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This novel wouldn't have been possible without the help of several people: my generous and charming editor Andrew, who believed in this novel back when it was a fugly duckling; my friend Naish, who dropped everything for tireless editing sessions and fixed grammatical errors that even drunk monkeys speaking English as a foreign language wouldn't have made; my sister Kate, whose intense enthusiasm for Luke and Deirdre kept this story alive and who giggled with me over the plotting process (one word, Kate: "splat-shmear"); my sister Liz, who threatened me into beginning this story in the first place... no really, she did threaten me--I have it in writing; my mom, because without her I wouldn't be here; my cyber-chums for their enthusiasm, especially Wendy, who lives in a place where they stand upside down; and of course my husband/love-slave Ed, whose long-suffering expression hides a true heart.
He didn't know how long he'd been clinging there. Long enough for the bone-cold water to drive the feeling from his legs. Long enough for his fingers to tire of holding his head above water.
Somewhere in the distance, the eerie wail of the hounds quickened his heartbeat.
He closed his eyes, concentrating on keeping his hold on the old well's uneven sides, willing his heart to slow. They can't smell you in here. They'll lose your scent in the stream and they'll never find you here.
The water's chilly touch crawled farther up his neck and he tightened his grip, looking up to the clear night sky. Sighed. Weary. How long had he been doing this? As long as he could remember. Above the well, the howls fell away; they'd lost the scent.
Just leave me alone. Haven't I paid enough? He prayed for Them to go back where They came from, but he didn't expect an answer. God's attentions were for those with souls, a status he'd lacked for a thousand years or more. He swallowed. Deep in his chest, he felt the soft and curious rustling that meant They'd entered the cage room. He reached down through the water to his pocket, withdrew two old, rusty nails, and held them tightly. All he had to do was not cry out.
He could do this.
Somewhere else, in a small, round, gray room of stone and moss soft as a fox cub's fur, a dove beat furiously in a cage made of a net of the hair-fine wires. Wings crashed into the bars, and claws scraped at the perch only to unsuccessfully seek purchase on the thin wire sides. It was a frenzy not of a desire to escape the cage had no door but rather of fear. It was the worst kind of fear the hopeless kind and it sent the bird's eternal heart racing until it seemed it would burst out of its breast.
Somehow, slender hands took the pale dove from where it trembled at the bottom of the cage and held it out to a bright lady, oddly golden in this gray-green room.
When she spoke, her voice shimmered in the room, beautiful enough to draw tears. "The wing," she said softly, holding up a candle. The fingers gently tugged the dove's wing outward from its body and offered the prone bird to the lady. The candle she held reflected the colors of the sun in the dove's eye.
The lady smiled thinly and held the pale flame beneath the bird's wing.
The boy in the well shuddered. Biting his lip, he pressed his forehead into his arms, willing himself quiet. The pain in his chest gnawed and burned, squeezing his heart with a fiery touch.
As quickly as it began, it abated, and he gasped silently.
The lady in the gray room held the candle beside her face, illuminating her beauty: beauty that looked at the beauty of a perfect summer day and scoffed that they should bear the same description. "He always chooses the hard way, doesn't he?" The dove began to thrash wildly at the sound of her voice. This time, she held the candle closer, and the flames seized the feathers, twisting and blackening them like shreds of paper. The dove froze, beak parted in silent pain, eyes fixed blankly on the ceiling.
In the well, the boy gasped again, audibly, and tried to remember to hold his head above water.
His heart writhed within him, and as he squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as he could, his heartbeat stopped. Feeling curiously hollow, he slid silently under the water, fingers limp, the nails he had been holding tracing a slow line into the dark below him.
His head jerked back, his neck seized in an inhuman grip. He was pulled into the night and dropped to the clover-scented ground, water trickling from his mouth.
"You're not to die quite yet, old friend." The Hunter looked down at him, neither angry nor happy with his captured quarry. The chase was done, so the entertainment was over. Hounds milled around the body in the clover. "Work to do."
... you've left my heart shaken With a hopeless desolation, I'd have you to know It's the wonders of admiration your quiet face has taken And your beauty will haunt me wherever I go.
You'll be fine once you throw up," Mom said from the front seat. "You always are."
Standing behind our dusty station wagon, I blinked out of my daze and tugged my harp case out of the back, feeling nauseated. It struck me that Mom's statement was just about the only reason I needed to avoid a career in public music performance. "Keep that pep talk coming, Mom."
"Don't be sarcastic." Mom tossed me a cardigan that matched my pants. "Take this. It makes you look more professional."
I could've said no, but it was easier just to take the sweater. As Mom had already pointed out, the sooner I got into the auditorium and threw up, the easier it would be. And once I got this over with, I could return to my ordinary life until the next time she decided to take me out of my cage. I did refuse Mom's offers to help me carry my harp, though plenty of the other students heading inside had parental retinues. Somehow it was easier to be utterly insignificant without anyone you knew watching.
