Chapter Twelve: Bane

To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved

George MacDonald

How long have you been lost down here?

How did you come to lose your way?

When did you realise that you'd never be free?

A Fairytale Of Slavery, Miranda Sex Garden

There was something preventing Eleanor from sleeping. Sprawled across her bed with her eyes closed and keeping her breathing deep and regular, Eleanor tried to work out precisely why she was finding it impossible to drift off. It was both dark and quiet in her room and her bed was supremely comfortable. She was neither too warm nor too cold and with the small amount of sleep she'd managed so far this week, it was fair to say that a surplus of energy was not currently keeping her awake.

Eleanor rolled onto her back and let her eyes open with a small, irritated sigh of defeat. It was useless. Lying here and thinking soothing thoughts was useless and Colm's foul tasting tea was both useless and even viler than he'd warned. And yet she'd still faithfully drunk the required amount of the wretched stuff to utterly no avail. If anything, the insomnia was worse than ever. The tea did indeed make her feel sluggish, lethargic and various other things that combined to make the concept of sleep a very appealing one; it just did nothing about that weird feeling that refused to let Eleanor relax enough to sleep.

Sitting up in the bed, Eleanor rubbed her hands wearily over her face before brushing her hair back from her face with a much longer sigh than earlier. It was the weirdest thing. For some reason she couldn't pin-point, ever since they'd returned from Ubahll she'd been almost constantly aware of the fact that she'd been on edge. It hadn't surprised her that much to begin with; some of what she'd seen in that country had been horrific and Declan showing up alive and vengeful wasn't the most pleasant of surprises. Eleanor had expected her nerves to need a little while to calm down.

But she wasn't in Ubahll anymore; she was in her own castle within Korlan's protected borders. The enchantments Cair had set up prevented anyone from passing through the briars if they were any kind of threat to her or her kingdom. And furthermore, she was surrounded by her extremely talented and loyal Guards. There was no reason to still feel so uncomfortable.

Eleanor took a few deep breaths as she rubbed her arms, her forehead creasing in determination. She needed to get past this. She had other things to focus on than unpleasant memories from the past that should now be dead and buried. Running and hiding like some silly, insipid girl wasn't going to help expose the Ever After laws as a sham. She wasn't a young teenager anymore: she wasn't helpless anymore.

Glancing across her room, Eleanor froze as her eyes detected movement on the opposite side of the room. She swallowed somewhat awkwardly as she began to cautiously clamber forwards across her bed. It was too dark to really see anything, other than the half-imagined flicker from the corner of her eye, but Eleanor was well aware of her current state of mind. If she didn't prove to herself that this was nothing to get worked up about then she would have yet another sleepless night to look forward to. And apart from anything else, staring at the ceiling above her bed was getting really, really tedious.

Eleanor reached the end of her bed and lowered first one foot and then the other cautiously to the floor, her eyes scanning for any other trace of the movement that had caught her attention. Everything certainly seemed to be as it should and with her eyes adjusting to the darkness in her room, Eleanor was able to study the room with increasing detail.

The large windows were covered by thick, hanging curtains that showed no sign of movement. Eleanor let her eyes trail over them, but felt no hint of that discomforting unease from studying the drapes of fabric and turned to study the dressing table that rested to one side. The sole item on the smooth wooden surface was the hairbrush Eleanor had been using earlier, resting in the same spot she'd left it. Eleanor began to turn her gaze away, but instead felt it drift upwards, almost of its own volition to look at the mirror that sat directly above the table surface.

It was a strange thing to look at, for in such a dark room there was no real reflection to be seen. There was the hint of shine from the glass surface, but beyond that silver gleam there was little else to be discerned. Perhaps that's why Eleanor continued to stare at it, tilting her head slightly as she squinted at the glass. Her eyes were becoming more adjusted to the low levels of light and as a result it was getting easier to make out details in her room. Making out details in the mirror continued to be elusive and so she took a couple of steps nearer, watching the way vague shapes began to become clearer within the mirror.

It was strange the way her room could look so different in the dark, she mused as she stared into the glass. The way in which daylight obviously obscured certain details about a space that she should be so familiar with. She was so focused on studying the way those shapes within the mirror gradually resolved themselves into stone walls, tapestries and a large bed that it took her a moment to realise what she was seeing was not the reflection of her own room. Eleanor froze, her breath stuttering off in a hitched-in gasp as though completing the exhalation of breath would somehow give away her location.

There was a moment when nothing seemed to move which stretched out longer than either Eleanor or her burning lungs would have liked. Then there was a flicker within the depths of that other, reflected room. Something like a shadow, but faster and more solid seemed to dart across the glass expanse. Eleanor's breath burst out of her long enough for her to suck in a sufficient lungful with which to scream.

Little had emerged past that first exclamation of noise when someone knocked loudly at her door, presenting Eleanor with a completely different target for her scream. Her attention torn away from her mirror, Eleanor felt her scream morph into a strangled cry and she tried to regain some sense of how it felt to breathe normally. "What is it?" she called.

"Princess? Fin's received a message from Astae and it's not good news. He wants your opinion on how best to proceed."

Eleanor blinked before staring down at her bracelet, which was indeed vibrating with the enchantment to let her know others were trying to contact her, and then back at her mirror which revealed nothing out of the ordinary. With a groan, Eleanor pulled one of the topmost blankets from her bed and flung it over the mirror, covering the reflective face entirely, before pulling on a loose robe over her nightgown. "I'm on my way."

She pulled open the door to find a somewhat dishevelled-looking Ruari stood in front of her. The blond Guard looked at her with a faint frown. "Are you alright, Princess? You're paler than Bane."

Eleanor sighed and readjusted her robe. "Lack of sleep, Ruari. Now let's find out what's going on. I take it everyone's assembled somewhere?"

Ruari immediately fell into step beside her. "The library. Maurice is trying to force feed everyone tea and biscuits in an attempt to calm nerves."

"Maurice is actively encouraging people to eat and drink around his beloved books?" Eleanor raised an eyebrow. "It must be serious."

"It certainly looks that way."

They made the rest of the way to the library in silence. Eleanor stepped in the room to see Finbar, Leirr, Catan, Colm and Myrrdin already gathered around one of the largest tables and talking in low voices. They fell silent as Eleanor entered, Ruari following close behind and silently sliding into an unoccupied seat next to Leirr. Finbar rose to greet her and in doing so revealed his status as the bearer of bad news.

"Eleanor," Finbar began with a polite inclination of his head. "Sorry to wake you at this hour."

Eleanor waved off the apology. "I wasn't really sleeping in all honesty, so there's little to apologise for. What's this about? Ruari said you've received bad news from Astae. Is it Cair? Has the Seelie Court attempted something?"

Finbar shook his head. "The message we received was from Cair, but it's not him that's in danger."

"Then …" Logic and Finbar's expression quickly filled in the gaps for Eleanor and she hurriedly took a seat before her knees sent her to join her stomach as it seemed to drop to the floor. "Aiden."

Finbar swallowed. "The message was garbled and Cair is missing some of the details. What he does know is that Aiden is in serious trouble of some description and Bane and Tithe are involved."

Eleanor frowned. "Tithe? I'm not familiar with the term."

"It's …" Finbar paused before visibly catching himself. "It's not good."

Eleanor subjected Finbar to her most intense stare. "What is it you know?"

"Tithe …" Finbar floundered for words, reluctant to meet Eleanor's eyes. "It's a way of binding a Fae or Wræcca into your service. They'll be intending to use Aiden to entrap Bane."

"How will they be using Aiden?" Eleanor asked in a voice that seemed remarkably steady considering her emotions. Perhaps that explained why it felt so distant from herself. "Bait?"

Finbar shook his head. "Sacrifice," he said in a quiet voice.

Eleanor's hands clenched before she took a deep breath and released it slowly. "I see," she said. "Right. Then we have to keep Bane away from the trap until we've got Aiden safely away from …" She trailed off at the increasingly wretched look on Finbar's face. "He's already gone, hasn't he?"

"He left after informing Cair about the situation," Finbar confirmed. "Cair says there's no chance of getting to the castle before Bane."

Eleanor rubbed her hands over her face and sighed again. "We can still try … I can't sit here and do nothing. Neither of them deserves that."

"I'll go."

Eleanor looked over at Leirr, who has risen from the table. Seeing Eleanor's eyes on him, Leirr inclined his upper body in a sharp bow. "I'm the fastest amongst all of us. If I leave now, there may still be a chance of lending Bane some aid."

"Then I'm going too," Ruari said. "Set a thief to catch a thief and all that."

Leirr scowled briefly at Ruari. "Don't slow me down."

Ruari attempted a smile that was a pale imitation of his usual as he too rose from the table. "Don't worry your pretty head about that. I can move swift enough when I need to."

Eleanor studied them both for a moment and then nodded. "Very well. Take whatever you need from the stores and leave as soon as you're able. Just remember to keep in contact with both us and Tristan and Cair in Astae. They might be able to lend you help or advice that we cannot."

Ruari and Leirr both bowed and hurried from the room. The others watched their departure in silence. As the two sets of rapidly retreating footsteps faded from earshot, Eleanor turned to Finbar.

"Why couldn't Bane have waited for help?" she asked. "Surely he'd know the danger he's in?"

Finbar ran a hand through his hair. "It's Aiden that's in danger, Princess. And isn't there always someone that makes you do stupid things? I suppose in that sense, even Bane's no different to the rest of us."

By the time he had arrived at the castle in which Aiden was being held Bane had rested for a grand total of two hours. He hadn't pushed himself quite like this for several years, but Bane honestly didn't think he'd be capable of relaxing enough to get any more rest. He'd feel the toll upon his body should he continue to push himself, but Bane wasn't overly concerned. He wasn't intending on lingering over this, after all.

