Unexpected Guest

It was like something from a film set. Lady Freydis’ reception was in one of her favourite corners, an autumnal forest just after sunset, with a soft glow in the west and the stars slowly coming out. A faint mist hung around the roots of the huge oak trees and the air was heavy with the spicy scent of fallen leaves. Toadstools sprouted in odd corners and acorns were littering the floor with beechmast and fallen blackberries. A bonfire crackled in a fire pit in the centre of the clearing with two pigs roasting over it. Tables were heaped with apple pies glistening with sprinkled sugar, gleaming sausages, jugs of cider and dark wine and wheels of cheese stacked next to baskets of fresh bread and new butter. For the first time Lady Freydis had allowed baked potatoes which were heaped in a dusty brown heap with more butter and a heaping froth of grated cheese. There were discreet barrels of craft beer, lager, and some smaller barrels of brandy and rum. There was even a pallet of bottled water, stacked discreetly behind an oak trestle groaning with roast chestnuts and dusty bottles of elderberry wine.

Steve and Darren stayed close. Darren had reluctantly come as Jasmine’s ‘boyfriend’ and Steve was, of course, a member of Lady Freydis’ court, but there was something going on and neither could quite follow it. Ian and Kieran were making forced polite small talk, nodding and carefully smiling. Every woman from the werewolf pack was clustered in quietly gossiping groups, glancing around furtively and pausing when the men came too close. A few of the men of the werewolf pack were looking equally bewildered and throwing anxious glances around as they tried to get into the spirit of the evening. Lady Freydis, her face like thunder, was having a low-voiced discussion with Martin.

“What is going on?” Darren asked Steve quietly. “Is it safe?”

Steve looked around. “I have no idea.” He took a sip of his tonic water. “I think it has to be mainly safe. Ian would never allow Jeanette, Adele or Jasmine here if it wasn’t.”

Jeanette, Adele and Jasmine were huddled with Mrs Tuesday, Fiona and Elaine, all of them shooting anxious glances at Ian. Darren started to feel worried. “I don’t know about dangerous, but I think it’s going to be a pain in the neck.”

Ian looked like he was describing a car route to Kieran. Steve noted the expressive hands pointing left and right and the completely neutral expression as Kieran listened with carefully constructed interest. “It’s the werewolves. There’s something happening in the werewolves.”

Darren took a deep breath. “Great. Jasmine is finally feeling secure. I don’t want anything to upset her.” He frowned at his mineral water.

“I don’t think she will be upset.” Jack lounged up behind him, his eyes gleaming with mischief. “Lady Freydis is furious, Ian and Kieran are working out how to hide how thrilled they are and all the women will be worried that the men will be difficult.” Jack looked at Steve and Darren’s blank expressions. “Jeanette is in an interesting condition.”

“What, is she ill?” Darren looked at Jeanette who was looking pale and sitting on one of the comfortable wooden benches strewn around the clearing.

“She’s expecting – she is pregnant.” Jack grabbed a cup of spiced elderberry wine from one of the brownies circulating. “And everything is suddenly complicated. You see, the head of a pack decides who gets to have children, and transgressors are severely punished. Ian is the head of a sub-pack and Kieran has to be fine with it. He is, of course. He’s very proud of the work Ian has been doing and they have worked together extremely well, though they don’t admit it. All the ladies are having fits about what Ian will say and Lady Freydis is fuming.” Jack sighed happily. “She is failing to have the happy Easter joint wedding that she desires, and Fiona is being firm about having another ceremony.”

Steve looked at Darren. “Is the pregnancy a problem?”

Darren shook his head. “I once married someone who was in active labour. It wasn’t ideal, but I believed that they truly loved each other and were committed to each other for their lifetimes. That’s my line.” He grimaced. “I’m not keen on marrying divorcees. Lots are divorced for good reasons and there is every reason to think that they will make it, but the divorce rate for second marriages isn’t good and I worry.” He took another mouthful of drink. “But who am I to refuse to bless the marriage? Won’t it be better with God? I never know what to say.”

“And Ian was married before.” Steve said.

Darren nodded. “The divorce wasn’t anything to do with the marriage. It’s just that he summoned a demon and the pack kicked him out and insisted that he divorce his wife. I believe she has remarried.”

Jack looked impressed. “I didn’t think Ian had it in him to summon a demon. My respect for him has grown.”

