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Oak and Mistletoe (Ch. 3)

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The three of them walked by a park a ways down from the Garda station. Catherine found a wooden bench to rest on. She felt weak from the exertion of their errand. She hadn't been out of bed, let alone the house, for some time. Bowen and Danny gave each other glances of concern when they saw how exhausted she was. Bowen leaned against a tree not too far from the bench. Danny sat down next to his sister with a worried look on his face.

“Catherine.” He put his arm around her.

“I'm okay, Danny. I'm just tired,” she lied.

“You're stupid if you actually think you can fool me. Who do you think has been staying at home making sure you weren't suicidal?”

Catherine looked at her brother. He was too right for her to roll her eyes at him.

“You need to start regularly eating again, no excuses. I don't care if you don't feel hungry,” he said.

“Hmm.” Catherine wrinkled her nose and frowned. “You're a good brother, Danny,” she said with a smile. The first smile Danny had seen in a while.

Danny grew more serious now. “Catherine, why is this guy hanging around us still? I mean, who is he really? Did he ever tell you?”

Catherine turned away as she thought of how to explain.

“Too many weird things going on. Without answers about him, it's just creepy.” He sighed and scratched the back of his head with his free hand.

Catherine looked down, fidgeting with a piece of string from the fabric of her pants. She knew he would believe her, but she was still reluctant. A moment passed before she looked back up at Danny and said, “Yeah, he told me who he was.”

Catherine glanced over at Bowen and then turned back to her brother to tell him about Bowen's true identity, the curse, and who the strange woman at the Garda station was. Danny seemed to take the news well, considering. Afterwards, he was silent, then excused himself to take a walk alone. Before leaving, he passed Bowen. Danny furrowed his brow and seemingly tried to examine his face for evidence of his very advanced age. Catherine held her head in embarrassment. Bowen stared right back at him, making the awkward moment complete. Bowen's eyes followed Danny until he disappeared into the park. He sighed to himself as he came over to sit next to Catherine.

Catherine had gotten over her brief embarrassment. She leaned back on the bench and looked up at the sky like she usually did on a nice day. The sun was covered by clouds today though. There was no warmth on her face, which always brought her happiness, but rather a chilled breeze that brushed her cheeks and made her shiver. She embraced it. The clouds appeared to be moving quickly above her. The leaves on the trees blew wildly around their grasping branches. Catherine smiled to herself and shut her eyes. She wanted to feel something familiar that she enjoyed again; a feeling she'd had when life was more real to her, more normal. She missed that time. It felt like so long ago.

Bowen looked at the grass between his shoes. He wondered how many blades, if any, were the exact same shade of green. Realizing his mind was wandering, he brought himself back to think of what to do next. He felt lost and frightened, but he knew he had to find a way to stop Conall. He took his right hand off his knee to place under his chin.

He became distracted again, this time by the beautiful Catherine at his side. He found himself fixated on her every feature and movement. He noticed her thick eyelashes that gently brushed against the top of her cheeks, the curve of her lips as they moved into a smile. He wondered what she was thinking about. Her lovely neck was stretched as her head was tilted back. The red hair normally dangling well past her shoulders was in a thick braid that laid casually over a shoulder to hide in-between the folds of her jacket. Bowen's own dark brown mass of hair usually covered most of his forehead but was blown aside in the increasingly cold wind that swept around them. He cocked his head sideways on his hand.

“Bowen?” Catherine said with a smooth tone, unchanged from her position, her eyes still closed peacefully.

Bowen's eyes remained fixed on her. “Hmm?”

“Do you know what we should do about the bad druids yet? Got a plan?”

Bowen chuckled to himself at her phrase. “The bad druids.”

“What's so funny?” Catherine asked, curious.

“Never mind. No, I don't have a plan yet,” he said.

Catherine caught the hint and peeked sideways over at her bench companion. He stared back intently. She snapped back, eyes shut, and ignored the flushed feeling that spread from her chest up to her face and into the roots of her hair. She continued on and said, “I'm going with you, Bowen.”

“It's too dangerous,” he said. “Though there is no point in you leaving Ireland to run from them. No, I must hide you somewhere close by,” he mumbled.

“I'm not leaving you to deal with this alone. Wherever and however you're going to stop them, I'm going to be right behind you.” She rubbed her face with her palms and looked at him. “So, you might as well let me handle it with you.”

Bowen just smiled slightly. This made Catherine uncomfortable. He was too handsome to be how she imagined an ancient druid would look. For a moment she wondered what his ancient clothes had looked like. Even when he annoyed her, she found him charming. This bothered her. She smiled a quick smile back and busied herself with something, in the small purse she'd brought. Though Catherine didn't see it, Bowen's smile got bigger.

Catherine and Bowen heard some footsteps rustle the grass not too far away and they twisted to see Danny returning. Síne was with him.

“I've agreed to be her surety,” Danny said immediately.

“What?” Catherine yelled and stood up.

“If what you told me is true, then she can help,” he said with confidence as he stopped behind the bench.

“But Danny, she's one of Conall's followers. Who knows what her motives are? She could be just as mad as he is.”

