Friday, October 10, 2008

Heart's Desire, Part 39

Chapter 33

Emle found Lucas in his living room, staring down at a piece of parchment on his lap. "Is there anything I can do here?" she asked. "Might I have a book to read, at least?" Although reading wouldn't be her first choice, she would embrace anything that helped keep her mind from worrying about Gabriel and the Hunt.

Eri had fallen asleep--even a ten-year-old child couldn't stay awake forever. But Emle could not sleep.

Lucas glanced up at her, almost as if he was surprised to see her there. "Oh, I am sorry," he said. "This has all been a bit--difficult for me." He sighed. "I know what I should do, but what I should do and what I want to do are two totally different things."

"You will not punish him for showing you--" Emle couldn't bear the thought.

Lucas shook his head. "Oh, no. No." He smiled at her and motioned to the couch. "Why don't you sit down? We could talk--if you don't mind, that is. Did--Did Eri fall asleep?"

"I don't mind," Emle said. "And yes, she's asleep. I don't know how long she will sleep; this has been a stressful time for all of us."

"Yes," Lucas said. "I imagine it has been."

Emle sat down on the couch, sinking into softness. "I will talk to you, but if you're looking for more secrets, I don't know them. Gabriel didn't tell me the Hounds could shift shape until yesterday morning." She hesitated. "He didn't allow them to shift shape until yesterday morning."

"Ten years ago, he did," Lucas said. "Before Josiah vanished. You do know about Josiah, don't you?"

"Yes." Emle smiled. "Finally."

"I wanted to speak to you about the binding, in truth," Lucas said, and handed her the piece of parchment.

It was heavier than it seemed, and not an innocent piece of paper at all. Emle glanced at it, realizing what it was only after she saw the signatures on the bottom, and the dates.

"This--This is--" She could not imagine why he had let her hold such a fragile--and important piece of parchment.


Emle glanced up at him, her eyes wide. "And what would happen if I tore this up right now?" she asked fiercely, almost angry that he had handed it to her. As if it didn't matter. As if it hadn't ruled Gabriel's life for the past hundred years. "Would you try to stop me?"

"Do you know if this curse he speaks of is still in effect?" Lucas asked, not answering either of her questions.

"We both heard about it at the same time," Emle said. "I do not know. I hope not. But as you said, there is no real way to check." She tried to hand the binding back to Lucas, but he would not take it. Instead, he handed her another piece of paper--this one newer.

A codicil to the binding, naming Lucas Lane as the only member of the Council who controlled it. Which meant Lucas was, in essence, Gabriel's Master.

"Why do you show me these things?" Emle asked.

"Because I don't think I can wait a week and a half to see if the Council will have to bind the Hunt again," Lucas said, quite seriously.

Emle almost crumpled the binding in her hand right then and there. "I don't think Gabriel will agree to another binding," she said carefully, not quite sure of his intentions.

"If he has to choose between the Council and Magdalen, who would he pick?" Lucas asked. "He may not have a choice, if the curse still stands. And I know the Council will not allow Magdalen to control him. Not from what she's done--or tried to do--already."

Emle thought this over. His words made sense, especially if the curse still held. But how would they know? The binding had to expire first, and it would not expire for a week and a half. As Lucas had said, too long to wait.

She wished Gabriel had confided in her about some of this earlier. Not knowing--or worse, finding out the same time as a member of the Council--made her feel as if her place as Gabriel's lady wasn't as permanent as she would have liked.

"How long have you been with him?" Lucas asked gently, as if he knew where her thoughts had led.

"He--He found me, and saved my life, when he killed the troll," Emle whispered, and glanced down at the binding in her hand. She forced herself to read the words, since Gabriel had never told her of the binding's essence.

"That was almost thirteen years ago," Lucas said. "He hid you for that long?"

"No." It was a list of rules, in truth, this binding, a list of things the Hunt was not allowed to do. "I left for a while, after he found my skin for me." Before he could ask, she offered, "My people lived as swans. The wizard who lived in that house before the troll captured me--years and years ago. He wanted to be a shapeshifter."

"So he stole your skin?" Lucas asked, appalled. "Does this happen often?"

"None of my kin remain," Emle said. For once, the old sadness was just an ache now, a mournful remembrance of times past. "The wizard who wanted to be a shapeshifter killed them all."

