Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
The door was locked, of course. Sandy sighed and
cursed under his breath, then laid his hand on the door just above the knob and
murmured about three words. When he tried the handle again, the door opened
easily, and he led the way into the dark foyer of the building.
Inside, I looked around but it looked like any old, abandoned building except for the lack of tagging and other vandalism. When the door closed, the hall went completely dark for a moment, and then a muted light bloomed around us from a small globe that Sandy held in one hand. Looking across the room, I could just make out two doors on the opposite wall, one on each side of a staircase that led up to the second floor, its upper reaches lost in shadow.
Sandy smiled at me and commented, "All very cloak and dagger, isn't it? Still, a portal to Faerie isn't something you can put in Westlake Mall with a big sign over it, right? Let's head up the stairs - the door we want is up there." He started for the stairs, and then paused. "Wait, there's one other thing I need to do. All the proceedings in the Honor Council are conducted in High Elvish - do you speak it?"
"No, never got around to learning that," I said. "Kind of busy, y'know?"
"Yeah. Well, you're going to need to know what's going on, and they might be offended if you don't know the language; I can give you a gift of tongues, if you want. I think it's the easiest solution, unless you want to spend a few decades learning the language first."
I grinned at him and shook my head. "Naw, think I'll pass on that. So what do we need to do?"
"Just hold still a moment, and I'll do it now." With that, he left the globe of light hanging in the air and put one hand on each side of my head, over my ears. He said a few words in a language I didn't know, and I felt a tingle in each ear and at the back of my throat. He pulled his hands away and spoke to me again.
"All right, can you understand what I'm saying?" It sounded like he was speaking english, but at the same time I could hear an echo of a totally foreign language beneath his words.
I nodded, and I could tell my eyes were wide open. He laughed a little at my expression and patted me on the shoulder. "I put a three day limit on it, so after three days you won't understand or speak the language anymore. I can go back in later and make it permanent if you want, but it takes a lot more time. This should work for now." With that, he turned back to the stairs and started up, the little light globe bobbing along in his wake and me right on his heels.
The second floor of the building was equally as dark and dilapidated as the first floor. I followed Sandy down a wide hall, until he stopped in front of a closed door on the right.
"All right, this is it. When we walk through this door, we'll be in the chambers of the Honor Council. Remember your instructions?" He smiled when I nodded. "Good. Let's get this done, then." With that, he grasped the doorknob, opened the door and led the way into the room beyond.
There wasn't any transition. One moment we were in an abandoned, shabby hallway, and the next we were in a large, open, and richly appointed hall. There weren't any walls, just a series of pillars and arches supporting a roof over a stone floor. It seemed to all be built of milky quartz - sort of translucent in places, and solid in others. A series of guards stood in place near the arches, four on each side, all dressed in some kind of uniform: long tunics, tight breeks and mail shirts, with a tabard belted at the waist. Each tabard was black with silver trim, and had a picture of a bird and a star on the chest. They each had a sword and dagger in scabbards at their sides, and a small shield slung across their backs. A few others - all Lios Alfar from what I could see - walked back and forth carrying papers and scrolls, occasionally pausing to confer with each other or with the two elves who sat behind a pair of desks at the far end of the hall. All this activity stopped when we showed up, though. For a moment they all just looked at us, and then slowly went on about their business.
All this I saw in the first seconds, and then my attention was drawn to the two who sat behind the twin desks. Another elf who had been standing between the desks and carried a long staff with a crystal on the head of it stepped forward and called out to us, "Approach, strangers. Make known your names, and state your business with the Council."
Sandy didn't answer, but strode forward with confidence while I followed him with a lot less. I noticed in passing that he had dropped his human glamour and I felt even more gauche as the only human-looking person in the room.
When we stood in front of the twin desks, Sandy bowed deeply to both of those who sat at them, and then rose back to his feet and I could feel him bracing himself.
"I am hight Sandellifer, knight-champion of Dusksong, member in good standing of the Order of the Roseate Blade and heir-apparent to the realm of Agryvaine. I am come to exercise my right of challenge on behalf of this, my clan brother. One there is who has wronged and dishonored him, and I seek to set that wrong to rights, proving the verity of our claim on his body." He'd said the whole thing in one breath, and it had the sound of ritual to it. I wondered how many versions of those same words had been spoken in this hall over the many years.
Though Sandy had remained calm as he had spoken, there was nothing calm about the ringing intensity in his voice, and all activity in the hall had stopped as he declared his intentions. Every eye in the place was focused on him, and there was a moment of silence.
Finally the silence was broken by one of the men behind the two desks at the front of the room. His voice had the same smooth cadences as Sandy's when he spoke in the High Elven tongue, but with a hint of lazy drawl.
