Heart and Hooves: An Urban Fantasy
It was a long and very quiet drive to Enumclaw,
with Ralph behind the wheel of the old Volvo, and Sandy riding shotgun. Peter
and I sat in the back seat, each of us caught up on our own thoughts and not
saying much. The Lady had told us that she would provide her own transportation
to the site, and would meet us there on our arrival. Unlike Sandy, Ralph was a
calm and graceful driver, and the Volvo seemed to fairly hum under his hand.
All too soon, we exited the freeway and headed into the tiny town of Enumclaw, tooling along through its quiet and deserted streets. We were traveling a lot faster than speed limit, and Ralph had asked me to do "We're not here," duty until we exited the other side of town. It must have worked - though we passed a couple of police cars, not one seemed to pay us the slightest mind.
And then we were there. We left the small, blacktopped road with its infrequent streetlights, and turned into a narrow dirt road with deep potholes. The Volvo negotiated the dirt track easily, jouncing along and creaking but still willing. At one point I felt the tingle of wards, but weakly. A little later, I felt it again, this time much stronger.
We left the cover of the trees, and a large clearing opened up ahead of us. There was a bonfire burning in the center of the meadow, and a number of cars parked around it. I had an impression of many people standing and milling about, but it was hard to make out individuals.
We pulled up, and Ralph set the parking brake and cut the engine. There was a moment of silence, and then Sandy shrugged as if to say "Well, here we go," opened the door and got out of the car. The rest of us piled out and almost without thinking formed up behind him, presenting a solid front to the rest of the those in the field. And, now that I could see clearly, there were quite a lot of them here. They seemed to be split into two distinct camps, with the great bonfire at the dividing point.
On the far side of the fire, a small pavilion had been set up - a simple framework with a central peak and samite draped down to just below the point where the walls began, with a woven groundcloth to cover the dirt. Within this open structure, Torrel and Daindraen and two others stood and waited for us. The other two, clad in formal robes similar in cut but colored black and red instead of the white and gold of the Lios Alfar, stood silently and watched us approach.
"Be welcome, Sandellifer of Agryvaine and companions." Daindraen's voice was gravelly and deep. Then turning to one of the Drow that stood silently next to him, "The champion for Seelie is arrived, Danthel, and the hour is upon us. Where is your champion?"
"Patience, Daindraen. He arrives even as we speak," the Unseelie representative answered. "See how he comes even now."
And shining on the darkened wall of trees, headlights could be seen approaching along the dirt road that we had driven just moments before. In moments, the black BMW sedan that I remembered so well pulled up alongside our old Volvo wagon and stopped in a small cloud of dust. The engine purred for a moment and then cut off, and the driver's door opened to reveal Arturo, clad in immaculate evening dress. He stepped to the back door and opened it, and Braewynn stepped out. He was dressed in the traditional finery of an Unseelie noble - close fitting black and silver, with a half cloak covering his back and one arm. When they had crossed the short distance from the car to the pavilion, Danthel spoke again: "Welcome Braewynn, champion of the Unseelie, and your second." He bowed to them both, and Braewynn nodded to the Unseelie Honor Court representative.
There was a moment of silence, and then Torrel stepped away from us and gestured Sandy forward, even as the other Drow did the same with Braewynn.
"Ladies and Gentles of the courts, I present to you Sandellifer, heir apparent of Agryvaine and the accuser in this case. He lays charges of dishonor and insult to his clan brother against his opponent, and would prove the verity of his claim on the field of honor, in mortal combat." His voice, without seeming to be raised, penetrated to the far end of the field, and raised a storm of cheering from the Seelie side of the crowd of spectators.
When the cheering had died down, Danthel stepped forward with Braewynn at his heels. "Ladies and Gentles of the courts, I present to you Braewynn, Duke of Athelon, who is accused in this case. He denies any wrongdoing and would prove his innocence of the charges laid against him in this case on the field of honor, in mortal combat." Immediately a great roar of cheering rose from the Unseelie spectators, and Braewynn nodded briskly in acknowledgment.
Both the champions and the Honor Court representatives returned to the small pavilion, and Daindraen stepped forward. "Both combatants shall have ten minutes, as they are reckoned here in the human lands, to prepare for combat. At that time, the contest shall commence. Go, and return with your seconds at the appointed time."
Dismissed for the moment, both men turned and retreated to their respective vehicles followed by their seconds: Ralph as Sandy's second, and Arturo walking behind Braewynn.
