Screaming. So much screaming. People calling for loved ones. Others consumed in their terror. The peaceful air shattered completely. Nothing left but the grating cacophony of a few hundred terror filled screams. A stampede of bodies threatening to trample or sweep anyone away among the floods. Flames and shadows dancing along the edges of our vision. Bangs punctured the raucous yells in a deadly drumbeat. Brilliant flashes of spell-fire accompanying every blast. Gray cobblestones awash in ruby red that clung to cloth and stone alike. Death was overwhelming, blanketing the day in anguish and despair. A cry of sorrow and mourning raked my already raw throat. A cold morning creeped into the very fibers of my clothes. My eyes prickled as if to fill with tears, but my cheeks remained dry from the rivers that flowed over them before. The sound of my sadness assaulted the graves in front of me. Screaming the torment, I’ve felt, he forced on me, since his farewell. My parents were long gone. Their smiles, their touch, even their voices had faded from my memory. The only family I cared for had left me. As if resonating with my sorrow the skies broke open and drenched the ground in their tears. My friends had long since given me the solitude I craved. So began my vigil with the dead. Permeated to the last rain drop with the raging sadness inside. Pain. Everything was pain. It raced down my arms and covered my back. Even as I try to be strong the tremors overtake me. I can do nothing but cover my head with my hands as I hide between my legs. Another line of fire opens along my back; the crack of his cane reaching my ears. I dare not lift my head to look him in the eye. But his image never leaves my mind’s eye. My grandfather, hair a steely grey and neatly trimmed short against his head, clean shaven, a scar marring his right chin from the wound that left him with the cane. The savagery of his mood decorates his face like a player donned in a mask. Spittle spews from his mouth as his words continue to pierce the air and tear at me. A blanket of red hoods and cloaks swarmed the square. Their faces shadowed but their gleaming smiles seen. Delighted laughter reverberated from their horde. Words of power unleashed blazing lights from their hands. In each direction the leader herded this teaming sanguine mass, more stores fell to ruin. These crimson locusts gluttonous in the pursuit of this carnage. A marketplace strewn across the ground in shattered, trampled fragments. Storefronts in flames or busted in or blown out on the cobblestones. A grand shaking of the earth pounded out from their many feet. The rush of these bloody soldiers having caught every person flat-footed in its suddenness. Men cheering as a woman flailed, her legs spontaneously broken as she ran. A woman’s laugh rising in conjunction with a man’s screams. It felt as if the whole world was connected here amidst the graves. As if my godfather still stood where I stared, flushed with joy. Or next to myself, pale with worry. I ranted and raved to his headstone. The words stayed lost to my ears, but the emotions staining my tongue, dripping from everything I am, vibrating through my being, drove me further. All the while ghosted by the touch of family far out of reach. I was too far removed from them. Without consent, goaded and prodded by desire for something, anything, every drop of my magic moved to find them. Tentative fingers pulling on the world, tasting the raindrops cloaking the day in their gray mist. A faint signing, gentle and melancholy, but sweet in its pureness of sorrow, swelled as gossamer strands of forces unknown were plucked by searching magic. A web of connections responded. Thin strands shone from where souls held to their bones. You took away my son! You are the reason my children are dead! Your mother gave her life for such a pitiful whelp! Now you would take away the only one I had left! My beloved godson, dead in your place! His words laid upon my soul like searing pokers, burning away. Ripping through my heart as if the sharpest of blades. The last of my family, and the love I wished of him would never be gifted to me. All I ever wanted was to see the love in his eyes and hear the care in his voice. As if spoken by another, the words I’m sorry echoed around my ears in my voice. It all rattled through my head, jumbling my thoughts. A wave of them rushed forth after the stampede of fleeing people. Dozens upon dozens of blasts racing out. A burning orange spell streaking straight and true. One last chance to hope for safety. A raven-haired rogue rushing into its path. The splash of the light across his chest, not a single sound gracing his lips. His body joining the many splayed out along the walks, dropping as if a puppet with its strings cut. The impact of the knees upon the ground disregarded in the haste to stop the pool of life fluid from spreading any more than it had already. Futility and denial settling into the very marrow as the hands were stained in moments and the lights left the eyes. Tears flooding down heated cheeks as flames crept closer and last words graced his ears. Horse screams still battling the sky, the magic searching the myriad strands in the desire of a single heartbeat. Silence, deep and still, met the search like a solid wall. My loneliness deepened. The loss cutting ever more like an ever-widening fjord. Tears finally spilled forth again. Their torrent pulling the last dregs of myself. Deadened to all the world but for the sadness. The rain of blows continued. Every moment slowed as if through water. Pain radiated through my arm bellowing out its brokeness. Too many of my ribs needled at me with the same message. The crack of his cane on my back rang through the room again and again. Wetness seeped through my fingers. Its warmth matted my hair and stuck my shirt to the burning lines on my back. Blurring overcame my vision but still I stayed aware. The floor was hard as my side impacted it. A foot in my gut forced me to curve. I curled in response, desperately hoping to keep something safe. The jarring of the strikes aggravated every strike decorating my body. Slowly I submerged in the pain, lost to the world. “Charles!” reverberated through the blind sensation I was left with. My grandfather’s voice. My godfather’s voice. A female voice that called to me. Shattering wrath. Love driven fear. Care and worry. Each layering and canonizing the others is a rondo that reverberated amongst the darkness I submerged in. Coming from everywhere and nowhere. Bouncing off everything and nothing. Continued sparks lit the day in dances colors against a backdrop of red. The rain beat down upon the hair matted to my face. The wetness slid towards my eyes and from my eyes, heated and viscous, cool and slick, even as the blows continued. “Charles!” it came again, louder. “Wake up!” Soft candlelight flooded my view as my eyes snapped open. I gasped, taking in as much oxygen as I could. Deep racking breaths shaking my body in needed for the precious gas. The air was cool on my bare chest. Meaning the sweat I could feel soaking the bandages covering my body was a cold one. My blanket had slid down to my waist where something currently sat in my lap. With a disconnected disbelief I stared down into the eyes of my cat Ophelia. Her expression was nothing but concern. A gentle hand on my shoulder dragged me further from the nightmare, my breaths coming a little lighter now. I turned, to look into the crystal blue eyes of Gwyndolyn, her beautiful red hair cascading around her face. Even in my shock, the torturous visions clinging to me like water following a swim, I could feel my cheeks heat in a blush from her seeing me in this state. I wasn’t one to be overly prudish, but vulnerability isn’t something to dismiss. Still her eyes betrayed no pity. Only her worry and concern. A flash of light illuminated the room, her freckles showed in stark relief on her pale face as a smattering across her cheeks and nose. They dipped down along her neck to her shoulders. The crack of thunder a moment later beat against my gut as if it were a bass drum. Without saying anything she crawled into the bed with me her arms coming up to wrap around me. Against my better judgement for having her here in my room so late at night, I leaned into the embrace. The raw emotions of the dream still seized me, but her presence and gentle embrace softened their impact. The wetness of streaming tears was of no surprise, but nothing I could stop at that moment even with her there. “It’s ok Charles,” Gwyn spoke, her voice gentle in attempt to be calming, “you’re safe here. No one is able to hurt you here. I’ll keep you safe.” “It hurts so much Gwyn,” I sobbed, “so much.” The words practically ripped themselves out of my throat. Out in the pounding rain, a second great thunderclap rumbled in the darkness. “I know Charles. I know,” Gwyn calmed. “Did you dream about Mr. Ocher?” A nod was all I could muster as the tears streamed from my eyes. The arms holding me tighten just a little more and I felt her place her cheek on top of my head. “He loved you,” she told me, barely above a whisper. “Just remember that.” The words had none of the effect she had doubtlessly hoped. The racking sobs shaking my body intensified as I was reminded that not only was it my fault, he was dead, but that the last family who loved me was dead. I turned further into her hold, seeking to hide my face from the truth I was facing. She said something else to me. I felt the vibrations of her speech, yet none of it penetrated my ears. Gradually, agonizingly, the tears dried up, even as they threatened to continue. An ice-cold numbness seeped into my body and mind, taking the place of the deep sadness weighing me down, Gwyn’s arms feeling like alien furnaces ghosting across me. Her presence called to me like a hopeful fireplace on a brisk cold night, but for all that she held me, she still felt as far away as the stars. The soft warm presence of Ophelia curling up with us joined the present inferno surrounding me. Her own gentle comfort in harmony with Gwyn’s. Lulled by the rhythm of the torrential downpour cascading along the house and the comfort Gwyn and Ophelia are radiating, everything slowly drifted into the shadows. Next, I knew, the day was just starting to lighten. The sky was still overcast and threatening rain, but there was nothing falling right now. I could feel Gwyn next to me in bed, so she must not have left after I cried myself to sleep. The warmth made its return to my cheeks as I remembered that she had seen me so bereft and vulnerable last night. It barely registered how lucky we had