The Wild Ways
Chapter Six

 Tanya Huff

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AS THOUGH TO MAKE UP for Saturday, Sunday's weather was beautiful. Sunny and warm, the sky looked as though it had been scrubbed. With none of the Selkies about - Tanis had wiped her eyes and told Bo she had family obligations and Neela had gone off with her kids - Charlie concentrated on the festival, making notes on the competition, jamming with the competition, and explaining an infinite number of times why she had a Band-aid on her right thumb. She hadn't even realized she'd strummed it bloody playing the storm.
She bought the guitar.
Her bank account held twenty-two dollars more than the reduced asking price and, given what it had been through, the odds were high no one else would be able to play it anyway. Back on her hillock, listening to Five by Five rock out to "Ghosts of Calico" by Enter the Haggis, Charlie changed the heavies that had been on it for mediums - the luthier had set it up for bluegrass and, evidently, storm calling. Although she'd changed strings thousands of times on dozens of instruments, she drew blood with every string. Was it because the old strings had been blooded and that was what the guitar now required or was she just short on sleep, a little bit stoned, and three beers into the afternoon.
When she wandered away from the party at the campground that night to stand on the beach, she could see the darker lines of seals hanging vertically in the water, watching the shore. No, watching her. She walked to the right, their heads swiveled to follow. They didn't follow the couple holding hands, trying to convince each other that what they felt was real and not a result of the music. They didn't follow the four kids up way past their bedtime too buzzed on sugar to sleep anyway. They followed her. Only her.
It was impossible to tell at this distance, in the dark, if they were merely seals but swimming out to check seemed like a very bad idea. As Aston had discovered, seals bit.
And Selkies . . .
Now she couldn't stop wondering if Eineen was a biter.
The fiddler in her head got out only the first three bars of "Haste to the Wedding" before Charlie shut it down.
Next morning, Shelly's cheerful whistling of the same tune jerked her out of a sound sleep.
"Good night?" Charlie yawned without lifting her head as the other woman bounced into the small room.
Shelly grinned. "Not bad." Then she frowned and sat on the edge of her unused bed, legs filling the minimal space between them, right knee pressed against Charlie's left elbow. "Tell me you didn't not hook up because you're not pining for Eineen. Because, sweetie, that's never going to happen."
"You know her?"
"Oh, yeah, you see her at the festivals all the time. Last year Mark thought she was one of the secret judges, but it seems she just really likes the music. And I saw her at the protests for stopping the seal hunt; she's part of some environmental watchdog group. Also, I think she introduced Tanis to Bo - they're related somehow. But my point is very, very straight."
"I know. It's . . ." Charlie flopped over on her back and sighed up at the ceiling. "It's complicated. I look at her and I want her, but I swear, I'm not pining. I just didn't feel like partying."
"Steve Morris was asking after you."
"Did he have the money he owes me for that session work?"
"I doubt it since he had a plan to make it up to you."
"Do another CD and he'll pay me for both?"
"It's like you know him." Straightening her leg, Shelly kicked her in the thigh. "Now get up. We have to be out of the cottage by eleven and it's nine forty-five."
Grinneal was off until Wednesday afternoon when they'd meet up at Cheticamp in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park for a paid gig. According to Mark, the Wednesday ceilidh was essentially a barn dance, but it made the tourists happy and that was all that mattered.
"I will not forget we have a sound check at three," Charlie insisted as Mark glared at her through two very bloodshot eyes. "I won't be even be late. I'm just going to help Tanis look for the heirloom she's lost."
Arms folded, holding a pair of sticks in both hands like Egyptian regalia, Mark's glare morphed into a puzzled frown. "Hadn't realized you two were so close, Chuck."
"We're not. But I've got some time to kill, and if she's happy, Bo's happy." They moved in unison to avoid being run down by Tim carrying three accordion cases and the coffeemaker. "A happy fiddler makes for a happy band."
"So you're doing it for the band?"
She grasped his shoulder, cupping the spider tat, and drew a small, reassuring charm on damp skin with the edge of her thumb as she squeezed. "I'm selfless that way."
Unwilling to chance the Wood with a passenger and a new, and potentially dangerous guitar, Charlie left it and her clean clothes with Shelly, borrowed a backpack for her dirty clothes, and went out to meet Tanis and Bo. Bo continued to take the world is wider than you imagine remarkably well although Charlie was beginning to think it had as much to do with Tanis not allowing enough oxygen into his system as it did with Selkie brainwashing.
Watching her rub the soft curve of her hip against Bo's groin, Charlie had to admit it was an effective way of keeping Bo distracted.
"Bo? There's a familiar truck approaching."
He moved his lips far enough from Tanis' mouth to say, "My brother's picking me up."
Charlie recognized the driver. "Your brother have a bad '70s pornstache?"
Impossible to pucker while smiling that broadly. "No such thing as a good one."
"Hey, dipshit!" The mustache didn't seem to affect his volume. "Stop molesting that woman and get in the truck.Your audition's at two fifteen, and Dad'll want to see you first. Hey, Tanis, still not interested in trading up?"
"Audition?" Charlie asked as Tanis went to the driver's window.
"Symphony Nova Scotia. Dad's Assistant Principal Cello and Feroz is Second Bassoon." When Charlie lifted a brow, he snickered. "He shaves during the season. Mostly I audition to make my father happy, but I wouldn't turn down a steady job over the winter either."
"You go where the music calls," Tanis murmured, tucking back under his arm.
When he bent his head to kiss her, Charlie shared a look with Feroz and flicked Bo's ear. "Two fifteen audition," she reminded him. "Go. Call her when you're done."
"Do you need a lift . . . ?"
"Is it . . . ?" He widened his eyes and waggled his brows up and down.
