Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
by AJ

Chapter 4

I awoke the next morning in a strange room. When my eyes opened, instead of open sky and birds singing, there was silence, and a white plaster ceiling, elaborately molded with a geometric leaf pattern. I felt like I was lying on a cloud, and the voluminous white bed linens reinforced the feeling.

From my place on the bed, I glanced around the room. There were two leaded glass windows letting in the morning sunlight. They seemed to have an odd, random design of glass shards with a strange pattern of lead connecting them. I tried to make sense of the pattern, but there didn’t seem to be any. It seemed to compel my attention, and I found myself getting out of bed to walk over to the closest window and look at it more closely. As I was reaching out  to touch the smooth glass, there was a knock at the bedroom door.

“Come in,” I yelled, my attention still focused on the window. I heard the door open as I was reaching out to trace the patternlessness of the glass.

“Don’t touch that!” Sandy’s voice rang across the room, and a moment later I felt his grip on my arm, pulling me back. The distraction seemed to break the fascination I’d felt for the window, and I shook my head, bewildered.

“The windows are warded, Brian. Watch this.” Sandy took a pencil out of the breast pocket of his shirt, and with a single smooth, overhand gesture, threw the pencil at the window. When the point struck the glass, there was a crackle of energy and the pencil rebounded violently, whistling across the room to bury itself point first in the wall opposite. Sandy smiled thinly and pulled the pencil out of the plaster.

“Breakfast is ready, and I don’t know how long Peter is going to wait for us,” he said. I nodded, pulled on a pair of socks and, still wearing the sweats they’d given me to sleep in, followed him out of the room.

Downstairs, breakfast was as good as I’d hoped it would be. Peter had been right—no disloyalty to Mike’s, of course—but the crisp bacon, basted eggs and perfect toast were in a different class. I had all of that and a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar. I heard the horse practically moaning inside my head. Gotta do nice things for my buddy once in awhile, you know.

Over breakfast, Sandy filled me in on how the day would go. He had some errands to run this morning, and would be gone for several hours. Ralph was upstairs asleep, of course. Slider would be home, but was going to be busy working on his homework—he was working on earning his GED, apparently. I shot him a surprised look and he scowled and nodded.

“Sandy’s idea,” he commented. “Says I can’t be an uneducated dolt all my life. I told him I’d done all right up to this point, but he wasn’t buying it.”

“What you won’t do for a brother, eh?” I said.

“That’s the truth of it, Bryon. I owe these guys my life, you know. I’d do anything for them.”

I nodded, not knowing what the hell he was talking about, but I made a note to myself to ask more about that later. So they took off to do whatever they were going to do, and I found myself at loose ends. I read a magazine for a little while, but it was all just political crap, and I got bored pretty fast. So I decided to do a little exploring in the house. I figured it made sense to start at the bottom of the house and work my way up, so I took myself off to the basement to get started.

I found the stairs to the basement behind a small door off the kitchen. I’d sort of thought the basement would be all cement floors and exposed beams holding up the floor above, but I should have known better. The floor of the room I stepped into was hardwood, with really big Persian looking rugs laid over it. The walls had dark wood panels up to about waist height, and a chair rail above that, and a dark faux finish of several shades of red on up to the silver-gray ceiling. I know…sounds strange doesn’t it? But it worked. I was a little envious of the person who came up with that idea.

There were two big rooms down there, with a wall that cut the basement in half. One seemed to be for storage and laundry, with a small half-bath, and the other was larger with a huge TV and a state-of-the-art sound system. There was a CD collection in a rack next to the sound system, and I read the titles: Mahler, Bach, Dvorak, Chopin, Debussy…not a Korn album to be seen. Damn!

I left the music undisturbed and walked over to the piano that stood against one wall across the room from the TV. I let my fingers plunk down on a couple of keys, then moved on. The front of the piano said Bosendorfer…I’d never heard of it.

I wandered into the second room: work bench against one wall, laundry machines against the back wall, half-bath in the middle. Nothing terribly interesting…until I walked past the bathroom. From the opposite wall, the one that divided the basement into two rooms, I felt a tingle. What the hell was that? Felt like wards of some kind, but pretty weak. What would need to be warded down here? I walked over to the wall, and about two feet from it, felt the all-over tingle that happens when you walk through a warding that is letting you in.

