The last chapter and years overdue. I will eventually pull the story and try to fix the more glaring problems but for the moment I'm just happy to have finished it.
Thanks for reading and for the patience.Sandy
"Quite a sight, that."
I whirled about at the sound of the voice and just about landed on the sidewalk tripping over my own feet. Someday I'm going to figure out how the really cool heroes react to danger, I'm pretty sure they don't try to whirl and duck simultaneously but so far that's been my best move. Actually it's been one of my only moves but who's counting?
Luckily no further action was called for, false alarm.
"Ryu, do you have to do that?"
Well, fair enough, he didn't seem to be able to turn it off. Still, he could wear bells or wave a colorful pennant or something.
I turned my eyes back to the park and the melee that had been properly referred to as 'quite a sight.'
My eyes fixed of their own accord on Oisin, leading a group of recruits in some arcane fencing maneuvers. I didn't have a clue what it was supposed to achieve but he looked great doing it. Perhaps that was the sidhe strategy, stun your enemies with elegance?
Whatever, worked fine for me.
To one side of that there was a larger and more ragged group of halfies sparring together. Not as elegant perhaps but it looked plenty effective. To the other side of them was the human contingent. They were pretty evenly split between those happiest with weapons like pool cues and beer bottles and the ones who favored full armor and the kind of swords that weighed more than I do.
Occasionally sparring pairs drifted from one group to the other, causing an odd temporal rift effect.
Kin was overseeing some of the China Town recruits in a martial arts drill. I had no idea what style it was supposed to be and when I'd inquired once he'd gone into a lengthy monologue about oneness with the universe, the currents of time and the state of being and non being. Then he'd gracefully swept one hand through the air to illustrate the principles he had been speaking of. The hand had connected with a mid sized tree and snapped it like a match stick.
Seemed not much to say at that point so I nodded and walked off, carefully not looking back and even more carefully not looking impressed.
"Ryu? You there?"
"Do you think that finding true peace of mind and the perfect point of spiritual balance means a world of hurt for bystanders? Or am I missing something?"
"I don't know for sure but I'd stay out of way of the enlightened, just in case."
"Sounds like a plan to me. I'm thinking checking on Jin is also a plan, want to come?"
We made our way back to my place, Ryu nimbly stepping around the people who simply didn't notice him. Which was the majority of them. It seemed to me that his aura of invisibility had strengthened lately but I wasn't sure if it was a tactful subject to mention.
I did it anyway, why ruin my rep as a lout?
He paused to consider the question, causing a strolling couple no end of confusion when they plowed into someone who wasn't there.
"I think it is. Perhaps it's a sign of coming trouble? Or nerves."
I could sympathize; my nerves were a bit frayed too. Waiting for the inevitable storm was driving me right over the edge. And I couldn't do anything to help really, I spent most days racking my feeble brain for ways to work around the coming conflict but I didn't seem to be making a smidgen of difference.
Even my husbands tended to pat me on the head with a tolerant smile and go right on planning for battle.
I wished to hell Dwyn was here.
If only because he wasn't tall enough to pat me on the head and he had no gift for tolerant smiles.
Jin was in no good mood when we arrived. He stopped his pacing long enough to give me a kiss and focused his attention enough to notice Ryu, which earned him a bashful smile.
He had coffee on too, so he went right to the top of my "favorite person of the day" list. He's there most days but some days he's closer to the top than others.
I got Ryu a cup and helped myself, freshened Jin's cup and settled down to watch him pace. I think Ryu was indulging in the same perusal, or maybe he always has that much trouble connecting cup and lip. Jin can be very distracting.
I took a few sips and waited for the rant to start. I didn't have to wait too long.
"These people are crazy! I can't work with them! It's like; it's like…herding cats without a can opener."
Ryu made a small noise of inquiry and I jumped in to explain.
"He's coordinating the magic users."
Jin made a face and I amended the explanation.
"He's attempting to coordinate the magic users."
Ryu nodded in understanding and Jin finally flopped into a chair, miraculously not spilling a drop of coffee. Maybe if I had magical powers I'd be neater too. Or maybe it's a question of balance, no; I'm going to blame it on lack of magic.
"I can't seem to get them to work together; mages don't tend to play well with others."
"I wouldn't say that, you play with others better than anyone I know. Or maybe you're an exception?"
He gave me a smile that curled my toes.
"I wasn't referring to that kind of play but I appreciate the compliment. It's more that no mage worth their salt thinks any other mage has a better grasp of anything than they do. It's kind of an ego intensive calling and the idea of working with lesser mages, which is any mage not yourself, is a hard sell. And don't even get me started on getting them to follow instructions, you throw them a reasonable outline of what you need and in three minutes they have veered off on their own projects, based on their concept of what you need, which has nothing to do with what you've asked for. It would be easier if I could just pay them for a few spells but if I pay one of them I'd have to pay all of them and there isn't that much money available."
I kept my gaze turned to my cup. If I was any judge he was casting puppy eyes in my direction and if I looked into them I would end up throwing any and all objects of any worth into his lap. The lighter ones at any rate. The problem was that I didn't have much that could be counted as valuable.
Eventually he sighed and I chanced a look, it was safe, he'd closed his eyes. I rested my hand on his shoulder by way of moral support and got a wan smile.
I tried to find something that would make the smile brighter.
"Well, if the solitary mages are giving you fits how about the magical groups? You know, witches and whatnot? At least they're used to working together, right?"
He groaned and dropped his head to his hands.
"I gather that's a bad idea?"
"Not really, it's just that it hasn't been easy to get them all on the same page. Or even on the same book, it's a pretty diverse group and I'm not used to people that view magic as a component of religion. Still, I think most will help in one way or another. How much help having someone send white light to surround you is actually going to be is another matter but hey, it can't hurt, right?"
