Ode to Joy

O Freunde, nicht diese Toene!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere!
Freude, schoener Goetterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brueder,
Wo dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.

Later that evening, I had dinner with Wren, which gave me a chance to talk about things. She had napped after breakfast, and slept longer than she had expected. We spoke about sleep and how it was sometimes difficult for me to get it when I wanted it. This gave me a lead to ask her about her sleep and drop subtle hints about having gotten the impression that her journey here had been less than comfortable. I did not want to force her to talk about it, but there were some things I needed to know, so that we could be prepared for any possible consequences from the Damondreds.

She didn’t seem to know how to explain it, so I suggested that maybe the word she was looking for was complicated. I told her that whatever her reasons for being here, I had to assume they were good ones, and that I would support her and stand by her wish to stay. However, there were things she needed to know. I explained my position as Steward and how the safety of the village was my responsibility. I told her that as a result of some complications, relations between us and Alec and Isabella were strained at best and that they were no longer welcomed in this land. I didn’t know how things stood between her and them, but if there were likely to be problems, I needed to know, so that we could be prepared. I assured her again that I would be on her side regardless.

Aoibheann must have already spoken to her, because Wren told me she knew about her bringing Hadley here and nearly starting a war. She told me that she had not been home in some while. Something had happened and she did not want them to know, as they might get mad. She was clearly uncomfortable talking about it, which made me fear for what might have happened to her. I didn’t want to push her on it; however, as I would rather she told me when she felt comfortable. I assured her that she would be protected, if I had anything to do with it. I told her that Maric had actually banished Alec and Isabella so they couldn’t come here. I guessed that she had been to other places since leaving Esterwell, so expressed the hope that they might not start looking here. In the meanwhile, I told her that I wanted her to trust me. I wanted her to promise to come to me if there was anything that was bothering her, or if she wanted to talk about anything.

She confirmed that she had been to a number of places since leaving home, so it was likely that they did not know where to look for her. She then looked at me for a few moments before promising that she would come to me. She looked relieved and thanked me. I got the impression that people she could trust had been in short supply of late.

I changed the subject, in the hope of cheering her up, suggesting that she might like to start training with Kustav and the other guards. I told her that even I had become somewhat proficient with the sword since she had known me. She seemed excited by that idea, but then stopped, turning pale for a moment. She told me she had something, something she perhaps shouldn’t have here. She rummaged in her violin case and produced a small handgun, which she handed to me, butt first. She said she didn’t want to get arrested for having something like this. I took it from her and examined it, commenting drily that she had clearly been to some interesting places. I suspected it might be a more modern piece than I was used to, but after some examination, I managed to eject the bullets, thus making it safer. I promised I would lock it up in my office. I told her she needn’t worry about it any further and asked if she had an actual violin in there.

She nodded and pulled one out of the case. It had clearly been in the wars, looking a little warped and with one string hanging loose. She had been learning it at camp, she told me, although she only knew how to play something called Ode to Joy. She had taken it with her when she left and somewhere on her adventures, it had gotten wet. I looked at it and suggested that we should try to dry it out very slowly, maybe using some sawdust or rice. I said I would speak to some of the craftsmen in the village to see what we could do.

Her mention of Ode to Joy brought back some pleasant memories. I told her that my mother used to play Ode to Joy on the piano and that we used to sing it together. I searched my memory to dredge up the words and sang a few bars to her. That surprised her. I don’t think she had heard me sing before. She even seemed to like my voice, which I had always considered adequate, rather than skilled. She also had not known that there were even words to the tune. I told her about the Schiller poem that the song was based on. She wanted to know what it was about, so I again dredged my memory for the English version and sang the opening few bars in English. She said that I should sing with Aoibheann, saying that Aoibheann had sung and played piano when she had visited her. This was news to me. I knew Aoibheann had a good voice, but had not known her every to play a piano. Of course, I had never seen her in the vicinity of a piano, so this was hardly surprising. We went on to talk about learning music and learning to play instruments. This was a much more pleasant topic of conversation, which occupied us over dinner, and made for a restful and companionable meal.

 Ode to Joy

A morning meeting…

Nathaniel leads the way into his office, followed by Kustav, Hal, Caleb and Novak. He settles down behind the desk and waits for them to all be seated while a servant brings tea and coffee. They go through the daily reports quickly, with nothing unusual to discuss, other than a certain amount of nervousness from some villagers concerning the cŵn visitor. Nathaniel asks them to do their best to reassure people that the cŵn is quite civilised, but to be on their guard against doing anything that might alarm him.

After all the normal reports, Nathaniel turns to the copy of Aoibheann’s letter in front of him. “OK lads, I need a favour. Aoibheann is worried that nobody has responded to this….”

