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Book One of the Celtic Prophecy

Fate’s

Hand


by

Melissa Macfie



Can’t Put It Down Books

An Imprint of

Open Door Publications

Fate’s Hand

Book One of The Celtic Prophecy

Copyright 2015 by Melissa Macfie


ISBN: 978-0-9972024-0-3

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America



No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, or persons or locales, living or dead, is purely coincidental.



Published by

Can’t Put It Down Books

An imprint of

Open Door Publications

2113 Stackhouse Dr.

Yardley, PA 19067


Cover Design by Genevieve Lavo Cosdon, lavodesign.com












This book is dedicated to my parents, Thomas and Nancy Hughes, who taught me that the only limits there are in this world are the ones you give yourself.














When a thing is first conceived all things are possible;

but only when a choice is made, does fate take a hand.


Fate’s Hand

Table of Contents


Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Glosssary

Acknowledgementa



Reliquary’s Choice

Table of Contents


Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Acknowledgements

Glossary

References

About the Author


Preview of Book Three, Oracle’s Curse






Prologue


The Oracle, the most revered and feared of the Vates, cocked her head, her milky white eye rounding on the dying man. She dropped to a predatory crouch, the ragged shawl resettling around her shoulders like ruffled feathers, its ends trailing on the ground, soaking up the spreading blood. She patted his hand, giving the man some solace, helping him to die, when she had set him on this path. Unaware that her succor flowed from a poisoned teat, the deluded bastard scrambled to get closer to her, but his arms and legs found no purchase on the ground slick with his blood.

Cormac MacBrehon’s stomach heaved, but he turned away too late, glimpsing her poking at the exposed intestines, leaning closer, hooked nose almost touching—

What the fuck is taking so long?”

Momentarily relieved that his morbid trance was broken, he glanced aside and read the impatience etched in the clenched fists and the cords that stuck out from the acolyte’s scrawny neck. Relief soured into rage. “Death, then rigor mortis.” He had to fight back an urge to snap the boy’s spine at his blank, puzzled countenance still after eighty years of lessons. “In time,” he instructed, more for himself than his student. “Several more hours, a’ least, because the weather is unseasonably warm.”

Fuck patience.” The novice rounded on him to stand just inches away from his face, “Master, we’ve waited long enough. The time to strike is now. The prophecies have decreed it.”

Insolent bastard,” thought Cormac. If only he were free to act. “Hmm and how d’ye propose we dae that? We doonae ken whaur ta begin.”

And you want to let this, this…” sweeping his hand in the direction of the old woman, “this thing dictate…”

Fury spilling over, adrenaline pumping, he seized his student’s neck; it would be easy to snap the fragile bones under his fingers. Pressure in just the right spot and…lift…blood pooling in the boy’s face...such a lovely shade of purple. He relished the dawning submission in the boy’s eyes and smiled, his temper leveling. So unsuspecting, so naïve the young are; part of their nature, to have this illusion of invulnerability that blinds them to danger. “Hold yer tongue, laddie. And for all ‘tis holy, keep yer voice doon.”

The boy scrabbled at the ground trying to find a toehold, anything that would keep his weight on the ground as he clawed at the imprisoning hand.

Cormac squeezed again to educate; the student does not instruct the teacher.

Audible gasping gave way to breathless grunts, and the fumbling fingers lost their urgency. Hands flailed, but the fingers caressed, and once he saw respect reflected in the dying eyes, he released his grip. The boy stumbled away choking, gasping for breath. He stood over him, “Or I might volunteer ye ta be the next ta receive her attentions.”

The acolyte cringed, crawling away but keeping his teacher and the Oracle in sight.

No’ so daft then. Perhaps ye’r learning after all these years.” He walked away, turning his back on the boy.

As Master Bard, Cormac’s duties were to serve as a living anthology for the Order, but his skill set lay particularly with extracting secrets. Mandated to pass along the office to his descendants, his secret, the most prized of all, was that it was all for naught; he had no intention of leaving—ever.

The bard looked at the Oracle still squatting by the body, dipping her fingers in entrails, using the blood as ink to scribe Ogham symbols at equidistant points around the sacrifice. He needed her for now. Her methods were unpleasant, but he would bring people in droves—lambs to the slaughter, willing or no. He would even participate in the eviscerations if it would help clear the murky visions. Frustration bubbled up from his impotence to bring matters to a close. Bound by dictates created by the elders, it was not his jurisdiction yet, for that he had to rely on this brazen pup.

If ye are no’ pleased wi’ the progress,” eyeing the acolyte still crumpled on the ground, “then I suggest ye lift the strictures put on her. Interpreting signs would be verra much easier with a group as opposed ta only one. Thaur is no’ much she can glean from one.”

The boy sat up and coughed to clear his throat, but his voice was strained still, “It is my appointed task…hu humph…to ascertain…uh, the threat from the authorities before we’re set to move. Humph. I have done that…done that for centuries, uh hmphm.”

Aye, but by yer own assessment, we are no closer ta finding the priestess. Perhaps ‘tis not the fault o’ the Vate’s, but yer own.”

Clearing his throat, he spit, “Do you not remember England? The barn? Careful plans were laid; a false history was planted for the Wickerman’s volunteers. Chalk it all up to zealotry, but it all went to shit—turned into a fucking charnel house!” The boy paced away and then turned. “Do you know or care how difficult it was for me to cover up the remnants of the ritual? The fire did not burn hot enough to turn all evidence to ash, the remains of thirty-three people, contorted in the last throes of death.”

Cormac crossed his arms and leaned against the portico’s upright post. “Ye concocted the plan and built the Wickerman inside that abandoned barn. Did ye no’ think the barn would be engulfed?”

Do I look stupid? Don’t answer that. You know that I planned for that, but she refused to allow the use of the accelerant.”

And ye verra well ken why. Gasoline raises the temperature o’ the flame, incinerating the delicacy o’ the sacrifice. She takes in everythin’, the time it takes for the sacrifice ta be overcome, the height and temperature o’ the flames, the length o’ the burn, the weather conditions, the behavior o’ the surrounding fauna; and all this afore readin’ the final omen,” he pointed to the body, “the results such as those yonder.”