"We are speaking metaphorically aren't we? Because I'm having visions of some intrepid hero, like, for instance, me, hiding in a dark alley when suddenly I'm a blazing beacon for my enemies."
He laughed and did the head pat thing.
"Metaphor only, don't worry my intrepid hero, you'll be able to hide with no outside interference."
I considered explaining that I had meant a momentary withdrawal to staunch a wound or catch my breath or tie my shoelace or something but decided to give it a miss. Once they start with the head patting it's hopeless.
So the days went by, everyone working away at their chosen task and readying for a war I hoped to avoid. Which made it rather hard to be enthusiastic about their progress.
The only person who seemed to understand my point of view was Ryu, and I wasn't sure if he shared my sentiments or if he was just a very sympathetic listener.
We were strolling at random when I noticed that he was looking a bit peaked and it dawned on me that what with spending most days with me and, I assumed, most nights with Tama he couldn't be getting much sleep.
"Ryu? You feeling okay? You look kind of pale."
He brightened perceptibly
"Um, yeah. I mean, you look a bit on the wan side, you aren't ill are you?"
This actually brought a blush to his face and it occurred to me that perhaps looking like you're at deaths door might be desirable if you're closely involved with the undead. .
I tried to back peddle before he thought I was making a pass.
"I meant, I was wondering if you should get more sleep or something."
His eyes cut to me and his usual little grin turned salacious and wholly unRyu like.
"There are so many more interesting things to do in the dark than sleep, don't you agree?"
His voice didn't even sound normal; there was a strange undertone to it that I almost recognized.
"Ryu, what exactly is your lot working on for the coming conflict? And what does it have to do with you sticking to me close as my shadow?"
He sighed and his face fell back into its usual lines.
"I did warn them you weren't as dumb as they thought."
"Thank you. Now …"
"I mean no rocket scientist but still…"
"I'd appreciate it if you'd quit while I'm ahead, okay? Now, spill. Details."
"Well, we've been working on how we could help if something happens during the day. The others thought, well, we figured that I could probably carry them during the day."
I pondered this.
"As I don't notice you hauling coffins along I'm assuming we're talking about something more metaphysical?"
His face subtly shifted again and his eyes grew somehow wicked.
"We're inside him, rather nice environs really and the closest we're likely to get as Tama doesn't share much."
"How did you guess?"
"Just lucky. You're not all in there?"
The laugh was rich and rolling. I swear he must work on that for hours per night.
"No, we need our beauty rest too. So, one at a time and even then we often nap here and let him do all the work."
"So you can do magic through him? And it won't harm him?"
"He does carry our power and of course we wouldn't hurt him, he's ours."
"Ah. Couldn't you use Weylan like that and let Ryu get some rest?"
"No. He is of the sidhe and not as easy to posses. Although I could send him along to keep you company if you insist."
"Don't bother on my account. Could you let Ryu come back now?"
He leaned close and rested a hand on my chest.
"I'm crushed but compliant. Farewell."
And Ryu was back, looking a little confused.
"So, you don't mind this? Hauling them around in your mind? Or soul or wherever?"
He shrugged and then smiled angelically.
"I like Tama with me and when he's here he can see the sun."
Seemed like something worth losing a little sleep for, sharing the sun with your lover.
"I have to ask, why me? Hanging out with Oisin or any of the others would probably be more useful. Not that I mind but it doesn't seem like the most efficient way to go about this, wandering aimlessly about with me."
"We decided that if all hell breaks lose it's bound to happen around you."
"Thanks that will help me sleep more soundly at night."
Actually of course the only thing that ever interfered with my sleep was my partners and I had no complaints about that.
Especially as they were now so busy they would be up and out early, leaving me to hog the bed and wallow in sloth until hunger dragged me awake.
A strange noise indicating someone had come in unannounced and was walking around. Loudly, which ruled out Ryu.
Brazenly, which seemed to rule out anyone set on stealing anything.
Unless it was a case of someone who had seen the others leave and figured there was nothing to fear.
Great, now people were breaking in to insult me.
I slithered over to the edge of the bed, determined to get the drop on them. I could see it in my minds eye, me, silently stalking across the room and lurking by the door frame, ready for action. I cast my eyes about for a possible weapon and settled on a chair, not an elegant solution but the best to hand.
I swung my legs out of bed, flipped to my feet and screamed.
"Shit shit shit shit!"
Two sets of foot steps came my way at a trot and I tensed even more, my fingers fumbling with an intractable knot.
"Wow, do you greet all your visitors like this or is this special for us?"
And Dwyn bounded onto the bed while Keir deftly slipped the knot from the bedpost.
I pulled Dwyn into a hug, something he suffered with a minimum of gruff grumbling.
Keir drifted out of the room, either to escape the possibility of a hug or as a matter of tact, I wasn't sure which.
When Dwyn shoved free I took a long look at him, he looked good, more honed or something than when he'd left. As if his journey had burned away the nonessentials.
"How did it go? What happened?"
"Makes a bit of a long tale but the basics are that it went well, mostly. The shock troops aren't coming along for the ride for one thing, we have a deal with the goblins."
"Yeah, how's that for a diplomatic coup?"
"It depends on what kind of deal it is I suppose."
"It's a good deal, trust me."
I paused in my search for my pants.
"Why doesn't that ease my mind?"
"Because you're a jaded and cynical man. Damn, and a skinny one, don't they feed you?"
"I'm not skinny, I'm lean. And don't try to change the subject, what exactly does this deal entail?"
"The goblins have a large amount of half breed children. Most don't fit in and a lot of them have a fairly miserable lot in life. Their parents find them an embarrassment and the feeling is that it would be ever so nice if they just disappeared. So, we're giving them a place to vanish to."
"Correct me if I misunderstand but are you saying that we're going to end up knee deep in little yous?"
"Well, aside from the fact that I'm one of a kind, yes. Interesting times ahead, huh?"
