Eclectica, Granite Springs
With Connor Michaels no longer in view outside, Thia returned her attention to his purchase. It really was a lovely piece, made of finely wrought silver with wings of amazingly thin colored glass. Carefully, she removed the price.
“Who was that?” Abby asked, escorting a customer with an armload of items to be purchased. Because of that, she kept her tone casual, but Thia had come to know her well enough to know there was more to her question than that.
“Someone new to the area,” Thia replied as they smoothly exchanged places behind the register. “Connor Michaels. He bought a gift for a friend.”
“Oh my, isn’t that gorgeous,” said the customer, eyeing the butterfly. “So delicate. And unusual.”
“Isn’t it?” Thia held it out for the woman to examine.
“The artist is local,” Abby explained, beginning to ring up items. “She has worked in stained glass for years, but recently shifted from panels and lampshades to standing figures. This is our last butterfly, but there are a few other examples in the case over there if you’d like to see.”
“Some other time,” the woman said with a longing glance. “I’m supposed to meet my partner at her work to talk gift list progress. This should be the last of it. I hope.” She indicated the three snow globes she was buying. “There are boxes for them, right? They need to be shipped.”
“Absolutely,” Thia said, and was about to volunteer herself when she saw Lynette approaching from the storeroom.
“I can go back,” the clerk said, noticing the snowglobes. She set the butterfly’s box down and then left again.
While Abby and the customer chatted, waiting, Thia moved to an adjacent counter to work. The butterfly’s box was nice, she thought, but rather plain for something intended as a gift. She went over to the for-purchase papers. If memory served, there was one that—
There. She pulled out a sheet of soft cream patterned with richly colored butterflies and flowers. On another whim, she grabbed a spool of satin ribbon.
At the counter, she laid it out, began sizing it to the box.
“Mr. Michaels bought all that, too?” Abby asked. She had finished her transaction. The customer, bag in hand, was on her way up the stairs to the café.
“No,” Thia admitted, “but it goes so well.” She took up a pair of scissors, sliced. “Plus it’s an expensive item, and he’s a first time customer. It might pay off to be extra nice.”
She paused, found Abby watching her with concern. Probably because Thia’s cheeks were red. “What?”
“Did you feel it?”
Impossibly, Thia felt her blush increase. She must look like a tomato. “Attraction?”
Abby’s violet eyes widened. “Goodness, no—wait. Are you saying you—”
“What feeling did you mean?” Thia put in quickly.
“Power. I thought I sensed it a few times, which could mean he was cloaking it the rest of the time. And there was something else, something…odd.” Abby frowned, shook her head. “You were attracted to him?”
“He had power?” Thia thought back, tried to feel now what she had missed in the moment. Tried not to feel discouraged when she could not. Finished with the tape, she pulled out a length of ribbon, wound it around the box. “Maybe I mistook it. Maybe that’s why he reminded me of Cormac.”
Abby’s profanity was no less shocking for having been quiet. Luckily, it was Stefanie’s day off or else they would be in for a smudging.
“Reminded,” Thia said. “His eyes were brown. Cormac can’t change his eyes.”
Abby rolled hers. “For crying out loud, Thia. He can wear colored contact lenses the same as anyone.”
“He had glasses on. Connor—Mr. Michaels, I mean.”
“Sure. The lenses would make it harder to tell. When is he supposed to come back to get the butterfly? I don’t want you dealing with him by yourself.”
“He didn’t say.” Thia tied an elaborate bow, the satin ribbon smooth and cool as it slid between her fingers. Soothing, or at least it should have been. “But even if he is Cormac—and it would be crazy to think that—he’s not a danger to me. He wouldn’t hurt me.”
“He broke your heart,” her friend said gently.
“Thia, come on. I know how you—”
“No,” she repeated, cutting off the argument. On the other side of the front window, a small group of pedestrians pointed at something in the display and then moved on. Thia finished the bow. “I did that to myself.”
