Prologue and first two chapters
Courtesy of Emmanuelle who translated the French version
Every story begins differently, except fairy tales. So…
Once upon a time, living in the blessed land of Avotour was most to be sought after. It was bordered by mountains to the West and soothed by the gentle sound of the sea to the East, thus offering a perfect balance in everything, be it between heat and cold, plains and valleys, or meadows and forests. The legend said that for centuries, it had been the land of the fairies. They used to live in harmony with men and it was meant to remain so as long as one single rule was respected: love between a man and a fairy was strictly forbidden on pain of death. Indeed, their bodies were poisonous for each other. Unfortunately, what was not meant to be happened. Two stray souls’ exchanging gazes was enough to transgress this formal ban. The fairies, the families and the friends strove to separate them, but in vain. Even though they both knew the dreadful end that was in store for them, they preferred to take the risk rather than lead a life where they would no longer be united. They were isolated, even disowned, and ended up fleeing their country to reach a desert, remote place where twins were soon born from their illicit love. Aware as they were of being doomed by the growing Evil gnawing away at their cores, they gathered their remnant strength to give one last kiss to their offspring, and confided them to Earth’s care. Then, hand in hand, they proceeded into the waters of a dark lake, and died together. This is how this forbidden love ended. How could they know they had just turned the future upside down?
The fairies and the men from Avotour, who had been looking for them ever since their flight, only found their lifeless bodies embraced forever at the bottom of the lake. With the power of their magic thoughts, the fairies turned the two lovers into crystal. First, it was designed as a tribute to their passion — despite the sheer folly that had led to it — but also they intended to make sure that such a tragedy would never happen again between the fairies and the men. There was no trace of the babies to be found: it was as if they had never been born. Perhaps they had died of the same evil as their parents.
After this mournful event in the land of Avotour, it was said that the men and the fairies made a grave decision: the latter would go on living by men’s side to protect them, but they would become invisible to their eyes, thus keeping them from any temptation. It was also said that one day, the fairies would come back among men to save the world after bequeathing their powers to a human being.
And time went by without a backward glance to this painful separation. In Avotour, the fairies had disappeared for too long so its inhabitants had come to forget all they owed them. There only remained countless legends such as those that troubadours would tell in inns or in public places to the silently meditative—though thrilled–population. Then, time had erased all true memories of the fairies and only a few wild people still believed fairies existed. As a symbol of a past era, they only just appeared in Avotour’s motto: “The Fairies’ land Avotour was, is, and shall be”, as well as in some vernacular expressions.
Our tale starts at a time in which some terrible danger cast its shadow over the earth, spreading its endless dark tentacles. It is the story of a young girl like any other — or was she? — that someone, somewhere, had chosen to fulfil an extraordinary destiny. The day was ending and Aila was sitting on a rock. She was quite tall for her age. Her dark hair was plaited in a long braid that hung low on her back. Her black eyes were filled with tears. Although she was sixteen years old already, she was carrying a burden that was far too heavy for such a young damsel. How come her great achievement had been to lose everything the day she was born? How could she right the wrongs that had been done to her? She was the daughter of one of Avotour’s bravest warriors and she simply did not exist for him: this was the sad reality she lived in. Her father, Barou Grand, was a red-bearded, blue-eyed giant as tall as he was wide and whose strength was herculean. Twenty years earlier, a small bunch of Hagans—blood-thirsty barbarians from a neighbouring land who were prepared to invade Avotour—had attacked the coach driving Melinda, who was the Lady of the county of Antan, and her companion, Efée. It was quite by chance that Barou should have been riding nearby; he then rescued them, helped by eight comrades-in-arms. In this fight that opposed nine men to twenty, the colossus alone slew ten Hagan warriors under the two ladies’ amazed eyes. As for Barou Grand, he could only see the bright black eyes of the dark-haired young woman with the bewitching smile. Once the ladies had been put in a safe place, he won the decisive fights in the last great battles that were to save Avotour. The men fighting by his side would have followed him blindly to their death, while his valour and bravery were becoming the country’s most cherished symbols. History reminded the people that it was love that had made the great hero win over the Hagans who, besides, had stayed quiet ever since the memorable victory. As for Barou, he still had to win over the dark-eyed damsel’s heart…
Having been praised for his feats by the King and Avotour’s population, he was awarded a title and a manor that he turned to tenant farming, so as to settle down in Antan and woo Efée. The latter soon gracefully yielded to the tactful and endearing suitor. She married him a few months later with Lord Elieu and Lady Melinda’s blessing. They stayed in the castle where Barou was appointed fencing master, to the people’s greatest pride. His fame attracted young lords seeking glory, which led the hero to create a training school for them. Soon enough, Antan was enriched with a huge training ground, an indoor riding school, a paddock and with a racecourse, as the ring had become too small. All this to show that very little was needed to make dreams of happiness come true. What sort of a daughter would not be proud of such a father?
