Off the southwest coast of Ireland
He’d prayed the storm would kill him. One solid lightning strike to splinter his body into so many pieces no amount of mage energy could fit him back together.
A vain prayer. He’d moved far beyond the reach of any god’s aid.
The ocean had calmed from the froth of hurricane swells to a slick of black, rolling water. Good for inducing nausea, but not death. Clouds passed eastward, taking their lightning with them, leaving a sky shimmering with frozen stars, full moon hanging low on the horizon. Picturesque, yet his mood longed for a cyclone’s destruction to match the chaotic madness infecting his mind.
The storm had pushed them off course. He’d heard the sailors mutter and witnessed the captain’s frown as he prowled the quarterdeck. Behind schedule. Battered and in need of repairs. And Cobh harbor another day and a half away if the winds held.
So if the gods had deserted him, it fell to his own devices to find oblivion.
He’d been denied a split second’s painless annihilation. But there were other paths to Annwn. Trackless dark ways that led just as surely to the land of the dead.
He only needed to discover them.
Leaning against the rail, he scanned the sea, his answer written upon every wave. But could he go through with it? Would the wards that kept him alive and untouchable unravel within the sea god Lir’s cold fathoms, bringing the solace he craved? Or would the attempt result in endless suffering of a different kind within the clawing pull of the ocean tides?
The stars above rippled gold and silver upon the surface of the sea. Curled and eddied as if a hand drew shapes with light and water. Turned moonlight to a woman’s pale face. The ocean’s foam drifting across her features like a spill of dark hair, she breathed her love across the separating veil. Shone luminous in a world blanketed by shadows.
Had she been conjured from his tattered memories or was she mere dream? Impossible to distinguish. Names and faces drifted through his consciousness like ghosts. Sometimes as vivid as the existence he found himself trapped within. At other times, only emptiness met his probing efforts to remember. And he was left alone to fight the demonic rage that burned through him like acid. The fury of the damned.
He expected her to dissolve back into the waves any second, but she remained. Her eyes gleamed blue as corn-flowers. Her smile brightening for a moment the hopelessness pressing against his heart, and he knew he must take the course offered. Now. Here. Before she vanished. Before she was beaten back by the howling viciousness, and he was once again left bereft of memories or even the comfort of memories. At least this way he wouldn’t face the uncertainty of death alone.
Slinging a leg over the gunwale, he glanced to be sure none watched. But no, the deck remained quiet. He’d not get a better chance.
With a hard shove to propel him out of the ship’s shadow, he plunged into the water. Arrowed far down below the waves.
The water jolted him alert. A stomach-punch of icy pain, stabbing needles of agony through every nerve. Releasing his breath on a cloud of bubbles, he dropped deeper. Lungs burning and muscles cramping as he fought the instinctual need to breathe. To live.
He struggled against the claustrophobic crush of water, but the seeping drugged cold of the sea made every movement excruciating. And then impossible.
The woman’s smile urged him deeper.
Water filled his lungs. His body surrendered. Death came like a lover.
He answered her smile. And stepping through the curtain between them, embraced her at last.
“Sabrina! Where have you gotten yourself? Answer, or so help me . . .”
Normally such a threat would have shot Lady Sabrina Douglas from her hiding place like a bullet from a gun. Not so today. Today was different. It was the sixteenth of the month. Seven years ago on this date, her world had been turned upside down, and nothing had ever been quite the same since.
It wasn’t like her to spend time reminiscing on the past. The head of the Sisters of High Danu said it was useless spinning what-ifs in your head. One could lose oneself in the infinite possibilities of action and consequence until reality grew dangerously frayed. Madness lay in second-guessing.
But today, Sabrina courted madness. She’d forced herself to remember all that had occurred that long-ago November day from beginning to end. Let it flow from her brain to her journal in a mad scrawl. And at Sister Brigh’s first shout was only as far along as noontime.
“You ungrateful, undisciplined hoyden, come out this moment.”
When Sister Brigh scolded, Sabrina felt more like a disobedient ten-year-old than the woman of twenty-two she was. But then, Sister Brigh considered anyone younger than herself a recalcitrant child, which included almost the entire bandraoi community. The woman was a hundred if she was a day. Only Sister Ainnir rivaled her in age. The two like mossy twin holdovers from centuries past.
