Hunted: The World of the Changelingsby KM Sullivan / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure / Historical Fiction
The World of the Changelings
Copyright 2017 KM Sullivan
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental
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I heard a wild cry echo through the mists, as though hounds howled against the night.
The Plain, Mag Mell, was empty – stripped of all lore, all magic and life – and Niamh Golden Hair’s curses still rang in my ears.
I would rue the day I had turned from her cause, she had said.
As the sound caused dread to prickle my skin, a part of me laughed. There is a reason Niamh is the Fae’s greatest spell weaver and seer, though few risk the king’s ire to say so.
The mists pressed down upon me. They started to dance. So wrapped up in my own misery – my own hot denial of her visions – was I, I did not see their grasping fingers twine ‘round my legs.
And then that cry. That hideous, desperate cry.
The king - Nuada Silver Arm. It had to be.
I carried a sword, gifted to me by that same king for wining his war, but it’s blade mattered little. Nothing crafted by man can harm the Fae. Once it was said they could be killed – that the Fae feared man’s iron – but I knew it was a fairy tale.
The cry which rent the air told me I was hunted. It is always so for those who can travel between the worlds. Why did I think I would be any different? The war I won for Nuada Silver Arm had been over for an age – man had forgotten it as they sped beyond us.
I was a man outside of time, beyond the help of kindred, and I had just turned my back on the last of those who cared.
A haunting wail pierced the air, adding anguish to the wild cry of terror. We sang in tune, my hunter and I, and when he ripped the world from beneath my feet, I nearly wept with relief.
“What do you remember?”
Dubh Súile mac Alasdair lifted his eyes to the red-haired man standing over him. He looked smart in his pilot’s uniform. He was young, yet his green eyes spoke of many battles.
Every day it was the same question.
Every day he said the same thing.
It was a lie.
Each of the 1200 years I had lived among man and Fae spread out before me – loves and lives lost taunted me whenever I closed my eyes.
Each moment of the war which had torn me from the world of men screamed at me in dreams, and the memory of magic, which had once been my reward, still lingered on my skin.
But that was not what the young man meant.
A broadsheet included with this day’s breakfast declared it was 1 March 1944. The narrow bed in which I lay belonged to the Queen Mary Convalescent Auxiliary Hospital just outside London, England.
I had not been in London for nearly 400 years. Metal-clad machines prowled the streets, their growl replacing the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobbles.
It had been one of these—these things, which looked more like the monsters reserved for the unknown realms at the map’s edge than something man should ride within, which had put me at the mercy of the white-capped ladies of Queen Mary’s in the first place.
The only thing that remained the same was the endless war – only this time it wasn’t with the French.
“Nothing at all?” Pale eyebrows arched to etch lines of disbelief in the sergeant’s face.
“I remember nearly cracking your skull, even as I cracked my own.”
Not my finest moment, but Nuada Silver Arm had not meant it to be. In fact, I was certain the king meant it to be my last moment.
“You and the cab came out of nowhere – if you hadn’t rolled me out of the way, I might have been hit by the bloody thing myself. Your reflexes are sound, at least.”
“Physically,” I admitted. “My memory before that black cab is a little dim, however.”
“And yet, the doctors tell me the memory loss is a protective mechanism – depending on what it’s protecting, I would say that reflex is also quite good, soldier.”
My left eyebrow raised of its own accord and the sergeant finally cracked a smile.
The sergeant's smile turned into mock surprise. “What’s this, no retort? No denial? I call you ‘soldier’ and you simply accept it?”
I answered his smile with a wry twist of my lips. It was about time. At turns solicitous and stern, the sergeant had been trying for two days to uncover my identity.
“I have been a warrior – among many things – all my days. I could no more deny it than willingly stop breathing. And yet, I do not know for whom I fight.”
“For Queen and Country, that’s who,” the sergeant snapped. “I had a thought you were from one of the Highland regiments. A lad from the Black Watch had gone missing on his way back from the front. Deserter, they thought.”
The word slithered through the air, now sharp and sour. The sergeant’s eyes had turned to flint as he waited for me to twitch, blubber, or show any other sign my memory loss – amnesia the doctors called it – was a ruse.
I stared placidly at him, and waited for him to continue. My mortal record – all my mortal records – had been lost to time for centuries, but creating an identity from whole-cloth was foolhardy at best. No longer did man rely on a messenger who might take days, if not weeks, to reach his destination. In 1944, a command from a faceless man half a world away could move – or halt – an entire army.