Nathaniel holds up the letter and reads through it for the benefit of anybody who hadn’t seen it yet. “I am writing to inquire about which contests we feel most strongly about, so as we begin preparations for Lughnasadh, we shall not waste our time with any lesser sports. All eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, please also send the details of your pedigree and estate to assist in the matchmaking.”

This provokes a few smiles and the occasional eye-roll, albeit fond ones. “I know,” says Nathaniel, “I know. But, since the idea of having a celebration for Lughnasadh was partly mine, I will need your help in making it successful.”

He puts the letter down again and looks at them. “What I want you to do is to go round the village, covering the same groups you would for the emergency procedures, it doesn’t matter if you overlap somewhat, and find out what sports and games people would like to compete at and bring me back a list of the most popular suggestions. Kustav, if you could do the same for the guards and the Islanders. Talk to Phaedra about that. For the sake of clarity, drinking and pie-eating don’t count as competitive sports, and, if anybody makes any salacious suggestions for activities, do me a favour and don’t mention them to Aoibheann. “

There is a general round of grins. “I don’t think I could make enough pies anyway,” says Hal with a laugh. “I can barely keep up with Kustav.” The latter worthy gives Hal a mock glare and mutters something in his native tongue that might possibly translate approximately as “Speak for yourself, lard-ass,” which provokes further laughs.

Nate picks up the letter again. “As for the match-making,” he rolls his eyes, “I don’t know quite what she expects. I’ve not noticed people paying much attention to pedigree, and it isn’t as if we have much in the way of estate between us all. However, we will have to give her something to do. Between you, you know everybody in the village, so if you can think of some people who might be a good match for each other, and who might need a helping hand, let her know, and maybe we can… mark their dance cards or something.”

The stewards all look at each other and grin. “Mirko and Irina,” suggests Caleb, which provokes a snort of laughter from Kustav and some possibly ribald comments in their own language from the others. “Davor and Helene,” from Novak provokes a similar reaction from the others.

Nathaniel watches them with a bemused smile. “Well, yes, I can see you are all very keen to get started, but, please, no suggestions that are likely to provoke wars or family feuds, if you could manage that. Right, if that’s all, then we all have work to be getting on with. Thank you all for coming.” He waves them off in dismissal and watches as they file out, making more probably unsuitable match-making suggestions.

 

The Wanderer

I should, by now, be used to the somewhat fractured nature of what I once thought of as reality. And as one who has the ability to step from one reality to another, even if I rarely exercise that gift, I should not be surprised that this fractured reality throws up the occasional surprise. For the most part, in this case, it is a pleasant surprise, but one that somehow does not come without a slight sense of foreboding.

It started out much like any other morning. I got dressed, attached my sword, glared at the mirror and asked it what craziness the world was going to present today, just like every other day. I seem to recall I mentioned exploding trousers and depressed were-badgers among the possibilities. And then I went down for some breakfast.

There were no exploding trousers. There were no depressed were-badgers. There was, however, my favourite Damondred, in the form of young Wren, looking clean enough, but seeming tired and carrying more than a few bruises and grazes. I stifled the expletive-filled question and asked in more polite form what brought her here, addressing her, as usual, as Patrolman. I could not help but scan the room in case we were about to be invaded by a vengeful Alec, despite my faith in Maric’s banishment thereof. There was also an Aoibheann, who seemed pre-occupied with her breakfast.

We hugged hello. She seemed pleased to see me, as I was to see her, but her answer to my question was that it was hard to explain. Of that, I was certain and said that there would be some explaining to be done at some point, but for now, we should probably have breakfast. Aoibheann told me that Wren had turned up the previous night, appearing out of nowhere, and that she didn’t want to return to Esterwell. She asked if I would speak to Maric about letting her stay. I wasn’t entirely sure how he would take it, given the fallout from the last time a Damondred child had visited here, but I said I would ask. We would sort something out, I told them. Breakfast came, and we ate while I told Wren that things had changed since last time she had visited, especially that we had moved the village away from the old hilltop and into Faerie.

Aoibheann then told me to stop listening and moved a little closer to Wren, lowering her voice in a conspiratorial whisper and telling her that she liked Maric. I didn’t think this was entirely the right time for girly gossip, but if it kept Aoibheann happy, I could let it go. I wasn’t sure how interested Wren would be, though, given that talk of relationship stuff wasn’t usually her favourite topic. Perhaps she had grown away from the ‘boys are gross’ stage though, since she merely responded by asking if Maric was her boyfriend. Aoibheann actually admitted that she loved him. Wren was fine with that provided they didn’t kiss where she could see. She did ask, however, with that directness that young people have, what had become of Daimon and Llwyd.

