Dullahan

This is now for NaNoWriMo (over a year after I first started it hahaha)
I'm rewriting what little I've done so far and then continuing more over the month so here we go.
Cover is made solely by me.


A promise is made between Fae, and a short number of years later it is time to repay the deed.

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5. A Court

It was early afternoon when the reached the outskirts of what Eldred could only assume was a city. It had been on the horizon for hours, the sun slowly climbing the sky behind it, reflecting off of the glossy leaves that seemed to cover the buildings. Built on a fairly low hill, the layers of the settlement rose above one another in greater heights, the very highest point dominated a massive tree that reached its branches into the clouds. Its roots dominated the rest of the city, twisting between buildings and laying guides for many of the roads that led to the city’s heart. Nestled amongst the trunk’s base was a castle, its towers dwarfed by the tree, but still managing to tower over the smaller buildings that surrounded it.

Eldred had stayed quiet for much of the journey, puzzled by Aeron’s comments on Leola, the old lady. It didn’t sound right; people didn’t eat other people, did they?

The dust roads started to turn to cobblestone, the horses’ hoofs clattering against the stones. The messengers, still leading the way, had slowed down. A few split from the small group, speeding toward the centre of the city. The boy shifted where he sat, readjusting his grip of the Orin’s mane. After a little while he became aware of eyes watching them. In dark allies figures lurked, the bright sunlight casting black shadows. They watched the small group of travellers, Aeron and him especially, with disdain, with mild hatred.

He squirmed a little under their gaze, head turning to watch either side of the street nervously. As the houses started to get more dense, more people started to appear on the streets. Small market stalls set up on the side of the road drew customers who watched them warily. Customers who, Eldred noticed, didn’t all look entirely human. Some had skin in unnatural colours- greens, blues- while others, much like the figures he’d seen in Leola’s house, had horns protruding from the back of their heads. All of them, he noted, even the messengers before them, had pointed ears. The boy frowned, watching as a particularly interesting individual with massive wings of creamy white feathers strode past, talon-like feet digging into the patches of dirt it came across, carrying a wicker basket.

“Where are we?” he asked eventually, turning to look at Aeron.

“This city is known as Caahsca,” the rider said, flicking the reins gently. Orin slowed again, matching the pace of the messengers in front of them. A small crowd of people had started to gather, further slowing the progress the small group was making.

“But,” he stopped, distracted by a creature that looked more bestial than human, “These aren’t- they aren’t-”

“Human?” she finished, looking straight ahead.

The boy nodded, looking anywhere but straight ahead as he tried to see all of the strange creatures.

Aeron sighed. “Stop staring so much, you’re only making yourself stand out more. In this world, you are the odd one- the rarity.”

He frowned, looking toward her visor again. “But aren’t you-?”

“No.”

He went quiet, shifting a little in the saddle again.

The rider was silent as they moved through the crowd, reaching the gate into the city proper. Until this point, all of the houses had been fairly small, squat things similar to the cottage Leola lived in. They were like a village at the edge of the city itself, stretching long and thin along the length of its walls. Orin stopped just behind the messengers’ own horses.

“Did your mother ever tell you stories about the people of the woods?” she asked finally, breaking the silence between them.

The boy thought for a moment, trying to recall distant memories of days long passed. “… Like the faeries that snatch children from their cots? Or the brownies that’ll clean the house for a bowl of milk?” He paused, brow furrowed. “But they’re just stories, aren’t they?”

The gate opened, heavy doors dragging the air in wards. The group of travellers continued.

“No,” Aeron said, flicking the reins. “Most of the stories about the people of the woods are true. For the most part we keep to ourselves, we stay here in our own world, our sanctuary. But some Fae, like the brownies you mentioned, or… things more like me, well. We venture out into your world and we interact with your people.”

Eldred was quiet, mind whirling as he processed this. He’d believed the stories his mother told him when he was younger. He even remembered running around the woods with Siarl and May, trying to find the so-called faeries. As with most other children of the village, however, he soon realised they were just stories. Or at least, that’s what he had thought before the entered the city, before he’d seen the creatures he thought mere stories.

The horses continued steadily, passing through a second gate not too soon after the first. The houses started getting taller, hanging over the streets and leaning into one another. The buildings were tightly packed together on either side of the road, each house often sharing walls with its neighbour. Ivy scaled the stone, covering plain grey with shades of brown and red. A canopy of branches formed over some of the smaller streets that Eldred saw lead off from the main road, shading it from the outside world. He saw staircases that descended into catacombs below, with pale creatures lurking just beyond the immediate shadows, talking to others of their like, baring needle sharp teeth as they smiled. He saw doors of all sizes leading to houses big and small, with people to match. Small Fae that fluttered around in the air, darting past his head as they went about their daily business.

