Thorn in my Side

I was not raised to diplomacy, not in any formal sense. That said, watching my parents navigate the social and business circles in which they had to mix was an education in itself. I watched Father dealing with local and national government departments on projects, and cantankerous private clients who didn’t know what they really wanted, or, worse, did know what they wanted, but that was either impossible, or way outside the budgets they had available. I watched Mother at social and charitable events, outwardly the perfect society lady, even with the worst of snobs and those who, frankly, lacked much in intelligence and education. And I learned from both. Later, as Purser on the various ships, I learned the art of negotiation. My rise to seniority was proof I learned that well.

And now, consorting with lords and ladies, kings and queens, those things have proved invaluable, especially when dealing with the fae courts, where every word, every nuance counts, and the tiniest opportunity for misinterpretation could be a matter of life or death.

Now, of course, I had something different to deal with; the angry ghost of an ancient queen. Though, I am not so sure of the ghost bit. That battle on the mountain peak seemed real enough to me, as did the blood that spilled when she was hit. But that was by the by. The fact was that Dyisi and I had gone to her realm, and stolen from her, that which had been her very purpose in life, or death. The fact that, by doing so, we had helped to fulfil that purpose might well be irrelevant and may or may not serve in mitigation of our actions. Either way, I had an angry ghost connected to the castle, whose actions might adversely affect the castle, and I had to deal with it. Through the castle sense, I could hear echoes of her anger, and while others in the castle might not have my connection to it, I am sure they felt it too.

From what little experience I had of the Queen, I reckoned that honesty and diplomacy would serve better than fancy words, but I felt I needed more. Perhaps if I learned something of her, I might be better equipped to deal, and so I took myself to the library, there to learn what I could. As I searched among the older parts of the library, it occurred to me that perhaps, somewhere in the more ancient sections of Maric’s documents, from when he was still Agron, there might be something  more personal, something he had written about her, or even for her. Normally, I would not like to delve into something so personal, but needs must. Perhaps I would learn something useful, and, the thought also occurred, there might be something there, some memory of his time after he was parted from Teuta, that she would appreciate learning. A gift, perhaps, that would help placate her anger.

Maric’s library contains many books, but those I sought, I reckoned perhaps to be among those he kept most secure, in the laboratory, and thus it proved to be. There, among the esoteric tomes on alchemy and other magics, I found older books, ancient books in cracked and faded leather. Journals of his early years among the undead, at least, from then up until the fall of the Roman Empire. After that, nothing. Among them, however, was a smaller tome. Stained red leather and pages that seemed to be papyrus. It was Maric’s hand, that I knew, though even that had changed somewhat over the years, and in his native tongue. I grabbed a couple of pieces of clean fabric before handling it further, as I might with any ancient tome. Had I cotton gloves to hand, I would have worn those, but this would suffice.

I carefully cracked it open, gently turning to the first proper page, and I knew I had found what I sought. There, on the first page, the first word, was her name – Teuta.

“’Teuta. My true wife and only love. My one and only regret, through all the years of blood and suffering. That I could not see you one last time. But my sire took even that from me and so I have made him a monument to your tomb, my love. ‘If only I could have joined you in Neretva once more as we did in our youth. I still remember the taste of the apricots you loved so.”

I read on, skimming as I was wont to do when trying to get the sense of a book quickly. Many pages there were, of memories, memories of his mortal life and his mortal wife, of that which he had lost.  I could scarcely breathe as I read them. Here were the roots of the man I had known and loved, here in a deeply personal eulogy to the woman he had loved and the life he had lost. I resolved to take this to her, that she might see and read his words. The scholar in me rebelled a tad, wanting to know more, and so I made a few notes of the highlights.

Dyisi, who had been studying tomes of her own, almost unnoticed by me, looked up. I showed her the small volume and read aloud the first few lines. “I should take this to Teuta,” I said. “I need to go to her anyway, and make what explanations I can. Perhaps this will appease her somewhat.”

