Thorn in my Side

I was not raised to diplomacy, not in any formal sense. That said, watching my parents navigate the social and business circles in which they had to mix was an education in itself. I watched Father dealing with local and national government departments on projects, and cantankerous private clients who didn’t know what they really wanted, or, worse, did know what they wanted, but that was either impossible, or way outside the budgets they had available. I watched Mother at social and charitable events, outwardly the perfect society lady, even with the worst of snobs and those who, frankly, lacked much in intelligence and education. And I learned from both. Later, as Purser on the various ships, I learned the art of negotiation. My rise to seniority was proof I learned that well.

And now, consorting with lords and ladies, kings and queens, those things have proved invaluable, especially when dealing with the fae courts, where every word, every nuance counts, and the tiniest opportunity for misinterpretation could be a matter of life or death.

Now, of course, I had something different to deal with; the angry ghost of an ancient queen. Though, I am not so sure of the ghost bit. That battle on the mountain peak seemed real enough to me, as did the blood that spilled when she was hit. But that was by the by. The fact was that Dyisi and I had gone to her realm, and stolen from her, that which had been her very purpose in life, or death. The fact that, by doing so, we had helped to fulfil that purpose might well be irrelevant and may or may not serve in mitigation of our actions. Either way, I had an angry ghost connected to the castle, whose actions might adversely affect the castle, and I had to deal with it. Through the castle sense, I could hear echoes of her anger, and while others in the castle might not have my connection to it, I am sure they felt it too.

From what little experience I had of the Queen, I reckoned that honesty and diplomacy would serve better than fancy words, but I felt I needed more. Perhaps if I learned something of her, I might be better equipped to deal, and so I took myself to the library, there to learn what I could. As I searched among the older parts of the library, it occurred to me that perhaps, somewhere in the more ancient sections of Maric’s documents, from when he was still Agron, there might be something  more personal, something he had written about her, or even for her. Normally, I would not like to delve into something so personal, but needs must. Perhaps I would learn something useful, and, the thought also occurred, there might be something there, some memory of his time after he was parted from Teuta, that she would appreciate learning. A gift, perhaps, that would help placate her anger.

Maric’s library contains many books, but those I sought, I reckoned perhaps to be among those he kept most secure, in the laboratory, and thus it proved to be. There, among the esoteric tomes on alchemy and other magics, I found older books, ancient books in cracked and faded leather. Journals of his early years among the undead, at least, from then up until the fall of the Roman Empire. After that, nothing. Among them, however, was a smaller tome. Stained red leather and pages that seemed to be papyrus. It was Maric’s hand, that I knew, though even that had changed somewhat over the years, and in his native tongue. I grabbed a couple of pieces of clean fabric before handling it further, as I might with any ancient tome. Had I cotton gloves to hand, I would have worn those, but this would suffice.

I carefully cracked it open, gently turning to the first proper page, and I knew I had found what I sought. There, on the first page, the first word, was her name – Teuta.

“’Teuta. My true wife and only love. My one and only regret, through all the years of blood and suffering. That I could not see you one last time. But my sire took even that from me and so I have made him a monument to your tomb, my love. ‘If only I could have joined you in Neretva once more as we did in our youth. I still remember the taste of the apricots you loved so.”

I read on, skimming as I was wont to do when trying to get the sense of a book quickly. Many pages there were, of memories, memories of his mortal life and his mortal wife, of that which he had lost.  I could scarcely breathe as I read them. Here were the roots of the man I had known and loved, here in a deeply personal eulogy to the woman he had loved and the life he had lost. I resolved to take this to her, that she might see and read his words. The scholar in me rebelled a tad, wanting to know more, and so I made a few notes of the highlights.

Dyisi, who had been studying tomes of her own, almost unnoticed by me, looked up. I showed her the small volume and read aloud the first few lines. “I should take this to Teuta,” I said. “I need to go to her anyway, and make what explanations I can. Perhaps this will appease her somewhat.”

I could not decide which was better, to go alone, or to go with Dyisi. On the one hand, Dyisi was better equipped to explain what had passed, but on the other, Teuta might see her as the agency of stealing her prisoner from her, and might not be best pleased. We resolved that I would go first, and make what peace I could, and if it seemed wise to do so, I would summon Dyisi and she could best explain her part.

I went armed, in case should things go badly, but to show peaceful intent, I peace-tied the sword, wrapping a cord around the hilt and my belt so that it could not be quickly drawn. It was a risk, I knew that, but I felt it was worth it to show I was not there to fight.

The transition was much harder than before. Why I could not tell. Perhaps I was no longer welcome, or perhaps, with the prisoner gone, that realm was not linked so strongly to the castle. Either way, it was an almost painful journey to that bleak mountain place. I found it much as I had left it; windswept, grey and sullen, and yet, ragged-edged as if the very realm was starting to fade. Maybe its existence was tied to its purpose, which we had taken away.

The queen was kneeling a short distance away, by some small cairn, it looked. Her posture indicated prayer, though to what gods I did not know. Such history as I had learned made no mention of their religion. I could only guess that perhaps it was similar to that of the Greeks or the Romans, since it pre-dated Christ. I approached quietly and slowly, hands well away from my weapons in a gesture I hoped would be interpreted as peaceful. Once I was sure she was aware of my presence, and we were close enough to speak, I went to one knee and bowed, addressing her simply and respectfully – “My queen.”

She stood and looked at me. A proud, fierce, determined woman, her eyes dark with anger. She, too, kept her hand from her weapon, but I could tell I was one wrong word away from it being loosed. “I am queen to no-one,” she said, “and of nowhere now. My love is gone, as is my purpose.” She asked why I had come. Did I seek to claim this place too, as I had her husband’s home, she asked, gesturing me to rise.

