Chapter 21 – Wild Hunt
A male rabbit restlessly thumps the ground
A female rabbit shyly looks away
But when they run, how can you tell me
Which is the male, which is the female?
- The Ballad of Mu Lan
Cormag McVitty, the caretaker, was sick to the teeth of women's idle talk. Bad enough that he had the upkeep of Ulster House and its twenty acres to look to, what with the sea wind blowing in to make his game leg stiffer than ever. April was a cold month this far north, and too early for the lads from the schools to come looking for summer work at the estate—those the golf courses didn't snap up on the way. Bad enough, aye, but whenever he came in for a spot of tea or to warm his hands at the fire, there was his daughter Mary and his two twitterheaded granddaughters beating their gums over the imminent arrival of the American woman.
Before he could duck out again, Cormag had to suffer the shrieks and giggles as the three women speculated what could bring such an odd tourist to their little corner of Scotland, just south of Wick and far north of Inverness, during such an inhospitable season. Someone had said that someone else had talked to a cousin who had a friend in America, and the friend had heard that their upcoming visitor was involved in some kind of fighting sport and had been part of a terrible disaster … Cormag lost interest.
With a snort, he banged his teacup onto the solid dark wood of the table. His granddaughters were fine girls, there was no denying it; upstanding modern lasses from a good Sutherland family. Cormag was as fond and proud of them as could be. But there was only so much feminine chatter a man could take. It didn't help that their mother, Mary, was as excited and flustered about their visitor as her daughters. Cormag shot her a meaningful look from beneath his thick eyebrows. She only smiled and shook her head, clearly ready to indulge and share in her offspring's featherbrained notions. He groaned as he stood, as much to drown out their gossip as to voice the pain his leg gave him.
"Ach, Granddad." Katherine, the elder girl, was there to support him at once. "You all righ'?" She had always been a kind child. Cormag patted her hand for a moment before he pushed it away.
"Aye, and busier 'n some, wi' no time to stand around jabberin'." His beady glance took them all in this time, but his shameless progeny only laughed.
"Oh Granddad, come on!" That was Lily, the younger girl, thirteen and golden-haired. "It's the most exciting thing that's happened here in just forever, and think, she's coming to stay with us! Why, they say she killed someone!" She bounced happily in place at the thought of something so dramatic, and the usually more level-headed Katherine let out a breathless squeal.
"Oh, an' if that's so true, why's she comin' to stay a' Ulster, then?" Cormag took up his stick and hat and sidled toward the door. "She'd be rottin' in some American jail, wot?"
"Granddad!" Lily glared indulgently at him. "You are just no fun. Besides, she's rich, an' famous too—a fighter!"
"Hrrrmph." Cormag jammed his hat onto his head and stomped out into the wind, muttering that rich didn't matter a hoot so long as the tourists paid their room and board, and he'd never know what would possess a woman to be a prizefighter in the first place. The door slammed behind him, cutting off Mary's voice as she soothed Lily. The hedge still needed trimming, and three hours hence he'd have to go meet the wealthy American killer herself at Wick Airport.
He shook his head, imagining the badgering his womenfolk were sure to put the poor girl through at supper that night with no other guests in the house. Well, they'd show her proper Scottish hospitality or feel the end of his cudgel, so they would. Money was money, and too much of it these days went inland to the golf. The American's reservation had requested an indefinite stay if they had room, and Cormag would not have her—or her cash—driven out by a gaggle of pestering females.
Wick Airport was small, and the commuter flight bearing Ulster House's guest up from Edinburgh was less than half full. Even so, Cormag thought he would have recognized Siaran Moss during lunchtime in Heathrow. She was tall and slender, with long dark hair and a pale face in which her eyes seemed too large and dark. She walked with the proud grace of an athlete, but seemed drawn into herself somehow with suffering, aware of her environment but not really seeing it. Well, now, maybe there was something to what his girls had said.
He raised a gnarled hand and called her name as she came across the small terminal. She turned her head, paused, then came warily toward him. "Hello," she said, and after another small pause shook his offered hand. He was surprised that hers was nearly as callused as his. "You must be Cormag … McVeety?" She spoke with care, not loudly, as if choosing her words; her accent was clearly American.
"McVitty, lass. Pleasure. Have ye any bags?"
Siaran shook her head. "Just this." She shrugged one shoulder, over which she carried a brand-new mountaineering pack. "I can manage it, thank you," she added when Cormag held out his hand for it. She was perfectly polite, but she hadn't smiled yet.
"All set, then. This way." He turned, leaning on his stick, and let her out to the ancient Nissan. He'd parked right in front of the doors on the yellow, but nobody was going to care on a day like this. A strong wind was blowing out of the North Sea, bringing with it gusts of cold rain. Siaran didn't shiver, which earned her the tiniest mark of approval in Cormag's estimation.
