The Fair Folk
Underhill Manor had seen better days. Built in the 1700s as a sign of wealth to reward the Underhills for their heroism in various New World battles with pirates, Indian tribes and Spaniards, the austere stone mansion was now wracked with the ruin of uncaring time. The ceiling of the grand hall had caved in during some frightful storm in the 1850s, and the Underhills had not the money needed to make lasting repairs. Dust hung thickly on most of the rooms, and the servants' quarters were occupied by nothing but cobwebs, rats and the occasional hedgehog. The two residents of Underhill Manor stayed in the west end of the manor, letting most of it fall into ruin. It was a tool of high society, and they had little use for it.
Minerva Underhill had grown up here. As a girl, she had explored the crumbling halls and looked at the graying pictures of her ancestors glaring down at her under heavy periwigs and medieval helmets. The uninhabited sections of the Manor seemed like another world, one placed right next to the neat and orderly world of the few rooms her parents kept livable. Minerva was always amazed by the manor. If such wonders were a few steps outside of her bedroom, who knew how many strange things awaited her in the outside world?
As she grew older, she did not let her sense of wonder leave her. Now, returning to the manor as the governess for the two young children of the American Runtle family, she was surprised how much of it remained. Cornelius and Edith Runtle were enjoying the benefits of wealth and prestige in London, attending an endless series of dinner parties, tea times and garden gatherings. Minerva was looking after their children, Penelope and Phillip, and had decided to let them stay in Underhill Manor and meet her parents.
A day or two after they arrived, she decided to give them a tour of the manor and the grounds. Minerva smiled to herself at the wonder of Phillip and Penelope as she showed them the dojo, and her father's massive collection of exotic weapons.
"And you'd really fight with all of these?" Phillip asked, reaching for a great Tibetan broadsword. "When you were just a little girl?"
"Indeed I did," Minerva said, catching Phillip's hand. "But my father was always quite keen to tell me that I mustn't touch the sharp blades unless I had the proper training to handle them, which you, darling, do not. So kindly leave them were they are."
"Oh! Sorry." Phillip stepped back and Minerva smiled as she looked at the rows of carefully cared for swords, spears, arrows, daggers, knives and axes, of all different origins and makes. They were set in glass cases around the white walls of the dojo. Sir Francis Underhill had found some of them on his countless journeys and explorations around the world, and purchased more after his retirement.
"Can we see where your mother keeps all the ghosts and monsters and things?" Penelope asked.
"Perhaps a little later. She'll insist on being there, to watch over them. It would be very bad if some of them got out, you know." Lydia Underhill, Minerva's dear mother, was a medium and ghost-breaker of rare skill. All of the restless spirits, ghouls, demons and elementals she had captured over the years who refused to move on into their proper resting place remained locked carefully away in a dark chamber overlooking the ruined grand hall. "Let's go outside," Minerva suggested. "My father should be taking his tea in the gardens, and I know he'll want to see you."
The Underhills doted on Minerva's charges. It had been many years since they had children in their house, and they were delighted by the intelligent, polite and very inquisitive Phillip and Penelope. The children followed Minerva outside of the dojo, through a dusty hall, and out onto a crumbling stone porch overlooking the overgrown gardens.
Sir Francis had seen no point in keeping the carefully manicured gardens under control. He had let flower beds go grey and become choked by weeds as he tossed down seeds from his various journeys, filling the gardens with a crazed jungle of exotic plants from every continent. Minerva and the children walked along the edge of the mad garden until they spotted her father sitting at a rickety table under an gazebo wrapped with creeping vines. Minerva waved her to father, who smiled and beckoned them to join him.
"Minnie, my jewel!" he said, leaning back and removing the long ivory pipe from his mouth. "You are looking lovely this morning – the very picture of youthful strength and agility. Come hither, I want you and the children to see something." He was wearing nothing but a union suit and a pith helmet. He was spindly as a rag doll, his skin gone tan from countless years under foreign suns, and his muscles lean and scarcely visible in his thin limbs. His moustache was graying and he shared his daughter's bright eyes and upturned nose.
Minerva and the children headed over. Sir Francis pointed to a patch of reddish dirt near the gazebo, where a number of sleek furry badgers were nosing around, munching on the eggs that Sir Francis tossed to them. There was a small family of the badgers, with two stately adults and a litter of cubs. Minerva recognized the breed from their stubby snouts, white backs and black bellies.
"South African Honey Badgers," she said. She put a hand on the shoulders of Phillip and Penelope. "Don't touch them, my darlings. They may bite."
"They will not, my dear," Sir Francis explained. "Honey Badgers make excellent pets. A Zulu warrior I knew kept them, and I decided to continue the tradition. Respectable English lords keep hounds, don't they? So, I will keep honey badgers. They're far tougher than any shiftless cur – able to take a spear thrust to the chest and survive the bites of cobras. They can weather any attack. I see a kind of kinship between us." He nodded to Phillip and Penelope. "Go on," he said. "You may pet them."
The two children excitedly sat down and held out their hands, gingerly petting the backs of the honey badgers. One of the baby badgers drew itself under Phillip's hand like a cat, and then crawled into his arms and began licking his face. Phillip laughed as he scratched under the badger's chin.
"You're no usual English lord, father," Minerva said, shaking her head with a knowing grin.
"No, and thank God for that." Sir Francis tipped his pith helmet and waved. "Ah! Here comes your dear mother!"
Lydia Underhill walked over to join them from the manor, carrying a copper tray topped with a fat jug of lemonade and several cups. Lydia was an almost complete opposite of her husband. She was petite and round, and wore a black dress and shawl. She moved at a speedy waddle, and quickly reached her husband and daughter. "Would anyone care for some lemonade?" she asked, setting down the tray on the old table. "The mix of sweet and sour juices is similar to the method of exorcizing Babylonian demons through mixing sacred and profane charms, you know."
Phillip and Penelope hurried to the table, and Minerva poured them their glasses. Phillip still had the baby honey badger nestled in his hands. "Do they have names, Mr. Underhill?" he asked, as Minerva handed him the glass.
Sir Francis considered the question. "I have named after the generals I served under, during my numerous times I wore red and served the Widow in Windsor. That one is General Gordon. He would tussle with a wolf pack to protect his fellows, and unlike his namesake, his might stand a chance of survival!" Sir Francis laughed."He seems to have taken a liking to you, my dear boy."
"I think so, sir," Phillip agreed. He pulled himself into one of the wicker chairs, and General Gordon curled up in his lap.
