Something has burned the forest! Great areas of the beautiful forest! I don’t know who, or how, as yet, but there is so much gone. I cannot imagine the pain in the fae quarters, and I fear they may blame the castle and its inhabitants. I can only hope reason and diplomacy prevail.
I must have slept through it all, for it was over when I awoke. I stepped outside, as is my wont, to survey the courtyard, have my morning stretch etc. The normal miasma of the courtyard; the horseshit, the middens etc, was overlaid by the cloying stink of burning wood and vegetation, far more that could be accounted for by any burning of the garbage heaps. I ran to the castle gates, cursing the guards to get the gate opened quickly, and ran out onto the stair platform
Before me was a sad, nay, devastating sight. The beautiful greens and colours of the forest, stained in vast swathes with grey and black. Wisps and tendrils of white, grey and black smoke slunk around over the scene, curling here and there as if trying to hide their shame. My heart fell like a stone at the sight, and even further when I thought what it would mean to those who dwelled there. Panic seized me as I thought of particular dwellers therein – Aerodine and Valene. I ran, in my desperation, I did not think to fly, stumbling, tumbling down the steps and up the other side. To my relief, the stone itself seemed unharmed. I looked around, but none of the trees, damaged though they were, resembled any shape I had seen Aerodine in. I wondered how I might leave a message, and then I remembered I still had the rather grubby cravat in my pocket, the one she had returned to me and I had yet had the chance to wash. I tied it to the vine by the stone and set off back down the path. I could not find her at the other place I had seen her, by the carved paving stones either. I did not know where else to look, so my thoughts turned to Valene and her den beneath the rocks. I went there as fast as I could, struggling through the undergrowth and avoiding those areas still hot and smouldering. For once I was glad I did not need to breathe, for the smoke and dust would have choked me.
The den was still there, but so much of it was blackened and the vegetation burned or scorched. Fear gripped me, until common sense kicked in and reminded me that there was no body to be seen, no charred and twisted remains to mock me. I sank to my knees in the centre, careless of the ashes and cinders, huddled into myself, calling her name quietly.
My call was answered, for Valene quickly emerged from the shadows, wrapping herself around me and assuring me she was safe. She had burns all over her skin, already healing and was clearly exhausted and enraged. I held her close, resting her head on my chest, racking my brains for ways to soothe her pain. I recalled the song she sometimes would sing to me and tried my best to hum the tune for her. Mother may not have succeeded in teaching me the piano, but I have a good ear for music. She snuggled into me and I could feel the tension in her relaxing. I did not want to disturb that, but I had to know what had happened.
“I do not know yet,” she said. “I stepped out of the Roads into my den and found myself in the middle of an inferno. I connected this part of the forest to my Roads, which killed the flames… and likely froze a few of the dead trees. I can’t exactly remember what happened next as I wasn’t exactly clear in my head. My Cait are searching for clues and Sebastos should be finding Padishar.” I stroked her gently, avoiding the burns, telling her how Gwyn and I had only been here the previous evening, avoiding the company of Rachel. I looked at the burns again and asked if she was going to be able to heal them. She assured me she could, once she could spare the energy, saying that the pain helped her stay alert. I asked if there was anything I could do. Although I am essentially a peaceful man, I told her, I would happily nail whoever had burned the forest to a tree. She asked me to keep my ears open, and to let her know if I heard anything, because there were a lot of angry fae after the arsonist. She also told me that Rachel had gotten pulled into her Roads. I assured her that she would be the first to know if I heard anything and then asked if there was any chance she could leave Rachel in the Roads for the crow to devour. She was equally unimpressed with Rachel, but due to some agreement she had with Padishar about not messing with each other’s minions, could not do as I asked.
