The time and the circumstances again called her forth. At first, she was nothing but a tiny glimmer, a bit of a spark fed by the caressing air of the mountain and the magick of ritual. The portal had been opened. She stepped through with confidence. It was, after all, her destiny. How many years had it been? Thirty-eight? Thirty-nine? More? Too many to care. She was not governed by time beyond the veil. But here . . . here her very existence depended upon the irritating measurement. She spun lazily, seeking any home among the flames of the humans. She would hide there, among the comforting fires they made for themselves. Waiting until duty called. From any place of flame or magick, she could rise.
Tanner Thorn clutched the sobbing child in his arms and faced the inferno, only to fall to a defensive posture as a steaming black monster hurled itself in his path. Tanner pulled back, twisted. What the hell was that? The monster screamed, reaching out with deadly force, striking Tanner in the shoulder. The child wailed, then buried his head in Tanner's chest as he lost his balance, fell to his knees, and rolled, hanging on to the kid with an iron grip. Broken, bruised? Tanner's mind thought only of the entrance of the barn and how he was going to reach it. The monster danced, pounding its feet inches from his head. Tanner writhed, cocooning the boy with his body. "Nightmare," sobbed the child. "No kidding," mumbled Tanner, dragging both of them behind a hay bale that promptly burst into flames. The child screamed, slapping at the flames with his bare hands. Tanner wretched him away. "Didn't we send a fireman into your school?" growled Tanner. "You never try to put out a fire with your hands!"
"I'm only five years old," mumbled the child. "I don't go to school."
Tanner rolled his eyes, grabbed the child by the collar and wretched him away from the heavy, pounding feet of the monster. No monster. Horse. A big, black mother of a horse, snorting, eyes rolling and wild, blocking their only clear way out of here. Timbers cracked, broke, plunging farm equipment and heavy chains to the smoking floor.
The child coughed. "Who are you?"
"I'm the fire chief, kid."
"No way, fire chiefs don't have long hair. They have black coats with yellow stripes and big helmets. You don't got any of those things."
"Yeah, well, I was off duty. Get over here. Don't go scampering away from me."
The child coughed again. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
Adrenaline pumped through his veins and his hands throbbed with power. Tanner knew what that meant, but hadn't felt the sensation in a long, long time. He tried to ignore it. "This fire is the stranger, boy. Not me."
"I always wondered what a real fire looked like," said the child, who seemed to have recovered from his hysterical sobbing of a few moments ago when Tanner had found him, small back pressed to a stall, and now looked around with eyes filled with wonder. Tongues of flame rippled down the walls, snapping in bursts across the floor. Now he gazed about him, the flames reflected in his wide eyes.
"You call this a fire?" sneered Tanner. "This is just a theme park for guys like me."
"Mommy says that parks can be dangerous. The line on the wall says I can't get on the big rides yet. I want to go on the big rides. I want to go on the Comet."
"Then we'd better figure out a way out of here, sport. That horse would be great as a goalie. Keep down!" he yanked the kid closer.
"I know a way," said the child in a throaty little voice, and pointed to the far wall-that sagged, groaned, and collapsed inward.
Tanner shook his head and coughed. He'd been driving on Ridge Road when he saw the flames, floored it into the Fergueson driveway, radioed in to the station, rolled out of the truck, and flew past the old woman as she screamed about this young one being in the barn . . . and now they faced Godzilla the horse or a flaming wall. Some choice.
The child crawled closer to him. "Look at that!" he coughed, and pointed behind the wheeling horse. Tanner saw nothing but sparks, black undulating smoke, and screaming fire.
"There!" squealed the child. "Behind our horse! Can't you see the fire lady?"
Tanner saw nothing but flames and smoke, and realized he'd gotten himself into a hell of a fix. The noise of the fire, the screaming of the horse, the coughing of the child . . . he'd known better than to rush in here without equipment, but the kid . . . had stopped coughing. Tanner looked down at the still form beside him. Shit. The horse reared, spun, and disappeared into the smoke, leaving Tanner alone with the unconscious boy.