"So, Sandellifer ap Agryvaine, you return when once again your muddied honor is called into question. Before last you disappeared, your name was called into question here quite frequently, and by many of good and solid repute. I recall no answer from you to any of it but the acceptance of those challenges. Why should we hear you now?"
"Because despite your questioning, you know that my honor is now, and has ever been, intact. Others have called it into question, and those questions have been dealt with on the field of honorable combat. They required no more answer than that, and well you know it, Lord Torrel." Though Sandy's voice remained calm, I could feel a hint of heat coming over the clan bond. I hoped it was going ok, but it honestly didn't look very good.
Than I did a double take as the challenging lord smiled a little returned to his seat. The elf standing between the desks stepped forward a little.
"My lords, one approaches who requests an audience with Your Graces, one who would present a grievance against his honor. Will you hear his case?"
Lord Torell, who had spoken to Sandy before, leaned forward and looked at us very hard before he spoke. He was a tall, slim man, with golden blonde hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail at the back. His whole demeanor was one of relaxed arrogance, but his blue eyes shone with lively curiosity.
"Yes, I think we will, Madoc. I have a feeling this morning is going to get a lot more interesting before it's over, eh Daindraen?" He looked sharply over at his opposite number at the other desk.
The elf seated there was, in many ways, the opposite of his counterpart. Where Torell was tall and golden, Daindraen was short, heavy and thick. His hair was dark, and cut very short on the sides and only slightly longer on top. His skin, though fair as any Lios Alfar's, showed the effects of time spent under a hot sun and whipping winds - a faint bronzing of his face and hands, all that showed from beneath his long, ceremonial robes. Despite the elaborate robes, he looked hard and tough, like someone who I definitely would not have wanted to meet in a dark alley.
I happened to be looking at Sandy's face when the second Lord's name was mentioned, and I saw his control break for the only time in the whole ordeal. For just a second, he looked absolutely incredulous, and then his guard snapped up tight and he was again impassive, waiting for their response.
Unlike the first Lord, this elf's voice was deep and rough. "We shall see, shan't we, Torell? Bring them forward, Madoc. Who is that puppy dogging Sandellifer's heels?"
Well, this certainly wasn't going much like Sandy had warned me it might. These two were almost casual - what the hell? I almost startled when I felt Sandy's hand on my back, pushing me forward a little.
"My lords, I would introduce to you my squire Bryon, a sealed member of the Clan of the Red Circle. It is he to whom indignity and dishonor has been offered."
"Another stray, eh Sandellifer? By my hope of the Summer Lands, before you're done you'll have taken in every sad and displaced pup in the human lands. So what happened to this one?" Torell's voice was a slow and amused drawl.
I felt Sandy stiffen a little next to me. "Bryon is a brother of strength and spirit, and a valuable addition to the well being of our clan." His voice was crisp, though restrained.
"Don't get offended, young knight. No insult is intended, I'm sure. No doubt he's a lion, though he looks but a pup. You have a way of picking the best even as you're rescuing, as any who have watched you know."
Sandy inclined his head a bit, and murmured "My thanks, my lord." Then he straightened and looked directly at the two of them. "I request the honor of privy council, my lords. I would not have this tale bandied about as common gossip." I saw a quick look of startlement on Torell's face, then it was back to the smooth, glib mask he had worn up to that point. Daindraen glanced over at his companion councillor and then nodded abruptly and stood.
"Come on, then," he rumbled. "We'll use the ready room behind us."
Torell looked amused for a moment as he watched Madoc look about in surprise, then hurry across the floor to precede the burly lord to a door in the wall behind the desks. With almost undignified haste, the seneschal of the Honor Council whipped open the door and stepped aside as Daindraen brushed past him. With a graceful economy of movement, the second lord stood and waved us forward, and we followed him back to and through the door.
As the door closed behind us, I saw that Daindraen was already seated on a large wingback chair, with his booted feet up on an ottoman. He looked at us silently, but somehow I caught an almost amused look on his grim face.
"Have a seat, lads. There's wine on the sideboard, yonder - help yourselves, if you'd like. I think we can dispense with the claptrap of the Honor Council, don't you? I'm Torell, and that's Daindraen. Now, let's get down to cases. What brings you here today?" Torell stepped over to a nearby sofa and sat down on the edge of the seat, leaning forward and obviously ready to listen.
I felt a little flash of surprise through the clan bond, but Sandy's face remained calm. He waved me to a seat on a sofa next to Daindraen and sat himself next to me.
"Well m'lords, it's a bit of a tale. I hope you'll indulge the telling."
"Out with it, boy. We've nothing but time here, after getting roped into Council duty. Let's hear what has passed." Daindraen's face was hard and intent, his eyes cool but curious.