On the other side of the ward, the wall looked considerably different than it did from outside the ward…it had a built in glamour to fool the eye. Set into the wall was a beautiful door, arched across the top and hung on elaborately wrought silver hinges, with a large silver knob that gleamed like the moon in the low light of the basement. I was fascinated. I thought for a moment about the fact that I hadn’t been invited to just barge in wherever I wanted, but then I remembered—“haven and hospitality.” Surely that covered opening strange doors in my host’s basement. And I was pretty sure it just opened into the other room anyway, though I hadn’t noticed the door from the other side when I was in the other room.

So I reached out and grasped the doorknob and turned it, pulling it to me. The door swung out noiselessly, and immediately I smelled a light floral aroma, and the scent of wet grass.

Nothing could have prepared me for what was on the other side of that door. When I first looked in, I literally couldn’t breathe for a moment.

It was a garden…how inadequate the word is to describe what I saw. A full moon rode high over the grounds, drenching the entire scene in silvery light. The evening star, beloved by the lios alfar, shone gently in the opposite quarter of the night sky. In front of me, a shining white peacock strutted and shimmered its feathers, letting out its haunting cry. Further away, across a wide sward, near the edge of a wood, white deer with golden antlers dipped their heads and fed on the verdant grass. A small lake, its surface littered with lilies, lay to my left. In front of me stood a small and delicately arching gazebo, with two opposing couches taking up much of its floor space. I smelled jasmine and night blooming gentians on the slight breeze. It was altogether enchanting, and I stood in awe for long moments and just let my eyes soak in the wonder of this totally unexpected gift. For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of peace steal over me, overcoming my worries and doubts about all the problems that existed on the other side of the door I’d come through.

I walked hesitantly over to the gazebo and sat down on one of the sofas, a strange sense of lassitude coming over me. I felt every hour of the stress and worry of the last week pressing down on me, and I suddenly could hardly keep my head up or my eyes open. Standing, I wandered toward the lily pond and stood awhile, watching koi the size of my arm rise to the surface and dip back down, leaving rings of slowly expanding ripples behind them. It was as I was standing there, watching the rings of ripples disperse and reappear, that I saw movement on the lawn out of the corner of my eye, and slowly turned my head.

A tall, cloaked figure was striding toward me, across the grass. Undisturbed, the deer continued to graze as it passed by them, moving aside minutely and then dropping their heads to graze again. I knew I should be alarmed at being approached by this stranger, but I couldn’t seem to muster up the energy to feel anything in particular except an abstracted kind of curiosity.

The stranger strode up to me, and stopped about five feet away. I couldn’t make out any features under the drape of the figure’s enveloping cloak, so I simply stood silently and waited to see what would happen.

For a long moment, the stranger stood motionless and simply looked at me. Finally, two finely boned and pale hands emerged from within the depths of the almost robe-like cloak, rose to the hood and cast it back. An elven woman stood before me, and if my feydar had been doing backflips when I met Ralph and his brothers, now it was doing a full floor routine. Even through the somnolence of the garden, I felt a tingle of power run through me. She seemed to radiate potency, and I knew if she’d meant me harm, I’d already be dead. I kept quiet and tried to look unruffled.

“For one hunted by such as Braewynn you take very rash chances, young pooka. Still, it is a delight to my eye to see one of your kind after the long years. Your tribe has been missed among the Kin.”

“Lady,” I said—it seemed her rightful title—“who are you? Have you known other pookas, then?”

“You are as abrupt as a human, boy. Shall I school you in manners? Very well…a gentleman would show me to a seat on yon couches, to start.” Her words, while severe, carried such a tone of light amusement that I smiled and offered my arm. She delicately laid one pale hand on it and I led her to the gazebo, settled her on one of the couches, then stood awkwardly in front of her, not knowing what to do next. She gracefully gestured to a spot next to her, and I sat down.

“While it is not my name, you may call me Elenore. It has no power of calling over me, but perchance should I hear it called on the breeze by one such as you, I might be moved to respond, young sir. Thrice only may you use it.”

Even someone as unschooled as I was recognized that for the gift it was. I bowed my head, and thanked her humbly.

