“I don’t trust him,” I muttered, casting wary glances over my shoulder. “Something isn’t right about him.” I couldn’t be sure if they sensed or saw the same thing I did. I wanted to hear one of them say something about it first before I mentioned it. But seeing that darkness clinging to Dušan made me wonder if slowly but surely my powers were returning.
Caolán snorted. “I’ve been saying that for years.”
“If we are uncomfortable around Dušan, why aren’t Rhys and Kieran?” Constantine leaned back in his cushioned chair, staring at the hearth. “Do you think he did something to them while out in the forest?”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, but the thought had crossed my mind. “Did you notice that he called the goblins ‘creatures’?”
Constantine nodded. “And how he called the Fae Realm ‘Faerie’ like someone not from the prince’s realm calls it.” We had both heard Caolán refer to the Fae Realm by the lands listed there, and any time he referred to it by any other name was ‘Fae Realm’ for our convenience.
Caolán paced with his hands behind his back, his frame towering over us. “I always thought we didn’t get along because of persona reasons, but hearing you two say that you don’t care for him relieves me.”
“Surely there were others that didn’t like him,” I suggested. “I doubt that you’re the only one in all Álfheimr that doesn’t like Dušan.”
The fae shrugged awkwardly. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask everyone what they thought of him, but our queen seems to like him.”
“Queen Maeve?” I waited for Caolán to nod in confirmation. So, he was part of Queen Maeve’s court. That ruled out the Seelie and Unseelie courts as well as the Tuatha Dé Danann. “Maybe she only wants to use him. He must have some sort of skill that she finds useful.” Which wasn’t unlike her. She used many people to her own ends.
Constantine cleared his throat. “But Rhys and Kieran seem to trust him enough to go gather herbs and dew with him as their only protection.”
Recalling their actions made me frown. “What in Hel were they thinking? I know L’Aquitaine is mostly idyllic, but there are still wild animals out there, goblins notwithstanding.”
“Dušan must have done something to them.”
“To two serens?” Caolán muttered. “It’s difficult, but not impossible. Serens are mortal whereas the fae are more emotion and thought. It would be easier to manipulate them.”
I leaned forward, picking up one of the trinkets form the table in front of me. Turning it about in my hands, I thought about what I saw earlier. “I don’t think Dušan is who he says he is, or appears to be,” I said slowly. Maybe they had seen something as well.
“Valkyrja?” Caolán’s voice was soft. He had stopped in his pacing to look at me, waiting. From the corner of my eye, I could see that the prince wasn’t moving at all.
I turned the bauble about in my hands a few more times before I spoke again. “When he spoke, I saw something dark and ugly beneath the beautiful fae exterior.”
“An Unseelie? An evil Fae?” Constantine asked. He was using a term he had heard before but didn’t completely understand. I saw Caolán stiffen, then relax.
“The Unseelie aren’t necessarily evil,” the prince began. He collected his thoughts before continuing. “They follow their more primal instincts and urges, both good and bad. They are more familiar with the darker emotions found in a heart. The Seelie are… a little more in control of their wants and desires. They don’t intentionally cause the Races of Man any harm or misfortune unless Man violates the rules. But Dušan isn’t part of the Unseelie and Seelie Courts, to the Tuatha Dé Danann, or to the court of Titania and Oberon. He belongs to Queen Maeve.”
I quietly explained to Constantine that there were different courts that the fae belong to and follow the rules of that court. “Besides,” I added, “the feeling I got from Dušan and what I saw wasn’t anything like what I’ve been told that an Unseelie feels like.” I saw Constantine’s confused face and I floundered about for the right words to explain the concept to him. “Faerie and fae are more like… emotions personified. They aren’t mortal or immortal as we understand it. They just are. Legends say that all of the fae existed long before the coming of man, even before the gods themselves.”
“Then, what is Dušan? If he’s fae, but something more wouldn’t that imply that he’s something else all together?”
Caolán and I glanced at each other. “An excellent question,” the prince said. “One that we don’t have an answer for yet.”
Silence descended over us as we thought of a way to discover the truth of the strange scholar. “If I saw him again,” I began slowly, thoughtfully, “I might be able to focus on him more. See if he has bewitched our friends of if there is something more to him than the facade that he presents.”
“Not if he’s using a glamor,” Constantine pointed out. Which was true enough. Mortals could not see through a glamor without aid of some sort; however, I think I was leaving the mortal aspect of myself quickly behind.
