Anselo was concerned. No, he was more than concerned, he decided after further consideration; he was troubled. The celebration, hastily arranged by his grandfather, Hanzi, whirled around him, but he was disengaged from it. Oh, he smiled and joked, saying all the right things to the right people, but his heart was not in any of it, and for Anselo, that was unusual.
The trip to the ancient keep of Reynaldo, whom Anselo was now dubbing “Reynaldo the Mad,” had not gone quite as expected. He had anticipated some danger and some magical strangeness, but it was even stranger and more dangerous than he ever could have guessed. The end result was a sort of “harrowing enlightenment,” a lethal, sometimes horrifying journey that gave knowledge even as it tested sanity.
Anselo had stressed to the others not to go into any details on what all had happened at the keep. It was best, he suggested, to not even be specific about where they had been this past year. “Adventuring in the north,” was all Anselo would tell anyone. Hanzi would be an exception to this, of course, but they hadn’t had the chance to really talk about their trial.
“Time enough for that tomorrow,” Hanzi had said. “Tonight, let us just rejoice in your safe return.”
That really meant Elkarena’s safe return. Not that his grandfather wasn’t happy to see Anselo alive and well, but Elkarena had always been his favorite and a year apart hadn’t changed that. Elkarena got a long, warm embrace followed by another; Anselo got a clap on the shoulder and a nod. A year ago, it would have annoyed him more, this time it was only a minor irritant—his mind was preoccupied by other concerns and foremost among those was the man who had sought them out on their grandfather’s behalf.
They had lost an entire year in Reynaldo’s keep. A mysterious magic had pulled them into a deep slumber and the ravages of time had been kept at bay by the supernatural paralysis. They had dreamed. Anselo was still unsure what Lornel and Niam had experienced during the dreaming; they hadn’t really spoken of it. He and his sister, however, had been hosted by the fae. Not together, thank Larlasse, but Anselo knew that his sister was receiving fae tutelage, just as he was. It had galled him to know that his allies were aiding her, but he had been given little choice; Maurelle could be very persuasive.
What they couldn’t know was that as a year passed in the dreaming, a year was passing in the real world. Their grandfather, certain they had met a grisly end, had hired a man named Enoch to find them and bring them back (the presumption being that he would be bringing back their remains, Anselo supposed). Instead, the man had found them in the magical slumber, alive and unharmed, and had then figured out how to revive everyone. The man was smart and perceptive, Anselo didn’t question that, and initially he seemed to be a great boon. Anselo’s first encounter with him had gone poorly, with Enoch getting a nasty taste of fae magic, but they had gotten past that quickly enough and Enoch seemed keen on exploring the keep with everyone else. Then he revealed his true colors, or so Anselo believed.
They had found the girl, Acacia, elsewhere in the keep. She was an artisan or sculptor of some sort and the mad Reynaldo had used his magic to transform her, freezing her in time forever, or at least until the party arrived and reversed the effect. She was 150 years out of time, but Anselo had liked her immediately. To be fair, Anselo tended to like any attractive girl who looked his way, and why not? He was young and charming enough and if everyone came out of the deal happy, what was the harm? His sister, in typical fashion, was not impressed by her at all; that Anselo liked the girl only made her less impressed. It had always been that way and Anselo supposed there wasn’t the woman yet born that could gain his sister’s approval.
Acacia had wanted to leave the keep immediately, but the party had wanted to venture deeper. Wary of being without their protection, she reluctantly went along. Anselo did his best to keep her in good spirits, but it was clear that the longer they stayed the more traumatized Acacia was becoming. Still, she seemed fine when she was with Anselo and, being handy with a bow, never failed to lend a hand when the nastier denizens of the keep showed their ugly faces. And then it all went horribly wrong.