Lydia motioned for Minerva to join her while the children were enjoying their lemonade. Minerva stood a head taller than her mother, and knelt down to listen to her furtive whisper. "Minnie," Lydia said. "Did you hear the restlessness of the trapped spirits? They were howling and pounding at their prisons, and to possess seemed even more ferociously hatred of all mortal things than usual."
"What could have agitated them so?" Minerva wondered.
"I do not know, but your old mother did not get to be the greatest medium and ghost-breaker in England by ignoring omens. An ill wind blows, Minnie. You must always be prepared for the coming storm." She looked down at the violin case her daughter carried on a strap around her shoulder. "Ah! It is good to see you still have our little parting gift."
It was Lydia who had prepared the case, just as Sir Francis had carefully filled it with exotic weapons that Minerva was best with in all forms of combat. Minerva patted the rosewood violin case. "It has saved my life – as has your training – a thousand times."
Before Minerva could give some examples, Penelope tugged at her sleeve. "Miss Minnie! Miss Minnie!" cried, pointing into the distance. "Look! Someone is coming and he looks very strange."
The adults followed Lydia's finger into the tall grass that bordered the Underhill garden and the deep forest beyond. Minerva had gone into those deep, almost primordial woods many times with her father on camping trips, to prepare her for outings in the highlands of Scotland the green fields of Ireland.
But now a strange figure was striding through the tall grass, moving with an almost childlike, skipping gait. He wore the finery of a bygone age, with a shining waistcoat, satin breeches and stockings, and a wig of dark golden hair. His skin was pale as milk and he had a long thin nose and glittering eyes behind a sequined domino mask. He was about the size of Penelope, and was clearly inhuman. A rapier with a jeweled hilt hung straight in a scabbard at his side.
He stopped before the Underhills and the Runtle children and bowed low, waving his thin fingers in the air. "Good afternoon, my fair mortal friend," he said. "It appears that we have met again. Drink deep of me mortals, and get your fill. For you are well met by Puck of Pook's hill."
"He rhymes…" Penelope whispered.
"At least he isn't speaking in iambic pentameter," Lydia muttered. She stood up. "Hello, Robin Goodfellow. You know my husband and my daughter. These are her charges. We really have no time for the usual bandying about of riddles and sayings. Please tell me why you are here."
Phillip hurried to Minerva's side. "Robin Goodfellow?" he asked. "But isn't he from a story?"
"A play," Penelope corrected. "He's Puck. From Shakespeare. He's a fairy."
Minerva nodded. "That's right. My mother has had many dealings with the Fair Folk. They are tricky and cunning people, but she knows what she's doing. Just remain quiet, and listen." Minerva felt a tremor of nervousness arch along her back. The Fairies were always difficult to deal with, and now she had the Runtle children with her, as well as her parents. Despite all of their skills and experience, she still felt a little fear for them.
Puck cleared his throat, his clear eyes darting from Sir Francis to Minerva to Phillip to General Gordon the honey badger. "The time has come once more," he said. "For the Fair Folk to hold their Council and perhaps propose war."
"I thought it was once every seven and seven-sixths years?" Lydia asked. "I have your councils well marked on my calendars, along with the various solstices, equinoxes and witches' sabbats."
"Fairy schedules run as fairy schedules can," Puck explained. "And it is time for you to speak on behalf of man."
Lydia nodded. "I thought that might be the purpose of your coming here." She turned around and looked at Minerva. "I did this once or twice before, when you were but a girl. I would follow Puck into Otherworld, the realm of the Fairies, and speaking for mankind at their meetings. I mostly level threats, for they respect little else, but it's important for some daughter of Eve to be present. Now I must do so again."
"I'll go with you," Minerva said.
"There shouldn't be any danger," Lydia replied. "And I can handle myself."
Sir Francis coughed and set down his glass of lemonade. "Well, if my dear wife and darling daughter are attending this little gathering, I demand to accompany you myself." He looked down at the children. "And if it won't be dangerous, maybe the little ones could go as well?"He raised his bushy eyebrows to Phillip and Penelope. "How would you like that, eh? To go and see the castle of the Fair Folk?"
Phillip and Penelope nodded vigorously. "Can General Gordon go too?" Phillip asked, holding up his new honey badger friend.
"I believe you'd have a difficult time convincing the little fellow not to," Sir Francis said. He smiled up at Minerva. "How's that for a day's outing? Beats a picnic in Hyde Park, I should think."
"It could be dangerous, father," Minerva pointed out. "Fairies are trouble creatures, and—"
"And we have means enough to deal with them. Give me a second to prepare and I'll have my old Webley and Martini with iron-tipped rounds, as well as my claymore, and that should be suitable weaponry." He pointed to Phillip and Penelope. "Come now, Minnie, my jewel. They want to go."
Minerva relented with a sigh. "Very well," she said. "But I don't like it."
Lydia Underhill nodded to Puck. "Give us a few minutes to prepare," she said. "And then we'll follow you."
Puck nodded his oddly shaped head, resembling some wading bird reaching down to skewer a fish with its long beak. "I will wait, but not forever. Prepares your suits of lace and leather."
"Of course, old boy," Sir Francis said. "Though you'll have to forgive me if I choose a rather different attire."
A few minutes later, they were prepared to follow Puck into Otherworld. Minerva had Phillip wearing his pale blue coat and peaked cap, as well as his vest and tie, and Penelope wore her finest blue dress with wide buttons and tied her hair into a careful bun. Minerva led them outside, General Gordon scampering behind them near Phillip's legs, to the gazebo, where her parents and Puck were waiting.
Sir Francis retained his pith helmet, and had only pulled on a pair of trousers, a worn vest and a battered frock coat over his still visible union suit. A claymore and a rifle hung on his back, as well as twin revolvers on a gun belt loaded with cartridges. Lydia glared at him. "Minerva," she said. "Tell your father that we are to attend a formal event – one with another species, no less -- and he should not dress like some Whitechapel drunkard."
"I think he'd dress in such a manner if he was going to have an audience with the Queen, mother," Minerva explained. "He's not a very formal fellow."
"What wisdom from my daughter!" Sir Francis laughed. "Come now, Lydia, joy of my days – there's no need to dress up for these fairy fellows." He nodded politely to the Runtle children. "Though I may say that you two look quite beautiful and handsome, respectively."
"Thank you, sir," Penelope said, giving a shy curtsy, while Phillip picked up General Gordon. "Um, how exactly do we go to Otherworld?" she asked Minerva.
Puck smiled, his lips pulling back to reveal hundreds of needle-like teeth. "Traveling to Otherworld is without reason or care." He pointed to the far trees. "Follow me, and we'll soon be there."