We cannot continue in this fashion for the likes of a seer, no matter her power in divination.”

T’was through her divination we narrowed the search. Afore the Wickerman incident we would ha’ been better served looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. We noo ha’ a time and a location.

Granted, but we are fighting two battles. The more sensational the rituals are, the more likely it is that they will garner public attention. The priestess needs to be found quietly. If the entire Order is made aware of her existence in this time we won’t be able to get our hands on her. She’ll be heavily guarded with sycophants who have elevated her position to that of messiah. She is a mere woman.”

Cormac nodded. It was true, she was just a woman, but her potential was legendary, thanks to prophecy and augury, a vulnerable woman with the power to topple a god.

In our efforts to find her quickly and quietly, technology—forensic science—has advanced even though your thinking hasn’t. All it would take would be one fingerprint, one piece of DNA thoughtlessly left behind to give the authorities a lead they have been champing for to send them directly to us. Wanton actions such as these have dire consequences now.”

T’was easy for ye, if I remember correctly, ta pass off the charnel house as religious zealotry. A group who in yer words, though I doonae understand the reference, ‘Drank their own brand o’ Kool-Aid,’ I ken it was. Aye?”

Do your own damned research. In fact, why don’t you adapt like the rest of us? Live in the times, perhaps?”

Eyebrow raised, Cormac scoffed, and advanced on his apprentice, who sat back on the retaining wall. The boy tried to cringe back but the bard grabbed his sweatshirt and hoisted him up, “Like ye, I suppose. Go ta university; get an education and a measly job, doin’ what? Hm? Ye say ye work in guise only, but yer nothin’ more than cattle. Settle down, get a wife, impregnate her? The only minutely appealing thing ‘tis the ever so brief relief I’d find between some cow’s legs. Thaur’ll be that in abundance soon. Whate’er I want, I’ll take.

As for diverting the attentions o’ the authorities, that falls to ye, too. And believe me when I tell ye, if necessary, ye will take the fall for this. Let yerself be captured, imprisoned, and put ta death if necessary, all ta ensure the fruition o’ our plans.”

Scuffling attracted their attention in time to see the Oracle scuttle to the head of her victim as he burbled the last of his breath, mouth thick with blood. Satisfied, she sat back on her haunches and sniffed the air. Her head turned and the milky eye pierced them, growing wide as if she had just realized they were in attendance.

The creaking of joints echoed in the portico as the Oracle ambled barefoot through the pool of blood unheeding, leaving the corpse unattended. Cormac grabbed the acolyte and held fast as she approached, with arms locked outstretched, shackling his offering, a human shield. Take him. Take him.

The woman was of small stature, a homunculus, made even smaller by the hump on her back. She jabbed the arrogant boy in the belly, hard enough to make him bend in reflex, then she grabbed his chin and pulled his face close to hers. Fingertips dug in, leaving bloody smears on his jaw.

Impatient, are ye? I ha’ a mind ta take yer instructor’s advice.” She clawed at the sweatshirt, pushing it up so his rib cage was exposed. The knife appeared out of the voluminous folds of her cloak, still bloody, and pressed into his flesh. Visibly excited by the welling of blood, she angled the knife and sliced ever so lightly along the rib cage. A thin line of blood followed the blade, and the boy hissed through his teeth. “Ye bleed well.”

The bard offered, “If t’would help, take him. I ha’ other apprentices.” He knew full well that she wouldn’t, a slave to prophecy herself, but the just the idea of silencing the arrogance once and for all gave him some release.

Ye ken better than I that I cannae. It has been deemed that whaur what will, must be. We are no’ ta question.” Motioning to Cormac, “However, the lad requires a lesson. Bring him.”

Careful to avoid her bloody footprints, they reached the side of the body. She was the Oracle, but had the vanity of a woman nonetheless. What did one say for this? Cormac settled, “Nicely done,” as he swiftly kicked the back of his novice’s knee, forcing the boy down closer to the body. Keeping a heavy hand on each shoulder, “Teach him what ye will.”

Instead of directing his gaze to the corpse in front of him as Cormac expected her to do, she sat next to the acolyte and shooed his hands off the boy’s shoulders, dismissing him like a schoolboy. He had no choice but to step back and just observe, fuming at her impudence. She was the angel of mercy to the initiates who all but clamored to sacrifice themselves at her hands. She was doting and patient, allowing the acolyte to absorb the information at his own pace. To Cormac, though, she was someone to be feared; the eye, the dead eye, followed him, looking into his soul to extract his secrets.

She patted the boy’s hand, “Leuk around ye, laddie. Tell me what ye see.”

What? Um…I don’t know. Wall of the house there, roof of the carport overhead…”

Leuk deeper,” she interrupted.

Some household supplies there by the wall, old paint cans, a dented and rusted garbage can, empty, an upturned gasoline canister for a lawnmower which is just beyond in the high grass, a broken window there, yellow paint peeling off the wooden ledge.”

Aye. Tell me more.”

Unpruned trees are overhanging the gravel driveway almost indistinct amongst the infiltrating weeds. No sound of traffic, children, or car doors closing, just the chatter of birds in the trees.”

What does this tell ye?”

Um… no one cares for the property?” He looked at her expectantly.

True, but if ye were payin’ attention, when the initiate was first cut he made enough noise ta scatter those birds. But they didna fly. They remained thaur, hopping from branch to branch searching out food or minding their eggs, unconcerned about the skelloch haur. Can ye learn anything from that?”

Looking up at the tree, behind at his teacher, and then back to the woman, “I don’t know.”

Well, ‘tis only one o’ the signs, the first o’ many. We are in the right land ta search for her. If they flew, of course, depending on the length of their flight, it would mean that we are searching in the wrong place, time, or even both. But they stayed. The birds’ behavior is not the only factor for this determination, though. Leuk at the body o’ the initiate.”

