14. Rowan’s Grudge
“I guess we’d better get back inside so he can talk to me,” I sighed to Bridget.
“Don’t worry Luke,” Bridget replied with a hint of laughter, “I’m sure he won’t be that hard on you!”
We walked up the steps and for a second I was sure someone was watching us. “Do you feel like… Never mind,” I murmured, shaking my head. As we walked in the door, I turned and looked for the feeling. Staring intently at a pillar in the square, I shrugged. I couldn’t sense a presence there.
We walked up the hallway and Rowan rushed out of one of the rooms looking fit to burst. “Where have you been?” he demanded.
“In the courtyard,” I replied smoothly, “With Bridget.”
“Yes, about that…”
I sighed. Rowan obviously didn’t pull his punches. He just swung blindly. I held up my hands in surrender. “Please… I just woke up. Can you wait until I’ve at least had something strong enough to wake me up?”
Rowan glowered at me but opened his arms in a gesture that I took to mean ‘after you’ and moved out of my way. As I passed him, I caught sight of Cathy hovering in one of the doorways just past him. I grinned tiredly at her, waved, and shrugged. I knew she was watching to make sure I didn’t get beaten up too badly.
When I reached the kitchen a moment later, I discovered Cathy had somehow gotten there ahead of me by some short cut I didn’t know about yet. She pointed at a chair at the table overflowing with people and bustled over with a plate.
“Thanks Cathy,” I said as I sat down, “This smells delicious.”
“You’re welcome Luke,” she smiled. Worry lines appeared around her eyes as she glanced at Rowan who stood in the kitchen doorway glowering. “Rowan, come sit,” she ordered him sternly, “And smile – you don’t need to look like you’re about to attend a funeral all the time.” Rowan shrugged and grimaced in a passable smile as he took a chair opposite me. Cathy shoved a plate under his nose and he muttered a thanks before picking up a fork to half-heartedly begin to eat.
The conversation picked up in the room – mostly to do with Rory’s disappearance. Jesse and David rolled their eyes as Rowan talked about sending out a search crew.
“No ‘un’ll find ‘er if she don’t want to be found,” Ray said from the head of the table, “I advise y’all to stay here an’ wait ‘til she contacts yeh.”
Rowan’s voice cut across Reynold’s. “But you said she was heading to Safe Haven and that we would rendezvous there…”
“That doesn’t mean she’ll actually go there except briefly,” Cathy interjected softly, “Rowan, don’t delude yourself; you know what she’s like – especially when she thinks she’s endangering other peoples’ safety.”
“That still doesn’t explain why—”
“OUT!” Reynold roared, “Get out! I won’t tolerate this kind o’ crap in my kitchen. Yeh won’t blame me or my wife, yeh hear. If yeh want teh, get out from under our roof!” Everyone jumped at his outburst, staring at him incredulously – we all thought the two of them had sorted this out last night when I’d cast the spell to make sure the Trustees couldn’t overhear us… The same thought occurred to us at the same moment: I was no longer maintaining that spell, so this was in part an act. I saw people relaxing all around the table but carefully concealing their amusement behind stricken expressions.
Rowan blanched and stood up quickly. “I wasn’t trying to imply any blame, Ray. I was merely saying that we still don’t know why she left in such a rush. What actually happened in that house?” Rowan’s explanation was sound but obviously a poor mask for what he had meant to say and Ray was visibly not buying it which made me wonder how much of this conversation was an act and how much was real.
Ray looked anything but placated and Rowan knew it. Ray’s face slowly turned purple, and his fist clenched on the table’s surface. Rowan held up his hands, “I’m sorry if I caused offence. I honestly didn’t mean anything. I’ll give you a few moments…” He paused and glanced down the table at me. “Luke? Could we have that discussion now please?”
I shrugged and stood up. “That’s my cue, I guess,” I laughed trying to distill some of the tension that crackled in the air like frost. I weaved my way past the tangle of limbs and furniture in the small kitchen and followed Rowan out into the hallway. As I left I glanced over my shoulder and noted the frozen expressions on everyone’s faces with the exception of Reynold, who looked thunderous, and Cathy, who looked close to tears.
I followed Rowan down the bright hallway to a comfy pale-yellow sitting room at the front of the house. A series of three squat, blue and green chairs graced the room with their presence. A matching green couch was pushed against the far wall across from the large window that overlooked the small courtyard. I stood awkwardly in the door as Rowan began to pace. After a moment, when it became apparent that Rowan wasn’t going to get to the point, I spoke.
“You burned a lot of bridges back there,” I said. I was trying to maintain the charade that we’d created in the kitchen but as Rowan spun around to face me and stalked over to me I realized he’d forgotten all about that. He came to a halt when his nose almost touched mine. His eyes burned with a fiery anger. It was a ploy to intimidate me, except so many people had tried to intimidate me like this that I didn’t even react to his invasion of my personal space.
