La Héron by Charlotte Ashley
In the grayest hour of the evening of April 16th, 1699, when the sun had just vanished behind the great château that embraced the city of Caen but before her lantern-bearers had taken up the hooks of their trade, a gargantuan woman stooped to fit through the door of the Trois Tours Inn. Her inconvenience did not end at the door. Her steeple-crown hat, two centuries out of fashion, bumped the inn’s rafters and fell askew, causing her to swear and slouch as she made her way toward the crowd clustered at the foot of the stairs. Like the other travelers there, she was road-worn and unkempt, blonde hair so filthy that it looked green in the moonlight, spilling like seaweed out of her pointed cap. But so great was the force of her presence that the lesser persons ahead of her moved aside at her approach, clearing the path to the front of the queue where a registrar sat at a table, poised over a long ledger. His pen shook as it hovered over the lists.
La Héron stepped forward and placed a small stack of coins on the book, which the registrar smartly swept into the lockbox.
“And who will be acting as your second?”
“No one.” La Héron folded her long arms over her chest. “I will negotiate my own bouts.”
“Oh, no,” the registrar said, looking up. “Oh, no no no. You must have a second. The rules clearly stipulate that—”
A distant horn blast interrupted his complaint, a piercing wolf tone that set every brass bowl in the inn ringing. La Héron glanced at the window and frowned.
“A hunt? At this hour?” she asked. “It’s nearly midnight!”
The registrar did not reply. He was frozen in place, only the jelly of his yellowed eyes trembling.
“Monsieur?” La Héron asked him. “Are we finished?”
“Herlechin,” the man whispered. “Damn him.”
“I beg your pardon, monsieur, but if you are finished with me, I’d like my sash and token.”
“What?” The registrar’s wide eyes flickered back to her, focusing again. He turned red and looked at the tournament lists again. “Ah, your second?”
La Héron scowled. The registrar drooped and ran a hand over his now-damp face. After a moment’s thought, he withdrew a blank slip of paper from the ledger and started writing.
“Very well. Go and see Monsieur Chuinard at this address. He can escort you to the Abbaye aux Dames. The hour is late, but the gendarme will help you find an assistant.”
“At the convent?”
The registrar held up a tired hand. “Every man-at-arms in town is already enlisted, madame. You are in no position to be particular. I suggest you call on him immediately.”
La Héron snatched the note and left, ducking through the door. She had not passed ten paces when a galloping ruckus preceded a party of costumed riders bearing down the tight streets of Caen at full speed. She stepped into the shadows of a tannery to let them pass, eyeing them suspiciously. The lead rider was a man dressed head to toe in shiny red leather with a sword on either hip and a grotesque black mask like the face of the devil. He tipped his hat at her as he passed, his demon’s face curling into a smile, flashing sharp, dog-like teeth.
Herlechin. There could be no mistaking the creature. La Héron watched as the party pulled up in front of the inn, dismounted, and entered. When the last of the strange riders had crowded through the door, she continued toward her destination with little more than a shrug.
These were the Black Bouts of Caen, after all. Duelists and mercenaries had come from all over Christendom to compete for the glory and the purse that would be awarded to the winner. It did not matter to La Héron what creatures of the otherworld entered the lists as well. Come they from Hell, fairyland, or anywhere else, she planned to best them and to win as she had so many times before. She only needed a second.
The girl on the pallet appeared to be dead. Her face was purpled and bloody, her hair dark and wet, and her body absolutely still. This did not appear to concern old Monsieur Louis-Ange Chuinard, who plunked a lantern on the nightstand next to the girl’s head and gave the body a nudge with his toe.
“Get up!” he called impatiently. “You have a guest.”
La Héron raised her eyebrow at the sleepy canoness who had admitted them. “The nuns keep prisoners?” she asked.
The old gendarme shook his head. “She did this to herself, I assure you,” he replied. “She’s a scrapper, this one. She will serve your needs, though few would credit it.” He scowled. “Sister Louise-Alexandrine! You’ll get up, or else—”
A hand shot out, quick as a snake, and took the gendarme by the belt. With a quick jerk, the girl used the man’s heft to haul herself to a sit, pulling him halfway to his knees in the process. The gendarme yelped in surprise, but the girl grinned like a jackal. One of her front teeth was newly broken and her eyes could not quite open for all the swelling, but aside from a slight swaying, she looked sound of body.
