Excerpt from Chapter 1
Inside Courtz on Karaoke Night
Jonny brushed back the fall of An's honey-brown hair so he could see her fair Irish face and the fog-filled hollows that served her for eyes. “And what is it that has ye in so fair a mood, Ceobhránach?”
“Nothin’, really. I’m still worried about Solitaire, but ...I was listenin’ to th’ words,” she nodded in the singer’s direction who was belting out the refrain of 'Right Kind Of Wrong'. He looked up at the stage and the woman upon it. “I think they fair say my piece.”
He gave her his sad smile, toyed with the lock of hair still entwined in his fingers, “Aye. Ye may come to regret it.”
She turned to regard him, taking in everything from his tanned skin and high cheekbones to the earth-brown eyes that seemed to see right through her. His snow-white hair fell like a cloud around him. “Never. Oh, I may hurt. But love... ’tis nothing to regret. If at the end of my life I can say I was loved for even an hour... then I have lived a worthwhile life.”
She watched Aislynn selecting a decorated cookie from the plate with extreme care. An couldn’t bring herself to look at him when he watched her like that. She blushed enough as it was.
His voice was snow on silk soft when he spoke, his eyes still on her face, the sorrow in them deep. “I can’t promise ye that.”
She tilted her face to regard him. His finger stroked her cheek. The coldness of his skin felt good against the flush of her face.
They were interrupted by a new artist on stage as the usual in-between singer playback screeched to a halt. He was a large, rough-looking black man dressed up like the stereotypical gang-banger. His voice was gruff and gravelly and sent a shiver up An’s spine as he all but barked out his rap.
“I’m the Dark Man’s Hound
I’ll take your ass to the pound
Unless I want ‘em to, my paws don’t make a sound
But when I howl, bitch, you can feel it in the ground
You can feel my breath and I can smell your fear, BOO!
Just keep on screaming ‘cause no one can hear you!”
Done, the man howled. It was piercing, carried a primordial threat eliciting a primordial terror in those who heard and had the means to understand. For the mortals, it was just a cheap thrill and some folk howled with him, laughing off their fear.
At the bar, An noted the two detectives watching the man with narrowed eyes, one of them with his hand at his hip, wanting to reach for his weapon. Even the young woman hitting on the taller one shivered. As the dark black man passed them by An could smell asphalt and smoke and sulphur and tar and all the worst smells of a hot city swelter. She looked to Jonny, saw his lips tight and a faint pallor beneath his tanned skin. She touched his hand, her question unasked.
“That does not bode well,” he said low.
“Who was that?” she whispered, stroking Aislynn’s scales as she finally peeked up over the table from where she had taken refuge in An’s lap.
“Hellhound. One of the... Dark Man’s minions. What he’s doing on this side...” he shook his head, refusing to finish the sentence.
“Sending a warning, sounded like. He hunting, ye think?”
Jonny twisted his hand in that gesture that was the closest to a shrug as he got.
An turned back to observing the darkness that surrounded her, found her teacup by its heat and sipped. Occasionally she could see something or someone flit across her vision and she would know whatever it was to be touched by magic of some sort. It was a gift from the fey children she had once played governess to, in compensation for losing her own eyes saving their lives. There were other gifts, less often used but equally useful.
Conversation occurred all around them, as Courtz was always busy on Friday nights. Karaoke was popular. An could not hear most of the discussions around her, and truthfully, would not have listened if she could, but from the tiny twinges and occasional skipped heartbeats she knew lies were being told all around her. All the more reason to tune them out.
Instead, she sat with Jonny, enjoying his company in silence. They drank the tea, ate what they wanted from the plate, and Jonny drank his pint. It was Guinness tonight, not his usual Nut Brown. It was comfortable as they listened to various singers. Most were fair, expressive if not technically pleasing, and the genres encompassed all kinds. An made note of songs to learn for herself later.
It was after midnight when a tattooed man with a coarse, wiry beard got up on the stage and began to scream out something by a black metal band. An winced and Aislynn buried herself in An’s vest, trying to block out the noise. An leaned over to Jonny, was bolstered a little by the look of pain on his face as well. She had to raise her voice more than she liked just to be heard. “Will ye walk me home? I can’t... I can’t take this,” she said with a gesture towards the singer she could hear but not see.
He nodded and stood. Leaving a few bills on the table, he took her hand and helped her through the crowd at the edge of what had quickly become a mosh pit. He started to lead her to the stairs, but she turned him right, towards the front door. He obliged, and both of them took a breath of relief as they stepped to the pavement and the door closed behind them, shutting off the sound. The street was far from quiet, but even that noise was a welcome change.