We sat for a moment, and I became aware of shadows on her skin, seemingly helping to heal her wounds. She looked around at her den sadly, saying she needed to start restoring her home, even though it was not her area of expertise. I looked around too and offered my services, explaining how Father had been a master builder, so I had some knowledge, even if this wasn’t exactly a bricks and mortar home. She thanked me, but said there was nothing to build, it just needed life to bring it back and she could not do that, not being a bringer of life, just darkness and madness. I remembered what Aerodine had told me about me bringing life, but I did not know how to say that, since I didn’t know what it meant. I said I would do whatever I could. She gave in to her sadness for a short while, the tears flowing. I held her close, kissing away the tears, offering what comfort I could.
“This too shall pass, love,” I told her. The plants will grow; other things we will do our best to repair. You will heal, and I will still be here for you.” I rested my lips against her forehead for a moment. “I know you feel the burdens of your crown, of your throne very heavily right now, but I know you are strong, you have good people around you and you will come through.” She started to smile a little.
“Life comes and goes Nathaniel, I know this,” she said through her sniffles. “But this was my home. Gwrgi found it for me and I made it into my home away from home. He kept me safe here, my cats have slept here and now our scents have been burned away, leaving only the scent of fire.” I continued to hold her and kiss her.
“The scent of fire will pass, and if we have to get every one of your Cait to come here and roll around until they have no fur left, it will carry your scents again,” I told her, taking her free hand in mine. “I lost everything, almost, in my journey to London. When London was lost and I sailed for Germany, I was shipwrecked, losing everything again. Jasper Cove burned and I fled here with only what I could carry. I thought I had lost almost everything again. And yet, here I found you. So things aren’t so bad.” She smiled some more and snuggled closer, letting the woman show instead of the suffering queen.
“I’m glad you found yourself here,” she told me. “It is good to have somebody who cares around.” I reminded her that she had been there for me many times, so it was only right that I should offer her solace when I could. She reminded me that she had sung me to sleep once, to which I replied, I probably needed it. I remembered the Tennyson lullaby that Mother used to sing to me and started singing it to her. She picked up the tune very quickly and started singing along.
Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.
“See,” I said when we were done. “We already have a choir. I told you we were unbeatable.” She laughed and sang a few lines from a song I didn’t know. I told her I had heard many strange songs on the box of jukes, but not that one. She told me it came from far in the future, a place she had explored on her journeys on the Roads. I smiled and told her I knew something of the future.
“I haven’t been to the future, though bits of it have come to me. Gwyn is from the 21st century and tells me tales of strange things called internets and eyepads and books of faces and suchlike. Some day, maybe I will go there. Heck, as a vampire, I might get there the conventional way… not that failing to die is very conventional, but you know what I mean.” She smiled back and opened my vision to the Roads again, pointing one out.
“That one leads to where Gwyn is from,” she told me. “Maybe, my Sigil, I will take you there some day.” I told her that maybe, one day; I might be brave enough to try that, perhaps as a gift for Gwyn. She said that she had offered to take Gwyn there but, she said, it seemed that nobody wants to go where they dream of. I explained a little of Gwyn’s background, how she had been somewhat of an outsider there, and how, perhaps, knowing what she knows now, she might feel even more of an outsider were she to return. I told her that I felt the same way. Maybe one of the Roads would leave to Bremerhaven, maybe even to the point before I was embraced. Could I go back? I asked. Could I go back to being a mere accountant? Could she go back to tending bar at Fiendish Pleasures? She thought about that for a while.
“No,” she said. “But I still go back to see the places. I went to visit the London in the Nexus. I went to mourn an old friend’s grave. It was difficult but still felt like coming home. London was the first place I felt happy. I fell in love there, I mated there and I lived when he left. I had a family and a purpose. It’s hard seeing that family here because, while I still love them, I no longer belong with them.” That thought intrigued me, but I forbore to question her on it. I commented that it might be fun; to have a glass with Borris, to taste the special rum from Vedis’ cellar and see the old sights. I remembered the events of the previous evening and mentioned that I had seen Giada and Ket’Lyn. She said she had seen Ket’Lyn, but not yet Giada.
