The barrier against teleportation prevented Lugh from bringing them directly to the castle. They instead reappeared in the fey town beyond the castle walls. In anticipation of the summit that was to take place, the fey of the town were busily strewing garland, ribbons and fairy lights as if preparing for the spring festival of Beltaine. Lugh never exhausted in his amazement of the artistry of the fey, gilding the already beautiful hamlet. Voices and music rose in celebration.
Except one voice.
Kaitlin’s choked sob came sooner that he’d anticipated. He’d expected her shock to last a while longer, but perhaps being home made it safe to crumble. Lugh gathered her into his embrace and she clung to him. Gently, he stroked her back, hoping to soothe her. He murmured soft reassurances, to which she shook her head in denial. So very young. So painfully innocent.
Lugh slipped his hand up under the back of her shirt, seeking skin contact. His palm curled against the delicate curve at the small of her back. As he held her, gently rocking, he allowed the Touch to flow once again.
The feel of it was utterly different this time. Her magic accepted his, as it merged with her body. Natural. Beautiful. Restoring. As he loved his people, individually and as a race, he loved Kaitlin. The power of his love flowed with his magic. Flowed into her pain. He gave her more than the comfort and rejuvenation of his magic, he gave her the strength of his faith. Of his belief that she was strong enough to endure, to overcome, to grow. Idealism must bend to the winds of realism, lest the spirit might break.
Having heard his thoughts through the Touch, she smacked lightly at his shoulder. “You are a poet, Lugh.” Kaitlin pushed back enough to gaze up at him, tears still streaking her fair face. “How can you be a warrior, too?”
“I’m just that talented,” he teased and she rewarded him with a laugh.
“Egomaniac is what you are.” It was a familiar game between them, and it was good to see her play at it now. She scrubbed at her face with the sleeves of her sweater. As they returned to the castle they held hands. She Touched him back for a while, and it was just a light Touch. Sharing magic and comfort, without revealing her thoughts or the deep current of emotions he knew must be churning within.
The dwarves manning the outer gatehouse opened the wooden door for them and closed it behind them. Fey warriors lined the inner courtyard wall, and they watched the pair of them cross to the castle. The castle was locked down, ready to defend against attack. The tension was a weight of anticipation.
Lugh spotted an elf on the tower balcony, the very same elf who’d given Kaitlin the message that propelled her on this mission of distraction. He ducked back into the castle, and Lugh suspected whom he meant to warn. As they crossed the threshold Manannan descended the grand staircase. Danu herself, the All-Mother of the Sidhe, watched from the second floor walkway, her hands resting on the railing.
As soon as she saw Manannan, Kaitlin fled toward the family wing of the castle. Lugh had half expected her to confront Manannan, but surely it would come eventually. Manannan watched her depart before joining Lugh.
“She knows about Riley. That you used him to distract her.” Lugh’s tone was intentionally neutral to disguise any inference as to his opinion regarding the facts he’d stated.
Manannan didn’t bother to deny, merely nodded. “A small ploy, but effective.” Manannan put his arm around Lugh’s shoulder drawing him away from the staircase. “The Unseelie king and queen have come. They have yielded. We are to have the unified court!”
Lugh halted, “You jest!”
“No, my friend.” Manannan gripped Lugh by the upper arms and shook him with excitement. “The day we’ve long fought for has come. The preparations are underway. Danu will perform the ritual for the Unseelie to submit their magic.”
“I fought for peace, not for unification of the courts,” Lugh clarified. “I cannot believe any Unseeile, much less their monarchs, are submitting willingly. This is something I must see.” He twisted to head toward the stairwell leading to the throne room above where such a ritual would be performed, but Manannan held him fast.
“Unification will bring a final and lasting peace. One people. One court.” Manannan smiled more joyously than Lugh could ever recall seeing before. “But the magic of the ritual is delicate. I anticipated this success, and made what preparations I could. Distracting Kaitlin was but one small part, the least of the plans I set into action. Other distractions were placed into motion as well. I need you to make sure that if those distractions fail, as Kaitlin’s did, that the enemies of unification do not succeed in destroying the peace process. We have good warriors on the courtyard walls, but none that could hold back the Unseelie Elite. I had them prepare your armor.” Manannan looked over the human clothing Lugh wore. He mused, “Unless you think this costume more appropriate.”
Lugh cast a glance up at Danu. She watched, listening to all that was said, but in true Seelie fashion giving nothing but a calm, serene expression. Too peaceful. Too controlled. He knew her too well to miss such obvious signs.
Manannan continued, “I need you, Champion. I need you to be the final and ultimate protector of the Sidhe. Will you do this for me? For our people?”
Lugh leveled his attention upon his king. He knew the truth with certainty now, even as he allowed his silence to linger and chill the space between them. Finally, he said, “Though I doubted this victory, Highness, I have never been your enemy.”
The king feigned surprise. His grip on Lugh’s shoulders tightened. “I have always relied upon your devotion, your dedication.”
“You never worried young Kaitlin would disrupt this summit. Not to a degree justifying the lengths to which you went. You have been cultivating Riley for this very day for quite some time.” Lugh’s expression remained even, civilized though in truth, this realization cut him. “You jeopardized the princess’ safety to distract me.”
“She was never in danger. Not with you there to ensure her safety.” Manannan’s voice hardened. “Champion, I know your fidelity extends beyond the service of the Seelie Court, and beyond what even I might task you to do. We might debate my methods at length and with leisure once this day’s labors are done. You say I may trust you, and I am entrusting you now. Allow none to disrupt this ceremony for the consequences would indeed be dire for all involved. Take up your spear once more and be our Champion. Lead the guard as no one but you might. For though you have doubted this day might truly come, it has indeed. Though you doubted the Sidhe could be one people, you have always protested they you hold them all with equal regard. That you would defend the Unseelie as fervently as the Seelie. That when you have represented the Sidhe in negotiation with other races that you have done so with the good of all Sidhe at heart. For you the Sidhe has always been a unified people. Let us today make it so.”
Lugh raised his face to Danu once more. The Creatrix. The one connected to the realm and all within it. Although loyal to the Seelie Court, its king could not compel Lugh against his will. The All-Mother possessed that power. She merely nodded her assent.
“I shall lead the guard, as you have asked. For all our people.” Lugh bowed his head to Danu, but pointedly did not offer the same sign of respect to Manannan. He departed to the armory to prepare himself. If the Unseelie Elite did come, and Lugh highly suspected that at least one would, the fey warriors he’d seen manning the watch would not have the strength to subdue them. He loved his people, light and dark alike. If Danu believed a unified court was the path to lasting peace, he would defend it. For his people. For all Sidhe.
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One Dangerous World
Three Intense Story Lines