He wasn't afraid. That was probably the one thing that struck Bane even as the vast majority of his consciousness was directed towards the goal of reaching Aiden as quickly as possible. Even as little as a few months ago, the thought that he would be facing down the Seelie Court would have sent him retreating into hiding. And it wasn't fair to say he felt no fear or apprehension about the situation; but it was concern for Aiden that was a constant gnawing ache somewhere in the centre of his chest.

Aiden was the sole focus of his worry. And it wasn't worry of the kind that usually made him so weak and indecisive; that crippling sense of fear that just made Bane want to hide away. This concern made it easy to keep his focus on the immediate goals; pushed any room for doubts out of his head. And as soon as Bane got to the castle and made sure that Aiden was no longer in harm's way, it was going to make him really lose his temper.

Because the main reason Bane wasn't afraid was that he was far too angry. He didn't have enough energy to maintain this sort of perpetual fury and also feel fear. The Seelie Court had taken Aiden. They had dared to take Aiden and involve him in their games. And that was not acceptable.

He had come to a halt at the edge of the forest that covered much of Carsingdale's estate and scaled one of the trees to get a better view of the castle. Bane intended to leave nothing to chance, and had no intention of being caught by whatever precautions or traps the Seelie had helped set in preparation for his arrival.

Perched on a wide branch and concealed within the shadows of the forest canopy, Bane studied the castle with a focused and assessing eye. From this point he could see the training yards, stables and a good portion of the gardens. All of which showed far less activity than Bane would have expected from a castle this large. If the rumours he'd heard were to be believed, and the evidence certainly seemed to point that way, then Duke Carsingdale had indeed sent the vast bulk of his serving staff away from the castle. All things considered, it was far less likely to actually be in celebration of his recent marriage and more due to the fact that he didn't want anyone other than his most trusted staff around in case his plans and involvement with the Seelie Court were discovered.

Which, as far as Bane was concerned, was just as well. Fewer people to deal with meant less chance of crossing paths with someone that wasn't in some way complicit with Carsingdale's plans and therefore less for Bane to feel guilty about once he got Aiden out there.

Bane didn't have much time in which to stage a rescue. Some deeply buried instinct that had lain dormant for years was informing him that tithe was almost due and his past few years of relative freedom were over. Bane didn't like to concentrate too much on the sensation, for it only served to remind him that his options were seven years of virtual slavery versus a Seelie death sentence for daring to go rogue. And while the concept of spending the next however many years trying to hide from any Fae he might encounter was far from appealing, Bane knew that there was simply no way in this or any other world he was prepared to go back to the life of his childhood.

The problem really came from the undoubted presence of Seelie in the castle. Bane had no idea how many Fae would be present within the walls, but he knew that his arrival would be expected. Without the element of surprise to serve in his favour, Bane's best chance lay with eliminating any additional mortal interference as quickly as possible. And also, hopefully, distracting the Fae at the same time.

Reaching into a concealed pocket within the voluminous folds of his shirt, Bane carefully extracted a small glass vial filled with clear liquid. He tilted it slowly back and forth, watching the way the contents sloshed about within their confines. He'd half forgotten about the presence of this particular vial, until Declan had seen fit to lock Bane in a room with an undead automaton princess and this very item. No doubt Declan had intended Bane to use it to escape from what had seemed to be a very unpleasant ending, but there had been one flaw in Declan's plan. Aside from whatever strange set of circumstances had fortuitously seen off his assailant, it had suddenly occurred to Bane that Declan had never truly understood what was contained within the glass.

The small glass bottle, with its elegant silver stopper, was delicately made by what had surely been a talented glassblower. It was the stopper that truly gave away its origins, however; the finely wrought strands of silver spun into an almost impossibly delicate web were created with a skill no mortal artisan could hope to imitate.

The glass bottles were presented to the owners of tithed Wræcca at the first creation of the bond. With it were delivered the instructions that should the Wræcca fail to sufficiently appease his master, administering the contents of the vial would remove the problem. Declan, with his somewhat skewed perspective, had immediately assumed this meant the contents were a particularly potent poison, strong enough to even deal with something as resilient as a recalcitrant half-breed.

In actual fact, in terms of composition, the contents were nothing more than water. However this particular water came with several additional properties when consumed in the mortal realm. One of which would effectively erase the bond created by tithe. Considering that such an act would effectively lead to Bane's death under normal circumstances, he had seen no need to inform Declan of his mistake. It had clearly been the right decision, Bane mused, considering the contents for a final time before switching his gaze back to the castle. The contents of the bottle were sure to prove very useful when dealing with the serving staff and Aiden's captors.

All he had to do was reach the kitchens.

Dropping to the ground in a movement that made hardly any sound, Bane began to make his way into the castle. The day was already moving into evening and he had a lot of work to do.

Tristan looked up as Cairon slid quietly into the empty seat beside him, the Fae sliding an impressive stack of books onto the table at the same time. Cair stared at the pile of books for a moment before sighing and turning to Tristan with a tired smile. "Eleanor's aware of the fact that we've not got much time, but she's going to do what she can. She's already sent Ruari and Leirr in case they can arrive in time to be of any help."

Tristan nodded, reaching out to run a comforting hand along Cair's arm. He received another smile for the gesture. "While we'll probably be of the most help gathering information." Tristan felt his gaze drift to the books and he too sighed. "Hopefully we can find something that will be of help."

Cairon shrugged. "Hopefully."

Tristan pulled the topmost book in front of him and began to open it. Halfway through he paused and closed the book again, letting the heavy leather cover thump against the pages. Cairon looked over at him in surprise and Tristan shrugged his shoulders in response.

"Sorry," Tristan said. He leaned back and ran a hand through his hair. "I just can't but feel things never seem to work out the way I want them to where we're concerned. This was going to be relaxing break for you."

Cairon smiled. "It's alright," he reassured him. Cairon's gaze dropped to the books before him and he reached out to run his fingers across their covers with a faint frown. "I spent far too many years hiding away from trouble," Cairon said as his frown deepened. "And despite my best efforts, I never seemed able to avoid it. I suppose I've come to believe that Fae have to fight for their happy endings as much as mortals." Looking back at Tristan, Cairon shrugged again, replacing his frown with a vaguely sheepish smile. "Besides," Cairon added. "I like libraries."

Tristan and Cairon shared a smile for a few moments. Then Tristan turned back to the book and opened it. "So where should we be focusing our efforts?" he asked.

"It's difficult to know what is going to be of the most use," Cairon commented. "I imagine anything on the Wræcca or Tithe is going to be a good start."

"The Wræcca," Tristan echoed with a frown. "I don't think I've ever heard of them until now."

Cairon wouldn't look away from the book he was studying. "They're one of the reasons the Unseelie Court was destroyed," he said. "The Seelie and Unseelie had vastly differing attitudes to Wræcca and how they should be treated. In the eyes of the Seelie, the Unseelie were too tolerant of half-breeds."

Tristan blinked. "Oh," he said, unable to think of anything else. He flipped a couple of pages. "So Bane's one of them … a Wræcca," he said at last. "Why is that important anyway? What difference is there in being a Wræcca and being a mortal, or a Fae?"

Cairon pulled a slight face. "It's complicated," Cairon said. "A lot depends on the individual Wræcca and how powerful the Fae parent was. And that's half the problem; there's not really any way of knowing in most cases as the child is abandoned either at birth or at the first opportunity. So the tendency is to over-estimate their abilities. It's safer that way."

"Not so much for the Wræcca," Tristan observed.

Cairon was silent for a moment. "No," he agreed quietly. "Not so much for them." Cairon stared hard at the pages of his book for a few more moments before closing it and reaching for another one. "But if there's a way to help Aiden and Bane out of this situation, then we'll find it."

Tristan smiled as he made a sound of agreement.

"You sure it's just piracy in your previous careers?" Ruari asked as he lowered himself from his equally exhausted horse with a groan. "Don't have slave driver listed in there somewhere?"

Already absorbed with tending to his own horse, Leirr spared Ruari little more than a dirty look. In truth, the redhead looked at least as tired as Ruari. Heavy dark circles and mussed hair were ample evidence of the unforgiving pace Leirr had set since they left Korlan the previous day. Now night was falling once again.

Talking mainly in an effort to keep himself awake and operating on at least some basic level, Ruari set about seeing to his horse before tackling the less than appealing task of setting up camp. "You have any idea where we are? I mean, how much chance do you think we have of getting there in time to be any help at all?"

"We'll be able to help with the clean-up if nothing else," Leirr said. He left his horse to rest and began to go about the long process of setting out their bedrolls and preparing a space for the campfire. "We can't afford to waste time dawdling."

"Stopping to get some sleep before either we or our horses collapse from exhaustion is not 'dawdling'," Ruari ground out. "There's little point in getting there in time if we're too tired to do anything useful. Unless we manage to fall on someone as we finally lose consciousness, that is."

Leirr glared at Ruari, but it was probably as much from his own tiredness as genuine annoyance. "We've stopped to make camp like you wanted," he pointed out. "Don't you ever stop complaining?"

"Complaining?" Ruari echoed with a faint grin. "I haven't even started complaining. My saddle sores alone could fill at least a couple of hours…"

"Please don't," Leirr cut in. "I'll just take your word for it."

Ruari grinned and patted his horse affectionately on the rump as he finally left her alone to get some sleep. He got a snort and a tail flicked in his face in thanks, but figured the animal was allowed to be cranky after the pace Leirr had insisted on. "Fine. Well, I've got the makings of a nice stew in my pack. All it needs is water and some heat…"

Leirr sighed. "I'll see to the fire. Try not to fall in the water and drown. It will be troublesome."