been that neither Mr. Marten nor Mrs. Marten had come to check on us in the night. Opening my eyes, I could see her coppery hair splayed around her head so similar to the appearance of fire you would think she had been lit aflame. My arm was clutched tightly in her grip as she faced me from the side of the bed closer to the wall. With as much care as possible I pulled myself away and rose from the bed. I had been an early riser for years now so that I could clear my head with some chores around the house, and while I was loath to leave her to wake alone, in my bed, I certainly needed a clearer mind. Tiptoeing my way down to the first floor I couldn’t have been happier at the Marten’s guest room being a little separate from the family’s rooms. When they woke without me being here Conrad, Gwyn, and Sophia would know where I had gone, but I could at least let them have a chance at a good night sleep. And get the time to myself I was hoping for. Sophia’s guest room was the only obstacle to get past, not that it was all that hard to sneak past even if she was as much an early bird as myself. Reaching the doorway from the kitchen to the outside silently enough I had to debate the way in which I was getting where I was going. The Marten’s had a Drws stone for times when they needed to take the whole family places. They weren’t cheap, but they weren’t exactly expensive either considering the correct set of enchantments and runes and determination like a ring or archway let the Drws create an instant portal. I had used theirs before when spending time with them or after visiting, and I knew the password they had set for the use of the stone and for their house. I could be where I wanted quite quickly and without any difficulty. The preparations might wake them though, which I didn’t want. Besides, they had given me enough of their hospitality. Using their stone for my own gain like that just felt far too rude. Messer and Missus Marten were able to Blink, but that skill wasn’t something I had learned yet, nor was portal building without the use of a Drws stone. I wasn’t even sure if they taught how to make variations of the Drws stone such as the bespelled porthallwedd, which while they didn’t require the preparations of a Drws stone were less stable. That left flight, by broom since I didn’t think the Marten’s had any creatures that could fly, and the carriages. Carriages it was, since a broom would absolutely take too long. Good thing I remembered to grab my pass charm from beside my bed. The morning air was brisk on my face as I left the Martens’ home, but I had dealt with worse before. Still, I had to momentarily grit my teeth and shiver against the wind. Firmly gripping the small wheel token in my left pocket, I spoke the incantation to call any of the carriages currently in service. They basically were a fleet a magical taxi. Only, they had no engines or electricity. And they were all owned by the same family. “Teithio ar Hyfforddwyr,” I intoned clearly. The sound of horseshoes on pavement was the first thing to reach my ears, heralding a blue and grey horse drawn carriage to fade into view from thin air. The painted steed was in excellent behavior, coming to a full stop with the driver even with me. She was beautiful, and in excellent form. I would have been lucky to have worked with her at the family ranch, but I couldn’t say for sure that she had ever set a hoof in our fields. The driver sat in what looked to be nicer pants, a cold weather jacket, and a tie of the same blue of the carriage with a silver trimmed bowler hat. Wire sunglasses decorated his face. It was most certainly a uniform, even without seeing any kind of insignia in sight, but it was rather ruffled. The man was dark haired and covered in scruffy stubble stuck between a shave and a beard. As I watched, the man set down what looked to be half a potato and pulled a flask from his inside coat pocket. “G’afrnoon, lad,” he introduced, taking a swig. The man held the reins in a single hand to place the flask back and re-grab the potato, taking a bite. “Mah names William. Call meh Willie. Where is it ya need tah go?” The words were almost muffled beyond understanding from the potato still in his mouth. I had no idea what to say to this man. My biggest worry suddenly switched from all the fears plaguing me to whether Willie was drunk. And I couldn’t see his eyes to check if they were bloodshot! “Um, how much for a trip to the Golden Hoof Ranch?” “Tha’ would be abou’ twen’y silvah.” “That sounds fine,” I told him with a nod, climbing into the carriage. Getting settled, I was surprised at Ophelia leaping up into the seat next to me. The larger than average cat glared at me with eyes that screamed ‘were you planning on leaving me behind you idiot?’. Without acknowledgement of her or any other reaction from me she curled up in the seat next to me like it was any other blanket she would sleep on. One last glare shot at me over her legs made it perfectly clear what her thoughts were right now. I was left dazed by the actions of a cat I already knew to be strange, but I guess it was just another tuesday. Willie seemed to be in a similar situation to me. At least I think he was. He faltered in consuming his potato at least. “Whelp,” he answered through a mouthful of starchy vegetable, “that was strange. Ok.” Willie settled the potato down somewhere, shifting in his seat, as he took full control of the reins once again. “Wait, Willie,” the carriage-driver barely turned his head in glancing at me over his shoulder, “are you ok to drive?” “Don’ worry. The Aonbharr do mos’ o’ the drivin’ anyway.” Well, that wasn’t comforting in any way. Just because the mare was smart enough to avoid obstacles without the direction of her coachman, doesn’t mean that everything would be ok. I nearly jumped a foot into the air when the carriage lurched forward. Our speed was quickly reaching a critical point. Not unexpected on an Aonbharr driven Ithel carriage. With a steed, named for the breed’s progenitor, able to run across the water leading a carriage that let you get places quickly and with ease no matter the distance between them, our speed was going to get very high very fast. Panicking, I snapped forward, wishing with everything I had that there would be nothing for us to potentially crash into. There was a tree. And not a small tree. A full-sized oak tree. And we were driving right towards it. “Did yah ‘ear ‘bout tha’ memorial they is doin’ for everyone who kick’d tha bucket at tha Unseen Square?” Willie asked me, choosing this very moment to turn around and look at me. “Willie! Not the time! There is a tree!” “Wha’?” the coachmen muttered almost stupidly. The word non-challan would probably work as a description of his tone. The man didn’t even turn back around, only continuing to stare at me without seemingly seeing me. I scrambled to reach his seat and take the reins myself, fighting whatever charm they carriage had placed upon it to keep me ‘safely’ in my seat. It was doing its job in a literal sense, but definitely not in the spirit or intent of its casting. Squeezing the side railing in a white knuckled grip, the whole carriage lurched to the right side. There was no way we hadn’t just lifted off two of the wheels, as the aonbharr had made a sharp left turn away from the tree. Still the tree came closer and closer, till I could see all the pitting of the bark, without any way for me even attempt a jump for safety. Not that I had quite trying, straining as much as I could towards the back lip of the carriage farthest from the approaching tree. The anchoring spell felt like a hook settling itself inside my navel tethering me to the seat. There was even the constricting hold of a mundane car’s seat belt against my waist and across both shoulders, though the carriage certainly didn’t have one. Inches from scraping the paint off the carriage and peeling bark from the tree, things seemed to warp. This big tree seemed to bend and stretch out of the way of the carriage snapping back like a rubber band as soon as the cart got further away from it again. The wheels all touched back to the earth with a resounding crash that sent the carriage bouncing along the path two or three times. Now moving in more of a straight line again, this time with no trees in our path, it finally occurred to me again that my cat had been in the carriage the whole time. I needed to check on Ophelia. I had to make sure that she was safe. She was snoring. How is that even possible? Why does my familiar have to be something so annoyingly weird!? In the seat next to me the short haired all black and white striped cat was curled into a ball, her larger than average body as small as it could go. “She a sleepy litt’e thin’ ain’ she?” Willie surprised me by speaking up. I would be visiting Uncle Jericho and my parents sooner than I thought if this kept up. Due to a damn heart attack. Rushing blood pounded in my ears thanks to my rapidly beating heart. Frustratingly, Willie was still facing my way, and he was even eating his potato again. This bugger must have a death wish or something. “Uh, seems that way,” I responded, trying to get my metaphorical legs back under me. Could anything return to some semblance of normal? “What was it you had said about a memorial?” “Tha mayor be financin’ a new memorial for all tha’ died. Gonna be a big ceremony an’ everyfin’.” “That sounds like a great thing for him to do.” I told him, genuinely hopeful that Uncle Jericho would get the appropriate respect for his sacrifice. “Yah know any bo’y who los’ someone tha’ day?” His question froze the blood still rushing through my veins. The cold rainy morning air suddenly warm on my skin. My heart, which had suddenly dropped out my feet pounded hard enough to break right out my chest. I croaked, my brain stalled, and any words caught in my throat. My tongue felt far too big for my mouth. “That – That isn’t really something I want to answer Willie. It’s a bit personal.” “Ah, fine fine,” he waved off finally facing forward. The bugger didn’t seem upset with my refusal of this topic, but he did seem disappointed in the lack of conversation. Not that the lack of distraction made Willie’s driving any better. We were passing through the city now, and there was no way I could keep the screams of panic and fear from escaping my mouth. There were cars shifting out of the way, entire buildings warping similarly to the tree we had passed earlier, and even pedestrians that practically teleported out of the way they moved so quickly from the carriage. There was a myriad number of times that my momentum nearly sent me flying if not for the