Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Evelynne jumped slightly as a particular rattle of the train jerked her back to wakefulness. She had been dozing fitfully, unable to get really comfortable in the otherwise quite pleasant seat. The train was one of the more luxurious modes of transportation into the British Columbian interior, although the truly first-class accommodations were out of reach at the moment. Evelynne had heard that the Canadian rail system, especially passenger service, was under threat of closing down permanently, which she felt would be a real tragedy.
Maybe once Ally and I get settled back into Atlantl we can come back out here for a visit. We can make a big deal about going on a train tour; maybe get some interest going again. People really need to see the countryside from here. The view out the window of the gorgeous autumn countryside, replete with hills, mountains, evergreens, and, of course, the obligatory maple trees, was absolutely stunning.
At the thought of her fiancée, Evelynne glanced at the seat beside her, half expecting to see Ally asleep as well. Instead, the other woman was gazing out the window. Her stare wasn't the blank or troubled expression that had become so common over the past few months, but just quietly thoughtful, simply enjoying the scenery. It was a gratifying relief from the tortured mien that had been so obvious recently, and Evelynne felt a part of herself relax.
A slight movement caught her eye, and she glanced downwards to see Ally absently twisting the ring on her finger as she leaned against the window. The sight of that ring, originally a birthday present several months ago, brought forth a confused emotion in Evelynne, a feeling that was equal parts joy and guilt.
Evelynne rummaged through the drawer, feeling a leaden weight on her chest. By now it was almost a familiar sensation. For some reason Ally had been even more sullen and withdrawn than usual during dinner. She had not been rude or mean, but some memory had obviously been plaguing her. Ally had managed to sit through the meal with manifest unwillingness, but had quickly disappeared into the night afterwards.
When Ally had vanished, Claire had done her best to comfort Evelynne, offering a hesitant hug that had been accepted with much less self-consciousness than had once been the case. Still, the warmth and genuine friendship of that embrace had been nearly painful in face of the memory of Ally's absent closeness. With a sad smile of apology, which Claire had understood, Evelynne had retreated to a shower. She had hoped that the near-scalding water would thaw the cold at her core. It hadn't.
Exiting the steam-filled bathroom, mentally holding close the hope that Dr. Young had sparked—though the last couple of days had already worn that hope thin—she had entered the room she and Ally were nominally sharing, her towel-wrapped body instantly cold.
Looking through the drawer, she almost missed the small, plain brown envelope under the shirts and sweaters. It took her a moment to recognise it, and when she did, the air in her lungs left her in a huff.
Evelynne had been given the envelope weeks before, the very night that Ally had been admitted into the hospital. Per hospital regulations, all of Ally's personal effects had been removed and passed on to Evelynne for safekeeping. The clothing was long gone, but in the stressful times following the event, Evelynne had completely forgotten about the other items.
Now, hands trembling, she picked up the envelope and poured the contents into her palm. A handful of American change and a couple of bills, a receipt, a button, and two smooth pieces of coloured glass; Ally could be a real magpie at times. And, most significantly, two pieces of jewellery: a silver-and-amethyst ring and an intricate dragon pendant on a silver chain. The ring had officially been a birthday gift, but both Evelynne and Ally had known that it was really an engagement ring, a material symbol of their connection. The dragon had been given the same day, a gift from Claire. Ally hadn't removed either from that day to the night in the hospital.
And then they had been effectively lost and forgotten.
Except by Ally, Evelynne knew instinctively. Ally had felt their absence strongly, and Evelynne also knew exactly how Ally had interpreted that continued absence. Ally had known or guessed that the ring and pendant had been given back to her fiancée, and had concluded that the reason they had not been returned was that Evelynne considered her unworthy of them, of the trust they implied. It was illogical and irrational, but Ally had proven in the past weeks that her mental and emotional coherence were not as solid as they had been.
Evelynne didn't know how long she sat staring at the ring and pendant in her palm, but she was jolted out of her reverie by the sound of steps downstairs. She recognised Ally's voice apparently speaking with Claire and Mrs. Chen, and then held her breath. She heard nothing, and then the distinctive creak of a certain pair of stairs as Ally climbed them. A moment later the door opened and Ally cautiously peered inside. Her eyes widened slightly as she noticed Evelynne in nothing but a towel before they shuttered again.
