The Daemon Lover {Elorwin & Justric}

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Justric, Dec 31, 2014.

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    Our Story So Far... (open)

    "An... entertainer, you say." Lord Tripple was not a man overly given to amusements, although in his fairness he would not deny others theirs. All his court was delighted at the end of the long winter, and courtier and servant alike were thrilled in eager anticipation for the coming celebration: Lark's Day. The coming of spring and the arrival of the planting season was a time of hope for everyone. After months of being trapped by freezing rains and heavy snows, noble and commoners all looked forward to the warmer weather. The land had been asleep. So, too, had the people as they were so tied to the land, but with the heat of the sun starting to wake the land, they were like the children waking well before dawn to start their mischief. Dancing! Singing! Feasting! Drinking! Gaming! And this would all centered around not just Lord Tripple's hall but the fields immediately about it as well! Knights and men at arms would struggle mightily against one another to prove their valor and skill in tourneys, the heavy iron shoes of the war horses neatly turning up the ground with their charges to make the coming plowing all the easier. If there was any sport to be had other than the Owl's Night at harvest time, it was now. Lord Tripple was more than willing to pay for these celebrations, as it was both his duty and even small pleasure to host these events. The King's parties in the distant city might be grander, but Tripple always made sure that his were the heartiest.

    If only he did not have endure Cuckoo's Eve first! It was the day before the spring rites, a day where no man nor woman could be held accountable for their actions outside of The Royal Bans: theft of coin or property, murder of another, high treason against the King. It was a day of... jests and japes. There would be pranks. Practical jokes, many of which would be neither practical nor truly a joke. There would be a fancy dress ball for the gentry, all masked and gossip, while townsfolk and farmers' families had their costumed revels. In short, it was a day of chaos. A serious man who had served on many fields of battle, who loyal served the King through a civil war, a man whose will was as iron as his hair, did not take well to Cuckoo's Eve. But his daughter so loved the holiday that he could not refuse its coming. If not for her? Then this custom and tradition of generation be damned! Only a day away until the start of the accursed holiday, a day far too soon for his liking. The soft cushions upon the ancient Lord's Chair of Tripple Hall did nothing to ease his aching back; it crafting had been for some forefather of his that was far shorter and smaller than the heights to which Lord Tripple had grown, someone who must not have had his shoulders like his either. Hook nosed and keen eyed, he pierced his Seneschal with a stare that could only be called... grumpy.

    "Er. Yes, my Lord." The ancient man with his quavering voice and bronze-green brocade spread his arms to either side. "He is... a young man but doth seem quite the... the jongleur!"

    A frowning scowl crossed the nobleman's face. "I thought you said he was a musician, Broadmere?"

    Broadmere nodded as eagerly as the balding head upon his wrinkled stalk of a neck allowed. "And that as well, my Lord, and that as well! And a singer. And a storyteller. And full of sleight of hands and tricks unlike ever I have ever beheld in my life! A gaukler of the first rate!"

    At this Lord Tripple raised an eyebrow. Broadmere, his Seneschal, had served the lord's father's father in his time, and so it was a long life that must have been full of wonders to behold. In fact, Lord Tripple could not recall ever seeing the usually dour old man as enthusiastic as he was now, not even at his own beloved son's wedding. For him to interrupt the lord at court with news of some common wandering minstrel at the gates, he must indeed be something of note. "Well, then, hire the man for the feasting, Broadmere! You scarcely need my permission for such as this!"

    Here, the Seneschal was un-nerved.. Now before the Lord's Chair in the the grey stoned hall, Broadmere was at a loss of how to explain why he was here advancing the cause of some un-named, homeless vagabond. Broadmere knew the laws and rights of both the Kingdom and the Lord's lands as well as he knew his letters; the evening visitor had called upon some very old and touchy tenets in advocating his cause, laws that Broadmere knew unused for generations. But they were laws all the same. The torch scones upon the wall flicked orange light across his face, the servant starting the evening fire in the great hearths to either side of the vast room. Stuttering, his eyes seeming to dart without discipline about as though the answers were hiding in the shadows, he tried again. "Yes, my Lord, it's just... It's not just about performing."

    Lord Tripple was losing his patience, a virtue already taxed by the apprehension of his least favorite day of the year. "Well? Spit it out, man!"

    It came out in a rush. "He requests to audition before you directly, my Lord. He invokes Fallow Law."

    There was a collective gasp from the assemble courtiers. Lord Tripple seemed to freeze in his chair. By invoking Fallow Law, the entertainer was claiming that the Lord had stolen unused land from him, a serious accusation and grievous insult if unfounded. "Have we... taken land from his young man or his family, Broadmere?"

    The Seneschal spread his hands helplessly again. "He does have documents to that affect, my Lord. I did not have time to peruse them in details, but it seems your great-great grandfather may have..." Caution. Caution. "...been overly hasty in some regards."

    Lord Tripple found himself tense and frustrated. The upcoming festivities had him on edge, and now this?? There was no man nor woman in living history had ever invoked Fallow's Law, so honorable had the gentry accorded themselves to the King's trust! The law was near a relict, a byline from the eldest days of legalities, a footnote in the annals of solicitors and lawyers that no base peasant had reason to know. Thunder formed behind Tripple's stormy eyes, his anger plain. If this was some early Cuckoo's Eve merriment, the traveler would have Hell to pay!

    "Send for him. Now.”


    The day was warm and bright, the air was sweet with the first tantalising hint of spring in the air as the lord’s daughter stood in her room staring out onto the clear sky and smiling in anticipation of the festivities ahead. She was still clothed in her nightgown as she stood at the large bay windows that opened out onto her balcony, it was normal for her to take a few moments before allowing her ladies in, it was during this time that she could just think, just be herself. Then there was a soft knock on the door leading to her ladies rooms and she was brought back to the reality that she was Seraphina Oralia Cadenza De’Vance daughter of Lord De’Vance. Since her mother’s untimely death a few years ago Seraphina had been lady of the household and responsible for overseeing the smooth running of it. Again the knock came but this time a soft call followed it.​

    My lady Serafina, you will be behind in your day if we do not attend you soon.” She sighed but with a small smile, turning away from the window she looked back at her lavish bedroom. It was a pretty large room that was bright, airy and richly furnished, her four poster bed with crimson hangings, the vanity table made of polished mahogany complete with a large, expensive mirror and all the furs and tapestries that lined the walls kept the warmth in and the stones chill at bay.

    You may enter.” Seraphina called to the ladies outside her door. Three ladies entered the room meekly, dressed neatly in long gowns in shades of russet, tan and amber, winter shades that Seraphina would be glad to see the back of. They began the morning routine of preparing their lady for court, bathing her and preparing her gown, while they worked her ladies talked about the preparations that needed to seen to for the festival. They helped her into a long dress of deep blue made from soft angora wool and trimmed with satin, silver thread and a spray of small fresh water pearls. The dress fit her perfectly, she had a statuesque form, willowy and slender she stood slightly taller than most women thanks to her father’s stature.

    Moving to the vanity table Seraphina took a seat on the small, cushioned stool and looked at her reflection in the large mirror while her ladies began fussing with her hair, running a comb through her locks. Seraphina loved her hair it was long and fell in soft curls down to her lower back, it was also the colour moonlight reflecting on snow, she had been silvery blond since she was born and had never darkened. Her attention then turned to her face appraising every feature, a straight nose, large violet eyes framed with dark lashes and small pink lips; she had skin the colour of alabaster and was not prone to blush like many young women. All in all she had a fair, soft complexion that matched her colouration, she was considered the jewel of the region and at court she was flattered and adored by all, much to her delight.

    Once her hair was piled atop her head in an elaborate coil of braids and her forehead bedecked with a circlet of intricate golden swirls set with sapphires and opals she was ready to attend her duties and face the day. Her first port of call would be to attend to her lord father who would be in session for the morning’s council and to know if he would need her aid for anything or else she should follow her own itinerary. Standing swiftly Seraphina made her way from her room and through the halls to the main hall, she was slightly behind schedule however it was not important, it was rare that her father would ever truly need her. Making her way quietly into the hall with her ladies following a pace or two behind her Seraphina came to stand beside her father, however the atmosphere in the hall was not as normal, to her surprise her entrance had gone unnoticed.

    Father?” Seraphina spoke softly not wanting to startle.


    Baron De'Vance raised his head suddenly at the sound of his daughter's voice, a small smile of pleasure coming to his lips. He still grieved over the loss of her mother, dead these many some years now, carried off by one of the spring plagues that seem to ravish the the population nearly once every decade. That loss was tempered by Seraphina. She was the lord's only child and greatest joy, the latest product of a great line that had served the King and country loyally for generations, a child dutiful and beautiful who could ease her father's trouble mind with but a single word. Despite his current troubles, a heartfelt smile was the least he could offer her.

    "Seraphina," he rumbled in paternal pride. He straightened the deep blue doublet about his shoulders, then gestured to a chair set near to him. "We... have an unexpected visitor. A minor matter, I'm sure. Rest yourself, my dear. Sit. I'm sure it will not take long."

    There was a stir towards the great double doors that lead into the main hall, and the Baron's head turned back around. The change in his expression from benign to thunderous was a sheer sign that whatever was about to happen was not a minor matter. His eyes followed Broadmere as the ancient limped forward in his thick velvet robes of ochre, the golden chain of office clanking hard against this skinny chest. The Seneschal's lips trembled for a moment as he sought the words one might use on so strange on occasion. What courtier ever found himself in such a position?! To be forced to announce the arrival of some mud stained tramp to one of the great lords of the land? It was a shame he could scarcely bear. "My lord," he finally stammered out, "M-may I present... er... Tambernanny... the Minstrel."

    Striding through the double doors as confident as any knight victorious, the young man was smiling as he ambled into the hall. Long legs ate up the distance at what could only be called a leisurely rate. He certainly did not dress like an entertainer. Blue trews, white tunic and green leather doublet, his clothes were travel stained and worn, as were the black boots upon his feet, his head topped off with a wide brimmed cap of matching emerald sprouted a peacock's feather, the only truly colorful spray about his wardrobe. No, he looked like any commoner you might see upon the road. The weathered leather pack slung over his one shoulder bulged, which might give one the impression that he was tradesmen or wandering merchant at best. Until you looked upon his face. Angular and handsome, his golden hair was long and curled gently about his shoulders. The goatee and mustache were of the same hue and shade. Setting it all off were the eyes: sparkling and bright green, they bespoke of mischief and amusement at the entire proceedings, as though the Baron's court and all in it were children playing some elaborate game that he had stumbled into. Looking to the left and right with a bemused smile he ambled forward to stop before the Lord's Chair. Then the smile went from bemused to dazzling. Had any peasant had such pleasing looks and wholesome teeth??

    Lord De'Vance was un-moved at the sight of him. To him, this man was an annoyance that was arriving upon the day before the most annoying day in the year. That put the baron in a sour mood indeed. Leaning forward in his Chair, the steely eyes narrowed. "We are told," he rumbled, "that you appear here claiming Fallow Law, Master Tambernanny. I hope you are aware of the punishment for perjury when making such a claim against a liegeman of the King."

    "Oh," the bard answered lightly. His voice was a soothing wry baritone, coaxing and light all at the same time. "Oh, yes, I am aware, your lordship. It's a very serious thing, isn't it, the whole stealing of land thing. While you didn't do it yourself, your great grandsire wronged one of my great grandsires regarding several acres of land just south of the River Wintermelt. The documents I've provided to your man," and he gestured towards Broadmere, " are copies of records that prove this. The land is now unusable as it has become a bone-yard, a cemetery for the poor and impoverished. Even were you to grant it back to me, I could not use it as it is."

    The Lord De'Vance glanced at Broadmere, who could only shrug his withered shoulders and make a slight waving motion to the scrolls he held beneath one arm. The Baron's face went from frown to outright scowl at this intruder and his accusations, this tramp who appeared before him with no reverence or respect, no oblique deference or care for the noble's station. Did he not fear the power the lord could bring to bear upon him? Or was he simply so unlettered as to launch into his complaint without regard for his betters? "And what, Master Tambernanny, are you asking of me? Money? A grant of lands in exchange? Unfold your mind to us, man, that we may properly consider what course of action to best take."

    At this, the traveler laughed out loud as if he had heard the most excellent jest. "Money, my lord? Land? What would I do with such things?? Land would tie me down, denying me the profession that I love as dearly as life itself! And coin? My pack bulges with all that I need," he tossed off negligently. "What good these earthly desires? You may as well promise me the moon, the sun, the stars themselves for all that I could use them."

    Lord De'Vance stood suddenly, anger plain upon his face. "Then if you want nothing for these lands, why do you come before me?!"

    "Why, to entertain you!" The minstrel laughed out loud again. "I shall drop any and all claim to those lands on the condition that I play before you for three nights: this eve, tomorrow and the day after, that being Lark's Day. The morning after Lark's Day? I shall leave! And any documents your man needs my mark to relinquish said claims shall be yours as well!"

    "All this... just... to entertain me?"

    Tambernanny bowed low, the first sign of any obeisance he had made since he had arrived. "You and your court, my lord Baron. You and your court." His head raised slightly, he caught a glimpse of the Baron's daughter and gave her the quickest of winks.


    Seraphina smiled softly back at her father as she saw the warm, indulgent smile he only wore for her light up his face. He gestured for her to take her appointed seat next to his own, a grand throne like chair with intricate carvings all over its dark polished surface, the only difference between them was the size and height. Her ladies came around behind her and stood unobtrusively off to the side, this was not their place and she would not need them properly until after the council session. Sitting neatly in her cushioned chair Seraphina positioned herself so her long skirt pooled tidily around her, back straight and poised she assumed a regal expression, she was here to support her father and it seemed like today he needed it.

    Watching as the large doors into the hall were pushed open in a wide sweeping gesture, Seraphina glanced out the corner of her eyes and saw her father’s face become furious, a look she had not seen on his face in quite some time. Turning her eyes back to the hall she watched as the Seneschal made his way nervously up the hall, he looked pale and sweaty and she had the impression he was the bringer of bad news. In a timid and faltering voice Broadmere announced the arrival of a … Minstrel. A Minstrel was the cause of all this commotion. Seraphina sat up a little straighter, her violet eyes watchful as the man swaggered into the hall. She was not sure what she had been expecting but he certainly wasn’t it, he looked nothing like any minstrel she had ever seen at any ball or fete.

