The park before Barchester Cathedral is spacious, pleasantly shaded on summer days, and quiet, since traffic in Barchester is never heavy and because the park is partially hedged with tall rhododendron bushes.
The rhododendrons also provide scraps of privacy that many find useful: children playing hide-and-seek, lovers meeting, people engaged in quick business transactions.
The Dagda found the bushes useful to appear from behind. Using just a bit of glamour, he could appear from "behind" the bush whichever side the viewer was on. He did so now, riding on a light brown horse. A shaggy black Irish wolfhound trotted beside him.
Once visible, he of course attracted notice. Perched for all to see on the horse's back, he was a big, sturdy man with curly black hair and beard, bright blue eyes, and a white smile. He wore dark green tweeds and, of course, riding boots. He alighted and surveyed the crowd of children that had gathered to look at the horse. They were kept back by the dog, which interposed itself between its master and them and looked conspicuously unfriendly.
"I'll ask," he said to several of the children, who were begging to pet the horse. "You all right with that, Sandy?" he asked the horse, which nodded. "Very well, then. For a little bit." His voice had an Irish lilt.
The dog relaxed and sat. The children streamed by and descended in a fluttering, stroking, patting mass on the horse, which closed its eyes, lowered its head, and might even have been enjoying it.
The Dagda surveyed the park, twirling a black walking stick with a brass knob, extracted from the side of the horse's saddle. He seemed to need it to fiddle with rather than for walking. "Any sign of Herself?" asked the Dagda of the dog.
"No, sir," the dog returned in an undertone, likewise looking about.
"That's enough, now," the Dagda said to the children, chuckling but firm. "He needs to go take a breather." Coming up next to the horse's head, he said, "I see the Bishop's Bottle is still in business," nodding at a pub across the park from the cathedral. "Ye can change in the car park. It'll be quiet, this time of day."
The horse nodded again. "Yessir," it murmured. The Dagda gave it a friendly clap on the shoulder and it moved off. The dog fell in with it.
"Hey!" "Where's it going?" "Is that allowed?" "Won't he get lost?" "They'll get hit!" The children's exclamations echoed the consternation on the faces of several adult onlookers.
"He knows what he's doin'," the Dagda assured the crowd. "They both do. And they both know how to find a pub." Laughter. People watched the two animals disappear behind a corner, then gradually drifted away.
The Dagda looked around some more. "Ah, here she is!" he said to himself.
A woman on a motorcycle drove up to the edge of the green and parked next to a bicycle rack. Her arrival attracted much less attention; the motorcycle did not roar and moved with no noise but a hiss of tires. She did not go unnoticed, though: her cycle appeared brightly chromed, without paint or labels. She herself was tall, leggy, and athletic, unhelmeted, in a deep red leather jacket and black jeans. The colors of her skin, eyes, and long hair matched the Dagda's. Male onlookers found their gazes flickering between admiring observation and checking for holsters on her hips. There were none at present.
She strode to the Dagda and exchanged cheek kisses. "Hello, Da," she said.
"Hello, darlin'. Thank you for comin'."
"To be sure. But why the Ferncleft?" This was a large, secluded hotel in the countryside nearby in Silverbridge.
"Well, it's a nice place to stay, they're Sundered, and there's a Kerdean conference goin' on there now. A good place to go wife-huntin'."
"A female scholar?" asked the Morrigan.
"Possibly, possibly. She'll be smart and knowledgable, at least. Probably brave." Kerdeans were scholars of the arcane. "Beyond that, it's a matter of individual personality. We shall just have to see."
Two ravens flapped down out of the trees and perched on the Morrigan's shoulders. A few bystanders looked startled. "Góður dagur, herra," croaked one.
"Good day, Hugin," the Dagda replied politely. "And to you, Munin."
The other raven bobbed its head and rasped, "Greetings, sir."
"Do you know the Ferncleft?" the Morrigan asked the birds, turning slightly first to one, then to the other. "You were still working for Odin last time I was there."
"He never stayed there," said Munin, "but he sent us to spy it out."
"We know it," said Hugin.
"Good. Fly ahead and–"
The Dagda held up his hand for silence. All listened. Under the soft sound of breeze in trees and distant chatter, the ravens heard the commerce of birds and the scuttling of squirrels. The Morrigan picked out voices boasting and arguing, the clink of horseshoes, the crack of bats, all forms of contest. The Dagda heard a wailing child.
"That's not tiredness nor temper," he declared. "That's fear and woe." He scanned the crowd, zeroed in on his target, and marched off.
A blond child of about three, barefoot and clad in a dirty T-shirt meant for an adult, stood wailing in the midst of the green. A couple of adults were already looking anxiously about for a grown-up in charge. The Dagda supplied it.
He strode up to the babe, smiling broadly, then laid down his stick, knelt, and opened his arms. The child tottered in, still wailing. "What's this? What's this, my hero?" the Dagda crooned, rising with the child in his arms. The sobbing diminished to gulping.
The Morrigan came up. Hugin and Munin, who had lofted, landed again, one on her shoulder, the other on the Dagda's furthest from the child. All three inspected him.
"Not clean," remarked Hugin. "That is the dirt of neglect, not of play."
"Not fed well or enough," said Munin. "How comes that in this rich land and time?"
"Your little hero," said the Morrigan, "is too young to be truly brave, but he could become so. He wandered off to explore and to see what he could do. He isn't afraid of big black birds fluttering about." Indeed, all the crying had stopped and the boy was staring at the ravens.
"His name is Niles," said the Dagda. "He's three and a bit. Let's find his family."
The Morrigan bent down and picked up a forked twig. She handed it to the Dagda, who twiddled it in his free hand, then spun it on his fingertip, looking about. "Ah! There. The mother."
He strode toward a young woman seated alone on a bench, engrossed in her phone. She wore a bright red halter top, jeans with artfully large holes in them, and high-heeled shoes of bright red plastic.
"Are ye missin' this young fella?" the Dagda inquired, smiling.
She looked up. "Oh. Right."
"Is he yours, then?"
"You can have him if you like." She looked back at her phone, her tone one of weary disinterest.
The Dagda laughed nervously. The Morrigan, coming up behind, noted this; her father sounded nervous maybe twice a decade. She also saw his back tense. "You don't want to be sayin' something like that," he admonished the girl, with a thin frosting of jokiness on his tone.
She looked up briefly and arched her brows. "Why not?" Back to the phone.
Niles had put out his arms toward her and was squirming. With an effort of will, the Dagda put him down and watched him clamber onto the bench and seize the arm that held the phone. He cried a little, but there was no response, so he ran down, hung on, and appeared to zone out.
The Dagda retreated a few steps, to his daughter's side, and leaned on his stick, watching. "I know what you're thinking," she said. He did not answer, but scratched his beard and brooded. Brooding was not as rare as nervousness, but it was an expression she didn't care for on him. Calculating, she remarked, "I might take him myself. He's a likely enough little chap."
