Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is the sequel to Bourne's Edge and The Doll Hospital.
THE RAGGEDY BUSH
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
For as long as the village's oldest resident can remember, the raggedy bush has stood on Nether Hopton's common. From its thorny black branches flutter rags or scraps of clothing. The colour remains bright on those tied recently, but age and exposure to sun, wind, and rain has faded and rotted the rest, until many are now more memory than substance.
It wasn't always so.
The hawthorn started life as a seed in a pile of bird droppings. Its existence was precarious at first. It was sheer luck that the seedling managed to escape the attentions of the livestock that grazed the common in those days. And while a sapling, it almost became fuel for a starving villager's wood stove. But somehow it survived, and at last it turned into a fully-grown, albeit lopsided tree. Then someone, a passing Traveller perhaps, who had seen the rag trees and raggedy bushes across the Irish Sea, hung a rag from its lowest branch.
Perhaps his ladylove was ill or dogged by misfortune, and he hoped that, as the scrap of her clothing rotted, so her illness would vanish, her misfortune go elsewhere. Or perhaps his reasons for tying the rag were more selfish—dreams of fame and fortune, sex and influence.
We'll never know whether his wish, whatever it was, was granted. But the custom he started caught on.
For far stranger beliefs than raggedy bushes are held by those who live in the lush hills and valleys that separate England from Wales. On the hillside above Nether Hopton, for example, stands an ancient ring of stones. Some call them the Nine Sisters, for there are nine stones in all. Others call them The Fairy Ring, and swear to strange goings-on in their midst on a Midsummer's Eve.
Nether Hopton isn't alone in its fey customs and beliefs. Just visible across the mist-filled valley from it lies Bourne's Edge. As its name suggests, the village borders what was left of a vast, ancient tract of native woodland known as Bourne Forest. Some claim an entrance to the realm of Faerie lies at the forest's heart, but none have ever proved it and few who are sensible even attempt it these days. They report that, once inside the forest, the silence quickly becomes oppressive, brooding, even menacing, that even the wildlife give the deep wood a wide berth. They say it's as if the ancient trees are watching their every step, that they stand poised to prevent them from going any further. And perhaps they're right.
By the time Cassie reached the stop at Nether Hopton, she was five minutes behind schedule. She screeched to a halt just inside the Raggedy Bush's carpark, turned off the ignition, grabbed the keys, and leaped out of the driver's cab.
Three people were queuing next to the mobile library sign and they watched her run round to the library's side door with differing expressions. The stooped old woman scowled, the teenage boy's cheeks flushed as red as his hair, and the plump woman with the dangly earrings gave her a friendly smile and called out, "Got lost did you, love?"
"I took a wrong turning," admitted Cassie, unlocking the door. "Sorry."
When she had taken the job driving the mobile library she hadn't realised how much she would be expected to memorise. The library worked on a fortnightly cycle, which meant taking a different route every day for two weeks. The roads and lanes that honeycombed these hills and valleys weren't exactly straightforward; some stops were known by local names that didn't correspond to any on the Ordnance Survey map, and then there were the short cuts she was expected to know about but didn't. It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and already today she'd overshot and ended up having to reverse up a steep hill, taken three wrong turns, and had to ask for directions twice. With familiarity things would improve, she supposed. At least she hoped so.
Cassie unlocked the library's door and took the single step up. Her customers followed her inside, clutching their returned library books. She settled herself behind the counter and smiled encouragingly.
The old woman plonked three Westerns in front of her. Cassie swiped the scanner over the barcodes and looked at her computer screen. They were two weeks overdue, but the woman's age exempted her from any fine.
"Thank you, Mrs Norville."
The woman grunted, turned, and squeezed past the other two customers, heading for the shelves at the rear of the library labelled 'Large Print'.
"Yes?" Cassie prompted the teenager.
He handed his books over for scanning. Although his Fantasy blockbusters weren't overdue, he didn’t leave her to look for more but hovered by the counter. She looked a query at him.
He flicked his fringe out of his eyes and peered shyly at her, his blush deepening. "Has my book come in yet, Miss?"
"Oh I'm sorry, Mr Cork. Did you reserve one?"
"Three weeks ago." He shifted from one foot to the other. "I was told it would be in today."
According to the details on the computer there should indeed be a book for Ian Cork lurking in the plastic crate under the counter. She bent down, raised the lid, and found it: a fat Science Fiction blockbuster, recently published.
He beamed when he saw it and was so eager he would have snatched it from her before she had stamped it if she had let him. She stifled a grin and watched him hurry towards the exit. Another satisfied customer.
The plump woman with the dangly earrings held out her book. "Just the one, love. It shouldn't be overdue." It was a battered copy of 'Rebecca.'
Cassie scanned the barcode. "That's fine. Thank you, Mrs. Sheldon."
She sensed that the woman would like to stand and chat, and gave her watch a surreptitious glance. "Erm. I'm afraid there's only a few minutes left." Some stops on the route merited five minutes; others were allowed up to forty. It must depend on population density or something.
Mrs Sheldon smiled. "Don't worry, love. It doesn't take me long to find a book." But she took the hint and drifted away to scan the packed adult fiction shelves.
The old woman came back to the counter with two large print Westerns, but perhaps she'd already read them, because she was still looking grumpy when she left.
"Don't mind her," said Mrs Sheldon, her earrings jiggling as she followed the direction of Cassie's gaze. "It's just her arthritis playing up." She handed over a book, the latest by Joanna Trollope.
"It's had good reviews," commented Cassie, handing it back with its date stamped.
She nodded and got to her feet. "Sorry. Time's up. I'm afraid I've got to get going or I'll be even more behind schedule."
The plump woman's expression became sympathetic. "You certainly have your work cut out." She turned and headed for the exit and Cassie followed her.
"It'll be better once I know all the routes and short cuts." Cassie stepped down, pulling the door closed, and locking it.
"I'm sure. See you in a fortnight then."
Cassie nodded and sprinted for the driving seat.
The wolfhounds' excited whining drew Tarian back to her surroundings. As the two dogs rose from their baskets and padded out into the hall, claws clacking on the tiles, she glanced at the studio wall clock and stretched the stiffness from her shoulders.
That time already? Where’s the day gone?
She could hear Cassie's voice in the hall, greeting the dogs. She hadn't heard the little car drive up or the front door open. But then, she had been so engrossed in her painting she hadn't heard much of anything.
She was putting the paintbrushes in a jam jar to soak when a thought struck her. Wasn't it her turn to cook tonight?
A blonde head appeared round the door. "There you are."
Cassie came into the studio, the dogs at her heels. When she saw the canvas sitting on the easel, she stopped and studied it from several different angles. "That's the watchtower on the hill, isn't it?"
"Yes." Tarian draped an arm around Cassie's shoulders and pressed a kiss against a soft cheek. "Like it?"
Cassie nodded. "The colours are perfect. Just how I remember them." She glanced at Tarian and laughed. "There's a smudge of yellow paint on your nose."
Tarian wiped it away with the back of her hand. "Better?"
Cassie turned, wrapped her arms around Tarian's waist, and inclined her face for a kiss. Tarian obliged, kissing her very thoroughly indeed before pulling back.
Cassie licked her lips, smiled, and nodded. "Better." But there were signs of strain around the green eyes.
"Bad day?" asked Tarian.
"I'll tell you about it over dinner." Cassie frowned and gave a thoughtful sniff. "Is there any dinner? I can't smell anything."
Tarian winced. "Um. About that...."
"You lost track of the time again, didn't you?" Cassie laughed. "Never mind. We'll have salad. It's a nice day for it." She gestured at the sunlight spilling through the studio windows.
They went through to the kitchen. Tarian got out the plates and a salad bowl and tongs, then got the joint of cooked meat from the refrigerator.
She nudged away Anwar and Drysi's hopeful noses. "Uh uh. You'll get yours in a bit."
While she carved slices of cold pork, Cassie rooted around in the salad drawer, assembling ingredients to slice and toss.
What else do we need? thought Tarian. Ah, yes.
She fetched enough potatoes for two from the pantry, then scrubbed and boiled them with a spell.
"We could have waited twenty minutes," chided Cassie, as Tarian transferred the steaming potatoes to the plates and added generous lumps of butter.
"I'm hungry." Her rumbling stomach was reminding her she had forgotten to eat lunch. She opened a bottle of white wine and poured them each a glass then went back to the pantry to sort out food for the dogs.
Cassie had finished transferring the dressed salad to their plates when Tarian returned to the kitchen.
"Enough?" She gestured at their plates.
Tarian tossed the dogs a boar's thighbone each. They began to squabble over which was the largest, until Tarian stopped them with a command. Chastened, the dogs grabbed the nearest bone and followed her and Cassie out into the back garden.
They sat on the sun-dappled bench beneath the rowan tree, eating off trays, while the dogs crunched contentedly next to them. As she chewed, Tarian's eyes roved around the garden, which looked a lot more civilised than it had, thanks to Cassie. The lawn's bare patches had been reseeded and several new flowering shrubs were growing in the borders. There was also a bird table and birdbath, and some blue tits were pecking at the peanuts.