All around them was the roar of a city, the sound of voices, animals, hoofs, and objects being moved around. Somewhere in the distance, a clock chimed, its musical notes announcing the hour. They drew ever closer to the tree at the centre of the place, its sprawling limbs already reaching the air above them, casting shadows on the streets below.

“Caahsca’s roads are a maze,” Aeron said, “It will be a while before we reach the palace.”

***

She had been right. It took a few hours to actually reach the palace, with the main road spiralling in wards toward the base of the tree. The crowds of people only grew denser as they got closer as well, slowing the pace of the horses further as they had to wade through crowds just to reach the next gate.

Eventually, they made it. Up close the tree was no less impressive, towering above everything else in the city. The castle built around its trunk was no less impressive, however. Towers climbed the bark. Supported by the great tree, they reached dizzying heights. Soldiers of all kinds marched in patrols, weaving through the arches that led to numerous courtyards. The messengers parted to let Eldred and Aeron through, standing by for their next orders. As they approached the castle’s main door a tall man, with what Eldred thought were antlers, stepped out to meet them.

“Aeron,” he said, distaste lingering on the words, “You’ve actually answered your summons this time.”

The rider dismounted Orin, bowing stiffly to the man. “Gildas. I assume this is important, given the effort to reach me, so shall we cut the thinly veiled threats short and get on with it?”

The man with antlers smiled slyly, before he inclined his head and stepped to the side. “This way, if you please. Leave the horse here, one of the stable hands will tend to it.”

Eldred slid from the horse, stumbling a bit on the landing. He could feel the eyes of guards and other servants on him, watching his every move, yet whenever he looked they seemed occupied, too busy with their own lives. They boy shuddered, hurrying to catch up with Aeron, who had started toward the wooden doors that marked the entrance to the castle.

Gildas led the way, striding over the threshold with what Eldred assumed was pride, into a long corridor. The walls were made of pale stone, tapestries covering almost every inch, and the stone floor had been covered in a deep red carpet. Their way was lit with torches placed at regular intervals across the walls, held in place by ornate sconces made of a metal Eldred was unfamiliar with. There were balconies either side of the hallway, both filled with people watching the new arrivals. The ceiling was much higher above them, with flags of many different colours hanging from support beams.

Eventually, the antlered man spoke. “You know the court rules, Dullahan. I will take the-” he paused, glancing back at Eldred, eyes seething with hatred, “-mutt through to the courtroom. You, on the other hand-”

“Must remove all glamours and present myself before the King and Queen with my helmet removed. I must leave any and all weapons in the room before I enter,” Aeron recited in the most monotonous tone she could manage.
The man’s smile widened, and he dipped his head. “Correct as always. The door is there,” he pointed accordingly to a small wooden door set deep in one of the castle’s walls, “So you may depart now.”

The figure turned away from the boy and Gildas, disappearing into the room beyond the door. Through it, in the brief moment that the door was open, Eldred saw a well lit room with what looked like a table at its centre. The door shut behind Aeron, the resulting clunk of the latch reverberating through the hallway. Eldred felt a very familiar sense of dread rise up within him. He glanced toward Gildas, who had turned back toward the end of the hallway before them. The man didn’t say a word to the boy, and Eldred decided it would be best to avoid a conversation with him. The way the Fae held himself around him suggested to Eldred that he believed Eldred far, far beneath him.

Without the somewhat comforting presence of Aeron (Granted, Eldred still didn’t entirely trust her, but she seemed far more amenable than anyone else he’d met in this land) he felt considerably more exposed. He shrank back a little, falling behind the man with antlers by a few steps.

 

The doors before them swung open as they approached, opening into a massive hall lit by numerous chandeliers that hung from the arched ceiling. The walls, unlike those of the corridor, were dominated by massive windows that went from the floor to the ceiling, curtains matching the bloody shade of the carpets. At the end of the room was a raised platform, on which were two thrones. The first, the largest of the two, was in the very centre, at the end of a long carpet covered in intricate patterns. The second throne was off to the side, smaller than the first, positioned just behind it.

Sitting in the larger throne was a man, clothed in garments resembling that of a king’s, who, like Gildas, had antlers. His branched from his head like a crown, twisting backwards gracefully around his skull, framing long, dark hair. He sat upright in his throne adorned with gold and silver, watching over the other Fae in the room with a cruel, harsh expression.

