King of the Castle?*

 

I am pretty sure, just a few entries ago; I wrote how I really needed to stay out of politics.  I’m fairly sure I wrote something like that.  There was something about not being an action hero or a man of mystery as well.  Or maybe that was somebody else. It must have been, because I seem to have done it again.  Me and my big mouth. I volunteered, and while I was doing so, the wilder part of nature took back the castle.

Gwyn found me in the tavern, reading. I must have been absorbed, for I never even heard her come in. I explained how I had spent the night comforting Valene, and gave her a potted history of how she came to be Queen of the Cait Sidhe. To my relief, she was entirely unconcerned that I had spent the night with another woman, but then, she does seem to understand and accept the bond that the two of us have. She was quite definite that she would not want to wake up and find herself a queen though.  I joked that in the absence of Cristof, perhaps I should declare myself king of the castle, and make her my queen. When I asked what she would do then, she said simply, run. I told her she could be a concubine instead.  Getting back to the matter of Valene, I told her that I had become her Sigil, and explained what that was.  We were talking then, about Padishar and Rachel when we were interrupted.  A tiny, dancing mote of light floated into the tavern and hovered in front of my face.  It was a will o’ the wisp.  I had not seen one since my days in London, with the one who called herself Willow, who delighted in playing games with poetry and songs. This one I did not know, so I merely bowed and asked how I might be of service.  It twinkled a little and then settled on the end of my nose, making it very hard to see properly without straining my eyes.  Then it spoke, a voice that did not match the dainty little light, a voice brimming with authority and seduction, yet also carrying a sense of urgency.

“Greetings, Nathaniel,” the voice said. “I have heard of your request for an audience. You may come now to me. Follow the Wisp… and I suggest you bring your friends with you.” I frowned, thinking for a moment.  Then I realised that the only person I could recall asking for an audience with was the Unseelie Queen, as part of my negotiations with the Raven Captain. I started to bow, but then realised that might dislodge the wisp. I responded that I was honoured and would come at once. I stood and held out my hand for Gwyn to take.  The wisp hopped off of my nose and hovered by the door, as if waiting.

“I am summoned… I think it is the Unseelie Queen… and you are invited.  We have to follow the wisp.”  She took my hand but seemed a little reluctant, asking if it was a good idea and should she dress up.  From the tone of the voice in the invitation, I suspected we did not have time, but did suggest she should perhaps moderate her language somewhat. We set off following the little wisp of light. This was a quieter, more sober wisp than Willow, but then, it was on official business.  It took us down the steps and stairs from the castle, but instead of heading up towards the carved stone, and the further standing stones, it turned down the path towards the bridge.  We followed over the bridge and onward along that path, breaking off from the path after a while.  We came to an area I recognised; the place I had found Aerodine after she had escaped the Sluagh.  I looked at the carved door in the rock and wondered if we should knock.  Gwyn laughed.

“You’re asking me about protocol?” She asked. “I think that would be a poor choice. Remember Major FuckBeak?”  I nodded and approached the door, but paused before knocking; getting the distinct impression this would be a bad idea.  The wisp bobbed up and down impatiently and darted to the right, where we found some old stonework, a bridge of sorts, perhaps, leading to some steps up the hill.  We were joined there by Aoibheann. From the look of her, she had been on one of her “adventures”, looking exhausted and limping.  She barely managed to gasp out Gwyn’s name, before hanging on to her arm and following us up the steps.

The steps led to a small plateau at the top of the hill, a wondrously beautiful spot dominated by the largest and most magnificent I had ever seen. It soared over the area, making any other tree I had known, even Ardan, seem a mere twig beside it.  Magnificent though it was, it did not command our attention long, for there was the Queen. Radiant, dazzling, almost too bright to behold, she was.  Beautiful, yes, as Valene had said, but so much more than that; the very epitome of desire, like a glowing beacon against the sky, a sight that would have taken my breath away, had I had any to take.  I paused, composing myself, the rational part of my brain reminding me that this was a faerie queen, and I could not entirely trust any of my senses.  I gathered my thoughts, remembering where I was, and trying to remember how I should behave; hoping my words and actions would be adequate.  I offered a silent prayer for all the stories I had read of Arthurian courts and other such chivalric tales.

