The Captain's Witch Episode One

The Captain's Witch Episode One


Prologue

~ 1860, Unknown Soldier ~

“After him, man,” the Captain’s grating cry rolled over the hill, piercing the night air.

The spy fled deeper into the forest. Its form flitting against the tall shadows of the pine trees, its worn boots crunching over the needles strewn like a dense, prickly blanket underneath the spreading, interlocking branches.

I ran forward, gun clutched in my shaky hands.

Though the night was dark, there was enough of a moon to see by. As the rest of our battalion flung themselves through the dark forest after the spy, I could see the moonlight play across our rifles, down our brass buttons, and along the hilts of our scabbards.

The spy was deft. Flitting through the thick pine forest with all the speed and agility of a wolf.

“Don’t let him get away!” The Captain roared.

The spy had too much information.

I flung myself forward faster, pushing into my legs, my thick boots flying over the pine-needle-littered forest floor. The smell of damp and mold assaulted my nostrils with every pounding footstep

A call suddenly split the air.

A specific cry, it was no man, and it was no animal.

No ordinary animal, at least.

A ragmal

I shivered, such a tumble of nerves falling through my middle it felt like I would plunge into it.

Despite the feelings within I continued to push myself forward.

I knew how much that spy would cost us if he were to succeed in his escape.

The call of the ragmal split the air once more, closer this time, so close its terrifying cry almost stole my sanity.

For the briefest moment I hesitated. The rest of the men did so as well.

The spy did not.

The spy sped towards the ragmal’s fiendish cry, not away.

Towards.

A ragmal was one of the most heinous of infected creatures. An animal that had feasted on too much ether and grown to distended proportions, incorporating parts of other animals to form the kind of hideous creature only depicted in the realms of Hell.

A true demon.

The Captain screamed, “Get to him now!”

We were slipping behind, the spy now charging so fast across the forest floor, his footfall sounded like thunder despite the dampening effect of the needles.

But I was fast and I kept on the spy’s tail, blood a thrumming drum in my ears, hands so slicked with sweat they could barely grip my rifle.

I’d heard the stories of what a ragmal could do. If it feasted on enough magic – especially if the ether were pure enough – it could decimate an entire battalion.

I was still a greenhorn – I had only recently joined the White Cavalry. I had little magic of my own and no real understanding of how to defend myself against such demonism.

And therefore, I had little chance.

I kept running forward anyway.

Another terrifying cry rent the air, this one so close it felt as if it echoed from every tree.

Terror pulsed through my heart, purer than any I had ever previously experienced.

I did not stop throwing myself forward however.

The spy stopped suddenly, throwing a hand out to catch a low branch, grabbing it until it bent with a creak. He twisted to face me.

I saw a flash of his glistening teeth, then heard a low hiss as he drew something from his pocket.

A small wooden flask with a metal flick-cap. He thumbed it open, and a charge of white-blue light crackled from it.

Magic.

I twisted back, but it was too late. With a low incantation, he grasped hold of the whole bottle, tipping all the magic out into his palm. It played across his skin, crackles of white blue sparking against the dark night.

I threw myself backwards, slamming into the tree behind me and falling to the ground just as a slice of power slammed towards me.

It was a mere harbinger of what was to come.

The spy’s voice rose high, now booming out louder than any clap of thunder. With one final incantation and a sealing word – Amen – the spell struck.

He pulled the sword from the scabbard at his side, and it now glowed blue with ethereal light. Light that punctuated the darkness with all the clarity of 100 lamps.

I pressed a hand against my sweaty, muddy face, drawing the fingers closed against my eyes to block out the sudden and painful illumination.

The spy sniggered, pulling his puckered lips over his white teeth, the hint of yellow tongue flicking over them.

He walked over to me. Before I could press my back into the tree behind and throw myself to my feet, he reached my side.

He extended the sword towards my neck.

I heard the howl of the ragmal. Then screams. The screams of the other men in my battalion.

I shook.

With wide-open eyes I stared up at the man who would kill me.

“For the Federation,” he said.

He brought his sword forward and sliced it through my middle.

No blood splattered the pine needles by my feet. It was all burnt up by the power of the magic and the sword.

….

Chapter 1

Isabel Mason

It was a brutally cold morning. As I jumped out of bed, running a hand along the wooden frame and snagging a few splinters, I shivered. My thick woolen socks did nothing to prevent the chill rising through the significant gaps in the floorboards.

Jumping from foot to foot and tugging down on my two layers of nightgowns, I shivered.

I’d overslept, and I’d let the fire in the hearth almost extinguish itself. There were only a few unhappy embers glowing reluctantly amongst the already blackened coals.

Teeth chattering, I leaned down to the basket of kindling, rummaging through it until I found a handful of dried pine needles. Throwing them onto the coals, I made a bellows with my mouth by cupping my fingers firmly around my lips, and I blew and blew until finally the needles caught light. I then took advantage of the flames and added more kindling which I had readied the night before.

Running my hands down my arms, I jumped to my feet and shivered.

That’s when there was a knock at the door.

Ever since my mammy had died, I lived alone, far up in the hills. Though there was a town nearby, it was a good 20 minute walk down into the valley.

Alarmed, I made a face as I carefully reached for the poker hanging on a hook by the fire.

Few people bothered to visit me without warning. But this autumn had already proven to be a brutally cold one.

It wasn’t unheard of for trackers and disgruntled miners to come upon a warm-looking house in the woods and try to turf out the current inhabitants.

“No need to reach for your fire poker, Miss Mason,” a friendly voice called from the door, “It’s just me, Wallace from the store.”

I relaxed. “Wallace, you scared me half to death! I thought you were a vagabond or some such.”

“Vagabonds rarely knock, Miss Mason,” Wallace said with authority.

I shrugged my shoulders and conceded his point. “Wait just a moment while I get my jacket.”

I ran over to the bed in my single-room house, grabbed the thick buffalo coat, and shrugged into it.

Only once it was firmly buttoned did I open the door to Wallace.

He tipped his hat before shoving his hands back into his pockets. “A cold one,” he pointed out.

“Indeed. Though I don’t suppose you’ve trundled all the way to my house to tell me that,” I pointed out perceptively.

He nodded. “With that, you are right. There is a curse, Miss Mason.”

I stiffened. “Where?”

“One of the mining teams working in one of the new veins came across it. Nasty,” he said.

I shivered again. “Old Betsy—”

“Has taken ill. She suggested you as the only other practitioner in town. Are you up to it?” He asked directly.

I considered him for a few short seconds. Was I up to it? I had cured a few curses on my own, and I could most definitely use the money. But it was dreadfully cold out there....

I shook my head, then nodded. “Of course. I will leave with you now.” I reached behind the door to grab a shawl.

“No rush, Miss Mason. You can dress first.” He nodded at my bare legs peeking out from underneath my long buffalo coat. “The miners have all been evacuated. We just need that vein cleared so we can begin work again.” With that, he took a respectful step back, closed the door for me, and I heard him turn his back even though there were no windows on that side of the cabin.

I smiled, then set about dressing quickly in no-nonsense, sturdy clothes. Then again, every stitch of clothing I owned was no-nonsense and sturdy.

Once I was done, I grabbed a portion of an old loaf of bread for my pocket, locked up the house, and stepped out to meet Wallace on the porch.

It was a fiendishly cold morning. Frost covered the rough dirt path that led down from my house, and with every footstep I had to be careful not to slip.

“What kind of curse do you think it is?” I asked.

“That I don’t know, ma’am. I was brought here to get you.”

I nodded. Wallace was a stalwart fellow with a pair of round-lens spectacles, a splendid grey beard, and a usually blank expression.

Nice enough though.

“There’ll be plenty of ether at the mine site if you’ll be needing it,” he said.

I shook my head and smiled, grabbing my dark black hair and quickly knotting it into a plait. “I don’t need ether, Watson.”

“Oh, of course, I forgot, you can practice without it, can’t you? Curious, that.”

“It’s not curious. Betsy thinks I just accidentally swallowed pure ether as a youngin' or something,” I explained with a shrug.

Watson nodded. “She is a wise woman who knows better than I,” he conceded.

“You don’t need to accompany me the whole way,” I said with a smile. “If you give me directions, I’ll make my way there directly.”

“You’re a dutiful lass, Miss Mason,” he said approvingly.

I smiled at that.

I was a dutiful lass. Always respectful, reliable, and I usually did what I was told. If I agreed with what I was told, that was.

“One last thing though,” he turned, his rough boots grinding into the loose stones of the path. “You might run into some foreigners on the road.”

“Foreigners?” I asked curiously.

“Visitors from the North. An envoy,” he said the word carefully, moving his lips around it with a cautious look in his eye as if he was scared of getting it wrong.

“Envoy?”

“From the Coalition Army. A cavalry unit, a few gentlemen, and a fine lady,” Watson said. Though he had a prodigious beard, I swore his cheeks touched a little red as he spoke of the fine lady.

I frowned with deep curiosity now. “But who on earth are they? What is an envoy of a cavalry unit, a few gentlemen, and a fine lady doing coming to a small town like this?”

“They are inspecting the raw ether,” he said knowledgeably. “They are staying at the new inn in Grangetown.”

“Grangetown? That’s more than an hour away by horseback. Why not stay here?”

“She is a very fine lady,” Wallace said by way of explanation, even tipping his head back and shooting me a strict look.

“I don’t doubt it, Wallace. But this is very strange indeed. Why are they inspecting the raw ether?”

“Well, I heard from old Betsy – who is very ill,” Watson pointed out quickly, “That the gentlemen and lady come from the Campbell dynasty.”

I searched my memory. Campbell dynasty? Didn’t they own the major processing plants for raw ether this side of the divide?

Watson must have seen me frowning in thought as he cleared his throat. “They have a controlling interest in all the mines in this valley. They are here to inspect them.”

“So why bring a whole cavalry unit?” I questioned.

“Well, she is a very fine lady,” Wallace defaulted to saying.

“If she’s that fine, they should have left her at home, as it sounds like she has no place in these woods,” I said as I deftly dodged around a slippery patch of ice.

“She’s adventurous, or so I’m told. She is also Mister Theodore Campbell’s direct descendent. He had no sons. She may soon inherit his entire enterprise should his ill-health continue. The gentlemen who accompany her are looking out for her interests and are to guide her. Apparently, according to old Betsy,” Wallace caveated, “It is Theodore Campbell’s wish that his daughter become experienced with every aspect of his enterprise before she takes over the reins. Which includes observing how raw ether is extracted from the ground.”

I pressed my lips into a thin line and shrugged my shoulders. “This is very curious,” I conceded.

Before Wallace could repeat that Miss Campbell was a very fine lady, I cleared my throat and nodded towards a branch in the path. “I’ll be on my way now.”

“Hold on. You’ll be wanting to be paid. Be sure to come into town once you lift the curse, and I’ll arrange for your monies.”

“You should take them yourself, Mister Wallace, to cover the tab I have at your store,” I said earnestly.

He nodded. “Very well. You keep safe, Miss Mason.”

I nodded.

Then I turned down the left branch of the path.

I liked these mountains and forests and woods. A part of me felt alive when I was walking alone down these winding rocky paths.

There was nothing to judge me here. Nothing but the trees and animals and rolling rivers, and they offered precious few opinions at all.

Though practitioners of magic were accepted in these parts and throughout most of the country, occasionally we had visitors through town who shot me atrocious looks when they found out what I was.

Especially if they were from the south.

But the folk of this fine town understood me.

Well, not entirely. I was a woman who lived on her own far up in the hills. I had never married, and many considered me too old to bother with now, even though I was still quite young.

Truth be told, I had no intention of ever marrying. In my estimation, marriage came with an immediate and permanent restriction of freedom. I’d watched a few of the lasses in town marry and disappear into their husband’s houses never to be seen again.

“They’ll tie you to the kitchen,” old Betsy was fond of saying.

I could barely cook. Enough that I could satisfy my own needs, but not to please the tastes of anyone else.

I was a witch. A natural witch. And that is what I intended to be for the rest of my life. I was still studying, and I was quite content to be studying forever.

I had a great big stack of books by my bed, which I was constantly reading every night by candlelight.

They taught me of foreign cultures, of history, of different languages, and most importantly, of a true understanding of magic.

As I walked, I began to hum, then sing. I did love to sing. I couldn’t cook, but by God could I sing.

It would also take my mind off what would come next. Though I had cured numerous curses under old Betsy’s tutelage, there was still so much to learn.

And yet I was determined to do this myself.

I curled my fingers into my palms and continued to sing as I walked.

Captain Benjamin Carmichael

I plunged my hands into my pockets, trying to warm them as I pumped them into fists. Every exhalation caught in the air like a white cloud.

I turned towards the horses. They were neatly tied up in the stalls, but I caught their eyes blazing and tails flashing.

They were no ordinary beasts of burden – these were cavalry horses. White Cavalry horses, to be exact.

They were accustomed to battle. To carrying their riders forwards and towards glory.

And now what were they doing? Carrying around an heiress and her entourage on a fruitless expedition.

Not for the first time, I cursed the fact I’d been assigned to this mission.

According to my superiors, I had been hand-picked. My diligence, skill, and overall respectability were what they’d looked for.

This was a waste though.

Especially at a time like this. With the Federation breathing down our necks and the dogs of war ready to race from the gates, I should be out there with my brothers preparing for battle.

I plucked a hand from my pocket to massage my brow, trying to draw the tension down, but it would not resolve.

This entire expedition was a waste of time. Mister Theodore Campbell was eccentric, and if it weren’t for the fact he had a controlling share in all magical ether refineries, I would not be here.

Before my thoughts could descend too far into anger, I heard light footfall behind me.

Miss Campbell.

By the time I turned, I ensured a dashing smile spread across my lips. “Good morning, Miss.” I tipped my hat at her.

Her cheeks blushed. “A glorious morning it is too.” She clapped her gloved hands together and smiled.

Glorious? It was freezing.

She wouldn’t notice that, though, as her clothes were spun from a new kind of yarn that incorporated byproducts from the ether refining process. According to reports, they could generate enough heat to keep a man warm and toasty even during a blizzard.

“Did you sleep well, Captain?” She asked earnestly, pressing her hands together and holding them before her chest.

“Of course,” I lied. There were not enough beds in this small establishment for our entire entourage. As I was the Captain, I had given my room to some of my men, and I had slept on the floor of the storeroom.

“That’s excellent. Now, we shall begin,” she said as she drove her top teeth into her ruby red bottom lip.

“Miss Campbell,” I began settling into what I hoped was a genuine but firm tone, “I really must reiterate that this is an unnecessary step in our voyage. If you wish to see raw ether, I can take you to the general store where it is bundled up and ready to be shipped.”

“Father is adamant. He told me I must go to the mines to see how it is extracted. Only when I see every aspect of the ether refining process will I understand it,” she said as she brought a hand up as if reciting from a script.

I stiffened my lips into a smile. “Very well.”

She turned, the black taffeta of her skirts flying around her ankles and catching the rough wood of the porch posts. The splinters snagged the fabric, and pulled a few threads free.

Miss Campbell tutted, patted the fabric down, then trotted down the porch steps.

“Carmichael,” someone said from my side.

I turned slowly to see Mister Frank Bates at my shoulder. He was Mister Campbell’s lawyer, and he was here to ensure Campbell’s daughter’s journey ran smoothly, which meant he was at my throat every other moment. “This does not bear repeating again, Carmichael,” he said in a severe tone that did not carry, “Because I have repeated it far too many times already. You understand Miss Campbell’s itinerary. All you are here to do is to provide protection. Not advice,” he said quickly, “Protection. Do you understand that? Should I explain it to you one more time?”

I did not shift my stiff smile. I did however let my eyes dart over his small form. “No, Bates, you do not need to repeat yourself.”

“That is Mister Bates to you,” he corrected.

“And that is Captain Carmichael to you.”

I watched him grit his teeth. “Your performance here will be noted. Your superiors back in Washington hand-picked you, I was told.”

“You were told correctly. I was selected for this mission,” I said mission carefully, trying to control my derision, “Because of my skills.”

“I do not honestly care. All I care about is that you stop getting in our way. Miss Campbell is to visit the mines, so we will visit the mines.”

“In that dress,” I said, indicating it with a shrug of my shoulders. “Miss Campbell does understand that we are to ride by horseback? There is no way a cart could travel that path.”

“Miss Campbell understands. Now prepare your men.” With that, Bates flicked a dismissive hand my way, a single gold ring glinting on his right thumb.

Why Theodore Campbell had picked such an odious lawyer to look after his daughter’s interests, I didn’t know. For the man was always getting in my way. Every time I indicated a potential security risk, he would dismiss me. He was continually taking Miss Elizabeth Campbell into areas that were unnecessarily exposed and into situations that did not befit her status. If I were a suspicious man, I would suspect he was deliberately trying to put her at risk.

With a heavy sigh, I realized I did not need to be dealing with this. I’d heard from one of the local men last night that more and more Federation spies were crossing the border. In fact, according to an old woman known as Betsy, a very curious fellow had crossed through the town barely two weeks ago. After she described him to me, it had left me with no doubt that he was Federation.

I should set to the hills to hunt him down.

Instead I would have to walk around like a bellboy after this heiress.

With another grumble, I tugged on my jacket. Then I turned stiffly on my heel and headed towards the horses.

Mister Bates had assured me Miss Carmichael could ride a horse. Still, I had specifically selected a tame mare for her, one I was sure would heed my every call. It would not get startled, and would hopefully not be too bothered by the mounds of taffeta that were about to mount it.

“Come along, Captain!” Elizabeth Campbell called.

I briefly closed my eyes.

This was not why I had joined the army.

Chapter 2

Isabel Mason

It was a good 40 minute walk until I reached the correct mineshaft. I met a few miners along the path, and they confirmed I was headed in the right direction.

The nearer I got, the more nervous I felt. With a hand pressed flat over the brown fabric of my sturdy dress, I tried to chase my fright away with my thoughts.

I could do this.

I was powerful.

As a natural witch, I didn’t need to rely on ether from the ground; magic ran through my blood.

I could incant a quick spell under my breath or trace my hands over a knife to set it alight. And if I was really in a pickle, I could cut my finger and draw a few spots of blood. My blood was extremely pure and powerful. A few drops on a talisman would suffice to give me sufficient power to move a boulder, despite my small size.

I told myself that – over and over again – as I made my way along the winding path that led to the mineshaft. It was set into the side of a long and almost sheer cliff face. The path was barely eight inches wide, and in sections grew narrower. I had to be mighty careful where I put my feet.

But I’d grown up in these hills, and I knew how to keep my balance.

The morning did not warm. Even though the sun was now high in the sky, there was a chill wind whistling through the valley.

By the time I’d made it to the mouth of the shaft, it had turned into a gale.

The mouth of the shaft was secured; there was a string of sacred enchantments strung up between the supporting beams.

The enchantments would ensure nobody crossed into the cursed mine shaft.

As a witch, all I had to do was lick my finger, say a quick prayer, and unhook the enchantments. There was a spark over my fingers, one that sunk into my hand with a crackle, but it didn’t hurt.

I dropped the enchantments to the floor, and walked into the darkened mouth of the mine.

I shivered. Not just from the cold and the whistling wind, but from the feel of this dark tunnel.

I could definitely sense magic down here. My whole body buzzed with it, in fact.

That was another advantage of being a natural witch – I was extremely good at rooting out magic. Old Betsy said that if I continued to refine my skills, I would be one of the best witches in all of California.

I smiled at that thought and I let it bolster me as I curled my hands into fists and walked into the mine.

With a few more steps, I thrust my hand into my pocket, pulled out a special kind of candle, and lit it with a spell.

Though the candle was small, the light it cast was not. It reached far into the tunnel, chasing away every shadow but the furthest.

“I can do this,” I said to myself under my breath.

I would have to do it, too – as technically I’d already been paid.

With that sobering thought, I pushed further into the mine.

Captain Benjamin Carmichael

It was an uneventful ride to the mine sites. Still, I kept my eyes peeled. If the least I could do was try to detect a Federation in the woods, that was what I would do.

Yet on a morning as cold and drab as this one, all I saw was the occasional bird flitting through the sky.

Miss Campbell quickly stopped her incessant chatting. I could tell from all her fidgeting that she was regretting wearing such a voluminous skirt on horseback. Fortunately she didn’t scare the horse, and the resolute beast bore her all the way to the central campsite.

There, our party dismounted and the show began. For it was a show.

A fine young lady dressed in fine clothes surrounded by an entourage of gentlemen in bankers black suits, and a cavalry unit.

Why, these miners would never have seen anything like it. Nor should they have. It was a waste of their time.

They had valuable roles to play. The raw ether that they mined in these valleys and hills was the lifeblood of the Coalition.

I shot several of the older gentlemen apologetic looks as Miss Campbell wafted on by.

Not too soon after, I found myself pulling away from the group to survey the grounds.

The rest of my fine men were still with Miss Campbell. They would be more than capable of looking after her.

Instead I followed my curiosity. There were various paths, well-trodden and worn by heavy footfall all through the camp.

I followed one until I reached a group of bedraggled men. Scratched with numerous cuts across their faces and mud slicked over their brows, they looked as if they’d seen a fight.

“What happened to you?” I asked without an introduction.

