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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fairy Food: "Bite No Bit, And Drink No Drop"

"And what you've not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again."
- the Ballad of Childe Rowland

I've previously discussed the food of Fairy in the context of what fairies themselves eat but today I thought it would be interesting to look at humans in relation to fairy food. Fairies are well known for taking human food, both the substance and the essence of it, but a quick glance at Celtic folklore shows a clear prohibition against humans eating the food of Fairy. As the above quote from Childe Rowland illustrates, to eat fairy food is to be trapped in Fairy; we see the same sentiment related by Lady Wilde in a story of a girl brought to a fairy banquet who was warned by another captive: "Eat no food, and drink no wine, or you will never see your home again". And yet in other cases to refuse Fairy food carries a heavy consequences. So how then is a person to know when it is safe to eat and when it is dangerous?

Not fairy food
In the Echtra Condla we see the Fairy woman who comes to woo Connla away from mortal earth giving him an apple; it becomes his only food and no matter how much he eats the apple remains whole (Daimler, 2017). After a month of this the Fairy woman returns and takes Connla back with her into Fairy. In some versions of the popular Fairy Midwife story the midwife is offered food after she refuses to stay with the fairies, but a new mother by the fire, who is herself a human captive, advises the midwife not to eat or drink anything or she won't be able to leave (Ballard, 1991). Similarly Yeats relates a tale of a stolen bride whose groom tracks her down with the group of fairies who have taken her; she directs him away from offers of food and drink to play cards instead so that he will not also be taken (Yeats, 1902). The idea seems to be that to consume food in Fairy binds a person to Fairy either by changing their nature and making them part of Fairy or by binding some essential part of the person to Fairy. One person from Sligo in 1909 described it thus: "Once they take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them forever." (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Yet this is not a hard and fast rule and we do also see cases where a person is offered or given food and walks away unharmed. In one anecdote a pair of men was walking and heard fairies inside a sí churning butter; they wished aloud for a drink of the buttermilk and to their surprise it was given to them. One took it and the other refused with the one who refused having bad luck afterwards (Bruford, 1991). Thomas in Thomas the Rhymer is paid by the Fairy Queen with an apple, which he eats and which gives him the ability to speak truly, but the apple does not bind him to Fairy, he is returned to mortal earth after his service is done (Acland, 1997). The difference may be that the men were given food they asked for and Thomas is explicitly given the apple as payment, in exchange for his service to the Queen for 7 years. In the same way we see Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish witch who dealt with the Queen of Elphame, saying that the Queen gave her meat to eat although Isobel was not taken into Fairy but remained on earth. The normal rules of food may not apply when that food is given as part of a clear exchange or payment of a debt owed by the fairy or for services rendered. The Good People are also known to give food as gifts, in which case no debt would be accrued and the person was not bound in any way (Gwyndaf, 1991). 

There are some exceptions to this, of course, as we see with the goblin fruit, for example, in the Goblin Market which is paid for by the human but is nonetheless a death sentence. In that case we are dealing with the Unseelie Court and it may be that they do not follow the more polite rules of the Seelie Court on this subject, but that all food from their hands is dangerous. Or it may be that the person is aware of what they are buying when they buy it, given the fruits' dangerous reputation. 

 In most of the  stories where the food is a kind of trap it is offered as part of hospitality or offered to the person when they have done nothing to pay for it. It is simply offered and taken, usually in a social context. It is also offered, most often, when the person is either in Fairy or in the company of a larger group of fairies, indicating that this may also be a factor. In the stories where the food is not dangerous to take the circumstances are generally different: the person has asked for food, the person was owed a debt by the fairy, or the person was explicitly in service to a fairy monarch. So it would seem that like so many other things on this subject it is neither simple nor clear cut, that there are some cases when eating fairy food is dangerous and others where it is not.

If you ever find yourself in a situation involving fairy food, I'd suggest remembering that its unwise to take what isn't owed to you. 

Daimler, M., (2017) Echtra Condla
Gwyndaf, R., (1991). Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Bruford, A., (1991). Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney and the Shetlands
Yeats, W., (1902) Celtic Twilight
Acland, A., (1997) Thomas the Rhymer
Acland, A., (1997) Childe Rowland
Ballard, L., (1991) Fairies and the Supernatural on Reachrai
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Riding the River; My Journey into Paganism

 My journey into Paganism is something I've talked about before, but I don't think I've ever written explicitly about it here. Since there's a blog theme going around taking on that idea I thought it might be interesting to look at it here.

Many people when you ask them 'How did you end up pagan?' have a straightforward answer - they found a book or they met a particular person. My own story is a bit more complicated, although it does eventually involve both a book and a person, both of which I owe a great debt and neither of which continued with me on my path.

Unlike most of my peers I wasn't raised Christian. I tend to say I was raised a secular agnostic because that sums it up fairly well. We celebrated all the main American holidays but without any religious overtones - Christmas was when Santa came in his reindeer pulled sleigh to magically bring us presents and Easter was when a bunny brought us baskets of candy. I include the agnostic part because there was no firm disbelief, but neither was their any clear structure within any particular faith. We grew up hearing stories about our families history and culture, Cherokee, Irish-American, and New England with all the folklore and belief that came with that. I spent a lot of time out doors in nature, connecting to the wild world. I also had the added personal quirk of seeing spirits, something that (luckily for me) my family humored for the most part. I built little houses for the fairies and left them notes on my windowsill for as long as I could remember. But actual formal religion, there wasn't any.