“Bullshit. Cormac led you to believe he had feelings for you. That’s—”
“It doesn’t matter.” Much as she appreciated Abby’s anger on her behalf, it didn’t help. Nothing helped. “It’s over. Once burned, twice shy and all that. When Mr. Michaels comes to pick this up, I’ll try to tell if he’s wearing contacts.” She put the box beneath the counter and began cleaning up. Wisely, Abby returned to the sales floor.
If Connor Michaels was wearing contacts, what would Thia do? Ask him if he was the two-centuries-and-then-some half-Sidhe whom she had met on a flight to London and, despite herself, fallen for? She dropped the scraps of paper into the wastebasket, put the scissors and tape away.
She had been told that Cormac had murdered Lettie. She had believed him to be responsible for an attack on her in a London alley, as well as a later one on the Brigantium that had killed many and left one of their agents in a coma. And still she’d had to fight with herself over her feelings. Had she been in lo—rather, had she fallen for him on the flight? Or had it come later, at the Ring when he had nearly sacrificed himself for her?
Could Connor Michaels be Cormac?
She used the computerized register to remove the spool of ribbon from the inventory. The bells on the door jingled.
Did she want him to be?
The high-pitched voices of multiple toddlers caused a rush of concern, but as they entered she counted an accompanying adult per child, making for a group total of six and not liable to get into unintended trouble. Lynette was finding things to do along their browsing trajectory, making herself available to assist without being intrusive. Abby was bringing another sale to one of the other registers. This might be a good time as any for Thia to check online orders.
Why would Cormac pretend to be someone else with her? It was a ridiculous thought. As ridiculous as thinking that he would be in Granite Springs at all. What would he want?
Are you happy?
An incredible rumble started up outside, causing everyone to stop and look to the window. Glass rattled in its frames as the wooden floor vibrated, the motion traveling up through display cases throughout the store. Thia and Abby met near the door just as the unmistakable belch of a Harley Davidson sounded from somewhere up the block.
Not just one Harley, Thia realized, when the bass rumble crescendoed to a roar. One motorcycle after another zoomed by, using all three lanes of the street. Glossy paint, gleaming chrome, scuffed black leather—and more shaggy beards than she had seen at one time since leaving southern California.
Maybe they were just passing through.
Exhaust seeped in through the doorway and she grimaced, covered her nose and mouth with her hand.
Gradually, the gang moved out of earshot and as people who had stopped on the sidewalk went on about their business, so did Thia. She was surprised to find the group with children gathered on the far side of the staircase, putting it between them and the door—or perhaps more specifically, the street. Each of the two women held a child in their arms while the man cradled the back of a little girl’s head while she clung to his leg.
There was more here than noise upset. There was fear.
“I’d hoped they wouldn’t be back,” Abby said, still watching out the window.
“They’ve been before?”
“Every winter. They hole up at the old Soda Mountain roadhouse. Southeast of town,” she explained off Thia’s look of confusion. “It used to be a place that catered to local bikers—motorized and pedal. Nice, friendly atmosphere. Really good pie. Then, about five years ago, those guys showed up. The Rekkrs. They’re good at it.”
“What do they do?” Thia noted that the group with the kids was browsing again, seeming more relaxed.
“Within city limits, not too much—mainly noise and having fun acting intimidating. Outside….” Abby shrugged. “It’s best not to spend time in that part of the mountain. Not till spring, anyway. Unless you’re the snow plow driver,” she added with an attempt at levity. It quickly failed. “Although I don’t think even they go up there.”
“How can they ride when the roads—never mind.” Thia had better things to worry about. “If everything is under control here, I though I’d go take care of today’s shipments.”
A squeal of infectious, little-boy laughter drew their attention. Lynette was skillfully entertaining the group with a Jack Frost puppet.
“We’ll be fine,” Abby said, watching. “She could probably run the whole place single-handed.”
“As could you,” Thia assured her, having detected a note of jealousy.
Abby grinned. “True.”
Mood lifted, Thia headed for the office. If she remembered correctly, there were only a few things to—
She stopped, turned back to Abby.
