Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
by AJ

Chapter 10

The next three days were quiet. I stayed at home, getting up late and spending much of the nights up with Ralph. I also spent a lot of time in my head with Dubhain, and I finally found out what all his cryptic comments were about, the ones about us being one.

Since there wasn't a ready source of water in the manse, as my clan brothers called the house, I had taken to spending the afternoons in my head with Dubhain, since both Peter and Sandy were often busy with their own concerns at that time of day. I would get up late, eat lunch with them and head back to bed to spend some time with my horse brother, appearing on the little, winding trail to find him there and waiting for me. I could tell there was something he wanted to talk to me about, but he seemed strangely shy about it - something I was not used to from him. There had never been anything we couldn't talk about before, and it made me a little nervous.

So finally, I just asked him: "Dubhain, what is it? You can talk to me, you know. Gods know, we've talked about everything up to this point, including several things I would just as soon have not talked about. So, what's going on?"

"I would have waited till after the duel to talk about this, Bryon. I know that you have much on your mind, and I would not have burdened you with it, but perhaps now is a good time after all, being that we are waiting on the pleasure of others."

As he had been speaking, he had walked across the clearing toward me and now stood next to me. He paused and lipped at my hair a moment, and rubbed his head against my chest, an expression of affection that he used but rarely. I pulled his head over beside mine and lay my cheek against the rough hair of his jaw and put my arms around his neck, and we stood like that a long moment before he went on.

"I know the desire of your heart, Bryon, and the confusion of your mind when you come to see me. I know that you long for the carefree life that you perceive my existence to be, and my heart has, for long and long, ached with the pain of your life amongst the humans. When I think of what has passed, and how you were hurt and abused, I would kill them all if I could."

"I know, Dubhain, and I'm sorry. I couldn't think of anything else to do..."

"Hush, little brother. I would not bring you grief. That is the music of the past, and I think we needn't go back to it. There is a thing we must talk about, which touches on our life before but is not of it, do you see?"

I was confused, but stood there silently with my arms still around his neck, holding his face next to mine and just waited for him to continue.

"Events have conspired to bring us to a place of companionship, of closeness and intimacy with these others, our clan brothers. But we cannot bring all that we can be to this place unless we have become the fullness of ourselves, and I would tell you that we have not. We live a fractured and sundered life, brother, and it should not be. This separated life is unnatural to us, and it must be mended if we would live as we are intended to be."

"What do you mean, Dubhain? I don't get it. I thought you were happy with me."

"I love you Bryon, and no other. This is as it has always been, and will never change. But this place, this home I have created in your mind, it should not be necessary. We should be one, brother, not two living in one mind. I know not how to make it so, but there is a longing in my heart that speaks to me, telling me that we can be more."

I sat down and wrapped my arms around my chest, felt his warm, whiskery chin on the top of my head and thought about what he had said.

If I said I'd never felt what he was talking about, I'd be a liar. I'd denied it, put down the vague discontent I'd always felt about myself as my feelings about what I did with those others, the tricks. When it stayed with me after that was over, I'd passed it off as lingering guilt, though I'd never really felt guilty about all of that. It was just something I had to do to get by, and even at the time I had known that it didn't really touch who I was, somehow.

Now, Dubhain's comments had opened new possibilities. When we'd entered the clan bond, a part of us I'd never even known was empty became full. Were there other parts of us I didn't know about? Perhaps someplace in us where we became one being, without the sundering that he spoke of? What would that be like? I felt an odd mixture of fear and hope as I thought of it. Would I lose myself - the part that was Bryon - in such a blending? Who would we be after something like that?

I'd been thinking all of this while still open to Dubhain, and he'd heard all of it. His presence was calming, a gentle warmth against the chill of my doubts and fears.

"Do not be afraid, brother. This is no rebellion, no attempt at dominion. Nothing will be lost, only much gained when we have reached this state. Only, like you, I do not know how to reach it. I have studied the problem from many angles, and I see no place to begin, for I don't really know what it is that I seek. I feel the possibility, and I know that it is what awaits us, yet I see no path ahead of us. Perhaps we must be shown - I do not know."

We didn't say a lot more about it at that point, but that conversation stayed with me...at least until other, more immediate concerns came into play.

It was mid evening when the knock we'd all been waiting for sounded on our front door. Ralph had just gotten up, and we were all sitting in the parlor and making small talk, discussing our day and catching up with each other when the knocker banged. It was almost comical the way we all stopped and looked at each other, as if to say 'Well, this is it.' Peter got up and headed out to answer the door, and the rest of us sat in silence and waited for his return.