Darren ignored him. “Ian was uncomfortable with a church ceremony anyway. His faith is important to him. I don’t doubt his commitment to Jeanette, he’ll never leave her, and I don’t doubt her commitment to him. But I think both Ian and me would prefer a quick civil ceremony and a blessing. I’d feel privileged to bless their marriage.” He looked over at Jeanette who was sitting miserably in the centre of a knot of anxious women. “And to be fair to Jeanette, I don’t think she was keen on the big wedding either.”

Jack looked at Jeanette. “They will be happy together.” For a moment he looked slightly wistful before grinning in mischief. “And Adele will have a fancy wedding, just as her mother demands.”

“I don’t get to do many weddings.” Darren said. “I’ve done more than my share of funerals, and a few baptisms, sometimes in unusual situations, but I don’t seem to get many big weddings. And after listening to Adele’s mother for five minutes, I’m grateful.”

“That bad?” Steve asked.

“She got upset when I wouldn’t put glitter on the altar.” Darren said. “As in, literally stick glitter to the literal wood of the alter. The woman is insane.”

“Hang on.” Jack said, standing straighter. “Things are becoming interesting.”

A sudden chill shot through the air, and every elfen stood bolt upright. Steve swore. Darren looked around. “What’s happening?”

“Someone wants to make an entrance.” Steve said.

Lady Freydis jumped to her feet as a sudden curtain of snowflakes drifted across the clearing, hissing gently on the roasting pigs. “How dare you!” she snapped. The snowflakes shifted into golden ash leaves which the brownies hastily brushed away from the food.

A huge figure strode out of the shadows, a man wearing a crimson tunic with dark breeches and a long fur cloak, followed by a dozen men, all dressed much the same. He looked like some Viking, towering over Lady Freydis and almost as broad as he was tall with flowing red hair braided back and a thick, red beard. “I have come to claim my bride.”

“And who may that be, Eorl Brand?” Ice dripped from Lady Freydis’ words.

“Do not play games with me.” Eorl Brand strode closer to the fire. “You may be a fine lady, but you understand the levers of power. You need a strong lord in York, and I do not hear of any strong men in your court.”

There was a slight movement and then Lady Freydis was surrounded by stern looking subjects. Kadogan and Atherton were on either side of her and Martin and Jack loomed either side. Suddenly Ian and Kieran were no longer looking neutral but instead were taking up a flank while Steve and the senior boggarts were ranged on the other side. Lady Freydis smiled coldly. “I have plenty of strength in my court, and plenty of subtlety. And better courtesy than to walk into another’s domain and shift the weather. How dare you? And how are you going to make amends?”

“My bride should have come to me already.” Eorl Brand said. “I have ruled Nidderdale on your border for centuries. Now is a time for to unite.”

Love Hearts

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Callum, in full fur, shot into the White Hart, yelping frantically, following by – Fiona blinked – dozens of flying, sparkling hearts about the size of her hand. They were twinkling and sparks were falling everywhere as Callum ran frantically around the athame display case.

“We’re about to open!” Adele yelled. “We can’t have this mess.”

Mrs Tuesday couldn’t stop laughing. “Callum, stand still, they won’t hurt you.”

Fiona picked up a sheaf of flyers and started wafting helplessly at the hearts. Dozens of them were in the shop now, and the scent of roses was becoming intense. “What the hell is this?”

Mrs Tuesday was holding onto the counter, crying with laughter. “Love letter.” She gasped out.

“I bet it was addressed to Lady Freydis.” Adele said.

There was an indignant ‘Woof’ from Callum as he skidded around the corner of the athame display case and headed towards the herbs.

“Well I didn’t think you would open something not addressed to the White Hart, but that’s what it looked like.” Adele said.

“Annexe.” Mrs Tuesday managed to gasp out, wiping tears of laughter from her face.

“But Lady Freydis isn’t here.” Fiona said. “She’s setting up the feast for tonight.” She looked around. Not all of the hearts were chasing Callum. Some were nestling together in the corner of the room, shedding crimson sparks that thankfully disappeared before they landed on anything. Others were perching on the edges of the bookcases and one or two were hanging on the light fittings and casting unusual shadows. “Let’s get them into the annexe. We can’t leave them out here.”

Jasmine came in from the back room. “What’s been happening in the back room? It looks like there’s been a fight,” she said, taking off her jacket and shaking out her apron. She looked around and stopped dead, staring. “These are terrifying!”

Mrs Tuesday had nearly got control of herself, but this set her off again. “Get them into the annexe.” She wheezed.

