Pavel spun the bronze axe on its head, nodded grimly at the huge troll beside him and approached the healing hut. He willed his broad shaking shoulders to be still and his axe hand to be steady. Queen Esclairmonde had summoned him. The tapestry of her healing hut hung between them. And around him Tir-na-nog bled.
All around him, the cuts in the opalized tree roots hanging from of Tir-na-nog’s cave ceiling bled a glittering custard of blues and greens. His cuts. The beautiful severed limbs, as smooth and graceful as the missing arms of the Venus de Milo, formed this simple teepee.
Normally, when Pavel was afraid, or bored, or homesick, or heartsick, he summoned to mind his favourite memories of his dear wife Anya, safe back home in Poland. She formed the centerpiece of a montage, surrounded by the smiling faces of their six children, on the mantelpiece of his mind.
Six children. Something was wrong with that subtle thought fragment. It is seven now, surely. How much time has passed on the surface world above?
He shook his head. The surface world. When did I stop thinking of it as home?
For fear of endangering his beloved family, he shook his head to set them aside. She could hear thoughts.
Pavel risked a look upward along the huge bleeding glittering tree roots. Roots that dwarfed the boughs of the mightiest forest on Earth.
All around Pavel, Tir-na-nog pulsed. Each beat slowing. This beautiful world, the last refuge of the Fae was dying. The saddened citizens and denizens of Tir-na-nog shuffled about him without purpose and without their customary merriment. The pukels sat slumped on huge toadstools, tiny toddler-like bodies curved in woe. The satyrs clopped along, subdued and wary. The Rubenesque fae maidens clad only in clumps of spun glowworm silk had turned from coyly simpering to reserved and sullen. And where has that fiend Hanrahan got to?
The redcaps with their sly smiles under greasy widow peaks and ponytails were the only ones immune to the miasma of suffocating fear. They were positively enjoying the gloom. Inhaling it and drawing themselves straight for a moment in a silent gloat before returning to their ready guarding squat.
Mr Hargreaves, the short stout furry-footed pooka sat turning his top hat in his hands a little way off at the edge of the throne circle. The site of Habnab and his ruinous losses. The triumph of Molly and Diego over Queen Esclairmonde. The joyous recovery of their stolen baby Bridie. The unmasking of Father David as a bastard child of King Huon. The rescue of lovely young Claire and their desperate flight from Tir-na-nog to the Bamford Folly above.
As the redcaps seized his ankles, knocked him down and dragged him back, Pavel gained such solace in his solid punches upon them. The rumble and slam of the monolith portal, sealing his friends safely in the surface world above. But the surface world with Anya and their children, his friends, and everyone who lived and sighed and sang and despaired, were not safe anymore. And he, Pavel Jacobwitz had doomed them all. With this simple, beautiful teepee.
Glamour, the very lifeblood of Tir-na-nog, the source of Fae magic was leaching out of this world along with its colour and vibrance. As though the Land of Oz was returning from colour to monochrome.
The severed roots of the healing hut were drained bone white now. The axe in Pavel’s hand sang up his arm. It’s thirst for more glamour stung.
A drop of sap-blood hit his trembling shoulder near his neck.
The warmth of it sank through his skin and along his spine, stilling and quietening his cringing mind. The axe in his hand sharpened its silent song. The scent of Anya’s spiced cakes, sawn lumber and virgin snow filled his mind. The sweet scent of glamour. Of home. His shaking limbs steadied and filled with strength. His first taste of glamour at the hand of Widdershins, the Fae Chamberlain, filled his mind. The same sensation of coiled warmth and a blush through his loins. Of clarity. Of resolve. Of peace.
The blessed peace bled away as the glamour tuned his mind into a frequency broadcasting pulses of pain and woe. The keening death song of Tir-na-nog. Congealing clouds of purple and dirty yellow squeezed at the periphery of his vision.
