Originally published in Cascade Beyond the Veil, Volume 2.
Blair rolled down the window of the rental car to breathe in the night breezes. A hint of pine and spruce wafted in, bringing with it the freshness of the mountain air after the heavy downpour. Just outside his window, sounds of crickets and other night creatures blended with the soft crunch of stones being travelled over slowly on the dark mountain road. And the sky -- the sky that could be seen through the trees was the deepest of blacks, beautifully jewelled with yellow and blue-white lights. The kind of sky that was never seen in the city. Blair was sure, that if they stopped and got out, they could count each and every star in it. He idly wondered which constellations, kept hidden from the naked eye, a sentinel could see.
This was what being on vacation meant. Taking the time to appreciate the life around you. It was something that he was going to have to do more often. Everything he had learned or read about shamanism stressed being in tune with the world, especially nature. He had spent so much of his life tuning the world out, with school and careers, he was now discovering that he had forgotten how to listen and see, touch, taste and smell. At least he had the best of teachers when it came to awakening the senses.
"Smells great, doesn't it?" Jim Ellison looked over and caught his partner with his head back against the seat, eyes closed, and a smile on his lips. "Carmarthen Cottage is just a little further up this road, if Rucker's directions are right."
Sitting a little straighter, Blair stretched and drew in a lungful of the country air. "Well," he yawned, "he hasn't been wrong so far. I just didn't think it was going to take us this long to get there." He pulled up the backpack that sat between his feet and took out a thermos. "But if this place is as nice as your cousin says it is, it's going to be worth the long drive."
Jim kept his eyes on the road in front of him, but cocked an eyebrow. "If I remember correctly, Sandburg, we would have been on the road, and probably to the inn before that rainstorm hit, if we had left the restaurant at the time we had agreed on."
"I knew you were gonna say that," Blair chuckled. "Okay, I was enjoying myself. So sue me. The food was great, the atmosphere was incredible..."
"You mean the waitress was falling all over you," Jim interjected with a grin.
"Arrghh, a direct hit, Jim." Blair clutched at his chest. "You wound me. But yeah, she was really nice, and you have to admit that she knew a lot about the countryside and the fishing."
"You gonna offer me any of that, Darwin?" The smell of coffee tickled Jim's nose.
Pouring some of the steaming liquid into the plastic cup, Blair waved it under his own nose. "Mmmm, still nice and fresh." He took a sip. "I was going to offer you a cup, but now I don't know."
"Sandburg." Ellison's low growl only elicited an amused snort.
"One cup of coffee coming up." Blair put his own cup in the car's holder and dug another from the backpack. "Here ya go, service with a smile."
"Thanks, Chief." The sentinel automatically dialled up his sense of smell to get the full effect of the dark roast beans, and dialled down touch to make the hot cup more comfortable in his hand. "What did you think of her story?"
"Her story?" Blair looked at his partner questioningly. "Oh, the waitress. It was pretty interesting. And all the locals sitting around us seemed to have something to add to it. Still, it's probably just one of those urban legend type things."
"Rustic, you mean."
Chuckling, Blair agreed. "Rustic. More like something right out of a gothic horror novel. Mysterious lights, sightings and disappearances. I'm surprised that we didn't hear about a ghost that haunts the place."
"Well," Jim started as he shifted in his seat, "Rucker did tell me about one time when..." His voice drifted off.
"When? When what?" Blair stared at him, trying to tell if his leg was being pulled. Frowning, he decided that Jim looked a little uneasy.
"Just that one night..." Jim began quietly and then his voice brightened. "Hey, look, we're here." He turned onto a winding paved drive and soon pulled the car up to the front porch. Switching off the engine, he sighed happily. The place looked better than Rucker had described it. Giving Blair a quick glance, he smiled. "Ah, don't look so worried, Sandburg. It was probably all his imagination." With that he got out, leaving Blair wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
"His imagination?" he croaked. "Jim?" Scrambling from the car, he collided with a solid object. Large hands landed on both his shoulders, steadying him. With a startled gasp, Blair's eyes travelled up, and up, until they rested on a weathered face. In the dim light, he guessed that the man was probably in his fifties, judging from the amount of grey that streaked through a thick black mane of hair.
"There now, lad." The man's voice was a low, pleasantly accented rumble. The inflection reminding Sandburg that Rucker had mentioned that the owners of the inn were originally from Wales. "There's no reason to be rushing. We take things a bit slow out here in the country." His face broke into a wide smile. "Now, where are my manners? I'd be your host, Morgan Bevans." Taking a step back, he offered his hand to Blair. "And that vision of beauty up there on the veranda is my wife, Maggie." A small woman, dressed in jeans and a cable-knit sweater waved from where she stood.
Returning the smile, relieved that he hadn't bumped into the cottage's ghost, Blair shook the older gentleman's hand. "Blair Sandburg, Mr. Bevans." He jerked a thumb in Jim's direction. "And that's Jim Ellison. It's nice to meet you."
Bevans waved a hand at Jim. "Good to have you here, boys. Let's get you settled in and I'm sure we can scare up something hot and sweet. You've not had apple tart until you've had Maggie's."