He turned to her with a fierce grin. "Ah, no, girl! The offer was made to me!" That was more like it.
The Morrigan nodded, satisfied. "I'll help." She looked down at the ground, where Hugin and Munin were trying to look like ordinary crows, without success. "Scout her out." She waved at the phoning mother, then retreated with her father to another bench, to watch.
The two ravens lofted into the treetops, then descended behind the bench where Niles sat with his mother. Silent as an owl, Hugin hopped onto the back of the bench, behind Niles, and edged toward his mother. The bird cocked his head and read her phone over her shoulder.
Carelessly, the girl had left her purse hanging over the back of the bench. Munin helped himself to her wallet and began leafing through it.
While they worked, two men strolled up to the Dagda's bench. Both wore jeans and T-shirts, but no shoes. One, tall and thin, had wildly shaggy black hair and beard; the other had light brown hair back in a pony-tail and a neatly clipped full beard. They nodded respectfully to the Dagda because it was less conspicuous than a full bow, then took up positions on either end of the bench and tried not to look ceremonial.
The Dagda's returning nod was silent and distracted. They followed his gaze to Niles's bench, where the ravens snooped. "What's goin' on, sir?" asked the brown-haired man, in the voice of the horse. Then, "Good day, your ladyship." His accent was Scottish.
"Hello, Sandy," she answered. "We're shopping for changelings."
"I thought we was huntin' brides, ma'am," said the shaggy black-haired fellow uncertainly. His accent was Irish.
"That, too, Brian, but this chance came up."
Sandy looked at Niles, hugging his mother's arm like a lifeline, half in an exhausted sleep, oblivious of the spying birds. "He's a nice-lookin' little fella," he said politely. Then, in a more troubled voice, "Likes his mum." Brian said nothing, but looked uneasy.
Both cast worried glances at the Anglican cathedral across the street. Sandy was still a good Scottish Presbyterian and Brian a good Irish Catholic, or they tried to be, even after two hundred and fifty years of service to the Dagda, but neither of them still thought God was picky about denominations. An Anglican church was as Godful as any other. Changelings bothered them, and what their master's Grandfather might think of changelings bothered them more. This was the first time either of them had seen the taking of one.
The Morrigan gave an impatient snort. If she had really wanted the child, she would have called her motorcycle, jumped on, snatched the boy from the bench, and been off with him to other realms.
The Dagda stirred and said, "Don't get in a lather, sons." He smiled reassuringly. "We're scoping things out proper, and we won't put a toe outside the lines of mercy and justice. You should know me better by– Ah!"
Hugin and Munin lofted silently off the bench, vanished into the treetops, then dropped out of them onto the back of the Dagda's bench. "She's arranging a hook-up on Tumblr," said Hugin. "Or maybe a tumble-up on Hookr."
"Her name's Jessica Pilder," said Munin. "I got her numbers, too." The Morrigan dug into her backpack and produced a tablet computer. She placed it on the bench and Munin hopped down next to it. "Thank you, ma'am," he said, and began pecking. Hugin hopped down and joined him.
Soon, the birds began delivering:
"She's on the dole. Has a small inheritance from her mother." "Never mentions the boy on her social media. Just flirting and gossip." "Mother died of liver. Drunkard." "Lives at 127 Skeynes Street, flat 4C. Run-down neighborhood." "Boy's father listed as Robin Mortimer. Dead before the boy was born. Overdose. May never have known he was a dad." "Boy's a bastard, like his mum." "Cops suspect her of meth and such. Matches hints on her social feed." "Has a roommate, Dinah, another young woman. Works three part-time jobs. She mentions the boy a lot. Nothing good to say of Jessica." "It may be this Dinah is the one keeping the boy alive."
Hugin cocked a black button eye up at the Dagda. "You may have hit in the gold, sir."
"The boy didn't, though," added Munin.
"He has now," the Dagda averred. He looked to the other bench, where Niles still dozed by his mother. "I'll see to it. Are we not the People of Fate?"
The Ferncleft Hotel stood in extensive grounds, with a yew drive, its own orchard and kitchen gardens, twin rose mazes, and pasture lands rented out to local farmers. It looked like a country house and had been "Ferncleft House," not that long ago. Before that, it was a knightly manor, and, going through a number of other stages, it had started as a mansio on the old Roman Road to Drencaster, then Derran Castorum and Cair Dherraen before that.
Through the bulk of that time, the residents had been Sundered, the sort of folk to whom magic things happened, and they were now. As a result, Mrs. Dean was not confused, only wary of the lady in white at the check-in desk.
She gave the name "Mina Shay" and the dress—gown—she wore was a perfect specimen of the sort worn by Gibson girls over a century ago, in white so dazzling it seemed slightly luminous. Her hair, worn up in a fashion of the same vintage, was platinum blonde and exactly matched the two ostrich plumes on her wide-brimmed hat.
The air around her tingled and prickled with magic, which surprised Mrs. Dean not at all. Bold, beautiful, enchanting, eccentric, and with an Irish name. A classic sidhe. In a good mood, fortunately.
"Yes, ma'am," said Mrs. Dean, consulting her records. "Here's the reservation. Three rooms on the third floor. If you require additional accommodation, we have some available." She cast a glance behind Mina, where four servants were fetching steamer trunks and suitcases: two men, two women, all tall, fair, and blackhaired, all wearing nothing but green kilts and a lot of heavy, red-gold jewelry. Mrs. Dean trusted no one unSundered would happen along, or that someone here would be quick with the glamour. Oh, well, one could always say they were cos-players.
"Oh, no, they won't be staying." Mina Shay smiled at the servants, who nodded back and left. "Does one of the rooms have plenty of windows?"
Mrs. Dean became peripherally aware of the clop of horse hooves. "Yes, ma'am. Three rooms in a row, one on a corner. Windows on north and west, for the corner. Did you have a preference?"
"I think we'll put Himself in the middle room and Herself in the corner room. She has ravens." Mrs. Dean absorbed this information without comment. She also noted the Irish idiom, even though Madam Shay spoke with an upperclass English accent. "Ah! Here they are now."
The Dagda and the Morrigan entered, trailed by Brian and Sandy. Sandy was still struggling into his T-shirt. Mrs. Dean flicked a glance at the front security camera. No horse, just a motorcycle. Right. Hugin and Munin swooped in and landed on the Morrigan's shoulders. Oh yes, ravens.
The Dagda kissed Mina on the mouth, then twirled his walking stick and turned to the desk. He gave Mrs. Dean a smile and she felt her breath catch. Definitely sidhe. "A room, please," he said. "No, two. No, better make it three."
"I've done all that, dear," said Mina. "I made reservations a month ago. This isn't a roadside inn any longer."
