Autumn, Year 760 of the New Age
Glenmore, The Glenwood
~"Is it a solution, or a Band-Aid on a system that is coming apart at the seams? Perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves the very hard question of whether the system itself is what needs to go."
- Rowan Jacobsen: Fruitless Fall
The morning was crisp with frost, a sudden cold-snap stealing away the relative warmth of the day before and leaving breath to cloud and red leaves white at the edges with ice. The King woke cold, his den empty but for him that night, and under his short coat he shivered at the unexpected temperature. Unfolding himself and leaving the den’s shelter, he stood and gave a shake. He needed to warm up before he could start his day, so it was time for a run. It would give him time to think and clear his head, too.
The guards - still expecting him asleep - didn't notice his departure and Drustan slipped away unseen into the red and gold autumn forest. Stiff at first, his jerky trot soon became a canter and then the Glenwood was racing by in a blur of autumnal colour. When he finally stopped to catch his breath, he was in a lesser-travelled part of the Glenwood, standing amongst silver birches with leaves of scarlet. They reminded him of the doe with that namesake - they had not been far from here when he saved her the first time from raiders - and he gave a sigh. Does; why did they have to be so complicated?
He’d told a few of his closest does by now of his secret, and it had been met by mixed reactions, but he still had another half a dozen to find. Doing so in this vast forest was proving difficult - especially the commoners, and he wondered if he would ever get the chance.
With a huff, the sable stag turned and started walking in the direction of home. As much as he wished he could leave politics and secrets behind, he had to endure. It was his duty.
The lithe, auburn frame of a doe shifted in the dim light of early dawn. Hunkered between the dead fronds of bracken; sheltered from the crisp chill of the autumn air, Luz stirred from her rest. She blinked the sleep from her eyes, peering off into the depths of the Glenwood. A faint mist lined the forest floor, dulling the vivid colors of the changing foliage. Not a soul could be seen, and all around an eerie silence resonated among the oaks.
It had been a long time since Ronan had left her side, so waking alone was not unfamiliar, but on this particular morning, Luz’s world seemed far too isolated. The velvet towers that crowned her dark head flitted forward and back, searching for some sign that life still existed within this empty stretch of wood; however, nothing came. The birds had flown south, towards Oakfern or one of the other warmer territories, and the rest of the animal kingdom were huddled together in their dens and hollows keeping warm at this cold hour. The plants had gone to sleep, shrinking back from the surface of the earth, maintaining their health in order to return come spring. Luz could feel them—buried deep in the soil, patiently accepting the altering weather patterns. They were a joy to listen to, even though their life force slowed to a trickle this time of year.
A distant rustling in the dying flora caught the burnished fae off-guard. She pulled her attention away from the plant life and honed in on the noise. A moment later, the doe spotted a sable body gently loping through the undergrowth, and when his face finally came into view, Luz’s heartbeat quickened. ‘The King!’
The red fem hadn’t seen Drustan since summer, when a large chunk of the Glenmore herd went to vacation at Loch Kerr. At that time she didn’t get the opportunity to speak with him, as he was busy with his own business and family. In fact, seeing the stag alone like this was such a rare occurrence, Luz thought twice about approaching him now. Surely, he could use some time off on his own? But, if she didn’t seize it, Luz feared she wouldn’t get another chance. She made an agreement with herself not to consume too much of the male’s time; merely to pay her respects and check in.
So, her stiff legs began to carry her in the direction he headed, and she soon caught up, making her presence known with a soft greeting and a dip of her head, “My King, good morning!”
The silky voice roused him from his thoughts, and he looked up towards the approaching doe. A genuine smile lit his expression when he saw the young auburn hind who greeted him. “Luz,” he halted and dipped his head in return, a low sweeping gesture usually reserved for upper royalty. Luz may be a commoner, but she was worth much more than that to him. She had changed so much since the first time he had seen her in the frosty forest - a day not unlike this one almost three years ago - instead of a timid near starved creature, she was a picture of health and confidence. Her coat was sleek and as russet as the autumn leaves, her deep mahogany eyes full of spirit.
“Good morning to you too,” he replied, lifting his head and turning bodily to face her. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” he added, a hint of something serious darkening the cheerful glint in his eye. He gave her an apologetic smile. He guessed she had been expecting more pleasant company, though he doubted she would prefer the line of conversation he was about to take. He glanced about, wanting to make sure their son was not in earshot before he began. “Where is Ronan today?” He asked with more curiosity than concern.