Who was no longer smiling. “If Connor isn’t Cormac, that’s even more reason not to deal with him alone.”
Landmark Hotel, Granite Springs
Cormac pushed open the hotel’s main door and stepped into the lobby’s bright warmth. Old by American standards, the building had been tastefully modernized to maintain its Art Deco lines and fixtures while using contemporary furnishings and light, neutral colors. Beneath the proliferation of seasonal trappings were some quality oil paintings. Landscapes mostly, and probably local.
All by the same artist, Cormac determined a few moments later from the spot he’d chosen in one of several seating areas that carved up the large, high-ceilinged space. Along the wall and to the left of the entrance (and the reception desk that faced it), the plump sofa afforded the best view. The out-of-the-way area had only one other occupant: a man, seated in an adjacent armchair and seemingly engrossed in his newspaper. The other areas, set nearer to the fireplace or windows, respectively, were populated with guests conversing over cups of coffee or on phones. A cup of tea would be nice, caffeine be damned, Cormac decided and prepared to flag down one of the staff.
Before he could, Murphy appeared.
That hadn’t taken long. Cormac forced himself to relax—or at least to appear so. He reminded himself that it wasn’t for lack of trying that he’d been unable to uphold his end of their bargain.
In a purely physical fight, Cormac would almost assuredly be outmatched. Murphy topped his natural height by a good six inches and outweighed him by one if not two stones of solid muscle. Cormac was built for guile not straight combat, whereas Murphy had been a trained warrior. Most likely he was one, still.
In a not-so-purely physical fight aided by magick, Cormac could only guess as to the match-up. Whatever power Murphy held was as thoroughly cloaked as Cormac’s was. Better, then, to credit the other man with more rather than less to be on the safe side. In Cormac’s experience, only people with a lot of power made an effort to hide it, and only those with great skill succeeded.
On his approach, Murphy made the small, sweeping gesture of an elementary coercion spell. The newspaper-reading man promptly stood and took himself to a chair in one of the more crowded areas.
“Wondered when you’d get around to stopping by.” Murphy sank into the vacated seat. His words carried a worn trace of Ireland. “Nice disguise you’ve worked out. Fool anyone with it?”
Cormac shrugged. “Well enough.”
“Really.” Murphy slouched, a casual pose belied by the glint of power in his eyes. A flash of bronze within the brown. “So. Where is it, then?”
“I don’t have it. Yet.” Cormac braced for an explosion…of temper, of power—a literal explosion. Anything, really, on the scale of furious responses.
Which meant he was unprepared when Murphy, in a voice gone icy, merely said, “You’ve two weeks until the deadline.”
The word was meant literally. Their bargain had been made according to the Old Ways: upon pain of death.
Murphy had fulfilled his part, having not interfered when Cormac had first arrived in Granite Springs in pursuit of Thia and the Stone of Shadows.
If only Cormac had thought to renegotiate when he’d asked for aid on Orkney. Given Murphy’s history with Idris, he had no doubt relished the opportunity to take part in his defeat. Cormac should have made that the fulfillment in place of the Achill Bell. But he hadn’t been thinking clearly at the time. Idris and his people had taken over the Ring of Brodgar and Thia was being taken right to them. The Brigantium wouldn’t listen to reason. There had been no one else to whom Cormac could turn. Beyond stopping his father, he hadn’t considered how else to make use of the situation.
A hotel employee walked past with a caraffe, and Cormac regretted not getting that tea he’d wanted. His throat was dry.
“I was hoping”—how he did loathe that word, hope—“that we might adjust the bargain.”
“I figured as much.” Murphy flicked his hand. A gesture only, not a spell. “Let’s hear it. Not excuses, mind. Explanations.”
Fair enough. “I went to Fiends Fell after I—after Brodgar. Everything of value had already been removed.”
Murphy’s eyes widened. “By Idris?”
“At his order, or by someone with his authority.” No one in their right mind would attempt such a robbery. That it should succeed? Impossible. Therefore, that had not been a robbery.