A half-hour later found Sandburg, Ellison and the Bevans seated around a large maple table in the kitchen. The room was spacious and homey, and looked as if it would have been just as apt to be found in a home in a century passed, with its honey-coloured walls of knotted wood and floor of deep grey stone. Jim's eyes roamed over the pictures and pots of flowers that decorated every corner. His hostess's touch, for sure. The solid wood of the chair and table under his hands, worn smooth over the years from use, must have been handmade. It was a good room, made even better by the aroma of baked apples, strong coffee and the murmur of relaxed conversation. Maggie Bevans proved to be as talkative and welcoming as her husband.
"So, Detective Ellison, you're Rucker's cousin." Maggie peered at the sentinel over her cup of coffee. "We know Rucker's love for lighthouses brought him to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, but what brings you here? All the way from Washington. It can't be for lighthouses. If you don't mind my saying, neither of you look the type." She gave both men a mischievous grin.
Jim quickly swallowed the bite of apple pie he had just put into his mouth. "I'm not surprised," he laughed. "I don't think I've been in more than one. Blair and I were in Maine for a conference. The week before we left I happened to be talking to Rucker about being up this way and he told us about you and the fishing. So Blair and I checked a few details and thought we could sneak in a couple of days before having to fly back to Washington. We were just lucky that you had room for us."
"You picked a good time to come." Morgan got up to retrieve the pot of coffee from the stove and refilled the cups. "Most folks start thinking of warmer places this time of year. But late September, early October, is the best time to visit. The hills are in full glory with the autumn colours. The days are warm, the nights are cool, and," he added with a wink, "the fish are hungry."
"That's what we wanted to hear." Blair smiled. "Rucker was saying that you've got trout and salmon." He started to protest when Maggie put what would be his third piece of pie in his dish, but then thought better of it. He wasn't sure if it was his mood, the country, or a secret ingredient, but it was the best pie he had ever tasted, so he only nodded his thanks and dug in heartily.
"There's salmon and trout only a short walk from here," Maggie assured them, pushing back a strand of auburn hair. "If you boys are plannin' to fish tomorrow, I can pack you a nice, hearty lunch of sandwiches and soup." Taking off her glasses, she massaged the bridge of her nose. "Now, Blair, you've been itchin' to ask something almost from the moment you sat down. What is it?"
Blair gave Jim a sideways glance before starting. He felt silly asking, but his curiosity was getting the better of him. "Well, before driving up here we stopped in St. Anne's for dinner. It was a really nice pub and the waitress... she, well, she..."
Chuckling, Morgan leaned forward and gave his wife's arm a squeeze. "I'd say that Blair, here, got an earful from our sweet Nan at the Ship's Inn." Sitting back in his chair, he laced long fingers over his middle and looked at the younger man. "Yes, I'd say that you, and Jim, would have caught Nancy's eye as soon as you walked in. Loves to tell stories, that girl does. So which one was it?"
Feeling the tips of his ears starting to turn red, Blair plowed on. "She was telling us that a lot of strange things have happened around, and in, this house. Strange lights and disappearances. Things like that. And Jim," he added, wanting some support, "was starting to tell me something that Rucker told him about one of his visits here." Hearing an agonized groan, Blair turned to see Jim shaking his head and looking at the ceiling. With a groan of his own, he dropped his head onto his folded arms. "Oh no, you were pulling my leg."
Jim slapped him on the shoulder and laughed softly. "I couldn't help it. You were taking in everything that girl was telling you."
"Now, now, no need to feel all embarrassed, Blair." Maggie waited until Blair lifted his eyes to look at her. "Morgan said that Nan loves to tell stories, but we didn't say that some of them aren't true."
Giving her husband a firm look, she tapped her fork on the table. "You just hush, Morgan Bevans. There's some truth to the stories that float around about this house and you know it. In fact," she said, turning to Blair, "that's how we came to own the cottage. The poor thing stood empty for years because of rumours of it being haunted."
With a resigned sigh, Morgan took up the story. "It's true. When we first came to this part of Cape Breton, years ago, we had planned to start a small bakeshop in town. We did some investigating and decided that, as an investment, it might not be a sound one. Back in those days everyone pretty much did their own baking. But Maggie and I, we fell in love with the land here and didn't want to move. It reminded us both of the home we left back in Wales. Then we heard about Carmarthen Cottage being empty and for sale at an incredibly cheap price." He gave his wife a knowing smile. "That should have told us right there that there was a story about this place."
"True," Maggie agreed. "Even when the people in town told us that this old place was haunted by the souls who had died here we still came to see it. It was meant to be ours. After all, Carmarthenshire is where we're from. And yes, Blair, there have been times when we've been sure that a ghost or two still calls the cottage home. You'll not hear any rattling chains or moaning in the night, if that's what you're wondering. The spirits that still live here seem happy enough to share their space with us. But sometimes they'll make themselves known by a sudden cold draft or a door closing on its own." Suddenly her eyes dropped to her hands, and she moved them from the table to her lap. "There was only that one time, about six years ago when Morgan..."