Cassie's shoulders relaxed, and the tension around her eyes eased, and they finished their dinner in companionable silence, soothed by the cooing of pigeons in the forest adjoining the garden, the rustle of the breeze in the rowan's branches, and the buzz of busy insects.
Tarian stretched languidly then took the trays indoors. She returned with a choc-ice for Cassie and the bottle of wine they'd already opened. She refilled Cassie's glass and her own, and resumed her seat on the bench, draping her arm around Cassie's shoulders.
"You were going to tell me about your day," she prompted.
"Mm. I was, wasn't I?" Cassie broke the crisp chocolate coating with her teeth and licked the ice cream inside it. "I wish it wasn't always such a rush, Tarian. Whoever designed the routes and schedules must have had superpowers... or no regard for the speed limit."
"It'll get better. You're still finding your way."
"Tell me about it. I got lost twice today." Cassie shook her head and sighed.
"Never mind. You'll soon be an expert."
"Hope so." Cassie concentrated on her ice cream for a few minutes. "Did you know there's a stone circle across the valley from here? Just up the hill above Nether Hopton."
Tarian nodded. "On a clear day, you can see it. I can sometimes sense it too."
Cassie turned to look at her. "Sense it?"
"Stone circles are places of power, Cassie. They focus it, concentrate it."
Tarian sipped her wine. "Earth power."
"Is there such a thing?"
Cassie licked the last of the ice cream from inside the wrapper, crumpled it, and put it in her pocket. "Interesting." She sucked her fingers clean. "So all that stuff about ley lines is for real?"
Tarian snorted. "I didn't say that."
There was a blob of ice cream on the end of Cassie's nose. Tarian wondered whether to mention it.
"Quaint place, Nether Hopton," continued Cassie. "It has a raggedy bush. I saw it while I was parked outside the pub." She glanced at Tarian. "Which was named after which, do you suppose? The pub or the bush?"
Tarian blinked at her. "Raggedy bush?"
"Alternate name for a rag tree," explained Cassie. Tarian was no wiser. "A tree that people tie rags to? A kind of wishing tree."
"Oh." Tarian let her scepticism show.
"There's nothing to it, then?" Cassie sounded disappointed.
"Unlikely." Their eyes met. "What would you have wished for?" asked Tarian.
Cassie gave her a fond look. "Nothing I haven't got already."
Tarian smiled. "You've got ice cream on the tip of your nose," she said. "No. Don't." Cassie's hand dropped back to her lap and she allowed Tarian to lick off the ice cream.
One thing led to another, of course, and after they'd been kissing for a while Tarian pressed her lips to Cassie's ear. "The turf out here is dry and springy," she murmured. "With a rug over it would as comfortable as our bed. Want to try it?"
She nibbled the handy earlobe then pulled back. Cassie's cheeks had gone a delicate shade of pink.
"You're suggesting we make love... in the garden?" She sounded half appalled, half intrigued.
"Sun-warmed skin smells different, tastes different." Tarian cocked her head and studied Cassie, trying to gauge what concerned her. "And no one will see or hear us except the birds."
Cassie hesitated, then licked her lips. "All right." Her voice was husky. "Fetch the rug."
Dusk is falling over the common as a man staggers across it towards the raggedy bush, a bottle dangling from one hand. Once, Eddy Spurrier was well groomed, prosperous, but, as his rumpled business suit shows, he's fallen on hard times.
Somewhere a fox barks. Streetlamps blink into life. The closing of the Raggedy Bush's saloon bar door cuts short a burst of light, laughter, and music. In the cottages bordering the common, front room curtains twitch, muting the glow of standard lamps and flicker of television screens.
Eddy takes another swig of wine, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and refuses to imagine the happy scenes of family life unfolding inside those rooms. His own is dark, neglected. Three years ago his wife left him and took their five-year-old daughter with her.
"All you ever think about is that bloody business," she shouted, dragging Poppy towards the taxi that would take them to her mother's. "Well I've had enough."
He thought it would blow over, she'd come back, but she didn't. And now—his lips curve in a bleak smile—the business he neglected his family for has deserted him too. Or rather it's about to. After months of threatening, the bank has called in his loan.
He stops in front of the rag-strewn tree and stares up at it. He's tried everything he can think of to dig himself out of this hole. The second mortgage helped for a while, but that money's gone now. Desperate men have no shame, but he's begged so much from friends and acquaintances, now they cross the road whenever they see him. He's borrowed as much as he dares from a moneylender, even put money on the horses, though that sure-fire tip wasn't. But all his digging has only made the hole deeper.
He raises the bottle to his lips and finds it empty. Disgusted, he tosses it away. It lands with a dull thud, and rolls to a halt with a clink.
But there's still one thing Eddy hasn't tried.
"After all," he slurs, pulling the lining of his trouser pocket inside out, "what can it hurt?"
The material of the pocket lining is worn, its stitching weak. It's the work of a moment to rip it out and snag it on the lowest branch of the tree. He stands back to admire his handiwork, sucking a thumb stabbed by a sharp black thorn; he hopes it isn’t an omen.
"Help me," he mumbles. "Find me the money from somewhere. Don't let me go under. Please."
The silence stretches and the stars look coldly down. In the distance a dog howls. An owl's hoot sounds mocking in the darkness. Eddy hunches his shoulders and jams his hands in his pockets, startled by the brush of bare thigh against knuckles. With a sigh, he turns and lurches back across the common. Moments later, the front door of his cottage clicks closed with a sound of finality behind him.
Minutes pass. Then a shadow detaches itself and moves towards the raggedy bush. Moonlight illuminates a dark-haired man, slim, strikingly handsome, and taller than average. He's casually elegant in leather jeans and a leather jacket.
As he studies the lining fluttering from the branch, he whistles under his breath. White teeth gleam in the moonlight. Well-shaped lips move in a low murmur, the words taken from no language spoken by mortal kind. Long fingers trace an intricate shape in the night air.
The murmur comes to an end, and the man's brow creases before smoothing again. He narrows his eyes at the raggedy bush. A change has come over it, one too subtle for human eyes to detect. He smiles, eyes dancing with amusement. When he turns and heads towards the pub he's almost skipping. There's a burst of light, laughter, and music as he enters, then the pub door closes behind him.
All is quiet on the common once more.
Cassie parked her car in one of the 'staff only' parking bays, and walked round to the rear of the Bishop's Castle library.
The white minibus-cum-van was where she had left it last night, but gone was the coat of dust and dirt so thick you could write obscenities in it with your finger. Glass and chrome gleamed in the morning sunshine. She could even read the stencilled slogan: 'Welcome to your library'. Damp patches and disappearing soapsuds dotted the tarmac all around it.
"Morning, Miss Lewis," called the bearded man in the grubby overalls who had just finished washing it. "Now don't you go getting her all muddy again." He finished coiling the hosepipe around the length of his forearm.
"Morning, Harry," called Cassie. "I'll try not to. Thanks."
The maintenance man headed towards his workshop. She admired his handiwork for a moment before continuing on towards the branch library's rear entrance.
As Cassie entered, a woman looked up from the trolley on which she was arranging books. The librarian was a couple of years older than Cassie, but her pixy haircut and an impish grin made her look younger, "Ah. There you are."
"Morning, Jenny. What have you got for me today?"
"The usual." The librarian gestured towards the plastic crate marked 'Reserved Books: BC: Route 13'.
While Jenny trundled the heavily laden trolley out the exit and down the ramp, Cassie hefted the crate up onto one hip, and followed her outside. Thank heavens it wasn't raining, she thought, as she stepped up onto the mobile library, stowed the crate under the counter, then went to help transfer books from the trolley to the mobile's shelves.
"I'm refreshing the Westerns today." Jenny swept the old ones off the shelf and began putting new ones in their place.
"Mrs. Norville will be pleased."
"Good heavens!" The librarian glanced at her. "Is that old biddy still reading them?"
In the week that Cassie had known Jenny she'd learned two things. The first was that Jenny used to drive the mobile library, but had never been keen on the driving so when a permanent position in the branch library came up, she jumped at the chance to switch. The second was that Jenny had met her husband on one of the mobile's routes. Dewi Price lived and worked in Nether Hopton, and after their marriage, Jenny had moved in with him.
"You'd think Mrs Norville would be sick of the sight of Westerns by now," continued Jenny.
Cassie laughed. "I went through a Western phase myself when I was a teenager. Must have read every single one my local branch had in stock. Towards the end, though, even I was noticing a certain sameness to the plots."
"Some people like that in a book." With a grunt Jenny picked up half of the discarded Westerns and carried them outside. Cassie picked up the rest and followed her.
"Not me." Cassie tipped the books onto the trolley and didn't bother to straighten them. "I like a bit of originality."
"Me too." Jenny gave her an approving look. "Dewi's the same. He never throws the same thing twice."
Cassie glanced up from checking her watch. "What on earth do you mean?"
"Oh, didn't I tell you?" Jenny grinned. "He's a potter."
"Really?" Cassie debated whether to reveal more about her personal circumstances or not then threw caution to the winds. "Tarian's a painter. In acrylics, mostly."
"She." Cassie held her breath.
