Dash of Fiend – Chapters 19-21

Chapter Nineteen

 By the time I woke the next morning, head pounding from broken sleep and bad dreams, Harrod had left. A note, given to me by Cym, said he’d had to attend a meeting with Abnett. I didn’t expect him back for some time if that were the case; Abnett was notoriously long-winded and perpetually running late to appointments. The note insisted that if I needed anything, to ‘charge it to the household account’. It sounded like Harrod-speak for ‘let me buy you stuff’.  The credit card Cym handed me was given straight back. I had a small amount saved for emergencies and I was pretty sure this qualified. 
 
           As I dismissed the faske, Martin stumbled into the kitchen. He was puffy eyed, hair squashed down on one side of his head and spiked up on the other. I raised an eyebrow at him. He squinted at me, grunted, and poured himself a glass of juice.

“You look like you had a rough night.”

“Not as rough as you’ve had recently.”

“You sure about that?” I asked, unable to stifle a laugh. He really did look awful.

“Well, I wouldn’t say it was a bad night. It certainly was rough, but I’m not one to complain about that.” He mustered up a cheeky grin, then decided to go back to bed after draining his glass. I’d never put stock in the bachelor stereotype, but with his string of Fae liaisons he was certainly living up to it.

With the day to myself, I decided to head out to the garden. I took my new laptop and sat at a small table in the sun to set it up, then catch up on my business concerns. Orders would have to be shut down for a time, though I should probably start building up my supplies again. Harrod had the space for casting, and for storing my teas, there was no question of that.

My eyes kept drifting from the work in front of me. There were a few plants from the Other scattered between the local varieties, and they attracted sprites and nymphs. The tiny creatures flitted to and fro, glassy wings catching the sunlight and throwing pinpoints of light across the ground. A shadow crossed over them and a silver serpent flapped down noisily into the flowers. She wasn’t as graceful as the sprites, but she was stunning. The sun hit her ivory scales, sending rainbow reflections darting around the garden. Big dark eyes sparkled with glee as she romped with her tiny companions.

“Pearl?” I called.

The dragonette swooped up and spun around, showing off her delicate wings, then fluttered over to perch on the back of a chair. Her foot slipped, claws glancing off the metal bar and her wings flicked out to help her balance. I carefully put a hand out and she leaned forwards to let me stroke the back of her neck, stretching it out and crooning as I scratched it.

“What are you doing here?” I mused, more to myself than the dragon. She stayed for a few minutes more, then opened her wings to flap away, leaving her new friends to gallivant in the sunlight without her.

Tearing my eyes away from the garden, I tried to focus back on my work. Clicking through to my emails, I set about answering the few that were urgent. As I scrolled through the list, one from the O.C.U. caught my eye.

I’d already opened it – it contained the details I needed to log in to their system – but I clicked it anyway. Clicking again, I opened the link to the database, typed in my username and password, and checked for any updates to the files I had access to. I veered away from the reports added in the last few days, the ones that covered the attack on my home and my own near-death. There would be time for that later, but for now, I wanted to avoid thinking about it. Instead, I opened the maps that Greyson had shown me, hoping for some kind of lightning bolt idea that would give me the breakthrough I needed.

As my eyes ran over a map littered with little pins and notes, they snagged on something. Greyson had marked the bridge I’d called him to. Nothing had happened there yet and in all the excitement, I’d forgotten all about it. Highlighting the pin dropped there, I noted the warehouse location and the building that Markson, the tech giant with the zoo in his back yard, had tipped as one of the meeting places. The bridge wasn’t far from either. Desperate to go out and do something useful, I made a quick decision, then called Lenny for a walk.

It took about twenty minutes to get to the bridge through the nearest port-gate. When I arrived, Masik was standing at the gate with a large box.

“Hi, Masik,” I said, momentarily unsure if the troll had somehow known I was coming.

“Greetings, huma-” His surly frown fell away as recognition spread across his face. “Wait! Masik know this one. This door lady! Did you find door, Lady?” His eyebrows were raised in eagerness for my answer, and he looked downcast when I ruefully shook my head.

“No, I’m still looking for it. Are your people keeping an eye out for me?”

He shrugged, the motion of his big shoulders moving his entire body.

“They look, but no door on bridge. It bridge, not door. Poh-leese are gone now.” He said ‘police’ like he was speaking around a potato, rolling the unfamiliar word over his tongue. “My people not liking the poh-leese watching us bridge.”

So, Greyson had given up on my information, too. With all that was going on he’d probably just run out of people to spare, though I wished he’d told me. Sighing, I accompanied Masik back to the bridge. When we arrived, he greeted the gathering of homeless and dropped the large box on the ground. They clustered around it, pulling out coats and boots and blankets, exclaiming over them and arguing over who got what. They sounded good-natured and I assumed Masik had brought enough to go around. The troll turned to me with a large, crooked grin, contentment shining in his eyes.

“It be winter soon. Humans not like cold. Masik, he go get warm-makers for humans.”

“That’s very kind of you Masik. Where did the clothes come from?”

Another shrug. “Masik find.” He’d probably stolen them. Trolls don’t exactly respect the concept of ownership.

Poking around under Masik’s watchful eye, I examined the campsite while Lenny rolled on the ground, begging for tummy scratches from anyone who walked by. I stayed until the sun had climbed higher than it had been in my vision dream, yet there were no burnt patches of ground and nothing had happened. Defeated, I returned home, arriving only to feel the need to leave again. Frustrated, I paced around, wishing there were something I could do.

“Are you trying to wear a hole in the floor?” Martin’s voice made me jump.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Martin. I woke you, didn’t I?”

“If you’ve ever tried to sleep through a hangover from Fae wine, you know damned well I wasn’t sleeping.” Looking him over, I could see he really was hurting, though I couldn’t dig up much sympathy. Only an idiot would let a Fae get them drunk. “You didn’t disturb me, but I heard you come in and I thought… well, I wondered if you could do something for me?”

My eyes narrowed. “You want me to enchant you a tea for your hangover, don’t you?” A hint of colour touched his cheeks. Even with his dark skin, he looked pallid and sickly, enough that I felt sorry for him. “You’re lucky. I just so happen to have the best hangover cure known to man or Fae. But you know the best cure is prevention, don’t you?”

He grinned, then winced and put a hand to his head. “I knew you’d do it for me. You wouldn’t let anyone suffer like this. You’re too nice.”

Rolling my eyes, I set off to rummage through Harrod’s kitchen to see if he had any fresh tea. His comment about letting people suffer pricked at my conscious. Was I a nice person? I wouldn’t let my friend suffer from a self-induced headache, but I’d gladly string up Serraceuse, Ronson and the rest of their crew, regardless of the consequences.