“I don’t mind some o’ th’ metal if 'tis melodic or lyrical. “Nothing Else Matters” for instance. But screamers with no melody just fer the point o’ screamin’ offend me,” he said softly.
An chuckled as Aislynn crawled out of her vest and up to her shoulder, enjoying the light breeze on her face of early Spring. “Drawbacks of bein’ a Bard, I’ll assume.”
“Perhaps. Didn’t ye come from upstairs?” he asked as they reached the corner.
“Aye,” she replied, feeling shy of a sudden. “I... wanted a walk, if ye don’t mind. ‘tis hard t’ talk in there sometimes and ‘tis a nice night.”
“That it be,” he agreed, and led her across the street into the neighbourhood beyond. “So what is it my lady wishes to talk about?”
She blushed now, though she smiled at his astuteness. “Not sure it’s all that... specific. I’ve... been noticing things lately, and it calls to mind... questions. And before ye ask, they’re not the kind I can just blurt out.”
He smiled at that, but let her be. “And what is it ye’ve observed?”
She took a moment to think about it, how to put it. “Spring bein’ in the air for one. Everyone it seems is pairing up. Even Fox, with that raccoon girl we found in the woods. Raven’s been cozyin’ up to that new gentleman, the patchwork?”
“Patches?” he supplied.
“That what he’s chosen?” she asked, unimpressed. “They say he’s one of the contenders for the Holly King. Along with... Mikey, Fox (though I think that be a mistake), Barry...”
“Barry would be a mistake. He’s worn that crown afore and it wasn’t pretty. He’s... gotten bitter since his lover died.”
An did not press for details, merely nodded. “Even Liberty and Skye are gettin’ a mite cozy,” she smiled. “And, well, ...ye said sommat before Hellhound interrupted, and it made me think.”
He waited a moment before asking, “An’ yer question would be?” If she hadn’t been so close or paying attention, she would never have heard the words.
“Us. What... what is it ye want of... us? How ye feel? Ye said ye ‘can’t promise me that’. What did ye mean?”
He sighed. “What do I want? I don’t know. I care for you. I don’t know how, exactly. I told you it was complicated. Love? I don’t know if I’m capable of it any more.” He gestured at the snow rose in her hair. “Have ye learned the language of flowers yet?”
She nodded, fingering the blood tipped edges, “Some. This means that you see me as an innocent, unconscious beauty that makes you happy? As a single rose, there are many interpretations. Some more hopeful than others.”
“The combination of colours in a single bloom, at this stage, symbolizes... a burgeoning passion in a previously innocent relationship.” His voice was softer even than usual. “Blood is life, and we shed it so many ways, for so many reasons. That is my blood, and is only the smallest part of what I would give for you.”
“I don’t want anyone to bleed for me, Jonny.”
“Why? Ye’ve already bled fer me.”
She flushed, feeling a heat that months ago would have sent her into a downward spiral, trapped in a vision of being forged and remade. She did the safest thing, which was to ignore the question, shunting aside the memory of the fetid breath and bloody weight of the cú she had been nearly crushed by in December trying to protect him. “I don’t want to force you to something yer... not comfortable with or seeking. If love comes, love comes. If you find me unworthy of your love, I’ll leave ye be and ask no more of ye. But if ye enjoy m’ company, I’ll take what yer capable of givin’ an’ give ye all ye’ll accept. I don’t... know my way around relationships, havin’ never known love, never expected it.” She frowned slightly, choosing Skye’s word deliberately, “So if ye want me t’ stop moonin’ over ye, I will.”
He shook his head. “Ye can’t help your heart more than I can mine. Nor would I ask ye to. But ye’ll have to patient with me. I literally can’t answer the question... because to be wrong, here, might be a lie.”
She sighed. “All that I ask is, if ye decide I cannot make ye happy, that ye’ll tell me, kindly I hope. And feel however I may, I promise ye I’ll walk away. ...Once I’m assured it is your will and not something acted upon ye,” she added with a rueful smile.
He looked at her oddly. “I hope ye’ll be more patient than that. I don’t know if I can be happy. That wouldn’t be yer fault.”
“I suppose I misused the word. If ye decide ye can’t be with me... for other than my own protection,” she stiffened, “’cause I’ll not be left for that. Stupidest reason in the history o’ man t’ leave a woman,” she growled, ranting. “I meant,” she continued, getting herself under control, “...if ye don’t want me any more.”
He stopped, turned her, brushing his fingers along her face. “I knew what ye meant, I think. I... just be patient with me, and forgiving.”
“I will,” she assured him. “I just wanted to be sure I wasn’t ...forcin’ ye out of some twisted sense of obligation. The thought had occurred t’ me, you know.”