Anselo still wasn’t entirely sure what had caused the scenario to begin with, though a corner of his mind blamed himself—he never should have left her alone. He and his sister had gone off exploring and left Acacia with the rest of the group. Enoch went to talk to her and she had pulled up her bow defensively, apparently not recognizing him. Lornel had tried to intervene, but this only made things worse and Acacia proceeded to shoot Enoch in the shoulder. Niam knocked her out and they called for Anselo and Elkarena to return and that should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.
Anselo had his eye on the unconscious Acacia as he asked Lornel to explain what had happened. During the conversation, Enoch was moving the girl around the room—Anselo still wasn’t sure why—and eventually propped her up against a wall. He had positioned himself perfectly to deflect gazes, but Anselo had shifted to keep an eye on the helpless girl. He and he alone had watched as Enoch snapped the girl’s neck. There were plenty of surreal moments in Reynaldo’s keep, but nothing had chilled him so much as watching cold-blooded murder.
He should have acted in the moment, said something, done something, but he was stunned to inaction. And really, what could he have done? If he had attacked Enoch, the rest of the party would have intervened, and in truth, Anselo wasn’t sure he could kill another man anyway. Maybe in defense of himself and his friends, but he wasn’t his sister; he didn’t have that killer instinct and he knew it. So that left what? Accusing Enoch of the crime? They were in the middle of nowhere, far from any sort of authority. Barring that the party decided to just execute Enoch for his crime (unlikely), the only thing an accusation would have accomplished would have been to paint a target on Anselo—murderers don’t typically like witnesses and go to great lengths to eliminate them. Of course, there was a fair chance that Anselo might already be on Enoch’s hit list. He had, after all, attacked Enoch when they first met. Anselo had been entranced by the magical gambling machine—in truth, he could still feel the linger of desire to return to it and throw in another coin—and Enoch, whom he didn’t know, had startled him… or perhaps he was warding off someone who might force him from the machine… it was all hazy now. Either way, Anselo had not been in his right mind. He summoned up the magic and blasted Enoch without hesitation. How were his actions any different from Acacia’s? Did this make him a target for Enoch? Anselo didn’t know and was wary of finding out, so he said nothing, did nothing.
When the opportunity presented itself, he told Lornel what he had witnessed. That seemed strange, even to Anselo; he barely knew the man, if one could even refer to a thael as such. It was because of honor, Anselo decided. Lornel was feeling the bloodthirst while in the keep, he had to be, but he absolutely refused to take human blood, even when freely offered. He kept his vows and it was that kind of honor that Anselo sorely needed on his side. Unfortunately, Lornel had no more idea of what to do in such a situation than Anselo did. They eventually decided to reveal that the girl was dead and feign any knowledge of what had happened. Lornel was uncomfortable with the lie, so it was left to Anselo to do all the talking. Fortunately, Anselo was a fairly skilled liar.
As expected, Enoch pretended to be surprised, but was otherwise calm, collected and ready to move on. Elkarena’s response, however, was not quite what Anselo anticipated. His sister hadn’t liked Acacia, true, but Anselo still expected more of a reaction. At the least, he presumed that she would be curious as to how the girl had died; was it from something in the keep, some new danger they needed to be aware of? Instead, her response had been cold and uncaring, and that at best. At worst, and he hoped he was wrong, Anselo sensed that she was actually pleased that the girl was dead. Acacia was no warrior, that much had been obvious, but she knew how to use a bow and she had used it against their foes on more than one occasion and to good effect. Yes, she was traumatized and yes, it was getting worse, Anselo had to admit that, but until the situation with Enoch, heo was unaware of her doing anything counter to the purposes of the party. Why his sister would be pleased at the death of an ally, even a mildly crazy one, was beyond him and of great concern. He should talk to her about it, he knew—at the least he should make her aware that a murderer was counted among their number—and yet he couldn’t bring himself to do it. She hadn’t cared that Acacia was dead at the time and he wasn’t sure telling her she was murdered would make any difference.
