Final note: Puritan also wanted artwork to go with it; I found Jae Clevella's work at PhilCon and talked him into doing a piece for this. Fun, huh?
"You think I don't know it?" Tom groaned and downed another half-pint of McEwan's, pouring the ale down his throat with a fine disrespect for the venerable brew. His flame-haired friend smiled wryly, and went up to order another two pints from the pubkeeper. When he returned, Tom reached for the mug, but Michael held it away from him. "Oh no. You don't get this one until you explain to me just how you managed to get Janet Duncan pregnant when you're engaged to marry her cousin Katharine in two months time."
"Ach, you're a hard man, Michael O'Leary."
"Aye, and that's why the ladies love me. So talk, boyo."
"Truth to be told, I have no wish to marry either of them! They're wonderful women, no doubt of that, but marriage...ugh! Oh, it's a sorry mess I'm in, my friend, but to tell the tale, I'll need something to wet my throat..."
"Ah, here." Michael shoved the pint across the table, and Tom eagerly gulped a third of it down. A sweet, sad strain of music slipped across the room, wrapping itself around them. It sang of lovely lassies and lost love, and Michael's heart wrenched at the sound of it. Tom moaned again, and buried his face in his hands. "Och, Michael. I knew I shouldna have done it, especially not to Janet, of all women. You remember when you came to visit, and we all used to play together up on the mountain? You were Arthur, and she was Guinevere, and I was her dashing lover, Lancelot. She was a pretty witch then and she's only become lovelier as time went on. I know I shouldn't have done it, and the Lord knows it was stupid of me not to think about protection that night, but she was just so beautiful..."
"Aren't they always?" Michael laughed, a little bitterly. He was accustomed to Tom's habit of falling in love and lust with every pretty face. Their fathers had sent them to college together in the States, and their exotic accents had won them quite a few women. Throw in their natural charm, and neither one of them had ever lacked for a date on Saturday night. Michael particularly remembered Chantal, a mahogany- skinned woman whose talented mouth had enveloped his cock during many late night study sessions. Chantal had a thing for men with accents, and Michael had been a little sorry when she'd fallen in love with a Caribbean exchange student. But Michael's own heart had been lost long ago to a wee slip of a Scottish lass, and Tom had never been the sort to settle down, so they had returned home unencumbered by Americans.
Michael had returned to Dublin to put together a small band that had been surprisingly successful, and Tom had desperately tried to find a job with his English degree and had little luck at all. Eventually Tom had given in and joined his father's business. Michael's band had come to Ireland on tour, and Michael had been shocked by the change in his friend. Tom had taken to wearing business suits and sensible shoes. Grey had begun to streak his hair, and worry lines were permanently creased into his brow. Most surprising of all, Tom was engaged! To Katharine Duncan, daughter of the vice president of the firm, a handsome enough lass, but with a reputation for being cold and bitchy. Michael hadn't been surprised when Tom confessed that his father had pressured him into the engagement, saying it would be good for business and good for Tom to settle down. The job had seemed to drain all the life out of Tom, and Michael actually thought it was good that he had broken free enough to seduce the lovely and high-spirited Janet Duncan. But Michael wished Tom had chosen another lass.
"Michael? Are you listening to me?" Tom's voice had risen in a petulant whine, and Michael had to fight down the disgust that rose in his throat when he thought of what had happened to Tommy.
Michael shook himself out of his haze. "I'm sorry, Tommy. You were saying?"
"I was talking about her breasts. Oh, Janet has beautiful breasts. Small, but round and firm like an orange, or maybe even a grapefruit. She likes to have them kneaded, and to have you bite the nipples while you fuck her. She likes it pretty rough. You wouldn't think it to look at her, would you? Such a delicate beauty with her cat-green eyes and her marigold hair, but she likes it best when you slam her up against a wall and fuck her till she screams. You wouldn't think it, would you?" Tommy's voice was growing fuzzy with ale and Michael gently pulled the mug away from him.
"No, you wouldn't think it, Tommy."
"And her cunt! Oh, she has a lovely cunt. Warm and welcoming, just begging for a long thick cock to pound into it, over and over, harder and harder, until she's lying there on the floor beneath you, begging you to fuck her and fuck her and fuck her..."
"I think that's enough, Tommy." Michael stood up, suddenly unable to take any more. Even for friendship's sake. "Why don't we go for a walk? I think you could use some night air."
