One thought came to her, amusing her and giving her strength. Rollo's bolstering smile and kind words had betrayed him as a true friend to Haley. And though chances were good the stoic would never demonstrate as much again, she'd always have memories of this thoughtfulness as proof.
She gave him a quiet smile and nodding, turned to face Finola.
Fire danced behind the witch, the flames blazing whiter and hotter than a bonfire should. It cast Finola's face in blackness, made her seem larger than life. Long shadows cut along the dirt, reaching toward Haley, and their blackness subsumed her feet, her calves. She wondered if the chill prickling in their wake was merely imagined.
Finola's sinewy arm stretched toward her, fingers reaching.
Haley took a deep breath. She was terrified now. But there was no other choice.
She turned her head, looking once more at Rollo. She wanted a nod, one last smile, some reassurance that this was going to be all right. But he merely locked eyes with hers, his gaze sympathetic. He'd lend her strength, but Haley was alone now. She alone could make this choice.
Flexing her fingers, she turned back to Finola and let the witch take her hand.
With a sharp inhale, the woman's head snapped back. Her face pointed to the sky, and despite the dimness of the moon, the whites of her eyes glowed eerily bright.
Haley heard humming, so low at first, it seemed to originate from inside her own head. It grew louder, and she realized the sound came from Finola.
The witch was in a trancelike state, muttering. The susurration gradually coalesced into words, growing louder and louder.
Her fingers seized, clawing Haley's skin. Haley gave an instinctive tug, but the woman's grip only tightened.
She pulled Haley to the fire.
God help me.
She could stop it all now. Live her life, find her own little island and make do from that moment on. This seemed…
wrong. A dark thing, an evil thing.
MacColla. Turning back now would mean good-bye forever.
Haley rolled her shoulders back. The only way.
She stepped slowly, letting Finola lead her.
Stopping before the fire, the witch dropped Haley's hand suddenly. Backed up.
And then she began to dance.
Finola whirled around, the sleeves of her robes fluttering over and through the fire as she spun like a dervish around the blaze. Nonsensical staccato sounds popped from her mouth, bits of spittle landing with a hiss in the fire. The flames licked at her cloak now, but rather than catching fire, it only glowed brighter, whiter.
The woman opened her mouth wide, a black maw in the darkness. A horrific cry erupted, a sharp, steady ululation sounding her dance around the flames.
Haley clutched her skirts in her fists. No choice, no choice.
The witch stopped short. Pulled something from her robes.
It was the painting. Magda's painting.
She thrust it into Haley's hands. Firelight licked the edges of the portrait, illuminating the face of Magda's dead brother. He looked up at her, so innocent, with bright red hair and a slight smile curving his mouth.
Guilt stabbed her. It seemed an abomination. As if she were somehow sullying the memory of this boy. Peter, was it? An image of innocence, defiled by this witch.
She grabbed Haley's hand once more. Finola's fingers were cold now, icy and dry, the skin of her fingertips thin, like an old woman's.
Finola took Haley's hand and rubbed it over the portrait. The paint smudged with the pressure and Peter's image blurred. He was a surreal face now, still looking up at her, the memory of that once-captured innocence an indictment.
MacColla. MacColla, what am I doing?
Magda had given Haley the painting. It was her only hope.
Magda had known what this meant. No guilt. No choice.
Magda would want it this way.
Tiny splinters bit into her palm. Haley's reflex was to pull back, but Finola's grip was like steel. She intoned, Gaoth o'n rionnaig Earraich Teas o 'n rionnaig Shamhraidh, Uisg'o'n rionnaig Fhogair, Reothadh o'n rionnaig Gheamhraidh. Wind from the Spring Star, Heat from the Summer Star, Water from the Autumn Star, Frost from the Winter Star. Hear me.
The last resonated long and low through the night.
The witch took Haley's finger and used it like an instrument, forming strange, abstract shapes along the surface.
Gooseflesh shivered along her body like ice. What the…
She stole a backward glance at Rollo, standing in the shadows, watching. The way he stiffened, putting his hand to his sword, spoke to the terror in her eyes.
I must. Haley gave him a small nod, and turned her head from him for good.
“The hero sleeps in his tomb,” Finola chanted. Her hand dragged Haley's finger faster, mercilessly etching out shapes along the wooden panel. “The hero chose a path to doom.”
She felt the tackiness of her own blood on its surface.
“A hero's cairn, and fates that were. The star road, to him, take her.”
Even though Haley knew her head was immobile, it felt as if it whipped back and forward again. Vertigo.
