Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
A couple years earlier, I had found an abandoned garage that everyone seemed to have forgotten, and it had become my bolt hole. It was far enough away from the park to not be associated with my presence there, but close enough to reach in an emergency. So, I vanished into my little refuge for the remainder of the night. I spent a lot of time thinking about my situation…which pretty much sucked no matter how I looked at it. Drows are the masters of Unseelie, and the Unseelie Court operates on strength and pride. Looking back on the earlier events, I realized I should have finished the job like the horse had wanted to do, ‘cause there was no way Braewynn could let this go now. His position in court was dependent on him looking strong, and getting trashed in your own home by a sixteen year old boy does not foster an image of strength. So he was going to be gunning for me, needing to reassert himself. Essentially, my ass was in a sling.
What I needed were allies, someone who would watch my back. I was strong enough to take on most of the baddies one-on-one, but I was no good in a firefight, and I knew that was what this was going to devolve into.
Damn…I didn’t know anybody who’d be willing to put it on the line for me. I’d never made any friends, and I knew damn well none of my tricks were going to help me, even if they could.
That was when I remembered Ralph and his posse. There was a big ol’ downside to asking them, ‘cause it would mean I’d be indebted to them forever, or pretty damn close to… but what choice did I have? I didn’t have enough smoke to try and take on Braewynn and his whole crowd by myself, and while I didn’t know exactly what their trip was, it was more than obvious to me that the three of them were heavy hitters. Still, they’d treated me pretty well at Mike’s, so there was at least a chance I could come out of this ok. Better get it over with, I supposed; a chance was better than nothing.
When sunlight started to filter in through the small, grimy windows, I checked around pretty carefully to make sure no one was watching, then I changed into the most nondescript clothes I had, packed my new clothes into a shopping bag and slid out of a broken window in the garage. I hopped a bus going downtown, and then another that would take me to Southcenter Mall, way south of town. I'd been there a time or two before, and been surprised by how many of the fey hung out at the mall. I figured that since Braewynn wouldn't be advertising what happened last night, no one would know to report that I was hanging out down there, and being around all those other fey might throw his hunters off the track a little.
There was only one real problem with my plan: I hate malls. I know, I can't be a member of my generation in good standing if I don't love malls and all that, but they're just so bloodless, so completely without life. Cardboard, plastic and bullshit is about all they're made of, and I hate phony. Give me the little old downtowns of some of the outlying burghs like Burien any day. They have a sense of history, a life that appeals to me. The mall? Nada. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I sucked it up and spent most of the day there. Finally, around three pm or so, I couldn't stand it anymore and took a bus back to Broadway.
I stopped in at a Starbucks and used their bathroom, where I pulled on my new outfit - they'd suddenly gone from being party clothes to 'begging for help' clothes - spritzed with the cologne, and was ready to walk over to Ralph's place. I’d memorized the print on the card after Ralph gave it to me and then I'd destroyed it, so I walked over to the address, skulking along the back streets and trying to watch my back as best I could. I didn’t see anything that obviously meant I’d been spotted, but if Braewynn was any good at all, I wouldn’t have. Is it still paranoia if you know someone is out to get you? Yet another question to ponder in my spare time, I suppose.
The address turned out to be an enormous old Victorian up by Volunteer Park. It was beautifully restored, but not painted in the usual pastels—this one was dark forest green with deep mulberry trim. I admired the house for a moment from the street, then walked up the stairs to the gate. It was cold iron, so I hopped over it, being careful not to touch it. Thank gods most things are made of stainless steel these days—iron burns like a motherfucker. I noted that directly behind the tall hedge of Arbor Vitae that surrounded the house was a high fence of black wrought iron. It seemed to crackle with energy to my sight, and it gave me hope that these guys weren’t clueless.
So, up onto the porch I went. The front door had a big lion’s head knocker, and I politely tapped the bar on the plate and waited for someone to answer. I heard footsteps approach the door, and then Peter opened it.
“Well, this is a surprise. You’re a little early,” he said, smiling. “I’m afraid Sandy hasn’t started dinner yet.”
