I raised both eyebrows while taking a drink of the wonderful hot coffee. Sebastian's coffee, always perfect. "What is that?"
|Double Couple: Book 3 of the Schattenreich|
I choked on my croissant. Hagen's smile turned into a grin.
"Druids? So it is true. That's what you all are."
He slid a foot closer to his thigh. "The 'we' certainly includes you. That is what Sebastian is training you for. Hadn't you guessed that yet?"
All the signs had been there to see. The Celtic holidays, the exercises, the esoteric books. "But I don't have any type of religious belief compatible with being a Druid." I wiped crumbs from the robe.
Hagen sat up quickly, crossing his legs in front of him. He took a croissant from the plate and broke it in half, taking a bite full of the chocolate in the middle. "Nor do I. There are no Druids. Haven't been for two thousand years. We're just practitioners of a craft, esoteric and strong in Ande-dubnos. Not so much in the waking world."
"Isn't that what the Druids did? Practiced their crafts?"
"Who knows for sure? We only have a few secondary reports about them from the Romans, in particular Julius Caesar. And who could trust the Romans? Certainly not our ancestors."
I poured us more coffee. "What about Heiner?"
He shrugged. "More or less the same as me. He delves into the spiritual nature of what we do – he uses his music to explore Ande-dubnos. I'm more interested in the mechanics." He paused and seemed to reflect. "Our skills complement one another perfectly."
"Why is Sebastian training me? You two have been trained since you were children."
"That is a good question, Kati, and the answer does worry me. He's training you to journey. I'm against it. I dare not go against his wishes. Not yet."
"Gus would blow a spoke if I told him all this." I shoved a crumb around the tray with my finger, looking at Hagen, grateful that he finally saw fit to give me some inkling of what was going on, of who and what he was.
"That worries me even more," he said.
He nodded, frowning. He took another bite of croissant and drank his coffee, aiming his dark blues at me. "You and Augustus have been targets up until now. There is a connection between our family and what has been happening to you."
"The inscription. And earthquakes."
"And Dagmar," he said. "Although I can't fathom how she would have found out about it."
"I'm not sure she has. Or at least she's not the one pursuing it. She's more interested in obtaining…revenge."
"So you told me yesterday. But you didn't mention who is pursuing the inscription."
"No, I didn't. But you've met him."
"The red stallion."
"What does Heiner think? Did you talk to him?"
"We discussed a few things briefly last night in your dreamscape."
I wiped my hands, no longer hungry. Everything had a connection. Everything pointed to Kilhian ar C'hoed. "My rowan appeared there as a sapling just after you left. It has grown since then."
Hagen removed the tray from the bed and vigorously wiped crumbs away. He lifted an eyebrow and sat on the bed. "You are already practicing your craft then, Caitie."
I laughed. "Right. Magic. Me." Then I thought about Heinrich and his conjuring clothes for us when we had visited the Schattenreich. "What kind of magic?"
"I prefer the term Schattenwerk. Shadowcraft. It's a more accurate description. But magic is a word people understand. I am not aware that there are kinds of magic. Just effects. Mostly on one's self."
"And what did I do?"
"You constructed the dreamscape." He took my hand, pulling me back on the bed with him. "I know I'm going to be sorry about this." He turned me around, with my back leaning up against him. "Relax your body, Kati."
"I'm too wound up to relax."
"We can't cross if you don't."
I practiced my relaxation techniques, comfortable but nervous to be doing this with Hagen. "Okay."
"Picture the place where you traveled with Heinrich."
The woods and the river, the open meadow and the grass leapt into my mind immediately as if I had just visited it. "Got it."
Hagen put his arms around me, and placed his hand on top of mine, which rested on his lynx pendant. "Now concentrate."
I relaxed into the vision, imagining the sound of the trees, the bubbling of water over rocks. Then, I heard those sounds for real. This time was different, warm and hazy, the leaves loud as they shook in a steady breeze. My eyes sprang open to the Schattenreich, at least the corner of it I had seen before with Heinrich. It felt like returning to a familiar favored place, like my secret spot in the woods.
Hagen took my hand. We walked to the globe that floated a few inches above the grass. Heinrich followed, bringing his guitar. He eased down effortlessly next to it, holding his guitar as if in preparation to play. Hagen stood, studying the surface that had evolved into a complex landscape, ever changing, it seemed, and interspersed with intricately carved ladders and sinewy wooden snakes. An overlarge playing card twirled of its own volition above the globe. I reached out to grab it, but Heinrich stayed my hand.