“It doesn't matter.”

“Oh, it's okay if she's insane then?”

“Don't. I'll watch her. That's what a surety does.” Danny was more than frustrated now.

“And precisely where did you get the money to bail her out? You're supposed to be saving, not blowing it on just anything right now.”

“Catherine, please,” he said, closing his eyes and taking a breath. “The Gardaí have no idea who she is or what to do with her. They'll be less suspicious if she's not hanging around them.”

“What about how dangerous she could be? You're going to watch her like a hawk every waking moment?” she asked.

“I said I'd watch her.”

Catherine took a deep breath and controlled her voice. “Okay, I'll trust you. I'm sorry, I know you're just trying to help. What I told you was a lot to take in, after all.”

Danny nodded. He figured if Síne did try to escape, she would lead them to Conall. Either way would be a win-win, he thought.

Catherine looked from her brother to Síne, noting her angry gaze, then looked back to her brother. She threw up her arms in exasperation as she abruptly walked away. Bowen stood in silence. When Catherine walked away, he caught Síne's glare toward him before he turned to follow.

Danny shifted his weight where he stood and glanced at the woman next to him. Síne was persistently defiant, but less so whenever Bowen wasn't around. Danny was an intelligent person, and he felt this was the right choice to make. It was going to help bring about the end of the horrific nightmare that had caused Kathleen's death. Danny kept holding onto that thought. He had to stop Kathleen's killer. He had to protect Catherine. Danny felt guilty about not being there for both of them. Maybe he could have stopped it. Fraught with guilt, he buried it deep. He wouldn't dare burden Catherine with it. He could see she had enough problems to deal with.

Bowen caught up with Catherine as she paced around the park. “Catherine, it'll be okay. I'll watch out for both of you. I won't let Síne get away with anything,” he said.

Catherine seemed a little calmer at hearing this.

“I do have a plan, Catherine. Remember, since we can't kill them, we have to trap them again."

Catherine's eyes got wider. “How are we supposed to do that with that many people? We can't involve the Gardaí, and we don't have an army to drag them away to jail.”

“No, we don't. Nothing will hold them.”

“What do you mean then?”

“We have to cast the curse again,” he said seriously as he looked down at her.

Catherine wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt to stop the chill that went up her spine. She did not have a good feeling about this. “How?” she asked.

“We have to find the remnants of my people, and,” Bowen stopped to think, then he mumbled, “Arlana may have left something for me to fix this there, in case it happened.”

Catherine figured Arlana must have been the priest's daughter who cast the curse in the first place. She put one hand in her pocket and massaged her temple with the other. “So, we have to somehow find a message from two thousand years ago in the ruins—which could be buried, by the way. Also cast a powerful curse, and that's only if we can figure out how?” Catherine couldn't help but sound skeptical.

The corners of Bowen's mouth curved into a small grin, but he was quite serious when he said, “It's the only way.”

Catherine saw the grin but chose to ignore it. “Fine, so what do we do first?”

“There are a couple of things we need to retrieve. The first is easiest I think.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“A staff. It belonged to the high priest,” Bowen answered.

“Okay, where do we find this staff then? Buried in the ruins, I suspect?”

“No, traditionally it stays with the high priest.”

“What does that mean?”

“It's buried where his ashes are enshrined, which isn't where the ruins of my people are.”

“Okay, enough with the cryptic speech, please. Just where do we have to go to get the staff?” Catherine huffed.

“He's hidden away in the mountains, with the staff next to him. When the people of our religious order die, it was always said they should be buried in a secret and sacred place so that enemies couldn’t disrupt their remains, or rob them. The mountains were both sacred and a place of secrecy.”

“Do you happen to know which mountain, Bowen?”

“Traditionally, yes. The same mountain was used for many generations. However, since he died after the curse was enacted, I wasn't around to know for sure. It's possible they moved on to another one, but I doubt it.”

“Great. How is this easiest?” Catherine sighed.

“The journey shouldn't be long, but we should go right away,” Bowen stated.

“I still have my job. I can't just leave, especially after being absent for so long already,” Catherine said. She wasn't sure how she was going to get out of work for who knew how many days more without losing her job. They were understanding before, since they believed her sister was missing, but she would have to return on a regular basis soon.

“It will be a mistake if we wait. There isn't time.” Bowen seemed agitated.

“I'll just go in now and see if I can talk to them.” She turned to go.

Bowen gently grabbed Catherine's shoulder. “What about Danny?”

Catherine looked over at the distant figures of her brother and Síne. She hadn’t realized they had walked so far away.

“I'll call him later. I can't be around that hateful woman right now,” she said, meeting Bowen's eyes with her own again. With that, she left, Bowen following close behind her.

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Catherine made her way out of the museum. After speaking with her manager, she was looking for Bowen when she ran into an older man who had been lurking around a corner outside the building.

“Oh, I'm sorry!” Startled, she scrambled to pick up her phone.

The man was tall and burly, with leathery skin. His graying brown hair was tied back into a small bun at the base of his skull. His hawk-like eyes caught Catherine's when she stood straight again. It unsettled her.