I was also always a spiritual seeker, maybe because I saw things other people didn't. At various points I was curious about different religions, attending church services with my friends, reading about Judaism, I even read up on Mennonites and the Amish. Nothing ever quite fit though. And then when I was in middle school (the early 1990's) one of my best friends introduced me to a book by Scott Cunningham called 'Wicca: a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner'. For the first time I was reading about a religion - witchcraft and paganism - that made perfect sense to me. Gods and Goddesses, spirits, magic, these all resonated with me and fit into the world, spirits inclusive, that I already knew existed. I was mad for Irish culture at that point so it wasn't much effort to add in Irish mythology to to everything else and begin reading about the Irish Gods. I think I was about 11 years old.

I went to the library and found a few other books, and used my babysitting money to buy a couple more and I read what I could get my hands on at the time: Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch, Laurie Cabot's Power of the Witch. At the advanced age of 12 I decided to preform a self dedication ritual, out in the cold on Imbolc. Because at 12 I was certain that this was the most amazing religion ever.

Of course within a few years, by the mid 90's, I'd started to focus more on what I'd later learn was called Celtic Reconstructionism and by 1997 I'd joined a CR Druid group called the Order of the White Oak. In 2001 I joined another Druid group, Ar nDraoicht Fein, and in 2006 I joined Our Troth after I began studying Heathenry/Asatru. I had long since stopped considering myself Wiccan but I never stopped practicing witchcraft and throughout it all the Good People - by any name - where the bedrock of my belief system and practice.

I remained a dual-trad person, both a reconstructionist Irish polytheist and a Heathen but I also began to see that over the years I had developed my own type of witchcraft, my own flavor if you will. So in 2013 I wrote a book 'Pagan Portals Fairy Witchcraft' which would be published the following year that described my witchcraft and my belief system, formed from a lifetime of experience and woven from the Fairy Faith and a reconstructionist approach to working with the Other Crowd. That of course led to another book, Fairycraft, and another (coming out later this year) Fairies. And there's another one in the works that will be out in the next year or so as well. I feel like Themselves have something to say.

Last year, as those of you who read my blog already know, was a transitional one for me. I went to Ireland a polytheist dedicated to several Gods. I came back belonging to the Daoine Maithe. Looking back on my journey to paganism and its evolution over the years I suppose it was a predictable evolution, but I honestly never saw it coming. I had always thought of my path as a tree, growing up from roots into spreading branches but always one thing always the same even as it grew. I suppose in a way that's true, but recently I've realized that my path is far more like a river - the water is always the water but the river expands and contracts, reshapes itself, slows or speeds up as it travels. It changes as it needs to change. My path has always been about the Good People even before I realized I was on a path, and I have walked it my whole life even when I wasn't aware it was there. It has changed and reshaped itself radically along the way, and that's alright. I've learned a lot.

And where I am now is not the end either.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Baobhan Sìth

One of the most interesting Scottish fairies, to my mind, is the Baobhan Sìth (pronounced roughly Bah-van Shee). There are only a few stories preserved in folklore about this spirit, and they are fairly homogeneous in painting a picture of female fairies, usually appearing in groups, who seduce young men and kill them by drinking their blood. They seem to be members of the Fuath - generally dangerous water spirits - and also of the Unseelie Court.

The name itself is both straightforward and complicated, as is often the case with folklore. Baobhan is given as 'wizard', a wicked woman who curses or does evil to others, and a female spirit 'who haunts rivers' (Dwelly, 1902). In Gaidhlig Sìth is used in the genitive case as a modifier to indicate something is from or has a nature related to Fairy; hence Fear-Sìthe 'Men of the Fairies' ie fairies, Ban-Sìth, 'fairy woman' and muime-shìthe 'fairy godmother'. So with Baobhan Sìth we have roughly 'evil fairy woman' or 'fairy woman who curses', or perhaps 'fairy woman who lurks near rivers'.

When we find the Baobhan Sithe in folklore we find a commonly repeated story of four young men out hunting who stay over in the woods one night, finding shelter in a small lean-to or hut. One of the men begins playing music and they find themselves joined by four beautiful women. Three of the four begin dancing with three of the young men while the fourth lingers near the musician. That young man notices something is wrong with his companions, often seeing a trickle of blood on one of their necks and flees into the night, pursued by the fourth woman; he hides among a group of horses whose iron-shoes deter the spirit until dawn. Upon returning to the shelter he finds all three of his friends have been killed in the night, dying of blood loss.

This story can be found with slight variations although all have the same major points. In one it is one of the dancers who notices blood on another dancer, becomes alarmed, and tells the woman he is dancing with that he needs to go out, at which she tried to convince him to stay; once outside he flees and she chases him through the night (Robertson, 1905). Sometimes the number of men varies or their reason for being in the shelter; sometimes one of them wishes for companions before the women appear other times the women show up claiming to be lost. In one variation the musician who was singing for the group as they danced noticed the women had hooves instead of feet and stopped singing in surprise, at which point all his friends fell dead to the floor and he ran from the building (Robertson, 1905). In several versions the Baobhan Sìth whose partner flees grabs his plaid in her hands as he first tries to run and he leaves it behind to escape. Often the man does not return alone to the shelter but instead goes back to his village and returns with a group of people who together find the bloodless bodies of the remaining men (Robertson, 1905).