    For now she just watched him intently while he and her father bandied words, all the while she was left in a state of shock at the nerve of the minstrel. Did he not realise to whom he was addressing in his insolent tone, from what she could surmise he was claiming that land was unduly taken from his family. As hard as she tried to hide it she was sure that her face may have betrayed how affronted and insulting she found his attitude. Did he believe that because he had a handsome face he could speak in such a way to a Lord, to his betters?

    Finally his demands were made, all he wished was to play for them for the three nights of festivities and nothing more, with that done he would apparently relinquish all claim upon the lands. As the minstrel confirmed his request his eyes left her father for the first time and alighted on her, looked her over and winked. If her father had not been already taxed by this upstart Seraphina would have demanded that this commoner be taught a lesson about insolence to those above his station however as it was she had been the only one to have seen it. Catching his eye in return she scowled at him for the merest of moments before turning her nose up and looking away from him.

    By the time she looked around again the minstrel was gone from the hall, presumably he had been given a place to stay in the castle. They were once again alone, well apart from her ladies, the Seneschal and a guard or two and Seraphina allowed her emotions to run. Rising quickly but gracefully she paced before her father.

    I have never met someone with the insolence to speak thusly before a Lord. How dare he? Who does he think he is, coming in here with his demands!” She seethed quietly, never losing her poise or acting in an undignified manner, she had been brought up with the correct posture and behaviour since birth and it was as natural as breathing. Taking a deep breath she gave herself a mental shake and once again returned to her cool and proper behaviour, stopping her pacing and looking at her father. “Was there any more court business to attend to father? If not I have duties to see to in preparation for tonight,” She smiled warmly, “most importantly I must see that my gown and mask are all arranged for the masque, it would not do for any to outshine me.”


    The Lord De'Vance leaned back in his chair, rubbing a hand at his close cropped beard of iron grey before answering his daughter. "Who is he, indeed?" he muttered to himself before casting sidelong glance at Seraphina. "He is a plaintiff seeking justice, my dear. A justice that we are charged with dispensing regardless of our personal feelings on the matter. Moreover... he is a man claiming that our family has wronged his, a claim that can be quite damaging to both our standing in His Majesty's sight and to your marriage prospects. The latter of the two concerns me far more that the former, my child, for as I love you I would have the best match possible for you. Not only for your own standing, but for your happiness as well." His morose countenance broke into a soft smile as he chuckled at himself. "I should have seen you married years ago, Seraphina. Only I am loathe to lose the comfort you bring me as my daughter. Your mother... she would be scolding me now if she knew I was not giving you your due as a grown woman."

    Standing regally and moving towards her, the Baron took both of her hands in his while a paternal smile graced his grizzled face. "I do not see how any could outshine you, my child." He raised her hands to his lips to kiss them lovingly. "But I know how you love your fripperies. Go then. Bring the grace and elegance to brighten our gloomy halls, and let all men know why I take such pride in your beauty. But attend me later this afternoon with Broadmere; I would see this matter with the minstrel settled and have you as witness to carry it to the next generation."

    Turning to allow his daughter her leave, he rounded upon Broadmere. "I would know the whole of this matter, Broadmere. Examine his claim most carefully, by my command! Should he be in the right of this, three nights of his insolence will be small enough a price to pay to settle all. And should he be playing me the fool? Then he will provide us with three days of amusement in a less pleasant manner than he might wish."
    Broadmere hurried after the minstrel, brown robes swishing and swinging as the old man scurried down the corridor. He knew a room was to be made available for Tambernanny in the servants quarters, a single bed accorded to him by reason of his legal claim, but he wanted to be sure that was where the man could be found if he needed to question him further. So intent was the Seneschal in running down his quarry that he nearly passed him in the hallway! The minstrel had stopped to admire a tapestry of unique design.

    "Ah, Master Tambernanny! I had some-"

    "What do you think of this scene?" the young man asked expansively. "I mean, look at it, sir! A unicorn, a nymph, a rather ridiculously depicted satyr... As if the three were merrily at a tea party! Such a sight could never happen, had to have been born out of some tedious weaver's under taxed imagination! Now if it had been a dryad?" He gave a little wiggle of one hand to indicate that such an image might be marginally preferable. "It would not offend my eye as much if at least the weaver had some skill!"

    Broadmere was not only caught blindsided by the casual interruption from someone far beneath his station but also outraged at the insult. "That tapestry," he bristled with firmed jaw, "was created by our Lord De'Vance's grandmother, Master Tambernanny. It was a gift to her son, our Lord's father, upon his successful return from putting down the Brewer's Revolt in Afterdam! It is here in the hall so that all might admire her artistic endeavor and its elegant beauty in their passing!"

    Tambernanny half turned about to curiously regard the old man before nodding knowingly. "Of course, of course, my lord Seneschal. His grandmother, you say?" He faced the tapestry again and took another moment to examine it. Silence prevailed for several moments as he pondered the tapestry anew, armed with the historical significance of the piece. Shrugging, he shifted to walk back down the hall towards the servant's quarters. "Well, much can be forgiven of the dead, I suppose."

    Sputtering in indignation, he stared after the bard incredulously before glancing quickly at the tapestry and then following after again. "Master Tambernanny!" he called firmly, "There is much we must discuss! I insist you that make yourself available so that we may complete the details of establishing the grounds and the settlement of your claim of Fallow Law."

    "Yes!" the bard agreed enthusiastically as he clapped his hands together. "Yes, lord Seneschal, there is much... much... that we need to discuss! For example, which balcony out there in the courtyard is the Baron's daughter's?"

    From indignation to affronted ire at the minstrel's improper question, Broadmere grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him to a stop. Tambernanny allowed himself to be halted and faced the old man with a raised eyebrow. "And what," Broadmere grated, "business is that of yours, Master Tambernanny?"

    The young man's expression was surprised innocence, his other eyebrow arching up to match its brother. "Why, it is every business of mine! I am an entertainer! A musician! A jester and jangler and jongler and joker! It is my trade, sir! My very trade and livelihood, to make people laugh and smile!" Lowering his voice confidentially, he leaned a smidgen closer to the vassal. "You must have seen how she scowled at me? That frown? That glowering glance that would have flayed me where I stood if only it could? Can you, a man of your years and experience in life, a man who has seen much of the world and what it has to offer... Can you tell me in all honesty that such a beautiful face as hers should be marred by an expression like that??"

    For the life of him, Broadmere could not find any reason to argue against the tramp's reasoning.

    And so it was that within the hour, Tambernanny found himself beneath her balcony to play for her. His fiddle he had pulled from his pack, and the serfs and guardsmen about their duties in the yard paused at the sound of his rosined bow skipping lightly across the strings to ring like light laughter. It was a fast jig, lively and joyous but far more complex than anything one might hear at any barn dance or country faire. Tambernanny's fingers slide and jumped along the fretboard in such manner that seemed beyond mere professionalism. In fact, it almost seemed that his fingers were not helping to make the music but actually dancing to it! All the while, the man grinned happily as though there were no other place he would rather be and no other thing he would rather be doing.


    Seraphina walked through the castles corridors on her way to check on the construction of her dress in the castles sewing rooms, where all the castles clothes, servants and guards’ livery, tapestries and banners were made. In here lived a dozen or so women all chosen for their skill with the needle or on the loom, some had been chosen by her mother and a few had been finds of her own. The ladies position within the court was one that many envied, they received small trinkets and gifts from time to time, got to live within the castle and as long as they were still available to sew they could expect a handsome dowry. Inspecting the room with her ladies Seraphina oversaw the making of the new uniforms for the servants however the thing she was most interested in was the creation of her dress, which she had designed herself.

    With a smile Seraphina saw that it was finally ready and not a moment too soon, the dress hung on the mannequin based on Seraphina’s figure. The dress was made with many layers of black silk, each so delicate and light it weighed no more than a maidens sigh, each layer was made to look like thick, downy feathers. The corset was made ebony silk-satin and embroidered with gold thread which was again sewn to resemble a feathered breast; this was enhanced by real midnight feathers that would rise to her cleavage, sweep round to her back and burst into a pair of elaborate wings. The wings were attached seamlessly to her shoulder blades and were hung with ropes of black pearls and bright onyx. To finish the whole ensemble was the mask she was to wear which would finish her outfit with a crowning glory. Seraphina was full of eager anticipation about tonight, since she had to take on the responsibility of keeping the household running this left less time for frivolity than she would have liked.

    Finally tearing her eyes away from her beautiful dark shimmering creation she ordered it to be brought up to her chambers in time for her to make ready for that nights celebrations. Then turning her back on the seam-mistresses Seraphina made her way with her ladies to the kitchen to check on preparations, then to the ball room to see that everything was in order. Both were up to standard, the first was full of culinary masterpieces that were as beautiful as they were delicious and the second full of glittering candles, polished silver and crystal and all lightly scented by the vases of fresh flowers that lined the walls.

    With these duties accounted for Seraphina made her way back to her chambers, normally she would have other duties to attend but on this occasion she was delegating these tasks out. However it was still too early in the day to begin preparations for the ball so instead her ladies arranged her seat by the window which had been flung open to allow the faint sunshine in. Seraphina’s chair was by far the superior, larger with a plush seat and an almost throne like appearance. Then beside her on lower stools her ladies sat, one picking up her embroidery, mirroring Seraphina, the other began reading the guest list for tonight while the third gently plucked a small harp for their pleasure.

    For a while they sat in companionable silence with the fresh breeze full upon their faces, Seraphina smiling each time the playful zephyr would gently tug a stray lock of her silver hair. The sun was smiling weakly down upon them, this was the first truly nice day they had seen in a while and it gladdened her heart. Slowly she worked on the delicate threading; she was using an expensive golden thread as she worked on making the insignia of De’Vance for the captain of the guard.

    Suddenly a lively melody filled the air, starting so suddenly Seraphina could not help the small gasp that escaped her and to her chagrin she had pricked her finger in shock and three crimson drops had fallen on her embroidery. Pale brows knitting together Seraphina stood swiftly, entrusting that her ladies would retrieve her fallen work as she marched to the balcony and looked out to see who disturbed the peace. There was no denying that the music was beautiful and subtle, the best she had heard in a while, with the fiddle there was always the odd note that seem to squeal rather than sing however this was not the case for this musician, every note was clear and bright. However she was in no mood to admire the craft in his song as her finger smarted and she thought of her careful work which had been ruined.

    Face cross and violet eyes blazing Seraphina looked over the balcony and beheld the minstrel of this morning outside her window and it was clear that he had purposely placed himself there. For what reason she could not fathom although it seemed clear to her that he was the type to enjoy rustling feathers. Suddenly the wind gave a great tug that swept her skirts around her, like a banner of blue and to make things worse it wrenched her hair loose of its bonds, it spun out like the tail of a star, glittering in the pale sunlight. Crying out in dismay Seraphina attempted to maintain some control of her windswept hair, not noticing that the wind had stolen her embroidered lace handkerchief; it was taken like a petal in the wind. Again turning blazing eyes on him, although she knew it wasn’t truly his fault, Seraphina marched back inside, hair billowing out behind her until the glass pained doors shut behind her.


    The bard laughed with delight as he played on while the wind whipped around her, billowing skirts and tresses as if purposefully teasing her. While his eyes never left her, Tambernanny noted the slip of cloth as it floated upon the breeze. The fiddle crescendoed into a flourish of a finish. Was it pure chance that the last note was struck just as the glass doors clicked behind Seraphina? Or was he so skilled a performer that he had somehow timed the end of the song to end at the exact same moment that the doors shut? Either way, the servants and guards watching the spectacle clapped wildly in appreciation of his show, some exclaiming outright that they had never seen the like before! Tambernanny turned to grin at them all. He snatched the floating scrap of cloth from the air without even looking at it, holding it high above his head in triumph as though the lady had just graced him with her favor before a tourney before bowing with a wild flourish of his own to the assembled crowd. Turning back around to the windowed doors, he kissed the lace handkerchief before tucking it into doublet while seeming to still see Seraphina within her suite.
    Later that afternoon, Lord De'Vance summoned both Broadmere and Seraphina to attend him in a small, private office. The matter of the minstrel's claims seemed simple enough when presented earlier, only so bizarre a settlement gnawed at the Baron's mind. Broadmere having obtained more information, the Baron wanted to know then the whole of the matter and the manner of man who so brazenly disrupted his court with calumny. At his daughter's arrival, though, Lord De''Vance could only smile as he bade her sit. "Dearest child. I know that I normally do not involve you in such legal hearings; I have never sought to burden you more than needed with affairs of state. Only as this... person's claim... is one that has it roots within our family's past, I wish the future generations to know the matter settled." He nodded to Broadmere to begin once his daughter was seated besides him at the small table.

    "My dearest Lord and Lady," the ancient Seneschal began as he stood before them opposite the table, "As commanded, I have set my head and hands to the task appointed by your more noble selves. What I have to report is both reassuring and... troubling... at the same time." He laid out before them several scrolls and parchments of varying aged yellows.

    Lord De'Vance waved a hand negligently. "Be not so concerned, Broadmere. I can not fault you for the evidence you may bear, as it will be no different if another should speak of it. Although, I doubt if any could speak of it as eloquently and completely as yourself."

    Broadmere bowed in acknowledgement of the compliment. "To begin with, Master Tambernanny's claim is correct in all its particulars. While the sexton of the town of Wintermelt was not able to gather all of the records I might desire speedily, enough were produced to vouchsafe the minstrel's person. He is the son of Tathernathy, who was the son of Tabernathy, who was the son of Tabernaenny, who was in turn the son of Tamminnanny. Taxes records and local census records of the time list the same occupation for all of them: musician. Tambernanny was born in Wintermelt, that much is certain, although it seems his family left when he was at an early age of life and only recently returned by his lonesome. The lot of land in question," and at this he shifted forward a map detailing the region, "is a... large... one. In fact, it encompasses no less than one hundred and fifty acres along the riverside and some thirty-three acres south of its shore."

    Lord De'Vance gasped. "For some family of minstrels? How come they by such fortune? There are farmers generations settled in our lands that have not that much to work upon!"

