JUGGERNAUT

Hello, everyone! I’m delivering a special treat to the Palace. I belong to The Bannerwing Write Club, and we’ve put together a little round robin story for you. You’ll want to read the installments in order, so here’s your map.

The tale begins with When and Where over at Duffy Batzer’s blog, http://sureditsallgood.com

Part 2: Gone is at Ericka Clay’s blog, http://erickaclay.com

Part 3: Payment is at Stephanie Ayers’s blog, http://frommywriteside.wordpress.com

Part 4: Shadow is at Roxanne Piskel’s blog, http://unintentionally-brilliant.com

Part 5: Juggernaut is right here!

The next installment will be at Trisha Ginsburg Oksner’s blog, http://oksnerfamily.blogspot.com

Okay, get your traveling shoes on, and let’s get into a roving story!

 

 

JUGGERNAUT

“Where is he?” Robin sat up and looked wildly around. “Where did he go?”

Phoebe knelt beside her. “Can’t you feel him? He’s here.”

She placed her cold fingertip on Robin’s forehead, and radiance filled the girl’s mind. At its heart, a dark blur raced with tornadic fury inside the confines of a dim circle. As Robin looked inward at it, the brilliance and the gloom reversed positions and she stood in quiet shadow, staring at Allen Henry Buell, imprisoned in light.

“You have him now, like an insect in amber.” Phoebe’s satisfied voice drifted in the echoless void. “A specimen of great power. Use him well.”

Buell’s eyes found Robin’s. His expression of astonished rage gave way to something more chilling. “Little bird,” he whispered. “Oh, little bird, what a lovely nest you have here.”

Tendrils of darkness smoked from him, questing along the bright curve of his prison. Robin felt the greasy touch as though he’d run his hand along her spine. He smiled, a wilderness of sharp teeth. “It’s so much nicer than Hell. Maybe I’ll stay.”

Paul’s voice pulled her forward, into the heaviness of her body. “Robin, come away. Listen to me. You cannot keep him long. Be quick and find the answers you seek, and we will help you banish him again.”

“We won’t, either,” Phoebe snapped.

Robin opened her eyes. Her back rested against the ugly, squat headstone. Paul and Phoebe glared at one another over her half-reclining form, a struggle of wills flushing the pallor from their beautiful faces.

“Sister,” Paul hissed between his teeth, “she is not strong enough to hold him. He’s crossed the threshold of her flesh. He’s halfway to possession now.”

Phoebe shook her head. “No. He’s bound. How long have we waited, Paul? He’s the key.”

“Robin -”

“Is alive,” Phoebe interrupted. “A living host, with powers of her own. We’ll never find another vessel like her. She needs him, too. Would you deny her?”

Robin pushed herself upright. The twins fell back in chagrin. She could feel Buell inside her, a sick-making rush of energy that made her hands tremble. He was caught, but he was strong. Strong enough, she hoped, to take her where she needed to go. She did need him, and now that she had him, she did not intend to give him up.

“Stop arguing,” she said. “I’m going to get my daughter and father back, and then you can have this monster.” A malicious cramp made her gasp, but she used the pain to fuel her power. A howl filled her skull as the light flamed up in Buell’s prison. It was music to her ears. She grinned, a hard, shark-like display of teeth.

“You are already being poisoned by your tenant,” Paul said. “We can make him tell us what you need to know. He belongs in the dark.”

Robin held up an admonishing finger, ticking back and forth. “No, no, no. You know it’s more than information I need, Paul. I need a battering ram, and that’s just what I’ve got in Buell. I can control him.”

The twins looked at one another, once more in accord. “Lead on,” Phoebe said.

Robin stepped forward, letting the thrumming wave of Buell’s foul energy direct her, and made her way back through the cemetery. She walked with her head up and her shoulders back, a little swagger in her step. The night seemed soft and sensual to her, the dark stroking her skin, the sweet earthiness of the dew on the short grass wafting like perfume. Everything felt good, from her bones to the silken brush of her hair on her shoulders. She hummed under her breath, and listened to the warm chuckle from the cell of light in her head.

