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Mercedes Lackey

Morning in Bosnia. They aren't going to be making any breakfast commercials around here. 

With the oddly comforting sounds of clattering cutlery and subdued voices around him, Nigel Peters nursed his coffee, curving his hands around the comforting heat of the mug. The coffee was the only thing warm in the mess tent on a day like today—bleak, gray, threatening to rain though it probably wouldn't. Bosnia in the spring was no tourist spot.

Though the part of Bosnia that he and his team were in was never going to be a tourist spot—or indeed, a spot for anything living—until they got done clearing it. It had already claimed more than its share of lives—and limbs. Mostly the lives and limbs of children.

That was the hellish thing about mines and UXOs—Unexploded Ordinance. They almost never got the "enemy" they were intended for. They almost always claimed civilians.

Mostly children.

Someone in khaki brought a tray over and sat down beside him as he waited for his brain to wake up along with the rest of him. "Long day ahead of us." That was the new bloke—Nige searched his memory for the name. Kyle, that was it, Kyle Lawson. American. Friendly enough chap, and said to be very good on the new, mostly plastic stuff.

"It always is," Nige replied, taking a comforting sip of his brew. "You get that shite tucked away in where we can't take it out the easy way, and—" He shrugged. "No worse than London."

"I'd heard about that," Kyle said, a curl of dark hair making a comma above one eye. He sounded eager. Well, good. Could be he'd caught the fever, the hunger to do something, not just sit there and watch disasters happen. Only the ones that caught the fever stuck it out. Not that he blamed the others; this was a humanitarian effort, and their budget was a fraction of that of police and military UXB squads. But that was an advantage as well as a disadvantage, what with robots and remote detonators, a lot of his skills were going unused on the Special Unit, which was why he was here, now. "I'd heard you were something stellar on the Special Bomb Squad on the police force in London."

Nige shrugged, though he felt secretly flattered. "I wasn't bad. Heh. Obviously." Obvious, because if he had been bad, he'd have been long dead by now.

"How long? I mean, how long were you with them?" He was a good-looking kid, too. Strange. Good-looking kids were rare out here. Hopefully he wouldn't take a blast to the face to change that.

"Thirty years. Since the seventies. Retired, couldn't sit." That was a long time for a bomb-man. Kyle whistled.

"What made you start?" he persisted. "I mean, not too many people wake up one morning and decide, 'Hey, I think I'll make my living defusing live bombs!' now do they?"

Nige had to laugh; the guy had a sense of humor, too. Another good point; the humor might get mordant, but you had to have it, if you were going to stick. "Put it that way, no—and I guess I'd have to say it was because—because of something that happened to me."

And someone.  

If he closed his eyes, he could see her, as if she stood before him now.

Tariniel. Oh, Tari—  

Then he opened them as something occurred to him. New guy. Good looking and young. Hadn't seen him out in the field yet—

He grinned. "You're the new headshrinker, aren't you? Oh, excuse me. Stress and Trauma Counselor."

Kyle spread his hands and grinned back. "Busted. Though you know how budget is. I am as good in the field as they say I am. So when I'm not doing eval and trauma counseling I'll be out there, too, with the rest of you."

"I ought to be asking you how a headshrinker got into this business," Nige responded with a lifted eyebrow.

"Army Corps of Engineers," Kyle said promptly. "You know how the Army is; you go in saying you want to do one thing, they send you out to do something else. Friend of mine was a communications specialist, fluent in six languages; they sent him out with a radio and no training on it. I had half a psych degree, I said Intel or Counseling, I got mine-clearing, got out, finished my degree, and this came up." He shrugged. "I'm a type A anyway, and I can't know there's a need and not do something about it. Who wants to sit in an office and listen to Dinks whine about how they aren't fulfilled?"

"Dinks?" That was a new racial epithet on Nige—if it was racial.

"Double Income, No Kids," Kyle supplied promptly. "So, let's keep this evaluation informal, shall we? No office, no stress tests, just talk to me. Your file says abusive parents?"

Nige shook his head, but was still smiling. "Only when they could catch me."

* * *

Nige had run away from home again; the old man was drunk, and Mum was off with some posh boy from the West End. As soon as the old man found out about it, he'd take it out on Nige. So Nige did the smart thing; hopped a random train at the tube station and took it as far as it would go. He'd get off and kick around until it got dark, or he figured the old man would have passed out, then he'd go home again.

