Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
by AJ

Chapter 11

The next two days were surprisingly uneventful. Life at the Manse went on just about the same way it did before. One night we had a couple of kids over for dinner with us - a girl and a boy who lived on the streets in the University district most of the time, but who stopped by a couple times a week for a meal and sometimes more often in the winter, when the weather was just a little too cold for sleeping outdoors. They were good kids, but there was a look of desperation in their eyes that I didn't like, and I decided to keep close tabs on their whereabouts while they were in the house. When you have nothing but the clothes on your back and whatever you can carry with you, personal ethics become a luxury you can't afford. I wouldn't have been surprised if they had pocketed a few items to take with them.

Sure enough, when they'd left and I was doing a quick inventory to make sure they hadn't left with anything, I noticed that a small silver vase had gone missing, and so had a little statuette of some kind of egyptian god that had been sitting on a side table in the parlor.

"Sandy, wasn't there a silver vase sitting over there on the corner in the kitchen? And what about that little egyptian thing in the parlor? Did those two take them?"

"Yeah, they did. They'll be able to sell 'em for a few dollars and eat for a couple days."

"You knew about it? Why didn't you stop them?"

"But that's what we bought them for, Bryon. We've offered those two money before, and they wouldn't accept any. So now when they come over, they know that there are two items - always in the same places - that they can take. Everything else is spelled to return to the house as quickly as possible, you see, and it didn't take them long to figure it all out. Now they just take the two items to hold them over till their next meal here, and no one says a word about it."

I stared at him for a moment, and then just shook my head. "But how do you know that they won't bring their friends and break... oh."

"Yeah. Wards work pretty well against burglars, too."

The following day, our last before the challenge date, was spent with all of us in the house and just relaxing together. Sandy disappeared for a couple of hours around mid day as he often did, explaining that he was off to the gym. I asked if I could go with him but he gently refused, explaining that we would need to buy a membership for me before I could go. I thought that was odd, since most gyms will sell a membership right on the spot.

After Sandy was gone, Peter explained. Sandy wasn't going to a gym per se, but to an arms trainer - a master swordsman who lived in the Midlands and trained students from both Seelie and Unseelie courts. There wasn't much left that he could teach Sandy, Peter continued, but they sparred a lot together and Sandy taught some of his entry level students. I thought about that for a while, and decided that I might like to go with him sometime, for real. It was time for me to learn to defend myself, if we all survived beyond the next day.

I stayed up late with Ralph, drinking coffee and talking. When he first got up, all four of us went out to Mike's and had breakfast, which was a little odd since it was ten o'clock at night, but no one commented. We came home after and Sandy went into the kitchen and put on the coffee pot, and we all sat around and talked for hours. I already knew the story of how Ralph and Sandy had met Peter, but they told the story again from each of their perspectives and it felt good to hear the clan's history and know that I was a piece of that history now, that we were making the history of our clan even now, right there in the parlor of the Manse. We talked about how the clan would slowly grow as we found others in need and with the qualifications to join, and it was comforting to know that we were all planning for life beyond the duel, because it made the possibility of victory that much more real.

At 8 am, Ralph and I both went to bed, and I didn't get up till 4 pm, and just like that it was the day of the duel. By midnight tonight, the fate of the Clan of the Red Circle would be decided. Sandy had been up since 11 am and gone for a short run, followed by a big meal of pasta for carbo loading. It was interesting to watch him prepare. He spent several hours in the basement staring at a candle and breathing slowly; after a couple of hours I heard the piano from down there, and I knew it was ok to go down and listen. Sandy didn't seem to even notice me when I crept into the room and just kept on playing, his hands flashing over the keyboard and creating the most amazing music. I knew, just by listening, that this wasn't the music of human history, but of elven work. The piece was long and complicated, with strange twists and turnings that I would never have expected but which somehow fit perfectly. I sat on a big recliner, put my head back and retreated inside, ending up on a dry spot in Dubhain's bog. My horse brother had lain down, his legs folded beneath him, I lay on my back with my head resting against his side, and we listened to the beauty that Sandy was making on the piano together.

I came back up when I heard a voice in the room that I had not expected to hear: Elenore's cool voice.

"It has been a long time since I heard that piece, son, and never on such an instrument. You play it well."

I didn't budge, pretending to still be down inside. The music stopped and I heard Sandy move about a little.

