I know it’s been a while. But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Sithen is still besieged. My father is absent. Lady Siansa is absent. Princess Aislyn is absent. Lady Renata is absent. So many people I expected would be part of my life forever seem to have disappeared. I’m too old to stamp my foot and say it isn’t fair. And, with all those fae missing, I’m feeling more responsible for things in Seelieville than ever.
I took the Roads out of the Sithen, finally, with the aid of Nualla. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Aoibheann in so long, but before I left, I had a feeling she needed a new backpack and I remembered it was her birthday coming up: perhaps she would forgive me for a gift. It’s hard to know how she’s going to react to things, especially since she hasn’t seen me in weeks and I know she has this fear that I’m going to retreat completely into the sithen and she’ll never see me again. When all this is over and the fae wake up and realise I am the highest ranking seelie in the court, I am going to open up the sithen and let anyone whose intentions are good cross our threshold. I’ve never liked how insular we are, even though that gets me horrified glances from the uppity old shining throng.
When I finally made it to the tavern at Mysthaven, there appeared to be a bit of an altercation going on. Three folks I’d never met before: one wolfish, one fae, and one who appeared human, were arguing about something: apparently, the wolfish one had put his hand on the fae one. I made my way to the back of the bar, ordered a cider from Hal, and leaned back to watch the circus, since for once I wasn’t a part of it. The wolfish one had his back to me most of the time, so I’m sorry to say I didn’t get a good enough look at him to sketch him from memory.
The potentially human one seemed a bit out of place, but she also seemed to know the fae. Of course, no one has better timing than whatever deity sends me these visions, and just before I finished my first pint I could feel one coming on. Fuck. There I was in the tavern with no friendly faces around but Hal, and let’s face it, Hal isn’t exactly going to gird up my psychic armour, is he?
It was short and intense, and featured the Dryad, Aerodine, once again. She was speaking to the Sluagh Queen who told her she must go through the fairest one to find her final Gem, whatever that meant. Fucking goddess needs to send me a vision I actually understand once in a while, because I’m tired of looking like a freak and then not making any sense later.
Aoibheann came in and said something about Ardan. I think she thought the Dryad was her tree; I don’t remember what I said in hopes of reassuring her, but I think it worked a little: Nathaniel, my only other constant in this life, was there to catch me when I fell. And he saved my pint, too, for which I was grateful. I remembered the backpack and gave it to Aoibheann — fortuitous, since the one she was carrying looked to have been chewed up by some kind of wild animal.
I’d barely kissed Nathaniel, and was thinking about possibly getting to know the other fae in the tavern (since the wolfish one left muttering about fish or something), when Aoibheann decided she couldn’t wait to check on Ardan, so Orie, Nathaniel and I followed her down to the bridge. I felt a little bad about leaving the potentially human woman in the tavern, but if she is human, it was probably safer for her there, anyway. As it was, we were going to have to keep a close eye on Orie, who as usual was just gagging for a fight. American stereotypes don’t seem to have changed much, or become any less true, in the last two hundred years or so. Oh, well. I guess every story has to have an arsehole: ours are usually just big and bad and fae and monstrous and stuff. If only I’d had a vision about what was about to happen, I might have stayed in the tavern, myself.
What we found when we reached Ardan was enough to make me wish I’d stayed in the sithen last night. There are very few things I’d complete the sentence, “I’d rather spend weeks besieged by cwn than…” with, but happening on the Huntsman himself as he tried to abduct Aerodine before she could get on with her quest is definitely on that very short list.
His Great And Terrible Candlabraness towered over the Dryad. And he put his hands on Ardan. I could feel Aoibheann ramping up to furious tree mum level from my place behind her, and that combined with the pure madness that seemed to flow from the Huntsman like a vile geyser was enough to make me reel back a few steps. That is, until I saw a hand reach out from the tree. The Boatman?
When lesser folk confront godlike fae beings and whatever the Boatman is, there’s not a lot to do but gape. So gape we did.
I don’t know what happened, but somehow Aerodine got away. And stupidly, I kept repeating the question that had been going through my head since my earlier vision in the tavern: “Who is the Fairest One of All?” That seemed to irritate the Huntsman, and although Aoibh of course had already got his attention, he flickered fury upon me for a moment. If I had a mother, I’d really have wanted her last night. I mean, I overheard some of what Father said to Aislyn while I was out of it, after my transition. I figure my mother and father (the biological ones) had to be serious badasses, given what came out
of my hands that night.
Meanwhile, it was business as usual (natch) with the Huntsman, who completely forgot (apparently) he’d been about to abduct Aerodine and turned his sights on Aoibheann. One day, I am going to find her a nice, mortal boyfriend, or at least a nice moral one, but last night was not that night.
