I suspect my time in London has spoiled me for dealing with the fae. There, I could get away with being relatively informal, save where necessary for business. Here, not so much. Maybe I am some few hundred years further back in time than I was in London, with a corresponding difference in adherence to protocol. On the one hand, it can be a little irritating, on the other; I quite enjoy being all flowery and formal, acting out my Shakespearean and Arthurian fantasies. At least they speak something resembling modern English. While I can read things like Spenser and earlier perfectly well, I don’t think I am up to speechifying in those terms.
I met the girls at the bridge. For no particular reason other than that’s where they were when I found them. It was only then that I realised that it was getting on for close to the time when the big meeting was called. Looking at them, I noticed that they were all in blue, so I decided to go back to the cave and change. My best suit was blue, and would pass very well for courtly appearances. It would also seem that it passes very well as mating plumage, judging by what Gwyn whispered in my ear when she saw it. Sadly, we did not have time to grant her two word request, and besides, there were people watching.
And so, off we went to the Seelie Sithen. A vampire, a demon, a faerie and a human, all dressed in blue, sounding like the introduction to a convoluted joke. Aoibheann, I think, was a little alarmed at Gwyn describing the meeting as a war council, but came along anyway. As I had expected, we went to the carved door up by the standing stones. Gwyn announced us as her guests to the guards, but they were not exactly forthcoming in welcome; or indeed any acknowledgement that we existed. I mentally nicknamed them Garrulous and Loquacious after the chattering twins that used to guard Alec’s door. Gwyn went in, but we held back a moment, just in case there was any objection. After a few moments, there did not appear to be a problem, so I decided, what the hell, let’s see what is in there. I did ask, out loud, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I do have a habit of asking foolish questions.
Inside, the sithen was as beautiful as Gwyn had described it. The doorway dropped me into some mist, but beyond that, I found an arcade, a walkway between arches, like a cross between a Greek temple and a cathedral cloister. Indeed, I was moved to hum the Wedding March as I made my way down the walkway into the main part of the sithen. There were climbing plants and flowers everywhere, and the sound of fountains or other running water. Inside the main chamber, it was almost too grand to comprehend. Again, I felt like I had wandered into some Greek temple fantasy, but with the addition of a magnificent tree that formed the centrepiece. A tree not unlike the one where we had met the Unseelie Queen, save for not being on a cliff-top. I joined Gwyn at a convenient spot, not too close to the centre, but not so far away as to miss any of the action.
Various of the beautiful people were gathered. I recognised Bella, with a young man who I later learned was her husband, Asrael. An attractive young man, the Prince Blaise that Gwyn had spoken of, I later learned, was there with two young women hanging onto him. Another woman reminded me somewhat of my old friend Gloriana, back in the London days, and, wonder of wonders, talking of London, there was Astrid. Yes, Astrid Muircastle, my former landlady, and I might as well admit it now, former crush, as large as life and accompanied by a young lady that could have been her daughter. Sadly, I did not get a chance to talk to her that evening, but that will be a meeting to look forward to.
The queen entered; her guards at her back. She was as beautiful as one might expect of a faerie queen, bringing with her a light and life essence that was almost overwhelming. She scanned the gathering with a smile, at least, until she spotted Rachel, whereupon she despatched one of the guard to pay her very close attention. Bella saw us and waved. Rachel waved back, but this seemed to irritate the guard, so she subsided. I nodded my greeting, staying close to Gwyn, who looked awestruck at her queen.
The queen commanded us to come closer and make ourselves known. I decided to get it over with, in case we were not welcome. Being very aware of the guard watching Rachel, I lifted the hilt of my sword and showed him that it was securely peace-bound. Given the company, I felt that every bit of rank counted, so introduced myself as Lord Nathaniel Ballard, at her service, with as elaborate a bow as I could manage without looking ridiculous. Rachel and Aoibheann spoke their names briefly. Asrael and Bella introduced themselves as loyal, oathed servants. Asrael Ahn and Belladonna Doune in full. I could not help wondering if these were their true names, thinking back to Gwyn’s mistake in front of Gwythyr.
Gwyn introduced herself as Gwyneth Evans, leaving out her middle name, presenting Aoibheann and I as good souls with a desire for peace and harmony, and Rachel as her personal assistant. Funny, she didn’t describe her as a good soul.
The queen favoured those of her kind who had spoken with a sunny smile, and gave a special welcome for Astrid. Her gaze passed over those who had not introduced themselves less brightly before settling on us. She gave a most thoughtful look at me, a bemused one for Aoibheann, and was less than pleased with Rachel. She asked Gwyn if she spoke for those of us who were non-fae, asked if she took responsibility for us, and asked finally why she had brought an enemy to the sithen. This last seemed directed at Rachel.
