Back | Next
Contents


TWO:
THE TREES THEY DO GROW HIGH

By turning himself into a cleaning tornado for a couple of hours—and by recruiting Greystone for things like moving furniture while he vacuumed and then used the steam cleaner he'd borrowed from one of his neighbors—Eric got the apartment up to Beth's standards of hygiene, with all the windows wide open to let in blasts of borrowed winter cold. He even sucked all the crumbs out of the crevices of the couch and chairs—something he hadn't done since before the last party. Ordinarily he wouldn't have bothered doing the Martha Stewart thing. The floor and most of the surfaces were clear, and what was the good of being a Bard if you couldn't set a spell around your home to chase out cockroaches, insects, and rodents, after all?—but Beth was going to be a lot fussier about cleanliness with the baby around.


A baby. Bethie had a daughter. Eric could barely imagine it. And the thought that he might have had any part in the deed seemed to be the rankest fantasy.


"Have I ever told you about the time that Kory discovered microwave popcorn?" Eric called over his shoulder as he shook out a match. Just to be sure that Beth's nose didn't twitch suspiciously, he was lighting vanilla-scented candles on top of the bookshelves, while Greystone popped the Chinese he'd ordered into the oven to stay warm.


"No. What'd he do? Pop every bag in the cupboard?" the gargoyle asked with a snigger. Greystone was an actual, genuine, medieval gargoyle. He had a fanged doglike face and curling horns, long apelike arms, and hindquarters like a satyr's, right down to the cloven hooves. Great bat wings lay against his back like furled umbrellas. Except for his big dark eyes, he was a uniform, textured gray all over, right down to the soot smudges and patches of lichen. And despite the fact that he lived and moved and talked, he seemed to be made of solid stone. He'd been Eric's first friend in Guardian House, coming that first night to Eric's tentative request for a friend. And Greystone had been a good one ever since.


"And then some," Eric said. "Gulls ate well that day. You should have seen Bethie's face." It had been a sight, for certain-sure; they'd eaten the stuff for breakfast as if it was cereal, with Beth standing over both of them (as if he'd had anything to do with it!) brandishing a wooden spoon to make sure they finished every bite. Even stuffing themselves with popcorn three meals a day, there was too much to eat before it got stale.


But to see the dumbfounded expression on Beth's face when she'd come into the kitchen that morning and found it full of popcorn had been worth it. Eric smiled reminiscently.


The gargoyle (who normally spent most of the day on the cornice ledge just outside Eric's apartment) strolled into the living room, still chuckling. Though as much a creature of magic as any Sidhe, Greystone had been anything but isolated from progress during his long life. He'd been a constant eavesdropper on and observer of life in the big city from the time that the building was erected during the late 1800s, and often (if the occupant of "his" apartment was a Guardian or other user of magic) a participant in the ordinary life of a New Yorker—insofar as anyone Greystone would be hanging out with ever had an "ordinary" life, that was. Greystone knew as much about appliances and the amenities of a modern apartment as Eric did.


More, actually. We'd been on the run for so long by the time we went Underhill that I'd gotten out of the habit of being a techno-junkie, and Elfhame Misthold isn't exactly your local Circuit City. 


Greystone had been delighted to discover that Eric wasn't the type to freak out when a stone gargoyle came to life and tapped on the window. The gargoyle often spent the long hours of late nights watching television in Eric's living room—but he never, ever imposed. Having him around was rather like having a congenial roommate with none of the disadvantages roommates often brought with them.


And he's alphabetized my CDs and DVDs. How cool is that? 


Greystone cocked his head to the side. "They're on the way up," he announced, though Eric heard nothing. "Can I stick around?"


"With Bethie dying to show off Maeve to the world? No question!" Eric said. He was surprised at how relieved he felt.


Beth and Kory already knew about Greystone—they knew about Guardian House as well, at least what Eric knew; that the House had been built to shelter the Guardians of New York, a kind of magical police force set up to protect ordinary humans from those who would use magic against them—or from inadvertently stumbling into the path of the supernormal entities who shared their world. There were never fewer than two and seldom more than four Guardians living here at the same time—Eric wasn't yet quite sure how one became a Guardian, as that was a subject upon which the Guardians themselves were rather reticent—and the House itself selected those other "normal" people who would live here. If Guardian House wanted you, you saw a "Vacancy" sign in the super's window. If it didn't, you didn't. It was all as simple as that.


Most of the "regular" tenants were artists, dancers, and musicians. Most of them were quietly, but devoutly, religious, although the House didn't care what their religion was. Most of them had no idea that the Guardians were the sole reason for the House's existence, that the Guardians even existed, or that they supplied a positive and energetic "atmosphere" for the Guardians to live in.


But a few of the House's civilian tenants, like Eric, were true magicians, and they knew. They served as a kind of unofficial auxiliary force to be called on in an emergency.