“That’s it, little bird,” Buell whispered. “We’re gonna fly like nightmare, anywhere we damn well please.”

The Journals of Gideon Crowe: II

rocky coastSo this was death, and I could not have been more astonished. The gritty beach beneath my cheek was dark. It slipped away under a dark sea, the muscular waves curling back like lifted fists of lead and silver, heavy and slow in their power. I heard the metronomic booming of their assault on something obdurate and lifted my head to peer about in the moonlight. I lay in a tiny cove, a wash of ashen shingle scattered in the gap between smooth black rocks that towered into the night. Above them, a wall rose in continuous shadow, and though the sea did little more than suck hungrily at the sheltered slip of beach on which I lay, further down the coast it battered itself against that wall.

I stood, wet and shivering, and cast my gaze up. There were lanterns hanging in the black high above the wall, or some source of light not produced by stars. I had the impression of immensity. I was an insect in the shade of whatever hulked against the sky. I felt shattered, my mind skittering over the possibility that I still lay trapped in my dying body in the alley – that this was a dream – and I clutched at the rocks. I fell against them and pressed my lips to their saltiness. I could feel the shudder of the waves transmitted through them, and I crept around them into the violent spray. A tumble of mighty cobbles stretched before me, and the sea foamed over them, but in the near distance I could make out the lights of a harbor and the bold, black lines of ships’ masts against the night. My heart thumped in jubilation at the sight, and I began to make my way over the milky smear of moonlight and foam that glazed the rocks.

I slipped and slithered over that stony stretch, falling and bashing myself, breathing in the flying sea. I felt pain and cold, the bite of the icy salt spray on my face that caused my eyes to burn and tear, and marveled that even in this place beyond death my body shouted against its abuse by the elements. Though I floundered against the rocks in rib-smashing style, I rose again without serious injury. Finally, I could go no further. The seawall thrust up like a colossus, curving away to embrace the harbor, slick and implacable as black ice.

I sagged against it, drenched in rhythmic lashings of seawater, and thought I would be pummeled until I was little more than a salt-encrusted barnacle on the wall, when something came whispering down the smooth face of my prison and touched my neck with rough, hairy fingers. I started back from it, and with the next heave of the sea, it slapped my face. A rope ladder hung before me, and a blur of light hovered at the top of it.

“Latch on, sonny, if ye ain’t in the mood for a long swim,” cried a cracked voice. “You’re wet enough for one night’s misery, by damn.”

I didn’t need to be told twice. I caught the thick, tarry rung of the ladder and pulled myself hand over hand up its length until I could get my boots on it. It was the work of a minute to scramble to the top of the wall, where the angry sea cracked like a whip but lost its wallop. My benefactor hunched against its sting, his cap pulled low over his eyes, a grizzled seaman in a sodden cloak. He lifted the lantern toward my face.

“Almost missed ye, with Her Highness in such a state,” he shouted.

“Her Highness?” I could only parrot him dumbly, my teeth knocking against each other like castanets.

“The sea, boy, the sea.” He waved the lantern at its unceasing wrath. “Lucky for you there was a Guild ship making port tonight. Got their eyes on the Wall, damn em.” He grasped the front of my coat to pull me down closer to him, and the seawater ran from the wrung wool in a flood. “They seen ye, but they’d never a cared to help ye. Don’t pull in the ones Her Highness tosses up, they don’t. But what are we standing here jawing for? Let’s get out of this and warm our bones.”

He dragged me along, obedient and shambling in my half-frozen state, and we climbed a series of stone stairways cut into the living rock. I could see the City above me, mounting in a dizzy welter of serpentine streets to the stars, aflame with lamps and torches. Below me, the harbor lay like a mirror of polished jet, and the ships riding at anchor on it were all black, the lanterns hanging at their masts winking like golden eyes. We reached a narrow street of brick, and the old man whisked me along it until we came to a tavern door under a sign made of a bit of flotsam and hung with cordage from the rafters of the balcony above. ONE-EYED JACK it read, and its crude mascot leered down on us, a scaly merman with an eye-patch and a grin full of shark’s teeth.