"Yes, it's a bad Groucho Marx impersonation. Get in the truck. Tanis, get the door. You know," she sighed as the truck finally headed away from the cottages, and Tanis gave a weak sniffle, "nothing against Bo, he's a great guy and one hell of a fiddler, but you don't have to lock your landlife to a man."
"Actually . . ." she paused to blow her nose. ". . . we do."
"You do?"
Tanis smiled and spread her hands, the webbing evident. "We leave the sea to dance in the moonlight and fall in love. That's the Rule my people live by. Fortunately, we fall in love easily. With men," she added hurriedly. "Eineen can't . . ."
"I know."
"But you still want her."
Her personal soundtrack agreed with a spirited "Cherish the Ladies."
First Shelly, now Tanis; apparently, she'd been more obvious about her attraction to the Selkie than she'd thought. Charlie spread her hands as Tanis had, letting the gesture answer, then turned and headed behind the cottages, Tanis falling into step beside her.
"Have you tried wanting men?" she asked after a moment.
He'd been a strong man once, broad shoulders, large hands, skin browned by the wind and the sun and sea.
Charlie grinned. "Not since Friday," she said as the fiddler segued into "Boys of the Town."
Too innately graceful to trip, Tanis paused for a moment, then hurried to catch up. "But . . ."
"Human rules are less specific than the Rules of the Fey."
"You're not entirely Human," she pointed out.
"Gale rules are Gale specific." Charlie ducked in under the reaching branch of the big pine and stopped, settling her guitar into place. "Put your hand on my shoulder and I'll bring us out by those three birches behind your house."
Dark eyes widened in wonder. "How did you know?"
"Google Earth.You gave me your address, I borrowed Mark's laptop."
"Still magic of a sort."
"I suppose." Her fingers felt slightly damp against Charlie's skin. "Are you sure you can take all of what I am through the Wood?"
Charlie shushed the fiddler and checked. The missing skin left a gaping hole in Tanis' song, silence where there'd been both deepwater music and waves against the shore. Easy enough to fix. She wove the absence of the skin through the song - a wail of longing bending the treble strings. She didn't need to turn to know Tanis was crying again.
"Trust me," she said lightly, trying to lift the Selkie's mood before the Wood got wet. "I took a Dragon Lord through last year, and your other form can't possible weigh what he did."
"A Dragon Lord?" Damp interest.
"They were . . ." Hunting. Invading. Igniting. ". . . visiting in Calgary, and we went to Chicago for pizza. He weighed more on the way back. Those guys can eat."
Tanis' grip tightened and she sniffed, more in pique than sorrow. "I've always been told that we opened a gate to this world because of the Dragon Lords. That they found our other form . . . tasty."
Charlie snorted. "I get the impression they find pretty much everything tasty. Hang on."
Tanis lived in a small house on Grandfather's Cove outside Main-a-Dieu. "It's been in the family for generations," she said leading the way out of the brush and over the rough cut lawn to the back door. "Not our generations of course, yours. Actually, Humans. I'm the only one living here right now; the others with landlives live with their husbands. But my sisters and my cousins visit often, and I spend a lot of my time with Bo." She caught a handful of hair blown wild on the wind and twisted it into a braid. "Soon, I'll leave here to live with Bo. Until he betrays me."
"It's how our story always ends. With betrayal." Her eyes went dark from lid to lid and a single tear fell to roll down the perfect curve of her cheek. "Mortal lives are so short."
The Fey were walking, talking cliches sometimes. "So they betray you by dying?"
"The ultimate betrayal." She shrugged, the glamour back, whites in her eyes again. "It's the only betrayal left, isn't it? These days, we choose the men we live a landlife with."
Is seemed as though the men so chosen couldn't decline. But then, the Fey tended to get what the Fey wanted and as long as none of them made a move on a Gale boy, not her problem. "So no one ever sees you doing the obligatory moonlight dancing and steals your skin instead of falling in love?"
"Please, most modern men wouldn't believe what they saw and the last man who did and then strutted around saying I have your skin and you must be mine got visited by half a dozen cousins who kicked the living shit out of him until he divulged the hiding place."
"Half a dozen cousins? Not one of your males?"
"A male would have killed him."
Seals bite.
Also, divulged? Who actually said divulged? Tanis' speech patterns were an interesting mix of Fey formal and twenty-first century casual.
"Mr. Alcock next door mows the lawn," Tanis continued, as though she hadn't just been talking about putting the boots to a modern application of Celtic myth. "And his wife comes in and cleans once a week as the Alcock family has done for generations. In return, the family are the most successful fishermen in the village. Actually, these days, they might be the only successful fishermen in the village. Over the last few months, the remaining fishing grounds have all but emptied. As though the fish are fleeing before Carlson Oil can destroy their homes."
"Good for them . . . but back to the kicking. If you could find that skin . . ."
"You weren't listening; we could only find the man who had it - not that it was hard, what with the strutting and bragging and all. He had to tell us where the skin was."
"Okay, but my point is, we know who has the four missing skins."
Tanis sighed and pulled a key for the back door out from under an upturned clay flower pot. "Don't be ridiculous. We can't threaten an entire corporation. They have the skins, so we won't be a threat. Plus, the CEO is a woman; we can't even lure her somewhere secluded and point a male at her hoping she'll survive long enough to talk. Given the way she does business, she's probably taken that possibility into account. Her executive assistant is a man and he's usually the one getting his hands dirty, but even if we get these skins back, we can't stop them from getting more, and they'll definitely up the ante. I'm the only landlifer without kids and Carlson Oil has a rep for being hard-line and we're vulnerable now they know what we are. What?" she asked as Charlie stared at her. "Because we spend so little time in the water, those of us living a landlife are the core of the environmental group, and offshore drilling was on our radar even before Carlson filed for permits."