A thick steel-coloured finger wiped up the drop of sap from Pavel’s shoulder, followed by a sad lip smack and a sigh. Pavel risked a sideways glance at his mute and kindly jailer. The nine foot tall giant, naked but for a loin cloth, stood with a thick finger between his lips and an expression of infant-like contentment. His ginger dreadlocks rustled and clinked as he slumped his square chin to his chest.
The four dragons tattooed on his chest, shoulders and back flexed their wingtips to touch in a circle around his trunk-like neck.
A guttural hiss from behind the red tapestry turned Pavel’s bones to ice. Happenstance nodded at Pavel and drew the tapestry aside just enough to grant them admittance to the tiny tent.
With two steps Pavel was inside, eyes firmly fixed on the hard-packed dirt floor. The tapestry dropped behind him, sealing them in a gloom of dried leather and wet anise and lavender. Upon a chaise lounge the ruin of Queen Esclairmonde reposed.
She was much as Molly Bertolocci had left her. Broken and brittle. Her glorious blonde mane stretching the length of the chaise was the only clue to her prior magnificence.
“Come closer son of the soil. I would see you.” The voice was the hardest of hisses. If a basilisk could speak, it would sound like her.
“And I would have you see me.” Pavel reluctantly raised his eyes and took in the Fae queen in all her spack-fillered glory. Her skin was black and red, blistered and glistening, as hard and brittle as a beetle’s carapace. But her face was as smooth, white and taut. A porcelain mask?
He gripped the axe handle and fixed his eyes on the curved wooden foot of the chaise. Oil in a golden dish tucked under the chaise was the source of the lavender scent.
A sentiment whispered just below the level of audible thought. If I swung my strongest blow right now, Happenstance would not be fast enough to stop me. The impulse fled and Pavel tried not to pray that Queen Esclairmonde had not felt it.
A grateful thought pushed through Pavel’s carefully empty mind. Of young Claire with her magic smile and a face even more beautiful than Esclairmonde in her recent prime. His heart swelled with gratitude that even if he died right now as his reward for building Esclairmonde’s healing hut, the human child stolen from her family above had made good her escape with Molly and Diego and Father David.
“Oh how cruel you think me noble peasant. And how right you are. But I did not send Happenstance to fetch you only to kill you.” A warm breeze on his neck betrayed a sigh of relief from the mighty troll.
“You have done much to mend the horrors of Habnab. And I assure you that tiny traitor will soon be safely at my right hand again. And that barren wet-nurse and her dusty scholar dead at my feet. Or maybe I will spare the dusty scholar. I owe him much.”
The dryness of her speech exhausted her. The slow drip of sap-blood outside was the only sound.
“The dusty scholar has torn the scales from my eyes. The carefully shepherded falsehoods that have kept me a prisoner in the golden cage of Tir-na-nog have been exposed. And so too, shall be the world above. Exposed to my glory.”
The tight face split in a gruesome grin. That was no porcelain mask. The split widened beyond the slit of her mouth into a fault line. And from this fault line a pale bulbous maggot-like creature birthed through the ruined mouth. A blue-green amniotic custard spilled from the collapsing shed skin. The very lifeblood of Tir-na-nog pooled under the chaise. Dribbling, thin and spent. All glamour exhausted in this glorious rebirth.
The blonde mane coarsened into bristles along a spinal ridge and raised like hackles on a hyena.
A bulbous node defined at the wyrm’s tip. A face pressed forward like a prisoner in a cocoon. The face defined as the form shrank around it.
Happenstance knelt with lamb-like gentleness extending his massive hand. A thin arm split from the main body and took it. The arm flexed with a ropey strength. The reborn form of Queen Esclairmonde found her dainty dirty feet.
A hope stealing gloom struck Pavel to his core. Habnab had been a fluke. A fluke that had triggered this horrifying resurgence. The whole world above was defenseless against the deepened power of Esclairmonde enriched by the cannibalization of her prison of thousands of years.
And he had failed to strike.