The King’s Raven soared up out of Faerie, spiraling between banks of summer storm and into the sun over Dartmoor. The veils that cloak his world from ours fell together behind him like a crystalline song. Icy wedges of air streamed past the sharp eyes, poured across the stretching wings as he reached over the horizon for the moon’s white disk. Then pivoting on a night-black wing tip, he turned and powered towards the ground, flipping barrel rolls for joy, because he could. Just as he flattened out to skim the granite-crowned tors, a glint of sapphire glittered at him from somewhere below.
Reluctant but obedient, he tumbled out of the sky over tiny Iveston village, stalled, and came to rest, wrapping hooked talons over the fence that defined the well-ordered yard of a country pub from the wild moor lands beyond. For a moment, he was a laughing young man sitting on the fence in black jeans and shirt. Then the elegant gentleman who had called him snapped an order, clearly expecting to be obeyed.
Vulgarly impertinent, the boy was the raven again. His head bobbed once, and again, in case his lord had missed the courtesy. (He hadn’t, and couldn’t resist smiling.) Shouted a territorial caw, in case the ordinary corvidae in the neighborhood had missed his arrival. Then he sprang up with a noisy clap of wings to settle on the roof peak of the pub called Day’s Star. On guard, eyes bright, he settled in.
* * *
Inside the lime-washed and serviceable Star, its dark interior redolent of time and beer, things were not so poetic. Well, not entirely. A pair of old men bent over a chess game in a corner under horse brasses and framed headlines from the Great War. Another, content to sit alone with his Kindle reader and a short whisky, took up the seat nearest the bar, occupied by his father and grandfather in their turns. Quiet enough, then, excepting the click of the e-reader paging, and the occasional muttered “Check!” There’s a bit of poetry in all of that, maybe.
Mr Day, the landlord, added a metallic clank and thump to the mix, fitting a new keg in under the bar. But the sound that rang up to the sharp-eared Raven on the roof was none of these: less content, much younger, and utterly American.
“I said no, Peter, and I meant it! Just no!” Ben Harper had been reviewing galley proofs of the new book all day and had come down to the pub for a sandwich and a pint. “I should never have picked up,” he muttered.
“What’s that, eh?” said his agent.
Ben sighed and let the other man go on. It was an agent’s job to keep the magic going, and wild ideas that worked were Peter’s specialty, yes. He was the one who had turned Ben’s knack for efficiency and clear thinking from a cottage industry into a career. So he was grateful. Really. The man earned his percentage, but there were limits. There had to be!
Ben drained his pint and gave up. “Peter, stop. Could you stop? I said, no castles. No US locations. Maybe next year.”
“Just let me finish, mate! This is brilliant! You’ll love this.”
Ben set the cell phone gently on the table and raised his empty glass and a meaningful look to Mr Day, who nodded back.
“Sorry? Sorry, Peter, you’re breaking up!” Ben shouted, and with guilty satisfaction, tapped the call closed. Most of Dartmoor didn’t even get cell service. Calls got dropped here all the time. It could be minutes before Peter noticed and rang back. A few blessed minutes, Ben thought. Maybe longer.
A fresh pint of Day’s Best Bitter appeared in front of him, tiny bubbles rising through the gold to a thin, creamy head. When a second one materialized next to it, he looked up again, confused.
A quick flare of sunlight flooded the window over Ben’s head, rendering his benefactor more or less invisible.
“Hope you don’t mind.”
The pleasant voice might have come out of the air, or from another world, there was no way to tell. Then a cloud, or something, softened the light again, and the comfortable shadows returned. The voice became a shape, then a man, and a whole new problem. Harper blinked and dropped his glasses back down to his nose.
Wary, he tipped his thanks with the fresh pint. “I don’t usually accept drinks from strange men.”
It was part of Ben’s nature to notice, catalog, file, and he did it now without thinking. The tall, lordly type in beautifully tailored jacket and a silk shirt of pale but uncertain colour smiled at him, then dragged up a chair and sat down opposite. Black hair curled loosely on the man’s shoulders framing a sharp-featured face. Celtic, perhaps, or more exotic than that. Eurasian, maybe. High cheekbones touched with warmth, fine features, dark eyes so deeply blue they matched the sapphire that winked in one slightly pointed ear. A tendril of smoke spun up from the cigarette he held cupped between long manicured fingers.