She was silent during the half-hour drive to Ulster House, south of the bay on the coast, except for answering, "I'm not sure," when Cormag asked her if she'd worked out yet how long she'd like to stay. He'd noticed the strange scar on her forehead but forbore to mention it. If she didn't bring it up, well, neither would he. But it had a regular sort of look, as if she'd been branded with some peculiar design. Odd, that she neither explained it nor tried to hide it, though surely she knew people must be curious.
"Well," he answered, "There's room and enough, this time o' year. You stay as long as you like, Miss Moss."
She shot him a look that might have been gratitude, and said nothing more. Cormag didn't push it. She was his guest, and he liked solitude in any case. A man didn't have enough of it sometimes, not with a child and two grandchildren always at him to fix this leak, stop that hole, rest his legs before they fell off, did he want to die before his time?
Ulster House was an Edwardian mansion built on the ruins of a minor laird's castle, overlooking a long, gentle slope to the sea. North was a curving beach that sloped gradually up into low cliffs and a shallow cove; south was a stand of scrubby pine and beyond that, empty land for fifteen miles until the next village. The road that led east from the A99 was a narrow gravel lane bordered by low stone wall. The Romans had never come this far north; hadn't, in fact, had much stomach for Scotland's weather nor its wode-painted warriors. Even the Danes had not made much headway into Sutherland, and its people had been left to themselves for a long while.
Cormag's suspicions about supper were not ill-placed. He'd seen Siaran settled into the south tower in relative peace. She'd earned another mark of his respect by paying for three weeks in advance, unasked, in pounds sterling. He'd intended to put her in the central wing of the guest quarters because it would be easier for Mary to clean those rooms, but her payment earned her the spacious south tower without a second thought. Siaran had thanked him; he thought she was pleased with the suite, but it was difficult to read her. Then she had closed the door after promising to appear for supper at 6:30.
She was prompt, and Mary beamed at that, giving her father a covert nod of approval as she and the girls carried in gammon, brown bread, and green beans with generous helpings of home-cured bacon. Katherine had brewed her special cider and set out a steaming pitcher of it with the water and milk jugs. Siaran walked into this bustle, taller by a head than any of them, looking around at the warm kitchen with its worn but solid table, burnished copper cookware on wall hooks, and bundles of dried herbs tacked to the low ceiling beams. There was an air of penury about Ulster House with its simple furnishings and weather-beaten exterior, but it was balanced by fierce pride, orderliness, and a close family spirit.
For the first time, Siaran smiled. Lily and Katherine, pretty in the simple dresses their mother had made them wear, smiled tentatively back. Siaran was wearing well-tailored brown trousers and a cream-colored wool sweater; her hair was plaited back in a long French braid. She wore no makeup, but Lily, watching her, thought she was both beautiful and very sad. She would have been surprised to learn that her grandfather shared this opinion.
Siaran sat down with the small family, saying little, eating and listening to the north-Scottish brogue her ancestors had spoken. These were country folk, kind and humble, not unintelligent. Their food was good and their hospitality evident. She looked from face to face: the two girls, rosy with youth, their eyes sparkling with some secret delight; Mary, her copper hair going gray and pulled into a bun, plumper than her daughters and just as rosy; and Cormag with his weathered brown face and wise blue eyes, lame but whipcord-thin and strong even in old age. He'd taken off his cap to reveal a shock of thick white hair, and ate without saying anything, glancing around the table from time to time, his gaze lingering longest on Siaran.
She felt no kinship with any of them. The kitchen was warm, the laughter merry, the conversation light and full of life. But the cold knot in her solar plexus stayed determinedly where it was, where it had been every since the accident at Nationals. Really, it had been there ever since South Africa, but Siaran couldn't bear to think that far back.
Katherine, seated to her left, reached for another slice of bread and fixed Siaran with her bright gaze. "You seem so quiet and nice," she said forthrightly. "It's not what I expected at all."
Silence fell over the table; Siaran felt the tension at once, heard the hiss of someone's indrawn breath. Katherine went scarlet and lowered her eyes quickly to her plate, suddenly busy tearing her bread into small bits. She peeked up to see if Siaran was still watching her, and bit her lip when she saw that she was.
Siaran forced a smile. "What do you mean?" Her voice was gentle.
It was Lily, across from her, who answered, blithe and happy as a bird. She alone had missed the sudden change in atmosphere at the table. "She means, we didn't expect you to be so normal, you killing that girl and all."
Siaran stared at her for the space of a heartbeat. Then Cormag's cudgel came down across the table with a crack, making everyone jump. "That's enough!" he thundered, breathing hard, glaring between his granddaughters. "This is a table for civil folk, not silly lassies full of hurtful gossip. Miss Moss is our guest. Lily, Katherine—apologize an' leave this table."