But though the Guardians were powerful and far more knowledgeable than the average human, Eric had found that they didn't know everything. They hadn't known, for instance, that there were such things as Bards—or that elves, the real Sidhe of legend, actually existed. Hadn't, that is, until Eric moved in.


Then they'd found out in spades.


A light tap on the door told Eric that Greystone, as usual, had been right. He flung it open for two figures in motorcycle leathers and helmets, the tall one in blue and the short one in red, with a tiny baby in a matching red leather carry-sack slung across her chest.


Beth pulled off her helmet and shook out her long hair with a sigh of pleasure. She was still keeping the auburn tresses Kory had engineered for her when the Feds had been on their tail—her original hair color had been black, but the auburn suited her. Her skin still glowed with the hormones of her recent pregnancy, and her brown eyes no longer showed that peculiar "haunted" look that had been in them for so long. Instead, there was a softer, more contented expression on her face, especially when she glanced down at baby Maeve.


"Well, Banyon, are you going to keep us standing in the hall all day?" she asked, handing him her helmet. Eric grinned, stepping back to allow them to enter the apartment.


There was the usual moment of kissing and hugging and congestion in the doorway, while Greystone stood aside and grinned. Kory, as usual, looked every inch the Elven Knight, even though he had a motorcycle helmet under his arm instead of a helm, and leathers instead of armor. Tall, muscular, blond as a child of the sun, if any fashion photographer in the world had gotten a look at him, he could have named his price—except, of course, for the pointed ears and green eyes, with their vertical-slit pupils like a cat's. All elves had those eyes and ears; their natural hair color was blond as well, but not all of them stuck to the natural color. After all, just about anything was possible for an elf, even shape-shifting. Eric had seen elves with heads of pink, blue, and purple hair that would make a punker or raver drool with envy; he'd even seen elves sporting hairdos of feathers, leaves, or tiger stripes. He'd seen them with the gauzy wings of Victorian fairies, or batwings, or feathers—all functional, if not actually capable of supporting flight. Tails, horns, hooves—nothing was impossible, which might account for the sightings of so many kinds of creatures in myth and legend. Kory, however, preferred to keep to the "natural" form—blond hair, slitted green eyes, pointed ears, and otherwise looking human.


Eric carried an armful of leathers and helmets into the bedroom while Beth unpacked Maeve and made sure the baby had survived the trip unscathed. When everyone had settled in the living room, Eric made his introductions.


"Greystone, this is Beth Kentraine and Sieur Korendil, Elven Knight and Magus Minor of Elfhame Sun-Descending. Beth and Kory, meet Greystone."


"I've heard so much about you," Beth said, smiling. "And this is Maeve." She held up the baby in her arms, and then, to his horror, offered her to Eric. He had no choice but to take her—it was that or run, and Beth would have slain him on the spot.


Maeve's flushed face, surrounded papoose-like by a fleecy wrap, didn't excite much in Eric but apprehension.


"She looks like Winston Churchill," he said dubiously, looking down at a face with eyes screwed tightly shut and contorted into a disagreeable grimace. A faint whiff of baby powder and milk came up to his nose as she opened her mouth in a silent (for the moment) protest.


"Eric!" Beth exclaimed indignantly, while Kory looked puzzled, tucking his blond hair behind his sharply pointed ears. Elves loved children.


The baby scowled at Eric. Beth had said she was beautiful, but to Eric she was looking more every minute like a wizened old man in a temper. She mewed. It sounded as if she was thinking about howling.


Now what do I do? he wondered, just a hint of panic arising. She seemed to be all knees and elbows, writhing muscularly in his arms as if she very much did not want to be there.


"Don't be daft, Bard, she's lovely," Greystone scolded. "And you're holding her all wrong. Give her here." He held out his hands summarily, and Eric, not at all loathe, handed the baby quickly to the gargoyle. Maeve might be his—or rather, he was Maeve's biological father—but there was no feeling of parental bonding there so far as he was concerned. He'd never been around babies when he was growing up, and they were almost as scarce on the RenFaire circuit as they were Underhill.


With relief he saw Greystone cuddle the tiny creature in sturdy arms that seemed to understand instinctively how to make the baby comfortable.


"There's a lovely little lady," the gargoyle crooned, wiggling one finger in front of Maeve's nose. "Boojie, boojie, boojie wooooo." The baby looked up at him with blank, blue eyes, but lost that disapproving expression and even made a tentative gurgling sound.


"I think she likes you, Greystone," Eric said, a little surprised.


"Of course she likes me, ye gurt idiot," Greystone retorted with fond indignation. "Never saw a baby that didn't, and I've been nanny to every Guardian's child here since the House was built."


