Authors: Steven Savile
Tags: #Science Fiction
He clung to the image of his mother, Macha, dying twice, once on the sword of the vile soldier of Feg, and again beneath the crushing chariot wheels in the hell of Purgadair's coliseum. He fixated on her pain, refusing to let it wash away beneath whatever enchantment the Sidhe wove around him. And seeing Macha he remembered another mother, and the toll her love for Avagddu, her only son, had taken upon the lives of so many people. And recalling the Crone brought with it memories of the Cauldron.
"Where is it?" he said again, determined not to forget this time.
"Gone," she whispered. "Far away. Do not dwell on it, thinking about your life before only hurts and makes it harder for you to accept being here. Oh, my beautiful boy, until you let go, you won't truly heal."
And there was a heady euphoria wrapped within her words and her touch.
He so desperately wanted to succumb to them, to just forget, but his mother's face would not let him.
"Leave me," he said, closing his eyes.
"But, my love-"
"Leave me," he said again.
"Then I will leave you." He pushed himself out of the seductive comfort of the bed and walked naked across the room. The peculiar subdued light glanced off the edges of his musculature, rippling over the shapes and lines so they made in a shadow play of phantom forms.
"Come back to bed, my pretty one. I have such delicious pleasures to share with you, such violent delights."
"Find yourself a new plaything, woman. I have no need of your flesh."
The woman leaned on one elbow, the single sheet slipping from her shoulder to reveal the gentle curves of side and breast and her body's own shadow play as the light touched her ribs. Her hair fell across part of her face, its gentle waves almost undoing his resolve. She smiled at him and patted his empty side of the huge bed.
"You need me, Sláine," Leanan said, "And I need you. You give me so much, I would not throw this thing away so lightly. We are all we have here. This can be such a lonely place."
"That is a lie, Leanan Sidhe. We both know it is. Do me the decency of letting the truth touch your lips for a moment: you serve your king, I am his prisoner, that makes you my gaoler. This thing between us is nothing more than a distraction, a means to keep me docile, is it not?"
Her smile was anything but warm; she leaned forwards, on all fours like some animal on the prowl, the predatory cunning of her kind burned behind her eyes. "Aren't you the clever little man? Would you rather the cuffs and chains came out? Are you not sufficiently imprisoned by the wetness of my flesh?"
Sláine turned his back on the woman. Whatever hold she had over him was gone. There was no enticement in her words. He saw her for what she was.
"Take me to Finvarra."
"Why would I want to do that, my pretty little manling?"
Sláine fastened the leather belt and adjusted his kilt so that it sat comfortably on his hips. He picked up the boar's head codpiece with its vicious tusks and turned to the supine Sidhe in his bed. "Because," he said, toying with the sharpened teeth of the boar's head, "the next 'tusk' of mine to impale you will almost certainly do a lot more damage to your insides." He made sure she saw the brutal tusks as he secured the codpiece over his groin. "From what I hear about this island such a wound would never heal, but at least it wouldn't kill you. Where is he?"
"He is by the lake, fishing. It is how he spends his days."
"And my friends?"
"They are enjoying the ample charms of my sisters, much as you were until a few moments ago."
"What did you do to me? What kind of enchantment was it that you spun around me so that I could not resist?"
Leanan Sidhe laughed, genuinely amused by the notion that she had somehow seduced the warrior with witchcraft. "Is my beauty not enough for you now? Believe me, it is no magic, my pretty one, no more than any seduction is. You want to lose yourself, to forget. We merely offer you what your heart desires. We know you better than you know yourselves. You came to me broken, I healed you. Sex is vital, vibrant, holy even. It is good for the flesh and the spirit. With my body I gave you yours back. The joy of the coupling was enough to hold back any doubts you had upon awaking, the rush of sensations that came with your release enough to dampen down any guilt or interest in your companions or your quest. You could call it witchcraft, just as you could call it love or lust. In truth the only magic of it is within your own chemistry. You wanted this, you wanted to lose yourself."
And there was truth in her words; truth he did not want to acknowledge.