“Hi Peter, is Ralph around? I was wondering if I could talk to him for a little while.”
“He’s still sleeping, kid. Say, you look kinda nervous…you wanna come in?”
“I’d be grateful if I could, Peter.”
“Then, c’mon in. He won't be up for a while, I’m thinkin'.”
As I walked through the door, my whole skin tingled as the wards let me through. Good thing I wasn’t trying to get in without permission: there was some heavy-duty magic on that door. It gave me more hope, actually.
The house was full of old furniture, as beautifully restored as the outside of the house. The windows were mullioned, with lots of beveled glass that would cast spectrums all over the rooms when the sun was out. All neat as a pin inside too, which I liked. I hate clutter.
Peter led me into a small parlor and waved me to an overstuffed sofa. “I’ll go get Sandy. Maybe he can help. Wait here.” Then he turned and walked out, and I could the floor creaking a little as he walked away.
Sitting in that parlor and cooling my heels was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. I wanted to get up and pace, and the horse was anxious inside me, urging me to find water and let him out. I thought quieting thoughts at him, and managed to chill him out a little. The horse and I get along pretty good, and it’s because we respect each other. I suppose I could stuff him down and put a cap on it if I really wanted to, but we’re brothers and allies, the horse and I.
“Peter, are you in…Oh! Hello. Didn’t expect to see you in here.”
"Oh yeah, well, um...I decided to come over a little early. I hope it's ok?"
“It’s not a problem…you’re welcome, of course. I haven't started dinner, but if you don't mind the wait...”
“Yeah… um, about that. It might not be a bad idea to sort of... reschedule that. Something came up that I sort of wanted to talk to Ralph about.”
“Ah. Well, I think he’ll be here, but it might be a bit of a wait. Is there something I could help with?”
“Um…well, let me run the situation by Ralph first, ok? It isn’t that I don’t trust you or anything…”
“I understand, Bryon. Ralph is pretty easy to talk to, isn’t he? Since we're postponing dinner, can I get you something to eat? It might be a bit of a wait before Ralph is ready to come down.”
I tried to keep a hungry look off of my face, but I think Sandy saw right through it because he just laughed, waved me along behind him, and led me to the kitchen. He installed me on a stool at a breakfast bar and then started pulling stuff out of the 'fridge, some of which I didn't even know what it was. He loaded up a plate and zapped it hot in the microwave, and then set it in front of me with a knife and fork. I was a little embarrassed by the way I dug in, but I hadn't eaten since the day before. He just smiled, poured himself a glass of wine and sat across the counter from me, watching me eat and making small talk.
Gods, the guy was funny as hell. Some of the stuff he was saying had me rollin', I swear. He had this skewed sense of humor that had me thinking and laughing at the same time. I hadn't had this much fun without a beer or a bong in a long time. When I finished what was on the plate, Sandy put it with the silverware in the sink and led me down a little hall, through a pair of narrow french doors and back into the parlor, all the while both of us chatting like old friends. I almost forgot why I'd come there in the first place. I didn't realize how fast the time was going until Peter stepped into the room and said that Ralph was awake, and would be down in a minute.
"Well Bryon, it's been a pleasure. I'll let you talk with Ralph now, and maybe we can talk again later. You won't forget to reschedule dinner, right?" I nodded, but I couldn't seem to dredge up a smile. The whole messy reality of the last couple days had hit me again.
As he stood and walked out of the room, Ralph passed him at the door. His hair was slicked back today, not in it’s usual Beethoven-ish mess. Sandy flicked a smile at him and then headed off back toward the kitchen. Ralph paused and shut the open side of the French doors, then turned and sat himself on the same wing-back chair that Sandy had recently vacated. I hoped he couldn’t see my anxiety.
“Um, thanks for seeing me, Ralph. Um…I got a little problem, see…and…”
Ralph smiled warmly at me, and I felt myself start to relax a little. “Relax, Bryon. You’re among friends here, or I hope you will be, in any case. Why don’t you tell me what’s happened, starting at the top. Nice outfit, by the way.”
