The Taken-Intro

I just started this last night. I kept working on it, but I always have issues with starting new stories. 

August, 1982: Lake Meddybemps, Maine

I stared out over the glassy surface of the lake, watching the fog slowly drift off of the water without really seeing it. Early morning on the lake, when the water was as still as glass and only the birds were awake used to be my favorite time of day at our cabin. My dad, an insomniac since long before I was born, would already have the coffee made and we would sit together on the back porch of the cabin or, if it was a particularly warm morning in mid-summer, out on the Adirondack chairs on the little dock where our canoe rested. We would sit in the quiet of the morning air, listening as the woods woke up, awed by the perfect calmness of the predawn. The fog would drift through the woods and off of the water like dragons breath, not yet dissipated by the suns golden warmth. The sky would turn from the deep blue-gray to brilliant purples and gold just before the sun broke above the trees. If there were clouds, they would shine out with a brilliant blood red and my father would repeat the sailor’s adage, “red sky at night, sailors delight, red sky at morning, sailor take warning”, followed by a deep throated chuckle and a sidelong twinkle in his eye.

Those hours were ours, my father and I, sitting in the stillness of the early morning, hearing the world wake up around us. No modern alarm clocks or ambulance sirens, like we heard back home in DC. Instead, we would sit in companionable quiet, finding solace in the songs of birds, the smell of the damp earth that only happened at the break of the day, a scent that spoke of newness and youth, springtime and green shoots spearing bravely through the topsoil at the end of a long winter, seeking the sun. Sometimes we were treated to the rare sight of a moose in the rushes on the far side of the lake, wading in the shallows to harvest the green base of the water plants.

If we were really lucky, a long, mournful call would echo across the water, bringing a smile to my father’s lips and a gleam to his eye as he listened to the song, like a siren. I never understood his love for loons, until he bought the lake house, and I spent my summer mornings sitting out here with him, listening to their sorrowful cry. It was the sweetest sound, unlike anything I had ever heard, one that tugged at your soul and drew out a sigh every time I heard it echo through the forest and across the water.

Eventually, we would hear my mother and brother stir in the house and be treated to my mother’s rumpled form scuffing out onto the porch, her curly blond hair a wonderful mess that she tried to tame with a hair band. My little brother, two years my junior, would break the morning solitude by running down the dock and jumping feet first into the water, whooping at the icy cold of the lake water as it closed around him. He would come up grinning and chattering, splashing us if we were too close.

Second only to these times were the nights spent on the dock, my father’s telescope aimed at the clear space of sky between the trees afforded by the lake. He would find planets like Jupiter and Mars, or we would stare at the pock-marked surface of the moon, crystal clear through the eyepiece of the telescope. If we were really lucky, he would find Saturn and my brother and I would make a game of how many circles we could count in the rings. Stepping back from the telescope, my father would point out the constellations and marvel at the Milky Way as it stretched above us, like a super highway to outer space.

“Look at it, Alyssa, all those stars. Each one is just like ours, a solar system, with planets and moons.“ he would say in awe, both of us leaning back in the Adirondack chairs, gaping at the glittering sky. “Some probably have life on them. Somewhere up there is another planet and they are looking out at the night sky just like us, and wondering who else is looking back at them.”

Those were my favorite memories, the ones I chose to keep as close as I could to my heart. Sure, there were plenty of other ones, from birthdays and Christmases, but those were the standard, greeting card variety. They were special, but not like these moments. The moments where my dad was more than just “Dad”, they were the moments when I finally started to see my father as a human being. That glimmer of the person he really was, and not just his function in my life. Where I could see the world through his eyes, understand why he pursued science with a passion that few others understood. When he looked out on the world he wanted to know more, to see everything there was to be seen, to learn every minuscule thing about it. When he gazed up at the night sky with wonder, it was not because he feared his insignificance in the face of how enormous the universe really was. My father stared into the night sky like a captain staring into space, the words of Roddenberry echoing in his mind like a mantra. He thirsted to know what was beyond himself, what was out there, what was left to be known. The universe awaited and here he was, bound by gravity to the earth living in a time where man had yet to get beyond the boundaries of our own moon. My father hungered for the unknown, his throat parched by his thirst for knowledge, and the universe was spread out above him like the greatest feast he had ever laid eyes on. All he had to do was reach up far enough into the heavens to touch it.

He never got the chance.

Which is why I stood here now, alone, staring out over the glassy surface of the lake wrapped in a wool blanket against the non-existent chill that never seemed to leave my bones. It was as if winter had never left me, after the accident, like a curse brought on by my sole survival. I was the only one not in the car, sick with the flu and home with a baby sitter, even though I was sixteen, the night of my brothers Christmas concert. They had called just before leaving the school auditorium, to let me know they would be home soon, but they weren’t. The police blamed it on black ice and poor visibility, and some other things I had stopped listening to after the part where they told me the only survivor was the driver of the other car. I just sat in stunned silence, hearing my grandmother weeping and my aunt’s voice, shrill with shock and anger, as they talked to the police and the doctors at the hospital.

I think I remained that way for the next nine months, a stunned robot of myself, barely making it through the end of the school year. I would sit in the counseling sessions my aunt insisted on, making appropriate remarks when asked, but not really participating. My world had gone silent around me, not really, but maybe I had just stopped listening. I slept, got up, ate, showered, went to school, came home, did homework, ate dinner, went to bed, and repeated it the next day. I functioned, did what I was supposed to do, but that was it.

The only moments I felt anything were when I would wake up at night, still in my room, and really believe I had just been dreaming. I would get out of bed and run to my parent’s room, standing in the doorway and see their empty bed. The smell of their room was the same; my father’s pants were still draped over the back of the dressing table chair where he had left them, to my mother’s annoyance and frustration. My mother’s nightgown was folded neatly on her pillow, smelling of roses and lavender, her favorite lotion. Nothing had changed, except they were no longer there. I would stand two steps inside the doorway, rocking back and forth, the painful lump rising from the back of my throat to the top of my mouth. My eyes would burn, and my hands would ball into fists. If my aunt wasn’t quick enough, a howl would finally work its way out of my throat and she would rush find me, curled into a tight, angry ball on the floor of the doorway, screaming.

I never opened my brother’s door; I never made it that far.

Which was why we were here now, she couldn’t take it anymore, the sudden change from the moribund robot to the howling ball of anguish with nothing remotely human in between. I’d heard her talking to my grandmother, I wasn’t getting any better, and even the psychologist said so. What I needed was a change of scene and society. My grandmother had recommended having me come to Florida with them for a while, maybe even to live, but my aunt disagreed. According to her, I needed to learn to heal. They fought for hours over it last May, while I sat staring out of the front bay window, watching my friends walk home from school. I had been pulled out of class after my last breakdown had woken the neighbors. I guess my aunt realized I just didn’t care, she had stopped hiding these conversations from me, so I heard every word of her side of it. Finally, the decision was made that we would go to the cabin for the summer, and I would go to Florida at the end of August, to live with my grandparents. The idea was to “ease me away” from the memories, so I could distance myself a little and start to heal.

I just did as I was told.

This is why I was here, now, staring out over the glassy water, watching the fog drift away into the forest. I missed my father here most of all, longed to hear my mother clattering around in the kitchen as she managed her first cup of coffee for the day, listened for the drum of my brothers feet on the wooden dock as he took a running start off of the end into the water. Here, in the stillness of the morning, was where their ghosts haunted me the most. I could feel them closest, as if I could turn around and see them fading away from me in the sunlight with the fog from the lake.

A long, mournful, cry echoed across the lake and I looked up, startled, as a sleek shape glided across the top of the water with the still grace only a loon possesses. I watched it, entranced, wondering for the first time in my life if my father had sent this creature, its sorrowful cry breaking into the stillness of the morning with the perfect grace that only a loon cry could.

I was so caught by the sight of the loon as it glided and called across the water, that I did not see the shadow that approached silently over the trees. If it had blocked the sun, perhaps I would have seen it, but in the gray light of predawn, it was almost invisible for something that large. It wasn’t until I smelled metal and heat on the sudden breeze that blew around me that I even looked up, but by then, it was too late. The last thing I saw as gray blackness took me was metal and lights, and a door opening above me. After that, only the cold numbness of unconsciousness, and a strange sense of relief as I drifted into it.

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New Story, Sci-Fi untitled

I heard Katy complaining almost before the doors to triage slid open. For some reason, probably because I had gotten used to hearing her complain about everything for the last six months of her tour, I mostly ignored her. She was standing at the nurses station holding a stack of charts. One chart sat on the counter in front of her as she sneered sarcastically across the counter at Addie, the attending nurse.

“You take him, Lark, you’re good with his type.”she slid the chart at me with one finger, as if the plastic sheet were infected.

I picked it up off of the counter, trying to not show my irritation with the head rounds nurse. She had been promoted over me a month ago, but not because she was necessarily any better than me. Her career path seemed pretty set to return to civi duty, whereas I was determined to exam out of nursing and, hopefully, get into research. I liked the hist-path lab rotations, the peace and relative quiet of the lab was soothing to me. It was because of this that I passed up the promotion, recommending Katy for the position despite knowing damn well I would regret it, if only temporarily. She would be gone soon, less than a week, and none the wiser about not being first pick until she reached the home-world systems, when the notation would be made public along with all of her other employment records.

I added the chart to my rounds and, with a quiet nod to the rest of the nurses, started in on my bedside observations.

Working on the severe trauma unit was almost as calming as working in the lab. Nearly all of the patients were drugged to the point of being comatose, and the AI unit was mostly responsible for any physical treatments aside from medications the patients needed. Nurses should have been a thing of the past, but a few nasty incidents with malfunctioning AI units made the presence of a living, breathing, trained nurse still considered mandatory, even on state of the art med ships like ours.

This trauma unit was relatively small, not more than one hundred beds, but that came as one of the perks in officer territory. None of the patients in our unit held a rank less than lieutenant. Sargeants were required to stay with their soldiers on the general trauma unit, but the officers in charge of them were segregated out. The privacy was the only perk, as the officers received no different treatment from the general military population. I had been told once that the only reason they were segregated out was to reduce the incidence of officer homicide by the soldiers they commanded and I didn’t doubt it.

Most colony born soldiers never made it above the rank of sargeant. This was either because there were so many fatalities in battle that it was rare to have a colony born soldier survive that long, or because so many Home-world born soldiers had the advantage of attending one of the four elite military schools. Once you became an officer it was extremely rare for you to see any action, and even then, it was usually from the safety of a command post on the transport ship as it maintained orbit over the attack quadrant. Officers rarely set foot planet side. It didn’t take a genius to see why there was so much descent between the colonies and the home-world system, with the bright young youths of the colony mandatoraly sent off to die while the home-world officers watched it all happen on a vid-screen thousands of miles above.

I got to Katy’s cast-off last. I put him there because my primary responsibility was to the patients assigned to me. Anything else I did to assist another nurse complete their rounds was considered extra-credit. I would not be the one reamed out if I didn’t get to it, although  I probably would hear it from Katy the next time I saw her. Not that that would happen, officer territory had perks for the rounds nurses as well, such as having plenty of time to do rounds and sit down.

I read over the officers chart before I entered the nook where his bed was. Commander Xander Larson. He had sustained extensive muscular burn injuries while aboard the Gemini during the latest battle with the Virons. I tried to remember where that had occurred, but being on a busy military med ship made keeping track of where in the galaxy what ship met what horrible end basically impossible.

Although techically I only needed to note rank before skipping to the treatment section of his chart, I took a good long look at where he was from. Even on the general rank units, I liked sneaking peeks at where in the known universe my soldiers came from. It interested me more to imagine what part of the home-world systems the commanding officers came from.

It took me by surprise, then, to see the planetary system indicated in his file. He was colony, and not a military school charity case scholarship type either. This one had worked his way up from colony soldier. That took, as the head rounds doctor liked to put it, ball’s harder than steel.

“You must be one tough mother if you’re colony bred.” I murmured as I fed the chart into the slot on the wall by his bed.

“Thanks” croaked out a voice just barely above a whisper I jumped and looked over at the bed. Blue eyes glittered over at me in the semi-darkness of the bed-nook.

“I apologize, Commander, I didn’t realize you were awake.” I turned to check the readouts on the stats screen and realized that all of his pain medication feeds had shut off. The problem with sensitive med equipment was that sometimes it broke easily. In this case, it appeared as though the bed weight monitor was not working and, instead of alarming due to sudden lack of patient weight, the damn computer decided that there was no longer a patient in the bed and stopped all med feeds. I winced inwardly, knowing that had I checked on him at the beginning of my rounds, I might have noticed it sooner. I patched in an over-ride to restart his medications and sent an alert to Technical.

“That’s the first complement I’ve heard in a long time.” The corner of his mouth drew up a little in a smile, but quickly turned into a wince. He was feeling the pain now and I double checked the med flow. Nerve regrowth, while still a miraculous breakthrough in science, was also extremely painful. Considering that with his case we were also regrowing most of the muscle mass on the right side of his body the pain would be double.

“Your medication feed has a short in it. I’m getting it fixed right now. You should be feeling the pain meds kick in shortly. I apologize again, Commander Larson.” I walked to the side of his bed and lifted the plastic gel blanket gently off of his right side.

“That’s fine, Nurse.” His eyes were ice blue as he watched me examine his healing injuries, “Most people see I’m colony and assume the worst.”

His skin where the injuries were was still translucent, but had been regrown over top of his muscle mass so seamlessly that no scar would exist to show the extent of his injuries. Underneath I could see the pulsatile rhythm of blood as it flowed through the tissues. The majority of his muscle and skin regrowth had happened in a bio-tank, but the muscles and nerves now needed time to complete growth outside of the bio-tank.

“I’m colony too. I know how you feel. It takes a lot of hard work to get anywhere, even military, once people know you’re colony bred.” I smiled at him, trying my best at good bedside manners.

I checked to be sure that the feed lines into the blood vessel ports for the regrowth broth had not suffered the same short. For safety reasons, the regrowth nutrient broth system was on a separate consol and power supply as the pain medication and muscle relaxant. The yellow liquid still flowed through the tubes as if nothing had happened. I smiled a little as I finished checking the ports, eyeballing the color of his new-grown skin for anything abnormal. Nothing beats the human eye for finding problems, or else my presence here would be useless.

“All there?” his voice was so raspy, I wondered if he had lung damage too. I vaguely remembered something about a gas missle attack on the main deck had caused over 70% casualties, but again, that could have been any ship.

“Excuse me?”

“I caught the last nurse checking to see if I was ‘all there’” His lips curved a little upward again, but still tight. I glanced at the monitor and could see the pain medication starting to flow again. Then I realized what he had just said to me.

“Really?” I raised an eyebrow at him, “You didn’t want me to check, did you?”

“ No, Ma’am.” He tried to grin at me, but it turned into more of an odd grimmace.

Gently, I covered his right side back up again, tenderly aware of how sensitive his thin skin was. Any contact with it, even the slight pressure applied by laying the gel blanket back down on him, caused some measure of discomfort to the nerves. I had heard another officer describe it as a searing burning that reverberated all over the injured area when fingers had been drawn lightly down his skin.

I could tell the pain medications had started flowing again, the Commanders face held a tight wince as the first venous burn started. Gently, I uncurled his clenched left hand and slipped my fingers under his and let him clench my hand in a strangle hold as the medication spread up his arm. It wouldn’t help to have the IV catheter cut off inadvertantly at the point of entry.

“Hold on, it’ll start working soon.” I said softly to him. Although the medications worked wonders to knock out patients and keep them in a pain-free state of coma during convalesence, nothing could take away the painful burn it caused when first introduced to the bloodstream.

“Jesus…” he whispered, and then the medication hit his brain and I felt his whole body sag. His eyelids drooped closed and his breathing slowed to the deeper, more even rhythm of the heavily medicated. Softly, I slid my hand out of his now lax one and returned it to where it belonged under the gel blanket. I had to flex my hand a few times to get the blood flowing again. The commander was a big man, despite having half his body regrowing and his hand had not only dwarfed mine, but practically crushed it as I tried to hold it open to prevent the catheter from blocking.

“Isn’t this Katy’s patient?” I turned at the sound of the mostly inflectionless voice. Marty stood there, silver eyes blinking in an un-natural rhythm at me.

“Katy said she needed help and I said I would take care of him.” I shrugged as I finished straightening the Commander’s covering and then stepped back so Marty could enter the space.

“Katy didn’t want to get rejected by him again.” Marty gave me as close to an ironic look as she could manage.

Marty was a Chop, an injured veteran who hadn’t been a good match for the regrowth process. The military didn’t like to loose a soldier if they didn’t have to, so they used technology to replace what the soldier lost using a combination of metallic cells called iCHELLS1 and hardware. In Marty’s case, her entire lower half from her lungs down had been replaced with a four legged walking apparatus, her gastrointestinal system completely removed and replaced with an energy converter and iCHELL photosynthesis system which replaced her remaining skin. Everything was controlled by iCHELL based neural network that replaced her spinal chord. Essentially, only her brain, her eyes, and a few underlying tissues on her face were original. Everything else was either machine or iCHELL technology.

“Again?” I raised my eyebrow at the Med Engineer as she plugged into the computer system by my patients bed.

“He caught her checking his apparatus out and reprimanded her.” It took a lot not to be totally creeped out by the inflectionless tone in Marty’s voice, but that’s what happens when your vocal chords are replaced by a sound processor. The technology only goes so far as to allow words to be translated from thoughts to the correct auditory sound. Emotion and inflection were far to complicated a thing for the technology to convey.

“So this isn’t the first time he’s woken up.”

“No. And she didn’t report it. She just amped up his medications and hoped it wouldn’t happen again.” The raised eyebrow and slight scowl on her metallic face was the only indication of Marty’s thoughts on the matter. She had reamed me out when she heard that I had passed up the promotion, the first time I learned that although her voice couldn’t convey much emotion, her face and volume could.

“How do you know it happened?” I leaned gently on the edge of the bed, careful to watch the medication flow and my patients face. I didn’t want him waking up again.

“I was performing a routine system check and caught the short. I saw the security vid when I tried to determine if the medication shut off was human or computer error.” She shrugged, her eyes on the monitor that sped numbers and symbols by at a blinding rate. The iCHELL neural network made most of her sensory reflexes significantly faster than a normal human.

“Is it human error?”

“No. Not any more.” She turned and looked at me, disconnecting from the bedside computer. “I’m putting this bed on temporary shut down for repairs after this patient leaves. He should be complete with the healing process by tomorrow afternoon and able to move to physical therapy wing. I will have to totally shut down and restart the program before I can fix the issue. Until then, this patient will require hourly checks to be certain his pain medications are still running normal. I have made a note on his patient file in the system that will alert his assigned nurse to the issue.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

1iChells= developed in 2011 at the University of Glasgow, they are cell-like bubbles built from giant metal-containing molecules that, when bonded by certain processes, show some life-like properties like creating organelle-like structures and even indicating that they could develop the ability to photosynthesize. I read a short article in New Scientist about it and have run with the idea.

 

Questions and Directions…

“Strikes you, doesn’t it?” A rich, slightly accented voice spoke up from my right.

“Who are they?” I looked over at the man who stood directly beside me. He was slightly taller than me and stocky with neatly combed red hair, trimmed red beard, and freckled skin.

“All of them are children who have gone missing in the city within the last week.” He examined the photos papering the wall with arms folded across his chest.

I followed his gaze back to the cherub faces that stared out of snapshots and family photos that covered the wall twice as high as me and along the entire interior cubicle wall. There were over a hundred children pictured, with names, dates, and places last seen typed neatly under every picture. As we stood there, a young woman tacked another picture with a neatly typed card at the far right end of the wall. They were running out of space.

“This isn’t normal.” I stated. Something in the back of my mind was screaming at me, but the sound was muffled and I couldn’t make out the thought. Deep in my heart a sense of horrified familiarity had planted a seed. I had seen this before, somewhere, but a logical trace through my memories couldn’t dredge up where.

“Children go missing all the time.” Now the man turned to me and fixed me with eyes so dark they were nearly black. His ears, which I had not noticed earlier, were slightly pointed. The air around him shimmered and I knew he was using a massive amount of glamour. He wanted me to know it too. Moreover, I could feel him looking past my human shell, the part of me that needed no glamour, and into the very essence of my blood, my fairy line. In the busy central office of the Baltimore City police station two people now stared at each other and knew without any doubt in their mind that the other was just as supernatural as they were.

“Not like this.” I shook my head at the cherubs smiling out at us. “They’re too young to be runaways.”

“Someone is taking them.” He nodded. I could see through the shimmer in the air around him, he was drawing his glamour back around himself to hide from the humans.

“Who?”

“Please, come into my office.” He gestured behind us and I followed him through a glass door into a separated fishbowl of an office located at the edge of the cubicled central office. However, once he closed the door, all sounds from the outside were completely blocked. I sat in the chair across the desk from him and read his nameplate: James O’Donnell.

“My name is Eirnin. My people came here from what is now the Breton region of France seven hundred years ago.” He settled back into the creaking high-backed desk chair and folded his hands together under his chin.

“Seven hundred years?”

“We were escaping the covens that controlled Europe. America had not yet been discovered by the majority of the Western world. It seemed a safe place to come to at the time.” His accent was more pronounced now. He fixed me with dark eyes, “So, tell me, how does a descendant of Mercy Elizabeth Tate come to be escorted into my police station by a werewolf who states you single handedly defeated a sanguisage?”

“What?”

“Would you like me to repeat it?”

“No, I heard you. It’s just that I learned a lot in that question than I think I have to tell you in an answer.”

“I doubt it. You answer my question, then I will answer yours.”

“Detective blackwolf came to the branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library where I work, in Mt. Vernon, looking for historical information for a case. I helped him out, and saw he had a picture of a door with runes on it. Protective runes that were extremely powerful. The doors they kept shut were at either end of a slave smuggling tunnel that Detective Blackwolf seemed to think a drug suspect was using to evade police.”