“I’m not going near any of them.” Jasmine said, her eyes wide. “They smell weird.”

Callum was backed into a corner by the herbs, his ears flat and his tail tucked between his legs. Adele ran over. “I’ll get this.” She started swatting the hearts away, although they kept dancing around as near as they could.

Fiona whistled for Armani. He flapped slowly downstairs and then lurched in mid-air, before landing on Fiona’s shoulder. “Bloody hell, miss, who sent that lot?”

“Help us get them into the annexe – gently!” Fiona said. “Jasmine, stay in clothes. They aren’t going to hurt you.”

“Are you sure about that.” Jasmine was almost frozen, her back pressed against the big fridge behind the counter. Mrs Tuesday lost her grip on the counter and slid onto the floor in near hysterics.

It took some time to get the flapping hearts into the annexe, where they settled around the room, humming gently. “What are we supposed to do?” Fiona snapped as Mrs Tuesday, still sniggering, started to switch on the grills. “We should have opened five minutes ago.”

“It’s all non-normals.” Adele peeked under the blinds. “And I think someone wanted an audience.”

Callum got out of fur. “The box was clearly addressed to the White Hart. I heard some movement and I double checked. I don’t make the same mistake twice.” He glared at Armani.

“The kitten was fine.” Armani hunched down even further.

Adele unlocked the door as Fiona wafted the last heart into the annexe. A few of the customers gave Callum interested looks, but most were used to naked werewolves and were more interested in the hearts who were grouping together mid-air to form the shape of a rose. Callum and Jasmine huddled together as the humming became more tuneful and the hearts were singing, “To lovely Lady Freydis… to lovely Lady Freydis… from loyal Jack… from loyal Jack…” With so many gathering at the White Hart for gossip, at least twenty non-normals heard the gentle notes sung by the hearts who then sighed and dissolved into a fine, rose scented powder scattered across the tables and chairs. Jack strolled in a second later, bowing a graceful acceptance to the round of applause from the audience.

“That box was addressed to the White Hart.” Callum snarled at Jack.

“I know.” Jack grinned wickedly, looking around the room.

“You should have at least put Lady Freydis’ name on the parcel.” Callum said, giving Jasmine’s hand a brotherly squeeze as she slowly started to relax.

“But Lady Freydis wasn’t the intended audience.” Jack said. “These were.” He nodded to the non-normals queuing for their drinks and chattering excitedly. “Don’t you think you ought to put some clothes on?”

Callum glared at him and stormed into the back room, Jasmine following him.

Fiona looked at the mess over the floor. “The brownies are going to really hate us.”

Fiona checked herself again in the mirror. She had no idea what to wear for a Halloween event in an elfen domain. It hadn’t been agreed what to call the event, either. Some were calling it Halloween, others calling it Samhain and one or two were calling it a pain in the neck. Lady Freydis had mentioned that the evening may be chilly so Fiona was wearing a long, black velvet skirt and matching jacket with a dark grey silk blouse and had a large woollen wrap over it all. It looked sombre.

“You look very pretty, miss.” Armani said, from his perch on the mantelpiece.

“Thank you,” Fiona said, aware that a fashion compliment from an imp with dirty jeans and a ragged t-shirt wasn’t exactly an award, but it was the best that she was likely to get. She looked around as Steve walked in. “What happened to your face?!”

“There were some minor issues.” Steve glanced in the mirror and winced. A livid red mark ran up his neck and splashed onto his cheek. “But we managed to hack the enchantment. All the skeletal hands now look like cats.” He shuddered. “But I don’t want to go through that again.” He glanced at the clock. “I’ll get a quick shower. I won’t be long.” He paused. “I nearly forgot. This is Mercator and he’ll be on duty when we move to the new house.”

He placed a large box on the table and rushed into the bathroom. Armani flapped down. “Is this what I think it is, boss? For me?”

“No, it’s a member of the household.” Steve yelled through the bathroom door. “Be nice!”

Armani slowly lifted up the flaps of the box and then grinned from ear to ugly ear. “Hello, Mercator. I’m Armani.”

What appeared to be a large ginger tom hopped gracefully out of the box and onto the floor. It gave Armani a look of utter disdain and started washing his face. Fiona bent down and tickled him behind his ear.

“You’re actually a hand, aren’t you?” Mercator looked at her carefully, then rubbed his chin against her hand before going back to his wash. Armani was almost vibrating.

“It’s a cat! I’ve got a kitty!”

