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Shadows and Light

Roc Books, October 2002

For more information, check out www.penguin.com.

Copyright © 2002 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.

WARNING: If you haven't read, or haven't finished, The Pillars of the World, the Shadows excerpt will definitely be a spoiler.




Chapter One

Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed's sagging, lumpy mattress, Lyrra brushed her dark red hair and studied the small room she was sharing with Aiden.

At least it was clean. The floor was swept, the sparse furniture dusted and polished. And the tavern owner's wife had proudly claimed that she always put fresh sheets on the bed, even if a guest spent only one night.

Despite the mattress, this room was luxurious compared with the one they'd been in two weeks ago. There, a bold little mouse had run across her foot while she was washing herself in the chipped basin that was as close to a bath as that particular tavern offered. Her shriek had woken Aiden from a sound sleep, lifting him out of bed in a tangle of covers. At least he'd landed on the bed — mostly — and didn't hit his face on the floor.

He wrote a song about it that made men roar with laughter and women give her sympathetic smiles.

The wretch.

A burst of male laughter rose from the tavern below

Lyrra wrinkled her nose, then smiled. Aiden must have reached the point in the evening's entertainment where he was singing a few of the bawdy songs he knew. And the Bard knew plenty of them..

But there were some bawdy songs he didn't sing anymore. Whenever someone asked for one of those songs, he'd say he didn't know it. Which was a lie, of course. Aiden was the Fae Lord of Song. It was part of his particular gift of being the Bard that he knew the words of every song, could play any tune he'd heard.

She could guess when he'd stopped singing the more...blatant...songs about men and women because of the one song he did sing at every tavern or inn they stopped at for food and lodging.

“I gave her kindness, courtesy, respect and loyalty,” Lyrra sang softly. “I strung them on the strands of love. 'These are the jewels for me. These are the jewels for me.”

The song was called “Love's Jewels.” The Fae had called it “The Lover's Lament,” and most still did. But Aiden now sang it with the extra verses he'd learned last summer. Learned from a young witch who had tilted their understanding of the world and had left some of them scrambling to set things right again.

That hadn't been Ari's fault. She hadn't asked for the Fae to intrude in her life. But they had, and in doing so learned more than they had bargained for.

Sighing, Lyrra set her brush on the wobbly table beside the bed. She closed her eyes and sat quietly for a moment. If she reached out with her gift tonight, if she let it drift through this small village and the surrounding farms until it touched an open, willing heart, what would that person receive from the Muse tonight? A poem, a play, a story? It could be any of those things. But it would be a poem, a play, a story about sorrow and regrets. These people already seemed to have their share of that. When Aiden had sung his song that was a warning against the Black Coats, she'd seen the way the men's faces had turned grim — and she'd seen the tears, and the fear, in the women's eyes. This place hadn't been touched by the Inquisitors, but villages just to the east of here had suffered. After that, she and Aiden had kept the songs and stories funny or romantic. Things that would lift the spirit or nurture the heart.

Since nothing she could send tonight would lift the spirit, she kept her gift to herself. But withholding it made her sad, and she wondered if a story filled with tears was better than no story at all.

She shook off the feeling when she heard the footsteps outside the room's door. By the time the door opened, she'd worked on presenting a smile of greeting.

The smile faded when the black-haired, blue-eyed man stepped into the room. His harp case was slung over his shoulder by one of its straps. In his hands, he held a steaming mug and a small plate containing two slices of buttered bread and a piece of cake.

“I thought you might like a cup of tea and a bit of a nibble,” Aiden said, pushing the door closed with his foot before taking the couple of steps that brought him close enough to the bed to hand over his offering.

He looked tired, Lyrra thought as she accepted the cup and plate. Well, they were both tired, and she'd been traveling with him only for the past few weeks, ever since he'd come back to Brightwood to find out why she hadn't met him as planned. But he'd been traveling since last summer, singing songs in the human villages to warn people about the Black Coats, the Inquisitors — and traveling up the shining roads to tell the Fae Clans that the witches who lived in the Old Places were the descendants of the House of Gaian, and their deaths by the Inquisitors' hands were the reason pieces of Tir Alainn were disappearing. It was physically wearing to stay in the human world and travel from place to place day after day, singing the songs and telling the stories. It was emotionally wearing to pass through the Veil that separated the human world from Tir Alainn to visit the Fae Clans and see the stubborn faces and hear the dismissive remarks when she and Aiden tried to tell them the witches needed the Fae's protection.

“Drink your tea while it's still warm,” Aiden said. He bolted the door, then crossed the small room to carefully set his harp beside the table and two chairsplaced beneath the window. He undressed with his back to her, leaving his shirt on for modesty's sake until he got into bed beside her and was covered below the waist.