“You didn’t think so. So you found the entrance he hadnt found yet.”

“Only he met us there.”

“Us being?”

“Myself and my cousin Amy.”

“The young lady Detective Blackwolf is talking to now?”

“Yes.”

“Go on.”

“The door was broken outward and smeared with rotting blood when we got there. Detective blackwolf was in the process of telling us to leave when we were attacked by that thing.”

“The sanquisage.”

“Yes, that. What was it?”

“It’s a weapon created by mashing together human body parts and marinating them in a soup of vampire blood, among other things, until they develop a life of their own.”

“I think Detective Blackwolfs suspect was part of it.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I just know. I could feel it. When I killed it.”

“Destroyed it, you mean.” I gave him a quizzical look and he smiled, “You can’t kill what is already dead.”

“You said it was created by marinating it in vampire blood. Does that mean that there was a vampire killed too?”

“Did you feel one?”

“Yes, but it didn’t feel the same as the people who the body parts came from.”

“That’s because the vampire is what created it.” He sat back in his chair again, the joints complaining loudly, “Vampires have many weapons in their arsonal. Some of them more terrible than others.”

“That one must have been the worst.”

“not necessarily.” He looked out of the office window at the board of photographs.

“Children? What can a vampire do with children? They’re just infants, they can barely walk.” I could feel my brow curling and a flat denial rising in my heart, but that niggling seed of familiar horror seemed to be growing as I looked once again at the wall of cherubs.

“You said you work at the Mt. Vernon branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The one that was originally a church?” I nodded. “When you go to work next, I want you to look up two things, terminology that I want you to become extremely knowledgable about. The first, are Natali Nosferatu, and how to destroy them. The second, and this might be more difficult to find, is to look up any and all references you can find on Nightmare Children. Both are related to the weaponry used by Vampires during the Dark Ages, to give you a good starting point.”

Witches

Sunshine filtered through the windows of Amy’s shop, revealing all of the dust and dirty prints that adorned them. I fought the urge to leave the counter and step up onto the display with a bottle of window cleaner and a rag to wash the windows. There were a group of teenagers milling around the love charms and fortune telling books and I had to keep an eye on them.

I probably could have left my post, but Amy was strict and this store was her baby. I was just the babysitter and the only reason I had that post was because I was practically the baby’s aunt. I sighed and thrummed my fingers on the worn wooden counter, watching the girls in catholic school uniforms as they giggled and flipped through a book on love charms.

Oh, to be sixteen again.  I thought with more than a little sarcasm. I would never go back to that period of my life with all the ackwardness and scape goating, not to mention the inescapable fact that I was materially different from everyone else in my school whether I wanted to be or not. Being nearly thirty wasn’t exactly sitting well with me, being unmarried and childless, but compared to my teenage years this period of my life was just fine with me.

Finally, the girls left the store and I could leave the counter to straighten the mess they left. I was getting the window cleaner and a rag when Amy returned, throwing her bag behind the counter with an annoyed sigh. I didn’t bother to ask, I knew why she was so irritated. She had been called to the home of a woman who wanted heavy magic used to separate the woman’s lover from his wife. Amy hated doing magic like that, she hated meddling in the twisted love lives of people. They never really knew what they wanted until they made the wrong choices and lived to regret them.

“How was it?” she asked as I climbed into the front display and started to clean the windows.

“Quiet. Just the usual.” I didn’t look at her and focused on wiping away the dusty marks from the top to the bottom.

“Why are women like that? Why are they such slaves to men?” she sighed, and I could hear her removing her supplies and putting them away in the cupboards behind the counter. “You never see men in here leafing through the love charms, calling me up at all hours of the day to ask for a love spell, weeping and crying when I tell them I refuse to do it for free. Why is it always women? Why do they choose to suffer?”

“That’s the eternal question, Amy, why are we so stupid about men?” I turned and looked at her, “I bet you could go on Oprah if you answered that question.”

She laughed and I could see her relax. She folded her bag and slid it under the counter, smiling at me, “You’re never going to fall in love, are you?”

“Haven’t yet and I’m beginning to think I might never will. I can’t find a man I can trust enough.” I jumped down from the display and went to the front door, spraying it down and wiping with more gusto than was perhaps necessary.

“That’s true. Neither of us is going to find anyone we can trust.” Amy sighed.

“Don’t tellCharlottethat.” I could see the form of a willowy teenager walking down the street to my right. She had the graceful step of a dancer and the ethereal beauty of a fairy princess. Her plaid skirt stopped just barely above her knees, where the manditory white socks started. She was walking with her head down and her dark hair covering the sides of her face and I could tell from the set of her mouth that today had been yet another bad day at school. I turned away from the door so she wouldn’t see me watching her,“Although I don’t think we will have to.”

“Oh no, not again.” Amy sighed and furrowed her brow. “Those girls are terrible. I thought switching schools would stop this.”

“I told you sending her to an all girls school was a mistake.” I put the window cleaner and rag back in the cupboard behind the counter and leaned on the counter edge, crossing my arms and watching the door, “It’s not the boys that cause the problems, Amy, it’s us. Normal women can sense we’re different and they don’t like us.”

“But there is no reason for it. We never harm them, and when  they need us they have no qualms about weeping on our doorstep for a potion or charm.” Amy’s furrowed brow became an all out scowl.

“True, WE are not a threat to them, but don’t forget about our ancestors. You know, the ones who stole husbands and left bastard children running around.” I laughed at her as I watchedCharlotteapproach through my spanking clean windows, “Remember that the next time we get threatened with a good burning at the stake.”

Amy laughed at me, but the conversation stopped there asCharlottestrode glumly through the door. She barely smiled at Amy when she was asked how her day went. It was all too obvious on her face that she just wanted to be left alone, at least for a little while.

Life had been tough from the very beginning for poorCharlotte. Her mother, my mother’s younger sister, had accidentally gotten pregnant before her wedding and, using the pregnancy as an excuse, her fiance left her for another woman. Despite the heartbreak, Theresa had done just fine after she gave birth to littleCharlotte. She had already become a well established editor for a small women’s magazine inSeattle, so having a baby had not put much of a financial burden on her and she had been able to switch to working mostly at home duringCharlotte’s first few years. Sadly, Theresa had died in a terrible car accident while Christmas shopping with a friend whenCharlottewas five. My mother and father, while certainly devestated by the event, were already too burdened by taking care of my elderly grandfather to takeCharlottein. Amy’s parents, also my aunt and uncle, were a no-go for taking the child since Amy had developed serious concerns with the effect of their alternate hippy life style on the young child. Amy, therefore, had takenCharlottein and became her sole guardian.

For the past eleven years Amy had stayed settled in Baltimore, close enough to her own parents that she could see them fairly often, but far enough away that they couldn’t drop by on a daily basis. This last part was the most important. Reason being? Amy, along with Charlotte, Amy’s sister Alana, and myself, was a witch.

Witches are, for the most part, fairly harmless. Of course, you do have the people who use the craft for personal gain and power, etc., but those people don’t often last long. Someone kills them off eventually, or they get themselves killed trying something really dumb like cursing people or opening doorways that really should stay firmly shut and locked. The majority of witches are just silly women who sit around lighting incense and reciting incantations to commune with the natural world. As I said before, they’re actually fairly harmless as they rarely are able to tap into the real power that’s out there.

The witches in our family, however, are the kind of witch you don’t want to mess around with. We’re the real kind, the kind born with the natural ability to tap into the powerful forces that bind our world together. When we recite incantations, things really do happen, sometimes they’re scary things, but they really happen. Our every day lives are nothing close to those of ordinary women. We see the world within the world you live in, the ebb and flow of the energy that binds all living things.

Witch families like ours are rare, it takes some pretty powerful bloodlines and, more often than not, the addition of a supernatural bloodline like fairy or elven to create a human family of witches. In our case, it came from my mothers side of the family, Amy’s father, andCharlotte’s mother. They were the children of a woman named Eleanor Catherine Tate, who was the single child of a woman named Mercy Tate, an Irish immigrant to theWest Virginiacoal mining region ofAppalachia. Who she was before she came toAmerica, no one knows, her family history literally starts inAmerica. No record of where she came from inIreland, who her parents were, and what part ofIrelandshe came from exists. It’s just assumed she was Irish, as the area was being flooded by Irish immigrants at the time she showed up and it makes the most sense.

When she got to Appalachia, Mercy married a prominent Native American involved with the business of negotiating the coal mining and his people’s land, a man with the given name of Thomas Redfox. It’s not known if it was her choice of a Native American over a white irishman, or the inevitable attractiveness that the women in our family are prone to that got her killed, but less than three years after being married to Thomas, Mercy’s body was found in a creek not far from their home. Our grandmother, Eleanor, was immediately sent to live with a man who Mercy claimed was her brother many miles away in Virginia. According to records,the man my grandmother was raised by, James Tate, only had brothers and no surviving sisters. However, he took Eleanor in and raised her with his own three children, two girls and a boy.

What happened to Thomas after he lost Mercy is as unknown as what Mercy’s real past was. He just dropped off of the map after her death, abandoning the house he shared with her and disappearing. Rumors, according to local newspapers, ran rampant claiming that Thomas had taken revenge on the men responsible for Mercy’s death before disappearing into the wilderness, never to be seen again. This, Amy and I knew, was not true as newspaper stories from months later indicated that eight men were tried and found guilty of Mercy’s murder. Thomas’ whereabouts, however, still remained a mystery.

I know this sounds all mysterious and full of unknowns, but our family history, at least on that side, is pretty typical. Most witching families have unknown bloodlines at some point, or missing relatives, or changeling children. It’s actually really common among our kind. Sometimes family secrets are learned but, for the most part, it’s best to leave those particular secrets buried in the past. It’s often for the best as most pure blood fairy lines don’t like to mention any human relatives. Reason being, those human relatives are often the result of adulterous unions and bastard children. Real fairies don’t like crossing bloodlines as they consider it dilution of the pure blood.

It takes a little while for powers to develop in witching families, so it was no surprise that the abilities mostly skipped our parents generation. Our grandmother, the daughter of Mercy who we knew was the wellspring of our abilities, was a very capable witch, but what Eleanor possessed did not get immediately passed on to the next generation. Instead, first Amy, then I, followed by Alana, and finally Charlotte emerged around the ages of six or seven and our grandmother had the difficult task of training granddaughters to be responsible witches while hiding that particular fact from our parents.  With Alana and Charlotte our grandmother had very little problem, mostly because Amy was Alana’s older sister and by the time Charlotte had emerged, Amy was her guardian and already a well established witch. Myself and Amy were the challenge, as the first two to emerge and separated from our grandmother on either side of her by two states. She had worked very hard through phone calls and insisting we visit her at her family home in Virginia every summer from the time we were six. We spent every summer going to ‘witch school’ as she used to call it, cramming every piece of information she could about ourselves, our family history, and how to use our ‘gifts’ for the benefit of society. She sent us home at the end of every summer with ‘homework’ that we were to update her with over the fall and winter holidays.

By the time my grandmother passed away when I was twenty, she had started all four of us on the path to becoming powerful and highly responsible witches. The problem was, as is always the problem with those who teach us, she could not prepare us for what the outside world would throw in our paths. Like jealousy, and fear, and loathing from other women who could sense our difference or the men who liked us up to the point we lifted teacups into the cupboard without touching them or turned someone into a toad and then they ran screaming. Life, as a general rule, is difficult but for a witch trying to live with one foot in the normal world, it’s practically impossible. Unless, of course, you have someone to rely on. Much better is having a couple of someones to rely on when the going is extremely tough. Of all the things our grandmother taught us, the most important thing she gave us was the relationship we had with our cousins, women exactly like us with some idea of how tough our lives really were, being loved one minute and loathed the next.

Well, maybe not exactly alike.

The phone rang and Amy gave me a pained look. Nothing beats witch sense at knowing who is calling before the phone rings, not even electronic caller ID.

“I work tonight.” I gave her an apologetic shrug.

“I have a report due tomorrow that I have to finish.” Charlotte said before disappearing up the back stairs to the apartment above.

“Damn.” Amy sighed, and picked up the receiver, “Alana.”

I didn’t need to hear the conversation to know why Alana was calling. She had met a new man, or was going out with ‘The Girls’ and wanted Amy to watch her kids. If Charlotte was the Outcast, I was the Scapegoat, and Amy was the Den Mother in our little coven, Alana was the Social Butterfly. She never had the problems with other women that the rest of us had, but that was due to no little amount of glamour use. As she liked to put it; “Why have it when you can’t use it? It’s not like being a witch means we should suffer socially our whole lives.”

Not that Alana didn’t have her fair share of problems. His name had been Dean Abernathy and he had loved her right up the the moment their second child, a girl, set fire to the Christmas tree when she was still in the womb. He had left right then and there and Alana had not seen him since.

Alana came to Baltimore after the birth of her daughter, Isabella. At first, Alana lived with Amy, Charlotte, and I above Amy’s shop in Mt. Vernon. Let me tell you, four witches, a three year old boy and a newborn baby in a two floor, three bedroom glorified apartment was more than I could handle. One month after Alana moved in with her brood, I moved out into a little apartment about a block away. It was small, but it was all mine and I didn’t have to remove oodles of baby toys from the bathtub before I could take a shower. I even got myself a cat, a little gray thing that appeared on the front stoop one rainy October afternoon. I named him Gremlin, because he had a strange resemblance to one the afternoon I brought him in, and he has since grown into a fine, fat cat with a taste for tuna and any bugs brave (or stupid) enough to venture into my apartment.

Things apparently were going well, for the first six months Alana and her kids were with Amy and Charlotte. Then the first Man happened and that was the beginning of the end. Alana basically treated Amy and Charlotte like live in nannies and would disappear for nights at a time, leaving Amy and Charlotte to take care of the babies. That lasted about two weeks, exactly, before Amy kicked Alana out on her own. Now, Alana had to call and make arrangements with one of us first before dropping the kids off. If she couldn’t get us to watch the kids for free, well, then she was just plum out of luck for that night. Alana swore she hated paying someone to watch her kids, especially after they had been at the university day care all day where Alana worked as a receptionist. Even now that Eddie was in the first grade and at school all day, Alana had him dropped off at the day care so that she could work overtime. Granted, we didn’t complain, it meant that the kids were being cared for and she had the financial means to provide for them, but then she liked to just dump them off whenever.

Fortunately for me, I worked as a night librarian at the Mt. Vernon branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. I was effectively off of the babysitting list most nights of the week, except Tuesday nights, when I had off once a week. The rest of the time I was unavailable to watch the children. That left Amy and Charlotte, but Amy wasn’t about to allow Alana free reign to drop her kids off any time she pleased. She had to pay Charlotte to babysit, and Amy refused to watch the children on weeknights because she spent the time stocking her store and doing book keeping. In the end, Alana was mostly forced to be a working mother, whether she liked it or not. Not that she ever let on if it displeased her, she was constantly perfecting her ‘fresh as a spring breeze’ persona, practicing it on us as if we didn’t know it was all Glamour and magic.

Tonight, however, was Friday night and Alana apparently had plans, this time with ‘The Girls’ to go out drinking and dancing. Amy rolled her eyes as she put the phone back on the hook and returned to her duties at the counter. Alana was bringing the kids over at seven, after the store closed, and after they had been fed dinner. Amy would watch the kids overnight so that Alana was free to go do what she wanted, but she had to be over to pick the kids up at 8am sharp. Amy opened the store on Saturday’s at 9am and didn’t like having the kids hanging around in the shop. Charlotte usually spent her day helping Amy in the morning downstairs and doing homework (or spellwork) in the afternoons, so she wasn’t exactly free to watch the kids either.

I waved at Amy and slipped out of the front door while Amy continued to tidy up the shop, preparing for close at 6pm. Charlotte would be fixing dinner now, as it was nearly 4:30 and Amy liked to eat as soon as the locks on the front door were thrown and the metal grates drawn down. I needed to get home and change my clothes before going in to work. I also needed to feed Gremlin before I left for work.

My apartment was a little one bedroom on the front of one of the many victorian mansions in Mt. Vernon. It consisted of a main room with a bow window, a small nook of a kitchen in the right wall, bathroom just beyond with clawfoot tub and small window, and a little side room through glass french doors that held my bed at one end and make-shift closet at the other. There was a ridiculously large marble fireplace in the ante-room that served as my bedroom with a mirror above it. The walls were painted a pristine white and the woodwork had been meticulously restored by my landlord’s son.

I had decorated my little space with items I picked up in antique stores mixed with Ikea and Pier One finds. Overall, the effect was a mish-mash of old, new and quirky with lace and floral pictures. It was comfortable and just perfect.

There were seven other apartments in the building, six other tenants and my landlord, Florence.  Florence had bought the building after her husband died as a source of income during her retirement. Her son, a gangly young man of about twenty, managed the building for her in between his job as a barista and college classes. For the most part, I never needed to call him, but that wasn’t without a judicious use of magic to make sure nothing ever went wrong or fell apart. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Florence’s son, I just didn’t exactly trust his handyman skills anymore than I trusted my own.

Of all the tenants in the building, not counting Florence, I was the only one who wasn’t what you would call a “young professional” with flashy suits and an even more flashy car. I walked everywhere and I didn’t have the kind of job that required wearing an expensively tailored suit to work every day.

I had worked as the night librarian for the Mt. Vernon branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library for five years. Most people don’t realize it even exists, hidden away in an old church converted to library over fifteen years ago. Before then, it had been a Mason’s hall, or belonged to some similar organization. The large nave of the church held the main collection, with the upper balconies devoted to the childrens sections, and the reference sections.

I spent most of my nights re-organizing the sections and putting returns back on the shelves. It didn’t take very long, especially after the regular staff left and just the guard, a grizzled old man named Lenny, and I were left in the building. I could use magic then, to help sort the books and return them. Other than doing a round every two hours, Lenny pretty much slept the night away at his desk in his office, located somewhere in the back of the church. I spent the rest of the night curled up behind the main desk, reading.

The thing with the Mt. Vernon branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library is this: It doesn’t exactly exist in the system. If you look for it on the website that lists all of the branches around Baltimore, it isn’t there. It’s not listed anywhere for the general public to find. Even the sign on the building that identifies the building as being a library is a wee-little plaque to the right of the large doors, nearly six feet from the entrance doors that were carved out of the massive old church doors millenia ago, when the building stopped being a church.

The reason is that the library, while certainly having the regular selection of normal books on the main floor, is almost completely devoted to the supernatural. Not the human studies on the supernatural, but books and tomes and accounts recorded over the centuries by supernaturals. Most of the collection are copies of original pieces handed down over the millenia by supernaturals from all over the world. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but there’s even a section on American supernatural history, which starts back almost to the point where the first humans crossed the land bridge and came to the Americas. I’ve only just finished reading the section on European supernatural history, but the American history section is next on my list.

When I get to work Abigail, the main daytime librarian , usually goes over the list of returns and minor amounts of clerical work she needs me to complete during my over night shift. Today, however, she had one more thing to tell me before she slipped out of the side door.

“There is a city detective, Detective Blackwolf, who got special permission to work late this evening. The letter is on the main desk. He’s somewhere up in the map rooms, researching old underground sewer systems or something for a case. Keep an eye on him?” Abigail smiled at me before she left, wrapping her scarf artfully around her neck.

I’m not sure what she meant by “keep an eye on him”, Abigail is part of the normal human population who doesn’t exactly know that the larger portion of the library collection is actually hidden well below the main floors. I just assumed she meant to check on him often to make sure he had everything he needed. I just smiled and promised her I would while internally hoping I could slip away downstairs without him noticing.

The one main rule behind my special position as night librarian is to make sure that members of the supernatural population are the ONLY people allowed into the collection and that the normal human population knows nothing about it. The best way to insure that is to offer night hours to the exclusive supernatural population. Although they are rarely utilized by the supernatural population, as the majority of the collection tends to be historical records and accounts of supernatural happenings, I do have the occasional night visitor. It was rare to have a normal human stay after hours. I wondered if that was actually allowed, but didn’t exactly know who to ask about that. I just decided that I would have to be careful tonight. Maybe I would just pick a normal classic, like Jane Austen, to content myself with while the detective was in the library.

Lenny started locking up and doing his first round when I got to the front desk.

“Good evening!” was his normal greeting, called in a hushed and gravelly voice from across the main floor. Although it was usually just the two of us overnight in the library, he always insisted on talking in a hushed and respectful voice, even when he called to me from across the room.

“Good evening, Lenny.” I smiled as I watched the elderly guard make his way down the main floor and stop at the desk, sliding his hat back on his balding head and scratching at what hair remained there. “I hear we’re not alone this evening.”

“No ma’am. But don’tcha worry. He’s a policeman. Up in the map rooms, got the whole table covered.” Lenny gave me a wink, “I think he might need your help.”

“Lenny, the man is working. Stop that.” I blushed. Lenny was always teasing me about boyfriends and when was I going to settle down with a nice man and have babies. Oh, if he only knew the truth. I shook my head at him and smiled, “I’ll go up and check on him before I get started down here with the returns.”

“You do that.” Lenny couldn’t hide the feisty smile that twitched at the edges of his mouth, “Even Mrs. Reed couldn’t keep herself from offering her help. He’s a real looker and a cop too, so a good man all around.”

“Lenny, stop it. I’m not looking for a man.” My blush deepened, only making Lenny grin wider as he sauntered off. I liked Lenny, but sometimes it was like having a feisty uncle around more than I wanted.