"No," said Siaran quietly, and looked levelly at Cormag until he subsided back into his chair, breathing heavily. "It's all right. I didn't know—" She shook her head. "You're bound to be curious, so I might as well tell you. That way, no more gossip, right?" Her voice was as gentle as before, but there was no trace of a smile on her face. She took a long breath and pushed back her plate. Lily and Katherine looked shamefaced, their mother mortified, and Cormag toweringly angry; but all of them were riveted on her.
She didn't want that. There had been enough bad press and sensationalism over the thing in the first place; best to give these people the bare bones and leave it alone, which is all she wanted in the first place. "Last month," she said, "I fought in the U.S. National Championships for Tae Kwon Do. It's a martial art—you know, kicking and punching, a fighting art from Korea." They nodded; Siaran continued. "It can be very dangerous. I've had bones broken before doing it, sometimes badly." She paused. "I'm telling you that so you understand accidents can happen, even with professional competitors. And one did, to me. I made it to the gold medal round. The girl I was fighting was very good, very strong."
Siaran paused and looked down at her own plate. Her hands rested on the tabletop, pale and still. "Our score was tied going into the third round. She came in low, trying to get inside my reach, just as I was bringing up my leg to kick. The edge of my foot caught her in the throat, and it … she died."
In the silence that followed, Siaran carefully pushed back her chair and stood. "Please excuse me," she said evenly. "I'm going to get some air."
Cormag found her half an hour later at the place where the winter-brittle sedge gave way to sand. She stood motionless in the twilight, her face turned toward the windswept sea. The waves rushed ceaselessly toward the shore, breaking far out on the black rock below the surface and foaming onto the pale sand. The rain had stopped, but it was no less cold.
He hadn't wanted to come out here at all, shouting at Mary that the lass had been through enough, for God's sake, she needed to be left in whatever peace she could salvage. But the girls were hysterical with the guilt of hindsight, and Mary was certain that Siaran had walked straight into the sea to drown herself. So in the end the women had badgered Cormag into going out to convey apologies and check to see that she was all right. To himself, he admitted he'd come out as much to get away from the histrionics. He seemed to do that a lot, lately. Maybe he finally was getting old, old in spirit.
Siaran had not brought a jacket with her, but she didn't seem to feel the bite of winter that still laced the Scottish dusk. Clouds scudded overhead, lit by the last traces of sunset and a waxing moon shining fitfully behind them. White foam broke on the restless black waves; it was never silent here, even when the world was quiet.
"You all right, lass?"
Siaran didn't move or speak for a long time. Cormag stood a few feet from her, leaning on his stick, looking out at the waves. Finally, she turned her head toward the old Scot. "I'm sorry. It would have been easier if you hadn't already known." She smiled, but it was mirthless, little more than lips stretching back from her teeth. "I'd never have thought anyone up here would have heard about that at all."
"Ach, well." Cormag snorted. "My girls, they want to know everything there is." He gestured with one hand at the darkening sky. "You come in out o' season, next thing ye know they're on the bleedin' internet learnin' all they can about ye." He shook his head. "Youth's not learned yet there's enough excitement an' trouble in life without lookin' for more."
"It's all right."
"No," he said, "It ain't, lass. But they'll not bother ye again, I'll see to it. They're sorry as it is, now they've heard the tale."
Watching her profile in silver and shadow, he saw her face contract as though in pain. "I came here to get away from it," she answered, but Cormag didn't think she was talking to him. She laughed, soft and humorless, the sound lost in the suck and sigh of the waves.
Cormag noticed she was holding something, a little flat dark square, rubbing it back and forth between her fingers. She said nothing, and he didn't ask, and after a while he turned and limped back to the mansion and heard her following quietly behind.
Miracle of miracles, his granddaughters behaved themselves like saints at breakfast. Siaran tried to help with the washing up and it was Lily who refused with charming good manners, saying that was not a guests's chore and suggesting she take a walk along the coast as it was a fine morning, not too cold with the sun shining as it hadn't done in days.
Cormag, clearing sea wrack and piling driftwood up on the beach to put by for firewood, saw Siaran several hours later wander down from the north cove with her knuckles bloody and raw. She walked with her head down, her body bent wearily against the wind, and only nodded to him when she passed. He leaned thoughtfully on his stick, chewing over what she'd said and what she hadn't in the past day. Then he went into the barn, packed an empty burlap sack with sawdust, and strung it from one of the rafters with a strong length of rope.
Siaran went out to the beach again after supper that night, this time wrapped in an anorak. Cormag was already there, taking his usual his final pipe of the night. He nodded to Siaran as she came up beside him. The embers lit his face with a devilish glow, and the tobacco smoke smelled full and sweet. They stood without speaking, Cormag puffing contentedly on his pipe, Siaran again rubbing and rubbing that little square of plastic between her fingers.
