My gaze met Joel’s for the first time in the waking world as we sped for the gate that meant freedom and it was then that I finally saw recognition in his eyes as he looked at me. I felt what was fast becoming a familiar tug in my heart whenever I thought of him and a smile touched my lips as magick continued to flow from me and into my aunt. He smiled back even as he urged his mount to go faster and that was the last thing I saw as a blinding pain enclosed around my entire head.
“Ahh,” I cried out, as my hand left Siofra’s to hold my head. Within seconds the pain had subsided enough for me to open my eyes and look around, but it still throbbed slightly as I tried to gauge how long I had been out of it. An educated guess was telling me that the pain had been a result of Siofra and I doing magick while we were still inside the castle walls. Did Taeynd known where we were? Was she following? What had happened inside after Eliza and I left? As the pain continued to slowly abate my gaze found Kenaz, who was now watching me in complete terror as she cowered in the skirts of the old woman who had accompanied Siofra.
“Keep her down, keep her safe,” I managed, trying to assure the child that I was okay while I looked around us and saw that Mac was in the process of throwing the oil I had given him at the guards near the gate, the substance landing on them as well as the wall close behind them. Without thinking, I attempted to light fire to the oil to stop them from attacking us, but it didn’t work and the headache that had been receding to a dull ache become blinding again.
Lightning struck the wall then, igniting the oil that Mac had thrown and the men that it covered. I looked to Mac as he lifted the powder bag and threw it in the fire as we sped past.
The guards that weren’t on fire began to shoot at us as we edged ever closer to the opening that I hoped we made it through before it closed. Since I had given my gun to Mac I was now weaponless for the moment. I wasn’t about to try to use magick again while we were still inside the castle walls, the pain was too great. So I waited until I could be more useful.
Siofra had produced a gun of her own and was firing at guards along with Mac. She was still cradling an unconscious Glenn in her lap. Panic grew in my throat as I saw a bullet graze Mac’s shoulder, but when he kept his seat on his horse I knew that the wound wasn’t a life threatening one for the moment. That didn’t stop me from making a mental note to check him when we stopped.
Finally, we cleared the gates and were on the other side of the castle walls. I used magick to heal my headache and watched as the people that were still waiting in line to enter the castle scatter confusedly as Os-tur in dragon-cat form cleared a path in front of the wagon for us. He must have flown over the wall and landed in front of us.
Amidst the rain of bullets Glenn finally regained consciousness and sat up in the bed of the wagon. Fortunately, the guards that were following us had really bad aim and aside from the flesh wound that Mac had received, we were making a pretty good escape.
Mac stopped on the bridge after everyone else was safely on the other side and dismounted his horse long enough to dump a line of the gunpowder across the structure. He then strategically placed the pouch in the middle of the roadway and stepped back enough to fire at the line, the flames igniting the rest of the powder and quickly moving toward big pile. Then he mounted the horse again and pushed the animal hard to catch up with the rest of us before the whole thing blew.
I heard Eliza muttering something about Mac being reckless that caused me to look at her where she sat on the wagon seat, urging the horses to go faster. I wondered if she could use a break from the constant strain that holding onto the reigns of the horses was doing to her. “Do you need help up there?” I asked, thinking that I could take some of the burden from her since neither of us was accustomed to using our arms in that way.
“No, I’m fine,” she replied. I looked down her body and noticed blood on her shirt so I made to climb onto seat to heal her now that we were on the other side of the castle walls. “Get in the back,” she bit out.
“No, you’re hurt,” I insisted.
She flicked the reigns again. “I’m fine. You’re gonna fall.”
I ignored her as I tried to lift her shirt to get a better look. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said through clenched teeth.
“You’re not. Did you heal?”
“Get down with the others,” she yelled as she started to pull the horses into a slower pace as we approached a crossroad. She didn’t seem to be favoring anything for the moment as she pulled the wagon onto an old road and finally stopped it, all be it with some difficulty, but she did manage to do it.
I decided to drop my questioning for the moment, figuring that if she were hurt bad enough she would have let me help her. Quickly we all climbed out of the wagon or off our horses and I joined hands with Glenn, who had regained consciousness again, and Siofra to create a gateway that opened next to the circle of stones where we had arrived in this world in the first place. The gateway was large enough for everyone to move through quickly as Mac caught up with us and we passed through to the other side and assembled inside it.
I was eager to get back to our world, but I couldn’t keep myself from glancing at Joel as I took Kenaz’s hand and kneeled before her. He was checking the horses over as the others quickly scouted around for signs that we had been followed.
“Kenaz,” I said to the little girl, trying to form the words that I hoped would make her understand what I was about to tell her. “I don’t want anything to happen to you here once we leave. Do you want to come home with me?”
She looked at me quizzically, not sure what to say. “But I live here,” she said matter of factly. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
The old woman that Siofra had brought along came forward and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “I will make sure that no harm comes to the girl once you have gone.” She looked down at Kenaz kindly and smiled a gentle smile. “It would do my heart good to have someone to take care of.”