In the lurid, red light cast by the bonfire, I could see both of them near their respective cars, stripping out of their clothes and being assisted into their combat gear - Braewynn into dark leathers, and Sandy into bright, silver ring mail. When both were fully dressed, each of the seconds went to the trunk of the respective cars; Arturo pulled a long, narrow box from the boot of the BMW, and Ralph returned from his trip to the back of the Volvo with a similar package.
Carefully setting the dark wooden box on the hood of the Beemer, Arturo opened the wooden lid to reveal twin rapiers nestled in velvet within. He withdrew each and handed it slowly to Braewynn, who placed them in scabbards at his belt and checked to make sure their draw was clean and unimpeded.
Meanwhile, Ralph set the oak box he was carrying on the hood of the Volvo, and popped open the lid. I saw his face go momentarily blue with the light from inside the box, and he reached in and pulled out Kaldor. It was a long, heavy looking two-handed sword, with a great cabochon sapphire set in the pommel, but otherwise a very workman-like blade: the hilt was wrapped in leather, and it had plain brass quilons. Its blade was perfectly straight, double- edged and unadorned. He laid it across his forearm with his other hand on the crossguard and offered the hilt to Sandy, who took it from him with a smile. The moment it felt its master's hand, a tiny rill of blue fire ran down the length of the blade and burned at the tip for a moment. Without even looking, Sandy hefted it and slid it into a baldric across his back, the hilt standing up from behind his right shoulder. Finally, each of the seconds bowed to their duelist, and followed them back to the pavilion.
When they stood once more in front of the Honor Court representatives from each court, Danthen spoke again. "Each of you is familiar with the terms of this challenge. There will be no quarter given - the duel will continue until one or both of you lies dead, by your own consents. Are each of you fully prepared?"
"Aye," Sandy said.
"I am prepared," Braewynn replied.
"Then the combatants will repair to the field, and the duel commence."
Both men walked slowly to a space on the far side of the bonfire, with the Honor Court marshals following. When they stood ready, Torrel called out, "Combatants, salute."
Kaldor cleared the baldric in an arc of blue light, sweeping down and then up to stand upright before Sandy's face, and then back down and to the right. "Beware, my enemy. I would have your life for your crimes." Sandy's voice was low and dangerous, not meant for the ears of the spectators.
Braewynn sneered and raised one rapier in a cursory salute. "Come and take it then, if you can. As the father, so the son."
"Combatants, begin." No sooner had the command been given then both of the men glided forward, almost too fast for the eye to follow, and there was a sudden explosion of sound - the crash-slither of sword on sword as each sought a way through the other's guard.
It all happened much to fast for me to know what was really happening. I don't know much about dueling or sword fighting, so to me it looked like a blur as each rained a flurry of strokes on the other and parried in between - and while - attacking. I glanced over at Torrel and Daindraen, and both watched with intense interest. I thought they were probably following every stroke and seeing both the combatant's strategies, and I was a little envious.
When I glanced back, I noticed that Braewynn was backing slowly and Sandy was advancing, but I also noticed that Braewynn was always moving in a sideways direction, looking for an unprotected flank while Sandy moved in opposition, always presenting his most solid defense.
With a sudden screeling of blade on blade, Sandy knocked aside one of the rapiers, parried a thrust from the second, and slipped Kaldor's tip inside Braewynn's guard to trace a tiny line on the Drow's face. Blood immediately began to drip from the cut, and Braewynn grinned ferally and sped up his attacks, rapiers striking like vipers, probing for a chance to wound in return. I was astonished when Kaldor met every attack and turned it. How could anyone move so fast?
I glanced away again, just a brief, questioning look at Ralph. He caught the look and leaned forward.
"He's good," he murmured. "I think he could beat me, and I'm no slouch. I don't know if he's good enough to beat Sandy, though. I have a feeling we'll soon find out."
Two minutes later, we did find out. The end, when it came, happened far too fast for me to see what actually took place. One moment they were each a blur of deadly movement, the next Braewynn was down, lying on his back in the dirty grass of the pasture with one rapier fallen from his hand, the other pinned beneath his own fallen body. Kaldor's tip hovered menacingly at his throat, a hairs-breadth from the deadly stroke that would end the contest. One breath, one heartbeat and we'd won!