It was Caolán who spoke for me. “Vaeramae is no mere mortal. She is a Valkyrja. A goddess. If Dušan is using a glamor then she would know.”
A quick glance at Constantine’s face told me all I needed to know: he didn’t believe a word Caolán as saying. The fae gave him a disbelieving look. “You don’t believe she’s a goddess.”
Constantine’s gaze slid to me a moment, then back to Caolán. “No, I don’t. She has done nothing to prove to me otherwise.” He paused to be sure that we understood him. “She has shown that she’s a capable warrior.”
I tried not to but I think I flinched. I was but a capable warrior, a comrade. Nothing more. How could I let myself care for this man more than I should? I was dimly aware of Caolán informing him that I had taken on mortal form to visit friends, then he was challenged by Constantine to how the prince could possibly know I was a goddess.
“She has wings.” The prince shrugged as he spoke. “All Valkyrja do. It’s very distinctive and far different from the Goddess of Victory. There’s a scent of death that clings to her but also the smell of golden apples. Mana also pools around her in a distinctive way, which tells me that she’s a Valkyrja.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say about a lady!”
I laughed, as I didn’t see myself as a lady. A woman, but not a lady. “I assure you, Caolán’s description doesn’t offend me. In fact, I’ve always wondered how the fae could tell mortals and divinity apart.”
“I don’t see wings. I see a woman. A battle maiden. A friend.”
Ah. Good to know I at least had that. Nothing like being considered no more than a friend to someone you adore to harden one’s heart. He must have seen something flicker across my face, for he leaned forward, intending to touch my hand or arm.
“I didn’t mean it like that-” he began quietly.
“Save your breath.” The words were far more curt than I had intended. Watching him flinch at my words was satisfying, though. “The fact of the matter is that you don’t believe me to be a goddess. I find myself insulted, but you’re a good warrior and a good man.” I rose from my chair, assuming the persona of the Valkyrie I had cultivated over the years. I had no idea how I looked to him, but I saw Constantine sit up straight, as if aware that he wasn’t just being judged on appearance alone. His entire demeanor changed in subtle ways. There were too many emotions flitting across his face for me to identify.
“I know what I saw when I looked at Dušan. I do not believe him to be truly fae, but if he’s aware of my true nature he may try hiding his all the more. I need to see him again to be sure.”
“Then let me,” Constantine said quietly but firmly. His blue eyes held mind. “Duke Nikola and I can get closer to Dušan than either of you. With him keeping company with the king and queen, it wouldn’t be unusual for the duke to visit. I’m one of his personal guards. It wouldn’t be strange for me to accompany him.”
Caolán expressed interest. “An interesting suggestion. How do you propose to discover what Dušan truly is?”
Constantine looked away. “I don’t know. I was hoping one of you had a spell or talisman I could use.” He fidgeted in his seat, still himself, then cleared his throat.
I considered the man before me, even as Caolán admitted that he had nothing to give him. We knew something wasn’t right about the scholar but no proof. It was a gut reaction to being in his presence – an instinct – that told us that Dušan wasn’t quite right, that something was wrong.
“We could determine if he’s using a glamor or illusion…”
“We assume he’s aware of your true nature.” The prince pointed at me, then to Constantine. “But you’re mortal. I could make a talisman for you. Something that would ward off a glamor and dispel an illusion so that you could see the true nature of anyone capable of using such things.” He began to pace again, but in excited contemplation. “I can gather all we need. Constantine, you would need to keep the talisman on you at all times.” He turned to us, a determined look on his face. “Friends, I think we have our plan.”
By the time the talisman was ready – a gris-gris with items I knew would be able to counter even the most powerful of glamors and spells – I was able to cast a few basic spells. Before Caolán gave the bag to Constantine, I slipped in a Rune of Protection that I had carved. The fae gave me a sidelong glance but said nothing about it.
“He’ll be fine.”
“Am I so transparent?” My ire toward Constantine had cooled, replaced by the affection I still held for him. I reminded myself that he didn’t believe in the gods and accepting my divinity was something that would be difficult for him.
“Only to me.” He tied the bag shut and it disappeared in his hands. “But I’ve been watching the Races of Man for some time.”
I suspected that he was lying, but I couldn’t be sure. I admit that I’m terrible at telling when someone is lying to spare another’s feelings.