"Uh, hi," she said. She looked Evelynne up and down swiftly before averting her gaze. "I'll just wait so you can…"
Ally turned to leave, but Evelynne suddenly found herself across the room, a hand on the other woman's arm. "Wait!" she blurted. "Please, come in." She winced internally at the tension in Ally's frame. Still, Ally complied, allowing herself to be led to the bed, where Evelynne urged her to sit. Evelynne hesitated, uncertain of how to proceed. "I found something that I think you should have. It's a bit late, but it's yours."
Ally inhaled sharply as she recognised the object in Evelynne's hand, and held her breath as her fiancée gently pried open her clenched hand. "I just found this, and I think you definitely need it back," Evelynne said softly, looking up into Ally's face for reaction, but the seated woman just stared, mesmerised, at the ring. Taking Ally's silence as consent, Evelynne gently turned over Ally's left hand and, after another look into her eyes, slid the ring home on the third finger.
There was an ever-so subtle shiver through Ally's body, and an equally subtle release in tension. It would have been imperceptible to anyone not as hyper-aware of her partner's reactions as Evelynne, but the minute but significant settling of Ally's core was obvious. Evelynne was silent for several seconds, just holding Ally's hand.
A moment later Ally looked up. Her face was still closed, still pained, but there was a hint of thaw that Evelynne took hope in, and an almost pathetic gratitude that wrenched Evelynne's emotions. "Thank you," Ally murmured, barely audibly.
Evelynne's first reaction was to dismiss the thanks—after all, it was her own fault for all but losing the ring in the first place—but Dr. Young's words brought her up short. Ally needed validation now, needed to be forgiven in her own eyes before healing could begin. If she were honestly thankful it would be cruel to dismiss that thanks.
"You're welcome," Evelynne replied simply.
In itself it had been a tiny gesture, but in reality it had been significant. Ally had not turned a corner or shown immense progress since then, but a certain degree of her brittleness had eased. She was still quiet, even more so than usual, and continued her nightly expeditions into the city; Evelynne and Claire had made a game of seeing which news reports they could tie to her actions. The change was more in bearing and expression, and even there it was so subtle as to be invisible to anyone who knew her less well than Evelynne did.
Or Claire, surprisingly. Evelynne hadn't felt completely comfortable returning the pendant herself, and had given it to Claire the next day. She wasn't sure exactly what had transpired between her fiancée and her friend, but Ally had appeared later wearing it. Claire had seen Ally one evening idly rubbing the dragon pendant and had later commented to Evelynne, "She's doing better."
Encouraged, but with Dr. Young's warnings still fresh, Evelynne had tried very cautiously to touch Ally's mind several times over the past week, but the results were not encouraging. Whatever her change in demeanour, Ally's psyche was as harsh as ever. Touching it directly was like running fingers over a wall made of razor-sharp ice: cold, painful, and impenetrable. It was that wall that had Evelynne as worried as ever; she had no idea what was going on behind that icy barrier.
Now looking at Ally, who continued to gaze out the window, Evelynne let the swaying and clacking of the train put her into a light trance, gently brushing Ally's frozen mind with mental fingers, hoping that some part of her could feel it.
"Claire? Claire, we're here." The hand on her shoulder roused Claire from her misery, and she opened her eyes to see Evelynne looking down on her sympathetically. The other woman smiled. "We're here, Claire. Do you want to get off?"
Even as a small part of her mind made a predictable comment, Claire nodded carefully but vehemently. "Good God, yes," she muttered through clenched teeth, feeling her stomach lurch again. She tried to stand before realising that she was still clutching the paper bag. Even folded over, the sour smell coming from it was perceptible, and she felt her nausea rise again. Still disoriented, she sat for a moment, not quite able to figure out what to do next.
Evelynne solved her confusion by taking the bag with great aplomb with one hand and gently taking her elbow with the other. "Come on, let's get you out of here and into some fresh air, all right?"
The thought of fresh air spurred Claire's mind and body, and she lurched down the aisle of the bus, sheepishly meeting the stares that came her way from the other passengers. She was almost used to having people staring at her black and white face, but she could only imagine what her current black and green face looked like. She almost fell down the steps at the front, but fortunately Ally was waiting just outside the door to catch her and help her out with a small smile. Claire managed a sickly smile of thanks before standing up and taking several deep breaths of cold mountain air with her eyes closed, feeling her motion sickness recede.
