Vanubiti Island, Oceania
Christmas Day, 1874
Storm-driven slate-gray waves threatened to swamp the small dinghy as it approached the shore.
“Close enough,” Captain Matheson said.
The coxswain hauled back on the oars, trying to hold position.
Matheson vaulted over the side and waded through the churning surf.
He waved off the coxswain. “Return to the ship. I must do this alone.”
Matheson sprinted across the narrow strip of sand, his feet squelching within his calf-length boots. He held a hand up against the gale-force winds that carried stinging sand and palm fronds and ducked among the trees where he stopped to catch his breath and get his bearings.
He pulled the locator from his pocket and swept it in an arc as he watched the display. A momentary blip showed the direction, and he pushed on.
The village stood where he remembered, even after twenty years’ worth of seasonal storms. The past didn’t matter, though. He knew the village wouldn’t survive this storm; the damage and death toll would be catastrophic.
Can’t be helped, he told himself. You have a job to do. Better get to it.
He wiped rain from his eyes and shook his head. Sometimes knowing how things would turn out was worse than not knowing.
Several damaged huts came into view through the intermittent rain, and he increased his pace. Matheson began searching these. There wasn’t much time, and he had to find the old man.
The first homes he came to were deserted.
Early bands of storm-driven wind and rain assaulted the small island and made his task more difficult as most of the native inhabitants were absent. They had probably evacuated to higher ground farther inland. He would go there, if necessary.
Many of the villagers’ homes, those exposed to the strength of the oncoming typhoon, had collapsed. The occupants of these, ones who delayed evacuating, died or were severely injured, as Matheson discovered during his search. He ignored the dead and cries of the wounded and pushed on.
He found the old man in one of the battered huts, broken and bleeding, but alive.
Matheson removed the fallen rafters and thatch from the old man and knelt. “Kulani, can you hear me?” He wiped blood and water from the man’s face. “It’s Matheson. I’ve come back for the stones. Do you still have them?”
Kulani groaned and opened his eyes. “M… Matheson?”
Matheson exhaled; relief flooded his chest. There’s still a chance. He nodded. “Yes, it’s me. Do you still have the power stones?”
Kulani blinked and appeared confused. He glanced left and right. “Stones? I don’t—”
Matheson grabbed the man by the shoulders. “Think, man. You said you would put them away to be safe until I returned. Remember?” He shook the old man. “Where are they?”
Kulani uttered a wet scream of pain. Blood sprayed from his mouth as he coughed.
“You’re broken inside, old man.” Matheson leaned closer. “You don’t have much time. Where did you put them?”
Kulani squinted in the dim light and met Matheson’s eyes. “L… Lieutenant? You came back?”
Matheson nodded. “Of course. You promised to keep the stones safe for me. Now, where are they?”
Kulani turned his head away. He pointed with one thin arm toward the extinct volcano, visible only as a dark shape against the gray sky. “The mountain.”
Matheson peered through the rain and shook his head. “I know about the mountain, old man. You told me. What of the stones we gathered? Where are they?”
Kulani blinked, then looked to a fallen hut a few feet away. “Help Oliana.” He shuddered and gasped and went still. Rain pelted his open eyes.
Matheson shook Kulani’s limp body. “Kulani.” But the village chief was beyond answering. He sat back and cursed. “Bloody hell.”
Lightning flashed, illuminating the extent of the storm’s destruction. The nearby hut’s roof and two walls lay in a twisted heap within the confines of the remaining walls. It looked hopeless. No one could survive that.
Matheson wiped rain from his face, ran fingers through his wet hair, and stood, facing the fallen hut of Oliana, Kulani’s daughter. “Damn.” He stepped over the dead village elder and made for the hut.
Thatch and timber framing leaned against a far wall creating a small void. Matheson crawled over and aimed a pocket torch into the shadowed space. Two bodies, women, lay entwined in each other’s arms. He recognized the older, Oliana, who looked like she died shielding the younger woman. A portion of the roof lay across Oliana’s back.