"That is a closed postern, chérie," he said.
I eyeballed him a question.
"Anyone trying cross the borders that Sebastian has 'wired' will be trapped within the 'game'. A miniature version of him or her will appear here," Heinrich said, and pointed to the globe. He took the card delicately between two fingers to stop it spinning, but did not remove it. The illustrated card showed a collection of intertwining serpents in twos and threes. Heinrich twirled it and flashed it at Hagen, before letting it loose to rotate once again.
Movement caught my eye. I looked closely at the board. "Look!"
There on the globe, climbing his way upwards, out of a snake, was a miniature person. We bent closer.
"Who is it?" Heinrich asked.
"Erich," Hagen said.
"It is him," I said. "Can he see—"
Erich put his hands on his hips. He looked around. Then he looked up. Erich waved to us. Then he disappeared.
"Well," Hagen said. "So much for traps."
"Maybe he will return to the Burg now," Heinrich said.
"That was the agreement," Hagen said and began pacing.
"I don't understand any of this," I said.
Heinrich patted the grass next to him and I sank down. He began to play a lively Irish tune. The only thing missing was a fiddle. "Let's start with the game," Heinrich spoke as he played. "Sebastian dabbles in trying to reveal the big picture."
"Oracles, right?" I plucked purple daisies out of the grass.
"The board has divinatory properties, but the more participants, the better the results."
"How many more?" I asked.
"More than Sebastian and me," he said, looking up. "And you."
I took a deep breath and let it out. "Okay. It's a game of Snakes and Ladders for more than three players that Sebastian uses like a crystal ball. It both influences and is influenced by the players. Small symbols guide the pieces. They move across the board on their own. Based on what the players decide and wish and do, the landscape evolves. It shows things. The players have to try to figure it out. Ladders are good. Snakes are not-so-good. Like in the children's game."
I pointed to a small wooden ball filled with symbols that hung above the larger earthlike globe. "To my mind, the tiny ball is the data processing engine, and the globe is the exploratory analysis part. The symbols initiate a graphical display on the larger globe where one or more representative pieces move in response to the implied meaning of the symbols. Sebastian wants to understand the big picture."
Heinrich nodded. "Smart girl, Hagen."
"Expert," Hagen said while continuing his pacing, "at many things." He slid a smile my way.
"The floating card is a special kind of tarot card and carries the symbols for responsibility," Heinrich said, teasing a sweet, sexy note from his guitar in response to Hagen's innuendo.
"Sebastian is sending us a message?"
Heinrich glanced at Hagen. "He is reminding us about our duties to the family."
"As if we had ever shirked them." Hagen waved his hand over the globe and it faded slowly. "You and Bastian know my feelings about Oracles."
"And what are those feelings, Hagen?" I asked.
"Divination is a double-edged sword," he answered. "As I told you once before."
"And that means?" I asked.
"Something is given, and something is taken away."
Heinrich continued to play, the music shading into a softer melody with a pronounced sinister tone. "I think in this case whatever is going on has been operating despite Sebastian's workings."
"Whatever's name is Erich," Hagen said. "That's why I'm even more concerned with the price for our attempts to divine events."
"What do you suggest then?" Heinrich asked.
"We solve it more directly," Hagen said, coming to stand behind me.
I leaned into him. "Whatever directly is, it sounds good."
Heinrich looked up. "Count me in, brother. I'm committed to anything that will lessen the danger to Caitlin."
"And don't forget Gus," I said.
Hagen patted my shoulders. "Let's go hear what Bastian wants to tell us."
I raised my arms, and Hagen pulled me to my feet. "How do we get back?" I snuck a look at Heinrich in time to catch that sly smile of his. "Oh. Is that the only way then?"
Hagen scowled from me to Heinrich. "How have you gotten in without us before, Caitie?"
I sighed. "With a lot of nausea and internal earthquakes."
"That fits," Hagen said.
"Is there an easier way?"
Hagen took me in his arms, raising an eyebrow at Heinrich who slung his guitar over his shoulder and headed off towards the forest.
"For the moment this one works well, don't you think?" He swept me into his embrace and kissed me all the way back to reality.
Double Couple release date: very very soon! Watch this space.