Tommy struggled out of the booth, weaving a bit on his feet as he stood. "A walk. A walk would be nice, Michael. Let's go up the mountain? I wish I'd fucked her on the mountain, Michael. Lancelot and Guinevere at midnight..."
"Sure, Tommy. We'll go up the mountain. C'mon." Michael O'Leary sighed and led his friend out into the night.
"Tommy." Michael almost whispered the name, wishing he'd taken Tommy home and put him to bed, instead of bringing him up to the top of King Arthur's Seat, the top of their mountain. It wasn't much of a mountain; more of a small hill. But to three children playing king of the mountain, it had been impressive enough. Every breath of chill wind blowing across from the firth at midnight made Michael wish he had Janet's arms wrapped around him.
"Wait a second, Michael, I'm not finished. While Janet begs you, she arches her back, and her red hair is spread out all against the white sheets, and her hands can't reach you, so she's digging her nails into those sheets, clawing at them, so you just lick faster and faster, and she's whimpering and begging and..."
"Tommy..." Michael didn't think he could stand much more of this. He'd fallen in love with Janet when she was only sixteen, and then they'd all gone off to college, and it had been long years. And now when he finally came to Edinburgh again to see if perhaps she held a soft spot in her heart for her old playmate, it was only to find that she was pregnant with Tom's babe, and Tom engaged to another, and not caring for either at all.
"...oh, and Michael, when Janet comes, she doesn't shout. It's the most amazing thing, the way that slim body of hers which has been bucking and twisting like a creature possessed suddenly goes completely rigid and her voice goes completely silent, like the eye in the center of a hurricane..."
"Tommy!" And just as Michael reached the end of his patience and was about to turn on Tommy with a sorely-wounded heart and bitter words, the sound of slow hoofbeats came over the hill. Michael turned, and what he saw there silenced his speech and struck wonder into his heart.
Beautiful was too pale a word for her.
She shimmered and glowed in the moonlight, in a flowing blue and silver gown and with her silver hair all braided and bound on her head. A crown of sapphires and diamond rested there, and a matching pendant hung at her slim throat. Her eyes were crystal blue, and a man could drown in the icy endless waters of them. She was neither young nor old, and she sat upon her white horse while a cold smile sat upon her ageless face.
Michael felt a vast yearning inside him, to step up to that cold beauty, and drop hot kisses on that white skin. But he had been raised on the old stories, as Tom had, and he knew who must be sitting there, and what she did to mortal men. Michael wrenched his gaze away and turned to Tommy, only to see his friend standing there with his eyes fixed on her like a drowning man in sight of land. The tired lines had melted away from his face, and suddenly the young poet who had once been Michael's best friend was back. The glamour had caught hold of him, and even as Michael turned, Tom was stepping forward, until his head was at her stirruped knee, and his hand was stretched out to her.
"Lovely lady, can I beg a kiss from you? For truly, now that I have seen you, my life will not be complete until I taste those sweet lips." The words spilled over Tom's tongue and out into the night, smooth with sweet ale and the glamour that had caught him.
She smiled down at him, and her teeth flashed bright and pointed in the moonlight. "You woo a girl with sweet words, Tom McLeod, but will you stay at her side through long days and nights? There's a price for kisses, you know..."
Michael knew then what he had only suspected before. This was one of the Faerie, the Sidhe, the Kindly Ones. A title given in bitter irony, for the folk of the isles knew that the sidhe had no kindness in them at all, and a mortal man spoke with them at his peril. By the crown on her head, this lady was Queen of them all; a cruel and lovely Queen of a cruel and lovely race. The old rules were clear -- `do not eat their food; do not drink their drink; make no bargains with them, for they will break your heart and body, with a cold smile on their faces.' Now was the moment when Michael could have spoken, could have grabbed Tom and dragged him down the mountain and away from his doom. But a girl called Janet was in his heart, and Michael was still and quiet.
Tom grinned up at her, charm and delight shining through his drunken face. "Oh, gladly will I pay it, lady. What more could a man ask than to be at your side, night and day?"
"True enough," the Queen smiled, "so kiss me, Tom, and the bargain is sealed."
And Tom McLeod reached up to the lady on the white horse, and she leaned down to meet him. And they kissed a long deep kiss, before he pulled her down to stand in the grass. And she murmured a word and their clothing was gone, and they were naked and glorious in the moonlight. And as Tom lifted her slender body and impaled her on his raging cock, they faded away, and were gone. The white horse galloped away into the night. Michael O'Leary sighed once, in bitterness and regret and shame, and then turned to find his way down the dark mountain.
