“When you talked to her about it, you sounded like you knew what it was like on both ends of being a sibling—being the one worried about and being the one worrying,” I said quietly as Phelan and I headed toward where I assumed my brother would be, beyond the supply tent, working on the ductwork to lay in those trenches the other were digging.
Phelan smiled and nodded slightly. “That’s because I do,” he said quietly. “To a certain degree, anyhow. I have a younger sister, in some ways more precocious and troublesome than I. Aoife. If there was ever a soul in the whole of the world that could get themselves into more trouble than Teague and I, it’s her.” His gaze and voice became wistful. “I don’t know where she is, what’s become of her. She was one of the few that came across with us.”
“Well, that explains how you know about being a frightened big brother,” I said quietly, putting my hands back into my pockets. “But what about scaring big brothers? Is that firsthand, too?”
He laughed weakly. “No, not really, just the receiving end. Teague and I, though, we managed to scare his older brother more than a couple times before…” His voice trailed away, eyes focusing distantly for a moment and he shook his head slightly. “Well, sufficient to say I learned the lessons well.” I could hear the sounds of metal against metal, some kind of hammering and started to walk a little faster.
Phelan’s voice stopped me.
“She has a druid’s gift,” he said, his voice soft. “More strongly than I’ve encountered in a couple hundred years.”
I blinked at him over my shoulder. “But she’s, like, ten years old.”
He shrugged. “She has it. You can’t tell me you didn’t notice that she’s very aware of what we used to be able to call the unseen world. Those gifts can manifest very early, often in response to trauma.” He spread his arms. “And if this wasn’t trauma, I’m not exactly sure what trauma is.”
“Well, you’ve got me there at least,” I murmured.
In the lee of one of the ruined dorms, we found Matt hammering a strip of metal flat against what looked like a makeshift anvil. I’d never seen this little set-up before; it must have been something new he’d put together in the past couple days. His face was smudged with dust and dirt and he was sweating despite the chill.
He happened to glance up at our approach and he grinned when he saw me, a smile that shrank when he got an eyeful of Phelan. “Thought you were seeing to the wards with Carolyn,” Matt said slowly, looking back at me. “But then I saw her back here and you weren’t anywhere to be found. Who’s this?” He jerked his chin toward Phelan.
Phelan eased forward and offered Matt his hand. “Phelan Conrad. I’m a friend.”
Matt shucked off his glove and reached for Phelan’s hand, though his eyes were on me. I smiled reassuringly.
“Kira sent him, but he ran late.”
“By about twenty-three days,” Phelan said, smiling sheepishly.
Matt smiled wryly as he shook Phelan’s hand. “You probably need to work on that, then, don’t you? Timing is everything.”
“Believe me, I’m starting to realize that.” Phelan released my brother’s hand after a moment, then nodded to the tools laid across the anvil. “Arts and crafts?”
He snorted. “I wish. Working on some heating conduits so we don’t all freeze to death huddled around a bonfire this winter. None of us are quite confident enough to try to fell some of the bigger trees to make some kind of lodge, and no one wants to spend the season in that damned tent.” He gestured toward the half-collapsed dorms. “And the buildings that’re still standing aren’t safe.”
As if to punctuate his words, there was the soft rumble in the distance of another building—at least a section of one—falling in on itself. Phelan winced and nodded.
Matt nodded grimly and picked up his hammer. “So we’ve got to make do with what’s at hand, you know?”
Phelan nodded mutely, watching as Matt went back to work. I cleared my throat.
“Matt? Was there something you needed from me?”
He grunted. “Yeah, it was just a question, though. About those things and what hurts them.”
I tilted my head to one side, studying Matt as he lifted the hammer to resume his work on the sheet of metal. “What about it?” What’s he been thinking about? How the dutch oven crushed those things’ skulls like they were eggshells? And the birdshot chewed them up? What do those—
“Holy shit,” I mumbled suddenly, looking at Phelan. “The iron. The iron hurts them, doesn’t it?”
“Cold iron will do bad things to just about anyone or anything that’s born of or spent too much time in any of the Otherlands,” he said quietly. His expression clouded for a moment. “Stick an iron blade in me, it might not end well. Steel, or another alloy, I might fare better, but that’s because I was born across the sea, not across barriers.”
I blinked at him, open-mouthed, then nodded slightly. Matt just stared.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Phelan opened his mouth to speak, but closed it and looked at me as I touched his arm.
“Later,” I said softly. “We can explain it all later, after dinner. You can explain it all.” I looked sidelong at my brother. “The ones who are still here, do you think they can handle being…initiated, for lack of a better term?”
He frowned for a moment, then shrugged. “Better now than later, I guess, Mar. We’ve lost five since the fight. Number’s already down. Maybe who we’ve got left will be made of sterner stuff than the ones who ran away.”
We can only hope. I nodded mutely. “Things are about to get stranger.”
Matt looked at me deadpan. “Bring it on. I’m not sure how much worse it could get.”
Phelan smiled humorlessly. “Bad enough,” he said quietly, “though I don’t think it’s anything you won’t be able to handle.”
“Is that supposed to be comforting?” Matt asked, looking between the two of us.
Phelan shrugged. “It’s supposed to be true. That’s all I have to offer.”
My brother nodded slowly. “All right. I guess I’ll have to accept that—and explanations at dinner.” He waved us off with the hand still holding the hammer. “Go on, get out of here. I’ve got some more work to get done while there’s still daylight.”
I pecked him on the cheek. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” he muttered, then got back to it.
Phelan smiled wryly as we walked away. “He’s a reluctant believer, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “But he’s coming around. Just like all the rest.” I shrugged. “They’ll have to, if we’re going to keep on surviving. Right?”
“Aye,” Phelan said softly. “Or at the very least, accept that there is more to the world than what they can see with their eyes.”
“If you can convince Thom, I think everyone else will be easy.” At least, that’s what I hope.
“Indeed.” Phelan grinned puckishly. “And now it’s more than high time I meet him.”
I laughed to cover the queasy feeling in my stomach. “Yeah. Right. It is.”
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