"This wizard--did he have a name?"

Emle shook her head. "If he did, I do not know it. Most of the books in the library belonged to him, I think. But I do not believe he built our house."

There was a clause at the bottom of the binding, a time off for good behaviour addendum. The binding could be ended early. Was that why Lucas had given it to her?

"He kept you a prisoner."

Of course Lucas wanted to know the story; he was the Council Historian, after all. Emle almost smiled.

"He kept me prisoner until Gabriel found me," she said. "And he--Gabriel--treated me with the utmost respect. I stayed with them for many months, and I was happy there."

"But you didn't see the Hounds shift shape," Lucas said. "Was that before he allowed them to do so? If I remember--"

"It was around the same time," Emle said. "And I don't remember seeing them in human form--they could have hidden that from me. I was not well for a little while after my release." She hesitated. "But I was happy. The wizard had told me he destroyed my skin, but I asked Gabriel to search for it anyway."

"And he found it?" Lucas asked.

"After over a year," Emle replied. "After I had given up, and accepted my place with the Hunt. After I had stopped hoping to find my kin."

"After you fell in love with him?" Lucas guessed.

Emle smiled. "I would not have admitted that to myself then," she said. "But yes. And you don't realize--you can't realize--how it feels." She shook her head. "I am explaining this badly. For centuries, humans and wizards have stolen our skins to trap us. The same happens with Selkies, I hear. They keep us captive and use us--until we find our skins again and have a chance to escape." She heard bitterness enter her voice. "It is expected."

"But you said that Gabriel found your skin," Lucas said. "He did not steal it--"

"No. But I thought it had been destroyed." Emle bit her lip. "And I--I did not expect him to give it to me, even if he found it. That's not the way it works." She had never explained this to anyone, because Gabriel already knew how she felt. "And he knew I would leave when he gave me my skin. I had to. I had to see if any of my kin had survived." She paused. "You know a little of it, I'm sure. There is a code, of sorts, in Faerie--and here as well, in places--that if you do something for someone, you owe them a debt that has to be repaid."

"Yes. Gabriel has spoken of that before. But he seems to accept it when I tell him he owes me nothing. Others do not." Lucas shook his head. "It is a curious custom."

"He told me that as well, but I didn't believe him, at first," Emle said. "When I found no sign of my kin, I returned to the forest. But when I left him, I was pregnant. And I stumbled into an animal trap. Sennet found me, and after the baby--Eri--was born, Gabriel welcomed me back."
She had left out a lot, but Lucas truly did not need to know every inch of detail.

"And you've been there ever since." At Emle's nod, Lucas asked, "When is the baby due?"

"Right around the time of the binding's expiration," Emle said. "That is why Gabriel has been so--tense of late. I persuaded him to allow me to contact Sennet yesterday morning. And then, all of--all of this happened."

"If I destroy the binding and the curse still stands, Gabriel will never be free," Lucas said. "And neither will you--or your children--if you stay with him."

"If you are trying to persuade me to leave, don't." Emle tried to quell a flash of irritation. "I will not raise my daughters without their father, curse or no." This time, when she tried to hand the binding back to Lucas, he took it, albeit reluctantly.

Perhaps he wished she had made good on her threat? But why? Why would he allow her to destroy it?

Or had he just wondered what she would do?

"Why did you give me that?" she asked.

Lucas sighed. "Fifty years ago, there was a push from the current Council members to be rid of this binding," he said. "They were of the mind that the Hunt had been--for want of a better word--civilized, and that Gabriel should be free to do as he pleased, within reason, of course."

"Fifty years ago?" Emle wondered if Gabriel knew. "What happened? The binding still remains."

"I'm not certain who nixed the idea," Lucas said. "But it was discussed, and discarded. Not because anyone believed the Hunt would then turn on the Council; it was unlikely, even then. But because no one knew what would happen once the binding was broken. We didn't know about the curse. I'm sure that would have made a difference."

"You cannot think to extend it," Emle said in protest. "You've already said you do not wish to create another binding."

"No. The Council does not condone slavery," Lucas said. "A hundred years ago, the binding was seen to be the only way to corral the Hunt without killing Gabriel and the rest of the Hounds. It worked, but what if the curse still stands? What if Magdalen gains control of the Hunt and orders Gabriel to attack the Council? Or Beth-Hill? Or Faerie? I cannot wait a week and a half to find that out."

