It is no secret that I love and admire strong women. They have always been a part of my life; my mother, my late wife, my sire, Brigitte, Catt, Giada, Winter, and now, Gwyn and Aoibheann. And while very little is ever likely to dissuade me from my habit of playing the knight on a white horse and riding to the rescue, nothing gratifies me more than when I don’t have to. Last night, when we, the Tenacious Trinity, faced up to one of our greatest foes, left me very gratified indeed.
I was doing my rounds of the village, and by dint of careful planning on my part, the tavern was my last port of call. I arrived just in time to intervene in a possible altercation involving Dorina, Fate and a large, partly uniformed wolf-man who I learned was Cadet Guy von Schlat from the Hinterland Garrison, wherever that might be. Fate was hovering out of reach and complained that Guye had tried to eat her. He claimed misunderstanding, saying that his commander had sent him on a snipe hunt, telling him he had to retrieve a certain Baron Ovbief. His commander, apparently, has a twisted sense of humour. I managed to persuade Fate to come down, saying that nobody had been hurt and I was sure that Guye was very sorry for any misunderstanding. She did so, but then left, possibly in a slight huff. I turned my attention to Guye and told him that in future, any exercises ordered by his commander within the territory of Mysthaven would need to be cleared in advance, with Lord Maric or myself. And since no harm had come of this exercise, I was prepared to let it pass this time. He saluted and left to report back to said commander, saying he would return, when duly authorised.
That dealt with, I turned my attention to the pressing matter of obtaining a drink, after dealing with a request for a meeting from Dori. As I turned towards the bar, I realised Gwyn was there, and that Aoibheann had just come in. I went over to hug Gwyn, but noticed she was acting strangely, twirling and playing hopscotch in a way that put me in mind of young Riley, back in Jasper Cove. She also wasn’t making much sense, talking about eyes and trees, the dryad, gems, twisted wings, the queen and asking who was the fairest of them all. Then she swooned into my arms, and it was only by virtue of my enhanced reflexes that I managed to catch her, and her drink, before she fell. I now know this is what happens when she gets a vision, but at the time, I was confused and worried. I asked if she was well and she told me it was a vision. Aoibheann had heard and asked if it was to do with Ardan, and whether the fairest was Faermorn.
Gwyn seemed to come back to herself and said she wasn’t sure what it meant, but suspected that Aerodine had screwed things up, and that there was going to be trouble. I had to laugh at that, saying that she didn’t need seer powers to know that. She complained that she had come out because the sithen was quiet with Blaise, Aislyn and Sia being absent. She had been keeping herself busy, since she produced a backpack and gave it to Aoibheann, who had been standing there, holding a broken one.
Aoibheann looked at this, embarrassed as she normally is with gifts, and then said she needed to visit Ardan. I tried to say something about not being prepared, but suddenly, she was off. Orie, who had just come in, set off after her, and Gwyn and I had no choice but to follow. I grabbed some of the iron spears and the iron grenades on the way, just in case.
As we went down the path towards the bridge, we once again felt that strange siren call to go to the lake, which we ignored as best we could. When we got to the bridge, we stopped in horror. The Huntsman was there, confronting Aerodine, who was standing between him and the tree. This we were not expecting. We had heard no horn. There was the howling of the cŵn, but mercifully they seemed to be keeping their distance. Aerodine looked to be trying to protect the tree, and possibly something she was clutching to her chest. The Huntsman did not appear to care about whatever it was, and he just hurled her aside into the river. She didn’t seem to be injured. She just yelled at us to get away, and then disappeared in the direction of the lake. As the Huntsman turned towards us, we could see a black claw-print against the white bark of the tree.
Orie immediately went into defensive mode, taking up station while Aoibheann stood, as calmly as could be expected under the circumstances and asked the Huntsman what he was doing with Ardan. I don’t know what kind of answer she expected as it was quite clear that he was nowhere near the rational side of his nature. His eyes were blazing and the shadows swirled around us as he growled, long and loud before fixating on Aoibheann and simply stating “Mine”. His back was to the tree and it was also clear that Ardan was reacting to his presence, and Aoibheann’s. What looked like a hand emerged from the bark, grasping the Huntsman by the back, or possibly within his torso.
