Warnings — See part 1.
Cassie gaped at the carnage surrounding Tarian. How much force had it taken to pin a man to the wall with that ferocious spear?
"You killed them!" She pinched her arm to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
Tarian straightened to her full height and simply looked at her. The red smears on her cheeks gave her a primal look, and Cassie took an involuntary step back.
Her heel banged against something, and she glanced down and saw it was the shotgun. Her eyes tracked the arm holding it to the bloody mess that had been its owner's throat then away again. Everywhere she looked there was blood—she could even smell it, a cloying, coppery tang—and bodies, hands and limbs contorted in death. She was glad the stocking masks hid the faces. It was like a scene from a horror movie. She fought against the urge to be sick.
"You killed them," she repeated, her voice a whisper. The sheer ferocity, speed, and ruthlessness with which the artist and her dogs had despatched the intruders had left her feeling stunned and afraid.
Tarian crossed to the studio's enamel sink. She turned on the taps and began to wash her hands. The swirling water ran pink before disappearing down the plughole.
"You didn't have to," continued Cassie. "We could have run out the front door, got to safety, called the police."
Tarian finished wiping her hands on a towel. "I told you." Her tone was cool. "There was no time."
Cassie felt suddenly nervous. She had thought she was getting to know Tarian, but now she wasn't so sure. She forced herself to step into the studio. "But to kill them... just like that."
No normal woman could have done it, or been so calm about it afterwards. Who is she? Her heart thumped. What is she?
Pale blue eyes held her gaze. "They don't deserve your pity, Cassie. They were warned off but they came back. They would have killed the dogs, then me, then you."
"But how do you know they weren't just burglars?"
Tarian arched an eyebrow. She crouched beside one of the men and pulled up the stocking mask. "Recognise him?"
Cassie shook her head.
Tarian searched the man's pockets but came away empty. She rose and moved on to the next corpse. This time, when she pulled up the stocking mask, Cassie let out a gasp. The broken nose and heavy brows were familiar.
"You know him," stated Tarian.
Cassie nodded. White van man would never smile that snaggle-toothed smile again.
Tarian searched his pockets and pulled out what looked like a photograph, creased in half. She smoothed it, and handed it wordlessly to Cassie. There was a roaring in her ears as she found she was looking at herself. The photo had been taken a fortnight ago—she was coming out of Birmingham Crown Court. Someone had scribbled over it in magic marker: 'This is the bitch. Get rid of her.' She forced herself to breathe and the roaring faded.
"They came to kill you," repeated Tarian.
Cassie licked her lips and looked up. "But I.... But you.... How...." She stumbled to a halt. She didn't know what to think. Relief that the men were no longer a threat warred with suspicion, disbelief, fear.... Something of her confusion must have shown, because Tarian's expression gentled.
"Go home, Cassie. Let me take care of this."
"But I'll need to be here when the police come, won't I?"
"I'm not going to call the police."
Her fear returned, doubled. "What? But you have to. Someone will report them missing, and the trail will lead here and—"
"I'll make sure the trail goes cold."
"Don't be stupid. Forensics—"
"Will find nothing. Trust me."
But that was the crux of the matter, wasn't it? "How can I?" asked Cassie, after a long pause, "after what you and your dogs just did?" She shook her head. "I still can't believe it. Are you—" an urge to giggle surfaced, and she clamped down on it; now was not the time for hysteria, "—are you even human?"
Some emotion flickered across Tarian's face—regret, sadness?—but when she spoke there was no hint of it in her voice. "It doesn't matter. I'm no threat to you. You have my word."
Her answer was like a dash of cold water. Deep down, Cassie had been expecting Tarian to ridicule her for asking such a preposterous question. The fact that she hadn't.... Certain things came into stark relief. Tarian's height and exotic good looks, her wolfhounds, the oldfashioned and very lethal weaponry she kept on her wall....
"Oh my God!" She clapped a hand to her mouth. "You're not human, are you?"
Tarian's gaze was unfathomable. "Go back to Liz Hayward's."
Her tone was that of someone accustomed to having her orders obeyed, and Cassie found herself reacting to it and turning to leave. At the studio door she stopped herself and looked back.
"Will you be all right?"
The question seemed to surprise Tarian. She gave a stiff nod.
For a moment longer Cassie looked at her, then she stepped over the shotgun and the dead hand still clutching it, grabbed her jacket from its peg, and made her way towards the front door.
Tarian searched the dead mortals thoroughly, but found little of interest. A yawning Drysi and Anwar watched her retrieve her arrow and spear—it had gouged a deep hole in the studio wall—then drag the bloodied and battered bodies into the centre of the studio. She didn't bother to remove the stocking masks, but straightened limbs, and laid out the bodies side by side. Then she piled in the middle the hunting knife, claw hammer, and shotgun.
The dogs hunkered down watching her as she traced a glyph with her fingers, muttered a few words and gestured. There was a pause, then the bodies and weapons imploded, disappearing with a faint pop. The power drain caused by the powerful spell came a moment later, and she staggered under its impact.
"Moon and stars!"
Her head throbbed and it took her a moment to get her breath back. With the back of her hand she wiped the sweat from her forehead, then set about tidying up. A combination of spells and physical effort soon returned the studio to some sort of order. She left the ruined painting alone, however, and as for the broken window.... There were more important uses for her limited energy reserves; she would call a glazier in the morning.
Satisfied that no trace of the intruders' presence remained inside, she went outside. Footprints led across the lawn from her broken window to the road. A spell wiped them away, and she set about finding the dirty black car. It was parked a little way out of the village, and tracking it and vanishing it used up the last of Tarian's reserves.
The sun was rising when she closed the front door behind her, staggered up the stairs, and flung herself fully clothed onto her bed. She let her eyelids close and slept the sleep of the exhausted....
A tongue licked her awake, and the smell of dog breath was strong in her nostrils. She let out an exclamation and pushed Anwar away. A glance at the alarm clock showed she had been asleep barely an hour. Belatedly her senses kicked in. If she hadn’t been so deeply asleep, the strong prickling sensation would have woken her.
Someone is at the back door. A Fae.
She pushed herself up off the bed and hurried downstairs, running a hand through dishevelled hair and wondering if Einion had returned. It wasn't her old friend standing on the doorstep, though, but a stern-faced woman in a simple blue gown with a girdle at her waist. Tarian recognised her at once and her heart sank. "Garan."
The Fae woman bowed her head in greeting. "I bring a message from Queen Mab."
A loud caw drew Tarian's eyes to the top branch of the hawthorn. The crow was back. She narrowed her eyes at it then returned her attention to Garan. "What Mab says no longer interests me."
Garan's eyebrows rose. "Have the laws of hospitality been suspended? May the Queen's messenger not come in and be made welcome?"
Tarian sighed and stepped back, allowing her visitor into the kitchen. Garan didn’t say anything as she took in her surroundings—the slight sniff, the disdainful glance said it all. Drysi and Anwar watched her from the door, their manner wary.
Garan pulled out a chair and sat down. Tarian joined her and drummed her fingers on the kitchen table.
"The message," she prompted.
Garan's gaze turned inwards and she recited from memory: "I, Queen Mab, sole ruler of Faerie, do hereby pardon Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk for her past transgressions. Henceforth, her sentence of banishment is lifted and I command her to return to Faerie and assume the post of Royal Champion once more."
Tarian stared at her. "What?"
Garan's gaze shifted to her. "Was I unclear?"
"No." Tarian kicked back her chair and stood up. "But we made a solemn and binding agreement, Mab and I. As far as I am concerned, it still holds."
"And as far the Queen is concerned, it is void." Garan cocked her head and waited for Tarian to make her next move.
She began to pace. "I don’t care. She knew my reasons for leaving. Those haven't changed. I haven't changed."
It was Garan's turn to drum her fingers on the table. "After the bloody events of last night, the Queen takes a different view."
Tarian stopped pacing. "Last night?" That crow must have been spying on me again.
"Even though those you killed were mere mortals—" Garan sniffed, "—you clearly still take pleasure in the fight, in the bloodshed."
Tarian didn't deny the charge. In the heat of the moment she had enjoyed the violence, the race to strike her opponent first and avoid serious injury herself. It was only afterwards, when Cassie was regarding her with horror, that she remembered that for mortals a fatal blow was indeed fatal. Once she would have thought that fact of little relevance or value, but having lived among mortals for two years....
But they would have killed Cassie, wouldn’t they? "I was defending a mortal."
"Your reasons are irrelevant."
Tarian slammed her hands down on the table, and leaned forward. "I will not go back." Garan blinked at her. "My life is here. And Mab is no longer part of it."
"That is your reply?"
Garan got to her feet. "Very well. I will convey it to the Queen." She crossed to the back door then stopped and turned to look back. The formal messenger's mask had gone and now she spoke as one Fae to another. "You know she won't like it."
Tarian sighed. "I know."
"You're quiet this morning, Cassie. Everything all right, dear?"
The landlady was studying her, Cassie realised, and she forced a smile. "I'm fine, thanks. Just tired. I didn't sleep very well." She didn't mention why sleep had been elusive... the images of death and carnage that kept surfacing.
"She fed you all right, then?" Liz began to clear away the breakfast dishes.
Fed me? Cassie gathered her scattered wits. "Oh. Yes. Boar casserole. It was very nice." She pushed back her chair and stood up. "She showed me round her studio too." Before it became a crime scene.
Tarian had said she'd clear up the mess so forensics could find no trace, but that wasn't possible, was it? Not for a human. But then Tarian isn't human, is she?
Cassie climbed the stairs to her bedroom in a daze and gazed at her reflection as she brushed her teeth. Her face was pale, her eyes dull and slightly panicky.
An image of the heavy spear protruding from the man's chest surfaced, and she pushed it hurriedly aside. Maybe I'm going crazy. Maybe nothing happened the way I remember. Maybe.... Who the hell knows?
She put the wet toothbrush back in the beaker and wiped her mouth on the towel. The best thing to do, she knew, was to confront her fear. She should go back to Tarian's house and see for herself. If something had really happened last night, if it hadn’t all been some weird nightmare brought on by a dose of food poisoning, there'd be evidence, wouldn't there? But what would she do if there was?
