The Wild Ways
Chapter Eleven

 Tanya Huff

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CHARLIE CAME OUT of the Wood just inside the perimeter fence, facing the mine-head.
"All I need is a definitive moment in time. Something that resonates so loudly, I'll have no trouble following its song out of theWood."
Allie folded her arms. "What if you're wrong?"
"Then it doesn't work and I end up where, not when."
"And if you get lost?"
Charlie sighed. "Get lost once your first time in and no one ever lets you forget it."
The landscape told her absolutely nothing about when she was. She'd followed the stirring anthem "Charlie Kicks Troll Ass" which should have brought her out just as the Charlie of ten days ago realized how things worked. Unfortunately, all that had happened/was happening deep in the mine leaving no impression on the surface. There was always a chance she'd followed an echo, a chance the song had been so powerful it would resonate through the Wood for years leading travelers astray. Well, travelers attuned to that sort of thing. Okay, her.
If it had worked, here and now Jack was chasing a Boggart down the elevator shaft and she was just about to hit the floor.
"What about paradoxes?" Graham had demanded.
"Chill.What happened, happened. And we don't know what happened after that happened, so anything can happen."When he seemed about to protest, she kissed him, kissed Allie, hugged Jack, and walked through the shrubbery in the courtyard into the Wood.
As Charlie emerged from an annoyingly dense bit of dog willow, she spotted Paul's penis-mobile. No way would it still be sitting there ten days after Paul had disappeared or been discovered disemboweled. Either way, it'd be in a police impound lot.
Punching the air seemed entirely justified.
"Holy shit, I traveled in time. I'm like freakin' Dr. Who, and the cute redheaded companion should turn up right about . . . now." A quick look around. "Or not." Apparently time travel was fine, but a cute redheaded companion was too much to ask of the universe.
She patted the penis-mobile's shiny black roof as she jogged by. Kept jogging past the big double doors they'd left unlocked ten days earlier, and charmed open a standard-sized door in the next building. The big elevator was down in the mine, but a little research had turned up three smaller ones.
"Machinery breaks," Graham pointed out. "If the big elevator is fried and they absolutely have to, they can get the miners out the coal shaft, let them ride the belt up, but better to spread their eggs over a few baskets and get them out one or two at a time in smaller, supplemental shafts."
Much smaller, Charlie realized peering through the grating as the motor powered up. This cage would hold two people, three if they were willing to be very friendly and if Graham hadn't printed up the schematics of the building for her and marked a big X on the spot, it would have been easy to miss. The steel door said only, no unauthorized personnel beyond this point not open me to find an elevator you can use to save the day.
She glanced at her watch. Jack would have finished wrapping her in the Troll by now and started pushing the cart toward the Gate.
"Jack, I'm sorry, but you're still too heavy to get through theWood."
"The car . . ."
"I'm pretty sure . . . absolutely sure," she corrected because certainty was at least half of making this work,"that I can get myself when I need to go, but I have no idea how much I can take with me. I'd hate to lose the car and you somewhere between now and then."
"That would suck," Jack admitted reluctantly. "What are you going to tell the guys and Shelly about me not being there?"
"That your guardian got freaked by news of the violence at the festival and made me send you home."
"In the middle of the night?"
"Don't worry, they'll believe me."
"Yeah," Jack snorted. "Totally not worried about that."
The tiny elevator smelled like heated dust and every once in a while gave a grinding hiccup that made Charlie think she should have just climbed down the metal rungs she could see passing outside the cage.
This elevator only went down as far as the Canaveral level.
"Don't need to go any farther," Charlie muttered, stepping out into a dark and empty tunnel. Pulling out a dozen plastic bracelets, she cracked them and slid six on each wrist.
"Magic?" Jack asked as she filled her pockets in the Emporium.
"Nope. Chemistry."
A vigorous shake and she was bathed in the soft glow of dibutyl phthalate, the multicolored bands of light just enough to activate the night-sight charm on her lids. She couldn't see much, but she could see enough to keep from slamming into random carts or the tunnel walls. Running full out, she followed a song of shattered stone to Canaveral where she'd fought the Troll.
"And won," she muttered, stepping around a crushed cart, squinting under the overhead lights.
No sign of Eineen or Paul or the Goblins, but if the Goblins had let their prey get more than three meters from the gate, she'd be very surprised.
Another song sent her after Eineen and Paul. Circumstances dictated it be a love song - boy meets seal, seal enchants boy, boy and seal have children who make the Canadian Olympic swimming team. As she followed it, Charlie made a mental note to check if previous gold medal winners had ancestors from Cape Breton.
Given that it would be pretty pointless to arrive after the Goblins attacked, she concentrated on speed rather than stealth, leaping debris and not bothering to muffle the sound of her sneakers against the stone. Refocusing the Goblins' attention on her was the point of the trip.
"How long will the batteries powering the headlamps last?" Eineen whispered.
"I don't know. They're supposed to be fully charged at all times, but there's often large variables between supposed to be and are." He was amazed by how calm he sounded. Forty-eight hours ago if someone had told him he was going to find himself deep in the Duke with a girlfriend who became a seal - or possibly a seal who'd become his girlfriend - backed up against a gate to a fairytale realm, and under attack by Goblins, he'd have suggested they were off their meds. He was terrified, sure, but Eineen was a warm weight against his side, her arms wrapped around his waist, and he had to hold it together for her.
The same way she was holding it together for him. He could feel her trembling, but her voice was steady, the question had been matter-of-fact. He'd never loved her more.
Pushed into the light by its companions, a Goblin hissed, and spit, and howled out a one-man catfight as it scrambled back into the dark.
"That sounded insulting."
"They use very inventive profanity," Eineen agreed.
"You can understand them?" The noise hadn't sounded like words.
"A little. But it's been a long time since I've heard Goblin."
He thought of asking her how long, but if time spent with Amelia Carlson had taught him anything, it was never ask a woman her age.
"This has all been for nothing," she sighed. "When they attack, the four skins Catherine Gale took will be destroyed with me."
"You're not going to be destroyed."
"Destroyed. Eaten. Same thing. They don't like the light, but it doesn't hurt them. Eventually, the taunting will drive one of them out to attack and at first blood - ours or theirs, it doesn't matter - the rest will follow."
"Well, I'd never thought about going through a Goblin's digestive tract with you, but as long as we're together, there's worse ways to end up."
She twisted in his arms to look up at him - twisted the headlamp back toward the Goblins, setting off another storm of hissing - and said, "You actually mean that, don't you?"
"I actually do." Paul would have kissed her except dipping his head would turn the light away from the Goblins. "However, are you sure that going through the gate . . ."
"Even if they didn't follow us, what's on the other side is worse."
"Jack, the dragon-boy . . ."
"Dragon Prince. And he's long gone."
Paul had already tried the breaker that was supposed to turn the lights on in the side tunnel. He didn't know if it wasn't working because of the gate or the Goblins, but in the end, it didn't matter. His pockets held his phone and some change. His belt buckle wasn't large enough to use as a weapon. He was out of ideas. When he'd thought about dying, he'd thought about wearing a pale gray Armani suit and having captains of industry cancel million-dollar meetings in order to attend. There might have been a wife weeping attractively in the background. Torn apart and eaten by Goblins in a mine had never come up. It was hard to believe it was real.
Then it was suddenly very easy.
