KESS STOPPED SINGING WHEN she heard the song. It took a few moments for the ranger to remember why she’d been singing in the first place. She glanced to the west bank of the river, where the passing farmers were finally disappearing into the trees, no doubt headed for the tavern just upstream of the place where the Deep and Haw rivers joined to form the Cape Fear.
It was at first sight of those farmers that Kess had started singing, to keep them from spotting her. Had it worked? Kess found, to her surprise, that she didn’t care. All that mattered now was the other song — the one audible, albeit faintly, from the forest behind her. The song she’d longed for but had despaired of ever hearing again.
Kess shifted her position on the sandbar and craned her long, pale neck, trying to hear the song more clearly over the rushing river. She succeeded, and smiled.
The lilting melody spirited her away to the Old Country she’d left behind. The familiar twists and turns of Glen Shiel. Hunting parties in the deepest waters of Loch Duich and Loch Cluanie. A setting sun painting the moors in hues of sage and amber. As for the song’s lyrics, they conjured up a cherished memory of a harvest festival held years ago in Kintail, under the shadow of the mountains known as the Five Sisters. There, from the safety of a nearby stream, Kess had watched the Highlanders gather to perform rituals, feast, trade, and compete in contests of speed and strength.
One young bard, in particular, had captured her attention that day in Kintail. When others ate and drank, he sang. When others blessed and prayed, he sang. When others boasted or gossiped or quarreled, he sang. His was a strong, clear voice that bounded with ease between brash and subtle, mischievous and pleasing, joyful and contemplative.
Now, years later — and thousands of miles away — Kess was hearing that same wondrous voice echoing through the lofty trees of Carolina. She frowned, however, when her wide ears discerned two other men attempting but failing to harmonize their rough voices with that of the bard. The three singers were rapidly approaching from the southwest. Kess slithered off the sandbar, adjusted the driftwood bow slung over her bare shoulder, and slipped into the sheltering waters of the Cape Fear, her renewed wariness not quite suppressing the thrill of finding the bard again.
HIS SPELLBINDING VOICE WAS, in truth, not unlike her own. That’s what had made her discovery of him that day in Kintail so profound — and so enticing, for Kess had been taught that his kind possessed no facility for spellsong. That they could not wield its magical power to alter the moods and perceptions of others, as her Folk could.
Her experience at the harvest festival had left Kess determined to find the source of the bard’s power. She’d made use of her considerable skills to track his movements across the Highlands. It was only after the third time she heard him sing, to a group of children playing in the River Shiel, that Kess concluded no enchantments were involved. The bard simply employed his melodious voice to give life to richly evocative verses of his own creation. To the children, he’d sung of Kintail itself:
My home, where once I, small and weak,
Grew straight and true and tall and strong,
Where lasses’ tresses framed rose cheeks,
Where lads leapt high to dance and song.
That day on the River Shiel, his song had captivated Kess’s own attention as much as the children’s attention — so much so, in fact, that she’d unthinkingly emerged from the water to perch in the mud. Even so, the others shouldn’t have been able to see her. None of the children did. The bard did see her, however, out of the corner of one winking eye. With a grace that revealed he’d seen her like before, the young man extricated himself from the playing children, walked to a riverbend some distance away, and motioned Kess to follow.
So began her friendship with the Highlander who called himself Iain mac Mhurchaidh 'ic Fhearchair. Was it truly this same man, whom English-speakers knew as John MacRae, now marching towards the Cape Fear? If so, it was the sweet answer to her many prayers, and the fit reward for her many travails. There were, however, three men heading her way, not just one. Kess spotted a hiding place in the river behind the branches of a fallen tree. Its leaves of green and gold matched the green of the kelp-rope belt tied around her waist and the gold of the mantle wrapped around her chest. Kess darted towards the floating tree with a powerful flick of her long gray tail, her black-speckled scales shining in the late-afternoon sun.
JOHN MACRAE WAS HARDLY her first human contact. She’d met dozens while traveling the lochs and streams of Scotland in the service of her Folk, the Ceasg of Loch Alsh. In exchange for her magic tricks and promises of wishes granted, the humans had offered Kess baskets of food, bolts of colored cloth and woolen coats, and finely crafted products of leatherwork, woodwork, and metalwork, all welcome additions to the storehouses the Ceasg maintained in their village beneath Glas Eilean, the lush green island of Loch Alsh.
Thanks to her spellsongs of concealment and illusion, these humans only saw Kess when and how she wanted them to. It hadn’t been like that with John MacRae, though. He saw her as she truly was: a Folk ranger some four feet in length, with a human-like upper body and the lower body of a salmon. “A Mermaid!” an awestruck MacRae had exclaimed during their first meeting. “A Ceasg,” she’d corrected him, though not too harshly.