Both Ellison and Sandburg waited for the older woman to continue. The quiet seemed to draw some of the warmth from the room. Finally, Mrs. Bevans looked up, only to turn to her husband. "You tell them, Morgan."
"It's getting late, Maggie," the older man gently scolded. "We don't want to send these two gentlemen to bed with tales of spooks and goblins, do we?"
Jim's room was on the top floor of the old stone cottage. Maggie had insisted that she escort her guest to his room, just to make sure he had everything he needed for the night.
"The nights get awfully cold in the fall," she said as she preceded Jim into his room. "Do you think you'll be needing another blanket? Or, if you prefer, the fireplace has been converted to gas." She stepped to a switch on the wall by the door. "With just a flick. You see? All the modern conveniences. Except you'll find no television or computers here. We survive nicely with the radio and newspapers to keep us up-to-date."
"I think that I'll be just fine, Maggie. I never seem to feel the cold as much as some people do. Now, Blair, he's a different story altogether." Jim smiled at the long-running joke he had with his perpetually cold friend. "You know," he continued as he looked around the room, "Rucker told me that the house was impressive. And it is."
Maggie's grin was pure delight. "Why, thank you, Jim. We're awfully proud of the cottage. This room used to be just wasted attic space, but when we decided to turn the house into a bed and breakfast, Morgan transformed this bare and cold room into one of the more pleasant rooms in the house." Her eyes shone with pride. "I noticed you admiring the table in the kitchen. My Morgan made it, and the chairs. And your bed." She brought her hand up to her mouth and giggled. "And if I don't stop talking, you'll never have a chance to discover what a comfortable bed it is, too!" She started for the door, but stopped just short of going through. Looking uncomfortable, she spoke. "Jim, I hope that I didn't ruin a pleasant evening with all my talk of ghosts and whatnot."
"No, far from it." Jim leaned against a dresser to bring himself to eye-level with her. "I know that I teased Blair about the effect that young waitress had on him, but believe me, I've been around and seen enough to always have an open mind. And Sandburg thrives on the stuff." He grinned as he watched the tension fade from Maggie's face and body. "Now that you've started him on it, I should warn you. He's going to be relentless until he's heard every secret about this place."
Giggling again, Maggie reached for the knob and started to pull the door closed. "I shall consider myself warned, Detective Ellison. Sleep well."
Jim stood looking at the closed door a moment longer, listening to the retreating footsteps of his hostess. Shaking his head, he started at the buttons of his shirt. Something told him that it was going to be an interesting two days.
"Here we are, Blair," Morgan said as he opened the door to the second floor room. "Maggie's left extra blankets for you in the closet. The nights can be a little chilly this time of year."
"Thanks, Morgan." Going to the closet, Blair pulled out two blankets. "I know what I'm like, so I think I'll get them out now and save myself a trip later." He grinned.
"If you need anything else, just let Maggie or me know. I'm a bit of a nighthawk, so I'll be up a while longer." He began to back out of the room. "And you be sure to help yourself to anything in the fridge if you get hungry."
Blair chuckled and his eyes lit up. "You don't have to ask me twice. That apple pie was delicious."
"Ah, didn't I tell you that you'd never tasted an apple tart until you've tasted my Maggie's?" The older man bowed slightly before closing the door. "Well, goodnight, lad. Pleasant dreams."
Going to the large window that took up almost one entire wall of the room, Blair pulled back the heavy drapes. He couldn't help but be awed by the view outside. The moon had risen from below the mountain vista, full and brilliant, illuminating the hill the cottage sat on and the valley beyond. Leaving the curtains open, he dragged one of the heavy, over-stuffed chairs closer to the window. He could feel his body begging for the nice, soft bed with the down duvet, but his brain wasn't ready to shut down. Plopping into the chair, he reached for his backpack and took out a notebook and pen. A little mental exercise might be just the thing to get his thoughts quieted enough to sleep. Flipping the book open to a blank page, he started to jot down some of the stories that Nan had told while he and Jim ate dinner at the Ship's Inn. In the morning he knew he was going to have to ask Maggie to tell him what the Canwyll Corph was. Nan had refused to tell them. Looking at the words as he had been told how to spell them, he chuckled softly. Was he even going to be able to say them clearly enough so that Maggie would know what he meant?
Somewhere in the house a bell chimed twelve times. Midnight. Smiling to himself, Blair couldn't help but think 'the witching hour'. The perfect time to be thinking about spooks and goblins, as Morgan had put it. But it wasn't so much the talk of spooks and goblins that filled his mind, as Maggie's mention of the souls who had chosen to stay with the house. Jim had had his fair share of run-ins with otherworldly places and things, and each time Blair had been forced to just observe or hear about them after-the-fact. Sighing wistfully, he wondered if he would be the only living shaman -- shaman-wannabe he sometimes feared -- who would never make contact with the spirit realm. Whatever it was that Incacha had thought he was passing on, it hadn't made much of a difference. At least, no difference that he could feel. Resting his pen down on the book, he knew that trying to record anything this night would be a futile exercise. There were too many jumbled thoughts running through his mind to be able to sort them through. So instead, he looked out across the dark landscape and wondered exactly what it was that Morgan had been so reluctant to tell them. Shuddering at a sudden chill, he grabbed one of the blankets from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around him. Burying himself in it up to his nose, he found that it lightly smelled of cedar. The warmth and weight of the woolen cover did the trick, and snuggling down deeper into the chair, he let his eyes fall closed. Stifling a yawn, he thought about moving to the bed. For now, though, he was happy to stay where he was.
