If you have not been following along, the first snippets are here, and I have the edited manuscript back from my editor, one giant step toward completion. The cover artist has sent me some sketches, and I have re-iterated my desire for art that is gritty, sexy, and noir-ish. Not looking for a scene from the book, just art that is evocative of the story. I had hoped to be able to have e-ARC’s ready for sending out on Nov. 1, that is looking unlikely. Still on track for a Dec. 1 publication date, though.
And here is this week’s snippet, as the door rattled…
Raven walked in, back in his guise of wrinkled old codger. I no longer bought into this, having seen him in action I knew he was ageless. I found that I was standing between her and the door, having moved into defensive position without even being aware of it. I sighed, and sat back down.
Bella sat up straight. “Uncle.” She reached her hands out to him and he dropped his coat on a chair with mine and took them.
“You have to go, I know.” The way he said that, sadly but with certainty, surprised me. I had expected an argument from both of them.
“I don’t have to go anywhere.” She insisted. She looked at me.
“Child,” he told her gently, “I can protect you, if you stayed here, in my house.”
“Then that is what I will do.” She set her chin in what I was beginning to associate with her more stubborn moments.
“But for how long, and what about your family?”
I had to wonder how long he had been listening at the door. I didn’t buy into his knowing everything. Powerful, certainly. A god, certainly not.
“You love too well, child.”
I looked at her and saw her face crumple. There were no tears, yet, although I had a sense that she was fighting it.
“Then I must go.”
He nodded. “I can make sure you are safe until you leave my territory. After you are gone, I can make certain your family is safe.” He looked at me with those grey eyes. “Are her enemies likely to come after the family?”
I shook my head at him. Bella was the only person they wanted here.
“Then you must go.”
She buried her face in her hands. I almost didn’t hear her muffled question. “Can I ever come home again?”
I looked at the old man, and we stared at one another for a long moment. He had decided to trust me, I saw. His eyes were relaxed and he nodded slightly.
“I don’t know.” I answered her honestly, after deciding that I had better start telling her the truth as much as I was able to. “There are five remaining heirs. If one of the others is chosen for Queen, then you will be released from Court.”
“Like Lavendar was.” She looked up and I could see the tears had started. “So how long will it take?”
“Service in the court is timeless.” I told her formally, hoping she would catch from my tone that I was quoting.
“Lavendar told me that fairies live long, Underhill. That they only age while they are in the human realm, and humans are affected oddly by the passing of time between the two planes. That is where the stories of men who live a hundred years Underhill, yet age and die in days when they return home, come from.”
I nodded. She had the idea. It could be a very long time before she came back here. “You can’t say goodbye. But you ought to be able to get in touch with them as we travel, and during your time at Court. These aren’t the days of paper mail, any longer.”
“We need to leave…” she faltered a little. “Right now?”
Raven answered for me. “Yes, and not go to the airport.” He cocked his head to one side, a faroff look in his eyes, as though he were listening to something outside our perceptions. “There are enemies between you and your return ticket, I am afraid.” He looked at me and grinned. “Lom.”
He knew my real name. During that foray into spirit journey he must have seen into my mind. I frowned back at him, trying to convey my deep displeasure at his discovery. He cackled like the bird he was.
“In town?” I asked him, hoping he’d keep the secret to himself. He had a reputation for enjoying a good joke. Of course, some of the stories about his jokes also involved a woman wearing bird droppings and thinking they were high fashion.
He shook his head. “They have found the car on the bridge. You will have to return to town by another route. Also, I believe they know where you are staying, Lom. There are two strange men who are hanging out in the Tok Lodge bar. They arrived about the time the Troll passed through town.”
I shook my head in disgust. “Figures. Well, not the first time I have had to cut and run. The rental car is easily taken care of, and this,” I patted the case that was standing near the couch. “Is all that really matters.”
Bella eyed it. “Destroying or losing it will not help you, princess.” I warned her. She gave me a dirty look indeed.
Raven held up his hand, palm outward. Even that was wrinkled, and had what appeared to be centuries-old dirt embedded in wrinkles and scars. A hand with a lot of character. We both stopped talking obediently and looked at him. He beamed at us.