"I'm afraid to comment. I'm afraid to contemplate. I'm afraid period."
"Funny, that's what Keir says."
"Wise man, Keir. Speaking of…"
He had appeared in the doorway, bearing coffee. He handed the tray to me, smiled tightly and left again.
"Really warming up to me too, I can tell."
"Don't take it personally; he's not talking much lately."
"Why? Vow of silence? "
"Not exactly, he's healing. He got hurt."
"And this happened how?"
Dwyn drank some coffee while I waited for an answer. I didn't push him, I knew from long experience that trying to push him was pointless. After a few moments he sighed.
"He was having a noble moment, okay? One of those idiotic, selfless, brain dead sidhe things. You know how they can get. He stepped in when he shouldn't have and did one of those 'I will suffer in your stead' kind of deals. Luckily I found out about it and put an end to it but some damage was done. He'll be fine."
"Some damage? And stepped in how? Aside from with steel toed boots."
"The bitch queen was having a humorous moment, she slit his tongue. It's healing though. And if you have to ask how I 'stepped in' you don't know me as well as you think."
I wished futilely for more coffee.
"So, the good news is the goblins are on our side, or at least not on any one else's side, and the bad news is you totally pissed off the queen of air and darkness? Am I correct here?"
"Well, it's not like she would have been reasonable in any case. And look at it this way; her being pissier than usual will push the court of light to lay off us a bit. The more she tries to hurt us the farther they'll back off, it could have turned out worse."
I gave up and went to get more coffee for us. He followed me and we joined Keir who was fiddling about with my guitar at the kitchen table.
Dwyn sat a little closer to Keir than custom dictated and his look just dared anyone to comment, as we were alone it wasn't likely.
Although I did have to resist a grin, protective Dwyn was a nice change although I wasn't sure Keir would have wholeheartedly agreed.
"So, any word on exactly when this whole thing goes down? The waiting is driving me crazy."
"Oh, didn't I mention? Full moon."
I considered strangling the man but I didn't think Keir would take it well.
"No, you didn't mention. So, umm, how long until then?"
"I think it's a couple of days. Someone will contact you."
"According to protocol you'll get to take a few people, don't worry."
"I'm not worried, I was just surprised."
Silence, heavy silence.
"I'm not worried! Don't you have any faith in me at all?"
Keir smiled and spread his arms wide apart. It took me a minute.
"Wow, that much? I'll try not to let you down."
"You won't. Besides, I'll come with you to make sure they don't try anything sneaky."
I decided to let that slide.
"Speaking of the seelie side, any luck there?"
"Kind of. A few of them seem to be good with the idea of leaving us the hell alone. Some of the reasons why aren't too flattering but still, better than nothing. I think it's going to be okay once we get it sorted out. Probably. Probably okay."
Keir rapped his fist on the table; I gathered it was for agreement. Or luck.
"Right then, I'm not going to tell the others until the meet is set, it would just make them antsy. Can I count on you not to tell?"
"Our lips are sealed."
Dwyn took Keir off home and rejoined us later that evening for a low key reunion and more catching up. We spent the next few days together; as Keir was quick to join Oisin's swords and chivalry crew and Dwyn was at loose ends.
So now it was the three of us, although Ryu seemed a bit shy of Dwyn. Or maybe wary is the better word. He definitely stayed out of his reach in any case, which I think Dwyn took as a bit of a compliment. You could see the flicker of the knowledge behind his eyes once in a while, that he made even those who hang out with the undead a little nervous.
It would have been cruel to remind him that elderly, friendly toy poodles made Ryu nervous.
I took them both along on a trip to Grandmothers shop, with stern orders to be polite. She ran a small herb shop and I tried to stop in every few days, just in case she had any words of wisdom. So far she'd advised me to drink more green tea and do something with my hair, not exactly what I'd been hoping for.
Ryu disappeared into the dim shadows of the place as soon as we entered and Dwyn was politely silent while being introduced. She offered us tea in back while I gave her the latest news and then smiled serenely while I waited for anything helpful.
Finally she turned to Dwyn.
"Have you been practicing?"
"I thought you sang?"
He nodded slowly, giving me a puzzled look. I gave it back to him.
"Well, not lately. I do but we haven't had time to do much practicing together, I just got back and there seems to be some more important things to do."
"No, you should practice. You should rehearse. Music is important."
He backed his chair up a little, she did have the look of woman who might rap his knuckles and send him to his room if he didn't agree. He nodded quickly.
I smothered a grin and not a moment too soon, she turned her gaze on me.
"And you? What are you doing but wandering about aimlessly feeling put upon?"
"You said you played the guitar?"
"I do. But it's been a bit …"
"You should do what you do."
I couldn't find much to argue with there but it didn't seem like stunningly good strategy for anything facing us either. I wasn't sure it even made sense really; it was right up there with 'be who you are' or 'grow where you're planted'. Or 'today is the first day of the rest of your life'. Dwyn spoke up before I could work out a decent question.
"Are you advising us to practice as a means to defeat this incursion?"
She shrugged off the question and changed the subject and that was that. We left soon after, sent Ryu off home and went to muse over a few beers.
"That's your dispenser of mystical wisdom? We're fucked."
"I'm not so sure, seems like there's hope for all kinds of miracles if you can use the word 'incursion' in a sentence, Keir must be rubbing off on you."
"Hey, I know lots of fancy words; I just try to keep it simple when I talk to you."
We drank and pondered life in silence for a while and then he laughed.
"He is rubbing off on me, just a bit. I'll have to watch that."
"Ah, it's all to the good. If you start getting too poncy I'll let you know."
"That's a relief. You don't think your wizened wizard really wants us to do something magical with music, do you?"
"I don't know. It's a possibility I guess. I have no clue what or even how though. I've been known to hit notes that cause pain but hardly ever on purpose."