If Jenny's eyes had gleamed when she realised Cassie's partner was an artist, now they positively sparkled. "She?"
"That's going to break Harry's heart." Jenny drummed her fingers on the trolley handle then noticed Cassie's puzzled expression. "Haven't you noticed the way he keeps ogling you?"
Her eyes widened. The maintenance man?
Jenny let out a hoot of laughter. "Just kidding." Her expression became thoughtful. "We must get Tarian and Dewi together. An artist and a craftsman, they're bound to have lots to talk about."
Cassie grimaced. "I don't know whether that's such a good idea. Tarian can be a bit of a recluse."
Jenny waved a hand in dismissal. "Oh, Dewi gets like that sometimes too. It's the artistic temperament. They need space to think and plenty of peace and quiet."
"Anyway. It was only a suggestion. You're in Bourne's Edge, aren't you? That's just across the valley from us. Why don't you both come round to dinner one night? Next Saturday, maybe? Or the one after? Dewi won't mind." She grinned. "Or if he does he'll pretend he doesn’t."
"That's nice of you," said Cassie. Though it was fun staying home with Tarian each night, it wouldn't hurt to get out once in a while and to widen their circle of friends. "Can I let you know?"
"Of course." It was Jenny's turn to glance at her watch. "Oops! You'd better get going." She locked the mobile's door and threw the keys.
Cassie snatched them out of the air and headed round towards the cab. "See you later," she called. "I'll mention to Tarian about dinner."
The car's headlights illuminated a signpost.
"Nether Hopton, 1 mile," said Tarian. "You're getting good at this."
Cassie grinned. "I am, aren't I?" She changed down a gear. "I must be acquiring the librarian equivalent of the Knowledge. Soon people will be asking me: "What's the quickest way to get from A to B?" and I'll be able to rattle off the answer, just like that."
"The quickest way for the mobile library," corrected Tarian. "There must be lots of little lanes and back alleys they haven't told you about because you'd get stuck if you tried to drive that galumphing great thing down them."
Cassie sniffed. "Pedant."
Tarian hid a smile and peered out the window. The view across the valley would have been pitch black, but Fae night vision was excellent and she could see the rooftop aerials and the shabby church spire of Bourne's Edge as clear as day. She allowed herself a wince as she contemplated the evening ahead. Cassie had lived in Birmingham before moving here and was used to a much more active social life, so Tarian had agreed to make the effort. She'd prefer a night's boar hunting with her dogs though to making small talk with Cassie's new friends. Still, at least it might give her the opportunity to try her hand at pottery.
Lights twinkling up ahead drew her attention back to her surroundings, and moments later they reached their destination.
Nether Hopton was more spread out than Bourne's Edge, Tarian saw, as they drove along the dimly lit High Street, probably because this side of the valley was less steep. The village was larger too, and centred around an oval expanse of rough grass with a small lopsided tree standing in the middle of it.
"That's the common," said Cassie, following her glance. "And that," she pointed to a brightly-lit, white-washed building on their left, "is the Raggedy Bush pub. I park the library in their carpark."
Tarian eyed the sign hanging above the pub's front door—a bad rendition of a tree with coloured rags hanging from its branches. "Call that art?"
Cassie chuckled and slowed the car to a crawl, turning her head from side to side as she searched for the pottery. Tarian joined her.
There was no sign of 'Price's Pots', only a pub, antique shop, solicitor's, greengrocer's, hairdresser's, well stocked charity shop, art gallery (Tarian made a mental note to find out if they would be willing to sell her paintings), and cramped sweetshop selling puff candy and postcards.
They reached the end of the High Street, and Cassie turned the car round and began to retrace their steps.
"Perhaps it's off the High Street," suggested Tarian when they had reached the other end of the village once more.
"Jenny would have said, wouldn't she?" Cassie did a ragged three-point turn. The engine stalled and when she tried to restart it, it wouldn't. "Damn it!" She thumped her palms on the steering wheel. "That's all I need! Now we're going to be late."
"Your friend won't mind." Tarian reached over and clasped Cassie's hand, feeling her agitation and debating whether to cast a calming spell. Perhaps not. "Why don't we ring her? Or ask for directions at the pub?"
Cassie blew out a breath. "Sorry." She gave Tarian's hand an apologetic squeeze.
"It's hardly your fault if they didn't give you clear directions."
Cassie's forced smile became genuine. "It isn't, is it?" She reclaimed her hand and tried to restart the engine. This time it worked. "Thank God for that." She glanced at Tarian. "OK. You win. Shall I stop at the pub and ask?"
Cassie parked in the little pub carpark, switched off the ignition and got out.
"Want me to come with you?" asked Tarian, getting out to stretch her legs.
Cassie shook her head. "Back in a tick," she said and hurried towards the pub entrance.
To pass the time Tarian crossed the road to the common and strolled across the rough grass towards the raggedy bush. Strips of cloth fluttered from branches armed with sharp black thorns. As she drew closer, she frowned. Something felt 'off' about the tree. She began to circle it, eyes narrowed, senses extended. So focussed was she on the tree, she didn't hear Cassie padding across the grass to join her until the last minute.
She turned to find the other woman smiling and waving a scrap of paper at her. The smile vanished as Cassie registered Tarian's expression.
"It's been tampered with."
"What has? The tree?" Cassie cocked her head and squinted in the moonlight. "Looks all right to me."
"It isn't. Someone's put a spell on it. Recently too, if I'm any judge."
Cassie blinked. "What kind of spell?"
"Let's just say that the people who've tied rags to it will be getting the opposite of what they wished for."
Cassie gaped at her. "Who would do such a thing?"
"Only another Fae could cast such a spell."
Cassie looked furtively around her. "He could be lurking, watching us." She lowered her voice. "Can you sense him?"
Tarian shook her head. "Whoever did this is long gone." Or knows how to cloak his presence. She wished the dogs were with her, their noses would help her track down the perpetrator, but they were safely tucked up in their baskets back at the Forester's House, probably dreaming of stags or boars.
"Can you lift the spell?"
"I think so," began Tarian, "but—"
"What do you mean 'but'? You have to lift it, Tarian. You can't let people be cursed!"
"No argument from me," said Tarian mildly. "But I was about to say that I think it will take just as much power to lift the spell as to reverse its effects, so I might as well do just that."
"Reverse it?" Cassie blinked at her. "So it becomes a real wishing tree, you mean?"
Tarian nodded and managed just in time to brace herself as Cassie crushed her in an enthusiastic bear hug.
"Have I mentioned how much I love you," came a muffled voice against her chest.
"Yes," said Tarian, smiling. "But I don't mind if you mention it again."
Cassie stretched up and kissed her soundly, stroked her cheek, then pulled back. Tarian arched an amused eyebrow at her before turning her attention to the tree once more.
She sorted through various spells that might be suitable and picked one. It was a difficult working, which left her tired, her head aching.
"All right?" Cassie rested a hand on her arm.
Tarian nodded. Already the effects of the spell backwash were receding, her strength returning. She felt suddenly ravenous. "Is your friend Jenny a good cook?"
"I've no idea." Cassie hooked her arm through Tarian's and urged her back towards the car.
Tarian was appalled. "You mean you didn't check?"
Cassie gave her an amused glance. "It would have been rude. Hey, I didn't ask you if you could cook when you invited me to dinner, did I?"
"Anyway, Dewi might be doing the cooking. I can't honestly remember."
They reached the car and Tarian glanced back towards the raggedy bush before getting in. "I must ask your friends if they've seen a Fae hanging about the common lately."
Cassie finished fastening her safety belt. "More subtly than that I hope." She turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared into life. "We don't want them to know you're a Fae too."
"That goes without saying."
"And while we're on the subject—" Cassie reversed out of the carpark, halting to allow another car past, "—we need to get our story straight. When and where did we meet?"
Tarian's mouth twitched as a memory surfaced of scarecrows toppled like ninepins outside Liz Hayward's B & B, and of Cassie, eyes bright with curiosity, emerging from Liz's front door and introducing herself. "At the Bourne's Edge scarecrow contest, of course."
Cassie let out a crow of laughter. "Oh, I'd forgotten all about that. I can't wait to tell Jenny." She was still laughing when she turned the car left off the High Street into the narrow lane they had missed.
As the taillights fade into the night, the door of Eddy Spurrier's cottage opens and a man steps out into the moonlight. It isn't Eddy. But then the cottage doesn't belong to him anymore, witness the Sold sign planted in the postage-stamp-sized front garden and the poster tacked to the gleaming front window, proclaiming: 'Faith Healing. Enquire within' in bold red letters.
He strides across the common, the leather of his jacket and jeans creaking softly with each step. In front of the raggedy bush, he stops and stands, hands on hips, eyes narrowed.
"Well, well," he murmurs, noting the changes that have been made to his spell. "This is unexpected, not to mention impudent. Meddling with another Fae's affairs indeed!"
He starts to trace a glyph, then lets his hand drop, the spell unfinished. "But why repeat myself? Maybe there's a different sort of entertainment to be had."
Closing his eyes, he tips back his head. His nostrils flare and his brow creases in thought, and when his eyelids reopen, dark eyes are glittering with recognition.
