Warnings — See part 1.
THE DOLL HOSPITAL
"There's one," said Tarian, pointing to an empty parking space. In fact they were spoiled for choice. It was ten minutes to Sutton Park's closing time and the little carpark was practically empty.
Cassie parked the Yaris, switched off the ignition, undid her seat belt, and stretched. "The rangers patrol, you know. What if one of them spots the car?"
Tarian opened the passenger door and got out. "I'll cloak it with a spell."
She took a deep breath, enjoying the freshness and the feeling of invigoration the park air brought with it, then opened the back door. The dogs bounded out, shook themselves, and set about investigating interesting smells.
"I don't know about this." Cassie eyed Holly Hurst, which was only a short walk from here. "I've never been camping without proper gear and supplies. And as for spending the night.... Suppose it rains?"
Tarian considered the cloud formations. "It won't."
"And suppose it gets cold."
"I'll keep you warm."
Cassie threw her a sly glance. "Promise?"
Tarian laughed and draped an arm round her shoulders. "We can do that too," she whispered in a shapely ear. "We'll have plenty of time while we're waiting."
Green eyes brightened. "Good." Cassie checked her watch then glanced round nervously. "Almost time. We'd better hide the car and get under cover."
"All right." It was the work of a moment for Tarian to invoke the cloaking spell—even though she was prepared, Cassie couldn't help letting let out a yelp of dismay when her car disappeared—then they set off towards Holly Hurst. She hadn't put the dogs on leads this time so they careered around enjoying themselves.
"How long do you think it'll take?" asked Cassie as they drew closer to the two-barred fence that enclosed the wood.
"As long as it takes," said Tarian. "There's no guarantee the dogs will find anything," she warned. "The scent could have gone cold after all these years."
"I know. Have you got the doll?"
Tarian patted her jacket pocket, feeling the lump inside that was the changeling, and nodded.
"It was weird seeing you shrink it like that," said Cassie with a grimace.
"Much easier to carry."
"I know but — Hey. Can you make things taller too?" Cassie scratched her nose. "I get tired of being called a titch."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. She didn't think Cassie was being serious, but she wasn't entirely sure. Their relative heights made it easy for the mortal to nestle her head against Tarian's breasts. Why would Tarian want her to be taller?
"Where would be the fun in that?" she asked.
Cassie had evidently been thinking the same thing because she snickered and said, "Never mind."
They reached the fence. The dogs slunk under it, Tarian vaulted over it, and Cassie squeezed through the space between the two cross bars. The scent of foliage and leaf mould was strong in her nostrils, and Tarian inhaled, separating and identifying its constituent parts. Oak, ash, rowan....
Cassie sneezed and blew her nose on a hanky. She gave their surroundings a helpless look. "Which way?"
Tarian extended her senses until she could feel the tingling sensation that was the boundary with Faerie. It felt stronger than before, but that was because they were nearer. She pointed and set off, pushing her way between the tree trunks.
"Keep up or you'll get scratched," she told Cassie, as she invoked a spell to make the branches twist out of their way. In response Cassie pressed so close to Tarian's heels she was in danger of tripping her. The dogs brought up the rear, snuffling at leaves and toadstools, and occasionally darting off to investigate rustlings in the undergrowth.
In Faerie Tarian would have kept a weather eye out for stag and boar, but the wildlife in Holly Hurst would be smaller and less dangerous—birds, squirrels, stoats, badgers.... Her thoughts flashed ahead to supper. Roast hedgehog made good eating but it took some time to cook. And would Cassie be prepared to eat the result?
"How much farther," puffed Cassie, when they had been walking for quarter of an hour and had negotiated a dense coppice of silver birch.
"Not far. Can't you feel it?" The nearness of the boundary was making the hair on Tarian's arms stand up. The dogs too were excited, forging eagerly ahead.
Cassie's gaze turned inwards and she cocked her head. "No."
A few more paces brought Tarian to the edge of a glade. From the look of it, it had once been light and airy, but over time trees and shrubs had encroached —in a few more years there would be no glade left. At its heart stood two alders, their twisted black trunks covered with moss and lichen, and twisted and fissured with age. There must have been a spring here once, or a stream, for alders always grew near water, but there was no sign of it now. Perhaps the waters' disappearance had added to the trees' distress, for one of them was dying.
The narrow gap between the alders shimmered like a heat haze. The crossing.
Tarian called the dogs to heel. Twigs cracked and bluebell bulbs crunched under her boot soles as she stepped into the open.
"I think I can feel it now," said Cassie, coming to join her. "Like static electricity. I can't see anything though. ... It's weaker than the one in Bourne Forest, isn’t it?"
Tarian nodded. "It's failing along with that alder." She pointed to the dying tree. "In a few years this entrance to Faerie will be inaccessible."
She squatted on her heels and pulled the dogs close. "Anwar, Drysi." She delved in her pocket and pulled out the crudely carved doll with the red woollen hair. "Smell this and remember its scent."
Both dogs snuffled its clothing and limbs for several seconds, then let out a soft bark.
"Good dogs." She fondled soft ears and sent mental images to match her words. "Once you're on the other side of the boundary, seek out the same scent. Understand?" They barked again, to show that they did. "If you can't find it, return at once. But if you can, follow it to its source then report back here to me. Whatever you do, don't get caught."
Their eyes were bright with intelligence, as they nosed her, tails wagging. She gave them a last pat, stood up, and shoved the changeling doll back in her pocket.
"Go." She pointed to the gap between the alders, and with an excited yelp the two dogs sprang through it and disappeared. She turned to Cassie. "Now we wait."
Loud birdsong woke Tarian from her doze and she glanced up. The sky between the branches of the gnarled oak that had sheltered them was lightening perceptibly.
Almost dawn. Glad it didn't rain.
Careful not to wake the soundly sleeping Cassie, she disentangled herself and stood up. Leaves and stalks of dry grass from their makeshift bedding clung to her jeans, and she brushed them off then stretched and yawned. She grinned at the blue and white petals decorating Cassie's hair—she had amused herself by threading woodland flowers through it while Cassie slept—and wondered what the mortal would say when she discovered them.
Turning, she sought the shimmering space between the alders.
No sign of the dogs yet. They must have found something. I wish they hadn't. That last thought made her cast a guilty glance at Cassie, who, as she watched, rolled onto her back and lay sprawled in a state of utter relaxation, mouth open, snoring.
The stone-ringed fire pit, where the branches had burned down almost to embers, was still emitting a faint warmth. Beside it lay the bark pieces that had serves as plates and the remnants of their supper. During the night a woodland animal—a fox, probably—had finished off the rabbit. Cassie had gaped as Tarian charmed the fat buck into the glade then killed, gutted, and skinned it. She had stuffed it with a few leaves of Jack-by-the hedge—she liked the tang of garlic—then spitted it and set it to cook over the flames. She grinned, remembering what had come next. They had made love by firelight until supper was ready. By the time they were ready to eat, the rabbit was charred, but none the worse for that.
Cassie's breathing caught. She snorted and opened her eyes. "Where—?" Confusion turned to comprehension as her gaze swept the glade, stopping at Tarian.
"Good morning," said Tarian.
"Is it?" As if in answer, the sun finally rose, turning the sky the colour of honey. Cassie sat up, groaned, and pressed her fist into the small of her back. "I could have done with a firmer mattress."
"Here. Let me." Tarian crossed to her side in two strides, knelt, and replaced Cassie's fist with the flat of her hand. She invoked a healing spell and felt the answering tingle of warmth surge from her fingers into Cassie's lower back.
"That feels wonderful. Thanks."
Tarian sat back on her heels. "You're welcome."
After a moment, Cassie got to her feet and looked around. "No sign of the dogs? What the—" She had been running her fingers through her hair and now blinked down at her hand in surprise. "How did these get here?" Her palm was full of petals.
"I can't imagine."
Cassie looked up at her then smiled and poked Tarian with a forefinger. "Couldn't resist turning me into some kind of woodland nymph, eh?" She patted Tarian's cheek, then turned the pat into a caress and kissed her on the lips. Tarian kissed her back, soundly.
At last they parted and Cassie regarded the flowers again—their petals were now rather crushed. She raised them to her nostrils and sniffed. "I recognise the bluebells. But what are the pink-tinged little white stars?"
"Do I get breakfast too?"
"Always thinking of your stomach."
"If I don't, who will?"
Tarian remembered the bar snacks she had seen on sale in the pub. They wouldn't miss one, would they? A moment later, a small packet lay in her hand.
"Here." She handed it over.
"Nuts and raisins! Thanks."
Cassie was tearing her way hungrily into the packet when a series of barks, faint at first but rapidly becoming louder, made Tarian turn. She was just in time to witness Drysi and Anwar leaping through the shimmering barrier that separated Faerie from the mortal world.
"They're back!" said Cassie indistinctly round a mouthful of nuts and raisins, as the two wolfhounds, ears pricked and tails wagging, came to greet them.