That was a good question, and I wondered if Aoibheann would answer it. To my surprise, she did so. She explained how the Ashmourne that Wren had visited before was changed, and was now back in the Summerlands where it belonged. To do this, the faerie monarchs, including Llwyd as Seelie King had had to sacrifice themselves. That much I knew already. As for Daimon, he had decided to go back, to forget, even before we left Jasper Cove, so that he could be freed of the White Stag. He had done so without saying goodbye. She also said that Alec had known this and not told her, preferring to let her think that it was all her fault, that she had failed Daimon. Now that was interesting news, and explained a lot about the bitterness Aoibheann had been feeling towards Alec.

Wren seemed sympathetic, saying that she hoped this one didn’t disappear like the other two. She also acknowledged Alec’s part, saying that he did that a lot, which made Aoibheann frown. I could understand that. It is one thing to know of another’s faults, but hearing that the child was aware of said faults somehow made it worse.

I tried to lighten the mood by telling Wren, since we were talking about liking people, that Gwyn was now the Faerie Queen and that she and I liked each other a lot. I promised to keep the kissing to a minimum though, which got a grin from her. Aoibheann then decided we had had enough gossip and started talking about Lughnasadh, hoping that Wren could stay for that at least and that Maric would let her stay for good. She still hadn’t had any replies to her letter, she said.

I told her I would bring it up at my morning meeting with the stewards, which I had to go to as soon as breakfast was over. In fact, as I said it, I heard the stewards arriving. I told Wren that as far as I was concerned, she was more than welcome to stay. I told her that she could roam the village, but to not go beyond the borders marked by the roses, warning her that they could bite. I also pointed out where my office was, telling her that she could come and find me any time, if she needed anything. She agreed to that and asked what Lughnasadh was.

I got up to go as Aoibheann started explaining what Lughnasadh was. I was about to go into the office and I remembered something that Aoibheann had written on my construction drawings. I asked her what Sew Kreabh meant. She corrected me, saying it was Sùbh-craoibh and that it meant jam bush – a bush with berries on for making jam. I thanked her for that clarification and disappeared into the office for my morning meeting, wondering what the hell was so important about the jam bushes that she had to add it to the drawings. I went into the meeting in a distinctly pensive frame of mind. Seeing Wren again reminded me how fond I had become of her, but I could not let that cloud my judgement. Much as I would love to have her stay, I had also to think of the possible risk to the village, should the Damondreds learn that she was here.

The Wanderer

 

Hen’s March

It was so much simpler, back in the day, when all I had to worry about was supplying a crew of 200, occasionally up to 100 passengers, and the needs of the ship itself. It all seemed so simple then. All I had to do was work out what supplies were needed, source them, make sure they came in a form that was suitable for transport by ship and would last the voyage without spoiling. All I had to do was do the negotiations, often in several different languages and assorted currencies in assorted countries, arrange the lading, and, of course, once that was all done and dusted, look after the disbursements and distribution on board ship. I must have been good at it. You don’t make the post of Chief Purser on the SS Odiham Castle without being good at something. All I had to worry about then was currency fluctuations, the occasional linguistic complication and the intervention of the weather. Life was simple.

It is not so simple now. I now have to make allowances for different species as well as languages. I have to deal with being in some far off realm, with travel to other places where I can trade being somewhat… problematical. Oh, and minor problems like carrion-eating goddesses, deranged cŵn, Wild Hunts, faerie Kings and Queens, vampires, and whatever the hell Alec and Isabella are. They never taught me that stuff in university or accounting school. There are no text books, no manuals for that sort of thing. And then there is Aoibheann. There is definitely no manual for Aoibheann, and somehow, I would question the sanity of anybody who would even try to write one.

I was sitting in the main hall, relaxing with a glass of wine and an old bestiary, loosely wondering if there should be entries for vampires, dhampyrs, undead flying unicorns, were- cŵn and the most mysterious creature of all, the Aoibheann. As if on cue, she appeared, coming up the stairs from the entrance hall, looking slightly flustered. This was nothing out of the ordinary, save for the cluster of chicken feathers in her hair. This being Aoibheann, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to know, but I asked anyway – “If I asked why you had chicken feathers in your hair, would I regret it?”

The answer was surprisingly mundane, well, most of it. The chickens had gotten out of their coop, so she had been chasing them around the village to try to get them back indoors before it got dark, and before our guest… She tailed off, so I assumed she was worried that Gwrgi might have started chasing them. I asked how we should provide for him and asked if he hunted in his own realm.

She was a little reluctant to talk about it, but eventually admitted that while she would try her best to dissuade him, she couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t hunt here. Hunting was part of what he was. We spoke of whether or not he could control his impulses and remain in control. He was clearly capable of civilised behaviour and was possessed of intelligence, judging by his behaviour the other night when we had spoken. She was sure he could, if we treated him with respect. I tried to explain why I had had to respond with weapons and promised I would try to treat him like any other civilised being in future, provided he offered no threat to the villagers or our stock.

