Last Wish – Helen Harper

‘What do you get when you cross a goose with a mouse?’ I frowned. As much fun as cheesy jokes were, I was trying to concentrate. ‘This isn’t really the time, Bob.’ ‘Ohhhh,’ he flounced. ‘So it’s alright for you to force your poor excuse for humour in our faces but when one of us tries to do it…’ A passing troll halted and glared at him. ‘Chieftain. If you wish the imp to be disposed of, then I would be more than happy to oblige.’ Bob gasped in outrage. ‘How dare you! You great lump! I’m a genie, not an imp.’ The troll’s gaze grew even more disparaging. ‘You all look the same to me.’ Flitting up to the troll’s face, Bob reached inside his tiny jacket pocket and drew out an even tinier glove. He reached out and slapped the troll across the nose with it. ‘I challenge you to a duel, sirrah.’ The troll swung his heavy head towards me.

‘Chieftain, shall I…?’ I rubbed my forehead. ‘No.’ He nodded once. ‘Very well.’ Bob and I watched him amble off, shuffling with a heavy gait towards the mansion. ‘Yeah! Run away like the coward you are!’ the little genie shouted. ‘Bob,’ I said tiredly, ‘give it a rest.’ ‘S’not my fault,’ he mumbled. I shook out my hair. Effectively trapped here within the Adair lands, we were all going stir crazy but it didn’t change the fact that there was still work to be done.

I had to gain control over my magic; the fate of thousands of people across the Veil might depend upon it, not to mention everyone here behind the Adair borders. I refocused on the patch of ground. I was getting there. Faint threads of power snaked through my veins and I felt rather light-headed. There was a hiss and the hard ground began to crack. Green shoots pushed their way upwards all along the largest fissure. Yahtzee. ‘You’ve still not answered me, you know,’ Bob said. ‘What do you get when you cross a goose with a mouse?’ I bit the inside of my cheek. Just a little bit more … beside my toe, a bud was already beginning to emerge.

‘A moose!’ Bob started to cackle, the sound penetrating my skull to the exclusion of anything else. I exhaled loudly and straightened up. ‘I don’t get it.’ ‘Duh!’ He spun up and twanged me between my eyebrows with his fingers. ‘Goose combined with mouse makes moose. It’s all about blending the letters.’ ‘I understand that part,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘But where’s the funny?’ His brow furrowed. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s not funny, Bob. Jokes have to make people laugh.

’ He stared at me, still not understanding. ‘Nobody laughs at your jokes.’ ‘Sorley does.’ Bob snorted. ‘Sorley is an idiot.’ I opened my mouth to reply but I was interrupted by Morna stamping over. She gazed at my growth efforts with what could only be described as disgust. ‘Integrity Adair!’ she scolded. ‘I did not permit you to take more of my Gift so you could fritter away your time. Is that all you’ve managed to accomplish?’ Suddenly I felt like a small child caught with her hand in the cookie jar instead of Chieftain of my very own Clan.

Albeit a remarkably odd Clan. ‘I’ve been distracted,’ I protested. ‘It’s Bob’s fault.’ ‘A good Chieftain takes responsibility for herself and for her Clan. You’re the one in charge.’ ‘Ha ha!’ Bob jabbed his finger at me. ‘Stop blaming me! A bad workman always blames his tools.’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘And we all know that you’re a tool.’ Bob’s mouth dropped open in mock outrage.

‘Robert,’ Morna said, fixing her steely gaze on him, ‘aren’t you supposed to helping inside?’ ‘I’m on a break.’ Morna simply looked at him. His head dropped. ‘Going back to work now,’ he muttered. He floated off. One day I’d like to exercise that kind of control but it didn’t matter what I did; I’d never achieve Morna Carnegie’s iron power. ‘Felled by a mere glance,’ I said to myself. I looked at Morna. ‘When will you let me take that Gift?’ ‘Being Chieftain is more than the title, Integrity. It’s a state of mind.

’ ‘The job’s yours if you want it. The pay is shite and there aren’t any holidays. But you get to pretend to be dead and that really cuts down on your junk mail. Plus, I’ve not had a bill to pay for months.’ Her expression didn’t change. ‘You can’t play dead forever.’ My attempt at humour faded away. ‘I know.’ ‘I have to get back to my own Clan soon. My Chieftain is starting to think I’ve been abducted.