Tarian fussed over them and told them they were good dogs, then crouched next to them and asked, "What did you discover?"
Drysi looked at her partner, as if to say, "Your turn," and lay down, resting her chin on her extended front paws.
Anwar locked gazes with Tarian, and a series of vivid images popped into her head.
Heathland dotted with gorse, heather, and whortleberry.
In the distance a herd of wild horses gallops, manes streaming. A herd of red deer turn their heads towards her (or rather Anwar), eyes wide with alarm. They stand like statues, ears pricked, bodies shivering, poised on the edge of flight. Then they relax, put a few yards more between themselves and the watcher, and resume their quiet grazing.
The view shifts. In the distance are thickly wooded slopes and on the summit of one hill stands a crumbling watchtower.
Tarian sucked in her breath. She had seen that watchtower before, she was sure of it. But where? And when? On one of her hunting expeditions?
"What is it?" Cassie rested a hand on Tarian's shoulder.
"This entrance must lead to the outskirts of Faerie. Few Fae choose to live there any more."
"That's a good thing, isn’t it?"
"If you mean that it's as far from Mab's domain as it's possible to get and still be in Faerie, then yes." Tarian turned back to the waiting Anwar. "Go on," she ordered.
A rutted track winds past the ruined watchtower, down a steep hill and past a water mill, where the miller is loading sacks of flour into a wagon. The track continues, past bustling hamlets and smallholdings, until a walled manor house comes into view.
"Any sign of James Farley?" asked Cassie, putting the now empty packet of nuts and raisins in her pocket.
The scene has changed. It's evening, and she's looking at a pigsty. Pigs and piglets shove and jostle one another, struggling to get their snouts into the trough.
A huge sow with a black tail moves to one side and Tarian catches a glimpse of something that shouldn't be there: a gaunt young man with hair the colour of carrots. He reaches both hands into the trough and scoops up something unidentifiable. He crams it into his mouth, chews, swallows, and goes back for more.
The resemblance between the man and the changeling is instantly obvious, but where the changeling's features were rough, reflecting the crudeness of the underlying doll, this man's features are softer, more human. The gaunt frame, the scars from old injuries, the cuts and bruises from more recent ones, tell the story of his life.
"Of course." Tarian stopped the flow of images with a gesture and thanked Anwar with a pat. He grunted, sank down next to Drysi, and rested his head on his front paws.
"What?" prompted Cassie, almost tearing her hair out with impatience.
"It was his hair that caught their attention. No Fae has red hair."
Cassie blinked at her in disbelief. "They abducted him simply because he had red hair?"
"Humans buy puppies for their looks, don't they?"
"But—" Cassie shook her head. "Oh, never mind. Is he all right at least? Are the Fae doting on him as you said they might?"
Cassie's hand flew to her mouth. "How bad is it?"
Should she tell Cassie he was eating with the pigs? "Bad."
"Then we can't leave him there." Cassie's tone was decisive. "We have to return him to his parents, where he belongs."
Tarian's heart sank. She had been expecting this, but still.... "They may not even be alive, Cassie. And it they are, well, they won't have been aware their son was missing. The changeling was their son as far as they were concerned."
"But he's dead now."
"Missing," corrected Tarian. "There is no body for a funeral."
"We have to get the real James back," repeated Cassie. Her jaw had taken on that mutinous jut it acquired whenever she was determined on something. Did she realise what she was asking of Tarian? Probably not.
Tarian continued to fight a rearguard action, despising herself even while she did so. James's life must be hell, but why must they be the ones to fix it? "The shock of coming to your world could be more than he can handle."
"It can't be worse than leaving him where he is." Cassie stared at Tarian as if seeing her for the first time. "Why are you creating obstacles? If it were me, you wouldn't leave me there, would you?"
"No it isn't."
Boar droppings! Still. She had tried. "Very well. I'll go and get him."
Her sudden capitulation took Cassie aback. "You? But.... You can't. When I said we must get him back I didn't mean that you personally should do it." Green eyes filled with panic. "Tell the dogs to guide me and I'll go. Mab didn’t threaten me, after all."
"Over my dead body."
Cassie put her hands on her hips and glared but Tarian was unmoved.
"Besides, what good would it do? Do you really think the Fae who kidnapped him are just going to hand him over to a mortal if she asks nicely?"
"Perhaps that was a bit naďve," conceded Cassie. Her face cleared. "I know! Send word to Einion. He'll get James back if you ask him to."
Tarian considered the suggestion seriously for a moment then shook her head. "It won't work. Einion would do it for friendship's sake, but he's loyal to Mab first and foremost. He'd feel bound to tell her what he was doing, and she'd thwart him just for the fun of it. No, I must go myself."
"But Mab threatened to unmake you!" Cassie's voice became a wail and Tarian wrapped comforting arms around her.
"Hush. I told you. This part of Faerie is a long way from Mab's domain. If I act quickly, the chances are I can get in, get James, and get out again before Mab even knows I was there."
"'Chances are'?" Cassie gave her a bleak look.
"You said it yourself, love, we can't leave him there." Well, I could, but you couldn't, not with that tender mortal heart of yours.
"Hell!" Cassie sagged against her. "I wish I'd never mentioned tracking him down in the first place."
Tarian smiled. "Nevertheless. ... I must go for him. You know I must."
The jut returned to Cassie's jaw. "Then I'm coming with you."
"Somehow I knew you were going to say that."
"What do you mean, no trace?" yelled Angor.
The pigboy was glad the steward was on the receiving end of their lord's anger for once. That two strange wolfhounds had been sighted hanging around the pigsty, spying on him, was black mark enough. He touched his split lip and winced, knowing that he had escaped lightly. But even the violence-fond steward had realised that a beating wasn't going to elicit from the pigboy information he didn't have.
"My magic is but feeble. Perhaps if your lordship himself...." The steward trailed off under Angor's glare.
"Boar's entrails! Must I do everything myself?" But the black gaze turned inwards and the narrow lips moved. Pigboy recognised the signs of a spell in progress.
Long moments passed then the dark brows drew together. "Their trail does indeed run cold." Angor's tone became thoughtful. "As if the hounds had disappeared from Faerie altogether, crossed over into the mortal realm perhaps. As if they came from there and have returned whence they came. But who would send —" His face cleared. "By oak, ash and thorn! Could it be her?"
"My lord?" asked the steward, clearly baffled.
"I know of only one Fae who could be behind this." Angor's eyes tracked to the pigboy then away again. "But of what possible interest could such a pathetic creature be to her? For an exile to risk so great a penalty...." He shuddered at something only he could see.
"My lord?" repeated the steward, looking even more adrift.
Angor waved a gloved hand at him in irritation. "By oak and ash, but you're slow on the uptake sometimes, Clud!" He pursed his lips. "Still, it matters little if you understand or not. For I have the measure of her now. And should her dogs return, or she herself decide to pay us a visit, we shall be more than ready."
The strange sensation, like the buzzing of bees combined with the prickle of electricity, faded as Cassie stepped through into light much softer than that she was used to.
"All right?" asked Tarian.
Cassie let go of Tarian's hand and surveyed her surroundings. The bluebell glade in the heart of Holly Hurst had vanished. She was standing in the middle of wild heathland, bounded on all sides by pine-forested slopes. On the top of one hill perched a ruined tower. This landscape might be more barren than the pastures around Mab's palace, she decided, but it had its own beauty. Heather streaked it with shades of pink and purple, and gorse in full bloom added attractive splashes of yellow. In the distance hovered a skylark, its song exuberant.
Anwar and Drysi came through, their joyful barks disturbing a cloud of small brown butterflies.
A thought struck Cassie. "How one earth will we be able to find the crossing point again?" There were no distinctive landmarks except that distant tower.
"You may not be able to see it but I can," reminded Tarian.
The climate was slightly cooler than Cassie remembered, but still pleasantly warm. A light breeze brought with it the sweet smell of gorse. Last time it had been honeysuckle.
"We're going to need mounts." Tarian shaded her eyes and turned in a circle. "Ah."
Cassie followed her gaze. A herd of wild horses was grazing several hundred yards away. One of the stallions raised its head and looked at Tarian and Cassie realised that she was working a spell. As the Fae's hand dropped back to her side, the stallion began to canter towards them. A smaller horse—a mare?—set off after him. The drumming of their hooves, faint at first, grew louder.
"You're not going to expect me to ride bareback, are you?" Cassie's heart sank. "There's nothing to hold on to."
Tarian gave her an amused look. "You'll be quite safe."
The stallion slowed and covered the remaining distance at a trot, coming to a halt directly in front of Tarian and pawing the ground with one hoof. It gave the intrigued wolfhounds a wary look before deciding to ignore them. Moments later, the mare joined it.
Tarian held out her hands, palm up, and let the horses nose them. "You won't mind carrying us for a little while, will you?"
