“Where shall we our breakfast take?” Regan sang softly, one of the old sad songs of the Scottish Borderlands that were her adopted home. Three years and she was still learning variants, every one sad and heavy with history. The wrong words to the wrong townsfolk could mean a fight or worse, in this time of war. And the blame was certain to be on herself, who had come from across the Irish Sea to take one of those townsfolk as her own and whose gift with song was foreign and fey.
Breakfast had been hours ago, porridge and small beer well before dawn, after a night of howling wind. Thomas had gone up the hill then, to bring in one cart of wood for George Brewer and another for the blacksmith’s boys, and Domhnall had gone with him to tend the pony. The two of them were asleep now in the old chair by the fire, Thomas’s great tangle of dark hair side by side with Domhnall’s little crown of golden, which always lay smooth.
The desire to spread her own raven hair over them like wings, to lie there in their peace, took Regan sudden and sharp, like a chill. But the chair, though old and worn to comfort, was so not large, and her work was just beginning for the day. She slipped her cloak from the hook by the door, instead, and sang from the song she’d sung to Thomas two days before they were married, two days after the wind had last howled so.
Now, ye maun go wi me,’ she said,
‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as may chance to be.
She shivered, from the draft from the door and the desire to stay, and from the power that flowed dark and deep in her when she sang the old songs. For a moment it was too much, the thought of facing the town, George Brewer with his bright hair and brighter hate, the restless wind, and the rumor of war rushing up from the South. But the hour was getting late, and staying the day in the chair was not a choice. She counted herself off like a song, beat-two-three, pulled her hood over her hair—little proof it was against the cold mist, the cold glare of townfolk—and slipped away out the door.
“Where shall we our breakfast take?” Regan heard as she hung her cloak over the bar rail. Her lips startled up like wings at that echo of her earlier self, settled as quickly downward. The voice was a smooth, ambiguous tenor; it drifted through the hubbub in the inn like smoke.
“Why, wherever it’s for the taking,” came the reply in a voice cracked with mirth.
Regan stood on her toes to look over the crowd for the source of those voices. The room was thick with peat smoke and damp wool-clad drinkers, the shutters mostly closed against the dim October drizzle, the floor treacherous with packs and bundles and leather-sheathed swords.
The last thing she needed right now was competition, some bard down from the Highlands or minstrel up from London with new songs and stories, not with the disapproving wives of Crichehope crossing themselves at the sight of her. Proprietor Andrew had stuck by her so far. But if Andrew had another singer with voice and songs enough—and lacking her own tattered reputation—then she had no doubt he’d take it. Andrew was a pragmatist, as befits an innkeep in troubled times.
Regan slipped behind the bar and down the other end, where Andrew leaned in conversation with Marta and the blacksmith’s boys. Andrew made a show of looking from her to the spot by the hearth where she sang; ‘you’re late,’ that look meant. She returned a cheery “good morning” and a smile for Marta. The barmaid came from a Covenanter family, dour folk who crossed the street with a backwards glare when they met Regan, but here at the Inn they shared a cautious amusement at Andrew’s clumsy curmudgeonry.
Regan slid herself past Andrew to the corner of the bar, for a view of the fire and what were surely the sources of the strange voices: two figures like engravings, all black and white and long thin lines. One had long straight hair bound back with leather, the other was all angles and ragged edges, both of them pale and smooth of face.
Marta followed her look a shake of her head and a finger crossing her chest. “Weird ones, those two. Howled in with the wind last night.”
One of the blacksmith’s boys, Regan could never remember which was which, looked over his shoulder and smirked at Regan. “Could be your brothers, eh? The magpie’s got a clan, at last.”
‘Magpie’ was not the foulest name she had in town, but perhaps the cruelest. Stealer of gold, raider of nests.
“Or her sisters. Too pale they are for honest men’s work,” said Andrew. But he said it quietly, with an eye to the strangers’ swords—long as a Highlander’s, with basket hilts and wicked curves—and the brace of pistols on the table.
“George Brewer said they rode in from the south. English spies, most like,” said one of the blacksmiths.
“No spy’s going far looking like that,” his brother replied, “‘less they’re spying in a graveyard. Irish, I’d say,” with a look at Regan, “mercenaries, after the bounty on the moss-troopers. Corpse pickers, that lot, and drawn to the wars.”
“Savages from the Indies, across the sea,” said Marta, “and pagan as a Highlander, mark my word.” There was a chuckle at that all round.
