Here are the first four chapters of RAVEN, the second book in THE RETURN OF THE FIORGAELS. We’ll start by meeting someone we’ve heard a lot about . . .
Over the Atlantic
Thirteen Years Ago
A very pale, short and thin young man looked out the Airbus window as Scotland disappeared in the haze behind him, leaving nothing but the open Atlantic stretched out ahead. He watched the featureless ocean for a while and then tried to read the book in his lap. Twice he discretely wiped his eyes. After nervously turning the pages without taking in their contents, he finally put it away and went back to looking out the window. The man seated next to him was a big, ruddy-faced American in a suit. He spoke.
“First time flying?”
“Oh, no. More like the thirty-first time.”
“I only asked because you seemed a little nervous. Afraid to fly?”
More like I’m afraid to land!
“I’m not afraid to fly, at all. I love it up here. It’s just . . . I’m emigrating to America, probably never going back to Scotland.”
Emigrating? Now, why did I say that? Up to now I was only thinking about art school.
“Emigrating? At your age? That’s a big step. How come, may I ask?”
“My parents . . . well, my father, really . . . they don’t approve of my career choice.”
The American looked at him dubiously.
“Well, what the Hell is it you’re planning to do?”
The young man hesitated for a moment.
“I am an artist,” he said firmly.
Saturday, October 31
The road to Pollardsville, California
Near the Ventana Wilderness, West of Big Sur
Banning MacTamick trudged along the side of the road. It was cracked and broken and the paint had worn off the lane markings. Occasionally, a car or truck slowed down as it passed, just long enough for the driver to confirm that he was a stranger. When they roared off, they left dust clouds as they bumped and rocked along. It looked painful for the vehicles, if not the riders.
He walked at least two hours, and saw nothing but trees, an occasional empty house and the locals who do not give lifts to strangers. Banning considered himself no threat to anyone. He was short, very thin and almost deathly pale. He had a small backpack and a canvas bag, and wore a London Fog trench coat and gloves. Although it was late afternoon, the sky overhead was cloudy and the forests on either side of the road cut off most of the sun, he nonetheless wore dark glasses and a hat to protect his sensitive eyes.
I suppose they think I could be carrying a gun. Or maybe the dark glasses make me look like a fugitive. Actually, I they probably just don’t care. This place sure isn’t Savannah.
A half-hour went by. His feet hurt and it was getting colder. He was also very hungry. From a long way off he heard a motorcycle coming up behind him. The engine noise was muted, probably by a silencer, but he could tell it was a big one. When it came around the last bend and drew near, Banning waved without any real hope. The rider pulled up beside him and killed the engine. When she took off her helmet — it had a dark visor pulled down — Banning saw that she was a woman about his own age, with thick black hair pulled back into a braid. She wore a heavy denim jacket and a small gold Celtic cross on a gold chain. Her skin was honey-colored.
“Where are you headed?” she asked, in a deep voice with a trace of accent.
“Wherever the next town is, I guess. My hired car broke down back the way you came.”
“Hired? You mean ‘rented’?”
“Rented, right. Did you see a yellow Ford by the side of the road?”
“Yeah, about eight miles back. What happened?”
“I ran over a pothole — I didn’t see it in time to swerve — and the transmission went out.”
“Yes, very . . . So, how far is the next town?”
“Pollardsville is another eight miles. It’s not much.”
“Is there a garage? Does it have a motel?”
“The motel is full of bugs. The garage is all right.”
“Well,” said Banning, who was tired out, “could you ask the garage to send out a tow truck to pick me up and then get my car?”
The woman looked him up and down.
“What’s your name? Where are you from?”
“I’m Banning MacTamick. I live mostly in Savannah, but I travel around a lot.”
“Savannah? That’s in Georgia, right? What brought you all the way out here?”
“I’m on my way to the Art Exposition in Seattle. I flew to San Diego, first, to visit some friends, and then I rented a car so I could drive up the Pacific coast and see it. I’ve never been to California before.”
“What a coincidence. I was planning to go to the Exposition myself. Are you an artist?”
“I am. I work in pastels, charcoal, photography, some watercolor.”
“What’s in your backpack?”
Banning sighed and handed it to her. She rummaged through a change of clothes, a laptop and a box of colored pencils and charcoal sticks. When she found Banning’s sketch pad, she took her time flipping through it.
“Do you draw anything besides wildlife?”
Banning was fed up with her.
“I do other kinds of art, but animals are my best subjects.”
The woman zipped up his backpack and handed it back to him.
“You’ve got a good eye. Tell me, do you wear those shades when you’re working?”