Ruari rolled his eyes. "Once again I am humbled by your faith in me."

Leirr failed to respond to that, already consumed with the tasks of setting up camp. Ruari grinned to himself and decided to leave the other man to it. Picking up a pot for the water, he made his way into the woods. There had been a reasonable-sized stream running alongside the road for much of the way before it had veered off in this direction. Ruari was pretty confident he'd find it without too much trouble. He picked his way down a fairly steep bank covered in ferns and protruding tree roots and sure enough, heard the sound of water splashing over stones.

The stream was tumbling down the same slope a few feet away from Ruari, its path broken by the exposed rocks causing the noise. Taking care not to slip on the stones or the damp moss that clung to them, Ruari filled the pot half full and then rested it briefly to one side while he took the opportunity to splash the cold water over his face. The shock of the temperature did a lot to ease some of the tiredness, and the chance to rinse of the dirt and grime that had accumulated during the course of the riding did equal wonders for his mood.

His usual good cheer now fully restored rather than merely maintained through force of will, Ruari wandered back to the campsite whistling a cheerful tune under his breath. Leirr had been busy in his absence; both bedrolls were unrolled by the now blazing fire. The redhead himself was sat on the bedroll nearest the animals and all but sagging in weariness. At the sound of Ruari's approach, he snapped back into a more upright sitting position.

Ruari rolled his eyes at the gesture, but decided to let it pass without comment. If Leirr felt the need to project the image of a super-solider, then let him.

"The stream's not too far away," Ruari called to Leirr as he made his way over to the campsite. "There's probably time to wash off some of the grime of travel before this pot heats up enough to start a meal."

Leirr seemed to consider the idea before shaking his head and rubbing at his face. "I don't think I can face it at the moment," he muttered. "Maybe in the morning."

Ruari shrugged. "It's not like it's going anywhere, I suppose." He placed the pot carefully over the fire and turned to rummage through the packs for the ingredients to make some sort of hot meal. "I think I've been dreaming of this meal for the past three hours at least."

Leirr snorted and pushed himself to his feet. "I'll leave you to it, then. I'm going to check in with Eleanor and Cairon. See if anyone knows anything new." Raising the arm on which he wore the bracer, Leirr tapped on it in the rhythm that activated the communication spells within the metal and walked a discreet distance away from the fire.

Ruari tuned out the low conversation that followed, confident in the knowledge that Leirr would relay all the important details having filtered through all the fretting and useless speculation. Instead, he kept his concentration on making their evening meal.

He was just adding the finishing seasoning when Leirr moved back to the fire and dropped into a seated position on the ground opposite Ruari. Looking at the redhead's expression, which had become even more weary than before, Ruari winced in sympathy. "So it's not good news then?"

Leirr shook his head. "If Aiden's cousin is working alongside the Seelie Court, then it's bad. The Seelie are basically going to be out for blood; ideally Bane's, but they'll settle for Aiden's as they're in no doubt as to how that'll affect him."

Ruari pulled a face. "I always thought the Seelie Court were the good guys … well, I mean out of the Fae in general. The Unseelie represented the darkness and the Seelie were the light."

Leirr snorted, reaching for a bowl to ladle some stew into. "That's Fae for you. There's always a hidden agenda and if you're not aware of it, you're going to get into an awful lot of trouble." He paused and then grimaced slightly. "Cairon excepted."

"He claims to be a bit of a black sheep," Ruari pointed out thoughtfully. "And the rest of the Fae aren't very happy with him if they were going to all the trouble of helping that Ella girl recapture him. Maybe it's more than just the Tristan thing that got him into trouble."

Leirr paused to blow on his spoonful of hot stew. "Maybe" he agreed. "Cairon's still scared enough by the prospect to be pretty cautious about going anywhere outside Korlan. I'm impressed Tristan managed to persuade him to stay this long."

"There's little point in just hiding and hoping the threat will go away or forget about you," Ruari said as he spooned himself another helping. "Look at Tristan. If we hadn't done anything, he'd be married to that evil madam and a mindless puppet by now. Or what about the Court in Ubahll, falling victim to that undead clockwork princess?"

Leirr frowned at the blond across the fire. "What are you saying?"

Ruari rolled his eyes. "I'm saying we can't expect to always be within safe travelling distance of Korlan. It's a big world and the Ever After problem isn't limited to here. Shouldn't we be helping more people?"

"I guess," Leirr mumbled, looking down into his bowl. "Though, hopefully we'd get better at actually achieving something that feels like victory first."

Ruari shrugged. "Our enemy is a lot bigger than us and also has several tricks that we've never encountered before. We can't expect to simply waltz in and claim a flawless victory. But we're winning where it counts. Tristan's safe, as is Cairon. Now we just need to make sure Bane and Aiden can get added to that list."

They ate in silence for a few more minutes. Then Leirr looked over at Ruari with a faint frown. "So, you actually think we're going to end up travelling far from Korlan? How far?"

Ruari grinned. "Who knows? That's almost what makes it seem exciting. The Ever After laws are everywhere which means there has to be people that need help pretty much everywhere too." Ruari winked at Leirr, who had gone still as he considered Ruari's words. "Think about it. We could end up travelling to places far from here; places we don't really know anything about. Over the sea…"

Leirr shuddered and looked away towards the woods. "I hope not."

Ruari blinked, distracted from his ramblings. "What? Don't you want to get back on the water again?"

The fire still provided enough light to see the face Leirr pulled. "Not particularly," he said succinctly.

The idea forced a laugh of disbelief past Ruari's lips. "Are you joking? You're a former pirate. Why wouldn't you want to head back to the sea?"

Leirr scowled. "I can't go back on water, alright?" Tossing his empty bowl to one side, Leirr turned his back to Ruari as he went about readying his bedroll for sleep. "Get some rest. We're moving on before dawn."

Ruari rolled his eyes, but set his own bowl aside as he prepared to sleep. Not for the first time, he wondered why he volunteered to go anywhere with just the tetchy redhead for company.

The sound of the heavy door to his chamber opening was what awoke Aiden. Not that it would have taken much; it was hard to get proper rest with his arms held above his head. His head had lifted at the creak of iron hinges as Aiden squinted into the gloom, wondering just what his cousin and her husband were up to now. Whoever it was had brought no form of light with them, however, a strange occurrence for both Anastasia and her husband, Carsingdale. Aiden waited a moment or two in case the intruder was simply being lax in providing the illumination, but none came. There was equally no speech or other distinguishing noise from his visitor and this puzzled Aiden.

Suddenly unsure as to whether he had heard the door open at all, Aiden frowned and cleared his throat. "Is someone there?"

The silence that followed was long enough to convince Aiden that he had in fact been imagining the sound of the door opening, no doubt a fabrication of his mind. Then there was a slight sound to one side of the room, similar to that of a shoe scuffing on a stone surface. A leathery rustle, with a dragging sense to it. Aiden blinked and then he heard the unmistakable sound of someone sighing.

"I don't want to know how you got into this situation," came Bane's tired voice. "Your stupidity will only depress me."

For a moment or two, Aiden genuinely thought he'd imagined the comment. But then, he reasoned, wouldn't an imaginary Bane be somewhat more forgiving of Aiden's current plight? This realisation and the warm sensation that it brought was quickly doused by the sudden fear that Bane had walked into the very trap that had been laid for him. Aiden felt what had been the beginnings of a smile quickly fall into a worried frown. "You shouldn't be here," he told Bane. "It's too dangerous; this is all a trap for you."

There was the unmistakable sound of a snort. "Idiot," Bane breathed, the word barely audible. Aiden had long become accustomed to listening to Bane however, and caught every nuance.

Even so, the sudden impact of Bane's body against his own came as a surprise. The slender thief was all clinging to him, trying to burrow into Aiden's body with his own bony frame. This close to Bane, Aiden could feel the other's stuttering heartbeat and the way the thief's body trembled with suppressed emotion.

"I'm so glad you're not hurt." Bane's breath was warm, yet shaky against his ear; quickly replaced by the press of nose, lips and cheek in the crook of his neck as Bane burrowed his head into the space. His long, slender fingers reached up to thread through Aiden's hair and pull the knight's head down closer to Bane's own.

Aiden blinked, the pit of his stomach doing something small, yet painful at the way Bane stroked and petted at his head. "Of course I'm fine," Aiden said in a voice that was equalling soothing and despairing. "I'm just bait."

The fingers clenched in his hair, drawing an involuntary wince from Aiden. "I know," Bane breathed against Aiden's neck before drawing the sensation of his skin and warm breath away. "Don't worry. I'm going to fix this."

Aiden felt his eyes slide shut as Bane leant his forehead against Aiden's own. Uncertain fingers pressed against Aiden's temples before drawing downward to cradle his face within their grasp.

"Please," Bane whispered. "I need you to promise me. Promise that you won't eat or drink anything from this point on."

Aiden's forehead rumpled in confusion and the knight opened his mouth to question the statement, but Bane had obviously felt the worry creasing Aiden's brow, for a finger was pressed against Aiden's lips.

"Shhh," Bane soothed. "It'll take a day at most and then this will be over. Please. I'm going to have to do something, but I need you to trust me. I'll come back for you, I promise. Just … just trust me."

Even the restraining finger against his lips was not enough to stop Aiden's question. "What are you going to do?" he asked, the worry in his voice unmistakable. "You mustn't put yourself at risk for my sake."