"Me too. But when you think about it, music and magic are kind of linked. Or at least power and music. People chant or dance to raise power, don't see why our music wouldn't work the same way."
"It hasn't up to now."
"That's a point."
We fell back into brooding, in my case I also spent a few worrisome moments trying to picture just what kind of magic Dwyn's lyrics might dredge up for us. Probably one of those things that kill your enemy and then turn on you. Or the other way around. Best not to imagine.
We parted and I headed home, still trying to figure out whether I was staring right past a solution.
There was a scroll sitting on the kitchen table, tied tightly with ribbons. Jin and Oisin were staring at it as though it might explode at any moment. When I joined them at the table Oisin gestured toward it.
"This arrived for you."
"Figures. Is it safe?"
Jin nodded slowly.
"Seems okay but I wouldn't swear to it."
"Who left it?"
"No idea, it was fixed to the door when we arrived. Open it."
I did, holding it at arms length and working the ribbons loose carefully. It slid open with a hissing sound that made us all jump but nothing bad happened immediately and I exhaled.
"Right. Umm, it's in high elvish I suppose?"
Oisin edged his head next to mine to examine it.
"Yes. Nice ink too."
"I'm touched, what does it say?"
He scanned the graceful, glowing letters.
"They want to meet us to see if we want to …negotiate."
Jin shot him a glance and he sighed.
"Well, literally it says 'surrender' but they mean negotiate. Standard wording really for these kinds of things."
"When and where?"
"Midnight at Center Cemetery."
"Dead Town? Could they try for a bit more ominous? Or cliché?"
Jin laughed and Oisin shrugged. Neither answered the question but then there was really no need. I headed out to collect Dwyn and Oisin surprised me by tagging along.
Usually when I'm with Oisin the rest of the world obligingly drifts into a hazy background but tonight bits of it kept intruding into my consciousness.
Like Lali and his boys pounding the steel drums on the corner of McV. We stopped for a second and shared smiles with the small crowd listening and Lali gave us a lazy wave.
I've known him for most of my time here and I've yet to hear him speak a word, the rumor is that he speaks solely through his drum but I can't swear to the truth of that.
From a side street I could hear the rhythmic sound of bells and the soft thud of feet, in a circle of torch light I could see the colorful whirling of veiled dancers. Oisin gave me a nudge to bring my mind back to business before I wandered down that way.
I let my mind drift, listening to the night sounds of the city.
"Oisin, you ever notice music?"
He gave me an exasperated look.
"Hello? Drummer here?"
"Yeah but I meant, I don't know what I meant. I guess I sometimes do and sometimes don't. Notice I mean."
He shrugged and kept walking.
"Do fish notice water?"
Dwyn joined us, leaving a grim faced Keir in the doorway.
"Deadtown? Doesn't it just figure?"
Oisin nodded and I waved cheerily to Keir as we walked on.
Deadtown is rather a nice cemetery, if you're bent that way. If not it's pretty odd and creepy. Dwyn loved the place. It was there before the change and the magical energy had done some remodeling, I don't know exactly what it looked like before but I was pretty sure that crypts hadn't originally been built as tree houses and that the tombstones had probably stayed in one place at the beginning. They probably didn't glow in the dark then either.
The delegation was there, waiting and looking impressive.
Two from the unseelie side, a sidhe lord who looked the picture of elegant evil and a small winged fey perched on his shoulder. Representing the seelie side were a sidhe lady who looked like Glinda the good witch on crack and a selkie, looking uncomfortable and damp but then, selkies always look like that.
There was enough space between the two groups to imply they weren't on good terms.
Which might be hopeful.
I decided that barging right in amongst them was the best bet, pausing to collect our thoughts would just give us more time to get jittery and look undecided so I bounded over and parked myself between them, followed more slowly by the others.
The lady gave me a pained smile and the lord sneered. The little winged thing chittered and the selkie dripped. We all stood there in that awkward way you do when everyone is waiting for someone else to say something.
"Come here often?"
Okay, it wasn't classic but it beat silence.
The lady let her gaze slide from me to Oisin, ignoring my opening. That happens a lot. I need new material.
The lady spoke past me.
"We have been sent with a message and permission to parlay if you have any desire to do so."
The lord slid in seamlessly.
"And should you have any doubts of our status we can produce letters of commendation."
"Wow, papers? Really? Tris, he's serious, he's got papers and he's not afraid to use them."
Dwyn gave a mocking shudder which I ignored. Pointedly. So did everyone else.
"What's the message?"
The lord and lady eyed each other, apparently unsure of who should answer.
The lady sighed at my rudeness, imagine my distress.
"You may have a week's time to move out the humans and half elven. The full elven and you may stay. This is more than fair. You will continue to live as before, although with more amenities and security. We will allow some measure of autonomy. You could not hope for better terms. If you but think on it you will see that this is greatly to the advantage of your people."
She paused, probably waiting for us to voice our gratitude. She was doomed to disappointment.
The lord filled in the silence.
"While we would expect nominal obedience you would be in charge in most matters. We think people would accept your rule and your life would become quite pleasant, all things considered. So, how say you?"
"Who would expect nominal obedience?"
Another awkward pause, perhaps the details weren't quite worked out yet?
"Both courts. Our interests are the same in this case."
"Ah, how nice for you. I trust I answer for all of us when I say, no."
"No? Just no?"
"Oh, sorry. Fuck no."
The selkie snickered and the lady gave him a dark look. I wondered if I should offer him our bathtub for the night.
I gave them my best smile and forged ahead.
"First off, my life is pleasant enough right now, thanks all the same. Secondly, you'll get even nominal obedience from this town when we're all three days dead and even then you'll work for it."
I heard a soft voice from the trees to my left.
"Oh, worse than that, some of us have been dead for years and obedience still isn't in our nature."
First time I'd ever been happy to see Dunham, if only because he upped the style points for our side.
"See, we're a bad bargain altogether. Perhaps you should reconsider?"