“Before you leave, children, I will give you a meal.”
Bella groaned. My stomach grumbled. It had been a long time, and a fight, between breakfast and now, whenever now was. I looked at my watch. Well past lunchtime, verging on dinner.
“We don’t have much daylight, Uncle.” She protested.
“You need your strength.”
Silently, I agreed with him. Now that food had been mentioned, I was starving.
“Bella girl, set the table. Lom, put some wood on the fire.” He shot his orders at us and turned his back, reaching into the crude cupboards that made up his pantry. I shrugged at her helpless look and grabbed my jacket and gloves. I had seen the woodpile, so I could handle this little chore.
I stepped out the door and noticed two things instantly. One, it was a lot colder than it had been when we’d come in. Two, the reason for that was, it was dark now. I had not realized just how short the days were here. It was almost spring, and still it was dark. Dammit. I hated not being able to see them coming.
The snow reflected the starlight well, so I found the woodpile and gathered an armload with no incidents. I stood there in silence for a long moment, listening. The old spirit might have his spies out, but I preferred to rely on my own senses.
It was quieter than any place I had ever been before. Only a slight, muffled clatter from the house broke the stillness. I closed my eyes and used my inner sight to look for Power. It was like seeing stars in the sky, Underhill. Sparks bright and dim would spangle the world around me. Here, the old man glowed like a beacon. Bella’s warm yellow flame drew me, then I looked upward and saw the dull lights of the ravens under his control.
I opened my eyes and relinquished the power, blinking to get my eyes back in focus. The clearing around the house remained empty, and I walked across the squeaking snow back to the door. I stamped my feet to get snow off and Bella opened the door. I smiled my thanks as I pushed by into the house.
She showed me the woodbox behind the stove and I dumped the stack into it.
“Cold out there.”
She nodded and took my coat as I peeled it off. “Probably about twenty below. Not bad at all.”
I felt my eyebrows lift. “Not bad?”
She grinned suddenly. “How much did you research the area?”
“Obviously, not enough.” I sniffed. “What is that?”
“Moose burgers.” Raven announced. “You took long enough. Almost ready.”
I sat at the little table. A pair of folding chairs had been produced to join the single upholstered one that appeared to be almost as old as Raven. Spattered enamel plates and mismatched cutlery finished the set-up. It felt… homey. I relaxed a little. It wasn’t often I could stop worrying about the next threat, but Raven had the watch.
Bella sat in the other folding chair with a suppressed moan.
“A bit. I went down right on my…” She rubbed at the affected area. “When that monster dropped me. What was that, anyway?”
“Norwegian Troll.” Raven put two slabs of homemade bread on my plate and walked back to the stove where a skillet was sizzling and sending off mouth-watering odors of cooking meat. “Big and dumb. They have an affinity for bridges, and while they’re hard enough to kill at any time, on a bridge it’s damn near impossible.”
“I put three .44 hollowpoints in his back.” She asserted as she leaned back from Raven, who was now wielding a hot pan. He slid a moose patty onto her bread. She flipped the other piece on top and gave it a little squish.
“Yeah, that got his attention until I put a bullet in his eye. It wouldn’t have stopped him, though.”
“Oh.” She took a big bite and chewed thoughtfully. I imitated her. “Mmmm…” She purred. “Raven, you make the best burgers.”
He grinned, showing a set of improbably white and perfect teeth. “Flattery will get you everywhere, niece.”
I had to agree with her. I didn’t know what he had put in to flavor the meat, but now I understood why there were no condiments on the table. Garlic, onion, spices… and juicy. I swallowed and sighed.
“Thank you.” I inclined my head to him in a formal Japanese style, and he returned that gravely.
“There are three things one should never do on an empty stomach. Fleeing, fighting and…”
“Uncle!” Bella interrupted him with a laugh.
“I get it.” I was chuckling at their byplay. “And I appreciate you feeding us. But how are we supposed to get back to town?”
“Snowgo,” he answered promptly. “You can take it in to town, and call your cousin Tex to fly you out from there.” This part he addressed to Bella, who nodded. I was still trying to figure out what a snowgo was.
