Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
There is bad language and violence.
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
The headlights were dazzling in Cassie's rear-view mirror.
"Full beam? What does he think he's—"
The collision clapped her jaws together and hurled her forward against her seat belt. Swearing and gripping the steering wheel, she glanced over her shoulder. She was expecting to see whoever had rear-ended her slowing, preparing to get out and exchange insurance details, but the white van—at least she thought it was a van; it was hard to make out details in the glare—was still looming in her rear window.
"What the hell does he—"
The impact jarred her and the screech of tortured metal set her teeth on edge. Her heart was racing, and she felt sick, but she was still in one piece. The little Toyota wasn't built to take this kind of punishment, though. Lord knows what the boot must look like!
Anger gave way to self-preservation. Keeping one eye on the rear view mirror, she changed up a gear and stamped her foot on the accelerator. Her car surged forward. So did the van.
This can't be happening!
At this hour of the evening, most Brummies were safely home, eating their dinners and telling their spouses about their day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays Cassie would have been home too, though there was no partner waiting there for her, just a greedy tomcat. But today was a Wednesday and the library stayed open until 7pm. And, since the Armitage trial had meant taking a lot of time off lately, when Cassie's boss asked if she would stay behind and lock up, she had willingly agreed.
She screeched left at the next crossroads, leaving tyre marks on the road, then took a right, keeping to well lit streets, hoping to lose her pursuer. But a glance in her rear view mirror showed that the white van was still on her tail. Her tyres scraped along the kerb and she corrected hastily before looking in her mirror again.
It was hard to make out the man's face against the dazzle and she had to squint. He wore his hat, an unflattering knitted affair, pulled low, but she could make out some of his features. Although it was a mirror image, there was something about that broken nose and snaggle-toothed grin. She tried to recall where she had seen him before.
The shunt forward was the most violent yet, and it took several terrifying seconds before her tyres regained traction.
"He's trying to kill me."
The idea had seemed fantastic until she gave voice to it. Now it became concrete, and as it did so, her memory's floodgates opened. She saw a business-suited Nick Armitage standing in the dock, hands clasped around his ample belly, smiling as, at his counsel's prompting, he recast events in more flattering light. It wasn't his fault his men had gone further than instructed, was it? As soon as he had found out, he had rebuked them. But he was a businessman, and when people fell behind with their rent— He gave a baffled shrug and an it's-all-been-a-terrible-misunderstanding smile. And sitting in the Crown Court's public gallery throughout his testimony was the white van's driver, nodding encouragement and grinning.
He works for Armitage.
The police had told Cassie that the landlord's threats as he was taken down to the cells were mere posturing, nothing to worry about. She had had her doubts. There was a reason most of Armitage's tenants had been too scared to testify. His bullyboys had left many with black eyes, broken arms, and smashed furniture.
She had never had any problems in her dealings with Armitage herself, but she'd sensed his jovial exterior was only a mask, noticed how that orthodontically perfect smile never quite reached his eyes. As soon as she could find alternative accommodation, she had moved out of the dump he claimed was a luxury flat. Then had come the court case, and the police had come looking for her and asked her to testify....
It looked like her instincts about his threats had been right. Her nausea increased, and she clenched her jaws and tried not to panic.
Night was falling, and the lights were coming on in many of the houses on either side of the road. She could stop the car, bang on one of those front doors, and beg for sanctuary. But the van driver would come after her, you could bet on it, and when the occupants saw the violence in his eyes, they would turn her away. And who could blame them?
Ahead of her, the traffic lights turned red. She hunched her shoulders and sailed through. A car coming from her right screeched to a halt, skidding several yards, and the red-faced driver's horn blared at her.
"Sorry." A glance in her mirror showed her that the van had ignored the lights too. "Damn!"
She groped in her jacket pocket for her phone. If she could ring 999, report the van's number plate— The brief flare of hope faded as she saw that the numbers were so covered with mud as to be illegible. I'll ring the police anyway.
Her phone sailed into the foot well, under the pedals.
She changed up yet another gear, and felt the beginnings of despair. At this speed she was barely in control, her car's careering progress punctuated by shouts from pedestrians and honks from other drivers. If the van didn't get her, an accident soon would. She glanced in her mirror, though she knew it was pointless, and blinked in surprise. Smoke was pouring from the white van's bonnet, which had acquired a dent, and it was slowing rapidly.
Cassie slammed her hands down on the steering wheel and crowed, "Serves you right, you bastard."
As she watched, the smoke became flames, and the door opened and the driver spilled out.
Light headed with relief, she drove on, and once the van had receded into the distance eased down to a more manageable speed, took a right, then a left, then another right and pulled over to the kerb.
She left the engine idling while she got her bearings—she didn't recognise this part of Birmingham. Now her ordeal was over, reaction set in. Her head throbbed, and she felt clammy. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking and her thoughts were in a perpetual loop.
If he tried to kill me once, he'll try again. What am I going to do? they kept repeating, until at last the answer came. Ask for protection.
Cassie fumbled in the foot well for the phone. She was no longer in immediate danger, so ringing 999 didn't seem appropriate. But she didn't have the number of the police officer in charge of the Armitage case with her. She slipped the phone into her pocket and resolved to ring him when she got home.
But what if he doesn’t believe me? The police didn’t believe Armitage's threats were serious either. She pursed her lips. At least this time the damage to her car would be some kind of evidence.
Which reminded her.... She undid her seatbelt and got out, then walked round to the rear of the Yaris to see just how bad the damage was. The sight that greeted her made her suck in her breath. The bumper was no longer there, and without its protection the boot had taken a terrible battering. The depth of the gouges and the extent of the dents shocked her. She tried to open the boot, but as she had feared, it had buckled so much it was now jammed shut. The shaking in her hands worsened and she stuffed them in her pockets and returned to the driver's seat.
There must be a witness protection scheme. But will they put me on it? ... Do I want to be on it? She could imagine what an upheaval it must be—changing your name, leaving behind all that was near and dear. And what do I do until then? Go somewhere Armitage can't find me? Where? And what about my job, and Louise's birthday party, and going to the pictures with Justin and Danny, and over to Mum and Dad's for Sunday lunch? And then there's Tiddles....
Cassie's head ached. She took several deep breaths of Forest Fresh scented air—she had replaced the car's air freshener that morning—and tried to regain control.
What's more important: letting people down or staying alive?
She wound down the window and peered out at her surroundings until she spotted a street name a little further down the road. There was an A-Z of Birmingham in the door pocket. She retrieved it, flipped to the index at the back, and located the road. Once she'd plotted the shortest route back to her flat, she buckled up her seatbelt, checked her mirror, and pulled out.
She tried not to worry that Armitage's men might be lying in wait for her back at the flat. But he won't know I escaped the white van yet, will he?
She turned left at a T-junction then right at a crossroads. As she drove past a cinema showing the film she was due to see with her friends tomorrow, she gave the queuing cinemagoers a wistful glance. Only that morning, she had been like them, ordinary, carefree, with a future stretching out ahead of her that promised to be routine, verging on the humdrum. Now she no idea what lay in store.
Tarian shifted her weight from one hip to the other and rested her forearms on the spear's crossbar. Night had fallen a couple of hours ago, but that was no obstacle to the Fae, whose night vision was as keen as any owl's. Anyway she preferred to hunt under cover of darkness—no mortals were about and there was less chance of awkward questions.
An owl screeched in the distance, then came the bark of a dog fox calling his vixen. The rustling from the copse of hazel to her left was a badger, going about its business. The woodland animals were more accepting of her presence than the owner of Bourne Forest would be. He'd accuse her of poaching, though she'd like to see him explain how she came by meat from beasts that no longer lived in his wood—on this side of the boundary at least.
She shifted her attention back to the eight-foot gap between the ancient oak tree and the ash. It shimmered faintly like a heat haze. So near and yet so far.
Close by, a crow cawed loudly, and a wave of homesickness swept over her. She had taken several involuntary steps towards the boundary when she came to her senses and halted. She laughed at herself, under her breath.
Fool! When will you get used to the fact that Faerie is no longer your home? Never, she feared. She'd been here almost two years and her dreams were still full of it.
Anyway, if you went back, it would break the agreement and then where would you be? Right back where you started. Except you're not that Tarian any more, for all that the Queen would like you to be.
With a sigh and a shake of her head to dispel such gloomy musings, she resumed her position beneath the beech tree, whose fresh green leaves had begun to unfurl just this week. Preparing herself for a long wait, she submerged herself in the sights and the sounds of the forest. After a time, she had no idea how long, something changed, bringing her back to her surroundings.
Tarian stretched out the kinks and leaned forward, listening. Was that the baying of hounds in the distance, getting closer by the second? She smiled.
What have you found me, eh? I hope it's not too large. Last time, Anwar and Drysi had brought her a massive stag and it had taken her several trips to carry the dismembered carcass home. She raised her spear and braced herself.
One moment the gap between the oak and ash was empty, the next it wasn't. A wild boar, of a type not seen in England's forests for centuries, came hurtling across the boundary, snorting loudly and foaming at the mouth.
In spite of the two dogs at its heels, the boar checked when it saw Tarian, or rather smelled her, for boars have notoriously bad eyesight. She had time to register that it was a male, and that the vicious curving tusks sprouting from top and bottom jaws meant it must be about three years old, then it gave another snort, dropped its bristly head, and charged straight at her.
Heart pumping, with a snarl on her lips, she lunged, putting her whole weight behind the thrust. The spear took the squealing animal high in the chest. It was a fatal blow, and both knew it, but rather than pulling free, the boar threw itself at her, impaling itself even more deeply. Over the razor sharp point it forced its massive bulk, heaving itself inch by painful inch along the shaft. The rank smell of boar invaded her nostrils, and the squirming weight threatened to tear the spear from her grip. Grimly, she hung on until, with a snort that was equal parts pain, frustration, and exhaustion, the boar halted at the cross guard. It hung there shivering and panting.