The young man in the story was saved because he realized the women were actually Baobhan Sìth and ran away, and because he was smart and took shelter among the horses. Some modern articles will say that the Baobhan Sìth have a fear of horses but that is a misunderstanding of the story; it was the horses' iron-shod hooves that held the fairy off not the presence of the animals themselves. Briggs, repeating MacKenzie makes this clear here: "He took refuge among the horse and she could not get to him, probably because of the iron with which they were shod." (Briggs, 1976, p16).

In folklore the Baobhan Sìth are said to wear green dresses and to have the hooves of deer in place of human feet although they are very beautiful otherwise (MacKenzie, 1935). They use their beauty to seduce and prey upon men, as the above story illustrates by drinking their blood. Except for possibly having hooves they otherwise seem exactly like human women and are mistaken for them until its too late. Besides their human form they are also able to take on the form of hooded crows or ravens (MacKenzie, 1935). They show many qualities that are common to fairies, including wearing green, having a deformity (in this case deer's hooves) which they try to hide, and being able to shift shape. Their preference for humans as prey, certainly put them in the darker category of the Unseelie Court.

Baobhan, which is also given as Baobh, is closely related to the word Badhbh, and both have the meanings of 'hag, witch, she-spirit' and 'wizard' (Am Faclair Beag, 2017). Badhbh, of course, is also related to the Irish war goddess Badb, who was later associated with the ban-nighe, the fairy women who were seen washing bloody clothes or armor in rivers as omens of death. I believe it is likely that the Baobhan Sìth is another type of fairy that is rooted in the older war goddess, later diminished and distorted in folklore. It is only a supposition but since we see badb in old Irish also appearing as bodb, and we see Badb/Bodb meaning deadly, dangerous, fatal and in Gaidhlig baobh having connotations of furious, destructive, frightening, I think it is at least possible (eDIL, 2017; Dwelly, 1902). The association between the Baobhan Sìth and female spirits who haunt rivers is also very similar to the ban-nighe who is strongly related to Badb, and like Badb the Baobhan Sìth can take the form of a hooded crow or raven. We can also see some of this connection in some of the compounds formed with Baobhan, like baobhachd which means both the actions of a wicked woman and the sound of crows (Dwelly, 1902).

The Baobhan Sìth are a more obscure but fascinating type of fairy, one of the few vampiric entities we can find in Celtic fairylore. They seem in many ways similar to the more deadly types of Leannán Sí as well as to the closely related Bean Sí, yet they have a distinct lore of their own. Modern information can be hard to find about them because the internet is as likely to give you pop-fiction information as actual traditional folklore. But the traditional folklore is still there to be found if you go digging for it. And its worth the effort to find.

Am Faclair Beag (2017)
Dwelly, E., (1902) Faclair Gàidhlìg air son nan sgoiltean
eDIL (2017) electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language
MacKenzie, D., (1935) Scottish Folk-lore and Folk-life
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionary of Fairies
Robertson, C., (1905) Folk-lore from the West of Ross-shire

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Witchcraft of The Devouring Swamp

My friend at Via Hedera wrote a great post about her green witchcraft in the context of her river and its spirits called "Green River Witchcraft". You should definitely give it a read. It has me thinking about the way that where we live, the environment we live in, shapes how we relate to spirits and perhaps our witchcraft or wider spirituality. For my friend at Via Hedera that means green, growing, knitting community together. It also reminds me of this Puscifer song:

All of this got me thinking about my own environment, my own animism and my own witchcraft.

Animism is and always has been a core concept of my beliefs, back for as far as I can remember believing things. The idea that there are spirits - souls - in objects, in places, in everything has always just been a given for me. Of course the river has a spirit. Of course the road has one too. People can split hairs about the details of animism, what it is and how its defined, but ultimately I think any view of animism hinges on that core idea of an ensouled world.

Building on that, for me, is the idea that the physical anchor for that spirit shapes and influences the spirit to some degree. Just as our experience in our body effect how we interact with the world, it has been my experience to a large degree that other spirits are effected by the state of their physical anchor, when they have one. A river that is free-running and clear is a happy river; one that is clogged and polluted is not. A happy river, often will have a happy spirit while an unhappy river will have an unhappy spirit, to give a simple view of it. Rivers shaped by waterfalls and wild rapids have more wild and fierce spirits. Rivers that are calm and slow moving have more languid spirits. I am speaking of generalities of course, trying to get a larger point across.

In turn the spirits and physical anchors they have shape us and resonate with us, or not. People are drawn to certain places, certain types of spirits, whether or not they are aware of it. We may say we like to live near specific terrain, or we always have to be around a specific kind of thing; or perhaps we draw those things to us. I have an affinity for things with thorns and now through no effort on my part my yard has been overtaken by things-with-thorns. We are connected to the spirits around us and they in their way are connected to us, and this is especially true for those of us who practice any form of magic or follow a spiritual path that lends itself to these connection.

