At the Reception

Fiona stayed very close to Steve.  She did not trust the faerie realm and, as she looked around, she wasn’t the only one.  Lord Ragnar’s Great Hall was uncomfortably full of uneasy knots of people.  Kieran’s pack of werewolves were grouped by a one of the vast fireplaces, the women chatting with forced smiles and the men watchful.  Miss Patience and her vampires were huddled together in one of the darker corners, silent and staring, although Martin and Dean were staying close to the group from the White Hart.  Ian and Callum were keeping Jeanette, Adele and Jasmine close to the centre of the group from the White Hart while keeping an eye on the rest of the hall.  A group of goblins were hunched over a furtive card game while the few brownies who were not involved in preparing the feast were in a tense group near the door.  Gavin Browne was managing a stilted conversation about growing ginger in Yorkshire with Mr Shah, a jinn who owned an accounting firm just outside Boston Spa.

Fiona slipped her hand into Steve’s.  “Everyone looks so on edge.” She said quietly.

Steve nodded.  He could feel Armani shifting restlessly in his pocket.  Armani had strict instructions to stay in the pocket unless there was serious trouble, with a promise of brandy for good behaviour.  “I have no idea what is going to happen, but whatever happens, stay close to me.”

Fiona nodded.  There was a brittle quality to the air.  Lord Ragnar had not yet arrived, but plenty of elfen were mingling.  Freydis looked resplendent in her blue ballgown, but many of the other elfen were wearing black.  Others were wearing suits or gowns in dark crimson or dark bottle green velvet.

Egerton approached and bowed low to Freydis.  “My most beautiful Freydis, you look divine.  Something must have given me the hint that you would reject your usual, everyday and mundane pink.  Today our thoughts ran parallel.” He ran a hand over his dark royal blue velvet suit.  “I hope we will be able to dance tonight.”

Freydis curtsied politely.  “I am sure we will both dance with a great many people tonight, Egerton.  I am looking forward to the dancing a great deal, and you have always been a graceful dancer.”

“Your compliment flatters me.” Egerton smiled.  “Excuse me, I must greet Kieran Latimer, but I hope we can talk much later.”

Fiona was surprised at the glint of hunger in Egerton’s eyes as well as cold calculation as he caught Freydis’ hand for a stylised kiss.  She turned to Steve and caught his flash of concern before Kadogan finally appeared and stood watchfully at Freydis’ shoulder.  Egerton seemed to find this amusing as he inclined his head to Kadogan and turned to towards the York pack.

Kadogan grasped Freydis’ elbow.  “Were you flirting with him?”

“No, he was flirting with me.” Freydis said, smoothly pulling her arm away.  “He merely desires power and thinks that he may obtain that by seducing me.”

Fiona took a deep breath.  “I don’t like to say anything, but I think he actually likes you as well.  I mean, I think he’s after you more than the power.”

Freydis looked baffled.  “But everyone knows that I would only consider Lord Ragnar.”

“You slept with Rey Baxter.” Kadogan said.  “Amongst many, many others.  Also, you are a single woman.  You may dally with whoever you choose.  Even an elfen.”

“I do not choose anyone.” Freydis said.  For a moment the gleam of her glorious hair dimmed before she shook it back and looked provocatively at Kadogan.  “Or does Suzuki have to fear from me?”

“Suzuki and I have an understanding.” Kadogan said.  “And I would never get between my prince and his desire.”

“If your prince desires me, then he should act.” Freydis shrugged.  “I shall enjoy the dancing.  Do you not think all the ladies of the White Hart look beautiful?”

Kadogan looked over the group.  Adele looked uncomfortable in a flowing pink maxi dress with a matching shawl.  Jeanette was wearing a long, sweeping cotton skirt with a matching violet jacket over a black silk shirt.  Fiona looked cool and refreshing in a cream linen trouser suit with a pale pink top, her hair gleaming and opal earrings glimmering in the bright candlelight.  Together with Jasmine’s sharp, dark trouser suit and Mrs Tuesday’s sweeping pink cocktail dress with the sequinned jacket, they made an elegant group.  He sighed.  “The White Hart has the most beautiful ladies in the room.”