Pushed from behind, another Goblin stumbled into the light. Head tucked in between its shoulders, it snarled softly. Tiny gold rings glinted along the curve of one rounded ear and two of the small teeth between the four-centimeter fangs were gold as well. It bent and scraped the claws of both hands against the tunnel floor, gouging out four parallel lines and proving that its claws were strong enough to cut through rock as well as steel.
Paul hoped that the marks on its grimy leather tunic were a faded pattern, but they looked a lot like tattoos.
The hissing and howling from the darkness grew louder. Goblins crowded the edge of the light. Glistening. Gleaming.
"They're taunting it."
Paul licked dry lips. "It?" A stupid thing to worry about, but he suddenly had to know.
"Goblins are hermaphroditic."
"Okay, then." His heart was pounding so hard his whole body throbbed with every beat. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't swallow.
"So are salamanders and Sylphs."
He felt Eineen shrug. "I didn't want you to think it was only an attribute of the vicious."
The Goblin crouched, reminding Paul of a cat just before it pounced. He shoved Eineen behind him, felt her hands on the small of his back, brought up his fists. His eyes snapped closed. He forced them open.
The Goblin was in midair, its claws a meter from his face.
And then it exploded.
Ears ringing, Paul staggered back, Eineen steadying him.
From the mess seeping out into the light, more than the one Goblin had exploded.
It looked like every Goblin in a line between the one attacking them and . . .
Charlotte Gale.
She picked her way through the mess, glowing . . . no, not glowing just bracelets on her wrists glowing. Her face . . .
Actually, she looked disgusted and muttered a litany of "Eww" as she minced forward. When she cleared the worst of the wet chunks, she looked up and smiled. "You know how there's a note that shatters glass? Seems there's a note that shatters Goblins."
Those Goblins who'd been outside the line of fire were gone. Had disappeared back into the darkness.
Paul took a breath, gagged, swallowed so he wouldn't vomit, and realized at some point in the last few seconds when death in obscurity had been imminent, he'd pissed himself.
"I can take care of that." Charlotte nodded at Paul's hands - lovely large hands - now covering the spreading stain on his suit pants. "You play in enough bars, and someone you know is going to end up with a lap full of beer."
"No." Eineen pushed out from behind him, her voice shaky but her back rigid. "You're not putting a charm anywhere near his penis."
"Get over yourself, it'll be on his pants. Dries right through to the skin. It's perfectly harmless."
"No. I do not trust you with genitalia, Charlotte Gale!"
"How about we let Paul decide?" Paul was looking, well, stricken if Charlie had to put a word to it. Seemed like his last straw had been one of those crazy, bendy straws that leaked all over. "Hey. Boy-toy."When he blinked and focused on her, pulled out of his head by the insult, she smiled. "I'm not judging. You've handled all the shit that's come down the pike at you really well. Will you let me dry you off?"
He took a deep breath and said, "You have something on your shoe."
Charlie glanced down. There, just where the rubber of her sneaker gave way to canvas, was a large glob of glistening, greenish-gray Goblin guts. "Oh, gross." Holding the top of the cart, she scraped it off against the bottom edge. She'd barely worn those shoes and that was definitely going to stain.
When she looked back at Paul, Eineen had moved between them, his arms wrapped around her waist, her hands over his. Charlie didn't have anything against Eineen loudly, if nonverbally, shouting "Mine!" or even mistrusting a Gale's motives around her man, but making that man wear pee-soaked trousers because of that overly possessive lack of trust? That was mean.
Okay. Charlie could do mean. "So as I arrived, I noticed you were about to shove him at the Goblins, hoping they'd spend enough time eating him that you could haul ass and get away."
Eineen tossed her hair as much as her position allowed. "I'm carrying four skins that aren't mine. I have a responsibility to my family."
A little impressed she didn't deny it, and had stayed completely Human-seeming while doing so, Charlie spread her hands, the bracelets drawing streamers of light. ""I get that," she said pointedly, looking at Paul.
He wet his lips, swallowed, and said, "I would have happily died if it meant Eineen survived."
"Happily?"When he nodded, Charlie surrendered. "I'm impressed; that's some enchantment. Walk in pee with my blessing. And while we're on the subject of walking, we should walk out of here."
"The Goblins?"
"Don't worry about them." She pointed back along the tunnel with enough emphasis the lovebirds finally got moving. "The Goblins won't come near when I'm around."
"That's what the Prince said," Eineen muttered, stepping over one of the sloppier piles of Goblin bits. "Then he left us."
"And I came back."
"You were gone for barely half an hour and you were near death."
"Yeah, well, I heal fast." She put enough edge on the words to discourage further questions.
Or maybe not. "Why what?" she asked.
Eineen turned her head far enough the beam from her headlamp swept across the side tunnel they were passing. The darkness screamed, Keep moving, nothing here. "Why did you come back? We are not your family and the Gales do not get involved in the business of the Fey."
Charlie snorted. "You lucked out, I decided to be one of the good guys."
"You can decide that?"
"Seems I'll be deciding that every moment of every day. Great power. Great responsibility. Yadda. Yadda."
"Sucks to be you," Paul said dryly.
Charlie laughed. "You're okay, Boy-toy.
It was clear he wasn't okay, not quite, not yet, but with every touch of Eineen's hand, or bump against his shoulder, or loving glance, he got a little better as the attitude adjustment that protected the Selkies in relationships distanced him from what had happened back at the gate. Walking behind them - mostly because they had the lights, but if they wanted to believe she was guarding the rear, she was good with that - Charlie could see the wobble in his movement firm up until he was moving as normally as his trousers allowed. When he half turned to help Eineen over a junction in the rails and she could see the edge of the stain, she sang the charm onto it.
Paul stopped walking, looked down, looked back at her, and said, "Thank you."
Eineen turned to glare. Charlie shrugged. "Saved your life, saved all four skins - five counting yours - don't need your permission anyway, only a line of sight, and you're welcome."
When they emerged out into the open area, Eineen and Paul ran for the elevator. Although the cage door had been left open and even a Goblin could figure out a big "press here" button, the elevator was right where they'd left it.
Charlie faced the tunnel. She didn't bother raising her voice; the Goblins would hear her. "Go home. Close and lock the gate behind you. If I come back down here and any of you are still around, I will make you watch the entire run of Barney and Friends.What?" she asked as she turned and found her companions staring at her. "It's not like they understand English. It just has to be a credible threat."
Given the destruction in Canaveral, it was a miracle the elevator had remained undamaged.
"Not a miracle," Paul told her when she made the observation aloud. "The dra . . . Jack. The door had crumpled, but his eyes glowed and he . . ." Jazz hands stood in when he lost the words.
"Good thing," Charlie allowed, closing the gate behind her. "I know another way out, but it'd be a tight ride up."
Although, given the way Eineen and Paul cuddled all the way to the surface, she doubted that they'd have minded.
Charlie, while appreciating that true love had inspired half her play list, was tempted to break into Newfoundland sealing songs if only to counteract the rising level of schmoop. Particularly since the schmoop wasn't being generated by true love but a Selkie enchantment. Still, they'd been through a lot and she supposed they deserved a bit of comfort. First word of baby talk, though, and she was responding with a rousing chorus of "Come All Ye Jolly Ice-Hunters."
The fiddler in her head threw in a few bars in clear agreement.