"Tarian! The last time we met, you were the victor." He begins to pace then stops as a snippet of information learned a short while ago surfaces. "So you've developed a fatal flaw at last, have you? Useful!" He smiles. It isn't a pleasant smile. "Time for a return bout, I think."
As he turns and heads back to his cottage, his mooncast shadow changes, becomes for a moment that of a giant spider. It's an affectation, a trick of light and shadow he likes to play. In the language of the Fae, you see, the word for spider is 'Corryn'.
Cassie's regulars were waiting for her when she steered the mobile library into the Raggedy Bush's carpark. Old Mary Norville scowled—her arthritis must be playing up again—and clutched her Westerns, Ian Cork blushed and flicked his hair out of his eyes, and Katy Sheldon, who was wearing hoop earrings this time, gave Cassie a welcoming wave.
Her smile, as she switched off the engine, owed nothing to those waiting. Her gaze had fallen on the little iridescent dish that she had blue-tacked to the top of the dashboard. It had been Tarian's first attempt at ceramic pottery, and was meant to hold coins rather than cigarette butts. But something had gone awry in the kiln, according to Dewi, and it had ended up looking like something by Salvador Dali.
Cassie hadn't allowed her to throw it away, however. "I like the colours," she'd protested, as she held the dish out of Tarian's reach—not easy, given Tarian's much longer arms. "Besides. It has sentimental value." In the end the Fae had rolled her eyes and let Cassie keep it.
As she jumped down from the driver's seat, slammed the door, and hurried around to the side of the library, keys at the ready, the world slowed. She blinked, but the effect didn't go away.
It was as though everything around her was in slow motion, an impression reinforced when a sparrow pecking crumbs—Ian Cork had been eating biscuits—took flight, its wings moving as if it were trying to fly through treacle. Even sounds had slowed, as though someone was playing a tape at the wrong speed.
Cassie was wondering, in growing dismay, if she'd had some kind of fit, when a man materialised in her path. Her heart pounded as she realised that it was one of the Fae.
He was taller than Tarian by a head, and like her had inherited his race's good looks. His hair was short and as black as jet, and, taken together with the black leather jacket and jeans, the overall impression was one of darkness.
Slightly slanted black eyes studied Cassie. She jutted her jaw and returned his gaze.
"What do you want?"
"Quiet." Gloved fingers clicked, and she found she couldn't speak. "Come with me." Another click, and she found herself following him with as much control over her limbs as a puppet.
The last time a Fae had abducted Cassie in broad daylight, it was Einion, acting on behalf of Queen Mab. But Cassie sensed that this Fae was a different proposition entirely from Tarian's friend. He wasn't anyone's messenger boy, and whatever his intentions, she sensed they weren't benign.
She remembered the raggedy bush, and her heart sank. This must be the Fae who had cursed it. And somehow, he had managed to hide his presence from Tarian.
At the thought of Tarian, Cassie sent out a mental SOS, but even as she did so she doubted it would carry all the way across the valley.
Helplessly she followed her captor along the High Street, weaving in and out of pedestrians moving at a snail's pace and oblivious to their presence. She saw Dewi, gazing into a shop window, but couldn't shout for help let alone raise an arm to flag him down. She walked on, thoughts whirling.
My regulars will have noticed I'm gone. But how long will it take them to get help? And how will anyone know where to look for me? Which brought her to her next question. Where is he taking me?
As if in answer, the Fae turned left onto a public footpath, whose existence Cassie had been unaware of until now. A signpost shaped liked a pointing finger read 'To the Nine Sisters'.
Unwelcome images surfaced of crazed figures dancing round a bonfire, brandishing bloody knives, but she quickly stifled them. What could this Fae possibly hope to achieve by sacrificing her? Was he angry that another Fae had tampered with his spell? If so, kidnapping her seemed an overreaction, though—and this disturbed her—it revealed an awareness of how much she and Tarian valued one another. But she knew better than to try to understand Fae motives. Their queen had to be one of the most unpredictable and volatile people Cassie had ever encountered. Other Fae could share their monarch's failings.
They left the village behind, and headed towards the stone circle, the gradient getting steeper, the path narrower as they climbed. Soon Cassie's calf muscles were burning and sweat had beaded her upper lip and was trickling between her shoulder blades. She felt aggrieved that they had to do this the hard way.
Why can't he just conjure up a flock of bloody eagles or something to fly us there?
The gradient lessened and the Nine Sisters came into view. Cassie greeted the ancient standing stones with a mixture of relief and apprehension. The Fae entered the circle, which wasn't as large as she had expected, turned, and waited for her to join him.
"Sit." He pointed to one of the stones, and her legs carried her up the slight incline and sat her down in front of it.
A click of his fingers returned control of Cassie's limbs. She sagged back against the lichen-covered stone, which was badly worn by time and the elements. Because she was looking for it, she saw the moment when time snapped back to normal: a clump of pink flower heads began to bob and sway, a bluebottle lifted noisily from a pile of fresh rabbit droppings, and a sparrow hawk surfing the thermals let out a fierce cry and flew away.
The Fae paced round the circle's uneven perimeter, stopping now and then to close his eyes. Once, his nostrils flared. She wondered what he was up to.
In other circumstances Cassie might have been content to be up here. It was a pleasant day, and the stones had muted the busy hum of traffic so she could hear birdsong and a magpie chattering somewhere nearby. A welcome breeze sprang up, drying her sweat and fluttering strands of her hair. She discovered that, if she craned her neck and peered between two of the stones, she had a wonderful view across the valley. She could make out the spire of Bourne's Edge's church. It had never seemed so far away.
Despair began to gnaw at her and she clasped her shaking hands together. The movement attracted the Fae's attention, but his glance was incurious. He wandered back to the circle's centre, sat down cross-legged, and made himself comfortable. Then he arched an eyebrow at Cassie and smiled.
"Now," he said, "we wait."
Tarian was trying to decide which frame would best suit her latest canvas when the phone rang. She went through to the sitting room and picked up the receiver.
"Tarian Brangwen?" asked a man's voice.
"Yes. Who is this?"
"Nether Hopton police station. Sgt. Wilkins speaking."
A jolt of alarm shot through her. "How can I help you, Sergeant?"
"Is Miss Lewis there? Miss Cassie Lewis?"
"No." Tarian glanced at the clock over the mantelpiece and frowned. "She should be at work."
"Driving the mobile library?"
"That's right." A chill ran down Tarian's spine. "Has there been an accident?"
"Not as such." His sigh travelled down the line. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Miss Brangwen, but Miss Lewis has gone missing."
"Her vehicle was found abandoned two hours ago. She was last seen parking it in the Raggedy Bush carpark, then.... Well, nothing." He cleared his throat. "Those who were waiting say she vanished into thin air."
Tarian's mind whirled. "In broad daylight?"
"The circumstances are a little confused at present," he admitted, sounding embarrassed. "But it's a fact that she has gone, and I've got my men out searching for her."
"I see." Nether Hopton and the raggedy bush again. It couldn't be a coincidence.
"Now you mustn't worry, Miss Brangwen."
Easier said than done.
"Our working theory is that she's suffering from amnesia and has simply wandered off."
Tarian didn't tell the policeman what she thought of his theory. "What can I do? Should I come—"
"Stay put," he ordered. "We'll let you know at once if there are any developments. In the meantime, Miss Lewis is almost certain to be heading for familiar faces and surroundings. I know Bourne's Edge is on the other side of the valley, but amnesia sufferers have been known to travel greater distances than that. Oh, and will you inform us at once if she should turn up? My number is...."
Tarian jotted it down on the writing pad. When the Sergeant had rung off, she carefully replaced the receiver, wandered over to the window, and stared sightlessly out.
A wet nose pushed itself into her hand, and she glanced down into anxious brown eyes. Drysi and Anwar knew something was wrong and were offering her what comfort they could. She squatted and hugged them to her, pressing her face into their warm, rough coats and inhaling their doggy smell, then drew back.
"Something feels wrong about all this," she murmured, straightening.
She grabbed Cassie's binoculars from the coat peg in the hall, slung them round her neck, opened the front door, and stepped outside. The dogs followed.
"Afternoon, Tarian," shouted the overall-clad mechanic, as Tarian strode past his garage, heading towards the viewpoint a little further down the hill. She gave Mike a distracted wave but didn't stop to talk. News that Cassie was missing would spread through the village grapevine soon enough.
At the viewpoint, which gave one of the best views across the valley, she stopped and raised the binoculars to her eyes. After five minutes' intensive scanning, she let them drop to her chest.
"This isn't working," she told the dogs. "All it's doing is making me dizzy." Think, Tarian. Think.
She closed her eyes and focussed, gathering all her strength, preparing to extend her Fae senses to their limit. Then, with a mental push, she sent them winging their way across the valley.
Minutes passed as Tarian scanned Nether Hopton and the surrounding hillside, keeping her focus general but sensitive to the pattern in the weave of existence that was Cassie, a pattern as familiar to her as her own.
She felt a growing sense of dread. Suppose she's already dead.
Then something snagged her attention, and, like an eagle swooping on prey, she turned and dived towards it. The trace was far stronger than she had expected at this remove. That fact puzzled her until it dawned on her that something must be amplifying it. The stone circle.