It was the sound of a woman's crying that had entered into his dreams and brought him out of a peaceful sleep. Blair's first thought was that Jim had fallen asleep in front of the television and he was hearing whatever movie was on. Slowly, he became aware that he wasn't in his bed or in the loft at all. Blinking rapidly, he opened his eyes wider, recognizing his room in the Bevans' cottage. But that still didn't answer the mystery of the cries he heard. Getting up, he went to his door and quietly opened it. Holding his breath to hear the faint sobs, Blair moved to stand in the hallway. The sound was coming from the first floor. He took a step towards the stairs, but stopped. He was torn. The woman could only be Maggie. She might not appreciate a complete stranger intruding on a private moment. But then, he couldn't listen to her muffled cries and not do something to help. Mind made up, he went back into his room to pull a sweatshirt over his tee-shirt, and headed downstairs.
"Maggie?" He whispered the woman's name quietly, not wanting to bring anyone else downstairs if Maggie did, indeed, want some privacy. "Maggie, where are you?"
Not getting any response, Blair followed along the corridor that led to the front room. Lamps set high on the wall in delicately molded sconces dimly lighted his way. While it was enough to navigate by, it wasn't enough to reach into the far corners or offer any light for the rooms that ran off the main hallway. Heart racing, Blair found himself jumping at strange shadows and shapes. It seemed that Maggie's talk of ghosts had gotten to him more than he had imagined. Mentally telling himself to just get a grip, he finally found himself in the main foyer. The sounds of crying had gotten no louder or softer since he had first heard them. That in itself seemed strange enough, but now, as he stood in front of the door, he was sure that whoever was sobbing was just outside on the porch. He shivered suddenly, raising the hairs on his arms. A cool draft of air had seeped in from beneath the door, chilling the air around him.
Once again he wasn't sure what to do. Looking behind him, now hoping that someone else had heard the crying and had come to join him, he saw that he was on his own. Taking a deep breath, Blair steeled himself. He had come this far to see who needed help, almost certain that it was Maggie. He knew that he couldn't turn around or wait for Jim or Morgan. Grabbing the doorknob, he was startled by its warmth and immediately let go. He had expected it to be as cold as the rest of the front hall and foyer. Chiding himself, he opened the door and stepped into the small circle of brightness provided by the overhead light. Prepared to find Maggie sitting on the large porch swing, he found it almost as jarring to see no one there. Wrapping his arms around him to ward off some of the cold, he crossed to the railing that ran the length of the porch. Leaning over, he strained to see into the darkness, checking to his left and right. There was no one in sight. The night was still and quiet.
"Quiet?" The question was barely whispered, but still sounded loud and harsh to Blair's ears. The crying had stopped as soon as he opened the door. Had he really heard it? Or had it been some sound peculiar to the old cottage? Sighing, and feeling slightly foolish that his imagination had run wild and taken him for the ride, he turned back to the house. His heart jumped when he saw a form silhouetted in the doorway. "Morgan?"
"It's me, son. I didn't mean to startle you." Buttoning up his jacket, Bevans joined Blair on the porch. "Is everything all right? It's a little late to be out here with just a sweater to keep warm."
Teeth chattering, Blair smiled sheepishly at the older man. "You said it. I thought I heard," he started, looking back into the darkness, "but I guess I didn't. I'm sorry if I woke you."
"You didn't wake me," Morgan answered quietly. "Why don't we go into the kitchen and have a nice, hot cup of tea to get rid of that chill?" After checking to make sure that the door was secured, he led the way. "Then you can tell me what it was that you thought you heard."
Following Bevans into the kitchen, Blair welcomed the warmth. "It seems kind of silly now." He watched as his host filled the kettle with water and placed it on the stove. The normalcy of the act seemed to make the eerie feeling of the last ten or fifteen minutes seem even more unlikely. "In fact, I'm wondering if I heard it at all," he said as he slid into a chair.
"A woman crying." Morgan didn't turn, nor look, to see what Blair's reaction was to his statement. He just went about putting cups on a tray. "Did you see her?" he asked as he walked to the table.
"No! I didn't see anyone." Blair was stunned at the older man's casualness. "You heard her too? I thought it was Maggie at first."
"No, it wasn't Maggie. She's upstairs, sound asleep. She never hears it, though she says she wants to." Morgan shook his head sadly before looking Blair in the eye. "She doesn't know what she's wishing for. I've heard those cries for many years now. I don't tell Maggie about them anymore. It seemed to upset her that she couldn't hear them." He gave a small laugh. "She says that it's supposed to be the woman who's psychic or whatever you want to call it."
"Not as far as I know." Bevans shrugged. "Every once in awhile I'll hear a woman crying. The first time was six years ago."
"Six years ago? That's what Maggie was referring to, right?" Seeing the look of unease that crossed Morgan's features, it was evident that his first experience still bothered him. "Why don't you tell me about it?" Blair asked softly. "
"Oh, there's not much to tell now, Blair," Morgan began. "It started like it did tonight. Just soft cries. A gentle sobbing. At first I thought that I was hearing the wind whistling through the attic." He ran a callused hand through his thick salt and pepper hair. "I had just started renovating that part of the house. I thought maybe a board had come loose. But that wasn't it."
The shrill whistle of the kettle on the stove made both men jump and smile. "Things that go bump in the night," Blair chuckled as he got up. "You stay there, I'll get the tea. So what did you do when you decided that you were hearing a woman crying?" Grabbing an oven mitt from the counter, he poured the boiling water into the teapot.
"I came downstairs, like you did, and followed the sound to the door. I knew that she was standing just outside the door. I swear that I saw her shadow out on the porch. But dear Lord... That first time..." Morgan shuddered at the memory. "The sobs just seemed to get louder and louder until they were hysterical screams. I couldn't imagine what could make someone cry like that. I thought that maybe it was a mother looking for a lost child or..." He shrugged again. "I don't know what I thought, except that there was a person in pain who needed my help. There was something so lost and desperate in those cries."
Going back to the table with the tea, Blair nodded in sympathy. "I know what you mean."
"Maggie must've thought I'd gone mad that night. When she came downstairs she found me standing out on the front porch, yelling at the top of my lungs for the woman to come back -- promising I'd help her." Bevans dragged his cup of tea toward him. "By that time I was pretty hysterical myself. I kept asking Maggie if she could still hear her or see her. I was ready to grab my coat and go running out into the night to find her."
"But the sounds I heard tonight," Blair prodded. "They weren't anything like that."
"No, thank the Lord, she's never screamed like that again. Now it's just gentle sobbing." He laughed, but there was no mirth in it. "'Just.' Listen to me. Like it's normal to hear phantom crying in the night." Morgan reached out to grab Blair's wrist and give it a firm shake. "In all these years no one else has ever heard her. No one -- but you. I don't know what it means, son, why you heard her, but it's like a weight that I've carried alone can now be shared." Letting go of Blair's wrist, he took a sip of his tea. "The real thing that bothers me about all o' this is that I only hear her when something bad or upsetting is going to happen. It's like she already knows and this is the only way she has to tell me."
"It's happened every time?"
"Every time," he sighed. "Sometimes it might be some small thing, like the time I took a tumble from the ladder and broke my ankle. Another time it was just before one of my cousins died back in Wales. That first time, though, it was the day before a terrible accident out on the water. Children were out on a field trip, in fishing boats." He heaved a sigh. "So many families..."
"No one told me that we were having an all-night poker game."
Morgan and Blair turned to see Jim, looking very amused, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. "Ah, didn't you know that it is an Old Welsh tradition to keep your guests up 'til the wee hours of the morning, telling them all sorts of stories? But," he said, pushing himself up from the chair, "I'm just about talked out and think I'll be heading back to bed." He patted Jim's shoulder as he passed him on the way out. "There's plenty of tea left. I'll see you lads in the morning."
"Goodnight, Morgan." Ellison raised his eyebrows at his partner. "Everything okay, Sandburg?" He carded the fingers of both hands through his hair and then stretched. Giving Blair a crooked grin, he sat down in the chair next to him. "Something tells me that I missed something."
"How much did you hear?"
"With you and Morgan?" Jim asked. "Nothing, really. It's in the sentinels' code to not eavesdrop on their friends." His eyes narrowed slightly when Blair didn't react to the joke. "I'm not sure what it was that woke me. I think it was a dog whining, but it'd stopped by the time I'd really woken up. When I did a quick check, I realized that you and Morgan were down here and came down to investigate." Giving Blair a circumspect look, he frowned. "Talk or sleep, Chief?"
"Talk?" Blair looked almost apologetic before he started. "I heard a woman crying." Seeing the question come to Jim's lips, he shook his head. "It wasn't Maggie." He took a deep breath before continuing, letting it out in a shaky sigh. "Remember those ghosts we were talking about earlier?"
The rain of the previous night had cleared the skies over Cape Breton, leaving them a brilliant blue and cloudless. Through the open curtains, rays of warm sunlight spilled into Blair's room, gently waking him from sleep. Rolling onto his back, the young detective stretched and groaned contentedly under the heavy down comforter. The room was a little chilly, making the combined warmth of the sun and covers all that much more soothing. He felt completely cocooned against the unsettling brush he had had with the inn's ghost. Talking about it with Jim had helped to settle his jangled nerves. It was probably the only reason he'd been able to get any sleep at all.