"You fought well, boar," she said, locking eyes with it. "Let me speed your passing."
She reached for the knife at her belt and with a single expert slash cut its throat. Blood spurted steaming onto the forest floor. The baleful gleam in its eyes dulled, became a sightless stare, and the boar gave one final shiver and went limp.
Tarian let spear and prey fall to the forest floor and straightened in relief. Her dogs bounded over, eager to greet her and receive praise. She grinned, called them her good dogs, and then, when they nosed at the bloodstained carcass, pushed them away with her foot. Their indignant expressions made her laugh, and she bent to cut her spear free. After that, she squatted and set about the messy business of gutting the boar, while the dogs sat on their haunches, tongues lolling, alert for any morsels that might come their way.
Dawn couldn't be far off, surely?
There had been a lot for Cassie to do before leaving her flat. The most urgent task was to ring the police, but a bored desk sergeant told her that DI Philips, liaison officer on the Armitage case, was on holiday, and his deputy, DS Edlin wouldn't be in until 9am tomorrow. When she asked what she should do in the meantime, he could offer no useful suggestions. She was on her own, and she couldn't stay here—it would be the first place Armitage looked.
By then, her meowing tomcat had put in his request for supper, so she opened a sachet of cat food—normally she found the smell appetising, but tonight, it turned her stomach— then popped next door to ask her neighbour if she could look after Tiddles. Arrangements for his care made, she focussed on herself.
First: money. She nipped down to the nearest bank's hole in the wall and withdrew as much cash as the machine would let her. Next: supplies. She pulled out her travel bag and set about filling it. Clothes, underwear, shoes, nighties, toiletries, books to read, food.... It was difficult to anticipate what she might need, though, especially as she didn't know where she was going or for how long. She pursed her lips and added another box of tampons. When she'd finished packing, she put the now heavy travel bag by the front door.
Emails let Louise know Cassie wouldn't be able to make her birthday party after all and told Danny and Justin that their cinema trip was off—Cassie didn't go into details, just said she had to leave town for a while. She unplugged her computer and wished it were a laptop so she could take it with her. Ah well.
The Library had an answering machine, so she left a message on it for her boss. She had messed them around so much lately, though, this could be the final straw and her job would not be waiting for her when she got back. If she got back. Oh don't be such a pessimist.
There was no way to avoid speaking to her parents. She braced herself, dialled their number, and when her father answered, told him that she wouldn't be able to make lunch this Sunday... and why. As she had expected, the news left him aghast.
"What do you mean you can't tell us where you're going or for how long?" His voice had risen in alarm and she could hear her mother making worried-sounding noises in the background.
"I'm sorry, Dad, but how can I tell you, when I don't know myself? Besides. It's probably better that you don't know. Less risk to you and Mum that way."
"It's that Armitage fellow, isn't it? Nasty piece of work. I told you no good would come of testifying against him."
She sucked in her breath. "Some good did come of it, Dad. He's in Winson Green."
"And my daughter's in fear for her life. Doesn't seem like a fair exchange to me."
She cut the conversation short, told her parents she loved them and would be in touch again as soon as she could, and rang off. Then she grabbed her travel bag and pulled her flat door closed behind her. The lock snicked shut with such an air of finality, cutting off Tiddles's last indignant meow, that her heart sank and she wondered when she would ever see her home or her cat again.
Since then she had been driving, picking her route on a whim—choosing winding B roads, mostly, which made the going slow at times—heading west. The road map lay open on the passenger seat beside her but she had long ago stopped looking at it. If she didn't know where she was going, then Armitage couldn't either. At least, that was the theory.
The last town of any size she'd encountered had been Ludlow, its lamp-lit streets bereft of all but foxes and hedgehogs. Since then she had driven through deserted villages that were little more than a pub and a cluster of houses, their occupants no doubt sleeping soundly. She didn’t think she had crossed the border yet but it couldn't be far away as she'd seen several signposts to Offa's Dyke.
The Welsh Marches, they called this part of England, didn’t they? Marshes, more like. She had lost count of the number of bridges she had driven across, their rivers swollen by rain, and the windscreen wipers had been working flat out for the last hour. Shropshire was supposed to have beautiful scenery, but she had seen little sign of it so far. Perhaps when the sun came up....
The landscape was becoming increasingly hilly, the Yaris beginning to labour. She changed down a gear and suppressed another yawn—the thump thump of the wipers was hypnotic, but she preferred it to the radio phone-in shows that were all she could find at this hour.
She was getting too tired to drive safely and she opened the window, hoping the night air would wake her. She would have to stop soon, find a place to stay, get the car repaired. Those were her priorities. Oh, and ring the police again, talk to this DS Edlin.
The B road climbed steadily, and woods closed in on either side, until it was like driving through a tunnel. Cassie was beginning to think she would never reach the end of it, when all at once the trees thinned and she was in the open once more. The rain had stopped and she turned off the wipers, missing their rhythmic thump immediately.
Without warning, the road went into a series of hairpin bends, following the curve of the hill, and she had her work cut out. At last the road straightened and she found she had somehow got turned around and was facing east, because that glimmer of light on the horizon must be the sun, mustn't it?
It was. Slowly the rim of red became an orange segment, then a yellow-ochre semicircle, and the dim, grey outlines of her surroundings changed, became suffused with colour. As the light intensified, birdsong flooded through her open window, and the strange shapes up ahead acquired meaning, became houses with chimney pots and TV aerials, and, sprouting from their midst, a church spire.
A village. She slapped her hands on the steering wheel and grinned.
"Bourne's Edge," proclaimed the sign at the side of the road, and she slowed the Yaris and peered at the houses on either side.
There must be somewhere to stay, mustn't there?
She was beginning to think she was out of luck when she spotted the B & B sign. It was in the downstairs front window of a cosy looking house with a fenced front garden in which sat an odd scarecrowlike figure on a wooden bench. The red letters below the sign spelled out 'Vacancy'.
With a feeling of relief, Cassie parked outside the front gate. She undid her seat belt and was about to get out when a thought struck her. A quick check of her watch confirmed it. It was much too early to knock at the front door and ask for a room. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel while she considered, then pushed back her driver's seat several inches, made herself as comfortable as possible, folded her arms, and closed her eyes.
Exhausted as she was, though, the adrenaline still in her system wouldn't let her sleep. She tried to calm her thoughts, but it wasn't easy. Images of the white van growing larger in her rear window kept surfacing. Taking a deep breath, she shoved all thoughts of vans and vengeful landlords aside. She focussed instead on that instant when the sun had come up, breathing life and colour into the wooded slopes around her, and moments later, in spite of her conviction that she would never fall asleep, she had.
The prison guard checked he was unobserved before stepping into the cell. "Here you are, Mr Armitage," he murmured. He dug in his pockets and handed Armitage a mobile phone and a charger. "Make sure you hide these somewhere safe."
Armitage accepted them and grinned. All phone calls were supposed to be monitored by the prison authorities, but with this he could bypass them. "Good man."
"Anything else I can do for you?" The guard's eyes were greedy. The taste of money had left him wanting more.
He glanced round the cramped cell, with its basin, toilet and modesty screen, its tiny TV, electric kettle with the loose connection, and the two narrow beds, only one showing signs of use. In a prison filled to bursting point, with two beds crammed into cells designed for one, sole occupation was an unheard of luxury. But a hefty bribe combined with threats to make his life a misery had soon persuaded the other inmate round to Armitage's way of thinking—he was currently an in-patient in the Health Care Centre.
"I suppose getting me out of here's out of the question?"
"'Fraid so." The guard's grin was rueful.
"Pity. Well then. I'll let you know if I should think of anything."
"Righto, Mr Armitage."
When the guard had gone, locking the cell door behind him, Armitage dialled his mistress. There was no reply.
He checked his watch. She should be up by now. Or maybe she stayed somewhere else last night. Bitch! If she thinks just because I'm banged up she can start seeing someone else....
He rang another number he knew off by heart. A muffled voice answered. Rigby was in the middle of breakfast.
"Rigby? No, don't talk—this is my phone call." Armitage intended to keep the conversation short but not sweet. "Listen. Get someone round to Tracey's pronto, will you. Make it clear to her that when I call I expect her to be there, waiting. And give her a good slapping to make the point, OK? ... Good."
He shifted to the next item on his mental agenda. "Now, the Lewis girl." He grinned in anticipation. "Do you have some news for me?" He blinked as Rigby began to whine and listened to his underling's excuses with growing disbelief. "So the van's a write-off? You fucking idiot! What am I, made of money?" Rigby didn't seem to know that an answer wasn't required. He promised to do better next time. "You'd damned well better."
Armitage thought for a moment. "You've got her home address?" The answer was in the affirmative, but it seemed Rigby had already been there and found signs that she'd fled. "Fuck!" The little bitch must know he was after her. Would she go to the police? If she did, it wouldn't do her much good. And her fear would make the chase all the sweeter.
Rigby asked if he was still there.
"Yeah. Just thinking. Find out who her friends and family are, then give Parsons their names and addresses." The request to bring in the Private Eye puzzled Rigby, who was good at coming the heavy but wasn't the sharpest tool in the box. Armitage rolled his eyes. "Use your bloody loaf, man. He's got contacts at all the phone companies. She's bound to ring her friends or family sooner or later, and when she does we've got her."
Sounds of comprehension met this and he grunted. "I'll ring you in a couple of days for an update. In the meantime, don't try to contact me on this number. OK?"
But this was Rigby they were talking about. So after he had rung off, Armitage switched off the phone, just to be sure.
Tarian thrust her sword up under her opponent's ribcage, guiding it expertly towards his heart. The thud was his sword falling to the grassy sward. For a moment more she waited, staring into shocked grey eyes, then she gave the blade one final, vicious twist and withdrew it. He clasped his abdomen with both hands and slumped to his knees, then on to his face.