Bane's laugh was inaudible, but Aiden felt the shaky exhalation against his neck as Bane turned to tuck his head once more into the crook of Aiden's neck. Aiden was glad he couldn't hear the sound; something told him that had he been able to hear it, he'd have known that Bane's laugh was not a happy one. "There's no need for you to worry," Bane mumbled into the crook of Aiden's neck as the thief's fingers tightened their grip on Aiden, having dropped down to tangle in the folds of Aiden's shirt. "I'll come back for you." As though able to sense Aiden's instinctual protest at the concept of Bane leaving him in this room, Bane's grip on Aiden tightened, pulling the knight against the thief. "Trust me," Bane said again, the emphasis carried though in the tension in his grip. "There's nothing for you to worry about. Just remember: no food or drink."

Aiden inclined his head in a nod, letting Bane feel his agreement rather than vocalise it. Instead he murmured a warning; "Just be careful." Having impressed the warning against the cool skin of Bane's neck, Aiden raised his head and sighed into the darkness.

"You're always the one saving me," Aiden remarked into the darkness. "It's somewhat sad when all I ever wanted to do was repay the favour, even if only the once."

In the silence that followed, Aiden felt Bane lift his head up from where it had been nestled against Aiden's neck. He might have felt concern at the gesture, were it not for the gentle brush of Bane's fingers across his face, as though the thief were doing to best to see Aiden through touch as his sight was lacking. The touch was soft and at times barely felt, but surprisingly there was no hesitance in the gesture.

"Consider the favour repaid," Bane said at last.

There was a sudden press of something warm against Aiden's lips, almost too quick to register. Were it not for the fact that Bane mumbled "remember" one last time against his lips, Aiden might not have realised that the thief had kissed him at all. Then a sudden flurry of movement and the creaking of the door informed Aiden that he was alone in his cell once more.

"I've just finished speaking with Eleanor. They're doing all they can to find out if there's a way to avoid this tithe. Ruari and Leirr have been travelling almost flat out and are confident they'll reach the castle tomorrow. With any luck, by that time we'll know something that could be of use to them." Tristan trailed off as he saw the tension in Cairon's stance. Moving up to stand beside the Fae who stood staring out the library's windows, Tristan also glanced out, unable to see much due to the darkness. "What is it?"

"The owls," Cairon said. "They're in even greater numbers than before."

Tristan frowned in confusion. "The Seelie spies? But I thought they were watching for Bane."

"So did I," Cairon admitted. "But it seems we're still being watched."

Tristan looked out of the windows once more, unable to stop a slight flinch as the brief swoop of white that fluttered past. With equal parts curiosity and unease, he turned back to Cairon. "I don't understand. Why are they still watching us? Are they relaying their own intelligence to Aiden's captors, or is there another reason behind this? After all, they can't hear our conversations from outside or see much of what we're reading from their vantage points."

If Cairon shared Tristan's disquiet, there was no outward sign of it. The Fae seemed more focused, and there was something in Cairon's attitude that spoke of determination. "You're right," Cairon agreed, turning to face Tristan with that same focused expression. "And there's one way to find out what they intend; we can ask them directly."

Tristan blinked at the statement, unable to hide his concern. "Is that wise?" he asked. Seeing the expression on Cairon's face, Tristan clarified his question. "Won't it be dangerous?"

Cairon seemed unconcerned at the prospect. "Only if they don't offer us the information we want." He looked over at Tristan again and his forehead creased slightly. "Is there something wrong?"

Tristan shook his head, offering up his best reassuring smile. "It's just that I haven't really seen you like this before. This determination and confidence." Moving closer, Tristan wrapped his arms around an uncomplaining Cairon. "It's good to see," he told Cairon quietly. "It makes me think you're regaining the confidence to be yourself after everything that happened." Tristan didn't miss the way Cairon's grip momentarily tightened, but was reassured the fact that any tension was quick to fade from Cairon as the Fae turned his head to nuzzle into the crook of Tristan's neck. "Sometimes," Tristan told him, "I wonder what you were like before any of this happened. When you were still in the Fae realm."

Cairon drew away from Tristan, tilting his head as he studied Tristan's expression. "Does it matter?" Cairon asked calmly. "I'm here now. And I'm happy being here and with who I am here."

Tristan smiled, running a hand through Cairon hair and watching the way the black strands caught the light as they slipped through his fingers like the finest silk. "I guess not," he said with a smile. "I'm happy too."

Cairon returned the smile as he leaned in to brush a brief kiss against Tristan's mouth. Pulling back, he patted Tristan on the shoulder as he adopted a more serious expression. "Well, with that out of the way, how are we going to catch our Fae spy?" Cairon asked.

Tristan considered the question, his brow wrinkling in thought. "This could prove problematic," he thought aloud. "Being Fae, they have the ability to use magic. That certainly puts them at an advantage."

Cairon treated Tristan to a long, slow look before smiling. "That won't be a problem," Cairon said. "After all, not only can I also use magic; my own is considerably more powerful than anything they can produce."

Tristan looked at Cairon in surprise. "Really?"

Cairon nodded almost absently as he turned to look out of the window, assessing and studying the night outside. "It was one of the reasons they rejected me for mentoring mortals … being one of the helpful Fae that assists the chosen and worthy to their Happy Ever After," Cairon informed Tristan in a somewhat distant tone. It seemed his true thoughts were elsewhere. "My results were too powerful for the scale needed to deal with mortals. They couldn't manage and things would slip out of control. I was always better at the large scale enchantments, but that isn't how a Fae mentor is supposed to work. That role is for the hero."

Tristan blinked at the information, processing it carefully. "So you're not allowed to assist mortals with their Ever Afters if you're too powerful?" he asked.

Cairon nodded. "Rather than a mentor, the lack of control over your results would probably see you cast as the wicked enchanter." With a final glance outside, Cairon began to make his way towards the library door.

"Wait a minute," Tristan protested as he turned to follow Cairon away from the window. "You're Seelie. I thought Unseelie were always the bad Fae and you the good."

Cairon frowned. "It's really not that simple," he said. "And perceptions tend to differ from the mortal side of things. I suppose the Seelie are the more approachable side to mortals, the more predictable. When the Unseelie chose to meddle in the affairs of mortals, their motives and goals were always a lot more difficult to determine."

Glancing pointedly towards the window, Tristan raised a questioning eyebrow. "And Seelie motivations are clear?"

Cairon followed Tristan's gaze and his jaw tightened for a moment before he relaxed again and nodded. "Clearer," he corrected. Leaning in Cairon brushed another kiss against Tristan's lips. "For luck," he murmured as he pulled away. Cairon took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he exhaled slowly. Then he opened them and nodded decisively at Tristan. "Let's go."

Now quietly convinced that he was only there for moral support, Tristan nodded and fell in step behind Cairon. They made their way down to the gardens entrance with little difficultly. At this time of the night, most of the castle were asleep, greatly reducing their chances of being held up by an unexpected meeting. The only other person Tristan saw was a long Guard, clearly charged with making some night-time rounds of the palace. He'd looked over at Tristan and Cairon's passage, obviously alerted that something was amiss from their walk and lack of conversation. A firm look and slight shake of the head from Tristan had been sufficient to convey the message that his assistance would not be necessary and the man had returned a sharp salute before continuing on his rounds.

Tristan and Cairon made their way outside. The sudden lack of illumination made Tristan have to blink for a few moments until his eyes adjusted. Cairon didn't seem affected by the change in light at all, the Fae continuing to stride out until he stood in the middle of the paved courtyard, looking out towards the gardens and rosebushes. Tristan made his way over to join Cairon at a slower pace, unable to avoid noticing the way his footsteps rang out almost unnaturally loudly across the stones. It took him a moment to realise the sense of amplified sound was due to the fact that there was no other noise in the gardens. The effect was somewhat unnerving, provoking memories of Ubahll, yet Cairon seemed unconcerned with the atmosphere.

"This will go a lot smoother if you co-operate," Cairon announced into the seemingly empty garden. "I merely intend to ask a few questions."

There was a long moment in which nothing seemed to move. Then Cairon frowned and took half a step forwards. "Very well," he said, raising one hand into the air.

Tristan felt himself tense, expecting to see some display of magic from Cairon, but the other male simply remained where he was; one arm extended at shoulder height and held out in front of him. Cairon's face was composed, yet clearly waiting for something. Unable to determine just what was delaying Cairon's actions from his face alone, Tristan turned his attention once more to the gardens in which the Fae messengers were no doubt watching. There was no sign of them at the moment, however. The stillness and silence of the gardens undisturbed and unnatural.

Then there was a flicker of white from deeper in the garden. Almost instantly Cairon's wrist twisted, flicking his fingers in a complicated gesture before slashing down to his side. A small smile spread across Cairon's face at the action and he used his other hand to sweep his hair back from his face. "Too slow," he muttered with a quiet snort. Glancing over at Tristan, Cairon nodded his head towards the garden, that focused calm once more overtaking his features. "Let's find out exactly what is going on here."

Tristan nodded, falling into step behind Cairon and inwardly marvelling at the sudden confidence the usually reserved male was displaying. Tristan was finding it more than a little distracting from the events at hand. Perhaps this was a strong warning that there was a level beyond which Cairon should not be pushed, Tristan mused. A warning to his mother might be in order.

Pushing those thoughts firmly from his mind, Tristan dragged his focus back to their current situation. Cairon was leading them past the rosebeds and into a more secluded section of the garden. Perhaps it was due to the unnatural quiet of before, but there was no way of ignoring the thrashing noises coming from the darkness. At first, it sounded like a trapped bird, but there was a violence to the flapping and thrashing that went beyond the desperation of a cornered animal. In addition, the low hooting seemed to have acquired an edge that at times sounded almost like words.