They followed Puck across the tall grass towards the darksome forest on the edge of the Underhill's estate. Minerva walked along the field, holding tightly to the hands of Phillip and Penelope. She felt a strange kind of foreboding, like she was walking into a trap that she could only faintly see. The Fair Folk were as fickle as the weather, and Puck seemed to dance like the Pied Piper, leading the Underhills to their doom. Minerva felt the comforting weight of the rosewood violin case. At least she was prepared.
Once they reached the shade of the trees, Puck walked to a circle of tall toadstools sprouting from the black dirt. They were amazing large mushrooms, glossy green and shining like they were covered with dew. "Follow me, follow me," Puck explained, stepping into the center of the Fairy Ring. "And begin and end your long journey."
Lydia nodded to her family and the Runtle children. "Just step inside," she explained. "Fairies come here to dance often. Sometimes late at night, I can hear their lilting voices and see the shifting lights. This is a portal to Otherworld."
"What will it be like, Mrs. Underhill?" Phillip asked, holding tightly to General Gordon. He was clearly a little nervous.
"It is a grand place," Lydia explained. "But it might be dangerous. Trust in me, and in Minnie, and everything will be right as rain." Minerva had heard that phrase before, whenever her mother took her along for an exorcism or ghost hunt. She remembered Lydia saying that before they went on the ghost ship, sunk years ago during a seaside wedding, of the Blue Bride of Bristol. That had been an adventure Minerva hadn't forgotten soon.
"All right," Phillip agreed. "Let's go."
They held hands and stepped into the center of the Fairy Ring. Instantly, Minerva felt a strong wind rushing around them. It tore into the leaves and branches, and did not bend or twist them, but blurred them. The sky, dark earth and green leaves ran together like a melting painting, and fell away to reveal the clear pink and cloudless sky and wide golden fields of Otherworld.
They still stood in the Fairy Ring, but it now stood before a great castle, a towering white and gold structure that reached into the center of the pink sky. The castle was a strange melding of architectural styles, like the fluttering pennants, blocky towers and battlements of some medieval fortress, countless statues and gilded filigree of a baroque palace, and the stately pillars and wide porch of a Georgian manor had been jumbled together and assembled without any reason. Bits of the castle hung at bizarre angles, and others had broken off and remained floating in air, connected by golden bridges.
Fairies, some winged and others on foot, and all dressed in strange clothes and masks, were making their way into the many doors of the castle. Two massive trolls guards in golden armor, their curling horns and tusks looking as sharp as the axes they carried, stood before the door.
Puck bowed his head. "Welcome to the Court of Seasons!" he cried. "Now come and enter this world of unreason!" He started walking down the path, and Minerva and her family and young charges followed him.
As they walked across the drawbridge to the main doors of the Court of Seasons, Lydia Underhill explained a little about fairy politics to Minerva and the children. The drawbridge arched over a moat of bright turquoise water. General Gordon snarled at the strange sea serpents which sported about below the still waters as they walked under the arch of the entrance.
"There's all manner of fairy country, tribes, polities and parties," Lydia explained. "If they could unite, they'd be quite powerful indeed. But they insist on squabbling and backstabbing."
"Sounds like our own nations and tribes," Sir Francis mused. He smiled at his wife. "Do continue, my dear. I have navigated the intrigue of the courts of Chinese Emperors and Arabian sultans. I am certain I can contend with these winged blighters."
They walked into the main hall, a massive chamber with a large oak tree in the center, reaching up for the ceiling with golden branches. Fairies buzzed around the boughs, as richly dressed nobles from across legend and time appeared from the smaller doorways. Four massive tunnels, one wrapped in ice, the other in brown and red leaves, another in blooming purple flowers and the final one in sheaves of golden wheat, stood at the corners of the main room.
Lydia continued her description. "Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, as he is known, is of the Tuatha da Danaan, Irish spirits known for their benevolence and wisdom." She smirked. "Let's just say they have good propaganda. They're one of the most powerful groups in the Council of Seasons. King Oberon and Queen Titania, Puck's masters, should be here presently."
"And are there others?" Penelope asked.
"The second most powerful group would be the Unseelie Court. They're Scottish in origin, known as the Unblessed, and very hateful towards mankind. Though I wish they wouldn't, they'll doubtlessly send a delegation." Lydia pointed to a low-hanging branch. "Let's sit there, and await the arrival of the others."
They sat down, and soon enough, the ambassadors, and leaders of the various fairy tribes and nations began to arrive for the council. Titania and Oberon were among the first to arrive, and Lydia pointed them out. They came on the back of a large turtle, with a shell speckled with gleaming jewels, and accompanied by a buzzing cloud of lesser pixies waving pennants and flags. Queen Titania wore a long white gown, and had skin so pale that it was impossible to tell where her body ended and her garments began. Her husband wore a long black robe, a crown of two antlers, and had a thick beard that stretched to his knees.
Puck bowed gracefully to them. "I trust your majesties had pleasant travels. I would not wish your wits to unravel."
When the monarchs of the Tuatha de Danaan spoke, they did son in unison. It was strange to hear the airy tones of Titania in the same breath as the deep gravelly growl of Oberon. "Our journey was uneventful." Their eyes turned to Lydia Underhill. "Well met, Lydia Underhill, O mortal woman who even gods have learned to fear."
Lydia nodded back. "It's nice to see you too," she said. She pointed up to the top of the tree. "And it looks like the Unseelie Court's arrive as well. Is that Queen Mab?"
A gigantic glassy black dragonfly, big enough to lift a carriage, was swinging down from the heavens. Its long legs held a silken litter, where a gaunt, completely hairless fairy woman in shining black armor, sat with folded arms and legs. The chitin of the dragonfly gleamed in the bright lights of the Court of Seasons.
Before the Tuatha could respond, a young man with raven black hair swung down from a low hanging branch. "Indeed it is," he cried, sweeping back his black cape and bowing low. He wore similar black and jointed armor to Queen Mab, and carried a scimitar on his belt. "And I am bold Tam Lyn, her mortal champion!" He smiled at Minerva. "And you, fellow mortal, must be of the representatives of man?"
"Bold is right, sir," Minerva replied curtly. "We're simply guests of my mother, Lydia Underhill."
"Is that so?" Tam Lyn walked around Minerva, his hands on his waist. "What say you to immortality, ever-lasting pleasure and eternal happiness at my side?"
Minerva returned his smile. "At your side? I think I'd prefer death."
Her father stepped in front of her. "Right, Mr. Tam Lyn," he said. "I think you've said quite enough. Kindly shove off before I bust your jaw, eh? You leave my Minerva alone."