Cassie restrained herself from pointing out that the horses had no choice. Tarian urged her towards the stallion.
"Shouldn't I ride the smaller horse?"
"I'm keeping that for James."
"We're both riding the stallion?"
"How else am I to keep you from falling off?"
Relief flooded through Cassie. "That makes sense, I guess."
"Up you go."
Tarian boosted her onto the horse's broad back then swung herself up behind her. Muscular thighs pressed against Cassie's hips and strong arms held her firmly around the waist.
"Better?" Tarian's breath was a warm tickle against Cassie's ear.
She relaxed back, feeling the softness of Tarian's breasts through her sweatshirt. "Mm."
Tarian sent the wolfhounds bounding off ahead, following the scent trail they had followed last time. After a moment, the stallion followed; the mare trailed along, a few yards behind. And Cassie found herself too engrossed by Tarian's nearness and by the way she was guiding their mount—every squeeze of her knees and kick of her heels was transmitted—to be scared, even when they broke into a gallop.
The track down from the summit on which the crumbling grey tower stood was steep. Cassie glanced down to the wolfhounds waiting at its foot, and scrunched her eyelids closed.
"What was that place?" she asked, trying to keep her mind off what would happen if the stallion lost his footing.
"A watchtower." Tarian leaned back to aid their mount's balance, forcing Cassie to do the same.
"What did it watch for?" she managed.
The stallion stumbled, jolting Cassie forward, and she opened her eyes in fright just as Tarian's arms tightened around her waist.
"It's all right. I won't let us fall."
Cassie wondered if the Fae could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She clutched Tarian's hands. "Promise?"
With a whicker of annoyance, the stallion found its footing again and continued its descent. The mare, unencumbered by riders, had a much easier time of it.
It helped her not to panic if she concentrated on the view, so she did. A river snaked through the fertile plain stretching into the distance, and a multi-coloured patchwork of fields and hedges showed it was under cultivation. She wondered if the water mill in the distance was their destination.
"Fae have enemies?" She resumed their earlier conversation. "Who are they?"
"Other Fae," said Tarian. "Like humans, we've had our civil wars."
"How long ago was the last one?"
"A thousand years, give or take a century."
A thousand years with no conflict? The idea was as staggering to Cassie as Tarian's indifference to centuries. Immortals must judge time differently. "But things are peaceful now? Right?"
Tarian gave her a reassuring squeeze. "Of course. Once the realms of Faerie were brought under the sway of a single ruler, the need for such conflicts ceased."
"So Queen Mab is sole ruler here?"
"How long has she been queen?"
"Seventy years," said Tarian.
"Really?" Cassie blinked and compared that titbit of information with Mab's youthful appearance. "How old is she?"
Tarian thought for a moment. "One hundred and thirty-six."
Cassie gulped. "And how old are you?"
There was a long pause before Tarian answered, and Cassie thought she detected a note of apprehension. "One hundred and fourteen."
Well, I did ask!
"Does that bother you?"
Cassie twisted around and looked at Tarian, saw that a crease had appeared between her brows. "A little," she said truthfully. "But I'll get used to it." On that she was determined. The crease disappeared. She smiled and faced front once more.
"So what happened to Mab's father?" she continued. "I thought Fae were supposed to be immortal."
"There comes a time, even for immortals, when they grow weary of life," said Tarian.
"It's inevitable, Cassie. How did that Japanese sage put it? 'If life were eternal, all interest and anticipation would vanish.' Perhaps he visited Faerie."
"So what happens then? When you're weary, I mean."
"We petition the Queen for release, and if she looks kindly on us, she grants us that wish."
Cassie chewed on that unsettling thought as the horse scrambled down the last few feet of incline. "By 'release' you mean she unmakes you?"
"But what if the Queen herself grows weary? Can she unmake herself?"
"No. But the power to unmake runs in the royal bloodline. That is why one day she must create an heir."
The implications were staggering. "Are you saying that Mab unmade her own father?"
"And her mother too ... It is common for couples that still love one another to petition for simultaneous release. My own parents made such a petition and I was there to witness the granting of it."
Tarian sounded unperturbed, but Cassie could not say the same of herself. My God! To witness the death of your parents. And in Mab's case, to kill them yourself.... The Fae were made of stern stuff indeed.
The horses reached the bottom and Cassie let out a sigh of relief as the dogs greeted her and Tarian with wagging tails. Tarian let the stallion catch its breath, then urged it on once more. The mare left off cropping a juicy patch of grass it had found and followed.
"Where exactly are we going?" asked Cassie, glad to leave the minefield topic of immortality behind. They were following the track past the water mill, skirting the hamlet beyond it, where a Fae woman hanging washing on a line gave them a curious look.
"The manor house." Tarian adjusted her grip around Cassie's waist. "It's not far."
There were seeing more and more Fae about. Cassie had only ever encountered nobles and livery-clad servants, and she was surprised to see Fae labouring in the fields and smallholdings, looking like peasants in their sweat stained tunics and breeches.
"I don't understand," she said. "Why work so hard when you can do things by magic?"
"They're lesser Fae," said Tarian, as though that should be explanation enough.
"They can't cast spells?"
"Only weak ones, like producing Fae light."
Cassie pursed her lips. That must put them at a disadvantage. "Do they own their own land?"
"Of course not. Those aren't their houses either." Tarian sounded surprised and Cassie twisted round to see her face.
"They are tenants and must pay their lord or lady with labour and loyalty for the cottage and the land that comes with it," explained Tarian.
"But that's... that's Medieval!" said Cassie.
"It has always been this way." Tarian sounded indifferent. "Nobles rule; the lesser Fae serve them."
"Why can't the nobles serve themselves?"
"Magic has its limits and its costs." Blue eyes pinned her. "You have seen how a spell backwash affects me. The larger the spell, the worse the drain." Cassie opened her mouth, but Tarian hadn't finished speaking so she closed it again. "It would be foolish to use magic when the lesser Fae can achieve the same end by mundane means. Besides, it would be taking the bread from their mouths. Without employment, they would starve."
"I doubt that!" muttered Cassie.
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "It’s not all one way, Cassie. If a servant falls ill, it’s the duty of his Lord or Lady to cast a healing spell."
How generous! But it was obvious they weren't going to agree on the merits or otherwise of serfdom, so Cassie let the matter drop. "So... the manor house is where we're going?"
Tarian gave her a relieved nod. "It's not far now, according to the dogs."
They rode on for a while in silence, Cassie's eyes roaming the fields while her mind wondered what they would find at their destination. Tarian had said James Farley's circumstances were 'bad'. Being mortal, he must be bottom in the pecking order. In the light of their discussion about how the lesser Fae lived, what did that mean?
At last, a walled estate came into view. Her eye was drawn to the large, stone manor house within the wall. To its side and rear lay a complex of barns and outbuildings, and she could see a horse being led to what must be the stables.
Tarian turned in at the front gate. A servant scything the long grass in front of the house stopped work and stared at them.
"Aren't we going to sneak round the back?" asked Cassie. They hadn't discussed how they were going to handle getting James Farley back, but she hadn't expected a frontal attack.
"Best not to sneak up on Fae," said Tarian dryly. "They always know you're there and it tends to antagonise them."
She halted the stallion by the front entrance—an arched stone porch—and slid off then reached up to help Cassie down. The mare stopped a few paces away. Cassie was glad to dismount, and groaned with relief as she was able to massage some of the ache from buttocks and thighs. The servant hurried towards them, presumably to take the horses, but Tarian waved him away. He shrugged and went back to his scything.
While Tarian spoke to the dogs, telling them to wait here and stay alert, the stallion and mare wandered over to the scythed grass, nosing one another and tossing their manes, and began to graze. Cassie glanced anxiously at them—what if the spell wore off before they needed them again?
"So what are we going to do? Ask the Fae to give James back?" She folded her arms. "I thought you said that wouldn't work."
Tarian arched an eyebrow at Cassie's tone, but said merely, "I'm going to bargain."
While the dogs made themselves comfortable on the benches that lined both sides of the porch, Tarian crossed to the small door within the larger one. She raised her hand to the knocker, but before she could knock, the door opened, revealing a livery-clad Fae with a drooping black moustache.
His bowed, causing the bunch of keys hanging from his belt to jingle, then straightened and stepped back.
"My master is expecting you. Please enter. My name is Clud, and I am Steward here."
'Expecting'? Cassie felt as if she'd been kicked in the stomach and, from Tarian's suddenly still face, the Fae felt the same. They exchanged a glance but said nothing, and followed the steward inside.
A blast of heat struck her cheeks, and Cassie saw that it was coming from a huge oven and that they were in a kitchen. At one table, two red-faced women were scraping and chopping vegetables while a third made pastry, and at another a sweating man with massive shoulders was jointing a side of lamb with a cleaver.
Clud glanced back impatiently, and she hurried to catch up. A wooden screen separated the kitchen from the next room and she found herself in a large hall with a high timbered ceiling. The hall was draughty, even so a blue smoke haze hung in the air, its source the huge central hearth.
