Darren looked over the packed church and felt inadequate. So many of his fellow students in theology college had had the gift of comforting the bereaved. He had been blessed with the gift of fighting monsters. Darren was fine with that most of the time, but sometimes, when faced with such a packed memorial service, he felt the yawning gulf between him and the mourners, and it hurt.
Freydis was sitting motionless at the front, next to Lord Marius, Kadogan and Atherton. She was worryingly pale, and Darren desperately wished he had the right words to say to her as the final hymn finished. He sent up a quick prayer for help to join all the others he had said before and during Lord Ragnar’s memorial and, as the final hymn finished, stepped forward and concentrated on the blessing.
Darren led the procession out of the church and felt the mourners falling in behind him. It took all his courage to keep his face solemn and his composure in place as he felt the wave of grief as he passed the elfen, boggarts, brownies and werewolves that were packing the church. There were even more watching through a screen linked to the church hall. The more important had found places in the church, overfilled and overflowing, but the lesser mourners, those who had been late and those who, for whatever reason, could not venture on to holy ground had not been turned away but gently directed to an equally packed hall. He paused at the doorway to stop and try and find words of comfort for those leaving.
Darren was deeply worried by Freydis. She was elegant and poised, moving with complete control over every movement of her body and every movement was deliberate and planned. She looked like she could shatter like glass. Her sober and modest black dress and unobtrusive veil clearly said that she was not here for drama and it looked like people had respected her wishes so far. She was silent as she shook Darren’s hand, nodding as he offered her his sympathy and an assurance that his door was always open and then moving with curated precision out into the summer rain.
Kadogan was being supported by Suzuki who was holding tight onto his arm and casting frequent and worried glances at his pale and tear stained face. Atherton wasn’t in much better condition. In fact, most of the elfen of the court seemed to genuinely be mourning him. Darren had very limited experience of elfen memorials, but there was often an element of smug relief that there was now a little less competition. Today that was missing. Even Egerton seemed subdued, and he was certainly not tactless enough to look relieved.
Many of the other non-normals were equally subdued. Darren had heard many of Lord Ragnar’s acts of kindness over the last few centuries. He may have got some things wrong, but he had done a lot of quiet good in York, and was already missed.
Sir Ewan shook Darren’s hand. “That was a good service.”
“Thanks.” Darren said. “He will be missed.”
“Yes, he will. I hope his successor can live up to his example.” Sir Ewan sighed, aware that a lot of ears were listening in. “We’ll meet you at the funeral feast.”
“Yes, I have to lead prayers in the hall before I can come down, but I’ll be there.” Darren said.
And that was the other hard, heavy emotion hanging over the memorial service – fear. No-one, not even the oldest elfen, could remember when a Prince last died without there being someone who had killed him to get their power. No-one knew what was going to happen now, but disputes about princedoms were notoriously violent. Darren kept his composure and kept silently praying.
Fiona kept her hand slipped into Steve’s arm. All the group from the White Hart were staying close together. Freydis had, with reluctant permission from Darren, built a temporary pocket of faery realm just outside the lych gate and the vans from the White Hart, judiciously parked, now hid people walking up to an old tree trunk, running their hands down its trunk and then stepping inside. Fiona had never seen anything like it. Outside was a summer’s day, albeit rainy and cold for the time of year, inside was a warm summer’s night. She stepped inside a tree, which was unnerving enough, then she walked down a plain, flagged passage with smooth plastered walls, then through an unassuming smooth wooden door into a forest clearing. The air was warm and the scent of the forest hung in the air. There was a sensation of being in the middle of a vast and empty forest. Stars crowded the sky, undimmed by any streetlight. A great fire burned in the centre of the clearing, the flames dancing high and sparks cracking as the bonfire the size of Fiona’s bedroom cast out a welcome warmth as the cool night breeze rustled the surrounding trees.
Ian helped Jeanette into one of the seats scattered around the clearing. Jeanette was still looking pale and sank into the strangely formed tree stump with some relief. Jasmine was standing nearby with Callum and Adele, ready to help.
Fiona looked up at Steve. “When is the next full moon?”
“Next Thursday.” Steve said, looking around. “Of course, it will be late at this time of year.”
“Will Jeanette be okay?” Fiona asked.