I could not decide which was better, to go alone, or to go with Dyisi. On the one hand, Dyisi was better equipped to explain what had passed, but on the other, Teuta might see her as the agency of stealing her prisoner from her, and might not be best pleased. We resolved that I would go first, and make what peace I could, and if it seemed wise to do so, I would summon Dyisi and she could best explain her part.

I went armed, in case should things go badly, but to show peaceful intent, I peace-tied the sword, wrapping a cord around the hilt and my belt so that it could not be quickly drawn. It was a risk, I knew that, but I felt it was worth it to show I was not there to fight.

The transition was much harder than before. Why I could not tell. Perhaps I was no longer welcome, or perhaps, with the prisoner gone, that realm was not linked so strongly to the castle. Either way, it was an almost painful journey to that bleak mountain place. I found it much as I had left it; windswept, grey and sullen, and yet, ragged-edged as if the very realm was starting to fade. Maybe its existence was tied to its purpose, which we had taken away.

The queen was kneeling a short distance away, by some small cairn, it looked. Her posture indicated prayer, though to what gods I did not know. Such history as I had learned made no mention of their religion. I could only guess that perhaps it was similar to that of the Greeks or the Romans, since it pre-dated Christ. I approached quietly and slowly, hands well away from my weapons in a gesture I hoped would be interpreted as peaceful. Once I was sure she was aware of my presence, and we were close enough to speak, I went to one knee and bowed, addressing her simply and respectfully – “My queen.”

She stood and looked at me. A proud, fierce, determined woman, her eyes dark with anger. She, too, kept her hand from her weapon, but I could tell I was one wrong word away from it being loosed. “I am queen to no-one,” she said, “and of nowhere now. My love is gone, as is my purpose.” She asked why I had come. Did I seek to claim this place too, as I had her husband’s home, she asked, gesturing me to rise.

I rose, slowly, giving another bow as I did so, taking a moment to gather my thoughts and formulate my response. “You were Agron’s Queen and his dearest love,” I told her. “In his memory, I shall still accord you that title and the respect due. From what little I know, from what little I have learned, I could not accord you any other title, save, perhaps of warrior. I make no claim on this place, or any other save that which Agron, known to me as Maric, bequeathed me, the castle known to me as Mysthaven. What I did, what I always do, is for him, in accordance with his will, and his wishes, and my duty to protect the castle. As to why I come. I come to accord you the respect you deserve, to make what peace I can.” I reached slowly towards the bag, not wishing to make any motion that could be perceived as a threat. “I also found, among Agron’s writings, some thoughts he had of you. Here, in his hand, in his words. He spoke of his love for you, his regret that his sire prevented him from seeing you one last time, and of apricots in a place called Neretva. May I retrieve it so I may pass it to you?”

She still stayed her hand from her sword, which was a good sign, though she seemed unimpressed by my words. The mention of Neretva, though, that brought a sudden glint of life, of interest, to her eyes. Her voice seemed stronger, more alive as she bade me to do so, saying she would accept this gift from me, addressing me still by title rather than name.

I undid the clasps of my bag and withdrew the parcel, slowly unwrapping it and refolding the fabric as a makeshift cushion on which one might offer a gift and offered it to her. “These are his words, of his life after he had to leave you, in his hand. He was my friend and mentor, and so I treasure this, but, as his queen and his love, it should be yours and I give it freely. I wish only peace between us, you and I, as ones who both loved him.”

She looked at the book and pulled off her gauntlet, reaching out with her bared hand. Somehow, as she touched it, it rejuvenated, becoming as it might once have been when first he wrote in it. There was something more, something profound in that simple contact, as if it gave more than the simple sense of touch. I could see new life in her, real feelings, even if she would not acknowledge them openly.  She took the book from me and held it to her as tenderly as one might a child. She thanked me for the gift and said that for this, there could be a peace between us. However, there was still an accounting to me made for the one she swore to guard. Everything there was tied to that, as she was to her tomb.

I thanked her for the peace and asked if Dyisi, an Oracle of Greece, might be permitted to join us, as she would be better able to explain. I told her that she too had loved Agron, and had also been acting on his wishes.  Some measure of anger returned to her eyes at the mention of Dyisi, but, nevertheless, she granted permission with a nod.  It suddenly occurred to me that I had never tried this means of communication with Dyisi, but I sent the call out anyway. It must have worked, as she appeared a few moments later.