He hadn't tried to leave. He had allowed his strength to return, had exercised hard, pushing himself, but he had only allowed himself to think about
he had come to Ynys Afallach in his dreams. He hadn't been willing to confront his own mortality in his waking hours. He hadn't allowed himself to remember the Night Bringer or the bravery of Gwalchmai and his men. Instead he had been a willing accomplice to his imprisonment. He had convinced himself the geas that somehow prevented him from entering the water also prevented him from remembering, dwelling on the past. It had been easier to cope with the guilt that way, his mind mirroring his own predicament and making a prisoner out of it, consigning it to the deepest parts of his subconscious.
It had taken the most natural of things, a son's love for his mother, to undo his mind's charade.
"I don't believe you," he said.
"That is your prerogative, my beautiful boy, but it doesn't stop it from being the truth."
"You mean to say that we are all willing prisoners here, captive to our own lusts?"
"There was no enchantment that made your ugly little dwarf friend crawl into Sister Urian's bed," Leanan assured him, not bothering to hide her nakedness. "And the only
that kept him there blissfully forgetting all about you was her pillow skills. You overestimate your friend's resolve."
"Hardly, the runt is driven by his lusts, for food, for gold, and for ample breasts and warm thighs. I know him only too well. Myrrdin on the other hand, does not strike me as a man at all."
"The Lord of the Trees is a willing prisoner, just as you are, my pretty boy. It was his own guilts he would hide from just as you hide from yours. To him, Ynys Afallach is a sanctuary, a place free of the burdens of destiny and fate and the manipulations of your world. That is the only enchantment. The Glass House is a place of tranquillity," she explained, and he almost believed her. Almost. He could not ignore the predatory nature of Leanan Sidhe's eyes. There was more to their captivity than the woman admitted.
"Believe me, woman. If I find you are lying you will beg to leave this place so that you
die. Your pain will be that great. I know some violent delights of my own."
"I believe you, Defiler."
"You take all the fun out of life, Sláine," Ukko grumbled, pulling his filthy britches up. "I was just getting familiar with this young lady."
Urian lay on the bed, watching the pair of them with feigned uninterest. She was every bit as exotic as Leanan, her lean, supple nakedness craving the eye. Sláine stood at the window, looking out over the black water. He could not see the far shore because a grey empty mist clung to the still lake.
"Just hurry up and put your clothes on, Ukko. We are leaving this place."
"And from your tone," said Ukko, pulling his food-smeared tunic over his head, "I am assuming you plan on hitting a few things on the way."
"People preferably," said Sláine. "Thieving dwarfs ideally."
"Oh you've got a sharp tongue, Sláine Mac Roth."
"And I've got a sharper axe. Now get a move on."
"Speaking of which, where is the aptly named Brain-Biter? I didn't lug the damned thing all this way just for you to lose it."
"Our hosts have it, along with the shard of the Cauldron. Finvarra, it seems, is rather like a magpie, he accumulates things that are not his."
"Then we'd better get them back, I suppose," said Ukko, stamping his foot and wriggling around, almost falling over, as he forced it into his boot.
"Which is why I am stood here waiting for you," said Sláine, patiently.
"Ah, I see, said the blind man. Well, I suppose we best be off then, can't sit around here all day. Just let me go give Urian a parting gift, wouldn't want to disappoint the wee girl, then I'll be right with you." The dwarf raised a lecherous eyebrow and grinned back at the woman waiting in his bed.
"Don't even think about it, runt."
"It'll only take ten minutes."
"Five, come on, Sláine. Look at her, she's lovely. You owe me five minutes, the amount of times I have put my neck on the line for you. What harm could five minutes do? It isn't as if we don't have the time. Five minutes in a place where time doesn't even exist. It'd be like it never happened."
"Remember what I was saying about life and fun?"
"You're a hateful man, Sláine."
"Are you finished?"
"Haven't even bloody started, thank you very much."
"You can come back and play when we have what we need; if time doesn't exist it isn't as though you'll actually have to wait very long is it?"
Ukko screwed his face up. "I hate you."
"I think you might have mentioned that before."
"And I'm sure I will mention it again." He turned to Urian, a rueful smile on his faced and shrugged. "Hmm, just, you know, hold that thought. I'll be back as soon as Mister Muscle here has got his toys back and we can say goodbye properly."