The steward led them past servants, trestle tables, and the hearth towards a raised dais at the far end of the room. On it were placed two ornately carved chairs, and in them sat a man and a woman, obviously the lord and lady of the manor, watching their progress with hooded eyes. At their feet sat a pair of wolfhounds.
"Do you know them?" whispered Cassie.
"Angor and Ysbail. They're distantly related to the royal bloodline. If they hadn't blotted their copy book, they wouldn't be living in the back of beyond."
"What did they do?"
"Got a bit above themselves. Mab's father had to slap them down."
Cassie glanced at the seated pair again.
The woman was handsome rather than pretty, her dark eyes watchful, her lips pressed together in what Cassie took to be disapproval. Her ankle-length gown was magnificent—red silk, bound with a golden girdle—and showed off her figure to good effect. The man was thickly bearded and dressed in a black tunic and breeches that highlighted the solid gold torque around his neck. He was powerfully built for a Fae, his neck thick, his torso well developed—from pursuits like archery and spear throwing, presumably—but he wasn't as muscular as Cadel had been. He looked down his hawk nose first at Tarian then at Cassie as they halted in front of him. Clud bowed and backed away.
"Tarian," said the man in black. "What a pleasant surprise." It was obvious he thought the opposite. "Welcome."
Tarian bowed her head. "Angor." She glanced towards his seated companion and inclined her head. "Ysbail. Well met." She turned and gestured towards Cassie. "Let me introduce my companion. Cassie Lewis."
Cassie wasn't sure whether to curtsey or bow so she restricted herself to a nod and a smile. "Pleased to meet you."
Angor didn't return her greeting. He frowned and turned his gaze back to Tarian. "You keep company with mortals?"
"Indeed," said Tarian, before Cassie could react. "And she is under my protection." She locked gazes with him, and after a moment he shrugged.
Tarian scanned her surroundings openly. "Are guests not permitted to conduct their business with you in comfort, my lord?"
Ysbail flushed at the implied slight and beckoned a servant over. Moments later two more chairs had been brought.
Tarian sat, and waited until Cassie had done the same and made herself comfortable. Then she said, conversationally, "You were expecting us, I gather."
Angor's lip curled and he gestured at the wolfhounds lying at his feet. "Did you think my dogs would be unaware of yours?"
"It was a risk," said Tarian evenly.
"Now here you are, in person." He drew himself up in his chair. "You mentioned business dealings. Well?"
Tarian nodded and pulled out the changeling doll. "Yours, I believe."
It was just as well she had put a protection spell on the doll, thought Tarian, as Ysbail's lips moved and she raised a slender hand. The crude wooden artefact remained intact, and a flash of unease crossed Ysbail's face, gone as quickly as it had appeared.
Angor threw his wife a warning glance then turned back to Tarian. "You're mistaken. That... thing has nothing to do with us."
"Then why did your wife just try to destroy it?"
For a moment he was at a loss, but he recovered quickly. "You know as well as I that our present Queen outlawed such things. My wife was but abiding by the law."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "So you admit you know of Mab's decree? I thought you might plead ignorance, living on the outskirts of Faerie as you do. You knew of the decree, yet still you created and used a changeling?"
With a show of indignation, he rose to his feet. "Who says so? Point him out and I'll rip out his lying tongue." He paused. "Or is it you yourself who slanders me?"
Cassie shifted nervously in her chair, and Tarian threw her a reassuring glance. Angor's bluster didn't scare her.
"Perhaps you were unaware, my lord, that when a changeling doll is created, a bond links it to its maker." She cocked her head. "Perhaps you thought that trail would fade with time? Well it didn't. My dogs followed that trail, and it led me to you."
Was that panic in his eyes?
"So you say. But what good is the word of an exile? Oh yes." He made a show of scanning the watching faces of those retainers and servants who had edged closer, eager to know what was going on. "We may be on the outskirts of Faerie, but we still hear tidings. Such as that Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk, the Queen's former champion, was exiled from Faerie and told never to return—" his gaze returned to her face, "—on pain of her unmaking."
Silence fell, a silence so intent Tarian could almost hear Cassie's heart beating. She made no attempt to break it, but prepared herself for the worst.
"Mab knows you're here, you know," added Angor softly. His smile was full of malice. "I sent word."
Beside her Cassie sucked in her breath. "I see." Tarian kept her voice steady.
A small hand slipped itself into hers. "We must go," said Cassie urgently.
Tarian glanced at her. "Not yet."
"But if the Queen comes—"
"We haven't got what we came for."
"Hush." Gently, Tarian extracted her fingers from Cassie's, and turned back to Angor. "You sent word to the Queen?" She shook her head in mock pity. "Rash. Very rash."
His smile disappeared.
"Never mind what will happen to me. What do you think Mab will do to you and your wife when she learns you broke her edict about changelings?"
His mouth opened and closed but no sound emerged.
"Husband!" Ysbail looked frightened. He shook his head at her and she fell silent.
"I propose an exchange. The doll—" she held up the changeling doll, "—for the red-haired babe you stole."
"Don't play games with me, Angor. He's a man now, that's true. But he was a babe when you stole him from his crib."
Angor shifted in his seat and she watched him like a hawk. "Suppose we had done such a thing?" There was uncertainty in his eyes now. Good. "What concern is it of yours?"
Tarian gave him a smile. "Beyond the natural concern of any good and loyal subject, you mean?"
His lip curled but he nodded.
She let her mask of good humour drop. "Don't try my patience, Angor. We both know you have the man. Bring him to me. Now."
He bit his lip while he considered, then pointed at the doll. "Will you remove the protection spell?"
For a moment more he hesitated, then he turned to the waiting steward and beckoned. After a brief conversation, Clud nodded, bowed, and hurried away towards the exit.
"I have sent for the pigboy," said Angor, making a production of smoothing his robes.
"Pigboy?" muttered Cassie indignantly. "His name is James."
"Good," said Tarian.
A ripple of laughter and crude comments marked James Farley's appearance in the Great Hall, and followed his progress towards the dais. A ripe smell of pigs accompanied the red-haired human, and the lord and lady of the manor adopted identical expression of distaste, produced perfumed silk kerchiefs, and held them to their noses.
A big Fae in a farrier's apron was with James. He jerked the mortal to a halt in front of the seated Angor and Ysbail and swiped his legs out from under him with his foot.
"Show some respect for your betters, pigboy!"
The thud as James's knees hit the hard floor made Tarian wince. James pulled himself upright, bowed his head, and hunched his shoulders.
"The pigboy as requested, my lord," said the farrier with a bow.
Tremors shook the red-haired young man's gaunt frame; he clearly had no idea why he had been summoned and was terrified. Cassie made a choking sound in her throat. She had covered her nose and mouth with one hand against the stench, but her eyes spoke eloquently, and Tarian could see that she was distressed on James's behalf.
"Well?" Angor looked at Tarian and gestured towards the doll.
"Do we have a deal?"
"Your word on it?"
Tarian gave a satisfied nod. "A moment. I must remove the protection."
She didn't tell him that she was transferring it to James. When she had finished, she handed Angor the doll. He grinned as he accepted it. Second later it was a pile of ash. He brushed a stray white flake off his tunic, and directed a servant to sweep up the mess.
"Is James ours now?" Cassie asked Tarian.
At that Cassie rose from her chair and rushed forward, crouching by the kneeling man and putting her arm round his trembling shoulders. "You're safe now," she told him.
He gaped at her and Tarian wondered if he had ever seen another mortal before.
"We're taking you home," continued Cassie, smiling encouragingly.
James turned a baffled glance towards Angor. The lord of the manor curled his lip and remained silent.
"Will you tell him he doesn’t belong to you any more or shall I?" asked Tarian, annoyed. Angor shrugged.
She stood up and squared her shoulders. "Pigboy," she said, her commanding tone getting James's wide-eyed attention at once. "Your master has sold you, and now you belong to me." She glanced at the watching Angor. "Is that not so, my lord?"
For a moment she thought he wasn't going to answer, then he gave her an ironic smile and inclined his head. "It is so."
"From now on you will answer to the name 'James Farley'. Do you understand me, James?"
He blinked at her, then nodded and mouthed, "James." Cassie beamed and patted him on the back.
"Good." Tarian beckoned. "Come with me, James. Now." Her tone brooked no disobedience, and he reacted as she had hoped he would. He scrambled to his feet and hurried to her side. Cassie followed.
"Are we leaving now?" she asked Tarian in a low murmur.
"As fast as we can."
"Good." Cassie glanced at the watching Fae. "They're getting off too easily," she muttered. "Can't you at least hide an ill luck attractor somewhere in this hall? If anyone deserves a plague of flies, this lot do."
Tarian stifled a smile. "They'd destroy it."
"Shame. They should be punished for what they've done."