"You certainly have a large appetite, Tom. Are you not tired?"
"Sweet lady, how could I grow tired with the thought of you to inspire me?" Tom reached up, lazily, to draw her back down again, but the lady only shook her head impatiently. She picked up her crown from the grass beside her, and set it on her head. Suddenly she was dressed once more in blue, and standing above his naked body. She tried to frown, but the smile quirking the corners of her mouth said that she was not quite as angry as she might like to seem.
"Oh, Tom. You are an eager lover, but I fear you have much to learn before you can keep the Queen of Faerie occupied. I have work to do, I am afraid. You, my dear, have lessons."
Tom struggled to his feet, wishing he had clothes to cover his nakedness. "Lessons, my Queen?"
"Aye, Tom." With that, she whispered a word, and Tom closed his eyes against an overpowering dizziness. When he opened them she was gone, and he stood in the center of a ring of lovely nude women, all with grass green skin and flowing hair. The Queen's voice echoed in the clearing for a moment longer, "Find me after your lesson -- if you can." Then all trace of her was gone, and Tom was left alone to face the women.
Tom turned his charming smile on the women as he quickly counted them, guessing that here were his new teachers. Seven women advanced on him, whispering to each other in a language he did not know. They seemed pleased enough, though, and as they reached him, they stretched out hands to caress his body, and dropped kisses on his skin. They caressed each other as well, kissing necks and breasts and hands, and Tom felt a brief moment of relief that he was not expected to please all of them at once. They lay down in a tangle of limbs, and Tom gave thanks that he had such good fortune. Then he pulled the smallest of the women to him, and began a slow exploration of her cool green skin. Another lay behind him, rubbing her breasts against his back and a third began to lick and nibble his legs, starting at the toes and working her way up. All of them silent, except for their low musical murmuring. Tom McLeod decided this was as close to heaven as he was likely to get, and devoted himself to his lessons.
His mind was growing dizzy, a confusion of green fingers and arms and breasts and thighs and calves, of wide green smiles and sharp white pointed teeth, teeth that nibbled and lips that sucked. His body was crisscrossed with the marks of their lovemaking, with long lines where white nails had scraped against the skin, with tiny bites along the line of neck and chest and stomach. A white-haired one had wrapped her lips around his cock, and her arms around his thighs, pinning his legs to the ground. Two golden-haired ones massaged his feet, and two chestnut-haired ones did the same with his hands and arms. A redhead knelt above him, her cunt pressed against his unwilling mouth, and Tom could almost imagine that it was sucking at him, squeezing and pressing and making it very hard to breathe. And the final woman, with night- black hair, sat to the side, as she had all the while, and played with herself and watched.
Tom struggled, trying to get up from under the seven women, but together they were too strong for him. They only laughed and pressed harder. Lips bent to suck at his skin, and teeth bit into him. Love bites, perhaps, but they hurt, and Tom increased his struggles, to no avail. The white-haired one crawled up his body to kiss him, with a mouth that tasted strongly of salt. Tom suddenly realized that the creatures were actually sucking his blood, and he had already grown much too weak to break free. Tom began to lose consciousness, his world dissolving into a haze of green skin and red blood. Suddenly, the crack of a whip echoed through the clearing, and a tall elven man was among them, pulling the women off Tom, whipping them away when they attempted to stay. Within moments, the creatures had fled, all but the black-haired one. She bowed mockingly to the elven man, whispered, "by the Queen's command," and then slipped away into the woods as well. He knelt by Tom's side, his ageless face marked with lines of concern. Tom could hold on no longer, and slipped entirely into darkness.
A slender elven man stepped through, in garb almost identical to Tom's own, save that the flowing shirt was black instead of white and embroidered with strange silver designs. His silver hair, the same color as the Queen's, was pulled back with a dark green ribbon which matched the tight pants outlining smoothly-muscled thighs, and a single emerald hung at his throat. His face was molded in solemn lines, as if he never smiled. He spoke, in a voice clear and low, like midnight, "Good day, young human. How do you feel?" He came further into the room and stood stiffly by the bed. "You have slept long and long, but I have fed you human food, and you are now healed of all your body's hurts. It was careless of you to dally with the maenads, the wild women of the woods. They are overfond of men, and would soon have been your death."