She felt the urge to surround herself with the mundane. She could always go shopping— A chime of church bells put paid to that idea as it reminded her what day it was. In Bourne's Edge's the shops didn’t open on Sunday.
She crossed to her bedroom window and peered out. Several of the villagers dressed in their Sunday bests, among them Cath the postmistress and Dr Reynolds, were hurrying up the road. On impulse, Cassie grabbed her jacket and shrugged into it, then hurried downstairs to join them.
"Going out?" called Liz, as she passed the open kitchen door.
"Thought I'd go to church." Then she was out the front door, through the garden gate, and following the worshippers streaming by ones and twos towards the shabby spire.
It was years since Cassie had been to church, and then it had been a different denomination entirely. But she needn't have worried about needing to know the ropes. As she ventured into the cool of the interior, Dr Reynolds in his role as usher greeted her, handed her a hymnbook, and pointed to an empty pew. She nodded her thanks and sank onto it. No sooner had she sat down, though, than everyone else in the congregation stood up.
Simon Wright took his place in the pulpit. And after a brief prayer, the service got underway.
Afterwards, Cassie didn't remember much about it, except that she hadn't disgraced herself. It was a matter of doing what everyone else did, standing then sitting, murmuring the required responses, singing the vaguely familiar hymns as best she could. But all the time her mind was engaged elsewhere.
Oh Lord, don’t let me be mad, she prayed. And, If Tarian isn't human, please don’t let her be some kind of demon.
For some reason this last point was important to her. Her instincts had told her the artist was a friend. And hadn't Tarian saved her life?
But she was so savage about it, so primitive. ... Shut up, she told herself, and when the bald man in the pew next to her turned to her in surprise, realised she must have spoken aloud.
"Sorry," she whispered, embarrassed.
The ritual of the service did help to calm her though, and by its end she had plucked up courage to walk to Tarian's house and ask her for the truth.
She shook hands with the vicar, who said how pleased he was to see her, and stepped outside, then stopped in surprise. Just outside the porch stood a very tall stranger in a russet coloured tunic and breeches and a cloak of forest green. A scabbarded sword hung at his right hip. Stranger than his quasi-medieval clothing was the fact that no one else seemed aware of him or the horses whose reins he held.
Cassie turned to ask the Rev Wright who the man was, but he was stroking his beard, deep in conversation with a parishioner.
"Only you can see or hear me," came the man's voice, deep and full of amusement.
She turned, just as he gestured, his hand tracing some symbol in the air, his lips moving. Suddenly she couldn’t move.
"Help!" she cried out, or tried to; no sound emerged.
"Sh." He led the two horses to her side. "Be easy." He brushed her cheek with slender fingers. "Don’t be afraid. You're the Queen's prisoner now, and none dare hurt you for fear of retribution."
Gripping Cassie around the waist, and with no apparent sign of effort, he lifted her into one of the saddles. He arranged her limbs, hair, and clothing to his satisfaction, then tied her wrists to the saddle's pommel and stood back to assess the result. Then he mounted the other horse and reached for her horse's reins. And all the while, the congregation were coming and going, oblivious to what was happening right under their noses.
Unable to do anything else, Cassie committed the stranger's details to memory. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail, revealing a pale, clean-shaven face. The blackness of his hair and the slight tilt to his eyes reminded her of Tarian. In fact, now she came to think of it, he could have stepped straight out of one of Tarian's paintings.
He clicked his tongue to urge his horse into motion. Her mount followed his, and they trotted up the High Street, past the garage. Two trainer-clad feet poked out from under the Yaris, which now sported a spanking new bumper.
Does Mike work on Sundays, then? She tried to shout out to him for help, but as before no sound emerged.
Whatever her abductor had done to paralyse her was oddly selective. She could still breathe and blink her eyelids, for example, and her heart was beating slowly and steadily. Which was odd, come to think of it. She should be terrified out her wits, yet she felt perfectly calm.
The man with the ponytail turned to look back at her, then faced front once more. They rode past Tarian's house—there was no sign of the artist—then on and up the hill towards the forest.
The signpost and stile came into view, and he spurred his horse and headed straight for it. Her own mount picked up speed and she was thankful that he had bound her hands to the pommel, or she would surely have fallen off. Then she was airborne, and if she could have she would have held her breath. It seemed to take forever before her horses' hooves had cleared the battered wooden stile, but it was probably only seconds before the jarring landing. He slowed and once more turned to check that she was all right then proceeded on at a trot.
They had gone only a little way along the public footpath when her abductor branched off and slowed the horses to a walk, taking a game trail that climbed deeper into the forest. Gloom descended as the trees closed in on either side, and the sounds of the forest faded. Twigs tried to scratch her face and branches threatened to sweep her from her horse's back, but she was unable to hunch down in her saddle to avoid them, the way he did. He glanced back, gestured, and muttered something, and after that it seemed almost as though the branches were bending away from her to allow her free passage.
A crow's loud caw from somewhere in the canopy startled her. He shaded his eyes and looked up then waved a gloved hand, as if in greeting.
Just one more impossibility to add to all the others.
At last, they emerged into a sun-dappled clearing. A massive oak tree took pride of place on one side, and eight feet from it stood an imposing ash tree. Her abductor guided his horse towards the gap between the trees, and a strange sensation like the buzzing of bees or the prickle of electricity crawled over her, growing stronger the closer they got. Then her horse passed between the trees, and the sensation vanished... and so did Bourne Forest.
Oh, it was still forest, that much was plain, Cassie thought, as she looked about her in astonishment, but it was... 'different' was the best word she could come up with. The rough clearing had become a glade full of woodland flowers where bees buzzed, and the trees here, wherever 'here' was, were taller and thinner, and fully in leaf. The air was balmy, warm as midsummer, and with a honeysuckle tang to it. The birds sang louder and more tunefully.
The game trail had become a bridle track and it no longer sloped uphill. As they rode along it, Cassie puzzled over her growing feeling of déjà vu. All of a sudden, it came to her. Tarian's paintings.
She was thinking about that when crashing noises and the waving of branches drew her attention to the undergrowth ten yards ahead. Both horses became skittish and the man with the ponytail reined in at once. He was just in time, for several animals, two large followed by three small, crossed the trail directly in front of them. Cassie had time to register the large heads and small hindquarters, the thick, bristly red-brown coats and wicked-looking tusks, then the family of wild boar had disappeared into the undergrowth once more.
The crashing sounds were already fading into the distance when her abductor urged his horse into motion. A few minutes later, they emerged into the open, and into daylight softer and more muted than she was used to. She heard the distant, unmistakeable cry of a hawk and spied it circling high above.
The man turned in his saddle and grinned. "Behold." He gestured with one gloved hand. "Mab's domain."
Cassie blinked at the lush parkland and sparkling lakes, and the imposing structure standing in their midst. No squat ugly castle with thick walls and a drawbridge for this Mab person, it seemed. White pennants fluttered from six impossibly tall and delicate turrets, and light glittered off the countless windows that peppered a palace made entirely of white marble and glass.
Pleased with the impression her surroundings had made on her, he spurred his horse into motion again. They rode through pastures dotted with clover and buttercup, past herds of red deer that looked up as she rode past then tamely continued their grazing. Up to the arched gates they went, then through them into a spacious courtyard, where two stable boys stopped what they were doing and hurried forward to take their horses.
"Lord Einion." The first stable boy bowed and held Cassie's horse steady while Einion dismounted, freed her hands from the pommel, and helped her down.
She would have collapsed, had he not scooped her up into his arms, turned, and carried her up the steps and into the palace. Being unable to move thwarted her attempts to look about her, but she caught glimpses of a high ceiling, tall windows of stained glass, richly decorated wall hangings, and furniture carved with leaf patterns and stylised representations of woodland animals.
He halted in an inner chamber and placed her on herb- and rush-strewn flagstones. An elderly wolfhound came to investigate but a woman's autocratic voice called, "Olwydd," and he stopped nosing her and padded away.
"This... this puny creature is the one?" continued the voice. "But she is plain. Much too short. Her skin too brown, her hair too fair."
"Yet she is the one, your majesty," said Einion.
Cassie wished she could see who was insulting her—presumably this Mab person—but she couldn't move. Then her paralysis disappeared and the terror that had been held at bay surged through her and she began to tremble.
"And weak," continued Mab. "See how the mortal trembles. How could any self-respecting Fae feel anything but pity or disdain? Are you sure there is no mistake?"
Fae? Cassie pounced on the word. Is this Faerie then? She managed to get control of herself at last, enough to roll over onto her side and prop herself up on one arm.
At the far end of the room, in front of a flickering fire, was an outsize throne. In it sat a regal-looking woman in a silk gown of the deepest violet that clung to her in all the right places. Her hair was raven black, and she wore it long and flowing, held in place by a simple silver circlet. The milk white face beneath the circlet was proud and very beautiful. One long-fingered hand rested on the throne's arm, the other fondled the ears of the wolfhound. To one side, on a wooden perch, sat a large crow observing the proceedings.
Mab's dark eyes were as keen as a hawk's as they raked Cassie from head to toe. "Tarian would defy me for this?"
She was clearly furious, and Cassie braced herself for the worst. But instead of blasting her to smithereens, Mab smiled and let out a peal of laughter. The abrupt change of mood made the hairs on the back of Cassie's neck stand up.
"Good," said Mab. "Let us see if we can convince her to return."
Tarian had finished her lunch of cold roast boar in a bap and was lost in her painting when she became aware she had visitors. That prickling sensation was unmistakable. She extended her senses until she found the cause. A group of Fae was waiting in her back garden, and they had horses with them.
Waiting for what? Me?
She put down her palette, placed the brush in a jar of water, and went through to the kitchen. Anwar and Drysi whined softly. "I know," she told them. "It can't be good, can it?"
She took a breath, then opened the door and stepped out. Four riders—two men and two women—were waiting by the hawthorn tree. Garan was one of the riders. The others were nobles from Mab's court. They were dressed as though for the hunt, wearing grey cloaks and carrying light spears.
Am I to be their prey? The dogs pressed themselves against Tarian's legs, and she stroked their heads.
"The Queen sent us to fetch you." Garan indicated the spare mount: a black horse with a white blaze on its forehead.
Tarian frowned. "She had my answer. What makes her think I'll change my mind?" Two of the horses shifted and sidestepped, betraying their riders' nervousness—if it came to conflict, Tarian was more than a match for them.