As MacRae listened to her spellsongs with an ear for rhythm and rhyme, their only effect on him was to elicit a musician’s admiration and inspiration. Kess had, in turn, been enraptured and inspired by the bard’s words, rendered in his native Gaelic, and his melodies, which soared as high and plunged as low as the peaks and valleys of his homeland.
Over many months, Kess became the bard’s frequent companion — which was why the sudden announcement of his impending departure had so shocked and wounded her. “How can you leave the land you claim to love so dearly?” she’d demanded, though it wasn’t really affection for the Highlands that she wanted him to proclaim.
“Great be my love for Kintail,” MacRae replied, “but small be my esteem for the landlord who forces us far over the ocean to escape his wretched rent.”
“Are you certain a new home in the New World will be better?”
The human drew a bundle from his shirt. “This letter from my minister and friend John Bethune tells me so. His description of a ‘land of plenty’ in North Carolina brings joy to all who hear it. Many will go, and may the blessing of God be with us.”
The Ceasg’s protestations ignored, John MacRae, his wife Catriona, and a goodly portion of their family and neighbors had soon sailed away on enormous ships, headed for North Carolina.
Despite her own affection for the Highlands, Kess resolved to follow. Her Folk didn’t need much convincing. With so many Scots immigrating to America, the Ceasg of Loch Alsh no longer had a ready source of humanwares. And who would protect their humans from the wild creatures, both natural and monstrous, that surely roamed the frontier of a new and savage land?
Even so, while preparing for their journey to America took only weeks, the Ceasg did so within their Shimmer-protected village beneath Glas Eilean. Given the extreme relation between Folk time and human time, John MacRae and his people had resided in Carolina for more than a year before Kess and her Folk stowed away on a ship bound for America.
After the Ceasg arrived and found a new home in the Cape Fear River, Kess had immediately volunteered to range north and west, ostensibly to map hunting and gathering territories but in reality to search for her bard among the Scottish settlers of Carolina. Her first two rangings had yielded much information, but none about MacRae. Now, from her listening post behind the fallen tree, Kess heard the human trio again become a solo. It was hauntingly beautiful. Her hands shaking, her heart pounding, Kess hoped her rippled, blue-tinged ears were not deceiving her.
“YA SOUND LIKE A different man,” said the first human to emerge from the trees. In his dark-blue coat, woolen bonnet, colorful stockings, and long plaid shirt that hung to his knees, the man presented a familiar figure to the watching Ceasg ranger. She’d seen his style of native dress routinely in the Highlands, and several times during her recent rangings among the Gaelic-speaking settlers of Carolina.
The next figure to come into view was even more familiar: John MacRae himself, his clothing differing from the first man only in the green-and-red pattern of his kilt and the sprig of club moss affixed to his bonnet, which was perched jauntily over his auburn hair. At the sight of him, Kess closed the outer lids of her pale-blue eyes and sighed with delight.
Rather than offering an immediate reply to his human companion’s observation, MacRae finished the verse of the song he was singing, but with a mocking tone that made Kess’s eyes jerk open:
We find the deer, both buck and doe,
No grasping lord we must appease.
The woodcock and woodhen abound,
Along with wild ducks, teals, and geese.
Whitefish or salmon will we catch,
Or either gray fish, if we please.
Then MacRae shrugged. “A different man be I, Bethune. An older, wiser man repeating the witless words of a callow boy.”
So his companion is the same minister, John Bethune, who enticed MacRae to America in the first place, Kess thought. But why does my bard sound so wistful?
Bethune snorted. “T’was but two years hence when ya wrote those words to urge the people to leave Scotland. Scarcely time enough for a boy to become an old man. Besides, can ya truly say this is not the land of plenty I promised?”
“There is game aplenty,” MacRae admitted, “but how little like us are the poor people of this place, with their coarse woolen coats and short breeches and huge hats on their heads. Now they stumble away from their rightful king like toddling babes in tantrum. Why should I wish to stay among such as these?”
“Because ya made a home here, same as I,” Bethune replied. “Will ya tell your wife and children they must sail back over the sea?”
“Will ya?” repeated the third human, no more than a slender youth, who’d just walked out of the woods. “Do ya mean to return us to Scotland, Da?”
Kess pursed her lips. Da! So this must be the eldest son MacRae so often spoke of, the one called Murdoch.