“Was there anything to trace?” Murphy asked.
“That takes more than a passing skill.”
“It does,” Cormac agreed.
Murphy studied him. “You have someone in mind.”
“I do.” There was no reason not to share. “Cassandra.”
Cormac’s recently-discovered half-sister, bent on revenge. If he was correct and she was behind the clearing out of Fiend’s Fell, it meant she had every piece of Idris’s extensive arsenal. Every collected relic, every weapon, every spell.
“She would’ve had to work fast,” Murphy said. “You arrived how long after leaving Innse Orc?” The Old Irish name for the islands. The mercenary’s true roots were showing.
“A few hours.” Cormac grimaced. “I—well, it took me some time to get my head straight.”
“So she had a bit of time, then, but not much. Not enough.”
That had been Cormac’s conclusion as well. An undertaking of that scope would have taken days, not hours. “Idris may have intended to clear out after the ritual. If so, he would’ve already made preparations.”
“Or there could have been people left behind, able to assist when the claimsech arrived.” An unflattering term, but there was no arguing that it didn’t fit. “It’s been weeks,” Murphy went on. “Why not tell me straightaway?”
Because Cormac hadn’t been able to think clearly. He had been reeling, trying to come to terms with his role in Idris’s death and of finally being free. All while missing Thia to the point of obsession.
“I’m telling you now,” he said.
Murphy’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t press.
Cormac settled back against the overstuffed cushions. “She swore revenge.”
“That she did.”
“Most of the primary players are here.”
“And so here is where she’ll likely to focus her efforts. That didn’t escape me.” Another flick of his hand called attention to the leather cuff at his wrist. “I’ve been at this even longer than you, remember.”
As if Cormac could forget. His stomach clenched. He had witnessed a lot of horrors over the centuries, but that night….
Well. He had been young, after all. Naturally it had affected him more.
“As far as I can tell, she has gone to ground,” Murphy said. “I’ve let it be known that I’ve an interest in her activities. So far, nothing.”
Cormac nodded, grim. He hadn’t had much result on that front, either. But he had a gut feeling. “There’s quite a lot of power here. More than when I visited before.”
“Sure, there’s been an upsurge.” Murphy shrugged. “Nothing unusual in that, this time of year. You’ll have noticed the area is a bit of a gathering place.”
“Hard to miss.” Which made it easy enough for anyone to slip in—not secretly, perhaps, but anonymously.
“If Cassie is here,” Cormac said, casually seizing the opportunity, “you and I can at least discuss a new time frame.”
Murphy laughed, causing a few heads to turn. He made a circling gesture, and they turned back. “If she took the Bell, her being here would be convenient, wouldn’t you say?”
“Goddamn it, I can’t protect—” Thia, Cormac had almost said. He couldn’t protect her while he was tracking down the bell. “Goddamn it.”
“Language,” Murphy chided. “But ‘tis the season and all that so I’m feeling kindly. Talk to me again before the two weeks are up. And maybe—maybe—we can sort something out.” He stood. “In the meantime, we’ve a few rooms open. Why don’t you get yourself one. We do a lovely breakfast.”
The glow of power in his eyes made it clear that he was not making a suggestion. It was an order.
Cormac didn’t have to take those anymore.
“I’ll think about it,” he said simply to make a point.
He had made a reservation days ago.
Elkhorn Park, Granite Springs
They walked the uphill path in silence. She was prepared to stop any talk should the fool show an inclination for it, but so far he had been too busy fighting the compulsion spell she had crafted. Whomever and whatever he had once been, he was now broken. The power he had was erratic, weak more often than it was strong, sometimes altogether absent.
She felt her lips curve into a smile. Did he realize yet where this was leading? He ought to appreciate it. The watcher she had assigned to him had observed that, after the alley behind Eclectica, it was his next most frequented location in town.