Of course it was. Turned out Tanis was pretty chatty when she wasn't sobbing or her lips weren't attached to Bo's. "So offshore drilling's innately evil?"
"If the Gulf spill taught us anything, it was that spills are inevitable. Even ignoring the flight of the fish stocks, Carlson wants to drill right next to a seal rookery. We have family there. Wipe your feet," she added as she opened the door.
There were no charms on or around the back door even though the birches would have been the easiest place for Auntie Catherine to emerge from the Wood.
The downstairs of the house had been simply furnished with the sort of heavy, handmade eighteenth century pieces that would cause the most stalwart antique dealer to have palpitations as he worked out his commission. Provided he could find buyers willing to ignore the slight scent of fish.
The decor in Tanis' bedroom jumped ahead a few centuries to come down in the land of online shopping. Comforter, sheets, shams, curtains, rug . . . everything matched. Bed, dressers, and bedside tables were MDF, shipped flat-pack and assembled. The art prints on the pale blue walls were generic landscapes. The room looked like it had been put together by someone not quite Human but trying hard. Personality showed only in the pile of romantic comedies by the television in the corner, the brightly colored clothing piled and draped over every possible surface, and, the poster of George Stroumboulopoulos on the plaster-and-lathe wall between the two dormer windows. The CBC late night talk show host, who declared he was everyone's boyfriend, had apparently not been told that Canadian celebrities, particularly those on the CBC, didn't smolder.
Charlie admired the poster a moment longer, then asked, "So where was your skin?"
"In my underwear drawer. No, the other one," she added as Charlie reached out.
If the skins could be the size the Selkies wanted, Tanis had obviously wanted hers to not take up much room in a drawer crammed full of matching bra and panty sets. If that wasn't enough, and it looked like enough for two or three women, a leopard print demi bra hung from one corner of the dresser mirror, sharing space with a fuchsia cami and a lime-green thong.
Charlie waited to see if her fiddler had anything to say, wasted another moment imagining Eineen in a thong, then took a deep breath and set about methodically searching the room for charms. Nothing.
"You were in the room when it was stolen?"
"Bo and I both were. Sound asleep."
Every other entrance into the house was as bare of charms as the back door. Charlie even checked the chimney just to be on the safe side. Nothing. Just like the RV.
Back in the bedroom, Tanis pulled the note from the drawer in the bedside table and handed it over.
Support the well on Hay Island and your skin will be returned when the wellhead is in place.
The only difference between it and Neela's note was the entirely expected tearstains.
Leaning back against the big dresser, Charlie hit paper and ink with every WTF? charm she knew and discovered nothing. Nada. Goose eggs all around.
But something nudged at her, twanged her subconscious like a familiar song she could only just . . . barely . . . hear. Almost had it . . . nearly . . .
Distracted by the lime-green thong and its reflection, she lost it.
"What now?" Tanis asked as they went back downstairs.
"I have no idea. But I'm not giving up," she added hurriedly as Tanis started to sniffle. "Maybe I should talk to Amelia Carlson."
"She's the head of the second largest oil company in Atlantic Canada."
"And I'm Charlie Gale."
Tanis paused at the front door, brows raised. "Can you just walk up to her, then?"
Charlie shrugged. "Don't know. I've never tried."
The view at the front of the house was amazing. A flagstone path led to a gravel road, across the road a narrow band of beach grass, across that a tidal beach, and across that, the sea. Turquoise close to shore, darkening farther out, distant waves topped with white ruffles - only water separated that shore from Europe. One hell of a lot of water.
And a Selkie.
Eineen crossed the sand, her hair wet and flowing down over her body like a midnight veil, her face too narrow, her eyes too large and too dark, her proportions wrong. Every time her foot touched the sand, it added another note to the song wrapped around her . . . wild seas and drowning men and bones white against the seabed. She met Charlie's gaze and held it and between one step and the next was still beautiful but no longer other.
Except for the sealskin she held in her right hand. That was pretty freakin' other, Charlie amended.
"We all keep some clothes here," Tanis explained, pouring boiling water into a teapot as Eineen showered off the salt. "Between you and me? Given how much time Eineen's spending at the festivals and working with the environmental group, I think she's ready for another landlife." Her mouth made a perfect O of dismay. "I don't mean with you," she added. "I mean, you're nice and you're helping and all, but . . ."
"But she's not really helping, is she?" Eineen had thrown on a purple tank and black cotton skirt. Her hair was still wet but merely hair rather than unearthly tresses. "Or have you found something here?"
"Not a thing," Charlie admitted, sniffing a homemade cookie for traces of cod. "To paraphrase Dr. McCoy, I'm a musician, not a detective. There isn't a mark on either site. There isn't even a place where a charm's been removed. I have no idea how Auntie Catherine is getting in and getting the pelts out."
Wrapping her hands around a mug of tea, Eineen looked thoughtful. "Maybe you're asking the wrong question. Before you ask how, you should ask where."
"How did your Auntie Catherine know where to look? How did she know there was a pelt in this house? In Glera's house? In Seanan's boat? In Neela's trailer? How did she know where the skins were hidden?"
Charlie swallowed and sucked chocolate chips off her teeth. "Someone told her?"
The temperature in the room dropped about ten degrees. Eyes, face, webbing, teeth . . .
They had remarkably pointed teeth, Charlie realized. She spread her hands, thought of Aston, reconsidered, and tucked her fingers between her thighs and the stool. "According to Tanis, it always ends with betrayal. If that's true, then what's to say you haven't been betrayed?"
Eineen's features softened, and Tanis burst into tears. "Bo didn't betray me!"
"Oh, for . . ." Eineen sighed, stood, and gathered Tanis into her arms. "Hush, little one."
"Actually, I very much doubt Bo betrayed her." Charlie reached for another cookie. She appreciated baked goods that weren't layered in charms. "Gale girls know besotted and he's clearly, completely besotted."
