It is over. Whether it is truly over, I cannot say, but for now, the sluagh are gone. Whatever madness took them – and so far as I am able to tell, that came from Braeden – has passed, for now.
We held the line as long as we could, but there were too many of them. It was fortunate that I took Maric’s blood when I did, so that we were able to act to defend the villagers. When it became clear that we were not going to be able to hold the gate, I opened up the vaults and between us; we conducted the villagers, those that had not retreated to the demon isle, to safety in the deepest parts of the castle, there to wait out the siege. Maric and his men made an ordered retreat to the safety of the castle, defending as best they could, and once the villagers were safely ensconced, I lent my hand such as it was, in that final defence.
Some time in the night, their numbers seemed to start to reduce and with no apparent reason, they started to fall back, retreating back down the hill, presumably to their own realm on the far side of the island. We did not know why; perhaps the madness passed, or perhaps their Queen regained control and called them back, but it may be we will never truly know. Whatever the reason, we were not about to complain. We lost many good men, but the majority of the villagers survived, and none of those close to me were harmed, at least, not physically.
There was much to be done in the aftermath. Here at least, I could make a proper contribution. Cleaning up after a battle may be a long way from provisioning a ship or doing the accounts, but, in terms of organising the logistics, the distribution of supplies and the arranging of the reconstruction, I was in my element. I was much relieved to be doing things I understood and that did not involve wielding a sword.
The village had suffered considerable damage in the last stages of the siege, and here I was thankful for those things I learned from Father concerning the organisation of building works. I was soon able to find those in the village who had some skill, and set about organising them, and others, less skilled, to assist. Here and there, I lent my own skills; again thankful that I was putting my hand to weapons I knew how to use – the saw, the hammer and the drill.
A more grisly task was that of dealing with the bodies. Mercifully, there were far fewer of those that were of our own people than there were of the sluagh. Priority was given to those of our own, save where the sluagh ones were in the way, or presented an immediate hazard. I had all of our own gathered up and moved to the coolest parts of the vaults, pending their disposition, which task was definitely Maric’s concern rather than mine.
As for the sluagh, I had no regard for their remains, and no desire to return them to their home. I directed a few of the burlier lads in the village to construct a pyre on the windward edge of the hill, and then to take all the sluagh bodies, and parts thereof to it. The bodies were stinking the place up badly as it was, and I did not want the stench of their smoke to pollute the village.
Then, as I was walking the village, assessing and prioritising the repairs to the buildings, I found an unexpected ally in the matter of the disposal of the bodies. I felt a sudden chill, and a new note added to the cacophony of the stench of death. It was Nemaine, the Darkest Crow, Valene’s mother, accompanied by one of the ravens, the actual bird rather than a fae bodyguard, that seemed to accompany her. I greeted her with the bare minimum civility and asked her business, supposing that she came seeking Valene. But no, she said, it was not for her daughter that she came here, it was for the bodies. She asked me if I knew the name that mortal legends gave her. At first, I was not sure what to make of that question, but then, looking at the bodies, an idea came to mind. I told her that I did not know what names mortals might have given her, but if I were to guess, I would think her to be akin to the Morrigan. As to the bodies, I told her, she was more than welcome to take them away, for I had no use, or want for them. I am the Carrion Crow, she told me, saying that she and her sisters were once part of the entity I had mentioned. The bodies were hers, she declared, and to her, they would be a delicious meal. I had no objection to that, I told her. If the stinking remains of the sluagh were delicious to her, then she should feast away and I would not stay her arm.
There was a noise behind me and I turned to find Helene lurking in the bushes, fending off the raven, which was trying to pluck at her hair. I remembered how this was Nemaine’s habit, to gather… souvenirs, and readied to chase the bird off myself, but it seemed to be only making a half-hearted attempt and Helene was able to deflect him without my help. Nemaine called him back to her arm, and I was somewhat amused to discover the bird’s name was Nevermore. I suppose that might pass for humour in her realm. Helene was otherwise unharmed, if a little tangled up in the undergrowth. She told me she had wearied of the noise and smells in the castle and had come out for some fresh air. Given the stench of dead sluagh around the place, I was not sure that this was an improvement, but I did not argue the point. I called over the lads to whom I had given the task of clearing up the bodies and told them that they should not interfere with Nemaine’s gathering up of them, made sure that Nemaine was keeping her attentions solely to the sluagh bodies and then took Helene for a drink in the tavern. I had been working all day, so I was sure I deserved a break.