She bowed and addressed Teuta in Greek. A formal greeting one might give to a queen, so far as I was able to translate. Again, there was a sense of anger held in check from Teuta, and her expression was hard and cold. However, she stayed her hand and gave a warrior’s salute to Dyisi, greeting her and saying she would hear her petition for peace. I stepped back to allow Dyisi to speak.

Dyisi started by apologising, knowing that the removal of the treacherous one she had been guarding was done suddenly and without notice. Her syntax seemed strange, almost as if she were unfamiliar with the language, but perhaps it was just me, so used to thinking in English and European languages.  She spoke of Maric being called to the gods, and of the promise made that needed to be fulfilled. She said it was unfortunate that she had been unable to discuss the matter in advance, before the prisoner escaped his chains. She assured Teuta that her prisoner would not be being set free with Scots. That puzzled me for a moment. I assumed she meant scot-free, but I doubted that was an idiom that Teuta would understand, being of 17th century origin. I almost stepped in to explain, but waited for her to finish. Perhaps Teuta would understand the intent. Dyisi went on to explain that the prisoner was being moved to a place where his binds and his pain would never fade. A place that mortals called Hell, a place of damnation under rule of the Queen of Hell.

Teuta paused a long while before answering. As I expected, she had not understood everything Dyisi had said, but had understood the intent.  She said that she would choose to believe that Dyisi was following a duty laid upon her by Agron.  She knew that Agron would never allow Otho to go free, and so, if he had been taken to a realm of death and despair, she would consider her duty fulfilled.

Her face grew harder, then, as she addressed another matter. “I wish to know why you attacked me with that cursed talisman. I can not pull this thorn from my side. If you intended to bring me low, you have succeeded. If you intended to remove my anchor and undo me, you have made a valiant effort. The only reason I have not taken my retribution upon you both is due to your request for parlay and in honour of my husband’s alliances. Remedy the destruction you have caused, else when this parlay is over, we shall be enemies ever more.”

For myself, I was did not have an immediate answer regarding any talisman. Perhaps it was something to do with Dyisi’s magic, for mine had used no talisman. Still, I had to make answer. I turned back to Teuta and gave another bow. I chose my words carefully, all too painfully aware that any mistake on my part could be fatal. “If, by our actions, we have caused injury to you or this place, then I apologise without reservation,” I said. “No harm was ever intended towards yourself or this place. We sought only that which we have stated, that which Agron wished us to do, the capture of Otho and his delivery to the Queen of Hell. If, in the execution of that duty, either in the capture of Otho, or in defence of ourselves from his attack, we have caused you harm, then it was without intent or malice and again, I offer my apologies. We did not, nor do we now, bear any malice or ill will towards you or this place. If it is within our powers to undo such harm as we have done, then we will do everything in our powers to do so and make such reparations as we may. We all seek to do that which my friend, your husband wished, and in his name, I will do whatever is needed to assure a peace between us.” I looked to Dyisi for further explanation and agreement. “Is that not so?”

Dyisi seemed to be concentrating, as I had often seen her do when working her magical powers. She held out her hand and called out, in a commanding voice, for her staff. “Ru!” she called.  She explained that it had been her staff, which was designed to protect her and keep her from harm. Had she known that in so doing, it would have caused harm to the land and to the queen, she would have prevented it from doing so. There was a brief rush of wind, and the staff flew from some nearby concealment to her hand. As it did so, there was a brief cry of pain from Teuta and she clutched at her side, as if some fresh pain had hit. It was brief, though, and she then relaxed, as if some pain had been removed, perhaps the thorn in her side that she had mentioned. Dyisi continued, offering to make another gift – I assumed she meant her ability to call to the places of the dead, so that Agron and Teuta might once again speak – “No one should be so long with regrets of the heart,” she said.