Ugh.” The skin was peeled back from sternum to groin revealing the peritoneum, which was cut delicately down the center exposing the bulging intestines, which showed no outward sign of breach.

What can ye tell me about this?”

Ugh, the human body reeks.”

She laughed. “Och, aye. A natural smell.” Sniffing close to him, “Much like body odor is a sign o’ life, this is a sign o’ decay. It happens quickly. But this is no’ the answer I want. Leuk closer. Dae ye have the basic knowledge o’ human anatomy?”

A little.” Pointing, “Large intestine, small intestine.”

Tis sufficient. Give me observations.”

He shied away, turning his body as if deciding to deny the corpse’s existence, and closed his eyes, but he did as she asked, holding out an arm, vaguely gesticulating to observations obviously scarred in his memory. “Um, the large intestine is kinda bunched up there towards the top, while that length of small intestine is out of its cavity and draped a bit on the ground next to him.”

The Vate gripped his outstretched hand and forced it into the pile of innards. He violently resisted. Cormac moved to intervene, but she motioned him to stay where he was. “Tis more than thirty feet o’ intestine in the human body and once the sac that holds the intestines is pierced, it usually spills out, but haur, it didna, despite the initiate’s writhing on the ground. Only this small section,” holding it up reverently, “escaped its bonds.”

What does that mean?”

Cormac could hear the strain in his voice, and for a brief moment he felt for the kid. He didn’t know, if situations were reversed, if he’d be able to keep his stomach down. Better the acolyte than him. Killing was easy, he relished the power he felt, more each time, but this just seemed a sacrilege, even though it was warranted. Killing slowly; there was only one person he’d love to have the opportunity to see writhe, beg for mercy, of which he’d receive none.

The birds’ behavior taken inta account with this sign, we are close. She will no’ be difficult ta track doon noo.”

The novice looked back at the body, perplexed, “How did you come to that conclusion?”

The intestines ha’ stayed inside, indicating that we are in the right geographic location. Mind ye, just taking this inta account, it means we are in the same general vicinity. According ta distance measures, it could still mean that we are off by several hundred miles yet. But take inta account that nay other living things, including the birds, were bothered by the disturbance haur, indicates further that we are verra close ta our conquest.” She felt the limbs of the body. “Good. The stiffening has begun.” She got to her feet using his shoulder. “Come.”

He stood and followed to stand several feet away; his teacher approached to stand at his side.

Stay haur and observe.”

The woman pivoted away and circled the body, chanting low. Cormac couldn’t hear her, and if he read his novice’s face accurately, neither could he. It was intentional on the part of the Oracle. It was the end of her revelations into augury.

She circled the body, trailing over the painted Ogham symbols, and after the second revolution each symbol glowed with white incandescence when she passed. With the completion of her second turn the drying blood that had spilled from the initiate’s body glowed, and with the speed of one much younger, the Vate swooped in to take the head between her hands and breathe in the expulsion of trapped air that escaped from the dead man’s unmoving mouth. With that last expulsion of gas the body convulsed and grew rigid, heels planted into the ground, back bowed so the head came to rest at a sharp upward angle. She raised her head, eyes glowing with fire, “I ha’ found the high priestess.”






Chapter 1


Brenawyn McAllister swallowed the bile forcing its way up as she passed the 97th mile marker on the New Jersey turnpike. She slowed to let a tractor-trailer block her view of the mangled guardrail, but nothing stopped the surfacing images of the Jeep, a grotesquely twisted, blackened husk once representing a life. Liam’s.

A slave to the demands of routine, her eyes were riveted to the rearview mirror’s reflection before the truck had cleared it. This was the last time she would pass here, and she needed to see one last time. The tattered tails of a faded yellow ribbon tied to the rusted metal, a ribbon that she had tied there, snapped taut in the wind as the truck passed, a beacon screaming “traitor.”

It was three fucking years ago.

It was yesterday.

To learn about the accident through empty platitudes, and later through the report that mocked her in its factual clarity, it gave her no release, no closure.

Breathe.

Her nightmares were enough. Living here, passing here every day, was too much to bear. She had to get out or die alone.

Brenawyn watched the sunset from the George Washington Bridge, the beginning of twenty-nine-mile bumper-to-bumper traffic with no surcease. By the time she crawled over the Connecticut border she itched for a moment’s reprieve from her torture device to stretch her stiff back and cramped legs. The Challenger, with manual transmission, was one of her few splurges, but the pleasure of driving it was lost in the hours spent crawling along I-95.

~ ~ ~

The mile and half mile marker signs for the Darian rest stop taunted her. She could see it in the distance, its Golden Arches lit, as if from an ocean away. An hour later, she finally pulled into the only available spot in the parking lot. The vibrations of shifting gears woke Spencer and he jumped up and danced around the front seat. Brenawyn could barely hook the leash onto his collar.

“Hold still, dog. Oww! Stop stepping on me. Ouch! Remind me to get your nails trimmed.”

Spencer licked her face and whined. “All right, I know. Five hours is a long time to be stuck in the car. I know. I have been stuck in here too. I couldn’t help it, though.” Throwing a glance back at the congested highway, “People who can’t drive should stay home.”

Yanked by her dog the second the car door opened, she swore that she’d leash train him yet, no matter how long it took. Tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, he pranced in circles around her, bumping her legs and stepping on her toes. Adjusting her hold on his lead, Brenawyn led him to the scalped grass.

Here, she let out the retractable leash enough to allow him to sniff everything within a five-foot range. She glanced around, her father’s voice in her head—always be aware of your surroundings, Bren—and saw the odd shadows the cars cast in the poorly lit lot. Faceless silhouettes moved on missions to and from the building. Music thumped from an open car somewhere nearby; she could feel the bass in the soles of her feet. No one looked threatening. No one looked friendly, either.

“Okay, time to go, Spence.” Turning around, she dragged the dog back to the car, opened the door, and struggled to get him in as he whined. “Just hush. I’ll be right back.”