The double doors at the end of the hall swept open and Lord Ragnar strode in.  Steve and Fiona exchanged worried glances.  This was the time of year when elfen normally wore bright colours.  Lord Ragnar was completely in black, with a black silk suit and a black silk shirt, slim and poised, with a silver circlet in his russet hair.

“Welcome, guests, all.  Eat and drink freely, without fear or obligation.  Let us celebrate!” Lord Ragnar spun around and stalked back into the hall.

Everyone trailed awkwardly after him.  Steve slipped an arm around Fiona’s shoulders and pulled her close to him, tapping his pocket with his free hand.  Armani squirmed and wriggled out of Steve’s pocket and flapped up to perch on his shoulder.  The ugly imp looked around and hunched down on Steve’s shoulder, watchful and wary.

Fiona could see others around the room bunching together.  Kieran’s pack were moving in a protective group, clearly keeping the younger and older members in the centre.  The boggarts and goblins were slightly more spread out, enough to easily swing a punch but close enough to help each other out.  Miss Patience led the vampires, moving with an eerie synchronicity as they headed towards the head of the table.  Fiona found herself guided into the centre of the group from the White Hart as Steve’s hand on the small of her back gently pushed her next to Jeanette and Adele as Steve took up his place in the outside of the group.  Jasmine and Mrs Tuesday were also on the inside while Ian, Callum, Evan and Dave spaced themselves around the ladies alongside Steve.  Fiona looked around to see where Freydis would station herself.

Freydis walked forward, almost in a trance.  All colour had drained from her exquisite face and her eyes were much larger and darker than usual.  She stared at the tables, piled high with roast pork, hams, chestnuts, rich fruit cakes and spicy apple pies.  She stared at the jugs of mulled wine and the sprays of ivy trailing over the table.  Freydis was almost shrinking in to herself as she looked around the huge, faerie hall, hung with branches of fir and pine, twined with ivy and silver ribbons.  Fir trees were ranged along the walls, hung with garlands of berries and casting dark shadows away from the scarlet candles.  Frost glinted on the high arched stone roof.

Martin gently pushed Dean towards Ian and then went to stand at her shoulder.  “Lord Ragnar, my Prince, I owe you honour and counsel.  My Prince, this is wrong.” Martin waved at the heaped tables.  “This is a winter feast.  It is summer outside.  It is a time for strawberries, not apples.”

Lord Ragnar stopped at the head of the table and turned slowly.  “Do you dare to challenge me?”

“Lord Ragnar, my Prince, I dare to counsel you.” Martin stepped forward.  “You are wearing black at midsummer.  The realm is out of joint.”  Martin scrabbled for the right words as he looked at Lord Ragnar’s rigid face.  “Let us show you that we are grateful for your hospitality and let us fix the realm.” Martin looked around.  “Freydis would help put things right, as would Lord Marius and Lord Lothar.” He looked towards the two great elfen lords, apparently relaxed at one side in light coloured suits, their eyes watchful.  “Lord Ragnar, you have a great court and many here are skilled and powerful.  Please, allow us to aid our Prince.”

Lord Ragnar looked around his hall as if seeing it for the first time.  He shook his head and then stared at the dozens of guests waiting for him to speak.  He took a deep breath and opened his mouth.  For a moment no sound came out then, with effort, Lord Ragnar said, “I am the prince of this domain and I will mend it.” His voice creaked and cracked and he pulled himself to his full height, stretching his arms wide.  “My realm will obey me!”

Steve clapped his hands to his ears and bent double.  Around him all the elfen were doing the same, clutching their heads and struggling to stand.  Lord Marius and Lord Lothar were thrown by some unseen force against the walls and pinned there, their faces contorted as they tried to shield themselves from something that only those with elfen blood could feel.  Freydis was clutching Martin’s arm and standing upright with effort, her eyes wide with fear.  Lord Ragnar threw back his head and howled.  “I am the Prince!” With a sweep of his hands he gathered a darkness between them.