    "My Lord... it was a Royal grant."

    A silence filled the room, only to be broken when the Baron asked in low tones, "A... Royal grant?"

    "Yes, my Lord." A second document was pushed forward, one bearing what very much resembled an ancient Royal seal. "Master Tambernanny presented this with his credentials, the very same as was presented to his ultimate grandsire by Queen Laurellie, wife to King Marcellus II. It is the proclamation giving freehold in perpetuity of the land described for services to the crown. It would take time to verify the document against Royal records, of course, but in my experience the deed is authentic in every respect." He coughed delicately. "It does not say or even allude to whatever services he may have provided, my Lord, although it is... peculiar that it would be issued and signed by Her Majesty and not King Marcellus himself."

    De'Vance decided to leave that indelicate speculation aside for now. "And how came we by the lot of land?"

    "Accident, My Lord." More paper. "You ancestor sought to placate radical elements within the Church by granting them land for almshouses and potters' fields. This was a generation after the land had been granted unto the plaintiff's family. As best as I might determine, a section of land roughly the same size was to be granted to the Church for several purposes, including the structure of what is now the Monastery of St. Lucian. Only the area was to be north of the River, not south. Perhaps it was some overhasty scribe or a moment of confusion, only by the time the error was discovered it was far too late to do anything about it! The land belonging to the... er... 'Bernanny" family... had sat unused. It seemed they have a habit of haring off and not returning for decades at a time. Curiously enough," Broadmere added as he slid another document forward, "they have still somehow managed to always pay their taxes. Even though it was by accident, their land was given away without their consent. Land that they rightfully owned and had paid proper taxes on! The penalties that that barony would face are severe, my Lord, and by my calculations would take three and seventy years to repay. And that provides that all of those years are prosperous ones. The fact that all the young man desires is to play for you instead of receiving any financial consideration is nothing short of miraculous!" Broadmere hesitated for a moment before adding, "Or of madness."

    Eyes narrowing and brow furrowing, the Baron leaned forward. "That it is madness to pass up such a fortune in coin is without question to me. By why say you this with such trepidation, old friend? You think he intends harm here?"

    The ancient shook his head violently. "No. No, I can not believe the young man means any harm. I have interviewed him as to his character, and I believe him as to his desires. That does not mean he is harmless, however. My lord... Whilst he and I spoke, I spotted something about his wrist. A leather shackle or bracelet with torn loops upon it. I have seen such adornment before in my youth, my Lord. Before the Church gave sanctuary to those who were simple or touched in the head, it was common practice to 'bell' them. Thick leather straps ringed with small bells would be bolted to their wrists or ankles so as to give others fair warning of their location. Master Tambernanny's accoutrement bears resemblance to such only with the bells torn away. I can not say who might have belled him or for what purpose, the practice having fallen out of use long before you were born yourself."

    Broadmere shrugged as he gave his conclusions. "So it is reassuring that despite the validity of his claim, it is only a small price to pay and have it wiped away. It is troubling because he may well be mad. Confining him until the matter is settled in full would look badly on you, and so until such time we have little choice than to let him wander freely about your halls.”


    Seraphina had made sure she was once a sight of perfection, her ladies fixing her tresses back into an elegant knot and arranging her dress once again. She was ready not a moment too soon as her lady Malloy in the amber gown placed a final testing pat on her hair to check its sturdiness then there was knock at the door. It was the lady Tierney in her russet gown that quickly went to the door and spoke in a quite but urgent tone to the page there. Closing the door she walked back and approached Seraphina.

    My lady your father requests your presence in his office, he begs you urgently attend him.” Seraphina looked up a sleek eyebrow raised but she turned away from her mirror, shook out her skirts and made her way out of her room, her ladies following meekly behind like ducklings in a line. Once they reached the room Seraphina gestured that they should remain outside and she walked in alone, back straight and eyes bright, she was interest to see why her father would summon her; this was not a normal occurrence. Making her way over to the chair her father had intended for her Seraphina studied his face and once again found the deep lines of worry lingering there. This troubled her deeply, her father was a serious man, there was no doubt in that but she had never seen him this tense before. However she was glad to see her presence at least still brought a smile to his face as she sat beside him.

    "Dearest child. I know that I normally do not involve you in such legal hearings; I have never sought to burden you more than needed with affairs of state. Only as this... person's claim... is one that has it roots within our family's past, I wish the future generations to know the matter settled."

    So Seraphina arranged herself neatly in the chair and listened as Broadmere spoke to them both regarding the minstrel and his claim. The more he spoke the more assured Seraphina was of his foolishness, however this disturbed her as when she had seen him previously there was no trace of lunacy in his eyes, in fact she had seen the spark of intelligence in his face, cool and calculating like a fox or the falcons in her father’s mews. It also worried her how quickly both Broadmere and her father were quick to accept him a fool and count themselves lucky. However she could not formulate and intelligent or specific reasoning behind her feeling, so instead into the small silence left by Broadmere Seraphina gave her opinion on the matter.

    My Lord if I may give my thoughts on this minstrel. I do not feel he is mad although his request may seem imbecilic but there was intelligence in his eyes that much I do know. Also, I could not tell you why but something about him unnerves me…” She paused for a moment, aware that both their eyes were upon her but she was unable to call forth the right words so with a sigh she shook her silver crowned hair and looked to her father, hoping he would understand what she meant. “Either way we shall see him in action tonight and while I can confirm that he can play a pretty tune we shall see if he can keep up with my song tonight.” A look of almost superior pride crossed Seraphina’s face, she was regarded to have one of the most beautiful voices in the baron’s lands, possibly the kingdom. However she would only sing at the occasional balls and gala’s that her father could be convinced to throw although she would practice daily in her room. She smiled attempting to return to her normal self.


    Tambernanny wandered his way throughout the halls in a seemingly aimless fashion, poking his head into rooms here and there out of curiosity.

    Those who encountered him were unsure what quite to do at the sight of him. The minstrel would pause to look at passing folk, be they lesser or greater, then give them a nod of greeting and a guileless smile that declared all was right with the world. Then he would move on. And the servants and lesser nobles of the Baron's court could only stare and gawp back at him in bewilderment, for how did one address a tramp?? Had it been any other day and any other person, the answer was clear: with distain. Pity might run a close second. Only this was a tramp who had humbled their lord before his entire entourage, a tramp who welded a legal hold over Lord De'Vance unlike anything they had ever experienced. For a wandering minstrel to have such influence was unheard of! It certainly made placing him within their society difficult. Where Tambernanny a lord or knight or wealthy merchant, they would have treated him with careful respect and perhaps even try to curry favor with him to whatever ends. There would be no currying of favors with some ragamuffin vagabond as it would offend their sensibilities, and yet there was simply no denying the amount of power he currently had within his grasp!

    So when he stopped a young scullery maid in the midst of one of her errands, she had little idea of how to even address him! The maid was but recently employed, adding to her confusion. She stuttered and stammered as he stood over her, smiling gently and blinking politely. "I'm sorry... m'lord? I... I don't ken..."

    "It's a simple enough question," Tambernanny soothed to the petite blonde. "Do you sing?"

    She bowed her head and wrung her hands, anxious that she might be caught dawdling by the cook as this stranger pressed her with the most curious of questions. While she was a pretty little thing, she had little in the way of wit or cunning. She had feared he would press some sort of advance upon her make as some guards and the cook's son had done. His question was innocuous enough that she could find no harm in answering it. "On Church Day... b'sure... sometimes when I'm walking back to my quarters... I guess..."

    "Excellent well!" he crowed, clapping his hands in delight. "I am in need of a partner for tonight's masque, someone whose voice will match well enough with my fiddle strings and other things. You, my dear, would be the perfect person to accompany me as I shall accompany you!"

    Feather, for that was the girl's name, looked up at him in absolute horror at the idea. "B-but, m'lord! I... I can not attend the masque! I will have work to be done, plates and pots and pans to be scrubbed! The cook... he would beat me if I am not there to attend my d-duties! And my singing is... is... I sing, m'lord but I am not good at it. Father Joachim even asked me once NOT to sing." Thin hands plucked at the grungy skirts she wore, more rags than fabric from work. "Even should I attend... I can not go like this! The Baron will see me for the servant I am and dismiss me! It's madness to even think it!"

    Tambernanny was not to be dissuaded so easily. He smiled again. "Worry you not about the cook, for I will attend to him! And worry not about a dress for I have a dress that will fit you finer that any you might dare dream! And worry not about your voice, young maiden, for as a musician I can tell! I can tell that your voice cracked and creaked as you grew into the woman you are now, and that your voice then was much as a newborn colt: awkward and stumbling. Now? Now your voice is a magnificent mare, sleek and strong yet wanting for freedom to run. And that freedom you shall have." The bard cocked his head to one side and looked at her shrewdly. "Have you a lover?"

    The blush that covered her cheeks put roses to shame. "N-no," she fumbled at the improper question, yet all the promises he was making seemed real to her and further opened her trust. "There is... there is Creggan, the grandson of Broadmere the Seneschal... but..."

    "But nothing." The bard rested a hand upon her one shoulder. "Trust me in this, and he shall be yours as well."

    Speechless, she took a step back from him with eyes wide and chin trembling. "How... how can you promise such things?!"

    He gave a negligent wave of his hand. "Because I am many things, my dear. Many things indeed. You have heard the tales, I take it? Fairy godmothers, death as a godfather, helpful spirits one might find upon the road? Think of me as one of those. A man in a unique situation who wishes to see you get your heart's desire for his own reasons, a man who shall grant you your wishes." Another honest smile, and then he plucked the cloth he had snatched from the wind earlier that day. The three drops of blood were quite stark against the threads. The smallest of these he pinched and drew forth a gown of shimmering silken copper, and while Feather did not know it, the dress and its finery were the sister of Seraphina's own gown upstairs in every detail save that of color and size. From a velvet band of reddened rust hung also a mask, a finely and intricately wrought sparrow's face with beak and plumage to match. Feather's eyes grew even wider at the sight of it and not from the magic alone that called it forth; desire lit in her soul at its beauty. Whatever else might happen, the maid felt she had to have that dress. Laying the wonder in her unresisting arms, Tambernanny knew he had her. "Wear you this gown for me tonight. Be my singer. And henceforth you shall sing as prettily as any bird or maid, and you shall have your fortune."

    Holding up a warning finger, the bard's face became stern and serious. "But tell any of how came you by the dress and voice, and you shall be the sorrier for it."
    The masque was a dazzling display of wealth, opulence and taste. The court musicians played quietly in a reserved alcove to provide atmosphere as guests arrived to partake in the first night of festivities. There were clergy and clerks, merchants and militia, dames and dowagers, ladies and lords all mingling in glittering and feathered chaos about the grand hall. Jewels sparkled beneath the light of the great chandeliers, adding even more color to the air with their shine. Lord De'Vance sat upon his Chair to greet each as they came forth. Broadmere stood behind and to one side as befitted his station.

    "Has there been sign of our... unique guest?" the Lord muttered to his Seneschal after a fat burgher and his wife had made their obeisance to him.

    Broadmere could only shake his head. "No, my Lord. Nor could I find him earlier. Our own court musicians are somewhat nervous as it is, knowing that they with their instruments can not hope to compete with your daughter's melodic singing, but the presence of this rascal unnerves them even more. This Tambernanny fellow has not given any indication as to what sort of amusements he plans to entertain us with, and so I have no idea whether to expect him or nay! The man has mischief in mind, I fear, much as your daughter has predicted." He pursed his lips in thought before adding, "I still do not believe he intends harm, but I do fear what merriment he may bring so unexpectedly upon us."


    Seraphina smiled to herself as all heads turned to look as she passed, some with looks of disbelief, jealousy and wanting, the women’s eyes on her gown and the men’s on herself. She wore the beautiful dress of her design, the many layers of black silk no heavier than a breath of wind and they rustled with a whispering sigh. Sparkling gems of onyx, black pears and polished ebony glittered all over her, amongst the faux silk feathers and hanging from the real feathered wings that were suspended from her shoulder blades. Her star spun hair was strung into long ringlets which were bedecked with black opal star-bursts and glossy black feathers. Upon her arms she wore long black gloves of fine lace and bound about her face was a most intricate mask, shaped like a black swan, its beak across her nose and a spray of real feathers fanning across its length. The final glory was the small crown made of gleaming onyx, it perched on her hairline, just above the mask so it seemed to be incorporated into one, a seamless line of graceful bird features crowned in glittering darkness.

    She walked alone, for once without a chaperone. Amongst a crowd of hidden faces she was granted anonymity, a luxury she was seldom afforded, although she was not truly anonymous as there were none here tonight in such finery or with such a detailed costume. Walking up the pathway her smile widened, she had even gone to the trouble of arriving at the front door, as if she was no more than a mere guest and not lady of the castle. Making her way serenely up the path way she watched as other couples fell back to make way for her, not only to gaze with near indecent incredulity on their faces but sure in the knowledge that only one of rank could have a gown as hers. Floating up the steps Seraphina made her way into the entrance way and along the corridor before the ball room. It was at the end of the hall that the master of ceremonies stood and announced each guest not by name as was custom but by costume. Seraphina stood next in line as he announced the Lady Fox and Lord Hound. She smiled as his eyes came to rest upon her and she could have sworn she was granted a rare smile from the grey haired, stern looking man, leaning forward for a moment she conversed her wishes to him and he nodded. Striking the ground with his staff all heads turned to see the next guest; his voice rang out clear and bright into the large ballroom.

    May I present, the Swan Queen!” Seraphina sauntered into the room, riding the wave of his announcement and walking unhindered through the crowd to Baron De'Vance who was seated upon his chair greeting the guests as they presented themselves to him. Looking around the hall as she walked she was pleased to see it was as magnificent as she had environed, gleaming glass and crystal sparkles all around, candles shone brightly all around filling the hall with light and warmth, the musicians were playing perfectly, just enough to fill the small gaps between conversations. Then there were the people, they were a sight to behold, such colours swirled and mingled all around her like many dancing blossoms, creatures of dreams and nightmares alike prowled around, there stood gods and goddesses, fairies and angles and all in between. Some like Seraphina had gone to great lengths with their costumes and other were simple with a doublet of black and white and mask to match or cat ears and tail attached onto a brown dress.