"Then what do you intend to do?" Emle asked.

"Find a way to break that curse, if it still stands," Lucas said. "Otherwise, the Hunt would be too dangerous to free."

His words were true, but Emle could imagine Gabriel's response. "Why don't you let Gabriel make that choice?"

"What do you mean?" Lucas asked curiously.

"You have to remember that I'm biased in this," Emle said. "But it seems to me that Gabriel had never been--he's never been allowed to make his own decisions about his future. First it was the curse, and the the binding for the last century. No one has ever bothered to ask him what he wants. They have always assumed he will serve them without question."

"He questions me," Lucas said, but Emle heard a thread of interest running through his voice now. "But you are right. He has never had that chance."

"Give him that chance, then," Emle said. "Instead of waiting to see what happens when the binding expires, give him the binding. You had it signed over to your control--sign it over to Gabriel."

Lucas stared at her as if he had been poleaxed. "Is that even possible?"

"I don't know," Emle said, suddenly weary. "It is your binding, not mine. But that is what I would do."

Muttering under his breath, Lucas left her then, and vanished into the other room. She heard a door open--the library?--and wondered if she had spoken wrong. Perhaps he had wanted her to say something different. Perhaps he had wanted her to agree that the binding should never be broken, but he should have known she would not say such a thing.

Emle yawned. She would much rather stay up and wait for news from Gabriel, but she needed to sleep. She would be useless otherwise. Perhaps she would sit here and rest for a little while, just to recharge a bit.

Despite its comfort, the couch was cold, and lonely, unfamiliar and strange. Emle lay there for the longest time, the ache in her chest refusing to go away. She wished--Well, she wished for a lot of things, but Gabriel's presence would have eliminated much of her worry.

She should never have allowed him to send her away.

Chapter 34

There was no dead elf lying on the rug this time--Althea could be thankful for that, at least. But the Hound still lay against the wall, his sightless eyes dull now.

Stefan's Hounds had not touched him. In fact, they seemed to avoid the body, even going so far as to stay out of the room.

Or maybe Magdalen had forced them to leave.

"I thought I told you not to come back here," Magdalen said sharply.

"Emle and Gabriel's child are with Lucas," Althea said. "I thought you'd want to know."

"He suspects something," Stefan said. His voice sounded angrier than normal. Had something happened?

"Where are your Hounds?" she asked.

Stefan glared at Magdalen and stalked out of the room.

"What happened?" Althea asked.

Before Magdalen could reply, the house shifted, and a fine rain of ash fell down from the sky. Althea stepped back, suddenly remembering what the house looked like in the Human World. "What's going on?"

"The Veil is fighting my spell," Magdalen said, the calmness in her voice belying her words. "It is not supposed to be here, after all. So it fights to return to where it is supposed to be."

The house rocked. For a moment, Althea stood on nothing--a hole in the floor where a rug had been mere moment before. She stared down into reeking darkness.

And then, the house was restored again, immaculate and elegant, before she could actually fall.
"The Hound's blood was no use to my spell," Magdalen said.

"Then sacrifice one of your prisoners!" Althea snapped.

Magdalen ignored her. "Tell me what you discovered," she said. "Do you know why Gabriel sent Emle and the child with Lucas?"

"I assumed because he thought she was in danger," Althea said. "I--Oh." She had forgotten about the binding. "Lucas took the binding. I think he might free the Hunt. I think he feels sorry for Gabriel." Although how anyone could feel sorry for the Master of the Wild Hunt--

"Then why are you here?" Magdalen asked, and rose from her chair for the first time. "I need your knowledge, child. I need you to be there, not here." She grimaced. "Stefan! The spell needs more blood!"

"Then kill one of your prisoners!" Stefan growled from the other room.

The house dimmed, then, and Althea stepped back, knowing that she couldn't run fast enough if the spell self-destructed. Magdalen bared her teeth and raised both arms, as if lifting the entire weight of the world with the extent of her power.

And the house returned.

"Very well," Magdalen said, composed now, her voice cold. "Bring Kyren."

Less than five minutes later, when Stefan returned, his hands were empty and something--some knowledge haunted his gaze, as if he had seen something that Magdalen would rather have been left in the dark.

