My Uncle Jim always said that working for any kind of spell caster was a Bad Idea. I wasn't sure whether that was right or not – at least, before I took this job.
Shoulda listened to Uncle Jim.
Maybe I was carried away by the looks of the Johnson. She wasn't beautiful – not like a Trid star is beautiful – but there was something about her. Creamy skin with a smattering of freckles that looked paler because of the wealth of dark red hair that looked redder because of that pale skin – well you get the drift – eyes as green as new leaves with a curious amber ring round the pupil and a pointed chin like a pixie and shapely in a compact, neat sort of way.
She wanted me for my esoteric weapons knowledge and part of my brain was calculating that you can get the word erotic out of esoteric and somehow I found myself agreeing to the contract without asking as many questions as I usually do. Hell, maybe she did some kind of mind bending job on me. At the time I wasn't noticing; and afterwards it was a little late.
So there I was, with my bow, going to Scotland. Scotland! I knew nothing about Scotland apart from the fact that comic dwarfs in trids have what's supposed to be a Scots accent and ponce about in kilts with dirty great swords that are named after claymore mines. Well I thought they were until I mentioned this to the dame, who gave me a filthy look and said coldly that the mines were named after the sword and the name meant great blade. She wrote it down for me the way the natives spell it; no wonder nobody knows anything about Scotland if they write everything by throwing a can of alphabet soup at their words. So far as I'm concerned, they can carry on waving their great blades, chasing the haggis in the wild and burning supper or whatever they do for recreation.
Anyway, seemed the dame wanted me to be ready with my bow in case she had a bit of trouble with spirits.
"What's so special about my bow?" I asked.
"Och, it's no' your bow, laddie, but your will" she said. I have to say I liked the lilt of her voice even if I didn't always understand every word. "Thon speerits cannot be harmed by bullets or any weapon that's no' driven by the will of a conscious mind. Ye'll ken fine if ye have tae use it."
"There seems to be some uncertainty about that. I like to know what I'm likely to be facing" I ventured.
"I'm no' sae verra certain" said the lady. I still wasn't sure what her name was. "It may be that the only potential danger is tae meself, and that they'll stay within the bounds of the rules. If not?" she shrugged "Weel, the danger would then be incalculable."
"And what is it you are doing exactly?" I asked.
"D'ye ken the folksong aboot young Tam Lin?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"I never heard of the dame" I said.
She frowned, looking confused.
"Dame?" she asked.
"This Tamlyn female" I said.
The look I got was somewhere between the look one gives to a stupid child who has thrown his lunch on the floor and the kind of look that freezes solid.
"Tam is a byname for Tammas – Thomas – of Lin" she said coldly. "And if ye dinnae ken the tale then that's no' my problem."
Well it wasn't my fault these damn Scots can't speak English.
Or think like normal people for that matter. We were going on a run because of a folksong? What was the sense in that?
"Is there treasure then in this folksong?" I asked, casually.
She regarded me. Had I ever thought those eyes were cute with the amber ring? They weren't. They were green ice with a contemptuous smouldering centre.
"Trrrreasure" she said, rolling the r. I couldn't help thinking of the stridulation of some of the bug spirits I hoped I'd never meet. She smiled; but the smile was bleak. "Aye, weel, ye might say it was a kind of treasure; chust not what ye micht expect."
Her accent had thickened.
I decided not to ask any more questions.
I've done the survival courses but I'm a city boy. And miles and miles of moorland in every fragging direction gave me the creeps.
"Why couldn't we have waited another day?" I muttered, mostly to myself. "We're missing all the Halloween fun in town. If these damn limeys do Halloween."
"Losh, ye shilpit gomeril, thon's why we're here the noo" snapped the dame. She had been arranging some kind of magic circle around the both of us where we were to hunker down in ghillie suits. "It has tae be Halloween; the rrright place, the rrrright time."
"Where IS this place, anyway?" I asked, sullenly. I was used to being in control of where I went, not to being flown into the middle of trackless waste in a helicopter by a ruddy mage. I hoped her magic senses made up for not being able to rig into the radar; some of the clouds around here had mountains in them.
"Miles Cross" she said.
It meant nothing to me.
Hunkering down to wait to acquire a target was something I understood however; and the dame gave me my last minute instructions.
"Listen weel" she said "When things begin tae happen, ye will no' fire on the one I hae within ma arrrums or I will kill ye masel'. Ye will howd your fire until or unless ony other body moves tae thrrreaten me or the one I howd. Is that plain?"