“Sister Louise-Alexandrine,” Chuinard grumbled, pulling himself free of her grip. “We have need of your service. Tonight. Can you walk?”
“Is that you, Chuinard?” the nun said, furrowing her brow. “You just locked me up, and now you’re letting me out?”
“I did not lock you up, Sister. I merely brought you home. Something, I remind you, you were in no condition to do yourself.”
“My thanks, Chuinard, whatever would I do without you,” the girl said flatly. She turned her blurry gaze on La Héron. “What is that?”
“They call me La Héron,” La Héron answered for herself. “You’re a nun.”
“That wasn’t my idea,” the girl said, and spat a red glob between her feet.
“A drunken nun,” La Héron said thoughtfully. “How old are you, girl?”
“Seventeen. Are you really a bird?”
“She’s twenty-three,” the canoness said, sighing. “You’ve said your vows, Sister.”
“Don’t remember that,” the sister muttered. She hauled herself unsteadily to her feet. “I can walk, if you’ll walk me out of here. What is it, then? You want me to plant carrots? Stitch up yer uniform? What’s the bird-woman for?”
“I need a second,” La Héron replied, a rare smile tugging at her lips. “Do you know anything about dueling?”
Sister Louise-Alexandrine stopped swaying and fixed a sober eye on the taller woman. Her gaze darted toward Chuinard.
“Dueling’s illegal,” she replied cautiously.
“I need a second,” La Héron repeated. “For the Black Bouts. Monsieur Chuinard has recommended you to me.”
The nun blinked hard and put a hand to her temple. “Chuinard, you hypocrite. I get into a few scraps and you drag me back here, but a stranger turns up for some back-alley brawling and suddenly the king’s law is by your discretion, is it?”
Chuinard turned red up to the roots of his black hair. “I dragged you back here to protect you from the blackguard with his boot on your face.”
“I don’t need your protection, s’blood,” said Sister Louise-Alexandrine, throwing her hands in the air. “I can take care of myself better than—”
“I must beg your pardons, friends,” La Héron said, stepping between the two, who looked as if they might come to blows, “but I need a second. Tonight.”
“I’ll attend you,” Sister Louise-Alexandrine answered. She scowled at Chuinard. “You won’t find a better sword in this town. I’d charge you, but what does a nun need with money?” She guffawed at the irony. “Just get me out of here.”
La Héron looked imploringly at the gendarme, who threw up his arms. “I leave you with Madame La Héron until she is eliminated or withdraws from the Bouts.” He raised a warning finger at both women. “But she comes back here when you are done with her, madame.”
La Héron shrugged. “That is not my affair. I am but a stranger here, as you say.”
“How very fortunate for you,” grumbled Sister Louise-Alexandrine.
Though they enjoyed the unofficial sanction of the minor constabulary like Monsieur Louis-Ange Chuinard, the Black Bouts of Caen were still decidedly illicit affairs, and as such maintained a cloak-and-dagger ambiance. Matches were paired and scheduled by secret organizers, the participants informed with barely an hour’s notice by anonymous letter-bearers who appeared and vanished into crepuscular mists.
Having received their first such summons just after a dinner of oysters in parsley butter, La Héron and the nun who insisted on being addressed simply as “Alex” were crouched on the shaded side of a moat under the Porte des Champs, looking up at the great stone fortress that was Le Château de Caen. Soldiers appeared at intervals to march along the bridge over their heads, but the governor was in Paris and the castle’s remaining residents seemed inclined to take the month off. Rousing drinking songs and raucous conversations rang out from within.
“Music!” cried a cloaked stranger, emerging from shadows of his own. “I could not have asked for a more romantic setting.”
As La Héron and Alex stepped into the light, the stranger unwound his long cloak in one deft stroke and heaped it upon his companion, a dwarf in a bright red hat. The taller man was dressed fancifully in gaily colored silks and breeches, his waistcoat and jacket speckled with gemstones and draped with the same golden sash La Héron wore, marking him as a competitor in the Bouts. He had a dagger at each hip, golden buckles on his shoes, and a foxish smile. La Héron took Alex by the elbow when the woman stepped forward to make their addresses.