Her eyes snapped open, and she raised her binoculars once more and trained them on the Nine Sisters.
There. Among the nine standing stones. A flash of peacock blue. Hadn't Cassie been wearing a top that exact same colour when she left for work that morning?
Tarian reached out with her senses once more, but this time something blocked her. She knew at once what it was. Who it was.
Moon and stars!
What was Corryn doing here of all places? The last time they had met, Tarian was Mab's champion, and the two were facing one another in single combat. Tarian had won that bout, much to Corryn's displeasure, and she hadn't seen him since.
A recent memory struggled to surface. Something Einion had said in passing. It wriggled and tried to evade her but she chased it and soon it lay revealed. Corryn had upset Mab. What he had done, Tarian couldn't remember, but he had angered the Queen enough for her to banish him from her sight—and from Faerie—for five years.
He must have come here, to the mortal world. And he's been up to his usual tricks, seeking amusement at others' expense.
It was Corryn who had tampered with the raggedy bush and cloaked himself so she wouldn't sense him.
She ground her teeth as it all fell into place. There could only be one reason for abducting Cassie and taking her to a place that would amplify and advertise her presence to Tarian's Fae senses.
He wanted a return bout, and Cassie was the bait.
"What's taking her so long?" The black-clad Fae studies the sky above the Nine Sisters, gauging how much daylight remains. It will soon be sunset. "Perhaps she doesn't care what happens to you after all."
He turns to regard the mortal sitting with her back to one of the stones but she hasn't reacted to his barb. Perhaps she's learned that her anguish and pain amuse him and is refusing to cooperate. Shame. It was fun playing with her mind, exploring her terrors—the fear of heights, of spiders, of burning, of drowning, of being crippled....
How many fears these mortals have!
He cocks his head to one side and tries to see what Tarian sees in such a snivelling, unattractive weakling. But perhaps the mortal feels more for Tarian than the Fae feels for her. It was interesting that her strongest reaction was to his illusion of Tarian dying in her arms. She was a shaking, blubbering mess after that. Maybe he'll try it again, to relieve this tedium.
He raises his finger and points, then pauses as a familiar presence registers. It's distant as yet, but coming closer. He lets his hand drop to his side, and swings round, testing and confirming what he felt.
At last, a reaction. The mortal lifts her head and looks at him, eyes dull and full of misery.
He almost skips to the circle's perimeter, such is his glee at the success of his plan. There, he stops, hums a few bars of a bawdy ditty popular in Mab's court when he was last there, drums his fingers on the hard surface of the stone, then shades his eyes.
There. That tall, dark figure striding purposefully up the footpath towards the stone circle, a wolfhound at her heels.
"I wondered if she might flee," he tells the mortal conversationally, "but she hasn't." He feels a need to explain. "After all, the last time we fought, she was as immortal as I am. But now...."
He throws back his head and laughs. "How does it feel to know that you're going to be the one responsible for her death?"
The mortal says nothing but her eyes speak volumes.
Cassie watched Tarian climb towards the Nine Sisters, her heart in her mouth. Relief that rescue was in sight at last warred with terror for Tarian's safety.
"Get as far from here as you can, love," Cassie wanted to shout, but desperation kept her silent. She had no idea how long Corryn had kept her here, but it had been the worst few hours of her life.
Tarian stepped inside the ring of stones and Anwar—It was Anwar, wasn't it? That brown streak on his cheek made Cassie almost sure that it was.—padded after her. From the paint spattering on her grey sweatshirt and jeans, Tarian had come straight from her studio.
The impulse to go to her was irresistible, so Cassie struggled to her feet and lurched forward, calling out Tarian's name. Seconds later, she found herself pinned against a standing stone, her head spinning, shoulder blades bruised.
"Leave her alone, Corryn." Tarian's voice, full of menace, carried clearly on the evening breeze. "Your fight is with me."
He folded the finger he had pointed at Cassie, and the pressure holding her in place vanished. She stumbled to one knee on the turf and put out a hand to steady herself.
"But tormenting mortals is such fun." He grinned. "And we must take our pleasures where we find them, don't you agree?"
The blue eyes regarding him turned glacial. "Don't include me in that 'we'."
"Oh come now! A former favourite of the Queen's can hardly take the moral high ground. Mab's lusts are renowned throughout Faerie."
"I'm not that person any more," said Tarian.
"Aren't you?" He sounded sceptical.
She gave an impatient flick of her hand. "Enough. You wanted my attention. You've got it. Now what?"
He studied her. "You've gone soft." He curled his lip. "You've been living among mortals for too long."
"Strange. Living among them doesn’t appear to have softened you in the slightest."
Tarian murmured something to Anwar, and the wolfhound bounded across the circle to Cassie's side. Cassie was so glad to see a friendly face, tears pricked her eyes. He licked the back of her hand, then turned and placed himself between her and Corryn, hackles rising, lips drawing back from his teeth. A low warning growl issued from the back of his throat.
"By Oak, Ash and Thorn!" Corryn let out a peal of laughter. "You think a hound can protect her from me?"
Tarian shrugged, folded her arms, and waited.
"Very well." He folded his arms in mocking imitation. "You asked 'now what?'. We fight, of course."
Tarian's glance took in the featureless turf bounded by the stones. "With what?"
He unfolded his arms and gestured. A pile of lethal-looking swords and daggers—made of bronze rather than steel, from the colour of them—materialised at Tarian's feet. "Choose."
She regarded him for a long moment then crouched down and began to sort through the pile. No morningstars, at least, thought Cassie, remembering Tarian's hearty dislike of the weapon.
Tarian selected a sword and a dagger and hefted them experimentally. She straightened and inclined her head. "These'll do. Your turn."
Corryn selected a sword and dagger for himself, and vanished the remaining weapons with a gesture.
"No tricks," warned Tarian. "There's no point to this unless it's a fair fight."
He considered that then nodded. "To the death." He held her gaze.
"That would give you the advantage." She frowned. "As I am sure you are well aware."
"So?" His grin was provocative.
"I have a counter offer. We fight to what would have been the death."
"Where's the fun in that?"
Tarian turned her head and looked at Cassie. They locked gazes.
"Don't risk it, Tarian," Cassie wanted to shout, but the words stuck in her throat. A sense of shame filled her. I'm a coward. I can think only of saving my own skin.
Tarian's expression softened, and Cassie remembered that the Fae often seemed to know what she was thinking. This must be one of those times. Yet, far from condemnation, all she could read in those eyes was compassion.
"Trust me," mouthed Tarian. She turned to face Corryn once more. "Do I have your word?"
"Oh all right."
Corryn twirled his sword extravagantly a few times, then his manner became businesslike. Adopting a relaxed, slightly crouching posture, he raised his sword and dagger and shifted his centre of gravity over the balls of his feet. Tarian adopted a similar stance, and the two Fae began to circle one another.
Bronzed blades flashed in the light of the slowly rising moon, but the clash of metal on metal sounded tentative to Cassie's ears and she realised that this was a testing of reflexes, a probing of defences, nothing more. Even so, something odd was happening. Whenever the blades touched, there was a spark.
The combatants paused and blinked at one another, faces wearing identical puzzlement.
"Earth power?" wondered Corryn.
"Reacting to Fae magic?"
Corryn shrugged. "Our own firework display. Splendid."
He resumed his stance, and began to circle her once more. Tarian adjusted her grip, and kept her eyes firmly fixed on his face. The two closed, and this time the fight was in earnest. Corryn let loose a flurry of vicious strokes so fast that Cassie almost forgot to breathe. Fortunately, Tarian's parries were like quicksilver too.
It reminded Cassie of a dance with footwork every bit as intricate, only the dance floor was sloping turf with bumps and hollows in it that could trip the unwary dancer. There was obviously a knack to fighting with dagger and sword, and both Fae had it. Wide-eyed she watched the graceful thrusts and parries, the interplay of stroke with counterstroke. The combatants appeared equally matched.
It quickly became clear, to Cassie's alarm, that sharp edges weren't the only hazard facing those within the circle. Each clash of blades produced a bolt of energy. One almost hit Anwar, but he yelped and ducked out of the way in time. Already several of the standing stones sported fresh chips and smoking gouges, the results of similar encounters.
The fiercest bolt yet struck the stone behind Cassie. With a loud crack, rock that had stood since Neolithic times shattered. A splinter stung her cheek, and she clapped a hand to it then studied the result. The streak of blood on her palm looked black in the moonlight.
"Wait!" Tarian shouted, and, tucking her dagger in her belt, she began to cast a spell. A low murmur filled the circle, and a glyph glowing weirdly in the night air before dissolving.
Corryn's sword lashed out.
"Tarian!" shouted a horrified Cassie.
But the Fae had already reacted to his unprovoked attack, ducking away from the scything blade, bringing up her own sword.
Weapons clashed, and lightning flashed. An energy bolt headed straight towards Cassie, glanced off the invisible barrier that fortunately now surrounded her, and caromed off a standing stone.
Cassie was still catching her breath, when the top half of the stone cracked off and toppled. It landed with a thud that made the ground vibrate and sent up a spray of dirt and torn turf.
