Chapter 1: Bargain
"We shouldn't be here...."
As if to echo Owen MacDonald's misgivings, a low rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. He looked over at his fellow kinsmen in the faint hope that someone else would also show uneasiness at this journey in Dun Liath, but all he got from his two cousins was grim silence. Even his own daughter Colleen (still a child in his eyes at sixteen years) seemed to share that stony-faced determination.
"We should be takin' care o' this ourselves. Within the family." Shaking his head, Owen tried again. "If the others in the Clan find out what we're doin'--"
"They won't." Moira MacDonald's voice rang clear and steady, belying her aged body. "So long as they aren't told. An' none o' us have any reason to be tellin' them anythin', do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, mum." Owen sighed in frustration. His mother would brook no further discussion on the matter, that much was certain. "Colleen shoulda stayed at home though! This is no place for a girl!"
"I'm no girl, father! I'm practically a woman now!" Colleen snapped, patting the two pistols holstered at her side. "I want to help Gran an' to help restore our family's honour."
"Aye, an' help ye will, lass," Moira smiled, cutting in before Owen could say anything. "It does this old heart good to hear that. That the young still care to know about our history...an' our pain. Such determination an' courage will serve our family well."
Another rumble of thunder shot through the sky. Nearby, their destination loomed: Stag's Head, the ancestral home of the Clan MacFayden. Owen shivered, then fingered the dirk strapped to his side, trying to reassure himself that everything would be all right.
"Theus, be with us..." he muttered.
It was cousin Robert who approached the heavy wooden door first. He grabbed the knocker, turning first towards Moira, who only nodded. Owen thought he could see him hesitate briefly before he raised it...
...then brought it down with a sharp rap.
Though they were outside, the silence was claustrophobic as the small family waited. Finally, a small panel opened in the door and two eyes clear as water peered out at the MacDonalds.
"State your business."
"We seek an audience with the master o' the house," said Robert.
"My master, the Lord MacFayden, is away on the hunt and won't return until the mood strikes him, I am sorry to say. Another time perhaps..." The panel began to slide back shut.
"Och, but we asked for the master o' the house, we did!" This time it was Cedric who spoke up, sneering. "The one who holds MacFayden's leash. Him we seek an' him we'll speak with. We'll not be turned away on this!"
Owen could feel the lump hit his throat as he caught sight of the eyes narrowing angrily. "For Theus' sake, mind your words, Cedric! Are you tryin' to get us all kill--"
The door suddenly swung open and Owen's words died in his throat. Before them stood a man, tall and lean, with skin pale as alabaster and gleaming white hair. His body was enveloped in a long black cloak with only the tips of his brick-red boots peeking out from beneath the fabric. Upon his head was a matching wide-brimmed hat, one lone black feather from some unknown raptor jutting out from it. Idly, his fingers tapped the hilt of the silver sword strapped to his side. Every movement, every gesture hinted at inhuman grace and coldness.
Swallowing, Owen stepped in front of his daughter, trying to make sure that he was between her and the Sidhe. The creature only looked over at each member of the family, contemplating them as if they were fish in a net.
"Your colours mark you as MacDonald..." His lips curled into a cold, tight smile. "One of your kin did my master a rather unpleasant turn some four and twenty years ago or so he claims. And with your tongues clucking so coarse and foolish now, whyever should I permit you the chance to speak with me?!"
Owen opened his mouth to try to stammer out an apology, but Moira spoke first. "You think the actions o' one speak for all in this Clan? Whatever may have happened then was not our business nor our knowin', whatever it was. We come to parley with our own matters in the present today."
"With cold iron?" Sniffing the air, he shot a glare towards Owen. Owen gripped the handle of the dirk, but didn't draw it.
"Only if we need to defend ourselves." Owen forced himself to stay calm.
The Sidhe smirked, turning back towards Moira. "Your Clan isn't particularly well-disposed towards those of my ilk, MacDonald."
"As I said," Moira shrugged. "the actions o' one don't speak for the actions o' all. Best you remember that."
"And yet here you are, asking to parley with me. Whatever for?"
"Because..." The old woman paused, grimacing. "...because we seek your aid."
The Sidhe's eyes widened increduously as he let out a sharp bark of laughter. "My aid?!" He laughed again, shaking his head. "Oh, I must hear more of this if a MacDonald of all things comes crawling to succor one of the Fair Folke for aid! Enter then, mortals, for I, Thalo, will hear more of this pathetic plea for my amusement!" With a curt nod to follow him, Thalo turned and entered the keep.
Owen grabbed Moira by the arm as she started to followed after. "Mother, please...we can't be doin' this!"
She only shrugged him off. "We've come too far now."
Their footsteps echoed on the stone floor, though Owen was certain that the Sidhe made no sound as he walked. Thalo led the party to a sitting room, where a fire was already crackling in the hearth. With another smirk, he offered the MacDonalds whiskey, but they declined, all sides knowing the warnings of ever accepting any food or drink from the Sidhe. The formalities out of the way, Thalo plopped himself into a large leather-backed chair and motioned for them to be seated.
MacFayden's own chair, I'd wager... Owen thought. An' he sits in it like he's the Lord himself. He may well be. The stories I've heard about MacFayden...his madness, his curse...