The Journals of Gideon Crowe: I

dark stairwayYou think you understand what death is, I know you do. All the living think they understand. I was like that once. I never nurtured any hope of a Heaven, I was too jaded for that, too mired in my own violent nature. I could conceive a Hell, but what I really thought was that I would simply cease. Like a bit of music that draws to a close. A candle snuffed, and finally, leaving not even the cold ghost of smoke. This was all long ago, and my views, while repulsive to the masses, were not strange among the ranks of hired soldiers and assassins who were my peers. The Gideon Crowe who walked the earth was without faith or wonder, without pity or fear, and to him death was only an inevitable oblivion.

I learned differently. Death, as far as I am able to articulate it, is like a grand staircase – one that reaches infinitely downward into unimaginable night. I stand on the sixth step from the top of that staircase, further down its span than many I’ve known, and yet only brushing the periphery of its great mystery. I can still smell the world from where I stand. I can still feel. Those who’ve traveled deeper, well, they aren’t like me anymore. They’re a cosmos away from the likes of you, with your beating heart and fragile beliefs.

I was drunk the first time I died, the slipping of my mortal bonds a wretched toll of vengeance. It’s still the most spectacular experience I’ve had on the staircase, to return to my analogy, for it was my introduction to the subtle degrees of existence. It was late, in the dark of the November moon, so that the night was black as a kingmaker’s heart, and all the light there was fluttered and spat from a greasy torch dying by the kitchen door of the tavern where I’d been drinking. I had reeled out into the alley to piss against the bricks, legless enough to need to brace myself against the rough wall with one hand, yet still sober enough to note the light scuff of a shoe on the frozen ground. I fumbled with my laces, cursing the tilt and swoop of the earth under my feet, and turned to confront the intruder.

“Please, messire, have you any need?” The girl, small and slender, could have been no more than twelve years. She didn’t look at me, her gaze studying the ground or darting over the shadow-deviled walls. She wasn’t dressed for the cold, and she shivered uncontrollably. Her hair hung about her, the only cloak she possessed. I could see glints of gold in it in the torchlight. I lurched toward her.

“You want to know of my needs, eh? Come here, let me see you.” I’d seen my share of poxy whores and had learned caution. I reached out and dragged her forward under the hissing torch. “Well, well, a pretty one, then. You can’t have been at this business for long.” I leered at her.

“I can please you,” she whispered, though she was rigid in my grasp. I watched the pulse jump at her throat, entranced. I plucked at her thin dress, and the night gave a great whirl and began to clear.

“You’re cold,” I said, pulling her to me. I pushed her against the wall and tugged at the hem of her skirt. “Let me warm you.”

She struggled, forcing my hand down. “Please, messire, not here. I keep a room. It isn’t far.”

So, she had a master. No slip of a doxy such as she could afford lodgings of her own. I supposed her father had set her to her trade and would be lurking about to make sure of his payment. It was a common thing in those port towns where the sailors provided a steady clientele, but I was no sailor and hadn’t a care for honest commerce.

“I’m not going to any room. I’m going back in that tavern, and drink myself to sleep. Lift your skirt, girl, and I’ll give you the gold tooth I won at cards today.” I pressed close enough for her to feel my need, thinking myself generous. In truth, I hadn’t taken the tooth in cards, but had pried it from the head of a wealthy merchant who thought to slight me on payment for the removal of his rival. An assassin must be vigilant about his reputation as a man of business.

The girl shuddered against me, and not from the cold. She stopped pushing at my hand and turned her face away. A tear rolled over the sharp ledge of her cheek, as shocking to me as though she had slapped me.

“Why do you weep?” I asked, sullen now with thwarted passion. “I won’t hurt you, and I’ll pay you well.”

