15. ISLA

The moorland is full of snares beneath my feet, reaching up to grab my ankles, twist my legs around and scratch me up. This is why I hate land. The earth itself is always out to fucking get you.

I nearly fall five times as I run aimlessly through the heather and across the empty hillsides, trying to find Tanis.

But she’s gone. Turned into a wolf or turned into the wind, completely out of sight. Disappeared.

The land snakes and turns and the ground is soft under my feet, and I have to stop running because it’s unforgiving. My too-big boots get tangled up, and I’m not a runner. And she could be anywhere.

“Tanis!” I shout. My voice echoes back to me through the purpling twilight. It’s getting dark, and fast. “Tanis!”

I strain my ears for any sound of her; a bark, a whine, even just the pad of her paws through the overgrown green sea. But nothing.

At least four times I make up my mind to turn around and try to find my way back to the Washer and back down the hill to wherever Murray is, parked with the car. But I don’t. Tanis is here somewhere, and possibly Owen too. She’ll find me, or I’ll find her. I’m not giving up. If I could tear my life apart to find Kit, I can keep walking through scratchy gorse to find Tanis.

I’m getting really fucking sick of having to find people, though. And I think I’m allergic to heather.

I pick my way over the land, tripping through the gold green grass and climbing over the long-deserted remains of stone walls, calling for her as I go. “Tanis!” I shout, over and over. There’s no response.

The sky has gone properly dark when I realise I’ll have to turn around. I have to go back. There’s no finding her, not now. Not when the land here is entirely unfamiliar to me. Not to mention that Thomas is out there somewhere — probably half-drowned in the water. Someone should find him.

Especially since I think I know where he is. I think he probably went to the sea cave.

The Washer said we knew were Kit was already, and that Thomas was on his way there, didn’t they? It would make sense. It’s the only lead we’ve had so far. God, I hope he’s not in the cave. I dunno if he can take on a nuckelavee without Tanis.

I can’t think about that. I can’t think about what might be happening. I just have to focus on what I can do right now. And maybe he isn’t even at the cave. Maybe he’s just passed out on the rocks. Maybe he’ll just wake up with wet hair and a shitty attitude and everything will be totally fine because he’s not dead.

He’s not dead.

Maybe I should turn around now so I can get to him, drag him out of the water and then come back with some torches and get Murray to help me find Tanis. Or maybe I can go back to the Washer. I don’t have my pelt on me, but I could promise to bring it later and trade it in for some wishes. I’d wish for Thomas safe and Kit back and Tanis where I could see her.

I’d put them all in a little room where they can’t get lost again, and then maybe I’d wish for some shoes that fit and a warmer parka and as much food as I could eat. God, so much food. I’d sob for some pasta.

I’ve just clambered back over a stone wall that doesn’t look familiar when I hear it; a yelping sound, carried over the wind from the other side of the hill.

The yelping of a dog. Or a wolf.

Scrambling over the wall I push myself up the hill as quickly as I can, my breath punching out in short gasps, my feet sliding on the wet ground. I crest the hill and look around; there’s a looming munro on one side and a sloping track leading to the cliff’s edge on the other. In the wee dip at the base of the munro, someone is moving.

I hear him before I can see him properly.

“I’m so sorry,” he mumbles, bending over to stack a stone into a weird, uneven pile of rocks. His watery sniffle carries over to me. “You were never meant to get involved in this, Tan.” He places another stone with a grunt. “It was supposed to be for him, not you.”

I move closer, slowing my footsteps to try to make no noise as I inch along. The figure straightens up and in the moonlight I can see him better. Baggy black rain slicker pressed against pale skin. Short red hair fluttering in the wind.

Owen.

As I get closer, his rock pile gets bigger. He’s stacking the rocks on top of a bit of disturbed earth. I squint and look around for Tanis. He’s talking to her, so she has to be around somewhere, but the only person I see is Owen.

“If Kit hadn’t agreed to let you feed, this wouldn’t have been so dragged out,” Owen says. He sniffs again, and I realise with a sick horror that he’s crying. “And then Thomas got involved in it. It all went so wrong, Tan.”

He stacks the last stone and straightens up. I’m close to him now, crouched low against the ground. So close I can see the stricken expression on his face. I set down the bundle of clothes in my arms, and my fingers close around a rock.

“I never wanted to hurt you. Any of you.”

Owen turns. He looks different. His eyes are too big. His arms are too long. He makes eye contact with me.

“Isla—”

With a shout, I leap from my spot behind him and lash out as hard as I can with the rock, bashing it against the side of his head. Owen lets out a muffled grunt and crumples at my feet. Still.

I don’t check to see if he’s fully unconscious, just clamber over him as I head to the rock pile.

Through the dirt, I can hear muffled crying.