"Since we spoke there has been a development," continued Garan. "The mortal is Mab's prisoner."
Tarian's heart thumped and her mouth went dry. "Which mortal?" But she already knew the answer.
"Is she unharmed?" She must be terrified.
Garan nodded. "And the Queen gives you her word that she will remain so if you come with us."
Her word, thought Tarian bleakly. Boar droppings! On past evidence, what good is that? "I would be breaking our agreement." she objected.
Garan smiled. "Didn't I tell you this morning? That agreement is now void."
Tarian balled her hands into fists. It was her fault that Cassie had attracted the Queen's attention in the first place. What had possessed her? On a whim she had decided to play protector, simply because it amused her and because she could. And she had seen the results of that last night. Cassie's feelings had been all too clear, and they were not the gratitude and admiration that Tarian had secretly been hoping for (she could admit it now). That had been chastening enough. And now this.
She could not, no, she would not, permit Cassie to face the consequences of her own self-indulgence. No doubt Mab knew that—she had always been a superlative chess player.
"Very well," she growled. At her answer, the tension dissipated and the riders' faces broke into smiles.
Tarian considered whether to fetch her bow, then decided it would make little difference. She pulled the kitchen door closed behind her, squared her shoulders, and strode over to the waiting Fae. Her dogs padded along behind her.
Garan handed her the reins of the black horse. Tarian nodded her thanks, shoved her foot in the stirrup, and mounted up.
Two of the Fae wheeled their horses round and started towards the trees that abutted Tarian's garden. Tarian kicked her horse into a walk and followed them, Anwar and Drysi trotting on either side. The remaining two Fae brought up the rear. As they entered the forest, each rider slowed and leaned forward in the saddle to avoid the overhanging branches. Tarian twisted round, gave the house where she had spent the past two years a last wistful look, then leaned forward too.
Cassie's buttocks had gone numb, and she shifted into a more comfortable position on the grass. Her hands were bound in front of her, but otherwise the Fae were treating her well. They had even given her something to eat and drink. At first she had been reluctant to accept—she knew her fairytales—but Einion had sworn such tales were ill informed at best, fabrication at worst. In the end she had been so hungry (she had no idea what time it was but it seemed an age since breakfast) she risked it. He'd given her a slab of fresh crusty bread, cold sliced meats (she thought some might be boar), and sweet pastries that melted on the tongue, then grabbed a jug of mead and two cups and escorted her outdoors to the meadow at the rear of the palace.
Einion caught her studying him and arched an eyebrow. She cleared her throat and gestured towards the rectangular area of daisy-dotted grass a few feet away. It that had been roped off and at either end of it, small gaily-coloured pavilions had been erected. Round its perimeter servants were currently placing rugs and low stools. She watched two panting servants carry a heavy, plush red velvet chair across the grass and set it down in a spot with a good view.
That's for Mab, I bet. By now Cassie knew Mab was the Queen of the Fae.
"What's the occasion?" she asked.
Gorgeously clad courtiers, some accompanied by wolfhounds were gathering, gravitating towards the rugs and stools, greeting one another and exchanging pleasantries. There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.
Einion sipped from his cup before answering. "Whatever Mab decrees. ... More mead?" He gestured to her cup on the grass at her elbow. She shook her head—it was much too sweet for her taste.
"Who are the contestants?"
"And why must I watch?"
"Because Mab commands it."
A group of nobles settled on stools a few feet to her right. From their frequent stares and muffled asides she knew she must be the topic of conversation.
"I feel like a monkey in the zoo."
"They mean you no harm." Einion frowned, and Cassie followed his gaze to the entrance flap of one of the pavilions where a Fae, the most muscular she had seen, was standing, deep in conversation. "I'm not sure the same can be said of him, however."
"Cadel." He glanced at her. "Queen's Champion for the past two years."
"So he's one of the contestants?"
She'd been wondering if she was imagining the ground vibrating under her in time to the faint drumming of horses' hooves, but just then some horsemen galloped up. Her eyes flew to the only rider not wearing a grey cloak. If she hadn't recognised that striking profile, the paint-spattered grey sweatshirt and blue jeans and the two wolfhounds with her would have given the identity of the rider away.
Her heart thumped. "What's Tarian doing here?" Einion didn't answer.
As though she had heard Cassie, Tarian glanced in her direction. She leaned down and said something to her dogs, and after a moment they peeled off and lolloped towards Cassie.
She was in easy reach of tongues and paws, and fended off their friendly greeting with her bound hands as best she could, but not before she had had her face thoroughly licked. She found she was very glad to see them.
"Hello, you two."
They flopped down on the grass beside her.
The male dog—Anwar wasn't it?—rested one paw on her leg with a distinct air of possessiveness. And Drysi gave the nobles sitting close by a baleful look and drew back her lips from her teeth. They frowned and shifted their stools a few yards further away.
Gratitude suffused Cassie as it dawned on her that Tarian had told the dogs to protect her. She's not a demon, she realised, feeling a rush of relief. She's one of the Fae.
Suddenly everything began to make sense: Tarian's unscheduled appearance in Bourne's Edge; the isolated life she preferred to lead; and the wolfhounds that were her constant companions.
The grey-cloaked riders dismounted and ushered Tarian inside the pavilion before dispersing. Something Mab had said earlier came back to Cassie and made her stomach lurch.
"She's here because of me, isn’t she, Einion? Mab took me hostage to make her come back."
He nodded. "Tarian has never allowed herself to get entangled in a mortal's affairs. Then you came along. Mab saw her chance and seized it."
"So she's going to fight Cadel? ... But that's... that's ridiculous. How can she possibly win against the Queen's Champion?"
"Tarian was Mab's champion before Cadel."
Cassie gaped at him. No wonder Tarian had been able to despatch Armitage's men so easily.
He smiled at her. "You wouldn't think it to look at them, but they're evenly matched."
"But why?" Einion looked confused. "I mean why now? After all, the Queen's managed without Tarian up 'til now. So what changed?"
"Ah, I see." He considered. "Boredom?"
She glanced at the muscled Fae. "With Cadel?"
"He was never going to be able to erase Tarian from Mab's memory. They were the perfect match. Tarian's bloodlust and battle lust almost outstripped the Queen's."
Cassie blinked. "They were lovers?"
"For a while." Einion sighed. "Mab enjoyed taming Tarian, being tamed by her." He smiled, remembering. "But Tarian grew weary of their constant arguments, their battles of wits. Her bloodlust waned, but Mab's did not. Tarian tried to find another way, distanced herself... and in so doing hurt and angered the Queen."
"What happened? Did Mab exile her?"
"It was that or unmake her. But Mab loved her too much for that." He shrugged.
"And that was, what, two years ago?"
He nodded. "After Tarian, Cadel was restful, straightforward. He's a man of simple needs; a battle, a fuck, a feast—he likes nothing better. At first Mab found him refreshing, but now...."
Cassie could see where this was leading. "Let me guess. She wants Tarian back?" Anwar moved his paw on her leg, and she ruffled his coat with her fingers.
Einion nodded. "Those of us who are her friend as well as subject have tried to make the Queen see that it's a lost cause. She won’t believe it but in the end she must."
"What will happen then?"
"I fear this time she will unmake Tarian."
Cassie felt a jolt of alarm. "You keep talking about 'unmaking'. What do you mean? "
The gaze he turned on her was grave. "We are not as your kind, Cassie. The Fae cannot die, they must be unmade. And in Faerie, the Queen alone wields that power."
Tarian looked up as the Queen and her page entered the pavilion, Olwydd padding at their heels. The elderly wolfhound recognised Tarian at once and came over to greet her, but Mab called to him sharply. With a mournful look at her, the dog left Tarian alone, sank to his haunches and began to lick his privates.
Tarian gave a perfunctory bow.
"Just like old times, isn't it?"
She grunted and straightened her tunic.
"Oh, don't be like that." Mab's eyes danced. "You know you've missed me. Deep down, you're glad to be back." She gestured and her page scurried across the tent, grabbed one of the two stools, and carried it back to her. She nodded her thanks, smoothed her gown over her buttocks and thighs, and sat down.
"We had an agreement," growled Tarian, buckling her belt.
Mab pretended to be puzzled. "Yet here you are." She gestured to her page again. He hurried to the trestle table in one corner and began to pour mead from a ewer into a cup.
"Only because you took Cassie Lewis hostage." Tarian sat on a stool and pulled on one of the soft leather boots then reached for its mate.
Mab accepted the cup from her page and gave Tarian an arch look. "Do you expect me to believe you came back to save a mere mortal?" She sipped her mead.
"Yes." She stamped her feet into the boots until they felt comfortable. "Because it's true."
The Queen laughed. "If I believed that, you would indeed no longer be the Tarian I knew."
Mab's smile vanished. "Have a care, Tarian. To prize the welfare of a mortal above that of one's Queen is treason. And we both know the penalty for that."
Olwydd stopped licking his privates and snapped at a fly that had been buzzing around the tent. He yawned and laid his head on his paws.
Tarian folded her arms and regarded Mab. "Why are you doing this?"
"I would have thought that was obvious. I want you back." The Queen gestured at Tarian's attire. "There. Doesn't that feel better?"
"No," said Tarian shortly. "Let the mortal go, Mab."
"Why should I?"
"Because she's done nothing to hurt you or any of the Fae. And because I ask it."
"'Nothing', you say." Mab swirled mead round her mouth then swallowed it. "This Cassie—" she spoke the name with obvious distaste, "—captured your attention enough that that you fought in her defence." Her eyes flashed with the rage that Tarian remembered, and she knocked over the stool as she stood up. The page scurried to right it but Mab waved him away. "My champion fighting to defend another, and a mortal at that!" Reacting to his mistress's mood, Olwydd rose, his gaze flicking between Mab and Tarian. Belatedly his hackles rose and his lips drew back from his teeth.
After two years, she's as jealous as she ever was, realised Tarian with a jolt. "I'm no longer your champion, your majesty," she reminded. "Cadel holds that position."
"Not for much longer." The Queen's good mood returned as swiftly as it had departed and she smiled. The wolfhound yawned then padded over to sniff something interesting in the corner of the pavilion.
