Melusine's Cats #1
Jesse Adams is an ex-rugby player who's gone into seclusion to avoid the media following a guilty verdict in a court case. Jesse has come to live for a year in Greenlynn, where he is supposed to be writing his biography. Will Blake is an out and proud policeman, respected and liked by the community he helps to protect from rural crime. When the two men meet their attraction is instant, but they have no idea their love will draw them into a centuries' old conflict.
Melusine, a deity of rivers and seas, long ago lost the Battle of the Betrayal and is imprisoned in a nexus centred on the source of the Lynn River. She can only travel in the flowing water of her river, and cannot set foot on her banks. Her cats are not so bound. Neither pets nor familiars, they move freely between the realities, her agents among the humans who live along the Lynn.
When Melusine's enemies come to the valley in search of revenge, Jesse and Will discover they have a part to play in the ancient feud. Do they commit to becoming part of a mythical triad, or leave the valley and forget they ever knew that magic exists?
- 2 To Be Read lists
"If you want to be anonymous, don't go and live in a village in the back of beyond. Out there, you'll get nothing but trouble." Sid Levison gazed at the brochure and its picture of the small cottage with whitewashed stone walls, slate roof and neat colourful garden. His disparaging sigh said more than mere words. "Sexton's Cottage, Greenlynn, Devon. Look at it! The potential is horrific! If you really need to get away from it all, rent a flat in an inner city high-rise. You'll have all the peace and quiet you need to write."
"If I wanted that, I'd stay home," Jesse answered, his jaw set in characteristic stubbornness. "Sid, I appreciate your concern and I know you mean well, but for God's sake, get off my back! I'm there for twelve months. Get over it!"
"You won't last twelve weeks. Hell, if you hold out for twelve days it'll be a miracle."
"Yes, I am. Jess, I've been your friend for ten years, and your agent for six. Country life is not for you. The gossip grapevine will have broadcast your name around the village within a few hours of you signing the bloody lease, along with all the lurid details of your coming out, the brawl and you breaking Harry Crendle's jaw, and now the trial. They won't spare any exaggeration, I promise you. It'll be intolerable, and you'll end up damaging someone else's face."
"No, I won't. I can't, remember? A fine and twelve months' imprisonment suspended for one year. But it was worth it. Harry had it coming. He and his little gang of arse-lickers--they're a bunch of entitled, homophobic shits." He didn't mention John Fulton, the man who'd deceived and outed him by selling their story to the Daily Mail, which had started the whole train of events.
"Yeah, and you're Jesse Bulldozer Adams, the terror of the rugby pitch. Oh, sorry. Correction. The ex-Bulldozer, thanks to the lying scum who backed up the sod's story, not to mention Crendle's dad on the Rhinos' board, his brother the journalist and his uncle the cop."
"You don't have to remind me," Jesse growled. He pinched the bridge of his nose in an effort to push away the tiredness that threatened to wear him down. To be a professional rugby union player had been his life's ambition. It didn't matter that he was county level rather than a candidate for the national squad, playing in the front row for the Warwick Rhinos had been a dream come true. It had lasted for six years.
Back in March, John's tabloid story had given their brief affair a salacious twist, but since his family, his teammates and coaches already knew, it had only made for a few uncomfortable days until the shit hit the fan. No, John hadn't ruined his career. Harry Crendle had done that, with help from Jesse himself. His parents, brother and wider family had been there for him, one hundred percent. Most of the Rhinos had stood by him, had given interviews supporting him and, later, condemning homophobia. But with the court case going against him, plus the covert hostility from certain members of the club's board of directors, the damage was done. The insidious tide of lies and insinuations following the dustup with Harry and his pals meant that Jesse's contract hadn't been renewed at the end of the season. No other club had wanted all the negative publicity that would come with him. So, at twenty-nine, he was effectively benched for the foreseeable future.
It was September now and the new season would be starting soon. Jesse needed to be away from his home, his ex-teammates, everything that would remind him of what had been taken away from him by his own hot-headed stupidity and the maliciousness of others. His expression must have shown his thoughts, because Sid leaned over his desk and patted his arm.
"You'll get your career back," Sid said quietly. "This autobiography of yours will turn things around, I promise you. Just keep up your fitness, don't lose hope, and by this time next year you'll be signed up and playing again."
Writing an autobiography at his age had struck Jesse as plain stupid at first, until Sid had explained it to him. Yes, it was a publicity stunt, but it would serve good, practical purposes as well. He would, of course, state the truth behind his conviction for Grievous Bodily Harm, and that--in Sid's not so humble opinion--would reinstate him in the eyes of rugby clubs across the country as well as the sporting public.
The second benefit was, as a respected and talented sportsman, he wouldn't be writing his life story so much as helping other gay kids come to terms with their sexuality. The third was that some straight people--especially parents--would come to see that to be gay--and by extension, lesbian, bisexual and transgender--was simply another facet of the complex human genome. Nothing to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of, and as outside a person's control as the colour of their skin. Decision made, the next thing he had to overcome was the reluctance to bare his soul in public.