As for Enoch, Anselo was still unsure how to proceed there as well. The man had given no indication of umbrage toward Anselo, had been amiable even. Of course, he was a mercenary in the employee of Hanzi, so it could be that he was biding his time, waiting until they returned to Zroas and his contract was completed. Once Hanzi paid him, then Anselo would be fair game. It was making Anselo paranoid. Even if that were not the case and Enoch had no designs on Anselo’s life, the man couldn’t be trusted. Who knew what slight would set him off? How long would it be before someone else got their neck broken?
It would be worthwhile, Anselo decided, to see what information he could ferret out of Hanzi about the man. He knew him, had hired him, after all, so he must know something of his history. There had to be reasons why he thought he was the right person to send in search of his grandchildren. It was possible, of course, even likely, that Hanzi had no idea of Enoch’s dark side. Still, more information could only be a good thing, especially so long as both they and Enoch were in Zroas at the same time. If they stuck to the half-formed plan and headed east, it would be of less concern, since Enoch would presumably be staying in Zroas or heading off to kill someone else in some other part of the world.
Anselo’s thoughts on the matter were disrupted when a smartly dressed young man sidled up to him and welcomed him back. Anselo didn’t recognize him, so he smiled, made a polite acknowledgement and tried to excuse himself. He threaded his way through the party to get another drink only to find that the man was following him. He claimed that he had recently been north himself and then started asking questions about where Anselo and his sister had been. One pointed question after another quickly put Anselo on guard.
This has to be one of Barister’s toadies, thought Anselo. And that only if we’re lucky.
Unable to escape the man’s volley of inquiries and concerned about what might happen if the fellow tried the same routine on some other member of the returning party, Anselo summoned up the magic. It was easy enough to charm the fellow, easier still to get him drinking too much. It wasn’t long before others had to escort him outside to vomit in the bushes and that, Anselo hoped, would be the end of that. Using the magic felt good, it felt right, and that scared him.
There had been many revelations at Reynaldo’s keep regarding the fae, too many for Anselo to ignore, much as a part of him wanted to. The puzzle pieces were coming together and Anselo did not like the picture they were forming. He had made a mistake. It pained him to admit it, but there it was; the source of his power, his magic, was not what he thought it was at all, and what it was, was bad.
It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had first performed the ritual, that he had first gazed on Maurelle, but it had in fact been only a few months.
A year and a few months if we include the time in the dreaming, he supposed.
He was so certain that he had contacted the Seelie, so certain that he had found his salvation in the benevolent fae, that he had not bothered to look deeper, to question more. His desire to be equal to his sister had always clouded his judgment, but this time it might have cost him a high price. At the time, though, given his knowledge of the Seelie, it had all appeared as he had expected. Maurelle seemed the perfect emissary of the Seelie Court in every way, and before Anselo knew it, he was binding himself to them in blood pact. The power he had longed for was his and it all seemed to be going his way, until the dreaming.
The year with Maurelle, studying the magic, had been a moving, indescribable experience. Had that been the entirety of it, it was possible that Anselo would still be in the dark. At some point, however, Maurelle had offered to take him on a journey across the Dreamlands, a journey that had opened his eyes. Strange creatures, fae and otherwise, had crossed their path, but none of them were of the nature that Anselo expected to find among the Seelie. He expected some wildness, some chaos, but these creatures were all tinged with something darker and colder.
Anselo knew something was off, maybe even knew exactly what it meant, but rather than acknowledge it, he had ignored it. His need to master the magic and become his sister’s equal was still much stronger than any concern he might have about the fae. They returned from their journey and Anselo continued his studies, giving no further thought to what he had witnessed.