"Might be there's somethin' in t'barn that'll be easier on yon knuckles than rock or tree," Cormag said as he sucked down the last of the smoke. He nodded courteously to her and went back inside.
Siaran hit the improvised punching bag the next day, and the next. Lily and Katherine sometimes came out to the barn to watch, but Mary always shooed them back inside before long, leaving Siaran to work out her feelings in solitude. She went at the bag for hours, and when on the third day she burst the burlap and sent sawdust everywhere, Cormag replaced it, this time doubling up the sacks.
It was the first time he'd heard her laugh, and he chuckled too, to see her standing there bent over with her hands on her knees, covered head to heels in sawdust. She wore a sleeveless white top over loose black pants, and even under the sawdust Cormag could see the white scars that crisscrossed her arms and shoulders. He was as ignorant as any seaman about the Oriental martial arts, but he could bet she hadn't gotten those scars in any sparring ring. Even prizefighters didn't have scars like that. She looked like she'd been got at by a wild animal.
That night he had the beach to himself. It was raining again, but his pipe glowed merrily under the plastic hood of his mackintosh. He was tamping the embers and nearly swallowed a bellyful of smoke in surprise when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Coughing and spluttering, he turned to see Ulster House's lone guest standing there, smiling a little through the rain and darkness. "Just wanted to say thanks, Cormag," she called above the downpour.
"An' apologize to an old man for scaring him half to his death, I expect," he told her sourly, but grinned back at her anyway through his whiskers. "What ye thank me for, lass?"
"For the punching bag. It was—thoughtful."
She turned and ran back through the rain, and Cormag had the strangest notion that she'd had a hard time thanking him, as if she'd forgotten how.
A heavy storm blew in overnight, and the next day the house woke to gale winds that drove the rain like nails against the windows. Even the hot breakfast of black pudding, eggs, and rashers couldn't lift the weight of the storm. Thunder shook the house, and sea and sky boiled with rain. Katherine and Lily cleared the table and set about stoking fires in every room of the house. Mary busied herself preparing a roast; it was Sunday, but the lane would be flooded by now, making the ten-mile drive to church impossible. Mary contented herself with the Sunday mass on the small radio on the kitchen sideboard. Cormag stalked in and out of the lean-to shed, bringing more wood in and shoveling ash out.
Siaran took a cup of tea and wandered alone into the drawing room, which had new French doors that faced the sea. The fire was already going in here, so she sank into a comfortable burgundy armchair to sip her tea and watch the storm lash the North Sea into a frenzy of huge gray waves and churning whitecaps.
The room was warm, the only sound the crackle of the fire at her back and the dull roar of the storm outside. Sometimes, the gale shriek came through when a gust caught the eaves from below and set the walls shaking and windows rattling. Siaran grew drowsy and set her mug down on the floor, then sank deeper into the comfortable chair. Somewhere in the house, she could hear the low murmur of women's voices, interspersed at times by Cormag's rougher brogue. Almost, she felt, she could be at peace.
Cormag stamped into the room. His heavy boots startled her out of a half doze and she rose, turning in her chair. The old man dumped a load of firewood onto the hearth and began adding logs one by one, arranging them expertly with a poker.
"Hello," Siaran said to his back.
Cormag jumped, then turned and saw her; his face fell in chagrin. "Ach, lass. I dinnae see ye." He grinned ruefully and rubbed one soot-blackened hand across the gray whiskers on his chin. "But I expect I scared you more'n you scared me, comin' in makin' all this racket. Sorry."
He limped over to the French doors; Siaran bent down to pick up her mug and went to join him. "This is some storm," she remarked.
Cormag looked sideways at her. "The legends say that on a day like this the Wild Hunt comes, and it's best not to look outside often, else ye might see 'em."
Siaran sipped her tea. It had gone cold, and she grimaced.
Cormag, misunderstanding her expression, sighed and shook his head. "Ah, but I forget meself. I'm only an old man, and ye're not interested in old Scottish ghosts, o' course."
"Oh, no," said Siaran, and stopped him from going with a hand on his wool-clad arm. There was a strange expression on her face: very alert, as if she'd just come fully awake for the first time since she'd arrived. She was so still and intent that Cormag found it disturbing to meet her gaze. But she spoke calmly. "That's not it; my tea's cold is all. Please … I'd like to hear about the Wild Hunt." She blinked and took a step back, as if aware of her sudden intensity and trying to cover it. "My, um, my family comes from this part of Scotland, did I ever tell you? Well, further inland, but north of Inverness somewhere."
Cormag nodded. "And that's why ye chose Ulster to visit, is it?"