I rose, slowly, giving another bow as I did so, taking a moment to gather my thoughts and formulate my response. “You were Agron’s Queen and his dearest love,” I told her. “In his memory, I shall still accord you that title and the respect due. From what little I know, from what little I have learned, I could not accord you any other title, save, perhaps of warrior. I make no claim on this place, or any other save that which Agron, known to me as Maric, bequeathed me, the castle known to me as Mysthaven. What I did, what I always do, is for him, in accordance with his will, and his wishes, and my duty to protect the castle. As to why I come. I come to accord you the respect you deserve, to make what peace I can.” I reached slowly towards the bag, not wishing to make any motion that could be perceived as a threat. “I also found, among Agron’s writings, some thoughts he had of you. Here, in his hand, in his words. He spoke of his love for you, his regret that his sire prevented him from seeing you one last time, and of apricots in a place called Neretva. May I retrieve it so I may pass it to you?”

She still stayed her hand from her sword, which was a good sign, though she seemed unimpressed by my words. The mention of Neretva, though, that brought a sudden glint of life, of interest, to her eyes. Her voice seemed stronger, more alive as she bade me to do so, saying she would accept this gift from me, addressing me still by title rather than name.

I undid the clasps of my bag and withdrew the parcel, slowly unwrapping it and refolding the fabric as a makeshift cushion on which one might offer a gift and offered it to her. “These are his words, of his life after he had to leave you, in his hand. He was my friend and mentor, and so I treasure this, but, as his queen and his love, it should be yours and I give it freely. I wish only peace between us, you and I, as ones who both loved him.”

She looked at the book and pulled off her gauntlet, reaching out with her bared hand. Somehow, as she touched it, it rejuvenated, becoming as it might once have been when first he wrote in it. There was something more, something profound in that simple contact, as if it gave more than the simple sense of touch. I could see new life in her, real feelings, even if she would not acknowledge them openly.  She took the book from me and held it to her as tenderly as one might a child. She thanked me for the gift and said that for this, there could be a peace between us. However, there was still an accounting to me made for the one she swore to guard. Everything there was tied to that, as she was to her tomb.

I thanked her for the peace and asked if Dyisi, an Oracle of Greece, might be permitted to join us, as she would be better able to explain. I told her that she too had loved Agron, and had also been acting on his wishes.  Some measure of anger returned to her eyes at the mention of Dyisi, but, nevertheless, she granted permission with a nod.  It suddenly occurred to me that I had never tried this means of communication with Dyisi, but I sent the call out anyway. It must have worked, as she appeared a few moments later.

She bowed and addressed Teuta in Greek. A formal greeting one might give to a queen, so far as I was able to translate. Again, there was a sense of anger held in check from Teuta, and her expression was hard and cold. However, she stayed her hand and gave a warrior’s salute to Dyisi, greeting her and saying she would hear her petition for peace. I stepped back to allow Dyisi to speak.

Dyisi started by apologising, knowing that the removal of the treacherous one she had been guarding was done suddenly and without notice. Her syntax seemed strange, almost as if she were unfamiliar with the language, but perhaps it was just me, so used to thinking in English and European languages.  She spoke of Maric being called to the gods, and of the promise made that needed to be fulfilled. She said it was unfortunate that she had been unable to discuss the matter in advance, before the prisoner escaped his chains. She assured Teuta that her prisoner would not be being set free with Scots. That puzzled me for a moment. I assumed she meant scot-free, but I doubted that was an idiom that Teuta would understand, being of 17th century origin. I almost stepped in to explain, but waited for her to finish. Perhaps Teuta would understand the intent. Dyisi went on to explain that the prisoner was being moved to a place where his binds and his pain would never fade. A place that mortals called Hell, a place of damnation under rule of the Queen of Hell.

Teuta paused a long while before answering. As I expected, she had not understood everything Dyisi had said, but had understood the intent.  She said that she would choose to believe that Dyisi was following a duty laid upon her by Agron.  She knew that Agron would never allow Otho to go free, and so, if he had been taken to a realm of death and despair, she would consider her duty fulfilled.

Her face grew harder, then, as she addressed another matter. “I wish to know why you attacked me with that cursed talisman. I can not pull this thorn from my side. If you intended to bring me low, you have succeeded. If you intended to remove my anchor and undo me, you have made a valiant effort. The only reason I have not taken my retribution upon you both is due to your request for parlay and in honour of my husband’s alliances. Remedy the destruction you have caused, else when this parlay is over, we shall be enemies ever more.”

For myself, I was did not have an immediate answer regarding any talisman. Perhaps it was something to do with Dyisi’s magic, for mine had used no talisman. Still, I had to make answer. I turned back to Teuta and gave another bow. I chose my words carefully, all too painfully aware that any mistake on my part could be fatal. “If, by our actions, we have caused injury to you or this place, then I apologise without reservation,” I said. “No harm was ever intended towards yourself or this place. We sought only that which we have stated, that which Agron wished us to do, the capture of Otho and his delivery to the Queen of Hell. If, in the execution of that duty, either in the capture of Otho, or in defence of ourselves from his attack, we have caused you harm, then it was without intent or malice and again, I offer my apologies. We did not, nor do we now, bear any malice or ill will towards you or this place. If it is within our powers to undo such harm as we have done, then we will do everything in our powers to do so and make such reparations as we may. We all seek to do that which my friend, your husband wished, and in his name, I will do whatever is needed to assure a peace between us.” I looked to Dyisi for further explanation and agreement. “Is that not so?”

Dyisi seemed to be concentrating, as I had often seen her do when working her magical powers. She held out her hand and called out, in a commanding voice, for her staff. “Ru!” she called.  She explained that it had been her staff, which was designed to protect her and keep her from harm. Had she known that in so doing, it would have caused harm to the land and to the queen, she would have prevented it from doing so. There was a brief rush of wind, and the staff flew from some nearby concealment to her hand. As it did so, there was a brief cry of pain from Teuta and she clutched at her side, as if some fresh pain had hit. It was brief, though, and she then relaxed, as if some pain had been removed, perhaps the thorn in her side that she had mentioned. Dyisi continued, offering to make another gift – I assumed she meant her ability to call to the places of the dead, so that Agron and Teuta might once again speak – “No one should be so long with regrets of the heart,” she said.