"Like the fog rising as the sun sets" I said. "You are expecting a team to pass and you're planning on using your magic to extract an asset and you're expecting the team to send spirits to prevent you?"
She gave me another of those looks of combined ice and fire.
"Och, if it pleases ye tae lookit at it in those terms" she sighed. "Save that the team are a' speerits ye ken, trransportin' - weel ye'd best no' interfere wi' thon 'treasure' as ye ca' him or ye'll regret it."
I found that threat more chilling than some I've heard from the Family, which are more graphic and tend to involve having a troll legbreaker turn you inside out. And with some of the loyal, but none too bright enforcers, they'd take such orders seriously and give turning you inside out a good old college try.
I really didn't want to know in what way I might regret letting Ms Johnson down. She read this in my face, I'm sure as she gave a thin smile and nodded.
We settled down to wait. The full moon rose an hour or so after sunset. A proper Halloween moon.
"D'ye ken when the last time there was a fu' moon on Halloween?" asked the dame.
"No" I said. "Does it matter?"
"Aye" she said gravely "It matters. It matters about wha' has power and wha' can use it; and it can have an effect upon the tide of men. Last time was 2039. Aye, laddie, thon's the year o' the Night o' Rage. Before that it was 2020, right before Goblinisation. And the one before was 2012."
"The year of the Awakening" I said trying to sound intelligent. "But nothing much has happened in 2058 so far."
"Has it no'?" she asked. "Forebye there are things that ye'll never hear of; if you're lucky."
She lapsed into brooding silence and by the light of the moon her eyes peered silver into a distance that I knew was a scene I didn't want to see.
Around midnight she started getting alert – even tense.
"Be ready" she muttered.
I still was not sure what I was being ready for. There was nothing to break the stillness of the night, no sound of vehicles, ground or air, nothing to indicate that anyone was daft enough to traverse this forsaken heath by foot, no lights, no sounds. And believe me, in air this still, even with the mist that swirled eerily at knee height, shining in the moon almost like water, you see lights from a long way and hear voices carried too. Ms Johnson was staring at a small hummock with fixed intensity. I was looking for lights to be shown and listening for the sound of a copter coming in to land on that landmark. After all, she might have said it was spirits but it would be a pretty odd run where spirits were carrying an asset without having a controlling mage somewhere on the scene. But she was staring at that hill like she expected something to happen.
And drek! I was staring too hard myself, I was fooling myself into thinking that the side of the hill was opening!
The side of the hill WAS opening. And yet my augmented ears could pick up no mechanical hum or whine of machinery opening it; only tinkling laughter and voices.
"Down!" muttered Ms Johnson, sinking below the height of the mist. I followed her; how I was supposed to get a clear shot from here I wasn't sure, but neither was I about to disobey My-Lady-Fire-And-Ice.
There were the sounds of horses' hooves. Horses? What on earth? And the baying of hounds. I heard my breath hiss in consternation. Ms Johnson beside me poked me rudely and murmured in my ear,
"Fool, I cannot mask sound even though I can prevent them from spotting or scenting us".
It would have been nice to have been told what she was doing with that circle beforehand.
The shadows of two dark horses passed us by, uncomfortably close, and then the ghostly image of a white one [never could figure why they call them greys when you bet on them] loomed up over us. And without a warning, and nearly frightening me out of my hoop, Ms Johnson rose up, howling like a banshee, and pulled the rider down off that horse.
Well I figured that the time of hiding was over so I stood up, bow at the ready. The two lead riders had reined in and swung round in their saddles; the rest of the company frozen for a long moment.
And what a company they were. Some as fair as the most beautiful elf I had ever seen, save each had some defect – one had cow's hooves in the stirrups and a long tail dangling from the saddle, another was clearly, even in the moonlight, mottled with blue all over, a third was fair on one side and covered in lumps and warts more like a troll on the other side. And then there were the ugly ones. And the ones that flew, with or without wings.
The leader sported horns, almost like stag's horns, and he was an odd-looking creature himself. That his face was contorted in anger didn't help his pretensions to beauty. He was a swart faced man whose face might have been considered handsome if there hadn't been something somehow …repellent… about it; a paradox. I realised the only normal looking person there was the young man whom Ms Johnson had pulled off his horse, who appeared to be an ordinary looking elf like her, good looking but nothing extraordinary.
