"In Lochcuan's fair city
The girls are so pretty
An' bare all their titties
To Darlin' Quinn Brown!"
Cedric was off-key as he sang but he didn't care. Already a few pints of fine Highland whisky had been put away in his belly in early celebration as the honour of bringing the Bastard of Bellhaven to his execution spot had been given to him. His lantern cut through the evening fog as he approached the bulkhead of the abandoned root cellar. Cedric propped the heavy door up with a plank, then thrust the lantern down into the darkened prison.
"All right, maggot, it's time!" A cheery grin was plastered on Cedric's face as he descended the stone stairs. "We've got quite the jolly bonfire ready for you tonight. Perfect to see you off before you get buggered by all the hosts o' Legion for eternity!"
No response. Slumped on his side in the corner, the prisoner laid unmoving. Cedric squinted, then snorted disdainfully, a mixture of annoyance and disappointment now on his face. Not only unmoving, but unblinking and not breathing as well.
"Dammit, I'm not givin' Robert his guilder back!" With another snort of disgust, Cedric set the lantern down and began to reach for the body. "Don't think bein' dead is gonna spare you from the fla--"
David's leg suddenly lashed out, catching Cedric by surprise with a kick to the side of his head. The younger man staggered forward as David's other leg struck, sweeping Cedric's feet out from under him. Before Cedric could react, David was on top of him, grabbing him by the back of his shirt and rushing him headfirst into the wall. A small yelp escaped Cedric and then he was still.
David quickly checked to confirm that the unconscious man was still alive. His shoulder felt as if it was on fire. Earlier, it had been agonizing enough as he worked through the ropes using the edge of the stone stairs, but his ambush of Cedric had reopened the wound. David grabbed his shoulder, trying desperately to staunch the bleeding.
No time! David scrambled for the stairs. He had been lucky -- very lucky -- that his sister's overconfidence had only sent the one man to retrieve him, one who didn't look too closely at his desperate charade (and he felt a guilty sense of relief that it hadn't been Owen). But any moment someone else could come around to see what was going on or even be waitingat the top of the stairs right now -- someone more sober, more dangerous. With his heart pounding in his chest, David peered out from the top of the cellar. Off a ways to his left he could dimly make out the light oflanterns and hear a snatch or two of drinking songs. Farther ahead in front of him was the edge of the woods and with it the distant hope of freedom.
I make it to the woods, I might have a chance... The crisp air felt tight in David's lungs. Theus, don't have them come...don't let them turn and look!
Every crunch of gravel and leaf under David's feet seemed amplified a hundredfold to his ears as he sprinted towards the trees, shoulder throbbing with every step he took. Just a little further--
"TO ARMS!" Cedric's cry of rage as he came stumbling up from the cellar cut through the night. "It's getting away! Stop it -- stop the bastard!"
David's blood ran cold as he forced himself to run faster. He threw himself into the trees, the howls of pursuit now rising in strength. As he fought the growing panic, he found himself oddly fixated on one thing. Even in the end, they still won't call me human...
Theus, I'm getting too old for this!
Every nerve, every muscle was screaming at David for rest, the adrenaline from earlier now ebbing from his body as he pushed himself to keep running. He made no attempt to hide his path, speed being his only focus in his escape. Right now he could only hope that the fog would provide some hindrance for his pursuers.
David bit back a cry as he nearly tumbled over a hidden root. I fall now and I fear I'm never getting back up again. With each step he took, his legs felt more and more like lead. He dared to pause, catching a much needed breath as he strained to listen. No one was close by -- at least not yet. He started to run again, despite his body's protests. Once again David found himself thinking of his first escape back when he was a child. How he had come across the small house hidden in the middle of the woods as if guided by fortune itself and changing his life forever. The Order had saved him and gave him purpose. But that place of sanctuary had long since been abandoned. Now the only safe house he knew of that was close was on the outskirts of Connickmoor. But I don't know if I'll be able to make i--
David suddenly had his legs cut out from underneath and he crashed to the forest floor. With a strangled groan, he rolled over in order to try to pull himself up.
And froze at who he saw looking down at him.
"I'd thought I'd see the flames of your funeral pyre by now, MacDonald's son," The Sidhe flashed him a cold smile. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"
"Thalo...." David breathed. The point of the Sidhe's silver sword was right at his Adam's apple.
"Your jailers are all in their cups right now. It's pathetic how they're tearing up the woods trying to find you," Thalo sniffed with disdain. "A blind pup with a cold could have tracked you down better than they could!" His face twisted into a savage sneer as he suddenly pressed his boot onto David's wounded shoulder. The Sidhe's eyes narrowed in obscene pleasure at the man's cry of pain. "It was quite fortuitous that I decided to stay around here then! I had a feeling that something like this would happen."