I asked if what I suspected was right, that this was Gwrgi, the cŵn that Valene had tried to rescue, who had been an elf before he became cŵn. She told me that Padishar thought that he was, but he, himself did not remember Valene, and did not even remember his own name. She wasn’t entirely sure he was a normal cŵn even. I offered to do what I could to help, once the supply chain was sorted out to keep ourselves fed. She thought this would bring other complications; he had to hunt, and it wouldn’t be a hunt if we were to give him the food, and there was also the problem of what gifts meant to the fae. I had to agree with her there, but had no idea what the solution might be.

The mention of the fae reminded me that I really had to work on the accords I had promised I would write, so we could formalise the relations with the fae. I also wondered if we should invite them to the Lughnasadh celebrations. I asked how the preparations for that were going. She was worried about it. Nobody had responded to the letter she had sent around. I was not really surprised, especially the bit about asking all the eligible single folk to send in details of their pedigree and estate to assist with the matchmaking. That was possibly how things were done in her time, but I wasn’t sure it was appropriate here. Given that many of the villagers were likely people who had taken shelter there, had taken the sanctuary that Maric offered, then estates and pedigree were largely irrelevant.

I offered to make more copies of the letter for her and to have my deputies go around the village and make sure everybody knew what was in it, especially for those who could not read or write. I also suggested that there were maybe easier ways to do the matchmaking – maybe we could have some sort of parade where the boys and girls introduced themselves, followed by some dances, preferable the sort where everybody got to dance with everybody else. That way, people could get to know each other and decide if there was anybody there they liked. She wasn’t so keen on this idea, claiming it wasn’t matchmaking if they got to choose. On that we had to disagree, though I did allow that perhaps we could weight the dice a little. If we thought certain people were a good match, we could always cheat slightly and make sure they got more dances together.

There was a little more to her doubts. She didn’t know how to dance, she said. She could dance with Maric, but that was because he did all the work. And there was more. Suddenly, it all came out- her self-doubts. She didn’t really know what Lughnasadh was supposed to be like. We had put her up to this, thinking she would pull through, but she wasn’t sure she could. She had done this sort of thing in Jasper Cove, but she wasn’t that person any more. She didn’t know who she was any more.

I put my wine aside so I could hold her hand for a moment, trying to reassure her. We would have a party, I said, and we would celebrate with fruits and wines and contests. The young people would dance, and maybe they would pair up, and we would have a good time. Whatever we did, that would be right for our Lughnasadh. We didn’t have to obey the rules for what others said Lughnasadh was for. As for changing, we had all changed. Look at me; I told her, back in Jasper Cove, I was little more than a barman and an accountant. Now I was in charge of a whole village and becoming somewhat of a warrior. I asked her what I could do to help, what I could do to help her find herself.

She did not know how I could help, she told me. She said something about there being lots of rules, and that was why she had never been allowed to go to Lughnasadh celebrations before, because she was terrible at following the rules. As many times before, I wondered what sort of life she had experienced before she came to Jasper Cove, before the Boatman had offered her that ride. I tried to tell her that was in the past. Those rules did not apply any more. Here, I said, we had our own rules. I knew this because I had written them out and nailed them to the wall in the tavern.

She then told me about the choice that Maric and Gwrgi had forced upon her, making her choose where her home was, and how she had told them that Ardan was her home. I said that I had heard this and that I wasn’t impressed with them for making her choose. Whatever her choice, I said, I was still her friend, and I was always there for her because I loved her, as a friend. She seemed to take a little comfort from that, but the matter of her choice, and the worries about the party still seemed to be weighing on her. She needed some time alone, she said, and got up to leave, finishing her glass of wine. Of course, I had to let her go, but reminded her that I was there if she needed me.

There isn’t much more I can do. I can tell her that the old rules no longer apply until I was blue in the face, but until she starts to believe it… Other than that, I can only carry on doing what I already do, being her friend.

Hen’s March

Time for a Celebration

Marriage is in the air, apparently. Or so Aoibheann seems to think. Not for her and Maric, I hasten to add, though I do wonder if Maric is of an age where he would not presume to take her to his bed without a ring on her finger. Not that it is any of my business. Much as I love Aoibheann, the concept of pursuing any sort of romance with her seems fraught with… complications. It doesn’t seem to deter him though.

No, it is not her marriage that concerns Aoibheann, so much as marriages for the villagers, those that are not already married anyway. Quite why she feels the need to intervene, I do not know. I am sure most of them can work it out for themselves, even the ones who are like I was in my younger days, shy and awkward with those of the opposite gender. I know many would dispute that description, but I was.

I had gone down to the tavern to buy drinks for the various people who had worked so hard in the rebuilding of the tavern and the other parts of the village. Maric joined me and we spoke of the various improvements we had made,how it would be good for everybody and praised all those who had worked so hard to achieve it. I spoke of Father, and how he would have been proud to see me wandering around with construction plans, adding that maybe had learned something from the old bugger, despite not having followed him into the family business.