“It was my fault,” he said with a nod of apology and a polite smile.

“No, I was walking too fast. Excuse me,” she said as she waved. The man just stood still. She felt awkward as she walked away, but that passed when she called Danny and explained everything Bowen had told her. She eventually found Bowen waiting for her on the sidewalk in front of the museum as she finished her argument with Danny.

“What's wrong?” Bowen asked when she reached him. Clearly, he had overheard her frosty tones.

“Danny wants to come with us, and of course, that means bringing Síne,” she said.

Bowen considered. “It could be safer for Danny if all three of us were watching her.”

Catherine shrugged, exasperated with the idea of having to be around Síne. She hadn't agreed to be her surety and wanted to keep as much distance as possible. It was yet another annoying thing on her shoulders that she had to worry about.

“Your boss understood?” Bowen asked.

“Yes. I have to go in tomorrow, but then we can leave.”

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A line of attached two story houses all stood unlit in the dark evening, except for the house on the end. All of the cars were in their regular spots for the night. The street was quiet and eerie in the slight fog. Some brawny men appeared through it, their faces hidden by the robes they wrapped around themselves. The night's shadows aided their stealthy approach to the house on the end. They set it ablaze. The men gathered again, and after surveying their work, they turned and disappeared.

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Bowen appeared outside Catherine's museum right as she left the next night. He had been waiting only a short time, knowing she would be working late. To any passerby, Bowen might seem to be lurking in the dark, stalking Catherine from a short distance behind.

Walking home, Catherine felt good about her work day as she remembered how fun it was helping on a project with an archeologist intern named Sharon. The intern was a very hard worker, and it was nice to have the extra hands for a couple of hours. Catherine mentally checked off everything that was finished since she’d had to close her department alone. She was looking forward to soaking in a bath. Though she had a few hours of time to herself while she worked, she had managed not to think about Kathleen or Conall all day.

Bowen was a different story. She wondered what he was doing. A chill came over her, and she shivered as she bundled her jacket tightly around herself. The day had been unseasonably cold and it bled into the night. The street was mostly empty, except for a few others walking alone like herself. The night was too quiet for her taste. Her shoes slapped noticeably against the sidewalk and echoed back to her.

“How was your day?” Bowen strode up next to her. She gasped loudly, startled.

He smirked. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you.”

“Sure, I'm only walking home alone at night. It wasn't scary at all,” she said irritably.

Bowen looked down, bemused. Catherine glanced over at him a few times. She noticed that Bowen was a quick learner, especially when it came to her. He tried to avoid pushing her buttons, though he failed more times than she would like. Still, she was always pleased when he showed up. Catherine had noticed he was fast and agile, and his hands were smooth. Perfect for a doctor, she thought.

“My one day back was good, thanks,” she said curtly. He nodded. “And yours?”

He stopped abruptly. “Catherine, you can't go home."

“What? Why not?” She pivoted toward him.

“It's on fire. Some men of Conall's destroyed it thinking you would be there at this hour.”

Panic struck. Catherine dropped her purse and grabbed his arm. “No! Danny?” She felt sick thinking about it.

“He wasn't there, he wasn't in danger,” Bowen reassured.

Catherine took deep breaths to calm herself. A second passed before she felt the worry return. "Did anyone else get hurt?"

Bowen shook his head. “I can't say. I left straightaway to come watch over you,” he said.

Catherine thought for a moment, wrinkling her brow. “But a fire doesn't make any sense. Conall wants to kill me himself, I'm sure.”

“Maybe. I don't know, there is no way to be sure. Conall is unpredictable,” he said.

Catherine merely nodded calmly, though wide-eyed. Then it hit her. “What am I going to do? All of my things. I have insurance, but still—" She realized everything left of Kathleen was gone too. She felt shaky and tried to push the thought away.

Bowen stretched his arms out and held her shivering shoulders. In his deep, smooth voice he said, “I think you should take advantage of this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone thinks you're dead, including Conall—for a while at least. This will give us time.”

She began to shake her head. “Oh no, no, I don't think I can do that. I mean, that's too out there for me, Bowen,” she said.

“You don't have to do anything. That's the beauty of it. Don't contact anyone you know, and keep yourself hidden from familiar places or people. Outside of that, don't give people too much information about yourself,” he said, dropping his hands off of her.

Catherine still felt unsure. “What about my car? We need one to get around. And my family and friends will be told we're dead. This seems a little heartless.”

“It's necessary. It may even keep them safe. As for the car, ask your friend Bella if you can borrow hers again. She doesn't know anyone else you know, so she'll be able to keep it secret, at least long enough for us to hopefully succeed.”

“How do you know about Bella?” she asked.

“Danny told me he was returning the car to her that day... when you borrowed it before,” he responded carefully.

“Oh.” Catherine looked back in the direction of the museum, lit up by the street lamps. “My job, and everything else. I can't come back from faking my death, Bowen,” she said with sadness in her voice. Yet another thing taken from her.

“If we all survive Conall's plans, then we'll worry about that when the time comes,” he answered quietly.

