Danger Road

© Copyright 2009

Summer, 1856

 

Kilrush to Cork City

west to south coasts of Ireland

 

Mary McCarthy loped easily through the forest. After a time she detected what she sought: a rabbit’s scent. She stopped and faced into the wind, not very strong here under the green canopy of the trees, but strong enough for her to detect the animal and tell its — very approximate — distance.

She began to walk toward it, into the wind, her motion smooth and gliding, like a great cat on two legs. While running the soles of her feet had been tough and thick to protect them. Now she thinned the soles to better feel her footing and avoid making noise.

As the smell of the rabbit grew stronger she slowed, began to take cover behind tree trunks, and peer around them. Until finally she knew her quarry was very close. Her motion became very slow.

There: at the edge of the meager forest where it merged into the green farm fields beyond were bushes, and under one was a grey-furred rabbit nibbling something in the grass.

With one hand Mary carefully took two small rounded stones from the folds of the scarf that served as both belt and pockets. She transferred one to her opposite hand. She lifted her throwing hand slowly, then whipped it forward, releasing the stone. As it left her hand she transferred the second stone to her throwing hand and poised that stone ready to throw.

It was not needed. The first stone struck the animal’s head with a loud crack. The force of the strike spun the animal around in the air. It lay still except for one jerking leg. After a few moments the rabbit became totally still.

Mary moved forward toward the animal, nose, ears, and eyes alert for a second rabbit. It was not likely. Rabbits were solitary creatures except when mating or caring for young.

She did detect another animal though: a man. Perhaps fifty feet to her right stood Edward Timmons, one of the Quaker missionaries who operated the orphanage where Mary lived. He was lowering a bow and an arrow as he stepped from behind a tree. He put the arrow into a quiver at his waist and began walking toward her.

Mary was annoyed. When he told the rest of the mission staff about her she would no doubt be turned out. This was not a disaster, since she had learned all they had to offer and she’d insured that everyone at the mission was healthy. And when she had arrived in Kilrush she had buried a goodly sum of money under a hedgerow. Since then she had also saved up quite a bit from the allowance given her for her work. But these last two years the mission had become home for her.

She walked forward, picked up the rabbit, and turned to face Mr. Timmons. His brown skin and the subdued brown outfit that he wore blended into the surroundings as well as she did. Glancing at his feet she magnified her vision briefly. He wore moccasins with thin soft soles.

Well, that figured. Edward Timmons was an American Indian who had been raised as an orphan by the Society of Friends. His speech and values were those of the United States in this year of Our Lord 1856. But evidently he retained something from his Indian heritage.

He was examining her outfit. It was very indecent by the standards of Ireland and the rest of the British Empire. Her flaming red hair ran down her back in a single thick braid, most of it covered by a light brown scarf. Her dark green dress was folded just above the knee and tucked into the folded scarf around her waist.

To her surprise he said nothing about the fact that her skin was a light brown rather than its usual pale white with freckles, nor even seemed to notice it. Instead as he came up to her he laughed and shook his head.

“Well, it looks as if I will have to hunt further afield to catch my dinner tonight.”

The laughter and the tone of his voice were not unusual for Edward Timmons. He was as unlike the long-current stereotype of the stoic Great Savage as could be. Though if his students misbehaved he could assume a frown that was as frightening as any purveyor of stereotypes might wish.

If he was going to be nonchalant Mary could match him bland for bland.

“You won’t have to look far. This area has scores of rabbits.”

“Perhaps you will let me accompany you for a while.”

“You’ll slow me down.”

“Perhaps. Let’s try it, anyway. If you are right, I will drop behind and not bother you.”

“You’ll scare away the game.”

“I do have some woodcraft, Miss McCarthy.”

She could not insist further lest she lose his apparent acceptance of her oddities. Mentally she shrugged and trussed the rabbit to her belt by a noose around its neck. Then she began to run silently through the woods.

She really had no reason to run other than the joy of it. A stealthy walk would have made more sense if she were just hunting. But perhaps it would serve a second purpose now, of discouraging her tag-along.

After perhaps a hundred yards she glanced back at him. He was running easily and as quietly as she, a bit behind her and a little to one side. He seemed not to feel any effort; his shortness and apparent overweight were deceptive. Though that was no surprise to her. She had long known that his blocky body had much muscle and little fat.

Soon Mary detected another rabbit and stalked it as before. As she neared where she estimated it was she motioned Edward Timmons ahead of her to take a shot at the rabbit. He was as stealthy as she could have hoped any ordinary human to be. He was also a good shot with the bow.

“Why don’t you use a gun?” Mary said as they walked to retrieve his rabbit. “Is it because you’re an Indian?”

He laughed. “No. It is because bows and arrows are quiet.”

After a moment he added. “If I were after deer I would have brought a gun.”

Within the next hour or so they had each killed three rabbits. When Mr. Timmons would have stopped at the third Mary asked him to kill another.

Walking away from the forest down a gently sloping pasture she told him why. “The owner of the land lets me hunt on the condition that he gets a fourth of the game.”

“I did not know I had to get permission to hunt here.”

“You must not have been doing it long. Or they’d have caught you and punished you.”

He was silent for long enough to cause her to look at him. His face had taken on hardness entirely consistent with the Great Savage myth.

Mentally she amended her statement, They’d have TRIED to punish you.

Then his good humor returned. “I would certainly have given them all the rabbits and negotiated a similar deal.”

The local landowner and his wife received Mary with good cheer and met Mr. Timmons’s self-introduction with an offer of hospitality. Edward thanked them and said that he needed to escort Mary back to the city, Kilrush. The answer seemed to puzzle the husband and his wife, but they gave Mary and Mr. Timmons a good day when they left.

On the dirt road leading to town Edward Timmons said, “I would have expected him to act differently. He saw you come in with no weapon. And he made no demur when I showed up and left with you, a much older man with a young girl. I thought I understood the Irish, but…” He shook his head.

“It’s simple. He thinks I’m a bean chaitt.” The Gaelic probably sounded like bon cot to him. “A cat woman.”

He looked at her in puzzlement.

“An Irish legend. A woman who becomes a big cat when she wants to. Or becomes half-cat, half-woman. One of the first cat women was supposed to be Sharpclaws, the daughter of the Cat King Irusan.