She opened the restroom door and, a fetid odor hit her. Lazy gnats buzzed low over the stagnant water pooled beneath the sinks and around the toilets. She hesitated for a moment, considering her less than adequate foot attire. Why had she drunk the whole extra-large coffee in the car? It left her no choice but to brave the bathroom. “God, I hope that’s water,” she prayed as she navigated around the larger pools. She inspected the stalls—no paper, no paper, not flushed, no paper, God knows what on the seat, and no paper. Rooting around in her purse, Brenawyn excavated the last two tissues from their plastic sleeve. If only she had replaced them with a new pack before she left, though two were better than nothing. Choosing the first stall with no paper, Brenawyn closed herself within the small space.

The adjacent stall’s hinges squeaked as she turned to flush the toilet with her foot. Hands braced on either side for balance, Brenawyn glimpsed an arthritic hand reaching under the stall wall. “I’m sorry, there is no extra paper in here. I had to use a tissue myself.” But there was no other response than the hand withdrawing.

Brenawyn jumped and dropped her purse when a screech bellowed out from the adjacent stall. She knocked on the stall wall, concerned, but as she bent to retrieve her fallen bag, the gnarled hand darted under the wall again to clamp onto her ankle. Heart pounding, she pivoted and wrenched herself loose from the bony claw’s vise-like grip.

The shrieking continued and the claw found her again. Shit, this was just the sort of thing her father had warned her about. She pulled the handle. The door didn’t budge. Panicked, she yanked on it. Nothing. The latch. Undo the latch first. Brenawyn stomped on the wrist, feeling a wet pop reverberate through the sole of her shoe.

She flung the door open and dashed out. I fall, I’m dead. Her flip flops slipped and squeaked across the floor; she lost one along the way. She left it. She crashed into the door and pitched herself into the arms of an unsuspecting man walking into the shared restroom vestibule. “Are ye hurt, lass?”

Dazed, Brenawyn clutched the wall of muscle, finding brief comfort, and she looked up into bright blue eyes, but she had to get away. “Sorry. Don’t go in there.”

The safety of the car beckoned in the distance; Spencer was barking and clawing at the window. She threw her bag on the hood and frantically searched through it, dumping half its contents before she found her keys. She fumbled, her fingers stiff and awkward, before finally grabbing the keyless remote. Pressing both the unlock and panic buttons, she scooped up her purse, whisked the wallet, passport, and other junk strewn across the hood into the bag, and threw herself into the car, jabbing the buttons over and over again long after the first contact locked the doors. Spencer stood over her lap, hunched low, growling out the window.

The panic alarm screamed. No one in the packed lot paid attention. Finally finding the right button, she disengaged the alarm before she jammed the key into the ignition, started the car, and revved the engine. Wrestling the dog to the passenger seat, she didn’t see the woman approach. Her head whipped to attention, eyes locked with the old hag as the car rocked from the impact of the woman’s fists on the hood of the car.

“Shit.” Brenawyn threw the gearshift in reverse without looking and careened out of the parking space, the smell of burnt rubber filling her nose. Spencer rushed into the backseat and growled at the woman.

Brenawyn craned her neck to get another look, but the woman was gone. A car horn blared and she slammed on her brakes seconds before plowing into the hag. She ripped through the gears as she threw the car into first. Twisting her neck to judge the distance, “What the fuck is going on?” Three hundred or more feet between the car and the parking space—no one could move that fast.

The old woman stood in the middle of the bypass road, cradling her arm, ignoring horns and screeching brakes. She raised her arms, the left wrist hanging at an impossible angle. Eyes glowing with red incandescence met Brenawyn’s stare.

“Oh, hell no!” She popped the clutch and whipped the wheel to swerve around the woman.

A line of cars waiting for their chance to sit in traffic materialized beyond the building, but Brenawyn leaned on the horn and took the shoulder. Gravel hit the undercarriage like machine gun fire as she flew past the stopped cars at breakneck speed.

~ ~ ~

The car roared to life as she approached, and she could see by the quick punctuated movements of Cormac’s shadowed figure that he was angry. She slid onto the passenger seat as quick as her joints would allow and was greeted by tension rolling off of the impertinent Bard. He stared ahead, slamming his hands against the steering wheel three times before throwing the gearshift in reverse.

She put her hand on his arm. “Och, let her go,” she asserted.

He pivoted in his seat to face her, shaking his head, “What?”

“We need ta think and organize in light o’ this new development. Go ta the hotel. I need ta consult the prophecies.”

“But—”

She interrupted, “Ye will respect me, child. Doonae think I forgot that ye were willing ta give up yer apprentice so easily.” She scrutinized him sitting there, knowing he needed to be reminded of his place. “I wonder what kind o’ picture ye would paint for me with yer own blud.”

He lowered his eyes, shrinking away from her in the confines of the car. She leaned toward him and whispered, “Thaur is nay prophecy concerning ye, and if ‘tis required of him ta be the scapegoat, perhaps it falls ta ye ta become my next volunteer.”

He drew back further, disjointedly, until his head made a satisfying clunk against the closed window. It took a moment longer, too long for her tastes, for the fight to go out of his frame. Perhaps the time was coming to show him his place.

“Call in the Shaman,” she demanded.

“I doonae like him.”

“Yer opinion wasna asked. Call him.”

“He’s irrevocably set in his ways.”

“Yes, and we will use that. The priestess needs ta be found and we ken who she is.” She looked out at the parking lot, contemplating her next words before continuing. “We are no’ the only ones looking for her.”

“Aye, but if he learns o’ our plans?”

“How much ye disclose is yer decision. Ye seem no’ ta trust him, but yer reasoning holds verra little interest ta me. Tell him enough ta find who is responsible for dropping the veil.”

“We doonae need Sinclair.”

She disregarded his obstinacy. “He’ll be compelled ta take up the mantle and destroy whoe’er stands in the way. Once she is found, Cernunnos will call the Shaman back ta the Stalking Grounds, making him impotent ta interfere with our plans.”

“Thaur is no way for him ta escape once thaur?”