But the moment never came. As Sandy stepped back slightly, Braewynn scrambled to his knees, head hanging and his shoulders slumped in defeat. He left both rapiers on the ground and knelt before his enemy. But even as he came to his knees, a slight movement of his right hand produced a dagger in that hand, a dagger with a dull grey blade edged in black, as if it were tarnished. His movement to his knees became a desperate lunge forward, the dagger striking up and forward to bury itself to the hilt in Sandy's thigh, ripping through the ring mail that should have protected him as if it were tin foil.
The effect was immediate. Sandy went white as a sheet, the glow of his armor was snuffed out like a candle, and he staggered back, then fell to his knees. He gripped the dagger, but his hands kept slipping and he couldn't pull it out. Braewynn slowly got to his feet and leaned down to pick up his rapiers, no longer in a hurry. There was a dead silence on the field.
I didn't notice much of this though, because the second Braewynn attacked with the dagger, two things happened to me: first, there was a surge of heat in my right front pocket where I carried the pouch I had been given all those days ago. The second was the voice of Elenore speaking in my mind, her voice stern and commanding.
"Now is the moment, young Bryon. The boon is come due - reach into your pocket and take in hand that which you find in the pouch!"
I didn't question, even for a moment. With feverish haste I wrenched the pouch out of my pocket, noticing in passing a glow of red from the pursed end of the pouch where it was drawn up with a leather thong. I stripped open the top and shook the pouch over my open palm, and a glowing red stone, about the size of a hen's egg, dropped into my hand. I closed my fingers around it, and suddenly I went away.
I was standing in gray, swirling mist. There was nothing around me; I couldn't tell how far I could see because it was all flat and featureless. From somewhere far away I could feel Dubhain's desperate efforts to find me, but he was lost and defeated by the fog.
"Welcome, Bryon. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to see another after all the long years."
I turned to see who was talking to me, and there was a man of the Lios Alfar standing there behind me, watching me. He was tall, and his hair was bright red, hanging down his back in a long, thick braid. He was dressed in elven plate armor, and a longsword hung at his side in a gemmed scabbard.
"What...no, who...Oh, hell with it. What do you need from me?"
The elf threw his head back and laughed. "I know the feeling, Bryon. Events have moved very quickly, haven't they? I am Tyliran, once the husband of Lady Sigrid, whom you know as Elenore, and father of Sandellifer."
I gaped at him for a moment, taking all that in. "Once the husband? What happened to you? Why are you in this place?"
"I'm dead, Bryon. I was murdered during the Great War - taken from behind by Braewynn while I knelt to heal a fallen comrade, and slain by the very same blade that even now kills my son. Only the quick action of my very dear wife saved my spirit from its hunger, and placed me within the gem, where we are now. I have been here just a bit over a thousand years, but now...well, with your kind permission, my wait is at an end."
"What was that dagger, anyway? It shouldn't have been able to do that to Sandy."
"We have little time, Bryon. Though time flows differently here, and all this happens in but a fraction of the time it would take in the outer world, yet still time passes. But to answer your question - its name is Dragontooth, and it is made of cold iron. It is absolutely deadly to any of our kind, for it feeds on magic and spirit. Sandellifer has very little time, if we would save him."
"You can save Sandy?"
"I can. I will, and avenge my own death in the same stroke."
"But the oaths? I didn't think you could..."
"I am unbound - dead before any oaths were sworn."
"Then do it. What do you need?"
"I need to borrow your body for a time. I hope I can return it unharmed, but one never knows."
"Just do it."
He grinned fiercely, and the next thing I knew, I was back in the world, and set aside in my own mind, watching from the sidelines. I could see that I was dressed suddenly in the same elven plate armor that Tyliran had worn, and the same narrow, straight, longsword hung at my waist.
I spun and ripped the sword from the scabbard, even as I threw my head back and howled "Braewynn!"
I watched as my body, firmly under Tyliran's control, ran with impossible grace across the clearing toward the Drow, sword coming up and back for an annihilating blow.
Braewynn turned shocked eyes on me as I flowed to the attack. Even in his surprise he reacted quickly, both rapiers coming up to en guarde. One sweeping blow from the longsword sheared through both the blades, leaving the Drow holding nothing but two hilts with a stub of blade sticking out of each. His mouth fell open in shock, but he didn't have time for even a word as the longsword whipped around with blinding speed and slammed forward through his chest. A single word from the spirit that used my body, and an explosion of fire swept through the blade and raged through the Drow's impaled body, raising the dark elf up onto his toes. For a brief moment, the bones of his face and skull shone brightly beneath his skin, limned in raging fire, and a gout of flames burst from his mouth. Then he slumped back, sliding off the bright, silvron blade and falling limply to the grass.