“I . . . I dinna know,” his father said. “If I be sure this rebellion against King George could be swiftly put down. . .”
“It will be, Da,” Murdoch assured him. “We and the others will do our part to see it fail.”
Bethune began wrapping his scarf more tightly to shield his neck from the winter chill. “The fools cannot win, MacRae, surely ya see that. Once we meet up with the militia from Orange and Chatham counties, then make our way down to General MacDonald’s camp at Cross Creek, it will be clear how truly doomed the rebels are. We will form a multitude. Loyal warriors for king and country.”
“If words were weapons, we of Kintail would sweep all before us,” said MacRae, his hand brushing the basket-shaped guard of the broadsword hanging at his hip. “Still, if the muster be as large as ya say, Regulators as well as Scots, I can . . .”
He halted in mid-sentence — for, with a jolt of recognition, his eyes had met those of the Ceasg ranger watching from the river.
The other two humans, Bethune and Murdoch, followed the bard’s gaze but saw nothing but a rotten tree in the water. The spellsong of concealment Kess had originally directed at the tavern-bound farmers bore a long-enough range to have affected MacRae’s companions, too.
“I, er, I be willing to see what occurs, my friend,” the bard told the minister.
“That is all I ask,” John Bethune, who’d finished retying his scarf and was now peering upriver. “The river junction is not far ahead. The note from Captain Pyle said he and the other Chatham men would meet us there. The Orange companies, as well, I believe.”
“Our own Anson men have no doubt reached General MacDonald’s camp by now,” said the bard. “T’was our good fortune to find other brave souls with whom to travel. In times like these, there is surely safety in numbers.”
“Shall we go, Da?” Murdoch asked.
Sneaking a sideways glance at Kess, John MacRae raised a hand. “Might I ask ya to go on ahead? Perchance it is fatigue that explains my ill feeling. A short rest by this stream may restore my good humor.”
John Bethune nodded. “We must travel back this way with the others in any event. Come on, young Murdoch, pray leave the old man to his convalescence.”
As soon as the chuckling minister and excited youth entered the forest, John MacRae bounded to the riverbank and waded knee-deep into the cold water. “Kess of Glen Shiel! How came ya here? I must be seeing things!”
“I have no such power over you, John. You always saw me plainly, right from the start. My Folk and I have made the voyage over the sea, as you did. This river is now our home.”
MacRae held out his hand. When Kess took it, her palm felt a sharp tingle, as if brushed by a sea anemone. Her fingers, thin and porcelain-colored, began to tremble.
“A fair sight ya be, and welcome,” he said, rubbing her delicate hands as if to warm them. “How come ya to know we march to war?”
Kess shook her head. “I did not know until this moment, my bard of Kintail, though we Ceasg know of the American rebellion. Shortly after we founded our new colony, we received an emissary from a Folk who live on a far western mountain. Of the war he told us much, before he flew north to confer with the Red Caps of Cross Creek.”
Looking bewildered, John MacRae scratched the reddish stubble on his chin. “Confound it, lass, yer answer but multiplies my questions. The first I may pose in two words: he flew?”
“He did,” Kess agreed, chuckling softly. “A ranger of the Sylph, a winged Folk from the hills of Cornwall. A rather nervous young man, I must say, but earnest enough.”
“Now, my second question,” MacRae continued. “I thought Red Caps were but hobgoblins dreamed up to populate children’s stories.”
“Do not Mermaids also abound in such stories?”
MacRae inclined his head with a wry smile. “Not only in stories, granted, so I take yer meaning. As for Cross Creek, we be headed there ourselves. General MacDonald called all loyal men of fighting age to gather for a march to the sea. British ships be coming to our shore, ships full of guns and powder and red-coated regulars. When we join our strength to theirs, the war will end — or so we be told.”
MacRae’s last words, more murmured than spoken, gave Kess pause. Again his voice had taken on a skeptical, even derisive tone she wasn’t used to hearing. Should I speak further? she wondered. Will the truth reassure or unnerve him? I have shared more Folk lore with him than my guildmasters would deem wise if they knew. Dare I share more?
Her silent contemplation hadn’t gone unnoticed by the bard, whose face became flushed despite the winter chill. “It seems, maid of the waves, that more words rise to yer lips. Pray release them. What know ya of the rebellion?”
She could not bear to see her bard so troubled. “Your cause is not only just, MacRae. It is also fated to succeed. Your king’s allies include more than just loyal men like yourself.”
“The Cherokees, ya mean? There be talk of British agents among the western tribes.”