“I know of no people more honourable and whose trust I would vouch for, Your Majesty,” Gwyn said, her Welsh accent showing through more than I had ever heard before. “Aoibheann and Nathaniel are valued and trusted friends. Rachel Spencer is bound to me, and she will do no harm to me or any I ask her not to harm, nor will she report anything that happens here to any who are not true friends of the Seelie court. I give you my solemn word, I take responsibility for these people, and I swear to you that while Rachel may appear an enemy, she is incapable of causing harm, or of dishonouring or betraying the Seelie court, because I ask, will, and command her not to. I would never seek to displease you, Your Majesty, or to bring any harm to this sacred place.” I felt proud of her. For all that she claimed to be uncertain in courtly circumstances, it did not show. I could not, however, let her take any consequence for my actions, not that I would do anything to disgrace her. I stepped forward again.
“If it pleases Your Majesty, I am here at Gwyneth’s request, having more experience of courtly matters. However, I take full responsibility for my own actions and take any consequences of my presence and my actions fully upon myself and would see no other suffer in my stead. That said; I would not bring any harm or risk to this place, this court, or anybody herein. That is on my word, and I am sure those here who know me…” I glanced over to where Astrid was standing, hoping she still thought well of me. “… would attest that my word is true.” My speech seemed to embolden Rachel who claimed that she was not aware of being an enemy, trying to justify herself by saying she gave the information about the arsonist without trying to bargain for it. Somehow, I don’t think this was the right move, judging by the reaction of her guard and the queen. She fixed Rachel with a glare that ought to have frozen her to the spot and told her that thenceforth, she was to be silent and only Gwyn could speak for her. To me she was more approving, agreeing that I alone should take the consequences of my actions, and that we would have words later about this. I think she took my words as an oath of sorts. Something about the way she said ‘so be it’ made it seem much more than a simple agreement. I guess I did it again. One day I’ll learn how to talk to these people properly. That said, what I said, I would have said under oath anyway, so perhaps no harm is done.
Interruptions notwithstanding, the queen insisted on introductions continuing. The young woman with Astrid was introduced as her daughter, Ingrid. I was momentarily surprised, but then, given I was holding hands with a woman who won’t be born for another 100 years, from my point of view, who was I to judge what time had passed for others. The man with the women hanging around him introduced himself as Prince Blaise of Rónaofa, along with various titles, and one of the women with him as one if his charges, Renata, saying that his other charge, the Lady Sia, could not be present. The red-haired one was Aislyn of Leavmore, apparently not one of Blaise’s charges. The queen acknowledged the various introductions and bade them welcome. She then moved to centre stage, so to speak and spoke of the business for which we had been summoned.
“Our people have withstood war and treachery and calamity in this land and have stood strong always,” she said in a rich, vibrant voice. “Now a new threat arises against us, even more dangerous than the renewal of the Sluagh and their court. All those of my court, those who are Seelie, those who are sworn to me, I call upon all of you now, to give your utmost to protecting our home from our enemies.” The reaction was much as one might expect, with a certain amount of whispering among the various groups and a distinct increase in the level of tension.
In the absence of other response, I requested more information. “If it pleases Your Majesty, might we know what that threat is? I am not Seelie, though it is possible that my mother was, fae-blooded at least, however, in the short time that I have been in this land, I have grown to love it. The recent fire distressed me as much as if it had been my own family home that burned. Therefore, any threat to the land, affects me too, for all that I have only a small portion of the blood, and would stand in defence thereof.” Maybe that was a little bold of me, but, I felt I should establish my credentials, while aware of how my words echoed those I had made to Queen Faermorn some few days before. Yet, I said them, careful that my defence was offered to the land, not to any one side. I can only hope that stands well with both sides. I could not quite interpret the look she gave me, she seemed to appreciate my words, yet, there was a hint of displeasure. Either way, it was clear that any further business did not concern us.
“You are well-spoken, but anyone who is not Sidhe or who has not sworn their aid or loyalty to me must now leave the sithen. What we must do here is not for others to know. Trust is not freely given here, especially to those not of our kind. And not based on what has been reported to me.” Her gaze became sharp on the group and then fell to Gwyn next, “Your companions must leave now. If you give your oath of loyalty to me however, you may stay.” That was it, I had to go, leaving Gwyn to the mercies of the court, and it was clear that her having brought had displeased some.
Gwyn stepped forward, brushing my fingers as she did so. “I am, as the Prince may have told you, completely ignorant in the ways of courtly manner. I do not know how to swear such an oath, but if you will show me the way, I will give you this. My words won’t be right, but my heart and my hands belong here, in this place, and I will give you the loyalty you ask for.” She looked down at the ground, looking a little nervous, understandably. I saw that Rachel and Aoibheann were making a move towards the exit, escorted by the guards. I made one last effort to reduce any blame that might be placed on Gwyn.
“I thank Your Majesty for Your forbearance, and I fully understand your reasons. I have spoken my word with regard to the defence of this land. Oaths are not to be given lightly, or without thought, and so I will speak no more of that now. However, I believe I can be of service and would crave Your indulgence in requesting the honour of a private audience, at Your Majesty’s convenience.” I paused and looked at Gwyn again with a smile. “My friends are very dear to me, in particular, Miss Evans, so I would ask your forbearance in regard to the matter of bringing us here and ask that you bear her inexperience in mind. And now, I bid you good evening and may your light ever shine in this land.” I bowed once more, stepping away backwards for a few steps, and then turned and followed in Rachel & Aoibheann’s footsteps, whispering “be safe, my love” in Gwyn’s ear as I passed. This time, I got more of a reaction to my words, a definite flicker of interest. As I left, I heard the queen calling Gwyn to her and asking Bella to sing to the tree to bring the people together. Soon, the mist enveloped me and I found myself once more on the hilltop.