The Oracle sighed. “Even if thaur was, he has nay soul, thanks ta yer acolyte’s hoor. She made sure ta destroy his reliquary. He only exists through his connection ta the Wild Hunt, but he is the Shaman. He will be released on the four days o’ adoration when his participation is required, but then will be at the mercy of the Wild Hunt for rest o’ the wheel o’ time.”

“Those four days are enough ta disrupt my—our—designs.” Cormac protested.

“Patience, my child. Only ‘til Saimhain will we be vulnerable.”






Chapter 2


The shoulder opened a bit when the acceleration lanes gave way to the highway. Bypassing agitated drivers, a few cars followed Brenawyn’s lead on the shoulder, and twenty minutes later, she passed the last of highway construction. Roaring past, ignoring workers as they yelled and waved at the cavalcade of cars, she shifted into fifth gear. The more distance between herself and the old woman, the more the knot eased in her chest.

Spencer turned from the back window and shook himself, lather flying. He didn’t sit, but poked his upper body between the seats to perch partially on the console, standing watch, his jowl stuck on an exposed canine.

Brenawyn now noticed the dashboard plastic peeled away like paper straw wrappers, and the frothy saliva drying on the windshield. Claw marks punctuated by—she looked down at the dog’s paws—dry blood.

The car ate up the highway, and by the time the Salem welcome sign appeared on the horizon, Brenawyn had trouble discerning the truth from figments of her tired imagination. Thrown off by the state of the unkempt bathroom, the woman probably just wanted toilet paper. Perhaps she couldn’t hear, or spoke another language? The woman’s red eyes were definitely her wild imagination’s doing, and the distance from the parking spot to the bypass road a perception issue. But the dog’s response?

As if hearing it would make it be so, she said, “Yep, that’s it, I’m just tired.” Catching sight of Spencer’s reflection in the rearview mirror, “Don’t look at me like that. It was just my imagination and that’s that!”

Brenawyn turned the corner, and the car’s headlights did nothing to illuminate the long shadows on her grandmother’s familiar street. She slid into a parking spot in front of The Rising Moon, the establishment her grandmother owned. The store’s windows were dark, as were those of the residence above. It was too early to announce her arrival, but lights shone from the bakery across the street, as if calling all ships home. Not too early for fresh croissants.

As the car door swung wide, the offending lone flip flop slapped the pavement, reminding her to retrieve her antibacterial wipes from the glove compartment. She rubbed several pads on her feet and donned another pair of dollar store sandals that she grabbed from the backseat. “Kills ninety-nine percent of bacteria—it will have to do until I can scrub my skin off.”

She shuddered as she bent to grab the discarded flip flop, holding it at arm’s length between two fingertips while trying to handle the dog that bolted out of the car like a rushing tidal wave. He crashed into the door, making it strain against its hinges, and she lurched as the dog tripped her, fumbling the shoe.

“God damn it, dog,” rubbing her stubbed toe. “It’s combat boots for me from now on.” Retrieving it again and hobbling on her injured foot, she tossed it into the nearest trashcan on the curb.

Spencer took two steps and sniffed the air. His hackles rose and he moved in front of Brenawyn, herding her with his bottom in the direction of the car. Brenawyn looked into the deep shadows afforded by the broken streetlamp halfway down the block. “Jesus.” She stepped around him and yanked on his lead. He fought, his nails scrabbling on the asphalt, choking on the strained collar, but she won and hurried across the street to the safety of the lighted, public bakery.

~ ~ ~

Alexander Sinclair was among the few midnight denizens who stalked the bakery for freshly baked bread. He had to remember to eat. Tonight, following a lead, he had slogged through miles of construction traffic tailing the mark, only to be led to a rest stop, where it appeared for an instant that his search would finally bear fruit, but he was too damned eager.

The Oracle was there again, as she always was: the shadow, the tool of his nemesis. What her name was, where she came from, it didn’t matter. She was The Oracle. The enemy was getting bolder, using her for other than interpreting omens—he was desperate. Time was running out. Never before had she made direct contact. Alexander wouldn’t have believed it had he not seen her slam her fists on the hood of that car, nor sift time to appear again, an obstacle barring the escape route. From his perch, he had done what he could for the fleeing woman, casting a spell, bringing down the veil between worlds for a fraction of a second, enough to set the dog off in warning.

This time, it had been enough.

He couldn’t be seen taking action in direct opposition to the Order. Theirs—his—was a holy mission, to hold the balance until the Priestess was revealed. But he knew after centuries even the most devout could be tempted. Convincing the elders of this, most of whom turned a blind eye to the corruption that fractured the group, was an insurmountable feat. They refused to believe that one could be turned by avarice.

Brought out of his ruminations by the appearance of headlights turning the corner, his instincts screamed until he activated his runes and stepped back into enhanced shadows. The car door opened. What were the odds that the very woman he had saved tonight was coming here, less than a block from where he lived?

Alex started at the dog’s growl—interesting that the dog was so attuned to magic. He took a few steps to the curb, unwilling to leave cover completely lest his concealment be discovered. He squatted, touched the asphalt with his fingertips and waited for his spell to move through the man-made material to reach the dog across the street. The dog quieted within seconds.

He watched the woman cross to the bakery, choose a table near the entrance, and tie the unruly dog’s leash to the bars of the wrought iron fence. He waited until she went in and then sprinted across the street. The two dents on the hood confirmed what he already knew to be true.

He had to meet her, talk with her, learn if she was a likely candidate; but it would be counterproductive if he scared her. He knew what she’d see—a large, hulking man. So when the woman emerged with a Styrofoam cup and a brown paper bag, it was to find Alex petting her dog. Animals had a way of disarming people. He could see she was surprised to find him there. She hesitated a moment, scanned the area, and then approached, depositing the cup and bag on the table.

Alexander focused on the dog, speaking Gaelic nonsense to it before looking up and taking in a lovely view of her toned calves. The sight ended slightly above her knees where the lace trim of her shift—her dress—started. She was tall for a woman, with a figure that made a man’s hands ache to hold.

“Good morning.”