“Oh, and you must always say cat lady.” She laughed. “One must never be disrespectful of werecats! They are all royalty since they are descendents of royalty.”

“I see,” he said. “Not the sort of creature who needs weapons. Or a guardian.”

They walked in silence while he thought this over. Mary let him. She was enjoying the view.

Here in the gently sloping hills above Kilrush she was high enough to look across the several-miles width of the River Shannon to County Limerick and the grey-green sliver which was all she could see of the land there. Below them the land was all green, having been washed in the almost daily showers of spring. On the nearer slopes she could see the lines of darker green made by bushes that had grown around the stones fences that separated property. The lines made a skewed checkerboard of the land. She could see the white dots of sheep in some of the squares, brown dots of cows in others.

The Shannon was a dark blue reflecting the light blue of the sky with its puffy clouds. The river swept far from the left to the right, where after a dozen miles it opened into the Atlantic Ocean. From that direction the setting sun cast golden light over the land. In the river sailboats swam, most of them heading toward shore. A three-master forged downriver, tacking into the western wind off the ocean.

Cast like dice along the near shore were the buildings of Kilrush, where the Society of Friends maintained the orphanage and mission where she lived — for a few days more, at least.

“Are you?”

“What?” Mary had forgotten the thread of the conversation.

“Are you a cat woman? Excuse me, a cat lady!”

She glanced teasingly at him. “Do you believe in such things? I thought you were English?”

“American. And many legends have some truth in them.”

They were coming to a road winding down the hill from the right toward Kilrush. Soon other people would be able to see them, so Mary loosened the hem of her dress from her scarf-belt and let it fall to a modest length around her ankles.

She must tell him some of the truth. A complete denial would do no good. “I do have some of a werecat’s qualities. I can change my skin color. That’s something like growing fur, I suppose.”

No need to tell him that she could grow fur if she wanted to.

“I’m as strong as a man.” She was much stronger than any man could be. So two years ago she had told her bones to grow denser, stronger, and more flexible. Otherwise exerting her full extrahuman strength would tear her body apart. She had also ordered her body to grow taller and her shoulders and hips to widen to give her more leverage when exerting her strength. That had been the source of the teen-age “growth spurt” that left her as tall as most men.

“As for claws — you can see for yourself. No sign of claws at all.” She stopped and stuck one bare foot out from under her dress. Its bareness was not unusual. Most Irish peasants went barefoot except for special occasions. She stuck a hand out palm down before him, where he could see rounded nails cut short.

He examined her hand and its nails a little more studiously than she might have expected. But of course he could not see what she thought of as her witch hands. They were invisible and could be shaped and used to handle material things in very weak but subtle ways, dissolving, rearranging, and — when she made her witch fingers razor thin — cutting.

“Of course,” he said, “if you were a werecat you could grow claws.”

Mary nodded her head. “True. But knives are so much more convenient.”

He changed the subject as they continued walking, not pointing out that she was not carrying a knife. They chatted easily, a teacher and one of the most talented students in the orphanage, one respected enough to teach basic courses. No more mention was made of her extraordinary side and, when they neared the school, he told her to go on ahead so that they would not be seen arriving at the orphanage together.

The next few days Mary wondered at Edward Timmons’ actions. Splitting up before they arrived at the orphanage suggested he was going to be discreet. But she knew him to be a conscientious person. Wouldn’t he see it his duty to tell the other missionaries about her un-ladylike behavior and nature?

The week passed and another weekend came and went. Mary had begun to hope for Mr. Timmons’ discretion when one of the young girls who often ran errands told her that Parson Simmons wanted her to come to his office.

“I’ll be right there,” she said, dipping the soapy dish in the rinsing tub of the kitchen in the girl’s dorm. The young girl dashed off with her reply.

Mary carefully dried the dish with a towel. She knew this dish. It had an oddly shaped chip out of one edge. How many times had she washed it? This would be the last time.

Slowly she set it in the drainer, dried her hands on her apron, and hung the apron on the peg proper to it. Her two years here had been good ones. She breathed deeply in then out.

Leaving the dormitory she walked across the square courtyard around which the buildings of the orphanage clustered. Inside the building which housed Parson Simmons’ office she presented herself at his open door, knocked and entered.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. Sit down.”

The parson searched among the papers on his desk. Mary watched him. He was tall and a bit stooped when he stood. He had a balding head and a kind face and always wore grey. He found what he wanted and looked up.

“You and Barbara are good friends, I know. We want to send her to Cork to a music school there. However, she refuses to go unless you go with her. Would you be willing to do that?”

Mary was quite surprised to be talking about Barbara rather than discussing her unladylike behaviour.

Beautiful blond Barbara had an extraordinarily lovely voice and much training in its use. She was also a minx of the first water, though in the two years of Mary’s stay at the orphanage Mary’s friendship and opinion had moderated Barbara’s abrasiveness and willfulness a good bit.

Go to Cork? The third largest city in Ireland, with all sorts of opportunities? He had to even ask her?

Suppressing any visible reactions Mary nodded slowly and thoughtfully. “Barbara does need more training. But what would I do?”

“There are several possibilities. Among them … my wife tells me that you are a master laundress well able to start your own laundry. Mister Timmons says you would make an excellent tutor and governess, if you could get instruction we cannot give you here.

“The first has the advantage that you would earn substantial money once you got well started — and we will help you get started in exchange for an interest in the business. The second has the advantage that you could make valuable connections to the quality. But of course it would be longer before you could derive an advantage from that. For one thing, you would need to get additional instruction first.”

He did not mention that tutors and governesses were despised by the quality who hired them.

“Both are intriguing,” Mary said. “What kind of instruction does Mr. Timmons — and you — think I need.”

“Latin and Greek, at a minimum. Mr. Timmons tells me you already have a smattering of both. He says you have an aptitude for languages.” Mary had spoken Irish as a child but the English overlords insisted everyone learn their language as well. And having picked up a second language it was much easier to pick up a third.

Of course, Mary had an advantage no one else had. The magic that made her body extraordinarily efficient and healthy also worked on her brain.

“You also have an extraordinary mathematical ability. Perhaps you could pursue that as well. But I will leave the exact course of study up to you with advice from Mr. Timmons.

“So, what do you say? Would you be willing to relocate to Cork with Barbara?”

“Of course. When?”