"A thousand years I have waited for that moment. The cur is dead, and now we must save my son." Tyliran's voice was calm, but I could feel the underlying urgency. "We haven't much time; a thousand years of waiting, and now I am defeated by seconds." With the same speed as I had run to the attack, I slammed the sword back into the scabbard and strode to where Sandy's limp body lay sprawled on the damp grass, one hand lying limply on his thigh where the dark dagger stood out of his flesh.
Lady Sigrid already knelt on the other side of him, and I went to my knees across from her, our faces a scant foot apart.
"Tyliran, it consumes him and I cannot stop it. Ysendin strives with all its might, and it is not enough. It consumes all the magic I attempt - how should we proceed?"
"Lady wife, I cannot heal this wound. No, do not despair! Though I cannot heal it, I can delay it. My magic is greater, and it knows my spirit of old. Even now it reaches for me, and I will not deny it. Perhaps, with enough time, another can heal what I cannot."
With that, he reached my hand down, touched the black iron crossguard where it lay against the flesh of his son, and began to feed himself to the blade. I could feel its ravening, endless hunger beginning to siphon off his spirit, and how he resisted its pull to give himself a few moments more time, and the agony it caused him.
"You have been more brave and generous than I have had any reason to expect, young Bryon. There is a thing that I would do for you, in reward. I see that you do not know the path of Oneness with your horsebrother, and I would show it to you. All of your kind must be shown by an older mentor at an early age, and since you had none, I must suffice. Watch, and see the way."
He made a tiny adjustment in my mind, and suddenly it was there, like a shining path through my thoughts. Of course! It was so easy - why hadn't I seen it for myself? As I was studying it, I felt the last of his spirit drain away into the dagger, and I found myself back in control of my body. He was gone, utterly consumed. I stared across Sandy's body at Lady Sigrid, watched in astonishment as she leaned forward and placed her hand on the dagger, saw her stiffen as she began to feed herself to the blade in willing sacrifice, and then -
"No. This shall not be, sister. Not all need die." I'd been so focused on Lady Sigrid that I hadn't seen the arrival of the two who stood behind her, outlined against the bright light of the bonfire. The stranger on the right was a woman of the Lios Alfar, tall and fair, terrible in her beauty, and radiating magical might as I'd never seen before. To the left, next to her, stood a Drow woman, dark and beautiful, radiant in a nimbus of power the equal of the first. Without even glancing around to see every knee on the field bent to the two of them, I knew who they were.
"My lady queen, can you save him?"
Without answering Sigrid's question directly, Gloriana turned to the Drow beside her. "Hail, Maeve. It has been long since last we met, sister. Would you assist in a healing, as once we did so long ago?"
Maeve stared down at the scene before her for a moment, her dark eyes measuring each of us. She paused, then said "This young knight has given me a very neat solution to a thorny problem. Yon carrion heap -" and here she gestured with graceful disdain at Braewynn's body, "had violated the laws of Unseelie, and drawn attention to us here in the human realm. I warned him, but he heeded me not. Perchance I shall assist, as reward for the convenience this young knight has afforded me. Heal him then, Gloriana, and I shall lend strength as it is needed."
Immediately Gloriana's hand shot forward and hovered over the hilt of the dagger, and she began a quiet chant of closing and containing, of withdrawal. Maeve reached a hand out and laid it on the other Queen's shoulder, and she began to sing a descant to Gloriana's song, and the slowly building nimbus of power around the Queen of Seelie brightened, flowing down her hand and centering on the dark knife.
Slowly, very slowly and resisting mightily, the blade began to relinquish its hold. After long, tense minutes it slid out of Sandy's thigh and hovered over him, and when the tip left his flesh, a gout of black, foul-smelling fluid poured from the rent in his skin, pouring down to pool on the grass beneath and instantly killing it.
"It is a foul thing, is it not? Even now it strives to return and consume him. It is an evil all its own, and it has murdered many over the long centuries. I think its time should end, Maeve."
"Aye, sister. I do not believe we can, of our own power, destroy it. But perhaps we may send it to a place even it cannot resist. I believe the great heat at the heart of the sun would overwhelm it."
"Your skill is greater than mine own in that area, Maeve. Of your courtesy, if you would be kind enough?"
"Right gladly. And no sooner said than done."