She sighed and moved closer, burrowing under the warmth of my wool coat. She lifted her hand – what an object of porcelain delicacy! – and a heavy ring gleamed on one of her fingers. “I wasn’t ready, messire, but now I shall have to do this all on my own.”

She turned her hand in the smoky light, and a little needle of silver sprang erect on the band of the ring. My body recognized it and started back, even as my fuddled brain still puzzled out her words, but I was too slow. Quick as a cat, she struck me in the neck with the sharp projection, a sting like a scorpion’s, heavy and hot. My boots tangled. I fell, dragging her with me, feeling the death she’d introduced in my veins, wanting to crush her while I could. It was already too late. My limbs would not obey me, and my heart was seized in a cruel fist.

I was dying, the toxin racing through my body and stiffening it in a painful parody of rigor mortis. The girl crawled over me and knelt beside me, tucking her golden hair behind her ears. I could see her, the only clear image left as a blackness opened beneath me. She patted my pockets.

“Where is the tooth, messire? Hmm? Where have you put my papa’s tooth?” She found it in a pouch of coins tied inside my shirt.

Her icy hands on my flesh roused me, and a battle began within my locked body. I saw the waiting darkness as a pit, an oubliette from which I would never rise or know consciousness again. I flailed back from it with an animal disgust, the most primitive, visceral denial of annihilation. I would not go. I clung to existence in a frenzy of rage and desperation. Everything that was good to me in life, be it ever so rough and bloody, was like a sudden elixir on my tongue. Even as the breath left my lungs for the last time, I tasted that brutal potion, and it sustained me.

I haven’t thought of that first death for a long time. I remember that it was terrifying, but the feel of it has worn away and it seems sweet to me now. My body died in that piss-stinking alley, but I awoke on a stranger shore, cast up on a beach rough as a cat’s tongue in a land of queenly night. I awoke at the foot of the City, where the dead and the dreaming share an improbable exile.

From Dust and Cobwebs

gothic_library_by_c17508-d38dsesblogSo I’ve left you with the wolves for a bit. You were perfectly safe. Don’t look at me like that. A queen has duties other than the pleasant spinning of tales. These people, my court, they have to eat. You’ve no idea of their appetites…

Here is something you may find interesting. Do you recall the Prince’s deputy from the tale called Red? Gideon Crowe, was his name (and we’ll discuss the Prince more thoroughly later – I assure you he’s nothing like that miserable story thief). Yes, the man who hunted down our little red wraith and got poor Inspector Fox into such trouble. Well, I’ve been digging in the old library, and I’ve found some of Mr. Crowe’s papers. His journals, to be precise. I never thought him much of a literary force, but you might amuse yourself with them.

 

 

A Spice in the Blood: Conclusion

three wolvesIt was night on the path. The ground was cold, unrelenting as iron. I’ll walk with you, he had said, but she had said no, she liked the deep twilight and Jamie would be waiting at the gate. The smell of October, massive and untamed, had acted on her like a drug. She had wanted a little quiet time to think about what had happened in the studio, and to wrap the wildness of the night around her.

There was a stone in the small of her back. The air in her lungs hung above her, forced out in her fall, and she watched it melt away, wondering where all the sound had gone. She couldn’t hear Jamie’s whimpers, or the harsh panting of the monster, or her own heart. She was aware only of the cold stone pressing against her skin because her blouse, fastened playfully with an assortment of safety pins where its pearl buttons had been, was torn and rucked up over her ribs. Above her, the night was blotted out as the monster fell to its knees astride her and thrust its hateful face toward hers.

“Pretty, pretty,” it growled, running its tongue along the line of her jaw. From the crushed ferns at the side of the path, Jamie voiced a low, mournful howl. The monster’s head swiveled toward where the boy lay. “Quiet, pup, or I’ll twist your head off. There will be a new master here before the moon goes down.” It looked back at Celeste. “And a master needs an obedient mate. You know all about pleasing others, don’t you, pretty?”

“Let me go,” she whispered.