Within the hour, the two surprised Bella at her front door, where she answered dressed in lounge clothes and bunny slippers with a pint of ice cream in one hand. Her short hair was pulled back in a large clip on the top of her head. She looked at them in shock.

“Cathy?” Bella managed to say.

“Bella, I don't have time to explain, but we've been the best of friends, and you're the only one I can count on. I can't give you an explanation, but can I borrow your car again? For a time?”

Bella wanted to answer but hesitated, her eyes filled with concern as she looked from Catherine to the tall shadowy figure of Bowen outside her doorway.

“It's for everyone's safety. Otherwise, I would never. Please?”

“I can do without it for a while,” she answered, looking back at Catherine.

“Oh, thank you!” Catherine squeezed Bella into a hug.

“Yeah, no problem, Cathy. Hey,” she kept Catherine from pulling away so she could say softly, “Are you okay?” She shifted her eyes again to Bowen.

Catherine realized what must be running through Bella's mind. “Yes, I'm okay. There's just some things going on, very strange and important things. You may even hear that I'm missing or dead, but please don't say anything about this.” Catherine took the keys Bella handed her. “I promise I'll explain everything to you later,” she said with two kisses on each cheek before she turned to leave. Bowen followed close behind.

Bella was left dumbfounded at her doorstep, her pint of ice cream melting.

With Catherine at the wheel, the two drove to a small pub where Danny was known to be in the evenings. Luckily he was already outside, stretched out on a bench with Síne sitting as far away from him as possible. No one else seemed to be around.

Danny immediately caught on to the urgency when he saw Catherine's face. He pulled Síne by her arm. “Come on,” he said before getting in the backseat of the compact car. “What's going on?” he asked his sister, alarmed.

“I'll explain on the way,” she answered.

Bowen interrupted any possible questioning from Danny by saying, “Go drive by your home.”

“What? I thought you said that—”

“I know what I said. Just go.”

When they reached the road that turned around the corner to Catherine's home, Bowen urged her to stop the car at a distance and turned sideways in his seat. “Give me your phones,” Bowen demanded from Catherine, then Danny. With both in hand, he left the car.

“What is he going to do with them?” Danny asked.

“How should I know?” Catherine said, half to herself, as she watched him walk away. She could already smell the heavy stench of smoke filtering into the car.

A few minutes passed, and he returned. “We need to go,” he remarked nonchalantly.

Catherine began to drive. “Can we have our phones back?”

“No, I had to get rid of them.”

“What?” Danny squawked.

“They needed to be burned with the rest of the house if they're going to believe you're dead.”

Catherine hadn't thought of that. Luckily, she kept a small address book in her purse for emergencies, though she hadn't imagined it would be needed for quite this reason. Danny was infuriated as Bowen explained what had happened. Catherine could see the huge flames as they passed her destroyed home. The warm sting of tears welled in her eyes, but she wiped them away. Catherine drove discreetly around the commotion of the fire and firefighters. The blaze of the fire faded behind them in the rearview mirror as they sped away unnoticed. The home she had built for herself over the years was burning to the ground. It felt symbolic somehow. Catherine felt another pang of anger but forced herself to focus on the blank road laid out before her now.

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By morning the next day, Catherine was exhausted. Danny was the first to fall asleep in the backseat, and one by one, they nodded off. The four journeyed on, following Bowen's directions to the mountain. Eventually, they came to the point where the rest of the way had to be made on foot. Catherine and Danny were not exactly looking forward to this. Though they liked hiking on occasion, they did not much like the idea of searching an unmapped mountain.

“Yes, this was the mountain. It took days to get here from where I lived. We go across,” Bowen said, pointing at the long stretch of overgrown land as they exited the car. “Then at the foot of the mountain, there should be a small forest. Once we get through that, we can make our way up to the caves.”

Catherine was especially unhappy at this announcement. She wasn't prepared for any of this. The air was chilly, and her thin jacket wasn't made for this kind of activity. All she could do was rely on the outdoor trek to keep her warm. Before leaving Bella's car out in the open, she looked through it to make sure no valuables were visible and surprisingly came upon a pair of hiking boots and a sleeping bag in the trunk. She quietly thanked Bella over and over again for the unforeseen help. Bella and Catherine's shoe size was just about a match, and Catherine hugged them to her chest before putting them on and catching up with the others.

“How long do you think it will take for us to get through the forest?” Catherine asked Bowen.

“Probably late tonight. We should keep walking until we get to the foot of the mountain.”

“Do you think Bella's car will be all right there for a couple of days?” she asked.

“It doesn't look like a busy road. Any passerby will most likely think it needs a tow,” Bowen responded with a shrug.

Catherine nodded.

Bowen, who, with his long legs that seemingly never tired as he continuously walked, outmatched Catherine and Danny on the hike and they fell behind. Síne was ahead as well, but stayed a noticeable distance away from Bowen.

Danny stayed close to Catherine. “Once we find this staff, Bowen can cast the curse, and we can go back home?” he asked.

