Chapter Thirty-Six: The Moot
When the fae first came to Alfheim some four thousand years ago, it was to escape a calamity upon their home world - the verdant globe that serves as Alfheim's moon. In those days, you could ride across all of the realms in two hours on horseback and the conjunction of the four was called the Nexus of Fae - a circle of twelve large trees, two for each of the realms and one at each border between realms, with a boulder in the middle. A small temple was constructed upon the boulder, and the rulers of the fae realms would all meet there in a 'moot' to transfer the Sceptre of Fae and hold court during each change of the seasons.
This meeting soon became difficult and, by two thousand years ago, it had been considered impossible for several centuries. That's because, as the realms expanded with the growth of the fae bond to Alfheim, the circle of trees became a vast ring and the boulder at their center became a great mountain, and it eventually grew so high that only flying people could get there and they needed to use magic to breathe properly. Moots became pretty rare and, by the time I arrived in Alfheim, there hadn't been one in centuries. There also hadn't been an existential risk to the realms in much longer than that… but now there was, and the monarchs of the four realms were compelled to hold a moot to discuss their common defense against a terrifying foe.
Over the course of two days, we made our way toward the juncture of the realms, passing through farmlands, woods, and country hamlets. Vernal was a beautiful land - it reminded me a lot of Nebraska, though it had a lot more forest and there were villages of a dozen different races of folk, and in some villages and in most of the larger towns, they got along in a way that few places on Earth did. These realms belonged to the fae by virtue of an inscrutable magical connection, but plenty of other peoples felt a connection with the land, too, and when they set up hearth and home, it soon became theirs just as much.
Whatever the justification, I still had vague misgivings about how all of the royalty and nobles had to be fae or fae-kin… but once you looked at the strata below that, whether they were rich merchants, mayors, aldermen, officers, or mages, it was a dizzying array of all of the races, sexes, and origins, and people mostly respected skill and reputation over how big your wings were or how pointy your ears. Whether through magic, good planning, or having leaders who stuck around for centuries, the fae had managed to cultivate a sort of prosperity and peace that no nation on Earth had ever cultivated, let alone cultivated for century upon century. Even the relatively sedate nations around the fae realms looked enviously toward our green and golden lands. And the notion of it becoming corrupted with Earth thinking disgusted and angered me.
Sometimes, I wondered whether I might be part of that corruption, and it took lots of reassurances and little kisses from Meliswe to reassure me that I wasn't. And I bet if you asked Orealis, he'd tell you I was. But he was locked up for a century, so it didn't much matter what he thought. I reflected on all this as we made our way to the moot.
The first thing I could see was the Nexus Mountain. As huge as it was, the top was almost always shrouded in cloud, but the little ring of foothills and sheer, rocky slope were visible as soon as you came around a bend between the hills in the Red Juniper Wood and could see twenty miles out to that great wall of stone. Next, you noticed the trees. Against the backdrop of mountain, it was hard to gauge just how large the twelve trees were until you realized that the tiny dark shrubs speckled around their bases were, in fact, old growth trees towering a hundred feet or more. The twelve fae trees were at least ten times higher than that, taller than the Eiffel Tower… maybe taller one Eiffel Tower stacked on top of another. Small villages of fae and sylvast lived up in the boughs - naturally, they were forbidden from harming the trees in any way, and I hope that none of them would want to do so.
From the comfort of our carriage, Alathea handed me a slim book. Taming the Elements - Twelve Intermediate Lessons, it read. "Normally, it's the privilege of the highest-ranking sorceress in the group to guide the gusts of wind that will take the delegation to the palace at the summit."
"There's a palace at the summit?"
"Yes - the temple grew right along with the mountain," Alathea said. "But there's no way to climb there and difficult to fly, so a little help is needed… from the highest-ranking sorceress…"
"Which is you…"
She shook her head and tapped the cover of the book. "I haven't got a spellsword to my name. Read up, my sweet."
