Finding Tír na nÓg
It is bitterly cold and I don't know where I am. I open my eyes, slowly, the left first, then the right. It's dark, but a shaft of blue-tinged light comes from somewhere above. My breath shows as dancing steam on the air, leaking from between chattering teeth. I can hear the irregular drip of water nearby. I realise I'm lying in a couple of inches of water that smells of moss and decaying things. Uncertainly, I stretch out my hand, skating the heel through the water, and push myself up onto my knees. Instantly, I regret it, pain lancing through my temples like a heated knitting needle. Bracing my weight on my palms, I try to breathe through it, blood pounding in my ears. I feel sick, saliva pooling in the bottom of my mouth.
No, no. Don't puke, I think, fiercely. It's concussion, don't puke.
Unfortunately, I've been concussed often enough to recognise the symptoms. Gingerly probing the sticky gash above my left eye, I swear, looking at the poppy red staining my fingertips. Sitting down with a splash, something unidentifiable and vaguely organic squelches from beneath me. Resting my wrists on my knees, I concentrate, sending my awareness down through my body into the earth below. Drawing up the energy I find, the deep, brown-green vitality, I swirl it up through my energy centres to my injured head. Within moments the pain and nausea lessen enough for me to look around and take stock.
I'm in a sewer, but not a modern one. There are no plastic ducts, no electronic tags for the water company to monitor blockages and open sluice gates. It appears much older, not Victorian, exactly, but stranger still. Frowning, I dig in my pocket for my mobile phone. The screen is cracked in three places, the whole casing waterlogged. Ever the optimist, I shake it a few times and press some of the buttons. Useless. My right hand flies to my side and I belatedly realise my gun is gone. Not that I ever use it. I hate guns, but the bosses insist I carry one and know how to use it.
Bloody marvellous. No gun, no phone, no back-up. Alone in the dark in a... sewer?
Looking around, things don't seem quite right. The ceiling soars, where I can see it, far higher than any sewer I've ever seen. Doing my job, you see more than your fair share of sewers, alleys and supposedly abandoned warehouses. Squinting into the gloom, I can see that a supporting strut is fashioned into an armoured knight holding a lichen-garlanded broadsword. Taking a deep, preparatory breath, I carefully stand up, scraping my wet hair out of eyes. The dizziness isn't as bad as I expected, but I still have to squeeze shut my eyes for a second or two.
Shivering as my sodden jeans cling to my thighs, I clench my stomach against the sudden resurgence of nausea. All I remember is walking home from the corner shop, newspaper and a loaf of bread under my arm. I felt a tug in the ether, an insistent pull, like silver fishhooks in my skin. Following the siren thrum, I rounded a corner into the small, manicured park and paused by an ash tree. Then nothing. I frown, trying to pluck some shred of memory from the grey fudge in my head. There's a huge round grate just visible past the bend in the tunnel, backlit with a fey, silvery luminance. The fine hair on the nape of my neck prickles, my solar plexus throbs – there is magic here. Old, earth magic that I can feel in my bones and teeth. At once I'm alert, summoning my personal magic, clothing my form with protection that shimmers about me before vanishing. Sloshing through the ankle-deep water, I approach, attempting to make as little noise as possible. Something punts through the murky water several feet ahead, and although I can't see it, I think of trilobites and angler fish.
A flash of movement level with my head startles me and I almost cry out. Bobbing on the air, a tiny, winged form chatters incomprehensibly. A pixie. He seems surprised I can see him, and rather agitated. Fluttering closer, he tugs on my hair and babbles musical nonsense into my ear. I motion for him to calm down; through gesture and expression communicating I don't understand his dialect. Darting in front of my nose, shining eyes huge in his thin green face, he bares sharp little teeth and continues to utter an endless stream of words. Impatiently, he repeats them over until I pick out the meaning.
"The Prince is come," I whisper aloud, slowly. "The Prince has returned from the Underworld."
The pixie gives a triumphant squeak, tumbling through the air, trailing emerald light that hangs before my face, glittering. I watch as the stylised blossoming tree motif disintegrates into fading motes. The Royal seal of Bethmora. Fear suddenly ignites in my belly, threatens to bring back the concussive sickness. Glancing at the pixie, for they can be deceitful creatures, I realise he is just as afraid, if not more so. There was only one Prince of Bethmora – Nuada Silverlance, general of the Golden Army, rebel son of King Balor. Killed three years ago by his twin sister, the gentle, self-sacrificing Princess Nuala.
