Through a light misting drizzle, DeSorcy led her to a gothic skyscraper that proudly displayed a long scarlet and black banner that stretched at least a hundred feet up into the mists and depicted a glorious parade of riders pursuing a many-pointed stag. Over great wooden doors, what looked to be silver and mother-of-pearl inlays held strange runes and the words "Hall of the Hunt". The doors were left ajar and DeSorcy gave a polite bow and gestured Michelle into what could only be best described as a shopping mall, faerie style.
Michelle had been in high end shopping malls in the big city, wonderful displays of merchandising and architecture meant to tempt the very wealthy to part with as much of their money as possible. Things were not so different here, except that it looked like Escher had been one of the architects who designed things.
The center of the building was left open, all the way to a sky light at the very top that let in the swirling mists. Filling it was a giant redwood, whose brisk evergreen and cedar scent gentled the scents of metal, leather and horse in the air. Strange stairways without railings arched through the branches and open spaces, connecting one level to another or meeting each other, most of them twisting and turning in defiance of logic and gravity. Flowering vines and hanging mosses trailed from them. Will o' the wisps and birds danced among the branches of the mighty tree and vendors hung their wares from the limbs. The base was hollowed out to form a small shop which seemed to sell nothing but tiny bells in silver, bronze and gold. The ground floor of the hall held a smithy with a roaring furnace, with numerous items of an assortment of metals displayed on his walls and several horses waiting to be shod milling about nearby. The other half of the ground floor held an enormous tack shop with a wide variety of exquisitely detailed saddles and barding.
"What do you think, my lady?"
The look on his face said he expected her to be impressed. "We have these, too," she said bluntly, wickedly savoring his consternation. "Of course, like everything else, the mortal ones suck in comparison, but there you have it."
"Hm," DeSorcy arched a skeptical eyebrow at her and walked to one of the improbable stairways. Michelle glanced along its path, especially where it seemed to roll upside down, and licked her lips nervously. Reassuring herself with thoughts of how certain unflappable knights might react to an escalator, she attempted the stairs with a hammering heart and a poker face. Sure enough, he slid an impish little look back over his shoulder as he continued climbing the stairs through the impossible tilt. He seemed amused but imbued with a measure of respect as she trooped gamely right behind him, floor of the arcade swiveling sickeningly over their heads, betrayed only by a pale face and the fact that she had to keep her hands clasped firmly to prevent them from shaking. "If you stop, you fall, you know," he said conversationally and then laughed with chagrin at the look on her face. "My apologies, Lady Michelle. Here " he reached for her hand and let her cling to his arm.
"That was not a nice thing to tease about. You were teasing, right?"
"Absolutely, my lady. You cannot fall unless you try very hard to jump."
Walking sideways two stories above the flagstones and tree roots, the thought of trying "very hard" to jump was a little too much for her. A terrifying bout of vertigo caused her to stumble. Grinning, DeSorcy pulled her close to support her with his arms. "Would you care to climb all the way to the top?"
"Are you certain? You can't fall."
"No, no, no. My grandmother told me that if you threw up in the land of the Fae, you became trapped and bound to scrub outhouses there for the rest of eternity."
"Is this the cannibal?"
"No, the other one."
"Rather face down a troll?"
"Yes, please. Two, even." Did she imagine a hint of reluctance when they finally stepped onto a more reasonable walkway and it came time for him to release her? Or was she just projecting her own regret?
Regret. Now there was a word. Years from now, when she looked back upon this adventure, or dream, or hallucination, most likely as she waited for the doctors to cut the tumor from her brain, would she kick herself for passing up the opportunity to climb to the top of the Hall of the Hunt and depriving one Edward DeSorcy of the excuse to hold her close to keep her from passing out?
"This is the shop," DeSorcy turned to her to allow her to enter first.
"Will you get mad if I throw up on you?" she blurted instead.
His blue eyes darted sideways for a second, a polite expression of puzzlement on his face. "Right now, my lady?"
"No," she tried not to giggle at that. "If I go to the top."
A smile and a chuckle escaped him. "Ah, I see. That's my brave girl. It would be my greatest honor and finest moment if you were to soil my tunic."
"Really?" Michelle asked with pointed interest.
"The shop, madam," he growled.
Of course, like everything else Michelle had seen so far, the fletcher's shop was astonishing. Thousands of arrows and bolts were displayed. Some were bundled in quivers, some sticking out of baskets and vases like martial bouquets, a surprising number displayed singly on racks or even more distinguished by resting alone on pedestals. Most of them had beautifully dyed feathers and intricately detailed shafts. No mass production, no assembly lines. Each product must be a work of art, the gorgon had said. It seemed that law was taken very literally, for every part of the arrows here was beautifully wrought with careful attention.