"To be sure! Thank you, darlin'."
Mrs. Dean had summoned her composure and reminded herself that Mr. Dean was the love of her life and much more tranquil company that this fay-lord. "Your room is all ready, sir. If I might have a use-name...?"
Mrs. Dean had read widely in mythology. She had had to. "The Dagda?"
"The 'The' himself," he returned cheerily. "The definite article, you might say."
Mrs. Dean glanced at the walking stick. The Dagda. Club. Eek. She turned wary eyes toward the Morrigan. "And you, my lady?"
"Another definite article," Mina noted.
"Definitely," the Morrigan seconded. She smiled.
Mrs. Dean did not find it a nice smile. She realized the Morrigan knew she was nervous and was amused by that. Well, Mrs. Dean knew how to handle such creatures. "Very good, my lady," she said, all business and as brisk as if there were a queue forming behind these old gods. "And do you wish separate accommodation for your attendants?" She nodded at the ravens.
"They stay with me."
"Very good, my lady. And you, sir? Do your man-servants stay with you?"
"That they do."
Mrs. Dean wondered if they would sleep at the foot of the bed or in front of the door. These folk could be very old-fashioned. Well, well. She would offer cots, pillows, and blankets later. And perches. "Very good, sir. Lunch is served at noon. A buffet. And there is, of course, twenty-four-hour room service." She rang for the porter. Ert appeared as a stout four-foot figure in black velvet jacket. He eyed the new guests cautiously and edged toward the luggage.
"You have sheeps' eyes?" asked one of the ravens.
"I can offer you fish eyes or suet balls right now, sir," Mrs. Dean replied. "We will try to have sheeps' eyes in by dinner." Perhaps the halal butcher in Barchester...
The Morrigan rolled her eyes and strode toward the lift. The Dagda did not. "My boys'll set things up," he told Mrs. Dean. "I'll be takin' a walk around the grounds first." With a smile and a wave to Mina but no explanation, he strode back out the door.
Behind the house lay the formal gardens. Behind the gardens rose forested hills. A stream flowed out of them, through the gardens, where it acquired tended gravel beds and filled an ornamental pond. Then it ran out east, through pastures, under roads, eventually to join the River Rising.
The Dagda had left the tended gardens behind and strolled upstream, on a footpath. Behind him rolled the silvery motorcycle, and on the cycle perched Brocker, who was certainly not driving.
Brocker stood about a foot and a half high, a stout figure in shabby work-clothes (earth-colored with real earth, one hundred and forty years old but still plenty of wear left in them). His face was round but long-nosed and his sleeked-back hair was white with two wide, glossy black stripes over the temples.
He balanced on the seat, his hands behind his back, definitely not steering. He tried to ignore the fact that the leather beneath his bare feet was warm, sun-tan brown, firm like a muscled back, with a suggestion of spine below. The leather on the handlebars was the same color, as was the expanse of leather where, Brocker was pretty sure, motorcycles normally had a bank of dials and lights and such. Brocker could not have reached the handlebars easily, but would not have touched them if he could.
He also tried not to meet the gaze of the figure faintly reflected in the windscreen: blond-bearded, blue-eyed, the bare torso swirled about with war paint in old patterns, a red cut all around the neck.
Within the past hour, the Dagda (the Dagda! Crickey!) had sauntered up to Brocker, the cycle trailing behind him like a hunter's dog. He had glanced straight through Brocker's glamour and begun asking about rowan trees. He had invited/ordered Brocker to hop up on the seat and then introduced his ... vehicle ... as "Lyfsverd," leaving Brocker to discover the leather, the reflection, and so on. Brocker had guided him—them—to the brook and up the path.
"There 'tis, yer honor, above that boulder." Brocker pointed. "There's the branch what split off last winter, under the snow. Will that serve, yer honor?"
"Hm. It might. It might."
A voice rang from somewhere at the front of the motorcycle: "If you take that branch, lord, the tree will lean further over the brook. But if you also take the living branch on the other side of the trunk, it balances back."
"Well spotted, son. And then we mingle live wood and dead, which fits, and there will be plenty of both. Yes." The Dagda turned to Brocker. "Thankee, son, for your help." He reached out and shook Brocker's hand, thereby transferring three days' good luck to him.
"You're welcome, yer honor!" Brocker exclaimed. "Most welcome!" He hopped off the were-cycle, bowed hastily, and vanished into the bracken.
The Dagda put down his stick, took off his boots, shinned up the trunk, paused, then climbed further, now as light as a cat. Under the dead branch, he paused again and held out his hand. Below, the were-cycle folded up like a silvery umbrella, popped into the air as a sword, landed point first on the earth, then sprang up and into the waiting hand.
"You don't mind bein' an axe?" the Dagda asked, nevertheless swinging at the dead branch.
Lyfsverd added his own strength to the Dagda's. The branch came off in the single blow. "My honor's to serve, lord. It's for you to say how." They turned to the living branch opposite and took it off with equal speed.
The Dagda then opened his hand and the sword leapt out, landing point first at the edge of the brook, looking ready to confer kingship on the next passerby. The Dagda dropped out of the tree, holding a branch in either hand.
He laid them aside, knelt by the stream, and gathered up some sandy mud. "So, Lyfsverd," he said, working the mud, "it comes to me this is the first time I've had a chance to speak to you privily. And ye spoke just now of honor. Are ye content to serve my daughter? To speak plainly, are you her servant now, or her slave?"
"Servant, lord." The Dagda glanced at the blade, meeting the blue eyes distantly reflected in it. They met his gaze, knowing he was gauging truth. "I raged at first, I grant, and felt dishonored." He did not mention the horror of it. The Dagda did not bring it up. "But I have thought on it. She took my head in a fair fight, no magic, just swordsmanship. Not a valkyrie, true, but better, a queen in her own right. After I had hung in her head-hall long enough to suit her, quarreling turned to bantering. We bargained. In the end, she said she was tired of my skull and would put a new one in the niche, and offered to throw me out, to find my way among the worlds, or she would take my service. I gave it."
"And no regrets?" The Dagda rose, one hand full of mud.
"None, lord. I would not trade with any einherjar, if any still live."
"Good. Glad I am to hear it." And he jumped into the rowan tree and climbed it one-handed. When he reached the point where he had cut the two branches, he salved the wounds with the mud. He dropped to the ground and surveyed the tree. "Still leans to the water. Let's see what we can do to keep the bank from wearing away under it. Then I think we'll be square with Rowan."
He waded into the stream. The sword opened out into the silvery motorcycle again, reared up, and spun its front tire backward against the boulder while the Dagda heaved at it from the other side. No magic, just muscle, was appropriate here.
