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Belladonna

Roc Books, March 2007

For more information, check out www.penguin.com.

Copyright © 2006 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.




Chapter 1
present


In the pale gray light, that herald of the dawn, Glorianna followed the path through the woods until she reached the two-story cottage. The shutters had been painted recently, she noted as she skirted the building. In fact, the whole place looked like it had been turned out for a thorough cleaning. Even the surrounding land showed signs of being brought to order.

Good thing her cousin Sebastian and Lynnea, his heart’s desire, had married at the end of summer. If Lynnea had been able to plant the gardens she wanted as well as tidy up the cottage, it was doubtful Sebastian would have had enough energy left to fulfill his duties as a married man once he fell into bed at night. Since Sebastian was an incubus and thought breathing was the only activity more necessary than sex, that was saying something about Lynnea’s ambitions.

Amused by the thought, Glorianna grinned when she spotted her cousin. He stood on the other side of the lane that ran past the cottage, where a break in the trees gave him a clear view of the sky and the lake beyond the cliff.

The grin warmed to a smile that held all the love she felt for him. His head turned a little, the only sign that he heard her approaching, but he didn’t take his eyes off the sky as the sun rose.

“Will I become like other people?” Sebastian asked quietly as she slipped her arm companionably through his. “Will I start seeing the sunrise as a commonplace thing and no longer feel the wonder of it? Will I reach the point where I look at the first light of the day and see it as nothing more than a way of marking time?”

“You had to earn your sunrises,” she replied, blinking away the tears that suddenly stung her eyes. “So, no, Sebastian, I don’t think you’ll ever take them for granted.”

She could have lost him. When she’d gone to Wizard City to trap the Dark Guides, who were the most insidious allies of the Eater of the World, she had gambled on Lynnea’s love and courage to keep Sebastian safe when she unleashed Heart’s Justice. If Lynnea had faltered, Sebastian would have been drawn into a dark, twisted landscape that resonated with the bleak life the Dark Guides had made him believe was all he deserved.

But Lynnea hadn’t faltered, and Sebastian had followed his heart, bringing them to the cottage. During the years he had lived there alone, the cottage had existed within the boundaries of the dark landscape known as the Den of Iniquity. Now it stood in the daylight landscape of Aurora, her mother Nadia’s home village.

Sebastian sighed with pleasure, then looked at her. “Want some koffee?”

“Sure.” But she made no move to go back to the cottage. A wistfulness floated on the new day’s light, making her heart ache. Sebastian’s marriage to Lynnea—followed a week later by her mother’s marriage to Jeb, a woodworker who had been Nadia’s neighbor and lover—had been a joyous celebration. But it had also been a sharp reminder that she’d never known a man who had loved her that way. She’d had sex partners, but no one she would have called a lover.

Well, no real lover. There had been times over the past month, as she drifted off to sleep, when she could have sworn she felt the heat of a man’s body, felt the comforting weight of his arms around her.

Should she mention those wisps of dream to Sebastian? An incubus could create the feel of a tangible lover by connecting with a woman through the twilight of waking dreams, and the pureblood incubi, who had escaped the dark landscapes that had been sealed up with the Eater centuries ago, were deadly. But she didn’t think any incubi, pureblood or otherwise, would stay around for a dream that had the warmth of romance but no sexual fire.

She looked up and forgot what she was about to say. The peculiar expression on Sebastian’s face made her wonder how long she’d been drifting in her own thoughts—and made her wonder if the birthday gift he’d given her was created from a little more than just his imagination.

“Your birthday was last week,” Sebastian said, brushing the subject of her thoughts a little too closely for comfort. “So now you’re older than me.”

The subject might have been close, but the content was not. “I’m always older than you,” she replied, trying not to sound sour about it. After all, it wasn’t like she was old.

“Yes, but there will be months and months when I can say I’m thirty and you have to say you’re thirty-one, and it will be obvious to everyone which of us is older.”

The temptation to pout embarrassed her, so she stepped away from him. “I’ll get my own damn koffee.” She turned on her heel and stomped toward the cottage. Right now, adulthood was a frayed scarf, and the harder she tried to hold onto it, the faster it frayed. In another minute she was going to resort to childish name-calling and shin-kicking. Well, not name-calling. She’d never indulged in name-calling. That would have hurt Sebastian too much. But when they were eight years old, she’d done her share of shin-kicking.

As she reached the lane, his hand gripped her shoulder, stopping her. She considered giving him one little shin-kick as a present to herself, but his expression warned her that he wasn’t above retaliating. So she grabbed the frayed ends of adulthood and wrapped them around herself—and realized being annoyed with him had eased the wistfulness that had made her heart ache. Which, she was sure, had been his intention. Even when he wasn’t slipping into someone’s dreams, sometimes Sebastian read emotions much too well.

“So,” Sebastian said, tipping his head to indicate the break in the trees. “I know why I’m up at this time of day. Why are you?”

Now that the question had been asked, she really didn’t want to talk about the reason she had sought him out so early in the morning. “Lee snores.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, he does.”