Tam Lyn bowed as he stepped back. "As you wish," he replied. "See you presently, my dearest Minerva." He nimbly climbed onto a low-hanging branch and started swinging, simian-like, to join Queen Mab near the top of the canopy.
Minerva glared at her father. "I had it under control," she said. "You had no need to—"
"He was some leering immortal cad making a move on my Minnie," Sir Francis said. "He's lucky he didn't get worse." He looked down at Penelope. "You'll have boys falling head over heels for you soon, love. You watch them now, for some won't be trustworthy. And Phillip? You protect your sister."
Both children nodded gravely.
"Father, there's no need to frighten them," Minerva retorted. She was about to counter his words, but a flurry of trumpet blasts interrupted her.
"It's beginning!" Lydia said. She clasped her hands and looked expectantly at the top of the tree.
A fat bearded fairy in a black and yellow striped waistcoat and constantly buzzing bumblebee wings sped down from the top of the tree. An impossibly long scroll was held in his hands, and it reached down nearly to the floor, and wrapped and tangled around the branches as the fairy flew about. "Great and glorious children of the earth!" he cried. "Beloved of nature and keepers of the sacred places, I bid you welcome! The Council of the Seasons shall begin soon! But first, I must ascertain that all are here." He looked through his spectacles at the list. "Has the Leshi emerged from his dark forests?"
"Da." The Leshi was a towering bear with a man's face, wearing a robe of green moss, who sat at the bottom of the tree with a swarm of squirrels around him.
"Excellent. Excellent." The bumbling fairy's eye turned to the next name. "And the Banshee, the spirit of the mounds? Is she present?"
The Banshee was a ragged crone in a blue cloak, with long claws, large pointed ears, and a tangle of gray hair. She screeched her answer in a keening cry that made Minerva cover her ears and Phillip wince.
Minerva looked at her mother. "Are they taking roll?" she asked. She looked back at the bumbling fairy. "I suppose this will take a while."
"It will," Lydia agreed. She pointed to the door covered with frost. "Why don't you go there, to the Winter Court? The children might enjoy it."
"I think I'll go too," Sir Francis muttered. "Better than standing around her, waiting for Judgment Day. These Fair Folk are worse than Parliament." He stood up, putting his hands in the pockets of his frock coat. "Come along then, children," he said, and they followed him, nearly forgetting Minerva in their haste.
Lydia smiled at Minerva's exasperated scowl. "Pay your father no heed, my dear," she said. "He's used to being in command. As are you, I should think."
"I'm not rude about," Minerva pointed out.
"But you are his daughter, and he has little need for pleasantries." Lydia patted Minerva's cheek. "Rung along now, and look after your charges. And your father."
"I will." Minerva embraced her mother and hurried off after the Runtle Children and Sir Francis.
She followed them through the glassy archway and into the Winter Court. It was a strange chamber, wide enough to hold a mountain and yet topped by a ceiling and surrounded by walls. Great snowdrifts, ridges and frosted lakes stood next to collection of furniture, ticking grandfather clocks and other furnishings of any respectable house.
Phillip and Penelope clambered to the top of a snowdrift and leapt down, sliding and rolling through the snow. General Gordon followed them, squeaking in panic as his claws slid through the snow, until Phillip picked him up. Sir Francis and Minerva Underhill watched them and smiled.
"They'll grow up soon enough, you know," Sir Francis said. "I hope their parents treasure them, as I did you."
"And meddle in their affairs when their adults?" Minerva asked, still annoyed from Sir Francis's attitude.
Her father shrugged. "When I feel its necessary, Minnie, my jewel," he said. "A little action in the right time can make all the difference. Why, when I was paddling up the Amazon and beset by savage tribes, I—"
"You have experience," Minerva said. "I know that very well. But it doesn't mean you know everything."
Her comment made Sir Francis close his mouth and stroke his graying moustache. "I just want you to be safe and happy," he said.
"I know," Minerva replied. "And I am – thanks to your teachings. But I want the same for you, and you should be retired, not worrying about your daughter and prepared to wage a war at a moment's notice."
They were interrupted by the children climbing back to the snowdrift. Phillip and Penelope were brushing the melting snow from their hair and General Gordon was yipping excitedly. Phillip tugged at Minerva's sleeve and Penelope pointed in the distance. "Miss Minnie! Miss Minnie!" they chorused. "Someone's coming!"
Minerva looked at the main carpeted path that cut through the immense snowy room. Sure enough, a large column of martial fairies were approaching. Bulky trolls treaded down the red velvet road first as heavy infantry, followed by a legion of green-skinned hobgoblins armed with long spears and then cadaverous boggarts with their spider-like fingers and long fangs. Minerva couldn't believe her eyes as she saw the long spears, swords and crossbows kept by the strange army. They all wore shining black armor that seemed organic, like it belonged on the back of a beetle. Queen Mab and Tam Lyn – the Unseelie Court – wore such clothes.
"An army, of the Unseelie Court," Minerva said, putting a protective arm around Phillip and Penelope. "But where are they going?"
"The Court of Seasons." Minerva turned around and saw Tam Lyn smiling at her. Two great trolls stood behind him, both with large battle axes on their shaggy shoulders. "They will massacre all that they can," Tam Lyn explained. "And who will be blamed for such an action? The sons of man."
"So the Fair Folk will go to war on mankind?" Sir Francis asked. "That won't work out well for anyone. We'll fight, you know."
"You will," Tam Lyn agreed. "And you'll lose."
Sir Francis snorted. "We've got every nation on the earth, armed to the teeth, boy-o. We've got gunpowder, Maxim guns, dumdum rounds – every horror that science can think up to arm our troops. You and your little flitting friends wouldn't stand a chance. Put an end to this mad scheme, before you bring about the end of your race." Minerva was a little surprised at his father. His was a tactful warning, not a blistering series of insults.
But Tam Lyn shook his head. "And we have Balor of the evil eye – Queen Mab's true champion and the king of the defeated Fomorians." Tam Lyn pressed his fingers over his eye and pulled back the skin. "When he opens his eye, all who meet his gaze die. And when the other fairy representatives are massacred by my army, it will be blamed on mankind, and they'll go to war too. Our victory is assured."
"So why are you telling us this?" Minerva demanded.
Tam Lyn smiled at her. "Because, you silly little girl, I want to marry you and keep you as my immortal bride while the rest of humanity is ground into the dust." He held out his hand. "I await your response with bated breath."
"Hold your breath for a little, good sir Tam Lyn," Minerva said, she motioned for her father and the children to join her. "My decision will come in a mere second." She leaned close to Sir Francis. "I'll deal with him and the trolls. Father, you keep the children safe and start running back to the main chamber to warn Lydia. She'll know what to do. I'll keep up with you."