It was several weeks before they could leave. During that time letters went back and forth between Kilrush and Cork to make various arrangements. Mary arranged to hand over the three beginning classes which she taught to newly enrolled orphans to other teachers. The Sunday before they left the noonday feast turned into a going-away party for Mary, Barbara, and the older girl Bridget, who was going partly as chaperon to the two younger girls, and partly as partner with Mary in starting a new laundry in Cork.

Mary received several presents, one of them a smooth, polished, and whippy switch from Billy Gibbings, a hulking orphan who was now a stableman for one of the local gentry. Mary and Billy had had a memorable difference of opinion two years ago that had been resolved by her application of such a switch to his backside.

Early the next morning a hired coach stopped by the orphanage to pick up the three girls. Quite a lot of baggage went with them, less than half of it theirs, plus a substantial sum of money that was the saved-up allowances and wages of the three girls and some cash being transferred to the Cork Society of Friends.

Along with them went Mister Edward Timmons. He would not be staying in Cork, but had some mission-related business to do in Cork before returning to Kilrush. He was also escorting the girls and the money, which was probably why under his coat he had a big sheathed knife on his belt on one side and a revolver tucked under his belt on the other.

Quakers were supposed to be pacifists. Apparently Mr. Timmons had his own ideas on that subject.

The day was bright and golden with the new-risen sun as the coach lurched into motion. Barbara, her long curly blond hair blowing in the wind, leaned out the window and watched the orphanage falling further and further behind them until it disappeared around a corner.

Mary sat staring unseeing out the window. She would not look back.

Soon she and Bridget, who was unusually quiet for a time, roused themselves and began looking out the window with Barbara. Edward was reading a book. That soon palled. The green countryside though beautiful had little beyond sheep and cows and occasional farms to catch the eye.

An hour later rain blew up and the coach stopped long enough for the driver and armed guard on the high driver’s seat at the front to put on protection from the rain. A quarter of an hour later the sound of the wheels changed temporarily to a lower pitch as the coach rumbled over a small stone bridge over the River Doonbeg — really more of a wide stream than a river.

Midmorning they stopped at the small village of Knockalough for a bathroom break. This was at an outhouse behind a small general store that was almost the only building in Knockalough. Still the town was big enough to warrant a Royal Post office — one long shelf in the general store.

Another quarter hour and they crossed the Doonbeg again as it switched back to its beginning in a small lake on their left — really more of a large pond.

After another hour and a half they made another bathroom break at Caherea, another town of three or four buildings. Then at just past noon the coach rolled into Innis. It had taken six hours to travel the 27 miles from the orphanage in Kilrush.

Innis was two or three times as large as Kilrush and was a major commercial center for western County Clare. By the time they arrived the rain was long past and the sun was out again, shining into windows in the right-side door.

Mary was sitting in the rear seat on the right side so she had the first sighting of the city. Over some low trees reared a grey castle and the spire of a cathedral the same color. She pointed them out and immediately Barbara on her left was practically climbing over her to see.

Laughing Mary fended off Barbara — who was putting on a growth spurt and seemed all elbows and knees lately — and slid left to let Barbara take her place. The blond girl stuck her head out the window and her golden curls streamed back in the breeze of the coach’s passage. Barbara no more cared about the scandal of going bareheaded than did Mary, who wondered sometimes if this was because of Barbara’s lack of respect for others, or it was because of Mary’s bad example.

Mary negotiated cramped floor space with Edward Timmons on the front seat and exchanged a smile with him. He had been watching Barbara and rolling his eyes at the girl’s antics. Beside him Bridget was smiling as well, and she and Edward shared a glance. Mary thought to catch more than shared amusement between them.

What was this? Was there a budding romance and she had somehow missed it? She, the supernaturally gifted cat lady? Silently Mary laughed at herself.

In minutes buildings showed through the window on the left side and she and Edward were catching the sights there, while Bridget vied with Barbara for a view out the right side.

The coach rumbled through the stony streets of Ennis, turned a corner and went a ways, turned another corner, and began going mostly south. Buildings of various heights and colors, beige and lime-green and reddish chocolate, passed by. A road sign labeled “Limeric” pointed in the direction they were going.

At one point a heavy stench of urine overwhelmed Mary’s senses before she snapped off her olfactory sense, then brought its sensitivity back up in degrees toward a normal level till she was sure the odor was past. Presumably they had passed a tannery.

At the southern edge of Ennis the coach stopped at a large inn beside a Royal Post stable. While the passengers alighted the young driver disconnected the four horses and took them inside the stable for feeding and grooming. The horses would continue on with the coach to Cork, unlike horses of the Royal Post, who would have been quickly changed for a fresh set before the Post coach raced on.

The driver, barely fifteen if that, still had time for a saucy remark to Barbara, who at fourteen was blossoming into a woman. Already she had hips and a period, to which Mary had helped her adjust when it started, and was beginning to grow a bosom — and a pimple on her chin.

“Oh my God!” Barbara clapped a hand over her chin. “Did you see that? He must have seen my –“

“Don’t blaspheme, Barbara.” This was Bridget, as grave and calm as the greatest lady. She was short and curvy and had red hair, just as Mary did. Bridget’s hair, however, was a shiny curve of copper. Her skin was a smooth ivory that might never have sported a pimple and certainly had never evinced a freckle.

They were escorted to a table, Barbara still moaning about being disfigured for life and never capturing a husband. Edward and the girls ordered stew, he asking for wine for himself and Bridget and allowing the two younger girls weak ale, spirits usually being safer than water.

The stew was good, the meat only a touch rancid and the vegetables only a little too-long cooked, but still good. Mary savored the blend of sauce and food, cranking up her gustatory sensitivity a bit.

Unfortunately Barbara’s grouching, though it did not blunt Barbara’s appetite, was distracting her from savoring the food.

“Hush!” Mary said. “Here, I’ll fix it.” She took the table’s one napkin and borrowed Bridget’s wine glass. Spilling a few drops onto the edge of the napkin, she applied it vigorously to Barbara’s pimple. That afflicted young lady bore her treatment with such great tragic resignation that Mary caught Edward Timmons suppressing a smile.

“Now! Why did I do that?”

Barbara answered, “The alcohol in wine fights disease.”

“And how does it do that?”

“It kills bad microlife.”