Today, Aila thought her life was a dead end. And yet, everything could have been so wonderful: she had been a love child. Her mother– who was such an adorable, devoted person – and her father had been so eager to cherish an heir. But when an heiress was born, everything fell apart. As soon as he discovered she was just a girl, he erased her from his existence. Right after the delivery, Efée, who was still feeling weak, had not understood how deep and irreparable the break was. But then, she did her best to surround her with love, thus hoping to compensate for her husband’s disconcerting behaviour. That is why she had also appealed to all the people she appreciated so as to protect her daughter who was eschewed by her father. Melinda, the lady of Antan, would take her to stay with her own children and treat her as if she were one of them. Hamelin, the magus of the castle, became her private tutor. Although he was only interested in his old books of magic spells, he had been charmed by the baby. Now, was ‘charmed’ the right word? Wouldn’t ‘fascinated’ be more appropriate? The fact remains it was the first and only time in his life that he found himself gently patting a new-born babe’s head. But his gaze had suddenly turned grave… Finally, there was dearest Bonneau, her father’s brother, who took her under his wing so as to try and soften her hardship.
Efée, who felt torn between two loves, did not understand how Barou could be both a tenderly passionate husband and so insufferably indifferent to his own daughter. While she slowly recovered from the delivery, she could sense how miserable her husband felt for not having a male heir. Loumie the midwife had firmly advised her against getting pregnant again. But Efée was thinking about it as a means to restore the balance that was missing in her life now. She wanted a family, a true one, with a father for her children. What had happened in the man’s righteous, honest mind to make him reject his only daughter? Trying again to understand him, she unfortunately pushed him too far during a discussion, which led Barou to ban any further attempt to broach the subject. She had never seen him in such an overwhelmingly icy wrath. Then, a little more than a year after Aila’s birth and despite her husband’s reluctance and Loumie’s fierce disapproval, she became pregnant again, hoping from the bottom of her heart that giving birth to a son would put everything right.
Efée’s daily life was naturally split in two. As dusk approached, she would entrust her daughter to the girl’s uncle, after having taken care of her during the day while her husband worked his part as a fencing master. He was her champion, excelling in all fighting skills. He could fence with just any kind of weapons and he was simply unparalleled at fighting with bare hands. Moreover, he was worshipped by his pupils, and respected by his peers. In a nutshell, he was a hero who was only waiting for a son to follow in his footsteps. Efée knew that, she was going to give him the highly expected child. After that, all would be fine. As her pregnancy went on, Efée felt wearier and wearier, so Loumie, who was worried, often visited her to check on her. When the mother to be could no longer stand up, Melinda came everyday to see her and take Aila away to play with her children. Bonneau was always there too. To relieve Efée, he would also take the girl to look after the horses with him, strapping her to his back with a piece of leather that he tied to his chest. Such a view made every passer-by smile, but no one would have dared laugh at him. They all felt respect for this uncle who behaved better than a father.
Bonneau, who was Barou’s brother, did not look like him. Although he was tall, he was no colossus. He had inherited a darker shade of hair colour than his brother and was of a slighter build, yet, he equalled him in strength. He was also amazingly nimble and had an impressive sense of balance. It was in his company that Aila’s first fall ended in a fresh dung, to her uncle’s greatest dismay. However, all by himself, he managed to wash her up from head to toe and bring her spick and span back to her mother. When Efée heard about the story that had spread all around the castle, she smiled, and then burst out laughing. Bonneau would be the right man for what she had planned. She knew that her choice was good, so, her determination to protect Aila only became even stronger.
