Baelfleur (Downside, #2) by Linda Welch by Linda Welch - Read Online

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Summary

The sequel to Downside Rain:

Two wraiths and a ghost accept a commission to deliver a message to the faceless thief who is stealing Downside’s treasures. Their journey takes them Far North to a cold, inhospitable land where humans rule and other races are shunned.

Meanwhile, a once powerful man is betrayed and his life is forfeit. With the dark angel dead, no one can help Alain Sauvageau. He is human now and only human skills can save him.

As Alain fights for his life, Rain, River and Castle close in on the thief only to discover there is more to his story than they were told. Someone will do anything to stop them finding him. But their new ally, a human Northern girl, may just tip the scales.
 

Published: Nordic Valley Books on
ISBN: 9781502255532
List price: $3.99
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Baelfleur (Downside, #2) - Linda Welch

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Prologue

Elbows and shoulders jostle Bel as he pushes through the crowd. Fingers fragile as a feather drift over his satchel. He spins to see a small elf child duck and disappear among other pedestrians. Pickpockets favor the markets where customers are too busy haggling to feel the soft touch on their purse or pocket. Bel slips the satchel’s strap off his shoulder and hugs the bag to his chest, feeling the contents still safely stowed.

Too many bodies surround him and their stink seeps into his pores as the rain abates to a drizzle. The din of chatter and vendors calling out their wares, the background throb and grind of automobiles and machinery hurt his sensitive ears. And too many of his people are here. They are the latest generation, city dwellers born and bred. They do not notice the pollution or feel the joys and anguish of millions absorbed by the centuries-old brick and beams and cobbles, an unpleasant hum on the edge of his perception.

One or more of his brethren may be near and they must not see him. He is a wanted man and sióga are devious, grasping, self-serving individuals. They may flout the laws of this city but will obey a direct order from their far-distant queen, especially when a fat reward is attached.

His recklessness, the belief in his own infallibility, set the queen on his trail. If her posse finds him, the man he calls master will not let them take him. He will kill Bel rather than lose him.

Bel can’t use his magic when dozens of bodies press in on him from all sides. He keeps his head down, hiding inside the oversized oilskin hood.

Leaving the market, Bel travels a broader street where people walk beneath awnings and hug the storefronts, trying to escape the rain, causing bottlenecks, capturing him between them. He ruthlessly shoves through.

A briny tang permeates the air as he nears the salt-water river. In a hurry to reach the boat, Bel picks up his pace. He turns along an alley little more than a slit between buildings, barely wide enough to allow two to pass. City sweepers ignore the alley so the ground is hidden beneath thick trash compacted by foot traffic. Slimed with algae, pocked where damp brick broke away, the walls close in on him.

Gulls cry in the distance. Stepping from the alley, brick warehouses with rusting tin roofs rise around Bel. He goes north, skirting huge trash cans and plastic bins which reek of fish. A line of three delivery trucks idle behind a warehouse, expelling exhaust fumes as they wait their turn to unload. Forced by traffic to pause at a crossroads, he curses beneath his breath as the rain comes down harder, bombarding his shoulders and hood. Another turn brings him to the docks. An old slumping building with leprous walls where chunks of plaster have crumbled away, an inn sags like a drunken, diseased whore and the fisheries either side appear to hold it up. The stink of fish and offal overrides that of the effluence afloat on the river.

Free of the crowds which impeded his magic, Bel casts his eyes over the barge. A stevedore straggles down the gangplank. A woman leans on the brass handrail. Two crewmen in conversation stand beside the wheelhouse. On the pier, a few dockworkers are checking stacked bales and crates.

Bel draws and distorts light and shadow, wraps it around him, and continues on as a brown-haired human man huddled inside a cloak.