Raising her bloody blade high, Tarian roared, "Take heed, enemies of the Queen. Or this will be your fate too."
At that, the watching nobles let out a cheer, then Mab herself thrust them aside and strolled towards Tarian.
"Well done as always, my champion," she called, her smile lascivious—a kill always excited the Queen of the Fae. "Let's celebrate your victory." She waved a lazy hand in dismissal. " The rest of you, leave me. I no longer require you."
Servants flung the corpse into a cart and drove it away for healing. The chattering nobles mounted their horses and rode off after it. Only Tarian and Mab's mounts remained, tethered to a tree. Her mare nickered, dropped its head, and began to crop the grass.
Mab halted in front of Tarian and, careless of her blood-spattered tunic and bloody fingers, pulled her close. She kissed Tarian hard enough to bruise her lips and pulled her down onto the grass—
Tarian gasped and sat up, her heart slowing as she took in the familiar surroundings of he bedroom.
When she had first bought the forester's house on the edge of Bourne Forest, the roof was in need of repair, and what furniture it contained was riddled with worm. She had saved what she could and burned the rest, then refurbished and refurnished the place. Most of the furniture came from a local auction house, and none of the pieces matched. It was a far cry from Mab's palace, where the bedroom assigned to the Queen's champion had sported a four-poster bed fit for the Queen to share whenever the whim took her, luxurious wall hangings, and ornately carved furnishings. But she much preferred her new abode, which was the result of hard work not magic—if you discounted the money required to buy it in the first place.
It was 9am.
That's what happens when you go hunting late at night. You oversleep and dream of Faerie.
She knuckled the last of the dream from her eyes, washed, dressed, and went downstairs. After a boisterous greeting from Anwar and Drysi, she unlocked the back door. While they bounded round the back garden and relieved themselves, she set about making breakfast. The dogs could finish off the last venison, which was past its best. For herself she made porridge.
She ate while reading the local free paper and planned her day. She would have to scald and scrape the boar today, then joint it—an arduous task but one that could not be shirked. As for painting— She glanced out the kitchen window. The light was good this morning. She would work on the painting she had started yesterday.
Something snagged her attention, and she got up and went to the window. A hawthorn tree overlooked her back garden, and a huge black bird was sitting on the top branch, its gaze fixed on her house. It couldn't be coincidence that the same crow had been watching her three days in a row, could it?
She extended her senses and found as she had feared that the big black bird was much more than that. One of Mab's creatures.
Tarian went through to the hall, took down the short bow and quiver of arrows that hung on the wall, and carried them out into the back garden. The crow watched her, a gleam in its beady eyes, its head cocked slightly to one side.
"Are you spying on me?" she shouted.
It cawed, a harsh mocking sound that set her teeth on edge, then fluffed its feathers and let them settle.
She nocked an arrow on her bowstring. "Has Mab told you of my prowess at archery?" The bird danced along the branch a little way, then settled again. "I see that she has."
It cawed at her again and began to preen.
"Tell your mistress," called Tarian, "that I don't take kindly to being spied upon." She raised the bow, which was deceptively powerful for its size, and drew it to its full extent. "Remind her that she promised not to meddle in my affairs as long as I stayed out of Faerie. ... And that spying counts as meddling."
With that, she released her arrow. It sped straight and true, right through the spot where a second before the crow had perched. Frustrated, she looked round for it, and found it sitting on a lower branch, its eyes alight with mischief. Cursing under her breath, she reached for another arrow.
This time the crow didn't wait for her to shoot; it launched itself off the branch and flapped towards her. She half expected it to try to peck out her eyes but it circled over her, wings flapping, dipping lazily until it was almost within her grasp then soaring skywards again. It was taunting her.
Enough of this.
Tarian nocked the arrow, drew, and shot. But the crow had already wheeled away and was heading towards the trees, and her arrow fell short.
"I will give her your message," came its guttural croak. Then it vanished into the forest.
"This would be your room, dear." The landlady, a motherly type with curly brown hair, laughter lines, and a smudge of flour on her right cheek—stepped aside to let Cassie past. "The toilet and shower are through there."
She pointed a plump forefinger to a door on the far side of the room, and Cassie put down her travel bag and popped her head round it. Satisfied that the little lemon-scented bathroom was spotless, the white towels on the handrail freshly laundered, she withdrew and gave the bedroom the once over.
It was a bit on the small side, the double bed taking up most of the space, and a small armchair hogging what remained, but from what she could see there was sufficient storage space for her needs. A shelf housed an electric kettle and some cups, saucers, and sachets of instant coffee, creamer, and sugar. And on one of the two occasional tables sat a little TV.
Cassie gave a nod. "It's very nice, Mrs Hayward. I'll take it."
"Good." The lines round the landlady's eyes deepened as she smiled. "Call me Liz."
"Cassie Lewis. Call me Cassie."
They shook hands. Liz had a powerful grip; Cassie could picture her making her Victoria Sponges the oldfashioned way.
"As it's April, you get my out of season rate, of course," continued Liz, absently straightening the duvet, which sported cheerful scarlet poppies. "And if you stay three nights in a row, I throw in the fourth night free. ... You get your own front door key. There are only two house rules: no pets and no smoking. If you need any more supplies—" she pointed to the sachets, "—just ask." She turned to face Cassie. "How long are you planning on staying?"
"Um." Cassie shifted awkwardly. "To be honest, I'm not sure. Could we start off with... a week? Would that be all right?"
"Fine with me, dear." Liz gave her a reassuring smile. "Breakfast included, of course." She paused and looked a question. "Will you be wanting supper? I do a main course and dessert for six pounds."
"You're not a vegetarian, are you?" Cassie shook her head. "Plain cooking, I'm afraid. And if you want wine, you'll have to provide your own."
"I can do you a packed lunch too, if you'd like. Three pounds I charge for that."
Cassie considered. Her cash would only stretch so far. "No thanks. I'll probably just get myself something from the shop. There's a post office store further along the road, isn't there?"
Liz nodded. "But don't leave it too late," she warned. "Today's early closing."
Do they still do that? wondered Cassie. Evidently in a little backwater like Bourne's Edge they did.
It became Liz's turn to look awkward. "I'm afraid I'll need a cash deposit." She fiddled with her thumbnail. "£70 should be enough."
"Of course. But my money's in my luggage. Will it be all right if I bring it down when I've unpacked?"
"Fine. I'll be in the kitchen when you're ready. I'm baking." Cassie nodded. "Good. That seems to be it, then. I'll leave you to get settled." With that and a last smile, Liz left, closing the door behind her.
Alone at last.
Cassie sat on the bed and gave it an experimental bounce, then leaned back against the headboard and let her shoulders relax. She yawned. She had managed only a couple of hours' sleep in the car, and her eyes felt gritty, her mouth stale. Still, she now had a roof over her head and main meals for a week. It was a start.
She unpacked and put away her things then stuffed the landlady's deposit in the pocket of her jeans and wandered over to the window. From this angle, she could see the top of the scarecrow's head. He had a bald patch. Odd thing to have in your front garden. She'd have to ask Liz about it.
Cassie tracked the short path to the front gate and to the Yaris parked outside. Daylight revealed the full extent of the damage to her boot. She winced and made a mental note to ask Liz for the whereabouts of the nearest garage—later, though; she didn't feel up to that at the moment. She didn't feel up to ringing the police either, though she must. In fact she didn't feel up to doing anything much except leaning against the windowsill, gazing out, first at the houses on the other side of the road, then at the backdrop formed by the hills on the far side of the valley. It was beautiful here, quiet, unreal.
Am I safe? Only time would tell.
She turned round, leaned back against the sill and studied the room that would be hers for the next few days. The bed looked comfy, irresistibly inviting, so she crossed to it, lay down on its red poppies, and closed her eyes.
Just for a little while....
Cassie woke from a terrifying dream in which a white van had just shunted her car off the edge of a ravine and she was plummeting to her death. Her skin felt clammy and a headache threatened, and she cursed herself for dozing off during the day—it never suited her.
She rose with a groan and went through into the bathroom. There she splashed her face with water, combed the tangles from her hair, and filled the kettle from the cold tap. Once the water had boiled, she sat in the little armchair sipping instant coffee. After a little while the caffeine kicked in, making her feel more human and she set down the empty cup and saucer on the table with a sigh of relief.
The light coming through the window had shifted and brightened considerably, she realised. A glance at her watch showed her two hours had elapsed and she got to her feet and patted her pocket to make sure the roll of banknotes was still there. Liz Hayward would be wondering what had happened to her money. She set off downstairs to give it to her.
Tarian cursed, threw down her palette and paintbrush, and stepped back from the easel. Everything that could go wrong had this morning. She'd run out of retarder medium, and the half-gallon jar of cobalt blue was almost empty. How could she have let her supplies run so low without noticing? She scowled at the canvas. Her usual delicacy of touch had deserted her. She couldn't get the right effect, no matter what she tried. The forest scene refused to come to life and the horses looked like something a child might have drawn. Drysi could have done better with a paintbrush strapped to her paw.
Ever since she'd chased off the crow she had felt on edge, the way she sometimes did before a thunderstorm. But the patch of sky visible through her studio window was a clear blue. She tried to discount the feeling of pressure and unease, but deep down, she knew what it was. She'd felt this way before. Something—or someone—was coming. Something that would turn her life upside down.
The knock at her back door, loud enough to be audible in the studio, made her jump. It set off the dogs, who started whining and yelping. They must know the caller, whoever it was. She put her brush to soak in a jar of water, and hurried through to the kitchen.
"Stop that." The dogs turned identical glances of reproach her way, but quietened and sank to their haunches.
The knock came again. Anyone from the village would have used her front door. She extended her senses and felt the unmistakeable presence of one of the Fae. Bracing herself, she lifted the latch.
"Einion." It was the last person she had expected. He wore his hair tied back in a ponytail now. "You've changed your hair."