“It’s a skeleton hand disguised as a cat that’s going to work with all of us in the new house.” Fiona knew she was talking to empty air. “But why don’t you see if you can cuddle it.”

Armani took a deep, wheezy breath and flapped slowly down to land next to Mercator. Mercator stopped washing and stared deeply into the imp’s dark eyes. There was a long, anxious moment and Fiona held her breath as the sound of Steve’s shower seemed to echo through the house. Then Mercator leaned forward and gently touched his nose to Armani’s nose before flopping down in front of Armani in a blatant invitation to a cuddle.

Armani swallowed before gently scratching Mercator’s head, a tear slowly trickling down his face. “I’ve got a kitty.”

Helping Hand

Photo by Sašo Tušar on Unsplash

Martin found Lady Freydis deep in her fairy domain, sitting at the foot of a huge oak, leaning back, her arms clasped around her legs. Stars wheeled above the clearing which was filled with oddly shaped stones and tree stumps. Martin sat down next to her.

“This is where Ragnar’s funeral feast was held, isn’t it?”

Lady Freydis looked around. “It’s where you declared me Prince. So many people were watching to see what I would say, whether anyone dared make a move against me, whether they could seize the moment. But you stood with me, you and those from the White Hart. I felt I had a shield wall for me.”

“You looked so beautiful.” Martin said. “I remembered how you stood strong during the attack on Lord Ragnar and his halls. I wonder how many people knew how much you had done all these years. Lord Ragnar was lucky.”

Lady Freydis hugged her knees tighter. “I have thought so much about it, how I loved him and he loved me, but we didn’t know and what if we had?”

Martin slid an arm around her and Lady Freydis snuggled close to him. He smiled sadly. “The saddest words in the world are, ‘it might have been’.” His free hand closed over hers. “It’s from a poem I read a long time ago. It’s very true.”

“I wonder if we really loved each other, or loved the idea of each other?” Lady Freydis moved closer. “Whether we really knew each other. Lord Ragnar hated that I could work with the fairy worlds.”

“Deep down, he was a great warrior and a good man.” Martin said. “He is gone and it leaves a shadow. But this is now. You have a wedding to plan.” He looked down at her. “You’re not planning on having the wedding in the same place as Lord Ragnar’s funeral, are you?”

Lady Freydis laughed. “That would be quite the insult to my husband, whoever he is. No, I will find somewhere else. I’m practising with the Samhain feast next week. I’ve shaped some halls and I’m planning wonderful decorations. It should be splendid. Everyone is invited.”

“It should be interesting. I shall enjoy watching all your suitors.” Martin relaxed against the tree.

“I know who I’m going to pick.” Lady Freydis said. “I’m just not saying anything until Easter, so I can have more fun.”

“What if he says ‘no’?” Martin said, dropping a kiss on the top of his head.

Lady Freydis relaxed and snuggled closer. “I’ll have to find a way to change his mind.”

Amani flapped awkwardly through the shop, swaying and lurching in the air as the tabby cat he was clutching fought to escape. Elaine watched as the cat defied all natural laws, nearly turned itself inside out, spat, swore and caught Armani with a swipe that scratched across his cheek and over his ragged and pointed ear before twisting free and dropping. It shot into the back room.

Elaine turned to Dave. “Do cats like werewolves?”

Dave shrugged. “I suppose we can wait and see.”

There was another indignant howl and the cat shot back out, across the floor, ran up the bookcase, freaked as the books it had dislodged clattered to the floor and started to race around the herbs. Elaine rushed over to the door and opened it. The tabby saw its chance, ran across a display of china fairies, and out through the door. Elaine leaned forward to the small knot of non-normals waiting outside. “We’ll be open in around ten minutes.” Before she could shut the door, however, Jack raced in followed by four skeletal hands.

“I said I was sorry.” He yelled as he raced towards the back room. “Lady Freydis, aid me!”

Adele stopped sweeping up the fragments of the china fairies and watched with interest as Jack raced around the herb racks, the hands in hot pursuit. “Lady Freydis isn’t here, something to do with the Samhain feast.” She watched Jack vault over the case with the athames. “I like working here. It’s a lot more interesting than the sandwich shop.”

Jack skidded into the café area where a fifth hand tripped him. He landed with a bone shuddering thud. “I’m sorry! What more can I say?”

The nearest hand jumped on Jack’s chest, wagging a finger.

“I know! It’s not my fault.” Jack said. “I can’t help what people say.”

