Thorn in My Side*

I am a man of letters, a man of numbers; not some dark, saturnine man of mystery or dashing warrior. I lack the wit and deviousness to sit well with intrigue and lack the instinct and skills to be a warrior. True, I have some modicum of ability with my fists; formed in the arena of the school playground, until my parents taught me that was not the way to deal with bullies, and later, in far too many bar-room brawls in ports all over the European coast, but I cannot call myself a pugilist. My skill with a sword is limited to knowing which end to hold and which end to poke in my opponent, and I never had need or desire to learn the use of firearms. I have survived this long by staying out of trouble, by not being important or significant enough to be worth killing, and by avoiding taking sides, so far as I can, save where necessary to save those I care about.

That is what I try to be. Life, or unlife if you prefer, seems to have other plans. Despite my best efforts, over the last few years I have served as right-hand-man to a vampire prince and Raven to two Unseelie Queens. And how, I find myself taking up a similar role to that of Raven.  I think I prefer the title Greyson/Alec would have given me – keeper of the lore – at least that would have involved words and nothing sharper than a pen-knife. Ah, but we know how that went…

I was outside my hut; peering round the corner at a mysterious figure I had been watching wandering around the further reaches of the castle courtyard.  I could not tell who it was, save they were not of the castle guard. Suddenly, I was embraced from behind. I must admit, I yelped somewhat, and almost went for my sword.  What with demons, ravens and frenzied vampires, I have been a bit jumpy lately. I managed to stop myself when I recognised the arms. I don’t know many people with bark for skin.  I managed to turn myself around and found Aerodine there, slightly alarmed by my reaction and apologising.  She handed me a rolled up bundle of fabric, telling me she had brought this for me.  I apologised for shouting at her and tried to reassure her with a kiss.  The bundle was my jacket, cravat and belt, the ones I had left with her when she was injured. I explained about how I had been in a fight with the raven. This appeared to surprise her, and worry her. She repeated what I had said about the raven, as if in disbelief, and then told me to stop getting in trouble.  I assured her that I had no intention of getting into trouble if I could help it, and that the confrontation with the raven was not of my doing. I noticed that she did not look comfortable, which had been the case last time she was in the castle, but more so. I asked if she was well.

“There is a thorn,” she told me, which I did not understand. While she herself didn’t have any that I had noticed, many of the other trees did. “A thorn, it is out there,” she added.  It was clearly important to her, but it still made no sense, unless it was something alien, something that was hurting the land. “I want to protect you, you are special,” she told me.  I stroked her cheek and leaned in to kiss her on the lips, although they were still that mossy green colour.

“And so are you,” I replied, “But do not put yourself at risk. I know you do not like it here. Should we talk elsewhere?”  She nodded, looking around, clearly uncomfortable with her surroundings. The ground tasted bad, she told me, too many animals and their refuse.  She said that the thorn was hurting, it was very odd, it was something to do with one of the trees, and she needed to seek it out.  With that, she merged into the background as she so often does, and was gone.  I wondered if she maybe meant Ardan, but she was gone before I could ask.

As I looked up, I realised Valene was watching me, with an amused expression.

“None of you are ever going to learn, are you?” She asked, wandering over and kissing me on the cheek.  I thanked her for the sanctuary of her den and asked what she was wanting.  She kissed me back, fondly and asked me why I had claimed her service when talking to the Raven.

“I don’t know,” I told her, honestly, “It just seemed a bit better than just saying I was your friend.  It sounded more formal.” She acknowledged that, but said that it had confused Royce and Nualla. I apologised, commenting that I should have realised that I needed to be more precise, more careful when talking with the fae, and I should know this, being a man of words. She agreed, and then asked if I would enter her service, to be her Sigil. I had heard this word before, but beyond it being a magical symbol, could not fathom it, unless it was akin to being Raven. I told her I always had her back, but that I was not greatly skilled with the sword.  She said that it was not so much of a guardsman as a champion, somebody who would come when she needed me. I nodded, but being aware of the insecure nature of the locality, suggested we take a walk.  She thought that wise and opened the way to her roads.

The roads looked very different from last time I had seen them; bleak and monochromatic, just black stone and ice and snow. Here and there I could see skeletal remains frozen in macabre shapes.  All around us, lurking in the dark, were eyes, hundreds of them, staring from the shadows.  I made some comment about thinking that Rotterdam at 3am was bleak, but this was far worse. We came to what I assumed to be some kind if sign-post for those that have the reading of it. I tried, but I could not make sense of it. Perhaps it would make sense if I had some higher mathematics.  I told Valene that I would leave the navigation to her, joking that I felt we were being watched.  She told me that we were always watched on the roads.  I wondered if these small beings were Cait, but I could not clearly see them.  I followed close with Valene, remembering her warning on a previous occasion about a Carrion Crow that lurked to seize on those who got lost.