Maric assured me that he was proud of my achievements and suggested that maybe a celebration was in order to commemorate a new start for our domain and to honour my dedicated service. He proposed a toast to better times. I shrugged off the praise, telling him I had only done what was required of me. It had been more fun that adding up numbers though. As for reward, what could he give me? He could make me a duke or a lord or whatever, but he knew how little I cared for titles. I had no need of titles or riches. The villagers, I said, were the ones who deserved a celebration. They had worked hard to rebuild the village, and they deserved something after being cooped up in the Shadowroads for so long. I would, however, join in his toast.

Aoibheann turned up, accompanied by one of the guards, and carrying a glass of wine. She seemed a little out of it, but had at least put on a decent dress. Maric welcomed her with his usual grace and praise of her beauty and elegance, causing her to blush. I echoed those compliments and added that she was an excellent party planner. We should have a celebration for the forthcoming feast of Lughnasadh, I said, with games and dancing. She admonished me, most seriously, that you did not play games at Lughnasadh, you had contests. She added something about never being allowed to go and having to stay inside.

Maric assured her that she was most certainly allowed to go wherever she pleased, and that she could arrange whatever contests she wished. She stammered somewhat, wondering how she could arrange a festival she had not been allowed to go to. She also started going on about how she couldn’t arrange the matchmaking and marriages because she had never been allowed to marry herself. I was a little confused by that, not remembering anything particularly about marriages being a part of Lughnasadh. It was only later, reading up on the subject, that I realised she was maybe thinking of the Tailteann games of an older era, at which, among other things, trial marriages were arranged, and those games had taken place at this time of year.

I left them to it after that, thinking they would appreciate some time together. I had things to do anyway, which now, apparently, included preparing for a Lughnasadh festival, or at least, warning the staff that Aoibheann was going to be planning one. I also had a certain amount of misgiving, remembering that there was still an open invitation to Nemaine that had not been revoked. This was the first celebration we were to have since the invitation. I can only hope that she declines to turn up.

Time for a Celebration

Wolf with the Red Roses

Home is where the heart is, so the proverb tells us. And it would seem, therefore, that Aoibheann’s heart lives in a tree, specifically, Ardan. Of course, that is no surprise, but it is the first time that she has explicitly said so.

I had been doing my usual rounds of the village when I ran into Dorina by her hut. She was complaining about her variable luck with growing her herbs. I didn’t have much help to offer, but I mentioned such things as I remembered learning from Mother. Helene turned up then, so I suggested they talk, although Helene protested that she was better at finding wild herbs than she was growing them. Curiously, the conversation took place partly in French. Well, curiously for Dorina anyway, for I had not known that she spoke the language. Helene and I, on the other hand, have conversed many times in that tongue.

Before we could get very far on the matter of growing herbs, I felt a disturbance in the roses about the same time as I heard the guards calling to one another from the direction of the entrance. Within moments, one of them came up and reported that a large cŵn was approaching the village in a hostile manner, and that it was possibly the one that Aoibheann had asked us not to attack. I sent him to fetch Kustav or Davor. I also asked him to send for Aoibheann. I wasn’t entirely sure why. Possibly, I hoped that maybe she could explain what we were supposed to do with a ravening cŵn if we weren’t supposed to hurt it.

I headed over towards the village entrance, drawing my sword, just in case. I was vaguely aware that Helene and Dorina had decided to follow me, and as I glanced back, Dorina had armed herself with a rock, and Helene had grabbed a stout broom. I could only hope that they had the sense to stay well back if things got ugly.

Davor caught up with me as we got towards the edge of the village, drawing his own sword once he saw I had mine to hand. I briefly explained that Aoibheann’s favourite cŵn was possibly approaching. It then occurred that while he and the cŵn were different creatures, there might be some commonality, enough maybe that they could communicate. He grudgingly agreed it was possible, though it hadn’t helped when they attacked the hill before. The beast’s roars had clearly disturbed Maric, as his thoughts came to me through our mental link, asking what was wrong. I updated him and he said he would come down too.

The beast appeared, slavering and howling, standing upright, and from its stance, ready for a fight. I felt Davor shift into the wolf-man shape, which approximated closely to the form the cŵn had taken. The rest of the guards and I formed a half-circle, swords ready, but held down, non-threatening. The beast howled at us, and then looked at the sheep that were nervously clustered nearby. I was wondering if we should risk defending the sheep, or maybe let it have one in the hope that would satisfy it, when Aoibheann came charging in out of nowhere, screaming “No!” Whether that was meant for us to stop us attacking the beast, or if she hoped to dissuade him from our sheep, I didn’t know. Davor also issued some sort of challenge; at least, I assumed that was the intention of his howl at the beast.