    Moving as gracefully as a swan on water she glided through the parted crowded until she reached her father where he sat upon a chair elevated on the dais. As was typical Lord De'Vance’s outfit was near as stern as normal and only the extra rims and cuffs gave any indication that this was festive wear. She saw he held in his hand a mask on a spun pole, same as last year, the fierce countenance of the eagle was his chosen costume and it reflected him well Seraphina mused. She watched as he conversed quietly with Broadmere as she approached and was concerned by both their brooding expressions.

    Coming before them Lord De'Vance was interrupted from his musing by the head butler’s short throat clearing. Watching with amusement as he first turned to glare angrily at the man who had broken his train of thought and then his gaze fell upon Seraphina. She offered him her familiar smile as her violet eyes, as distinct as her hair, shone out from behind her plumage of black feathers.

    The Swan Queen, my Lord.” The butler offered in introduction as Seraphina lowered herself into a graceful curtsey, skirts pooling around her like downy feathers, arms outstretched as a ballerina might pose. For that moment she did indeed look like a swan, gracefully bowing its head from amidst its plumage, wings outspread. And for that heartbeat all did seem to still as the light glimmered of the Swan Queen, as black as midnight she stood out amongst all the other bright colours in the room. In that moment Seraphina felt a sudden chill creep up her spine as though an intense gaze was boring into her, it was a fleeting moment and then it was gone, the held breathes were released, the candles flickered again and the gentle hum of chatter filled the hall once more. Giving herself a tiny shake that shook her magnificent wings Seraphina fought very hard to resist turning around, instead raising herself elegantly to stand at her full height once more.

    My Lord, it is an honour.” She trilled to Lord De'Vance as if she was merely a lady presented to her Lord but her smile was genuine and warm but she waited to see how he would proceed.


    The Baron gave a warm smile of his own, full of paternal love and pride at the sight of his beloved child so glamorously resplendent in her costume. The design had all been hers, he knew. How Seraphina loved to keep her costumes secret from him each festival, surprising him with her creativity and cunning at every turn, although even now he had to admit that she had outdone herself. "Your 'Majesty'," he bowed his head in amused graciousness, "It is you who honor my poor court with your beauty and race. My regards to your father, who must feel the most blessed man in the world to have such a daughter as you."

    Broadmere smirked from where he stood behind the Chair. The old man, as was the custom of the time, was not masked in the least for as the Seneschal he had to remained conspicuous that the servants might find him in cases of emergency. His only concession to the festivities was an extra bit of lace at his wrists and neck. Otherwise his usual brocade robes and gold chain of office remained the same. There was a certain amount of entertainment in watching his Lord and Seraphina play their little game; they had been playing it since she was little, before her mother passed away even. That they still indulged in it now as she balanced upon the brink of womanhood gave a certainty to the notion they still doted on one another. His Lord could be a hard man to serve sometimes. De'Vance was fair but often coldly efficient in a way that un-nerved lesser men. Broadmere took great pleasure in seeing the banter as it confirmed his solid belief that his Lord had a heart, even though it was one well guarded.

    Rising from his Chair, the Baron took a step down the dais towards the Swan Queen and extended his hand. "Might I have the honor of the first dance? And perhaps later, you might sing for us? All the world knows the beauty of the swans is in their songs as much as in their grace..."
    The kitchen was chaos. The cook bellowed his displeasure at large to anyone who crossed his path, and not one single dish escaped his attentions before it was carried out to the nobles for their pleasure. If the beefy and ruddy complexioned man found anything to his dissatisfaction, the tray was disposed of immediately with a display of great roaring and scolding for how dare his helpers prepare something less than perfect to be served to the grand guests without. The boys who sat before the great hearths to slowly crank about the great spits of meat and fowl were cuffed should their pace be deemed too slow or too fast. In the heat of the kitchen with the red glare of fireplaces and ovens, it was hell. The cook was its master.

    So busy was the man with slapping a dairymaid for bringing the wrong cheese that he failed to notice the slouching guardsman who sauntered into his sweaty realm to tap him on the shoulder from behind. In surprise and annoyance, the cook whirled about to see who might dare to accost him so! The guard, however, looked like he could care less.

    "An' what is you want, my fine fellow?" the cook sneered, "A dip in the ale barrel? Some scraps for the dogs? Get out of here this instant!"

    The guard, a young fellow with a drawn complexion, scratched at his armpit. The livery he wore was not of the Baron's household but certainly of a fine make; it was obvious that whatever House he served, it was an influential one. His expression was a mix of annoyance and resignation as he addressed the cook. "Look, mate. My Lady Mulbers took ill, right? And her bloody maid took to drinking while she were away and there's no waking the sorry bint up. They sent me to get someone to help her Ladyship out on account that half the upstairs servants is drunk, too, and none of the chambermaids are available 'cause they're all scrambling out cleaning while them toffs is dancing. So I gets sent down here to grab one of your girls to help lady Mulbers out of her fancies so she can rest."

    The cook's eyes boggled as he regarded the indolent young man before him. The outrage of the idea caused him to sputter. "You-you want to take one of my people to act as a maid?? Now, of all times?? There's not a single girl or woman that I can spare, do you hear me?! I have a good three hundred people to feed here! I can spare no one, so your Lady... whatever... will have to go without!"

    Rolling his eyes, the guard shook his head. "Naw, naw. Look, mate. I've been all over this castle three bloody times. Ain't no one else and by now her Ladyship is wondering where the devil I'm at! I need one of your girls." He looked about, spying the scullery maids by the well room. Pointing almost randomly, he singled out Feather. "What about that one there? She's a scrubber right? Most of their work's gonna come later tonight. Let her Ladyship have her for a few hours til she's better, then your girly can come back and finish up! What do you care if she's up all night scrubbing? Look, I've even got a few silver pennies I'll give you for her time, alight? What've you got to lose?"

    Scowling, the cook finally nodded. "Five silver pennies and she's yours."

    "Five!" the guard squawked in outrage. "What? Is I the good King hisself with coins falling outta me purse?! Three."

    "Four," countered the fat man quickly, "And not a penny less or your backside'll be seeing my boot!"

    "Alright, alight. Four it is," grumbled the guard. He quickly counted out the coins and then beckoned to Feather. "Right then, come along, ducky. Her Ladyship needs someone to hold the bucket."

    Leading her out of the kitchens and down a back corridor, the guard then pulled her into a little used storeroom. Before she could protest, he rubbed quickly at his face. Make-up smeared to reveal-

    "Master Tambernanny!" she cried out in astonishment. "How did you...? It did not even sound like you in there, I swear!"

    The minstrel grinned at her. "The entertainer's trade, my dear. Half of it is nothing more than letting people see what they expect to see." He pulled forth a cloth from his belt to rub at his face some more, the cheeks becoming less sallow as he wiped. He quickly then began to discard the red and silver livery with its bright chain mail byrnie beneath to reveal his usual traveling clothes beneath.

    "What's the other half?" Feather asked in bewilderment.

    Tambernanny grinned rakishly at her. "Oh, that's easy! It's letting people see what they do not expect to see! Enough now. Here is your dress and shoes. Do not forget the mask. Very important, that. Those two barrels are full of water, and I've set out towels and soap and other assorted niceties for you by that stool there. Clean up, dress up and wait for me to return. I must make my own preparations. And do not worry about all those pots and pans that the cook is piling up for you! If all goes as planned, you shall never have to scrub another plate in your life and your night will end in a bed grander than you've ever imagined."

    Feather looked down shyly at all the things he had prepared for her. It was just like out of the ancient stories, she finally admitted to herself. She, a lowly servant, would rise to join her betters and become one of them! It was really happening. The petite girl could not let her gratitude for the magical transformations this strange man was weaving for her. "Master Tambernanny?" she offered meekly, "I still don't know why you chose me but.. thank you."

    For the briefest of moments, the minstrel looked startled and then slightly sad. "Oh, don't thank me," he smiled at her, "If you do anything at all, Feather, don't thank me."
    The master of ceremonies stood at attention in a way that would have made even the cruelest of recruiting sergeants weep from the beauty of it. Back straight, arms at his sides, head looking forward except to greet the guests and get their names to announce them... As midnight neared, his job was mostly done. All he really had to do was stand there. It was a relief for him, really. Some of the older branches of nobility had adopted personas of antiquity, their costumes reflecting famous ancestors all of which bore extremely tongue tying names. Now all he had to do was watch the show on the dance floor below! And soon, the Lady Seraphina... er, the Swan Queen, rather... would sing. And that was always-

    "Introduce us, my good man! Introduce us!"

    Startled at the jocular voice at his side, the majordomo turned his head and looked in horror at-

    "Well, come on now, man! My face is the most famous in the world! Surely, you know who I am?"

    Dumbly, the court official nodded. The collar of his doublet felt strict about his throat as he tried to cough before announcing: "May I present, the Sparrow Maiden and... and... The Devil Himself."

    The musicians in the corner crashed to a stop. The room was stilled to silence as the pair made their way inwards towards the Baron.

    The Sparrow Maiden's costume caused instant scandal as the petite woman stepped gracefully down the stairs and towards the dais, for her dress was a near feather to feather copy of the Swan Queen's save for its coppery hues. The Maid was both shorter and thinner than her black adorned counterpart, yet there was not a man in the room who could swear that she was any less lovely. Her way of moving was peculiar for she did not step with the customary noble graces of the day but instead moved as though at a country dance to flow through the room with one foot in front of the other. It was a light and easy sashay, her toes lightly touching upon the floor to twist and turn her way towards Lord De'Vance.

    Stranger still was the creature upon her arm. His doublet was of the finest scarlet with matching britches and all trimmed in gold. The shirt below was of a crimson silk that sprouted lace every which way in a fashion centuries out of date, while his hose were all ebony. The boots, too, gleamed with a solid blackness. A pair of heavy iron chains were wound about his waist as thought ready to ensnare wayward souls, while in the crook of the arm not escorting the Maid rested a fiddle polished to a golden glow. Most terrifying was his mask, for upon his face he wore the blacken visage of the Cuckoo. It was the image of the Devil Himself that every priest had ever described, was depicted in the most ancient of manuscripts and adorned children's books to frighten them to goodness. Indeed, many of the older nobles felt a chill at the sight of him. It was as if the monstrous creature of their nannies' nighttime tales had come to life before them! The beak was a leering a grin at all as he marched with a more stately pace towards the Lord.


    Seraphina had danced the first with her father; both moving with perfect grace as both being nobly born had been taught to dance since they could walk. Together they flowed seamlessly through the complicated steps of the dance, the feathers of her gown swaying in time to her step. As the music swelled to its crescendo they finished with a flourish with Baron De'Vance lifting her by the waist in an elegant arc and for that moment she did indeed look like a bird in flight, layers of silk rustling around her as her wings moved in a most convincing way. Then she landed lightly back on silk slippers and the on lookers applauded in admiration, together both Lord and Queen politely accepted the attention and bowed elegantly.

    As the other dancers once again came to claim the floor Baron De'Vance found himself confronted by a handsome young buck, crowned in magnificent antlers. He bowed respectfully as he humbly requested the Swan Queen’s next dance. The lord accepted his request with an ill grace and shot the man a look that promised nothing but harm if he did not treat her with due respect, to his credit the young buck accepted this look stoically but quickly became absorbed in the Swan Queen before him. Seraphina had to give a small smile at this exchange, it was always the same, however was quickly interested in the man himself, he was handsome and must have some nerve to take the Swan away from the Eagle. She extended him her hand in acceptance of his offer and as her father took a step backward to scowl at him from the sideline before moving back to his place on his throne like seat, all the while continuing to scowl.

    Together they made a pretty pair their dance a combination of earth and sky whereas with her father it had been an aerial battle. Seraphina twirled and spun with him, her heart as light as her feet as they moved through the dance. It was just as they were finishing and making their bows and curtseys to one another that the unnatural hush fell upon the room, the musicians coming up short with a horrible squeal of abused instruments. All eyes were on the pair that had caused the commotion and moving forward with a cold purpose Seraphina made her way forward out from the crowd so she stood alone before the couple as they made their way towards her father.

    Seraphina stood frozen like a shard of black ice as her eyes widened beneath her swan mask however her face betrayed no other outwards signs of shock. All she could do was stare at the dress, the dress that was a pale imitation of her own, but no it wasn’t an imitation it was a mirror image of her own except the mask which held the pointed beak of the sparrow rather than the rounded bill of the swan. Now to someone who didn’t know her well they would imagine that the horror and anger that coursed through her was nothing but the petty anger of a slighted girl who was no longer the centre of attention. While it would be untrue to say there was not a small part of her that did not feel this way, she was used to being the centre of attention at court, she was the prettiest lady at court, the highest ranking and normally the most accomplished but it was not for this reason she was appalled.

    There were deeper and darker implications for a copied dress design that simply being upstaged at a ball. That dress had been of her own design and creation, its conception had been a secret and only a few of her most trusted seamstresses had been allowed in on the project. So how did this girl wear its twin, not just a similar dress, that could have been understood but this was the same in every detail save the colour and mask. If this secret had been breached it begged the question what else had been discovered.

    Seraphina moved as softly as a shadow to stand next to her father’s chair upon the dais, the extra height was appreciated as she stared intently that the couple who came before them. For the first time she scrutinised the gentleman beside the sparrow, styled as the Devil. Seraphina’s clever eyes took in the fabric and cut of his outfit, it was as fine as hers and just as intricate. Her lilac eyes caught his through his mask and she saw them crinkle in what she imagined to be a most wicked grin and she had a faint suspicion she knew who was beneath the mask. The Baron greeted them as he had every guest to the ball and within seconds of them bowing and rejoining the crowd the music started up once again and the room began to hum with chatter but it was with a certain urgency that follows a crowd being surprised.

    Lord De'Vance continued to watch the pair with his sharp eyes until Seraphina took a step forward and laid a lace covered hand upon his arm. Bowing her swan head to him she spoke in a soft undertone, taking great care not to be overheard, her eyes urgent.