“Sabrina Douglas! I know you can hear me!”
Sister Brigh by far the mossier. And the louder.
Sabrina sighed, closing her journal on the pen marking her place.
November 16, 1808, would have to wait.
November 16, 1815, was calling.
The priestess’s clamoring faded as she left the barn. Turned her search to the nearby outbuildings—creamery, laundry, gardener’s sheds. The convent was large. It would take the head of novices ages to check everywhere.
Rising from her hiding place behind the stacked straw bales and grain bins, Sabrina dusted the grime from her skirts. Straightened her apron and the kerchief covering her hair before slipping back into the bustle of the order’s life. And right into Sister Brigh’s ambush.
“Gotcha!” Her talons sank through the heavy wool of Sabrina’s sleeve. Squeezed with enough force to bring hot tears to her eyes. “Ard-siúr’s had me searching for you this hour and more. And here you are, hiding as if there wasn’t honest work to be done.” She snatched the journal away. “Are you scribbling in that silly book again? You’ve been warned more than once about frittering away your time unwisely.”
Sabrina stiffened, giving Sister Brigh her best quelling look. “I wasn’t frittering. And I wasn’t hiding.”
It passed unnoticed. “Hmph. Come along. You’ve kept Ard-siúr waiting long enough.”
As they passed through the sheltered cloister, a group gathered at the front gates. Voices raised in surprise and confusion, drawing even the determined Sister Brigh’s eye from her purpose.
Sabrina craned her neck to peer over the crowd. “What’s happening?”
Sister Brigh responded with a scornful huff. “No doubt a lot of stuff and nonsense. Wouldn’t have happened in my day, you can be sure of that.”
Her day being sometime during the last ice age. Sister Brigh dressed in furs and sporting a club, no doubt.
She tightened her hold on Sabrina. Doubled her pace. Up the steps. Throwing the door wide with barely a word. Slamming it closed with a whisper equally as effective.
The old priestess’s sanity might be in doubt, but her magic was irrefutable.
The temperature plummeted once inside and out of the bleak afternoon sun. Frost hung in the passage leading to Ard-siúr’s office, causing Sabrina’s nervous breath to cloud the chilly air. The cold seeped through her heavy stockings and the double layer of petticoats she’d donned beneath her gown.
It wasn’t even winter yet and already she longed for spring. Spring and a release from scratchy underclothes and chilblains and runny noses and afternoon dusk and drafty passages. At this moment, she’d sell her soul for warmth and light and, well . . . something different.
So little varied within the order that any change, even the gradual shifting of seasons, seemed an adventure. But perhaps that was only because the genuine change she longed for still eluded her and would continue to do so if Sister Brigh had her grumpy way.
As they were shown through the antechamber to Ard-siúr’s office, Sister Anne waved a cheery hello. Received a bulldog scowl from Sister Brigh. A wan smile from Sabrina.
Compared to the chilly atmosphere of the outside corridor, Ard-siúr’s office seemed an absolute tropical paradise. A small stove put out heat enough to keep the tiny room comfortably cozy, and the thick rugs on the floor and bright wall hangings cheered the stark, color-draining stone. Add to that Ard-siúr’s cluttered desk complete with purring cat and the slow tick of a tall case clock in a far corner and Sabrina’s taut nerves began to relax.
The atmosphere seemed to have the opposite reaction for Sister Brigh. Her eyes darted around the room with fuming disapproval as she drew up in a quivering pose of long sufferance, only now releasing her death grip on Sabrina’s arm.
Ard-siúr put up a restraining hand while she finished her thought, her pen scribbling across the page, her lip caught girlishly between her teeth as she worked.
The head of the Sisters of High Danu seemed as eternal as the ancient standing stones guarding a nearby cliff-top meadow. Tall. Broad. A face weathered by years, yet eyes that remained clear and bright and full of humor. Her powers as a bandraoi and sorceress seemed to rival those of the Fey, as did her air of regal self-containment. But Sabrina knew it took every ounce of her gifts both innate and learned to preside over an order of Other while concealing their true nature from a distrustful Duinedon world.