“Ragnar, don’t! Don’t go that way!” Freydis was struggling to walk, pushing herself towards her ex-husband.  “You don’t understand…” She stumbled and Martin caught her just in time.  Lord Ragnar ignored her and sank his fingers deep into the darkness and then pulled, tearing the dark shadow apart.

Even Fiona felt it, a great, screeching, wail that echoed around the hall.  She clung on to Steve as he buckled against her and looked around.  Freydis had collapsed, as had most of the elfen.  Kadogan was on his hands and knees, trying to crawl towards Lord Ragnar who seemed pinned in the air.  Some of the werewolves had gone to fur, shedding their finery and braced, snarling, for whatever happened next.  Most of the boggarts had dropped their glamour, including Mrs Tuesday who had a long, greying, hairy arm around Adele who was shivering as she cowered.

Then the noise stopped and an absolute silence fell.  Fiona clung on to Steve as he picked Armani up from the floor with a shaking hand and straightened.  The imp stirred and scrambled on to Steve’s shoulder where it clung, trembling.  Freydis scrambled to her feet, the ballgown now splitting and wreathing into jeans and a shirt and her hair twisted itself into a loose knot.  She marched up to Lord Ragnar who was immobile at the head of the table and slapped his face, hard.  The sound of the slap rang around the silent hall and Lord Ragnar rocked back, a scarlet handprint vivid on his face.

“You idiot!” Freydis snapped.  She spun around.  “Lord Marius, Lord Lothar – please aid us!”  The two elfen lords nodded, still shaken.  Freydis turned to Kieran.  “Kieran Latimer, these halls need to be evacuated.  Get everyone out, quick as you like.  Martin, you need to get those vampires out of here before they break.  Kadogan, we need to build power – start a circle.  Steve Adderson, we need you here.  Atherton will get Fiona safely out.  Atherton, get the White Hart out!”

Lord Ragnar raised a shaking hand to his face.  “I am the Prince here.”

Freydis spun back to face him, her finger jabbing at him.  “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare try and defend what you have just done!  The whole place is splitting.  Pull yourself together and get the swords issued.  You’re our prince – act like it!”

Fiona hung on to Steve for a moment, but he nodded and pulled away.  “It’s okay.  I’ll be fine as long as you get safely out of here.  Atherton will look after you.  Now, go – quickly!”

Ian was already keeping the people from the White Hart in a tight group.  Adele clung on to Mrs Tuesday and Evan kept his arm loosely around Jeanette as they turned back towards the doors.  Fiona shivered as cold spiked through her and the floor became slippery with ice.  Suddenly the double doors that had been only a few steps behind them seemed to recede and icy floor stretched in front of them.

“Kadogan, I need that circle going.” Freydis said.  “Lord Marius, if you could take the star side channel, I would be most grateful.”

“I search for it now.” Lord Marius said from between clenched teeth as he struggled with the elfen magic.

“Steve Adderson, please pull the doors back for people to get out.” Freydis said.  “Lord Lothar, your assistance if you would be so kind.”

Fiona glanced back.  Freydis was surrounded by a tangle of magic, with swirls of coloured traces dancing around her.  Twining around the strands of light were threads of darkness and Freydis was struggling with a thick tangle of dark as she tried to pull it away from a vivid, floating layer of green.  Steve was struggling to control a golden glow around his hand.  Lord Marius was surrounded by silver sparkles as he gestured and pulled the glints towards him.  The ice on the floor disappeared.

“We need to leave.” Atherton said, grasping Fiona’s elbow.  “We need to move with swiftness.”

“Dammit, Ragnar, what have you done?” Freydis started swearing as dark threads tried to run up her arm.  She shook them off but it left ripples in the colours around her and a bell started tolling.