Water flows through and around the land I live on, shapes it and re-shapes it. I live within 8 miles of the ocean, and a mile from a large river. But my backyard is a freshwater swamp, less than 50 feet from my house. Those spirits are woven into my home and my witchcraft, inevitably, because they are a part of my environment. They are what I am connected to and what I resonate with.

my backyard

 Rivers have a certain nature to them, whether they are big or small, and their spirits tend to reflect this. They flow, the move, they nurture. Swamps are very different in nature. Swamps devour. Swamps consume. Swamps take in. Swamps have their own cycles, their own ecology, their own blessings and dangers. Ground that looks safe often enough proves a sucking void and one misstep in a swamp can be costly. Swamps are where, often, we see the process of decay front and center, even when they are living and thriving. Trees, uprooted, crisscross the water dying and adding themselves back to the mix from which everything else springs. Yet swamps also nurture life in their own way. Trees grow here, finding roots on the dry islands that rise between the water. Birds nest here, frogs breed here, animals  make their homes here. Paths can be found across the danger by treading on the trunks of fallen trees, if one is daring and has good balance.

The spirits of swamps reflect the nature of swamps; they are devouring and merciless, but they can also be nurturing and helpful. They respect people who are bold, and people who know where to tread and where not to step. They are not subtle, except when they are. The green growth of the swamp stands directly on the brown decay in which its rooted, and the spirits of the swamp, more perhaps than other spirits, are mercurial and stand between baneful and blessing in nature. The Otherworldly beings that choose swamps to live in tend more towards darkness than light.

There is powerful magic to be found here, and powerful connections to be made with these spirits. The lessons of the swamp rest in patience, and rhythms, and finding paths where others see only obstacles. Swamp spirits teach you discernment in trust, and that things are rarely as they appear. The witchcraft of these liminal lands, as much water as earth, is something that knows to respect decay while nourishing new beginnings, and knows when to seek a safe path and when to give over to the devouring waters. The spirits here make powerful allies. But let's be honest, the swamp isn't an easy thing to learn and just when you think you understand it you're sure to set your feet wrong and fall into the half-decayed muck. It takes time and effort to learn the rhythms of any swamp, and to speak to its spirits and learn their language.

Just don't follow the lights in the swamp at night and you will be off to a good start.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Cliodhna: Goddess and Fairy Queen

The Following is an Excerpt from my book Pagan Portals Gods and Goddesses of Ireland

Cliodhna -
Cliodhna, also known as Clíona, is considered both one of the Tuatha Dé Danann in older mythology and a Fairy Queen in modern folk lore. Her name may mean ‘the territorial one’, likely reflecting her earlier role as a sovereignty Goddess; her epithet is Ceannfhionn (fair headed or fair haired) and she is sometimes called ‘the shapely one’1. In many stories she is described as
exceptionally beautiful.

Her sister is said to be Aibheall, and her father is Gebann, the Druid of Manannán mac Lir2. There are no references to who her mother might be or to her children among the Gods. Several mortal families trace their descent from her including the McCarthys and O’Keefes and she was well known for taking mortal lovers.

Cliodhna is said to have taken the form of a wren, a bird that may be associated with her, and she is also often associated with the Otherworldly Bean sidhe. By some accounts she herself is considered to be such a spirit, or their queen, although in other folklore she is more generally the queen of the fairies of Munster. She has three magical birds that eat Otherworldly apples and have the power to lull people to sleep by singing and then heal them3.

She is strongly associated with the shore and with waves, and the tide at Glandore in Cork was called the ‘Wave of Cliodhna’4. In several of her stories she is drowned at that same location after leaving the Otherworld either to try to woo Aengus or after running away with a warrior named Ciabhán. She has a reputation in many stories for her passionate nature and love of poets in particular, and in later folklore when she is considered a Fairy Queen she is known to abduct handsome young poets or to appear and try to seduce them. In folklore she has a reputation for seducing and drowning young men5.

Cliodhna is particularly associated with the province of Munster and especially with Cork, where she resides at a place called Carraig Chlíona (Cliodhna’s rock)6. It is likely that she was originally one of the sovereignty Goddesses of Munster and that her survival in folklore to the present period reflects how deeply ingrained she was in local lore.

Modern practitioners may choose to honor Cliodhna for her role as a sovereignty Goddess or as an ancestral deity related to specific families. I might suggest, given her more recent folklore related to the Bean sidhe and her penchant in stories for harming young men and poets, that she should be approached with caution. Offerings to her could include the traditional milk or bread given to the Gods and fairies, as well as poetry, of which she seems fond.

1. O hOgain, 2006; MacKillop, 1998
2. Smyth, 1988; MacKillop, 1998
3. ibid
4. O hOgain, 2006
5. Smyth, 1988
6. O hOgain, 2006

O hOgain, D., (2006) Lore of Ireland
Smyth, D., (1988) Irish Mythology
MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

poem translation 'Lugh's Arrival at Teamhair'

This is an excerpt from a 14th century poem; this portion is telling about Lugh's arrival at Temhair during the larger story of the Cath Maige Tuired. It's short but very interesting and worth a read I think. I've included the original Irish and then my translation. 

Crow perched on signpost in front of the Duma na nGaill, Teamhair, Ireland

Tabhás do Lugh, leannán Teamhra
thoir i nEamhain,
dá ránaig sé ar súr gach domhain
Múr Té, Teamhair.