The gangplank creaks and sways as he climbs to the flat deck. Moving gently in the wakes from other craft passing up and down the river, the HL33 is gigantic, the biggest barge he has seen. Below deck are two huge holds for the animals, a smaller hold for trade goods, the engine and spaces between where the crew slings their hammocks. Above, the wheelhouse and galley sit at the bow and the four cabins midpoint stick up like a row of wooden shanties. The quarters are small, with three cabins reserved for the captain and the owner’s family. Baelfleur and his master share the fourth. They are not the only passengers. Like most vessels it will take fares if there is available space, they do not get in the crew’s way and settle for basic transportation. A family of five and two young men crouch beneath a low-slung tarp, their only protection from the elements.

The barge unloaded its cargo of bison at the abattoir and meat packing plant outside Gettaholt before continuing to the city. Without the animals’ weight, although the barge will forge against the current the return journey will be faster. They will reach Ben Tragha before nightfall.

He steps up to the cabin, knocks a warning and enters. With no minds to beguile and no eyes to see, the glamour fades. No longer brown and stringy, white hair like thistledown floats down his spine, his skin is the color of cream and shadows ring deep-set, pale-blue eyes above concave cheeks. Tall, wide-shouldered and leanly muscled, Bel moves with a dancer’s sinewy grace.

Dark wood lines the cabin and it contains two narrow bunks and a small table, with pegs for clothes beside the door. A glass lantern is attached to each wall, with one of the four alight. His master is a shrouded figure beside a bunk. Bel takes the four steps required to cross the cabin and dumps his satchel on the table.

His feet go out from under him. On the floor, he jerks and gasps from the memory of excruciating pain. Every muscle in his body seizes and he feels every nerve end, as though the skin has been stripped to expose them. Yet this is the aftermath, like aftershocks following an earthquake. If he wanted to describe the absolute experience, he could not, it was too fleeting to grasp. He thinks his heart would have given out had it lasted longer.

He whimpers and struggles for breath as sweat stings his eyes. Holding his stomach, he lifts his head. Why?

The man is tall, narrow-shouldered and thick-waisted, with ashy corpse-pale skin stretched tight over high cheekbones, long night-black hair and icy-green eyes. He gestures at Bel with one hand. You forget your place, Baelfleur.

Bel silently curses. He let the subservient pose slip for an instant, giving the human what he enjoys, a reason to inflict pain. Grinding his teeth, despising himself, Bel gets to his knees and bows over until his forehead touches the floor. Forgive me, lord.

Axanth turns away and looks through a small porthole. Get me something to eat.

Bel clambers to his feet and backs out, making sure to shut the door gently and not invite another rebuke. Before he heads for the galley, he leans on the cabin wall and lets the suppressed emotions flow out.

Appalled, he realizes he has not resumed his disguise. He glances around frantically, but the cabin wall’s angle blocks his view; he sees no one and no one has seen him. He warps and weaves the red light and is again a medium-height, brown-haired, rugged-faced human male.

Bel heads for the galley. The woman is still at the rail, turning to look back at the dock. The travelers huddle under the tarp. He nods at them in passing and is stricken as a thought moans in his head: Who are you?

~*~

Freyda watches the gulls swoop as a man upends a basket of offal into the river. Most guts are plucked from the air before they hit the murky water. Her gaze is drawn to a stevedore who carries a wooden crate on each massive shoulder. What is it? An ogre? An orc?

An orc, she decides, from its greenish back skin. Schooling her features is difficult and she turns her head before the thing catches her watching. Creatures don’t come to her father’s Far North estate. Paulo says few are seen in the Northern towns and those who strike north get a welcome as cold as deep winter and are ungently encouraged to leave. Born in the Ranges, like many of her contemporaries she’d have denied the existence of such beasts, consigning them to myth, except her father has always been open about their existence. She read books on the subject in Father’s study. She expected creatures would inhabit Gettaholt but knowing and the reality of seeing awes her. So many are in this city, she can’t identify all of them.