“Oh?” Rowan’s voice was a soft hiss.
“Oh yeah,” I replied, trying to signal with my eyes that I didn’t mean what I was saying. I gave him a gentle shove and he staggered back a step. “You’re acting like a slave driver. You’re worried about Rory. We all are. Get off your high horse already.”
“And you’re the leader of this expedition now?”
“No, but you need to step up and stop acting like a spoiled child if we’re going to achieve our goal.”
“Is that so?” The words were spoken calmly. If you just listened to his tone or looked at his face you would think he was rational. Both were blank masks, disguising his anger. But, if you looked at his clenched fists and stiff shoulders you would realize how deep Rowan’s anger went. I knew I had overstepped my bounds but no one else seemed ready to call Rowan out on his behavior this morning.
“Yes.” My answer was blunt and had the impact I desired – or at least I thought it did. It made him lose control, which was partially what I wanted… he needed to release some of his rage. But the target of his fury when he lost control was not the furniture – easily replaceable – as I’d intended, but the nearest living thing – me. And I was too close.
The next thing I knew, Cathy and Bridget were helping me off the floor and onto the couch. I groaned. “I’m not doing that again,” I moaned, “Consider that lesson learned… don’t poke the bear.”
Jesse and David chuckled from the doorway but most of their attention was focused on Ray and Rowan who had moved into the courtyard. Both were gesturing to each other angrily and I knew that I was not the only one who had crossed a line that morning – Rowan had too with his almost accusation as well as assaulting me. It made me wonder again how much of the morning’s confrontation was actually an act.
“That did not go as planned,” I said, holding my head in both hands and eliciting another chuckle from those gathered in the sitting room, “What’s Ray doing out there?”
“Sending Rowan back to camp,” Cathy said. Nope, not how I’d planned it at all. Regardless of how I felt about Rowan, we needed him to find Rory successfully. He knew her better than anyone else in the house. I staggered to my feet and pushed past David and Jesse, flinging open the front door to Cathy’s house. I heard the others calling after me, telling me to wait. I ignored them and stumbled over to stand by Ray.
“Ray, it’s ok,” I said, “I was an idiot. I shouldn’t have pushed so hard.”
Ray scowled at me and turned back to Rowan. “It don’t matter,” he snapped, “‘E crossed a line today.”
“No, please,” I said, “We need Rowan here to help. Ban him from your house if need be, but don’t call the Trustees…” A faint tingling stole over me as I said this and I stiffened. After a moment, I realized it was because someone was using magic in the vicinity. I closed my eyes to pinpoint the source – someone was cloaking themselves in the bushes by the house.
Ray and Rowan were still arguing as I opened a mind-link with everyone. “Let’s go back inside and discuss this,” I said aloud, cutting through one of Rowan’s heated retorts. < Don’t react. Someone’s spying on us. They’re in the bushes by the front steps and they’re using magic to cloak themselves. > I sent them an image of the shimmer I could see in the air there.
Reynold crossed his arms and glared at me. “Why?” he demanded, but I sensed his acquiesce through the mind link. Rowan gave me an imperceptible nod to show he’d gotten the message.
“You’re creating a scene,” I replied.
< Jesse, David, you see where they are? > Rowan asked through the link. Their affirmatives rang back.
Ray nodded. “Ay, that we are. Let’s go back in then.”
< You two will grab whoever it is as we walk back to the house, > Ray said, referring to Jesse and David. As everyone consented to the rapidly formed plan, we all headed back to the house.
Jesse and David – who’d been standing on the steps watching us argue – stepped to the side of the stairs the magic-user was on, as though they were letting us pass. As we approached from the side they whipped around and slammed into the bushes, grabbing for whoever was there. They obviously succeeded in capturing our spy because they backed out of the bushes awkwardly, stumbling as though someone were jostling them. We all hustled into the house trying to appear as though nothing abnormal were happening.
As the door swung shut behind us the Cloak the person had been conducting disintegrated and a girl about our age shimmered into view. She screamed with rage and kicked out at the two men holding her. Jesse yelped as her teeth sank into his arm. A brief struggle ensued while Ray and Rowan jumped into the fray to help secure the girl’s arms and legs.
“Kitchen,” Rowan said tersely and we all banged down the hall into the kitchen. Jesse and David threw the girl into a chair, while Ray got rope. There was a flurry of activity as everyone, pulled shut shutters and locked doors so we could talk in privacy. Ray threw a coil of rope to Jesse from the kitchen’s entrance and we all helped the two jokesters tie the girl’s arms and legs to the chair. Within a few minutes, we had all regrouped and stood in a semi-circle looking down on her.