Teuta thanked us, seeming sincere and looked at us then, for the first time, with a smile, a smile that lit up her face and showed the queen she had once been. There would be peace between us, she said and perhaps we would become allies. To Dyisi’s offer, she shook her head. She had no regrets. She had lived a long life and ruled a prosperous kingdom. While she had had other loves in her life, Agron was always first in her heart. She had pledged her love to him and sworn to punish his betrayers.  This she had done in life and would do in death, tied to this place and to her husband’s creation. She stepped away then, holding herself at her side, perhaps still feeling the pain of that thorn’s extraction and said she needed to rest. She bade us go in peace and offered that if we wanted to learn more of her times, we would be welcome to return.

I said only that I would be honoured to do so, as her husband had been my dearest friend and mentor. While circumstance had made me a warrior and lord, I was, at heart, a scholar and would love to learn more of that time. We both made our respects and prepared to withdraw. The transition was easier this time, back to the familiar halls of the castle. And even as we arrived, I could feel that things were better now. That background of anger and pain was gone. I spared a glance for the tower wall and the crack, which I knew we could now repair and make new.

Dyisi and I parted without words. Each of us, no doubt, remembering the man we had both known and loved. For myself, I was content with a glass of wine drunk in his honour and an hour or so reading some other parts of his journals.  Another chapter was closed. No doubt, the new day would bring fresh challenges, but for now I was content.


Thorn in my Side



Queen and Soldier

Mother raised me to treat all equally, with respect and due honour. One time, when I was deep in the depths of one of my Arthurian books, and was less than polite when the maid, Mavis, enquired if I required a pot of tea, she admonished me, reminding me I should treat a maid as I would a princess. I took that to heart. Of course, princesses were not a daily part of our lives, outside of my reading. Mother meeting Princess Alexandra at a charity function didn’t count. So I figured I would treat all as I would a Lady, with a capital L. It seemed to serve me well enough.

Now, my life is different. I consort regularly with Kings and Queens. Indeed, I am consort, and husband, to the Seelie Queen. I hope I always treat her as a lady. When we are together, as husband and wife, she is still my Gwyn, that girl from South London I fell in love with, and I so treat her. Of course, there are times, even intimate ones, when she has to be Queen, and I have to treat her thus. It is second nature to me now, manners and words learned dealing with Alex and Isabella, with Sa’One and Faermorn, with Gwythyr even, and Janus, and Valene.

One thing I do know, it is not wise to anger a Queen. Of course, that cannot always be avoided, especially when the interests of countries, or realms, are at odds. I’ve always preferred diplomacy, but that is not always possible. Now, I fear that by doing my duty to Maric – I cannot yet get used to calling him Agron – and by Dyisi also doing her duty to him, we may have angered a 2,000 year old Queen. What we did, we did in accordance with his will, our duty to him, which is not far removed from the duty that Queen Teuta has undertaken. Whether she would see it that way or not, I did not know. I could only hope that she would listen when we tried to explain.

Since my last meeting with Queen Teuta, I had sensed problems through the castle. I heard distant screams of anger from that desolate place where she guards that which remains of Maric’s sire in his eternal torment. I feared that the bonds were weakening, as she said they might. I did not know what will become of her, or of the castle, should he escape them. As I understood things, Dyisi had the means to capture said sire, so that he may be transferred to the tender care of Vedis, there to be imprisoned and undergo such torment as she can supply. What we did not know was if Teuta would see it that way, if she would accept that as being a valid continuance of her duty. However, we were duty bound to try.

I had been studying such histories as I could find in the library, to learn more of this Teuta, but as ever with history, found myself overwhelmed with the sheer volume of it, and finding that which I needed among such volume. Dyisi came into the library as I was complaining of this and enquired what ailed me. I explained my problem, commenting that life was easier when Ilyria had just been a place mentioned in a Shakespeare play. When she asked why, I told her of my attempts to diagnose the problems with the tower and my conversation with Queen Teuta. I told her how we had reached some measure of accommodation by virtue of us both seeking only to do our duties to Maric, or Agron as I now knew him to have been called. I told how the Queen feared that the bonds on her prisoner were weakening with Maric’s passing and wondered if, perhaps, we could convince her that our quest to capture the prisoner and deliver him to Vedis would be a valid continuation of her duty. Maybe then, she could find rest and rejoin her love.

That brought a brief wave of sadness from Dyisi. Perhaps she was also thinking of Maric. There was something she could try, she mused, which might help convince her. She had had partial visions of what might be happening, through the sword Maric had given her. That it would be instrumental in capturing the soul of the prisoner. She did not know for sure, but was convinced it was worth a try. She was curious how I had managed to reach Teuta, for she had mostly had fleeting visions from the prisoner. I explained how I had been trying to sense what was ailing the castle, and through that sense, had been able to sense the wherever or whenever that held the Queen and her prisoner. I was sure that, now knowing this place, I could realm-walk there, and then, Dyisi, knowing me, could go there also.

We resolved to make contact and see how the lie of the land, intending then to form our plans. It was not to be so, though. As soon as I reached out to that desolate hill, where I had last seen the Queen, I heard screams and shouts, of a maddened voice that I had heard before from the prisoner. Of the prisoner himself, there was no sign, save for a tangle of chains leading away from the rock where he had been bound.  “Shit!” I said, turning my senses back to Dyisi. “Looks like the bastard got away. We are going to have to go there.”  I called out to the servants to bring my sword and my armour. I feared I was going to need it. The diplomat might have to be a soldier too.