“Whatever else they might be,” said Regan, “they’re showing silver.” The group looked over as one, and indeed, one of the two men by the fire, the spikey one, was tapping a coin on the table, an eyebrow raised between ragged hair and a ragged grin. Marta grimaced and wiped her hands on her apron, pushed past the blacksmiths towards the strangers.
Andrew harrumphed and went to answer a call from the other end of the bar, but not before giving Regan a look and a raise of his chin, as if she had been the one standing around gossiping. Time for work, then, and anyway she had no desire to talk further with the blacksmith’s boys. Those two were no church-going Covenanters, to be sure, but no friends to her, either. They were friends of George Brewer, rather, and Regan checked the crowd again for Brewer’s bright hair.
She worked her way to the far side of the hearth, around Marta and the strangers and up the step where a heavy post formed a nook against the side of the fireplace. The great room was full and then some, for all it filled the entire lower floor of the inn excepting the bar and a small room in the corner where gentlefolk could dine undisturbed. The Laird’s bastle house, it had been, before they’d built the tower up the hill.
There were no lairds or gentlefolk in view now as she looked out across the crowd in the gloom considering her first song. A group of somber-dressed Covenanters, talking low, with stares across at a pair of Highlanders who were steadfastly ignoring them, and in between, a table of merchants, English by their dress and nervous manner. Near the door was a ragtag band in brigandine and Border check; moss-troopers, most likely, soldiers gone bandit and uneasy indoors, even in this isolated and unallied town. Most worrisome were the two large groups in the center: Kerrs and Scotts, old Reiver families and as like to be feuding as not. Quiet songs, then, and sad. She’d keep them shaking their heads and sighing over their ales and whiskies until the locals staggered in, who might look askance at Regan on the street but knew all her songs and would sing along, raucous and sloppy, likely to start a fight but not one that would end in steel and blood.
She glanced across the hearth at the two dark strangers. They’d gotten their breakfast, ale and a pie of some sort. They were both looking up at her with expectant expressions. She blinked, and as fast as that, one of them, the one with long straight hair bound back with leather, flipped out a dirk and stabbed the pie. He pulled out a turnip like a fat eyeball and popped it into his mouth. The fire flared up then, and she shut her eyes against the gleam and heat, and cleared her throat. It was a quiet sound, but it cut across the room like a bell, and when she opened her eyes again the crowd had settled and were looking her way.
“The Three Ravens”, then. The song had been circling her thoughts all day, even before the two strangers had quoted its line about breakfast. And the local version was suitably solemn, all loyalty and lamentation.
But with the strangers’ twin images still fire-seared and floating in her vision, it was an older darker version that welled up out of the darkness inside, spilled out before she could breath it back in. “The Twa Corbies”, a cold wind and betrayal, not three ravens but two:
As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t’other say
‘Where sall we gang and dine today?’
The song wove its way through the room, a story well familiar these days: a soldier newly slain in a field, his hound and hawk and lady all flown to other pursuits and leaving him as breakfast for the corbies—ravens, that was, carrion crows:
‘Many a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
O’er his white bones, when they are bare,
The wind shall blow, for evermair.’
She sang those last lines with a fierce, forlorn glee. The ballads took her that way, wherever they would, be they sad or glad. It was that blinding, unearthly intensity in her singing, her ability to sway thoughts and glances, that was the reason the townfolk looked sideways and crossed themselves or made the old warding signs. Part of the reason.
It surely worked, though. While she sang, the crowded room was quiet, through her gift the audience made into unlikely brothers. Men, she thought, are so sentimental. She decided on “Lord Randall” next; throw in a grieving mother and they’ll be crying on each other’s shoulders. But as she tapped a rhythm against her thigh and took in a long breath, something flashed white in the corner of her eye. The two strangers by the fire were looking up at her over raised mugs, and each with a wicked grin. She almost lost the start of the song under that regard; when the words did come to her, they came like an uneasy wind and blew through the remainder of the morning.
Midafternoon, Willie Dickson wandered in with his smallpipes and Regan finally got a break. The group of Covenanters had left, their places taken by locals, and the Highlanders had settled back in their chairs and switched from ale to whisky. The blacksmith’s boys had sat down with the Kerrs and were taking turns at some long, loud story that had rumbled underneath her last couple of songs. Andrew had brought them all a round of ale on the house, and likewise for the Scotts, with a speech about old friends welcome round his fire, but he set the mugs at the far ends of each table, and kicked one of the blacksmith’s boys chairs around the corner lest he lean back and bump into a Scott. That bore watching, it did. She’d picked her songs carefully as the crowd had grown more rowdy, for fear of trodding on some old grievance.
