Winter – Chapter 28 – 03

            “Phelan, what the hell was all of that?”

            He winced slightly, not turning as he kept on scrubbing the blood from his hands near the fire.  The sky was slowly growing light in the east and his eyelids were heavy.  It’d been a long, agonizing night.  He’d count them all lucky if Rory, J.T., and Thom didn’t end up with raging infections like the one that was currently ravaging Cameron.

            “Now really isn’t a good time, Marin,” he murmured, still scrubbing—scrubbing so hard that his hands were turning red from the force of it.  Head in the game.  Focus.  Bigger problems.

            What the hell was that with Cariocecus?

            And what the hell was the Hecate on about—Seamus’s bloodline?  A muscle in his jaw twitched. If he ever got his hands on his purportedly late cousin…

            Get off the crazy train.  Now’s not the time for that.

            “If we always waited for a ‘good time’ around here, Phelan, we’d never get anything accomplished and no one would know anything.  Now talk to me.  What the hell happened tonight?”  She came around the edge of the bucket he was using to scrub his hands and stared at him in the half-light of breaking dawn and the nearby fire.  The flames flickered and danced, catching on red and blonde strands amidst her dark mane.  For a moment, she looked so much like his long-dead friend, Brigid, it made his throat swell with emotion.

            I’ve lived too damned long.  Déithe agus arrachtaigh, Marin,” he murmured.  “You know you’re one of the few women who’s ever dared to speak to me like that?”

            “What are you talking about?”  Her brows knit and she tilted her head to one side.  “Are you feeling all right?”

            He wasn’t, in fact, but he wasn’t about to share that fact at the moment.  There wasn’t anything wrong with him that a few hours’ sleep wouldn’t fix—or so he was hoping.  Phelan just shook his head and looked down into the dark basin of water, slowly turning red as he washed blood from his hands.  “The same as always, just tired.  What do you want to know?”

            “Just what I asked.  What the hell happened out there?  I can understand why you asked for the antibiotics short courses on everyone, since that’s pretty much what we did the last time someone got shredded by something supernatural with claws, but that doesn’t explain what I witnessed out there, now does it?”

            “How much did you hear?” he asked, frowning as he scrubbed his hands.  Why didn’t they seem to want to come clean?

            Too many years.  Too much blood.

            Marin frowned.  “Enough that I know that there’s a lot of backstory going on that I haven’t been privy to.  Are you sure you’re okay?”  She held the lantern in her hand a little closer and winced.  “Phelan, you’re scrubbing them raw.  Stop.”

            “There’s still blood on them,” he muttered.

            She took hold of one of his wrists and squeezed.  “They’re clean, Phelan,” she whispered. “Come on.  Let’s get something hot into you, okay?”

            He’d admired how quickly she could go from hard and demanding to tender and caring in a second flat.  That was another thing that reminded him of her long-ago predecessor.  He shook his head slightly as he let her draw him away from the basin.  “You remind me so much of her tonight.  Brighid.”

            She slid her arm around his shoulders and gently steered him toward the cookfire.  “Yeah.  You’ve said that before.”

            “I know,” Phelan said softly, “but tonight especially.”

            “Don’t try to distract me, Phelan,” she said, her tone firm even if her voice was tired.  “I still want to know what the hell happened and you’re the only one who can tell me right now.  I tried to get it out of Thordin and he just looked at me like I was crazy for asking.”

            He probably thinks you’re crazy for wanting to know, but I think he’s a little scared of you, too.  He saw you with that bow.  He sees in you what I’ve seen.  Phelan closed his eyes and shook his head slightly, his wet fingers knitting together.  “Is there a towel around here?”

            “Here.”  She dropped one over his clasped hands then started worrying about putting some water on.  He opened his eyes and began to scrub the water from his hands, wincing as he realized she was right.  He’d scrubbed them almost raw in his zeal—or the post-traumatic stress, whichever might be the case.  “Now will you just talk to me?”

            “Yeah,” he said with a quiet sigh.  “So…about what happened out there…”

            “Who was she and why did Cariocecus show up to get her out of our hair, Phelan?  He doesn’t like us.  He promised on my wedding day to come back and deal with us because he wants this patch and we’re on it.”

            Phelan set his jaw, looking Marin dead in the eye.  “Are you going to ask questions, or are you going to let me talk, leannán?”

            She went quiet, lips thinning.  “I’ll let you talk,” she murmured, turning away again to get him a mug for his coffee or tea—whatever she decided to pour him.  He decided he didn’t care which he got, so long as it was hot.  The cold seemed to be settling into his bones in ways it never had before.  Maybe it was his time in the river that did it.  Maybe it was something else.  He couldn’t be sure.