Much later, I was taking another break in the tavern, trying to catch up on the progress of my to-do list and trying to work out how we were doing with supplies. I felt a sudden chill again, but this one was accompanied by the scent of mint, so I knew it to be Valene. She was a very welcome sight, and I lost no time in gathering her into my arms and onto my lap by the fire. She said that she had felt I might be in need of her, and I was not about to argue. I told her that I had seen too much of death and battle of late, so her presence was balm to my soul. I remembered a time, long ago, when she had come to me and soothed my ills with a song. So long ago, I could not even remember why I had been stressed; only that she came and sang to me. I asked her if she remembered that song. She nodded and started to sing it again. Her voice was a little uncertain, as though she had not used it for a while, and the tune, while familiar, was not quite as I remembered it. I recalled a comment she had made some weeks before, when she, Gwyn and I were discovering our mutual intimacies, about it being couple of hundred years she had waited for this. Perhaps, then, my memory of the song was more recent than hers. She paused for a moment and I told her that I remembered it slightly differently, singing a few bars as I remembered it. That, apparently, was enough to jog her memory, and she started again. Just as before, back in the old church in London, the song washed over me, soothing away stresses and worries. Now, as then, I did not know the language she sang in, save that it sounded as though it might well be described as being in the “old tongue” from some forgotten land and forgotten time. All I knew was that for a few blissful minutes, all was well with the world, just the two of us, content to hold each other and enjoy the closeness.
Soon after she finished the song, we were joined by Ori, clearly intent on having a lot to drink. He was bemused by what we were doing and asked if that was a cat, referring to Valene. She did not stir from my lap, but turned and gave him what I would have regarded as a warning look. She told him that while she might appear so to his eye, she was a Cait Sidhe, which was something very different. I cared little for what Orie’s proprieties might be, so did not stir either, continuing to caress her as I made the introductions. He was not overly impressed by her title, but did beg her pardon for not knowing she was a queen – he should have guessed from the headgear.
He took a swig from the bottle and started complaining how the defences had “gone to shit” after he left. I occurred to me that I had not seen him much during the battle with the sluagh, though I had heard the sounds of his firearms, so had assumed him to be engaged elsewhere on the hill. Valene slid off my lap and stood, explaining to Orie that there were many different breeds of fae, each with their own courts, and that hers was not often seen around here. She gestured at the doorway and Royce came ambling in, rubbing himself against her legs before taking his accustomed position by me. She said that she could smell the sluagh and one sluagh in particular, Braeden. She asked me if I thought he had been leading the attack. I told her that I was not sure, as I had not seen him myself, but from things I had heard, it was likely that he was responsible. I had not found him among the bodies, so it was likely he was still alive unless ‘Mommy Dearest’ had already eaten him. I explained about Nemaine’s visit and her unexpected usefulness in disposing of the bodies. I also rounded on Orie pointing out that we were defending a whole village with only a few men so had taken the view that retreat to the castle was the best option for all. If he had better ideas on how to defend, then he was welcome to suggest them.
Orie was most insistent that he had been trying to defend the place, but got attacked by a giant dog and some “smelly bitch with black wings”. Valene was not at all pleased with the news that her mother had left the roads, cursing in a way that might have surprised anybody who didn’t know her. She told Orie that he was lucky to have gotten away in one piece from her mother and that he should be more careful next time. Orie was of the opinion that she would not fare so well next time they met. Valene was not impressed, tearing him off a strip and saying he was lucky he was not now trapped in the roads, being tortured. She then left, saying she had to go and make sure that her mother was not destroying things and wasn’t eating Braeden.
One of the guards told me that Galyanna was at the edge of the village and wished to speak. I reminded him of Galyanna’s status as an emissary and said he should escort her straight to me. I also suggested it would be unwise to ask her to surrender her weapons.
While we were waiting for her, a woman I had not encountered before came into the tavern. She said her name was Dorina, but that we should call her Dori. She had a message from Vedis for Maric, but had not been able to find him. I knew that Maric was holed up in the vaults, dealing with the aftermath of the attack, but did not reveal that. I told her that she could deliver her message to me and I would make sure that it got to him. Her message was that she wanted Maric to know that he and his people were not alone in their fight. She was most insistent that the message be delivered verbatim, without any words added or missed out. I sensed that she was not used to her role as messenger, and was nervous about her performance rather than there being anything particularly important about the actual words and their order.
Orie, rather oddly, said that he could verify that Vedis had the best interests of the village at heart, before excusing himself to answer the call of nature. I pointed out that I had known Vedis for longer than most people present, save for Valene, but thanked him for his vote of confidence. Dori still looked a little uncertain, so I thanked her again for her message and for Vedis’ support, adding that I would commend Dori’s efficiency as a messenger next time I saw Vedis. By now, Galyanna had been escorted into the tavern. Her business, it turned out, was much the same as Dori’s. I suspected that she was checking up on Dori’s performance, but I did not say so. I had business to attend to in the castle, so I directed Hal to provide them with food and drink if required and left them to it. There was still much to do in the clean-up and restoration of the village, and much as I would have enjoyed socialising, I had too much to do.