In a world the colour of moonstone, anything might lurk. There was light, and plenty of it, but it was the milky whiteness of a blinded eye. He could see nothing. The mist lay low over the mere, silencing everything.
Fir-tops were outlined in softest grey, high up behind him. There were grasses and reeds at his feet. That was all he could see of his surroundings, and he had no plans to move.
Reluctant even to breathe the murk, Turlach stood entirely still. The sheer effort of that and the grating of his nerves made his heart hammer, and he was forced to suck in a harsh breath. It tasted of dank water, of weed-rot and mud. He wanted to spit.
He’d lost his bearings a little, but he knew where he was, that was the important thing. He knew how far the dun was, and his chances of making it there, and if he chose his direction well, and moved silently and fast, he could get there within hours.
Still, it was something of a gamble. He didn’t want to choose badly.
They were close behind him, he knew that. There were two of them in pursuit; they were not dear friends of his, and they had brought none along. Nobody else knew. Nobody knew where he was. Or why.
Turlach shivered. The dampness made his throat rasp.
Iolaire had not been caught and dragged back to the queen’s fortress; Iolaire had made it to the safety of enemy territory. But those two years ago, Iolaire had been on horseback, and he’d ridden out in weather you could see through, and they hadn’t known he wasn’t coming back. Anyway, they’d known they could kill him later. They’d lost Iolaire; they’d spawned a renegade, and they hated that. Everyone hated that. But with him, with Turlach, it mattered in bigger ways than love and loyalty and pride.
Funny that he hadn’t considered going to Kate NicNiven with what he knew: he’d simply left, and as fast as he could. But then even if the queen balked at Cuthag’s plan, Turlach knew in his bones the idea would entice her. Gods knew where Cuthag had found the outcast, or why, but Kate had always had a fascination with the man even as she sat in judgement on him, which was often. She’d always regretted the punishments she was forced to impose; had shown a tangible longing to have him back in her fold. The queen might resist Cuthag’s pledges and promises, but only for a little while, and only for show. Turlach did not want to be the one to argue.
So the outcast was coming back. As soon as Turlach had come across him in the deepest passageways of the fortress, as soon as he’d overheard the man’s bragging talk and Cuthag’s laughter, he’d known this was his first and last chance to leave.
He wished he’d been quieter about it, that was all.
Having marked his escape, the two of them wouldn’t want to risk him reaching the enemy dun, not with what he had to tell Seth MacGregor. He wouldn’t get the leeway Iolaire had got. For Turlach, for his pursuers, there was a deadline.
He rubbed his cold arms. He had to move. If he didn’t move soon, they’d smell him anyway, cornered here like a rat.
Cautiously he waded through the water, hating to disturb its slick surface. The loch-grasses were dense here, and he knew he was edging further from the fringes of the loch, though it barely seemed to deepen. The suck and slosh of the water echoed too loudly.
Throw them off his scent, or throw them off his sounds: he couldn’t do both. He hadn’t reckoned on the mist, that was all.
A waterbird erupted at his feet with a cry and a clatter. In a mad reflex he snatched at it, stumbled, then stared after its flickering shadow, sweat beading on his forehead. It had vanished into the soupy whiteness, but it must have skim-landed, because water-arrows rippled out of the mist, lapping delicately at his legs. His blood trickled cold in his veins as he watched the ripples subside to stillness. There were other things in the loch, things far worse than noisy waterbirds; worse even than pursuing fighters.
Quite suddenly Turlach knew this had been the most foolish of moves. Stupid to leave himself exposed to danger both from land and from the loch. He waded fast towards the water’s ill-defined edge, shoving reeds out of the way. Whatever their brutality, the fighters coming after him were at least human. He’d sooner take his chances with them than wait like a tethered sheep for the creature to come out of the loch.
He skirted the fringe of the water as closely as he could, alert for the slightest disturbance of the surface. But the mist could help as well as hinder him, after all. He was letting the fears of childhood terrify him out of using it to his advantage. That made him angry with himself, and that helped too.
The flank of the fir-tree hill was the best bet. He was happier to cross the marshy ground and get further from the water, and though he didn’t want to leave the cover of the mist entirely, it was thinner as he climbed higher and easier to get his bearings. His destination was no more than a few hours beyond the low hill, and for the first time in many miles he began to think he was going to make it. On the solid ground he quickened his steps, stumbling only once as his foot found a concealed runnel of water. Halting, breathing hard, he glanced behind.
At first he thought it was the sun breaking through the heavy blanket of mist: a single spear of light, bright gold and dazzling. He knew in an instant that it was in the wrong position by a half-turn of the earth. No. The sun was behind him, just piercing the mist-line; the light ahead was its reflection on steel.