            “That was the Hecate,” Phelan said softly, spreading the towel over the edge of a nearby carton to dry.  “She’s had a beef with Teague and his family for near as long as I can remember—back before I had an issue with Vammatar, his family was having issues with that bitch.”

            “The Hecate,” Marin echoed quietly.  “The crossroads and magic goddess from Greek mythology?  That one?”

            “For better or worse,” Phelan said, shoulders slumping.  “I don’t know what one of his ancestors did to her or failed to do, but she’s had a hard-on for taking them out ever since whatever happened…happened.”

            “You don’t even know what happened?”  She pressed a mug of something steaming into his hands.  He sniffed it.  Mint tea.

            Good, because I’m feeling pretty damned ragged.  “No.  His father didn’t like to speak of it, so I imagine it was something that he might have done that sparked this little feud that’s lasted a hundred generations and more.”

            “And because he’s dead—”

            “Because he’s dead and she hates Teague, she’s taken it out on him ever since,” Phelan snapped, biting down hard on his tongue.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to—”

            “It upsets you,” Marin said softly as she sat down with him, wrapping her arms around her knees.  “Whatever badgering of him she’s doing.  It bothers you a lot.”

            Phelan nodded, staring into the fire.  “I didn’t have brothers, Marin,” he murmured, “but I had Teague and Seamus.”

            “So their fights became your fights?”

            He closed his eyes, nodding again.  “Aye.  And this one…this was one of the worst.  That bitch can bear a grudge weighing twice as much as any load Atlas ever shrugged off his shoulders.”

            “Strange to hear someone call a freaking goddess a bitch.”

            He had to laugh.  “If the shoe fits, leannán, they get to wear it.”  He sobered after a moment and stared into his mug.  “I never told you why I was late getting here, did I?  Hell, why Teague and Kira sent me in the first place instead of coming themselves.  I never told you, did I?”

            “No,” she said softly.  “You never did, but I don’t think any of us asked, either.”

            “Not in so many words,” he agreed.  He took a long swallow of his tea, gathering his thoughts before he began to explain.  “I had to find a way to make sure she wouldn’t find him or find you,” he said at last, settling on the full truth and full disclosure. “I stuck closer to the city, planting false trails and false leads until it was almost too late.  Then it was all I could do to start making my way here.  As it was, I was too late to help the first time you went toe-to-toe with Cariocecus and his band of merry were-bat things.”

            Camazotzi,” she said with a faint, wry smile.

            “Yeah, those ugly bastards.”  Phelan knuckled his eyes and sighed.  “The Hecate is the last—and I do mean the last—thing I’d want to pit any of you against.  On a good day, she could take any one of us out.”

            “We’ve got three of you,” Marin said softly.  “And then you’ve got all of us plus Excalibur.  Does that even the odds a little?”

            “Only if Cameron’s recovered and Neve’s able to fight when she comes back,” Phelan murmured.  “And it’s not an if—it’s a when. She’ll be back.  I don’t know what Cariocecus did with her, but it probably wasn’t pleasant and she’ll be even more pissed when she finally comes back here.”

            Marin shook her head slightly.  “Is it possible that she’s weakened him enough to give us an edge in a couple weeks?”

            “I don’t know,” Phelan said honestly.  “But she did cut down our strength if the wounded here don’t recover quickly.  I wouldn’t count on Cameron’s help and I sure as hell wouldn’t count on Neve’s.”

            “Were they badly hurt?”

            Phelan’s nose wrinkled. “It’s not so much that Cameron’s wound was bad, it’s what the Dirae claws apparently do to him.”  He sighed.  “It’s like he’s one of us, but he’s not.  There’s a lot of Otherworld blood in him.”

            “That sounds like the rest of us,” Marin said, resting her chin on her knee.

            “Seems almost like he’s got more,” Phelan said.  “Like he’s half-blood or very nearly full-blooded.  It’s a bit of a concern for me, but…”  His voice trailed off and he sighed. “We’ve got a lot of other problems to sort out before I can waste my time with that mystery.”

            One corner of her mouth twitched.  “We must be rubbing off on you.  That sounds like something that’d have come out of Thom’s mouth, or Matt’s, or mine.”

            Phelan had to smile.  “Yeah, well, I guess it’s only payback for rubbing off on you.”  He reached over and tousled her hair lightly, smile softening.  “Thank you, leannán,” he said softly.

            “For what?”

            “Everything.”

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