“Attend, young pooka, for we have many things to discuss. Our time is short, for Braewynn feels your presence in the midlands even now.”

“The midlands?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“This garden is located not in your world, but in the lands between your world and the worlds of the elder folk. There is much magic here, and your presence in this place creates a ripple, much like the koi in the bourne, yonder. If the one who seeks you is alert, and I assure that your foe is indeed so, he will detect your presence here by that ripple. Therefore, we must speak in haste, though it pains me to do so. This is a place for long conversation, is it not? My son has brought a small piece of faerie to him, since he feels he can dwell no longer in our larger domain.”

“Your son, Lady? Who are you talking about?”

“Sandellifer, of course. Has he not mentioned me? What a rude child he is!” Her low but clear laughter rang out over the garden. “I jest, young sir. Sandellifer is in all ways a most excellent wight, though I be his mother who say it.”

I nodded, a little bewildered.

“But now we must become serious, for time passes even in this place. A storm gathers about you, young pooka. You have arrived like a cyclone in the ‘midst of a delicately balanced dance of power, and like a cyclone, you are a wild and unknown element. None know where you shall strike, and uncertainty is despised among the older and greater powers. Many eyes are upon you.”

“Me?” I choked out. “But why? I’m nothing, a nobody. Who would care what happens to me?”

“Do not deceive yourself, child. Few care about you—they concern themselves only with the change that you may beget. Precious few shall stand with you on the day of your proving, but those who do shall be dear friends indeed. Do not forget the risk they take in aiding your cause—it is no small thing they undertake.”

I nodded, a little humbled. It crossed my mind for the first time that the three who had agreed to be my allies could just as easily have let me attack Braewynn alone, then challenged him when he was weakened from defeating me…if it weakened him at all.

“Meaning no disrespect, Lady Elenore, but why have you come here to tell me these things? What do you stand to gain from it?”

“Ah,” she said, and smiled at me. “So the child is not entirely without reason and caution. Very good, young sir. The Sidhe give nothing without reason, and I have mine, which I believe I shall not share with you at this time. Suffice to say that you are allied with my son in this endeavor that you undertake; a mother’s concern moves me to ascertain your nature, and I find it to my liking. Though you have lived a desolate life heretofore, it has taught you many things, and this pleases me. And so, I am minded to aid you in some small way, for both his sake and yours.”

“Lady Elenore,” I asked hesitantly, “Are you a queen? Why don’t you stop Braewynn yourself, if he is a danger to your son?”

“You flatter me, young sir. Nay, not a queen, but the lady of an ancient and honorable house. I am Duchess of the realm of Agryvaine, and armsmistress to the Hame Dusksong. I am constrained, by great and binding oaths I undertook at the end of the great war, against moving directly against your foe, though I should be pleased to do so were I able. A debt exists between us, he and I.”

I nodded, knowing that would be all I would get.

“Now our time in this place is ended. I ask that you grant me a boon, young sir. Should you do so, it shall not be forgotten by me and mine for a very long time. It is a simple request: I shall give you a thing that I wish you to carry with you at all times, never letting it leave your person, until this matter is resolved. On my honor, it will offer you no harm. Are we agreed on this?”

I knew, I knew, even as I knew that I was going to agree to her terms, that I was making a mistake. She’d said it herself—the sidhe give nothing without a reason. Still, I found myself agreeing, and even thanking her as she reached into one side of the cloak and drew out a small leather bag bound with a thong, and passed it to me.

“One last word may I give you, young Bryon, and it is this: Beware the seeming of those whom you have loved. Your foe is tricksome, and he will use the best of you to effect your defeat. Now go, and I will cover your retreat.” With that, she stood suddenly and turned to look at the edge of the meadow behind me. Turning, I followed her gaze and spotted movement in the edge of the trees.

“Go now! Back through the door, and quickly!” She didn’t wait to see if I was obeying, but turned and began to stride across the greensward, toward the dark shapes that were emerging from the trees.

I jumped to my feet and hurried to the door, which was still visible though seeming unconnected to anything at all…just a door in space. As I grasped the knob, I glanced back.