Towards the back of the shop, past bins of arrowheads etched with delicate filigrees and stacks of straight shafts, a large man with thick fingers was wrapping feathers to an arrow shaft with a nimbleness that was astonishing. He looked up and did a bit of a double take at the sight of DeSorcy. "Haven't seen you in here for many a season." The man paused to pick up another feather and lift a brow. "Taking up the, ah, hunt again?"
"No," DeSorcy did not seem to appreciate the implication. "Those days are far behind me. You have an apprentice named Bowgren."
"Aye, clever lad, that one. He'll soon have his own shop, I warrant."
"May I speak with him?"
"He's in the back. Help yourself." The man finished off the arrow, watching as DeSorcy gave him a polite bow and excused himself to Michelle before stepping into the back room. Picking up another shaft, the man eyed Michelle as she examined the spirals, crosshatches and stripes of assorted arrows in the bulk bins. "Not much point," he addressed her.
"Chasin' after that one. He's in love. Used to be the favorite of the Queen, but he was a fool an' asked her to marry him. When she laughed at him, he went into a sulk, said he wouldn't have nothin' to do with her until she did. After a while, when she didn't give in, he started to regret what he said, but he gave his word and them knights is stubborn types. He won't go back on it. So he waits for her and pines after her. Never touched another woman in sixty years. Lovesick."
"You're not the first as tried. A lot of 'em do, mortal women and fae alike. He's still waiting for the Queen to say she'll marry him."
"Very enlightening." Michelle turned back to browsing, a bit irritated. She hoped it was because she was protective of the gentleman's private life, but suspected it was more along the lines of petty jealousy. Ah, well. Maturity would come later, right?
The fletcher peered out at her from underneath his bushy eyebrows to see if she was listening. "He used to come in here and buy arrows for the hunt. He'd ride alongside her every night. Used to commission me to make special arrows so he could give 'em to her as gifts."
Exhaling slowly through her nose, Michelle turned and walked over to the workbench. "So, just for a moment, let's say that I was indeed in love with Sir DeSorcy and trying to woo him." Arms folded across her chest, she stared at the fletcher. "What precisely would be your point in telling me all this?"
"Just hate to see the pretty ladies wasting their time. Tryin' to save you a broken heart, darlin'."
She planted both hands on his workbench and leaned in toward him. "And you would have accomplished that within the first three seconds of your little spiel. So again, what precisely was your point? Were you trying to torment me emotionally? Is that your kick? Or do you just enjoy trashing Sir DeSorcy's personal life to every stranger that walks in your shop for a little titillating thrill? Which is it? Gossip or sadism?"
A door opened in the back and DeSorcy came striding out. "Are you ready to go, my lady? We've got what..." he trailed off, taking in Michelle's stance and the slightly disconcerted look on the fletcher's face. "Is... there a problem?"
"Nope. Just having a friendly little conversation about people and the bullshit they try to pull."
DeSorcy straightened up and let his fingers rest on the hilt of his sword. "Is the conversation over, or is there still room for discussion?"
The fletcher leaned back in his seat, starting to look agitated. Michelle took her hands off his table. "We're on a tight schedule, Sir DeSorcy, but maybe after I'm done here, you can come back some time and ask the fletcher to fill you in. I'm sure the two of you would have something to talk about."
"I don't want no trouble," the fletcher said, flickering a glance from Michelle to DeSorcy.
"Then find yourself a different amusement," Michelle said coldly. "I'm ready when you are, Sir DeSorcy."
"What was that about?" he bent to murmur near her ear as they left.
She tossed a dirty look back at the shop over her shoulder. "Nothing. Just some personality traits that particularly irritate me." She looked up at him and grinned. "Besides, you'd get all huffy with me if I told you. Come back and talk to the fletcher about it next time you're in a bad mood and looking to pick a fight."
"You were defending my honor again," he accused.
"Maybe, but this time I was firmly defending your privacy. Absolutely no speculation."
He tsked as he led her onto another stairway. "Some comments are not worth responding to, my lady."
"You're sure we can't fall off of these?" Michelle changed the subject, looking up through the network of branches and stairs. She peered rather queasily at an elfin woman thirty feet above them, strolling placidly along the staircase with her head pointing toward the ground, her long, aquamarine train carried by servants trailing behind her down -- up? -- the steps.
DeSorcy took her arm with a slightly mischievous smile. "Here. Why don't you close your eyes until we get to the top."
"Oh, yes. You can keep them open on the way down. Trust me."
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