There is something I have often said to myself since that fateful day, eight or so years ago, when I became a creature of myth. That saying is “life can’t get any stranger”. I said it most recently to myself the other night, when I unexpectedly ran into Giada and Ket’Lyn. I realise now, I am going to have to stop saying it, because I think the universe is taking it as a challenge.
There was a unicorn in the tavern yesterday. That, in itself, is not unusual; after all, the tavern is owned by a knee-high, bright orange, un-dead, magic-using unicorn (and yes, I realise that is probably stretching the definition of ‘not-unusual’). This one, however, was much more like the classical unicorn, a white mare of surpassing beauty with a proud and brilliant horn. Paash and Aoibheann were there, looking a little bewildered. I looked at Paash and asked if she had invoked one of her deities. She was quite clear she had not, since doing so would mean the sun would stop moving or existence would stop existing. She asked if Aoibheann could explain.
“So, um, I was sleep walking,” she confessed, “And I woke up near the stables, and she was in one of the stalls, and she said she didn’t know how she got there, but she had a weird dream where she was a unicorn. And so I asked her if she was a unicorn, and well, she didn’t really know, but I figured if she was a unicorn, she ought to be able to do unicorn magic, so I tried to have her do the… thingy. And then she turned into a unicorn.” As Aoibheann explanations went, it was one of her better ones, if almost entirely incomprehensible. I thanked her and turned my attention to the unicorn, ignoring Paash’ grumblings about having enough to do without investigating other magic. As I looked at the unicorn, its horn seemed to disappear, which may or may not have had anything to do with the arrival of the Rachel. Even without a horn, she was still a beautiful creature, much more so than the workaday horses Father had for hauling materials that I liked so much as a child. On impulse, remembering Father’s horses, I pulled my bag of mints out of my pocket and offered one to the unicorn on the flat of my hand, the way I remembered old Joshua, who drove the carts, had taught me. She was clearly nervous about Rachel, from the way she reacted, but just like the horses of old, accepted the sweet with apparent enthusiasm. I mused aloud about whether it was true about unicorns and maidens. Naturally, of course, Aoibheann had not heard about this and asked what about maidens and unicorns. She then gave me her horn crystal and told me to do the thingy.
I wasn’t entirely convinced that this was the time for making a crystal glow, and besides, the Rachel was grumbling again, saying something about a shape-shifting accident and how she could help, but wasn’t going to because people weren’t grateful for her saving their lives. I grumbled back about people not wanting to drop things and turned my attention to the unicorn again, feeding it another mint. Since she appeared to be quite relaxed with me, despite my being a long way from being a maiden, I remembered more of what Joshua had told me about getting on with horses and put my face close to hers, sharing my breath as best I could. Paash trotted out grumbling about needing to do some research and the lack of decent stallions. Aoibheann meanwhile, responded to Rachel, saying that she had used glamour to change her appearance and wasn’t a shape-shifter, so was unlikely to be able to help. Rachel was not inclined to drop it, claiming she wasn’t going to do anything until we thanked her for saving our lives by sacrificing herself. Oddly, she didn’t seem to know what glamour was and asked Aoibheann. The damned demon was irritating me beyond measure, but I tried to suppress it for fear of spooking the unicorn.
“You got us into the dangerous situation in the first place, and if I am going to thank anybody, it would be the Cait Sidhe for giving us their protection and taking us away from the scene.” I growled at her, scratching the unicorn’s neck and ears. “Oh, and glamour is the fae’s ability to change their appearance. It’s a kind of illusion.” I wasn’t sure quite why I was even bothering. Perhaps some part of me hoped she could be educated into being less irritating. The unicorn responded favourably to my attention, which I found rather interesting. “Amazing,” I muttered, “and I’m not even a virgin.” I could have sworn the unicorn laughed at me at that point. Aoibheann repeated her question about unicorns and maidens while Rachel was still grumbling about having only gone along to help us, and even if we did have a demon protecting us, she still helped. I addressed Aoibheann’s question first.