Matheson reached out and pressed fingers to Oliana’s neck. He jerked back when she stirred at his touch.
His earpiece crackled. “Sir, can you hear me? The storm… can’t hold position…”
Matheson moved clear and stood. He pressed his earpiece. “Zeb? What’s that? Come again?”
“G… Geoffrey? Is that you?” A weak female voice called from within the protected space.
He pocketed the torch, knelt, and moved closer. In the subdued light, Oliana’s brown eyes looked back at him. “Yes, it’s me. I’ve come back.”
“So long,” she said and winced, her eyes squeezing shut against some pain. “Where have you been?”
“Long story, darling. Are you hurt bad?” He tried to move a roof beam from her body but stopped when she screamed.
“Don’t, please. The rest will fall on her.” Oliana turned her head to nod at the younger woman beneath her.
Matheson could see the girl was breathing but appeared to be unconscious. He saw no apparent injuries and turned his attention back to Oliana.
“Kulani is dead. I’m sorry.”
Tears, or it might have been rain, streamed down her face. “He told me to leave Va, but I came back for her.” She stroked the young woman’s hair with a bloodied hand.
“Oliana.” He shook her lightly to get her attention. “Did your father give you something to hide for him? Stones, perhaps?”
She squinted up at him as the old man had as if seeing him for the first time. “You came back for them? For the god stones? Not me?”
“I came for the stones, yes,” recalling the term the natives used for the scarce source of power. “But to get you too. The storm will kill everyone here. I don’t want you to die.”
“Too late for me.” Oliana pointed to a wooden chest. “Take the stones if they are what you came for.” She turned back to the unconscious girl. “But take Va’ilea with you. You can’t save me, but you can save her.”
Oliana grabbed his wrist in a firm grip. “Geoffrey, you must. Don’t let her die. She has to live. She’s all I have left, after you…” She broke off and coughed, groaning in agony.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t take a girl with me on the ship. It’s not allowed.”
“Look at her, Geoffrey. See her for who she is.” Oliana’s body spasmed, and she cried out in pain. She squeezed Matheson’s wrist tighter.
He pulled back and tried to pry Oliana’s fingers from his arm. She was strong.
Her grip relaxed, and he removed her hand, setting it down. “Oliana?” The rise and fall in her chest went still. He pressed fingers to her neck, but this time felt no pulse.
Matheson stood and shook his head. “Sorry, Oliana. I can’t.” He went to the chest and removed a canvas sack. He loosened the drawstring and peered inside; a faint blue light shone from the dull gray stones within.
“Hello again,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
He swung the sack over his shoulder and stepped clear of the debris. Now that he had them, he could leave.
As he exited the hut, he heard a moan and stopped. Not Oliana. He dipped his head. The girl?
I can’t. It’s not my responsibility.
He heard another moan, this time mixed with movement from within the hut. Was she waking up?
“Bloody hell.” Matheson set the sack down and went back. He carefully removed the fallen beam and thatch covering the two women, lifted his dead lover’s body from the girl and laid Oliana aside. He stood looking down at the unconscious girl.
Can’t be mine. I won’t believe it.
She groaned and moved an arm from over her chest. A necklace of shell and carved-wood beads lay against her brown skin.
In his pocket, the locator beeped. He took it out and looked at the display.
The blip on the screen shone bright and steady. He looked from it to the necklace. The marker was in the necklace.
He turned to look at the dead woman—Oliana—whom he once loved. “You gave it to her?”
His eyes found the girl once more. He could see Oliana in the lines of the girl’s face. “Are you her daughter?” He shook his head. “No, dammit, that’s the last thing I need.” He turned away again.
He bent to pick up the sack of god stones, and the girl stirred again.
Don’t let her die. She has to live. She’s all I have left. Look at her, Geoffrey. See her for who she is.
He lifted his face to the sky in frustration and screamed.