Turlach broke into a run.
In desperation he cut up towards the high slope, panting with panic and exhaustion, but the sound of hoofbeats was coming from two directions, ahead and behind. Doubling back, he plunged downhill, tripping and crashing headlong into the mire. As he scrambled to his feet, he was slammed back down by a hard blow to the side of his head.
He hauled himself from the mud on all fours, hands sunk in the glaur, unable to stand. And that wasn’t exhaustion or the terrain; it was the violent trembling of his treacherous limbs. Sick with shame, he couldn’t look up.
‘Runaway.’ The silky voice had a mocking lilt. ‘Run-run-runaway.’
Turlach shut his eyes, sat back on his haunches. Taking gulps of shallow breath, he forced himself to stagger to his feet. If he clenched his fists hard enough, the shaking subsided a little. Just a little. He spat marsh-filth and looked up into the pitiless eyes.
‘Any regrets, Turlach?’
Slowly, he shook his head. ‘You’ve played a long game, haven’t you?’
Laughter. ‘We’re Sithe, man! What other kind of game is there?’
‘Games that aren’t blasphemy, you bastard. I heard what you’re going to offer Kate. It isn’t right.’
‘Right is when we win. Wrong,’ and the happy singsong voice was back, ‘wrong is when we die in filth and pain, running like a rabbit.’
Did he regret it? He was going to die, he was sure of that. The trouble was, Turlach was old enough to remember this man, and the last time he’d haunted the Sithe lands. He was old enough to remember the brute’s reputation. Why else would he have run in the first place? Doubts he might have had in the past, but only this man could have impelled Turlach to leave his own clann. As for the new skill the man brought from his adventures in the otherworld, the peace-gift he’d brought to his queen: only such a warping of witchcraft could have persuaded Turlach to try to reach MacGregor, reach and warn him.
He twisted his lip; it was as close as he could get to a defiant smile. ‘I wouldn’t have fought for you anyway.’
‘That’s a pity.’
A slew of the ice-hard gaze beyond his shoulder, a slight nod, and Turlach felt the slash of a honed blade across his hamstrings. The ground went from beneath him, and he dropped like a shot bird. Shock left him anaesthetised for long seconds, and then the pain kicked in, searing his useless legs. His fingers curled round handfuls of thick mud and he pressed his face against the wet ground to stop himself crying out.
The two of them stood over him, muttering words he couldn’t hear for the screaming in his head. A foot nudged his ribcage, the edge of a bloodstained blade tickled his neck.
‘Don’t, Cuthag.’ That musical, contented voice.
No, Cuthag. Do. Please. He could smell his own blood, after all, and the creature’s nose was sharper.
‘The sun’s setting.’
‘It’s hungry at this hour.’
Cuthag gave a low laugh, withdrew the blade from Turlach’s throat.
It was only an inner begging. It was nothing he’d let either of them hear. The last thing he could do, at least, was shutter his mind against the pair of them.
‘Poor Turlach. It’ll smell him. But let’s make sure.’
A boot kicked at the blood-soaked glaur around him, sending gouts of it flying, spattering softly onto the mere’s surface skin.
‘Let’s go, shall we?’
Turlach heard them mount their skittish, snorting horses but he didn’t listen as they rode away at a perilously hasty gallop. He listened only for the other hoof-falls, the ones he knew were coming.
The white mist was darkening to grey, and the air was colder, thickening. He wouldn’t kick, wouldn’t struggle and flounder and draw the predator like a crippled fish. He didn’t want the escaping killers to hear him scream. Be still, Turlach. And besides, in the lifeless twilight, the silence of his mind, a faint hope of survival flickered.
The flickering hope guttered and died at the splash of a surfacing body, the scrape of a hoof on stone, a questioning whicker. Oh gods. Don’t move. Don’t breathe.
There was nothing to grip but the yielding boggy earth. He trembled, and gritted his teeth, and shut his eyes and tried not to see or hear.
The creature trotted close and straddled his bloody legs, pawing his head with a hoof and tugging experimentally on his hair, its hot tongue licking the skin of his neck. And suddenly, despite himself, Turlach was kicking, squirming, dragging his torso desperately through the clinging mud, clawing towards an escape he knew he’d never reach.
It stopped playing. When it seized him with its teeth, shook him like a rat, and began to feed, the spasms of useless struggle were no longer voluntary at all; and Turlach no longer knew or cared that his screams split the sodden air.
Copyright © 2012 by Gillian Philip