I smiled a little, distracted for a moment by his compliment, just as he intended me to be, I suspected. “Yeah, I had a few bucks and decided to do a little shopping.”
“Clothes make the man, Bryon. Good choice. Now, why don’t you tell me what’s happened, right from the start?”
“Well, remember what you said the other night about knowing too many people if they were the wrong sort?”
He nodded but didn’t speak.
“Well, that sort of happened…” And I proceeded to spill out the whole sorry tale. He didn’t interrupt even once, just listened intently, leaning forward a little and looking right at me. I saw his face tighten briefly the first time I mentioned Braewynn’s name, but then he listened just the same as before.
“So I beat feet for the lakeshore and swam home, then holed up all day till I came over here,” I finished up, streamlining events a little.
“Well, that’s quite a tale, Bryon. Let me think for a moment.” He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes. He stayed that way for about three minutes, and it seemed like eternity to me.
Finally, he opened his eyes and looked at me. “There are several things we’re going to need to discuss, lad. Let me say first that you handled the situation extremely well. Had you allowed the horse to stomp Braewynn to death, you would be in infinitely greater danger than you are at present. Braewynn is placed very highly in Unseelie Court, and since he did not intend to kill you, his death would have been considered unwarranted. You’d have been declared a murderer, and a price put on your head, at which time any Fey with a desire for gold could—and would—have been trying to kill you. So avoiding that was a stroke of luck for you.”
“But…but he wanted to torture me! Doesn’t that count?”
“Not torture you, Bryon…break your will and make you submit to him. Yes, the difference seems unimportant to us, but in the eyes of the Unseelie, it’s everything. He wouldn’t have killed you because, whether you know it or not, you are an extremely valuable commodity to him.” He must have seen the startled and bewildered look on my face, because he laughed softly before continuing.
“What do you know about the War of the Courts, Bryon?”
“War of the Courts? Um…well, nothing actually…”
Ralph sighed. “I thought as much. What do they teach children in school these days?” He smiled again at me, and I smiled back a little to show I knew he was playing with me. Then his look got very serious again. “Listen well then, Bryon. I may only get to tell you this once, and it’s of gravest consequence.”
“A thousand years ago, give or take a decade or two, Seelie and Unseelie went to war. I hear that it was because a young prince of Unseelie Court offered insult to a princess of Seelie, but everyone I talk to gets very vague when I ask about it. It doesn’t really matter why, I suppose. What matters is that it happened. Harsh and irretrievable words were spoken by both sides, and suddenly no one could honorably withdraw. They chose the American continent for their battlefield, since there weren’t any europeans there at the time. The local powers warned the native americans who lived here to withdraw, and that left the field open for the fey.
“Picture it, Bryon: Every monster and magical being of myth and legend that was ever known, and many that weren’t, lined up in great battle formations, readying for the attack. Proud banners and pennants snapping in the breeze, the sun glinting on polished armor and arms. Perhaps Unseelie held a slight advantage in numbers, but it was met and matched by the power of Seelie martial prowess and discipline…it must have been a brave sight indeed. I daresay, the angels in heaven themselves stopped and looked down to witness the sight.
“And here, Bryon, is where you and your ancestors come in. The lords and ladies (oh yes, the ladies of the courts did not shun battle, you may be sure) of Seelie Court all rode Raithen, what we call elvensteeds today. But no elvensteed would ever allow aught of Unseelie to ride them, so the lords and ladies of Unseelie rode pookas into battle, whether the pookas wished it or no. They were aligned with Unseelie, and must obey their lieges, you see. While not as fast as the elvensteeds, they were far superior in intelligence, and ferocious warriors in their own right.
“So, at the appointed hour, the silvery clarions of Seelie rang out, echoed by powerful blasts from the deep voiced battle horns of Unseelie, and the two great armies moved out, crossing the mile of open land between them in a heartbeat and each smashing headlong into the line of the opposing army. The crash of that meeting shook the continent.