"Your tale, crone. Curiosity gnaws at me to know why, out of every boggan and sprite, every elf and spirit, it is me you come to. Moreso still, what payment you would offer to sway me to render any service." Thalo looked over at Colleen, a hungry smile slowly spreading across his terrible, beautiful face. The young woman's cheeks flashed hotly as her eyes widened in anger and disgust. Owen felt the sweat rising on his palms, trying to fight every urge to draw his blade and plunge it into Thalo's chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cedric and Robert glaring at the Sidhe, each thinking similar thoughts of violence. Only his mother stayed controlled and focused.
"They call you 'The Birdcatcher', for no prey is too swift or too hidden to ever escape your grasp..." Moira began coolly. "Redcap an' all his goblins will bend their knee to you an' the Queen o' the Sky herself lets you roam free because you could lead her to the Holly King should you ever so choose to do it."
"You flatter me." Thalo nodded, a smug look on his face. "That is wise."
"And yet, for all your skills an' cunning, one target still eludes you."
Thalo's eyes suddenly narrowed and he hissed softly as the barest trace of a smirk now appeared on Moira's face.
"The things we've heard, Sidhe..." Moira continued. "Your 'master'...your thrall, MacFayden, hunts one particular doe. An Explorer. Now, whatever purpose he has for her, I leave you two to it. That's your own business. But yon bonny bitch an' her friends made the mistake o' buttin' in where she didn't belong in me an' my kin's affairs."
"Get to the point, woman." Thalo's tone was terse.
Moira shrugged. "I've come across news o' where her whereabouts will be. Travelin' to some sort o' secret dig. I can give you the time an' the route. All I ask for in return is one simple task..."
"Oh, a simple task?" Thalo rolled his eyes. "Yet not so simple if you cannot accomplish it yourself, I sense. Tell me then what sort of fool's errand you think I'd deign to waste my time on, especially for payment so feeble..." His voice now was both flippant and irritated, but Owen was sure that the Sidhe's eyes betrayed his eagerness for his mother's information all too easily.
"I need a hunter..." Moira sighed, looking tired all of a sudden. "I'm old, Sidhe. Such a thing may mean little to your kind, but this black mark has hung over me for all my life. An' I'll be damned if I die without seein' it extinguished first! My mother...dishonoured the family. Dishonoured my father an' my brother. Dishonoured us." Her eyes were blazing with anger now. "She flaunted her affairs. Lorded them over my father. After my oldest brother Ian but before me was the bastard between us. An' she didn't care. The way she fawned over it...that maggot..."
"Your mother was loose with her charms...so what?" Thalo sniffed dismissively. "Mortal, your family would not be the first to suffer from a straying eye and wandering loins. Your kind think you're all so pure and sainted in that way..." His face twisted into an ugly grin. "...but you're little better than animals rutting in the dark. What's one more old, dying bastard in this world? Is this some petty inheritance thing or are you just still bitter about him getting an extra biscuit now and then for supper? If you want him dead, time has probably done my work for me already."
Moira MacDonald only glared in silent rage. The Sidhe paused, looking carefully at the old woman, his eyes now bright in thought.
"Changeling." A statement, not a question.
"My father never knew who she slept with. He told me he first suspected some Montaigne fop that had been passin' through our village. Later on, he thought it might have been one o' those accursed MacLeods. The bitch took that secret to the grave..." Moira's voice was low and bitter. "I was eight when she died. Consumption, they said. We knew better. She willingly embraced it in a mockery o' motherhood even as it slowly sucked her dry o' life. As soon as she breathed her last, my father an' uncle an' brother went after it, but that accursed spawn managed to flee into the night with Legion's grace. Do you know it even had the audacity to pretend to grieve? And to beg for mercy... My father, my uncle an' Ian...they searched for years in vain for the coward. The others in the Clan were no help to us. Thought too we were on a fool's errand, they did."
The old woman paused, her face set in anger. "All those years lookin' an' turnin' up empty-handed...Ian's lads an' my son Owen, we kept up the hunt. We thought we had a lead only just a few months ago! Noticed someone had dared to lay fresh roses on that whore's grave. The maggot was mocking us an' our family's shame again! Rubbin' it in our faces. But we were finally going to catch it...or so we thought."
She looked over at Cedric and Robert, both glaring at the memory. Owen shifted uncomfortably. He had been away at Connickmoor when all this had happened, but he had heard his mother and cousins rant and rail about the story far too many times afterwards.
"Rigby..." Robert spat. "...the damn vicar himself was doin' it! It had gotten in touch with him somehow. Bewitched him or bribed him, maybe both, but he wouldn't be swayed from followin' its orders."
"We were lookin' to...'convince' Rigby the error o' his ways an' to tell us everything he knew about the bastard. What names it had been usin', how an' when they communicated an' where it could be hidin' now," growled Cedric. He shot a look over at Thalo. "But that's when your master's strumpet showed up in town with her two idiots in tow. Long story short, we're now banned from attendin' our own town's bloody church!"