Cairon led them round the corner that marked the partition of the roses from the maze and drew to a halt. Tristan was less than half a step behind, the delay mainly coming from surprise at what he was seeing. The thorny rose bush appeared to have sent out a burst of new branches that snarled around the trapped form of an owl. The briars appeared to have been aided by the hedge of the maze which too had sprung forth to form part of the cage. The resulting webwork was both intricate and inescapable. Not that the bird within them seemed to accept the impossibility of escape. Wings, beak and claws were tearing and lashing out at the entwining branches, trying to rip a way free.

It was a futile gesture. And even as Tristan watched, the briars wove tighter around both each other and the bird itself, sneaking thin tendrils around ankles and hauling the desperate creature into a completely immobile position.

Cairon watched the event dispassionately. "You were warned," he said to the bird, before narrowing his eyes. "Now change. I want to speak with you."

The owl strained and fluttered against its bindings, as though demonstrating the lack of room afforded it.

Cairon snorted. "I'm not nearly so amateur. They'll expand with you, but never enough to permit escape. Change." There was no response and Cairon began to raise his hand again. "If you won't talk, then keeping you alive serves little purpose."

The plants began to move again, their purpose now seeming to be to constrict rather than merely constrain. The owl's struggles began anew, but moments later there was a blur of white and the bird had been replaced with a slender, dark haired woman. Her golden skin was torn by the briars' thorns and her face held an unmistakable look of fury. Blue eyes narrowed even further as she paused in her struggles and her lips twisted into a sneer as she glared at Cairon. "How dare you. You humiliate the Court by taking up with your little human and now you dare to interfere with our workings. Have you no shame?"

"Shame?" Cairon echoed, one eyebrow half-raised. He glanced over at Tristan and smiled. "Not for anything I've done since leaving the Seelie Court." Tristan returned the smile, moving closer to brushed his hand against Cairon's as they faced the captured Fae together. Cairon's fingers entwined briefly with Tristan's own before falling free as Cairon turned back to the prisoner. "And yes," Cairon continued in his calm tone," I would dare to interfere with our working when they threaten Tristan and those that I have chosen to live amongst."

The female snorted in contempt. "So you fancy yourself a Protector, now?" she all but sneered. "Such a pity that Custodians make such poor examples of them."

Cairon blinked, but didn't lose his calm. "I always found the title of Guardian more appropriate," he said.

"If we're going to play name games then how about Keeper," the prisoner returned swiftly. A vicious smile spread across her face and even if Tristan hadn't already seen her bird form, he'd have guessed from that expression that she could never be a mere songbird. "Ironic, then, that you ended up the one chained."

Cairon tensed at that, a gesture that did not go unmissed by the captured female who was swift to press on with her small victory. "We all found that very interesting back at Court," she taunted. "Tell me, did it teach you compassion? A little humility? Your family is sorely in need of both."

Cairon's fingers twitched and the female's speech was abruptly choked off by several tendrils that wrapped around her throat and visibly tightened. "Enough," Cairon said. "This is not what we came here to discuss. Why are you and your fellow spies here?"

The prisoner didn't look about to talk until the tendrils around her neck tightened again in warning. Her eyes widened and rolled back into her head as her fingers opened and clenched as though attempting to grab at the suffocating plants around her throat. When they relaxed enough to let her breathe, the Fae all but sagged for a moment.

"What is your purpose here?" Cairon repeated.

The female glared at him through her dark hair. "To watch," she answered with a hint of defiance.

Cairon met her stare with an equally stubborn one of his own. "Not a good enough answer, I'm afraid." Another flicker of his fingers and the grip around her throat tightened once more. This time, in addition, the thorns pinning her arms and waist began to tighten as well. Another brief gesture and they loosened. "Last chance," Cairon told her. "What is your purpose here?"

"We are to ensure that the Wræcca does as he is supposed to," the female snarled. "Contrary though he may be, he must act as is required. Monitoring those close to him will confirm if he is following the correct path."

"An awful lot of trouble to go to for a mere lone Wræcca," Cairon commented.

The female grimaced in agreement. "He's close to going rogue; his previous tithe was aborted when he helped the sacrifice turn on his master. We had been scheduled to find and dispatch him."

Cairon nodded. "What changed?"

"He disrupted our plans," the captured female said. "And disfigured the King's pet assassin. His somewhat pathetic attempts at social interaction had been noted and the knight was decided upon as the perfect tool for vengeance. A lesson will be taught."

For a moment Cairon said nothing, his expression impossible to read. Then he brushed his hair back from his face and frowned slightly in thought. "Then am I to take it, from your continued observations of us here, that this lesson has yet to occur?"

His prisoner laughed. "There's nothing that can be done. Even if you or your allies were to reach the castle in time, steps have already been taken. You won't be able to interfere."

Cairon's hand brushed against Tristan's again even as his face remained calm. "We'll see," Cairon stated. He began to move away with Tristan, back towards the castle. A good distance away, Cairon turned back to the entrapped Fae and with a gesture, the enchanted cage began to recede back into its parent plants.

The female fell to the ground before looking up a Cairon with another vicious smile. "Forget about the Wræcca," she told him. "You've got far bigger problems than a half-breed. I hear someone's been using mirrors. And has attracted some attention."

Cairon went rigid at that remark. Tristan looked over at him in concern, alarmed at the way Cairon's already pale skin had been leeched further of colour. Squeezing Cairon's hand in reassurance, Tristan barely glanced in the direction of the gardens as the ring of mocking laughter turned into the harsh, low cry of an owl.

"What was that comment about?" Tristan asked.

Cairon looked over at him, seemingly unable to do anything other than blink for a few moments. Then he frowned and shook his head. "An underhanded attempt at turning our attention elsewhere," Cairon replied. "We can worry about that later. For now, we need to find a way to help Leirr and Ruari when they reach the castle. It seems likely there will be company."

Ruari stared at the Duke of Carsingdale's castle with a frown. Mere hours of sleep interspersed with travel at a pace Ruari had never experienced before had left him exhausted, but even so, there was something wrong with what he was seeing. His tired mind just seemed unable to determine what it was about the view that so troubled him.

Beside him, Leirr finished tying up his own exhausted horse and moved closer to share the vantage point afforded by the trees. The redhead grunted quietly and rubbed at his face. "Damn it, I'm more tired than I thought," Leirr muttered quietly.

Ruari turned to him in surprise. "You too?"

Leirr cracked open one eye through his fingers and glared at Ruari suspiciously. "Me too what?" he asked.

Ruari gestured towards the castle. "I thought it was just my mind unable to work properly after your slave-driver pace," he said. "I can't focus clearly enough to work out what's wrong, but there's definitely something about that castle that's got me on edge."

"My slave-driver pace probably saved us days," Leirr muttered as he leaned forwards and squinted at the stone building. He studied the view in silence, his frown deepening all the while. Finally, he pulled back. "I don't like it," he announced.

"Why?" Ruari was quick to ask. "Is it too quiet?"

Leirr looked at Ruari before turning back to the castle. "We knew most of the serving staff have been sent away," he said slowly. "Quiet doesn't mean an ambush. I'd be worried if it looked deserted, but there's clearly signs of life from within." He gestured towards the building. "You can see lit candles inside. If they were planning an ambush, they wouldn't have the interior lit up like that."

Something was playing at the corner of Ruari's mind, trying to nudge him onto the right path. "Maybe that's what's weird," he muttered. "All those candles. Do you think they could be for the ceremony? If this tithe thing has a ceremony? Maybe it means we're too late."

Leirr was still looking at Ruari as though the blond was talking another language. Slowly Leirr shook his head. "It's probably just to ward off the gloom," he said.

Something clicked in Ruari's head. "Gloom?" he said.

Leirr shrugged irritably. "Yes, gloom," he answered. "If it's dark, you light candles. Or is this something that's lost on gypsies?"

Ruari raised an eyebrow significantly as he looked around where the pair of them stood. "The sun is out," he said. "How can it be gloomy?"

Leirr opened to his to answer, but broke off at the sight of light breaking through the leaves and branches of the woods around them. Turning, he seemed to take in the way the sunshine all but bathed everything in light. Leirr's frown deepened and he turned back to Ruari. "Do the hills cast a shadow over the castle, perhaps?" he asked, though his voice lacked the strength and irritation of earlier.

It was Ruari's turn to snort. "Then it's a rather stupid place to build a castle, isn't it?" he replied. "I can't think of many aristocrats wanting to spend their days in shadow."

Leirr turned back to the castle. "But … then … what?" he fumbled about for words to frame his confusion.

Ruari sighed and raised his arm. "Let's see if the mostly-resident expert can help," he said as he began to tap out code on the metal that encircled his wrist. There was a brief tingle, warming the skin directly beneath the bracer, as the spell took effect. A few moments later and Cairon's voice seemed to speak out of the air between the two guards.

"Ruari," Cairon greeted. "Have you reached the castle?"

"We're observing it for any nasty surprises right now," Ruari answered. "But there's something about the place that's troubling us and we were hoping you could be of some help."

"What is it?"

Activating his own bracer, Leirr was the one to supply the information. "The castle itself is pretty much as we expected to find it. Quiet, but with signs of life and no indication that they're preparing for our arrival," he said. "But, it's weird; there's something about the place that just doesn't feel right. Could it be the Seelie Court up to something?"

"It's certainly possible," Cairon replied grimly. "Can you be any more specific?"

Leirr made a frustrated expression and Ruari took that as his cue to take over the conversation once more. "Not really, and that's half the problem," Ruari said. "We're having a hard time deciding just what it is we're seeing that is making us feel so unnerved. The best we can up with is that it has something to do with the light."

"The light?" Cairon echoed.

