Run for Home

What would a man not do for his beloved child? What would a man not do for a lost love? What is a man to do when the one houses the echo of the other? What is a man to do when saving one might mean an end for the other?

These latter are questions no man should have to face. And, in what I once thought passed for a normal life, would be unlikely. The nearest I can imagine would be if the circumstances of my son, Arthur’s, birth had been different and I had been forced to choose between saving the life of my wife or my unborn son. But, this is no normal life, and thus, these are questions I have to face.

I took food and drink, including mead, which I thought she would like, to the Shadowroads, to Valene’s cave, where I had left my daughter to shelter. One place I hoped she would be safe from Gwythyr’s gaze. I found her there, safe in the care of the Cait, and in the company of Aoibheann, who she likes to call Auntie. I suppose that is fair. In my time, it was a common enough designation for friends of the family who were more of the parent’s generation, even if they were not actual relatives. And while Aoibheann and I are of a similar age, or generation, we are far from kin.

What they had been discussing, I did not know, though I noted that Bronwyn was being nibbled by the Wyld roses that Aoibheann carried. Whatever it was, the prospect of mead distracted them both from it for a few moments. I embraced Bronwyn as a father might, and then poured mead for us all. When I enquired if she was rested, she averred that she had not, fearing that the dreams would follow her even here. She said that Aoibheann had told her that she carried an inheritance, she called it, from somebody called Faermorn, and that this might be why she was being pursued. She burrowed further into my embrace and asked if I knew why the darkness was coming for her.

This was the question I had most hoped to avoid, but I could not deny her. I took the goblet from her so that I could hold both her hands as I answered her as best I could. I told her that Faermorn had been the Queen of Winter, the Unseelie Queen, as her mother was the Queen of Summer or Seelie Queen. I told how she had been a good friend to me, and had been responsible for my Quickening, though I did not use that word. I omitted that Faermorn and I had been intimate, for I thought that this might confuse matters. I told her that Faermorn had passed on, so far as this applied to the high fae. I told how Gwythyr had been her husband, and that he was a cruel and dangerous man with a mad, obsessive, possessive and dangerous love for his wife, who would destroy and kill to possess her. I told how we thought he had died, and yet a part of him had come back, how I had killed him or so I had thought, and how, now, he had possessed another and continued his pursuit. I then told her how she was the very image, shape, looks and scent of Faermorn, as if she was Faermorn reborn, and that was why he pursued her.

She froze for a few moments as she digested this. I could see the conflict and confusion on her face, as if this touched on something she already knew, or had suspected. She fell against me asking what she should do, for she did not know. This brought more of a pang to my heart, for in truth, I did not know the answers. All I could do was to reassure her that we would keep her safe, that we would work out what to do, and we would do it. I promised that I would not let him harm her.

I returned to my original intention on coming here now, to make that bond between us, so that we would always be able to find each other, no matter where, or when, we might be. The bond that would enable us to call upon each other, whenever and wherever we were. That, in itself, was a good thing, but, I also hoped that through that, I could teach her how to anchor herself. Initially, to me, and later, to her mother. Some time, in the future, when things were better, maybe I could give her the opportunity to be her own anchor, as Alec had taught me to be mine. But that was for the future, when she had a surer idea of herself. I explained this, save for the bit about being her own anchor, and how it could best be achieved by making a blood bond.

She shivered for a moment, mumbling something about being tired of running, which I realised was in response to something Aoibheann had said, almost unheard, about running until you wanted to be caught. At the same time, there was a whisper of something from the roses. Something strange and darker that the roses I knew, as though the one that Aoibheann carried were kin to the ones in the village, and yet apart from them. Bound to another, perhaps. It was but a fleeting sensation, and then it was gone as Bronwyn turned back to me and assented. “Whatever you think will work, father,” she said.

I kissed her and took her hand in mine. I nicked my own wrist with my teeth and offered this to her, just as I took the gentlest of bites at her wrist, taking only enough from her to form the bond. She took only a taste from me, understandable, perhaps, for she was not a blood-feeder like me. I kept my shields tightly closed, to avoid overwhelming her with all the things the bond could be, allowing only the essence of the bond to flow.  Even in that taste, I could tell that the Wyld was strong in her. She was as potent as any fae I had tasted, not surprising, given her parentage. Alarming, most of all, even in her blood, her essence, she tasted most like Faermorn as anything.