We were interrupted by a plaintive mew from the entrance to the den. Valene mewed back and a small Cait came in rather tentatively. She spoke with him for a moment, the mews sounding strange from her mouth. His name was Ianto, she said, and he and the other Cait were nervous because of how angry she had been when she discovered the fire. There seemed to be some confusion, with this little Cait apparently being under the impression that Padishar was their father and Valene their mother. She tried to explain, but gave up and suggested they talk to Sebastos. She held my hand, and somehow, through the bond we had, I could understand the mews from Ianto. While we were doing this, I heard Gwyn’s voice calling from the entrance. I called her in, as did Valene, calling her ‘my pretty faeling’. Even Ianto bounded up to her, very much like a kitten, welcoming her with what I understood, through Valene, to be greetings of “Hi”. She came in, saying she had had difficulty finding the path because of all the burning, then bent and greeted Ianto. I made introductions and told Gwyn that Valene was sort of den mother to the Cait, but they were a bit skittish because of the fire. Valene hugged Gwyn and said she Queen, not mother, as most of the Cait were older than her.
Gwyn sat down and started playing with Ianto. She said she had heard a little about the fire in the tavern, shortly before Galyanna had stormed out. I asked what she had heard. She started to tell us, ticking the various facts off on her fingers, as and when she could between Ianto playing with them.
“Let’s see,” she began. “Galyanna said the Huntsman has declared war, but she didn’t say on whom. She said she and her … Kuro… have killed six cŵn so far, and that the Huntsman turned the dead castle guards into cŵn. Aoibheann said the Huntsman doesn’t wage war, which got Galyanna a little worked up, but then Rachel came in and fucked up everything as usual. She suggested ‘Clan Seid’ was responsible for setting the fires, and that’s when Galyanna stormed out. Aoibheann was leaving because she had to find new boots, but I think Rachel upset her, too, and then I had to go, because I can’t be anywhere with that loathsome twat.” She paused to take a deep breath. “That’s pretty much all I got.” I leaned over and kissed her, saying I should employ her as a spy. Then I sat back and mulled over what she had said, since none of that made any sense for a reason to set the fire.
“I do not understand any of that,” I mused. “The Huntsman hunts. It’s what he does, it’s his function. Unless he is behind quota on collecting the souls of the dead, why wage war? You know Vedis better than I do. Why would she be involved in something like this? I know the demons are a minority, much as we vamps are, but what’s to be gained by firing the forest? The same goes for the vamps. I know Cristof is pissed about his guards being murdered, but why set a fire? Why take such a risk when, so far as I know, he’s been trying to maintain diplomatic relations with both courts. None of it makes any sense.” Valene was looking very interested in the news, thinking aloud.
“Vedis knows I live out here, and we are still like family, so I do not think she would do anything that might hurt me. Galyanna is Vedis’ bodyguard, so she would know all about Vedis’ movement.” She paused and addressed Ianto, telling him to go find Padishar and tell him that she had news about the fire. “As for the Huntsman… I want you two to be very careful. The Huntsman and I are not friends or allies, so if he catches you two, he won’t give way because of my name. Oh, and Padishar will be getting an earful from me regarding Rachel. I wish could have left her to the Crow when she got trapped in the Road.” Gwyn told me that she had a reputation for memorising long lectures and poetry, then she told Valene about her encounters with the Huntsman and how she still dreamed about it. I told Valene that I did not fear the Huntsman as he did not seem to be interested in my, speculating that maybe as a vampire, he did not consider me as having a soul.
I remembered Aerodine’s warning and said that the dryads might know something, as they had warned me about the Sluagh. Valene sighed, telling us she hadn’t spent much time with the Huntsman, aside from stealing and taming one of his cŵn. She did not think it would be the Sluagh, as the forest was their home too. She did say the Huntsman was likely as bad as the other fae royals, so we might want to avoid all of them, even her beloved Queen. She added that I might not be able to avoid the latter after my conversation with the Raven. Gwyn commented that if the Sidhe were all as horrible as people made out, she rather hoped she wasn’t one. She then complained about her hands, so I asked Valene if she could help.