    My Lord, there is a matter of security I wish to discuss with you and I beg that you will not dismiss my thoughts. The maidens dress is the exact twin of my own, not just in design but fabrics as well. My designs are always kept a most private secret, kept under lock and key and only a few of my most trusted seamstresses help with its creation. The implication that someone could have got hold of private information alarms me, it implies that we are not as secure as I would have believed.” Seraphina looked intently at her father; she knew he took her opinions seriously and would not just laugh outright and dismiss her fears out of hand.


    The Baron did not look at his daughter as she whispered dire portents into his ear, his eyes instead following the path of the curious newcomers as they meandered through the crowd. Their trail was easy enough to follow; the other dancers seemed to give them quite the berth. It was almost as though the dark figure was the Devil Himself! Lord De'Vance pursed his lips in thought as he watched them. Animal costumes at such affairs were often tributes to the people's shared mythology. The Swan Queen, goddess of night and beauty and song. The Great Eagle, god of law and leaders. The Devil Himself, the Cuckoo, maker of mischief and punisher of the wicked. Even the young stag that had danced with Seraphina earlier had a tale of his own. But where did the Sparrow Maiden come into play? The Baron could not recall any tale or legend featuring such a woman. He made a note to address it later with Broadmere.

    "Private information," he mused out loud. He was secure in the notion that above the noise of the ball, only Seraphina would hear him. "Private information such as ancient mistakes brought to light? Private information such as records and reports, census and surveys? Something like this must have been planned well in advance, and with such craft as only those most experienced to intrigue might work. It could not have been without aid, however. Which of our enemies is lining his pockets? And to what ends?" The Lord De'Vance scowled even more fiercely. "And why give himself away with copying your designs?"

    He looked up to where she stood besides his chair, his heavy hand gently laid atop hers. "Broadmere told me how he came to your balcony to serenade you. I think this man has a fancy towards you, my duckling. Go to him. Ply him with your wiles and see what you might learn if anything. Where he has been in his travels, what plans he has for the land, that sort of thing. Give nothing away. Young men, and sometimes not so young men, will often fall over themselves to show their own cleverness to a pretty face. And yours is far from being merely pretty." His dark eyes narrowed. "Should he think to take any liberties with you, come you straight away to me. I was glad enough to think we were rid of this upstart after little enough unpleasantness, only now your words ring far too true for me to allow for such hope."

    The Baron was about to say something more to his daughter, but he was brought up short and startled by another commotion upon the dance floor. "What upon the Earth-"

    "My Lords! My Ladies!" The man in the dark Cuckoo's mask stood upon the second to last step of the grand staircase so that he might be seen, his golden wood fiddle held high as he called out to the assemblage of peers. The whole of the attendees and the servants at their beck and call focused upon him as his voice rang out impossibly through the hall. There was something of his presentation that made it impossible to ignore his call. "Cads. Ruffians. Thieves," he continued. Even beneath the mask, there was no missing the glint in his eye. "Whores." A collective gasp went up, and the fiddler allowed them a moment for shock. But only a moment. "It is now just past the midnight hour. Cuckoo's Eve has officially started. No man nor woman may be held accountable for that which they may do until midnight the next night, the start of Lark's Day. Only Murder Most Foul, Theft of Property or Coin, and Treason Most High shall be punishable. This! This is the oldest law of our lands. As the Cuckoo... As the Devil Himself... I grant you leave to your hearts' desires. Now is the time to be... who you truly would be."

    The bow was set gently to the first string of the fiddle, playing a simple, single note drawn out as though to draw out every possible vibration from the effort. As he did so, the Sparrow Maiden in her copper finery twirled and gave a single, graceful step as though readying for some country dance. The Cuckoo's song began to slowly but surely rose into a merry tune that sounded like no other the nobles would have ever heard. Some of the older servants frowned as though half remembering something, however, even as the Sparrow Maiden began to dance gently to the melody. There was a simplicity in her dance that spoke of great joy, that some burden had been lifted or forgotten. This way and that, to and fro, she stretched her legs in a fashion the courtiers might well think scandalous. Yet there was nothing sexual about it, not really. At least no more than any pretty young woman dancing might inspire. It was a dance of freedom, a dance of the here and now that spoke little of duty and all of enjoyment. Feathers and fabrics whirled and fluttered in time with the eerily quaint music as the Sparrow Maiden swirled about in an ever widening circle, surrounded by startled nobles and merchants.

    It was an elderly aleman, his ancient face line deeply with life and brow heavy with years, that set his tray of drinks aside and first began to clap in time to the music. Tears were streaming down his eyes. The tune recalled something from his youth, something from before the priests and their churches were as widespread as they were now, something that his weathered soul told him was important. A few others, almost all well near the end of their days, took up the beat as well. It was hesitant at first then grew in strength and confidence. The Cuckoo grinned and worked the bow across the fiddle strings until rosin gently billowed upwards in faint clouds. It was not overly fast, but it was vigorous.

    The Sparrow Maiden, for her part, began to dance right up to various young men boldly. She favored them with a smile and held out her hands to them. None accepted, instead blushing and stammering beneath their masks. The reward for their cowardice was a chiming laugh, shaming them even as she spun away towards the other side of the circle to try and entice another. It was a game to her, a light hearted jape in which she realized that these young men... these bucks and lions and wolves and mythical heroes of old... were afraid of her. Afraid of her! It was astounding! Unthought of! Empowering! She had to wonder if this was how the Swan Queen felt all the time, to know that all men swooned before her while being too scared to do ought but bend their knees before her. The look upon the faces of the women only heaped wood upon that fire of spirit - they were envious! The look of it was in their masks' eyeholes, in the rigidity of the shoulders, in the firmness of the jaws as they watched the lively young woman in her freedom. They knew as well as she did that, in that moment, she could have any of the men that she wished... and did not have to choose at all if she did not want to! The Sparrow Maiden was not chattel, not a thing to be bought and sold for alliances and family duty. She was free. And that made their envy all the more green.

    The Devil Himself raised his head to stare straight at the Swan Queen over the heads in the crowd. An impish smile played at the corner of his lips, but his eyes were challenging. Twinkling like steel under the moonlight, their message was clear: "Dare you dance as well?”


    Seraphina was glad that her father was taking her suspicions about the minstrel seriously, he even brought other points to light that she hadn’t considered. As she was dismissed from her father’s side, Seraphina could not help the small scowl that crossed her face. She knew it was a common idea about the artful nature of women, how men would speak of their wiles. It seemed her father was not above tarring her with the same brush. Seraphina felt a little disappointed that even she was not above such stigma. However she gave herself the smallest of shakes, almost like a swan in it’s before flight preparation and making her way down from the dais she watched with a calculating gaze as the cuckoo made his outrageous speech.

    For a few minutes she stood off to the side of the circle watching the sparrow prance around in her circle, the girl seemed giddy as attempted to entice the men around her. Seraphina allowed the smallest of smiles to touch her lips as her violet eyes sparkled coldly, she was careful to make sure not a hint of emotion showed on her face. All the while she watched the girl perform her dance, it was true what they said, country dances really were the pale imitations of their courtly origins. Seraphina had seen this sort of behaviour before, a young one at their first ball, overwhelmed by the attention; it tended to go to their heads. Her eyes flashed over to the cuckoo as he continued to play and she was not surprised to find his eyes fixed on her, inviting her to join.

    With a shake of her silver ringlets Seraphina timed her entrance perfectly, striding out to the open area of the circle as the sparrow was opposite her, just as the music quivered on a high note she struck her pose and began. She joined in with the Sparrows dance, each step matching, each dancer moving perfectly across the circle from her counterpart. However there was a distinct difference in their dancing, one was light, carefree and wild, the other graceful, extravagant and refined. The Swan did not try to catch anyone’s attention for the confidence of a queen is in knowing she already has it, knowing that without effort all eyes were on her. Despite this she did not try and out match the girl or upstage her, instead she worked hard to keep them in harmony.

    As the music progressed the dancers got closer and closer, each move made by one flowing easily into a reactive move of the next. Their styles were different it was true but it worked under the cuckoo’s clever influence as he worked to keep the music suitable to both ladies styles. The tempo increased and they spun in a whirl of wings and feathers, copper and ebony, simple and elegant. At last they reached the final dramatic note, which filled the silent hall with its echoing vibrations. Both ladies had finished back to back, the tips of their wings just touching. The Sparrow had dipped into a neat and business like curtsey to complete her dance while the Swan Queen was arched in a graceful curve one arm outstretched in front of her the other to her side as she crossed one leg behind her in a sweeping gesture.

    For a moment there was a reverberating silence around the hall as all gazed in wonder at the two dancers, both of whom stood as still as if carved from marble. It was then that the first pair of hands came together in applause, which was quickly taken up by all, their tumultuous clapping filling the air as the Sparrow and the Swan unfroze and returned to their full height. As the clapping finally came to a end and people began to break from the circle the Swan and the Sparrow turned to face one another.

    Seraphina was a bit taller than the Sparrow, as she was accustomed to, her eyes raked over the girl in an appraising manner. Under the cool gaze of the Swan the Sparrow began to squirm slightly. Seraphina just exuded a calm and sophisticated confidence that few could mimic and even fewer had truly obtained. For a couple of heart beats they looked at one another until Seraphina gained the reaction she wanted, the girl dropped her eyes and offered a curtsey to her which after a moment she returned although hers was smaller. However her face quickly broke into a warm smile and relaxing her posture slightly Seraphina spoke gently.

    You danced most beautifully my Sparrow Maid, it did indeed bring to mind the bird you are dressed as tonight, so bright and quick.” Her voice was calming and soft though loud enough to be carried easily over the humdrum background noise. “Your teacher must have been very good indeed; I doubt I can think of half a dozen others who can dance so well.” They spoke idly for a few more moments, their conversation never more deep than of dancing steps or of the beauty of the hall. Watching carefully Seraphina took note that soon the Sparrows posture had copied her own, she had relaxed in her presence and spoke more free and easily. As she relaxed Seraphina noted several important things, how she held her shoulder, arms, position of her hands, how she involved herself in conversation, these were all details she could read from her.

    So who is your partner my Sparrow, will you not introduce me to the one who provided us with such bright music?”


    As the two lady birds chatted, a small circle of would be suitors surrounded them at a respectable distance - young men (and some not so young) all wishing a dance, most with the Swan Queen but some with the Sparrow Maiden. As forlorn and hopeful as their postures and what could be seen of their visages might have been, they found themselves thoroughly ignored as the two young women found some small common ground.

    For the Sparrow Maiden’s part, she had become rather shy and humbled once the dance was done. It was as though some lever had been thrown to change her from the brazen and confident woman that had danced to the shy and embarrassed girl that now stood before the Swan Queen. Seraphina lead their conversation, with the Maiden replying modestly to any question or comment laid before her. When asked for an introduction, her sparrow beaked masked look up at alarm at the black feathered Queen; large, innocent eyes looked out the eye holes as if in worried fear.

    My partner… Your Majesty, I will introduce you as you ask, but… I fear I may be doing you no favors.” She glanced to where the slender figure stood upon the stairs, his weight against the bannister as he surveyed the crowd with a combination of curiosity and amusement. The golden fiddle was safely tucked beneath one arm. The Sparrow Maiden shuddered briefly as she stared up at him. “As for who he is… I do not know. But I fear he may be the Devil Himself to bring me to dance as I have done, Your Majesty.”

    Having said so, the meek Sparrow Maiden led the imperious Swan Queen away from their disappointed swains and suitors. The males looked on in sorrow as though the light of the lives had just been snuffed to leave them pining in frustrated and futile darkness. Yet as the girl moved towards the Cuckoo, something about her once again changed. That same lever had been flipped back once more. Her meek and mild mannered steps evolved into something more confident again, her walk becoming a hip swishing sashay as she placed one delicately slippered foot before another. Chin held up high, back straight and shoulder back as though to make the best of her womanly attributes, the Sparrow Maiden was quite the wanton by the time she eased up to The Devil Himself. Even the curtsy she made before the dark lord of chaos was scandalous. Her lips twisted in a seductive and knowing smirk as she bent over, the coppery feathers about her breasts exposing the depths of her cleavage. “Your Majesty,” she drawled to her dark feathered better, “May I present to you The Lord of Mischief, The Cuckoo Incarnate… The Devil Himself. My most dark and dear lord? Her Majesty, the Queen of the Night and of Beauty… the Swan Queen.”

    The Cuckoo masked figure smiled broadly at the introduction, standing one step above them both on the marble casement. In a fashion that was a twisted parody of fatherly affection, the man ran a hand slowly about the Maiden’s hair and around her jaw to cup her chin. The effect on the Maiden was nothing short of electric. Her eyes closed and lips parted as though in ecstasy at the feeling of his touch, her head lolling into the curve of his palm affectionately. “Go, now. Leave her black-feathered Majesty and I to talk,” the Cuckoo commanded softly, “Do as I brought you here to do, and you shall earn your rewards, my Sparrow.”

    Somewhere deep inside of herself, Feather was appalled and fascinated by the feelings being stirred within her. She had been raised to be a good girl, a moral girl. Now she felt unfettered, as though every secret desire and longing she had ever had and denied herself had been unleashed. Yet she smiled sweetly all the same and nodded. Without another word, she bowed to them both and departed off into the crowd, headed directly for the knot of young men who had gathered themselves so hopefully behind them.

    The Cuckoo, on the other hand, remained calm and collected. There was no overwhelming sensuality about him in the least. In fact, he appeared to be a rather ordinary if somewhat mischievous character in the devil’s disguise. And the voice from behind the mask? There was no doubt that it was none other than the strange minstrel with his stranger manners and ways. He greeted Seraphina with a smile more genuine, nodding his head in an acquiescing recognition of respect rather than a full and proper bow as was required by law and custom. Whether the Baron’s daughter or the Swan Queen, Seraphina would outrank a mere vagabond! Only now that vagabond was the Devil Himself, and he bowed to no one.

    Your most gracious Majesty,” he drawled dryly, “You dance quite marvelously. A little stiff perhaps for my tastes, but you know what they say: courtly dancing is but a pale imitation of its countryside origins .”

    Were his word meant to mock her thoughts? And how had he known them? The answers to those mysteries laid behind his mask and his soft smile, unspoken. Instead, he held up an arm with elbow crooked for her to take. “Will you walk with me upon the balcony, your Majesty? The moon light is lovely tonight, and would be lovelier still should you add your beauty to it.”