"And you've changed your clothes" He gestured at her sweatshirt and jeans. For a moment they simply grinned at one another, then he continued, "Are you going to invite me in?"
She glanced past him to the hawthorn tree, below which his horse was tethered, but there was no sign of the crow in its branches. "That depends."
"On whether Mab sent you."
He looked amused rather than offended. They both knew that his loyalty lay with the Queen and always would. "She hasn't. I'm here as a friend."
"Then come in, friend." She stepped back.
Ducking his head to avoid the lintel— the forester's house had been built for mortals and while Tarian had few problems, Einion was a good head taller than she was—he stepped inside. While the dogs greeted him, tails wagging, he took in the shabby kitchen with a glance and a raised eyebrow but made no other comment. He took off his gloves and petted the dogs, who responded by licking his fingers. After a few seconds, Tarian called them off and sent them to their baskets.
Einion straightened, pocketed his gloves, and turned to look at her, his expression now serious. "What made you think Mab had sent me?"
"Her spies have been watching me for three days in a row."
"Ah. Then the news I bring will not come as a surprise."
His words made her heart sink. She gestured to one of the kitchen chairs and took another herself. "Go on."
Chair legs scraped on the tiles as he sat. "Mab's bored with her current champion. She wants a change."
Tarian snorted. "I'm surprised Cadel held her interest as long. There's not much between his ears."
"What's between his legs makes up for it," said Einion. "Or so they tell me."
Tarian grunted. "And?"
"She wants you back."
The only sound in the kitchen was the panting of the dogs and an occasional soft crackle from the boar roasting in the Aga's oven. From the back garden came the trill of a blackbird.
"What are you going to do?" asked Einion at last.
Tarian shrugged. "Nothing. Mab gave me her word. I haven't broken our agreement, and neither will she."
"I wouldn't be too sure."
She stood up, irritated. "Moon and stars, Einion! I thought we'd been through all this. She knows I have no desire to be her champion any longer. She exiled me for it."
"Since when has anyone else's desire concerned Mab?"
His loyalty has never blinded him to the Queen's shortcomings. Tarian began to pace. "It's done with. Over. She knows that."
"Are you sure?" She turned to him in surprise. Einion shrugged. "Perhaps she knows you better than you know yourself. You can't tell me this—" he gestured at her surroundings, at the wolfhounds dozing contentedly, "—is enough. Not after the way things used to be."
"I can." She glared at him. "Because it is."
His eyebrows rose. "Saying it is doesn't make it so. ... Come now, Tarian. Be honest with an old friend at least. Don't you miss it? The excitement, the glamour? The balls and tournaments. Having the Queen look favourably on you?"
"No. And I don't miss the blood on my hands either."
"I don't believe you."
"I don't care what you believe."
"Good for you. But don’t tell me you're not lonely. That you don’t miss the company of an equal."
It was true that her days were often long and empty, for all that she tried to fill them with her wolfhounds and her paintings, and she glared at him. He had always been able to spot where she was most vulnerable. "I don’t know."
He gave her a knowing look. "Yes you do. Admit it, Tarian. You were born to be the Queen's champion. Swallow your pride, and your anger, and come home while Mab's feeling merciful."
She shook her head. "This is my home now."
"Among these puny creatures with their petty concerns?"
"Mortals aren't as puny or petty as you think, Einion. I've got to know them, and I find them... refreshing. They still have compassion. They help each other."
Her answer seemed to pain him. "There's no future in such attachments, Tarian." He held her gaze. "Mortals live but mayfly lives. Could you watch one grow old and die? You grieve when one of your dogs dies."
"I don't know." She made one final effort to explain. "But don't you see? If things had continued the way they were, I would have become another Mab, thought nothing of using anyone for my own amusement."
"I don't believe you."
"Then you don't know me as well as you think." She sighed. "the truth is I was tired of it, Einion. So tired that if the Queen hadn't offered me exile, I would have welcomed my unmaking."
That seemed to shock him, and he was quiet for a while, perhaps remembering when Mab had used the power that was hers alone. An unmaking was never pretty. A shiver ran down Tarian's spine as she remembered the last one she had witnessed. At Mab's gesture, the Fae's body had collapsed in on itself like an empty wineskin.
"So," said Einion at last. "What will you do now?"
She was glad he had given up trying to convince her to return. "What I've been doing."
"They told me you had become an artist. I didn't believe them."
"Believe it. It's honest work and I'm good at it—well, except for today, for some reason. Mortals like my paintings. I make a decent living."
"But will you be happy?"
"Happier than if I came back."
"Very well." He stood up and stretched the stiffness from his shoulders, then pulled on his gloves. "I'm sorry if I upset you, Tarian. I only have your best interests at heart."
He pulled her into a loose embrace and pressed a kiss on her cheek. "Now you know Mab's intentions. The rest is up to you."
"Blimey!" The garage owner, whose name was Mike and whose spiky haircut and acne made him look seventeen though he was surely older, wiped his hands on an oily rag and frowned at the damaged boot.
"You should see the other fellow," joked Cassie, remembering the smoke and flames rising from the white van's bonnet.
He sucked his teeth. "I'm afraid it's going to cost you. I'll have to order a new bumper from Ludlow. As for the rest... it'll take me a good week to get those dents out." He looked a question at her.
Cassie sighed. "Do what you have to. I'm staying at the B & B."
"Liz Hayward's place?" She nodded and he grinned. "Righto. Leave her with me, Miss Lewis, and I'll give you a bell when she's ready. OK?"
She gave Mike her car keys and set off walking back down through the village to the B & B. Stranded in Bourne's Edge for a week. Still, it could be worse.
The church, which was quite old, judging by the shabby state of its spire, shared a little car park with the church hall next door, and in it stood a scarecrow wearing a dog collar and crucifix, his hand raised in benediction.
Cassie halted and stared at it. What is it with these scarecrows?
Just then, a middle-aged man, with the same bad haircut and straggly beard as the Archbishop of Canterbury, emerged from the church porch. He was wearing a dog collar, and a large metal crucifix. Cassie snorted with amusement at the resemblance between the vicar—for he was clearly that—and scarecrow.
He called something back over his shoulder to someone inside the porch and hurried to one of the parked cars. She watched him unlock the door, slide into its driving seat, and reverse out. As he drove past her, he gave her a friendly wave and a smile.
A few more paces took Cassie past the GP's surgery and a little hardware shop where her Dad could have spent several hours happily browsing. Then a splash of colour caught her eye and she found herself peering in the window of an art shop cum gallery. Several of the paintings were hunting scenes by an artist who signed himself—or herself—Tarian. Odd how the horses had been painted true to life yet everything else seemed vaguely distorted. The dogs were too large, and the trees and spear-carrying riders looked oddly elongated. She shrugged and continued on, the hollow feeling in her stomach propelling her across the road, past the Green Man pub, to the Post Office.
They'll sell Mars Bars.
The bell above the door tinkled as she pushed her way inside. The little shop was divided into two, and the postmistress was currently in the post office half, standing behind the grille, weighing a parcel for a customer. She looked up, smiled at Cassie and pointed.
"Baskets are over there."
Cassie smiled her thanks, grabbed a shopping basket, and began to peruse the crowded shelves in the other half of the shop.
Chicken and mushroom pot noodles? Perhaps not. She moved on. Spam, corned beef, peanut butter.... I could make my own sandwiches. The bell over the door tinkled and the postmistress called out a greeting. Weetabix... Hm. There are those sachets of sugar in my room. Do they sell fresh milk?... Ah. Now what do I fancy? Mars bar, Snickers bar, or Kit Kat?
A shadow fell over her and she turned to find the postmistress standing behind her and the shop now empty.
"You'll be that Cassie Lewis who's staying with Liz Hayward." Cassie opened her mouth and closed it again. "Word gets around," explained the young woman, whose bright eyes and cheeky manner reminded Cassie of a robin. " Find what you're looking for?" She scanned the contents of Cassie's basket. "Didn't go for Liz's packed lunch, eh? Can't say I blame you. ... Bread's over there." She pointed to a shelf of pre-sliced, cellophane-wrapped loaves.
"Thank you. I was looking for those." Cassie popped a wholemeal loaf in her basket.
"If you ever get peckish, the Green Man next door does decent pub grub," added the postmistress.
"Thanks. That's useful to know."
"I'm Cath. What brings you to Bourne's Edge in the off season?"
Cassie shook the hand Cath had held out. "Just passing through. Seemed as good a place as any to stop while I get my car fixed."
"Heard you'd been in an accident. Looks nasty. Hope you didn't suffer any whiplash?"
"No. I'm in one piece, fortunately."
Cath glanced at the basket. "That your lot?" Cassie nodded and made her way over to the counter.
While Cath rang up her purchases, she looked around the little shop and saw a corkboard with notices and adverts pinned to it. She went across to investigate.
The 'Bring and Buy' at the church hall this afternoon might be worth going to to see if they sold home made cake. An announcement about a Scarecrow Contest, to be judged this Saturday by the vicar, caught her attention.
"Oh, so that's why."
Cath looked up and saw what she was looking at. "Why there are scarecrows all over the place?" She laughed. "Tradition. Can't remember who started it or when, but we do it every year. To raise funds for the church spire." She rang up the last item, a packet of salted peanuts, and checked the total. "That'll be £5.47. Would you like a carrier bag?"
Cassie nodded and pulled out a ten-pound note. While Cath counted out her change, a thought struck her and she glanced back towards the cork board with its 'for sale' and 'wanted' ads. If this Armitage business were to go on for any length of time....
"Um, Cath. If I wanted to rent a room in Bourne's Edge for a few months, somewhere cheaper than the B & B, is there anywhere?"
The postmistress pursed her lips. "Not that I know of. But someone might be prepared to rent out a room for a short while if you asked them nicely. Tarian Brangwen, for example. She's got that house up by the forest. It's more space than she needs. 'Course, she's a bit of a loner, and then there are those two great lolloping, smelly dogs of hers... but you never know until you ask, do you?"