The rest of the afternoon was spent holed up in the room set aside for spell tracing. I could easily have done it in my bedroom, but the quiet, warded space allowed me to concentrate uninterrupted and the lack of windows meant the faint aroma of tea soon permeated the whole room. With eyes closed, it almost felt like home, and the familiar task let my mind finally rest while concentrating on each trace. I worked for as long as I could stand, giving up only when my hands started to shake. Whatever I worked loose in that room, absorbed in the spells and concentrating on nothing but familiar techniques, left me feeling lighter than I had since the gala.

That night as I lay in bed, staring at a ceiling that wasn’t mine, I made a plan. Oh, it wasn’t much of one, and it probably wouldn’t lead to anything, but it wasn’t like I had anything better to do. Losing my shop meant my normal daily rituals were gone. With nothing to soak up the hours, I was left to dwell on what I’d lost, what I faced and all sorts of other horrible things. Staying busy was the only way I could stave off the boredom and restlessness. Sensing my mood as he always did, Lenny wriggled up to nuzzle my face.

“Tomorrow, Len. Tomorrow, we begin again.”

 

#

The next morning, I visited Melanie. I’d called before I left, so she knew to expect me. As always, I was met with a warm greeting and a hot coffee.

“Here it is,” she said, pointing to her printer. “I can’t believe Harrod doesn’t have a computer, how does he function? The man must use carrier pigeon to send messages.” She showed me how to access her network and within a few minutes I’d run off a few copies of Greyson’s primary map. I’d zoomed it in to the area I wanted to cover.

“You sure you don’t want to stay for coffee, Em?” Melanie asked. The concern in her voice made me wince, but I shook my head.

“No. I need to be outside, doing something.”

“Come on. I know you’re up to something, at least tell me what so I know where to send search and rescue?”

A smile pulled at my lips. Yes, Mel would support me even as I ran headfirst into danger with my eyes closed. Hoping that wasn’t what I was doing, I told her my plan. It didn’t get any simpler, really; I intended to walk the streets between the bridge and the warehouses until I stumbled on something useful. Together, over coffee, we marked out the section of London I wanted to focus on.

“You can scratch out this area.” Melanie used a pencil to section off part of the area we’d marked. “It’s all government buildings. They wouldn’t be brazen enough to set up there, would they?”

“Probably not. What’s this area?”

“A ghost town. Old, all listed buildings with tight restrictions. No one wants to take on anything so derelict, with so many strings attached. I went to look at property there once, but even if the buildings were worth saving, living in a place like that with no one around?” She shuddered. It seemed as good a place as any to begin my search.

“Emma, are you sure about this? I mean, you should at least take Gibble or Harrod with you.”

“Gibble is… away. Harrod is busy. Lenny will be with me and besides, I’m just looking. There’s a good chance I won’t even find anything, but if I see the slightest thing out of the ordinary, I’ll be straight on the phone to Greyson.”

“You promise? Absolutely, for sure, no hesitation?” Melanie put her cup down to look at me, eyes piercing.

“I swear, Mel. Even if I was willing to risk myself – which I’m not – I can’t take them on, and I definitely can’t risk them getting away again; we could lose their trail forever. As soon as I know anything, I’ll call anyone and everyone who’ll listen, and we’ll take the bastards own together.”

Satisfied, she reached across the table to squeeze my hand. “You will, Emma, I don’t doubt it for a second.”

 

#

After I left Melanie’s I went straight to the bridge. After briefly greeting Masik again, I set off walking the streets. With each turn I took, I marked off my path on the map. I had no idea what I was looking for or where to find it, but I had faith that I would. If one of the Guardians had made the effort to return the ring, then I would need it. Twisting the ring as I strolled along a bustling street, I wondered why they’d gotten involved. Were they seriously considering going to war with the humans? I couldn’t begin to imagine how bad that would be. Our kind – both Talented and Mortal – had done some really awful things to the Otherworlders over the centuries. Slavery, abuse, now poaching, which wasn’t at all a new thing. Not knowing what the Guardians wanted with me now made me awfully uncomfortable.

For the next three days, my routine was the same. I’d get up, eat breakfast with Harrod and Martin, then make some excuse and leave for the morning. The thought of telling either of them where I was headed never even crossed my mind; I knew Harrod far too well to try and explain why I needed to do this. He wouldn’t understand and it would only lead to an argument.

The walks took me out of the house, away from the awkward feeling that I was living in a hotel, and away from my growing concern that Gibble hadn’t returned as expected. As hard as I tried not to worry about him, it was just one more thing piled on top of all the others, weighing on my mind and adding to the vague sense of urgency I felt.

Then, on the third day, I opened the door to find Barg standing on the other side brandishing a lock pick.

“Barg?”

He flourished a deep bow, then saluted me. “Lady! Barg does wish the company of the Lenny-friend if he may be spared, Lady!”

“Are you racing him?” I asked warily.

“Yes, Lady! Lenny-friend is most quick, and Barg is of the spending way at this very moment, Lady! Barg might be persuadable to share the proceedings of the Lenny-friend’s racing, if Lady wishes?”

It seemed like a genuine offer, but I shook my head. Though I trusted Gibble’s reassurance that what they were doing was safe, I didn’t want to be involved. “It’s ok, Barg. You and Lenny go have fun.” Lenny whined and pushed his head against me. Barg frowned at Lenny, then looked at me.

“Lady, Barg has had a… a changing of the plans. Perhaps a nice sleep will be the ordering of today.”

“What did he say to you?” Great, now even my dog was playing protector.

“Say, Lady?” Barg sidled back towards the footpath. “What would make you be asking a thing like that? Lenny-friend, he is often talking and he does say many things, why, yesterday he told me-”

“Barg! What did Lenny say to you just now?”

“Oh.” Barg’s face fell and Lenny made a grumbling sound. “Lenny-friend did say Lady be… ah, doing something that may require his assistance.” At my glare, he added, “Lenny-friend… well, the wording of the words are coming from himself, Lady, not Barg, Barg would never say Lady is doing the stupid thing!” He clapped his hand over his mouth as if horrified at what he’d let slip.

I cocked an eyebrow at Lenny, who sat back on his haunches, whumped his tail once and gave the canine expression that was equivalent to a shrug. “Stupid? Well unless you have a better suggestion, it’s all I’ve got. You don’t have to come.” Lenny immediately stood and pushed against my legs. “That’s what I thought.”

“Barg will be departing now, Lady.” The little hobgoblin, once realising I wouldn’t blame him for what Lenny had apparently said, walked back up to us and gave Lenny a vigorous scratch under the chin. Lenny’s leg twitched with enjoyment.