Tom did not know who this strange elf was, but he knew enough to be polite. The richly dressed man was obviously a lord of Faerie, and the childhood tales that warned of the danger of the fickle elven lords were surfacing in Tom's memory. "I thank you for my rescue, sir. I did not go to them of my own free will, though to be honest, I was enjoying myself immensely until the end."
The lord's mouth twisted wryly, almost in a smile. "Aye, that is their way. A pleasant death, if death is your desire. But if you did not come there on your own, how did you find the maenads?"
Tom hesitated a long moment, but finally admitted, "The Queen gave me to them. For lessons, she said." He blushed, the quick color spreading over his young face.
"The Queen's lessons are the deadly sort, I am afraid. You are well rid of her and her lessons." The lord spoke bitterly, with the air of one who knew too well the subject of which he spoke.
Tom bristled at the implied slur to the Queen, who had captured both his head and heart. "I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot believe she meant me harm. She told me to seek her out when I could. I must go to her," he said defiantly.
"And you are besotted with her cold beauty, and will not rest until you find her? Do not answer -- I can see it is true by your face. Young human, you are a fool, though not the first to fall beneath the spell of the Queen. And I am a fool as well if I let you go to her..." Tom took a step back, and glanced at the open window. The lord laughed, but as with his smile, there was no joy in it. "...do not fear, I will not hold you. One fool respects another, and you must learn your own lessons. She was right in that, at least."
Tom started slowly towards the door, speaking as he went, "Thank you, sir. For the healing. I must have slept a long night in your bed to feel so rested. If Tom McLeod can ever do anything for you..."
The lord raised a hand, and Tom was frozen where he stood, unable to move a muscle. "Ah, twice and thrice a fool. A long night? Human, you have slept days and days, recovering from the months and months of elven time you spent among the maenads. Did you forget that time runs strangely in Faerie? Do not fret overmuch, though -- no one ages in Faerie and you will be young and handsome forever. Or until the Queen tires of you at least. You gave away your true name to her as well? A dangerous thing, and a dangerous gift to give. Names have power, and if you doubt it, notice that she did not tell you hers. You may call me Wanderer, and if you should tire of the Queen's company, you may always call on me. Say my name thrice, and I will meet you."
The lord bowed mockingly to Tom, and before Tom could say another word, the world began to spin around him. Tom closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was alone, standing before the gates to a castle garden, with a silver rose in his hands and the sound of the Queen's voice singing softly from within. Before he took a breath, the silver rose in his hands crumbled to dust and blew away on the scented wind. Tom shook his head, unnerved by the strange encounter with the lord who called himself Wanderer, and then pushed open the gate and stepped inside.
When she tired of his words, they would fall to love. Tom had learned much in his months with the maenads, and had grown skilled in the art of pleasing a woman. The Queen was still a challenge to him, for through the centuries she had seen and known all there was to know of sex, and it took his most creative efforts to interest her for long. She had developed strange tastes and appetites, some of which set Tom's heart racing, and others which twisted his stomach. She was a woman of many moods; at times sweet and helpless, at times proud and commanding. Top and bottom, inside and out, soft and hard and slow and fast, they explored them all together. Tom's truest happiness was when he won a sigh of ecstasy from her, and a whispered word of thanks.
When they tired of love, the Queen would find other amusements for them. Many strange and fantastical creatures were subject to the Queen, and she called forth dryads to dance for them, fauns to pipe, hobgoblins to tumbles and witches to cast spells. The witches taught him small magics, and the Queen taught him others, and when he tired of his lessons they would go down to the sea where the naiads swam, and listen to their sad music of a world that never was. And when the sorrow grew too great, the Queen would call a dance, in the castle ballroom or across the wild fields, and Tom and she would go whirling through the figures, dancing on air as often as earth.
At times, she would leave the dancing with an elven lord. At first, on these occasions Tom sulked in the garden, refusing the human food and drink that her servants brought to him. His sulks achieved nothing, for the Queen returned when she would, caring nothing for the bitter ache in his heart. He would begin angry, but she would quickly calm him with kisses and they would be lost in the dream of love again. Eventually, he stopped despairing and only waited for her. She always returned, and he was, for the moment, content.
"Janet, it's not for guilt that I'm proposing to you. Tom's responsible for his own problems -- even when he neglects his responsibility, I'm not the man to take them over for him."
"Oh, so it's a problem I am now, is it? A shameful mess I'm in and you're a white knight come to rescue me? Well, I can take care of myself, and I don't want your pity, Mr. O'Leary!"