“I think you have it as controlled as maybe.” Lord Lothar was also pulling at the darker threads.  “If we can keep the balance…”

“I am the prince here.” Lord Ragnar said. “This is my fight.”

“Take up your sword.” Freydis said.  “Kieran, why are people still here?”

“The doors will not move.” Kieran said, ushering a brownie closer to the centre of the group.  “Ian Tait is trying to unseal them with magic.”

“Steve, what is happening?” Freydis glanced briefly away from the knots of dark and colour in front of her and swore as a strand of the dark snapped across her cheek, leaving a bloody mark.

“Lord Ragnar, you have to let us leave.” Steve said.  He was getting control of the golden glow now, and the distance between the people and the door was shrinking.  “We all recognise you as prince, but people will die if they do not get out.”

“I am still Prince.” Lord Ragnar groaned.  He staggered towards Freydis.  “What are you doing?”

“I’m putting things right.  Ragnar, let the people out.” Freydis glanced briefly up again.  “It’s getting out of hand.”

Lord Ragnar reached through the dark and coloured swirls and pulled Freydis around to face him.  The balance she had been holding broke and she screamed as she flew across the room and crashed into a wall.  Jasmine and Mrs Tuesday instinctively darted towards her but shadows erupted from the floor, tendrils reaching out to snare them.

“Everyone, head towards Lord Ragnar!” Kieran shouted out.  “Ian, forget the door.  Get back here.”

Martin helped Freydis to her feet.  She clung to his arm, swaying, as she tried to get her bearings.  “To the Prince!” Martin called.  “Everyone rally to the Prince.”

Fiona grabbed Jeanette and Adele but the shadows in front of Freydis were not the only ones.  A stinging strand whipped across Adele’s back, ripping her shawl and drawing blood.  “Steve, what’s happening?”

“It’s hard to describe.” Steve was struggling as golden light bucked and fought around his hands.  “Stay away from the shadows.”

All around the hall shadows were springing away from the corners and rising from the floor, becoming almost solid and malevolent.  “Watch out!” Jasmine pulled Jeanette out of the way as a shadow snapped a tendril at her.  The edge slapped across Jeanette’s face and cut a nasty mark across her cheek and chin.

“Everyone together!” Kieran yelled.  He swung at the shadow nearest him.  It seemed to give a little and was diminished but it didn’t fall back.  “Ian, get the doors open.  Kai and Morgan, keep him safe while he works.”

Freydis had scrambled to her feet with less than her usual grace.  “Steve Adderson, keep the hall stable.  Ragnar, I swear by root and leaf if you try something like that again I will sulk.  Kadogan, I need that power.”

Kadogan was forming a circle with half a dozen of the elfen and he was starting to dance.  It wasn’t the usual, graceful circle of dancing elfen.  They were stumbling and slow, pushing against some strange resistance.  Mrs Tuesday darted towards the laden table, dodging the grasping shadows, and grabbed a tureen of roast potatoes.  She emptied it onto the table and tossed the silver tureen to Evan.  “Get a rhythm going.”

“Which one, Auntie Jane?” Evan was pale, holding a greasy tureen and looking around at the chaotic scene.

“What was the last song you heard on the radio?” Mrs Tuesday swung wide as Adele was knocked off her feet.  The shadows burst and scattered.

“We need to clear the centre.” Kieran kicked through a shadow that dissolved into shards.  “Martha, get a space cleared.”

Martin was standing sentry over Freydis as once again she pulled the strands of magic around her.  “Kieran, can you move towards the elfen?  Get us all in here?”

Evan was tapping out a fast rock beat on the upturned tureen.  Kadogan and the dancers were slowly picking up the pace.  There seemed to be less resistance.  Kieran glanced over.  “I can’t protect the dancers.”  He ducked and swung hard at another shadow, clearing some room around a badly bleeding brownie.  “Ian, get back here.  We need your magic.”

“No!” Freydis didn’t look around but kept focused on pulling a strand of blue.  “We need the doors open.”