Eric took the opportunity to beat a tactical retreat, heading into the kitchen to gather plates, cutlery, and the cartons of Chinese food Greystone had left in the oven. He arranged them on a tray and added drinks—designer water for Kory and Greystone, tea for Beth—before carrying the meal out into the living room on a tray. Greystone and Beth were both bent over Maeve, clucking and cooing at her while Kory looked on proudly. The domestic tableau left Eric feeling a little unsettled, as if he were being shut out of something he really didn't want to be a part of. It was a peculiar feeling.


"Luncheon is served," he intoned, deliberately breaking the mood. He set the tray down on the coffee table and began setting out the plates.


"Not much Chinese carryout Underhill, huh?" Eric teased, watching Beth and Kory inhale his offerings with a fine appetite while Greystone amused Maeve, holding her in one massive arm while scarfing egg rolls with his free hand.


"They still haven't got the knack of making or even kenning and creating it, and when it comes to carryout, the Fairgoers would rather have pizza anyway," Beth replied around a forkful of moo shu chicken, "And for some reason I didn't want anything like this until after the munchkin came. Then I thought I would kill for lo mein."


Eric and Kory exchanged a wordless masculine look of complete incomprehension. Kory mouthed a single sentence—just a few words, really.


Honey-nut bread and cabbage soup. 


Ah, so that was what Beth had craved during her pregnancy! Eric nodded with sympathy, though he privately thought that Kory'd had it easy. Maybe the meals he'd shared with Beth were monotonous, but at least the ingredients were easily obtained Underhill. What if she'd wanted sushi—or birds' nest soup—or some other weird delicacy?


On the other hand, cabbage soup, while being—ah—fragrant, wasn't exactly the aroma-of-choice that Eric would have picked for dinnertime. And it did tend to linger.


Finally, the hunger aroused by a long ride from the Everforest Gate to New York City assuaged, Kory and Beth declared themselves sated and Eric cleaned away the plates.


"Bethie, ye can count on me for babysitting any time you're Overhill," Greystone announced, handing Maeve back to her mother. He looked up now, and raised an eyebrow like a cliff cornice at her as she beamed at him. "How are ye feeding her, then? Just breast?"


Somehow, Eric had noticed, whenever the gargoyle was around Kory and Beth, his Irish—or pseudo-Irish—accent got thicker. Why a gargoyle should have an Irish accent, and not a French one, he couldn't fathom. It was just one of those New York mysteries, he guessed. Or maybe the apartment's first tenant had been Irish. Greystone had to have learned his English somewhere.


Beth blushed. "Well—not entirely. I'm not exactly—well—a Holstein. The healers concocted a formula that Maeve likes; Kory can magic it up for us when we need it."


Elves, even minor mages like Kory, could always ken an object or substance and conjure more of it up later. That was why Eric himself was, for as long as he was in school, financially solvent—Dharniel and Kory had supplied him with enough gold Krugerrands (which, conveniently enough, completely lacked any identifying serial numbers) to give him a fat and very golden nest egg.


Eric wasn't surprised that Kory was helping to supplement Maeve's feeding magically, since as was vividly obvious in the tight motorcycle leathers, Beth's figure was back to her pre- pregnancy slimness, probably in no small part due to a little help from elven healers Underhill.


And we could make a fortune out here in the mortal world if we could just bottle that! No need for the Jane Fonda Pregnancy Workout if you've got the Sidhe on your side. 


"Well, good." The gargoyle grinned. "You can just be leavin' the little angel with me tonight while ye have some fun out in the city, an' I'll be givin' her the bottle while ye're gone."


"Oh, would you?" Beth exclaimed delightedly, and then blushed again. "Oh, that sounds awful, but—"


"But what's the harm in you havin' an evenin' out for a movie or summat?" Greystone countered quickly. " 'Tis time for a little holiday, I'm thinkin', and the wee one will be fine here. 'Tis many a nappie I've changed in me time—" he chuckled, a sound like rocks grating together "—and it's a fine thing for me that I've no sense of smell to speak of."


Better you than me, Eric thought, but didn't say out loud. He'd been worried that their evening plans might have to be adjusted to include a baby—or worse, that Beth wouldn't want to go out at all. Before she could change her mind, he went straight for the computer and logged on to the net, pulling up the New York Times entertainment web pages.


"Here're your choices," he called over his shoulder, while Beth was still protesting that Greystone didn't have to be a babysitter and Greystone was insisting it would be a fine treat to have a baby in his arms again. Kory got up to peer over Eric's shoulder with interest—computer technology had changed a lot since the last time Kory'd seen a computer—while Beth paused in mid-sentence, then shrugged and laughed, acknowledging defeat.


"Okay, Banyon. I'm sold. What've you got for us this evening, then?"


After some discussion, they decided on The Lion King—it was finally possible to get tickets after months of nothing but sold-out performances, and it was the show Eric thought Kory would enjoy the most.