“Do not give him your true name,” she murmured, watching the man with shrewd eyes.
“Eh? I am known to every gendarme in town, madame. I have nothing to gain by hiding—”
“It is not the law we should be wary of, Sister.” She gestured with her chin. “That’s a fairy lord, or I’m a butter churn.”
Alex returned a skeptical look as La Héron released her arm, yet as she approached their brightly clothed opponents, her gait slowed with apprehension. The man had goat-like eyes and long ears which tapered to points amidst his golden curls. The man’s little second, upon closer inspection, was a toadstool.
“M’lords,” she bowed. “I am…you may call me Chant des Oiseaux. My companion is known as La Héron. May I ask whom we have the honor of meeting tonight on this field of battle?”
“Birds!” the man said, looking delighted. “Oh, this will be fun!”
“Mademoiselle Birdsong,” the toadstool said, its face little more than nicks in its stem, “I am Agaric, and this is my master, the Count of Hunter’s Fields. Well met. We hope you will do us the honor of setting the terms for this bout.”
Alex glanced over her shoulder at La Héron, who nodded. “Our thanks. I propose the duel be fought to the third blood—or until either person be unable to continue. Blades only, no blows nor child’s play. In the case of dishonorable conduct, the second shall take up the blade of the participant and conduct herself as she deems appropriate. How does this suit you?”
“Very well,” the toadstool gurgled. “Shall we inspect the blades?” Alex bowed in response. The count’s daggers were ornate but mundane weapons, containing no trickery that the nun could see. The inspection complete, the seconds returned to their masters.
“I don’t like this,” Alex muttered as La Héron removed her own cloak and hat. “These things have come from elfland to compete in honorable bouts? I don’t believe it. There’s bound to be tricks or treachery.”
“I know,” La Héron replied, “so we must be ready for that. They allowed Herlechin and his band to enlist. Whatever they are, we must defeat them if we are to win the purse.”
“Herlechin?” Alex looked startled. “Of the Hunts? I think I know that tale.”
“You should,” La Héron told her. “These are not simply bored wood sprites from the Forêt de Rouvray. Herlechin has led his Hunt through these lands since the time of the Conqueror, seeking souls to take back with him to Hell or fairyland or wherever he goes. Deal with this lot as if your soul depended upon it, Sister Birdsong. Keep your wits, and keep an eye on the little fellow.” La Héron removed her purse last and slapped it into Alex’s hand with a warning look.
La Héron took her place opposite the count and eased herself into a fighting stance. Despite her much greater reach, the elf looked unconcerned, spinning his daggers on his palms and humming along with the drunken soldiers in the keep.
La Héron was prepared to launch an all-out attack when the first strains of new music tickled her ears. This new tune wasn’t coming from the keep but the other direction, out in the fields. She skipped back a step into the shadows, lowering her sword a few inches and expecting the count to do the same. If they were discovered dueling, they would both be thrown out of Caen, and the Bouts.
But the count did not move even as the music grew louder, a chorus of pipes and whistles playing Norman peasant music. La Héron glanced askew, trying to see where the noise was coming from without turning from her opponent, but she could see nothing in the gloom beyond moonlit grass and tangles of heather. La Héron stepped deeper into the shadow of the bridge overhead and did not see the thrust of the knife that flew past her cheek like a mercury dragonfly.
“First blood!” the toadstool announced triumphantly. La Héron shook her head, confused. The count was still ten paces from her, looking at his dagger as if he was surprised to see the blood on it. Alex frowned, indicating she had not seen the count move, either.
“It’s the music in the fields,” La Héron called to her second, shaking her head again to clear her thoughts. “Find the revelers and silence them!”
“What music?” Alex called, but La Héron did not hear her. The count grinned like a cat, waltzing from side to side with his knives bared.
“You don’t like it? Come, La Héron, dance with me. The steps are not so different from the ones you know, I’m sure you will agree. Step-and-two-three, step-and-two—”
“Shut up!” La Héron cried and threw herself at her opponent. Her rapier cut broad strokes across the air in front of her, though she had not yet closed the distance between them. Her sword collided with an unseen blade, tossing aside the dagger nobody had seen the count throw. She bore down hard with a furious rainstorm of thrusts which the count, surprised and one-handed, could not parry completely. One, two shots fell home, blossoms of blue-purple blood unfurling on his fine waistcoat. The third and final blow looked inevitable when La Héron was abruptly pulled back, twirled in an ungainly pirouette, and skipped two steps back again. She cried out in frustration.