Aila had just turned two and a half years old when her mother went into labour. As a worthy future father, Barou rushed to his wife’s bedside and would not leave it despite Loumie’s repeated attempts to send him away. By the fairies, a man had nothing to do there! However, she grudgingly tolerated his presence, for he was adamant that he would not leave. Finally, the long-awaited son was born and the bliss the couple shared was never to be forgotten. Barou was beaming with happiness, and Efée felt her hopes revive with the little boy’s birth. As for Loumie, she was more taciturn than ever. However, the parents were so overjoyed that they simply did not pay attention to her deafening silence.
It took Efée one night only to lose her illusions. Aubin’s birth had not changed anything in Barou’s behaviour towards his daughter. She still meant nothing to him and Efée felt deep sorrow. She loved her husband profoundly, but his reaction was an unbearable wound in her existence, which he did not seem to be aware of. She was feeling so weak that she decided that she would have now to act for Aila’s own good. Despite her feebleness, she wrote many letters, keeping her children by her side to make the most of their presence as long as she could. Only thinking about her plan, she summoned Melinda, then Bonneau, and finally Hamelin. Although her strength was declining, she spent a lot of time with each to convince them to follow her plans. It was more and more difficult for her to breathe, therefore to speak, but she had to complete what she had started: her daughter’s future was at stake. Barou was falling into despair as he saw his beloved wife getting weaker by the day. So he skipped his training hours to stay with her. Their love was so exemplary in Avotour that no one would have dared blame him for his desertion. To avoid her husband and daughter’s running into each other, Efée had asked her loyal Loumie to conceal Aila whenever her father came. Thus apparent peace was preserved in their home.
Efée knew she would die soon; it was now just a matter of hours. She had done everything in her power for Aila, but her heart was still weighing heavy, because she was going to abandon her husband, her son, and her little daughter who would need her tenderness so much. How would her dearest Aila manage to grow stronger and more confident in Barou’s shadow? When life became but a slight breath in her bosom, Efée cast a last glance at the man she had loved more than her own self, her hand laid on his. She smiled to Aubin that Barou was carrying in his arms, and under her rugs, she held tightly a little cloth doll against her breast, as a symbol of the love she felt for her daughter. Suddenly, her inner light stopped glowing, plunging those who loved her in deep darkness…
The whole castle was in mourning. Barou was nothing more than a giant overcome by pain. However, surrounded by his friends and holding his son tight, he decided to move on for his child, forever keeping in mind the memory of his wonderful wife.
Once she had been driven away from the family house for good, Aila settled down at Bonneau’s place, in the small cottage adjoining the stables. Her little heart was trying hard to understand where her mother had gone to, why she had a brother she could not live with and a father who never laid eyes upon her. As she could not come up with an answer, she withdrew into herself and stopped talking. However, Bonneau dedicated himself to his niece, doing his best to make her feel at home. He converted half of his only room into a bedroom for her. He isolated it with a folding screen Melinda had offered him. He gave her his own bed and his cupboard to furnish it. Then, after boring a hole in the ceiling, he fitted out a tiny place in the garret to sleep in, getting to it thanks to a ladder. Every day he took care of her as if she were his own daughter, feeding her, dressing her, taking her out with him. She would go everywhere with him: look after the horses, and watch him practise kenda, which was originally a sort of stick for combat, that was not a weapon widely used in the realm of Avotour. He spent countless hours every evening tirelessly repeating figures he could even perform on horseback, under Aila’s uncomplaining scrutiny. Indeed, she never missed a scrap until she was too tired not to fall asleep. He taught her to ride, tame and look after horses. He taught her about simples, concoctions and massages. Without uttering a single word, she memorized and reproduced everything.
It was more difficult for Hamelin, the magus, to get used to giving reading lessons to a silent child. However, when she raised her huge intelligent eyes –which were as dark as her mother’s—he knew that her silence did not prevent her from understanding. Then, he went on teaching her as if everything was fine. From time to time, he would check what she expressed with her gaze then he would move on or explain again. She could very soon read and count. He gave her books to read within a week that she brought back the next day. If he was more than surprised at how quick she was at reading or understanding concepts, he nonetheless accepted it as a fact and shared his knowledge more and more enthusiastically. As he was easily irritated by children’s empty babbling, he was more than satisfied by this silent girl… He decided to teach her everything he knew. He taught her about plants, anatomy, the languages of the neighbouring countries, history, sciences, and all the other subjects he had a passion for. Aila followed him bravely through the maze of his erudition, even when he jumped excitedly from one subject to another.