Dúnta an chathair ar chionn Logha,
laoch ro thoghsom;
téid gusan múr sleamhain slioschorr
beanaidh boschrann.

Ar an doirseóir ris an deaghlaoch,
fá doirbh ruaigfhearg:
cáit as a dtig an fear áith ógard
bláith geal gruaiddearg.

Ris an doirseóir
a dubhairt Lugh nár loc iomghuin:
file meise a hEamhain Abhlaigh
ealaigh iobhraigh.

Nocha dligi, ar doirseóir Teamhra,
tocht diar ndaighthigh;
atá fear ri
- excerpt from "Mór ar bhfearg riot, ri Saxan"

'Lugh's Arrival at Tara'

Revealed to Lugh, lover of Teamhra
in the east in Eamhain,
so he went to search the whole earth for
Té's Ramparts, Teamhair [Tara].

closed was the city against Lugh's arrival,
the choicest of warriors;
touched with force the sharp-sided, smooth ramparts
struck the door-wood.

The King's doorman said to the great warrior,
whose anger was swift:
"From where comes the man, keen, young,
bright flower, red cheeked."

To the King's Doorman
said Lugh who never hesitated in reciprocal wounding:
"I am myself a poet of Eamhain Abhlach*
of swans and yews."

"Not merited", said Teamhair's doorman,
"Coming from conflict;"

* Emain Abhlach, emain of the apples, one of the si

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Chess - A Between the Worlds Short Story

Several people have asked me to write a short story that gives some more backstory for a few of the characters in my fiction series, and I thought it would be a fun thing to do. In the spirit of that one person suggested incorporating 'strip chess', and since I love a challenge here you go.
    This story would take place after the fifth novel. Some caveats for those who don't read my fiction it does include themes of polyandry/polyamory, pansexuality, elves up to shenanigans, and chess.


