I have misplaced a volume of my diary. A good three months of my life is unaccounted for. I am sure it is about the town somewhere, for surely nobody would think to dispose of such a thing, at least, not without asking me. I suppose somebody of a curious nature might have borrowed it to read, but I think it unlikely. Once, I would have been bothered by that idea, but nowadays, I live my life much in the public eye, and there is little about myself that is not known by others. However, for the moment it is gone. No doubt, if it comes to that, I can reconstruct it, from my memory, unreliable though that is, and from my notes at morning meetings. Even if those do not have my personal musings in, they will at least remind me, should I ever get round to reconstructing. A few occasions over the past few months stand out, and those I shall try to recreate as best I can. All I need is time, and that, dear journal, is something I fear I lack. Once again, it seems, I am losing time, gaps in my memory, gaps in my experience, things that happen in the village while I seem to be absent, yet have now memory of being absent. Perhaps it is a result of my frequent contact with Faerie, for time is said to run differently there. I do not know; which is why my journal is even more important. My other, deeper fear is that this is something to do with he who I shall not name, the former Unseelie King. Perhaps it is the influence of that shard of his. Now that is a fear I do not want. I am too old to be afraid of the dark.
I suppose it would be a bit much to expect a celebration here to go off without a hitch, or attracting unexpected visitors. There are always going to be problems, but sometimes, it seems history insists on repeating itself. Old problems present themselves again. Or perhaps they are new ones. It’s getting hard to tell.
The Huntsman is back. Or, perhaps I should say, A Huntsman. This is a question that has yet to be resolved. On the plus side, his arrival did at least distract us from the other old/new problem; Aoibheann’s fabled cooking skills when it comes to tarts.
It started out as a pleasant afternoon of socialising. Not many of the villagers came forward for the match-making, but I was sure that there would be some pairing up later. Aoibheann had been running around like mad, no doubt driving the servants crazy, but, by the time the party started, we had food, tables and everything we needed, including a large selection of tarts that Aoibheann had apparently made for the pie-eating contest.
We had a good turn-out. Dorina & Helene were there. I noticed that Davor was being most attentive to Helene, perhaps trying to make up for the incident with the tail. Dorina had a present for Aoibheann, which looked to be a very nice dress. Vedis was there in a dress that Aoibheann seemed to regard as incomplete. If only she had seen some of Vedis’ outfits back in the day. I wonder what she would have made of them. Wren joined us, seeming very interested in the tarts. I recalled that she was fond of cakes and pastries. There was even a surprise visit from Dyisi, who I thought had vanished entirely. She was her usual enigmatic self, claiming she kept in touch with events while she was away. Even more pleasantly, Gwyn made an appearance, which pleased me greatly, as we had not had much time together of late.
I would have joined her immediately, but I had concerns about the pie-eating contest, or rather, the tart-eating contest. Aoibheann had made the tarts, and despite her assertion that they were raspberry, they didn’t look quite the right colour. Maric clearly noticed my concern and communicated as such through the mental link. I explained about Aoibheann’s previous adventures with making tarts and he suggested that he could guide me through using the blood-magic to determine if they were safe. Meanwhile, Vedis was approaching and seemed to be organising some of the ladies to be judges of the contest. I just had to contend with Wren, who looked far too eager to get started. But then, she always did have a great love of baked goods.
I dipped a couple of fingers in the tart filling while nobody was looking and tasted it, applying my fae senses and the blood sense that Maric was teaching me through the link. I wasn’t sure at first, so tried again with the second finger. It was not good. If it wasn’t belladonna, it was something very much like it, a fae relative thereof perhaps. Whatever it was, it was not safe to eat. I told Maric this, suggesting that maybe we needed some sort of distraction, like the dancing or some other games to distract the guests from eating the tarts while we got them out of the way.
We got it!
A howling arose somewhere outside the village. I felt it as much as heard it, as did Maric, and his anger and protectiveness flared through the link. He practically hissed the word cŵn through the link and told me to rally the men, as if that instruction were needed.
The guards were already taking up defensive positions as I directed Vedis to protect Wren and Davor to take care of the ladies. I ran out onto the clearing to confront the threat. It was the biggest cŵn I had seen, a huge beast that went upright on its hind legs. Behind him was a pack of regular cŵn, howling and slavering. I had not seen the like since the Huntsman’s assault on the hill. Mindful of Aoibheann’s sensitivities, I did not draw my weapon, instead, challenging it to state who it was and what business it had here. Behind me, Maric made sure that Aoibheann and Dorina were safe before joining me. He stated his name and position and likewise asked the beast what it wanted.
It snarled and roared at us, its massive claws coming up, and I almost drew my sword. However, it did not attack. The claws went to its own jaw, seemingly grabbing it and pulling it away, stretching its mouth and pulling it back, as though trying to peel its own hide from itself. A more familiar, and more alarming shape emerged, shrugging the fur back as though it were a cloak. The face black as ebony, the antlers standing proud, the eyes red and ominous. “Is it not Lughnasadh,” it asked, “I am the guest of honour.” It was the Huntsman.
At least, that was the aspect it showed. Yet, somehow, it was different. The antlers were different, the shape was different, the shades of its skin were different, and yet, it was still the Huntsman. I felt Gwyneth step up beside me, taking my hand, and I did not need to look to see that she had assumed her full regal glory and presence. She greeted him formally and with social pleasantries, but said that she could not welcome him as this was not her land. She likewise introduced himself and asked his business, pointing out that she had thought his time later in the year.
I felt the Wyld within me connecting with Gwyn’s and welcomed that connection. I had felt Maric’s hunger earlier, when she had arrived, so drew her aside slightly, to give him more space and reduce the distraction. I looked around and saw that the guards were doing their jobs, taking up defensive positions in accordance with the emergency procedures we had devised. I signalled to a couple of them to start herding the villagers inside, or, if they could, to the castle. Now that Maric had arrived, I let him deal with the visitor, as my primary duty was to the villagers now. Glancing around, I could see that all was well, so stood prepared, pending further developments. I felt a brief thought from Maric, a mild irritation that what to him was a fae matter, had intruded on his territory.