One of the older men pulled himself to his feet with a grunt. “They haven’t sent the cavalry, have they?” He asked as he scratched his beard. “It’s a bad curse, aye, but I’m sure Miss Mason can deal with it.”

“What the devil are you talking about? Curse? What happened to you exactly?”

“One of the new mines has a curse. It’s a bad one. We barely got out with our lives. But that Miss Mason of ours will be able to deal with it. Strong one that one.”

“Miss Mason?”

“Apprentice witch.”

“Am I to understand an unarmed woman has gone to lift, as you say, a bad curse that almost killed a group of sturdy miners?”

“Oh no, she’s got arms. She’s a witch,” he protested.

“Curses can be unpredictable. Especially around raw ether,” I said quickly. “In which direction is this mine?”

“Up that path there.” The man stabbed a thumb behind him indicating a path that wound into the steep hill behind. “But I don’t recommend you go after her, cavalryman. Curse lifting is the job of a mage. You’ll just get in the way.”

I pressed my teeth together. “I am a mage. I’m a Captain of the White Cavalry,” I said pointedly.

There was a low and surprised mumble amongst the miners.

The old man looked particularly shocked. “What’s a White cavalryman doing around these parts? We haven’t been attacked, have we? Are the Federations coming?” He leapt to his feet.

I put up a hand. “No. I am here on other business. But now I will follow that path and lift that curse and save this Miss Mason,” I said pointedly. “If my men ask where I’ve gone, you will tell them.” With that, I turned and marched towards the aforementioned path.

This was the first time I would have done something useful in what felt like months.

For a Captain of the White Cavalry, I had done precious little magic work in a long time. I needed to keep my skills refreshed for the coming war.

So I took to that path with alacrity.

Isabel Mason

This was quite an infection.

The further I walked into the mine shaft, the more I felt it. Something was feasting off the raw ether.

The skin along the back of my neck prickled and quick tight shivers kept racing down my arms and into my palms.

I was way beyond telling myself I could do this. Instead I clutched my hands into fists, driving the fingers deep into my palms as I gritted my teeth.

To lift a curse, you had to find the origin point. Somewhere in this dark, winding, treacherous mineshaft would be the root of the curse. It often looked like a particularly malignant patch of lichen or moss. In reality, what it was, was an infection. Just like a man’s limb could become gangrenous with a wound, so could the ether.

To lift the curse, you had to cure it.

Which wasn’t so hard, as long as you came prepared.

I shoved a hand into one of the capacious pockets of my coat, and withdrew a small blade. Licking a finger, I touched it to the tip of the blade.

It began to glow a soft white.

My hand shook as I held it, but with a quick command, it steadied.

Not only did I have to find the source of the infection and cure it, but I had to be careful it didn’t find me first.

The infection would try to defend itself. It would not, however, consider me as much of a threat as the miners had been. They, after all, had been depriving it of ether – stealing it right from the ground.

Me, I didn’t need ether to practice magic, so I was perfectly placed to cure this infestation.

Still, as soon as it realized what I was up to, it would defend itself.

In my time of working with old Betsy, I’d seen the various ways a curse could manifest. Sometimes it would cause clouds of dust to kick up into the shaft that would chase you and try to shred your skin to scraps. Other times it would shake the floor and ceiling, trying to loosen rocks large enough to squash you flat – and dead.

I had my own defenses, though. As I walked, I kept repeating a quick spell under my breath, one designed to calm the curse.

Still, this was admittedly dangerous work. And the further I walked into the tunnel, the more dangerous I realized it was.

Most of the curses I’d addressed previously had been at the mouths of mines, and never this far in.

The further I walked, the more dangerous it became, because it meant the curse had access to more ether. Ether was sunk deep into the bowels of the earth. So the further down you went, the more of it you came across.

These hills had already been mined for years, and the miners were having to dig further and further down to find any ether.

Just before I convinced myself to turn back, I saw it – a light right at the end of the tunnel.

There was a large rock wall in front of me, and it was black from precipitation – some strange foul liquid covering it completely.

It gave off a peculiar glow, and as soon as I saw it, I shivered, feeling magic race deep into my bones and tingle across my tongue.

The infection.

… I’d never seen one like it. I was used to small patches – not great swathes like this.

Before the fear could eat into my limbs and unsettle my balance, I continued forward.

I held on to my small blade, readying the appropriate enchantment.

That would be when the floor pitched violently. Not violently enough that I was thrown to my knees and I lost hold of my blade, but I did pitch into the wall beside me.

Gritting my teeth, I pushed up immediately, now letting my voice rattle out as I practically hollered the calming spell.

I had a good set of lungs on me, and as I bellowed, it echoed off every wall.

The pitch to the ground stopped. Only a few small stones were unsettled from the ceiling, and though they sailed close by me, with a quick protective spell, none reached me.

I stopped about a meter away from the wall, sucking in a quick breath. Hand trembling around my blade, I leaned down and carefully put the candle on the ground beside me.

Still bellowing my enchantment, I snapped forward.

I plunged my small knife into the wall.

Immediately I felt the magic. It burst through my body as if I had swallowed a lightning bolt.

It tried to rebuff my knife, tried to push it out of the wall. But I struggled, planting my feet into the ground and shoving my shoulder hard to ensure the blade did not move.

My voice echoed as I shouted my enchantment, my throat becoming hoarse and raw.

But I did not stop.

The ground began to pitch again, and gave one more violent shake before stopping suddenly.

I shifted to the side, yanking my shoulder away just as a large stone sailed past. It struck the ground and rolled to a stop against my boot.

With a single crackle, the black sludge-like substance covering the wall began to recede. It drew into the tip of the knife.

I began to relax.

A mistake.

Just before the last pool of sludge could disappear, it stopped. Then with an almighty bang, my knife shot from the wall, pulling me with it.

I fell to my knees a few meters away, tumbling and rolling, but fortunately keeping the knife away from my middle so I didn’t gut myself.

Before I could process what happened, I threw myself to my feet.

I ran towards the wall.

The sludge was bursting out of it again, now not only covering the wall, but spilling from the hole I’d made in it with my knife. It was pouring over the rocks, pushing towards me.

Without a thought, I brought the knife against my thumb, nicked it, and let a few trickles of blood travel down the smooth steel. I leapt towards the wall and I shoved the knife back into it.

There was an almighty crackle.

Then, with a single word, I neutralized the curse.

Whenever I used my blood, it made me 100 times stronger. I didn’t like to use it unless I had to, though... it felt... wrong.

I didn’t know why, and now was not the time to explore that thought.

Instead I flattened a palm onto the now clean wall. I closed my eyes and I waited. Waited for any sense of magic within.

When there was none, I withdrew the knife, let it fall beside me, and I breathed.

“Well, you managed it,” I told myself.

And I had.

But it’d been a darn sight more dangerous than I’d imagined.

As I turned, I glanced to the rock that had tumbled from the ceiling beside me.

It was big enough that had it struck me, it would have killed me.

I shivered.

I should not linger.

Cleaning my knife of my blood, I pushed it back into its sheath and back into my pocket, grabbed the candle, turned, and walked back.

Though it had seemed like an age as I travelled into the mine, it was a relatively short walk back to the mouth.

And that’s when I heard a man.

Calling my name.

“Miss Mason! Miss Mason, are you in there? Are you alright?”

Rather than answer back, I turned around the last corner in the tunnel, and faced the opening to the mine.

And the man.

He was dressed in the Prussian blue of the Coalition cavalry. His uniform was smart, and suited his large build.

He had stone grey eyes and strawberry blond hair that sat neatly to his shoulders.

He was really quite handsome.

There was a scabbard by his side, and a sword in his hand. The sword was glowing with magic.

… Strange I had noted that fact last.

“Miss Mason,” he said in a commanding tone as if I were in trouble for something. “There you are.” He waved me forward.

“… Do I know you?” The answer was no. I did not know this man. Nobody who looked like that lived around these parts.

“I am Captain Benjamin Carmichael. I’m here to save you, Miss Mason.”

I frowned. “From what?”

“From the curse,” he growled. “Now come here.”

This man may be handsome, granted, but he was dictatorial and extremely forward considering we’d only just met.

I stood my ground. “There is no longer a curse, sir; I have already cured it.”

He looked thrown. Then he frowned. “Why, then, is there a strange glow emanating from the end of that tunnel?” He pointed behind me.

At first I thought he was joking, and I turned slowly with an unamused expression.

Then I saw the glow.

My cheeks slackened.

The infection was back!

My hand went straight to the sacred blade in my pocket, and I tore it from its protective sheath with a shaking hand.

Before I could incant a single word, I heard footsteps.

The light turned out not to be an infection at all, but Harry Pinker.

Harry was one of the oldest and grizzliest miners in the valley, which was saying something.

I let out a trapped breath of air, and it whistled through the narrow shaft. “Harry, you scared me senseless. What are you doing here anyway? The other miners were...” I was on the cusp of saying evacuated. Then I saw Harry’s eyes.

They no longer had any color. They were black, through and through. No whites, no nothing. Just blackness.

Harry was infected.

Without a word, he swung his lamp towards me.

I doubled backwards, bringing a hand up to protect my face.

Then Harry was upon me. He unhinged his jaw with a click, then screamed. A cursed, deathly, horrifying scream that reached right into me and wrapped hands around my gut.

Before he could reach out to me, Carmichael acted. He had already closed the gap between us, and he threw himself at Harry, rounding his shoulder and slamming it into Harry’s chest.

Now Harry was infected, he was a good 10 times stronger. Though he was old, he’d been a miner all his life, and he had the muscles to show for it.

Carmichael grunted. “Get back,” he screamed at me.

I shuffled away, but I certainly did not run away.

Harry took a swipe at Carmichael, letting out another terrifying scream.

Carmichael let out a grunt of his own, ducking under one of Harry’s punches and deftly dodging to the side.

Carmichael’s sword was still drawn and it still glowed blue with magic.

Fortunately he had not used it yet.

While it was relatively easy to cure rock of a curse, it was much harder to cure a man. If Carmichael plunged that sword deep into Harry’s gut, he might cure the infection, but he would kill Harry instantly.

“Be careful,” I screamed.

“Get out of here,” Carmichael called back. He was light on his feet, always staying just out of Harry’s reach. For a man as tall and muscular as Carmichael, that was saying something, for now Harry was infected, he was extremely fast.

Their boots squeaked and thumped against the rock, the light from Carmichael’s sword catching every shadow. It lit up the underside of his face, glowing along his angled jaw and blazing along his brass buttons.

In order to cure Harry of his infection, Carmichael would have to disable him and force the man to swallow an enchantment.

That I could help with.

With a shaking hand, I grabbed a scrap of paper from my pocket and a small stump of coal. I wrote the enchantment quickly before scrunching it into a tiny ball. “Here, I have an enchantment!”

Carmichael ignored me. He continued to fight Harry. Despite the fact Harry had the strength of 10 men, Carmichael was holding his own. He used his sword expertly, he also plunged a hand into his pocket and withdrew an ether bottle. It wasn’t like the raw ether I was used to – this stuff was darn pure. As soon as he brought up the bottle, it glowed a spectacular white blue almost more powerful than his illuminated sword.

With an expert, deft move, he flicked open the top of the bottle and poured some of the content onto his hand.

Then he started incanting something under his breath in a low mumble that sounded like a far-off earthquake.

Suddenly sparks of blue leapt over his hand and he brought it around in a powerful fist and punched Harry on the jaw.

There was a click, and Harry was thrust backwards.

The old miner was not down yet though. With another terrifying scream that split the air, he thrust himself forward, scrabbling at Carmichael’s boots.

Carmichael dodged backwards, keeping his sword at arm’s-length. Which was good, because at that exact moment Harry leaned down and with both hands struck the floor of the shaft.

It shook, and several large rocks loosened from the ceiling above, scattering around Carmichael. He dodged most of them, slashing a particularly large one with his sword and smashing it into dust.

As for me, I skipped back and dodged everything but a few small stones that scattered off the shoulders of my large jacket and struck the floor by my shoes.

“Get out of here,” he hollered at me again, “It’s dangerous!”

I could see that. That’s why Carmichael had to hurry up and accept my enchantment.

Instead, he swung forward with another fist, and managed to collect Harry on the jaw again.

There was a crack of broken bone, and Harry did sink to his feet, but he did not stop.

I was no expert, but Carmichael could not keep this up; his magic would run out. Despite the fact it was pure, it was limited.

Indeed, as they continued to fight, Carmichael continued to dodge expertly, delivering blows with blinding speed and cracking force. And yet, I saw that brilliant white blue light of his magic start to ebb. Every time he withdrew the bottle from his pocket, there was less and less left.

Until....

“Get out of here!” He yelled, his voice now so insistent and loud it echoed like a thunderclap through the shaft.

Harry responded with a bellow of his own. He unhinged his jaw with a sickening click and let his shout blast over Carmichael’s.

Carmichael shifted on his boot, retreating backwards a few steps, then repositioning himself and bringing his sword around.

I knew what he was going to do. He was going to slice Harry through.

I couldn’t allow that.

Harry was powerful – this curse was the worst I’d ever seen.

Which meant I needed power to fight it.

Bringing up my sacred blade, I cut it across my finger, and I pressed my finger to the rolled up wad of enchantment paper.

I soaked it through, and I pushed myself forward.

Carmichael saw me moving, and tried to grab a hand around my middle, but I dodged out of his way.

Harry saw me, and screamed once more, his scream carrying so far it was as if it pierced the very center of the earth.

His eyes widened as he stared at me, then he moved, snapping forward with the sickening crack of bone and muscle.

Carmichael shouted something, but I didn’t hear him. I concentrated. I kept pressing my bloody finger into the enchantment paper until it practically burned with magic. A powerful white light leapt over it, letting out a ferocious glow.

With this much blood and this much magic sinking into the parchment, there was no need for an incantation.

Harry swiped towards me, grabbing my arm and dragging me towards him.

I heard Carmichael behind me, he was readying his sword, maybe just a meter away now.

I had seconds.

With a scream, I threw myself at Harry, and I slammed the parchment into the center of his head just before he could use that unhinged jaw on my neck.

He stopped, frozen by the magic as it swelled through his body.

Steam started to issue from every pore, and he jerked backwards and forwards as if a whole group of men were shaking him.

I stood there, keeping that enchantment pressed against his skull. His hand fell from my arm, and then with a gasp like the last breath of a dying man, he fell to his knees, then fell to his side.

I staggered back and watched the last few wisps of steam escape. If you observed carefully, you could see trails of magical light disappearing into the air. The last few traces of the infection.

With a massive sigh of my own, I got down on my knees and briefly checked Harry.

He would be fine.

I turned and stood up.

Carmichael was staring at me. I could see how wide the whites of his eyes were as they framed his stone grey irises.

“What was that?” He asked through a rattling hiss.

“That was an enchantment,” I said as I patted down my skirts. “It’s the only way to deal with a curse like that,” I said knowledgeably.

Carmichael didn’t say a word.

I walked past him to the mouth of the mine. I would have to call down to the main camp to tell them about Harry. I would have no chance of moving him on my own, and somehow I didn’t think this Carmichael character would deign to help me.

Before I could walk from the mine shaft, Carmichael was upon me.

He snapped to my side, latching a hand on my wrist, and he turned me around.

He looked at me sharply, those stone grey eyes suddenly alight like topaz under water. “What on earth?” he asked through a halting breath. “What happened to your cut?”

I tried to tug free from his hand, but it was a hopeless task. “Oh, that’s nothing.” I gestured with my finger. It would stop bleeding soon.

“Not the cut – the magic. Where did it come from?” His eyes sliced across to mine with such speed it sent the quickest of shivers racing down my back.

Again I tried to tug my wrist free, but he held it as firmly as a man held his gold. His eyes somehow widened as he traced them over the still crackling gash along my finger.

I felt cold at the way he was looking at me, cold and unpleasantly exposed. As he searched my finger, turning the hand and dipping his head every which way, I felt like a specimen in a scientist’s lab.

I swallowed. “Would you please let my hand go?”

“Let your hand go?” He now looked at me, his eyes like two bonfires on a starless night. “You just practiced natural magic,” for some reason his voice faltered on that term. It tipped and shook, as if he were uttering something forbidden.

I shook a little as he held me there, my eyes stretching so wide, tension shot down my cheeks. “What... what are you talking about? You’re acting as if you’ve never seen this before? You clearly have magic of your own, so you shouldn’t be this surprised.” I gestured to the magical sword that was now firmly tucked back in the scabbard at his side.

While I was aware there were still certain folk in this vast country who mistrusted the use of magic, I couldn’t imagine this man was one of them.

He tore his gaze from my still-bleeding finger once more to look at me, dumbstruck. “I practice magic ma’am – indeed,” he agreed in a constricted tone, fascination encompassing his visage. “But natural magic is....”

I swallowed. “Is what? Old Betsy the witch in our town told me it was rare, but...” I trailed off.

Rare?” his voice shook with ironic mirth, “There have only been two known occurrences ever. Miss Mason, it isn’t rare – it’s virtually unknown.”

I gave a full bodied shudder now. One that crossed down to my sturdy shoes and shook the ends of my hair, which had come somewhat adrift in my fight with Harry.

“There... has to be a mistake,” I forced myself to say, “You must be jesting,” I said. Then I turned bright pink with rage. “And a horrible jest this is,” I began.

“This is no game,” he said in a low baritone that appeared to shake through the mine mouth around us. “While there have only ever been two other cases of natural magic, they were both in Europe, and they were both centuries ago. It’s now held to be a myth...” his voice quieted as he surveyed my cut finger once more. With a hesitant move, he brought his own hand up, securing the leather of his glove in his mouth, then pulling the glove off, letting it fall to the ground by our feet. Then, with the most tentative of searching moves, he touched my finger.

I really did gasp now.

His gaze narrowed as one or two charges of magic escaped over his hand.

He pressed his fingers together and brought them close to his eye, like a man searching dust for gold.

After a few breathless seconds, he dropped his hand and stared at me. “It’s natural magic alright. And it’s powerful.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said something foolish: “It’s normal.”

“Normal?” He raised an eyebrow. “It is normal for magic to lie in the earth. It is not normal for it to lie in the blood of man.” There was a horrible ominous ring to his tone.

I shook my head. “Old Betsy never said this was dangerous. She said it was an unusual gift, that’s all,” I tried.

“Is Old Betsy blind?”

He had me there; Old Betsy was blind and definitely hard of hearing. Still, I was sure she was compos mentis enough to have informed me about how extraordinarily rare this ability was.

He had to be wrong.

So I tipped my head back and surveyed him again.

He shook his head. “This is gravely serious, Miss Mason. A natural skill like this must be brought to the attention of Congress and the Captains of the Whites.”

“Well,” I said breathlessly, trying to think of another excuse, “I don’t think that matters, as I don’t even know you!” I pointed out, trying again but failing to claim my hand back.

That does not matter. You do not need to know me, Miss Mason. All you need to know is that I am a captain of the White Cavalry.”

“… The Whites?” I squeaked, hating the fact I couldn’t keep my voice even.

“The Whites,” he confirmed as he brought his free hand up and unbuttoned the top of his jacket. Then he pulled open one side to reveal an emblem burnt into the fabric with magic.

It was the Whites, alright. The elite magical unit of the Coalition cavalry.

I swallowed. I wanted to point out that I didn’t know him again, but I could tell that would not get me far. “Well, if you are a Captain of the Whites as you state, then can’t you bring this to the attention of yourself?”

He gave me a pointed look. “You do not know much, do you?”

I wanted to shake my head and tell this pompous man I knew plenty, but I didn’t. It was a combination of his gentle yet firm grasp of my wrist and that look in his eye.

Oh, and the fact he’d just told me I had an ability that hadn’t been seen in centuries.

I shivered. “Well, I suppose if it is that serious I can write a letter,” I tried.

He snorted. He looked like a buffalo, the brute. “Miss Mason, you will not be writing a letter. You will be going to see the Captains of the Whites in person. An ability like yours must be studied.”

“Studied?” I squeaked like a rat who’d been stepped on. “But I can’t leave the valley! I’m halfway through making my jams and preserves for the winter.”

His face compressed with an unappealing mix of derision and confusion. “Miss Mason, perhaps you haven’t heard me. You have an ability that has not been seen in centuries. One many think doesn’t exist. Your preserves don’t matter,” he said matter-of-factly. “Not now,” there was a low ominous edge to his voice.

“What exactly does that mean?”

“It means that right now,” he said stiffly, lips drawing back around his teeth, “We’re on the edge of war. We must track down every advantage we can.”

I recoiled. “I’m not an advantage.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest you are. But your ability must be studied,” he countered firmly. “And hidden,” he suddenly frowned, staring past me and across to the empty path that led back around the cliff. “How many people know of your ability? Other than this dubious old Betsy?”

I started to count on my fingers. “There’s Mister Brown and Sally, and there’s Mavis,” I ran my lips through my teeth as I thought.

“Never mind. Do any of them consider it unusual? Have they ever acted suspiciously around you?”

“The other day Mavis accused me of cursing her cows, but then realized there was too much clover in the field.”

He shook his head. “While that is undoubtedly fascinating, it is not what I asked. Miss Mason, I need you to concentrate, for this is very serious. Do you believe anyone knows how unusual your ability is?”