Mary did not have words for germs and viruses. But with her witch sense she could see/taste/feel microscopic life forms and their malign influence as an invisible mist that filled the air and brought illness to flesh. She had invented the term microlife and tutored everyone at the orphanage in the nature of such danger and how to fight it.

There had been skepticism at first, especially from the older-and-wiser-heads at the mission who were expert in the current theories of disease. But in the two years at the orphanage Mary had converted almost everyone.

Part of this was the reputation Mary had for ferociously devouring books and ideas and partly because her theory worked, especially when used by her. Of course she cheated a bit. After all, she was likely the only person alive who could literally “kiss it and make it well.”

Mary let Barbara go back to eating and returned to her own food as well. But she was waiting for something.

It soon came. Barbara lifted a hand to scratch at her pimple. Mary swatted it sharply.

“Oww! You’re mean!”

“Yes, I am. I’m mean Granny McCarthy. Idiot! Beside mean-ness, why did I do that?”

Barbara sighed dramatically. “Because there’s microlife on my hands.”

“What should you do if you want to scratch?”

“Don’t. Or wash my hands with soap and water or alcohol.”

“That’s right. Now you go ahead and scratch if you want.”

Mary let her voice go mock gleeful and gave an evil leer. “I’ll just watch as your pimple gets worse, and spreads all over your face, and you become so ugly that little children will scream and run away from you!”

Barbara giggled and re-attacked her food, tearing off big hunks of bread to supplement her stew. Occasionally she lifted a hand as if to scratch her chin but always caught herself. And the itch would soon go away. By tomorrow it would be totally healed. Mary had commanded Barbara’s body to heal quickly as she was scrubbing the girl’s pimple.

The meal was soon finished and the quartet left the dark dining room for the bright street. Edward stayed close to the stagecoach — which he had kept in view from the dining room — and the locked strongbox firmly attached to the coach. It contained all their money and other valuables. The three girls walked down the street a bit to stretch their soon-to-be-cooped-up legs and sightsee.

At the end of the hour the young driver showed up with the refreshed horses and hitched them up. He found time to flirt with Barbara. Mary quite approved of him. He reminded her of one of her sons, the one in America, when he was younger. The driver was scrawny though tall but moved well, had glossy brown ringlets, and a bouncy, happy approach to life.

The guard also came out from wherever he had been and, when the coach was ready, climbed up onto the driver’s seat. He carried a rifle and resembled the younger man. Perhaps he was an uncle.

He would have been attractive to Mary, with his lean, athletic build, regular face, and hair as brown and glossy and curly as the driver’s. But when he looked at Barbara, which he did a lot, it was with a mean, predatory look. It was the cruelty of that look, rather than the girl’s age, that annoyed Mary. Nowadays the Irish married late, but when Mary had grown up it was not unusual for a girl Barbara’s age to marry.

The coach started up with a surge that nearly threw the passengers out of their seats and sped away from the inn at a gallop. The driver was showing off. Within a block, however, he slowed to the steady pace that had gotten them to Ennis.

Shortly they came the town of Clarecastle. The River Fergus passed under their road there and widened out to their right to a hundred yards or more. Several rowboats, sailboats, and barges were docked at the Clarecastle quay and they could see almost as much river traffic coming from and going to the miles-distant Shannon as they were accustomed to seeing at Kilrush.

After that there was not much to see except a castle far off to the left and yet another river (or stream) crossing. They stopped briefly at little Newmarket-on-Fergus for a bathroom break and to stretch their legs. They were nearly drenched by a shower before they could get back inside the coach.

Another hour or so later they took another break at Bunratty town. There the road, which had been curving more and more toward the east, became nearly easterly, never straying more than a mile from the banks of the Shannon. Sailboats traversed the river and twice they saw steamboats trailing black trails of smoke.

Late in the afternoon the buildings of the city of Limerick began to show up, at first a few farmhouses, then occasional townlets containing little more than a general store. As twilight deepened toward night the stage entered Limerick proper and crossed over a long, high stone bridge over the Shannon.

Beside the bridge was a huge fortress called King John’s Castle, with high walls and big round towers at each corner. The passengers all gazed at it as the coach rumbled over the bridge. It was another ten minutes before they reached a Royal Post stable on the southern side of Limerick. Because of the city’s size and location it was the hub of several Post circuits and the Post stables matched that, with dozens of horses and a huge barn, with a large and sprawling inn beside the Post.

Their driver parked the coach in an area between the stable and the inn and unharnessed and led the horses inside the stable. The stage line for which he worked had a deal with the Royal Post establishment for feeding and boarding the horses overnight.

Edward got down from the coach and made sure his coat was unbuttoned and coat tails loose enough to allow him easy access to his weapons. Mary guessed what he meant to do and so tagged along with him on the side opposite to his gun hand. From her reticule she took two smooth oval stones and began idly passing them from hand to hand.

Edward gave the stones a quick glance, then his body relaxed slightly. Good; he had not forgotten what she was, and that any robbers trying to get past what seemed to be an innocent young girl would find themselves sharply rebuked.

At the rear of the coach she stood facing away from him to idly watch the area around them, including the guard, while Edward unlocked the strongbox with the key that only he carried.

Edward transferred the bags of money and other valuables to an empty valise. The guard offered to carry the valise but Edward politely refused, asking him to help with the luggage instead. Grumpily the guard complied. With his help and help from the staff of the inn all the luggage was soon transferred to two rooms on the top floor of the inn.

Mary took a quick tour of the bedroom the girls would share to see if it contained fleas, which she was prepared to kill with her esoteric powers. Happily there were no fleas.

Then she did the same to Edward’s room. He surely did not understand why she closely examined the bedding but he made no demur. Long ago those who ran the orphanage had come to understand that it was best to humor “Granny” McCarthy in her strange ways. And after all, his door was open, he was her guardian, and the other two girls were right across the hall with their door open.

In addition to the flea patrol Mary also checked security arrangements. She tried to open the window. It was stuck shut with paint and from warping from damp, but when she applied her extrahuman strength it gave with a sharp crack then opened smoothly.

She stuck her head out and surveyed the side of the building, including that part above the window.

She pulled her head back inside and said, “I could get up here. But no one else could. But someone could climb down a rope from the roof.”

Mr. Timmons looked out and agreed. “Perhaps it would have been better if you had left the window stuck closed.”

She grinned at him and closed the window. Concentrating for a few moments she softened the edges of the window frame and the slot it was in and let them glue themselves together.