She hesitated. "Partly. And partly because...well..." she gestured around, indicating the big empty house, the lonely patch of ground it sat on.
Cormag's mouth split in a near-toothless grin of understanding. "Because we're in a fine patch o' nowhere, and that's as good a place as any fer forgettin'." But he could tell she was uncomfortable, so he hollered over his shoulder for Lily or Katherine to bring some tea and continued with his tale.
"The Wild Hunt," he said, his brogue softening and taking on the lilt of a born storyteller, "Was a group o' faerie huntsmen that rode across the skies and brought thunder and rain in their wake." Lightning flashed over the sea, dazzling Siaran's eyes, but she didn't blink. She hardly even breathed. "They could be seen anywhere they chose to go—forests, mountains, countryside—but they preferred the coast, for then they could hunt on sea or land, and catch up any lost folk they found to join 'em."
Lily came in with a china teapot, dipped a small curtsy to Siaran, and refilled her cup. She giggled at Cormag. "Granddad harassing you with one of his tales of the old country?"
Siaran thanked her and said she didn't mind; it was a good day for stories. Lily could hardly argue with that but trotted off without staying to hear the rest. Cormag waved a scornful hand in his granddaughter's wake. "Oh, her. Her folk tales are all about movie stars and pop singers. Now then, lass, where was I?"
"The Wild Hunt was taking people to join them." She drank her tea, her blue-gray eyes fixed on the storm, the expression in them far away and reflecting the chaos outside.
"Oh yes. Well, now. Any mortal who got in their path had his soul ripped away to join the Hunt, and when he could nae keep up any longer, he was sent to the land of the dead. No mortal could ride with the Hunt for long, ye see. They were too fierce and deadly, an' they could outrun anythin' that runs." Cormag paused and gripped the head of his cudgel. "It was said that Wild Edric could even pull free the spirits of sleepers to join the Hunt, so even those in their beds weren't safe if he had a mind to take them."
Siaran blinked and turned away from the wild scenery. "Wild Edric? Who was he?"
"He led the Hunt. A mighty warrior he was; even the king of Faerie would nae tangle with the likes o' him. There are masks of his face still, aye, fearsome things."
"What did he look like?" Siaran's voice was almost a whisper. Cormag looked at her, and saw in her face a thing that he didn't understand but that made his spine go cold all the same. He forgot himself for a moment and stared at her. "Cormag?"
"He—" Cormag made a small sound, a quick prayer in Gaelic, then looked out at the raging storm himself. "He was terrible and wonderful, lass. Taller than any mortal man, twice as broad, with wondrous fair armor and a hunting pike tipped in adamant." He took a deep breath. Siaran was riveted, and so was he; he couldn't remember ever telling this story with such animation, nor feeling such strange fear as he did. It was as if the Wild Hunt were out there right now, riding through the storm.
"Wild Edric, he had a horned head like a ram's, only the horns were many and much shorter, ye ken? Long black skeins o' fur grew out of those horns, strung with beads an' bones from those the Hunt took. An' his face … " Cormag glanced at Siaran again and saw her watching him with the same remote intensity, her own face pale and strange.
"His eyes were red, hidden behind a gray knight's visor, but glowin' like the devil's own. His mouth was split, with fangs outside an' inside, an' when he smiled, Wild Edric, it would drive men mad with fear. His laugh was a death rattle, an' if he wanted ye for the Hunt, nothin' ye could do would stop him takin' ye." Cormag took another long breath. "An' that's why it's bad luck even now to stare too long into th' storm. The Wild Hunt makes it, an' Wild Edric leads the charge."
There was a sheen of sweat on Siaran's pale forehead. She reached out blindly and set her cup down on a small side table with a faint thunk. Then she straightened up and looked past Cormag, unseeing, her eyes reflecting the heavy clouds that roiled low in the sky.
"It almost seems," said Cormag, still half-caught in the power of legend, "That maybe ye've seen the Wild Hunt afore, lass."
Siaran was motionless. "I rode with them," she answered, so softly that Cormag wasn't sure he'd heard it. He wasn't even sure why he'd said what he had, or on what level he meant it. She raised her fingertips to her forehead, tracing the scar there. She seemed unaware that he was watching, or even in the same room. With her lost wild eyes, cloaked in silence and pain, she seemed a changeling, not entirely human. It wasn't the first time Cormag had thought so, but it disturbed him now as it hadn't before.
He coughed and stretched his back. "Well, lass," he said, hearing the uneasiness in his voice but unable to mask it beneath forced cheer. "This old man's bored ye long enough. Time I went back to be henpecked into doing more chores."
Siaran nodded absently, still looking into the distance. Cormag hesitated, then left the room, and she was alone again.