I opened the link a tiny bit, just to confirm it was there, but no more. This was going to be hard enough for her. Meanwhile, Aoibheann was telling her that her wishes may be granted if she wished them strongly enough. I forbore to comment, but silently applauded Bronwyn’s reply that she did not know what to wish for. I gave her the goblet and bade her drink, saying we would continue with the bonding and the lessons in a short while. I though it best to give the blood a chance to work.

Aoibheann spoke, though she did not entirely make sense. Perhaps it made sense to her, as she was following her own train of thought. She spoke of fear being a prison. She spoke of Bronwyn not leaving her when they were both under the sleeping curse and she spoke of being a better Auntie and friend. Then she addressed the issue at hand, saying she could hunt him, him presumably being Gwythyr. She said that she could find his thornwyrms but had not fathomed out how to destroy them. Then, as she is sometimes wont to do, asked something that it had not occurred to me, nor anyone else, to ask. We were all out to destroy Gwythyr, but we had not asked Bronwyn’s wishes. Did she seek vengeance, or would she rather Aoibheann stayed her hand? In truth, it had not occurred to me to even think to ask. It was a good question, though, to my mind, it was a question for Faermorn rather than Bronwyn. Perhaps, as she often does, Aoibheann was showing more insight than the rest of us.

Bronwyn slumped, and even with the link closed, I could feel the despair. Something in her eyes shifted and she spoke, saying that this would never end until she was put to rest, but her voice sounded more like that of Faermorn. She stared off into space and then got up, drifting towards the cave entrance. Aoibheann followed her a moment or two later, calling out to her as Bronwyn and  as Faermorn. Perhaps she too had seen that echo of the former queen. I left them to it for a while, strangely trusting Aoibheann’s instincts in this. But, much as I tried, I could not help but overhear something of what was said. What I did hear was somewhat disturbing for it seemed as though Aoibheann was talking more to Faermorn that to Bronwyn. Faermorn, if it was she, spoke of pure light being the only thing that would destroy the thorns. She would help Aoibheann lure him out and then, they would be able to bring this madness to an end. The way she spoke, it seemed that her plan involved giving up her dream of life and being free at last. That would have chilled me to the core, but for the addition that she, presumably Bronwyn, should have her own life.  Was this the harsh dilemma I faced? Could it be that I could not save both? That the only way to save my daughter meant the end for my friend?

Free at last. That tugged at my heart and while I still grieved for my friend, the one who called me her warrior poet, I could understand her wanting an end. I would need to hear it from her to be sure, and I did not know if she would speak with me. If that was the case, then, much as it would hurt, I would have to agree with her wishes. Perhaps she is right, perhaps this will never end until both of them, she and Gwythyr, are gone beyond. I sighed. My priority had to be for my daughter. For all that I had loved Faermorn, she had already gone once and had had a life. My daughter had yet to live hers. I decided that I would try to complete the bond, and perhaps, in so doing, would manage to communicate with Faermorn and learn her wishes.

I rose and joined them at the cave entrance, asking Aoibheann to give us a few moments. I took Bronwyn inside and made us comfortable on the blankets. I looked at her and asked if she knew me, hoping, perhaps, that Faermorn would speak. She merely looked confused and said I was her father. I tried again, asking if there was some other name or title she knew, and as a hint, placing my hand on the hilt of the sword and reciting ‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…’

That didn’t seem register either. All she could come up with was Consort and Lord of Mysthaven. I sighed. Perhaps for now, Faermorn was not there to hear. I told Bronwyn that she had spoken to Aoibheann in another voice, one that had once called me her warrior poet. If that meant anything, it didn’t show. Perhaps now was not the time.