She looks at the skyline, the roofs and chimney pots, square towers, antennas and spires beneath the red sky. Why did she think Gettaholt would be like the Northern towns, yet larger?

Hands braced on the brass rail, she irritably kicks at her skirt but the heavy wool wraps around her leg and she stubs a toe on the bulwark.

Temper, temper, Paulo chides.

Without looking at him, Freyda snarls, It’s not fair, Paulo. My magnificent adventure, the first time I’ve been beyond Highwall and what did I see? The town house, a restaurant and a shopping mall. And this dress. . . . She bunches her skirt in both hands. "I look stupid and I’m hot."

Paulo grins. You look lovely.

Freyda scowls. She’ll never look lovely. Despite the two-year age difference, she and her brother are so alike they are often mistaken for twins. She and Paulo are tall and heavyset with the same curling copper hair - Paulo’s is bound back in a queue but her thick mane, for propriety’s sake, is in tightly wound braids atop her head - lightly bronzed skin and cinnamon eyes. Mending fences, digging ditches and other manual work she performs for the stead has added muscle to Freyda’s figure since she last wore the dress, which strains to contain her limbs and torso.

Paulo pats her shoulder before he moves away. We’ll sail in a moment and be home before you know it.

And she looks forward to it. In the cooler clime, wearing her leathers and furs, on the back of her firedrake Brand, she’ll do her best to forget she ever left home. What a waste of time.

After talking her father into letting her come on this trip, she wishes she’d saved her breath. The city is a disappointment. Perhaps her opinion would be different had she seen more. Perhaps, had she been allowed to wander alone and absorb the surroundings . . . but either Paulo or Captain Mills accompanied her on restricted forays.

They worry for her safety. Unlike Highwall, where you can stroll from one end of the enclosed city to the other in an hour, Gettaholt is vast and there are more creatures than there are humans.

And her clothes! She feels conspicuous and elephantine in the hot, heavy skirt. As a representative of her family, a young lady should wear traditional attire, her mother insisted. But nobody wears heavy embroidered felt and woolen clothing in the South. Most women dress like men.

Freyda’s thoughts fracture as pain pierces her head like a forge-heated blade; an agony of mind and body. She gasps and tightens her hold on the railing.

It passes, leaving Freyda in a sweat. She hunches her shoulders and looks over boat and dock, hoping she didn’t swear aloud. No one is looking at her.

A moment later, she reels as anguish explodes in her head. Freyda bites her tongue and clings to the rail. Tears squeeze from her eyes. Anger, protest, frustration, passions denied, loneliness and a soul-piercing cry of despair with undercurrents of ineffectual rage storm through her awareness. She fights for control over her reeling senses.

Someone, on the dock or the boat, is in emotional agony.

When she can breathe again, Freyda puts her back to the rail and surveys the HL33’s deck. The passengers don’t seem to be in distress. The Tolly family bound for Mont Clarren, the young men returning to High Home, and the professor’s manservant, all appear relaxed.

Freyda, hot and damp with sweat, wildly swipes stray wisps of hair from her face and turns back to the dock. The cry issues from her unbidden: Who are you?

But no one answers and she’s alone inside her head.

Chapter One

Rain! She’s coming! Castle hisses in my ear. He whisks away to warn River.

Old habits die hard. Only River and I can hear Castle’s ghost so he needn’t all but whisper, the gorgon won’t hear him.

The gorgon has taken up residence in Bella la Murta’s grotto, which probably accounts for the disappearance of two gardeners. Patrolling the estate, the gamekeeper saw her from a distance and alerted his mistress. The police will not come near an aggressive monster, the pleasure falls to us.

A family in Burnt Hollow reported a gorgon last year. Willhelm Vander and his team got the job. I still can’t believe they were so stupid, using a net on a gorgon. Its tongue went through the net and stabbed two of Vander’s people before it escaped. They will spend the rest of their lives in a coma. Is it the same gorgon?