I've worked, off and on, for the UK division of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence since I was eighteen, having appeared on their radar aged ten. It's a family thing. My mother and grandmother also worked for them. I come from a long line of hereditary witches who've always poked their noses into things that shouldn't concern them. An occupational foible, if you will. My nose for the paranormal has got me into endless trouble, but has also shown me such beauty and wonder that it makes me weep. It's amazing what is real and possible.
I was part of the team assembled in the wilds of Ireland, standing at the gates of Bethmora, watching Manners rant and chew antacids. The Americans, with their guns, gadgets and machismo are no use against the Gentry. Six druids and seven witches, including myself, worked for hours erecting wards to seal the gates, should Hellboy's team fail. We all knew it was laughably futile against the Golden Army, that nightmare of clockwork magic. One of the druids, an Irish gentleman in his seventies, suffered a heart attack that day. He passed into the Summerland afraid and in pain, Goddess bless and keep him. This was the legacy of the Crown Prince of Bethmora, who in his madness tried to reanimate what should never have been manufactured in the first instance.
I'm alone in the dark, with the very real possibility that the Elf Lord has somehow returned from beyond the Veil. Scared would be an understatement. Nuada's hatred of humanity is well documented. Not that anyone of my family line is entirely human, but I doubt His Majesty will pause long enough to pick up that particular detail. Suddenly, the pixie trills in alarm and streaks away down the tunnel like a firefly. He turns the corner and bumps the wall, then darkness closes about him like a fist. Completely alone, then. Shaking, but from more than just the cold, I begin to pick my way towards the grate again. Probably a really stupid idea, but I couldn't see any other way out. Shrinking back against the damp wall, hiding behind the knight's shin guard, I mutter a cloaking incantation. I can see my hand in front of my face, but it appears ghostly. I should be invisible to any observers. There is no guarantee, of course, that it will fool one of the noble Fey.
Slipping in through the grate, which is partially open, I emerge into a large, round room with a vaulted ceiling. I can't see how far up it goes, but small, leather-winged forms chitter and wheel overhead. The walls in here are stone, pitted with age and blue-green lichen. There's another grated door at the far side, which I step towards, eagerly. I could feel a slight breeze, carrying with it the scent of wet greenery. Hearing splashing in the water nearby, I fling myself flat to the wall behind a pillar, slimy lichen sucking at my cheek and the backs of my arms. I'm not usually so afraid of unidentifiable sounds in the dark and creeping shadows. My heart hammers against my ribs like a trapped sparrow as I peek cautiously out, bloodied fingers creeping around the crumbling pillar.
Metal upon stone, shrill and discordant, assaults my ears, resounding like a cracked bell. My eyes track the flash and arc of silver, blinding in the shafts of light that come from above. Droplets of water divide and tremble before the keen edge. One hits my face and I blink, dazedly, as it slides down my nose. I realise it's a lance blade, heavily engraved, set in a supple yew shaft. Jumping as the point clangs stone beneath the water, shrieking upwards to the left, I stifle a gasp. The lance bearer is stripped to the waist and stands with his back to me, honed muscle sliding beneath chalk white skin. I watch, mesmerised, as he works through an astoundingly complex series of manoeuvres. Milky hair spills down his back almost to his waist, the tips darkening to honey, floating on the air as he whirls, parrying imaginary adversaries. Scars crisscross his shoulders and torso, keloid knots that stand proud as his body snaps to the right, blade singing out as his feet leave the floor. Flipping over, he drops to one knee, head snapping up. His eyes are hawk amber above thin, ritual scarring across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.