He'd been doing this to get away since he was old enough to get on a train or a bus by himself. At first he'd stuck to the ones he knew so he wouldn't get himself lost, but he got tired of ending up in the same old places. He saved things like the museums and other public buildings for days when the weather was too wretched to be outside; for good days like this one, he'd go exploring. A surprising number of lines ended out in what was the next thing to countryside, places an East-Ender like Nige would never get to, usually. An adult might find himself under the eye of coppers out here, but a kid, no matter how scruffy, was usually ignored so long as he stayed out of trouble.

And Nige was often able to get into places that required admission fees just by tagging along as part of a group and looking as if he belonged, especially when kiddies under the age of ten or eleven got in free. Today was no exception. Once off the train, he saw buses and tourists on the other side of a bridge across the Thames. He'd fitted himself into a bunch of red-faced American adults off a bus, and found himself inside Hampton Court Palace.

Pretty groovy place, too; he'd always fancied old Henry, though he kept getting that old music-hall song that Herman's Hermits had done running through his head.


"I'm Hen-er-y the Eighth I am,
Hen-er-y the Eighth I am, I am.
I got married to the widow next door,
she's been married seven times before . . ." 


He detached himself from the group as quickly as he could, and started to wander, keeping quiet, just looking, making himself invisible. Really posh everywhere you looked; well, the king and all! He wondered if he'd get to see a ghost.

No such luck, but he did find the famous maze. He studied the key at the entrance, and although there was no guide up on the watching post, decided it couldn't be too hard to get out even if he did make a couple of wrong turns by accident, and went in.

Maybe other people might find it claustrophobic, but he was immediately enchanted. With the walls of boxwood rising on either side of him, higher than the head of an adult, cutting off a lot of sound as well as the wind, it was like being in another world, one in which there were no other people. It smelled like old leaves in here, which Nige didn't find at all unpleasant, though it was a little stuffy. He found the center without any trouble at all, and decided after a moment that he was going to kick around in here for a while. He liked the feeling of privacy, of being in the wilderness, almost. He'd always liked those adventure stories about being out in the forest, and this was the closest thing he'd come to it yet.

Exploring the dead-end paths seemed like a good option, especially when he started to hear the voices of another tour group approaching. The last thing he wanted to do was have a tourist bumbling into him.

The first few dead ends were hardly more than a couple turnings, no fun at all, but finally he came to one that seemed a lot more promising. It kept winding around, and there was no sign at all of wear on the thick, green turf. It quickly took him farther from those voices until he couldn't hear them at all. It really didn't dawn on him that there was anything odd about the path at first, until he began to realize that he had come much farther than he should have been able to go without crossing another path. And that it was no longer broad daylight above the hedges, but dusk.

And that he couldn't hear anything but birdsong.

* * *

"So you got into this because of someone you met?" asked Kyle.

"Yeah. Bird name of Tari." He sipped his coffee. "None of that Mrs. Robinson stuff. Kind of adopted me. I suppose in a way you could call her a teacher."

* * *

It was about that time that he realized—more with his gut than his head—that he wasn't where he'd thought he was. But somehow this didn't alarm him at all.

But the appearance of a strange woman around yet another turning did.

She had long silver-blond hair, down past her waist, with a wreath of leaves on it and a long, gauzy sort of pale-green dress, and his first thought was, Some kind of hippie. But then he saw her eyes—and her ears.

Her eyes were the green of leaves when the sun shines through them—but they were slitted like a cat's. And her ears had points to them.

He felt his jaw drop. No. No, this only happens in the pantos, or the movies. 

"Hello, Nige," the woman—lady—oh all right, say it, fairy!—said, in the most musical voice imaginable. "My name is Tariniel. I've been waiting for you."

His jaw dropped a little further. "For me?" he squeaked.

She nodded, gravely.

* * *

"What do you mean by that?" Kyle persisted.

"Well—she took me places—"

All over Underhill. Bloody hell, I met Titania. Shakespeare's Titania! Saw things I'd never even dreamed of. Things you can't even imagine, me boy— 

"And she taught me a lot. History, but with a twist, you know?" He raised an eyebrow, and held out his empty cup for it to be refilled when someone with a hot pot went by. "Like, not so much who won, but who lost, and what that meant to them. Not from the point of view of whatever emperor or king it was, but from the point of view of the poor bloody peasant that got his crops trampled and his wife and daughters raped."

Kyle winced. "Kind of rough on a kid, wasn't that?"