He greeted the Huntsman and told him that he was welcome to join us, provided he offered no threat or harm to the village or its people. Then, came another howling, a different one, that we both recognised as the cŵn we thought might be Gwrgi, lurking on the edge of the village. That raised another complication, which Maric acknowledged, pointing out that the other was not his to control and suggested that whatever business there was should be conducted quickly, and taken out of the village. The other cŵn, he said was not his to control, he told the Huntsman, warning him not fight here in the village.
The Huntsman addressed Gwyn, saying that he sought knowledge of what had happened to the Mallorn Tree, and demanded angrily to know why he had not been summoned. He reigned in the anger and told Maric that he did not care about the castle or its inhabitants, and depending on what answers he got, would not harm anyone. He had not harmed anybody so far, and that, he offered, was a sign of his benevolent nature.
Maric acknowledged that and said he would take the Huntsman’s word, saying that he would hold them to it. He knew as well as I did, by now, the importance of a fae’s word. But before he could get into any further discussions, or before Gwyn could answer the Huntsman’s questions, Gwrgi came barrelling in at high speed, all anger and rage, intent upon our visitor until the pack fell upon him. Gwrgi was in the centre of the pack, which was now a mass of snapping claws and lunging paws and an almost unbelievable cacophony of howls and snarls. The fight roiled around in grey savagery, sending all our livestock skittering towards us in fear. The guards formed up into a defensive ring, ready to protect the village, but fortunately, the fight tumbled away, out of the village and into the fae lands. The Huntsman turned, remarking that he would have to deal with the ‘stray’ first and strode off, any discussions with us forgotten.
Maric and I silently agreed that this was no longer our fight, provided it stayed outside the village. It was not for us to intervene between the cŵn and the Huntsman. We could only hope that Aoibheann had not seen who was involved in the fight; else we might have had to restrain her to stop her running off after them. Maric quietly directed everybody to retreat to the castle, leaving the guards on high alert. He had to carry Aoibheann, who had fallen down, possibly in a faint, but it turned out later that she had consumed some of the berries that she had put in the tarts.
It was a more sober evening after that. Dyisi left during the confrontation and clearly the return of the Huntsman had been too much for Vedis, who retreated to the cellars. The rest of us took food and drink and passed the evening quietly, and a little nervously, jumping at any sound from outside, but we were fortunate that neither beast returned to bother us.
On the plus side, at least nobody had to eat the tarts.
I have a dhampyr in custody. Poor Dorina lost the battle with her beast and started stalking one of the villagers. Fortunately, Vasily & Mirko were on hand and managed to tackle her before any harm was done, save that the poor girl she was stalking was terrified. I blame myself, since I had promised to work with her on controlling the beast, but had not found the time. I ordered her confined to one of the rooms in the cellars, for her own safety as well as that of others, pending finding some solution to her problem. Sadly, this is the least of our problems at the moment.
We have been too long in these Shadow Roads. The villagers have grown restless, even without Horace stirring them up and the Crow has grown impatient. More than impatient, it would seem, and this was graphically brought home to us. Young Tomas, a woodcutter by trade, a harmless soul, if a little reckless and impatient, wandered too far outside the village and into the roads without a guide. The Crow, damn her, took him, killed him, and returned his remains to us, with barely enough left to recognise him, and not enough of him left to even offer the dark gift. We will do what we can for his family, but nothing can compensate for their loss. And, much as I would like to tear the damned bitch apart for this, I fear she may well feel that she was within her rights, since he wandered there without permission and without a guide. She is cold and implacable, and the apparent regard she has for me because of my relationship with Valene will hold no sway if I try to argue.
She wants us gone, but I do not know where we could go. Our options are limited. I doubt that the sanctuary of the Sisterhood of the Void would appeal to the villagers. Not knowing what became of the land outside the hilltop, that leaves only the realm that Janus and Gwyn constructed, the realm of faerie. Could we go there? It would not be vastly different from where we were before, save that we would not be on the border between the Seelie and Unseelie realms any more. I must speak with Gwyn and Janus about this.
We, and the Crow, are not the only ones impatient for a move. I was in my chambers, working on some papers when I noticed that the roses in the bowl seemed bigger and livelier than before. Bearing in mind Maric’s last request of me before he headed off for hell, I decided to try a little experiment. I bared my arm and offered it to the roses, putting myself en rapport with them as I had done a few times before. They were eager, like small children, wrapping themselves around me, pulling at my arm rather than drinking from me. Finally, one bloom pierced the skin and started to feed. Their mood, if I may put it like that, was frantic, frantic with fear, if a plant can feel fear. There was a strong sense of danger, from the ground, from beyond the mists. Most of all, they wanted to go home. I tried to think calming thoughts, imagining a generous dose of horse-shit, which Mother and Father used to swear by for the roses in our garden. Mostly I was thinking that I wanted to go home too, wherever that was. That was something I no longer knew. Home was here in the castle, but that was not all. Home was where the heart was, perhaps, and I thought briefly of Gwyn and the faerie realm. As soon as I started thinking about that, the roses seemed to get excited, eager, as if the scene I was imagining felt like home to them too. This, at least, made some sort of sense, since they were creatures of fae. More so, more than eager, they positively thrummed with power, as if they might drag us all there with their eagerness to be home. Much as the idea appealed, I could not let that happen, not without talking to Gwyn and Janus first. I tried to convey restraint to the roses, though I found it hard to imagine any concept that would make sense. Waiting for spring, perhaps, waiting for the rain, for the right conditions to bloom. Maybe they got the idea.
I may have learned more, but the opportunity was lost. I felt Maric’s thoughts calling to me from somewhere, just as I started to pick up the castle sense again. Aoibheann had returned from wherever she had been – I had not seen her for a couple of days. I disengaged myself from the roses and went downstairs, meeting Kustav on the stairs, who explained that Maric was back from hell, apparently bringing a Tammi with him. He was downstairs in his chambers, Kustav explained.