Half an hour or so later, standing by the car watching Paul lock up behind them, she finally couldn't take it anymore. "Are neither of you the slightest bit curious as to how I got back moments after I left, fully healed and wearing different clothes?"
Eineen shrugged, the movement impossibly graceful. "Fey with even the slightest sense of self-preservation don't get involved in the business of the Gales."
Okay. That made sense. "Paul?"
"You look like Catherine Gale." he said turning from the building.
"Well, sure, there's always been a family resemblance but . . ."
"I don't mean physically." Pulling his car keys out, he pointed the fob and unlocked the doors. "I don't know how to explain it." He frowned, obviously intending to try. "When you meet a wild animal, you have no way of knowing if they'll walk off and leave you alone, or attack. You and Catherine Gale share that same unpredictability. You didn't use to, but you do now."
"You used to be powerful because of who you were." Eineen slipped an arm around Paul's waist. "Now, you're dangerous because of what you are."
"Besides," Paul added before Charlie could figure out her reaction, "you might have wanted to be asked, but part of that was wanting to say I can't tell you when we did."
"That's . . . actually bang on," she admitted. No real reason not to admit it.
"I deal with power every day." He held the passenger door open for Eineen who wore the smug expression of a cat with cream. "The power may be different, but dealing with it isn't."
The fiddler in her head came in with a rousing rendition of "Princess Royal."
Charlie stopped Paul before he could open her door as well - manners devolved into chauvinism too often in her experience - but punched him lightly on the arm as he turned to head around the rear of the car to the driver's door. "I like you, Paul Belleveau. I didn't expect to, but you're okay."
"I'm thrilled."
"You should be. And you needn't look so smug," she added sliding into the backseat, and flicking Eineen in the back of the head. "It's not like you knew what kind of a man he was when he groped your sealskin." A short pause. An added rim shot. Because a sentence like that seemed to require one.
"You planning on using that ax this afternoon, Chuck?"
"Going to have to." Charlie finished tuning the six on her storm guitar and ran her thumb down the strings. "My other one got destroyed last night." Last night for the guitar, ten . . . nine . . . eleven nights ago for her. She'd be glad to see those days pass again, so she could call Allie, tell her it worked, and merge the timelines of her life back together. It suddenly occurred to her that no one was going to call her for the next ten, or eleven, or nine days and that was almost enough to make up for losing her guitar. Almost.
The unnatural silence drew her attention back to the basement. Shelly, Tim, and Mark were staring at her wearing varying expressions of horror.
"Ah, Jesus, Chuck, that sucks the big, hairy hard one." Crouching down, Mark braced himself on her knees and peered up at her through a messy fall of hair. "You okay?"
"I wasn't," she told him honestly. More or less honestly. "But I am now. When it comes right down to it, it was only a guitar. It could have been worse."
He tightened his grip. "That's a remarkably mature attitude, Chuck. If I'd lost my kit, I'd be lying on the floor, drumming my heels and screaming."
She'd done a little of that back in Calgary, but Jack's expression kept reminding her how much worse it could have been, so . . . "Yeah, well, you're wearing a Hello Kitty sporran. Where the hell did you get that, by the way?"
"Esty shop. It's a one off." He patted the pink leather bag hanging over his crotch. "You like?"
"Ignoring the innuendo because Tim's a foot taller than me, I'm just happy to discover they're not in mass production."
"I totally don't blame Jack's guardians for freaking," Shelly muttered, cradling her upright bass against her chest and rubbing her cheek along the smooth finish on the edge of the fingerboard. "I mean, terrorizing grannies and toddlers is one thing, but destroying instruments is a whole other level of fucked up."
"Aggie Forest, Captain Wedderburn's keys, got caught in her cables and nearly went down with the stage, talk about fu . . ." Mark paused, twisted back around to face Charlie and said, "You had your guitar when we saw you last night. Tim went to ask if we could help with the rebuild, and you and me were sitting on that picnic table. You had your guitar then, Chuck."
"I had my guitar case then, Mark. Still have the case." It had been in the back of Paul's car. "Now this guitar is in it."
Mark frowned. Ran his thumb along a bit of flaking varnish. "It looks like it got caught out in the rain. How's it sound?"
Charlie picked out the first four bars of "Wildwood Flower," segued into "The Boy's Lament for his Dragon," finished up with Zeppelin's "Tangerine." "Sounds okay to me." She grinned at Mark's expression - he'd dropped back to sprawl at her feet when she started playing - and kicked him in the thigh. "For the love of . . . well, Tim, learn to sit like a lady."
He had his mouth open to answer when one of his sticks nailed him in the back of the head.
"Quite the hollow bonk," Shelly murmured.
"A little respect for your fearless leader," Mark commanded, scrambling up onto his feet. "But Tim's right. We need to get this run through moving; he's got a Kids on Keyboards workshop at one. Where the hell's Bo?"
Tanis had been one of the Selkies who'd got her sealskin back. It was entirely possible Bo wouldn't be able to walk for . . .
"Sorry, sorry, sorry." As if called by the question, Bo bounded down the stairs into the rec room. "Happy girlfriend, happy me, happy idiot in a pickup doing thirty in front of me all the way into town. Let's rock and roll in a Celtic sort of way that'll win us this shindig, get us a recording contract, fill our pockets, and cover us with the limited amount of glory available." He set his case down on the top of the sofa, pulled out his violin, and took a moment to look around the room. "What?"
Tim snickered.
Mark spread his hands. "Nothing." Hands still spread, he spun in place. "You heard the man, people, let's Celt and roll."
Charlie kept a tighter than usual grip on her tendency to throw a you like me, you really like me charm or two out. Today, this first day back playing, she had no idea if a slip would throw out more than just a joy in the music cranked up to eleven.
"Chuck . . ."
"Sorry." She needed to get some kind of barrier up to slow the seepage of . . . of her into the music so she could play without worrying.
Finally, three songs in - well, two because they took three runs at their cover of "And if Venice is Sinking" by Spirit of the West. Two with the erection, one without. Consensus after the fact kept the erection in. Point was, erection aside, by song three, she'd managed to work out a balance between putting her heart into her playing and throwing the rest of her in as well. It wasn't entirely comfortable and it felt so much like slacking that when they finally ran through Mark's "Wild Road Beyond," she let the barriers drop and just played. It seemed safe enough. Bo had the lead and Mark's insecurities ensured they'd never play the song in public, so she'd never be asked to repeat this performance on a stage.
When they finished, Bo's last note circled the basement half a dozen times before fading into silence.
Then someone sniffed and all five of them turned to stare at Shelly's brother-in-law's cousin and what looked like the entire extended family perched on the basement stairs. They looked at Grinneal. Grinneal looked at them. A burly older man wiped at his eyes with the hem of his T-shirt.
The applause when it came was loud enough Mark's cymbals shimmied with it.
Later, after all the women and half the men had come the rest of the way downstairs to hug Bo, Shelly sagged back against the sofa cushions, bass cradled between her legs, and bounced a finger up her E making it sound. "All in favor of adding 'Wild Road' to the set list?"
"No." Mark jumped in before anyone could answer. "It still isn't quite right."
"Dude, if it was any more right, it would ascend." She glanced around the room. "Little help, guys."