To all beyond the walls of the order’s demesne, they were merely a reclusive house of contemplative religious women. It fell to Ard-siúr to see that it remained that way. An unenviable task. Though, come to think on it, there was one who envied it very much.
Sister Brigh breathed heavily though her nose like a kettle letting off steam.
Finally, Ard-siúr placed her pen in its tray. Scattered sand across the page. Shook it clean. Folded it. And cast her penetrating gaze upon the pair standing silently before her.
“Thank you, Sister Brigh, for locating Sabrina.”
Her acknowledgment clearly meant as a signal for the head of novices to depart.
Instead Sister Brigh barged ahead with a list of grievances. They rolled off her tongue as if she’d prepared them ahead of time. “Three times in three days, Ard-siúr. Three times I’ve caught her with her head in the clouds when she should be working. That or she’s scribbling in that diary of hers. You can’t keep brushing it under the rug. It only encourages her to feel she’s above the rules. The lord’s daughter she once was rather than the aspiring bandraoi priestess she’s supposed to be.”
The sarcastic emphasis Sister Brigh placed on “aspiring” had Sabrina bristling, but one look from Ard-siúr and she subsided without argument.
“Is this true, Sabrina? Do you feel above the rules? That your family’s station in life entitles you to special consideration?”
“No, of course not, but—”
Sister Brigh slammed the journal on Ard-siúr’s desk, sending the cat leaping for cover with a hiss. “Sabrina’s lack of devotion and her failure to abide by our way of living undermine her candidacy. And I, for one, believe she would be better off leaving the order and returning to her family.”
Ard-siúr turned her gaze upon Sabrina at last. “Sister Brigh brings up serious charges. Could it be that you aren’t as committed to a life among us as you think? That you begin to yearn for the future you might have led but for tragic circumstance?”
Sabrina blinked. Had Ard-siúr brought that up on purpose? Did she know what Sabrina had been writing in her diary? Or had the mention been mere coincidence? Always difficult to know with the head of their order. She seemed to have a canny knack for discerning all manner of things. Especially the bits you didn’t want known.
Perhaps forcing her mind back to that long-ago November day hadn’t been such a good idea after all. She’d dredged up memories long buried. Forgotten how much they hurt.
“I’m more than ready to take up my full duties as bandraoi.” She shot an offended glance Sister Brigh’s way. “And I didn’t mean to make you wait, Ard-siúr. I was trying . . . you see, I needed . . . it happened today seven years ago, Ard-siúr. And I felt as if I needed to remember it clearly before it slipped away.”
Ard-siúr gave a slow nod. “Ah yes, your father’s death.”
“His murder,” she clarified.
“It was seven years ago today the Amhas-draoi attacked and killed my father.”
“And for good reason, if half the rumors are true,” Sister Brigh mumbled. “Ard-siúr, even if it’s not enough for you that Sabrina shirks her duties and carries on as if she were queen of the manor, you must see that her presence brings the order unwanted attention. Never in our history was one of our priestesses interrogated by the Amhas-draoi.”
“It wasn’t my fault they wanted to speak with me. I didn’t tell them anything.”
“Keeping secrets from the very brotherhood sworn to protect us? Worse and worse.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’re twisting my words.”
“Enough.” Ard-siúr lifted a hand.
Momentum behind her, Sister Brigh barreled on. “A father working the demon arts. A fugitive brother running from the Amhas-draoi. The family of Douglas is cursed. And the sooner you’re gone from here, the better for the order.”
Sabrina turned a hot gaze on the elderly nun.
“I said enough.” The whip crack of Ard-siúr’s voice finally silenced Sister Brigh, though she remained red-faced and glaring with suppressed fury. “This is neither the time nor place. If you have valid arguments to make, bring them to me at another meeting and we can discuss it further.”
Turning her attention to Sabrina, Ard-siúr smiled. “My dear, I requested your presence merely to deliver a letter that’s come for you by messenger.”
How did one simple sentence drop the bottom out of her stomach and create an immediate need to draw nonexistent covers over her head? In her experience, letters never boded well. Like holding an unexploded bomb in your hand.
The door burst open on the flustered face of Sister Anne. “Ard-siúr, Sabrina’s needed in the infirmary right away. A man’s been brought in. Found half drowned on the beach below the village.”