Catherine glanced at Síne and saw only Conall looking back. She managed to push down the gnawing rage within her before speaking. “No. Once we find the staff there's more to do before the curse can be redone. But then yes, hopefully, we can return to our lives afterward.” Though she wasn't so sure if it would work out that way. She wasn't exactly optimistic.

“Hmm.” Danny thought a moment. “What did Bella say about all of this when you borrowed her car?”

“I didn't tell her.”

“You didn't tell her?” He sounded disapproving.

“I didn't have time.” She broke off to sidestep a couple of large stones in the ground. “Plus, I didn't think it was a good idea, all things considered.”

Danny didn't say anything. Catherine didn't care if he agreed with her actions or not. She was doing the best she could do with what she had. Bella didn't need to know all of the details right then, for her safety and for theirs. They continued in silence as they walked. The sun didn't emerge once, and it began to drizzle miserably, making Catherine hate the hike even more.

Bowen occasionally looked back to check on the group, mainly Catherine. He saw her mood turn. The sleeping bag she was carrying slipped out of her grasp just then, and Danny picked it up to carry for her the rest of the way. When the two siblings were talking a moment before, Bowen had noticed Síne listening in, as though trying to understand a bird's chirping. Her eyes would flash awareness when she heard Conall or Bowen's name. Bowen kept a watchful eye on her, and Síne didn't try to hide from him that she knew he was doing so.

Some hours had passed by the time they reached the thicket of green woods, now dripping from earlier rain. The mud was caked onto Catherine's boots, and it grew harder to walk over the forest soil. Where there was no mud, the rocks and rampant sticks stabbed at her legs. There hadn't been a trail here for quite a long time, if ever. During this time Catherine sent constant telepathic thanks to Bella for the boots.

Under the forest canopy, it was even more difficult to see where to step. Danny offered to help, but Catherine knew his clumsiness would only make it worse. Bowen looked over his shoulder and decided to walk back.

“It’s not your usual hiking conditions, is it?” he asked when he reached her and offered his arm for support.

Catherine took his arm without hesitation. Bowen was sturdy as a rock, and she had seen how he walked with careless ease ahead of her.

“No. Well, I don't have as much outdoor experience as you do,” she replied.

Bowen simply chuckled. “It'll be nightfall shortly, and then not too much longer before we'll reach the stopping point,” he remarked.

Catherine looked up at Bowen from under her jacket hood, and even in the darkness of the forest, she could tell how chiseled and handsome his features were. “Thank goodness."

The group soon reached the end of the forest, and there the drizzle stopped altogether. They made a small fire with some difficulty due to the dampness and camped for the night. Síne was heavily watched by Danny and Bowen. Catherine wanted nothing to do with her, though she did eye her occasionally to make sure she wasn't anywhere within her reach.

Catherine's wakefulness drifted while she watched the fire-figures dance across a black stage. She laid in Bella's sleeping bag on the wet ground. Thankfully it was more rock than soil, so very little water seeped through. She let her mind wander, exhausted, and fell asleep. She slept soundly only for a short time since her dreams were filled with nightmarish imaginings. Her eyes snapped open, and she woke a second later to see the fire low and some moonlight cascading down one side of the mountain, causing a gloom amongst the previous pitch black that was the night around them.

Her heart had been pumping harder in her chest, and she felt sweat cling to her shirt and neck. Relieved the dreamworld was closed to her, she slowly sat up and saw Bowen sitting across from her behind the fire. Danny was still sleeping a few feet away, leaning against a standalone tree. Síne was somewhere in-between them, sitting alone and showing them only her back. Holding her knees to her chest, she rocked back and forth, gazing into the distance. Catherine found it curious, guessing it was a side effect of madness.

“You should sleep more if you can. We have a hard climb up the mountain trail very soon,” Bowen said.

Catherine pulled herself completely out of the sleeping bag. “I'll be fine,” she said, knowing that she and Bowen had very different ideas of what a trail was.

“You really should try.”

“I can't sleep anymore. I'll feel worse if I do. But thanks.”

Bowen nodded.

“Did you sleep?”

“Some.”

“And her?” She jerked her head in Síne's direction.

He looked over at the gray balled-up figure. “Some,” he repeated. “You and Danny aren't used to this kind of living, you need more sleep than we ever needed in our life before.”

“And now? It's the same?”

“A bit. Having not slept for centuries under the curse, it is strange to need to again.”

“I see,” Catherine said, trying to imagine what that would be like. She got up quietly and stretched before rolling up her bag and smoothing her hair as best as she could.

“You could never not be beautiful,” he said softly when he noticed her fussing over it.

Catherine stopped and looked at him in surprise. Just then, Danny stirred from sleep. “My back,” he complained, rolling onto all fours in pain.

“I told you not to sleep that way,” Bowen said, shaking his head. “Too soft,” he muttered.

The group managed to ready themselves for the long haul, then began the journey up the mountain. Catherine left the sleeping bag behind, figuring it was best to have both hands free. Bowen led the way again, with Danny and Catherine taking up the end while they spoke.

“Are you doing okay?” Danny asked.

“Are you?” She turned to him.

“Better than you, I think,” he said gently.

“Probably so.” She sighed.