“Of course not. My eyes are very light-sensitive, though.”
The woman studied his face for a minute, making him uncomfortable.
“Take off your glasses,” she said finally. “I want to see your eyes. If they look all right, I’ll run you into Pollardsville.”
Banning took off his dark glasses. He braced himself for what would come next.
“You’re an albino!”
“So I’ve been told,” he said dryly.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to react like that. So that explains your pasty skin and why you’re wearing dark glasses in twilight, but still . . . Open your mouth. I want a look at your teeth.”
Banning stared at her.
“You can’t seriously think I’m a vampire, for crying out loud! There are no such things.”
“You have no idea how strange it gets are around here. Besides, it’s Halloween. I’m not taking any chances. Open up, if you want a ride.”
Banning opened up. No choice, really, I’m almost dead on my feet.
The woman pulled out a small flashlight and inspected the inside of his mouth from close up. Banning was glad he brushed his teeth after lunch. Finally, she put the light away.
“Ok, no fangs.”
“Besides, look at this.” From under his shirt he pulled out a Celtic cross on a chain. It was identical to hers, but made of silver.
“Huh. I guess you’re alright. Ever ridden on a motorcycle before?”
“Hold me around the middle, tight. Don’t grab my shoulders. The roads around here are crap and I don’t want you flying off if we take a bounce. Do you know how to lean into the curve?”
“Yes, of course. I told you, I’ve been on bikes before. Lots of my friends at art school had bikes.”
She laughed. “Art students on bikes — give me a break. When I get on my bike, I ride. I ride hard. But I’ll go easy on you. Anyway, it’s only a few miles to Pollardsville.” She handed him the extra helmet on the rear backrest.
“Climb on, and remember about holding me tight.”
Banning got on the bike and grabbed her around the middle. He spoke just before she kicked off.
“By the by, what’s your name?”
“Raven is all you need for now.”
She kicked off and they roared ahead into the gloomy dusk.
The ride to Pollardsville was quick. Raven discovered that her passenger did indeed understand how to ride. He didn’t show any sign of flying off. From the way her bike handled, she figured he weighed less than she did.
She braked to a stop and killed the motor. They were in the parking lot of a battered diner called Merrill’s, adjacent to an old-time motel, the kind that consists of a dozen cottages instead of a single building. She took off her helmet.
“Welcome to Pollardsville,” she said over her shoulder. “This is it, traveler.”
Banning looked around. There was a single blinking yellow light at the intersection. Across from the motel/diner there was a discount store. On the other side of the highway a gas station with a convenience store sat across from a gas station with a garage. Only the diner and the convenience store were open.
“We missed getting here before the garage closed,” Banning muttered.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Raven. “Follow me.”
She entered the diner, which was as dingy on the inside as it was on the outside. Two men in mechanic’s overalls sat at the bar, drinking beer and watching a football game.
“Hey, Stan,” Raven called out, “I gotta customer for you. He blew a rental about sixteen miles down the road.”
The older and heavier of the two men looked at Banning and grimaced, either because he was being asked to think about work, or because he just didn’t like Banning’s looks.
“Who’d you rent from? And what happened to it?”
Banning told him. He brightened.
“Well, that’s a break. I know their regional manager. I can tow your car in tomorrow, Mister, and get an authorization to fix it on Monday.”
“Monday? Well, all right. How long after the authorization will it take to get it fixed?”
“Maybe a week. I’ll have to get the part. That’ll take a whole day, right there. Then I’ll have to get the old transmission off and put the new one on. That’s slow going, and I got people ahead of you in line.”
Banning rarely swore, but he did so now, in his mind.
“I need to get back on the road. Is there another place I can rent a car?”
“Not closer than Monterey.”
“Is there a bus to Monterey?”
The garage owner laughed. Banning noticed that he had long, coarse hair over his forearms. He was also missing a pair of teeth.
“Hell, no! What would a bus stop here for? Ain’t nobody wants to come here, and everybody who could leave is already long gone.”
Banning decided not to ask about taxis.
“You want to get to Monterey, or anywhere else, I’ll find somebody to drive you out tomorrow. Won’t be hard to do. We’ve got a lot of unemployed folks around here.”
“Don’t mention it. Katy — the counter girl here — can check you into the motel for the night, but tell her quick, cuz she goes home in an hour.”
Banning took stock of the situation. He did owe her, and he was quite hungry himself. At least the place wasn’t filthy, and it didn’t smell bad. In fact, the strongest odors were cleaning products — pine oil, bleach, soap. He turned to Raven.