This brought on a fresh burst of tears.
"Happy tears?" Charlie guessed.
Eineen shrugged, rubbing comforting circles on the small of Tanis' back. "The husbands of the other three know," she admitted. "One of them could have betrayed us."
"No. Not to Carlson Oil." Tanis lifted her head from Eineen's shoulder and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "I worked with all of them when we stopped the seal hunt and while they might sell us out for a guarantee the drilling would never happen, they'd never do it get a well put in. Not so close to shore. Not so close to the rookery."
"Jobs . . ."
"They're fiddlers."
Charlie shrugged. "It's Cape Breton; who isn't?"
"And sure," Tanis continued, ignoring her, "Glera's brother-in-law works the oil fields out west . . ."
"Fort McMurray?"
"I don't know. Does it matter?"
"Evidence of a small world."
"This one," she agreed. "But he couldn't betray Seanan; he doesn't know about the boat."
They were almost at something. Charlie could hear all the notes now but not the tune. Not quite. "Auntie Catherine went straight to the underwear drawer. She had to have, because she wouldn't have bothered cleaning up after herself if she'd had to toss the place." It was a little harder to tell that Neela's trailer hadn't been tossed, given the mess, but the mess, in turn, helped support her theory. It would have taken hours to search through the scattering of toys. "Auntie Catherine has the Sight. Maybe she saw where the skins would be. She could have seen it years ago and only just found a use for the information. Now me, I'm not an auntie, not even second circle - they're all about connections - and I certainly don't have the Sight . . ." Charlie couldn't think of much worse than getting glimpses of the future and having to decide whether or not to interfere. Okay. Advance warning of Justin Beiber might have been worth it but not much else. ". . . so no, not a hope in hell I can find them the same way. But this is who I am." She picked up her guitar from where she'd leaned it against the wall, settled it on her lap, and barred her way up, and then down the fretboard before settling to play.
Eineen's song was deep and mysterious and dangerous, and Charlie couldn't so much play it as evoke it, letting the bass strings ring as she built the melody above them. Outside, across the road, across the beach, the waves beat out the percussion against the shore. With a wail of strings, her fiddler joined in.
Charlie stood and walked up the stairs, following the music, the stairwell barely wide enough for her to keep playing even with the guitar tipped. The second bedroom held a narrow bed and a lot of clothing; different styles, different sizes, different eras. She stopped in front of a line of brass hooks screwed into the wall behind the door. Stopped playing. Lifted a powder blue chenille dressing gown. Lifted a yellow windbreaker. Lifted a shawl . . .
And found herself holding a sealskin.
It was heavy, it smelled like fish, and the empty eyeholes were creeping her the hell out.
"I'll take that." Eineen reached past her, tugged the skin from her hand, and it was a shawl again. Then a fabric belt, wrapped around a narrow waist.
It was possible, likely even, that Auntie Catherine had been able to maintain the glamour. Somehow, Charlie couldn't see her dragging what looked like a skinned seal all over the province.
"I took Tanis through the Wood," she said, leaving the room. "I know her song and her skin is a part of it. It doesn't matter where Auntie Catherine has hidden it, I can track it the same way I found yours. It's not even tracking really; it's just joining the pieces. Second verse, follows the first."
"Now?" Staring up at her from the bottom of the stairs, Tanis' eyes were open painfully wide.
Charlie flexed her fingers. The Band-aid on her thumb made her grip on the pick uncertain, so she tugged it off with her teeth and then shoved it in the pocket of her shorts.
"I can get rid of that."
"Thanks, but I'll take care of it." Gales didn't leave their blood just lying around, not if they wanted to survive adolescence. Or, specifically, their siblings' adolescence. Those sorts of charms always went wrong. "Stand beside me, hand on my shoulder, like when we were traveling . . . and why are you crying now?"
"I just . . . it's almost over."
"Shouldn't you be outside? If you're going to be traveling," Eineen expanded as Charlie turned toward her.
"Not yet. First I have to find the missing piece of the song, the part that links Tanis to her sealskin. Once I have it, we ride that to the final chorus. Safer to fill in the blanks before we start moving."
Feet braced, Charlie relaxed her shoulders and played the opening notes. Listened. Built Tanis' song up from the touch on her shoulder, from the waves, from her tears, from the love on Bo's face when he looked down at her. She touched the absence of the skin and, this time, felt the shape of its absence, followed that shape out, away, and . . .
And. . . .
And. . . .
Eineen's fingers were cool around her wrist as she stopped the movement of Charlie's right hand. "You can't get there, can you? And you're bleeding again."
Charlie had no memory of losing the pick.
Tanis, predictably, was crying.
"Auntie Catherine knows I'm here," Charlie growled around the thumb in her mouth. "She's deliberately blocked me."
"So now what?"
"Now, I'm heading home." Early afternoon had become early evening while she played. The three-hour time difference was about to save her ass. "While I'm gone, you guys and your lifejacket group are going to set up a press conference, where you discuss how maybe possibly, a shallow water well wouldn't be such a bad thing."
"Why would anyone believe that?" Eineen demanded, arms folded.
"Talk about how many jobs it'll bring to Cape Breton, that's the usual 'get out of jail free card' around here. But don't talk to anyone one on one; you're not actually trying to change people's minds, you're just putting on a dog and pony show so Amelia Carlson thinks you're going along with her plans and doesn't grab another skin."
"She's not stupid."
"Clearly. But from what I've seen, she's all about the sound bite. She uses television spots to sway popular opinion without ever saying a damned thing. She'll think you're doing the same."
"All right . . ." Eineen nodded, acknowledging Charlie's analysis. ". . . while we're doing that, what will you be doing?"
"Amongst other things, talking to the family about what Auntie Catherine's been up to."