We arrived at the estate when what passes for a Downside night fell, the sky turning from blood-red to murky burgundy, and held back a mile away until Castle told us the gorgon had left the grotto. We knew she’d be out all night seeking prey and hungry if she returned unsated. She will not find dinner inside the estate grounds now that Bella knows she’s here. Bella and her staff are in the big house, doors locked, windows barred and shuttered. They are safe; the gorgon will not try to enter the house although the gods help anyone who goes outside.

We had to come early so our scent can disperse before the gorgon returns. A superior sense of smell is one of her advantages when hunting. The others are stealth and poison which paralyzes victims but doesn’t kill them. The gorgon likes to eat her meat while blood still pulses sluggishly through the veins.

The grotto is carved out of a rock hillside. With my night vision, I can see the clearing below and a short way beyond. A wraith’s eyesight can penetrate shadows cast by trees and distorted by the roiling sky’s light. Naked, I squat well back from the entrance. River, also naked, is among a clump of boulders facing the entrance. We left our clothes and most of our weapons where we waited out the evening. River and I shed flesh and reformed when we arrived at the grotto, and therefore our bodies are free of man-made perfumes or materials. I don’t think she will scent our bare flesh after hours of sitting in the sporadic rain but it pays to be cautious. We take chances on every assignment but only when essential.

My sword is all of one piece, carved from cool volcanic glass, the grip bound with hemp. River’s pistol is the only manufactured item we plan to use and I don’t think the gorgon will smell it. River wrapped it in hemp sacking and covered it in a layer of fine dirt. He can scoop it out in less than ten seconds.

When the gorgon is in the clearing and we have her flanked, her sense of smell will not help her.

Killing a gorgon will be tricky. Like vampires, they heal from most wounds and like vampires the one sure method of killing them is to sever their heads. Her whip-like tongue has a three-foot reach so I seriously doubt I can get near enough to take her with my blade. I’m not going to try. I will avoid her tongue’s venomous kiss and keep her occupied until River can shoot her in the head. Once River drops her, I can finish the job.

The rain stops falling. Humidity presses down on me like a damp blanket. The air is still, the only sound my slow breathing and rainwater dripping from branches. She’s here between one second and the next and I didn’t hear her coming.

The gorgon is erect yet her movement on the edge of the clearing reminds me of a snake slithering, as though she doesn’t have feet beneath the long dirty robe which trails a tattered hem along the ground behind her. Dreadlocks coated in dried mud fall to her hunched shoulders and she clasps her hands at her breast as if in prayer. Her head swings from one side to the other as she utters a low chitter.

I know I’m well hidden from her strychnine gaze but my pulse jumps when she pauses and lifts her head. Her horrible blank eyes, black and round as a half drach coin, search the clearing.

Has she smelled us despite our precautions?

She comes on. I dare not let the breath I’m holding whisper out.

She’s almost at the grotto when I rise up, take several steps and leap from the hillside. I lose a little flesh so I don’t hit the ground too heavily and jar my ankles, and land about ten feet from her.

Her chitter becomes a hiss. Her mouth opens and her tongue unreels from the gaping maw. Thin as a rubber band, the end snakes toward me.

I bring my sword up and take the end of her tongue off.

Woot! from Castle.

I allow myself a tiny smirk. Not bad, Rain. I’m allowed to feel pleased with myself.

The gorgon screeches, a high-pitched sound of pain and fury and comes at me with her arms spread. Held pointed at her breast, my sword doesn’t deter her. She stops when the end spits her chest and swings at me with her talons but the sword is keeping them away from me. I strain to bear her weight. Sweat drizzles down my neck and between my breasts.

Move! River yells.

I pull the sword free and skip back away from her. A bullet penetrates the back of her skull, making her stagger forward.

Forgetting me, she turns on River. Ichor dribbles from her skull, making a black path through her muddy locks. I step in and drive the sword into her back below her ribs.