The train ride had actually been quite bearable, the view and ability to walk around making up for any lingering queasiness, but getting on the bus in Golden had been another matter entirely. Buses were one of the banes of Claire's existence, she reckoned. Somehow the natural swaying of the vehicle, coupled with her newly acquired hyper-awareness of her surroundings granted by her Talent, had served to make her sicker than she had been in a long time. Her mind knew it was moving, but her body only felt the sway and acceleration of the bus, while her Talent kept giving her brief flashes of completely stationary scenes, all of which battled with each other to see which could knock her down the farthest.
Ally's unobtrusive hand was at her back, helping support her, and Claire drew strength from it as she did from the air. Finally feeling almost human again, she opened her eyes and nodded her thanks.
"Feeling better?" Ally asked.
"Yeah, thanks. Sorry I'm not such a great travelling companion."
"Don't worry about it," Ally said, squeezing Claire's shoulder briefly. "Believe it or not, you're still a better traveller than my Mom."
Claire shuddered. "Yikes." She looked around as Evelynne came down the steps bearing their lighter luggage while the driver pulled their packs out of the storage compartment. "So where are we going to be meeting the guy we need to meet?"
"My latest shrink, you mean," Ally said lightly, the slightest tremor in her voice betraying her real emotions. "I'm not sure. He said he'd meet us at the bus stop."
Looking around, Claire took in the sights of downtown Potowkin.,Too small to show up on any but the most detailed maps, the town wasn't much more than a gas station, a few stores, and a small collection of largely run-down houses. Situated some distance south of Golden in the Kootenays, it reminded her of the ghost towns of Western movies, albeit transplanted into a mountainous setting, rather than a southern dustbowl. Despite the vaguely shabby air, though, there was no aura of despair, simply a feeling of a village that was far from big city life and happy to be so.
She didn't have much time to sightsee, however, as a large red pick-up truck headed towards them down the road, pulling up beside them with a crunch of gravel. The truck was spectacularly decorated with exquisite paintings of native design. A snarling bear graced the door closest to them, which opened, letting out an elderly Native man, his white hair pulled back in a ponytail, who smiled as he saw them. On the other side of the truck the other door opened, disgorging a trio of much younger Native youths who laughed and pushed at each other until they saw the three women. One frankly leered at Evelynne, looking her up and down appreciatively, while the other two stared at Claire. She started to squirm uncomfortably until the older man cleared his throat loudly. The three youths looked away at him briefly, allowing Claire to instinctively shift slightly behind Ally, who was frowning. The older man said something in a language Claire didn't understand, waving towards the general store with a disapproving expression. The young men laughed and turned in that direction, although not without a few backward glances. The older man sighed and shook his head, muttering something under his breath. Then he straightened and walked closer.
"Hello," he said, holding out a hand, his accent obvious. "You must be Alleandre, Evelynne and Claire."
"Uh, yeah," Ally said, taking his hand. "I'm Ally. This is Evelynne, and Claire."
"Good to meet you," the man said, looking at all three women with a disconcertingly penetrating gaze. He didn't let go of Ally's hand, and transferred his gaze to her again. "I'm Joseph Black Crow." He peered into Ally's eyes. "Hmm. Wei told me about you, but I admit I thought she was exaggerating. I see she wasn't." He glanced again at Claire and Evelynne. "And three of you, too. That is pretty impressive." He finally let go of Ally's hand as she began to look uncomfortable. "Sorry I'm late," he continued. "Billy and his friends just wouldn't get going." He jerked his head towards the three youths who were disappearing into the store.
"That's okay," Ally replied. "We just arrived, actually."
"Good. Let's get your things into the truck." Black Crow paused. "Damn, I should have got Billy to help." He shook his head. "My brain's going these days."
"That's okay," Ally repeated. "If you could just get the small stuff, I've got the big stuff." Easily lifting the backpacks, two in one hand and one in the other, each of which probably weighed at least fifty pounds, she lightly tossed them into the back of the truck. Black Crow's face remained impassive, but Claire could see his carefully concealed assessment, and also couldn't help her own awe at the ease with which Ally used her abilities. It always thrilled her to see Ally lift the sofa with one hand to sweep under it, or casually pull a can of food from the top shelf of Mrs. Chen's pantry using nothing but her mind. She wondered what other talents she hadn't seen yet.