December 26th
   "What is that?" Bleidd asked as he walked into the small reading room off the living room, drawn by the noise of Jessilaen moving something around. The formerly Outcast elf was bored and had been contemplating ways to entertain himself until his wife returned from work; finding his other spouse in the rarely used reading room piqued his curiosity.
    Jess was kneeling on the floor by a bookshelf next to a large wooden box. The blond elf looked up, his expression mildly perturbed, "My brother has sent my things from the Outpost, as I am living here permanently now."
    "Ah," Bleidd said slowly, unsure how best to respond. Their situation was an unusual one, since normally a married member of the Elven Guard would either live at the Outpost with their spouse - in this case spouses - or if the spouse refused then the marriage contract would specify that the Guardmember must take a leave of absence from the Guard for the length of the marriage. Allie, of course being half-Elven and growing up outside Elven society, had been oblivious to this when she'd negotiated the contract with Jess's family and since Jess had already had special dispensation to live with her it had put the Guard captain in a quandary. Bleidd had wondered if they were all going to be ordered to move to the Outpost, but after Allie had made it plain at Thanksgiving that she did not want to leave her home Jess had gone to great lengths to make sure they could stay in the house together. It helped that the Guard captain was his brother, and that Allie was pregnant with a child that would belong to Jess's mother's line, but still Bleidd suspected it had caused a rift between the two siblings. Looking at the box on the floor now he wondered if it had been an act of kindness on Zarethyn's part, or a reminder to Jess that he was choosing to separate himself from his people for the sake of his new family.
   Bleidd watched as Jess slowly pulled out several leather bound books and placed them on one of the bookshelves against the wall, then, after a slight hesitation, he carefully took out a cloth wrapped package. Unable to restrain his curiosity, Bleidd found himself repeating "What is that?"
   Jess smiled gently at the bulky thing he held, several inches tall and at least a foot and a half square. Bleidd couldn't begin to guess what it was. Jess looked up at his bondmate, still smiling, "This, Gadreene, was my Journeyman's project when I was still a wright."
   That grabbed Bleidd's attention immediately, and he followed Jess as he stood and moved over to the small table near the room's only window. Jess set the item down carefully and then unwrapped it, revealing an intricately carved chess board with a series of built-in drawers along the base. Without prompting Jess began describing it as Bleidd reached out to caress the satin-smooth wood. "The pale sections are birch and the dark are walnut. Everything is fastened together by the joints, without using any nails, screws, or glue; that is part of the challenge of the Journeyman's project to create something without the use of any external fasteners, something that holds together through its own construction."
     Jess pulled one of the drawers out, which was silk lined, and lifted out an amazingly detailed birch chess piece, carved into the form of a life like scale representation of an infantryman. Bleidd could see that the drawer held 7 more such pawns, each similar enough that they obviously belonged to a matched set, yet each with a subtle difference that marked them as individuals. "You see the birch have a birch leaf and moon for their standard, on their shields for the pawns and worked into the other pieces in similar ways. The walnut pieces have a walnut leaf and sun as their standard."
    Bleidd found himself smiling indulgently at his lover's enthusiasm. "It is a masterfully carved set, truly. Do you keep it only for the memory of your former craft Commander or do you use it to play?"
    Jess grinned at him, beginning to set up the board, "Would you play the game with me?"
   The question hung in the air between them, weightier than it might seem. Young elves learned to play such games of strategy not for fun but as a form of training, to learn tactics and patience. Those who were too young to duel with bladed weapons often challenged each other to games of chess - or fidchell, or tafl, or the like - and the outcomes were taken just as seriously as any physical combat. So seriously were such games taken that elves would not deign to play them with non-elves at all, and even adult elves often approached the playing of chess with the gravity they would any other challenge-duel. Bleidd tensed at the underlying subtext of Jess's words, although he doubted his new spouse meant to imply any form of combat in the invitation.
    Still...he thought for a moment, because he did very much wish to play a game he considered himself skilled in, but he didn't want to cause any enmity between himself and Jess. Finally a potential solution came to him, and he grinned, reaching out to idly pick up and inspect the closest chess piece. "I would certainly love to play the game with you, but Elven chess may put as both in a frame of mind that might upset Allie when she gets home."
   Jess cocked his head to the side, interested, "You say that as if there is any other kind of chess to play."
   "Well, as to that," Bleidd said slowly, putting the piece back down. "Humans have a variation they use when playing games to keep them from being taken too seriously that I think would be perfect in this context."
    "Yes?" Jess said eagerly, and Bleidd knew that he had his partner well and truly curious. Curiosity had always been Jessilaen's weakness. He smiled.
    "Yes. For every loss an opponent suffers in the game they forfeit one article of clothing. Whoever runs out of clothing first loses the game."
    "Indeed," Jess said thoughtfully. He looked slightly perplexed, probably because nudity was not of any particular note among elves, but Bleidd could see a lot of potential fun in the game. "Do we lose the clothes permanently?"
    "No, you get them back when the game is over," Bleidd said, "Its just for fun. Although if you don't think the stakes are high enough we could of course add in some...other...forfeits."
    Jess smirked, "Well it is chess after all. Its not worth playing without something to play for."
    The two quickly set out a series of parameters for their game, beginning with the piece by piece loss of clothing and seguing into an escalating series of actions one would owe the other for the subsequent loss of a piece on the board. Bleidd doubted they'd get much past the clothing, unless they were either both much better or much worse at chess than he assumed they were, but still it was entertaining to set the rules and he was in high spirits by the time they began playing.
  The opening moves were predictably straightforward, with long pauses in-between as each player took the other's measure. Jess took his time considering his next move, saying, "Have you had much opportunity to play chess since you left your former Holding?"
   It was a personal question, and one that implied many things that were not directly asked about Bleidd's time as an Outcast, but after an initial moment of annoyance Bleidd had to acknowledge that if anyone had a right to such a question it was Jess. "In truth, no. I have not played the game now in a long time but I was once considered one of the most skilled players among my peers. I am quite confident that I can win against you Commander."
   Jess smiled, obviously not at all offended by the other elf's bragging. "You may very well be right. My brother has often told me that I am too impatient for chess, however much I love playing. I am bold when I should be cautious."