Her hazel eyes glittered with suppressed rage. Fury seemed to emanate from her in roiling waves. Her mouth was tightened into a thin line and her fists, securely tied to the arms of the chair, were clenched so tightly you could see the bones of her knuckles through the taut skin. The chair jerked as she struggled against the bonds that held her to the chair.
“What now?” I asked, breaking the silence.
“We ask questions,” Rowan said, “What were you doing spying on this house?” He directed the question at the girl. Her lips pressed together tightly as she stared frostily ahead. I felt a surge of power leave her aimed for the pots and pans hanging on the wall.
“Duck!” I yelled as they whizzed toward us at head level, then missed as we all ducked at the last second and finally made a beeline for the strange girl. Her black hair whipped through the air as she tipped the chair she was in on its side trying to evade the pots. She grimaced and barely succeeded in stopping the pots from hitting her. They clattered to the ground inches away from her.
Jesse and David hauled the chair upright and Rowan stepped forward until he towered over her. She ignored him and turned to glare at me. I held her gaze steadily. “Who are you?” I asked.
“No one,” she hissed, “Who are you? Who taught you to do that?”
I shrugged and Rowan cleared his throat. “May I?” he asked. I nodded and stepped back. “Jesse, David,” he barked. Jesse jumped to the windowsill and pulled a handful of weeds out of the window box. He handed some to David and they proceeded to start braiding it into the girl’s long black hair, muttering an incantation as they did so.
I raised an eyebrow at Bridget who mouthed witch-weed back at me. I nodded. I’d heard about witch-weed – a plant with the capability of stopping magic-users from using their powers.
The girl’s face twisted into an outraged scowl. “Do you realize what you’re doing?” she screamed, “My mother is an influential member of the Senate! When she finds out about—”
“She won’t,” Rowan interjected smoothly. He lifted her chin with a long finger forcing her to look into his face. “We have ways of making people disappear and I don’t think she’ll be able to connect your disappearance back to us, will she Francesca?”
“What? How?” she spluttered.
“How do I know you name?” Rowan asked smoothly, “My comrade has been spying on your household for the past four months. But you know that. Actually, that’s why you’re here – to find out more information about her and, of course, capture her if possible.”
Francesca’s mouth snapped shut and she glared at the assemblage around her. She was silent for several minutes, thinking. “There are people who know I came here to investigate,” she said after a moment.
“I doubt it,” Rowan said, “You Magicians rarely do dirty work yourselves and I imagine you got yourself into a piece of trouble when your mother found out you’d hired a spy as your personal maid. So I think you’re here secretly to try to make amends.”
Francesca grimaced and turned her head away. She refused to elaborate on Rowan’s speculations but didn’t refute them either. “What now?” she asked after several awkwardly silent minutes.
“We decide what to do with you,” Rowan said looking around the room at everyone. He raised an eyebrow inquiringly. Without asking, we knew what he wanted, but everyone fidgeted, not willing to volunteer to be her babysitter while we disappeared into the other room to discuss that particular problem. Finally, he sighed and looked meaningfully at me.
I muttered the incantation he’d taught me the night before and cautiously opened a channel for all of us to use. < We can’t stay here any longer, > Rowan said, < Her mother will tear the city apart looking for her. >
< So what do we do with ‘er? > Ray asked, < It’s gonna be hard enough teh find Rory without watchin’ our backs for tha’ Magician to try some crazy escape an’ stab us in our backs. >
< But we can’t let her go either. She found us. She could find Tent City too. > Bridget interjected.
< So we take her with us. > I said, <Keep binding her with witch-weed and bring her along. >
Rowan shook his head. <Witch-weed is only effective in the short term but I agree, we don’t have another option short of killing her. >
< And we’re not killing her. > Cathy said, looking at us sternly.
After a pause we terminated the conversation and turned to look at our prisoner again. Rowan cleared his throat. “You wanted to learn more about the Liberation right?”
Confused, Francesca nodded. “Well you’ve got your wish. You’re coming with us to find the girl you were looking for. Maybe you’ll learn something about decent human beings along the way,” he finished with a sneer.
“What!” she shrieked, “You can’t take me! My mother will tear this city apart looking for me!”
“Which is why we’re leaving,” Rowan retorted. He turned and exited the room, motioning the rest of us except David and Jesse to follow.
“What are we going to do about her?” Cathy asked in a low whisper when we were in the hall, voicing the doubts we all had about the wisdom of our decision.
“She’s got to come with us,” Rowan said, “It’s the only way we’re going to get away with capturing her. If we leave her, she’ll escape. We’ll need her with us so we can keep an eye on her. Besides, it gives us an excuse to drop out from under the Trustees watchful eyes and allows us to find Rory without their interference.” Everyone nodded their agreement but no one looked happy with the arrangement. Rowan continued to speak, “Oh, Luke. Here’s your message orb. Everyone be ready to leave after lunch.”ns 22.214.171.124da2