Solstice

(Author’s Note: The events in these two vignettes offer a peek at Val and Griff the December before the events of Renegade)

~~~

What could turn a respected mage, a brave, honorable man, into a murderous traitor? Valeria Banning stared at the image on her office computer screen. The photo of Griffin Dare, with his neatly combed, jet-black hair, blue eyes the color of a sunlit ocean and clean-cut, handsome face, was too familiar. The picture didn’t do him justice, but that was beside the point.

“What happened to you, Dare?” she murmured. He’d been a fugitive for almost six years, with no reported sightings in more than two. She could almost hope he was dead. Then she would never have to hunt down a man she’d admired.

In the privacy of her own head, she could admit she’d felt more for him than admiration. She hadn’t been alone in that. Most of the women Dare trained as deputies developed serious crushes. Hard to work with a man that strong, that effective, and–let’s face it–that gorgeous without feeling something. But even in hand-to-hand training, where bodies touched and adrenaline flowed along with magic shields and strikes, he’d never looked twice at anyone except Allie Henderson, the teacher who’d been his lover. And his victim. Supposedly.

A tap on her door made her start. Her cheeks heated, but she resisted the urge to change the screen. Looking at the Most Wanted Fugitives list was part of her job as shire reeve, or sheriff, of the southeastern U.S. mage shire.

She looked up as her chief deputy and closest friend, Sybil Harrison, entered. “Hey, Syb.”

“You asked me to remind you about thirty minutes ahead of the solstice gathering.” The petite, blonde woman raised an eyebrow. “Going over the fugitives list again?”

Val shrugged. “You never know when something will pop, like the tip that helped us catch Dovie Lawter last month.”

“She got careless, drawing the life energy out of neighborhood pets to recharge her power.” Staring at the screen, Sybil shook her head. “Dare was never the careless type.”

“No. I’ve read the file several times, and I still don’t understand what happened. Lawter was always a little bent. Dare…was a hero.”

Sybil frowned at his picture on the screen. He wore a khaki uniform and shire reeve badge identical to Val’s. For years he’d seemed an iconic example of what the wearer of that badge should be.

“He set a high standard,” Val added. “I still have trouble believing he could be in league with ghouls. Or that he killed the woman he loved and two of his closest friends.”

“Don’t forget murdering the chief councilor and four deputies who tried to capture him.”

“I know the file, believe me.” The incident in the council chamber, at least, was well documented. There’d been numerous witnesses. The other charges, though, left room for doubt.

“Everybody has a price,” Sybil said. “Maybe the ghouls found his.”

Val sighed. “That’s hard to believe when he crusaded against them from the time he became a deputy. He led the squad that avenged my parents. Others, too.”

Dare had hated the ghouls. Dark magic users from birth, they were unable to breed among themselves or digest anything other than fresh kill. Their long talons could sap magic or inject potentially lethal venom into the mages and Mundanes, or normal humans, they kidnapped to breed. Or to torment and kill for the fun of it.

“It’s a puzzle,” Sybil replied, “but if he didn’t do those things, Val, who did? No one ever found evidence to support his claim that Chief Councilor Althor was a ghoul ally. It seems logical Dare was trying to divert suspicion from himself.”

“If so, he picked a clumsy way to go about it.” Val drummed her fingers on her desk. “None of that changes our duty, though. We have to bring him and these others to justice.” No matter how much she wished it otherwise.

Mustering a smile, she stood. “We should go.”

Sybil sat where she was. “You aren’t feeling pressured, are you?” she asked softly. “Every shire reeve since the turn of the last century has had a most wanted list, and none of them ever cleared it.”

With a grimace, Val replied, “None of them were female, comparatively young, and the ward of the Collegium’s chief counselor. I know what people say about me, Syb.”

“They’re idiots.”

“Maybe.” Val took the covered elastic band out of her tawny hair and quickly redid her regulation ponytail. Might as well be tidy for the gathering. “Still, I get questions Dan Jacobs didn’t. Questions Dare didn’t.” Even though she had as much outside law enforcement experience as either of them.

“People will come around. They only need time.”

A spectacular capture wouldn’t hurt either, but there was no point belaboring that. Val grabbed her khaki jacket and walked out with Sybil, through the deputies’ bullpen. Val exchanged greetings with several khaki-clad men and women.