I hurried down the stairs and into the cellars. There I found Aoibheann. I did not know where she had been, but she looked as though she had been sleeping rough, if indeed, she had been sleeping at all, which suggested that she had been on one of her expeditions to the Huntsman’s forest or some such. She also looked as though she had been slobbered on by some large animal. She was guiltily trying to open the secret door to the vaults. When I greeted her, she made some excuse about needing her brush. That she certainly did, and much more. I decided against asking what had happened and instead told her the news about Maric, reckoning that this was news she would want to hear. I told her to go and get washed and changed while I went down to see if he was in a state to receive visitors.
She was not so easily dissuaded, demanding to know why I could go and see if he was ready for visitors and she could not. She came up with some crackpot scheme about me distracting him with a bottle of wine while she dashed in to get her brush and fixed her hair. That earned her my best perplexed look while I explained that this was hardly likely to work. For a start, I told her, I was his steward, a lot stronger than her and wearing armour, so if Maric was not in a fit state, I was less likely to get hurt. Two, if he was well, he could already track where she was, so trying to sneak past wasn’t going to work. Three, I said, the state she was in, it was going to take more than a few strokes of her hair-brush to get her into a fit state to be seen. Finally, I added, I could ask him without going down there if necessary. I sent her off to my rooms to bathe and change.
She grumbled somewhat and very reluctantly agreed, provided I took Kustav with me so he could fetch her as soon as Maric was ready for her. I gathered myself and prepared to access the link, asking Maric if he was fit to receive visitors, adding that Aoibheann was ready to tear the castle down stone by stone if I didn’t tell her something. To my relief, his reply was composed, and his mind seemed stronger, more rational than last time I had seen him. Yes, he was fit to receive visitors, albeit not for a long time. I told him that I had sent Aoibheann away to get herself cleaned up, adding that I had not asked, which he agreed was wise.
Down in his chambers, Maric looked well enough and was clearly back to his normal self, save for a certain red tinge to his eyes. He greeted me formally and offered wine, every bit the urbane and polished host once again. I responded formally, but could not resist commenting on the eyes, reminding him that he had told me I should not release him until all the red was gone. However, given that I lacked the chains and assistance of the wolf brothers, I guessed I would have to let it pass for now. I accepted the glass of wine and apologised for the somewhat improvised method of feeding and waking him up, explaining that even with Kustav’s help, I had experienced some difficulty deciphering his books and notes on the care of torpored vampires.
He acknowledged that, and that I was right, but we did not have the luxury of time. He was back, and suspected that there were some changes about him that he would have to deal with. He expressed his eternal gratitude for my care and attention. I felt a little uncomfortable with that, and explained what little I knew of boons and how some kindred set great store by them. I did not keep account of such things, despite my profession, and sought only to do what was necessary, to do my duty to my lord and my friend, and to the village he left in my care.
That said, I suggested that I should deliver a summary of events while he had been out of commission, for fear that Aoibheann would grow impatient if I were to go into detail.
He asked what I knew of Tammi and I told him what little I knew, being mainly that she was pursued by forces unknown that could possibly become a threat should they track her to here, for which warning he thanked me. I told him about our Dhampyr, which news concerned him, but he was sure we could work something out between us to help her.
I told him that our main concern was getting out of the Shadow Roads. I told him what had become of Damir and about the crows, seeing both as a warning that our welcome was growing thin. I told him that Gwyn and Janus had called a new faerie realm into existence and how they were King and Queen together, despite being of opposing courts, and had agreed to work together to build a new land. That realm, I said, was likely the only option we had for getting away from the Roads. However, we would have to negotiate with the Crown before we did anything about that. I also told him about the losses we had suffered during the assorted battles, of the five guards who had passed on, the two that had asked to be brought back, and that I had only succeeded in saving one, who was now in torpor, pending help on raising a childer. That led me to happier news, as I told him the news about Gwyn being with child, multiple children, with it being likely that Janus and I were both the fathers somehow.
Maric took it all in, frowning at the bad news, thanking me for the update and congratulating me on the good news, news which must seem almost miraculous for such as we were. He bade me to not worry about my childer, we would revive him when we had time, and he would guide me in what must be done.
He had news of his own, news which he insisted remain between the two of us. Galyanna had succeeded in her quest to repair the mirror and Vedis had been rescued from the Hell realms. For now, she was confined to the laboratory, non-corporeal, her spirit residing in the walls where she could not influence others. This was taking a certain amount of effort from him, which was why he could not afford to grow weak again. There were still bargains to be fulfilled, demons to be fought, and a Crow to appease. He agreed with me that we must find our way out of the Roads as soon as we could. I told him I understood, knowing what I did of Radek’s mission and agreed it was best that Aoibheann not be told for now. Galyanna obviously knew, but it was best we kept it as quiet as we could.
Further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of Aoibheann, who had clearly decided she could wait no longer. She had bathed and washed her hair, though it looked as though she had been in a hurry to dry it. She was wearing a dress I had not seen before, but it suited her well. It was not the red dress she had mentioned to me before, so perhaps she was saving that for a more suitable occasion. I finished my wine and got up, briefly concluding my conversation with Maric on fairly neutral subjects, saying that I would leave them now, as I was sure they had catching up to do. We continued the conversation mentally for a few moments, but it was clear that he was impatient to spend time with his lady. Even so, he asked that I send Kustav down in half an hour or so, to fetch her, as he was still tired. I promised I would do so and left them to it. I did have a moment of doubt as to the wisdom of this, but I trusted to his willpower and his love for her. I left as he offered her a seat and the inevitable glass of wine.
I returned to my office. Maric may be back, but that did not make much of a difference to my duties, save that some decisions I could now refer to him. We still had much to do.
I have often wondered why so much of the village is covered in roses, when we could be growing things that are edible. I have also long accused them of being vicious little bastards that were just a little too keen on snagging any exposed bits of flesh if you were not careful walking through them. Well, it seems I was right. I was spending time with Gwyn in the cottage when Maric sent me a rather gleeful message that his experiments had been working, and we were blessed with vampire roses as our first line of defence. They are hungry and dangerous, but he could control them, as would I. Oh, and they generate the mists too, though I didn’t quite fathom out how that works.
