I love Aoibheann dearly, as if she were my blood kin, my family, but there are times when she can be incredibly frustrating. How often have I written these words, I wonder? This time, the frustration is as real as it can be, for she may have brought us to the brink of war.
I was in my chambers when I sensed a disturbance in the atmosphere of the castle. I came down the stairs to see what was going on and found Aoibheann there in the main hall. She had a child with her. I was nonplussed at first and then aghast when I recognised the child. It was Hadley! Alec and Isabella’s daughter. She was a couple of years older, naturally, but I knew her. What was even more worrying was that she was clearly in a lot of pain, and looked as though she had been removed from a hospital of some sort. Aoibheann was trying to get her to eat something and trying to decide on which of Maric’s healing potions to give her.
I knelt down and spoke to the child, asking if she remembered me, which she apparently did not. I can’t be too surprised, as we had very little contact in Jasper Cove. I was going to try some healing magic on her, so far as I knew how, but she would not stop screaming and would not let me touch her, and I was not sure I could do it without touch. I looked up and asked Aoibheann what the heck was going on. She blurted out some incoherent explanation about Hadley being left in a hospital, something about having to eat and not being able to watch the child to stop the doctors hurting her and then something about maybe the broken arm having not been properly set.
I waved her to silence, saying she should maybe explain later. I tried again with the child, thinking maybe I could at least project some calm, but she continued to scream. Before I could do anything further, Maric appeared. I briefly explained who the child was and as much of the story as I had managed to fathom from Aoibheann’s ramblings. He also tried to comfort the child and heal her pain, but she wasn’t interested, continuing to scream “don’t touch me.”
Just to add to the fun, Gwyn appeared, radiating glamour and rendering poor Milo on the doors quite incapable. Her presence was affecting Maric too. I could feel, through our link, that hunger he has for fae blood, and in his current state, I was not sure how much control he had. Gwyn seemed to know something of what was going on, but was clearly annoyed with Aoibheann for bringing the child here. Aoibheann kept trying to argue that she had been left alone in the hospital and that Hadley had wanted to come here. I started to wonder if it was Aoibheann’s experience of hospitals that was colouring her view of Hadley’s state. Gwyn, meanwhile, was telling us that Isabella was angry, extremely angry. Her hand kept going to the jewel at her neck, her tie to Isabella. Perhaps that was how she was feeling the anger. She kept trying to say that Hadley was not enjoying the trip, and that she was just a child, whereas Aoibheann kept insisting that she should not be in the hospital and that she as nearly a grown woman.
Maric asked me, through our link, what I thought was the best way to rectify this situation, and what I knew of the child, Alec and Isabella. I briefed him as best I could, suggesting that we should get Hadley back as soon as we possibly could. He also asked me to get Gwyn away from him, and I could tell that he was having difficulty controlling the hunger. He returned his attention to the child, beckoning servants to bring blankets and some of his potions while I took Gwyn’s hand and asked to speak privately with her. As we walked, I explained to Maric about Hadley’s magic and habit of disappearing off to places. I did not know the place that Hadley had come from, but I might be able to get there, by concentrating on getting to Alec.
Once outside, I explained to Gwyn about Maric’s hunger for fae blood and his current reduced level of control. She said she had felt it too. Now we were outside, she said that she was really worried, because she could feel Isabella’s anger, and that she as coming here and the land was fighting against it. We had to find some way to calm her down, because Gwyn couldn’t go against her, not with her promise.
Just then, we both felt a pain through the land, through the wyld. She felt it more than me and she cried out that something had happened to Ardan. Isabella had ripped a branch from the mallorn tree. I could feel that pain, but it dropped Gwyn to her knees. This was a step too far and I could see she was being torn in two. On one hand, there was her promise to Isabella, but on the other, she was linked to this land, and the crime against Ardan was too much for her. I took her hand, and as I did so, another fear hit me, a fear for the crystals, the incubators of our young. I allowed myself to link to the wyld again, and relaxed slightly. Surely we would have felt something if there had been any damage to our children. I asked what we should do, how we should handle this. Clearly the child needed to be returned, but now there was another issue, a direct attack on our realm.
There was another ripple through the wyld sense, and I could tell the roses were reacting to an intruder. I heard shouts of the guards, challenging somebody. I suspected that this might be Isabella and Gwyn confirmed it. She was going to the castle, and she feared what might happen then, with Isabella’s powers against Maric’s. We had to retrieve the child somehow, but she could not be near Maric. I said I would return to the castle and she should come with me, staying out of sight, but ready to help if needed. Maybe we could get the child and return her to Isabella. Be careful, she warned me, as there was an angry Isabella in my path.
She was right. There was, but I was curiously unafraid. I had no personal disagreement with Isabella, aside from what she had apparently done to Ardan, and besides, this was my turf. I walked calmly to the castle and dismissed the guards to holding positions. I advised Maric through the link that she was outside and that I would try to talk to her, meanwhile, we should try to prepare the child to be returned. Perhaps, I suggested, we could persuade Aoibheann to apologise and trhen we could convince Alec and Isabella that she acted without malice, out of her own fear of hospitals. It wasn’t much, but maybe we could do that.
Before I could go any further, or address Isabella any further beyond a bow and a greeting, there was another disturbance and Alec appeared, in his full demonic form, that I had not seen since the encounter at the bridge. I advised Maric of this, and said I would do my best to talk to them. Maric said he would join me. This was, after all, his land.