Tarian bit her lip. It was as she had feared when she saw the pavilions and the knots of picnicking nobles sitting round the roped-off area and some of her old clothes laid out ready for her. "I am to fight Cadel?"
"And if I refuse?"
Mab played with her girdle then looked up. Her eyes had gone hard. "The mortal dies."
"Very well. I will fight your contest."
Mab clapped her hands. "I knew you'd see sense."
Tarian grunted. "Who has the choice of weapons?"
"I do." Mab flashed her a smile.
"And the prize?"
The Queen's smile became tinged with cruelty. "The mortal, of course."
The thought of Cassie in Cadel's clutches made Tarian feel ill. Mortals were such fragile creatures. "You would give her to that savage?"
Mab gave her an arch look. "My dear Tarian. He's no more savage than you are."
Perhaps that was true of me once, but now.... "Answer me, Mab. Would you truly give her to him?"
The Queen pouted. "Oh don't make me out to be so heartless." She crossed to the tent flap then turned and looked back at Tarian while Olwydd hurried to catch up with her. "After all, her fate hangs in your hands not mine."
Cassie watched the Queen of the Fae emerge from Tarian's pavilion, her elderly wolfhound at her heels, and make her way towards the plush red throne set ready for her on the grass. Since their last meeting, she had changed into a green satin gown embroidered with yellow silk, and a delicate silver girdle encircled her waist. She acknowledged the bows and curtseys that accompanied her progress with a wave and a smiling nod then took her seat.
"She's in a good mood," muttered Einion. "Tarian must have agreed."
"To fight Cadel?"
"Why would she do that?"
"The Queen can be very... persuasive."
I bet. Cassie pursed her lips. "What weapons will they use?"
"That's up to Mab." He held up a hand for quiet, and strained to hear the instructions the Queen was giving to a liveried herald and a page. The page bowed and darted off, and the herald strutted into the centre of the arena. As he did so, the flaps of each pavilion were thrown back and their occupants emerged.
A cheer went up as the two combatants took their places on either side of the herald. Tarian's forest green tunic and the tan breeches tucked into her boots made her look like the Fae she was. Cassie wondered why she had not seen it before. Because we see what we expect to see, I suppose. And since I didn't even know the Fae existed, how could I possible imagine one was living as an artist in Bourne's Edge?
Something odd struck her. "Shouldn't they be wearing armour?"
"Only a coward would," said Einion. "Wounds are an integral part of such contests. After all, we can use our magic to heal ourselves."
"I see. But... they're unarmed too."
"Not for long." He pointed, and Cassie turned and saw that the page had returned, and with him were two servants each carrying a pile of weapons. She squinted and made out spears, a bow and quiver full of arrows, and something that looked like a short wooden handle with a nasty looking spiked metal ball attached to it by a length of chain. Einion's face fell.
"What is it?" asked Cassie.
"A morning-star. Tarian's least favourite weapon, and Mab knows it."
Movement drew their attention back to the herald, who had puffed out his chest and was preparing to speak. "Your Majesty, my lords and ladies," he announced, his rich baritone ringing out around the arena. "Today we shall witness an event rare in the annals of Faerie: a battle of champions. Today the Queen's current champion, Cadel son of Clud son of Morthwyl, will compete against her former champion, Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk."
Loud applause met his words. He smiled and nodded acknowledgement. "The contest will consist of two trials. If by their conclusion no clear winner has emerged, a further trial of single combat will decide the victor."
"Sounds exhausting," murmured Cassie, before Einion shushed her.
"Queen Mab herself has chosen the weapons: spears, bows... and morning-stars." The herald glanced at Tarian and Cadel to make sure he had their full attention. "She has also decreed that any combatant caught using magic before the contest's conclusion will forfeit the contest—"
A murmur rippled through the spectators, and Einion hissed, "No magic? This could get bloody."
"—and thus the prize," finished the herald
One of the watching nobles, who had clearly had more mead than was good for him, shouted out, "That's all very well, but what is the prize?"
The herald puffed out his chest again. "To the victor goes the mortal hostage." He pointed at Cassie and every head turned to look at her. "To do with as they please."
"Me?" yelped Cassie, her heart thumping. She turned to Einion. "They can't do that, can they?"
"Mab can do whatever she wants."
Her gaze tracked back to the muscular Fae and her mouth went dry. Can he really win? "E... Evenly matched, you said?"
"The victor will also have the grateful thanks and undying affection of their Queen," shouted Mab playfully. "Not to be sniffed at, eh?"
The Queen's sally provoked appreciative laughter from her courtiers and a ferocious scowl from Cadel. Tarian, meanwhile, stood stone-faced. Cassie wondered what she was thinking.
A cold nose pushed itself into one of her palms—Drysi trying to comfort her—and a disquieting thought struck her. Tarian ordered her dogs to protect me. Was that because she was confident she would win... or because she wasn't?
Tarian eyed the grey gelding a page had brought her. A fine looking beast, but did his intelligence match his good looks? She mounted up, grasped the reins, and walked him round a bit. His mouth was sensitive and he responded to her slightest command. She found herself grinning. Though it was two years since she had last sat on a horse, it was as though she had never been away.
The thought wiped the smile from her face. This is what Mab wants me to feel. She glanced to where the Queen was sitting, talking to some of her courtiers, then away again.
Cassie was sitting on the other side of the roped-off sward and Tarian was glad to see Drysi and Anwar flanking her. She was also glad to see that Einion was her escort. That Mab had assigned her old friend to the task gave her some comfort. Einion was loyal to the Queen, but he was also fair-minded and would protect Cassie from any taunting from the more unruly nobles, especially those with a grudge against mortals.
"Is the mount acceptable?" The page was looking up at her.
She nodded, and with a relieved look he stepped back to allow through a servant carrying a sheaf of spears—not the heavy boar spear with the cross guard she had hanging on her hall wall, but light throwing spears. She took one, hefted it to test its balance, shook her head, and selected another. This one felt right, so she nodded acceptance and wheeled her mount round to see whether Cadel was ready yet.
Like her the big Fae was now on horseback, clutching a spear. His chestnut stallion was a lot larger than the gelding, but then he weighed a lot more too. She didn’t mind. Spear throwing wasn't about size or even power but about skill.
"The rules are simple," announced the herald from the sidelines. "Behold—" he gestured flamboyantly, "—the target."
A portable gibbet had been wheeled into the arena, and from its crossbeam hung a small, circular target made of straw. It had been marked with three concentric circles—the outermost circle dyed blue, the next red, the innermost yellow.
"Each contestant will have three spears. You must throw each one before you cross that point." The herald pointed. Ten paces from the gibbet, a servant had thrust into the turf a short staff from which hung a white pennant.
"If the spear misses the target or fails to remain embedded, no points will be awarded. Otherwise: a hit in the blue circle scores 1 point; in the red, 2 points; and in the yellow, 3 points. The Queen's current champion will go first."
He turned to the servant standing next to the straw circle and signalled. The man set the target swinging and ran for it.
Cadel hefted his spear and kicked his stallion into a gallop. He had almost reached the fitfully fluttering pennant when he launched his spear. Tarian watched it fly towards the moving target. So certain was he of his aim, he didn't stop to watch it hit, but wheeled the chestnut round and cantered back towards Tarian.
Only when the watching courtiers began to clap and cheer did he raise his hand in casual acknowledgment and twist in the saddle to check the outcome. The spear's tip was embedded deep in the straw, right in the heart of the yellow bullseye.
She cursed under her breath. He had made it look much simpler than it was. A steady eye and a strong hand were not enough for this event. The rider had to keep an eye focussed on the swinging target, coordinate the movement of both hand and horse, and throw at just the right moment. She hoped her skills and instincts had not atrophied in the past two years. Well, she would soon see.
"Three points to Cadel," announced the herald, as the servant hurried to stop the straw circle from swinging, and tugged the spear free.
She waited for him to set the target swinging once more and stand clear. Then she kicked her horse into motion and hefted the spear. As her mount thundered towards the pennant, sending clods of turf flying, she stood up in her stirrups and pulled back her right arm, narrowed her attention until her whole world was the circle of straw swinging like a pendulum.
She held her breath, waited until the moment felt right and.... Now.
Her back and shoulders were in the throw, and as soon as her fingers had released the spear, she sat back in the saddle and reined in the grey. Unlike Cadel, she watched the spear's trajectory. Sunlight glinted off metal as it flew towards its target, and stuck, still quivering, in the red circle. She cursed under her breath as polite applause met the strike.
"Two points to Tarian," announced the Herald.
As she rode back to pick up another spear, Cadel curled his lip at her. She ignored him; there were still two throws to go.
Cheers and claps met Cadel's next throw, which had once more found the yellow bullseye. Tarian blotted out the distraction, got a more comfortable grip on the spear's haft, and readied herself. She had misjudged the target's path last time, left her throw a fraction too late. She would not make the same mistake again. She kicked the grey into a gallop, stood up in the stirrups, and drew back her arm. As she thundered over the turf, her eyes were fixed on the target, her arm a coiled spring.
Almost, her instincts told her. Almost.... Now.
As she threw, a flash of bright light blinded her. She couldn't help but flinch from it, and was still blinking aside the afterimages when she heard the herald announce, "In the red again. Two points."
By Oak, Ash, and Thorn! I'm lucky I even hit the target.
The flash had come from the group of courtiers standing near Cadel's pavilion: sunlight reflecting off something shiny—a silver buckle, a goblet.... It could have been an accident, but she didn’t think so. She gave the courtiers a hard look then, aware of Mab's keen gaze, rode back to collect her third and final spear.
Cadel's horse thundered past her, as he came in for his final throw, and she turned to watch him go. Perhaps it was carelessness or complacency on his part, or perhaps it was simply due to the presence of a large divot under hoof. Whatever the cause, Cadel was nearing the pennant when his stallion stumbled, unbalancing him. Even so, his spear managed to hit the target, though it struck the red circle rather than the yellow.
A round of applause went up. Most of those watching evidently hadn't noticed that Cadel had hurled his spear when he was a fraction past the pennant, but Tarian had. She wondered what would happen next.
The herald gestured for quiet and stood up. "Disqualified," he announced gravely. "No points."
"What?" Cadel's bellow of outrage made Tarian grin. "What do you mean, disqualified?"
