Dreams and visions are very strange things. They don’t always make a lot of sense, and are very open to interpretation. And sometimes, they are very, very real…
After leaving the far too appealing warmth and softness of the Queen’s presence, I was too drunk with the new powers, the new energy, to consider sleeping any more. I went by the tavern for a restorative drink. Royce wandered in, giving me a look, and I wondered if he was privy to what had passed the previous evening. He told me it was no business of his, what I got up to with his queen, provided it pleased her. I asked if he knew where Nualla was, and if Gwyn was with her. He told me they were somewhere about the castle, talking to it. It sounded pretty implausible, but since I had come to learn how to listen to the castle, I wasn’t about to argue. Since I was feeling rather like I had drunk too much coffee, I decided to finish the rum and go and see what Gwyn was up to.
As I came out of the tavern, I saw Gwyn and Aoibheann over by the castle. I trotted over, but tripped and ended up flying, actual flying, that is, which wasn’t exactly dignified, but better than just landing in a heap, I suppose. As I landed, Aoibheann was saying something about being able to take Gwyn as a guest, because the laws of hospitality would apply, especially as she was fae. She then put a damper on it by saying that we were going to die. Gwyn shrugged and decided that she would be a doomed houseguest then, before turning me and asking for a kiss for the doomed.
I had no idea what they were talking about, but wasn’t going to refuse a kiss, though I wasn’t sure if I dared, given what had and had not happened the night before. Even as I kissed her, I felt the energies rise, somewhat wilder, more reckless than I was used to, exhilarating, but also a little frightening. I put her down again, apologising and saying how I may have gotten a little too much fae energy in me. I then responded to Aoibheann’s comment about having to be fae, telling her I had a lot of fae in me. It occurred to met that all this Wyld energy could be put to some use, and without really knowing how, managed to glamour some pointy ears. At least, I think it was glamour. It could have been the shape-shifting that Maric had said I could probably do. I then realised I had no idea what they were on about and asked.
Aoibheann looked a little shocked by the display of affection, but collected herself and said she was going to the Huntsman’s forest. Why, she didn’t say. There was a certain amount of discussion about HOW we were supposed to get there. Aoibheann didn’t know, because the Huntsman usually took her there. We weren’t entirely sure either, but reckoned that Nualla and Royce could get us there through the roads. We held hands and stepped forth, without even knowing why, other than Aoibheann needed to go there and we were going there with her.
This turned out to be a bad idea. There are few things that would be worse than the Huntsman, and this was definitely one of them. The Huntsman was not there, instead, we found His Unseelie Majesty!
First, we were attacked by a large were-beast of sorts. It looked not unlike the larger cŵn that we had encountered at the start of the battle with the sluagh, only more silver. It lunged at us, causing Aoibheann to fall over and Gwyn to throw up her protective shield around us. Then Gwythyr stepped out of the shadows, calling the cŵn to heel. He just glared at us in that terrifying manner he has, commenting on having visitors and wondering why and how we had gotten there. Then he looked, chillingly at me and said that he scented his Queen on me, which he described as unfortunate.
I reached behind me, trying to help Aoibheann up, but she was not yet ready to stand. Gwyn answered him first. She explained that Aoibheann had brought us here, as a place she called ‘home’. I assumed she meant that in the sense it did to the Huntsman, since that is where I had thought we were going. She told him that we were as surprised as he was and that if we were trespassing, we would leave and we intended no harm.
I tried my best not to give him the satisfaction of scaring me. I bowed and told him it was an honour to meet him, as always, echoing Gwyn’s assertion that we were harmless visitors. I could not let the comment about his Queen go unremarked. I told him that there was nothing unfortunate about the scent of a queen, since I bore her scent, as well as those of Vedis and Valene, who I knew held him in high regard. It was my lot to attend upon the queen, as it was my lot to be among those who rescued her. It was my honour to serve, I told him. He looked at me, his eyes narrowed, almost looking through me. “Hence you live,” he said, but added that I might lose myself in the service if I was not careful. He turned his attention to Gwyn, addressing her by the full name that she had once revealed, presumably not knowing it was no longer her true name. She had almost bloomed to her full potential, he said. Time would tell, unless she wished to know now. He looked at Aoibheann, his mouth opening, as though he could taste her fear. He said that He, presumably the Huntsman had marked her is his. He then looked at all of us, spreading the fear around like an icy blanket and asked why he should not take all of us in the time remaining to him.
Gwyn answered first. Much as she would like to know, now was not the time. There would be other seasons, other cycles, so why take her now, when he could be patient, and wait, for she would be much sweeter when she did reach her full potential. We were no sport now, as we were but children. Aoibheann finally managed to get up, shivering and trembling, almost paralysed with fear, yet she managed to answer him. “Because you cannot take what is mine,” she said, quietly. For myself, I told him that if I did lose myself, it would be because of my choice. I told him that would be because I chose, not through fear or power. Likewise we had come here by choice and we would leave by choice. I remembered previous conversations with him and tried a similar approach. Any one of us, I said, might come to him by choice. If he took us, he would never know that. I took Gwyn’s hand and Aoibheann’s hand. We three were companions by choice, not through fear or love of power, and nothing could take that away from us. He had his companions, he had his queen back and he should be content with that.