“Your Majesty, it is an honour to make your acquaintance,” I said, bowing as elaborately as I could without becoming a parody. “Queen Valene of the Silver Pard speaks very highly of you, but even her words were inadequate to describe you.”  I was aware that Gwyn and Aoibheann were beside me, bowing also, and I got the distinct impression they were leaving the speaking to me. The Queen gestured for us to approach, her hands open in welcome. When she spoke, her voice was soft, beguiling, seductive, but I sensed steel behind it, a voice used to command.

“She has spoken well of you Nathaniel. If you have earned my Val’s respect then you must be worthy indeed,” she said, with a smile on her face. “What words do you wish to bring to me, Nathaniel… and companions?”  I offered another bow, thinking rapidly. I had indeed, requested an audience, in an attempt to achieve the vengeance that the demon Rachel had placed upon me without resorting to violence that would surely have doomed us.

“My apologies,” I said, gathering my thoughts. “My companions are Aoibh and Gwyn, like me, guests in your lands.  I must confess; the matter that brought me here was not of my doing. A demon unduly influenced Gwyn and I into a confrontation with your Captain of Ravens, seeking vengeance for injuries done to Gwyn on a previous encounter. It would not otherwise have been our desire to seek that. We were compelled to seek vengeance by the demon. In an effort to do that, while avoiding a potentially fatal fight, I decided I would seek redress another way, by asking it through proper channels. That is how I came to seek audience with you, for that redress. I must apologise, however, for now that we are free of that demon’s influence, I do not think we have any further need of vengeance.” I glanced sideways at Gwyn, hoping that we were in agreement. “In the stead of that, Majesty, I would offer my service to help seek out the cause of the recent fires. Being friend to some that dwell in the forest, that are of the forest, I feel that harm as if it had harmed me personally. It is my hope that some solution can be found that does not involve further destruction.” Gwyn spoke up; for once using what I feel must be her real voice instead of the common, South London accent she affects normally.

“The Captain showed respect and understanding of our situation in our last encounter, and I have no further quarrel with him,” she said. “We are grateful and honoured to be in your presence, Your Majesty.”  I silently applauded; glad that I could rely upon her. The Queen regarded us serenely, a gracious smile on her lips, though it was hard to tell what might lie behind her outward expression. Even from several feet away, I could feel the tickle of her power, playing at the edges of my senses. Her power, her beauty, her sensuality, all called to me and I recognised that, and in so doing, was able to keep my reserve. Her gaze lit curiously and briefly on my companions, acknowledging them before addressing me again.

“Your concern is understandable. Our captain is very diligent in his defence of our borders.” She paused for a moment, before focussing her gaze on me, her look so intense, it was all I could do to keep from blinking or shying away. The brightness and vibrant nature of her voice reached deep inside me, appealing to something far more basic and primal.  “Accepted,” she said, “If your intent be true then I will accept your service offered on this task. Swear it to me and it shall be so.” I groaned inwardly, only too aware of the traps I could be laying for myself.  Fae and their vows, I thought to myself.  I composed myself again, moving forward and kneeling on one knee.

“If Your Majesty has spoken of me with Valene of the Silver Pard, then You will know that I am a man of peace. From things I have heard, I fear that a war might be imminent, and that some blame the castle. I have not seen the master of the castle, Sir Cristof, in some days, but knowing him as I do, I am sure that he too desires only peace, and would not countenance the actions of the fire-starter, much less have ordered it. I acknowledge, however, that the fire-starter may dwell in the castle, or he or she may dwell outside. As yet, I do not know. I have been in this land only a short while, but I have grown to love it, and would not see it harmed. War, to my mind, would cause much harm, and that I do not wish. If a peaceful resolution can be reached, then that is to be much desired. In pursuit of that, and of justice, I will swear as you wish.”  I offered out my hand, very aware of a much earlier oath, an oath from which I still bore the scar around my wrist, which even now, was tingling more so than it had ever before. I felt Gwyn moving a step closer, resting her hand on my shoulder, offering support. I felt her influence, and was aware that she still had an arm around Aoibheann.