I waited for the heat to dissipate from my cheeks before I left the front desk and ventured upstairs to the map section. The map section is located behind the front desk and over the administrative offices, where the alter of the old church used to be located. The stained glass windows that loomed over the old alter now dominated the west wall of the map section, illuminating the large wooden tables placed there for easy perusal of the city maps. The balcony that overlooked the main floor was enclosed with a beautiful  laticework divide which was moved from a lower section of the church at the request of a former attendee to the church when it was converted into a library. Two iron sets of spiral stairs on either side of the main desk provided access to the upper levels. It was up one of these that I now softly stepped, hoping to not disturb the man who was working above.

The late afternoon sun was just filtering through the stained glass windows in the west wall, bathing the map section in bright reds, blues, and yellows. A man sat at the far end of the first set of tables, leaning over a large map that covered the entire end of the table, a notebook set beside him. I could see he wore business slacks and a button down oxford shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and a leather holster around his shoulders. I couldn’t see the gun, but I knew it was there, and it made me nervous as I approached him.

“Excuse me, detective?” I stopped a few feet from the man, gently drawing his attention.

“Yes?” he lifted his head from his hand and looked up at me. He had dark hair in a crew cut that needed a trim, the front stuck up a little wildly from where his fingers had been running through it. He had dark eyes and the copper skin tone of a native american. “I have permission to stay after closing hours.”

“Yes, I know. I just wanted to let you know that Abigail left and I will be taking over for the night, if you need anything. I’ll be just down at the main desk.” I smiled and started to turn away. He sounded grumpy and I decided not to try any further conversation, so I started to slip back to the stairway in the hopes that I could find a book and be back at the desk before he really did need me.

“Excuse me, miss?” I stopped and turned, surprised that he had spoken to me. He had slid back the chair he was sitting in and turned to look at me.

“Yes?”

“There aren’t any maps of the sewer system older than this one in the library, are there?” he gave the map he had been looking at a very tired, and slightly annoyed, look.

“Not that I know of. I assume you’ve tried the city archives?” I bit my lip.

“They sent me here.” He laughed and rubbed his face with both hands, clearly tired.

“What are you looking for, if I might ask?” I watched him, not expecting an answer, “or would it ruin your case?”

“I’m looking for an underground connection between the harbor and some abandoned warehouses north of Patterson Park. I have a suspect that is using some kind of connection between these buildings and the harbor, but we can’t find an above ground route of escape.” He stretched his arms upward, cracking the bones of his shoulders, and looked at me.

“Sewer maps won’t help, then.” I walked over to the opposite side of the room, where the older maps were kept. “You want the slave tunnel maps.”

“What slave tunnels?” I heard the scrape of his chair as he stood up and followed me, his footsteps surprisingly quiet on the polished wood floor.

“During the Civil War, tunnels were dug all through the city connecting parts of the sewer system to create an escape route and place to hide for freed slaves trying to reach the north, into Pennsylvania. This map isn’t exactly complete, as it was drawn based on the accounts of former slaves long after the Civil War was over, but it might help.” I pulled out the laminated copy and lay it on the table nearby.

He set his pad of paper down beside the map on the table and I stepped aside so that he could see it more clearly. Standing so close, I realized how big this man really was. He was probably taller than me by at least a foot and a half and I wouldn’t be lying if I said he was wider than me by the same. If you could describe someone as a monster of a person, it was this man. It was clearly not dead weight, either. The muscles of his upper arms flexed under his skin, leaving no room for extraneous fat. I was secretly relieved this man was on the good side of the law, I would not want to meet up with the wrong side of him even on a bright sunlit day.

“That’s it, right there.” He laughed, running large fingers down a series of lines on the map indicating the tunnels. He smiled over at me, the chiseled lines of his face melting into the warmest expression I had ever seen. “Thanks. This is great.”

I reflexively smiled back at him. “You’re welcome.”

“I’m surprised that the other librarian didn’t recommend this, as many times as she was up here trying to be helpful.” He wrote something down in his notebook, and then turned to lean on the back of a chair and smile at me.

“Most people don’t know these tunnels exist. I think some historian wrote about them years ago, but the book was buried somewhere in the American history section and completely forgotten. It’s really interesting, if you have the time to read it.” I blushed, stepping back.

“Guess you have the most time to read out of anyone.” He looked around, indicating the library.

“Yeah, I have a lot of time to read.” I smiled, and straightened up. “Was there anything else you needed?”

“I need to make a copy of this map, if that can be done, so I’ll need reference information.” He motioned to the map. “Other than that, I think I’m done here. I’ll just put those other maps away for you?”

“Sure, I’ll need to get the information you need at the front desk.” I noted the map before slipping it back into the flat file.

I slipped downstairs as soon as I knew that Detective Blackwolf had a handle on putting the maps away and focused on pulling the information he needed up on the computer. I had just hit the print button when the detective came down from the map section, a dark blazer pulled on over his shirt and a briefcase slung over one shoulder. He smiled as he approached the desk and I handed him the still warm printout over the top of the desk.

“I didn’t catch your name?” he smiled over at me as he slipped the paper into his briefcase and clipped it shut.

“Oh, I’m Eleanor, Ellie for short.” I picked up the walkie talkie to call Lenny, but I could already see the guard strolling towards us down one of the rows of books. He must have been lurking around, waiting.

“That’s an old fashioned name.” he remarked as he adjusted his bag and the collar of his jacket.

“It’s my grandmothers name, my mother named me after her.” I nodded at Lenny as he approached the desk, nodding at the Detective.

“Do you always work nights here?” he smiled at Lenny, but turned back to me, “In case I need more information?”

“Yes, I’m usually here by seven in the evening, sometimes a little earlier. Just make sure you’re here before closing if you need anything.” I smiled at him, trying to ignore Lenny’s knowing smirk. “Have a good night.”

“You too, and, thanks for the map.” He gave me a short wave and turned to follow Lenny to the front door.

I ignored the grin Lenny gave me after he locked the front door behind the detective and decided to return to the map section. Although I was sure the detective had put everything back where it belonged, it was always a good idea to double check. I slipped upstairs as soon as Lenny disappeared into the stacks on his way back to his office.

Detective Blackwolf had done a very good job, every map he had out was put back exactly where it belonged. I just needed to straighten the chair he had used and turn out the light, and the map section was officially closed for the night. I moved the chair back into position and was about to lean over the table to switch off the lamp when a piece of paper on the floor under where the chair had been caught my eye. I bent down to pick it up and realized it was an enlarged black and white photo, probably from the detectives file. I switched off the lamp and hurried downstairs, unlocking the front door and looking out onto the darkening street.

“Detective Blackwolf?” I called out, seeing a large male frame standing on the corner. He turned, looking back at me. “You left this.”

I held up the photograph and he started back towards me. Inadvertently, I looked down at the photo in my hands, and stopped cold. Slowly, I turned it into the light to see better and felt chills run up my arms, down my spine, and into the pit of my stomach. The photograph was of a door in a brick wall, clearly barred and spiked closed. The door and the frame around the door were virtually covered in symbols, carved into the stones and clearly molded into the metal door itself.

“Some kind of voodoo symbols, we think. I can’t find anyone who can translate them.” Detective Blackwolf’s voice startled me, I had been so absorbed in the picture I hadn’t seen him get close. He took the photo from my hand, but didn’t put it away immediately.

“Is this where you think your suspect is getting away?” I looked up at him, trying to sound more curious than concerned. I knew exactly what those symbols meant, they meant stay away, and they meant it good.

“There aren’t any other doors or exits so this was the only way he could have gone, but we can’t see how he moved the door. We haven’t been able to budge it ourselves.” He was watching my face and I realized I would have to be careful.

“He didn’t. There is no way he could have gone through here. These symbols, they’re keeping the door shut more than the bars.” I pointed to the symbols on the door, “You would do well to stay away from this door too. He isn’t going through here. Those runes, they aren’t voodoo, they’re older than that. They aren’t there to keep you out; they’re there to keep something in. It’s not going to just open.”

“Now how would you know that?” he turned to face me, scrutinizing me.

“I read. A lot.” I shrugged. It’s never a good idea to let law enforcement know that you’re a witch, it tends to destroy much trust they have in you. I realized I had said too much and hoped I could at least throw him off pretending to be an avid bookworm, which wasn’t exactly a lie. I did work overnights at a library with only an elderly security guard for company. Being an avid reader was a logical thing to be in such cases.

“These frighten you.” He lifted the photograph.

“Yes, and, technically, they should frighten you too. They’re spells to keep something terrible trapped there, behind that door. Only…” I chewed my lip, turning to look at the runes on the photograph again.

“Only?”

“Any time I’ve ever read references to runes like these, they’re in Europe, somewhere in the east of Europe, in those places where the modern world took a while to reach.” I smiled, a little shaky and trying to sound light about it, “You know the places where people still believe in vampires and werewolves.”

“So why is this in Baltimore? At the head of a slave tunnel?” he furrowed his brow.

“I don’t know that. I’ve never read anything about it in Baltimore before.” I smiled sheepishly, “I haven’t started on American history yet. Maybe the tunnel was just a convenient place at the time.”

“Convenient for what?” I could only shrug my continued ignorance. His grumpy scowl returned. “This doesn’t help me much.”

“I’m sorry.” I chewed my lip again, and then something occurred to me, “If it is capping the tunnel, there has to be another door on the other side, just like this one. If he did manage to go through here, you just need to find the door at the other end to know which tunnel he used to exit from.”

“You don’t think he went this way, though.” He sounded skeptical of me.

“From what I’ve read, no, he wouldn’t be able to get the door open.” I shrugged and looked back up at him, “If you really believe in that stuff, anyway.”

“I’ll keep an open mind.” He slipped the photograph back into his briefcase. “Have a good night.”

“You, too.” I watched him turn into the slowly darkening twilight, and called after him, “Be careful anyway. Those tunnels are really old, if they even still exist.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” He waved at me before starting back down the street.

I retreated into the library and locked the front door with a troubled mind. It was one thing for him not to believe in the power those runes had over that door, he and the police force probably wouldn’t be able to open that door, not with all the dynamite on earth. That was what those runes were put there for. It was the fact that the door was even there, that there might be another door at the other end of the tunnel with the same warnings and spells on it in a language so old human memory had forgotten it. Something really bad was in there, and needed to stay there.

I went back to the front desk and tapped my fingers on the counter nervously, trying to decide what to do next. I knew I should talk to Amy about this, but she had the kids tonight and would be too busy to deal with it right away. Besides, she would want my help and probably Alana’s too if it was something that needed some real investigation. I also didn’t think that with the police watching over the doorway anyone was going to try to get in, from that end anyway.

Finally, I decided that the best I could do right away was to do some research. I made sure all of the returns were put back and all of the clerical things Abigail wanted me to finish were done before I slipped through the doors at the back of the desk. The doors to the rest of the collection, the Supernatural Collection, were a pair of old oak doors kept firmly shut at the back of the administrative offices behind the front desk. I slipped down the short aisle of desks and lay my right hand flat on the handle of the doors. A tingle of magic ran through my palm as the doors recognized me, and swung gently open. I stepped through and they shut silently behind me. In the back of my mind, I kept an eye on Lenny who was already snoozing away at his desk.

The Supernatural Collection is actually stored in a magical space created behind the portal of the doors. If a normal human tried to get through, the doors would only open onto the little cemetery, now a courtyard, between the nave and the old rectory of the church. They would not see the endless hall of book stacks stretching out before them like I did.

Quietly, I asked the library to take me to the American history section, feeling the tingle and rush as I was moved from one end of the library to somewhere to my left and halfway down the room. Although this was not the first time I had used the search system in the supernatural collection, it was the first time I had searched for something so specific. I focused my mind and three books floated down from the shelves, stacking themselves neatly in the air in front of me. I reached out and took them, heading back to the front desk to do a little light reading over night.

The books were not particularly helpful, although the information they contained was extremely interesting. I learned a great deal about the founding of the supernatural society within Baltimore from the time the harbor city was founded to present day. For example, due to the fact that it is a harbor city and the traffic of immigrating supernatural’s is so great no official species territories are allowed to be set up. Therefore, while regions of settlement for specific species have been established, no one species is allowed to prevent another species from travelling through or settling in that region.

To help mediate this, the city government was established to give fair representation to all of the species living in Baltimore. The second book recommended by the library was a complete history of the establishment of the government and laws. Apparently the supernatural government in Baltimore was the first official supernatural government to be recognized in the United States.

Other forms of supernatural government existed within the Native American supernatural population; they were more regional to the United States and laws changed between tribal regions. Also, and this I didn’t know either, until settlement by Europeans, the Americas were dominated by werewolves who ran the whole continent according to pack territories, each governing their territory according to the laws of the wolves. The government in each territory was determined by the heirarchy of a primary alpha and their offspring, who were usually secondary alpha’s. Since alphas in werewolf packs are typically male, that heirarchy of primary and secondary alpha’s was patrilineal. According to these books at least, no strong female leaders had ever been established in the Americas until the founding of the government of Baltimore.

Baltimore was also a first with female leaders, as well as being the first established and democratic supernatural government. The first true council of Baltimore with fair representation was set up by a pair of sisters, witches with fairy bloodlines, who convened what sounded like an emergency meeting between all of the supernatural elements that lived in baltimore to combat a problem that had arisen.

That last part sounded promising, but further reading indicated that Baltimore had become suddenly over-run with what sounded like human gang activity exacerbated by recently turned vampires. The result was apparently whole gangs of vampires reigning terror down on the combined human and supernatural population of Baltimore. The result was that the supernatural population, unified by the un-named pair of fairy-witches, rose up en masse to vanquish the vampire threat. Although the account was very dry and short, with no detailed account of the actual battle, it sounded like the vampires were simply hunted down and killed by the only method known: beheading, dismemberment, and incineration. One section at the end of the account did catch my attention:

“And so, after the final vampire was slain and his body parts reduced to ash within the furnaces designated for that purpose, it was established by the leading members of the Supernatural Council that the laws existing in the America’s since human feet made their first marks on New World soil so many millennia ago should be upheld:

No vampire was allowed to feed upon the blood of a human, with or without consent of that human, while residing on New World soil. Should such a vampire be found feeding on human blood, supernatural or otherwise, they are to be executed immediately without trial. This land was established by those persecuted by the vile menace in Europe as a safe haven against such persecution and their safety is paramount to the lives of the Undead.

These laws were established by the wolf tribes on whose land we now reside, and without whom this victory could not have been achieved. It is the purpose of the established Supernatural Council to up hold this law, if no other, in order to maintain peace and order in the New World.”

I chewed my lip thoughtfully as I returned the books to the library, mulling over everything I had read. While I had found no mention whatsoever of the doors, or the entrapment of anything horrific enough to need to be sealed by runes and spells as well as metal doors in the history I had read, I did learn something that might be of use. There must still be a Supernatural Council in Baltimore, and maybe that was what the Library had wanted me to find. Maybe they would have some idea what was lurking behind the door detective Blackwolf found, and maybe they needed to know that the human population had found it. Then again, maybe they already knew. I decided this was what I had to talk with Amy about this evening before I came back to work.

Abigail arrived at six a.m. sharp and, after going over the tasks I had completed for her and making sure the Supernatural section was safely sealed shut for another day, I left to return home. I should have known that wasn’t going to happen exactly how I planned.

Detective Blackwolf was leaning against his car as I came down the front steps of the library. I walked directly up to him, as I had no reason to avoid him. He seemed surprised, but I supposed that was due to the fact that many of the people he usually spoke to were more inclined to avoid talking to the police.

“What can I do for you this morning, Detective?” I tried not to sound too tired. I had, after all, just come off of working an eleven hour overnight shift, even if I was used to it.

“You know what those runes mean. You could read them.” he held up a manila folder with papers in it.

“I know what they mean, yes.” I hoped he wasn’t going to ask me why.

“Well, I need you to translate them, if you can. I need to know exactly what they say, to the letter.” I sighed, and looked down. “Can’t you do that?”

“Runes don’t work like that, and I can’t tell you letter by letter what they mean.” I looked up at him, surprised not to see the scowl on his face. Instead, he was giving me a very interested look, so I continued, “the thing with runes is they are representative of the natural powers that exist in the world around us. Their exact translation changes from culture to culture, although the meaning stays the same. The order in which they are placed on the door indicates that the door is being held shut by the power the runes embody, but they won’t tell you anything about what is behind the door, who put it there, or what reason it was trapped there.”

“You can’t translate them, then?” he looked a little defeated.

“They were never a spoken language like ancient Egyptian or roman Latin. Their meaning has been passed down through history from a time long before those civilizations were conceived in the minds of the people who happened to settle there. They were never letters that make words, each symbol holds its own meaning like a Christian cross or Hebrew Star of David holds great meaning to us today. The meaning of each symbol was passed down over the thousands of years, but not the sound or word that might have been associated with it. They don’t form words on a page, they form a symbolic net of power keeping that door firmly shut and whatever is behind it trapped there.” I tried my best to explain, but I wasn’t sure that I got my point across with any accuracy.

“So what you told me last night, that these runes are a spell to keep something behind this door, is as accurate as you can be?” he waved the folder, which must contain the picture I had returned to him.

“Mostly, I would have to find a reference on runes and their order to see if I could be more specific, but the message is pretty clear from just the photograph.” I meant to say something else, but a yawn escaped first.

“I’m sorry, I know you need to get home to sleep. Do you work tonight?” He threw the folder through the open window of his car, hitting the passenger seat with surprising accuracy.

“Yes, I’ll be here around the same time. We can research it together, if you would like?” It was fairly obvious that he meant to meet me again tonight, so I just pre-empted his needing to insist on it. “Just go in and tell Abigail you’ll be meeting me and she can let you in before I get here.”

“Sure thing, see you tonight.” He smiled at me, that warm glow that softened his features, “And thanks for your help.”

“I don’t know exactly how helpful I am being. I seem to be stopping you every time you get started.” I smiled awkwardly at him, “but you’re welcome.”

I turned and walked down the street, bathed in the golden glow of the rising sunlight. I saw him walking up the stairs to the front door as I crossed the street. Strangely, I liked the idea of seeing him again that night, although I had to be very careful how I communicated to him. As I said before, it’s never a good idea to let law enforcement of any kind know that you’re a witch; you might end up on the suspect list.

I made a side trip to Amy’s place on my way home. I needed to at least leave her a note that I wanted to talk to her and what about. I didn’t think it was a good idea to get caught up in something like this without her knowing. She was my rock and surrogate older sister, she knew almost as much as I did without access to the extensive library and I relied on her common sense more often than was probably healthy.  Besides, something like a pair of doors blocking a tunnel and trapping something dangerous between them was extremely important for her to know about, especially if I was assisting with translating the runes for a human policeman.

To my surprise, I found Amy brooding over a steaming cup of tea in her kitchen when I came in. She gave me a very grumpy ‘hello’ as I placed my bag on the chair and retrieved a hot cup of tea from the pot for myself.

“Do I want to know?” I asked as I took my first sip of tea.

“Alana.” Was all she said, rolling her eyes and glaring out of her kitchen window. She laughed ruefully and looked back at me, “She has a new man, and he’s apparently a werewolf.”

I choked on my tea and had to set my mug down, wiping my mouth with a kitchen towel draped over the edge of the sink. I stared at her in disbelief.

“Eddie told me last night, after Alana dropped them off.” Amy shook her head.

“Is she fucking crazy?!?” I finally croaked out when my throat was mostly clear.

“That’s what I asked her when I called her last night.” Amy looked pissed.

“She knows better than that. She has the kids to think about!” I coughed a little to clear my throat, but another sip of tea was what did the trick.

“She came back last night when I called her. We fought and she took the kids home with her. I told her it was dangerous, and stupid, and she had to think about her kids first.” Amy gave me the rueful smile again, “Of course she didn’t listen to me.”

“What did she say?” I slipped into the chair beside her at the table.

“She said that I don’t know anything about werewolves. That he was not like the werewolves we’ve met before, he’s been great with the kids, steady job.” Amy gestured with her hand as she ticked off the list, “You know Alana, she had an argument against every reason I gave her.”

“She’ll find out soon enough. The moment his alpha calls him away. She’ll see where she rates on his list of important things.” I sighed and looked down into my cup of tea, “How are the kids with it?”

“The usual, Eddie is totally wary of him and Izzy is, well, she’s as in love with him as her mother is.” Amy thumped her hand flat on the table, “I just wish I could put a protection spell or something around them to keep them safe in case something happens.”

“Alana really would stop speaking to you then.” I gave her hand a squeeze. Alana was, technically, a grown woman and capable of taking care of herself. There wasn’t much that Amy or I could do to protect her from the trouble she got herself into, but her children were another matter entirely. They couldn’t protect themselves from the trouble their mother brought home. I was right, though, Alana would merrily murder both of us if she even suspected either Amy or I of putting protection spells over her children without her permission. We were left to worry and try to be subtle about listening in, our hands essentially tied behind our backs.

“Did you have a good night at work?” Amy changed the subject, as the current one was best left where it was. I bit my lip, trying to determine how to start, and Amy was immediately alert, “What happened?”

“Well, a city detective was researching underground tunnels for a case he has been working on and I helped him find the map he needed. When he left, he forgot to take one of his case photographs with him, and what it was of has me a little worried.” I wrapped my hands around my mug and looked over at her cautiously expectant face. I went on, “It was a picture of a metal door that was barred in place somewhere underground. The runes carved on and around the door indicated that it has a pretty powerful set of locking and protection spells on it. It’s sealing off one end of an old slave tunnel, so I’m pretty sure the other end of the tunnel must be sealed as well with the same kind of door. Amy, I don’t like the look of that door. It’s sealing something really bad in there and I’m worried that the police might have stumbled on something that could be extremely dangerous if we aren’t involved.”

“Where is this tunnel? We should probably take a look at those runes, get a feel for the site itself before we jump to any conclusions.” She sipped her tea, but her eyes glinted at me over the rim. She was taking this as seriously as I thought it should be, but her common sense was shining through as always.