Tanner skinnied out of his shirt and tied it around his face in a make-shift mask. "Should have done this before, moron," he muttered. He picked up the boy. Run. Which way? Nothing. He could see nothing now. The heat seared his flesh. Run. Where? He closed his eyes, squeezing out the water and smoke. And thought of Nana Loretta. "Help me, please," he whispered. The words came to him slowly, out of the smoke, out of the flames, was he out of his mind? He didn't care. He rose, clutching the child to his chest with his left arm, throwing out his right hand in a commanding gesture. "Welcome, thou fiery fiend!" he shouted, his voice cracking, guttering. "Do not extend further than thou already hast!" He stepped forward, stumbling, almost losing his grip on the boy. The flames roared. Something crashed to his right. He flinched and sidestepped. "This I count thee as a repentant act!" The fire leapt and the smoke rolled. He had to do this. Had to. He took another step forward, willing himself to choose the right direction. The opening to freedom. "In the name of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, I command unto thee, O Fire! By the power of the Lady, who careth and worketh everything!" His voice faded. The smoke churned in his mouth like a hive of swarming bees. Stinging. Buzzing. Choking. He gagged, and he knew better than to open his damned mouth. All his training, all those hours, the years of experience, all diminished into nothing but a lousy bunch of words given to him by an old lady. "Use them," she'd said, "when the time is right." He'd laughed at her then. He wasn't amused now. "Thou must cease, and not extend, this I count as your repentant act!" He dragged himself forward, the boy nothing but a limp form in his arms. Dead? Could the child be dead? His arms shook with fear and tension. "I command thee to abate, great flame, and cease thy wrath!" he croaked. "This I count thee as a repentant act!" He surged forward. The flame rose above him like the flick of a southern belle's skirt, forming an umbrella above his head. It was as if he'd become the dreaded mouse under that fair lady's petticoat and she danced about him, eager to pirouette her wicked feet away. He burst through the barn door into the hazy air of the summer night.
And the skirt of flame crashed down, spewing Tanner and the child into the dusty barnyard.
Nana Loretta's grandson dragged deeply on a cigarette, ignoring her presence. The fiery tip of the cigarette reminded her of a pulsing, dying sun. A flicker, then gone. She pulled her sweater closer. A bit of a chill in this crisp October night. She must have been crazy to tramp around up here in the dark with only a rusty old lantern for light, but she had to find him. Now, here she stood, freezing her blessed you-know-what off at the top of Witches' Bluff. She set the lantern down. The glare hurt her old eyes. Her grandson teetered precariously at the edge of the bluff, whistling an old tune she'd taught him years ago, stopping every so often to pull on the cigarette. "Dem bones gonna rise again," he whispered into the night.
So much time had passed. So much pain tumbling down, down into the valley below. The ebony wind responded to his call, circling around them, touching her temples with a breezy caress. Welcome home, my ancestors, she mouthed, but did not utter the words aloud. "The boy's gonna make it," she said. "He's at Holy Spirit Hospital. No burns. Just the smoke inhalation. He'll be out in a few days. The Fergueson's are mighty beholden to ya. They want the mayor to give you a medal."
Tanner snorted and dragged on the cigarette.
"Barn's gone, but your early call saved the house and the outbuildings. Even the horse got out okay."
"That Thoroughbred nearly killed us both," muttered Tanner.
"Good thing he got out, though," replied Nana. "They were boarding him for Penn National Race Track. He's worth a pretty penny. Name's Nightmare."
Tanner spit on the ground. "Damned animal's true to its name."
Nana shrugged. First part of what she had to tell him was over. The good part. Now, on to the not-so-good. "Siren McKay's on her way back, now that the trial's over," was all she said, and waited for his reaction. She knew it would be a negative one.
Tanner Thorn, her beloved grandson, turned his back on her. His silver eyes fixed on the breathtaking view beneath them. Nana Loretta didn't think he noticed the panorama below.