I was starting to get a particularly unsettled feeling in my stomach. It felt as if I’d swallowed a baby bird and the little thing was flitting around my belly – up and down and all around – trying to escape.

I pressed a hand to my gut.

“Miss Mason,” Captain Carmichael insisted through bared teeth. “Think.”

I shook my head. Then I stopped. I frowned. “Nobody in town thinks I’m unusual. But...” I frowned as I tried to remember something.

“But what?” Carmichael said, his insistence growing more and more forceful.

“But there was a strange man who came through the town not two weeks ago. He...” I couldn’t think of what to say next. He what? He’d unsettled me, that was all, surely. It was nothing worth mentioning to Captain Carmichael, especially not considering he was in such an unpredictable mood.

“Who was he?”

“I’m not sure. He stayed a single night. Why, I just thought he was a prospector. We get so many, after all.”

“How did he find out about your ability?”

“Mavis told him,” I swallowed. “She was bragging. He came into the saloon one night, looking for a place to stay. He kept going on about how important the magic stores in this valley would be when the war comes. He kept asking where they were too. And Mavis... oh, I can’t really remember how it came up, but she suddenly started bragging about the fact I could do magic with my very hands.” I gulped again.

Captain Carmichael had a very peculiar expression. It wasn’t nice. Not that it spoke of suspicion towards me – but his brow was crumpled, his lips drawn thin, and those stony grey eyes were like a storm on the horizon. “What else can you tell me about this man?”

“Oh... it’s probably nothing, but....”

“But what, Miss Mason?”

“He was quite off-putting,” I managed. “Kept looking at me like I was some kind of painting on the wall or a jewel in a box,” I said clumsily.

Throughout this entire conversation, Carmichael had not dropped my hand. He had, however, withdrawn a clean cloth from his pocket to press against my cut.

He had an alarmingly reassuring grip. The kind of grip you forgot about after a few seconds as it seemed so natural.

“Anything else?”

“Now this is very silly, but I heard from old John, who is a tracker, that he,” I bit my lip, “Well, saw that man carrying the colors of the Federations out in the woods. He only changed into regular clothes when he neared our town. But you need to understand old John is as wild as they come. He loves tales more than he loves his whiskey, and that’s saying something,” I said earnestly, trying to shift that look of shock from Carmichael’s eyes.

It would not be shifted. “This is serious,” he said in the lowest most disconcerting tone yet. “Enough discussion. We must take you back to my group. There I will decide what to do with you.”

I spluttered. “Decide what to do with me?” My voice rose high with indignation and echoed down the tunnel mouth.

“Do not complain about your preserves,” he said firmly as he pulled me forward.

“Hold on, we can’t leave – I haven’t settled all my bills in town.”

He suddenly turned on me, eyes blazing. “Miss Mason, have I failed to impart the severity of the situation?” He said in a strained tone that echoed back down the mineshaft.

I shivered.

“No, I haven’t, have I? Without question, we will leave as soon as we can.”

“But I can’t go to Washington,” I protested. “I’ve never travelled that far.” As far as arguments went, it was extremely weak, and I knew it would fail before the words left my lips.

He arched one eyebrow then the other, a few strands of his sandy blond hair falling across his face as he jutted out his chin and stared down at me. “This I can believe. But, Miss Mason, there is a first time for everything. To Washington you will go.” With that, he tugged me forward.

Captain Benjamin Carmichael

By the time we made it around the side of the cliff face and down the steep path to the valley, Isabel had wriggled free from my grip to begin stomping by my side.

Every few seconds she would think of a new excuse.

No excuse would cut-it however.

She had natural magic... just thinking about it made me shiver.

Securing control of the ether stores in California and related states would decide the coming war. Everybody knew that.

Whoever had access to more magic would win.

Just as everybody knew magic only came from the earth.

But Isabel Mason had it running in her blood.

I took a surreptitious look at her as she walked beside me. She was thankfully surefooted, even in her long skirts and heavy buffalo jacket. Her brown buckled boots would flash from underneath the fabric as she took to the loose rocks with ease.

Though I had just met her, I could tell she was too free with her opinions for my taste, and for most people’s tastes, I would imagine. But with her dark long glossy hair and hazel eyes, she made for a striking distraction. If you could make it past the drab clothes, muddy fingernails, and loose tongue.

“Are you staring at me, Captain Carmichael?”

“I must ensure you do not fall.”

“For the good of the country?” She crossed her arms, even though we were negotiating around the loose scree of a rock fall.

I frowned at her pointedly. “Do not make me carry you.”

She spluttered, hazel eyes widening with indignation as her cheeks turned rosy. “Excuse me?” Her voice trilled.

“Do not fall,” I pointed from her crossed arms to the loose rocks below her, “Miss Mason. Otherwise I will have to carry you down this steep valley. And that will not put me in a good mood.”

For a second she looked alarmed, then she snorted. A thoroughly unattractive noise, but she did not seem the type of character to care about that. “I have walked through these valleys my whole life, Captain Carmichael,” she retorted. “If anyone is to make a mistake with their footing, sir,” she said derisively, “It will be you.”

With that, she marched ahead, even scrambling up a large boulder like an indignant mountain goat. With one hand hooking her half loose hair behind her ear as the wind took it, she turned towards the horizon.

“What exactly are you doing up there?” I asked as I ground to a halt below the boulder. I could easily clamber it just as she had done, with more agility, too. But I did not wish to stand that close to her.

“Checking the weather, Captain. It can turn treacherous quickly in the Sierra Nevada. You do know your geography, don’t you?” She remonstrated as she arched an eyebrow.

I pressed my lips together, slowly revealing my clenched teeth as I gave her a warning smile. “Better than you. Now get down from there.”

“I do not take orders from you.”

I now smiled through bared teeth. “Miss Mason—” I began.

I stopped.

The call of an animal wrought the air. Not just any animal. Though on the face of it, it sounded like a wolf, there was a low undercurrent of magic.

It was a ragmal, I was sure of it.

And what was a ragmal? A creature who had feasted on too much ether and had become a diabolical monster.

“What was that?” Isabel turned, the wind catching more stray strands of her hair and sending it tumbling over her shoulders.

“Get down from there,” I snapped.

When she didn’t comply, I clambered onto the rock beside her, drawing her close as I grabbed her wrist.

She spluttered, but then another eerie cry wrought the air.

I watched her face turn pale. “What is that?”

“No ordinary wolf,” I said through clenched teeth.

There should be no ragmals in this territory. They are hunted. For good reason. A single one could tear through a town in a night and kill every man, woman, and child.

And if they found another source of magic to gorge themselves upon, it could take an entire cavalry unit to take one down.

There were government-sponsored trackers, even this far down south, paid to kill every ragmal they came across.

“We must make it back to the camp,” I counseled earnestly as I turned to jump down from the rock. As I did, my boots slipped on a treacherous patch of moss, and I tumbled forward, bringing Isabel with me.

Instinctively, I wrapped my arms around her, cushioning the blow as my back slammed against the rocky path.

I let out a groan as she thumped heavily against my chest. And she, well, she let out a squeak.

There was a low rumbling chuckle.

I heard footsteps along the path below us, and they paused. “Miss Isabel Mason, is that you in the arms of a cavalryman?”

Isabel now squeaked like a baby bird as she struggled to push herself off my chest. Her hair tumbled around my face, playing gently against my jaw and neck.

She jumped to her feet swiftly and the warm press of her body was gone.

I too scrambled to my feet, noting Miss Isabel Mason’s cheeks had turned crimson.

There was a man standing a few meters down the path dressed in suspenders, a strong sturdy shirt and pants, good boots, and holding an old Smith & Wesson.

“What would your mam have said if she saw you here like that with him?” The man nodded to me with a waggle of his chin and considerable grey beard.

I cleared my throat. “Miss Mason fell,” I corrected.

She snorted. “I didn’t fall. You did.”

My lip twitched. “She—” I began.

Another cry split the air, this one close enough that it sent a cold shiver pouring down my back.

I jerked my head to the left quickly.

“Don’t you worry, me and the boys are onto it. We don’t know how it slipped past our line,” the man brought his gun down, one hand locked on the trigger as the other supported the barrel, “But it won’t get past us again.”

“That’s a ragmal,” I warned automatically.

The man snorted. “You think we don’t know that?”

“… What’s a ragmal?” Isabel asked as she turned her wide alarmed gaze over her shoulder.

“Nothing for you to be worrying your head about, Miss Isabel.”

“Is it magical?” She asked.

“Nothing for you to worry about, Miss Isabel,” the man repeated as he toted his gun. Then he tipped his hat at her, gave me a cursory glance, and moved up the path beside us.

“What’s going on?” Isabel insisted.

The man ignored her.

She went to move off after him, but I placed a hand on her shoulder. “Leave him to it. We must get you back to camp.”

She turned on me. “Carmichael, this is not your town, so you cannot interfere. As a practicing mage, it is my responsibility—” she began.

“To follow me,” I cut in.

I pulled her forward. This time with a sure hand, determined that I would not let her go until we reached camp.

Chapter 3

Isabel Mason

Captain Carmichael was turning out to be quite the brute.

He did have a gentle grip though, I would grant him that.

Still, the very idea that he was tugging me all the way down the path to camp boiled my blood. I could walk on my own I was not a child holding on to its mammy’s hand to cross the road.

There was no denying, however, that look in his eye every time he turned over his shoulder to check the mountains beyond.

It was worry. An exquisite, tight fear that sent a pale wash down his cheeks, drawing his eyes into narrowed slits.

A few times I wanted to ask what a ragmal was again, but I doubted he'd tell me.

He clearly thought of me as little more than a confusing object. One he intended to take back to his masters in Washington. I imagine he would parade me around until he got sick of it, then abandon me there. And what would a girl like me do in Washington? Especially considering I had so much preserves to attend to before the end of fall!

Oh, the very idea of this all made me steaming mad. I wished I had never rolled out of bed this morning. Then I would never have met him.

“Whatever you're thinking about, I suggest you stop,” he suddenly counseled.

I turned to him sharply, my hair tumbling over my shoulders and collecting around the collar of my dress. For some reason it caught Carmichael's attention, and for a few short seconds he glanced at it before jerking his gaze away.

“You know, this will be much simpler if you would just stay quiet.”

Quiet indeed! This man was nothing more than a bully in boots with shiny brass buttons.

I shot him the kind of look that I hope left him with no doubts as to how I felt about him.

He simply curled his top lip back and laughed.

It did not take long to make it down the steep path and into the valley and then it was merely a 20 minute walk until we made it back to the main camp. There Carmichael met up with the rest of his men, and he walked away with them around the side of a well-used tent.

I could just make out the scuffed brown of his jackboots from behind the stained canvas.

He told me to sit on the ground and not to move.

Really, he was treating me like some kind of animal. I wouldn't be surprised if he tethered me to a tree.

I sat there glumly, my arms crossed around my middle.

Then I saw her – the extremely fine woman Wallace had talked about this morning. I’d already figured out that Carmichael was from the same entourage Wallace had told me about. There couldn’t be too many cavalry captains strutting around these parts.

She was surely a pretty little thing. But her clothes were prettier. With all that taffeta she looked like a doll.

I was gratified to see that her clothes were dusty. For they were thoroughly and totally inappropriate for the surrounds.

Briefly I looked down glumly at my own drab but suitable clothes. I industriously tried to rub off a patch of dust.

The young woman clapped her gloved hands together and called out in a sweet tone. “Captain Carmichael? Captain Carmichael? I've been looking for you everywhere.”

I heard the Captain clear his throat, then he moved around from the side of the tent, patting down his jacket and nodding. He also flashed a smile. The kind of smile that did strange things to my stomach. Things I instantly tried to push away. I knew what they were, but I promptly told myself I wasn’t that kind of girl.

Captain Carmichael was a strapping fellow. And I wasn't an idiot. I may have grown up in a small town, and I certainly was not as worldly as he, but there were certain facts I understood.

He was the kind of man who women fell for.

Most women, that is – just not sensible women. And I was most definitely a sensible woman.

I crossed my arms in front of my chest, tipped my head back, and tried to look haughty.

The only problem was, nobody looked at me.

For all of Captain Carmichael's insistence that I was somehow very important indeed, he did not even glance my way as he instead shot Miss Campbell another smile. “I have been unfortunately indisposed,” he explained.

Unfortunately indisposed?

Did he mean me?

I was the unfortunate one here, not him. If I'd never met that brute, I wouldn't be in my current predicament.

As the two of them chatted inanely, I let my gaze circle around the camp.

In an hour or two, the sun would set behind the tall mountains to our left, and it would become cold quickly. Nothing would hold the heat, and unless we started a fire, we'd freeze by morning.

I pushed to my feet and started walking towards a small copse of trees under the growing shadow of the mountain.

“Where are you going?” Somehow Carmichael managed to appear at my arm.

He'd been a good few meters away, but now he was right next to me.

I stared at him in surprise. “I'm gathering some wood for a fire.”

He shot me a considered look before saying “we're not staying, Miss Mason. I've already told you that.”

“It's going to be a very cold night, Carmichael. I know these mountains, and unless we start a fire, we will all freeze to death.” I tried to brush past him, but he got in my way.

He did not grab my wrist though. I wondered if that had something to do with Miss Campbell’s presence.

I shot her a cold look over my shoulder.

She was looking at Carmichael in a thoroughly adoring and inappropriate way.

“We're not staying at the camp tonight,” he said through gritted teeth.

“But it’s too late to begin our journey. And I don’t even have supplies yet!”

“We will head back to the main settlement in Grangetown.”

“But that's an hour’s ride!”

“Which is why we’ll start now.” For a second, he shifted his hand as if he were about to grab mine again.

I shifted back instinctively and narrowed my eyes at him.

“Captain Carmichael,” Miss Campbell said, her voice so high and artificially sweet it made me shiver.

“Miss Campbell.” He smiled. It was the kind of smile he must've put a lot of effort into, because it slowly crept up his cheeks, spreading to his lips, and somehow making his eyes sparkle.

Before my stomach could flutter too much, I clapped a hand on it and raised an eyebrow. “Miss Campbell appears to require your assistance,” I said through a smile of my own.

“Do not wander off,” he warned under his breath as he flicked me a cursory glance.

Then all his attention returned to Miss Campbell.

For a brief moment I caught myself thinking that she must be a lucky girl indeed, then I brushed the thought away with a curt shake of my head.

Though I wanted to wander off just to see what he would do, I didn't. And in a few minutes he walked up to me.

Not looking my way, but rather tipping his head back to stare at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada above, he spoke in a low tone that did not carry, “I will not put up with any foolishness.”

“Excuse me?”

“My meaning is quite clear, Miss Mason. Do not play games. This is a grave matter. Do you not feel for your country? Do you not wish to protect it and its citizens?” He suddenly asked.

“What are you talking about?”

“I'm talking about your country, your people,” he said in a low hiss. “I'm talking about the war.” Finally he turned his eyes on me.

I opened my mouth, but found I couldn't say anything.

“There is a war coming, and if you wish for the right men to win, then you must assist us. All I ask is that you travel with me to Washington. There your unique… ability may bring us the advantage we so desperately desire.”

I opened my mouth again, but the only thing I could do was swallow.

“I know this is a mighty inconvenience to you,” he said in a tone that suggested he didn't understand at all, “But I ask – no the country asks – for your assistance.”

He was pompous, he really was. As he stood there and lectured me, the late afternoon sun a halo around his hair and face, he could not be more overbearing.

“Do you know what is a mighty inconvenience for me? Having met you,” I said plainly as I turned from him. Before he could grab my wrist or grumble in my ear once more, I half turned over my shoulder. “But you'll have my assistance. I'll accompany you to Washington.”

With that, I walked away.

Not too long afterwards, our party mounted the horses.

There wasn’t a horse for me, as I’d walked here from my home. Before I could offer to wait here until one arrived, Carmichael insisted I ride with him.

A proposition Miss Campbell seemed none too pleased with.

Actually the truth was, I wasn’t pleased about it either. Captain Carmichael was treating me like a possession or some kind of rare and exotic beast.

The sleeves of his jacket were scratchy too, and they bunched far too close to my waist for comfort.

I spent the entire ride trying to move as far away from him as I could. Which was almost impossible considering we were sharing a horse together.

“Why is this woman with us?” Miss Campbell asked. She was a veritable mound of fabric on the back of her horse, and the beast was doing a sterling job keeping her on its back. If I’d been Miss Campbell’s horse, I would have bolted long ago.

“Miss Mason requires our assistance for a small matter,” Carmichael said smoothly.

Really? I required his assistance for a small matter? Indeed! This man was infuriating.

But I held my tongue.

Wisely, for at that moment an extremely pompous looking man with beady brown eyes shifted towards us on his horse. He was wearing a black banker’s suit, one tailored precisely for his small wiry form.

He shot me a deathly look, one I wasn’t ashamed to say I turned from.

“Your employers will hear about this. It is unacceptable. We are not a transport service,” he grumbled.

“They are not my employers. If you are referring to the country which I serve, Mister Bates, our pact is not one of pecuniary benefit,” Carmichael said, derision slicing through his tone. “I serve my country through loyalty and respect. And as for Miss Mason, she has nothing to do with this party – you are correct.”

“Then why is she riding with us?” Mister Bates snapped.

“She requires assistance,” Carmichael defaulted to saying.

“I will tell Theodore Campbell of this myself. He is paying for this mission, and he would be indignant that you’re bring along this dirty scrap of a woman.”

I bristled. Dirty scrap of a woman? What a horrid insult!

Before I could insult him in turn, or jump clean off the horse and curse him, Carmichael shoved me with his arm. “Not your battle to fight,” he said quietly in a whisper that did not carry. Then he cleared his throat and returned his attention to Mister Bates. “Feel free to tell Theodore Campbell, but it seems you do not understand the purpose of our unit. We are not employed by your employer,” Carmichael responded with a hiss, “We are in the service of this country. We were assigned to your party for protection. We were not however assigned to provide exclusive protection. A matter has come up with Miss Mason, and for the good of the country, I’m taking her to Washington. Now, for the good of yourself, I suggest you leave this here,” Carmichael said. Except he didn’t really say it – something very strange happened to his voice. It took on a ringing note of authority I’d not heard previously. Though I’d only met this man a few hours ago and was starting to form the opinion that he was an insufferable bully, that note of authority… why, it put me in mind of a Greek god.

Mister Bates curled his lips, sneered, and turned his horse away.

The conversation, it seemed, was over.

With that, our party fell into silence. I spent the next few minutes watching everybody. If I was to travel to Washington with these people, now was a good chance to find out what I would be in for.

Miss Campbell kept shooting me angry glares. Maybe she was under the mistaken belief I was trying to poach Carmichael from under her very fingers. Which would never happen.

As for Mister Bates and the other gentlemen in black suits, they too shot me the deadliest of gazes.

Carmichael’s men, however, didn’t. They were alert, choosing to stare at the surrounds rather than me.

There were many things I wanted to ask Captain Carmichael, but I didn’t know where to begin.

For one, was I expected to pay my own way? He’d thrown me onto this horse without giving me the chance to go back to my home. Though I had some meagre savings, they were far out of reach now.

And as for my clothes and supplies, was I expected to wear what I had and eat nothing?

“If you have a question, Miss Mason, I suggest you ask it,” Carmichael suddenly rumbled.

I jolted. Not so much from the surprise of hearing him speak suddenly, but more from the press of his chest against my back. I was still wearing my thick buffalo coat, but that did not change the feeling one bit.

I cleared my throat. “You don’t really seem to be the kind to be patient with questions,” I noted.

“Perhaps I’m simply not the type to be patient with you.”

“And what does that mean?”

“You have made my point precisely. You are too argumentative for a woman. You should learn to keep your opinions to yourself unless someone is foolish enough to ask for them.”

I snorted.

“You know, that is a particularly unattractive move. You put one in mind of swine preparing to eat.”

“An argumentative woman who reminds you of swine, and yet you still have to take me to Washington. How tremendously hard this will be for you.”

I heard him snicker softly.

“What? You aren’t going to take the opportunity to insult me further?”

“I have not insulted you, Miss Mason – I simply tell the truth. Plain and simple.”

“You want the plain and simple truth?” I began.

Then a cry split the air.

The hair along the back of my neck stood on end and a race of power plunged deep into my gut. I snapped my head around in the direction of the cry.

Though I had only just learned about them, could that be another ragmal?

Several of the horses whinnied with worry.

“What the devil was that?” Bates asked. For the first time his tone was not derisive, but terrified. He turned on Carmichael, his usually beady brown eyes now wide and worry. “Is it a wolf? They won’t dare attack a party this big, will they?”

Carmichael didn’t say anything. Instead he let his horse drop back until he drew alongside his men. He gave them hushed orders, and three of them dropped back, turning around and racing over the grassy plain.

“What’s going on?” Miss Campbell called.

“We will deal with it,” Carmichael assured her. But the note of authority was no longer in his tone. I could distinctly hear the fear.

“I demand to know what’s going on,” Bates insisted.

Another terrifying cry split the air.

I felt Carmichael stiffen, his arms turning to steel as he held onto the reins.

“I hope the trackers will be okay,” I said as I turned around to look over his shoulder at the mountains beyond.

“The trackers are not your concern, now turn around,” he snapped.

