Icefall (Excerpt)

Death stalks Seth MacGregor’s clan in their otherworld exile. Kate NicNiven is close to ultimate victory, and she is determined that nothing will keep her from it. Not even the thing that took her soul: the horror that lurks in the sea caves.

But Kate still needs Seth’s son Rory, and his power over the Veil. And she’ll go to any lengths to get him. Seth’s own soul is rotting from the wound inflicted by Kate, and survival for his loved ones seems all he can hope for. But might a mortal threat to his brother’s daughter force him to return to his own world to challenge Kate? And will Rory go with him? Because Rory suspects there’s a darkness trapped in the Veil, a darkness that wants to get out. But only one Sithe knows how near it is to getting its way: Seth’s bound lover, the witch Finn. Nobody gets forever. But some are willing to try…

From critically acclaimed author Gillian Philip, Icefall is the final installment in the Rebel Angels series—available March 24th from Tor Books!

 

 

 

Hannah

The sound was so soft, I’d never have heard it if a breeze had stirred. The faintest whisper, like leaf against leaf, or steel against leather.

I hesitated, glancing behind me, hitching my backpack higher on my shoulder. I was probably imagining it. I had things to do, books to read, prospectuses to study. This was my final school year and I was impatient to know where my life was going. I didn’t have time for getting spooked by shadows.

All the same.

Turning, I scanned the street. Broad autumn daylight. Cool and overcast, it was true, but weak shafts of sun filtered through onto cracked concrete and corrugated iron. This was the dingy end of town, the deserted end. No reason that alley between the warehouses should look so dark. No reason, except my imagination.

Except I was fairly sure that was a footstep.

Nothing moved. Shadow leaked out of the alleyway, pooled between a parked car and a lorry: so very dark, when there wasn’t much sun. I couldn’t even hear a gull. Late afternoon and even the shabby corner pubs were quiet. Weird. Like being sealed in a capsule of stillness and fear.

I shrugged. Sniffed. Walked on. Stopped again.

The silence wasn’t empty. There was something inside it, something that could think and hate, something that could move. Something that would move, when it chose to.

I stood quite still. I could feel the cold fear in my spine, now, trying to make me run. I mustn’t run.

Too late to call Rory. And anyway, did I want to? If this was anything more sinister than some suicidally ill-judged piss-take from cousin Lauren and her pals, I might only draw him into a trap. He was the one they mustn’t have. I was dispensable. In the long run.

Not that I thought much of that idea. In the short run.

I showed my teeth. There was still the chance this was only Lauren, and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Didn’t want to overreact or anything.

I didn’t think it was Lauren.

‘Come on, then.’

My words echoed off blank walls.

‘I said come on. If you’re hard enough.’

That was fine. That was fine, my voice had come out steady. It wouldn’t do that again, not now that a figure had stepped out of the alleyway. A woman, I guessed from the silhouette moving forward: tall, and kind of elegant. Yes, a woman: pale hair twisted into a braid, mouth curved in an apologetic smile. Sword held lightly, almost casually, and now she flipped its hilt so that the blade was held high, and drew it to her face in salute.

Lovely, I thought. Honestly, very graceful. With luck she’d do the whole thing as beautifully as that. Fast and painless.

Of course, I’d rather she didn’t do it at all. Letting my backpack slip from my shoulder, I swung it in a threatening arc.

‘Hannah Falconer McConnell.’ It wasn’t a question.

‘Yeah? And?’

‘Come along, now,’ said the pale-haired woman. ‘Don’t make a fuss.’

‘I will, though.’

‘Please don’t make this any harder.’

‘Uh-huh. Right.’ I lashed the backpack at her.

Pathetic. The bag was heavy, the movement clumsy. Stepping neatly back, the woman swung her sword, severing the strap. Lunging, I snatched it as it fell and raised it like a shield. Even more pathetic, but I’d like to have heard a better suggestion.

‘You’re being very silly,’ the woman told me.

I didn’t dignify that with a reply. Anyway, I only had time to thrust the bag forward to catch the swinging blade. It thunked through canvas and into textbooks and notepads and glossy university brochures.

Homework has always had its uses.

Sucking her teeth in exasperation, the woman tugged her sword loose as she grabbed the backpack with her free hand and wrenched it from my grip.

‘Now, shush. Let’s get it done. Quickly, I promise.’

I stumbled back as my bag was flung to the ground. I don’t know what was stronger, the disbelief or the terror. This had happened so fast. I’d been walking home, pissed off at the thought of having to study at the local redbrick next year because you can’t leave here, not on your own, you’re not going out of our sight. And now I was never going to take a degree anywhere, because I was going to die.

This was not how I’d planned my life or my evening. I’d have liked to run, but there didn’t seem any point.

‘Shush,’ soothed the woman again, and drew back her blade on a line with my neck.

At the furthest point of her lazy backswing, she hesitated, and frowned, and glanced down.