anchoring charms keeping me in my seat. Willie was absolutely the worst driver I had ever met. A flock of pigeons took to the air right as we rounded a corner to barrel straight for them. With no apparent options and thinking quickly I bent at the waist so that I could duck away without the charms triggering. “So wha’cha hea’in to tha ranch for?” Willie spoke over the wind again. He wasn’t done with conversation apparently. I looked back at him to find the git had apparently finished off his potato, but now had an entirely new one that what was a solid purple color. And he was looking back at me again! “I, ah, I need to clear my head. Working at the ranch helps.” “Good for yah then. Can’t say the same is true for me. I prefer being here on the carriage.” And didn’t that sound horrifying. “How close are we?” I heard myself asking. There was no way I could take much more of this. Already I had spent practically twenty minutes fearing for my life and screaming. If I gripped the carriage any harder, I might end up breaking the railing or the door. After the last few minutes, I did my best to focus on the floor of the carriage. The things Willie apparently wanted to crash us against weren’t going to vanish if I couldn’t see them, but maybe, just maybe I could pretend they weren’t there. “We’re ‘ere.” With a sound like the screaming of tires, the carriage came to a complete, sudden stop. No slowing of our speed or almost hitting the aonbharr due to the carriage’s inertia. I mean a drop of the hat, practically hit a wall stop. Though I hadn’t had any breakfast this morning, I practically lost it in that final jerk of the carriage. I pulled against the anchoring charms like a bungee cord snapping back into my seat. I chocked back my stomach from my throat and coughed. Blinking stars blurred my vision from the rush of blood to my head. Quick as I could I left the carriage, the ground shifting underneath me and making that very difficult. I was astonished they held my legs held my weight. The damn things felt like jelly. Ophelia rather rudely let out a great yawn, giving me the most blatant look of disbelief, I have ever been on the receiving end of. I just knew this stupid cat was calling me a wimp. Such a supportive familiar, isn’t she? While she took her sweet time jumping down from the carriage I glanced around. Willie was right. We were directly outside of the main entrance to the Golden Hoof ranch. Granted it was the same entrance we had any customers come through with a big sign next to a small picket fence and tree lined path about a third of a kilometer. Guess I had to walk for a bit more. “Thank yah fo’ yah business.” Willie told me absentmindedly as I shakily passed him the money I owed. His aonbharr stood lazily by, breathing evenly, not even stretching down to graze at the grass beneath her. Heck of a well-trained mare. By this point, I was sure the man was only focused on eating the purple potato he had. Before I walked away, I watched the man take another draught from the flask in his coat, snapping the reins as he did. Willie was perhaps the most carefree git I had ever met. The clatter of the carriage’s wheels picked up again in time with the aonbharr’s sharp neigh. The mare gave a great heave against the harness, inching forward slowly but picking up speed quickly. In seconds the whole ensemble faded into the wind, a faint afterimage amidst the dust cloud behind them, as their acceleration was insane. This stupid ironic voice in the back of my head spoke up. “It’s just like magic.” Shaking my head, hoping I could regain some semblance of sanity, or forget any of the last few minutes, I turned to face down the path. Ophelia shrugged against my leg before leaping all the way onto my shoulder. Thank gosh there was no need for her to climb up my leg. I didn’t care for being covered in scratches. Unfortunately, this left me to carry my feline familiar as if she was a bird until we reached the stables. At least the morning had become calm enough by this point that the chittering of the birds made the five-minute walk tranquil and enjoyable. As long as the rain stayed away, the walk just might be good.
None of the workers amongst the half dozen barns and stables batted an eye at our entrance. Most of them had known me since I had been a tot, not that any of them had given me much care thanks to Grandfather. The ranch had been in my family for more generations than I think any of us know, so there was a myriad of times I had been down here playing around or helping feed and water the horses and magical equine creatures. By the time I had become big enough to truly take care of the entirety of our herds, Uncle Jericho had taken me away from Grandfather. . . . . Stop. Don’t think about that time. Nothing good will come of thinking about that time. Ok, get started you fool. Grabbing a rake and a wheelbarrow from their storage area, I found the next set of stalls that needed to be cleaned. Some of the workers I saw gave me a quiet nod of acknowledgement, though none of them said a word to me yet. Working with them wasn’t a common occurrence, but I had done it. Uncle Jericho had brought me back to the ranch a few times over the years so that I could get to know my family’s business and build a good work ethic, or so he said. I think he was just trying to get away for a date the rotten playboy. Luckily, Grandfather never came down to the ranch anymore, always saying his wounded leg wouldn’t support his being down with everyone, relying only on the barn managers to feed him the needed info. I never tested that statement. Grandfather was injured the night my parents were killed, and his leg never healed right. It was always best if I didn’t . . . Stop. Going places, you don’t need to go again. I watched Ophelia race around chasing Hualadars while I entered the empty stall of one of our Aonbharr stallions. The stallion was an excellent chestnut colour with a mane to match except for the white streak of mane at the base of his head. With the stall empty I allowed my mind to meander through my memories. Lonely echoes in a household of only two. Escaping to far off worlds in books, alongside the occasional snuck in games with the brownies and hobgoblins. Explosions of anger I always tried to bury so far in the recesses of my mind they would never see the light of day. Complete mistrust. Of the hope Uncle Jericho brought with him. Of being safe and sound. Of being loved. The joy of it being true. New mates and family joining our little brigade. His roguish face in the forefront of my thoughts, I couldn’t keep the more recent events away. Unbidden, more like a runaway train careening from the station downhill while I tried to pull the breaks, the events of the Unseen Square Slaughter in Tintagel surfaced. I had relived those moments countless times, waking or asleep. So many times. It’s, it’s been a month since those, those braggarts in blood-soaked cloaks took the first man I remember ever loving me. Anew the longing for the parents I would never know bubbled up in my chest like a boiling pot running over. I leaned on the rake a moment and blinked back the tears filling my vision. Uncle Jericho had come to take me away from Grandfather when I had been eleven after ten years of being in my paternal grandfather’s not so tender care. He had been my saviour after so many years in the dark. I had been an orphan since my parents, Frederick, and Catalina, had died sometime after my first birthday. Grandfather had always believed it to be a ruffian targeting my mother thanks to her work. I, I guess I reminded him of my mother. Maybe the shape of my chin and eyes. I looked out at the workers for something to distract myself but found myself seeing a completely cleaned stall. Robotically I gathered everything and moved along to the next stall, which was luckily empty as well. That night everything changed for the worst stayed in my head as I worked. The same night my parents died protecting me, Uncle Jericho, my godfather, and their best mate, had fought with them. He had been lucky. Uncle Jericho was still alive come morning, but he was in a coma that would last the next ten years. When I was thirteen, Uncle Jericho told me the truth of that night. The attacker was someone my mum had been investigating. While my dad had taken up the family business from Grandfather, mum chose to go into criminal law as a prosecuting barrister. Uncle Jericho had often worked with her as a marshal before his coma. Having known my dad since childhood, it made him both my mum’s and my dad’s best mate. When he had begun taking care of me, he had been able to secure a higher position which was only desk work through a few favours. He told me he wanted to be around for me this time, and that meant doing something a little safer. Safe at his job sure. But those instincts of his never went away, and one stupid afternoon out with me . . . I vigorously shook my head, hoping to whisk away those memories as if a dog drying his fur. Lethargically moving my wheelbarrow towards the manure truck for a second time, I did my best to focus on the work. The mare kept in that second stall must have been one of the cleaner horses because that was an easy clean. All the farmhands were giving me a wide berth, something both gratifying and frustrating. Most of them were working close to twice the rate I was, not that any of them would think less of me for dragging like I am. They must think I need my space, which was true but that didn’t mean they needed to treat me like a pariah. My third stall of the day holds probably one of my favorites on the whole ranch. A white and auburn pinto cridhe sochair mare had lived here since she was only a few months old. Sun Dancer was now three. I had been here on the day of her birth and bought her from Grandfather only a year ago without his knowledge. Uncle Jericho had made sure I got paid for my time even if the ranch was my families. I think he just wanted to stick it to Grandfather, but it let me pay part of Sun Dancer’s cost while Uncle Jericho covered the rest as a birthday gift. The cridhe sochair were amazing creatures. They were a product between a unicorn and a non-magical stallion, which was not easy to do. Cridhe sochair kept many of the magical properties of their unicorn parent, if slightly lessened, but were much more sociable then said parent. Gathering horn shavings or tail hair was always easier to accomplish with a cridhe sochair then an actual unicorn. Our farm had several of them due to their benefits, but we kept normal horses and unicorns as well. She came right up to me for affection, which I unquestionably gave