He stood up, reached behind the ratty couch, and hauled out a snowshoe. I stared at it in horror. It was damned cold outside, and more than twenty miles back to town, and he expected us to walk?
Raven offered the snowshoe to Bella. “Dessert?”
She burst into laughter as I wondered if they had both gone mad.
When she got her giggles mostly under control she turned to me, “Aunt Mya made Raven a birthday cake a few years back. She’s a really good cake decorator, so she decided she would make a snowshoe-shaped cake for him. He took one look at it and refused to eat it.”
Raven broke in. “It looked real. And you don’t know that woman’s sense of humor! I wouldn’t put it past her.”
His exaggerated look of grievance made me chuckle again. I understood what he was doing, clowning about to keep Bella’s mind off the events of the day. She was looking better, more color in her cheeks with food and the laugh. Time to get moving, while we could still evade our enemies.
She put her plate on the counter next to a dishpan and I imitated her.
“You’re not washing up, girl.” he scolded her. “Get some more layers for this boy.” He pointed at me. I was amused at his command.
She looked at me, and smiled. Suddenly I wasn’t so amused. That look held a lot of mischief, and she had reasons not to be happy with me.
Ten minutes later I waddled out the door. I was wearing about three more layers than I had been, and most of them had obviously been made for children. Even my shoes had been stuffed into a backpack, while my feet (in an extra layer of socks) were stuffed into a pair of moon boots I would have bet good money were made sometime in the 1980s. They were warmer than my shoes had been, I would admit.
The crowning insult was the hat, an erratically knitted affair made from variegated rainbow yarn. It was lined with rabbit fur, had a bobble on top, and earflaps. Bella had handed it to me with a funny little smile. I had looked at the thing in my hand in horror.
“I made that.” She told me.
I looked up at her and wondered whether to tell her the truth.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” she went on cheerfully. “I was eight, and just learning how to knit. I gave it up after a few tries, I think this might be the only thing left. It is warm, though, really.”
I sighed, and put it on. She hid her mouth behind her hand, but I could see the smile in her eyes.
Now, standing on the porch, I had to admit that at least I couldn’t see it, and it was keeping my ears warm. Bella went around the corner, having asked me to stay put. A moment later I hear the roar of a small engine, and she reappeared on a snowmachine.
I trudged down the steps as she dismounted and held out a hand for the attache case. Silently, she tied it down to the rear of the seat, then remounted. With a deep sigh I gathered my temper and climbed on behind her. I had never ridden on one of these before. Motorcycle, yes, horses, many wheeled vehicles, but this was completely different.
Bella shouted over her shoulder, “hang on!”
This was getting to be a pattern. I held on tightly to her waist and couldn’t see much of anything as she accelerated around the cabin and toward the woods at an insane speed. Peeking over her shoulder, I could see the narrow trail she was heading for.
The forest in this area was made up of conifers, black and thickly crowded in the dim light of the moon and stars. Only the reflection of that light off the snow kept it from being pitch black. If we had a headlight on this thing, she hadn’t switched it on yet. The light level dropped the instant we slid into the trees, and Bella lit up the scene with a brilliant headlight. I really wished she hadn’t.
The feel of the snow under my butt was different, here, and as she took us around a curve it felt disconcertingly like water as we sank into it. I held on tighter, frustrated at being out of control. I couldn’t even see any further than the trail, now the light was on and disrupting my night vision. I closed my eyes, and opened up my Sight. If it was all I could do, at least we wouldn’t zip into an ambush.
For the second time that day I found myself with my face in someone’s shoulder. This day was just getting worse and worse. I didn’t dare think about the ways it could be worse, actually. These things had a way of coming to be.
It’s not that I am superstitious. I’m a magical being, but I don’t believe in greater forces manipulating our lives. We’re too small and the world too big. Well, Bella was important enough to mobilize the forces of the world I knew best, the one hidden in the shadows of the human world. We peek out around the edges, but daren’t come out too far, lest we all be cut off.
Humanity has never dealt well with outliers. We may have magic, in its various forms, and at one time, before the rise of technology, we had enough power to worry them. Now, they could and likely would wipe us out. Those of us they didn’t keep as pets.