"I look forwards to it," Urian said, stretching out luxuriously. The white sheet slipped down to reveal the secrets of her anatomy.
"Oh believe me, so do I, so do I."
Sláine turned away from the window, took two steps to come up behind the dwarf, and cuffed Ukko across the back of the head with the flat of his hand.
"What was that for?" Ukko grumbled, rubbing at his head.
"Just reminding you which head you're supposed to do your thinking with."
"Hmm. Don't expect me to say thank you."
"Where are they keeping Myrrdin?"
"How should I know?" Ukko grunted, walking three steps behind Sláine in a sulk. "I'm not his keeper."
"No, but you were
when you came here
him, so I think the chance of you knowing is a damned sight better than mine."
"Leanan left me with Urian. I didn't see him after that."
"This place is huge. How are we supposed to find him?"
"Maybe if we put our ears to the walls and listen for the grunts?" Ukko said, helpfully. "That's assuming he wants to be found," Ukko mumbled, falling back another step beneath Sláine's withering stare. "Well, they are attractive and he has been imprisoned in a tree for hundreds of years. It doesn't take a genius to work out he might be enjoying himself. You could try shouting, I suppose, maybe he'll come running."
An unseen hand came down on Ukko's shoulder, long white fingers digging in to the fabric of his dirty tunic. His bones nearly climbed out of his skin in fright. "By the Crone's withered tit, woman! Sneaking up on people like that... damn near gave me a bloody heart attack."
"My apologies, little man," Leanan Sidhe said, smiling. The ruby glass of the crystal passage suffused the folds of her dress, making it come alive with light. Despite the absence of a breeze her skirts billowed out behind her legs as she moved. She moved like a ghost, gliding across the floor. "I did not mean to scare you. I assumed you would be looking for the Lord of the Trees and thought to make your task easier. My sister, Modron, is taking your friend down to the lakeside even as we speak. Finvarra would see the three of you. I can escort you." She inclined her head, bidding them follow, as she turned and walked away.
They followed the Sidhe woman through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the Glass House, always heading down. Despite the fact that Ukko had walked these corridors for weeks - to and from the kitchens - there were many passages he did not recognise. The hues imbuing the walls shifted, the colours deepening and becoming thicker and more substantial the lower they went. In the distance they heard the chime of bells - it took Ukko a moment realise what the sounds actually were: women walking about the Glass House, their footsteps resonating through the palace like music. After a few moments he began to distinguish the sounds, how each of the Sidhe women had their own unique harmony determined by weight and grace. He wondered how they sounded to the sisters: Sláine dull and heavy most likely, a bass profundo, while his lighter, quicker steps as he hurried to keep up would be more akin to a falsetto warble.
Leanan rounded a corner that opened onto a teal stairway leading down towards the huge foyer and the imposing doors that led back outside to the maze monsters and the lake. The stairs themselves had been worn smooth by the endless shuffle of tired feet coming and going. They added a sense of perspective to the sheer size of the Glass House, rising six times Sláine's height as they curved and curved again around the fringe of the foyer.
They did not leave through the massive double doors, but instead through a small side door cut between the facets of the crystal wall so as to appear invisible from the stairs.
The air outside was fresh, invigorating after the stale air of the palace. Ukko breathed deeply, swallowing a lungful of the cold and savouring its chill inside. He shivered involuntarily. Leanan led them down a narrow path towards the jetty. The stones crunched beneath their feet. Ribbons of stratus clouds filled the sky.
Ukko looked up, a flicker of movement catching his eye.
For a moment his mind refused to believe what his eyes showed him, then the dull
whump whump whump
of huge leathery wingbeats filled the air above him. The shadow cast by the beast momentarily blocked out the light of the sun as it banked low, angling towards the water. It opened its huge maw wide, a shriek like the scream of a thousand dying men spilling out as its massive wings trailed through the water, stirring up a spume in the otherwise flat and rippleless surface. Wickedly sharp talons raked at the skin, powerful legs running across the water before the immense wyrm submerged. A moment later it rose, exploding out of the black water in a shower of spray, and arrowed back up into the wisps of stratus. The beast's scales dripped black water like rain.