The Queen gazed at us, her eyes lighting briefly on Gwyn’s hand on my shoulder. My words apparently bringing forth from her a smile, tinged with some unknowable sadness and even more unknowable amusement.  She reached out her hand, hovering just above mine, pausing for a moment. Her aura was warmth and light, surrounding her, brushing against me like a soft fur or a summer breeze, her very presence almost overloading my senses.  She sighed deeply; perhaps some sorrow at what might come of this, before her hand touched mine.  My senses blurred and span, feeling both heat and chill, a momentary feeling of regret, delight and amusement, overwhelming me for the tiniest moment. My thoughts flashed to the times I had taken vows with Katarina and Winter, and I knew she knew those thoughts too.  I felt as though I might almost faint before she withdrew her hand again. My senses reeled and recovered, leaving me with a tingle, torn between a fear of the sensations and a strong desire to feel it again.

“So be it,” she said, in acceptance of my oath. “You may regret your offer soon enough. Some things in this world are too Wyld to ever be controlled, and any amount of reason or truth will not stop the tide once it begins to rush over the walls. I have done what I can in such short time, bringing welcome to you and your companions for as long as you wish the sanctuary of my court. All you can do now is find justice in the aftermath. For I am afraid War has already reached the most obvious target.  Her head lifted, turning that bright gaze over our heads, looking into the distance towards where the castle lay.  There was a distant rumble, a vibration almost felt rather than heard and I feared that my words to Aerodine had not been heeded, and that the castle was under attack. My mind was still dizzy from the contact, and when I looked up again, my dear Valene had appeared silently by her Queen’s side. Her delight in that contact was clear, even as she acknowledged the three of us with a slight nod. I rose to my feet again, offering a brief bow. I felt the tingle in my scar again and rubbed at it, memories and images dancing in my mind, of two other Unseelie Queens, and most of all, of my own, dear Captain, Catt, who gave me the scar.  I turned my head slightly, hearing the sounds of distant destruction before addressing the Queen again.

“Perhaps, Your Majesty, perhaps,” I said, “but regret is for another time. I do what needs to be done and that’s an end of it.” I smiled fondly at Valene before looking back at the Queen. “The Wyld will do what the Wyld will do, and if it will not listen to reason, there is nothing I can do, but I still have hope.” For some reason, I squatted and pressed my hand against the earth, getting again, that sense of life and power from it. “The land is what is important. I feel it sometimes, calling me. Why, I do not know, save that there is a possibility that I have the fae blood, through my mother. Of what heritage, I know not.” I lifted my hand to cover Gwyn’s on my shoulder. “I appreciate Your hospitality and pledge to do my best never to abuse it. What is Your Majesty’s bidding?”  Gwyn’s fingers entwined with mine. I heard her whisper something to Aoibheann, but what, I could not tell. Her Majesty nodded in response to my words.

“Yes, you do. I sense it in you. Perhaps you can find a home within my court if you wish it Nathaniel and perhaps for your companions as well.”  I felt she would have said more but there was another arrival. I recognised the being I now knew was the leader of the Sluagh; Braeden, by name, or so I understood from Valene. The Queen’s look towards him was friendly enough, but wary.  She turned back to us, her voice soft, yet authoritative.  “For now, we stay safe here and let those of the Mist take their due. You may all seek rest and refreshment in the Underhill until it is safe to venture out again.”  Her hand reached out as Valene reached up for hers, taking it with apparent fondness.  Valene knelt and spoke.

“My Lady, you seem to have found my foundlings, or perhaps they found you. They have alone gained my blessing among the outsiders of this land.”  There was a moment of quiet, the sounds of the birds, the nearby water, and the distant crunch and rumble of stone were all that could be heard.  Aoibheann fidgeted nervously on the other side of Gwyn and Braeden paced in a small circle, not speaking.  I broke the silence.