Alex flashed a smile and stood, despite the dog’s protests at the sudden neglect. She had a mass of dark hair tied into a floppy knot on top of her head, with wisps falling around her shoulders. “Oh, haló. Nice animal ye ha’. Well-built and friendly.” He patted the dog one last time. “I am Alexander Sinclair.” Taking a step toward her, he held out his hand.

Wide eyes, as green as new grass before a storm, met his gaze. The woman’s stance changed, posture straight, feet spread slightly apart, and her eyes darted to the open gate, aware of the change in the environment his presence made, but she took the hand that he offered, “Brenawyn McAllister, nice to meet you.”

Modern woman, indeed, but at least she was aware of potential danger, even if she wasn’t conscious of that fact. She felt his power, even if she’d likely define it as the ability to command a room; Alex had his work cut out for him. “I’ll leave ye to yer breakfast,” and entered the bakery. When he emerged, she was still there, half concealed by the trellised vines, hair down now, spilling in glossy thickness over her shoulder as she bent to scratch behind the dog’s ear.

He stopped with his back toward her and took a careful sip of the coffee, savoring its richness, then took a bigger swig. She cleared her throat, and he looked in her direction as she brought her cup halfway to her lips, “It’s good here. You should try the croissants too.”

He held up the bag.

She took a fortifying sip of her coffee, “Um…if you’re not in a hurry, would you like to share the table?”

He looked around the courtyard at the six other empty tables. “Certainly,” he pulled out the chair opposite her. The dog cried to get closer to him. Alex asked, “So what kind o’ dog is he?”

Brenawyn looked down, and leaned over to untangle the leash from the table legs, giving him an unobstructed view of her ample cleavage. “Oh, Spencer’s a pit bull mix that I rescued from a shelter two years ago. I walked in and he jumped in my arms from a desk in the middle of the room. The clerk had been trying to put him in a cage when I walked in. I fell in love instantly. I didn’t listen to the man try to talk me out of adopting him even while I was signing the papers.” Rubbing Spencer’s head, “The best dog I have ever had. Looks ferocious, but he’s all mush. Aren’t you boy?”

Alexander took another sip of his coffee, “Seems friendly. Ye made a good choice. Are ye haur on vacation or just passing through?”

“Neither. I’m relocating here. I’m going to stay with family until I can find a suitable place to live, but I’m in no rush.” Brenawyn answered. “It is a little too early to announce my arrival, but then I remembered this place. It’s much better than any franchised coffee shop.”

“And definitely better than any rest stop.”

At the mention of rest stops, Brenawyn straightened a fraction. Fear, anxiety, and curiosity flashed in turn on her face and she shook her head.

Eyebrows raised, Alex asked, “Whats the trouble, lass?”

“Oh, noth…” She stopped and cocked her head to the side, considering him with slightly squinted eyes. “It’s nothing...just, that’s the second time tonight that I’ve been called lass.”

Alex sat, schooling his face to show no emotion, no reaction to what she said.

“Huh,” shaking her head, “The imagination is working overtime. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t cure.”

Noting the time it took for her features to change from wary to relaxed, he assessed her to be a product of contemporary society, where everything has a logical explanation. She was confident, not one to over-deliberate on issues, albeit drawing the wrong conclusions, making his task all the more complicated. Her naiveté would make her an easy target, and quite possibly by the time she was convinced that not everything neatly conformed to her expectation of logic, it might be too late for intervention.

He drank the last of his coffee and stood up, leaving the bag untouched. “It was nice talking with ye, and welcome ta the neighborhood.”

Brenawyn stood up and held her hand out. Alexander took it and curled her fingers around his own, brought it to his lips. “My friends call me Alex. I hope I can count ye among them.”