There was a moment of silence and the dark lord sighed theatrically.
"I suppose it was too much to expect logic from …Ah, well, I suppose we meet in battle then."
Dwyn gave him a grin you could spend years trying to put out of your mind.
"We meet in battle. Three nights hence. On the land between your home and ours."
Oisin finished speaking and strode off before anyone could respond. Especially me. The lady gave me a look and I nodded, seemed rather pointless to do anything else.
More awkward pause and then Dwyn was nudging me along, I blew a kiss to the selkie before we turned away and he looked more alarmed by that than anything up to that point. Go figure.
Dunham left us at the pavement where Oisin waited, staring daggers at the surrounding greenery.
"Are you going to challenge that tree to a dual or are you just in that kind of mood?"
He toned down the look and let me take his hand.
"I know I should have waited for you to say something but I couldn't. Sorry. I just want this over with. You're not going to be all sarcastic with me are you? Or angry? Or pouty?"
"None of the above I think. I wouldn't have managed to put it so succinctly so it's no loss really. I suppose three days is enough time for everyone who wants to run for it to pack up and go. I still don't like the idea of a fight but unless we get any other brilliant ideas I guess we're stuck with it. If we split up we can pass the word quicker, I'll meet you back home."
He held my hand a little tighter.
"Tristan, I can't think of a better way, I wish I could. We do have a chance, don't give up hope."
"I'm not giving up; I just hate to tell people we're going into a fight where I wouldn't bet on us."
Dwyn shrugged, he was still holding the nasty grin.
"If you want I can start a pool, you could throw in a few coins on the other side."
"Thanks, I'll think about it."
"While you're thinking I'll go home and let Keir know. Then I'll head out too, I'll take the east side? Is some kind soul going to offer breakfast when we're done with the night work?"
"He's not here."
"That's what he gets, see you later."
We went our separate ways and I drifted toward the halfie side, wandering from club to bar to all night café and leaving word. Most took it well, almost too well for me. Some were almost elated, fully ready to charge off to battle with little to no serious thought.
People scare me, they really do.
Ryu joined me at sunrise, as I was straggling home.
"Did it go well?"
"I guess. A lot of them will be there."
"I'm not so sure, I guess I expected more questions at least. Or even anger. No one even got in my face over my speaking for them, it was weird."
"I thought Oisin made the arrangements."
"Well, why drag him into it?"
Ryu smiled and shook his head.
"I imagine they would resent him, you they don't mind."
"They ought to mind! At least he knows what he's doing; I'm just bumbling along and taking them all with me! You could pick someone more qualified by throwing a dart into the nearest bar blindfolded."
"Someone more likely but not more qualified. You're the right man. People trust you, people like you. People look up to you."
"Only the short ones."
"Don't make fun; are you totally oblivious to what's been happening?"
"Let's assume I am, just for arguments sake."
"What do we do everyday?"
"I've been informed that we wander aimlessly."
"Then you've been misinformed. Everywhere people are training, everywhere people are preparing, there we are. More importantly, there you are. Reviewing the troops, gauging their progress. They look for you."
"I'm not gauging anything, I'm just looking."
"You talk to them too, sometimes. They like that."
"Are we in the same dimension? They just talk to me like always, or not, like always. They're hardly snapping to attention or kissing my ring or whatever."
"Maybe not but they notice you, listen to you, some of them even try to impress you. Blood tells, Tris. Trust me; I know a lot about blood."
"But I'm…well, I'm hardly…I'm just me."
"Well, if some royal idiot came in on a huge white stallion someone would knock him off his horse and steal it, like as not. And I don't imagine wearing a coronet into a bar in most parts of town would go over too well. Some high born stranger would set everyone's teeth on edge, you they understand. They can accept you. You belong to us."
"I don't suppose the word 'incognito' means anything at this point? And just how the hell did you suss out my little secret? It's a secret! Mostly. I mean, a few people know."
"A few know, more feel it, it's just something in the air. Following you feels like the right thing to do."
"You just say that now because following me leads to breakfast."
"Well, that doesn't hurt."
After that I just wore the damn ring, not that I noticed much difference.
Still, it just made me even more angsty about the situation. It wasn't just a good thing to come up with an alternative to war, it was my responsibility. And I don't think well under pressure.
Last minute plans were laid, snares were set and swords were sharpened. I still made the rounds with Ryu and I still didn't notice anyone genuflecting in my general direction.
Just as well.
I also decided it was past time to do some research so I gritted my teeth and went off to talk with a few of the ritualists.
I sorely wanted to take Dwyn with me but he tends to act up when confronted with what he terms the 'fluffy bunny' school of occultism. Hard to blame him.
I tend to quall a bit myself when confronted with such relentless cheer and positive thinking.
Still, no sacrifice too great and all.
Ryu and I spent some time poking about and got some ideas on music and magic to ponder, although I wasn't sure exactly what we could do with them.
I shared them with Dwyn and he probably shared them with Keir, they seemed to share most things now.
My mates and I spent the last few days before the showdown working like hell all day, in their case at least, and then falling into bed too exhausted to do anything but cuddle and cling.
Then the night came.
Lovely sunset too, nice to see nature pitching in. The weather was balmy, the sky was clear and we were facing certain death.
Oisin insisted we dress for the occasion.
So when we set out for the battlefield he was fetching in silk and leather, Jin in ever stylish black.
Keir was in dark blue with silver and even Dwyn was sporting a classic tailed jacket with matching pants, although he had ditched the shirt and substituted various gauges of decorative chain in its place.
I settled on my oldest jeans and my favorite vintage tee.
After all, Calvin and Hobbs are always appropriate.
And off we marched, more or less.
Ryu was nowhere to be seen, oddly enough. Perhaps he had gotten so nervous as to achieve total invisibility.
Still, there were a whole crowd of people drifting down the streets. If it weren't for the weapons and lack of alcohol it would have looked like the start of a great party.
