeth in his neck. The wolves caught the ruddy man by his ankles and took him down in a mass of hair and flesh and gnashing teeth. Two broke from the frenzy and ran low, hackles raised, toward the fallen blond man who had extracted himself from his horse. He attempted to run, arm cradled to his side, but teeth clamped his wrist and hamstring and brought him down easy as a fawn.
Bronwyn, unable to tear her eyes from the carnage, startled at a cold nose against her hand. The she-wolf was sniffing the green bundle. Bronwyn snatched the babe away instinctively, twisting her body, but the she-wolf only cocked her head playfully. Bronwyn reached out and cautiously stroked the beast’s head.
Once assured there was no longer danger, exhaustion brought Bronwyn to her knees on the forest floor. She unwrapped Atheria and cuddled her in her lap, kissing the child’s dark head. The she-wolf lay beside her, neck stretched out to sniff curiously at the child. The hare put its front paws on Bronwyn’s leg for a better look.
Bronwyn smiled, and for the first time since her banishment, it filled her whole soul.
It was Atheria they fought for. Atheria who made wolves lie with hares. The child was a new race. Bronwyn would make her a symbol, a queen of the forest, part of both tribes, and yet slave to none.