I didn’t turn around. Instead I locked my eyes on the mountains.

I also curled a hand into a fist.

Somehow Carmichael noticed. As he turned his own head to face the mountains, he brought his close to mine and whispered in my ear, “No matter what happens – no matter what happens – you will not reveal your ability. Understand?”

I shivered. His breath pushed against my ear, playing with the fine hair of my neck.

“Understand?” he repeated.

I nodded.

A few more terrifying cries split the air, and Carmichael forced the remaining members of our group to speed up. The horses’ hooves pounded over the ground like frantic drum beats. Carmichael had to fasten his grip around my waist so I didn’t fly off.

To think, I’d only met this man a few hours ago, and now we were far closer than two strangers should be.

This saddle was not designed for two people and I was not dressed for riding a horse. When this was over, I wouldn’t be able to walk for a day.

When this was over! Another terrifying cry rent the air, and I swore it was closer this time. It was hard to tell, as noises echoed loudly through this valley.

Still, Carmichael stiffened even more, and I heard him swear under his breath.

“Faster!” He commanded. Then he roared at his two remaining men to pull away from the group.

“I demand to know what’s out there!” Bates screamed again.

“You will leave this to us,” Carmichael commanded, and the exact tone of his voice left nobody in any doubt that he would not accept another question.

I wasn’t ashamed to say I huddled a little closer to him. I had no option, after all – his arms were locked around my middle, pinning me to his chest.

“Do you have any raw ether on you?” He asked.

I could have taken the time to point out it was a stupid question. He knew I didn’t need ether to practice magic.

But I didn’t.

I understood the severity of the situation, and his question suddenly reminded me that he had already used all of his.

He may have been a Captain of the Whites, but without ether, he could not practice magic.

Unless I gave him some of my blood. Which was a frightfully macabre thought to entertain, but it was true.

Maybe he knew what I was thinking, because he whispered sharply in my ear again, “Under no circumstances, Miss Mason.”

Was it really that important? Keeping my ability hidden? Especially if it could be the difference between surviving this or dying?

I was sure if it came to it, I would ignore Carmichael’s warning. I would not stand by and watch people die when I could make a difference.

The terrifying calls continued to split the air, drowned out only by the thunderous beat of the horses' hooves.

Before I could question the sanity of drawing these creatures – whatever they were – towards town, Carmichael leaned next to my ear once more. “As soon as we reach town, you show me exactly where the ether stores are. You will also assist me. Without your ability,” he cautioned.

For a few seconds I was speechless. Carmichael actually wanted my help? He was willing to acknowledge that I was useful? Indeed, somewhat powerful?

Well I never.

Before that thought could settle, another cry echoed through the air.

Despite the fact Carmichael had sent five magical cavalrymen after these creatures, they were still tracking us.

I shivered as I thought of what had happened to those men and the other trackers too.

I kept trying to turn around, but Carmichael would get in my way and pin me even closer to his chest with his powerful forearms.

For a journey that should take a good hour, maybe an hour and a half, we came upon the outskirts of Grangetown within a mere 30 minutes.

By the time our horses thundered down the dusty main road, my heart was in my mouth.

Immediately Carmichael brought our horse to a skidding stop. Then he jumped off and started ordering the rest of the party around. He snapped at Bates and the other men to get Miss Campbell into the inn.

Then he turned on me. Before he could offer me a hand off the horse, I jumped off deftly. Brushing the dust from my collar I brushed past him. “The ether is this way.”

By now people were coming out of their shops and homes to see what the kerfuffle was about.

At the top of his lungs, Carmichael bellowed for the sheriff. Soon the man appeared from the lock-up, a deep frown etched across his face and irritation flashing in his eyes. Irritation that stopped as soon as his gaze fell upon Carmichael’s uniform.

“What’s going on?” The sheriff snapped.

“Mount a force, sheriff. Bring your ether supplies and gather your weapons.” Carmichael drew several steps closer to the sheriff. “There are ragmals approaching town,” he said in a voice that commanded authority again.

At first the sheriff tried to laugh. Then he stopped. He was, after all, staring at a fully uniformed Captain of the Whites.

“This is no joke,” Carmichael confirmed. “Does this town have any form of magical battlements? A protection circle? An enchanted fence?”

“We could draw one,” the sheriff said in a stuttering voice.

“We won’t have time.” With that, Carmichael turned on me. “Go and help bring the ether. Then go into the lock-up, and lock yourself in the most secure cell.”

“What?” I squeaked.

The sheriff looked confused too. “What has Miss Mason done?”

“Nothing. But she must be kept safe. Sheriff, if she will not go quietly, you will lock her in one of those cells. Then you will stand at the front door, and you will ensure no one enters. Do you understand?”

The sheriff opened his mouth, his brow knotting with confusion.

Confused he may be, but he was still smart enough not to question a man like Carmichael.

Me, I wasn’t particularly smart, as Carmichael kept insisting. “You will not lock me up!” I tried.

“Go get that ether. No time to waste.”

Carmichael began to walk away from me, drawing his sword from his scabbard. There was no ether to charge it, but it still crackled a pale blue with residual magic from his fight in the mine shaft.

He also reached into his holster and pulled out a Colt with a shiny white enamel stock.

Though I desperately wanted to stand there and argue this through, I didn’t.

I could still hear the calls of the ragmals far off. So I turned on my boot heel and I ran to the general store. There I helped a few of the able bodied men gather the raw ether.

I was extremely careful. Sometimes if I handled the stuff, I could react to it, a rash of sparks erupting over my hands and down my arms.

Just when we carried the last of the stores out to Carmichael, who had formed a protective circle on the ground with dust and a fresh paste made from clay, we heard hooves.

Three of Carmichael’s men came thundering down the main road.

One jumped off his horse before it had a chance to draw to a halt.

I couldn’t hear what they were speaking about, but I craned my neck to try to get a closer look.

Suddenly Carmichael rushed over to his horse and mounted it. Before he could ride off, he shouted at the sheriff, “Lock her up.” He pointed a finger right at me.

Right in front of half the town.

Then the brute rode off.

The few men who were standing with me gave me wary looks. They would have no idea that I was being locked up for my own protection.

Before I could complain, the sheriff came over to me.

He was a kindly man, and he’d known my mam. He was also old Betsy’s son. “I don’t know what mess you’ve got yourself into, Miss Mason, but you heard what he said. And I can’t be ignoring an order from a Captain of the Whites. Come along.”

I wanted to dig my heels in, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want the sheriff to get into trouble.

So I followed him.

I followed him into the lock-up, where he proceeded to lead me to the last cell, ushered me inside, and locked the door.

And there I sat, with my back pressed up against the wall, my head angled to the tiny window above.

I kept my ears pricked for any sound of animal calls, hoof beats, or screams.

There were none.

As the minutes ticked into an hour, I became increasingly nervous, trying to jump up to the small window, but failing every time.

The sheriff was out in the main room of the lock-up, and I didn’t fancy screaming myself hoarse every time I wanted an update.

I began pacing back and forth. With nothing to do but wait and worry, I kept bringing up my cut finger and staring at it.

I frowned. Deeply, so deeply it was a surprise I didn’t cut my chin in half.

Natural magic couldn’t be that rare, could it?

For if it was that rare, why did I have it? I was the first to admit that there wasn’t anything special about me. I had a relatively ordinary appearance, though I did have very nice glossy long black hair that shone like ebony in the sunlight.

I came from a normal family. Though both my mam and pap were dead now, but I’d known them for long enough to know there was nothing extremely rare about them either.

Surely an ability like this would be more suited to somebody like Miss Campbell?

Suddenly I heard the sound of hoof beats. Quick and sharp, it was like being slapped. My eyes widened, and I stood there, frozen on the spot, waiting to hear the calls of the ragmals.

….

Nothing.

I shivered with expectation, my heart beating faster and faster in my chest until it felt as if it would tear its way out of my throat.

“Sheriff?” I called. “Sheriff?”

No answer. In fact, I heard a grate as the front door was opened and a tinkle of keys as the Sheriff appeared to leave the building.

I walked over to the rusted iron bars of my cell and grabbed them, eyes growing wide as I tried to stare off into the rest of the building.

Finally I heard voices. And footsteps.

And then there he stood, right in front of me. Captain Carmichael. There was a scratch across his cheek, and his hair was ruffled. Apart from that, he was fine.

I let out a sigh of relief.

“I wouldn’t have thought you would care for my safety,” he said.

It took me a moment, but I tipped my head back with indignation. “Not yours, Captain, but this town’s. Is everyone safe?”

He nodded low. “We managed to drive them off and deal with them. Three of my men will patrol around the town tonight, but I believe we have dispatched all of the ragmals.”

I shivered again.” What are they? I’ve never heard of them before.”

“A creature who has become infected with a curse and who has gorged itself upon magic. They often take the appearance of a patchwork of various animals, limbs, teeth, tails, and eyes.”

I recoiled, planting a sweaty hand over my mouth. “That’s horrible!”

“Their appearance is nothing compared to what they can do. A single ragmal could decimate an unprotected town.”

“Where did they come from? They’ve never been around these parts before.”

“You are incorrect – they have been around these parts. Government sanctioned trackers are employed to keep them controlled and away from population centers. For some reason,” he looked directly at me, “They have pushed towards this town in great numbers.”

“… Why are you looking at me like that? I haven’t done anything.”

“Ragmals are attracted to raw ether,” Carmichael said patiently as he brought a hand up and tenderly touched the scratch along his left cheek before patting his hands on his pants and letting it drop to his side. “The more ether that is available, the more the ragmal can gorge itself, and the bigger and more powerful it will become.”

“So they are attracted to the mines?”

“Or perhaps they are attracted to you,” he said plainly.

I took several steps away from him until my foot banged against the rusted metal bedpan. “I’ve lived in these mountains my entire life, nothing like that has ever come for me. You must be mistaken.”

“I am not mistaken, you are. You have underestimated your ability. The blood that pumps in your veins is much more powerful than any purified ether,” he said in the lowest tone possible. “Your body may be a light meal for a ragmal, but the magic within you....” He shook his head.

I planted both hands over my mouth now, taking several steps back until I jammed against the wall. There I stood, hands pressing harder and harder over my lips and teeth.

This couldn’t be true. These terrifying creatures couldn’t be here because of me. Putting the rest of the populace at risk just because I was here.

No, there had to be a mistake.

“The ragmals we fought were all wolves. Wolves have a heightened sense of smell, one that is increased by a magnitude of at least one hundred when they become ragmals. There is every chance that they smelt your blood,” he said pointedly.

I shivered, feeling colder than I ever had before. Even standing outside and rolling in the frost of a cold winter’s morning would not produce the chill that now took hold of my body.

“You must not reveal your ability. You must not cut yourself again. Do you understand?” He said in a low tone.

I made no move and said not a word. Instead I stood there with my hands pressed over my mouth and the shock ricocheting around my body like a musket ball.

“Do you now understand the severity of the situation?”

“Stop it.... Please, just stop it,” I said in a fragile tone.

He opened his mouth, but then he stopped. It was true that I’d only met him this morning, but I did not judge him to be the kind of man who would stop when asked. He looked like the kind of bully to keep pushing on until he left you in the dust.

He took a careful step backwards. “I do not mean to alarm you, Miss Mason. I only mean to alert you to the true severity of the situation so that you can cooperate fully.”

“You already have my cooperation,” I said in a shaking tone. “I allowed you to lock me up, didn’t I?”

“If we are to travel to Washington, you must follow my rules. You must do as I say.”

I considered him, my teeth locking together. That natural urge to argue with him returned, despite all the horrible things I’d just learnt.

His eyes flashed and he crumpled his brow. “I will have some blankets delivered to you,” he suddenly said.

I shook my head, confused. “What?”

“You will need blankets in here tonight. It will be cold.”

“I’m not staying in here tonight! You’re back. You said yourself the ragmals have been dealt with.”

“It will be much safer for you to stay in here,” he pointed out as he clapped his hands behind his back, looking like a man on patrol.

I suddenly pushed myself off the wall, indignation cutting through my fear. I stood there with my hands planted on my hips. “I am not staying in this lock up all night. It smells,” I said as I recoiled from the bedpan. “It’s freezing, there’s no bed, and I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“You haven’t done anything right either,” he began.

I pushed right up to the bars and latched my hands around them. “Apart from save Harry’s life and help secure the ether stores.”

He opened his lips, then shrugged. “You have a fair way to go. I will concede you were somewhat useful in that mine, but only at the risk of revealing your true power. No. For your own security and that of others, Miss Mason, you will spend the night here.”

“You can’t do this! I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Good evening, Miss Mason. Be sure to sleep well tonight – it will be a long journey in the morning.” He turned to walk away.

“It will be longer for you, Captain Carmichael,” I said through clenched teeth, “If you dare make me spend a night in jail. In fact, it will be an extremely long trip to Washington,” I threatened.

He paused and looked over his shoulder at me, his eyes narrowing. “I’m not a man to be threatened,” he warned.

“Really? Well I’m not a woman to be threatened either,” I said menacingly, hands curled around the iron bars.

For a few seconds he did nothing but stare at me. Coldly.

I did not shudder back.

“Fine,” he said through gritted teeth. “I suppose you can come to the inn. There at least I’ll be able to keep an eye on you.”

“Perhaps you are not so disagreeable after all,” I said as I smiled and took a step back from the cell doors.

“Miss Mason, you will find I’m not disagreeable at all. I’m simply in the duty of my country and doing what benefits us all.”

With that he turned and walked off to find the Sheriff’s keys.

Before too long I was in the inn, and he quickly shepherded me to a room. The inn was small, and I was surprised it could take his entire entourage. Before he walked out the door I cleared my throat.

“Now what?” I watched him roll his eyes.

“I was simply wondering where you’re going to spend the night?”

“Why? Are you worried I’ll be too close for comfort?”

I didn’t know what to make of that statement, so I ignored it. “This inn is quite small, Captain, and I can count. There aren’t enough rooms for you and your men.”

“That is why I will be sleeping on the floor of the storeroom, again,” he grumbled.

“We can’t have that,” I said.

He turned over his shoulder to look at me.

Before he could insult me again, I planted my hands on my hips. “How will you be able to do your job if you sleep on the floor of the store room?”

“I will be sufficiently alert, I can promise you that. Should any threats arise—”

“That’s not what I meant. Mister Carmichael, I find you disagreeable at the best of times, but I predict that if you have no sleep, you will be even more disagreeable. Plus, you won’t be able to do your job as a cavalryman.”

He gave me a look that suggested he had no idea what to do with me.

“I, on the other hand, won’t be needed for much, will I? I’m simply meant to close my mouth and keep my opinions to myself. So it won’t matter if I sleep on the floor of the storeroom. There is nobody for me to protect.” With that I tried to walk past him.

He grabbed my wrist.

He was awfully, awfully fond of doing that. But this time, my word did it send a spike of heat shooting fast through my stomach.

He was close, but I still turned to look at him. “And what now?”

“You will stay in this room, Miss Mason. The storeroom is mine.”

“Really? Are we going to argue over a store room?”

“It seems you can argue over anything.”

I tried to think of a comeback, but he was very close. Close enough that all those little details I’d been content to ignore came to the fore. The rough but still pleasant feel of his hand around my wrist, the exact shape of his shoulders as they pressed against the Prussian blue of his uniform. And that look in his eye.

“Miss Mason,” there was a lower huskier note to his voice than usual, “You’ll be staying in this room. You do not need to worry yourself about where I sleep.”

My cheeks blushed. They couldn’t have chosen a more inconvenient time. He was so close, staring right at me.

Still, I wasn’t about to give in. “You don’t need to act like a gentleman around me – you haven’t yet, so you don’t have to start now. Take the room, Captain. I’m quite used to sleeping simply.”

“I’m a cavalryman, need I remind you? I have slept rougher places than you, count on that.” There was still that husky note to his voice.

“You aren’t going to let me win, are you?”

“No,” he answered honestly.

It was my turn to roll my eyes. Then I took a hasty step back, because there was no longer any reason for me to be so close.

Unfortunately, there was a small bedside table behind me, and I banged straight into it.

He still had hold of my wrist, and he tugged me back before I could topple backwards. His gaze flashed, but it certainly wasn’t with anger. Or at least I didn’t think it was.

He shook his head. “I can see this will be a long journey ahead. If you can’t navigate around a bedroom, it will be a long and tiresome journey to Washington,” he said, but his voice faltered.

My eyes drew wide. He may think I was stupid, but I wasn’t that stupid.

If I’d blushed before, it was nothing compared to the incandescent glow my cheeks now emitted.

He cleared his throat, dropped my hand, and took a proper step backwards. “Not what I meant,” he said awkwardly, “That is to say, good night, Miss Mason.” With that, he turned hard on his boot, and it squeaked against the floorboards. Then he walked off, closed the door, and I fancied he even locked it with a magical field.

I did not bother to check the handle. Instead I walked over to the bed, sat down on the end, and tried to fan my hot cheeks.

What an infuriating man.

And a confusing one too.

After a while, I calmed down sufficiently to take off my boots, and hook my legs onto the bed. Then I lay there, with my hands pressed behind my head as I stared up at the ceiling.

My stomach grumbled, but I wasn’t in any mood to go and get food.

I had to think. For my mind was whirring and whirling with thought after thought.

All of them about that man.

Occasionally, however, a sane thought would pierce through the fog. I was about to go to Washington. Washington! I’d never travelled further than San Francisco.

And what would happen to me once I was there? This ability of mine, was it honestly that rare? If I was the only person with natural magic in the entire world, what would they do to me?

With that particular thought to pierce through the rest of my silly fancies, I rolled over, closed my eyes, and pressed my hands over my face.

Chapter 4

Captain Benjamin Carmichael

I could not afford to have another sleepless night. But it took me a long while to drift off.

Too many distracting thoughts. Too much to plan and organize.

The ragmals had pushed further into this valley than they ever had before according to the trackers we met up with.

There was no doubt in my mind it had something to do with Miss Isabel Mason. If my theory was correct, and the wolf ragmals had smelt her charged blood... then I had to be extremely careful.

Keeping her safe would be made much easier if she were more like Miss Campbell. But Miss Mason was extremely disagreeable.

Disagreeable or not, it was now my sole duty to deliver her to Washington.

By the morning, I was sufficiently rested that I arose before the sun did.

I was surprised to find Isabel tending to the horses.

I marched up to her. “What are you doing?”

“Tending to your horses,” she turned around with one hand patting the muzzle of my very own horse. “They have a long journey ahead of them. And they did such a tremendous job of outrunning those ragmals yesterday.” She continued to pat my horse as she fed it hay.

“You should not have left the inn without my knowledge,” I remonstrated.

She shot me a look and shook her head. “I didn’t venture far. The inn is only a few feet behind us.”

I opened my mouth to tell her of the weight of her situation once more, but she brushed past me.

She hefted a large bale of hay on her own. “Make yourself useful, Captain. Don’t just stand there, I imagine we have a lot to organize before our trip begins.”

I pressed my lips together and raised an eyebrow. “I am organizing this mission, not you.”

“I know that. So perhaps you should begin organizing it. I’ve gone to the general store to pick out some suitable traveling clothes and a small satchel for sundries. The bill is waiting with the store owner.”

“Excuse me?”

“You can’t honestly expect me to travel all the way to Washington in one oversized buffalo coat and one dress?” She looked at me earnestly.

My chin jutted forward and my lips parted as I readied to tell her that yes I did.

Then I stopped.

She shot me a knowing look. She had only known me a day, and she still dared to shoot me a look that said she knew exactly what I was thinking. “Before you tell me off, pause to think. Do you really want me to wear the same set of clothes all the way to Washington? They’d be able to smell me before I arrive. Plus, if... as you say, the wolf can smell my blood,” her voice became so quiet it was almost impossible to pick up. Her gaze dropped too. She no longer stared at me with defiance, and rather stared at a patch of dust by my feet. “Then I will have to be careful to mask my scent. Which will mean washing my clothes regularly and keeping myself clean.”

I dearly wanted to ignore what she was saying, but I couldn’t.

Which was infuriating.

The fact that she had so many opinions was awful, but the fact that those opinions were sometimes valid was hell itself.

I sniffed. “Very well. But I will look over your expenses. This is not a holiday.”

“No, this is kidnap,” she said as she crossed her arms. “You have insisted that I come with you to Washington. The least you can do is ensure I’m not uncomfortable.”

I gritted my teeth together. Countless insults leapt to my mind, but I had the sanity not to utter them.

Do so, and I would draw her into another argument.

Instead I turned to head to the general store. Before I left I grumbled at her. “Do not move far. I expect you to stay with these horses until I’m back.”

“That I can manage,” she said as she fondly patted my mare. “I find their company far more agreeable than yours.”

I said nothing and walked away.

By the time I had returned with her satchels, she was where I’d left her, sitting on the edge of the porch, kicking her heels back and forth as she watched the sun rise over the town.

I dumped her satchels next to her.

“Thank you,” she said, tone free from any hint of derision. She even offered what looked suspiciously like a pretty smile. Then the smile widened and my stomach sunk.

“And what about a horse?” she asked.

“What do you mean about a horse?”

“You can’t really expect me to ride with you the whole way to Washington. I think that would make Miss Campbell and Mister Bates extremely displeased.”