"Nnngh! Who's the Explorer, Sidhe?" David struggled to move, but it was all in vain as Thalo just ground his foot into him harder. "What do you want with her?!"
"Inquisitive to the end, aren't you, changeling?" For a brief moment, Thalo's expression hardened before his grin returned. "But no. I rather like the idea of you dying without knowing -- and the sooner, the better!" Thalo gripped the hilt of his sword with both hands and raised it for a final strike.
"Thalo!" Owen's cry cut through the night as he suddenly came upon the duo on horseback. "Hold!"
The look of irritation was clear on the Sidhe's face, but he lowered his sword as he turned his head towards the new arrival. David's eyes just darted back and forth between Thalo and Owen, his heart pounding wildly.
"Not even a 'by your leave', young master Owen?" Thalo's lips curled into a snarl. "I would have thought that your mother would have taught you better manners towards those who have given you an unexpected bounty." He punctuated his last statement with his sword point back at David's throat, this time causing a small trickle of blood to form. A gurgle of pain escaped David despite his best efforts.
"What are you still doin' here?" Owen asked as he dismounted.
"I wanted to see for myself the end result of all my hard work. Yet here I find it was nearly wasted!"
"So you still hunt then?"
"Aye, I do," The Sidhe nodded, eyes blazing with pride as he looked back down at his prey. "Though I charge no price for this time, I expect a bit more gratitude for all my good will!"
David felt his heart sink deeper and deeper with each moment as a grim smile spread across Owen's face.
"These are still our lands, Birdcatcher. You swore to do no harm or malice to our kin while on them durin' your hunt. I call that man kin...I call him 'Uncle'. An' yet you made him bleed anyway." Owen looked Thalo right in the eyes, smile broadening just a hair. "You broke your oath."
With those words, the Sidhe suddenly screeched, recoiling from David as if he were hot coals. "No!" he howled, eyes wide and wild as he began to fade. "Foul trickery, mortal -- foul! And this after the favor I've done?! A thousand poxes on your head!" He shot one last dark look towards David as he vanished into the night, his icy voice still echoing. "But no matter...I have what I need!"
The woods grew still for a few seconds as the two men left looked at each other.
"I can't believe that worked...." Finally breaking the silence, Owen reached out his hand towards David. "Are you all right?"
"That depends on what comes next." Though his expression was wary, David took his nephew's offered hand. As he was being pulled up, he couldn't tell which one of them was shaking more.
"You're goin' to take my horse an' get out o' here, Uncle." Owen took a deep breath as if to steady himself. "To the north o' here is a road leadin' out o' Bellhaven. There's a compass in her saddlebags if you need it an' a waterskin too."
For a moment, David couldn't speak, staring at Owen in gratitude and hope. "Thank you, Owen," he managed to whisper.
"Come on," Owen carefully yet quickly assisted David onto the horse. "The faster you're out o' here, the better. Theus guide your path."
"Come with me." The words were out of David's mouth before he could stop himself. Common sense was screaming at him to get moving, but the emotional need to reconnect with any member of the family he thought had been lost to him held him back.
And looking down now into his nephew's eyes, David could see that same need reflected back at him -- and a temptation to fully leave behind a life that had been filled with hate and lies.
"I can't. My daughter..." Owen finally whispered, heavy with regret. He smiled weakly as he turned to leave. "Besides, you need me to cover your escape, Uncle. An' maybe I can start to repair all the damage that's been done."
"Owen, wait." Though David keenly felt the urgency of escape, he had to ask one more thing. "I need to know. Who is the Explorer that Thalo wants and why? I have to find a way to stop him!"
"You're mad!" Owen shook his head incredulously.
"I've been called worse." Allowing himself a faint smile, David gripped his wounded shoulder as he tried to keep steady on the horse, the animal already nervous at the scent of drying blood. "But somebody has to do it. More importantly, I have to do it. She's only tangled up in all of this because of me."
"I don't know all the details...Mother found out about some sort o' secret dig she's supposed to be goin' on," Owen sighed. "But Thalo works in the service o' a nobleman. They say he's cursed, that Andrew MacFayden! He's the one who wants her -- the Lady Grace MacKenzie."
Recognition and shock dawned on David's face as he heard the names. It can't be...! "Are you sure?!"
"Aye. As I said, it's all I know. Why? Do they mean anything?"