Tanis.

I tear the stack apart, throwing rocks and kicking them aside in my mad rush to get to her. The stones scratch at my hand and the pain of them hitting my knees reverberates through my body, but I don’t stop. Tanis is under there. I drop to my knees to dig at the earth with my bare hands. The dirt shoves up under my fingernails and clumps around my fingers.

“Tanis?” I shout, pawing at the ground. “Tanis, is that you?”

Something beneath the dirt is moving, pushing up through the mud and grass and I sit back to get out of the way as a long, clawed hand breaks through. I grab it with both hands and pull as hard as I can. The claws wrap around my wrists, slicing pinpricks of pain into my skin, and with one last tug, Tanis’s head and shoulders emerge from the earth with a gasp.

She’s covered in dirt and grass and she’s coughing up brown spit and choking for air. There are teartracks forming in the dirt on her face, and her pale skin is smeared with mud.

“Tanis?” I yelp, hooking my hands under her armpits and pulling. She allows me to drag her fully out of her earthen grave and collapses on her stomach as she continues retching up dirt. Her hands scrabble at the ground.

“He… buried me….” she gasps. “Can’t… escape… grave marked by a… c-cairn. Caught me by surprise and….”

The relief that’s been coursing through me washes away and is replaced with gut-churning horror. He tried to bury her alive. No, he didn’t try. He succeeded.

I try not to think of the tightness, of the heaviness of the earth covering her body, of Tanis gasping for breath and only finding dirt….

“It’s okay, it’s alright. You’re alright,” I say, rubbing my hand over the cold skin of her back as she breathes deep. I grab her jacket and drape it over her shoulders and keep my arm around her as I glance at Owen. He’s still crumpled motionless beside us. He could be playing dead, but I don’t think so. I hit him pretty hard. “Shh, come on, you’re alright.”

Her chest stops heaving a bit and she stares up at me, her green eyes wide. No gold in sight. She’s pure human right now, running on terror and relief. She’s pure Tanis.

I’ve never felt more human than I do right now, holding her in my arms, desperately wanting to kiss her. I’ve never felt a need like this before. I need to touch her. I need to feel her. I need to know she’s alive and okay.

My hand comes up to brush the hair back from her face. It’s a clumsy, ungraceful movement, but I keep my hand there, cupped around her chin, my fingers twirled in her hair. Her skin is freezing to the touch. I try to wish her warm. I don’t ever want her to be cold.

“I thought he’d killed you,” I whisper. My voice breaks a bit. Sick, roiling revulsion is still sitting thick in my stomach at the idea of what just happened. I need her to be okay.

“Takes more than a scrawny piece of shite to kill a baobhan sith,” she whispers back.

My mouth tilts up a bit, and I can see her eyes following my smile. She’s being so calm. If I had just been pulled out of a shallow grave, I’d be screaming my head off and losing my mind, but she’s so calm, so steady. So Tanis.

“Tanis, I want to—”

“Yes,” she answers, nodding. Her voice shakes. “Whatever it is, yes. Okay. Sure.”

I stifle a laugh and brush my thumb across her cheekbone. My pulse is racing. Beating out a syrupy double time. Tanis. Tanis. Tanis.

“I was thinking, when this is over, maybe I might—”

She shivers and blinks up at me, and suddenly her chest heaves with a sob.

“I’m sorry,” she says in a small, cracking voice, collapsing into me. “Sorry, I’m just. God, I told you I cry at everything.”

She buries her head in my chest, and I can feel her whole body shaking. Reality douses over me like freezing water. Now isn’t the time. Tanis has just barely avoided death, she’s naked, and we’ve an unconscious Seelie at our feet.

I take a deep breath and kiss the top of her head, smooth her hair down, and pull back.

“I, uh, have your clothes.” My body feels lit up with tension and expectation and no small dose of awkwardness. I can’t believe I almost just kissed her while kneeling in her empty grave. Mum would have fucking killed me. Murray will absolutely destroy me if he ever finds out. Kit would be so disappointed.

“Oh, right, thanks,” she says, getting to her feet unsteadily and walking toward where I dropped her clothes. She sniffles and I fight the urge to reach out and brace her against me. She’s stronger than she looks. I know this. And she looks really fucking strong.

I turn around to watch Owen as Tanis rustles through the pile of clothes and slowly gets dressed. She’s not moving stiffly, which is good; whatever Owen did to her didn’t seem to have injured her too badly. Compared to how she was this morning, she’s in fighting condition still.

I hope that won’t be needed.

“I remember him,” Tanis says from behind me, and I turn. She’s dressed now and pulled her hair into a dirty, matted ponytail. She gestures at Owen as she tugs a boot on. “I dunno why, but suddenly he’s there, in my memory.” She trails off and puts the other boot on. “This morning I had no idea who was was, and I still remember that. But now he’s there, like he was never gone.”