With their packs so swiftly loaded, they all clambered into the front of the truck at Black Crow's invitation. It was a bit of a squeeze fitting themselves in, but ultimately Claire couldn't say she minded being squished so tightly against Evelynne. Having a stranger on her other side was a bit more disconcerting, given that in the past most people actively avoided close contact, but Joseph Black Crow was a calming presence, almost grandfatherly.
Claire's thoughts were interrupted when Ally leaned forward to ask, "So, how far are we going?" Claire echoed the question mentally.
"It'll be about an hour and a half," Black Crow replied. "See that mountain there with the big cliff face?" He pointed into the distance and they all nodded. "I have a house at one end of the reserve right near there. It's not that far as the crow flies—" He chuckled at his own pun. "—but this old Crow needs to take all the old logging roads."
Evelynne smiled. "This is a gorgeous area," she said. "You must get a lot of tourists."
Black Crow shrugged. "Some. Most go to the bigger ski hills down south. We get the really serious cross-country skiers and hikers, not the yuppies. Should be getting some pretty soon if this weather keeps up and the snow gets here."
"Really," said Evelynne with interest. "I'll have to see about finding a pair of skis that fit me. We're a little, ah, obsessed with it where I come from."
"Oh? I heard that," Black Crow commented, displaying no signs that he knew Evelynne was of a much higher social station than she currently appeared. "I used to ski way back. I was on the University ski team. That was something back then. Having an Injun on the team? Got a lot of people huffing." He chuckled gruffly at the thought of all those noses out of joint, and Claire grinned in equal enjoyment. "Don't do it now, though." He patted one leg. "Won't hold me up any more. I have my fun scaring the tourists on my toboggan."
Claire and Evelynne laughed at that, and even Ally smiled slightly. Then Evelynne asked a question about local powder conditions, and she and Black Crow quickly lost the other two in a fog of arcane snow-related terminology.
Despite the beautiful terrain, Claire still found herself being jerked out of a light doze when the truck stopped. She had been lulled by the warmth of the cab, especially Evelynne's body beside her, and the lingering exhaustion of the unpleasant bus trip. Looking around, trying to dispel the fuzziness of her thoughts, she saw that they had pulled up in the middle of a large clearing in the woods, next to a house that was, frankly, nearly as far from what she had been expecting as possible. While Claire knew that Black Crow was, in fact, a fully trained medical psychiatrist, somehow she had still been vaguely expecting a small house along the lines of the small shacks she had seen on documentaries of Native reserves.
Either way, it certainly hadn't been this huge log house that looked like it belonged on some five-star ski hill frequented by movie stars and musicians. The exterior was made of whole yellowing logs, complete with a wide wrap-around porch and tall, Eastward-pointing windows. It was at least two storeys tall, with a stone chimney, smoke curling contentedly upward. It was probably the most gorgeous house Claire had ever seen.
A low chuckle broke her daze and she saw that the rest of the passengers had debarked. Black Crow was standing by the driver's door, his impish smile making her realise that she had been staring, and she blushed.
"What, you thought I lived in a tepee?" Black Crow asked with gentle humour.
Claire blushed even more as she got out, avoiding his eyes. Actually, yes.
Outside, she saw that Ally and Evelynne were also surveying the scenery, the shorter woman pointing out something in the distance and murmuring. Evelynne was lightly holding Ally's hand, and while Ally wasn't actively encouraging the contact, at least she wasn't pulling away as Claire had seen her do on several occasions in the past. Those had been before Ally had started wearing her ring and pendant again, and, whatever else, the return of those items seemed to have given the other woman a small degree of peace.
"We'll get your things later," Black Crow said, leading them towards the steps up to the porch. "I'll show you around the place first."
"This is a very beautiful home," Evelynne said, echoing Claire's earlier thoughts. She didn't seem quite as impressed as Claire was, but then the other woman was royalty, and had probably grown up in homes that made this one look like a squatter's shack. Still, the appreciation in her voice sounded genuine.
"The resort pays for it," Black Crow admitted. "Only the most dedicated skiers and hikers come here, and they want to pay big bucks for it. I also stashed away a lot from my working days. I run on solar power and a hydroelectric generator a guest built a while back." He waved towards a path through the woods. "It's just a big wheel stuck in the river over there that powers a turbine. Costs me peanuts to keep running."