"Personally, I'm willing to play that song twenty-four/seven. I want it played at my fucking funeral. Hell, I'll come back from the dead to play it myself." Bo stripped off his sweat-soaked T-shirt and caught a dry one Tim tossed him. "But . . ." He sighed as his head emerged. ". . . it's Mark's song. His call."
Charlie grinned. "I'm sorry, I was distracted by Bo's happy trail. What was the question?"
"Mark's song. His call."
Shelly rolled her eyes. "And I don't even need to ask Tim, do I? He'll back Mark's play. Fine. But we could win with that song."
"Please," Charlie snorted before things got heated, "we've heard the competition. We could win with 'I's the B'ye.'"
"You bitch," Mark muttered as Tim filled the bellows of his accordion and began to play. "I should never have told you how much I hate that song."
That afternoon, they could've won with "Farewell to Nova Scotia." Charlie didn't have to keep herself from leaking into the music, there wasn't room. It leaked into her, thrumming through her body. The crowd fed off Grinneal's energy and bounced it back at them. Out and back. Out and back. Until they weren't a band and an audience, they were one musical organism.
When they finished, Shelly couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry as she stood shaking in the circle of Charlie's arms. Tim stared at Mark with equal parts awe and lust and Mark stared back wearing exactly the same expression. Charlie prudently stepped out from between them, taking Shelly with her. Bo beamed in the center of a circle of babbling fiddle fans until Tanis threw herself at him, shrieking his name and practically glowing.
Actually glowing.
Charlie threw a charm at her before anyone came far enough out of the music to notice.
Their performance bled off into the band after them and Faic Tusan kept the audience up on their feet, dancing and singing along.
Charlie wandered through the crowd, nursing a beer, and enjoying being told how amazing Grinneal's set had been. That never got old. She saw Eineen and Paul, waved but didn't go over. The Selkies' problems were solved - thanks to her, not that anyone except Paul had expressed any gratitude - it was time to leave the mine behind and enjoy the sunshine. She did notice that Paul was in a golf shirt, cargo pants, and deck shoes, but that was Eineen's problem.
She was a little surprised when Neela's husband Gavin found her later and asked if she thought Mark might be willing to share out the score for "Wild Road Beyond." By the end of the evening, nearly every fiddler at the festival, both performers and audience members, had spoken to her. Seemed like Bo had been talking. Fiddlers married to Selkies - and there were half a dozen in attendance - had come to her because of who she was. The rest had come to her because the other fiddlers had.
Charlie told them all the same thing. They had to talk to Mark.
No one could find Mark.
Or Tim.
And everyone apparently needed to follow that information with an enthusiastic wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Sipping a glass of tolerable champagne, Amelia Carlson found herself enjoying the charity casino put on by the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada far out of proportion to the enjoyment actually available. Partly that was because she was there with Evan Damon, recently divorced, owner of the largest steel works in the Maritimes, and partly it was because his invitation had saved her from attending some sort of local music festival in Louisbourg. Wandering unprotected through crowds of tourists listening to fiddles and accordions extolling the virtues of a subsistence lifestyle was a little more "of the people" than she was interested in. Honestly, she employed "the people;" what more did they want?
As the MS Society was a particular charity of the Premier's, the entire cabinet plus wives, husbands, and children of legal age were in attendance. The Minister of Health was having remarkable luck at one of the roulette wheels, the Minister of Transportation had just successfully drawn to an inside straight, and the Minister of the Environment hadn't left the high stakes blackjack table all night.
Granted, the high stakes weren't all that high, but Richard Conway played with a focus Amelia found intriguing. She drained her glass, snagged another from a very attractive waiter, and wandered casually toward the blackjack table. Over the last few years, she had spent more time with the minister than with any other person in the room, including Evan, so it was only polite she spend a little social time in the honorable member's company.
Paul had never gone to work leaving a woman in his bed.
Not that there'd been a lot of women over the last few years; Amelia Carlson required one hundred and ten percent of his attention. Bad math, but standard business practice. The few women who'd stayed over, he'd taken out to breakfast and then home. Only one of them had stayed twice and, although she'd been determined to take their relationship to the next level, she hadn't been able to compete with his job.
His relationship with Eineen had no "next level" to go to; from the moment she'd come out of the sea Thursday night, she'd become everything to him. Sure, in the beginning, he'd believed he could have what he had with her and keep Carlson Oil, but their adventure Friday night had forced him to face up to the fact that working for Amelia Carlson had made him complicit in the Goblin attack that had nearly killed the woman he loved.
She lay on her side, facing away from him, one arm tucked up under the pillow, the sheets pleated in the hollow of her waist, rising to drape over the perfect curve of her hip. They were cheap motel sheets, not the twelve hundred thread count Egyptian cotton she'd be wrapped in if they were in his condo in Halifax instead of a Sydney motel room, but against the satin of her skin, they looked like finest silk.
"You're staring at me."
Paul could hear the smile in her voice so he smiled back. "You're the only thing in this room worth staring at."
"True." She rolled over, hair spilling across her breasts, and held out her hand.
"I have to get into the office," he told her, sitting on the edge of the bed and catching her hand up in both of his. He kissed along her knuckles, then turned her hand over and placed one last kiss in her palm. "I have to tell Ms. Carlson that blackmailing Two Seventy-five N is no longer on the table. I have to give her a chance to admit that it was the wrong thing to do. I have to try to make her see that if that's what it takes to get this well put in, then that alone is reason enough to find another field to tap."
Eineen traced the line of his jaw with the first two fingers of her other hand. "Why?"
"Because I gave her two years, five months, and . . ." He frowned. For the first time in two years, five months and whatever, he couldn't remember exactly how long he'd been Amelia Carlson's assistant. That was . . . freeing. "The point is, if she can be made to see she was wrong, then . . ." Reluctantly releasing Eineen's hand, he stood and tightened his tie. "Then I didn't flush that time down the toilet. If I can make her see she was wrong, I'll have begun to make amends."
"I don't need you to . . ."
"I do." He was wearing the khaki suit today. It was one of Ms. Carlson's favorites. He shrugged into the jacket, checked he had everything he needed in his briefcase, and walked to the door. "If this goes well, I may be a while."
"And if it goes badly . . ." Eineen patted the bed beside her. ". . . come right back to me."
Paul had not been in his office when Amelia arrived. The schedule for the day, printed out and left neatly centered on her desk, looked to be the same schedule sent to her phone. The same schedule Paul had drawn up Friday evening. There'd been no changes made as the oil industry and oil futures changed over the weekend. That was a first. Given where most of the world's producing deposits were, change was, as her third-year sociology professor had said, a constant.
Settling into her chair, she slid the printout off the desk and into the garbage. It was possible Paul hadn't been able to track any of the weekend's changes, but it would have been the first time that had happened in over two years. He'd be busy catching up when he finally got his very fine ass into the office, particularly given the news of certain changes she had to share with him.
So where the hell was he?
She'd been waiting for nearly thirteen minutes before she heard Paul's distinctive stride. "You're late," she snapped. "Get in here."
He wasn't carrying a green tea, soy latte. They'd have words about that later. He was wearing her favorite suit though, the one that made his shoulders and ass look amazing, weighting the scales back slightly in his favor.
"Ms. Carlson, I have something I need to tell you."