Rubbing at his still tired eyes, he went over everything that he had heard and what Morgan had told him. He wasn't sure what it all meant. Why he had heard the woman's sobs when no one else, but Morgan, had in the past. A small, but nagging, worry was that she was sending him a warning, as she did Bevans. And it was that worry that cast the only shadow on the entire experience. Pushing it to the back of his mind, he admitted that he was more than excited about finally taking that first step into a new realm. It was what he had been waiting for, even if its being unexpected had caught him completely off-guard. He chuckled to himself. "The unexpected usually does, Sandburg." But then it never seemed that Jim had much control over his more mystical experiences since accepting his sentinel abilities. Maybe this would be the way it would happen for him, as well. A day of fishing would be the perfect time for him to explore this with his friend. Sentinel and guide would work it through together. As they always did.
A light knock at Blair's door interrupted his reverie and he called for the person to come in. He wasn't surprised when he saw Ellison's head poke around the door. "Morning, Jim. Sleep well?" He gave his friend a brilliant smile.
"Morning, Jim?" The detective held out his arm and pointed to his watch. "It's almost noon, Chief. I just thought that I should come up and see if you were still breathing." He gave his partner a wink. "Time's a wastin' and the fish are biting, according to Morgan."
"Give me ten minutes, Jim."
"That's all I'm giving you, Sandburg," floated through the door just before it closed.
"You just finish your crumpet and tea, Blair." Maggie stood at the sink, frowning at both Jim and Blair. "There'll be plenty of time to fish. Besides, Morgan's still pulling your gear together." She tapped her foot on the floor and crossed her arms. "Blair has time to finish his breakfast. Doesn't he, Jim?"
Knowing when he was on the losing side of an argument, Ellison stopped his impatient pacing behind Sandburg and gave his hostess a lop-sided grin. "Yes, ma'am."
"That's better." She smiled in return. "Now, I've packed you both a nice, nutritious snack of sandwiches, soup, fruit, cookies, and coffee." Frowning, she touched her bottom lip with her index finger. "D'ya think that's going to be enough?"
Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Blair could only laugh. "That sounds like plenty, Maggie. We'll only be gone a few hours." He got up to put his dishes in the sink, but was intercepted.
"I'll take those, Blair. You two just have a nice afternoon. Gets dark around six o'clock this time of year. So make sure you leave with plenty of time to find your way back or you might lose the path in the darkness." Maggie stopped and blushed. Walking over to the two men, she handed them each a bulging knapsack. "I'll stop mothering you now. Dinner's at six. Seven, if you actually catch anything you can eat." She gave them a broad grin. "I make a mean trout."
"You're awfully quiet, Chief. Still thinking about last night?" Jim shifted his pack to a more comfortable spot on his shoulder as they walked to the lake.
"Yeah. Just wondering if this is going to be a one-time thing or something more."
"No way to tell, I guess. It's one of those wait and see situations." Jim lifted his shoulders in a small shrug. "How do you feel?"
Blair squinted up through the bright sunlight at his friend. "What do you mean? How do I feel?"
"I don't know." Jim shrugged again. "Do you feel any different today? The same? I don't know."
"The same," Blair sighed. "Did you? Do you? When you see the panther or when you have your visions? When you saw the ghosts?"
"No," Jim said, shaking his head. "To all of the above, Blair. I didn't feel different any of those times before and I don't feel any different now. It just happens. It's not like I'm expecting it or trying to make it happen." His grin was rueful. "I'm not helping with any of this, am I?"
"You're wrong, Jim. You're helping." Blair pushed his sunglasses, which had slipped down his sweat-slicked nose, back into place. "I wasn't sure what to expect, or how to be feeling right now. So maybe that's the answer. Not to expect anything or try to push it. Just let it happen."
"That's how it's always worked with me, Blair."
Blair saw Jim's brow furrow. "But?"
"But that wasn't always the case for Incacha. He..." Jim stopped, not sure if what he was going to say would help his guide or worry him.
"...had more control," Blair finished for him. "Maybe I'll get there some day." He couldn't hold back a small sigh. "You were one lucky guy, Jim. To have an experienced shaman help you with the sentinel things when you needed it the most."
Jim didn't miss the wistful note to his partner's voice. "You got that right, Chief," he said softly. "You've just got your tenses all wrong. I am one lucky guy." Pleased to see the small smile that quirked at the corners of his friend's mouth, he gave Blair's shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then pointed to a spot along the shore of the lake. "What do you think? Look like a good spot to you?"
The spot Jim had picked was the perfect choice for the surprisingly warm October afternoon. A large maple, its leaves a fiery mix of orange, red and yellow, would provide shady relief when the sun got to be too warm. The large lake was still and calm, with the breeze that blew in from the Atlantic barely causing a ripple to form. Its deep blue surface was spotted with flashes of colour from the fallen and drifting leaves of the trees that dotted its banks.
Dropping his pack to the ground beneath the tree, Blair nodded his approval. "Rucker was right about this place. It's like having a private paradise." He pulled the pieces of his fishing rod from the pockets of the knapsack and quickly assembled it. Digging the reel from his pocket, where he had tucked it safely away, he attached it and fed the line through. It was only when he looked up to ask Jim about the kind of bait he was going to use he realized the sentinel hadn't moved. His partner stood stock still, head cocked to one side, listening. "Jim," he called quietly. "Everything okay?"