Lady Elenore had abandoned her concealing cloak, and strode across the lawn in full battle armor, it's crystalline surface acrawl with crackling blue light. In one hand she held up a shining globe, and in the other she grasped a long, slender, straight sword.

“Avaunt, unseelie scum! You trespass on Seelie land. Your purpose is discovered, and your foul intention foiled. Begone!” I heard Elenore’s icy cold voice call out as I stepped through the door and closed it gently behind me.

I stood for a few minutes in the basement, leaning against the door and catching my breath. I couldn’t seem to stop shaking, and I felt sick to my stomach. I realized that I still clutched the small leather pouch in my left hand. I was too dazed to even be curious about what it held, and I absently stuffed it in my pocket. Finally, I gathered myself enough to wander over to a sofa and sit down, before I fell down. So simple a thing, to walk through a door and nearly be caught. I knew that without Elenore’s intervention, I’d probably be a guest in Braewynn’s chamber of horrors tonight. Yet another debt owed…they seemed to be piling up.

After long minutes on the sofa, I finally pulled it together enough to stagger upstairs and wander back into the parlor where I'd met with my three hosts earlier this morning. Suddenly, a magazine about politics didn't seem like such a bad idea. I leafed through one of them again, and it wasn't much more interesting this time around than the last time. I sighed, lay down on the soft, overstuffed padding of the sofa and closed my eyes for a moment.

I awoke to the sound of someone singing in the kitchen. I was pretty bleary still, but when I heard the clock in the hall outside the parlor tolling the hours, I counted. 8pm? Damn, that was a power nap, for real.

The voice in the kitchen, which hadn't stopped when the clock started in chiming the hours, suddenly caught my attention again. It was a light and sweet tenor, singing Don McLean's old classic hit, American Pie. Not the soulless rendition that Madonna perpetrated, but the original version, with all the heart intact:

I met a girl that sang the blues,
and I asked her for some happy news,
but she just smiled and turned away.

So I went down to the sacred store
where I'd heard the music years before,
but the man there said the music wouldn't play...

Curious, I gathered myself and stood up, waited for the head rush to recede, and wandered out of the parlor in the general direction of the kitchen, following the voice.

"Hey, there you are, sleeping beauty. I thought I wouldn't be seeing you for a couple more hours. I considered waking you up when I got home, but you looked too cute sleeping, so I let it go." Sandy's voice was light and teasing.

"How could I sleep with all the racket you're making out here?" I said with a smile. "I bet Ralph is upstairs wondering what all the commotion is about."

 Sandy just smiled back and said "Naw...he sleeps like the dead."

The counter top in front of the elf was covered with food...it looked like he'd bought the entire produce section at Safeway: carrots, plantain, starfruit, celery, fresh basil greens. On one side, the raw vegetables and fruit lay in colorful abandon, and on the other, bowls of carefully chopped, shredded and julienned produce rested where the chef had placed them, after making their way across his cutting board. A huge stock pot sat on the stovetop behind the elf, already steaming gently and the source of the mouthwatering odor that had me sniffing appreciatively.

Sandy waved his knife at me carelessly. "Pull up a stool and have a seat, Bryon. We'll chat while I cook, and have a few slurps. "

I just stood and stared for a moment. "Wow, this is amazing, Sandy. I don't think I've ever seen this much food in one place."

"Yes, well...have you ever tried cooking for just three? It's not worth the effort, really. If I'm going to cook, I like to get serious. Besides," he continued, his smile fading, "there's a lot of mouths to feed. In addition to dinner for us, I'm making a couple of pans of lasagna for a drop-in center for gay youth just down the street.  Anything we don't eat will go to them as well, and there are a number of youngsters who come by here for a meal now and again. Nothing will be wasted, you can be sure.

"But enough seriousness...how was your day? Or did you sleep the whole day away?"

I felt a flush of guilt run through me--I knew I was going to have to tell him about going into the garden, but damn, that was one conversation I was not looking forward to. Still, if I'd learned anything in the last few years, it was that anything that looks hard just gets harder if it's put off. So, I sidled up to the counter across from him and leaned against it with one hip. He glanced up at me and flicked a smile at me before turning his attention back to his knife.

"Um...Sandy? Can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure. What's on your mind, Bryon?"