Again I had opened my mouth to tell her exactly what I thought, but then I stopped.

For the second time in a row, that insufferable woman had a point.

“It is much better that I have a horse of my own. And don’t worry, I can ride quite well. I can also tend horses, and I will be sure to tend mine well,” she said earnestly.

This woman was turning out to be extremely expensive. Or was she? The handful of dollars I’d spend on clothes and a horse would be nothing compared to what she was worth. If Isabel’s ability could be studied and replicated... it could change everything.

Everything.

Peace itself was running in her blood, or at least the means to ensure it.

So I turned stiffly on my foot and walked away.

“You look much nicer when you smile,” she said from behind me. “Do try not to frown the entire ride.”

Not willing to let her get away with that, I turned over my shoulder and arched an eyebrow. “Miss Mason, I’ll smile for you when you deserve it.”

She spluttered.

I smiled.

Isabel Mason

I sat there watching him walk away. I stopped kicking my legs in and out. Instead, my hands tightened around the edge of the wooden porch.

I watched him intently. Eyes narrowing in as he walked away.

I felt sick and excited all at once.

I wanted to tell myself I couldn’t travel all the way to Washington, especially not with a man like him. I was a simple country girl. And I had to prepare for winter.

….

And yet I’d always yearned for travel. I adored trekking through the mountains, sometimes even camping on my own. That was virtually unheard of for a woman, but I always had my magic with me. Plus, ever since mam and pap died and left the cabin to me, there was no one to tell me what to do.

Now that had changed – there was Captain Benjamin Carmichael.

Yesterday I’d convinced myself I would never fall for his charms. Now I wasn’t so assured. He had a certain way about him that undid me in the most terrifying manner.

Shaking my head at that thought, I now pushed it far out of reach.

I refocused on my problems. And there were many.

I turned to examining the parcels beside me.

Surprisingly, Carmichael had purchased everything I had asked for. I was sure he would have bought me only the bare minimum. Instead, he’d purchased more than requested. Several sturdy changes of clothes, and even a new pair of boots.

Before I could wonder what that meant, I spied old John Black, the tracker I’d met yesterday.

He was walking his horse down to one of the stables.

I jumped up, pushed myself off the porch, and ran towards him. “John,” I called, waving a hand at him.

He stopped in the shadow of the bank.

“Miss Mason, what are you doing in Grangetown?”

“Oh, it’s such a tremendously long story, I wouldn’t know where to begin. But what happened with those... creatures?” I shivered.

He looked at me, his head dropping low but his eyes remaining locked on mine. “Never you mind,” he said again.

“Come now, John, I’m not a child anymore. I’m a mage. I don’t need to be protected from the truth.”

He considered me for a short moment. “They’re pushing closer to town. They’re called ragmals, creatures gorged on magic. Ordinary wolves and bears and rabbits and raccoons that have come across too much raw ether and have been infested.”

“… Why do you think they are pushing close to town?” I asked, trying to hide my shivering as I clasped my hands tightly around my middle.

“They’ve been increasing their activity for the past few months. There are reports...” he trailed off, shooting me the kind of look that said he doubted I really would want to hear the truth.

I clutched my hands together nervously. “Tell me.”

“Very well, Miss Isabel. There are reports the Federations are to blame. Using them as a first wave to attack small towns just like this.”

Now I could not hide my shiver. It shot across my shoulders, down my back, and into my knees.

John watched me carefully. “You should not have asked.”

“No. I need to know these things. What are we to do? How are we to protect ourselves?” I was saying we, even though I knew full well I was leaving this town.

Still, even if I ventured away, this was my home.

And you never abandoned your home.

“We put in a request for an army contingent. Before it comes, we’ll be arming the able-bodied men of this town.”

I felt sick. While I’d always known of the rumors about the impending war, I’d ignored them. The war seemed so far off.

Now I couldn’t ignore it – for I could not dismiss the look in John’s eyes.

“Now I’ve told you that, how about you tell me what you’re doing with that cavalryman?”

I blushed, thankful that the shadow of the bank hid it as I rubbed distractedly at my cheeks. “I do not know him,” I said properly. “I met him yesterday. He came upon me when I was clearing a curse from one of the new mines.”

“Don’t know him, ha?”

“I know what you believe you saw,” I pressed my hands together and searched carefully for my words, “But I assure you, you saw nothing. He tripped, and he took me with him.”

“You want to be careful around men like that,” John suddenly warned. “They won’t treat you well, Miss Mason.”

I stuttered to a stop. “… What does that mean?”

“I know you can’t be that innocent, Isabel. A man like that will have no intention of wedding you.”

I blushed. “I... you are mistaken. I have just met this man, and I have no intention of...” I trailed off.

“You keep it that way. And you be careful,” he said gravely. Then he tipped his hat and walked away.

I stood there in the cold shadow of the bank trying to think over what I’d just heard.

To be honest, it was nothing I had not divined through my own observations. Of course a man like Benjamin Carmichael would never have any intention of wedding a woman like me. So why was that fact now so intractably locked in my mind?

I shook my head and tried to dislodge it.

I stood there shivering for a few more seconds, until I realized I had to return to the inn. If Carmichael found me away from it, it would only give him another reason to chastise me.

I quickly ran back, pulling myself onto the porch taking the exact same location and posture as when he’d left me, even arranging my parcels until they sat neatly by my side.

I clamped my hands into my lap and tried not to think of him.

A few seconds later, I heard heavy footfall behind me. I turned thinking it was him.

It wasn’t. It was Mister Bates.

He walked right behind me, until he loomed over my back. I was still sitting, and with him right behind me, my only option was to jump off the porch in order to stand. “Can I help you?”

“I don’t know what tricks you’ve played on that fool of a captain, but you will leave. Now,” he said in the lowest, most threatening tone I’d ever heard.

“I haven’t played any tricks,” I defended myself.

“How much will it cost?”

“What?”

“How much will it cost to send you away?”

“I’m not—”

He loomed right over me, face compressing with anger. “If money won’t work, I’ll find something that will.”

I recoiled, gaze widening with alarm.

“Do you require assistance Mister Bates?” Someone suddenly asked.

Carmichael approached.

I turned to watch him walk up the wooden porch steps, his footfall heavy and deliberate like blows from a hammer. He wasn’t watching me. He was watching Bates.

“You appear to have quite a stoop there. Do you require Miss Mason’s hand to help straighten your back? Or would mine do?” Carmichael’s voice dipped to a growl.

Bates took several steps back, gaze narrowing with hatred as he stared at Carmichael. “Good morning to you, Captain. I was simply welcoming Miss Mason.”

Carmichael’s gaze flicked to me for a brief moment. “I’m sure she feels extremely welcome now. Will that be all? You’ll be missing your breakfast if you don’t go now.” Carmichael gestured his head towards the inn.

Bates took several steps back, smoothing down his vest with one stiff hand before he turned and walked towards the door.

I placed a hand on my chest, willing my heart to settle now the threat was gone.

Or was it?

I was to travel in a party with Mister Bates all the way to Washington. Ignoring Carmichael completely, I turned to lock my wide eyes on the now closed inn-door.

That flash of anger in his eyes, I’d seen it before. It was the kind of look a man gave when he was truly capable of violence.

“Do not think of it.” Carmichael walked up to me, his gaze locked on the door until he reached me and finally swiveled it down to me. “Mister Bates is capable of little more than complaining.”

I didn’t answer and it took me a few seconds to drop the hand from my chest.

Carmichael cleared his throat. “I have your horse, as requested. Will there be anything else? A train perhaps? A house? Why not request an entire country?”

I ignored him and stared at my hands.

Though I’d cowered from the danger of the ragmals last night, what had just transpired was different.

It made this feel strangely real.

I clutched my arms around my middle, flattening a hand on my stomach. And then I stared distractedly at the dusty ground, brows knotting with concern.

I was about to travel to Washington... and when I was there, God knows what would happen to me. But there was one thing that would be certain – I would be alone. With no friends and no allies.

“Miss Mason, I’m not accustomed to being ignored. Especially not when I have just spent an alarming sum on clothes and a horse.”

“Thank you,” I said distractedly, immediately returning to my disruptive thoughts.

I heard him grumbling behind me. “You know, I quite like you when you’re silent – you’re pleasing to the ears,” he began, then he trailed off.

I didn’t look at him. Instead I brought two hands up and pressed them over my face.

“Go and get some breakfast,” he said in a completely different tone. Gone was every hint of an insult. “And make it a good breakfast. We’ll be traveling all day.”

I didn’t respond.

I heard him hesitate behind me, one foot resting on a squeaky floorboard.

Then he moved off and entered the inn.

As soon as he was gone, I let my hands drop, and then I looked around town.

I wondered what would happen if I tried to leave. I could take one of Carmichael’s horses, choose the fastest, and quietly escape before he had a chance to notice.

I was positive I knew these hills better than him. I could escape into the mountains.

… And then what?

Become fodder for the ragmals?

I shook my head, pressing the palm heavily into an eye as I felt an almost overwhelming desire to cry.

I was trapped.

Captain Benjamin Carmichael

I paused by the door, letting it open a crack and angling my head just right to stare at her.

For a few seconds she stared around town, and I was alarmed she was trying to escape.

But when she continued to sit there, one hand pressed over her eye and her shoulders hunched in, I relaxed.

I turned right around and let my muscles tense back up again.

I headed for Bates.

Whatever he’d said to her, he’d rattled Miss Mason. Something that appeared to be quite hard to do. She’d fought off that cursed miner without a single hesitation. And she’d held up surprisingly well as the ragmals had pursued her.

A few words from Mister Bates, however, and she looked crushed.

I latched a hand to my chin and let my fingers brush through the few fine bristles of stubble that remained from my morning shave.

I found Bates eating breakfast.

It was now my turn to loom over him.

Slowly he put his fork and knife down, placed his hands either side of his plate, and tilted his head back to stare at me. “Yes, Captain?”

“Let me make something clear. You are in the employ of Mister Campbell.”

“A fact I am already perfectly aware of,” he said, lips moving sharply around each word. “I do not need for you to state the obvious, Captain.”

“But you do seem to require that I do state this: you will stay away from Miss Mason. You will ask no questions, and you will make no trouble,” my voice dipped low on the word trouble. “Mister Campbell may be important and may be very wealthy. But, Mister Bates,” I stepped towards the table, leaned over, and placed a hand down on it, fingers spreading to reveal white, tensed knuckles. “Mister Campbell isn’t here. I am. Do you understand?”

His fat smile stiffened and momentarily Mister Bates looked a little unsure of himself.

“First and foremost, I protect this country. First and foremost,” I reiterated emphasizing each word carefully. “If you choose to get in the way of that, I will not allow you to stand.” With that, I straightened up, letting my tense hand relax and drop to my side. Then I turned sharply on my boot, the heel digging into the dusty worn floorboards. Glancing over my shoulder I added, “Enjoy your meal, Mister Bates.”

I may have just made an enemy, but it was inconsequential. Mister Bates had never liked me, so I was simply solidifying our enmity. Plus, I could not leave this man with any illusion that I would not protect Miss Mason.

… Which would of course lead to questions.

Unfortunately they were unavoidable.

Even my men wanted to know exactly why we were now shepherding Isabel Mason. I had told them it was critical we get her to Washington, and being good soldiers, they did not question.

But they would nevertheless wonder.

All of them would wonder.

I gritted my teeth as I walked away, for the first time truly considering how hard this may be.

It was of the utmost importance that I keep Miss Mason’s ability secret from as many people as possible. Especially people like the odious Mister Bates. Who knew what he would do with such knowledge.

No, I had to hold this secret as close to my chest as I could until I reached the Captains of the Whites. Only then and only there would I relax.

But they were a considerable distance away.

The further we travelled, the more questions would likely be asked.

There was another option though, wasn’t there? Leave Miss Campbell’s party behind. I was confident I had the skills to get Isabel to Washington on my own.

Yet abandoning this mission could mean the end of my career if Mister Bates had his way. I had been hand-picked for this task because of my proficiency. Though I was confident the rest of my men would be able to protect Miss Campbell with ease, I would, however, be negligent if I relinquished this mission.

But... wouldn’t I be far more negligent if I should let anything happen to Miss Mason?

Miss Campbell was an important heiress, granted, but Isabel Mason quite possibly held the future of the country in her hands.

Whatever decision I would come to, I could not make it yet. For now, it would be safer to travel as a party. Additionally there were many things still to be organized.

I set about organizing them quickly, ordering my men until finally our group was ready to leave.

I found Isabel outside already in her saddle. She wore one of the new dresses I’d bought her, and I had to acknowledge it was far more pleasing on the eye. All her possessions were neatly packed in saddlebags, and she’d done an efficient job arranging them.

She clearly hadn’t lied – she was used to traveling by horseback. You could tell that by the ease with which the beast carried her.

Isabel looked at me expectantly. “Are you ready, Captain?”

Rather than reply, I shot her a long look as I walked past her horse and then swung myself up into my own saddle.

Soon enough Mister Bates came out of the inn with Miss Campbell in tow. “I do not see why we have to ride by horseback again. Where are our carriages?”

“The next leg of this journey cannot be executed in carriages.”

“I planned this journey perfectly. It is only because you have altered our itinerary,” Mister Bates said as he stared straight at Isabel.

She shifted, blinking uncomfortably.

“Are you particularly fond of Miss Mason’s dress?” I suddenly asked.

Mister Bate’s cheeks reddened.

“Then I suggest you stop staring at her,” I said pointedly in a low tone that could not carry to Miss Campbell.

“Whatever you are doing here, I will make sure you will pay for it,” Mister Bates threatened as he walked past me. “As soon as we make it to Pine Lake, I will send a message to Washington,” he warned.

“Be sure to send my respects to Mister Campbell.” I smiled. “Now mount your horse, Bates. It will be a long ride ahead of us.”

“Miss Campbell is not up for another ride on horseback,” Mister Bates stated flatly as he drew to a halt and curled his hands into fists.

I looked directly at Mister Bates. Then I smiled. And I put a lot of effort into that smile. “Miss Campbell, is this true?”

She blushed. “Oh no. I... found the horse ride yesterday quite... ahh, energizing,” she stammered.

“You understand that it is unavoidable that we do the next leg of this journey on horseback, I hope.” I kept smiling, cheeks pushing high into my eyes.

“I guess I do....”

“It is for your own protection, Miss Campbell,” I said seriously. “With the ragmals pressing in on this area, we must get you to a proper population center as soon as we can. Pine Lake has magical fences. You will be safe there. Then we can plan the next stage of this journey.”

She nodded firmly. “We are all indebted to you, Captain, for keeping us safe.”

I nodded politely.

I noted that Miss Campbell was wearing considerably less eccentric garb this morning and one much more appropriate for horseback.

For just a flickering moment I felt sorry for her. She was being dragged into a much more complex journey since Isabel’s inclusion in our party.

Once we reached Pine Lake I would have to reflect carefully on my next actions.

For now, I had to concentrate on getting there.

Our party rode out at 7:45 sharp.

It would be a long day.

Isabel Mason

I hadn’t slept a wink last night. My mind had been too busy with every possibility.

Now I struggled to stay awake on my horse.

It was a relatively pleasant morning, and the sun was invitingly warm. It shone down on my chest as we were riding into the morning sun, its gentle warmth sinking deep into my body and lulling me to sleep.

My eyes kept closing, only for me to jerk them open as my head dropped.

Fortunately my horse was smart enough to stay with the group.

Carmichael kept shooting me warning glances though. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came over and threatened to put me on his horse with him.

That thought sent such a shiver through my stomach I woke right up.

This was bad. I shouldn’t be thinking thoughts like this about a man like Carmichael. He was trouble, my sensible mind tried to tell me.

A captain in the cavalry, every action he undertook was for his country. I was a means to an ends for him, and nothing more.

I imagined he would abandon me at the first chance he got.

I sighed glumly.

Sure enough, Carmichael angled his horse towards me. “Fall asleep and fall off that horse, Miss Mason, and I will strap you to the back of mine.”

“Why do you insist on calling me Miss Mason all the time?” I suddenly asked as I turned my weary gaze on him.

His brow compressed. “It is your name, is it not? Are you that fatigued that you have forgotten? Or is your true lack of intelligence finally showing?”

“You can call me Isabel,” I said choosing to ignore his insult.

He considered my request. “I’m not your friend, Miss Mason.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Never a truer statement was uttered. You’re a man who intends to use me for a purpose and then walk away. The old tracker John Black already warned me about men like you.”

Carmichael slowly arched an eyebrow. “And what did he warn you, exactly?”

“Not to get involved with a cavalryman,” I said as I grabbed hold of my reins and angled my horse away.

Carmichael followed, but before he could bother me again, Miss Campbell caught his attention.

She was welcome to him. I thought mutinously.

While he was distracted, I surreptitiously brought up my finger and checked the cut. It had scabbed up nicely, a fact I confirmed as I ran a fingertip over it. But as I loosened the scab at the outer edge, a few flecks of blood oozed to the surface and a few magical crackles accompanied them.

I immediately closed my hand and shoved it into my pocket.

Then I turned to note that Mister Bates was staring right at me.

Surely he was far enough away that he hadn’t seen that slight crackle of magic. But there was no denying the intensity with which he stared at me.

I tried to ignore it, but it was impossible.

Unconsciously and quite horribly, I found myself angling my horse towards Carmichael. I may detest the man, but at least he was effective at putting Mister Bates in his place.

I listened to Miss Campbell’s inane chatter, and tried not to nod off.

The day was horribly long, and by the time we saw Pine Lake in the distance, I was almost dead in my saddle.

It was a struggle to stay on my horse, but I did manage to.

When we arrived in town, everyone was quiet from our long journey. Even Miss Bates.

Once the horses were tethered, we headed straight to the main inn in town. It was much larger and much grander than the small one in Grangetown.

I sleepily walked up the stairs to my room, glad I had one to myself. Then, without changing my clothes, I fell onto my bed face first.

I didn’t even bother to undo my hair. I let my messy plait tumble over my shoulders, and I tried to fall asleep.

Try being the operative word.

For about 10 minutes later, my door opened without an invite.

I pushed myself up to see Captain Carmichael walk in to my room and close the door without a word.

Then he stood there and shot me a judgmental look. “I did not buy you those clothes so that you could rumple them up on the bed.”

“Did you just walk into my room without knocking?” I pushed myself up, a shot of indignation chasing my fatigue far away.

“Clearly.”

“And what if I had changed into my night clothes?” My voice squeaked high.

“Then I would have knocked,” he said with a superior look as he clasped his hands behind his back.

I opened my mouth. This man was insufferable.

“Before you launch into another argument, pause. Please. I’m here to discuss the plan.”

Despite myself I stowed my anger. “What plan? I thought the plan was to head to Washington?”

“How we will get there is what we are to discuss.”

“I thought we would travel with Miss Campbell’s party. Wasn’t that what you intended?”

Carmichael looked at me. After a considerable pause he continued, “That may not be wise.”

I shivered and thought of Mister Bates.

Carmichael watched me carefully. “We need to get to Washington as soon as we can. The rest of the group will slow us down.”

“You can’t rightly abandon your men, can you?” I protested.

Suddenly he laughed, his whole countenance changing. “Yesterday you tried to point out that I could not sleep on the floor of the storeroom and rather had to take your own bed because you were worried I wouldn’t get enough sleep to do my duty. Now you are questioning my right to abandon my men. You do not need to worry about my duty, Miss Mason; I will attend to that myself. And I won’t be abandoning them,” he said in a stiff tone. “This is more important. And there are five of them, and they are all strong, well-trained men. They will be more than up to their task,” he said earnestly.

I suddenly became uncomfortable, and found my hand latching onto my messy plait. I suddenly realized it must look like a last season’s bird’s nest.

Then I started to think about what he’d said. “Hold on, but if we leave the group, that will make it just the two of us.”

One half of his lip curled up. “Ah, so you can count too.”

“Why do you take so much pleasure in insulting me? Is that how a proper Captain of the Whites should behave? I thought you were all meant to be gentlemen?”

“I am a gentleman. But not all ladies deserve a gentleman.”

I sneered at him. “And not all gentlemen deserve a lady,” I snapped back.

That curl to his lips grew. “Are you confusing yourself for a lady?”

“No, Captain Carmichael, I wouldn’t dare. I’m an object, remember? One you must deliver to Washington and then abandon,” I snapped tersely, turning from him as I crossed my arms and walked over to the door that led onto the balcony. This inn was much grander than the one in Grangetown. A wooden balcony led from my room and offered a stunning view of the town.

Carmichael cleared his throat from behind me. He didn’t appear to know what to say.

I kept my back turned to him and tried to ignore his presence.

“I suppose I can trust you to sleep here tonight without any trouble?”

I waved a hand at him.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Good night, Miss Mason.” He turned, but he stopped before he reached the door. I heard as he pressed a hand to it, and then turned over his shoulder, the floorboards underneath him squeaking from his shifting weight.

“Are you going to wait there by my door until I say goodnight to you?” I finally turned over my shoulder to face him.

He was staring at me. “Understand that everything I do....” He suddenly dropped his gaze and looked at the floor.

“You do for your country?”

“… Yes. Good night, Miss Mason.” With that, he walked out.