    Bleidd raised an eyebrow at this honest admission, surprised that Jess would tell him this but also sure that it was one of the best descriptions of the Guard commander that he had ever heard. Jess finally moved a piece into a position that Bleidd could take, but he kept his face blank, waiting to play his own move for the moment. "And yet you were a journeyman wright, nearly a master, when you left to join the Guard. I would think that woodworking takes a great deal of both patience and caution."
   "It may seem so, yet in truth I need little patience when I can see the progress of my work day to day and even moment to moment, even when that progress is minuscule. And one must be bold to work in wood, because one must be willing to risk with each stroke and cut. My own master often said that a timid wright will never create anything worth remembering, and I think he was very wise to say so."
   Bleidd looked at his companion with new respect, contemplating this insight, even as he moved his pawn and took one of Jess's pawns off the board. Grinning cheerfully Jess pulled off his shirt, folding it neatly and setting it down on an empty chair nearby. "It seems I am the first to suffer a loss."
   "The first, but of course it is the long strategy that matters,"  Bleidd said. Then, "If you enjoyed being a wright so much why did you leave to join the Guard?"
  Jess frowned, shifting slightly and for a moment Bleidd thought that he had overstepped with a question that was too direct and too personal, and Jess would not answer. Then the other elf inclined his head in a shrug. "As to that, I would have been happy enough as a wright, but my mother...she preferred having both her sons in the Elven Guard. When I was at an age to apprentice there was no opening in the Guard so she allowed me to go where I chose. But then, just before I reached my quincentennial and would have been tested for Mastership, she managed to arrange for me to join the Guard with my brother's sponsorship. So I did."
  Bleidd winced in sympathy, making a non-committal noise in response, knowing how hard it must have been for Jess to walk away from a career he loved and was obviously excelling in to fulfill someone else's desire. But he also knew that Elven society made no allowances for what a mere male might want, when the influential women who held sway over his life made a decision about what was to be done with that life. And Bleidd also knew why Jess's mother would prefer her sons in the Guard. The woman was manipulative but she wasn't stupid and with no daughters if she wanted to be able to negotiate for an heir through her sons she would have to have them in prestigious positions. The Elven Guard were esteemed and powerful; a master wright no matter how skilled would never have the same social value. That pompous woman has no idea how lucky she is that Allie came along, although certainly Jess knows, Bleidd thought darkly, watching Jess's next move carefully. I understand much better I think why Jess was so desperate that he flouted custom to ask Allie to marry him - I can't even imagine who his mother would have chosen for him. Probably some stuck up society climber just looking for a male to act as stud and get her with a child; someone who she'd treat like furniture until she didn't need his services anymore. Plenty of those in Elven society sadly enough and a good reminder of why this Bordetown is a better home than the Queen's Holding for us. I have no interest in being anyone's chattel ever again. He must thank the gods daily for Allie, she may be a Bahvanshee but she genuinely loves him and I think she'd cut off her own hand before she'd intentionally harm either of us.
   Jess's next move cost Bleidd a pawn although as far as Bleidd could see it didn't strengthen his overall position on the board. Shrugging slightly Bleidd reached up and pulled the hair tie out of his ponytail, letting his hair fall in a dark curtain around his shoulders. He tossed the small band on the chair with Jess's shirt.
   Jess frowned, his expression puzzled, "That isn't a piece of clothes."
   "Of course it counts as clothing," Bleidd replied smoothly, "It's something I wear isn't it?"
   Jess's head tilted to the side, his full attention on the other elf, but he could not find a flaw in Bleidd's logic so after a moment he inclined his head slightly in a shrug conceding the point. With a wolfish grin Bleidd quickly moved to take another of Jess's pawns. Laughing slightly Jess reached up and untied his own hair, adding the leather he used to bind his hair to the pile of forfeited clothing before running his fingers through his braid until his pale blonde hair hung free to his waist. "So," Jess said as he contemplated the board, "You have said before that you were in the Guard. Was it your family that urged you to join? Or did you choose it yourself? I know many mages do, because of the training offered."
    Bleidd focused on the board, trying to keep his face expressionless as memories from almost a millennia ago flooded back. When he spoke he was glad that his voice was even, "I chose the Guard. You would probably not be surprised to know that I was considered a pampered child, even though I was male. I am my mother's youngest and my sisters doted on me, especially my oldest sister. As my mother's heir of course she had a great deal of influence...when I was old enough to apprentice my mother preferred that I go to the college of mages, because she thought it would reflect well on our family - if she must be saddled with a son - to have a scholar. So naturally I pitched a fit and insisted I would be a mage in the Elven Guard or I would do nothing at all. It was quite...dramatic." he paused toying with a rook. "But my sister intervened in my favor, as she always did and convinced my mother to let me have my way. And so I joined the Guard and excelled there, if only to prove to my mother that I was correct all along."
    Jess quietly moved another piece, seizing another pawn without comment. Bleidd took off one of his shoes, adding it to the pile silently. Bleidd made his own move quickly, taking one of Jess's knights, and Jess mirrored him by giving up a boot. Finally Jess broke the silence, shifting his rook across the board. "You and your sister must be very close."
   "We were," Bleidd said, looking away. "She died a few hundred years after I joined the Guard. In childbirth."
   Jess made a small sympathetic noise, taking a moment to extend his hand out and clasp Bleidd's wrist. "I am sorry."
   Bleidd accepted the gesture, but inclined his head in a shrug before moving to take another of Jess's pieces, "It was a long time ago, and so it often goes with Elven women."
   Jess removed his other boot giving his spouse a thoughtful look. "Do you fear for Allie's life now?"
   That question startled Bleidd, and he met the other elf's eyes without thinking, seeing the genuine worry in them. He isn't worried for her, he realized, he's worried for me, for how I'm feeling about her possibly being in danger from this pregnancy. It was unexpectedly touching and he fought the urge to look away, suddenly uncomfortable with the emotional intimacy that was an unintended side effect of these new rules for the old game and the barriers they were lowering with usually strict social taboos about discussing deep personal things. He felt off balance and exposed in a way that had nothing to do with physical nakedness. Taking a slow breath he aimed for humor, "Well Commander there seems little point in fearing for Allie when she has proven too stubborn thus far to let death take her in far more dangerous circumstances than mere childbirth."