Movies they could always see later; with help from Elfhame Fairgrove in Savannah, the most technologically sophisticated of the hames, a limited amount of human technology had been brought Underhill for the benefit of Beth and other humans who had sought shelter there. One of those bits of technology was a DVD player—which worked better than the VCR they'd originally had down there did, for some reason. They were still trying to work out how to bring in satellite TV, according to Kory—right now when anyone from Fairgrove wanted to see NASA Channel, Headline News, or (most especially) Speedvision, they had to retire to one of the Fairgrove buildings Overhill.


Eric booked their seats through Ticketron Online—one of the perks of carrying an AmEx Platinum card—and for the first time in a long time, the three of them went out onto the streets of a city, to spend an evening together, as they once used to.


* * *

"That was great," Beth sighed, much later, after peeking into the portable crib set up in the bedroom to make sure Maeve was all right. Babies, Eric had discovered, needed about as much support gear as the average astronaut, but fortunately Beth, unlike most mortal moms, had a portable hole to carry it in. The amount of stuff she'd unpacked from it before she'd been willing to leave Maeve with Greystone had been purely mind-boggling.


"That was fantastic, in fact."


They'd made the curtain without any trouble, walking most of the way so that Beth and Kory could get a taste of New York. After the show they'd stopped at Luchow's for dessert, and were home by midnight.


Kory nodded, his green eyes still shining—literally!—with pleasure. "I forget, sometimes, just what a marvel mortal creativity is," he said, clearly without thinking who he was with. "Imagine creating something that has never been before, just with the power of the mind!"


Eric laughed. "So what am I, chopped liver?" he asked mockingly, and Kory flushed.


"Nay, Bard, I didn't—" the elf faltered.


"I know you didn't! I'm just teasing you!" Eric laughed—but behind the laughter was an inescapable thought. When it was the three of us alone together, he wouldn't even have put that into a thought, much less words—he'd have wondered, maybe, when I would create something that would be on a stage. Now I'm "Bard," not "Eric"—and he forgets what I am. As if our life together never happened. 


"Listen, something really fantastic happened today," he said quickly, to drive away uncomfortable thoughts. "I met another Bard!"


The other three settled down to hear the story—though Greystone, being telepathic by nature, already probably knew at least some of it. But like the tactful guest he was, he never flaunted that very useful ability, and in fact, Eric wasn't really sure how much of his regular thoughts Greystone actually heard.


He told them all about meeting Hosea, about realizing what Hosea was, and about the two of them playing together in the subway. Then he told them about his plans to get Hosea on his feet. He realized he didn't know why Hosea had come to New York—he was becoming enough of a New Yorker himself to just kind of take it for granted that of course everyone who could would want to come to New York, the center of the world for so many things.


He couldn't help but get excited about the prospect of playing with the banjo-Bard again. Gigging with another good musician was one of the things he liked to do best, but gigging with another Bard had been an experience so enchanting that he couldn't wait to do it again. Kory nodded his understanding, and the more enthusiastic Eric got, the more pleased Kory looked—but Beth was frowning.


"I don't know, Banyon," she said slowly, her brows furrowing with unease. "This could all be a setup. I don't like it—I mean, you don't know anything about this guy—not really! Isn't it just a little too convenient that he's busking at your subway station just as you get out of class?" She put down her tea and shifted uneasily in her seat on the couch.


It was hard, now, to remember what Beth had been like when he first met her—hard to remember what he'd been like, come to that—but he knew she hadn't been this suspicious, jumping-at-shadows paranoid. Since Griffith Park, and everything that followed after, every year Beth seemed to be darker, more intense, more focused—and not entirely in a good way, either. It was as if the person she might have become had been destroyed by this other self—and equally true that she had always held the potential to become either one. He supposed it bothered him more because he'd been counting on Maeve to erase all the scars and make Beth the person she'd been at twenty. But that wasn't ever going to happen. Done was done, and living things changed.


But some changes weren't for the better.


"Bethie, this guy couldn't be a Fed," Eric answered firmly. "I've been here almost a year—if anyone were looking for me, they'd have found me already. Besides, no Fed I ever saw looked or acted like Hosea, or could. They're just not good enough actors."


"He doesn't have to be a Fed," she argued, leaning forward, her face intent. "What about those people that were using LlewellCo as a front to make mages on crack or whatever it was? What about the guys with the pet Nightflyers that were after us in San Francisco?"


"Not a chance. Trust me, those kind of guys stink of bad juju a mile away," he insisted. "I'd know. Believe me, I'd know." I'm a Bard, Bethie. This is what being a Bard is. I'd know. 


But Beth still wasn't willing to drop the subject. "Maybe," she said grudgingly. "But you have to admit that the story is just—awfully pat. In fact, this sounds like a classic con job to me!"