"You threw after the pennant, not before," said the herald. He looked at Mab for support. "The rules are quite clear on that point, your majesty." She nodded her approval, which effectively silenced Cadel.
Still grumbling, the big man rode back to the starting point, dismounted, and thrust the stallion's reins into a page's hand. He folded his arms and jutted his jaw, and looked at Tarian as though daring her to do her worst.
She couldn't resist it. She winked at him, earning a scowl. Suddenly his six-point total didn't seem so out of reach.
The page was holding up two spears. She took one, weighed it, then nodded. "This will do."
Then it was time to see if she could put into practice what she had once known and had had to relearn in the previous two throws.
Mindful of how close she herself had been getting to the pennant, she reined in the grey a little on this final run. Then the moment was here, and she was hurling the spear with all her might. The throw was a good one, straight and true, and she was sure it was heading for the bullseye, but at the last moment a gust of wind came up out of nowhere, and once more her spear point struck the red circle and hung there quivering.
Daughter of a dungbeetle!
Tarian cast a suspicious glance towards the Queen. For while the combatants were forbidden to use magic, the Queen was not, and she had a suspicion Mab was playing games with her. But a bland smile met her stare. She could make a public accusation, she supposed, but what good would it do her? At least she hadn't lost the bout.
As she rode back to the start, the herald stood and announced, "Two points to Tarian. That makes six points each. I declare this trial a draw."
Cadel's scowl had been replaced by a smile, she saw, as she dismounted and flexed her throwing arm to work the stiffness out of her elbow. She sighed, sank onto a stool, and beckoned a page over.
"Fetch me a cup of mead, will you?" He nodded and scampered away.
Cassie gnawed a thumbnail. Where are the butts?
Tarian and Cadel had each been given a short bow. Pushed into the turf at their feet were ten arrows, Tarian's fletched with red feathers, the Queen's champion with green.
Or are they going to use the same target they used in the spear throwing? Two servants in the Queen's livery began to wheel the gibbet and battered straw target away. Evidently not.
As the servants unhooked the rope boundary and wheeled the gibbet through, two more servants hurried in the opposite direction. They were each carrying a crate, and from the air holes in the sides, the crates contained livestock.
Drysi and Anwar stopped using Cassie's thigh as a pillow and sat up. Drysi whined in the back of her throat, stood up, and sat down again. Clearly she wanted to investigate the crates but wouldn't leave Cassie's side. Anwar growled at his mate and she gave a very human sounding sigh, and rested her head on her paws.
Cassie stroked Drysi's warm head. "Good girl." She turned to Einion. "What's in the crates?"
He grinned. "Wait and see."
"I just hope Tarian's archery is better than her spear throwing." She paused. "I sound like an ungrateful bitch, don't I?"
Einion shrugged. "With reason. Some would say you wouldn't be a prisoner if it weren't for Tarian."
Cassie snorted. "Then we're even. Because she wouldn't have been forced back to Faerie if it weren't for me, would she?"
Her reply startled him. "Such greatness of heart." He became thoughtful. "Perhaps that is why...."
He seemed in two minds whether to answer then shrugged. "The Tarian I knew cared little for others' welfare," he said. "And you are a mere mortal. She must have changed more than I realised."
She ignored the insult implicit in his words. "You knew her?"
"We were friends." She waited but Einion didn't elaborate. "Look. They are about to start."
The herald stood up, and at his signal, the two servants removed the lids from the crates and tipped them on their sides. Out of them tumbled rabbits. Lots of them.
What's the collective noun? wondered Cassie. A warren? A colony? She had looked it up at the library for a member of the public once, but she couldn't remember the answer. Whatever the right word was, there were twenty of them at least. And they weren't the large tame white ones that children keep in hutches in their back gardens, but brown, wiry little beasts with plenty of running in them. The rabbits scattered in all directions and Tarian and Cadel each nocked an arrow to their bow and took aim.
A rabbit hurtling straight for Cassie gave a high-pitched shriek as a red-fletched arrow pinned it to the turf. Another, hard on its heels, leaped over its dying companion and continued towards her, but at the last minute it caught sight of the wolfhounds, now standing stiff legged and trembling with eagerness. It jinked to the right, and darted past her and the dogs. She turned to watch it go, ducking belatedly as it occurred to her that someone trying to shoot the rabbit could hit her instead.
"They may only shoot those inside the perimeter," reassured Einion.
"Oh." She unhunched her shoulders and turned to see how Tarian was doing. To her amazement, the archery contest appeared to be already over. The turf bounded by the ropes was covered with dead or dying rabbits, and the herald was noting the colour of the arrow that had despatched each one. In one case, two arrows, one of each colour, sprouted from the small brown body.
"Poor things," said Cassie. "Why couldn't they have used a straw target?"
"They were destined for the pot." Einion sounded indifferent. "At least this way, some had a chance of escape."
"It’s still barbaric."
She watched the herald complete his tally and signal to a man in a cook's apron. While the cook and his assistant began to gather the dead rabbits into several large baskets, the herald held up his hand for silence.
"A draw," he announced. A wave of disappointment swept through the spectators. "I assure you, ladies and gentlemen," he sounded defensive, "that it is indeed a draw." He turned to the Queen in appeal. "You majesty. Is it not so?"
Mab rose from her red plush seat and silence fell at once. "It is so," she called, and the herald smiled with relief. Then she glanced at the two combatants. Cadel was scowling (It seems to be his natural expression, thought Cassie.) and Tarian was impassive. "My champions are equally matched. That's why I decreed there should be a final bout to settle this, that of single combat." Mab turned to a page. "Fetch the morning-stars." She sat down once more.
The Queen's words had evoked a murmur of anticipation that Cassie didn’t share. For hadn't Einion said the spiked ball on the chain wasn't Tarian's favourite weapon? And if so, how could she possible win?
Tarian adjusted her grip on the handle. Cold iron take it, but this thing is clumsy! Every time the heavy metal ball swung at the end of its chain, the weapon's centre of gravity shifted. The trick was, if she remembered correctly, to use that to her advantage, to build up momentum by whirling the ball then direct the accumulated energy at her opponent. It was easier said than done, however. She was as liable to spike herself as Cadel.
The big Fae didn't seem to share her reservations. He grinned and swung his own morning-star almost negligently. But then his hands and wrists were larger and stronger than—
The flicker in his gaze alerted her, and she wrenched herself backwards just in time. The wicked spikes whooshed past her nose so close she could feel the slipstream. She gave herself a mental slap. Keep alert or he'll have you.
A mass intake of breath went up from those watching, many of whom were now leaning forward on their stools. The Fae enjoyed nothing more than bloody combat, especially if they weren't personally involved, and Mab's expression was avid, the tip of her tongue poking out. The only person present who didn't seem to be enjoying herself was Cassie. Her green eyes were wide and she had covered her mouth with her bound hands.
Tarian snapped her attention back to her opponent. Concentrate.
She shook the tension from her arms and shoulders, took a firmer grip on the handle, and shifted her weight forward. She began to circle Cadel. He turned to face her, eyes watchful.
Since she didn't have the physical advantage, she decided to try something else. There was nothing in the rules against it. "You know why Mab's doing this, don’t you?" she taunted, keeping her voice low so only he could hear. "She's tired of you. She wants me back."
Cadel snarled and his spiked ball whipped down, smashing into the turf where she had been standing, sending clods flying. The force of the blow drove the spikes deep, and he struggled to free them. Seizing her chance, she whipped her own ball towards him, but he was nimbler than he looked and sidestepped.
She grazed his left biceps, bloodying his sleeve but doing little damage. He bared his teeth at her, and resumed his tugging, and with a spattering of grass stems and soil, the spiked ball came free. Moments later it was hurtling straight at her in a blow meant to disembowel.
She flung herself backwards and rolled over twice, knees and elbows thudding on the turf, then came to her feet again. The tunic covering her abdomen was torn; beneath it she found a bloody cut which was just beginning to smart. It looked worse than it was, fortunately. She could have healed it, if magic had been permitted, but....
Several of those watching clapped and called out Cadel's name, and he puffed out his chest. Tarian resettled her grip on the handle, and took up her position opposite him once more.
"Even if you win," she said, "how long do you think it will be before someone else takes her fancy and she gets them to challenge you?"
The thought didn't appear to perturb him. "Why should that worry me? No one can beat me. And as long as that remains so, I'll be the Queen's champion."
She laughed and whirled her morning-star round her head, building up momentum. "Haven't you worked it out yet? With Mab, being champion is not just about the fighting. Are you good in bed too? I was." She raked him from head to toe with her eyes and arched an eyebrow. "I'd say you're not."
With an angry roar he charged, ball swinging, and this time she wasn't quick enough. Spikes smashed into her shoulder, and red-hot agony lanced through her. The blow sent her reeling, and the agony flared even hotter as the spikes tore free. As she fell, she dropped her weapon and clapped a hand to her shoulder. Agony radiated from it in waves and warm sticky wetness seeped between her fingers. She clenched her jaw and regulated her breathing, trying to control the pain.
Cadel's supporters, meanwhile, were on their feet and cheering. She lifted her head and saw that he had raised his fists in victory.
I can’t let him win. Cassie's depending on me. It took all her strength, but she managed to get her legs under her and stagger to her feet. "The contest isn't over yet," she shouted.
The cheering died away and Cadel turned to look at her in amazement.
"The rules are that I must be incapacitated or I must concede, is that not so, Herald?" she called.
The herald unrolled a scroll, glanced down at it, then looked up at her again and nodded.
She stooped, the movement making her want to throw up, grabbed the morning-star's handle with her left hand, and straightened. "I—" Her voice was a husk so she cleared her throat and tried again. "I do not concede."
"But surely," objected the herald, "you are incapacitated. ... Your majesty?" He appealed to the queen who had been frowning at Cadel's victory but whose eyes were now merry. "What say you?"
Mab put a finger to her lips as she considered. "Are you incapacitated, Tarian?"
She ignored the trickle of warmth oozing between her fingers. "Not yet, your majesty."
"Very well." Mab turned back to the herald and gestured. "Let the contest continue."
He bowed respectfully then waved to Tarian and Cadel. "Proceed."
Once more the two combatants faced one another. Cadel eyed her blood-soaked tunic and grunted in dissatisfaction. "Can you still fight me properly?"