“The end that the police know about is somewhere north east of Patterson Park, in the slums there, but the police probably have it under surveillance. The detective mentioned something about thinking a suspect must have used the doors to escape, but I don’t think anyone could open those doors without some serious magic. They are probably keeping too close an eye on it that we wouldn’t get caught sneaking a peek.” I sipped my tea as Amy waited, and then continued “The other end of the tunnel comes out somewhere near the harbor. I have a copy of the old map in the library, I am sure we could locate it from the other end.”

“Do that, we can take a look tomorrow afternoon. He’s coming again tonight?” She eyed me over the edge of her mug as she sipped.

“Yes, he wants me to try to translate what the runes mean. I’m going to do my best, but I think playing the amateur is the best way to keep him from figuring the rest out.” She nodded and stood up from the table.

“You hungry? I was going to make breakfast, if it isn’t too early for you.” She smiled at me.

“I’ll help. What did you want to make?” I slid back my chair and went to the cupboard. I could hear the sound of Charlotte stirring upstairs. It would be best to keep our conversation between us until Amy and I could determine how serious those doors might be.

“Waffles. I need something to cheer up my day.” Amy smiled as she pulled the electric griddle out.

 

I decided to arrive at the library an hour early. Abigail only gave me a slightly upraised eyebrow, but my early arrival was not totally abnormal. I didn’t pay for internet, not when I had the free internet from the library available to me. I sometimes showed up a little early and checked email on one of the computers in the back. Abigail would not bother me in the back unless I was late to relieve her.

I slipped back through the offices and to the main door of the supernatural collection. I wasted no time once inside in locating the most reliable book on runes before slipping back out of the collection and sitting at one of the available computers. Abigail stuck her head in about ten minutes later, as I was closing the browser and shouldering my work bag.

“Detective Blackwolf is waiting for you.” She smiled, but I could feel the pang of envy come off of her in my direction.

“I told him I would help him with some references to the maps he was researching last night.” I walked to the door with her, “He should have a copy request for one of the maps. Did he give it to you? I don’t know what needs to be done with it.”

“No, but I will take care of it before I go.” Abigail maintained her businesslike attitude.

The detective was perusing the books in one of the nearby stacks when I left the main desk to find him. He was wearing a different shirt and blazer, but looked nearly identical to when I last saw him. He turned from the stacks and smiled at me.

“Abigail told me you showed up early. Did you find anything?” He slipped his briefcase strap a little higher on his shoulder.

“I think so, but I haven’t had a chance to read through the books I found.” He approached and I had to crane my neck a little to look up at him. “Do you have the copy request for the map? Abigail needs to take care of that before she leaves. Why don’t you talk to her about it while I get started and we can talk after your done?”

“Sure thing.” He walked up to the front desk with me, where I indicated Abigail to him before slipping behind the desk and starting on my evening tasks.

It took a little while longer for Abigail to complete his request than it did for me to complete my list. I nodded at both of them and slipped back into the stacks, taking the book on runes with me. I hid at one of the side desks, flipping through the pages, until I found the chapter that I thought would be the most helpful. I was reading one particularly interesting passage when I felt someone standing behind me and looked up.

“Find something?” it was Detective Blackwolf. I blinked a few times, surprised that I had not heard his footsteps on the stone floor of the library.

“I might have, but I’m not sure. Information on runes is mostly speculative, as everything that has ever been written about them started thousands of years after they stopped being used.” I lifted the book, indicating the embellished page, “It was also written by ardent Christians who viewed runes as the devil’s language, so half of it you can’t believe.”

“But those doors aren’t as old as runes, so maybe the translation will still mean the same thing.” He slipped the photo from the folder in his briefcase. “Can we get started?”

“Is Abigail gone for the night? Lenny needs to lock the doors, and I can meet you at the front desk.” After a moments hesitation, I handed him the book, marking the page with my finger as I handed it over. “it will only take five minutes. I think that part is a good place to start, if you wanted to catch up.”

“Alright.”  He was peaking at the pages as he walked back to the main desk.

Lenny was already bolting the front door and gave me a conspiratorial wink as I checked on him. I just shook my head and walked up the main hall to the front desk. Detective Blackwolf had not sat down but was on the public side of the desk, hunched over the book as he read. I already knew he was having a hell of a time reading it.

“It’s in English, I swear.” I smiled as I opened the door behind the desk and indicated he should come in.

“Really? I can’t read it.” he followed me in and I pulled Abigail’s chair from the second computer over to the desk space for him to sit in.

“It’s an embellished reproduction, but it’s the only source I could find that wasn’t full of crap about witches and devil worship.” Mentally, I apologized to myself and my ancestors.

“What does it say?” he placed the book on the desk and I rolled my chair closer, turning on the desk lamp.

“Well, the beginning chapters all talk about the historical origins of runes and how their uses have changed. This part basically leads into a lexicon of runes and what they mean on their own. There’s a short section that mentions that the order of runes changes their meaning, or that the meaning of some runes becomes mute when coupled with other runes, like supporting information to the main rune.” I looked at his hopeful face, and dreaded dashing it, as I was about to fudge the truth in a major way “But it doesn’t go any more in depth than that and, to my knowledge, the library doesn’t have a better source that says anything like that. So, the best we can do tonight is translate each of the runes on the door, but I don’t know that it will be accurate.”

“You mean that this book says that runes on their own have a different meaning than when they are coupled with other runes?”

“I would assume that it does, but this book doesn’t go much more in depth than that. And I would also assume that the specific order of the runes indicates meaning as well, like how we place certain words in a sentence and give them vocal stresses to indicate emotion or multiple meanings. But that’s not what’s in here.” I bit my lip. “I think you might need to find an expert on that.”

“Well, we can still identify each rune and I can maybe research it somewhere else.” He pulled out the photograph and a legal pad and we got to work.

Identifying the runes was harder than I had anticipated. First of all, the picture, while fairly clear, did not do a very good job of indicating some of the more detailed parts of runes. To make matters worse, as I was holding a magnifying glass up to the photo to try and determine what one rune was, I noticed a second set of runes carved intricately within the edges of each of the main runes. They had literally been carved into the edges of the indentations that made up the first set of runes, making it clear that they were present but unclear as to what they were. The detective let out a frustrated sigh as I pointed it out to him.

“I hate to say it, but this would be easier if we had the door in front of us.” I did hate saying it, not just because I knew his answer already, but because the second set of runes adorning the edges of the main runes made my stomach flip twice. I had never heard of runes adorning runes, but I was sure it meant much more serious trouble lurked behind that door.

“I can’t, not that I don’t want to, but it’s part of an ongoing investigation. I can’t let you near it.” He sighed and ran his hand through his black hair, smiling ruefully at me, “Wish I could, though. You’re the first helpful person I’ve found.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t think I’m being all that helpful, considering that I just created another problem for you.” I chewed my lip. Part of me was bothered that I couldn’t help him more, but these were witch matters and he could get seriously hurt, or killed, if I told him too much and let him go at it. Amy would have told me that, and I knew I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to this man, so I had to keep my mouth shut and wait to talk this over with Amy.

“Well, at least I have a better starting point. Maybe I can hit up one of the universities in this town and find myself a rune expert.” He glanced down at his watch, “Wow, I didn’t realize it was after 10. I need to get going.”

I helped the detective get his papers cleaned up, as they had somehow managed to migrate over the whole desk. Most of them were legal pad paper covered with the different runes and the translation from the lexicon in my source. I closed the book and was laying it on the back desk when he stopped me.

“Can I get the title and author of that book? I’m probably going to need it later.” He pulled his nearly full pad out again.

“Sure. Um…Just don’t ask Abigail about it. It’s part of a private collection that we aren’t supposed to have access to.” I felt like kicking myself. I should have known he would ask and just stuck with the crap resources in the main collection.

“Whose?” his eyebrows raised interestingly as he finished writing down the title.

“I don’t really know. They’re just way more interesting than the books out here.” I shrugged as he handed me the book back.

“Forbidden fruit, huh?” he smiled at me, slipping the pad into his briefcase.

“Something like that.” I followed him out from behind the desk, the book clasped close to me.

“Well, tomorrow is Sunday, so I won’t be in, so maybe Monday I’ll be back, if I can’t get any better help.” He smiled at me as I unlocked the front doors.

“Monday works, only I hope you find better resources than me. I don’t have much else to help you out with.” I gave him a smile as he slipped through the front door.

“Have a good night.”

“You too.” I closed the door behind him and locked it.

I tried not to run up to the map section after I knew he was gone and Lenny was still sleeping. I needed to get a copy of that map, or at least a rough idea where the second entrance to that tunnel was so that Amy and I could find it tomorrow afternoon.

Fairytale: Fourth Part

“Why do you not look at me?” His voice was much quieter then I expected it to be. I could hear his boots slide over the wood beams of the store room. “Ailynn, Look at me.”

I continued to stare down at the folds of cloth beneath my fingers without seeing them, willing him to go away. He moved closer until I felt him just behind me and turned my head away, feeling him try to see my face.

“You don’t look at me because you do not want me to see what you are feeling. I know you better then you think I do, Ailynn.” He reached around me to touch my hand.

“You do not know me at all, Your Highness.” I snatched my hand away and pivoted away from him, heading for the door. He was faster and blocked my path, forcing me to look up into his face.

“Why do you not call me Martin?” he only had to look into my tearstained face for his answer, his brow twitching into a worried crease, “You think your Martin is not here? You think he is dead.”

“No, Your Highness, I think my Martin never existed and I was a stupid, naïve girl to have believed in such a creature to begin with.” I spat back, feeling my mouth twist into a nasty frown, my tears spilling over my cheeks again, “I would have done better to believe in fairies and dragons. It would have saved me the heartbreak learning they were no more real then he was.”

“How can you say that? I am still here, I have always been here.” I stepped back as he took a step towards me, keeping the distance between us constant, a fact he was quick to notice. “You do not trust me.”

“Not any more, I know better then to trust you. You lied from the beginning, from the moment you met me you lied about who you really were.” I shook my head as I spoke, watching his face change from skeptical to outright angry.

“What? About being the King? I lie to a lot of people about it. How should I have known you wouldn’t have turned into one of those mush-brained whores who think they should be Queen?” he sneered with disgust and took another step forward as I took yet another step back.

“That is not what I meant. I could care less if you were the King or the poor noble. It was the man I thought I knew, the man who I would have married regardless of everything. He is not the man who stands in front of me, the man I met when I came to the City.” I swallowed the angry, painful lump in my throat and began again, “You called me a shallow and inconstant thing when you saw me again, but I am not the inconstant one. I spent the last year thinking of you, longing to see you, to speak to you. I could not think of anyone else, I even refused to consider a match with Lord Evin in the hopes that you would not have forgotten me.  When I finally had the chance to find you, the man I did find was nothing like the man I had known. At first I only thought you had changed, I even convinced myself that it was my fault, my own weakness against my uncle’s will that had caused you pain. But then I saw you at court, with Lord Kale’s wife on your lap, the way you let those women you had accused of being whores touch you, the way you let them do as they pleased. They were the same noble whores who you admonished me so severely for mimicking. I have become very well educated in the man you really are. I have never been so insulted in my life as I was when you asked me to marry you, as if I could deny the fact that you only chose me because I would make a proper wife while you chose another woman to share your bed behind my back. Choose someone else, Your Highness, to make a fool of, someone who is much more deserving of that honor then I.”

He had the same look on his face now as he did the moment I had refused him, stunned and uncertain. Part of me wanted to break down and cling to him, take back the words that I had just said, but I could not allow it. Instead I stood with my hands clenched into fists at my side as I watched the realization slowly dawn on him as he watched me, standing before him with tears on my face dressed as any other country noble woman should dress. He had lied to me, he had made such a fool of me, he had thought me too stupid to realize how his world really worked and now he knew how wrong he had been.

“This is what you think of me? You think I do you wrong by asking you to be my wife?” his voice was quiet and even when he finally spoke.

“Yes.” I couldn’t avoid looking him in the eye as he stood in my path, his face slipping into that emotionless mask that all men seemed capable of wearing.

“You would go home then and accept an offer from Lord Evin, rather then face me again?” unlike Donal, whose eyes betrayed his emotions, the Kings stayed flat and masked better then his face.

I chose not to answer, pulling my tongue back behind my teeth and clamping my mouth shut. I had not considered marriage at all and had even debated taking a vow of maidenhood. My lands I would will over to Donal’s children, they would benefit the best from it.

“I forbid it.” Now I could read the look in his eyes: resentment and jealousy. “I forbid you to marry such a man over me.”

“Why? Because he behaves with more honor and truthfulness then you ever will?” I couldn’t stop myself.

“No!” he closed the distance between us before I could stop him, backing me up against the stone wall of the storeroom. My head and back collided with the stone, but I tried not to show the pain, I wanted no pity from him. “Because I cannot bear the thought of you marrying someone so decidedly beneath you in every possible way. I will not stand for knowing that you would choose to share the marriage bed with a man like him out of spite for me. Ailynn, he is little more then a glorified swine herd.”

“Considering the only other alternative is you, I see no difference between the two of you, save the fact that I know he will never lie to me.” His face was inches from mine and my arms ached where his hands gripped them as he pinned me to the wall.

“Because he lacks the intellegence to scratch is own ass, let alone make up a believable story.” He snarled back.

“You would know.” I wasn’t sure where those words were coming from, perhaps from the black hole that now constituted my heart, but I could see they had started to have an effect on him.

He backed up a little, not letting me go, but enough that I could see more of his face then just his chin. He was watching me with that familiar studying look that he used to use when he was trying to figure out what I was thinking. The difference now was that instead of the slow smile that used to spread across his face before he made some silly comment had been replaced by a deeply saddened look. Then, he leaned forward and I realized with disgusted horror that he meant to kiss me. I turned my head, closing my eyes, feeling his breath on my cheek as I refused him again.

“Please, Ailynn. I did not realize I had caused you so much pain. I am the inconstant one, you’re right. I saw you and thought you had become the very thing I detested. I was wrong, I admit it, but do not throw yourself away in proving it to me. I cannot breathe if you marry such a man and leave me.” He rested his head against my temple, his lips caressing my ear as he spoke. I could do nothing but cringe, the stone wall blocking any movement away from him. “Have I hurt you so badly that you cannot forgive me?”

I felt tears start coursing afresh down my cheeks as I squeezed my eyes shut. I wanted to believe what he said to me, the words he used in my ear, but I couldn’t. The voice that spoke to me belonged to my beloved Martin, trusting and honest, but the face I saw before my closed eyes was Lord Kales. He was lying again, that little voice inside of me whispered, he’s lying to you, don’t believe him.

“Let me go, I won’t marry Evin, just let me go.” My voice came out as more of a whimper then I intended, but my arms hurt badly where he gripped me, my shoulders had started to ache from cringing, and I could feel a small bruise forming on the back of my head where I had bumped my head when he pinned me to the wall.

“But you will not have me either.” He sighed, and his grip lightened a little more.

I did not have the chance to answer him. Donal crashed through the doorway, pulling the King away from me. I crumbled to the floor, barely registering the angry voices of Donal and the King as he demanded that the King leave. It took all my strength to wait until I felt Donal’s firm hand lift my chin to look at him before I dissolved into despairing sobs. I leaned against my cousin and cried like a child, feeling him gently lift me from the wooden floor and carry me to my room. I could vaguely hear Siobhan and Elsbeth fluttering around me as Donal lay me on my bed, speaking in a low voice to Siobhan before leaving the room.

I turned my head into my pillow and cried until I fell into a restless sleep where I dreamed of Martin and the King, warring with each other. I woke just as the King lifted his sword to deal the death blow to my beloved Martin, crying out into the darkened room. Elsbeth was at my side in a breath, comforting me until I had calmed down, offering me a sleeping draught which I drank down gratefully.

I woke late in the morning the next day and by sheer will alone I forced myself out of bed and into my day dress. I joined Siobhan in the breakfast room, but could neither speak or eat. I followed her to her sitting room and sat with her embroidering the edges of the twins christening gowns. At mid-day I joined her in making rounds of the servants preparing the evening meal, carrying little Mairi on my hip as Siobhan balanced Kiernan while she directed the cook. I stayed in the keep when Siobhan left for her afternoon ride with Donal, ignoring the long look of concern that crossed her husbands face when I declined his offer to join them. I took dinner in my own quarters and Elsbeth was kind enough not to comment on how little food I actually consumed. Shortly after that, I bathed and went to bed, accepting the sleeping draught Elsbeth brought without complaint.

The next three weeks went by in the same, numb, emotionless manner. What had been my heart was a cold, empty place that echoed if I searched too deeply for the emotions that had previously roiled and surged within me. I could not feel anything: no pain, no hunger, no love. I found myself staring off into space more often, my mind completely blank. Occasionally Martins face would float before my eyes and I would think of him in the same, warm manner that I had enjoyed over the previous year. Inevitably, my daydream would turn sour as I heard the words spoken by the same voice as I stood behind the bookcase and the memory of all the events that happened since would ruin my precious moment of happiness. I would return to my state of numbness again, forcing myself into whatever task I had stopped during my daydreaming.

At the end of the month the rest of my wardrobe from River House was sent, accompanied by a letter from my aunt. She wrote to say she understood from Donal why I had made the decision to refuse the marriage offer and offered her forgiveness. I skipped over most of what she had to say on that part, and where she related all of the gossip she had heard from her friends regarding the King and the situation. I did not care what those busy-bodies thought or heard, I was never returning to the City again as long as I lived, so what they spoke of would never reach me anyway. I did pay attention to where she related that they, too, were leaving River House on account of Zarene’s continued deterioration in the aftermath of her romantic scandal. My uncle would continue in his position as steward to the King, despite offering to resign the position following my refusal. The King would not accept my uncle’s resignation and demanded that he continue in his position. My aunt insisted, after yet another suicide attempt by Zarene when she learned of Lady Kale taking to confinement, that she and my cousins would be leaving town for an indefinite period of time.

I was surprised when her last paragraph mentioned Donal and how she was glad I was there to help with the care of his newborn children. She mentioned the possibility that she would be missing the christening due to the failing mental health of my cousin Zarene. Although I agreed that bringing Zarene back to the city so soon after her own scandalous events had occurred, I was irritated that she had left up to me the duty of explaining her reasons to Donal. Even now she could not show her youngest son the respect I knew he had earned. I vowed yet again that I would take an official oath of maidenhood at the christening and will all of my property over to my cousins. He deserved nothing less, as much as he had proved himself more the brother then I had ever known.

I had just finished reading the letter my aunt had sent me when Siobhan burst through my door, plopping her self gracelessly onto one of the many trunks that littered my anteroom. She gave me a look that was a cross between utter despair and extreme irritation. She held in her hand a crumpled piece of paper which still had my uncles seal attached and I surpressed a shudder.

“What is it?” I set my aunts letter down on my dressing table and came to sit beside her.

“This. Read it, go on.” she handed the crumpled letter to me, “Better yet, let me tell you.”

I waited as she drew a steady breath and prepared myself for one of her tyrades. I could see my uncles neat script on the page that I held in my hand and wondered what it was he could have said to make my cousin so upset. My aunt was an unfeeling clod when it came to her youngest son and his wife, but my uncle was acutely aware of the great honor my cousin and his wife brought our family. He could not have said anything so bad as to set Siobhan into such a state.

“What is it, Siobhan?” I urged her as she took a few deep breaths, trying to keep herself calm before imparting the news that had made her so pained.

“We are not to have the christening at the Church of the Maiden. The King has offered to host the christening of the twins at St. Basils cathedral, in the Royal Ward.” My mind raced as she mentioned the King and I tried to think of what he was trying to do. I had been named the intended godmother to the children, so I could not refuse to go even if I wanted to.

“It is a great honor that he does so.” I reassured her, hiding my own fears from her. I had wallowed enough, it was time to steel myself against whatever the King thought he was doing.

“But the poor, youngest son of his steward? Ailynn, we will be laughed out of the City!” Her shoulders dropped with despair.

“That will not happen, I will make sure of it. You have done more then enough to be hospitable to me, let me return the favor.” I lifted a hand to silence her objection, “If the King really is doing this to humiliate me through you and your children, I will not allow him to do so. You let me take care of it.”

“We will need to start all new with the christening gowns, where am I to find silk or lace fine enough for such an event around here?” she sighed and looked at me with a pained expression.

I thought for a moment and then it came to me, a spark of mischevious intuition. I smiled, for the first time in weeks, and began to open what trunks I was able to reach. At first, I could not find the thing I was searching for, until I shooed Siobhan off of the trunk on which she had perched herself. There, at the top, was the dress I was searching for, folded neatly so as to prevent the formation of too many creases. I saw Siobhan’s eyes widen as she took in the intricate embroidered bodice, the silver and gold piping, and the pearls sewn so evenly along the indecently low neckline.

“Where did you get it?” her voice was a whisper as she ran a tentative finger over the embroidered fabric.

“The King gave it to her a year hence, as a gift.” Elsbeth snorted behind us, startling me. I turned and gave her a wide smile. From the look she gave me I knew she had already guessed my intention.

“The King gave this to you?” Siobhan gave me a shocked look.

“She hated it at first, it was indecent for such a girl to wear.” Elsbeth answered for me.

“He called it a waste of fabric the second time I wore it, when I saw him at the masquarade.” I pulled it out of the trunk completely, allowing the ridiculously long skirts to trail on the ground.

“Well, I am sure we will not allow any of this lovely fabric to go to waste.” Elsbeth lifted the skirt, the milky white fabric sliding over her fingers as she examined it. “I think this will do wonderfully, Ailynn.”

“For what?” I gave Siobhan a serious look and she finally realized, with yet another look of shock, what I was intending to do, “Christening gowns? Ailynn, this was a gift from the King.”

“And when I wore it, he called me a painted whore. I think this fabric would go to better use as christening gowns for your children then be burned to ashes as he advised me to do less then two months ago.”I gathered the dress up in a bundle and handed it to Elsbeth, who took it from the room with a knowing smile. I turned a similar smile on Siobhan. “Besides, Siobhan, if the King is planning anything by ordering the twins christening in the Royal Ward, then using the only gift he ever gave me in such a manner will hopefully send the perfect message to him.”

