We walk briskly through the freezing cold until we reach the heavy church doors. I press the door handle down, but nothing happens. Shit. I push the wooden portal with my full bodyweight and finally it's moving. He chuckles from behind.
"What's so funny?"
Nothing my ass.
The warmth from the inside of the incense-smoky church wafts over me and I almost gag. I hate incense and I don't wanna be here.
There are not many free seats left. I feel a tug at my arm and he leads me to a pew in the right aisle.
"Miraculously we're not even late, which is a mere wonder thinking how long it took us to get here," I grumble.
He makes a noise between a grunt and a laugh.
"We should have stayed home. I've had a bad feeling for days, but you insisted we come here. Losing our face... That's bullshit and you know it, but who ever listens to me?"
I'm whining. I just should shut up.
After we sit down I glance around the church, nothing has changed since last year: the large Christmas tree behind the altar, the choir getting ready for the opening song, most likely 'Oh Little Town of Bethlehem', the band retuning their instruments… "Somehow I expected that it would be different this year," I mutter to myself.
From the corner of my eye I can see he looks at me questioningly. "Why?"
Of course he heard that; superior hearing skill and all I guess. "Dunno… maybe because I feel different."
"Well, you were right then." Pleased with himself he leans back and crosses his long legs at the ankles.
Smartass. I roll my eyes. That's just so typical of him. Leaning my head back I start counting the ceiling beams. I don't know how often I've done this in the past years; it has always been oddly soothing. Not tonight though. I shiver although the church is well heated and my stomach cramps. I feel eyes on me. I want to get out of here.
He grabs my hand and entwines our fingers. "It's okay Noël. Everything will be fine."
I wish I had his confidence. There is a real chance that tomorrow the man beside me could be dead. Or I could. Or somebody could try... I stare at the Christmas tree behind the altar and I'm back on the bus where my life took a turn, if for better or for worse is yet to be decided.
Someone was shaking me by my shoulder. I could hear they were talking to me, but the words didn't register. My eyelids were so heavy; it felt as if they'd been glued shut with sealant. When I finally managed to open them, I looked right into the smiling face of an elderly man, the crinkles around his eyes deepened when he saw I was finally awake. "You have to get out young man, this is your stop. The driver's waiting outside with your luggage. He already called for you two times."
Slowly getting back my bearings I realized once again that falling asleep in the cramped space of a bus seat was a bad idea. I slowly unfolded my measly 5 foot 10 frame, rolled my head and my shoulders a few times to work the kinks out of my frozen muscles and then remembered the nice old man. "Sorry man, I think I was pretty much out like a light, huh? Haven't been sleeping well recently."
"No problem…" he patted me on the back. When I sluggishly started to move to the open door, I heard him call after me, "Hey, don't forget this!"
Turning around I saw him holding my backpack in his outstretched hand. Rolling my eyes I walked back to retrieve it. "Thanks again sir, for saving my a… um… me twice tonight."
He only grinned. "My grandson is just the same after waking up … now you go before the driver gets even more impatient." He made shooing gestures with his hands.
As soon as I got out of the bus, the driver lifted his head. "About time; we don't have all night boy." After handing me my bags his face got somewhat friendlier. "Is anybody picking you up boy? This is a very remote place and it's already late…"
I looked around for the first time and I saw he was right; there was nothing much there, a bench under some kind of rickety roof, a lonely lantern with a flickering light, and obviously no house or town or anything except forest around for miles. And not for the first time I asked myself if this really had been such a great idea. Not that I could change it anymore. I would spend Thanksgiving with my colleague Landyn and some of his friends, instead with my family. Thinking of my parents and brothers made me think of my grandma. She wouldn't be around this year for the holidays, seeing her empty chair would have hurt too much. So, this better be good damn it.
The bus driver was still waiting for my answer. "Yeah, my friend is picking me up; he should be here any minute now. Thank you for asking though."
He nodded. "Good luck then. I hope your friend will be here soon. I for my part, wouldn't want to wait here in the middle of the night any longer than I had to."
When I watched him climb back into his bus and the vehicle slowly pull off the curb to disappear into the night, I felt a bit uneasy. The air was chilly, announcing winter would be there soon, but that wasn't the reason I suddenly shivered. Something felt off; it was too silent, as if someone had muted every sound. That was until suddenly warm breath wafted over my face and someone hissed into my ear, "Look Lord Dracula, fresh blood arrived on the dot for our midnight dinner..."
I jumped a mile, whirled around, and with my heart in my throat I was ready to punch everyone who was behind me, only to look into the grinning face of my friend.
"Landyn, you ass! What the heck, you scared the shit outta me, asshole! Don't tell me you just waited around until the bus drove off to give me the scares! Fucker."
Then I noticed the tall, blond guy standing beside my smug grinning friend, glaring at me with cold eyes.
Whoa. Somebody is majorly pissed. I looked at Landyn questioningly.