A few minutes passed as they dodged brush and sharp rock. Danny took Catherine's hand in his.

“Did you ever find your lost earring, the one Kathleen was looking for?”

“No,” Catherine said, surprised by both Danny's random show of affection, and at her own forgetfulness. “It doesn't matter, the other one's burned up at the house anyway.”

Danny squeezed her hand, then let go to steady himself as they hiked on. Within ten minutes their calf muscles were screaming from the burn of the uphill walk. They both cursed under their breath at themselves for not being in better athletic shape. Bowen and Síne seemed to sprint up the mountain in comparison and were obviously holding back for their benefit. Hours passed, and it didn't seem like much progress had been made. Out of breath and exhausted, they took frequent breaks. On one such break, Bowen announced it wouldn't be too much farther.

“To the top?” Danny asked, looking doubtfully at the distance left up to the jagged peak.

“No, to the caves. It's buried inside the mountain,” Bowen called back.

The wind grew harsher as they climbed higher, but Catherine welcomed it. She was sweating like an animal. Grateful for each cold slap of air against her skin, she continued on. The sky was overcast again, though the clouds did not threaten rain. From where they stood they couldn't see their campsite because of the rocky terrain and uneven layers of the mountain. Still, the view was fantastic. Catherine could just make out the trace of road where they had parked Bella's car.

Catherine massaged her feet when they sat down to rest on a grassy area before the last long, lengthy climb. Bella's hiking boots were apparently relatively new, and she was getting the grand honor of breaking them in.

“It's time,” Bowen announced to them.

Catherine and Danny begrudgingly stood up and moved around a boulder to continue a rocky path up the mountainside.

“Where are you two going?” Bowen stopped them. “It's this way now.” He pointed to the left to a smaller path, more overgrown with shrubbery.

“But that's leading down,” Danny said, puzzled.

They followed behind the two ancient Celts and found relief in the downward slope. As they rounded a bend, they stumbled onto another breathtaking view between tall leafy trees that lined the “path.” Rocks that had fallen over the centuries occasionally blocked the way, and they found they had to do some fancy maneuvering to get around them without falling over the steep dropoff. Catherine glanced down once and felt dizzy at the idea.

Síne always stood apart from the rest of them and would lean against something with a scowl when they were busy working as a team. Catherine preferred this anyway. The rest of the way became darker as the trees grew closer to the mountain wall and leaned over top of them. At one point, they had to hunch over to duck through, and Catherine felt like Alice in Wonderland trying to make her way through giant flowers. Though these plants pricked her as she passed.

The group made it through the wild tunnel. They stood at what appeared to the two siblings to be a dead end, but the two Celts showed no sign of worry. Catherine stopped short and looked curiously at Bowen. He glanced down at her and smiled.

“It's through here,” he said. He took her hand as they walked one step further and he turned his body sideways. Catherine followed suit, and the rock seemed to open by magic and reveal a few feet of a path that led to the gaping black mouth of a cave. The illusion of the dead end was astounding to Catherine, and she glanced back to see Danny following behind Síne with an equally amazed expression.

“We're not too far. The staff should lay within a carving in the cave wall. If we go deeper, we will find the most recent remains of my people.”

“Why did they do it that way?” Catherine asked, her inner archeologist coming out.

“To show respect to each of them before burying the next,” he replied.

“I see.” She nodded, fascinated.

With his free hand, Bowen leaned over and picked up a thick wooden stick amongst the overgrown shrubs.

“I have a light.” Danny stepped forward, and as Bowen held the stick steady, he lit it ablaze with his lighter.

Bowen tightened his hold on Catherine's hand, and she did the same. They entered the darkness using the torch as a guide. To her surprise, the passage felt airy and didn't have a stuffy smell. It was also surprisingly dry. As her eyes adjusted, she could see that the ensuing cave room was very large and open; no holes or underground rivers to trap them here. Still, she had seen enough movies to be wary of where she stepped, and she followed Bowen carefully.

He led them through the chamber entrance, and Catherine could see what appeared to be marble lining. She couldn't see the tall ceiling for it went high up past the light and into blackness. Catherine felt like a small insect, but as they continued, the passage turned into a comfortable hallway, which then turned into a small passage where they crawled on their hands and knees. This opened into a large hall, and it was here that they saw the first remnants of a culture long gone.

“Here,” Bowen uttered to himself with reverence in his voice. Indeed, the shrine emitted an aura that demanded respect. As though disobedience would incite the dead to strike vengeance. He glanced back at Síne who looked appalled at the remnants of her enemy as the group passed the possessions and bodily remains of generations of holy men. Danny simply stared at the objects on the ground and the drawings on the wall as they passed. Catherine was in awe, knowing that hers was the first set of human eyes to see all of this for perhaps thousands of years.

Catherine thought she heard a noise. She whipped her head back. It sounded like it came from behind Danny.

“Did you kick something?” she asked in a hoarse whisper, stopping Bowen with a tug of her arm.

Danny shook his head, too unnerved to speak.