"Don't worry about me," said Tarian through gritted teeth. "I can fight as well left-handed as right." It was almost true.
She gripped the handle in her left hand and shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet. This was her last chance to save Cassie. She must use it wisely and well. And since using this pig of a weapon conventionally had got her nowhere—
That she used it left-handed probably helped. And that she used the two-foot long handle rather than the ball probably added to Cadel's confusion. Whatever the reason, he was unprepared when she lunged forward, grasping the handle with both hands and driving it deep into his midriff.
Air whooshed from his lungs and he doubled up. He was still trying to catch his breath when a flick of her wrist sent the heavy ball, and more importantly the chain, snaking out towards his legs. The look of outrage he gave her when the links wrapped themselves around his ankle and she simply tugged them out from under him would have made her laugh in other circumstances. But she had no time for humour.
Let's finish this.
She tore his own morning-star from his grip, raised it, and brought the spiked-ball crashing down. The blow jarred her shoulder, and for a moment she felt light-headed. But it passed, and she straightened and regarded the bloody pulp that had been Cadel's head. Such a massive head wound would have been fatal in a mortal, but in a Fae....
That must surely count as incapacitated.
For a long moment there was no sound, then the spectators let out a roar of approval. She released the morning-star, which fell with a heavy thud and left a deep dent in the turf, then held her shoulder and turned to accept the plaudits.
The herald was gesticulating, trying to get the excited Fae to calm down. When the noise had diminished to a murmur, he announced, "And the winner is: Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk."
Tarian nodded acknowledgement then turned to face the Queen. Gingerly, she bowed.
"You have fought well, Tarian," called Mab. "You deserve your prize." She gestured to where Cassie was sitting, and Einion sliced the mortal's bonds and urged her to her feet. The dogs rose too, tongues lolling. Tarian started towards them, but Mab froze her in her tracks with her next words.
"As for the loser.... Let all here bear witness. Cadel has disgraced not only himself but also me. Such a crime deserves the most severe of punishments. I will unmake him and appoint Tarian champion in his stead." She raised her hand and pointed a long finger at Cadel.
"But you can't!" blurted Tarian, positioning herself between the lethal finger and the supine Fae, and wondering even as she did so why on earth she was defying the most powerful woman in Faerie. Her shoulder was excruciating; all she wanted to do was find somewhere quiet where she could gather her strength and heal herself. It wasn't as if she owed Cadel anything after all. But what Mab proposed was just too... dishonourable.
"Can't?" Mab's smile dimmed. "I am your Queen, Tarian. I can do what I like."
"I would be neither legal nor just, your majesty. For he fought fair." If you discount that flash of light during the spear throwing. But that could have been a coincidence. "It was not a fight to the death. 'Concede or be incapacitated', those were the terms. And see: he is incapacitated." She gestured at the unmoving Cadel.
Tarian turned to the herald to back her up. He looked down at the scroll containing the rules and up again, but seemed too petrified to speak. She gave him an annoyed glance and ploughed on.
"Cadel has served you well for two years, your majesty, both in your bed and on the battlefield. He deserves gratitude and healing at your hand, not death. And you know full well I have no desire to return to the post I relinquished two years ago. Let me take my prize and go, I beg you."
She glanced at the Queen and winced. Every shred of good humour had disappeared, turning the beautiful face ugly.
"Beg me? It sounds more like defiance than entreaty. Do not defy me, Tarian," warned Mab, her tone steely. "Stand aside."
"I.... I cannot." She was all that stood between Cadel and his doom
Mab seemed to swell with rage, and on all sides her courtiers began to edge away. "This is intolerable," she shouted. "More than that. It's treason. And everyone knows the penalty for that. This is your last warning, Tarian. Stand aside, or I will unmake you instead."
Tarian fought an overwhelming urge to pull in her head like a tortoise and stood her ground.
"As you wish." Mab's forefinger moved until it was pointing straight at her. Her face was white marble, her eyes chips of flint.
Tarian closed her eyes. I wonder if it will hurt? At least it can't feel any worse than this shoulder. The waves of agony seemed to be growing in frequency and intensity, and she was beginning to shiver. She expelled a breath and decided she had no regrets... except one: she wouldn't be around to protect Cassie from Mab. I hope Einion can see her safe home before Mab takes out her anger on her....
"Please don't kill Tarian, your majesty."
The familiar voice came from directly in front of her. Tarian opened her eyes and found herself looking at the back of Cassie's head. On either side of the mortal stood Drysi and Anwar, their hackles raised. The protective gesture touched her, but she hated to see such courage go to waste in such a futile cause.
"Don't, Cassie," she murmured. "My fate is sealed, but you might yet live if you don't antagonise her."
Tarian could still see Mab over Cassie's shoulder. To her astonishment, the Queen looked startled rather than angry. But then, perhaps she shouldn't be surprised. Audaciousness and courage had always intrigued Mab. She felt a twinge of hope.
Mab lowered her arm and regarded Cassie with raised brows. "Give me one good reason why I should not unmake her. And have a care, mortal. For one false word could spell your own doom."
"Your majesty," Cassie sketched a curtsey, "why unmake Tarian when she can still be of use elsewhere? It seems such a waste."
Mab stared at her. "Her use to me is my only concern." She glanced over Cassie's head at Tarian, her expression becoming as sullen as a teenager's. "After all I've done for her, this is the thanks I get?"
Ah, there's the crux of the matter, thought Cassie. Mab's feelings are hurt.
"I am sorry you feel that way, your majesty. But surely 'unmaking' her will deprive you of her presence just as much as exile. So why not let her go?"
"I did that once before. It didn't work."
"That's because you didn't really let her go, did you?"
The Queen's brows drew together, but she said nothing.
Cassie ploughed on. "You thought she would come to her senses, didn't you? Realise what she had left behind, and choose to return. But she didn't."
The Queen folded her arms and frowned at Cassie. "Is this leading somewhere?"
Cassie's heart beat faster. Notice she didn't deny it. "I have a question for you, your majesty. You're the Queen of the Fae. You can do anything, right?"
Mab threw back her head and said proudly, "Of course."
"Even make someone love you? With a love spell or something?"
"Everyone knows that." Mab tapped her foot and said with obvious irritation. "Get to the point."
Cassie flushed. "I beg your pardon, your majesty. My point is this. You could have made Tarian love you, yet you chose not to. Why was that?"
She waited, and when again Mab didn’t reply, went on, "Wasn't it because making her love you would have made such love meaningless?"
"Pah!" said Mab. "You mortals are so sentimental." But there was an air of bluster about her that hadn't been there before. Perhaps Cassie was getting through? She hoped so. "We aren't talking about love. Tarian's my subject and a subject must obey her Queen in all things."
Cassie looked down at her hands, then up again. "She is yours to do with as you please?"
"Then you could give her to someone else. To me for example."
Tarian's intake of breath was drowned by the Queen's exclamation. "You?"
Cassie worked hard not to feel nettled by that intonation. "Why not? You have a surplus of champions to defend you, your majesty, but we mortals have none. It would be a generous gift, much appreciated."
"Is she mad?" Mab spoke over Cassie's head.
"No, your majesty," came Tarian's voice. "She's brave and resourceful and worthy of your admiration." The words brought a warm glow to Cassie's insides.
Mab snorted. "Now I know the world has gone topsy-turvy and you along with it." She glanced at Cadel's still form then at Cassie once more. "You hardly know Tarian yet you are willing to defend her like a lion would her cubs. Once her true nature is revealed, though, you'll feel differently. Mortals always do."
"If by that you're talking about her love of violence," said Cassie, "then I've seen her at her worst. She killed four men with no more thought or emotion than if she were killing vermin. But it was for my sake, your majesty. How could that repulse me? She risked her own life to save me. She has been my champion. May she not continue to be so?"
The silence that followed seemed endless, then Mab said, "Well, this is touching." She sounded both resigned and bitter. "You two seem bent on defending each other. Perhaps I should unmake you both, for if one alone dies the other will surely pine."
Cassie was unsure whether she was being sarcastic or serious. And when Mab cocked her head, fixed her eyes on Tarian, traced a shape in the air with her finger, and spoke what sounded like gibberish, she feared the worst. Heart in her mouth, she turned to look at Tarian, just as a pale green light engulfed her.
She was sure she had failed, terrified of what might happen next, but as she watched, Tarian's haggard expression eased. Tarian sighed with obvious relief and dropped her hand from her shoulder. Where the morning-star's spikes had mauled her, her tunic was still gashed and bloodstained, but the flesh beneath it was whole once more.
"My thanks, your majesty." Tarian bowed.
Mab nodded and gestured again. This time the green light settled over Cadel. The healing spell took longer to work on him, perhaps because his injuries were so severe, and Cassie pressed a fist to her mouth and tried not to scream as the skull fragments and mangled flesh moved, knitting themselves back together. At last the big Fae stirred, let out a groan, and sat up.
A ripple of applause greeted what was obviously a powerful working. Mab waved a hand in dismissal and turned back to regard Tarian, who had stepped forward to join Cassie. The dogs looked up at her and whined, happy to be with their mistress once more.
"The time has come to put an end to this dance, Tarian," said Mab, sounding tired. Cassie wondered if it was merely because the spell had drained her or something more. "Once we brought each other joy, but these days there is only pain." She expelled a breath. "But as this mortal reminded me, I am the Queen, I can do anything. Very well. Though I could make you love me, I will not... for the reason she so astutely gave. Which leaves but one option."
At that, she mouthed something and gestured at herself. Cassie exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Tarian as the tiredness and anguish disappeared from Mab's eyes and her face smoothed.
Mab exhaled and stretched out her arms, the way one does after putting down a burden carried for too long. "It is done." She smiled, but when she turned back to look at Tarian her smiled dimmed.
"You fought well today, Tarian, so take your prize and go. ... And do not come back. For I have expunged all affection for you as though it never was."
At her words, Tarian's jaw worked. Cassie reached over and grasped her hand; it felt icy to the touch.
"Cadel. Come here." Mab beckoned, and the big Fae threw a triumphant glance at Tarian before getting to his feet and hurrying to join his Queen. She smiled at him and placed her arm in the crook of his elbow. "Let it be known that Cadel is once more my champion," she announced in ringing tones. "And let it also be know that, henceforth, Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk is no subject of mine. Faerie is barred to her forever, and if she should return," her eyes flashed, "I will unmake her."