"Hmm?" Ellison blinked twice and then turned to his guide. "Yeah, everything's fine. I thought that I heard that dog again." He scanned the area around the lake. "But I don't now."
Maggie Bevans was hanging up the phone as her husband walked in. It only took one glance to know that whoever had called hadn't delivered good news. "Now there's a look I don't like to see." Morgan went to his wife and gently kneaded her shoulder. "Who was that on the phone, Maggie?"
Sighing, she reached up and patted her husband's hand. "RCMP. Seems a little boy has disappeared not far from here. He wandered away from his parents' trailer late yesterday afternoon. They didn't even realize he'd gone until last night. They thought he was asleep in his bunk." Maggie pulled her sweater down from a hook by the door. "They want us to keep a look out for him. He's only eight years old, Morgan. So young to be out there alone. And last night was so cold." She began doing up the buttons. "I want to take a quick turn around the area. He might be frightened and hiding nearby."
"I'm right behind you, Maggie," Bevans said, going to the message board that hung by the phone. "I'm going to leave Jim and Blair a note just in case they get back before we do." Satisfied with his note, he followed his wife out the door.
Blair sat cross-legged on the grass. His fishing rod lay forgotten as he went through the 'snack' Maggie had packed for him. They had already been at it for over an hour and he hadn't been able to entice any trout to take his bait. His partner, on the other hand, had three fish packed in ice in their cooler. Pulling out a wide-mouthed thermos, he twisted the lid and was treated to the aroma of steaming vegetable soup. "This smells great, Jim. You want any?" He dipped a spoon into the broth and blew on it. "The whole two minutes you allowed me for breakfast didn't even make a dent. I'm starving."
"It does smell good." Reeling in his line, Jim put his rod down and joined Blair on the grass. He dragged his pack over and flipped the flap open. "Now let's see what other goodies Maggie put in here." With a grin he took a sandwich from the bag. "Ham and swiss," he crowed and took a deep sniff of the wrapped package. "Mustard, um lettuce..."
Laughing, Blair gave Jim a shove. "Enough, just eat the darned thing." Swallowing a spoonful of soup, he let his eyes roam. "That's the second time I've seen him," Blair murmured quietly.
"Seen who, Chief?" The sentinel frowned. There was no one else around. "I don't see or hear anyone."
Puzzled, Blair pointed farther down the shoreline. "You don't? He's there, hiding behind that clump of bushes. He keeps poking his head out to look at us. In fact, I was thinking about going over to ask him to join us for lunch." He put the thermos of soup down and started to get up. "What do you think? In the mood for company?"
"Is this some kind of joke, Blair?" The sentinel scanned the area around them and could find no trace of another person. "I can't see anyone or hear anyone. It's just you and me and the squirrels."
"But..." Blair looked from the young boy to Jim. "He's right there, Jim. A little boy. He's wearing a blue jacket and a baseball cap." When Jim shook his head no, he felt his stomach flip. "You're serious, you don't see him."
"Very serious. I don't see him." Seeing Blair stand up, Jim grabbed his jacket. "Where are you going? There's no one there."
"But there is, Jim." The little boy now stood out in the open, smiling at him. "I don't know why you can't see him, but I can. I'm going over there to talk to him. The whole time he's been there, I haven't seen any adults come looking for him. Maybe he's lost."
"Wait for me, Chief." His request fell on deaf ears as Blair started to jog to the clump of shrubs.
Blair gave a quick look over his shoulder to see if Jim was behind him. It was too strange that he couldn't see or hear the little boy. He was barely thirty feet away from them. Seeing the little boy smiling at him, he gave him a wave. "Hey there! Where are your..." He didn't get the chance to finish his question. The child had started to run away from him and into the low brush. Every few feet he would stop to see if Blair was following after him. "Wait!" He sprinted off after him.
Blair lost sight of the boy once the grass became waist high. The only clue he had that he was going in the right direction was the movement of the long blades and the sound of a body moving through them. He could hear Jim coming up alongside him. "He's straight ahead," he panted. The thick growth was making the running twice as difficult. He didn't know how the little boy could keep so far ahead of him.
Jim looked out across the grassy plain and could see no movement. His partner said that there was someone there, though, and that was enough for him. "I'm taking your word for it, Chief." He caught Blair's sharp look and guessed what he was thinking. "No," he huffed, "I still don't see anything."
The word "weird" was on Sandburg's lips as he broke through the long grass and into a clearing. Coming to an abrupt halt, he frantically checked the area. The child had disappeared. "He's gone. But I know he came this way." He looked to Jim. "Can you see him or hear him now?" he asked hopefully.
"No, I don't, but I can hear that dog again." Jim started off in the direction of the whimpering. "C'mon, Sandburg, it's this way."
The clearing followed in a curve that ran along the crest of a shallow rise. As the sentinel rounded a turn he spotted the dog. The husky was pacing at the very edge of the drop, whimpering, each time it stopped to look over. Alarmed at what he could now hear, Jim quickened his pace. "I think we've found your little boy, Blair."