It was somewhat of an evening of interruptions, but I suppose that goes with the job. A steward’s work is never done, especially when the boss has a direct line into your head.
Gwyn came to the cottage, knocking as usual, and, as usual, entering without waiting. Tonight, it didn’t matter, but I should gently point out some time that I might be engaged on official business. On the other hand, perhaps I should make it a rule that official business doesn’t happen in my cottage. I have to have free time occasionally. As it was, I was struggling with θεούς και δαίμονες again and bemoaning my lack of attention in Greek classes at school. I was more than happy to put it aside and make room for her to join me on the bed. We had much to talk about. I had not seen her since my various dealings with Maric concerning the fate of the realm, and then there was also the matters relating to Alec. For herself, she was just happy to enjoy a little oasis of peace without the cŵn baying at the doors of the sithen. Such things required a little fortification, so I poured us both a glass of rum and toasted the future, even if I wasn’t certain what that future would be.
I told her about the approaching end times, as predicted by Vedis. I told her about Vedis offer to conceal the castle within some part of Hell while we waited out the doom. I told her that we were not particularly keen on that idea and about our meeting with Nemaine to discuss the alternative of shifting the village into the Shadow Roads for the duration. I paused, taking a sip of the rum and then told her about the other things, how I had become bonded with Maric, feeding from him, in order to do the things that were necessary to ensure the safety of the castle. I apologised for not having been able to discuss it with her before, explaining that it had been a necessity.
She almost drew back, exclaiming “You did what?” Then she relaxed, trying to think through it all. We couldn’t change the past, so she had to believe I did it for the good of all. She was worried about my relationship with Maric because she didn’t like him, didn’t trust him and was concerned that this would indebt me to him. She took a breath to calm herself, saying she wasn’t judging me. I was the cool-headed one, she said, the level-headed one who makes the right decisions. She took a sip of her drink and moved on to the choice between Nemaine and Vedis, which she didn’t think was much of a choice. “I think I need another kiss,” she said, finally.
I leaned in and was happy to oblige, stroking her hair and trying to explain. I told her that I fully understood, because I had not trusted or liked Maric much at first, but now, because of the bond, I had been inside his head, and I knew him better. I knew him to be more alike to me than I could possibly have imagined, in our devotion to friendship and loyalty, in our willingness to die for our friends, in our belief in honour. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I also mentioned how he really had it bad for Aoibheann, joking that if he were a teenager, he would be hanging outside her window and writing bad poetry. Oh, and I didn’t tell her that bit
That got a laugh, but she wasn’t exactly surprised. She said she would try to rethink her attitude to him, but then asked if his powers were like glamour, could he be being dishonest with me.
We were interrupted by somebody banging on the village bell. I hadn’t yet had the chance to issue the emergency procedures to anybody but the guards, so I didn’t think it could be a real alarm. I knew I should have tied up the clapper with some padding or something to stop it being used, or posted a notice on it. It wasn’t one of the proposed emergency signals. I excused myself for the moment and went to the door where I saw Orie banging on the bell and shouting that he had an announcement to make, causing much confusion and a certain amount of worry among the villagers. I was about to go and intervene, but Kustav beat me to it, apparently asking him why he was sounding the bell when there was no danger. He appeared to be a lot calmer about it than I would have been. Whatever he said, Orie seemed to be determined to go ahead with his announcement. He had apparently gotten wind of our plans for the villagers and started shouting that their Lord was intending to take them into the Shadow Roads. They had the choice, he said, of refuge with Vedis, which would be safer and would have food. Clearly he had no clue exactly what had been offered by Vedis. Whatever his intention, it didn’t seem to have the effect he might have hoped for as most of the villagers either ignored him or just stared in confusion. I could just about see what Kustav said to him – something about them already knowing, before walking off and leaving him to it. I shrugged and closed the door. There wasn’t anything I could add to that.
Returning to Gwyn’s side on the bed, I explained further that it was mind-to-mind communication, and that I didn’t think Maric could lie to me that way. I told her about the teaching he had been doing and how the power I had gained from him had made me stronger and tougher – I would have sustained worse injuries in our battle with the sea-monster without it. I also explained that I knew he had a hunger for fae blood, though he had iron control and wouldn’t act upon it, but it might explain why she felt a little odd around him. She need have no fear though, he would not touch her. I winked and told her I had a certain hunger for fae things too and kissed her, asking what her story was.
She flushed and told me all her blood belonged to me. She told me about the sithen still being under siege from the cŵn, which bit I knew about and how so many of the Seelie fae were joining with the tree and leaving, which I hadn’t known, though I had suspected, given that I had seen none of the Seelie other than her of late. Those that were left were dead against the idea of letting the Huntsman in, as Aoibheann had been wondering, but pretty soon, it was going to have to be her decision, as the Princess, not something she relished. She curled up closer and started to tell me what Alec had said. Some I already knew, about his fears for the stability of this realm and the safety of our souls. Aoibheann would likely remain anchored to Ardan, he had said, but had somewhat told her off for giving part of herself to the Huntsman, something which Gwyn had also intended to do, should Aoibheann ever stop avoiding the opportunities to do so. Gwyn, like me, was too far changed to go back, even if she wanted to, and would need to be anchored to a goddess so that she might too travel the realms. He was planning on giving her into Isabella’s keeping, who would share essence with her somehow. It would all be explained soon. Preferably, she said, looking with irritation in the direction of the castle, before everything fell apart.
I refilled our glasses, thinking we probably needed it. I told her what I had been thinking about the Huntsman needing to go home. Part of him was Llwyd, and to Llwyd, the sithen was home. There had been the comment about him needing to get home so he could remember. Perhaps that was what was needed. If the Huntsman could be admitted to the sithen, under whatever restraints we could manage, maybe Llwyd could become free of him again. We needed to talk to Aoibheann about that.