“Tell that to someone who hasn’t slept in the same room as Lee on occasion. Unless there’s something unusual about the acoustics in Jeb’s old cottage, Lee doesn’t snore loud enough to keep someone awake—especially someone in another room.” Sebastian gave her an astute look. “Unless you were having trouble sleeping to start with, and you’re dumping the blame on him.”

Caught. What excuse could she give that Sebastian would believe—or, at least, accept instead of pushing?

There wasn’t one. Her brother Lee, feeling the weight of his own efforts to protect Ephemera’s shattered landscapes from the Eater of the World, wouldn’t push. Sebastian would.

She looked at her cousin. His hair was dark brown instead of a true black, but he had green eyes like she and Lee did, and in build and face he and Lee were similar enough to be mistaken for brothers. But where Lee’s handsomeness was tempered by a natural friendliness, Sebastian was all dangerous sensuality. Now that the wizard side of his heritage had manifested, he was not only an incubus but the Justice Maker for the Den of Iniquity.

Despite his gifts and his new role as the Den’s protector, Sebastian didn’t have the responsibility for so many lives as she did, being a Landscaper, or as Lee did, being the Bridge who kept her pieces of Ephemera connected. Maybe because he wasn’t directly involved with the gift that had given her too many sleepless nights lately, she gave in to voicing her fears.

“It’s been over a month since I stood outside Wizard City and performed Heart’s Justice, depriving the Eater of the World of some of Its strongest allies,” she said, looking away from him. “There’s been no sign of It since then. At least, not in the landscapes under my control or in Mother’s care. But after It killed the Landscapers at the school, It had access to all the pieces of the world anchored in all those gardens. It could be anywhere at this point, sowing fear in people’s hearts, nurturing feelings that feed the Dark currents. Without realizing it, people will diminish the currents of Light that would have given them the hope and strength to turn aside the Dark. In the end, if there is no Landscaper to impose her will on the world, Ephemera will reshape pieces of itself to resonate with those darkened hearts—and other nightmare landscapes will be born.”

“Could the Eater have been destroyed when you took the Dark Guides out of the world?” Sebastian asked.

She shook her head. “It was formed from the dark side of the human heart. As long as the heart is capable of those feelings, It will continue to exist.”

“Then how can we destroy It?”

“Not ‘we.’ Me. I’m the only Landscaper strong enough to fight It. And I’m not sure I’m strong enough to defeat It.” There. That was the fear that plagued her nights. If she couldn’t find a way to contain the Eater of the World as the first Landscapers had so long ago, nothing would stop It from changing the world into manifestations of humans’ deepest fears. Those first Landscapers, the Guides of the Heart, had shattered Ephemera during their battle against the Eater. That had worked to their advantage, since they were finally able to isolate It and take It and Its dark landscapes out of the world. But what had worked to their advantage now worked against her. She could only reach the landscapes that resonated with her, while the Eater, if It found a way to cross over, could prey on the rest of the world, out of her reach.

“You’re not alone, Glorianna,” Sebastian said, running his hand down her arm to soothe and comfort. “You have to be the leader, but you won’t be fighting alone.”

Yes, I will. “You offered me koffee, remember?”

He studied her long enough to make her wonder what he might be picking up from her feelings that she didn’t want to share. Then he took her hand as they crossed the lane and led her to the back of the cottage.

When they reached the kitchen door, he hesitated and said, “Best to keep things quiet.”

“Lynnea is still asleep?”

“Yes, but she’ll sleep through the sound of people talking. Bop won’t.”

Glorianna’s eyebrows lifted. “Bop?”

“The keet.”

Since they were supposed to be quiet once they got inside, she tugged Sebastian back a step to stop him from opening the door. “Why did you name him Bop?”

“Has something to do with him smacking into my forehead every time we let him out.”

Glorianna frowned. Lynnea had gotten the baby keet from Nadia, who should have noticed if there was a problem with the bird. “Is there something wrong with his wings that he can’t fly well enough to avoid colliding with you?”

“He has no problem flying in circles around Lynnea or following her from room to room,” Sebastian grumbled. “He has no problem flying up to the sills above the doors and windows when he wants to play ‘catch the keet.’ But me? Standing, sitting, makes no difference. He flies straight at me and—” He smacked his fingers against his forehead.

“Oh, dear.”

“Then, of course, he gets upset because there’s no place to perch, so he slides down my face and grabs my nose.”

She winced.

Sebastian nodded. “Do you know what it feels like to have those sharp little nails digging into the end of your nose? So he’s there, flapping his wings to keep from falling off and making scoldy noises at the top of his little lungs, while Lynnea stands there and says, ‘Don’t scare him, Sebastian. He’s just a baby.’”

Wondering how Lynnea managed to keep a straight face while watching man and bird, Glorianna clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter. “Oh, I know it must hurt, but what a picture!”

“Uh-huh.”

Something in his eyes made her take a step back. “Is any of that true?”

“All of it.”

He’d known what he was doing. For a few moments, while picturing Sebastian trying to deal with Bop, the worries that had plagued her had vanished in the brightness of laughter, like sunlight burning off fog.