Tarian's face was impassive, but her tension transmitted itself through their clasped hands. Cassie squeezed her fingers, and Tarian gave her a sideways glance before bowing her head to the Queen.
"As you will it, so shall it be," she murmured.
Mab nodded. Then without another word or a backward glance, she turned her back on Tarian, and, arm in arm with her champion, her elderly dog trotting at her heels, strolled away.
Tarian's horse aimed a petulant kick at Anwar, who'd been padding along next to it. The wolfhound evaded the hoof easily then tried to nip the horse's fetlock in reprisal.
"Hey!" said Cassie. "Pack it in, you two."
Cassie was ill at ease in the saddle, so rather than take the two horses Einion offered, Tarian had mounted up behind her and was keeping her steady with a hand round her waist. The warm press of Cassie's jean-clad hips against her thighs was a pleasant bonus.
She took in a lungful of air and tried to commit its fragrance to memory. This time she would not be coming back
"Are you all right?" Cassie twisted to look at her. "You've been very quiet."
"Just tired." She turned the horse left onto the bridle track.
"I'm not surprised. All that fighting. And that was an awful wound you took."
"I've had worse."
"As bad as Cadel?"
Cassie shuddered. "I don't think I'll ever forget the sight of his head knitting itself back together like that. ... It was decent of Mab to heal your wound as well."
"Yes. And... unexpected."
Mab's gesture, surprising as it was, had come as a welcome relief, for Tarian had been too exhausted and in too much pain to take on the task herself. Einion would have healed her if she asked him to, but still... The tiredness she felt now was more mental than physical. It was strange to think that she no longer held a special place in Mab's affections. She had mixed emotions about that, for she could not deny that, though it had been a nuisance at times, it had been flattering to have the Queen so enamoured of her.
A glade full of wildflowers appeared up ahead, and in its centre shimmered the faint haze that was the boundary between the worlds.
"I remember this," said Cassie, looking around.
The horse wasn't theirs to take with them, so Tarian reined in, dismounted, and helped Cassie down. Cassie gave a grunt of relief and rubbed the feeling back into her thighs and buttocks.
"Why do they make horses so wide? ... Ooh! These are nice." Cassie crossed to a clump of wild flowers and began to pick them. "Such a wonderful scent."
Tarian tied the reins to the pommel, so they wouldn't get tangled on a branch, and slapped the horse's rump, sending the animal back the way it had come. That proved irresistible to the wolfhounds of course, and they chased the panicked animal, just for fun, until it was out of sight, before bounding back to Tarian's side.
"Bad dogs," she told them, as they rubbed their cheeks against her, inviting her to pat them, but she didn't mean it.
"Here." She turned to find Cassie shyly holding out a posy of blooms in various pastel shades. "These are for you."
No one had ever given her flowers before. "Er... thanks." She was at a loss what to do with it for a moment then tucked it in her belt.
"Will you miss it?" Cassie indicated their surroundings.
Tarian shrugged. "I've already been away for two years and there hasn't been a day when I didn't." She held out her hand. "Come on."
"Um. Come where?" Cassie took her hand.
Tarian nodded and pointed to the shimmer. "There."
"I'll have to take your word for it." Cassie looked thoughtful. "I think I can feel it though. Like static electricity."
Tarian stepped towards the boundary, and gave Cassie's hand a gentle tug. "It's a shame we had to return the horse. It means we'll have to walk once we cross." She took another step forward, then another. "Ready?" Cassie took a deep breath then nodded. "Here we go."
In the course of that last step her surroundings flickered and changed. It was drizzling now, and no longer mid afternoon but early morning, judging by the light. The flower-strewn glade had become a rough clearing, the muted sounds of the waking forest had replaced the loud trill of the blackbird, and the temperature had dropped perceptibly. One second the wolfhounds weren't there, the next they were, sniffing around the clearing and cocking their legs against a tree.
Cassie looked at the massive oak tree and the ash. "Are we back in Bourne Forest?"
"Yes." Tarian released her hand and pointed towards the trail she always used. "This way." She pushed her way between the branches, then realised that Cassie wasn't following her. Puzzled, she went back. Cassie was standing by a narrow trail on the other side of the clearing, frowning.
"I'm sure I came this way," she called. "Look. There are hoof prints."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "Maybe so. But my way is shorter and will bring us out in my back garden."
"Well, why didn’t you say so?" Cassie hurried across the clearing towards her, and Tarian smiled and set off along the trail once more, the wolfhounds at her heel. The foliage was dripping and it wasn't long both of them were wet too.
"It would be raining." Cassie brushed a strand of damp hair out of her eyes. "And cold."
Tarian grunted. She was missing the sweatshirt she had left in Faerie—this tunic was too thin for an English Spring.
"Listen to me, complaining about the weather," exclaimed Cassie, after they had gone a few more paces, "when I should just be thankful to be here at all." She looked at Tarian. "Thank you for coming after me. You always seem to be rescuing me."
"It was my fault Mab targeted you in the first place." Tarian held back a branch to allow Cassie past then released it. "And it was you who persuaded the Queen to spare my life. You have quite a way with words, don't you?"
"Um. Well, my friends are always telling me I talk too much." Cassie's sigh made Tarian chuckle.
They walked on in silence for a little way, the only sound the crack of twigs beneath their feet or the squelch of mud. Then Cassie said, "You know what bugs me most about Mab?"
"The way she felt she could give us to one another. Bloody cheek!"
Evidently some of Cassie's revulsion towards Tarian remained. She tried not to mind. "Faerie is a very feudal society," she said.
"You're telling me."
She recognised an old silver birch leaning at an unusual angle. "Nearly there."
"Good." Cassie wiped raindrops from her eyelashes. "I could do with a sit down and a nice cup of tea."
"Or something stronger," said Tarian, as she emerged into the open and saw her back garden stretching out in front of her. The dogs bounded ahead, stopped outside the kitchen door and looked back at her, tongues lolling. She paused as unexpected emotion flooded through her.
"What is it?" asked Cassie softly.
"I didn’t realise how much I loved this place until I thought I might never set eyes on it again." She studied the neglected garden, the warped window frames in need of another coat of paint, the dirty windowpanes.... "I know it's nothing compared to Mab's palace but still it's...." She shrugged.
"Home," completed Cassie.
"Yes." Tarian returned the smile and set off towards the back door. She had left it unlocked, so she simply lifted the latch and walked in. While the dogs made straight for their water bowls, drank their fill, then threw themselves into their baskets and were instantly asleep, she turned to survey her kitchen, drinking in the signs of a life put on hold when the Fae hunting party had arrived.
She remembered the posy of flowers in her belt, filled a glass with water from the tap, and placed them in it. Their fragrance filled the kitchen. A memento of Faerie. They won’t last long
A shiver reminded her that she was soaked to the skin. "Put the kettle on," she told Cassie. "I'm going to change into something warmer."
Upstairs, she discarded the blood-soaked tunic and breeches and pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans, feeling instantly more comfortable. Then she visited the bathroom, and made herself more presentable.
Cassie looked up as she re-entered the kitchen. A tea towel was draped round her neck, and her hair was fetchingly tousled from its use. The tea was brewing in the pot and she had set out two mugs. She reached for the milk bottle that she must have taken from Tarian's fridge. "Milk and sugar? Or something stronger?"
Tarian considered. "Just milk." She plopped herself down on a chair and let out a sigh of relief. Cassie set her mug on the table next to her. "Thanks." Several sips of tea later, she noticed that Cassie had been frowning at the kitchen clock for a while. "Is it slow?"
Cassie came back to her surroundings. "Oh, no. I was just wondering.... How long do you think we've been gone? Fairy tales say a day in Faerie is a year here."
"Another of those things that isn't quite right. Time passes there at the same rate, but our days are out of synch—how much depends on which crossing you use."
"There are other entrances than the one in Bourne Forest?"
Tarian nodded. "Most have fallen into disuse though."
"I see." Cassie looked at the clock again. It was only 7.30 am. "So we've probably been away, what, a day at most?"
"Probably not even that. I'd guess it's Monday morning."
"Monday." Cassie mouthed the word then blinked as something occurred to her. "Liz Hayward's going to wonder where I spent last night, isn’t she? She'll think you and I..." She blushed.
Her reaction amused Tarian. "So what if she does? You're a grown woman."
Cassie looked at her, her gaze intent. "You don't mind people thinking that?"
"Why should I?"
"Oh, I just thought...." She gave a shrug then subsided, muttering, "I don't know what I thought."
Tarian cocked her head. "No?" Cassie's behaviour since they'd returned from Faerie was confusing her. Why hadn't she fled at the first opportunity? Tarian had been trying her best not to invade Cassie's privacy, but now.... She extended her senses. There was no sign of the fear and disgust she had every right to expect. Just a mix of gratitude... and attraction. She glanced at the flowers sitting in the glass of water.
"You didn't put a spell on me, did you?" asked Cassie suddenly. She had followed Tarian's glance.
"What kind of spell? ... Oh." She smiled. "If you're attracted to me it's not because of any spell."
Cassie's eyes narrowed. "How do you know I'm attracted to you?"
Tarian wasn't about to give away any more of her secrets just yet. "Do you give flowers to people you don't like?" She cocked her head and regarded Cassie. "If it helps, I'm attracted to you too."
That got her a slow relieved smile. "It helps."
Tarian pursed her lips. "We didn't get off to a very good start last night, did we?"
Cassie sighed. "No."
"If dinner had gone to plan, I was hoping to do this." She stood up, took hold of Cassie's hands, and drew her to her feet.
"What?" asked Cassie. But from her suddenly shy expression she knew very well. And when Tarian bent her head and kissed her, tentatively at first, then more surely, tasting the flavour of tea on her mouth, she found her kiss returned.
After a little while, they simply stood, holding one another. Cassie's heart, which had been pounding hard, had slowed to a more reasonable pace and she was radiating contentment. The dogs woke in their baskets, lifted their heads, and gazed smugly at Tarian then at each other, then laid their heads on their paws and dozed off again.
Tarian smiled. They knew this would happen before I did.
"You know who I am, yet you're not afraid of me," she mused aloud, enjoying the feel of Cassie's curves pressed against her, the warm arms wrapped round her. This is what I've missed.