Dyisi seemed to be focussing her senses too, as if she could hear something we could not, perhaps through her connection to the escaped prisoner.  “We need to be more corporeal,” she said and stepped away, her own means of travel, heading, I assumed, for that mountain top. I focussed my senses again and likewise stepped across.  Here was a very different realm. The comfortable ambience of faerie, of life and chaos, so familiar, I scarcely noticed it, save for now that it was gone, was replaced by something colder; death and order, a drain on that part of me that was a living thing. For the other part of me, the vampire, and in a strange way, the accountant, it felt almost familiar in its own way. It was grey and sullen, almost monochrome, as lifeless as the Shadowroads, but in a very different way. How far it might extend was anybody’s guess as vision was bounded by cloud, as grey as everything else. We were on a mountain slope and in the distance; we could hear the rattling of chains, the mad laughter and the cursing of an angry woman; Teuta, no doubt.

“You take me to the nicest places,” I joked to Dysi and pointed towards the mountain peak, in the direction of the sounds, and the remains of chains. “If we had any sense, we’d head the other way, but, we few, we happy few are not so sensible.”

“You do not let me take you anywhere else,” she replied, with a smirk. “Sensible people do not make history,” she added, reaching for my hand. “Come, I have a quicker way to get there.” It didn’t even occur to me to wonder about the risks of hand-to-hand contact, and anyway, I was wearing gauntlets. While it was her regular hand that took mine, I could see others, blue ones , moving as if in some kind of dance.  Before I could make a comment about Kali, she had taken my hand and we passed, in the blink of an eye, to the mountain peak, besides Teuta.

I barely had time to make brief introduction before battle was upon us, saying only that we had little time for formalities, and that Dyisi and I were here to assist.

Teuta had little time or energy to spare us more than an angry glance. We should not have come, she told us, as Otho, her prisoner, I assumed, was trying to escape. Get back, she told us and do not give him a conduit. Her words were punctuated with swings of her sword, defending herself from the attacks. Otho, a desiccated shell of a man, a leathery cadaver with a manic grin swung his arms, using the chains as whips. All the while, he screamed madly of being promised so much, of freedom. “Yes, yes,” he cried, “come and let me be free.”

Dyisi and I shared the equivalent of a shrug. We had our duty to do, regardless of the dangers to ourselves. She drew out her staff as well as the strange, blue sword, commenting about how often she had been told she should not be somewhere, a sentiment I echoed silently.  The blue arms weaved as if casting some spell, and perhaps they were, since the chains did not strike, raising only sparks in the air. “If you harm me,” she addressed the prisoner, “I can not be your saviour.” To the Queen, she said that she had no intention of giving him conduit. She only wished to carry out that which Maric had bid her, to collect the tormented one, who had been calling to her for so long.

For myself, I said only that I would protect that which was mine, as bidden by Maric, and that we would give the prisoner no conduit, no surcease, only that which Maric, Teuta’s husband, had willed.

Teuta’s manner registered disbelief, that Maric would ever free this craven betrayer. There was a brief pause while she considered this, but then, battle was rejoined. She swung her sword almost recklessly and seemed also to call to the winds, for the chains that had littered the hillside flew up and converged on the prisoner.

Except he was no longer there to be caught. He had flung himself with unnatural speed in my direction, screaming “Life, give me life!” I called on my will, on the power of blood, and in this cold and rocky place, upon the element of earth. “Be Still!” I shouted. “You shall have no life of me.” Instead, I cast my powers at him, blood and stone and death, hoping to turn that which yet lived within him to stone. Beside me, I barely registered Dyisi ramming her staff into the ground. A shield or ward, perhaps, I could not tell, save that it, too, called on the earth. She moved with inhuman speed, ducking under our attacker and driving the sword into the middle of his torso.

All manner of chaos let loose. My magic struck home almost at the same time as Dyisi’s sword.  Behind us, Teuta screamed, as chains whipped around madly. She flung her own sword at the prisoner’s head, again, striking at the same time as our own attacks. “Cassius Varus Otho,” she screamed, “Betrayer and damned! You will never be free of your crimes while I exist!”  It seemed the very rocks cried out and thrust at us, knocking us away like we weighed nothing.  We were blown from the mountain, blown even from that distant realm, and then there was nothing. We lay, tumbled and bruised upon the flagstones of the castle hall. The distant sounds of clanking chains and the echoes of an angry queen’s screams reverberated for a while and then fell silent. Dyisi still held the sword, glowing a strange and sickly colour. Perhaps it had succeeded in capturing the soul of Otho. Of her staff, there was no sign.

Dyisi left me then, no doubt to attend to whatever fate awaited that which was trapped within the sword. For myself, I was dog-tired and in pain, and sore afraid that we had made an enemy of such an ancient Queen. What, if any, reparations, it would be possible for us to make, I did not know. Would she hear my explanations, or even receive me? I did not know. I could not know, until I tried to return, to see what fate I might find. Eventually, with the aid of some rum, sleep overtook the fears and allowed me some rest.


The Queen and the Soldier – Suzanne Vega



What Country, Friends, Is This?

The threat of a resurgence of the Unseelie King is one of many things I have to deal with. While terrifying in anticipation, it is, as yet, unformed, and I will know no more until I consult with Vedis regarding the security of Llwyd, who, last I heard, was in her charge. Perhaps that is not so now. I do not know. I have not seen her in many a month, nor my dear friend, Galyanna, whose company I do miss.

Another, more concrete threat, well, stone anyway, is to the fabric of the castle. There is a new crack in the walls, one I cannot definitively put down to the aftermath of the shard of Gwythyr’s sword. As it turned out, that was far from the case.

