Perched atop the ferry terminal, Cormac ruffled his feathers against the wind’s knifing chill. The sky above the small harbor town was already thick with gray, the sun only a vague memory behind the storm blowing in from the North Sea. Dusk was hard on its heels, soon to mark the end of another wasted day.
Bobbing in almost overwhelming frustration, he let loose a series of squawks. The sharp winds would shred the sounds before they could cross the street, let alone pass through the glass of the hotel’s dining room window, so he didn’t worry they might alert the woman seated on the other side. Not that it would matter if they did. She was far from stupid. She had to assume he was close.
Alert to her every move, every expression, he watched her lift her spoon to take a slow, untroubled sip of chowder. Exactly as she’d been doing for the past forty minutes.
He squawked again.
Why so long? He’d first assumed she was taunting him, flaunting her inaccessibility by seating herself where he couldn’t help but see her. But even allowing for how this much-aged Leticia tended to linger over her food, this was ridiculous.
He figured she was waiting for someone—considering what was at stake, perhaps several someones. Yet, so far, no one had joined her and she’d showed only a passing interest in anything beyond her food and what appeared to be a guidebook. The other diners—the few he could see, at any rate—might as well not exist. The pedestrians, the cars in the street—none of them received more than a casual glance. Cormac, a lone raven on a rooftop, didn’t rate even that much.
Which didn’t mean anything, of course. She wouldn’t give away the game by showing a particular interest. Leticia McDaniel was an experienced player. She knew the stakes, knew he had no choice here but to win.
He watched her take yet another mincing spoonful of soup, then dab absently at her mouth with her napkin. He could feel his frustration working its way to anger, threatening his control over his altered form. The emotions of a man (or near enough to one) did not fit easily into the body of a bird. He flapped his wings to expel some of the inner tension. Too many hours spent watching, waiting. He didn’t look forward to dealing with whomever Leticia might’ve called for help, but at least it’d be something. He’d had enough of the woman’s tricks, of lost opportunities and wrong turns. Enough of being left behind.
Wind gusted sharply and he crouched low, dug his talons into the grooves of the roof tiles. Hard to believe this had all begun but a few weeks ago.
His house had felt particularly empty that evening, the reality of his life too present to be ignored, so he’d walked the not inconsiderable distance to the village. He’d taken his time about it, admiring the rural landscape beneath the setting sun, relishing the feel of the land he’d chosen for himself—and that Idris grudgingly allowed him to inhabit. The woodlands of oak and ash, the rain-swollen brooks, the soft breeze that rustled the drying grasses beside the road and carried the rich scent of peat smoke.
The Oak and Thistle’s mullioned windows had glowed in welcome, and as he’d approached its red-painted door, he’d stepped aside to allow several people, laughing as they wrestled for a lighter, to stumble out. With them came the din of lively conversation and someone’s earnest but questionable attempts on a fiddle.
He remembered taking hold of the door only to remain standing at the threshold, momentarily caught between the solitude from which he’d come and the potential of the evening ahead: a few drinks, some good-natured arguments with the gents over some sport or another, a little flirtation with the ladies. For a few hours, at least, he’d expected to forget himself. But no sooner had he stepped into the bright, crowded warmth than the summons had come and he was back to being Idris Cathmor’s errand boy.
No choice, no say whatsoever over the course of his life.
He supposed Leticia didn’t consider she had a choice here, either. It was a shame she was involved—and not just because she’d proven herself to be tough competition over the years. No, it was a shame because he’d enjoyed that competition up to now. Enjoyed her whimsical, often playful nature and the challenges it presented. But there was nothing enjoyable about this. She was running him ragged, forcing him into near constant use of disguise-craft, frequent spellwork, and shifts to raven-form with little chance to replenish the energies each depleted. He’d reached exhaustion days ago—which was more than a little humiliating, considering Leticia was full human and eighty if she were a day. She ought to be the one exhausted, the one terrified of failure. Yet there she sat, for all appearances content, confident in her victory.
With good reason, he had to admit. The wards she’d erected around the hotel were some of the best he’d seen. To get through them, he’d need a lot of supplies and a lot of time. The latter was out of the question, and as soon as he left to collect the former, she’d leave. He couldn’t risk letting her out of his sight. Not as long as she had the relic.