Isabella finally spoke, even if it was less a voice than a sensation of anger, saying we had her child, and that she was hurting. She held a white branch in her hands, and I knew this was part of Ardan.
I bowed respectfully. The child was safe in the castle, I told them, save for the pain of her broken arm, which had occurred before she came here. I told them that Aoibheann had acted rashly, out of her disproportionate fear of hospitals and had acted without any malice. With their permission, I said, I would have the child brought to them and there would be no need for any further harm to anybody or anything.
Alec roared at me, hovering over me, a malign, threatening form, trembling with anger and madness, inches away from ripping me limb from limb. The child had been through major surgery, he shouted, her insides had been stitched back together. And yet, she had been taken by one of mine. If there was any harm to her, why should be not reduce me to ashes, why should be not damage me until I would long for the torment of hell?
I did not, would not, let his anger touch me, I would not react in kind. I forced myself to be calm and explained again. I knew only of the broken arm because that was what Aoibheann had told me. He should understand how Aoibheann felt about hospitals. She did not understand, and saw only that Hadley was distressed, thinking that she was distressed by the hospital. Again, I repeated that the child was safe, and would be returned to them shortly. Again, I repeated that there was no need for any further harm. I felt Maric arrive beside me and he gave them greeting, also apologising for the misunderstanding and saying the child would be returned to them.
Alec seemed not to see him, fixing me with his icy glare, all predator now. If these were truly mistakes, then I should stand by my words. He told me to select one of my people, to bear the same pain and suffering that Hadley had. They would suffer as long as Hadley suffered, for our mistake and Aoibheann’s rashness. Only that would appease him. And, I was not to be the one. For if I tried to take that pain on myself, he would make everybody suffer.
Aoibheann appeared, and seemed to be about to apologise, until she saw the branch. Then she got angry, telling them that it was not theirs to take.
Gwyn joined us, standing by my side, away from Maric. Gwyneth addressed Aoibheann first, saying she was furious with her for what she had done and for putting us in this position. She was equally furious with Alec and Isabella for their reaction, and for their attack upon Ardan. Surely they knew how Aoibheann was, and how she feared hospitals. And now, she was in an untenable position, for they had violated this land, taken from our tree. She could not speak for the steward of this land, but to ask further tribute was an insult, as they already held their tribute, the branch from Ardan, in their hands.
Her words echoed my sentiments. I also said no, there would be no tribute. Aoibheann had already suffered much harm as a result of Alec’s mistakes with the Huntsman, harm had already been done to this land with the attack upon Ardan. There would be no tribute, there would be no further harm. The child would be returned and that would be an end to it.
I beat Maric to it by a whisker. Whatever he thought of Aoibheann’s actions, threats had been made in his domain, and I knew that would not be tolerated. He was lord here, he told them, and all threats directed here were directed to him. Threatening violence against his people was unacceptable. The child had suffered some pain, but he had treated that and now she rested peacefully. The child would be brought to them and that should be that. If they continued, if they tried to bring violence here, that would make them enemies. Surely, he said, this could be resolved without further bloodshed. Surely we should be concentrating on returning the child safely instead of arguing.
Alec smirked at us, as if he still relished the idea of unleashing pain, but instead, demanded that we bring the child. There was still a price, he said, and that would still be paid. At least, this time, he seemed to be referring to the branch.
We gained an unexpected ally. The form of Padishar floated down from somewhere, telling Alec and Isabella that they had no power here, that they could not walk into another man’s land and make demands. Gwyn and Aoibheann were too gentle with their words, he said, but he did not have to be. They had no rights here, and should take the child and leave. Though, if they wanted pain, they were welcome to try it on him. This idea seemed to amuse him.
As if that wasn’t enough, Dorina appeared from nowhere, offering herself as the tribute, apparently believing she owed us something. Alec looked as though he was tempted, but desisted, saying she was maybe the only true innocent here. He repeated his demand for the child to be brought to him. He would keep the branch and that would be an end of it.
Padishar was not to be so easily deflected, and there seemed to be some magical tussle between him and Isabella for the branch, and even an attack upon Alec until Maric told him to desist.
One of the servants brought Hadley out and handed her over to Isabella. More angry words were exchanged, and Aoibheann stormed off, probably to go to Ardan. Alec and Isabella started to fade away and depart by their own means. Maric, however, was not going to let it go. He cast some magic, effectively banishing Alec from this realm, before stalking off in search of Aoibheann.
Dorina burst into tears, perhaps realising how much danger she had almost put herself in, and ran off to her cottage.
Padishar departed in the direction of the lab, leaving Gwyn and I, still standing side by side.
Both of us were angry, confused, in pain and upset. It took a fair while for us to calm down enough to walk away from the aftermath of that confrontation. We could not even discuss it, for it was too painful, especially for Gwyn, now torn between her land and her promise to Isabella. All we could do was hold each other, long into the night.
There are scars now. Scars on the love I had for Isabella and Alec, scars on the land, scars on Gwyn. What peace there might have been between us and Alec and Isabella’s realm is gone, and the matter of the injury to Ardan remains unresolved. I do not know what, if anything, can be done. I wish I did. And then there is Aoibheann. How to explain to her that she should not be so rash in future? That, at least, I shall leave in Maric’s hands, unless he asks me otherwise.