“In the Middle Ages,” I told her, “that is to say, in the age several hundred years before I was born, unicorns were considered a symbol of chastity and purity. Legend has it that only a maiden could capture a unicorn.” I combed my fingers through the unicorn’s mane. “Where did you come from?” I asked her looking over at Rachel. I explained about the Cait. “Cait Sidhe – fae, not demon. And who the Cait are is their business. I am sure they will tell you if need be.” Somehow I doubted they wanted any more to do with her than I did. Aoibheann seemed as irritated as I was, telling Rachel that she had made her appearance changes sound more like glamour than shape-shifting. She looked at me and asked if demons could feed off repetition rather than vengeance. Still Rachel would not let the matter drop, grumbling that nobody told her that Cait were faeries and not demon and still went on about how we owed her for sacrificing her life to save ours.
“Don’t waste your breath,” I told Aoibheann. “If she doesn’t understand now, that I will thank her when the sun rises in the west, she never will.” I leaned against the unicorn, enjoying her beauty and strength, much more taken with her than I ever had been with Father’s horses. “Shouldn’t you be out roaming the forest?” I asked her. Aoibheann, meanwhile, was trying to explain about the Cait Sidhe being cats; only she seemed to be using a Scottish Gaelic version – cat sìth.
As I was about to comment on that, I noticed that Valene had appeared. At least, it looked like Valene, but there was something wrong with the eyes, the way she moved and the way she spoke. I greeted her none the less, indicating we had a visitor. She only briefly glanced at the unicorn.
“Cat sìth?” She said, her voice sounding strange, “I have not heard my kind called that in many aeons.” I knew Valene was older than she appeared, but that seemed an odd remark. Aoibheann, who was arguing with Rachel about the difference between cat faeries and rabbit faeries, picked up on Val’s remark and greeted her in Gaelic – Feasgar math. I was more concerned about Valene and asked if she was well.
“Tráthnóna maith,” she responded to Aoibheann before telling me she was perfectly well, her manner with me still strange. She moved closer and I became aware of a strange smell, most unlike Valene’s usual minty scent. It was more like death, rotting meat and such. Her interest was mostly focussed on Rachel. “Ahhh, the crafty demon’s pet,” she whispered, not entirely pleasantly. I replied that she was more of a pain in the arse than crafty and asked what brought her to the castle. Rachel looked nervous. She said her name was Rachel Spencer, not Padisha’s pet. Valene ignored me, which seemed unlike her, even if she had business with Rachel. “Where has the crafty demon gone, pretty little demoness?” She asked, her voice becoming even more disturbing and strangely compelling, making me think she was using magic of some sort, though none I recognised. Something was clearly going on as the unicorn’s horn reappeared, twinkling, then faded again. Rachel claimed that Padishar was away and often left her to her own devices. I put my arm around the unicorn’s neck, petting her and talking nonsense to her, as I had heard Father’s carters do when the horses were nervous. Valene’s attention was still focussed on Rachel. “So, he leaves a tasty morsel like you all alone in this land where you don’t belong?” She was moving closer to Rachel, brushing her claw against her arms, sounding less and less like Valene by the minute, something predatory in her eyes. Rachel retreated, clutching at the crystal more tightly, claiming she was not food. Valene was moving her wings around, making patterns which seemed to be fascinating, or possibly hypnotising Rachel, reaching out to take the crystal from her. “T’is a shame, t’is a shame. He should take better care of those he cares about. He left me in the Roads, in a mirror of my own mind.” Rachel dodged away, managing to keep hold of her crystal, shouting that she could not have it.
Valene just laughed, an unsettling laugh, and I could feel the power in the laugh brush over me, but it was not the familiar influence that I knew of Valene, it was something less pleasant. Rachel suddenly decided to make a bid for freedom, tossing the crystal over the unicorn’s back and running after it. This I did not understand, as she seemed most attached to it. I tried to make a grab for it, as did Valene, but we both failed. Rachel made it to the door and bent to retrieve the crystal, then paused, apparently entranced by Valene’s wings again. Valene chuckled unpleasantly and took the crystal from under Rachel’s unresisting hand. Her shape seemed to shift, the wings becoming more feathery and bird-like, as did the claws. “Aha my pretty,” she cackled. Rachel was clearly terrified now, asking who Valene was and even what she was, demanding her crystal back. Much as I disliked Rachel, this was a disturbing turn of events and not at all like the Valene I loved.