Steve turned from his admiration of the shaped wooden seats and benches scattered around and the huge sandstone slabs that Freydis had caused to surround the clearing to act as great stone tables. “Of course. I don’t think Ian meant to change her when he licked her cut face.” He looked across to where Ian was fussing over Jeanette. “Poor lad feels guilty enough that she got injured instead of him.”
“But she will be okay?” Fiona said.
“Yes, she’ll be fine.” Steve put his arm around Fiona’s shoulders and gave a quick squeeze. “Don’t worry.” He looked around. “I’m more worried about Freydis.”
Freydis was standing at the head of the table. She was keeping her glamour up and her golden hair gleamed in the soft light of the lanterns in the trees, but her motionless poise was unnerving. Fiona’s heart ached in sympathy.
“She’s mended the realm, though, hasn’t she?”
“Yes, she’s done a very thorough job.” Steve looked around. “And this place is a work of art. I wouldn’t be surprised if these trees weren’t favourites of Lord Ragnar. Not all of the flowers are in season.”
“That is indeed true.” Kadogan came up behind them. He was wearing a sharp suit and black shirt with a black tie. He also looked pale and strained. “See, there are Michaelmas daisies which he adored, although I found them ragged and unkempt. They do not usually bloom until much later in the year.” He waved at the stand of pale violet blossoms in one corner. “And Lord Ragnar always looked for the first bloom of celandines when they flowered at the first hint of spring and there is a carpet of them under the oaks. But the honeysuckle and roses he also adored are right for the time. Freydis has honoured him well.”
“How are you feeling?” Fiona asked him quietly.
“With difficulty.” Kadogan hunched over. “It is hard to know that my good friend is silenced.”
It was hard to know what to say to that. Steve looked around. There were a lot of powerful elfen lords present from all over the country and there was a lot of quiet business being done. Steve had spotted Egerton talking discreetly to most of them and he was currently deep in conversation with Lord Wilbur of Hull. All around the room were knots of people talking in low voices. “Come on, we don’t leave Freydis alone.”
“Indeed.” Kadogan said with more strength in his voice than he had shown over the last four days. “She avenged Lord Ragnar’s death. And all know that she is the key to power. She should not be abandoned.”
“I’m happy to walk over there.” Jeanette said. She smiled up at Ian. “I’m a little sore, but not so hurt that I can’t stand by Freydis.”
“If you’re sure.” Ian gently helped Jeanette up. “Yes, I know I’m fussing. But it’s good if we can stand by Freydis.”
“If we don’t, then who will.” Mrs Tuesday shifted her black patent leather handbag onto her shoulder.
The group from the White Hart made their way over to where Freydis stood. Her face was still fixed but her eyes were grateful. It was an odd assortment that joined the nearly-widow at the head of the table. An elderly boggart and her great nephew, a few elfen, werewolves and their partners, a magician and his wife and the only two local vampires left in York. Dean had hung around awkwardly at the edge of the group and drifted with them, Martin joining them and standing close to Freydis. Finally, Dave left Darren and the representatives of the Knights Templar and joined the rest of the White Hart.
Dave approached Freydis with caution. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Freydis managed a smile. “I miss him a great deal.”
Mrs Tuesday nodded. “I know, love. It never goes away, but you deal with it better.”
Freydis nodded. “At times I could feel your grief for your late husband, nearly eighty years after your loss. I shall take you as an inspiration.”
Kadogan frowned. “Not too much. That would terrify the customers.”
A ghost of a smile flickered briefly on Freydis’ face. “Thank you for being here for Lord Ragnar.”
“And you!” Jasmine said quickly. “You are one of us.”
“It is a very odd sensation, to be part of such a close group.” Freydis said. “I wish Lord Ragnar had known it.”
The head of the brownies approached, dithering a little at the edge of the group before pushing past Fiona and bowing to Freydis. “Should we bring the food out now?”
“Yes, thank you, Gavin Brown.” Freydis nodded and took a breath. “I am confident it will be a great feast, such as Lord Ragnar deserved.”
“Indeed it will, miss, indeed it will.” Gavin pulled himself up to his full height. “Nothing has been lacking.”