“Better hurry,” she warned them.

One deputy would man the phones. That job and gate guard duty rotated among the deputies every year. Val felt a small twinge of guilt that her job took her off the rotation.

The reeves’ domain lay at the back of the sprawling, gray stone building that was the Collegium, the mages’ headquarters. The ground sloped, so the seldom-used detention cells backed up to the hillside. The entrance, though, looked out over the football-sized field where the mages gathered for the solstice procession.

Val and Sybil walked through the steel door of the secure area, across the linoleum-floored lobby, and out the glass door. On the field at the hill’s foot, the mages of the Collegium staff gathered in the twilight, unlit candles in hand. Many of them had brought spouses and children.

Val shrugged off a twinge of envy. She’d gotten over her broken engagement months ago, but events like this, with so many couples and families attending, underscored that loss. That failure. She took a deep breath and let it out, steadying herself.

“Nice evening,” she commented. The clear air carried a slight chill, but this promised to be another of the mild December nights not uncommon in southern Georgia.

The two women started down the cement steps set into the hillside.

Sybil glanced over the crowd below and waved to someone. “I think Rob Detwiler kind of likes you.”

“He needs an ear sometimes.” Val kept her voice low, so it wouldn’t carry. The lanky accountant’s girlfriend had dropped him a couple of months earlier. “Besides, I don’t have time for a relationship, rebound or otherwise.”

If she did, she’d want someone more dynamic than sweet, absent-minded Rob. Someone like Griffin Dare. Or rather, like he’d seemed to be.

“I hear ya. But I’ve decided on my new year’s resolution. I’m going to date more. You should, too.”

“I know. The whole get-a-life routine. I hear it from Gene and Zara, too.” Her former guardians continued to keep an eye on her, sometimes a bit too much of one. She glanced over the crowd but didn’t spot them. They had to be here. As chief councilor, Gene would lead tonight’s ritual. But not meeting up beforehand would relieve Val of any duty to stay beside him and Zara, his wife.

Maybe that was just as well. Fond as she was of them, hard as they’d tried, they’d never truly understood her. Their inability to see why she didn’t jump back on the dating merry-go-round was a case in point.

Val sighed. Better to concentrate on being the best shire reeve she could, bring in one of the high-profile fugitives, Dare or someone else, and worry about relationships when she’d established herself in her position After tonight’s ceremony, she could email her chief deputies at the branch offices in the other southern states, see if they’d turned up any new info on the most wanted fugitives.

Dare, though…If she only understood what had triggered Dare’s abrupt change, it would be easier to believe. And he might be easier to find.

That tiny, guilt-riddled hope that there’d be no new info about him could just stand down. He was not only wanted but convicted and sentenced. No matter what she thought about a trial in absentia, her duty was clear. A choice between that and the man she–and so many others–had thought he was didn’t present any challenge at all. Duty came first.

At the foot of the steps, the weaponsmistress, Theresa DiMaggio, greeted them with “Happy Solstice.” The stocky, middle-aged woman had tamed her unruly salt-and-pepper curls with a red scarf. She handed Val and Sybil each a long, yellow beeswax candle.

They thanked her and returned the greeting. Joining the crowd, Val let Sybil take the lead in conversations. Solstice coming so close to Christmas reminded her how much her mom had loved the holidays.

Val noticed Gene as he climbed partly up the steps. He lit his candle magically. The golden light gleamed on his graying brown hair and caught the blue of his eyes. Affection swelled Val’s heart. He and Zara had done their best for her. It wasn’t their fault that she needed to make her own way–and sometimes felt a little…stifled, maybe, by their attempts to steer her in the directions they thought best.

“Kindred,” Gene called. “Darkness descends upon us early this night, but each coming day will be longer than the one before it. Our ancestors believed the forces of light gained the ascendancy as they moved toward the summer solstice. We can only wish this were so. Still, we honor the shift of the earth and the return of the light with this ritual.

“Light your candles.”

Val summoned the magic within her. Along with the rest of the crowd, she let power flow from a fingertip into the candle’s wick. It caught, and the glow lifted her heart. There was something primal about candlelight on a dark night.