“You’re a terrible dancer,” the count reprimanded her, the second dagger now returned to his hand. “I shall give you lessons.”
La Héron jerked to and fro, struggling to maintain a defensive position as the silent music played her like a puppet, the count mirroring her staggered steps with his wicked smile. At the whirring periphery of her vision, she could see Alex darting along the verge of the fields, seeking any trace of the music that had bewitched her companion.
“There!” La Héron cried, directing Alex with her gaze to where Agaric landed a discreet hop then stood absolutely still. Behind him lay a new trail of tiny mushrooms, already half-encircling the dueling pair. He had planted half a fairy ring in a matter of minutes, and if he were allowed to complete it, La Héron would be lost forever.
Alex ran to the circle and kicked over a troop of mushrooms. The music La Héron was powerless to resist erupted into a discordant blast of horns, deafening her to anything else. Alex staggered and clutched her head but continued to trip along the line, kicking and tearing the fungi to pieces as fairy horns exploded in their minds like a fanfare to agony. The count’s face turned green with fury and Agaric closed on Alex at a rushed waddle, but their complaints were obscured by the cacophony. Alex bared her teeth like an animal and continued her destruction of the new colony. When Agaric was within reach, she kicked him as well. The spongy flesh of his cap did not explode under the solid toe of her boot, but he staggered, sagged, then went still. The nun clamped her hands over her ears and finished ripping up the ring.
And then, suddenly, there was silence. La Héron stopped spinning, grimaced, and lunged unsteadily at the count, who now watched her with horror and fear in his goat’s eyes. Though she was dizzy and exhausted, her aim was sure. She slashed at his left arm, skillfully drawing a clear line of blood harmlessly from his biceps.
“Third blood,” Alex said, though La Héron could not hear the words for the ringing in her ears. A burst of wind hit her back, causing her greasy blonde hair to whip in all directions, then fall flat just as abruptly. The Count of Hunter’s Fields smiled reluctantly and bowed.
“Very well,” he conceded. “The match is yours.” He turned to Alex. “Well played, Birdsong.”
La Héron sat by the fire at the Trois Tours that evening with a long-necked guitar in her lap as Alex and Chuinard watched her tune the six strings. She plucked out intricate études with each twist of the pegs, testing the capabilities of the instrument the Count of Hunter’s Fields had just given her.
“I would never have guessed you could play so well,” Chuinard complimented her as her long fingers flew through another dazzling storm of notes.
“I can’t,” La Héron replied bluntly. “I have never played a note in my life.”
Alex’s jaw dropped. “The elf gave you an enchanted instrument?”
“Probably,” La Héron answered thoughtfully. She turned to the embarrassed tavern musician now sulking in the corner. “You! Monsieur Moustache! Lend me your flute, friend. I won’t be a moment.” She accepted it with a tip of her tall hat and blew into it experimentally. Moments later she was playing as breakneck a reel as any troubadour ever did. She stopped abruptly mid-note and handed the flute back. “No, I fear Monsieur le Comte has given me the ability to play. He has given me music.”
“That’s incredible!” Alex enthused, now recovered from her initial shock. “What a gift!”
“I suppose,” La Héron said, picking up her cup of wine. She studied the other residents of the inn, most of whom were competitors in the Bouts. “Though it looks to me as if Herlechin’s folk have been distributing ‘gifts’ rather liberally, and not with fair intention.”
Indeed, some of the other participants in the Bouts were looking unwell. The big man known locally as L’Ourson wept endlessly at the far end of the bar. The flamboyant Marquis de Jarzé had suddenly gone completely bald. The Bavarian, Lara, was complaining loudly that the wine tasted of turnip greens, and Jean-Francois de Monauté kept taking his clothes off. Nobody had escaped the attentions of the surgeon, and it showed.
“They all lost their matches, you know,” Chuinard said. “Only you and Saint-Germaine defeated Herlechin’s hunters.” He looked at La Héron. “Saint-Germaine has a new hound. A gorgeous beast.”
“Do you think Herlechin’s folks are gambling without our knowing it?” Alex suggested. “Gifts for the winners, and…losses for the losers?”