Evan was bleeding now from a cut above his eye, but Mrs Tuesday and Jasmine were standing guard over him and the dancers were picking up speed, their movements becoming more fluid.  Mr Shah had dropped his physical form and his booming voice rang out.  “I can protect the dancers, but everyone stay low!”

Fiona clung to Adele as they crouched inside what was becoming a defensive ring.  Martha had cleared a space with the rest of the werewolf women and was bandaging up some of the worst injuries, with clothes shed by the werewolves being ripped up for the makeshift first aid.  Fiona’s trouser suit was stained with blood, some from the goblin she had pulled back from a dark tendril and some from the gash on her leg that was still stinging.  Armani was weaving low over the heads of the crowd, sparks flying from his claws.  He glanced over at Mr Shah and started weaving lower.

A wind whipped around the dancers, ruffling their hair as the shadows were pushed back.  Steve breathed a little easier as magic started to flow around the room.  Lord Ragnar was no longer standing shocked but was now side by side with Miss Patience.  His heart sank.  The amorphous shapes and tendrils were coalescing into more substantial forms – the shapes of the revenants that had been plaguing York.

“Ian, how are those doors?” Steve yelled above the growing howl of Mr Shah’s winds as Armani struggled into the safety of his pocket.

“I’m getting nowhere.” Ian yelled back.  He flinched as a revenant grabbed at him before Kai could throw him back.

“Lord Ragnar – release the doors.” Steve yelled.  “We need to get the civilians out of here.”

Lord Ragnar glanced back, ducking under a clawed hand.  “I can’t get full control of them.  Try an autumn cadence.”

“Some of us don’t know elfen magic.” Ian muttered through gritted teeth.

Freydis didn’t look up.  “Steve, take over on the doors.  Ian, watch his back.  Dammit!” Another tendril of the dark magic whipped across her and cut a long gash in her arm.  Blood started to seep through her sleeve.

“I’ve got the lead.” Martin yelled.  “Freydis, just keep working on the magic.  Kieran, get ready to evacuate as soon as the doors are open.”

Miss Patience ripped the head off the newly formed revenant in front of her.  “We should all try and fall back.  The realm seems on the point of collapse.” The vampires around her were all fighting with her trademark efficiency and all showing the same lack of emotion.

Martin glanced over at her.  “Is there something you want to share?”

“The great elfen lords are stabilising the realm but it is not guaranteed.  There are many wounded, including my vampires.”

Martin knocked a shard of darkness out of the air before it could reach Freydis who was now wholly immersed in her strange whirl of colours.  “Fall back.  The elfen will be fine, but everyone else back.” He yelled over Mr Shah’s increasing fury.  The jinn was whipping up storm winds and they swirled around the hall.  Leaves and twigs were caught up and the once immaculate tablecloths were billowing.  “I’m keeping station with Freydis.”

“So am I.” Evan kept the staccato beat and edged closer to Martin.  The elfen were dancing faster, surrounded by Mr Shah’s storm but untouched by it.

Steve ran over and laid his hands on the great doors.  He swore.  “It’s midwinter magic.  Everybody stay low, I may have to break them.”

Ian darted forward to pull one of the goblins free from a revenant’s choking grasp.  The goblin struggled as Ian punched the revenant hard before Egerton caught up and ripped the revenant’s head off with a casual ease.  Ian barely had a chance to nod his thanks before the fir branch over his head fell.  Egerton grabbed the goblin but Ian was directly underneath and flat footed.

Jeanette saw it almost in slow motion.  Without thinking she sprinted under the blast of the wind and pushed Ian, hard, getting him out of the way, just in time for the heavy branch to land on her.  Ian fell, sprawling forward, propelled by Jeanette’s shove but he twisted to his feet, rushing back to her.

“There is no time for this!” Steve yelled.  “Kadogan, help me!”

Kadogan picked up the pace.  Golden light cascaded from the dancers to Steve who struggled to bring it under his control.  “It’s midwinter magic, Kadogan, you have to take the summer out of the dance.”