"How do you know she's coming here?" he asked, his voice a mere whisper on the chillingly erotic tendrils of air that danced around his head, lifting the shining strands of his long hair.
She smiled to herself, plucking absently at the buttons on her sweater. "I have my ways. She'll arrive the end of the week. Of course, she has no idea what we've done for her."
"I didn't count on her coming back here." He turned abruptly, his hawkish profile highlighted in the undulating planes and shadows cast by the dilapidated lantern at her feet. A bat screeched overhead. Neither of them moved. Tanner looked at her thoughtfully, and said, "Murder is a nasty business. Let alone the man was twice as old as her. Damn fool girl. He could have been her father, for Goddess' sake. Do you think she killed him?" His strange eyes glittered, but Nana could not read the thoughts that lay beneath. Either he had gotten too good, or she was getting too old. Neither thought was particularly comforting.
Nana chewed on her lip, then slowly asked, "Do you? Think she killed him, I mean." Her old heart quickened its pace. This was so important. Her ancient eyes, growing accustomed to poor light, began to hone in on her grandson's features. His six-foot frame slouched as his shoulders rolled forward a bit. She could smell beer on his breath. Disgusting, but perhaps for a young woman he could still be alluring, even if he was on the up side of forty.
He paused, rolling the cigarette deftly between his fingers. She watched the red tip dance hypnotically in the dark. Nana cleared her throat. "No, I don't believe she killed him." Tanner took a deep drag on the cigarette, blowing the smoke out over the edge of the bluff. She watched it creep, then dissolve, into the starlit sky. "But you do, or you wouldn't be up here."
Nana moved her feet uncomfortably. What the boy thought was crucial. Boy-what was she thinking? The years were steamrolling by, making her forget so easily. He was what-forty-one, forty-two? To her, no matter how old Tanner was, he would still be her little grandson. Her cherished favorite. Her magickal protégé. She hesitated, then said, "She still doesn't know-about us, I mean."
"How are we going to tell her?" An owl hooted from one of the fir trees behind them. Up here, at this outcropping of granite on Sterits Gap, well, it was like being close to the Goddess. Below her spanned the town, that blasted lake, and beyond, yes-all cradled by the Appalachian mountains she'd grown to love in her eighty-odd years on this planet. Deep night snuggled against the landscape. Lights from the townies' homes below twinkled and glittered, reminding her of Tanner's eyes when he got angry. She could even make out the pattern of the horseshoe-shaped streets by the sodium lights. The design looked like an exotic constellation. Made you wonder what was sky and what was earth. And here and there orange lights of homes decorated for Halloween, coming so soon, yes . . . almost looked like Christmas, it did, but instead of multicolored lights, the town basked in an eerie orange glow. She loved this view. Had known it since she was no bigger than the water pump outside her daddy's farm.
"Why should we tell her anything?" he asked, breaking her out of her reverie.
Nana felt that old familiar panic. It clutched at her chest and scrabbled at her heart. Her shoulders trembled. Fear? Rage? Was she getting so old she couldn't tell the difference in her own emotions? Finally, she said, "If we don't get to her, our lineage is dead. Over! Everything will be forgotten. I can't let that happen. I won't let that happen. We've lost so much already. We're lucky she's coming back."
"Luck?" Tanner guffawed. "You mean you pulled her back."
"I did not!" she said indignantly, turning away from his probing silver eyes.
He shook his head. "You've always been lovable but crafty, Nana. I wouldn't put it past you. What? A fascination? Perhaps an enchantment? Or something bigger?" He wiggled his fingers in the air, the cigarette producing an odd pattern of light. "Even the newspapers said Siren McKay had a miraculous break. Somehow I think you were at the bottom of it, though I can't quite fathom how you did it." He smiled but there was no humor in it. A curtain of soft hair fell across his eyes and cheek, hiding those silver eyes that always made Nana uncomfortable when she didn't tell the truth; so Nana said nothing.
"However, despite your efforts, I'm not telling her anything about anybody," he said firmly, and dropped the butt of the cigarette to the stone at his feet, deftly crushing out the pinprick of light.
