He that is not with me is against me. That is what Jesus said, or so the gospel tells us, the Gospel according to Luke, in this case, but I seem to recall similar sentiments being reported in the other gospels. It was a subject that the Rev. Elverson and I debated often over dinner. I preferred the version in Mark – For he that is not against us is on our part. In context, Jesus was responding to complaints from his disciples that people outside their group were doing healing in his name. Sadly, however, too many people take the Luke version to mean that anybody who does not support Christ is automatically against him, an absolutist view I reject and dislike in any context. Just because I choose not to take sides does not necessarily make me an enemy of either. There seems to be too much of taking sides lately in my life. Some sides I do not mind – I will always take the side of my friends; and after the fire, I chose to take the side of the land, even if that is something abstract, but siding with a faction, I am not so keen to do that. Sadly, sometimes, there does not always seem to be a choice. The choice, which may not really be a choice, this time, was presented by the Unseelie King, Gwthyr.
I had been exploring the cavern, albeit haphazardly, vaguely in search of Gwyn. For some reason, Blake’s poem “And did those feet, in ancient times,” was on my mind, and I was singing it, in between cursing when I bumped my head. Well, sort of singing – just a very simple tune Mother had once made up to accompany me while I recited it. I found myself back outside the cavern, so thought I would see if she was anywhere nearby. She must have heard me singing and called out to me, wondering why my special powers didn’t help. At first, I thought she was referring to my navigational abilities, which I pointed out were not really much use on land, still less in a cave where you can’t see the stars. Apparently, though, she meant my vampire powers, wondering if I could smell the sea or something. I had to tell her that those were not much better use – my sense of smell being particularly attuned to certain scents, although the enhanced hearing did help me find her once she called.
She must have heard me singing, since she commented that I should hold off on chariots of fire until I had seen the arrows of desire as we hugged and kissed hello. I told her I would resist making any suggestive jokes about arrows of desire, given I was in the presence of a lady. She laughed, obviously expecting such a comment and then told me about a tune written by a man called Parry, turning the Blake poem into a hymn. She sang it to me and I soon joined in. It was a very inspiring tune and I thought it would sound very grand with many voices and a church organ. It turns out that we both were reluctant church-goers, regarding it as a social function, and that the bit we enjoyed the most was the singing. Her, I suppose we should call them foster-parents, also took her to folk festivals a lot. I had to admit that I was less familiar with folk music. The music I shared at home with Mother was a little more high-brow, so I really only got to know folk-music hanging around in taverns while at university. Sailors’ songs, on the other hand, I knew well enough, but I told her that some of those were less than refined. Much as I was content to just stand there, hugging, I felt we ought to do something. I could hear voices in the nearby woods, possibly Rachel’s, but I tried to ignore them. I was in no mood for Rachel’s whining.
“So,” I said. “What shall we attempt to do today as the apéritif to the interruption du jour?”
“You talk as if the interruption is more certain than the aperitif,” she laughed “Produce a bow of burning gold, and I’ll tell you. Sorry; that was flippant of me. I withdraw it. Um, let’s go find out if the King wants that meeting with all the Jasper Cove people?” I held her close for a moment. Meeting the Unseelie King was not uppermost in my choice of activities, but she had a point. I heard Aoibheann’s voice in the bushes, sounding as though she was trying to remember her way around. I chuckled.
“Maybe you’ll find out soon,” I replied, to her remark about bows of burning gold. “And as for interruptions, they are definitely certain.” I looked over her shoulder, “Hello Aoibheann!” I said, as that worthy emerged from the bushes, obviously in search of us. Gwyn laughed and told her this was her favourite spot and she should get lost here more often.
Any reply she may have had was lost in the sound of a rush of wings, and the arrival of a tall, imperious being, dark of skin and emanating a sense of power that was almost overwhelming. This, I knew without any doubt, was Gwthyr, the Unseelie King. I felt the rush of his power, and the thrill of fear that it contained, taking a moment to recognise it and accept it, just as I had with the Queen’s very different power. I acknowledged the fear and contained it, composing myself to speak appropriately as he commanded us to speak our names.