“Never,” it said.

“Lou will come. He’ll kill you.”

Dex Ridgeley threw back his head in laughter that turned to a full-throated bay of triumph. “Let him come. That’s why I have you, pretty, to bait the trap.” He slid his hand beneath her blouse, shearing through the fabric with the claw on his thumb. “Don’t expect the old murderer to save you, though. His days of blood are long over.”

Ridgeley, sighed the forest. Dex scrambled to his feet, dragging her up with him. “Show yourself, old loup,” he shouted. He squeezed the bones in Celeste’s hand until they creaked, and she wailed in pain. Jamie wailed with her, struggling against the silver bonds that held him. Dex shuffled near enough to kick the boy into silence, his eyes on the shadows.

“You dare to pluck a rose from my garden?” Dussault stepped from the trees. He was naked, heat steaming from him. His eyes blazed like firelight.

“Give me the pack. It’s time. I’m stronger than you, and I’ve had a bellyful of being alone.” Dex buried his nose in Celeste’s hair, his eyes never leaving Dussault’s. “She smells good enough to eat. Good enough to mate. Maybe I’ll try a bit of both, eh?”

Dussault growled and circled toward where Jamie lay. “Leave him,” Dex snapped, and the older man froze. “Give me the pack, and you can go. See how you like living alone. Deny me, and I’ll kill her.” The sharp thumbnail nicked the skin beneath her jaw, and Celeste felt a hot trickle slide down her throat to nestle along her collarbone.

“Are you a coward, to hide behind a woman?” Dussault’s voice was a sneer. “If you are the stronger of us, come and take what you beg for like a dog.”

The insult found its mark. With a roar, Dex flung Celeste aside. He tore his clothes from him as though they were made of paper, and sprang toward Dussault. To Celeste, it seemed he leapt from his own body into that of the wolf that suddenly shivered on the air, but the Dex she knew was gone and she was forced to accept his transformation. Dussault seemed to crouch into the great beast that met its opponent with flashing fangs. It snatched the Dex-wolf from the air by its throat and slammed it to the ground. Celeste hid her face until the snarls turned to the crunch of bone. She looked then, fearing the worst, but the enormous wolf-like beast still stood, its muzzle scarlet and dripping.

“Lou!” she cried. The beast glanced at her, then nosed its fallen foe. It placed one paw on the dead wolf, pointed its nose to the moon, and howled. More wild voices answered it, distant but growing nearer. The beast shook its fur, and Dussault knelt in the fallen leaves in its place.

“So, you’ve seen it all, my star,” he said. “The beauty and the brutality. Blood and bliss. I wonder what you will decide.” He rose and went to Jamie. The boy lay caught between forms, held by the icy bite of the silver cuffs. Dussault swatted them aside like cobwebs and held Jamie as he returned, trembling, to his man shape. “It burns, I know. It will pass. Go and drink.”

Jamie rose on shaky legs and staggered to the dead wolf. Kneeling, he dipped his hand in the cooling blood and drank it from his cupped palm. Dussault stood before Celeste, his head bowed. “The blood will heal him. Is there disgust in your eyes?”

“No. I’m glad Jamie will be all right. I’m glad you came for us.” She crossed her arms over her bare breasts. “I’m so cold.”

Dussault looked at her and smiled. “You may have a warm fur if you wish it.”

Celeste shuddered, and tears started to her eyes. “Oh, I do. I wish it more than anything.”

***

Three wolves ran through the forest, long legs eating the ground, leaving the lodge far behind, running to meet friends and family. Running freely under the moon. Smelling the wild world. Hearing the life rushing through their veins.

On an easel, beside a cold hearth, leaned a painting. A beautiful she wolf, luminescent in her white fur, reclined at her ease on the crumpled blue silk of a ball gown. Her eyes said that she belonged only to herself.

 

THE END

A Spice in the Blood: Part VI

electric wolf“You’re late.” Dussault’s deep voice rapped out at them from the shadowed doorway of the lodge. In the interior dimness, his golden eyes floated and burned like candles. Celeste clutched Jamie’s arm, unwilling to climb the steps to the porch and face the artist.