He looked down at that. “If I thought that was it, I’d run. Never again shall I be forced.” He shivered, and not from the cold.
“Good. We understand one another then.” She slipped her hand into his. “Because I don’t ever want to be ‘that woman’,” she said emphatically.
He smiled at her, the fingertips of his free hand brushing her jaw as they drifted towards the nape of her neck. The promised kiss hung in the air with sweet tension and then the moment was ripped away by a barking howl no more than a single street over. They looked up; An wildly as she could see nothing.
“That was...” she began.
“Aye,” he answered hoarsely. He was looking around for an avenue of escape should they need it, listening for the howl, to determine if it was nearing or not. Gunshots answered his question.
“Where are we?” An asked suddenly as he took her hand and led her across the empty street. “I smell water.”
“Aye. By the lake.”
“But... the Tallows live three blocks from th’ lake. 'Tisn’t on m’ route.”
He continued to draw her after him and she shifted her grip on the shillelagh to one more suited for defence, trusting Jonny to lead her. “Well, ye wanted a walk. Straight home was too short,” he answered, seeing what he needed and heading for it. He pulled a penny whistle out of his vest pocket, guiding her down the slight incline towards the lake. Aislynn clung to her right shoulder, shifting to her normal, small white dragon form, no longer caring who saw.
An looked behind them, beginning to see something or someone around the curve of the lakeside road. It moved like a pack of hounds, though they walked mostly upright. Jonny came to a stop near some trees and began to play his little melody. An could feel what he was doing, opening an emergency gateway, so she watched the approaching pack. The man called Hellhound was at the back of the pack and spurring them on, with something or someone she could not see slung over his shoulder. He was firing behind him and fire was being returned. He was laughing as what turned out to be a woman on his shoulder screamed.
An started to move towards them, her shillelagh at the ready when Jonny grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “We have ta...” she began.
He pulled her close. “Do nothing. There are eight o’ them and two of us. Even Cipín is no match for seven ghouls and one of The Dark Man’s lieutenants.”
Gunfire rang out again, a stray shot striking a tree not fifty yards from where they stood. One of the lead ghouls noticed them, pointed them out, and the group surged in their direction, though some peeled off to take on those pursuing them. An frowned as Hellhound pointed at them as he began to run. His hand was held oddly. Then there was the report of a pistol and something bit into her shoulder even as Jonny seized her and threw both of them through the doorway he had made between two bent trees.
The doorway slammed shut behind them but they had no time to rest as Aislynn hissed a warning. They whirled, went back to back, An holding Cipín across her body and Jonny drawing a pair of Francesca axes.
They were in the middle of a thawing field that, from the look of it, had never seen a plough. There were random stones and hillocks and the occasional barren tree. The sky was overcast and grey. Jonny paled. This was a battlefield, and a familiar one and they were not alone in it. A small squad of men were combing the field intently, one of them on horseback and they had been seen. There were two wolves with them, serving as trackers and all of them wore Yankee Blue.
A word from their commander and they charged, only one of the wolves launching for them. The other remained on whatever trail she’d found. An stepped out to Jonny’s side, confident there was nothing behind them for miles and prepared to fight, in spite of the wet pain in her left shoulder. She kept that side between her and Jonny and set for the charge.
The wolf leapt for An, trying to take down the weakest of the two and found himself dazed for his trouble. She followed the knob with a solid strike to the front leg and shattered the bone. Jonny handled the two infantrymen with their bayoneted rifles. They were fairly easy to deflect with the dual axes, and their companions’ muskets missed wildly. He caught one barrel in the crook of the axehead and yanked him into his neighbour, staving in the side of his head with the up-swung back end of the second axe before chopping downward and taking his arm at the collar.
Aislynn leapt from An’s shoulder and flew, screeching, into the face of the lone horse, spewing a stream of frost that blinded it, causing it to rear. The rider found his hands full just trying to stay on.
The second wolf suddenly screamed from where she had been sniffing and the one trying to crawl away from An looked over at her. His companion had gone down in a spray of gore and something was rising from the ground drenched in her blood.
An met the next soldier with the shillelagh tip first, letting him impale himself, then guided his momentum and slung him off the stick onto the already defeated wolf.
Aislynn continued to harry the horse until it finally tore off across the field in a random direction. From somewhere nearby a raven took off and An glanced over that way. On a low rise was a man on a horse in a duster and cowboy hat, watching the exchange. The raven had launched from his shoulder. As Jonny took down the last of the small squad, the horseman tipped his hat to them and rode off in the opposite direction the raven had gone, riding hell-bent for leather.