Oh, Bethie, when did you become so stubborn, so blind? You used to be able to see what was right in front of your nose better than most people! 


"He's a Bard, Bethie," Eric said patiently, throttling his irritation. After all, she had every reason to be paranoid; she wasn't Underhill ninety percent of her time because she wanted to be, she was there because "They" were after her. He'd never understood why it was Bethie they wanted, and not him or Kory, but there was no arguing with the facts.


"I'm telling you. I couldn't make a mistake about this. Trust me. I know he's a Bard; you can't fake that. I know he's one of the good guys—it's in his music. A Bard can't hide what he is—at least, not from another Bard. And anyway, a Bard isn't going to try to con another Bard! What would the point be? Anything he can get from me he can get for himself a lot easier just by using his magic!"


"Not if what he wants is you," Beth said, her jaw set in a stubborn line of temper.


"A Bard would not betray another Bard, acushla," Kory said, coming to Eric's defense. He put a hand on Beth's knee soothingly. "I know this. And our Eric is no fool; he can weigh the human heart as easily as I could weigh an egg."


Beth looked from Kory's face to Eric and back again, and finally shrugged and sat back. "I suppose," she said grudgingly, then smiled with a visible effort. "Well, you've done all right so far. I guess"—now it was her turn to falter—"I guess you don't need us to shepherd you anymore."


Eric forced a grin, though he'd rarely felt less like smiling. "Like you ever did—or at least, any more than I did the same for you two!" Eric scoffed, and the other two looked a little shamefaced and ill-at-ease.


They were all so uncertain with each other! This wasn't the easy seamless reunion he'd imagined. It was as if they'd never been friends and lovers, as if they were meeting now for the first time, none of them knowing the others any too well.


And that would never have happened in the past, either.


Greystone got to his feet, stretching his wings. "Well, I'll thank ye now for a foigne evening, but it's going I have to be. Can't be spending all me time away from me duties, y'know." He clumped across the room to the windowsill and ducked out onto the fire escape. "But any time ye need a sitter for the wee one, just gi' me a shout, eh?" In moments, he was back in his post on the cornice above.


Once he was gone, a silence descended that was just a bit too uncomfortable, and Eric hastened to break it.


"So is there anything planned for Maeve?" he asked, figuring that the baby was the subject least likely to cause any more awkwardness. "I mean, like a christening or a baby shower or something?"


"Oh, aye!" Kory brightened up again, his delight in Maeve transparently obvious. "There's the Naming ceremony—you'll be coming, of course—"


"Of course," Eric assured them quickly, and was rewarded by smiles.


"She will be brought up to the Court for it—you've never seen the Court, Eric—it is a sight beyond compare—and there'll be the godparents speaking for her, and a ceileighe, of course—"


Kory went on at great length, using a number of words Eric didn't know, but he did manage to gather that the real reason for the Naming was to have the biggest party Underhill had seen for a long, long time. Guests from every Elfhame known would be invited, and the ceremony itself would serve to confirm Beth's place as a member of the Underhill community. In one way Underhill was like a family—or the extended family of Rennies—in that it functioned as much as a web of kinships and relationships as after the fashion of a true feudal society. To be known, and to know people in turn, was the very foundation of Sidhe life. As the old saying went: it wasn't what you knew, but who you knew. . . .


All of this made Eric feel acutely aware of how very much he was no longer really a part of their lives, though he tried very hard not to show it. After all, that was the point of his being here, wasn't it? He had a different sort of life to lead, now, and it was nothing like theirs. It didn't even take place in the same world. Literally.


It's done. The break's a fact. He'd known that, he really had—but here it was in front of him, undeniable, and Eric's throat suddenly knotted with a surge of loneliness that took him entirely by surprise.


He was so lost for a moment in his own thoughts that he missed the change in conversation.


"—think you're going to ask Ria?" Beth was saying hesitantly.


Eric stared at her blankly. To the Naming? You're asking me that? Beth obviously mistook his blank incomprehension for something else, because she flushed and added hastily, "If it hasn't been a good idea to bring up her father and how she was born, I understand, but Kory and I haven't had much luck in finding out anything for ourselves. And I thought . . ."


He shook off his melancholy with a start, and frantically tried to put the bits of conversation together into a coherent whole. Ria—Perenor—oh, of course! Not the Naming. About Sidhe/human crossbreeding. 


"I have asked her, actually," he said, hoping he hadn't looked too blank. "I even told her why—well, I had to, she came out and asked me," he added, in response to Beth's sudden scowl.


"Oh, I'm sure she was only too pleased with that—" Beth snapped.


"She's not your enemy," was all Eric said, not defensively, but determined that the feud between Beth and Ria—if there was one—was not going to go on. Maybe bringing Ria to the Naming would be a good idea after all. Beth can't throw a fit in the middle of a big party, and Ria needs to get on good terms with her relatives. Half her heritage is Sidhe. You can't just ignore something like that. 