When he came back, he had someone with him - a young elf, but standing nearly as tall as Peter. His skin was Lios Alfar pale, but his hair was so black it had a blue sheen in the soft light of the lamps in the parlor. He was dressed head to toe in bike messenger spandex, had a bike helmet under his arm, and a mail bag slung across from his left shoulder to his right hip, complete with a handheld radio clipped to the strap. Despite his appearance and the english that he spoke, he was oddly formal.

"I am Jorleon, of the Royal courier service. I seek Sir Sandellifer, formerly of Agryvaine. Is that one present?"

"I am Sandellifer, good courier. You honor our home with your presence. Have you a message for me?"

"If you are Sandellifer, than I do indeed. One moment, please." With that, the courier straightened even more than previously and turned his eyes to the far wall of the room. When he spoke again, his voice was no longer his own, but that of Lord Torrel, whom I had met at the Honor Hall. The lord's voice was distinctive, with a lilting accent when speaking english and still possessing the slightly lazy drawl.

"Hello and good evening to all the members of the clan of the Red Circle. Word has returned from the Unseelie Honor Council, and here is the way of it. First, your challenge is accepted. Second, your mortal stipulation is also accepted, so the duel will be to death. Third, Braewynn has added a stipulation - as is his right, as the challenged - that should he win, he will attach all your holdings, and your squire, Bryon, will be turned over to him as his ward, to do with as he sees fit. Additionally, the rest of your clan kin will be exiled to a place of his choosing, never to return. These are his terms, and he has stated they are non-negotiable.

"This raises the bar a good bit, Sandellifer, but I know that you were aware of the risks going into this, so I will not insult you by asking if you are steadfast in your determination. As a formality, we need an answer sent back to us with young Jorleon here, but I think I already know what it will be. I will await your answer, and then proceed." There was a pause, and I thought the courier was finished until the voice started again, but only briefly.

"On a more personal note, I wish you all the best in this effort, Sandellifer - for the sake of your mother, whom I hold to be a close and dear friend, for the sake of your small clan, which I hold as an inspiration in endurance and good will, and for the sake of the children whom that scorpion has corrupted. Oh, and Daindraen says 'Make us proud, boy!' as well. I'll wait for your answer."

With that, Jorleon fell silent, and then seemed to regain his sense of self, looking at us expectantly.

"I thank you again, Jorleon, for your excellent service. I will be sending a message back to Lords Torrel and Daindraen, if you will be kind enough to wait. Perhaps you'd like a bit of refreshment?

Jorleon bowed slightly at the waist, and spoke calmly. "No, but thanks, good Sir. I was told to expect a reply, and I am under no pressure of time or place, so I will await your pleasure with good will. If I might be seated while I wait?"

"By all means, Jorleon, and forgive my lack of courtesy in not offering such immediately. Yon fire is warm and the chair comfortable, so please be at your ease while my brothers and I parley and compose a reply."

"Very well. Please do not hurry your reply on my account, m'lord. I am at your disposal."

With that, Sandy bowed to the courier, and the four of us retreated to the kitchen for a quick talk.

"Well, there you have it: every bit as bad as we thought it would be. The bastard will take it all if I lose."

"We knew that's how it would be going into this, Sandy. I didn't hear anything surprising in that message, except perhaps the personal note at the end. That's not normal, is it?" Ralph's voice was quiet and calm.

"No, that was a surprise to me too, actually. This could turn into something a lot bigger than we thought it would be. With Torrel and Daindraen involved, you can be sure the King and Queen know and are following this. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a bit of an audience at the actual event."

I listened to all this, appalled at their casual attitudes. They acted like they were discussing whether to go to the county fair or not, while everything they had ever worked for was at risk.

"What is wrong with you two? This could be the end of everything, and you two are acting as though none of it matters!"

Sandy shot me a sidelong look, and actually smiled. Ralph at least took me seriously, and explained.

"It doesn't matter at this point, Bryon. The die is cast, and nothing can take back the decision to issue the challenge in the first place. I assure you that Peter and I would just as soon not be exiled to a place of Braewynn's choosing, and we'd all prefer to continue to live out our lives in this lovely home, but now there is only waiting and then victory. What good would wailing and beating of the breast do now? None, I assure you. No, this has been coming for a very long time, and we have had much time to study the seriousness of what we proposed."

I felt Peter's big paw land on my shoulder. "I think you need a sandwich, Bryon. Being hungry always makes me tense. Might do you good." I flashed him a warm smile - of all my brothers, Peter was the kindest and most concerned. Though a sandwich seemed woefully inadequate in the face of what I had just heard in the parlor, I knew he was doing what he could to set me at ease. I nodded a little, and he hurried to the refrigerator and started taking out cold cuts and all the fixings for two of his enormous sandwich specials.