Teuta thanked us, seeming sincere and looked at us then, for the first time, with a smile, a smile that lit up her face and showed the queen she had once been. There would be peace between us, she said and perhaps we would become allies. To Dyisi’s offer, she shook her head. She had no regrets. She had lived a long life and ruled a prosperous kingdom. While she had had other loves in her life, Agron was always first in her heart. She had pledged her love to him and sworn to punish his betrayers.  This she had done in life and would do in death, tied to this place and to her husband’s creation. She stepped away then, holding herself at her side, perhaps still feeling the pain of that thorn’s extraction and said she needed to rest. She bade us go in peace and offered that if we wanted to learn more of her times, we would be welcome to return.

I said only that I would be honoured to do so, as her husband had been my dearest friend and mentor. While circumstance had made me a warrior and lord, I was, at heart, a scholar and would love to learn more of that time. We both made our respects and prepared to withdraw. The transition was easier this time, back to the familiar halls of the castle. And even as we arrived, I could feel that things were better now. That background of anger and pain was gone. I spared a glance for the tower wall and the crack, which I knew we could now repair and make new.

Dyisi and I parted without words. Each of us, no doubt, remembering the man we had both known and loved. For myself, I was content with a glass of wine drunk in his honour and an hour or so reading some other parts of his journals.  Another chapter was closed. No doubt, the new day would bring fresh challenges, but for now I was content.

 

Thorn in my Side

 

 

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What Country, Friends, Is This?

The threat of a resurgence of the Unseelie King is one of many things I have to deal with. While terrifying in anticipation, it is, as yet, unformed, and I will know no more until I consult with Vedis regarding the security of Llwyd, who, last I heard, was in her charge. Perhaps that is not so now. I do not know. I have not seen her in many a month, nor my dear friend, Galyanna, whose company I do miss.

Another, more concrete threat, well, stone anyway, is to the fabric of the castle. There is a new crack in the walls, one I cannot definitively put down to the aftermath of the shard of Gwythyr’s sword. As it turned out, that was far from the case.

I approached it, first of all, as my father might, as purely a structural problem in need of remedy, measuring the width and depth and length and estimating what I might need of materials to repair and protect it. Oddly, the appearance was that it had been caused by a blow from inside. It was not so wide or deep that it could not be filled with mortar, but I decided, for safety, that I would ask Hobbs to make some iron reinforcements to place as ties across the crack.

Material causes aside, I could not dismiss other causes, so I nicked my own thumb, squeezing out a few drops of blood onto the stone, so that I could reconnect with the castle senses, to see what else might be amiss.

The castle sense was all there, much as I have become used to. The solidity of the stones and rafters and tiles, the presence of the castle staff and the lighter presence of the unofficial residents – rodents and such scurrying in the background. Beyond that, the villagers going about their business. Yet, there was more, an unfamiliar note; of cold, wet rocks, the taste of cold steel and an ungodly shrieking, distant, yet, at the same time, right beneath my fingers. I withdrew slightly, and refocused my attention on the immediate area, cutting off the rest of the castle and the village.  There it was again, like a distant battle, far and yet near. There within the tower, the dusty bones of a long-forgotten enemy of Maric’s, entombed there so many centuries ago, an enemy long dead, and yet not, and I knew it to be the one that we had given word that we would release into the tender care of Vedis.  The screams echoed from afar, bringing with it the cold of mountain air and the sound of metal on stone. Another voice called out, a woman’s voice, commanding me to stay back.

Somehow I knew this voice, this presence, for it had shut me out from the tower once before. I also realised that I understood the command, even if the words were unfamiliar to me, that she had spoken in that most ancient tongue of Maric’s, that of Illyria, and that I too now understood this language. Some, I knew I had gathered from trying to understand his journals, but this was more, as if the tongue were my own. Perhaps one last gift he had given via the blood. I steadied myself, calling on my own willpower for what could be an unfortunate confrontation. “I mean no harm,” I said in the same tongue, projecting my thoughts to that distant voice, as well as speaking the words.

There was sudden silence for a few moments, interrupted once again by shrieks and screams, a voice pleading with me to free him from this witch, to stop her. Latin, he spoke, or something like it, yet again I understood it. Another blow of metal on stone stilled the voice and I saw a distant mountain landscape, rocks and chains entangled and somehow, a figure caged within. There was another figure, armoured and brandishing a sword. She turned to me and pointed the sword. “I shall do my duty as HE wished,” she told me, “you shall not free this one.”