Thalo smiled, thin and mirthless. "So now the story is told. And such scandal it is! A MacDonald running about with the touch of the fey in him...how galling it must be to know your family line isn't so pure and clean after all, woman. Or is it the fact that your mother might have enjoyed the affair of his conception more than she ever did with any night with your father?" The Sidhe looked over at Moira glaring silently at him. "No matter. So, what is it you wish of me, MacDonald? The bastard's head? His heart? Or his entire corpse?"
"Bring him to me alive, hunter..." Moira said. "...for I wish to kill him myself. We will burn him at the stake an' scatter his thrice-damned ashes to the winds afterwards! But drag him back to us an' you'll get your precious information on your Lord's girl."
"Say 'please' first, crone."
Moira swallowed a look of disgust. "...please..."
The Sidhe just grinned. "Give me leave to walk your lands while on this hunt."
Owen's eyes widened at that request. "We can't--!"
Moira shot a harsh look at her son, then turned back to Thalo. "Only if you swear to perform no harm nor malice to us an' our kin while you do so, Sidhe."
"By the Three Queens, I will swear to that then, MacDonald..." Thalo bowed his head. "But before I engage in this hunt, preparations must be made. Return to your home. When next we meet, I will require three items from you: a needle, a spool of red thread and a walnut still in its shell. The last item I need, I will gather myself."
"'Next we meet'...what do you mean by that?" Confusion was on Owen's face. "Where an' when will that be?"
"You will know when the crow lands on your doorstep. Follow it then to me."
"An' why do you need these items from us?" Colleen, silent since entering the keep, finally spoke up. "Why are you stallin' your hunt to make us get these things first?!"
The Sidhe only shook his head and laughed. "Oh, child...how little you know of this world and the next! But it's really all quite simple. Before I go hunting..." A slow grin spread across his face, sharp and white. "...I need bait."
Chapter 2: Bait
Edmund Rigby was preparing to retire for the night when he saw the figure. The priest nearly missed it at first. He had just blown out his oil lamp when he suddenly caught movement from outside his window.
And whoever it was looked like he was making his way to a specific spot in the churchyard – towards one particular gravestone in the back. Rigby knew the spot well. He had laid roses on it only two days ago.
Rigby frowned. True, the town council of Bellhaven had issued the edict banning Moira MacDonald and her family from entering the church and its grounds a few months back, but Rigby worried that there was little support backing it. Indeed, most in town felt that it was none of their concern – or worse, agreed with the MacDonalds. If that Lady Explorer and her friends hadn't arrived when they did…
He sighed. There was another option possible. But he would have approached me first, Rigby thought. He wouldn't risk being seen…but maybe he heard about the trouble though?
The priest grabbed the cudgel out of the small cabinet nearby, praying silently that he wouldn't need to use it and crept outside after the stranger. His initial impression was correct. Whoever this stranger was now crouched by the gravestone of one Meghan MacDonald. Rigby raised his cudgel slightly. Fifteen, maybe twenty feet separated the two of them now.
"Stand up, step away from the grave, and turn around. I warn you, if you be one of Moira's kin, you're not welcome here and you know that! Let the dead have peace and get you gone…"
"And if I'm not?" The figure rose and took one step back, but did not turn.
"Little good comes from sneaking in the night." Rigby grunted. "If you're seeking any sort of shelter, I can grant you that, but I'll have no trouble here. Now turn around and we'll talk properly."
"Talk and trouble come suddenly as the wind does…" chuckled the stranger. "And little will stand against them when they are fixed on their task. So it is for the wind, so it will be for me…"
"What are you talking about? Did Moira send you after all? Is that it then?" The priest asked, his face a mix of confusion and anger. "Who are you? What do you want here?!"
"That would be telling, man of Theus…" And Thalo finally turned around, a feral grin plastered on his face.
"…Theus…" Eyes widening in fear, the cudgel dropped from Rigby's grasp. He raised his hand in a desperate attempt to make the sign of the Prophets' Cross to try and stave off the creature in time.
The flash of silver was the last thing he ever saw.
The Sidhe returned his sword to its sheath. Humming softly a tune never heard by mortal ears, he picked up the dead man's cudgel, then returned to crouch by Meghan's grave. He crumpled one of the roses, letting the petals fall through his fingers one by one.
"How uselessly sentimental."
Thalo scooped up a handful of dirt and brought it to his lips, tasting it. "Faint…but still there. The trace of tears did water this soil."
He pulled himself up to his full height, sneering slightly. With a deft motion, Thalo plucked the long, black feather from his hat, then cast it skyward. There was a brief yet bright shimmer of white light and then the caw of a crow answered him.
"Fly on, my pretty. Fly to old Moira and her kin. Lead them back to this place of stillness and death. Much work still needs to be done this night and we'll see just how serious those mortals are in seeing it completed!"
Another caw cut through the night in response. Nodding in satisfaction, Thalo gripped the cudgel, calling upon the Glamour again. With the spade now in his hands, he thrust it into the dirt by the grave and began to dig…
"Rigby..." An ashen-faced Owen could only gape and stare at the cooling corpse sprawled out on the ground before him.
When they heard the screech of the unholy bird, Moira and her son had followed it, the sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach growing more and more as Owen recognized where they were being led to. The only comfort Owen could take was that he had made Colleen and his cousins stay home this time.
"You killed a priest!" Owen sputtered. "How could you do such a thing?!"