“That is not good,” Jonny heaved. He was breathing heavy and not just from recent exertions. “We have to get out of here, quickly.”
“Aye,” came a gruff voice from a tussock a few yards away. “That raven’ll be goin’ fer makar. Lucky us Cowboy’s ridin’ on a mission or this’d’ve gone different.”
They looked for the source of the voice and saw a small, roughly built dwarf rising from the carcass of the she-wolf whose head he appeared to have bitten off. He had been dipping his hat in the blood of her belly. Dripping, he pulled it onto his head and An’s heart sank. He was a fear dearg, though by his actions he was most likely the more dangerous Scottish redcap.
“If ye kin summon back th’ door ye burst through, we kin be on ahr way.” He glared at them with beady little black eyes from beneath beetled brows. “Ah were headed oot yon door when ye slammed it shut,” he growled.
Jonny took a breath, making himself think. “Ye didn’t want out that door any how.”
“Chased were yen?”
“Aye. The Dark’s men. Hellhound and a pack o’ ghouls.”
“Fryin’ pans an’ fires,” he shrugged. “Kin ye open a door or noo?”
Aislynn looped back from where she had been chasing off the horse and dove into the tall grasses even as Jonny’s hand went to his pocket in a panic. She flew up carrying his penny whistle.
“Thank ye, ma’am,” he said, taking it and began looking around at the treeless field. “Only trouble be, I am in need of a door to make a door.”
“Hmm,” the redcap mumbled. “Any kinda o’ door? E’en one that ain’t be a proper one?”
The dwarf walked around a large boulder next to the body of the wolf and pointed. “That dew?”
Jonny walked over, looked down and laughed, that high, near hysterical laugh of the relieved under extreme stress. “Aye.”
An drifted over, wincing as Aislynn landed on her bad shoulder. Jonny played his little melody, rapid-fire as he began to hear the cawing of a murder of crows in the distance.
He looked over at An, held out his hand to her. “All right, Alice,” he said. “Tis down the rabbit hole with ye.” It was then An saw that the door was a hole in the ground through which she could see a green field.
She accepted Jonny’s hand and, holding tight to Cipín, hopped in. It was disconcerting to say the least, falling down and then landing what was essentially sideways. She rolled out of the way and made room for Jonny and the fear dearg, who, at the moment, seemed friendly enough, though she knew that could change at any moment. She looked up as they came falling out of a dark, dirty hole in the air a few feet above the lush meadow they were in. The moment they were through, Jonny reached up, grabbed a trailing root and pulled, effectively zipping the door shut behind them.
She looked around. They were seated in a pleasant meadow, green fields and flowers as far as the eye could see, to the edge of a white birch wood about a half league off. There were white horses grazing near that wood who regarded them carefully, but continued to graze. It was peaceful here.
The dwarf grunted in appreciation, “Huh, borderlands o’ Amalthea’s realm. Nice.”
The name rang a bell with An, on multiple levels, but she couldn’t pin it down.
Jonny came over, held out his hand to help her up and saw the blood painting her white blouse and went to his knees beside her instead. Aislynn began fussing over her immediately. An yelped when he lightly began to probe the wound. He checked the back of her shoulder and groaned.
“What?” she asked, biting back tears, holding her left arm tightly against her body.
“The ball’s still in. I can’t... do anythin’ here.”
She looked up at him, saw a line of blood across his temple and lightly brushed it away, discovered the gash beneath it. “Yer not so hale yerself. Help me up,” she said, offering him her good arm.
Reluctantly, he brought her to her feet, being as gentle as he could. As she reached out for Cipín, she swept her eyes across him, taking in the varied light cuts he had taken. Nothing was serious, or at least it wasn’t any more. She looked over at the redcap. “Have ye a name, fear dearg?” she asked him.
He looked her over, from her very prim and proper attire to her no-nonsense, ‘I know what I’m doing’ manner. He grunted. “Call me Sam.”
“Very well, Sam. I am An Ceobhrán O’Keefe, and my companion is Jonny Sorrow. Am I to be taking it ye’d like out o’ the Queen’s service?”
“That’d be why they were huntin’ me, aye.”
“Well, might be there is a place we can take ye, but ye’ll have to be on your best. There are some as might take exception to what you are before they get to know you. But we will take ye to someone who’ll tell ye all the rules and let ye make yer mind to stay or go.”
His little black eyes watched her warily. “And it’ll be yer misty arse what gets us t’ this faeryland?”
Before Jonny could do more than raise his eyebrow at the remark, An had lifted Cipín and turned in a direction parallel to the wood. “Aye, it would. Follow me,” she said and began walking.