“Wait, Barg. Do you know where Gibble is? It’s been more than three days and I’m getting-”

“Barg! Did you not be telling Lady Gibble does be returning?” Gibble’s voice preceded him up the drive and I flew out to greet him, Lenny racing ahead. The big dog galloped around Gibble’s feet like a puppy while I gave Gibble a hug. The relief that ran through me was so strong that my nose prickled and I had to blink away tears.

Barg blushed. “Ah, sorry, Lady. Master Gibble does be returning. Ahh, today.”

“Gibble! I’ve been so worried, when you didn’t come back on time, I thought-”

“Oh Lady, that be Gibble’s fault. Gibble did be forgetting that Barg does not be thinking of the time in the Other and the time in the this-world, and of there being a difference. Gibble does be most sorry, Lady, for causing worry.”

Leading Gibble inside by the hand, I took him through the house to the sitting room. Cym popped his head in to check if we needed anything and gave Gibble a respectful nod when he requested a book to read.

“Thank you, little-helper, any book will be being the right one.”

Cym scampered off while Barg made his apologies for depriving us of his wonderful company, waved goodbye to Lenny, then darted off to goodness knows where. Shaking my head as he left, I wondered where he was going. I explained to Gibble what had happened over the days he’d missed.

“Yes, Lady, Gibble do be knowing of the house, and of those who be going to build Lady a new one.” At my look of surprise – I’d known they were clearing the site but had thought that would be the end of it – he said the Others were planning the rebuild of my house and shop. He smiled at my shock. “They do be caring for you, Lady. After many years now of seeing you, and your helping of them for little things, they do be wishing to help you now. We all do be very sad for what did happen, and Gibble does offer most sincere apologies for being gone for many days since.”

“It’s fine, Gib. I had Lenny, and Harrod and Martin to take care of me.”

“Yes, little-man does be looking after Lady well, Gibble thinks. But why did Lady be going without him? Lenny-dog did be saying that Lady be hunting, but it do not be safe, not after the fire and the killing-man.” His name for the man who’d tried to shoot us chilled me, but I wouldn’t let it sway me from my course.

“Gib, I’m not putting myself in danger, I swear.” Grateful as I was at Gibble’s safe return, I tried not to let irritation prick at me. “I can’t drag Harrod out on a wild goose chase, I’m just walking around the city, that’s all. If I find anything, and it’s a big if, I’ll call Greyson straight away, and Harrod, and I’ll send Lenny for you.”

“Lady, Gibble do think it be better if we did go together.”

“Well Lady do think that a boggart crashing around might just tip off the people we’re looking for.” Despite my frustrations, guilt nagged at me for snapping at him. “Gib, I love that you care so much. And I do rely on you to keep me safe. This is just something you can’t help me with, not like that, anyway. If anything goes wrong, Lenny will come for you.” Gibble’s forehead was knotted and his big mouth screwed up in distress. “Please, Gibble? I need to do this.”

Finally, he nodded. I briefed him on what I was doing and where I was looking, so that if anything did happen, he’d know where to look for me. Trying not to let his unease get to me, I beckoned to Lenny. Together, we set off to walk the streets once again in search of a killer.

 

 

 

                                                                  #

Lenny sat beside me, looking up benignly as I cursed. After three hours traipsing the streets I was tired, sore, and completely empty-handed. Berating myself for what now seemed like a ridiculous plan based on hope and fairy dust, I veered back towards the port-gate. After all my faith, I’d turned up nothing and I was debating whether I even wanted to do this again the next morning. Feet aching, I shuffled along the footpath, then slowed at the corner to check for the car I heard approaching from behind me. As I turned my head, fear engulfed me. My heart started racing, my skin went cold and my knees shook. A feeling of desperate loneliness warred with pure terror and I twisted my head back to hide it from the approaching vehicle. As it trundled by, the sensation intensified and darkness started closing in. Stumbling against a wall like a drunk, I slid down it to wrap my arms around my body, shaking violently. Lenny whimpered at my distress as I panted in short breaths, willing my heart not to explode in my chest.

The van passed. The feeling subsided.

Sucking air through my nose as my heart slowed, I tried to focus. What just happened, a panic attack? No, it had gone too quickly. It seemed to go when the van… The van. I stood to look and just saw the tail end disappearing into a driveway, right down the end of the street. Tugging on Lenny’s lead I ran, hurtling up the footpath until I was a few houses down from where I’d seen it stop.

The property looked abandoned. Bushes, grass and weeds were unkempt, almost choking the long driveway lined by an enormous, straggling hedge.  The brick fence was crumbling and the old gate rusted, though a shining new padlock hung around a chain that dangled loose off one side. Were they only making a short stop, or were they expecting someone else? Reflexively I scanned the street. No one.

Afraid of being spotted, I approached cautiously. I placed a hand on the gate. A tentative nudge made it whine loudly, so I used the decorative ironwork between the bars as a foothold and climbed over. Lenny paced along the gate, then bunched up his hind legs.

“No!” I said in a loud whisper. “Lenny, I need you to wait outside. If I don’t come out in an hour, get Gibble. Hell, get everyone. Can you do that?”

Whump. His tail hit the ground and he ducked his head, panting. Hoping that meant yes, I watched as he turned, and trotted off into someone’s garden across the street. A bush rustled and a brown face popped out, then withdrew. Good boy, I thought.

I checked again to make sure no one was coming, then crept in behind the hedge, following the driveway up past the vacant old manor. As I closed in on the rear of the property, the feeling of terror threatened to envelop me again. I knew the shared sensations were to do with my trip to the Other, that it had to do with my acceptance to the pack. With it came some understanding of how to use it. Acknowledging the emotional cry for help, I pushed the feeling away and it dwindled to a manageable level.

A white van, similar to the one left behind at the warehouse, idled at the end of the path. Two men opened the door at the rear of the van, then lifted a blanket off a large cage inside. As the cover came off, an ice cold shudder ran through my body as I saw what was inside.  The creature was a little bigger than a soccer ball. Compared to its brethren, it was tiny. Beady, red eyes blinked in the sunlight and it wiggled back, pressing itself into a corner of the cage. The small barrow fiend still had the purplish skin and patches of fuzz that preceded the growth of sleek fur and its mewling cry was far from the deep harrumph of the herd I’d seen in the Other. The cries he emitted penetrated my psyche, and I could feel his terror and loneliness. He didn’t know where he was and he missed his pack, the companionship and protection they provided. Somehow, seeing the fiend and knowing that’s where the emotions stemmed from kept them separate from my own. I couldn’t stop my heart reaching out to him. Somehow, he sensed it. He quietened in the cage and swung his head back and forth, looking for one of his kind. Finally, he settled back, cowed but not asleep.