I returned to the matter of the bond. I took her hands and told her how we were bonded by family, as father and daughter, by love, but also through the power of the blood we had shared, and that would link us. As we touched, I caught a glimpse of her essence, on the cusp of maturity. Soon, she would no longer be the girl she is, perhaps. I let go of her fingers and bade her to try to reach out to me with her mind. I bade her see me without her eyes, hear me without her ears, speak to me without her tongue. She told me that she loved me, in the normal manner, before letting go.

I waited, watching the concentration on her face, and gently called her with my mind, keeping the link just open enough for us to connect. I could feel her, pushing against the resistance and then she burst through, a flood of the Wyld energy and the power of the high sidhe that she truly was, or would be. And then she was there, almost glowing, but surrounded by her fears and nightmares. She addressed me as Father and asked if I was safe, if He hadn’t seen me.

I let the tide of her thoughts ride over me, acknowledging the taste of them but not, for now, reading them. I placed a mental blanket around her shoulders, to warm and calm her, to reassure her. Gently, I told her, one thing at a time. Now that we were connected, I could show her, in ways that words could not convey, how to narrow the range of her thoughts, reinforcing that with words, telling her to imagine she was speaking, as the best way to focus the thoughts and communication. I sent warmth and comfort as I told her, through the link, that I was as safe as I could be. For, if he could find me, he would have done so by now. And although I had partaken of his blood, he had not partaken of mine, and so did not have that bond, not like she and I did. Do not worry about that for now, I told her.

I asked her to concentrate on the link between us. I centred myself, focussing on the very core of my being, that unshakeable rock, that solidity that came from my parents and beyond, the certainty of my will. I opened myself to her, so that she could see that and told her to see it. I started to explain the nature of the bond needed to make the anchor. Reach out and touch me, I said, and see me reaching out to touch you, here, and here. I reinforced that by physically touching her over the heart and on the forehead.  I told her to visualise a connection between us. Naturally, because of my background, I used the metaphor of a ship anchored to shore by an unbreakable rope, of a lighthouse shining as a guide. Thinking of how ethereal she was, I also used the idea of a kite on a string, again, an unbreakable link. As I explained, I opened the link further, to show her those things that could not be expressed in words – the essential nature of the connection between us.  “No matter how strong the storm, no matter how wild the wind, I will always be there, always connected to you and you will always be able to return to home, to me, no matter where you are. I am the lighthouse, the beacon, the anchor. Set that here in your heart and your head. No matter where, no matter when, no matter what, you will always be able to come home to me.”

I could feel her steadying herself, getting her balance as my words reached her, a guide and a focus and she reached out back to me, like someone swimming against the tide to the shore. Despite the despair and fear, and the echoes of other lives, she reached for me, reached for the shore, her anchor.

And then she was there. The bond, the anchor chain, the kite-string, was complete. “Home,” she whispered, “father.”

I let my love and happiness show through the bond, as well as kissing her on the forehead. “Always,” I told her. I switched back to regular speaking and told her we should stick to that when we were together in person, in case we forgot how. I said that we would be able to contact each other through the link wherever and whenever we were, no matter how far. We should use it sparingly and with focus, lest we share things we didn’t intend. Even though father and daughter should have no need of secrets, not everything needed to be shared.

I showed her, briefly, an echo of the darkness and despair I had felt from her and took her hands. I blanketed that darkness with light. I told her that she could be resilient, and that she was strong. I reminded her of her heritage – high fae through her mother and her other father, the Tuatha de Danaan back through my mother, the power of Isabella and Faermorn through my quickening and all that I had gained as a vampire from my sire and through Maric. With that heritage, from that stock, she would be unbreakable and undefeatable.

She wrapped herself in my arms and cried for a while, perhaps more in relief than anything and I could sense her building on the love and encouragement. “I am strong?” she asked, adding that she wanted to be strong like me, but she did not know how to be strong. And she did not know how to fight him.

I thought back to Mr Li, back on board the Odiham Castle, telling me of the martial arts he knew and the philosophy behind them and, in particular saying something about the grass bending before the wind.  I wished now I could remember more of what he had told me, but it had been a conversation over quite a lot of rum. I opened the link again to show her the rock and told her that she had that within her too, from me and from her mother, that strength of will. We might bend occasionally, like the grass before the wind, but we don’t break. Fighting him was also a matter of will and knowledge. We would have to research how to defeat him. Aoibheann had said something about the light destroying the thornywms, and we would look into that. Perhaps her other voice would know more. For now we would stay out of his way until we knew how to defeat him. I assured her that no matter what, she would not have to face him alone.

