Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
by AJ

Chapter 6

I awoke suddenly, to the feel of Peter's hand on my shoulder. "Come on," he rumbled. "Sandy says it's time."

I nodded, and followed him out of the room, down the stairs and into the parlor, where all the furniture had been removed and the rug rolled back to expose the hardwood floor. What the rug had hidden was a large circle of dark red wood inlaid into the blond hardwood of the floor, and inside this dark red circle, another circle of shining golden runes seemed to float slightly above the floor. Sandy, still in human seeming, stood on the other side of the circle from me, and Peter stepped away from me to the left side of the circle, opposite where Ralph stood at my right.

"Brothers, we seek to know another who would join us in clan kinship, and to be known by him. Do we all seek this of our own will, freely and without coercion?"

"Aye," Peter and Ralph said together, in almost one voice. As I watched, a slight brightening of the runes ran all the way around the circle, the whole circle flared slightly as the brightness finished its round, and then the whole thing settled to its previous muted glow.

"Bryon, what you see before you is a Circle of Truth. If you agree to be bound by it as we have, you will be unable to speak falsehood or to prevaricate on any question placed before you, even as we cannot. Nothing less than absolute truth will pass your lips while bound to this circle, nor will dishonest thought be allowed. Will you be so bound?"

"I will," I said steadily. Now that I had made the decision, it was time to get on with this. The moment I said it, a deep chime rang in my mind, and I knew that my answer had been noted by the spell, and I was now bound to its power.

"Very well, then.The time for acceptable seemings is past, brothers. In this place of truth, we should be what we are and no less." With that, Sandy shed his human mask and stood proudly in his elven self...and naked. I don't know why that was such a surprise to me - wouldn't we all be naked to each other in just a moment, in far more important ways than just our bodies? Still, I was a little taken aback. I suppose it had to do with exposing my body to so many over time, and wanting to preserve something of myself from that. But this was not the time for holding back. I kicked off my shoes and stripped out of my clothes, to stand naked in front of them.

Strider had removed his amulet and the rest of his clothes, and stood in the all together to my left. His hugely muscled frame was covered with hair, almost fur, and his wide mouth hung slightly open, revealing row upon row of razor teeth. He smiled a little at me, but I knew his intent and didn't shudder.

Ralph, meanwhile, had also removed his clothing and his human guise. He was taller and more slender, and his skin shone white and faintly luminescent. His hair was even more wild than usual, and grew part way down his spine in a sort of mane. His pupils glowed crimson and feral, and I could see the hunger that he always fought in that burning redness.

It was at that moment that I realized there was a presence at my back. I glanced back and saw a huge, black, four-legged shadow looming over me - Dubhain, come to stand at the circle. I wouldn't stand alone in this trial, it seemed, and that was a comfort.

"In a moment," Sandy said, drawing my attention back to the business at hand, "I will start the incantation of opening that is also the opening sequence of the Clan binding. When the incantation is complete, each of us will experience the lives of all the others in the circle. It will not play out before us as if it were a movie: we will experience it first hand, and know all the pain and disappointment, the joy and triumphs that have made each of us what we are. Are there any questions?"

There was a moment of silence. Each of us knew that we had come too far for questions, at this point.

"Very well, then. Let us begin."

I'd never heard an elf sing before, let alone one who was reckoned to be among the best of his kind. It made my heart pound in my ears, and I could feel his voice resonating in my bones. There were times when I could swear I wasn't hearing his voice with my ears at all, but that my soul was receiving the sound directly. As he sang the opening phrases, Sandy began to glow a pale golden color. As his voice soared through the ensuing sections, the color grew deeper and stronger, till it shone out of his whole body and it seemed that his flesh became translucent with the building power. At the same time, it seemed that he was standing in a whirlwind that effected only him, as his hair rose and swirled about his head and his lifted arms.

I was transfixed, fascinated by the purity and beauty of his voice, unrestrained as it was by the removal of his human seeming. I don't know how long it took him to sing all the parts of the spell, but it seemed to go on and on, with definite sections and parts all interweaving, with themes disappearing and reappearing seemingly at random, but always blending into a complete wholeness. Finally, after a long, crescendo-ing series of phrases, he finished. There was one moment of perfect, crystalline silence, and then it happened.