“Good God, I hope not,” Chuinard murmured, but looking about the room, it was difficult for any of them to think otherwise.
“Something to consider, Sister Birdsong,” La Héron said, draining her cup, “when you negotiate my next bout.”
“Let us hope for a human opponent,” La Héron muttered, kicking pebbles at a crossroads just outside the city. Alex stomped her feet and rubbed her arms, trying to keep warm.
“What? No, bring another elf-lord! Just think, La Héron, what gifts you might earn! I have heard the fairy folk have living horses of pure gold and swords which, when broken, become two. Or perhaps—”
“Sister Birdsong,” La Héron said, looking stern, “do not ever think you can best a fairy. Even when you win against these creatures, you lose.”
“Pfft,” Alex scoffed, still a little tipsy from their evening at the Trois Tours. “You’ve bested them already. You and I, La Héron, they have not seen a pair like us, not in any world.”
La Héron shook her head but said nothing. The younger woman was all bravado, drunk more on the freedom and excitement of the Bouts than the cheap Burgundy they’d shared. She did not need to ask how a woman of spirit and skill at arms found herself bound to a nunnery—it happened to all too many young people. She’d have been born to the wrong person at the wrong time, and with no better prospects, gifted to the Church without further ado. La Héron could not help but think it was a pity. The young woman was an excellent companion and there was much she could teach her. She was wasted as a nun.
The pair who eventually arrived were, to Alex’s great satisfaction, decidedly not human, but were drunk as stoats regardless. La Héron’s opponent was the smaller of the two creatures who wove unsteadily up the street, a gnarled old fellow with unnaturally long limbs attached to a cauldron-like torso, no neck to speak of, and a nose as long as a trout. His golden sash tangled in his legs as he walked, and the barrel-chested brute at his side kept stepping on the tattered end which dangled in the dirt, tripping them both. Alex’s grin glinted with wickedness.
“My ladies.” The old fairy bowed, drawing a long rapier with a flourish which trimmed his second’s long mustache. “Well met. I am the—ah—former Duke of Berrymines. This is my son, Broad Benjamin.”
“This match is already ours,” Alex snickered into La Héron’s ear as she moved to negotiate the bout. La Héron sighed but could not disagree.
“Do not fall into greed,” La Héron could only caution her. Alex shrugged, but was careful in her negotiations. In addition to the same terms as the first match, she got the big second to agree that La Héron would lose “nothing which would be missed” in case of a loss.
The old duke dropped into a low crouch and extended a wobbly blade in La Héron’s direction, listing to the right the longer he stood still. His first limp thrust licked the air to her left a good three feet wide of her hip. Expecting a trick, La Héron held back, tapping her opponent’s blade away with care when he stumbled at her with a second overambitious lunge. Alex rolled her eyes from the tree line.
When the old fellow’s third lunge appeared bound directly toward the dirt at La Héron’s feet, she stepped forward and aimed a steady blade at his unprotected shoulder. With his weight behind the drooping thrust, his tip was likely to become stuck in the earth, and one hit might easily become three. This match which had already come to embarrass her would be at an end. Alex grinned as Broad Benjamin slid down the tree next to her to hunker on his broad bottom.
But the ex-duke’s sword never did sink into the ground. A snail the size of a fist glistened in the moonlight as it passed between them, finding itself exactly at the point in the crossroads where the doomed thrust was bound. Berrymines’ rapier hit the center of the tiny spiral and slid off its shell with a muted tink. With nothing to support his weight, the old fairy fell flat on his stomach as the tip of his blade deflected upward just enough to draw a line along the surface of the road and to pierce the leather of La Héron’s boot.
“God’s blood!” La Héron barked, nearly tripping on the man’s head and stumbling into the space where his shoulder used to be. She hopped on one foot, trying to regain her balance as a telltale stickiness seeped from the cut at her ankle. Broad Benjamin looked up, startled.
“First blood?” he asked cautiously. Alex looked stricken. La Héron swore again and limped angrily away from her fallen opponent.
“Yes, dammit,” she growled. “Get up, you old fool.”
“My deepest apologies, madame, my most sincere apologies…” Berrymines kowtowed as he struggled to his feet. La Héron stomped on the snail and kicked its cracked shell out of her way as she took up her position again.