That seemed to be what she needed to hear. She thanked me and then drew herself further into my arms, repeating like a mantra, “I am not alone.”  She ventured to ask one question. She said that she sometimes felt things that were not her. She wanted to know if that was the other voice I spoke of, because she did not want to lose herself.

I held her and assured her again that she was not alone and that she would not lose herself. We would learn how to deal with that other voice. I could tell that exhaustion was catching up with her.  That was understandable; she had been through a lot and had had to absorb a lot. I stroked her head and whispered that she was not alone and she fell asleep, in my arms, repeating that. Rest was the best thing for her, and for me. I detached my sword and gave orders for the Cait to give us the room, but remain on guard. I drew the blankets over us both and lay down, still keeping her in my arms, so she could rest safely. And so could I.

Sleep was a while coming, the weight of the responsibility I now held resting heavily on my shoulders, even if that was eased by knowing she was safely anchored. We still faced many trials, and there was much yet to do, but we would face those things together, father and daughter, and we would triumph.

Run For Home

 

For Cheese a Jolly Good Fellow

Time, as I have often remarked in these pages, is a very strange thing. It is much stranger than I could possibly have imagined, especially since my life has become somewhat detached from it. I have so few fixed reference points any more. I know it was 1885 when my encounter with Katarina turned my life upside down. I know it was 1891 when I arrived in that pocket of London I knew as the Isle of Legacies. Since then, I am less certain of time. The shipwreck, or possibly the Nexus, cast me up on the shores of Jasper Cove, which, while separated from the main stream of time, apparently stayed more or less parallel with what had been Gwyn’s present, some 120 years into my future. Then, a burning bridge took me, via a brief encounter with the Boatman, to Ashmourne Wylds and Mysthaven, which, if I take the Phoenix’s word, puts me some 400 years in my past, so I have no definitive idea of what year I currently exist in. I think that some five years have passed, by my experience, since I left London, but I can’t be even sure of that, given that some of my time has been spent in the faerie realms, where time flows differently anyway.

Whatever year it might be, I do at least know where I am in that year, guided as I am, much like my ancestors, by the circle of the sun, by the passing of each solstice and equinox. So, I know that some 30 days have passed since the Winter Solstice, making the latter part of January, by the calendar I once knew. I know, by watching the sun, what time of day it is, ably assisted by my pocket watch. What I don’t know, not since I left behind the church bells in Legacies, is what day of the week it is. This normally doesn’t matter much. As Lord of Mysthaven, every day is a working day. The same applies to my beloved wife, who has to be Queen every day. However, when she suggested that we have a weekend away, I found myself at a loss as to the question – when is it the weekend?

Lacking any reference, we decided that we would take a couple of days off from being Lord and Queen and call it a weekend away. She found a cabin by the river, somewhere and, I suspect, somewhen closer to her own original time. Normally, I would be apprehensive about visiting my future, but, since the plan was that it was to be a weekend just for the two of us, with no interruptions from the courts or from my stewards unless it was a matter of national importance, I was more than happy to go there and then.

Of course, nothing ever goes as smoothly as one might like. I got held up in a meeting with my stewards, so Gwyn went on ahead, knowing that she, of all people, I could find anywhere, anywhen and step there as easily as I could step into the next room. I concluded my meeting, changed into the clothing that Gwyn had told me was more appropriate for her time, grabbed a change of clothes and set out, stepping across the realms to where, and when, she was.

It was a pleasant looking cabin, aside from a rather worrying unconventional upper floor held in place by steel cables and accessed by a ladder. Despite the alleged time-period, it would not have looked out of place in my time, and was pleasantly rustic in appearance.