My breathing was high-pitched, and my whole body was shaking, but I looked too. A sharp point of steel had appeared between the woman’s ribs, just to the left of her sternum, and as she growled in astonishment, a sinewy arm went round her neck and jolted her backwards. The blade tip poked further out of her chest; I watched it, mesmerised.

Her shock had turned to rage, too late. As she tried to turn, the silver light in her eyes faded. She dropped to her knees, her sword scraped and then clanged on the pavement. With a last irritated look at me, she pitched forward onto her face and died.

The man who stood over the corpse tugged at his sword. It wouldn’t come loose, and he had to put his foot on the woman’s back and jerk it hard out of her ribs. It came out with a horrible sucking thwick that made me want to be sick. Nothing altruistic. I was thinking it would have made the same noise coming out of me.

My saviour raised an eyebrow.

~ That’ll teach her to keep an open mind.

Someone was breathing hard and very fast. It wasn’t the newcomer, the man with the neat goatee, the unruly black hair and the brutal facial scars. Presumably it wasn’t the dead tart. Must be me, then.

Taking a deep breath, I smiled.

‘Sionnach,’ I said. ‘Have you got nothing better to do than be my bodyguard?’

He shrugged, glanced down at the corpse. ~ No.

He frowned again.

~ You okay?

No, I’m about to fall over and I think I want to cry. ‘I’m fine. Fine.’ I let out a shuddering breath.

‘You shouldn’t walk home alone,’ he said aloud. ‘Where’s Rory?’

‘In the library. He’s still got loads of catching up to do.’

‘Well, we need him. Call him.’

Seeing as I’d been dying to, I did what I was told. Of course, Sionnach didn’t give me time to catch my breath or rearrange my hair. When the love of my life appeared, running to my rescue, I was grunting and sweating from the effort of helping drag a corpse into a handy doorway. Sionnach let go of the woman’s limp arm and straightened, eyeing Rory accusingly as he skidded to a halt.

‘Sionnach.’ He was out of breath.

Sionnach shook his head. ‘Hannah was alone. Not again, hear?’

‘No. Right. I know. God, Hannah, I’m sorry.’

I pushed a damp rat-tail of hair behind my ear and smiled, trying to look cool, so glad to see him the fear of death was already slipping off me like snakeskin. I liked that tight knot of love in my gut. It let me know I was still a human being, and being hunted down in an alleyway wasn’t all there was to it.

Rory’s face split in a grin. It was pretty funny that he still got bossed around by Sionnach, now that he was an inch taller than him. Tall, feral, and full of mischief: an overgrown Lost Boy. His bright hair had darkened in the last couple of years, his face had grown thinner and harder, and his grey eyes had the shadowy glint of his father’s. But he still had the elfish beauty I’d fallen for on the most chaotic day of my life. Best of all, he still loved me. I hoped he always would. My Rory Bhan. My one-time lover. My cousin.

Sionnach coughed. ‘When you’re quite ready.’

Rory looked abruptly away, and I forced a pout to stop myself laughing too. I liked to hear Sionnach being sarcastic. There hadn’t been much of the old Sionnach in the last three years. Not since he lost the other half of himself, not since Alasdair Kilrevin put a sword blade through his twin.

He went still, raising his head. ‘Someone’s coming. Do it now.’

Shocked, Rory said, ‘What?’

~ Do it.

Obediently Rory reached for thin air and the fragile thing that was hidden in it. Sionnach’s nerves were contagious. My own heart, which I reckoned had stopped five minutes ago when it got stuck in my throat, crashed back into my chest and into overdrive. Delayed shock, maybe, but it made my head spin. The fear was becoming panic, because I knew Sionnach was right—he always was—but Rory was struggling with the Veil. Beyond the defences of a Sithe fortress, that was unheard of.

‘Rory. What’s wrong?’

Rory’s fingertips scrabbled, like he was trying to grab glass. He swore. I could feel his panic growing.

‘I thought it was thinning,’ I hissed.

‘It is. It was!’

‘Come on. Veil or no Veil, somebody’s going to notice a corpse.’

‘Yeah, no kidding.’

Sionnach said nothing, only stared into the shadows.

This was stupid. It was meant to be withering, but the Veil had picked a fine time to get its strength back. Rory was getting no grip on it at all. For an instant he looked completely bewildered, but he clenched his fists, and his face darkened.

He had that cold look of his father’s now. Flattening his fingers he thrust them forward like a blade, snatching hold of something I couldn’t see.

Sionnach took a step towards the alleyway. ~ Whoever it is, they’re close.

With a growl, Rory hauled on his handful of Veil, and it began to give: like tearing oilcloth. He put his other hand to the rip, dragged it remorselessly wider. The sinews stood out on his wrist with the effort.

He grunted as the gash widened at last. Let go, and stood up. He froze.

Then he stumbled back, and would have fallen on his backside if he hadn’t crashed into me.

‘Rory…’ I began.

A tremor ran through his skin, and he’d gone very cold. I looked up and past him, towards the tear in the Veil. Something oozed from the gash, all chill and black fear. Instinctively I shuffled backwards away from it, dragging Rory.