“It’s stuck closed again,” she said, “tighter than before. But they could always break through the window.”

“So they could,” he said, looking around the room. Catching sight of a wardrobe he went to it and began to struggle with it. Mary went to help. In just moments the window was blocked by the heavy piece of furniture.

There was a table by the door. Mary was sure that he would place it in front of the door before he went to bed.

“We’re going to freshen up,” she said. “We’ll knock on your door when we’re ready to go.” She smiled. “You likely have time for a nap. You can imagine how long it will take three women to get ready.”

It was full dark outside by the time the quartet sat down at a table in the dining room at the inn. Edward had picked one that let him sit in a corner with the valise beside his chair. It also let him keep an eye on the stair to their bedrooms, where they had left a few other valuables.

By the time they finished eating the bar at one side of the room had a full complement of customers, and a trio of musicians had taken their place in a corner of the room apparently reserved for such. They were two men, one with a fiddle and the other with a small shiny-red button accordion, and one woman who had very black hair cut in bangs and very pale skin.

The musicians began to play a slow reel. The woman took a sip of something in a mug and began to sing. To Mary’s extra-sensitive ears she sounded a bit hoarse. She did not seem to have much energy. Her voice remained soft.

After a few songs the audience was still not paying attention and the woman sat down in a chair beside the performing area, looking at the floor, while the men continued to play jigs and reels.

Mary got up and went over the black-haired woman. She put a hand on one of the woman’s shoulders and bent down to speak to her. The woman looked up at her. Her eyes were a pale, electrifying blue, now reddened as if from weeping.

“Are you sick?” As she asked this she was probing the woman with her esoteric senses through her hand. It would have been easier if her hand rested on the woman’s flesh, but the sweater was wool and thus almost transparent to Mary’s esoteric sense.

“Yes. These last three months.” Mary placed her hand on the woman’s brow. She could detect the fever from the temperature alone but her extranatural senses told her more and far more clearly. The woman was dying of an infection deep in her lungs.

“Hmm,” Mary said and knelt down in front of the woman to get in a better position. With the thumb and forefinger of her hand, Mary, felt the woman’s lymph glands beneath the hinge of the woman’s jaw. Through her hands she sent deep into the woman’s body the message, Get well! Rest! Get well! Rest! Not in words, but in commands much more potent than that.

And she heard the weak echo of her message that told her the commands had taken. The woman would get well, and afterward her body would be much better at fighting off sickness.

Taking her hands away, Mary stayed hunkered down looking at her face. The woman had closed her eyes and her head was tilted back, a usual response to Mary’s cool, soothing hands.

She sat up straighter and looked back at Mary with her blue eyes. In an hour the redness would be gone.

“You will get better now,” Mary said.

“Thank you,” the black-haired woman said. She looked up, saw her two partners putting up their instruments. She made to get up but subsided back into her chair at the inexorable strength of Mary’s repressing hand.

“You’re not singing any more tonight.”

“But I have to! We really need the money. And if we quit early they won’t let us come back.”

“Suppose I get a substitute for you? Would you accept that?”

“I … I suppose.”

“My friend is very good, and she loves to sing. Relax.”

Mary went to the two musicians and got their agreement to work with Barbara, as long as Barbara was not too bad. They would quit playing, they warned, if Mary’s singer was so bad that they would look like a joke.

Mary returned to her chair and put her proposition to Barbara.

“What would I sing? The stuff they were doing?”

“That’s right. Think you can do it?”

Barbara gave her a You must be crazy look and got up to talk to the musicians. Mary relaxed. She knew what Barbara could do.

There was considerable conferring in the musician’s corner. Barbara was obviously taking the lead in the discussion, speaking as if she were years older, firmly but without arrogance.

Finally the musicians took up their instruments and began to play softly, Barbara watching them with her head cocked to the side. This meant the blond girl was totally focused on the music.

Shortly Barbara turned to look at the audience and began to sing softly. The music was a slow reel. After a few bars she began to sing louder and made a signal to the musicians to increase the tempo. The patrons of the inn began to pay more attention. Another volume and tempo increase and more than half of the patrons were listening. By the time she finished, very loud and very fast, practically everyone was listening. And every foot was tapping to the rhythm.

Mary had never known anyone, including Barbara, to change tempo and volume on a jig or a reel. But Barbara was a musical genius and invented new musical idioms as easily as she breathed. And listeners rarely disliked her innovations.

Next Barbara sang a medium tempo jig at medium volume, an old favorite. There were no innovations with this song, or the next.

The audience went back to their normal behavior: most of them listening but with the volume of conversation growing as more people arrived to eat. An old couple, both bent and wrinkled and in their eighties, but energetic, got up to dance. A few other couples soon joined them.

Then Barbara did something unusual in the next piece, “O’Neil’s Fiddle.” A quarter through she stood to the side when she was supposed to sing a set of stanzas and motioned the fiddler forward and signaled him to play louder. As he did she sang more softly. In effect, since the fiddle and the singer were mirrors in this part of the song, the two “instruments” had changed roles.

Then Barbara took center stage again and the fiddle retreated. Another quarter way through and Barbara and the fiddler again swapped roles. This time the fiddler had gotten into the mindset of being the “singer” and played as if his instrument were a voice with all its animation and expressiveness.

Mary listened, fascinated, wondering what break with tradition Barbara would do next. The answer came a few songs along, when Barbara began to sing about four Irishmen missing a goat. First they were peacefully drinking, and one bragged on his goat. They went to view this marvelous creature. It was gone.

At this point Mary realized that Barbara was repeating a story she had told several times to young girls back at the orphanage. But Barbara was setting the words to the usual repetitive structure of a reel. Mary laughed with delight.

The story went on, following the semi-drunken Irishmen, each with his bottle, up hill and down dale, having various stupid adventures. The stories went on and on, until the men realized they had run out of whiskey and abandoned the hunt to re-stock.

To end the night, Barbara motioned the sick singer up to stand beside her. They began to sing an old favorite, a lament called “Johnnie’s skean,” about a widow whose husband had gone to war, leaving behind the specialized tool, the skean, that was used to cut turf.

When the last stanza was sung, about the widow’s heart being as without warmth as her hearth, most in the inn’s common room had a tear at least trembling at the edge of an eye.