"Tarian." Cassie frowned. "Isn't that the signature on those paintings in the art shop window?"
Cath beamed at her. "Fancy you spotting that. Yes. Same person. She's an artist. Pretty good too, they tell me, though her stuff's not to my taste. Can't do people," she confided. "Paints them all a bit on the tall side. But then, what can you expect? She's a bit on the tall side herself." She laughed.
"And she lives where, by the forest you said?"
"Well, strictly speaking we all do—they cleared Bourne Forest to make way for the village. But there's still some of the original left, and Tarian's place is right next to it." She pointed back the way Cassie had just come. "Keep going uphill, past Mike's garage—you already know where that is, don't you?—for a quarter of a mile. It's on its own. ... If you come to the stile and the public footpath that means you've gone past it."
After a quick lunch of bread and cheese, Tarian strode down the hill towards the village, Anwar and Drysi bounding at her heels. The landscape she had finished last week and framed yesterday was wrapped in brown paper and string and tucked under one arm.
There was no point in worrying about Einion's unexpected visit or the news he had brought. What would happen would happen, and she would deal with it when it did. For now, she concentrated on enjoying the stretch of muscles left cramped from standing at her easel too long, and the feel of the Spring sunshine on her face.
"Afternoon, Ms Brangwen," came a man's voice out of nowhere.
Puzzled, she slowed. A spiky-haired head popped up from behind a small blue car with a battered boot. Its owner waved at her.
"Afternoon, Mike." She smiled at the mechanic, whose cheeks as always were streaked with oil, then picked up the pace once more.
A scarecrow had appeared in the Green Man's carpark—a witch, by the look of her. That made 32 entries by Tarian's reckoning. The Rev. Simon Wright would have his work cut out choosing a winner this year.
The man himself was crossing the road towards the church, that damned cross he always wore banging against his chest. Low growls made her glance at Anwar and Drysi. Their lips were drawn back, their ears pinned flat to their heads, and they looked ready to launch themselves across the road. She called them sharply to heel, and reluctantly they obliged, yawning and licking their lips to show they didn't care. The vicar had noticed the byplay and he threw her a rather nervous smile of thanks before fleeing indoors.
Tarian gave a mirthless grin. From their very first meeting it had been clear the vicar felt uneasy about her and such a lack of charity without an obvious cause clearly mortified him. But she bore the man no ill will. Did he but know it, his reaction was normal, instinctive—the Church's followers had been at odds with Tarian's kind for millennia. What she did resent was that cross. It was made of cold iron, and though the legends had got it wrong about its lethality to the Fae, it set her teeth on edge every time she got near it.
Anwar nudged her thigh and Drysi made a sound in the back of her throat. She glanced down at them and saw from the prick of their ears and furious tail wagging that something had caught the dogs' interest. She looked up and saw a short woman in a suede jacket, blue jeans, and boots walking towards her. Something about her snagged Tarian's attention the way it had her dogs, and she didn't think that it was just that the woman was attractive and blonde and there was a sensuous sway to her walk.
"Stay," ordered Tarian, as the dogs started forward. With a grumble of protest, they obeyed.
She extended her senses. Though the woman appeared calm and collected, she was as tense as a bowstring. Tarian probed a little deeper. Beneath the serene surface roiled agitation, fear, and... not loneliness exactly, but a feeling of being helpless and alone. They locked gazes, and curiosity sparked in the woman's green eyes before she ducked her head, breaking the contact between them.
Intrigued, Tarian turned to watch her cross the road towards the church hall, where more cars than usual were parked. Of course. Today's the Bring and Buy.
While it was second nature for the Fae to live in the moment, she had discovered that mortals rarely did. Everyday fears and anxieties dogged their waking hours. If they weren't worrying about that nagging pain in their guts, they were fretting about thinning hair or that the crack in the ceiling might be larger than it used to be. But the anxiety the woman was trying to suppress was more than that. Tarian recognised it, because she had felt its like before. It was the panic prey feels when it knows an implacable predator is on its trail.
What could possibly be hunting her?
On impulse, Tarian traced a glyph with her fingers and muttered a phrase, ignoring the momentary headache that triggering the spell caused. With a casual flick of the fingers, disguised as brushing dirt from her sweatshirt, she activated the ward she had created and sent it flying across the street. The sparkling mote attached itself to the sleeve of the woman's suede jacket. It was invisible to mortal eyes, but if danger should threaten her, Tarian would know.
After the woman had disappeared inside the church hall, Tarian approached the post office. She would kill two birds with one stone and while she purchased stamps for her letters and a loaf of bread get the gossipy postmistress to tell her what she knew about the new arrival.
"Stay," she told the wolfhounds. They flopped down outside the shop; Drysi scratched herself and Anwar yawned.
Tarian pulled her letters from her pocket and pushed open the door.
"Everything all right, dear?"
Cassie pushed her empty plate to one side and patted her stomach. "That was delicious."
Liz smiled. "There's apple crumble for dessert. Or you can have fresh fruit salad, or cheese and biscuits, or —"
"Fresh fruit salad please." Though she adored crumble, the lasagne hadn't left her any room for it.
While Liz took the dirty plates back through to the kitchen, Cassie took the opportunity to survey the dining room. There were framed photos on the shelf over the radiator. Several featured a younger version of the landlady. Many were obviously holiday snaps, and she was always arm in arm with a handsome man with a bushy moustache. There were also a few photos of a young boy in school uniform—he seemed to be trying out different hairstyles. In the last one, his fringe flopped into his eyes.
A rustle announced Liz's return. "My son, Robert." She had caught the direction of Cassie's gaze. "He's thirty-one now. Works as a civil servant in Ludlow." She placed a bowl of fresh fruit salad on the table, and next to it a jug of double cream. "The man's my husband, Bill. He died ten years ago. ... Help yourself, dear."
"Thanks." Cassie filled her bowl with slices of apple, banana, and strawberry. "You must miss him." She reached for the jug.
"I do." Liz shrugged. "I don't mind telling you, things were a struggle after he died. That's why I took to doing bed and breakfasts."
Cassie picked up her spoon and began to eat. "Do you get many customers?"
"To be honest, no." Liz took the seat opposite her, as though settling herself for a nice long chat. "We're not exactly on the beaten track. We get mostly people just passing through, like yourself. Those that come on purpose come for the forest: ramblers, bird watchers, artists like Tarian Brangwen. It's one of the few areas of Ancient Woodland left round here, you see."
"How ancient is 'ancient'?"
Liz laughed. "I've no idea. You want to ask Tarian. She spends a lot of time in the forest. Probably knows more about it than us locals."
Cassie remembered her encounter with the artist in the High Street. They hadn't exchanged a single word, yet it had left a deep impression on her and she found she kept thinking about her, about that long black hair, those striking blue eyes. "She's very tall, isn't she? Rather... exotic looking too."
"I suppose she is. Would have made a good supermodel." Liz drew a pattern on the tablecloth with her forefinger. "Most men like their women shorter than they are, don't they? Maybe that's why she's not married yet."
Cassie could think of other reasons, but she didn’t enlighten her landlady. "Aren't any of the eligible bachelors in Bourne's Edge tall?"
The landlady pulled a face. "The only bachelors we've got are Mike up at the garage and the vicar.... And to be blunt, Cassie, a woman would have to be pretty desperate to take on either of them."
Cassie laughed. "Well, at least Tarian has her dogs for company."
"Those dirty great brutes!"
"I know what you mean." Cassie too had been struck by the sheer size of the dogs. She pictured the rough brindled coats, deep chests, sleek muzzles, and alert, intelligent eyes. "What breed are they exactly?"
"Supposed to be wolfhounds," said Liz, "but I've never seen one like that on Crufts. ... Tarian rarely goes anywhere without them. Had them with her when she stayed here, as a matter of fact." She grimaced. "House stank of wet dog for months. It was after that I brought in the 'no pets' rule."
"She stayed here?"
"It was a couple of years ago. Must've been about this time of year, too. She just turned up one morning, looking like something the cat had dragged in. Never did say what had happened to her, but my guess is she was involved in an accident. With hindsight, I reckon she was in shock. She had no car and no luggage, no money either. Just the clothes she stood up in and those damned dogs. To tell you the truth, I was in two minds whether to let her stay, but I couldn't turn her away, now, could I?"
Cassie smiled at her. "How long did she stay?"
"A week, I think it was," said Liz. "By the end of it, though, she'd pulled herself together, got a huge roll of banknotes from somewhere, and started looking for somewhere to live. I was the one who put her on to the forester's house. It had been empty for years. Looked a wreck from the outside but I knew that was mostly superficial and it was sound as a bell. Didn't take her long to knock the place into shape. She gave me one of her paintings—my son has it hanging on his wall in Ludlow—and that bench in the front garden by way of thanks."
"The one with the scarecrow sitting on it?"
Liz chuckled. "That's meant to be Tony Blair but he didn't come out quite right. Don't suppose he'll win. Competition is the steepest I can remember. Janet Edwards had done a witch on a broomstick that would make your flesh creep, and Gary Jones has made a brilliant pirate—he's got an eye patch, a parrot, and a wooden leg. Well, both its legs are wooden, but you know what I mean."
Cassie finished the last of her fruit salad. "I enjoyed that," she said, putting down the spoon. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Liz kicked back her chair and stood up. "Want your coffee here or in your room?" She began to clear away the dessert dishes.
Cassie considered. "In my room, please."
"Going to watch a bit of TV?"
"I might. It depends what's on."
"I'm afraid reception can be a bit grainy. Depends on the weather."
"What do people usually do in the evenings?"
"Most nights there's something on at the church hall—W.I., Garden Club, skittles, Dance Class (they're learning Salsa), that kind of thing—otherwise people just go to the pub or stay in and read a book. Talking of which, you missed the mobile library this morning—it comes round every Thursday, if you're interested."
