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.”