Valene told us how the Sidhe tended to have ‘hands of power’, which could be what was causing the tingling, or an aura. The Unseelie King’s power was to cause fear, whereas his Queen caused desire, making anybody her willing slave. She looked at us saying that Gwyn was likely Sidhe, since she had the tingling in her hands, and that it was very possible I had fae blood, coming from a time when faerie was strong in my land and breeding with humans was quite common. Gwyn was not overly impressed, telling us she wanted to bite her mother’s head off for dumping her in Catford and not telling her anything about herself. She looked at her hands again, quoting Lady Macbeth’s line about all the perfumes of Arabia not sweetening this hand. She asked if she could change, morph into a Cait like Valene. I mentioned that changes were possible, relating how Catt had gone from kindred to fae. Valene, sadly, had to disappoint Gwyn, saying that as a full Cait, she would be cat-shaped like Nualla. She had her humanoid shape because she was only half-Cait.
There was a slight movement near the entry to the den. Nualla came trotting in, with her normal expression of disdain for everything about her. Valene spoke to her, saying that we were getting company. Sure enough, Aoibheann entered with her usual diffidence, apologising for disturbing us. I beckoned her in and indicated she should join a little circle. She asked about the fire, wondering if it was the Huntsman who had started it. I had to laugh, saying that was indeed the big question we had been trying to answer and asked if she knew anything. All she would say was that the Huntsman had been angry the previous night, but with her, not the forest. As ever, she would not elaborate, and I felt it best not to pry too much. Valene yawned and started to curl up to sleep, using my knee as a pillow. I petted her gently with one hand, drawing Gwyn to me with the other arm.
“I guess you managed to get a message to him,” I said to Aoibheann. “I hope Ardan was not harmed in the fire.” Gwyn leaned into me, also appearing to be a little sleepy. She asked Aoibheann about the Huntsman.
“You spend so much time with the Hunter, Aoibheann,” she said softly. “What’s he like when he’s not being all terrifying?” She smiled at her adding, “You’re so beautiful.” Aoibheann reacted with her usual blush and stammer at the compliment. She said that the Huntsman was always terrifying, but that he treated her differently, calling her his little rabbit. I had to smile at that, thinking it an appropriate description. I hugged Gwyn and told Aoibheann that she was outvoted because both Gwyn and I thought her beautiful. I wondered aloud about her relationship with the Huntsman.
“Something about you clearly fascinates him,” I said. “Perhaps it is your innocence and purity? Perhaps… I know this may sound a bit strange, but sometimes it seems as if, while you find him terrifying, you don’t hate him… does that make sense?” She considered that for a moment.
“I am soft, and lovely, and full of life,” she mumbled. “All that he wants to take. But I suppose, I don’t hate him. I mean, he’s not… evil. He is the Huntsman. The hunt is all that he knows, all that there is for him. Although I am not looking forward to whatever he has planned for me.” I was quite taken with her explanation, it was so typically what was good about her, though I did wonder how she did not blame the Huntsman for being what he was, yet sometimes seemed to blame me for being a vampire. I decided to save that thought for later. Gwyn, meanwhile, decided to change the subject, and the mood, asking Aoibheann to guess something. When Aoibheann humoured her by asking what, Gwyn told her that I had kissed her, and promptly fell asleep on my other knee. Aoibheann was slightly flustered, continuing her explanation, saying that the Huntsman’s hunger was endless, but sometimes it was worse. She cut herself off when she realised what Gwyn had told her, saying she was very happy for us and asking if she should leave. I looked down at the two sleeping beauties.
“What am I? A feather pillow?” I asked, petting them both gently. I turned back to Aoibheann and asked her to continue with what she was saying about the Huntsman.