Disturbed by this new modesty of his, Lyrra sipped her tea and ate a slice of buttered bread. They had been lovers on and off for several years, whenever they were both staying with the same Clan in Tir Alainn and during the times when they'd made brief journeys together in Sylvalan. Then, he'd been brash, arrogant, sure of his welcome as a lover. And he hadn't thought twice about undressing in front of her.

She handed him the cup to share the tea and insisted he have the other slice of bread and half the cake. She was hungry enough to eat it all, but so was he, despite a hearty dinner they'd been given as part of the fee for their performance. There had been too many lean meals lately.

When they finished, she put the cup and plate on the bedside table, next to her brush and the candle she'd lit when she'd come up to the room — and decided it was time to find out what had been preying on his mind lately. It was something more than the loss of another piece of Tir Alainn, something more than the loss of another Daughter from the House of Gaian.

“Aiden, what's been troubling you these past few days?”

He stripped off his shirt, tossed it on one of the chairs, then lay back. He tucked one arm under his head. The other lay across his belly. “What isn't troubling me these days? I've spent almost a year talking and talking and talking and no one has listened. The Old Places are still unprotected, the witches are still unprotected, and the Fae sit above it all in Tir Alainn, expecting everything to go on as it has for so long without making any effort to make sure it does go on. The foul thoughts and feelings the Inquisitors brought with them from Wolfram last year haven't been cleansed from people's hearts and minds. If anything, those thoughts are spreading, slowly seeping into other parts of Sylvalan. Those words are still poisoning men's hearts against the Great Mother, women in general, and the witches in particular.”

“That's been true for months,” Lyrra said softly. “But there's more now.”

“It's nothing.”

“Yes,” she said dryly, “and pigs can fly.”

He gave her a shadow of one of his old smiles. “Perhaps they can in some far-off land beyond the sea.”

Lyrra stiffened, recognizing it was her heart more than her pride that was stung. She had asked a serious question, and had, by the asking, offered to share whatever troubled him. And he was going to brush that offer aside as if it were whimsy. Very well then.

She leaned over to blow out the candle when he said, “It wears on a man when fear is his constant companion.”

She turned to look at him.“You've been afraid you might meet up with the Inquisitors?”

“No. I've been afraid you would.”

She didn't know what to say. Pleasure at hearing he cared lifted her heart. Fear of the things she'd heard Inquisitors did to women accused of being witches churned in her belly, making her feel a little sick.

“Late last summer, I visited a Clan about half a day's ride east of here,” Aiden said, not looking at her.“They wouldn't listen to me. There were two witches living in a small cottage in the Old Place that anchored that Clan's territory to the human world, and the Fae wouldn't listen to me when I explained the danger that had crept into Sylvalan because of the Inquisitors. When I came back this way on my way to Brightwood, men were in the Old Place cutting down the trees. The witches were gone, the shining road was gone — and another piece of Tir Alainn was gone with it.”

“I thought of you, Lyrra. If you'd left Brightwood to meet up with me as we'd originally planned, you might have stopped at that Clan's house to rest. If you'd stopped there at the wrong time, you might have disappeared with the rest of the Fae who had lived there, and there would have been nothing I could have done.”

“Someone else with the gift of story would have ascended to become the Muse,” Lyrra murmured.

“She wouldn't have been you,” Aiden said quietly. He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “A few days before I reached Brightwood, I passed through a human village and saw a little girl with red hair. And I thought...if you had a child, that's what she would look like — a darling little red-haired girl with a sweet smile that would grow sassy in a few years.” He swallowed, the muscles in his throat working with the effort of it. “And I thought if I was the man who had sired your child, I wouldn't be content with knowing your male relatives would help you raise her. I'd want to be the one to rock her to sleep at night and teach her the songs and kiss the scraped elbow or skinned knee. I'd want to be her father instead of just her sire.,”

“That's not the way the Fae live,” Lyrra said. She felt tears sting her eyes and wasn't even sure why she wanted to cry.

“That may be, but the ways of the Fae may not suit all of the Fae,” he replied a little sharply. “There are good reasons for our living the way we do,” she said, her own voice taking a sharper edge. “The main one being that Fae males aren't capable of keeping themselves to one lover.”

A long pause. “I haven't been in as many beds as you seem to think,” Aiden said, turning his head to look at her. “And I always came back.”

“To dance with the Muse.,”

“To be with you, Lyrra. And you haven't been without lovers when I wasn't there.” An unspoken question shimmered in his eyes.