Soon, the water flowed so as to keep the bed from eroding from under the tree. The Dagda climbed out and brushed away the water and mud on the were-cycle and himself. "D'ye ever wish for man-shape again?" he asked, reflecting silently that another man, especially a sturdy Viking warrior, would have been handier just now than an animated motorcycle.
"Yes, lord, but she says I should work it out for myself, rather than just be given it as she did with the sword, the shield, and the motorcycle. But new shapes come hard to the mortalborn, I think. Or at least to me."
"Hm. Well, perhaps we can get you some tutoring." He put on his boots, picked up his stick, and loaded the branches on Lyfsverd. They headed back down the path.
Sandy glanced around the alleyway. He was pretty sure no one was watching, though someone might well show up soon, curious, if they saw a horse ridden into the alley. He dropped the horse form and, with practiced speed, snatched the underpants out of the saddle bag almost before it landed on the pavement. Then out came the jeans, and then the T-shirt. The pavement was unpleasantly hot, but his feet were almost as hardened as the hooves they have been a few seconds before.
He shoved the saddle and tack behind a bin and leaned against the brick wall just as a schoolboy came around the corner, his face a study in puzzlement. "Did you see...?" he began, but faltered in the face of Sandy's expression of bored hostility. He left.
Sandy sighed. Serving as horse to the master was sometimes hard work but often fun and generally pleasant. Her ladyship was ... more stringent. Strictly business. He had not been loaned to her very often and that was fine. How, he wondered as he rubbed his ribs, did she get the effect of spurs when she wasn't wearing any? He didn't think it was magic.
He looked up at the tenement beside him and wondered what was going on up there. It was hard to believe she had taken his advice. What would she do with it?
Dinah opened to the Morrigan's knock. "Yes?"
"You're Dinah, I'm the Morrigan. You can look me up in Wikipedia but don't trust the details. I have a job offer for you."
"What? What do you want?"
The Morrigan looked the girl over. Short dark hair, a medium build more blocky than otherwise, shortish. Tired, used to being tired, tired of being tired—undoubtedly from the three part-time jobs, one of which she had just returned from, according to the digital stalking of Hugin and Munin. And speak of the devil—which she took care not to do—there they were, on the windowsill behind the girl, trying to make silly faces at her without lips or eyebrows.
"I want," said the Morrigan, "to talk to you about Niles. And about a job offer." The girl scowled at her, which the Morrigan admired. Considering the physical differences between them, it showed nerve. "And," she added in a calm and reasonable tone, "I'd like a cup of tea. To talk over. If I may come in."
Dinah looked her over for a long moment, then did something brave: the Morrigan could feel it. She had decided, the Morrigan saw, to let in a powerful stranger because the stranger had unexplained knowledge of Niles, and that had to be investigated. Dinah stood back and gestured for her to enter.
The Morrigan looked around. It was a flat designed for one, certainly not for two and a baby. The main room had a tiny stove and tinier refrigerator at one end, a fold-out sofa at the other. From the detritus on it, the sofa appeared to be folded out permanently. There was a bathroom full of two women's worth of toiletries and a small third room with a mattress on the floor. Judging from the debris scattered on the mattress and the sofa, Jessica slept in the third room while Dinah slept with Jessica's child on the sofa. The nappy pail was conveniently nearby.
Dinah said nothing, but gestured an invitation to sit at a tiny breakfast table by the window. The ravens were still there and Dinah eyed them curiously. They eyed back.
Dinah gave it up and puttered about the "kitchen area," making the tea, all without a word. The Morrigan watched the tension in her back and neck. Soon, the girl put two cups on the table, and one saucer bearing a pile of animal crackers. "Do you want milk?" she asked, setting down a sugar bowl. "I warn you, it's probably gone off." She looked at the window again. "That's weird. All we get are pigeons and sparrows. Those are the biggest crows I've ever seen."
"They're ravens. The tea is fine," the Morrigan said, lying generously.
Dinah looked from the oddity out the window to the oddity across the table. "Are they to do with you?"
"They work for me." She sighed and opened the window. The two strutted in and started to work on the animal crackers. "These are Hugin and Munin. Manners," she told them. "Greet your hostess and don't talk with your beaks full. And before you ask, she does not have sheeps' eyes."
"Wasn't going to," muttered Hugin, swallowed hard on cracker, then said to Dinah, "Thank you for your hospitality."
"Likewise, I'm sure," rasped Munin. "Nice biscuits." He, too, could lie generously.
Dinah took a few seconds to get around the fact of not merely talking but conversing ravens, then looked at the Morrigan afresh and said, "You said you were Morgana?"
"No, the Morrigan. Nothing to do with the Pendragons or Logres."
"And you're here about Niles. Is he all right?"
"He's with his mother, which does not seem to be the same thing. My father found him astray in the park and returned him to Jessica, who did not seem to care much."
Dinah grunted and nodded. "Your father?"
"The Dagda. He is the sidhe king. The king of the Irish fairies." The Morrigan watched a look of scorn and disbelief die a-borning on Dinah's face as she looked back at the ravens. Hugin was dipping a graham-cracker piggy in the Morrigan's tea.
Munin, meanwhile, decided to drive home the point. "What fairy tales do you know?" he asked Dinah. "What are the oldest ones? The ones without morals at the end. What do you know about fairies and children?"
"Have you heard of changelings?" asked the Morrigan. "That's what he's leading up to. My father found Niles straying in the park, brought him to Jessica, and she said she didn't want him. Said my father could have him." She locked eyes with Dinah. "Offer accepted. We're taking him."
She studied Dinah's expression of shock and outrage. Before the yelling could start, she said, "Fays have a hard time having children. So we covet them. Niles will be treasured and loved. He will not be abused or neglected. He won't even be spoiled, though that will be harder. Because my Da doesn't just covet him, doesn't just want to possess him, he loves him. Love at first sight. Don't look squicked. I mean paternal love.
"Now, about that job offer. Look down there." She pointed out the window.
Dubiously, possibly fearing that the Morrigan would push her out, Dinah rose and peered out and down. There was a man waiting in the alley. It was hard to pick out detail what with the foreshortened view, but he looked like a rather tidy hippie, barefoot and ponytailed.
"That's Sandy. He works for my Da. The job offer was his idea. Da was delighted with it. Said Sandy was the best horse he'd ever had."
"You'll see. Sandy, understand, is a nice guy. Nicer than me, at least, which is easy. Sandy suggested that we hire you to be Niles's nanny. That way, Niles will have someone there whom he knows and loves already, making it easier for him, and you will see that he is alive and well, making it easier for you."
"Be Niles's nanny," Dinah said carefully, "after he's beenů"
"Stolen by the fairies," Munin concluded helpfully.
"I recommend it," said Hugin. "That way you'll know he's not dead."
Dinah blanched. "Why would I need–" She closed her eyes, took a breath, then said, "Why does that need to be pointed out?"