Adrenalin kicked in, making her hyperaware of every sensation.
“Take her, take her.” The witch's voice was low now. An inhuman rumbling that seemed to come from the trees all around, from the lake water, from the sky above.
“Think her on her love. Become one with stars above.”
What? Was she supposed to be thinking about MacColla? Finola hadn't given her instructions. She tried to speak, but her tongue was thick and dead in her mouth. Wait.
Did she need to think something specific to go back to him?
“To dissolve into skies. To save him who dies.”
The vertigo seized her again, and this time didn't let go, propelling a dull click-click in her head, spinning, spinning.
The flames at her back felt suddenly cold, her lungs breathing the smoke of dry ice, not fire.
Haley was chilled, her body bloodless and insubstantial, and her heart fluttered lighter and lighter, until she thought it a hummingbird set to flit from her body.
God help me.
“Take her. Take her. Take her.”
The humming stopped, and she sagged abruptly.
She felt sapped, saddened. She was steeped in heightened emotion, felt thick with it. Didn't it work?
The whirling in her head subsided and she struggled, her eyelids fluttering.
She felt hands holding her. Warm hands.
Rollo? Had she collapsed?
Haley shuddered a de ep inhale. Managed to give her head a shake. Opened her eyes.
She stood before MacColla, her chin in his hands. “This is farewell, leannan,” he told her. “Do you not have a kiss for me?”
She leapt up and into MacColla's arms, wrapping her legs around his waist, clawing her hands in his hair. She felt thick black hanks of it tug tight at his scalp, but she didn't care.
She had her MacColla back.
Haley kissed him deeply, opening her mouth wide to him, her tongue delving deep, savoring him.
She pulled away. “Laces,” she said frantically, reaching behind her back to undo the bodice of her dress. “Help me. The laces.”
MacColla laughed. “Oh, leannan.” He put her down and spun her, tugging hard at the ties. She felt cool air hit her shoulders, then her back, as he pulled the gown down hard. “Had I known what a simple request would do” – he nibbled and licked along the line of her shoulders – “I'd have been asking you more politely from the start.”
“Quiet,” she commande d, turning to face him. “Just kiss me.”
“Aye,” he said huskily. His good humor was gone, leaving his eyes hungry, hooded. He took her mouth roughly with his.
Wrapping an arm around her waist, he whisked her backward. They stumbled over the long musket he 'd given her, abruptly parting their kiss. “Careful,” he said quickly, holding her from falling.
“Right.” She glanced down and back up again. “My trusty musket,” she said sarcastically.
He looked at her a moment, brows furrowed in amusement and confusion . “Och, woman, 'tis time for you to quiet yourself and kiss me!”
MacColla seized her mouth once more. He shuffled them briskly backward, pushing her hard against the wall.
The stone was cold and rough on her naked back, and she welcomed the reminder that she was alive. That he was alive.
Haley tugged at his clothes, his belt and empty shoulder scabbard fell with a clatter to the ground, followed by the heavy sound of his plaid cascading to the floor.
He pushed the gown from her hips and their clothing was a tangle at their feet. Frustrated, she kicked wildly at all the layers of fabric, eliciting a husky laugh from MacColla.
“Easy.” he muttered, squatting down to sweep the pile away.
“Don't easy me!” she snapped. “You have no idea.”
“Hm?” He began to stand again, but when she tangled her fingers roughly in his hair, he squatted again, kneeling before her, a husky laugh in his throat.
MacColla slid his large hands around the backs of her thighs and gave a squeeze.
“Oh… ” she gasped.
“Nach tu a tha bòidheach,” he murmured. “You're so beautiful, mo leannan!”
Haley looked down, and the sight of him, staring up at her with such pure want in his eyes, sent a shock of desire through her core. She felt herself grow wet, expansive.
“You're alive,” she whispered.
She began to tremble as MacColla turned his focus to her body. His mouth hovered just above her skin, just almost kissing her. “Cho maiseach ris a' ghrèin” His breath was hot on her belly, her thighs.
Beauty like the sun.
She shivered, feeling those rough palms caressing her legs, stroking around to cup her ass, up her back.
“Your hands,” she whispered. His fingers spanned her, so long and strong. “I missed your hands.”
He brought both palms to rest on her stomach. His thumbs edged down, rubbing along the inside of her legs, tracing the vee of her thighs.
Her knees buckled, and with a rasp of a laugh, he moved quickly to catch her, leaning his body in close to hold her up against the wall. Weak, Haley rested her hands on his shoulders, giving him more of her weight.