“Vaera?” He waited for me to acknowledge him. “What will happen?” His pupiless eyes watched me, his pale, ethereal features expressing concern.
“What do you mean?”
“He doesn’t believe you. What will happen?”
I was quiet, unsure. One did have to want to believe to be open to the idea of being taken by a Valkyrie to Ásgarðr or believe completely. Faith was a funny thing that way. If anything, it mean that my influence over Constantine was limited to nonexistent. But what did that mean for us?
“I suspect,” I began, thinking aloud, “that we will be forever separated. He can accept me as a mortal but not as a goddess. I do have the choice to become mortal for the duration of his life or for however long he loves me. Whichever ends first, is the rule.”
“You would give up being a goddess?”
I looked up at him. “Would it be so bad being mortal again? I’ve already been mortal for some time.”
“With the knowledge that your powers and divinity would return,” he pointed out. “You and I both know that the transition from mortality to immortality is difficult. The reverse would also be true. You care for him, but are you certain you love him?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I don’t remember what love feels like.” I gave him a questioning look. “How is it that you know all of this?”
“You aren’t the first Valkyrja that I have met. Things… did not turn out well for her.” He refused to elaborate when I asked. “Her pain affected me deeply, so I turned her into a faerie.” He paused. “If you decide to follow this path and things don’t turn out the way you hope, I can do the same for you.”
The offer was a gracious one. I knew that the fae didn’t make offers and promises lightly. They were bound by their Word. “Thank you,” I told him, and meant it.
“The least I can do for a friend.” He gave me a smile, which I returned.
I almost asked him if he thought that Constantine and I had a chance: at love, at live, at being happy together. But something held me back. I think I didn’t want to hear anything to the contrary. The thought of things not working out with him scared me and I didn’t want to think about it.
“Do you think this will work?” I pointed to the gris-gris. So much was riding on this. We couldn’t afford to fail. Caolán and I theorized that Dušan was using some sort of glamor on those around him, ingratiating himself to them. It didn’t seem to completely work on Caolán because of a personality conflict. As for me, there was no way to be sure, and Caolán and Constantine didn’t want to chance it.
“It must.” The prince’s face was grim, and I knew then that we didn’t have a backup plan. “Once we’re able to determine Dušan’s true nature – hopefully without him being aware of it – we can progress from there.”
“Maybe he’s a demon,” I offered.
“Or part of the Unseelie Court.”
I nodded absently, thinking of all of the things that the mysterious fae could be. If he ended up being something beyond our capabilities to handle– It was best not to think of it. Dwelling on might be’s only led to fear, which would hinder our way forward.
“I suppose we shall find out soon enough. We will handle the threat when and if it makes itself known.” I thought it was a practical statement, said more for my own benefit than Caolán’s. Unless Dušan was in reality quite powerful, the fae would survive.
“I’ll take the talisman to Constantine. You should meditate,” he told me. “If things progress to the point where we will need to fight, it would be useful if you had some tricks up your sleeve.”
I couldn’t argue with that logic and nodded my agreement. He seemed to be the sort that prepared for the worst but hoped for the best. I waved goodby as he left my room, and I settled into position to meditate.
Try as I might, I couldn’t focus myself to properly meditate. My thoughts wandered back continuously to Constantine. The more I thought about it, the more I came to the same conclusion: I was terrified that Constantine didn’t return my affection. I didn’t want him to think of me as a friend but as a maiden to be courted. Fear was the one thing preventing me from confessing my feelings for him. The fear of rejection and ultimately being alone.
Why was I so concerned with love and being loved in return, when in life it mattered little? Could it be that I saw this as my second chance at life? I didn’t have to spend all of my time collecting souls for Woden and Freyja. I could have adventures, learn new things, meet new people… But isn’t that what was happening now? I was on a grand and noble adventure. I was protecting the known Realms from a madman, all the while feeling used by the Powers That Be and fulfilling my sworn duty. If I failed, there would be disaster.
But I did what was asked of me. I saved the boy, and my efforts were rewarded with mortality. Wasn’t that enough to be left in peace? Maybe Constantine was my chance at happiness. Not what I remember as being happiness, but true happiness. This could be a reward from the Norns for helping the Realms in my small way.
The hope that had been fluttering in my heart began to sing. I was still in control of my life. There were still choices to be made, and no one else was going to make them for me.