"Yeah," Jesse said, and hoped his smile didn't look as fake as it felt. He folded the brochure and put it back in his pocket. "I'll text you when I get there. Bye, Sid."
"You better. Oh, wait a minute." Sid reached down beside his chair and brought out a large supermarket bag packed full of groceries and wrapped foodstuff. "Julie put together a survival kit for you," he said and held it out. "Food and drink for the journey, and basics you might need in the cottage."
"That's great. Saves me having to go to the local shops when I get there. Thanks, Sid. Give her a hug from me."
"I will. She said you'd probably not have any supplies with you. Y'know, if you weren't gay, I'd be worried about how much my wife likes you."
This time Jesse's smile was unforced and genuine. "Think yourself lucky, then, because if I was straight, you'd never have stood a chance with her."
"In your dreams!" Sid cackled and waved him towards the door. "Go on, hop it. The sooner you get to the depths of darkest Devon, the sooner you'll get In The Ruck finished."
"Okay, okay! I'm going." But before he closed the office door behind him, he paused and glanced over his shoulder. "I still hate the title, by the way. Think of something else. Please."
The drive from Warwick to the far side of north Devon took nearly four hours, the latter part spent travelling through narrow country roads that wound over the landscape like the tracks of tortured snakes. Greenlynn nestled alongside the river Lynn where the valley opened out to wide meadowland. Stone cottages and a few shops lined the approach road, the lanes that rambled off in various directions, and clustered around a large open space. The Crown, an old coaching inn by the look of it, faced onto the green. St Michael's church sat opposite. Both buildings dwarfed the houses around them. The main road passed another pub, the Bridge Inn, and crossed the river via the wide stone bridge to continue south towards Barnstaple.
Jesse's temporary home lay east of the church, a small cottage with long narrow gardens front and back, surrounded by a waist-high wall constructed of irregular chunks of rock. The wall separated it from the rather unkempt churchyard, and on the other side of the property, a grassy track isolated the cottage from its living neighbours. Nothing much would disturb the quiet here, Jesse reflected.
He drew into the parking bay in front of the gate, and climbed out of his Mitsubishi Shogun 4x4. He took a moment to stretch his back after long hours behind the wheel, and drew in a deep breath of clean country air. The late afternoon sun highlighted trees that showed no sign of wearing autumn colours. Seasonal scents of cut grass and wood smoke mingled with late-flowering honeysuckle. A couple of dogs barked in the distance and from somewhere came the drone of a tractor. After the hurly-burly of Warwick, it was a welcome relief.
"Yes," Jesse said aloud. "This is a good idea."
For the next half an hour he unloaded the car, unpacked his cases and put away their contents, explored the house--living room and kitchen downstairs, one bedroom and bathroom upstairs--and the large shed in the back garden. This held various garden tools, and Jesse was fired with the ambition to do some weeding and planting. After all, garden maintenance was part of the leasing conditions. A bench backed onto the shed with a small half-moon of patio in front of it, facing south. A good place to sit and view the countryside most of the day. So Jesse made himself a large mug of coffee and did just that.
Movement in the churchyard caught his eye. He strolled over to the wall and leaned his elbows on it, coffee in his hand. A large grey cat had hopped up onto a reddish gravestone and sat there, peering intently at something in the long grass, its bushy tail curled around its toes. Jesse wondered briefly how an animal of that size could perch on a narrow slab of granite, and waited for it to jump or fall off. The cat did neither. Perhaps it sensed his gaze, because it turned its head and stared right back at him.
Jesse was not a devotee of felines--his pet of choice would be a large dog, a Golden Retriever, perhaps, or a Labrador--so he saluted the cat with a two-fingered V, and strolled back to the bench. By the time he sat again, the cat was on the wall. Its eyes, he noticed, were yellow as an owl's.
"Bugger off," he told it. The cat didn't even blink. What's your problem? the flat glare seemed to say.
Jesse drank the last of his coffee and returned to the kitchen. Despite Julie's survival kit and the fresh milk, eggs. butter and bread left for him in the fridge by whoever prepared the cottage for renting, he needed to stock the bare cupboards and the equally empty small freezer. On his way into Greenlynn he'd noticed an all-purpose shop cum post office. That would do for the time being, and he'd drive to the nearest supermarket when he'd settled in.
It took him all of five minutes to walk to the shop, and less than thirty seconds to be aware of the stares. There weren't many people about, but those that were seemed to pay him more attention than would usually be given to a stranger in a village. He found out why when he went inside. Immediately to his right was a rack of magazines and newspapers. His face stared out at him from the cover of the monthly Rugby Today, with one word blazoned across it, Guilty! The painful memories of the sporting papers and the field day they'd had at his expense when he'd been arrested four months ago, returned in full force. Career Over For The Bulldozer Bully! had screamed one headline. Violence Ends Career Of Gay Star! was another.