“Who are you?” I asked firmly, “And what have you done to Valene?” She just laughed and leaned forward, kissing me with a mouth that tasted of death and decay. She plucked a black feather from her hat and gave it to me.
“Tell the crafty demon that he broke a deal with me. Lying little tongues in lying little mouths. He knows where to find me. Come along little pet,” she cackled. With that, she faded into the shadows, taking Rachel with her. This was too much for Aoibheann, who had been standing wide-eyed and wide-mouthed behind the bar, and she leaped over the bar and fled. I commented something about that being very strange and leaned back against the unicorn.
Who wasn’t there any more. I stumbled backwards and nearly fell over Gwyn, who was now standing there, asking in her own inimitable fashion what the fuck had just happened. I was none too polite myself, asking where the unicorn had gone, where Gwyn had come from and repeating Gwyn’s question about what the fuck had happened, only in my case, referring to the disappearance of the unicorn and the appearance of Gwyn.
“That’s what I asked,” she said, somewhat nonplussed. “That did not seem like the Valene I thought I knew.” She tossed her head, flicking her ponytail in a disturbingly equine fashion. Suspicions began to form in my head.
“A unicorn disappears to be replaced by you, and you’re asking about Valene?” I asked. I leaned down and kissed her, finding her kiss tasted strongly of mint. “Oh!” Great, my girlfriend is a shape-shifter as well as a fae. I saw movement outside and saw Padishar appear, nearly get mown down by a fleeing Aoibheann, and then approaching the castle, clearly wondering what was going on. I addressed him, since he was apparently partly the cause of recent events. “Ah, Mr Istari. If you are looking for your pet, she’s… erm… gone. Some strange crow-like thing, apparently borrowing Valene’s body, took her away. She said something about you breaking your word. She left me this, if that helps make any sense of it.” I showed him the black feather. That made him stiffen.
“The Crow!” he said. “Well, the bitch certainly has timing.” He turned and stalked off, disappearing into the shadows in much the same way Valene had, calling back that I should stay safe. I would have commented that would be easier if she kept his pet under control, but he was gone. I turned my attention back to Gwyn. My confusion must have been obvious. She grinned and asked if she could get me a drink because I would probably need one. I followed her to the bar, agreeing this was very likely.
“So, I had this dream, right?” She began. “I woke up in the middle of the night and discovered I’d become a horse.” She looked toward the stables. “For a horse, that mare is a complete cow, by the way. Anyway. I woke up in the stable. Aoibheann found me. I don’t know what happened, exactly, but she gave me a bit of unicorn horn to hold, and then I was able to become the unicorn again.” She shrugged. “While all the weirdness was going on, I was going over in my head how the transition felt, but I wasn’t about to turn back in front of those two.” She pushed the glass of rum toward me. “Here. Look at this way: You had me eating out of the palm of your hand.” Once again, she demonstrated her amazing ability to render a traumatic experience down to a casual remark. I just burst out laughing.
“You are… something else. She turns into a unicorn and back and describes other things as weirdness. Amazing!” I grinned at her and sat there, playing with the feather, wondering what it meant.
“Well, I was busy being the unicorn, so it didn’t seem all that weird to me. That other shit, I really didn’t get. Though I did think about kicking Rachel.” She chuckled to herself. “Wouldn’t she look nice with a hoof print on her face?” The idea had its appeal. Aoibheann reappeared, having apparently collided with something unforgiving on her flight and made her way to the bar, seeking something to dull the pain. I remembered what Valene had told me of the Roads.
“I don’t think that was Valene, not properly. She once told me, when she first showed me her Roads, that there was a creature there, the Carrion Crow, who haunted the Roads, ready to catch any creature who got lost there. I suspect that was what was… possessing Valene. Padishar’s reaction more or less confirmed that. I only hope it is a temporary possession.” Gwyn said that she had felt something strange, the creature leeching heat from her, but felt that some of Valene was still there. She turned her attention to Aoibheann, trying to think of ways to help soothe the bump on her head. They talked about ice and raw meat and wished that Anna were still around with her beeping machines to heal it. I was weary by now, so kissed Gwyn goodnight and left them to it.
So, my girlfriend is fae, and a unicorn. Life did get stranger after all. And no, universe, that is not a challenge. Please!