"I promised Jane that I'd tell her someday," she pressed.
"Look, Aunt Jane is dead. She's been dead for years! Siren McKay doesn't know either one of us. You know that. You haven't seen her since she was a kid. She probably doesn't remember you. I doubt she even remembers old Aunt Jane. No one else in the family knows-"
"You're kidding yourself. He only knows enough to be afraid of silly superstitions. With his countrified fears, he would pitch a fit if you came within fifty feet of her. The only way you'd get near her is if she gets sick or hurt, and I can't see you manufacturing anything like that. You may be a sly old dog, but you'd never hurt anyone on purpose."
Nana let out a little moan. "Then you must do it."
"What? I'm just supposed to walk up and say, 'Hey Siren, nice to meet you, my name is Tanner Thorn. Did you know you're part of a pack of Witches that have lived in these hills neigh on three hundred years?'" He shook his head. "I don't think so, Nana. This is the twenty-first century. You know, information highway, CD players . . . there's no room for magick anymore."
"If there's no room for magick, then why did you use it at the fire?" That's right, she thought, twist it in there, that will really help. Old fool. She held her breath.
He frowned, his eyes traveling past hers to the sickle of a moon hanging low over the valley. "She wouldn't understand."
The air whistled out of her lungs in a gentle sigh. "I ain't going to be around much longer," Nana whispered.
His voice softened. "I know, Nana."
"Your children are too young. And, well, they're not here anymore."
He cleared his throat nervously. "I can't help that they took them away."
"Let's not argue about it. They're gone. It's done," she said, trying not to let the anger show in her voice. Yes, she was furious with him. He let his wife's parents come in and take her only grandchildren, right out from under his drunken nose. Gone to Maine, they were. All gone. But things weren't always as they seemed.
The brush behind them rustled. "Fox," he said.
She nodded absently.
"Now's not a good time, Nana. All these fires. No explanations. I can't find anything out. Our investigations point at nothing. We're working almost twenty-four hours a day. Some of my best friends are in the hospital with fire-related injuries. I don't know when I've slept through the night. My job is on the line. I can't be chasing after a woman who's got her own baggage. Especially with a travel ticket that says 'acquitted murderess,' but we're not too sure about that."
"You weren't sleeping afore the fires started," she said quietly.
He bristled. "So?"
"We've got to tell her. We're all that's left," she said stubbornly. "Maybe she can help."
"With what? Should I knock on the door the day she hits town and ask her if she wants to join the fire company? Rotten hours. No pay. 'Hey, Siren McKay, get your skinny self out here and come play with the big boys up at the fire hall'? I doubt she could lift the helmet on her head, much less have guts enough to stand up to a fire," he sneered.
Her breathing quickened. "You've seen her, then?"
"Of course I've seen her," he said irritably.
"When?" She felt his fear ripple, penetrating the darkness around them.
"Pictures in the paper, of course."
She saw a fleeting mask in those silver eyes. "You're lying. You went up to New York, didn't you?" She crossed her left arm over her breast and covered her smile with her right hand. This was too good to be true. Why would he have gone all the way to New York City, a place she knew he abhorred, unless the woman interested him?
"So what if I did go see her? It wasn't a crime. I was curious, is all. Just down-home nosy. Besides, I needed to get away. Needed some time to think. Drive did me good." His tone of voice dared her to say more.
She took the challenge. "And?"
"She can't help with the fires. I never talked to her."
"That's not what I meant." She watched those silver eyes slink away from her, back to the valley below, on to the deadly sheen of Cold Springs Lake, just beyond the town. "Everything's dying, Tanner. The season, the town, me . . . even the lake's gone stagnant. Don't you feel it?"
"You've got plenty of time," he murmured. A dead leaf skittered out from the forest floor, played around the bottom of the lantern, then took flight off the bluff.
