“Do you want to go for a walk?” That was all Gywn asked; a simple question, as she found me sitting in the sithen, catching up on my diary and trying to work up the enthusiasm to go back to looking at Serendipity Island and Black Friars. If only it had turned out that simple.
The suggestion of a walk was simple enough, as was my not so innocent enquiry as to whether or not something more than a walk was on the menu. If there was, it wasn’t an immediate option, as she had her walking boots on and was ready to go. And so we set off, with no real destination in mind other than to perhaps investigate what had become of the remains of the castle. On the way, she told me that she had been talking with Rachel about thin-bloods and the vampire clans. I had no idea what the former meant, but it sounded like an insult, so I assured her there was nothing wrong with my blood and told her about my being of the 8th generation. I don’t know why, it’s not as if I am really sure what that means. We chatted pleasantly enough and soon came to the bridge.
Where we found Rachel, the ever-present, it is beginning to feel, and a tiny fae who was introduced as Bella. She had already, it appeared, met Rachel and Gwyn. At first I thought her one of the demi-fae that flit around this place, but she soon put the lie to that assumption. She was a happy, bubbly personality that you couldn’t help liking almost immediately. Rachel on the other hand was disturbingly polite and pleasant. I guess she is under orders to so be, but it came across as slightly forced, like a shop-girl who has been told to be polite to her customers. Or maybe it is just me. Maybe I should forget what has passed and do my best to like her, for Gwyn’s sake at least.
We walked for a while until we found a pleasant clearing to sit down in because Bella was complaining that her feet hurt. Gwyn said it was one of her favourite spots when she was wandering around. Then she said that she had the vague feeling that all was not right with the world. That made me smile.
“You’re sitting here with a vampire, a demon and a fae of the Seelie Court and you think there is something not quite right with the world?” I said, hugging her. That’s when it ceased to be a pleasant spot to sit, but not because of my hug. With a swoosh of wings and a slaughterhouse smell, Braeden dropped in uninvited, commenting “and a sluagh”. I echoed his remark grimly, adding “Greetings, Captain.” Rachel tried to deflect him saying that there was no food at this picnic, but he was not to be put off, saying that everybody was food to him and that he couldn’t wait to take Gwyn to the Huntsman and added that he hoped she was quite well. He sure knows how to kill the mood at a gathering. Bella wanted to know who our visitor was, and was clearly not happy about him. Rachael made introductions, with special reference to Braeden’s odour.
Gwyn tutted at him. “Braeden, of course I’m well. I have nothing to complain about. As for me, I’m fine with waiting. You can take your time, really. We could make a date for sometime in the spring, if you’d prefer.” I inwardly applauded her attitude, putting a brave face on, no matter how scared. Rather gruesomely, he twisted her words into enquiring if she wished a date to mate, to have children. He then eyed Rachel and boasted of his skill as a sculptor. Naturally, of course, being a Torrie, she misunderstood, not having seen what had become of Aoibheann earlier, and got very enthusiastic about art. This seemed to irritate him as much as anything. Gwyn meanwhile told him that he was very sweet but she didn’t want children. Then she told Braeden that we needed to go, as she needed to speak with Bella about things, and clearly Bella was finding Braeden’s smell, and presence, distressing.
We headed further up the path, Braeden following despite our protests, and climbed up towards the standing stones near the Celtic stone. I turned and told Braeden that this was a private conversation, so could he kindly leave us alone. Bella agreed with me, but then said it was more private and didn’t include me. Braeden went sulking off down the hill. I was not too happy about Gwyn going off on her own, but Bella assured me her word was good and that Gwyn would be under her protection and that of the Seelie Queen. She reminded me that she cannot lie, so I had to take it on faith. Gwyn reassured me too and whispered that she thought the Seelie were trying to recruit her and Bella was showing her the sithen.