One moment the dagger hung suspended, and the next it was gone. I didn't feel its extinction in the sun, but Maeve looked grimly pleased, and Gloriana relieved.
"Now then, a bit of healing and the deed is done. Since he is one of yours, and your gift of healing is greater than mine own, I will assist and marvel at your skill, sister." Maeve smiled teasingly at Gloriana, seemingly perfectly at ease. Gloriana smiled back, and held her hand out once again, this time over the ugly, blackened hole in Sandy's thigh.
As she began again to chant, the lips of the wound - at first peeled back and blackened as though severely burned - began to lighten in color and draw back together. Torn muscle, abraded bone and shredded tendons began to knit, writhing in an ecstasy of regeneration and re-growth. It took only a few minutes, and the wound closed and the skin healed, leaving only a line of pink scar tissue to show that it had ever existed.
While all this was happening, I had slid back until I was nearly sitting on Ralph and Peter's feet, still on my knees and watching intently. Lady Sigrid had not moved, remaining at Sandy's side with her head bowed, watching the wound heal. Now she rose to her feet and bowed deeply to her queen, and then turned and bowed only slightly less deeply to the queen of Unseelie.
"I have no words to express my gratitude, my Lady. Both I and House Agryvaine stand in your debt for the aid that you have rendered to us this day." Though tears stood on her pale cheeks, Sigrid radiated pride and dignity as she addressed the queen of the the rival court.
"Nonsense, dear Lady. I have known the special agony that the death of a child brings, and would not wish such on any. Had I acted more swiftly once before, my own child might still be with me. That aside, this young knight has done me a service, though he knew it not. I still owe him for that beyond a mere assist with healing, and so here is the resolve of my heart: all the former Duke of Athelon's holdings are hereby forfeit to the Crown. I cede all of those holdings that exist in the human realms to yon knight, Sandellifer, to hold and dispose of as he sees fit. Further, I have ordered all the children the late Duke had congress with to be gathered and held in a central place, with appropriate guards. I understand that you will be responsible for their recovery, Lady Sigrid. I want them to disappear. I do not wish to revisit this issue. Are we agreed? Yes? Then all debt between us is discharged, and perhaps you will think a bit less harshly of the Queen of Unseelie in the future, no?" Even in the deep formality of the moment, the irrepressible and sly smile of the Dark Queen shone momentarily, and Sigrid smiled wanly and nodded.
"As you will it, Lady, so let it be."
"Even so, Lady Sigrid. Do not delay in taking charge of your new wards, Lady. They are many, and I fear that the guardians I set over them may grow...hmm, restless." And again the Dark Lady's smile shone out, tinged with just a hint of malice. "Then I feel that we are finished here, are we not, Gloriana? Really, my sister, we must meet when there is not a crisis at hand...but perhaps not too soon, eh?" And with a bow of her head to her sister sovereign and to Lady Sigrid, she turned and walked away, back to the Unseelie side of the pavilion, and then disappeared with a wave of her hand.
When the dark Queen had disappeared, it seemed that Sigrid reached the end of her strength. She seemed to slump a little, and tears began to roll down her cheeks to fall on the bodice of her blue and white gown, now stained and muddy at the knees where she had knelt on the grass.
"Come sister, all is well. Disaster has been averted, and your son lives and will thrive once again." Gloriana stepped forward and enfolded Lady Sigrid in a deep and long hug, holding her head to her shoulder. After a long moment, she released her hold and stepped back, but laid her hand along Sigrid's cheek. "It has ever been your way to hold all inside you, Sigrid. Pain, joy, grief and pleasure cannot be denied and contained forever, and you must release them. Know that your steadfast loyalty and support is never taken for granted, and that when I am wearied by the travails of court, you are a bright place in my thoughts. Would that I had the pleasure of your presence in my court more often, but I shall not command it, only ask it by your leave. It would be a comfort to me."
"My Lady, you shall have it, as you have already, to the least and last measure, all my loyalty and faith."
"Those, as Queen, I command. But I would have not just your loyalty and faith, but your friendship, and that is beyond my command. That is what I would ask for in greater measure, Lady. I hope that it may be so." She gazed long and deeply into Lady Sigrid's eyes, and then smiled. "I, too, must take my leave. I hope to see you again and soon, dear friend."
She turned then, and waved to Torrel and Daindraen. "My lords, attend. We must return to court. Farewell, Sigrid. Take care of your son." And then, she disappeared.