"Later. I have something I need to tell you." Smiling broadly caused crow's feet, but she couldn't stop herself. "I've never liked being involved in Catherine Gale's activities," she began. He looked relieved. Of course he did, he knew where she was coming from. She'd never had an assistant who understood her like Paul Belleveau did. Sitting back, she crossed her legs. "It wasn't that the whole thing was weird to the nth degree, I can deal with weird if it gets the job done, but I hated the lack of control. I hated being dependent on her. And yes, I know I was paying her, but we both know she's not the kind of woman to be dependent on those payments or to follow the golden rule - those who have the gold make the rules. But I've solved the problem."
"Ms. Carlson . . ."
He no longer looked relieved. Of course he didn't, he hated being out of the loop. It made it harder for him to take care of her. "Don't worry, things couldn't be better. It seems the honorable Richard Conway, the Minister of the Environment for Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, has a gambling problem."
"A gambling problem?"
If she kept smiling like this, Paul would be booking her an appointment with her esthetician the moment he reached his desk. "He can't stop playing, he can't count to twenty-one. He owes money to some very unsavory people. Or he did. Now, he owes me. Or he did." She glanced at her watch. "As of half an hour ago, the permits Carlson Oil needs are signed and a copy has been sent to this office by courier. An electronic copy was sent to both of us immediately after his signature was applied. They're calling for clear skies, I called Captain Bonner myself on the way in, and the barges can go out this afternoon."
"This afternoon?"
"Yes, this afternoon." Paul looked horrified. It wasn't a good look on him. Although she strongly disapproved, she was not adding to the damage she'd already done her face by frowning. "If you don't have press releases and potential scheduling in place, ready to go when we got the word, you're not the man I think you are. And if you're not, there's no real reason why I should be paying you." He didn't laugh with her, but then he'd always been a little sensitive about money. "As far as our more recent problems are concerned, Carlson Oil no longer requires Catherine Gale's assistance and Two Seventy-five N can test their flotation rating by taking a long walk off a short pier." She leaned back and crossed her legs. "Now, tell me how amazing I am and then I want to see the best case scenario for actually getting that rig up and working and finally getting oil out of that well."
He stood and stared at her for a moment, opening and closing his hands.
Amelia sighed. "For heaven's sake, Paul, spit it out so you can bring me a latte and then get some work done."
"Ms. Carlson . . ."
"That's my name."
"I quit."
"So, what're you planning for the next few days?"
"Nothing much." Charlie slid Shelly's tool box under her groping hand and went back to leaning on the back of the car. She had nine days' worth of sunlight to catch up on. "Probably head into Halifax and talk to some guys about maybe lining up studio work."
"Probably? Maybe?" Shelly's sneakers kicked twice, then she squirmed backward until she could drop her lower body off the tailgate and stand. "You don't sound very juiced about it."
"Honestly, I'm not." Charlie shrugged, her back sticking to the car around the ties of her halter. "But a girl's gotta make a living."
"Too bad Jack had to go home. He's a cool kid and you'd have had a blast showing him around." Flicking her sunglasses down off the top of her head, Shelly pulled Charlie into a hug. "If you get bored, head up to Dingwall. There's plenty of room and my gran loves company."
"If I get bored, you'll be the second to know." Charlie waited until Shelly got into the car, then sketched a back off tailgaters charm in the dust. It'd only last until the next rain, but the forecast was a week of clear skies.
"See you Friday morning in Ingonish!" She waved out the window and was gone.
It didn't seem to matter to Shelly's brother-in-law's cousin, who'd already left for work, that the rest of the band was still in residence.
Only in the Maritimes, Charlie mused, heading up the driveway, wincing a little as the gravel dug into her bare feet. Her gear was already in the back of the station wagon, but she figured she'd help Mark and Tim finish loading before she hit the road. After all, they had the amps, their roadie was back in Calgary, and she wasn't in any hurry to leave. Although lining up a few paying jobs wouldn't hurt, probably, maybe pretty much summed up her interest in studio work right at the moment.
The fiddler in her head decided to chime in with "I Won't Do the Work."
"Who asked you?"
Deciding to soak up a little more sun before breaking up the accordion/ bodhran jam session she could hear going on in the basement, she leaned back against the rear of her car and closed her eyes. Having Wild Powers activated didn't seem to have changed much. Okay, sure, she was alive and ten days out of time, but other than that, she still had no idea of what she should do next.
A car screeched to a stop out on the street.
Charlie opened her eyes to see Paul and Eineen spilling out of his penis-mobile. "I still have no idea of what I'd do with a hundred thousand dollars," she murmured, glancing up at a cloudless sky. When no money appeared, she shrugged philosophically and, given the way Eineen's glamour was flickering, braced herself for yet more Selkie Sturm and Drang.
"Another skin missing?" Made sense for Amelia Carlson to have sent Auntie Catherine back out, and it was only Human nature to slack off covering the mirrors after a few days. Fey nature, too, it seemed.
"The barges are going out today!"
"Excuse me?" First she'd heard about barges.
"The Minister of the Environment signed off on Carlson Oil's permits for the shallow well," Paul explained. "Everything else was in place, waiting for the permit, so, this afternoon, Amelia Carlson is sending out the barges with the pieces of the production platform. She had a small army of men waiting to go to work building this thing; they'll have the piles driven before a protest can hit the courts and the platform constructed before a stop order can be issued."
"Succinct explanation. Also, nice suit." She sagged back against the car and tucked her thumbs behind the waistband of her shorts. "But what do you want me to do?"
"Stop the barges." Eineen was actually wringing her hands. Charlie'd never seen anyone do that before. "Save my people."
"Because you're the only one who can!"
Okay, so maybe it was a little childish to make Eineen pay for being entirely straight, but Charlie figured she was due a bit of self-indulgence.
"And because this is one of those decisions you'll be making every minute of every day," Paul added quietly.
Charlie blinked. "You're good." She'd had every intention of helping, but if she hadn't, that would have been the button pusher. "Fine. I'll stop the barges. Any idea of how I can stop the barges?" she added wiping the smile off Paul's face. "If you got me on board, I suppose I could get the captain to scuttle . . . scuttle?" She frowned. "That doesn't sound right. I suppose I could convince the captain to sink his ship, but then I'd be on board a sinking ship along with Amelia Carlson's small army of men. Not that far from shore, granted, but even if everyone survived, explanations would be tricky and I'm not throwing a perfectly innocent captain out as a scapegoat. "
"Couldn't you make it look like a natural disaster? Whip up the seas or something?"
"Okay, two points." Charlie flicked up a finger. "One, I'm still not up with drowning everyone on board the barge and you . . ." She pointed the finger at Paul. ". . . are being remarkably bloodthirsty which is probably your influence . . ."The finger moved to point at Eineen. The Fey seldom worried about Human lives. ". . . so cut it out. And two, did I not mention the whole land not sea thing last night?"
"There's land under the water," Eineen said.
And the fiddler in Charlie's head broke into "The Champion."
"That's very true." She squinted into the sun and swiped at a dribble of sweat running down her throat and over her collarbone, teasing out the bright beginning of a possible plan. "There's a lot of water over that land . . . I'm going to need a backup band." Blinking away spots, she refocused her attention on the two people standing in front of her. "Eineen, you need to find me as many fiddlers as you can, preferably men who've had contact with your people."
Eineen's brows rose up behind the fall of her hair. "By contact, you mean . . . ?"