Ruari saw Leirr wince again and briefly wondered why he was the one left explaining this and trying not to sound like an idiot. "It's hard to explain," Ruari said. "It's a bright and sunny day, but the castle gives off the sense of being drenched in shadow. When you look at it, your instincts tell you that it's dark, but then your eyes notice the fact that it's brilliant sunshine. It's like there's an air of gloom around the place. Physically there, not just atmosphere."

"It's not just us, either," Leirr added. "When we look at the castle, it's clear they're got a serious amount of illumination inside. So whatever this darkness is, it's affecting the castle and not us."

There was a pause in which Ruari could all but visualise the confused and worried look on Cairon's face. When Cairon spoke again, his voice carried his concern. "Whatever it is, it's not Seelie magic," Cairon said. "Be careful and avoid coming into prolonged contact with anything inside the castle."

Ruari's bracer buzzed slightly as the communication spell ended. With a sigh, Ruari looked over at Leirr. The redhead was scowling fiercely once again. "Not Seelie magic?" he echoed. "What other kind is there?"

Ruari looked over towards the castle. "Good question," he said; the bulk of his thoughts elsewhere. "I suppose this means that the Seelie Court might not be the cause of this."

Leirr snorted as he began to stretch out and check his weapons. "Who else is there?" he asked.

The problem with mortals, Skarrow found, was that the stupid creatures seemed to be incapable of focus. He had told them several times that Tithe was a complicated ceremony that needed to be carried out within a certain space of time. He would have thought, seeing as there was no real way of predicting just when the pathetic half-breed was going to appear, that the wisest course of action would be to have everything else in place. Then the ceremony could proceed as soon as the Wræcca arrived and handed itself over to spare its precious knight. It was the logical course of action.

And yet these pathetic mortals seemed almost determined to distract themselves with useless tasks. He'd assigned two of the handful of remaining servants to prepare the Unseelie relic room that was next to the chamber in which the knight was imprisoned. All they themselves had needed to do was set up enough candles to light the room sufficiently. That had been yesterday morning.

By lunchtime, he had already intercepted one of the pair on no less than five occasions wandering around the corridors with a mop and bucket, a confused look on her face. When asked what she was doing, the maid would continually reply that she could hear water running nearby and it might be a leak that needed cleaning up immediately. When asked just where this supposed water was coming from, the maid failed to provide a reasonable answer. She would insist it was just a few rooms over, or the floor above. Skarrow had conducted a quick, but thorough search of the building and found no evidence of running water from anything other than the pump in the kitchen. Furthermore, there had been no rain for several days so the chances of a leak were remote.

He'd gone to find Ranolph, deciding to leave the maid's incompetence to be dealt with by the Duke. Ranolph and Anastasia had been sat in the largest of the castle's drawing rooms, seemingly occupied in their own thoughts. Throughout his explanation of the serving maid's inability to follow simple instructions, Skarrow had been unable to shake the sense that both the Duke and his new wife were equally distracted. Anastasia kept turning to look out of the windows with a frown while Ranolph had kept transferring his gaze to the elaborate chandelier that hung from the centre of the room, fully ablaze despite the hour of the day.

Skarrow had left the room with an almost equally low opinion of the Duke and Anastasia.

The second of the pair entrusted with his simple task of the morning had come to find him toward mid-afternoon, having finally completed the task. When Skarrow had asked why such a simple job had taken so long, the servant had replied that it had difficult to find enough candles.

Feeling disgusted with the uselessness of mortals, Skarrow had spent the rest of the day preparing the room on his own.

But that had been yesterday, and Skarrow hoped that the narrowing window of opportunity in which to perform Tithe would serve as sufficient focus for the mortals around him. He checked the room in which Aiden was going to be offered as Tithe one last time before heading towards the dining room where Ranolph and Anastasia were sat having morning tea.

He moved into the room with his customary grace, sparing an inward frown at the fully lit candelabras and chandeliers despite the fact it was ten in the morning. He didn't understand mortals. Instead he looked around the room and moved into a spare seat. His gaze travelled to Anastasia, sat opposite him and scowling viciously into her teacup. "Something wrong?" he asked.

Anastasia looked up and made a visible effort to school her expression. "We may have a problem with some of the servants," she said.

Skarrow refrained from pointing out he had told both her and her husband this only yesterday. "And what might this problem be?" he asked instead.

"Two of my maids haven't shown up this morning," Anastasia said. "And none of the other servants have the slightest idea where they've gone."

"I wouldn't worry, my dear," Ranolph said in a somewhat distant tone. "If they've suddenly had a fit of conscience, they won't make it beyond my lands."

Anastasia huffed but subsided briefly before looking around and frowning. "We need more light. Have the servants bring more candles."

Skarrow raised his eyebrows at the statement, looking around the room, amply lit by the sunshine streaming through the windows even before the already ridiculous number of lit candelabras were taken into consideration. "More light?" Skarrow said.

Ranolph was already nodding his agreement. "It's infernally gloomy in here today," he said, signalling for a servant. "I fail to see how we are supposed to get anything done in such dismal light."

A servant hurriedly entered the room and Ranolph immediately frowned at the man's appearance. "What possible explanation can you have to appear before me so appallingly turned out?" Ranolph demanded to the servant.

The servant, a man in his mid-thirties blinked and sketched a deep, apologetic bow. "Begging your pardon, my Lord," the man mumbled. "None of us have been sleeping too good and we was all in a rush to get ready for your Grace this morning."

"You look like you've been dipping into the wine cellars," Anastasia observed icily. Skarrow, however, noted the way the man suppressed a shudder at the words and thought otherwise.

"No, my Lady, I assure you," the servant replied. "It was the water, my Lady. It kept us all awake. It's worse in the dark."

"Water?" Skarrow said sharply.

The servant turned to face him and blinked, clearly disconcerted by Skarrow's appearance. "Yes my L… uh, yes Sir," the servant settled on, having obviously been at a loss at where to fix Skarrow in the social hierarchy. "We all heard it pouring down from somewhere all night."

"Well in any case," Ranolph said; cutting into the man's halting speech with ill-disguised impatience. "We are in need of more light in this room. There is simply no way we can be expected to conduct our affairs in a civilised manner half in the dark. Fetch more candles."

The servant hesitated before bowing low again. "Begging your pardon, my Lord," he said again. "But there aren't no more candles to be had. We've got them all already lighting up the place."

Ranolph snorted. "Rubbish. We have stores to last at least a year in the cellar."

"But the cellars are flooded, my Lord," the servant said. "They have to be. The sound of water's worse than ever down there."

"Don't talk such ridiculous nonsense," Anastasia snapped. "How can the cellars be flooded when there's been no rain to speak of for the past three days?"

The servant looked like he was going to answer, but instead ducked his head and shuffled about on the spot. "We sent one of the lads down there this morning," he muttered. "No one's seen him since."

"Spare me this incompetence," Ranolph said. "We need light, man, and we need it immediately. Get down into those cellars and bring us some candles."

The servant paled but bowed obediently all the same. "Yes my Lord," the man said before leaving the room.

Ranolph glared at the table. "More missing servants," he muttered irritably. "At this rate we'll be conducting the ceremony on our own."

Skarrow blinked at the comment before frowning thoughtfully. "That may indeed be the case," he agreed.

Anastasia looked over at him in blatant confusion. "Excuse me?"

Rising to his feet, Skarrow looked down at the two mortals with the closest expression to neutral he was currently capable of in the face of such idiocy. "Might I suggest we move to the ceremony's location now?" he said. "I believe the time is fast approaching."

Ranolph looked blank for a moment before visible excitement filled his face. "You mean the Wræcca's in the building?" he said. "How can you tell?"

Skarrow paused by the door, watching as both Anastasia and Ranolph chose to arm themselves with the largest candelabras each was capable of carrying. "The missing servants are a clue," he said dryly. "It could well be the Wræcca is trying to even the numbers out."

"Shouldn't we wait for the servants to bring more candles?" Anastasia asked, peering into the corridor as though it were the middle of the night instead of approaching noon. "Trying to navigate in this light could be awkward."

Skarrow frowned. "You shall simply have to manage," he said.

"Indeed," Ranolph said as he took the lead on the route to the room Skarrow had prepared for the Tithe ceremony. "And besides, the Wræcca will be equally hindered by the lack of reasonable light."

The three set out down the corridor, Skarrow watching the way the two mortals peered about, occasionally coming to a brief halt as they tilted their heads and seemed to listen for something before shaking themselves back to the situation at hand and continuing on their route. Skarrow too, occasionally paused to observe some of the details around him, but he doubted he was distracted by what was affecting Anastasia and Ranolph. Neither mortal, for example, seemed to find it remarkable that they encountered no sign of any of the servants, reduced though their numbers were.

Perhaps 'no sign' was not the correct term. At the foot of the sweeping staircase that took them up to the first floor, Skarrow saw a dark smear across the marble tiles. Neither Anastasia nor Ranolph spared it a passing glance. They climbed the stairs in silence and turned down the corridor that would lead them both to the chamber that imprisoned the knight and the room in which they would bind the Wræcca to Ranolph.

Everyone paused at the sound of footsteps approaching from beyond the bend in the corridor. Anastasia all but sighed in relief. "Finally, that stupid servant has returned with some candles," she said, striding towards the sound. "I'm in danger of breaking my neck in this gloom without more light." Raising her voice, Anastasia rounded the bend and disappeared from their sight. "I fail to see how it can take to long to find some candles. This sort of service is simply unacceptable."

There was a short noise, as though Anastasia was about to say something else, but changed her mind. Then there was the sound of something hitting the floor and the Wræcca stepped around the corner.