I kept such thoughts as I might have had regarding her prisoner to myself. Now was not the time. My first duty was to the castle. “This one is not my concern,” I told her, “The safety of the castle IS my concern. I command here now. He that gave you this duty is no more.”

The prisoner shrieked and laughed at the same time until he was silenced by a backhander from the woman.  She pulled her helm from her head, an imposing presence; for all that she lacked any great stature. An iron grey plait of hair and eyes that had seen too much in a weathered face. She stared at me as if she might strike me, but then, her expression softened with sorrow and she lowered her sword. “Agron?” she said, which name I did not know, but took to be a name Maric had worn in the past. “I did not want to believe, but when the chains loosened, I should have known what it meant.” Somehow, though still distant, she seemed closer. “Is he truly no more?”  Her eyes, as dark a brown as I have ever seen, searched me, seeking truth or treachery. “You should not be able to see me,” she said. “Did you slay him to take his place?” Her words were as cold as the icy winds that blew from that distant mountain.

Hard as it was, I did not flinch, for I knew my position to be right and true. “No,” I assured her. “He was my dearest friend and mentor.” I told her that he had trained me as his deputy, and  that when he knew his time was nigh, when he knew the last battle had taken more than he had to give, he had made me his successor, conferring all rights and titles upon me, including the castle. “He passed at the Equinox,” I told her, reasoning this a date she would understand, “in the presence of many who loved him, including me.”

She stared long at me, as if she suspected some falsehood on my part, until she satisfied herself that I spoke truly. She sheathed the sword and placed a fist at her chest, bowing her head and muttering something, a prayer, perhaps, or a eulogy. In respect, I mirrored her gesture, for I too had loved him. She stood again, every inch a queen and fixed me with her gaze. She said that she would mourn the passing of her husband, but this duty, she gestured at the prisoner, was by her own will. The wretch that caused her husband so much ill would never be free so long as she existed.

I too straightened up, having paid my respects. I reminded her that he had been my mentor and my friend and that I had loved him dearly. I too had chosen my duty freely, to continue his works, which included the protection of the castle, the village and its people. That was my duty, given to me by Agron, or Maric, as he was known to me. I understood her duty, but where her duty impinged upon mine – I showed her the damage to the castle – then I must stand firm. “That is what he would have wished,” I said, “I am sure you understand.”

Anger flared again in her face. I was the one who did not understand, she told me. She indicated her prisoner and said that he strove to break free, to release himself from the chains and stones. Her duty was to protect hers from harm; Agron and the castle. “Now do you understand, stranger?” she asked.

I did not allow her anger to touch me, maintaining the same calm demeanour. “Then our duties coincide,” I told her. “My name is Nathaniel Ballard, and Agron, known to me as Lord Maric of Mysthaven, gave the castle into my care. Since our duties coincide, we should not remain strangers. For now, though, I must leave you, so we may each grieve in our own way and we will speak again, another time, I hope.”

She stared long at me, and at the last, seemed to unbend somewhat. She nodded and told me that she was, had been, Queen Teuta of Illyria, who had reigned long after her husband’s mortal passing, until the dark god who had taken him came for her. She agreed that we should speak again, and soon, for the chains that held her prisoner would not last long, now that her beloved was gone. With that, she faded from my vision and senses, and there was nothing left but the faint echo of her voice, and the cold stone beneath my hand.

“Fare thee well, Queen Teuta of Illyria,” I bade her, even if she could no longer hear me. “Perhaps we can find something better than chains.”

I stepped away from the wall and took myself to my armchair with a large glass of wine, thinking. Perhaps there was an answer that could satisfy all parties. If I could convince this ancient queen that delivering her prisoner into the tender care of Vedis was as fitting a punishment as that which she had meted out, then we could achieve that promise, and then, perhaps that ancient queen could be at rest, and the castle stones at peace. Yes, this could be an answer for all. I sat, then, thinking on what I had seen and contemplating the vast breadth of history in which I played such a tiny part. A sobering thought, but for the wine, and one that stayed with me, long into the night.