By and by, we came to an enormous tree, cold and black of leaf. It looked to be the centre of some graveyard, for there were hundreds of cairns surrounding it, small, sad little pyramids. Each one, she told me, a life sacrificed to the last hard winter. The sadness in her eyes moved me, and I felt the need to say something.  All that I could call to mind was the Christina Rosetti poem I had recited at Mother’s funeral.

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can go no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Valene smiled, sadly, telling me that they would have appreciated the liturgy. I told her why I knew it and when I had recited it last.  We paused a moment and walked on.

Soon, we came to a huge cave, illuminated by some light whose origin I could not fathom. Unearthly it was, yet somehow grand and awe-inspiring.  The shadows that had been dancing around us all along the road solidified into Cait Sidhe. They danced and nuzzled around Valene’s ankles, clearly happy to see her return.

“Welcome to my home, Nathaniel Ballard, dear one to my heart,” she told me. “You are the first non-Cait to see it.”  I looked around the place in wonder, and could not help but smile at the way the Cait frolicked around her.

“Then I consider myself truly and deeply honoured,” I said. “I hope I continue to remain worthy of that honour.” I looked down at the throng of Cait and greeted them also. “And greetings to the brethren of my beloved friend Valene Silverpard, I am honoured to make your acquaintance.” I guess they understood me, for they all stopped and stared.  Royce appeared and acknowledged my greeting.

“Greetings, Nathaniel Ballard, loved one of our queen. The Cait Sidhe welcome you into our world and grant you safe passage.” I bowed again and thanked him, both for his welcome and his assistance in escaping from the Raven, which I had neglected to do so in the excitement.  Remembering where I was, and with whom I was dealing, I felt I should acknowledge the safe passage.

“I appreciate the safe passage and will do my best to honour it by never bringing harm to this place,” I said.  Valene led us onward into what appeared to be the throne room. The throne itself, a simple one, was carved out of the wall of the cave itself.  She sighed and seated herself.  I bowed and asked if I should kneel or something. She told me Hell No, and beckoned me to sit beside her on the arm of the throne.

“We are likely the most informal court besides maybe the goblins,” she told me. Then a voice disagreed with her, an old voice, yet carrying power and authority.

“Not so, my queen,” the voice said, “The Orcs are even more so.”  The owner of the voice emerged from the shadows, a large and elderly Cait.  He looked me over, clearly evaluating me. “He is more of a scholar than a fighter, Valene,” he asked, “Are you sure he can help us?” Valene took the comment with only a mild roll of the eyes and told him that she was sure. She then introduced him as Sebastos, the former king of the Cait and now her top advisor.  I remembered her telling me about him when she related how she became the queen. Despite Valene’s assurance of informality, I felt it best to be a bit more proper.  I stood again and bowed, offering my hand.

“Greetings, Sebastos, I am honoured to meet you. Valene has spoken highly of you. And rightly she should so speak, since you are clearly most perceptive. Yes, I am indeed more of a scholar than a fighter. I have only moderate skill with this.”  I patted the sword at my hip. “However, in the defence of those I love, I would wield it until my last breath.” He looked at me again and said that I would do. Valene explained further what she needed of me. Apparently, she told me, the Cait like me best of all the outsiders, because I listen and follow their advice.  She wanted somebody to be their voice with the outsiders and chose me because I am good with words. She warned me that this would not be easy, especially as Cristof is somewhat possessive about the castle and its environs, reminding me how he dealt harshly with those who appeared to be against him.  I needed no such warning, having seen how he dealt with Aoibheann that time, but nodded acknowledgement.  She said there was no quarrel between the Cait and Cristof, but I would still need to remain sharp. I explained that I did not wish any quarrel, owing him some loyalty through our shared clan, and him being the only kindred I had any regard for in this land. However, I would do my best in assisting, preferring always to use words rather than swords. I repeated what Cristof had said to me about wishing cordial relations with the courts, and caring only for safety and for trade.