"What are you, twelve? I mean I need fiddlers who won't freak at what I'm going to do, so I need fiddlers who've done the freaky with you lot. If we had another moonlit night, you could recruit a few more, but as it is, get in contact with as many as you can. Tell them we'll need them this afternoon and we'll send the location as soon as we get one. Paul, find me a location. I need the route the barge will be taking, the deepest water possible, and waterfront property without a vacation home built on it."
Paul pulled out his phone. "There's a very good chance Ms. Carlson hasn't informed the relevant parties I'm no longer working for her."
"And what will you be doing?" Eineen demanded.
"I will be finding a piece of music I can use to focus power. All right, fine." She held up her hand. "I know what I want to use, I'll be acquiring the rights. This isn't the sort of thing you can do with questionable authority."
The front door of the house opened behind her. "As Mark enters right on . . ." From the look on Paul's face, it wasn't Mark. Of course it wasn't Mark, Charlie could still hear the accordion and bodhran. This close to the harbor, there wasn't a decent sized shrubbery in sight, but every house had mirrors. Charlie grabbed Paul's phone, sketched a very fast charm, and shoved it back into his hands. "Go. Call me later."
Clutching Eineen's hand, he ran for the car.
Smart man.
"We need to talk, Charlotte."
Charlie turned. She didn't bother faking a smile. "I have nothing to say to you, Auntie Catherine."
"Not even a thank you for giving you the opportunity to embrace your full potential?" Auntie Catherine stepped off the porch and spread her hands, bracelets chiming. "I Saw your eyes when you came out of the mine after facing those Goblins."
"Really? Did you See my eyes when I faced the Troll? Enough broken blood vessels they looked like two balls of very lean bacon. Wasn't pretty." If she hadn't been glaring at the older woman's face so intently, she'd have missed it. "You didn't know, did you?You didn't know there was a Troll in the mine. Something that big, and you didn't See it."
"I don't need to tell you what I did or didn't See, Charlotte."
"Weak," Charlie snorted. "Very weak."
"The point is, you wouldn't have been in the mine without me, you wouldn't have fulfilled your potential without the mine, therefore, you owe me."
"Bite me."
"Don't push it, Charlotte." Dark eyes narrowed. "Potential is one thing. Actualizing it is another. You still have no idea of what's going on."
Charlie spread her hands in a mocking mirror image of Auntie Catherine's gesture. "If you're willing to be straight this time, enlighten me."
"The well must be drilled. Steel must be sunk deep into the seabed."
Gulls cried. Someone hit their horn in the tourist-clogged streets across the bridge.
After a moment, Charlie sighed. "Not so much with the enlightenment there. Because I said so isn't going to float this boat, Auntie Catherine. The way you've been dicking people around, I'm not taking your word for anything. You didn't have to convince Amelia Carlson that blackmailing the Selkies was the way to go - you could have figured out a number of ways to accomplish the same thing - you just like to fuck with people. Newsflash, you're not a nice person."
"Nice isn't required, Charlotte." The flash of teeth could not be called a smile by anyone sane. "Not for what I do."
Folding her arms, Charlie propped a hip against the porch railing. What is it you do? would slide the conversation into another key entirely, and so she waited. And waited. Two cars and a camper drove by. Gulls continued crying. The wind pushed a cloud over the sun, adjusting the glare but not affecting the temperature. The aunties didn't wait for what they wanted. Auntie Catherine was out of practice.
"Do not assume you are my equal," she snapped at last.
"If you could stop me, you wouldn't be talking to me."
Auntie Catherine sighed, the sort of sigh that said, you are young and foolish and I don't know why I bother. Which pretty much proved Charlie's point as far as Charlie was concerned. "If you stop this well from going in, something old and more dangerous than you can imagine will rise from beneath the sea. I have Seen it."
"You didn't See the Troll."
"That's an apples-and-oranges distinction, Charlotte."
Charlie shrugged. "They're both fruit."
"Oh, that's right, make a joke." Auntie Catherine pushed a strand of silver hair back off her face and snarled, "Fine, you want enlightenment? If you stop the well from going in, you'll be responsible for the end of the world. There's an enormous difference between one of the ancients rising and an oil spill or two!"
"Not if you're in the path of the oil spill. Besides, ancient gods rising from beneath the sea is so last millennium." She slid off the railing and planted her feet, peeling paint making the planks of the porch rough under her soles. "So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to stop the well, then I'm going to stop the end of the world."
Auntie Catherine's lip curled. "What, with a Song?"
"Why not?"
"Because it won't work!" She took a deep breath, hands clutching the tangerine muslin of her skirt. "Let the pilings go in, then stop the well before there's any drilling."
"Why me?You stop the well."
"That's not what I've Seen."
"You've Seen me stop the drilling?"
"No, I've Seen the need for the pilings. The rest is incidental!"
"Okay." Charlie folded her arms. "How do I stop the drilling?"
"How else? With a Song!"
"Now you're mocking me." Not the words, but the clearly audible exclamation mark. "Nice talking to you, Auntie Catherine."
"Charlotte . . ."
Charlie made another of those minute-by-minute decisions. "You should leave now."
The aunties were used to getting their own way, leaving Auntie Catherine just as out of practice when it came to dealing with defiance. The audacity of a younger Gale standing so definitively against her had visibly thrown her. Her eyes were wide, her mouth slightly open, and her hands couldn't find a place to settle as she responded to Charlie's voice. Charlie suspected this was entirely a one-shot deal as far as the aunties were concerned, but here and now this was the only time she needed it to work.
"You will be sorry for what you have done this day, Charlotte Marie Gale!" Unable to stop her march down the drive, Auntie Catherine turned at the sidewalk to deliver the last word, then strode around the corner, skirt swirling around her calves, phone in her hand.
Back on the porch, Charlie waited for her phone to ring.
Except . . . she was out of her time. As far as the aunties were concerned, the ones back home in both Calgary and Darsden East, Charlie was still in a healing trance. Which was actually irrelevant because Auntie Catherine was certainly not going to call home to complain that Charlie was disrespecting her and some other auntie needed to bring her in line. The world would end first.
It came down to just the two of them.
And Charlie had proof that Auntie Catherine didn't See everything.
The fiddler in her head played "Mrs. McCarty, Have You a Daughter."
That was a little thematically obscure. "Say what?"
"I didn't say anything. Yet."
She could just make out Mark's expression through the screen door, and Tim's bulk behind him. Not good. "How long have you been there?"
"Tim saw your Auntie Catherine come out of the big mirror in the hall. He came and got me."
"Out of the mirror? Really?" She sent a silent apology to Tim. "And you believed him?"
Mark's expression didn't change. "Tim's never lied to me."
Charlie bristled at the implication. "I've never lied to you. Okay, maybe a few small lies and, at that, mostly lies of omission, but . . ."
"We want in."
Mark opened the door and the two of them came out onto the porch. "We want in."
"Into what?" Charlie asked in her best Pie?What pie? voice
"You're going to stop one of the ancient gods from rising."
"That's not . . ."
"Do you even read the paper? Have you seen what they're catching off Scatarie? Look, we know you're different, Chuck." Mark shook his head, his hair spilling out of the grimy Barbie bandana that secured his ponytail. "For fucksake, that first day you came east? You didn't even have a copy of the set list when you went out on stage and you never missed a note. Okay, you missed a couple, but I suspect that was a variation not a mistake. And," he continued before Charlie could argue, "your cousin's eyes glow gold."
If her experience with Auntie Catherine was any indication, she could make him, make both of them, believe whatever she wanted them to. "You noticed that?"
"In all fairness, I thought I was stoned, but Tim noticed, too. So, we want in."
"I could tell you that you don't and you'd believe me." No wonder Allie had let Jack come east. Charlie'd asked her to. With any luck, Allie'd never figure that out. "I could make you forget this conversation ever happened."
Tim shook his head. "You won't," he said.
"You're right. I won't." Because she'd made a decision not to fuck people around. Another minute-by-minute decision safely made. "Okay, you're in. But," she added cutting off Mark's triumphant smile, "there's one inarguable condition."
He spread his hands. "Anything."
"That's what I like to hear."
"The barge is coming out from Glace Bay, heading east around the headland then southeast around Scatarie Island. The closest point we can reach on shore to deep water is going to be out on South Head. Go up 255 to South Head Road, turn right. Cross the bridge and follow the road until it becomes Sailor Dan's Lane - there's tracks past the end of the lane, but they may require four wheel drive."
"I grew up in the country. Odds are they were made by a twenty-year-old rear wheel drive pickup full of teenagers." Phone tucked against her shoulder, Charlie scribbled directions. "Tracks are no problem."
"If you say so."
She bit off a laugh.
"If you're still in Louisbourg," Paul continued, "it's about fifty minutes."
"Leaving now. Have Eineen tell the fiddlers to meet us there."
For all it had been one of the first parts of Canada settled, empty places remained along the Nova Scotia coast where the rock was too close to the surface or the sea winds too harsh or the sea itself too unforgiving. Barely four hundred meters wide and about five kilometers long, South Head challenged the might of the Atlantic and, so far, seemed to be winning. The nearest cottage was back at South Port Morien and, although the day was hot and still, and the ocean was as calm as the Atlantic ever managed, they had the headland to themselves.
Charlie parked by Paul's car at the end of the track. "Second last chance to back out."
"Second last?" Mark asked from the backseat.
Her hands left damp smudges on the steering wheel. "We haven't started playing yet."
"We're in. All the way."
"Okay, then." Another time, the wind across the headland would have ripped the car door from her hand. Today, a gentle breeze pushed her hair back off her face. Mark and Tim fell into step behind her as she walked out to join Paul and Eineen on the edge of the cliff. She looked down into deep water. Then she looked west at a dot on the waves. "Is that it? Is that the barge?"
"That's the barge. It's due past here at precisely . . ." Paul checked his phone and frowned at the lack of signal.
Charlie pushed his hand down by his side. "We're not working with precisely ."
"What are they doing here?" Eineen asked, nodded toward Mark and Tim.
"Percussion." Lifting his drum, Mark answered for himself. Tim held Mark's second best bodhran.
"Wait, you play the bodhran, too?"
"He's a fucking show off, is what he is," Mark muttered, stuffing an extra tipper into his sporran. "I haven't found anything he can't play. Fortunately, he loves me enough to allow me the delusion of being the better drummer."
"What if they don't come?" Eineen stared out at the distant barge. Back at Charlie. Out at the barge. "What if the fiddlers don't come?"
Charlie listened to "Over the Cabot Trail" and smiled. "They'll come."
"My cousins reminded me yet again that the Gales don't get involved in the business of the Fey."
"This is my business, so this is Gale business," Charlie said. "Sounds like Bo borrowed his brother's truck."
The five of them turned to watch Bo park, Tanis hanging out of the window and waving. Neela and Gavin pulled in beside him.
Three more cars were coming down the track with four more following a little further back, nearly obscured by the clouds of dust.
Charlie drew in a deep breath of sea air and let it out slowly. "Nine's good."
The women, young and old, all had long black hair and skin like coffee and cream, and moved bodies inhumanly proportioned with an unnatural grace. They weren't working hard to hide what they were.
By the time the short explanation had ended and the nine fiddlers stood in a line along the cliffs, the dot was very definitely a barge. Close enough to shore they could see the cranes rising out of the pieces of platform like triangular masts, but too far to see details or people.
"How many on board?"
Paul looked down at his phone, sighed, and shoved it in his pocket. "Twenty-eight."
"Okay, that's a small army, but we only have ten . . ."
"We'll have enough," Eineen told her, pointing down at the water.
Charlie glanced over the cliff and saw another dozen . . . no, another two dozen . . . no . . . it was impossible to count the seals floating vertically in the water, noses and eyes all that were showing. "They know that the people on the barge aren't their enemies?"
Eineen's eyes flashed black from lid to lid.
"No one drowns," Charlie reminded her. "Not today." She stepped to her place in the middle of the line, Mark and Tim behind her. "Wild Road Beyond," she said to Bo at her right.
Bo shook his head. "They don't know it. I mean, Gavin might've played it through with me once or twice but . . ."
"Play it through once. The others will pick it up."
He glanced back at Tanis standing behind his left shoulder staring out at the distant waves and not crying for once, over at Mark scowling at Gavin, and then back at Charlie. "That's not . . ."
"Trust me. They'll pick it up." The fiddler in her head played "Rolling off a Log." "Either put out or shut up," she told it, and then aloud, "Mark."
Mark and Tim laid the heartbeat down together.
Bo sighed, opened his mouth to protest again, but Tanis laid a hand on his arm. He raised it, kissed it, and put his bow to the strings.
Gavin came in two bars later.
By the end of the first chorus, they were all playing - all but the oldest fiddler standing at the end of the line. He frowned, tapped gnarled fingers against his thigh, then slowly raised his bow. A note. Another, extended. A soft run. Then he nodded slowly, changed his stance, and began to play an eerie harmony that lifted the hair on the back of Charlie's neck.
Grinneal had only ever played the song with a single fiddler. There'd never been a harmony before.
Three others joined him.
The Selkie behind the old man's left shoulder grinned and suddenly wasn't elderly but eldritch and beautiful. She leaned forward and kissed the back of his neck.
Charlie took a deep breath.
Music had blown the storm back out to sea. Had probably called it in, too, but that wasn't the point. Music had brought her back through time. Music could do this . . .
A sudden howling gust of wind nearly blew her off her feet.
She staggered three steps forward, felt the edge of the cliff begin to crumble under her foot, fought to turn, fell on her ass when the wind stopped as suddenly as it started, began to slide, gravity taking over . . .
As her left leg flopped off into air, strong fingers grabbed her arm and dragged her back. Then up onto her feet.
Charlie steadied herself on Eineen's shoulders, but her eyes were locked on the tableau back by the cars. Auntie Catherine lay crumpled on the ground, Paul standing over her, Charlie's guitar case in his hand. It was so quiet, they could hear orders shouted out on the barge.
"She came out of the side mirror," Paul said, blinking rapidly, as though his eyes were still trying to convince his brain. "She threw a piece of paper into the air and blew on it and you nearly went off the cliff, so I . . ." He glanced down at the case. "She's just . . . I've never hit a woman and . . ."
Charlie sang a fast E flat minor as Auntie Catherine tried to rise and she slumped back to the ground again. After a moment, when it became clear she was going to stay there, Charlie relaxed. "Okay. Good. And, if it makes you feel any better . . ." Charlie gave Eineen a little shove toward Paul. He looked like he needed an application of Selkie mellowing. ". . . if she'd seen you coming, she'd have found a cornfield."