“I— ” Something was happening here. Something between a man and a woman, not between the Bard and the Muse. “I haven't invited as many men to my bed as you seem to think.”

He sang quietly, “I gave her kindness, courtesy, respect and loyalty. I strung them on the strands of love.”

“These are the jewels for me,” she finished just as quietly, unsettled enough to feel dizzy.

“Would they be enough?” he asked, a strange, strained note in his voice. “If they were offered each day, would they be enough?”

“They would be precious,” she murmured. “Priceless.” She bent her head so that her hair would fall forward, hiding her face from him. Her heart beat oddly. She couldn't seem to draw in enough air to breathe properly. She felt as if Aiden were holding a treasure she craved just out of her reach.

“Would they be enough for you to accept one man as a friend and lover? As an...exclusive mate?”

Pushing her hair aside, she studied his face, baffled by the uncertainty in his eyes. “Are you asking if I'd be willing to accept you as an exclusive mate? As a — ” What did the humans call it? She knew the word as well as she knew her own name. Which she couldn't remember either at the moment.

“As a husband,” Aiden said softly. “Yes. That's what I'm asking.”

Tears stung her eyes. She pressed a hand against her mouth, not sure if she was going to laugh or cry. There were too many feelings spinning through her. She drew her hand away from her mouth, let it rest on her throat, and felt her pulse beating wildly. “The rest of the Fae will say we've been contaminated by spending somuch time in the human world.”

“These are our lives and our choice,” he said, sitting up so they were eye to eye. “Do you really care what the rest of the Fae will say or think?”

Lyrra shook her head, reached for him.

He pulled her into his arms and held her tight.

“Yes,” she whispered in his ear. “Yes, I'll take the jewels of love that you offer, and, giving them back in turn, I'll accept you as friend, lover, and husband.”

When he tried to kiss her, she pressed her head against his shoulder and wept. “Lyrra,” he said, alarmed. He shifted her until she was sitting on his lap and rocked her. “Why are crying? If you want this as much as I do, why are you crying?”

She made an effort to hold back the tears since they were making it impossible to speak. “When I was at Brightwood over the winter, I read the journals the women in Ari's family had left behind. This is what they wanted. This is what they had once and wanted to have again. This is what Ari never would have gotten from Lucian. I only met her that one time, but I liked her. It seems so unfair that, because we met her, I've gotten my own heart's wish and she — ” She swallowed the tears. “And she got nothing more than whatever kindness Morag gives to the spirits the Gatherer takes to the Shadowed Veil.”

Aiden rocked her for another minute. The storm of emotions that had battered her was fading now, leaving her limp and exhausted. Comforted by the movement and the feel of his arms around her, she began to drift toward sleep.

“We all have secrets,.” he said quietly. “Things we know that we don't share for one reason or another. We all have the right to have thoughts that are private. But I've noticed that, among humans, it usually is not considered breaking a confidence when something is shared between a husband and a wife.”

“That's part of love,.” she replied.

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Lyrra, sometimes words can lie even when they tell the truth.”

“I'm aware of that,.” she said, a little prickly. “After all, I am the Muse.”

“Ari is gone..”

She felt the tears sting her eyes again. He didn't need to tell her the obvious. Wasn't that what she'd been talking about a minute ago? Ari had been captured by the Inquisitors, and Morag had told Dianna and Lucian —

She sat up slowly.

Sometimes words can lie even when they tell the truth.

“Ari is gone,.” she said, watching Aiden's eyes, seeing the silent message in them that there was something under the words being spoken that she needed to pay attention to. Over the past few weeks, they'd gotten very good at giving each other these silent messages as they sang and told stories and listened to what the villagers and farm folk said —and didn't say.

“Morag told Dianna and Lucian that Ari was gone,” she continued. Truth and lies. .“And because Morag is the Gatherer, they assumed Ari was dead. But she never actually said that. She just said Ari was gone.”

“Yes,” Aiden agreed, “that's all she ever said.”

Lyrra thought a moment, then shook her head. “She did take two spirits up to the Shadowed Veil..”

“Yes, she did.”

“Then— Lyrra paused. Ahern, the Lord of the Horse, had been killed in the confrontation with the Inquisitors when they came to Ridgeley and Brightwood — last summer. Had there been someone else at Brightwood? Someone none of the Fae but Morag had known about? “What happened to the young man Ari was going to wed? What was his name? Neall. Yes, Neall. Morag...said he was gone.”

“He gave her kindness, courtesy, respect, and loyalty,” Aiden sang softly.

Unable to sit still, Lyrra scrambled off the bed to pace the width of the small room.