I readied my bags of iron filings, just in case. Even if they did not hurt the Huntsman, I already knew they were effective against the cŵn, should they turn up. I calmly asked to what he referred, the tree that he gifted to her, emphasising the gifting bit, or Aoibheann herself. The latter saw what I was carrying and hissed at me to not use them, and then told the Huntsman quite clearly that he had given Ardan to her. Gwyn, rather oddly, repeated the question that she had posed earlier about who was the fairest of them all. Orie, meanwhile, was spoiling for a fight, telling the Huntsman that there was no reason for him to die today, we could talk this out and all go home alive.
I had to admire his optimism, but not his assessment of the situation, especially as all hell broke loose. The Huntsman roared, fighting off whatever it was that was trying to grasp him from within the tree and rushed at Aoibheann, growling “a gift for a gift” over and over again. Things got a little confused then. Somehow, Aoibheann managed to evade his grasp, possibly because Orie managed to get himself in the way and firing a wild shot that went nowhere. Whatever it was that was attacking from the tree turned out to be Alec… Or rather, the Boatman, currently looking like Alec, shouting at the Huntsman that no bargain had been struck, unless he wanted to offer him something more for what was HIS. Now that the Boatman was claiming ownership too, I was getting very pissed.
Gwyn and I stepped either side of Aoibheann. I summoned up everything I had of determination and will, the things that powered me when I used my powers, but without using them, as I knew they would have no effect. I told him very loudly that No, she was not his, or the Boatman’s.
“Aoibheann belongs to nobody but herself,” I said.” She is no chattel to be fought over or bargained with. Too many people, including myself, spend too much time telling her what to do, making decisions about her, but enough is enough. What happens now is Aoibheann’s choice, nobody else’s.” Gwyn linked arms, saying something about how, in her day, they would be chaining themselves together. She told Aoibheann that she loved her; that she was the fairest of them all, and if she tried to shake her, she would chase her with rainclouds wherever she went.
Aoibheann had squealed when the Huntsman lunged for her, but managed to evade him somehow, but still stood her ground. To my immense pride and joy, she echoed my sentiments, shouting that she was not his; she belonged to herself and nobody else. This seemed to be directed to the Boatman too. Being owned by any of them was not part of any agreement, she told them.
The Huntsman continued to rant and rave, his power boiling around us, shadows swirling, roaring that all who surrendered to him, all who were in this land were his, all his. The reached down with one paw, aiming for Aoibhean’s bare shoulder. Gwyn invoked some fae magic, so far as I could guess, making some iridescent shield around them, but I was not sure how much use that would be.
The Boatman’s shape shifted into something dark and demonic, which surprised nobody, certainly not me. The voice changed into something alien, hissing like a serpent. He told the Huntsman that he had overstepped himself; that not all in the forest was his, some, presumably us, had come from his, that is to say Alec’s/the Boatman’s realm, and that our debt was to him, not the Huntsman. I was a little more concerned with his next statement, which was something about taking a gift for a gift, his home for the soul that belonged to him, the imprint upon the tree. I could not quite work out what that meant, but the Huntsman was my immediate concern.
I managed a tight smile, mostly because I was still impressed with Aoibheann’s stand. I addressed the Huntsman again, trying to reach any sanity that was still left, anything to deflect him.
“This is Aoibheann, she is her own person, not a gift to be taken, unless she so chooses. She is not your true purpose. None of what has passed here is your true purpose. You have strayed far from your true purpose in your obsession and realms fall because of it. YOU are foresworn, since you have abandoned your duties, your sacred trust, and you are not worthy of this person who stands beside me. Remember what you once were, REMEMBER! AND LEAVE HER BE!”
To my surprise, Orie was still with us, despite having been bowled over by the Huntsman’s rush. To my further surprise, he echoed our cause, saying that we belonged to nobody, we were free, he was free and he claimed freedom for his friends and would try to stop anybody who tried to take it. Although I do not much like the man, I was gratified at his taking a stand with us.