“May I go?” Sabrina cast beseeching eyes in Ard-siúr’s direction.
Sister Brigh looked as though she chewed nails, but the head of the order dismissed Sabrina with an imperious wave of her hand. “Go. Sister Ainnir needs your skills. The letter will await your return.”
Plucking up her skirts, Sabrina dashed from the room in Sister Anne’s wake. She could kiss the unlucky fisherman who’d rescued her. Saved in the nick of time.
It was only fair to return the favor.
“Guide the mage energy as you would a surgical instrument. Precise. Focused,” Sister Ainnir advised quietly over the still form of the man lying between them.
Sabrina fought to check the magic simmering in her blood, humming along her bones. Less the accuracy of a stiletto than the bluntness of a battle-axe. Release the power now, she’d char the poor unfortunate man to cinders.
“Pay attention, Sabrina. Your mind is not on your work.”
No, it was still seething with resentment at Sister Brigh’s accusations. Lack of dedication. Above the rules. Frittering. If Sabrina wasn’t careful, the head of novices would have her on a coach to Belfoyle before the year was out. Nasty cow.
The mage energy surged in a dramatic arc of red and gold and coral and the palest green. Lit up her insides until she felt the buzzing in her ears, the zing of it lifting the hairs on her arms, squeezing her chest like a pair of whalebone stays.
The man spasmed, gasping for a breath he could not catch. Animal rage boiled off him in waves. Desperation. Terror. Panic.
The emotions raked the inside of Sabrina’s skull like caged animals. She staggered against the instant throbbing behind her eyes. Spots and pinwheels bursting across her vision like Guy Fawkes fireworks.
His throat constricted as he vomited a trickle of seawater from lungs full and useless. He flung out a fist, sending Sabrina leaping backward.
Frustration. Disappointment. Fury.
Stark and immediate and enough to make Sabrina dizzy. She threw up every mental barricade, yet still the echoes of his pain battled through to sink razored claws into her brain.
“Don’t stop,” Sister Ainnir urged. “Don’t break your concentration. It’s too soon.”
The Fey threads of Sabrina’s magic danced along her skin like an increasing storm charge. A shimmering will-o’-the-wisp at the corners of her sight. Whispering in her head like a breeze or an echo or a rush of water over rocks.
She wrapped herself in the sensations, the empathic crush of overpowering emotion lessening to a bearable degree. No longer in danger of passing out, at any rate.
Gathering the healing fire, she renewed her lost focus. Used her lingering anger to hone her determination to scalpel brilliance. Returned to his bedside, bringing her powers to the assistance of Sister Ainnir, whose strength waned after hours of fighting the underworld for possession of this lost sailor’s soul.
“That’s it. Feel the way it bends to your will. Careful. Don’t force it.” The infirmarian took Sabrina’s hand, moving it to a spot just above his right lung. His flesh was icy cold, the palest milky blue but for the crisscross web of silver scars. “There now. See? Do you feel the way the life wavers just there?”
Sabrina let the rise and fall of his faltering breaths bear her along. In and out and in and out, winding her healing magic into the pattern. Steady. Unerring. But wait . . . something not quite right. Not as it should be. Instead, unfamiliar strands tangled and knotted and bound themselves without her aid or her powers. A new pattern. A strange weaving of life and mage energy, unfaltering darkness at its core. A rippling, slithering brush against her mind as she worked.
Then nothing. The unidentified magic vanishing as subtly as it appeared.
She delved deeper, but a jerk of the man’s head and unconsciousness became sleep. Death receded.
“Sister Ainnir, did you feel that?” she asked, stealing a long, frowning look at the patient.
He breathed. Already his color returned, a dusky golden bronze where he’d recently been fish-belly white. But had it been their healing that had done it? For the merest fraction of a moment, she’d almost thought . . .
“That is life, Sabrina.” Sister Ainnir sagged into a chair, her face as waxen as the dripping tapers behind them. “Annwn will have to wait for this one.”
Sabrina’s feeling of not-quite-rightness disappeared in the afterglow that always followed a success. This man had arrived at the convent unresponsive, given up for dead. And through her efforts he held to life. Her skills had saved him. This was something she, Sabrina, was good at. A prowess no lack of wealth or beauty or elegant Society airs could diminish.