Gene led them into the woods, heading to the standing stones that were the traditional gathering place. The magic swirling around them shielded the candle flames from the soft breeze. Val fell into line with the rest. Her parents had loved the solstice candles, so she put Dare and the other fugitives on the list out of her mind. The job would be waiting tomorrow. Tonight, she would remember, and celebrate.

#

A man on the run had no right to expect anything resembling normal in his life. That made tonight’s gathering doubly special.

Griff toweled his hair while his computer booted. Voices drifted up the big farmhouse’s stairs and through his closed door. There was the smooth baritone of Stefan Harper, the Collegium’s chief physician and Griff’s closest friend. The more exuberant tones heralded Will Davis, the second-in-command of Griff’s little network devoted to hunting down ghouls and unmasking the mage traitor in league with them. If Stefan was Griff’s closest friend, Will was the brother he’d never had.

Those two had stuck by him through even the worst moments. The others due here tonight had come along later, taking him on faith despite not knowing him nearly as well.

That hearty laugh belonged to his hostess, Miss Hettie Telfair. Griff smiled. Hettie should laugh more, but he had the feeling something weighed at her, down deep where she could mostly ignore it. Rather than leave her alone for the holidays, he’d used the needed repairs on his new place out by the swamp, an abandoned chair factory, as an excuse to stay over for a few days.

He opened the browser and typed in the URL for Magewire, the mage online news service. Waiting for the page to load, he pulled on jeans and a red sweater.

A jingling sound came from the hallway, the collar tags of Magnus, Hettie’s huge golden retriever. Sometimes Griff wondered if the dog could possibly be part elephant. A scratching noise and a low whine at the door made his smile spread into a grin. Who could resist a big, friendly dog?

He typed Valeria Banning’s name into the site’s search function, then took the two steps necessary to open the door. Magnus looked up at him with undisguised triumph, padded into the room, and leaped onto the bed. Griff ran a hand down the beast’s shaggy back before turning again to the computer.

Nothing new on Banning personally. She and a squad of deputies had caught Dovie Lawter, the mage who’d been creating lethal mischief for Mundanes. Griff gave a satisfied nod. The tip he’d sent in anonymously had paid off.

Footsteps came up the stairs. “Hey.” Will sauntered into the room. “Marc’s on his way, and Tasha just drove up with Lorelei. You coming?” He dropped onto the bed by the happily panting dog. “Oh, man. Not Banning again. You worry too much about her.”

“She’s the likeliest person to come after me.” Griff shut the laptop. He remembered Valeria Banning as a trainee, smart, dedicated, solid. She demonstrated the same qualities as shire reeve. Too bad he and she were on opposite sides and likely always would be.

Not that he could afford involvement with anyone. Allie’s death proved that decisively. He wouldn’t have another woman on his conscience.

Will ran a hand through his shaggy, brown-and-blond hair. His blue eyes unusually serious, he said, “I’ve developed a source, Griff. I’d let you know if that was in the works. Besides, they won’t find you as long as you wear your Eye of Horus pendant.”

“We hope.” Griff shrugged. “Besides,” he added in a dry voice, “you can’t tell me you want us to rely on pillow talk as an alert system. Banning has over a hundred deputies. Your source might not be in the loop.”

“Or she could dump my ass.” Will grinned, and his face suddenly looked boyish despite his recent thirtieth birthday. “Anyway, she’s not my only source.”

“They never are.” Griff shook his head. Will’s love the one you’re with creed had advantages for their network, but surely he would tire of it sooner or later. He’d better. No one could play forever.

“I got you something.” Suddenly serious again, Will drew out his wallet and extracted a photo. He passed it over.

Griff took one glance, and his throat closed. There he was, sitting around the picnic table at home in Macon with his parents and sister. This had been taken at a July Fourth picnic with Will’s family the year before Griff learned of the chief councilor’s treason and went rogue. For his family’s sake, he’d steered clear for the five-plus years since that fateful day.

All four of them had jet-black hair, his dad’s feathered with gray at the temples. Griff had forgotten how much he looked like his dad, with the same strong features but his mom’s blue eyes, while Caro was the opposite, classically beautiful like Mom but with Dad’s gray eyes. Too bad she couldn’t see out of them, could only sense color magically by touch.

Still, she wove gorgeous tapestries. After this long, she was probably superb at it. If only he could see her work.

He drew a deep, painful breath. “How?” he managed.