I took a mouthful of the rum and continued, telling her about the encounter with Alec. I told her what he had explained to me about the anchors and his fears for the stability of the realm. In my case, though, he had given me my own anchor. I told her that I had told him about her, Valene and the others being my anchors now. I was free of him, free of the Boatman, free. It was scary, but exhilarating. However, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, not until he had given me some training on how to walk the realms.
She wondered, quietly, what Isabella was going to tell her. She asked about the training and what else had happened, as she had felt something strange, something that had touched the area around my cottage. Could I tell her, or was it a secret, and what would I do with this power, where would I go? She seemed almost fearful. I told her that, in order for me to be released, and take of Alec’s power, I had fed from him, while he worked the energy and magic required. Whatever he was, I said, it wasn’t human. The training, I said, was something I didn’t know about, and until then, I would have to be careful, since thinking about somebody too hard could be enough to make me travel to wherever they were, possibly without our clothes. Given how much I thought about my mother, I told her, I didn’t want to end up 6ft deep in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Chatham.
She still looked a little tearful. She knew I missed my mother, she said, pulling back a little with the hint of a tear in her eye. She was sure that Alec was a demon of some sort. Then she started talking about how she couldn’t go back and how her human parents might not know her, about how Blaise and Sia and Renata were all gone and how she didn’t know about her real family. Clearly upset, she wanted to know that I wasn’t going to go, and I wasn’t going to end up in the graveyard at St Mary’s.
I held her close and kissed her. I wasn’t going anywhere without her, I assured her. While I might go to visit wherever Wren and the girls were, and other places, here, with her was home. Besides, I told her, I still had a job to do, saving the world here. I remembered something else Maric had said, about me now being his heir, and told her about that too. But, whatever else happened, I wasn’t going to be leaving her. I hugged her close, and as I had expected, she started crying on me, apologising while she did so. It was just that Blaise had left, and the others had left, and she was trying to write a letter to him, but couldn’t get it finished… I just held her and let her cry for a bit.
I was being interrupted again. I could see, through Maric’s eyes, that he was in the castle, and Vedis was preparing some sort of portal. Maric was alert, defensive in case anything bad came through, and was warning me to be ready, in case anything happened. I acknowledged the thought briefly and returned my attention to Gwyn. I understood how she felt. She had only just gotten used to her new family and now they were going. I could understand – so many of my friends who had turned up here and just vanished again. However, with Faermorn returned, maybe things would improve, especially if we could restore Llwyd. In the meantime, we had our friends, we had Aoibheann, we had Valene and the cait, and we had each other.
I got another image from Maric, a figure in a red suit stepping through the portal, a cigar in his mouth, looking somewhat surprised, and not really pleased. I could tell that he was not the person they had been expecting, but, for the moment, I got no alarm signals, so I felt I didn’t have to leave to lend assistance. Not that I would have, not while Gwyn needed me.
She managed to stop crying, though she still had the sniffles. She asked if we could be each other’s anchors. While I couldn’t answer that in Alec’s terms, I could answer it in mine. I placed her hand on my heart and mine on hers. “Hand to hand, heart to heart, mind to mind, anchor to anchor,” I said. There was something else, I told her, a way for me to be able to keep track of her and communicate with her. Once Maric had taught me, I could do that, but she would have to feed from me. She said that scrying worked, but had often thought about something like that. There were things about me she didn’t know, that she couldn’t reach, and she wanted to know them all, and she would, somehow.
“Everything?” I asked, “Even the bits you might not like?” We would have to see on that. Besides, I would need more training from Maric before I was ready to let her bite me. I asked if she knew when she was going to see Isabella. Not that I expected a proper answer on that. Isabella, like Alec, had a habit of turning up when they felt like it, which was pretty much what Gwyn said in reply to my question. She nuzzled a little closer, claiming there were probably things I knew about her that I didn’t like, such as the time she shot ice shards from her fingers. Her teeth, she added, were probably not sharp enough to bite me. They could do other things, she said, somewhat muffled, as she started undoing my tunic buttons with her teeth, but not sharp. I told her that I had nearly broken a fang trying to bite Maric, but we would work it out. What passed after that is not for these pages, save that we needed our time together, and thankfully, we were not interrupted again.
Imagine a place, a stark, barren, lifeless place, cold and airless, inhospitable and uncaring. Such a place does not sound appealing to any living, breathing being. And yet, when the alternative is Hell, maybe it does. We who face the end of days have few choices available to us. At least with the Shadow Roads, I have prior experience; I cannot say the same of Hell. But, as I said, we who face the end of days have few choices available. At least, as of tonight, we at least have a choice.
I had been hoping that I might find out more the troubles that we face, and in particular, the Sisterhood of the Void. The main library in the castle did not lack books on demons, but some of them were of little use, such as the one I was reading; a rather histrionic treatise “on thee discouverie ov daemons”, which, I suspected after reading a few chapters, was more about the author’s wrestling with his repressed sexual propinquities than any real attempt to understand demonology. It was a relief to be interrupted by the arrival of Maric taking a seat in the other chair. I wondered, aloud, if this sort of thing would be easier with one of these internets that Gwyn and Wren have spoken of, which they told me was like having all the libraries of the world at your fingertips. I told him that I doubted that that world would know much of ours, much less things like mysterious sisterhoods. I wondered if there was more information in the other libraries.
He rose with a smile, looking almost fondly upon me. There is an easy familiarity and informality between us now. Perhaps, with the blood bond, there is no need for formality now. There were other libraries, he told me, pulling out one particular book and revealing another secret chamber behind the book case. A place to relax, judging from the blankets and wine glasses, but also to lie and read. I was somewhat childishly delighted with this revelation and said so. He smiled and then led me downstairs, into the cellar, and beyond, to the vaults. I have been down there only a few times, and it is still somewhat of a maze to me. He knew his way around though and brought us to another door. This, like the one to the vaults, he told me, would only open to his blood, and now, to mine. Beyond, there was a large chamber, sparsely, but luxuriously appointed, his private chambers.