"Family thing. Never mind. Point is, you wouldn't have survived the experience. So . . ." Hands in her pockets to hide the trembling, Charlie turned back to the ocean. ". . . the barge is still moving, folks. Once more, with feeling."
Beyond the wild wood, the road. Beyond the road, the wild sea.
Mark let Tim hold the heartbeat and built a wild rhythm around it, in and out of the melody, over and around the harmony.
As the barge drew even with the cliff, and the music thrummed in blood and bone, and the fiddler in her head played the same song as the fiddlers on the cliff unless the fiddlers on the cliff were the fiddler in her head, Charlie drew in a deep breath, acknowledged that Auntie Catherine unconscious behind her was better than Auntie Catherine conscious pretty much anywhere for a while, and sang a single note.
And held it.
Sang to the land beneath the sea.
Eineen stepped to the edge of the cliff, naked, a belt wrapped around her waist. A woman stepped from behind every fiddler, stepped to the edge of the cliff, naked but for shawls or belts or scarves or sweaters. They were women in the air. They were women when they hit the water. They were seals when they surfaced.
The cliff trembled. Under the barge, the seabed dropped.
The sea dropped.
The barge dropped with it.
And the sea rushed in to fill the space, leaving a perfect oval in the water, the forged signature of a leviathan's dive.
Charlie changed notes. Mark changed the beat. Bo shook out his right arm, brought the bow back and began "Homeward Bound."
That, all nine fiddlers knew and had played a thousand times between them.
Out by the oval, the seals surfaced with coughing men clinging to their backs. They brought their living salvage in to shore about a kilometer from the cliff, swimming as close to the gravel beach as they could.
Once the last man staggered out of the waves, Charlie let the note die. When she closed her mouth, her lips stuck together.
One by one the fiddlers stopped.
Then Mark. Then, finally, Tim.
The waves continued to slap lazily against the cliff as the though the barge had never existed.
"Okay, I don't want to be a killjoy here, Chuck, because that was fucking amazing, but I think the science of this is off." Peering over his sunglasses, Mark scratched his head with his tipper. "I mean, you disrupted the seabed, shouldn't there be a tsunami or something?"
"We sank a barge with a song." Charlie dragged her tongue over her lips without improving the situation much. "Science isn't really a factor here."
"Point." He squinted along the coast to the saved men, some standing in groups, a few kneeling. "They're going to tell stories about this. Hell, they're going to write songs about this."
"No one will believe them."
"You don't know . . ."
"I do know. But the seals will get a legend out of it, and that oil field's not going anywhere, so good PR never hurts."
"Also point." He stared at her for a long moment, then grinned. "If you'll excuse me, Chuck, I think I've discovered what that song needs to be played in public." He hurried off along the cliff to the cluster of fiddlers. Tim rolled his eyes and followed.
Charlie felt something poke her in the arm, turned, and accepted a bottle of water from Paul. "I really do like you, Paul Belleveau. In spite of everything. If Eineen ever gets . . ." She glanced back at the fiddlers.Young and old and apparently happy with their choice. This really wasn't any of her business. "Never mind."
He gestured out at the water where the barge wasn't. "This won't stop Amelia Carlson."
"Doesn't have to." Best water Charlie had ever tasted. "It just has to delay her plans long enough for me to stop her."
"You can stop her?"
Charlie grinned. "I just sank a barge with a song."
Paul nodded, half turned . . . "What should we do about Catherine Gale?"
"Leave her."
"Leave her?"
"Trust me."
"She's going to be angry."
"Angry?" Charlie snickered and swayed a bit where she stood. "No. She's going to be wild."
Technically, she shouldn't be anywhere near the Emporium because technically she was upstairs recovering from being crushed by a Troll. However, given that she was, in point of fact, upstairs recovering from being crushed by a Troll, it was unlikely she'd be coming downstairs to run into herself. No harm. No foul.
Slipping in through the back door, the viburnum still quivering in the courtyard, Charlie headed straight into the store and behind the counter to where Boris' photo hung on a nail that glowed so brightly the light was visible six centimeters beyond the edges of the frame.
Amelia thought the young woman who brushed against her as she left the restaurant looked vaguely familiar, but the fuchsia hair was distracting, Ewan was being entertaining, the stars were enchanting, and the wine had been lovely so, honestly, who had time for vaguely familiar.
The sinking of the barge during the small earthquake off the coast of Cape Breton had opened inquires. She'd directed them all away from her to Captain Bonner and laid as much of the blame as possible on her ex-assistant. Nothing had stuck, but she'd crush Paul Belleveau in time.
This was a delay only. With the permit still in her possession, and the minister still in her pocket, the well would go in. No one stopped needing oil because a few sailors and ironworkers swallowed too much salt water.
Heroic seals. Honestly.
Since she never noticed the nail that had been slipped into one of the worn outside pockets of her Italian leather bag, she never noticed when half a centimeter of seam finally gave way and she lost it.
On the fall equinox, as gray-green clouds scudded across the sky and wind whipped the tops off the waves, the seabed by Hay Island cracked. The rock split across the site where the shallow water well would have been anchored by steel and iron had Carlson Oil not suddenly had to declare bankruptcy.
A tentacle emerged from the darkness below the rock and stretched toward the surface.
There were no seals in the water. Or on Hay island. Actually, given the enormous gold dragon perched on the rookery, there was no room for seals on the island. Fortunately, the Gales had always been a close family.
The seals were safely on Scatarie, their cousins standing behind them holding camera phones.
"You're on." Charlie braced herself against the downdraft as Jack took off. He'd grown since he'd left the UnderRealm. Grown, changed, matured a little although he was still, undeniably, a fourteen-year-old boy. He gave a whoop, or the dragon equivalent, when he hit the water.
Auntie Catherine hadn't Seen the Troll. She hadn't Seen Jack at the festival when she'd sent the Boggarts. She hadn't even known it was Jack answering when she'd called Charlie's phone. She hadn't Seen the obvious solution.
"Like I told you, Auntie Catherine, I've got this end-of-the-world thing covered."
Bracelets chimed as she tucked hair disturbed by Jack's flight back behind her ears. "No one likes a smart-ass, Charlotte."
Bottom line, it wasn't about forgiveness or understanding or working together for the greater good; it was about being a Gale.
". . . and although yesterday's small earthquake off the coast of Cape Breton was the second in as many months, both provincial and federal governments continue to refuse to fund research. Acadia and Dalhousie Universities have announced they plan on sending geophysicists to the region with or without government funding."
Charlie reached over and turned off the car radio. "And geophysicists still on the shore at moonrise will suddenly find themselves in new relationships as Two Seventy-Five N adds to their resource base." Under Paul's leadership, the environmental group had begun to expand onto the international stage. Turned out that Eineen hadn't changed him, she'd just redirected his focus.
Feet on the dashboard of Charlie's car, Jack slouched as far as the seat belt would allow and belched.
"Oh, that's nice." The small fire on the dash burned out on its own.
"It's not my fault the old gods taste like a sneaker someone stored fish in."
Charlie grinned, swerved around a late season tourist, and tossed him a bag of nacho chips. "Remind me to take you out for good calamari some time."