In the smaller throne sat a woman, her face softer than the man’s, wearing a simple dress in autumnal colours. Upon her head was a mixture of hair and feathers, golden locks blending into shimmering feathers that cascaded down her head like a mane. From her shoulder blades emerged wings, at first glance delicate, that were folded neatly either side of her. She sat in her own throne in a more relaxed position, lounging as she waited for something to happen.

Either side of the central carpet were two tables, the ones nearest the windows filled with a collection of smaller Fae, mischievous grins and warm smiles decorating their faces. On the two tables nearest the carpet were larger Fae, their expressions closer to that of the man in the throne.

At the sound of the doors opening, all had gone quiet, heads turning eagerly to watch Gildas stride into the room, Eldred trailing behind nervously.

The man on the throne looked toward them, rising from his seat as Gildas stepped to the side, gesturing for Eldred to continue down the carpet alone.

His first few steps were hesitant, and he looked around for some form of confirmation from one of the many faces that surrounded him. When none came he took a deep breath, and started to walk down the carpet.
Their stares felt like they were burning into him, boring holes into his back. The worst were those from the two Fae on the platform, watching from above with indifferent eyes.

 

It wasn’t until he almost reached the end of the carpet that he heard another door open. He kept his gaze fixed unwaveringly on the steps up to the platform, not daring to turn and see who had entered the room. He didn’t have to.

Her boots clinked against the bare stone, echoing throughout the hall. When she reached the carpet her footsteps were slightly muffled, but still audible as heavy thumps, drawing closer by the second. Nobody had said a word since Eldred entered, and all were silent as Aeron strode down the carpet, her helmet tucked neatly underneath one arm. She slowed a little as she got closer to Eldred, the noise of her armour quietening as she moved less, before silencing completely when she came to a halt beside him.

He glanced toward her, shifting his weight uncomfortably, before stopping dead in him tracks.

With her helmet removed, Eldred was able to see the straps that had held it in place, anchoring it to her neck so that it did not fall from its place. On any regular person, this wouldn’t be necessary; a person’s head easily kept their helmet in place, and if anything made it more difficult for the helmet to fall. However, the Dullahan, as Eldred now realised it was called, lacked this seemingly essential piece. The figure before him had nothing where its head should have been.

It didn’t say anything as it dropped to one knee, placing a hand on Eldred’s back and pressing him into a mirrored action. He stumbled into a bow, hand dropping to the floor to steady himself. His lingering fears and dread started to make sense, the pieces of the puzzle clicking together.

After what seemed like an age, the man with the crown-like antlers spoke. “You may rise.”

The figure did as ordered, straightening up. It took Eldred a moment longer to struggle to his feet, as his legs quivered.

The courtroom stayed in silence as the man looked the pair up and down, his eyes emotionless as he scanned Eldred. The throned woman watched with interest, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth.

When he spoke again, his voice was stern. “Years, Aeron,” the man said, taking a step forwards on the platform. His robe trailed behind him like a tail. “It has been years since you saw fit to answer your summons with such haste. Years since you saw fit to serve your people with the dedication they deserve.” There were whispers at the tables. “You have spurned the Courts, sauntering in weeks after your presence was required no matter the state of emergency with which messengers were sent to you. And yet you arrive mere hours after your summons on this particular day.” The man paused, his eyes narrowing as he looked toward Eldred. “And you bring with you this… insult? This Ceann Salach? Would you care to explain yourself?”

“With all due respect, my Lord, the boy is no less Fae than those born of changelings. He was born of a human and a Fae, just like those born of changelings,” the Dullahan stated, standing tall beneath the man.

“’Just like’?” The man let out a short, harsh, laugh. “You make a fool of yourself Aeron. This boy is less Fae than a Changeling or any child they might have. Perhaps it has slipped your mind that his father was exiled from our land? That this boy was raised beyond this land’s borders, where magic is but a fading memory. So I ask you again, Dullahan. Why have you brought the Ceann Salach to this land? For you must known that is an insult far graver than a Human’s presence here.”

It seemed unfazed, standing like a statue before the room. “He has accompanied me because I gave my word to protect him, and his sole protector in the land of humans has passed. He is still young, and cannot yet fend for himself. As many here know,” it said, turning slightly to motion toward the long tables toward the sides of the room, “A promise made in blood cannot be broken. My word is stronger than my obligation to serve the court, as it is with any Fae. In order to continue my service to the court, the boy must therefore accompany me while I am in these lands, my Lord.” It put a hand on Eldred’s shoulder. He flinched at the touch.