The horned one murmured some single word; and immediately the young man in Ms Johnson's arms started to move and writhe – fraggit, he was turning into a big snake! I began to aim; but some sixth sense made me glance at that horned bastard. He was watching me with a sardonic grin on his twisted face, almost as if he thought the idea of me killing the snake was all right with him. I dropped the point of the arrow and relaxed the string. Ms Johnson was hanging on to the writhing thing for grim death. It shifted again and then suddenly it was on fire! No, dammit, it WAS the fire; and still she clung to the insubstantial flames, sweat pouring off her face, her teeth set against the agony. And then the fire flickered and the maw of a massive wolf was in her face; and still she clung to it. I sneaked a look at Old Horny. He was looking like a man who lost a certified credstick for a big job and found he'd sat in chewing gum while he looked for it. Ms Johnson apparently had the drop on him in all this magic drek. I relaxed a little and watched the others. They were spectators though there appeared to be some sides bets going on between some of the small and boisterous pixie-like beings.
It was then that I twigged.
I'd only been invited on a run against the Wild fraggin' Hunt, which I'd only read about on shadow boards and had never really quite believed in before.
My belief structure was undergoing some surgical modification.
The magical struggle was plainly a strain on both the participants and as the young man cycled through a number of beasts and even a stream of running water, this last piece of exotic magic was plainly one that cost Old Horny a lapse in concentration; and for a moment the young man flickered back to being just that. With a yell of triumph, Ms Johnson had whipped out a cloak from – somewhere – and had wrapped him in it. It was a glittering thing, like the lurex clothing a clubber might wear and yet… and yet it was richer, more sumptuous as well as being brighter than anything they might wear, patterned in green and gold in the weave like a heavy brocade you see in paintings by old masters, only it was as fine and light as if it were of spidersilk.
Old Horny's breath hissed in.
"You have the orichalcum cloak then" he said.
ORICHALCUM? Frag, if that was cloth of orichalcum its value was incalculable! I stared, open mouthed.
Ms Johnson laughed a laugh of triumph.
"Yes, Thais" she said. "Ye must pay your teind tae your faither some ither way if you want to win his approval. This innocent will no' be his to corrupt."
"Apparently" said Old Horny – Thais – dryly. "As a matter of interest, how did you come by it?"
"Weel, ye ken I had tae induce Cambuil to lend it to me of course" said Ms Johnson.
"And how by the Powers did you manage that?" he sounded baffled.
"Och it wisnae sae harrd. I sat ootside his door and played ABBA songs until he capitulated; every man has his breaking point" said Ms Johnson.
Thais gave a harsh laugh.
"You've won that then, Eilidh" he said.
"NO!" a blue skinned – whatever they were – started to launch himself at Ms Johnson.
I didn't have to think.
There was no arrow, no bow, no target; only the firing, the way my sensei had taught me. There was the twang of the string, a THUNK! and then the blue entity was simultaneously knocked back by the force of my will and began breaking up and dissolving around where it had hit, disappearing into nothing with a thin despairing wail. There was a collective gasp and the others looked to Thais.
"He broke the rules. He paid the price" said he in a harsh voice. He glanced at me. I would have rather been almost anywhere else as his gaze held mine; I wanted to soil myself and held myself together with sheer will as his odd, unfathomable eyes held mine. He nodded. "A worthy warrior" he said. "ignorant but worthy. A better choice than some you have made Eilidh."
"Not that ye have ony right tae dictate tae me aboot ma choices" said Ms Johnson. "Farewell, Thais; I hope we'll no meet again the while".
"Not a hope I echo" said Thais. "Farewell Eilidh. Come; we return to the rath" he addressed his followers "There is no point in riding this night."
They wheeled; and rode back into the hill.
I let my breath out explosively and turned to look at Ms Johnson and her young man.
He was a young man no longer, but a child – well, a young teen anyway.
"What the frag?" I asked.
"This is my son" said Ms Johnson. "I had occasion tae irritate Thais some seven years ago, and he took ma son. He was then juist six years old. Seemingly he has aged normally in the rath; I wondered whether he would or whether he would be still the wee laddie I lost. But tae be old enough tae be at the brink of sexual awareness would be the best age for… weell, that is no' going tae happen" she added briskly. "And he is no longer at risk. Once won away from yon shilpit wee sumpf there's the end tae it. He aye keeps his worrrd. Ye'll maybe find me a tranq patch tae keep him frae awareness in the copter until we've got the puir bairn safely hame" she added.
And that, really, was the end to it. How the Johnson had managed to irritate the leader of the Wild Hunt I had no idea; and frankly I had no desire to know. She and her son were dangerous people and I took my credstick from her on completion of the mission and I walked into the night as fast as I could go. No more mages for ME.
And my nerves were too uptight and that led to me imagining a horned figure in my shaving mirror, in what passed for a hotel in Selkirk, that winked; and faded.