For a moment he let himself be tugged away, then his muscles hardened and he wriggled out of my grip. On all fours he crawled back towards the hole, then clambered to his feet and seized the Veil’s torn edges in both hands. Even Sionnach was staring at Rory now, the intruder forgotten.

‘What’s that?’ he said. There was fear in his hoarse voice.

Rory couldn’t spare him an answer. The gap in the Veil couldn’t be more than a metre long, but I could just make out its distorted shadow where the weak sunlight caught it. It sagged inwards, bulging, like it was going to rip further.

I’d never felt anything like it, not in all the many times it had given way to Rory. It always obeyed him, but now I had a feeling the Veil had rebelled for the first time. You’d almost think that at its heart, caught in the membrane, there was a trapped darkness that wanted out.

I’d never been afraid of the Veil between the worlds, never. Even the first time Rory tore it for me, four summers ago that felt like decades, I’d been only gobsmacked, and mistrustful, and rationally angry. I’d never felt this lump of fear in my belly. Whatever the darkness was, it didn’t fascinate me. I only wanted it gone, but I was terribly afraid it wouldn’t go. The gap yawed, sagged further, stretched like a living thing.

We’d taken it by surprise. The Veil, I mean. The thought struck me, unexpected and bizarre. We’d woken something that hadn’t expected to wake; it had been disturbed unawares, but it wasn’t ready to explode from its restraining membrane.

And just as well, was my instinctive thought.

Rory dragged the edges together and stood rigid, clutching the gap shut. I couldn’t so much see that it was closed as sense it, because the strange coldness was gone like a sigh.

It seemed an age before Rory loosened his fingers and stepped back.

I took a breath to say And what are we going to do with the dead tart now, but I never got the chance. Rory reached out, almost thoughtlessly, and tore the Veil again.

It ripped like gossamer. He used a light forefinger and he didn’t even have to take a breath.

I gaped at him, but Sionnach wasn’t struck dumb. He grabbed the dead woman’s arm and hauled her to the new rip in the Veil, bundling and shoving her through. Getting a hold of myself, I helped him, pushing the woman’s dangling foot through the gap as Sionnach threw her sword after her. With no fuss at all, Rory clasped the Veil’s edges and sealed it, and she was gone.

 

The three of us were panting for breath, staring at the space she’d filled, when the air was shattered by a tinny blast of unidentifiable R&B.

Sionnach turned. The music died abruptly; a phone clattered to the paving stones. As we gaped, a manicured hand shot round the corner to grab for it.

Nonchalantly Sionnach took a pace closer and trod hard on the hand. There was a yelp of angry pain as he bent to pick up the phone, turning it in his hand, thumbing the touchscreen with interest.

‘Come out,’ he said. ‘Lauren.’ He tilted an eyebrow at me.

‘Aw, hell,’ muttered Rory. I swore more creatively.

She stumbled to her feet, clutching her bruised hand, glaring at all three of us. Not a muscle of Sionnach’s face moved now, and I thought: Uh-oh. When his hand went to the hilt of the short sword hidden inside his leather jacket, Rory put a hand on the man’s arm. Sionnach scowled.

I forced a smile. ‘Hi, Lauren.’

Rory’s breath sighed out of him. ‘Sionnach, watch where you’re putting your feet. Y’okay, Lauren?’

‘Fine,’ she spat.

‘What did you just see, Lauren?’ asked Sionnach.

‘Nothing. Like I’d be interested. I wasn’t even looking.’

‘Really?’

‘You broke my best nail.’ She folded her arms aggressively. ‘Although that’s nothing compared to you dragging that wom—’

This time Rory had to shove in front of Sionnach, seize his jacket, and pull it back across the emerging blade. He gave Lauren a tight smile. ‘The drunk one?’

‘The—’

‘Drunk one,’ I said.

‘She didn’t look drunk to—’

Sidestepping Rory, Sionnach offered Lauren her phone back, his lips tightening in an almost-smile. The girl just stood there, glowering nervously.

Sionnach’s unconvincing smirk stayed in place as he thrust the phone forward again. I knew he was still wondering if he ought to kill Lauren, so this time I shouldered him sideways. Now Rory and I together were blocking him quite efficiently, but I knew the man could snake past us fast enough if he felt like it.

‘In the middle of the afternoon and all,’ said Rory. ‘Dead. Drunk.’

Lauren eyed us, mistrust fairly oozing out of her. ‘Where did she go?’

‘I dunno.’ Rory shrugged and pointed hopefully at the grubby stained-glass window of the nearest pub. ‘In there? Gosh, I hope she doesn’t come back!’

Oh, very convincing. Not. I gave Lauren my sweetest smile. ‘I’m sure she won’t be back.’

I knew fine Lauren wasn’t even half-convinced, but Sionnach hadn’t taken his eyes off her. Working on the girl’s brain, just like Rory. Between the pair of them, Lauren didn’t stand a chance. At last she rolled her eyes and blew out a sigh.