Kess pulled her whistle from its pouch and held it up so the human could see the runes carved into its slender length of Sea Serpent bone. “King George will have more than the arrows and bullets of Indian raiders directed against his foes. The American rebels will soon discover that . . .”
MacRae interrupted her explanation with a waved hand. “What be that?” he asked.
“It is an enchanted instrument for amplifying spellsong with . . .”
“No, no,” he insisted. “What be that sound?”
The Ceasg ranger didn’t hear it at first. She’d learned from experience that whatever other failings humans might have, their ears picked up faraway sounds Folk ears couldn’t. Within seconds, however, she heard what he did: a deep, persistent grinding noise, as if someone were pulling a toothed saw back and forth on a plank, but at a blinding speed.
Then Kess jerked her head up, her blue-lipped mouth gaping open in dismay. No, not grinding. Buzzing.
The approaching creature’s two long, narrow wings resembled those of any other fly. The reason the buzzing noise they produced was low-pitched and deep, not high-pitched and shrill, was the wings’ immense size — near as long as the Ceasg’s whole body. The creature was the size of a vulture. Its head bent perpendicular to its body, which was gray speckled with white splotches and black scales. Extending nearly three feet from the head was a cylindrical proboscis — a sort of translucent sheath for the array of probes, sucker, and sword-like cutters that formed the beast’s deadly mouth.
It took Kess only a second to take all this in, and then another second to recall her fellow Ceasg ranger’s reports of giant mosquitos supposedly inhabiting the marshlands along the river. Panicked local humans had called the monster a Gallinipper, though none claimed to have seen it in person.
Those two seconds were all Kess had to spare, for the Gallinipper was descending rapidly, its mouth aimed directly at the unprotected back of the bard.
“Down, John!” she shouted, yanking her bow over her head and drawing an arrow from the quiver that hung from her belt.
Rather than dropping to the water as she hoped, the human turned towards Kess with a questioning look. Groaning, she pushed against the river with her thickly muscled tail, propelling herself forward and loosing her shaft before she slammed into MacRae.
Her hastily shot arrow of driftwood, fletched with puffin feathers and tipped with enchanted bronze, flew wide of the mark. It still aided their cause, however, for the surprised Gallinipper banked slightly to its left, its proboscis passing harmlessly through the space that MacRae’s right shoulder would have occupied had her shove not sent him careening towards the riverbank.
“Merciful Lord!” cried the bard. “What in the name of Heaven . . .”
“Gallinipper!” Kess snapped, reloading her bow. “Run for your life!”
Not waiting to see if MacRae followed her instruction, she twisted towards the monster that was already beginning another swoop, its wings vibrating into a grayish blur. Aiming the red-glowing tip of her enchanted arrow at the vulnerable spot between the giant mosquito’s bulbous eyes, Kess willed her arms to stop shaking and whispered a silent prayer to the Maker of All Things. When her target was just inches away, the Ceasg released her bowstring and dodged right, landing with a splash on the surface of the Cape Fear and quickly diving beneath it.
The arrow missed its target.
But when Kess twisted and flicked her tail, thrusting her head from the water at a point some distance away from the Gallinipper, she saw the arrow had nonetheless begun to do its work. Rather than striking the beast between the eyes, her shot had punctured one of those eyes from the side and then painted a streak of yellow along its head. The wound wasn’t mortal, but it left the Gallinipper half-blind — and the confusion spell magically embedded in her bronze arrowhead had left the creature dazed and hovering unsteadily over the roiling water.
Her heart leapt with thanksgiving. Then it sank as Kess saw John MacRae running not away from the beast but towards it, waving his keen broadsword over his head and bellowing curses.
“Get back,” she called, “get away from here!”
MacRae’s only response was to swing his blade at the Gallinipper’s dangling legs. While not cutting through its tough armor, as the human had expected, the blow did knock the beast back a couple of feet into an even-more-unsteady hover.
“Live bronze is needed, not dead iron,” Kess insisted, nocking another arrow and swimming into close range. The Gallinipper hadn’t absorbed the full confusion spell, she knew, and insectile monsters were more resistant than most to Folk magic. Her momentary advantage wouldn’t last.
The Ceasg’s third arrow found its mark, sinking deep into the head of the Gallinipper. The explosion of the yellowish substance that passed for the monster’s blood made her want to retch, though the wave of relief at having kept John MacRae from harm served to overrule her rippling stomach. The Gallinipper dropped lifeless into the river.
MacRae sloshed through the shallows of the river, trembling with excitement. “What sort of beastie . . . why did ya tell me to . . . what mean ya by live bronze?”