He went off to one corner and came back with two small and old-looking volumes. One was titled in Greek – θεούς και δαίμονες – with a note to the effect that it was a copy of a book from the library at Alexandria. Something to do with Gods and Demons, so far as I could remember from Mr Matterson’s Greek lessons at school. The other appeared to be in Old English, on which language, I was even rustier, having only in the last few years started to read that and Middle English for the poetry. So far as I could judge, it was something about a journey and a demon’s pit – Ondlang þaes sices innon þone þyrs pytt. I started to flick through them, but then I realised that I could see Valene lurking in the shadows in the corner. Foolishly, I mouthed ‘how did you get here’ to her, even as I realised that she could track me through our bond, and that the roads did leave everywhere.
Maric was not fooled by her hiding in the shadows. Given how aware he is of what goes on in the castle, a sense I am begging to gain myself, it was hardly surprising that he noticed her straight away. I could tell that he was annoyed, but he kept it from his face and he greeted her graciously enough. I did pick up something I had noticed before, when he was around Isabella, but now, through our bond, I could sense his hunger for fae blood. A tightly controlled hunger, but it was there.
I greeted her with a hug and kiss, but mock-sternly chastised her for not giving me warning that she was coming. She accepted my hugs, but was intent on Maric. She apologised for disturbing his inner sanctum, telling him that she needed to speak with her Sigil concerning the matter Royce had brought before her. However, since she had us both here, then she could kill two birds with one stone. I described our situation in more detail, telling her of Vedis’ offer and our reluctance about getting sent to Hell, which was why we were seeking alternatives, one of which was enquiring if it was possible to hide the village in the Shadow Roads until the crisis was over.
She got up, clearly agitated by the question, pacing around and exclaiming what a huge thing we were asking of her. She could not do it alone, we would have to negotiate with Nemaine, for only she had the power to do such a thing, and for that, there would be a price, a great price. She told Maric that she did not know him well, but she knew me, and strongly suggested, given my previous experience with Nemaine, that I be the mouthpiece. I got up and hugged her from behind, trying to calm her fears, explaining that I would not have asked except that the situation was dire. While Maric was agreeing that I was best placed to be the diplomat, I could feel her changing in my arms, her minty scent gaining an overtone of decay, her body changing shape, and the feel and scent of feathers under my hands, and I knew that Nemaine was now with us, temporarily taking over Valene’s body. She greeted Maric formally and told him that he could speak with her directly now.
She summarised her terms for this sanctuary – we would be bound by her rules while we were in the Roads, though we could barter for the specifics of food and trade. We could go where we wished, with a guide, she told us, at which point; she picked up Royce and greeted him. Then came the term that I had somehow suspected, and dreaded, knowing that it would be one that Maric could not agree to. All those who died in the village would be hers. Even as she spoke, I could feel Maric’s dismay through our bond, but then, knowing his laws, I would have known that to be a sticking point anyway. Nemaine turned then to me and greeted me almost fondly, which was quite worrying in itself. My master, she told me, had not seen the Roads, so did not know the place where he sought sanctuary. She bade me take him there and show him, and then she would talk terms.
Maric greeted her formally, and accepted her invitation to see the roads and subsequently discuss terms. He added that he alone would bear the price of any deal. This, to me, felt like a formality, such as I had felt when discussing things with the fae, and I am sure, with the demons. I could feel him through the bond, and more and more was coming to realise how alike we were in our virtues. He and I shared that same unswerving loyalty and duty occasioned by friendship. He and I shared that conviction that we would defend our own unto our own deaths. He had barely finished speaking, when, with a shudder, Nemaine left us. I barely managed to catch Valene’s body before it slumped to the ground.
I apologised for not having warned Maric of Nemaine’s predilections, but then, I had not expected her to turn up so soon. I told him of her function, of her being a carrion crow, and told him that she was part of what he might have known as the Morrigan. From what he had told me the first time he took me into the vaults, I knew he had strong principles when it came to the recently dead, and he had already told me of his offer to all those who had died. Before we got into that, I suggested that perhaps we should pay the Shadow Roads a visit, so that he could see what we were letting ourselves in for.
Royce obliged with the opening of the way into the roads, albeit with a slightly sarcastic “as my lady wishes” to emphasise that he was doing Valene’s bidding, not mine. Maric did not react, although I could tell he was intrigued, having never seen the way opened before. He did react, however, once we stepped through, amazed by the stark, barren nature of the roads, and asking how anybody could live here. I still had the sleeping form of Valene in my arms, so I carried her over to the multi-way signpost and made her comfortable, at least, as comfortable as I could in the circumstances.
“Here is the realm of the Shadowroads,” I told him.” They lead everywhere, and everywhen.” I chuckled as I remembered some of the places they could go. “Some day, I will tell you about a strange thing called a bacon- double-cheeseburger, but that is a story for another time. As you can see, it is very barren, very cold, and the air is very thin. That is fine for us, but could be an issue for the villagers. Travelling the roads is very dangerous, and should not be attempted without a guide, such as my good pal Royce here. The unwary, well, the unwary, if they are lucky, wander lost for ever, until Nemaine finds them and eats them.” I could see he was looking around, so pointed at the distant tree I knew to be the graveyard for the Cait. “There is the burying place of the Cait. Many were lost in a war, many years ago. They lie by yonder tree and are revered by those that live. As you can see, it is not the nicest of places. But, as I said, compared to hell…” He looked in that direction and I remembered when Valene had first shown me the place, and what I had said there. I felt moved to say it again.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can go no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
As I turned back to Maric, I realised he had asked me what became of those that Nemaine consumed. That, I could not answer, I told him. Were she a mortal being, I supposed they would be digested and passed. I also recalled vaguely that the Cait had some role in guiding the souls of the dead. Perhaps, then, I suggested, that purpose would be fulfilled before anybody got eaten. He appeared moved by my recitation, saying that a poet speaks the language of the soul. He hoped I was right about the souls of the departed. There was more he had to tell me, he said, but perhaps sensing that we were not alone, suggested that we should do so elsewhere, since he assumed that we would be listened to here. I nodded my agreement and pointed until I knew he could see the eyes that were watching us from all around. I told him that the poem was not mine, since that was a talent that I lacked; for all that I loved poetry. I told him that it was by Christina Rosetti and that I had recited it at my mother’s funeral. I suggested then that we should return to his dwelling.