    Seraphina watched the subtle change in the Sparrow as she walked closer to the Cuckoo, it was alarming the hold he seemed to have over this girl, a girl whom she suspected to be no more than a pawn in some unknown game. Yet before they had begun walking the warning she had given had been sincere and had filled Seraphina with an uneasy feeling. However she did not pause or falter in confidence step as they made their way across the hall. Seraphina stood straight backed and imperious as the Sparrow stopped before the minstrel and bowed most provocatively to him. Watching the girls face intently Seraphina was again struck by the overwhelming change he seemed to invoke in this girl; she listened as she was introduced.

    Your Majesty, may I present to you The Lord of Mischief, The Cuckoo Incarnate… The Devil Himself. My most dark and dear lord? Her Majesty, the Queen of the Night and of Beauty… the Swan Queen.”

    As he moved forward after the introduction Seraphina watched as The Devil reached out a hand to caress the Sparrow, his fingers trailing lightly across her face. It was a throwaway gesture on his part, a mockery of kindness but she saw the effect it had on the girl and it worried her, her anxiety increased as he ordered the Sparrow out of their presence.

    Go, now. Leave her black-feathered Majesty and I to talk,” the Cuckoo commanded softly, “Do as I brought you here to do, and you shall earn your rewards, my Sparrow.”

    No show of the worry played on her features which were firmly set into a mask of cool indifference mingled with a hint of polite interest as now all of her attention was fixed firmly on him. The minstrel looked back at her with the same mischievous expression as before and Seraphina mused that she had never known anyone for such a short length of time that could cause such a stir. The fact that he had not made even a vague gesture of respect towards her bothered her and with a slightly offended air she made no gesture to him, although it flew in the face of all her etiquette lessons, she would not bow to the devil.

    Your most gracious Majesty,” he drawled dryly, “You dance quite marvelously. A little stiff perhaps for my tastes, but you know what they say: courtly dancing is but a pale imitation of its countryside origins . Will you walk with me upon the balcony, your Majesty? The moon light is lovely tonight, and would be lovelier still should you add your beauty to it.”

    Seraphina could not help raising her eyebrow at this one, how he mocked her own thoughts with his words but to cover the small surprise Seraphina allowed herself a sweet, trilling laugh as her violet eyes met his. Her face quickly fell into her winning smile as she once again became easy and sociable, her aura becoming charming and captivating with a small hint of mockery as she answered what she supposed was more a statement.

    Tis indeed a strange way of looking upon it, I had always thought it the other way around and all my learning has indicated as such. But alas I am merely a Swan, who am I to argue with the Devil.” She paused airily for a second to consider the words that flowed easily from her. “If that is the case I suppose that a rose can only grow as beautiful from the mud, which helps if it is mixed with fertiliser.” It was now her turn to hold a slightly mischievous grin as she glanced at a him but took his proffered arm as they walked out on to the balcony.

    The night air was still relatively cool as it was still only early in the year and Seraphina had to suppress the small tremors that shook her frame while she acclimatised. The moon was high in the sky and it shone down with its silver brilliance, gilding everything in its shimmering light. Seraphina gazed at the moon, her eyes somewhat wistful. The moonlight turned her already silver hair into a brilliant crown, illuminating her like a star that twinkled in the velvet blackness. Even her dark feathers gleamed in the moons glow, the light catching their glossy sheen and glittered in the gems that adorned her. Leaning against the white stone balcony Seraphina took a deep breath, the scent on night jasmine clinging to the air, then turning back to her companion she smiled.

    You do know how to cause a scene, I will give you that much, or is that just the part you are playing tonight.” She said softly, gesturing to his outfit. Her eyes slid from him for a moment back towards the high mullion doorway they had just passed through, her eyes lingered for a moment on the crowd where she supposed the Sparrow was holding the attention of the men. There was a genuine feeling of concern in her for that girl; it was not a safe position to be a pawn in a game of power. However she did not let this show on her face and her eyes swiftly returned to his face, waiting to see what he would say, so far this man had done nothing beside get under her skin but she was willing to observe now.


    The Devil laughed at her barb, delighted with her wit. “Roses grown in mud and fertilizer? It may well be, though the gardner would have to have a mind towards dirt for it to be so. I did not know you were so fond of gardening!”

    Even as they walked out upon the balcony his eyes were upon her form as it was christened by the moonlight, and he took perverse delight in watching her breast rise and fall as the Swan Queen inhaled the nighttime jasmine. Out here upon the raised porch with only the moonlight for their sight and the sounds of the masque muffled and dimmed, it almost seemed a magical place to be. He did not lean himself but stood straight and attentive as though waiting upon her. At her gesture towards his outfit, he could only chuckle.

    I play my part, and my part is to know when to cause a scene, your Majesty,” he quipped. “It is my stock and trade to know when I could, when I should, and when I must. After all, what good is Cuckoo’s Eve without a Cuckoo?” For all his flippant tone as he asked the rhetorical question, there was something sad in his words. It was as though he greatly missed something, something that felt all others had forgotten and even scarce remembered himself some nights. Looking up towards the moon, he sighed as he stepped up to the rail besides her and placed both hand lightly upon it.. “There were times past when all across the lands people opened their doors to the Cuckoo when he came masquing, and feasted him so as to give The Devil his due. Children would run from door to door, all costumed and jeering and shouting… A thousands knights and witches and goblins and heroes and monsters and hogs and scarecrows and all the like… Households and farms would hand out the last leavings of their winter stores to them, saving just enough for what was needed until harvest and leaving their larders and pantries clear for the first early grains.”

    A wistful catch in his musical voice painted the picture upon the mind, his recollections of his forefathers’ times as clear as any vision as he spoke with them. “Before there were kings and queens and dukes, and when each village was its own nation ruled by thane and served by thrall? Cuckoo’s Eve was the night when lovers made off into the woods and underbrush, and those babes come nine months later were blessed as ‘merry-begot.’ And if their names were not their father’s, there was no harm in it. They were loved as any child should have been loved, despite their lavender eyes.”

    The Devil’s gee dropped to the darkness of the gardens below, the unseen flowers letting their perfumes fill the air to banish all cares. Glancing at the Swam Queen sidelong, he chuckled. “Forgive me, your Majesty. This should not be a night for maudlin reminisces!” Pushing off the balcony to stand upright again, he looked towards the frolic and fun within the halls. A dance had begun, and he was sure he could see The Sparrow Maiden whirling at the center of it.

    Are you worried for the little Sparrow, your Majesty? She is getting her heart’s wish, you know. Always wanting the freedoms of nobles, always secretly coveting their days at embroidery and their nights at dancing as she drudged-drudged-druged for her masters’ bellies in abuse and service. Her master may be a just man, but his retainers are not always so to those beneath them. Always the good girl, though, always obedient and kind to others, asking nothing while guarding her own unwanted virtue. Tonight she plays the wanton she desires to be, her heart unlocked tonight just as it was once for maids and bucks long ago on such eves. Tomorrow? Who can tell? Maybe she’ll curse our meeting with hate and tears?”

    There followed a whisper beneath his mask, ever so slight so as to deceive the ear. “Or maybe,” he breathed forlornly, “she will believe.”

    With a sudden flourish, he bowed low to the Swan Queen in apologies. “Forgive me, your Majesty!” he begged graciously and in a fashion that would make the most courteous of courtiers envious. “Perhaps the wine has gone to my head to ignore your beauty over my own fancies. But come! You asked for this introduction, did you not? My little Sparrow would not have brought you hence otherwise. So what is it you wish of me? In this night, you and I are equals, a King and Queen each in our own right, and I would not well refuse you any request!”

    After all,” he added roguishly with a wink, “from now til next moonrise, there’s nothing I would hold against you save that you ask it of me.


    Seraphina listened intently as he spoke and she had observed his eye on her, taking in all her most feminine aspects. Internally Seraphina could not help but smirk, men thought they were subtle and women could not feel the stare of their eyes on them but it did not offend her like some women might have been, her beauty was an asset and one she was not above using. Suddenly something of what he was saying really caught her off guard, it was the comment of the lavender eyes and the implications that the babe that bore this trait was ill begot.

    Her features had always been scrutinised since she was born, bright violet eyes, tufts of palest silver hair. There had been rumours at first, talk amongst the silliest servants and most suspicious lords, word such as changeling and fairy child had been bandied about behind closed doors and in whispered tones. But her father had beaten back the rumours at every turn, even going to the extreme of presenting her formally to the court and reading out her noble rites. This had quelled most of the rumours as all knew that no noble would own a fairy child and keep her in plain sight. She eyed him intently, watching closely to check if there was any hint of insult in his face or tone, teasing she may accept during the Cuckoo’s eve but she would allow no one to belittle her. However she saw nothing there and she allowed herself to relax a little.

    Seraphina’s eyes watched as he looked back towards the hall, his observant eyes picking up her glance towards the room and as he spoke she could not help the cool laugh that escaped her as her eyes glinted.

    One must be very careful about getting your heart’s desire, for people are very fickle and the wants and desires of men … and women are rarely what they need and almost never what is good for them. And while the night may excuse the wanton lusts of those who give in, will they be able to face the consequences in the cold light of day, the morning changes many things.” She did admit that she squirmed slightly by what he said about the masters of the domestic staff, was there much unhappiness for the charges in their care. Seraphina was the head of the household and she had strict rules on staff treatment but if the devil was to be believed there was much she didn’t know, it may be worth setting some spies around. But this was a matter for another time, giving her magnificent head a small shake that made the feathers tremble she once again brought herself again to heel and became light and sparkling again.

    Raising a graceful eyebrow at him as he bowed to her, for the first time, she noted with pleasure and a small triumphant smile, which was gone before his bow concluded. As he spoke she smiled brightly, her face showing her interest in his proposal.

    After all,” he added roguishly with a wink, “from now till next moonrise, there’s nothing I would hold against you save that you ask it of me.” This statement caught her attention and she answered it with a soft laugh as musical as wind chimes and with a graceful flourish, as was her preference, she returned his bow with her own curtsey. It was not as deep as his nor as scandalous as the Sparrows but once again pools of downy ebony surrounded her legs and her feminine curves were thrown into silver relief by the moonlight. Looking up at him for just a moment from under her lashes she regained her full height, expression set into a thoughtful pout as her eyes glittered with a calculating light.

    Ah but what does one request from the Devil himself?” She mused for a moment, pacing closer to him with lithe steps, as though dancing again yet always keeping a careful distance. Stopping in a half turn she gazed out into the night, still able to see him to her left side. “Wisdom, money, murder most foul, a love that is true or beauty eternal? These are the standard calls upon your time, no? But for me, I am not to be caught with such trivial fancies.” Again she paused for a moment, swaying her skirt like a slow bell in time to the music that drifted to them on the sweet breeze.

    Gazing across her alabaster shoulder to him Seraphina smiled coyly, finding an answer for which she was sure he would be no match against. However she was not above listening to her own advice and so she had to phrase it just so.

    Well my Devil I do have a request for you and one I wonder if you can fulfil. From now until the next moonrise I want you to make me … happy, truly happy.” For just a moment the smallest flicker of sadness crossed her face although it did not disturb her smile but instead showed the hairline faults in her serene mask. “However this must not come at the expensive of anyone, not a single person should suffer for my request.” Her eyes locked onto his and for a moment they shared an intent, burning gaze. Then a trilling laugh escaped her as she turned back to him, her body animated again as she watched him process her request.

    So can you do this or do I beat the devil at his own game?” she asked, an impish grin curling her pink lips.


    Beneath the dark half mask of the Cuckoo’s visage, the man smiled in delight at her challenge. While his thoughts were hidden, it was clear that he found her request all too much to his liking. Laughing outright, he clapped his hands together to applaud her slowly in great appreciation for such her quick wit and cunning dig.

    Had you asked for some of those others,” the Devil admitted candidly, “I would have easily granted them, of course.”

    Money?” He snorted in distain. “Tis nothing more than the illusion of power and possession, a clinking and clanking of coins that are pretty enough to look at but have no real worth! Give a man a coin, he might purchase a tuber. Give him a tuber, and he may grow himself a farm. And you have wealth enough, your Majessty, so what good would more have done but to leave you so empty as to only be filled with greed.”

    Beauty eternal? Would you have me turn you to basalt and granite, frozen forever in time as you are for men to pine over and beg you to come to life for the price of their tears?” He gestured with a finely gloved hand at the stars overhead. “Or perhaps to make you a constellation in the sky, forever blessing wayward sailors with you grace and guidance, damning them to shipwreck with your name upon their lips or seeing them home to their wives and lovers in blessing at your merest whim?”

    He looked back at her, pleased to part of her game and willing to give her the full knowledge of what consequences might have befallen her should her request have been so base. The Cuckoo leaned against the rail now besides her, thoroughly enjoying her company.

    And what is wisdom?! Even those who claim themselves to be wise can not agree on its foundations, and those who are so foolish as to actually be wise never see it. So what good does it do them?! Were I to grant you wisdom without your paid effort into it, you would have had a tool that you could never see nor use. And so I would have had to cheat you from the outright!” He made a face, his lips childishly pouting. “What fun would that have been for either of us I ask, your Majesty?”

    The petulant expression vanished back into merriment as he continued to detail her rejected desires. “Murder. Most. Foul. That would have been difficult, I admit. The Devil does not murder or kill, your Majesty, never welds the knife, never drips the poison into the chalice nor sets the noose about the convict’s neck. I merely offer up the blade, bottle the venom, sell the rope. In doing so, the Devil allows the person to commit the act… and so murder his or her own soul. Still, I’m sure I could have accommodated you in the end.”

    That same gloved hand waved back towards the ball, well underway with more livelier cadences now coming from the orchestra. Bodies whirled and twirled about, colorful displays moving about like so many enchanted flowers as they danced in their perfumes garden beneath the Baron’s gaze. “You well could have asked me for that which your father has sent you,” he coyly teased her, “to discover my nature and my reasoning for being here, to root out enemies and spies beneath his roof that remain undiscovered… Only I doubt the answers would have done you any good.” The Devil shrugged dismissively. “Again, it would have been a bad bargain for you anyway.”