“One query at a time, my bard of Kintail,” Kess replied, propelling herself swiftly through the water to the Gallinipper carcass and withdrawing what had been the fatal arrow. “Last first: do you not remember our long talks about metals? We Folk forge our tools and weapons of bronze or brass, since your iron resists our magecraft. Repeated strokes of your sword might have pierced the beast’s tough hide, but at too great risk to yourself.”
The human opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again to form a hard, determined line. It took Kess a few moments to understand why. Then came the low buzz, seemingly from all around them.
“More are near,” she said. “More than we can handle.”
Kess slipped the recovered arrow back into her quiver and drew her enchanted flute to her lips. Trying not to panic, focusing on the task at hand, Kess played her guild’s warning song, her fingers dancing along the holes carved into the monster bone.
MacRae looked puzzled but didn’t try to ask questions while she was otherwise occupied. Instead, he rested the sword blade on his shoulder and scanned the surrounding forest. “Best not try to make me flee, maid of the waves, for I will not leave yer side.”
It took Kess a few more moments to complete the chorus. By the time she finished, the buzzing from the trees was so loud she could scarcely hear her own song. “It is no longer safe to run, John. The Gallinippers swarm. If you flee into the woods, they may follow and I will be too far out of range.”
The human gritted his teeth. “We be in for it, then. Tell me true.”
Kess gave no answer. None was needed. Two Gallinippers emerged from the woods on the east bank of the Cape Fear. Two more followed, one veering north and over the water upriver of the ranger and her bard, the other taking up position on the opposite end, blocking any escape downriver.
Fitting another arrow to her bow, the Ceasg swam into the center of the river. Then she jerked her head at MacRae, her long blue hair cascading over one shoulder. “Come here and submerge as much of your body as possible. Present a smaller target.”
He balked. “I cannot wield my sword that way!”
“Your sword cannot win this battle.”
“Nor can yer arrows.”
Kess sighed in exasperation. All too true, but I can sell my life dearly. She chose the downriver Gallinipper. As it hurtled towards them, she did not, as before, aim for its small but vulnerable head. Her arrow shot true, piercing one of the monster’s long wings and causing it to careen to one side.
Her momentary feeling of triumph vanished when she heard MacRae call out. Whipping her body around with an energetic kick of her long, scaly tail, Kess did not, in truth, see the Gallinipper mouth strike between the human’s shoulder blades. She did not see his arms flailing as he tried with clenched sword and clenched fist to get it off his back. She only had eyes for his — the sharp green eyes of her bard of Kintail, eyes now widened by an unspeakable terror.
“No!” she shrieked, drawing one of her few remaining arrows and charging at the monster. There was no time to fit it to her bow, which she dropped into the water. Holding the arrow in both hands like a short spear, Kess stabbed at the Gallinipper, hoping at least to drive it off of MacRae before it drank of his blood.
The Ceasg ranger succeeded only too well. The proboscis detached from MacRae’s back as the beast drew back from her attack. Then, quick as lightning, the Gallinipper thrust its mouth at Kess. When she attempted to parry, the force of its thrust snapped her arrow in two.
Kess felt the end of the cylindrical mouth collide with her chest, just below her collarbone. She felt two jagged maxillae emerge to cut into her flesh. She felt two hooked needles sink into the cut and pry it into a gaping wound. And she felt a sucker jab into the wound and begin to drink.
“Cursed beastie!” MacRae shouted. Kess felt the Gallinipper shake, presumably because the bard was hacking at it with his sword. She reached up to tug at the proboscis. Neither action dislodged its terrible mouth from the Ceasg’s shiny chest. It drank deep. Her breaths grew shallow. Kess felt pain, yes, but also a dulling of her torso and extremities. Her lashing tail grew numb and motionless. Her eyelids grew heavy, then closed altogether.
As her lifeblood pumped relentlessly from her body, the one thing Kess never felt was regret. About the once-simple pleasures of her former life. The beauty of the Highlands. Duty to Folk. Affection for family and friends. All was left behind. All that mattered, in the end, was that she’d found her bard. Once again she’d seen his ruddy face, framed by an unkempt mop of reddish-brown hair. She’d looked into his laughing eyes. She’d listened to his lilting, spellbinding voice, which made her heart race even though she’d always known this married man of another race would never voice the three words she most wanted to hear from him.
It was worth it. And now it was done.
IT WAS COLD WHEN Kess awoke. There was no sheltering water to warm her. Somehow she’d always imagined death as submersion, and that whatever came next would lie in some great, unfathomable deep. Instead, she felt needles of frigid air poking her skin and scales.