"And will they choose to support you over this older, more venerated member?"
"Some of them."
"Oh, that . . . she's just . . . I want to . . ." As the lights started to flicker, Allie forced herself to calm down. "Why is she doing it? Did she tell you that much?"
Charlie swallowed a mouthful of peach pie. "She says it's because they're paying her. You've got the Emporium; she needed an alternative income stream."
"Do you believe her?"
"The aunties don't tend to lie." The aunties believed in telling the truth and enjoying the fireworks.
"So she's stealing Selkie skins for an evil oil company?"
"I'm not sure it's evil . . ."
Allie spread her arms wide in the universal gesture for are you kidding me? "It hired my grandmother!"
"Yeah, okay, that doesn't look good, but that doesn't make it evil." Charlie, for one, had no intention of giving up cold beer, Belgian waffles, or amplified sound and all that required power. Power required oil companies. "Say, rather, unethical."
"Point of interest . . ." Graham raised his fork. ". . . Harvard business school only recently started teaching ethics. Graduates had previously been taught you do what you have to for the company."
"Which makes my point. Besides, we don't actually care about the company, we care about Auntie Catherine and on a scale of one to ten, based on what an auntie could do, blackmail barely makes a seven."
"Wait . . ." Jack swallowed a last enormous mouthful, licked a dribble of peach juice off his lip, and looked hopefully at the pie until Allie rolled her eyes and cut him another slice. ". . . there are Selkies here? In the MidRealm? Near where I'm going to be?"
"There are," Charlie replied, reaching for her ice tea. "And you can't eat them."
"But they're really good!"
"I don't doubt you, but on this side of the gate, Gale boys don't eat anyone they can have a conversation with unless . . . OW! Allie!"
"He's fourteen."
"And not stupid," Jack muttered, spewing crumbs. "I have an internet connection."
Allie folded her arms. "I'm seriously reconsidering sending you east."
That lifted Jack's attention from the pie, if only momentarily. "Graham?"
Wow. A whole conversation in three words. Charlie envied Allie that. A little. She definitely envied Graham's improved ability to read Allie's expressions because Charlie had no idea what her cousin was thinking as she cleared the table and stacked the dishes in the sink although she knew, from the set of Allie's shoulders, that something was up.
Up right now, she realized as Allie turned to face her.
"Jack, lets you and me go out and grab some more butter and maple syrup." Seemed like Graham realized it, too. "You know how many pancakes this family goes through post ritual."
"But we've got gallons of . . ." As Allie moved closer to the table, Jack's well honed sense of self-preservation kicked in before he finished the sentence. "Right. Good idea." He picked up his pie in one disproportionately large teenage hand, shot Charlie a sympathetic look, and nearly beat Graham to the door.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Allie asked as it closed behind them.
Charlie kept her voice level, matter-of-fact, refusing to turn this into a thing. "I just did."
"You've known for days."
"I didn't want to accuse your grandmother until I spoke to her."
"You spoke to her Saturday." Allie dropped into the chair next to Charlie's and closed her hand around Charlie's arm. "And why would I care about you accusing my grandmother of anything? She's probably guilty of a lot more than you've discovered. If I had to choose between you, it's not a choice."
"I know, but you had a ritual to put together. I didn't want to pump up your anger at her and distract you from what's really important."
"I almost believe that, except the ritual's tonight, so I still have to pull it together and you just told me. Try again."
"Look, Allie-cat, if you don't like my reasons . . ."
Allie's gaze never wavered. "I haven't heard your reasons."
She wasn't going to let it go, Charlie realized. She'd sit there at the table, right through the ritual if it came to it, solemn expression in place, waiting for Charlie to admit aloud the conclusion she'd already come to. It was a second circle thing, this connecting the dots and assembling a conclusion; Charlie's mother did it all the time. Allie was frighteningly good at it, considering she'd crossed not much more than a year ago. "Are you pregnant?"
"What? No! Stop trying to change the subject."
It had been a long shot. "I, uh . . . I have a fiddler in my head."
"And again: what?"
"Every now and then a lone fiddler shows up, plays a bit of music that's more or less relevant to what's going on and then buggers off until the next time."
"An actual fiddler shows up?" Allie held her thumb and forefinger about six centimeters apart. "In your head?"
"Not an actual fiddler, no, just the music."
"You've always heard music."
"This is a little specific."
"Then maybe it's trying to tell you something specific."
"You think?"
Allie looked smug. "I think you still haven't told me your reasons. Nice try, though."
With nothing left to deflect Allie's question, Charlie took a deep breath and looked deeper. Listened deeper. Listened to what her own song had to say. Then considered lying anyway. Didn't, but it was close. "This is mine," she said at last. "Mark and Tom and Shelly and Bo, and through Bo and Gavin . . ."
"Another fiddler, another band. The point is the band is mine, the music is mine, and, through the fiddlers, the Selkies are mine. Or their problems are mine. And Auntie Catherine is a Wild Power, so her interference makes this even more mine."
"And you thought I wouldn't understand that?"
"I don't . . ."
"You can't tame a Wild Power, so you have to meet her on her own ground. Like calls to like. This . . ." Releasing Charlie's wrist, her gesture took in the city. ". . . was about settling in. What you're doing is about setting free, and you know what the T-shirt says."
Charlie glanced down. "If we're attacked by zombies, I'm tripping you?"
"Not that T-shirt."
Grinning, Charlie blocked her swing. "I love you, but if you quote that at me, I'll teach Jack the lyrics to every filthy song I know while he's with me."
"Fine. No quoting. You know, Grandmother was one of the ones who told me I'd never tame you. She's a manipulative harpy, but that doesn't mean she's wrong. You do what you have to; just tell me how I can help. But first," she added before Charlie could speak, grin broadening, eyes gleaming. "Tell me what's up with Eineen. You glow when you talk about her."