Reaching the dog, Jim dropped to his knees to peer over the side. A young boy of seven or eight was a few feet below them on a grassy ledge. He was sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest. Even without sentinel vision, Jim could see his tremors. "Hang on, we're going to get you out of there."
"Can you tell how he is?" Blair had gently nudged the dog aside so that he could see the boy. When the child looked up to them from under his baseball cap and Blair caught sight of the boy's clothing, he gasped. "It's the same boy I saw at the lake."
"I don't know, Chief. It looks like he's been down there a lot longer than a few minutes." Lying flat on the ground, he reached a hand down to the child. "What's your name, son?" The name was faint, but not a problem for Jim to hear. "Okay, Daniel, I want you stand up and try to grab my hand. Can you do that?"
Getting up on wobbly legs, the boy tried to reach for his hand. Only a foot or two separated them. "That's not going to work," Jim said disgustedly. "I'm going to go down there and hand him up to you, Blair."
"I think it'd work better if I went down and handed him up to you," Blair countered. "The side of the drop is just steep enough that you're not going to be able to climb out on your own." He saw Jim's jaw set, ready to argue. "No offense, but there's no way I'm going to be able to pull you up. Relax. It's no big deal." Scooting to the edge, Blair dropped his legs over. "Wanna hang onto me until I'm on the ledge? I'd hate to take the long trip down."
"Move to the side, Daniel. We're coming down to get you." Jim grabbed his partner's wrist and steadied his slide over the edge. "Okay, Sandburg, let's do it."
Blair made sure that the boy had moved out of the way and then dropped safely to the ground next to him. Giving the boy a warm smile, he introduced himself. "Hi, Daniel, my name's Blair. You about ready to get out of here and back home?" He peeled off his jacket. "Let's say we trade. You take my coat. It's dry and probably a lot warmer." He pulled it up over the boy's shoulders. "There you go. Okay, Daniel, now I'm going to lift you and my friend, Jim, will pull you up. Is that okay?"
"Yes," Daniel whispered, "I want to go home."
Taking the boy into his arms, Blair gave him a reassuring hug. "And that's where you're going, Daniel." He looked up to his partner. "We're ready to go, Jim."
Staff Sergeant Andrews lifted the sleeping boy from Blair's lap. "It was a lucky thing that you two happened to be hiking out that way. I don't think the little guy could have survived two nights on that ledge." He looked down into Daniel's peaceful face and brushed back a lock of brown hair. "Well, I better get Daniel to his parents and the doctors. They'll want to make sure that he's really all right."
Blair reached down and scratched the husky between its ears. The dog hadn't left Daniel's side since they pulled the boy from the ledge. "Could you give us a call later on to let us know how he is?"
"I can do that." The mountie smiled. "Let's go, Tuk," he called to the dog. "Time to go home."
"I'll walk you out, Mark." Morgan followed the officer to the front door and watched until the cruiser disappeared down the drive. Slowly closing the door, he thought about the events that had led up to Jim and Blair finding the boy. He had a question or two for his guests. Knowing that Maggie would have them in the kitchen -- her favourite room in the house -- he went there.
Maggie smiled up at her husband as he entered the room. "I was just saying to Jim and Blair that it was so lucky for Daniel that they were there."
"It certainly was, dear." Morgan regarded both men. "But I'm just wondering if there's more to their story than they told Mark." Catching Jim's eye, he continued. "When I went back to retrieve the fishing gear I saw how far it was from where you found the boy. What made you two decide to take a trek through that tall grass?"
"You wouldn't believe us," Jim sighed, not sure he truly understood what had happened that afternoon.
Curious as to what the detective could have meant, Maggie went to stand behind her husband's chair. "Try us," she coaxed. "You know we're already very familiar with the out of the ordinary."
"Well, it's really Blair's story." Jim turned to his guide.
"I saw that little boy when Jim and I were fishing. He was standing just downstream from us. He'd been watching us for a while when I thought it was kinda odd that no adults had come to look for him. I thought maybe he was lost. When I went to talk to him, he gave me this big smile and then ran away." Sandburg chewed the inside of his cheek as he sorted out the facts. "The only thing is, is that it couldn't have been Daniel. I mean, it was obvious that he'd spent the night on that ridge. The boy I saw was wearing clean clothes..." He shrugged his shoulders. "All I know is that I saw him and Jim couldn't."
"A lledrith!" Maggie's eyes grew wide. "Blair! You saw a lledrith!"
"I did?" He sounded obviously confused. "That's great. What is it?"
"It's the apparition of a living person," Maggie explained. "Some believe that it's an omen of death or bad fortune for the person whose apparition you see." She waved her husband off. "Hush, Morgan. I'm getting to that. But where we come from, we don't think so. My mother told me that it was like a small piece of ourselves that goes off on its own for a wee bit." She clapped her hands. "Oh, Blair, this is so exciting! Daniel must have been so frightened that he went looking for help in the only way he could. And you saw him."
A slow smile spread across Sandburg's face. He'd been able to "see" a soul in trouble. Hearing the ghost and seeing the apparition were small steps. He knew that. But a warmth, that had settled itself somewhere deep inside him, told him that the journey had just begun.
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