Curse of the Cailleach: Chapter Seven

As the sun slowly climbed its way into the cornflower blue sky above us, Casey and I slowly climbed along with it. We’d pulled ourselves up to sitting within minutes of each other – me first, yay, team Charlie! – and were now side-by-side, sunning ourselves like a pair of lizards as we tried to raise our core temperatures. Though it had been warm the day before, it had turned downright frigid during the wee hours of the night, and there was still a slight chill in the morning air.

An unfamiliar songbird zipped past the hilltop we occupied, twittering at us in annoyance before winging its way down into the valley below. A heavy fog had obscured much of the surrounding scenery for most of the morning, but as the sun heated the air, the mist dissipated, revealing a bucolic setting that looked like something out of a travel magazine. The only trees in sight crowded the valley floor far below, growing up along the banks of the slow-moving river that wound through the vale. The hills that rose around us were of varying heights, covered with a mixture of grasses and heather. They looked more like they were falling down than rising up; each and every one of them bore the scars of innumerable rock falls, the greenery ripped away to reveal the loose, dark soil beneath.

I had recognized none of the birdsong that greeted the dawning of the new day. Nor did I recognize the small weasely creature that intermittently poked his head up out of the nearby heather to yell at us to get off his front lawn. Poor little guy was probably worried we were rabid. Not that I could blame him.

I slanted my eyes at Casey. Her hair looked like it had been on the losing side of a fight to the death with a blow dryer, in zero-gravity, while a hurricane made entirely of hairspray raged around her. The dark halo of my own hair crowded the edges of my vision, and judging by the odd angles it stuck out at, my auburn locks were just as mangled. I felt better than I had when I’d first woken up, but better was a relative term. My thoughts were just as sluggish as my movements, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to think up a way to comment on Casey’s “do”.

“You look like Medusa,” I finally told her.

She frowned at me for a moment before responding, and I took comfort in the fact that her mind seemed to be just as muddled as mine own. “Yeah, well, you look like something I pulled out of our clogged shower drain last month.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I call it swamp monster chic,” I said, lifting a hand to flip my hair over my shoulder. Big mistake. My other arm wasn’t strong enough to support me on its own, and I toppled to the left, right into Casey. She folded like a house of cards, and together we tumbled back to the cold, hard ground.

“What did you learn?” she asked as we untangled ourselves, her tone patronizing.

I grinned at her, unrepentant. “That even in my weakened state I can still take you out.”

She snorted in response.

We fell silent while we began the arduous climb back to sitting. It took all of my focus just to get my limbs to obey me, and by the time I was once again upright, I was slightly winded and more than a little pissed off. My body had always been a well-oiled machine, capable of doing things that surprised even me sometimes. I’d once been kick-flipped through a wall, and had somehow managed to spin mid-air and still land on my feet. This weakness was insufferable. I was beyond over it, and beyond ready to get up, get out of here, and get home.

“You figured out where we are yet?” I asked Casey, relieved that the words came easier.

“Yes. We’re on a hill,” she deadpanned.

It was my turn to snort. “Care to hazard a guess as to where exactly this hill is located?”

Her expression turned contemplative as she gazed around us. “Honestly? I think we might be in Ireland or Scotland, but my money’s on Scotland.”

Hearing Casey voice the worry that had been plaguing me all morning sapped me of what little strength I’d regained. My arms gave out again, and I landed on my back with an ‘oompf’. I didn’t try to sit up this time, just laid there, surrounded by peace and tranquility, while a storm of fear and worry raged within me.

Fuck,” I said, with feeling.

Casey knew better than to tell me it would be okay. Nothing was going to be okay. Not only had at least two weeks passed, but we were probably in the Middle of Nowhere, Scotland, and Cailleach had pilfered our belongings while we’d been unconscious, so we had no cell phones, no money, and no identification.

“As soon as we can walk, we need to get moving. That ridge over there is the highest point in sight,” Casey said, jerking her chin toward the south. “If we can get there by tonight, we should be able to see where the nearest town is.”

“And then, once we reach said town and find out the fate of our families and packmates, we’ll have to wait who knows how long for Maria to get us plane tickets, money, and passports.”

Casey frowned down at me, worrying her lower lip as though she wanted to say something but didn’t know how I’d react.

“What it is?”

“It’s just…I spent a lot of last night thinking about what Cailleach said.”