"Well, this is kind of serious. Could we sit down somewhere for a minute?"

He glanced at me, and without a word he set his knife down, wiped his hands on a dish towel, walked out of the kitchen and back down the hall to the parlor, and settled on a settee while I plopped down on the hassock. Now that I was actually doing it, I found it harder to start talking than I had thought it would be. For some reason, I felt like I'd betrayed his trust, and I wasn't liking that feeling at all--not even a little. He sat across from me and just watched me with curiosity, leaning forward a little so I'd know I had his full attention.

"Um...well, this morning...after you left to run your errands and all, I got kinda bored, so I thought I'd explore the house a little, you know? And...well, something kind of happened."

"Kind of happened?" he echoed. "What sort of 'kind of happened' are we talking about?"

"Uh, well..." I paused, and grimaced a moment. This wasn't going particularly well, and I knew it was about to get worse. "Not the good kind, I think."

"Mm. Why don't you tell me the details, and we'll figure it out after that, ok?"

I nodded, and wiped my suddenly sweating palms on my jeans. I glanced up at Sandy, but his face was neutral, waiting for me to continue. Did I say that things put off just get harder? Ignore me when I say things like that, ok?

"So I was kinda bored, and I decided to explore the house. I thought I'd start in the basement and work my way up, y'know? I figured it would be a good thing if I knew the layout of the house, cause ya never know what might happen, right?"

Sandy nodded, letting me know he was still with me, but his expression stayed carefully neutral.

"I wandered around down there for a little while, checking out the CDs, and then I went into the laundry room and checked out the machines and stuff...and I found this door. Which was kinda weird in itself, cause I hadn't noticed it from the other side of the wall, y'know? So I was kinda curious, and I opened it...and it led into this amazing garden place..."

To his credit, Sandy barely reacted to that--just arched an eyebrow at me and nodded for me to continue. So, I poured out the whole tale of my meeting with Lady Elenore, and all the events that followed, until I ended with waking up in this very same parlor and coming out to talk to him.

After I'd petered off into silence, he sat and stared at me for a moment, not saying a word. Somewhere in the telling, he'd shed his human seeming and now, as he got up to pace for a moment, his movements had taken on the inhuman grace of his true kind. He glided up and down the length of the room a couple times, then returned to the settee and settled down on it again. His green eyes were laser intent on my face when he spoke, but his voice was soft and didn't sound angry.

"So you found our back door, and had quite an adventure. Met my mother, eh? That's a meeting I would have paid money to see."

"I never felt like such a goof in my life," I admitted. "She's a little intimidating, isn't she?"

"She is that, and not one particle of it is put on. She's the real deal, boy-o. What you said about feeling like a goof? I still feel that way around her." He smiled a little at that, and I felt just a little bit better.

"But," he continued, "I think there's two more serious issues here. The first is this boon my mother asked of you, which in all fairness, you probably couldn't have turned down. May I see the pouch she gave you?"

I reached into my pocket and dragged it out. It was a small, black leather pouch with a leather drawstring, and a celtic triskeion painted on one side. I held it out for Sandy to take it, but he didn't. Instead he just stared at it for a moment, his eyes going sort of distant.

"Hmm...the bag itself is of human making--the sort of thing that any human with an interest in celtic culture might carry, and consequently won't draw attention from magic users like something made in Faerie might. Whatever is inside has a very passive, low level spell of concealment on it. If I didn't know it was something important, I'd never have noticed it at all. Very clever woman my mother is...unless someone was specifically looking for it, no one would ever know you carried it."

"But what is it?"

"I can't tell without opening the bag, and I'm not inclined to do that. All I can say is that if the Lady asked you to keep it close, I would. I trust her enough to be sure that she won't do anything that would harm us or our cause, and I know there is no love lost between she and Braewynn, so I think it's pretty safe for you to hold onto it."

"Then I will. Thanks for checking it out."

"Now, the last thing we need to talk about is the most serious. You said that she intercepted something or someone coming into the garden, and told you that they were Braewynn's minions, no?"

"Yeah...You should have seen her walking across the lawn, man. I was really glad I was not on the receiving end of that act."