in the form of some cuddles. Ones I needed just as much as she wanted them. I swear I saw concern in her eyes when we separated. So much had changed recently. And all I had left were the tempestuous memories and the bequeathments of Uncle Jericho’s will. And that bloody letter! It never left my head since I read it! The pedestal I placed Uncle Jericho on was crumbling constantly and unveiling more mysteries by answering one that I had always wondered about. A simple piece of paper giving me the first real answer I had received on why Grandfather was never arrested for all the . . . Especially with a guardian who was a . . . Move on Charles. Stop dwelling. Yes, some of those scars may never fade. Yes, the aches still resonate from the last time I had seen my elder. The bandages do still rub coolly against your skin as a constant. But that is all behind you now. The Marten’s offered me a home that I would love to be a part of, and no matter what the stabs of guilt are telling me, I know I am not betraying his memory. He would have wanted me to be safe and happy. Besides, was Uncle Jericho really all that different now from the man I had known before. Sure, Uncle Jericho made a terrible mistake, but would I have made any other choice? Wouldn’t I have done the same for Conrad as my parents did for Uncle Jericho? I took the time to hug Sun Dancer again as every line of the letter assaulted my thoughts like storm debris pelting a house. Racing by each other more chaotically than a swarm of hornets. Shortly before I had been born Uncle Jericho’s fiancée Adeline Ravenscroft had been killed during a home invasion/robbery. Uncle Jericho had been at work, still a low-level constable at the time. Her death had hit him hard, rage and depression weighing down his heart and soul. For weeks he was inconsolable. What finally dragged him from his misery was his burning need to find her killer. He did. That man never saw another sunrise. My parents helped him hide some of the evidence and dispose of the corpse. No one ever made the connections. Except for my Grandfather, who left everything well enough alone until it suited his needs. So, the reason my Grandfather was never arrested? He blackmailed my godfather, his own godson, into complying. Sadly, the sins didn’t stop there. My mother hadn’t been an only child. While I had known for years that she was a Tréitheach thanks to Uncle Jericho, I was kept learning about the rest of a family I had never known of or met due to the same stupid blackmail. Grandfather had wanted me to have no one and despised my mum’s family just because he blamed her. Always said that the apple never fell far from the tree. At least I knew the truth. My mum noticed the actions of terrorists back when the group was still in fledgling stages. The same terrorists that killed . . . I hated the Legion. One of their members had been the attacker that night. At least according to that bloody letter. Uncle Jericho never told me that when he was alive. Guess he didn’t trust me. My mind whirling, I watched myself clean the next three stalls, a displaced viewer seeing a marionette show from inside the marionette. One stall had an older non-magical mare who constantly got in the way of cleaning her stall. She was almost a distraction from everything swirling amidst my brains. Almost. With the letter on my unsettled mind, I could feel the tension in my limbs. My frustration and rage boiling just beneath the surface. My guilt increased even more when I almost lashed out at the mare for stepping in my way one too many times. One or two of the stable hands commiserated with me over the annoyance of dealing with Giselle as they walked by. They said the same about the stag in the next stall, but honestly, I had never had any issue with him. The beast in question was a rather handsome Corn Pelydrol, a stag just slightly larger than their non-magical cousins with antlers and hooves glittering a brilliant gold and silver and a coat as pure as snow. Similarly, to unicorns their bodies held significant arcane properties. Golden Hoof ranch was the only place where they were able to be kept. For whatever reason, they were perfectly calm in certain wooded areas of the ranch, and with members of the Galehart family. If neither of those conditions were met, then the Corn Pelydrol were the most vigorous and irascible creatures you were likely to meet. Most of the Corn Pelydrol were kept together, but this one, Cosmos, had uncommonly calmed in his older age. Well, he did in terms of the mares, not the workers. Meaning we could stable him in new areas though our workers still had to be careful. A few of the stable hands expressed their envy as Cosmos bent his head and let me scratch the spot directly between his antlers. I might collect a few shavings from them today if there is time. It certainly would help the ranch. “To think he would come back here! And without telling anyone!” a surprisingly sharp exclamation broke through the normal chatter of the workers and the animals. “And if I see that crazy driver again, I will . . . ! Ugh! The nerve of him drinking on the job. I’ll shove that stupid potato down his throat!” So, my mates finally showed up. Sophia’s voice isn’t something I could forget anytime soon. Took them long enough. Not sure I was ready for them yet, but I guess it was time. I could hear some of the workers begging off for an early lunch. Probably wanted to give us a little bit of privacy, but honestly, they could have stayed. Might have even been better if they had, the prats. Cause at least then I could beg off talking through everything if I didn’t want to. I breathed deeply. They cared. They really did. It just didn’t mean it would be easy for me either. Knowing Cosmos wouldn’t be all that happy with them being in the stall with him, I stepped out and directly into my mates’ line of sight. Sophia had her usual attitude about her, all confidence and stubbornness, as she swept through the barn. She had a lot of presence in a small body, being only five feet two. Her wavy brown hair was already beginning to frizz up windswept as it was from the ride here and the humidity. She was somewhat out of place with her khaki pants and knit jumper. Conrad and Gwyn were following at a much more sedate pace a step or two behind her. The twins were taking their time looking through stalls as they did whenever they came with or visited me. Gwyn paused to pet Sun Dancer when the mare came up to the door of the stall. The two Marten’s set an entirely different picture then Sophia dressed casually in some well-worn jeans. Granted they tended to wear working clothes quite often, not that it kept them from drawing people’s attention. They both had vivid red hair the colour of a campfire late into the dark of night. And both of them were tall. Gwyndolyn was just above average height herself, like I was, and athletically trim. Conrad was just big. My best mate was easily over six feet but was no slender man, the rest of him had filled in all the same. I doubted he would win a body building contest or the hunkiest man around award, but he certainly had muscles. “There you are Charles.” Sophia said, finally pulling herself out of her ranting thoughts enough to notice me. Standing right out in the open. Maybe six feet from them. I caught Conrad rolling his eyes good naturedly. The girl was incredibly smart, easily earning the right to skip a grade at our school, even more grades if we were honest, but she could get lost in her own little world quite often. “Bought time you saw me,” I fired back at her, mostly playfully. “I’m not hiding nor am I invisible.” “Do you have any idea how worried we were about you?!” she declared, fists firmly on her hips, her feet planted, and her gaze laser focused on my eyes, less than six inches between us. “I woke up early worrying over you. Wanting to see to it that you aren’t wasting away from depression, only for you never to come to breakfast. For the whole house to get in a tizzy when we learned you weren’t. There. Because as the right big git that you are, you told no one where you were going! Not only that, but you come to this shite-filled lord-forsaken codswallop! Forcing me to undertake a second nightmarish journey in as many days in a coach driven by a drunken arse more concerned with his bloody root vegetables!” Sophia was left heaving from the ferocity of her words, leaving a pregnant pause as she waited for someone to respond while she recovered. Having witnessed Sophia ranting like this before I really didn’t want to say anything that might give her a chance to crucify me further. I opened my mouth to say . . . something, but it choaked off as I watched Sophia’s silver eyes sharpen and narrow. She had lethal weapons in those things. Gwyn was the one apparently brave enough to stick her neck out and make herself the target of my mate’s ire. “At least let him say hullo to everyone before you go tearing his bits off, Sophia.” Sophia’s attention centred on the pale, freckled red head like a hunter sighting a new target, but she seemed paused from extending rant as she refocused. Thank gosh for Gwyn. Yet again. Between last night and today I owed her something fierce. Though I had no idea how I might even start to pay her back. “Don’t go forgetting that I knew where he went all along,” she reminded them gently before meeting my gaze with steely hazel eyes in a fortuitous glare. “That said, I plan to get my piece of his tanned hide all the same.” And there goes all the warm fuzzy feelings treating my chest like a bumper car arena without enough space. I take back everything I just thought about owing her more and trying to pay her back. Never mind that I’m apparently so predictable she just knew where I was. “Girls,” Conrad finally spoke up in his rich baritone, commanding attention. His tense crossed arms, and tight jaw belayed his otherwise relaxed posture leaning against the stalls. “Let him speak.” See this is why this bloke was my best mate. Oh, he was angry with me as well, that was clear, but at least he would let me try to explain myself. The girls would to, but not before running me through the ringer. “Please don’t get your knickers in a twist,” I asked nervously, hoping my asking that of Sophia and Gwyn didn’t make a right mess of things even more than before. “I didn’t mean anything by it, this just helps get all my bits and bobs in order.” I explained to them that I woke all knackered and wonky and decided I needed to skive off for a bit. A little non-human therapy seemed a great idea at the time, and while Ophelia was great, this was the best place I knew to get that therapy. “Look, I