"Utter rot!" Sir Francis told Minerva. "I'll slaughter Tam Lyn and the trolls, while you safeguard the youngsters and—"
"Excuse me," Tam Lyn replied, stepping next to them. "I am growing impatient." He drew out his scimitar and slashed it against the ground, sending a spray of snow onto Phillip and Penelope. "And if I grow impatient, I may have to slay these darling children to relieve the tedium of immortality."
In the same motion, Minerva and Sir Francis slammed their fists into the face of Tam Lyn. He tumbled back, gasping as his nose cracked and blood spilled down his smooth chin. The trolls ran forward as Phillip and Penelope screamed and dashed backwards. The children tumbled over the edge of the snowdrift and fell down. One of the trolls leapt over Minerva and Sir Francis to follow them.
Minerva jumped after the troll, opening her violin case and withdrawing a bulky automatic pistol. It was from several decades in the future, but Minerva was as well-practiced with it as she was with any of her weapons. She fired five times, causing eruptions of black blood into the clear white snow. The troll turned to face her with a growl, and Minerva leapt for it, a Wakizashi dagger in each hand. She ducked under its swinging axe, then stepped back to prepare a killing blow.
Meanwhile, her father drew both Webley revolvers from their holsters and opened fire. He was an experienced gunslinger, having received training firsthand from Will Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid in the American West. Minerva heard twelve shots ring out in six seconds, and then the sound of a claymore colliding with troll flesh. The severed head of the troll landed in the snow at her feet.
Her father was faster than her, but not by much. Minerva charged, ducking under the swinging axe and slashing her daggers across the troll's throat. She pulled back and drove one blade into its forehead, slamming it home into the creature's brain. It toppled down with a loud crash at her feet.
Leaving the unconscious Tam Lyn behind, Sir Francis leapt down from the slope and slid expertly through the snow to join his daughter. "Your form was perfect," he said. "But rather slow. As I learned from the ninjas, you are to move like a flowing river, my jewel, not like some mechanical automaton."
"On the contrary, I flowed with utter perfection. It would take a poor sensei indeed not to see it," Minerva replied indignantly.
"Minnie, my jewel, I have studied at Shaolin monasteries and secret temples on Mount Fuji. I think I know—" Sir Francis was interrupted by Phillip tugging at his sleeve. He looked down at the boy as he reloaded his revolvers. "What is it now?"
"Shouldn't we warn Mrs. Underhill and the other fairies, sir?" Phillip asked, his voice very small.
"I think that might be a better use of our time, instead of arguing about form of whatever," Penelope suggested. She sounded more upset than her nervous brother.
Minerva and Sir Francis looked at each other. "The children are right, bless their souls," Sir Francis said. "I apologize. Your form was perfect."
"Thank you. It does take a true master to recognize that." Minerva looked down at Penelope and Phillip, the little boy holding his honey badger aloft. "Right," she said. "We must run as fast we can, to get their ahead of the Unseelie Court's army. Then we find my mother, and see what she has to say. Let's begin, shall we?"
The Runtle children and Sir Francis and Minerva Underhill hurried down the red carpet pathway between the heaps of white snow, to wide door that led back into the main chamber of the Court of the Seasons.
When they re-entered the Court of the Seasons, they found that the excruciatingly long roll call was still occurring. The bumbling fairy was buzzing round and round the great oak, his list hopelessly tangled around the trunk and the protruding branches, and continued to call out the names of the various mythical creatures. Minerva realized how farcical this whole meeting was, but remembered the terrible, scheming natures of the Fair Folk and decided that was probably for the best.
Lydia Underhill remained at her branch, staring at her black gloves as she waited for the seemingly endless roll to end. Looking behind her constantly to check on theUnseelie Court's army, Minerva hurried to her mother's side. Lydia looked up, blinking at her daughter. "Back so soon, dear?" she asked, as Minerva stood beside her, and Sir Francis and the children joined her.
"There's a bit of trouble, Lydia," Sir Francis explained. "It seems there's subterfuge afoot in Fairyland."
"The Unseelie ones, the bad fairies, they're coming with an army to destroy everyone!" Penelope explained. "And Tam Lyn said they'll blame it on humanity and then the fairies will go to war with the humans. That would be dreadful for everyone."
"You are wise beyond your years." Lydia looked up at the archway to the Winter Court. "One of the various parties usually attempts something like this at these meetings. Normally, their simple squabbles are settled by duels of riddles or rhyme, but it appears the Unseelie Court and Queen Mab are attempting something different." She lowered her voice as she looked at Minerva. "I'm dreadfully sorry, Minnie. I have dragged your children into a war."
"But we'll be okay," Phillip said, holding General Gordon close. "Because Miss Minnie always protects us. And if you're her parents, then you must be really good at protecting people and saving the day, and being a hero."
The Underhills glanced at each other. Sir Francis smiled grandly. "I suppose we are," he said. "Lydia, you do have a solution to this, don't you?"
"I do." Lydia reached into a pocket of her dress, and drew out a velvet bag bound with a golden rope. "This contains iron shavings, dipped in tree sap to lessen their affect. It should get their attention." She raised the clump of powder to her mouth, sucked in air and then blew out a massive gray cloud of the metal shavings. The gray cloud rose into the air, and whenever it fell on a fairy, they started scratching and hissing like cats dipped in water.
The bumbling fairy ceased his roll taking and looked down at the humans. "Ahem," he said, pushing back his spectacles. "Ahem, ahem, ahem. What is the meaning of this? In the name of the Dagda, and Lugh, and every other one of our hallowed fathers?"
Lydia came to her feet. "There is something rotten in Otherworld!" she cried. She pointed up to Queen Mab, who was curled up in her litter hanging from the feet of the giant dragonfly. "The Unseelie Court is attempting to slaughter all of us, and then blame it on mankind so they might get more power in the coming war!"
Queen Mab rested on her belly and clambered to the edge of her silken litter. She looked down at Lydia. "I deny everything," she said. "And for that insult, Mrs. Underhill, I must kill you and all of your offspring, and all of their offspring." The queen of the Unseelie Court was utterly calm and lacking in all emotion.
Minerva opened her violin case and tied her belt around her waist. She rested her hands on the wooden handles of her Wakizashi daggers as she glared back up at Queen Mab. "You're welcome to try," she said. "But I doubt you'll get very far."
Panic started to rustle through the ranks of ambassadors and royals of the Fair Folk. A swarm of Brownies started gibbering to each other in high-pitched fearful whines. The Leshi snapped his fingers, and his squirrels sprang onto his back like a strange tufted coat. The bumbling fairy buzzed around and around the tree, trying to regain order.