"Thanks," said Cassie. "I'll bear that in mind. ... But I've got some phone calls to make tonight anyway." Including one to the elusive DS Edlin, who still hadn't returned her call. "So I think I'll make it an early night."
"You do that, dear. I'll go and make that coffee, shall I?"
Armitage dried his hands on the prison towel and flopped down on the narrow bed. An hour working out in the gym had left him feeling tired and hungry but the results were worth it. He gave his stomach a satisfied pat; already his beer gut was noticeably smaller. He had let himself go, he supposed. That wouldn't happen again.
He checked his watch—half an hour until lunch—then retrieved his mobile phone from its hiding place and dialled. It was answered after only two rings.
"Any news?" Armitage listened as Rigby brought him up to date and grinned. "What did I tell you? I knew sooner or later she'd call them. Where did you say? Never heard of the place." He examined his fingernails and decided they needed a trim, then stopped Rigby in mid flow. "Never mind how far it is from bloody Ludlow. I don't need to know where Bourne's Edge is as long as you do. .... Yeah. And this time no cock-ups, right? Take some of the boys with you. I don't care how you do it, just get it done."
Tarian was 'in the zone', as mortals put it. The block standing between her and her painting had dissolved, and since early morning she had been hard at it, wielding brush and palette knife with a deft touch she thought had deserted her. She hadn't even stopped for lunch. Which made the knock at her front door even more annoying.
Mumbling a curse—a brush was clenched between her teeth— she ignored it and hoped whoever it was would go away.
The knock came again, louder.
She spat out the brush. "Boar's entrails!"
Anwar and Drysi had risen in their baskets, and their hackles were up. Anwar looked at her and an image of the Rev. Simon Wright came into her head.
She snorted. "That's all I need." She was still shaking her head when she heaved open the front door and glared at the man standing on her doorstep—his iron cross was making her teeth ache. "Yes?"
"Er, good afternoon, Ms Brangwen," said the vicar. "I hope this isn't an inconvenient moment?"
"It is, as it happens."
He took in her paint-spattered appearance, and the cheeks beneath his straggly beard reddened. "I'm so sorry." He made as if to leave, then halted and turned back. "But since I've already disturbed you." He gave her a hopeful look.
She sighed and stood aside. "You'd better come in."
He hesitated. Hardly surprising, given the aggressive way Anwar and Drysi were eying him. A soft word of command from Tarian sent them to their baskets. The vicar gave a sigh of relief and stepped inside her hall.
"It's about the scarecrow contest," he said, as he wiped his feet on her doormat, blinked at the boar spear hanging on the wall, and followed her into the kitchen.
"What about it?" She turned to look at him and folded her arms.
He ran a finger round the inside of his dog collar. "Erm. Well, I'm supposed to be judging it tomorrow, as you know, but I have to go away tonight—a friend of mine is in hospital—and won't be back 'til Sunday. So I was wondering...."
She frowned. "Yes?"
"I know it's short notice, but, well, I was wondering if you might judge the contest."
"Me?" Her eyebrows shot up. "I know nothing about scarecrows, Reverend. Isn't there anyone more suitable? A member of your congregation, perhaps?"
He fingered his crucifix. "Well, I did ask some of them before I approached you, of course." Might have guessed I would be his last resort. "But it requires an unbiased judge, and most of my parishioners, if they haven't entered a scarecrow themselves this year, are related to someone who has."
His tone became wheedling. "With your artist's eye, Ms Brangwen, your aesthetic sensibility—"
"I would be at a disadvantage," she completed.
"What? Oh." He smiled as he realised she had made a joke. "Ha. Good one. It's true some of entries are a bit of an eyesore. But it's all for a good cause, you know."
Tarian stared out of the kitchen window while she considered his request. The vicar was obviously desperate if he had got up the nerve to pay her a visit in person. She tossed a mental coin, sighed, and turned to face him.
From the way his jaw dropped, he had expected her to put up more of a fight. "Really?"
She nodded. "I'll judge your scarecrows. For this year only though. Don’t expect me to do it again."
He beamed. "Oh that's terrific. I can't thank you enough, Ms Brangwen."
"Yes you can."
He looked apprehensive. "Um. How?"
"By leaving so that I can get on with my work."
"Of course." He turned at once and made for the door. "I'll get out of your hair. Thanks you so much for doing this, Ms Brangwen. And good luck with the judging."
Tarian watched him hurry away down her path then closed the door firmly behind him.
Cassie climbed over the battered wooden stile and started along the footpath, which sloped gently uphill. Her intention when she set out that afternoon had been to take a look at Tarian's house, but the presence of the vicar's car outside and the vicar himself waiting on the artist's doorstep had stymied that. But it was a lovely afternoon, so she walked purposefully past, as if she had intended to visit Bourne Forest all along. It hadn't taken her long to reach the signpost that Liz had told her about.
The forest canopy wasn't in full leaf yet and let through pleasantly dappled sunlight. In the distance a pigeon cooed. When was the last time she had been on a woodland walk? That school outing to Sutton Park's nature trail? She shrugged and determined to make the most of it.
A scrabble along a branch overhead proved to be a squirrel. It paused, feathery tail twitching, and looked down at her with beady black eyes before scurrying off. She sucked in a lungful of air, noticing the smell of spring foliage and leaf mould, then lengthened her stride, glad to be able to stretch her legs.
She was feeling much happier. She had managed to get in touch with DS Edlin that morning, and though he had proved to be as sceptical as his boss, he had agreed to look into the incident with the white van. He'd also promised her that, if he found any proof Armitage was behind the attempt to shunt her off the road, he would investigate the possibility of getting her onto a witness protection scheme.
What must be some kind of game trail branched off the path to the right, and Cassie took it. Liz had warned her to stick to the footpath, but she was feeling adventurous. It wasn't long before she began to regret her impulse. The trail was proving steeper than the path had been, made more treacherous by tree roots. Ivy-covered trunks pressed ever closer, until branches were tangling in her hair and scratching her cheeks. Gradually the light dimmed and the birdsong and rustle of wildlife searching for food in the undergrowth faded, leaving behind a brooding silence.
Maybe it was her imagination, but this part of the forest felt different, older. Many of the trees were coated with mosses and lichens, and their trunks had that twisted almost sinister shape that comes only with great age. There was a watchful quality to the forest that she found unnerving. She had the feeling that the trees were weighing her up, and if they should detect any ill intent towards them on her part.... But that was probably Liz's fault, for over breakfast she had delighted in telling Cassie spooky tales of how, every time the current owner tried to sell Bourne Forest, the sale fell through, and every time he tried to fell his trees, awful accidents befell his tree surgeons.
Cassie decided discretion was the better part of valour and began to retrace her steps. She wondered how Tarian could not only live so close to such a place but also spend so much time alone in it. But then, the company of those two lolloping great dogs probably made for a very different woodland experience. Even so, she felt a profound sense of relief as the incline gentled, the light grew brighter and her surroundings airier, and the cheerful sounds of the forest returned.
She jumped down from the stile and walked back down the hill towards Tarian's. The vicar's car had gone, but she had no idea whether Tarian was in or not—according to Liz the artist didn’t have a car. Her curiosity got the better of her, and she halted outside and pretended to empty a stone from her shoe, all the while giving the house a good long look.
So she did the house up herself? Not a bad job. Wonder which of the windows belongs to her studio? Because all artists had a studio, didn't they? The temptation to peek inside was overwhelming, but she knew that would be taking her fascination with Tarian to stalkerlike levels, so reluctantly she put her shoe back on and carried on down the hill.
Tarian had just become immersed in her painting once more when something dragged her back to her surroundings—an irritating buzzing sound at the edge of her hearing. Puzzled, she straightened, and gave the sound her full attention.
The faintness of the buzzing indicated that the threat to the mortal woman, whose name she had learned was Cassie Lewis, was not serious as yet. But it was getting closer. She wondered what it was.
"Anwar. Drysi." Her call brought the wolfhounds to her side. "Remember this mortal?" She pictured Cassie in her mind and sent them the image. Anwar's nose nudged her hand wetly in acknowledgment. "Find her. Something is hunting her. When you know what it is, come and tell me. Understand?"
Drysi let out a soft bark and Anwar whined.
"Good dogs." She fondled their ears then opened the front door for them and pointed. "Go. And don't let anyone see you."
Cassie had noticed that most of the front gardens contained scarecrows of one kind or another. Now, she took the opportunity to take a closer look. What a motley assortment they were. Some were traditional, made of turnip heads and twigs, but others utilised more modern materials, though she thought using a shop window dummy was probably cheating. Her favourites were the pirate and the burglar carrying a bag marked 'swag'. But she wasn't the judge, and the vicar probably had very different taste.
A loud rumble drew her attention to the hollowness of her stomach—she'd had only a packet of crisps, a can of Tango, and an apple for lunch. It was no wonder she was hungry; when she checked her watch she was startled to find it was much later than she had thought.
Wonder what's for supper? Her mouth watered at the thought.
She was passing the church when a clacking sound, like claws on concrete, made her glance over her shoulder. There was nothing there though so she carried on. Movement up ahead caught her eye: a black Renault was coming up the road towards her. Its windows were in need of a good wash, but she could make out the shapes of two people in the front and two in the back. It slowed as it drew nearer, and veered towards the pavement on which she was walking.
A tourist wanting directions? She was readying herself to give her stock answer, "Sorry. I'm a stranger here myself," when she heard the sound of a door closing nearby.
Dr Reynolds (Liz had told her the village only had the one doctor, so it must be him) was in the process of locking up the surgery. He saw Cassie watching him and smiled, revealing even white teeth.
"Enjoying your stay with us, Ms Lewis?" He was evidently another subscriber to the village grapevine.
"Very much, thank you."
He picked up his bag and hurried to join her. She slowed so he could fall into step. Close up, he was older than she had at first thought. Must be the boyish good looks, well cut suit, and immaculate grooming.
"Making a home visit?" She nodded at his heavy bag.