‘Stupid drunk.’ She nibbled crossly at her ragged nail. ‘She made me break my best—’

‘Well,’ said Rory. ‘All over. Want to come back with us? Have a go on my Xbox?’

~ Rory. Sionnach had stiffened, and he was giving him the kind of glower that used to be reserved for when Rory was a young brat and had a habit of running away.

~ Sionnach, said Rory, glaring back. ~ It’s not a problem.

~ Yes. It is.

I’d have backed Sionnach up, but I was unnerved. ~ Sionnach, she saw something. We can’t just let her—

~ Live?

~ Sionnach!

But Lauren heard none of that. She was still watching Rory with narrowed eyes. ‘Have you got Grand Theft Auto?’

‘No, but he’s got the latest Call of Duty.’ I back-kicked Sionnach’s ankle. ‘Yeah, come on back with us.’

‘Well, that’s a first.’ Lauren almost grinned at me. ‘Thanks.’

Sionnach’s anger was coming off him in radioactive waves, but it was an offer Lauren couldn’t refuse and I wasn’t about to withdraw it. She was my cousin, even if not the one I was in love and lust with, and it was undeniably odd that I’d never invited her back to my new place. After all, I hadn’t bitten her face for at least three years, and she hadn’t gouged my eyeballs. Maybe we were both older and wiser; maybe it was just that we didn’t have to share a bathroom any more, or indeed a house.

I lived with my real family now, with my uncle and the exiled clann he captained, and I was happy. Probably happier than any of them, since I was the only one who wasn’t dislocated and homesick. My life would be pretty much perfect, in fact, if it wasn’t for college applications, and the high chance of being hunted down and murdered.

~ Get rid of Lauren as soon as you can, Sionnach told me. ~ This is a mistake.

~ It’ll be fine.

~ We’re all going to regret it.

Within about ten seconds, I already did. At school Lauren was inclined to eye Rory a little too closely and too long, and now, as we headed home through the deserted streets, she might have been surgically attached to his flank. Rory was way too polite and naive to tell her where to go, and Sionnach dropped back about fifty metres.

It pissed me off, and funnily enough it wasn’t jealousy. It was just that Sionnach belonged with us more than Lauren ever would. Nobody had the right to take his place.

I glanced over my shoulder, and Sionnach gave me one of his most beautiful grins.

~ It’s okay.

Well. He might not mind, but I did.

Nobody could say we lived in the best part of the city, but it was certainly the oldest. Half the old warren called Fishertown— ‘town’ must have been a bit of stretch from day one—had been flattened to make way for warehouses and factory units and offices. What was left, when the heritage charities finally got their act together, was huddled on the far side of the industrial estate, cut off from the rest of the city: a few cobbled streets and low terraced cottages with quaint streetlights that I suspected weren’t the originals. Some Victorian shipowner had built a big house to the south, right up on the cliffs, overlooking his fiefdom. It was ramshackle now, dilapidated and unloved and unsold because the sea was eating at its foundations. Frankly I didn’t like to walk out on the headland and look back at the cliffs, riddled with tunnels and caves. At two in the morning, waking with a start, I could imagine the whole house collapsing into one of those holes.

Rory’s stepmother had found the house, or it had found her: love and real-estate lust at first sight. It had no name and they didn’t give it one; my friend Orach once told me that if you named something, you tied it to you, and it would tie you right back. Old and huge, unrenovated so that its rooms and halls were a warren of secret places, the house was set at the end of a dark winding drive in more than two acres of wild rhododendron-haunted garden. And there we all lived, and when I say all, I mean all. The place was treated as an open house by what seemed like an entire exiled race. I never knew who I’d find when I got home from school.

As Rory trudged up the drive with Lauren, I hung back under the untrimmed laurels and waited for Sionnach. He gave a soundless laugh as he caught up and put an arm round my shoulder, and together we negotiated the stuff piled in the hall. Motorbike helmets, mountain bikes, two pairs of muddy hillwalking boots, a sack of dry dog food. A case of empty wine bottles put out for recycling. Snowboards, waiting to be cleaned and waxed for the oncoming winter. I swore as I tripped on someone’s laptop bag. Minus laptop, and just as well, since I kicked it hard.

I’d never altogether get my head round the Sithe’s gregarious ways. They just didn’t seem capable of living in nice little nuclear units. Always had to be in great sprawling anthills of humanity, and the more the merrier, but somehow, if you wanted space and solitude, you could find it. You could even find peace and quiet.

At least, you could find a moment’s peace when Rory’s father and stepmother weren’t tearing verbal strips off each other. As we caught up with Rory and Lauren, waiting in the hall, my heart sank. The kitchen door was shut but we could hear every word.

‘You conceited ARROGANT stubborn UP-YOURSELF FAERY! What makes you think you know better than me?’

‘Yeah, it’s not like I’ve had more experience of life. It’s not like I would know better because I’ve seen about a thousand percent more and know ten thousand times more than you do because I’ve been around a bit longer.’