"Oh, that stuff came when she figured I was ready to handle it. She did a lot of education on me, without it seeming like anything but fun. And managed to get me to connect with responsibility. At first it was—well—consequences. My kind of consequences. Little stuff at first—how me getting into somebody at school ends up with them beating up some littler kid. When I started thinking about what I was going to do before I did it, she went on and showed me other stuff. Like how—Mum has a bad day at the shop, and some bloke comes by with a line and a bit of grass, and she thinks about going home to whiny me and drunk Dad and—makes a bad choice. How Dad sees he isn't as posh or young as the blokes that was picking up Mum, and has a bit in his pocket and—makes a bad choice."

Kyle looked puzzled. "You mean she took you to spy on your own parents?"

Nige laughed. "No, not even close. She was—just a good storyteller. And it wasn't so much telling me things as getting me to understand them for myself."

* * *

Tari blew on the water of the scrying bowl and the image of his father in the pub faded away. Nige looked up at her soberly. "So it's not Dad's fault he's—"

"I didn't say that," Tari said gently. "He is making his own choices. They're just bad choices; bad for your mum, and bad for you. And your mum is doing the same."

"So why are you showing me this?" he persisted. Part of him wished she'd just quit with the morality lessons and take him somewhere fun—but part of him wanted to know. 

"Because there might be something you can do to change the choices they're making," she said. "I don't know what it is, but when you see the causes and the consequences, sometimes you can change your situation from the inside. And even if there isn't anything you can do to help them, there are still things you can do to help yourself, now that you know." Then she smiled. "Let's go for a ride, shall we? I'll call the elvensteeds. Where would you like to go?"

That was more like! "Elfhame Melisande!"

* * *

"What I don't understand is why she didn't get the authorities to try and take you away from your parents," Kyle said, looking deeply puzzled now. "I mean—"

"That wasn't as easy as it is now," Nige interrupted. "People didn't even call it 'child abuse' back then, and you had to really screw up to get your kid taken away from you. And besides—she said herself that the only thing really wrong with my parents was that they didn't think, they didn't plan, they just did things without looking at consequences, and didn't know what they were doing—to each other, themselves, or me. They were just reacting to pain."

"You must have been angry that she didn't take you away, though," Kyle observed shrewdly.

He snorted. "Yeah. Something like."

* * *

"Why can't I stay here with you?" Nigel stormed, raging at his benefactor as only he could, with a face full of fury and fists clenched at his side, holding himself back so tightly it seemed as if his heart was going to burst. "I've seen the others! I know you can keep kids if you want to! Why can't I stay here? I don't want to go back!"

His rages, so controlled, so self-contained, had cowed even adults before this. Not Tariniel. "And if I tell you the reasons, will you be content with them?" she asked, perfectly calmly. "If I speak to you as if you are old enough to hear those reasons and understand and accept them?"

Her words took him completely off guard. He blinked at her, and abruptly the rage drained out of him. No one had ever asked him if he wanted to be treated like an adult before. "Maybe," he said, cautiously.

"Then come—because part of it is that I must show you." She beckoned to him, and he followed, to the edge of what he now knew was called a "domain," a place Underhill where an elf or elves together could build something that suited them out of the Chaos. Normally this was just a drifting silver mist with colored sparks appearing in it, a cloud over silver sand. But something was wrong with the mist today—it looked like the blackest of thunderclouds, and it boiled at the protective field that hemmed in Tari's little domain. There was even lightning in it. "Look," she said, gesturing at the angry, roiling clouds. "You did that, just now, with your anger."

He gaped. "Me? But—"

"It will take me a month to soothe the mists," she said, sadly. "I will not dare to walk in these Chaos Lands until I have."

"I'm—Tari, I'm sorry!" he cried in distress, and the mists roiled in answer to his emotion. "I didn't mean to do it! Honestly!"

"I know you did not, Nige," she said, laying a comforting arm around his shoulders, and turning him away from the sight. "You cannot help it; there is so much anger in you, and rightly—but I dare not have that anger here, not for any length of time, not until you learn to harness it and turn it to some good purpose, and that is years away from you. And that is only the first reason. The second is that you do truly love your parents, even though you are angry at them, and they truly love you, and we do not take children whose parents still love them."

* * *

"Besides, the old man might have clouted me a time or two when he was drunk, and maybe Mum was an easy piece—but they loved me." He shrugged. "Look, they never, not once, forgot my birthday. When there was a school prize day, they were there. No matter where Mum had been the night before, she was home, making breakfast before school—no matter how drunk the old man was, he'd come in at least once during the night and look in on me and see I was all right. Okay, so they hurt me; well, that happens. It could have been worse, and they were sorry after. They weren't real good at showing they loved me, but when I wasn't mad at them, I knew it."