Something buzzed sharply against her leg, making her jump and let out a startled hiss. Siaran shook away the lingering spell of Cormag's too-literal story and dug into her jeans, frowning. She had no cell phone reception here, or so she thought.
The only thing in her pocket was the grooved plastic card. Siaran pulled it free with a sense of foreboding and stared at it. Its surface was agitated, flashing red and black in a nonsense pattern beneath the veneered-looking surface. She rubbed her thumb across it and it vibrated again; she nearly dropped it in surprise.
Her heart went to her mouth and her head felt like a great weight on her neck suddenly as she struggled to lift her head, hoping without daring to hope, fearing what she might see, fearing worse that she'd see nothing at all. She got her head up at last and nearly dropped it again when she saw only the storm. Heavy rainclouds poured out rain, the wind blurred water in running sheets against the windows and tossed the waves into a deadly heaving mass. Then, over the sea and diffuse through the cloud cover, came a flash of blue-white light. Siaran waited. The flash came again, lower and to the right, toward the wind-lashed stand of pine.
She opened the French doors and walked out into the storm.
The wind and rain hit her, making her gasp and bend against their fury. Water drove against her skin and prickled like ice. Within a few steps, her jeans and hoody were soaked, her running shoes squelching. Lightning flashed again over the sea, and thunder cracked in its wake, shaking the earth. The light flashed over the trees, sank out of the clouds in a dark gray predatory shape with blue winking along its sides, and descended into the small wood. Siaran began to run.
The ramp was already down when she reached the dubious shelter of the trees. It was what she remembered, exactly what she remembered, it hadn't been a dream after all, she'd known it hadn't, there just had been no other way to reconcile where she'd been with where she was now. She had tried to fit in, to return to her old life, had killed on the sparring floor as she had killed in the jungle, only by accident then, too strong for frail human flesh. They had made her too strong. He had made her too strong.
She realized she was babbling and forced her mind to focus. She was gasping from the sprint through the teeth of the storm, and couldn't breathe at all now seeing the ship inside the grove, its ramp down, nothing moving inside, everything moving outside. The trees groaned and swayed in the wind, the wind screamed, and water was everywhere. The uncertainty was terrible, and the hope was worse.
Mist billowed up there in the cargo hold. It swirled and shifted around a tenuous dark form that grew and solidified and finally stepped clear.
Rune came down the ramp.
He was as tall and gracefully powerful as she remembered. He wore full armor, polished and gleaming dully in the darkness under the trees and clouds. His claw-tipped hands were empty and open, ready to attack if necessary; twin wristblade sheaths perched on both forearms. His corded hair was smooth and gleaming, set with polished metal beads, and the helmet set against his snub-horned skull was the same one she remembered, basic yet fierce, concealing the face but revealing the pure warrior's soul in this being she knew so little and so well.
She wanted to scream, cry, fall down and beat the ground with her fists and heels, dance, run, jump a mile into the air. She thought she would burst with the need to move, but all she could do was stand there and stare.
Rune stopped at the base of the ramp and regarded her, tilting his head to one side. His right arm looked whole and healed; he raised it toward his forehead in the old familiar gesture and took another step, and was set back suddenly on his heels as a hundred and twenty pounds of quivering bone and muscle crashed into his midsection and wrapped itself around him like the tail of a kainde amedha in its facehugging stage.
She was making strange muffled noises, Siaran, her face mashed against his skin beneath the webbing, between the chest protectors that depended from his shoulder plates. Startled, Rune bent his head, cord-hair brushing and blending with her own dark tangles. Below the noise of the storm, he could hear that she was saying his name, over and over, on a sob of breath.
He did not quite understand this human custom; it smacked of a need to take strength from another's touch and he was not at all sure he approved. However, he had made a pledge on the other side of this blue-green world to learn from her, and he would honor that pledge.
Slowly, because it felt so strange, Rune brought up arms like tree-trunks and crossed them across Siaran's back, enfolding her, careful not to crush. Her body was very warm, even at its naturally cooler temperature. To his immense surprise, he found that with the contact, he again experienced the strange rush of pride and affection, coupled with a renewed fascination for this unusual human who had won the right to fight beside him.
He lowered his head further, until his flat bony chin brushed the top of her head. "You did not wait for me, Yeyin-de," he told her in his own tongue. "So I came for you."
Siaran, her voice muffled against the thick yellow skin of his abdomen, said, "You came back."
Rune clicked his mandibles in amusement and growled, exerting gentle pressure to push her away and place the proper respectful distance between them. Only in sparring, killing, or mating would a yautja get that close to another living thing. Breaking that custom was something he could only tolerate for a short time without becoming agitated. He had broken one commandment and it had led to his exile as a Bad Blood. It was beyond him to start breaking the rest all at once.