“Your Unseelie Majesty, it is my great honour to make your acquaintance. I am Nathaniel.” I made a deep and elaborate bow, but less fancy than the one I had offered the Queen, sensing he would not appreciate unnecessary frippery. Aoibheann managed something halfway between a bow and a curtsey, just giving her first name. His power rolled over us as he nodded his acknowledgement.
“Greetings and welcome, Nathaniel and Aoibheann…and unnamed woman,” he said; his voice calm, and somehow icy. “I have a question for you all. Do you still look to Queen Isabella for your leadership?” Clearly, I had been right; this was not one to beat about the bush. Aoibheann barely managed to whisper out a simple – I do – in answer to his question. I paused a moment before replying, trying to think of how to address this question, composing an answer in my head. Meanwhile, Gwyn finally responded, giving her full name, which I had not heard before. I felt a small stab of fear for her, cursing myself for not having had the chance to warn against giving out her true name.
“Gwyneth Eiranwen Evans,” she said clearly, for once, a slight Welsh tinge to her voice. “I was afraid,” she explained. “As for Isabella,” she continued, “I would ask how I could follow a leader who is never present? She was good, and good to me, but I fear I will never see her again.” I took a deeper breath to steady my voice and address the King’s question.
“That is a rather tricky question,” I told him calmly, while being very aware that Aoibheann might not like my answer. “While in Jasper Cove, I accepted Isabella’s leadership as Queen of that place, but since that place is no more, her status is less certain. I have a personal obligation to her, in the matter of a quest placed upon me by her husband, but that is a separate issue. I have always found her counsel good and wise, but now must temper that with my own judgement and my awareness of the proper authorities in this realm. And as my companion has said, we have not seen her in some while. If she chooses to offer leadership, then I would have to weigh that in light of the circumstances here.” I hoped those words would suffice. Above us, I could see dark figures circling, guards perhaps, more of the King’s Ravens standing watch. He ignored then, his cold, possibly cruel gaze focussed entirely on us. He addressed us in turn.
“Gwyneth Eiranwen Evans, have you so little faith in your queen? Aoibheann still has faith. Loyalty is a prized trait in my kingdom. As for you Nathaniel, you are wise to choose your words carefully. You strive to prove yourself useful to my Queen. This is good.” He seemed unusually candid for a Fae monarch. “Queen Isabella and I shall… discuss the matter very shortly. I offer the protection of my court to her and her folk if allegiance is sworn.” His smile grew colder however after that, his words feeling like ice. “If she chooses to refuse and not retain her Queenship however, I intend to claim all of you in her stead.” Again, I felt the thrill of the fear in his powers, steeling myself to resist. I could feel Gwyn freeze when he repeated her name, perhaps realising what she had done. Nevertheless, she managed to speak clearly and without apparent fear.
“I did not say I had little faith in her, only that I feared I would not see her again,” she replied. “For me, Isabella has not been present. If she were present, there are many things I would like to speak with her about.” I silently applauded her answer, taking her hand to offer my strength and support. Although we were not touching, I could feel Aoibheann’s fear, choosing, perhaps wisely to say nothing. I bowed again.
“Your Majesty, of course, must do as He chooses. I do not take my services lightly, nor my loyalty, which is first, and foremost, to those I love, my friends.” I indicated his companions. “For these friends, I would give my life. I took service with your queen because of my friends, these, and others, who suffered because of the fire, which hurt me deeply, because it hurt those I care about, who dwell in the forest or who are of the forest, and because, in the few weeks I have been in this realm, the forest has become like home to me. Such service as I can give to defend this land, I will give willingly.” The King smiled, his teeth black and glassy, like obsidian, but it was not a pleasant smile, any more than the smile a cat might give a canary. His stare focussed on me again, and for a moment, I felt the true terror of his visage, which just as quickly vanished inside him.
