by Rebecca Bryant
They say we have fallen since our days in Arcadia. How could they not when our knights wear rollerblades and fight with hockey stick? When instead of cool palaces surrounded by crystal lakes we have empty cinemas surrounded by tarmac shimmering in the heat? Perhaps they are right; we all grow up and stop believing. But the cinema *was* cool in the steamy July heat, and our faerie lady *was* beautiful; for me, it had always been enough, and I was content to lie cat-curled in the comforting darkness of the back row and never question the boundaries of my world.
That changed the day I caught a frog.
It was small, slimy and not at all green. It squirmed repulsively in my cupped hands, but seeing Erin's emerald eyes smirking at me I gritted my teeth and held on. Erin, the perfect Sidhe - beautiful as Cleopatra and arrogant as a Roman god - was aloof. Turning, she swing her marble-black hair over her shoulder, stooped, and skipped a stone across the surface of the murky pond. Erin was *always* aloof - at least that was the way *she* put it. Looking back, I think downright rude would have been more accurate.
"You're Stevie, right?" she said, the first time we met, 'What kind of dumb name is *that* for a girl?" I was hooked, and followed her everywhere.
Erin sent a larger rock crashing into the water, it made me jump and I dropped the frog. It plopped back into mud the consistency of half-set jello, and shuddering, I backed away.
I'm a cat-pooka; I hate water.
Erin threw her head back and laughed to prove that she *could* laugh at me.
"Wasn't a proper frog anyway," I muttered, glowering, "Wasn't even green."
"Don't be so stupid, Steve," she sighed with harmonics that screamed older sibling, "You should see the frogs in South America."
Of course, Erin had never been to South America, much less seen a rainbow coloured frog, but she *had* moved to this forgettable suburb from the City, and she *had* spent summers in Europe. At fifteen she had three years and countless experiences more than me.
Walking home and listening to her hum snatches of metal music, it occurred to me that considering the Dairy Queen three towns over exotic denoted an unimaginably small world.
Every other weekend Erin went to the City. Most times I walked with her the two miles to a small commuter station in Westwood to watch her leave on the train.
"Just you wait until I'm old enough to drive," she threatened the gas pump with her can of soda, some of it slopping onto the oil stained concrete, and eliciting a curse from the pump boy. "No more train, no more walking and no more stopping on the way at gas stations for cheap sodas!" She spat the last comment at the pump boy and rose, tipping her can, letting little streams of Mountain Dew hit the ground with a glugging, splashing sounds and slip towards my feet.
"Come on. We're leaving."
"But I haven't finished my Coke!" I protested.
"So drink it while we walk. I don't like it here anymore."
The train station was small. That really is the only way to describe it. Nothing in the world could make that 30 feet of platform and tiny brick building interesting. There were two benches, a tree, some bathrooms and a snack kiosk. But the tree was unclimbable, and the kiosk permanently closed. So we sat, and we waited, and if I was lucky, Erin lowered herself to my level and we played 'Eye-Spy'.
"I spy with my little eye, something beginning with 'R'."
She sighed, glancing around, "Railway track."
"Well what then?" she asked, annoyed.
"Red light!" I cried, grinning, "Train's coming!"
A car rolled lazily around the corner and stopped at the crossing, the driver drummed his thumbs on the wheel and peered down the track. True to its banal little routing, it came into view thirty-seven seconds later, lumbering and screeching from behind a row of houses, like a walrus out-of-breath, and struggled to a stop at the station.
I got ready to begin my dash down the station, jumping over the benches to try and catch the train as it pulled away, but Erin caught my arm.
"Are you coming with?" she asked as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Wha...what?" she'd never asked anything like this before.
"Are You Coming With Me?" she stressed each word. "Do I have to spell it out?!"
"Well," my mind was still reeling; I wanted to go - of course I wanted to go! - but my mom would be furious and...
Erin was glaring at me impatiently.
"Well it's not like my mom will mind," I quickly finished my sentence and climbed aboard the train.
The City was very large and very loud. The taxi-cabs made the streets awful yellowy, and the porn shops made the walls awful luminous, and Erin walked like a professional walker, making all the people get out of her way as she stepped down this street, then that one. After a long while of walking we stopped for a pretzel, and a while after that we stopped for an ice cream, and a while after that we stopped for a large, blue, horned and above all scary looking Troll doorman.