Freydis watched, mesmerised, as the brownies brought out food and drink with clockwork efficiency. The stone slabs were laid identically. A large hog roast was placed in the centre, with a large carving knife attached to the huge pewter platter by a silver chain. At corners were placed wide trays of chicken legs and bread rolls, surrounded by deep pots of mustard and pickles. At the cardinal points were platters of stand pies, glistening in the light from the fire, already sliced into substantial wedges and surrounded by wheels and truckles of cheese. Like a choreographed dance, the brownies slid smaller plates into the gaps filled with quivering lemon jellies, piled cubes of Turkish delight, pyramids of hard boiled eggs, delicate sand biscuits, fragile wafers, stone creams, trifles, vol-au-vents and after dinner mints.
Other brownies were setting up the drink in between the stone slabs. Barrels of wine, mead and old fashioned ale were hoisted on trestles with aluminium kegs of premium lager, and smaller, wooden kegs of brandy and whiskey stood on wooden benches, surrounded by an incongruous selection of colas and bottled waters. Drinks were already circulating, the brownies skilfully keeping the strong stuff away from the goblins.
When everyone had a drink in their hand, Freydis stepped forward and waved. A clear, bell-like note rang out and raised her goblet. “Lord Ragnar!” She said and hundreds of voices echoed the brief toast. Then Freydis started to sing.
Steve held Fiona close. The songs of the elfen could be dangerous. They could sing the wits out of your head and your heart out of your body. Tonight Freydis was singing goodbye to Lord Ragnar, in an old, old song. It wasn’t the English of Shakespeare or Chaucer. It wasn’t the language used when William the Bastard harried the north. It was older than the Vikings who turned Eorwic to Jorvik, older than the Angles who had renamed Eboracum and older than the Roman invaders who had laid down the stone roads over the Celtic pathways. It was the language of the first people that wandered past the joining of the Ouse and the Fosse rivers and down to where the Ouse met the Trent and became the Humber. It was the language of those who traded amber for jet with those who travelled across the wide, grassy plain that was now under the North Sea. It spoke of loss, and grief and darkness and broke your heart. A tear slipped down Steve’s face as the song finally faded, and silence rang out.
Martin raised his glass. “My princes, lords, ladies and all – kneel to your new Prince – Prince Freydis!”
There was a shocked moment of indrawn breaths and frantically exchanged glances. Steve noticed that Freydis looked briefly as shocked as anyone before she pulled herself up and looked around, defying contradiction.
Steve held up his glass. “To our new Prince!” and he knelt, along with Fiona. With very little hesitation the rest of those who could kneel did so. Dave couldn’t kneel to a non-normal Prince. He was the paladin that was supposed to be the balance to the Prince, completely independent and, if necessary, the main opposition. Instead he bowed, a low, sweeping bow that was echoed by the other Princes and the Knights Templar. As he glanced up, Lady Freydis looked brighter than ever, her gold hair gleaming, her blue eyes shining and an aura of glory around her as she held up her goblet to return the toast. But Steve was close enough to see the panic in Lady Freydis’ eyes behind the confident tilt of her head and she was holding the goblet so tightly that her knuckles gleamed white.
Dave was glad of an excuse to get away from it all. He, along with Darren, the Knights Templar and the rest of the White Hart crowd, had left when the elfen started dancing. It could get crazy when elfen started dancing and he wasn’t sure he wanted to hang around to see which way it went after Martin’s surprise announcement. He supposed it would keep Lady Freydis busy and stop her brooding.
He hefted the package. He could understand why Ian wanted to deliver this as he passed rather than spend the fortune on postage. It felt like books and it was heavy. He jogged up the steps and knocked at the door. It wasn’t the best neighbourhood, but he had been in worse. He knocked again and heard feet pattering down stairs. His eye was caught by a picture propped against the porch window. He frowned. It was the Seal of Solomon. Dave peered closer. It wasn’t activated, though, just a picture. He tilted his head. It looked like it was meant to be in a protective position, but it wasn’t protective at all.
The door opened and Dave looked up at the young woman in her early twenties. She had short, dark hair, a closed expression and was wearing bunny slippers. “Chloe Markham? Some books for you.” He held out the package.
Chloe was staring at him, her eyes wide and colour draining from her face. Then she took a breath and managed a smile. “We have met before. I don’t know if you remember.”
Dave frowned. She looked sort of familiar, and he was pretty good with faces, but he couldn’t quite place her. The package was growing heavy in his outstretched hand. “Are you Chloe Markham?”
Chloe took the books and shook her head. “You don’t remember me, do you? I’m not surprised. You had a lot on your mind at the time. You saved my life when I was attacked by werewolves. Please come in. I have a few questions.”