There would be time enough for breaking old customs and forging new ones, if she was willing.
Siaran unwound herself and stepped back, blinking up at him through the rain. Her face was flushed. She licked her lips and tasted salt. "Why did you come back?"
Rune tilted his head, his ornamental beads clinking dully. Yes, he had missed her. Even her tendency to continually overlook the obvious was almost appealing right now.
"To take you hunting, brrrave one," he told her.
Siaran started to smile. Then her face clouded, and she took a step back. "But—what about your people? You're an exile. Won't they look for you, hunt you—us—again?"
Rune growled, very softly. Rain streamed from his armor, pinging off it. A fine mist rose from his thermal suit as it adjusted for the cold, making him seem both insubstantial and much larger than life. "Siarrran." He spoke the way he had so often on the training floor, correcting her technique, teaching her a new way. "It took me long to heal, and then to find the ship. Then it took longerrr to fix it ssso that it could not be..." He paused, choosing the right word from his limited vocabulary. "Tracked." He brushed the scar on her forehead. "There arrre many placesss we can go."
Siaran's face, beneath water and tears, reflected an agony of hope and doubt. "Are you sure—are you sure you want me to go with you?"
Rune's huge hand dropped from her forehead to her shoulder. He shook her affectionately; the force of it rattled her teeth. "You said once that we werre a trribe. You were rrright. Do not forget, little one, it wasss I who marked you." He growled at her again, louder this time.
Siaran's strange flat mouth curved upward in what he knew was pleasure. Rune saw no doubt in her face now, so he let go of her and raised his hand, palm flat upward with fingers spread, to forestall her. "Think. If you go with me, you will not have the company of yourrr own kind." He knew too well how she might feel about that, because it had been thrust upon him. At least he could offer her the choice. "You would have the honorrr of dying in the hunt insstead. And we would hunt togetherr until the darrk warriorr claimss usss."
He did not insult her by telling her it would be difficult. He had come back because he had realized it would bring him no shame to hunt with her for the rest of her life, should she choose it. He did not know if she would. If she did, and if they survived long enough to make planetfall on a new world that supported life, then maybe he would choose to go with the dark god when Siaran did. Then he could accompany her into the eternal hunt-beyond-life, where strength of body meant far less than strength of spirit. Maybe, before that happened, he would even teach her his true name.
First, though, she had to choose. And in any case it was pointless to speculate on an uncertain future.
"I understand," Siaran whispered, and shivered. She was soaking wet and very cold. She was also still smiling. "I don't belong here anymore, Rune. I tried to, but I couldn't. And now," she broke off and glanced off to her right, where the lights from Ulster House shone faintly through the black trunks and curtains of rain. When she looked back up at him, her face was radiant. "Yes. I'll go with you."
She held up the little card, which was still flashing red and black, red and black. Drops of rain glistened on its surface.
Rune thrummed low in his throat, pleased, and took it from her. "I am glad you kept the trrracking device. It would have taken me much longerrr to find you without it." He shook himself and stamped his feet, noticed her shivering for the first time. "Come. Let us be gone frrrom this place and its weatherrr."
"Hey." She held up a warning finger, though it trembled a little and her teeth chattered from the cold. "My ancestors came from here, buddy. No disrespecting them."
Rune glanced around at the wind-whipped pines and the stormy North Sea. "I think," he finally said, "That you mussst have been lying when you told me they all battled naked."
"We're tougher than we look," Siaran told him, though her lips were nearly blue now.
"Hulij-bpe," Rune said. "Crazy, then." He touched one taloned finger to the side of his head.
Siaran laughed. "Oh, that's for sure. I just said I'd go with you, didn't I? Crazy." She looked toward the house again. "Rune, you won't leave without me, will you? There's something I have to take care of there, and I want my things."
Rune chuffed. "I hope your...cloth?...iss many. We may not find a verrry hosspitable world, at firssst."
"I don't think it'll matter what world we find," she called, and turned to run back through the trees. The truth of her words dawned on her as she ran, pushing herself faster, thinking ahead to what she had to do before she could get back to the ship, to Rune, to the rest of her life. Rune wasn't human, and that could prove difficult sometimes; it already had. But he lived and breathed his code of honor instead of using it as a prop against weakness or a front against duplicity. As she flung open the French doors, the thought struck her that even though Rune had given her a choice, she didn't really have one at all.
She skidded through the empty drawing room and raced up the stairs to the South Tower three at a time, trailing wet footprints. She threw everything she'd brought with her into her pack. As she buckled the shoulder and lumbar straps, she remembered another time and place, easing a different pack on over the torn flesh on her hip where the serpent-bug had clawed her and trotting off after an alien creature through the desert at night to an unknown future.