    Jess smiled tentatively back at him, but he doubted the Guard commander had fallen for the diversion in his words. Nonetheless he let the subject drop, perhaps sensing that he had pushed the former Outcast as far as he could be pushed on the subject. Instead he made a move that Bleidd hadn't foreseen and managed to take one of his bishops, earning a dour look from Bleidd as he relinquished his other shoe. The two played back and forth in silence for awhile, until both their socks were added to the pile, Bleidd grunting in annoyance to find they were more evenly matched than he'd anticipated.
    He frowned at the board now as he tried to find some way to leverage an advantage, because he absolutely hated losing. The thought of losing to someone 300 years his junior who didn't even consider themselves a good player wasn't something he wanted to contemplate, even if he hadn't played the game in more than half a decade. Finally he saw a path that would give him checkmate in several moves, if he was willing to sacrifice a couple pieces. "If we are discussing siblings, you seem very close to your brother," Bleidd said, breaking the silence and trying to throw Jess off balance. Not, perhaps the kindest strategy he thought to himself but if we are going to spill our emotions like blood then so be it. And this is chess after all.
    Jess didn't respond at first, moving instead as Bleidd had assumed he would to take the piece he had positioned for sacrifice. He pulled off his shirt and tossed it carelessly onto the chair, taking his time with his next move to hide his plan. Unconsciously Bleidd reached up and rubbed the scar on the right side of his chest, the mark of a bullet that had nearly killed him, feeling the familiar ache in the healed wound. Jess watched through lowered eyes, well aware that it bothered the vain elf greatly to bear such an obvious and disfiguring mark, and as always purposely ignoring the movement.
     When Jess finally spoke his voice was soft, "My brother and I have always been close, since I was a child. He has in his way been more of a parent to me than my mother, although I know he often doesn't understand my choices or why I am the way I am, so willing to embrace emotions and so steadfast when I should not be. He certainly understands me, for all that, better than my mother likely ever will. I know you and Allie dislike my mother - it is alright truly, I can understand why. She can be difficult, but she is my mother. She means well in what she does. But it was...hard...for me, a second son, with no magical aptitude, no great talent beyond some skill at carving. I am no poet or bard, no great warrior, no healer, no seer, not even magical potential that might pass down to children. My father was a passing tryst, my mother doesn't even know who he is nor did she care to find out afterwards, so I had no male line to look to for training in an inherited craft. I am nothing special -"
   Bleidd cut in sharply, regretting having started this, "Do not speak so. You are special Jess -"
   Jess held up his hand in a soothing gesture, "It is alright my love, truly. Truly. I am realistic in my own abilities and flaws, I think. I would have made a good wright, and I am a competent commander in the Elven Guard, but I am nothing more than that. And that is well enough. I am satisfied with my life as it is. If things had not fallen out as they have I would not be sitting here now, married to two people I love greatly, in a home that is its own odd sort of clan holding - in its way - anticipating our first child, and playing chess with you."
   Bleidd smiled at that, but he still wished he had never gone down this road with his lover. Seeing Jess so vulnerable was not something he had counted on, and it hurt him to think of how many times the other elf must have been told he was nothing of any note to have internalized it so thoroughly.
   The somber moment was interrupted by one of their human roommates turning the corner.
   Shawn walked into the room and then stopped dead, taking in the scene of the two partially clad elves and the chess board. "Ahhh. Sorry? Am I interrupting something?"
   "No," Jess replied innocently, "We were just playing chess."
    "Strip chess," Bleidd corrected smiling wickedly and enjoying Shawn's obvious discomfort. He leaned forward, watching Shawn watch him, as he moved his rook to take Jess's last knight.
    "Right," Shawn said slowly. "Well, ah, I uh, was just heading out to work. So. Ummmm. If you could let Allie know I left the rent in an envelope on the kitchen table? Because, ah, you know, I'll be gone, umm, ah, visiting family. For the next few weeks. On mortal earth."
    "Certainly," Jess said, his attention already back on the chessboard as he contemplated his next move. Bleidd tried not to laugh as he watched Shawn back away slowly, wide eyed. His good mood returned immediately and he thought This is even more fun than I'd anticipated. 
     He watched Jess carefully move his remaining bishop, unwittingly setting Bleidd up to put him in checkmate in two more moves. But Bleidd thought to himself no more serious discussion. He moved his knight to take Jess's queen, reveling in the shock on the other elf's face. "I believe that's your pants forfeited. Best be careful Commander you're down to only one last piece of clothing. Lose that and you'll have to start on the additional forfeits we agreed to."
    Jess stood and slid out of his pants slowly, giving Bleidd a wry look, "Of all the days to not wear I belt I choose today. Honestly Gadreene I suspect you are drawing this out on purpose just to be certain you get some of those extra forfeits."
    Bleidd laughed, wishing that was true and more than willing to let Jess give him credit for it when in actuality he was just having a hard time getting back into the game after so long. "Could you blame me if I were? I can see you nude any time I like but those extra forfeits are where the real entertainment is. Ah, but here, just so you don't think I'm being unfair, if you move that pawn there you can take my knight and my pants with it. Would that make you feel better?"
   Jess regarded him suspiciously but after a few minutes of studying the board couldn't see any other likely moves, so despite feeling like he was walking into a trap he took Bleidd's advice. The black haired elf cheerfully pulled his jeans off and tossed them onto the chair, lounging back in his seat and looking innocently at the board. Jess sighed, "I just set myself up didn't I?"
    "I would never betray your trust that way," Bleidd said, smirking, "Especially not while you're sitting there in nothing but your underwear. As it happens I already have you set up for checkmate and that move was inconsequential."
    "You what?" Jess sputtered, leaning forward as Bleidd laughed.
     "Hey guys, I'm home," Allie said, heading for the little reading room automatically, following her empathy to them. She turned the corner mid-sentence, then looked up and froze, taking in the scene: the beautiful chess board, the pile of clothes on one of the chairs, the two mostly naked elves.
    Bleidd laughed harder at the look on her face, "Welcome home babe. Care to join us in a game of chess?"
    "Strip chess," Jess corrected, still frowning at the board.
    "Strip....chess?" she said looking back and forth between the two of them.
     Bleidd confidently moved his queen to take Jess's last rook, picking the piece up and holding it like a prize. "Alright Commander, hand over your underwear."
    Sighing Jess stood up and surrender the last of his clothes as Allie muttered incoherently in the doorway. Bleidd set the rook down with the other captured pieces then leaned back in his chair, "Now the real fun begins."