The Halfling’s Court, Danielle Ackley-McPhail
The dust rose in a haze against the twilight as the vintage ’47 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead rumbled into the parking lot of Delilah’s. Lance Cosain added his bike to the sea of chrome and steel overflowing the gravel lot into the surrounding fields and hemming in the barracks-style bunkhouse in the back. A kick of his heel set the stand and a twist of his wrist killed the engine. He ran his hands down his thighs, working kinks out of muscles tight from too many hours on the road, and turned a hooded gaze toward the roadhouse. He was home.
A thread of anticipation ran through his gut.
Lance swung himself out of the saddle. He removed his headgear and set it on the tail of the bike. Swirls of white paint hugged the back of the glossy black helmet. Celtic knotwork surrounded ancient symbols representing his name. He ran a finger along each bold line, feeling their power. As he traced them, energy crackled like static from the helmet to his hand. The runes flared, and then faded, leaving the gleaming surface an unbroken black. A gift from Suzanne, his faerie queen, the protective spell spread and settled over him like a second set of well-worn leathers, but stronger than Tri-Armor. It felt like she had just wrapped her arms around him and settled in to stay. He wished.
He headed for the entrance, his leathers faintly creaking and the power subdued. Pulling open the door, he stood a moment in the entranceway. Murmurs of “Wind Walker” traveled around the room as they recognized him. He acknowledged the nods and smiles as those filling the crowded space greeted him, their ride captain. Some of the bikers held up bottles, inviting him over; the mamas had a different invitation in their eyes. He made his way around the bar in search of Suzanne, acclimating himself to the ever-present smoke, savoring the comfortable musk, built up over decades, of butter-soft leather laced with the rich essence of whiskey and beer.
Lance searched the shadowy corners of the place for the slender platinum blonde with mischief bubbling in her silvery blue eyes. The room was large and open, with tables set up in the center and booths down both sides. He didn’t find Suzanne at any of them, or at the bar that faced the door, stretching the full length of the mirrored wall. The lights were dim and the music loud. It was a simple place, no-frills, like its owner.
The one distinct feature of the bar: the Guardian Wall. Right beside the door, hundreds of brass cup hooks cover the wall. From each one hung a guardian bell. Some fancy, some plain; all of them free for the taking, or, preferably, the giving. Delilah kept the wall stocked because at Delilah’s everyone knew road gremlins were more than just an urban legend. The bell represented a biker’s protection, and the Hunt protected their own.
More than that, what made Delilah’s special was the people….
Right now, it wasn’t special enough: most of the faces were familiar, but none of them were his Suzanne. A slight chill of premonition ran through Lance, but he shrugged it off. She’d be here soon.
When the last rider arrived, they’d all get on their bikes and head for the meet-up, to join the Steel Horse Stampede for the sixty-five mile run down to Lynchburg, complete with police escort and a rescue-vehicle entourage. They’d ride in all their glory, with colors, hair, and spirits flying, alone or pillion, passing exit ramp after exit ramp full of idling cars as the stateys forced the cagers to wait until the procession went by, like royalty. And Lance, riding in the Front Door position, would lead the way, with his lieutenant and best friend, Gavin, riding the most trusted position of Sweep.
He could feel the wind flow over him already. He could feel the rumble of the road beneath his wheels and hear it echo endlessly at his back. And, God help him…again, he could feel the ghost of Suzanne’s slender arms twined around him; hear echoes of her wild laughter by his ear, mingled with the roar of hundreds of cycles strung out behind.
“Sue,” he growled in a tight, hungry whisper.
His eyes searched the crowd again, predatory and sharp.
“Hey, man, it’s been a while.”
Lance turned abruptly to see a tall, lean man with shoulder-length, golden-blond hair and bright green eyes that glowed with power deep within. Lance nodded, giving his best friend a comfortable grin. Gavin was Suzanne’s brother. If he was here, she had to be around somewhere. Lance went back to scanning the place.
“She’s not here,” Gavin continued, as if reading his mind.
Lance’s brow drew down low, and his grin took on a menacing feel. He turned away from Gavin and headed toward the bar.
“Suzanne’s not here,” Gavin repeated as he followed. “But she should be. She called two hours ago to say she caught some static outside of Dalton, and I was to let you know she’s on her way.”
She was coming! Delayed only by an encounter with the police. Lance closed his eyes and breathed, deep and slow. Then the rest of what Gavin had said broke through.
“Two hours ago? Dalton’s not even an hour away. Was she havin’ trouble with the Shovelhead?”
“The bike was runnin’ fine.”
Lance didn’t know what to think. Suzanne was one of the best riders he knew; she should have been here by now. Why hadn’t she called a second time? He wasn’t comfortable with the possibilities that came to mind. “Anything else happen on her ride?”