Tarian's face was a snarling mask of anger as she fought, and Cassie wished she could aid her in some way. But she couldn't risk distracting her again, so, fists curled in frustration, she willed Tarian silently on.
When the combatants broke apart at last to catch their breath and glare at one another, Tarian was sweating. She examined the bloody slash on her right sleeve.
"I thought we said a fair fight."
"It's not my fault if you got distracted."
Blue eyes flashed. "She's a non combatant!"
Corryn shrugged. "Your problem, not mine."
He lunged at her again and they grappled for each other's wrists, panting and straining against one another, struggling for mastery. Tarian's dagger hilt caught Corryn a blow on his temple and he staggered under it and took a step back.
"You'll pay for that!"
"Promises, promises." Tarian's teeth gleamed in the moonlight.
With a roar, Corryn dropped his sword, put his head down and charged. His momentum combined with the slight slope to carry them half way across the circle before Tarian could bring them to a halt. She threw down her own sword (No use for close work? wondered Cassie.) and they swayed to and fro. Punches flew, daggers rose and fell. Then Tarian managed to twist herself free of Corryn's grip, gaining just enough space and the time to swivel on one heel, draw back her arm, and thrust in her dagger just under his ribs.
Corryn grunted as it slid home, then again when she withdrew it, streaked with his blood. They locked gazed for a long moment, then he shoved her away and she let him.
His lips moved in what Cassie recognised was a healing spell. Before her eyes, the wound beneath the slash healed. Corryn examined it, his mouth pursed.
"You've ruined my jacket!"
"Buy yourself a new one," said Tarian. "In anyone else that would have been a mortal blow. Our fight is over."
"Not so." A smiled played around his lips, and his eyes glittered with dark amusement. "I've changed my mind."
She frowned. "What did you say?"
"To the death, I said. And I meant it. Your death, Tarian."
"You gave me your word!"
"And you believed me?" His snort was derisive.
With a gesture, he retrieved his sword from the far side of the circle then threw himself at her once more. The energy bolts generated by the rapid flurry of blows and strikes that ensued were dazzling. Cassie flinched as yet another one bounced off her protective bubble. If Tarian hadn't taken the time and trouble to protect her.... Belatedly it occurred to her that such a coruscating display must be visible from Nether Hopton. She wondered what the villagers were making of it.
A local thunderstorm?
Something warm and wet nudged her hand and she glanced down and met Anwar's gaze. She crouched next to him. "Where's Drysi?" He whined and pawed the turf and she wished she could understand him.
Stroking his rough coat gave her some comfort as she watched the two figures fighting in the increasingly ruined stone circle. The pace of combat had slowed, and it seemed to her that there was less skill, more mindless slogging, more cursing and grunts of effort.
Tarian's forehead was streaked with sweat and grime, and she looked exhausted. She bore numerous bloody slashes, which she had yet to heal. Cassie felt a pang of apprehension. Was it simply that Tarian hadn't had the time? Or was she trying to conserve her resources for some reason?
A loose dagger skittered to a halt not far from Cassie. She had taken a step towards it before she realised what she was doing. She halted and looked round, only to see that her movement had fatally distracted Tarian.
Corryn's dagger slammed home.
"No!" howled Cassie, as Tarian dropped her weapons and clasped the dagger hilt protruding from her abdomen with both hands.
Was she trying to pull the dagger out or keep Corryn from doing so? If the latter, he didn't seem minded to dispute the matter; he let go of the hilt and stepped back.
Tarian's legs buckled and she thudded to her knees on the turf. She didn't make a sound, but her eyes showed her agony. As she curled up around the wound, bowing her head, Cassie saw that Tarian's neck was horribly vulnerable to Corryn's blade.
"Watch out!" she called.
Tarian didn't seem to hear her.
Corryn crowed like a rooster and grinned at Cassie. "Say goodbye to your protector, mortal." He raised his sword. "When she's dead, you're mine."
Tarian stifled a gasp. The wound was a bad one, the pain excruciating. But she left the dagger in place—she had neither the time nor the energy to deal with the massive blood loss if she removed it.
She had hoped to make her move earlier, in less precarious circumstances, but though it hurt her pride to admit it, Corryn had proved far wilier than expected. He was preoccupied at last, though, with taunting a horrified Cassie, and his guard was down. It was now or never.
Blocking out with a pang of regret what could be her last sight of Cassie's face, she turned her focus inwards. It had been distracting as hell, storing the complex spell and its associated glyph that she had prepared earlier in her mind, but it was vital if she were to be able to activate it with a single thought. Now she triggered the spell.
As her focus turned outwards again, a shadow blocked out the moon. Corryn, his sword raised for the killing blow. His face was in shadow but she could imagine his expression.
I'll wipe that smile off your face!
She stretched out a hand. Many of the Nine Sisters were battered and broken, but the circle was still intact. With a grasping and twisting motion she invoked its power.
The motion of the descending sword faltered.
"What—" began Corryn, sounding puzzled.
Tarian ignored the warm wetness trickling between her fingers, pulled more earth energy from the circle, and used it to amplify her own magic. At the best of times translocation spells were tricky, and this particular combination of working had to send its target across the valley first. Add to that the fact that she had never tried to send anyone between worlds before and was uncertain just how much power it would require....
The dagger shifted in her abdomen. Daughter of a dung beetle! She gritted her teeth against the pain.
Her plan had always been risky, she had known that from the start. But with Cassie's life in the balance, she had thought the risk worth taking. Belatedly, she wondered if Cassie would agree.
The sword whistled harmlessly over her head, clearing her crown by a fraction of an inch. Close, but enough.
"How could I miss at that range? " Corryn's shocked face stared down at her. Then his gaze shifted and his eyes widened as he saw that he was hovering three feet off the ground, and gaining more height by the second. Furious, he threw his sword at her, but by then he had risen even further. The sword point stuck in the turf by her left knee, quivering.
Tarian mixed more earth power with her magic and fed it to the spell.
Corryn's lips moved, and his hands began to weave so fast they were almost a blur. He was trying to cast a disruption spell. She set about countering it.
She noticed that her vision seemed to be narrowing. It was like looking down a tunnel. Not good. But she couldn't stop yet. Ignoring the blood oozing between her fingers and the sweat trickling down her spine, she poured more power into the spell and gestured. The second part of her spell kicked in.
Like an arrow from a bow, Corryn sped backwards across the valley, his path a long curving trajectory. His cry of shock turned into one outrage then faded into the distance until only the night sounds remained.
Tarian fell back onto the turf and dizzily regarded the stars wheeling above her. Then the backwash from the spell hit.
"Tarian!" Cassie's face filled Tarian's rapidly failing vision. "Oh God, Tarian! What have you done to yourself?"
She tried to lift her hand but it had become a lead weight while she wasn't looking. She felt herself being lifted and cradled. Warm tears splashed her face, and a rough tongue rasped them away.
Cassie held her closer. "Can you hear me?"
Tarian managed a grunt.
"You've got to heal yourself, Tarian." Cassie sounded on the edge of panic.
Tarian would have smiled wryly but she didn’t have the strength. Heal myself? Even breathing was taking too much effort.
"Tarian." She felt herself being shaken, albeit gently. "Tarian, can you hear me? I daren't pull this dagger out. If I do, you'll bleed to death. And if I don't... Oh God, it looks so bad I think you'll still bleed to death anyway, though more slowly." Hysteria filled Cassie's voice. "You've got to heal yourself, Tarian. Now."
She licked her lips. "Can't," she slurred. "Too weak."
"Then I've got to get you to a hospital. But Nether Hopton doesn't have— Never mind that, idiot." From Cassie's tone, she was thinking out loud. "There's bound to be a doctor. But how on earth am I to get you there? Maybe Anwar could help me drag you—"
The journey would kill me, thought Tarian. There's one chance. A small one, some might say infinitesimal, but it might just work. It has to.
She reached out blindly—her vision had gone altogether by now. "Get me... centre." Her fingers brushed against something then her arm flopped back onto the turf. Seconds later, warm fingers were entwined with hers.
"What is it?" asked Cassie round a sob. "What are you trying to tell me?" Hair tickled Tarian's cheek. Cassie must have brought her ear closer to Tarian's mouth.
Tarian tried again. "Centre," she gasped for breath. "Of circle." Then the roaring in her ears became a great rushing wave that carried her away.
It is a balmy day in the land of Faerie, but then, in Mab's realm, which some call the Summer Country, it usually is. In the flower-dotted glade, the murmur of bees and song of woodland birds have been joined by other noises: the creak of leather and jingle of harnesses, the whicker of horses and murmur of voices.
Five Fae, two women and three men, are waiting in the glade, some leaning against tree trunks, some squatting on their haunches, all looking as bored as their six horses, whose tails are swishing and ears flicking. Conversation is desultory.
The most handsome of the men, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, his russet coloured tunic and breeches covered by a cloak of forest green, is plainly the leader. The others are clad in identical grey cloaks and grip light hunting spears, and they keep casting him respectful looks. His attention, however, is on the brindled wolfhound lounging next to him, her tongue lolling.