She pulled the blanket up over the stranger. Let her eyes loiter for a moment over the harsh angles and grim lines of his face. Even asleep he looked prepared to do murder. Lips pressed in a thin slash of anger. Jaw clamped.
What misfortunes had landed him on a rocky beach, lungs full of ocean?
His emotions spoke of violence and combat. His body bore this out. The hardened muscles, the web of scarring, the frightening intensity of expression.
She pushed against his mind, barely connecting. A mere glancing caress. Hoping to transmit peace, safety, the warmth of a soft bed, the security of a quiet room. Yet even that lightest of touches brought back a ricochet pound of emotions. No more the cyclone’s angry devastation. Instead there was grief and torment and a crushing anguish that stung her eyes with hot, unbidden tears.
She gasped, falling back into herself with a swipe of her sleeve over her burning cheeks. Forced her gaze and mind away from him, though she felt his knifing presence at her back, the looming silence of him like an approaching line of thunderheads in a yellow sky.
And yes, she read far too many novels if she was spinning such melodramatic notions from a half-drowned pirate.
She shook off her fancy to focus on Sister Ainnir, who returned her gaze with one of dazed exhaustion. Good heavens. Here she was dream-spinning when she should have been concerning herself with Sister Ainnir.
They’d been here for hours, dinner come and gone. Afternoon’s heavy dusk deepening to night. Had it been too much for the aged priestess? Had she offered more of her strength than she could easily give?
“Let me help you back to your quarters.” Sabrina offered the old woman an arm to lean against as she struggled to her feet.
“And the gentleman?” Sister Ainnir sighed. “Perhaps one of us should remain.”
“It’s my night to stay,” Sabrina said, glancing back at the stranger with an unconscious shudder and, no, it was not excitement. “Sister Noreen is here now. I can have you settled and be back before she goes off duty.”
“Then I accept your assistance with gratitude. This old body isn’t as spry as it once was. And I’ve found I enjoy my bed far more than I used to.”
The two of them made their painfully slow way through the passage into the main ward. “You’ve a great gift, my child,” Sister Ainnir said. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
The earlier bitterness resurfaced now that the emergency had passed. “Sister Brigh doesn’t think so. I’m a grown woman, yet she treats me like a child.”
Sister Ainnir paused, turning to face Sabrina. “Sister Brigh fears anything that would topple the delicate balance of the world we Other have created for ourselves. She believes our survival lies in remaining apart from the Duinedon. Not bringing attention to ourselves. Your family—your father—believed just the opposite. Rightly or wrongly, in her mind, that makes you a threat.”
“If that’s the case, how will I ever get her to see past my father’s sins? She’ll never agree to my taking final rites.”
Sister Ainnir started walking, drawing Sabrina after. “Brigh is not the only one who matters in such things. You’ve many allies within the community who recognize your potential.” She chuckled. “Look around you. Don’t think I don’t know who it is who keeps this place running. I’m too old for wrestling death.”
“You’re not old, Sister,” Sabrina countered diplomatically.
“And you’re a horrid liar, young lady. I know exactly how old I am. I feel every year, especially on nights like this. No, it’s up to you to take over here.”
Up to her? Was Sister Ainnir saying what Sabrina thought she was saying? “I’m not a full priestess yet.”
“Not yet, but who could deny your readiness after tonight’s work?”
She was saying what she thought she was saying. Joy bubbled up through Sabrina’s chest. She clamped on the whoop that threatened to spill out of her. A whoop was not an appropriate reaction for a dignified bandraoi priestess. Besides, she could heal the sick, raise the dead, and cure the common cold and Sister Brigh would still find a reason to hold up the final rites. Probably accuse Sabrina of showing off on top of all her other crimes.
Leaving the ward, they crossed through the hall and out into the night, the wind tugging at their skirts, clouds scudding silver-edged across the sky. A moon shining high and pale above, reflected in the scummy puddles of the courtyard.
“You possess an innate talent and have learned to use it as well as any fully promoted infirmarian.” Sister Ainnir’s words trembled thin and strained in the damp cold. “What can Ard-siúr say to that?”
“She can say, ‘Thank you very much, but don’t count on it.’ I’m a Douglas, remember?”