For a good long while I stood there and stared at the closed door. All sorts of thoughts chased their way through my mind.

What a strange man.

What a strange man.

Finally I walked over to my bed, took off my coat, undid my boots, and climbed under the covers.

For a few moments I lay there with my eyes open staring at the scar along my finger.

Then I went to sleep.

Captain Benjamin Carmichael

I retired to my room and poured myself a whiskey.

I’d earned it.

In fact, I had the feeling I would be earning more than a few whiskeys before I successfully delivered Isabel to Washington.

She was such a curious and infuriating woman.

As I sat there on the foot of my bed, swirling my whiskey around my glass, I hunched my shoulders and locked my elbows on my knees.

My jacket was half undone, a few buttons of my shirt beneath were open. My scabbard lay on the bed beside me, my Colt next to it.

I stared at the wall. This inn was generous enough that there was a small room adjacent to the bedchamber which had a bathtub. I’d already ordered a hot bath.

An indulgence, maybe, but one I needed to draw out the tension from my muscles. If I really did split from the rest of the group, I would need to have my wits about me.

Keeping Miss Mason safe on my own would be a challenge. For one, I would have to keep myself safe from her.

She had a talent for arguments, and an even greater talent for drawing me in. She brought out a side of my personality I’d been barely aware of until I’d met her.

I suddenly closed my eyes, tipped my head back, and swirled the whiskey in my glass again before taking a sip.

I forced myself to my feet and started pacing around the room.

As I paced, I put down my glass, and turned to face the door.

There was more I had to discuss with her. Much more. I still had to impress upon her how important this was. How everything counted on this.

She could not afford to be foolish. She had to keep her ability hidden from every soul.

And she had to help me, for without her assistance, it would be hard to keep her safe.

The more I paced, and the more I faced that door, the more I got the inclination to go see her right now.

She was just next door.

She would be sleeping though.

And yet this was important, wasn’t it?

Deathly important.

Isabel Mason

I slept eventually. But even when I was as tired as I was now, I was always a light sleeper.

So I heard the creak as the door to the balcony opened. I felt the slight breeze too.

Frowning, I pushed myself up in bed.

And that’s when I saw it. The outline of the figure looming over me.

Black, with two yellow eyes.

I shunted back, screaming. But the figure snapped forward, slamming a rag over my mouth and grabbing my wrist, plunging its fingernails deep into my arm.

I struggled, head banging into the wooden wall, feet slamming into the man as I tried to push away.

Then something happened to my fight. It died.

Because something shifted through me.

A spell.

It was only the rag and in the nails that dug into my wrist. I had just enough awareness left to realize that as my eyes rolled into the back of my head.

I fell unconscious immediately.

Captain Benjamin Carmichael

There was a bang on the wall. Subtle, quiet, but there. I wouldn’t have noticed it had I not been standing in the middle of the room in total silence as I struggled with my thoughts.

As the hairs rose along the back of my neck, I realized where the sound had issued from – the wall I shared with Isabel’s room.

My room did not have a door that issued onto the balcony, so I had to thrust open my door, run down the hall, and open hers.

By the time I did, I opened it to an empty room.

Her bed was a mess, the covers and pillow on the floor.

My eyes swiveled to the left, and I saw the balcony door wide open, shifting slightly in the wind.

I launched towards it.

Just as I reached it, I saw a rustle of fabric to my right. I stuck my head around and up to the roof above.

There was movement.

Footfall.

I’d climbed many a tree in my time, and I did not find it hard to launch myself up onto the railing of the balcony, then follow the roof around and up.

Like many buildings of its kind, this roof was sloped and made of large, solid wooden beams.

Unlike many roofs of its kind, it was currently occupied by a shadow maker.

A shadow maker.

I was not mistaken. I recognized the two beady yellow eyes immediately. And if those would not suffice, then the general feeling of the man would.

Shadow makers were practitioners of dark magic, creatures who had once been men but had turned themselves into something perverse.

This shadow maker, dressed in a long black jacket that fell down to his boots, held Isabel.

She was unconscious, her head lolled to one side.

For a few seconds the shadow maker did nothing. He stood there and stared at me, a flick of yellow as his tongue sliced across his teeth.

With a sudden burst of speed, he ran to the edge of the roof.

Before I could do anything, he half threw Isabel off it. Muttering a spell under his breath, crackles of magic shot along her body, plunging into her feet until her boots locked onto the edge of the roof.

The shadow maker held Isabel by the wrist. Isabel was still unconscious, her long loosened hair falling untidily behind her, the skirts of her dress billowing in the cold night air.

“Another step,” the shadow maker warned.

“Let her go,” I said through stiff lips.

“Very well.” The shadow maker let go of her wrist, grabbing the slim fabric of her sleeve instead.

It couldn’t support her weight, and it tore, the sound renting the night air. Before I could throw myself forward, heart pounding in my throat, a small charge of magic sunk into the fabric of her sleeve, stopping it from tearing any further. It was a spark of bright white-blue against the dark night.

A gust of wind caught Isabel’s hair, sending it chasing over her face and shoulders.

“There is nothing you can do, Captain.” The shadow maker smiled, his lips curling to reveal a row of tarnished metal teeth. “Retreat inside. If you don’t—”

There was a tear, more of her sleeve ripping further. Just before the fabric could be torn clean off, a final charge of magic sunk into it.

Isabel was now being held by a mere thread.

I felt cold, through and through. Up and down my back, the iciest chill raced. It sunk into my stomach like someone had sliced right through my belly and poured snow into the hole.

I swallowed.

“Retreat inside, Captain,” the shadow maker sneered. “It is a long way down to the ground.” His yellow tongue whipped over his thin lips as he glanced from the ground below then back to Isabel’s sleeve.

I only had one chance, and it certainly wasn’t to walk away. Leave this roof, and the shadow maker would kidnap Isabel.

There was only one option.

Wake her up.

I was sure the shadow maker had cast some kind of the sleep spell on her. If I could rouse her, it may be enough of a surprise for me to claim the upper hand.

I always carried a very small vial of pure ether on a chain around my neck.

Slowly I turned to the side, thankful for the dark night.

“Get off the roof, Captain,” the shadow maker hissed, leaning over the edge and letting Isabel’s comatose form dangle further into the night air.

My heart beat so fast and hard in my chest it was a wonder it didn’t tear right through my shirt.

I called on my training, though, and my grit.

Surreptitiously, I grabbed a hand around my small vial of ether.

“Turn around now, Captain.”

“Very well,” I muttered. I slowly walked to the edge of the roof where I’d clambered up. It gave me a chance to pour the contents of the ether onto my hand.

I closed it into a fist.

Ordinarily it was almost impossible to practice magic on somebody from a distance like this, not unless you intended to hurl a bolt of power towards them. I did not intend to kill Isabel. And waking her up would be a delicate process.

I was a Captain of the Whites, so I was up to it.

“Hurry,” the man said in a hiss.

I intended to.

Just as I turned around to jump off the roof, I brought my cupped hand up, and blew into the ether.

As I did, I muttered the words of an enchantment that would counter the sleep spell.

As long as even a single particle of ether landed on Isabel, the spell would take hold.

A cloud of ether puffed out at my move, shifting up into the air like dust motes.

The brisk breeze took it, and blew it towards her.

My heart in my throat, tension locking my body, the next few moments felt like eons.

Then there was a crackle. A few particles of ether drifted onto Isabel’s skin, and charged across it with an electric blue spike.

Her eyes opened.

And she screamed.

It was a risky wager, but I was willing to bet that the shadow maker had no intention of letting Isabel go. She was far, far too valuable.

I was making another risky wager too – that Isabel was smart enough, strong enough, and together enough to fight back.

I was right.

Barely a half second passed, and she brought her free hand up and latched it over the shadow maker’s arm. A few sparks of magic erupted over her palm.

I ran across the roof. Now was my opportunity.

Shifting low, I rounded my shoulder and I slammed into the shadow maker, pulling him backwards, and shoving him onto the roof.

I assumed he’d bring Isabel with him – not willing to let her go. But he didn’t.

He lost his grip on her wrist, and she lost hers on his.

….

But she didn’t fall.

Her boots were somehow locked onto the edge of the roof by magic. Her skirt spun around her in the wind, and her arms flailed back and forth, but she couldn’t move her body. She still hung in the exact position in which the shadow maker had left her.

The shadow maker reared on me, bringing his hands around, his long yellow fingernails glistening with magic. From experience, a particularly potent kind of purified ether would be lodged under the nails. Get it in your blood, and the shadow maker would be able to cast a powerful spell on you – such as it had done with Isabel.

I had no intention of letting the shadow maker’s fingernails anywhere near me.

I doubled back, kicking backwards as I rolled onto my feet. Then I dodged to the side just at the shadow maker launched towards my ankle.

I timed my move just right, and brought a powerful kick swinging towards his shoulder. It connected, and he was thrown backwards.

I didn’t have much magic left – I’d used most of it to wake Isabel up. But there were still a few particles of purified ether on my hands, and I intended to use them.

I balled my hands up into fists, and I got ready.

The shadow maker made it to his feet, hissing and sneering into the night, muttering some low powerful curse onto the wind. I could feel the effect of the magic as it crawled up my spine, making me shiver with every hissed word.

I acted. Darting forward just as the shadow maker sunk his hands into the round beams of the roof.

He slashed towards me with his fingernails, even bringing up a powerful charge of magic between them.

The bright blue white of the powerful spell shone through the night, lighting up the underside of the shadow maker’s face. His sneering, compacted, ugly expression was seared into my mind.

Contorted with so much hatred, he looked like a demon. And in many ways, he was. Practice too much dark magic, and you lose your soul. There’ll be no Heaven for you, laddie. Just an eternity of Hell on earth, tortured by an unquenchable need for ether.

With a cry that split the night air, he launched towards me, pushing one hand into the roof for purchase. The white blue charge along his hands suddenly sliced towards me. I managed to dodge it, but only just, and it blasted through the upper right sleeve of my heavy jacket, the wool singeing and charring in the air.

I shifted backwards again, dodging to the side, keeping both hands pressed into tight fists, not wanting the few particles of precious ether trapped in my palms to escape. They were my only means to win this.

With teeth gritted, eyes blazing, and sweaty tendrils of hair stuck against my forehead, I finally acted.

I saw my opportunity.

Just as the shadow maker reared back, preparing another charge, I snaked towards him.

And struck him as hard as I could on his jaw.

There was a clunk, and he fell.

For just a second I allowed myself to stand over him and stare at him.

What was it doing here? Had he been sent for her? Had news of her ability spread? Already?

As those thoughts tumbled through my mind, I leant down on one knee next to the shadow maker. Wary in case he moved again, I plucked up one of his hands.

As a Captain of the Whites, I knew how to gather ether when I needed it. You had to be resourceful, otherwise you would lose.

So, ensuring the shadow maker’s sharp fingernails came nowhere near my flesh, I carefully scraped out a few particles of ether from under his nails. It was dark black and sludge-like. Yet it would still work.

Pressing it between my fingers and rubbing it back and forth until I generated sufficient heat, I tipped my head back and stared up at the slither of moon in the night sky.

I started to chant. Low, melodic, rumbling, like a faraway storm, it grew and grew until with a shout, I finished the spell.

Silver white ropes burst out from the magic between my fingers, snaking towards the shadow maker. They wrapped around his hands and feet, binding him in place.

I checked the ropes to ensure they would hold, and finally I stood.

I turned to Isabel.

She was still locked to the roof, her body at an almost 30° angle from the vertical. Her arms were slack by her sides, her hair and skirt still buffeting around her in the wind.

She’d also fallen back asleep. The small spell I’d managed to cast on her had not been enough to completely counteract the sleep enchantment still running through her veins.

I approached her quickly. Then I carefully leaned a hand out and grabbed her wrist. As soon as I had it, I paused.

She was strangely serene as she leaned suspended there, the rustle of her skirts like a wind through leaves. The silvery moonlight caught her milky white skin, making it glow. And her sleek long ebony hair drifted around her head like a halo.

… I could not stand and stare at this strange scene forever.

Locking my feet into the roof and reaffirming my grip on her wrist, I pulled.

At first I couldn’t break through the spell. But I grit my teeth, locked my feet even harder onto the wood, and pulled with all my might.

There was a crack like a large pane of glass breaking.

The spell shattered.

Isabel fell forward, and I fell backwards.

She fell on top of me, her hair dropping over my chest and around my face. Soft like spun silk, it smelt of rose soap.

The sleep spell was still coursing through her veins, but as her eyes fluttered, she started to wake.

Then, with a snap – as if she realized where she was and who was underneath her – her eyes sprang open.

Before she could scream and bring out the town, I cupped a hand gently over her mouth, a few strands of hair sticking under my thumb and fingers.

“It’s alright Miss Mason. Now, I’ll help you to your feet. That is, if you be a good girl and don’t scream.”

I watched her gaze crumple on the term good girl.

Fortunately, however, she did not scream as I tentatively removed my hand.

Then, with a grunt, I shifted her up, closing an arm around her own warm arms and helping her up.

The scent of rose soap lingered on my collar and breast, but I ignored it as I stared at her through the half dark. “Do you remember what happened?” I began.

I realized her gaze was locked on the slumped form of the shadow maker. The exact fear washing over her pale cheeks told me she did, indeed, remember.

I still held her shoulders, and I tightened my grip and ticked my head down and to the left to block her view.

After a few nervous breaths, she swiveled those eyes to me. “What happened? I remember him coming upon me in my room.” She shivered. “He clasped my left wrist and dug his fingernails in....” She brought up her left arm and turned the hand over.

Sure enough, there were four half-moon cuts impressed into her pale flesh.

I dropped a hand from her shoulder, grasped her wrist, and ran a thumb over the cuts.

She shivered, either from the cold or something else.

I ignored her as I focused on her wound.

I could sense the magic within. It left a sharp phosphorous taste alighting over my tongue as though I had inhaled the fumes from a self-igniting match.

She shivered again. “What is it?”

“Cursed ether. The man who came upon you had ether under his fingernails. When he grabbed you and dug them in, he drove the ether into your veins. Then, with the use of a few enchantments, he sent you to sleep.”

“I do feel heavy with fatigue,” she admitted as she slipped a hand between us and pressed two cold white fingers into her brow.

I was still standing close to her, so much so that she had to tilt her shoulder back to let her hand drop back to her side.

“… Be sure to stay awake,” I said after a considerable delay, finally turning my mind from our proximity and onto what she’d said instead. “I shan’t be carrying your off this roof into your room.”

She ground her teeth together and that familiar peevish look returned to her gaze. “I wouldn’t have dreamed you would. A man like you does not know how to treat a woman properly.”

I snorted as I continued to inspect her wrist. Though, truth be told, there was no further reason to be gazing at it so closely – I’d already ascertained what had rendered her unconscious.

Still, it took me a good ten seconds to finally let her hand go and to step back.

I tugged down on my linen shirt, smoothing my hand over it to chase away her warmth.

“Actually, I know exactly how to treat a woman properly,” I retorted finally.

“Is there something wrong with you tonight, Captain? You seem somewhat distracted.” She took a haughty step backwards, but promptly wobbled, either from the sloped roof or the remnants of the sleeping spell.

I took a quick step towards her, though I did not throw a hand out to catch her yet. With that particular look flashing in her eyes, she would push me away and likely tip right off the roof.

“Do watch yourself, Miss Mason – I shan’t be spending the whole night catching you when you fall.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but there was a sound behind her. The shadow maker was stirring already.

She yelped and jerked backwards. Not towards me, mind you, but towards the edge of the roof. Clearly throwing herself off a roof was more palatable in her mind than throwing herself at me.

“Do not worry,” I counseled as I kept a keen eye on the shadow maker. “I have bound him with moon ropes. He will not be able to break them.”

“That’s very comforting, but shouldn’t we get off this roof and call for help?”

“My thoughts exactly. Now you are sufficiently irritated enough to stand on your own two feet and heckle me, you can go and call for the men down stairs.”

“Excuse me? Irritated enough to stand? Do all cavalry captains bait women like this, or did you lose your manners with one too many horse kicks to the head?”

I gave a brief dismissive laugh. “Do go downstairs and call for help, Miss Mason. As I have said multiple times before, I do not intend to spend the whole night rescuing you. I have a fine bottle of whiskey and a hot tub waiting in my room.”

I watched her mouth draw into a sneer, her plump pink lips lifting high over her teeth.

She picked up her skirts and walked towards the edge of the roof. She peered over it, frowned, then walked to the other side of the roof and did the same.

I watched her quite intently, the light of the moon a pleasing silver glow over her bare arms and cheeks.

“How long will it take you to ask for help, I wonder?” I thought out loud.

Skirts still in hand, she snapped her head towards me, her loose hair now a tousled mess over her bodice and back. “Excuse me?”

“You, Miss Mason, never ask for assistance. You are one of those infuriating people who are under the mistaken belief they can do everything on their own. So, as I said before, I wonder how long it will take you to ask for help? You are, after all, wondering how you got up onto this roof, and how exactly you will get down again.”

She narrowed those pleasant hazel eyes at me.

Then she lifted her skirts higher, leaned down, huffed, and jumped off the roof.

“What the devil!” I cried as I jerked forwards.

I heard two thumps and a smothered, “Ouch.”

I reached the edge of the roof and stared down.

She’d jumped onto the balcony, and she was currently rubbing one of her legs because that had been a very ambitious leap.

When she caught me staring at her, she dropped her skirts, flicked her hair, and marched away. Albeit with a limp.

I watched her until she was out of sight, the cold night air whistling through my hair.

What a curious woman.

Isabel Mason

Oh lord did my ankle hurt. Whatever had possessed me to jump from such a height – had to be the Devil himself.

Or worse – Mister Carmichael.

What an oaf. If you pared back the strapping physique, the fine blue uniform, and the baritone voice, you got an oaf through and through.

I limped into my room, gratified the door to the balcony was still open. For a few seconds, I clutched a hand on the door and leaned against it, closing my eyes.

I was so very tired.

“I can’t hear your footfall on the stairs, Miss Mason,” Carmichael called.

I grumbled at him, cursed him to the Devil, and limped across the room.

It didn’t take long to trundle down the stairs and gather the men still drinking below. With alcohol in their blood, they were quick to rouse at the prospect of a fight, and soon enough were clambering haphazardly onto the roof.

I stood back, glum that my room was being used as a thoroughfare.

I needed to wash the caked blood from my wrist and curl up in my bed.

Instead I was standing there with my back against the wall, my sweaty white hand pressed against the wood as I watched the show.

The men grumbled amongst themselves, and after much heaving and cursing, managed to get the shadow maker off the room.

I heard him screaming.

I sucked in a breath, fingernails curling against the wooden wall, grating over the grain and leaving fine chips digging into my skin.

The screaming grew closer, and the shadow maker appeared, hauled between three burly bearded men.

My eyes opened, my breath drawing to a standstill in my chest.

The shadow maker was still bound – I could see the glistening moon ropes as they caught a few rays of the moonlight shining through the open door.

Mindless of his ropes, however, he was still struggling, and it took all three men to haul him into the room.

Suddenly the shadow maker stopped, the tip of his yellowed tongue hanging between his teeth as he slowly curled his lips into a satisfied sneer.

He looked right at me.

My blood chilled in my veins, my fingernails now digging so hard into the wood it was a surprise I hadn’t pried the board from the wall.

“I’ll be back for you,” he promised in a hissing whisper that sounded like water thrown onto coals.

“Don’t listen to him, miss,” one of the burly men growled, his biceps bulging as he tried to control the shadow maker, “He’s going straight to the sheriff’s.”

I managed a mere nod.

The shadow maker stared at me, craning his neck like he was an inquisitive stalk as the men dragged him forward. He even shoved his head right up against one man’s shoulder in his attempt to keep staring at me. “You keep hold of that blood of yours; I’ll be back for it.”

Before I could break down and gasp, someone stepped in front of me.

Carmichael.

With a solid fist laced with a blue crackle of magic, he punched the shadow maker.

An ordinary punch would not have felled a dark creature like that – but Carmichael was a captain in the White Cavalry, and the blow was laced with more than enough magic to fell a tree, let alone a man.

The shadow maker dropped, now as limp as a sack of flour. His blood-shot eyes, however, did not close, and instead remained fixed on me as a trickle of black-laced blood escaped from the fresh cut to his lip.

Carmichael stepped in front of me, back rigid, muscles discernible even under the heavy wool of his still unbuttoned jacket.

He did not move – blocking my view entirely – until the men had dragged the shadow maker from the room.

I heard their heavy footfall thump against the hollow stairs as they dragged him downstairs.

Carmichael turned to me before I could chase the tremble from my shoulders.

For a few seconds he said nothing, and instead surveyed me with quick eager eyes. After he appeared satisfied, he nodded. “You are fine, Miss Mason.”

Was I?

I had been drugged and dragged onto the roof by a shadow maker!

I was terrified. A fact I would not, however, admit to the Captain.

“I—” I began, but my voice was as high as a sparrow’s and indistinct.

“I will have one of the women come and attend to you.”

“… I can attend to myself,” I managed, more out of habit than choice. I was so used to telling this man I could do everything myself, it was now second nature to rebuff any offer of help.