Rory had his hand on the kitchen door but he paused. If he walked in now, Seth and Finn might shut up, but then again they might not, and that would be even more embarrassing. He raised an eyebrow at me, and I shook my head. Sionnach sighed—half exasperated, half sorrowful—then edged past me and out towards the back garden and his workshop.

Smiling brightly, Rory and I looked at Lauren, and Rory said. ‘Sorry about this. Let’s go upstairs.’

Lauren stared at the kitchen door. ‘For God’s sake. Is he violent?’

‘Hoo!’ I laughed. ‘In his dreams. Take no notice.’

‘Wait till they make it up.’ Rory rolled his eyes. ‘That’s when it gets really embarrassing.’

‘I’ll prove it to you! I’ll show you what I saw, if you’ve got the guts to look!’

‘Don’t bother. You were hallucinating. I don’t want to share your hallucinations.’

‘Sometimes I could just SLAP YOU, SETH MACGREGOR!’

‘Well, why don’t you? It’s NOT LIKE YOU USUALLY HOLD BACK.’

The total hideous silence was broken after a few seconds by a snort of laughter. A clatter of crockery falling to the floor, the scrape of a table. A growl and more laughter.

‘If I didn’t love you so much I’d have to kill you.’

‘Yeah, yeah. I’d like to see you try. Shut up and kiss me, woman.’

‘Oh, for crying out loud,’ I said. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

‘If my mum called my dad a fairy, he’d kill her,’ said Lauren as we climbed the stairs. ‘I’m amazed Doctor Evil puts up with it.’ Rory stiffened, one foot on the top step and a dangerous look in his eye. ‘What did you call my father?’

‘Sorry.’ Lauren shrugged. ‘Thought everybody did.’

I felt a surge of violent resentment go through Rory. ‘Not in front of me they don’t. All right?’

I gave him a mental nudge. ~ Calm down, there, Laochan.

~ Like hell I will. Like any of them have been through what he’s been through. You don’t get scars if you spend your whole life on your fat backside, do you?

~ Your dad thinks it’s funny, you know. I glanced at Lauren, who was watching us both as if we were mad. ~ He doesn’t mind.

~ Well, I do. But he shrugged. ‘Come on, Lauren, forget it. My room’s up here.’

Actually I wasn’t telling the truth, there. Seth did mind. He was still self-conscious, and he was never going to have a perfect face again, but I reckoned he looked more beautiful now, as if life had given him a good slapping and he’d bounced back stronger and a whole lot wiser. The beatings he’d taken from the Wolf of Kilrevin had knocked his features slightly out of symmetry, and his right eyelid didn’t open as far as the left one since a deep vertical scar had been drawn down his face with a knife, but his eyes got a sort of mournful beauty from the aching homesickness. Ironic. Or maybe his non-existent gods just had a terrible sense of humour.

I got bored fast with Rory’s new game, since I couldn’t get near it. It was no great thrill watching him and Lauren sprawl on the bed and hog the controllers, so when I stood up and stretched, I was easily distracted by a black scrap in the sky. Opening the window I leaned on the sill and watched the raven soar and dive and loop impossible loops. That’d be Faramach. For all the mob of birds that hung around the cliffs, there wasn’t another one that took quite such delight in showing off.

Finn was with him. She stood right on the edge of the cliff, arms folded, watching him fly. Either the squabble with Seth was over or she’d stormed out: wouldn’t be the first time. But I reckoned they’d made it up, because she looked perfectly happy. Her hair whipped crazily in the breeze, but even out there on the bleak cliff-top she didn’t look cold.

She spent a lot of time out there—especially when Seth was working away from home—though it was barely more than windscoured grass and whin, and any fence must have crumbled away as the rock face did. All that was left of a formal garden was the mass of laurel and rhododendron that hugged the house and blocked the light from the downstairs rooms. I used to wonder why the clann didn’t cut the bushes back to get the view, but I’d worked it out now. It was the wrong sea, that was all. They loved it but they didn’t want the permanent aching reminder of the right one. No islands at the horizon here, just a fusion of sky and water.

Finn liked the cliffs, though. Sooner her than me. As I watched, she sat down on the cliff-edge, dangling her legs over, then leaned forward to follow Faramach’s aerobatics as he spiralled lower. My stomach lurched just watching her.

Faramach wheeled upwards again, but Finn went on staring down. There must be something else at the foot of those insane cliffs that fascinated her.

The sea had turned silver-blue, glittering and popping like a million flashbulbs, so brilliant it hurt my eyes. I didn’t want to spend any more of an afternoon like this with a couple of Xbox bores, and they hadn’t even started the game proper: they were still choosing weapons from a ridiculously massive arsenal. Boys would be boys and some girls would be boys too, and Finn would be much better company.

Unfortunately, though I stalked off unnoticed, I didn’t get far. To the left of the staircase the door of the TV room stood open, and Grian was leaning on the newel post glaring up at me, blocking my way through the hall. I glanced past him at the darkened space within. The volume on the TV was so high I could follow every word of the dialogue.