And the Huntsman was really putting on a show. If you ever get the chance to watch a godlike fae being whose smallest breath of power squashes your greatest glory into insignificance have a toddler-level temper tantrum, just pass. Seriously. It’s not worth it. He was yelling and screaming about things that were HIS and stuff. Obviously, I was terrified at the time, but when I look back on it, I think somebody might have skipped his meds or his multivitamins or maybe stopped that healthy smoothie regime he started at the new year.
Aoibheann and I stood, side by side, as we have so often done, watching the world turn dark.
A darkness more consuming that I could have imagined seemed to flow out of Ardan at that moment. A darkness that was somehow the Boatman. As the Huntsman railed on about how Aiobheann and the Forest itself and Ardan were really his, The — I’ll continue to call him the Boatman, because I don’t know what else to call him — the Boatman begged to differ and asserted that the whole lot of us belonged to him because of bargains we’d made way back in Jasper Cove.
Boatman. The Boatman is actually — some kind of demon? I felt the air leave my lungs and my head spin and my stomach drop. My ears rang with adrenaline, but then I remembered my lessons, and I breathed. Breathed because for the first time, I was genuinely glad inside that I cannot bargain with what I do not have. The Boatman will never have my soul, no matter how hard he tries to claim it: I do not have a soul.
Accusations and assertions flew back and forth: Orie tried to get in between the Huntsman and Aoibh, and of course that was a poor choice– Orie ended up halfway across the clearing (if I’m honest, I didn’t actually see what happened or where he landed; it was all so fast). Nathaniel declared that Aoibheann was a sovereign entity and she belonged only to herself, but all I could think of was how much I loved her. So that’s all I expressed: love. There’s a children’s book called A Wrinkle in Time, where Our Heroine saves her brother by just telling him that she loves him, over and over. I confess I hoped it would work like that.
Of course, it didn’t. Orie went off on some jarring rant about FREEDOM (I could almost imagine the Mel Gibson Scottish accent and the scene from BRAVEHEART), and I whispered to Aoibheann that whatever she chose I’d still love her, but she should get to choose, and then something happened and the Huntsman’s hand came close to her (and to me!), and Aoibheann said “Home” to the Huntsman. The oath clicked like a padlock in the air. I felt a pinprick. And the Huntsman just disappeared.
All that remained, it seemed was for Aoibheann to argue with the Boatman over who betrayed whom. I let the shield ease; the strain of it was making me tired. The Boatman seemed to believe that we all belonged to him, that Ardan was his as well. I didn’t know what to believe any more, so I took Nathaniel’s hand when he offered it to me, kept my arm linked with Aoibheann, and concentrated on the people I love most in the universe: the two of them. I felt Nualla’s shadowy whiskers as she appeared on my shoulder, and I knew that Valene was with us too, somehow.
Then, Orie shot a gun. How a gun is possible in Faerie is a bigger question, but what he shot out of it was even weirder. He barely missed the tree as the demon Boatman turned back into the Boatman we all knew. Or thought we knew. Or met. Or thought we met. I don’t know any more.
And there he was, as he’d appeared to us all before. He told us, “Yes, I shall leave you be, but yes I shall also be the monster that protects you until the day you wish to let go and fade back into the realms you came from.”
Can I do that? Can I let go? I remember thinking this life was a coma, a fever dream. But now it’s London in 2012, and lecturing, and having a new boyfriend, and the M-11 that feels like a dream. Nothing can be more real than this. There is no other place for me. I do not think I will ever be ready to forget this.
I asked the Boatman where all of that left me, though I didn’t mention my lack of a soul outright. I asked him if I was a loss or a gain in his book.
At that moment, Orie, like a blind brawler in a ballet theatre, hauled off and tried to hit the Boatman in the face. So much for my answer. But it came anyway, as the Boatman held off Orie like the toy soldier he seems to want to be. That voice has haunted my dreams for so long, and suddenly I heard it tell me it was proud of me, of my growth and progress. I felt happy, until I remembered the things the demon Boatman had said, and I could not reconcile those two things. A stone felt lodged in my stomach. Aoibheann began to berate the Boatman, and I was proud of her: she is so brave and so good. I think he lost her when he referred to Ardan as “my prison”. And of course, exhaustion was beginning to set in.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Galyanna alight on the bridge. Never have I been so happy to see anyone as I was to see Galyanna just then. I barely noticed Orie gasping for breath and crawling away toward the Mysthaven path. I was too tired to do anything but be happy she was there, though sometimes I wonder if she resents her de facto position as the realm’s clean-up woman. Her warning seemed to register with the Boatman, who shimmered away back into Ardan.
We went … home. We went back to Mysthaven. Home is not a place any more, no matter how hard I try to make a place into a home. I never succeed.
In the end, as always, we are left only with what we have in our hearts. There were a few drinks and then blissful sleep in Nathaniel’s nautical bed. I didn’t even feel guilty about not going back to the sithen for the night.