Then Kess felt something else — hands moving deftly along her body, head to tail, arm to fin. She felt liquid wetting her lips and dribbling down her mouth. She felt pain, horrible pain, as her previous numbness fled her chest and arms. She writhed in agony, her head shaking violently from side to side, her tail flailing. After a time, however, the pain lessened. Her head fell back in what felt like soft mud, as did her now-exhausted tail. “That is all that can be done here,” said a voice at her ear. It rang with familiarity, yet Kess could not place it. Was it her bard of Kintail? No, the voice was pitched too high.
And speaking in Folktongue.
With great effort, Kess forced her eyes open. She lay on the bank of the Cape Fear. Bending over her was Lei, a childhood friend who’d become one of the most-skilled healers in the Mages Guild of the Ceasg. There were other faces ringing her. Hunters and warriors she knew well. Beyond them, encircling both banks and the river in between, was the crackling, sparkling wall of wind and enchantment that Folk called the Shimmer. Without its magical protection, all Folk except for rangers like Kess would quickly die or go mad by being exposed to the human world. And within its protective bubble, Folk time passed far more slowly than time did in the frenetic human world, in the Blur.
“Will she live?” demanded another voice.
His voice. In his language, not hers.
“She can recover, but not in the Blur,” Lei replied in Gaelic. “We must take her home.”
“John,” Kess whispered. “My . . . John.”
“Here I be, maid of the waves.”
“Are you injured?”
“I would have been, had yer host not arrived,” MacRae replied, his concerned face entering her field of vision for the first time. “Beyond all imagining it was. A crackle of sparks. A giant orb of shimmering light. Then a great crash of water, as many of yer kind appeared from out of nowhere and filled the river.”
“And the Gallinippers? Where have they . . .”
“Fierce are your warriors of Ceasg. They slew two beasties with arrow and spear. The other two they netted and trussed.”
“For the pens, Kess,” Lei explained. “The strange monsters of America merit careful study.”
A loud splash interrupted their conversation. Another Ceasg had burst through the Shimmer. With a start, Kess recognized Glika, the guildmaster who’d been her teacher when she first apprenticed in the Rangers Guild. “Just came from upriver,” he said. “Many more humans approach, bearing arms and supplies. They will reach this spot in less than half a Blur hour.”
The bard nodded. “Bethune and Murdoch, I wager, with the men of Chatham and Orange.”
“Kess, I have questioned your . . . companion,” said Guildmaster Glika, his disapproval of her familiarity with the human far from concealed. “I know of the gathering at Cross Creek. Soon our council will know.”
Kess tried to sit up, provoking a cough. “Stay close to the river, John,” she breathed.
“What’s that?” MacRae asked. “On the way to Cross Creek, ya mean?”
“And beyond,” Kess responded. “All the way to the coast. My Folk will protect . . .”
“Our Folk will do as our council commands,” Glika said, looking reproachfully at his former student. “Still, it is true they have pledged our support to King George and the Great Alliance.”
John MacRae took in an excited breath, then exhaled through a broadening smile. “With such aid as yer Folk may render, our cause cannot fail.”
Glika transferred his reproachful look to the bard. “Kess offers you wisdom, human. This river is your army’s safest path to the sea. Elsewhere, danger abounds.”
Whether MacRae heard Glika’s words, none could tell. The bard had seized Kess’s hand of living porcelain and brought it to his lips. “Words fail me, fairy goddess of the River Fear. None can express my gratitude for what ya did for me today, and what yer kind may do for mine tomorrow.”
Kess felt as if her heart had turned a somersault. “Finally left you speechless, my bard of Kintail?”
“As oft ya do, lassie.”
Glika clicked his teeth impatiently. “Time to go. Even now the mages begin the transport spell. Back away to the tree line, human. Where we go, you may not follow.”
As the magecrafted walls of wind and energy contracted around the hunting party, Kess lifted her head to watch MacRae pass into the Blur. Where once stood the tall Highland bard, she could see only an indistinct streak of motion. Then all she saw was shimmering light.
THE HEALERS RECOMMENDED A full week of rest to give their spells and potions time enough to mend Kess’s wound and draw out the Gallinipper poison that had nearly taken her life. The Ceasg ranger refused to comply. After a single day in the grotto of the Mages Guild, she insisted on reentering the Blur. What had persuaded Guildmaster Glika to allow it was not her obvious — and to him troublingly excessive — concern for the fate of the human John MacRae. Rather, Glika recognized that by joining the Great Alliance to suppress the American rebellion, the Ceasg bore a responsibility to see the Loyalist column safely to the coast for its planned rendezvous with the invading fleet of the British king. The other rangers Glika had sent up the Cape Fear had found no sign of the Loyalists. It was Kess who knew the river best, however. She begged for the opportunity to try again.