You're the Muse. He's the Bard. He expects you to be able to hear what isn't being said. Just as Morag had expected him to understand what she hadn't said.

He'd gone to see Morag one last time before she left Ahern's farm. Why would she have told him anything? Because he had grieved Ari's death — and the loss of a Daughter of the House of Gaian.

“He got her away from them,” Lyrra said, more to hear the words spoken than to speak to Aiden. “Somehow, Neall got Ari away from the Inquisitors. And then took her away from Brightwood as well.” She pressed her hands against her face.“If the Lightbringer and the Huntress ever learn that the last witch from Brightwood still lives...”

“They would search for her until they found her, and they would bring her back to Brightwood, regardless of what Ari wants,“ Aiden replied. “Dianna would bring her back so that she wouldn't have to stay in the human world and be the anchor that keeps the shining road open and her Clan's piece of Tir Alainn intact. And Lucian would bring her back to have Ari as his mistress because he lost her before he tired of her — and because his pride wouldn't tolerate the truth that she'd chosen a human male over him.”He paused. “But that is merely speculation. Morag said Ari is gone, and the Gatherer would know that better than the rest of us.”

“Mother's mercy, Aiden.” Lyrra sank down on the end of the bed. “Let's hope they never realize that what Morag said wasn't what they assumed she meant.“ Then she turned and gave him a brilliant smile. “Ari is gone. Isn't that wonderful?”

Answering her smile with his own, he held out a hand. When she took it, he tugged her toward him, laying back so that she was stretched out on top of him.

He played with her hair, and said, “When humans wed, there are speeches and customs that are observed to seal the bargain. We've spoken words to pledge ourselves to each other, so there's just one other thing to do to seal the bargain.”

He looked at her with eyes full of lust and laughter.

She gave him a soft kiss, then wiggled her body just enough to get a hard response from his.

“Vixen,” he said, wrapping his arms around her.

“I am not!” She paused. “Well, yes, I am. Some of the time.”

Laughing, he rolled until she was under him. “Come, wife. Let's seal the bargain.”

This time, when they gave each other their bodies, they also gave much more.

*****

Aiden stared at the ceiling. Lyrra slept peacefully beside him.

Yes, husbands and wives kept secrets, but there were some secrets he had to tell her now, for her own protection. If something happened to him, she had to know where to run — and what places to avoid at any cost. It wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone anymore along the eastern border. In some places, it wasn't safe to be a woman, now that the Inquisitors had come to Sylvalan and somehow convinced the eastern barons — and through them, other men — that women were lesser creatures who had no purpose, and no value, except to provide men with comfortable homes, sex, and offspring.

Aiden rolled over and tucked himself around Lyrra, needing the closeness.

He'd missed her over the past year with a fierceness that had made him ache. And even though he'd worried at times that the Inquisitors might come back to Brightwood, he'd been grateful she'd stayed there — until he'd returned to see her and discovered Lyrra hadn't stayed by her own choice. Then the anger and frustration he'd been feeling toward his own kind had turned on Dianna, who was the Lady of the Moon, the Huntress, the female leader of the Fae. She and Lyrra were the only Fae at Brightwood who had some aspect of power in them that made it possible for them to anchor the magic in the Old Place and, with enough other Fae present, keep the shining road to Tir Alainn open.

Last summer, after part of the Clan had come down to the human world, Dianna had asked Lyrra to remain at Brightwood a few more days while she went to Tir Alainn and took care of a few things before coming back to live in the cottage that had belonged to Ari's family. Dianna returned to Tir Alainn — and stayed there, leaving Lyrra with the choice of remaining to anchor the shining road or putting an entire Clan at risk if she left.

It was only when he'd returned that Lyrra had sent a warning through another of the Fae that she was leaving. That brought Dianna back to Brightwood. Lyrra refused to tell him what had been said before she left, but he imagined it hadn't been a pleasant leave-taking. And the cold courtesy with which they were greeted whenever they went up a shining road to a Clan house in Tir Alainn told him that Dianna had been spewing her bitterness over having to remain in the human world to anyone who would listen. He and Lyrra were being blamed for putting Dianna's Clan at risk and leaving her “exiled” at Brightwood.

The fact that no Lady of the Moon from another Clan had offered to come to Brightwood and try to be the anchor for the magic in the Old Place was telling. Perhaps that was just the self-interest that came naturally to most of the Fae — or perhaps, despite being willing to condemn Lyrra for her decision, no one trusted Dianna enough to offer, not after she'd broken her promise to the Muse.

