She had to leave the house. It was stuffy and filled with too many people she didn’t know or like. Her insides felt like a coiled wire, and she knew she would snap in a very ugly way if she stayed in much longer.
Standing, she touched Xander on the shoulder, whispering that she would be right back. He nodded, staring ahead blankly. She hesitated and added, “We’ll find her, Xander.” He nodded again, this time locking eyes with her for a moment.
Grabbing a thick blanket rather than a coat, she stepped outside. The wind had picked up significantly, and the limbs on the big oak creaked and groaned. Her stomach turned when she considered the possibility of an ice storm coming before they found Sparrow. She picked up her pace, walking toward the barn. Maybe there would be a clue that everyone else had missed.
She clung to the hope that Sparrow had fallen asleep somewhere, or that she was simply lost, sitting somewhere, as she had been taught, and waiting to be found.
Tears threatened to come, but she knew it would lead to a raging storm that she wasn’t quite ready to succumb to just yet. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself. Shaking her head and raising her hands to her hair, she groaned. The wind matched her unspoken fears.
As she arrived at the barn, her body was trembling. She could feel panic setting in. She was so angry, so very angry at herself for allowing this to happen. She got on her hands and knees and began to inspect every inch of ground around the area where Sparrow was last seen.
She heard footsteps behind her and glanced around quickly. It was Xander. He looked as stricken as she felt, but there was something else. He came at her almost too quickly.
Reaching her, he grabbed her arms.
“I have to tell you something,” he said. “I have to tell you quickly, and you can’t tell them.”
Her heart was racing and she felt the blood drain from her face. “Xander…”
“Just listen,” he said, and told her about the bag of runes he had found weeks before.
She stared at him, not completely comprehending his story. “You found them here?” she asked, gesturing to the barn. He nodded. “You need to tell the police!”
He shook his head vehemently. “They’re mine.”
“Like hell they’re yours!” she shouted.
“They are!” he whispered passionately, grabbing her arms tighter. “They say my name!”
Barely able to contain herself, she stared at him in fear and shock. A possibility that she had not considered before came to her.
“Xander, where’s Sparrow?”
He shook his head in anger. “How would I know that?”
“Could your… stones… tell you?” she asked, trying to sound calm but coming across only as condescending.
“Are you kidding me? I’ve tried that a hundred times,” he said. He then realized what she must be thinking. “No,” he whispered. “This is real. I’m not crazy.”
As he took a breath to begin his argument, he got distracted by a glimmer just outside his field of vision. Nim followed his glance.
“What?” she asked in fear.
“I thought I saw… I don’t know,” he said, returning his attention to his sister. He reached in his pockets. “Give me one minute to show you this, and if you still think I’m crazy, I will willingly follow you back inside and you can tell Detective Mason everything I just told you. OK?”
Hesitating slightly, she nodded her assent.
He pulled out the black velvet bag, then three runes from inside. He blew on them, and everything changed.
(NEXT CHAPTER, NEEDS BETTER PACING)
In an instant, Xander and Nim were standing in the corner of a large hall. Dozens of people sat at a large table and talked loudly. Others came and went from hallways carrying large trays of food and pitchers of drink. It was chaos.
“Nim,” Xander whispered. She stared, her mouth agape.
They were at least ten feet away from the nearest person sitting, but much too close for comfort. They backed up until they were against a wall covered in a large fur. In fact, fur seemed to be the theme of the party. Most of the men seated were draped in it, despite the large roaring fire at the opposite side of the hall. Other than the servants, there were no women present, a fact not lost upon Nim. She stood frozen in place, catatonic with fear.
Xander was no better.
“Where are we?” she whispered to her brother.
“Uh…” he stalled, “don’t know. “This hasn’t happened before. But it’s… familiar…”
“I think I’d remember this,” she said, trying not to draw attention. A large man at the head of a large table laughed heartily. Others joined in.
Suddenly, from the opposite end of a hall, a tall man stormed in. His eyes were wide and he panted for breath. He put his hand on a wall to steady himself.
“Who has them?” he shouted raspily. “Who has returned my stones?”
The room got uncomfortably quiet very quickly. The man at the head of the table — and closest to Nim and Xander — pushed his chair back and stood.
“Brother, what are you saying?”
The tall man’s glance shifted to the pair behind his brother. His eyes grew wider.
“Are you kidding me right now?” Nim whispered to no one in particular.
Xander’s hands tightened around his runes and he hid them behind his back.
“How?” the man said breathlessly. He rubbed a sweaty palm on his black leather pants and raised the other to his face. “How?”
He gaped a moment more, then strode quickly to the siblings, eyes locked on Nim. Her stomach turned again and she grabbed Xander by the wrist.
“Xander, Xander, Xander,” she chanted, unable to form any other words.
“What?” he whispered hoarsely. “I have no idea what’s happening. This has never happened. There’s nowhere to go.” He continued babbling as she continued chanting his name.
The man came at them quickly and stopped a foot away from Nim. He stared for a moment. “Do you know me?” he asked much gentler than she expected. She shook her head but otherwise stood completely still.
The man at the head of the table walked over.
“Brother, what –”
“Go!” the man in black screamed, turning to everyone in the room. “All of you! Go!”
As the company scattered, Xander took the opportunity to place the runes back in the bag as quickly as possible, dropping one on the floor as he did so. It clattered loudly. The man in black turned suddenly, his face all fierceness where gentleness once resided. His glance dropped from Xander to the rune on the floor and he reached for it as Xander did the same.
Nim looked all around the hall, furiously searching for a way to escape. She saw four or five servants peeking through a door to the left, their eyes wide. Behind one of them stood a small child, clutching the skirts of a maid.
“Sparrow!” Nim screamed, just as Xander grabbed the fallen rune and forced it into the black bag.