    His eyes narrowed then within his mask’s eyeholes, seeing the Swam Queen and Seraphina more clearly of rate first time. “But to make you… happy. Truly happy. And without harming another or allowing them to suffer!” The way the Cuckoo gave a low whistle of appreciation and shook his head in disbelief conveyed the depths of how well she had impressed him with her guile. “Such a challenge! Such a puzzle! And to do so by the next moonrise! It has been… a long time. There was a tale of the last time, a tale forgotten save in the dustiest of tombs and beetle eaten scrolls. So forgotten… that even the Devil Himself sometimes can not recall it…”

    The Cuckoo leaned against the balcony’s balustrade in silence for several moment as he gave grave consideration to her request. Licking one corner of his lips, he nodded in consent. “So be it,” he announced quietly. His tone was darkly serious and somber, yet all the more honest for it. “Between now and the next time we see the moon rise from this spot, I shall endeavor to make you truly happy without harming another soul or body in the undertaking or its completion. But you must do as I bid you, to play your part in this story despite your fears and be assured that your virtue and safety shall be held inviolate save by your own wishes. Should I fail…”

    He trailed off, his eyes downcast and sad as he pondered the costs of failure. “Should I fail, my penalty is that all I own is forfeit. Lands, wealth, possessions… and my very self. I shall quit this realm and not trouble it again in your lifetime and half that again.”

    Was there magic in the air? If not, then how came that feeling of knots tying and mortar settling stones in their place? His words had lives of their own, and those lives now bound him to their service in such a manner that tingled the nerves and prickled the hairs upon the back of the neck.

    And then, just as abruptly as the sensation came, it fled away into daydreams and fancies.

    The Devil masked character righted himself from off the rail, his somber expression settling back into bemusement. “It is good that you did not ask for a love that is true,” he admitted charmingly. “For that is one thing that I can not grant. A love that is true is only as true as the love that is given. If the love was not true in your own heart, your Majesty? Then you could never received true love from another, even were his heart bejeweled and given to you upon a platter of silver.”

    That being said,” he abruptly smirked as he drew near. The Devil bent low to whisper in her ear, a seductive tickle as his warmth breath flowed words for Seraphina alone. “Meet me in the stables in a quarter of a candle. Tell no one, for if anyone has the knowing of it then your wish can not even begin to come true. I have a great stallion saddled and waiting, and I shall show you such sights as to try and make you smile and bring you true happiness.”


    Seraphina smiled with an almost satisfied smugness as he talked her through the more mundane of the choices she had stated, none of them had appealed to her. The one smile she had to hide was when he questioned her choice of not finding out his intentions as per her father’s instructions, why ask a question she was quite sure she had the answer too. Not the whole answer, she was not sure if anyone could fathom that out but she had an eye for people and their intentions and had an idea that the direct approach would be more harmful to her and her people in the end. So she would play the game and who knew, he might, might be able to make her happy, if only for a while and if he stuck to his promise not to harm anyone or compromise her virtue what could it hurt. As he spoke his promise to her Seraphina could have sworn that the air around her tingled and shimmered as though in a heat haze. Seraphina shuddered slightly as her lilac eyes flicked back and forth searching for the source, she had felt this strangeness before on only two occasions in her life.

    Then as quickly as it came the feeling was gone in a heartbeat and almost forgotten in the next, the world was right once again. Seraphina smiled as he set out the terms for her to being her journey. It was strange, she felt somewhat reckless and despite the little voice in the back of her mind she felt intrigued and was determined for once to throw caution to the wind, take a gamble and try a chance at her own happiness. However she was still herself and her mind was still her own, it was not in her nature to leave her loved ones worried or unhappy. Smiling with a genuine excitement Seraphina gazed at the Devil.

    I do not mean to start our agreement with disobedience but I feel strongly upon this matter as it fits in my condition of not harming anyone, physically or mentally. Also as queen I do feel a certain amount leeway should be granted. My father, if he see’s I am gone and that you are also missing he will think the worst and worry. So instead I propose you grant me a whole half a candle mark so I can perform my song as is tradition. Then as normal I would absent myself for a time, in which case I will not be missed.” She was almost sure she caught a small smile rest fleetingly on his lips before he bowed graciously to her. Returning the curtsey with a light rustle of feathers she returned to full height and spun gracefully on the ball of her foot to return to her hall without a backwards glance.

    Rejoining the crowded hall Seraphina once again glided through the loud and heaving populace like the swan serenely cuts through the water. Not wanting to be interrogated by her father or the seneschal, whose eyes she could feel upon her, she instead aimed directly towards the master of ceremonies. It was too him that she made her intentions to sing known and he gave a low bow before moving forward to the centre of the hall while Seraphina walked to the small raised platform next to the musicians. Striking his golden staff upon the floor three times with each booming thud echoing around the hall and stopping all in their tracks the master of ceremonies raised his head and boomed in his equally loud voice.

    Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please! I have the pleasure and honour of introducing the Swan Queen. Although it is the lark that is known for its voice it is truly the swans secret melody that none but the very privileged get to hear that is the most enchanting, a sentiment I am sure you will all agree to. If you will please give your attention to the Swan Queen.” He finished with a flourish towards Seraphina, the rare smile glancing across his face as the occupants of the hall turned and became fully focused on the dark visage upon the small stage.

    There was a few seconds of complete silence as everyone watched in anticipation then the music began, swelling and filling the hall with its gentle melody. Seraphina’s eyes darted around the room with a small smile, her violet eyes finding her father whose face was anxious even as he was overcome with an affectionate smile; he had always loved to hear her sing. In that instance Seraphina was transported back to a happy time in her childhood, a time filled with sunshine and laughter. She remembered private audiences with her father, when she had sung for his pleasure and to see that smile cross his face. And then the different time when grief and sadness had clung to the walls like water seeping down the wall of a cave, when her song had been the only thing to bring a small spark of life back into his eyes. But now she was a woman grown and it was only at special events that her father would have the time to hear her sing. Taking a deep breath as the music bloomed into her starting note, Seraphina turned her head back to her audience as her first silver note shimmered out across the hall.

    May it be an evening star shines down upon you
    May it be when darkness falls your heart will be true
    You walk a lonely road
    Oh how far you are from home
    Mornie utulie
    Believe and you will find your way
    Mornie alantie
    A promise lives within you now
    May it be the shadow's call will fly away
    May it be your journey on to light the day
    When the night is overcome
    You may rise to find the sun
    Mornie utulie
    Believe and you will find your way
    Mornie alantie
    A promise lives within you now
    A promise lives within you now”

    Her voice was soft and light, in perfect harmony with her musical accompaniment and it filled the whole hall like the scent of the night jasmine, engulfing every person in its spell. Seraphina was so lost in her song she was not even conscious of how her hands were clasped before her as if in prayer and she swayed gently in time to the song. Her voice was lilting and quavered beautifully on the high notes. Finally she finished her song, the hall echoing with her last iridescent note which hung almost tangibly in the air before them all. Taking another breath she again found her composure and resumed her elegant posture. The hall was silent still and for a moment or two Seraphina gazed around with anxious eyes. This was an old song of their land and it had been her mother who had changed part of the song in the tongue of her family. This song had always soothed and comforted her; it had seemed to chase away the nightmares that crept around windows and doorframes. On the night of the Cuckoo’s eve the words had a special prominence for her and all who stood around her.

    Then suddenly as though the enchantment was lifted from their shoulders the room seemed to explode into applause. Seraphina’s eyes swept the hall and she was pleased to see the joy and admiration painting many a face, even the occasional person subtly wiping away a tear but no face held her attention for long as her eyes found her father. He was beaming at her with a smile that was full of both great delight and deep sorrow and she returned a similar smile to him. Curtseying to the still cheering audience Seraphina stepped down from her stand and although there was a general call for another song she silently held one laced hand to her throat apologetically and smiling graciously she quickly exited the hall through a side door.

    As soon as she was alone in the pleasantly dim and cool corridor Seraphina waved off the hovering servants giving the excuse of needing air and solitude. So she made her way quickly and efficiently through the corridors until she reached the exit that would take her to the stables. Sighing in relief as the cool night air once again enveloped her Seraphina took a few deep breaths as though steeling herself before she made her way swiftly to the stables.

    Stepping into the pleasantly warm stable she inhaled the sweet scent of hay, the dusty warmth if the horses and the invigorating tang of their clover. She loved the stables and her own horses which she rode whenever she was able, which was not as often as she would have liked. Whickering softly under her breath and following the answering harrumph Seraphina found her beautiful white stallion. Even in the low light he seemed to shine and as she came close he nudged her with his soft nose while she scratched him behind the ears as she waited for her cohort.


    The Cuckoo had to shake his head as she rushed off, chuckling to himself as he watched from the balcony as the throng prepared for her song. In the crowd, he could see the Swallow Maiden standing side by side with a Great Lion. He could only smile to himself. Feather had found Creggan, the Seneschal’s son, or perhaps he had found her. The night would only end in one way for the two of them, the only way such a meeting between two like souls could occur upon Cuckoo’s Eve. In some nine month’s time, there would be a child with violet eyes. The story between now and then could take oh so many turns, though, and provide as he might even the Devil Himself could not foresee the obstacles upon Feather’s journey. He had provided all he could, though. Come the morning, when she awoke in Creggan’s bed and with his declarations of love for her and praises for her beauty, how would she react to finding the dream made real?

    A minor lady, of course, of no real standing and with no servants. Born into fallen nobility, Feather would rise up in the ranks of society as the bride of the Seneschal’s son as he became caught up in the romance of it all. He would be her savior! Creggan would restore her to her rightful position, and they would be wed happily as all of Feather’s dreams came true! The cunning part was that it wasn’t any sort of fiction. Feather was distantly related to fallen house, and while the genealogy was torturous to follow it could be proven that she was of worthy station. It would take time and worry and dedication and anxiety… but, yes, she would have what she most craved as her reward for playing her part this evening.

    Yes, their wedding would be joyous! The marriage itself? The Cuckoo had no idea! He had never promised her a ‘happily ever after.’ That was a story they would have to forge themselves. His part in that story was done for now, and the next chapter in which he would make an appearance was nine months and a violet eyed child off…

    When the Swan Queen began to sing, The Cuckoo leaned against the balcony rail and closed his eyes. So someone had remembered something. The words were a little different than he recalled, the tune altered just a touch here and there… but it was enough to bring back the memories of other Cuckoo’s Eves and other singers and dancers. And bring back the worst thing that there could ever be for a forgotten god and devil: hope.

    But time was passing. He had allowed her that small leeway in the rules of the game, but he could not allow her any other.
    Tambernanny stretched out his arms and shoulders to relieve his muscles of tight knots and sore kinks from laying within the haystack. Yawning, he looked across the stables towards where the woman in black gown and wings stroked the muzzle and neck of a huge white horse, a powerful beast tamed to her will. The bard blinked at her owlishly. After a moment’s pause, he rose from the pile and brushed loose straws off of his jerkin and hose; he was dressed still much as he had been when he first appeared before the Baron and with little to show any spirit of the season. He wore no mask nor costume, his handsome face unobscured as he smiled wryly at her. If he knew her true identity, he gave no indication of such and treated her as though she might be anybody.

    Forgive me, your Majesty,” he called to her archly, “I was not expecting royal company. I had thought I found a young lady to sing along with me, but some blackguard seems to have made off with her and left me to my own devices. After years of traveling upon the road, sometimes a haystack is more familiar and comfortable than an actual bed!” Tambernanny gestured upwards towards the great hall. “A fine gathering of guests the Baron has to pay homage to him, is it not? Not for the likes of myself, of course, a sad seller of songs and stories who has strayed from his station. Although someone was singing a rather fantastical song not long ago, I could hear it even from down here in the stables, so powerful was the lady’s voice! I dare say, and this in my professional capacity as a jongleur, that it has been ages since I have heard either such a song or such a singer to sing it. Truly.”

    He stopped before the white stallion and gave a low, appreciative whistle. “A fine steed, your Majesty, a fine steed indeed! Were you planning a ride this evening, then? Not that it means ought to me one way or another, but tis a passing strange outfit that you would be riding out in if that’s your intention.”

    Looking back at her rakishly, the bard grinned widely again. “That song… did you hear it, your Majesty? The words themselves and what they mean?” Chuckling much as the Cuckoo had, the young man strolled away towards the open doors of the stables to stare up at the sky. Hand upon hips, he sighed happily. “Too late for an evening star now, I think. There was one before the singing started, I think, but now there’s only the moon rising higher and higher into the sky. And it’s bright, too. Look at all the shadows upon the ground, like fingers reaching out into the light to snatch away all that is brightest and most precious.”

    Turning back to look at her over his shoulder, he raised another arched eyebrow. “But what of belief, your Majesty? What do you believe?”


    Seraphina spun in surprise, her dress rustling softly around her until it settled back into the dark bell shape that continued to swing lightly. She watched him cautiously as he extricated himself from the hay and made his way towards her. His voice was soft and lilting as he spoke of why he was here and of the party that continued behind them. Then he began asking after the singer he had just heard from the hall and how he had appreciated the song. As always when she was surprised her face became neutral mask and only the rapid flicking of her eyes over his countenance gave away her unease. What game was this, the way he spoke to her, it was pleasant polite conversation and he was acting like he had not been expecting her at all. Violet eyes raking over his aspect she found it as he had been before, there was no sign of a mask but still this was the same man she had been speaking to not half hour previous and yet he greeted her with pleasant surprise. Why was he treating her like they had not met?

    However she was speaking to a man who had taken on the countenance of the cuckoo, the devil whose very nature was to trick and deceive, Seraphina was not to be wrong footed. As a dancer recovers when their partner changes the routine, so she adjusted to match this new pace with barely a moment’s hesitation. Her rigid posture once again unfroze and for the second time that night she morphed into the charming and easy persona, she was all smiles and confidence as she angled herself towards him.

    Indeed such praise from a master of music, this song must have stirred something in you for I always find those who have talent with instrument or songs are the harshest of critics. Glad I am that you enjoyed my song.” Seraphina said in a breezy tone, watching him from beneath her lashes, all the while her hand continuously stroked her horse’s nose. She smiled as he looked suitably impressed and then seeming to notice the horse for the first time a low whistle escaped him as he gazed at the snow white steed.