Ben shot a questioning look back towards the bar; Mr Day just shrugged.
“Aubrey.” The accent was plummy and posh, like the manner, if perhaps just a touch foreign. Not from around here, no. “Aubrey King.”
“I’m sorry—Oberon? Not a name you hear a lot.”
A cloud slipped off the sun again, and a stray sunbeam highlighted the planes of the face. He might almost have been posing for a magazine. Or an album cover. Ben suspected the guy was aware of the effect he created.
The fellow lifted one sable eyebrow, chuckled lightly as if he heard that all the time, the picture of aristocratic ease. The old wooden chair didn’t even creak when he settled back in it.
“Aubrey,” he corrected. Aubrey took a deliberate drag on the cigarette, then carefully let it out over his shoulder. “Been following your career, Ben Harper. Have a proposition for you.”
Ben rolled his eyes, manners collapsing altogether. “Oh, of course you do.”
Conversations that started like this invariably involved a unique opportunity he didn’t need and couldn’t afford. For the sake of distraction, he nodded at the cigarette. “Y’know, you can’t smoke in here.”
“Ah!” said Aubrey, his glance flickering to the cigarette with a grace note of surprise that might even have been genuine. “Quite right. Old habits.”
He made a show of pinching out the cherry, then folding the stub into his palm. With a gesture like a stage magician, he fanned open the fingers again and it was gone.
“My 7-year-old can pull a quarter out of your ear.”
We know the Sparrow! Yes, we do!
What the hell? Tiny voices like a pack of munchkins were giggling somewhere, maybe under the window behind him, or just outside the door that stood open to the car park.
“Pfft,” said the guy, Aubrey. “Pixies.”
“Yeah, okay,” Ben said. “Or kids.” But he did wonder if the school had let out already. He had to pick up his son today.
In fact, he thought, it was probably time to go. Yeah, he should go. He tipped back his glass for a last appreciative swallow, and set it down a bit harder than he intended. By all rights it should have sloshed beer over the rim, but it didn’t.
He stared at the glass for a second, then stood up. “Sorry. I really have to go.” Feeling churlish but in suddenly desperate need of open air, he flung himself away from the table.
An enigmatic smile hovered around his lordship’s mouth as the dark eyes tracked the American. “I think you’ll find it’s not the kind of proposition you expect.”
“It never is, mate. But whatever it is, I really don’t have the time,” Ben said over his shoulder, and added with the barest courtesy, “Thanks for the beer.”
He ducked under the low doorway to emerge, striding out across the pub’s postage stamp front garden. Before his eyes had even finished adjusting to the light, the clouds parted then closed an instant later. Dazzled, running shoes skidding on the wet grass, Ben drew up short before he could slam into a picnic table still beaded with rain.
Vision cleared, and there was Aubrey.
He stared, then flung a look back over his shoulder towards the doorway he’d just come through. The man still appeared to be sitting at the table, calmly sipping his beer.
Again he looked to the rail fence where Aubrey couldn’t possibly be but manifestly was. The double-take might have been comical if it weren’t so bloody impossible. Ben pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up his nose with one finger. Who was this guy?
“Okay,” he said carefully, backing away from the table, and the stranger. “Nice trick. I’m sure your idea is utterly unique, won’t cost me a thing, and will make me rich.”
A thin smile lifted Aubrey King’s eyes, but he just put his hands in his pockets, shifted his weight, and said nothing.
“But could you just, y’know, call my agent, okay? He vets brilliant ideas all day long.”
Like a criminal seeking sanctuary, Ben was edging backwards toward the pleasant darkness of the Star. He had taken no more than a few steps when a huge bird dived out of nowhere with a harsh cry, cutting the space between the two men. Ben stumbled back as a night-black wing tip nearly clipped his nose. “Hey!”
The bird banked, traced a figure-eight around Aubrey, and soared back up to the roof. It snapped its beak and trained its black eye on the American, then gave a throaty croak, as if having the final word.
There was that childish giggling again.
“Aw, come on!”
Ben stared around, a little frantically. Still no children. Behind him, the figure with the beer had gone. And Aubrey just stood there by the front gate, calmly looking back at him. There was something else about the guy, despite the casual pose, that Ben couldn’t quite put a name to. An air of…
Ben shivered slightly, then sighed again. If this was what stress was doing to him even before the new series started shooting, he was in serious trouble. “Damn,” he breathed.