He looked at me sharply, then shrugged his shoulders. “As you wish.” He turned and walked over to the balcony door, shutting it and locking it. Then he flattened a palm over the wood whilst diving his free hand into his pocket. He withdrew a small bottle of concentrated ether he’d obviously obtained from one of the men, flicked the metal-hinged lid off, and ran his thumb over the bottle lip.

Mumbling a low, guttural enchantment under his breath, a few sparks of ether jumped over his thumb, along the thick dark blue of his cavalry jacket, and down into the door.

With a growl, he finished the spell, secured the lid of the ether bottle, and turned to me.

Without another word, he inclined his head and walked out.

I was so shocked that he was going to leave, I threw out a hand and made a strange choking noise.

He ignored me.

“Thank you,” I stuttered.

That made him stop. His heavy black jackboots thumped against the dusty floorboards as he turned to me. “What did you just say?”

I let my outstretched hand drop and I blinked confusedly. “I said...” I dropped my gaze, “Thank you.”

“A little louder, Miss Mason – I can’t hear you.”

I huffed. “You are such a brute, Carmichael.”

“That’s Captain Carmichael to you.”

I let out another rattling harrumph that shook my shoulders.

“And you are welcome.” He turned to the door again. Hand on the wood, he paused, turning over his shoulder to look at me. “Be sure to scream again if you need rescuing,” he replied.

I wasn’t in the mood to rise to his attack. Instead I dropped my searching gaze to my wrist.

“It will be a long journey tomorrow, Miss Mason. I suggest you try to get some rest.”

I mumbled a curt reply, turned, and faced the slat wall in front of me.

He was still in the room – paused with one hand on the door. But I wouldn’t turn to him again.

Instead I widened my terror-filled eyes and tried to stem the tears.

That shadow maker had threatened to bleed me dry....

“I will be just next door, Miss Mason,” I heard him say from the door. “Now, good night.” With that, he closed the door gently.

I turned to hear him pause just outside my door, the wooden floor groaning as he shifted his weight.

After a good long while, he moved and walked down the stairs.

I stood there staring at the closed door and listening to every one of his heavy steps until I could bare it no longer. I wrapped a hand tightly around my mouth and let the tears flow.

I did not believe I was an emotional girl. Many long winters in the wilderness had taught me resilience.

Still, there is a time and a place for tears.

Chapter 5

Captain Carmichael

I did not sleep that night. I would not allow myself to.

I had underestimated the threats to Miss Mason’s life.

It was now more important than ever that I get her to Washington.

If a shadow maker was after her, it meant somebody knew about her ability. Somebody dangerous and well-connected.

By the morning, I had run through the possibilities in my mind, and I liked none of them.

I walked down the stairs to see Mister Bates speaking with the sheriff. Instantly I narrowed my eyes and quickened my step.

“Sheriff.” I dipped my head low in greeting.

The sheriff was a bustling man, with a thick mustache, red fat cheeks stained with too many years of alcohol, and beady brown eyes.

Though I was a captain of the White Cavalry, I still had to respect the authority of the various lawmen in the towns I passed through. They, however, had to respect me more.

“What are you fine gentlemen discussing?” I asked around stiff lips.

“The shadow maker in lock-up,” the sheriff cleared his throat.

I sliced my gaze towards Mister Bates. It was impossible to judge his expression. A fact that made my back shiver.

There was one fact I was certain of in regards to Mister Bates: he was definitely not trustworthy.

Given the chance, he would stab me in the back without hesitation.

“I was led to believe you would take every discretion with the... man currently in your lock-up.” I looked at the sheriff directly.

The man bristled, shifting back and shunting his large round shoulders out. “I have not been spreading this news, Captain. But Mister Bates here enquired, and as he is a member of your party, I thought there was no trouble in telling him.”

My smile stiffened. Then my gaze slid towards Mister Bates. He was looking at me with a particularly troubling stare.

“A matter such as this should have been brought to my attention immediately,” though his voice was not loud and did not carry, there was no doubting the anger that laced through it. “I am responsible for Miss Campbell’s safety. Once this shadow maker was done with your stray dog, it would have moved on to Miss Campbell.”

“Stray dog? And to whom are you referring?” I would not let this slide. Nor would I keep my voice quiet. It rang easily and loudly around the room until I had almost everybody’s attention.

“Who indeed,” Mister Bates said stiffly. “Bear in mind, captain, every mistake you make will be relayed to Washington. I should have been informed immediately following the incident last night.”

“Why? Have you confused yourself with a man capable of offering protection?” I said.

“I am Miss Campbell’s chaperone.” Bates clapped a stiff white hand on the breast of his suit jacket, that gold ring glinting on his thumb. It was of a peculiar design, with a certain strange symbols stamped onto a flat cylinder in the middle.

I had never bothered to ask him what it meant. Knowing the man, it meant nothing, and was for appearance only.

“Gentlemen,” the sheriff cleared his throat.

I ignored him and focused all my attention on Mister Bates.

“You can be replaced at any moment,” Mister Bates continued.

“By whom?” My lips curled into a snarl. “By you? Mister Bates, what do you think would happen to your party if I and my cavalrymen were to leave?”

It was not a question I should have asked. Granted, it was one I had thought – numerous times – but not one I should have shared out loud.

I had my duty, I knew it, and I was honor bound to execute it.

And yet the thought of leaving Mister Bates, Miss Campbell, and this ridiculous entourage behind kept filling my mind.

Though I’d hidden the majority of my fright from Isabel last night, the shadow maker’s attack had rattled me.

It reinforced how critical this situation was. Every act – no matter how small and seemingly insignificant – could be the difference between success and failure.

Every act.

Isabel Mason

I woke to a knock on the door. Thinking it was Captain Carmichael, I walked over and opened it quickly.

It was not the Captain. Rather, it was one of the men traveling with Miss Campbell.

I frowned.

He sneered.

“… Has the captain sent you here to rouse me?” My voice was artificially high. Even as I asked my question, I knew what the answer would be.

“I have been sent here to send you away,” he spoke through stiff white lips.

My cheeks paled and I stared at him. “Sorry?”

“Do not act innocent – it does not befit you. I do not know what you have done to the Captain – what compromising situation you have lured him in to. But your treachery ends here. You will not be accompanying this party to Washington. You will either leave freely and go about your odious business, or you will be dragged away.”

I stood there and blinked in surprise.

Then I found my voice. “… Does the Captain know you’re here?”

“That man is not here for you to stand behind,” he said threateningly, taking a swift, forceful step towards me and grabbing a hand to my door.

I fought against his grip, trying to shove the door closed in his face, but it quickly became apparent I couldn’t.

So I took a shuddering step backwards, the fabric of my skirts shifting quickly around my ankles.

“Which will it be, woman? Go freely, or be dragged?”

“… Neither. If you take another step into this room, I will scream the town down.” It was my turn to speak around stiff white lips. Though my hands shook, I curled them into fists and held them stiffly at my sides. My fingernails pressed hard into my palms, and with just a little more effort, they would pierce the flesh. Once they did that, this man would be in trouble. If he so much as laid a hand on me, I would throw him out the window.

Maybe he realized I had no intention of going quietly, because he stopped his advance.

The threat, however, did not shift from his gaze – it only grew more menacing as his thick brow crumpled. “What makes you think anyone will come to your assistance? The Captain is currently indisposed, and his men don’t care for you. No one in this inn will mind, either.”

“Another step,” I warned.

He stopped, straightened, and held his stiff hands up, making me believe he was surrendering.

He wasn’t. He suddenly snapped towards me, his hand flying towards my face.

I couldn’t act quickly enough, and he slapped me with enough force to see my head jerk to the side.

Before he could come at me again, I threw myself against the wall, scrabbling a hand along the dressing table beside me until I plucked up a book.

He pivoted on his shiny black shoe and slammed towards me, hands outstretched towards my neck.

Without thought, I send magic leaping into the book. It wasn’t a sacred blade, but it would suffice.

With a crackle and a hiss, a jet of blue light sparked across the pages, causing them to flutter frantically.

Then I threw the book right at his head. It may have only been paper and leather on the face of it, but with magic crackling between every page, it now had more import.

As soon as it struck the man, there was a resounding clunk, and he staggered back. Where the book had hit him a few charges of magic transferred onto the fine wool of his jacket.

His eyes jerked wide and he tried to pat them off with frantic swipes of his hands. “What the hell is this?”

I didn’t deign to reply. He’d find out soon enough.

With my hands still clasped firmly together, I kept chanting. The magic crackling over the man’s chest suddenly doubled. Then, with a sizzle, sunk into his chest.

He let out a hoarse scream, then fell to one knee, eyes bulging wide with surprise.

Shaking, hands still clasped together, I walked up to him. I kept chanting the spell.

It would incapacitate him, freezing his body and lulling his mind long enough for me to escape.

Sure enough, his wide open eyes started to close, the strained, crinkled skin at their sides relaxing as he tipped back.

Before he fell, he had enough breath for one word: “Witch.”

Yes, I was a witch.

And he had lost!

With a stagger to my step, I walked past him. Hand flat on my chest, breath quick and sharp, I grabbed my things.

Then I headed for the door.

I hesitated.

That man had said Captain Carmichael was indisposed. What did that mean? Had he been called away?

If that were the case, who exactly was left down those stairs?

Mister Bates?

I shivered.

Backing away from the door, I pressed a sweaty pale hand into my lips, then turned to face the balcony.

As radical as it sounded, perhaps it was my safest option.

I could clamber down the side of the building, ensure I didn’t fall with a quick spell, then race to the horses.

Once there, I could... what? Ride out of town as fast as I could?

Though I’d tried to fight off Carmichael’s insistence, I now appreciated how serious the situation actually was. Though I certainly did not like the man, I did not distrust him either. If the magical blood running through my veins really could be that important to this country, I was honor bound to keep my promise to Carmichael and accompany him to Washington.

And yet if I didn’t make it out of this room I would never get to Washington. So as I stood there and stared at the door that led out to the balcony, I made a quick decision. With a shake to my step, I grabbed hold of the handle, and gritted my teeth. With a grunt, I forced my way through the residual effects of Carmichael’s lock spell and I made my way out onto the balcony.

For a few moments I paused, hands on the wooden posts as I stared down to the road far below. It was well over 10 meters to the dusty ground, and I couldn’t simply jump over the railing and hope not to break my neck.

To get down I would have to use magic.

Carmichael had counseled me on many occasions that I had to keep this ability secret, but now I had no choice. Curling a single finger into my palm and pressing hard enough that I punctured the flesh, I let a few droplets of blood spread out onto my skin. Then I half closed my eyes and said a short prayer.

Rather than produce a magical rope to help me climb down to the ground, it simply made my hands sticky.

With enough directed thought you could use ether or, in my case, my own blood, to produce any kind of spell you wanted. Some of the more powerful ones required certain incantations, but at the end of the day, it was the thoughts in your mind that counted.

So as I carefully threw my possessions down to the ground and listened to them thump into the dust, I drew a calming breath. Then I placed my hands onto the wooden rails, ignored the splinters scraping against my fingers, and clambered over it.

In my mind I cleared away all of my thoughts and worries, and instead focused on jam. A strange thing to think of at a time like this, maybe, but it wasn’t the jam itself that occupied my mind. Rather it was the quality of the sugary fruit I kept at the forefront of my thoughts.

I concentrated and concentrated on the sticky sensation until a funny thing happened – my hands began to stick to the wood. As I clambered over the edge of the railing, my fingers and palms adhered to every paling as if I were excluding great globs of glue.

My skirts billowed around my legs, crackles of magic dancing and racing down my arms and into my legs and sinking into the wood with quick hisses.

With my heart in my throat, I made it down to the ground. Fortunately there was nobody around, and I had picked a relatively shadowy side of the balcony and building to clamber down.

I stepped onto the dirt and my shaking heart stopped quivering like a leaf in a gale. I picked up my bags and with a last look over my shoulder, I considered the inn.

….

I walked away. Keeping to the shadows of the building, I made it around to the stalls at the back. I had to be careful not to arouse any attention. I had no idea where Captain Carmichael was.

My cheeks still smarted from where I’d been struck. Moving my bags into one hand, I brought up my fingers and tenderly touched my cheek. With a wince, I realized there had to be a bruise there.

I sunk my teeth deep into my bottom lip. Who would've thought two mornings ago when I had rolled out of bed that I would now be facing this. I lead an ordinary life, even for a practicing mage. Though I did cure the occasional curse, I could not be said to have had many adventures.

This – I realized as I pressed my hand tenderly into my cheek – was an adventure indeed. An unwanted one. One so filled with danger I had no idea what to do next.

But, as I lifted my head to the horizon and stared at it I realized my only option was to continue forward so I fastened my grip on my bags, hunched my shoulders in, my chin down and walked.

Chapter 6

Captain Carmichael

I had a sinking feeling in my gut as I walked up the stairs. The resounding sound of my footfall echoed around me like the beat of the drum. By the time I reached her door, I was unashamed to say there was a slight tremble to my hand.

Something was wrong. My years in the cavalry had taught me to rely on my gut instincts, and right now they were screaming at me.

So by the time I softly knocked and did not receive a reply, my heart had pushed itself into a racing beat.

“Isabel,” I called.

She didn't answer.

I opened the door warily, shoulders tensed. That's when I saw it: an empty room. Her bags were gone and the door to the balcony was wide-open, buffeting in the wind.

My eyes opened wide, heart pounding with fear. I ran over to her bed first, placing a hand under the covers to check if they were still warm.

There was a bare trace of warmth left in them.

I shifted quickly towards the swinging balcony door, catching it in one hand before a wild gust of wind could slam it closed.

Striding out onto the balcony, my footfall reverberating over the wooden beams, I pressed my hands into the railing and stared down and all around, eyes as wide as saucers.

That's when I felt it: a slight charge of magic. Running my hand carefully over the railing and picking up a few splinters for my trouble, I detected a faint charge of magic.

It was relatively fresh, fresh enough that I could feel it charging over my tongue with a slight tingle.

Shifting forward quickly, I leaned over the railing, checking for any sign of movement. Then I saw it – far in the distance, a horse. As I concentrated, I heard the thump of the horse's hooves.

Somehow I knew it was her. I recognized the magic, if that made any sense. As I ran my hand along the railing once more, for some reason it felt of her.

Isabel Mason....

I didn't have time to finish that thought, instead I acted. Quickly grabbing a hand to the small vial of pure ether around my neck, flicked open the lid and threw some ether into my hand.

With a single word reverberating through my throat, I jumped at the railing, slamming both hands into it as my spell took charge.

I leapt right off the railing. Even though we were a good 10 meters off the ground, I didn't hesitate. As I sailed down through the air, magic charged around me, sinking deep into my feet.

With a thump, I struck the ground, but I did not stumble. My bones did not spring from my legs and splinter through the flash in a jagged mess of blood and skin. Instead magic charged and rippled all around me, cushioning the landing so that instantly I pushed myself forward and ran.

I headed around the side of the inn, head darting to and fro, tongue running over my teeth. I could still sense her magic. It was faint, barely there, almost indiscernible, but as I focused on it using another spell to aid me, I pursued.

It led me to the stables, and there I saw that one of the horses was missing. Not just any horse, mind you, but my own horse.

Without thinking, I grabbed the next best beast, threw myself on top, and kicked her into a sprint.

I could see hoof prints in the dust, and I followed them, pushing the horse into an ever faster sprint.

I had not paused to tell my men what I was doing. There simply wasn't the time. I knew in my heart that Isabel had left. Just as I knew in my heart that if I did not reach her something else would.

I hunched my shoulders down, clutched the reins tight until my hands were white with the force, and I narrowed my eyes. I focused on getting to her.

Isabel Mason

I wanted to tell myself what I was doing was the right thing. I wanted to tell myself it was the only way to ensure my safety. So why did I keep turning on my saddle and staring with wide eyes behind me? Why did my heart beat with a flutter? Why were my hands so sweaty, and why couldn't I get the thought of him out of my mind?

For some reason, though my brain was telling me to escape, my heart did not agree. It was beating so hard and fast in my chest it seemed more powerful than the horse's hooves.

I forced myself to turn around. I brought a hand up and pressed it flat over my neck. Then I let the fingers wander up to my bruised cheek.

It was really quite painful now. When I had the time, I would have to stop, find the right herbs, and make a poultice to spread over it. But right now I had no time.

As I set off on that horse, I naturally headed home. Where else was there to go? And yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a terrible plan. It would not take Captain Carmichael long to figure out where I lived. Neither would it take anyone else long.

Though I wanted to tell myself that Mister Bates and his hateful men would leave me alone now that I had left their company, did I know that for sure? Worse: who had sent that Shadow maker last night? If he had known enough about my ability to threaten me like that, I doubted he would leave me alone. The same went for his employers.

It was clear that somebody out there knew who I was and knew I was just as valuable as Captain Carmichael kept insisting. They wouldn't leave me alone.

I started to slow the horse down as we climbed a ridge. It gave a startling view in all directions, showing the town far below and a sparse grassy plain opening up before me, leading to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada ranges.

I loved this land; it coursed through my blood. Every time I paused long enough to let nature in, it felt as though it charged me with power. Years ago, even weeks ago, I’d thought that was natural. Now I brought an unsteady hand up, flicked off the sweat and dirt, and stared at my palm. There was magic running in my blood, and it wasn't normal. It was so rare there could very well be no one else on Earth who had the same ability.

For the first time I allowed myself to truly think about it. Why had this happened to me of all people?

I tried to shake my head and return my hand to the reins, telling myself to get over it. But get over it I could not. The thoughts I'd been pushing away since I had first met Captain Carmichael and he had revealed the truth about my ability now flooded in. It felt as though I would drown under them. A quick slick of sweat covered my brow and my breath came in unsteady pants.

Any more of this and I may very well topple off my horse and be trampled to death under its hooves. Which would definitely resolve this current predicament, but not in a particularly satisfactory manner.

Just as I began to slow down and truly question where I should go next, I heard horse's hooves. As soon as I did, my heart exploded. It had never beat so hard. It felt as though it would tear out of my chest and jitter on the ground.

Twisting my head this way and that, I tried to discern where they were coming from. I quickly realized it was from behind me.

Though I could easily push my horse into a sprint and try to outpace them, I quickly judged that whoever was behind had every intention of catching up. If the beat of their horse hooves was anything to go by, they were pushing their beast far beyond its capability.

I gave a shudder in my saddle, turned around, clutched my reins, and got ready to run.

That's when I heard him calling my name.

“Isabel,” he roared.

Even though his voice was far off, I recognized it.

I shifted around in my saddle so fast I almost fell off.

I saw him coming up the rise of the hill, his eyes narrowed, that strawberry blond hair fanning out behind him, his brass buttons and scabbard catching the morning light.

“Isabel,” he roared, voice like a shot from a cannon.

Automatically I stopped. While I could outpace a normal man on horseback, Carmichael wasn't normal. And even though he was far away, I swore I could see his eyes glinting with anger and determination. Carmichael was possessed with such fine determination that he could push anything from his path, even if it were the Sierra Nevadas themselves.

“Isabel,” he roared one final time, finally catching up to me, horse skidding as he brought it to a rest beside me. Then he launched off the saddle, grabbed me, and pulled me to the ground.

I was so surprised, I said nothing. Instead I looked up at him with wide open eyes.

Before he could scream at me once more, he stopped. His eyes narrowed and locked on my left cheek. “What happened to you?”

I said nothing. I was still too surprised. I could feel the anger rippling off Carmichael, and the determination glinting in his eye was more powerful than any I had ever witnessed.

He helped me to my feet, then surprisingly took a respectful step back.

He didn't stop looking at my left cheek though. He tilted his head to the side, eyes narrowing, eyebrows peaking in what almost looked like concern. “Who did that to you?” He nodded towards me.

I let two trembling fingers press against my left cheek. My eyes were still wide, my lips gently parted, surprise stopping me from saying a word.

“Isabel?” His tone dropped, the anger giving way to a gentle but steady tone. “Why did you leave? Do you have any idea how dangerous it is out here?”

Finally I managed a stuttering breath. “I...” I went to tell him what had happened to me, but now it sounded so foolish.

He narrowed his eyes. “What? Tell me who did that to you,” he demanded once more, voice twisting in anger. Not at me – that part was clear – but at whoever had struck my cheek.

Pressing my teeth into my lips, I let my eyes drop. “It doesn't really matter. It was simply made clear to me that I can't travel in your group anymore,” I said weakly as I brought my hands up and rested them around my middle.

“It was Bates, wasn't it?” His teeth ground together, flashes of white underneath his pared back, bloodless lips. “How dare he.”

I didn't answer.

“But why did you leave? You should have come to me directly.”

“It wasn't Bates. It was one of the men who works for him. Mister Franks, I believe his name is,” I said weakly. “It doesn't matter though.”

Carmichael snorted. “Doesn't matter? How many times do I have to tell you that you potentially hold the security of this country in your hands?” He said matter-of-factly.

I shivered at his statement and shook my head.

“Why did you leave though? You should have come to me directly,” Carmichael insisted again.

I slowly looked up at him. “He said you'd been sent away on some matter, said nobody would care if...” I trailed off. I couldn’t finish the rest. The more I thought about it, the more pathetic I seemed, and I truly hated feeling pathetic.