Brenawyn nodded as he walked away. Alex could feel her eyes upon him. He never had difficulty attracting women. It seemed a bit hollow to use his appeal to lead her on, but time was against him. Looking back over his shoulder, he gave her his sexiest smile, “I will see you again, a chuisle.1

~~~

Alex trudged up the stairs, entered his second floor apartment, and slammed the door closed. Something was wrong. The wards protecting his place were shattered and the defensive spells nullified.

“Ye ken, someone could slip a knife between yer ribs or slit yer throat while ye try ta piece together facts. No’ me, of course, but someone.”

Alex sprang to face the intruder, knowing the safety of his home was compromised. The man sat reclining in a cushioned chair with feet up, crossed at the ankle on the coffee table. Cormac was several inches shorter than Alex. While lithe and fairly capable of handling himself in a fight, he could never take Alex. He wore his shoulder length blonde hair clubbed at the nape, as usual. There was that usual smug look set into his wide brow and jaw that Alex thought a good beating would wipe away.

“Cormac.” Alex relaxed slightly and turned his back, reaching for the kitchen towel on the counter to wipe his face. “To what dae I owe the pleasure o’ yer company?” He leaned back against the counter that separated the kitchen from the living space and tossed the towel into the sink.

“The Oracle needs ye ta deal with certain…difficulties, as we try ta obtain the target.”

“Obtain the target? Hm. I doona care for yer word choice, Cormac. Get oot o’ my house.”

Cormac stood, dusting off his trousers, “Doonae ye want ta ken the particulars?”

Instinct told Alex to throw him out, but reason stayed his hand. He had to know what they knew, what they suspected. “Aye. What does she want me ta dae?”

“Closing in on the target tonight, someone intervened on behalf o’ the woman, allowing her ta escape. The Oracle wants ye ta find the source o’ that interference and silence it.”

“I’m no’ a soldier ta be commanded, Cormac. I will leuk inta it, but as for intervening, I make the decisions. What form did this interference take?”

“Nothing overt. The veil dropped, for a moment. But it ha’ the finesse o’ one of us.”

“Ye think thaur’s a traitor in our midst?”

Cormac crossed to the room and opened the unlatched door, “That is yers ta figure out. I doona ha’ ta tell ye how important it is.”

“Still touched with impertinence I see. When this is over, I’d love the chance ta meet ye on the Hunting Grounds ta teach ye proper respect.”

Cormac chuckled, “Alas, my friend, that will ne’er be possible,” as he closed the door behind him.






Chapter 3


By the time she had finished her cup of coffee, two lighted windows shone from the floors above the Rising Moon. She called, and by the time she had untied Spencer and walked across the street, her grandmother was waiting at the door.

“Pussy Cat, I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too, Nana.” The dog pranced around them, binding them together with his leash, “Spencer, stop! Be a good boy.”

The dog knew the routine and lost interest the moment the leash was relinquished. He bounded into the foyer and up the stairs, clawing and whining at the upper door. “How was your ride? I guess you hit traffic. I was expecting you last night.”

“The traffic was terrible, a never-ending crawl, thanks to construction all the way through New York and into Connecticut. I’m glad I won’t be traveling that way again soon. What a nightmare!”

“Ugh, well at least it’s over and you’re here. Come in and get settled.”

Brenawyn climbed the stairs after her grandmother, noting the brace on her right foot. “Nana, what happened?”

Stopping at the landing to open the door to let Spencer in, Leo looked down and held her foot out, “Oh, nothing really. The body is not what it used to be. I tripped over a box and landed wrong on my ankle. It will be better in a few days. I have a doctor’s appointment later on today to get it checked out. Would you be able to drive me there?”

“Whatever you need.”

Leoncha Callahan was a striking woman. Soft brown hair, which never saw the contents of a Clairol box, flowed over her shoulders. Bright blue eyes stared out of a face almost devoid of wrinkles. God, Brenawyn thought, please let me have her genes.

Her grandmother’s age showed in subtle ways, though. Originally a tall woman, Leo’s shoulders slumped, making the slight hump on her back more prominent. Her velour bed jacket and cotton nightgown hung on her. Had she lost more weight? Or was it just the perceived vulnerability of catching her in pajamas?

“Well, I know it’s not what anyone has in mind for the first day of vacation, taking their aged grandmother to the doctor.”

“Aged grandmother. Please stop. If that’s where you need to go, I’ll take you. Tripping over a box? Let me guess. Inventory?” Not needing confirmation, Brenawyn continued, “Why won’t you let someone else do that for you? You could have ended up really hurting yourself.”

Leo reached for and patted Brenawyn’s hand, “Well now, dear, that’s what I have you for, now. Don’t I?” Leo let go and walked into her apartment, “I have homemade blueberry muffins for you if you’re still hungry.”

“Ooh yes, some dog, not mentioning any names, stole my croissant.” The fuzzy culprit chose that moment to reenter the room and settle, after a few revolutions on the hearth rug.

“Certainly you’re not referring to that cute and properly behaved boy who’s resting so sweetly by the hearth?

“No, of course not. Not Spencer.”

Brenawyn walked into the living room and placed her hand on the back of the pale pink floral couch and closed her eyes. She inhaled scents of lavender, sage, and something that was uniquely her grandmother. She was eight again, with corkscrew pig tails, clutching her teddy bear, the first time she ever was here. So many years ago and countless times since, she had stood in this very spot. The familiar smells were a comfort, and the occasional run-in with déjà vu always brought a smile to her lips. She never felt truly happy or completely safe unless she was in this exact spot. Looking around at her grandmother’s collectibles, feeling a sense of wholeness, she knew she had made the right decision to come here for good.

“Come into the kitchen, when you’re ready. Do you want butter on the muffin?”

“Plain would be fine.”

“Are you sure? They are still warm from the oven.”

“Ooh, on second thought, yes, butter would be great.” She walked into the kitchen with the drink tray from the bakery. The white Battenberg lace placemats had been removed from the table and a muffin, cut in four equal pieces, each buttered, lay on a plate. Brenawyn picked up one of the pieces and took a bite. “Mm. Yummy,” she said with her mouth full. “No one cooks like you, Nana.”

“Thank you. I gave you the recipe years ago.”

“True, but you put extra love in them.”

“You’re sweet.” Putting her hand on Brenawyn’s, “Dear, I’m so glad you’re here, but are you sure you did the right thing, uprooting everything, job, house, friends, and everything in between?”

“Tell me, how does anyone know if they’ve done the right thing? Friends, my true friends, yes, I will miss them, but it’s not as if I saw them on a regular basis anymore. Husbands, kids, jobs, responsibility…basically life, gets in the way. That goes for everyone. I’ll still keep in contact with them with phone calls, email, birthday and holiday cards, and even the occasional vacation. Believe me, Maria will be here with her family before too long. Her kids are so big. Did I tell you she’s pregnant again?”

“She is? How wonderful!”

Brenawyn nodded. “This move will be good for me. Getting away from Jersey, I feel like it’s time to finally start over without constant reminders. Passing it every day on my way into work… how could anyone not remember? But I tried, you know I did. You helped me go through the house and his belongings, but there was still a sense of him; the chair that he would sit in after a long day and fall asleep, how he arranged his tools in the toolbox, and the hundreds of other things that all the rearranging of furniture wouldn’t take away.