"Mrs Dobson—she's housebound so I like to look in on her from time to time. After that it'll be time to see what Madge—that's my wife—has cooked for supper." He glanced at her. "I expect you're ready for something to eat too."
"You bet. My stomach feels like my throat's been cut."
She remembered the black Renault and turned, expecting to see the driver winding down his window, but there was no sign of it. Belatedly she registered the revving of an engine as it drove past. She turned and saw the Renault disappearing up the hill. Odd! Must have changed his mind.
Something moved across in the pub carpark across the road and she glanced at the doctor who looked a question at her in return. "Did you just see a couple of dogs?" she asked him. They weren't there now. Could she have imagined their heads ducking down behind the low wall?
"No. But I shouldn't worry if you did—they're probably Tarian Brangwen's."
She looked for the artist, but could see no sign of her.
"Oh they've probably just got loose again," continued Dr Reynolds. "It happens from time to time, but they don’t cause any damage." He checked his watch. "Oops. I'd better get on if I'm going to visit Mrs Dobson. Nice talking to you."
"And to you."
As he hurried off, she stared hard at the wall of the carpark, but the dogs' heads didn’t reappear. Then her stomach rumbled, drawing her attention back to more pressing needs.
Tarian put aside her book as a panting Anwar and Drysi came into the sitting room. The dogs threw themselves on the rug by her feet and looked up at her.
"Well?" She nudged the closer of the two, Anwar, with her foot. "Did you find her?" He licked his chops and rested his head on his paws. "Oh I see. Going to let your wife speak for you, are you?" He yawned and turned his muzzle towards the log fire. "Lazy pooch." Amused, she dug in her foot and tickled his ribs. He gave a contented sigh and closed his eyes.
Tarian turned her attention to Drysi. "Well then?" The wolfhound gazed deep into her eyes, and after a moment a stream of images popped into her head.
Cassie Lewis walking along the road.
A black car—correction, a very dirty black car—coming in the opposite direction, the driver's face unclear, the numberplate illegible.
The car pulling closer to the pavement, as though preparing to mount it.
Cassie blithely unaware of her peril. Turning her head, mouth moving as she speaks to someone... Dr Reynolds.
The black car changing course at the last minute, pulling away from the kerb, speeding off into the distance.
The images stopped, and it was Drysi's turn to drop her head onto her paws and sigh.
"Well done," Tarian told her.
She went through to the kitchen and returned with a couple of boar's thighbones, the flesh still clinging to them. The dogs caught them with a snap of teeth and settled down contentedly. Gnawing noises joined the crackle of flames.
Tarian resumed her seat and stared into the log fire. Cassie probably wasn't even aware of her narrow escape. If the doctor hadn't arrived at just the right moment.... They didn't want a witness. Wonder who they are, and why they want to kill her.
The jangling buzz of the ward hadn't gone away; if anything it was growing louder. Which meant the danger hadn't gone. She glanced out the window, saw that night was drawing in. The thugs would be back. Probably while Cassie was asleep and vulnerable.
She got to her feet and began to pace. Drysi and Anwar continued gnawing while they watched her. She halted by the sitting room window and gazed down the hill towards the village. An idea stuck her and she began to laugh. The dogs exchanged a glance.
"Don't mind me," she told them with a grin.
It took Tarian a few moments to find what she was after, a battered old street plan of Bourne's Edge. She opened it and spread it out on a table, then traced a circle with her forefinger around the village and followed it with a series of glyphs. She muttered a few words and gestured. Her head throbbed in response and she waited for it to pass.
"Look after her," she murmured. Then she went back to her book.
Cassie knuckled grit from her bleary eyes and sat up. It had been the worst night's sleep she'd had in ages. What had sounded like foxes rummaging through the rubbish sacks put out for the binmen—except now she came to think about it, didn't the binmen collect those yesterday?—had disturbed her around midnight, and then there had been the weird dreams. She drew back the curtains and blinked.
Scarecrows lay toppled like ninepins all around the B & B's front garden and along the road in both directions. As for the garden itself, it looked like a herd of wildebeest had stampeded through it. Part of the fence had been flattened, the wooden bench lay on its side, and where was Tony Blair? The pristine borders were full of footprints, and the carefully tended plants and shrubs had been squashed flat.
Foxes don't do that.
Cassie pulled her jacket on over her nightie and hurried downstairs. "Liz. Liz. Are you all right?" She followed the clatter and appetising smells to the kitchen, where her landlady was cooking bacon and eggs.
Liz did a double take at Cassie's appearance, and gave her a rueful grin. "You've seen the state of my front garden, I take it?" Cassie nodded. "Don't suppose you heard or saw anything last night?"
"I thought it was just foxes. Sorry."
"Never mind. I know who must have done it. Young hooligans. Just wait until I tell their mother." She added another egg to the frying pan and two rashers of bacon to the grill.
Liz's matter-of-fact manner reassured Cassie, and she pulled out a chair and sat down. "So who was it?" She rested her elbows on the kitchen table.
"The Scott twins, who else?" Liz set a place in front of Cassie. "Couple of tearaways, those two. Well they've gone too far this time. I've called the police." She popped another slice of bread into the toaster.
"But why would they do such a thing?"
"For fun. They once emptied the contents of my rubbish sacks all over the garden." She wiped her hands on her apron and began spooning hot fat over the eggs. "It's going to make Tarian's job harder too."
The non sequitur puzzled Cassie. "What's she got to do with it?"
"Oh didn't you know?" The toaster pinged and the slice of toast popped up, nicely browned. "The vicar was called away at short notice. She's judging the scarecrow contest."
Armitage scowled at the phone. "What do you mean scarecrows attacked you? Have you been drinking?" He could have done with a drink himself. Last night had been a disturbed one. A prisoner further along the landing had spent it shouting obscenities and rattling his cell door.
The voice at the other end continued its bleating and Armitage could feel his blood pressure rising.
"For God's sake, Rigby! Enough excuses. Four hulking great men against one skinny girl—how hard can it be?" He realised he was shouting and lowered his voice. "Look, let me spell it out. I'm paying you to sort out this little problem, and you're going to do it or find me someone else who can. So get back up there NOW and bloody take care of the Lewis girl."
He switched off the phone and flung it across the room. Not hard enough to damage it though. A new phone would cost, and he didn't have money to burn.
Tarian shoved Drysi out of her way and opened the Aga oven door. The casserole was on schedule, so she left it to finish cooking, moved to the window, and stared out at the darkening sky.
She couldn't remember the last time she had invited a mortal to dinner. But there was something about Cassie that she found appealing. Now she wondered if her impulsive invitation had been a wise one. Still, the opportunity to find out more about Cassie and her mysterious pursuers was too good to pass up.
The day had started unpromisingly. One of Rev Wright's parishioners had slogged up the hill to tell Tarian what had happened overnight to the scarecrows and that the Scott boys were at the police station being given a good talking to. Tarian suppressed a twinge of guilt and consoled herself that the boys might be innocent this time, but they were long overdue for punishment for past misdeeds. Pretending to be as amazed and outraged at the news as her informant, she said she would be at Liz Hayward's house in quarter of an hour to assess the situation.
The chaos that greeted her astounded her. She hadn't expected her spell to result in quite this much destruction—the men pursuing Cassie must have put up quite a fight—and with a rueful grimace she set about retrieving the situation.
"There's no time to return the scarecrows to their gardens," she told the villagers gathered there, "so I'll judge them here." Some had grumbled at that, claiming their scarecrows couldn't possibly be judged fairly unless they were in situ, but a look from her had quietened them down.
Scarecrow heads had gone missing, and twiggy limbs had been snapped in two. On Tarian's instructions, people scoured the village for scattered body parts, and accessories like the pirate's parrot and the burglar's bag of swag, and reunited them with their owners, now laid out in a line on the pavement outside the B & B.
She gave the entrants an hour to repair the worst of the damage to their entries, an ultimatum that brought yet more complaints. But a tart reminder that the contest was just a bit of fun meant to raise funds for the church spire reduced the discontent to a manageable level.
But if the logistics of judging had suddenly become simpler, the rest of the process was no less problematic. She had no idea how the vicar usually went about it, but she also had no intention of tossing a coin or of putting names in a hat.
It was at that point that Cassie had emerged from the B & B's front door, bright- eyed with curiosity, and introduced herself and offered to help. From that point on, Tarian's day had improved considerably and the chore of judging had become almost enjoyable.
"The problem is, it's like comparing apples with oranges," she confided to Cassie, who was jotting down notes about each scarecrow and had asked what criteria Tarian was using. "There should be some points awarded for imagination and for choice of materials, I suppose. Other than that, I'm just going with my gut."
"Well why not? ... I've seen your paintings in the art gallery, by the way. I like them."
"Thank you. They're not to everyone's taste."
"Your figures are very... stylised," agreed Cassie, "but they look right for the setting, somehow."
Which was very perceptive of her, and just the first of many indications that Cassie was more than just a pretty face and shapely figure. She had a sense of humour too, and Tarian found herself smiling at the comments Cassie made as they progressed along the row of scarecrows.
In the end, it had come down to a toss-up between the Morris Dancer and the Pirate, and though Cassie tried had to persuade her to change her mind, Tarian plumped for the Morris Dancer. She tore out a blank page from Cassie's notebook, scribbled on it the name of the winner and runner up, signed and dated it, and pinned it to the notice board in the church hall. Then, unwilling to cut such an enjoyable day short, she'd asked Cassie if she would like to come to dinner that evening. To the surprise of both of them, she suspected, Cassie accepted.
Drysi's ears pricked up, and, tail wagging, she hurried to join Anwar who was waiting just inside the front door. Tarian checked the clock and smiled.
She found Cassie on her doorstep, arm raised, about to knock.
"Oh!" Cassie pressed her hand to her heart. "You startled me."
"Anwar and Drysi knew you were here," said Tarian. "Come in." She stepped back, a word of command keeping the dogs from sticking their noses into her visitor's crotch.