am sorry I never told any of you, but sleep wasn’t my mate last night. I just needed to be up moving around. Doing something. Not over at the Marten’s doing bugger all.” “Rest and recovery is something,” Gwyn told me softly, her eyes having lost most of their hard edge. “I know that . . . but everything has gone all pear shaped and doing this . . . I don’t feel like such a tosser just waiting for things to sort out.” They were silent after that. Conrad’s arms dropped to put his hands in his pockets his shoulders slumping. Sophia’s arms dropped as well but she just seemed gobsmacked, searching for words. Gwyn tentatively laid her hand on my shoulder. “Being out here, working with them, I could stay calm enough to, to submerge myself in the chaos of my own thoughts. I have no doubt that you would have helped me work it all out, but I needed to see it all for myself.” “We understand Charles.” Gwyn comforted. “We are here for you as best as we can be.” “And well, there is one thing that we wanted to talk to you about.” Sophia hesitantly ventured. She wasn’t one to be hesitant normally, but I think I had taken most of the wind from her sails without meaning to. I took another deep breath. I hadn’t meant to make them feel so uncomfortable, I just needed to find a way to deal with all the issues I was having. If only I could have talked to Uncle Jericho about this. If only I could see him one more time. “What is it?” I asked quietly. “The memorial,” Conrad spoke slowly, hesitantly, “we saw it mentioned in the The Grand Bard today and thought it would be good if we went. A Menhir is being erected with the names of all of the victims.” “That, that sounds like a good idea,” I admitted, already pictured Uncle Jericho’s name carved into yet more stop. Going back to that place terrified me like I was having to stare down my worst enemy. Children were braver about the dark than I was about going back. But this might be good for closure. The energy and strength I thought I gained since this morning vanished since I opened up. “Then we need to go talk to mum and dad,” Gwyn mentioned. “If the lot of us skive off to go to the memorial they are going to be worried.” She smiled taking the mickey out of me. A trickle of my energy retuned as my spirits lifted the barest amount. “You should have seen the convincing we had to do so that only we came to get you.” “You should talk to miss Randwulf to,” Sophia interjected. “I’m sure she has been worried.” A spark of recognition caused me to pause in agreeing. Aunt Regina had been a mate of my parents since their later years in school. She had even worked for my mother for a while and had been around as often as she could when I lived with Uncle Jericho. If there was anyone that I could talk to about Uncle Jericho and about everything I had learned, then she would be that person. “Yeah, I think, I think I really need to talk to Aunt Regina,” I stuttered out, “and not just about going to the memorial. She, she might just give me some answers.” They all took a small moment to look me over, questioning my decision, but they either figured out what I had or just decided to go with it. “Sounds like a plan,” Conrad agreed, nodding slightly. “Let’s just head back . . . “ “Oi you wankers,” Shawn yelled, interrupting Conrad and getting the lot of us jumping a foot off the ground. My hand twitched towards the wand in my pocket, and I had to give it a pat to ensure it was still there. Shawn was the ranch manager, keeping track of the day-to-day operations and dealing with the workers. He had always been fair to me, but he had never done much for me either. He has reasons but those hadn’t mattered much when I was a kid. “Stop with the grub and get back in here, Irene just went into labour!”
I stood stunned under Irene’s vehemently venomous glare as her new foal stood shakingly for the very first time. Nothing could have prepared us for this at all. Ok, that sounded strange when a breeder is talking about birth, but it was July! Late July at that! Any foals at the ranch were already a few months old, born right at the start of the spring with their mothers still nursing them. The mares chosen to carry the next round should be pregnant since at least early June. Irene was neither of those groups. Particularly because she just wasn’t a good choice. She was far too temperamental of an aonbharr. So much so that we worried about the foals she would birth. Both with their health and their personalities. She nearly trampled the last foal she gave birth to. Since most of the workers had gathered with us and Shawn to monitor Irene’s labour and see the new foal, I was just waiting for him to take them to task. But he looked as amazed as the rest of us so that might take a moment. Not that any of us could blame then. Irene either had the longest pregnancy I had ever heard of or the shortest. Two months. At most. And she should have seen neither a vet nor a stallion at either of those times. The foal wasn’t even an aonbharr. We weren’t fully sure what he was. Which honestly made this whole situation even crazier. It looked like he was a cross between an aonbharr and a corn pelydrol. Completely unheard of. Our ranch was the only one with corn pelydrol, and we never did this. “Right,” Shawn mentioned, sounding completely resigned, before demanding, “did any of you muppets mix up which beasts went in which paddocks? Cause so help me, that foal’s front feet match those of a Corn Pelydrol, but its back feet match it’s mothers.” There was a general consensus of uncertainty as the whole lot of the workers shrugged, heads bowing shamefully or uncertainly and feet shuffling. Shawn’s jaw line stood out prominently from gritting his teeth. I swear I heard the grinding. One of those things had to have cracked. The constant stress and anger lines along his brow deepened as his scowl grew. Shawn was giving a very heated stare clearly hoping one of them might break and give something away. I watched them to, but I don’t want to yell at them over this. Sure, something could have gone really wrong, but everything was ok for the time being. I doubted anyone would do this again. Mostly I just want to know more about our knew foal, including his parentage. When none of them broke, Shawn let out a breath that drew my attention back to the crotchety man. “Fine then yah dodgy nutters. Piss off back to work before I take yah gormless mankey pillocks up to the tosser who owns the place!” The ‘gormless mankey pillocks’ scattered in the blink of an eye, leaving only the four of us and Shawn himself. The salt-and-pepper haired man sighed deeply the anger and scowl melting into an expression of the outmost weariness. Probably wondering what to tell Grandfather and how he could keep anyone from losing their job. Grandfather would not be happy that something happened which shouldn’t have. Unless of course it would help the business. I thought the foal was a beautiful creature, nearly a pure black but with touches of white and gray throughout his coat. Granted that could change, but when those antlers came in, he would be amazing. Well, as interesting as this whole incident was and would be, it was about time we got back to the Marten’s. And there was no guarantee that Grandfather wouldn’t come down to see the foal. I consciously supressed a shiver as my bandages itched. Even mostly healed they were stinging. My eyes drifted back to the foal; he was mesmerizing in a strange way. “C’mon guys,” I called, trying to tear my eyes from the foal. I felt drawn to the little guy like he was meant for me or something. “We should skive off before Grandfather comes down to see.” “Charles,” Shawn said surprisingly called before I had made it more than a few paces. I turned slightly to see his posture had regained some of its usual vitality. He looked conflicted though, which told me exactly what he was going to say. Did I want to hear it? He was still trying to force the words out, so I had a chance to walk away and cut him off. . . Well Uncle Jericho always liked him so I guess I could hear him out. “I don’t have any room for apologies,” Shawn finally got out. “All those years I saw yah here I was a right pillock myself. Whether I was blackmailed or not, it don’t excuse the fact I left yah tah the raging of that maggot who calls himself your gran-da. Just know, if yah be needin’ anything, yah only need to ask. ‘Bout the only way I can redeem myself in any way. ‘Sides Jane would have my hide for anything less.” Having met that man’s ladle wielding wife before I had to agree with that last statement. Shawn was right about a lot of that actually. The past couldn’t be changed, and there was a lot that the various ranch hands needed to atone for. They spent even less time with me then the brownies that had taken care of the house when I was an ankle biter. But Shawn sounded sincere, and he had never been one to tell Grandfather I was at the ranch, which is something. He had always treated me and Uncle Jericho fairly for the work we did do, also. He may never have truly protected me, but he had given me peace and freedom where he could. Thinking over it a moment, I decided that my anger shouldn’t be directed at a man who stayed quiet just so he could save his job and feed his family. Not if he was repentant. “I, well, I might just hold you to that Shawn.” The man nodded resolutely, his eyes betraying the relief at me not turning him down. His arms were crossed like this whole exchange meant nothing, but Shawn was not one to mince words. This had meant a lot to him if he chose to actually speak up. “Tell Jane I said hullo for me would yah.” A quick turn on my heal, and I left the man behind, my last words hanging between us. Shawn didn’t need to know how much this was affecting me right now. How close to the edge I had been even before he spoke up. I just needed to be strong a few moments longer as we left. The wounds from back then were significant and the scars hadn’t faded yet, but maybe they could heal just a bit more. Sophia, Conrad, and Gwyn all fell into step behind me as I marched away, trying hard to keep my steps even and un-rushed. Each of us were silent on the way back to the ranch’s entrance. Gwyn walked next to me having caught up quickly. She wasn’t actually interacting with me directly. Just trying to provide support with her presence and her silence. Considering I doubted my ability to hold a conversation right now, that was probably for the best. I didn’t know if she was truly helping or not. My emotions were . . . I don’t really know honestly. Up and down. Sad, angry, numb. Countless things to talk about with Aunt Regina flashed before