Several blasts of an air horn sounded in the distance as a North Isles ferry approached the harbor. Storm-wrought swells had the large ship bobbing like a child’s toy on the channel’s dark, foaming water. He watched for a moment, studied the curtain of rain that tracked the ferry’s path. Figured he had about a half hour before he’d have to seek shelter or resign himself to a good soaking.
Was Leticia waiting for the ship? Its being twenty minutes behind schedule might explain why she’d lingered so long at the window.
She couldn’t expect to sail on it tonight; this was its last run until morning. She could be waiting for someone on board, he supposed. Chances of that were slim, given that the ferry was coming in from the outer islands—but, then, “slim chance” was Leticia’s weapon of choice, and one she wielded with enviable ease.
The ferry pulled alongside the pier with a belch of diesel exhaust, the opening note of an industrial symphony that was hell on the heightened senses of Cormac’s raven form. Clanking metal, grinding gears, the squelch of the pier’s rubber guards against the ship’s steel side. The acrid stench of a laboring engine. A surprising, worrisome boom—the lowering of the drawbridge for the vehicles on board, their motors already running, emitting their own noxious clouds. People, their voices adding to the tumult, emerged from the shelter of waterfront shops, parked cars, and the terminal itself.
He blinked stinging eyes and, fighting sensory overload, contemplated the growing crowd below. Add to that the number of passengers amassed at the ship’s rail and the sum total could equal disaster. Too late, he returned his attention to where it should have always been: Leticia at her table by the window. Only she wasn’t at her table.
She wasn’t anywhere he could see.
Dread settled like gravel in his stomach. With so many people as cover, she could slip away in one of the waiting cabs or, worse, hand the relic over to someone with Cormac none the wiser. He’d have no trail to follow at all then. Slim chance, indeed. He scanned the area near the hotel, just across from the pier’s exit. Was Leticia still inside, hiding, waiting to make her move? Or had she already made it, already blended in with one of the groups milling about the entrance to the hotel’s pub?
A worker’s shout heralded the securing of the gangway and the potential for disaster doubled, trebled, as the exodus began.
Damn her—and damn him for not anticipating this.
At the pier’s exit, people scattered like billiard balls in a well-executed break. Some veered towards the parking lot while others rushed to jump into the vehicles currently fighting for space with those leaving the ferry. By far the largest number, a mix of passengers and the pedestrians who’d come to meet them, cut through the congested traffic in the street to walk into the town proper. Even with the visual acuity of a raven, it was impossible to track every person, every movement. He was fighting something like panic when a flash of familiar colors drew his eye.
Maybe. It was gone before he could be sure, swallowed in the stream of people going up Bridge Street.
He took flight. Thankfully, it was easy to locate the jewel-toned swirls in the midst of so many drab grays and browns. It was almost as if the locals hoped to blend in with the stones of their buildings. Leticia, with such garishly dyed cashmere fluttering about her neck, couldn’t have blended less.
He contemplated that as he circled to keep her in sight. Didn’t she want to lose him? Not exactly a reassuring thought, if she didn’t. Had she gotten rid of the relic already—given it to someone in the crowd, or hidden it somewhere for one of her Society cronies to pick up? Had she become merely a decoy? Cormac felt his heart stutter, choking on a flood of adrenaline until he noted the way Leticia clutched her timeworn satchel to her side. It was an unusual gesture for her, and a revealing one. His heart settled into a more assured rhythm.
This would end here.
He flew to a solitary tree at the end of the long block, well ahead of Leticia’s part of the crowd. Mostly sheltered from the wind by the buildings, its gnarled branches were hosting a conspiracy of ravens and made it the perfect place to hide.
Or not, as it turned out. His landing set off a chorus of harsh protests from several territorial juveniles. And, as he prepared to do something about that, one of the elders noticed Cormac’s eyes—blue-gray instead of raven-brown— and set about making a spectacle, which the rest enthusiastically joined. They clucked, they cawed, they scrabbled and hopped, jouncing branches and raining dried leaves onto the sidewalk below. People looked up—some intrigued enough to stop. The flow of traffic slowed, drawing even more attention Cormac’s way.