The year was 978 a.d. Hakam the Second ruled in Cordoba, and the land was at peace, save in the north where the remnants of the christian kingdoms battled on. Abduraman was young, handsome and in love with his beautiful wife, Relillia. They had been married only 2 months before, in their native city of Toledo. Both of their fathers were craftsmen in the guild of arms makers, and their future looked bright.

In the fall of that year, a man came to the father of Abduraman to commission a blade. He was willing to pay a handsome price, and so the blade was crafted, and Abduraman given the task of delivering it. The terms of the sale specifically stated that the delivery must happen after nightfall, and so it was that the young man walked through the streets of the city in the darkness, finally reaching the home of the patron in a wealthy section of the city.

Tapping at the gate of the compound, Abduraman was admitted to the courtyard and ushered into the house. It was there that he met the man who had commissioned the blade: Ibn Al-hamid, a notoriously reclusive scholar and merchant prince of the city.

In a beautifully appointed sitting room, Ibn asked to see the blade he had purchased. Abduraman carefully unwrapped the swaddling cloths around it, and then displayed it to the man, offering him the hilt that he might try its balance. The man commented favorably on its exquisite workmanship, and the delicate balance it possessed. Then, stepping closer to Abduraman, he suddenly stiff-armed the young man back against the wall and then drove the sword through his shoulder, pinning him to the wall. As the young man screamed in agony, Ibn stepped closer yet, gripped Abduraman's hair in one hand and yanked his head back. Without a word, he bent his mouth to the young man's exposed neck and suddenly elongated teeth sheared through Abduraman's skin and into the large arteries and veins of his throat; blood fountained out of the severed vessels, gushing into the open mouth of Ibn, who drank deeply and ruthlessly of the young man's vitality.

When Abduraman's blood was nearly drained, and his heart fluttered at the ragged edge of failure, Ibn carefully opened a vein in his own wrist and set the young man's mouth to it, instructing him to drink. He did, and so set out on a journey that would be both long and unexpected. It began the next night when he woke in Ibn Al-Hamid's bedchamber, and learned the way of a master vampyre with his subordinates. It was both horrifying and fascinating to the young muslim, who had heard of such things but never imagined he would be involved in them. Strangely, he learned something of himself in that time.

On a certain night two months later, having been deliberately starved by his master and gripped by an extremity of hunger, Abduraman returned to his home and slaughtered his wife Relillia, her father and mother, and his own father who happened to be there when he arrived. Sated on their blood, he slept. Awakening, he realized what his blood madness had brought him to and fled the city, wandering for many years through medieval europe. He never escaped the guilt and pain of his first kills, and lived a life overshadowed by this pain, a life apart from his people.

Even as I lived the incident in moorish Iberia, my consciousness split and I became another, this one a young elf.

"Mother, I must leave. I have brought dishonor to our House, and though I count it no dishonor to love, those who have power over us do not agree. I would not see my own dishonor stain you."

"Sandellifer, you are the child of my body, my only son. What do I care for the rantings of witless old men when they would separate us? You will never be a source of dishonor to me - you know this to be true. Love whom you will, but stay and be a knight of Agryvaine."

"You know that I cannot. Already the challenges have begun, as word of my liaison with Alreid spreads. I can defeat these challengers, but how many must I fight? Will I fight duels every day for the rest of my life?"

"In time, the furor will pass. What of Alreid? Why does he not stand at your side?"

"Ah, well...Alreid...has decided that his path lies elsewhere and declares that he was the victim of coercion. I will not honor the lie with a defense. If one of us must be dishonored in the eyes of the Court, let it be me. He is not strong, Mother. He could not bear it."

"So be it, though saying it rends my heart. What will you do?"

"I will seek other lands, and other peoples. Perhaps somewhere I will find tolerance and peace, a place where the dominion of the Lios Alfar holds no sway."

"I would gainsay you if I could, my son, but you are a man grown. I have taught you all the skills of sword and magic that I posses - they must suffice to keep you alive in whatever strange places you find yourself. Though we speak of it not often, know that you have your mother's love, respect and care, and do not hesitate to call on me should you find yourself in need. I will not fail to answer, you may be sure. Know also that the hearth and threshold of Agryvaine are always open to you, should you decide to return."