"Priest he may have been, but he was no kin of yours, MacDonald. And as such had no ward against my blade." In the blink of an eye the crow perched on Thalo's wrist shifted and the Sidhe was soon tucking the black feather back into his hat. "If your Theus had any concerns about his man's loss, surely he would have sworn his own oath with me!"
Owen finally managed to tear himself away from looking at Rigby's corpse, horror still clear on his face. Tentatively, he approached Moira, who was now staring down into the now-open grave.
"...my mother's bones..." she murmured, transfixed by the sight.
"Aye," said Thalo. "Bait."
"Mother, please...I beg you!" Owen pleaded. "Think about what we're doin' here! Murder an' desecration already...there'll be more blood this night if we continue on this mad quest. Think about our souls here!"
The old woman stared coldly at her son. "Rigby broke his vows to Theus the moment he sided with the monster over us. As for my mother..." Moira's voice was low and hoarse. "...her sins brought this upon herself! So do what you will with her bones, Birdcatcher. The bastard must be finally caught!"
With the hint of a smirk, Thalo crouched over the head of the exposed grave. He reached down and, with barely an effort, freed the skull from the rest of the skeleton. Thalo then hid the skull in the folds of his cloak.
"Have you the items I requested, crone?" Thalo's smirk widened when he saw Moira nod. "Good. Hand me the nut first. Then thread the needle."
The Sidhe easily cracked the walnut open with one fist, then plucked the nutmeats out from the shells and ate them. Owen just grimaced in disgust. "All that just for a snack."
Thalo's sneer never wavered. He reached his hand out to the old woman, the two halves of the empty walnut now resting on his palm. "Take these and listen well, Moira MacDonald..." The Sidhe's voice now seemed to echo in the night. "Hold back your tongue on any curse or epithet, for between these shells now you must whisper the name -- the true name -- of your brother. Press them tight...let not the name escape! Press them tight and stitch the shells closed with yon thread. Then hand the nut back to me."
Owen could only watch in dread as he saw his mother snatch up the nut shells without hesitation. Following the Sidhe's orders, Moira's face was a picture of loathing as she whispered the name that had been anathema to her and her family for so many years. She then pressed the shells together as tightly as she could and began to stitch, the needle impossibly passing through them as easily as if they were linen.
"'Tis been many an age since I last hunted just for sport," Thalo's eyes glinted eagerly as he was given the nut back. "I look forward to this!"
"Remember our terms, Sidhe..." Moira glared. "Prey he may be, but my brother must be brought to me alive! Else you'll not get your precious information for your pet Lord. Now go!"
But Thalo didn't. The playful smirk on his face suddenly shifted to one of primal rage, his once beautiful features now twisted and sharp. Try as he might, Owen was too frozen in fear to try to stand by Moira, who, for once in this endeavour, was finally cowering at the wrath of this inhuman creature.
"AND YOU REMEMBER THIS, MORTAL! I AM NOT SOME MEWLING MAGGOT SPRUNG FROM YOUR DECREPIT CROTCH SOLELY TO TAKE ORDERS FROM YOU...I AM THE HUNTER. I AM SIDHE! I WAS HERE BEFORE YOU EVER CRAWLED UPON THIS MISERABLE WORLD AND I WILL BE HERE WHEN LONG SINCE YOU'VE CRUMBLED TO DUST!"
Silver sword now drawn, the Sidhe took one step towards mother and son. His eyes now literally blazed with white fire as he bared his dagger-keen teeth at the mortals.
"REMEMBER I DO THIS TASK FOR MY OWN BENEFIT, NOT YOURS. AND YOUR PETTY QUEST FOR VENGEANCE WILL BE BUT DYING EMBERS ON THE HEARTH SHOULD YOU DARE CROSS ME!"
Thalo swept his free arm in front of him and bowed. When he rose, the Sidhe was smiling, as if nothing had happened and this had all been just a pleasant conversation.
"But I trust you will remember now, Moira MacDonald, and question not my skill in the capturing of your errant brother."
The Sidhe bowed once more and then vanished in the night.
"Mother..." Owen finally ran to his mother. "Oh Theus, what have we done?!"
"He--he wouldn't have hurt us. Not with the oath we bound him to!" But shuddering now in her son's arms, Moira sounded uncertain. She shook her head. "Cursed Glamour, that's all...just some trick."
"He killed Rigby! He killed a priest in cold blood...we have to tell someone! We have to confess--"
"No." The hardness was back in Moira's voice. "We tell no one. We didn't kill him. We are not to blame. An' he deserved to die anyway."
"You say NOTHING, Owen!" Moira hissed. "We are not to blame!"
Eyes downcast, her son swallowed, then nodded. "If they find his body--"
"They can't find what isn't here." Moira picked up the shovel that was lying on the cold ground and thrust it into Owen's arms. She shot a glance at her mother's open grave. "Rigby was foolish enough to want to defend her. Let him continue to do it in death. Now, get to work."
Setting the shovel down, Owen sighed sadly. He took hold of the corpse's legs and clumsily started to drag it over to the grave.
May the arms of Theus open to you. May His embrace keep you safe from Legion's talons...
Owen wasn't sure if the prayer was for Rigby's soul...or his own.