Blackened lips peeling from gleaming white teeth, angular features set with utter concentration, he heaves a breath and his cold eyes narrow to slits. I'm put in mind of a predatory bird, no a serpent, or a mixture of both. I bite my lip, unconsciously, praying he does not see me. Gaze tracking to the gold disk on his leather gauntlet, I feel my heart still in my chest. The Royal Seal of Bethmora. Prince Nuada Silverlance cocks his head, nostrils flaring slightly, scenting the air. Holding myself extremely still, some base instinct locking my muscles, I entirely forget to breathe. Do not move. If he spots me, I'm dead. He rises to his feet, uncoiling slowly, each movement controlled, and spins his lance. The base striking stone, he leans a razor cheekbone against the shaft, long white fingers curling around the smooth wood.
I've read the reports, examined the digital copies of centuries old woodcuts and fragments of parchment, heard the oral folk legends. I was at the gates of Bethmora when they groaned wide to spit out Hellboy and his exhausted companions. I thought I knew about Nuada, Nuala and Balor, how the Prince went insane in his millennia exile. The irony is, I agree with him. Humanity has ruined the earth. We have stripped her bare and abused her with impunity. I knew he was terrifying, single-minded, a warrior beyond compare, who had easily beaten the Son of a Fallen One. But...
Nobody told me he was beautiful!
Quashing the thought, I remind myself I'm in serious danger. Nuada's tawny eyes slide in my direction, glacial, distant. He must not see me. I need to get out of here, to contact my superiors and inform them that the Prince of Bethmora has somehow found his way back to this world. I blink and drop my gaze for a fraction of a second, thinking hard. When I look back, he is gone. Panic grips me, the peculiar terror of a prey mammal that can't see the predator. Lifting my right hand, my lips curve to form the words of a defensive spell, fingertips tingling as I summon the power.
I'm choking, kicking ineffectually at nothing as I'm snatched off my feet. Five bone white fingers bite into my throat, strangling the incantation, sending purple stars racing before my eyes. Slamming me against the pillar, features dark with fury, the Elf Lord snarls something I don't understand. As darkness fills my vision, suffocation stealing consciousness, he abruptly releases me. Skull bouncing from the stone, gagging, wheezing, I freeze as the deadly point of his lance pricks the soft spot beneath my jaw. He glares down at me, yellow eyes lambent in the gloom, arrogance in the downturn of his black mouth.
"Who are you?" he demands, the dialect High Elvish, seldom heard by human ears. "Speak!"
His voice is a resonant tenor, the tone one accustomed to complete obedience in those he addresses. I swallow, the blade kissing my throat, and say nothing. My Elvish is rusty, mind skipping back to childhood lessons and dusty books sealed with padlocks and spells. Evidently, I don't answer quickly enough for the Prince's liking, as he clicks his tongue against his teeth with irritation. Looking me over, a pale brow quirks, upper lip curling with distaste.
"Human," he spits. "Hollow, worthless creature!"
The lance blade cuts into me, a brief, bright moment of pain, then warm wetness against my skin. I ignore it and mutter a response in Elvish, which I pray is complete enough for comprehension. Nuada frowns and leans in for a closer look, breath cool and strangely scentless against my face. His golden eyes glitter, alien and fathomless.
"Fey by-blow," he concludes, tracing a fingertip through my paltry wards, which flicker and disperse. "Witch child of human get."
The blade is removed from my neck. My fingers automatically go to the wound, which is shallow and non life threatening. Still, it bleeds copiously. I clamp my hand over it and will healing energy to the spot. It may have missed the artery, but if I lose any more blood, I will definitely pass out.
"I thought your kind were no more," the Prince states, looking at me dispassionately. "The Burning Times were your undoing."
It takes me a moment or two to realise he has switched to speaking English. Perfect, grammatically correct English, with a slight lilt. I try to force sufficient air through my bruised windpipe to speak, but the words come out as a wheeze. Leaning on the lance haft, Nuada studies me curiously, eyes hooded, head tilted like a falcon. He is not even breathing hard, the effort expanded to subdue me minimal.
"Speak!" he growls, thumping his lance butt.
"W-we survived," I croak. "Not many, but enough to carry on the work."
Again, he clicks his tongue, dismissively this time. "Not nearly enough, witchling! Look at the earth, how she is ruined!"
Shame flames in my cheeks and I drop my eyes to my feet, hidden in water. I know he is right. There are simply not enough of us left. I feel telling him we do what we can where we can, won't be a sufficient answer, so I don't reply.
"What is your name?"