It was instantly obvious why Ranolph and Anastasia had been complaining about lower staff levels than normal. The creature was liberally splattered with blood, particularly around its hands and arms. Skarrow doubted much, if any, of it was the Wræcca's own. After all, the servants weren't armed with the two long knives that hung at the Wræcca's side, dripping deep crimson.

Beside him, Skarrow heard Ranolph drop his candelabra in shock. Not bothering to spare the Duke a glance, Skarrow instead smiled at the Wræcca. "You've been busy," Skarrow told it.

The creature glared back. "And you've got a new look," it said. "That my doing?"

Skarrow's hand lifted automatically to brush against the mask that covered the ruined part of his face. "You were lucky," he snarled. Without taking his eyes from the slowly approaching Wræcca, Skarrow addressed Ranolph. "Get to the room and prepare everything for the ceremony. I'll bring the knight once I've put the Wræcca in its place." Ranolph scurried off in the direction of the room as the Wræcca's expression darkened and it readjusted its grip on its twin weapons.

"You're not going to touch Aiden," the Wræcca snarled.

Skarrow placed one hand on his hip as his other flexed, the clawed tips stroking the air. "I don't know what you've done to mess with the minds of these pathetic mortals, but your tricks haven't worked on me," he said.

The Wræcca smirked and switched both knives into one hand long enough to reach into its shirt and throw something down the corridor towards Skarrow. It bounced on the floor with a clear ringing note and rolled to a stop at Skarrow's feet.

Skarrow stooped to pick it up, recognising the glass vial almost instantly. A reluctant laugh briefly escaped his lips. "You fed this to the mortals, I take it?" he said. "A move well-played." Skarrow tossed the empty vial away. "But it won't save the knight."

The Wræcca's face clenched for a moment before its expression smoothed out in determination. "We'll see," the Wræcca snarled as it raised its weapons and charged.

Skarrow dodged the first onslaught with ease, even though he equally failed to score any hits on the Wræcca. Turning, he noticed a sharpness in the air and glanced over a the Wræcca to see frost spreading out from where it stood. Skarrow raised an eyebrow. "So, you can use magic," he murmured. "I'm impressed. Most of your kind fail to gather that much control." Gesturing contemptuously towards the now frost-rimed blades the creature held, Skarrow sneered. "Though I fail to see how this pathetic display will put you at any advantage."

With another cry, the Wræcca came towards him again, this time darting in low and slashing upwards with the first knife to knock Skarrow's claws away long enough to score a shallow slash with the second blade. Skarrow hissed at the sudden sting, but managed to strike down and score a set of gouges along the Wræcca's shoulder. The Wræcca ducked away before Skarrow could cause too much damage, but the Unseelie had already had a better idea.

Twisting his fingers about, Skarrow took advantage of the second break in fighting to fling the forming spell towards the Wræcca. "If you want to fight me with magic, mongrel," Skarrow sneered. "Let's see how you manage with the repercussions."

The Wræcca twitched as the spell took hold, moving as if to slump to the floor before all but forcing itself upright once again. Skarrow took advantage of the momentary weakness to move in for another attack but his intital strike again failed to sink in too deeply. He scored a series of cuts over one shoulder-blade as he swung around to attack the Wræcca from its unprotected back, but the creature was quick to swing around and lash out with the knives once again. The first of the blades caught Skarrow's retreated arm and opened up a narrow slice down towards his elbow, but Skarrow wasn't concerned by the hit. Unlike the Wræcca, Skarrow had no fear of losing grip on his weapons being as they were part of him.

His sudden turn to defend against Skarrow's attack, had sent the Wræcca onto one knee, twisted at a difficult angle to maintain balance. Obviously desperate to keep Skarrow at a distance while so disadvantaged, the Wræcca lashed out with a roundhouse kick that brought it back to facing Skarrow. Skarrow had been anticipating such a move and caught the foot that had been flung towards him, digging his claws into the creature's ankle before thrusting the limb away from him with enough force to send the Wræcca crashing to the ground on its back.

The impact forced a cry from the Wræcca, though the creature was quick to stifle the sound. Skarrow quirked an eyebrow upwards at the noise however. From what he'd seen, his earlier strike on the Wræcca's back wasn't nearly severe enough to justify such an involuntary admission of pain. Seizing on the opportunity, Skarrow darted in towards the Wræcca and stabbed down hard with one of his hands, plunging deep into the Wræcca's midsection.

The Wræcca screamed, though retained enough sense to parry the next strike aimed at its throat. The swipe with the blade struck Skarrow hard and it took a moment for the Unseelie to realise that the creature had in fact succeeded in lopping off four fingers from his hand. Skarrow tore his other hand free from the Wræcca's middle and fell back from the creature, a vicious cry of his own vocalising his rage and pain.

The Wræcca used the chance to haul itself upright, though it seemed unable to fully straighten. Spitting a mouthful of blood onto the floor before it, the Wræcca glared at Skarrow with eyes full of hatred. "I won't be Tithed," it told Skarrow.

Skarrow snorted, cradling his injured hand against his chest. "You have precious little say in the matter, Wræcca," he told it. "Be grateful you have this chance to spare your life, worthless though it is."

The Wræcca lunged for him again, its movements slowed by the injury in its abdomen. Skarrow was able to mostly dodge it as before, but only having one set of claws with which to strike, and those being on the far side to the Wræcca, was unable to score a hit on the Wræcca's front. Instead he mostly caught the back of the Wræcca's shirt, tearing it into ribbons as the Wræcca stumbled past.

Skarrow's fingers came away stained with blood as the Wræcca slumped again briefly to its knees. Surprised, Skarrow blinked at his fingers for a moment before turning back to study the Wræcca, his eyes widening at the sight of the Wræcca's now exposed back. "I don't believe it," Skarrow murmured. "You're supposed to be dead."

The Wræcca turned a vicious glare on Skarrow as it picked itself up for another attack. "You soon will be," it snarled.

Skarrow parried the attack, but lacking one useable hand, was unable to prevent one of the blades from slicing across his chest to his shoulder. He hissed at the wound but turned a triumphant sneer on the Wræcca as the creature swung back to attack. "I don't think so, Wræcca," Skarrow crowed. "For I know your true name."

Then the blades were flying at his face once more as the creature tried to keep Skarrow too distracted to speak again.

"For crying out loud," Ruari complained, throwing his sword down on the ground. "How much more analysis of the situation can we do? Yes, there's clearly something weird and more than a little creepy going on with that place, but sitting out here and looking for a weak spot isn't helping anyone."

Leirr glared right back. "And waltzing in blindly, falling victim to whatever kind of enchantment that is will help?"

"Maybe more than just standing outside," Ruari shot back, his patience at an end. "Anything could be happening in there!"

"You're absolutely right," Leirr snapped. "Which is why we need more information."

"What was the point of pushing ourselves so hard to get here quickly, if we're not going to do anything?" Ruari fought the urge to smack Leirr against something hard. "Bane and Aiden could be dying in there!"

Leirr opened to mouth again, no doubt to say something equally inane, but paused as he glanced over at the castle. He blinked and then drew his sword. "It's gone."

Ruari was at a total loss. "What?"

Leirr was already starting to run towards what they'd assumed to be the kitchen entrance, the door standing open and empty. "The atmosphere … thing … whatever. It's gone; can't you sense it?"

Ruari paused and then looked up at the castle. It took a moment to sink in, but that strange sensation he'd previously had when looking at the building was now gone. He cursed under his breath before scooping his own weapon off the ground and breaking into a run after Leirr. "Barging in by yourself is also a stupid idea, weird atmosphere or not, you dumb pirate!"

Ruari was a step or two behind Leirr as the redhead entered the castle through the kitchen door. The room on the other side was lit by far more candles than would even have been necessary at night, but there was no sign of anyone in the kitchen. A spit of meat, cooking on the fire, was burning on its underside having not been turned for a while. Leirr and Ruari looked around the room, taking in the signs of activity before sharing a look.

"Split up or stay together to search?" Leirr asked.

Ruari looked at the redhead in disbelief. "Split up?" he echoed. "When there are probably those Seelie bastards floating about?"

Leirr swallowed and nodded. "Good point," he said.

Together they made their way out of the kitchens and towards what was probably the main hall of the castle. They hadn't gotten far when Leirr made a low noise and nudged Ruari. "Body."

Glancing over, Ruari saw the slumped form of what had probably been a servant, judging by the clothing. The man was half fallen, half seated against the wall by the entrance to the kitchens, the front of his shirt a mess of red. The cause of that was the slit throat that was clearly visible due to the way the head had fallen to one side.

"Doesn't look very Seelie-like to me," Ruari commented.

Leirr made a sound of agreement. "My money's on Bane being the culprit," he said.

Ruari glanced back at the body before starting to move on. "Looks like he's pretty angry," he said.

Angry, and also thorough. Ruari and Leirr found the bodies of several more servants as they made their way through the ground floor, all with their throats cut. They entered the main hall when Leirr stopped. "What is that?" he asked, pointing towards the stairs.

Crossing over to get a closer look himself, Ruari blinked at the crystalline sparkles that glimmered on the banisters. Reaching out a hand, he rubbed it against the crystals and watched as they melted against the warmth of his fingers. "Frost," he said.

"It gets thicker towards the top of the stairs," Leirr said, already starting up towards the first floor.

Following the trail, if that's what it was, led the pair to a long corridor. The frost was accompanied by splatters of red and what looked like gouges along the walls and floor. Leirr and Ruari stared at the marks in silence, slowly walking their way along the corridor.