He looked down at his scroll. "Well," he said. "It appears there is a precedent. Every five million and a half years, the Unseelie Court attempts to kill the leaders of the other tribes, polities, nations and kingdoms of Otherworld." He looked up at Queen Mab. "And now it appears she is doing it again. And the proper reaction, time honored and long decided by Fair Folk tradition, is to panic and escape in any means necessary." The bumbling fairy dropped his long scroll. It fell down slowly, settling around an upper branch and remaining there. "Goodbye," the bumbler said, and buzzed away.
There were a few seconds of silence after he had left. One of the Brownies let out a long shrieking whine and General Gordon squeaked in rage and fear. Then footsteps came from the Winter Court, and the Unseelie Army charged inside with blades poised.
Panic reigned in the grand hall as every fairy tried to scamper, flutter or crawl away from the approaching Unseelie Army. Some of them simply disappeared, vanishing in clouds of sparkling dust, while others flew through the high windows or entered burrows in the ground. Minerva saw the turtle bearing Queen Titania and Oberon rear up like a panicked elephant and charge madly for the exit, their courtiers hurrying after them. Everywhere, the sounds of chaos and inhuman fear created a maddened cacophony as the fairies tried their best to steal away.
The army of the Unseelie Court charged inside, and Minerva grabbed the hands of Phillip and Penelope. "Come on!" she said. "We've got to find a way out!" She looked at Lydia and Sir Francis. "Do you know of any safe way to go?"
"That way!" Lydia cried, pointing to the door. "Stay close!" She had a mother' s fear, and stayed very close to Minerva. Sir Francis simply drew out his claymore and looked around, his eyes narrowing as he prepared for the old ritual of combat.
They tried to move for the door, but a lumbering kobold blocked their way, rolling along on its prodigious rock gray stomach. Minerva cursed under her breath as she saw their way blocked. She glanced back at the oak and saw a goblin looked down at them from a low-hanging branch, swinging a crossbow to face them with a snarling leer on his green, fanged face. Minerva reached for her howdah pistol and fired, putting both barrels into the goblin's chest and crumpling him against the bough.
Sir Francis smiled. "By god, that was quite a shot, my jewel!" he cried. "Nearly as good as when I killed a sniper along the Khyber Pass with an artfully thrown yak bone."
"You'll have to reminisce later, Francis!" Lydia cried. "More are coming!"
They tried to move away from the approaching trolls, but their way was blocked by retreating fairies at every turn. Minerva held tightly to the hands of the Runtle children, cursing herself, her parents and the world for placing them in danger. Phillip was holding tightly to General Gordon, like he had to protect the honey badger cub. Penelope was looking around with nervous eyes and serious expression on her little face. Minerva considered the dangers that she had faced when she was little, at the side of her mother during various occult investigations. She had managed all right, and she hoped the Runtle children would as well – if they survived.
Just as Minerva was beginning to truly panic, the ground under her feet shifted. She stepped back and leveled her crossbow at the ground as Puck poked his head up from a burrow in the ground. "This way! This way!" he cried, pointing to the burrow before him. "No delay! No delay!"
Minerva nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Goodfellow," she said. She looked at her parents, who had paused. "Well?" she asked. "Shouldn't we follow him?"
"He's a wily one," Lydia pointed out.
"And difficult to trust," Sir Francis added.
"The trolls will be on us in seconds!" Minerva cried. "For heaven's sake! I thought you had agreed to trust my judgment!" She clutched tightly to the hands of the children. "I will go first, then Phillip, and then Penelope. My parents will follow, despite their pronouncements otherwise. You must crawl as fast as you can, and try not to be frightened. I am right next to you."
They nodded gravely. Minerva smiled at their bravery, and slipped into the burrow. She started crawling forward on her hands and knees, and looked over her shoulder to see her parents following. She smiled. Despite their words, the Underhills still followed her lead. Minerva felt a certain smugness that they were listening to her.
The tunnel was short and dark. Minerva stayed after Puck, who was able to squat in the low-ceilinged chamber, and practically skipped forward while he hummed something to himself. Minerva could make some light ahead of them, and smelled the sweet scent of freshly blooming flowers. The tunnel must end in the Court of Spring.
She waited until Puck pulled himself out of the dirt and then clambered out of the burrow herself. She was in the Court of Spring, and found it a strange place indeed. Like the Winter Court, it was a great chamber, with a ceiling impossibly high and walls like those of a smooth gigantic canyon. Groves of blossoming trees, beds of wild flowers in every possible colors, and topiaries trimmed into strange mythical creatures stood amidst arrangements of slender ivory furniture. In the distance, she saw a Fairy Ring of large mushrooms, very similar to the one outside Runtle Manor.
Minerva stood up and looked for Puck. She saw his footsteps in the green grass, leading behind a gently sloped hill. "Mr. Goodfellow?" she asked. "Mr. Goodfellow, are you there?"
As the children and her parents crawled up from the burrow, Puck emerged from behind the hill. But Minerva felt a cold hand take hold of her heart as she saw who was with him. Tam Lyn stood next to Puck, along with a score of his armored trolls and goblin pike-bearers. A few goblins archers stood behind them, and aimed their crossbows and Minerva and the Runtle children. Minerva felt a terrible hollowness inside of her. She had led her parents and her young charges into a trap. She didn't feel fear, but merely guilt.
Lydia pointed at Puck as Tam Lyn approached them. "You have betrayed us, Mr. Goodfellow," she said. "I'd expect more from our host. Even the fairies have to uphold certain ideals, and leading your guests into the bellies of trolls certainly goes against that!"
Puck shrugged and pirouetted gracefully behind the back of Tam Lyn. "You think this move of Queen Mab was her scheme? To crush Oberon and Titania has been my dream! I am tired of serving them, like a sniveling fool. No longer will Robin Goodfellow be a mere tool."
"Except Queen Titania and King Oberon escaped," Sir Francis pointed out. "So you're out of luck."
Tam Lyn smiled. "I think you're in a poor position to talk about luck. True, you defeated Queen Mab. But she'll live to plot again. She will not allow you to survive the day." He stepped forward, drawing out his sword. "We'll take you alive, drag you back to the land of shadows and torment, where you will be tortured for all eternity."
"It's preferable to spending it with you," Minerva replied. She looked at her mother, who gave a quick nod. Minerva reached down to her combat belt, as Sir Francis stood behind her. "You fairies are vindictive and petty," she said. "But that's to be expected. You've also chosen the Underhill Family as enemies. Now that is something which is entirely regrettable."