The men complained constantly as they stood on guard – they were bored, they didn’t like the presumptuous attitude of the buyer they were due to meet and their ‘boss’ had been on edge. When a third man walked up to the truck, they fell silent. The man was short and wiry, with a mean looking face and a crooked nose. A scar hooked around his jaw, adding to the impression he was not a man to cross. Lady Columbine had mentioned a scar like that; Serraceuse. My stomach turned and I pressed one hand to my mouth to hold back a cry.

The thin branch my hand rested on wavered; I was gripping it unconsciously. Easing my hand off, I crouched lower as the men passed in front of the thick hedge I hid behind. A vehicle rumbled at the house of the house. The men paused, listening as it came to an abrupt stop and a car door slammed.

“Someone’s out front. You, go check.” Serraceuse thrust his chin at one of the men, who promptly jogged off down the long driveway.

He returned a moment later, calling out from some distance away. “Yeah, it’s him.”

“You saw him?”

The man hesitated. “Nah, but it’s his car.”

“How many people were in the car? Was he alone?” Serraceuse snapped.

“Look, he always comes alone. We been dealing with this one for ages, why’d he start bringing people with him now?”

Shaking his head and muttering about the incompetence of his employees, Serraceuse pulled a gun and set off down the drive, beckoning the last man to follow. This was likely to be my only chance – if they returned with the buyer and I lost track of them, the poor fiend could be gone forever. Keeping an eye out for movement, I pushed through the branches of the hedge, ignoring the scratches and scrapes. A quick glance down the empty drive and I dashed over to the truck. The cage sat in the open tray, baby fiend inside. The lock came open easily. I was surprised the simple tracing worked, but perhaps they didn’t feel the need for such high security here.

The fiend jiggled and wobbled in joy, then started to scurry around in circles in the cage. I reached in to grab him and he looked up at me. He shrank back in the cage, out of my reach.

“C’mon, over here.” I whispered desperately. Using the tow bar as a step, I lifted myself up so I teetered at the edge of the cage. Uncertain, the small creature backed up further, terrified. Putting my wand next to the cage, I braced myself with one hand and leaned in, stretching as far as I could.  Something shoved me from behind, hard, pushing me forwards into the cage. Pain lanced through my shin as I struck it and my face connected with the bars hard enough to make me cry out. Hands grabbed at my kicking feet and forced them up. Then, to my horror, the door slammed shut. Trying not to crush the fiend underneath me, I twisted around in the small confines of the cage to see Serraceuse standing there, baring his teeth in an evil grin. He dangled my wand just out of reach and gave a vicious laugh.

 

 

                                          #

“I’m sure we can get a fair price for you, whoever you are.” The nasal voice held a note of scorn for the girl who dared come after his merchandise.

“Let me out,” I gasped, knowing the words were useless but unable to stop them falling out of my mouth.

“Sure, I’ll let you out. ‘Course you might not be alive by that point… unless there’s a profit involved, of course.”

“Serraceuse, what’s going on? Where is my product?” A husky voice called out from behind and Serraceuse spun around.

“Hold your horses. The beast’s in there, just had a minor mishap is all.” Serraceuse stepped to the side to reveal an older man, well dressed with a pair of silver glasses perched on his nose. A Talent Lord, here? His face was familiar and after a moment I could place him. He’d been the target of Bee’s anger at the recent gala.

“What? What is she doing in there?” Looking over his glasses he peered into the truck, backing away when he caught sight of my face.

“Tried to steal my wares. Your wares now, or it will be as soon as you hand over the chips.”

The Lord shook his head nervously. “Oh no, I’ll have no part of this, my friend. The deal’s off – do you know who she is? A favourite of the High Seat, courting one of the ranked Lords. She has friends, Serraceuse.”

“Dead people don’t have friends. You agreed to the price, Bolter. You’re paying, whether you take the beast or not.”

“She works with the Fae.” His voice was urgent, shaking. “Some have even said she’s met with a Guardian. I told you, the deal is off. You’ll not get a thing out of me, you fool.”

“Oh, I’ll get it out of you alright.” My eyes widened as Serraceuse turned his back on the man and pulled a gun from the front of his belt.

“No!” I cried, too late. In one smooth motion, he swung back and shot the man between the eyes. The sound rang in my ears and sent shock waves through my body. Bile rose in my throat and my chest constricted until I couldn’t breathe. Despite my horror, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

“Damned Talents.” Serraceuse walked over to the body, kicked it, then started rifling through the dead Lord’s pockets. “Can’t dispose of them with style, can I? Bastards’ got too many tricks up their sleeves, even if they’re too dumb to dodge a bullet. No matter, I’ve got myself a new plaything, don’t I?” He gave me a deadened smile, calmly slipping the gun back into his belt as if nothing had happened, then pocketed the few trinkets he’d found on the body.

“What do you want us to do with that, then?” One of Serraceuse’s men spoke up behind him, sounding unenthused at dealing with a dead body.

“Throw him in the truck. We’ll go down the river for a barbeque, yeah?” Serraceuse pulled out a wand and I flinched. “Oh, didn’t expect that, did you? Lowly crim having a bit of Talent of his own? Deal with it.” As he spoke he traced a ward on the lock to secure it. Then, he pointed it at me. I felt the spell and my power swelled. The gun poking out of his belt made me hesitate, and I pulled away from the magic that would allow me to resist the spell he traced. If Serraceuse couldn’t subdue me with magic… well, the alternative could be a lot worse.

Despite my intention, my gift flared inside me. I had to fight to keep it down, to let the trace wash over me, drown me in its effect. Somehow, I did both. The feeling of grogginess took over, but a thin tendril of my blocking ability reached out. My body slumped and my mind slowed, but I retained some kind of foggy awareness of my surroundings as rough hands pulled at me, then tugged at my belt. A rough hand dug in my pocket and pulled something out – my phone. My sleepy mind nagged at me, saying it was important, but the spell had a tight enough hold that I couldn’t move. Vaguely, I heard the muffled thump of something heavy being dumped beside me. The door slammed and darkness enveloped me. A moment later, just before I slipped into unconsciousness, sharp claws dug into my back. The pain seared my senses, waking me enough to harness my power and shake off the sleeping spell.

The engine rumbled, and I lurched and swayed as the truck started to move down the uneven driveway. It stopped briefly, and a moment later, a screech signalled the rusty gate opening, then we drove off. My stomach dropped as we went down a hill, and I tumbled against iron bars as we lurched carelessly around a corner. Once, my fingers touched warm, damp cloth beside the cage and I jerked back with a sob, scrubbing the tacky residue off my fingers with my skirt. When the truck finally stopped, I tucked the baby fiend inside my shirt and curled around it, pretending I was still under the power of the ward. The back door of the truck opened and I prayed they hadn’t seen me flinch at the sudden noise. I was jostled, then felt the cage scraping across the back of the truck. The fiend dug sharp claws into my chest as we slammed onto the ground. Eyes closed, all I could do was prepare to face my worst nightmare.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 “You want her out yet?” 
 