Jin gave Oisin and I a too brief kiss and headed off to rendezvous with the other magic users. We didn't watch him go; it would have been too much like doubt.
Oisin gave me a hug before he joined the sidhe, Keir by his side. Keir lingered a long second by Dwyn, apparently waiting for a heartfelt farewell. Fat chance, Dwyn gave him a smack on the shoulder and promptly turned away to call a greeting to someone in the crowd.
Keir gave me a shrug and a grin and strode on.
Dwyn caught up with me again and beamed around. Must have been embracing his goblin side, he seemed no end pleased at the prospect of carnage. I mentioned it and he laughed.
"Why not join the fray with Keir? Not that I don't enjoy your company but…"
"He'll do okay on his own. Like Oisin. Or Jin. Clinging to them won't help matters and besides, he's got a sword. You've got what?"
"Attitude? Great hair?"
"Yes and no. Why don't you have a weapon?"
"Why don't you?"
He snagged one of his chains and pulled, it came loose and he swung it jauntily a few times in his fist.
I flashed him a grin.
"You're going to bite them?"
"I was going for killer smile."
"What happened to that stick Oisin gave you? And stop smiling like that, the wooden stick you depraved idiot."
"Nothing happened to it and I'm not an idiot. It's at home. I think I left it in the silverware drawer."
"Look, I'm not a soldier. I'm not a fighter unless I have to be. I still think there is a better way to do this. It just has to gel; it has to come together at the right moment."
"Right. Well, until it comes together I've got your back."
"Don't mention it."
We continued on toward the outskirts of town, the edge of the Never Never.
The opposing force was gathered a suitable distance away, shining in the twilight.
I suppose if you're not facing them in battle the sidhe riding to war are a lovely sight. The fanciful armor, the ornate helms, the elven steeds decked out in shining tack and barding and festooned with waving plumes of varied hue or flowers. Rather like being menaced by a homicidal parade float.
The foot soldiers were more down to earth in every sense of the word, although one couldn't call them plain. There were mainly fey among their ranks and some were races I'd never seen before.
The seelie and unseelie didn't mingle so the force was split roughly down the middle, one side in light colors and the other in dark.
We spread out in front of them, Oisin and Kin giving curt commands about placement to their respective groups. The magic users were mainly on the edge of things, although some of them were hidden entirely and some were lurking back in town in case things should get that far.
It was a surreal scene, everyone in orderly and polite formation while we waited for the proper time to kill each other. I couldn't wrap my brain around the concept.
The sidhe commanders rode forward, swords raised ceremoniously. I think this was in advance of the traditional unfurling of the battle flags and probably a speech and a fan fare and for all I knew a picnic lunch.
This leisurely schedule was sped up a little when one of us couldn't resist flinging a half brick. It took a second to grasp what had happened, there was the throw, a clang and a mounted soldier became an dismounted soldier in short order.
Looked like an unconscious soldier too, from the limp way he slid off the horse.
After that, all hell broke loose.
I'm sure there were people who had some grip on the larger picture, Oisin for one, but to me it was chaos. And once the mages added their own special brand of confusion it moved somewhere south of that.
At first I tried to keep those nearest and dearest in my view but that was hopeless, too many people, too much movement. So I turned to seeing what I could do to be at least marginally helpful.
Hauling the injured out of further harms way seemed an idea.
Of course dodging about through heavily armed and angry crowds has its dangers but then I only appeared unarmed, in reality I had all the weapons I could ever need.
Should any of you plan to embark on a path of bloody conflict I sincerely suggest that you take along a half goblin with an excess of attitude.
Aside from the flying gore and the shower of sharp implements that had to be dodged I was safe as houses.
I did spare some worry for Dwyn but he didn't seem to need it. And seeing him in a fight made me rapidly reevaluate his deal with the goblins. Now it looked like a hell of a bargain.
So, I dodged and danced while he laughed maniacally and wreaked havoc among the enemy. The wounded got hauled to the sidelines, those I could reach and healers began to try to patch them up. With every person I hauled out my anger at the situation grew.
Some of my burdens were light, hardly more than kids. Some of them struggled against me, feebly trying to get back into the fight.
In a short time I was blood covered, bruised and furious.
On one trip my patient was left limp in my hands as the healer backed off.
I peered down through sweat damp hair while the healer spoke softly.
"One of theirs."
I placed her on the ground and grabbed the healer by the ankle hard enough to draw a gasp from him.
I looked up at him and he grimaced, than nodded and when I slogged back to the field the girl was being patched up.
Dwyn was at the edge of the fray; blood spattered and grinning his head off, fangs on prominent display, tongue occasionally lolling out to taste the iron air.
He heard me approaching, or scented me more likely and pointed into the melee.
"I see the subtle hand of Jin in this."
I followed his direction and grinned at the sight of a group of the usually dignified elven steeds wildly attempting to mate with each other. With rather distressing effects on their riders and anyone else nearby.
"I can't imagine why you'd say such a thing. Lust and Jin? I may have to challenge you to a duel myself if we survive."
"Right. We're not doing badly; want to get back to it?"
He sounded eager.
I panned my gaze across the field, picking up what details I could by moonlight and torch light.
I couldn't tell if we were doing badly or not, everyone seemed to be doing badly by my lights. People were fighting, bleeding and some were staggering for safety with hands clamped over torn skin.
I saw some of Ryu's family slipping in and out of the shadows, dragging their prey off silently. Tama was visible for a second, his face smeared with blood and his eyes dark.
I could hardly believe this was the same soul who could spend nights pampering an ailing plant. I directed Dwyn's attention to the sight.
"Even the undead can love their home I guess. This is some vast surprise to you? That people will fight for their home? Where have you been lately?"
"Right here. It's just that, how do we know that our home wants us to fight?"