It was in a decidedly seedy looking hotel - the 'Magnifique'. Erin had told me we were going to see her aunt, and I was just beginning to wonder what kind of aunt lived in a place like this when a very large gnarled blue hand hit my shoulder with no small amount of force. It hurt.
"Where are you going? What business do you have with the lady?" His voice was deceptively un-gravelly, in fact it was distinctly condescending and British. "She'll see no one without an appointment."
"Lady...? Yes, yes of course," I gulped. "Got an appointment for...um, when was it now?"
Just when I thought I was going to die, Erin cut in, sliding smoothly in front of me and gently lifting his hand from my shoulder.
"The girl's with me," she answered in a voice that brooked no argument - at least it never had from me.
"I can't just let you pass like that," he blocked our way to the elevator; the only way anywhere in this tiny foyer. "Not just like that. She said to be disturbed by no one! And I tell you, Miss Erin, I'd like to keep my limbs."
If Erin had heard the sarcasm in his last comment, she made no sign of it, and replied in a cool and calculating manner.
"Oh, she'll want to see *us* Davrek. Yes, she'll want to see us. And if she doesn't it'll be *my* limbs forfeit, not yours. But if you don't let me pass now it'll be *you* who feels an unnerving compulsion to walk blindfold across that street out there."
Reluctantly Davrek stepped aside and pressed the call button for the elevator set into the plasterboard wall behind him.
Several excruciating minutes passed before the elevator finally pinged to a cheery halt and opened its jaws invitingly.
"I'd best be having her name then!" Davrek called, pointing at me, "Else how will I know what to put on her tombstone?"
"Davrek," Erin threw him a marvellously condescending smile as she pushed me through the sliding doors. "Davrek, we're *important*, and not likely to die on any whim of her Grace. *You* on the other hand..." she left the words hanging in the air and blew him a kiss.
The elevator began rising with my nerves. The word 'tombstone' kept ringing in my ears, and it wouldn't go away - it kept getting louder and louder and more and more convincing, and...
"Erinthepeopleherearetoonice," I gushed. "Maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to just...go home?"
Erin started to chuckle. It was a strange un-Erin-like sound. 'You poor naive little child' it said, in almost kindly tones.
Aloud, she simply stated flatly, "You're scared."
"No!" I cried, realising a heartbeat later how stupid such a blatant lie from a Pooka had been.
"Yes you are," she insisted, an ironic little smile on her lips. "Well done, Stevie, congratulations, you've learned your first lesson about Nobles. Never trust them, and *always* be afraid."
"Then it's a good thing I never liked you," I said in a very small voice.
"Damn good thing," she answered in a certain tone. I could not tell if she was joking or not, and I never had the chance to ask, because at that moment the doors pinged open on floor fourteen. We both stood staring for a moment and the short corridor that stretched for twenty feet and a thousand miles ahead of us. There was only one door, at the very end, 'Penthouse' embossed on it in outdated golden curly-queued letters, and whatever-it-was behind the door radiated a dark, insidious glamour.
"So," I enquired in what I hoped was a convincingly calm voice, though it was probably tight and gulped. "She really is your aunt, huh?"
"Well, I know her at least..."
It reminded me of that regretful chuckle earlier. It sent shivers of wrongness down my spine. But the moment was just that; a moment. It passed, and Erin was once again herself.
"Come on," the sigh was dismissive and she walked forward.
I stood my ground.
"Oh for god's sake Stevie," she spun around. "I try and do you a favour, introduce you to some *proper* Sidhe, a *proper* court - not that conglomeration of banal grumps back home, and you balk at the first backward commoner! Well open your eyes Dorothy, you aren't in Kansas anymore!
"Now," she added in a quieter, but no nicer, voice. "Are you going to knock, or shall I?"
Slowly, very slowly, I edged forward towards the lacquered door, and knocked.
Whatever I had been expecting, it was not this. The door swung open of its own accord, revealing one large, spacious, minimalist room. A rectangle, deeper than it was wide, there were rows of dark one-way windows to my left and right. The effect was stunning against the clean white walls - it didn't matter that the view from the right hand was a borderline alley, and the left side offered a street full mostly of second rate restaurants.