“It was a disaster. The armies were too evenly matched for one to prevail over the other. The battle magics of each side essentially cancelled each other out, and while Unseelie had fielded a slightly larger army, Seelie had the vantage in discipline and skill of arms. And so they remained locked in pitiless battle for three days and two nights. Great was the slaughter, as a million petty insults and quarrels were redressed. Finally, as the sun set on the third day, the two kings met on the battlefield. But as their retinues of fell warriors approached one another, a great and terrible thing happened.
“Suddenly, out of thin air, the queens of both courts appeared between the approaching lines: of Unseelie, Maeve—more beautiful than the starriest new moon night, and of Seelie, Gloriana—glorious as the brightest, sun-drenched day. Each held a dagger to the throat of the other.
“In one voice, so powerful that every being on the entire battlefield heard each word they spoke, they cried “Hold, great kings! For love of your queens and your peoples, hold! Whosoever should slay another, that court’s queen shall die, followed by her sister queen, who shall slay herself for shame.”
Then Gloriana spoke, and the power of her voice rolled across the battlefield. “Great Alberich, two sons and a daughter have I lost on this field in the heat of battle. I say, no more!”
Then Maeve also spoke. “Owen, my king and my husband, our only son has been sacrificed on the altar of hatred and wounded dignity. I, too, say it: no more!” All the while, each held a dagger in white knuckled hand to the throat of the other.
Both Kings paused, recognizing the mortal danger to their well loved wives, and looked about them. Full two thirds of the armies they each had fielded lay dead upon the plain, heaped up in windrows of death, and picked at by a great multitude of carrion crows and vultures. Everywhere they looked, they saw the shattered bodies of their kindred, and the sight smote their hearts. As one, they doffed their helms, dismounted, and approached their queens and wives where they stood, daggers still in hand.
“Be at peace, great queens both, and mothers of your people. No more blood shall Seelie shed this day.” Alberich’s voice was gentle, his reason finally restored.
“Your word upon it, Alberich,” snapped Maeve, her dark eyes hard and bright as obsidian. “No less shall abate your wife’s mortal danger.”
“Likewise, Owen! Nothing less than a binding oath from each will place your wife’s wellbeing in your hands.” Gloriana’s face was pale and hard as she glared at the king of Unseelie.
“The two kings looked at each other and shrugged helplessly, knowing they had been outmaneuvered. And so, great and binding oaths were sworn by all who remained upon the field and the daggers were withdrawn at last from the throats of the gallant ladies. For three days after were the bodies of the slain burned there on the field, and the hurts of the wounded healed. Neither Queen rested nor left the field till the last of the dead were burned and buried, and the smallest hurt bound up. And so ended the War of the Courts.”
“Whoa…that’s amazing. So…what’s this got to do with me?”
“Many kinds of the Kin were devastated in the war. All the dryads for the elm trees, for instance, were killed. While it wasn’t quite as bad for your kind, it was bad enough—a mere handful survived, and of those many more died from wounds that were seemingly minor and should have healed, but their spirits were wounded, you see. Given that, they were released from their vassalage and declared themselves neutral, aligned to neither side. They withdrew, and very little has been seen of them since. And forever after, Seelie and Unseelie have held to an elaborate system of dueling to resolve conflicts, allowing for the avoidance of mass bloodshed.”
“So…you said I was a valuable commodity to Braewynn? I'm not sure I see it.”
"The lords and ladies of Unseelie have missed their mounts, Bryon. They want them back. If Braewynn could break you and force an oath of allegiance from you, it would give Unseelie a toehold on the neutrality of the rest of your people - a place to start reasserting their claim, so to speak."
"So could I challenge Braewynn to a duel over this? I mean, I could see being kidnapped, held against my will and threatened with torture being an insult."
“Unfortunately, no. You’re nonaligned, and that means you have no standing for a challenge."
“Hmm…ok.” I sat for a moment and thought, getting more depressed by the minute. “Ok, Ralph, thanks for the information. I guess I’d better get going. Thanks for having me over.”