“Why would you suddenly remember him? Just because he’s unconscious?”

“I dunno. But I’ve been having slips, like earlier in the kitchen.”

I stare down at the man crumpled at my feet. He doesn’t look dangerous. He looks like just any old bloke. It’s hard to imagine that he’s the one who’s been playing with memories and reshaping the fabric of reality. It’s hard to imagine that he’s not human.

“Maybe he’s getting weak,” I muse, nudging him with my boot. He groans quietly, but doesn’t seem to wake up. I wonder if I should hit him again. Maybe Tanis would do it for me. I think I made him bleed the first time, and I don’t want to look at it. She’s better with blood.

I probably shouldn’t make her kill someone after she’s just been buried, though. That doesn’t seem very supportive.

“This is so fucking weird,” she says, shaking her head.

“Tanis,” I say, raising an eyebrow. “Every step of this has been fucking weird. You’re just getting that?”

She grins at me and shrugs. My chest constricts at the sight of it. She’s coming out of the shock. She’s feeling better. Thank God. I was getting nervous; all I know how to do to help people is make tea, and we’re nowhere near a kettle.

“What should we do with him?” I nudge Owen again, and Tanis’s smile drops. Even through the dirt and the murderous expression, she’s beautiful. Beautiful and terrifying. Terrifying and Tanis.

“We’ll have to take him with us,” she sighs. “We can’t just leave him. Plus, he’ll probably know where Kit is. We should question him when he wakes.”

The way she says question doesn’t make it sound like this will be a nice chat. I’d love to help. As long as there’s no blood.

“Is that safe?” I ask. “If he was able to mind wham you to make you forget him before, what’s to stop him from doing it now?”

Tanis bites her lip and flattens her eyebrows.

“No idea,” she huffs. “But we’ll think of something. Worst case we can just shove a sock in his mouth.”

She bends down and grabs one of Owen’s arms and loops it around her shoulder, and grunts for me to grab the other.

“Can’t you just shift again and drag him?” I mumble, staggering a bit as I straighten up. Tanis and I are different heights and Owen is taller than both of us and completely limp, which makes supporting his weight extremely uncomfortable.

“I could,” Tanis responds, “but I don’t want to. I’m not a sled dog.”

“Are those the raging ones with the pretty eyes?”

Tanis laughs. It’s high pitched and strained, but it pierces through the night and makes the valley spread out before us seem less threatening. The sound of it lights me up.

“Aye, I suppose so. They’re big and fluffy and have those killer eyes.”

“They always look so angry.”

“Well wouldn’t you look angry if your whole job was dragging twonks around?”

“I don’t see a difference between that and what I’ve been doing all week,” I mumble.

Tanis snorts again and shrugs. The movement causes Owen to nearly topple into me, and she stumbles to retake his weight.

“At least you’re getting a tour of Mab. You’ve seen the ocean. Now you’ve seen the, you know, grass.”

“It is pretty, actually,” I pant. “All green and gold and purple. I’d appreciate it more if shit weren’t exploding.”

“Purple?” Tanis asks, tilting her head.

“Yeah? The sky, it’s purpley. Kind of. You know, like at sunset.”

“Oh,” Tanis says, her voice flat. “I wouldn’t know. I’m colourblind.”

A shrieking, unexpected laugh slips from me. Colourblind. Of course she is.

We stumble through the moor and across the valley, and I start to wonder if we’re ever going to get back to Murray. This is slow going, and I’m panting. This is more physical exertion than I’ve ever done on land, and I don’t like any of it. If I stay on land, I’m never moving again. I’m going to become sedentary. A lady of leisure, as my mum used to say.

“I reckon Thomas went to the sea cave, don’t you?” I huff as we splash through a stream. My feet slide around in my too-big boots and I have to steady myself before I twist sideways and go down.

“That’s my guess, aye.”

“Do you think that’s where Kit is, then?”

“That’s what the Washer seemed to imply,” Tanis responds. She’s panting a bit as well. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her winded.

“So he was in that cave the whole time. With the nuckelavee.”

“I am doing my absolute best to not think about that,” Tanis responds, her voice tight. “The way I see it, we’ve got a step by step process to follow. Get this minge back to the car, get back to the house, secure him, then we go find Thomas.” She shifts and adjusts her grip on Owen. “And then we find Kit, even if I have to pluck out Owen’s eyes and tear the fucking nuckelavee’s head off.”

“Can you?” I ask. “Like, objectively, are you strong enough to tear a head off?”

Tanis pauses for breath and brushes her fringe off her face.

“You know,” she says, smiling at me. She looks too serene. “I’ve never tried. But I’d love to find out.”



B. GILMARTINComment