Four hundred years and more the Reiver families had clashed through these hills until the feuds piled like peat and smoldered. The Debatable Lands, they called it, on either side of the Border and on neither side of the intermittent war between Scotland and England. Not the Dike nor the hangman had been able to settle it, not since the Romans had built their wall against the unconquerable North. When James went south to take the throne of England, the Border became an embarrassment; he’d abolished the Border Law and shipped the worst of the Reivers to Ulster, across the sea, where they’d driven Regan’s folks from their farms and villages. But the old families remained, deep in the hills, and met each other in places like Crichehope that weren’t on the maps in Edinburgh or London.
And now what fragile peace James had built, James’s son had let collapse. King Charles had fled London and Parliament and brought the war north again.
That was the conversation around the bar: the whereabouts of the King, and which way the fighting might fall, and would it fall on Crickehope. Most thought it a matter not of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Young Niall was down from the Tower House for a dram and a pipe and a piece of his mind. He was seventy if he was a day—Old Niall had been laid under in the days of James—and was bemoaning the commotion up the hill.
“The Laird’s brought all the Camerons in for safety, that are his cousins down by Sanquhar, and they’ve been through all the firewood we’d laid in, and half the whisky.”
“If so, they’re pickled through,” said Andrew, who’d sold the whisky casks up hill and knew how much they had in the cellars, “and you can burn them instead this winter.”
Young Niall puffed a dismissive ring of smoke around his pipestem and continued, “And all of us half worn through with the carrying and the climbing. He’s put back the ladder up the pele tower, and set a watch, and last night he kept the view himself, and sent for a mug of mulled wine in the wee hours. It’s dire work, I tell you, and dire times. Andrew, would you nae fetch us another dram?”
Andrew took the proffered glass, though he rolled his eyes and muttered “dire work” as he turned to the cask.
Young Niall squinted at Regan through the pipe smoke. “It’s the magpie, is it? Not flown back to Ulster yet, has she?” He reached over and pinched George Brewer. Regan hadn’t seen Brewer there half-shrouded in the pipesmoke—of all the townfolk, the one she worked hardest to avoid—and now that she did, she tried to back away into the crowd. But Niall had his thin cold fingers around her arm.
“It’s ‘one for sorrow’,” Niall said, and “Ware your gold, lads.”
George rubbed his arm and glowered at Regan.
“And what gold would that be, with the likes of you?” asked Marta, pushing past with half a dozen mugs in each hand.
Niall just harrumphed, but George frowned down into his ale like it had gone off; his bright, improbable hair over his eyes, and said “Oh, she’s got her gold enough, and lined her nest wi’ it.”
Regan shook Niall’s hand off and turned away, straight into the grin of the spiky-haired stranger. He had gotten a third chair, somehow, out of the press, and made a bow over it, mocking. Or maybe that was her mood; the anger came on her, as dark and cold and quick to shift as a bird’s eye, and that was another part of her trouble with the townfolk.
The other stranger looked up under the loop of his long hair and said, “Come, sit. Three is a better number.”
There was no choice, really. She had had no desire to turn back to the bar where George Brewer stood glowering, or force her way through the crowd grown boisterous with the playing of the pipes. But she stood for a minute and watched the shapes form and unform in the fire before sitting, just to make a point.
“Is it?” the spiky one said, dropping into his own seat, tipping back against the wall. He looked at her, dark, dark eyes, and she blinked back, confused, but he continued, “Three’s better? What’s wrong with two?” The silver coin was back in his hand, spun between long, light fingers. “Two is easy. Two sides. Heads or tails, black or white, up hill or down. Balance,” he concluded, the coin perched on a finger tip.
“Two is disagreement,” said the other in his soft, smoky voice.
“It is not!”
“And disagreement is strife, and strife is steel and sad songs.” That with a small smile at Regan, who was only half sat and uneasy in her chair.
“She agrees with me,” said the spiky one.
Regan looked back and forth between them, an inadvertent shake of her head, and said, “I do?”
“She does,” said the smoky one, not quite a question.