“What if he doesn’t notice? Ailynn, christening gowns are a vastly different type of apparel then that indecent creation you just brought out of your trunk. Unless he recognizes the fabric, he will not know the true origin of the gowns.” Siobhan returned to her practical self, a much more attractive person in my private opinion.

“Then it will be our own private joke.” Elsbeth returned to the room, having handed over the dress to the sewing women. She smiled at me and I returned it, which she pointed to, “Anything that puts even a private smile on her face is worth doing. I am sure we will all enjoy the joke for years to come.”

“Yes, Elsbeth, we will.” I found myself very satisfied and began to make plans in fitting my cousins out with proper clothes themselves.

Despite Siobhan’s moment of grief at the thought of preparing for a much more royal christening then she had planned for, we did have nearly three months left to prepare for it. As it turned out, this was more then enough time, especially once I pressed my own sewing women into service putting the dress to pieces and making new christening gowns for little Kiernan and Mairi. Donal was kind enough to go into the City for us and send cloth from the more popular storehouses which was immediately cut and sewn into proper apparel fitting a much richer noble family. I spared no expense, even writing to my friend Gwynna to help Donal pick out appropriate jewels which would adorn the glowing mother.

“Ailynn, you do too much.” Donal grumbled when he returned from town with cloth chosen by him for his own clothing. He stood still as a statue as Siobhan and I fitted the cloth to him for a tunic.

“I do not. You must look as if you belong there, which you do.” I reminded him with a purposeful poke of a pin.

He did not respond, but fell into a resigned silence until we had finished our task and extracted him from the pattern. I knew without him telling me that he thought I was doing this more out of a need to prove to the King that I did not suffer. It was this thought that tempered my more outrageous ideas, that I was not trying to prove anything outside of my own kindness to my cousins.

My own uncle was not, as I expected, providing much help outside of offering River House to the family for the month preceding the christening. If I had not offered to help, my cousins would have made a very poor showing. It was also possible that had I not sought solace in Donal’s house, they would not have  been put into the situation in the first place. I was, therefore, bound to make amends for the situation by at least making sure they would not be the laughing stock of the country at the christening of their children.

The result of all of this was that the wardrobe my cousins travelled into the City with was elegant and rich, but not obnoxiously so. Although the cloth had been bought from the most popular storehouses in the City, thanks to Gwynna, the cut and style of the dresses my cousin and I wore were of a more sedate style. We had discussed this at length and decided that the more indecent fashion of dresses that I found so disgusting was not proper apparel for an elegant lady of the country. Therefore, our dresses were cut in the old style, with long skirts, flowing layers of underdresses, and belted overdresses. Here and there we decorated with the intricate embroidered ribbon or fabric that was popular, but not in excess. In all, Siobhan and I felt much more elegant and more comfortably dressed then the City ladies who paraded outside the windows of River House in their corsets and bone skirts.

We were in River House two days when I learned that the King planned not only to offer the use of St. Basil’s for the twins christening, but to host a grand celebration afterwards in one of the minor palaces within the Royal Ward. I forced myself not to go into coniptions over this and set about planning how I should dress for that event. I tried not to listen as my uncle discussed the celebration with Donal in a hushed voice, but I did overhear him mentioning the King’s insistance on minsterals and dancing. I shuddered openly despite being an eavesdropper and resolved to find a way to sprain my ankle between the christening and the celebration.

“Except that a sprained ankle will make you a captive audience, should he decide to keep you company instead of joining in the dancing.” Siobhan reminded me when I told her of the plan over breakfast the next day.

“I am not sure which is worse: the fear that he would ask me to dance with him, or that he would endeavor to keep me company should I injure myself.” I sighed into my tea, watching my reflection waver on the surface. I barely recognized the woman who looked back at me, but I chalked that up to the little ripples in my cup.

“I am sorry this has become such an ordeal for you, Ailynn. I never meant it to be so when I asked you to be their godmother.” Siobhan reached across the little table and lay her hand on my arm. I covered her hand with mine.

“Do not apologize, Siobhan. If I had not chosen to take shelter in your household after refusing him, you would not be in this situation. I am extremely honored that you would choose me for godmother.” I smiled and a thought occurred to me. Before I could stop, I found myself saying, “Siobhan, there is something I want you to know.”

“What is that?” she seemed alarmed by the sad expression that I knew was on my face.

“After the christening, I plan on going to the Church of the Maiden and taking a vow of maidenhood. When I do so, it is my wish to will over all of my property and fortune to you and Donal so that my little cousins will inherit it after I have died.” I felt her fingers grip mine as I held her hand, her eyes growing wide.

“Oh, Ailynn, do not make such a decision so soon!” Siobhan stood up and came to my side, kneeling on the floor in front of me with such a look of sadness I nearly cried, “You cannot loose hope so easily! You will find another Martin, I promise, he is out there. Not all men are as vile or deceiving as the King was to you. Give it another year or two before you make such a choice!”

“My mind is made up, Siobhan. I loved Martin and I was so utterly betrayed by it that I am determined not to allow such a painful thing to happen again. Besides, his involvement in the christening must be his way of showing me he still thinks he can control my life.” I laughed and looked down at my hands, now cupped in hers, “He forbid me marrying Lord Evin, he would interfere if I chose to marry anyone else. He interferes here to remind  me that if I will not marry him, he will not allow me to marry anyone else. So I will not marry at all.”

“But that is a bitter, vengeful reason  for making such a choice Ailynn!  I beg you, wait a year and then, if you feel the same, make your vows to the maidenhood. Do not make them so soon after breaking your heart, you do not know what kind of effect this might have on your life!” Siobhan gripped my hands tighter, her face contorted with concern and sadness.

“I will think about it, for your sake. I have a month to make my decision.” Was all I said to her. The look she gave me as she returned to her seat at the breakfast table showed she did not believe me.

If she told Donal, he never spoke of my decision with me. Instead it was as if the conversation had not occurred and we were soon busy receiving visitors  wishing to convey their congratulations to my uncle and cousin. Some of the visitors were relations of my or Siobhan’s family and had been clearly invited to the christening. Others were clearly hoping to be invited at least to the celebration afterwards if only because the King would be present and was, himself, hosting the event.

There were a few who appeared only to see the woman who had refused the Kings hand. Those people Donal saw alone and sent away as quickly as politeness dictated. He would watch them go with a look of undisgused anger and disgust.

One day he burst into the breakfast room while Siobhan and I ate, a letter clutched in his fist. His face had red splotches on his cheeks and his mouth was clenched shut. Behind him my uncle followed, a slightly confused expression on his face.

“Donal, what is the matter?” Siobhan looked to the basinets where her children rested peacefully, despite their father’s less then sedate entrance.

He threw the letter down on the table and I could see he was clearly biting his mouth shut to prevent an outburst. I picked it up and read it. The author was clearly writing to congratulate my cousins on the christening of their children, making all the polite wishes of long life and happiness. At the end was an ill disgused request to be invited if not to the christening, then  to the celebration afterwards. Despite that last, tactless, request, the letter was well written and polite. Until I saw the signature at the bottom.

“This was sent by Lord Kale.” I  handed the letter over to Siobhan, ignoring the instant look of anger that the news brought to my uncles face.

“THAT BASTARD!!” Donal exploded, his voice roaring through the tiny room, causing both babies to erupt into crying. I rushed to Kiernan’s basinet as Siobhan lifted Mairi to her arms, comforting the wailing child. I lifted Kiernan to my arms and held the baby to my chest, comforting him with whispers and kisses until he began to quiet down.

“He raped my sister, destroyed her reputation, not to mention  putting her into her fragile mental state and nearly killing her and he has the audacity to send me such a letter!!” Donal’s face frightened me, twisted as it was into such a mask of anger and rage. My uncle did nothing to calm him, clearly as angry and enraged as Donal was.

“You needn’t respond to him, Donal. He deserves no such response from our family. Not after what he did.” My uncle assured him.

“I had not planned on it, especially after the King sent him away from the City.” My uncles reassurance began to work on Donal’s anger and I could see the redness begin to fade from his cheeks as he sank into Siobhan’s empty chair. He reached out for Kiernan as I approached the table and I handed the child over to his father, who smiled gratefully at the infants now cheerful face.

“The King sent Lord Kale away from the City?” I looked to my uncle for clarification as I poured two more cups of tea.

My uncle gratefully accepted the one I offered as he slipped stiffly into another empty chair, nodding as I added cream and sugar to his cup. I noticed for the first time in the morning light how old my uncle looked as he leaned back in the beams of light that bathed the breakfast table. His face seemed more fragile, his skin more papery thin, the wrinkles and spots more pronounced, and his eyes seemed more weary, the edges drawn and sunken more then I ever remembered. With a pang I realized that he, my father’s younger brother, was well into his sixth decade and for the first time had begun to look his age. He caught me watching him and returned my sad smile with a gentle pat on the hand and a warmer smile of his own.

“Yes, not three days after you refused him, he returned to the city and immediately banished the majority of his Court from the city for licencious and corrupt behavior. The whole City was in shock at his reaction and many began to be afraid he may be going mad as a result of your rejection of him.” He gave my hand a squeeze when I stiffened, arching his right eyebrow as he said, “I am as close to the King as anyone and, while I cannot say he is in the best of spirits right now, he is far from going mad. I think you may have had more of an effect on him then you realize, dear niece.”

“I did not mean to have any effect on the man, uncle.” I could feel my face redden as Donal and Siobhan exchanged a meaningful look before turning their gazes in my direction. They had begun doing that a lot in the last few days, since we had come to River House. I chose to ignore them, not wanting to know what they were discussing, as it was the only indication since I had confided my plan to Siobhan that she had told Donal.

“Ailynn, you refused the King when he proposed marriage to you, the only woman he has shown any interest in since he first discovered that women were beautiful.” My uncle laughed into his tea, his eyes twinkling at me, “That kind of rejection is bound to have an effect on any man, especially one such as the King, who has been used to having his own way. Since you rejected him, he has made great strides at actually taking over the leadership of this country. The banning of the nobles from the City is only one symptom of the effect you have had. He has done so much more within his own government than the average noble is aware of.”

“But will it last?” I did not mean to voice my doubts aloud, but it came out anyway. “Will it last when he realizes that there is very little he can to do win me back?”

“Only time will tell that, but it is my personal opinion that it will. He has been given the drive to finally be the King for his people that he has needed to be for a long time.” My uncle turned and took Kiernan from Donal, balancing the little infant on his lap and began cooing at the giggling boy, effectively ending that conversation.

Although the conversation had ended, I could not stop my mind from returning to it over and over again. New doubts and worries began to spring to mind as I did so. Could I have had such an effect on the man that he would truly change? Or would he have taken his deception this far, so far as to include his own government? That thought I immediately banished from my mind as frivolous; no one would involve the very government upon which our kingdom depended in order to deceive a silly girl like myself, the very idea was ludicrous. What I could not banish from my mind was the thought that perhaps he really was changing, for the better. If I saw him again, even so soon after rejecting him, would I be able to refuse?

“Only meeting him again will give you that answer, Lady.” Gwynna gave me a knowing look over her embroidery when I voiced my worries to her. “Do you want to refuse him again?”

“I do not know. I cannot believe that he would be so changed in such a short amount of time, some of it must be a false attitude. And I cannot be so shallow as to believe he would go so far as to change laws and his own government in order to impress me. That is a silly, ridiculous notion belonging to only the worst of daydreaming children.” I looked down at my embroidery and realized that for half an hour I had only produced a total of five stitches, whereas Gwynna had neatly rounded the corner of the cloth she was edging with an ivy pattern.

She gave me an amused look, her blue eyes flashing with mischeif as I threw down my sewing and began to pace the small day room where she spent her afternoons. She had a lovely view of the River Cyr down the street to the harbor where her father’s ships where anchored. For one fleeting moment I was tempted to run from the house, change my dresses for a sailors garb, and sail away on one of her fathers ships, but that fantasy was quickly banished from my mind.

“You are afraid if you see him again, you will not be able to refuse him so easily as you did three months ago.”She said calmly from her chair as I paced like a cat before the windows.

“But I cannot trust the man, not after what I saw him do, after the things he said. I cannot allow myself to put such faith in him so soon.” I turned a fretful look on Gwynna.

“A smart woman would not, Ailynn.” She rose from her seat and came to the window, pulling my hands apart where I had been wringing them in my skirt and holding them between hers, “But a smart woman would also forego any life changing decisions until she is sure of her own heart.”

“You’ve been talking to Siobhan.” I pouted.

“Yes, she is worried about you. We all are.” Gwynna gave me a serious look and lead me back to the sofa. “Ailynn, none of us believe that you should accept the King if he were to make another offer while you are here, but to take a vow of maidenhood so soon after rejecting him is not the answer to your troubles. Give it time, Ailynn; time with your family, time with people who love you and that you can trust. That is all that we believe you should do. Even your uncle agrees, take time with Siobhan and Donal and the children, spend their first winter with them. Take time to rest your heart and let it heal. Then make your decision, in the spring.”

Unlike Siobhan’s plea before, Gwynna spoke sense with no pressure, only the care and concern a friend has for another. I could not argue with her plan to spend my time with my cousins and help Siobhan through her first winter with the children. I could be useful and happy again. Moreover, I could be far enough away from the City that I would not hear anything of the King unless I truly wanted to.

“I will give it a year, then. In the spring, should I feel the same, I will take my vows then.” I agreed with Gwynna.

“Yes, a year will give you the time to consider the path you should take.” Gwynna’s lips twitched as she took up her embroidery again and I could see she was fighting to hold her tongue.

“Out with it, Gwynna.” I glared at her.

“Perhaps a year of caring for your cousins children will inspire you to want to have your own.” She broke into her mischevious smile again, “One cannot do that if she has taken a vow of chastity, I do not care what the church may say. Children require the acquisition of a husband first.”

We both broke into a peal of laughter, but I sobered up with one thought, “Where will I find a husband who the King cannot forbid me to marry?”

“Has he truly forbidden you to marry anyone else? Or was it just Lord Evin?” Gwynna arched a perfect eyebrow at me as she began to stitch again.

“I am not sure, but I won’t be finding that out any time soon, as I suppose I should make no plans to marry anyone either.” I chewed my lip as I thought of his words in the storeroom, forcing them quickly from my mind as I felt the sadness start to fall over me.

“Then we should make this plan as well: if, in the spring, you have decided that you would like to become a wife instead of remaining a maiden, and the King still forbids you marry a nobleman within the country, then you and I will travel abroad, on one of my fathers ships, where we both will seek noble husbands in foreign lands.” Gwynna’s mouth twitched again, “We will see how foreign nobles measure up to the ones we will leave back here.”

“Gwynna!!!” I gave her a shocked look, but both of us could not avoid the peals of laughter her wry look brought on.

 

The day of the christening broke with all of the glory of an early fall morning. The crisp light that filtered through the stained glass windows of St. Basil’s Cathedral bathed the main nave in multi-colored splendor as we prepared for the Christening of Kiernan and Mairi. Donal and Siobhan looked just as wonderful in their new clothes. I had made a special dress for Siobhan, deep forest green with gold piping and gold belt to bring out the rich red tones in her auburn hair. I had instructed her dressing maid to brush her hair until it shone and braid it with a string of pearls. The result was magnificent.

“You look as beautiful as the day we married.” Donal smiled with dumbstruck appreciation when we entered the cathedral, the men having ridden ahead to meet with the priest.

“And here I was trying to look like a mother.” Siobhan blushed, despite her wry words.

“Ay, and that’s what makes you all the more beautiful.” Donal winked at her as he lifted Kiernan from my arms.

The christening gowns had turned out just as I had planned, diaphenous and pure. Little Mairi’s gown was modestly embellished with the pearls that had decorated the neckline of the indecent dress, and the chest of Kiernans gown was made of the richly embroidered fabric from the skirt. It was Siobhan’s request that both gowns be comfortable, as the children would be spending the entire day dressed in them. Fortunately, the cloth was also as soft as it was rich, and both children slept soundly as we waited in a side room while the church filled for the mass.

We were to enter and take our places as soon as all the guests were seated just prior to the Holy procession. I stood just inside of one of the carved windows, watching through the carved screen as family and friends of both Siobhan and Donal’s family entered and were seated. The church filled fast and I was greatful that the day was crisp and cool with a determined breeze or a church as full as this one, despite its size, would have been stifling. There was a sudden hush and I looked to the doorway of the church. There the Royal guard had assembled, so I assumed the King had arrived. I stepped away from the screens and took a seat beside my cousin as she comforted her son, chosing not to watch as the King was seated.

“Lord Donal of Rothchester, His Royal Highness wishes to speak with you a moment, if you would please join me?” a page dressed in the Royal uniform lead a very surprised Donal out of the room. I looked to my uncle for explanation, but he could only return my confused look with one of his own. Clearly the King had not indicated to my uncle what he wanted to discuss with my cousin now.

After some minutes, and much fretting that the service would be delayed if the King did not finish with my cousin, Donal returned to the room. He looked as if he had just swallowed a live fish whole, his cheeks were dotted with pink and the rest of his skin had developed a sickly ashen pallor. Siobhan was immediately alarmed and moved to her husbands side, but he kept his eyes on me in the most disturbing fashion as he related what the King had wanted to see him for.

“His Royal Highness has requested the honor of being made co-godparent to our children.” And then I understood why he stared at me in such a state.

“what did you say to him?” my uncle asked, but I could already guess my cousins answer.

“I could not refuse him, Father, he is the King.” his eyes, which I had at first could not read, reflected his unspoken apology.

“He does you a great honor, Donal, as I have said before. Do not be so worried.” My voice came out evenly, calmly, as I stepped forward. “It is not as if you could have turned him down, when he has offered his Church and to host the celebration afterwards.”

“Ailynn, are you sure?” Siobhan whispered to me, aware of the open door behind her husband.

“I can’t do anything about it. Besides, he wants me to play this game for some strange reason, but I do not think he is prepared to loose again.” I whispered back, pretending to return a stray hair to her braid.

“no, I do not believe he is.” She was gazing out of the open door, through the space her husband had recently occupied.

I turned, slowly, and followed the line of her gaze. He stood there, beneath an arch of stone, dressed in the Royal colors, his family crest embroidered on the right side of his chest in gold. This was not the man I had seen three months prior. He was much more sedate, his face a calm mask, his eyes revealing nothing yet again. He stepped forward when he realized I had seen him, approaching with the more determined step I had remembered of my Martin. Upon closer scrutiny, I could see he had cut his hair back into the neat mess of curls which were held back by a simple gold crown that rested on his brow. He had grown out his beard, trimming much neater and closer then I remembered, but still the same style. I felt my heart pound as I realized I was looking up into the face of my Martin, yet again, dressed in the clothes of the King.

“Your Highness.” I sank rigidly into a curtsy, feeling Siobhan follow suit beside me.

“Lady Ailynn, I hope you will forgive me for taking such liberties with your cousins. I know how much they must mean to you.” I looked into his face as I rose, but no emotions crossed the familiar façade I had known. “Your uncle has done great service for my family over the years, I felt it was only right that I at least try to return the favor, in whatever way I can.”

“Of course, Your Highness.” Was all I said, I could not bring myself to make a sharp comment at such a time. Siobhan gave me one last backward glance as she and her husband, with the children in their arms, were led up the center aisle.

“Lady?” I was startled by the Kings voice and realized, with a blush, that he held his hand out to me.

I smiled tightly as I placed my hand in his, feeling him curl his fingers around mine in a firm, but gentle, grip. For one horrible moment, I thought he might raise my hand to his lips, and I thought I saw him wrinkle his brow as he looked at my hand, but he did not. In stead, he led me gently to the beginning of the church aisle and we followed my uncle to the alter of the church where the baptismal font stood waiting.

I was not prepared for what happened next. From both sides of the church, whispers started, like ghosts in an abandond building, quiet at first, but growing louder and more numerous like a wind picking up speed through the tree branches. Ahead of us I could see the nobles, friends of my uncle, turning in their seats and staring at us and I realized, with a sudden jolt, why. Gwynna had said news of my rejection of the King had spread all over town like a wild fire. Here I was now, barely three months later at the christening of my cousins and standing as godmother, being escorted by none other then the man I had publicly refused to marry. My grip tightened unintentionally on the Kings hand as I fought the urge to scream at the whispering nobles to keep their tongues between their teeth.

To my surprise, the King returned my grip with a gentle squeeze and a caress with his thumb across the back of my hand. I further astonished myself when I found the gesture, unnoticed by those who whispered around us, had a calming and very fortifying effect. I took a small breath into my lungs, lifted my chin, and focused on the font at the end of the aisle. It was suddenly easier to ignore the whispers and stares as we passed, my eyes only seeing my squirming cousins in their parents arms, delighted by the dancing lights of the alter candles. I smiled reflexively as I saw Mairi’s tiny hand reach out as if to grab a flame within her chubby little fingers. Kiernan’s delighted smile as he played with the glittering embroidery on his fathers doublet was an instant reminder of the real importance of the occasion. I let everything go, even my uneasiness at the King being the other guardian of my beloved little cousins. The sound of the whispers faded into the background as we reached the end of the aisle.

The King handed me up into our proper place behind my cousins at the head of the church and I caught sight, as I turned, of a frail woman sitting just out of sight to our right. She wore a dress of dark blue in a very similar fashion of my own. Her fine, blonde hair was braided and tucked under a veil of white over which a circlet of gold and pearls rested. Her eyes, while set in a finer, female, face, were what struck me nearly dumb. They were the same gentle, brown eyes in the face of her son who now stood at the prayer bench beside me. She smiled softly at me as our eyes met and I lowered my head in as much of a bow our position would allow.