The top of Catherine's arms tingled, and that familiar bad feeling swelled within her. Bowen swung her arm gently to bring her out of thought. She could see his smile in the light reflecting off of his face. He turned back around and began to walk again with Catherine in tow. She took a deep breath and followed, though the tingle remained, nudging her along the way.

They passed many generations of men. Catherine had to remember that people did not live very long centuries ago. Bowen could feel her fidget, and squeezed her hand as he said quietly, “Soon.” The passage stopped short. Bowen looked around and found several staffs, each resting within their own space carved into the wall. One staff in particular captured his gaze, and he reached for it in awe. Catherine couldn't see it clearly in the light, but he handed it to her before taking her free hand in his as they turned to face the way they came. She could feel how cool and smooth it felt between the bony ridges. From its weight, she could tell that the priest who owned this was very tall, just like Bowen. It reached high above her head and stabbed at her sides and arms until she learned to hold it better.

“It didn't go too much farther after your priest. Do you think they moved on to another part of the mountain?” Catherine asked Bowen, her voice slightly above a whisper.

“No, I think it ended there. Sometime between after I was gone and a century or two later when my people faded away. Any surviving descendants forgot our culture and melded with others. That's why so little is known now.” Bowen's quiet voice trembled slightly.

Catherine looked back briefly, wondering how deep the mountain's passages went. Imagining all the secret tunnels made her more curious than alarmed. She suddenly understood the sport of caving, though Catherine was thankful she didn't have to wriggle through any more low passages—or if they were deeper, run into potential floods.

Danny waited for Bowen and the others to pass him so the group could go back out in the order they came. Bowen went with the torch, and Catherine passed Danny with Síne after. Reaching the cave entrance again, they found their eyes painfully blinded by the overcast sky. Bowen and Síne speedily recovered, but the siblings were in pain for quite some time. Until then, they had no idea just how sunny it actually was on a cloudy day.

Disposing of the torch and letting go of Catherine's hand, Bowen stepped away from the group. Catherine sat down on a stone to relieve her blistered feet. She examined the ancient staff in her hands. In the light, she could see it clearly. It appeared to be made of ceramic pieces fastened together, which explained the rough, sharp points that stabbed her and the smoothness in between. The bottom looked worn with use, and the areas where hands had grasped, it looked smoother still, leading up to the top where a small knob seemed notched to hold many a jewel or stone. Catherine tried to imagine a white-robed priest holding the staff, standing tall and noble. She enjoyed running the tips of her fingers on the smooth surface as she followed along with her eyes. The blackness of it overwhelmed the entire object. It was truly a work of art.

As Catherine examined the relic, she heard an airy whistle followed by a cracking noise. She looked up at Danny and felt herself sinking back, then falling. The stone she sat on was giving way. She heard Danny yell for her as she fell, and in a quick second managed to reflexively grab hold of several small trees and sharp bushes which cut her mercilessly but slowed her fall. The staff had caught at an angle against a tree, and she grabbed at either side until she was hanging against the cliff. Dirt fell on her from the small landslide she had created on her way down. She had tumbled a very short distance, but her blood pumped hard in her ears.

“Catherine?” Danny screamed from above.

Catherine couldn't move, other than dangling. Every time her body swung she felt a horrible pang and thought that moment would be her last. She couldn't say a word, she could barely breathe, so she hung helplessly. Focusing her weight and hands on the staff, she struggled to keep hold. Her upper body was not her strong point, her arms were already exhausted, and she wondered how much longer she could last. Unable to look up or down she stared stupidly at the ground.

“I'm coming down to get you,” Danny shouted. He had never been afraid of heights. As a boy, he would throw himself from trees, and cause great stress to all who had been forced to watch. Since boyhood, he had matured to skydiving and other thrill-seeking skills. Rock climbing was nothing to him.

Though Catherine was terrified for him since it was clearly an unstable area, she knew he was her only hope. She was no acrobat, and she was paralyzed by fear. She considered her imminent death and wished Danny would leave her to it and not risk himself. A light in the back of her mind reminded her she would see Kathleen again, and that this torture would end. Then she remembered she had to live to help Bowen. She couldn't leave him to fix her mistake. The mistake he had tried to prevent. Catherine slowly came back to the here and now, and tried to keep her grip on the staff whose smoothness she had quickly grown to resent. She tried to hold still, and keep her hands inward so as not to accidentally slip off. Holding tightly to the sharp protruding edges, her hands began to feel like they were being cut in slow motion.

Unable to see her brother from her dangling position, she listened desperately for anything until she heard movement, followed by gravel and dirt tumbling down around her. Squinting her eyes, she held her breath and waited. Within less than five minutes, Danny slid to a stopping point by hitting the tree she relied on for survival. Catherine's breath escaped loudly as her eyes flew open. “I'm here,” he said, as he made grunting noises, trying to steady himself.

Still unable to look up, Catherine wondered what he planned on next.

“Listen to me, Catherine. When I say so, you need to let go.”

Catherine slowly shook her head. He was talking crazy. There was no way she was just going to let go.

“Only one hand. I'll be there to grab it,” he said.