Returning, he bent and carefully picked the girl up, placing her over his shoulder. On his way out of the hut, he retrieved the canvas sack. Before leaving, he turned and tipped his head to the girl’s mother. “I told you I never wanted a kid. It’s not fair what you’ve asked of me.”
He shifted the girl’s weight and silently cursed his better nature. “But even if she’s not mine, I’ll see she is cared for.”
Here is an excerpt from the next adventure of the Orion and her crew.
Book II: The Gastwick Witch
1765 - Gastwick, County Meath, Ireland,
Fourth Day of the Samhain Festival
Moira lifted her face to the sky and uttered a curse. Omnipresent clouds obscured the sun and threatened more rain. More cold rain. She shivered in her threadbare cloak. “Our old bones deserve better.”
She adjusted the sack over her shoulder, trying to find the least painful position for the bread and meat she traded for in the market. A twinge caused her to cry out and stumble in the tall grass beside the muddy cart path.
A group of village boys ran past, screaming and stomping in the puddles as they went, splashing Moira with mud.
“Mallacht mo chait ort.” She shook a gnarled fist at the troublemakers. “My cat’s curse upon ye.”
Moira struggled to her feet and wiped the largest clods from her cloak. She resettled her sack, wincing at the familiar pain, and glanced around. Three crones eyed her with interest from a bench until she pointed at them and spat. She cackled and turned away as the three old women crossed themselves.
“It’s the same every time we come to market,” she said to the empty air. “We should curse them all.” She stopped and tilted her head. A smile lifted the corner of her wrinkled mouth. “No, better not. We still need them.”
A cart swerved as it drew near, the horse shying despite the driver tugging the reins. He scowled and Moira hissed back. “Best pass on by, lest we send ye away with more than ye bargained for.”
She arrived home without further incident, closed the door, and hung her cloak on a nail by the lintel. Once her few items were put away, she prodded the coals in the fireplace, adding a block of peat from her dwindling supply to raise the temperature in the tiny room. That done, she lowered herself into her chair. “Ahh… much better.”
A knock at her door roused Moira from her thoughts.
“Be gone,” she said. “We’ve no interest in the festival.”
A tentative female voice called. “But… I am expected, Cailleach. You told me to come.”
Ah… the lovestruck girl who wants a potion for her young lover, she recalled. Moira pushed herself from the chair by the fire and went to the cabinet.
A louder knock at the door, and the girl’s voice, more confident now, said, “You said come. I am here.”
“A moment, child. This ‘old woman’ moves slowly.” Moira pulled the cabinet door open and rummaged among the bottles and jars until she located the crockery jar. She lifted the cheesecloth lid and sniffed at the contents. “Yes, still potent. Enough to bind his heart to hers.”
She shuffled to the door and opened it a crack. The girl stood on the threshold; her face visible within the folds of a hooded cloak.
Moira lifted the crock jar. “Do ye have payment? For we do not feel charitable today.”
“Yes.” The girl removed a small pouch from the cloak’s pocket, extracted a silver coin, and offered it to Moira. “Will this do?”
Moira squinted at the payment. She nodded, extended the jar to the girl, and snatched the coin, shutting the door without another word.
The girl called through the door. “How does this work? Is it a spell? A potion? Do I drink it? Tell me, witch.”
Moira shook her head and spoke behind the closed door. “Stupid girl. Ye asked for a love potion to win his heart. Why would ye need to drink it?”
“Listen to Moira and do as we say. Add the contents to his soup or drink and remain near. For the magic works fast and he will give his heart to her his eyes first see. Do ye ken?”
“I do and thank you.”
“Now, go and leave me alone. I must rest.”
Moira waited for footsteps to retreat before returning to her place by the warm fire. She eased onto the chair, drew a tattered quilt close, and closed her eyes.
She slept. And the voice came again.
She woke with a start, looking around the tiny room. Her senses heightened; Moira listened for an intruder. Nothing. She sniffed the air and turned her head. Something moved in the darkened corner.
“Show yer’sef.” She pointed a crooked finger and murmured a spell.
A deep mrowl and hiss announced the cat.