"Mother, you came. I wondered if you would."

"Fool of a boy, of course I came. How could I stay away?"

I cracked my eyes open just the tiniest bit, and there she was, as beautiful and elegant as I remembered her from the garden. My heart sped up a little when I saw her - yes, I had a little crush on Sandy's mother, but I also knew that there wasn't a male on the planet who wouldn't have - she was that beautiful.

With a slight smile, she turned to where I was lying back on the recliner. "It is good to see you again, Bryon. You look well. It is clear that you have prospered since joining my son's clan, and that is much to the good."

Busted. I sat up and slid forward, going to one knee in front of her. "M'lady, welcome to the Manse. It is both a pleasure and an honor to see you again."

I was rewarded with a light laugh from her. "Why, young Bryon, your manners have improved remarkably. You have been paying attention, haven't you? I approve. For that, you shall escort me upstairs to inspect this home that you have all made for yourselves."

She held out her hand, and I jumped up to stand beside her and offer her my arm. When I dared to look at her face - just a glance, you understand, because I was still plenty intimidated by her - there was a look of light amusement there, and also of kindness. Following Sandy, we walked up the stairs to the main floor.

Ralph was in his office, working on some accounts when we arrived at his door. The look on his face when he saw who I was escorting was priceless - a moment of shock before he gathered himself and stood, then bowed deeply.

"Lady of Agryvaine, welcome. You honor us deeply. I apologize for my dishabille, but this is most unexpected." Somehow, in spite of his sweats and tee shirt, he radiated dignity.

"When one visits unannounced, one cannot expect a prepared host. It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Ralph the Scholar. I have heard much of you from my son. Perhaps one day, after the current business is done, we can spend a little time together telling tales from the history of my race, as I have heard that you have an interest in such things."

"It would be a great pleasure, m'lady. I look forward to the day.

Bryon, why don't you show the Lady to the parlor, and we'll join you there in a moment. I think we have some wine that might be just about right for this moment, and I need to collect Peter. I'll be just a moment."

At that moment, Peter came tromping down the stairs. He was humming tunelessly to himself, and if Ralph's reaction to seeing Lady Elenore had been amusing, Peter's reaction was almost frightening. He stopped dead in his tracks, and then without a word flung himself to both knees and pressed his forehead to the floor at her feet. And stayed there, obviously not intending to move until given permission.

I think we all just kind of stared at him for a moment. I was shocked, and even Sandy and Ralph seemed a little nonplussed. But Lady Elenore didn't even act surprised.

She bent at the waist and laid a hand on his shoulder, not drawing back when he cringed from her touch just a little. Her voice was soft and gentle. "Rise, Peter the Strong. Such obeisance is not needful to me. You are the brother of my son, and as such nearly a son to me in your own right. Come, stand and greet me."

Peter was shaking, trembling in every limb as he stood slowly, and he wouldn't look Elenore in the face, keeping his eyes on the floor. The Lady wasn't having any of that, though. She gently placed two fingers under his chin and raised his face till he looked her directly in the eye.

"We are not enemies, you and I," she chided him gently. "We are allies and more, bound together by the regard that we hold in common for my son. There is no need for fear. I am a simple guest in your home." Turning back to me, she continued in a brisk tone, "Now then, young Bryon, Ralph spoke of a parlor. Perhaps you could show me?"

And so I showed her through the french doors and into the parlor. Though it was still summer, a small fire crackled and popped in the grate of the fireplace, and a couple of lamps were lit, casting a soft yellow light over the room. I seated the Lady on one of the small sofas, and took a place in a nearby chair. Peter sat across the room on the big, overstuffed wingback, and in just a moment we were joined by Ralph and Sandy, with Ralph carrying an opened bottle of wine and Sandy enough red wine glasses for all of us.

"I would appreciate your opinion of this vintage, Lady Elenore. I think you'll find it a bit different from the wines of Faerie." Ralph poured a small bit into goblet for the Lady, and then watched in anticipation as she sipped delicately at the dark red wine.

As she rolled the wine around in her mouth, Elenore's eyes seemed to open just a bit wider.

"This is excellent, Ralph. A bit less smooth than I am used to, but complex and full-bodied. My husband made such wines many years ago...it brings back many memories for me." Without a word, Ralph leaned in and filled her goblet to the halfway mark, then poured a like amount in each glass for us.