          “Yeah. Look, someone left us a nice old barrel to cook her in.” Shoes crunched, stopped, them a whoosh and a wave of heat billowed over me, washed away a moment later by the icy breeze. “Should’ve brought sausages. I love sausages.”

Serraceuse had a voice like a knife down a windowpane. I’d landed face down, so he couldn’t see me squeeze my eyes shut in terror, or the single tear that leaked out. I breathed quickly, trying to calm myself before they noticed I was listening to them talk – talk about the pain they were going to inflict on me.

The lock on my cage joggled. “Uh, boss? You’ll need to pop the lock.”

Shoes crunched on dirt. The lock clinked again and the door swung open with a light squeak. Rough hands – different ones this time – grabbed me and hoisted me up, almost squashing the small creature tucked in my shirt. My lungs screamed as I held my breath to stop from whimpering. My heart pumped so hard I was sure the man carrying me would notice. Very carefully, I opened my eyes, just a crack so they were still shaded by my lashes. He was carrying me over old concrete, broken by straggling grass. There was graffiti, and we passed an old drum packed with cold ash. The ground was strewn with rubbish. One of the worse sections of London, by the little I could see.

We stopped, and I was thrown to the ground. The poor creature under me suffered a blow, but stayed still and silent, only a flickering tongue on my skin to let me know he was still alive. The man walked off and, terror of the unknown winning out, I risked a slight movement of my head to see what was happening. I’d been left on the ground across from the men. I could hear the river gently slopping over the muddy bank just behind me. Serraceuse, Ronson and the two others I’d first seen by the truck were standing by a second drum. Serraceuse poked at it with an iron bar. He held it up and spat on it, saliva hissing and sending up a thin ribbon of steam.

My stomach turned and adrenalin shot through me like fire. I didn’t wait for a safe moment; I didn’t sneak off. I panicked. Scrambling to my feet, I ran, blindly. A shout from behind made me turn, just for a moment – the wrong moment. A divot in the ground twisted my foot and I stumbled forward, trying to get my balance as I clutched at the wriggling fiend in my shirt. Startled, I realised where I was headed – straight for the wall that dropped down into the river.

Eyes blurred with tears, I whipped my head around, desperately looking for a way out. There were no buildings to hide in, no people to go to for help, and though my gift raged, it wouldn’t stop bullets. As that thought flew across my mind, three shots rang out. I jumped, one arm wrapped protectively around the wriggling fiend I still carried in my shirt. Another shot went off a moment before I hit the water and more muffled booms sounded as I sank.

The shock of icy water pushed the air out of my chest and sent daggers of pain through my head. My boots were waterlogged in moments, and I awkwardly kicked one off. The other stuck. Water dragged at the skirt wrapped around my legs, weighing me down. I kicked my legs desperately, lungs burning, and managed to bob up to the surface for a desperate breath.

Claws needled my skin as the drowning barrow fiend tried to climb clear of my shirt, and it bit into my neck for purchase. The pain made me cry out and water sloshed into my mouth. Still flailing in the water, I went under again before the fiend could escape. Fear and pain warred for my attention as my body screamed for air.  The fiend clawed and bit until I helped it out, ripping my shirt buttons off to give it room to escape. It floated free, twisting and jerking in the water.

Out of air long enough for spots to start appearing in the darkness, I kicked with the last of my reserves and finally started to float upwards. My lungs strained and my limbs were heavy. Finally, I popped up like a cork, and held myself above water long enough to gasp a few breaths in. Something yanked at my hair, ripping my head back, then tried to climb on my head. Terrified, the barrow fiend had gone for the closest thing it could see – me.

Flailing in the water, I twisted around to see where I was. We’d been carried downstream a short way and there was no sign of our attackers. The bank was only a short distance away, but I had to get ashore, now. My legs burned and my arms were like lead, too weak to pull me out of the steady current that sucked us along. Helpless sobs wracked my body as I gulped in air and water all at once.

Taking a breath and hoping the fiend knew to do the same, I let myself sink again, taking a gamble. We weren’t far from shore and I knew boats had gotten into trouble here. My feet kicked and flailed until they hit the soft, muddy bottom of the river. I tried to kick up, but one foot slipped. Using my arms to propel myself down again and trying to ignore the piercing in my scalp, I tried again.

This time I got it right, though with less force that I’d hoped. My thrust pushed me toward the bank, angling up for more air. When I broke the surface I was closer. Resting my legs, I pulled myself towards the sloping ground with my arms, weary, useless strokes that barely battled the current. I bobbed down again. This time, I hadn’t gone far under when I hit dirt. That last push got me close enough to reach the bottom and I waded the rest of the way, feeling the weight of my clothes hanging down as I dragged my weary body to shore. Fingers numb, I fumbled at my open shirt, eventually just pulling it across my chest and hoping it stayed there.

Collapsing into sodden mud, I heaved and choked, spitting out water and slime. The barrow fiend dropped from its tangled nest in my hair, dislodging a few clumps as it fell. Still terrified that Serraceuse would catch up, I forced myself to wobbly knees to look around. The bridge was just a little way off. Masik would be there, he would offer protection. People, there were people there, too. They’d help, surely.

My head felt as soggy as my clothes and I didn’t know how long I’d been floundering in the water. It took three tries to haul myself to my feet, and nearly toppled over again when I leaned down to scoop up the fiend. Biting wind tore through my wet clothes and my teeth ached from chattering so hard. Not happy in my shaking arms, the tiny fiend wriggled free, falling to the ground. It rolled in the mud for a moment, but followed as I started dragging my sorry limbs to find Masik.

When I reached the campsite of Masik and his tribe of homeless, it was empty. An old campfire still smoked gently, and the smell of something cooking filled the air. I dropped to my knees, exhausted and confused. Trolls never left their bridges. They must be close, surely?

“Masik?” My voice was weak and tremulous.

“Looks like he’s scampered, my love. Never trust a troll to bail you out of danger.”

Ronson’s voice startled me and I screamed, turning to find him and Serraceuse both pointing guns at me as they advanced.

“Come on, let’s do this quick. She’s not getting a free pass, not after that little escapade. Tie her up.” Serraceuse sounded vaguely irritated, voice still cold as a winter’s night.