“I was once in service to Winter Illios. We opened a club, decorated in the manner of a sithen. She called it Underhill. I often wondered why.”  I bowed, sliding one arm around Gwyn,and just brushing at Aoibheann on her other side. “Your offer of sanctuary and refreshment is much appreciated. But is there anything I can do in respect of those of the Mist? I am friends with one of the dryads and she might heed my word. If not, then I shall remain here at your bidding.”  I looked across to Valene and thanked her for her kind words about me to the Queen.  Gwyn squeezed close to me, whispering in my ear, asking if we actually knew who started the fire.  I whispered back that I doubted that the Wyld ones understood justice the way we did. The Queen turned to Valene, addressing her comment.

“I thought it best to offer my hospitality at this unfortunate time,” She said rather delicately, then smiled at Val with true affection. “Your blessing is enough for my acceptance, as always, beloved.”  She turned back to me.  “Best to stay out of the way of their wrath until it is spent. If you are not one of them, you may look like an enemy until the battle madness passes.” Something in her eyes flickered at my mention of London and Underhill, “Yes I remember it. It was a homage to the true home of the Unseelie in all the realms of Faerie. It is tradition to name the seat of our court Underhill.” I managed to conceal my surprise, having not realised that this Queen may have known the London I knew. Valene smiled at me.

“You are dear to my heart, Mine Sigil,” she said.  “And you have stood true for me, why should I not give good word for you?” I smiled in return, but we were once more interrupted, this time by Padishar, who reported that the Trees were laying waste to the castle. He said that they seemed uninterested in killing the inhabitants, who were fleeing. His words were like a dagger through my heart, and no doubt my expression showed it. He said he would do what he could to save those inhabitants of the castle who had the sense to leave and then departed himself.

“Then she did not heed my words,” I muttered, sadly. “Needless death and destruction, despite my pleas.”  I looked up at the Queen. “What then, shall we do? I somehow doubt the Underhill is stocked with suitable refreshment for myself, though my friends here would no doubt appreciate it.” Gwyn spoke up too.

“As Nathaniel, I am too committed to peace. What can we do, not today but tomorrow, a fortnight from now, to achieve it? Of course, we are grateful for Your hospitality, Your Majesty,” she said, “But I for one would also like to make a contribution to eventual harmony.” The Queen seemed pleased by her words.

“I am glad you both wish peace as do I. For now you may all seek refreshment and rest in the hill. The cave to the left of the door houses several areas to rest and holds basic food and drink as well. Within the first chamber behind the door is a spring of fresh water as well as more potent drink and food. Avail yourselves of any of these. However do not venture to the inner chamber. That is the King’s personal chamber and is well guarded by sentient plants.”She arched an amused brow at me. “Whatever needs you have can be fulfilled by my court. Just ask and it shall be provided.”  She smiled and laid her hand on Valene who warned that perhaps I should not have too much of the fae blood.  She opened a portal to her Roads, saying she needed to discuss matters with the Sluagh guard. She entreated the Queen to take care of her foundlings and repeated her warning about disturbing the King.  With that, she stepped into the Roads, beckoning Braeden to follow. I sensed it was time we departed.  I let go of my hug and took Gwyn’s hand instead.

“Then we shall take our leave, Majesty,” I said. “As I am sure you have other business. Your kindness is much appreciated. As you say, and as my dear friend here said. Another day will be better to discuss what must be done.” I smiled a warm smile at Valene. “Good night, my dear friend. I will see you soon.” I turned my attention back to Gwyn and Aoibheann. “Come ladies, let us leave Her Majesty to her business and take our ease below.”  We made our way back down the steps. The carved door led to an ante-room, where there was food and drink, and the inner door, about which we had been warned, but we were advised to go out and into the next cave, wherein there was also food and drink, a brazier to keep warm and various places we could rest. Aoibheann more or less collapsed by the fire, having barely said a word since she joined us, while Gwyn and I found ourselves a cosy spot off one of the side tunnels.

So, once again, I am sworn to an Unseelie Queen.  I wonder what Mother would have made of that. Of course, now I am left with a further mystery. If I am fae, through Mother, was she Seelie or Unseelie?

 
* Given Nathaniel’s obsession with all things Arthurian, what else but Pendragon?

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