“For sure she does, and the proof from her own lips,” replied the spiky one.
“Ah, the song, you mean,” with a thoughtful nod.
“Aye, the song.”
“I rather think that supports my point, not yours.”
“When exactly,” Regan cut in, a bit sharply, “did I get involved at all in your argument?”
“The two of us were never arguing,” protested the spiky one, but the other sat back to give Regan a long look.
“When you sang the Two Ravens, instead of the Three. Very different songs, are they not? For all that they start the same.”
“With breakfast, which is a fine place to start,” added the other.
“The Twa Corbies, after all, ends in betrayal, unloyal companions, no rest for an abandoned soul. Unsettling thoughts for this lot,” with a gesture at the room, “who are as like to end as bones amongst the heath as not. Whereas the version with three ravens, his companions are faithful—”
“God send euery gentleman, Such haukes, such hounds, and such a loved one,” sang the other, low and rough.
“And the knight is laid to rest, a good end in these times, a peaceful end.”
“But no breakfast,” said the spiky one, with a theatrical shake of his head.
Regan looked down, fingered the gouges in the table top, and finally said, “I’m not sure I see a peaceful end anywhere here,” with a flick of her fingers that could mean the Inn, the town, the countryside, or just the scratches in the wood.
“The patterns come and go, like shapes in the flames.”
“Shapely shapes, at that,” said the spiky one, looking more at Regan than the fire behind her.
“The trick is to find the pattern you want and not let go of it.”
“I can’t...” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Who are you?”
“Not really the point, is it?” said the spiky one.
“It’s exactly the point,” said the smoky one.
“Ah, well then. Pick a name, any name,” the spiky one said to Regan, and set the coin spinning on the table.
She snorted in exasperation. “Daft, is what you are.”
“Deft,” he countered and caught the coin under a finger.
“Rogue,” said the other.
“Hell and damnation,” Regan said, temper flaring.
“Hardly the names I’d like carved on my tombstone,” said the spiky one.
“That’s what you get from twos,” said the other.
The spiky one shrugged and waved the coin at Marta, with a gesture towards his mug and another towards the empty space in front of Regan.
“What shall we call her, then?”
“My name is Regan,” she said.
“Queen, that is, in the Gaelic.”
“No queen,” she said. “Born in a village, came across the sea to another.”
“And yet, you hold this room in thrall with no more than your voice,” the smoky one said.
“‘Mor Rigan’, then, the phantom queen,” said the spiky one.
“Ah, ah, the Morrigan is not a name to take lightly, not where I come from,” Regan said, with a chill. “Cruel spirits of the battlefield, she and her two sisters.”
“And that’s the two of us, Badb and Macha, then. Are we to be sisters, now? A fine family, indeed.”
The chill had settled down in her spine at this talk of that grim clan of carrion spirits. She tried to push back from the table, but the table of Scotts had shifted closer to the fire and her chair was blocked in.
“You brought ‘Regan’ with you from Ulster, but it sounds like the folks here had their own name waiting for you,” said the smoky one. “‘Magpie’, is what I heard.”
“A proud bird, the Magpie, and a smart, kin to the Crow and Raven,” the spiky one protested but scratched his fingers through his jagged crown of hair with a grimace. “Though, what country is where they say the Magpie carries a drop of Satan’s blood under her tongue, and cries mischief?”
“Scotland,” said the other.
“Ah. Odd choice, then. No wonder she thinks Hell and Damnation fit names for us.”
“‘Daft’ is what she called you.”
“I no more chose what they call me than what you call yourselves,” Regan flashed, and dug her nails into the wood. “What do you want?”
“A guarantee of breakfasts,” said the spiky one; Daft it was, then. And the smoky one, Deft she’d call him, gently moved the pistols out of her reach, but that was to make room for Marta and three fresh mugs of ale. Marta looked down, with her mouth pursed like her churchy cousins. She was looking at Regan’s fingers on the table, and at the gold ring on her left hand. Regan raised her hands helplessly and opened her mouth, but Marta had already turned her back.
There was a tug on her hand, then, and when she turned back Deft had her wedding ring between his fingers.
“Told you he was a thief,” said Daft.
“That makes the three of us, then,” said Deft, “and here’s proof that the Magpie’s taken the greater prize.”
“Do not call me that,” Regan said, and snatched the ring back. “If it’s thieves you want, the town is thick with them. And I never stole this ring.”