He screeched, his fury palpable enough to scatter the flock. In a confusion of flapping wings and scolding chatter, they regrouped, then flew high overhead, west toward the Peedie Sea.
A bell jangled somewhere to his right, and he looked over in time to see Leticia enter a narrow stone building at the start of the block. The post office. Its door closed sharply behind her.
He flew to the building’s sole window—a high thing, less than a foot wide, set next to the door. The ledge was too narrow but he gave it a shot anyway, beating his wings while his feet scrabbled on the crumbling masonry. Leticia’s back was to him, blocking his view of whatever was transpiring between her and the clerk…until she took something from the counter and, turning slightly, tucked it into her satchel. A booklet of stamps, it looked like, and what was probably a receipt.
Stamps? This outing couldn’t be so innocuous as that. Why wait all day to run an errand—and time it with the arrival of the last ferry? While carrying around the relic, no less. Before he could theorize, she turned away from the counter and began walking back toward the door.
Cormac flew up to the roof, out of sight, to wait. She, more than any of her Society, knew of his knack for taking raven form. She had to have noticed the ruckus in the tree.
Most shops had or were nearly shut, their proprietors busy turning out lights and pulling down metal security gates. The last of the ferry passengers, with nothing to interest them, were moving quickly through the area.
The bell announced Leticia’s exit, and Cormac peered cautiously over the rain gutter, watched her wave to the clerk as the door closed. Instead of moving away as expected, she paused, still facing the building, to adjust her scarf. He held himself motionless, hardly daring to breathe, but she didn’t so much as glance up. Apparently satisfied, she turned away and continued up the street. Whatever her plans, they were taking her towards St. Magnus, not back to her hotel.
With a few pedestrians still near enough to cause trouble, Cormac forced himself to hold back, to observe. Did she plan to return the relic to its hiding place? Add her own wards to the considerable craft that already protected the building? Until help from her Brigantium arrived, it would be the wisest thing for her to do.
He couldn’t let her.
When she turned left into the alleyway behind the cathedral’s walled grounds, he pursued. Trees had been planted along the interior side of the high wall, their bare, twisted branches overhanging the entire path. He landed on one, timed it so Leticia was directly below. She, with her gaze once more intent on the cobblestones, didn’t appear to notice.
This was it. Complete isolation, distracted prey.
With his heart pounding triple time, Cormac initiated the shift and dropped. Illusion vanished, replaced by truth. Behind Leticia, his own booted feet hit the pavers. At the sound, she startled and began to turn. He didn’t want that. Didn’t want to see what loss looked like in her eyes.
“Don’t, love,” he said, surprising himself, then planted both hands against her back and shoved. She stumbled into the wall opposite, her cry of shock morphing into one of pain. Belatedly, his hands registered the feel of her. The thin, light bones.
He’d forgotten, for a moment, that her appearance was no illusion. That she was no longer the woman he’d met all those years ago. Leticia McDaniel had grown old.
As she crumpled, her knees buckling, fingers scrabbling on the rough, vine-covered bricks, Cormac wrenched the satchel from her arm—pulling her entirely off balance—and ran. Above the hard pounding of his steps, he heard the slap of her hands on the pavement, her soft moan. He kept running. Regret served no purpose. He would not look back.
Nearing the alley’s exit, he reached into his coat pocket, found the chip of stone he’d taken from the Bishop’s Palace, and triggered the spell to send himself there, several circuitous blocks distant. Far enough to prevent Leticia from reaching him in time—even if she were able.
He arrived at the ruin in the span of a blink and, disoriented, let his head drop forward and his eyes close. He used his Sight to make sure he was alone. Tourists would’ve been asked to leave hours ago, but a guard or caretaker could still be poking about. Worse, there could be someone else like him—someone up to no good. But his search turned up no other presence. He allowed himself to relax a little, to turn his concentration toward breathing slow and deep while his body adjusted to its new surroundings.
Icy wind, the crest of the storm, swept into the roofless Great Hall to cut through his clothes as if they were nothing. His muscles constricted, forcing a painful shiver. He opened his eyes. The dizziness had passed. The world remained steady. Jagged-topped stone walls beneath a pale sky.