“Sneaked it out of Mom’s album the last time I was home and scanned it. She never knew I’d taken it.” Quietly, Will added, “Merry Christmas, bro.”

Blinking, Griff cleared his throat. “Merry Christmas.” He had to swallow before he could say, “Thanks, Will. Really, thanks.”

“No big.” Will’s voice sounded rough. “Shoulda done it years ago.” He stood and gripped Griff’s shoulder. After a moment, his grin flashed. “Besides, you owe me now.”

“Hey up there,” Stefan called from the foot of the stairs. “You ever coming down?”

“On the way,” Griff replied. Carefully, he set the precious photo by his laptop.

Magnus jumped off the bed and trotted out the door.

“I saw the tree,” Will said. “It’s a beauty. You set it up and get out the ornaments?”

Griff nodded. “I put the lights on already so you and Tasha don’t fight about it again.”

“All white is so lame.”

From the foot of the stairs, petite, brunette Lorelei Martin informed them, “Nothing is lame at Christmas. Tasha likes themes.”

“People pay me to create them at the holidays, just as I do in their homes the rest of the year.” Tall, auburn-haired Tasha joined Lorelei. The long bangs of her boyish hairstyle were rumpled, as though she’d had her hands in them. Blue eyes twinkling, she added, “I know more about aesthetics than some guy who digs for junk in the dirt.”

“Artifacts are not ‘junk,’” Will informed her. “The Greeks, for example, forgot more about aesthetics than you’ll ever learn. As your friendly neighborhood archaeologist, I take note of the debt you design types owe them.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Griff’s mouth. His close-knit, loyal team might pretend they had nothing better to do, but he knew they took time out of their holidays to give him one. They eased some of the ache from missing his family. Of his inner circle, only Javy Ruiz and Chuck Porter were absent, home with wives and kids who were involved in Solstice celebrations.

He and Will reached the wide hall at the foot of the stairs. An antique Persian runner in burgundy and blue added an elegant note to the wide, cypress planks. The trees to build this house and lay that wood floor, just after the Civil War, had likely come from the nearby Okefenokee Swamp.

The group trooped into the big, high-ceilinged living room, where a twelve-foot spruce stood by the bay window. Colored lights twinkled from the branches, and its scent filled the air. Surrounded by boxes of ornaments, Stefan knelt beside the tree, his lean face intent. His dark brown bangs fell over his brow as he swathed the stand in red flannel printed with white stars.

“Where’s Hettie?” Griff asked. “We can’t start without her.”

“Kitchen.” Head and shoulders low to avoid the branches, Stefan pushed the fabric under the tree.

“Not that the view is bad from this angle,” Tasha teased, standing behind him, “but since Hettie’s not in here, you could do that magically and not get greenery in your hair.”

“That’s against tradition.” Stefan crawled to the other side of the tree.

Someone started the stereo. The Boston Pops’ rendition of “Jingle Bells,” Hettie’s favorite, burst gaily from the speakers.

Humming along, Griff headed back into the hall, past the stairs on his right and the dining room on his left, and into the big kitchen with its worn, blue countertops. He took an appreciative sniff of cloves, cinnamon and citrus from something in the oven. A butcher-block table in the room’s center held a big plate of cookies–mounded ones full of chocolate chips, flat sugar cookies cut into holiday shapes and sprinkled with red and green crystal sugar, and even some brownies.

Hettie stood by the sink. Fiddling with the end of her long, gray braid, she stared out the window at the side yard. She usually projected so much energy that he forgot she was in her seventies. Today, the fine lines around her eyes and mouth and across her forehead seemed more evident.

Lying beside her, Magnus thumped his tail.

Griff ignored the hopeful look the dog shot him. “You need help, Hettie?”

She turned with a wry smile. “Seems to me you already offered a lot of that, boy. Setting up the tree, hauling ornaments out of the attic, fixing a leaky toilet.”

Griff shrugged. “I like to be useful.”

“Well, let that go for a while, Gray.”

He managed not to wince at his alias. Deceiving Hettie felt wrong, but it was for her own good. Having an artist friend and former boarder named Gray Walker couldn’t tie her, or anyone else in the nearby town of Wayfarer, to renegade mage Griffin Dare.