Despite her silence, Aila was accepted and appreciated by everyone. She was growing up to be a helpful and pleasant girl, but she seldom smiled and hardly ever laughed. Even though everyone regretted this state of things, they assumed her silence was the result of all the hardships she had been through. Only her father’s pupils rejected her without batting an eyelid. They were on Barou’s side and if their master had cast her out, it meant she was not worthy of their attention. She could not come too close to the training area, for whenever she did, she was scoffed and jeered at, and she simply could not answer back. But she could not help it: she would try to catch a glimpse of her heroic father and see Aubin grow up, for the boy never left his father by so much as an inch. He was his – small – shadow. Although her brother did his best to imitate Barou, following his every movement and attitude, Aila was certain that he would never be as talented as their father was. How on earth did she know that for certain? She could not tell, but, to her, Aubin’s soul did not seem to irradiate the same energy as the one that is cast by great men’s aura.
Aila’s life took a different turn when she was twelve years old. One day, as she was strolling on her own, she came across a young apprentice of Barou’s named Dudau. The fifteen-year-old boy, who was a vain and pedantic womanizer, decided that it would be amusing to play some trick on her. However, Aila never quite knew what he had intended to do to her. Indeed, as he approached with a scornful, triumphant smile on his face, he heard a child’s voice firmly exclaim from behind:
‘Stay away from her!’
Dudau turned round only to see Aubin – who was not even ten years old – with his fists up, ready to fight. He burst out laughing sardonically and strode towards him, forgetting that the child was Barou’s son. This was one of that bumptious creature’s numerous flaws: He did not think things through. Aubin rushed onto him and found himself lying on the ground, knocked down with a perfect hook. It can be hard sometimes to face the facts of life…Dudau was proud and stupid, but also strong and efficient. It could all have ended like this, but the thick boy – who must have had some score to settle with Aubin – started kicking at him, pushing him around on the ground. Then, once again, Dudau heard a voice behind him, but this time, it sounded husky and hoarse:
‘Stop this straight away!’
He turned round and saw Aila coming towards him, she had tied a knot in her skirt. A lascivious smile spread across his face, but it soon turned into a grimace, for after one kick in his groin, he doubled up in pain. Then, raising high her clasped hands, she hit him in the back of his neck and finished off with a kick in his head. The apprentice collapsed. Aila remained motionless for a while, trying to control her wild heartbeats and recover the full use of her wobbly legs. She staggered up to Aubin who had been watching the scene fully conscious though unable to move, and she knelt down. First, she examined her brother’s spine, slowly moving her hand up to his neck to detect a potentially nasty bruise or a slipped disc. Aila had performed these gestures so often with horses that she did it naturally. Then, under Aubin’s scrutiny, she did the same with each of his limbs to make sure that they were all sound.
She then took his face in her hands to check his jaw and skull.
‘Can you stand up if I help you?’ she asked with a faltering voice.
He nodded, still unable to speak. He should not have moved, for a sharp pain spread to his skull, making him feel nauseous. They had to wait for the hammering in Aubin’s head to recede before he could stand up supported by Aila. He did not go far. A few yards were too much for him, his stomach tightened and Aubin, gripping on Aila’s arm, emptied its contents. Despite his current situation, he had this silly notion that losing a fight and vomiting the first time he met his sister was not the reunion he had ever dreamt of.
‘That was very brave of you. Thank you Aubin’ she said.
Aila’s voice sounded like a whisper after all these years of silence and a few tears started to roll down her cheeks. She was only a twelve-year-old girl. Still unable to utter a word, Aubin contented himself with stroking her hand tenderly, and he was glad to see a shy smile on his sister’s face, though he could not return it.
They walked away together, Aubin leaning against his sister, and reached the stables in no time. Fortunately, they did not meet anyone. She went to the cottage and came back with an ointment she applied softly to the parts of his face which were turning into various shades of purple.
‘I’m going to give you this pot. You’ll need to apply some of its contents three times a day and massage it well’ Aila said gravely. ‘As it is all a little painful just now, you’ll do it when it is less sensitive. Thanks to this ointment, your skin will quickly turn back to its normal colour. You might also apply some to your other bruises.’
She smiled at him and he was painfully mouthing ‘thank you’ when his eyes caught a glimpse of a shape behind Aila. His sister noticed the expression on his face and, without turning round, she whispered:
‘Hi, Bonneau, could you tell me where Mael’s liquor is?’