Ronson tucked his gun in his belt and instructed me to lift my hands. Seeing no other choice, I obeyed. Ronson tied them together, the cord cutting into my skin. He threw me to the ground, then stood over me, gun drawn. Serraceuse poked an iron bar into the spent fire. I watched the bar as it started to glow red, sucking in the heat as the smoke for the coals dissipated. The freezing tremor in my body changed to one of terror as he drained the last of the heat out of the fire and into the burning weapon. He turned to me, leaving a patch of cold, burnt ground behind him.

The baby fiend was gone – I hoped it was safe. My sideways vision wavered as I lay, face tacky with drying mud, too frightened exhausted to move. Focusing on my hands, on anything but Serraceuse’s advancing figure, something caught my eye.

Somehow, the little Fae ring was still clean. It sparkled in the sun that streamed down, not yet high enough to warm my skin. A noise drew my focus back to the more distant Serraceuse, who pulled the now glowing metal bar out of the hot barrel to examine it. He spat on the end and at the hissing sound it made, my blood ran cold. I flinched, drawing Ronson’s attention. He kicked me, once, then placed a booted foot on my tied wrists, pinning me in the mud. My heart raced as Serraceuse turned to me and smiled. Short, shallow gasps tore at my chest as he approached, and a last wash of adrenaline flowed through me. Unable to hold back a pathetic whimper, I struggled, flailing about in the mud but unable to escape.

Serraceuse touched the iron brand to my shoulder. Searing pain lanced my shoulder and I screamed, bucking and thrashing, a visceral need to escape taking over all logical thought. I channelled Talent – with nothing to trace with and no way of controlling it, the magic flowed towards the only source of concentrated magic it could find. The portal ring.

A howling sound rent the air. The sun flickered. The hot poker fell to the ground as Serraceuse’s eyes widened, horror pulling his twisted face taught. Wrenching my head around, I saw why. A portal to the Otherworld had opened. Ronson tried to flee the widening sliver of empty space, but stumbled. He caught himself, then barrelled backwards as a small figure launched through the air and hit him in the chest. On its own, the barrow fiend wouldn’t have been able to overbalance him, but my limp body provided leverage as Ronson’s heel snagged on my outstretched leg. Time slowed for me as he flailed, thrusting a desperate arm in my direction. There was time, I could save him.

I pulled back.

Ronson staggered, reeling, into the void of the portal as the barrow fiend jumped free. Though my mind reeled, I had enough presence to know what was coming, and that I wouldn’t survive the stampede that was coming. Still, I curled into a ball, whimpering at the pain of movement as I covered my head with my arms.

Quiet. Not silent, but the sound of padded feet on wet mud was eerily soft. As the barrow fiends passed, their movement stirred up a chill breeze that tickled my arms. One or two leathery, bristled bodies brushed my huddled form, despite their efforts not to jostle one of their own. I felt that acknowledgement as they ran, mingled with lust for blood so strong my mouth watered. Vengeance, for the one they lost. Fear, for her child. Resolve, to put an end to it. Though time stretched out, it was only moments until a terrified shriek split the air, cut off with sudden finality.

Stillness.

I lifted my head to see the pack clustered around something on the ground. Sirens wailed, penetrating the fog of my mind. Something small and dense nuzzled me, then shoved a blunt head under my arm. A bony plate pressed roughly against my head. Taking the message, I sat up, painfully aware of the damage I’d taken. I felt… closure. Was Serraceuse dead? Probably.

Despite the immense weight of my feelings, the overwhelming tiredness, the pain that flooded through me with every movement, I felt peace. It was done. 

Chapter Twenty-One

 I didn’t find out the rest of the story until later, as, once again, I lay in a hospital bed while Deirdre tended my wounds. 
 
             Masik, with that sixth sense that many of the Others possessed, had known that something bad was coming. After herding his people to another safe place, he’d tried to get in contact with me, and sent one of his people to the local police station when he couldn’t get in touch. The poor young officer had a world of trouble trying to decipher a message that simply said ‘Bridge is Door now, Lady’. Thankfully, she’d kicked the message over to the O.C.U., where it had eventually made its way to Greyson. He’d immediately known what it meant and rushed over.

 Greyson and his team arrived to find me in Gibble’s arms, untied but barely conscious, Lenny standing guard. My loyal dog had come to check on me after hearing the gunshot and realised that he had no chance against a locked cage, and gone to Gibble for help. At least, that’s what Gibble told me later.

As for Olfred… well, no one knew exactly how he’d made it there before anyone else. Gibble had found him sitting on the bank, lecturing my unconscious self on the perils of running headlong into danger. Though we were surrounded by some very large footprints, there wasn’t a barrow fiend in sight.  

Serraceuse’s body turned up a street away, so badly mangled that the officer who found him had passed out at the sight. Ronson had disappeared; they were still looking, but I knew they’d never find him. The rest of Serraceuse’s crew were tracked down soon after. It wasn’t hard to spot two men dangling from a bridge, hogtied and held up by a thin strand of arachinum silk. Rumours abounded as to who would use such a rare and expensive material on two lowlifes, and they all pointed at the Fae.

There would be an inquest and I would be called to the stand, there would be no escaping that. Greyson assured me that temporary amnesia was common in crime victims, and that I shouldn’t worry too much about my statement for now.

“He wasn’t Talented, you know.” Greyson looked at me over the paperwork he was filling out at the foot of my bed.

“What? He had magic, I saw him use it. The only way he could do that was if he were Talented, or… oh, of course.”

“Yeah, half Fae. At least, that’s what our delegate claims. We’ll verify it later with genetic tests, but Umbers said it’d make sense.”

“Oh?” I said, unsure if I wanted to know why he’d been talking to Harrod.

“Harrod couldn’t dismantle the ward, the one at the warehouse. He said that’d bothered him at the time, but with everything going on he hadn’t put two and two together. Seems Serraceuse got none of the looks and just a touch of Other magic, but a bloody good knack for wards.”

The explanation did make sense, but I shuddered to think how badly things could have gone if he’d been born with more of the Fae genes showing through. Mortal-Fae couplings were rare, and for once I found myself exceedingly grateful for the fact.

“It’s finally over, Em,” Greyson said. “No more detective work, not for a while at least. Think you can keep out of trouble for bit?”

That brought a twitch of a smile to my lips.

“It would be nice to see you on a personal visit rather than a professional one for a change,” Deirdre chided. “As much as I love my work, I’m much happier when it’s not needed, especially on a dear thing like yourself.”

“Dear thing? She just singlehandedly took out the most dangerous criminal we’ve ever been up against.” Greyson looked downright affronted at her use of the term, then laughed as she rolled her eyes at him.