"They will be. But not by me."
Cassie looked a question at her, but Tarian gave her head a small shake. Now was not the time. She gave Angor a half bow. "My business here is concluded, my lord, so I will take my leave of you." She glanced at Ysbail and nodded. "And of you, my lady."
Ysbail's dark eyes were malevolent. "I do not think we shall meet again," she said. "You have left it too late."
Tarian's heart missed a beat but she kept her expression neutral. "You may well be right."
She turned on her heel and strode towards the exit. And after a moment, Cassie and James followed her.
"What did she mean, 'left it too late'?" asked Cassie, as Tarian ordered the wolfhounds to leave James alone and helped Cassie up onto the stallion's broad back. "Please tell me she wasn't talking about Mab."
"I fear she was."
Tarian turned to help James onto the mare. To her surprise, he was undaunted by the lack of a saddle and reins and eager to mount. Anwar and Drysi hadn't scared him either—he had smiled and petted them. Yet whenever Tarian or Cassie addressed him he trembled like a leaf.
It made a kind of sense, she supposed. Only the beasts have treated him kindly.
She mounted up behind Cassie, settled her arms around her waist, and urged the stallion forward.
Cassie clasped Tarian's wrist. "But... I thought you said this place was miles from Mab's domain." She sounded tense.
"The Queen is the most powerful of the Fae," reminded Tarian. "She can travel hundreds of leagues in seconds."
Cassie's grip tightened until it was almost painful. "What are we going to do?"
"Get back to the crossing."
Tarian twisted round to check on the mare. Her red-haired rider's expression was dreamy, his lips curved in a half smile. Satisfied, she faced front once more, kneed the stallion into a canter, and headed back the way they had come.
They were galloping past the ruined watchtower when the air above the track ahead began to shimmer. Cassie gasped as an archway appeared out of nowhere. For a moment it remained empty, then through it came four riders.
The first was unknown to Tarian: a herald wearing the livery of Queen Mab and carrying the Queen's narrow white pennant. After him came three much more familiar figures. The first wore his long hair tied in a ponytail and was wearing a russet coloured tunic and breeches, over which he had thrown a cloak of forest green. The second's silver armour was dazzling in the sunlight—purely for show, of course, as Cadel, like all the Fae, considered it cowardly to wear armour in battle. And bringing up the rear on a magnificent charger was the Queen Mab herself, dressed in a gown of midnight blue with a silver girdle.
Einion's gaze softened when he saw Tarian, and he gave her a brief, sad smile. The look Cadel threw her was not so friendly, but then, on their last encounter, she had smashed in the champion's head with her morning-star. As for Mab.... The Queen's eyes were unreadable as they met Tarian's. Cassie moaned low in her throat.
Tarian called the wolfhounds to heel and reined in the stallion to a halt.
"What are you doing?" hissed Cassie, twisting to look at her
"We cannot escape her. It will only anger her further to try."
"Hush," said Tarian. "Trust me on this. I might be able to make it to the crossing, but— She would use you against me, love. I will not risk that." Her resolve hardened. "Leave Mab to me. And try not to draw attention to yourself." Whatever happens to me, I will make sure you and James get back safely.
She slid off the stallion's back, and turned to help the stunned Cassie down. The mare halted too, pawing the ground while her rider sat as still as a statue, transfixed by the sight of the proud and beautiful Queen.
"Get down," Tarian told him.
James blinked at her then slid from the mare's back. She called the two horses to her and whispered the words that would release them. They startled and tossed their heads, as though they had just come back to themselves, then stood still, the whites of their eyes showing, taking in their surroundings.
"There, there," she soothed, stroking a quivering flank. "I have no more need of your services. Accept my grateful thanks, and go."
For a moment longer they stood, eying the dogs warily, though Anwar and Drysi had sunk to their haunches at Tarian's command and were no threat to anyone. Then with an exchange of whinnies, they galloped off down the hill, manes streaming out behind them.
Tarian extended her senses after the horses, smiling at the feelings of exuberance and exhilaration that flowed back to her. Then a distant shimmer on the heathland below caught her eye and her smile faded.
So near and yet so far.
With a sigh, she turned to face the Queen.
Cassie watched, dismayed, as Tarian walked towards the Queen, halted in front of her now stationary mount, and dropped to one knee.
Why isn't she running? Or putting up a fight? I can't lose her. Not yet. It's too soon. Much too soon. She's meant to outlive me, not the other way around.
The Queen's expression was unreadable as she gazed down at Tarian's bowed head. Cassie bit her lip. Would she be fair, impartial, open to persuasion to give Tarian a second—or was it third?—chance?
Who am I kidding? This is Mab we're talking about. That bitch is unpredictable, and Tarian disobeyed her explicit instructions. Cassie swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.
At Mab's signal, the herald dismounted and knelt on all fours next to her horse. She used his back as a dismounting block, straightened her gown and settled her girdle, then stalked over to Tarian.
Cadel and Einion dismounted too. Cadel looked down his nose at Cassie then made a point of ignoring her, but Einion threw her a look of apology.
"A seat, Einion," commanded the Queen.
With a bow and a gesture, he materialised a plush red chair at Mab's elbow. She smiled at him and made herself comfortable on it. And all the while Tarian knelt in front of her, not moving a muscle.
"I'm glad to see you haven't forgotten all your manners, Tarian," said Mab at last.
"No, your majesty." Tarian kept her head bowed.
Mab cocked her head to one side. "I was surprised to hear of your return."
Cassie would never have guessed from the conversational tone that Mab was discussing a matter of life and death. Tarian's death. Cassie had never witnessed an 'unmaking', but Tarian had told her what was involved. What had the Fae said? That the body collapsed in on itself like an empty wineskin? A shiver ran down Cassie's spine and she felt sick.
"Look at me," ordered Mab.
Tarian raised her head and the two Fae locked gazes. Cassie wondered if they were remembering how things had once been between them, when they were lovers. A pang of jealousy shot through her before she remembered that Mab had wiped all that from her memory. Would that act of forgetting help or hinder Tarian?
"At our last meeting, did I not make it clear what would happen to you if you were to return?"
"You did, your majesty," said Tarian.
"Yet here you are." Mab's voice had gone hard.
Cassie's palms felt clammy. Don't just kneel there. Tell her it was my fault that you came back. But Tarian remained silent.
"Be merciful, I beg you," blurted Cassie, unable to stay silent. All eyes swivelled to regard her. She fought not to hunch her shoulders and belatedly remembered Tarian's instruction not to draw attention to herself. Oh well! In for a penny.... "She only came back because of me, your majesty."
"And who said you may speak?" Mab's tone could have curdled fresh milk.
Cassie gave a nervous curtsey. "I apologise, your majesty, if I am breaking court protocol or something. But if Tarian won't speak up for herself, then I must." She ignored the warning glance Tarian threw her way. "She was reluctant to come back, but I persuaded her."
"You?" barked the Queen, eyebrows raised. "I remember you, mortal. Cassie, isn’t it? Were you not the one who asked me to give you Tarian as your champion?" She paused and frowned. "Are you always so careless of your champion's welfare? And so soon?"
Her remark bit Cassie to the bone, and she flushed. "It appears I am, your majesty."
A long pause followed her pained admission, then Mab said, "What could you possibly say that would make her agree to risk her life?" She sounded genuinely curious.
Cassie took a breath before answering. "I told her about the changeling, your majesty."
Mab's expression darkened. "Changeling?" She darted a glance at James, who until now had seemed beneath her notice. She gestured and he went rigid, eyes rolling in panic.
What is she doing?
The Queen was staring at the red-haired man as though she could see into his very soul. And perhaps she could, because as Cassie watched, the Queen's expression changed from one of fury to comprehension.
"I see." She waved a dismissal, and James staggered and began to rub his temple. "You told the truth, it seems." Mab pointed at the still dazed James, "To retrieve him is why you returned?"
Cassie nodded. But Mab was no longer addressing her but was looking at Tarian.
"He is mortal," said Tarian. "He was stolen from his parents when he was a babe, a doll left in his place."
"I saw his abductors' faces in his mind," agreed Mab. She became thoughtful. "Angor and Ysbail seem bent on causing me as much trouble as they did my father."
"They've mistreated him for years," interjected Cassie. "You only have to look at him to see that." She trailed off as Mab's eyes pinned her once more. "We were only doing what's right, your majesty." Though if I had it to do again, I wouldn't. That realisation heated her cheeks. "How can it be fair to penalise Tarian for that?"
Mab's gaze lingered on her for a moment before returning to Tarian. "Do you agree with your companion?" she said softly. "Do you think that rescuing this mortal should exempt you from punishment?"
Tarian replied just as softly, "No, your majesty."
"Tarian!" yelled Cassie. What the hell are you playing at? She just gave you a chance and you blew it.