I’m running out of excuses to explain my absence.’ I swallowed. ‘I do appreciate what you’ve done for us.’ ‘It’s not for you. The prophecy has yet to be fulfilled.’ ‘It has been fulfilled. I saved the Foinse. In return, I saved the country.’ Morna raised her hand dismissively. ‘You and several others.

Besides, that wasn’t the prophecy.’ ‘You don’t know that.’ She smiled serenely. ‘Yes, I do. It’s all in the wording.’ ‘One Adair will save Alba. Yeah, yeah. That’s what I was told. I saved the Foinse, therefore I saved Alba.’ Morna patted my shoulder.

‘Alba doesn’t just mean the Highlands. It means all of Scotland.’ I wrinkled my nose, my scepticism palpable. Scotland hadn’t been a whole country since the Fissure – and that was almost three centuries ago. Scotland, in the sense that Morna meant, no longer existed. ‘There are a hundred thousand Fomori demons in the Lowlands. At least. Even if I weren’t a pacifist, there’s not a single thing I could do that would change that.’ Despite my dismissive reply, the thought of all those demons and the people they’d effectively enslaved – and conditioned not to question their enslavement – continued to gnaw at me. I wasn’t about to abandon them to their fate but, even with an army of trolls at my back, I couldn’t see a way to help them.

Yet. I clung onto that word every night when my churning thoughts refused to let me sleep: yet. Morna shrugged. ‘I didn’t say I had all the answers. But with the Foinse here, I’m now more inclined to believe in the prophecy than to discard it out of hand.’ She pointed at the patch of green by our feet. ‘Now come on. Before you save anyone, I’d like to see you rescue yourself. Bring this land back to life.’ ‘You’re a real pain in the arse, Morna.

’ Her smile spread. ‘I know, dear.’ I returned my gaze to the signs of growth. It was slow going but, thus far, I was rather impressed with my efforts. Aifric Moncrieffe had ordered this ground salted after the massacre which took place on the day of my birth. Normally that would mean many generations’ worth of unusable land. With the help of Morna’s Gift, however, I was reversing the effects. From what had once been the sacred Adair grove to down here by the old mansion, there was now a swathe of green. Morna was a hard taskmaster though; she expected more. I reached down inside myself and concentrated.

Her Gift buzzed through my blood, my veins and my very soul. I had to admit that it was getting easier, although I could still feel the queasy lightheadedness. I had little choice but to embrace it. ‘Good,’ the older woman said. ‘Search for the power in the earth and draw it out.’ I swayed. When you knew what you were looking for, it was quite remarkable. I could feel the throb of life from Mother Nature calling out to me, asking to be restored in much the same way that a desert flower will stay dormant for months and even years, waiting for the rain that finally brings it to blossom. I was the rain. Here, at least, I was life.

Lights exploded behind my eyes and I gasped. My body fizzed with the sudden surge of magic. Goosebumps rose across my skin, pricking me with their intensity. ‘Not too much,’ Morna warned. As more blades of grass and green shoots sprang up, I yanked on the threads of power inside me before carefully dampening them down. I might have Morna’s Sidhe-given magic but, unless I ripped it all from her, it was a finite source. I had to use it sparingly. Breathing hard, I struggled for control while the ground continued to transform into a blanket of spring. I staggered. ‘You’re getting there,’ she said approvingly.

I clutched at my chest, my heart hammering against my ribcage. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to take over,’ I enquired when I could finally speak again. ‘I could,’ she answered. ‘But then you’d never learn anything.’ She looked at me searchingly. ‘Your magic is running out. You need to take more.’ ‘No, I have enough.’ ‘Not for the whole Adair lands, you don’t.’ She took my hands in hers and squeezed.

‘Take,’ she ordered. ‘You have enough control.’ She had considerably more faith in my abilities than I did. I was tempted to refuse but her eyes were hard and insistent. I swallowed and focused on the glow inside her. It wasn’t that I could see it, as such, more that I could sense it. Like all acts of thievery, the more often I drew from the Gifts of other Sidhe, the better I became at it. I tugged at wisps of her magic, pulling them gently into myself as if by osmosis. I had to be careful – the last thing I wanted to do was to take too much. My soul hungered to grab and guzzle but I pushed down my primal urges and sucked in a breath, stopping when I felt the nausea.