Although the soreness in her chest and shoulders limited her speed, Kess swam as best she could up the river, scanning both banks and stopping every minute or so to listen for marching feet. How large the Loyalist host would be, Kess could scarcely guess. Whether five hundred or five thousand, however, their prospects would improve considerably with the aid of a Folk ranger who could scout ahead without detection and employ spellsong to demoralize their foes.
After her first day of searching, Kess grew annoyed. Had John MacRae and the others already passed this way and reached Wilmington without her? When daylight faded into dusk on the second day, however, she grew frustrated. Had the Loyalists not even begun their march down the river? Or had they taken another route?
Kess pushed ahead for a while after sunset, her way lit by a full moon. Eventually she decided to head back downriver. Bending at the waist and somersaulting, head over tail, to reverse her course, she thrust her head and torso out of the water — and then halted in the middle of the Cape Fear. The sound that came to her ears was faint but tantalizing. It was singing. She looked to the east bank of the river and the trees beyond. The singing voice was human.
It was his voice.
Her joy restoring vitality to her tired limbs, Kess darted for the riverbank, her arms impatiently sweeping walls of water out of her way while her tail pumped furiously. When she reached the shallows, the ranger brushed a nervous hand through her tangle of long blue hair and looked down with annoyance at the ugly Gallinipper wound still visible above the yellow mantle wrapped around her chest.
Soon the voice was close enough for Kess to pick out the Gaelic verse:
Though hide I must, an outlaw,
No crime is proved against me
Except to stand in battle
For justice was my king’s cause.
My greetings bear o’er great sea
To Glen Shiel, where I should be.
A figure emerged from the forest. Could this be her John MacRae? Her beloved Highland bard stood tall and strode proudly. But this man was stooped, and shambled wearily from the trees. John MacRae’s youthful face wore dashing smiles and laughing eyes. This man’s face was contorted into a mask of anguish, his eyes downcast and glassy.
I tire of constant exile.
I tire of lonely wand’rings
Far from that fair land I love.
It was MacRae. That much, and that much only, was clear. What has befallen my bard? Kess wondered. Where are his fellow warriors? His minister? His son?
“I see ya there in the water, ranger of the Ceasg,” said the human, who’d ended his mournful song and now addressed her in a flat tone, as if groggy from slumber.
“John!” she cried. “My bard of Kintail, I have come back to you!”
“So ya have,” MacRae replied, finding a stump near the river and sinking to its surface with an exhausted grunt. “My eyes curse me still. They torment me with cruel visions.”
Aghast, Kess drew more of her body out of the water, leaving only the tip of her tail submerged. “You do not understand, John. I am no vision. I am a real woman, and truly here.”
The human raised an eyebrow. During their long association, the gesture had usually accompanied some sly remark or jest. Now it served only to make him look dismissive.
“I always see ya plainly — as oft ya told me,” MacRae muttered. “Though I still be only human, it seems. Thus my vision may be both clear and cruel. I see only the false surface of things, not what lies beneath it. Only the best shapes and brightest colors, not the dark truths they conceal.”
Panic welling inside her, Kess raised her hands pleadingly. “Please do not greet me with such coldness, John. What has happened to embitter you so?”
“My faith I placed in fairy dreams, not wakened men. In fairy songs, not cold steel.”
The realization struck Kess like a gust of northerly wind. MacRae and the Loyalists had already met defeat at the hands of American rebels. They would never reach the coast. There would be no grand army to greet the arriving British ships.
Kess bowed her head. “How many fell?” she asked quietly. “Where are the survivors?”
“We be many thousands at first,” MacRae began, staring over the water of the Cape Fear as if seeing on its moonlit surface the reflection of things past. “But when the men heard that British arms and redcoats awaited us down by the far-off sea, not right at hand in Cross Creek, many deserted to return to their homes and farms. When General MacDonald led us south, we numbered fewer than two thousand. By the time we reached the bridge at Moore’s Creek, t’was half that many.”
As dispirited as she was by the bard’s hollow eyes and listless voice, Kess was also puzzled by his narrative. “Moore’s Creek, you say? Is that nearby?”
MacRae shook his head glumly. “Some thirty miles distant, beyond the Black River. I hope never to see so miserable a place again in my life, however short that may be.”
“Why, the Black River runs far to the east of here,” Kess exclaimed, “and does not join the Cape Fear until just above Wilmington! Why did you not heed my entreaty to stay close to this river?