Feeling exposed to more than just the elements, he crossed to the tower. He was almost certain there was no danger imminent, but when he went through the satchel, he might disturb or inadvertently destroy whatever magic was masking the relic’s power. Should someone—Leticia or an unknown—sense it and come calling, he wanted to be somewhere more defensible.
Gravel crunched beneath his feet as he walked and various aches asserted themselves. He’d not done his body any favors today. His ability to take raven form was a natural talent, one of the odd gifts from his mother’s side. But as with all magic, it wasn’t without cost. The trick was in balancing such costs with the potential gains.
He adjusted his hold on the worn leather satchel, his mood lifting. What was inside more than made up for the past weeks.
Would Leticia forgive him if she knew his reasons? He hoped so. Theirs had always been a friendly rivalry.
Friendly, as in…friends? His foot caught on an exposed piece of the original slate floor.
Nonsense. To think he and some upstart, impetuous slip of a girl—no, an old woman now. He didn’t bother finishing the thought. It didn’t matter.
Ignoring his complaining joints, he jogged up a set of modern steps leading to the tower’s entrance. What was past was past. Over. No good ever came from looking back. He ducked under the lintel of the open doorway and turned left into the windowless dark of the base of the tower stairs. The enclosed air of the winding passage was thick with the prickly scent of cold, wet stone. He began to climb, sweat beading on his skin despite the chill.
What did he know of friendship, anyway.
By the time he reached a tiny alcove, his lungs and muscles burned—one more sign he’d been pushing himself beyond his limits. After he handed over the relic, though, he’d be able to get all the rest he wanted and then some. He’d be free to go anywhere. Do anything. A dangerous, tantalizing warmth began to build in his chest, and he could have kicked himself for indulging in such hopeful thinking.
Hope, for all of its pleasures, was a weapon. One which could cut deeper than any other, especially when wielded by such a master as Idris Cathmor. Everything depended on the man upholding his part of the bargain, and nothing in their mutual history gave any assurance he would. Quite the contrary, really. But it wasn’t as if Cormac could’ve refused.
At a small alcove, he took a moment to catch his breath. Autumnal twilight shone through a tiny window, blearily illuminating the remnants of a bird’s nest scattered upon the ledge. He set Leticia’s satchel down on them. This place was secure enough—although, admittedly, his unwillingness to face another climb factored heavily in that estimation.
As did impatience. With an unsteady hand, he unlatched the satchel’s single clasp and reached inside.
He pulled out an odd collection: the guidebook he’d seen through the window; a packet of tissue; several eyeglass cases; a toffee-covered biscuit, fuzzed with lint and half-wrapped in a paper napkin. The detritus of an active, chaotic life, he thought, a smile tugging at his reluctant lips. Folded pamphlets for sightseeing tours. The folded receipt from the post office and the packet of stamps. Smooth pebbles he’d watched Leticia collect days earlier on Papa Stronsay while the wind had whipped strands of silver hair out from under the scarf tied about her head.
Though she’d bent down to investigate whatever objects happened to catch her eye, she’d moved with the caution of asking too much of old bones.
He’d noticed it then. He’d known it in the alley. Yet he’d shoved her without concern.
There was nothing for it now—and it was ridiculous that his thoughts had gone there again. Time was wasting, the Oak and Thistle awaited, and…and he wasn’t finding anything remotely like a relic. His fingers combed through the remaining jumble with increasing agitation. This wasn’t right. His heart beat a tattoo of anxious denial. The relic had to be here.
It had to be.
He overturned the bag, dumped everything. Coins rained, some bouncing out the window, others pinging their way down the stone stairs. Papers fluttered, settled in the shadows at his feet. His breath catching, he shook the bag. Nothing. He thrust his hand inside, felt only cloth lining and grit. Biscuit crumbs. Sand from Papa Stronsay.
His head spun, the world going ass over teakettle as reality’s cold wave thrust him towards a bleak, rocky shore. His fingers shook as he unfolded the paper from the post office.
She’d played him for a fool, after all.
Lettie still couldn’t believe she’d pulled it off. But she had. Tricked him right and proper and given herself the time she needed to get away.