"She risked her life to save the Sun-Descending Nexus—and paid a heavy price for her help," Eric said firmly. "Elizabet and Kayla both say she's okay. Whatever happened in the past is over with, and if she could have told me anything that would help, she would have.


"Unfortunately, she says—and I believe her—that what Perenor did in order to father a child on her mortal mother was not something we'd want to repeat." He shook his head, and sighed. He hated to disappoint them—Beth and Kory wanted a child of their own so badly—but Ria's information had been pretty grim.


"You remember how we found out that Perenor drained all those young kids that would have been Bards if they'd had a chance to grow into their power?" he asked.


"And left them sad, empty husks, aye," Kory said, slowly, the horror of it dawning on him. "Do you mean—that was what he used to make the woman conceive?" The Sidhe knight drew back in horror, his green eyes wide.


"In a nutshell, yeah. He kept draining them for other reasons and other magics later, but that was the first thing he used them for." Eric shuddered. He'd seen a couple of the kids—Elizabet, their human Healer-friend, had gotten some of them as patients once she'd known they were there to look for—and in Eric's personal opinion, they'd have been better off dead. Actually, most of them had died, especially at first, and to Eric's mind, they'd been the lucky ones.


If anyone had taken the music, the life, the dreams I'd had out of my world and left it gray and drained and empty, I wouldn't have wanted to live. 


Ria had told him that the actual spell Perenor had used had been a bit more complicated than simple draining. Perenor had forced two of the incipient Bards—one of them Ria's uncle, her mother's twin—into a kind of mind-bond; they'd hated and feared him and each other, and when they realized what he was doing, it had driven them crazy before it killed them. The backlash had damaged Ria's hippie mother's mind, leaving her with so many mental kinks her psyche resembled a ball of steel wool and an insatiable craving for drugs that could not be explained by normal addictions—if you could call an "addiction" normal. Eric got the feeling she hadn't lasted long after Ria ran away and took refuge with her loving father, either. Perenor probably protected her from herself only so long as she and her friends were useful, literally "minding the baby."


"You're right," Beth said flatly, as Eric's explanation faltered to a stop. "That's not something we'd want to repeat. So it's a dead end. Another dead end." She seemed to fold in upon herself, as if the disappointment were a palpable weight.


There didn't seem to be much else Eric could say, and the conversation stumbled awkwardly into another subject. Eventually, around about three in the morning, Eric smothered a yawn and Greystone poked his head in the window.


"Streets are quiet as a nun's funeral," he said. "Are ye plannin' on stayin' the night, then?"


Beth and Kory looked at each other, a quick sort of "married people" glance.


"You can have the bedroom," Eric offered quickly. "Just like always. You know the couch makes up into a good bed—you picked it out, remember?—and it won't be the first time I've fallen asleep on it."


But Kory and Beth exchanged another one of those looks that excluded Eric, and Beth chuckled.


"I don't think so, Banyon," she said, not unkindly. "Maeve is as good as gold except for first thing in the morning. And she may not have anything else of yours, but there's no doubt she's got your lungs. She'd have the whole building up here, thinking we're murdering a cat."


Eric blushed, but laughed along with the other three, for Greystone seemed to find this observation hilariously funny. "Okay, then—I was thinking you'd spend the weekend, but—"


"What, and get in the way of you making a date with Ms. Llewellyn?" Beth asked, with just a hint of bitterness that she tried hard to conceal. "We'll send you word of when the Naming is—you are coming?" she asked again.


"If I didn't, you'd kill me," he pointed out.


"Well—unless you were in a hospital bed, yeah, I probably would," Beth admitted. Kory went to fetch Maeve from the bedroom, while Beth stood up and gave him a hug and a kiss that was, for one moment, like the old Beth's. "I'll try not to be so jealous, Banyon," she whispered in his ear. "As long as the bitch makes you happy. But if she ever hurts you—"


"That'll be between her and me," he replied, breathing it into her ear. "Don't interfere, Bethie. Not even out of love. I'm a big boy now. You can't always be trying to protect me."


She pushed him away, and looked into his eyes for a moment; hers were suspiciously damp. "You've grown," was all she said, but the smile she gave him wavered just a little.


Kory came back with Maeve. He handed Beth the baby to tuck into her carrier, then put an arm around Eric's shoulders.


"The Bard's a warrior now, acushla, well-trained and proven in dire battle. He doesn't need us for protection anymore." The elf smiled, that kind of smile that just melted the heart. "But I know he will always need us as friends."


"Always," Eric said, drawing both of them into a fierce embrace. Maeve was a warm weight between them—between them, Eric now realized, in more ways than the physical. Beth and Kory were parents now, and he wasn't. "Always. Never doubt it," he repeated. But it's a different kind of "always" than I'd planned for. . . . 