Lacking any reasonable argument, I had to let her go. At least, if she was in the sithen, she was away from the Huntsman, and I could still see Braeden sulking further down the hill. Since I had no pressing business elsewhere, I figured I could wait. It was a pleasant spot, and I could see the carved stone from here in case Aerodine came by. As I looked across to the other stone, and the lantern burning on the top, I caught a whiff of the burning oil, and I had a sudden urge to have a smoke, something I had not done in many a week. I filled the pipe and lit it, still finding it a little strange, making that extra effort to breathe. Looking back up at what I assumed to be the entrance to the sithen, the words of Spenser came to mind as I wondered if Gwyn was meeting the queen in there.
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
I sang it softly, remembering a tune that mother had composed one day when we were sitting in the parlour, talking about poems and songs. The poem had been one of her favourites, but had held off on introducing me to it until my reading had advanced enough that I wasn’t going to be spoiled by the archaic spelling and language. Thinking about it now, knowing what I now know, or at least suspect, about her, the poem was cast in a whole new light for me. My hand went inside my shirt, to the mourning locket, stroking the surface gently, as I so often did, wondering, “What were you, Mother? And why didn’t you tell me?” The former, I had some answer for, but the latter, I could only speculate.
Time passed pleasantly enough and perhaps I drifted into a daydream, for it seemed only moments later that I found Bella tapping me on the knee and telling me that she had told me Gwyn would be safe. I assured her it was not her word I doubted, but the intentions of others. I was, nevertheless relieved to see Gwyn safe and sound. She looked like somebody who had experienced several Christmases and birthdays all at once, so I was intrigued to hear her story. Bella skipped off, looking to meet somebody called Azrael, who I was relieved to discover was her husband and not the angel of death. One harbinger of doom was quite enough for me.
She told me the sithen was really beautiful, asking me to imagine something like a huge snow-globe full of light. I joked that I had seen something like that, but it had been in an opium den. She laughed and then looked at my pipe, which had long gone out. I tapped it clean and told her I had been trying to dispel the stink of Braeden, or Stinksadeath as she likes to call him. That reminded us of our late friend, and so we spoke briefly of what we should do with the remains of Paash. Our mood lightened again and we turned to more personal subjects. Much as I was enjoying the turn of the conversation, and the physical demonstration thereof, my senses were on high alert. A scrabbling near by attracted my attention, but it turned out only to be Kzzz, clambering around and apparently trying to eat the rocks. That was a relief, but it was to be short-lived.
A dense dark fog suddenly descended and coalesced into the form of the Huntsman, towering over us, the ghastly hellhounds slavering by his side. He asked what fools dared stand in his path, which seemed a little unfair, since he descended on us. I managed to contain my momentary panic and addressed him formally.
“My apologies, lord hunter. We were just leaving.” I shifted slightly as if to emphasise that I was indeed leaving. Leaving seemed like a very good idea at this moment. Gwyn, obviously, echoed my sentiment, and my words. He just glared at us, an old, red, threatening light in his eyes, before turning his attention to Kzzz. With a growl, he demanded our names. That confused me for a moment, but then I realised we might not have been introduced, save as Natalie. I gave our names, first names only, hoping that would satisfy him, and explained that Kzzz did not speak and did not have names as we understood them. I could feel Gwyn going very cold, very still by my side, but still managing to answer in her own right, giving both syllables of her first name. To my surprise, Kzzz tried to answer too, but who knows what the Huntsman would make of the series of strange noises that emerged. Even without trying, I could feel the fear – from Gwyn, even from Kzzz, through the mental connection. Most of all, I could feel the primal, animalistic, instinctive fear and hunger that projected from the Huntsman himself. I tried to steel myself against it, knowing that was his nature, and however strange his motivations and reasons, reminded myself that he was a reasoning being.
His gaze flickered to Kzzz for a moment, then back to me. “You smell of Cait, Nathaniel,” he said, his voice sonorous and adding another element of terror. I struggled to maintain my poise as I suddenly thought of Royce, and wondered if he was about, or had already reported back to Valene. Even so, I did not know what she could do against this most primal of beings. His attention then turned to Gwyn, his face breaking into what passed for a smile. His claw reached out to her. “And you shine so very bright…Gwyneth…” Before I could react, he suddenly clutched at his chest, letting out an ear-piercing scream of what might have been pain and agony. His eyes blazed a fiery red and then the shadows boiled around him and the cŵn, and just as suddenly as he had arrived, he was gone. We stood there, rigid, unbelieving, unable to move or speak for a moment.