"Because it's going to look like he's died," the Morrigan told her. She looked at Dinah's stricken face, cocked her head, then peered out the window, but up, not down. "We're running Sandy's strategy, so I will be nice. I assure you, Niles is not going to die. I swear it by my life, my honor, and my power." The two ravens cringed. Dinah stared at them.
"Look up there," ordered the Morrigan, pointing out the window again. "See the day moon? Little by little, as it circles, the Moon gets further away from Earth. Falling out of our sky. Someday, there will come an age when it will be just another evening star. Niles will see that. He won't die. We are taking him. You can't stop it. But you can come with him."
She stood up from the table and studied Dinah. The mortal girl looked like she might scream soon. The Morrigan had her own way to fix that: "I'll be going presently, and the others will go with me. That will leave you with some strange memories. You will have to decide if you are going mad, or have been drugged, or if it's all true but you still want no part of it, or if you believe what you've seen and accept the offer. Only the last choice gives a chance of being happy; the others lead to grief, especially if you decide to believe the boy is dead.
"After I leave, I recommend you go out, walk around somewhere ordinary, convince yourself your mind is working. Then you have a few hours to re-arrange your assumptions and decide. Now, to give you some more evidence of our abilities, I will do a stunt and so will Sandy. I will see you soon. We will be back tomorrow, just before dawn."
The Morrigan slid the window fully open and jumped out. Dinah screamed. But she also leaned out to look. She saw the Morrigan land feet first in the alley, her arms out, like a gymnast sticking a landing. Sandy jumped, and no wonder.
"And that's her being nice," Hugin muttered.
"Yep, really pulling her punches," Munin agreed. He turned to Dinah. "Don't worry. Her dad is a lot more easy-going." He flapped out the window.
"See you," said Hugin, and followed.
Dinah leaned out and looked down again. She saw the ravens spiraling down into the alley. The Sandy fellow was staring up. Perhaps their eyes met. The Morrigan was talking to him. Dinah could see him sigh and then, very oddly, shuck off his T-shirt, then his jeans. He cast an unhappy look up at her, then stepped behind the Morrigan. Therefore, Dinah couldn't see exactly what happened next, but suddenly there was a horse behind the Morrigan and a pair of men's underpants fluttering to the ground.
The Morrigan hauled a saddle and other horse-stuff out from behind a bin. The ravens tucked underwear and T-shirt into a leather bag. The Morrigan pushed the jeans in after, then put the saddle on the horse's– on Sandy's back. The horse looked up at Dinah. She didn't think horses had a lot of facial expression, but this one looked apologetic.
Dinah left the flat at a run and clattered down the stairs to walk around someplace ordinary.
The Dagda's room at the Ferncleft had all the appointments of a modern luxury hotel suite, down to and including the chocolate mint on the pillow, but what he liked best about it was the fireplace. A great bronze cauldron sat there now, a cubit wide, distributing a savory smell. The flames under it took some explaining, since there was no wood. The nearest wood was the walking stick, now a leg-long piece of roughly worked oak timber, leaning against the wall.
The Dagda sat cross-legged on the floor, at ease in a bathrobe, working with the rowan wood he had gathered. The work before him looked something like basketwork, something like a skeleton, and most like the form of a small child, rendered in woven twigs on a frame of sticks. From time to time, he glanced at the flames around the cauldron, where he glimpsed views of Niles, pulled from his memory and held in the air before him. From time to time, he held out a branchy twig and Lyfsverd rose on his pommel and trimmed it.
Brian paced nervously about the room. He had learned to feel magic and could tell some very major stuff was going down. That was edgy enough, but his moral qualms about it made things worse. He had started as a wolfhound but then turned man to dull the smell of fresh-cut wood; that smell was changing into something more human.
He continued his pacing, sometimes retreating from the work, sometimes coming to the Dagda's side to look at the forming thing in anxious curiosity. The Dagda had no objection to nudity in general but said, "Son, when I'm workin' here on the floor, I'd rather not have your particulars flappin' about at face-level. Put somethin' on or lie down."
Brian sat down before the fire in a crumple of long limbs and stared mournfully at the Dagda and his work. He might just as well still have been a dog, the guilt-rays were so intense. The Dagda absorbed them for a while, then said, "It's not goin' to explode, son. It's not even goin' to wake up."
"What will it do, sir?" Brian asked.
"It will seem. It will look like the boy. It will seem to sleep, it will not wake, then it will seem to ail and die. It will take a day or two. Then it will stand up to whatever the doctors do. In a couple of months, once it's safely buried, the spell will run its course and it'll turn back into sticks."
Brian nodded but continued to look mournful.
The Morrigan entered, followed by Sandy and the ravens and, to the Dagda's mild surprise, Mina. She had changed her Gibson girl gown for a sari of the lightest pastels in a spectrum from violet shoulder to pink hem. "Changeling rescues?" she asked.
"That's right, darlin'. And if you saw the lad, you'd see why I took to him."
Mina nodded. "And you took Sandy's advice on bringing a nanny in with him. Very practical and humane."
"Glad you approve. What state did you leave her in, darlin'?" he asked of his other darling, the Morrigan.
"I laid out the plan for her, and showed her a few tricks to prove we are what we say, then left her to make up her mind. She has two decisions: First, she decides if she's crazy or not. I think she'll decide not. Then she has to decide to come or not. Can't tell on that one."
"I think, dear," said Mina, "he wants to know her emotional state. Stunned, of course. Neither of you can have any idea how you strike mortals."
The Dagda grunted his concession. "Well, you're a resilient lot." He beamed at Mina. "That's one of your charms. I think this is about ready."
He looked critically at the stock. There was respectful silence while he concentrated. Then he blew on it. A mist as of breath on a frosty morning spread over it, thickened, turned the hue of pale flesh, and formed into the shape of the little boy. The Dagda blew again, in its face, and it began to breathe.
"Very sweet," Mina said politely, now that she could see what the child looked like.
"And a game little chap, and hungry for love," the Dagda said.
"Jammies," Mina said. "Brian, toss me a towel from the bathroom." When she had it, she gave it a shake and handed the Dagda what was now a one-piece pajama of white terrycloth. She then knelt and helped him put it on the stock. "Remember to swap it for his own jammies when you make the switch," she told him. "Well see about real clothes when we have him back here."
The Dagda nodded. He smiled at her and said, "You sure you don't want another century?"
She smiled back. "Maybe, but not the one coming up. Right now, I want my realm. Your own fault, dear. You taught me restlessness. Along with much else.
"The hotel can lend us a car," she said. "A nice big one. Not as strange as riding off through the night with the boy on Sandy's saddle bow, as if you were the Erlking. Less chancy than being invisible in traffic. And it'll be big enough for all of us."
"'Us'? You want to come?"