Kyle nodded. "So, that takes us up to when you were twelve."

He left that hanging in the air. Nige nodded. "Twelve . . ."

* * *

The IRA had been planting bombs all over that year. Postbox bombs. Car bombs. Package bombs. Bombs in trash bins. Bombs left in paper sacks. Seemed as if every time you turned on the telly, there was another bomb—either found before it exploded, or gone off.

He didn't really think about it, after the first couple of months. You just didn't; you went about your business, you watched for the alarms if you were in a tube station, you kept an eye out for the police, but otherwise, life went on. He didn't remember being any more or less scared after a while than he had been before all the bombings. Except maybe he was a little more worried about his old man, because they seemed to like planting bombs in and near pubs, but that was it.

So he just wasn't thinking about bombs at all, that morning as he cut across Hyde Park, going to meet Tari. There weren't too many places he could meet her in London proper; she explained to him that all of the steel in buildings and all messed with her magic, which was why she had first met him in the maze at Hampton Court Palace. But there was a place in Hyde Park where she could come through—oddly enough, near the Peter Pan statue—and that was where he was going to meet her.

He could remember the rest of it so clearly—he was passing a car, an old Morris Minor with flaking blue paint. It looked as if it had been abandoned there, and he remembered thinking that it wasn't likely it would be there long. And then—

There was a flash of green light, and Tari, Tari was there, wrapping her arms around him, her face a mask of terror and panic and a terrible strength, and power, her magic power just flaring off of her, her hair going all over like a Mucha poster, her dress billowing in a wind that was nowhere else but around her and—

And then the explosion.

She didn't make a sound; that was the worst part of it, maybe. There was just this intense flash of light, the impact, and the roar, as he was lifted up and tossed like a toy. She just—wasn't there—

And then everything went black.

* * *

"And you were caught in that Hyde Park bomb." Kyle sipped at his own cooling coffee. "You claimed at the time that a woman shielded you from most of the blast with her own body."

"I still claim it. That was Tari. My teacher." He set his chin stubbornly. "Got any good ideas how I would have survived, otherwise?"

Kyle put his cup down and brooded into it. "Well," he admitted, "no. Not when a police horse farther away than you were was blown in half. Even though they never found any—sign of her."

Nige shrugged, and stuck to the story he had given since the day he woke up in hospital with both Mum and Dad at his bedside. "Explosions do funny things, sometimes. We both know that. Especially amateur stuff."

He'd wept, dear God in heaven, how he'd wept, when he realized that she must be dead. His parents believed him when no one else would. It helped that there were one or two witnesses who'd said they'd seen a woman in green shield him with her body the moment before the explosion, though they couldn't say where she had come from or how she had gotten there.

"Anyway, I think that was when I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life making sure no one else got blown to bits." He said it casually, but it hadn't been casual at the time. It had been a vow, like the vows that the knights Tari had taught him about made at the altars of their gods; it had been a moment of purest dedication. Tari had died to save him. Therefore, he would make sure his life was worth some of that sacrifice. "And—after that, things were better with my parents." He raised an eyebrow at Kyle. "Now, don't go thinking that this was a Disney flick kind of 'better.' It wasn't. Dad still drank a bit too much, and Mum had a hard time with being a party girl. But she went out of her way to take Dad to the parties—so she wouldn't be going home with anybody but him. And he cut down. And they still fought, but it was less. And I got a smack now and again, but at least half the time I deserved it. Dad got to see me graduate from the Police Academy before lung cancer got him. Mum—" He sighed. "Sometimes I think she didn't realize until after he was gone how much she loved him after all. They called it pneumonia, but it seemed to me she just pined away, not even a year after he was gone."

"But—?" Kyle raised an eyebrow.

He snorted. "You know, you're not bad, headshrinker. I like you. I'll tell you what I've not told any of the others. I forgave them for everything they'd ever done wrong long before they died. And I forgave myself. We all make choices, but lots of times we don't even realize we're doing it; Tari taught me that. She taught me how to try and make good ones, most of the time. This is one of mine. I found something I wanted to do, something needed, and I was good at it. I don't have a death wish; I don't plan on blowing myself up to atone for the choice she made to save me." His mouth quirked up at one corner. "If anything, I plan to keep on living to pay that sacrifice back, as much as it can be paid back. Every time we blow some rotten shite up that we've dug out, I pay some of that back. And it feels bloody good. There you are; that's the Nigel Peters package. Satisfied?"