Carmichael pressed his lips together and all of a sudden lost his anger. It happened so rapidly, I couldn't help but glance over at him, my own eyes narrowing in confusion. He was such a powerful man, with such a powerful personality, that when he lost that power for just an instant, it truly shocked me.

Slowly, stutteringly he let out the softest of laughs. “I would have expected more from you,” he said.

I wasn't sure if it was an insult, then he looked up at me and there was the softest smile on his lips.

I stood there and I stared at him, possibly for the first time actually looking at the man rather than the uniform and bluster.

He caught me staring at him and he reciprocated. Seconds passed, passing into a minute before he bothered to say anything. He cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose you've made my decision for me,” he said suddenly.

My eyebrows crumpled. “Excuse me? What does that mean?”

He dipped his head back and turned towards town. I watched him as he narrowed his eyes. It was clear he was thinking of something. “What is it?” I asked softly.

“It's time to leave, Isabel Mason.”

I gave the slightest shudder. “I don't want to return to that group,” I said weakly but seriously.”

“Neither do I.”

I blinked. “What do you mean? Isn't it your duty?” I began.

He shot me one of those looks, and I pressed my lips closed immediately.

“My duty is to my country. Peace first,” he said, voice reverberating on the word peace. “Not something I can achieve when at the beck and call of Miss Campbell. Plus, the rest of my men will be more than sufficient to ensure her safety. The higher priority task is to take you to Washington.” He looked directly at me.

My lips parted open gently. I wanted to shift my gaze off him, but I couldn't. In that moment it was locked on him as if someone had tethered it there with the thickest and sturdiest of ropes.

Slowly his lips curled into a smile. “You look stunned, Isabel.”

Isabel? It was the first time he’d deigned to use my first name. That tiny little fact shook through me sufficiently that all I managed was to press my lips closed. Then I realized what he was saying. “You mean we are to travel to Washington together? Alone?”

He tipped his head back and laughed. “You are devilishly quick, Miss Mason. Your reasoning skills surpass that of the finest scientists and thinkers, to be sure.”

My eyebrows compressed hard together forming a deep furrow. If there was one thing that could make me forget the bruise on my cheek and my current predicament, it was this insufferable man's insufferable attitude.

His lips still curved into a smile, he nodded at me, then he shifted his gaze and stared at his horse. “We will travel to Washington together. However, I will take my own horse,” he said.

“But won’t you get in trouble for abandoning Miss Campbell?”

He considered me for a few seconds, then shrugged his shoulders. “A far worse fate is to let this country slip into a war. A far worse fate is to stand by and do nothing.” He looked at me seriously now. Perhaps he was trying to convey more in that moment than his words and expression could. There was a certain sparkle behind his eye. It wasn't friendly. It wasn't charm either. It was something else entirely.

I couldn't help but be drawn in by it.

“Now, Miss Isabel, you have your bags. I don't suppose you have any food in there, water, or any other supplies? Medicine maybe? Raw ether, on the off chance?” He said hopefully.

I glanced back at my bags. “I have clothes and shoes, a few select medicines, two canisters of water, and some dried fruits.”

He nodded resolutely. “That will suffice until we reach the next town. Fortunately I have money with me, and even without it, if I reach an official bank or government office, I can claim some. All that leaves now is for us to mount our horses and go.”

I blinked back my surprise. “Already? Now?”

He laughed. “What do you expect? Should we stand here on this ridge chatting forever?”

“No, it's not that. I just—”

I stared down my hand suddenly. I couldn't say what I was thinking – that if we were to leave like this so suddenly it would make this whole predicament even more significant. The fact that Captain Carmichael was willing to abandon his duty, to abandon his men, and to drop everything to take me to Washington as soon as he could... why, it was one of the most frightful things I could think of.

I shuddered, wrapping my hands tightly around my middle.

He looked at me, eyes darting down to my arms and up to my face. “I will keep you safe,” he said simply. Then he nodded at the horses. “Now it is time to leave.” He turned around and walked over to my horse, checking the saddle and reins before mounting it. Then he sat astride it and stared down at me. For a few seconds he said nothing, then he shifted his head and indicated my own horse. “It is time to leave,” he said once more.

And so I mounted the horse and we rode off into the morning.

Captain Carmichael

I had found her, and I could not deny the sense of relief that pulsed through my heart at the sight of her.

She was fine, save for a nasty bruise across her left cheek. I should never have let Bates and his men anywhere near her. The more I thought of that the more my teeth ground together.

At least it had forced my hand. Now there was no way I was going to go back to Miss Campbell and her party. I understood how serious this situation was. I would not stop until we reached Washington.

Chapter 7

Captain Carmichael

We travelled in silence for most of the day. Strangely it was pleasant. There was a light breeze, and though it was brisk, it was not too cold. The sunshine and fresh air however was not why this was pleasant. For the first time since we had met, we were not arguing. Isabel rode competently by my side, and I found her company reassuring. A fact I would not admit to her, but one I could now freely admit to myself.

A few times I found myself smiling as I considered her from the side. She was lost in thought, occasionally staring at her hand or neatening her hair over her shoulder.

A few times I tried to draw her into conversation, but soon realized there was no point. She was deep in thought, and it was best to leave her there for now.

It was when the sun started to dip behind the mountains and dusk was barely a few hours away that I heard it: hoof beats.

My brow narrowing and my lips pressing into a frown, I turned over my shoulder. At first I thought it was nothing more than a miner or some other traveler traversing the prairies. Then I heard the exact powerful pace of the hooves and I frowned.

Isabel saw me, turning around and following my move. “What is it? You don’t think it’s Mister Bates and his men after us?”

No, I did not think that. But I did not waste the breath to say it. Instead my eyes narrowed. “We must quicken our pace,” I said suddenly.

She didn’t argue, and we both leaned over the reins of our horses and flicking them into a sprint. It did not matter. Whoever was behind us was determined to catch up, and they were catching up alarmingly quickly.

Within a minute or two the thundering sound of their hoof beats echoed across the prairie.

“No matter what happens, you will not get involved,” I suddenly snapped at her.

She stared at me and with wide-open eyes.

“Isabel, promise me that.” I faced her. When she said nothing, I gritted my teeth and asked her to promise me once more. Then I turned just in time.

I saw a man riding a horse come into view. Immediately I recognized one thing: the color of the Federations.

The spy – it had to be the spy.

That fact shot through me, slackening my jaw and leaving my mouth wide open as my gaze filled with terror.

The terror did not last. I pushed it away and instead grabbed for my sword.

I twisted my head over my shoulder. The spy was upon us. There was nothing I could do but fight.

“Isabel, keep going! Don’t look back!” I screamed at her.

Her eyes were wide with fear, her hair playing loosely around her shoulders. She shook her head.

“Get out of here,” I hollered at her once more. Then I brought my horse around and moved it until I blocked her from the spy’s view.

I saw the man hunched over his reins. His face glistened somehow, and as he came closer, I realized why: he was wearing a white enamel mask, one that covered his face leaving only his mouth visible as it twisted into a cruel smile.

Bringing my horse to a stop, I grabbed the ether vial from my neck, poured magic onto my hand, and then brought my sword from my scabbard with a ringing slice that echoed through the air.

The man barreled towards me, the nostrils of his horse flaring as the stallion’s hooves pounded over the prairie sending clods of dirt and grass cascading into the air.

Finally he was upon me and I was upon him. I acted first, bringing my sword around and sending a slice of energy smashing towards the horse.

The horse was quick, and jerked to the side, but the rider was quicker. He flung himself off the beast and flipped in the air, showing the agility of a cat. He landed on the prairie, and for a few short seconds stared up at me, his lips curling underneath his mask.

Then he moved so quick, so damn quick. Somehow he crossed the distance between us and sliced towards my horse. He was wearing a glove – a thick, heavy, brown leather glove that might be used in some kind of smelting process. As he shifted over the prairie, his legs as fast as that of any horse, I saw a magical charge build in the glove.

There was some kind of finely woven copper wire wrapped around each finger of the glove, and as magic surged over it, the wire glowed a powerful blue.

In another second he was upon me. He sliced a kick towards my horse, and she barely managed to get out of the way. Not wanting to lose her, I jumped off her back, bringing my sword around and aiming at the man’s side.

He was too quick, and dodged back, that charge still building in his glove. I could taste it, the magic so powerful the hair along the back of my neck standing on end.

I grunted as he flung himself towards me, shifting back and aiming a kick for my head. I just managed to hurl myself out of the way.

I’d never met a man more agile.

That charge kept building and building in his glove. I instinctively knew that it was meant for me, and that unless I managed to down him before he had a chance to use it, it could kill me.

I thrust my sword towards him with a battle cry. Again I kept my ether bottle in my hand, using it liberally as I built more and more of a charge along my sword.

It didn’t seem to matter. He was too deft and kept dodging out of my way.

With a click that glove of his started to glow an eerie blue.

Somehow he reached my side, slamming a knee into my chest.

I doubled backwards, bringing my sword around, but I was too late. He managed to grab the hilt with one hand, then he brought his sneering face close to mine. With his other hand he formed that blue glowing glove into a fist and he brought it down against my chest. He locked his fingers onto the fabric of my jacket and smiled.

I screamed.

A massive charge of magic slammed into my chest and I was thrown backwards.

I struggled to stay awake, but blackness came all too quickly.

The last thing I saw was Isabel on her horse a good 20 meters away, her face slack with fear and grief.

Then my head hit the ground and I blacked out.

Isabel Mason

I heard Carmichael’s form hit the ground with a sickening thud. At that moment my heart stopped. All of me stopped. I sat atop my horse, frozen, eyes wide open as I stared at him.

Then slowly the spy shifted, its mask face tilting, its head dipping to the side as its pinprick eyes searched my form.

I watched him curl his lips underneath that smooth enamel mask.

He shifted towards me slowly, pressing his foot into the grass with perfect poise and perfect silence.

I shivered, jerking backwards, bringing a hand up and slamming it over my mouth.

Carmichael lay there motionless, his head lolled to one side, his arm at an awkward angle.

“What did you do to him?” I hissed through my fingers.

The spy did not answer. Instead he tilted his head further to the side, the string that held his enamel mask in place shifting over his neck.

He had not spoken once, but now I felt that silence sharper than at any other point. It seemed to slice right through me.

I tried to maneuver my horse backwards, but the poor girl was terrified.

With a snarling hiss, the man flicked a charge of magic towards her. My horse lurched to the side, and I was flung sideways. I slammed into the grass and thankfully it was soft enough that I did not break a bone.

With a terrified neigh, my horse bolted.

Slowly I pushed myself up, hair a curtain before my face. Staring through the sweaty and dirty strands, I locked my eyes on the man.

He approached slowly.

I shifted backwards, pushing one hand into my chest and staring at him as I rose to my feet.

Suddenly his lips moved. No words came out, but his lips moved so precisely I still understood: “Come with me. Come with me,” he mouthed.

I jerked back so fast my foot caught a small hole and sent me tumbling backwards. I slammed into the ground, skirts a mess around my ankles, eyes growing wide as the spy approached slowly and carefully.

“Get back,” I screamed.

He said nothing. He simply kept approaching.

There would be no reasoning with this man. Nor would there be any begging. He had given Carmichael no quarter. This spy would either kill me or capture me, and as I watched him approach so carefully I realized it would be the latter. He too must know about the blood flowing through my veins.

“You will come with me,” he mouthed.

He could have said it, could have screamed at the top of his lungs, but it would not have been any more frightful than it was now. Those cold swift movements of his lips, that tilt to his head – both combined to show such menace it alone could have killed me dead.

Shaking, I forced myself to my feet.

His head tilted to follow my every movement like a curious snake tracking its prey.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I said, forcing courage into my words that simply wasn’t there. I had never felt more frightened in my entire life. I prided myself on being able to face most situations with a stiff upper lip, but there was something about this man’s movements and the way he had so cruelly and efficiently dispatched Carmichael that undid me.

He reached a hand out to me, a charge of magic building in his heavy leather glove.

My only option was to fight, and yet I could barely move.

I watched that charge of magic build and build, my eyes growing wide with every second. Then that smile of his twitched wider. And finally, finally I acted.

I threw myself to the side just as the charge of magic slammed from his glove and ate into the ground by my feet. Pushing into my hands I crunched into a roll, flipping over onto my front and pushing to my feet. Without thinking, and ignoring every warning Carmichael had ever given me, I pushed my fingernails violently into my palm, drawing blood.

Now the spy laughed. It was a sickening, awful sound, like bones crunching under heavy boots. I’d never heard anything like it, and as it echoed around the prairie, my back itched with fear.

I shifted to the side once more as he casually turned his hand towards me and sent another charge slamming my way.

I ducked to the side just in time, blue lines of magic zipping so close to my face the ends of my hair singed.

It was time to fight back. Time to fight back! I screamed at myself. But at the back of my mind I realized there was barely a thing I could do. Captain Carmichael had been dispatched by this man so easily, so what could the likes of me do against him?

The spy continued to laugh, that awful cracking sound vibrating through the very ground and up into my knees and belly. It sickened me, sending a wave of nausea crashing through my gut and threatening to send me to my knees.

“Give up,” he mouthed. “Come with me.” He started laughing again.

With a blisteringly fast move, he sent a charge of magic eating into the ground just by my feet. I staggered backwards and then he twisted his hand in a blinding flash and sent another charge of magic dashing into the ground behind me. It produced a hole, sending a cloud of grass and dust and dirt scattering over my skirt.

I staggered and fell into the hole, falling hard onto the ground.

Before I could push myself up, he was upon me. He moved so quickly it was like he was a flash of lightning.

He stood there, looming over me, tilting that enamel mask to the side, the sun catching it and glistening off the smooth surface.

Breathless, I stared up at him and waited.

He stood there and watched me for five more seconds, then snapped down.

Pressing his fingers together, a charge of magic building against the tip, he sliced them over my face.

It felt like being cut by a knife.

Blood splattered down my cheek as I felt the skin split.

I screamed.

He simply smiled, bringing up a hand and licked the blood that had settled over his fingers.

His smile grew fatter, his lips disappearing under his mask.

He locked a hand over my arm and tugged me to my feet.

As soon as his fingers sank into my skin, I stopped screaming. A charge of magic jolted through me, somehow sapping away my will to move. This heavy fog descended on my mind, and no matter how hard I blinked or how desperately I begged myself to fight back, I couldn’t.

I became limp like an empty sack of flour.

With his fingers still digging into the flesh of my arm so hard it was a surprise they didn’t draw blood, he led me forward. Compliantly, I followed.

The only muscles I seemed to have any control over were my eyes. They were open so wide it was a surprise the skin didn’t crack.

I tried to beg him to stop, but I could not move my mouth, nor could I defend myself with some last ditch enchantment or spell.

He led me forward, stepping right over Carmichael’s body. I had no choice but to follow, feeling sick as my boot stepped onto his leg.

It was then I heard him give a soft moan.

The spy acted immediately. He pulled his hand free from mine for just a second, then he snaked one hand down towards Carmichael. The fingers were locked forward into a stiff line as if he were trying to make his hand into a knife. A charge of magic zipped over his skin, crackling with a deep yellow intensity like a strike of lightning.

With his free hand, he grabbed Carmichael by the hair and tipped his head back, angling his knife like fingers towards his throat.

He was going to kill him. There was no doubt in my mind. He was going to kill Carmichael!

Somehow time seemed to slow down. And as true fear ripped through me, I moved.

I threw myself at the spy.

Despite the fact my body was still locked with the spell that had frozen me, I pushed past it, forced my own magic to overcome it, and I slammed into the spy’s side. I collected his hand just before it could slice towards Carmichael’s throat.

With a heavy grunt I shoved him onto the ground.

A man like Carmichael would accuse a woman like me of being stupid, of being dimwitted, of thinking too slowly. Well, in that moment I thought blindingly fast. Just as the spy grappled with me, shifting me around and digging his hands into my shoulders, I fought back. I brought my own blood covered fingers against his shoulders and dug them in, letting my fingernails press as hard as they could against the heavy wool of his jacket.

Just as his magic began to shift through me, threatening to freeze me once more, I fought against it. Instead I sent a spell charging into him.

There was blood under my nails, and it was still dripping softly from the gash in my cheek. Right now I commanded it with all my will.

My lips tore open and I let out a scream of anger and frustration as I concentrated everything I had on overcoming him.

I watched his face contort under his mask, his eyes narrowing in, his lips pulling thin with anger.

I felt his magic course through my veins, trying to overcome my control, but I fought back. I fought back.

With Carmichael just by my side, his leg pressing into mine, I fought back.

If I let myself fall, I knew the spy would kill Carmichael and take me away.

With one last pitching desperate cry, I commanded my magic to overcome him. And it did. With a surge that came from somewhere, a brilliant white light escaped up my hands, crackling from the dried blood under my fingernails. I even saw the blood against my cheek burn that same incandescent white. It was so bright I had to jerk my head away.

It did its job. The spy collapsed, shivering and shaking before he fell and became deathly still.

Gasping, I shifted back. Shaking, staring at him, I brought my hand up and stared at the fingers. That same incandescent white light was still burning underneath my nails, consuming every drop of blood that remained there.

I brought that same shaking hand up to my cheek and let two fingers trail through my wound. As soon as I brought my fingers down to check them, I again saw that same incandescent light.

For a few seconds I did nothing. I knelt on the ground, staring at my hands, eyes wide with terror. The wind caught my hair, blew against my skirts, chilling me through and through.

I may have just fought that man off, but the remnants of whatever spell he’d cast on me were still coursing through my veins. A few times my eyes half closed and I threatened to keel over. But I couldn’t. I had to get out of here. I had to get out of here.

I staggered up.

I could barely move. The blood kept trickling down from the deep gash in my cheek. Shaking, I brought a hand up and brushed my thumb over it. I brought it down to stare at it. Magic sizzled through every drop of blood, the red awash with sparks.

I stood there and stared at it, swaying on my feet. Just as I threatened to drop to one knee, I forced myself to stand. I half closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then I turned to Carmichael and focused on him.

Not allowing myself to blink once, I made it over to him. Then, with a whistle, called his horse.

A true cavalry horse, she had not bolted during the battle, but remained at a safe distance.

With a neigh, she trotted over. Commanding her to sit, she did, and somehow I muscled Carmichael onto the saddle. Then, using my remaining strength, I clambered on after him, wrapping my hands around his middle and grabbing hold of the reins.

I set the horse into a trot. Then, and only then, did I allow my eyes to close.

Captain Carmichael

Slowly I roused. I was on the front of my horse, and somehow my well-trained beast had managed to keep me atop it.

As my eyes blinked back my bone numbing weariness, I began to notice something else – more than the pain in my limbs left over from the fight with the spy, more than the ache in my chest from where he’d struck me. No, what I noticed was the pressure against my back.

Suddenly my eyes drew open with realization. “Isabel!” I called.

She did not answer.

I felt her face pressing into my shoulder, and as I tried to rouse her once more, I realized she was unconscious.

Groping behind me with one hand, I felt her body. A few sticky droplets of blood met my prying fingers.

“Isabel, Isabel,” I cried, stopping the horse and dismounting, carefully pulling her comatose form with me.

I lay her in my lap, her hair spilling over my woolen trousers.

There was a deep gash along her cheek, fresh blood mixed with dried, a pattern of red down her throat that stained the bodice of her dress.

I quickly checked her vitals, pressing two fingers into her neck and pushing the back of my hand against her mouth. She was alive, that much I could tell. Yet I had no idea how she had managed to fight off the spy.

With two hands pressed into her shoulders as she lay in my lap, I searched left and right, up and down. We were on a large grassy plain, well grazed by buffalo. It gave a perfect vantage for some miles in every direction, and I could not see the spy. No sign at all.

I let the thunderous beat of my heart calm, but only slightly. Two sweaty bloodless hands still pressed into Isabel’s shoulders, and I twitched my head down to stare at her.

With the tenderest of shakes, I tried to rouse her.

Slowly her eyes opened.

“Isabel!” I said immediately, bringing my face down close. “What happened to you?”

She said nothing. She stared up at me with those pretty hazel eyes, fatigue and pain apparent as she crumpled her brow and winced.

“Isabel,” I called softly.

Finally she tried to pull herself up. I wouldn’t allow her. “You’ve been injured. What happened? How did you fight off the spy?” I asked in a choked tone.

With a trembling hand she wiped off a few drops of blood from her cheek. Without saying anything, she turned the fingers to me and then she fell unconscious again, slackening in my grip, her head rolling onto my knee.

I said nothing and did nothing. I sat there with her on my lap, my heart a wild beating mess.

Slowly I tipped my head back to stare at the sky.

I had underestimated everything. Everything. And my mission was not over yet.

We had not even made it out of California. There could and likely would be threats waiting around every corner.

So as much as it pained me, I leaned down, picked her up, and put her on the horse.

We had no time to rest.

Peace lay within her hands and in her veins, and I would not let another drop spill.

Until we reach Washington.

The end of Episode One.

There are four episodes in this series, and all of them are currently available.



Contact Details

odette.c.bell@gmail.com

Sign up for updates
Latest Posts

Finder's Gate and Rising Princess

Oblivion Gate

Two new series!

Star Destiny - New Sci-Fi Out Now

Coming Soon

Finder's Gate Episode Three

0%

Princess Zero

45%