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, never mind pass through the old 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, her 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 had first assumed she was taunting him, flaunting her inaccessibility by seating herself where he could not help but see her. But even if he allowed 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 had showed only a passing interest in anything beyond her food and what appeared to be a local guidebook. The other diners—the few he could see, at any rate—might as well not exist to her. The pedestrians, the cars in the street—none of them received more than a casual glance. Cormac, a lone raven on a rooftop, did not 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 Cormac 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 have called for help, but at least it’d be something. He’d had enough of her 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 had walked the not inconsiderable distance to the village. He had taken his time about it, admiring the rural landscape beneath the setting sun, relishing the feel of the land he had 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 the 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, momentarily caught on the threshold between the solitude from which he had 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 had 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 that she had a choice here, either. It was a shame she was involved—and not just because she had proven herself to be tough competition over the years. No, it was a shame because he had 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 had 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 had seen. To get through them, he would 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 would need 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 had 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.
Cormac 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 remained: 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, Leticia 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 she still inside, hiding, waiting? Or had she already made her move, 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 terminus, people scattered like billiard balls in a well-executed break. Some veered toward 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 had 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 Cormac 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 so. Had she gotten rid of the relic already—given it to someone in the crowd? Hidden it somewhere for one of her Brigantium 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 she clutched her timeworn satchel to her side. 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, the gnarled branches currently hosted a conspiracy of ravens and made it the perfect place to hide.
Or not, as it turned out. Cormac’s landing set off a chorus of harsh protests from several territorial juveniles. Then, before he could do something about that, one of the elders noticed Cormac’s eyes—a mix of vibrant blues, atypical to say the least—and set about making a spectacle in which the rest enthusiastically joined. They clucked and cawed 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.
Cormac 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.
He 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.
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. Cormac 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 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, did not appear to notice.
This was it. Complete isolation, distracted prey.
With his heart pounding triple time, he 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, and 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 had forgotten for a moment that her appearance was no illusion. That she was no longer the woman he had 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 for the chip of stone taken earlier from the Bishop’s Palace, and he 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 have been asked to leave hours ago, but a guard or caretaker could still be 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 slightly, 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, Cormac wanted to be somewhere more defensible.
Gravel crunched beneath his feet as he walked and various aches asserted themselves. He hadn’t 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. 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.
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 would be able to get all the rest he wanted and then some. He would 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 that 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. Here was secure enough—although, admittedly, an 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 had seen through the hotel 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 had 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 had 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 had noticed it then. He’d known it in the alley. Yet he had shoved her without concern.
There was nothing for it now—and indeed 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 was not 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. He shook the bag. Nothing. His breath catching, he thrust his hand inside, felt only cloth lining and grit. Biscuit crumbs. Sand from Papa Stronsay.
Cormac’s 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 had pulled it off. But she had. Tricked Cormac 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 had 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 had 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 rested: her own aging vision and the careless absence of her distance glasses. Cormac had those now. He had all her glasses. When she had 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 had 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 were not so dire, Lettie 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 had 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, and the odd, illuminated symbols on the controls failed to suggest to her how she might engage the wipers. Something else she had failed to do in her haste—to properly acquaint 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 time 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 Lettie 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—Lettie 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, only to careen 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 reverberating 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.
She should have run him down.
Her slowing heartbeat sped again. Surely the postal form and its false trail should have 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 would not 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 would not 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 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 have 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 had long been opponents, but never truly enemies—not until this terrible business.
And, until tonight, they’d met only 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 have cost him a fortune in some trendy salon.
Something tickled the back of her mind, caused her to look 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 that the irises were too dark—brown, most likely, when they should have been a striking mixture of blue. As unforgettable as the North Sea in a storm and just as moody. Why, of all his features, 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 couldn’t alter. It was a fixed 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 that over-confidence.
From behind, an 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 woman’s arm, she tried to twist free. Her feet slipped, slid in the mud. Something popped in her chest and she couldn’t breathe.
She had been stabbed. The pain of it exploded through her, made her head swim.
Her pendant, Lettie 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 defense.
“Not…possible,” she rasped, struggling to breathe. She was going to be sick, even as blood filled her lungs.
The hilt of the knife pressed harder against Lettie’s back. She couldn’t turn her head, couldn’t see anything of Cormac’s partner. Lettie had assumed he was working alone. He always worked alone.
How she longed to say something to wipe that smirk off his face. But she hadn’t enough breath to speak. And what could she say without giving anything away? She had lost, yes…but he hadn’t won, 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, although 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 had 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