Her hands clutched the steering wheel too tightly, the pain in her bones reminding her why she’d essentially retired to Oregon and set up shop years ago. She was far too old for this kind of thing. The tires hit another chuckhole, jounced her back in the seat.
She quickly leaned forward again, her chest nearly against the wheel, her eyes straining as she tried to peer beyond the uselessly short beams of the headlights. So far, she’d caught no sign of the tiny harbor where a fishing boat and its well-compensated captain waited. But it couldn’t be too far. The island wasn’t that big.
Softly, she directed a curse at the cheap rental car, although in fairness, she knew where the blame more properly belonged: her own aging vision and the careless absence of her distance glasses. Cormac had the latter now. He had all her glasses. When she’d tucked necessities into her traveling bag earlier, she’d neglected to include them.
What else might she have neglected?
That troubling thought was shoved in with the many others she’d locked away for later consideration. Thoughts which, if allowed to run around now, might lead to second-guesses and panic—two luxuries she couldn’t afford just yet.
Her worried sigh was cut off by the hard bounce of another hole in the asphalt. She squinted as the whole car began to vibrate and steering became even more of a wrestling match. Not asphalt anymore. Hard-packed dirt and stone.
If the consequences of failure weren’t so dire, she might have thought this a grand adventure. Alone in a bucking, speeding car she could barely handle on a narrow, pitted track; racing against things she barely understood yet sought to control; leaving behind the closest friends and allies she’d ever known. Thrilling, really. If only it all weren’t so close to falling apart.
The car splashed through a flooded dip in the road. Muddy water coated the windshield.
She could barely see at all now.
The odd, illuminated symbols on the controls failed to suggest to her how she might engage the wipers. Something else she’d failed to do in her haste—she hadn’t properly acquainted herself with the car.
Another wave of fear threatened to swamp her. Had desperation caused her to do a terrible thing? “Oh, Thia,” she murmured. “I am sorry, dear.”
Should everything go as planned, however, there would be no need to be sorry. Everything would be resolved before her grandniece could be pulled into the mire. Or so Lettie hoped. Timing was everything, and it was moving altogether too quickly these days.
Evil was at work. An insidious evil that had slipped past all the Brigantium’s defenses to take root deep within. Yet she had no proof. She didn’t even know exactly what form it took, or who might be behind it.
She was keeping secrets from her compatriots—her friends—because of a few groundless suspicions. It was terrifying.
It was treason.
But had there been another way? Things had happened so quickly, had she not given this enough thought?
Her mind preoccupied, she took a curve too fast. The wheel shuddered in her grip as the car went wide, its right side tires tracing the edge of the rough track. When it straightened—and the car seemed content to stay on it—she blew out a relieved breath, said a prayer of thanks.
She was about to hit a man.
Her foot stomped on the brake, mashed the pedal to the floor as she wrenched the wheel to the right. The car shimmied, resisting, then careened off the road and down a grassy slope. The front dropped abruptly into a ditch and the car slammed to an immediate, shocking stop. The seat belt locked, holding Lettie fast as her breath whooshed out and her head whipped forward and back, then forward again. Her teeth clunked together, the hollow sound echoing through her skull.
It took her a moment or two to pull herself together, to process what had happened and that she was no longer in motion. She bent forward to rest her head on hands that continued to grip the wheel.
She hurt. Everywhere. Like the dickens.
The sputtering motor died, and with the ensuing silence came a horrific clarity of thought. The man in the road. She knew him. And she should have run him down.
Her slowing heartbeat sped again. Surely the postal form and its false trail should’ve kept Cormac occupied longer than this. And how had he tracked her so quickly, in any case?
Sitting up, she forced her wildly trembling fingers to turn the key in the ignition. He would be furious. Her skills were nothing to his. Her only hope was to evade. She turned the key again.
Clicking. Grinding and clicking. No matter how hard she cranked the key, no matter how hard she willed it, the motor didn’t catch. Instead, the lights went out. Next, the key jammed, refused to budge. Superior magic at work.
“Brigid, help me,” she prayed, and scanned the vast field before her. With her blurred vision, she could just make out a cluster of lights on the distant shoreline—the harbor at Tingwall, she realized. Her intended destination. Perhaps she could run.