It seemed nonplussed by Aoibheann charging at him, and swung its arm, not to strike, but to grab, scooping her up and tucking her under said arm, holding her almost possessively. It then reacted to Davor’s challenge with a roar of his own that fair rattled our eardrums. Davor answered him in growls, possibly warning him to not harm her, but the beast’s stance seemed more protective than aggressive, at least to her. I warned the lads to keep their swords down and addressed Aoibheann, who seemed to be trying to growl at it herself. I asked if this was her friend, and if she was in any danger. She had asked us not to harm the cŵn, I said, but if he tried anything, we might not have a choice. She didn’t answer, save by trying to roar at us. The cŵn, however, did answer, surprising us all by speaking English in a somewhat cultured voice. “She is mine,” he said, “not yours. I will keep her safe.”

Davor had started to growl something, but switched to English, telling the cŵn that Aoibheann was already safe with us here. For some reason, this earned him a whack on the back from Helene’s broomstick and a command to hush. Perhaps she thought he was being too aggressive. I quickly advised Maric that the beast spoke English before following up Davor’s comment, insisting that Aoibheann belonged to nobody but herself, and as Davor had said, she was already safe, as she had all of us to protect her. I also asked her what she wanted; pointing out that Maric was concerned for her. What she wanted I didn’t get to hear because she just shouted at me for not listening and not, despite my expressed preference, wanting to solve things with words rather than swords. I would have pointed out that my first duty was to the village and therefore, having my sword ready when a ravening beast comes charging up the path was a perfectly reasonable response, but somehow I don’t think she would have listened.

Davor, meanwhile, reacted to Helene’s attack with a swift wag of his tail, which knocked her off her feet. I am sure he meant no harm, but it earned him what sounded like a reproof from Maric, who had just turned up. Maric then responded to the beast as I had, saying that Aoibheann was perfectly safe here and asking if they could talk about it. The beast settled down a bit, so I motioned the guards to stand down somewhat. Maric said that this was Aoibheann’s home, so why would he want to take her away from it?

I stepped back, letting Maric take charge of the situation. I noticed that Davor apologised to Helene, after shifting back to human shape, and even offered to buy her a drink when they were both less stressed. That seemed to nonplus her and she grudgingly agreed that maybe he could, after this problem was dealt with.

The beast, meanwhile, was telling Maric that the Little Rabbit was his home, that the forest was his home and they should be at home in the forest. He then asked Aoibheann, where was his home, where was her home?

What her answer was, I did not hear directly, for Maric asked me to take the others away, and have the servants prepare a room for our guest, should he choose to stay. I later learned that the question was asked of her again, by both of them, where was her home? Her answer? Ardan. I guess we should not be surprised. This was probably not the answer that either the cŵn or Maric expected, but it makes sense to me.

Thinking about it later on, it occurred to me that the cŵn might be the one that Valene had been trying to rescue, what was his name, Gwrgi. He had been an elf, if I recall correctly, before being captured by the Huntsman and turned into a cŵn. Something else occurs to me, something that I feel I should be concerned about, but I have no idea what to do about it. The cŵn said that the Little Rabbit was his home. This was a curious echo of the Huntsman’s last statement, his last wish; that Aoibheann was to be his home. Could this be because the cŵn was once part of the Huntsman’s pack and therefore, the Huntsman’s home was his home? Or was he heir to the role of the Huntsman? Could it be that with the Huntsman gone, that function devolves to his cŵn? So many questions, and I do not know how to ask them, much less answer them.

 Wolf with the Red Roses

 

Stolen Child

I love Aoibheann dearly, as if she were my blood kin, my family, but there are times when she can be incredibly frustrating. How often have I written these words, I wonder? This time, the frustration is as real as it can be, for she may have brought us to the brink of war.

I was in my chambers when I sensed a disturbance in the atmosphere of the castle. I came down the stairs to see what was going on and found Aoibheann there in the main hall. She had a child with her. I was nonplussed at first and then aghast when I recognised the child. It was Hadley! Alec and Isabella’s daughter. She was a couple of years older, naturally, but I knew her. What was even more worrying was that she was clearly in a lot of pain, and looked as though she had been removed from a hospital of some sort. Aoibheann was trying to get her to eat something and trying to decide on which of Maric’s healing potions to give her.

I knelt down and spoke to the child, asking if she remembered me, which she apparently did not. I can’t be too surprised, as we had very little contact in Jasper Cove. I was going to try some healing magic on her, so far as I knew how, but she would not stop screaming and would not let me touch her, and I was not sure I could do it without touch. I looked up and asked Aoibheann what the heck was going on. She blurted out some incoherent explanation about Hadley being left in a hospital, something about having to eat and not being able to watch the child to stop the doctors hurting her and then something about maybe the broken arm having not been properly set.