I know better than to give the Gentry my name. My chin lifts defiantly, which raises a ghosted smile from the Prince. It's not a pleasant expression, more like a ritual display as he transfers his feared lance to his other hand. Water suddenly cascades in a thin stream from above, dripping through his hair, rolling from his bare shoulders. If he feels discomfort, it doesn't show. His amber eyes move to the blood stiffening my jacket, gelid on my hands.
"Do you know who I am?" he asks softly, going very still, mamba-like.
The fine hair on the back of my neck stands on end. If I lie, he may know. If I tell the truth, he will doubtless kill me. Nuada chuckles quietly, the sound streaking chills across my skin. I can see how his name came to be revered and reviled through the ages, a whispered tale around campfires. Be good, or the Prince will come for you!
"Your heartbeat betrays you," he says mildly, tapping his pointed ear. "You know who I am. Say my name."
The last utterance is a command, filled with steel. Oh, the power of names with the Fey. Ice filling my stomach, I straighten, taking my hand away from my wounded throat. It has stopped bleeding and the edges have already knitted. Gathering my dignity, I dare to look him in the eye and clear my throat. I have to look up several inches as he is well over six feet tall.
"Nuada Silverlance, son of King Balor of Bethmora."
"Prince Nuada," he corrects haughtily, clearly annoyed.
I shake my head, hardly believing my own stupidity as I shot back, "You're no Prince of mine. I didn't swear any oath to you. Mine is to the Goddess."
Nuada's chin tucks in, eyes narrowing with outrage. Expression dark with impending violence, he looms over me. This is it. I'm going to die down here in this sewer because I can't keep my mouth shut. Suddenly, to my astonishment, he gives a brief bark of laughter and slaps his open palm against the pillar by my right ear.
"Brave little witch," he comments dryly. "But truthful. The Fey ancestry must outweigh the human taint in you, for all that you bleed red."
I'm starting to feel a little detached from reality. Countless questions jostle in my head, least of all, how is it even possible he is here? According to Abe Sapien, Nuada had crystallized into ivory stone and broken in two like his heart. He didn't seem deranged. Toweringly arrogant in his belief in his own superiority, like many Gentry, frightening, filled with anger, but mad? He watches the thoughts slip across my face, head cocked, and I start to shiver again.
"Let me see," he breathes, tracing the lance blade down the pillar by my left ear. "These cogs that turn inside your head."
My cheek burns from the sudden contact of his palm, hard fingertips digging into my temple and beneath my jaw, thumb crushing my lower lip into my teeth. I taste blood and the salt from his skin, my gasped protest ignored. The Prince's mind plunges through my mental defences like a hunting dog after a rabbit. He will know everything I don't want him to. I think I scream and hit out at him, clawing at his unmovable arm. Images carousel behind my eyes; my family, my coven and work colleagues. He delves deeper and it hurts because I can and will resist him.
'Stop! Stoppit! It hurts! IT HURTS!' I wail inside my mind.
Desperately, I call to any guardian spirits of the place, a silent plea that for long seconds I think is unanswered. Then the power jettisons through me, so much I will get static shocks from any manmade material I touch for weeks after. I hear crackling like a lightning strike and my ears pop, as if I have suddenly risen to a great height. I smell violets. Catapulted back by the explosive release, Nuada collides with the wall with such force, cracks appear in the stone. Sliding down into the brackish water, his chin drops to his chest and he groans, a trickle of copper-coloured blood at his temple. A flurry of leather wings obscures my eyes as the resident bats panic, the waters eddying about my feet.
Spine flush with the pillar, panting, trembling from the residual energy, I project my thanks and shake a little blood from my hands by way of offering. The Prince appears unconscious, slumped over, his lance lost somewhere in the turbulent water. I should leave, quickly, while I still can. Spinning on my heel, I dart for the exit.
The cry is so piteous, so hoarse and filled with agony, that it stops me in my tracks. Looking back over my shoulder, I see him lever himself up onto his palms, hair trailing into the water. Shaking violently, he lifts his head, opens his black mouth and howls, a wordless expression of grief. Then, Nuada Silverlance, Crown Prince of Bethmora, Scourge of Humanity, draws his knees to his chest and starts to weep like a lost child. I don't know what to do – I'm torn between running for my life and intervening. It's part of my Rede to tend to the sick, the distressed and the spiritually lost. He seems to be all three and then some. I make my decision, which I hope I will live to not regret. Stupid girl.