“Silly old fool,” she whispered. She couldn’t outrun a normal man. She certainly couldn’t outrun Cormac. Why couldn’t her deception have lasted just a little longer?
There was nothing for it now. Taking a pained breath, she prepared to leave the car’s illusion of shelter. Her heart raced, her muscles locked, as something deep within screamed in protest.
She told it to hush.
Shoving open the door, she eased her legs out over the threshold, felt a sharp twinge in her back when she turned to look up the hillside. The car hadn’t traveled all that far, she was surprised to see. That was the way of frightening events; things became distorted. What had seemed a great distance was only the matter of a dozen or so yards.
Cormac stood watching from the edge of the road. Even without her glasses, she could see every detail of his face, from the harsh set of his jaw to the triumphant gleam in his dark, cruel gaze. What magic was he employing that enabled her to see so clearly? Such a spell could’ve saved her a fortune in lenses over the years. If she wasn’t so afraid of his present anger, she’d have asked him. They’d long been opponents, but never truly enemies—not until this terrible business.
And, until tonight, they’d only met once before. He looked the same. Starkly handsome with a lean, athletic body. The sharp planes and angles of his face accented deep set, piercing eyes and an elegant, bitter mouth. His hair was styled differently—short and tousled, in keeping with current fashion. It must’ve cost him a fortune in some trendy salon.
Something tickled the back of her mind, and she looked more closely at his face. Not exactly the same, she realized. His eyes were wrong. Though moonlight robbed her vision of color, she could tell the irises were too dark—probably brown, when they should have been a striking mixture of gray and blue. As unforgettable as the North Sea in a storm and just as moody. They were beautiful eyes. Why would he change only them?
And how had he done it? According to the information on file, eye color was the one aspect of his appearance he had no control over. It was part of his nature.
Lettie nearly groaned at her idiocy. Colored contacts were a dime a dozen these days.
“Enough,” she told herself, and braced her hands on the door. “No more procrastinating.”
She began to stand. Her feet sank into the ditch’s foul mud, but she managed to keep her balance as she stepped away from the car and raised her head to meet Cormac’s stare once more.
A slow smile spread across his face. Cocky bastard, she thought. Anger flared and her mouth opened of its own accord, ready to tell him where he could stick his over-confidence.
From behind, a woman’s arm wrapped around Lettie’s chest to pin her arms to her ribs. Crushing force pulled her off balance. She couldn’t kick at her attacker, couldn’t even stand. Clawing at the arm, she tried to twist free. Her feet slipped, slid in the mud. Something popped in her chest and she couldn’t breathe.
She’d been stabbed. The pain of it exploded through her, made her head swim.
Her pendant, she thought desperately, refusing to believe even as the evidence mounted. Her pendant should have prevented this—should have at least warned of the woman’s approach, not to mention the strike of her blade. It should be acting now in her defense.
“Not…possible,” she rasped, struggling to breathe. She was going to be sick, even as blood filled her lungs.
Next to her ear, the woman laughed, and the hilt of the knife pressed harder against Lettie’s back. She couldn’t turn her head, couldn’t see anything of the woman. Cormac’s partner. Lettie had assumed he was working alone. He’d always worked alone.
How she longed to say something that would wipe that smirk off his face. But she hadn’t enough breath to speak. And what could she say without giving anything away? She’d lost, yes…but he hadn’t won, either, even if he thought he had.
Her laugh was more of a spasm, but her murderer translated it well enough.
“Something amuses you?” The woman’s taunting voice, though whisper-soft, rang a bell.
Understanding dawned, sharp and cold.
Lettie went numb from it. The implications were too terrible, the situation far worse than she’d dared imagine.
“Not the eyes,” she said, the words nothing but strangled sounds as blood bubbled in her throat. She coughed, tried to pull in a breath. “The rest of it. Not the eyes.” Blood surged into her mouth, trickled down her chin.
She would have wept had it not been too late.
Oh, Thia. Forgive me.
The arm pulled away and Lettie’s body dropped, sliding off the knife to land facedown in the stagnant muck.
© R. A. FINLEY — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED NO PORTION OF THIS TEXT MAY BE REPRODUCED OR USED WITHOUT PERMISSION