"Oh um... yes, uh…" He cleared his throat. "Noël, this is Simon, my ma… errr… friend. Simon, meet Noël my colleague and fellow sufferer at Paolo's Pizza Place. He'll be with us over the holidays this year. Um… yeah, what about going to the car now? It's getting pretty cold…" Taking my bag he started to walk down the street and we followed him until we got to a beat up Jeep.
Seeing that the car was parked right behind the next bend of the road I stated casually, "I gather you intentionally parked here. So that it couldn't be seen from the bus stop. Right?"
"Yup…" he grinned. "And it worked just fine, if I do say so myself." He threw my bag in the trunk and then got behind the wheel. Simon took the place beside him, which left me the backseat and I was fine with it. Better than feeling the guy's eyes at my back the whole time.
"How long does it take until we reach the cabin?"
Landyn briefly caught my eyes in the rear view mirror. "We have to drive about ten miles, and then we'll come to a small street that leads to the cabin."
"Does it belong to you?" I had wanted to ask him that since he told me about it.
He laughed out loud. "What the cabin? Hardly. It belongs to my um...," he quickly glanced at Simon, who shrugged, "boss."
"Your boss? You mean Paolo?" I'd never thought the exuberant Italian would own a cabin in a remote place like this; way too far away to drop by his restaurant every minute to harass his employees, if he felt like it. Which was quite often.
This brought me another laugh. "Not Paolo, my um, other boss."
Landyn had never told me he had another boss. "You work two jobs besides going to school?"
The question seemed to make him flustered. "Yeah, something like that."
"Wow. I barely manage one job with school." He must really need the money.
The car slowed down and we turned onto a small street that led further into the forest. It was very well maintained for a mere path in the woods.
The constant humming of the Jeep's engine must have let me doze off, because I was pretty surprised when we stopped and I saw that we had reached some kind of modern styled mountain cabin. The whole building was made of cedar wood and glass. The lower part was wood-clad and perched on a concrete platform. The upper floors featured expansive windows; their yellow lights radiating a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Nothing I'd expected to find in the middle of a forest at all, but it immediately made me feel at home.
We entered the house through a small glass door, which led directly into the entry hall. Landyn turned to me. "Okay, I bet you're starving after the long trip. What do you want? We have all sorts of food… sandwiches, pasta, maybe some hot soup?"
"No, thank you… really. I'm not hungry, but if you'd just tell me where I could get some water?" I felt utterly exhausted.
He wrinkled his eyebrows and looked at me disapprovingly. I felt strongly reminded of my mother. "You're sure? A sandwich wouldn't take that long to make or maybe some−"
"No, no it's fine mom, just some bottled water and a bed is all I need right now." I was almost falling asleep right on my feet by that point.
Landyn raised his eye brow, then shrugged. "Okay, suit yourself. But if you happen to wake up, craving a sandwich in the middle of the night, just go upstairs and get something from the kitchen." He turned to Simon, who hadn't said one single word the whole time. "Will you show Noël to his room? I'll go and get him the water, 'k?" Without waiting for an answer he disappeared up the stairs.
Looking after him I almost missed that Simon was already on his way to a narrow hallway on the left side, apparently expecting me to follow him. He stopped before one of three sliding doors, opened it, then gestured in the general direction of a half open door on the right side "Bathroom," before turning around and walking away without another word. What an idiot. I had never done anything to him that deserved such behavior. So what is your fucking problem with me Blondie? I mean, I didn't even know the guy.
Letting my backpack fall onto the floor along with my duffel bag I sank down on the large king-sized bed with a sigh. When I'd first seen the narrow hallway and the sliding doors I'd never expected to find a spacey bedroom like this; with its large built-in-wardrobe and even an en suite bathroom.
Although I was dead tired I yearned for a shower also to wash away the sweat and the grime I had from traveling. Two days in an overheated bus does that to you. So I opened the bag by my feet and after some rummaging around I finally found the sachet with my toiletries.
The bathroom was amazing; it had a huge bathtub deep enough to submerge myself up to the nose, and a shower stall separated from the rest of the room by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. This really wasn't the simple cabin in the forest I had anticipated.
I was just about to enter the shower when someone knocked at the outer door; then I heard Landyn's voice. "Noël? Can I come in?"
"Oh, okay, I put the water and a glass on your nightstand. Sleep well; I'll see you in the morning."
"Yeah and thank you. Good night." I called back.
After the shower I was so tired. I can't remember how I got into the bed nor did I remember my head hitting the pillow.
I woke early the next morning and immediately got up. I didn't linger in bed anymore; too often my thoughts went back to Gran these days. She used to wake me up with a cup of green tea every morning.
Skipping shower, I only brushed my teeth, threw some cold water onto my face and pulled a pair of jeans and a shirt out of my duffle bag. After that I was ready to explore the house.
From the look of it the other two doors in the hallway led to bedrooms also, maybe Landyn's and Simon's. Curiosity let me wander to the opposite hallway where I found a utility room and a mudroom. Guessing from that, the living area and the kitchen had to be upstairs, I climbed the wooden stairs and was even more impressed.
The rooms were flooded with early morning sunlight, which was coming through large floor-to-ceiling windows. Like the facade, the interiors had lots of natural wood on floors, walls and ceilings, and the panoramic view was simply breathtaking.
On the north face, three identical glass sliding doors led to a continuous deck running the entire length of the house overlooking an endless forest. It practically called out to me, I had to go outside.
When I stood on the wooden deck I let the cool morning breeze wasp over my bare chest, tearing at the seams of my open shirt. It had a wonderful calming effect. Inhaling the fresh, tangy forest air, I let my mind drift away, feeling at peace for the first time in weeks.
I was pulled back all too soon though, by Landyn's voice. I'd left the door slightly ajar and he didn't realize that I could hear every word he were saying. "Do you see the marks?"
"Yeah, but I still don't think it's him." I recognized Simon's gruff voice immediately.
"Believe me it's him; the marks are unique. See the red one; it's the blood drops, and the one beneath it? It's formed like an ivy leaf," Landyn whispered excitedly.
"But it's not on his shoulder; Tristan's was on his right shoulder blade…" Simon replied irritated.
Listening to their bickering it dawned on me that they were talking about my birthmarks. What the hell? Nah, that can't be…
"Simon, it's him, believe me. It's never been at the same place twice, you know that. Your brother's was on his shoulder, yes, and Luis had his on his chest right over his heart. He's the one we're waiting for. Ronan will be here any minute and then you'll see I'm right. I'm positive he'll come to the same conclusion and then Noël can meet Diarmad. It's about time, don't you think? You know like I do that the King doesn't have much more time left…" Landyn was suddenly very serious.
But obviously Simon couldn't give it a rest. "Yeah I know, it's just…"
"Simon. Tristan died a long time ago, he knew that it would happen eventually and he was okay with it. He loved the Lord with all his heart," Landyn said comforting.
"I just wish he could have been the strongest, the last one to complete the cycle, not an immature brat like him. When will he become eighteen again?"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The Lord? King? Immature brat?
"On Christmas Day Si. He's named Noël for a reason, you know?"
Looking over my shoulder I saw them standing beside each other, sometimes throwing glances at me. When they noticed I was watching them back, Landyn started to smile and opened the door wider. "Hey Noël, come on, get inside. What are you doing there anyway, standing outside in the cold with your shirt open?" He grabbed me by my hand and dragged me behind until we reached the warmth of the kitchen. Gesturing in the direction of the table, he said, "Sit down. Sit down. What do you want for breakfast? Pancakes, waffles, an omelet, French toast?"
Briefly distracted by the wide range of food I murmured, "I'd like an omelet. And can I please have some coffee?"
"Sure no problem, but tomorrow it's your turn. You're going to make those famous cinnamon buns of yours. I already told the others." He looked at me with lifted eyebrows, daring me to say no.
Who was I to disappoint? "Says who?"
"Says me." He bustled around in the kitchen to get out the ingredients for the omelet. "What were you doing outside in the cold anyway?"
"Wow. Didn't know you meditate. Okay, I'm gonna make pancakes." He turned to his brooding friend. "Simon you're making the omelets?", and then back to me, "His omelets are to die for, let me tell you… How do you want yours?"
"With green pepper, onions and dried tomatoes if that's okay."
Then I remembered what they were talking about earlier, but three loud knocks on the front door interrupted me again.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs and when I looked up I found myself confronted with the sight of the tallest man I'd ever seen in my life. He was at least six foot nine, maybe even seven feet. His short red hair was in a buzz cut, he had broad shoulders which were straining his blue denim jacket, long legs in form fitting leather pants, and he wore black military boots. I suddenly really wanted him to be on my side.
His cold blue eyes were fixed immediately on me and he asked, "Is that him?"
My friend sighed. "Yes Ronan, this is Noël. Noël meet Ronan the-"
The guy stepped in front of me and barked, "Okay boy, show me your marks."
I couldn't believe the man's audacity. "What? Landyn who is this nut?"
"Sorry Noël." And to the Commander-Shepard-wanna-be, "Really Ronan, you can't just come in and tell someone to show you his marks."
I had enough. "What the hell does that mean? What's going on here? I heard you talking about my birthmarks earlier and now he comes here and demands to see them. Either you explain what's going on, or I'm outta here."
"Noël, please…" Landyn threw angry glances at Ronan but the guy wasn't impressed in the slightest.
"I don't have time for this… come here boy," and with that, he came another step closer and tried to grab my arm.
I side-stepped him, really furious by now. "What the fuck Landyn?"
Then I heard a deep voice, which sounded strangely familiar, from behind. "Maybe I can explain the situation to you. Good morning Noël."
Whirling around my gaze fell on a tall man with chestnut brown hair and midnight blue eyes, who leant heavily on a dark haired woman standing beside him. Diarmad?