I eyed Grian again. Big and blond and a trueborn healer, and I didn’t know which of those gave him his permanent air of superiority.

‘Get in here,’ he said. ‘We want a word.’

With a very bad grace I stomped down the remaining stairs and barged past him into the room. We didn’t seem to want a word at all. The rest of them, about a dozen or so, were slouched across sofas and armchairs, feet on the upholstery, drinking beer out of bottles and watching Blackadder on DVD.

Boys, I thought for the second time in a minute, would be boys.

‘You bunch of slobs,’ I said. ‘It’s a gorgeous day. At least open the curtains.’

‘Hi Hannah.’

‘Hey, Hannah.’

‘Shut the door, girl.’ Sprawled across Iolaire’s lap, Jed waggled his fingers by way of greeting.

‘Somebody better pick up those peanuts,’ I told them, nudging the spilt bowl with my foot, ‘before Finn gets here.’

‘She’s busy.’ Fearna sniggered.

‘They’re not still fighting?’ Iolaire glanced across.

‘Nah,’ I said, and ate a peanut.

A suggestive sigh drifted round the room.

‘Leave them alone.’ Braon appeared from behind me with a platter of chicken wings and a bottle of hot sauce. Not like her to do the cooking for this lot; she must have been really peckish. ‘Seth has to go back to work tomorrow. Course they’re fighting.’

‘Aye,’ said Iolaire. ‘It’s an excuse to make up.’

‘He shouldn’t go away,’ snapped Grian, flicking his hand across my scalp. ‘His place is here. It should be Seth keeping the lid on you and Rory, not me.’

‘He has to work, Gri,’ said Braon mildly. ‘We all have to eat.’

‘He can live off us.’

Braon gave him a you-can-tell-that-to-Seth look.

Grian clicked the mute on the remote. ‘Can I get some backup here?’

Iolaire helped himself to two wings, feeding one to the flat-out Jed and wagging the other at the huge flatscreen TV. ‘Leave her alone, Gri. There’s no harm in it.’

‘There could be.’ Grian wouldn’t let it go. ‘Would you slobs focus? You know what the little cat’s dragged in.’

‘Cheers, mate,’ I growled.

‘What was Sionnach thinking, letting you do that? And where is he anyway? I want a word.’

I sighed, and nodded towards the garden and Sionnach’s joinery workshop.

Braon hesitated, took her teeth out of a wing. ‘Is he okay?’

‘Okay as ever,’ I said. ‘We had a… bit of an incident. On the way home. That’s why we had to bring home the only witness, as it happens.’

Grian stiffened, folding his arms as if his point was made. His lazy grin fading, Jed pushed Iolaire’s chicken wing away and levered himself up.

‘What kind of an incident?’ he said.

I bit my nails. ‘Oh, a woman. Darach, Sionnach said she was. He, um… he dealt with her. It’s okay.’

‘Darach,’ spat Iolaire. ‘I know her.’

‘You knew her,’ I said dryly.

There was a silence.

‘Did anyone get hurt?’ asked Jed sharply.

I shook my head. As an embarrassed afterthought, I added, ‘Except Darach.’

‘Gods,’ said Iolaire.

‘Sionnach should have killed the girl,’ said Grian.

‘The girl is seventeen years old.’ I felt my cheekbones redden with anger.

‘The girl is a nosy cow. We could feel it as soon as she walked in. You and Rory are idiots.’

‘You can take that and stick it—’

‘Suicidal fecking idiots.’ Grian was yelling now. ‘Have you ever heard of keeping your heads down?’

‘Anybody for Big Bang Theory?’ Iolaire interrupted brightly. ‘I don’t think the Witchsmeller’s that funny.’

‘That’s ’cause it isn’t comedy, it’s history,’ muttered Diorras. ‘Christ, I should know.’

‘Less of the funny, more of the news,’ snapped Grian. He fired the remote at the TV as if he wanted it to shatter, and yanked his phone from his pocket. ‘I checked the BBC website a minute ago. Want to see?’

‘No,’ said Sorcha, lifting a beer bottle to her lips.

‘I do.’ Iolaire sat forward, dislodging Jed’s head and provoking a grunt of protest.

‘Watch,’ said Grian, and everybody did.

‘They kept themselves to themselves,’ a woman was telling a fuzzy microphone. Her hair blustered in the breeze across her pale face, and she combed it away then re-folded her arms. Behind her stood the shell of a council house, the neighbouring walls smeared with black smoke. ‘Very quiet and reserved. They seemed a nice couple. It’s a nice area.’

The recording cut back to the balding reporter, swaddled in a dark overcoat, his face solemn. ‘The bodies were found in an upstairs room, and reports indicate the room may have been barricaded from the inside,’ his brow furrowed, ‘and that items of weaponry were found with the couple. The police are not commenting at this stage. For Reporting Scotland, this is…’

Grian clicked the mute button. The silence, for a moment, was so oppressive I thought it would smother the lot of us.