Chapter 3: Quarry
It was getting late in the city of Luthon. In his flat, a man calling himself Logan was carefully perusing a copy of Daylen's The Mysteries of Paradise & the Saints. What few neighbors he had thought of him as either some sort of scholar or a clerk working in one of the myriad of bureaucratic offices in Luthon, but a polite and pleasant enough Avalon gentleman nevertheless. Polite and pleasant enough to not realize ever to ask if Logan was a first or a last name.
In truth, it was neither, the name being as temporary as his lodgings. But both name and lodgings suited him for now, a quiet and welcome bit of respite before he would be called to duty again. He poured himself a small snifter of brandy and resumed his reading, all the while taking notes here and there.
The man's head suddenly snapped to attention. Eyes alert, he turned to look behind him. Nothing. He was the only one in the room.
Again the whispered word and with it, a call felt more than heard. In the back of the man's skull, there was the strange sensation of being tugged...as if there were reins and he was a horse. A sharp intake of breath escaped him as he tried to steady himself against the desk.
Oak before the acorn
Pearl before the sand
Mare shall cry for its foal
The ewe shall cry for lamb
As winter yields to spring
As earth falls to dust
Hear now this old bone's cry
And know thou must...COME!
The man moved as if in a dream, only barely controlling himself enough in time to grab his smallsword before he tore open wide the door to his flat...
...and stepped into forest.
From his position, well hidden in the trees, Thalo carefully eyed his quarry. One well-placed shot with his bow and the hunt would be over and done with.
The Sidhe only sneered. Where would the fun be in that? Instead, he watched as the man crouched down to examine the pieces of the now-shattered skull Thalo had used for his calling. Thalo's brow furrowed thoughtfully. The first observation was plain to see. The man looked young -- far too young to be the older brother of Moira MacDonald.
But Thalo knew very well that youth was only one of the many gifts the nature of a changeling's heritage could hold. And as Thalo continued to watch, he realized something else: the man hadn't started to panic yet. True, he looked around his surroundings in obvious confusion, but his quarry wasn't gibbering madly, his mortal side overwhelmed by the sheer power of Bryn Bresail even as his Sidhe blood called out to the Glamour of this fabled land.
Which, in Thalo's mind, meant one thing.
"You clever little worm..." the Birdcatcher murmured. "...you've walked in this world before...."
He leapt down from the branch, grinning all the while. Startled, the man drew back, brown eyes widening as he realized just who -- or rather just what -- was now in front of him. And though the man ran a nervous tongue across suddenly dry lips, Thalo had no doubt that the mortal was eying him as carefully as the Sidhe had done with him earlier. Still, Thalo held his position, grin never wavering in the face of unnerving silence.
"I don't--" The man finally found his voice, his Avalon accent crisp and courtly. "I don't understand. If I've done something to offend one of the Goodly Folke, then please, noble sir, tell me what it is so I can try to make amends." Though at that last comment, the man gave an uneasy glance towards the broken skull.
A chuckle escaped Thalo, low and hoarse. "Oh, very good. Very proper for a son of Avalon." His lips turned into a sudden smirk. "Sadly, such manners are all for naught, but let not said manners be all in vain! Allow me to introduce myself. I am He of the Seven Thorns, the Birdcatcher, the Hunter in the Dark. I am Thalo..." The Sidhe gave an elaborate bow, then shrugged, a knowing gleam in his eyes. "I go by many names...as I wager so do you."
Eyes narrowing, the man began to protest. "I don't know what you're tal--"
"Many names, but all I need to know is one..." Pressing on, Thalo held up the walnut, an eager grin flashing across his pale face as he felt it throb steadily. "MacDonald. David MacDonald."
At the mention of his name, David's eyes widened in shock. Any further protest died in his throat as he managed to get out one word.
Thalo picked up a piece of skull, holding it up to David. "When the mother cries, the dutiful child must answer..." The Sidhe casually tossed aside the shattered piece of bone without a glance and took one step forward. "...though I had a little help."
"What do you want with me?" Quiet and tense, but not desperate. At least not yet.
"Myself? Nothing." Thalo bared his teeth into an ugly sneer. "But home in the Marches longs for your presence. A reckoning has been requested and your sister will not be refused. And since my reward will be quite satisfying, neither will I." He drew his silver blade out, a wicked glint in his eyes as he pointed it towards David. "I offer you a head start, changeling. Amuse me and take it."
David's eyes darted towards his own sword as if weighing his odds in a fight. The grimace on his face said it all as he took off running. The Sidhe was practically purring as the man began his frantic retreat.
"Now we have some fun..."
David sank against the trunk of an ancient oak, lungs practically on fire as he panted for breath. The first thing they teach you is "Don't stray from the path". Mind you, it would have helped if I had been on a path to begin with!
He drew in another ragged breath as he took a cautious glance behind him. David didn't know how much of a lead the arrogant Sidhe intended to give him, but he had to take as much advantage of it as he could if he had any chance of surviving this hunt. He shook his head ruefully, taking small comfort in the perverse relief that the Order hadn't been compromised, that this hunt was personal. David pulled himself up to his feet, mind flooding with the memories of far too many years gone by...of a child barely in his teens running for his life and the screeches of his then-baby sister raising the alarm and howling for his blood with the rest of the family.