“We ran into Ridgeley on the way up, Lou. I ran him off.” Jamie studied the tops of his sneakers as though finding the meaning of life there, and Celeste felt the tension in him, his muscles readying themselves for flight. What kind of man was Dussault, to inspire such devotion and such fear? Her heart skipped and fluttered at the thought of sitting in the studio, alone with him.

Dussault was silent for a long moment, and then he stepped out into the light, coming to the edge of the porch to look down at them. “Did you? And did he go limping, Jamie? I think not.” Jamie made a tiny, moaning sound of grief and hunched smaller in his denim jacket. Dussault stared at him, and the harsh planes of his face softened from disapproval to affection. “No matter. I will have to have a discussion with Mr. Ridgeley, and soon. It is not a job for such youth. Celeste, my dear, the light flees. Come in. We begin painting today.”

Jamie looked up, smiling, his whole body thrumming with happiness, and thrust her forward. Dussault held out his hand, and she took it numbly, allowing him to pull her up the steps and draw her into the dusk behind the door.

***

“You fear me,” Dussault said. “It is written in every line of your body. You are coiled like a spring.” He flung down his brush and glared at Celeste from under knotted brows. She shuddered against the curved back of the chaise, her pulse leaping when he stood and approached her.

“Come, come, child. I won’t bite you. Stand here, just so, raise your chin.” He lifted her from her huddle and moved her about like a mannequin. She felt the light fall on her face from the skylight above and closed her eyes, listening to the leaves slide across the glass on the broom of the wind. “Ah, you begin to relax,” he breathed, his lips near her ear. “You are charmed by the music of the forest, yes?”

It was true. Safe behind her closed eyes, she was a different creature from the pitiful teenage girl who shrank from life. She expanded, she flowed, her senses awakened. Dussault stood close enough for her to feel the heat of him, but here, in her personal darkness, she did not fear his nearness. She was blindly aware of his strength, of the savage life that moved through him. He circled her, and her new awareness followed the light scuff of his feet, the smell of him that was tobacco, and wood smoke, and earth.

“We have begun all wrong,” he whispered. “I have been too distant, too severe. It is not merely your beauty I seek to capture, Celeste. It is your light. It must be free to blaze.”

“My light?” Celeste opened her eyes. Dussault stood before her, tall and lean, the picture of intense concentration. No one had ever looked at her with such attention. She felt disassembled, opened, her secrets scoured from her. She looked up at the greying skylight. The day was bleeding away.

“Do you understand how light is spirit? It is more important than facial expression, more honest.” Dussault smiled, a sharp and raffish gleam of teeth. Celeste felt the charisma of that smile as a physical touch, as though the white points of it had stroked possessively along her throat. “The quality of the light upon your hair, your … flesh, it tells me who you are. It is so much more than a play of shadows. It rises from you like a fragrance, like a spice in the blood.”

Celeste did not understand how light could be a fragrance. She only knew that Dussault was about to ask something of her, and she would either consent or flee. Whatever her decision, it would define her. She looked away from him at the fire making balletic leaps up the chimney. The studio was very warm, alive with darting gleams of firelight, and Dussault’s regard made her lightheaded. Something feverish and new lay coiled in her belly. It felt like fear and mad craving together.

“I had the sense of it immediately,” he said, and his fingers floated forward and brushed the pearl buttons of her blouse. Where they passed, the demure cotton parted. The buttons dropped to the floor and rolled lazily about the room. “Like calls to like, my dear.”

His hands waved aside the gauzy straps of her bra. She clutched her blouse against her thudding heart, and the silken sweep of her hair on her bared shoulders made her feel as naked as if she were entirely unclothed.

“I can’t,” she whispered, horrified to hear a strangled plea in her denial.