Ruari was the first to notice the door, sat as it was next to the far more elaborate twin doors that all but hung off their frames. Despite the single door's plain façade, there was no denying the complexity of the lock upon the door. There was a key already set inside it, blood splattered like much of the rest of the corridor. Ruari wondered if the owner had been in the process of locking or unlocking the door when the violence occurred. Reaching out, he tried the handle of the door and couldn't help but flinch when it clicked and swung open. Behind him, Ruari heard Leirr quickly make his way over to lend assistance as he stepped inside the room. "Please don't be an undead princess," Ruari muttered.

There was the sound of chains moving against one another form the darkness inside the room and then Aiden's voice rang out. "Ruari?"

Ruari all but sagged in relief, moving further into the room and Leirr scrabbled around outside to relight one of the many candles. Following behind with the light, Leirr was able to illuminate Aiden's tired form hanging from the chains in the middle of the room. "Looks like we got here in time," Ruari said as he crossed over to Aiden and began to examine the lock on the chains. "Seeing as you've not been sacrificed or whatever it is they do for Tithe."

"Any sign of Bane?" Leirr asked Aiden as he moved nearer to provide Ruari with better lighting for his task. "He had at least a day's head start on us."

Aiden looked between the two of them with a frown. "You haven't seen him?" he said. "He was here earlier. He told me to wait."

Leirr and Ruari exchanged glances, a gesture not unnoticed by Aiden who began to strain against the chains. "What's happened?" he asked.

"We don't know yet," Leirr told him, no doubt trying to calm him down as Ruari fumbled his way through picking the locks. "We're still exploring the castle. Can you tell us anything?"

"That Unseelie with the claws from Tristan's wedding is here," Aiden said. "He's working with my cousin and her husband. They sent away the bulk of the staff and kept those most loyal to them so no one would interfere with their plans."

Leirr glanced over at Ruari. "Would claws have done that to the servants?"

Ruari shook his head. "Too neat. And the Fae would have no reason to turn on people that are already working for him. I'm guessing it was Bane trying to get the numbers more in his favour."

"What's happened to the servants?" Aiden asked.

"Well, the ones we've found are all dead," Leirr told him bluntly. "The rest could be hiding, though. As we've said; we hadn't finished searching the castle when we found you."

"And there's no sign of Bane," Ruari filled in, finally releasing Aiden from the chains with a sigh. "Just frost, blood and bodies."

"Frost?" Aiden said in puzzlement.

"Yeah, and huge gouges outside," Leirr supplied. "It looks like it was one serious fight. Did you hear anything?"

Aiden shook his head. "The room is soundproofed, I couldn't hear anything." Rubbing his wrist, Aiden immediately started for the door, unconcerned wit the way he seemed to sway at the movement. "We need to find Bane."

"Wait a minute!" Ruari ran after Aiden and only just managed to catch him as the man went pitching to the side. "I don't think you're in any state to go charging off on your own just yet."

"We search together," Leirr confirmed. "It's safer."

Returning to the main corridor, Aiden immediately turned toward the double doors. "In there," he said. "That's where they were planning to hold the Tithe ceremony."

Nodding towards Ruari, who was providing support for Aiden, Leirr drew his sword and started towards the doors. Nudging one with his shoulder, Leirr quickly backed away as the door all but fell to the ground in front of him. Leirr raised his eyebrows as he stared down at the fallen door before looking back towards Ruari and Aiden. Seeing the pair close behind, Leirr cautiously made his way into the room, his weapon held ready at his side.

Ruari watched him cross the threshold and then hesitate, no doubt taking in the details of the room. The sword at Leirr's side dipped slightly before quickly being drawn into its usual posture and the redhead glanced back at Ruari yet again. This time however, his gaze lacked the questioning intent of earlier.

Ruari closed his yes and swore silently to himself as he felt Aiden tense beside him and start forwards. "What is it?" Aiden asked. "Did you find Bane?"

Seeing the flare of alarm in Leirr's face as Aiden approached, Ruari quickly tried to reach out and slow the knight. "Aiden, it might not be safe in there. You're still pretty weak. Wait a minute!" Hurrying after Aiden, Ruari clambered into the main room and paused.

The room appeared to have once been full of various trinkets and pieces of artwork. Most were destroyed, including what had to have been an enormous statue at the centre of the room. Shattered pieces of some sort of strangely coloured marble lay about the room. To one side of the entrance, a sprawled body of a man lay, dressed in a manner befitting nobility and with his throat slashed. Unlike the others, one of Bane's distinctive knives was still buried in the man's throat. Ruari looked down at him. "I take it this is the Duke of Carsingdale," he said.

Aiden glanced over and nodded briefly, but his attention was consumed by the sheer amount of blood that covered the far wall of the room. Leirr was also staring at it, his face drawn and grim.

"That amount of blood loss," Leirr muttered. "Even from two people … neither would be walking away from that."

Ruari glanced at Leirr in alarm and hurriedly made his way over to the far side of the room, the other side of the shattered statue. "There aren't any bodies here," he called out. "So clearly at least one of them did."

"It's not possible," Leirr insisted. "They'd have been trailing blood …" Glancing back the way they had come, Leirr looked back long enough to fix Ruari with a firm glance. "Watch him," he murmured with a nod of his head towards Aiden. Breaking into a light run, Leirr sprang over the door and headed away down the corridor.

With Leirr gone, Ruari made his way over to where Aiden stood, staring at the blood with a deep frown on his face. "If he's here, we'll find him," Ruari told him.

Aiden nodded. "He told me to wait for him. He said he was coming back." Blinking Aiden turned away from the mess at the far side of the room and abruptly swayed.

Ruari quickly stepped in to catch him again. "What did they do to you?" he asked. "You sure you're alright?"

Aiden ran a hand over his face and tried to smile. It looked tired and somewhat forced. "Haven't eaten or drunk anything for a day," he explained. "Bane told me not."

Ruari blinked at that piece of information, filing it away as he began to manoeuvre Aiden from the room. "Well we'll get that seen to as soon as we get out of here," he said. "For now, I think we better get you outside. You're going to be of no use to Bane if you're constantly in danger of passing out."

Aiden began to protest, but was cut off by running footsteps and Leirr's reappearance at the far end of the corridor.

"There's no sign of Bane or that Unseelie bastard," Leirr called out. "There's another dead aristocrat that I'm guessing is Aiden's cousin, but the trail runs cold." The redhead looked back down the corridor before throwing his hands up in the air. "It's not possible! With that much blood there is no way both of them can have survived and just walked away. Where are they?"

Ruari felt Aiden sag against him and fought the urge to swear. Instead he drew a deep breath and tried to keep his voice as calm as possible. "If they're not here, there's little point in staying," Ruari said. "Let's get back to Korlan and see if Cairon has any Fae tricks he can use to find people."

"I can't say what happened," Cairon said with a frown, "But it wasn't Tithe." He snapped shut the book he had been looking through and sighed.

Beside Cairon, Maurice silently collected the closed book and shuffled off to replace it on its correct shelf within the library. Tristan, looking equally serious, reached out and rubbed a comforting hand on Cairon's back. The pair had returned from Astae to Korlan as soon as Ruari had contacted them with news of what had happened. In the end Cairon and Tristan beat Ruari's group back to Korlan by a matter of hours. Admittedly, the capital of Astae was a lot closer than Carsingdale's estate, but as with their ride there, neither Ruari nor Leirr had been much for stopping. Aiden had all but passed out once they'd got him on a horse and Leirr had simply lashed the knight to the animal to prevent him from falling. Conversation between the group had been sparse, seeing as Ruari took responsibility for informing Cairon and Tristan, Leirr had volunteered to break the news to Eleanor and not spoken more than three words together after that.

Now the group were assembled in the library, the majority sat around one of the vast tables. Finbar was pacing by one of the windows, his hair dishevelled and his tiredness apparent. "There might have been enough blood shed, but without a mortal master left alive to bind Bane to, Tithe wouldn't have worked," Finbar agreed.

"Could the bond have switched to Aiden?" Eleanor asked. "He was, after all, the only mortal left alive."

Finbar paused, looking regretfully at Aiden. The knight had been sat beside one of the windows, looking out across the grounds but now had turned to Finbar in silent question. Wincing, Finbar shook his head. "You have to actively participate in Tithe," Finbar said. "Aiden was chained in that room the whole time."

"Which means that if Bane survived the fight with Skarrow, he'll have been declared rogue by the Seelie Court," Cairon said.

"So maybe he's hiding from them," Myrrdin suggested. "Lying low for a bit until it's safe to try and make his way back here."

"My magic can't find him," Cairon said. "Even using one of Bane's knives to anchor the spell, there's no trace of him in the mortal realm."

"Could the Seelie have taken him back with them?" Leirr asked. "To punish him or whatever?"

"Rogue Wræcca have no use to the Seelie," Cairon said with a shake of his head. "They can't be controlled and so they're seen as a threat. If the Seelie find him, he'll be killed."

"He's not dead." The firm conviction in Aiden's voice caused the rest of the group to fall into silence. Aiden had risen from his seat and turned to stare intently at the group before turning his attention back to the view outside of the window. "Bane told me he'd return," Aiden told the group with quiet determination. "He said I needed to wait and I needed to trust him. I trust him." Aiden paused as though about to add to that, but instead shook his head. "I trust him," he said again. "And so I'm going to wait."

With a polite nod at the gathered group, Aiden excused himself from the library. They watched him go in silence.

Finbar's fist striking the table jolted everyone's attention away from the doors. The blond captain stood at the far end of the table all but radiating with anger. "I don't know what happened to Bane, but if there's any way it's possible, he's going to try and make his way back here," Finbar said quietly. "And Aiden might be okay to just wait, but I'm not. Until I see or hear otherwise, Bane's alive and we're going to find him." Finbar looked up and tightened his jaw. "Whatever it takes."