“You gave me a ride — can I buy you supper?”
“Sure.” She slid into one of the booths. Banning took his place across from her. She called out to the woman behind the counter.
“Katy, bring us a couple of menus when you get a chance.”
“Be right with you, hon,” Katy replied. She was pouring beer into a pitcher with one hand and setting out frosted mugs with the other.
“So,” said Raven, “you said you’re from Georgia, but your accent sounds British. Or maybe Scottish?”
“I am a Scotsman, of Clan MacTamick. I was raised in Edinburg.”
“How long have you been in the States?”
“Why’d you leave?”
Banning hesitated before he answered.
“Family reasons,” he finally said.
“Am I being nosy? I’m sorry. It’s just that I never met a Scotchman before. I never would have expected to, either, not all the way out here.”
At the word ‘Scotchman’ Banning laughed.
“What did I say that was funny?” Raven asked.
“‘Scotchman’ — a fellow from Scotland is a Scot, or a Scotsman. ‘Scotch’, short for ‘Scotch Whiskey’, is a drink. What makes it funny, lass,” said Banning, turning up his old Scots accent, “is that I am a Scotsman, yes, but I am literally not a ‘Scotch man.’
“Y’see, my family distills Scotch Whiskey — MacTamick’s. Our distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland and it’s still run by the MacTamicks, after more than three hundred years. There aren’t many family-owned distilleries left. My father is very proud of the MacTamick traditions and he wanted me to take over from him, like a prince inheriting a kingdom. A very tiny kingdom. I didn’t want to be a businessman. I’m an artist. So I left.”
“I knew I’d heard the name MacTamick somewhere. I’ve seen bottles of it in bars.”
“MacTamick’s is a super-premium brand. They must have been high-class bars.”
“I’ve been in a few.”
Katy interrupted their conversation by bringing over the menus.
“There’s no more pizza tonight, it’s too late. We’re out of corned beef, so there’s no Reuben sandwiches. Also, there’s no fish.”
“Bring me a root beer,” said Raven.
“Same here,” said Banning.
“We’re out of root beer.”
Raven sighed. “Then bring us Cokes. By the way, he’s” — she pointed at Banning — “going to be staying the night at the motel.”
Katy looked sullen.
“We’ve only got one room available. I’ll bring you the card to fill out when I come back to get your order.” Sighing heavily, she went off to wipe down the bar where Stan and his fellow mechanic had just left.
When she said they only have one room available, she means that they only have one room clean, not that all the other rooms are filled.”
Katy came back with a tray of full pitchers and mugs. She set down their Cokes and then hurried on to the next table.
“Let’s drink to health of Pollardsville,” Raven whispered. “It needs all the health it can get.”
“Agreed,” said Banning softly.
They drank. A weathered old man came into the diner, ordered a beer and then put some money in the jukebox. Banning hadn’t noticed it before. The first song was Patsy Cline’s ‘I Go Out Walking After Midnight.’ After thirteen years spent in Georgia — mostly — Banning had to learned to enjoy some American Country music. At least it was better than most American beer. Nobody graduates from an American art school without learning to drink American beer, but Banning had never learned to enjoy it. He liked Patsy Cline well enough, but hearing her always brought back thoughts of his brother.
I wonder where Ian is tonight? And what is he doing?
As he drank, Banning noticed that the old man was watching Raven closely. He was mildly offended. Raven was certainly striking and attractive — Banning would not have said ‘pretty’ — but it was rude of him to stare.
Katy came to take their orders. She gave Banning a little card to fill out and then dropped a worn brass key on the table. Banning took it with an unsteady hand. Must be the long walk and no food yet.
Raven ordered a Boca vegetarian burger and onion rings and then suggested that he also order the onion rings, on the grounds that Merrill’s made the best ones in the world. Banning declined politely, on the unspoken grounds that loathed onion rings. Instead, he asked for a grilled cheese sandwich and cheese fries. As he ordered, he noticed the old fellow at the bar take a mobile phone out of his jacket, glancing at Raven over his shoulder as he went out the door.
“How bad were things with your Dad? Did you ever go back home to patch them up?”
“No, I never went back. I write to Mother from time to time, and I sometimes email my brother, but as long as Dad stays angry at me, I’d best keep away. Ian — my younger brother — took my place. He loves the business, just about as much as I hate it. He’s looking forward to taking Father’s place as Patriarch of Clan MacTamick, too. He deserves his chance. I’ve got my own life here in the States.”
“Huh. I live right next to my family. I can’t imagine life without them.”
“You’ve asked a lot of questions about me. It’s only fair that you tell me something about yourself, now.”
