Standard Disclaimer: I am not Mercedes Lackey... she owns the copyright to the song lyrics upon which this tale is based.
A/N: For a creative writing class a few years back, the professor asked us to choose a song and expand it into a full-fledged tale. I chose "The Duke's Eldest Daughter" by Mercedes Lackey (copyright 1992, Firebird Arts and Music). The bulk of this tale follows the song, except for the final paragraph which is purely my own invention as the song does not mention what happened to the sisters afterwards.
"The duke's second daughter was ravishing fair, bright blue were her eyes and bright gold was her hair/ The duke's youngest daughter with eyes like the sky and hair like knit shadows made courtiers sigh/ But the duke's eldest daughter, a maiden called Jane, brown haired and brown eyed was decidedly plain..."
"Isn't this exciting?" squealed sixteen-year-old Lucy. "Our very first ball! Do I look all right? Oh, I hope someone asks me to dance!" She twirled around the small chamber where they waited, black hair and pale pink skirts floating about her like clouds. She was joined by her few-minutes-older twin, Katharine, day to Lucy's night with her golden hair and sky blue ballgown. Despite being twins, the two girls' only shared feature was eye color, a striking aquamarine blue.
Their sister Jane, older by a year, looked up at them from her book of ballads. "You both look lovely," she said. "I'm sure you won't have to worry about a lack of dance partners." Not like I will, Jane thought to herself. She wished now that she hadn't begged to put off her own debut until her sisters were also ready. Putting her book down, she checked the mirror once more, silently contrasting her own mousy locks and brown eyes with her sisters' stunning looks. Not that she was ugly, she thought, just plain as a board. Well, it was too late for regrets. Jane smoothed her pale lilac skirt and fixed a smile on her face as she took her place in the little procession.
But the evening only confirmed Jane's worst fears. Katharine and Lucy were besieged with admirers. Jane danced exactly twice... once with her father the duke to open the ball, and once with the elderly earl who was her father's best friend. Not that she minded that part of it. Jane possessed a lovely singing voice, not that anyone knew it, but was less than comfortable on the dance floor. Still, she thought, it would have been nice if one of the young men had at least spoken to her.
As the social season progressed, the duke held a number of balls. Jane, tired of sitting in the corner of the ballroom, started slipping out to walk in the forest surrounding the castle. One night, she was surprised to hear harpsong from deep within the wood. She followed it, curious. To her amazement, she saw a gathering of elves, dancing to the tunes played by one of their number. She stayed to listen, losing herself in the music. Without realizing it, she began humming, then singing aloud with the harp.
Applause brought her back to herself and she blushed wildly to see the elves staring at her. The harper set his instrument aside and clasped her hands. "You've gifted us with your song," he said. "Thank you. I hope we will see you again. Our next revel is at the full of the moon. Oh, I am called Ashteron. Might I know your name, songbird?"
"My name is Jane," she replied shyly. "I'm the duke's daughter. And if you really want me back, I'll be here," she promised. Singing for the elves was a lot more fun than attending those stuffy balls.
Jane met with the elves many times after that. Ashteron taught her some elven songs that she had never heard before, and she taught him some of her songs. She and Ashteron spent hours sitting together and talking as well, when no revels were being held. She grew to treasure the time spent with her secret friends. But all too soon, winter approached. It was too cold to spend much time outside, especially at night. The elves would not hold another revel until spring. So Jane was forced once again to endure the balls that Katharine and Lucy so adored.
To make things worse, both Katharine and Lucy had accepted proposals from the heirs of neighboring dukedoms. But their father insisted that Jane, as the eldest, must wed before they did. So now her sisters, resentful at being kept from their lovers, spent most of their time sniping at her. Jane tried to think of anything that might help. She tried different hairstyles, different dress styles, she even experimented with cosmetics but to no avail. She begged their father to change his mind and allow the younger ones to marry first, but he remained adamant. Meanwhile her sisters grew more and more spiteful towards her. Jane took to hiding in her room to escape them.
But one stormy night, they followed her to her room. "It's all your fault," Lucy proclaimed bitterly. "Just because you can't figure out how to attract a man, we aren't allowed to marry!"
"Yes, maybe Papa should hire someone to marry you, since you can't find a man on your own," Katharine added nastily.
"Please, it's not my fault," Jane pleaded. "I've tried and tried to get Papa to change his mind, but he won't listen. He just says the eldest girl has always married first."
"But it's not fair!" blazed Lucy. "I wish you were dead!"
Blinded by her tears and shock, Jane pushed past her sisters and fled the castle, cloakless, not caring that a blizzard howled outside. Habit guided her to the clearing where the elves held their revels. But she was exhausted from her run through the snowy wood and the ugly scene with her sisters. She huddled against the big rock she used as a seat whenever she joined the elven revels. I'm going to die, she thought. But who will ever notice? Maybe it will be better this way. Her eyes drooped and she slipped into a doze.
"Jane! Songbird, wake up!" Ashteron's voice cut through the haze surrounding her. "Jane!"
"Dreaming..." murmured Jane. She didn't feel cold anymore. Maybe she was already dead. She blinked, slowly becoming aware that she was hearing her name. And that she was wrapped in an unfamiliar cloak. "Who...? Ashteron? Is that you?" she asked.
"Oh, Jane, I thought I'd lost you!" Ashteron embraced her tenderly. "I've missed hearing your dear voice beside me as I play. Please, my love, stay with me, forever. I love you, Jane. Marry me."
So Jane married Ashteron, never to be seen again by the human population of the area. The pair spent many happy evenings in the elven hall, singing and playing for the court. Back at the duke's castle, everyone assumed that Jane died in the storm.
Katharine and Lucy rejoiced that they no longer had to wait for their older sister's marriage. But when they approached their father about setting wedding dates for them, preferably within the month, they received a nasty surprise. For the duke told them that their weddings must now be delayed until after the family completed a year's mourning for Jane.