While Peter fussed over our small - by his standards, anyway - meal, Sandy outlined his intention to agree to all of Braewynn's stipulations, but that he would be adding further conditions of his own: when he won, he would be given all of the Pimp's material possessions in the human realms; all of the commercial ventures he was associated with here would be terminated immediately; and any 'talent' involved in his moviemaking and sales efforts were to be unharmed and turned over to the Clan of the Red Circle.

"We don't know how many children could be involved, nor how damaged and traumatized they might be, so I'm going to ask my mother to take them in if there is more than just a couple. I'm pretty sure it won't be a problem - though she doesn't like anyone to notice, she likes having children around, and her manor house in Agryvaine is set up for this a lot better than the manse. All right then, is there anything else?" He paused and looked at all of us. "No? Let's get back in there and send our reply then."

Peter and I left our sandwiches waiting on the counter, and all four of us trooped back into the parlor, where Jorleon sat in the over-stuffed wingback chair in front of the tiny fireplace, his feet up on a hassock. Hearing the door open, he rose to his feet and looked at Sandy expectantly.

"You have a message to be sent?"

"Aye, by your leave, I would have you take a message to Lords Torrel and Daindraen."

"Very good. If you will speak it clearly and slowly, in the voice and words that you would have them hear, I shall endeavor to convey it to them."

"Very well, then. Beginning now: My Lords Torrel and Daindraen, hail! My deepest appreciation and respect are yours for the work that you both have done on my behalf and on behalf of the Clan of the Red Circle. We are indebted to you both, and shall strive mightily if, and when, you find a need for our services in whatever matter you see fit. We are yours to command.

"Regarding the matter at hand, my brothers and I accept the stipulations laid upon our challenge and defiance of Braewynn of Athelon, and we would add some stipulations of our own, as is our right. When the victory is ours, we will assume ownership of all his lands and holdings in the human realms, retroactive to the date of the original insult that precipitated this event. Further, each, any, every and all of his commercial ventures shall be terminated - not just in his involvement, but disbanded entirely. Lastly, the Clan of the Red Circle will be given possession of any children currently under his owernership, and all records of the sale of any and all children up to this point, in all of his ventures. These terms are absolute and non-negotiable.

"We await, with great anticipation, your message informing us of the time and place where this series of unfortunate events will be concluded. Again, both my brothers and I thank you for all that you have done for us in this matter."

There was a long pause, and then Jorleon smiled and nodded. "As well you know, I will deliver this message without fail, Sandellifer. Now, I have further messages to deliver. The first is for you, good sir. It is addressed for your ears only, though the sender adds that your clan brothers may hear it, at your discretion."

"I have no secrets from my brothers. If you will deliver the message, I will hear it."

The courier smiled and nodded. "A moment then." His eyes once again lost focus and he began to speak, this time in the voice that I remembered from my encounter in the garden: the cool, clear voice of Lady Elenore.

"Word of your doings have arrived at my demesne, my son, and I am proud of you, as ever. I am aware that you are cognizant of the manner of foe that you will face, but I would remonstrate on one point: Unseelie honor is not the honor of Seelie. Their honor lies in outcomes, not in process. When battling such a foe, there must be no quarter granted, no allowance for weakness, and no concern for dishonorable battle tactics. You must carry in your mind the determination to crush your foe in any way that you may, and be wary for tactics from him that would be beyond the pale, did you face a Seelie opponent.

"I will strive to be present at the event, and it is my hope that you would see fit to carry the favor of the Duchess of Agryvaine into battle with you. Know that my best wishes and care are with you at all times, and my greetings to all your clan brothers as well."

Jorleon again fell silent, and his eyes refocused before he turned to me. "You are called Bryon, no? If so, then my last message is for you, and it is of the same origin as the last." With hardly a pause, he spoke again in Lady Elenore's voice.

"It is well that you have joined with my son and his brothers in clan kinship, young Bryon. I am well pleased that you have avoided your foe's clutches thus far, and I hope that this will continue to be the case. Should you need refuge at any time forget not Agryvaine, for you shall find welcome here. Lords of the Summerlands forbid, but should darkness fall upon your cause, remember the boon you have accepted, brother to my son, and all may yet be well."

Though she wasn't in the room, I nodded soberly. I was a little relieved that we had a fall-back position, even though I was trying as hard as I could to be positive about the outcome of this whole debacle. The calm in Elenore's voice was something I really needed just about then.

A day later, Jorleon showed up again, this time carrying confirmation that the lords had received our answer, and giving us the details of time and place: Two days hence at 11pm, an abandoned cow pasture 25 miles to the south, near Enumclaw, would see the end of this whole affair.