For a moment Jesse felt physically sick. He gritted his teeth and picked up a basket. He wasn't going to retreat, no matter how much he wanted to make a run for it. He ditched the vague plans he'd made to go to the pub for a drink and dinner. Instead he decided to buy a few ready-meals and a six pack, and get back to the cottage as fast as he could. Then he'd stay out of sight as much as possible. The trouble was, being six feet four inches tall and built like a brick shithouse, meant he was rather noticeable.
The middle-aged woman at the till took his cash without saying a word, but her expressionless stare radiated disapproval. Jesse was glad to escape. Returning to the cottage was like walking towards a sanctuary, and not even the grey cat sitting sentinel on the wide gate post could lessen the feeling. But the bright red words scrawled across the windscreen of his car changed that.
Go Home Fagot !!! Your Not Wanted Here!
This time anger took the place of nausea. Jesse's first impulse was to call the police. This was, after all, vandalism and a hate crime. His second was to get soap and water and clean off his car. The third impulse won out. He strode into the cottage, tore a sheet out of his A4 paper pad, and scribbled on it. Then he went back outside and stuck it under the windscreen wiper.
To whom it may concern. Please note, 'faggot' has two gs, and there should be a comma after 'Home'. 'Your' is incorrect. It should be 'You're', which is a contraction of 'You Are'. If you're going to be a homophobic vandal, at least be grammatically correct even if you don't want to be politically correct.
His fourth impulse, to pack up and go back to Warwick, didn't even get past the starting post. He was staying put. No one was going to drive him away, not even if they came banging on his front door with tar, feathers, and pitchforks.
* * * *
Only death can break a triad, but the loss cuts deep into the survivors' hearts. Editha, their warrior, was dead--her life ended by Melusine while Greymalkin and his two warriors held Morgan and Hilde at bay, and for that Morgan would have his revenge.
Time flowed differently in the planes of the Here, There and Otherwhere, but by any reckoning, Morgan and Hilde spent many years closed off from the worlds. The length of his imprisonment did nothing to ease the pain of that loss, though having Hilde at his side made it more bearable for both of them. The memory of Editha formed an ever-present empty space in his soul, and he knew Hilde felt it as keenly. It was no consolation that Melusine's ultimate defeat had cost the lives of many of those loyal to her. She lived, and that was unacceptable.
Their prison was the only house in the centre of a compound hedged about by an unbroken circle of briars armed with vicious thorns. The barricade was merely the visible token of the overarching bars of power which locked them in. That other barrier may have been unseen, but Morgan felt it every day and night, awake or sleeping, like the sting of nettles under his skin. A paltry discomfort at first, after a while it became a torture in its own right.
They saw no one. Morgan was weaponless. Not even his spell-skills answered to his will. Food and drink appeared on the table silently and regularly. Seasons turned, clothing appropriate to the time of year appeared. Empty platters, ewers and discarded garments disappeared. Through it all, the only sounds Morgan heard were those of wind and rain and the unseen wildlife beyond his prison, and Hilde's calm voice in his head.
Be strong, she told him over and again. Endure. Our time will come.
Then, on a day when the sun stood at its zenith, both barriers disappeared with a suddenness that left him reeling. A triad approached, the man and woman mounted on the lean long-legged horses of Epona's breeding, their guardian in full manifest loping between them. One was a warrior, the other warrior and battle weaver like Morgan, and their guardian a huge mastiff-like beast. He didn't recognise any of them.
"Morgan Battle Weaver, the High Lord Gwynn grants you your freedom," the warrior announced. "You are free to go where you will in the Here and the There, but be warned, much has changed in the There and you'll find your powers diminished. Do not betray the Lords of the Green Hills again, or the High Lord will not be so merciful. This is your only warning."
"I'm no betrayer!" Morgan shouted. "She--" They turned and disappeared between one stride and the next. "She betrayed us..." he finished in a voice made husky by ancient and ever-fresh grief.
The joint forces of Melusine and Gronw had sought to overthrow the ruler of the Tylwyth Teg, and the Battle of the Betrayal marked the end of their hopes. That they failed to bring down the might of Gwynn himself was down to Melusine. She lost her courage, fled back to her liege-lord, Manawydan, and betrayed her lover. Even at the time of Morgan's trial, bards already sang of it, made long sagas of it. Each one was an unnecessary reminder of all he and Hilde lost: Editha, their liege-lord Gronw, many friends and comrades in arms, and their liberty.
The mercy of the High Lord was not immediately obvious to Morgan.
Our time has come, Hilde announced with savage delight. She manifested, her black and tan hound's body becoming the massive, heavy-shouldered shape of her true form. Now we gather our strength, and plan.
"Yes." Morgan called his sword and though it came to his hand, the returning was not instantaneous, and the pain of the summoning was that of a long-unused muscle strained beyond its limit. "But first we learn where Gronw is imprisoned and find the witch. We'll work alone for now. Later we can gather whatever comrades remember their loyalty to Gronw."COLLAPSE