Aoibheann smiled grimly, acknowledging our support, but her smile faded as she looked at the Huntsman, apparently agreeing to something, for she just said simply and quietly “home.” What that meant, I could not tell, but it meant something to the Huntsman. She then turned her rage to the Boatman/Alec, screaming at him about the comment on our debts to him. He had called himself our guide and yet he had led us to ruin and abandonment. She had been loyal, she said, not for an oath, but because she had loved him. He could not say that she owed him, she said, and could not say that Ardan was his.
The Huntsman seemed to grow larger, his power washing all around us, bringing the scent of death, of the forest. He laid his hand on Aoibheann’s shoulder, saying something in a tongue that seemed very, very old – a spell perhaps, or some other fae magic. The shadows rushed around us, bringing the feeling of dread and fear. “My realm,” he roared, “My land, all mine.” Then there was something about “She must find me so I may remember.” We could barely see, barely hear, through the roaring of his voice and the shadows that engulfed us, and then he was gone, leaving us only with three words – “dream of me”.
In the relative silence that followed, I realised that Orie was now confronting the Boatman with his rifle. Again came that serpent-like voice, calling Orie a toy soldier, dismissing him because he was not from the Boatman’s realm. He turned his attention to Aoibheann, and perhaps all of us. Her life, he said, was her own, but her soul was his – if she died, he would be there to reawaken her, if she left, he would be in the boat, and he would be the one to protect her.
Gwyn was not overly impressed with his speech and made some comment to the effect of “Still love you,” though it was not entirely clear who that was addressed to.
I still had issues with his comments about debts and ownership and addressed him again.
“We are ourselves, our own people. We belong to nobody but ourselves save what we choose. What Aoibheann chooses, she chooses for herself,” I told him. “All the lives you have lived, all the faces you have worn, all the names you have taken over the years, all you could have learned, and yet you think you own people? I only knew two of those faces, respected them both, loved one and grew to love the other, but even so, I say you do not own us, will not own us. And, if either of the faces I knew still has any love for us, then leave us be, let us be ourselves, for we are not and will not be pawns in your crazy games. Take your fights elsewhere and leave us be.”
He walked over to me, regaining the form I knew. He said that he was not those people; he was not my former king or the one I had loved. No, he was that man’s creation and shadow, made in his image for a singular purpose. Ownership was not control, he said. He hold was what protected us and kept us safe from death, but he had never taken our will. Yes, he would leave us be, but he would be back. Gwyn wanted to know about her life – was she a gain or a loss, a debit or a credit?
He answered that we were all credits, even the one who betrayed him to the forest god. Despite what she thought, he had not abandoned us. He had watched us grow and change, he had been with us through all we had discovered and learned, through all our gains and losses. He had kept the core of what we were safe, and we in turn had kept with us a piece of his home. We three were all that was left, and he watched us from his prison in the tree with pride. During this speech, Orie tried to throw a punch, which just went straight through the Boatman as if he were not there. Orie then fell to the ground, as if choking, so clearly some power was being exerted.
Aoibheann looked hurt at some of the things he said. It was not his home, she told him, one hand touching a key around her neck. It was once, but now it was no longer. She told him that he dealt in memories, but memories were not enough any more. She also spoke of Ardan, telling the Boatman that if he was not respectful of the tree, then she would expect him to find a different prison.
Gwyn said that she was glad that he kept watch, but that the relationship had to end. She could not pay the debt, for she did not have the currency he required. She then voice what we all felt, that we were tired and wished to return to the village that was our home. I nodded and told him that he was not going to get any more answers from us, because we were going to take our rest. Given how bravely Orie had fought on our behalf, I did ask the Boatman one small favour, to not kill Orie, for he was only doing what he thought best to defend us.
The Boatman glared at Aoibheann, calling her selfish and accusing her of selling everybody’s soul to the Huntsman, and she could not tell him where he could make his home. With that, he stepped away, into the tree, leaving Orie alive, but gasping for breath on the ground. I heard a swish of wings and the sound of somebody landing. It was Galyanna, arriving to see what passed down here. I asked her to take care of Orie, knowing she had healed him before, before turning away from the scene, to take the ladies back to the village, there to have a very stiff drink. There were many questions in my head about what had happened, what Aoibheann had agreed to, and what we should do about the Boatman or Alec. For now though, I was content that we lived, and that was enough for now.