“No, it wasn’t me. It was the barrow fiends. And the Guardian, she gave me the ring. I didn’t really do anything, except get caught.” I grimaced at my own ineptitude.

Greyson and Deirdre looked at me, agape.

“What?” I asked.

“Em, you found them.” Greyson shook his head in wonder. “You tracked them down when my entire team couldn’t find them. You saved the fiend, escaped from them once, and then you… what, called up an entire horde of beasts to trample them?” He chuckled, then added, “If that’s what happens when you do ‘nothing’, I can’t wait to see what your ‘something’ is.”

Placing her hands on me, Deirdre trickled a little more of her healing power into my shoulder. “That’s about all I’m able to do for now. You might have some stiffness in it for a while, and I haven’t touched your poor scalp. That should heal quickly, though I’ve no idea how you even did that. If it’s still bothering you in three days, come and see me.”

Healing relied as much on the recipients’ capability as the healer’s. My exhausted, burnt-out state meant she wasn’t able to completely fix my shoulder, but she’d done an excellent job notwithstanding. Reaching up to rub the spot, I could still feel some knotted scarring, but I could move my arm with only a little pain.

“Do take care, Emma.” Deirdre leaned in to give me a warm hug. “Let your friends look after you for a little while. I might be able to fix bodies, but minds are a different thing entirely. You’ve more healing ahead of you, but time will help.”

#

Harrod came to collect me not long after Deirdre left. As he helped me into the car, he asked if I was up to a detour on my way home. Feeling tired, but not wanting to spoil his surprise – it was obvious from the smile he kept trying to hide – I said yes.

Instead of driving to his house, we drove to mine. Expecting to see nothing more than a clean building site, when we pulled up the street I almost had to look around and check where we were. There, right in front of me, in the space that only days ago had been nothing but empty air and smouldering rubble, was my shop. It was beautiful.

“Harrod… how?” My mind reeled, and as I pulled myself out of the car I had to grip the door to keep from falling.

“Magic.” He smiled at me and took my arm. “Come on. I moved all your things back while you were in the hospital.”

My knees shook by the time I reached the door and I placed a hand on it, overwhelmed. Made of old silverwood and carved in the shape of a very large arch, it was not only beautiful, but functional. Even the tallest of my customers would be able to enter without having to awkwardly duck their heads. Above my hand, an intricate ward decorated the door. It was unfamiliar, but as I examined it, I noticed the circle wasn’t quite closed.

“It’s a Fae ward of protection. Unbreakable. At least, it will be once you finish it. We didn’t want to get locked out before we were done.”

“You organised this?” I asked, lost in wonder.

“Me? No, not by a long shot. I just helped a little. Barg was the main instigator but I think there were a lot of people involved.”

I pushed against the door. As it swung open, smooth and soundless, a sob rose in my chest. It was… indescribable. My builders had harnessed the magic of the Other, and I stood inside a shop that was at least four times the size of the plot of land it stood on, with a ceiling high enough that the whole room seemed like an elegant ballroom.

The counter in front of me was made from mottled stone, polished until it was as smooth as glass. Running my hand along it, I walked around to examine the tall shelves behind, all stocked with finely crafted boxes for my teas. Glasses, cups and teapots adorned the lower shelves, all in different styles but somehow matched in an eclectic way. A stone sink with a pitcher of water beside it was set into the cabinets on the wall.

“No plumbing down here, but the pitcher will refill itself. The water is from some remote mountain spring, I believe. You should have everything you need to run a full service cafe, with a little staffing assistance.”

My mouth was slack and words simply escaped me as I looked around. On shaking legs, I wandered in circles, looking over the shop. My shop.

Tables and chairs carved from heavy planks of raw oak filled part of the room, dotted with styled jars of glowing light. There were booths along one wall, and a long table against the front window. As my eyes slid over it, I realised the view from that window was not of London. Instead, a field of purple grass and orange-leaved trees lay outside, a sparkling silver stream cutting through the landscape. One hand to my chest, I squeezed my eyes shut to force back tears.

“Harrod, that’s… my dream…”

He shot me a quizzical look but didn’t ask, and I didn’t bother to try and explain. Tearing my eyes from the stunning scene, I let him pull me away to the small door at the back of the shop. Dizziness hit me briefly on my way through, and I almost stumbled but for Harrod’s hand on my arm. It led to a tiny room with wide steps leading up, and a door to the right. A peek into the side room revealed a casting room, sparsely furnished but surrounded by shelves for tea. Another ward, bigger than the one on the door but simple this time, covered the ceiling.

I pulled back and started up the stairs. Flutters of fear washed over me for a moment as I remembered fleeing my home, starved for breath and drowning in smoke. When I hesitated, Harrod simply stopped, and waited until I was ready. The stairwell was bright, lit by a skylight that showed blue sky through a glass pane at a dizzying height above us.

Closing my eyes and taking some deep breaths, I tried to steady myself. Harrod pulled me down to sit next to him on the step, and placed an arm around me.

“Sorry, Em. You’ve been through hell and back these last few days, I should have waited.”

“No,” I said, gulping down a sob. “It’s not just that. This… this is all so beautiful. Harrod, I can serve people tea while they’re here, people can sit and drink it while they meet with friends and… it’s perfect. I just can’t help remember that last time I was here, right here, I almost died. I could have lost Lenny or Gib that night, too, I-” Fear shot through me. “Where are they? Where are-”

Squeezing my shoulder, Harrod hushed me. “They’re upstairs waiting. They wanted to give you time-”

Without letting him finish I dashed upstairs, throwing open the door and rushing into the arms of Gibble, who waited just beyond it. Lenny cantered around, jumping up to lick my face as I laughed, head twisting away from the tickling sensation.

“Lady be liking the work that friends be doing?”

“Oh Gibble, it’s just stunning. Show me!”

Harrod stood back while Gibble led me around my new home. Lenny gallivanted beside us, nudging open kitchen cabinets that were stocked with food and demonstrating how comfortable the new couch was by rolling on it enthusiastically, tongue lolling out with an upside down smile. The furniture was mismatched – dining chairs were interspersed with tall stools and a large, wide bench; the living room had an enormous arm chair next to a long couch and a small, elegant chaise. I realised why when Gibble, happy to watch me explore, sat down.

“Gibble! They made furniture just for you?”

“Not just chairs, Lady. Be going down the stairs and thinking of me.”

Eyeing him, I did as he asked. Again the dizziness washed over me as I passed through the door, and when I looked down, I knew why. The stairwell wasn’t… well, it wasn’t quite in this world. I looked down not to the small room by the casting chamber, but to an enormous door. It opened to a single room, with a large pile of soft blankets scattered over a giant bed, some large chairs and walls lined with more books than I’d ever owned. Thudding steps behind me signalled Gibble’s appearance.