She reached out her bony hand-how despicable it was to get old, she thought-and touched him lightly on the arm. He didn't move. She brought her hand back and clutched the collar of her sweater. "I'm dying, Tanner. Doc said so." She took a deep breath. "I love this place, even though some of the memories are bad, but it's always been a sacred place for me. A place of closure." She heard the rustle of his leather jacket as he shrugged his shoulders. The fringes on his sleeves twirled gently, casting shadow-slivers on the ground. She sighed. "I miss the old days. We'd all be getting ready for the last harvest festival about now. You sure would look fine, dressed up in the old costume. You'd make an impressive God."
"Nana!" Irritation laced with love curled around his rebuke.
"She'll be smitten. Mark my words. As soon as she sees you."
"Ridiculous. I'm the town drunk, remember? And I'm getting old."
"You saved a little boy tonight. That's worth something! I'm sure she'll fall for you. It'll happen whether you like it or not, despite your rotten reputation." She smiled knowingly to herself. This is why she had to find him. There was more, yes, but she had to get him caring about the girl, somehow pull him out of his drunken depression and shine the light through that thick skull of his. Truly, there wasn't much time.
"She's not my type," he was saying. "I like them tall, leggy-you know, feminine. Siren McKay's a half-breed. Small. Dark. Look, I don't want a woman, Nana. I've got more important things to worry about, like-"
"The fires." At a time like this! She needed him to take care of the girl, not play around down there at the fire hall all the time, or worse, in the bar. She puckered her lower lip.
"I've got to stop these fires, Nana. Sooner or later, someone is going to get killed. We've been lucky so far. A few barns, empty sheds, vacation houses . . . but I feel like it is building, leading up to something . . . I don't know . . . something damn bad."
"I was afraid of that," she said, turning to look out over the bluff, staring at the fleecing clouds scuttling past the stars. She jammed her hands in her sweater pockets. Her fingers tingled. Poor circulation. How she hated being old. "Are you worried about where the fires come from, or the problem of stopping them?" she asked.
"Both," he said. Another rustle. "Deer."
"I know. The girl is more important," she said finally. Knowing he would not like the facts . . . not like them at all . . . she plunged on. "I came traipsing up here to find you because I haven't been able to get you on the phone. You haven't stopped to see me in weeks," she said, trying not to sound like a grumbling octogenarian. "I've been looking all over town for you. If you're not out at the fires, you're in the bars. I won't go in the bars," she said stiffly.
"A body would think you were trying to avoid her." She rolled little lint balls in the pockets of her sweater; at least that is what she thought she was doing. Her fingers were so stiff with cold she wasn't quite sure.
"Sorry, Nana. But forget about Siren. I've got more important things to work out."
She put her hands on her hips. She knew she looked silly-an old woman standing on top of Witches' Bluff wearing battered hiking shoes and rumpled hose, trying to put some sense into her grandson's head-but she didn't care. "Well! You'll never be able to get yourself straight at the bottom of a bottle. By the way, they're looking for you again. The cops, I mean. Billy stopped by my place the other night. They've got a warrant for your arrest. He said he won't come get you while you are on the job, being an old friend of yours and all, but he says they better not catch you driving again, now that your license is revoked, because of your drinkin' ways."
"Billy Stouffer is a creep."
She heard the hatred in his voice and cringed. "He's just trying to make up for what he done."
He snorted. "You know?"
She nodded imperceptibly. "Finally figured it out. Took me a while though."
"Billy Stouffer is an asshole."
Her grandson kicked a small stone viciously. It skittered across the granite surface of the bluff, plummeting off the edge and into the darkness. "So who do you think is responsible for the fires?"
For the moment, she ignored his question. "Why'd you come up here, Tanner?"
"Is that all?"
"Of course that's all," he snapped.
She wasn't so sure. It was lucky she'd found him. Who knows what he may have been fixing to do? She shivered. "This is the place to call for the Goddess. Closer here than anywhere else. She's always with you at the beginning and she stays with you to the end. You was calling the winds, weren't you? The ancestors?"
"The fires, Nana. Who's responsible for the fires?"
"Won't do you any good to know who."
There was a short intake of breath. "Then, these awful fires . . . they're over?" he asked hopefully.