That was certainly less crazy, though she had doubts as to her ability to do as he asked. Catherine wondered how Danny was going to pull this off. She knew they didn't have any rope with them. She worried once again for his safety.

“I'm going to say 'now' in a sec, and that's when I need you to let go of the staff with one hand. Okay?” He sounded unsettled by her silence. Though he clearly understood she was in some state of shock, he worried that she might completely freeze up.

Catherine waited for Danny to give the word, and she tried to prepare herself for the sudden death that might follow. Wait, she thought in a panic. He didn't say which! Which hand? she mentally screamed, and cursed herself inwardly that she couldn't break her silence. She thought desperately. Which would he reach for? He knew she was right-handed, but maybe he wasn't able to get to her right hand. She couldn't possibly be sure because his voice came from anywhere above her, for the tree was thin to the point that it didn't block sound, and the gravel came from both sides when it fell. She would have to take the chance and hope he would know. Catherine waited.

“Now!” In two seconds, Catherine let her right hand fall from the staff, causing her to swing so her head could look up. No longer frozen, she stretched to reach as far as she could.

Catherine gasped in horror, seeing now that he wasn't reaching for her right hand. This was the end of her life, and she only hoped it would end quickly. She had already doubted it would be painless in her situation. Her body didn't have a chance to fall though, for Danny grabbed the staff as it swung upward, and Catherine held to it with a steadfast strength. As her body limply hung, relying entirely on the staff, she used her free hand to grab above her other hand for a more stable grip.

“Climb up! You've got to move!” Danny was clearly struggling with the weight.

Somehow, with much effort, Catherine managed to move up the staff until she reached Danny's hand, and he grabbed on with a slap. Danny steadied himself on a groove in the stone and leveraged himself on the tree so his whole upper body could be used to save his sister. Catherine was pulled up to him, and he moved her arms to hold his middle from behind. She still held the staff uncomfortably beneath her arm as it rubbed painfully through her clothes. Like a skilled animal, Danny climbed carefully up the rock with Catherine perched on his strong back. Within a short time, they found themselves scrambling over the edge to lay breathlessly on the ground.

When they had both caught their breath, Danny looked over with mixed anger and gratitude. “What the hell happened?”

Catherine found her voice, though it came out small and weak. “I'm surprised that didn't break,” she mumbled, referring to the ancient staff. She turned her head. “I don't know. I heard something crack from above me, like a twig,” she gulped some air as she stared back at the sky above, “and then I felt the rock give way. It happened so fast, I couldn't do anything.”

Danny's anger faded after a moment, but he furrowed his brow. Catherine watched him stand and walk toward the tree and stone where she had fallen. She felt her hands sting and brought them up to examine the damage. They were incredibly sore, and appeared cracked and bleeding in places. She pulled herself up to a seated position and winced in pain when she attempted to push off the ground. Both her wrists were also strained. When she found the strength to stand on wobbly legs, she managed to look around for Bowen and grew concerned with each passing moment she didn't find him. She was surprised he hadn't heard the screaming, and also upset he hadn't come to their aid. He shouldn't have been far enough away to not have heard some of the commotion.

“The noise,” Danny said from over by the tree, looking up.

“Yeah?” she asked, returning from her brief search.

“Was there a shooting noise before it?”

“You mean like a gun? No,” she said.

“No, like an arrow.” Danny pulled a sharp crossbow bolt out of the now damaged bark of the tree.

Catherine came nearer, and they looked at each other before pulling a small piece of paper wrapped around and fastened to the bolt. There was a handwritten message, which at first was difficult to read since its thick black ink had bled into the paper in several spots.

“I have your friend. If you want him alive, I want the relic. You have until tomorrow afternoon,” Catherine read. As they rolled the paper to its end, they saw a strange set of directions where the kidnapper wanted them to go.

The siblings looked up at each other in alarm. “Bowen,” Catherine said.

“Who could it be?” Danny asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Someone was following us. I knew I heard something strange before,” she remarked, infuriated with herself for ignoring her instincts.

“What are we going to do?” Danny asked, rereading the message.

“We have to go. What choice do we have?”

Danny looked worried but nodded.

Taking the message and bolt from Danny, Catherine turned toward the way out as she placed them in her jacket pocket. “Let's get moving back down the mountain.” She was determined to save Bowen, whatever it took.

“Wait. Oh no,” Danny said.

Catherine jumped. “What is it?”

“Where is Síne?”

The two siblings looked around in sudden realization. Síne had used her chance to escape. Catherine sighed as frustration gathered on Danny's face. With the Gardaí thinking the two siblings had died in the fire, they would have assumed the same for Síne since Danny was her surety. Therefore, Danny wasn't going to be in trouble with them unless he went back home. Catherine couldn't worry about that right now. She had to focus on Bowen and their current predicament.

“Well, what am I gonna do now?” he asked.

“We can't do anything until we save Bowen. We have no idea which direction Síne went anyway.”

Danny marched off ahead of her without saying anything. Before following, Catherine picked up the ancient staff from the ground where she had left it. Her cracked and partially cut palms would ache, but she accepted it without complaint, and they left together to trace their way back down the mountain. 

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