“En garde!” she snapped.
She did not hold back this time. Berrymines was barely in position when she attacked, cutting with quick, short strokes toward his torso. He scrambled backwards, pinwheeling her blade away when he was lucky enough to hit it, trying to prevent her from coming within striking range. When he tripped the second time, she stepped back, assuming a defensive position and a suspicious look.
The ex-duke landed on his rear end with a shout of surprise. His boot was trapped awkwardly under an exposed cedar root that pulled up like a submerged rope the more he tried to shake his foot free. La Héron waited with increasing impatience as he jerked and pulled, packed earth spraying as the very veins of the forest tore toward the surface. The ground around La Héron’s feet shook and shifted as buried roots crested.
“Stop that,” La Héron demanded, taking staggered steps to avoid getting caught in the roots herself.
“My apologies, my apologies,” Berrymines muttered, the forest’s very underpinnings coming loose the more violent his thrashing became. “I’ve just got to get unstuck, you see—”
“Trickery!” Alex yelled, reaching for the sword at her own belt. “Be still, old man, or I will—”
“Arh!” La Héron cried out as a net of roots wound its way around her foot and pulled. She fell backward, dropping her sword. The blade bounced on the churning earth, twisted midair, and caught her on the forearm.
“Second blood,” Broad Benjamin called, looking amused from where he was still sitting under the tree.
“Isn’t!” Alex gasped. “It was her own blade that cut her!”
“Counts, I think.” Broad Benjamin shrugged. “She’s bleeding.”
“You knobbly bastard,” Alex growled, advancing on the seated creature with her sword drawn. Even without rising to his feet, he stared her down eye to eye.
“Sister Birdsong!” La Héron rebuked her, un-snagging her foot and standing. “Help the ex-duke up, now.”
“Very kind, very kind,” Berrymines tittered, lolling about on the ground. The forest had ceased its quaking as he stopped struggling. Alex ground her teeth audibly as she violently sheathed her sword. Her handling of the ex-duke was also less than gentle, but the old fairy was soon on his feet and armed once more. La Héron resumed her position and Alex resumed hers, looking grim.
“Are you ready?” La Héron asked simply.
“I am,” Berrymines replied with a short bow.
La Héron lowered her sword and walked casually up to her wavering opponent, past the tip of his sword, which quivered too late as if it couldn’t decide how to follow her. She stood next to him as if he were unarmed and smiled. Then she poked him in the thigh three times in quick succession.
“Match,” she said to him, bowing a final time and sheathing her sword. Alex’s jaw dropped, though the elf-lords merely shook their heads.
“Why did that work? Why didn’t he spit you like a pig?” Alex demanded, rushing to La Héron’s side and looking her over. “You sure you haven’t stubbed your toe, or—”
“It doesn’t take any luck at all to skewer an opponent who offers themselves to you,” La Héron explained. “Just a straight, simple shot.”
The former Duke of Berrymines bowed, unperturbed, in acknowledgement of her assessment. “Well played, madame, well played. I never have been very good at doing things the easy way, I’m afraid.”
“You’re amazing!” Alex enthused as they escorted the stumbling fairies back to the inn. “How do you feel? Any different? What did you win?”
La Héron shrugged and stretched her arms, inspecting her hands. “I have no idea. I do feel rather alive. Probably the excitement of the match!”
“Oh, no, madame,” Berrymines said, leaning heavily on her arm. “I’ve given you the last twenty years of my life.” He blinked sleepily. “I wasn’t going to do much with them anyway.”
Alex stopped walking and stared at the old fairy in shock. “You’ve given her twenty years of life? S’blood!” She started walking again, deep in thought. “You lot give God a run for his money.” La Héron shot her a sharp glance, but Alex looked away.
Their celebrations were short-lived. They received their third summons just before dawn. Chuinard delivered the note, his face as white as a sheet.
“You’re to fight Herlechin himself,” he told La Héron. “He insisted, and they gave it to him. He has never been defeated by a child of God. Not in six hundred years.”
Their match was fixed for midday. Alex and La Héron sparred before breakfast, both needing the physical release only the clash of swords could bring, but they were driven inside again by thunder and clouds which rolled in from the sea like Heaven’s host shrouded in black billows. As the church bells started to ring for morning mass, raindrops as fat as mice fell all at once over the city of Caen, flooding the streets. La Héron sat at the water-cloaked windows of the Trois Tours watching the river forming outside.