‘It’s on a shelf at home.’
‘I’ll go and get it’ she declared before vanishing, thus leaving Bonneau and Aubin alone.
‘What’s happened to you, my boy?’ his uncle asked, kneeling next to him. Aubin swallowed hard while Bonneau started performing the same gestures as Aila, examining his body.
‘It’s Dudau, he tried to assault Aila.’
‘And you beat him, didn’t you?’
Aubin noticed Bonneau’s look of appreciation, then he met Aila’s gaze, who was standing just behind him and begging her brother not to mention her.
‘No, I didn’t’ he whispered lowering his eyes.
‘I did’ Aila confessed. Bonneau, frozen on the spot, finally turned round and frowned at her.
‘Oh’ he just said.
Then he turned back to Aubin and added
‘We’ll have to make up a convincing story to avoid getting into trouble with Barou. Dudau gave you a thrashing, I interfered. We’ll stick to this, no need to tell more lies. Besides, I think Dudau will prefer this version to confessing he was beaten by a girl who is three years younger than him. Anyway, Barou won’t like it and Dudau won’t be around much longer.
‘Here, Aubin, this is some liquor that kills the pain’ she explained coming close to him. ‘You’ll need only a spoonful of it four times a day. Use it only when you’re really in pain because it will make you feel drowsy.’
‘Come, my boy’ Bonneau said standing up, ‘I bring you back to Barou. You’ll lead me to Dudau on the way so that I can pick him up.’ Aubin stood up helped by Bonneau and cast a regretful look at his sister.
‘Farewell, Aubin, I’ll never forget what you did for me.’
‘No, don’t say farewell, Aila. From now on, I’ll come back to see you often, I promise.’
Still staggering, the young boy left, supported by Bonneau. Dudau was sent away immediately, forgetting to mention the truth about the whole story.
Life went on unchanged, but strangely enough, Aila often felt her uncle’s gaze lingering on her. He had not asked her any questions after the fight, but she knew he was wondering over it all. She had almost made up her mind to go and give him some explanation, only, used as she was to being silent, she became mute again. So, apart from Bonneau and Aubin, no one knew she had spoken.
A few months later, in the early morning, as she was wandering around before going back to the castle, Aila heard a noise behind her. So, she turned round and saw Aubin approaching.
‘Hi, Aila! I thought I’d come back to visit you sooner!’
‘Aubin? What are you doing here?’ she said defensively.
‘Training has been pushed back this morning, it will only start in an hour. I had some time off, so when I saw you, I thought it was a good opportunity to chat with you. I haven’t been able to since – well, since Dudau. Father is always on my heels. I used to do that with him as if I was scared to lose him, you know, but these days, it’s the other way round. Only, now I’d really like to be on my own…’
‘You speak more than the first time we met.’
‘Of course, my jaw works again! And you, no one knows that you’re back into a talking mood, it seems’.
‘You’re right, it’s easier to keep silent.’
‘Than say what you feel? I know that.’
They both felt awkward. They were staring at each other as if they had never met before – which was almost true – discovering each other without daring to come closer.
‘Why do you want to know me?’ Aila asked bluntly.
‘I guess I’m not your father’s favourite subject of conversation.’
‘No, indeed you’re not. It’s no use talking about it then. Yet, you’re my sister. And everybody keeps talking about you! I’m curious, I want to know who you are and why you’re not part of my life.’
‘I’m not the one who can tell you, I don’t have a clue. I think your father became like this the day I was born, and no one knows why or has daigned to tell me.’
‘That is stupid because with you, father would have a greater fighter than me to succeed him, you’re really good at it!’
He heaved a heavy sigh and shrugged.
‘Oh, you’re not that bad either, but you’re afraid of hurting people, so it can’t work’ she explained softly.
‘How do you know?’ he asked almost aggressively.
‘Because I’m curious too, and I wanted to see you. You’re quick and efficient. You’ll be able to gain the strength that you lack by practising, but you don’t really like fighting and it shows.’
‘Whereas you like a fight!’ he replied laughing at her.
‘Yes, I have enough hatred stored up to do so.’ Aila clenched her teeth.
‘Oh, I understand, I’m sorry. I have to go now, but we’ll see each other as soon as I can sneak out’ Aubin added.
‘I trust you and – I’ll be glad to see you.’