"I told you to--" Magdalen's eyes narrowed. "Where is he?"

"He's gone," he said, interrupting her with a scowl. "Your spell has failed. The basement is full of water."

Magdalen swept from the room in an instant, but Althea could not see why Stefan would lie about such a thing. "Did Kyren drown?"

Stefan shrugged. "I saw no sign of him. But the water is almost halfway up the stairs."

Althea studied the walls around her with deep suspicion. She wanted to believe Magdalen hadn't lost control of her spells, but she had a very bad feeling about this. If Magdalen failed in her quest to control the Hunt, then Althea would lose her place in the Council, and possibly her life.
Perhaps she needed to think about herself--and her future--for the time being. But how to ensure she didn't lose everything if Magdalen failed?

The object of her thoughts appeared in the doorway, disheveled for the first time Althea remembered. "He is gone. I found the ropes, but not Kyren. Could he have escaped?"

"If he did, knowing what he knows, then you'll have to kill him when you find him again," Stefan said. He seemed unconcerned by Kyren's disappearance.

"My spell still needs blood," Magdalen said, and the look in her eyes chilled what was left of Althea's soul.

"You won't get any from me," she snapped. "Send Stefan to find another elf if that's what you need." She turned, then, intending to leave, but Magdalen's question stopped her cold.

"Can you return to Lucas' house without raising his suspicions?"

"I was supposed to cast an aversion spell around the ruins of this house," Althea said. "I haven't done it yet. And my obligation to you has ended. I gave you the means to cast the Hunt into chaos." Quite suddenly, she did not want to be involved in this. She wanted to live out the rest of her life as a member of the Council, not as a fugitive.

"But I don't have my hostage," Magdalen said. "What cause does Gabriel have to bind himself to me?"

"I thought you were sending someone to fetch Josiah," Althea said slowly. "Or that you would call Malachi back."

"Josiah--Josiah--killed one of my Hounds," Stefan said abruptly, and now Althea knew why he had been so angry before.

"You sent a Hound after a Hound?" she asked. "Inside the castle?"

"Of course not," Magdalen said. "I need Emle, Althea. Emle or the child. I cannot make this work without one of them. The Hounds are no matter to me now."

"They're under Lucas' protection!" Althea protested. "Do you truly expect me to cross the Council to help you?" And yet, even as she said it, she knew that Magdalen would expect just that. "I could--"

"Don't speculate, just bring them here. Or kill one of them if you wish and bring the other," Magdalen ordered. "And try to find out if Lucas intends to free the Hunt. I need you, Althea. Don't abandon me now."

Despite her misgivings, Althea nodded. "I will do my best," she said, and wondered if she even wanted to do her best. Was it too late to back out now?

She could--

She could have the Hunt for herself, after all.

For a moment, she couldn't believe that she had thought such a thing. She didn't want the Hunt. She wanted to be a member of the Council. She had always wanted to be a member of the Council. Nothing more.

"Do better than your best," Magdalen said, and patted her on the cheek as if she were a tiny child. "Bring her here or bring the child."

Before Althea could muster any indignation; before she could snarl that she wasn't a child anymore, Magdalen swept out of the room. A moment later, Althea heard her walking up the stairs.

To fetch Jordan? If she brought Jordan downstairs, he would read her mind and know her thoughts. And Magdalen would force him to tell her what she was thinking--which would be disastrous.

"I should go," Althea said to Stefan, who shrugged. "I'll be back."

Stefan smiled. "Of course."

If Althea controlled the Hunt--if she could hide the fact that she controlled them from the Council--then she could destroy everyone who knew of her involvement with Magdalen. If Kyren had drowned, then he wasn't a threat anymore, but Jordan knew, and Kyren's cursed Cousin; the elves in general, and Magdalen herself.

Althea stopped with her hand on the doorknob. Of course she wouldn't dare to do such a thing. Magdalen wanted the Hunt. Althea only wanted her seat on the Council.

She shoved all thought of treachery out of her mind and left the house as quickly as she could, all-too-aware of Jordan's presence.

If she controlled the Hunt, the first person to die would be Jordan, if only to eliminate the danger of his continued existence.

Monsters did not deserve to live.

(Next Update: October 11th)
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