Dinah opened to the Dagda's knock. He grinned warmly but she just looked scared. "You must be Dinah," he said. "I am the Dagda. And this–" He had his suit jacket slung over his right shoulder, cape-wise. He lifted it with his left hand, revealing what nestled in his arm. "–this is not Niles."
Dinah whipped her head around to check the fold-out bed where the real Niles slept. She turned back to the Dagda, met his eyes, then stepped back and said formally, "Enter freely and of your own will."
The Dagda, who had read Dracula the year it came out, arched his brows but entered. The Morrigan and Mina followed him and the ravens fluttered after.
Dinah went immediately to the bed and picked up Niles, who did not wake. She was not going to lose track of the real Niles. The Dagda lay the stock down where Niles had been.
"Do we have a deal?" he asked.
"I– We may have. I tried to think it all through. I did what you said–" This to the Morrigan. "–and realized this had to be real. So then– So then I decided I couldn't stand not going. There's Niles. And there's– I couldn't let something like this walk into my life, then walk out again as if nothing had happened. Live knowing I didn't– You were right about the four choices." She turned to the Dagda. "There's one thing: Can I keep in touch with my family? Visit or phone or write? I won't disappear and come back a hundred years later?"
"Of course you can see your family," the Dagda said. "We'll need to be a bit discrete, but that's all."
"The business of losing a century doesn't happen if you take a little care," said Mina. The Dagda was again dressed as for a tweedy country stroll but she was dressed as for a cocktail party, in a silken black suit, her platinum hair spilling across her shoulders, the black gown glittering with silver necklace, belt, and bracelets.
"Ah, yes," said the Dagda. "This is Mina ... Shay, shall we say? Mina Shay. She has lately been my wife." Mina offered a hand, which Dinah shook timidly.
"Where's the horse guy?" Dinah asked.
"Sandy. He's downstairs in the car, with Brian. Brian's the dog guy."
"You'll see. Do we have a deal?"
Dinah squared her shoulders, stared briefly into infinity, then held out her hand and said, "Deal." They shook.
"Jammies," said Mina.
"Right," the Dagda answered. "I'll just–" He started to gesture at the stock, then stopped. "No. Dinah, please switch the pajamas between Niles and his image there." Mina smiled at him.
Dinah became grateful as she went through the task. As she peeled off Niles's pajamas (grubby blue cotton) and the stock's (white terrycloth), the differences became obvious. The real Niles grumbled in his sleep and flopped, and wore a nappy. The stock was completely inert, and was naked under the cloth. She slipped a nappy onto it.
Task done, she retreated from the bed, hugging Niles, who was now awake about one part in four.
"A favorite toy, perhaps?" Mina suggested.
"The teddy bear," said Dinah, pointing to the edge of the bed. Munin retrieved it. Meanwhile, the Dagda stepped into the bathroom and emerged with a yellow hand towel. He mushed it about in his hands and brought forth an imitiation teddy bear, which he lay next to the imitation child. "It'll unfold in a few days, when no one's looking," he explained to Dinah. He beamed. "Now, we're off–"
"Now," broke in Mina, "we set up Dinah's cover story."
The hotel car drove through the night, Sandy at the wheel. It made a nice change from being the vehicle. Behind him, in the passenger seats, Dinah still hugged Niles, in clean contravention of the laws about strapping small children in carriers. But no one else was strapped in either.
"May I hold him now?" the Dagda asked, after what he considered a great deal of patience. When Dinah looked doubtful, he added, "I am his father now, or I will be. You'll see me swear to it later this morning."
Their eyes met and he watched realization flit behind her gaze. King of the Irish fairies. Turns men into beasts and back. Has a war-goddess for a daughter. Makes fake children. Is asking nicely. She nodded and handed him the sleeping boy.
The Dagda sighed in satisfaction. "Well, son, here we are again. Or it's again for me. All new for you. A welcome return for me." His smile was gentle.
"How many children do you have, uh, sire?" Dinah asked. It was the first time she had addressed him of her own initiative.
"Oh, two hundred, two hundred fifty. Mina would know the exact number. But I can tell you the name of each one. Some of my body, some adopted like Niles here. And there are the fosterlings and the godchildren. And I know their names and their birthdays and their mothers' names and the names of their children and their children and the men and women they had them by..." The recitation was a sort of proud croon, with eyes closed as he rocked Niles.
"You really love family," Dinah observed. "Uh, sire. Your majesty."
The Morrigan snorted faintly. The Dagda opened his eyes and met Dinah's again. "'Sir' is fine, when you think to use it," he told her. "Or 'Dagda.' What do you call your own father?"
"Uh, 'Dad.' 'Daddy' when I was little."
"Every man ever called 'Dad' or 'Daddy' or 'Da' or 'Dada' is called after me," he declared, the pride glowing in the word. "I'm the source and font of the name. Yes, I love my family."
"Father of gods and men," Dinah muttered, then realized she had said it out loud without meaning to. Oops.
"That was Zeus," the Dagda answered, peacefully enough. "Poor old bastard. I'm nothin' like so powerful, and I took down my god shingle a long time back, but I like to think I've a little more class than him."
"I just, uh," she stammered. "I was researching you on the web," she offered in explanation. "One site said you were, uh, the male fertility principle."
The Dagda laughed. The Morrigan actually giggled and asked, "Did you see the picture? The big drawing on the hillside?"
"The– the– the one with the big, uh, club?" Dinah stammered.
The Dagda chuckled down in his chest, so dirty and deep Dinah fancied she could smell the testosterone on his breath. "I don't think ye were goin' to say 'club,'" he remarked. "Ye mustn't believe publicity pictures. It's true I'm a philoprogenitive fellow, to use the posh word. But I'm a person, not an idea pretending to be a person.
"We'll be at the hotel soon, and you can take a couple of hours' sleep, but you'll want to be up at dawn to see me claim him. Mina said to use her room. Do you want Niles with you tonight?"
"Uh, sure. Tonight? Where will he be after that?"
"With me," said the Dagda, as if it were self-evident.
Cultural differences, she told herself, cultural differences. She tried to keep her face blank but evidently did a poor job of it. Brian, who had been silent the whole ride and did not strike her as the most penetrating mind in the car, now said, "I slept with my folks, all in one bed, as a youngster."
"Five or six kids," croaked Munin, "depending on how many were alive at the time, and both parents, on a blanket over a bed of hay."
"Straw," corrected Brian. "We'd've given any hay to the cow."
"This would be Ireland, about 1740," added Hugin.
"It's just..." Dinah said slowly, "...that's not ... the kind of arrangement I associated with a household with nannies."
"No," said the Morrigan conversationally, "you are now worrying about how to protect Niles from the people you have helped kidnap him. And it's occurring to you a little late that, while his mother may be the devil you know, we may be the devils you don't."
Now Dinah's face was blank, though too late. "Do you read minds?" she asked.