“I think those are fish falling from the sky,” she said, squinting at the drowned world. “Frogs and leeches. This is an ominous rainfall.”
“Perhaps Herlechin will melt,” Chuinard suggested, trapped inside with them.
“More likely he called the Channel down upon us,” La Héron replied. “Damn him! Is it midday yet?”
Two hours later, the rain stopped as abruptly as it had begun, the clouds parted, and the noonday sun shone down over the sparkling, water-filled streets. Pollywogs slid into the Trois Tours when Alex and La Héron opened the door to depart.
The water was thigh-deep and filled with lakeland life, swarming the two women as they waded, cloaks floating behind them, toward the southern gate. The streets were deserted, miraculously free even of waterlogged cats or chickens washed out of their yards by the storm. The sun twinkled off closed windows all around them. It was as if the strange rain had washed every person of Caen away with it.
Herlechin stood atop the southern wall where soldiers should have been. His leather suit shone as if it had been newly painted with the blood of men and the black mask which was his demon’s face glinted like polished obsidian. They were met at the gate by a beautiful woman robed in a blue indistinguishable from the sky. When she smiled, she showed blackened teeth and a forked, purple tongue.
“I am Morrígan, and you are welcome, ladies. My lord Herlechin has the honor of meeting you in battle today.” Her voice melted into the air like a drizzle of honey into the pot. Alex and La Héron exchanged a wary look.
“I am Birdsong, and this, Madame La Héron,” Alex said, unable to keep a quaver of unease from her voice. “Will you do us the honor of stating your terms?”
“Most gracious, ma chère. I propose nothing difficult, simply a duel to first blood. I don’t foresee any complications.”
“First?” Alex frowned, but Morrígan’s mocking smile roused her blood. “Naturally,” she snapped. “That is the simplest thing. Only—perhaps, a little wager?”
Morrígan looked amused. “Do you birds need something from Herlechin, then? Brave of you!”
“I need nothing!” La Héron put in, looking alarmed. “Sister Birdsong, a moment?”
Alex ignored her, but Morrígan raised an eyebrow. “Sister?” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if tasting the air. “Oh my, yes. A daughter of God! Don’t you smell sweet.” Her forked tongue flitted over her teeth, then retreated. “Yes, I think we could add a little more flavor to this match. Name your terms.”
“Play for me,” Alex blurted, spitting the words out. “If Madame wins, I belong to her.”
“Sister!” La Héron cried. “Don’t be stupid!”
“And a nun for Herlechin if he wins. Very tempting. But, ma chère, you belong to your God.”
Alex squared her jaw. “That isn’t a problem for you, is it?”
Morrígan laughed. “No, Sister, it is not. I confess, I did not think you could offer us anything, but this”—her lips lifted over her sharp teeth—“we agree to your terms.”
“I do not!” La Héron protested.
“It is done.” Morrígan quickly glanced at the tall woman. “You knew we would have to play for something, madame.”
La Héron ground her teeth together and glared at the back of Alex’s head. After a moment’s silence, she waded off to join Herlechin.
The duelists bowed and assumed their positions atop the butter-colored walls, surrounded on both sides by the waters of the storm-brought lake twenty feet below them. Herlechin was twice as tall as La Héron remembered. He wielded two longswords in the German fashion, neither blade as long or as swift as La Héron’s, but heavy, dangerous-looking affairs nonetheless. She could see no eyes in the black pits of his demon’s face, yet somewhere in their depths, La Héron sensed damnation.
Herlechin moved first. He swung one blade down, a lighting strike sent straight for her heart, whirling the second like an echo toward her thigh. For her part, La Héron stepped back and twitched her sword’s point at the back of Herlechin’s gloved hand. First blood needn’t be fatal.
Herlechin repeated this cleaver-like attack three, four times, advancing on La Héron each time, forcing her further and further back toward a turret. The fairy lord was tireless, and La Héron’s counterattacks hadn’t enough weight behind them to breach his leather hide. Still, La Héron’s face showed only focus and control, study and thought.