They smiled at each other before leaving. That was the day when Aila finally decided she would never be silent again.
The second major event occured almost two years later. Bonneau had to deliver an important message and come back quickly with an answer. The country seemed to be shaking now because an ominous mood was floating over it. The message contained a non-aggression pact doubled with a mutual protection treaty between Antan and the neighbouring county of Melbour, as well as a pledge of allegiance to Sérain, king of Avotour. It was an essential first step to struggle against the counties that were ready to turn against the kingdom. Bonneau had taken with him his young niece, who had become a highly skilled rider, and had taken advantage of their being in Melbour – the main city of the county—to buy a new kenda from a specialist. He knew how important the message was, but he had not thought that it would cause so many reactions, and neither had the people from the castle. On their way back, one day away from Antan, they found themselves surrounded by seven mercenaries who were sure they could crush them very easily. As it was Aila who was carrying the message for Elieu, Bonneau said that she should flee while he kept them busy.
‘No, I won’t!’ she simply answered. Then she added
‘Hand the new kenda to me. I think I might be able to do something of it.’
Bonneau seized it and threw it to Aila before taking out his own. The leader of their enemies scoffed at them.
‘What do you think you’ll do with this stick?’
‘Bonneau, shall we?’
Her uncle wanted to ask her if she knew what she was doing, but he refrained from it. He chose to trust her.
‘Let’s go, Aila.’
They both gave a wild scream, then, after spurring on their horses, they dashed at the mercenaries who were blocking the way. As intended, they caught them by surprise. Their stunned enemies saw a thin old man and a young girl swoop down on them at high speed. Some quickly understood their big mistake when they came tumbling down to the ground after being hit by a kenda, and were then trampled by the nervous horses. That was only the first charge. Bonneau had unseated two men while Aila had defeated one. Once the circle had been broken, the uncle and his niece galloped away. The leader, who must have been slyer than the others, had stepped aside from the fight. He quickly gathered up the few men he had left and they all went in chase of the fugitives. As they were aware that they had only taken a short lead over them, Aila and Bonneau sped up. However, the horses would not be able to keep such a pace for long and the mercenaries would soon catch them up. They had to find a solution.
‘Bonneau, this way!’ Aila shouted, showing him a wall of bushes to their right.
They hid their horses behind a thick copse. Aila took out a bow she put together fast, showing how she now mastered that art, and she got into position to shoot at the enemy. At the sight of her, Bonneau was rooted to the spot.
‘Can you hand the arrows to me? I don’t have the time to set up my quiver’ she said, indicating the six arrows sticking out of her bag.
Bonneau nodded. She focused, aimed and fired once, then immediately, at her command, her uncle gave her another arrow that she nimbly placed in her bow. Two mercenaries fell down while the two others who were still standing took to their heels and fled to the undergrowth.
‘I failed to kill the leader! Did you see that? So as not to be identified too easily, he swapped his hat with one of his followers! What do we do now? They have bows and won’t be taken by surprise again…’
Her uncle was looking at her fixedly, obviously unsure whether he ought to scream at her or just sigh powerlessly. Finally, he chose to heave a sigh and whispered.
‘I know it’s not the right moment to ask you this, but when did you learn to shoot arrows? How long have you had this very rare bow that can be dismantled? When did you learn to fight with a kenda?’
‘Bonneau, I can see you’re angry and I understand that. Please, let me explain everything to you later, I promise I will’, she begged.
Bonneau took a deep breath.
‘Let’s leave the horses here. I hope that you can walk silently and that you’re ready to kill again…’
Aila blushed without answering, and then nodded. They walked for a short while and squatted to hide behind a small bush. They were on the watch. Her uncle whispered,
‘As we won’t come to them, they’ll come to us. Get ready to shoot and wait for me to give you the signal. You let me take the lead, all right?’
He was frowning as he uttered these last words, and Aila nodded again.
Time went by. They remained silent and still. Aila was growing numb. The sun was setting when a small noise was heard to her right. Neither Bonneau nor Aila moved. Then, nothing happened for a few endless minutes, except for the twilight that cast wider and wider shadows over the wood.
‘We could kill the horses for a start’,
a voice murmured. The flash of an arrow appeared in the light of the setting sun, and Bonneau nudged Aila who shot towards where she thought the archer was. A muffled scream vibrated through the air and down went the arrow, along with a body that fell in a thud. Aila realized that Bonneau had vanished. However, right in front of her, there stood the mercenaries’ leader, his sword pointed at her, an inch away from her throat. She was trapped.