‘Sgarrag and Fraoch, in case you were wondering. Because they buggered off to live by themselves.’ Grian rapped the back of my skull with the remote. ‘Still fancy Durham University, do you, Hannah?’

‘Shit,’ breathed Sorcha.

‘I hope,’ said Braon, and cleared her throat. ‘I hope they were dead before the house was fired.’

‘They wouldn’t burn them to death,’ said Iolaire, not very convincingly. ‘They wouldn’t.’

Nobody said anything. I guess nobody wanted to think about it too hard.

Sgarrag and Fraoch didn’t account for many on-screen seconds. The newsreader was doing the final-item funny now. I didn’t have to hear it to get the story: yet another sighting of the Beast of Ben Vreckan. The Beast itself featured in a uselessly blurry mobilephone photo above the presenter’s right shoulder. Aye, sure said her cynically tilted eyebrow.

‘Hannah,’ said Iolaire, a pleading look in his eye. ‘Try not to bring strangers home, ’kay?’

His thumb was caressing Jed’s close-shaved hair, and my anger melted away. Jed had shut his eyes, but I could tell from the tight set of his mouth that he wasn’t asleep. He was unhappy, that was all, possibly unhappier than anyone, and Rory’s reckless invitation to Lauren had put the already-distant prospect of home just that little bit further away.

‘Okay,’ I grunted. ‘But it’s only my cousin Lauren.’

‘I’m sure it is.’ Grian’s attempt at conciliation came out through gritted teeth. ‘This time.’

I turned to leave. ‘And next time,’ I said, ‘you can take it up with Rory. He’s the one that invited her.’

‘Or maybe Seth can do some parenting instead of me, for a change.’

‘You’ve got a lot to tell him to his face,’ I said spitefully. ‘Good luck with that.’

 

 

Rory

The thump of a car stereo beyond the window was enough to wake him from a restless sleep. Rory opened his eyes and stared at the wall.

They’d tried to kill Hannah. He’d thought he was ready for the possibility, but the fear was colder and more hideous than he’d expected. He wanted her here with him, in his own room, so he could never let her out of his sight. It wasn’t as if they were even under-age any more. But Hannah had to be alone, and so did he. She was his first cousin, unremoved, and he couldn’t have her. It was forbidden: by the clann, by his father, by his brother.

As if Jed was some model of moral rectitude.

Rory kicked off the duvet and swung his legs off the bed, glad to feel the cold floor beneath the soles of his feet. The air chilled his skin, since he was wearing only sweatpants, but at least it took his mind off his resentment. Not for long. Pacing to the window, he glared down onto the darkened drive, at his brother climbing awkwardly out of the Saab’s passenger seat. As Jed straightened, giggling at something Iolaire said, he swayed slightly and had to grab the car’s door frame.

Rory blinked. The rage was an acid ache, and he knew he wouldn’t sleep again for a long time. Grabbing a t-shirt, pulling it over his naked torso, he went out onto the landing and peered over the banister. When he heard the door clunk shut, he padded down to the next flight and sat on the stair, blocking their way.

Iolaire, catching sight of his shadow before Jed did, swayed to a halt, one arm round Jed’s shoulders. It wasn’t just affection, thought Rory. He was holding Jed up.

Iolaire’s smile was a little uncertain. ‘Rory. Hi.’

‘Hi, Iolaire. Pissed again, bruv?’

Jed gave him a red-eyed glare.

‘Leave him alone, Rory,’ said Iolaire softly.

‘Nah,’ grinned Jed. ‘Let him have a go, the wee hard man.’

‘Stop it, Jed. And you, Rory. It’s too late for this. Talk tomorrow when you both feel better.’ Iolaire pushed past, dragging Jed on.

The reek of whisky was enough to make Rory’s throat catch. ‘They tried to kill Hannah today,’ he snapped.

‘Yeah, I know—’

‘Oh, okay. I thought you might have forgotten.’

Iolaire’s glare was uncharacteristically cold. ‘I. Said. Tomorrow.’

‘Rory?’ Jed half-turned to face him. ‘Hey, listen. Nobody’s going to hurt her. Promise, m’kay?’

Rory stared up at him. His lip curled, he couldn’t help it.

‘Promise again when you’re sober,’ he said. ‘Bruv.’

 

As soon as it was out of his mouth he felt bad, but he was still too angry to go after Jed and take it back. Iolaire was muttering some half-hearted reassurance: at least he had the brains to stay semisober and in charge. Rory heard the door of their room open and close before the silence closed in on him, frigid and lonely. For the briefest of instants he felt like crying. But what was the point of that? It was late. Jed was hammered, and no use. He’d check on Hannah himself, and to hell with Jed and Iolaire.

Stealthily he padded along the corridor towards her room. Keeping quiet wasn’t a problem. He didn’t want to be Seen, but Finn was the danger there, not his father. He was as invisible to Seth’s mind as Seth was to his.