“Hmm. Well, I live about twenty miles from here. Ahh, I’m an artist, too, mostly photography. I also restore old Native American crafts and fabric. I’m part Indian. I’ve been a bartender, a forester, a farmer and a motorcycle mechanic. I do some custom clothing design and sewing.
“I haven’t ever been East of the Rockies, and mostly I don’t leave California. I’ve lived in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, but I don’t really like cities. Mostly, I just stick to Monterey and Big Sur.”
“So Pollardsville isn’t your home?”
She laughed. “Not hardly!”
“I’m thinking you don’t spend a lot of time in Merril’s cafe, either.”
“Oh, it’s all right. You get all kinds in here. This is a slow night. There’s some stuff on the menu besides. That works for me.”
“I just wondered about the old fellow who was staring at your earlier. He seemed like an admirer, but then I got the impression he wasn’t pleased with you, for some reason.”
“Someone was staring at me? What did he look like?”
“An old man, gray-haired, not bald. Not fat, either. He was dressed in work clothes. I think he broke his nose, once upon a time.”
“That could be a hundred guys, out here. Is he still in the cafe?”
“No, he went outside a while ago, to make a call on his mobile phone.”
“Ahh, his cell phone. I keep forgetting to call them that.”
“Do me a favor. If he comes back, point him out to me.”
Their food arrived. They ate mostly in silence. Banning asked her questions about the wildlife in the area, which she answered briefly, as if she weren’t paying serious attention. Banning was disappointed. He had not been intimate with a woman for months. He spent most of his time alone, actively avoiding human contact. This limited his relationships. Women who only wanted conventionally good-looking men passed him by quickly, but she seemed to be a more thoughtful type, less conformist and more open-minded.
Banning decided she probably found him boring. Most people did. Really, aside from a thousand drawings of plants and animals, what had he done in his life?
Raven kept glancing at the door.
She’s showing all the signs that she’s ready for this ‘date’ to be over. Mentally, she’s already ‘outta here’ as the Americans say. Banning sighed and drained the last of his Coke.
“Are there a lot of motorcycles around Pollardsville?” he asked, trying to keep the conversation going.
“Thousands. This is outlaw biker country.”
“Yes, I can hear a bunch of bikes headed this way, coming up from the south.”
Abruptly, Raven cocked her head and stood up to see out the front window. She cursed under her breath and sat back down, leaning across the table to whisper in his ear.
“If you don’t want your ass kicked, do exactly as I say. See the pool table over there? The bathrooms are on the other side. I want you to get up and go that way, as if you were going to the can. But don’t. At the end of the hall there’s a little storeroom on the right. The door should be unlocked. There’s a window facing the back. Open it and get out, without making a sound.
“Wait in the bushes for me to come around with my bike. Don’t make a move, whatever you hear, until you see me. Unless someone tries to kill you. Then run and hide in the trees, if you can.”
Banning looked at her in horror.
“What’s this all about, then?”
“People are going to try and kill me. They’re almost here. They’ll be happy to kill you, too, just for fun, or because they think we’re friends. This is no joke, dammit, now go!”
“Who are they?”
“They call themselves ‘Satan’s Posse’ — if that doesn’t explain the situation, then you’re not as smart as you look! Get going!”
Her voice was unsteady with fear. Banning got up and strolled off, just as he was told. He was halfway down the little hallway when he heard a thump behind him. The cook — or maybe the dishwasher — had opened the kitchen side door and was staring at him.
“Just going to the loo — ah, the Gent’s — I mean the Men’s room.” Banning tried to smile.
“It’s on the other side — that one,” the man said flatly. He showed no sign of going back into the kitchen, but stood there scowling at Banning. I have no choice. He went into the Men’s room and discovered that he really did need to pee. There was a little window in the Men’s room, high up, and he decided to give it a try. He had to climb up on the sink to reach the catch. It was rusted shut and he had to work it open. The window clanked heavily and made a loud squealing noise as he broke through the rust. He grabbed the edge and pulled himself partway through, giving the sink a kick for leverage. As he dropped to the ground headfirst, he heard the sink tip over and crash on the tile floor, followed by rushing water sounds. Oh, bollocks.
Several things happened at once. Somebody opened the door to the Men’s room and bellowed a curse. Raven’s motorcycle fired up outside. And in the distance, a pack of motorcycles swept around the curve into the last stretch of road before Pollardsville.
Banning heard Raven cursing. “Dammit, Mac, where the Hell are you?” He realized that he was on the opposite side of the building from from Raven. He got to his feet and stumbled around the corner. She almost ran him down with her bike. As she braked, dirt clods flew.