"I don't glow."
"You do. Like a giant firefly."
"Male fireflies glow."
"Nothing's up."
Allie leaned back and looked thoughtful. "It's more than a crush, then. Is it love?"
"It's not nearly that complicated. I just . . . want."
"You want?"
Charlie concentrated on the last of her pie.
"Oh. I thought the Selkie glamour didn't work on girls."
With an empty plate in front of her, Charlie sighed. "Am I the only one who didn't know that?"
"It's not her. It's all me."
"Ego much?" Allie laced their hands together, and tugged Charlie around to face her. "You okay?"
"I'm not without options, Allie-cat."
"Tonight's third circle will . . ."
"No. Unless the aunties have moved another boy west in the last week, Cameron's the only third circle male out here. He's got the six off his list to deal with . . ."
"Seven counting Katie," Allie amended.
"And you're making my point. Jack and I will form a fourth circle and guard the perimeter."
Nose Hill Park felt like an empty stage as the family began arriving.
Embracing her cousins, Charlie noted that the males were already showing full racks. Probably in reaction to Uncle Edward's death - distance wouldn't have stopped them feeling it - but possibly only in response to David who was waiting for them, silhouetted at the peak. Roland, Randy, and Dave, all second circle, wore their horns with an easy grace, but Cameron shifted under the weight of his, eyes wide and nostrils flared as he drew in deep lungfuls of air and forced them back out again, obviously ready to begin.
"Dude!" Charlie cuffed him on the side of the head as he passed, already out of his shirt and working on his shorts. "Pace yourself! It's twenty minutes to midnight and this isn't your first ritual."
He spun around, looking for a fight, and deflated with no other male visible.
Not Charlie's first ritual either. She'd timed it so the others were already most of the way up the hill and out of his line of sight.
"Are we anchoring third?" he asked, working his lower lip between his teeth.
"Not this time, Cam. It'll be Katie, although she might give way to Melissa if asked nicely."
He shrugged, muscles moving prettily under smooth skin - although she knew he had a scar along his right side where he and Dmitri had gotten into it a couple of years ago. "Don't care who anchors, really. It's not like I'm choosing."
"Good. You choose now and the aunties'll go off the deep end when they're forced to relocate another third circle male." And that would be fun for no one. The aunties believed in tossing others into the deep end with them. It was how most Gale girls learned how to swim. "But don't worry. If it happens, it'll be Melissa doing the asking. Now, get going before they start without you."When he was about ten feet away, she sat back against the hood of her car and said, "You can come out now, Jack."
A double image moved out of the shadows, Dragon Prince absorbed into the Gale boy. "How did you know I was there?"
"Your song got louder."
"No. There's a lingering scent of scorched gravel."
He sat as far away as the narrow hood of the car allowed. The August night was warm, but Charlie could still feel the heat radiating off him. "So what do we do?" he asked. He was fourteen, a little less than a year too young for ritual, old enough he couldn't stay still.
"I take care of the perimeter on the ground, you're the air support. Calgary has police helicopters and while they don't generally patrol at night, they do come out if they think something's up."
She glanced up to the top of the hill where she could just barely make out Allie standing in the circle of Graham's arms. Even if her gaze hadn't been drawn to them as they began to pull power, she'd have been able to pick them out of the small crowd. Graham was the only male on the hill without antlers. They'd all gotten used to that over the last year and it certainly hadn't hurt to see him take Roland down without benefit of horn last spring. Next to David, he was the most potent male in the park. "Allie's so connected the city responds, and ritual pulled the police out at midsummer. Drew them to her. You were off eating a buffalo, so Auntie Gwen had to deal with it."
"Little bit. Auntie Bea wants this one." The three aunties stood around David, one at his head, two at his flanks. Although he wouldn't change until it started, the four of them were already becoming difficult to see. If he was nervous about having their hands on him, given what had just happened back in Ontario, it didn't show. "Auntie Bea," Charlie continued, "is definitely an ow. I need you to get into the air and if the police show up, lead them away - preferably before anyone on the ground notices. Don't let them see you, as you, but otherwise do whatever you think will work that comes with plausible deniability and no one getting hurt. Butterflies are not plausibly deniable, but in case I didn't say it before . . ." She reached out and punched his arm. ". . . way to think on the wing."
He snorted, the smoke nearly obscuring his face. "Everyone was mad."
"They sounded mad."
"It's a tricky distinction." She stood and walked around to the backseat, pulling out her guitar. "But now it's almost time. So, wings out and get high enough you won't be distracted by what's happening on the ground."
Jack changed in a sheet of flame, emerging at his full size, and Charlie's car shifted three meters back, tires dragging trenches in the gravel.
An enormous golden dragon looking sheepish was actually kind of adorable, but Charlie buried her reaction because an enormous sulky dragon was not. "No harm no foul; front tires missed my toes by whole centimeters." Feeling the power starting to build, she jerked a thumb toward the sky. "Move it!"
The backwash from Jack's wings nearly knocked her on her ass, but she played a D flat minor 7th against it and managed to stay standing. She watched him rise until he covered a patch of stars no larger than her hand, then turned her full attention to the ritual. Either she trusted Jack to do what was necessary or she didn't, and if she didn't, he had no business being up there.
Charlie felt the moment David changed and the family anchored itself deeper in its chosen home. Felt Allie begin to gather power as Graham stabilized her. Felt the other members of the family join in - Katie muting Cameron's metaphysical yell. Gathered it all up and directed it, through her music, into a ring of protection around the park.
Part of the ritual but not in it.
An insider voluntarily on the outside.
A necessary difference to keep the family safe.
All right, she told the universe as she fed more power into the surrounding fourth circle, stretched it up to include Jack, I get it.