"Only from certain specific angles."
The Dagda sighed. "Yes, well, this is why I offered him to you for tonight. Ye don't know us. Soon enough, ye'll know what vows mean among us, and tomorrow, ye'll see me swear to be a father to the boy. Here and now, if you want, I will swear an oath that I am not that kind of monster."
Dinah sat up straight and met his gaze once more, only harder. "Yes. Do it."
The Dagda's smile was grim this time, but it was a smile.
"I told you she was brave," the Morrigan said.
Jessica came teetering in on her red shoes, from a party that rated three out of ten, in her opinion. She halted at the sight of a stranger sitting at the breakfast table: a young Middle-Eastern woman, in black hijab and blouse, bluejeans, and sneakers. She looked up from her phone with an annoyed expression.
"Who are you?" Jessica demanded.
"I'm a friend of Dinah's," was the answer. The English was perfect, even high-toned. "She couldn't stay, so she asked me to babysit your kid. Job interview."
"In the middle of the night?"
"Past the middle by now. But she has to get there by morning. Came out of the blue. Here, she left you this."
The friend passed Jessica an envelope. Inside was a hand-written letter from Dinah, explaining, with emphasis, that she was not coming back, except maybe to pick up some clothes and stuff, and Jessica would have to look after herself and her own child without Dinah's help.
Dinah then wrote that Jessica ought to give up Niles to the child-care people, even if it gave a hit to her dole, because she was obviously an unfit mother. Dinah waxed eloquent on this, in fact. (She had rehearsed mentally for months before the Dagda came along.)
As it was, she thought Niles was too quiet and might be sickening for something. So Jessica, for a change, would have to take him to the doctor.
Jessica gave a snort and tossed the letter on the fold-out bed, where it appeared that Niles was sleeping. "Fine. Message delivered. You can go now."
The friend rose silently and left. Jessica mentally tabled her problems, went to her room, kicked off shoes, stripped to underwear, and flopped. At least the kid was being quiet.
Out in the hall, Mina melted the hijab, blouse, and jeans back into her silk gown, shook the glamour off her hair and face, and descended the stairs.
A shape rolled out of the alley where Sandy had lurked a few hours before: Lyfsverd as were-cycle, in rather more shadow than even the poor lighting explained. "How fares the plan, lady?" he asked, his voice a softer chiming than on the forest path. The shadows fell from him as she got on.
"All done!" she said cheerfully.
A slit of light opened in the headlamp, then widened until the lamp shone white around a blazing blue center. Mina felt the seat rise a bit as the tires tensed.
There was a pause.
"Pray, lady, lay hold the handlebars," the were-cycle suggested.
"Oh, you can steer." She was not as commanding as the Morrigan. She did not want to be.
"My thanks, lady, but still use them to hold on."
"Ah. Right." They were as warm as a man's hands.
They rolled off into the night, fluttering and glittering, but with no sound besides the soft hiss of leather tires on the road, and they attracted no notice.
Dinah stepped gingerly off the hotel patio onto the lawn. She was not used to walking around barefoot outdoors. Nor was she used to getting up before the early summer dawn, or used to her costume. It was the only thing she wore, a linen garment like an over-large, over-long T-shirt with a broad linen strip for a belt.
The Dagda wore the same, as did all the rest of his– Well, what to call it? His entourage? His court? His household? Whatever it was, she was part of it now. She decided she liked "household" best, and it included the horse and dog guys, Mina, the Morrigan, and, certainly, Niles. It probably included the two ravens, though they wore only their feathers, and maybe even the sword riding in the scabbard on the Morrigan's back; it had hopped in there on her command as she left her room, and she had called it by name.
They were all trailing out across the hotel's garden lawn, to a footpath beside the little brook that supplied the fish pond. Behind them, in street clothes, came the innkeepers and several other members of the hotel staff. "The more witnesses, the better!" the Dagda had proclaimed, and had invited everyone within earshot of the lobby.
The footpath was graveled. For the sake of her shoe-soft feet, she kept to the lawn, trailing just behind the Dagda, who carried Niles on his shoulders. It had taken a bit of nerve to push herself ahead of the Morrigan and the others, but dammit, Niles was her job. No one had seemed to mind.
The footpath led between a pair of rosebush mazes, then gave out. The party continued along the stream. The lawn gave out. For a little, there was mossy stream-side and tended-looking trees: no bracken, no low branches, just a layer of leaves. Then they started up a gentle slope, and it was just woods.
They stopped by a big rock, overhung by a tall, slender tree. Its leaves grew in orderly, feathery clusters. It occurred to Dinah that she had seen trees like that all her life, but knew nothing about them.
The Dagda put Niles down, then hunkered down to the boy's level. He smiled and spread his arms, as he had in the park. Niles smiled back, spread his arms in turn, and closed in for the hug.
"Now, son," the Dagda said, "I'm going to be your daddy, and Dinah here will be your nanny. That means she and I will be here to keep you company and take care of you. D'you like that?"
A little bewildered, Niles nodded.
The Dagda put one hand on his heart and the other on Niles's heart. "I swear by my life and my hope and my power that I will be your father from now on."
Dinah blinked. The pre-dawn sky was totally clear. Yet she had heard thunder. No, she hadn't, but she felt that she remembered hearing it. And the Dagda, she noted, now looked tired for the first time in her acquaintance of him.
But he smiled. He brought Niles in for another hug and kissed him on the cheek. Then he rumpled the boy's hair.
And laughed! It was as if his hand had been coated in ink. Niles's hair changed from blond to black under his touch, just as black as the Dagda's own hair. "Well! I didn't expect that! A good sign!"
Was it? Dinah felt around under her shock, trying to decide what she thought of this change. She remembered how the Morrigan had promised, most solemnly, that Niles would live to see the Moon fall out of the sky. What other, bigger, changes were going on here?
The Dagda said to the boy, "Now! About names: People call me 'the Dagda.' You can call me 'Da' because I'm your daddy now. My name is Darach. Means 'oak.'" He pointed into the woods, at a handy young oak. "Now, I'm goin' to give you a new name."
Dinah suddenly felt she was on firm ground, with something to say: "Good! Do you know where Jessica got 'Niles'? She told me. From 'nil' and 'nihilism' and like that. She literally named him 'nothing'!"
"That's over," the Dagda announced. He pointed to the feather-leafed tree and said to the boy: "See this tree? It's a rowan. In spring, it looks like this–" He waved a hand and suddenly the tree was decked with tight clusters of starry white flowers. "–and in fall, it looks like this." The flowers were replaced with clusters of bright red berries. "Pretty tree, isn't it? And its wood is good for good magic. Your name is Caorthann now. Means 'rowan.' You can use Rowan for a nickname, if you like. Now, there's someone I want you to meet."