"Yep. Just a couple more questions. Women?"

"Nothing permanent; not fair to the woman, and I've seen too many divorces in this job." He grinned. "Not that I'm a monk. You'd be surprised how much this job turns women on." True enough. He never had to go to bed alone unless he felt like it.

"No, I wouldn't." Kyle grinned back. "Friends?"

"Absolutely. Fast friends, and when they go, I help put them in the ground and mourn them and get on with the job. Or, if I'm lucky, help hand them their gold watch." That was true enough, too. Tari had taught him that as well. What was the point of having a heart if you kept it closed in?

"You, my friend, are almost pathologically sane," Kyle said sincerely, and slapped him on the back. "Clean bill. Let's go blow some rotten shit up."


They both got up from the table and went to find out the day's assignments. Nige regretted only that he could not tell the lad the only thing that still festered in his heart, the one wound that would not heal.

That nothing he had ever read, learned, or seen, either before or since, said that fairies had—souls. In fact, most things he'd found said, most emphatically, that they did not. Which meant that when Tari had given up her life for his—it had been the most ultimate of sacrifices.

That was the gnawing pain that kept him awake at night sometimes; the thing that made him weep harder at funerals. She was gone, like a soap bubble, like a dream. . . .

How could anyone be worthy of that?

* * *

They stepped out of the tent, into the sunshine and—

The world became a huge, soundless flash of light. There was a fragment of thought—no—mine—here?—and a moment of weightlessness, and then—

Then he was standing uncertainly, looking down at—himself. Himself crumpled on the ground, while all around him people were diving for cover, yelling, and some of the UN boys were spreading out and firing at some target he couldn't see.

Didn't see, because he was looking down at himself, at the round, red hole in the middle of his forehead.

"Sniper," he said aloud, in mingled shock and disgust. "Bloody bastard sniper—what the bloody hell is he doing shooting at us?"

Some people don't want the mines taken out, Nigel. And some people don't care who the target is as long as they have one.  

There was a medic beside him now, but it was pretty obvious even to an idiot that he was gone. Kyle was screaming and cursing, held back under cover by one of the squad. The UN boys were moving out, but the sniper would be long gone by now. Unless he was in the top of one of the nearby bombed-out buildings; then they might catch him before he got away.

"Bloody hell. I'm—dead." Somehow it was less of a shock now. Or else it was so much of a shock that he'd gone numb. The medic was shaking his head; someone brought a blanket and covered him up.

"I'm sorry, Nige." A hand fell lightly on his shoulder, a low and musical female voice full of sorrow spoke those three words in his ear. He turned, the shock beginning to be replaced by incredulous wonder.

"Tari?" he gasped. And as he turned away from it, the scene before him began to fade away, fade into a silver mist, like the silver mist of the Chaos Lands Underhill.

And there was Tariniel, looking exactly as he remembered her looking, only—only now he was a man. She caught where his gaze was going, and flushed, delicately.

"Tari—what are you? I mean—how—?"

"I waited for you, Nige," she said, simply. "It's allowed."

"But—everything I read or heard said the Fair Folk don't have souls!" He still could hardly believe it was really her—it had to be some hallucination of a dying brain—

Except that with a round through his skull there wouldn't be much brain to have an hallucination.

She dimpled. "Well, the people who wrote those things had a vested interest in saying that, didn't they?" she retorted, then sobered. "But I can't go where you are going unless you take me. That's why I waited for you. I can go to TirNaOg, but nowhere else, unless you want me to go with you. And you can't go to TirNaOg without me. That's the price we paid in the war of the Powers, we who took neither the side of the angels nor the devils; Hell won't have us, and Heaven won't hold us, unless a mortal takes us there. But no mortal can go to TirNaOg except by our hands. So, I waited. I didn't want to go anywhere without you."

"Unless—" He blinked. And thought. TirNaOg, the Isles of the Blest . . .

Never much cared for harp music, or the kind of people who're sure they're going to Heaven.  

"What's TirNaOg like?" he asked.

"I don't know," she told him, smiling so brightly she lit up the mist around her as she put her hand in his. The mists opened up to show a path that ended in a verdant light, a sound of laughing water, and a wilderness alive with birdsong. "Shall we find out?"



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