“What part of what she said?” I asked.

“For starters, the part where she said I was just as clever as she remembered.”

“Why is that so odd?”

Her brow furrowed, shading her blue eyes. “Well, it’s just that I can’t remember being overly clever around her.”

I shot her a look. “Casey, your normal is overly clever to the rest of us mere mortals.”

“Cailleach’s not mortal,” she said.

“Fair point. So what? You think she used to spy on you or something? Not that I wouldn’t put it past her to creep on an adolescent werewolf, but it just doesn’t seem like her style.”

“No, I don’t think that’s it. There was just something about the way she said it that unsettled me.”

“Everything she said was unsettling. Like not wanting us to hurt ourselves, when it was her that was doing the hurting, and let’s not forget her telling us to watch out for dragons. Clearly immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s no way you could survive eternity with your sanity fully intact, and she obviously hasn’t.”

“But haven’t you noticed the way she’s always fixated on us?”

“No, she-” I snapped my mouth shut, because as I had spoken the denial, memories of our interactions with the goddess had risen up, unbidden. One in particular slipped loose from the vault I kept it locked in, demanding my attention.

When the vampire attack happened, Cailleach had rushed to the packlands without having been invited, arriving before the bloodshed was even over. She’d been the one that had found me wandering barefoot through the carnage, and had scooped me up and kept me with her until the last of our enemies were dispatched. Later, I had heard stories from my packmates of Cailleach passing over the wounded and ignoring the wails of other children as she sprinted through the chaos as though looking for something. I still remembered the look of relief that had washed over her face when she reached me, as if I had been the thing she was searching for.

“What? What is it?” Casey asked.

I told her about my memory.

She nodded when I was finished, as if I’d just confirmed something for her. “I think there’s something else going on here, Charlie. Something far larger than we could have ever guessed. Think about it. Cailleach has always paid special attention to the two of us. Every time she visited the packlands, she sought us out, and I’ve lost count of how many times Maria has told me she asked after us. Did you forget it was her druids that rescued us from those demon-worshippers? And how she herself came to sort us out when that shaman hexed us?”

“No, I hadn’t forgotten,” I grumbled. “I merely hadn’t wanted to think about any of that, because it makes Cailleach’s betrayal all the more painful.”

“I don’t…I don’t know that she necessarily betrayed us,” Casey said, her voice barely above a whisper.

I struggled back to sitting. “Are you serious right now? She attacked the pack, she attacked us, and then she beamed us across an ocean to get us out of her way. How is that not a betrayal?”

“Just hear me out, okay?”

“Fine,” I huffed.

She took a deep, steadying breath. “You must have noticed that there were twenty four druids in that room with us yesterday, one for each of the sick wolves. And that the druids were more powerful than usual.”

I nodded.

“Cailleach is one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, which means tribe of the god Danu. Danu being the mother goddess of the Celts. You know why we don’t name our goddess, right? Why we simply refer to her as The Goddess?”

“Yes, because no one knows her true name.”

“Kind of. More likely, we’ve merely turned her into an amalgam, because the mother goddess has many names. To my father’s people, she was Gaia. To gran’s, Danu. To your father’s – ”

“Bendis,” I said.

“Right, her Thracian name,” Casey said. “The point is, there are commonalities between them all. Almost everyone that practices magic in the nature disciplines prays to one incarnation of her or another, which means that there’s a link between us. More importantly, it means that we’re susceptible to each other. Cailleach’s hyper-focus on us is unique. She’s never seemed the least bit concerned about the rest of the pack’s welfare. It was as if our safety alone was incredibly important to her for some reason. I think it was important because she needed us to live until the day we walked into Wiccan Wares and they sent us here. I think the whole reason her druids were drawing power from our pack was for the spell they cast on us.”

I eyed her for a long moment, trying to wrap my head around what she’d just said. “That’s a bit of a stretch. Don’t you think it’s more likely that we simply got in her way? Maria would know if we were killed, so instead of alerting our alpha, Cailleach sent us here to buy herself more time.”

Casey shook her head. “I don’t think so. That spell was incredibly complicated, and from the way they performed it, it seemed like a lot of rehearsal went into it. Twenty four is an important number to druids. It’s the largest number required for a circle of magic, and reserved for only their most powerful spells. What are the chances that the druids who were leeching the power from our pack all happened to be minutes away from Wiccan Wares when we arrived? What are the odds that the spell had been drawn in that basement room on the off chance that they needed to teleport someone?”