After ritual, the family always ended up at Jonathon Samuel Gale's house out in Mount Royal. It hadn't actually been his house since Jack had eaten him, but the name had stuck. When he'd molted, back in the winter, Jack had curled up in the enormous room in the basement where his father had once displayed magical artifacts. With a four-year-old in the house, the artifacts had been prudently locked in the vault.
"Because the last thing we need is for Lyra to get her hands on the cross section of the thigh bone of the last True Hero, that's why!"
Jack could think of plenty of things Lyra could grab that'd be worse, but he'd tucked his tail under his body and kept his mouth shut.
There were three green plastic garbage bags of his shed scales in the vault now, too.
The thing he liked best about the house was the huge yard. Even with the pool/hot tub combo, enough open grass remained for him to land at full size. And Lucy'd said she wanted that tree down, so he'd really just done her a favor.
Charlie, smelling like sex, sprawled on one of the lounge chairs by the pool, and looked up as he stepped onto the stone edging although she had to have heard him land. "Where have you been?"
"Grabbed a bite before I came back."
"Do I want to know?"
He shrugged. "It had a sore hoof and the heat was just going to make it worse and there were so many, he'd never miss one."
"And would be unlikely to blame a dragon if he did."
Jack shrugged again, shoved her feet aside, and sat down on the end of the lounger. Charlie's attitude toward his meals was totally better than Allie's. "What're you doing out here?"
"Thinking. With you coming east, I'm going to need my car."
He couldn't see how it could have taken her very long to come to that decision. He couldn't exactly fly around after her; that was the kind of thing people eventually noticed. "Okay."
"And you need to not spend three hours in Toronto with Auntie Jane."
Without even trying, Auntie Jane was as scary as Auntie Carmen and Auntie Gwen and Auntie Bea put together. Although Auntie Bea could be pretty scary on her own.
"So," she continued, "I was thinking of alternative ways to get you and the car to Nova Scotia."
"I need to be there by tomorrow afternoon."
"Drive really fast."
"Tempting, but still impossible. I thought I'd try taking it through the Wood."
"The car. And you."
"You can't get me through the Wood. Size matters."
"But you'll be in the car and the car is mostly steel and steel is mostly iron and surrounded by iron, you'll be diminished. Metaphysically speaking."
He poked the bottom of one bare foot, adding just enough heat that she jerked away. "You're totally bullshitting."
"Yes, I am. But it should still work. And watch your language, Allie doesn't like you swearing."
"Bullshit isn't a swear. It's what comes out of a bull." When Charlie continued to hold his gaze, he sighed. "Fine. But if a car is mostly iron, you can't move it through the Wood."
"I'm not Fey, you are. And the car'll be moving on its own, I'll just be steering."
"Still something that comes out of a bull."
"Still not arguing. Should still work.
"But you've never done it."
"I used to think about doing it with Dun Good's bus."
"But you've never done it."
She grinned. "First time for everything."
Jack studied her grin and suddenly missed not knowing if he'd live until dark. It was a weird feeling; he hadn't been that homesick for months. "Okay, then, let's do it." He glanced at the house. The smell of sausages and pancakes wafting out of the enormous kitchen covered the scent of who was up. "And let's do it before Allie stops us," he added.
"You think she can stop me?"
He rolled his eyes. "Duh."
"Yeah, you're probably right. But we'll go tomorrow morning. Two reasons," she added before he could protest. "One, I'm starving and two, there's stuff to sort out after ritual and I don't want to leave it all to Allie. Oh, and nice work with the helicopters, by the way. The UFO thing was inspired." Surging up onto her feet, Charlie grabbed the pool net and started fishing her clothes out of the water.
"Why are . . . never mind."
"Did you charm them?" Jack whispered as Charlie closed the apartment door and locked it.
"Nope. I wore them out." She gestured with the bulging plastic bag stuffed full of jeans and sweaters and he started down the stairs. "It's a good thing they're used to you slipping out for an early flight because you can't sneak for shit. What did you do? Raid the refrigerator?"
The tips of his ears, all the skin she could actually see from three steps up, flushed pink. "Aunt Mary sent another peach pie."
"And you wanted one last piece." Understandable, Allie's mother made great peach pie with a minimum of charms. Have a good day. Stay safe. A few grandchildren would be nice before I'm too old to enjoy them. Fortunately, that last one was aimed specifically at Allie. "Maybe I should go back and get . . ."
The pink darkened.
"You ate the whole pie?"
"I was hungry, and she's not going to be sending peach pies to . . . That's weird." Jack paused and stared at his reflection, moving his head closer to the glass then away again.
"Your pigeon impression? Is weird?" she added when he shot her a look dripping with teenage scorn.
"No, this!" He made the move again as Charlie stopped beside him.
She rolled her eyes. "Ah yeah, the 3D thing again. Hate it."
"I've never seen it do this before." Stepping back as far as the narrow hall allowed, he made a few of the martial arts moves that seemed to be hardwired into the teenage boy genome, then charged forward. "Cool. It's like I'm coming out of the glass."
Charlie grinned. "The fact that you're so easily amused will probably come in handy later." Crossing behind him, she opened the door leading into the store - she'd parked out front, knowing they couldn't sneak past the loft and Auntie Gwen. She stepped out into the Emporium, stopped cold, and stepped back. "Say that again."
Jack shrugged, grabbed for his hockey bag as the strap slid off his shoulder, and said, "It's like I'm coming out of the glass."
"It's like you're coming out of the glass," Charlie repeated. Her fiddler ran through the first few bars of "Smash the Windows" but only because "It's About Fucking Time" had never been put to music. She pushed past Jack, back to the mirror, where fireworks were going off around her reflection. "I'm an idiot."
"Not talking to you." Leaning forward, she exhaled against the glass and drew a charm in the condensation. "Thank you. I'm sorry I was so slow."