What was less pleasant was the sight of my beloved wife, leaning on the door of the refrigerator, crying. When I asked what the matter was, she said there was no cheese in the fridge (that looks wrong. I am sure the word is refrigerator, so I would expect frig, or frige, but the way she said it sounded like bridge… the problems of an unfamiliar vocabulary).

“There’s cheese here, honey,” I told her, pointing at, and sampling some that was out on the counter with some crackers. “It’s quite nutty, but perhaps a little bland, and these crackers are rather salty.”

“You don’t understand,” she cried, starting to sound a little hysterical. “That was all the cheese.”

I looked at the small portion. “That’s all of the cheese?”  She nodded, still looking upset. I tried to reassure her. “It’s not the end of the world,” I told her. “We have a mirror still.” Which was true. There had to be some way of contacting us, should the unwanted emergency occur. “We can just use it to call Clutie and have her bring more cheese, preferably something with a bit more age… and maybe some soda bread.” I think sometimes Gwyn forgets that my job used to include provisioning a whole ship for voyages. Of course, then, with landfall several days away in either direction, running out of cheese would have been a bigger problem. While I did have a mirror in my cabin, summoning fae servants was not among its powers.

She looked at me and hiccupped. “You mean you’re not angry?”

“Of course, not, Gwyneth,” I said. “Just because I am running Mysthaven, doesn’t mean I am going to turn into Maric and lose my temper.”

“But Victorians love cheese,” she said, as if this somehow made the absence of cheese worse. I’m not sure why. I may have been born and raised in the era of Queen Victoria, but I don’t think I have been Victorian for a while.  Nevertheless, I assured her everything would be all right. I held her in my arms and we rubbed noses and kissed for a while. “Everything will be just fine. Let’s send for Clutie, and she and Bran can bring over as much cheese as we need.”  I looked up at the strangely suspended and possibly unstable upper floor, which I suspected was the bedroom. “And, while we are at it, let them bring some blankets and such like, so we can sleep down here by the fire. Won’t that be so much more romantic?”

She followed my glance. “I don’t think we are going to break the place,” she said.

I looked back at the suspended floor. “You never know,” I said.

Cheese and soda bread was thus obtained, as were sufficient blankets and pillows etc to make a nice cosy nest by the fire.

What passed after that was purely for the two of us and I shall not detail it here. That, after all, had been the purpose of the weekend, whatever actual day of the week it was.

It’s certainly uncontaminated by cheese…

 

Father and Daughter

Nobody ever said parenting was going to be easy. And it has proved not to be, but then, my circumstances were, and are, to say the least, unusual. I hope I have always tried my best, emulating, so far as I can, my own parents, but it hasn’t always worked out as planned. As I said, my circumstances are unusual.

I lost my dear wife, Alexandra, to the throes of childbirth, bringing my only biological son into the world. And then, my experience of parenting ended almost before it was begun, since we, as a family, agreed that my brother Gilbert and his wife would adopt Arthur and bring him up as their own. That seemed the best way forward at the time, and, while I might sometimes regret that I did not get to be a father to him, I still believe that it was for the best.

Some ten years later, at least, so far as I am able to judge based on my experience of time, I was delighted to be able to adopt Wren. A matter of political expediency, perhaps, but also born of genuine love. I hope I did a better job with her. At least, so it seemed to me. But even so, I was unable to keep her safe here in Mysthaven, and so she has gone. Dyisi tells me that she is somewhere safe, and is happy, but I have yet to have a chance to visit to find out for myself.

And then, there are my three children with Gwyn. I do not know if all three are mine alone, if some are Janus’ alone or they are somehow the issue of all three of us. Not that it matters to me. They are my children, no matter what. Here I have had little chance of doing any parenting as they were born adult. For two of them, I have little fear. Drysi and Eilian are well-disposed with extended family, learning their way among fae kind. But Bronwyn, ethereal and other-worldly as she is, she is another matter. Drifting here and there, hopping realms at random, I worried for her, until Dyisi assured me that she had temporarily anchored her to a safe place.

That is no longer the case.