“Well, then, what gold is it, that yon drunkard says ‘lines your nest’?” asked Daft, with a nod toward George Brewer, who was glaring at them from the bar. “I have somewhat of an interest, you see. Gold’s as good as breakfasts, or comes to the same.”
Deft reached out again and she curled her fingers into a fist, but he plucked at her sleeve and raised up his pinched fingers. A glint hung and curled in the firelight, a golden hair. Domhnall’s.
Daft grunted. “So the magpie’s got a chick. No breakfasts to be taken there.”
“But breakfasts given, and stories told at bedtime.”
“My son,” she said, and her heart flitted in her chest.
The hair shone in Deft’s fingers. “Gold for your nest, indeed. Your husband must be fair as an angel, to have so overcome your own dark.”
“Or we’ve had a cuckoo laying amongst the corbies,” Daft said.
“No, Domhnall’s not my...” She tried to get up again, to run or strike she wasn’t sure, but somehow the table leg had gotten on her skirt, and there was a solid wall of shoulder behind her, sweaty and oblivious. “What do you want of me?” she asked again.
“To make a choice,” Deft said. “Pick a pattern and hold it.”
“Life and loves,” Daft said, merrily, “or war and pieces.”
“Two ravens or three.”
“You’re mad,” she said. “That’s just a song. When it’s over, it’s all back to chaos. It doesn’t change anything. Your shapes in the fire there, you can’t hold onto them. As soon as you see them, they’re gone.”
“Are you sure? Sometimes the chaos is attracted to patterns. Strange ones, to be sure, but that’s ever true of attractions.”
Daft chuckled and ran his tongue over his teeth.
“The world will rant and rage, uncontrolled,” Deft said, leaning in, and behind him the fire gusted suddenly, a storm of smoke and ash billowing into the room and a round of cursing from the table of Scotts. “And there’s no predicting it, but sometimes it gets drawn up into a new shape and for a while it stays there, sure as if you’d done it yourself.” He pulled Domhnall’s hair taut between his fingers, like he was shaping a pot on the wheel, and behind him the fire snapped back into the hearth, calm as could be. “You can’t predict those patterns, not with a lifetime’s learning, but sometimes you can—what’s the right word?”
“Seduce,” said Daft.
“Suggest one. Not any one, perhaps, but one chosen aptly.”
The chill blew through Regan’s heart, now, which stopped flitting and settled low in her chest. “Why are you telling me this?”
“What’s your son’s name?” he asked, and set the hair floating in the air; it spun a second, then whirled around her head and into the hearth.
“Domhnall,” she said, faintly, her eyes filled with the fire.
“And his mother’s?”
Her heart reached bottom, and stopped. “Caitlin. Caitlin Brewer.”
“And did this Caitlin abandon her egg and fly, like the cukoo?” asked Daft. “Not a bad strategy, that, if you don’t mind skipping breakfast.”
“No, she’s gone. I mean, she died.”
“And the father, then, he fell in love with you. No surprise in that,” said Deft, and ran a pale finger through the fall of her black hair. “If the thought of the light brings pain, then there’s comfort in the dark. In this very room, it could have been, you picking one of your Border songs of fairy queens and escape under the hill—”
“Thomas Rhymer, he was a Border lad, a few centuries back” Daft said. “Hoo, you want daft, you talk to him.”
“—and all his turmoil drawn into that song, that he’d never really listened to before, and into the singer,” Deft said.
‘I didn’t know what I was doing’, Regan wanted to say, but that wasn’t true. “I just wanted to ease his grief,” she said instead, but that ‘just’ wasn’t true, either.
“In this room here?” Daft asked. “You sang to him, and you with the old songs and the old power? With the whole town here and listening?”
“Yes,” she said, but too quiet to carry.
“Hell and damnation,” Daft said, and ruffled his hair. “And was this before or after this Caitlin took her leave?”
Regan shoved the table forward an inch, enough to free her skirt, and the shoulder behind her twisted and leaned away with a grunt. She stood and looked from one to the other, half blind with shame and regret, but their black eyes cut through the darkness, tilted and patient: a pair of crows in a tree, waiting. “Two days after she died,” she said. “The day they put her in the ground.”
She turned and pushed toward the bar, stepping over and on boots, shoved someone out of the way—George Brewer, it was, by the cursing—and under the bar and away.
The far end of the bar was blocked by Andrew. “If you’re done talking with your bonnie friends there, you might want to get back to the singing.”
She waved her hand out at the room. “Willie’s still playing...” she started to say, but Willie was not. He had paused, for a sip or two no doubt, and into the sudden silence two voices rang out, one low and smokey and one croaking a rough sort of harmony.
The song was ‘Wicked Wat’, or ‘The Rough Wooing’, the story of Sir Walter Scott, one of many of that name, to be sure, but this one had been born of a Kerr mother and cut down by a Kerr cousin. Not a song to sing in public, not in this tavern or anywhere in the Borderlands where Scotts and Kerrs sat by one another. Not now, with war so close to howling down out of the hills.
One of the Scotts began to sing with the strangers, off key and slurred tempo, and Willie, damn him for a fool, joined in on the pipes. Then the whole table of Scotts joined in on those last verses, of an ambush on the streets of Edinburgh:
Strike! Ain strike for they father’s sake,
John Colden knowes ha’ cried,
An when they found Scott yet abreath,
They up and stabbed him ’til he died.”
Willie faltered, and came to a stop. Regan counted the silence, beat-two-three, and then there was a roar and the scrape of swords drawn, and the flash of steel through the smoke.
Regan ducked down behind the bar next to Andrew. They glanced towards the front door, but it was blocked, people pushing in from the street to see the fight, or join it.
“The courtyard,” Andrew hissed, “and out through the stables.” So they turned and scooted back down the bar. There was a heavy thud above their heads, ghillies and hose and bare knees, one of the Highlanders. He dropped down and hefted a cask of whisky that must have weighed as much as Regan.
“Hey!” said Andrew, and tackled him at the knees.
Regan wiggled past, got her feet under her and went for the back door but it slammed opened as she reached out, a band of moss-troopers in from the courtyard with weapons in their hands and murder in their eyes. She ducked down again and back into the room. There was a tunnel of sorts, where chairs and benches had been shoved back against the bar, and she crawled half the length of the room before she put the heel of her hand in a pool of something warm and slick. Blood, it was, and she landed face first into it.
Her head bounced off the floor and then she hung there, a few inches above the planks and baffled for a moment. Someone had a good handful of her hair and was pulling her up with it, until she wobbled on her knees, neck bent back. It was George Brewer, with a wild look in his eyes, eyes she rarely looked into, because they were Caitlin’s eyes and Domhnall her son’s. The blood she’d slipped in was his; he had a long gash along his ribs, his free arm clamped against it, and a knife held loosely in that hand.
“Did ye do this, too, witch? Was taking my sister not enough for ye?” he grated. “You and your fey friends, have you spelled the war down on us?” He stabbed towards her face, with an awkward twist of his body. She couldn’t pull back with his grip on her hair, so she leaned in and butted his ribs with her head. He grunted, and the knife bounced off her back and to the floor. George curled over his ribs, and brought his knee up hard into her breast. They both gasped for air.
“Hellfire,” he said, and then looked up. “Aye, aye, fire’s for witches.” He stepped forward, straight through the fight, dragging Regan by her hair. She kicked and grabbed out blindly but all she could catch were legs and cloaks, which pulled themselves away or kicked back.
The fight roared and billowed around them but somehow parted before George and his purpose, and swirled in again after him, a few long strides to cross the room and then he hauled her to her knees again, right on the hearth. She pulled a foot up but he kicked it out again. Her boot slid into the fire. She watched as it started to smoke.
He put a bloody hand under her chin and turned her face up to his. “I’ll start ye burning here, and your friend the Devil will take up the job in his turn. Have no fear. I’ll be down to check on ye soon enough.”
She kicked again, setting up a cloud of sparks, but he had both hands in her hair now and a boot in the center of her back. She slid forward, nothing but the fireplace and flames before her. The smoke had made great black wings against the stones, she saw, and the flames the gold of Domhnall’s hair, who had been her son, by choice, if just for a while. There was no shape she could see that wasn’t fire and pain, but some were brighter and more furious than others. She chose a pattern, shut her eyes so it burned bright against her closed lids, and held.
There was a vast roar, the flames streaming all around her, howling through her like her songs with a mad music and the sense of old words on the edge of hearing. She shook as if she would fly up the chimney, like a spark, and free of all of this, blown in the wind for ever more. To leave Thomas and Domhnall—a sorrow that burned beyond any flame—but to leave them in peace.