The hand bounced.

“No, I can’t do that! I’d get into trouble.”

The hand bounced again.

“That is quite unfair. I don’t get into that sort of trouble. I get into interesting trouble.” Jack pushed himself up into a sitting position but the hand clung to the front of his shirt. “I would thank you for not repeating that.”

Callum stormed out of the back room and glared at Jack. “Did you just send a cat down into the back room?”

“I am getting falsely accused of so many crimes.” Jack said, gently disentangling the hand and setting it softly on his shoulder. “The cat had nothing to do with me.”

“Cats do not like werewolves unless they grew up with them.” Callum said. “It’s cruel to send a cat towards werewolves, and I can’t stand cruelty.”

“It wasn’t me.” Jack said, getting slowly to his feet. “I have my own issues.”

The hand tugged on his shirt collar.

“But what am I supposed to say? People are so unreasonable.”

“It was Armani.” Elaine said. “He still wants a pet cat.”

Callum stared. “But he’s an imp. Cats freak out at imps.”

Adele smiled at Callum, her heart in her eyes, before remembering about the broken china. “Armani is just being awkward.”

“Hang on,” Dave looked at Elaine. “When that Leanne creature was impersonating you, she suggested making a glamour part of the magic of the hands.” He looked at the bony hand on Jack’s shoulder. “That could solve a lot of problems.”

Jack looked at the hand. “I don’t know if that’s possible.” He said doubtfully. “I remember these creatures being created and it was a complex magic.”

“What’s that?” Steve came out of the back room. “Armani, you’re bleeding on the floor. You have to leave cats alone.”

Armani huddled down and took the tissue Elaine held out to him. “Sorry boss. I just want a kitty.”

“Why?” Elaine asked.

Armani huddled lower. “It just feels right, miss.”

“You’re not going to eat it, are you?” Elaine asked.

Armani looked offended. “Not at all, miss. I just want a little companionship in my humdrum life.”

Steve looked at Jack. “Did you teach him that?” Jack shrugged.

Dave looked at the hands jumping up and down and tugging at Jack’s jeans. “The hands seem keen on the idea, and Armani could have a sort of kitty. Everyone would be happy.”

Steve frowned. “That’s a tricky ask.” He looked at Jack. “Did you create these?”

Jack shook his head. “An incredibly talented sorcerer was overrun by mice and I believe he got drunk. The magic is quite…”

Steve pulled a magnifying glass from his pocket and muttered a few words before pointing it at the hands, who jumped up and down and made rude gestures. “Hang on.” Steve said. “If you want the magic to show you as cats, you have to let people look at the magic.”

“They got out of control last time, but no-one could deal with the magic.” Jack said. “I believe they were buried under the floor of the paladin’s kitchen, in their old lair. What happened to it, by the way?”

“It blew up.” Steve said, peering through the magnifying glass. “The magic is a mess. There are connections all over.”

“There is no need to be smug about it.” Jack said to the hands. “It just complicates things.”

Adele wandered over to Callum and gave him a brief hug before interrupting Jack and Steve. “We’re about to open the shop. Can you take this to the back room?”

The hands shot across the floor into the back room, followed by Armani, slowly flapping and holding a tissue to his battered face. Elaine shook her head and then smiled.

“You are absolutely right, Adele. This is a lot better than working in a sandwich shop.”

I will be winding down the White Hart and ending this series soon. There are three main reasons. The most important is that it is interfering with writing other stuff within this setting. I have around three novels in the pipeline and I keep having to jiggle things around to keep things consistent with the White Hart. This is a nuisance, and is slowing things down. The second reason is that I am running out of good stories to tell here. There are still stories, and I may post occasional pieces over on ‘Always Another Chapter’ but I am worried about keeping up any sort of quality. I sometimes I look back and because I am always scrambling to publish weekly, I don’t always give the White Hart the care and love it should have. I feel like I let readers down. And don’t pretend you haven’t spotted spelling mistakes – I am mortified sometimes! The third reason is that it is taking time away from me writing other stuff that I could get paid for. If I hit a block with the White Hart, I end up spending my energy trying to work around it instead of shaking things up, because I want to aim for a Friday deadline.

This blog site is coming up for renewal in the next few months. Depending on how things are, I may not renew this site but instead find another way to make the content on here available without charge. I have had so much wonderful support on here, for which I am incredibly grateful, and I am not going to forget that. You are all awesome. Thank you!