Belladonna (6 page)

It had become clear in that brief meeting that becoming a Lady of Light and living on the White Isle was Caitlin Marie's all-consuming dream and ambition. And it was just as painfully clear that something lived inside the girl that was at odds with that dream and ambition. Something that would not be welcome on the White Isle.

The girl was as tainted as her brother. Some things came through the bloodlines and never could be washed away.

Guardian of Light, cleanse my thoughts of such unkindness. The children cannot be blamed for their nature, and they have
never used it for harm. But... I would not want one of their kind on the White Isle.

"We're here," Shaela said when the cottage came into sight.

As the horse's pace brought them closer and closer to success or failure, Merrill thought about those first two visits. Then, the hill looming behind the cottage had struck her as menacing, as if an ill-spoken word was all that was needed to bring the hillside down on the people living in its shadow. Now that same hill struck her as protective, as if it guarded something precious.

Which impression was closer to the truth? Or had the strain of the journey turned her mind to fanciful imaginings?

When they reached the cottage, Shaela climbed down and attached a lead to the horse's bridle, tying the other end to the hitching post. As Merrill secured the reins and set the brake, she caught the movement of a curtain falling back into place. A moment later, the cottage door opened, and Brighid, looking older and more careworn than Merrill had expected, stepped outside to greet them.

"To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?" Brighid asked with cold politeness.

You know why we've come.
Merrill searched Brighid's face but found no sign of welcome. And that sharpened her sadness over the necessity of coming here. They had been friends once, sisters in the joyous work of nurturing the Light. Now two children, especially the girl, stood between them.

"We need your help," Merrill said. The girl suddenly appeared in the doorway, her blue eyes bright with hope when she caught sight of them. No, not a girl anymore. Eighteen now, wasn't she? A woman come into her power. Whatever it might be.

Pretending she didn't see the hope, she kept her eyes fixed on Brighid. "We need Caitlin's help."

"For what?" Brighid asked warily.

So. Brighid was going to hold a grudge, wasn't going to bend even now.

"There are two plants we need for a ... prayer ... circle. They do not grow on the White Isle. We thought Caitlin, with her skills, could acquire them for us."

Hope burned away in Caitlin's eyes, replaced by bitterness. "So the Ladies of Light require the help of a sorceress."

"That is not a word to be bandied about," Shaela said sharply.

"Maybe not," Caitlin replied just as sharply, "but I want to hear
her
say it. She's so good at speaking the truth, let her speak it now."

"I have a name," Merrill said.

Brighid raised a hand, silencing Caitlin before the girl could reply. "What do you want?"

We have no time for a battle of wills. Can't you feel it, Brighid? Evil is already drifting among us.

"Heart's hope — and belladonna," Merrill replied.

The small jerk of Brighid's body gave Merrill hope, but Caitlin's expression showed no sign of yielding.

"Those plants don't grow around here," Caitlin said, as if that ended all possibility.

"But there is a place nearby where unusual plants grow," Merrill insisted. "I could accompany you and help —"

"
You
aren't welcome there."

"Caitlin Marie!" Brighid turned on her niece. "I understand your disappointments and why a wounded heart makes for a bitter tongue, but that is no reason to forget your manners."

"So they should get whatever they want from me just for the asking?"

Girl and aunt stared at each other, and Merrill had the uneasy feeling they were no longer talking about plants.

Then Brighid sighed and rested a hand against Caitlin's cheek. "No," she said. "You should get the Ladies what they need because
I'm
asking. And because this is more important than any one person."

Caitlin hesitated, then bobbed her head once in agreement. "For you, then." She disappeared into the cottage. A few moments later, they all heard the back door slam.

"We came at a difficult time," Merrill said soothingly, wondering if she and Shaela were going to stand outside for however long it took Caitlin to retrieve the plants, or if Brighid would stand by her own words and remember her manners.

"Manure has its uses, Merrill, but it never smells sweet," Brighid replied tartly. "Don't spread it here."

So much for stepping around the point of contention that had bruised their friendship. Not broken it, though. She wouldn't believe it was truly broken. Someday Brighid would be free to come back to the White Isle ... and Lighthaven. "The girl doesn't belong on the White Isle. I stand by the decision I made three years ago. She isn't one of us, Brighid. She never will be."

Brighid leaned against the door frame. "A young man from the village called last week. Asked Caitlin to go walking in the moonlight — the first who has ever done that since she's considered 'strange.' He made her an offer."

"Oh." Merrill smiled. A wounded heart and an offer? Yes, that could explain the sharpness of Caitlin's temper. "Well, young women are often afflicted with nerves and quarrel with their lover before the wed —"

"He made her the kind of offer no woman with pride or heart would accept."

"Ah." Merrill's face heated with embarrassment, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Shaela turn away, head down, clearly uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation.

"Your presence here today is salt on a fresh wound," Brighid said, her voice sad and quiet. "You come asking for favors from one you turned away and offer nothing in return."

"There's nothing I
can
offer. And you
know
why we've come."

"Yes, I know why. As I said when I answered your letter, I, too, heard the voice in a dream. The words are a riddle, and I have found no answer." Brighid hesitated. "But I think the answer is more than an answer for whoever discovers the meaning of the riddle."

Shaela looked up, alert. "What do you think it is meant to be?"

"A door."

Reaching the spot on the hillside that she had decided years ago was the end of the path, despite the path continuing on up and over the hill, Caitlin closed her eyes and sent out that silent call:
I'm here.