‘Farewell, my dear’, the man said laughing nastily.
In a desperate move, Aila plunged down to her right, feeling the tip of the sword scratching her skin, and soon her blood trickling down from her wound.
‘Come, Aila, we can go now’ Bonneau’s voice asserted.
Aila came out of the bush. She cast a look at her uncle who was taking out his knife from the last mercenary’s chest and then wiping it.
‘Can you do that, throw a dagger?’
Aila shook her head.
‘I’ll teach you, then. As for now, I’m going to heal the nasty gash I can see on your neck, so that it won’t turn into an ugly scar.
Bonneau was putting the last branches in the fire. They had found a little hut in the depths of the wood, away from the area where the confrontation had taken place. He shared a few slices of dry meat, some bread and cheese with her.
‘Now you know what facing death feels like. It’s an amazingly tense moment in the life of a human being. Unforgettable… After that, you choose to live depending on your experience. What did you think about at that moment?’
‘I thought about mummy. I wondered if she, at least, would be proud of me…’
‘Of course she would. Your mother was an extraordinary woman. She would have admired her daughter becoming a woman like her.’
‘But she did not kill anybody!’, Aila replied briskly.
‘Yes, she did. When your father rescued her, she killed a man who had escaped us unnoticed and was threatening Melinda. No one knows this story at the castle, and it will remain a secret.’
‘And you know about it because you were there, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘And the two of you fell in love with the same woman, didn’t you?’
Bonneau stared at his niece, surprised by her insight.
‘Yes, that’s true, but she saw him first. I’ve never stopped wondering if she would have fallen in love with me, had she seen me before him…’
‘Is it the reason why you never married and welcomed me into your own house?’
She raised her big dark eyes to him, expressing her yearning to know the truth.
‘Yes, yes, and no… At first, I took you with me to please her, but then the reason changed. It became my own choice, and I’ve never regretted it. You’re the child I’ll never have and above all, you’re her daughter, which matters a lot to me. Besides, you’re amazing. Now, where did you learn to use a bow?’
‘It’s Aubin who…The bow is the present Lady Melinda and he offered me for my birthday. It was also our secret…’
‘And what about the kenda? I guess that it was enough training for you to watch me and then practise secretly.’
‘I’ve been watching you even since I was a child, so, it seemed easy to me to imitate you.’
‘As for risking your life? Where did you learn that?’
‘My dear uncle’, she said acidly, ‘when you’re the daughter of a man who has never acknowledged you, when too many people regard you as dirt because the great hero must have good reasons to behave like this, when you know deep in your heart that you’re the warrior he is looking for and that he’ll never lay eyes on you…’
Her voice broke. Tears started rolling down her cheeks. Bonneau stood up, thinking she would be better off on her own, but then he changed his mind.
‘Your father’s just a man. And he’s just your father… Many people have rallied you, giving all their love to a girl who is not their daughter. They don’t deserve your contempt, they deserve your respect. Your duty is to be equal to their devotion!’
He heard a soft sob, then, turning round before disappearing in the dark, he added,
‘It is not that easy to kill for the first time. Take your time to put up with it… I’ll start your training as soon as we get home.’
Once they were back to the castle, Bonneau never mentioned what had happened. He took to giving intensive training to Aila, correcting her flaws, improving her perception, her sharpness, her level of analysis and sharing all his knowledge with her.