The young duke was one of his fawns he saw the least of, though with Luz’s preference for keeping away from the main herd, that was not surprising. The boy was a pale quiet thing from what he’d seen of him, independant like his mother.
As the stag tilted his impressive rack, acknowledging Luz in a rather formal manner, she couldn’t help but blush. This gesture was one reserved for the daughters of Áillte, not an ordinary, forest vagabond such as herself. ‘What for? Is he playing around?’ The notion crossed her mind that perhaps the brute was trying to lighten a blow, and her eyes fixed on her better, as she tried to understand what he could be thinking.
Drustan’s next words caught her with an equal amount of surprise. ‘Talk to me? About what?’ she pondered. Tilting her burnished countenance to one side in curiosity, Luz responded softly, “Of course, sire. You can always speak to me.” She hoped she didn’t sound too taken aback. She didn’t want to appear ungrateful to share his presence! Her nimble, dark columns carried her a step closer to him, just as the next question escaped his lips.
Luz blinked. It was kind of him to ask about the boy, even if the lad’s status in the herd was less than aristocratic. It was for reasons like this that the red fae felt such a strong tenderness for the King. As one of many who were plagued by the harshness of the hierarchy, Luz felt pity for the pressure Drustan had been under these past few years. So much had happened in Glenwood . . . and yet, nothing seemed resolved.
“He’s doing well,” the chestnut-eyed femme said, beaming up at her leader as she recollected the last occurrence where she had spent time with her son. “With each new day, he grows stronger and wiser! I believe I see a soldier-to-be in him.” Her tone was bright, but her eyes shot away after she spoke. Masking the feeling of lonesome that brushed her heart at that moment felt like the right thing to do. It just wasn’t the time for vulnerability on her part. The King had something important to say, and Luz needed to support him. After all, it was all she could do to repay him for his benevolence!
Her eyes traveled back, locking onto his, as she searched their emerald depths. A certain level of concern was there, swimming behind the courtesy of his expression. The dame was intrigued, and felt a tensing in her muscles, as though her body was preparing itself for bad news.
“I’m glad,” he said with a fond smile. He wished he could see his sons more often, though perhaps considering what he had to tell Luz, it was for the better. “He would make a fine soldier,” he agreed almost wistfully. His expression saddened again, “Luz, I’ve got something to tell you... about me. It’s something my mother kept from me until she died, when the Oak fell. It’s...” he sighed, “Difficult to explain.” He pulled a face, “That’s not entirely true, it’s rather simple really, but it’s difficult for me to say.”
He met the doe’s dark eyes with his own, wondering if he would ever see those gentle eyes look at him with anything but contempt once he told her. “I wanted you to know, because you deserve to, and if the herd find out, my reign is sure to end shortly afterward. If that happens Luz, you need to keep Ronan well away from the Oak and the royals, promise me that. No blood of mine will be welcome there if my crown is taken. I haven’t always been a popular King, and I fear that should this come to light, there will be no mercy for me nor mine.”
The stag’s eyes swam with guilt and remorse, and he hadn’t even told her yet. “I’m sorry Luz, I don’t mean to burden you but I have to warn you. Whatever you think of me afterward, I still only endeavour to keep you and Ronan safe. All I ever wanted was for you to be safe.”
The doe blinked, apprehension clouding her expression. She had never seen the king in such a vulnerable state! Anxiety seeped into his tone, and Luz feared it might swallow him completely if he continued. Her ears laid back, as she prepared herself for the revelation of whatever it was that unsettled him. She wanted to say something—make him stop—if it only meant he could relax and return to his former self!
As his words dragged on, Luz’s worry grew more and more intense. Each new phrase held a greater hint about the conclusion Drustan was coming to, such that it overwhelmed the red lady. She felt a quiver, slinking like a rat between her bones; a dreadfully-familiar chill that landed itself in the pit of her stomach. In truth, she had not felt this helpless since the horrid incident with Anarawd three years prior.
Upon the mentioning of her son, Luz all but crumbled. Where was he? Was he okay? Would they need to leave their beloved home in the Glenwood once she found him? Questions raced through the fem’s mind, but she fought to keep her focus on the king. He needed her absolute attention—she understood that.