He should be used to this: it was more than three years since Kate NicNiven had cut their link, had split his mind from his father’s. Worse for Seth, whose soul was left leaking through a wound that wouldn’t heal. But that had been life for so long. It shouldn’t bother him so much. It was the lousy, frightening day that had made his nerves raw, that was all.

It seemed there was no danger of being found out: Finn wasn’t paying attention. Rory could hear the pair of them squabbling, their venom muffled by the old panelled door. Despite himself, he hesitated.

‘You are not going back to the army,’ he heard Finn snarl. ‘You are not going to fight somebody’s else’s war!’

‘You are not going to tell me what to do. And it’s not someone else’s war.’ His father’s voice was low, the way it was when he was truly furious. ‘It’s ours. On this side.’

‘Semantics.’

‘Damn it, Finn. Don’t you dare—’

‘It’s not like it was. When were you last in a war over here? It’s not the same.’

‘It’s what I’m built for. But if I take my clann home, I could get every one of them killed, and I’m afraid. So let me fight here! You want me to rot?’ he spat. ‘I’m rotting already!’

‘No!’ she yelled. ‘No! I know it hurts, I know. But you can’t give it to her. You can’t.’

‘Who says I have a choice?’

‘Kate can’t take your soul, not even now, not ever. Not unless you give it up.’

‘And fighting is my bloody soul! It’s what I’ve always done!’ 45

‘You won’t survive. Not this time.’

‘I’ll adapt!’

‘You’ll die!’ she shouted. ‘You can’t throw your life away on somebody else’s war.’

‘I’m a lucky bastard, Finn. I’ll live. But I need to fight. It’s all I can do!’

‘That’s not true! You think death would be better than what you’re going through now? Easier?’

‘Than losing my soul? Yes.’

‘You can’t risk your neck, you’re our Captain!’

‘Not here, I’m not.’

‘Yes! And you’re Rory’s father! You’re Hannah’s uncle!’

‘And a fine role model I make,’ he sneered, ‘doing work I hate in a place I hate for people I despise.’

‘And you’re my lover,’ she said. ‘Murlainn. You’re the love of my heart. Don’t go.’

The silence fell again and this time it wasn’t broken. The hostility dissipated like a mist in hot sun, and Rory backed away from the door, half embarrassed and half touched. And scared, now, of being detected.

Forget this idea. Hannah would be fine, and she probably wouldn’t thank him for waking her up. He was being irrational, and there was more than enough of that around here already. Turning, he crept back towards his own room. He’d see Hannah in the morning. She’d be fine. Fine.

He’d got as far as the head of the stairs when he heard Finn scream.

Racing back, he flung open the door but by that time she was curled in his father’s arms, rigid, her eyes febrile. Footsteps thudded along the corridor, doors were crashing open, sleep-blurred voices yelled questions.

‘It burns,’ Finn howled suddenly, striking at Seth with her arms. ‘It burns.’

Seth ignored the blows, clutching her and stroking her hair. Rory was shoved aside by Grian, and was caught in Fearna’s grip as he stumbled. Braon burst into the room behind them, her blade bared. The raven on the headboard flexed its black wings and shrieked harshly at the intruders, and Seth’s head jerked up to glare at them.

‘What?’ As the rest of them came to a halt, breathing hard, Grian took a step forward and stared at Finn. ‘What happened?’

‘Carraig’s dead,’ said Seth, and then again, with a note of disbelief: ‘Carraig’s dead.’

‘He what?’ Something like a cold fist constricted Rory’s throat. Finn was shaking uncontrollably now, and his stomach twisted with pity.

Eyes wide and horrified, Braon sheathed her sword. ‘She didn’t—Seth, she didn’t…’

Seth wasn’t listening; his lips were at Finn’s ear, murmuring something.

‘Shit. Did she see him?’ whispered Rory. ‘A fetch? Can’t we… is there time to…’

‘Felt him. Felt it.’ Shaking his head, Seth didn’t even look up. ‘He’s dead already.’

A stranger, thought Rory, walking in on one of their endless scraps, might have thought Seth and Finn couldn’t stand each other. A stranger might think they were incompatible souls who regretted their impetuous binding more than three years ago. Then there were times like this, when it was clear how it really was. Their jagged pride and quarrelsomeness would be shucked off, like a scratchy but comfortable old coat that had grown too warm, so you could almost see their souls slide and fit together like two halves of a complex puzzle.

‘This isn’t right,’ whispered Grian. He couldn’t take his eyes off Finn.

Ignoring him, Seth kissed his lover’s hair, stroking it back from her temples.

‘Seth,’ said Grian more loudly. ‘This isn’t—’

‘Get out,’ Seth murmured.

‘Dad, is she—’

His eyes blazed silver. ‘All of you. Get out.’

Grian gripped Rory’s shoulder and pulled him with him, the rest backing out behind them. Reaching for the door handle, he hesitated.

‘This conversation isn’t over, Murlainn.’

Seth did not answer. Softly, regretfully, Grian clicked the door shut.

 

Excerpted from Icefall © Gillian Philip, 2015

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