Michael groaned in frustration and stepped forward in the small room, taking her slim shoulders firmly in his long hands. He resisted the urge to shake her until she was silent, and settled for leaning down to kiss her surprised lips. Janet resisted for a moment, then relaxed in to the kiss, her wide mouth opening to his. Michael pulled her closer, deepening the kiss, crushing her lips beneath his own. He wished that he need not stop, that he could just continue kissing her until the end of time. He'd been wanting to kiss Janet Duncan for at least a decade, and now that he'd finally gotten up the nerve, it was very difficult to stop. Every kiss must come to an end, though when he finally released her they were both short of breath.
"Did that feel like a pity kiss, Miss Duncan? For if it did, then I might as well just give up and go home to Dublin, for you'll never be satisfied with me."
Janet's eyes were puzzled, and one hand was raised to her bruised lips. When she finally spoke, her voice was quite a bit softer, and the shrill note to it had disappeared. "And what was that about?"
"It was because I love you, you silly fool. I've loved you since the day I met you up on that idiotic hill you insisted on calling a mountain, the day I had to watch you leave me for Tom McLeod's Lancelot. I saw the look in your eyes; I never thought I'd have a chance with you, but with a baby on the way, and Tom gone..."
Janet's eyes flashed, and her voice climbed again. "You daft git! If you'd said something before, maybe I'd never have slept with that idiot Tom."
"You don't love him?"
"Love Tom McLeod? When hell freezes over!" Her voice dripped scorn.
"But I thought..." Michael stuttered to a halt, bewildered.
"Oh, I admit to lusting after him a bit. He was a bonny lad, but he's also a selfish brat, and I've known that for years. Clumsy in bed too, as it turns out. A woman would have to be three times a fool to fall in love with him, and I'm not quite that bad. If you had told me you loved me..."
"I'm telling you now, and hoping you could learn to love me. Am I too late? Will you marry me, Janet Duncan, and let me love you the way you should be loved?"
Janet's green eyes softened, and she stepped into his arms, turning her face up to meet him. "Ach, and how could I turn down a man who kissed like that? If you could just be reminding me of it again? Before I forget?"
Michael grinned a blinding grin, as he took her face between his long hands. "I'll be reminding you of it from now till the day I die." And he kissed her again, until they were both dizzy and in need of a bed.
When he could see again, all seemed as before at first. But then he realized that it was quieter -- the bird had stopped its song. As Tom swung his feet to the ground, the green creature hopped off its twig and onto the window sill and in a shimmering moment into the lord he had met so long ago -- the Wanderer. Clad once more in black and emerald, the elven lord looked amused at Tom's nakedness. Tom grabbed up a robe from a side table and held it in front of him, as he jumped to his feet.
"It has been a long time since we last met, my lord Wanderer."
"Do you know how long, Tom?"
Tom was silent. In truth, he had paid little attention to passing time -- what use would it have been, with the flow of time so different between Faerie and the human world? He had been lost in a dream of faerie love, and only lately had he begun to wonder if there were any substance to the dream. With the Queen's long absence, the mists that had clouded his mind had begun to drift away, and a tiny part of Tom, deep inside, was frightened. The elf lord waited in silence for Tom's answer, and then spoke, disgust dripping from his sharp voice.
"Almost seven years, Tom. Seven years!"
"Impossible..." Tom did not want to believe it. It seemed he had only had a few days of pleasure with the Queen, and a few weeks of loneliness following.
"Oh, no. Very possible. It has only been seven months in your own world, of course. But seven years in Faerie, and the banshees have been howling lately. It's almost time for the Hunt to ride, and for the Payment, Tom."
"The Queen hasn't seen fit to mention it to you? Unsurprising, I suppose, since you are this year's price."
"What are you talking about? If this is more of your slander against the Queen..." Tom began bravely, still sure of his love for his ice beauty.
"Be quiet!" Before Tom could blink the lord had pushed him back onto the velvet bed, and leaned above him, inches away. The Wanderer's face was dark and furious, and a bitter edge clung to his words. "Three times a fool I called you before -- have you learned no wisdom since then? Have you heard nothing of the tithe to Hell, of the payment the Faerie must make every seventh year? Of the ancient bargain that chains us to giving away our sweetest young elf to the Lord of the Pit, unless we find a human fool enough to sign away his life? It is the Queen's young lover at risk this year, and she has been most desperate in her search for a human. You gave her everything when she took you, Tom, and now she is tired of you, and in a little time we will ride in the Great Hunt, chasing you across the moors and to the very gates of Hell. And if you do not find an escape, you will then be tossed into the Pit, and agony shall ride with you for all eternity."