In the far corners of the room there were two white-shaded floor lamps, though only the one on the left was lit. A black leather armchair was set beside the lit lamp and another on the other side of the room, but far closer to us, was playing shelf to a pile of hardcover books.
A modern artist's bright and blocky depiction of a jousting knight hung on the back wall above a black leather sofa. The Sidhe lazing on it was so still and so native to that place, I almost didn't register her until she moved her arm.
She was lying across both seats, a black silk dress, barely more than a negligee, covering her slight frame. One hand supported her ebony haired head against the arm rest, the other holding a cigarette and dangling languidly down against the wooden floor. Legs and feet in black stilettos with one heel broken hung over the other arm rest.
Smoothly she brought her cigarette to her lips and took a long draw.
"So," she mused, smoke dancing lightly around her head. "The prodigal returns. And three days before my deadline too! My, but aren't we punctual?"
With careless ease she swung her legs around, sitting up. She flicked the cigarette. The ash fell and scattered before it hit the floor.
"Oh I missed *you*," the lady spoke Erin. "So, this Pooka is the one then Erin ap...ap...Erin ap? Remind me, little lady, for I seem to have quite forgotten."
Erin stared sullenly at the floor, and it occurred to me that here she had no power. Erin was *everything* 'Sidhe' to me. The be all, end all of the exotic and far travelled. Yet here was someone with as much on Erin as Erin had on me. Maybe New York was not as exotic as I'd always dreamed. Maybe it was just Erin's version of the Dairy Queen three town over.
It was the kind of thought that arrives fully formed in your head, in one large ball of Feeling and Idea.
It took me quite by surprise, that thought, and so I didn't notice the Sidhe-lady casting her cantrip until the full, humid force of it wrapped around me, stifling me and making my brain thick. I caught a glimpse of her smiling at me - laughing at me - through blurry vision, and oh! - but that smile was familiar. Familiar and a thousand times crueller than any Erin ever gave me.
The spell caressed me once more, and moved on to its true target with full force.
Erin gasped loudly and struggled to keep her balance, knuckles on her clenched fists whitening.
"I asked you a question," came a sing-song careless voice from the sofa. "And you *know* how rude it is not to answer."
Erin bit hard down on her lip, but the spell prevailed and the words forced their way through her clenched teeth.
"I am Erin ap Leanhaun," an angry tear streaked along her cheek. "And I have brought you your hostage, my lady Claudia, Countess of Ailil." She seemed to draw some small amount of twisted bitter comfort from revealing her mistress' name to me, since nothing in the spell prevented her from doing so.
I, on the other hand, barely heard her, barely heard anything. I had hated this place since the troll at the door, and ever since that half-blurred smile this countess had given me, I'd kind of just...frozen.
Erin had betrayed me and convinced me to come to New York so she could turn me over. Oh.
"Things like this," I said carefully, and in a state of great confusion. "Do not happen to me."
"Oh! The disbelief reaction!!" Claudia clapped her hands joyfully, "Erin you have such sweet friends! Wake up little cat, you're here, and this is now, and unless your pathetic little court pays up and swears fealty to *me*, I may be forced to do something rather unpleasant to you. And maybe Erin here as well. I *really* don't want a useless hostage, Erin."
"They'll deal for her," Erin said with bitter certainty, "She's only a child and they love the Escheat so well!"
"And of course," the countess smiled in a wonderful parody of care, "You never could follow the Escheat could you? Poor little Leanhaun. Poor little unseelie Rhapsodising Leanhaun."
"But I have to! I have to Rhapsody!" Erin cried out, and then, grabbing a hold of herself she continued a little more quietly. "You know I'll age and die if I don't. I've done my part of the deal now; brought you the Pook. You do your now! Swear it! Swear you'll never tell anyone I'm Leanhaun! Swear it!"
"You command me now?" Claudia sneered. "Me? I *promised* you nothing girl, and I don't see why I should swear secrecy for you! You believed what you chose to believe! Do you not see how kind I am you? And generous? I ask you this *one* *thing* - just one! - and I am repaid with cruelty! I have done everything for you, given you a title, connections, the promise of a place in society - all of it! And yet you are ungrateful!"
