With the Thrush personnel delivered to the various authorities and the disassembling of Dr Emerson's infernal device all but complete, Napoleon was now officially off duty. It was already late afternoon but, while he was free to remain at the lodge another night, there was somewhere else Napoleon was eager to be.
A snowmobile trip down to the parking lot from one of the mop up crew delivered him to their rental car, and a two hour plus drive from there took him out of the mountains, to the town of Bend. He did not even stop for dinner, but made his way directly to the hospital where Illya, April and Mark had been ensconced the last couple of days. He used the privilege of his UNCLE ID, as he did not often, to gain admittance after visiting hours. He was made to promise that he would not wake his partner if he was sleeping, before being given his room number.
Illya was dozing when he arrived, mainly out of boredom Napoleon suspected, but Pasha was not. His and Saphina's joyous reunion woke Illya. The floor nurse was less than pleased, but at the look on Illya's face when he saw his partner standing in the doorway, she kept her peace and left them their privacy.
Mindful of his partner's cracked ribs, Napoleon dropped to crouch beside the bed, carefully gathered Illya in his arms and held him close. Neither one spoke, for Napoleon's gentle caresses and Illya's answering embrace said everything that wanted to be said. After a moment Illya lifted his head to meet Napoleon's lips for a kiss. In this way only did they confess the terrible fear each had felt, the anxiety and hopelessness that had gripped them both for a time, and the relief that had come when Saphina and Pasha had found each other in the Thrush base.
When the kiss ended at last, and Napoleon sat back up, finding a chair to perch in, they did not say the things they might have liked to. There was no point in begging to 'never do that again', or to confess, 'I can't lose you.' They were still UNCLE agents, after all, and likely would be till their dying day.
Instead Napoleon asked how many ribs Illya had cracked (two and a half), and Illya asked how the interrogation had gone. They discussed Illya's recuperation time and how and where they would pass that time, and they speculated about the reclusive Witch who'd saved all their lives.
"April said the woman blindfolded her when she took her on her sled to the place where I picked her up," Napoleon said. "She didn't want to be found by anyone, not even UNCLE officials who'd like to express their thanks."
"Speaking of expressions of gratitude," Illya said. "Did they find the Wongs?"
"That they did," Napoleon replied. "Agent Crenshaw tracked them down at a motel in Sandy. He told me that UNCLE offered Mrs Wong a position running any of the commissaries at any of the UNCLE stations in the world, but she turned them down. George took them up on the scholarship though. Seems he wants to learn hotel and restaurant management."
"I'd say he already has a good idea of the basics," Pasha said.
"What I wouldn't give for a bowl of his aunt's beef with orange sauce right now," Napoleon sighed, suddenly missing the dinner he hadn't eaten yet.
"Don't remind me," said Illya with a sigh of his own. "I've been eating hospital food for two days."
"They're springing all three of you tomorrow afternoon, right?" Napoleon suggested. "I'll find out the best Chinese place in town and we'll all go there for lunch."
"Yes please!" said Illya, and Pasha yipped her approval.
It was a curious tale that emerged as the four UNCLE agents pieced together their various experiences of the affair into one coherent narrative. It had begun conventionally enough, up to the point where Mark and April had gone skiing on the open slopes just behind the Thrush occupied lodge.
"She must have been watching us from the very beginning," April said, reaching across the table for the soy sauce. "Or she'd have never gotten her dæmon to help Mark in time."
"She may well have been sensitive to the very mechanism Thrush was testing," Illya speculated, helping himself to another crab rangoon. "If so, she'd have known when they activated it, and possibly even where it was focused and what its effects would be."
"I wouldn't put it past her," Mark said, manipulating a piece of sweet and sour pork onto his chopsticks. "That kingfisher of hers, I swear it must have broken the sound barrier to get to me so fast."
"And how did it know how to get into the Thrush facility?" Napoleon asked, pouring more green tea for Illya and himself. "Much less how to turn that machine off. Is any of that beyond a Witch, do you know, April?"
"None of that is, no," April said shaking her head, "but she's an even bigger mystery than we thought. While I was in the hospital, I made some inquiries, called around to local libraries and so forth, trying to find out about the wagon train she said she was part of, that got stranded someplace called 'Three Lynx Pass'."
"Did you find anything?" asked Lyssa, perched on the back of the booth, just above Mark's shoulder.
"Well, yes," April answered. "In a way. The Bend library and the local Historical Society both knew about the lost wagon train at Three Lynx Pass. It happened in 1849, and they tell me it was a small group of mainly scandinavian settlers—Danes and Finns—that were trapped in the pass that winter."
"Isn't that more or less what she told you?" Napoleon said.
"It is, but she also said that it was 'her people', unfortunately, that found them," April replied. "So I thought she meant other settlers like her—Witches. The Historical Society says it was a party of scouts who found them in the spring of 1850, one of whom might have been a Witch and, get this: they reported no survivors."
A shocked silence fell over the table and Napoleon felt a chill run down his spine.
"Well I'll tell you what, mate," Mark said finally. "Ghosts don't have dæmons. That's a fact."
"That's true," April said. "And it's also true that Witches can live very long lives—the more powerful the Witch, the longer. But I don't understand why no survivors were reported. She certainly gave the impression that there were other survivors besides herself, though they were probably all quite young."
"The young are often better equipped to survive such privation than their elders," Illya said, speaking from experience. "But I doubt that young children would have made it out of the mountains on their own. Someone had to have rescued them at some point."
Kyree, perched on the back of the booth next to April, now leaned forward to whistle softly into her ear. The others waited to hear if her dæmon's message was to be shared.
"Kyree thinks it was done out of kindness," April said after a moment, stroking her kestrel dæmon's feathers with a single finger.
"Kindness?" Napoleon asked, puzzled.
"I think I see the sense of it," April said. "No culture, Witches or otherwise, looks kindly on cannibalism. Imagine how it would be for an orphaned child, to have it be known that you had done such a thing, when no one knows anything else about you. The Witch who found those children would have known that none of their families would want to take them in, knowing what had happened. Wasn't it kinder, really, to let people believe that those who had committed those atrocities had died? It wouldn't have been hard to make up some other story for how the children had been orphaned when homes were found for them."
"True enough," Illya said.
"But the children knew," said Lyssa. "Your Witch said she knew what they'd done would be seen as taboo by other Witches, and that they'd be ostracized."
April nodded. "It would have been a secret the children kept among themselves," she said. "And never shared."
"What a terribly lonely life," Napoleon said. "Do you think she'd like someone to visit her, from time to time?"
"Definitely not," April said, shaking her head. "She'd see it as an act of pity. She made that quite clear to me when she left me for Napoleon to find."
"Still," Mark said wistfully. "One wants to offer some token of gratitude."
"There was one favor she asked of me," April said. "And I've sworn to her that I will see that it is done. She gave me one of her dæmon's feathers, so that I would know when she had died, and she could be given a Witch's last rites." She drew a single, iridescent blue feather from the pouch she always wore at her neck.
"She is a very powerful Witch, most likely from a prestigious family," she continued, gazing at the feather in the palm of her hand. "She's lived a very long life, even for a Witch of her stature, and I expect that I'll be called upon to fulfill this duty within a few years."
"Then let us wish her remaining years be kind to her," Napoleon said, lifting his tea cup. "To the Witch of Three Lynx Pass, may her Gods look favorably upon her."
The others followed suit, lifting their cups to drink solemnly. Watching April put the feather back into her Witch's pouch, Napoleon wondered if their solitary savior might know, through this token, of the gratitude they felt, and hoped, perhaps, that she might.
© T. Dancinghands -2017