And here he was, running for his life again. Some things never change...
Tearing through the dark woods, David had little time to think. His options were woefully few. He could either try to find help -- another member of the Order or perhaps a benign entity deigning to assist -- or try to find a portal back to somewhere in Theah, all the while trying to avoid the hunter at his heels or something worse. But without knowing where exactly in Bryn Bresail he was, neither seemed very likely.
David paused, straining to hear any sort of sound, but heard nothing. No wind, no rustling of leaves or cry of a night bird. Nothing.
Not even the sound of his own tortured, shallow gasps.
He suddenly dropped to the forest floor. No sooner than he did than a silver bolt embedded itself into the nearest tree trunk, scant inches from where David would have been standing.
"Oh, very good, MacDonald's son!" Thalo chortled, now stepping into view, cloak billowing forward from the sudden wind. He gestured and the arrow was was suddenly back into his hand. "Very good indeed...the mortal realm hasn't left you that thick!"
David struggled to rise as the Sidhe replaced the arrow in the folds of his cloak and then drew out his sword instead. "A merry enough chase indeed, changeling. You've whetted my appetite now for clashing steel. I do hope you'll give me more sport than the priest..."
Rigby. "You killed him." David's voice was distant as he tried to fight the rising horror. The realization of how Thalo had gotten his mother's skull struck him with full force.
"His death was clean and quick." The Birdcatcher shrugged, then smirked. "Yours will be neither."
David's only answer to that was to finally unsheathe his sword, his expression cold.
"No oaths of vengeance? No silly bravado to back that pathetic thundering heartbeat up?" Thalo asked mockingly. "I was right. You're not thick at all. Yet you know how this will end too, don't you? But you'll still fight. You have no other choice..."
The Sidhe suddenly lunged forward, silver blade aimed straight for the mortal's chest. David barely pulled himself out of the way in time as Thalo chuckled. Reacting on clumsy instinct, David lashed out only to expose his side to Thalo's eager sword. A small cry of pain escaped as he staggered back, his blood now slowly staining his shirt thanks to the shallow cut. Pressing the attack, the Sidhe lunged again, catching David in a feint and giving him another shallow slash for his troubles.
That easily could have been deeper. He's toying with me... The realization struck him as keenly as any sword. I can't keep sparring with him like this. Even if I managed to actually hit him, without cold iron or one of their own blades, my weapon would barely be a fleabite against one of the Sidhe!
"Just...just what are you getting in return for all of this?" David grunted, managing to bring his sword up in time to parry a lazy thrust.
"Nothing you could possibly match, MacDonald's son..." Thalo sneered. "The bargain is made and the oath is sworn. Your fate is no longer your own--"
Thalo suddenly paused, eyes narrowing sharply as he sniffed the air. The wind had shifted, bringing with it now some scent hiding underneath the mortal's blood and sweat and desperation. Faint, but unmistakable.
"...it can't be..." the Sidhe muttered.
For his part David had no idea what Thalo was talking about, but seeing his hunter distracted, he tried to make a break for it again.
"I don't think so, mortal..." Thalo spat out, his earlier playful cockiness now gone. Easily overtaking David, Thalo threw the unfortunate man up against a nearby oak, stunning him. "You have made dangerous acquaintances..."
Before David could even move, Thalo lunged one more time. The Sidhe's blade struck true, piercing David's left shoulder and going straight through flesh and wood to impale him against the tree. His prey's anguished scream tore through the night. Face twisted in maddening pain and panic, David struggled futilely. Taking one step forward, Thalo easily knocked aside his quarry's weapon, then grabbed his throat with one hand.
"...best you not be permitted to renew them."
In vain, David tried to break the Sidhe's grip, but there was no thwarting Thalo's inhuman strength. Squeezing all the while, Thalo clutched a handful of David's hair, then slammed the man's head's back against the tree as hard as he could.
And a third.
With one swift motion, the Sidhe removed his blade from its unnatural sheath and David crumpled to the ground. Barely conscious and trying desperately to fight off the effects of blood loss and the onset of shock, even now the man still struggled. To rise, to crawl away, just to move. And as Thalo towered over him, David looked up at him and stared straight into his eyes.
"...careless..." David coughed and spat out a mouthful of blood. A faint, but defiant smile crossed his face. "Something...something set you off and you...got careless there, Sidhe. What was it?"
"Not your concern anymore, MacDonald's son..." Thalo hissed. The heel of the Sidhe's boot came crashing down and David's world went mercifully black.
Chapter 4: Reunion
The first thing David was aware of was the smell. Packed earth and must and the unmistakable coppery tang of blood assailed him as he slowly came to. He found himself lying on his stomach as his eyes gradually acclimated to the darkened room, dim light filtering through the one small and dirty window that wasn't boarded up. Some sort of cellar? He tried to reach a hand out to push himself up to a sitting position, but found his arms tightly bound behind his back, the ropes biting into his wrists all the while. How long have I been out? David shifted and rolled his body slightly...
...and immediately regretted it as he jostled his wounded shoulder. Pain and memory flooded the man's mind as he could do little more than gasp and stare at the ceiling. It was all coming back to him: being pulled into Bryn Bresail and then hunted by Thalo...and how the Sidhe's countenance suddenly shifted during the fight. In one moment, Thalo had gone from amused indifference to cold-blooded ruthlessness.