Claudia ap Ailil rose in her fury and stalked to Erin, hissed something in her ear, curled her lips, leaned in to kiss one cheek, slap the other. Erin's head turned, but she didn't say a word as Claudia called for the guards.
I was born lucky. I must have been. The guards strode quickly into the room, coming from God-knows-where. Four of them, Sidhe-men in silver and black tunics and pants. Three were dark haired, and it hung in various plaits and braids, the fourth, hand on the pommel of the naked sword at his side, had short cropped blonde hair and a pleasant face.
He grabbed my shoulder.
"This one," he asked, jerking his corn stubbled head in my direction.
"Yes," replied the Countess, "just her. The other one will be staying with me for a time."
I was thinking more clearly now - though things were still a little numb, so I made a valiant struggle to break free from the guards as we left the room. One on each side of me, two staying, standing guard at the door. I don't know where I thought I'd go if I succeeded, the only escape seemed to be the elevator. I don't even know why I was trying. It was like a fly trying to break from a spider's web. But I held true to my lessons from Saturday movie matinees and tried anyway. After all, if I was the hero, then the guards were the bad guys, the Countess my archnemesis, and Erin was...
God what had *happened*?!!
I DON'T UNDERSTAND!!
I was jostled towards the lift. It took a long time to come. I started hiccuping tears. Blonde-boy cuffed me across the shoulder.
The lift arrived. We were stunned.
There were three people in the lift. A Sluagh and two Eshu. The Eshu were identical; the same features and bright eyes set into their dark skin, the same blue jeans and checked flannel shirts. The one on the left had long black hair tied back at the nape of his neck and his shirt was mostly red. His brother had short hair and a blue shirt. The former held a chimerical sword and a long dagger - a cold nasty-looking *iron*-feeling dagger. Like a smaller version of the sword in the hand of the latter.
The Sluagh was the only one with armour. A beat up black breast plate and black jeans hanging down over his combat boots. His eyes seemed all pupil and his hair stuck wildly out in all directions. A Cold sword hanging menacingly at his side as well.
"Damn you, Christian!" screamed the blue-shirted Eshu. "You said there wouldn't be any guards!"
As the split second of stunned silence was broken, everyone exploded into action. The Eshu who had yelled thrust his sword blindly forward, and shocked, the Sidhe didn't have time to react. He buckled over, skewered by the iron blade with barely more than a whisper and a dull red stain spreading across his stomach around the wound.
Not quite as fast, the Sluagh and second guard's swords clashed against each other. The guard was the better swordsman, but with the advantage of his armour the Sluagh held his own.
I stayed standing in the middle of the corridor. 'Oh,' I was thinking, 'I think someone just got killed.' I was also getting mad at this numb-incomprehension - but being numb, it was just another annoying, peripheral emotion flitting around in my head. The second Eshu pushed past me, charging the two guards at the door. His brother with the blue shirt, pulled his sword from the corpse, and stopped next to me, pushing me against the wall by my shoulders.
"Stay here," he said urgently, "We mean you no harm - we are here for the tyrant Sidhe..."
As one we turned to look at the end of the corridor where Red Shirt had clanged swords against one of his two enemies.
Once, twice the clashed. The guard lifted his sword high, but before he could bring it down, the Eshu had thrust his dagger lightening quick into his opponent's gut. The Sidhe stumbled backwards against the wall, moved his lips, and blood spilled out. Slowly he sank down the wall, trailing redness.
The victorious Eshu turned to face his brother, a predatory grin on his face.
"I," he began laughing as the second door-guard stepped up behind him.
"I..." he pulled up short, frowning, suddenly confused as he fell to the ground, the guard's sword behind him bloody.
Screaming in rage Blue Shirt sprinted down the bloodbathed hallway, pure rage lending him strength as he hacked recklessly with his sword, avoiding the oncoming blows with much more luck than skill.
Letting his guard drop for a moment, the Sidhe buckled over the commoner's sword as it hit him lengthways along his middle.
In turn, the Eshu dragged his sword away, sending the other man convulsing backwards in a spray of blood.
I closed my eyes at that point, but the sounds of running, fighting, victorious cries and whispers told me that they had won out over the final guard.
"There's still the Countess," a cold glass whisper scritched straight into my head.