I waved her to silence, saying she should maybe explain later. I tried again with the child, thinking maybe I could at least project some calm, but she continued to scream. Before I could do anything further, Maric appeared. I briefly explained who the child was and as much of the story as I had managed to fathom from Aoibheann’s ramblings. He also tried to comfort the child and heal her pain, but she wasn’t interested, continuing to scream “don’t touch me.”

Just to add to the fun, Gwyn appeared, radiating glamour and rendering poor Milo on the doors quite incapable. Her presence was affecting Maric too. I could feel, through our link, that hunger he has for fae blood, and in his current state, I was not sure how much control he had. Gwyn seemed to know something of what was going on, but was clearly annoyed with Aoibheann for bringing the child here. Aoibheann kept trying to argue that she had been left alone in the hospital and that Hadley had wanted to come here. I started to wonder if it was Aoibheann’s experience of hospitals that was colouring her view of Hadley’s state. Gwyn, meanwhile, was telling us that Isabella was angry, extremely angry. Her hand kept going to the jewel at her neck, her tie to Isabella. Perhaps that was how she was feeling the anger. She kept trying to say that Hadley was not enjoying the trip, and that she was just a child, whereas Aoibheann kept insisting that she should not be in the hospital and that she as nearly a grown woman.

Maric asked me, through our link, what I thought was the best way to rectify this situation, and what I knew of the child, Alec and Isabella. I briefed him as best I could, suggesting that we should get Hadley back as soon as we possibly could. He also asked me to get Gwyn away from him, and I could tell that he was having difficulty controlling the hunger. He returned his attention to the child, beckoning servants to bring blankets and some of his potions while I took Gwyn’s hand and asked to speak privately with her. As we walked, I explained to Maric about Hadley’s magic and habit of disappearing off to places. I did not know the place that Hadley had come from, but I might be able to get there, by concentrating on getting to Alec.

Once outside, I explained to Gwyn about Maric’s hunger for fae blood and his current reduced level of control. She said she had felt it too. Now we were outside, she said that she was really worried, because she could feel Isabella’s anger, and that she as coming here and the land was fighting against it. We had to find some way to calm her down, because Gwyn couldn’t go against her, not with her promise.

Just then, we both felt a pain through the land, through the wyld. She felt it more than me and she cried out that something had happened to Ardan. Isabella had ripped a branch from the mallorn tree. I could feel that pain, but it dropped Gwyn to her knees. This was a step too far and I could see she was being torn in two. On one hand, there was her promise to Isabella, but on the other, she was linked to this land, and the crime against Ardan was too much for her. I took her hand, and as I did so, another fear hit me, a fear for the crystals, the incubators of our young. I allowed myself to link to the wyld again, and relaxed slightly. Surely we would have felt something if there had been any damage to our children. I asked what we should do, how we should handle this. Clearly the child needed to be returned, but now there was another issue, a direct attack on our realm.

There was another ripple through the wyld sense, and I could tell the roses were reacting to an intruder. I heard shouts of the guards, challenging somebody. I suspected that this might be Isabella and Gwyn confirmed it. She was going to the castle, and she feared what might happen then, with Isabella’s powers against Maric’s. We had to retrieve the child somehow, but she could not be near Maric. I said I would return to the castle and she should come with me, staying out of sight, but ready to help if needed. Maybe we could get the child and return her to Isabella. Be careful, she warned me, as there was an angry Isabella in my path.

She was right. There was, but I was curiously unafraid. I had no personal disagreement with Isabella, aside from what she had apparently done to Ardan, and besides, this was my turf. I walked calmly to the castle and dismissed the guards to holding positions. I advised Maric through the link that she was outside and that I would try to talk to her, meanwhile, we should try to prepare the child to be returned. Perhaps, I suggested, we could persuade Aoibheann to apologise and trhen we could convince Alec and Isabella that she acted without malice, out of her own fear of hospitals. It wasn’t much, but maybe we could do that.

Before I could go any further, or address Isabella any further beyond a bow and a greeting, there was another disturbance and Alec appeared, in his full demonic form, that I had not seen since the encounter at the bridge. I advised Maric of this, and said I would do my best to talk to them. Maric said he would join me. This was, after all, his land.

Isabella finally spoke, even if it was less a voice than a sensation of anger, saying we had her child, and that she was hurting. She held a white branch in her hands, and I knew this was part of Ardan.

I bowed respectfully. The child was safe in the castle, I told them, save for the pain of her broken arm, which had occurred before she came here. I told them that Aoibheann had acted rashly, out of her disproportionate fear of hospitals and had acted without any malice. With their permission, I said, I would have the child brought to them and there would be no need for any further harm to anybody or anything.