There was a particular bench where he would sit for hours, she had been told, and yesterday she’d ruined a pair of Saint Laurent boots scoping it out. “Wilderness trail” was a more apt description of that area than “park.” It would do well for privacy and, she was betting, a state of relaxation within the man that would allow her spell to take complete hold.
Passing the surprisingly busy playground, she returned the bland smiles from two women ostensibly watching a child in a puffy pink jacket climb the wrong way up a slide. Acknowledging them would, as she’d learned over the past week, make her less memorable, not more. The people here were odd that way.
Which meant they would soon forget her but not the man walking several feet behind.
Such a strange town.
And a powerful one. What a shame she hadn’t the time to find out why.
The paved path changed to bark chips and her annoyance flared again. She shouldn’t need hiking gear in a bloody city park.
“Is it much farther?” came the voice behind her. She smiled at the strain in it. He would wear himself down with all that internal fighting, perhaps even before they got to the bench.
She whirled on him, sent more power into the spell. Like pulling up on a choke chain. He flinched, dropped his gaze.
Chuckling, she walked on. Wood chips became half-frozen dirt and fallen leaves as the path wended closer to the stream. Creek, as it was called here. Rushing water drowned out any sound from behind but she sensed when he lost his battle and resumed following. The spell allowed her a vague awareness of his location and, if she strengthened her hold, his intent.
She rounded a bend and left the path for a thin, woodland track encroached upon by dead grasses and prickly shrubs. At its terminus was a small overlook with two benches.
She knew which one he habitually chose. When he arrived, she moved to stand in front of it. Pointed to the other.
“I prefer that one.” He indicated the one she blocked. His gaze darted around hers. Held.
Calling power to hand, she formed a ball of white energy: wanfýr. Her irises as she did so, she knew, glowed amber.
The man paled. His gaze dropped to the ground.
Yet he persisted with a faint, “Please.”
She yanked the invisible leash. He gasped, stumbled a step closer, and she extended her hand to put the fýr inches from his downturned face. At such a range, it could do as much damage as wælfýr.
“No. Please,” he said again. He trembled.
“Sit.” She moved the fýr so that he could, and then vanished it when he did as instructed—on the bench she had assigned. She took the one he’d wanted.
“You said you’d tell me about her,” he said.
Weak, he was, yet stubborn. She shrugged a shoulder. “So I did. And now that we’re in no danger of being overheard, so I will.” She sent a needling jab of energy his way.
“Thia McDaniel,” she said. “She inherited that quaint little shop you’ve been spending time behind. Where that girl who leaves you treats is employed.”
“She feels like—” He stopped, shuddered. “Her power feels like the Cailleach’s.”
Interesting that he’d picked up on that. “Because it is. Thia stole it from my father after she murdered my brother.”
He lifted his head, his blue eyes wide.
Cassandra smiled. “You thought she was an innocent?”
“She does not use it.”
“The power?” She increased the compulsion. “Does not—or cannot?”
His eyes closed, his teeth gritting as he fought…and lost. “C-cannot. Cannot use it. She tries. Sometimes alone. Sometimes with others.”
“But she fails?”
The man gave a start and looked toward the trail as if he’d heard something.
She hadn’t. Nor did she sense anything, but she prepared to disguise herself nevertheless. “Is someone coming?”
He was too agitated to answer.
The trouble with broken people was precisely that: They were broken. “What the hell is it?”
He made a small noise and rubbed his temple. “I can’t stay.”
“You can.” She pulled on the spell, forced him to sit when he attempted to rise. “You will.”
“Please.” He almost made eye contact.
Such a begging tone. Such need—and so strong and clear that she finally understood.
And knew just how to use it.
“It’s the power that has you in such a state, am I right? The Cailleach’s power?” She kept her voice soft. Caring. And fed him a lie. “You were doing better until she came back. Until Thia brought it back.”
He was breathing hard, pouring sweat. She could feel him not wanting to accept her suggestion, but he nodded.
She leaned in, compassion in her tone. Malice in her words. “Would you like to do better again? Look at yourself. A near mindless, sniveling mess. Taking charity scraps left at rubbish bins.”