* * *

It was just as well that Beth and Kory left that Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be a day of running around on a hundred little errands that ate up all of Eric's time from the moment he got up around noon. Light bulbs blew, he ran out of toilet paper, then out of ink for his printer (at which time he discovered that he was out of paper as well). He went down to the basement to do laundry, and discovered he was out of detergent.


If it weren't for the party this evening, I'd be really bummed. 


It wasn't anything major in the way of parties, but over the past several months those who were in the "know" about the true function of Guardian House—the four Guardians and a few others—had fallen into the pleasant habit of getting together once or twice a month to just kick back and socialize. These gatherings were usually held at Eric's place—Eric was a Bard, not a Mage, and, as Paul had been happy to inform him, Bards were legendary for their hospitality.


And practically speaking, Mages were solitary types who didn't much like getting their personal space invaded at the best of times, even if Paul's computers and reference library, José's birds, and Toni's kids weren't taking up all the available entertaining space in their various apartments. And Jemima, being a New York City cop, was particularly possessive about her space, which was her sanctuary from the horrors a patrol cop saw on a daily basis.


Eric had been invited in a couple of times; Jemima had a small one-bedroom decorated mostly in blues and greens, its walls hung with her collection of nature photographs, including an original Ansel Adams. It was a serene yet somehow impersonal space, reflecting its owner's personal reserve. Especially if you never got to see the sword hanging on the bedroom wall, its blade glowing with Runes of Intent. . . .


Eric shook himself free of the reverie with a smile. So what it all boiled down to was that his apartment had become the de facto Mage Community Center for Guardian House. Fortunately, all he had to do was place his standing order with the corner pizza place and look forward to an evening of good talk and good people.


Tatiana and Alex were the first two to arrive. Tat was a book designer; Alex did indexing and research, as well as teaching part-time at the New School. Tatiana was tall and flamboyant, with pre-Raphaelite blonde hair and a gypsy taste in clothes. Alex was dark and saturnine, with a neatly-trimmed black beard and a positive addiction to sober suits. His hobby was stage illusionism, and on occasion Eric had seen him pull off feats of sleight of hand that he wasn't sure he could duplicate even with the help of Bardic magic. Both were what Alex called "research magicians," devoting more time to the history of the Art than to actual practice. They were members of one of the more close-mouthed magical lodges, New Age by courtesy, though unlike a lot of the New Agers Eric had met over the years, they weren't "in-your-face" about it. They spoke appreciatively about Eric's "air-conditioning," and Tat poked her head out the window to say "hi" to Greystone while Alex got them drinks—Vernor's with lime for himself, Schweppes' Bitter Lemon with ice for Tatiana.


One thing I've got to say for magicians—they certainly make cheap dates. Nobody I've ever met who had the Gift—and knew what they had—really drinks much. Or smokes, or, well, much of anything in that line. I guess once you've plugged into magic, the other stuff all seems second best. 


The others began to appear fairly quickly after that, arriving from their various day jobs. Toni Hernandez was the building's manager, a pretty, no-nonsense Latina in her early forties, a single mother with two kids. As much as such an anarchic group as the Guardians had a leader—and Eric had gotten the feeling that they were a lot more like the Texas Rangers, or four Lone Rangers, than any organized Occult Police—the Guardians of Guardian House looked to Toni.


Jimmie—short for Jemima, and she'd kill you if you used it—was fashion-model tall and slim, with thick, lustrous, straight black hair, very dark eyes, a bronzy complexion under a good, even tan, and high cheekbones in a face too strong to be called "pretty." She was manic about keeping civilians off the fire line; back when she'd just been starting out as a Guardian, her partner had been killed because she'd been unable to keep him out of a paranormal investigation. Now she was adamant about protecting the innocent.


Paul Kern was a tall elegant black man with a hint of Islands British in his voice, who carried himself with the grace of a dancer. Paul made his living doing something esoteric with computers, and used the same valuable skills to find information about whatever problems the Guardians might face. Though his abilities had come up dry when the Guardians had faced down an Unseleighe Lord last year, Eric had no doubt that by now Paul had managed to corner the world market in elven lore.


Paul entered along with the fourth of the House's Guardians, José Ramirez. José was the building's super, handling the House's rare mechanical breakdowns, and a breeder of African Grey parrots. He was short and stocky, with the build of someone who lifted weights for use, not show, and the dark craggy features of an Indio Charles Bronson. Of the four Guardians, it was hardest for Eric to imagine how José had wound up as a mystical champion of the Light: he seemed so incredibly pragmatic and down-to-earth, not to mention fully involved in both day job and avocation. Eric had visited his apartment a few times—it was almost entirely given over to the birds. To Eric they looked like budgies on steroids, but there was no doubt that José loved them—or that his love was returned.