"We'll park the car, then. And find a seat. Call if you need us?" Mom patted her dove-blue purse, which matched her plunging dove-blue top. "And Delia should be here soon, too."
The thought of my diva-aunt pushed me slightly closer to the vomit end of the sick scale. Oh Deirdre, she would say loudly, can I help you run through those scales? You really are a bit flat on the upper range. And then I would throw up on her. Hey, maybe that wasn't a terrible plan after all. Though, knowing Delia, she'd probably correct my form. Deirdre, dear, really, you need a better puke arc if you're going to ever blow chunks professionally.
"Great," I said. My parents waved and left me to find the competitors' area. I shielded my eyes and scanned the broad concrete side of the high school. Shining brightly in the early afternoon glare was a huge canvas sign that said Competitors' Entrance. I'd sincerely hoped I wouldn't have to return to the school until my junior year started. Yeah. Farewell, mine dreams.
Man, it was hot. I glared up at the sun, eyes narrowed, and my eyes were drawn to the moon hanging in the sky next to the sun. For some reason, this appearance of the ghost of the moon gave me an odd prickle in my stomach--nerves of a different kind. It had a sort of magic, magic that made me want to stay and stare at it until I could remember why it enchanted me. But staying outside in the heat wasn't helping my nervous stomach, so I left the pale disc behind and I hauled my harp over to the "Competitors' Entrance."
As I pushed through the heavy doors, it occurred to me that, before my mother mentioned it, I hadn't wanted to puke at all. I hadn't even been thinking about the competition. True, I'd had my familiar glassy-eyed, all-attention-devoted-to-not-hurling look on my face on the drive over, but not for the reason my mother assumed. I had still been lost in last night's dream. But now that she'd brought it up, and with the competition in sight, all was right again with the world and my stomach was a disaster.
A woman with two chins and a clipboard asked for my name.
She squinted at me--or maybe that was her normal expression. "Someone was looking for you earlier."
I hoped she meant James, my best (only) friend. Anyone else, I wasn't interested in them finding me. I wanted to ask what they looked like, but I was afraid that if I talked much, I'd lose my tenuous control over my gag reflex. Mere proximity to the competition area was definitely antagonizing the whole bile thing.
"Tall, light-haired woman."
Not James. But not Delia, either. Puzzling, but not really a priority, all things considered.
The woman scribbled something next to my name. "You'll need to pick up a packet at the end of the hall."
I held a hand over my mouth and asked carefully, "Where can I practice?"
"If you go down the hall past where you get the packet, the big double doors on the--" I couldn't wait much longer. "Right. The classrooms down there?"
She wagged her chins. I took that as a "yes" and walked farther inside. My eyes took a minute to adjust to the light, but my nose operated immediately. The familiar smell of my high school, even without any students nearby, pricked my nerves. God, I was so dysfunctional.
My harp case rang. The phone. I fished it out and stared. A four-leaf clover was stuck to the back of it, damp and fresh. Not one of the ones where the fourth leaf is stunted, either, and you can obviously see it's just a mutation of a three-leaf clover. Each of these leaves was perfectly formed and spread.
Then I remembered that the phone was ringing. I looked at the number, hoping it wasn't Mom, and flipped it open. "Hi," I said tightly, peeling the four-leaf clover off the phone and putting it in my pocket. Couldn't hurt.
"Oh," James said sympathetically, picking up on my tone. Though his voice was thin and crackly over the line, it still had its usual calming effect. The bile in my throat momentarily retreated. "I should've called earlier, huh? You're puke-a-rella already."
"Yeah." I headed slowly toward the double doors at the end of the hall. "Distract me, please."
"Well, I'm running late," he said cheerfully. "So I'm probably going to have to tune my pipes in the car and then run in shirtless and half-dressed. I've been lifting weights. Maybe they'll score high for a defined six pack, if they aren't awed by my mere musical genius."
"If you manage just your skirt, at least the judges'll give you Braveheart points."
"Don't mock the kilt, woman. So, did you have any entertaining dreams last night?"
"Uh..." Even though James and I were just friends, I hesitated to tell him. My intensely detailed dreams were usually a source of great amusement for us--two nights ago, I'd dreamt I was being interviewed by a Harvard college counselor who was up to her neck in cheese (Gouda, I think).
The mood of last night's dream still lingered with me, in a sort of appealing way. "I couldn't really sleep well enough to dream," I finally said.
Oh. The moon. It suddenly occurred to me that my dream was where I had seen a moon in a daytime sky--that was where the sense of déjà vu came from. I was disappointed that it was something so normal.
"Well, that's typical," James was saying.