Mab ignored her outburst and regarded her former champion with a thoughtful frown. Then her lips curved into a half smile. "A wise decision." She glanced at the ruined watchtower beside the track, her gaze distant. "For you know as well as I that a Queen's authority rests on the obedience of her subjects. And those who flout it must be punished." She came back to herself and her face darkened. "Just as those who created a changeling against my express orders must be punished."
For a moment Cassie pitied Angor and Ysbail, but only for a moment. An idea had come to her. "Your majesty," she said, before she could think twice about what she was doing.
Mab turned an irritated glance her way. "How Tarian puts up with your babbling is beyond me. You are worse than a whining pup. What is it now?"
Cassie tried to slow her racing pulse and ignore Tarian's glare. I know you wanted me to stay out of this, love, but how can I? "This is my fault, your majesty. So I should pay the price, not Tarian."
"You?" Mab's exclamation drowned out Tarian's protest. "You wish me to unmake you instead?"
"No!" yelped Cassie, then, in a more measured tone, "Certainly not, your majesty. I have no wish to die before my time. Something less drastic, maybe." She thought quickly. "I could be your servant. Your lady in waiting, perhaps."
Mab arched an eyebrow. "And never see your beloved Tarian again?"
Cassie hadn't considered that. But I'll lose her anyway, if you unmake her. "If it will save Tarian's life, then, yes, your majesty." She refused to meet Tarian's eyes. This is hard enough as it is.
"I confess, I have no great desire to unmake my former champion," said Mab. "But she, or someone else, must be punished." She pursed her lips and considered Cassie, then gave a small nod. "Very—"
"I won’t allow it." Tarian's words drowned out the Queen's.
"'Won't allow'?" Mab's back straightened and her eyes gleamed. For a moment Cassie feared it was with fury, but Mab's next words disabused her. "I was wondering where that spirit of yours had gone." Her lips twitched with what looked like amusement.
Tarian rose stiffly to her feet. Her glance flicked between Cassie and Mab. "Pardon my presumption, your majesty. But may I offer a possible compromise?"
At her words, a sense of foreboding stole over Cassie. What is she talking about?
Mab looked as surprised as Cassie felt, but inclined her head. "I'm listening."
"Take my immortality from me."
Cassie's gasp joined that of all the riders. From Cadel's horrified expression, he considered this fate even worse than being unmade.
"Your immortality!" repeated the Queen. Startled eyes tracked to Cassie's face then away again. "You would forfeit that for a mere mortal?"
Tarian squared her shoulders. "I would, your majesty." She turned and smiled at Cassie. "But only for this particular mortal."
Tears pricked Cassie's eyes and she bunched her fists. Is this what you were planning all along? I can't let you do this! But what choice did she have?
"What you suggest is of course possible," mused Mab, her gaze turning inwards, "but rarely done. The last occasion was five centuries ago, during King Kynan's reign. The archives say that his great friend, Talyessin, betrayed him. The punishment was banishment, but, even after what had passed between them, Kynan could not bear to be parted from his friend." She looked at Tarian and said softly, "It is written that later he regretted his decision."
Tarian remained silent, her gaze watchful. Mab pursed her lips, stood up, and began to pace.
"It would involve a great working, a spell that only those of royal blood have the delicacy and power to cast."
Tarian nodded. "So I believe, your majesty."
Mab halted in front of her, brows knitted. "Are you sure you are want to do this, Tarian? I deem it a fitting punishment considering the severity of your crime, but once done it cannot be undone."
Tarian hesitated for only a moment. "I'm sure."
Mab sighed. "Very well."
She straightened to her full height and adopted a more formal tone and demeanour. "Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk, your punishment for returning from exile shall be as you desire. You will lose your immortality." She gestured towards Cassie. "Join your companion while I prepare."
Tarian strode across the heath towards the crossing in silence, aware of Cassie's concerned glances. Fortunately, Cassie was occupied with making sure James kept up. As for the dogs, they stayed close, as though sensing their mistress's need of reassurance.
She hadn't sorted out how she felt about what had happened and she didn't feel up to talking about it yet. It had taken all her fortitude to remain unresisting while the pale green light that was the Queen's spell enveloped her. The working hadn't taken long, considering its magnitude, but by its completion she had given in to the urge to close her eyes, if only to block out the sight of Cassie's distressed face. Then a hand had cupped her chin and lifted it. She opened her eyes to find Mab regarding her from close quarters, her expression revealing an emotion Tarian had thought foreign to the Queen of the Fae: pity.
"From this day forth, Tarian, you will age as mortals do." Mab straightened and stepped back, as though distancing herself both physically and mentally. Her voice and expression changed, became cool and self-contained. "And as I have no wish to witness such an abomination, swear to me, upon your family's honour, that you will never return."
So Tarian had. She shivered, remembering. Never had the word 'never' seemed so final.
A cold nose pushed itself into her palm, and she glanced down and saw Drysi regarding her with anxious affection.
"I'm all right," Tarian told her.
But she was far from certain. The details of Talyessin's life after his punishment were sketchy at best. But he wasn't happy. He had betrayed his best friend, and Kynan had forgiven him, but they hadn't lived happily ever after. Talyessin had had been a notable worker of magic, an exhibitionist who loved nothing more than to amaze his fellow Fae and have his deeds recorded for posterity. In the end, that weakness had led him to betray his king. But after Talyessin's immortality was stripped from him, there was no mention of any magic. As far as the annals were concerned, he had dropped out of sight. Perhaps it was simply that the heart had gone from him. Or perhaps it had been something more.
When you lose your immortality, do you lose your magic too?
Tarian grimaced. It's a bit late to think of that now!
These past few weeks with Cassie, she'd been happier, more content, than she could ever remember. Perhaps that was why, just recently, she had been thinking of something Einion said.
He had stood in her kitchen, frowning. "There's no future in such attachments, Tarian," he'd warned. "Mortals live but mayfly lives. Could you watch one grow old and die? You grieve when one of your dogs dies."
Which had been unpalatable but true. And the knowledge that Tarian's time with Cassie would be so brief might have weighed heavily on her if she'd let it. So she'd pushed it to the back of her mind and tried to forget all about it. But when the chance came to save Cassie's life, relinquishing her own immortality had seemed an answer of sorts and not much of a sacrifice at all.
But if I've also lost my magic—
A mental image of Tarian kissing Cassie in the sitting room of the forester's house while Anwar looked on approvingly popped into Tarian's head—Anwar's attempt at comfort. The link between mistress and dogs was as strong as ever.
"I still have that, at least." She patted Anwar's head.
"Have what?" Cassie had caught Tarian's mutter.
"Later," said Tarian. "Let's get across first."
"You're not still mad at me for offering to be her lady in waiting, are you?"
In truth, Cassie's spur of the moment offer had almost given Tarian a heart attack. She wouldn't have put it past the Queen to take Cassie up on it, just to enjoy seeing Tarian squirm. But she sighed and said, "No. I'm not still mad at you."
Sunlight flashed off something shiny in front of the watchtower on the hill summit. Tarian shaded her eyes. Armour. That group of small figures must be Mab and the others, watching.
"Mab wouldn't change her mind, would she?" asked Cassie, anxiously following her gaze.
"No." Best not to chance it though. She increased her pace.
"Keep up, James," called Cassie.
The young man grimaced. They had exhausted his meagre energy reserves ten minutes ago; already his breathing was ragged and he had pressed a fist into his side. For all her sense of urgency, Tarian took pity on him and slowed.
"I can feel it," said Cassie, as they closed the distance to the shimmering boundary. "It’s making my hairs stand up." From James's consternation, it was having the same effect on him.
Tarian reached for Cassie's hand. "Grab hold of James. After all this, we don't want him getting left behind."
Cassie nodded and gripped the startled James's hand.
"Anwar. Drysi." Tarian pointed and with a joyful woof they left her side and bounded ahead. One moment they were there, the next they weren't. James's eyes widened and he began to whimper.
"Hush," Cassie told him. "They're all right. You'll see them again in a moment." She looked expectantly at Tarian. "Shall we?"
"Wait," said Tarian, wanting to commit to memory as many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Faerie as she could. The wild heath with its splashes of yellow and purple; the clouds of butterflies and liquid trilling song of the skylarks; the herd of wild horses racing, the drumming of their hooves both heard and felt; and the red deer grazing quietly in the distance.... At last, the pine-covered slopes drew Tarian's gaze towards the skyline, back to the crumbling watchtower and the indistinct figures standing in front of it.
She took in a last deep draught of the sweet-scented air, then looked at Cassie and smiled. "I'm ready," she told her, tightening her grip. "Let's go."
The glade was exactly as Tarian had left it, down to the scattering of blue and white petals on their grass and leaf bedding. Tarian ignored the dogs cocking their legs against a tree and glanced up at the sky assessingly.
"Late afternoon." She released her grip on Cassie's hand.
Cassie threw her a smile tinged with anxiety before turning to calm James, who looked on the verge of panic.