me in a storm of questions and worries. Each with a number of ways to broach the topic being scrutinized and discarded one after the next. My thoughts were more jumbled than ever, yet also more focused now that I had a goal. Sophia and Conrad passed us as we walked along the path, chatting to themselves about the weather. Things were still overcast, but the clouds may have lightened just lightly. I think they were leaving me to myself for now as well. Though I wasn’t sure if they were leaving me to Gwyn’s attentions purposefully or accidentally. Maybe they just were giving me space in their own ways. A few questions kept appearing prominently. Did Uncle Jericho ever regret killing that man? Did my parents? What would they tell me now when I wanted to do the same to the Legion? Did anyone know anything about the Legion at all? Is whatever my mum learned still used and if so, what was it? When I finally left my own head to view my surroundings again, Sophia was summoning our ride back to the Marten’s home. I jumped when Gwyn gave me a small bump, a question in her eyes, but not flowing across her tongue. I shrugged. “There is a lot going on in my head right now?” “Ugh!” Sophia exclaimed grabbing my attention. “You again! Is there not anyone else?!” Willie was back and looking completely unaffected by the death glare focused on his unkempt person by the short brunet. Conrad was already trying to calm her down as best as I could tell from a few meters away. Somehow, we kept her from killing our driver as we all boarded and started back. And while I felt bad for her, we luckily didn’t have to worry about that only a minute or two in. The second ride didn’t agree with her. The Marten’s fields were visible far before the house was, filled with assorted produce, some sheep, cattle, and plenty of barley. It was most definitely a fair-sized farmhouse, but not the largest farmhouse by far. The place was wonderful patchwork of coloured stone with plants growing up many of the walls. There was a connected mew, but for the time being, there were only chickens and some cattle for milk. Something I knew saddened the Martens, especially Gwyn, who had all had a chance to ride before and would love to do it more frequently. The weather here in Dundalk was no different than that in Blackpool. We were let off close to the front door and made our way quickly through the house to the kitchen. Mr. Marten was probably off somewhere on their farms. The Marten’s had diversified a long time ago ensuring that they owned a hodgepodge of a farm, with many priorities added together to as a larger enterprise. He had even mentioned at dinner once how they were working on obtaining a whiskey distillery since they already had the barley. However, Mrs. Marten and Aunt Regina were sat together at the kitchen table drinking a mid-morning cup of tea. Some brownies were bustling about with laundry, vegetables to be washed, baking, or dishes to be added to a filled tub. As I watched, another plate levitated out of the water while a sponge floated over and began scrubbing as if controlled by invisible hands. People were always surprised by Mrs. Marten’s appearance. She was closer to Sophia in height, quite unlike her children. There were stands of grey mixed into her blonde hair cut so that it fanned out a little around her ears but didn’t touch her collar. She couldn’t be referred to as railway thin after two kids, but she was slim enough to tell us exercise did occur sometimes. Aunt Regina was her opposite in many ways. Brown hair cascaded to her midback in curling waves. Her smile suggested delight as she sipped her tea, if you discounted the overly large canines, but her amber eyes held only the weight of the world. Her blouse’s lack of sleeves displayed the numerous scars dotting her muscular arms, particularly the beginnings of a large bite mark along her left shoulder. Aunt Regina also stood taller than Mrs. Marten, about Gwyn’s height normally, though sitting the two women appeared the same height. When I was younger those scars of hers had been proof of the bravery my guardians. Warriors and protectors who regaled me with tales to fill my dreams. Now though, all I could seem from them was the pain they must have caused her. “’Bout time you got back,” Aunt Regina teased us, mainly me, as we moved to join them at the table. She glanced my way as she made to put her cup back on its saucer. Ophelia rushed ahead, through my feet, to perform a flying leap into Aunt Regina’s lap. The darker haired woman didn’t even blink as she reached down to begin petting the cat. The purring began only seconds later. It was always strange just how much my familiar liked my foster aunt, but it wasn’t anything to complain about. I made sure to take the chair directly left of Aunt Regina at the oak table. “Sorry to worry you both,” I apologized as I sat down, “I really needed to clear my head this morning.” Right as I pulled in the chair a glass of water appeared directly in front of me. Hooray for the brownies, and their ability to always know what I need. I would need to leave out some extra cream for them tonight. “Well, you are very lucky that we knew where you had most likely gone,” Mrs. Marten scolded, worry tinged with anger prevalent in her tone. “Not that I can understand why you would go back there,” she muttered under her breath, barely audible. My heart froze in regret again, shame joining it. I had never meant them to worry so much. Sure, I had known they would, but I had been so upset this morning I just hadn’t cared. My eyes dropped to bore a hole in the grain of the table and reused to look up at anyone. “You didn’t even leave a note,” Aunt Regina picked up, though her voice was light and teasing still. “That’s right. No note. Bed empty. Totally inconsiderate. We were worried sick. Anyways, perish the apologies. Everything turned out well. Just let someone know next time Charles dear.” “Mum,” Conrad interjected from somewhere across the table, sounding like his mouth was slightly full. The table jumped suddenly, and a soft, pained ‘feck’ carried over in Conrad’s voice. I tensed back, but my eyes stayed glued to a knot in the table. “Language dear,” Mrs. Marten scolded, robotically. There was an audible swallow, and the sound of a plate sliding along the table. The brownies must have given him something to eat earlier. I bet Sophia had kicked him. “Mum,” Conrad began again, his voice clearer, “we wanted to ask you both if we could head to the memorial today.” Silence stretched out as I assumed Aunt Regina and Mrs. Marten had a conversation with their eyes. “Are you asking to go alone, or are we allowed to join you guys?” Mrs. Marten finally asked, while Aunt Regina deliberately sipped her tea in the noisiest way. “We would certainly not turn down your company,” Sophia assured, and I had to agree. If it let us go, I would gladly have the elders watching over us. “Then we will make the time to go this weekend when the menheir goes up,” Mrs. Marten finally respond, after the weight of the growing tension had been enough to crush us. I felt the sigh of relief at them agreeing before I even thought it through. Then the nerves came. Did I really want to talk to Aunt Regina now after coming back to their worry? When filled with the shame of causing that? I needed to. I know I needed to. But could I handle anymore shame? Would Aunt Regina look at me with any anger? Pity? The pity was worse than anything else. A hand gripped my knee beneath my table, finally dragging my attention away from the table. Gwyn was sitting on my left and had apparently seen my downward spiral. Her eyes held nothing but understanding. And a quick squeeze let me know that whatever happened next didn’t matter. I forced a smile back at her, though I’m sure it looked as pained as it was to do. Still, it must have been enough since she pulled her hand back after one more short squeeze. I took a quick breath, while Sophia made small talk with Mrs. Marten. I felt eyes more eyes on me then Gwyn alone, so Aunt Regina must have noticed to. At least she wasn’t pushing me and was letting me come to her. “Aunt Regina,” I clipped out, before I could second guess anymore. The conversation halted abruptly but if I quit now, I wasn’t sure when I would try again. Moving like a rusted weathervane I food Aunt Regina’s amber eyes and held them. Pleading with her to see how serious and necessary what I said next was. “Can I – Can I talk to you about a few things?” She kept my eyes a moment longer before a shy smile formed, barely visible over the rim of her teacup. “Sure, do you want to step away?” “Nonsense,” Mrs. Marten cut in, “the four of us can leave you two the table. Besides, I had been meaning to check with Gwyndolyn and Conrad about birthday plans. Afterall, it is only two weeks on the 1st after all.” Shite! I had completely forgotten. She was trying so hard to help me get through this, and I had forgotten about their birthday. Maybe Aunt Regina could help me get an idea or two together? It would have to wait until Gwyn and Conrad had left, but I didn’t want that now. I didn’t know if I would keep it together without them. “Mrs. Marten,” I called, focusing on her even as the recess of my mind began parsing out gift ideas. She was half out of her chair, but she did pause from my suddenness. “I – I would prefer it if everyone stayed. I know things will get personal, but I would love the support.” “If that is what you want,” she told me hesitantly, but the elder Marten sat back down. “What do you want to know first?” Aunt Regina began, her face become serious at long last, though she still held onto her teacup. “Do you blame me for Uncle Jericho’s death?” I spouted, before I could begin to sort through any of my other confusion. “Would Uncle Jericho blame me?” “Sweetie,” she started, her features softening, “no one blames you. Especially not Jericho. He would absolutely be grateful that he kept that bint away from you. And it is her that needs the piss beat out of her.” “Are you sure?” I exclaimed, faster that I meant to. “Absolutely.” She smiled at me, and I felt the barest weights lifting off my spirits. Like there was still a little hope left in the world. Sadly, the smile faded just a little as she began again. “Now I’m sure you wanted to ask about that letter he left you, so I ask again, what do you want to know?” “Um,” I took a second as the questions came back to me. “Firstly, do you know everything that happened with that thief who killed Uncle Jericho’s fiancée?” I asked worriedly. The air grew heavy between us as Aunt Regina searched my face. “Truthfully?” she asked, “who do you think