"It wasn't an act, my friend. She's one of the Knight Commanders of Dusksong, and a powerful magic user as well. It would have taken a small army of bad guys to get past her. I know I'd never want to meet her in battle."

I just nodded. I still got the shivers when I thought about her striding across the lawn, sword in hand and challenging the baddies in her ringing voice.

"But the serious issue here is that this means your whereabouts is discovered. Braewynn knows you're here now, and who you're staying with. We'll have to have a conference with Ralph and Peter about this...they'll need to know what's going on."

It was going to be awhile until Ralph was awake, so I went back in the kitchen and helped with dinner. Well, 'helped' is probably the wrong word...I don't know a thing about cooking, and my experience of knives has been mostly as the subject, so I was relegated to washing and ripping salad and putting it in a big bowl. Even so, Sandy made sure to smile and compliment me on the work I was doing. Oddly, I didn't feel he was being condescending. He really thought I was doing good work.

After an hour or so, Peter wandered in and announced that Ralph was awake, and asked when dinner would be ready because he was hungry enough to start thinking about eating a Toyota. Sandy smiled and said it was ready except for a touch or two, and handed Peter a big platter with six roast chickens on it, asking him to carry it to the dining room. He handed me a bowl loaded with greens and asked me to follow Peter, and then come back for more.

By the time Ralph arrived, the table was loaded with bowls, platters and tureens, and the dining room smelled like heaven. There were four place settings at the table, each one with more spoons, forks, knives, glasses and extra plates than I had the slightest idea what to do with.

Before we started eating, Sandy poured some champagne in each of our glasses, and Ralph stood and raised his glass.

"First, to the cook. Second, to new friends..." and here he looked at me. "And finally, to the end of an evil that has needed it for a very long time."

"Hear, hear!" Sandy said, and sipped at his champagne. Peter took a big gulp of his and grinned widely. Ralph sipped his, and then switched to a goblet full of something very dark red and took a healthier swig of it.

I'd never tasted good champagne before, and it was quite a revelation. The flavors burst on my tongue and the bubbles tickled the back of my throat. I couldn't help smiling, and across the table Peter started to chuckle. I didn't feel too badly - he still had a big, goofy smile on his face too.

Dinner was...well, I don't really have the words for it. It was the best food I'd ever experienced. Ever. Nothing else even came in a close second. It took us three hours to eat, and the whole time, Sandy didn't say a word about the incident in the garden, or indicate in any way that he was worried.

Finally, when we'd finished eating, we each grabbed a last glass of wine and took them with us to the parlor. As we found seats and settled down, Sandy turned to Ralph.

"There's been a small change in our situation, and Bryon has another story to tell you. I think you'll enjoy this one as much as I did."

And so I found myself once more the center of attention as I retold the tale of my meeting with Lady Elenore, and watched Ralph's eyes go wide a little when I told the part about the boon. There was moment of silence when I finished, and I could see everyone else thinking about what it all meant.

"As to your meeting with the Lady, I don't know what to think," Ralph said slowly. "It's beyond my knowledge, but I don't think it is ill meant, or that whatever is in the pouch will hurt us or our cause. I think you should do as she asked, Bryon. Keep it close to you, and don't lose it."

I nodded agreement. His advice ran very closely to what I'd already decided.

"Now to the more serious business. Since we've been discovered, this means we need to move up our time line a bit. I'd hoped we'd have more time to discuss the ins and outs of the situation with Bryon so he'd really understand what is involved, but I'm afraid that luxury is gone. We're going to have to move ahead, and hope we don't misstep too badly."

"But that's a lot to expect, Ralph. He hardly knows us."

"I know, but we have to hope that he has seen enough of us to trust."

I sat on the overstuffed settee and felt like a spectator at a tennis match, with Ralph on one side of the net and Sandy on the other. I wasn't sure what they were talking about, but I knew that it somehow involved me, so I was kinda curious. Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut until they'd come to an agreement that was clearly foregone. It seemed that whatever they were talking about was the only way to accomplish what they wanted to do. After a few more minutes, it boiled down to Ralph saying "So, do you want to ask him, or shall I?"

Sandy thought for a moment, and then said "I think I'd best do it. It might work to establish my right more deeply."