But it was all happening so fast! Was she not sound asleep in the warm embrace of the leaves and brambles moments ago? She couldn’t still be dreaming, could she?
“D-Drustan . . . what’s going on? Are we not safe? H-how could that be?” She knew she was asking too many questions, but she couldn’t help it. Why was her benign and admirable ruler in such disarray?
She thought back to two winters ago, when the young monarch had rescued her from self-induced starvation and negligence. He had been so kind, and held such humility towards her, despite her poor breeding. Most would see her death as a benefit to the herd—a necessary casualty in the process of bettering the genes. But Drustan had only seen a suffering soul in his lands, and had sprung to her aid. She had been happy to later on give him a child to strengthen his reign; however, when Ronan was born with an anemic pelt, Luz was once again ashamed of her lack of impressiveness. Still, the compassion and fatherly love Drustan held for the fawn was unswayed, and every day the doe silently thanked him for it.
Could what the stag had to say now truly be so dark that it could change all this? ‘Will I really think differently of him afterwards, as he suggests? Could my love for him, as both my leader and the sire of my son, be diminished?’ The bay maiden struggled to remember to breathe, as she awaited his response.
He could almost imagine the trust he’d built with her slipping away as he spoke. His own worry reflected in her eyes, her whole stance changed, the new-found confidence the doe had built seemed to crumble the more he said. It was a mistake, he realized too late, but he could not keep the truth from her now. He could not plant the seed of doubt and leave it to rot under the earth. There was still a chance that once she knew the truth, she would only have to fear the known, not the infinite unknown.
“Luz, my father... was not my father. My mother went to another stag to conceive me, and presented me as the King’s son. Favour in Ragnar was falling. He was a good King but he had not sired any children since Donnagán, and the herd were beginning to assume... were beginning to realize... that he could not sire any more. My birth dispelled those rumours, but I was always meant to be a Prince. I was never meant to take Donnaghán’s place but when he forced Ragnar to exile him, there was no other choice. My crown is a fake, Luz. My taint... my blood was never meant to rule. If the herd discover my true father, they’ll have my head.
“I’m sorry Luz, if I’d have known before, I never would have put you in this situation. I’m sorry to have burdened you with this, and I don’t expect forgiveness, but you needed to know, to be prepared to keep Ronan safe if the herd ever realized.” He hung his heavy head in shame, “I’m sorry I did this to you.”
Silence bore down on the two for a long moment, as Luz absorbed the king’s words. It was truly shocking information, and the dame felt an especially strong wave of vulnerability wash over her. Upon realizing the new light the others would see her son in when they found out, worry began to build a fortress in her belly. Fear and doubt rang throughout her small frame. What would they do to this pale-furred, illegitimate lesser royal—her beautiful boy? What would become of him to the herd?
The mahogany fae swallowed, choking back tears as they welled in her eyes and throat. ‘Not now,’ she thought, ‘Not now!’ Glancing away for a moment, she gathered herself, then rested her gaze back on the sable stag. She felt nothing but sadness for him. She knew very well what it was like to be cast aside for one’s bloodline. Luz had always been a bright spirit (apart from her few recent dark years), despite the prejudice in Glenmore, though her concern for Ronan’s place in all of it was an entirely different matter altogether. Wasn’t there some saying about how parents always want their child to be greater than themselves? The doe didn’t expect the youngun to become a prince or achieve the highest status in the herd, but she had hoped he wouldn’t have to undergo too much pressure from the herd’s ideals about coat color and breeding, especially since he was the son of a king!
Now, as Luz blinked softly, sorrow flooded every corner of her expression. She wasn’t necessarily sad for herself—she knew this wouldn’t change anything on her part—but she was distressed on Drustan and Ronan’s behalf.
In a firm, but quiet tone, she responded, “Drustan, whatever happens to you, or to Ronan, I still think you have more of a right to the throne than anyone else in Glenmore . . .” She meant it. No one else had shown her tenderness when she was consumed by the darkness within herself; no one else could have ruled the Glenwood with such passion and love; no one else could have shown such a level of mercy to those who desperately needed it in times of crisis! Many strange and wonderful blessings had been bestowed on Glenmore since Drustan had become their leader, including the intense burning of the Great Oak, as well as its revival. He had been so present—so . . . well, kingly. Perhaps Luz was biased, but it was no matter to her. The champagne brute would always be a hero in her eyes.