‘You should take more,’ Morna chided gently. I pressed my lips together and shook my head. ‘No. You need it. It’s yours.’ She let out a bark of laughter. ‘I’m an old woman. There’s a whole wellspring of magic inside me which is untouched. Better that it gets used than it seeps away into the ether when I finally quit this body.’ I glanced at her, alarmed.

Surely she didn’t think she was at death’s door? Her expression was calm and placid. ‘How long till you go?’ I asked. Then I realised how that sounded and said quickly, ‘I mean how long till you go back home?’ She frowned as she considered my question. ‘Soon,’ she said eventually. ‘But we should conduct a field test first and see how adept you’ve really become at stealing.’ There was a certain irony in that, given what I used to do for a living and how good I’d been at it. I rubbed my chin. ‘I can’t be seen. And we should wait until after the next visit.’ Although Morna knew exactly what I meant, ‘visit’ was something of a euphemism.

Delegations from the Clans had been appearing with increasing regularity at the Adair border. So far they’d given the trolls a whole lot of pleading mixed with some grandiose promises. They’d been little more than an annoyance up till now but, when the Sidhe finally realised the carrot was never going to work, they were going to switch to the stick. ‘They’re not going to stop, you know. The Clans want their security details back.’ I let out an unladylike snort. ‘I can’t see why it’s such a big deal. The Fomori have retreated back beyond the Veil. There haven’t been any attacks since Aberdeen.’ ‘It’s about more than the illusion of safety, dear.

’ Morna’s eyes were sad. ‘It’s about power.’ There was a sudden screech from above. I twisted round in panic, only to see the shining orb of the Foinse fly out from one of the higher windows, followed almost immediately by Tipsania’s scowling face. ‘You bastard!’ she shrieked after it. ‘You numbskull ball of idiocy!’ The Foinse somersaulted in a manner that could only be described as taunting and sped away. Morna raised an eyebrow. ‘Does the Scrymgeour lass know that she’s screeching at the source of all magic?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ I nodded. ‘She has no qualms about who she yells at.’ Morna bent down and cupped a daisy.

Its petals were white and delicate with just the hint of blush at their tips. I had helped to bring that to life. If I thought about it for too long, I was completely staggered by what I’d done. ‘It proves my point,’ Morna said. ‘You mean that by yelling and throwing insults, Tipsania feels like she’s more powerful?’ Tipsania had bullied me when we were kids so I was well aware that she had a history of wanting to feel strong. ‘Well, yes,’ Morna said. ‘But I was actually referring to the Foinse. The Clans locked it away. They hampered its power and clipped its wings. Look at what it’s capable of now that it’s free.

’ I knew what she meant. As a warlock, Speck had access to some magic. Sure, it was unreliable and weak and had almost killed us on more than one occasion back in our good old thievery days, but it had always been there. The longer he spent near the Foinse, the stronger his magic grew. And, unlike the Sidhe, he wasn’t limited to whatever Gift he’d been granted at puberty. We had access to clean, running water as a result of Speck’s abilities – not mine. The only person who didn’t seem happy with his burgeoning magic was Lexie. I suspected that was out of fear that she would no longer be good enough for him rather than jealousy. We were complex beings indeed. I pointed at the ground and the now-verdant carpet.

‘How much of that is down to the Foinse?’ A trace of a smile crossed Morna’s lips. ‘I suppose we’ll never know.’ I muttered something under my breath. She looked at me expectantly and I shrugged. ‘The Fomori,’ I explained. ‘I can’t help wondering about their magic.’ ‘You mean the draoidheachd you were told about,’ said Morna, pronouncing the word dreeocht and with a far better Gaelic accent than mine. I nodded. ‘The Foinse is supposed to be the source of all Scottish magic. But if the Fomori have their own version locked away in Edinburgh Castle, someone’s screwed up.