But the laughter was also a reminder of why she had to face the Eater of the World and win the battle. She wasn’t preparing for this fight just to protect the great Places of Light, but also to prevent these little pieces of brightness from being snuffed out of existence.

“Am I ever going to get any koffee?” Glorianna asked.

Smiling, Sebastian slipped an arm around her shoulders and opened the kitchen door. “Sure. Why don’t you make the koffee while I toast some bread for Bop?”

“He gets toast?”

“He doesn’t get a whole piece,” Sebastian replied, sounding defensive. “He’s little. He has to share.”

Glorianna glanced at the covered cage that sat at one end of the dining table. Then she followed Sebastian to the counter, where he’d set out the bag of koffea beans and the grinder. “You don’t think he’ll get spoiled by getting a treat every morning?”

Sebastian snorted. “It’s just toast. It’s not like he gets butter or jelly on his part of it.”

“Of course. How silly of me not to see the difference.”

He gave her a long look, then said, “Grind the beans.”

She had to admit that Sebastian and Bop put on an entertaining show, especially when the bird made it clear that he was not used to having his treat dumped in the food dish and expected it to be held so he could sit on Sebastian’s fingers and eat his toast properly. Bop’s training was a little iffy, since it seemed to consist of the bird learning what he wanted to learn. However, Sebastian’s training as playmate and servant to a little feathered tyrant was coming along quite nicely.

The glow of amusement that filled her when she left the cottage stayed with her for the rest of the day.


Chapter 2
two weeks earlier

Erinn shoved her hands in her coat pockets as she stopped beneath one of the lit streetlamps. What had Tommy Lamplighter been thinking to be lighting every fourth lamp? Granted, it wasn’t a busy street since there was nothing on one side but the back entrances of the shops that ran along Dunberry’s main street, and the other side had little row houses that belonged to working folk who couldn’t afford better. But it was still early enough that people would be making their way home from an evening out, and they shouldn’t have to be walking in the dark.

Which you wouldn’t be, Erinn Mary, if you’d taken the main street like you’d promised Kaelie’s father you would. Or you should have taken him up on his offer to hitch up the horse and drive you home. There have been enough bad-luck things happening around the village lately to make anyone uneasy, not to mention the two boys who went missing last week.

But walking down the main street would have taken her past Donovan’s Pub, and she hadn’t wanted Torry or his friends to see her and think she’d passed by to check up on him.

A sudden gust of wind made her coat flap around her, and there was now a sharp bite of winter hidden within the unseasonably crisp autumn night—as if the wind itself was urging folks to get indoors.

A fanciful thought, to be sure. But fanciful or not, the thought made her shiver.

Erinn hurried toward the next lit streetlamp.

When next she saw Tommy Lamplighter, she’d give him a piece of her mind—and maybe a thump on the head to go with it. Dunberry was big enough to need more than one lamplighter, but each man had his assigned streets, and their wages came from the taxes that were collected for the village’s upkeep, so Tommy shouldn’t be neglecting his duty.

Just like Torry shouldn’t be neglecting his duty. No. It should never be duty. He should want to spend time with the woman he was going to marry at the end of harvest. But he was down at the pub, drinking ale with his friends and playing darts...

And flirting with the girls? a soft voice whispered in her head.

No. Torry didn’t flirt. Not much anyway. Just enough to be friendly. And he certainly wouldn’t be flirting with other girls now, not after she and Torry had...

Why not? the voice asked. How much pleasure could he have gotten with a girl who can’t say what she’s done, not even in her own head?

Sex. They’d had sex, Erinn thought fiercely as she stopped beneath the next lit streetlamp. It had been nice enough after the first time, and Torry had said it would get better as they got to know each other in that sense, so he had nothing to complain about.

Not complaining doesn’t mean he wasn’t disappointed, isn’t wondering what other girls will offer that you can’t—or won’t. And how does he know it will get better unless he’s already done these things with another girl? A girl he left behind. Just like he’ll leave you.
No. Torry wasn’t like that.

A glass of ale and time with his friends. Are you sure that’s all he wanted at the pub? Maybe he was looking for something more. Or someone like...
Shauna? Everyone knew Shauna was a bit wild, and willing to give the lads more than a few kisses. And she’d had her eye on Torry, even though he’d never noticed.

Oh, he noticed. You’re the one who can’t see.

A dark, bitter feeling rolled through Erinn, followed by a shivery pleasure at the thought of scratching Shauna’s pretty face. No, better than that. She’d scratch the bitch’s eyes out. Then Shauna wouldn’t look so pretty. Then the bitch wouldn’t be casting out lures and spoiling things for decent girls. Then…

Gasping for air, Erinn shook her head. Why was she thinking these things? It was like someone else was inside her head, whispering every uneasy thought that had lodged in her heart since feelings had overruled prudence and she’d let Torry talk her into doing the man-and-woman part of the wedding before making the husband-and-wife vows.

But she loved Torry. And he loved her. And she wasn’t going to listen to these foolish whispers anymore.

Erinn’s hands lifted, closing into fists that gripped the front of her coat as she stared at the dark street. No more streetlamps were lit. There were no lights on in the houses. There was nothing but the dark, which suddenly felt thick, almost smothering—and aware of her.

Nearby, a dog began barking, startling her. Maybe it had caught her scent. The wind was in the right direction.

Or maybe it had caught the scent of something else.

She looked to her right. A service way ran between the buildings. Not wide enough for wagons or carriages, it still provided a cut-through for delivery boys on bicycles and for people who didn’t want to go the long way round in order to reach the main street to do their shopping and such.      Donovan’s Pub wasn’t far from there. She’d go in and ask Torry to walk her home. She didn’t care if he thought she’d come to check up on him. She didn’t care if he thought she was foolish to be afraid of the dark when she’d never been afraid before. Tonight, she was afraid of the dark.

Taking a deep breath that shuddered out of her in something close to a sob, she entered the service way and hurried toward the light at the other end, whispering, “Ladies of the White Isle, hold me in the Light. Ladies of the White Isle, hold me in the Light.”

Halfway through the service way, just beyond the lamplight’s reach, she heard something move. Before she could run, before she could scream, something grabbed her, swung her around, and pinned her against the brick wall of the building. A hand clamped over her mouth.

A fast movement. A ripping sound followed by the feel of chilly air where the coat had suddenly parted. Followed by an odd, shivery feeling as the skin and muscles in her side opened up.

Lady of Light, protect me. Help me.

In the few seconds it took for her body to recognize pain, the knife had moved. Was now resting on her cheekbone, its tip pricking just beneath her left eye.

“Scream,” a smooth voice whispered, “and I’ll take your eye. Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let you keep your pretty face.”

The hand clamped over her mouth moved. Curled around her throat.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Erinn said, too afraid to do more than whisper.

A man. She could tell that much, but there wasn’t enough light for her to see his face.

“Tell me what you whispered,” he said. “About the White Isle. About the Light.”

“Please let me go. Please don’t—”

“Tell me.”

“T-the White Isle is the Light’s haven. All the Light that keeps Elandar safe from the Dark has its roots there.”

“And where is the White Isle?”

She hesitated a moment—and felt the knife prick the tender skin beneath her eye. “N-north. It’s an island off the eastern coast. Up north.”

The hand around her throat loosened. The knife caressed her cheek but didn’t cut her as he took a step back.

“Who are you?” Foolish question. The less she could tell anyone about him, the safer she would be.

He smiled. She still couldn’t see his face, but she knew he smiled.

“The Eater of the World.”

So he wasn’t going to tell her. That was good. He would go away, and she would be safe. She was hurt bad. She knew that. But it was only one step, maybe two, and she’d be in the light, the glorious light. Her legs felt cold and weak, but she could get to the end of the service way, could get to the main street. Someone would see her and help her. Someone would fetch Torry, and everything would be all right. They would be married at the end of harvest and—

She saw him raise the knife. And she screamed.

Then he rammed the knife into her chest, cutting off the scream. Cutting off hope. Cutting off life.

###

     Voices shouted and boots pounded the cobblestones as men ran toward the service way.

The Eater of the World shifted to Its natural form and flowed beneath the stones, nothing more than a rippling shadow moving toward the main street. One man stumbled as It flowed beneath his feet, and It left a stain on his heart as It passed.

Then It paused as the first man to reach the girl screamed, “Erinn! No!”

Following the channel cut deep into the man’s heart by grief and the shock of seeing his hands covered in the girl’s blood, It stretched out a mental tentacle, slipped into the man’s mind, and whispered, She was here in the service way because of you. This happened because of you.

“No!” But there was something—a tiny seed of doubt, a hint of innocent guilt. Just enough soil for the planting.

Yes, It whispered, putting all of Its dark conviction into the word. This happened because of you.

It retreated, certain Its words would take root and fester, dimming the man’s Light, maybe curdling that Light enough that it would never fully bloom again, scarring the heart enough that the man would never fully love again.

And the Dark currents that flowed in this village would become a little stronger because of that—just as the Dark currents had grown stronger every day since those two boys disappeared. There had been so many hearts eager to hear Its whispers about the boys going into the woods with a man they knew well enough not to fear.

Until the seasons changed, Its death rollers would remain in the sun-warmed river of their own landscape rather than hunt in the cold water of the pond located at the edge of the village’s common pasture. By the time Its creatures came to this landscape, no one would remember the story those boys were telling about a big log that had come alive and pulled a half-grown steer into the water. And by the time the next boy, or man, wandered too close to the pond and died, the fear that lived in these people would be that much riper, that much sweeter. Would resonate with Itself that much better.

It flowed beneath the main street, heading out of the village. People shuddered as It passed unseen, unrecognized for what It was. Its resonance would lodge in their hearts as uneasiness and distrust, making them wonder which of their neighbors had been the person who had held the knife. When they found the body of the lamplighter...

It had been so satisfying to change into a shape with jaws powerful enough to crush bone. So It had crushed the lamplighter, piece by piece. When It tired of playing with Its prey, It had dragged the body into a dark space and fed while the flesh was still succulent…and alive.

Of course, by the time the other humans found the body, the rats would have had their feast as well.

It would return to this place called Dunberry, and when It did, the people would be even more vulnerable to the whispers and seeds It would plant in the dark side of the human heart—the same side that had brought It into being so long ago.

But first, It needed to reach the sea and head north. The hunting in this landscape would be sweeter once It destroyed the Place of Light.


Chapter 3
present


Michael paused outside the door of Shaney’s Tavern and fiercely wished he’d already downed a long glass of whiskey.

The music was out of tune here. Off rhythm. Wrong. Not as bad as Dunberry, but…

Dunberry. What had gone wrong there? All right, so he’d done a little ill-wishing the last time he’d passed through, but the ripe bastard had been cheating at cards and deserved to have some bad luck. It wasn’t as if he’d prospered from it. He just didn’t think it was fair for Torry to lose his stake simply because the boy had had the poor judgment to try to plump up his wedding purse by playing a few hands of cards. And didn’t Torry find a small bag of gold a few days later—gold his grandfather had hidden in the barn and forgotten years ago? That bit of luck-bringing had balanced out the ill-wishing, hadn’t it?

But the girl Torry was going to marry… Stabbed to death, wasn’t she, and so close to help that Torry and his friends had heard her scream.

He’d heard about it fast enough when he came into the village. Just as he heard what wasn’t quite being said. Not about the girl, Erinn, but about two boys who disappeared a few days before she was killed. Someone had seen them going off with a man who wasn’t from Dunberry but was familiar enough to be trusted. What would a man be doing with two young boys that they would need to disappear after he was done with them?

He hadn’t been in Dunberry for weeks, but sooner or later someone would put his face or his clothes on that “familiar enough” man, and it wouldn’t matter that he’d been in another village when those boys had disappeared. Once the villagers decided he was the man, he wouldn’t survive long enough to get a formal hearing.

So he’d snuck away in the wee hours of the morning, putting as much distance between himself and Dunberry as he could before the people began to stir.

He no longer fit the tune of that village. It had turned dark, sharp-edged, sour.

That’s how he heard places and people. They were melodies, harmonies, songs that fit together and gave a village a certain texture and sound. When he fit in with a place, he was another melody, another harmony. And he was the drum that settled the rhythm, fixed the beat.

But not in Dunberry. Not anymore.

The bang of a door or a shutter made him jump, which jangled the pots and pans tied to the outside of his heavy backpack. The sounds scraped nerves that were already raw, and his pounding heart was another thumping rhythm he was sure could be heard by…whatever was out there.

Tucking his walking stick under the arm holding the lantern, he wrapped his fingers around the handle on the tavern’s door. Then he twisted around to look at the thick fog that had turned familiar land into some unnatural place that had no beginning or end.

Didn’t matter if the music was wrong here. He’d beg or barter whatever he had to in order to get out of that fog for a few hours.

Giving the door a tug, he went inside the tavern, pulling off his brown, shapeless hat as he strode to the bar. The pots and pans clattered with each step. Normally he found it a comforting sound, but when he’d been walking toward the village that lay in the center of Foggy Downs, a lantern in one hand and his walking stick in the other, feeling his way like a blind man… The ordinary sound had seemed too loud in that gray world, as if he were calling something toward him that he did not want to see.

“Well, look what stumbled out of the forsaken land,” Shaney said, bracing his hands on the bar.

“Lady of Light,” Michael muttered as he set his hat and lantern on the bar. “I’ve seen fog roll in thick before, but never as bad as this.” Leaning his walking stick against the bar, he shrugged off the straps of the pack, glad to be rid of the weight.

Then he looked around the empty tavern. He could barely make out the tables on the other side of the room since Shaney hadn’t lit any of the lamps except around the bar.

“Is everyone laying low until this blows past?” he asked, rubbing his hand over one bristly cheek. If business was slow and the rooms Shaney rented to travelers were empty, maybe he could barter his way to a bath, or at least enough hot water for a good wash and a shave, as well as a bed for the night.

Shaney put two whiskey glasses on the bar, then reached for a bottle. He poured two shots.

Michael looked at the whiskey, craving the fire that would ease the chill in his bones. But he shook his head. “Since I’m hoping for a meal and a bed tonight, whiskey is a little too rich for my pocket just now.”

“On the house,” Shaney said, sounding as gloomy as the fog. “And you’re welcome to a bed and a share of whatever the Missus is making for the evening meal.”

“That’s generous of you, Shaney,” Michael said, knowing he should be grateful but feeling as if the ground had suddenly turned soft under his feet and a wrong step would sink him.

“Well, maybe you’d be willing to play a bit this evening. I could spread the word that you’re here.”

Picking up a glass of whiskey, Michael took a sip. “I’m flattered you think so highly of my music, but do you really expect people to come out in this for a drink and a few tunes?”

“They’ll come to play a few tunes with you.”

A chill went through him. The music is wrong here, Michael, my lad. Don’t be forgetting that, or what you are, and lower your guard.

He’d been shy of seventeen the first time he’d come to Foggy Downs, and had been on the road and making his own way for almost a year. Over the years since, he’d come to depend on this being a friendly, safe place to stay. If people realized what he was, Foggy Downs would no longer be as safe—or as friendly.

Shaney downed his whiskey, then pulled a rag from under the bar and began polishing the wood. “Do you remember old Bridie?”

Michael rubbed a finger around the rim of his glass. “I remember her. She smoked a pipe, had a laugh that could put sparkle on the sun, and, even at her age, could dance the legs off any man.”

“That pipe,” Shaney murmured, smiling. “She never ran out of leaf for that pipe. She’d be down to her last smoke, and something or someone would always come along to provide her with a new supply of leaf. People would ask her if she had some lucky piece hidden away because, even when bad things happened, some good would come from it. And she always said currents of luck ran through the world, and a light heart and laughter brought her all the good luck she needed.”

A silence fell between them, but it wasn’t the easy breathing space it usually was when neither felt like talking.

Finally, Shaney said, “The first time you came to Foggy Downs, Bridie saw you, heard you play. She took my father aside after you’d gone on down the road, and she told him to look after you whenever you came to our village. Said she had a feeling that we’d be putting her to ground by the spring, and even though she didn’t think you were ready to give up your wandering to put down roots, you were the best chance Foggy Downs had of having a luck piece once she passed on. So some of us have known what you are—just as we knew what she was.”

Michael downed the rest of the whiskey, wishing it would ease the despair growing inside him. He truly didn’t want to go out in that fog, but he didn’t want to end up being accused of something he didn’t do and die at the hands of a mob either. “I guess I’ll be on my way then.”

Shaney tossed his rag on the bar and gave Michael a look that was equal parts disbelief and annoyance. “Now what part of what I was saying made that pea-sized brain of yours figure we wanted to see the back of you? And what makes you think so little of me that you’d figure I’d ask any man to walk back out in a fog that someone can get lost in when he’s still within reach of his own door?”

Michael said nothing, surprised at how much Shaney’s annoyance gave his heart a scratchy comfort.

“I can’t change what I am,” he said softly.

“No one is asking you to.” Shaney scrubbed his head with his fingers, then smoothed back his hair and sighed. “Something evil passed through Foggy Downs a few days ago. The whole village had a bad night of it. Children waking up screaming from the nightmares. Babes too young to say what gave them a fright wailing for hours. And the rest of us… It’s a strange feeling to have an old fear come up and grab you by the throat so you come awake with your heart pounding and you don’t quite know where you are. ’Twas a hard night, Michael, and the next morning…” He looked at the fog-shrouded windows.

Michael stared at the windows before turning back to Shaney. “It’s been like that for days?”

“First couple of days, folks went about their business as best they could, taking care of only what was needed, sure the fog would burn off to what we’re used to having here. The Missus and I even had folks gather here that first night. Had us a grand party, with music and dancing, while we all tried to put aside the bad dreams of the night before. But the fog didn’t lift. Hasn’t lifted. And I’m thinking this fog is more than fog, and if evil used some kind of…magic…to create it, then it’s going to take another kind of magic to put things back the way they were.”

The two men studied each other. Then Michael pressed his hands on the bar and closed his eyes.

He had no words for what he sensed, what he could feel. But the sound that filled his mind was a grating, creaking, sloshing, oozing, tearing. The sound of poison. The sound of old hurts, painful memories, deeply buried fears.

Then he imagined his music filling Shaney’s Tavern, the bright notes of the tin whistle shining in the night like sparkles of sunlight. Certainty shivered through him. His music would shift the balance enough so the people here would be able to heal Foggy Downs. He could reestablish the beat. Fix the rhythm. Restore the balance enough to still belong.

He opened his eyes and looked at Shaney. “You put out the word, and I’ll provide the music.”

###

Shaney put out the word, and the people gathered. No one from the outlying farms, to be sure, but the families who lived close enough to the tavern to brave the fog came with a covered dish to pass around and children in tow. So Michael listened to gossip and passed along news from the other villages he’d visited during this circuit of wandering. He ate a bit of everything so no lady would be offended and pretended not to notice the speculative looks a few of the young women were giving him. He was used to those looks. Since he was a healthy, fit man who rarely stayed more than a few days in a place, certain kinds of women often looked at him like a savory dish that was only available a few times a year, which enhanced the appeal, and there were a few young widows who were willing to offer him more than just lodging when he came to their town.

While he looked like a scruffy ne’er-do-well most of the time, he cleaned up well enough when he got the chance, and the smoky blue eyes and brown hair that was always a bit shaggy went with the face that was handsome enough to attract the ladies but not so handsome it made people uneasy.

Until they found out what he was.

As the rhythm of the gathering shifted from gossip and food to unspoken hopes and expectations, he fetched his tin whistle, nodded to the other men who had brought instruments, and shooed the children out of the small space that had been cleared for the musicians.

Michael closed his eyes and let himself drift on the feel of the room. Ah. There was that odd sensation he sometimes felt when he was deliberately trying to change the feel of a place. A presence, like a child too shy to come forward where it might be noticed, but too intrigued by the things and people around it to go away. More than that. This wild child, as he thought of it, was intrigued by him. He had the feeling that it could hear the music in his heart in the same way he could hear the music in other hearts, and that’s what intrigued it enough to come to a gathering. The reason didn’t matter. What mattered was that when he felt the wild child’s presence, sometimes he could make things happen that were more than a little luck-bringing or ill-wishing directed at a specific person.

Lifting the tin whistle to his lips, he let the first notes float through the air, soft and bittersweet...and hopeful. Little by little, conversations faded—or maybe he no longer heard them. The fiddler joined him, slow and easy.

There was nothing but the music, and he wasn’t playing for the people in the room. Not yet. This song was for the wild child. To catch its interest, its attention. Its heart.

With his eyes still closed, he slipped into the next tune. More energy. Drum added to the fiddle and whistle. A sparkle of notes drifting out into the night, dancing in the fog, glistening with the energy and good spirits of the people like dew glistened on a web when touched by the morning sun.

Yes, he thought as he opened his eyes and watched the dancers, these were good people who welcomed the Light, who deserved the Light.

Musicians came and went, taking their turn for a few songs, then stepping back for someone else. When he was given a shove and told to take his turn on the dance floor, he ignored the bold, silent invitations—especially the one from Doreen, who worked for Shaney and always made him think of the fate of the mouse caught under the cat’s paw—and chose a girl who was old enough to be flattered by his asking to be her partner and young enough that she wouldn’t expect him to be any other kind of partner.

Not that he didn’t want to take hold of a woman and kiss her senseless. The music was hot. The energy was hot. And he wanted with a need that chewed at his bones.

But what he hungered for wasn’t here, so he gave himself to the music.

Food was reheated. People drifted to corners farthest away from the music in order to talk. Shaney opened up a few of the upstairs rooms, where children were tucked up in beds, cuddling together like puppies.

He talked. He danced. He ate. He played. And always, he held in his mind and heart the image of the notes sparkling in the night.

 

dingbat

As her mind rose to that twilight place that was neither true waking nor sleeping, Glorianna dreamed of music. Folksy, but like nothing she’d heard before. Slightly different sound to the drum and the violin—at least, she thought it was a violin. But it was the bright notes of the whistle that made her smile, that had her feet twitching as if they wanted to dance, and the drum heated her blood until her heart pounded with the rhythm.

The music dimmed, as if someone had shut a door, and she stood outside in a fog as thick as a soft blanket. She wasn’t surprised when his arms closed around her, pulling her back against the warmth of his chest. Then…

She heard the drum in the beat of his heart, heard the long sigh of the violin in his breath. Knew the bright notes of the whistle would be in his voice, in his laugh.

“There is music inside you,” she said. “I can hear the music inside you.”

His smile, that curving of lips against her cheek, was his only answer.

dingbat

Hour later, drained in body, mind, and heart, Michael lowered his whistle and looked at the men slumped in the chairs around him. “Well, lads, looks like we’re done here.”

One of the men looked at the people asleep at the tables and grinned. “I’d say we are.”

Wanting some fresh air, Michael wove his way through the tables until he reached the tavern door and pushed it open.

“Lady of Light,” Shaney whispered behind him. “Look at that.”

Oh, he was looking—and he was stunned by what the dawn light revealed. Thick strands and knots of that heavy fog clotted the street, but it was broken up by a thin mist—the kind of mist that softened sunlight and created rainbows.

“You did it, Michael,” Shaney said, resting a hand on Michael’s shoulders.

“We all did,” he replied. He’d never influenced a place so much, so obviously. He wasn’t sure what to do about it, what to think about it.

“Wouldn’t have happened without you, though. You’re a fine musician. The best I’ve ever seen.”

“And you’ve seen the last of me for the next few hours.”

“You’ve earned your rest and more. If the Missus and I aren’t around when you wake, just help yourself to whatever you find in the kitchen, and she’ll fix you up with a proper meal later.”

Michael just nodded and headed for the stairs at the back of the tavern that led up to the rooms Shaney rented. He felt drained, hollowed out. But it was a good feeling that left him looking forward to the pleasure of stretching out on a bed with clean sheets and sleeping through the day.

He didn’t see Doreen until he was at the top of the stairs. By then it was too late to fix the tactical error of coming up to his room alone.

“Took you long enough,” Doreen said, giving him a smile that was meant to be enticing.

“It’s a proven fact that the number of stairs increases in direct proportion to the amount of drink that is consumed or the amount of sleep that was lost,” Michael said lightly.

Doreen shrugged, clearly not interested in anything but what she’d planned. “I figured, after playing all that fine music, you’d be wanting a bit of company about now. Private company.”

You figured wrong. There was a meanness in Doreen. She hid it well, most of the time, but he heard sharp notes every time he was near her. He didn’t like her, and yet despite those sharp notes, she had fit into the music that was Foggy Downs. Right now, however, even if he had wanted her, he wouldn’t have done either of them any good. At least he could be honest about that much.

“I thank you for the offer, Doreen, but I’m too tired to be good company—or any kind of company if it comes to that.”

Her smile faded. “You think you’re better than me, don’t you? I know you’ve pleasured other women, but because I wait tables in a tavern, that puts me beneath men of good reputation.”

Michael shivered. He wasn’t sure if it was due to fatigue or the other meaning beneath Doreen’s words. And maybe he was just too muzzy-headed and tired to hear it clearly, but her tune didn’t seem to fit the village anymore. It was too sharp, too...dark. Wrong.

“But you’re not a man of good reputation, are you, Michael? You’re nothing but a drifter, a wanderer, a —”

The word she spoke struck him like a blow to the heart.

“What’s that you called him?”

Michael jumped, startled by the voice on the stairs behind him. He stepped aside to let Maeve, the village postmistress and owner of Foggy Downs’s lending library, pass by.

“Musician?” Maeve said, touching fingers delicately to one ear. “Well, there’s no need to be sounding all dramatic about it. Of course he’s a musician, girl! Are your ears so stopped up with wax that you couldn’t hear him playing all night?”

Doreen’s eyes flashed with anger, but she didn’t reply.

Smart girl, Michael thought. Maeve might have a thinning head of white hair and a wrinkled face, but there was nothing wrong with her mind or her hearing. And since she was responsible for obtaining the magazines published in the big city that informed young ladies about the latest fashions and young wives about household tips, even the sassiest woman understood the value of being respectful to Maeve.

The postmistress shook her head and let out an exasperated sigh. “Leave the boy in peace, Doreen, and let him get some sleep. Any woman worth her salt knows a man that tired hasn’t the wit for romance.”

He wasn’t sure he appreciated Maeve’s way of helping him escape, but he wasn’t going to ignore the opportunity.

“Good night, ladies,” he said, slipping past both women to reach his room. Once inside, he slid the bolt home as quietly as possible. No point insulting Doreen into doing something foolish by letting her hear him lock the door. But he wouldn’t rest easy without the lock, especially since she seemed determined to have him.

He couldn’t imagine why. Doreen enjoyed men for what she could get from them, and he didn’t have much to offer in terms of providing a woman with material things. Wary of her interest, he’d always found an excuse not to be one of her men—and now it was going to cost him. Even if Shaney and Maeve stood by him, it was still going to cost him sooner or later.

He walked toward the washstand, intending to rinse a bit of the fatigue and grittiness from his face. But he ended up staring in the mirror above the dresser.

He was twenty-eight years old. The last twelve years hadn’t been easy. He missed his sister Caitlin and his friend Nathan. Even missed his Aunt Brighid on occasion. Missed the feeling of having a home and roots, even though he hadn’t felt like he’d had either when he lived in Raven’s Hill. But his continued presence would have made things harder for his family. Brighid had been a Lady of Light and still commanded respect because of that, but Caitlin Marie was whispered to be odd, strange...unnatural. A young girl who had found the walled garden hidden somewhere on the hill behind the family’s cottage. Caitlin would never be offered the things most young women dreamed of—a home, a husband, children—and his heart ached for her.

Until people discovered Caitlin’s link to the hidden garden, he had been the one the villagers didn’t want around because he had a power no one understood. But everyone knew what it did and what the person who wielded that power was.

A luck-bringer. An ill-wisher.

A Magician.

There was nothing wrong with Maeve’s hearing. And there would be nothing anyone could do to curb Doreen’s spiteful tongue. It wouldn’t matter if Maeve tried to soften the gossip. The damage would be done. By the time the next market day ended, everyone in Foggy Downs would know he was a Magician.

Some would hate him for it, and would blame him for any bit of trouble that came their way. And, in truth, he would deserve some of that blame. But he had heard of Magicians who had been killed in other parts of Elandar because it was so easy to bury them in the blame.

So he would leave Foggy Downs while the people still thought kindly of him. He needed to get back to Raven’s Hill anyway, needed to talk to his aunt as soon as he could.

Because of the dreams. Because of her.

That was the real reason he wouldn’t have been of any use to Doreen, even if he’d been willing. He didn’t want any other woman since he’d begun dreaming about her.

Long black hair. Green eyes. A beautiful face that he had never seen in the flesh. But he could feel the shape of her in his arms, breathe in the scent of her, taste the warmth of her. Hear the music of her heart.

That, more than anything, seduced him. He could hear the music of her heart. And it made him yearn for things he couldn’t put into words, except one: home.

Night after night, she filled him with hungers he thought would kill him if he didn’t satisfy them soon. And there was always someone or something whispering in his ear, “This is what you’ve searched for. This is who you’ve searched for.”

Deny it, defy it, reject it during every waking moment. It didn’t matter. Somehow he had fallen in love with the woman who haunted his dreams—a woman he’d never met and wasn’t certain even existed.

His aunt was the only person he knew whose training might provide him with an answer about the nature of these dreams, so he was going back to Raven’s Hill.

Stripping down to his drawers, Michael got into bed and was asleep within minutes. He didn’t dream about the woman; he dreamed about his aunt. She stood in front of the family’s cottage, holding out two plants.

One was called heart’s hope. The other was belladonna.

 





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Updated Monday October 01 2007