"Father!" The sharp cry interrupted David before he could say anything. Colleen came into view and suddenly halted, her eyes widening at what she saw. "What--? What's goin' on here?!"
"Colleen, go on home. This doesn't concern you." Owen turned to face his child. "Get goin', Uncle."
"But the Bastard...Gran said--!" Colleen's eyes shot towards David, who was trying his best to keep the horse under control.
"An' I'm sayin' that it's all over, Colleen. Now go on home!"
"But..." The young woman's voice trailed off. She took a step back, hesitating...
...then in one swift motion Colleen drew both of her pistols and leveled them at David.
"You!" Colleen spat, her voice quivering slightly. "What did you do to my father?!"
"Colleen, don't be foolish. He's done nothin' to me nor to anyone else no matter what's been said!" Planting himself between his daughter and her target, Owen stood his ground. "There'll be no killin'. Not tonight, nor ever! Now give me those!" Owen spoke with the conviction and self-assurance that his child would listen and obey her father as he held out his hands for the guns.
But from his vantage point, David could see what the father was blind to. Colleen narrowed her eyes as she tensed up, tightening her grip as she did. She then appeared to lower one of her pistols.
No. Not lowered. Aimed. Right for Owen. And the trigger was getting pulled.
"NO!" David's cry of warning came just as Colleen fired. The shot tore into Owen's belly, causing him to stagger back. The horse reared up, a shrill whinny escaping it as David struggled to stay on. There was a brief pause as father looked at daughter, his face twisted more in shock and disbelief than pain. Colleen just said nothing, her only reaction a slight twitch of her eye. Then she swiveled her other pistol towards David.
But Owen suddenly lurched for his daughter, trying to grab hold of her. Colleen grunted, trying desperately to tear herself away from her father to get a clear shot. "Run, Uncle!"
"...no..." David tried to protest, not willing to abandon Owen, but the horse was already starting to break into a gallop. Between the blood and gunfire, an unskilled rider like David had no chance in reining it in.
As the horse and its burden fled, the rapport of a second gunshot rang hollow in David's ears.
Owen MacDonald knew he was dying. Sprawled out on the forest floor, his blood slowly seeped out of the wound in his gut. Yet all he tried to do was to reach out and faintly call for his daughter. But Colleen made no move towards him. She clung tightly to the butts of her now-empty pistols in shock, her eyes staring wide at her father. Her lips moved over and over again as if she was murmuring something, but no sound came out.
"Colleen, child...what's goin' on?! We heard--!" As Robert and Cedric came upon them, they froze. The two men futilely tried to shield their aunt from the sight, but Moira pushed past them. Her face was ashen as two words escaped her.
"...the Bastard. It was the Bastard." Colleen finally found her voice. Her eyes were still wide in shock as she turned to face her grandmother and uncles. "It made Father attack me...I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop!' It was the Bastard..." She repeated what she said, convincing herself more and more with each word that it was the truth.
"No..." Shaking his head weakly, Owen tried to pull himself up enough to face his mother. "Mother, it didn't...that didn't happen! Stop this madness...Uncle didn't do--"
But the horror on Moira's face was already shifting, hardening now into cold disgust. This was the truth she wanted to believe, no matter what her dying son said otherwise and she refused to be shaken from it. "You always were weak, Owen," she whispered.
As his vision finally clouded over, the last thing Owen saw was his mother turning her back on him. His cousins followed suit and Colleen didn't hesitate to do the same. The four of them then began to walk away. Only after she heard Owen's death rattle did Moira finally react. With rage and hate in her eyes, she threw back her head and screamed her brother's name.
The fog had finally begun to lift by the time David reached the road, the horse slowing down now to a trot. Barring any new obstacles, he would reach the outskirts of Connickmoor by dawn and with it, shelter in the Order's safe house. With luck, his wounds could be tended to without complications.
And he could give himself time to fully mourn what he had lost. Owen. Rigby. Mother. Even Moira.... Moira's earlier accusations echoed in David's head. "...another soul tainted by your corruption, another death on your hands..." His throat suddenly felt constricted. It took every ounce of will he had to try to stay numb for a while longer lest he drowned in the guilt and sorrow right then and there. Even still the back of David's eyes ached with the pain of unshed tears. Maybe I truly am to blame for everything in our family after all....
David shook his head, forcing himself to tear away from those thoughts. Instead, he pushed himself to focus on what Owen had told him about who Thalo was after and why -- and a name he hadn't expected to hear after all this time.
Grace. It had to be Grace.
David sighed quietly, shaking his head again as he felt the weight of so many years upon him. Things had suddenly gotten a lot more complicated