To his mother's shock and bemusement, the young elf stepped forward and clasped her close in his arms, embracing her long and tightly. When he loosened his grip, he moved back a little and placed a single kiss on each of her cheeks.

"Good bye, Mother." Without a look back, the disgraced young knight walked out into the courtyard, mounted the charger his mother had given him all those years ago, and rode out of the fortress. At the border of Faerie, he turned his mount loose, knowing it would return to his mother's castle, and set out on foot. He would arrive in human lands some time later, and begin a life apart from his people.

And even as I lived out the disgrace and self-exile of the young elf, my mind was split a third way, and...

He howled in pain, but submitted to the beating laid upon him by the ruler of his motley. He had failed to bring home food yet again, and he deserved to be beaten for his failing. But even as the chief of his motley beat him with a cudgel and kicked his body when he fell down, the pain in his heart nearly eclipsed the agony of broken ribs and fractured limbs. He knew that no matter how he was beaten, or how much food he brought to the motley, he was changed, and no longer belonged. An irrevocable change had happened to him, though he'd hardly noticed it at the time. He knew that he could not accept the offer of the older female of the other motley to take him as mate, not though his chief commanded it. He had another, a human male - the shame of it tore at him even as he was beaten viciously - and there could be no one else, though it cost him everything.

When at last the beating ended, and his chief asked him in a quiet voice if he planned to bring honor to his motley by accepting the older female's suit, he stared at his chief, the father of the motley, the one who held the power of life and death over him, and denied him.

"Then you are no longer of us. I name you stranger, and I cast you from among us. Go, and do not return lest you nourish the tribe with your body," the chieftain growled. One by one, all who had gathered to witness turned their backs on him, and he was alone - bereft of comfort, and already dead in his own mind. Undone. He left, slinking away to what he expected to be his death, but instead became the beginning of a life apart from his people.

All these events and a great multitude more I lived through, experiencing the lives of the other three. Dimly, somewhere far away, I was aware of tears leaking from my eyes and dripping from my chin to the floor.

Finally, having seen all there was of each one, I surfaced back into my own mind. Overwhelmed by the pain I had experienced in Sandellifer's shame, Slider's despair, and Ralph's guilt, I fell to the floor, sobbing in misery. How could they stand it?

As I lay there, lost in misery and pain, I almost missed the gentle, supporting strength that rose from within me. The voice in my mind was unmistakable, though - the deep, rough voice of Dubhain.

"Come brother, they have shown us all. Now you must be strong and show them your face, standing on your own legs. Come, stand up."

From somewhere, I found the strength to stand and turn to the three of them - still naked, still in their fey, true selves. I didn't see them as I had before, though. They were no longer a strange grouping, an oddity that might be able to offer me help. I saw them as a unity, three who had suffered terribly and taken the strength from it to forge the bonds that I saw between them now: a golden light arcing from one to the other, weaving in and about them till they were surrounded by bands of light.

As I stood and stared at them, the light surrounding them began to fade, and soon I was looking at three men, naked and unembarassed, and all looking at me sadly. There was something else on each of their faces, but I didn't recognize it. I hadn't seen much compassion in my life.

Finally, Sandy broke the silence. "I imagine you're a bit tired, Bryan. You should go and get some sleep. You'll have the next three days to contemplate what you learned, and then we shall need your answer and inform you of our decision as well. But, that's for another day. For now, a few hour's sleep, I think."

I nodded and started out of the room towards the stairs and up to my little bedchamber on the third floor. As I gripped the doorknob, I paused and looked back. I felt my heart lurch with longing at what I saw.

The three of them - elf, vampyre and redcap - stood in a tight group in the middle of the room. All of them had their arms about each other, sharing warmth and strength. I heard deep, hiccuping sobs from Slider, as the other two stroked his hair and kissed him, sharing the comfort of their presence.

'I could have that,' I thought briefly. 'All I have to do is reach out for it, and it's mine.' With that, I left them there and went to bed.