And so, Sandy told the tale. He kept it simple and straightforward, and unflinchingly honest. The first time Braewynn's name came up, I saw Torrel shift in his seat a little, but that was the only indication that either of them knew who he was. Sandy also, to my surprise, explained the intention of the Clan to curtail the Drow's trade in human children, but almost as a sidenote. Not a lot was said on the subject, but I noticed a narrowing of Torrel's eyes, and Daindraen's face became, somehow, more stonily hard than ever.
As Sandy finished, there was a moment of silence as the two of them thought about what they had heard. I could feel both of them looking at me.
"So, young Pooka, you have agreed to allow Sandy to act in your stead in this action, not so?" Torell questioned.
"Yes, m'lord," I murmured, my eyes downcast.
"And it is your wish, Sandellifer, that this duel be to the death, yes? I'm not sure that will fly, you know - the affront is a little weak for that provision. It may well be that Braewynn will be given the option of accepting that part or no. Other than that, I see no reason not to go forward with this, eh Torrel? Clearly intent to harm and suborning of will were present, and I think we can add several other offenses to the list as well. There may be some quibbling about the timing - it happened before Bryon was your clan mate - but I think we can get this done." Daindraen's face was alight, and he had a tight smile on his lips.
"Don't do half measures, do you, Sandellifer? Braewynn is a big fish over there - Duke of Athelon now days, as I recall. Oh yes, this is going to set the hawk among the hens." Torrel was almost rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
Sandy had a little smile on his face. "I'm so glad we could provide a small distraction in an otherwise long and dull day, m'lords," he murmured.
"You have no idea, boy. I was trying to decide if I could get away with signing orders when you two arrived," Daindraen replied. "We both were twiddling our thumbs and praying the day would fly by. I've got too much to do to be sitting in an empty hall and wasting time with this dandy." He waved at Torrel with a smile.
"And this one has the eloquence of a marble monument. All morning and naught but three words out of him the whole time." As he spoke, Torrel rose from his seat and crossed to the sideboard, pouring himself a glass of wine. He looked inquiringly at Daindraen, who nodded, and he poured a second goblet for the taciturn lord. Sandy demurred when Torrel made the same offer to us.
"Well then, we'll write this up and present it to the Unseelie, if that's all the details. Should be fun to watch them react, if naught else. Hasn't been a challenge at this level for quite some time, I believe."
"Are we done here, then? Go on home, lads, and we'll contact you when we have a response. Look for a courier on the third day, I would think. The scribes here will write it all up properly, and the courier should have the time, date and place when you see him, after a little to-and-fro-ing," Daindraen said. "It's been a pleasure meeting both you and your clan brother, young Sandellifer. My regards to your mother when next you see her, eh?" Daindraen stood, and instead of the bow or head nod I would have expected, he stepped forward and clasped Sandy's forearm in a gesture of respect between warriors. Sandy was clearly startled, but returned the gesture with sincerity, adding a bow of the head and a fist against his chest, over his heart. Torrel also stood and nodded his head to both of us and then slipped from the room, followed by Daindraen, leaving us alone in the small room.
When they'd gone, I turned to Sandy. "I thought you said this was going to be an exercise in protocol. What the hell just happened?"
Sandy just shook his head. "We have been more lucky and honored than we had any right to expect, Bryon. Those two are...well, they're so far beyond the need for etiquette, I don't think I can even explain. We've just been in the presence of two of the greatest warrors ever to come out of Seelie. Torrel is the premiere duelist in the entire court, acting as the Queen's own champion. Daindraen is Lord Commander of all Seelie's military, second only to the King in power. I'd never seen him before, and I nearly fainted when I heard his name out there."
"Wow, heavy hitters eh?"
"The heaviest. To go higher, we'd have needed the King and Queen sitting behind those desks.In fact, they are the only two who don't take a turn working in the Honor Hall. It's all done by lottery, so it's incredible that we got both of them on the same day." Sandy shook his head in amazement. "It will speak well for us that our claim will be presented by two such as they, and since they will also be present at the actual duel, it will ensure honor is maintained there as well. With those two in attendance, the eyes of the all the court will be on us."
"Time to go home and wait, I guess. Didn't they say three days till we'd know? Damn, this is going to be a rough three days," I said.
So, it was back out through the abandoned building and into the old Volvo, which failed to start despite a stream of abuse directed at it by Sandy while I tried to hide a smirk. Luckily, I found a can of fast start spray in the trunk, and a few squirts into the carburetor while Sandy cranked the engine and continued to cuss the car got it started. I mentioned that I wasn't sure which had actually gotten it started - the spray or his invective. He glared at me and drove jerkily out of the parking lot, headed home.
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