“You live here now? That’s wonderful!” As soon as I said it, I felt guilty. “Gibble, Serraceuse is gone. I’m safe now. Won’t you miss the Other?” I forced the words out, knowing I owed it to him. As much as I wanted him here, I wanted him to be happy, more.

“If Lady be allowing it, Gibble would much be liking to have a place to be sleeping on this side of the port-gates. Be you willing for that?”

Dismayed that he even felt he had to ask, I threw myself at him again. He caught me without stumbling, patting my back as I squeezed him. “Gibble be thinking you be not minding then, Lady?” He chuckled, and we headed back upstairs together.

“The small chairs are for Barg, right?”

“Well, Barg and one other, Lady. Gibble will have to be explaining…”

 

 

#

“Oh, hello Master Tork. Your usual today?” Ellandra greeted the troll with a warm smile.

Tork eyed the demi-fae behind the counter who beamed up at him with innocent eyes. His normally surly expression softened and he handed over the chips without argument. “Tork want two box next week.” Ellandra raised an eyebrow and he quickly added, “Please.”

“Certainly, Master Tork. I’ll let Lady Emma know to have them ready. You have a nice day, now.” She waved a tiny hand at the troll, who gave her a respectful, yet slightly awkward half-bow and stomped out of the shop.

“Everyone told me trolls were cranky beasts, but Tork is just lovely,” Ellandra said as she pulled a box of tea out and tipped some into a pot.

“You do tend to bring out the best in him,” I said. I watched my new assistant pour water over the tea, then press her hands to the sides of the pot and heat it. Wondering for the umpteenth time how she did that without burning her hands, I set out a tray with some cups.

Ellandra had appeared on my doorstep the day I reopened. My surprise at seeing the demi-fae I had rescued from Serraceuse was only slightly less than when Gibble had shown me a letter from the Guardians, asking me to take her on as an apprentice. Of course, when the Guardians ‘asked’ you something, you agreed, which is why my entire home had been built to accommodate not only myself, Gibble, Lenny and the frequently-visiting Barg, but my new assistant as well. They’d instructed Barg to make sure she had a place at my table, and Gibble told me there was another room in case she needed to stay the night. Despite my initial concerns over the arrangement, it was working out wonderfully.

“Why don’t you take a short break, Ellandra? I can handle things for a while.”

“Oh I couldn’t, Lady Emma. The tree-god will be here shortly and will likely wish to speak with you.” Ellandra took up the tray of freshly made tea and gracefully glided over to deliver it to a table of hobgoblins that sat in one corner. Not bothering to question her about Olfred, I simply took it for truth. It wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned someone turning up, and she’d never been wrong. Sure enough, about five minutes later, he arrived and took a seat by the window, Lenny loping over to settle on the floor at his feet.

Carefully selecting a nice blend of lemonbalm and mint, I scooped some into a fresh pot, then stepped aside as Ellandra shooed me away.

“Please, Lady, go and sit. I shall bring you the tea as soon as it’s ready.”

Thanking her, I took a seat next to Olfred.

“I see them sometimes, you know,” I said, eyes searching the picturesque scene for any sign of the barrow fiends. The fields and forest were empty, as they always were when people were around.

“Aye, that ye would. They be owin’ ye a great debt, an’ they no’ be forgettin’ it.”

“Olfred, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. That day, when… everything happened, Greyson said you were one of the first there, even before the police. How did you know?”

“Well, it’s no’ tha’ I didna trust ye had the ability te keep ye’self safe, lassie… I jus’ didna think ye’d have the sense. I sent young Pearl, as ye named her, to watch over ye. Ye didna see her? She slipped back te me as soon as she saw ye in trouble wi’ those louts. More’s the shame I didna get there a mite earlier te save ye some grief from th’ bastards.” He looked me over sadly.

“Oh, Olfred, please don’t blame yourself for that. If you’d come any sooner, I might not have been able to open the portal and it could have gone a lot worse. In fact, if-” I stopped, a thought occurring to me. “Olfred, what if I hadn’t opened the portal? I’d already seen it happen, in the Other. Somehow the Guardian showed it to me before it happened. Could I have changed it?” Dread settled in my bones as I waited for his answer.

He looked at me closely. “Aye, lass, ye could have. What ye saw in the Other was just one o’ many things ye could have seen, an’ no’ all o’ them would have come te pass. It’s no’ the answer ye wanted, was it? Aye, Pearlie told me abou’ the one tha’ fell. Ye made a choice, lass. I might be one o’ the old gods, but I canna tell ye if it were the right one.” He put a dry, gnarled hand on my arm and looked into my eyes. “Only you can decide that. Dinna be tearin’ ye’self up over it, though. It’s done, and ye canna undo it. Dinna waste too much o’ ye heartache over that monster, if he dinna be takin’ beasts wha’ dinna want te go with him, he would’na been there te get hurt, aye?”

Tears pricked my eyes. Throat tight, all I could do was nod. The guilt that lurked in the corners of my soul since that day had surfaced at his words, but I made myself think through what he said. He was right – if Ronson hadn’t been such an evil sod, smuggling animals, stealing babes from their mothers, he wouldn’t have been standing on that river bank in the first place. If he hadn’t been helping Serraceuse in his game of torture, he wouldn’t have been right where the portal opened. Anger rose to war with the guilt and not for the first time, I pushed both down. There was no right answer, and I didn’t have the courage to ask the question anyway.

Olfred left a little while later, and Barg dropped in to take Lenny for a walk. When the shop closed, I still sat at the window, so deep in my reverie I barely noticed Ellandra’s farewell as she locked up and left me to my thoughts.

As I stared out the window into the now silver grass and red-leaved trees, movement drew my gaze. A herd of animals ambled in the distance, slowly walking along the tiny stream as a smaller pack member gambolled around their feet. The baby fiend, now three feet high and with a sleek coat like the older animals, reared upon to its feet and looked in my direction. As one, the pack stilled and turned to me. In a single movement they dipped their heads and pawed the ground once, then looked to the sky, mouths open. Somehow, in the far distance, carried on the smallest trickle of a breeze, I heard the harrumph of the calling herd. It was the call of the barrow fiends to acknowledge one of their own; a call to one who was not them, but who had become one of their herd in spirit, if not in form.

I watched their display, sitting at the window, and I waved, and laughed through my tears as the youngest of the fiends shook his bony head, and entertained me with tumbles and jumps like a child showing off for his mother. My heart swelled, dislodging a tiny bit of the guilt that had taken up so much room. I watched the herd until they wandered off, knowing that no matter what I’d been through, it was entirely worth it.

 

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