Tom was silent, and his face was beaded with sweat. He loved the Queen with all his heart -- but it was true that she had been increasingly cold to him of late. There had been more and more silences surrounding him in the Great Hall, and he had caught a look of pity on the face of some of the older folk of the court. Tom had thought they merely pitied his separation from the Queen...but if the Wanderer's words were true....?
"She loves me..." he protested feebly.
"She loves no one." The words were spit into his face, and then the lord straightened and turned away.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Why? Because I am a fool as well, young human, or had you forgotten? And perhaps I too once loved the Queen's cold beauty, and I do not like to see yet another fall victim. You seem less bedazzled now that when I met you so many years past. Listen then, for this is your only hope. On midwinter's night, we will Hunt you across the Scottish moors, until we come to the standing stones by the goblin caves. You must run as hard as you can, for if we catch you before then, then you are surely lost."
Tom's gut clenched in fear, and his fingers were numb and cold.
"If you reach the stones unmolested, there will be a brief moment while we dismount, before the Gates begin to open. If, in that moment, a woman bearing your babe will clasp her arms around you and hold you tight until the Gates are fully open, then you will be free. The Queen will cast great enchantments upon you, and you will transform into all manner of strange creature, and you will cause the woman great pain. She will take no lasting hurt from it, but she will have to endure such pain as few humans have before, or will again. An impossible thing to ask, but it is your only hope."
"Not entirely impossible..." A small warm hope grew in Tom, and a soft voice in his heart whispered a human name...'Janet'...
"Can you truly tell me that there is a woman in the human world who not only bears your babe, but who loves you enough to suffer for you? You are a beautiful boy, Tom McLeod, but you ask a heavy gift."
Tom hesitated a long moment before answering. "It has been only seven months in our world? Then aye, there might be, though she is probably very angry with me right now -- and rightfully so. Still...she cared for me once..."
The lord's mouth twisted in what might have been a smile. "Well, you are a lucky human after all, Tom. And perchance luck is enough to guard a fool. But there is little time left -- go to her, if you can. Tell her what she must do, and see if she still loves you enough to help you. I have given you all the help I may, and must go. I can feel the Queen returning, and while she cannot truly harm me, she could make my next seven years rather uncomfortable. If you are wise, you will slip away while you can, for soon she will call you and bind you to her, and then you will be trapped until it is time for the Hunt." He shimmered again, and the tiny green bird fluttered out the window and was gone before Tom could voice a protest.
"Tom?" Her voice echoed down the long hallway which led from the sitting room to her bedroom, and in it was such a promise that Tom hesitated almost too long. The glamour slipped around him, calling him to her side. But the chill words of the Wanderer had lodged in his heart, and as he heard her footsteps coming towards him, he shook off the glamour. Tom wove one of the small magics he had learned, and was gone himself, to the edge of Faerie, and in a single shimmered step, to the human world.
"Bonny and wise. With handsome Tom for a father and you and I to raise it, it will be a child to marvel at. But mind you don't turn its head with flattery before it's even born!"
"I promise, my sweet." Michael's voice was soft and loving, as he drank in the sight of his Janet, his promised wife, warm in his arms in their new home.
"What a charming scene! How lovely that my friends have found each other!" Tom's words cut through Michael like a knife. He looked up, to find Tom leaning against the bedpost, dressed in Faerie green and grinning. A seething mix of emotions churned in Michael's stomach -- joy to see his friend whom he had thought lost, anger at what Tom had done to Janet, fear of what his sweetheart might still feel for the handsome rogue. Before he could say a word, her fingers came curling around his, and her voice was ringing through the bedroom.
"And what do you think you're doing here, grinning like a daft idiot, and without a word of apology?" She sat straight up in bed, her crimson hair only partially hiding her lush breasts, with fury written clearly across her sharp face. "And what makes you think you can call us friends? Is it friendly -- what you did to me? Is it friendly to love me and leave me for the Faerie Queen? Oh, Michael told me all about it, and glad I was too, that I wouldn't be bothered with your too-pretty face again! Why have you come crawling back to us? Did your fancy Lady leave you?"