The next testing of his self-induced ignorance came near the time he was to leave the dreaming. Maurelle had told him that Niam was a danger to him, that the journal he was keeping contained too much information. If it fell into the wrong hands, it could put Anselo in harm’s way. This had long been a concern of Anselo’s so her words came as no surprise, but he wasn’t really sure what to do about it. Maurelle offered to take care of it for him, and though she wouldn’t say what that meant exactly, it was all too obvious to Anselo—she meant to kill Niam, or perhaps worse, leave him trapped in the dreaming forever. There was a small part of him that agreed with her and wanted to let her deal with it, but he couldn’t bring himself to go through with it. Again, he didn’t have his sister’s killer instinct. Maurelle prodded and cajoled, but Anselo stood fast against her. It was, so far as he could recall, the only time he had not given in to her, and it was clear she was displeased by his reluctance. She eventually accepted his decision, but made it clear that he would probably regret not taking her up on the offer.
Once again, Anselo knew that something was off, and once again, he chose to ignore it. That his “goodly” fae allies were offering to eliminate someone for him should have resonated, but he was still too wrapped up in his own selfish desires to see it for what it was.
The final push came with the words of the marid, Lugh, when he and Lornel had last spoken to him. The marid had said that the fae statues of the keep were representations of Reynaldo’s muse, and having been up close and very personal with Maurelle on many occasions, Anselo easily recognized them as being his own fae mistress. She had then, according to the marid, lured Reynaldo into making a pact with a dark power. The Seelie could be pranksters, true, but Anselo had never read a story of them leading mortals to making underworld pacts. The marid could have been lying, Anselo supposed, but to what end? No, the revelation, along with what Maurelle had shown him and what she had offered to do for him, was forcing Anselo to acknowledge the truth: Maurelle was not a member of the Seelie at all. She was most likely a member of their dark mirror, the Autumn Court, the Unseelie.
If what he suspected was true, and it was much more than a suspicion at this point, then his dealings with Enoch were the least of his problems. Enoch was just a man; the Unseelie were a power, and one that Anselo had willingly, if unknowingly, tied himself to.
What truly troubled Anselo was that he doubted that Maurelle would even deny it at this point. The pact was made and it would be difficult if not impossible to break. Even if he could forsake it, Maurelle knew that he wouldn’t. There were too many threats on the horizon to get rid of the only thing that could protect him. Lord Barister could be looking for a little payback, Enoch might decide to murder him, and then there was the situation with the silver raven. It was some sort of relic, and the marid had warned them in no uncertain terms that there were powers out there looking for it, powers they were not yet ready to face. Without the magic, Anselo doubted he would ever be ready, and whatever the source of his power, he would never willingly step back under the shadow of his sister’s protection. Until he could find an alternative, he was just going to have to accept it.
All roads lead to the Harrag, he thought to himself.
The marid had said that the silver raven had originally been in the hands of the elves, so it made sense to try to put it back into their hands. If there were powers out there looking for it, let the elves deal with it.
Lornel had long professed an interest in going to the Harrag to see what the elves knew about the thael, so he had a reason to go already, and everyone knew that where Lornel went, Niam would follow.
More important than either of these reasons, though, at least for Anselo, was that the elves were among the few sources of knowledge about the fae. Almost everything Anselo had learned about them had come from his father, an elf of the Harrag. His father knew a lot and was not considered an expert on the subject; there were others in the Harrag who were. There was some ancient tie between the elves and the fae, and if anyone would know how to break the bonds with the Unseelie, they would know. He and his sister could…
Anselo paused in thought as a chill ran down his spine.
Elkarena had spent a year in the dreaming being taught by the fae just as he had. They both knew it, though they had never really talked about it. Accepting what he now knew to be true, that their training had come from the Unseelie, what influence might they have had on her? Anselo thought back on her attitude toward the death of Acacia. Was that his sister? Or was that the subtle influence of the Unseelie?
If his sister had been tampered with by the fae, then he held a share of the blame; after all, he had let Maurelle go to her, despite his misgivings. Again, if anyone could determine this and perhaps know of a way to deal with it, the elves of the Harrag would.
Of course, as half-elves, the gods only knew what reception he and his sister would receive there. The silver raven might give them a way in, or it could be that the xenophobic elves would just kill them and take it. There was only one way to find out.