Though fatigued and forlorn, the bard leapt off the stump with surprising speed and held up his arms, grimy and in some places bloody. “Do ya mistake me for an officer in a fancy coat? It be General MacDonald who turned us east when we found out path blocked at Rockfish Creek. After he fell ill, it be Colonel MacLeod who brought us to Moore’s Creek, and led Highlanders in a desperate charge across a purposefully weakened bridge. It fell to me and my company only to march, and follow, and fall.”
Another mystery intruded on the Ceasg’s mind. “What of the Red Caps of Cross Creek? They are also pledged to the Great Alliance, I hear. Did that Folk render no assistance to the king’s men?”
“When MacDonald began our march to the coast, I did spot a little man trailing our column. Dressed in green, he was, but for a red cap sporting a white owl feather. Never saw him, again, after that first day.”
“Red Caps are known to be capricious and greedy,” Kess said. “It was your misfortune to rely on them. When next the Loyalists muster, John, you can trust that my Folk will not rest until . . .”
“Do ya not understand?” MacRae interrupted. “No new muster will occur. We be defeated. Many lay on the field of battle, never to return home. Many more be captives of the rebels. I but barely escaped their clutches, although to what good purpose only Heaven knows.”
Kess studied the face she knew better than any other’s, human or Folk. She saw bitterness, yes, though it warred with fury and disgust. And another, still-deeper emotion.
“Where is your minister, John?”
“In the hands of the renegades.”
“And what of your . . .”
“Among the brave lads who followed Colonel MacLeod over the bridge was young Murdoch, and he be one of the few to make it to the other side, where the rebels lay in wait with ball and shell. I bore my gut-shot Murdoch away from that accursed creek. We evaded enemy patrols, moving only at night through thicket and forest. Two days ago, I held my son in my arms and prayed for relief of his suffering. Yesterday I buried him beneath a rugged pine.”
Kess longed to take the bard’s arm, even to draw him into a comforting embrace. But he was standing too far from the shore, and she could not bring herself to call him closer.
“I will at least get you home, John. It is my solemn pledge and fondest wish.”
The human looked back at her, his storm of emotions seemingly subsided. “Ya still dinna understand. They have our rolls. The names of all who mustered at Cross Creek.”
The Ceasg ranger shook her head, failing to grasp his point.
“They have my name. If I go home, they will find me. They will ransack my farm. They will force a parole from my lips, make me pledge never again to take up arms in defense of the king.”
Kess sighed. “Is that so high a price to pay, John? What alternative do you have?
MacRae looked up at the night sky. The full moon shone on his face and cast his shadow, long and dark, over the stony ground.
“They took my Murdoch from me. I shall build a hut of brushwood. I shall wait and watch. As far as they may flee, I shall pursue. When the time is right, I shall take many rebel sons, and more.”
Shocked and horrified by the bard’s fanatical determination, Kess twisted away from him and stared at the rushing waters of the Cape Fear River. Far downriver lay the Ceasg village. Here at this point, and further upstream, the river flowed past many places, overgrown and remote, that could serve as a refuge for the Highlander. Her head beckoned her home. Her heart resisted.
“I . . . I cannot leave you alone in the wilds of Carolina,” she said, her eyes still averted from the painful sight of what her beloved bard had become.
“Ya can, Kess,” said MacRae, startling her by using her given name instead of “lassie” or “maid of the waves” or some other poetic invention. “Ya can — and ya must.”
The finality of his words made her head snap around at him, heedless of the agony of seeing him in such a state. “You need not worry for my safety, John. I am in no danger from them. But without my help, you will be.”
“Nevertheless, Kess, you must leave me.”
“Why?” she demanded, sounding fiercer than she’d intended.
“Because the sight of ya reminds me what I lost, and why. Because fairy magic can never pierce my hardened heart. Because . . . because I dinna wish to hate ya.”
She gasped. “Why would you, how could you ever . . .”
“’Tis the way it must be between us. A memory only, kept fond because it recedes further and further away.”
Then John MacRae, boisterous bard of Kintail, courageous Highlander in the service of a distant king, turned and shuffled along the east bank of the river. Kess watched his retreating form, taking in every mannerism, every contour, every stray lock of his unruly auburn hair as if trying to quench an unquenchable thirst. In truth, however, the man she knew stood far from this place and time. The man entering the woods was someone else, a vengeful ghost wearing the skin of a walking corpse.
And when he was gone, the Ceasg ranger slid — dejected, defeated — into the water. But her face was wet long before it reached the surface of the river.