The smile disappeared from Tom's face, and Michael was shocked at the terror that slipped across it, before Tom pasted the smile back on. "Oh, Jennie. I would have told you all about it, but you don't seem quite in the mood to listen, and I doubt Michael is either. So I'll be going now, and I wish you both all happiness together." Tom started to shimmer away, and before Michael could think he called out, "Wait!" The shimmer disappeared, and Tom stood there, silent.
"Wait." Michael forced the words out, past the thickening of his throat. Part of him wanted to let Tommy go, but that wasn't how you treated a friend in trouble. "Tell us about it. Something's wrong, isn't it, Tommy?"
"Ah, Michael." The smile flashed across Tom's face, bright and blinding as it used to be. "I knew I could count on you. But I have treated you both badly, and I wouldn't blame you if you wanted me gone. Is Janet willing to have me stay a bit?" He held himself very still, waiting for her answer.
Janet sighed. "Aye, of course I am, you idiot. Which is why you just pulled that little stunt, and well you know it, too. Michael has too soft a heart...which is why I'm marrying him come August." The last she said defiantly, but with an odd quiver in her voice, almost as if she expected Tom to challenge her on it.
"Married, is it? I'm truly happy for you both, and it's clear you've gotten the best of the bargain, Michael. I only wish my own story were as happy."
Michael laughed shortly, unable to resist Tommy's charm, as always. Tom looked young and handsome, and it almost seemed as if the old days were back, when they got themselves into terrible scrapes and climbed out again together. "Tell us, already."
"All right, and so I will. But you won't be laughing at the end of it, boyo."
So Janet slipped even closer to Michael, pulling the blankets up around them both, and Tom perched on the empty space at the edge of the bed, and told them the whole sorry tale. And when he was finished, Michael was angry once more, and Janet was silent.
"You ask too much! You just want to hurt her again!" Michael shouted it, unaware that his own fingers were digging into Janet's soft flesh.
"Oh, Michael. I wouldn't hurt Janet for the world. When have you ever known me to willingly, knowingly hurt a woman? Every time I have, it's only been through thoughtlessness. I've thought long and hard about this as I searched for you both, and I wouldn't ask it of you if there were any other way." Tom's voice was shaking, and his hands curved in supplication. "You're a good Protestant boy like myself -- would you condemn me to Hell without even asking the lady?"
Michael was silent a long moment, battling down his fear. "It's her decision," Michael finally admitted. "But I think she's done enough and more for you, Tom McLeod, even if you never did mean to hurt her."
"It's all right, Michael." Janet's voice was soft, but firm, and her warm hands wrapped around Michael's cold ones. "He can ask. I won't promise anything yet, Tom, but I'll think about it. And you promise me there's no risk to the baby..."
"No risk to the baby or to you -- though it will hurt terribly for a while, sweeting."
"...well. Then I'll think about it. You go back to your lady, now, before she calls you hard and finds you here. Go back to your lady and run your race, and maybe I'll be waiting at the crossroads for you..."
"Thank you, Jennie. `Tis more than fair of you." Tom bent to drop a kiss on her forehead, and started to disappear again. "Blessings on you both and on the babe, whatever happens." In a moment, he was gone.
"...and maybe I won't," Janet finished softly.
He was almost to the standing stones, and behind him the sound of hoofbeats grew louder and louder in the night, thundering behind him as if they were about to run him down. The stones glowed softly, an oasis of cool blue light, and as the Queen's laughter shivered through the night, Tom flung himself towards the space between two stones. He fell to the soft heather, and the hoofbeats fell to silence. The heavy musk of horses was thick in the air, and a fiery glow began to light the center of the circle. Tom staggered to his feet, despairing, but determined to face his fate with dignity. It was then that he felt strong, slim arms flung around him, and a bulging belly pressed against his back.
"You're a fool, Tom, and I don't love you anymore. But friendship outlasts even foolishness," Janet whispered softly, and then a high shriek of rage split the air and the Queen was off her horse, and facing them.
"Pregnant, is she? And with your child? When I find the traitor who told you of this, I will tear him into tiny pieces and throw him to the wolves!" The Queen was almost hissing in her anger, and her fingers were curved into wicked claws. A slim elven youth stood beside her, banked terror in his silver eyes.
"No fear of that, milady." The Wanderer stepped up, eyes laughing. "You cannot touch me, as well you know, and if the humans hold fast a little longer, it will be your paramour beside you who becomes a feast for beasts. Tom, I wish you and the lovely lady all luck. I only wish I could help you more."