Lydia Underhill moved quickly, grabbing a fistful of iron shavings and hurling them into the mist of the fairies, then grabbed Phillip and Penelope and sweeping up in a protective hug. The cloud of iron shavings wrapped around the trolls and goblins in a choking fog. They howled and snarled, as fearsome red boils bubbled out of their skin. Several of them collapsed under the iron fog, their weapons clattering to the ground along with their jointed armor.
But before Minerva could prepare for the next part of their escape, Tam Lyn leapt out of the iron cloud, his sword held high. Minerva cursed as she remembered that Tam Lyn was no fairy, but an adopted mortal man turned into one of the champions of Queen Mab. Minerva raised her daggers and blocked Tam Lyn's falling blade, but just barely. Steel rang off steel as Tam Lyn tried to force her down.
"She won't let you go easy!" Tam Lyn cried. "She's calling forth Balor from the dark depths! He'll finish you!"He lashed out with his leg, kicking Minerva in the chest and knocking her backwards. Minerva felt the wind rush out of her, and she tried to suck in breath and raised her daggers to blow Tam Lyn's blade.
But as he swung his sword down, Sir Francis crashed into him. "You will not hurt my daughter!" Sir Francis bellowed, swinging his fists into the face and chest of Tam Lyn. The champion of the Unseelie Court tried to bring up his sword, but Sir Francis grabbed his wrist, and then head-butted him into submission. Minerva saw the terror-backed rage in her father, and realized she had rarely seen him like this.
When Tam Lyn hit the ground, Sir Francis kicked away his sword and then delivered a blow to his chin. He looked up at Lydia. "How do we get out of this hellhole?" he demanded.
Lydia pointed to the Fairy Ring. "I may be able to arrange the ethereal energies that exist between worlds, and take us home to Underhill Manor."
"Then let's leave." Sir Francis hurried to Minerva's side. "My jewel," he whispered. "My precious jewel. Are you well?"
"I am. Thank you." Minerva saw no need to mock his fear. She stood up and patted his shoulder. "Thank you, father."
Sir Francis's usual wry smile reappeared. "Excellent. Let's make haste." He looked down at Phillip and Penelope. "These brave little warriors have experienced enough, I think."
They hurried to the Fairy Ring, Phillip holding General Gordon in his hands, and stepped into the center. Lydia Underhill sat down and started meditating, muttering a mantra at a whisper as she touched two toadstools with her pale hands. Sir Francis drew out his revolvers and Minerva had her crossbow as the fairies began to recover from Lydia's iron shavings. They saw Tam Lyn come weakly to his feet, and take a halting step towards them.
"We'll follow you!" he cried, holding a hand over his broken nose. "Queen Mab's entire army shall be unleashed upon you! No matter how skillful you are with a blade, no matter how many bullets you have, you will be overrun and taken! Many will be your cries for mercy! But you shall receive none!"
"The kooky bastard's right." Sir Francis looked at Minerva, his usual good humor vanishing. "If I had a regiment of Black Watch lads with me, or a few of the Irish Rifles like I did in Kandahar, we'd have a chance. But just you and me, Minnie? Even though we are the two finest warriors on earth, I doubt we'll succeed."
"We'll think of something," Minerva announced. "I trust in you and my mother."
Lydia finished her chanting and clapped her hands, producing a sound like a tolling gong. Once more, the world went blurry around Minerva and she felt the colors of the rich spring garden melting together. She closed her eyes to clear her head, feeling the winds between worlds rush past her. When she opened her eyes again, they were standing in the circle of toadstools in the woods outside of Underhill Manor.
The sun was shining and the air was crisp and cool. Minerva stepped out and breathed deeply of good English air, forgetting for just a second that they would be pursued. Sir Francis helped Lydia up and supported her small frame, while Penelope and Phillip followed Minerva out of the toadstools. Lydia straightened up, as an audible hum came from the mushrooms.
"We don't have much time," Sir Francis said. "Lydia, my dear, there must be something you can do to stop their assault!"
"I j-just don't have time." Lydia looked at her shoes. "I don't have time."
"And we can't fight an army," Sir Francis muttered. He looked at General Gordon and petted the honey badger's white back. "You should run to the nearest village, Lydia. Take Minnie and the children with you. I'll stay here. I can't fight an army of murderous fairies, but by god, I'll die trying."
"Wait." Minerva looked back at Underhill Manor. "Mother, you already have an army. Trapped in glass cases, and light bulbs and enchanted canopic jars. All the ghosts you collected over the years, and some of them must be loyal to you, or long for any escape, no matter how temporary. Maybe they could fight, and stand a chance of victory!"
Still dazed from traveling between worlds, Lydia considered it. "A ghost army," she said. "Of all the hateful and murderous spirits I've trapped over the years. There are a few that are kind, but just have no desire to move on and are very annoying, like the Flatulent Phantom of Burling Hall. I allow them out from time to time, and they'll be loyal. And the others wouldn't mind a chance. My spells should be strong enough, as long as I don't unleash any demons or elder spirits." She nodded. "Yes. It could work. But it would take time to prepare the binding spells, so they don't escape when their time is over."
"Then we'll buy you all the time you need," Sir Francis said. He looked down at Phillip and Penelope. "You have been very brave," he said. "But I need you to help my dear wife back to the manor, and then aid her in preparing the spells for the safe utilizations of the ghosts. Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir," Penelope agreed.
"We can do it," Phillip added. "We'll do anything we can, sir."
"Excellent. Off you go, now." Sir Francis turned to Lydia as the children hurried back to the manor. "Minerva and I shall fight, my dear," he said.
"Must she stay?" Lydia asked plaintively.
Sir Francis nodded. "But I have faith that she can defend herself," he said, and Lydia smiled. Despite all of her fear for the coming fight, Minerva felt her heart sing with pride. She kissed Lydia on the cheek and embraced her mother, and then the greatest ghost-breaker in England hitched up her skirt and hurried back to the manor.
Minerva and Sir Francis walked slowly out to the tall grass bordering the gardens. They prepared their weapons, Sir Francis drawing his rifle and affixing the bayonet while Minerva loaded her crossbow bolts and howdah pistol, as well as securing a few jars of Greek fire and forming her collapsible assegai. They didn't see anything, but could hear the leaves and branches rustling. The Unseelie Army would arrive soon.
"Minnie," Sir Francis said, bringing his rifle to his shoulder. "Do you remember 'The Minstrel Boy,' by any chance?"