“Well, I am… I am safe from him, for now, but, I… It is complicated, and I do not wish to explain why,” she said, reluctantly. I tried to reassure her that I did not want to pry, unless she wanted to tell me, but did want to know anything that could help solve the mystery of the fire.
“Aoibheann, what goes on between you and him, it is entirely up to you what you speak of and don’t speak of. Should you want to share, then you should know I would treat that with utmost confidentiality. If there is something that could help solve the mystery of the fire, then that is different, but anything else, is nobody’s concern but yours and his. My only concern is for your happiness and your safety, just as it would be for any friend. If there is anything I can do, you can always ask, but otherwise, I will not interfere.” She sighed and lay down, trying to relax.
“I should hate them, both of them,” she murmured. “If the Huntsman had never come, then Daimon and I… He wouldn’t have needed to become the White Stag’s host, and we wouldn’t have…” She blinked her eyes a few times, and I could see tears. “It’s so easy to want to blame it all on him, to say if he and his cŵn had never come to Jasper Cove, everything would have been so easy, we would have been happy, married, have 11 children. You know, I realized, with Anna as the physician, I really could have had that many children if we wanted. Not sure where there’d be enough space for them though on that little island though. But I still… I’m not sure I’d really have made a proper wife anyway.” She was rambling somewhat now, but it was more than she had told me in as many days before, so I didn’t want to interrupt.
“Aoibheann, you are a kind, loving and loyal person,” I told her. “You have a good mind, are great with children, and you are beautiful. Any man would be lucky to have you as a wife, and I consider myself lucky to have you as a friend.” I looked down at my sleeping friends and smiled. I tried to shrug out of my jacket, thinking it might make a better pillow for them than my knees. Something of what she had said struck me. “Wait, what do you mean, both of them?” She did not answer for a moment, perhaps annoyed at letting something slip.
“The Huntsman has a host as well. And I am too reckless, Nathaniel. And selfish. I abandoned my own brother. And I am easily led astray. And I…” She grimaced, looking embarrassed. “And I am easily seduced. I’ve kissed someone besides Daimon.” I asked if she meant that there was a host, like Daimon and the White Stag. She nodded but would not elaborate further.
I tried to tell her that I would not judge her for kissing another. She was alone, did not know where Daimon was, or even if she would ever see him again. I doubted even Daimon would judge her. I tried to tell her that we were all flawed, and that we loved her anyway, but she would not have it, clearly regarding her various ‘lapses’ in dress and behaviour as totally immoral. I maybe made some headway in convincing her that this was not necessarily so. Eventually, it seemed to come down to identity, she did not want to lose who she was, and behaving in this ‘immoral’ way might change who she was. I tried to tell her that wasn’t necessarily the case, arguing that we all, sometimes, had to conform to expectations of society, but we could still be ourselves inside. I told her about Mother dancing barefoot in the woods, and how that would have scandalised some of her friends. I then brought it back to more immediate things. Gwyn and I had kissed – did that make us different people? That finally got through. She admitted she did not know, and it seemed that was a question she would have to think about.
She then changed the subject, asking if I had a spare book or some paper I could let her have, and something to write with. I was highly pleased that she still wanted to write and told her I was sure I had something back at the cabin she could have. I returned to the theme of her being free to act if she wished.
“Gwyn and I kissed because we wanted to. We both got pleasure from it. Nobody was harmed; no damage was done to each other, or to the land. Then, afterwards, we went for a walk, had a drink, chatted about things, just as we did before. So, we are not changed, save that we are both happier. So, if you are in that situation, then do what you feel you want. It’s up to you.” She did not answer, just lay there, staring at the roof, thinking. I had managed to get my jacket off by now, and by dint of careful manoeuvres, managed to roll it up and substitute it for my knees as a pillow for Gwyn and Valene. I told Aoibheann I was going for a walk before I got too stiff. I said she would be safe here, or Nualla would take her back to the castle. She bade me to be careful and seemed to settle down for sleep. I managed to unbend all my limbs and left, ducking out into the woods.