Smiling, she went light-footed and quick down the stairs again and paused in the drawing room long enough to scribble something on the pad beside the telephone and leave it with the rest of her cash. She wouldn't need it anymore, and it seemed like Cormag's family and Ulster House could use it. She owed them that at least.
Then she was out the doors, closing them quietly behind her. She ran through the rain, toward the pines, and saw Rune's powerful dark shape half-camouflaged against the trunks, where he had come to watch for her return.
Her breath hitched in her throat at the sight, and she rocketed across the last stretch of open ground. She'd been ludicrously afraid that she'd suddenly wake up and find the whole thing a dream, or worse, come out to the trees to find that Rune had left without her. But he was there, huge and solid and reassuring. Dizzy with relief, Siaran wondered whether he'd pick her up if she collapsed right there.
Pride wouldn't let her take that any further than speculation. She reached the pines, and Rune fell into stride with her. They ran side by side to the ship, their feet first squelching on wet loam, then pounding up the metal grate. They stopped inside the empty cargo hold. Rune pressed the sequence of controls on the wall panel to close the ramp behind them.
Siaran looked up at him, seeing vast unknown danger in his familiar alienness. Despite that, she felt whole and aware, alive in a way she hadn't been since waking up alone in that sweat-soaked hospital bed. Never again. She might die of fever from some alien parasite, get ripped apart by a prey too strong for her to take, or go peacefully in her sleep at old age. Until that happened, she would keep company with this strange, fierce being who had met her so unexpectedly and altered her so completely.
The hydraulics hissed and the floor shuddered once as the ramp sealed shut. Rune tilted his great head to regard her, and Siaran smiled. She was home.
Cormag came down the hall and frowned at the puddles on the scrubbed flagstone floor. "Now who on earth," he muttered under his breath, and stumped into the drawing room in search of the culprit. If one of those girls had been out in the rain, he'd skin her alive.
He came up short when he saw the multicolored bills stuck under the telephone pad. Squinting in the gloom, he groped out and found the light switch. He picked up the pad and the neat stack of money beneath; licking his thumb, he counted out more than three thousand pounds. Then he looked at the pad. The paper was wrinkled with dampness, the ink smeared with rainwater but still legible. In a hurried scrawl, Siaran had written:
"Cormag—I'm going with Wild Edric, where I belong. Thank you for your hospitality, and for showing me the way."
Money and note in hand, Cormag limped to the French doors. As he peered out, he heard a booming roll from the south, louder than ordinary thunder, woven together with a higher note of power like the winding of a vast hunting horn. He opened the door and let the wind and rain blow in. Through the dark stand of pine, he saw flashes of blue light. A great dark hooded shape rose above the trees a moment later and disappeared up into the clouds. The light flared once more and was gone. Its farewell note faded until all he could hear was the storm.
Cormag shut the door and walked slowly to the fire. He cast the handwritten note onto the flames and, leaning heavily on his cudgel, watched the paper curl and blacken to ash. Then he made his way back through the old house to tell his daughter and her daughters that their guest had departed.
Final Note: To everyone who has reviewed, commented, praised, questioned, or criticized this story, thank you. It sounds cliché to say that without all your feedback this piece wouldn't be what it is, but that doesn't make it any less true. On the grand scale of things, I don't know if this story's any good. What I do know, beyond doubt, is that it's much, much better than it would have been if I'd written it without receiving any input.
It's been a great pleasure to discover new friends in the course of writing. Syverasazyn and I shared many moments of drunken hilarity speculating on our own and each other's stories, though I suspect I got far more inspiration from her than she did from me. I eagerly wait for the rest of "The Adventures of Wild Dog," even (and especially) if it evolves into Doctor Who-like perpetuity. Shay-n-Sweet Pea Piratess awed me with her incisive questions and her honesty, and while I live in terror of her flames, I'm pleased that she hasn't yet seen fit to offer me up to the pyre. Mirari1 is my hero when it comes to elegant prose and character-revealing dialogue; I am but a child on the knee of her talent, and her Warcraft fic, "Hell for the Company," is beyond awesome. I owe Royal Frog a tremendous debt of fandom and tolerance; she loved my story and told me so, kindly allowed me free rein with recommended reading, and drew for me a gorgeous fan art of Siaran and Rune during their first sparring face-off. It's on her dA account, which is linked through her profile. She is remarkable not just in her own writing, but in making the intangibility of words into visual art. I envy such ability.
I owe a lot of this final chapter to Adam, out there in the real world. Some things aren't meant to be, but that can't stop imagination. The story as a whole I owe to everyone on this site who has read and written to me about it. You guys have too many stories I haven't had time to check out, and that's been an uncomfortable sliver in my mind. Now that this one's done, I get to take a break and catch up on my fanfic reading, which I've been looking forward to for months. Be seeing you.