In many ways, magic is like mathematics… or at least it's like doing trigonometry, which is the highest math I ever learned in school. That is to say, it's about learning and coming to intuitively understand a small number of tricks, and then getting creative about how you deploy those tricks. For instance, without reading Taming of the Elements, I could have made a gust of wind. One of the first spells I'd learned was propuls, a simple blast of force. This is not the same as a gust of wind and is, in fact, far more potent if you wish to disarm somebody or knock them off a horse (though Master Dhyr will not let you use magical pushes during combat until you've proven to their satisfaction that you can defend yourself proficiently without 'fae trickery'). However, if you want to stoke a fire, propuls is next to useless… and will, in fact, dangerously scatter burning timber if you cast it into a woodfire. But vento is quite effective at helping flames - it is basically a conveyor belt of force that propagates tiny waves of air until they become a whoosh of wind lasting for however long you wish to maintain the spell. That is an obvious application of force. Trickier still is the 'intermediate' spell dirigis, which presents an even front of wind and directs it on the fly (vento is stronger at the center of its stream and only pushes in one direction).
"You're not going to get us killed, I hope?" Prince Gaelin asked - he was my adopted fae brother, the foster son of my fae father, King Fostolas of the Hibernal.
"Nothing a few years in Elysheim won't sort out," I said.
I winked at him. "I sure hope so, for your sake!"
Unlike Calivar or myself, who were a crown prince and princess, Gaelin was a 'mere' prince, not yet fit for rule, should Fostolas die. Presumably, this was why he hadn't been targeted by my brother, Orealis, or his King in the South. It had nothing to do with Gaelin's non-royal blood and everything to do with his connection to the realm. He was barely in his forties (quite young for a fae) and had been in the family for several years less than that. As such, he hadn't yet cultivated the bond with the realm that the true-blooded children of a monarch would be born with. It would develop over time, perhaps a century and two at most, at which point he'd presumably be named crown prince and true heir to the Hibernal throne. But a prince was a prince, and so he was invited to the moot and had a voice at the table.
We'd met up with Fostolas's contingent at the Half-Snowed, the massive evergreen with a trunk as wide as a city block. It loomed overhead, the winter half of its boughs laden with snow and the spring half bright green with new needles. The wind smelled like pine whenever it blew across the tree, and strong gusts above would little nettles tapping down like green sleet. We stayed overnight at the lodge built halfway up the great tree, spanning a dozen boughs as big as any sequoia with fancy little walkways running between them. The only way up was to fly, so the non-fae members of our contingent had to stay in the little cabins built around the base of the tree.
"Care to try aerial sex from up here?" Calivar asked, his eyebrows wiggling.
I looked down from our room in the lodge, out over the scrubland far below us - it was at least five hundred feet down. I hoped he was joking. "As tempting as it is, I don't think we've got enough grimkeys with us…"
"I can find some!" Meliswe volunteered.
Calivar scratched his chin… he was serious! "Why don't you track some down and summon some helpers while the two of us are at tomorrow's moot? With any luck, we'll have something to celebrate."
Any celebration, in my opinion, would be of a dubious sort: the monarchs were meeting to decide what action the realms would take to address the grave threat posed by the King in the South. Obviously, I wanted to send the whole might of the combined fae armies to rescue Ben and stop our foes from recruiting Earth soldiers and weaponry to their cause. But that reaction might well be from the brash Earthling that still makes herself known when I'm agitated, the one whose fury prompted her armies to dub her the Storm Maiden. The fae prefer to build their empires slowly and inexorably over the centuries, with alliances and investments rather than blood and battles. Being foolhardy and short-sighted long ago had forced my people… I suppose they were my people now… from their ancestral homeland, and that racial memory had long taken root. In fact, one of the greatest punishments we have is exile: if you don't wish to abide by our laws, you're welcome to live as the rest of the world does. Goodbye and good luck!
Even fae who'd set up fiefdoms and strongholds abroad, as the King in the South had done, often turned to the realms with longing eyes and an aching heart. And, in the case of the king, a desire to conquer what he could not have by inheritance. My reverie was broken by a knocking on the door.