"I know it by heart, father, as you would sing it when we rambled around the woods on our numerous outings," Minerva said. "You learned it in Afghanistan, where you were stationed with a unit of Irish rifles. They survived an ambush by the Pashtuns by singing it through the night, belting it out louder than the Jezzail rifles to keep up their moral. You made it out of that battle with six bullets in your chest and arms, if I recall."
"And a right terrible time was had by all," Sir Francis agreed. "But let's sing it now, eh? Right before we battle with these devils."
Minerva cleared her throat. "The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you will find him. His father's sword he has girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him!"
The Unseelie Army reared out of the woods and charged. The goblins came first, a skittering, scrambling army of green-skinned creatures holding their pikes high. The trolls followed, lumbering heavy infantry bearing mighty axes. Boggarts and darker fairies came after them, and then Balor himself strode out of the woods, a big-headed, hairless giant standing twice as tall as a man, with skin like gray rock and with a single eye closed shut with weights and pendulums. Goblins clambered up and down his body, working to prepare the eye for opening like it was some dreadful siege weapon.
Sir Francis joined his daughter. "Land of song say the warrior-bard, though all the world betrays ye! One sword at least, thy right shall guard! One faithful harp shall praise ye!" The roar of the incoming Unseelie army drowned out their son as Sir Francis finished his song. "Amen," he said, and reached for the trigger of his rifle.
They fired together, Minerva using her crossbow and her father working with his trusty rifle. The goblins tumbled down under the barrage of bullets and bolts, their green and blackish blood spraying onto the tall grass as they were picked off. Minerva blasted one of the goblins off the top of Balor, and he toppled to the ground with a snarling shriek. Minerva raised her howdah pistol and fired, blowing the head off of a troll and knocking it to the ground. Sir Francis reloaded his rifle, just as the first group of goblins came charging for them.
Then it was a whirlwind of battle, with Sir Francis stabbing madly with his bayonet, while Minerva swung her blades in lethal swerving arcs. Goblins fell before them like grain before the reaper, running back with bleeding, severed limbs or simply collapsing after receiving a fatal slash. Minerva's daggers moved in tandem, gutting goblins, slashing open trolls and stabbing through the spindly frames of boggarts. Sir Francis stuck his rifle deep into a troll's belly and let it lie, drawing out his claymore with one hand while he grabbed for a pistol. Minerva realized that her father was still singing, and did his best to join him.
"The minstrel fell but the foeman's chain could not bring that proud soul under! The harp he loved ne'er spoke again, for he tore its cords asunder!" they cried, as the blood flowed like rivers around them. Minerva hurled a pair of Greek fire vials into the Unseelie ranks and they exploded, showering the boggarts with flame. The emaciated creatures burned like dried wood, wailing as they ran back to the cover of the trees.
Minerva reached for her assegai, using it to slash open the throat of a nearby troll. "And said 'no chains shall sully ye, thou soul of love and bravery! Thy songs were made for the pure and free, they shall ne'er--" She suddenly realized that her words were alone and felt terror awaken within her. Minerva looked around for her father, and couldn't see him. Then she heard a low moaning creak, like an ancient door opening for the first time in years.
Balor stood over her father, his great eye opening. It was glaring red, like a fire was kept blazing behind his eyelid. Sir Francis was covered in the glaring beam of Balor's gaze, and he closed his eyes and crumpled to the grass like a hurt child.
"Father!" Without pause, Minerva raised her assegai and hurled it through the air. It soared upwards, flying over the horned heads of trolls. The assegai was aimed perfectly and crashed into the center of Balor's red eye. The giant let out a roar and tumbled backwards, crashing to the ground like a rockslide.
But Minerva didn't notice. She ran to her father's side and helped him up. All around them, the goblins and trolls gathered. Sir Francis opened his eyes. "You are not like me," he whispered. "Your form – it is not like mine."
"Father…" Minerva whispered.
"It's better," Sir Francis said. "It's perfect."
Behind them, they heard a sudden shriek. Minerva turned around and saw the wide windows of Underhill Manor shatter, all at once. As the glass fell to the ground, she saw the translucent forms of a thousand ghosts, specters, phantoms, apparitions and spirits flying from Underhill Manor and zooming towards the fairies.
They were brides strangled on their wedding days in veils and flowing gowns, decapitated criminals and soldiers carrying their severed heads with them into battle, ghosts who had died in fire, radiating with luminous blue spectral flame, child ghosts riding rocking horses and accompanied by teddy bears and dolls, a hundred more varieties of ghost, and even the Flatulent Phantom, one fat, round spirit in a periwig and waistcoat, who was farting uncontrollably.
Sir Francis smiled as the ghosts flew down and attacked the fairies, chasing them back to the woods and running them down with their flashing, spectral blades. "Your mother came through, eh?" Sir Francis said. He wrapped his arm around his daughter's shoulder. "You have grown up, and become a strong, capable and wonderful young woman. Part of me wishes I could watch over you forever, but I know I don't have to. You can handle yourself just fine."
"Thanks to you, father," Minerva said. She helped him to his feet and back to Underhill Manor.
At the end of the third week of their stay, Cornelius and Edith Runtle dropped by to pick up their children and Minerva, and then journey to the continent, to continue their vacation. Cornelius Runtle shook hands with Sir Francis while Edith let Lydia show her around the grand hall. Minerva waited politely to the side while the children got ready.
"All the windows are broken!" Edith said. "Whatever happened?"
"Beastly storm," Sir Francis explained. "Knocked them right out. This is a rough country, but we manage."
Phillip and Penelope hurried down the hall and ran into their parents' arms. General Gordon scampered after them, yipping at Phillip's heels. "Papa! Papa!" Phillip cried, holding up General Gordon. "This is General Gordon. He is a honey badger, and I think he likes me. Can we take him?"
"A honey badger?" Cornelius asked, examining General Gordon. "Is that a suitable pet?"
"They're like hounds, but more protective and fiercer," Sir Francis explained. "They're excellent pets."
"Oh. Well, that's fine then. You'll have to feed him, and, uh, walk him and such. But it should teach you responsibility, a very valuable quality," Cornelius said, looking down at General Gordon. "Well, come along then. The carriage is waiting."
As they said goodbyes to the Underhills and headed back to their carriage, Minerva stayed behind for a few seconds. She hugged her father and mother and gave them both a kiss on the cheek. Lydia smiled at her daughter. "Be careful out there, my dear," she said. "It is a wild and crazy world."
"You don't have to tell her that," Sir Francis said. He patted Minerva's shoulder. "Our daughter can take care of herself. I hope we meet again soon, Minnie, my jewel. You remind me of all that is good in this world."
"Well," Minerva replied, before heading out to join the Runtle family. "That's just what you two have taught me."