"Perhaps I cannot touch you, Wanderer, but I can certainly touch him!" The Queen gestured, and Tom felt a screaming agony lance through him, as his body began to pull and twist. Within seconds, he was Tom no longer, but a giant green serpent, that wrapped Janet in its coils, and buried its fangs in her neck. She did not scream, the brave lassie, but reached out with strong hands and clasped the snake beneath its head and squeezed hard herself, until it was impossible to tell who was choking whom faster. The Queen hissed in disgust and gestured again, and Tom was suddenly a lion, raking great gashes down Janet's back with sharp claws. She screamed then, but held fast to its mane while the bright blood flowed freely, so much that it seemed she must surely die. Somewhere inside the lion a sliver of Tom wept for the pain he was causing her, until the Queen gestured one last time, and Tom went up into a blaze of fire. The lion was gone and a pillar of flame surrounded Janet, its red fire matching the burning of the gate which now stood wide open, with slobbering demons licking at its fringes. Janet's skin burned and crackled, and her lovely hair was all gone. She could not even scream, for the fire had eaten away her throat at the first breath, but still Janet held on as best she could, skeletal fingers reaching out to grasp the flame. One, two, three long minutes she held, and then the gates were flung wide open, and a long black tongue came snaking out of the Hell gate, wrapping itself around the elven youth. With a lost wail and anguished reaching towards the Queen he was gone, and the fire disappeared, and Tom and Janet collapsed, unhurt, onto the heather.
"So." The Queen burned with a cold fire, and Tom realized that he had never seen her look quite so beautiful. "You are free, Tom McLeod, you and this female. Go! But remember -- in seven years the tithe comes due again, and you cannot know how long that will be in mortal years. So go back to your dingy little world, and be very careful what you say and what promises you make. For I will be watching, and if I ever have the chance, I'll throw all three of you into the Pit myself!" With a swift motion she mounted, and was gone, the Court thundering behind her into the night.
"We will manage well enough, milord." Janet answered. "I think it best not to accept any more favors from the Faerie."
The Wanderer laughed out loud. "Wise as well as brave and beautiful. She is a treasure, Tom."
Michael stepped out of the shadow of a stone then, and wrapped his arms around Janet. "Aye, that she is. And if she ever tries anything like this again..."
"Hush, love." Janet buried her face in his shoulder.
"Ah, so she isn't for you, Tom. Well, I am not much surprised. You're not worthy of her, Tom McLeod."
"I'm beginning to realize that." Tom smiled ruefully at his friends. "I doubt I'm worthy of either of them."
"About time you realized it, too," Michael said, mock fiercely. "If she had been hurt..."
"Ah, if she'd been hurt I would have ripped out my heart my own self, Michael. Have no fear."
"Well, and since she's not...I'm glad, Tommy. I wouldn't have wanted to see those beasts taking you. I watched it all." Michael smiled, extending a hand to Tom. Tom took it and clasped it tight. "Your time with the Faerie has changed you -- or perhaps it was the fear of death that did it. You're more the man you were years ago, and it's glad I am to still have you for a friend. You'll be best man at our wedding, I hope. But what then, Tommy?"
"Aye, what then?" Janet turned her face from Michael's shoulder to peer at Tommy. "What does the human world hold for one who's tasted Faerie?"
The Wanderer looked at Tom as well, and all three waited for his answer.
"Well." Tom answered slowly. "I'll be at the wedding of course, and thank you. After that...to be honst, I'm minded to go back."
"Are you daft?!" Michael shouted. "Put yourself in her power again?"
"Now calm down, young human," the Wanderer cautioned. "It's not such a bad idea. She will be watching him in any case, and she has no hold over him now. If he walks Faerie discreetly, and has a guide to teach him..."
"No obligation?" Janet challenged.
The Wanderer grinned. "No obligation, fair beauty. Though he would be wise to come and seek your counsel at times as well."
"And so any friend should," she said. Janet looked consideringly at Tommy, marking the changes in him, and the brightness of his eyes. "Perhaps it would be for the best after all." Michael helped her to her feet then, and they stood facing the elven lord.
The Wanderer smiled at the young lovers. "Let me send you home -- again, no obligation. If you have need of me, Tom knows how to find me. One last word of advice, though..."
"Yes?" Michael asked.
"The son you are about to have -- do not name him Thomas. It has long been an ill-fated name."
Janet smiled, as the world began to dissolve around the three of them, and the outlines of their home to fade in. She whispered the last words, knowing he would hear her, "I had already decided on Patrick."