helped them dispose of the body?” My jaw dropped, though Aunt Regina kept a completely straight face and drank more tea. “I had been a C.I. for your mother and Uncle Jericho for a while already, so they called me in to ensure we knew what we were doing.” She lowered the cup as her head shook gently, her shoulders slumping under the weight of the memories. “That entire night is in my list of regrets and things I wish I had never done, but I stand by helping you parents. They were good people.” “Did – did Uncle Jericho or my parents ever regret calling you in? Doing that?” The words were hard to speak and caught like knives in my throat. “The honest answer is yes,” Aunt Regina admitted sighing. “Though its complicated. Jericho always hated that he had become a murder. However, he admitted that he was happy to know that man was gone forever. Your parents never regrated helping Jericho, but your da began doing a lot of charity work following it and your mum became even more ruthless as a barrister.” “Then, how would they feel knowing,” I gulped involuntarily, my voice sounding brittle and hollow to my own ears, “knowing that I feel the same way about the Legion?” For all the righteous hatred I felt toward the legion, it was doused by this, this, I didn’t know what emotion to call it, but I knew I couldn’t disappoint my parents. Couldn’t disappoint Uncle Jericho. The corners of Aunt Regina’s mouth lifted the smallest of amounts though her eyes dropped to the dregs and leaves still in her cup. It was silent as she placed the cup back on the table, not even the clink of ceramics touching breaking the air. “They would call themselves and every last one of us a hypocrite if we held that against you in any way. I know I want to find the bastards alone on a dark night myself.” Her amber eyes locked mine. “But they would caution us all against outright revenge. Tell us that if we want to take the bloody bollocks off the blighters and give that bint in charge what’s coming to her, then we have to do it legally, in or court or defending ourselves.” “And that’s easy for you?” I demanded, the fires in my gut roaring further as I was told to squash them. A crack of thunder sounded very close to the house though the rain hadn’t returned yet. A flame light behind her own eyes, as her gaze narrowed into a stare. “Of course, it isn’t!” she fired back. “But I swore to Catalina to always try and do the right thing, and I know what she would call the right thing.” A chill swept through me, and I realised I had hurt her without meaning to. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Huh, no, I’m sorry. We are both angry and depressed. There’s no need to go biting you head off.” “It’s – Its ok. That was insensitive of me to.” “Anything else you want to talk about kiddo,” she asked, trying to sound teasing like earlier, but only sounding exhausted. I sat searching for the other questions I had earlier, but it took me a moment. Like stumbling at the start of a race and trying to catch back up. “Do – Do you have an idea how we might fight them? Are mum’s notes still around? What did she even find about back then?” “Well, I can tell you what Catalina found way back when, but since then I have tried to keep some distance with the Legion. I had helped her compile the evidence though Catalina was the one who noticed what it meant.” “Really, that’s great!” Finally, something working! Wait. “Wait, you said you can tell us what she found but you never mentioned her written notes?” “Ah. Some else has those.” “Really, who?” “Someone I met working undercover, who Frederick and Catalina befriended.” “Who is it?” As I asked Ophelia leapt onto the table and sat down staring right at me. “Me,” my cat said in a honeyed alto.
Ophelia stared at us with a look I could only call smug. The deafening silence coming from the complete jaw dropping astonishment of nearly everyone. My cat could talk?! She was a confidant of my mother? Someone who had worked with Aunt Regina. And she slept in my bed for the last for the last fifteen years! “No need to be so surprised boyo, though you’re making me feel like a cat given a thick bowl of cream. Speaking of it has been ages since I got a really good one. A little whiskey in it would be purr-fect.” The fluffy feline brazenly licked her chops, while Aunt Regina sat back, equally as smug. These two had to be best mates with how similar their teasing natures were. “Y – you talk?” I couldn’t help myself asking. “Better than you do. Especially today. Cat got your tongue? Oh wait.” She briefly gave me questioning eyes, but her face was soon split by a re-enactment of the Cheshire cat. “What are you?” Sophia asked. “I’m a cat, aren’t I?” “Most certainly not,” my curious mate cried, indignantly. “I have never heard of any cat that could talk. Not even those who learn any shapeshifting can do that.” Ophelia let loose a huff, sigh, thing, that sounded similar to a hiss before glaring over at Sophia. “You are far to smart for your own good. You’re taking all the fun out it. If I can’t take the mickey out of someone then what was the point of my big reveal.” “A cat being a cat,” Gwyn snarked. “So, I am a cat,” Ophelia said with a second Cheshire cat grin. “Ophelia,” I cut in, not quite pleading with her but trying to convey my need for her to not do this. “Please.” Her gaze softened, not that her smile changed. Her tail did stop flicking as well. “Anything for you Charles.” Her ears flicked twice before her colours morphed in a cascade along her form. Whereas before she was a light tan and covered in black banded stripes, she was now primarily black with a white star-shaped spot on her chest, a white tail tip, and some white “socks” covering the entirety of her back feet. Scattered white flecks decorated her sides and tail. Tufts of midnight fur grew out to tip her ears. The bands between her ears remained, having shifted to a bleached bone colour. “That wasn’t what you look like?” Mrs. Marten suddenly asked. “Technically. Though I have two primary forms.” “Why didn’t you ever drop the form change before?” I asked. “I’m not supposed to reveal myself to anyone. It was an accident that Regina, Catalina, Frederick, and Jericho ever knew.” “But what are you?” Sophia insisted. “Haven’t figured it out yet little magi?” Ophelia teased as she stretches out on top the table. “Well, you have some time while we talk. I do have your mum’s notes boyo. Their hidden elsewhere, but I can get to them easily, but it will take me until tomorrow to get back with them. Would an overview do for now?” “Are the notes detailed enough to use them against the Legion?” I asked. “I can’t say for certain anymore. Had they been used even 10 years ago, maybe. Now? They’ll certainly get you started taking down the Legion, but from the ground up. Your mum never learned the exact names of the leaders, only the titles the Legion new them by.” I couldn’t help the small amount of disappointment. Two steps forward, one step back. Guess I’ll just have to take what I can get. “The overview first please?” “She was identifying a few strange details in several cases across the entirety of the UK and Ireland that didn’t seem connected otherwise,” Ophelia began matter-of-factly. “Blood and bone, organs and bodies, missing from crime scenes. Areas with no magic. Not even from the dead who normally have a magical signature even days later. Ghosts and spirits even went missing.” “Why didn’t she go to the marshals with this?” Conrad questioned. “Oh, she did, as did Jericho,” Regina mentioned. “But those at the top of the food chain politely told them to piss off. Jericho couldn’t do as much at the time, so Catalina compiled all the evidence.” “It was after another case came up that things really began to tie together. A grave robbing where the graves were broken out of, not into, and two of the undertakers were twisted together. I mean they were combined at the shoulder, with a singular, oversized arm.” “That’s possible?” Conrad asked. “It was a new one for many of us as well,” Regina responded. “No one was able to separate them in time either. The two died from shock not too much longer after.” “The marshal’s investigated,” Ophelia picked up, clearly bouncing the explanation to and from Aunt Regina, “but the magical signatures were too degraded, masked, or mixed. They couldn’t identify any one single person. Granted, they weren’t good at it 15 years ago, and there still isn’t even a good record of any. Still, they were left dead in the water.” “Everything was quieter for a while. Small things occurred still, but the marshals still didn’t connect any of them beyond them being similar crimes.” “Crimes like the big grave robbing occurred on occasion. We once found a giant but little to no evidence was found each time. Do remember that some of these earlier crimes began before you were even born. Your mum wanted to make a difference and was chomping at the bit from the start.” “How does any of this connect to the Legion though?” I couldn’t help asking. “Aren’t they terrorists?” “They are now. When they started, they weren’t even a gang. It took time to build and is one of the reasons I kept my head down and in different shadows as much as possible.” Aunt Regina explained. “Those few months following the first larger crime is when much of their money began to flow. Catalina and we didn’t find out till closer to her and Frederick’s death. Black market items, including, hilariously, a butler creature created from an amalgamation of a monkey and a penguin. Please don’t ask. Some money laundering. And the beginnings of recruitment. Small fish who wanted to be bigger fish.” “There were numerous arrests in those early days for everything from homicide, to trafficking, illegal puppetry, torture, illegal blood magic, attempted grimoire theft, illegal necromancy, and illegal spell experimentation. Everyone caught said only, ‘For the Legion.’” “Regina overheard some of the tossers discussing recruitment. How they would need to prove themselves in some trial or other. And how the leaders would use those who failed as part of the experiments. This was news to us since no bodies were being found, but then we heard the titles each of the leaders went by. The lieutenants, called the Flesh Shaper and the Lich. And the leader, the Soul Stealer. Once we learned that we knew that any who joined the legion walked into the lions’ jaws. You lived and fought more, or you were eaten and made the beast stronger regardless.” “Brilliant,” Conrad quipped dryly. “Bloody dripping in sunshine and daisies, ain’t they.” “But of course,” Ophelia purred. “Your mother hadn’t had much choice with one of her