Royce, with slightly more grace this time, opened the way once again, and we stepped through, back to Maric’s private rooms. Once there, I felt that we both relaxed somewhat, and both took breath, though neither of us fully needs to. I felt a note of sympathy from Maric for my mother’s loss and he reassured me that I had many talents, and, I had the gift of time to develop them. We went to the table to take wine and then he spoke of his laws, explaining how and why he had that law that all the dead belonged to him. Each and every one who died in his charge, he told me, would get the offer of a chance to return as one of his childer. Not all chose that, he said, preferring death, in which case he respected their wishes and prayed that their souls would find rest. He felt obligated, he said, to offer each one that choice. As he spoke, I got the fleeting impression, from his thoughts, of many deaths, on the battlefield, from sickness and accident. He was worried by Nemaine’s claim on the dead, as that might disturb the balance he kept for the village, and take away from the villagers’ free will. Even as he spoke, I could feel his mind working, assessing the situation, working out what could be done with the various alternatives, planning, scheming…
His experience was perhaps different from mine, but I offered my thoughts anyway. So far as I knew, I told him, the dark gift could only be given at the very point of death, at the last possible moment before life departed. Therefore, and I could feel the old legal muscles from my accountancy training stirring, it could be said that they had not died, and therefore, could not be claimed by Nemaine. If, as I inferred from his thoughts, the gift could be given post-mortem, then that was a different matter. Perhaps a compromise could be reached, that Nemaine could only have the dead after they had been given that choice, provided she agreed to do whatever she did away from the sight of those living.
He nodded, maybe pleased at how alike we both thought. He was worried, though, that her appetite might be too great, that she would not be satisfied with those few deaths, if any, that might occur, given her apparent gluttony for the dead of the battlefield. He became more serious, trying to explain the secrets of what could be done with the power of the blood. He could not bring back a days-old corpse, but could attempt to revive one who had just passed away. There was much he needed to teach me about the power of the blood, but he knew I had the power of will and heart to use the powers he could teach me without becoming a monster.
I left him then, as he clearly had things to think about and I had my duties to attend to in the main part of the castle and the village.
It was only afterwards, as I started writing, that I realised that perhaps he was telling me that he would teach me how to bring back the dead. A chilling thought. I have always known that as a vampire, I had the power to bring people over, to make them like me, but what he was saying seemed something other. A power that came with great responsibility and the thought chilled me to the bone, especially when I remembered how much I would have given for that power in my mother’s last hours, when even the agnostic that I was had prayed so hard for her not to die. What would I have done then, had I known that power? That was a question I could not answer, and I still can not. And I do not know who I could ask for advice.
Life is change. From the moment we slide wetly, mewling into the world until we leave it with a dry gasp and the sound of earth clods on a wooden casket, life changes us. Of course, I don’t know if the latter is going to apply to me. My existence being what it is; there may well be no need for someone to intone “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dist” over my mortal remains. If this existence ever comes to an end, I doubt there will be any mortal remains. I am not the man I once was. In truth, I am not sure I am even a man any more, at least, not as it is generally understood. The man I once was never considered himself a warrior, save in his youthful imaginings of knights in shining armour, and yet, I have done battle now against numerous foes. The man I once was considered himself agnostic at best when it came to the existence of God, let along Gods plural, for all that he enjoyed debating such with the vicar over Sunday lunch. He certainly never conceived the idea that he might meet with any God. And yet, it has happened, more than once. I wonder what the Rev. Elverson would have made of that.
Today, I have stood alongside warriors more able than I, battled monsters on land and at sea, come face to face with a God, and seen a faerie queen returned to her people. The youth who started a diary some 30 years ago, so far as I can work out, never imagined he would write such an entry. An imagination he had, that was for certain, but I cannot conceive that he would have thought such things. How strange life is.
As I said in my last entry, time was something I did not have. Awakening from my swoon after feeding from Maric, I barely had time to haul myself up to the main hall and get myself a drink before I was called once again to take up the sword. Gossip from the servants had it that Aoibheann had gone down to the lake to confront the monster, which news was rapidly confirmed when Royce emerged from the shadows to tell me the same thing, and that Sophia was also attempting to commune with the monster.
I grabbed my sword, ran down to the armoury to get some of the iron spears and filings bags and headed down towards the lake, barely noticing that I ran much faster than was normal with me. At least, that was the plan. Before I could get to the lake, there were the cŵn to contend with. At least they seemed to be without their master, which evened the odds somewhat. Orie and Galyanna were already engaged with them, so I joined in, jabbing with one of the spears while I asked Orie for a situation report. He told me things were not good and the plan was that we were to hold the cŵn while others tried to kill the beast with magic. I also gathered that Sophia had tried swimming in the lake and singing to the monster, presumably thinking that she could calm it as the sisters had at St Brendans, and had rapidly discovered this was not any Kraken to be calmed by song, making it back out of the lake by the skin of her teeth. Aoibheann had also been there, and it had been her that had attracted the attention of the hounds, deliberately it seemed. I arrived just as she narrowly avoided a bite and started retreating. Whatever it was she had done, Galyanna wasn’t overly impressed, calling to me that Maric’s pet should learn when to hold her tongue and learn what an alliance meant. I didn’t have time to question or argue, as we were knee-deep in cŵn, and those seemed our first priority. Orie was shooting at them as well as swinging his axe, Galyanna was swinging her weapon. I must ask her one day what it is called.