Ralph nodded, and waved a hand at Sandy, who turned to look at me. He gazed at me for a long moment, and then started.

"We have spent a great deal of time discussing this, Bryon, and it's the only way we can think of for this to work. The outcome we are looking for is that I will challenge Braewynn to a duel with a specific request that it be to death. In order for me to challenge Braewynn in such a serious way, he must have besmirched my honor as a knight of Seelie Court in some absolute manner. It is not enough that he has offered insult to you and that you asked me to act as your champion, because as a pooka you are officially nonaligned. The only way that this can become my fight is if the insult he offered you becomes as an insult offered to me. Do you follow me so far?"

I was pretty sure I could follow that. It meant that the only honor that counted in matters of dueling were those of members of either Seelie or Unseelie court and that seemed a little off base to me, but what did I know? I was just a renegade pooka, after all. So I nodded, and he went on.

"In addition to matters of court, there is an older system in place which is not practiced as much - well, not very much at all - but is still recognized by all the official powers: clans. Though much of the fey world has aligned themselves with either Seelie or Unseelie, there are a few instances of clan relations that cross the gap between the factions. You might not know it, but you're sitting in this room with one example: the three of us make up a clan all our own, duly recognized by the powers that be on both sides. Slider, as a redcap, is a member of a people who have declared for Unseelie. I, of course, am Seelie and Ralph is nonaligned. Normally this would be a problem, but since we have all claimed clan status, we've reached a solution. The commitment we made to the clan transcends our court allegiances, at least in day to day activities."

I had to think about that for a few minutes. It sounded like a pretty good deal, this clan thing...but if it was, why was it antiquated and why was nobody using it these days? There had to be more that he wasn't saying.

Sandy watched me and smiled. "I can see the doubt on your face, Bryon. If this whole thing is such a good deal, why has the Court system become the power that it is today? There has to be a catch, right?

"Well, there is. And it's a pretty big catch, I'd have to say. Clan is much more to the fey than it is to humans, Bryon. For us to declare clan kinship is to create a magical bond of great strength which can never be revoked once it is in place. It is permanent and inescapable. The only way to dissolve it is in death, and there are some who even question that statement, saying that clan kin are still bound after death. I don't know about that. But it is a very big step, and requires a deep knowledge of the ones you would bind yourself to. The ritual of binding itself involves opening oneself to the others who will share the bond: completely, inside and out. There are no secrets unrevealed, no thought that is not open for review by the others.

"Once the bond is complete, those who are part of the link will always know where one another are. They will feel the resonance of every pain and pleasure, every joy and sorrow that each member feels. They will know everything about one another, from the ground up."

"Jesus! That's what you guys have going on?" I blurted out. "No wonder no one wants to do it these days."

Sandy nodded. "Yes, it's what we, the three of us, share. And I have to tell you, sometimes it's like living without skin. But it works for us, and we're happy this way."

"To each their own, man. But why are you telling me this? What's it got to do with anything?"

Sandy paused, as if searching for the right words. "In order for you, a nonaligned entity, to challenge a member of Unseelie Court, you must have some connection to the Court system. At present, you don't. In a clan, dishonor and insult offered to one is dishonor and insult to all. Membership in a clan that included one who was of Seelie alignment would create that connection for you."

"At the cost of being tied to whoever else is in that clan for the rest of my life, right? And the man said 'no strings attached.' Huh, sounds like some pretty long strings to me."

"And yet," Ralph commented, "we offer it only as a proposition, and the binding works in the other direction equally as completely. Both parties are bound for life. This is the only way that we have been able to come up with for us to execute our intentions."

"During the ritual of binding, there is a period of three days of solitude and silence, in which each member must study what they have learned in the opening of their prospective clan kin," Sandy continued. "Agreement to the final binding cannot be coerced - it must be a free choice on the part of each. What I propose is that we perform the initial ritual of opening tonight, if all are agreeable, and then meditate upon what we all learn, and see if the final binding is what we want."

"Agreed," rumbled Peter.

Ralph tilted his head, looked at his feet and finally agreed as well.

Now they were all looking at me.

"Um...forever? No way to get rid of this thing?" I asked plaintively.

Sandy shook his head firmly. "Forever, Bryon. No going back, no second chances."