I approached it, first of all, as my father might, as purely a structural problem in need of remedy, measuring the width and depth and length and estimating what I might need of materials to repair and protect it. Oddly, the appearance was that it had been caused by a blow from inside. It was not so wide or deep that it could not be filled with mortar, but I decided, for safety, that I would ask Hobbs to make some iron reinforcements to place as ties across the crack.

Material causes aside, I could not dismiss other causes, so I nicked my own thumb, squeezing out a few drops of blood onto the stone, so that I could reconnect with the castle senses, to see what else might be amiss.

The castle sense was all there, much as I have become used to. The solidity of the stones and rafters and tiles, the presence of the castle staff and the lighter presence of the unofficial residents – rodents and such scurrying in the background. Beyond that, the villagers going about their business. Yet, there was more, an unfamiliar note; of cold, wet rocks, the taste of cold steel and an ungodly shrieking, distant, yet, at the same time, right beneath my fingers. I withdrew slightly, and refocused my attention on the immediate area, cutting off the rest of the castle and the village.  There it was again, like a distant battle, far and yet near. There within the tower, the dusty bones of a long-forgotten enemy of Maric’s, entombed there so many centuries ago, an enemy long dead, and yet not, and I knew it to be the one that we had given word that we would release into the tender care of Vedis.  The screams echoed from afar, bringing with it the cold of mountain air and the sound of metal on stone. Another voice called out, a woman’s voice, commanding me to stay back.

Somehow I knew this voice, this presence, for it had shut me out from the tower once before. I also realised that I understood the command, even if the words were unfamiliar to me, that she had spoken in that most ancient tongue of Maric’s, that of Illyria, and that I too now understood this language. Some, I knew I had gathered from trying to understand his journals, but this was more, as if the tongue were my own. Perhaps one last gift he had given via the blood. I steadied myself, calling on my own willpower for what could be an unfortunate confrontation. “I mean no harm,” I said in the same tongue, projecting my thoughts to that distant voice, as well as speaking the words.

There was sudden silence for a few moments, interrupted once again by shrieks and screams, a voice pleading with me to free him from this witch, to stop her. Latin, he spoke, or something like it, yet again I understood it. Another blow of metal on stone stilled the voice and I saw a distant mountain landscape, rocks and chains entangled and somehow, a figure caged within. There was another figure, armoured and brandishing a sword. She turned to me and pointed the sword. “I shall do my duty as HE wished,” she told me, “you shall not free this one.”

I kept such thoughts as I might have had regarding her prisoner to myself. Now was not the time. My first duty was to the castle. “This one is not my concern,” I told her, “The safety of the castle IS my concern. I command here now. He that gave you this duty is no more.”

The prisoner shrieked and laughed at the same time until he was silenced by a backhander from the woman.  She pulled her helm from her head, an imposing presence; for all that she lacked any great stature. An iron grey plait of hair and eyes that had seen too much in a weathered face. She stared at me as if she might strike me, but then, her expression softened with sorrow and she lowered her sword. “Agron?” she said, which name I did not know, but took to be a name Maric had worn in the past. “I did not want to believe, but when the chains loosened, I should have known what it meant.” Somehow, though still distant, she seemed closer. “Is he truly no more?”  Her eyes, as dark a brown as I have ever seen, searched me, seeking truth or treachery. “You should not be able to see me,” she said. “Did you slay him to take his place?” Her words were as cold as the icy winds that blew from that distant mountain.

Hard as it was, I did not flinch, for I knew my position to be right and true. “No,” I assured her. “He was my dearest friend and mentor.” I told her that he had trained me as his deputy, and  that when he knew his time was nigh, when he knew the last battle had taken more than he had to give, he had made me his successor, conferring all rights and titles upon me, including the castle. “He passed at the Equinox,” I told her, reasoning this a date she would understand, “in the presence of many who loved him, including me.”

She stared long at me, as if she suspected some falsehood on my part, until she satisfied herself that I spoke truly. She sheathed the sword and placed a fist at her chest, bowing her head and muttering something, a prayer, perhaps, or a eulogy. In respect, I mirrored her gesture, for I too had loved him. She stood again, every inch a queen and fixed me with her gaze. She said that she would mourn the passing of her husband, but this duty, she gestured at the prisoner, was by her own will. The wretch that caused her husband so much ill would never be free so long as she existed.

I too straightened up, having paid my respects. I reminded her that he had been my mentor and my friend and that I had loved him dearly. I too had chosen my duty freely, to continue his works, which included the protection of the castle, the village and its people. That was my duty, given to me by Agron, or Maric, as he was known to me. I understood her duty, but where her duty impinged upon mine – I showed her the damage to the castle – then I must stand firm. “That is what he would have wished,” I said, “I am sure you understand.”

Anger flared again in her face. I was the one who did not understand, she told me. She indicated her prisoner and said that he strove to break free, to release himself from the chains and stones. Her duty was to protect hers from harm; Agron and the castle. “Now do you understand, stranger?” she asked.

I did not allow her anger to touch me, maintaining the same calm demeanour. “Then our duties coincide,” I told her. “My name is Nathaniel Ballard, and Agron, known to me as Lord Maric of Mysthaven, gave the castle into my care. Since our duties coincide, we should not remain strangers. For now, though, I must leave you, so we may each grieve in our own way and we will speak again, another time, I hope.”

She stared long at me, and at the last, seemed to unbend somewhat. She nodded and told me that she was, had been, Queen Teuta of Illyria, who had reigned long after her husband’s mortal passing, until the dark god who had taken him came for her. She agreed that we should speak again, and soon, for the chains that held her prisoner would not last long, now that her beloved was gone. With that, she faded from my vision and senses, and there was nothing left but the faint echo of her voice, and the cold stone beneath my hand.

“Fare thee well, Queen Teuta of Illyria,” I bade her, even if she could no longer hear me. “Perhaps we can find something better than chains.”