Another bullet knocks her back. I put all my weight into holding the sword as she’s driven deeper on it. One more should do it but River’s leery of hitting me so I release the blade and duck away, leaving it in her.

The third bullet does the trick. Her head jerks again and she spins, coming to face me with three holes in her head and my sword still in her. Her tongue goes limp like a strip of leather dangling from her mouth. She falls face down. I rush in to wrench my sword from her back so I can use it on her neck.

Rain! River calls.

Rain! Castle yells.

The pain in my shoulder is worse than a wasp’s sting. I gasp and clap one hand to the afflicted area as a terrible numbness spreads from it, enveloping my chest in an instant. My throat is closing, my breath comes in little panting gasps.

Voices yelling.

My vision distorts.

You okay, babe? Castle asks as he bends over me.

I can scarcely get the words out. Yeah, I think.

I’m on the ground and glance around in momentary confusion. River is backing across the clearing to the trees, a male gorgon in pursuit. His gun is booming shot after shot. I shake my head to clear it.

I know what happened. The male gorgon speared me with his tongue. My brain was compromised but my body knew what to do. My flesh dispersed to the ether. I knew nothing for a moment until I came back on my knees in the dirt a foot away from the female gorgon’s body.

Get it together, Castle urges. River needs help.

In the dark-red light, I see holes in the gorgon’s arm and neck and one in its head. River must be flustered - he’s a better shot than this.

I don’t have a minute to lose. The wounds in the female are already knitting, she’ll be up soon. I launch myself at her, put one foot on her back to brace and pull the sword free. Swinging overhand, I chop at her neck; once, twice, until the obsidian severs her spinal cord. Then I go after the male.

Before I reach him, as his wicked tongue snakes at River, a shot between the eyes takes him down. River steps in and puts another bullet in his brain, then his gun clicks on an empty chamber.

My obsidian blade takes the male gorgon’s head.

River and I look at each other before plopping to the ground. We sit facing, my sword across my knees, River’s gun in a limp grip, the male gorgon’s body between us.

Where did that bastard come from? Castle asks.

I widen my eyes to indicate I don’t know. I don’t feel like talking at the moment.

––––––––

Outside the mansion’s front door, we drop the gorgons’ heads at Bella’s feet.

Her upper lip curls. Ugh. Two of them, eh?

When did anyone last visit the grotto? I ask her.

A year ago, perhaps. Longer? She hunches over to stare at the faces. Do you know, Fancy?

Her lover lounges on the doorframe. Unless the servants used it, for Bennett Penryn’s birthday, I think. We had a supper there, remember?

Ah, yes. Bella straightens up. Eighteen months ago, then. Why?

The gorgon didn’t come recently; she and her mate arrived about six months ago and hibernated in the grotto. She woke before him and went hunting.

Initially, we didn’t understand how the male gorgon suddenly appeared, why Castle didn’t see it when he checked out the area, but now all is clear. The gorgons must have come to the estate when ready to hibernate, found the grotto and settled in. We didn’t suspect there were two and the male slept on in the grotto when the female woke. Castle watched the female, he had no reason to check out the cave. Our bad luck he woke then, or did his mate’s distress disturb him?

I smile politely as Bella hands over our fee, pretending I don’t notice her grimace as our fingers brush.

Chapter Two

Like others on the sidewalk, I move back from the street and hug the shop-front as the car speeds past. A big chunky vehicle reinforced with metal plate, it doesn’t slow down but churns through the puddles. Water spumes from under the tires and washes the sidewalk in waves. The big driver, square and solid as his vehicle, stares straight ahead from small round eyes beneath shelf-like brows. He will not stop if anyone crosses in front of his car. I can’t place what he is. He has ogre blood, for sure, yet his skin is smoother and a mottled, shadowy gray-green.

Castle, who didn’t move from the edge of the sidewalk, splutters and holds his arms away from his sides, vigorously flapping them as