Gavin considered the question. “She told me she had a run-in with a couple of BUGs a few days back, but she said it was nothing. A few insults. It looked like they might get tough, but a cherry-top cruised by and the guys backed off. She was fine; they were gone. I didn’t think anything more of it….” His voice trailed off.
A slow burn devoured Lance’s patience. “And you haven’t gone after her yet?”
“I only just pulled in ten minutes before you.” Gavin scowled. “She left the message at the bar.”
Where the hell was she?
Lance slipped off his jacket and laid it across a stool. He had one certain way to tell if Suzanne was in trouble. Yanking up the shirtsleeve over his right arm, he bared a vibrant tattoo. To eyes not gifted with the Sight, the tat was of a gorgeous blonde provocatively posed, with her long hair feathered back and her lithesome curves draped in a brief, lavender teddy. To Lance the skin art moved and changed in subtle ways. It was Suzanne’s most recent gift to him. A self-portrait. Whether she was by his side or miles away, the tattoo reflected a small glimmer of her thoughts and feelings. It was a link, a declaration. It gave him entry into her soul. It was how he knew, without doubt, that Suzanne loved him back. Even if things still stood in their way.
He angled his arm to get a better look at the tattoo. Suzanne’s normally alluring expression was gone, her eyes were closed and her pale face slack, emotionless. Her limbs were posed as if bound behind her. A growl escaped Lance’s throat before he could throttle it down. He locked gazes with Gavin. Gavin glanced from Lance to the tattoo and back again. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
“She’s not dead. I would know....” Gavin assured him, though his eyes betrayed an uneasy tension as they lingered over the ink.
Lance’s fists clenched. It looked like he was going to miss the Stampede after all. Grabbing his jacket, he spun around and headed for the door.
Behind him, someone tugged sharply on the segmented ponytail hanging halfway down his back. Gavin, of course. No one else would dare.
“Let. Go. Now.” Lance bit off the words.
Gavin’s hand quickly fell away.
“You’re rushing off half-cocked,” he said. “You know you don’t have a chance of finding her without me. Just give me a minute while I make a call. Sue’s got a couple of friends out that way; if she stopped by choice, that’s where she’d head.”
Lance didn’t like it, but Gavin made sense. “Hurry up,” he ordered, and moved to the bar to wait. Thoughts on his lady, he ran his hand over the intricate Wild Hunt MC design she had embroidered across the back of his jacket, a compass rose incorporating knotwork, the cardinal points, and the elements. Oddly fitting for their club, often scattered to the four winds, but still connected, though in truth it represented the charter members. The design…the tattoo…his helmet. Subtle means of linking herself to him, of watching over him. Of keeping him close….
Just not close enough, or she’d never have been taken!
Suzanne was essential to his life. His heart. He’d grown up with her and Gavin as playmates. They protected him from those who persecuted him for only being half fae, and he made them laugh, showing them the wonder of the world through mortal eyes. He could not recall a happy moment from his childhood of which they were not a part. They were as close as if they were born to the same mother. But Lance was thirty-five, or near enough; he wanted something more serious. And now, just as he and Suzanne were close to settling things between them, she’d gone missing.
His eyes locked on the front door. No more fooling around; time to find Suzanne, even if it meant riding the Knucklehead into the ground doing so.
“This is how you wait?”
Lance swung around to face Gavin. His lieutenant wore a hard, disapproving expression. Ignoring both the look and remark, Lance took a step toward Gavin. “Well?”
Gavin shook his head and Lance felt his temper flare.
“Clamp down, you’re setting off Tilly.”
Tilly...daughter of Jonraphal and Delilah. Lance’s cousin through her father’s side. They’d been raised together, as close as siblings. Thanks to a bastard who pulled an endo with Tilly riding pillion, she suffered from brain damage, reverted to a child-like state. She could handle simple things enough to help out in the bar, but throw her for a loop and she just couldn’t cope.
Lance looked back and noticed her standing near the kitchen door looking agitated. Her lip quivered with a telltale tremble and the plate in her hand slanted until the food on it was in danger of sliding onto the floor. She was reacting to his emotional state. Not good. He had to deal with this, no matter how he itched to be on his way. He quickly tamped down his agitation, along with everything else he’d carelessly broadcast. In several strides he stood beside her. He took the plate from her hand and handed it to Kelly, who worked the bar.
“Sorry, Dumplin’.” He slid his arms around Tilly in an apologetic hug. Careful to avoid the sensitive nubs tipping her shoulder blades, he gently rubbed her back, easing her distress. Power sizzled along the surface of his palms as he drew off the tension, defusing the emotion. He stopped only when she giggled.
Lance let out a deep breath. Like him, Tilly sensed and affected the emotions of those around her; only now, since the accident, she didn’t have the control she used to have. Things went bad quickly when she got upset.