Anthem of Illyria

Laying Down the Burden

The days after the defeat of Gwythyr were taken up with the aftermath. The castle foundations and vaults suffered greatly, with the ice and cold created by Gwythyr. Dyisi was able to access the vaults and capture the Wyrmthorn, that remnant of what had been Gwythyr’s sword, which escaped from Galyanna so many moons ago and wreaked such havoc. She fashioned a bag of some sort that would hold it safe, and then, by her own means, stepped into some other realm, where she was able to direct it into the heart of a sun, that most destructive of fires.  Whether it was our own sun, or some distant star, I do not know. All I know that it is gone. And now, we could begin the process of recovery.

Much of the vaults, I fear, we may not be able to recover. Ice and water and Gwythyr’s foul influence has caused much damage. It took some time to clean out the water, as the ice he left began to melt, and that was noxious with the grisly remains of those he killed. My stewards and I had to survey the damage and plan for the eventual return of the castle residents and the villagers, once we were sure that all was safe for them to do so.

Dyisi used her abilities to bring Maric out of his torpor much sooner than I expected, and with minimal loss of limbs. Would that it had been so easy on previous occasions. However, he seemed changed by the experience. Change was inevitable, for as well as the man I knew, there was that darker influence, the spirit of the Huntsman still within him, and with that, the influence of the Unseelie Throne. For some time, it has been clear that it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to reconcile his duties to the fae with his duties to the people of Mysthaven, and he has hinted to me before that a time for change was due.

He came to me, shortly before the equinox. While he was, for the most part, the man I knew, it was clear that something was tugging at him.  He caressed the books and spoke of them being his most prized possessions. At the same time, that other side of him thought it worthless drivel and would tear it all down, to the last stone. That other side of him showed for a moment, in the claws that almost tore the binding of one of the books, but Maric dominated again. He would not let that happen. He entrusted the castle, the village, everything in it to me, to protect it and them for him and from him, from all, even the Summerlands. But, before I swore it, I had to know all the secrets.

I had been expecting this, and so I was not surprised. I was standing by one of the library cases, idly browsing. In my hands was a volume of Plato, Timaeus, to be precise. I opened it at random and read “τὸν μὲν οὖν ποιητὴν καὶ πατέρα τοῦδε τοῦ παντὸς εὑρεῖν τε ἔργον καὶ εὑρόντα εἰς πάντας ἀδύνατον λέγειν.” I thought back to my Greek lessons in school and translated as best I could, conscious as I did that Dyisi had joined us. “It would be a hard task to discover the maker and father of this universe of ours, and even if we did find him, it would be impossible to speak of him to everyone.” It seemed appropriate, since I knew not what hand had framed the universe I now inhabited. I put the book back and spoke of my family’s library, the thing that my mother loved above all else, save for her family and how she would have let the rest of the house burn, if she could have saved the library. The castle, the village and its people were already in my keeping, I told him. I was already pledged to the land, like the kings of old. The burden was already mine. The damage done by Gwythyr, the deaths and suffering he caused, happened on my watch, they were my burden to bear. Against that, there was the joy of the land and its inhabitants, the greatest joy I knew save that of my beloved wife, so long absent in the throes of winter. Speak your secrets, I bade him.

He took my hand, and Dyisi’s and showed me, through the mental link. The tale he told was a horrendous one. Perhaps some day I shall write it down in more detail. He told of years of torture and torment at the hands of the one who had made him, a chase into the mountains, and one final torment, finding the tomb of the one who had been Maric’s wife and Queen. His sire had lied to him that the Queen had too been embraced and kept apart as part of his punishment. Maric finally gained his revenge, turning his anger upon his sire and defeating him. Furthermore, he used his skills to change the remains of his sire, the stones of the tomb, and even the bones of his queen, fashioning from them, a castle of stone, this very castle in which I now stood. The enormity of that revelation staggered me, not only in the scope of this ancient vampire’s powers, but also the realisation of what the castle was. I only had limited experience of linking to the castle sense, and so I had little idea of what made it so. Now I did.