I stepped away from the wall and took myself to my armchair with a large glass of wine, thinking. Perhaps there was an answer that could satisfy all parties. If I could convince this ancient queen that delivering her prisoner into the tender care of Vedis was as fitting a punishment as that which she had meted out, then we could achieve that promise, and then, perhaps that ancient queen could be at rest, and the castle stones at peace. Yes, this could be an answer for all. I sat, then, thinking on what I had seen and contemplating the vast breadth of history in which I played such a tiny part. A sobering thought, but for the wine, and one that stayed with me, long into the night.

Anthem of Illyria

That is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie

There is a word I learned from the German language. That word is wanderlust, a strong desire to travel or to explore the world. It is a useful word that has no direct equivalent in English, though I can see this German word being borrowed, as it scarcely needs translation. I have been suffering from it somewhat more than normal of late. Perhaps it is because I am now possessed of a ship and could go anywhere, though that is less of an excuse as I have long had the ability to go where I may choose, via the roads or by walking the realms. Tonight, however, there is a heavier reason – fear. A fear that would, were I not who I am, drive me far away from here.

I, of all people, should know that the physical is not all there is of a man, or indeed any being. I have conversed with my late mother. I have spoken and more with my beloved Faermorn since she passed beyond the veil. And they are but two that I have had direct experience of since their supposed deaths. And yet, I allowed myself to believe that we were, at last, free of the late Unseelie King. It was naïve of me. I may have boiled the bastard’s brains, kicked his head into a volcano and left the rest for the crows, but was that enough? I am not so sure.

Having concluded my negotiations with the Cait, and spent much needed time in the arms of my loving wife, I had to return to the business at hand. I sent word to Lord Mornoth, via a wisp, that the Cait were agreeable to our request and that we should stand ready to carry out the extraction of the demifae. All I could do, then, was wait.

It was Dyisi who came to me. She found me outside the castle, standing by the well and gazing to the far horizon.  I was in need of direction, she had been told.

I joked that this had often been said of me over the years, and that I had often felt the lack of it, a sorry state for one who had trained as a navigator. Her comment, I suspect, was of a less rhetorical nature and so I returned to the matter at hand. The finding the location of the demifae queen so that I could guide Lord Mornoth and his men through the Shadow Roads to capture her.

She could serve either purpose, she said, but Lord Mornoth’s requirement should be attended to. All she required was water, she told me, and warned me that I should pay close attention.

I chuckled and indicated that I was standing by a well. I did comment that I had wondered how the well still worked, given we were on a lump of rock floating in the air, but did not discuss it further, in case the rock heard me. I drew a bucket of water and passed it to her, settling myself down to see what might be seen. Her admonition was unnecessary, as I am not unversed in water divination.

She placed the bucket securely on the ground so that it would not be disturbed and began to stir it with her staff, again, warning me to pay attention. I could see her preparing for the trance-like state required and prepared myself likewise as she called the name of the one she sought.

The water turned somehow oily and dark and images began to appear. Deep tunnels, dark tunnels, tunnels that went far beyond any I had seen under the Faerie lands. Tunnels that led further into the Underdark, which place I knew little of save that it extended under the Weald. A not unlikely place for the Demifae queen to hide, given her recent allies. And there she was, communing with that monstrous offshoot of the Sithen rose, no doubt planning and plotting her next treachery…

And then, of a sudden, it was gone, the tunnel, the rose and the queen. Instead, a vision of another place, of two men. Two faces I had not seen in many a day or even year. One, the sorcerer or demon, I knew not which, Padishar. The other, the figure of Llwyd, or something much like him, yet strangely distorted. The water rippled and gave forth voices.  Llwyd, demanding of Padishar, the wretched mage, he called him, that he free him from his prison or be dragged down. The voice changed then, freezing my blood in its coldness and ice, a voice I had hoped never to hear again, that of Gwythyr shouting that he would take them both. Give in and be done with it, he said. Llwyd’s body shuddered with the intrusion and again demanded freedom of the mage…

What more passed, I could not tell, for the vision shattered and Dyisi collapsed, gasping for breath and shaking with the terror and fear that had emanated from the vision.  I rushed to help her up, remembering just in time not to touch her flesh with my bare hand. I shouted to Mirko and Vasily to come help. I instructed Vasily to take care of Dyisi, give her water or whatever else she needed. Mirko I sent to summon Kustav and the stewards. I needed to meet with them as soon as possible. While I waited for them, I summoned two more wisps and bade them send word to Mornoth and Gwyn, explaining what we had seen and suggesting we meet to discuss the situation as soon as possible.

There was not much I could say to my stewards, other than putting them on alert that we might not have seen the last of the Unseelie King as we had thought. Perhaps there was no immediate threat, but they should be on the lookout for any manifestations that might indicate his activity. Otherwise, there was not a lot we could do. I bade them to keep it to themselves as far as possible, as I did not want to alarm the staff or the villagers. I don’t know what else I can do. LLwyd, I had thought safe in the tender care of Vedis. Perhaps I need to speak to her.

That is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie

Cat People

I went to the Roads today. It is strange how a place that is so inhospitable, so cold and desolate, can feel like home in many ways. I suppose it is more by association than anything. The Cait are among my dearest friends and Valene, dearest of them all, a friend long before I even knew of the Cait, long before I came to this strange place.

As ever, when I went to the abode of the Cait Queen, the Cait deferred to me. I went first to her chambers, more in faint hope than anything else, and spent some time seated where she would normally have slept, if nothing else, for the faint scent of mint that still lingered. Some of the younger Cait, perhaps sensing my mood, came and offered affection, climbing into my lap and rubbing against my leg. I scratched them in return and played with them, as one might with kittens and it lifted my mood. After a while, one of the older Cait peered around the entrance and asked if there was anything I required, so I said that I wished to speak with Sebastian.