Moira closed her fist reabsorbing the magic. “Pyewacket, ye know better. Almost singed yer crusty hide.” She patted her lap and smacked her dry lips in a kiss. “Come here.”
Yellow eyes blinked and a rangy brindle cat crept from the shadow into the firelight on three legs.
Moira bent and picked the old cat up, settling it in her lap. It hissed once more and turned accusing eyes on her.
“Sorry, but we were sleeping. Ye spooked us.” She stroked the matted fur, feeling the animal’s backbone and ribs beneath her dry palm.
Pyewacket vocalized his indifference.
“Yes, the voice in our dreams again,” she said. “Thought it followed us into waking.”
The cat mrowled again.
She shook her head. “We’re safe. No one here to harm us. But…” She leaned forward and the cat dropped to the floor. Moira stood with effort and went to the small window. She peered out at the peat bog in the distance.
“It wants us to come.” She turned to the cat. “We must know. Will ye come with?”
Pyewacket hissed and slinked under a cabinet.
“Very well, we’ll go alone.”
She retrieved her walking stick and once more pulled back the thin curtain at the window, this time checking for the absence of revelers. She had no more time for nonsense from superstitious village idiots or unruly children.
Not today. Something beckoned and she felt compelled to answer.
Moira pulled her cloak tight and stepped from the warmth of her hearth into a late-afternoon drizzle.
A crow cawed from its customary spot near the smoke hole on the thatched roof as Moira picked her way to the rutted cart path, avoiding the worst of the puddles.
Relieved she was alone, Moira turned to her left, the urge stronger, drawing her there. She clicked her tongue and the crow alighted on her shoulder, ruffling its feathers and depositing another of its droppings on her stained cloak.
“We must see what calls us,” Moira said. She stroked the bird’s feathers. “Two days now it has summoned us and grows impatient.” Her dreams of late were filled with the images of a streaking light from the sky and an intense blue flash. Then the voice in her head began calling.
The bird cawed.
“We know, should have gone then. But the rain hindered us.”
The bird clucked.
“Yes, we recall where it is. We’re not so old we can’t remember your words from two nights past.”
The bird fluttered but remained silent.
Moira walked into the fading light of the day for half a mile before the crow clucked and she turned off the path onto the bog.
“Stop your nagging, Mórrighan. We know where we’re going.” She exchanged her walking stick for the communal spade. Moira eased along the perimeter of the bog until she reached the spot that called to her.
Hopping from its perch on her shoulder, the bird—Mórrighan—settled on a nearby branch while Moira selected the driest path across the soggy ground.
Mórrighan cawed and Moira flapped a hand at the bird. “We know. We can feel its presence.”
She stopped and placed the shovel’s blade on the peat. “Not there. No, not there.” She closed her eyes and moved the blade to the right. “Aye. Here ye are, aye.”
Opening her eyes, Moira plunged the spade into the organic fuel and pried a goodly-sized plug from the fenland. She repeated this twice more until, when she drove the tool in a third time, it struck a solid object—a large rock from the sound. The impact sent a jolt of pain all the way to her shoulder.
She tossed the spade aside and knelt on the cold wet ground. Using her fingers, Moira felt for the edges of the obstruction. Her hands protested, but she continued, digging until she revealed—a stone, long as her forearm and wide as her closed fist.
She wiped its surface and sat back, her mouth agape. The stone shone with a pale blue light.
“What do ye make of this?” she said. Her voice a raspy whisper.
Mórrighan swooped from its perch to land on Moira’s shoulder. It bent as if to inspect the glowing stone and cawed.
“Yes. Think we should, yes.” She used the shovel to pry the stone from its grave. Her back complained at the work and her arms struggled to lift the muddy weight from the hole. She managed, though, and standing, wrapped the gray rock in the folds of her cloak, her legs trembling from the effort.
She stumbled twice before reaching solid ground. Discarding the spade for her staff, Moira returned to her modest home.