I nodded my head silently in agreement and got to my feet again as I caressed Kenaz’s cheek with the tips of my fingers. All around me preparations were underway by Mac and the others to return home. Packs were being removed from the wagon and brought into the circle and Os-tur had rejoined us again, now back in his human form.
Like a magnet, my eyes were drawn back to Joel. I worried about any lingering effects that he might have after being liberated from Taeynd even as I continued to wonder if he had in fact had feelings for the other woman. Then I started to think about some of the things that he had said in the limited conversations we had and suddenly I had an idea.
I called forth Spirit to look at Joel in such a way as to determine whether or not he was possessed. That had to be it. He had said that he was bound to her… what if the only place he had free will was in his dreams? It made perfect sense to me, but I needed to find proof of it, or something close to what I was thinking, in him.
I couldn’t tell for sure, but there was definitely something inside Joel that resembled a poison or parasitic infection that triggered an alarm in my mind. Siofra was only a few feet from me and I crossed to her quickly as I reached into my pouch and pulled out the little stone wolf that my Grandfather had given me. “There’s some kind of parasite in him,” I told her, managing to keep the panic from my voice that was rising in my chest.
Siofra looked at me oddly, and then glanced over at him. “In Joel?”
I nodded. “I can’t recognize what it is.”
Siofra looked at me quizzically. “Do you want me to figure it out?”
I didn’t know what it was, but the last thing I wanted was to leave whatever it was inside him. “Can we just get rid of it?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug as she seemed to watch him closely, as if she might. “I don’t know what it is.” She continued to watch him for a few seconds as he checked the gun that had been strapped on one hip and the sword that was hung on the other. I recognized his attitude from the times I had seen Mac prepare for an altercation. Joel was in battle mode, I told myself and that, along with the fact that we were running for our lives, was why we hadn’t yet had a chance to really… connect, for lack of a better word. There would be time for that when we were safely back home.
Eliza was fawning over Mac’s flesh wound. “You should be more careful,” she scolded as she tried to pull the material of his shirt and tunic back enough to get a good look at the damage.
Mac stopped and looked at her incredulously. “Ring, hello?” he commended as he glanced down at her blood-stained shirt. “Pot?”
She brushed his concern off. “You could have been seriously injured, and you need to take more care.”
Mac grinned as he took her hands gently and pulled them away from his shoulder. “Yes, but then I’d have been dead and you’d have to kill me,” he pointed out, humorously, his voice full of mirth.
“That is not funny,” Eliza bit out.
“Can’t see anything,” Siofra said finally as Joel went over to Glenn to make sure that he and Peorth were both okay after our quick escape from Horsetower. “You’re seeing things.”
“No, I’m not,” I insisted as Gwrhyr padded closer, having heard our conversation while the others were checking things over.
“No spirits per say,” I heard him say in my head, but he did agree that there was some sort of corruption about him. “You’re right, little one,” he told me.
“Do you think it’s something we need to look into right now?” I asked. “Or do you think it will wait until we get home?”
“What does your heart tell you?” he replied.
That was all the prompting I needed. I crossed the space that separated Joel and me. He was facing away from me as he talked with Peorth and I had to turn him so that he looked at me, then I laid my hands flat on his chest. “Why do you have…?” I started, then stopped and swallowed because this was the first time I was touching him in the waking world and a familiar warmth was coming from his chest and into my fingers.
“There’s something in you, what is it?” I started again. “Did she do it to you?” I was trying not to look in his eyes. Trying not to show how scared I was at the thought that maybe Taeynd had done something to him we hadn’t anticipated. Something that she may have the ability to trigger whenever she chose. Something that might kill him before I… before we could do anything to stop it.
Joel lifted his hands and enclosed them around my wrists. “I told you, she used her blood in a spell,” he told me in a quiet, soft spoken voice that caused goose bumps to sprout on my skin.
“I think I know what it is,” Siofra said as she came up behind me. “I think I understand.”
“We have to get it out,” I told her, not taking my hands from Joel’s chest. “How do we get rid of it?”
“I have no idea,” he told me.
“Does her blood make you stronger?” Mac asked.
Joel shook her head. “No, it’s not like that, it-”
“Binds you to her?” Siofra finished for him.
His eyes moved to her. “Yes.”
I looked up at him and said quietly. “It needs to come out. How do we get rid of it?”
“Not standing in the middle of the circle,” Mac said, eager to get the hell out of here before Taeynd and her men found us.
I glanced at him over my shoulder. “We need to get rid of it before we go home because it might be a tracking device.”
“I will try to help you, but I don’t know,” Siofra said as she put her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m thinking Life,” I told her, referring to the types of magick we could pull from to create what we were looking to. I glanced up at Joel again, who was smiling down at me reassuringly. “I’m thinking Spirit, Matter.”
“Okay,” was all she said, opening herself to her magick so that I could use it to, hopefully, get whatever was in him, out.
“We could try it together,” Glenn said as he, too, linked with Siofra and me.
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