assignments shortly later, about the time we had found much of the racketeering they were doing. She and Jericho clinched and put away enough of their operations that it should have been a blow to them. Not enough to finish off the Legion, but at least cripple them for a few months. They didn’t take kindly to that.” “Which is when they killed mum and da,” I said. “It is. I can admit to being absent that night. Your mum asked me to infiltrate a meeting. The Soul Stealer was executing someone in front of the whole group. The wizard couldn’t cast anything from the moment she drew the blade she had with her. As if his magic left him. His desperation was visible from the shadows in the back. She revelled in it.” “The Soul Stealer is a woman?” Gwyn asked, sounding both curious but also smugly impressed in that, ‘of course it’s a woman,’ way. “She is. And the bitch is a sadist of the highest order. She tortured that man with both blade and magic before delivering a mortal blow. Not the heart or the head though. The lungs. Poor man would have died in minutes, except for what happened next. The whole room couldn’t look away as wisps of blue and white exploded from his wound, twisting around her sword and vanishing into her chest and hood.” The room was eerily quiet. Unbidden, a memory bubbled to the surface. The briefest glimpse of a unisex, crimson-robed figure directing the waves of terrorists. It might not have been her. Yet something, some sixth sense, told me that it was. “She might have breathed them in based on what happened,” Ophelia continued, “we just don’t know. We do know that a man with minutes left was dead at her feet and the whole room could feel her power having grown.” “Sh – she has been around this whole time?” Mrs. Marten shakily asked. “Yes,” I declared, softly but certainly. I turned to look over, my friends and girlfriend, where they sat dumbfounded by my statement. “I can’t be completely certain. But somehow, I know she was there. She was leading them at the market.” “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Aunt Regina said, her eyes like flint. “In the last two years their attacks have only grown in size and frequency. The last was the biggest yet. And each time, their reach in the shadows grows. The government may control what’s above ground, but anything underground is mostly under the control of the Legion with the Soul Stealer being queen.” The weight of her words forced us into silence a second time. These were the monsters that we were up against? Who wished to topple everything we knew? At least, that is what I thought. Did they know? And did they ever find out who the leaders truly are? Gwyn was apparently thinking along the same lines considering what she asked next. “Do we know what her goals are? What their goals are?” “At the moment,” Aunt Regina explained, “we can’t say for certain. We know that their attacks were kept to areas with a majority magical populace. Many of my government contacts believe she wishes to establish a dictatorship, though the others think she is after something in particular. An item. A person. We have no idea.” “Did mum discover their identities?” “No,” Ophelia said, disappointedly. “Did either of you?” The insistence in my voice was involuntary, not that I could have stopped it. Two steps forward, one step back again. We can get and use the notes, only after some few days. Mum wrote some detailed notes by the sound of it, not that the notes were current. So, they were usable to a degree. We have some targets. Yet they are bloody monsters with a veritable army of an unknown size. “I kept too much of a distance so I could be safe enough for you and Jericho,” Aunt Regina admitted. “I was almost always with you Charles,” Ophelia told me, gently. “However, some . . . associates of mine helped me out back in the day. They’ve been monitoring the Legion for me. I’ll check in when I get the notes.” Not quite relief swept through me. I’d wait a few more days if it meant a clearer target. “That would be brilliant Ophelia. Thank you.” She smiled a fanged feline smile in response that wouldn’t be possible with a normal cat. “Anything for you Charles.” “And thanks, both of you. For all of this. It’s great to have your support both with, with his death and in fighting the Legion. They can’t be allowed to keep taking from anyone. I, I still wish I could talk to Uncle Jericho, or mum, or dad. Just, just to really know their feelings. But I feel better.” I glanced out the window, flushed with embarrassment. This made no sense. Everyone in this room has seen me cry before, so why was I suddenly so self-conscious. They rain clouds were finally breaking, with only the occasional dark cloud lingering amongst the sunny blue. “I’m with you kid,” Aunt Regina told me. Gwyn’s hand snaked into mine and held tightly. “I’m not leaving till you tell me to boyo,” assured Ophelia. “Frederick and Catalina asked me to keep an eye on you all those years ago, and I’ll keep doing it as long as you want me.” Things were silent again for a moment, though the ambiance was distinctly different. I gave two quick squeezes of Gwyn’s hand to which she responded with one of her own before letting go. “Well,” Mrs. Marten interjected when things started to turn just a little awkward. “Why don’t you kids go enjoy what is left of today. Plan out your party maybe? Ophelia here can go to get the notes and what not. And Regina can help me explain this to Conor.” “Yes, mum” Gwyn and Conrad instantly intoned, both of them rolling their eyes just a hair. “Just a moment,” Sophia mentioned, before anyone moved, “I’ve been thinking it over, and you’re a cait sith aren’t you?” There was no question to it, Ophelia smiled widely in a way more human than cat. “Oh, you are brilliant aren’t you,” she complimented, the teasing lilt changing to be pleased and amused all together. “Yes, darling, I’m a cait sith. Don’t go trusting everything you hear about us though.” “Could we please see your – “ “Ah, ah, ah darling. Let a lady keep a few secrets.” Sophia huffed indignantly but began to leave without any other protest. Conrad rose to join her. I was waiting for the blighter to finally make a move on her. Or the reverse for that matter. But the two seemed content to circle each other, always at arm’s length and arguing without admitting they were flirting subtly in the arguments. I felt Sophia stand as well. I’m sure she was going to take time with Conrad to determine some measure of a birthday celebration. Uncle Jericho would have loved anything they chose. He always tried to be the life of the party, even when the man was far too much the crazy, awkward uncle. We were supposed to buy gifts that day. I had forgotten we meant to do that until now. If Aunt Regina was going to stay to talk to Mr. Marten, then I should probably ask her about any ideas now. “I’ll catch up,” I called over my shoulder glancing quickly. “Are you sure?” Sophia asked, concernedly. “Sophia,” Gwyn scolded lightly. As normal for the last few days I’m sure she sensed that there was nothing for them to worry about. She always knew what I needed. “Yeah, I’m sure,” I reassured. “Just want a moment alone with Aunt Regina.” “We will see you in a moment then.” Gwyn casually directed Sophia the rest of the way from the kitchen. Conrad sharply gave a nod before following. “I’ll go see what’s keeping Conor, shall I?” Mrs. Marten tactfully excused, vacating the kitchen as well. In short order I was left with the last of my guardians, one of whom was nonchalantly stroking the other along her fur. A question that I hadn’t thought of yet came to burbled up and begged asking first. I mulled it over a moment as I breathed in the smells of the kitchen around us. This one wouldn’t haunt me if I didn’t ask it, but it would be good to know. “Aunt Regina, I do love it here with the Marten’s, but why aren’t I staying with you?” She sighed despondently. “I couldn’t guarantee the ministry wouldn’t call me in. How was I supposed to care for you, covered in welts and cuts, if I wasn’t home? The Marten’s don’t mind me sticking around and can care for you if I have to head out for a while.” It did make sense, so I nodded to acknowledge her points. Still, it would have been great to spend more time with her. Not that I could blame her. “Well, what I really wanted to ask was, do you have any ideas on gifts? I haven’t thought about Conrad or Gwyn’s birthdays coming up since Uncle Jericho . . . “ “Honestly, no idea. That would be something I would expect more from you.” “Well, thanks anyway.” “I might have an idea,” Ophelia interjected. “What about that one horse Gwyn loved so much?” I recalled her smile as she gave pets to Sun Dancer. Gwyn would absolutely adore the cridhe sochair. Since I owned her to, I didn’t even have to worry about Grandfather. I just needed to find the right way to get her transported to the Marten’s mews. “That’s perfect. And the allowance I got from Uncle Jericho was already caring for her, I’ll just keep doing that for now.” “That’s quite the commitment. Are you sure you want to offer he care as well?” Aunt Regina questioned hesitantly. “Yes, I’m sure,” I confirmed, more confidently than I expected. “Gwyn – well after the last few days she deserves it. Besides I, . . .” the words stuck in my throat until I could clear it and force the words out. “Besides, I have the money now with Uncle Jericho leaving me everything.” “If you’re sure,” Aunt Regina said. “I’ll mention it to Conor and Caragh later. Want me to figure out the move?” “Would you?” I asked hopefully. “That would be brilliant.” “Keep thinking of ideas for that strapping young friend of yours and we’ll see if we can’t help,” Ophelia mentioned stretching languidly. “Now, run along boyo. I’m sure those mates of yours are worried about you even if you told them things were ok.” “Fine, fine.” I stood to leave, hearing the wood of the chair scrape against the floor. I should have been in a great hurry to leave but found myself lingering without meaning. “Don’t worry Charles,” Aunt Regina spoke up. “We will figure a plan of attack together, and I’m not leaving if I don’t have to.” I relaxed hearing her say that, feeling like I could walk away easier now. Still, I had to check on Ophelia one last time as I watched her leap towards the door. “Run along boyo,” she chastised, paused at the door. “I’ll be back tomorrow with everything. I swear. And I can’t lie.” Her nearly perpetual smile plastered her face once more. “I might miss that carriage ride though.” Grumbling, I turned away from the feline, telling myself that I hadn’t caught a glimpse of her tail vanishing into the air of an open doorway.