“You can’t – what?” he asked. His voice was soft, but there was laughter in it. Blood rushed to her cheeks, and she closed her eyes in shame. He opened the trunk that sat beside the chaise, and the old book of French poetry slid from it to thump on the floor. “Open your eyes, Celeste. I want to show you something.”

She peeked at him from under her lashes. He sat and smoothed something that looked like a fluffy rug over the back of the chaise. He pulled her down beside him and put her hand against the rug. Her eyes sprang open as her breath rushed out. It was a pelt of the thickest, softest fur she had ever touched, and it spoke to her in a language of primal sensuality. The joy of long limbs stretching over the moss and root tangle in headlong flight; an intoxicating perfume of earth, stone, and blood fizzing along nerves and arteries; a symphony of bird and insect song, grounded by the bass drum of a strong heart; passion, fierce and constant, given and returned. Her fingers flexed in the deep silver fur, and where she pressed it, a shimmering light arose. Her palm burrowed, greedy for more. She looked into Dussault’s tawny eyes.

“Is this a wolf’s fur?”

“Yes. Would you like to wear it while you pose today?”

She nodded. Dussault slipped to his knees in front of her and undressed her with grave care. Her skin glowed bare and ivory in the firelight, and then he drew the glorious pelt around her. As she fell under the spell of the wolf’s spirit, Dussault returned to his easel. She saw him there, painting, and she saw him running beside her through the ferns. She saw the light that told her who he was, and breathed its rare spice.

 

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood: Part V

autumn woodsIn the small dark hours, Celeste lay awake, listening. Something ranged up and down the hallway outside her door. She could hear its careful tread on the narrow carpet runner, a whisper of sound so subtle she would have dismissed it if it hadn’t been accompanied by a panting breath at the keyhole. She waited for the doorknob to turn, unsure if she had locked it, but the creature only lingered a moment. There was a soft bump against the door panel and a strange, deep sigh of satisfaction: mmmmaah.

She lay frozen beneath the comforter and thought wildly of wolves that prowled through sleeping households, smelling out those who were wakeful. Outside her window, the fog had thickened and crept against the glass with a kind of weightiness. It forced wisps of itself through the old casements where they dropped to the rug and stretched out in sinuous swathes. The tall posts of her bed rose from them like black trees, and she could almost believe the forest had grown up around her in the night like something from a fairy tale. The thing in the hall drifted away. She heard its claws clicking over the bare floorboards as it brushed close to the doors of the other suites, snuffling at each. She closed her eyes for just a moment, and it knit itself to her dreams, hunting her through the night forest until the sun rose.

***

Celeste slept the morning away in a fog of dissipating nightmare. The sun staggered higher, lancing in the window and painting hard, thick shadows on the rug. She crawled from beneath the comforter and tumbled herself into a hot bath, groggily aware of the clock’s disapproving face. She could not be late for her sitting with Mr. Dussault. At the thought of the artist, her mood deflated further, and she dragged herself from the bath to look at the time. Nearly one o’clock. She’d have to hurry.

The inn was silent when she descended the stairs, and the dining room was empty. A sudden clatter of cookware drew her to the kitchen.

“Oh, there you are, Miss Pennymaker. Did you sleep well?” Mrs. Corning, in the midst of setting out her saucepans and stockpots for the day’s dinner, flapped a flustered hand at the girl. “There are muffins in the bread box, and the kettle’s hot if you want to brew up a cup of tea. I’m afraid you missed Mr. Ridgeley. He was off early this morning with his cameras.”

Celeste smiled. “I’m surprised my mother didn’t grill him about them yesterday. She’s a serious amateur photographer and likes to think she knows everything about cameras.”

“Oh, no, dear, she couldn’t have, could she? Mr. Ridgeley arrived just after you and your mother went up the mountain, and he strapped on all his gizmos and went tramping off before she came back.”

“But, I thought -”

Mrs. Corning twitched aside a curtain and glared out the kitchen window. “There’s Jamie, finally. I swear, I don’t know where that boy gets to. He’s harder to find than hens’ teeth.” She glanced at Celeste. “I’ll put that tea in a thermos for you, and you can finish your muffin on the way. You don’t want to be late. That old painter is a devil about tardiness.”

The wind was in the forest, shaking the leaves from the trees in mad, parti-colored gusts. They skittered over the windshield, clawing to get in, and were caught up again and whirled away like flocks of dizzy birds. Celeste shrank against the tartan upholstery, cowed by the rowdiness of the wind and by Jamie’s air of barely suppressed fury. The boy gripped and twisted the steering wheel in his big angular hands until she thought she could hear it groaning.

“He actually ate dinner with you? Just sat right down at the same table and … and … talked to you?” He was incredulous. “I should have stayed until you went to your room.”

“It really wasn’t his fault, Jamie. Mrs. Corning arranged it, and Dex was a perfect gentleman. I don’t understand why you’re so upset. We talked a little about his photography,” she paused, thinking of the senseless lie Dex had told her about meeting her mother, “and he said that Mr. Dussault is anti-social and has antiquated views of art.” She shared the last bit with waspish pleasure, and regretted the words as soon as she uttered them. The look of outrage on Jamie’s face struck at her heart.

“The lying dog! Look, Celeste, you got to be careful around Ridgeley. He’s trouble.” He guided the station wagon around a curve in the logging road and stepped on the brake, fishtailing a bit in the loose shale. “Well, well, speak of the devil,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice.

Dex crouched in the ferns by the roadside, and Celeste would never have seen him. Jamie got out of the car, and Dex hesitated and stood. He was dressed for hiking with a light pack on his back, and perhaps his cameras were in it, for Celeste saw none hanging about him anywhere. He glanced at her, giving her a little wave of his fingers. She rolled down her window, and the wind rushed into the car, lifting her hair as though she were falling.

“You’re on Mr. Dussault’s property, Ridgeley. Again.” Jamie walked stiff-legged around the front of the car, his shoulders up and his head forward. Dex put out a hand, laughing.

“Okay, okay. Take it easy, James, I’m leaving.” He tipped a wink at Celeste.

“Yeah, you’re leaving, all right. Lou told me if I caught you again to give you something to help you remember your manners.”

The affability vanished from Dex’s face. “I don’t think you want to cause a disagreeable scene in front of Dussault’s … guest. I said I would leave. Run along like a good pup, and give the old man my best.”

Dex strolled past Jamie, his face tight, his lips drawn away from his teeth in a fierce smile that was more like a snarl. He bent at Celeste’s open window and inhaled deeply. She drew back, reminded of the way Dussault had raised the lock of her hair to his nose. “I apologize for any unpleasantness,” Dex said. “I look forward to seeing you tonight.”

“Get away from her,” Jamie shouted, starting forward. His rough voice rode over the wind, and an answer climbed out of the forest. Pure and quavering, a howl rose into the low clouds, and another joined it, and another. Dex jerked upright with a growl and turned to jog away down the logging road.

Celeste sat stiffly by the open window, her hair tangled with curled dogwood leaves, her breath caught and held. She had been alarmed, and then frightened, by the confrontation, but now that it was over, she felt something else. Excitement. Yes, that’s what it was. It had been exciting, the conflict and threat of violence, the inciting wind laden with the smells of the woods, the voices of the wolves that had made the hair rise on her arms and brought tears to her eyes. She had never heard such a sound before, a sound so freighted with time and meaning. She was a little ashamed of the feeling, the excitement, but it was seductive, too.

Jamie threw himself behind the wheel, grinning. His blood was up, too, she saw. He leaned across her to roll up her window, and she caught a scent from the back of his neck, sweet pine and the slightly smoky perfume of moss. She laughed, and he sat back and looked at her.

“Pretty good, huh?” he said, seeming to understand what she felt. “I could have thrashed him, no matter what he thinks. Geez, is that the time? Lou’s gonna be pissed.” He started the car, and they drove deeper into the tossing woods, to the hidden gate.

 

to be continued…