Crisis averted, he brushed a kiss across her cheek and patted her arm. “Why don’t you go see if they need anything in the kitchen?”
Tilly smiled and walked off, her chestnut hair falling in thick, wavy curls down her back. Lance watched her go, a gentle grin on his face. He loved his sweet cousin; he just wished the Organ Donor that made her the way she was now had survived so the club could have made him beg for death: he’d gotten off too easily. Again, Lance tamped his emotions down before they got out of hand.
A muscle in his jaw twitched and his gaze swept over the bar. The earlier relaxed atmosphere had disappeared. He’d dealt with Tilly, but he saw signs that his mood had crept into those around him. Time to split and find his lady before he owed his aunt for a new bar. Walking up to Gavin, Lance claimed his jacket, and they turned to leave.
A young kid intercepted them. His leathers were so new they still bore creases, and his colors were mostly clean. Lance would have pushed past him, but Gavin stopped beside the SQUID. The teen flushed a little as their gazes settled on him, but he stood steady despite the scrutiny of his ride captain and his lieutenant. Lance couldn’t help but be impressed.
“What’s up, man?”
“Was a couple of guys in here askin’ about the Wind Walker earlier,” he answered, his voice low but even.
Lance and Gavin exchanged hard looks. “When were they here?”
“ ’Bout an hour ago, before ’Lilah came in. They weren’t here long.”
The kid’s words hit Lance harder than the last time he ate asphalt. He felt scraped just as raw. Two hours ago Suzanne had called, then disappeared. Soon after, strangers show up asking questions about him. Hard to believe the two weren’t related. But how? No human alone could overcome one of the fae, particularly a full-blood. Who among the fae had reason to gun for him? And was powerful—not to mention suicidal—enough to use Suzanne as bait? His hands fisted just thinking about it. His life without her in it would be very bleak indeed. Someone out there had decided to rob him of his joy, his love. Well, if they wanted a fight, they’d just ordered one express delivery.
He yanked on his jacket and pivoted abruptly, heading for the door. Gavin trailed behind him. They both stopped as they came face to face with Delilah. She gave a sharp nod. “You boys goin’ somewhere?”
Lance growled. Everyone needed to stop getting in his way. He needed Gavin at his back. Blood called to blood. With Gavin along, finding Suzanne would be a simple matter of closing the distance and annihilating the responsible party. But Delilah had raised Lance; if she knew what was going down she would never let them leave alone. Lance didn’t want anyone else along to slow them down or get in the way.
“Sue ran into a bit of trouble outside of Dalton,” Lance said brusquely as he moved past his aunt. “Gavin and I are going to give her a hand.”
“What about the rest of the club?” Delilah called out before he got halfway to the door. She closed the distance between them.
Impatiently, Lance stopped. “Run the Stampede. Gavin’s with me, so Mongo takes Front Door, with you on Sweep. Keep everyone rolling. We’ll catch up, if we can.”
“You really think they’ll make the run without you?”
“Delilah! You’re wastin’ my time! It’s what they’re all here for. Either they make the run, or they don’t. Their call; it has nothing to do with me.”
“You keep tellin’ yourself that,” she murmured, her gaze brutal in its wisdom. “These riders are here to make the run with you…with the Wind Walker.”
He hissed through clenched teeth. “Anyone can be a wind walker; all it takes is treating people right, looking out for them on the road.”
“Don’t play dumb, darlin’, you ain’t blond enough to fake it.” She gave him the eye. “You are the Wind Walker, and you know it. Everyone in here owes you some measure of blood. You can’t take off and expect them to pretend you ain’t ridin’ off into trouble. These bikers are more loyal to you than they are to their own mothers.”
Lance saw something more in her gaze than impatience, but now wasn’t the time to figure out what. He didn’t have time to argue either. “Fine…whatever. Just keep everyone here, for now. We’ll call if we need the war wagon.”
He turned away abruptly and walked out the door. His boots thudded hard against the walkway as he hurried to his bike. He already had a bowie knife sheathed in the top of his boot, but he wanted something more. He drew an expanding steel baton, or thunderbolt, out of one of his saddlebags and slipped it into the back pocket of his leathers. He then reached for his helmet. When he slid it on, the white lines of the runes and knotwork slowly swirled back across the glossy black surface as the power encasing him flowed automatically back into the gear. He took a few seconds to adjust to the change before mounting the cycle. From across the lot he heard Gavin’s engine revving up.
“Hey,” Delilah called out behind him. Lance glanced back and discovered that she and at least half the mother chapter stood clustered at the entrance. The rest peered out from beyond the bar’s smoky windows. Every expression read fierce and loyal. “Keep the dirty side down, Wind Walker, and bring our Lady home.”