"I don't understand. You said the guy is dead."
She could feel the emotions rolling off of him. Frustration, anger, loss-"I think your Uncle Meredith conjured the damn thing before he died. Could be a fire elemental."
"Uncle Meredith has been dead for over thirty years, Nana. Don't you think you're stretching it a bit?"
"We're wading in it, that's for sure. I can feel the magick in the air right before I hear the fire bell. I feel heavy, then soft . . . oh, it's just too difficult to describe. Meredith was into all that conjuring business. Loved it. I'm not surprised." She took a deep breath, surprised at the mist expelling from her mouth. It really was getting cold out here. "You don't believe me, do you?"
"Magick isn't an everyday occurrence, Nana. No one around here practices much anymore."
Her heart did a slight nose-dive. "Meaning you don't practice much anymore, I take it?"
"It ruined my life."
She shook her head. "Magick didn't ruin your life, you did. And you know it, or you wouldn't have used it in the barn, and you wouldn't be up here, calling up the wind."
"I don't want to talk about this anymore." He turned and walked away from her, toward the blackness of the firs. They'd always reminded her of sentinels, those trees.
It was her turn to kick a pebble off the bluff. She picked up the lantern and wobbled after him, catching up just as they entered the sturdy line of fir trees.
"I thought the magick of this place was long dead," he said tonelessly.
"No. Just sleeping," she said thoughtfully.
"What woke it up?"
"I have no idea."
They moved silently through the forest. She could tell he was walking slowly so she could keep up. The light from the lantern danced along heavy patches of mountain laurel. An owl hooted. She smiled quietly. How she loved the night forest with its mysterious sounds and its musky odors. Entering the clearing she saw his dome tent and the fire in the pit. A six-pack of beer hung crazily from a tree branch by the tent. Tanner's favorite bush hat hung from another branch close by. The fire was low, its meager warmth soothing to her hands. "Good thing you built this fire, or I'd of had a heck of a time finding you," she said.
"You'd have found me anyway. Can an elemental look like a woman?"
Nana blinked. "I guess . . . though I don't know why it'd want to do that. Why?"
"The Fergueson boy said he saw a woman in the fire."
"Did you see anything?"
A shiver ran across Nana's shoulders. A woman?
Tanner stretched his long arms. "So tell me, how do we get rid of this elemental thing before it devours the whole town?"
"First, the girl."
"I'll make you a deal. You look out for the girl for now, and I'll try to help you with your fires." She picked up a stick and pushed around an ember or two, stepping back as Tanner threw a few small branches on the fire. They refused to catch.
"Must be green," he muttered.
She waited patiently, but he did nothing. Surely he hadn't given up totally . . . had he? No, he had conjured the wind, she was sure of it. And held back the fire in the barn. She knew that. She tapped her foot, shivering. The cold was really getting to her old bones. His silver eyes glittered, reflecting the dim reddish glow from the fire pit. For a moment she thought of a feral wolf, but let the thought go. He scowled, raised his hand slowly, and passed it over the pit. Fire jumped, leapt, caught. The branches burned brightly. The glow from the fire illuminated the jagged scar on his face that ran from his temple, slashing deep into his cheek. It made him look so macabre sometimes. Such a shame. He'd been such a pretty boy. And so talented, too. The best of the bunch. If it hadn't been for that damned wife of his . . . Her heart ached, but she stiffened her lip. The past was gone; the future ahead.
"Thank you," she said, as she watched the fire cavort warmly in the pit. Utter relief coursed through her. Maybe he wasn't a lost cause yet.
"You'd help me with the fires anyway, Nana," he said.
"So? The girl. I want you to at least watch the girl."
His expression darkened. "For God's sake, why? As if I don't have enough to do right now!" he thundered at her, his voice loud and booming in the dark night. Something squealed and skittered beyond the clearing.
She threw up her head, holding his gaze, staring deep into his eyes, speaking deliberately. "Because I believe someone's aiming to kill her, and if they destroy her . . . they destroy us."