"Is everybody decent?" Alfina asked.
"As decent as we get!" Calivar replied.
Apparently, my guardswoman was more than half-fae, because her wings had been large enough to buzz her up to the lodge… though, in the fae courts, 'half' meant anything short of six of eight great-grandparents being true fae, so you could occasionally find people with much higher fractional ancestry but who would need to officially petition the crown to be granted fae-kin status. In any case, she was my only regular bodyguard who'd managed the flight.
"My princess… Prince Calivar… the queen wishes to depart for the moot within the hour," she said.
"Definitely no time for aeronautics, then," Calivar said. Meliswe harrumphed in disappointment.
The base of Nexus Mountain was another three miles past the trees, surrounded by a ring of relatively gentle foothills before the nearly-vertical rock face of the mountain. As we approached, it loomed before us, gray and quite jagged on a fae scale, with little outcroppings and ledges housing small communities of lichen and ferns at the lower elevations then transitioning to lifeless rock before fading into the white haze of cloud cover above. Our guides led us to the top of one of the nearest hills, cool wind whipping at our clothes, our banners roiling like serpents. There, we found an old granite platform overrun with moss and a big, carved arrow pointing to the location of the entry platform many thousands of feet up. Though, after the most recent transformation of the realms, it was anybody's guess whether that was still accurate.
"Let us know when you're ready," Alathea said. "You'll provide the current for us and I'll provide breathable air if we venture too high."
I unsheathed my spellsword. "Let's moot!"
I suspect that the real reason my mother let me push our current up (beyond my having more mana than I knew what to do with) was because nobody knew how much higher the temple had risen when the realms had shifted, and so the air was likely to be thinner. Alathea was one of a very small number of sorceresses who could conjure air into being using mana alone, and so her expertise was needed there. Plus, I think she wanted me to show off my/her spellsword to my father and adopted brother.
That was accomplished easily enough. At my signal, we flew up about a hundred feet, at which point I had enough air below me to shape my mana and cast vento. A bit too strongly, in fact. With the spellsword, the conjuration became a gale-force wind blowing us up, sending my fellow fae royals tumbling and reeling at its fury. I had to slow my spinning of the sword and my flow of mana to make it merely enough to push our flying forms skyward.
Within a minute, the air grew chillier, and soon the wind weakened. This was, I realized, because the air had thinned and there simply wasn't as much to push. So I increased my mana flow and angled the spell's parabola to focus the wind in a tighter stream, and we continued to rise. Soon thereafter, I realized that I was struggling to breathe - flapping one's wings full strength is the equivalent of a sprint, and the air wasn't doing much to replenish my energy. I was perhaps five seconds away from giving up and diving groundward (better than falling unconscious and going into an uncontrolled fall), but I suddenly felt warm air in my face and filling my lungs, even as the rest of my body pricked pins and needles in the cold, thin air. A quick glance to my right confirmed that my mother had started her air spell and was, apparently, skilled enough to create it right around each of our heads without slowing our ascent down too much. That sort of control takes both an audacious level of talent and centuries of practice to master. I might have more and purer mana than Alathea, but it would be several human lifetimes before I could claim to be that masterful.
Despite the air, my wings grew tired. We flew up two… three… four miles through the blinding white of clouds before we reached the top. And, when we did, the five of us suddenly slammed into a great mass of warm, moist air that none of us had been expecting. Fortunately, as I struggled to regain control and avoid crashing face-first into Calivar from behind, I spotted the landing platform and led the way.
"Was the temple like this before?"
"It was not, my spring tulip," my fae father said. He stretched his wings one last time and slowly retracted them. He turned toward my mother. "Do you remember the last time we were here, love?"
"During the rusting plague, when you and I were still prince and princess," Alathea said. She looked into his eyes and smiled, her eyes going mooney like a teenage girl in love… I hoped I still had that kind of goofy love in my heart when I was going on six centuries old. "Terrible plague, by the way… but the convergence and shifting of the realms has changed it considerably since then. I remember it was a large temple, larger than the basilica in Vernal City… but it was cold and airless. We had to seal the place off and summon more air every hour or so just to keep it comfortable. This is… well… it's unexpected."