“You speak well Nathaniel. Your actions will perhaps prove your words in due time. Unlike the Seelie I will not try to use pretty words to recruit any of you. They would not accept you as you are anyway. My court however is much more generous in our standards. I have the power to protect you in this land though you still need sufficient strength to survive in this world. All I require is loyalty to me and my Queen. Your Queen’s decision on the matter and your own choices will decide your fates. Until then, folk of fallen Jasper Cove, enjoy the hospitality of my Queen.” With that, he was gone, soaring into the air, surrounded by shadows, and his Raven guards. I felt Gwyn wobble a moment, holding on to me, then she was still again. Aoibheann, meanwhile, seemed to have a coughing fit. I watched as the King disappeared into the distance.
“Well, that was much more polite than I had expected. But maybe Valene exaggerated a little,” I said, partly to myself. I smiled at my companions. “Well, I wonder if that is our interruption du jour, or has life got even more fun planned for us?” Beside me, Gywn started shivering as reaction set in.
“Well. Fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Jesus H Fuck me to death with an unholy icicle Christ.” She stared into the air. “Good god. I am so unbelievably stupid. What did I just do?” I held her hand tightly while Aoibheann tried to speak.
“Gwyn,” was all she managed, too scared to reprove her for her language. “I-I-I just want to go, I want to run away again so that, so that, we don’t have to…” I hugged Gwyn and told her she had managed very well after a shaky start, before asking Aoibheann where she would run to, given how limited our choices were. Gwyn sighed.
“Don’t have to what, Aoibheann? Talk about what just happened? I think that’s exactly what we need to do.” She stood there, wringing her hands. “I thought my hands were going to burn off. I’m sorry. I’m just shaky, and confused, and…” she stopped and kissed me, still shaking “And I told him my name. What was I thinking? That was more than just a shaky start, Nathaniel. That was an invitation for chaos and mayhem.” I realised that Aoibheann was shivering; the icy cold of the King apparently affecting her more than it had me.
“We are guests in the Unseelie sithen,” Aoibheann said. “He is the Unseelie King. We can hardly refuse him while staying in his home, and if he gets his way, we’ll never… I cannot. I cannot be loyal to him.” She sounded more scared than I had heard in a long while. I would have hugged her, had she been receptive. Instead, I hugged Gwyn.
“Chaos and Mayhem. So unlike our lives so far,” I said. “Well, it can’t be undone, so we will just make the best of it we can. But you won’t have to do it alone. None of us will.” Gwyn smiled gratefully, saying that this was what kept her going. She must have read my mind, because she asked Aoibheann if she could hug her. She came over, a little reluctantly and allowed herself to be hugged, even enduring a gentle hand on the shoulder from me. “We’ve got each other, and while we’ve got each other, we are unbeatable,” I told them.
The rustling in the undergrowth that had been apparent for a while resolved into a somewhat ragged-looking Rachel, sucking raw meat off of an animal bone. She wanted to know why we were hiding there, complaining, perhaps jealously, that if she had a safe place to be with food and shelter, she would never leave it. For all that we had just confronted the Seelie King. Rachel’s appearance was too much for Aoibheann, who stalked off in the direction of the sithen. Rachel did not smell any better than she looked, but I found myself lacking in sympathy.
“Who said we were hiding?” I asked. Gwyn decided that food and drink sounded like a good idea and headed off also, guiding Aoibheann back to the sithen. Rachel was not overly impressed and wandered off, grumbling about us showing off how fortunate we were to have safety and comfort. Oddly, this did not generate any further sympathy, so I thanked her and told her to feel free to keep moaning about her lot. Maybe I could have been a bit more sympathetic, but her whiny voice and attitude had irritated me. Had she asked nicely, I might even have shared, but, for now, I lacked the patience.
I followed the girls back to the sithen, where we made ourselves comfortable with food and drink. Gwyn retired to sleep and I made a start on my diary. This prompted Aoibheann to get hers out, but she was clearly struggling. I think the loss of her dictionary weighs on her more than she lets on. I showed her how to spell Gaelic, at least, the English spelling. I had no clue on how it was spelled in Gaelic. Who can tell in a language where “bh” makes a “v” sound? She carried on writing for a while, but then decided that was too much effort and retired to sleep also. I was not long in following her, once I finished jotting down what had passed. Soon I was wrapped up in a blanket and had my arms wrapped around Gwyn and then sleep claimed me.