“I know what you mean. It’s the reason I don’t spend much time at the farmhouse.”

“I’m sorry, Nana. Here I am going on as if I’m the only one who’s ever lost a husband.”

“That’s all right, Pussy Cat.”

“It’s funny what sticks in your mind after someone dies: the name of the shade of lipstick that Mom wore, how Aunt Mary would roll down her knee-high stockings and bunch her pants about the knee when it was hot, or Liam’s faded cut-off sweatpants, complete with a hole in the right leg.”

Leo smiled slightly and looked out the window, “Memory is a strange thing,” her mind clearly wrapped up in one of a thousand memories of her own.







Chapter 4


At 9:30, Leo retrieved the shop keys and headed to the connecting stairs beyond the kitchen. The front entrances to the store and the apartment above were separate, but the back stairs gave access to both spaces without having to go outside.

“Hold on, Nana. I’ll come with you,” Brenawyn called from the kitchen.

“Bah! Old age—can’t do anything anymore! It’s not necessary. I just have to go down to open the shop; Maggie will be coming shortly. She normally doesn’t work until later on in the afternoon, but I asked her to come early today to mind the shop for me when we go to the doctor.

“But on second thought, come down. She’ll see your car and won’t stop pestering me with questions until she sees you.”

Brenawyn came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on the back of her shorts, “Hold on, let me go first, these stairs are treacherous.”

Leo knew where the concern came from, but it still rankled. How many years had she plowed down these stairs with no concern? Now, rickety stairs meant hazard to brittle bones. Brenawyn slowly descended the stairs, carefully attuned to Leo’s steps, and they reached the bottom just as Maggie approached.

Brenawyn took the keys, and Leo could see through the full glass door that Maggie was bouncing on the balls of her feet in eager anticipation of being granted entrance. No sooner did Brenawyn get the keys out of the door than Maggie launched herself at her. “Oof”

“Ha, you’re finally here. I never thought today would get here. This week dragged. How was your trip? Are you staying for the whole summer again? When can we hang out? Where is Spencer? Did you bring him? Of course you brought him. Where is he? There is a new flavor of iced cappuccino next door, we should get one later, then you can tell me everything that happened during the past year. Leave nothing out. Promise?”

Brenawyn hugged her back. “Whoa, easy, one question at a time.” Holding the 19-year-old girl at arm’s length, she shook her head and laughed. “You asked me so many questions that you lost me. It’s good to see you too. I’ve missed you.” She let her go and stepped back, “Let’s see, you went back to your natural hair color,” pulling at the ends playfully, “except for the green tips. I like it.”

“And I got a new piercing,” sticking out her tongue, “See?”

“Hm, yes, I see. I like the hair much better though.”

Leo hobbled up to them. “Yes, though why she feels the need to accessorize herself to that extent, I’ll never know. You have more metal on you than you weigh. Touching Maggie’s cheek gently, “You have such a pretty face. Doesn’t she Brenawyn?”

“Of course she does, Nana. Hey, since we have a few minutes before we have to leave for the doctor, Maggie, why don’t you show me the new merchandise? I haven’t asked Nana about it yet. I’m dying to see it.” Brenawyn hooked Maggie’s arm and dragged her away into the depths of the store.

Leo’s bones may have been brittle, but her ears worked just fine. She smiled as before they moved out of earshot she heard, “You know she doesn’t mean anything by that, right?”

Leo busied herself with adjusting the placement of candles and housewares on the shelves nearest the door when Brenawyn called, “Nana, I’m going to run up and take Spencer out for a quick walk, and then I’ll be ready to take you to the doctor. Are you all ready?”

“I will be by the time you come back.” Hearing the retreating footsteps on the stairs, and then the quickened patter of dog paws on the floor upstairs, Leo put the duster behind the counter and asked Maggie to run upstairs to retrieve her purse from the kitchen counter. By the time Maggie had returned, Leo had her crutches by the front door, waiting for Brenawyn. “You’ll be okay while I’m gone, Maggie?”

“I’ll have given all the merchandise to wandering strangers before you get back,” Maggie rolled her eyes with exaggeration and quickly added, “No problem. Of course I will,” before Leo’s lips shriveled like a prune in response to her sarcasm.

By the time Brenawyn laid the crutches on the backseat and slid behind the steering wheel, Leo was seat-belted in and fingering the claw marks on the dashboard. “What happened?”

“Oh, I had a bit of a problem with the dog on the way here; seemed he didn’t like people walking so close to the car while I was in the bathroom.”

“He’s never been destructive before. I wonder what got into him. Do you think he’ll be okay in the house all by himself?”

“He’ll be fine. He’s back to his old goofy self now.”

~ ~ ~

At the doctor’s office, Leo held up her foot and grimaced; “Now it hurts more. They always seem to want you to put your body in a way it doesn’t to want to bend,” she said as she rubbed her foot.

“We’ll know more when the doctor’s looked at the films.” Brenawyn answered, just as the doctor walked in carrying the x-rays. He smiled as he clipped them to the light box mounted on the opposite wall. “Hello, Mrs. Callahan. I’m Dr. Miller.” Leo accepted his extended hand and he turned to face Brenawyn, “And you are?”

“I’m her granddaughter, Brenawyn McAllister.”

Looking from one woman to the other, he said, “Ah, I see the resemblance,” then quickly got down to business. “All right, let’s see what we have.”

He turned the overhead lights off and the light box on simultaneously. He contemplated the three x-rays one at a time and made notes in Leo’s file. He took two steps to the examining table and, paying careful attention to her injured foot, placed it on the leg rest. He guided Leo to lie flat and slowly took off the air cast she wore. Brenawyn could see that the ankle and foot were badly swollen and bruised.

“You have broken the third, fourth, and fifth metatarsals. They are, luckily, clean breaks and will heal on their own. What has me concerned is the heel; there’s a hairline fracture, and if not healed correctly, it will cause pain for the rest of your life.”

“What are you going to do?” Leo asked.

Turning on the overhead lights, Dr. Miller answered, “I’m going to have to put a cast on your foot. I am erring on the side of caution; the foot cannot move for fear of aggravating the fracture. That means you will have to stay off your foot for the majority of the day and sleep with it elevated at night. In six to eight weeks, the cast can come off, to be replaced by a removable boot, much like the one you have here,” he ended, holding up the hospital-issued air cast.

“Okay, what about stairs? She has stairs at home.” Brenawyn asked for clarification.

Leo’s head snapped up to the doctor’s face and she watched attentively as he responded, “As long as she doesn’t overexert herself,” he told Brenawyn, and facing Leo to make sure she was listening, he added, “and by that I mean, Mrs. Callahan, you cannot traipse up and down the stairs all day. No more than twice in twenty-four hours. Come down in the morning and then go back up in the evening when ready for bed. And I want you to keep the foot elevated as much as you can throughout the day. Is that clear?”

“Yes, it is. Thank you, doctor.”

A half-hour later, Leo was wheeled into the waiting room, sporting a knee-high cast on her right leg. “Brenawyn, I want to go home.”






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