He mumbled something.
“What’s that, wiel?”
“N-n-not scraps,” the man whispered, eyes squeezed tight as he revealed a new, deeper weakness—one far better than any compulsion spell. “A gift. A kindness.”
Cassie’s voice was equally soft as she leaned in, brought his head up with a finger below his chin. “Like her, do you? Your little muffin girl?”
He went absolutely still. His eyes opened.
She laughed. “How delightful.”
He hated her, this smiling woman. But it felt all mixed up in his head.
He knew that as if told to him from far away. He knew but could not sort it out. The woman was in there now, pushing her will into him, confusing him with thoughts and emotions that he did not want to make his own. If she had tried this next year, he might have been able to fight her, but he had not yet recovered from his caethiwed. He should never have come into town.
Why had he? Ah, right—he had gone to stock up on supplies so he could avoid town till Gwanwyn. And look how that had turned out.
Had that been a lure, the sudden presence of that familiar, terrible power? Had this woman been behind it? And what about the other, the one who gave him food and coffee and made him think she cared…maybe not for him specifically but for people in general. Kind-hearted. A kind-hearted woman. Had that been a trick?
He felt a mental jab.
This one, the one with seductive smiles and cold amber eyes wanted him to pay more attention (as if he could not think and listen at the same time). He was not stupid. He had heard her say she wanted his help to rid the town of the woman with the Cailleach’s power. Thia McDaniel, she had said.
That had not been a lure, then. And if this woman had not seen him behind the store and become curious, he would not be with her at this moment, fighting for control of his mind.
She had had him followed, she was telling him now, taunting him with his carelessness. And rightly so. His gaze flicked up as far as her lips. Red and cruel. Smirking. He went back to staring at his boots. Splatters of different-colored paint made different patterns, depending on how he happened to see them. A falcon formed out of green and a streak of yellow. He blinked and saw instead a cartoonish dog in a pointed hat, the kind people wore to look silly at parties. Did they still do that? Wear those hats? He had not been to a party in a long time.
Sharp pain shot through his head, another bite of the beast.
It would be perfect, the woman said. It took him a moment to understand. (Maybe he had been wrong and he could not think and listen at the same time.)
Oh. His refuge. She had gone on to say how perfect it was, off the grid with high levels of protection already in place.
This was not about him, but about the home he had made for himself.
She had no idea who he was.
He wanted to laugh nearly as much as he wanted to rage at her insolence, her audacity. Wanted to tear her apart for her malice and paint the trees with her blood. But the blame for this was his. He should not have come into town or taken so long to decide what to do about the woman with the power. Thia McDaniel.
Too slow. He had been too slow. Slow to think, to decide.
Slow to act. Stupid. How many times had his stepbrothers called him that? He had always denied it, always fought back.
Maybe they had been right after all.
Was that thought part of the compulsion? A side-effect of its beastly fangs digging deeper, ever deeper?
Or was it the godforsaken truth.
“Yes,” he heard himself say. She wanted him to nod but he resisted. It took nearly everything he had but he resisted. He would not—
And wanted to die. Or kill her.
Both? Both could work. He searched his boot for the image of the dog in the birthday hat but could not locate it. Had it been on the left or the right?
He cringed as the next words entered his mind. “You and yours are welcome in my home,” he said. It was little comfort that the lie sounded as forced as it was.
Even so, the woman beamed, the white of her teeth nearly blinding. “Excellent.” She uncrossed her long legs and stood. Her arm swept smoothly out, the manicured fingers of her hand unfolding like a fan to direct him not back towards town as he had expected but ahead, where the park trail ended at Elkhorn Road. “Shall we?”
He was aware that he got to his feet but the movements felt unreal. Consciousness had been pushed to a cramped, far away place. He had become trapped, imprisoned in his own mind.
It was like before.
Also like before, his own carelessness—his own stupidity—was to blame.
© R. A. Finley — All Rights Reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced or used without permission.