“Aye, I do. And that in itself should seal your destiny as bandraoi. For the Douglases have all been known to bear a Fey strength above the ordinary.”
“And my family’s accursedness?” She tried and failed to keep the resentment from her voice.
“Bah! Accursedness! Talk like that makes us sound like a gaggle of old superstitious crones.”
Their bodies bent close, Sabrina noted Sister Ainnir’s infirmity, the bony, liver-spotted hand, the weakness of her grip. Had this day’s work been too much? Or had she always been this frail and Sabrina refused to notice?
“We make our own fate, child.”
She sounded so certain. So confident. And why shouldn’t she? Sister Ainnir had probably been here when they’d laid the first stone, or at least she gave that impression. Unfathomable wisdom. Indefatigable strength. She’d always been. Would always be. Like everything here. The buildings. The gray-robed sisters. The chapel. The toll of slow, sonorous bells.
It was what Sabrina loved about the order. The sense of forever in every mortared stone. The unaltering eternity as if time stopped within its walls. As if nothing could penetrate the sanctity and protection of this place. It was that very permanence that had attracted her to a life as a bandraoi priestess.
When change had battered Sabrina’s well-ordered world like a hurricane tide and all she’d known and everyone she’d loved had vanished in a fury of blood and tears, the sisters of High Danu had become a harbor from the storm. Serene. Steady. Safe.
Only recently had she occasionally found monotony in the steady tread of passing time. Frustration in the rigid order. But these moments were rare and stamped out as soon as they surfaced. She knew where she belonged. And it was here.
They climbed the stairs to Sister Ainnir’s chambers. Opened the door to a breath of perfumed air and the warmth of a fire recently stirred to cheerful life.
“I can manage from here. You go back now. Try to get some rest. There’s naught more we can do for him tonight, but watch,” Sister Ainnir said.
Sabrina smiled. “Thank you. For everything.”
The priestess covered Sabrina’s hand with her own. The clarity in her clear gray eyes revealing nothing of her body’s weakness. Instead they bore a steady unflagging strength that seeped through Sabrina’s skin into her bones, her tendons, her muscles. A gift of renewal when all her body craved was sleep.
“Your reasons for coming to us may have originated in a need to escape a painful past, but have you not found a home here?” Sister Ainnir asked. “A sisterhood in all but title?”
“I have. This life is all I’ve ever wanted. I’ve always been more comfortable here than among the airs and graces of Society’s elite. I can be myself. I don’t need to try to fit into someone’s else’s mold.”
“Then the Sister Brighs of this world be damned.”
Sabrina laughed. “You make it sound so easy.”
The old woman chucked Sabrina’s chin as she might a child’s. “If it were easy, we’d have young women beating down our doors to get in. It’s the difficulty keeps the riffraff out.”
Where was Lazarus? A missed meeting. No follow-up letters. Not one telltale clue.
Máelodor reached with his mind as far as he dared, yet no answering touch met his seeking fingers of thought. Only an empty echoing silence, a frozen, endless abyss spiraling always downward until his very skull flexed against the pressure. He surrendered to his body’s frailty. He would eat. Rest. Begin the search for his mage-born Domnuathi again in the morning. He might feel death at the other end of their tenuous connection, but that was misleading. As long as Máelodor lived, Lazarus lived.
And Máelodor would find him. It was only a matter of time.
Which was all on his side.
He heaved himself from his chair to hobble painfully to the window. His prosthesis ground against the stumped remains of his leg, and the cold gnawed at bones grown brittle and twisted, but he refused to remain in his chair another moment.
Dusk fell early in the mountains, but the moon’s reflection against the snow shone ghostly across the forested hillside. Furnished light enough to see by. To measure the man about to appear before him for instructions.
Across the valley, lights flickered from a few scattered homesteads. Strung out across the Cambrian Mountains like glimmering jewels set against the primitive isolation of the Welsh highlands.
The ancestors of these people had fought with a ferocity and a cleverness that kept them free for ages. Romans. Vikings. Saxons. Normans. They’d all tried to tame the wild Celtic nature. All had broken upon their shore and been turned aside.