"I'll take your coat, shall I?"
"Thanks." Cassie unbuttoned her suede jacket and eased out of it. "Mm. Something smells nice."
Tarian hung up the jacket. "It's boar casserole. Thought it would make a change from pasta."
Cassie chuckled. "I'd forgotten you stayed at the B & B. Liz does serve pasta rather a lot, doesn’t she? ... Um, boar, did you say?" Her brows drew together. "I can't say I've ever had that."
"I think you'll like it. Kitchen's through there." Tarian pointed. "Let's go through."
"OK. While I think, I was hoping you might show me around your studio later," said Cassie, looking hopeful. "If that isn't too cheeky."
"Not cheeky at all." Tarian checked her watch. "Dinner won’t be ready for another quarter of an hour. Why don't I show you round now?" She ushered a pleased Cassie to the door at the far end of the hall and followed her through it, the dogs bringing up the rear, toenails clacking on the tiles.
"Wow!" Cassie stopped in front of the easel and admired her work in progress. "This is wonderful, Tarian."
"It's not quite right, but I'm getting there."
"You certainly are. Where do you get your inspiration from?"
"The forest. My imagination. Anything and everything around me."
Cassie smiled at that and nodded.
Tarian watched her walk round the studio, taking in every detail, even the labels on the tubes and jars of paint laid out on the trestle table. Cassie stopped and crouched next to the paintings stacked with their faces to the wall then turned to look up at her.
"Be my guest. They're unfinished though," warned Tarian. "Sketches and daubs I've given up on mostly."
Cassie thumbed through the canvases, stopping every now and then to make noises that, to Tarian's ear at least, sounded genuinely interested or appreciative.
She'd give me a swelled head, if I let her. She was beginning to feel fond of Cassie.
She lifted her head and sniffed. The aroma drifting through from the kitchen told her the boar was cooked. "We should eat."
Cassie stood up at once and came towards her. "I wish I could paint."
"Have you ever tried?" Tarian ushered her out into the hall once more.
"It's one of many things I plan to try one day." Cassie's eyes widened as she noticed the boar spear hanging on the hall wall. "That looks lethal. Is it real?"
Tarian urged her past it and into the kitchen. "'One day' may never come, you know."
"I know." Cassie sighed and took the chair that Tarian indicated, looking startled when the dogs plumped themselves down on either side of her and rested their chins on her shoes. "Are your dogs this friendly with everyone?"
No, was the short answer. "They like you," she said instead. She wondered whether to tell them to leave Cassie alone, but Cassie didn't seem to mind their attentions, so she decided against it.
"What breed are they?"
Cassie had her elbows on the table, her chin propped on one hand. Tarian couldn't help but notice how at ease Cassie was. For some reason, she found it gratifying.
"Wolfhounds." She pulled on a pair of oven gloves and stooped to take the casserole out of the oven.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but they don't look like any wolfhound I've ever seen."
Tarian straightened and put the hot dish on a trivet. She grinned, unoffended. "That's because the ones you've seen aren't authentic." She began to divide up the dinner.
"Mmm. That smells good. What do you mean, not authentic?"
"They're crosses." Tarian had done her research. "With breeds like Tibetan Mastiff, Borzoi, Great Dane.... Who know what else?" She set a steaming plate in front of Cassie then took her own place at the table.
"Really?" Cassie picked up her knife and fork. "So—what did you say their names are: Dryser and An something?"
"Drysi and Anwar." Tarian speared a piece of meat with her fork, dunked it in the sauce, and popped it in her mouth.
"So they're rare, then?"
Tarian restricted herself to a nod.
"You should breed them. They must be worth a fortune."
She swallowed before speaking. "I suppose they are." Now there's an idea. If demand for my paintings dries up, I can always mate Anwar and Drysi and sell their pups.
At that thought, the dogs' heads came up and they looked indignantly at her. She suppressed a snort. Point made, they settled their chins on Cassie's feet once more.
Cassie chewed, her expression at first apprehensive then appreciative. "This is delicious. What's in the sauce?"
"Mushrooms, redcurrants, red wine...."
"Do you shop in Ludlow? Only I haven't seen boar on sale in Bourne's Edge."
"Sometimes." Tarian thought it best not to mention that she had killed the boar herself. Mortals were surprisingly squeamish. "If I can get myself organised enough to catch the bus I do, anyway. There's only one a day."
"You don't drive?"
Tarian shook her head. She could make a warhorse do whatever she wanted, but automobiles were another matter. She reached for the bottle of red wine she had opened earlier; she had used its twin in the casserole. "Would you like some?"
She poured them both a glass and watched Cassie relax in her chair and take an appreciative sip.
"So, has anyone in the village argued with you about the results of the scarecrow contest yet?"
Tarian shook her head. "To be honest," she said, "I've been avoiding them."
Cassie laughed. "People are so competitive, aren't they?"
"And another thing. Apparently the winner and runner up are supposed to receive certificates and rosettes." She gave a helpless shrug.
"Oh. Didn’t the vicar leave you any?"
"No." Tarian wondered if he had simply been too flustered to remember.
"Well, he's back tomorrow, isn't he? He can hand them out then himself. ... Liz says you and he don't see eye to eye."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "Does she?"
"Sorry." Cassie's cheeks pinked. "I've been asking questions about you. I was curious. I've never met an artist before."
Tarian sipped her wine and wondered whether to feel flattered or nervous at her obvious interest. "Well, your landlady's right. The Reverend's kind and mine rarely get on."
Cassie blinked. "Vicars and artists, you mean?"
"Mm." The wine must be going to her head, or maybe it was the company. She didn't usually feel this at ease with someone so quickly. She resolved to be more circumspect. "What do you do for a living?"
"Me? Oh." Cassie fiddled with the stem of her glass. "I'm a librarian. I work in Birmingham."
"So what brings you to Bourne's Edge? Apart from having to get your car fixed, I mean." There, the question was out in the open at last.
The silence stretched as Cassie bit her lip and looked down. Tarian had resigned herself to not getting an answer when Cassie's head came up and she took a breath.
"This will probably seem unbelievable, but the truth is, I'm in hiding."
"Really?" Tarian leaned forward. "From who?"
"A man named Armitage. Or rather from his men. Armitage himself is in Winson Green prison."
"Ah." Tarian sat back. "You put him there?" Of course you did.
"In a way. I testified against him. He's a property developer cum landlord, corrupt as they come."
"But the police have given you no protection?" Tarian worked it out. "They think you're exaggerating, don’t they? But you aren't. His men have made an attempt on your life already."
Cassie gaped at her. "How... how did you know about that?"
Just then both dogs got to their feet, hackles rising, growling a warning to Tarian low in the back of their throats. She kicked back her chair and stood up.
"What is it?" Cassie looked at the dogs then at her.
She held up a hand for silence. The ward's background buzz had risen to a shrill whine that was setting her teeth on edge, and with a gesture she destroyed it—it had served its purpose.
From the studio came the sound of a glass breaking, followed by several dull thuds.
"Uninvited guests," she growled.
At her signal, the dogs bounded off to investigate. Moments later came the sounds of snarling and scuffling, and a man's voice raised in pain.
"Stay here." Tarian went into the hall and reached for the boar spear and bow.
"Shouldn't we call the police?" Cassie had followed her.
"It would take too long." The snarling and scuffling noises intensified, then came what sounded like a shotgun blast. "By Oak, Ash, and Thorn!"
She slung her quiver over one shoulder, then bow in one hand, spear in the other, set off along the hall. She had almost reached the studio when a figure spilled backwards through the open door. The man's stocking mask couldn't hide his terror, and even falling on his arse didn't make him release his grip on a still smoking shotgun. The reason why became apparent when a large brindled shape leaped through the doorway and sank its teeth into his throat. He let out a helpless gurgle.
Anwar clearly had the situation under control, so Tarian leaped over the man's weakly kicking legs and entered her studio.
She took in the situation at a glance. Three intruders, all wearing stocking masks, had cornered Drysi. From their bleeding hands, she had bitten them, but now she was trapped—they had used a chair, trestle table, and easel to do it, and a gangly fellow was about to smash in her skull with a claw hammer. Tarian didn’t hesitate; she pulled back her arm and threw. The boar spear cleared Drysi's muzzle by a centimetre and took the dog's attacker in the chest, pinning him to the wall like a butterfly. As the hammer dropped from his suddenly slack fingers, his companions spat obscenities and turned to face Tarian. Drysi used the diversion to wriggle her way to freedom and returned to the attack.
As the wolfhound threw herself at his throat, the smaller of the men yelled, "Get this fucking dog off me!" Then he began to scream. His friend raised a wicked-looking hunting knife and went to his aid.
In one smooth, practiced motion, Tarian pulled an arrow from her quiver, nocked it to her bowstring, aimed, and loosed. There was a surprised squawk and droplets of something hot spattered her cheek. The man dropped the knife, his hands reaching for the object sprouting from either side of his neck. He let out a strangled, bubbling cry and collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut. She lowered the bow and wiped her face with the back of one hand, unsurprised when it came away bloody.
By now Drysi's target had crumpled to the floor and lay still in a pool of spreading crimson. The wolfhound spat out the piece of flesh that had been his throat, sneezed, and looked at Tarian. There was no sound in the studio apart from her harsh panting, and the padding of Anwar's paws as he came to join the two of them.
Tarian sat on her heels as both dogs, whining softly, pressed themselves against her. A quick examination reassured her that the blood on their coats wasn't theirs. So what damage did the shotgun do? She scanned her surrounding, pausing when she saw her work in progress lying on the floor, a huge hole blown in its centre.
"Good dogs." She buried her face in Anwar's rough coat. "Splendid dogs."
A noise came from the doorway, and Tarian lifted her head and turned to see what had caused it. Cassie was standing there watching her, eyes wide with horror, a hand covering her mouth.
CONTINUED IN PART 2
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