"Lord Einion," ventures a rider. "How much longer?"
"As long as it takes." He glances at the dog and frowns. "Are you certain this is the place your mistress meant, Drysi?"
The dog locks gazes with him and he gives a satisfied grunt. Then his head whips round, and he straightens and drops his hand to the pommel of his sword.
"He is coming," he snaps. "Get ready."
The others shift to full alertness, knuckles whitening around the spear shafts.
A loud thud, accompanied by an explosion of leaf mould and gobbets of earth, startles the wolfhound and horses. They whinny and rear, before their riders can get them back under control. When the dust has settled, a scent of freshly crushed foliage pervades the glade, and all eyes are fixed on the still dazed Fae who caused it.
The spear holders surround the black clad figure lying in a clump of bluebells. He blinks up at them, and raises his hands to fend off the spear points hovering a little too close to his eyes.
"Corryn," says the man in the green cloak, his eyes like flint, his voice flat. "Has it slipped your mind that the Queen exiled you?"
The new arrival scrambles to his feet, fending off the spears as he does so. "This isn't my doing, Einion." He tugs his leather jacket straight and brushes leaf mould from his jeans. "That bitch must have worked a translocation spell."
Einion shrugs and gestures. At his bidding, the others tie Corryn's hand behind his back and prod him towards the spare horse.
"That you are here and under arrest is all that matters. We will escort you to the Queen so she may pass judgment."
"Didn't you hear me?" cries Corryn, as they force him into the saddle then mount up themselves. "It's not my doing!"
But no one is listening.
It was deathly quiet in the stone circle. So quiet Cassie could hear the rise and fall of Anwar's breathing and the thud of her own heart. But not Tarian's.
Panicking, she held her hand close to Tarian's lips. For a moment she felt nothing, then came an exhalation of warm breath so faint she almost missed it. It was enough. Shakily she sat back, shifting Tarian's head to make it more comfortable in her lap.
Hang in there, love.
By holding her watch close to her eyes, she could make out the dial in the moonlight. 3 a.m. Distant headlights caught her attention and she squinted. Across the valley a lone car was making its way along the winding road to Bourne's Edge.
Civilisation. So near and yet so far.
She shivered, though the breeze that had got up was warm, it felt cold against her bare skin. It was a good job it was summer. In a vain attempt to slow Tarian's bleeding, Cassie had stripped off her blouse and packed it around the dagger hilt. Already the blouse was soaked with blood.
Can you survive this?
Cassie stroked the dark hair. Tarian's forehead felt clammy, but she took comfort from the fact that it wasn't yet cold. She glanced at Anwar. "You know how bad this is, don't you, boy?"
He lifted his head and looked at her, then let out a gruff bark and settled his head on his paws again.
She stroked his head. "I wish I could speak to you the way Tarian does."
Anwar had helped Cassie to drag Tarian to the centre of the circle, gripping his mistress by the collar of her sweatshirt and digging his paws into the turf. What good it would do, Cassie didn't know. Tarian must be banking on somehow using the earth energy, which would be most focussed and hence most potent at the circle's centre. But so far it seemed to have had little effect.
I hope this works, love. Because if it doesn't, my help boils down to sitting around and watching you bleed to death. And I don't think I could live with that.
One of the images Corryn had tormented her with surfaced: Tarian dying in her arms. Cassie jammed a fist in her mouth, but even so a sob escaped. Anwar lifted his head and look at her.
"It's all right," she told him, as much to convince herself as to reassure him. It wasn't real. I won't let it be real.
Some slow steady breaths slowed her pulse to normal. Then another glance at her watch revealed that only five minutes had passed. This night was interminable.
I hope you suffer for this, Corryn. I hope you rot in Hell or whatever the Faerie equivalent is.
Just then, Anwar stirred, got up off his haunches, stretched, and padded out of the circle.
"Where are you going?" she called. He didn't even pause.
His desertion, so unexpected, appalled Cassie. Worse, she hadn't realised how much comfort his presence had given her. Without him, she felt suddenly very alone and afraid.
"Looks like it's just you and me, Tarian."
The Fae's face had never looked so drawn. Cassie felt for the pulse at Tarian's wrist, held her breath, then released it again. The pulse was there, but it was very faint.
Never had she felt so helpless, and the mournful hoot of an owl only served to amplify the vastness and oppressiveness of the night. Even the usually friendly stars seemed cold and uncaring, their stately progress through the heavens unaffected by the drama unfolding below them.
Cassie clasped Tarian's hand tightly and sent out a silent plea to whoever might be listening, Please don't take her from me. I couldn't bear it.
Silence fell, as if the world were holding its breath. Cassie held her breath too. It was then she heard the soft padding of feet.
A pulse pounded in her temples. She hadn't heard of wolves living in these hills, but it wasn't impossible. Or it might be Corryn, come back to finish what he started.
Whoever it was, if he was after Tarian, he would have to come through her first. Mouth dry, she draped herself protectively around the unconscious Fae.
It was Anwar. The wolfhound padded back into the circle, looking for all the world as though he had just been out for an early morning stroll. At his heels trotted another wolfhound.
"Drysi!" Cassie gaped. "Where did you come from?"
Tarian's missing wolfhound trotted over to greet Cassie, giving her cheek a long, loving lick, before turning her attention to her mistress. She whined, nudged Tarian's face with her nose, then, when there was no response, sank to her haunches and laid her head on her front paws.
Cassie ruffled Drysi's neck fur. "I know," she murmured. "It looks bad. But she isn't dead. And you know what they say, 'While there's life, there's hope.'"
Anwar padded over to join them, turning a gaze on her that seemed full of reproach before settling down beside Drysi and heaving a very human-sounding sigh.
"I'm sorry." She transferred her petting to him. "I should have known you wouldn't desert us."
Abruptly, the hand Cassie was holding flexed and tried to free itself. At the same time, Anwar and Drysi got to their feet with soft eager barks.
Cassie turned, astonished, to find Tarian's eyelids open. She was looking around rather dazedly.
"Tarian!" Cassie released her grip. "Are you all right?"
"Not yet," croaked Tarian. She tried to sit up, gave a grunt of agony, and stopped. Sweat beaded her forehead. "Help me," she said through gritted teeth.
"But your wound—"
"Cassie!" It was a cry of pain, a plea, and an order rolled into a single word, and Cassie stopped her objections at once.
She helped Tarian into a sitting position, though it made her cry out and look like she was going to faint or vomit or both. Then she helped to unpack the soaked blouse from the wound.
Fresh blood spilled over Tarian's hands as she grasped the dagger's hilt. "Must... get it... out."
But she was too weak, so it fell to Cassie to do the honours. The first time, her fingers were slick with blood, and she lost her grip. Her second attempt was more successful. As the dagger came free with an unpleasant sucking sound, Tarian let out another agonised grunt that made Cassie's insides twist in sympathy. She threw aside the dagger and hugged Tarian, trying to will some of her own strength into the Fae, who was trembling in her arms. She had never seen Tarian so weak before, and it shocked her to the core.
Visibly gathering her little remaining strength, and by way of an answer, Tarian's hands began to trace an intricate pattern. Her lips moved and the low murmur of chanting filled the circle.
Cassie's gaze switched to and fro between Tarian's face and the wound in her abdomen, unaware she had had held her breath until she felt dizzy.
The strain Tarian was putting herself under was obvious—her pallor grew paler, her features more drawn. Each gesture must be agony yet only the occasional stifled grunt passed her lips. Cassie was full of sympathy and admiration.
But what if it isn't enough?
At that moment, Tarian's hands went still then dropped to her turf. Her head fell forward on her chest.
"Tarian!" A terrified Cassie reached for her, then paused as she registered that Tarian was still conscious, though barely.
Then before her very eyes, Tarian's wound began to knit itself back together again.
Cassie pressed her hand to her mouth, as she watched the deep tissue heal first, followed by the more superficial layers, and finally the skin. Where the dagger had sliced her abdomen open was now only a livid scar, and as Cassie watched in awe, even that faded.
"It worked!" She hardly dared believe it. She wrapped her arms around Tarian, and felt her return the embrace, though weakly. Then the Fae jerked in her arms and let out a pained gasp.
Cassie loosened her grip at once. "What is it?"
"Spell backwash." Tarian's eyes rolled up in her head, and she slumped against Cassie.
"Tarian!" Terrified by this latest development, Cassie lowered her gently back onto the grass. The dogs nosed at their mistress, then flopped down next to her. When they rested their heads on their paws, closed their eyes and went to sleep, Cassie's tension eased.
They wouldn't be so calm if she were still in danger. She's sleeping, getting her energy back.
Just to be sure, however, Cassie lifted Tarian's eyelid, but she wasn't certain what she was looking for. Her pulse was easier to take and more encouraging: it was stronger and more regular than it had been. Cassie studied Tarian's face and felt it with the back of her hand. The clamminess had gone, and already that distressing pallor was easing.
Her magic is working. She's going to be all right.
It felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders.
