And now for the trail . . .
Mike hid his shiver, but not easily. Luciphera pulled her jacket closer. He scooped up Rich and led the way back to the washrooms, then to the car. The air moved a little, just enough to be a faint breeze out in the open. It smelled wet, and sort of grassy but not quite. It wasn’t a sea smell, like in Oban, or forest, or back home. He shrugged and kept his eyes open for traffic of the four-footed kind. They way his life went, they’d find Scotland’s largest stag by hitting it. The ridges and mountains eased closer to the Coe River, green and grey hemming in the world. Grey stone spilled down here and there, steep slopes succumbing to gravity and rain, a reminder of the power of ice and water. Tourists and others stood out as crimson, sky-blue, or canary yellow dots among the greens. Nothing taller than waist-high grew in the glen, at least not in this area. He could see some sheep here and there, well disguised by the dirt on their fleeces.
Luciphera slowed, signaled, and snarled at herself as the wipers came on instead. He did not smile – he wasn’t driving, after all. And he’d done it too. She signaled and turned into the trail head parking. Well up the Glen from the cluster of cars, a solid block of inn stood out, pale cream against the greens and grey. Up the slope, a waterfall danced down the sheer wall of the glen. “It’s hard to believe that this is a dead volcano,” he admitted as he let Rich out. He pulled on a better jacket, then strapped a harness on his wiggling Familiar, along with a leash.
“Awwwwww. Come on boss, I won’t get into trouble.”
“Rich, it’s not you getting into trouble,” Luciphera said, pointing up the trail with her hiking stick. “It’s tourists giving your mage trouble, or that determined park-ranger looking person scowling vehemently in our direction.”
“Oh. Um, yeah.” The mongoose subsided for a moment. “The one with the firearm-looking thing?”
“You got it,” Mike said. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to throw a physical shield over Tik-Tik unless he had no choice. The presence in the glen might react.
Luciphera didn’t say anything until she finished negotiating the gate. First, she lifted the metal strap over the top of the outer gate, then reached down and lifted a second latch. She eased through the small opening and turned hard right. Only once the outer gate closed could she repeat the process with an inner gate, then continue up the trail a little ways. Mike sucked in what little gut he had and copied her. He could probably vault the wooden part of the fence, but not with an official-type person watching, unless he had a really good reason. Once he and Rich caught up with her, Luciphera nodded. “I agree on the volcano. Calderas are supposed to be tidy and round, more volcano looking. Not track-shaped.” She drew a long oval in the air with her free hand, then started walking up the trail.
Rich stayed close to Mike, not tugging on the lead. “This is what, three or four booms in a line?”
“Ah, two booms, but older stuff fell in when the caldera collapsed for the last time and made it long instead of just round?” He only paid attention to rock stuff when it affected his life, or could be used for cool points. “No, that’s right, multiple booms, then the land stretched under the remains of the caldera. It’s the same age as the mountains near home, the Appalachians.”
Glaciers had carved on the glen more recently than they’d worked on the Appalachians, though. That and latitude, since they were so much farther north than Kentucky or Riverton. Luciphera had stopped to take a photo of the waterfall. Mike and Rich nodded to the naturalist, who glowered down at Rich from under a flat, lichen-green tweed cap. Rich waved his silver-white forefoot, smirked, but stayed quiet. The frown on the lean, pointed face grew deeper, but the stranger didn’t speak. I wonder if he’s one of those preachers the lady at supper last night was talking about. The Free Kirk Calvinists. Mike studied the land around them, arms folded. If he had to try and grow food or raise sheep and cattle here, he might slide into Calvinism too. Or was this the Catholic area? I can barely keep track of Orthodox denominations, let alone anything else aside from Sunni and not-Sunni. That’s complicated enough, thanks.
His friend had started moving again, and had gained a dozen meters of so on him. Rich trotted ahead, more or less in a straight-ish line. Then he stopped dead. “Need a lift,” he said. Mike hoisted him onto his shoulder. “Don’t like this,” Rich murmured. “Ahead, on left. Red jacket with hood.”