The hands in her hair fumbled and let go. The pattern behind her eyes flared up and away, leaving her in darkness and silence.
Regan opened her eyes. She was no longer in the hearth. She hung in the air before it, and no hands holding her this time, nothing but her need and anger and desire. Her choice.
Two tall figures stood beside her, black boots and breeches, long black hair and short, each with a pistol ready. George Brewer had backed up several steps, with a hand on his chest and a look of startled comprehension in those eyes. He opened his mouth, and shook his head once, and fell. As did Regan, a drop to the hearthstones that took her breath, the magic not fled but waiting, like a beat of silence in a song.
There was a cry from somewhere, and a thud, and the fight began to swirl across the room again but left a space before the hearth, mindful of the pistols. Hands slipped under Regan’s arms and dragged her to her feet.
“Damnation,” Regan said and blinked soot from her eyes.
“Magpie,” Daft replied with a mocking bow, and dusted his hands. “Though you’re all Crow now.”
She rubbed her cheek, stared at her hand; blackened she was, head to toe, but not burnt. She looked down at George’s body, curled on the floor, put her hand to her mouth and tasted ash.
“You shot him,” she said.
Deft shook his head. “The song you sang him was more than his heart could hold.”
“Not your fault his heart was so small,” Daft added.
Regan clasped her other hand over the first, as if to stop herself from screaming, slid her hands up to slip her hair from her face instead. “He was wrong about Caitlin, you know,” she said. “Maybe I took Thomas to my bed with a song, but I never took Caitlin to her grave with one. Her death was her own. It was her heart, as well, nor was hers a small one. And if I could have given her back to her son and her husband, I would have, no matter the cost.”
“You might have at that,” said Daft, with a crack in his voice like glee. “Some folks do come back, you know, from under the hill.”
“But those songs tend to end badly,” said Deft.
“And this one, how does it end?” asked Regan. “Was he right about the other thing? Have I brought the war down here? The Morrigan and her sisters, they flew in like Ravens after the battle to take their fill, but in the old stories they started those battles, sat on men’s shoulders and sang them songs of glory until they flung themselves into bloody ruin.”
Daft shrugged. “A bird’s gotta eat,” he said.
Deft looked out across the room. The Kerrs and Scotts were still at it, fist and blade. Andrew was by the door with a long strip of tartan in his hands and a stunned look on his face. But other faces were turned to the three of them where they stood in the hearth, and the looks on those faces were not far from that on George Brewer’s corpse.
“The war will come down,” Deft said, “but not necessarily here.”
Daft sniffed and spat black into the hearth. “Looks to me like it’s here already.”
“It could be led elsewhere,” Deft said, gently.
Regan felt her old anger howling up. “Then there must be some way out of here. The two of you, you crows, you friends of the dark sisters, you with your sight. Oh, don’t you tell me you don’t know what will happen.”
Deft looked at the crowd, which had grown closer, and more quiet. He tucked his pistol into his belt but left his hand on it. With his other hand, he gestured toward the back door. “Sometimes the pattern’s there to see in the flames,” he said gently, “and sometimes...”
No, it wasn’t anger rising inside her. It was sorrow and understanding and something bright and swirling, like sight, like song. “Sometimes you have to suggest one,” she finished.
“A matter of choice,” agreed Deft.
“Breakfast or not,” said Daft.
“A song of Two Ravens,” said Regan, who’d escaped the burning but not the pain, “or Three.”
They stopped one time, on the edge of town. Night had come, with a wind and clouds overhead, and the only light that might reveal them shone from the watchtower up the hill. They’d gone around it, leading the horses. They had one for her, a spare or so they said, a courser as lean and dark as they.
Regan slipped into the house and took a few useful things, needles and thread, a knife, her heavy boots. She would have left in their place a note, but she could think of no words that could explain her choice or the stories he’d hear in the morning. So she softly sang from that song she’d sung to him those years ago:
‘O no, O no, Thomas,’ she says,
‘O no, O no, that can never be,
For I’m but a lady of an unco land,
Comd out a hunting, as ye may see.
Then she left a kiss on his cheek, and on Domhnall’s, dark with soot and swept up like wings.
She shut the door quietly, and slipped her things into a pack, and stepped up into the saddle. A wind was blowing up from the south; it swept over Crichehope and shook the roses by the door, that had been hers, and caught up her cloak in great wild flaps. Regan counted them off, beat-two-three, and then they wheeled around and away.