I went into the throne room and perched on one arm of the empty throne, as I was wont to do and soon Sebastian arrived and perched on the other. We gave each other greeting and he asked what it was I wished. I explained the situation, and said that all I asked was passage through the Roads so that Mornoth and his men could retrieve the demi-fae queen.

Passage through the Roads I could have, he told me, adding that as Sigil, I need not even ask, however, I think he appreciated the courtesy.  The matter of the demi-fae queen was one he agreed needed dealing with. He then looked towards the entrance to the bower, and like me, said that his only concern was with Mother. Strange that I had thought the same thing, or perhaps not. I said that I would deal with Mother and suggested that maybe a few snacks from the casualties of the encounter would suffice to appease her. Sebastian agreed, saying that perhaps, in a strange way, I knew her best.

I thanked him, albeit indirectly, feeling safer doing so among these fae than others and said that I would send for help once we had identified the location of the demi-fae. As I got up to leave, I could not help but glance at the empty throne seat between us. Sebastian noticed my glance and read the unasked question. “She fares well enough,” he said in answer, but could not elaborate more. I asked that he would pass on my love and to tell her that we all missed her and that she was always welcome, wherever my queen and I might be. I left then, dismissing the young Cait as I made my way across the arid landscape. I was preparing to open the veil to pass through, back to the castle, but I changed my mind. The castle could wait, I thought, and instead, made my way to the bower and the arms of my beloved Queen.

Cat People

In Search of a Rose

Lord Mornoth came to visit for the first time today. Although I have seen him quite a few times, it has always been in the faerie realms with Maric or with Gwyneth. This is the first time I have seen him on my home ground, and, come to that, the first time I have seen him on my own. It was a most interesting meeting. And he seems a most interesting person. With just the two of us, discussing mutually beneficial business, he was quite civilised and charming, seemingly lacking in any of the taint of madness and cruelty that so defined Gwythyr. Perhaps, this is the old-school, what the Unseelie should be, different, but in their own ways, honourable and civilised beings.

I received him in the main hall, which I felt was more comfortable than my office. He was amenable to this, provided I was happy that out discussions would remain confidential. I assured him that the servants were quite discreet. Mabel served wine and he favoured her with a faint smile, which I think fascinated and terrified her in equal measure. I cannot say I blame her, for Mornoth does in many ways resemble that late and unlamented former King of the Unseelie.

After I dismissed Mabel and the other servants, he remarked on the fact that she, and others, had been touched by darkness and offered aid if he could.  I admitted that we had not yet completely cleansed the castle and its people of the taint of the late king; for all that I had boiled the bastard’s brains, removed his head and dropped it in a volcano. That got a flicker of amusement, I fancy, from Mornoth. Not one for excessive displays of emotion, this seneschal, at least, not in front of the likes of me. Perhaps among his own kind at their festivals, he is another man entirely. I told him that we were dealing with the taint as best we could, and that I would remember his kind offer should we have need of such aid.

We moved on to the business for which he came; the matter of the rogue demi-fae queen, Desiree and the sithen rose that she controls. She escaped her confinement, that much I knew, and had found herself a refuge.  He wished to retrieve her before she could gather enough strength to strike back. Having heard of my status among the Cait, he enquired if I would be willing to ask passage of them, for Mornoth and his men, through the Shadow Roads to the place where Desiree had hidden herself, in order to retrieve her.

I explained my position among the Cait, as Sigil to Queen Valene, which I said was somewhat similar to that of Rook among his kind, in case he was not familiar with the term. I also told him of my past association with Valene and that after Gwyneth, she was my dearest friend. The Cait had been cooperative during our last battles, so I saw no reason that they would not be this time. I told him that I would ask Sebastian, and furthermore, offered myself as guide, since I was adept at navigating the Roads myself. The only problem I could foresee was Nemaine. I told Mornoth that she and I had some sort of understanding, without admitting that I wasn’t entirely sure that I knew what that understanding was save that it related to the affection between Valene and myself. I said that it was likely that her price, should she demand one, would be first choice of any casualties of the encounter, and if she demanded more, then I would have to deal with that.

He said he knew of the Carrion Crow and would not wish her tender mercies on anyone, neither would he wish to place me under further obligation to her. He remarked that some of the minions with Desiree might prefer a fate at the claws of Nemaine to their current existence. He would be glad of my assistance, and offered a great boon from himself and his people for this service.

I told him that he would not be placing me under any further obligation to Nemaine. As Sigil to her daughter, all obligations regarding the Cait were mine anyway. That was the way of things and he should not concern himself on that account.

We would need to formulate a plan for the extraction and confinement of the demi-fae queen, which matter I would leave in his hands. Dyisi would be responsible for locating her, and the Cait and I would guide Mornoth’s men through the roads. I also mentioned my skill with the Myst Roses, offering that this may be of some use in dealing with the Sithen rose. He said that they were distant relations and while the techniques for dealing with them were similar, the comparison was somewhat like that between a mouse and a tiger. A matter for another time, he suggested.

I addressed the matter of the boon. I would rather regard such things as a matter of cooperation between our peoples for our mutual benefit, I told him, rather than tying ourselves to formal obligations. That he accepted with good grace and made ready to take his leave. I was to send word via a wisp once I had made arrangements with the Cait and then we would coordinate our efforts to capture the demi-fae queen. He left then, seeming pleased with our arrangements, and with promises to talk of wine and communing with plants at a later date.

I must confess, from previous occasions, I had been suspicious of Mornoth, but this meeting had been very civilised, almost pleasant. Perhaps I have misjudged him. We will have to wait and see. In the meanwhile, I need to go and see Sebastian. I do not look forward to this. Sebastian is a good friend, and it will be good to be among the Cait again, but it will be hard to go there and not see Valene. Still, these things cannot be helped. She has her reasons for being in seclusion and I have to respect that. I must attend to my obligations, as she must to hers. Time enough for other things later.