"Why should I be?" Cassie's voice was muffled by Tarian's shoulder. "You're my protector. My champion."
She liked the sound of that.
Are you out of your mind? warned her inner voice. Relationships between Fae and mortals always come to grief, you know that. She silenced it. Not always. And would you sentence me to eternal loneliness or let me at least try to find happiness where I can? The voice had no answer to that.
At last, she disentangled herself, to flattering noises of protest from Cassie, looked down at her, smiled, and stroked her cheek. "I'd like to get to know you better, Cassie. A lot better. But for now.... You should go home," she told her. "You've been through a lot. You need to rest, and to think. It's not every day your worldview gets turned upside down."
Cassie sighed. "I suppose."
"If I don't hear from you again," she began, and was relieved when Cassie at once started to object. "No, hear me out. ... If you decide it's better we don't see each other again, for whatever reason, I'll understand. But if you want to take things further... well, I'll be here. All you have to do is knock."
Cassie parked the Yaris outside Tarian's cottage and turned off the ignition. It was great to have her car back, though the repairs had put a sizeable dent in her credit card. She got out, opened the boot, and pulled out her travel bag.
"Morning, Ms Lewis," came a man's voice. "So it's today you move in with Ms Brangwen, is it?"
She turned and saw Simon Wright walking past. "Yes, Reverend. It’s today."
He nodded, waved, and walked on. But from his expression, she knew he didn't approve of her burgeoning relationship with Tarian. He was fearful on her behalf, which was sweet of him but entirely unnecessary. How could he possibly understand that his instincts had badly misled him? Far from being a threat to her, Tarian was her safe harbour.
Liz Hayward's jaw had also dropped when Cassie announced she would be terminating her stay at the B & B and moving in to the forester's house. But by then the landlady had seen the two of them walking hand in hand about the village, wolfhounds at their heels, so it hadn't come as a complete bolt from the blue.
Cassie closed the boot and began to lug the heavy travel bag towards the front door. She hadn't told her parents yet that she was seeing someone and that it was serious, but that was a conversation for another day. As was the one she would have to have with her boss at the library. She couldn't expect them to hold her job open indefinitely. She would have to decide what to do about her future, and soon.
She looked down at the travel bag then at Tarian's front door and gave a wry smile. Looks like I've already decided.
The door opened and Tarian and the dogs stepped out. "What are you waiting for?"
"A porter to carry my luggage?"
Tarian grinned and took the travel bag from her, handling it as though it weighed almost nothing. Cassie shook her head a little at that unconscious show of strength, then followed her inside and up the stairs.
"I've made up the spare bedroom," said Tarian, showing her into a little room overlooking the back garden that she had never been in before. "It's not up to Liz Hayward's standards, I'm afraid." She gestured at the mismatched, shabby furniture. "No TV. No electric kettle."
Cassie crossed the room and hugged her. "It's got you," she said and turned her face up for a kiss. Tarian grinned and obliged. "Besides," Cassie said, when Tarian let her up for breath again, "I don't imagine I'll actually be sleeping in here, will I?"
Tarian drew back and arched an eyebrow at her. She had made it clear that the invitation to move in came with no strings. "Is that what you want?"
Amazed at her own boldness, Cassie nodded.
Tarian chuckled and gave her another kiss. "All right."
When she'd unpacked, they snuggled on the sofa in front of Tarian's roaring log fire, and Cassie broached a subject that she knew was important to them both.
"DS Edlin rang me this morning."
"Oh?" Tarian's voice was neutral, but tension had crept into the arm draped around Cassie's shoulder.
"It was good news and bad news. The good news is: Armitage's organisation is in chaos. Four of the men who worked for him have disappeared."
Tarian grunted. "Imagine that."
"The bad news is: he hasn't been able to pin the attempt to kill me with the van on Armitage. So it's a no to the witness protection scheme."
Tarian's arm tightened around her. "I'll protect you."
"I know you will," murmured Cassie. "But only if I stay here."
"What do you mean, 'if'?" Tarian removed her arm, and Cassie felt its loss at once. "Have you changed your mind?" The two dogs lifted their heads and gave Cassie reproachful looks.
"Oh no!" said Cassie. "I didn't mean that how it sounds." She took a deep breath and tried again. "I just meant.... Look, I have to go back sometime, Tarian. To clear up the mess I left behind. I've got to find a place for Tiddles—he won't get on with the dogs if I bring him here—and I want to see Mum and Dad and my friends, let them see I'm fine and they don't need to worry about me. I also have to clear out my flat, and give notice to the landlord. Paying rent for a place I don't live in anymore is a waste."
Tarian said nothing, but she draped her arm round Cassie's shoulders again, and Cassie smiled to herself and leaned into it. "You could come with me, to keep me safe." She glanced at Tarian and, as she found herself doing increasingly these days, got lost in gazing at her breathtaking profile.
"What?" Cassie had lost track of the conversation.
"I said, all right, I'll come with you."
"Will you?" Cassie sat up. "That's great. Wow! I can't wait to introduce you to Mum and Dad, and all my friends. They'll be gobsmacked." Tarian gave her a sceptical look. "Oh come on. Have you taken a look in the mirror lately? They'll be so jealous.... Not everyone has their very own Fae lover and protector."
Tarian pursed her lips. "Probably best not to mention the Fae bit," she suggested.
Cassie blinked at her then gave a sheepish grin. What was I thinking? "You're right. ... They'd never believe it anyway." She pinched her forearm and winced. "I still can't quite believe it myself."
"Hardly surprising." Tarian rubbed Cassie's forearm better. "It's a lot to take in. And some mortals never do. They'd rather deny the evidence of their own eyes—it's too unsettling otherwise. Or they fit us into their existing worldview.... make us into demons or devils."
The vicar would do that.
"Are you still getting nightmares?" continued Tarian.
"A few." The spiked ball tearing into Tarian's shoulder, the bloody pulp that had been Cadel's skull knitting itself back together... those and other gory images were frequent visitors to her dreams. "I think being here with you will help though."
Tarian nodded and pulled her closer, and Cassie found herself wanting to be naked and in her arms. She was about to suggest they go upstairs when Tarian roused herself from staring at the flames,
"Listen, Cassie, I'll come back with you to Birmingham to keep you safe, of course I will. But that's only a short-term solution. Armitage will always be a threat to you. Let me take care of him."
"Can you do that?" asked Cassie in surprise. "Even while he's locked up in Winson Green?" Her spells must be more powerful than I thought.
Tarian nodded. "But if I do —" she turned to look at Cassie, "—there'll be nothing to keep you here."
Her expression gave nothing away, but day by day Cassie was getting better at reading her, and she heard the uncertainty. Her Fae lover was surprisingly unsure of herself at times. "Yes there will." She lifted her hand to stroke Tarian's cheekbone. "I may not need your protection anymore, but I'll need you."
"Hm." Tarian drummed her fingers on her thigh, gave a pleased smile, then tilted Cassie's face towards her and kissed her soundly.
Cassie was still recovering, and wondering, If her kisses make my head spin like this, what will making love with her be like? when another thought struck her.
"You won’t kill him, will you?"
Tarian blinked. "Armitage? Don't you want me to?" She sounded surprised.
"No. There's been enough death. But you could... punish him, a little." He deserves that for the pain and anguish he's caused.
Tarian leant her head on Cassie's shoulder. "All right," she said softly. "I won’t kill him."
"Parcel for you, Mr Armitage."
The guard was standing in the doorway of Armitage's cell. He was holding a flat, rectangular package under his left arm. It was about 2-feet by 3-feet, and had been neatly wrapped in brown paper and string, before the prison authorities tore it open at one end.
Armitage put down his Playboy magazine, stubbed out his cigar, and sat up. "Anything interesting?"
The guard crossed to his bed and handed him the parcel. "Depends on what you mean by interesting. I didn’t know you were an art lover, Mr Armitage."
"I'm not." He turned the parcel over to see who it was from. Tarian Brangwen. What kind of a name it that? There was no address, and he couldn't make out the postmark. He shrugged, tore off what remained of the brown paper, and frowned at what it revealed.
It was a painting. Not a very good one either. A forest clearing with a hunting party in it. He wondered what they were hunting—stag? He was no art critic but he knew what he liked. And this wasn't it. Nothing about the scene was right. The light and colours were all wrong, the trees were spindly, the dogs too large, and the riders' faces and bodies distorted—too tall and thin. The only things that looked remotely realistic were the horses.
"Who sent me this piece of crap?"
As he peered at it, a strange sensation of dizziness swept over him and he stretched out a hand to steady himself. The wall felt rough under his palms, and he tried to catch his breath.
"Mr Armitage?" said the guard. "Mr Armitage, are you all right?"
The room was growing blurry, as though a mist were billowing in the door. It swirled around his ankles, rose to knee level.
"Mr ... Armitage?... Shit!" The guard's voice sounded like a tape playing at too slow a speed. He turned in slow motion and yelled to someone in the corridor outside, "Get ... the ... doc. ... I ... think ... Armitage ... is ... having ... a ... stroke."
Then the mist covered him completely and there was a roaring in his ears and a sensation of falling....
Armitage's vision cleared and he found he was standing in a clearing just like the one in the painting. Something buzzed in his ear and he flinched and flailed at it but missed. The insect darted out of reach then returned to the attack. Pain stabbed the back of his neck. Damned thing! He slapped his neck, examined the bloody smear of insect wings and legs in his palm, and bared his teeth. Got you, you bastard!
It was warm here, humid. Already there were damp patches under his arms, and he could feel sweat beginning to trickle down his back. The smell of leaf mould and of things growing was overpowering. I'm outdoors. He sneezed. I hate outdoors.
There was what sounded like a hunting horn in the distance, then the faint baying of hounds. He cocked his head and listened. The horn blew again. It sounded closer this time, and so did the baying.
Suddenly Armitage knew, with a cast iron certainty, that the hunters were coming for him and a feeling of terror, visceral in its intensity, swept over him. He stood, his eyes wide, his whole body shivering, like a hare that knows the fox has just spotted it. Then with a loud sob, he turned and began to run.
My thanks to my Yahoo mailing list for their comments on the beta version of this story. And to Claudia for her suggestions re Fae expletives. :)