"Tristan, maybe you should wait here, catch your breath, calm down. When you need me just yell for me. If I stumble over anyone wounded I'll try to shove 'em out of the way for you,okay?"
I started to argue but he ignored me and plowed back into the fight.
Still the question lingered and the feeling of confusion and anger and grief was near overwhelming.
I've been in my share of fights, I like a good fight. Sometimes I like a bad fight. But to kill someone? A stranger? How could you look into a strangers eyes and take his life, simply because he got talked into being on the other side of the battle? You didn't even get a chance to ask him why, ask about his family, know if someone would miss him.
Our home. Our land. Or was that backwards? We belonged to this land, this land wanted us here.
That felt right.
The land had no thirst for blood, ours or anyone's. That felt right too.
So, why was this my problem to solve?
Shit, usually when in the midst of some wonder tale the speaker intones something like " the king and the land are one" I'm the first to shout out "One what?"
Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.
Still, I'd been worrying this battle to bits in my mind for ages now, looking for a better way and signally failing to do so. Ask anyone with a damn sword stuck in them, plenty to choose from.
He was running full out and Weylan was trailing him.
"I was afraid I'd never find you, here."
"My guitar? Nice to have a fan but really…"
"And amp. Powered up. "
He set the thing at my feet with a scowl.
"Lovely to see you too."
They both stood looking at me expectantly. I plugged in; when the world goes crazy it seems only polite to join it.
Ryu laughed, I think it was a first.
"Play what you feel. Open up and play what you feel, you'll know when it's right."
"Your faith in me is touching, misguided but touching."
Weylan rolled his eyes.
"Shut up and play."
So I did.
What happened next is difficult to describe. Time stopped, for one thing. Or I stepped outside time. As I played, fingers wandering with no set plan and no, I don't always play like that no matter what Keir says, I could sense power gathering, tendrils of it rising from the ground and weaving around me as though they were curious.
Occasionally one brushed my skin, then more than the occasional one, then they began to move deeper. It hurt a lot at first but perhaps my pain was of concern to them, to it, to…I don't know, the spirit of the place? In any case it let up and I was grateful.
The feeling that remained was odd enough, the buzzing of bees along my nerves, the sorrow I'd felt earlier magnified as well as the anger. I played that, as well as I could, reaching for sounds to express the emotional turmoil.
As I played the feeling changed slowly, the bedrock belonging between a people and their home rising beneath it. I leaned heavily on that, throwing it outward as hard as I could.
I couldn't hear anything but the underlying hum and the song, the battle had either slowed or it had moved beyond my reach.
I couldn't tell by sight, my vision was full of swirling colors and glowing mists that spun and pulsed in time with the song. I couldn't feel the air on my skin; I had no idea of how long I played or to what effect. There was only the music and the connection between the land and me. I felt fixed to the spot, as though I would grow roots and become a character in one of the arcane folk tales of the border, the man who grew into the land.
The guitar moved and I slipped on the strings, again and I dropped it entirely, I might have screamed, I don't remember. Maybe I'd been screaming all along. The tendrils of power wrapped me tightly for a moment and then were gone.
And it seemed like a wonderful time to catch a quick nap.
I woke with what had to be the worst hangover ever. I groaned feebly, raised my hands to my aching head and felt an odd numbness in my hands. Scratchy too, which seemed wrong. I rubbed my hands together trying to pin point what was wrong with them.
"Don't do that."
Jin pried open one of my eyelids and sighed.
"Don't mess with your hands, I just finished bandaging them and I'm damned if I do it all over again."
He patted my head and I whimpered, fearing that it might at any moment roll off my shoulders and onto the floor.
"Now I'm sorry, headache?"
"Teach you to pull a stunt like that again, won't it?"
"Stunt like what? What exactly happened? Except a flaming solo guitar masterpiece that is?"
"Our Tristan, a legend in his own mind. Well, rock god, I almost hate to admit you seem to have saved the day. I know, hard to believe but true. I was lurking on the south edge of the fight and creating some confusion where I could and…"
"You were doing well; the horse orgy was inspired if a bit disconcerting."
"Thanks thought you'd like that one. Anyway, I heard the tortured wail of a guitar, a sadly familiar sound and …"
"Oh, right, just kick me when I'm down."
"Safest time for it. To continue, I heard a noise reminiscent of mating felines and naturally I looked around for you And there you were, a man in a fog. Now, as a metaphor that works for you most of the time but this time it was literal. There was a mist rising around you."
"And I for one want to know why you haven't shared this talent before? On stage perhaps? Might be a nice touch some nights."
"Hey, Dwyn! Still in one piece I see. And your bitter half too? How bracing. Where's Oisin?"
Dwyn flopped down across the foot of the bed.
"Helping the healers. He'll be along."
Jin cleared his throat.
"Helping how? He has healing?"
Dwyn laughed and attempted to pull Keir down onto the bed. Keir was immovable though and Dwyn sighed and turned his attention back to me.
"Not healing as such but he can clean a wound or bandage a hurt. Or staunch a bloody nose. Especially if he caused it, he's pretty predictable that way."
"He is going about bandaging people he wounded?"
"Only Weylan I think, personally I'd have let him bleed out but hey, that's me."
Keir abruptly sat down next to him, the rewards of bloody mindedness I suppose.
I tried to puzzle this bit of news out and the effort made my head ache worse. It must have shown because Jin spoke up.
"I'm getting to that bit, just be patient. You were in this mist, playing like a madman and you started to bleed light. Especially about the fingers."
"Ah, well, better than bleeding heavy I guess."
"No, not lightly, light."
I digested this bit of news in silence.
"Oisin made his way to you, dropping his weapons on route. Sometimes he just doesn't think, I swear you're rubbing off on him. He couldn't get you to respond to him and decided the best course was to rip the guitar from your hands. And who among us hasn't had the urge? So I can sympathize but apparently Weylan couldn't, he tried to interfere."