The temple was still there, and it was still a bit larger than Gaia's Basilica two miles from Alathea's palace. But it was in the middle of a great basin-shaped valley perhaps two miles across. The circular cap of Nexus mountain was surrounded by dark shale walls, pink colonnades, and little temples that looked like gazebos encircling a sunny, wildflower-filled meadow, and the Nexus Temple sat exactly at its center. The Nexus had become its own mini-realm - only Gaia knew what would happen to it if the realms changed again.
"A surprise but a pleasant one," Gaelin said. He squinted to the temple a mile distant. "Those are Estival's colors - it looks like Alvaelic's beaten us here."
We waited another two hours for Presimiwe to arrive. It was unclear to me how she might even manage to arrive, but she pulled it off. About an hour after we arrived, Calivar and I were out surveying the sunny meadow, busily picking samples of flowers. Since becoming a practitioner of the woodsong, I'd become pretty decent at identifying plants. If you're any good at the art, identifying plants is pretty much automatic since when you sing to the plants they whisper back in a language just short of words, and you can usually figure out what people call them. As strange as it may sound, none of the flowers in that meadow were familiar to me, and when I hummed a little tune to help them grow, they did not whisper a name back, because nobody had yet named them. Each was new upon the world, its alchemical and medicinal properties uncharted - and, therefore, well worth getting samples of.
"This one's Laeanna's Lily," Calivar said, and she slipped the little purple flower into my hair.
"Then this one's Meliswe's Marigold," I said. I had no idea whether the names would take, but it was fun to pretend.
"That doesn't even look like a marigold!"
"And mine doesn't look like a lily!" I stuck out my tongue and dodged, giggling, when he dove in to pull me into a hug. I perused the meadow in front of me and spotted another new flower, a pretty fuchsia thing growing close to the ground. "And this one can be Calivar's Cock-"
I meant to say 'Calivar's Cockscomb', but I was distracted by the distant whine. It soon grew to a buzz and then a thrumming drone, and then Queen Presimiwe and her daughter, Princess Gilaeana rose up above the level of the landing platform and then slowly descended to it, their many-hued autumnal hair billowing about them in the turbulence. Gilaeana had flown up, of course, but her mother no longer had wings. Instead, she had some sort of propeller contraption strapped to her back, slowly easing to a stop as she undid the straps of her vest. Apparently, she'd had some sort of alchemical-powered flying device commissioned, likely from the designs of one of her prisoners of war since nothing like an aeroplane existed in Alfheim.
Now… I may not be an aeronaut, but, even with her daughter helping to steer her, there's no way Presimiwe's propeller device could have lifted her four miles skyward. The propeller was perhaps three feet across. Of course, it's also physically impossible for fae to fly with their normal wings, at least according to Earth's physics. And the real reason is that you can bend physics in Alfheim, and it doesn't even quite count as magic - if you know how to supply the right sort of intent, you can perform the improbable without wasting a whit of mana, including lifting yourself up to the summit of the Nexus Mountain, provided you already know how to fly, so as to provide the right sort of intent. Calivar and I wandered out to greet the pair and escort them to where the rest of us were gathered.
"It's not my first moot," Presimiwe stated. She crouched down and hummed a gentle measure of woodsong before picking a pink-purple flower and then shooting me an odd look. "Why is this flower called Calivar's Cock?"
"For now and forever after," I whispered to my husband.
A few minutes later and we were in the great expanse of the temple - it reminded me of being inside Notre Dame, except it required far less support on account of being fashioned out of a single solid block of alamite. Presimiwe nodded to the others and descended to the large table where the rest of the fae royalty were already congregating.
"My lords, my ladies, I apologize for the delay. I was…" she searched for the word… "troubleshooting my means of transport."
"No worries, dear cousin," King Alvaelic said. "We've had much to talk about. But now that all of us are here, we can decide."