The man’s words took on threatening edge, anger seeping onto his face. “You are walking on very thin ice, Dullahan. It would be wise for you to choose your words carefully. You are breaking a rule most important to our people-”

The throned woman cleared her throat, interrupting the man. He turned toward her, one eyebrow raised in questioning. “If you will excuse the interruption, my dear. The Dullahan brought the child here, breaking such an important rule in order to refrain from breaking a rule far more sacred than any other, and to offer her continued services.” She stood, her wings unfolding a little, emphasising her own power. “We both know how difficult it can be to find Dullahans willing to aid the court- it would be a shame to lose one of the few who has gone to such lengths to continue serving.”

“Thank you, my lady,” the Dullahan said, bowing low again.

Eldred saw the winged woman’s face change for a split second, twisting into an expression of loathing, before she smiled gracefully, all suggestions of her slip erased.

The crowned man didn’t speak for a while, looking over the two who stood before him. He let out a sigh, looking out wards to the Fae sitting at the tables. They looked on eagerly, like vultures watching a mortally wounded animal. “So be it.” He said, forcing the words from his mouth. “The boy will be granted rights to stay in this land until the time comes that he is able to defend himself in his own land. During and after that time, the Dullahan known as Aeron shall continue her services to the Unseelie Court with impeccable obedience,” the man spoke with authority, his words carrying clearly throughout the room. “Should the Dullahan’s obedience be found lacking, the boy will be hunted as any Ceann Salach is when found roaming our lands.” He raised a hand, waving it toward Gildas, who stepped forward. “The trial is finished. Begone.”

The Dullahan turned on its heel, pushing lightly against the boy’s back. A shiver ran down his spine, and the pair started to walk back down the carpet. As soon as the crowned man dismissed them, the entire room rose back up, voices deafening compared to the silence mere seconds before.

The walk back to the courtroom’s doors seemed much longer on the way back. Eldred’s legs were stiff, numb, as he was guided back down the carpet. Gildas stood waiting for them, a forced smile plastered onto his face. It was only when they had passed through the door’s archway that the Dullahan removed its hand, taking the helmet from beneath its arm and placing it back where its head should have been. The boy watched with mild horror as it redid the straps to hold it in place, hiding the clasps inside the helmet.

“Not the outcome you desired, Gildas?” It said, amusement plain in its voice.

He turned slightly to smile at it, eyes like daggers. “Of course it is, Aeron. I had every bit of faith that the Unseelie King would make the decision best for the people.”

“Masterful avoidance of the question asked. As expected from one such as you.”

The main gates of the castle opened for them, and they stepped through. Gildas stayed inside, watching the pair of them step into the sunlight. He shook his head slightly as the doors closed, muttering something to himself. The boy turned around, expecting to see Orin waiting for them.

The horse was nowhere in sight. Instead a large man awaited them, dressed in similar clothes to Gildas- those of a servant. Unlike Gildas, however, this man seemed almost entirely human. The only difference was his pointed ears. The Dullahan stopped before him, and the man bowed. “Aeron. You have been assigned a new target; another human-”

It raised a hand to silence him, and pointed briefly toward Eldred. “The boy would be better off not hearing,” it said quietly.

The man nodded, waving over a passing handmaid. “But of course.” She approached cautiously, eyes darting between the Dullahan and the boy nervously. The man whispered something to her, to which she nodded. She glanced once more at the Dullahan, before turning toward Eldred, bending down to his eye level, and giving him her best fake smile.

“Hello there, my name is Alma, would you mind coming with me?” she asked, her voice layered with sweetness. Eldred caught a nervous glance back toward the large man, before she looked back at him with renewed forced kindness.

He glanced toward the Dullahan out of habit, limbs freezing up a little when he saw the helmet, and was reminded of what was hidden beneath. Or rather, what wasn’t hidden beneath. He turned back toward Alma, and nodded slowly.

She visibly relaxed, straightening up and offering her hand. The boy took it, allowing himself to be led away from the Dullahan and the large man, being guided back toward the castle. Alma’s hands were rough, the skin hardened by long hours of working. He glanced back toward the Dullahan, noticing that it had allowed the man to continue his conversation after he was out of earshot. A frown passed onto his face, and he refocused himself to wherever it was they were going.

“It would be best if you did not hear what the Dullahan’s orders are,” Alma explained, seeing the boy’s confusion. “She is part of the Unseelie court, and their work is never…” she faltered, struggling to find the right word. “… Pleasant.”

Eldred nodded his head, feeling himself calm a little as they got further from the Dullahan. The feeling of safety that had started to creep in earlier had abandoned him, being replaced with renewed terror and dread. His initial assessment was correct; He was in a bad place.

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