"And Oisin hit him?"
I felt absurdly pleased.
"Right on the classic profile."
"Must have been an intense moment, wish I'd been there to see it."
"Just as well you were beyond noticing, he's bound to be a bit embarrassed about it now. Try not to gloat over him when he arrives, will you?"
"I'll try. So, what happened next? Aside from me hitting the ground."
"Not much, most of it had happened by then. I got a bit …distracted with watching you but the battle field got passing strange while you played. The invaders backed off. No, that's not the right word, they were pushed back. I can't explain this properly but they couldn't seem to advance…"
Keir broke in.
"It was like watching someone trying to walk underwater, they slowed and only when they started back toward home did they move normally. I have no idea how it felt but from the looks on their faces it wasn't any fun."
"Ah. So they're gone?"
"So it seems, most of them anyway. I don't know if you noticed some sidhe hanging back? Apparently your father's contingent came but with no plans of conquering. A few of them are hanging out in your apartment, I couldn't think of where else to put them. Kin and the fox boys are hanging out there to keep an eye on them, just in case."
"I hope they don't kill themselves tripping over debris, I'm a bit behind on housekeeping duties."
Jin made a face.
"I'm just hoping they'll find the furniture, have I mentioned that you're a slob? Anyway, they're waiting there to consult with you so when ever you're up to it we'll head over."
"Give me a month or two and…"
"We'll give you until Oisin arrives, how's that?"
"I suppose that would work too."
It worked well enough.
The meeting would have been a bit more impressive if it hadn't taken place amongst piles of dirty laundry and empty beer bottles but aside from that it wasn't bad. My uncle was there and that helped. We sent them back with a truce offer and it was accepted after a bit of token bickering.
The border is a more porous thing now, one of the few changes really. My uncle is here fairly often, I had to clear a couch for him. It's odd having family about but kind of nice.
Dwyn is finding the same thing I think. Not that all the goblin breeds are related but the younger ones seem to view him as a father figure of sorts and follow him about like puppies. Keir is teaching them to eat with utensils and not spit on the floors and I shudder to think what Dwyn might be teaching them. All in all though they're settling in fairly well.
For a time the most obvious change for me was the magical way drinks appeared in front of me in every bar. A perk I hadn't expected but not one to be wasted. And the creepy way people would fall silent when I entered a room. Neither one of these lasted long though.
And then there was the ease of booking shows, suddenly we were top of the bill. I wasn't sure if this was due to the hope that I might do some arcane special effects or the fact that Keir had joined up and forced us to practice more often. The man has no mercy at all.
A lot of the younger elves show up at shows too, drifting over the border for a night on the wild side. Some like it so much they stay for a week or a year, some never leave.
A good many of the wilder fey are turning up as well, there is a regular kitsune conclave here now, selkies bask on the shore and some of the reclusive merfolk have been seen in the river.
The flow of runaways from the mundane lands hasn't slowed down either but there always seems to be room for everyone. I'm not sure how that works and thinking about it too much gives me a headache. I suppose as long as it works it doesn't matter how.
The feeling of connection with the land hasn't totally left me and I suppose it never will. It's subtle background music in my mind all the time. Sometimes the melody hangs up or falls out of kilter and then it's time to call out the troops and poke around until we can find out what the problem is and put it right again.
I wish I could say peace and harmony reign but not even close. We still have our share of bigots, bullies and baiters. Like family I suppose, we'll drop our squabbles with each other to beat the world and return to insulting each other when the greater threat is passed.
So, we muddle on, like anywhere else. And like no where else.
"Big crowd, good is yet to be determined."
Jin met my eyes and we shared a grin, Keir is new to this.
"Big crowd equals good crowd. Trust me."
He ignored this comment and turned his attention back to tuning. And retuning, and retuning. The man is a bloody control freak.
Dwyn was working on Oisin's hair, with plenty of 'helpful' commentary from Oisin. Which Dwyn was ignoring while making affirmative noises around the pins in his mouth
Hairpins, he has enough piercings without new additions.
I spent my time gazing into the crowd, once we started playing and the lights came up they would be out of sight, and probably out of mind so this was my best chance to get a feel for them.
Dwyn's goblin corp had taken their usual places in the dimmer corners, some were too young to really be in this club but few bouncers want to tangle with a dozen goblin breeds. They would lurk there, pretending he couldn't see them and he would pretend he didn't see them and thus the proprieties would be preserved.
Keir would roll his eyes and go along with this fiction, he always did.
Dunham and Weylan were in attendance with Ruby seated between them. A rose between two thorns, or vice versa, hard to tell really. Come to think of it, I see them together a lot lately, probably best not to speculate too much on that. Some things I really don't need to know.
Several of the kitsune newcomers were in evidence, claiming space on Jin's side of the stage. He has acquired a dedicated fan base there but he always comes home after a show. Not right away mind you, but by dawn. Neither Oisin nor I mind really and we always find some way to kill time in his absence.
We're still a firm trio and I can't imagine a time when we don't stick together, sometimes literally.
One difference I notice in the crowd is the number of women with children. Not that this is a totally new phenomena but it does seem that more children have been born these last few years than previously. And the children are…different.
For one thing, some of them are a kind of fey even Grandmother says she hasn't seen before. Even true human couples have borne children large of eye, delicate of frame and faster growing than normal. Some appear to pass through infancy in weeks and toddlerhood in months.
They're tough too, although most children of any race are tougher than they look.
Some of the mothers say their babies sang before they spoke and danced before they walked. I don't how much of that I believe.
"Hey, are you going to join us or gawk at the ladies, you dog."
"Hmm, decisions, decisions…"
"Don't make me drag you out there by the ear."
"You wouldn't, damn you! Hey, let go! Help! Oisin! Keir! Come on, Jin! Help!"
It wasn't the world's best entrance but it was a damn fine show just the same.