And then he started to laugh—at himself, at the day, at life. Shaking his head, he gave up and walked back across the grass with a rueful smile. As he put out his hand, his gaze for the first time rose to meet Aubrey’s long blue eyes, dark and strange as the sea.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Going on?” said Aubrey.
Ben said, “Sorry,” and realized he meant it. “I’m listening. What can I do for you?”
Aubrey put his hand in Ben’s, accepting the apology with a nod.
“It’s going to take some explaining,” he said. “And some time. Ah! I know, that word again. But time is not really the problem, Ben. At least, not in the way you think.”
“Oh, now you’re just being mysterious.”
The aristocratic smirk again. “You did leave a pint of perfectly good beer on the table. Shall we go in?”
Pushing a fringe of sandy hair back out of his eyes, Ben looked at the man, really looked at him. “Are you glowing?”
Well, he was. Not in any vulgar, glittery way but a glow indeed—an aura maybe—pale in the watery, unreliable light.
“Am I?” That eyebrow lifted again with amusement and something else Ben couldn’t guess at.
When the clouds moved again, it was gone. “Hmm, maybe not.”
Stress, Ben thought. And sunlight bouncing into his eyes. English springs are notorious for bright intervals of sun and shadow. And technically, it was still spring for another week or so. If the yard seemed perceptibly darker, that would be the trailing edge of the earlier storm slipping by on its way to Surrey.
“Curious,” Aubrey said. “So. Drinks?”
Time appeared to be the recurring theme of a day growing steadily more odd.
“It’s— I don't know.” Ben checked his watch, then turned to look down the street toward the sixteenth century clock tower and beyond it to Iveston School. “Damn it! I’ve got to get my son from school. Would you mind—?”
“May I walk with you?” Aubrey King gestured with grace.
Compartmentalizing out of habit, and because he saw no other choice, Ben set the weirdness aside and crunched down the driveway and into the road, with the tall, fae gentleman strolling easily at his left hand.
The half-timbered pile that was the Star (est. 1621) sprawled at one end of the village. The school in serviceable red brick lay, wisely, at the other. As Iveston was one Devon’s smaller villages, the two ends were not all that far apart, with little more than the vicarage and the consecrated breadth of St Michael’s church (est. 1528) between them. As they passed the ancient lychgate leading to the graveyard, Ben felt more than heard the other man take a step back, then cut behind him with a rhythm almost like a dance step, to walk on the other, sunnier side of the street. The green smell of the moor washed over them as he moved, and a light scent of violets.
“Issues with the Church?” Ben asked with a curious grin.
“In a manner of speaking,” the other man said, without elaborating. A raven, probably not the same one, called from somewhere. “Indeed,” he added obscurely, smiling.
They walked on with Ben expecting a hard sales pitch at any moment. Instead, the man was humming a clever little tune he’d never heard before.
“Who are you?” said Ben suddenly. “Really?”
Aubrey’s face lit up, as if he had been waiting for this question, then appeared to reconsider. Finally he shrugged and said slowly, “What if I told you I was Oberon, king of Faerie?”
Ben snorted. “I’d look around for hidden cameras. Or the men in the white coats.”
“Yes, I suppose you would. Still, it might be true. This is Dartmoor, the heart of England’s magick, and there are stories. The fae, it’s well known, cannot lie.”
“So they say,” Ben allowed. “But come on, who are you? What are you? Reporter? Rock star? I know, super hero. Is this your secret identity?”
That made Aubrey laugh out loud. “I knew I liked you,” he said without answering. When they finally stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the low wall that protected the school from the street, he faced the American soberly.
“The real question, Ben Harper, is who are you? An efficiency expert who has no time? A musician who never plays? An actor of more than ordinary charm who’s content to be a TV star writing housekeeping manuals?”
The voice was light, almost mocking, but the expression was serious. “What other gifts are you neglecting? Don’t you wonder?”
Ben pushed his glasses up again. It’s not like he hadn’t been asking himself those very questions lately. Lately, and for a while, in fact. But having someone else fling his doubts in his face, doubts he’d barely begun to share with his wife, was something else again.