It was only then, when she could spare the time to think about her own welfare, that Cassie realised she was covered in goose pimples and shivering. She rubbed her arms, but the warmth generated by the friction didn't last. Aware how drained, physically and emotionally, the events of this long traumatic night had left her, she stretched out next to Tarian and huddled close. It made little difference, though, and she was contemplating the desperate measure of donning her wet, blood-soaked blouse when something warm, furry, and smelling of dog draped itself over her. Moments later a second furry presence joined the first.
Cassie smiled in the darkness. The dogs were heavy, but she didn’t tell them to get off, because for the first time that night, she felt blissfully warm.
It would be dawn soon. Time enough then to see how Tarian's return to health was progressing. In the meantime.... She yawned and fell asleep.
Tarian chucked the dogs a bone then threw herself down on the rug. It was a sunny afternoon, so Cassie had brought her visitor—her friend Jenny from the library—into the garden. But three on the bench would have been too much of a squeeze. So Tarian sprawled face down on the rug, rested her chin on her arms, and let out a contented sigh.
"I can't see a bruise," came Jenny's voice.
"That's because I hit the back of my head." Cassie made a lousy liar, a trait that Tarian found endearing.
"Must have been quite a bump," persisted Jenny. "To make you lose your memory like that."
How did it happen, exactly?"
Cassie sighed. "I don't remember, exactly."
Jenny laughed. "Sorry. You must be getting tired of people asking."
"That's all right. It does sound unconvincing."
"I bet you were relieved when she showed up the next morning, Tarian."
Tarian twisted round to look at Jenny. "I was." She returned Jenny's grin. "Even if she did look like she'd been dragged through a hedge backwards."
"I did not! ... Though I did ruin my favourite blouse," conceded Cassie.
Tarian arched an eyebrow. She had offered to renovate the blouse, but Cassie had declined.
"Too many associations," she'd said with a shudder. So they had thrown it away.
"And you still haven't got your memories of that day back?" asked Jenny.
Cassie shook her head.
If only that were true. Tarian rested her chin on her arm again. Cassie was still having horrific nightmares about the stone circle, waking up several times a night in distress, needing a perturbed Tarian to hold her tightly until her tears dried and reality reasserted itself. It had only been a couple of days, true, but if it didn’t improve soon, Tarian would erase the memories of what had happened, whether Cassie wanted her to or not.
Jenny ran a hand through her short brown hair and looked at her surroundings. "Your garden's lovely," she said. "Quiet."
"We like it," said Cassie.
Tarian welcomed the change of subject. "It's mostly Cassie's doing." She closed her eyes and let the sun ease the ache in her shoulders. She'd been in painting all morning, so caught up in her new canvas she'd forgotten to take a break. Until Cassie came wagging her finger at her.
Jenny sighed. "I can't even raise a pot plant. Dewi's not much better."
Silence met that remark, and the crunching of bones sounded suddenly loud.
"But don't your dogs keep escaping?" continued Jenny. "That's not much of a fence between your garden and the forest."
"All the time," said Cassie. "But they always come back."
"You must have them well-trained."
The crunching of canine teeth paused and Tarian saw Anwar and Drysi exchange a look that in a human would have been rolled eyes. She chuckled under her breath.
"So," said Cassie. "What's the gossip from Nether Hopton?"
"Well." Jenny's voice became gleeful. "For a start, the stone circle has been vandalised."
Tarian frowned. She had put the Nine Sisters back the way they were, hadn't she? Or had she missed something? She had been feeling weak, still, and her priority had been to tidy up then get Cassie and the dogs safely home without attracting attention.
"Dewi was sure something was going on up there the other night," said Jenny. "The night you went missing, Cassie. He said he saw moving lights."
"And?" Cassie sounded apprehensive.
"Some of the standing stones are chipped."
"Chipped? Is that all?"
"There's some charring too." Jenny paused. "Maybe it wasn't vandals. Maybe it was pagans, dancing around a bonfire."
"Probably just a thunderstorm," said Tarian from her rug. "Lightning strikes would account for the lights. And the chipping and charring too, wouldn't they?"
"Spoilsport," said Jenny.
"What else? Ah yes. The new faith healer's done a bunk." Jenny sighed. "Just when we could have used his services too. Dewi sprained his wrist yesterday. Fell over his potter's wheel."
"What faith healer?" asked Cassie.
"Oh, didn't I mention him? Corryn something or other. Bought poor Ed Spurrier's house." She sighed. "He was supposed to be the genuine article. Oh well. Dewi's wrist will just have to get better on its own."
She caught sight of her watch. "Is that the time already?" She stood up. "I'm glad you're feeling better, Cassie. I'll be even gladder when you come back. The temporary driver is useless. We've had loads of complaints. Seems he keeps getting lost and arriving late."
Cassie grinned and stood up too. "Really?"
Jenny tutted. "Don't sound so pleased about it. Oh, by the way, your regulars have been asking after you."
"Nice of them." Cassie paused and glanced at Tarian, who had rolled over onto her back. "As it happens, I intend coming back next Monday."
"The doc's given you the all clear?"
As the police had been involved, there had been no way to avoid dealing with the authorities. But amnesia was a nebulous thing, and, if Cassie said she couldn't remember what happened on a particular day, who were the experts to contradict her? Especially as Tarian was able to 'convince' them that they saw what they expected to see: a painful bump on Cassie's scalp.
"Great." Jenny grinned. "I'll see you then then."
"I'll show you out." Cassie led her towards the house and moments later Tarian heard the sound of a car driving away.
She rolled over onto her front once more and closed her eyes.
The back door creaked open, and footsteps headed towards her. Cassie dropped with a soft grunt onto the rug next to her. "Shift over."
Tarian did and waited for Cassie to make herself comfortable.
"Faith healer?" continued Cassie. "I wouldn't have said Corryn was the healing type."
Tarian twisted so she could see Cassie's face. "It makes a kind of sense. What's that saying, 'A sprat to catch a mackerel'? He'd only need to heal a select few, then word would spread, and people would flock to him. And if their healing didn’t work, well, he could always claim it was nothing to do with him, just that their faith wasn't strong enough."
She shrugged. "That's Corryn."
Cassie grunted agreement. "So have you heard from Einion yet?"
"While you were out shopping."
Tarian's old friend had made use of one of Mab's messengers. The huge black crow had perched on a branch of her rowan tree and croaked the tidings to her.
Green eyes pinned her. "Well?"
"As I expected. Mab punished Corryn for returning from exile." She watched understanding dawn.
"She unmade him?"
Tarian nodded. She reached over and tucked a strand of blonde hair behind Cassie's ear. "He had no advocate to speak for him the way you spoke for me. He'll never bother us again." She studied Cassie's face, knowing how tender her heart was. "Does his death trouble you?"
For a moment Tarian thought Cassie wasn't going to answer, then her nostrils flared, and when she spoke it was in a fierce whisper. "I thought it might. But you know what? It doesn't." She held Tarian's gaze. "I'm glad he's dead, Tarian. For what he did to us. Glad!"
Tarian gave a slow, satisfied nod and pulled Cassie close. "Me too," she whispered, and kissed her.
It's drizzling in Nether Hopton, and the people queuing gloomily in the Raggedy Bush's carpark are wearing rain hoods or sheltering under battered umbrellas.
A white minibus-cum-van, with 'Welcome to your library' stencilled on its side, comes bowling along the road. It could be a coincidence, but at its appearance the sun emerges from behind a cloud, and even the arthritic old woman clutching a pile of Westerns breaks into a smile.
The mobile library turns into the carpark and comes to a sedate halt, and the driver, a short, blonde woman, gets out. She hurries around to the side door, unlocks and opens it.
"Nice to see you back," says the plump woman with the earrings.
"Thank you, Mrs. Sheldon. Nice to be back."
She gestures that they should enter. "Go ahead and choose your books. I won't be long."
Surprised glances follow her across the road onto the common. Her chin gains a determined tilt to it as she strides across the wet grass, heading towards the lopsided hawthorn tree that stands at the common's centre, sodden rags drooping from its branches.
As she walks, she is delving in her jacket pocket, hunting for something. She pulls out a paint-spattered strip of grey fabric and murmurs, "It was only fit for the bin, anyway," as if rehearsing her defence.
On reaching the tree, she halts, considering. Lack of height limits her choices. At last, she stretches up on tiptoe and, careful to avoid the sharp black thorns, ties the grey strip to a branch. A sharp tug reassures her it isn't going to come loose in a hurry, then she steps back.
"Well, it seems only fair that Tarian should get some benefit," she murmurs.
Her gaze turns inwards for a moment, then she takes a breath, and begins to speak, enunciating every syllable slowly and clearly.
"My wish is that Tarian has a long and happy life." She pauses, bites her lips, then adds, "And please, if it's not too much trouble, that I get to spend it with her."
A whisper of breeze flutters the latest addition to the raggedy bush. A sign? Who knows?
The young woman waits a moment longer, then turns and hurries back towards the waiting library. She can't stop beaming and there is a spring in her step, for she knows something only one other does. This raggedy bush, unique amongst its kind, is guaranteed to work. And as the rag that she tore from Tarian's favourite sweatshirt decays, so the wish will come true.
I'd like to thank Claudia for pointing out typos and pronoun ambiguities in the beta version of this story.