The last of the stragglers had arrived by eight, and the apartment was filled with eddies of talk and laughter. Earlier in the day Eric had filled his CD player with an eclectic mix calculated to appeal to everyone—some old favorites, some new finds—and more than once he caught people paging through the stack of jewel cases, trying to identify the music that was playing. The pizzas had vanished early, but Margot had brought cookies—someone usually did—and Eric had laid in a more than sufficient supply of sodas to fuel conversations far into the wee small hours.


Jimmie had looked pretty beat when she'd walked in tonight. Eric had put that down to the stress of her job—in addition to everything else, the NYPD rotated shifts on a six-week basis, which meant she was always having to get used to new hours—but as the evening passed, the lines of stress in her striking face became more pronounced, not less. Something worse than usual was eating at her, something good friends and conversation couldn't touch.


"Want to talk about it?" Eric asked.


He'd followed her into the kitchen when she'd gone to get a refill on her tea. Eric had found that a Mr. Coffee did a good job of keeping a pot of herbal tea hot for hours—and after six or seven hours of steeping, even chamomile would get as dark as Lipton's.


Jimmie sighed, not turning around. "Is it that obvious?"


"Only to someone who knows you," Eric answered. "I'm surprised the others haven't been on your case about it already."


"What makes you think they haven't?" she asked, turning around, cup in hand, and leaning against the sink. "The only trouble is, none of us can figure this out. I was just about desperate enough to ask you for advice," she finished, with a faint ironic smile.


Eric smiled back, although he was now a lot more worried than he had been before. The Guardians were good folks, but they tended to be . . . insular. Jimmie's flat refusal to put civilians on the firing line was only the more extreme manifestation of the Guardians' general desire not to involve outsiders—no matter how magical—in their business. Either you were already in it up to your neck, so their reasoning ran, or you should take the chance to go live a peaceful, normal life and run with it. The fact that Jimmie was willing to consult him was proof that the Guardians were at the end of their considerable resources.


"Consider the doctor in," he said, doing his best to cloak his unease with lightness.


Jimmie took a deep breath, obviously organizing her thoughts. Eric glanced over his shoulder, but no one had followed them into the kitchen, and the hum of talk and music was still at an even level. They wouldn't be disturbed.


"Okay. For about the past . . . six months, maybe a little longer, I've been having nightmares. They sort of come with the territory, I know, but these have been something special. Fires, open graves, things . . . chasing me. Pretty grim.


"We tried to figure out a reason for them, sure, but it's been pretty quiet magically since Aerune tried his little stunt last winter. They can't really be coming from outside, not with my shields and the House's. And besides, Greystone doesn't pick up a thing—at least, not until I wake up screaming. As for work . . . well, the job is the job, and it never changes. But the dreams have. They've gotten more frequent, and they've gotten worse." She shrugged, glancing up momentarily to meet Eric's eyes. "I'm starting to think maybe I ought to take some personal leave."


These nightmares must be something pretty bad, Eric thought. He frowned. While he could certainly use his magic—with her help and consent—to give her sweet dreams in place of the nightmares, it would only be a temporary solution. The real question was what could break through a Guardian's shields and leave no trace for the House—or Greystone—to sense?


"And you don't think they're coming from outside."


Jimmie shook her head.


"But they could be." Eric cudgeled his brains to remember all Master Dharniel's lessons on magic, but the Sidhe Magus hadn't been big on lectures. Dharniel had been more the "learn by doing" type. "You've pretty much settled that this isn't something coming from within—if it were, it would probably have resolved itself by now. And I know that the House's shields would stop pretty much everything, but if you have blood-kin, they can almost always get through any shields you can raise. . . ." His voice trailed off. As far as he knew, Jimmie didn't have any living relatives.


"Mom's dead. Dad's dead. But . . ." Jimmie stopped with a heavy sigh. "There's still someone. He's as good as dead, though."


"Someone close to you?" Eric asked, feeling uncomfortably that he was prying into things that weren't any of his business.


Jimmie Youngblood smiled bitterly. "Once upon a time I had an older brother. I went into the Academy because of him—he was a cop, like Dad and Grampa. I wanted to be just like him. Only it turned out that he wasn't a cop just like Dad and Grampa. He . . . cut corners. Did things that no cop can do and stay clean. Dad found out about five minutes before Internal Affairs did. He turned El—my brother—in. He left the Force, and that was that."


"Do you know where he is now?"


"Eric, I don't even know if he's alive," Jimmie said in frustrated exasperation.


"My advice? Better find him," Eric said. "I can play you a charm to give you temporary relief, so you can get some rest, but all it will be is a stopgap. It won't make the dreams go away. And from the kind of dreams you've been having, I'd say it's a possibility that this guy might be in trouble."


Serious trouble. 


 


Back | Next
Contents
Framed