The musicians received a bonus that night, from the patrons as well as the inn. Barbara split it four ways, taking only one part.

Mary shook her head. Whenever she thought she understood the self-centered little brat Barbara would do something to confuse her.

After a good and early breakfast the group was back on the stagecoach, leaving Limerick City. The road went west and south for a few miles, then turned abruptly south toward Cork.

The first few miles the conversation was all about Barbara’s marvelous performance. When that talked itself out Mary opened one of the two newspapers she had bought this morning, which had the grand title of The Limerick Reporter & Tipperary Vindicator.

Bridget took The Limerick Chronicle and soon they were reading choice tidbits aloud to each other, and their companions. Such as the honest but none-too-smart, “Breeding bull, grand, but sometimes loses interest in cows.”

They took their first bathroom break at the small village of Croom where it crossed the equally small River Maigue. The river then paralleled the road till their next break at Rockhill and a little beyond. At noon they ate at Charleville, a village of several dozen houses.

Just beyond that village a railroad came in from the left, from far-off Dublin, and began to parallel the road they were on. For a time they kept alert for a train, but were disappointed. Mary had never even seen a railroad, much less a train, and she was eager to see a locomotive.

They soon picked up another companion river as the highway continued straight south. Mary noticed that the valley in which ran the river and road had steeper sides and larger, lusher trees. Soon the hills grew higher still, especially on their left, to the east. She found out why on their next afternoon break, at Buttevant. A portly brown-robed friar from the monastery there told them that they had just passed the Balleyhoura Mountains.

They reached their overnight lodgings mid-afternoon at the large town Mallow, which was bisected by a major east-west waterway, the famous Blackwater River. Mallow was renowned for its horses and races. Indeed, as they passed through the common room in the inn where they would stay the talk was all about a race that very afternoon.

The girls settled their things in their room and freshened up, then got permission from Mr. Timmons to go to the races. He had to keep company with the valise containing their valuables, which was best done at the inn rather than lugging it around at the track, so was reluctant to say ‘Yes,’ but a pretty pleading expression from Bridget got the best of him. This confirmed Mary’s speculation about him being sweet on Bridget, but she kept the thought to herself.

The track was just a mile or so west, said one of the inn’s employees. Just follow the river road and it will take you there.

They caught the last three races and still had time to kill. The day was pleasant so they retraced their footsteps then went a mile further into the downtown area of Mallow. Just past it was a huge castle with walls beyond that extended along the Blackwater into the tree-shrouded distance. They admired it while eating a snack from a confectioner that would no doubt ruin their appetite.

Well, Bridget’s. Growing girl Barbara was always hungry, and Mary’s extranatural body needed more food than that of other humans.

The next morning the three girls were downstairs ready to go early. Cork City lay just four hours away. This would be their last day on the road!

Another little river kept their road company south and their bathroom break, at Kilmona, was beside a pretty growth of low weeping willow mixed artfully with tall, graceful alder. However their excitement had grown to such heights, Barbara said none too quietly, “that none of them could pee.” Edward was close enough to hear her. He was so visibly embarrassed that the three of them somewhat heartlessly laughed at him. Then they apologized profusely, an act ruined by the fact that Barbara and Mary kept bursting into giggles despite Bridget’s scolding.

By now the country had grown even more up-and-down and the vegetation even more lush and varied. Mary thought it quite beautiful, but then she had grown up in a countryside that had more rock than trees and anything green was beautiful to her.

In the coach the girls for a time contained their impatience — Cork City was only an hour or so away — by naming trees and shrubs alongside the road. Among the ubiquitous green and dark-green oak they claimed to see rowan and ash (which Barbara insisted were the same but for name), an occasional pine, white birch, and beech.

Though there was some contention over the last, Bridget saying beech trees were not native to Ireland and Barbara stoutly insisting that in that case it was a very comfortable immigrant.

Mary snickered at that. Little Barbara saying such thing as “comfortable immigrant” — though with her recent growth “little” no longer applied. The snickering annoyed Barbara for an instant before she began laughing at her own hurt dignity.

Would wonders never cease? Snooty “Barbarous” laughing at herself?

Suddenly the coach slowed and stopped. Mary looked out the window and saw horsemen bearing guns ride quickly out of the forest up ahead. She heard contentious voices from the driver’s box, cut short by a jostling of the coach and loud gasp. Moments late she smelled blood.

The coach jostled once again and she turned to tell Edward she thought they were about to be robbed. He needed no warning. His revolver was out and she heard the harsh click of its hammer being cocked.

At the same instant she saw the guard step near Edward’s side of the coach and begin to level his rifle at Edward’s face. He never completed the motion. Edward fired into his heart area, the guard’s rifle went off, and as the guard began to fall Edward yelled at the girls.

“Get out! Your side! Hide in the woods!” Then he was spilling out his door and scrambling toward the woods on his side.

Mary was already in full superhuman mode and practically levitating out her side of the coach, which was being jerked forward and back. In mid-air she saw three of the four horsemen riding quickly forward while one hung back aiming a rifle at Edward. The gun gave off a stabbing flame instantly obscured by an enormous puff of smoke.

An arm was hanging off the driver’s seat and the four horses were rearing and plunging. If the two rear horses had not been trying to go back while the front two tried to go forward the coach would already be flying down the road. Her feet striking the road and her knees flexing to take up the impact of her landing, she glanced back along the road. She saw no one behind them, at least not in the field of view unblocked by the coach.

Inside it Barbara was dragging a foot-long dagger out of her valise and pulling on Bridget, who was looking out the other door toward Edward. Barbara was yelling something at Bridget, who turned an anxious face toward Barbara and Mary and began to move toward them.

Mary flexed her long legs and leaped. To anyone watching from the other side of the coach her head and shoulders would have seemed to pop up above it like a Jack-in-the-box.

No one was. The horseman lagging behind was trying to control his bucking horse with one hand and trying to keep hold of a rifle and loading rod with the other. Mary zoomed her binocular vision in on him and saw a powder horn strung around his neck that was spewing black powder into the air, before she zoomed it back out to normal view.

The three other horsemen had halted their horses and were firing into the woods after Edward. One of them screamed and clapped a hand to the back of his neck as burning powder from a friend passed near enough to strike him. There was no sight of Edward except a translucent swirling in the air like heat shimmer that marked his path.