Warily, I approach and kneel next to him. He doesn't move, proud face pressed to his kneecaps, rocking slightly. Powerful shoulders heaving with the force of his sobs, he starts violently when I hesitantly lay my hand on his bicep.
"She's gone," I murmur softly, keeping my voice low and soothing. "Gone to the Summerland."
He stares at me, eyes cinnamon with pain. "I did this," he whispers brokenly. "My arrogance, my heedless pride killed her. She took her dagger, and she..."
Trailing off, bewildered, hurting, he presses a hand to his sternum, finding a healed knife scar. He looks to me, helplessly, but I don't have any answers for him. His skin is hot beneath my palm, almost feverish. I have no idea if this is normal for an elf and wonder if he's ill. Once thing, however, is clear – he has no more clue why he's here than I do. His lips twist, face lifting to the unseen skies.
"Father," he groans disconsolately. Alert, feral amber, his gaze snaps to me. "The Golden Army...?"
"Dismantled," I manage to say, trying to keep the unease from my tone. "The Crown was destroyed."
Nuada sneers, snarls, left hand questing through the water for his lance, which is thankfully, out of reach. All at once, his features crumple and he hangs his head low.
"I am being punished," he mutters. "Thrust back amongst humans for murdering my father and causing my sister to take her own life. Cerridwen has a cruel sense of humour, it seems."
Gathering my courage, I reach out and tip his chin, disregarding the warning flash of his eyes. It seems the Prince doesn't like to be touched. Moistening my dry lips, I silently ask the Goddess for the right words. Please let them be right. I can't afford for them not to be right.
"Maybe, this isn't punishment. Maybe this is Her way of giving you a second chance? Too much has been destroyed already, by everyone, Fey and human. What if this is a chance for something new to grow?"
Nuada gazes at me for so long I fight the urge to look away, feeling unbearably young and stupid beneath the weight of his gaze. How old is he? How many millennia has he seen? How long was he exiled from his father's court? A tear wells in the corner of his right eye and slips down his nose. My knees ache, my throat stings, I am soaked through and so cold I can't feel my fingers or toes, but I ignore it all. I realise later he has hold of my hand, clutching it to his bicep.
"What if, indeed," he concedes, at length.
Clearing his throat, he blinks and wipes at his eyes with his pallid forearm. Composure restored, he fixes me with those unnerving eyes.
"What is your name, witchling?" he enquires. "I swear by my lance, I will not use it against you."
Reassured, for the word of a noble Fey is their bond, I answer, "Aisling. Aisling Grey."
Nuada Silverlance smiles, for the first time genuine warmth in the expression. " Aisling. A vision or dream. How very apt."
I realise he is chilled, goose pimples on his arms and torso. If he were human, I'd say he was going into shock. But he's not human and I have no point of reference for indicators of his health. Moving aside his hair, I examine the cut on his forehead. It looks deep. I think I see a glint of bone beneath. He allows the ministration without protest, flinching only when I breathe a healing spell into the wound.
"How long have I slept?" he demands, suddenly.
I pause, an arm slipped around him, attempting to coax him out of the freezing water. "Three years."
He rises sinuously to his feet, easily carrying me with him. Setting me back down, gently, he bends to retrieve his lance. The blade glistens, cold and lethal.
"Are you to be my guide, in this new life?"
Am I? I realise I am, with the absolute certainty that only comes when the Goddess reaches out and raps her knuckles on your head. It doesn't mean I'm not scared I'll cock it all up, nor does it mean I know what to do. All it means is, I have been chosen, and there's nothing I can do about it. I nod once and hold out my hand. Nuada takes it, white fingers closing about my pink.
"Your compatriots in the BPRD may have something to say," he observes, slyly, amused.
I'm speechless, horrified, realising he has gleaned that from my mind when he broke through my defences. The Prince notes my reaction and smiles like a leopard, lifting my hand to his mouth and brushing his lips across my knuckles. I'm in an awful lot of trouble, whichever way this pans out.