Black Crow opened the door and ushered them into the blissful warmth inside. Claire hadn't even realised she'd begun to shiver until heat from the blazing fireplace hit her and she sighed in pleasure.
The ground floor of the house, which it was far too large to be called a cabin, was essentially one big room, with a fireplace in the centre and the living areas arranged around it. One corner was a kitchen, fully stocked with what looked like the latest in culinary appliances, and was bordered by a dining area, complete with a full-length table large enough to seat a small hockey team. The rest of the room was a sitting area, partially cut off from the other half by the stairs that led up almost directly above the fireplace, nearly bisecting the room.
Seated in one of the chairs near the fire was a tiny Native woman; the wrinkles on her face and hands clearly showed her advanced age, but the speed with which she was stitching together two pieces of leather showed that she was definitely not an invalid. She looked up as the door opened and grinned toothlessly at them. Putting down her handiwork, she grabbed a wooden cane by her chair, levered herself to her feet, and tottered towards them, loudly exclaiming something in a language Claire couldn't understand.
Black Crow replied in the same language, and at the same volume, making Claire realise that hearing loss was one of the old woman's infirmities, although from the intelligent gleam in her eyes, it was likely one of the only ones. Black Crow said something else, gesturing at the three younger women, then switched to English. "This is my mother, Mekohah." He raised his voice again. "Mother, this is Alleandre, Evelynne, and Claire. They will be guests in my house."
Mekohah smiled in satisfaction and nodded, shuffling closer and peering up at them. She first took Ally's hands and gazed up into her eyes. Her smile faltered briefly, and then strengthened, although now there was a sad, sympathetic quality to it. She said something to Ally while the taller woman half-smiled back awkwardly, then turned and addressed her son again. It sounded like an order, and Black Crow's translation confirmed it.
"I must take very good care of you," he said. "You are in need of great healing."
Ally nodded and shrugged uncomfortably, while Mekohah patted her hand reassuringly before moving on to the next woman. Evelynne smiled more genuinely as the old woman took her hands, easily bringing herself to the tiny woman's level despite the difference in their heights. It was something Claire had seen Evelynne do before, although never before had it been so striking. Without ever bending or crouching, which would have made both of them feel uncomfortable and unnatural, Evelynne somehow shifted her entire bearing so that, while still taller, she was suddenly the other person's equal in stature. It was an impressive talent, never failing to put the other person at ease, and Claire didn't know if it was a natural gift, or something that Evelynne had learned over the years. Whatever the case, Mekohah obviously recognised the effects of the technique, smiling in approval. She spoke at some length, gesturing occasionally at Ally, while Evelynne listened as though she could understand every word being spoken. She continued to look at the diminutive woman while Black Crow translated.
"She says it's good you love each other so much. You are both blessed by the spirits. Your love will help mend the rift between you."
Next it was Claire's turn, and she stood a little nervously as Mekohah took her hands in the now-familiar ritual. The older woman appeared fascinated by the patterns on her skin, running a finger over the lines where dark and light met on Claire's hand with a touch that was curious, yet inoffensive, murmuring as she did so.
"She says you are greatly blessed by the spirits that they have placed the divination patterns on you. Some of my people believe that destiny can be read through the patterns of clouds, flowers, and other things," Black Crow explained. "She believes that you are truly touched as the spirits have placed your destiny on your very skin itself. It is a very auspicious day that has brought no less than three shamans into my lodge."
Mekohah looked up into Claire's bicoloured eyes again and frowned, puzzled. She looked at Evelynne and Ally again and threw a question over her shoulder at her son. Black Crow's face remained impassive, but he shook his head and answered in a negative tone. Mekohah was clearly displeased with his response, if her tone was any indication, and she gestured between the three young women more vehemently. Her son repeated his denial, this time with a bit more force and body language, while the three women in question looked on, puzzled. Obviously still in disagreement, Mekohah nevertheless acquiesced this time, maintaining a grasp on Claire's hand and patting it gently.
Confused, Claire looked at Black Crow, who shrugged. "My mother says that you're hers now. Ally and Evelynne are my responsibility, but you need her to look after you. You need…" He struggled for a word. "Compassion. Empathy. Looking out for."
"Oh," was all Claire could say, although she sensed there was more to it than that.
Continued in Chapter 23
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