Raising his glass, Ralph said, "Here is to the health of our guest, and to the honor done to our clan by the grace of her presence."

When we'd all sipped a bit, Elenore stood. Raising her glass just a little, she returned Ralph's toast with one of her own.

"The blessings of the Sidhe are on this house, and all who dwell in it. Good fortune and prosperity follow you all the days of your lives, and at their end, may you all find a place in the Summerlands."

When she had returned to her seat and we'd all sipped a bit more wine, Elenore delicately cleared her throat and looked over at Sandy.

"I have said that I would wish to send the favor of the Duchess of Agryvaine into battle with you, my son, and so I have brought with me a thing that might be of use to you in the upcoming trial." Reaching into the deep sleeve of her sky blue gown, she pulled out a sheathed dagger and laid it on the coffee table in front of her. "Perhaps you recognize it?"

"Ysendin!" Sandy's voice was hushed, and he looked at the jeweled dagger with awe in his eyes. "But mother, it is one of the great treasures of our house!"

"Not just a great treasure, but a very fine tool. Better it go into battle with you than gather dust in the vaults at Agryvaine."

"If I might ask, what is it?" Ralph was leaning forward in his chair and staring avidly at the dagger.

"It was given to my mother's mother by a great king," Elenore answered. "Forged in some forgotten time, it has a great virtue of healing on it, and will heal wounds taken in battle even as they occur. In addition, it lends its bearer greater strength and agility, so that one may avoid such wounds. It has been in our family's possession for many long years, and now it passes to my son's hand. Bear it well, Sandellifer."

"I shall seek to be worthy of this great gift, mother. I thank you for it with all my heart."

"Very well. I have one other bit of news to impart, and a greeting to give from a long time friend of yours."

"Oh? A long time friend, you say? I do not have any such from the realms of faerie, as I recall."

Elenore smiled. "But you do, though you know it not. I bear greetings and best wishes for your victory from one named Alreid, a scholar in the house of Agryvaine."

"Alreid? By my hope! Mother, what are you up to? How did this come to pass?"

"Well, it seems that after you left, your Alreid fell prey to great grief and shame over his role in the deception that led to your departure. He was ever a delicate creature, sensitive and tender of heart, as you know. Eventually it became too much for him, and he confessed all to his father, the Duke of Myrandis. That worthy was enraged, and promptly banished him from his home, and forbade all to assist him at peril of the Duke's displeasure."

"Ah, poor Alreid. I was afraid such might happen to him."

"Yes. Well, it was a sad and disheveled young man that stood in my hall after he requested an audience with me. He sought to secure my forgiveness, he said, after having caused me such pain. Knowing what you would have wanted, I did forgive him and offered him sanctuary in my home. I have never cared for his father very much, you know."

"And now?"

"Having no other task for him and knowing that he needed to be occupied with some work, I set him to ordering my library. Don't think I don't see that smile, my son...I know that my library was neglected for years, and was badly in need of a willing caretaker. And so he has become, and blossomed in the doing. I believe he has found himself in the midst of all those dusty old tomes, and is finally somewhat happy."

"Mother, you are a wonder. You constantly amaze me, and I love you for it."

"Then surely, when all this is done, you will find time for a small visit to your mother's home, no? Not to stay, of course; I would not ask that. Merely a sort of...how do you say?...a vacation, yes? Bring all your brothers and come for a visit."

"That we can do, and it is most gracious of you to ask. But there is another thing I must speak to you of, as well. I know that you are familiar with Braewynn's doings here in the human realms, and the evil which he has done to many who are too young and innocent to protect themselves. It is my hope that we will, upon my victory, come into possession of many of those he has coerced and corrupted. It may be that there will be many children in need of succor who have been badly damaged and traumatized; too many for us to care for here in our small house. I would ask a boon of you: that you open the doors of the manor at Agryvaine to them, and assist in their recovery. I do not know how many we will find and assist, but it could be only a few, or a great many. I do not know yet the full extent of his business ventures, but I fear the worst."

Elenore's response was immediate. "Granted, my son. The full resources of Agryvaine shall be at the disposal of these children - healers of both body and mind, and whatever else they shall need. Nothing shall be held back, I assure you. And now, my son, I believe we are out of time. The hour is upon us, if you would arrive in good order at the dueling grounds."