"It's all right," she soothed him. "You're safe now. This is your home. This is... Sutton Park." She threw Tarian a wry glance. "Not that that will mean anything to him."
"Home," he said quietly, looking around with new eyes.
The dogs bounded back to Tarian's side and nosed her for attention. She crouched and stroked their brindled coats, smoothed their sleek muzzles. She felt wrung out, exhausted. Is this what being mortal feels like?
"We're going to take you back to your parents," continued Cassie to James.
"Don't make promises you can't keep," cautioned Tarian.
A shadow fell over her, then Cassie's arm draped itself around her shoulders.
"Are you all right?"
Finding himself abandoned, James sat cross-legged on the dry bedding and began to plait stalks of grass together, humming to himself.
Tarian looked at Cassie. For a moment she wondered whether to lie. But only for a moment. "I don’t know."
"Do you feel...." Cassie paused. "Different?"
Cassie played with a strand of Tarian's hair. "That could be just stress, love. ... You've just sacrificed a vital part of yourself. It'll take a while to adjust." Her eyes crinkled with amusement. "At least you didn't do a She on us and get all wrinkled and crumble to dust."
Tarian blinked at her. "What?"
"Rider Haggard? Never mind. Feeble attempt at humour. Sorry."
They regarded one another in silence. "I never thought I'd say this," said Cassie, "but you look to me like you're in a funk."
The accusation stung. "A funk?"
Cassie nodded. "Something's scaring you half to death. What is it?" Tarian swallowed on a throat gone suddenly dry. "Tell me."
She was reluctant to put into word her fears in case it made them a reality. But Cassie held her gaze, her expression patient.
"Mab's spell may have stripped me of more than my immortality," said Tarian at last.
"What do you mean?" Cassie looked puzzled for a moment, then her brow smoothed. "Oh. Your magic. You're worried you might not be able to cast spells any more?"
"Is that a known side effect?"
"No one's done this often enough to know."
Cassie gave her a considering look. "Well, then there's only one way to find out, isn’t there? Try talking to the dogs."
"I have already."
"That still works."
"Well why didn't you say so?" Cassie looked relieved. "Isn't that magic?"
"I'm not sure," said Tarian. "The dogs are from Faerie too."
The compassion in the green eyes almost made Tarian want to weep. Snap out of it, she ordered herself. It made no difference.
"Look," said Cassie gently. "You know what you have to do. "
"Try casting a spell," said Tarian grudgingly. But what if it doesn't work?
"That's right. Start with something small. What was that spell you mentioned earlier? The thing the Lesser Fae can do? Fae Light."
Tarian took a breath then let it out. Cassie was right. The spell was a trivial one. She could manage it, couldn't she? "All right."
But she couldn't remember the spell or the glyph that went with it and she began to panic. Has Mab wiped it from my memory? A squeeze of Cassie's hand brought her back to her surroundings.
"You've gone pale and you're hyperventilating," she said matter-of-factly. "Take a few deep breaths and calm down."
Tarian gave her a sheepish look and did as she was told.
"And don't think too hard," advised Cassie. "This is something you've known since you were a child, isn't it? Something that should be second nature. Like riding a bicycle."
"Fae don't ride bicycles."
"You know what I mean."
Tarian gave her a wry smile then took another deep breath before trying again. As Cassie had advised, she didn't think deeply this time, just focussed on what she wanted to achieve. As if they had a will of their own, she found her lips moving and her fingers tracing the design that had popped into her mind.
In the middle of the glade, a small globe of pale blue light popped into existence. Its appearance elicited an excited exclamation from Cassie, but James gave it a bored look, as though he witnessed such things everyday. Perhaps he did. He went back to his plaiting.
Tarian's knees gave way and she sat down hard in the middle of the glade. Anwar and Drysi licked her face, and for once she let them. She felt relieved beyond measure. Cassie flopped down next to her, pushed the dogs away, and gave her a hug. Tarian returned it and kissed her hair
"I should have known."
"Known what?" asked Cassie, relaxing against her.
"That Mab was too skilled to accidentally strip me of my magic."
"She could have done it deliberately. I wouldn't have put it past her."
"You forget, we were friends once... more than friends."
"And you forget. She exiled you twice. That woman is one unstable bitch."
Cassie's vehemence startled Tarian into a grin. She waved the Fae light out of existence then glanced to where James was sitting and belatedly took in his battered appearance. She invoked a healing spell, and Cassie's hand flew to her mouth as she watched his bruises and cuts disappear and his cheeks gain more colour. At bone deep level, old hurts and fractures would be healing too. Tarian let out a satisfied grunt.
James looked up, his gaze puzzled, aware that something had changed but uncertain what it was. He blinked at Tarian, then at Cassie, then resumed his plaiting and humming once more.
"That was kind," murmured Cassie. "Angor could have done that, but I suppose he couldn't be bothered."
Tarian shrugged and waited for her throbbing head to ease. "I could erase his memories of Faerie too," she said. "But it seems a bad idea to take what little memory he has from him. What do you think?"
Cassie's expressive face reflecting the pros and cons as they occurred to her, then she sighed and said, "You're probably right."
The exhaustion seemed to be receding, noted Tarian. Perhaps it had been, as Cassie said, merely stress. And fear.
They sat for a little while longer, just holding one another, then exchanged a smile, helped each other up and brushed off the dirt and bits of leaf mould that still clung.
"So you still have your magic," said Cassie, as they left the glade behind them, retracing their steps out of Holly Hurst, with James trailing after them. "Does that mean you can still heal yourself? Because that's as good as immortality, isn’t it?"
"I can keep myself healthy," corrected Tarian. "But I can't keep wrinkles and grey hairs at bay." She put an arm round Cassie's shoulders and hugged her briefly. "I'm going to grow old alongside you, love. Whether you like it or not." The thought brought satisfaction tinged with apprehension, but she pushed the latter to one side. What's done is done.
Cassie sighed. "And I was really looking forward to people wondering why a gorgeous young thing like you was hanging out with a withered old bat like me." She cocked her head and considered Tarian. "You know, a grey streak would probably look gorgeous on you. Something like Susan Sontag's, maybe."
Cassie rolled her eyes. "Cultural references fly straight over your head, don't they?" She glanced back at the red-haired man, who was taking in his surroundings with interest, and sighed. "It's going to be much worse for James. He didn't even know his own name until you told him what it was. You warned me our world might be too much of a shock, and you were right. There's no way he's going to be able to cope."
Tarian shrugged. "People are tougher than you think. He'll be all right, Cassie. He just needs to be taught everything from scratch."
At her words Cassie became thoughtful. "I saw this program on TV a few months ago. About a man couldn't remember the last 37 years of his life. He'd been in what they call a 'fugue'. He had to start from scratch."
She caught Cassie's drift at once. "So James could be suffering from the same thing?"
Cassie nodded. "We could drop him off at the Good Hope."
"Is that a hospital?"
"Mm. We could take him to A & E, tell them that we found him wandering in the Park, and that it looks like he's lost his memory...."
"Would they take care of him?"
"I think so. They'd get the police involved, work out who he is, track down his family and friends.... "
"If the changeling version of James had any," warned Tarian. "They're not usually the type. He was probably so hateful he alienated everyone close to him."
"Our James will be different. They'll like him, I think. And they'll be able to say the personality change is down to the fugue," said Cassie.
Up ahead the trees were thinning. They had almost reached the edge of the wood.
Cassie chewed her lower lip. "He needs some kind of ID, though, to get the ball rolling and make sure he's not stuck in hospital longer than necessary."
Tarian vaulted over the two-barred fence then, while she waited for Cassie to squeeze between the bars, cast a suitable spell. The credit card she had last seen lying on the desk in the doll hospital's tiny office appeared between her finger and thumb. When Cassie straightened up, she held it out. "Will this do?"
Cassie gave her a look. "Lost your magic," she scoffed affectionately.
Cassie examined the card. "Perfect." She glanced up as James made his way towards them. "Even so it's going to be tough for him, catching up on everything he's missed. I wonder if he'll ever feel at home in our world."
"I do, and I've only been here a couple of years."
"Yes. I have you to help me. James will be fortunate if finds himself a Cassie."
"Yeah, yeah." But Tarian's words brought a blush of pleasure to Cassie's cheeks.
They joined hands and set off back towards the carpark, James traipsing a few yards behind. When they were almost there, Tarian gestured, and Cassie's little blue car reappeared, drawing a gasp of amazement from the red-haired man.
"Show off," murmured Cassie.
Tarian grinned and directed the dogs towards the back seat, which James would have to share with them as far as the hospital.
"Whatever happens, he'll will be better off here than he would have been with Angor and Ysbail," said Cassie, opening the driver's door. "And that's a start, isn’t it?"
Tarian opened the passenger door. "It's a start," she agreed.
"Tarian was right about the flies," came Louise's voice down the phone. "Whatever the pest control people did that last time did the trick."