“A Corporal Doyle McAlister, late of Dingwall? I sent up your photo. Captain there says it was blurred – don’t know how that bloody happened – but it’s close enough.”
Breathing was suddenly difficult. My family name – and the name of my home – had changed only slightly. Was this more of Nuada’s machinations, or some other agent of fate?
I took care with my words. “The names feel familiar, sir, but I can’t say for certain I am your man.”
“That will do enough for me.”
It was my turn to smile. “Why in such a hurry to tag a name to me, sir?”
“Because amnesia or not, you’re a canny one, Corporal. You watch, you wait and you keep your own counsel. I have need of a man with your skills.”
If I was being tested, the matching grin on Sergeant O’Malley’s face said I’d passed.
“And I was only granted two day’s extra leave. I’m due back at 8 Group tomorrow. So, unless you would prefer to return to the front with your regiment…?”
O’Malley left the question hanging, but I didn’t leave it there for long. I’d seen the mechanical monstrosities man had made – and I had no desire to experience them any closer than I already had.
“You’ve cleared this with McAlister’s commanding officer, Sergeant O’Malley?”
“Indeed, Corporal McAlister, I have. How do you feel about aeroplanes?”
“So, what do you think of her, Corporal?”
“She’s beautiful, sir.”
“You’re a funny sort, McAlister – you talk like you’ve never even seen a plane before.”
And so I hadn’t, but I wasn’t about to tell that to Sergeant Patrick O’Malley.
The twentieth century was rife with oddities, but aeroplanes were the most fantastic contraptions I had yet seen. Growing up, the Christian monks had claimed their god ruled the heavens, but now it seemed man had invaded even that domain.
I had always been a warrior, a worshiper of the land, and student of the unseen things between worlds. Never had I dreamed to exist so high, with only the clouds and birds for company.
I tore my eyes from the twin-engine beauty called a de Havilland Mosquito to look at the young man who was now my commanding officer.
Pat’s red hair was bright in the spring sun and freckles stood out boldly on his pale skin. He was twenty-four – a good ten years younger than me, had I cared to count the number of mortal years to take their toll on my body.
“Keen for a bit of flying, Corporal?”
Jamie – Sergeant James McAndrew – nudged me in the ribs and gave me a rakish grin. He was always teasing someone, but his best friend, Sergeant Patrick O’Malley, was his favourite target. Considering they had been friends since their days at boarding school, and co-pilots for six years, he had the right.
Both men could have become officers – had they taken the offered break between their tours of duty and attended officer training. They were natural leaders and had the respect of any crew who worked with them.
Instead, they had gotten married and spent a brief leave in Scotland, at Jamie’s family home. Being reassigned to the Path Finder Force of 8 Group, under Air Vice-Marshall Bennett had been their reward. Together, the men had survived four tours of duty – two of them with 8 Group.
“You can’t take him up, Jamie,” Pat said now. “It’s against regulations.”
“Ever since they graced you with an aide, you’ve been all over these ruddy regulations.” There was laughter in Jamie’s voice and a merry twinkle in his blue eyes to take the sting from his words.
“Ah sure, and didn’t they offer you the same thing? You’ve more need of an aide than I do – your desk is a disaster.”
“Don’t tell me he has you filing papers while he’s dazzling the lasses doing loop-de-loops in the sky.”
“If anyone would know about that, sir . . .” I graced the black-haired Scot with a wry grin and Jamie barked a surprised laugh.
“The tongue on you – Pat did well to bring you on,” he said as he clapped me on the back. “Not that anyone will tell you anything, but I’m sure you have ways around their reticence.”
“Enough, Jamie,” Pat warned. “You’re not supposed to know about that, either.”
No one was supposed to know I had been brought on to provide cover for the reconnaissance flights into Germany. There was some talk that 8 Group had a mole, and it was my job to find him – or her – and plug the leak before a big offensive set to take place later in the month.
On the train from London, Pat had explained the Intelligence Services had tapped him for work in 8 Group headquarters. He was not keen on the new role. He was still a pilot at heart, which was why he had enlisted me as his aide, and had “Corporal McAlister” transferred to the Administrative and Special Duties Branch. This way, Pat could take to the skies while I watched and listened on the ground.
Jamie nodded at his friend, but wasn’t done trying to get me in the sky. “Come on, Pat. The laddie here has been through hell.”
Pat looked between us and a small smile started at the corner of his mouth. “Ah, you’re worse than my nannie, God rest her.”
“Och aye, I’ve one of those myself.” Jamie grinned. He had won. “Just don’t tell Aunt Margaret I said so – she’d have my head for talking about her like that!”