Alec roared at me, hovering over me, a malign, threatening form, trembling with anger and madness, inches away from ripping me limb from limb. The child had been through major surgery, he shouted, her insides had been stitched back together. And yet, she had been taken by one of mine. If there was any harm to her, why should be not reduce me to ashes, why should be not damage me until I would long for the torment of hell?

I did not, would not, let his anger touch me, I would not react in kind. I forced myself to be calm and explained again. I knew only of the broken arm because that was what Aoibheann had told me. He should understand how Aoibheann felt about hospitals. She did not understand, and saw only that Hadley was distressed, thinking that she was distressed by the hospital. Again, I repeated that the child was safe, and would be returned to them shortly. Again, I repeated that there was no need for any further harm. I felt Maric arrive beside me and he gave them greeting, also apologising for the misunderstanding and saying the child would be returned to them.

Alec seemed not to see him, fixing me with his icy glare, all predator now. If these were truly mistakes, then I should stand by my words. He told me to select one of my people, to bear the same pain and suffering that Hadley had. They would suffer as long as Hadley suffered, for our mistake and Aoibheann’s rashness. Only that would appease him. And, I was not to be the one. For if I tried to take that pain on myself, he would make everybody suffer.

Aoibheann appeared, and seemed to be about to apologise, until she saw the branch. Then she got angry, telling them that it was not theirs to take.

Gwyn joined us, standing by my side, away from Maric. Gwyneth addressed Aoibheann first, saying she was furious with her for what she had done and for putting us in this position. She was equally furious with Alec and Isabella for their reaction, and for their attack upon Ardan. Surely they knew how Aoibheann was, and how she feared hospitals. And now, she was in an untenable position, for they had violated this land, taken from our tree. She could not speak for the steward of this land, but to ask further tribute was an insult, as they already held their tribute, the branch from Ardan, in their hands.

Her words echoed my sentiments. I also said no, there would be no tribute. Aoibheann had already suffered much harm as a result of Alec’s mistakes with the Huntsman, harm had already been done to this land with the attack upon Ardan. There would be no tribute, there would be no further harm. The child would be returned and that would be an end to it.

I beat Maric to it by a whisker. Whatever he thought of Aoibheann’s actions, threats had been made in his domain, and I knew that would not be tolerated. He was lord here, he told them, and all threats directed here were directed to him. Threatening violence against his people was unacceptable. The child had suffered some pain, but he had treated that and now she rested peacefully. The child would be brought to them and that should be that. If they continued, if they tried to bring violence here, that would make them enemies. Surely, he said, this could be resolved without further bloodshed. Surely we should be concentrating on returning the child safely instead of arguing.

Alec smirked at us, as if he still relished the idea of unleashing pain, but instead, demanded that we bring the child. There was still a price, he said, and that would still be paid. At least, this time, he seemed to be referring to the branch.

We gained an unexpected ally. The form of Padishar floated down from somewhere, telling Alec and Isabella that they had no power here, that they could not walk into another man’s land and make demands. Gwyn and Aoibheann were too gentle with their words, he said, but he did not have to be. They had no rights here, and should take the child and leave. Though, if they wanted pain, they were welcome to try it on him. This idea seemed to amuse him.

As if that wasn’t enough, Dorina appeared from nowhere, offering herself as the tribute, apparently believing she owed us something. Alec looked as though he was tempted, but desisted, saying she was maybe the only true innocent here. He repeated his demand for the child to be brought to him. He would keep the branch and that would be an end of it.

Padishar was not to be so easily deflected, and there seemed to be some magical tussle between him and Isabella for the branch, and even an attack upon Alec until Maric told him to desist.

One of the servants brought Hadley out and handed her over to Isabella. More angry words were exchanged, and Aoibheann stormed off, probably to go to Ardan. Alec and Isabella started to fade away and depart by their own means. Maric, however, was not going to let it go. He cast some magic, effectively banishing Alec from this realm, before stalking off in search of Aoibheann.

Dorina burst into tears, perhaps realising how much danger she had almost put herself in, and ran off to her cottage.

Padishar departed in the direction of the lab, leaving Gwyn and I, still standing side by side.

Both of us were angry, confused, in pain and upset. It took a fair while for us to calm down enough to walk away from the aftermath of that confrontation. We could not even discuss it, for it was too painful, especially for Gwyn, now torn between her land and her promise to Isabella. All we could do was hold each other, long into the night.

There are scars now. Scars on the love I had for Isabella and Alec, scars on the land, scars on Gwyn. What peace there might have been between us and Alec and Isabella’s realm is gone, and the matter of the injury to Ardan remains unresolved. I do not know what, if anything, can be done. I wish I did. And then there is Aoibheann. How to explain to her that she should not be so rash in future? That, at least, I shall leave in Maric’s hands, unless he asks me otherwise.

 Stolen Child