“Yeah, but how the hell could she know that we would be the ones to show up there that day? Is she some kind of psychic goddess?”

“She might be. Some of the Tuatha Dé Danann were known for the gift.” She hesitated before continuing. “But if she were psychic, she would have been able to preemptively keep us out of danger instead of having to come to our rescue when our deaths were imminent. I think she might have known for another reason.”

“Like?”

“Like she knew we’d be the ones to show up there because she remembers us from a place and time other than our own. The Tuatha Dé Danann were also known for their ability to traverse time and worlds. Remember what she said. ‘The roots around you belong to the tree of life, krawn ba-huh.’” I paused her here to spell it out for me. Crann Bethadh. Right, should have known. “‘They will take you to where you need to go. Only after you free the others will you find me. Only after you free the others can you free me. Only after you free me can I send you home.’ None of that makes any sense if we’re still in our own time and world. It only makes sense if we’re elsewhere, including the warning about the dragons. I think she remembered me being clever from another time. I think the moon isn’t new because two weeks have passed, but because we’re no longer in the same realm we once were.”

The blood drained from my face as my eyes went to the sky, searching for dark spots wheeling among the fluffy white clouds. “The Celtic tree of life is just like ours, isn’t it?”

“Not exactly, but close enough.”

“Are you saying we’re in the lands of the gods?”

Please say no. Please say no. Please say no.

“I don’t think so.”

Goddess be praised!

She must have seen the relief on my face, because she quickly snuffed it out. “Charlie, I think we’re in our world, but not our own time. I think the reason Cailleach’s always been so hyper-focused on our welfare is because she needed us to stay alive, so we could be sent back here and free her.”

I shook my head, struggling to process it all. “But how did she even know when and where to send us? And how did she know the time and date she needed to send us from?”

“We must tell her.”

I frowned at her. Hard. “So, she knew the time and date to send us here, because we told her. But we’re here now, and we haven’t told her yet, because she just sent us here. So how did future her know if we hadn’t even been sent back in time to tell her yet?” I leaned forward and put my head in my hands. “Ow. My brain hurts.”

“It gives credence for the theory that time is cyclical instead of linear. It can be explained by the theory of -”

“No! None of that. If you try to explain how it works, my brain might turn into mush.”

“Charlie, this is good news,” she said.

I jerked my head up to look at her and nearly went tumbling sideways again. “How is this good news?”

“For starters, your parents and Matt are centuries away from being born, so, for the time being, we can stop worrying about their welfare. And since Cailleach was free in our time, it means we find a way to free not only this mysterious them, but also her.”

It was a struggle to keep my mind from running in circles around how we could have freed Cailleach when we’d just gotten here. “Even if that’s somehow true, there’s still no guarantee that she’ll send us back after we free her. Which means that until she does, I’m still going to worry. Because if she doesn’t, my brother might still die, my parents might go feral, and our pack might go to war with a goddess masquerading as a high priestess.”

Her face fell. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I’m still not convinced about all of this, Case. Until I see some proof that we’re not in our own time, I’m going to pray that w-” Something at the edge of my periphery moved, drawing my attention toward it. I turned my head to see a trio of riders galloping up a narrow trail at the far end of the vale. “Shit,” I said, hauling Casey down with me.

She let out a squeak as she thudded into the ground. “Ow! What was that for?”

“There are men on horseback headed toward us,” I told her, turning over onto my stomach to crawl to the edge of the hill.

“Shit,” she agreed, following after me.

If there was anything I hated more than being helpless, it was the thought of being helpless around strange human men. And if we really had been sent back in time, these men might be more dangerous than most. History had not been kind to women.

“Maybe they didn’t see us,” Casey said.

“They’d have to be shifters to see us from that distance,” I said, hoping to reassure her.

We peered over the edge of the hill to see them heading straight toward us. I cast a frantic gaze around. The best cover was the large bed of heather that weasel had screamed at us from.

“Over here,” I said, crawling toward it. Casey was right on my heels. My weakened body made the short journey into an exercise in frustration, my arms jerking wildly while my legs spasmed in protest. I face-planted twice, rising to spit out a mouthful of loose soil before soldiering on.

“What the hell are they even doing here?” Casey hissed as we forced our way into the heather.

“Maybe we’re really in Canada, and they’re Mounties out on patrol,” I said.