But in all the eons of kings and warlords and princes who’d passed into and out of history, only one was remembered with the passion of the devoted. One stood higher. Burned brighter. Gathered followers long after there was naught left of their hero but bones.
Those who held the full knowledge hadn’t let his demise hinder their dreams. The Nine and those devoted to them understood that death was temporary. Power was forever. And if Arthur returned, there would always be men and women who chose to follow his banner. With Máelodor to guide him and his own charismatic aura, the High King would march at the head of an army, and a world once again dominated by Other would be in reach. No longer the ignominy for the Fey-born of the cart’s tail or a pitch-soaked scaffold. Instead, control. Command. Supremacy.
A new golden age.
Arthur was the key to success.
And Arthur was one step closer to being reborn.
Behind Máelodor, on the desk, lay his first victory. The Kilronan diary was in his possession. Its mysteries revealed after months of patient decoding. The only failure among so much success lay in the survival of Kilronan’s pathetic whelp of an heir, Aidan Douglas.
Lazarus had paid dearly for allowing the man to live.
The Domnuathi wouldn’t allow such scruples to surface again. Not now that he’d been reminded just who held the whip hand.
Not that it mattered overmuch. Máelodor had managed to defuse the threat posed by Douglas. He’d been deemed unhinged and as discredited as his executed father. His claims of Máelodor’s existence as the head of a reconstituted network of disaffected Other termed the ravings of a man desperate to clear his power-mad younger brother.
Brendan Douglas remained at large seven years after the rest of the Nine had been exterminated. But not for long. The Amhas-draoi, guardians of the divide between mortal and Fey, tracked him with unceasing determination. And they weren’t the only ones hunting the rogue Other. When Máelodor finally captured the youngest heir to Kilronan, he’d beg for death before the end.
A knock broke him from his more violent fantasies.
A man bowed himself in. Slick. Smiling. Dark as a villain. “You summoned me?”
Máelodor straightened, throwing his crooked shoulders back. “Lazarus is missing. He was to contact a man in Cork. Their meeting never took place.”
The man lounged against a table. Insolently picked through a bowl of fruit as if he were in the company of his mates and not his superior. “Mayhap he found himself a bit of something. Decided to dally a bit.”
Máelodor’s walking stick splintered beneath his increasing stranglehold. “A soldier of Domnu, a creature born of my magic and bound to my will, does not dally. He does as I order. Without question. Without thought.”
The man straightened. “So what’s the job? You want me to track your wayward slave down? Tell him Mummy’s worried?”
Máelodor let his curse fly with a flick of his fingers. Felt a rush of satisfaction at the instant graying of the man’s face. The widening of his terrified eyes as the air was squeezed from his throat. The lurching stumble against the table before he dropped to his knees, the pilfered apple rolling across the floor.
Máelodor shuffled to stand over this paltry excuse for a human. “You are new among us, so I shall make it simple. You will assume Lazarus’s mission. Retrieve the Rywlkoth Tapestry. Bring it to me.”
The man nodded, blue lips blubbering as he clawed at his throat.
Máelodor dissolved the curse with a second flick of his fingers. Allowed the man a moment of silent weeping before hooking one bony finger in his cravat and drawing him up. “You don’t ask where you’re being sent?”
The man’s frightened eyes slid away, but Máelodor thrilled to the result of his dark powers. “You learn fast. Well, since you’re such a quick study, I’ll answer the question you dare not ask.” He glanced back at the diary’s burned binding. The pages blistered and cracked, but protected by the same spells keeping it indecipherable to any but the Nine. “You leave for Ireland, and the order of the Sisters of High Danu.”
Crushing darkness. Muscles screaming. A mind in flames. And always the fanged jaws. The reptilian eye. A coiled presence at the very edges of his consciousness.
Dropping deeper and deeper into the black abyss, he reached for the woman, his hands coming away with naught but ocean, the glancing dart and glint of fish. He’d been fooled into believing she would be here waiting. Instead, he found only the pain of distant shredded memory. Useless against his current suffering.
Light speared the ocean’s murk, descending even to the drowning depths where he drifted frozen and blind. The slithering presence retreated. Turned its searching slitted gaze elsewhere.
He was alone.
For the first time in longer than he could remember, he was completely alone.
© 2011 Alix Rickloff