"...dangerous acquaintances..." Had the Sidhe sensed he was one of the Order after all? Try as he might, David couldn't recognize Thalo's name as any noted enemy, though admittedly his injuries were taking away his focus. He ran his tongue over the dried blood on his lips where he had bitten himself during the attack. If I don't tend to this shoulder soon, it's going to get infected...
A weak chuckle escaped David, turning into coughing as the reason and the absurdity of his situation finally struck him. I'm home. I'm not going to live long enough for infection...
As if to hammer the point, the bulkhead door of his prison opened. Staring down at him from the top of rough stone stairs were three men and a young woman. "You owe me a guilder, Robert..." One of the men flashed a grin at the one standing next to him. "...it's still alive."
"Cedric..." The other man who wasn't Robert spoke, sighing with exasperation. "...leave him be. Mum's comin' around."
And pushing past her son and nephews now was a woman in her late sixties. Her features were haggard but she eyed the bound man with cold satisfaction. As much as he wanted to, David found himself unable to look away.
"Moira," He finally found his voice, low and resigned. "It's been a long time."
In response, Moira only smirked. She turned to the men. "Say hello to your uncle, lads."
David felt their eyes on him more rather than seeing them. Two of the men (the ones David assumed were Robert and Cedric) shared the same look of triumph as Moira. The girl stared at him with a mixture of morbid fascination and disgust, a hand reassuringly resting on one of the pistol butts tucked at her side. Only the last man, the one who called Moira "Mum" looked at David with anything close to pity.
"This can't be right..." Owen shook his head, wanting desperately to disbelieve but failing. The man in the cellar looked no older than himself. "A cousin -- a very distant cousin maybe. He's too young. He can't be--"
"Quiet, Owen." Moira's eyes bore into David's. "Tell them. Tell them what you are."
"I'm her brother...her older brother." David's eyes were filled with pain and pleading. "Moira, why are you doing this?"
"All these years..." The old woman seethed with barely controlled rage. "...you come back here after all these years an' you have the GALL to ask me that?!"
"I never intended to hurt you or your family or anyone else when I visited, Moira...you have to realize this!" With some struggle and despite being bound, David managed to rise to his feet. "All I wanted to do was to see. To pay my respect--"
"Respect?! A creature like you don't know the meanin' o' the word!" Moira hissed. "You drag our family's shame back into the open -- all for the sake o' that whore!"
"She was our mother, Moira!" A spark of anger now flared with the pain in David's eyes. "Someone had to tend to her grave. She never stopped loving you and Ian -- and you turned your back on her when she grew sick!"
"SHE TURNED HER BACK ON US FIRST! On Father, on--" Moira paused suddenly, eyes narrowing. She shook her head slowly, her voice becoming an icy rasp. "...but you're the one who killed her."
"...no..." Futilely, David tried to protest. His sister, however, was already falling back into the sick comfort of the myth, the old familiar lie -- the tale that had grown and perverted with each telling throughout the years.
"You seduced her. Worked your way into her gut an' then crawled out o' her womb to start anew. Bewitched her again every time you suckled her tits. An' every day you drank the life out o' her 'til you finished her off for good!"
"NO! For Theus' sake, listen to yourself, Moira! You can't honestly believe any of that -- please!" David's mind was a blur, frantically trying to think of something -- anything -- that would make his sister hear reason. He took a step forward...
...and almost immediately the young woman drew one of her pistols and levelled it at him, eyes wide with fright and anger. "Don't move, abomination," she hissed as her finger tensed on the trigger.
"Colleen, don't!" Owen reached out to try to pull the girl back, but she wouldn't budge. Instead, she only looked over to Moira. With a cold yet proud smile, Moira gestured for her to lower her pistol.
"Aye, child...you listen to your father. No need to waste a shot." Moira's tone now was calm -- dangerously calm and controlled. "All his sins will be answered for soon enough by the fire. We'll have cleansin' justice an' then it'll all be over at last..."
"Except it won't be over, Moira..." David swallowed, his throat dry. He drew in a ragged breath. One last chance... "That Sidhe, Thalo...you made your own bargain with him in order to bring me back. Just what did you offer him?" His brown eyes darted over towards the others as much as in warning as it was in concern. "What did it cost your family?"
But his sister's only response was to laugh. "Nothing. All he wanted was information on an Explorer. A fool who already made the mistake o' pokin' her nose in our affairs. Just another soul tainted by your corruption, another death on your hands." Moira's expression hardened. "Just like Rigby."
David didn't say anything. He could only shut his eyes as he bore the full weight of Moira's accusations. Moira looked down upon her brother in triumph.
"Come nightfall, you'll be dead. Burned at the stake." Her eyes blazed in grim pleasure. "I'd say use your last hours to make your peace with Theus, but we all know it won't do any good. You don't get to be forgiven...."
She nodded curtly to Robert, who started to lower the bulkhead. As the cellar returned to darkness, Moira uttered two final words.
David was barely aware of himself sinking back down to the floor, physically and emotionally drained as he was.
"None o' what she said was true, was it?"