That's what you think. Cassie glanced round her flat to where Tarian was wrestling the last of the bulging suitcases closed, and being hindered rather than helped by the wolfhounds. It was strange seeing the place so tidy and bare. Hard to imagine she had lived here for three years.
"It's just as well about the flies," she said. "Tiddles would have gone spare."
"Oh I don't know," said Louise. "He might have acquired a taste for bluebottles."
"Are we talking about the same cat? Lazy, selfish, so picky he'd rather starve than eat cheap cat food?"
"You told me he'd eat anything."
Louise laughed. "He's settled in really well. Sam adores him."
"Thank heavens for that. I don't know what I'd have done if you'd had to bring Tiddles back."
"Sam's annoyed, by the way, that he missed meeting Tarian. Especially after I told him what she looks like."
"Men! There'll be other occasions, Lou. Mum and Dad insist we come back and visit often, though what he and Tarian are going to find to talk about I have no idea, as Tarian has no interest whatsoever in cars." She caught Tarian's grimace from the corner of her eye. "Be nice," she mouthed.
Tarian grinned at her and hauled the now shut suitcase over to the door to join the others waiting to be taken down to the Yaris. She straightened and pressed her fists into the small of her back then invoked what Cassie now recognised as a healing spell. Getting the packing cases ready for the removal men had taken its toll on both of them. And there was still the drive ahead....
"You could always come to stay for a weekend," she told Louise.
"In Bourne's Edge?"
The incredulity in her friend's voice made Cassie roll her eyes. "Hey!" she protested. "It's not Timbuktu. It's really nice. Peaceful. With beautiful views."
"Boring, you mean."
"Not that boring. I'm sure we can find something to keep you and Sam occupied for a weekend."
"Question. Do you have cable or satellite?"
"Not yet," admitted Cassie.
"No but I'm looking into—"
"I rest my case," said Louise.
Cassie laughed. "Well, if you should change your mind, you have my number."
"Great." She glanced to where Tarian was leaning against the wall, arms folded, expression patient. "I'd better go, Lou; we were supposed to be on our way half an hour ago. Give my love to Tiddles, won't you?"
"Will do. Safe journey, Cass. Bye."
Cassie replaced the receiver then unplugged the phone from its socket.
"All done?" asked Tarian.
She nodded, her gaze skimming over the stained table on which her computer had sat, the rickety cupboard now empty of her videocassette collection, the shelves devoid of her well worn paperbacks, and the unfaded rectangles of wallpaper where her paintings had hung.
"You'll miss this place, won't you?" said Tarian, following her gaze.
Cassie tried to read her expression. Was Tarian feeling guilty about whisking her away to Bourne's Edge? If so she had no need to.
"Not really." She crossed to Tarian's side and pulled the Fae's arms around her. After a moment, Tarian hugged her and rested her chin on the crown of Cassie's head. "I didn't have much of a life before I met you," said Cassie. "This was never 'home', just the place where I slept."
Cassie glanced up at her. "It's my friends I'll miss, but I intend to keep in touch with them." She paused. "If that's all right with you."
Tarian blinked. "Of course."
"Good." Cassie snuggled closer, then peeked up at her again and saw Tarian gazing fondly down at her. "What?"
"Nothing. Only if we're going to get home before it gets dark...."
"Don't wanna move," she complained, pressing herself into Tarian's cleavage and inhaling the enticing scent of her. "Comfy, right here."
She basked in a feeling of well-being until a thought struck her and she pulled back. "Do you think James is all right? He looked... well, you saw him. He looked terrified when we left him at the hospital. Maybe we should try to keep an eye on him."
"He's been terrified all his life," said Tarian matter-of-factly.
Cassie blinked at her. "That sounds a little... cold."
"Does it?" Tarian cocked her head. "It’s just the truth, Cassie. At some basic level James was, is, and I'm afraid always will be terrified of the Fae. You saw how he was around me. Trembling, wary. The best thing is for me to stay as far from him as possible."
Cassie sighed. "And yet you're the one who rescued him and healed him too. It's not fair." Especially since rescuing him robbed you of your immortality. Oh, my love, I hope you don't ever come to regret that. But she thought she knew Tarian well enough by now to know that if Tarian did have regrets, it would only be in passing. The Fae lived in the moment. It was a trait Cassie envied.
"One act of kindness set against a life time of cruelty." Tarian shrugged. "It hardly balances the scales."
"I wonder what will become of him."
"He'll get a job involving animals."
Cassie gaped at her. "Can the Fae see into the future?"
Tarian laughed. "No. But James was a pigboy, and you saw how good he was with the horses... and with these two." She gestured towards the dogs, who had settled themselves next to the suitcases and were watching her with lolling tongues.
"Oh." Cassie's glance fell on the keys waiting to be returned to the landlord, and she sighed. "I suppose we should get going."
"Mm." Tarian yawned. "Can't wait to get back. Who would have thought moving you out of your flat would be so eventful?"
"Don't be. I got some great ideas for a new painting out of it. That watchtower on the hill...."
Cassie hugged her.
"I wish I could share the driving," continued Tarian, stroking Cassie's hair, "but when we get back, we'll have a good long soak in the bath, then," she looked meaningfully at Cassie, "go to bed."
How does she know that's what I've been thinking about? "Have you been reading my mind again?"
Tarian chuckled. "No, just your emotions and your body language."
"Hm." It always disconcerted Cassie when Tarian did that, but, on the bright side, she would never have a girlfriend who 'didn't understand her'. "About the driving," she said, "don't feel bad. I'm glad I have something to contribute to our relationship. Because with your magic... well, a girl could get an inferiority complex."
"But you won't," said Tarian, making it sound like an order.
"OK," agreed Cassie peaceably.
She reached for the keys. "Shall we go?" At her movement, the dogs got to their feet and panted eagerly.
Tarian nodded. "Let's go home."
The man in the white coat tugged the door closed behind him. Left alone once more, James relaxed back against his pillows.
"Dr Stuart, clinical psychologist." He tasted the words.
So many new words, sights, smells, and flavours. It was... overwhelming. And the most overwhelming thing of all? That apart from the Fae who had brought him to this place and given him the name he'd always craved, everyone looked like him. Was like him.
People were imperfect, ugly. Dr. Stuart was stoop-shouldered and wore things called 'spectacles'—to correct his poor sight, apparently. Nurse Williams was so fat she waddled. And no one worked magic. In fact, they laughed uproariously whenever he mentioned it.
He was glad they were no longer sticking sharp needles in him and asking questions that made his head ache. They believed he had lost his memory.
"You've been ill, James," the nurses had told him, and Dr Stuart had repeated it this morning. "But you're in good hands. No one knows what trauma—" Another new word. " —made you lose your memory. But in time it should return."
James didn’t disabuse them, though he wished he had lost his memory. He still woke often during the night, fearful he would find that this had all been a dream, and he was back in the shed with Blacktail and the other pigs. But each time the bright light streaming through the window from the corridor's strip lights reassured him.
The door opened and Nurse Williams put her head round. He was pleased to see her. She smiled with a genuine warmth that he had never encountered before.
"Your parents are here to see you, James."
She came fully inside the room. "Don't you remember them either? The police traced them. Their names are Janet and Phil Farley. They've come all the way from Croydon. They've agreed to look after you, until your memory comes back."
James blinked at her.
"Chin up. They may be strangers, but you'll soon get to know them again."
There was movement in the corridor outside, and he caught a glimpse through the window of three people. One was a straight-backed middle-aged man with hair as red as his own and a bushy moustache. He was deep in conversation with Dr. Stuart. The woman with him was shorter than he was, fair-haired and rather plump. She looked tired and apprehensive.
Something about the couple's features reminded James of the face he had seen whenever he washed his face in the water trough. Could they really be my parents? His heart hammered in his chest.
"May we come in?"
Phil Farley was standing in the doorway, stroking his moustache—a nervous habit? He looked an enquiry at Nurse Williams then at James.
"Of course," said the nurse, beckoning. "Now don't be scared," she told James.
"He looks... different, somehow," said Janet Farley, coming to stand next to her husband. "Smaller. Frailer. Not so... vicious." She spoke in a low voice, but James's sharp hearing picked it up.
"Hush," said her husband quickly. "Don't let him hear you. You know what he can be like."
That puzzled James. As far as he knew he had never met them before. Perhaps he should say as much. He took a deep breath and held out his hand.
"My name is James Farley. They tell me you're my parents, but I'm afraid I don't remember you at all. Perhaps we can start again?"
The glance they exchanged was unfathomable, but they drew closer, and the tension in their faces and shoulders eased.
"Hello, James." Janet gave him a searching look.
He put on his best smile. "Pleased to meet you." Her lower lip trembled and her eyes looked suspiciously wet.
Phil slipped his arm around her waist. "Hello, son," he said gruffly. "Pleased to meet you too."
My thanks to my Yahoo mailing list for their comments on the beta version of this story. :)