And if they have it, why don’t they do more with it?’ ‘Their skies are black and their earth is scorched, Integrity. I’m not sure they care.’ ‘May cares. She came outside last night and spent several hours rolling around in the grass like a puppy.’ ‘I think we all agree that May is different.’ I couldn’t argue with that. Everyone treated the mute Fomori demon who’d tailed me back from beyond the Veil as if she were made of glass. Even Lexie and Bob, initially the most reluctant to befriend her, were now going out of their way to help her. Having her around was proving to be a welcome distraction and the busier we kept, the less we worried about the outside world. And the less I thought of Byron and the look on his face when he realised I was apparently dead.

I could still taste him on my tongue. It was a ridiculous notion; I had brushed my teeth many, many times since we’d last kissed. And yet… I sighed. No. Keeping busy was definitely important. Taylor popped his head out from the mansion entrance. ‘Grub’s up,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Some tasty looking game birds which made the mistake of wandering across the border. Last one to the table is a rotten egg.’ ‘Your old mentor has no doubt laid a bet with one of the trolls as to which one of us will get there first,’ Morna muttered in a disgusted undertone.

‘The man is incorrigible.’ Taylor twinkled at us. ‘Brochan will snarf it all down if you don’t hurry. And Lexie’s pissed off at waiting. That’s not to mention some very hungry-looking trolls who—’ I held up my hand. ‘I got it, Taylor.’ I glanced at Morna. ‘What did the gamekeeper say to the Lady of the Manor?’ She responded with a long suffering sigh. I grinned. ‘The pheasants are revolting.

’ Bob winked back into existence by my shoulder. ‘I don’t get it, Uh Integrity. Where’s the funny?’ I narrowed my eyes at him. He grinned and spun up to my shoulder, perching next to my ear. ‘It’s not all bad, is it?’ he whispered. I smiled. ‘I guess not.’ *** Taylor was right about one thing ‒ dinner was indeed very tasty. It was just a shame I didn’t get to eat more than a few bites before we were interrupted. Lyle burst through the doors when I was mid-chew.

‘Chieftain!’ he gasped, doubling over, his sweat-sodden hair straggling against his bulbous forehead. ‘The border! Someone’s there!’ I muttered a curse. I’d been sure we’d have another few days before the next Clan contingent arrived. I pushed back my chair and stood up. ‘How many?’ He held up a single finger. I frowned. One? That was unusual enough to merit notice. One interloper was more intimidating than several; it suggested a diversion – or an ambush. ‘The other lookouts?’ I asked. ‘They’ve been alerted.

Nothing as yet.’ ‘Is our visitor Sidhe?’ Lyle dropped his shoulders. ‘I couldn’t tell.’ I grimaced. Disguised, then. That didn’t do a damned thing to assuage my concern. Someone friendly would have no need to conceal their identity. Brochan was already on his feet and handing me my jacket. Tipsania waved her hand. ‘Do you want…?’ I nodded.

‘If you wouldn’t mind.’ I hated having to resort to magic all the time but I had to be careful for all our sakes. She flicked her fingers towards me while I squeezed my eyes shut, reminding myself that I didn’t want to steal her Gift. She’d give it all to me if I demanded it. The only indication that she’d finished was the faintest prickle across my skin. I opened my eyes and glanced down. The strangeness of not being able to see my own body encouraged a rush of nausea. These days I felt sick more often than a pregnant woman in her first trimester. I gave her a hasty thanks and darted for the door. ‘Anyone who’s not a troll stays put,’ I yelled behind me.

Lexie’s plaintive complaint rang out across the dining hall. ‘Aw, Tegs, come on.’ ‘The only ones who are supposed to be here are trolls, Lex. Everyone else needs to stay hidden.’ What I didn’t say was that if the border had been breached I’d also need people I could count on to stay back here and hold the mansion. We had to be prepared for every eventuality. Even with his knowledge of my apparent death, I could never be sure what Aifric was planning. I sensed the blue-haired pixie pouting but she fell quiet. I barrelled out of the door and sped towards the border, doing everything I could to avoid looking down again at my own body. One of these days I was going to get the trolls to build a giant slide from the mansion down to the bottom of the hill.

Either that or learn how to roller-skate. The only light visible by the border was cast by old-fashioned torches which used flame rather than electricity to illuminate the area. The flagpole remained in place but, in order to keep to the fiction that the Adair Clan was finally gone for good, Sorley had taken down the flag. Instead he’d concealed some stitched Adair colours into the flat top of the pole to maintain the border magic but to keep my presence secret from prying eyes

.

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