    A fine steed, your Majesty, a fine steed indeed! Were you planning a ride this evening, then? Not that it means ought to me one way or another, but tis a passing strange outfit that you would be riding out in if that’s your intention.”

    Seraphina arched a delicate eyebrow at this comment but said nothing of his instructions from before, if this was to be their game she had given her word that she would play it faithfully and since she had already tested the boundaries it was best just to go with it for now.

    Ah dear minstrel I am built for flight, through the night sky or galloping across the ground there is no force on earth that can contain me. The heart of a bird cannot be tamed. No matter how high the walls and battlements I will not be imprisoned, no cage will bind me, not steel or stone nor this dress for I am the Swan Queen.” Drawing herself to her full height Seraphina gently shook her moonlight silver curls, wings quivering as though she was once again prepared to take flight and eyes bright with an intensity they did not normally possess.

    Chuckling much as the Cuckoo had, the young man strolled away towards the open doors of the stables to stare up at the sky. Hand upon hips, he sighed happily. “Too late for an evening star now, I think. There was one before the singing started, I think, but now there’s only the moon rising higher and higher into the sky. And it’s bright, too. Look at all the shadows upon the ground, like fingers reaching out into the light to snatch away all that is brightest and most precious.”

    Turning back to look at her over his shoulder, he raised another arched eyebrow. “But what of belief, your Majesty? What do you believe?”

    Watching him again with scrutinising eyes Seraphina walked with slow, graceful steps to stand beside him as she too gazed out into the moonlit night. For a moment she was still and quite, the question was a strange one, its implications were deep and the answer required some though. Then she spoke her voice soft.

    The song and the moonlight speak a common message to us, shadow and light are two halves of the same coin, and you cannot have one without the other. And no matter how deep the darkness there is always a glimmer of light, of hope to guide us. That being said there is no true cause to fear the darkness, it is the quite, still time. Look again at those shadows, they do not creep to snatch and steal but they embrace the light, forever side by side in harmony.” And then she was quite as they looked out upon the landscape, the wide road leading away from the stables was completely bathed in silver moonlight and flanking it either side was two lines of trees each a vague shadowy form whose leaves fluttered in the breeze.

    I do not see the terror and foulness of night as some men do, it is to me a comforting time, when the entire world is slightly blurred by moonlight and one can move unobtrusively from shadow to shadow. Even when the night is disturbed with purple clouds filled with thunder and lightning it still has a savage beauty. There is so much more to the night, when many different aspect of the world can be seen in the heavens, so unlike the day when the sun rules with an all encompassing light in which nothing else can shine in comparison and all is laid bare for the world to see, without compassion or mercy.” The last words were spoken with a trace of bitter resentment in her tone but she did not elaborate further. Again she was quite for a moment before speaking again her voice again returned to normal.

    Not the answer you expected I doubt, but I am the black swan and darkness is in my nature.”


    The minstrel watched her with amusement as she spoke of her beliefs. “Well” he drawled in countryside wisdom, “I try not to expect anything, your Majesty. Takes too much of the surprise out of life, you see. Life’s too short to not have surprises.”

    He leaned against the frame of the stable doors and crossed his arms as he looked at her with an impudent and mischievous gaze. She truly looked beautiful. Standing there in her dark costume, the shadows of the building made her wings look all the larger and more impressive until he easily could imagine them being real, the loose straws of hay and dust stirred about she flexed them in her might. What a queen she would make, came the unbidden notion. Suddenly, Tambernanny felt a pity for her. She could be so much more than she was… if only she let herself.

    But you speak of freedoms!” he dramatically cried in delight. “That nothing might bind or imprison you, not even the clothes you wear? Now that would be a sight to see, your Majesty! The Black Swan, Queen of the Dark and the Night, devoid of her feathers to shine like silver under the moon, proud and free and unashamed in her nakedness for all to fear and to obey… and to love.” The minstrel chuckled sadly and removed his hat to run fine fingers through his bronze locks, smoothing the hair away from his face and back across his head. Even were it not the festival of the Devil Himself, Tambernanny would not have reigned in his mouth to express his admiration for her body.

    When he spoke again, his voice was softer; it came across as more sincere even as he fiddled with his hat in his hands. “Is that why you chose the costume you wear now?” he asked knowingly. A hand gestured to her glorious outfit. “That’s why we dress up on Cuckoo’s Eve, you know. Or at least why people used to. It was to be something other than what we are, to be what we always dreamed of being but never dared to become. A scullery maid becomes a wanton. A Baron becomes a hunter. A high born maiden becomes the Queen of the Night. A minstrel becomes the Devil… or a forgotten God.”

    That’s one way of looking at it, anyway,” he suddenly laughed as if at his own pomposity. “Or perhaps it’s the reverse! Perhaps in donning the costumes and masks, of allowing ourselves the freedoms of Cuckoo’s Eve, we become who we truly are! Perhaps both reasons are equally true!”

    A sudden thought seemed to come to the traveling musician, his brown furrowing even as his face screwed up in contemplation. “I wonder what that says about the Seneschal, then, who wears no costume or mask and at best adds a little ornamentation to his robes of office. Is he himself completely, then? Or is it simply that he’s never dared to dream at all? Either way, what a dreary life!”

    Tambernanny lolled himself off the doorway and into the courtyard immediately outside of the stables, still chuckling as he pointed to the far gate. The portcullis was raised against all protocol. Beyond it, the winding road was light by the moon to highlight its curves and swells as it spun past the nearby town and into the woods beyond. The forest looked different in the night, as though it were wearing a costume of its own. “He’s waiting for you, you know,” he grinned as he raised his voice for her to hear. “Out there. It’s one of the oldest tales, the Black Swan seeking the Cuckoo in the forest, looking for the one creature in the lands that would not bow to her. In some versions of the tale, she demands that he bow to her, that the Cuckoo acknowledge her beauty and power and to so love her. When he refuses, she bends him to her will and makes him a lesser creature to serve her. In other versions, he enslaves her! The Night is chained and he is free to torment mortals to his own delight until the other beasts of the world come to ransom her freedom.”

    He walked back into the stables to stand before her, his face unsmiling but still kind. “But none of that happened in the oldest version of the story, your Majesty.”

    Walking past her then, saying nothing more of stories as he plopped back into his haystack. “Strange thing, I know, that I find the haystack preferable to the glorious suites his lordship has bestowed upon me, but it is more comfortable. More familiar. But should you have a willing handmaiden with little to do, your Majesty, might you send her my way? Because the familiar life is often a lonely one.”


    Seraphina could not help the tiny impatient harrumph that escaped her at his comments about freedom and his idea of what that implied. Typical male, she thought with derision, their mind was so focused on that one ideal of nudity they failed to understand the power of clothing, in which covering up could be just as explicit because it left something to the imagination. There was also no power in nudity for a woman, hers is the body that yields and is invaded and as such is not a demanding or forceful thing as a male body is. It is in denial of the reveal that she is able to keep her power and mystery. Turning her blazing eyes upon him she gazed coolly at him for a moment or two without breaking the silence.

    My feathers are my choice and my right and only one worthy may understand the soft contours of my skin.” Again she paused and her next words took a slightly sneering tone. “I have yet to meet such a soul, I have seen many, from great lords and humble peasants alike and all have been found wanting.”

    For a moment she wondered what in the name of all sense was she doing here, speaking to this man of all things, either way this was not turning into a pleasant conversation. Then as quickly as these thoughts came she stopped that inner monolog, taking a deep breath she once again released her tension, all the faults of men could not be blamed upon this one. Also compared to the tiresome bores she had to entertain on occasion at least a conversation with him kept her on her toes. In all honesty she did not think she had ever met a man who on some level did not view her with a sense of objectivity, even her father could be accused of this, in his desire of a betrothal for her; under the fatherly instinct lay the material gain a good match could bring them. So yes it was wrong to bring all blame to this one’s door when he was only guilty of acting as was his nature, at least he did so honestly, which was more than she could say for most. Shaking herself back to the present Seraphina came back to the conversation as they both continued to gaze off into the distance.

    He’s waiting for you, you know,” he grinned as he raised his voice for her to hear. “Out there. It’s one of the oldest tales, the Black Swan seeking the Cuckoo in the forest, looking for the one creature in the lands that would not bow to her. In some versions of the tale, she demands that he bow to her, that the Cuckoo acknowledge her beauty and power and to so love her. When he refuses, she bends him to her will and makes him a lesser creature to serve her. In other versions, he enslaves her! The Night is chained and he is free to torment mortals to his own delight until the other beasts of the world come to ransom her freedom.”

    Oldest version?” She questioned. “I do not know if it is the oldest but I too know of a differing version of events.” Seraphina chimed as they both watched the moonlight chase the shadows. “In that the Black Swan is held in torment by those that oppress both her and the land. She is given a challenge, if she can make a man confess a love that is true to her then she and all under their tyranny will be free. However if his heart is proved false or his intentions are merely for gain then she will know nothing but misery. Now in the tale the oppressive force think they find the perfect candidate, the Cuckoo, one who is destined to lie and cheat and they think they have set the unwinnable challenge. Now this is where no one could decide of the end. Did the Cuckoo act exactly as was predicted, as was his nature, or did he surprise all and prove himself to be true. No one knows I am afraid, my mother would tell me both endings and would never specify which was true.”

    Again the night air tingled slightly against her skin as they spoke of old tales, something about this night seemed to ring with possibilities. The moment was ruined somewhat when the minstrel flung himself down upon a haystack and spoke of the lonely life. Watching as he closed his eyes in a most dramatic manor Seraphina again could not help the sigh. Pausing for only a moment as the silence once again descended on them Seraphina watched him. This peace was swiftly broken by the sound of metal scraping against metal as Seraphina pulled back the bolt to the horses stalls. First a beautiful bay mare with long graceful legs and bright eyes trotted out to stand meekly beside Seraphina who after a quick pat turned her attention to the second stall, where the white stallion was housed. Upon his release the wild stallion reared and plunged for a moment before quietening under her touch as she whickered soothingly at him.

    In one swift motion she was upon his back, having used a hay bale as a boost. Her dress although it was not riding gear it was sufficiently flexible to allow enough movement, the soft downy layers that created the feathery bell of her skirt was able to drape around her legs so much that only a couple of inches of ankle could be seen. The black of her skirt contrasting boldly against the stark white of his coat and together they made an impressive sight. The feathers against his flanks almost made him seem like the majestic Pegasus. Seraphina wove his white mane round her hands as she sat across bareback across him and under her command he was as still and calm as a gelding.

    Well Minstrel,” She called from atop her steed looking as regal as any legendary monarch of old “the only cure for loneliness is company and it is rarely something that will seek you out. You must seek it. Come ride with me and see the wonders that only emerge when land flies beneath you in a swift giddy rush. Come take Milya, she is gentle and will not let you fall. Come ride with me and Finwë and let us see the truth of these old tales with our own eyes.” Seraphina beamed down at him with a smile bright on her lips and her whole face seeming to radiate with excitement at the thrill of adventure that called them this night.


    Tambernanny lowered his head and arched his one eyebrow as he looked up at her upon her magnificent steed. She truly looked as something out of the ancient stories and legends, the queen of the night and darkness and secrets before him as the pale moonlight shown down upon her from the open door. “You wish me upon this adventure? Truly?” Shaking his head at the folly of the nobles, he reluctantly pulled himself from his comfortable bed of sweet smelling hay to saddle the old mare. “As you so command your Majesty. For a time, at least. Although I should be properly dressed, should I not?”

    Reaching into his jerkin, he pulled forth a simple mask of black feathers. A single white feather stood out meekly near the corner of his left eye, one lone virtue against the vices of the face he wore - the sign of The Rook. The gods and goddess who wore the feathers of the corbies were as neutral to the affairs of their fellow deities as they were to those of mortals, an independent sort who wished neither woe nor weal upon others but instead served their own whims. They were the lords and ladies of intelligence, of adventure, and of most of all luck. Strange that this minstrel should happen to so have a masked, however raggedy, so immediately at hand when summoned.

    Donning the mask, he paused for a moment as though letting its aspect fulfill him. Then he mounted upon the mare solemnly and proceeded to follow Seraphina out of the stables, through the courtyard, and beneath the bailey’s main gate to pass into the world beyond. None stopped or cried halt. Indeed, no one even seemed to have noticed their presence as they left and rode silently onto the road that wound about the countryside and into the woods.

    Did you ever think,” Tambernanny suddenly asked when they were a distance away, “that both endings your mother gave you are true? Or that all versions are the same in their own way? The tale of the Black Swam and the Devil Himself is an ancient one, and all versions have the truth of it in them.” He chuckled with a smirk upon his lips as he raised his head to the moon. “Then again, perhaps the Cuckoo is the one who spread the tale. It was ever his nature to deceive with the truth, after all. Look at the tale of the Sparrow Maiden!”

    He said little more then, merely following her along until they passed through the strangely still town and reached the very edge of the Moorland Woods. It was said there were eldritch things that happened in such dark, enchanting places, especially on Cuckoo’s Eve. Ancient spirits long forgotten came to life, beings neither wholly evil or blessed but alien all the same. The Gods were said to descend from the heavens to dance among the trees, shedding their feathers and beaks to stand as men and women in their own company and of those they favored. The dead, too, were said to return to the world to remember once more what it was to live and to be alive. The hedge of the woods seemed to thrum with the promise that anything could happen within. It might not, of course. One could enter the forests of the world upon this night and see nor hear anything of the ordinary, or perhaps the phantoms summoned up were spun only from their own imaginations and fears. It was only the promise of a possibility, after all, not the solemn vow that one would be changed.

    Somehow, that made the nerves tingle all the more in fear and anticipation. Like death, like life, it was the unknown that spread out before the Queen and the Rook between the trees and hillocks within the Moorland Woods.

    There are bandits, your Majesty,” Tambernanny warned softly as they paused at the entrance to the woods. “Even on such a night, mundane dangers take no holiday. Best you be on your guard. I will serve as your knight where I may, but it is a poor knight that a jester makes. The one waiting for you within… His wrath would be most terrible were you to allow yourself to come to harm.”
    #1 Justric, Dec 31, 2014
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2014
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