"Yeah," the answer came, more conventional in sound. "Yeah, come on."
A door banged open and shut.
Glamour flew, and then more glamour flew.
"I command you to cease!" The imperious shriek died down, and there were two deadening thuds.
What felt like a long while later I unscrunched my eyes because someone was shaking me gently. The Sluagh.
"It's all over now," he rasped. "You're safe, it's all taken care of. We saved you."
The Eshu, carrying the unconscious, mortal form of his brother nodded, smiling widely. It was disconcerting because he was covered in blood.
"Didn't ask for it..." I mumbled.
"I know," the Sluagh scratched again, "and isn't it a lucky thing? Now we are revenged for you and not just our compatriot who that scheming *whore* of a countess screwed over for damn *land* and *power! Like she would have screwed you over!" He was hissing and spitting in rage now, and I couldn't find the words to protest.
"*This* is the real power, though," the Eshu shook his blade, "*this* is something you can't stop with *politics*. Come with us now, you'll be safe with us."
The word I had been desperately searching for finally coalesced in my head. "No." Both of them stared at me in confusion. "But...we saved your *life*! You can't just stay here."
"No!" I said louder. I had found my word now and no one was going to stop me saying it. They had killed - cold iron killed - people. Cold iron killed people who were going to hurt me. Cold iron killed Bad people. Cold iron killed Erin. For power. Just like the Countess. "NO! NO! NO!!"
They were Bad people. All of them. *All* of them.
Shocked by the vehemnance of my reply both iron-fighters backed away slowly, and scurried off.
I sat alone for a little while, and once I was pretty sure my legs were still working I got up and wandered towards the big room with the closed lacquered door. It was very quiet and very still. It made you want to move carefully in case the bodies had been there for a thousand years and you were disturbing the dust.
Claudia was lying like a broken doll in the middle of the floor. A red stain spread out like a pair of bloody wings beneath her and her head was bent at an impossible angle. Eyes closed, jaw hanging slightly slack.
To the other side Erin was sleeping with a dark wetness seeping through her clothes around her midriff. I regarded her dispassionately for a long time. Finally, she did something unexpected; she moved. Just a little. Her hand spasmed and her eyelids fluttered.
I backed away a little thinking I'd imagined it, but she moved again, this time opening her eyes and trying to reach out for something.
"St...Steve..." she choked, "Stevie?"
"Uh...uh...yeah, I'm over there," I stuttered, edging towards her.
"God Stevie," Erin managed a struggled laugh. "For once in your life...for once in your life," breathlessly she failed to finish, falling into a coughing fit.
"For once in my life what?" quavering, I had dropped to my knees beside her.
"Stop being such a baby!" she whispered with difficulty and perhaps a slight smile.
"I am not!"
"So you have...ha..." concentrating, closing her eyes like that and breathing so lightly, I remembered where I was and what had happened. She was quiet for *so* long. But eventually she did speak again. "So you have told me."
"These people came, Erin. Pretty people. Good people. People who smiled while they killed other people Cold."
"You're Pooka-lies! God, your Pooka-lies! What kith can't even speak a simple truth? Pretty people? Good people? But the smiling, oh yes. I was there Stevie, remember? And I'm one of the ones they've killed Cold."
"Yes. And you know it. I'm losing it all Steve...the memories, all of them. I don't know what happens to my soul after this, but I know I don't want to loose it forever, Stevie, not to Cold Iron." Exhausted from her outburst she took a long moment to gather what strength she had left.
"You have to do it now, Stevie. There's a dagger - a real one - under the...under the couch cushion..." Erin left the rest of that thought unfinished, but I understood, and didn't even protest. I should have, perhaps. But as I toddled over to retrieve the blade, and returned to her, it was as if someone else had taken over.
I bent low over her.
"You know Stevie," it was barely a whisper, "I always did hate you."
"Yeah, Ehr, I always hated you too," I lied to her in kind.
Then, I think I slit her throat. I any case, she died the mortal way before the iron took her soul. I fell forward on top of her and didn't move for a very long time.
Like many Sidhe, Erin died of Politics, and like many cats, I will probably die of Curiosity. But not that day. I lost a part of myself, grew older, grew Wilder. Grew *into* a Wilder. I did not die. I will save that for a better day.