In her absence, the fire dwindled and the room chilled. She stirred the coals and added a peat brick to coax the flame. Satisfied, she held her hands close to the heat and sighed. “Ahh.”
Back in her chair by the hearth, the witch, Moira, felt the cumulative effect of her seventy-three years. She warmed herself, feeling the cold and stiffness fade from her joints. She pushed wet strands of gray hair from her face and turned her gaze upon the muddy rock glowing where it rested on a table.
She squinted at her prize in the firelight.
She fervently believed spirits resided in the natural world. Trees, rivers, and rocks were living beings who could share their secrets if asked in the proper manner. What secrets could this stone tell?
Curious, and sufficiently warmed, she rose and stood by the table. “How shall we proceed?” She directed this at Pyewacket who hissed and squirmed farther under the cabinet.
“Ah, you’re afeared of everything.” She flapped a hand and turned her attention to the stone.
A caw from the open window drew Moira’s gaze. The crow, after it shook raindrops from its feathers, flew in and perched on the edge of the mantel.
“Yes, we should clean it first.”
She wiped the stone’s surface with a rag, removing the remnant of mud and peat. The blue aura shone brighter bathing Moira’s hands and arms with its light. She gasped and touched the stone.
Warmth flowed into her hands and up her arms. A moment of doubt caused her to try and pull away, but she could not. The stone held her. She pulled harder. The warmth spread up her back and neck.
Pain, unlike anything she ever felt, flooded her mind and coursed through her body. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came. She inhaled and blue light surged down her throat into her lungs, cascading into every part of her body, filling her with bright agony. Her body spasmed and jerked, but the stone held her prisoner.
In the midst of her torment, the voice of her dreams spoke to her.
You have found us, and we are free again.
Moira got a sense of gratitude from the voice, even as she suffered. She felt her mind and body being examined, stripped bare, and exposed. She felt violated but unable to resist the strength of the light saturating her being.
Your vessel is weak. A momentary pause, as if the voice considered some great question. If you agree to aid us in our search for others of our kind, we shall correct that.
Moira managed a mental question. What others? Where are they?
They are here but lost.
We can show you the way. Do you accept?
She gave a mental nod.
At her agreement, the voice’s tone became ominous and threatening. Good.
She tried to resist, to change her mind, but an irresistible surge of power flowed into her and Moira collapsed to the dirt floor.
She woke to find Mórrighan sitting on her chest staring with its black eyes. It cawed and tilted its head.
“What? Yes, I’m fine. I’m…” she stopped. “My voice.” She sat and touched her neck. Firm smooth skin met her probing fingertips. She stood, dislodging the crow. It fluttered to the table where the stone sat, blue light pulsing faintly.
She held out her hands and gasped. Nervous laughter erupted. “Young.”
She flexed her hands and smiled. “Strong. No pain.” She moved to the mirror on the wall.
The crow regarded Moira warily, moving back as she passed close, watching her.
It clucked once and hopped to the edge of the table.
“Yes, it’s me, ye old crow. Who else would it be?” She stared at the reflection.
The face looking back at her was unlined and luminous. Clear brown eyes blinked. The corners of the firm lips lifted in a smile. Straight white teeth gleamed, and Moira laughed. She ran her pain-free hands through thick auburn hair, now absent the gray, and luxuriated in its soft feel.
“It’s me, but as I was over fifty years agone.” She stepped back and ran her hands down her body. Her firm body.
She pressed hands against her swelling bosom. “Back where ye should be,” Moira said with a laugh and twirled, hands outstretched.
She stopped and regarded the stone. “Ye did this. Why?”
What is required will take strength. This body is stronger. Your gifts are enhanced as well.
Your earth magic.
Moira paused, curious. “Where are ye? I hear ye in my mind, but…”
Look at your image.
She returned to the mirror and stifled a scream. “My eyes.”
We are one with you now.
Moira leaned closer and stared at her reflection. Bright red eyes looked back at her.
In the dark beneath the cabinet, Pyewacket mrowled soft and long.