“You don’t want our help? I thought that was why you came over here, Bryon.”
“Well…yeah…it would be helpful and all…but, I don’t want to drag you guys into my problems.”
“I think it would be helpful if Peter and Sandy joined us, and we talked this over, don’t you? There may be options you haven’t considered.”
Reluctantly, I sat back on the sofa as he rose from the wing-back chair and headed out into the house. I heard a door open somewhere on the same floor, and Ralph’s voice, speaking too quietly for me to tell what he was saying.
Just then, Peter sauntered into the room. “Hey, where’s Ralph? You guys done talking?”
“Naw,” I said. “He’s out there somewhere talking to Sandy. You might as well stay…he wanted all three of us to talk for a little while.”
“Oh, I see. All right, then…mind if I sit next to you?” Without waiting for an answer, he crashed down next to me on the sofa, which creaked alarmingly. “Damn, gotta remember to go easy on all this old furniture. I don’t know why Ralph and Sandy insist on buying all this old, used stuff when they could get brand new furniture. And it’s not like they even pay less for this old stuff.”
I grinned at him. “Well, I don’t know exactly, but I guess they call the old stuff antiques, and…”
Just then, Ralph came back into the room, trailed by Sandy, who'd changed out of the khakis and button-down he'd been wearing earlier and was wearing a pair of sweats and a muscle shirt. I shook my head a little—damn! He was just as beautiful as a boy as he was as a girl. Some people have all the luck.
After sitting back down in the wing-back chair, with Sandy sinking onto a big hassock next to him, Ralph looked at me, and then at the other two.
“I think it’s time for Bryon to learn what we really are. He’s got a problem that he’s going to need a little help with, and he needs to know that we can help him, I think.”
The other two nodded. The change in Sandy was instantaneous—one moment he was sitting there on the big foot stool, looking like a very hot guy, but definitely human. The next, his humanity melted away and I realized he was a lios alfar, a light elf…the kind that ruled Seelie court as the Drow did Unseelie. Fuck…this was getting weirder by the moment.
But that was not the end of the surprises, because next to me, Peter reached into the neck of his shirt and fished out a gold necklace with a big, red, stone pendant, and lifted it over his head; suddenly he changed, too…still enormous, but suddenly much less human. His mouth was huge and filled with big, triangular teeth that looked like a shark’s and he had a red, knit hat on his head…he was a redcap. Finally, almost numb with astonishment, I looked over at Ralph and he’d changed as well—his eyes burned red, and long sharp fangs stuck down from his upper jaw, the tips just visible against his lower lip. His skin was dead white and seemed to glow just a little.
“Umm, ok…I’d love to show my true colors too, but I’d have to borrow a bathtub to do it,” I stammered. “I guess you’ll have to take my word for it—I’m a pooka.”
“Wow,” said Sandy, “that’s amazing. Been a long time since one of you guys have been around. Not since the war, as I recall.”
“Indeed, Sandy…and that’s what lies at the heart of Bryon’s problem.”
“Oh? Maybe we should hear more about this. Why don’t you fill us in, Bryon?”
So I told the whole sorry tale again, keeping it simple and to the point. I wasn’t looking for sympathy from these guys, after all.
Ok, I was, but I didn't want to sound like I was.
“Hmm…convergence of interests, eh Ralph?” Sandy looked seriously at his friend.
“Oh yeah. I was thinking the same thing as he was telling me about his encounter with the pimp.”
“The pimp? You mean Braewynn? I guess that shouldn’t surprise me…but why are you guys interested in him?”
Peter spoke up then, and there was a hard edge to his deep, gravelly voice. “He’s been doin' things we don’t like. He steals little kids and sells ‘em to whoever can pay his prices. Makes movies and stuff of ‘em, too. It’s not right, Bryon!”
“Well put, Slider.” There was a dangerous quietness to Sandy’s voice. I remembered how much the light elves loved children, then. I’d heard it was because they had so few of their own. “We’d love to put that bastard out of business.”