I found my voice, resorting to jesting on his comment about my scent. “I do? It’s just a new cologne I’m trying…” I realised I was holding Gwyn’s hand too tightly and relaxed my grip. Without any warning, I felt a slap across my rear and heard the same across Gwyn’s rear. It was Valene, hackles raised and ears back, chastising us for being unruly kittens and getting into trouble whenever her back was turned. Gwyn shivered and claimed we were doing nothing, as did I, saying he had just happened upon us unexpectedly. This clearly was not going to suffice. Valene hissed at where the Huntsman had been and grabbed both our collars with her clawed hands. Gwyn was more than happy to leave that spot.
“That might have been too much weird for one night,” said Gwyn, standing up and starting to follow Valene’s tug.
“Just another day in the insanity that is our lives,” I said, twisting in Val’s grasp. “Hey, careful of the threads… OK, ok, we’re coming.” Memories of my youth, being hauled off for punishment by my parents, or schoolteachers, came flooding back, wondering what I was in for now, tempered by the thought that at least it wasn’t the Huntsman or Braeden. Valene, I trusted, even if she was about to rip me to shreds for whatever foolishness she perceived.
The hillside faded, and the temperature dropped as we found ourselves back in Valene’s Roads, by the enormous signpost. Having been released, I regarded it with curiosity, recognising only a few of the destinations – Asgaard, Purgatory and, for some inexplicable reason, Baker Street. Well, Valene had told me the roads went everywhere. Behind me, Gwyn was in petulant mode, feeling, perhaps justifiably, that we were being berated unfairly.
“We didn’t do anything,” she said. “Bella took me to show me… something, then we were just talking when the bugs came and then…” She shivered in reaction to what might have happened.
“Sadly, I think your Sluagh friend is partly to blame,” I said, coming back to them, nodding briefly to Royce and Nualla, who had just appeared, giving us their usual haughty looks. “He forced Gwyn into agreeing to meet with the Hunter, but I don’t think this meeting was particularly planned. We were about to leave that place when he arrived.” Valene flopped down, looking tired and scarred, leaning against the signpost.
“Be careful,” she said. “That’s all I ask…He and I are not friendly… at the least… I have sway over others in this land… but he’d rather kill me rather than speak to me… as for Braeden… it is in his nature to cause chaos…. that and he’s dead… and bound to the Huntsman… a fact that I’ve used to my own advantages many times over… friendships are weird here.” I could not disagree with her last statement. Gwyn chimed in.
“I did do one good thing. Braeden promised no harm will come to Aoibheann.” I hugged her and told her she was always good. Looking over to Royce, I told him he had been most kind to fetch Valene, even though I hadn’t asked. Thanking him without thanking him, even if I did not think him the kind of fae that would react badly to thanks. Valene told Royce and Nualla that they had done well and told them to go rest. She came over and wrapped herself around the two of us. I moved my arms to include her in the embrace, suddenly very aware of how tiny, how frail she seemed against us.
Gwyn wondered what had distracted the Huntsman. “I can’t help thinking something even worse than the Huntsman must be happening right now. Either that, or I just don’t smell very good.” I had to smile, and then hugged them both even harder, acutely aware of just how much I loved them both. I gave them both a kiss.
“So long as what is happening is not happening to us, or anybody we care for,” I said. I told Val it was good to see her again, commenting on how weary she looked and hoping we had not added to her weariness. She told us she had been unconscious for a few days. Her mother had possessed her and when she came to, she had been covered in Padishar’s blood and she feared for what her mother might have done. She pressed herself against us, seemingly drawing on our warmth and kissed us both. The closeness seemed to relax her and soon she took our hands and took us home, back to her den.
There, I made a nest for us all, curled up together on the pallets and blankets, my arms wrapped around two of the most important people in my life. I lay awake a long while after they fell asleep, pondering how much I loved these two and what I would do to help them and protect them. There is so much I don’t know and so much to fear, not least what will happen with the Huntsman and Gwyn. Whatever it takes, I will not lose her. I will not.