What’s he seeing? He shifted to seeing magic. Ohhhh nuts. Do we warn him? The person had shields, and what looked like a focus of some kind. The man glanced up the steeply-curving slope ahead, then back down at a large, flat rock. He’d moved off the trail. Luciphera stopped and glanced back at them. Mike stretched his stride, drawing a little power from Rich. I do not like that. What’s he trying to do? The sense was some sort of reading, as if the stranger sought information from the stone.
Luciphera eased closer, then closer still. She pointed up the slope, away from the man, and asked, “Are you seeing that?”
He caught her meaning, and leaned close to her as well, one hand on her shoulder, as if he sighted along her stick. “Yes, I am. It looks unstable, like a rock-slide waiting to happen.” He extended his shield around her. The magic of the glen stirred, and he braced. Please don’t hit us. And don’t hit him, either.
Power shifted under him, then hesitated, dark and cold. Please, Lord, not again. Please spare Luciphera if it hits us. Or if glen responded to the sorcerer’s proto-spell.
“Don’t ground it into the land if it hits us, Defender.” Tik-Tik shook as if with fear. “It feeds like that.”
He gulped. “Luci, if you sense magic moving toward us from the glen, run. Don’t ask, don’t look, just run.”
“Are, are you sure?” Fear filled her voice.
“Yes. You’ll be fine, but get away from Tik-Tik and me as fast as you can.”
The power loomed, then eased away, shifting its attention. He caught an odd sense, but didn’t have a name for it. Off to the left, the sorcerer waved his hands in a complicated flat pattern. “Yowch!” The presence in the valley stung him, just a tiny bit. Tiny by its standards, Mike guessed. The guy stripped one glove off with his teeth, and Mike winced at the red glow, like a terrible sunburn.
Luciphera turned her head, eyes wide, meeting his. “Um, that’s what you were worried about?”
“Pretty much, but even more so. Something here doesn’t like any magic. Any other magic, I should say.”
She nodded hard. “Got it.” He lifted his hand. A drop of water thumped on his hood. “Scotland strikes again.” She giggled a little with relief as she pulled up her hood. “So much for the sunny picnic weather the TV promised.” With that she set off again.
The inn at the end of the scenic trail served scones almost as large as his hand, which was saying something. Mike savored the thick soup, hot scones, clotted cream, and tea. He wanted a pint, but refrained. Rich worked on a bit of fatty bacon. Luciphera cradled her tea mug in both hands, after devouring a large sandwich and a slice of cake. “The nature book says that the weather is because of how the edges of the calderas affect wind from the sea.”
Mike nodded. “There’s a reason for the postcard we saw showing ‘A Fine Day on Ben Nevis’.” It had been solid grey, like the inside of a cloud.
Rich licked his chops, then twitched his whiskers and tail. “The farther north, the wetter, and this side is wetter than St. Andrews.”
I still have trouble with Britain having so many kinds of weather. He’d read something that claimed Eurasia’s weather went east west, while North America’s went north south, and that was part of why people spread the way they did, and culture developed on east-west lines. We’re no farther than Riverton is from Pittsburg, and the weather and landscape are so different. Although, it did explain some things. Shadow claimed that the English went odd from being cooped up on an island for thousands of years. Ditto Japanese pop culture. Mike had more tea and shrugged to himself. Meister Gruenewald was a lot stranger than either of those, and he’d lived on the mainland for his entire life.
Luciphera’s eyes went wide, and she covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh. Dear.”
He glanced over his shoulder and regretted it. A guy in a faded, brick-red canvas kilt with cargo pockets had come into the tea room. He wore a flannel shirt in Black Watch plaid over a mustard-yellow tee-shirt, and looked as out of place as a giraffe in a cat show. A voice with a flat California accent demanded a table for one.
Mike leaned forward. Rich and Luciphera leaned in as well. “Tourrrists,” he groaned, then winked. She snickered. Rich gave him a disappointed look, then attacked the last bit of cream on Mike’s plate.
That night, after they returned to Oban and retired for the night, Mike looked at his Familiar. “This morning. What did you sense just as the glen redirected its attention?”
“Um.” Rich went still, then blinked twice. “Approval? Like we’d passed a test? No idea, Defender. That’s . . . don’t mess with it, leave it alone.”
“No shit. I don’t care to get burned again, literally or magically.” His arm still ached a little around the edges of the burn scar, especially when he was tired.
(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved