"THE STAFF OF FIRE"
The McNeills and their companions arrived at Dunleith station, in Scotland, on a late Saturday afternoon. They found two limousines and a Land Rover waiting to convey them and their luggage to Castle Dunleith, home of the Laird of Dunleith.
Paige gasped out loud, as the sight of a three-story castle loomed before them. "Oh my God!" she declared breathlessly. "Is this . . .?"
"Cousin Keith's home," Jack McNeill finished. "Only, it now belongs to Colin."
Gweneth McNeill spoke up. "Colin McNeill. He's the new Laird of Dunleith. Keith's son. And an old friend of mine. He had first introduced me to Jack, thirty-six years ago."
The three cars came to a halt in the middle of the castle's courtyard. Three of the four servants that emerged from the castle, approached the Land Rover, and began to remove the luggage. As Cecile, the McNeills, Paige and Cole climbed out of the two limousines, a fourth servant accompanied a middle-aged man dressed in a dark green pullover and corduroy slacks approached the visitors. Cecile smiled, as the latter greeted cheerfully, "Welcome to Dunleith!"
"Colin!" Mr. McNeill rushed forward to greet his cousin with a bear hug. "Good to see you. How long has it been?"
The Laird of Dunleith replied happily, "Too long, cousin. Too long." He then greeted both Gweneth and Elise McNeill with hugs and kisses.
The McNeill matriarch commented, "It's a shame that you and Lesley had missed Bruce's wedding. It was . . . very interesting."
A sigh left the laird's mouth. "Beastly luck for us. From what Jack told me, it was quite exciting. You were attacked by a succubus' coven?"
"The Della Scalla Coven. I'm sure that Jack or Gwen gave you the details." Mrs. McNeill glanced around. "Is Margaret here?"
Cecile overheard Harry murmur to Paige, "Margaret was Cousin Keith's sister. And she's Colin's aunt. She'll be performing the ceremony for Livy."
"Who is that speaking?" Colin demanded, his eyes pinpointing the two younger witches. "Harry?"
The youngest McNeill stepped forward and shook the other man's hand. "Colin. It's good to be back."
"To whom were you speaking?"
Before Harry could reply, Paige stepped forward. "Hi, I'm Paige Matthews."
Old Mrs. McNeill added, "Remember Penelope Halliwell? Paige is her youngest granddaughter."
Colin's eyes swept appreciatively over Paige. "So, you're one of the Charmed Ones."
"Yes sir." Paige's face turned pink with embarrassment. Cecile also noted the pleasure in the young witch's eyes at being recognized.
"Well, it's nice to finally meet you." The laird turned his gaze upon Cecile. "And Cecile. Welcome back to Dunleith."
Cecile smiled at the witch. "Thank you."
"How is Vivian? And your father? I haven't seen them in quite a while."
Although Colin had known Cecile's family for nearly twenty years, the Dunleith branch of the McNeill family and her parents had rarely met. As far as Cecile knew, on at least five occasions since 1985. "It has been a long time," Cecile added. "The last time you saw my folks, was six years ago."
Colin nodded and then turned to Olivia, smiling broadly. "And look whom we have here. Possibly the future Bearer of the Aingeal Staff."
Olivia quirked an eyebrow. "Possibly?"
The laird's thoughts struck Cecile's mind before she could stop herself. "So it's true? There are two new fire witches, besides Olivia?" she demanded.
Everyone stared at Colin. Who nodded. "Dennis and Fiona. Both are strong enough to be tested during the ceremony."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "So much for me being the staff's new bearer."
"Now Livy, as far as we know, you still might be the top contender." Colin held out his arms. "Now give me a hug."
Cecile's friend broke out into a wide smile and allowed herself to be enveloped into a hug. Olivia eased out of the older man's arms and turned to the last member of the American visitors. "Colin, I'd like you to meet . . ."
"Belthazor." The laird regarded Cole with a mixture of awe and disbelief, as he offered a hand. "We've met before. In . . ."
Cole took the laird's hand and shook it. "In London. The summer of '77. You remember?"
Colin shrugged his shoulders. "I was there. With Jack. I'm only glad that we can now meet on friendlier terms. Jack and Gwen have told me a lot about you, these past seven months. He quietly added, "Good show." While Cole blushed with embarrassment, the laird added, "We're having a few more guests, tonight. Dinner party. Should start in three hours."
"Gives us plenty of time to unpack and freshen up," Gweneth commented.
The laird turned to one of the servants. "Angus, please show our guests to their rooms. The others will carry the luggage. Inside everyone!" Cecile and the others followed their jovial host inside the castle.
Originally built over eight hundred years ago by a McNeill ancestor, Castle Dunleith had endured a great deal of history over the centuries. At least that is what Cole had learned from Olivia, while they prepared for supper. According to the red-haired witch, the castle's first laird - Fergus McNeill - had also been a previous keeper of the Aingeal staff. Cole learned that the castle had withstood many wars and political upheavals. It had also withstood attacks of the supernatural kind.
In the mid 14th century, a McNeill from another line had led a group of supporters - also from the McNeill family - in a failed attack against the laird, in an attempt to wrestle control of the castle and the staff. Nearly seventy years later, a clan of warlocks tried to wipe out the McNeills in the area and take control of castle. The battle ended with nearly thirty dead. And it took another laird, Archibald McNeill another twenty years to restore order to the area.
"Whew!" Cole exclaimed inside the privacy of the bedroom he shared with Olivia. The bedroom's window offered a direct view of the castle's formal garden. "This place has quite a bloody history, doesn't it?"
Olivia shrugged her shoulders. "No more bloody than any other place in the entire United Kingdom. Or the USA, for that matter." A mischievous smile touched her lips. "Guess what the Clan McNeill's motto is."
"Oh? What?" Cole asked.
Still smiling, Olivia answered, "Vincere vel mori. To conquer or die."
"Hmmph, after what I've heard about this place, it seems appropriate."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me that our little family history is a little too bloody for you?"
Cole paused briefly, before a smirk apppeared on his face. "Let's just say that the McNeills can give my mother's family some stiff competition." Olivia tossed a pillow at him. He deftly caught it before adding, "So, when did the first McNeill leave for America?"
According to Olivia, one Ian McNeill had joined the Scottish Royalists against Oliver Cromwell during the civil war that had raged in England and Scotland. "After the Scottish defeat at Worcester in 1651," she continued, "he was captured by English soldiers. But he managed to escape before they could imprison him, and made his way back to the castle. His father helped him book passage aboard a cargo ship bound for Boston. He later ended up in New Bedford, Massachusetts." She stood in front of a large, oval-shaped mirror and began to smooth her dress. "How do I look?" she asked.
The aqua-blue cocktail dress clung provocatively to Olivia's shapely figure. Cole felt that the dress and the sandaled pumps contrasted perfectly with her red curls. "Not bad," he murmured, as he gathered her into his arms. "Almost as good as you look without any clothes on."
"Pervert," Olivia murmured back, before Cole's lips pressed against hers. He allowed one hand to surreptiously cup a firm buttock. "Cole."
"Hmmm?" The half-daemon's tongue slipped inside Olivia's mouth.
After a minute or two of wet exploration of each other's mouths, Olivia broke their kiss - much to Cole's disappointment. "Oh God," she whispered in ragged breath, "we better . . . we better get going before we're late for dinner."
Keeping Olivia's body close to his, Cole replied softly, "Would it really hurt if we're a few minutes late?"
"Something tells me that we'll end up being more than a few minutes late."
Images of him and Olivia on the bed filled Cole's mind. Then he sighed, knowing that she was right. Shit! "All right," he conceded. "Let's go."
Olivia gave him a peck on the cheek and led Cole out of their bedroom. They strode through the castle's corridors, down the curved staircase and toward the larger drawing-room, where the castle's inhabitants and other guests had gathered.
Through Colin McNeill, Cole met other members of the family's Dunleith branch. A handful of relatives seemed wary of meeting a notorious half-daemon. Thankfully, most of them did not seem concerned - including Colin McNeill's middle child, an affable, yet charming man with shoulder-length brown hair. The latter introduced himself as Jaime McNeill.
"Dad had told us about you," Jaime said to Cole, after the two were introduced. "When we were children. He told us about the time you had tried to steal that amulet back in . . . what? Seventy-seven? Seventy-eight?"
Cole corrected him. "Seventy-seven."
"Hmmm, and when Elise had visited during Grandfather's death, she mentioned that you were friends with Olivia and the rest of her family. Imagine our surprise."
Smiling, Cole added, "Well, I'm still in shock over how my life has changed, since meeting Olivia and her family. Probably a little relieved."
"Oh yes, Elise told us about that. How you had saved her from a warlock." Jaime gave Cole a knowing smile. "Lucky you. I believe you're the first man in a long time, who managed to snare the delectable Olivia. I had once tried my luck with her, you know."
The revelation took Cole by surprise. "No, I didn't." He knew that Olivia and Jaime were probably distant cousins. Yet, the idea of the possibility of them being . . . "You and Olivia had dated once?"
"Oh Goddess, no!" Jaime replied with a laugh. "I wish! But nothing ever happened." A wistful expression appeared on his sanguine face. "Like I said, I tried to woo her once, but she made it clear that she was not into thinning the family bloodline."
Cole nearly choked on his brandy. He finally managed to squeak, "Really?"
Jaime continued, "Ah yes, dear Cousin Olivia. She really is something, isn't she?"
"She certainly is," Cole murmured.
"Of course, she's not the only one," Jaime added. "That friend of hers, for example. Cecile Dubois. Lovely thing, and very fascinating. She's from New Orleans, you know. Bloody marvelous city."
Cole nodded. "Yes, marvelous." He paused. "I happened to be a friend of Cecile's boyfriend, Andre Morell."
Sighing, Jaime replied, "Yes, I've met him, once. Scary chap. Heard he was a Vodoun priest, or something. Powerful, too."
"Very powerful," Cole added with an edge to his voice.
Jaime continued, "Which is why I take the trouble to stay away from Cecile. However . . ." Cole noticed that Jaime's gaze had turned to the youngest Charmed One. ". . . I see that Livy has a new friend. She's also a lovely thing."
"Yes, she's also my former sister-in-law," Cole added. "Paige."
"Hmmm, really? Still, is she involved with anyone?"
Cole recalled Paige's former boyfriend - someone named Nate or Nathan. Their romance had ended over a month ago, when Paige discovered that Nate was a married man. "Not at the moment," the half-daemon answered reluctantly.
"Marvelous!" Jaime's eyes danced with anticipation. "Perhaps I'll have my chance at her, after all. I understand she's supposed to be one of the Charmed Ones." A brief frown flashed across his face. "By the way, she's not a natural redhead, is she?"
"Uh . . ."
Giving Cole a quick jab in the arm, Jaime added, "To be honest, anyone could tell. Especially since her eyes are too dark for that shade of red. However," he sighed wistfully, "she certainly is a lovely creature."
Unable to find respond, Cole merely grunted and continued drinking his brandy.
Less than an hour later, another member of the McNeill family also proved to be interesting. She was a tall, formidable-looking woman with dark gray eyes and silver hair. Her name was Margaret McNeill Ferguson and she happened to be the current laird's aunt. Cole found himself sitting next to her during supper, in the large dining hall.
"So, you're Belthazor," the old lady said to Cole. Her gray eyes were firmly fixed upon him. "How did you end up with a human name?"
After clearing his throat, Cole calmly revealed his family background. "You see, Cole . . . uh, Coleridge was my father's middle name. And also my great-grandfather's name."
"You mean, they were human?" Mrs. Ferguson demanded.
Cole nodded. "Yes ma'am." He took a bite of his Poached Wild Salmon. Covered with Whiskey Cream Sauce and served with a vegetable mixture called Kale Kenny, he found it delicious.
"Ma'am?" The old lady snorted. "Only the Queen is called ma'am, in this country. Besides, I'm probably younger than you. Mrs. Ferguson or Margaret will do." She paused. "Did you know your father?"
Realizing that the laird's aunt would not rest until she learned everything about him, Cole heaved an inward sigh. "Barely, to be honest. He was killed, when I was three."
"Killed?" Two silver brows formed arches.
Cole added, "By my mother. Who was a daemon."
"Bloody hell!" Mrs. Ferguson exclaimed. "Is she still alive? Your mother?"
With a casual shrug that did not match his inner feelings, Cole replied, "Probably. Although I haven't seen her in over thirty years." The half-daemon then steered the conversation to the upcoming Aingeal staff ceremony. "I understand that the ceremony will be held on Wednesday?"
"Next Saturday," Mrs. Ferguson corrected. "Also, Olivia will not be the only one to take part in the ceremony. Apparently, two other contenders for the staff have appeared. Fiona and Dennis. And on Saturday, we will discover who is powerful enough to be the next bearer. I understand from Elise that you had helped Olivia learn to control her pyrokinesis."
Cole nodded. "Somewhat. Olivia and I sometimes practiced at her family's home, and sometimes . . ." He hesitated.
"Uh, in another dimension." Cole quickly returned his attention to his meal.
Mrs. Ferguson frowned. "In a demonic dimension?"
"No, not demonic," Cole corrected. "The realm actually belongs to the Dann people."
Surprise flickered in the old lady's eyes. "The Tuatha Dé Dannan? Are you serious?" Cole stared at her. "I do beg your pardon. I don't mean to be insulting, but why would the Tuatha Dé Dannan allow you in their realm?"
Cole found himself growing wary of this conversation. Aside from a few close people, he had always valued his privacy. Especially from the prying eyes of strangers. But there was something about Margaret Ferguson that made it impossible for him to ignore her questioning. Her frank curiosity reminded him of Elise McNeill. And Olivia. "Uh," he said, hesitating, "the reason . . . I mean . . . I'm, uh . . . I'm a descendant of one of the Dann people. On my mother's side."
The news had apparently rocked the elderly witch. "Goddess! You mean to say that . . . you're a descendant of the Tuatha Dé Dannan? A daemon?" Her voice rang across the dining hall. Cole winced, as all eyes fell upon the pair.
"What are you two talking about?" Elise McNeill demanded. "Did you say something about the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Meg?"
Mrs. Ferguson belted out for all to hear, "It seems that your Mr. Turner is a descendant of the Dann people. On his mother's side. Why didn't you tell me, Elise?"
"I had no idea," the San Franciscan matriarch replied.
Cole felt a sudden desire to teleport out of the dining hall, and into the privacy of the bedroom he shared with Olivia. Or back to his penthouse in San Francisco.
An elderly man with snow white hair and small blue eyes demanded, "And how on earth did Belthazor end up as a descendant of the Tuatha Dé Dannan? They were magical people who fought against evil." Cole recalled him being introduced as Simon McNeill, the laird's only surviving uncle. And one of the few who seemed wary of Cole's presence at the family dining table. "Olivia, did you know about this?"
All eyes now focused upon the red-haired witch. Olivia's face grew pink. "Uh," she began, "well, I do recall Cole first mentioning it, last January. But I don't know the details . . ."
"Did the Source know?" Mrs. Ferguson asked, interrupting Olivia.
Cole sighed. "To be honest, I really don't know. Neither he, the Triad, or Raynor had ever mentioned my connection to the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Nor did my mother."
"Then how . . .?"
Memories of pleasant interludes in his childhood rushed back to Cole's mind. "My mother's brother. He used to tell me stories about them."
Doubt gleamed in Mrs. Ferguson's eyes. "A daemon that had served the Source, telling his nephew about magical beings that fought evil?"
"I never said that my uncle had served the Source," Cole quickly replied.
"Oh. Terribly sorry." Looking somewhat abashed, the elderly woman turned to her other neighbor. Cole sighed with relief. He had the oddest feeling this week might end up being remembered by the McNeills for his visit, rather than the initiation of the new Aingeal staff bearer.
After supper, Paige met two other members of the McNeill family. She and Harry encountered the two contenders who would be vying against Olivia for possession of the Aingeal Staff - Dennis McNeill and Fiona Craig. The former was an affable-looking man with sandy hair, broad features, and the physique of a football player. Yet, it was Fiona who managed to capture Paige's attention.
No one could deny that Fiona McNeill Craig was a beautiful woman. At five-feet ten, she made Paige feel like a dwarf. Dark brown hair cascaded down her back in thick waves. It also framed an oval-shaped face that possessed delicate features, full lips, pale skin, and the McNeill blue-gray eyes.
"So," the older woman said in a soft Scots burr, "this is one of the famous Charmed Ones. How . . . interesting." Her eyes raked over Paige with such insolence that the witch ended up earning the younger woman's instant dislike.
Paige smiled coolly. "And you're Olivia and Harry's cousin. I understand that your fire power had recently manifested."
Fiona sniffed. Harry rolled his eyes in disgust. "Yes," the former said, "about a month ago."
"Wow! A month ago! That's four whole months after Olivia's power had appeared." Paige's smile brightened, mindful of the other woman's jealousy.
Fiona continued, "Perhaps it did appear a bit late, but I've managed to vanquish a daemon, thanks to my new power. Something I believe that poor Dennis, here, cannot claim." The other fire witch's face turned deep red. "Despite the fact that his power had manifested, last March."
One daemon? Both Paige and Harry exchanged amused glances. "That must have been the defining moment of your life, Fee," Harry remarked, sarcastically. "It's a shame you weren't at Bruce's wedding. We could have used you."
"I'm sure that the Charmed Ones," Fiona glanced despairingly at Paige, "had managed to assist ably. It must be a shock to realize that you're no longer the most powerful witches." Her blue-gray eyes grew wide in mock horror. "Oh dear! I forgot. You never really were the most powerful witches. As long as there was a Bearer of the Aingeal Staff. Why the Whitelighters' Council had depended upon you to kill the Source, I'll never know. But then, I had never harbored a high opinion of whitelighters. Including half-breeds."
Seething privately, Paige struggled to keep her temper in check. Until . . . "Actually, there is a witch more powerful than any of us. Has been, since last February."
Fiona's eyes narrowed. "Oh?"
"My nephew, Wyatt," Paige continued. "He's half-witch, half-whitelighter like myself. Half-breed. Only," she paused dramatically, "he's a lot more powerful than any of us. Including a lot of demons."
"Bloody hell!" Dennis exclaimed, garnering stares from the others.
Again, Fiona sniffed. Must come from a bad habit, Paige surmised. "Well, it doesn't really matter. He will never be the Aingeal Staff Bearer."
"And you will?" a fifth voice asked. All eyes turned to Jaime McNeill, who had approached the group.
Her delicate nose perched high in the air, Fiona continued, "I never said that. And just because Olivia had her power longer, does not mean she'll have the staff. I certainly do not recall being a trigger-happy cop as a prerequisite for becoming the future Bearer of the Aingeal Staff. Now, if you'll excuse me." She walked away, her nose still stuck high in the air.
Jaime shook his head. "Don't worry about Fiona, love," he commented. "There's a lot of bad blood between her and Olivia."
"Yeah," Harry added. "They've detested each other since they first met." He glanced to his right and noticed that another McNeill cousin was signaling him. "Excuse me. I think old Simon wants to talk to me." He eased away from the group. Dennis followed.
Jaime continued, "You see, Fiona has always regarded herself as the family's little princess. The girl everyone paid attention to. She had been one of the most popular debs, back in the late eighties and early nineties. Until Olivia visited the family, one summer. In 1990, I believe. Livy managed to steal all of Fiona's thunder. And poor Fee hasn't recovered since." His eyes swept appreciatively over Paige's face, making her feel self-conscious. "Of course, you could give both of my cousins, fair competition. Is there something about the water in America that produces such lovely creatures, such as yourself?"
The Charmed One gave the Scottish witch a cool stare. "Before I answer that question, I should let you know that I'm not a . . . 'creature'. And a certain sister of yours named Amanda, told me all about you."
Jaime's face fell. "Oh."
"Also, considering the fact that I had just broke up with a guy who forgot to mention that he was married, I have to tell you right now - you and me? Unless you're talking about friendship, it ain't gonna happen."
The older man heaved a mournful sigh. "Well, so much for fulfilling my fantasies."
A waitress dressed in a white shirt, black vest and black pants, appeared and offered the pair drinks from a tray. Jaime accepted a glass of whiskey. Paige merely shook her head. As the waitress walked away, the hairs on back of Paige's neck began to rise. It was the same feeling she had experience in London, two nights ago. She stared at the servant's retreating back. "Who is that woman?" she asked Jaime.
The other witch nonchalantly replied, "Probably one of the servants hired for the week."
Paige frowned. "You mean, she doesn't work for your dad?"
"Most of the chappies working here, tonight, are from a local employment service," Jaime explained. "Except for the Royal Family, not many can afford a large permanent staff of servants. Too bloody expensive. Even Jack and Gwen have only a few servants, as you know. And they're rich as Croesus. Is there a problem?"
Paige's eyes scanned the crowd inside the drawing room for the waitress. Who was nowhere to be found. She sighed. "No. No problem at all."
END OF PART II