In Search of a Rose

Maiden Voyage


Gerald Bryson, my old friend and Master of the Odiham Castle, was always impressed that I had insisted on taking all the seamanship training available. As Chief Purser, my duties were largely commercial and more concerned with the provisioning of the ship rather than its operation, and so I was only required to take some basic seamanship training. Nevertheless, I did all the training I could. I used to joke to Gerald that I was after his job. In truth, I never aspired to be Master of my own vessel, it was more my insatiable curiosity and it seemed a fine thing to know how to navigate, how to operate a vessel and such like. I never imagined that I would one day be the one giving such training. And yet, that is what I have spent much of my time doing these last few weeks. Kustav and a few of the guards, and a seemingly random assortment of the villagers, were the only ones who claimed any nautical knowledge, and two of those were fishermen rather than sailors. Marek and Ivor, two young lads who are still finding their place in the village workforce also volunteered and proved able students.

It scarcely seems possible, but in just a very few weeks, I seem to have acquired a moderately competent crew. They lack experience, of course, save for a few voyages around the bay and the island itself, but they have good heart and I am sure they will do well. Some things we have not been able to learn, though. The weather somewhat uncharacteristically, failed to produce anything approaching storms, but, you can’t have everything. The lads know the theory, but, well, we will just have to see.

And now, it is time for the big one, and in truth, I am terrified. Not about the sailing bit. I can master the ship well enough, and my crew know what to do. In these waters, and the waters around my intended destination, the English Channel and Thames Estuary that I knew as a young man, I am confident of my abilities, but there is one big hurdle to overcome. Getting from here to there. On foot, I know my way well enough, to get to London via the Shadow Roads, and I know well enough how to get there by the means that Alec gave me, that which Dyisi calls realm-walking. Of course, it is one thing taking myself to such places by that means; it is a completely different thing taking myself, my crew and the ship that way. I am almost certain that this was how Alec would take the ship on those New Moon voyages to get provisions for Jasper Cove. Almost certain, anyway, but there is another way I know of. Those masters and captains that would sail into the docks at the Isle of Legacies did so by mastery of the Nexus, but that is a skill I never learned. Perhaps Alec, in one of his guises there, had that skill, so perhaps his voyages from Jasper Cove were so achieved, but I don’t believe so. Legacies was lost because the Nexus became unstable and took that land, and maybe others, deep into the realms of, for want of a better word, impossibility, so I doubt Alec would risk that way.

I don’t have any of Alec’s writings. His offer to make me his librarian and archivist came only in his guise of Greyson, on my way from Jasper Cove to Ashmourne Wylds, and by then, his library was largely lost. I have only his writings in the form of Dee’s journals, and that knowledge that he passed to me via the blood when he gave me my freedom, if that is the right word. Having that knowledge, and applying it, however, are two very different things. Such time as I have not been training, I have spent studying every word, every page of the journals, at least, those sections that are applicable to the realm walking, such as there are. To that, I have added my own knowledge, my own powers, and those bestowed upon me by Maric. First, I bound the ship to me, and myself to the ship, much as I did with the castle, though the sentience of the ship is barely recognisable, the faintest vestiges of the trees that its timbers once were. I marked it and bound it with my blood, making the ship as much a part of me as is possible for a mass of timbers and ropes and iron.

Then it was time for my first attempt. In our sailing training exercises, we would make fast at a spot on the far side of the island from our birth before returning the way we came, or continuing and completing the circumnavigation. That, I considered was a safe spot to aim for. The first time, I did do without the crew. There seemed no point in taking unnecessary risks. I stood at the wheel, and spread myself, my essence, as it were, until the ship and I seemed one, and then exercised that, what shall I call it, muscle that allows me to walk the realms. It worked! I damned near capsized the ship, and there was an almighty crash as we hit the water, but fortunately, the timbers held. It was an elementary mistake, and one that was understandable, given my lack of experience in moving large objects. Sailing to that spot was one thing, as the ship was already in the water, and the water could flow around it as it moved. Moving suddenly from one spot to another, on the other hand, doesn’t allow the water to flow gradually. Displacing a very considerable amount of water in one go makes a very spectacular splash and a lot of noise, and I was damned lucky I didn’t capsize or destroy the hull. Having achieved the basic principle, however, I was able to adjust, and the return journey was considerably smoother and a lot less noisy.

The question then remained, could I do this with a crew? I explained as best I could, in terms they could appreciate, pitching it as the same process that brought them to this land in the first place, and allowed us to move the village from  the hill, to the Shadow Roads, back again to its new location, and to our current location. Except, of course, this was under my control. After I had practised sufficiently that I felt confident moving the ship from one point to another, I did so again, only this time, with me and Kustav. Of all the people here, he is most closely bound to me. Having achieved that a few times, I then asked the crew to all make a simple blood bond with me. Not as deep as that between Kustav and I, but enough that I could include them in my influence.

Having established my confidence in that, I then tried to go further, to a spot I knew well, just off the Eastern Frisian Islands, where the Odiham Castle would often lay up for the night. That took a lot more effort and near drained me. I had to rest up for a couple of hours before I felt capable of making the return trip, but I managed to do so safely.

And so, I am as prepared as I can be. There remains also, the matter of finance. We do not lack for gold, but such coinage as are held in our vaults, those from Maric’s land, and such Midori as I retained from Jasper Cove, are unlikely to be met with anything other than suspicion in 19th century London. I made a few trips via the Shadow Roads, but my tame jeweller there can only take so much gold in any one trip, even with the aid of a couple of his less than honest acquaintances. I can only hope that I can find some means of exchanging gold for currency when I get there.

The ship is ready, the crew is as ready as it can be, and soon, I will provision the ship for our first journey into the unknown, our maiden voyage, as it were. May all the gods help us.