I do not think he was overly impressed. The air just got colder and colder, the shadows darker, until he was almost obscured by them. His last words, so very chilling, were that he would visit our dreams, and tell us if we had given the right answer. And then he was gone.
The next night, he was true to his word. I do not know if he had visited Gwyn and Aoibheann yet, or had come to me first. All I knew was that I felt his ice-cold power reaching out to me. I threw everything I had into the shields I had once learned back in London, and the ones I had been learning with Maric, but it was in vain. I rolled out of bed, or so it seemed to me, and then he was there, all thorns and antlers and ice-cold shadows. “Choice? Content? You know nothing,” he snarled at me, before threatening to take back everything the queen had given me, because it wasn’t mine to keep. I was to stop him if I could, he said, calling me a servant of many.
His comments, and his manner annoyed me, but I tried to not show it. I could hear Mother’s voice so clearly, so many years ago, advising me how to deal with the bullies at school, how I should not give them what they wanted, not let them see me scared or upset. I bowed and smiled, event told him how nice it was to see him and expressed the hope that the time remaining to him would be long. I suggested that he had mistaken me for somebody else. I was no servant, I said, but I chose to serve those that I loved and admired. The other, I said, was not his to take. I reminded him of the importance of gifts among the fae, and what I had was gifted by the Queen, and only she could chose to take it away. What was it Aoibheann had said? You cannot take what is mine.
My answer did not please him. Neither was it sufficient to save me, he said. He could take whatever he wanted and tonight, he would take me. With that, he flew at me, grabbing me around the throat. Choice would mean nothing, if I could not save myself from him. Again, I did not give him what he wanted. I did not flinch, nor did I move to deflect him, save that I used the blood to harden my skin so that he would not damage me as he gripped. “Take me? What was there to take? And would that help save his people?”
He gripped me harder, claws just beginning to bite, and the vines that surrounded him extended themselves around me, the thorns just piercing the skin. His touch was like ice, burning at my skin, his breath was worse than ice, colder than any place I had ever imagined. His touch was painful, but not yet fatal, as though he was not done with me yet. He demanded that I show him my powers, the powers I had gained from my service; else all I had done would have been in vain.
Mother’s voice was so clear in my head – don’t give them what they want. I smiled as best I could. I told him that I had never sought power, for I saw no sense in power for its own sake. What powers did he want to see anyway? I could probably talk to the roses, or maybe do a bit of shape-shifting, neither of which was particularly spectacular. I could probably run quite fast, if he were to let me go, or throw a decent punch, but what would be the point. He would only be faster than me or stronger. The only things I was good at really were accountancy and trading. Oh, and being a friend. I asked if he would like to see the latter.
Clearly I was not endearing myself with my attitude. He laughed cruelly at me, while trying to squeeze the thorns and claws into me. He asked if he should break me in two and feed on my essence, or hang me form hooks and make sport with me until I could scream no longer. Maybe then I would learn why power was necessary to survive. Again he commanded me to fight him; else he would find out if my blood was as red as my hair. And with that, he struck at my neck, fangs extended. Once again, I called on the blood to harden the skin further, evidently succeeding as I could feel the thorns being forced out and his fangs did no more than slide off the skin. Bless you, Maric, I thought for a moment. I told Gwythyr that I did not have any other attitude, a fact that my teachers at school had often bemoaned. Sure, he could do those things to me, but he could whether or not I fought him, so what was the point?
The fact that I resisted his fangs actually got a reaction. “Well, you do have a trick or two, maybe there is potential. If only I had time to test you more,” he said, giving me a curious look. “But this would have to do for now.” He released his grip with one claw and slashed himself across the chest, bringing forth his evil-looking, black, almost metallic-looking blood. With his other claw, he forced my face towards the wound, demanding that I partake of it. There was little I could do to resist, much as I hated to even taste him. Even so, I refused to be cowed, commenting on the bouquet as though I was just tasting some wine. His blood was cold and hot at the same time; so much like Faermorn’s, yet so different, dark to her light, ice to her fire, and yet, it was the same Wyld that powered both. I took as little as I could manage, fearing the corruption it might cause, until he released me with a smile that was entirely disturbing. This was not over, he told me, and that I had much to learn, and then he was gone.
I woke curled up in a ball on the floor of the hut. I do not know how much later it was, but I knew I was frozen to the core. I could not even say if it had been a dream, or if it had been real. Perhaps here, and in his world, there is no difference. Certainly the black stain on my lips was real. I washed my face and rinsed my mouth as much as I could, but still the foul taste of him lingered. Eventually, after a few glasses of rum, I recovered myself enough to sleep, and it was not a restful sleep.
When I partook of the queen, it was one of the most joyous things I knew, and for all that the king was of the same breed, what I partook from him was not something I wanted. The queen gave me the Wyld, connected me to what my mother had been. I do not yet know what he has given me, what corruption he has wrought in me. I can only hope that whatever it is, I will be able to see it and control it, for I would hope that I will never be any of the things that he was.