As Herlechin drew up for the fifth attack, La Héron’s heel scraped against the stone wall. Herlechin guffawed to see her trapped, unable to retreat further, but La Héron’s lip only twitched in annoyance. As the great swords fell toward her with the weight of judgment, she quietly lowered her weapon, flattened herself against the turret, and twisted to face the wall’s ledge. She scrambled spider-like onto the lip, faced the water-filled fields, spread her arms, and jumped.
Her escape was obscured by an explosion of yellow rubble and dust as Herlechin’s blow ripped through the tower. A moment later, the blood-red hunter leapt onto the ledge and dove after his quarry. Twenty feet later, there was no splash.
Alex rushed for the stairs, her pace slowed by the deep water. She took the steps three at a time with Morrígan at her heels, raced along the wall toward the ruined tower, and threw herself at the wall’s ledge, gripping the stone with white fingers. The sparkling green water appeared to stretch out to the horizon, broken only by ripples where the long grass swayed below the waves. There was nothing else: no bloody flush, no floating corpse, no froth of struggle, and no sign of La Héron nor Herlechin.
Alex glanced at Morrígan, whose perfect face was muddied by confusion.
“What sort of creature is she?” Morrígan murmured, sounding almost impressed.
Alex kept her eyes on the water. “La Héron,” she muttered.
At this invocation, the surface of the water broke. A snake-like neck preceded a white spray of water where sheets of blue-grey feathers unfurled and took flight. Long, scaled legs trailed behind the lithe bird, clutching a rapier in one talon. The blade was too long and too heavy for feet built for gripping fish, and the heron struggled to escape the pull of the water. After a new moments flapping awkwardly too close to the water’s surface, a red fist punched out of the depths and took hold of the free leg, forcing the blade to tumble from her grip and her body back into the mire.
“No!” Alex cried and vaulted over the edge. The long drop took no time and the shallow water did little to break her fall. With a pained cry, she pushed off the ground and lurched in the direction of the duelists, catching up the sword sinking hilt-first into the flooded field. Herlechin had surfaced now with the thrashing heron’s neck caught in one hand like a chicken for the slaughter.
“Better one loss than two,” Alex muttered. If La Héron bled, Alex would be lost. If La Héron died, they both would be.
So, she thrust.
She thrust gently, careful to avoid slitting the heron’s long neck which snaked and curled as she pecked at Herlechin’s face with her pointed beak. Alex thrust for the heron’s chest, where she hoped the bird had the most muscle. She thrust so slowly that in the space between beats of the wing, between blinks, the heron vanished and the long, pallid lines of a naked woman appeared where the bird’s breast used to be. The weight of her transformation caused Herlechin to buckle, surging forward into the slow path of the incoming blade. La Héron’s arm shot out and covered Alex’s grip on the hilt. Together, they drew a razor-straight line of black blood along Herlechin’s neck just above the collarbone.
Herlechin and La Héron collapsed into a messy heap in the water as a burst of wind hit Alex clean in the face. She dropped the blade and clutched her chest instead. She staggered back a few steps as both duelists splashed to a stand.
“First blood?” Alex croaked. “Does it count?”
For a few quiet moments, nobody answered.
“Yes,” La Héron barked, pushing Herlechin away from her and fishing around in the water for her soggy clothes. “It bloody well counts.” She turned on Herlechin and shook an angry finger in his face. “Don’t like it, monsieur? Argue with fate! Mademoiselle Birdsong’s soul has been gifted to me.”
“It has?” Alex said, frowning and poking her chest.
“Yes.” La Héron waded back toward the gate, clothes bundled under one arm and her sword in the other. “Next time, negotiate better terms. Breaking one bondage and tying up another—not smart, Birdsong. Not smart.”
“Next time?” Alex trailed behind her.
“Yes, next time. You’re free of your God now. You belong to me instead. What else did you think we would do? We go to the next town, the next tourney. Next time. On it goes.”
“You’re a bird.”
“Very astute.” La Héron paused and turned back to Herlechin. “Did your Hunt come for me, monsieur? Did you hope to bring me back to fairyland with you?”
Herlechin grinned, his smile reaching the tips of his ears. “I sensed an attractive soul here, yes.” He chuckled.
La Héron bowed. “Then I wish you better luck next time as well.”
Alex mirrored Herlechin’s smile. “Next time,” she echoed.