The voice came from the window. "No..." With some effort, the wounded man managed to drag himself over to it. Recognizing the voice, he then asked ''It was Owen, wasn't it?"
"Well, Owen, I'm David. Nice to meet you. I wish it could have happened in better circumstances...." David tried to chuckle, but it faded fast. "Any chance the condemned could get a last meal? I'm not picky...a crust of bread and a cup of water will do me fine. Or maybe a chamber pot."
"What happened -- what really happened?"
David hesitated. The silence grew for a few moments before he finally asked "Why do you want to know?"
"I never thought you were real. Mother never told the same story twice. The great an' terrible 'Bastard o' Bellhaven', she called you. The silver tongued beast with eyes as old as the oaks an' dark as the grave that no woman could ever resist..." A bit apologetically, Owen added, "I always thought if it was true that you'd be taller with blond hair."
That actually got a laugh out of David. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"Can you tell me what happened, please?" Though there was no mistaking the sincerity in Owen's voice, again David hesitated. A sigh escaped him, sad and heavy.
"Where do you want me to begin?"
"With Grandmother." David saw the man press closer against the dirty glass.
"You have to understand...our mother was a good woman, but she had her flaws. Father, too, had his moments. They just weren't good with each other." David bit back another sigh. "Maybe that's what was wrong in the first place."
He ran his tongue briefly over his lips before continuing. "I was seven when I first was aware of it all. I mean, I had heard a whisper here and there behind my back on the streets or when the door was shut at night and our parents tried to hide their rows from us. But when I was seven, that's when Father stopped hiding his words. That's when I found out what a bastard was -- and how I was probably one."
He drew in a breath, feeling now the strains of the past. "Father saw to it that Ian and Moira stayed away from me. Mother tried...tried to mend her ways and make the marriage work. But the damage had already been done. And the one thing our father vehemently wanted, she wouldn't do."
"...what was it...?"
David didn't answer Owen. "When I was twelve, Mother started to grow sick. It was consumption, though I didn't know it at the time. I know the signs now though...," he said instead. "Father began to keep Moira and Ian away from her as well, though by now they were staying away from her on their own. They knew it would please Father. It broke Mother's heart to see the hate in their eyes. I was the only one who'd go to her. Bring her food and try to take care of her. I didn't know what else to do. She kept getting weaker and weaker. I was only a child, but no one else would do it."
He sighed, wincing at the memories. "I think Father was hoping that I'd get sick too and solve all his problems. All the family shame finally put to rest. But when I didn't, I think that scared him -- that I scared him. And Mother grew scared too, scared of what would happen to me after she was gone. The truth didn't matter...my father knew what he'd rather blame instead."
"The last night I saw my mother alive, she told me to run."
He grew quiet after that. "How did you survive?" Owen finally asked.
"...I got lucky..." It was all David would say on the matter. Even in the face of death, the Order would be protected.
"An' did you ever find out who your real father was?"
"No. Mother never told me..." David shook his head. "...and a part of me didn't want to know the truth regardless. It wouldn't have mattered anyways. To anyone."
"Why did you come back here?"
"It was an accident. I was passing through and curiosity got the better of me." A small, sad smile crossed his face. "I saw the condition of her grave, how it had been neglected and it overwhelmed me. I was a child again, trying to take care of her all over. And maybe I was hoping that I could finally say goodbye."
David paused. "Edmund Rigby found me in the churchyard. He had heard the gossip about the 'Bastard of Bellhaven' and was expecting the worst from me. I begged for him just to listen to my side. And by the grace of Theus, he did. We got to talking later and an arrangement was made that in exchange for a monthly stipend, the vicar would take care of and lay fresh roses on Mother's grave. She wouldn't be neglected anymore."
"But you didn't...you didn't do anythin' to him?" Owen tentatively asked. "No beguilin' or other trick o' sorcery?"
"No. Despite my 'quirk of age', I've no talent with Glamour." A rueful chuckle escaped David, then he looked back up towards the window. He sighed. "Your mother was right about one thing though, Owen. Rigby's death is my fault. I never wanted anyone to get hurt here."
"Truth be told, there's been hurt enough even before this all started..." Now Owen sighed regretfully. "Uncle Ian died a bitter man, passin' it on to his sons. My father ran off when I was a lad...he couldn't take Mum's obsession with your hunt anymore. Even my own wife left because o' it. An' my daughter Colleen's been willingly taken up in her Gran's tales...."
"I'm sorry," David swallowed. "I didn't know."
"It's like what you said. Good people...we just weren't good with each other. It must run in the family." Owen shook his head. "Maybe when you're dead my mother will finally know happiness." He sighed again, sounding unconvinced at that.
"Owen, if I have to die, then so be it. But let it end with me. No one else deserves to be dragged into this!" David's tone was urgent, almost pleading. "That Explorer Moira was talking about -- you can't let that Sidhe get her. You either have to stop him or warn her!"
"I can't!" Owen's voice was tinged with panic. "I'm sorry...."
This time there was no reply. David was alone in the dark again. He cast his eyes towards the locked bulkhead and the rough stone stairs and shook his head grimly.
"...so am I..." he whispered.
Chapter 5: Refraction
"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 waiting at 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 of lanterns 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.