We dispatched a few of the cŵn, but they kept coming. Aoibheann ran and one of them managed to get past us and pursued her. It looked like she was heading back to the hill of the standing stone. Galyanna threw herself at it and brought it down, by sheer weight and the spikes on her armour. I despatched another, but yet another got past me and bit at me. Strangely, it barely broke the skin, and I realised, as I started swinging my sword, that it seemed less heavy than I was used to. Perhaps I had gained something from Maric’s blood. Gwyn appeared, floating in mid-air and started casting defensive magic. The cŵn mostly ignored her and were concentrating on Orie, Galyanna and I. We were not in a good defensive position and Orie called out to me for ideas. I was so surprised I didn’t even question why he was asking the person with the least tactical experience. Perhaps he was just looking to authority, which, despite my lack of military experience, I did have. The hounds were after Aoibheann, and so she had to be our priority. I called out that we should fall back to the hill, where we would have the advantage of higher ground. I yelled at Gwyn to keep to defensive measures and to stay well out of the line of fire, since we were using iron weapons. She had other priorities though, and she shouted at Galyanna to protect me before flying off towards where Aoibheann had retreated. Something was going on up there. Behind us, there was some strange glow from the hilltop and even with my limited knowledge; I could feel the edge of magic grating at my senses.
We fell back, an orderly retreat, keeping out backs to the hill and the cŵn to our front, Galyanna took the brunt of the defence while Orie and I started to gain the hilltop. Once again, it seemed that few words were needed for us to act like a well-disciplined team. I would expect that of Galyanna and Orie, experienced warriors both, but of myself? Perhaps I did learn something in my reading, even if this was hardly a battle against the dragons or the Saxons. I did not know for sure, only that it was working. Between us, we held off the pack of cŵn while behind us, something magic was being wrought. I could hear the voices of Aerodine, Aoibheann and Gwyn, even if I did not understand half of what they were saying, or in Aerodine’s case, singing.
The light broke over us, like a second sunrise, a golden light that seemed to make everything else recede, making even the landscape seem as insubstantial as the mists. The world was suddenly the fae trees and the standing stones, light and fire dancing between them. Energy rushed around and surrounded us, this was LIFE, the life of the forest, against which that which I had received from Isabella was a mere penny candle. This was the true spirit and life of the forest, the song of life and everything it contained. The cŵn were forgotten as I gazed upon a face larger than worlds and knew, without being told, that this was Cernunnos, the God of the Forest. And he was asking who had woken him.
All at once, my memories came flooding back, and I could hear my mother’s voice once again, as she spoke of the trees and the woods, her urging me to greet the trees, to commune with them. Oh, would that I had understood then as I understood now! All that she had said, and much of what she had been seemed so clear now. I reached for Gwyn’s hand, saying without realising it, that I now understood what she had meant, my mother, all those years ago.
I could hear Aerodine’s song, and Aoibheann speaking behind me, but much of what was lost, save for something in Gaelic, that I somehow knew meant the little rabbit. She spoke to him of dreams and home, and I knew she spoke of Llwyd. The God spoke to her of making a home for his dreams, so that he could live on. That seemed to be for a future time. The God turned his head and directed his gaze out to where the sea-monster thrashed around in the shallows. All the gems adorning its hide were dull, save for one, that glowed brightly, and we knew, without knowing how, that this was where Faermorn was. The light of the God directed us, and, almost as one, we moved towards it. All was dreamlike and when we gained the shore, the water was no more than mist to us. Our task was clear, to rescue the queen from her crystal prison.
Galyanna was there first, a blur of speed, all spikes and blade, hacking at the creature’s body, though she appeared a mere tiny speck against its side. Aerodine continued her song and made her way closer, her song unearthly and sung in tones that no mortal mouth could make. The vibrations surrounded us, strong enough to rattle our teeth, and perhaps, strong enough to shatter the crystal. Inch by inch, she climbed the side of the creature; her roots digging deep to hold on as it thrashed and shook, making her way closer and closer to the crystal, in which we could see the limp and almost lifeless form of the Unseelie Queen. I knew not what the others were doing, save that I could feel Gwyn’s magic. Without knowing why, I waded into the ghostly waters, driven by the siren song, perhaps, or the power of the God. I could not begin to comprehend the size of this creature and I imagined that this must have been how man first felt when encountering a whale. This was no ordinary beast, I knew without being told, this was a creature of faerie, and I knew what I had to do. I waited until the creature’s maw came thrashing close to where I was, and hurled all the bags of filings I had down its ravenous gullet.
Time paused, it seemed, and perhaps that was the last straw, along with Aerodine’s song, Galyanna’s attacks, and whatever the others had been doing. The beast thrashed once more and then shuddered its last before exploding, the chunks of flesh and blood no more substantial than the mist-like water, save for some chunks that hit Galyanna, knocking her out of her flight and sending her plummeting to the lake-bed. As I dived in an attempt to catch her, I saw that the crystal prison had shattered too; allowing Aerodine to take up the injured, but apparently alive body of the Queen in her arms and carry her away. My dive was true and I caught the tumbling Galyanna before she hit the ground. The blow winded me and I still don’t know how I managed to avoid anything more than minor scratches from the spike on her armour. I could see the others were running or flying back to the shore. Aoibheann and Gwyn seemed safe and for once, I took to flight, to get Galyanna to shore as quickly as possible. Even in her severely injured state, with a big lump of monster tooth stuck in her side, her concern was for Faermorn. I assured her that Aerodine had taken her safely, and was presumably on her way to the Underhill. Go tend to the others, she told me, tugging at the remains of the tooth. I told her that she was being stubborn, but she insisted she would be alright. I knew her not to be stupid, and perhaps she knew herself and her injuries best. We make a good team, I told her, adding that some day, we should train together. With that, I left her to tend to her wounds, while I went to help the others.
There was not much help needed. Aoibheann and Gwyn had made it safely to shore, as had Orie. The cŵn were nowhere to be seen and the landscape came flowing back to its normal appearance, sold, dependable, real. The light was gone, and so, presumably was the God. The queen was safe, and our mission, for now, was done.
I have encountered Gods, and battled monsters. What else is there to be?
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.