Mary blinked. She also saw three translucent lines marking the path of the bullets.

Ignoring this new kind of sight she pulled herself atop the coach, leaped to the front seat. The young driver lay sideways on it, knees drawn up to his belly and one hand still clutching a bloody wound. His eyes were wide and staring but blinked while she watch. He was trembling in shock as his life drained away.

Mary was instantly beside him knocking his bloody hand away and pressing her own hand over the wound. She went out of herself, into the wound, tallied the damage, glued the wound shut with her witch hand, and began to probe the wound in detail, guiding his healing skill to encyst the fragments of his shirt in the wound and the intruding microlife from the air and from the knife that had stabbed him almost to the heart. She had his body heal a cut artery near his heart that was spilling his blood and had his body begin to carefully pull the wound together, working from the inside out, pushing the cysts outward. Mary dissolved the glue at the surface of the flesh and had his body begin to replace it with a scab soft enough to yield to the cysts rising like bubbles out of his body….

A cold rifle-barrel poked her in the face and Mary looked up to stare at one of the robbers sitting his horse beside the coach.

“Come down from there, Missy.”

As she took in the details of his outfit — stained shirt, raggedy pants, belt, cross-strap for a powder horn and a leather pouch — she knew that Barbara and Bridget had made it to a stand of willow that sided the miniscule river at her back and were hiding in it. Good.

The knowledge that the girls in the willows were staring at her kept her from launching herself off the coach and ripping the life out of the man with her invisible razor claws, then go raging through the men and horses like a hurricane of slashing invisible glass.

They were just four stupid men who were not very competent robbers if their clothes and equipment was any indication. The fourth man, who had hung back and was just now trotting his horse up to his companions, was actually a boy barely fifteen, if that.

Though old enough to fire a rifle and murder, she thought.

The oldest of them, the man in front, looked very like the dead guard and the boy driver. She glanced down at the driver. He would live, though he was unconscious now. Good.

Mary nodded at the driver. “Family?”

“The gutless twig. Yes.”

Mary shook her head, face pale with apparent fear. Actually it was because her body had automatically reshaped her skin to leather-like hardness and pushed all her surface blood out of it. A knife would be hard-put to cut her now.

The man on the horse on the other side of the leader leered at her, said, “I’ve got first dibs on her.”

The leader shook his head impatiently, obviously intending to be the first to rape her.

She scrambled down from the driver’s seat, deliberately awkward, on the side of the coach with the riders, which was opposite the riverlet and the willows. Protected from the view of the girls in the willows she could now deal with the robbers without revealing too much about herself to her friends.

“Please don’t hurt me. Please. I’ll do anything you want. Please.”

As she spoke she was walking with apparently trembling legs toward the horseman. The idiot was not even pointing his rifle at her.

She laid one hand beseechingly on his leg. An automatic esoteric body probe told her that he was starving. And sick.

Neither lessened her anger. She casually reached up to grasp the barrel of the rifle. With a quick twist of her extrahuman muscles she captured his hand with a finger in the trigger guard and broke his wrist and several fingers.

As he gasped in shock and pain she grabbed his belt with her other hand and hauled him off his horse toward her. As he fell Mary released his belt and fisted her hand. Before he struck the ground her fist struck his temple like a pile-driver, exploding the brain inside it, the motion lightning fast even to her speeded-up senses that made the world seem to move in slow motion.

Which gave her all the more time to feel the pain as the flesh over her knuckles split. “Shit!” she screamed, shaking the hurt hand. As she did so her body sucked the blood back inside her skin, zipped the wound closed, and switched the pain to numbness.

As this was happening, however, her other hand — still grasping the rifle — jerked on the rifle so hard and fast that it snapped off the trigger finger of the man on the ground. She whacked the horse with the gun and it crow-hopped sideways, ramming into the second robber’s horse. That horse reared, then took off at a dead run, the body of its rider bouncing along behind with a foot caught in a stirrup.

The third rider was leveling his rifle at her. She drew the rifle in her hand back over her shoulder and whipped it toward the rider. The rifle flew from her hand, windmilling end over end with a WHICK-Whick-whickering sound. It narrowly missed the gunman’s head, who ducked as it passed. The motion was arrested as his head exploded sideways. Edward and his revolver had not gone far.

She danced out of the way of the third man’s horse, and turned her attention to the last of the men.

He was off his horse, apparently smart enough to realize that an untrained farm horse was not a stable platform for a shot. He had his rifle pointed toward her but was not aiming and had not pulled the trigger.

He was backing up instead, crying, shaking his head, and saying something. She advanced on him like a tigress gliding toward prey, eyes locked on him, unable in her anger to hear what plea he was making.

She grabbed the barrel of the rifle and it fired straight into her heart. She had time enough to step back, see a bullet strike him from Edward’s gun, and fall backward, dying. The world went away.

… dying, she found, was easy…. She relaxed, fell away into darkness, with no down, only away….

In that infinite comforting sea floated a ghostly cloud, lit within by an invisible moon. Seeing better as her vision adjusted to the dark, she saw fuzzy cloud-shape resolve into delicate misty leaves and evanescent branches leading down to a ghostly trunk.

As the view brightened more she saw that the tree was a construct of darting fireflies. Fairy-glass threads floated out from the tree, one of them pointing toward her.

The view was brighter still — and she saw that at the end of every thread was an infinitesimal eye. Her viewpoint was in one of those eyes, turned back toward herself. She was her own mirror.

She wanted another view, and instantly her viewpoint switched to another eye, in another instant its focus switched back toward herself. From this viewpoint the trunk was pointing not down but away and down. She was above herself — if directions meant anything in this infinite ocean.

Within the tree she saw a darker twin tree perfectly contiguous with the its brighter self except for the threads and their eyes. The bright tree had grown from the darker like vines from a trellis….

She was sitting in the coach, slouched against one side. There was a shawl over her head. Of course. The others thought she was dead. No, she had been dead, as far as they could tell, anyway.

The others … There they were, visible in some new esoteric vision — soul vision? — as bright trees of light. To one side of her was Bridget. In the seat across from her was Barbara and … the driver. Hmm. The young boy and Barbarous were awfully close together.

Have to be gentle about coming alive again. Didn’t want to scare them.

Mary shifted her body ever so slightly. Then again. Then again, a little more vigorously.

No one noticed.