Mr Shah was working hard.  Flagons of mulled wine toppled and heavy pewter plates skidded along the tables as the great wind pushed back against the revenants, but as one fell, two more were forming in the shadows.  “I cannot keep this going all night.” He warned.

Lord Ragnar glanced back.  “Hold one moment, Steve Adderson.  I have this.”

“No!” Martin shouted, but it was too late.  Lord Ragnar snapped out some words of power and there was a crack of thunder.  The revenants surged up, now solid and smooth like smoked glass.  Splinters fell from the roof and the revenant that Dave was punching shattered around his fist.  The hall was filled with splintering glass as blows landed.  The revenants rushed forward in a heaving mass.

Steve looked around desperately.  Ian was in wolf form, standing over the limp body of Jeanette, his hackles raised.  Freydis was almost hidden inside the whirl of colours and dark strands as she pulled the power from Kadogan’s dancers.  Fiona was crouched, holding on to Adele as the battle raged, red and green blood staining her trouser suit.  An embattled ring was surrounding the injured and the weak.  There was fear in Kieran’s eyes and Miss Patience was looking desperate.  Steve placed his palms flat on the doors and concentrated.  He had to get them open.  Shards of glass were flying as Mr Shah did his best to whip the splinters away and into the corners.

Lord Ragnar was fighting hard.  He may not have the abilities of Freydis in the faerie realm but he still had his strength and skill.  The revenants were falling back before him.  He grabbed a revenant around the waist and threw it hard into a stone pillar.  Glass shards flew everywhere and another revenant, with cold blooded calculation, grabbed a shard out of the air and swung hard at the nearest vampire, slicing through the neck and sending the head rolling towards Miss Patience before it crumbled to dust.

Miss Patience spun around.  “Vivienne!  No!” She turned back to Lord Ragnar.  “This is your fault, this is all your fault.  Every sliver of glass in a vein, every scar from the dark energy, it is all your fault!  She caught her breath.  “If I had done this, you would make me pay!” Ignoring the revenants surging towards her she stepped up to Lord Ragnar, pulling strands of dark energy out of the air, instinctively winding them around her hands and then thrusting them forward, forcing them into his stomach and ripping him apart.  There was a heartbeat as Lord Ragnar looked over to Freydis, then he collapsed into a soft heap of dead leaves and woodland floor.

Every head snapped around.  Steve could feel the backlash scything through the magical atmosphere and put everything he could into breaking the doors.  They splintered as Freydis took a deep breath.  Steve started urging people towards the doorway, looking around desperately for Fiona.  The dancers had stopped and Mr Shah was now back in his physical shape, backing towards Steve.  Evan dropped the tureen and the clatter echoed.

Freydis pulled herself to her full height.  The glamour dropped and a small, skinny creature with dark, slanted eyes and wrapped in rags, raised her hands and screamed. Steve recognised the cry and threw himself flat on the floor, along with all the other elfen.  Revenants around the room started to unravel, the glass shards melting into dark smoke that grew paler as it spiralled up past the tattered branches and into the roof.  The splinters on the floor and embedded in the walls and scattered on the tables rose like mist and faded.  Miss Patience took a breath and shook her head frantically as Freydis turned to her.  Strands of grey and black pulled themselves away from Miss Patience, twisting like ribbons in the breeze, as she and her vampires unravelled, fading as the tendrils drifted upwards until there was nothing left.

The hall fell silent.  Steve rushed over to Fiona who was pulling herself to her feet.  All around the hall people were helping each other up and looking for friends and family.  Ian was still standing over Jeanette, licking frantically at her pale and immobile face.  Callum had found Adele and was holding her as if he would never let her go.  Dave was tense, his fists clenching and unclenching as he slowly calmed down.  Mrs Tuesday was patting Evan’s arm.

In the centre of the hall, Freydis had regained her glamour.  Once again she was a tall, elegant blonde in a blue ballgown, slumped to her knees, sobbing silently as shafts of summer sunlight lit the hall.

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