The Cait, she told me, were nomadic, so had little need of trade, but suggested that Faermorn might be interested, but thus far had not managed to speak with him.  She told me again how she was a consort of the Queen and was glad of this for it afforded her protection from the Unseelie King.  From the way Sebastos and the others hissed, I gathered said King was not well-liked.  She warned me to be careful of those I spoke to, for even the Sluagh were disguising themselves with glamours. She told me she knew this because she had scent-marked one who was apparently fascinated by her.  I joked that anybody should be fascinated with her, then moved onto the subject of trade, offering my experience and services, should they be required.  I then wanted to know who I was to be spokesperson with, asking if non-Cait were outsiders or all non-fae. She told me that the fae were not considered outsiders, though they could be friend or enemy. It was others she wanted me to deal with, mentioning Vedis as one example.  I felt a little sorry for her, as she looked so weary; presumably the burden of the crown was weighing heavily upon her.  Sebastos came and nuzzled at her legs, causing her to explain that the Cait were somewhat demonstrative.  I had sat down by now, so scratched her head, reminding her that I had no problem with demonstrating my affections. I told her that I was hers to direct, only asking that I be properly briefed. She kissed me and told me that I would do just fine.

“Have you then decided to be my Sigil, Nathaniel, my voice in that lost and confusing world?” She asked. I told her that we had been friends for a long time; that I would do anything for her, but still asked exactly what a sigil was, besides being a magical symbol.  I kissed her again, to assure her of my devotion. She kissed me back and explained that I was to be, among other things, her warning system.  I assured her again, that I always had her back, and would always warn her of any impending danger. However, I added, that I would do anyway, even if I were not this Sigil that she asked of me.  She smiled and stood.

“Would you be willing to be bound by that, Nathaniel Ballard? For an unbound non-fae doing business for a fae in a fae court will not have much standing,” she said quietly. Sebastos came to stand at her side, and I got the impression we were getting to the formal parts now. Without realising it at first, I found myself tracing the scar on my right wrist, a memory of my previous oath as Raven.

“You have my word,” I told her. “But if you require more, then name your oath. I would only ask that such bond is known only to those who need to know it. I feel that I could serve you better among the outsiders if they thought me more independent.” Aware now of the scar, I added, “Oh, I also ask that such oath does not involve any amputation.”  She smiled briefly, and was then very serious, and told me to kneel. I joked that I knew kneeling would come into it sooner or later and adopted the appropriate position. She stepped forward and took my face in her hands.

“Do you, Nathaniel Ballard, swear onto me, Valene of the Silver Pard, Queen of the Cait Sidhe, to be my loyal ally? To listen to those I can not listen to, to be my left hand, my scholar warrior fighting battles that I ask of you with your words and, if needed, your sword. Do you swear to do this of your own free will with no coercion from others?” I looked up at her, letting my eyes speak for me, before agreeing.

“All these things you have freely of me anyway. But for you, Queen Valene of the Silver Pard, I do so swear.”  She leaned down and kissed me, warning that the next bit might hurt a little.  She held my head more firmly, tilting it so she had access to my neck.  She kissed me on the pulse and then bit down, drawing blood, which she lapped up before releasing me.  The pain was short and sharp, but not unbearable, though it did feel strange to be on the receiving end of a bite.  She then bit a small wound in her own finger and offered it to me, warning me to only take one drop, because fae blood was a heady drug.  I did so, feeling that rush I remembered from the days I had been able to afford fae blood from Borris’ cellar.  I warned her that my own blood could also be a drug, telling her that should she drink from me twice more, then we would be bound a different way.

That seemed to be the end of the formal part of the proceedings, aside from an echoed call of welcome from the assembled Cait.  She smiled and seemed more at ease, now she had achieved what she wanted of me.  She told me it was time she sent me home, before too much time elapsed in the outside world. I agreed that this was probably a good idea, adding that I wasn’t sure that my oath had been taken without coercion, claiming her beauty probably counted.  She laughed and called me a smooth talker before opening a portal, not to the roads this time, but directly to her den.  I got up to go, complaining light-heartedly about getting one kiss and then being sent home.  She grinned and motioned me towards the portal.  As I was entering it, she whistled to get my attention. I turned and asked if there was anything else.  She just smirked at me and for a brief moment, such clothes as she wore vanished, showing her naked form to me before the portal closed, hiding her from my view.

I had to laugh, albeit in an exasperated way. I made some comment along the lines of “Typical” then shrugged and set out. She may have sent me home, but I still had to walk to the castle.

So, once again, I am sworn, but to something I would have done without needing an oath. I shall have to keep this quiet until she bids me tell anybody.  Where this will take me, I do not know, but I am sure I will find out soon.  So much for being an ordinary, mild-mannered accountant.

* Thorn in my Side…


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