He asked if, knowing now what the castle was, if I still wanted to take on the responsibility of ruling over the realm. I understood better now, I told him, what the castle was, but added that I also understood what it was now, for to my mind, it had been shaped by the many years since its formation, the many lives that had passed through it, all those that had come before, including me. My word still stood, I said. I had not qualified my pledge. I had not, I said, resorting to humour, pledged myself to the castle, except for the yucky bits. There was one condition, though, I added. I would accept that responsibility for the people IF they would have me. I did not say, nor did I need to, that he had been their lord for many hundreds of years, and I had been here but a few. I think he understood.

My comment about the yucky bits almost brought a smile to his face. His tone was formal though, and spoke the words “So be it” to seal that pact. That I felt, that slight tremor of the Wyld when any oath is made.  I was a noble soul, he told me, and the people would accept me gladly. And, he added, I need not fear that the influence of Gwythyr would taint me through the castle again. He had the power to prevent that. We needed now to drink of each other, as we had done before, and then to spill our blood for the castle. He would enact the rite that would make me master of it, just as he was and had been.  Again, there was the question, if I was willing. I answered in deed, by baring my wrist and offering it to him, even as I took his and raised it to my mouth.

We fed from each other with an intensity we had not known before, and I felt the essence of the Wyld, both from his position as Unseelie King, and from that other side of his, as well as the truly ancient vampire that he was, as if he was trying to pour his essence into me. Then, as we fed, he led me to the walls and there, we allowed our blood to pour out onto the hungry stones. As our blood poured out, he spoke in a tongue I did not know, nor could even guess, save that it seemed ancient. Its intention, however, was very clear. A rite of some sort, as I could feel the power, a magical energy quite unlike any of my own. It spoke to the stones and bones, to that ancient husk and then, it spoke to me, connecting me to that castle sense and the whole of the domain and all that was within. Much like the first time I fed from Maric, or the Quickening I received from Faermorn, it was overwhelming, and, like those times, I had to ride it like a surfer. This was the real connection to the castle. By comparison, my previous experience of the castle sense was like hearing a cheerful workman whistling a Mozart tune instead of hearing a full orchestra playing the same.

I stood, leaning my head against the wall as I tried to integrate this new sense, vaguely aware of a change in Maric, as if he had not so much shared that link to the castle, as transferred it, a strange sense that another burden had been relieved. “Good luck,” he told me, “and rule well.” I told him that I would do so, as I had always tried to do. I giggled then, perhaps a little intoxicated by the transfer of power and asked if I still needed to call him my lord, or was that me now. I sobered again and told him that, no matter what, he always had my friendship. He accepted that with good grace and said it was a rare and wondrous thing. And yes, he was no longer lord, and that we were equal in the eyes of his people. He wished me good fortune and the best of the vine. I sensed that here, was a beginning of a parting.

His attention turned to Dyisi and the sword that she had been carrying. Strange it was, seeming fashioned from crystal rather than bronze or steel, and more besides. In the mix of feelings and emotions that flowed, from him, from Dyisi, I sensed it was more than a sword, as if it held something more. She handed it to him and spoke as if it were a person, as did he. Could a soul be trapped somehow in a sword of crystal? Dyisi spoke of him seeking forgiveness and atonement. He spoke of setting somebody, Aelia perhaps, free. I sensed that his was another lost love. Trapped somehow in this sword? I could not tell, only surmise from what was said and what was felt. He needed to release her, and this was something he needed to do alone, for he knew not how dangerous she would be. He promised he would come back and share with Dyisi whatever could be shared, and then he was gone, disappearing into the shadows. Dyisi left too, radiating strange emotions, compassion for Maric, love for him, and sadness, as if she too sensed an ending, and a sense of other feelings held in check.

And so, I stood, alone in my office, master now of this castle and all the domain. Maric has laid his burden down, and I must, perforce, take it up, not knowing when, if ever, I may lay my burden down. That, I do not have time to consider. I have my people to take care of.

Lay my Burden Down – Alison Krauss and Union Station