Something spooked her, so far as we can tell, and she slipped those bonds before I was able to go and bring her home. Where she was, I did not know, save that I heard her calling to me, as I was walking in the orchards. She had been on my mind as I enjoyed the scent of the fruit, and then I heard her call. I sent word to Dyisi via a wisp and she bade me join her by one of the pools, there to use the water to scry for my child.

The waters stirred and showed me my daughter, falling from where I did not know, storm-tossed and seemingly uncaring of her fate. Then my blood ran colder than I could have imagined. She was pursued. Red and black, antlers and wings and rampant insanity. Llywd!  Llwyd, who I had thought secure in Vedis’ care. Llwyd, who I had last seen arguing with the magician, Padishar, and more chillingly, with the spirit of Gwythyr. He chased her, calling out Faermorn’s name, still believing her to be his lost wife.

I did not hesitate; I did not stop to think. I leaped, not knowing where I was going, beyond that it was to my daughter’s aid, not even knowing for sure the mechanism I used, save that it was that ability to walk the realms given to me by Alex. Perhaps my flight was assisted by Dyisi. I knew not and cared not. All I cared for was to be with my daughter.

I crossed, ripping reality asunder and found myself plummeting also. Falling close to Llwyd/Gwythyr, while below me, Bronwyn fell still. All the anger I had came rushing through as I aimed the same spell I had used before on Gwythyr, blood and fire, calling out “Boil, you bastard!”

I could not tell how much damage I caused, but I had his attention, and screams of pain, but I had not taken his life again. He turned his attention to me, as we both fell, and swung his cudgel at me. A weapon more powerful than its physical appearance, struck only a glancing blow, but even that grated on my senses, much as I imaged cold iron would upon the fae. I turned my hatred and anger on that, calling on fire again, seeking to melt it or burn it from his hands. What effect it had was not apparent. He merely laughed and cast some manner of cold darkness at me, but somehow it passed me by. I called out to Bronwyn to flee and below, I could hear her call for her father, but still she fell, too scared to do anything.

I cursed mightily and turned my back on Llwyd/Gwythyr, marshalling my powers of flight to accelerate towards Bronwyn, caring not for what he might aim at me. I could hear him screaming at me that we would never escape and that he would find me, but I ignored him, concentrating on gathering Bronwyn into my arms, crying out for her as she cried out for me. The storm buffeted us both, as did the screams of Llwyd/Gwythyr, but somehow I had her! The Roads! That was my first thought, praying to whatever gods might hear me that I could do this. Opening a rift was my normal way  to the Roads, but I had no time, and did not know if I could close it before Llwyd/Gwythyr followed. I thought of Valene’s cave, a place of safety for me so many times and hopped realms again in mid-flight, even as Llwyd/Gwythyr’s screams followed me.

A change in the air, the almost total absence of air, and familiar chill told me that I had succeeded. Clutching Bronwyn close, I decelerated rapidly, not wishing to strike the cold, unforgiving ground here at any speed. And then we were down. Bronwyn shivered and trembled in my arms, burying her face in my shoulders. Wet through, we were, from the storm, and chilled by the wind, far beyond the normal chill of this place. I hurried to the cave, surprising the Cait, who probably wondered how we got there, since I had not opened the normal rift. Nevertheless, they scattered to do my bidding, bringing blankets and preparing a fire. I told them only that this was my child and that we sought shelter.

Bronwyn’s sobs subsided enough that she could speak, calling me father over and over. She was so tired, too tired to run any more, she said. There was nowhere to hide, she told me, saying she could no longer keep me safe.

I held her until the trembling eased, kissing the top of her head. “That was my job,” I told her, “to keep her safe, to keep me safe.” I told her there were other places we could go, places I could go that he would not know. I would keep her safe from him until such time as I could deal with him finally and for good. She would not leave go of me, so I made a nest for us by the fire, among the furs and blankets the Cait brought us. Eventually, she cried herself to sleep in my arms. For myself, I could not sleep, and lay there; holding her, thinking what I might be able to do, until the anger subsided and exhaustion claimed me to.

I have my daughter. I will keep her safe, if I have to tear down worlds to do so. Gwythyr will die. And this time, I will leave no remnant to come back!

Father and Daughter – Paul Simon

 

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