“Damn it!” she said, sitting up and pulling the shawl off her. “Don’t you people pay attention to what’s going on around you?”

Bridget gave a little scream and clapped a hand over her mouth. She stared at Mary, her face pale. Barbara — looked at her with great interest. A smile bloomed on her face. “You’re alive!”

Barbara paused. “Aren’t you?” The interested look came back.

Mary sat up. She looked down at her chest. It was still bloody — dried, of course — and the dress was torn, but she knew without looking that her body was perfectly whole again.

“Yes. I’m fine. Better than fine actually. But I’m really hungry. Where’s Edward?”

As she asked the question she knew the answer. She sensed another soul, though the sensation was very weak. Her new soul-sense was going to sleep.

Whups! What was this? There was another soul up there. Very weak, though.

She thought of what had happened to the five would-be robbers. The one still alive could only be the last one killed.

She could just let him drift away. He had tried to kill Edward and collaborated to rob her and her friends.

Though come to think of it, he had not succeeded, had he? Had he deliberately missed when he fired at Edward? And he had not wanted to kill her. It had been her own stupidity that had done that. By jerking on the gun in his hands she had inadvertently committed suicide.

“Warn Edward that I’m alive and coming up,” she told Barbara. Bridget obviously was not yet up to the task. Her paleness was gone but she still acted stunned.

Barbara grinned and turned her head to shout out the window.

“Edward?”

“Yeah,” came back the shouted answer.

“Stop the coach. Mary is alive!”

“What!” The couch slowed to an abrupt stop. Mary heard Edward’s boots strike the ground and a moment later he appeared at the door closest to her and looked in.

“You are alive!”

“Yes. And I’m in perfect health. Look, I don’t want to be abrupt. But I have to do something up top.”

She pushed the door open, forcing him to back up. She leaped upward, landed on the roof, saw a body sprawled there. A quick glance showed the four robber’s horses trailing behind on ropes, a body folded over each saddle and no doubt tied there.

She quickly knelt and put her hands on each temple of the young robber. And dropped into his body space.

Yes. There was his soul, contiguous with the dark mirror image of his brain. But it was very dim, fading and loosening its hold on his body. Mary swooped like a hawk in the vast vault that was his body.

Quickly she found the problem. Edward’s bullet had missed his heart but plowed through his chest, struck a rib, bounced, and exited. She quickly set to giving his body instructions on how to fix the problems.

While his body did its repairs she “flew” around inside it finding other problems. None needed immediate attention. In fact, after his body had healed his gunshot wound it would be able to fix all the other health problems without further intervention from her.

Except one. This boy was almost starved to death. No wonder the robbers had been plying this trade. Perhaps they had no other.

She came back to her own body and looked around. The young driver lay in the grass beside the road, Barbara sitting beside him, and Bridget was standing nearby. Edward was back in the driver’s seat where he was keeping the horses controlled — though they did not appear particularly unruly. They were munching on the grass on the side of the road.

“Let’s park and fix some food. I need to eat right away. And so will this young man.” She nodded at the boy robber, who was still unconscious. He would stay that way until she woke him up.

A half hour later Mary and the boy robber were finishing devouring the last of the provisions the passengers had brought with them, bread and cheese and dried meat, washed down with water from the riverlet beside them.

“Now,” she said to the robber and the driver — still glued to Barbara’s side, she noticed. “Tell us everything.”

The two young men told the same story, from different viewpoints, and with various corrections of the other along the way. The guard and the leader of the robbers were brothers, uncles to the driver and the boy robber. Though the two young men looked to be brothers, they were actually cousins. The three other men in the gang were friends of the two older men.

All of them had been out of work off and on for a long time, and taken up robbery to survive. Some of them had taken to the life readily, adding a little rape and torture to the mix when they wanted to have fun. The two younger men had been sickened but trapped by the older men. They had not the slightest doubt they would be murdered if they resisted in any way.

Which is what had happened with the driver. When the young man had balked about the robbery — his glance at Barbara revealed why — and tried to change the guard’s mind about the robbery, he had been stabbed.

Mary drank another swig of the water — really quite delicious, she thought, idly teasing out the several tastes blended into it.

“I think,” she said, “that we’re going to change our story a little bit. You,” she pointed at the young robber, “are going to become the guard. When we get to Cork you will collect his pay. And I’ll give you a ‘bonus’ for your bravery in fighting off the robbers. It will be generous one.” She could well afford that, what with the money she had saved over the two years and the money she had had before coming to the orphanage.

She looked around the group. “Agreed?”

There were no real objections, though Barbara pointed out that the story needed some work. Mary suggested that Mary and Edward ride the rest of the way to Cork City on the driver’s seat, while those inside rehearsed their story.

“Don’t try to get it perfect. And for God’s sake don’t practice so much you sound like you’re reciting it.”

A little while later the coach topped a rise and it was obvious that they had reached the highest point of the slowly rising land through which they had been traveling. On each side a green hill rose. Ahead, dropping quickly away before them, was the side of a green valley. At the bottom was a city, Cork, buildings like toy blocks strewn almost at random at first sight.

A second later the jumble resolved itself into squares separated by streets, with a two-stranded river — the Lee — winding from right to left, from west to east, and then twisting away south toward the sea and Ireland’s third-largest sea port.

“I thought you were dead,” Edward said. It was the first thing he had said in a long while.

“I was,” Mary said. She grinned at him. “But a werecat can’t be killed. At least, not permanently.”

Of course she was not a werecat. A bullet through the brain, among other things, would kill her. She was Granny McCarthy who, if she could avoid getting killed once too often, might just have quite a nice life ahead.

She looked at the panorama before her. A quite nice life. There.

#

Only Part One of Shapechanger’s Birth is on this Web site. You can get the entire downloadable book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $2.99.

Want to read more now? Then visit with Mary in Enter the Cat Lady.

© Copyright 2009

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3 Responses to Danger Road

  1. Pingback: Mary McCarthy travels the Danger Road | Shapechanger Tales

  2. Richard G. Swift says:

    I enjoyed that, thanks. Keep up the good work. I find that I rather like not having to circle things with a red pen. (used to teach English and Spanish–today’s grammar and spelling drive me nearly batty.)

  3. Ed of Mesa says:

    I also enjoyed it.

    I look forward to how you handle Mary’s friends know so much about her.

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