Hettie continued, “You need to enjoy the holiday. You look tired, and I don’t think it’s from meeting deadlines for paintings.”

“Caught me.” He mustered a grin. “It’s woman trouble, Hettie. Marry me and wipe them all out of my mind.”

She chuckled. “Go on with you! Since you’re here, you can help just a bit more and take those cookies into the living room. I’ll bring the coffee pot.”

“If you’re okay. When I walked in, you looked…distracted.”

“Maybe a bit.” Patting his arm, she added, “When you get to be my age, you’ve said right many goodbyes.”

“And you remember at the holidays,” he said. Of course she did, just the way he missed his family.

“Ghosts of Christmases past.” But she smiled and reached for the silver coffee pot.

Griff walked into the living room behind her. The Boston Pops had given way to Mannheim Steamroller. His friends greeted Hettie and the cookies with equal enthusiasm.

The group had grown by one, lanky Unitarian minister Marc Wagner. Behind wire-framed glasses, his blue eyes gleamed with pleasure. He pushed his unruly mop of brown hair out of his face. Nodding at Griff and Hettie, he said, “Hey, y’all. Sorry I’m late. The kids were practicing their holiday program, and I got held up.”

“You’re here now, and just in time.” Lorelei smiled at him. Marc’s duties as director of the Wayfarer homeless shelter kept him running. In a few days, Griff would help decorate the tree there, too.

As the rest swarmed over the ornaments, Marc softly asked Griff, “Staying out of trouble?”

“Always watching my back.” Marc was the only person in Wayfarer who knew Griff’s real identity. Finding Griff wounded and semiconscious beside the road after a battle with ghouls, he’d given in to Griff’s pleas that the cops not be called. Marc had taken Griff to his little house in Wayfarer, tended his wounds, and helped him contact Stefan. All of that made aliases seem silly.

Marc nodded. “Stay vigilant.” With a smile, he added, “The shelter kids would miss those magic tricks.”

“So would I.”

Marc drifted toward the ornament boxes. Griff turned to the tree but found Stefan in his path with two coffee mugs. The rich aroma of the drink mingled with the tree’s fresh, spruce scent.

“Cream only,” Stefan said, offering one cup. Despite his easy smile, his brown eyes were keen, skimming Griff’s face. “Everything okay?”

Accepting the mug, Griff mustered a smile instead of giving in to the urge to roll his eyes. “Except that people ask if everything is okay.”

“Holidays can be rough.” Stefan’s lips curved as he watched Tasha and Will drape a garland around the tree. “Even with gatherings of friends.”

“It is what it is.” Griff rolled his shoulders. He didn’t have to put up a front for Stefan.

Stefan said, “Hettie invited me to dinner Christmas Eve, but I took the holiday shift in the infirmary.”

“You would.” With the Collegium more than an hour away, Stefan couldn’t get back there fast enough in an emergency. Griff shook his head. “Most of the Collegium staff, except for Banning and some reeves, will be away. You deserve a family Christmas, too, Stefan.”

Stefan shrugged. “I’ll have one when you do.” Before Griff could argue, Stefan continued, “Besides, ghouls don’t make trouble on a schedule. Whenever they do, reeves get hurt.”

“Right.”

Stefan clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s dive in before they accuse us of–”

“Hey,” Lorelei called, “you don’t help, you don’t snack. Stefan, Gray, move it.”

“That’s for Hettie to say. It’s her food.” Across his mug, Griff flashed Lorelei a grin.

Primly, Hettie replied, “I won’t contradict my guest. Dive in, y’all, and we’ll be done that much faster. I have a ham in the oven.”

“Why didn’t you say that sooner?” Will demanded. He leaned over a box, then straightened with an angel in his hand.

Chuckling, Griff and Stefan joined the decorating. Griff let the jokes and teasing and discussions flow around him. A couple or three hours to the northwest, in Macon, his parents and sister and the brother-in-law he’d never met would also be gathered around a tree. Mom always wanted theirs decorated at the solstice. Someday, maybe, he’d be there to help again. If he could clear his name.

Meanwhile, there were ghouls and their nests to destroy and a mage traitor to hunt. He had plenty to keep him busy. Glancing around the tree, he smiled. He also had the best friends any man, mage or Mundane could want. For now, that was enough.

The End

         

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