I paused to get my bearings, noting that Rachel and Aoibheann must have moved quicker than I had imagined, as I could see no sign of them. Below me, however, by the carved stone, I could see a white rose among the honeysuckle. Could this be a message? The only times before I had seen such roses were when Aerodine wanted to get my attention. I made my way down the hill to the carved stone and sat myself against it, taking the rose and sniffing it. The scent was much as I remembered, and for a few moments, I found myself nervous as to how this meeting would go. My anger at the destruction of the castle and the unnecessary bloodshed had dissipated by now, but I did not know how I would be received. Not knowing what else to do, I whispered a simple “I am here” into the white bloom and sat and waited.
I was not long in waiting when Royce appeared. He seemed an unlikely emissary for the dryad, and I was right. He had a note from Valene asking us to meet with her with regard to the matter of Braeden. I scribbled a quick reply explaining that Gwyn was likely to be detained in the sithen, but that I would attend her as soon as I could. Royce departed with a flick of his tail and I was alone on the hilltop again. Time passed, but then I became aware of motion behind me, a soft sigh as the earth moved. I turned to find Aerodine standing there, nervously holding out her hands, empty, almost shaking, greeting me with just a single word – Please? Any worries I had about his meeting dissipated and were replaced with compassion. She looked almost terrified.
I smiled gently, showing the rose in my hand. “I got your message. I am glad, for I had feared you gone, or worse, considered me enemy.” I held my hands out to take hers. She shook her head slowly, dropping to her knees and looking away, not able to meet my eyes.
“Never,” she said, looking down and ashamed. She spoke of the rage that took her, of deep-rooted friends that had died. She spoke of somebody called Thorngump, presumably the dryad elder she had mentioned once before, to whom she had deep ties. Somewhere in there, she apologised for the destruction, but that she had to do it. Her words were nervous, hesitant, her sentences fragmented. I took her hands and tried to raise her up.
“What is done is done,” I said. “I grieve for those who lost their lives, though they were but few, but that is the way of things. I understand your anger, though as it turns out, the castle was not to blame for the fire. But, as I said, done is done. My anger is gone and I hold no grudge or enmity. I value our friendship too much for that.” She shook her head again, telling me that the plans for the destruction of the castle pre-dated the fire, but that it had been a catalyst. She repeated my last word – friendship – as a question. I leaned forward to kiss her. “Then there is even less cause for anger, since the destruction did not take place for the wrong reason. Then let that be behind us and forgotten.” I reached around to hug her. She seemed surprised at the kiss, but accepted my embrace. She told me that things could be behind, but not forgotten. She was glad I had found place with the Unseelie court and that I had found love with somebody more like me. That caused a bit of a pang, for much as I loved Gwyn, I still had strong affection for Aerodine too. There has always been that part of me that somehow can love more than one person. I thought of the times I was with Katharina while still married to Alexandra, that somehow never seemed wrong to me. I do not know how that would play with Gwyn, although she has never shown any sign of jealousy with regard to, say, Valene. I put that question aside for further thought and kissed Aerodine gently, wanting to reassure her. “Nothing is secret in a forest, I guess. The Unseelie gave me shelter while the castle was destroyed. I do not yet know if my place is with them, or elsewhere. I have just returned from being introduced to the Seelie Queen.” I lifted her face so I could look at her. “Yes, Gwyn is very special to me, but that does not mean I care any the less for you. That may seem strange, but it is so.” She looked confused and I fancy I saw a tear in her eye. There were no secrets from the trees, she told me and expressed her distrust of both courts. She was unsure how I could feel so much for so many.
I kissed away the tear. “They are what they are, the Sidhe, and only they can fathom their motivations. I have spoken with both queens, and will no doubt do so again, perhaps I can find some accommodation between them. In truth, I do not know if I belong with either, but maybe I can be friends to both without partaking of their… darker nature.” I hugged her again. “My mother always said I had a big heart, and I think that is true, even if it no longer beats as it did then. You will always be special to me.” She relaxed somewhat into the embrace, playing with my hair.
“You have a heard big enough to fill a canyon,” she said. Then she spoke of the light within me, as she had once or twice before. I told her what Faermorn had said, confirming that I had fae blood within me and told her that it was possible that the vampire in me had not overcome that fae nature. We spoke briefly of the difficulties of dealing with the fae, and how things were much simpler, albeit slower with the trees. She repeated once again that I had light within me. I still do not know if that was a reference to my fae blood or some other thing that she sees in me. I kissed her again, feeling the desire that had once existed between us, but pulled away, claiming I needed to rest. We parted, as friends, I hope, but I don’t know if we will ever be more than that again. Things are still too new and fresh with Gwyn for me to risk spoiling that, and in truth, I did not want to. Much as I care for Aerodine, it is Gwyn I love, and I would not lose that.