"You just apologized to an inanimate object," Jack pointed out as she turned.
"Auntie Catherine is coming in through the mirrors when she goes after the sealskins. That's why I couldn't find any evidence of charms; they're all on the other side of the glass. The mirror, this mirror, has been trying to tell me that since she started, but I didn't get it."
"You are an idiot."
Charlie cuffed him on the back of the head. "Come on, kid, we're going to be heroes."
"You ready?" Charlie flexed her fingers over the strings and angled the headstock a little more toward the roof of the car giving her better coverage over the sound hole and making it less likely she'd clip Jack in the ear at an incredibly inopportune moment.
"Not really."
"Loosen up on the steering wheel, I can smell burning plastic."
"This is crazy."
"Three hours with Auntie Jane."
"Okay." Jack drew in a deep breath.
"Ease off the clutch as you give it a little gas."
"I know!"
Of course he did. Teenagers knew everything.
The car jerked forward.
"A little more gas."
"I know!"
They roared down the street toward the riverbank, the car demanding a higher gear.
"Now, into second." Charlie'd covered the car with the necessary charms - where necessary meant every charm she could think of that might work. "You're doing great. Now, third." She braced herself against the dashboard just in time. "Okay, that was first, not third. Remember the H shape."
Unfortunately, when she'd come up with the idea of taking the car through the Wood, she'd forgotten she wouldn't be able to drive it. Still, how hard could it be for a Dragon Prince/Sorcerer/Gale to master a crash course in driving a standard shift?
"That's good." Right knee against the door holding her steady, Charlie played an arpeggio in G. G minor. G minor seventh. "Now give it more gas and drive it straight into those trees."
Crash course being the operative words.
"Brake! Brake!"
The back of the Selkie's house on Grandfather's Cove was coming up fast.
Really fast.
Too fast.
"Jack, that's the clutch! Off the gas and on the bra . . ."
The car bucked up on its front wheels and stalled.
". . . ke," Charlie finished as it bounced to a stop. A slightly singed birch branch slid down the windshield, bounced off the hood, and fell to the ground. Steam rose up through the front vents. Hopefully steam. Smoke would be bad.
Breathing would be good, too, she realized.
Turning to Jack, she poked him in the side and he exhaled explosively.
Good news: compared to what now filled the car, that was definitely steam coming off the engine.
"That was still better than three hours with Auntie Jane." She couldn't see his face, but Jack sounded fine. Of course he was fine. He was a Gale.
They got out of the car more or less in unison. Guitar swinging from the strap, Charlie coughed, waved away the smoke, and stared at the ruts crossing the backyard. As she reached out and patted the back of the house, not actually needing to completely straighten her arm, her G string broke.
"End of the summer, we might take the long way home," she said thoughtfully, jerking her head away from the flailing wire.
"Yeah . . ." Jack was still smoking on every exhale but the volume had started to taper off a bit. ". . . I'm down with that.You think they've noticed we're gone?"
A phone rang inside the house, Allie's ringtone clearly audible through the open window.
Charlie'd given her phone to Eineen. Who'd evidently left it here. Nearly seven Calgary time, nearly eleven in Nova Scotia, and no one was answering. So no one was home. "Well, that sucks. Here we are, bearing the knowledge of how to keep Auntie Catherine from playing bogeyman - and there's no one to tell. Wait!" Jack jerked and she hid a smile. "I can use your phone!"
"I'm not fifteen, remember. But Auntie Jane said she'd give me a phone early when we talked in Toronto."
Possibly. Charlie was sticking to her original theory that Auntie Jane didn't want Jack running Wild.
"I can get through that door," Jack offered. "Easy."
If she had her phone, she could call Tanis - who couldn't go into the water without her skin so was probably weeping on Bo's shoulder.
"The door isn't a problem, but we have to time it right."
"Time it? Charlie, it's a . . ."
The phone stopped ringing.
Charging across the kitchen, slamming her thumb into the edge of the table as she snatched up her phone, Charlie managed to dial out before anyone else dialed in.
"It's like on Stargate," Jack said as she waited for Tanis to answer.
"The TV show? I think they got that idea from Auntie . . . Tanis? Auntie Catherine is coming through the mirrors. That's how she's taking the skins. What? Please stop crying, you sound like you're talking underwater." She waved Jack toward the door and mouthed, you broke it, you fix it.
He leaned the door against the kitchen cabinets. "How?"
"Hello? Sorcery."
"No, Tanis, Auntie Catherine is not using sorcery; it's a Wild Power thing, like going through the Woods, only shinier." She waited while Tanis told Bo, then added, "Tell everyone to cover their mirrors, that'll keep her out."
"All their mirrors? Even the small ones?"
"Even the small ones. This may be the one time size doesn't . . ." Tires squealed. Charlie winced. "Tanis? Tanis?" Given the volume of the shouting, both Tanis and Bo were fine, but they sounded liked they had some things to work out. Charlie tossed her phone back down onto the table. "Tanis ripped off the rear view mirror and threw it out the window. Come on, let's go."
Jack jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. "The door's still a little wonky."
Both the door and the space it filled were no longer exactly rectangular. But they weren't butterflies, so Charlie counted it as a win. "Does it lock?"
It did.
"Good enough."
"I thought I wasn't supposed to do sorcery?"
"You're not supposed to be a sorcerer," Charlie told him, sliding in behind the wheel. "Not the same thing. Now, if we're going to make sound check . . ." Fingers crossed, she settled her left hand in the undulations Jack had melted, and turned the key with the right. The engine grumbled for a moment but started. ". . . we're going to have to drive fast."
"Cool." Jack rolled down his window. "Can we stop for food, though? I'm starving."
Inside the house, the phone began playing "Ride of the Valkyries."