From that day on, Aila’s life seemed to take a quicker pace. The young girl repeated the same activities, all punctuated by the bells chiming every other hour from six in the morning to ten at night, only now, there were Bonneau’s training exercises every evening. More and more often, she would go on missions with him, and they sometimes ran into bandits, or some enemies. To kill was not always necessary, but when she had to, she did it without flinching. She also spent time with Melinda and her daughters, visiting the neighbouring villages to give bread and attention. Aila had specialized in healing, thanks to her knowledge of horses and plants. However, she did it reluctantly, without really understanding why… She also still attended Hamelin’s lessons and discovered new books, new stories, especially concerning fairies whom, to her great surprise, he seemed to worship. As she could read and count now, she really did not understand why Hamelin insisted so much on her cramming her head with his whole library – well, not the whole library. There was this special area where the magus never picked up a book. Surely, this part was dedicated to the fairies’ magic. Aila obediently waited for the moment when she would be allowed to discover those forbidden pieces, but as she thought that neither fairies nor their magic existed, she did not feel any eagerness. She appreciated those moments of peace and solitude when she could increase her knowledge of plants and go deeper in her reading of legends. Although she would never have confessed it, she was particularly moved by the story of the Dark Prince and the White Lady, as well as by the tale of the lovers forever entrapped in a crystal coffin lying at the bottom of a lake in a remote land. Until then, she had never dreamt of being a knight’s lady-love, but lately, she had begun to think about it. Unfortunately, the only boys who came near her were her brother and the servants of the castle. It was highly unlikely for her heart to start beating wildly. All the other boys, who had given themselves heart and soul to Barou, would never have dared cast a glance at her. All but one, actually! There was this boy she had come across for almost a whole year until he completely disappeared and was never to be seen again. Every time they had met, he had greeted her with a smile. He must have meant to laugh at her. She had overcome that episode too. It would surely be more difficult with Melinda who, as she saw the young girl behind the fighter, had taken it into her head to change her clothes that she deemed were too masculine. The lady of the castle gave her a few skirts and blouses and, for her fifteenth birthday, a beautiful ball dress, like the ones her daughters wore. Of course, this new attire was not practical when she was riding, so, trying not to offend anyone, Aila decided to cut her skirt in the middle, from top to bottom, in the front and in the back, and then, she sewed each part on the inside together. Once finished, the piece seemed like some pair of wide trousers: it looked like a skirt, but was as comfortable as them. When Melinda saw through the trick, Aila got scared of her reaction, but, true to form, she laid her ever so gently benevolent eyes on the girl and said teasingly.
‘Has the same fate fallen on the bal dress I offered you?’
‘Oh, no, Lady Melinda, I would never dare —‘
‘Tell me, is this attire comfortable?’
‘Oh yes, it is! It’s really convenient when you ride’
‘Well, I should try it!’
Behind her, Amandine, Blandine and Estelle, the damsels of the castle, were giggling discreetly, looking at Aila knowingly. And that was it. Melinda and her daughters soon wore ‘Aila skirts’ for all their outdoor activities. The people around them enjoyed the situation immensely, and this light-heartedness was much appreciated, especially when this new fashion spread beyond the boundaries of Antan.
The state of the country was getting worse. The quarrels between the counties were growing more and more frequent, as if each of them only waited for the other to have their back turned so as to betray and backstab them. Again, some Hagans were gathering at the frontier. As they were aware of the fragility of the kingdom, they were making the most of some people’s weakness and of others’ perversity. The people of Antan were surrounded by insecurity like by some malevolent shadow, and inexorable hardships were looming on the horizon. Elieu and reliable men often went away to try to save what could be saved, but the inhabitants of the castle were justly worried. One night, a piece of news plunged them into a state of affliction: a man had tried to assassinate king Sérain of Avotour. Even though the king had survived, his wife and his youngest daughter had perished tragically next to him. A week of mourning was decreed in the county of Antan. Melinda seemed more affected than any other person. Her desperate expression had not escaped Aila. As soon as she had a free moment, she went to knock at her door. A long time elapsed before she was invited in. Aila shyly pushed the hand flag and entered. She quickly perceived all the efforts Melinda was making to keep her composure.
‘What do you want, Aila?’
Aila felt silly. Who was the evil fairy that had brought her here?
‘I just wanted to know if there is something I can do for you. You look so miserable…’
All of a sudden, Melinda’s face changed dramatically and her eyes filled with tears. The next moment, they freely started to roll down her cheeks. Aila came closer and she tenderly took the lady in her arms, all the while keeping silent as she used to do so well. Melinda sobbed quietly. Then, she pulled herself together and held Aila tight before gently pushing her away but still holding her hands.
‘Oh I wish Efée were still with us’, she sighed, ‘I miss her so much. She had been my friend since I was a child and we shared so many things. You know, when you entered, within the space of a minute, I thought it was her. You look so much like her, maybe a little taller: the sound of your voice, your dark eyes and hair, this noticeable dynamic gait, this way of staring at people as if you could see in them all the things they are not aware of. There is so much of her in you… She was an exceptional woman and neither you nor Barou knows how extraordinary she was. You are fearless like her, Aila, and she would be so proud of you.’