“Dammit, why didn’t you do what I told you?”
“The cook saw me and –”
“Never mind! Jump on!” She tossed him his backpack.
Banning grabbed her around the middle and swung himself up into the seat. Raven kicked off and rolled out of the parking lot doing sixty miles an hour already. Banning could see the speedometer from where he sat. The needle swept past eighty and kept going.
Banning struggled to get his helmet on as they accelerated down the road. He needed one hand to hold on to Raven and the other to manage the helmet. The wind almost yanked it out of his grasp before he got it on his head. Raven slewed and swerved around the worst bits of the road, but they still took some bumps that nearly threw them both off the bike. A big bump running all the way across the road appeared before them; Raven somehow managed to jump it, both wheels off the ground.
I shouldn’t be excited about this. I should bloody well be terrified, but it seems like she knows what she’s doing.
Banning knew that for Raven to reach max speed, he needed to completely trust her ability to handle the bike, so he moulded his body into hers and relaxed. Closing his eyes tight, he cleared all thoughts out of his mind and narrowed his concentration to just one sense, his hearing. Then he mentally filtered out the sound of Raven’s bike. Their pursuers were cursing and yelling to one another. One of them spoke into a phone or a radio, telling someone they ‘had her this time.’
Banning leaned into Raven’s right ear.
“They’re about two miles back, not gaining on us, holding steady.”
“How the Hell do you know that?”
“I can hear them.”
The two figures continued to tear through the darkness along the winding road, Banning could feel Raven heart pounding where his hands clinched around her waist. Peering over her shoulder he saw the road fork ahead; Raven right and took aroad that climbed steeply. Suddenly she cut the bikes engine and they coasted to the left side of the shoulder.
”Hop off, follow me.”
Banning quickly did as she asked. Raven pushed her motorcycle into the thick brush and Banning followed without question. She turned off the headlight and without it the night was a deep darkness.
“Sit down and keep quiet. Now we wait.”
Raven lay her motorcycle on its left side and sat down next to Banning in the dry grass. An oddly familiar sensation, like warmth and weightlessness moved through his body. Less than a minute later a dozen headlights shot past them. Banning heard one of the bikers laughing and another one screaming threats into the empty night.
“We’re safe,” said Raven. “We’ll be on our way in a few minutes.”
The Monterey Peninsula
Jeremiah Murphy sat in the conductor’s seat of the clattering old steam locomotive and strained his night vision, looking into the darkness. They must not pass the signals and miss the stopping point; all their carefully laid plans for concealment would be ruined if the train did not return before dawn. A train that runs off its schedule must send several telegrams ahead to prevent a collision, and they could risk one. A station manager down the way would keep the track closed by reporting that his signal equipment was’t working right, but that excuse would only hold for two hours.
The engineer was huge man named Charles MacTamick. His bulk took up most of the cabin, even though Jeremiah was a small man by anyone’s standards. He nervously scanned the track ahead and checked his watch.
A red light flared in the darkness.
“The first signal!”
The engineer cut back the throttle. As he did so, Jeremiah threw the knife switch for the headlight twice, to acknowledge.
The second signal came almost at once. MacTamick slowed the train to a crawl as it pulled into a small clearing illuminated by a bonfire. A dozen men were waiting in the shadows. Eleven of them were Indians, dressed for heavy labor. The twelfth was a small white man in a suit. As Jeremiah stepped down from the locomotive, the well-dressed fellow ran up and embraced him.
“You’re here! I can hardly believe you made it, Brother!”
Jeremiah’s heart beat so fast he felt dizzy. “I could say the same about you, as well, Brother!”
We’re almost there. Just a bit to go.
The passengers emerged from the four carriages. Quickly, they opened up the livestock cars and began helping the animals down to the ground. When that had been done, they unloaded their belongings. The Indians brought forth wagons and helped to load them. Well before dawn, the empty train got up a head of steam and continued North.
The people gathered in the clearing were small, some of them astonishingly so. Most of them were very pale and fair, but there were exceptions. Some were dusky brown and a few were reddish-gold. They clustered in family groups while Jeremiah and his brother spoke to the Indians. The travelers had a long trail ahead of them, but there was something they must do first, to celebrate their miraculous journey. Some of them pulled off their outer clothes to reveal soft, brightly-colored wool tunics. They gathered in a circle around the fire, children and adults alike.
Wings, delicate-looking but strong, appeared from their backs. The wings beat, and they rose in the air.
“Fly, fairy, fly!”