Talking to the fae is hard work. You have to be so careful what you say. Listening to them is even harder. They have had aeons of time to practice getting around the inability to lie, and this sometimes means they seem to talk in riddles. The same applies to demons and philosophy professors. Now, I think I must add the Boatman to that list, for I cannot call him Alec, or Greyson, or any other name now. He gave some answers to our questions, but left us with more riddles, and I am not even sure I know where to begin.
Gwyn came to the tavern looking a little despondent because she hadn’t seen Aoibheann in a while. I had to admit, I hadn’t seen her since she tapped me for some more ink, and that was more than a week ago. I had assumed she was skulking around the sithen, but since Gwyn had asked the question, that clearly wasn’t the case. We debated possible places she might have gone. Things had been fairly quiet on the Huntsman front, or at least, we hadn’t heard the hounds, and we were fairly sure that we would have. We thought about maybe trying the Unseelie sithen, even if that was unlikely, as well as risky for Aoibheann and for me, in case the King was around. I thought briefly of Val’s Roads, as I knew Aoibheann had been there, but we decided it was unlikely that she would go there again willingly, especially without any guide. Given how afraid she was of Vedis, I dismissed the demon lair, wherever that was, as a possible hiding place. We were wondering about the possibility of Braeden having petrified her again, when we noticed the al mi-raj was in the corner, scoffing away at what appeared to be a plate of kitchen scraps. It did not seem overly inclined to conversation, but it did prick up at the mention of Braeden, warning us to beware of the Sluagh, especially Braeden, because he had changed. That was the sum of its advice before returning to the pile of scraps.
Gwyn was not impressed with the mention of Braeden, calling him all sorts of names and threatening dire consequences if he had touched Aoibheann. Given the mess of oaths that Braeden had gotten himself into, it was hardly surprising. It also made it unlikely that he would have been stupid enough to do anything to her. We still had the promised meeting with the Huntsman hanging over our heads, but that didn’t seem to be likely to be happening soon. Even so, just to be safe, I reminded Gwyn that she was not to go to such a meeting without me. A thought occurred to me, and I commented that we should have taken lessons from Blaise, the way Aoibheann had, then we could ask Ardan if he knew anything.
Gwyn’s eyes lit up, wondering why she hadn’t thought of that. She had been taking some lessons in plant communication, albeit not specifically for Ardan, so it had to be worth a try. We walked down the side of the hill, following the path where the old castle steps used to be, down to the lane that led to the bridge and thence to Ardan’s spot by the river. We hung back for a moment, not entirely sure what sort of welcome, or otherwise to expect. Gwyn approached as close as she dared; saying that all she had to do was commune with the tree and hope it didn’t smite her like it smote Aislyn. I hadn’t known about that, but having seen what happened to Rachel, warned her not to think about wind, or even fart while she was communing. I remember Mother always used to get me to commune with the trees, when we went out for walks. None of those were like Ardan, but there was one huge old oak that was a particular favourite of hers, that I could have sworn seemed to recognise us. Of course, knowing what I know now, maybe it did, and I was just too dumb to listen.
She stood close to the tree and started talking to it, introducing herself as Aoibheann’s friend and saying we were worried about her. Clearly the tree was listening, for the atmosphere became somewhat tense, and the mist seemed to rise up out of nowhere, cooling and moistening the air around where we stood. She was momentarily alarmed, looking back at me, so I nodded; reassuring her I was there if anything happened. She moved closer, actually touching the bark, repeating her introduction and request, but this time introducing me too. The mist grew thicker, colder and damper and the texture of the tree changed as a shape emerged… buttons, a velvet jacket, a silk shirt… and a figure wearing them.
It was Alec! Or so it appeared at first. His eyes looked different and there was a wilder, less kindly expression in them than I was used to. He regarded Gwyn with what looked almost like a smirk, commenting that she had come a long way since they last met, which he said had been a long time. I just blinked and commented that Isabella had said we would see him again. Gwyn, however, greeted him as the boatman, though this was not the shape I had seen when I took that fatal boat ride. She asked why he had come now. He did not respond to me, save for staring at me for a few moments, and I could see how alien, yet familiar he was. He chuckled at Gwyn and told her he had always been here. She took that without flinching and then asked why he had revealed himself and if her friend was in danger.
His answer was somewhat less than clear. It depended on whether she, meaning Gwyn, intended any danger to her. Her allegiance to this land and its people, presumably meaning the Seelie Court, meant that she was the greatest danger to Aoibheann, and to me. The reason he had not appeared was that she could not be trusted. He looked over at me and told me that he was not my King, he was not that aspect. His purpose was much more simplistic, but I would not learn it today.
Gwyn was not to be rebuffed. She told him how she had allied with that which gave her joy. She told him of her love for us and how she would never bring harm to us because of that love. She even told him she could feel love for him for starting her awakening into the new life. Still, she insisted on asking if Aoibheann was safe. His answer was no clearer than before; that it depended on her. If she continued to ask questions that did not belong to her, then none of us from Jasper Cove would be safe. If, however, she meant to ask if Aoibheann was safe at this moment, then she was, more than the rest of us, but that would not last. Gwyn stepped back towards me, saying that questions did not belong to anybody; but that she was pleased he had answered hers.
I had questions of my own; why he was confounding us with riddles and why it was that this place, which we had come to by his hand, was unsafe for us? He just shook his head, saying it was not his land; it was not by his hand that we had come here. If I wanted to know how I was here, by whose hand I remained as I was with my memory intact, I need look no further than the little lost rabbit we sought. He repeated again that he was not my king and that I would not learn his purpose this night. To Gwyn, he said that curiosity has its price and to beware of asking questions, lest she get the answers she sought. With that, he stepped back inside the tree and was gone, though the oppressive atmosphere, and feeling we were being watched remained.
I stared at the tree and commented that at least one thing was settled – he was either a demon or a philosophy professor. Gwyn stepped back from the tree into my arms and said she would go with the latter. Even with my new-found body warmth, she was shivering and I realised that her clothes were soaked through from the mist. We hurried back to the hut where I got the fire going nicely so she could get out of the wet things. Neither of us felt inclined to discuss what we had witnessed, nor what little we had learned, and what passed thereafter is not for these pages.
So, we are left with riddles. I did not think of it at the time, but his reference to the little lost rabbit could well be a reference to Aoibheann, as I have heard this used as a term of endearment for her, and I am sure that both Braeden and the Huntsman had used it. Given that half the time, she barely knows where she is, it is hard to imagine she knows all the answers, but perhaps there is another side to her, that maybe she doesn’t even know. Now, I am wondering about her in the context of the Jasper Cove cosmology – could our little Aoibheann have a part in that? Now there’s a question I can’t begin to process for now.