He stood and led the way further up the stream. The boy, Caorthann, Rowan, held tight to his arm, as he had held tight to an uninterested arm yesterday. But this arm gathered him up and tucked him into the crook of its elbow. The Dagda did not look tired at all, now; he looked eager.
The way up the bank of the brook grew steeper and rockier; the brook grew narrower and faster. The woods gave way to bracken, then heather. Near the top of the hill stood a heap of great boulders, the size of a small house. The stream came trickling out from among the stones.
The Dagda put Rowan back on his shoulders and addressed the stones or the stream: "Mother! Here's your newest grandchild. Caorthann, meet your grannie!"
The stream swelled and surged, then water erupted from the stones, a fountain, a geyser, drenching everyone. The Dagda laughed. So did Mina, and even the Morrigan.
Rowan shrieked. Glee, surprise, or fear? Dinah wasn't sure. He shrieked again. She was still not sure, but was getting worried. Would the Dagda know? How could she know what he knew? She had to assume he knew no more than a mortal man, and with Rowan on his shoulders he could not see the boy's expression.
She was already in a downpour. She stepped into what amounted to a waterfall and lifted the boy off the ... off his father's shoulders. She held him in front of her, at arm's length, grinning determinedly. See? This is fun. Honest.
She began a sidestepping circle, making a dance of ring-around-rosy. Rowan was almost invisible in the torrent of water, but she was sure he smiled. Now she could hear his laughter.
A warm hand clasped her shoulder and she saw another clasp Rowan's. The Dagda was joining in the dance, embracing them both, grinning. Oh, good; she wouldn't be fired or turned into a frog or anything.
She became aware of more figures in the dance, a wider ring around them, three women with joined hands. They were made of water, the downpouring stream sculpting into evanescent female forms. Was this "grannie"?
For just a moment, the downpour became no less than a vertical river. In the roaring, she heard a woman's laughter. And then it stopped.
They stood on the hill, by the stones, in the sun. The stream was fast returning to normal and everyone was, of course, drenched. Rowan held out his arms to the Dagda; Dinah gave him back. "He wasn't scared," the Dagda told her, "but it was well thought of."
He popped Rowan back on his shoulders and began marching down the hill, through the wet grass and wet hotel staff. They were all smiling in a mask-like way. They were not, after all, dressed for the occasion.
Perhaps the Dagda realized this. He waved one hand and, immediately, a light summer breeze came up the hill. Within a few seconds, people began drying.
On the same principle she had observed before, that a nanny's place was with her charge, Dinah started to hurry after father and son. But she found Mina at her side, at a deliberately slower pace. Even soaking wet, she only looked charmingly disheveled. Dinah felt sure she herself looked like something pulled out of a drain.
"Let him monopolize the boy for a while," Mina advised. "He does not want to be an absentee kind of father, I guarantee it."
Dinah nodded and paced beside Mina. "Where do we go now?" she asked.
"Back to the hotel."
"I mean– I mean, after that. When we go home. Where is home?"
"You have jumped in at the deep end, haven't you? There are several places it could be. All will be beautiful. All will be strange. You'll be safe in any of them; he'll see to that. But I don't think we'll be leaving any time soon. He still hasn't done what he came for."
"Didn't he come for N– for Rowan?"
"Ni– There! It'll take us a while. Rowan was a happy chance. No, he came here on a bride hunt."
"Bride hunt? I thought you were his wife."
"Ex-wife, dear, for these last few years. He asked me to come and give him a good character. A reference. Who better? Let me explain:
"It is all about children because, you see, fays can't have them among themselves, or only rarely."
"The Morrigan said something like that when she showed up at my flat."
"Quite right. (Odd, to think she's now his big sister...) But they—fays—can have children with mortals quite normally. At least, if the fays are human."
"And he is?" Dinah asked, nodding ahead at the Dagda.
"Every bit as human as he looks, at the moment. It's his preferred species. And while he'll love Rowan quite as much as any of his other children, he wants children of his body, too. So he takes mortal women to be the mothers."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean that in any bad way. That is, there have never been any complaints. Not from the women. Not about the start of the relationship. But he's very old, you realize?" Dinah nodded. "So he's had to change his ways many times. These days, he offers marriage. If monogamy is what's wanted, that's what he'll give. A century of it. With the aim of having children."
"Wait. Excuse me. You were married to him for a hundred years?" Mina nodded. "Are you mortal?"
"I was." Mina smiled and spread her arms, presenting herself. "Mina 'Shay,' née Dalloway, born 1864, in Oxfordshire. We met in London, at the Diamond Jubilee. He was there to make mischief; he wasn't at all fond of England at that time. But the Crystal Palace survived. We had a whirlwind courtship, as you'd guess, and then off to Tir n'An Og."
"To have children?"
"Four of them, yes.' Mina studied Dinah's face, then said, "I don't want to make it sound too agricultural. He didn't just want me to have babies for him. He wanted a partner, a friend, with whom to raise a family. It's rather pre-romantic, but it's a sound enough basis for a marriage. So you see, I do give him a good character.'
Drifting into happy memory, she stared off into the cloudless morning sky, which nevertheless had a rainbow in the west, over the forest, presumably thanks to "grannie" and all the water she had flung about.
"There was raising them, and seeing them launched on their own lives, and two fosterlings, and a changeling rescued from some Unseelie. And just miscellaneous adventures. And lately, we've been arranging the bride price."
"What I get. Well, what I get besides becoming an immortal fairy queen, mother to fairy princes and princesses, and over a hundred and fifty years without a dull moment. You get your own realm—a little one, but you get to arrange it and develop it."
"But he casts you aside when it's time to get a new wife."
"My dear! Not 'cast aside'! We will be friends and allies for– for always, I trust. He said the sweetest thing to me last evening: he asked if I wanted another century of marriage. I said maybe later. Remember what I said about never a dull moment. You come to treasure dull moments, eventually." She stared after the Dagda and Rowan for a few seconds. "It would be different if it was a romance. It's not. You have to realize that going in. He is affectionate and loyal and passionate. But he is not adoring." She smiled a little rue. "So here I am, over a hundred and fifty, mother of four, foster-mother and godmother of more, still hoping to find true romance. If I do, I shall certainly invite him to the wedding."
Dinah walked a few paces in thoughtful silence. Then: "Are you trying to sell this deal to me?"
"Now that you mention it. Of course, he gets a say, too. He'll want your friendship. But he already knows you to be sensible and brave, and there's one child, at least, that you both love." She gestured ahead, where Rowan was now visible in the distance, bobbing on his Daddy's shoulders. "A very good beginning," she said, smiling on Dinah, who was blushing from the compliments. "I should say that, if you want him, you can have him."
My thanks to the Friday night roleplaying crew, particularly to Louise Koutavas, for many elements of this story.
Return to Stories, Tales of the Dagda
Return to Inkliverse
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2019