When she opened her eyes, the path ended at the walled garden that branded her a sorceress and was her only comfort and friend — the walled garden that didn't exist for anyone except her.

Slipping through the rusty gate that never closed properly, she hugged the two pots she'd brought with her and slowly examined the beds. She didn't know what belladonna looked like, but she was certain she'd know the feel of it.

And there it was, tucked in the corner of the garden that never managed to grow anything well. Beside it was a heart's hope plant she
knew
hadn't been there a few days ago.

Kneeling in front of the plants, she put the pots aside, then brushed her fingers over the plants' leaves.

Something here. Something strange.

Her fingers brushed leaves, but she had the sensation of a warm hand clasping hers. An accepting hand.

She understands me.

The thought made no sense. Neither was the certainty that she had almost managed to touch someone who wasn't there.

She sat back on her heels and studied the plants. Aunt Brighid had been acting odd, uneasy. As if she'd had a premonition of bad news and was expecting it to be confirmed every time someone came to the door.

Well, bad news
did
come knocking, didn't it?

"Prayer circle," Caitlin muttered as she pulled a trowel out of her skirt pocket and carefully dug up the heart's hope. "I'll bet it's going to be an interesting
prayer
circle."

An important one, anyway, she thought as she settled the heart's hope into one of the pots. Merrill wouldn't have come to Raven's Hill unless it was important. She didn't think Aunt Brighid had expected Merrill to show up, but Brighid had understood
why
Merrill was asking for these particular plants.

Caitlin transplanted the belladonna — and shivered as if she'd suddenly stepped into a deep, cold shadow.

Something important.
And I'm part of it.

Following impulse, she loosened her braid of waist-length brown hair. She pulled out two hairs, wrapped one around the base of each stem at the dirt line, then added a little more dirt to hide what she had done.

She wasn't welcome at precious Lighthaven, but she would be part of whatever ceremony the Ladies of Light performed with the plants.

*

Humming a folk tune that was currently popular in one of her landscapes, Glorianna headed for her walled garden, a basket of gardening tools in one hand and a watering can in the other. When she and her mother, Nadia, had ganged up on her brother Lee to insist that he take one day out of each seven-day for rest and renewal, she hadn't expected him to surrender so quickly — and she hadn't expected the two of them to then turn on her and make the same demand! But, like Lee, she had been working too hard, pushing too hard. That had been understandable when the threat of the Eater of the World finding a way into her landscapes had been so immediate. After all, It
had
found Its way into two of her dark landscapes. But there had been no sign of It for weeks, and while the danger to Ephemera hadn't lessened, there was less she or Lee could do until they found some sign of where It had gone.

So today was for pleasure and, for her, that pleasure meant tending the earth, not as a Landscaper who was always vigilantly aware of the balance of Light and Dark currents that flowed through her landscapes but as a woman performing the simple chore of looking after her plants and cleaning out the weeds.

Even here on her small island, the autumn day was unseasonably — and delightfully — warm, so she wore an old pair of trousers she had cut off just below the knees and one of Lee's old cotton shirts — with the sleeves cut short — that her mother would have thrown in the rag basket if Glorianna hadn't snuck it out of the family home after deciding it was perfect for warm-weather gardening. Her shoes were worn at the heels and so broken-down that her striped sock poked up through a hole in the toe, and her black hair was bundled up under a battered straw hat whose ribbons fluttered in the light breeze. Nadia called it her urchin attire, but the garden — and Ephemera itself — didn't care if she was fashionably dressed and looked pretty.

No one really cared how she dressed or if she ever looked pretty.

If I ever fall in love,
she'd told Lee once,
it will be with a man who can see me dressed like this and still think I look beautiful.

Of course, the man would have to overlook the fact that she was a rogue Landscapes and was feared and reviled by all the other Landscapers who protected their world.

"If you want romance, my girl, read a book," she muttered as she unlatched the gate and gave it a bump with her hip to swing it open enough to slip inside. "That's the only place you'll find a man with enough heart to stand by someone who can control Ephemera like you do." Like no other Landscaper, not even her mother, could do.

Then she froze, all thoughts of a pleasant day in the garden and imagined romance forgotten, as the shock of what brushed against her senses caused her to drop the watering can and basket.

"Guardians and Guides," she whispered.

A dissonance in her garden. Something here that didn't belong. Something that didn't resonate with
her.

She plucked the short-handled hoe and tines from the basket, wanting something she could use as a weapon. A quick look around convinced her there was nothing out of order in the beds closest to her, so she closed her eyes and steadied her breathing.

Her garden covered almost two acres of land, but what it represented was the safety and well-being of thousands of people who lived in the landscapes in her care. She had to find the dissonance and weed out the source before it contaminated everything.

Despite her vigilance, had the Eater of the World found an anchor point in one of her landscapes that connected with this garden? Had It burrowed in somewhere like a dark, malevolent weed, waiting until she got close enough before unleashing one of its nightmarish creatures in hope of destroying her?

Then she felt Ephemera stirring, trying to align itself to the emotions and wishes churning inside her. The world trusted her as it had trusted few others since the time of the first Landscapers, who had been known as Guides of the Heart. It would manifest her emotions, thinking that was what she wanted — even if that meant creating an access point through which the Eater of the World could enter.

She had to regain control of herself. She had to
think
instead of feel. She had to think for both of them, because that was her purpose; that was why the world had shaped her kind in the first place.

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