Shortly after we took our place at the prayer benches, the horns of the Holy Procession announced the beginning of the mass. I placed my hand on the rail before me as I turned to face the Procession, only to find it was quickly covered by the larger, warmer hand of the King. I watched my hand for a moment, pondering what I should do, feeling him curling his fingers around mine. Gently, I slipped my hand away, in as imperceptible a motion as I could. From the corner of my eye I could see his jaw tighten, but I did not look directly at him.

The Mass began as soon as the priest reached the alter and went by without so much as a hiccup from the children. At the appointed moment I was lead to the font by the King and we were named as godparents to little Kiernan and Mairi. The priest baptised each child in turn, then. Kiernan’s eyes widened with surprise as the cold water touched his red curls, but made not a peep as the priest blessed him. Mairi clung to the rosary that dangled from the priests neck as he blessed her and her little fingers had to be pried loose before she was handed back to her mother. The children were then presented to those gathered in the church, prayers were said, and we processed back to the entrance where chairs were set so that those attending the christening could meet the children as they left to prepare for the celebration. It was as Siobhan was settling herself and Mairi on her lap that she discovered her rosary was missing.

“I’ll go get it, Siobhan, it probably just fell near the alter.” We both shot a glance in the direction of the King who was, thankfully, deep in conversation with my uncle. I exchanged a look with Siobhan before I disappeared into the crowd of people exiting the church.

It took me very little time to discover where little Mairi had dropped her mothers rosary, for she was the most likely culprit. I dusted each bead off and slipped it into my pocket. Only then did I look up and see who was standing in the empty aisle of the church.

“So you are Ailynn.” Queen Egren stood much taller then I had realized, although she did not tower over me as I approached timidly.

“I am, Majesty.” I curtsied as properly as I could, feeling the silence of the now empty church press around me. My stomach flipped nervously inside me as I wondered what this woman could possibly have to say to me, the girl who had so easily rejected her only son.

“Come here, let me see you.” Her command was soft, tender, not the tone of voice an angry mother would use.

Slowly, I approached her, willing my jangling nerves to cease. I came as close as I dared, standing before her in the light of the church aisle. She smiled softly as she lifted my chin with a delicate finger, turning my face slowly. Her eyes studied me for a moment, sweeping over my dress, my hair, my features, before returning to fix her gaze on mine. She dropped her hand and turned, still fixing me with her eyes.

“Join me?” She indicated an open door on the left side of the church, through which I could see the church garden bathed in mid-day sunlight.

“Of course, Majesty.” I followed her out into the garden, not bothering to look if any of my family could see me. I was not sure they should know about the conversation the Queen wished to have with me.

She led me out into the simple garden, along the path, to a bench situated beside the statue of St. Basil. There, she sat, indicating I should sit beside her.

“Tell me, why did you refuse my son?” Although the question was very direct, her tone of voice was again, not demanding, but curious.

“Because he broke my heart, Majesty.” I answered simply.

“and how did he come to do that?” she lay her hand on my folded ones in my lap, looking directly into my eyes, “Lady Ailynn, my son has told me very little about what transpired between the two of you, but I am a mother, and his reaction to your rejection has not been a light one. There is more to the story and, as I am his mother and have a mothers right to be concerned for him, I feel I should know the truth of it.”

I took a deep breath and looked away, steeling myself against the tears I was sure would come, and I began: “I met your son three weeks after he returned home, when he was staying at my uncles estate. I did not know he was the King then, he introduced himself as Martin of Arrow’s Field. I think he purposely kept that knowledge from me, although I cannot think of a reason why. We became friends in a way that I have never experienced before. Every word I spoke, he listened to. He challenged my thoughts, as silly as they often were, he challenged me to think beyond what I already knew. I loved his company, the way he never allowed me to be upset or angry, how he sought me out for my opinion on things. I grew to love him then and I believe, had he proposed then, I would have accepted him without a seconds doubt.”

“But you were drawn apart?” she smiled knowingly at me.

“yes, we were.” I laughed and looked down at my hands, “it’s that way with all love stories, isnt it?”

“Of course, what happened that you were separated?” her tone was indulgent and expectant.

“I did not know who he was, and because of that, my aunt believed I had fallen in love with a noble who was not worthy of my rank and fortune. I was sent to live with my cousin Donal and his wife, they are the parents of the children who were christened today.” She nodded as she recognized them. “I spent the past year with them and Donal helped me to take over control of my estates and property. Then the decree went out that the King was going to host a celebration in order to find a bride amongst the nobility. I did not believe that the King would be interested in such a silly girl as myself, but I did hope that, in coming to the City while all the nobility were here, I would see my Martin again. I suppose I hoped that in a year he would have become more worthy, and I was more sure of myself to prevent any persuasion against marrying him.”

“When did you see him again?” she curled her fingers in mine gently and I realized, to my surprise, tears had slowly begun to form at the edges of my eyes.

I took a shaky breath, and continued: “I saw him again at the first masquarade. My aunt had convinced me that I should not dress as I always have, in the style of the country. I wanted Martin to recognize me, however, should he be there. The dress I wore was a dress the King had given to me during his stay at my uncles estate, when I met Martin. I had thrown a fit when I tried it on, I felt so indecent in it. Martin had calmed my nerves and we had joked over it at the time, convincing me the King would not be insulted if I chose not to wear the dress, since it disturbed me so much. He must have thought me the worst hypocrit then when I wore it to the masquarade, and he told me as much when he spoke to me. It was then that I realized the man I thought I had known had changed. I learned later from my cousins that he was the King, and vowed to avoid him at all costs out of my own humiliation and embarassment. I had not thought my actions would have the consequences they did, so I was determined to make amends of the situation as best I could.”

“Not long after that I accompanied my cousin Donal in an audience with the Kings merchant advisor. While we waited for our turn to speak with him, we overheard the King talking with Lord Kale in the most vile manner regarding me. He does not know I heard, but after I heard, I knew I could not stay here any longer, that everything I had hoped to find in the City was never here. Donal persuaded me to stay one week longer, so that he might finish his business in the City before returning to his wife and children with me. During that time I learned that the King had been persuaded to allow Lord Kale to court my younger cousin Zarene. She was a child, but the King looked the other way and did not seem to care that Lord Kale abused and raped my cousin, and married another woman the next day. I was horrified beyond belief, I could not forgive him for allowing such a thing to happen. When Zarene attempted to take her own life, I demanded that Donal take me home immediately. We were just preparing to leave when your son came to River House and proposed.”

“And that is when you rejected him.” Queen Egren finished for me, as my face was now wet with tears.

“I could not accept the man who had facilitated the rape and anguish of my own cousin, let alone someone who spoke as if he were clearly capable of such licentious behavior himself. I would truly have been the shallow hypocrit he accused me of if I had accepted him.” I fought hard not to break into sobs, it would not do to cry in such a manner in front of the Queen.

“You were right, you know, to refuse him. I do not blame you for following what you knew was the right thing to do.” She lifted my chin and looked into my tear laden eyes, “Ailynn, you are the first and only reason I have had since my son returned home not to force him to abdicate the thrown. The man who returned from war was as a ship lost at sea seeking any port in the storm. If I had known about you from the first moment my son returned to the City, I would have urged him to seek you out in earnest and demand your hand in marriage. Instead, the man who returned to his City was bitter and disenchanted with what he saw. The corruption you saw when you came to the City was the direct result of his state of mind, he cared not what his nobles did, he cared nothing about the state of the kingdom. I watched every day as the boy who had left for war disappeared quickly behind a man I could not recognize, let alone call my son. The day you rejected him, the day you refused him and could not even look at him, that was the day my son returned. For the first time in a year, hurt and upset as he was, I saw my son again. You brought him back, whatever you told him, whatever you saw in him that made you turn away, it returned my son to me.”

These were not the words I had expected to hear from Queen Egren, if I had expected anything from her at all. I could only sit in stunned silence, watching her through tear stained eyes, trying to think of an acceptable answer to her words. I drew a shuddering breath, not sure what words were going to come out.

“Ailynn, I expect no answer from you, nor is what I have said to you a plea to accept my son should he repeat his offer to you. I can see the anger and hurt in your eyes, watching how you avoided him, even now and I would be severely remiss in my duties as a mother if I were not to offer some insight into the man my son has become.” She reached into a pocket and withdrew a kercheif, wiping my wet cheeks, her dark eyes gazing soothingly into mine. “I hope someday you will have children of your own that you will understand?”

I nodded and understood a great deal more then that. My god! Did everyone know of my plan to take my vows? I cursed myself that I had ever said anything to anyone.

“Now, we haved spoken too long, here is your uncle searching for you.” Queen Egren raised her voice and I looked back toward the doorway. My uncle stood there, smiling timidly at me, his eyes flitting between us. Egren looked back at me, a consipratorial look in her eyes, “It would not do for my son to know we had been talking. It might give him false hope, I think?”

I smiled as we rose and I followed her from the garden. My uncle bowed deeply to the Queen as she passed into the church.

Turning, Queen Egren fixed me with her dark eyes one last time and said, “Ailynn, make sure you dance every dance tonight. An intellegent woman, who knows what she is about, would not allow those who persue her more then a moments time alone with her.”

“Yes, My Queen.” I decided not to argue, although I had not planned on dancing at all this evening. It occurred to me, upon considering her words as my uncle escorted me from the church, that it would be much more difficult to avoid the King if I were not dancing. Dancing, as it was, would afford me a viable excuse for avoiding his company as much as being partnered to someone other then him. I was, after all, an intellegent woman.

 

 

Fairytale: Third Part

“Lady Ailynn, I ask you, on bended knee, to be my wife and Queen.” I looked down at him, unable to keep my mouth shut as my jaw dropped wide open.

Around me an awkward silence had filled the room and I was acutely aware of not only my uncle, but my aunt, cousins, and even the household servents were watching me, waiting for the expected answer. Behind the King and just barely in my line of sight stood Donal, his face reflecting the emotionless mask he wore when he tried to hide what was going on behind it. Siobhan was truthful, as ever, when she told me how his true emotions were always reflected in his eyes. The furious inferno I saw burning in my cousins dark eyes ignited the already smoldering flames of indignation, humiliation, and anger that had appeared the moment I heard his remarks from behind the bookshelves. I pulled my hand out of his as gracefully as my anger would allow and looked directly into the Kings eyes.

“No.” the silence in the room changed from surprised expectancy to shocked. I dared not look in the direction of my aunt and uncle as I continued, “I cannot marry you.”

Now it was his turn to drop his jaw, his eyes clouding with confusion. Clearly that was not the answer he thought I would give and he had to stop for a moment to think of what he was going to say next.

“I must leave, excuse me.” I took advantage of his pause and gave a quick curtsy before turning and leaving the room. I could hear the crunch and slide of the heel of Donal’s boots as he followed me from the room, his bearlike presence providing a grateful barrier behind me.

“Ailynn!!” my uncle finally broke the silence with a roar as I passed through the doors. I couldn’t look back, my anger threatening to win over as I marched out of the room. Thankfully, Donal slammed the doors to the great hall shut with a thunderous clatter as I fought to not run from the building, my hands clenched into fists.

Without a word and despite the sudden tumult we could hear following us, we entered the courtyard, mounted up, and left. I could feel my eyes burn as we rode in roiling silence out of the City, breaking into a hard gallop as soon as we passed through the gates and out of the teaming masses of peasants. It was only out of filial respect for my cousin that I did not take off across country as hard as I could, leaving Donal and my guard behind. I kept my tongue pressed tightly behind my teeth, my lips glued shut, focusing on every jarring bump and turn as we rode, willing the angry tears that burned my eyes not to spill out over my cheeks.

We reached the River Cyr faster then I realized we would and I reined in, shocked at my own inattentiveness. I turned and looked at my cousin, reality cooling the hot indignation in my cheeks. Judging from the exhausted expressions on my guards faces, I could see I had set a grueling pace in my bid to escape from the city and the presence of such a man. Donal tried to hide his own wearied look of sorrow as he stopped beside me, his dark eyes reflecting pity and respect.

“I am sorry, Ailynn. I would have stopped him well before had I known that was his plan in seeing you.” He sighed, running his hand through his hair. “I should have known, I am sorry to have caused you such pain.”

“I am not angry at you, Donal, you have done nothing wrong. I just cannot believe that after all he said to me, the whole time I was in Town, he was thinking about marrying me.” I looked at the water that ran rough through the river, swollen with the spring runoff.

“Neither can I.” Donal followed my eyes across the river, to the banks that were the beginning of my own estate of Northwood. “He must know by now you were intending on returning to Northwood. He may follow you there.”

“I had not thought of that.” Of course he would follow me. I had not given him a moment to plead his case, or to ask me why I had rejected him. He would demand an explanation from me, I knew him at least that well if no better. The thought of being forced to explain my own emotions, let alone put them into some logical order enough to sleep tonight, made me weary to the bone. I couldn’t face him again today, that much I knew, but I also knew I would not have the strength to make Tiedham by any reasonable hour.

“Come home with me. Siobhan will be a better solace then staying alone at Northwood, and it will buy you at least a night of quiet rest.” Donal, yet again, provided the best answer to my problem.

“Yes, I will do that.” I smiled gratefully at him through my darkness. I did not yet want to face the emotions that spun and wheeled within my heart, but Siobhan would be the best person to help me sort them out and deal with them.

Donal led this time, taking the nearly hidden road through the wood that engulfed the riverbank lining the boarder of his estate. The only complaint I had as we continued to ride in silence was that the road required travelling at a slower pace to negotiate the roots and rocks. I could not focus on riding, but found myself lost in the turmoil that was my own heart.

I was, first, utterly shocked that the King would even consider marrying me, especially after admonishing me at the masquarade and commenting on how shallow and inconstant I was to his closest counselor. I could still hear his words echoing in my mind, calling me a painted whore even as I tried to leave in my horror and humiliation at the behavior of the nobles around us. I was still angry that he had not wanted an explanation at the time, sneering at the dress I wore because one year earlier I had shuddered and cried at wearing it around my own family. Angrily, I vowed not to give him an explanation for my behavior now should he demand one. If he hadn’t wanted one before he did not deserve one now.

Secondly, I was confused that he could express such negative and demeaning opinions not only to his friends, but directly to me about my appearance and actions, then turn around and propose to me on bended knee. I couldn’t understand how he could deny what he professed to feel about me to anyone who asked and yet he would choose me to be his wife. The only answer that I could reasonably come up with was that, since he was so convinced I had become like any other of the noble ladies vying for his attentions, he might as well choose me as any one of them. His happiness was totally forfeit with any match he made, he had said so himself, so he might as well choose someone he could tolerate for short amounts of time.

The third, and most painful, feeling was that of heartbroken loss. I had lost my Martin. It was as if the man whose memory had brought me to the City had been murdered before my very eyes. With my parents and my brothers I had not been present for their death, nor had I spent any large amount of personal time with them, therefore I had been spared the deeply rooted sorrow that now engulfed me as I remembered the man who I had met a year prior. I could hear him laugh, throughing his head back in the sunshine, his dark curls a sloppy mess on his head. I could see him giving me sideways looks as we rode the countryside with his falcons. He had been my closest friend and I had shared more of my own, personal, thoughts with him then I had with any other human being since, even Siobhan. When I came to the City I had watched as the man who I had longed to see and speak with for so many months was revealed to no longer exist. The man who had been my beloved Martin was now the King, and all that had been good about Martin had been transformed into the worst villian I could imagine. His laugh was short and mean, his dark eyes that had twinkled and glowed at me before now burned with resentful fire, his smile was tinged with regret and meanness, his words no longer held the gentle, trusting tone but were sharp and hurtful weapons.

The little, doubtful voice that had whispered vile, frightening thoughts in my mind spoke again. Is it possible Martin never really existed? I considered the way Lord Kale had acted, the slimy way he had sought my trust despite the fact I could see right through him. The way he had used any small piece of knowledge to convince me that he had my best interest in mind. I could see through his tricks thanks to Donal, warning me that he was only after my title and fortune. Was it possible that the King had created Martin for the same reason? Certainly he did not need my title and fortune, marrying him would only serve me in changing my social and political status, but was there some underlying reason? I could not see one, but I could not force the thought that perhaps it was not the King that was a false person, but Martin. Was Martin the way that the King had wormed his way into my heart, into my good graces?

I did not want to believe it, but every time I blinked my eyes I could see the way the King had danced with those ladies, had smiled warmly at each and every one of them when they touched him, pressed into him as he passed, fluttered their eyes at him. He had not turned them away, he had given them the attention they sought. Lord Kale had acted the same way, and worse, I had personal knowledge of that having nearly stumbled on him with my cousin in the gardens and the tumultuous result of that meeting. I began to wonder if the King had satisfied the other attentions of the noble ladies who plied their trade in his court and my mind reeled from such a heinous, vile thought.

My mind quickly switched back to seeing him kneeling before me, my hand to his lips as he proposed. His eyes had held that earnest glow that I had come to trust in Martins eyes, but all I could see was the lying snake that lived behind them. What kind of fool did he think I was? Now that I had time to think about it, I could see he had chosen me as someone who would do well as queen, but clearly he meant to keep one or two of those ladies he called ‘painted whores’ for his real pleasure. He was no better then Lord Kale, and worse having created such an elaborate lie. I could feel the dark hole that had formed in my chest widen as I realized how wrong I was about such a man. I was such a fool.

The only thought that kept me from utter despair as I rode silently behind my cousin was that at least I had had the pride and self respect to refuse him. I might have lost the only man who I could ever consider being married to, but then he never really existed to begin with, so hopefully the mourning period would be of short duration. I had been a naïve, stupid girl, but not any more. I knew better now and would act accordingly. I would not allow myself to so deceived again in the future.

It was with that tenuous resolve that I entered Donal’s house. It was late enough that my silent, sullen nature could be excused to the members of his household as exhaustion. Siobhan was already in bed, the twins taking all of her energy while we had been away. I felt a pang of guilt and made a determined decision that I would be more helpful to her come the morning. She needed me more then I needed the time to think on what had happened. With that decision set in my mind I excused myself to my rooms.

Elsbeth pounced on me the moment I stepped through my bedroom door, making quiet inquiries as to how I found town. For the most part I could make little comments, feeling mechanical as I answered her questions with as truthful statements as I could muster. The first few questions were general ones, how I did I like the society I found there, what did I think of the buildings, had I been to court? I was able to answer these without ever mentioning Martin or the King. I was relieved she did not ask as I washed the road dust off of my skin and out of my hair, dressed in my night shift, and prepared to climb into bed.

She was brushing my hair out, unknotting the tangles that travelling had woven into it, when she asked: “did you see your Martin in the City?”

My throat caught and I could feel a painful lump form, but I managed to choke out, “Yes. I saw him.”

“And? Is he well? Has he improved his fortune?” Elsbeth could not see the look on my face as she urged. I could feel tears forming behind my eyes as the events of the past month ripped through my mind.

“Yes.” Was all I managed to whisper.

“Yes? Is that all?” she stopped brushing my hair, her voice playfully irritated. “For someone who could not stop talking about the man before you left, that is pitifully little to say. Did you not see him as much as you wished? Is your uncle still against your friendship with the man?”

“No.” A tear began to course down my cheek and I took a shuddering breath, wiping it away. Elsbeth, sharp as she was, could not ignore my reaction.

“Ailynn, what happened?” Elsbeth set the brush down and came around to kneel before me, her kind face set in a look of motherly concern.

“I saw Martin, and he saw me. Many times.” I took another shuddering breath, my tears slowly dripping down my cheeks. “He is not the man I thought he was last year.”

“Not the man you thought he was? Has he changed so much?” Elsbeth brushed my wet cheek tenderly and gently slipped her fingers through my own that were winding knots in my lap.

“I do not think the man I met a year ago was the real person he is.” I could not look up, hiccuping as I tried to stifle a sob.

“Why do you say that? What did you learn of him?” she held a kercheif up for me and I took it, wiping at my cheeks and nose.

“He is the King, Elsbeth.” I smiled bitterly from behind the kercheif at her stunned look.

“Martin? Dear Martin is the King?” she was flabbergasted, which was a first in all the years I had known her. She placed both hands on my shoulders as I nodded, sobbing again, and embraced me. “Oh Child, he is to marry someone else, is he? Because he is the king? Has he chosen someone else?”

“No, he offered for my hand in marriage.” I shook my head as I pulled away, looking down at my hands again.

“Then why are you crying? Why are you here?” Elsbeth lifted my chin to look in my eyes.

“I refused him.” I whispered, my lips trembling as I broke into a sob again, hiding my face in my hands to avoid the look of horror on my maidservants face.

“Why?” her whisper held all of her shock and dismay.

“Because he is not the man I thought he was. Because I think he made Martin up for some ridiculous purpose to make me a fool. I looked for Martin in him, when I realized who he really was, and there was no trace of my dear friend. I was such a fool, Elsbeth, to believe that such a good man could exist. He does not, nor will he ever. Martin is worse then dead, he was never real, he never existed.” I broke into true sobs then.

“Child, why would the King do that? Why would Martin do that? I cannot believe he made you a fool on purpose.” She embraced me again, whispering into my ear as she tried to comfort me.

“Because it is courtly the fashion to do so. The noble men like to make scandals and whores of the noble women. I have seen it happen to my own cousin. Lord Kale made love to her in the gardens, all but promised to marry her, and then wed another noble woman the next day. Zarene lost her maidenhood and nearly lost her life when she learned of his marriage. She tried to jump from the roof and nearly succeeded if Donal had not listened to me and stopped her.” I felt Elsbeth’s hand grow still as I related the incident.  “It is amusement to them to make fools of women, as if we do not matter, as if our emotions were nothing to them. He only sought to make a fool of me, to make me a wife in name while he made love to another behind closed doors. I could not marry such a man, not after such a betrayal.”

“Of course not, Child.” Now she pulled back, holding my chin so I looked into her face again. “I will not question your decision, Child, if that is the truth of the matter. I thought you looked more then road weary when you walked through that door. Bed is what you need, with a draught to help you sleep, if you wish it.”

“No, I think I am weary enough from everything that has happened I could sleep for days.” I took a deep breath to force the heavy, sorrowful fog from my lungs. I felt better having told her, although I knew in the morning I would have to relate the whole story to Siobhan with even more detail, but I would have a whole nights rest and perhaps breakfast as well to fortify myself for the ordeal.

“Then come to bed, let me tuck you in as I used to when you were young.” Elsbeth gave me her comforting smile again and I stood up as she drew back the blankets on the bed. She gave me a serious look as I climbed in and asked, “Does your uncle know the King proposed?”

“Yes, the whole household knows. He knealt before me and proposed in front of everyone.” I sighed heavily as she pulled the blankets up around me, a look of serious concern wrinkling her brow.

“It will be all over the City by now, then. You will not be able to return for quite some time without people talking about you.” She sat on the edge of my bed and took my hand gently.

“Elsbeth, I have no respect for the people who would be so low as to find amusement in this situation, so their opinions are of no concern to me. I am sure I have given you enough to worry about, do not add this matter to that list.” I sat up, burrowing my shoulders into the pillows, “I have no plans on ever returning to the City in my life unless taken there by military force. I do not think City society holds the draw that it once did.”

“It does not glitter so enticeingly as it did before?” she smiled a wry smile at me.

“Oh, it glitters. Like a fish on the river bank: it glitters and it stinks.” Elsbeth’s eyebrow twitched as I used her favorite description and I smiled at her. I would be alright, eventually, and I hoped to reassure her of it. She tapped my forehead with a scolding finger and rose to leave, blowing out the candles as she made her way to the doorway. “Goodnight, Elsbeth.”

“Goodnight, Child. Sleep well.” She called from the doorway and closed it gently.

It is a wonderful side effect of such disasterous events followed by the extertions to control those emotions that war with each other in the aftermath that sleep ends up being dreamless and, for the most part, restful. It also helped that I had forced myself to ride much longer and harder afterwards in my bid for escape then I ever had before, bringing over me a lovely dead exhaustion to force the dreams away. I slept well into the morning and felt much refreshed at least physically.

I did not have, as I had hoped, breakfast to help fortify me before being pounced on by Siobhan for my account of what had transpired. I was grateful to Donal that he had at least filled her in about all of the basic events so that when I entered her breakfast room that morning she only wanted to know specific details about what had happened that Donal could not have known. These details were, of course, how I had felt and reacted to each of the events. Having been my closest friend, Siobhan would not allow me to gloss over anything and I could not withhold even the most painful feelings that I could not face. I found this to be the most surprising balm to my wounded heart, to relate my pain, humiliation, indignation to another person who shared and commiserated with me in the most tender fashion.

Fairytale: Second Part

“Lady Ailynn! I thought I would find you out here.” Martin’s voice startled me and I looked up to see him striding across the meadow leading two of the biggest horses I had ever seen.

“What are those?” I exclaimed, trying to keep my jaw from dropping entirely as I crossed the meadow to meet him.

“I refuse to believe the lady has never seen a horse before.” His eyes glittered wickedly as he teased me. “Your uncle keeps many in the stables. Have you never been there?”

“The lady has seen horses before, just none so big. These are practically monstrous! Where did you get them?” the darker one leaned down and sniffed my outstretched hand, his velvet muzzle tickling my palm.

“They are called Garrons, and we used them to ride into battle. They are renowned abroad for their great strength and stamina. They have been brought back to be bred with our local stock to produce a better farming horse or, as is my plan today, to carry ladies across their uncles estates as fast as they wish to ride.” He smiled warmly as he offered to hand me up into the saddle. I took it and looked up, way up, where the saddle sat nearly a foot above my head and chewed my lip, “Unless the lady is afraid?”

“Will I be able to control him?” I looked into Martins face, worried.

“Yes, he’s one of the Royal mounts, he is very gentle. Unless you cannot ride. You can ride, of course?” his mouth twitched as he watched me and I gave him a determined look.

“Yes I can ride, just never something so big.” I wanted to pinch him, but I could see Elsbeth watching me closely from the raspberry patch.

“There’s a first time for everything, Lady Ailynn.” He moved behind me and lifted me by my waist to the saddle. I threw my leg over and slipped my feet into the stirrups which were, to my surprise, measured perfectly. Martin only returned my querying look with a blank look of innocence as he mounted the other Garron and turned toward the path.

“Bring her back before eventide, Master Martin. I must not be forced to imagine an excuse for her absence.” Elsbeth called from the berry patch.

“Elsbeth, you must be blind, neither horse is a mare and I can assure you, these mounts will not be missed until at least three weeks hence!” Martin shot Elsbeth a devious grin, which she returned with a sharp laugh.

“Master Martin, you are in the presence of innocent ears, be careful what you say!” she scolded, handing my cloak up to me.

“I did not know you had taken the vow of maidenhood, Elsbeth, my apologies.” Martin winked over his shoulder at me, still grinning at Elsbeth.

“Master Martin, do not give me a reason to have Lord Rothchester run you off of his property for speaking so around Lady Ailynn.” She narrowed her eyes at him, giving me a serious look as Martin only laughed and waved before we disappeared into the trees.

The path we took wound through the little forest and up to the top of a ridge. I had taken this path before on my little palfrey, but to break through the trees at the top of the ridge and look down at my uncles lands from such a tall creature was a new experience. At Martins urging, we galloped along the crest of the ridge and down into the opposite valley until we met back up with the road that wound lazily through my uncle’s land and back to the keep. It was a lovely day for a ride, although slightly cool, and I did not want to ride directly back to the keep, so I led Martin off of the road to the top of a hill. I stopped here and looked out over my uncle’s land, marvelling at the bright colors the dazzling sunlight brought out of the land beneath us.

A gentle wind blew across the fields of greening wheat beneath us, ruffled my hair, and caused me to shiver despite the warmth of the day. I reached for my cloak, which I had thrown across the back of the saddle as I rode, but found that Martin had already taken it and was wrapping it around my shoulders. He smiled warmly as he drew the cloak closed in front of me, tying the ribbons carefully with a strangely quiet look on his face.

“Elsbeth would never forgive me if I allowed you to catch cold while under my care.” He said softly, running his fingers along the embroidered edge of my cloak.

Something in his manner, the way his dark eyes watched mine, how his fingers paused as he touched the edge of my cloak, frightened me. It was not the kind of fear one has after a nightmare or when they are in fear for their life, but the kind of giddy fear that raises butterflies in your belly and causes your hands to shake for no obvious reason. As I watched him I realized that he seemed to be experiencing the same giddy feeling. I could see his face pause, his eyes watching mine as if he did not know what to do next. We sat there a moment, watching each other on horseback, the breeze ruffling my already wild hair. A wisp of it fell in front of my eyes and he moved a hand to brush it out of my face, his fingers resting under my chin after tucking the hair behind my ear. Slowly, gently, he lifted my chin, leaned down, and placed his lips tentatively on mine.

I melted, my lips fitting his firm ones as if they had always belonged there. I felt him draw me to him, as well as he could while both of us remained in the saddle, wrapping his arm around my waist and engulfing me in the warmest embrace. I placed my fingers on his neck and felt his pulse throbbing beneath them before he pulled away, his dark eyes watching me tenderly.

“Lady…” he paused, watching me as he held me, his fingers caressing my cheek so gently it was as if he thought he would break me, “Lady, there is something you must know, something I need to tell you…”

He didn’t finish. Horsemen, led by Allmain, came crashing up the road beneath us. Quickly, Martin let me go, drawing my hood up around my suddenly reddening face. He gave me a reassuring smile as we turned and came down the hill to meet the horsemen.

 

 

Ailynn: Fairytale Beginning

It was raining again. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in the early spring, days upon days of driving rain or misty dreariness that eventually would let up for a moment of crystal clear sunshine glittering off of diamond raindrops on the slowly greening landscape. The problem was that the constant wetness was still infused with the chill bite of winter that could only be thwarted by a large fire in every hearth.

As a child I used to sit by the great hearth in the kitchen watching Elsbeth as she worked her well muscled arms and highly practiced hands pounding out meat or kneading dough for bread. She was the only person who came with me from Morwich when my mother died, leaving me under the care of my father’s brother. All of the other staff stayed at my father’s estates, managed by my uncle until I came of age. I would sit neatly at the edge of the hearth, drawing pictures in the cinders with kindling twigs, watching Elsbeth and the other kitchen maids work.

When I grew older and more dexterous, Elsbeth taught me to cook and bake, adding my own handiwork to the food that graced the table of my uncles’ house. Over time I learned every aspect of feeding an entire keep, nobles to servants, and eventually I assumed the responsibility of planning every meal. This included stocking the store rooms every fall for the long winters. I soon became so proficient at this that I began to learn other aspects of running my uncles house. By the time I was fifteen I was running my uncle’s household as if it were my own and my aunt merely delegated what she wanted done and I was the one who saw to it that her every request was met. She and her two daughters spent most of their days in the women’s quarters doing who knew what, which was fine with me. I liked being in charge of things and it gave me great satisfaction at the end of every day when tasks were done exactly how I wished it. The change of days and seasons became a normal cadence to me, my mind already planning the next season’s preparations even as we started a new season’s work.

Winter season was always the worst for me, sitting out the bitter storms and bleak coldness. I hated being idle, it bothered me to the core. My aunt would complain when I paced the women’s quarters during the first true storms of winter, as if I were a caged beast. She would insist that I sit and practice my lessons, now that the busy seasons were over and I had the time to learn. My cousins, Egren and Zarene, would plead with me as well, begging me to stop pacing and twitching. Eventually, as the deepness of winter set in, I would calm down to more sedate tasks. It was at this time my aunt would teach me my lessons: politics, languages, literature, and so on.

To be honest, I did like learning and reading was my favorite past time. I could sit for hours in my favorite window seat, wrapped warmly in furs, my aunt and cousins embroidering by the fire, and just loose myself in the written words upon a page. I suppose it was my love of literature that resurrected my woefully spotty education for, while I lacked in regular lessons during the spring, summer, and harvest seasons I made up for over the winter reading. I had slowly worked my way through my uncles’ extensive library, out pacing my own cousins within one season. Once I finished covering all of the literature my aunt thought most useful to a young lady, I began on more heavy subjects, like philosophy, economics, and politics. I found some subjects very boring and waded through them out of a sense of obligation and extreme boredom. Others I found much more interesting like history and geography. They would fill my head with images of ancient heroes and faraway places that I secretly longed to see, even though I knew in a practical sense would never happen. Travelling and adventuring was not the place of a young lady, especially one left to the mercy of only her skills and reputation to ensure her a good home. I kept at it, though, for those images were what got me through the dreary, dark, icy depths of wintertime.

I had one major complaint about winter, after I had settled down into my winter routine, and that was the approach of early springtime. The snow would melt quickly, forming mud and wetness during the day, but still freeze over at night, making travel out of doors extremely treacherous. This early cycle of thaw and freeze did not bother me, as the fields were not yet ready for tilling. What got under my skin and brought out the pacing beast that lay dormant all winter was when the daily snowfall changed over to rain, soaking the already spongy earth so that the fields were flooded and the roads were still nearly impassable. I knew the rains would only last a few weeks, as the sunlight was starting to win its way through the clouds, but I grew impatient. I anticipated the few short months of spring and summer in which I had to prepare the entire keep for the next winter season. The farmers would joke with me, teasing me as I paced the kitchens and hallways, drumming my fingers on the window ledges as I watched the deluge outside.

This particular season was significantly worse. News of my uncle returning from abroad sent the house into a frenzy of activity. My aunt, cousins, and every able body within the keep were hard at work readying the place for his return. It was a credit to my abilities as a noblewoman that most of the keep was already in neat and tidy order. Midwinter I would organize the household in a cleaning frenzy, my own inactivity rattling my nerves once more. Even so, every room in the keep was scrubbed top to bottom until even the stones and wood beams in the eaves of the great rooms shone like polished silver. The banners and accoutrements designating our household as being in direct service to the King were brought out of storage where they had rested the nine years my uncle was away.

Less than a week ago my uncle sent word that he was bringing with him the royal court, all of the young nobles who had fought beside the new King abroad. He, too, was returning home having established peace with our neighbors, either by force, or negotiation. The old King had died three years into the campaign, cut down on the same battlefield where my father and three brothers had been taken. The Prince, at that time accompanying my uncle as they negotiated a treaty of alliance in another country, was left to continue reinforcing or expanding the boundaries of our kingdom while I was left an orphan. Over the last six years, according to the letters sent home by my uncle, the new King had proved himself more than worthy of his throne on both the battlefield and at the negotiating table.

Now that the King had settled all disputes on our borders, he was returning home to establish his place on the throne. I knew without the information in my uncle’s missive that the King would spend the next year travelling through the households of the nobility to reinforce his authority as the new King. Since he had only been a boy when he took over the throne there had been much dissention through our kingdom against him. I had heard whispers from visiting nobility that those who opposed the King were angry at my uncle’s closeness, that my uncle had become the power behind the throne.

My aunt, of course, had done her best to dissuade the rumors. She would often highlight that, while the spoils of war had certainly flowed home on a regular basis, her family was no better off than the other nobles in the country. Although she won some to her way of thinking, there were those who had of late become determinedly against both my uncle and the King. It was a blessing that the King now was returning home and his presence would, according to my uncle, reaffirm his rightful place on a very independent throne.

While all of this held great importance to me in one realm, in the immediate moment the arrival of the King meant only that I had to work twice as hard to make sure my uncle’s keep was not only ready to receive him, but would not put my uncle to shame upon his return home. Which was why, at the moment, I was elbow deep in potatoes. My uncle, the King, and his entourage were expected to arrive tomorrow, so now we were only down to final preparations, like the banquet tomorrow night. I had planned the meal to perfection and now my aunt and cousins were hard at work overseeing other aspects of the meal, like gathering great haunches of meat and ale. I was stuck with the biggest pile of potatoes I had ever seen needing washed, peeled, and diced for stew. Around me the kitchen buzzed with maids and servants obeying Elsbeth’s every command.

I looked up from my pile to wipe my brow, brushing a stray strand of hair out of my face, and that was when I noticed him. The only reason he did catch my eye was that, in the maelstrom of people rushing to and fro at their tasks, he was standing still in the doorway looking about as if completely lost. I didn’t immediately recognize him but a cursory glance at his apparel indicated why. He wore riding pants and leather jerkin, his gloves were folded neatly in his belt but appeared well used, his boots were clearly caked with dust and mud from the road, and he wore a great sword strapped to one leg and a short sword on the opposite hip.

“Sir, won’t you come in?” I immediately stopped my work and approached him.

He fixed me with brown eyes dotted with gold in such a way that I felt myself growing very warm despite the chill spring air that blew through the open doorway. He was very tall and had to duck slightly to enter the teaming kitchen. His features were etched strongly on a very handsome face, although a bit gaunt. He had clearly been travelling a long time, as his clothes had a fine layer of dust on them and his gait, although purposeful as he moved to meet me, was ginger and he held his shoulders slightly stooped with weariness.

“I was told I could find an Elsbeth in this direction who could provide refreshment for me and my men. Would that be you?” He took in my apron tied over what I knew was clearly a noblewoman’s day dress, although not the best in my closet.

“No, I am Ailynn, ward of Lord Rothchester. I was lending a hand in the preparations for tomorrow night’s banquet.” I motioned to a boy running by empty handed and he stopped, “Ian, bring a tray of ale to the men in the yard, please?”

“Yes, M’lady.” He nodded with a cheeky smile and shot off in a different direction.

“Thank you, Lady Ailynn.” The man smiled a look that was so etched with weariness that I felt pity for him at once.

“Please, have a seat, drink something. You look as if you’ve been riding all day.” I motioned him towards a chair set close to the fire which he sank into gratefully as I fetched him a tankard filled with ale.

“More like ten years.” He smiled as he took it, sipping it with pleasure as I moved back to the table and the mountain of potatoes that still loomed above me.

“Did you ride ahead of Lord Rothchester and the royal court?” I asked, to make conversation as I peeled and he sipped his ale. He rested his booted feet on the hearth, turning his chair to the warmth as if he had not seen a proper fire for a long time.

“Aye, ahead of the court, but with Lord Rothchester. My men and I have business we must discuss in private with Lord Rothchester before the royal court arrives.” He watched the fire as he spoke.

“Lord Rothchester is already here?” I was startled, not wanting my uncle to arrive home with the house not completely ready.

“We only just arrived. He and I decided to ride ahead of the rest of the court in order to take the time to discuss a few important matters in as much privacy as possible.” He looked over at me, his face serious as he repeated what he had already told me.

“When will the King arrive?” I took the hint and changed the subject, as clearly this man did not want to go into his business with my uncle any further then he already had. I had no concern with this man’s business; I was more worried about making sure my uncle was proud to return to such a home.

“Soon.” This seemed to amuse him as a smile etched the corner of his mouth as he took another sip of his ale. He gave me a sidelong glance, “I suppose all the ladies are excited that the King is arriving? “

“The whole house is. We are very honored that he would choose to stay with us after returning so soon to his homeland.” I picked up another potato and started scrubbing, “We have all been working extremely hard to make sure our home is as comfortable and welcoming as possible.”

“By peeling potatoes?” he glanced wryly at the mountain that loomed to my left.

“Well, we are expecting the entire royal court, plus needing to feed his guard and any of the military that have chosen to travel home with the King. Potatoes are a staple for doing so.” I teased back.

“I see. That is quite the task you have, I do not think I have seen so many potatoes in my life.” He leaned back in his chair, tipping it gently back on its legs in order to see around the huge pile of potatoes on the table. He looked back at me, eyes twinkling, “What will you do if they are not all eaten?”

“Give them to the pigs, to fatten them up for bacon.” I smiled sweetly at him and he chuckled, draining his tankard.

“Thank you, Lady Ailynn, that was extremely refreshing.” He handed the empty tankard to me and bowed.

“You are welcome…”I realized with a blush I had not thought to ask the man his name.

“Martin, of Arrows Field.” He supplied without missing a beat, smiling down at me in such a way that I felt the heat begin to rise in my chest again.

“Martin.” I fought a loosing battle with the rosy blush that I knew was invading my cheeks as I curtsied. His lips twitched as he returned with a short bow, and then slipped out of the kitchen and turned in the direction of the stable yard.

I stood there for a moment, slightly unsure of what I was supposed to be doing, clutching the empty tankard to my chest, my fingers becoming wet with the condensation that still clung to the metal. I turned slowly and forced myself to try and return to my peeling, handing the tankard to the first servant I saw. Elsbeth had magically appeared at the table, her deft hands working through the potato I had left floating in the bowl.

“I saw that, Lady Ailynn. Your cheeks are rosy like fire.” Her eyes sparkled with mischeif as I came to join her. “You think him handsome, do you not?”

“Elsbeth!” I shushed her, picking up another potato and preparing to scrub the dirt off. “I do not.”

“You can’t hide it from me, whether you like to admit it or not. I see that look on your face.” She teased, taking the potato from me, “Your aunt has sent for you, it seems your uncle has returned a day early and you are required to join the rest of the family for dinner. You need to get yourself cleaned up. I’ve laid your blue dress out, but perhaps you should wear the red, you look your best in it. I am sure Lord Martin will be at dinner and you will want to impress him.”

“Elsbeth, stop it, or someone will hear!” I couldn’t stop the smile that itched my lips, returned by the knowing twinkle in Elsbeth’s eye. She did know me better then any other creature in the world and I couldn’t help but consider wearing my red dress that evening to dinner. I smiled at her and left the busy kitchen behind me.

I was determined, however, to prove Elsbeth wrong. Though I did run my fingers longingly down my favorite red dress, I slipped into the blue dress she had laid out for me. I did spend more time then usual brushing out my hair and instructed my dressing maid to braid it in a tiara around my head, the rest brushed until crackling in soft waves down my back. I looked in the mirror and smiled at the reflection I saw there: pretty, but not in a worked up manner. I hoped to make my uncle proud by the demure lady who came to dinner, but also to catch Martin’s eye without looking as if I were trying. The reflection that smiled back at me would certainly do her best.

I tried not to run full out through the hallways in my haste to reach the main hall and I am glad I did not. I was hurrying down a side hallway, avoiding the main ones where the servants scurried back and forth, when I heard someone call from behind me. I turned to see Martin striding down the hallway toward me and I immediately stepped to meet him.

“Lord Martin, I thought I would not see you until dinner.” He returned my smile with a half grin that turned the side of his mouth up in a kind fashion.

“Do not call me Lord, Lady Ailynn. I am not one for proper titles, I find them stuffy in personal conversation.” He wrinkled his brow in distaste.

“Then you must not call me lady.” I returned.

“Unless in proper company.” He finished, standing close to me.

“You are not proper company?” I stepped back, arching an eyebrow.

“I am proper company if, perhaps, more informal.” His mouth twitched at the corners, as if he were fighting a smile.

“Then, since you are informal, but proper, company, would you care to join me for dinner?” I turned back the way I had been heading, indicating he should join me.

“I am sorry to say, Ailynn,” and he smiled as he left out the title, “that despite the most tempting of offers, I must decline. There are many things I need to discuss with Lord Rothchester before the royal court arrives and we are to dine alone so that we can finish our business at a decent hour. I am sorry I have upset you.”

I realized that he had noticed my odd expression, and so I immediately explained, “I am not too greatly disappointed, Martin, I should have expected that you would need to take your dinner privately.”

“Your face makes me think otherwise.” He raised an eyebrow, thinking he caught me in a lie.

“No, it’s just that…” and I could feel the color rise to my cheeks, “No one has ever referred to me as tempting. I would never have used that word to describe anything I have done.”

“Not tempting?” now he smiled outright, as if he found my uneasiness amusing, “Inticing, perhaps?”

I shook my head, feeling like a silly child as I continued to blush.

“Then what word would such a maid with innocent ears choose to describe herself?” Now he was teasing.

“I do not usually find myself in the position of describing myself, Martin, so I could not tell you.” I smiled up at him, I would not allow him to tease me without giving something back. “But I can tell you I will miss your conversation at dinner this evening, as I fear with the arrival of the Royal court, we will not have such a good opportunity in the future.”

“Then I will find some way to make amends for this evenings disappointment,” He held out his hand and I placed mine in it. Gently, he raised it to his lips and brushed the skin of my knuckles against them, his eyes glittering merrily. “I promise.”

“I will hold you to that promise, Martin.” I warned as he released my hand.

“All the more reason to keep it, Ailynn.” He smiled as he turned to leave, “I would not want to disappoint you twice.”

Evolva: First Contact

The breeze from the west made the prairie grass undulate and move simultaneously like the velvet coat of a giant beast. Even the grassland flowers, miniscule dots of blue and purple, bowed and swayed in concert with the tall grass. The warm breeze bathed my senses in the sweet, earthy, smell of the grassland. My hair, grown longer from the neat crop I had kept while in space, was shaggy enough that I had to hold it back from my face to clearly view my surroundings. The breeze, ever mischievous, wound childlike fingers through my growing locks, twisting knots and snarls into the longest parts.

“See something, Jen?” Andrew’s gruff voice startled me. I had been too busy watching the grass to notice how close he was.

“No, just stretching.” I flashed him a too-bright smile. Although the stretch had been my excuse, I was secretly still awed by the concept of so much space. Every moment I got I found myself outside, stretching as wide as I could, marveling at this still new feeling.

“Well, finish stretching and get back to your samples. I want everyone back in the force fence well before dark. “he looked at the time display on his portable com-unit, “You have less than six hours.”

From behind Andrew, Nigella Bronston rolled her eyes and smiled at me. Six hours was at least four hours more than we needed to collect our samples. I calculated it to be ample enough time to allow for my brief sightseeing.

Andrew was still glowering at me, so I placed my hands on my lower back and leaned on them. My spine popped three times with a satisfying cascade of cracks. Andrew returned my lazy smile with a look of disgust and stomped away through the waist high grass. Nigella and I waited until he was out of earshot before we both laughed.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have turned him down.” Nigella’s sarcastic smile glittered up at me from the edge of the stream. She was carefully packing her sample bottles into her pack.

“And have him dogging me all the time? No, thank you.” I sighed and crouched back down over my pack, pulling another sample bottle out. “I think I prefer sullen and aloof.”

“he was so sure you wouldn’t say no.” Nigella snickered, slinging her pack around her shoulder. “he’s a prick, Jen, everyone thinks so. Don’t lose sleep over it.”

“Oh, I’m not. Don’t worry.” I smiled up at her as she stood.

“I’m going back to camp to get more bottles. Nick’s right there if you need anything.” Nigella nodded somewhere towards the edge of the forest. She grinned down at me, “He’s taking a piss. Dare you to scream.”

“I don’t wanna see his AI’s, ‘Gella.” I rolled my eyes at her and she grinned before trudging off through the grass in the same direction Andrew disappeared.

Nigella, short and curvy with dark features, had a thing for Nick Walker. He was, I surmised, too tall to notice little Nigella if she walked past. To compensate, Nigella would purposely cause trouble to catch his attention. I didn’t understand it, but she persisted anyway.

 

I had been working for some time before I noticed that something around me had changed. I sat up, blinking in the sunlight, trying to place what it was. Nothing obvious struck me as I looked around. The brisk breeze still flowed over the top of the grassland and met with the forest edge, ruffling the ferns that made up the boundary. The sunlight had shifted only slightly, but that was nothing to alarm me. I sat back on my heels, looking just above the top of the grass and could see Nick about four feet away, startling myself.

“ Oh there you are.” Clearly, I had startled him too. “Something wrong, Jen?”

“Not sure. Something changed.” I smiled at him, “Maybe it was just that I heard you.”

“Probably. I came up because I couldn’t see you.” Nick smile over the top of the grass at me. “Sorry I startled you.”

“It’s ok.” I smiled and bent down over my work again. I still couldn’t shake the eerie feeling, but tried to remind myself that it had only been Nick.

I had finally begun to focus on my work when a strange noise caught my attention. It was a soft thump, followed by a humid chuffing sound. I realized that if all of the other sounds hadn’t stopped I never would have heard it. Then, I thought, why had all the other sounds stopped. I was lucky I had the few seconds to form both of those thoughts because what happened next was so fast that I cannot be sure what is accurate and what parts I filled in.

First, the chuffing sound came again from directly behind me, this time answered by a similar sound immediately to my left. Second, I heard the ever so quiet crunch of a foot being laid stealthily on the grass. Third, a strong hand grabbed my right arm and yanked me first to the right, where I stumbled, then upright and forward to the tree line. We didn’t stop there, but vaulted straight up into the trees, the strong hand dragging and shoving me up further into the tree until they stopped me at least twenty feet up. An arm pulled me securely against a very bare, very warm, heaving chest. Whoever it was held me so tightly against him that I could feel his heart beating through my shoulder blades, but I wasn’t about to complain.

Circling the trunk of the tree was a feline-like animal with suede fur that reflected the light of the forest. The effect made the animal nearly invisible. It emitted growls and whines, stretching up a far as its lanky body would allow. Enormous claws, six inches long, raked the already rough bark of the tree and exposed the yellow-red pulp beneath.

It could see us, this hunter, watching me with orange eyes that focused and refocused as it tried to decide how to get to me. My savior, arm still holding me firmly, leaned forward around me and emitted a growling hiss from behind clenched teeth. The creature below froze, orange eyes widening for a millisecond, then dropped down to all fours and melted back into the grassland. The sunlight hit the suede hide of the animal and it turned from the green-black forest color to the golden color of the grass, allowing the animal to become completely invisible once it slid into the tall grass.

I lowered my eyes from where the creature had passed into the grass and was about to turn to my savior when a dark stain on the soil caught my eye. The grass was red, splattered with blood, in a trail leading to the right where I could see a dark boot lying partially out of the grass. I gasped, realized it must be Nick, and struggled to go to him.

“No. There is nothing you can do. You must wait.” The voice in my ear was male, heavily accented, but the words were clearly recognizable. I froze and he spoke again, “ The cats, they will not have left. They wait for you to take your dead.”

I turned and finally looked up at the man, nearly falling out of the tree as I gaped at him. Green-gold eyes glittered down at me from a dark skinned face. They were large and iridescent, adapted to seeing clearly in low light. His face was narrow, but had a masculine squareness to it that made me certain of his gender. Dark hair graced the top of his head, temples, and fell in regal braids around his shoulders. His skin, which I first thought was a uniform dark color, was  in fact dappled shades of dark and light. The effect in the uneven light of the forest was a near perfect camouflage.  Even the dark ink tattooed on his arms, shoulders, and chest did not ruin the effect.

He shifted uneasily and I dropped my gaze, realizing I had been gaping up at him. I turned my eyes to his tattooed arm, which rested on a neighboring branch. It ended in a long, elegant hand with what looked like black claws where human fingernails should have been.

Somewhere deeper in the forest a shrill whistle sounded and my strange companion jerked his head around. He narrowed his eyes and returned the call, whistling through teeth so white they glowed against his dark skin. He turned back to me, fixing me with green eyes.

“I must go. Your people are on the way. He must have sent and alarm to them.” He touched my arm gently and watched my face intently. “Do not tell them I was here.”

I nodded, hearing the calls of Andrew and Nigella filtering through the forest edge.

 

 

By the time we had returned to our central community I had my story so well rehearsed that it came out like it had actually happened. Those who needed to hear listened in silence as I told of how Nick had saved my life by sacrificing his own. I even was able to shudder and avoid describing the attack by saying I was too busy following his order and climbing up the tree to have seen it. The creature, which I had seen in great detail, I was able to describe very well, being certain that I described its camoflage and surprise tactic as well as possible. Of all the secrets I had to keep, I was thankful this was not one of them.

After I had given my description of the carnivore to the xenobiologists, who rendered a very accurate illustration while I talked, Natasha rose to escort me back to my home Despite the tragic nature of my discovery, the xenobiologists were eager to study the predator more. Some part of me hoped it was to learn how to avoid them, but the reality was sitting like a cold block in my stomach.

One look at Nigella’s face indicated that at least one person would properly mourn the sudden end to Nick’s brave life. Her normally animated and mischevious face was drawn and bleak. Her lively dark eyes were dead and bleary from crying, practically black holes in her head. She lay her head on my shoulder as we left the main building, leaning on me as I put an arm around her while we walked. Tragic loss was something I was far too familiar with and I knew it would be a while before she wouldn’t feel that painful emptiness in her chest.

Iliana, Nigella’s older sister, met us half way to her home. With sympathetic eyes she lifted Nigella from my shoulder and I watched the two shuffle away.

Natasha walked me to my door, giving me a gentle hug and kiss. The advantage to having known me since I was a child was that she knew when to inquire and when to let me just deal with my emotions. I was too tired to talk now and she could see that. What she couldn’t see was the list of things I had to ponder, things I wasn’t sure yet I should tell anyone.

Although my surprising savior had told me not to say anything to anyone about him, I knew I couldn’t keep that secret. I also was fairly certain that there had been others there, of his kind that is. Who to tell was also an issue. I couldn’t tell someone like the governor, but perhaps I could tell Tom and Natasha. Tom would know what to do next, I assured myself.

I entered my home and shut the door behind me, locking it securely. Finally, I could stop moving and let the impact of the last 24 hours events hit me. I didn’t have long to wallow in the backwash.

“ You are not well.” I had only heard his voice once, but the tone, inflection, and accent were alarmingly familiar

My eyes popped open and there he was, standing in the middle of my living space. He was very tall, easily seven feet from the bottom of his bare feet to the top of his braided head. He wore leather breeches that ended at his knees and nothing else. The dim light above my kitchen unit reflected across the contours of his chest revealing a well built, if lanky, man.

“How are you here?” I stayed frozen at the door, relieved that he was not between me and it.

“Your fences are made to keep animals out, not men.” He spoke with the edges of his generous mouth  curving upwards in a sly smile.

“Why are you here?” I could feel the waver in my voice and swalloweed hard trying to get rid of it.

“I was worried. I wanted to know that you were safe.” His brow furrowed as he spoke, eyes glowing gold in the kitchen light, “You are not well, your skin is white.”

“It’s been a very long day.” My mind, still reeling from the first set of events was now threatening to spin totally out of control. “How did you…?”

All of a sudden I blanked, chewing my lip and watching him. I knew that there were questions I needed to ask him, but my brain wasn’t working very well and they slipped away as soon as they formed. There was a man standing in front of me who couldn’t possibly exist, but he was there. I knew he was real, but why, and how he had gotten here from being so much farther away just hours before I just couldn’t form the words to ask.

His brow furrowed further and he stepped closer, taking my shoulders and guiding me to one of two small chairs in my living space. He pushed me gently into one of them and crouched on the floor in front of me his face etched with concern

“You are too tired.” He touched my face with a clawed hand and I found it soft and warm against my cheek.

“How are you here?” I asked him again, still trying to make sense of the confused muddle in my head.

“We have been here since the first time.” He said gently.

“What?”

“ You are tired, I will tell you later.” He still looked concerned.

Gently, he slid his arms under me and lifted me from the chair. My feet literally tingled in my boots the moment my weight was taken off of them. I lay my head on his shoulder as he carried me the short distance to my bed and lay me down. By the time I registered that I should complain at the very least, he had removed my boots and lay my cover over me.

“Wait” My eyes were so heavy that I could only hear him move away.

“ I am here.” I haerd him bend down beside me.

“What is your name?” I think that’s what came out. Sleep was making my speech sluggish and slurred.

“ Euan” he spoke his name with a heavier accent, and then asked, “What are you called?”

“Jennae.”

“Sleep now, Jennae.” I felt pressure on my head, and remembered nothing else.

 

I awoke in my clothes not entirely sure how I had gotten into my bed. I had to sit up and blink for a few minutes before the impact of the previous days events came back to me. I decided that I needed to take a shower not only to help focus my thoughts, but also because I knew I had not bathed properly for at least a day and a half.

I slid out of bed and made my way to my little shower room, shucking my clothes as I went. The steam from the hot water felt so lovely as I stood beneath the stream, letting the water force the dirt out of my hair and off of my body. I took a longe than normal shower, safe in the knowledge that we had a practically unlimited supply.

When I finally left the steamy shower room, wrapped only in a towel and feeling significantly more human than I had in a while, I could see the sky through my front window just barely touched with color. I dressed in clean clothes and slipped outside. I walked slowly through the calm mists that clung to the earth around me, hearing the crystal sound of bird calls through the pristene morning air. Sunlight had barely begun to peak over the horizon and I found myself caught with the sudden urge to watch it rise. I pulled my shirt closer around me and quickened my step in the direction of the landing field, where my view of the horizon would be the least obstructed.

Having spent all my life space bound, I found myself constantly surprised and delighted at the simplest aspects of planet life. I had been awake at all hours of the day before, but the daily cycle of sun rise and sun set had never defined my days. Up to this point, sunrise was only terminology, but not an experience.

I found the stillness of the early morning peaceful. No breeze stirred my hair or rustled the grasses on the landing field. The bird sounds were distant, but rang clear through the still air as if the tree they were sitting in was just beside me, not meters away.

I made my way past the two transport ships that were parked neatly facing the stretch of grassland used as a temporary runway and walked out into the wide open space before them to stand just close enough to the force fence to see clearly through it. The horizon was now a brightening shade of pink and I knew the sun would break over the edge in a matter of minutes. The shades of colors, starting as a brilliant orange/pink at the edge of the horizon and fading gently into dark blue , were so beautiful. From space, sunrise across a planet was simply marked as the light from the nearby star moving in an even line across the surface of the planet, a uniform brightening of the planet surface. The experience on the surface was much more dramatic as light trickled over mountains and hills, through trees and into ravins while the sun slowly rose above the edge of the world in the far distance. Drops of condensation would catch the light before the rays hit the blades of grass and give everything a touch of glitter before the warmth of the sun caused the dewdrops to evaporate into mist. The mist, which moved over the ground and through the woodlands was like a living creature, moving on silent but swift feet to escape the on-coming daylight. I could feel its wet fingers stroke my cheek as the first breeze of the day ruffled my hair and chilled my skin.

I heard the soft sound of feet on grass behind my shoulder and turned only slightly, expecting to see maybeTom or even Andrew standing behind me. Instead, a pair of bare, mottled feet with black nails stood just behind my right foot. I looked up at him, not startled this time, but welcoming his company. He smiled at me and nodded to the horizon, where the first glitters of sun were breaking over the edge of the night, the dawn of another day.

“You will miss the best moment.” His voice, calm and serene, did not break the solace of the early morning but seemed to flow through it, like water added to a stream.

I turned and watched as the sun broke over the far away hills, squinting in the bright light that made its way in uneven tendrils over the land around me. The warmth bathed my face and I smiled, dropping my arms from around my shoulders as the heat, tentative and soft, filtered through the mist and chill to caress my skin. The gold of the sun continued to break over the horizon, bathing the world in heat and light. The mist, which had barely rolled across the open grassland before the sun had broken over the horizon was now in full retreat from the sunlight, like a nocturnal creature returning to its daylight resting place. The forest was now fully awake and thriving, the leaves twitching and quivering more from the activity of the birds and other creatures moving about behind them than from the breeze that was now awakening and running tangled fingers through my hair.

“Euan.” I turned, and he was gone. I could see people moving between the buildings, the early risers who were starting their day.

That was not the last time I saw him that day, but I could not talk to him, not without drawing very serious attention to myself. I would see him literally sitting on top of a building, just out of sight, watching us. He would look back at me when he caught me looking up at him, and slide out of view. It aggrevated me more than anything else because I knew, from his expressions when I caught him watching me first, that he knew I wanted to question him inside and out. At no point during the day was I able to try to talk to him.

Finally, around early afternoon, I forced myself to ignore him and decided to work in the green house instead of out in the gardens, where I could not be seen nor would I find myself looking around for him.  After a very short while I found myself safely lost in my work, not feeling the constant irritation of being watched or wanting to watch him.

Nigella was working with me, methodically performing her tests and daily duties in a silence. She looked horrific and I had told her earlier that she didn’t need to work today, if it was too much.

“No, Jen, I have to work. Please.” Her chocolate eyes brimmed with tears and I just nodded. She needed to be doing something, anything, to keep her mind off of Nick. So, instead of arguing with her, I choose to work in the greenhouse with her, quiet company to her misery and sympathetic to her pain. I could give her nothing to make her feel any better except to let her work and be another living being in the room with her, assuring her that she was not alone.

After about an hour Nigella told me she taking her samples to the main botany building and left. I heard the greenhouse door shut with a muffled thud behind her and thought myself alone in the greenhouse, left to finish my sampling and testing alone. I should have known better.

“What are you doing?” Euan’s voice was so close to my ear that I jumped and had to bite my tongue to keep myself from exclaiming something profane.

“Don’t you knock?” I scowled up at him once my heart had slowed down.

“They would hear me.” His grin was unapologetic and I fought the urge to hit him. It’s always a good rule never to hit anyone bigger than you, especially if they are not from the same species as you.

“Of course they would.” I smirked up at him before turning back to the root sections I had been slicing.

“What are you doing?” he furrowed his brow as he looked down at the slicer I was using.

“Preparing sections of the roots for microscopic evaluation. I’m slicing them to only one or two layers of cells so the digitical microscope can penetrate into the cell structure.” I stood back from the machine a little so he could watch.

“You don’t just see, do you?” His question confused me and it must have shown on his face, because he took my hand and said, “I’ll show you.”

He curled his fingers through mine, his palm pressed against the palm of my hand. I felt a strange tingle spread from where his palm touched mine through the deepest part of my arm, up my neck, and engulf my head. My senses suddenly changed, as if touching him had brought my world into a clearer focus. He reached out and touched the barest edge of a leaf of the plant I had been sampling.

It all happened so fast, I found myself clinging to his hand in a death grip and leaning against him as if I couldn’t figure out which way was up. The images behind my eyes were beyond amazing. I was actually experiencing the life structure of the very plant he was touching. I saw and understood everything about the organism from the hairy tendrils of roots to the somas on the leaves that gulped carbon diozide, to the very chlorophyll structures that absorbed the sunlight. I could feel the light being converted into power deep inside, feel the cells absorbing the energy into themselves, feel them grow and divide. I could feel the very power of life as it throbbed through the plant and I was awestruck.

I didn’t realize he had let go of my hand until the visions behind my eyes faded. I was leaning against his chest, staring at the potted plant as if it were going to walk across the preparation table and roar at me. I started to giggle and he lifted me back, looking down at me with a strange expression.

“That was AMAZING.” I couldn’t stop giggling. Nor could I stand on my own. Slowly, Euan lowered me down to the floor where I sat looking at him with my elbows rested on my knees. It took me a moment to readjust, to bring myself back into my own world.

“You are not well?” he seemed concerned.

“I’m good. I just need a moment.” I was still grinning like a fool, but at least the giggles had stopped. My mind kept replaying the experience, digesting the rapid inflow of information. Something, an arrant thought, popped into my head and came out of my mouth, spontaneouslly, “You use this plant as a tea.”

“Yes, it calms.” He narrowed his eyes at me, and I bit my lip. “You cannot do this.”

“No, I can’t” I could feel my body equalizing and lowered my legs down so that I was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor of the greenhouse. He seemed to be pondering this, watching my face but I could see his mind mulling this over behind his gold and brown flecked eyes. He reached out and touched my face, settling himself on the dirt infront of me.

“Who are you? How are you here?” I curled my hand around his wrist and he dropped it, so that his hand rested on my knee.

“I am like you. I am human.” He still viewed me with such a strange expression.

“That’s not possible. I can’t do that. I don’t look like you.” I shook my head.

“But we are. My people, they came from the stars looking for a new world. They came here and settled in the forest, in the Caves of Light.” He looked down at where my hand cupped his on my knee, and touched the much paler skin of my palm. Another tingle ran up my arm but nothing more happened. “We settled here, but had to move after the Fever broke out and the children were changed. My parents were one of the Changed.”

“Fever?” Something rang in the back of my head and, suddenly, it clicked. “You’re a descendent of the First Colony. They reported an outbreak of a disease, a fever, before they dissapeared.”

“Yes, the Fever. It changed the children, then the adults. They could not live here, like this, any more. It changed them, changed our people.” He looked up at me.

“It gave you this ability?” I could find no other word to use, but indicated his hand.

“I do not know. I only know what we were taught as children.” He smiled sheepishly at me, “History is not my favorite subject to learn. The Elders tried to teach me, but I could not stay indoors long enough to hear all of it. But the Elders know the whole story and they tell every generation.”

“Could I meet them?” I was tentative to ask him. This whole idea was amazing, and maybe he was not telling the truth, but somehow I knew he was being honest.

“I will ask.” He gave me another sheepish look, this one a little more serious. “they do not know you are here.”

“What about the others who were with you?” I remembered the bird calls that were not bird calls the day Nick was attacked and I had met Euan.

“They are a hunting party. My father made me join them. I do not like to hunt, but he said I should go with them and be useful.” Behind my eyes, I could see an image of a man, like Euan, but older, with gray streaked through his braids. I could feel the respect Euan felt, the images and emotions coming through my contact with Euans hand. he curled his fingers through mine and smiled at me, “I have done something. I do not know if meeting them would be a good idea. I didn’t think their stories were true. They are so old, the Elders, and some of what they talk about to each other makes little sense these days.”