Glancing up at the red doe, he couldn’t help but show his relief in his smile. While she clearly was not happy at the news - who would be? - she had not rejected him. His smile turned hopeful, and he lifted his head slightly, “Thank you, Luz, I don’t know if you realize how much that truly means to me.” He took a deep breath, sighing it out with a slight waver from his remaining anxiety. “I fear however not many would share your views, Luz. A King in Glenmore is the direct blood on Earrann, I’m barely blooded enough to call myself a Duke,” he winced shamefully at the admission, “Whatever does happen to me, however, rest assured I will do whatever it takes to keep you and Ronan safe.” He caught her gaze with sincerity, “Whatever it takes.”
He huffed, shaking his head. There was no doubt in his mind he would face death for his mates and fawns, but it wasn’t exactly the topic of conversation to drag a doe into who had just professed she still thought him worthy of the title of King. “I wonder how it is I came to be cursed with their birthright, yet be blessed with does such as you,” He huffed and glanced to the pale winter skies above. “Óganach plays a cruel game with us,” he said whimsically.
Turning his emerald gaze on the darker doe once more, he bowed his head, “Perhaps I stretch my luck, overextending my welcome, but would you care to walk with your pretend King a while? I’ve missed you... and I owe you any answers to questions you might have...” He glanced about, “Away from prying ears, of course.”
The auburn doe swished her tail, feeling a wave of relief flood from her pointed ears down to her cloven hooves. To see Drustan reflecting this same reaction brought a joyous beam to her face. She listened to him, and nodded gently. ‘Blood does not make you a king,’ she thought, but chose to keep the words to herself. She felt Drustan knew that deep down, which is why he had worked so hard to live up to the expectations of the herd. Sadly, in the end, Glenmore still seemed to fall back on one of its most ancient customs.
The power behind her leader’s next words caught Luz slightly off-guard. They were filled with such genuineness, and such determination! Again, the fae dipped her head—though this time it was far more elegant of a gesture. She bowed to him as though he were not just the king of Glenmore, but the king of all the Western Isles; of all the world! She made a silent promise to herself to return his favor, if there ever came a time for it.
As the stag’s expression lightened, and his tone grew more cheerful, Luz felt her heartbeat quicken. There it was—that was the king she remembered! She blinked up at the sable brute, and wondered what might become of him after this. Surely he would just be dethroned—possibly exiled? No true harm would come to such an important soul . . . would it? The dame didn’t even want to consider the possibility of an execution. ‘If he were to die . . . what would become of me? How could I ever stay strong for Ronan?’ She knew, though, that she would have to. If Drustan could not be saved, than at least his legacy could, and Luz was driven to do everything in her power to ensure that it would.
With a smile, she said, “I’ve found that tyranny sometimes likes to dress up as our legislation here in Glenmore. The term ‘tradition’ has recently been an excuse to uphold an immoral justice system.” Bold words, indeed. But the doe was fairly confident that Drustan wouldn’t mind our outspokenness, due to the recent alteration in his own perspective, if nothing else. Luz was never one to involve herself in politics; however her interest had increased over the past few years, as she realized that the enchanted forest she loved and cherished was suffering under the pressures of negative energy and oppression from the “royals”. However, this was a conversation that would be best saved for another time and place, and perhaps . . . ‘No!’ The red lady put a halt to the thought. She wanted anything but to entertain the idea that this might be an issue she would have to take up with someone other than Drustan himself.
Luckily, when the monarch asked to share her company, delightment filled her until she was brimming with it, and her worries began to temporarily melt away. “Of course, my lord,” she replied, and moved to his side. She needed to share his presence in that moment. She wanted to pretend that everything was fine again. She was a youth once more—stumbling through the wood with mud caked to her hocks. Her problems were so far away—Anarawd, Masozi, and even the struggle of Drustan’s leadership were all lost on the tender kiss of the breeze.
It was wonderful to catch up with the stag. She had so much to tell him—about Ronan, about her magic, and about how well she was doing emotionally—and so many questions to ask. However, try as she might, the doe could not wrench away from one lingering thought gnawing at her brain . . .
Would this be the last time she would speak with him?