“Hey,” he repeated, and felt stupid when he did. Not exactly a devastating comeback for the man’s too-accurate assessment. A few yards away, the clock on the school wall ticked over another loud minute before Ben said, annoyed: “So, what is this, a rescue? Some kind of intervention? Are you the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come? Who put you up to this?”
His new friend, if that’s what he was, stiffened slightly. So much for his more than ordinary charm. It sounded insulting even to Ben.
Those pixies, or small children, were laughing at him again or maybe it was the wind in the oak tree just over the way.
“Okay,” Ben said as the strained silence lengthened. “Just tell me what’s going on.”
Now the man did crack a smile. “You’re collecting your child from school, I thought. What’s his name again?”
The awkwardness shifted.
“Uh, Sparrow. He’s called Sparrow.”
Ben pushed open the chain link gate to join the cluster of waiting parents applying their x-ray vision to the smoked glass doors for the first glimpse of their kids. Alas, parental super powers were on the fritz today. All anyone could see were their own fun-house reflections.
Aubrey considerately stayed behind, leaning his back against the wall, paying attention to the village instead of making the other grown-ups nervous. Well, maybe that was the motivation, but when Ben looked back he had that feeling again, of some kind of power restrained and contained. For all the relaxed elegance, the man stood like a soldier on guard, scanning for trouble. Who was this guy?
Abruptly, the flat buzz of the school bell jangled the country quiet, and the question slipped away. In seconds the tiniest children burst shrieking through the double doors in a bobbing river of robin’s egg blue, and slammed into parental knees. Before they’d quite cleared the hallway, a half-dozen 7- and 8-year-olds came barreling through, their gap-toothed smiles as sunny as summer days.
Next week— no, tomorrow, Ben realized—was the last day of term. No wonder they looked so especially cheerful. They’d be free, and two weeks later he’d be back at his London desk, living on fast food and coffee, the willing architect of his own depression. Willing, mind you. Which brought him back to Aubrey King and the favor that hadn’t yet been asked. King of the faeries, oh yeah. Still, there was something...
Where the hell was Sparrow?
A light glimmered behind the tinted doors, a child skipping, tow head bobbing like the bird that had given him his nickname. You’d never know, most of the time, how delicate he really was. As he pressed through the doors, cheerful but paler than usual under the sunny hair, Ben noted with worry the signs of strain on the kid’s face. Something had happened—an asthma attack? How severe? The medication usually worked, but now and then Sparrow pushed himself too hard to keep up with the other kids. Things happened; Ben made the effort to stay cool.
The teacher was bringing him out, one hand on the slender shoulder as if trying to keep him from floating away.
“Daddy!” Sparrow started to break away but the restraining hand caught him back. He squirmed while Daddy exchanged a few words with Teacher about chronic illness and activity levels. Daddy took his hand.
Might be worse, the grown-ups agreed. Might still be living in Los Angeles.
* * *
Impatient, Sparrow squiggled, bounced, and danced, still tethered to Daddy but distracted by everything, humming some little hum that wasn’t quite a song. Unless it was. The pixies had been singing with him at lunchtime today, before the asthma started up, and now he heard the tune again, all twisty and strange. Two or three of the pixie folk were pulling at him, dragging at his shoelaces, and babbling in their tiny voices. One of them squeaked and pointed, until he looked up.
A wee man just about the size and shape of a garden gnome stood on the wall wearing a curious coat of leather and leaves, with a red feather in his pointed cap like a safety flag. Sparrow giggled, as he always did, for the wee man’s nose was so long and curved down that it almost touched his chin, and his chin was so long and curved up that it almost touched his nose. They’d met before. And he was chatting familiarly with a tall, dark haired man wearing a golden crown and a sober expression.
The man said something. The wee man roared with laughter. It hopped on one foot three times, spun around, and vanished with a pop! Sparrow gasped. The kingly man looked down and met the child’s awed gaze.
Sparrow knew better than to talk to big strangers, even faerie ones, so he whipped back around at once, suddenly shy, and tightened his grip on Daddy’s hand. He had meant to give a loud, impatient sigh, but forgot.
Finally, Miss Martin went away, and it was time to go.
“How now, gentle knight,” said Ben, giving the boy his complete attention—finally. “Your charger awaits. Will ye ride?”
“Good my lord, so shall I,” Sparrow cried, because he was his father’s son.
Dragon Ring background material and other goodies.
Dragon Ring background material and other goodies.