“Do they even use Mounties like that anymore?”

Despite my fear, my jaw dropped open. “Holy crap, are you admitting to not knowing something?”

She grumbled at me in response. It sounded like she said, “It was bound to happen one of these days.”

By the time we were fully hidden, I could hear the thundering of the horses’ hooves. The men trotted over the crest of the hill a moment later, saddlebags bouncing on their horses’ flanks, flannel cloth rippling in the breeze. No, not flannel. Tartan. They each wore a matching kilt woven in gray, blue, and red. Their shirts were made of what looked like heavy cotton. I caught the gleam of polished wood and the glint of metal tucked into their belts. Guns. Wonderful.

They reined their horses in on the crest of the hill, speaking to each other in what sounded like Gaelic. The nearest one slipped his left foot free of its stirrup and kicked his leg over the back of his horse as he dismounted, revealing a long expanse of muscular thigh.

“That’s the MacFaol crest on their bonnets,” Casey whispered. MacFaol was Gran’s last name. “They’re our clansmen.”

What? Cailleach had sent us from our current home to our ancestral home? If they were wolves, then they should have heard Casey, but they acted as if they hadn’t. Instead of turning toward us, the other two likewise dismounted before all three walked to the lip of the rise, studying the ground where we had been sitting, completely oblivious to her fevered whispers.

The breeze shifted then, blowing their scents in our direction. I smelled wool and cotton and leather and steel and oil and gunpowder. Nothing modern. At all. Then I caught another scent, hiding beneath the rest, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. They smelled like wolves, but…not. Like their scent was dulled. Or they were sick.

“What’s wrong with them? Do you think Cailleach cursed them too?” I asked.

She was still frowning. “I don’t know. This is weird, Charlie.”

“Understatement of the century,” I muttered, shifting to the left to get a better view of them.

Just then, the largest of the trio, a giant of a man with shockingly red hair, turned toward us, bent over at the waist. I watched in horror as he followed our crawl marks past the horses and straight toward our hiding spot.

He drew up short when he reached the edge of the heather and peered around the low bushes until he caught sight of us. A grin broke over his face then, revealing a mouth full of wide, flat teeth. He spoke to us in Gaelic and waved us out. We stubbornly remained where we were. The two other men joined him and began yammering at us in what seemed like good-natured fashion. One was a full head shorter than the giant, with ruddy brown hair and striking green eyes, while the other was nearly as large as the first and similar enough in appearance that I thought the two were related. Thankfully, none of them were leering at us like we were easy pickings. They all wore slightly bemused but friendly expressions.

“We don’t speak Gaelic,” Casey said.

“Ach, sorry, lassies,” the giant replied, crouching down. I caught another flash of creamy thigh before his kilt settled between his legs, robbing me of an answer to the obvious question. “The tai shed didnae say aught about ye being Sassenachs.”

I blinked up at him, feeling like the poster child for ignorant Americans. The hell had he just said? I looked over at Casey, hoping for an interpretation, and was shocked to see that the color had drained from her face.

Well, if she was out, I’d have to muddle through this myself. We needed out of here. Now.

“Yo, redbeard, you got a cell phone on you we can borrow to call home?” I asked, still desperately clinging to the hope that we were still in our own time, despite the obvious signs that we weren’t.

The men stared down at me much like I had stared at the giant. Like the words I had just spoken weren’t even English.

I tried again. “Uh, does thou…havest…thine cell phone…upon…thee?”

“Cell phone?” the large man parroted, sharing a confused look with the other two.

I turned to Casey. “I am speaking English, right?”

“Pray tell. What year is it?” she squawked.

“D’ye no ken?” said the large man.

I was becoming more and more confused. Who the hell was Ken? And why the hell should we know him?

Casey merely shook her head in response.

“Tis sixteen hundred and forty,” he replied.

I felt myself start to slump sideways as the world spun around me. The dark-haired one was next to me in a flash, banding a strong arm around my shoulders as he kept me upright.

“You’d better caw canny,” he said to me, his rough voice tinged with kindness, his heavy brow drawn down in concern.

Caw canny. Right. On it.

“This one’s looking a bit peely-weely,” said the slightly smaller giant, hefting Casey in his arms. She looked like I felt; like she’d had one shock too many.

Little did we know that these shocks were merely the opening volley in the war we were about to be sucked into.

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