“And it’s our intention to do so…but we have to have enough evidence, and he’s a sly one.The rules of court don’t allow for a challenge over anything that involves only humans. We were going to go to Seelie court with a complaint when we had solid evidence against him, and hope to initiate action against him that way. But…” Ralph’s voice faded on the word, and Sandy cut in.
“But now we may not have to. We can solve our problem and yours too, with one action. But you’re going to have to be willing to work with us on this, Bryon.” Sandy still looked calm and composed, but I could hear the excitement behind the façade.
“Um…’work with you’? What would that involve, exactly?”
“Well, I think you’d need to stay here for a couple of days while we pull something together. If Braewynn got a hold of you again, it’d be bad.”
I sighed. I knew what that meant. When would I realize that good things don't last? “Okay,” I said wearily. “Which one of you do I have to sleep with to get your help? Or is it all of you?”
There was a moment of stunned silence. I looked around, and they were all looking at me like I’d sprouted a third head.
“What? You think I don’t know the score? Help doesn’t come for free, does it? I’m an adult, and I pay with what I got.”
“Oh, Bryon…” Sandy murmured.
“Three of us in this room are adults,” Ralph said sharply, “though Slider is still rather young. You, on the other hand, are not an adult. The help we offer is entirely free. If you don’t wish to accept our help, you are free to refuse it and there will be no retaliation. If you choose to accept it, there will be no strings attached to it, nor will there be any talk of ‘repayment’. Is that clear, young man?”
“Hey!” I flared. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a kid, got it? I know how it works. Nothing is for free. You say ‘no strings’? I say, bullshit: everything’s got strings—some are just longer than others.”
“Don’t be talkin’ to Ralph like that, Bryon. I don’t like it much,” rumbled Slider.
“Wait, Slider. Ralph, calm down,” Sandy cut in. “He’s right, you know. He deserves to know our terms, even if he put it a little crudely.” Turning to me, he continued, “Here’s what we’re talking about, Bryon. We are offering you haven and hospitality until this matter is resolved. This means you will be our houseguest, if you choose to be. We feed you, give you a place to sleep and, if necessary, clothe you. We keep you safe. You are involved in the planning process of any actions we take. In return, you share your information about our enemy, and agree to at least consider cooperating with our plans. We, none of us, may touch you in a sexual way while you dwell under this agreement, even should you wish us to. All this on our honors.”
“On your honor? What, like the boy scouts? That’s whack!” I glared at Sandy, who was suddenly looking shocked.
“I will make allowance for you, boy, because you don’t know, and because you have been among humans too long. Honor, for one such as I, is not an easy concept that is put on and taken off like a pair of underwear, as it is among humans. Honor is what I am. I would die or kill to defend the verity of my honor. Do not forget this!” Deep anger burned in the green eyes he turned on me.
“Ok, ok, dude! Chill out. I didn’t know. And I accept your offer. Am I allowed to leave the house?”
“The house is heavily protected, and will withstand anything short of an all out assault by our enemies. It is the safest place for you right now. Should you leave it, we’ll try to keep you safe, but it will be a lot harder. Still, we can't stop you if you really want to leave.”
“Ok. I get it. Stay in the house if I want to be safe.”
“I think that’s enough for tonight,” Ralph said. “Bryon has agreed to be our ally in this problem. There’s a comfortable bed in the guest room where you can sleep, Bryon. Why don’t you try to get some rest? We’ll talk more about this tomorrow.”
The big clock out in the hall had chimed one am a few minutes ago, and I was worn out. I nodded, and yawned hugely.
“Slider, perhaps you could show Bryon to his room?” Ralph’s voice was warm and friendly, letting me know the conversation of a moment ago was not a problem.
Sandy rose and stepped up to me, but carefully did not touch me. “It’s good to have you with us, Bryon. I think we’ll lick this problem.”
“Good as done, man!” I smiled at the pale elf. “Who’s gonna stand a chance against four such chill dudes as us?” I turned and followed Peter, hoping I was fooling someone with my bravado. It wasn’t working for me, in any case.