He could fight the Clans' cold courtesy with sharp words, but he couldn't fight what was happening in Sylvalan. What he'd seen in some of those villages he'd passed through last summer and autumn had chilled him. Women wearing something called a scold's bridle that deprived them of the ability to speak. A woman being strapped in the public square, while the men witnessing the punishment hadn't been able to tell him what she'd done to be treated so badly, only that it was necessary to teach a woman modesty and pleasing behavior.

Those things had been bad enough. But something else had come across the river from Wolfram over the winter, something that made the men so uneasy they wouldn't talk about it. Something that the eastern barons were ordering done to make sure women remained in what was now considered their proper place in society. A “procedure,” the men had muttered, to rid a woman of unhealthy feelings.

Shivering, Aiden snuggled closer to Lyrra.

He hadn't been able to find out what this new danger was, but the fear of it was one of the things that had sent him galloping back to Brightwood.

Whatever was wrong in the human villages in Sylvalan was spreading. Even a village like this one, where nothing seemed out of place, made him uneasy. More so now, when the desire to protect Lyrra was stronger than his desire to survive.

Tomorrow they would head for villages closer to the Mother's Hills, places farther away from the eastern border of Sylvalan. Maybe they would come to an Old Place and take the shining road back to Tir Alainn and rest for a few days. And try, once again, to convince the Fae that the human world was no longer a place where they could amuse themselves when they chose and ignore it the rest of the time.

If the Fae didn't act soon to protect the witches and help the humans protect themselves from what the Inquisitors were doing to the people of Sylvalan, none of them — the humans, the witches, the Small Folk who lived in the Old Places, or the Fae — would survive.



A Piece of Chapter Two, where Liam meets Breanna

That bridge, Liam thought as he studied the stones that looked as if they'd come together on their own accord to span the brook. What is on the other side of that damn bridge?

The Old Place. A place his father had forbidden him to set foot, threatening disinheritance as well as a beating if Liam ever disobeyed. A bad place, his father had said. No place for good, decent men.

If what Elinore said was true, his father had crossed that bridge at least once. Of course, he doubted if anyone in this county thought his father had been a good, decent man.

The Old Place. The home of the witches — the women he had to come to terms with, somehow, if he was going to prevent his mother from leaving the family home with his little sister.

“Come on, boy,” Liam said. “Let's find out what's on the other side of that bridge.”

After crossing the bridge, they trotted down the road, such as it was, for several minutes before the house came into sight.

He wasn't sure what he expected. A tumbled-down cottage. Or a neat cottage. Maybe even a small stone house.

This was an old manor house that rivaled any gentry home in the neighborhood, with the exception of his family home. To the right was a stone arch, large enough for a wagon to pass through, that connected the main house to another building.

Dismounting, Liam led Oakdancer toward the arch. No servant came out to take charge of the horse. Peering up at the house's windows, he didn't see anyone peering back. Had they gone somewhere? Did they even have any servants? Until now, he'd never wondered about them. Not really. They'd been one of the forbidden things of childhood, but, as he grew older, it always seemed easier just not to think of them. Now he was standing in front of the witches' house. He was standing in the Old Place. And he had no idea if he should knock on the door as he would have done with another neighbor or ride away.

“At least I can tell Mother that I tried,” he muttered, turning toward Oakdancer.

As he gathered the reins and prepared to mount, a woman yelled, “Idjit! Drop that, you mongreled excuse of a flea-infested dog!”

The reins slipped from his hands before he realized he'd responded to that angry command. His heart jumped into his throat. Would they curse him for daring to step onto their land? If that were the case, he wouldn't show them his back while they were doing it.

“Idjit!”

Liam turnedand took a step forward at the same moment a small black dog, its tail happily curled over its back, ran through the arch toward him. A piece of white linen was clamped firmly in its jaws, its length flapping and dragging on the ground.

Grinning with relief that something else could qualify for a mongreled excuse of a dog, Liam dropped to one knee and held out a hand. The dog, with what Liam would have sworn was laughter in its eyes, loped toward him, tossing its head to show off its prize. When the dog got close enough to tease and invite him to play, Liam grabbed one end of the linen with one hand at the same time he grabbed the dog by the scruff with the other. Ignoring the hand that held it, the dog opened its jaws to get a better grip on its prize. Liam whipped the linen behind his back and stood up.

The dog watched him, its mouth open in a grin as it danced back and forth in front of him.

“Game's over,” Liam said, glancing up to see a dark-haired woman run through the archway, then skid to a halt.

The dog raced around him, forcing him to turn to keep the linen away from it.

“Idjit!” the woman said sternly, placing her fists on her hips. “Sit!”

The dog stopped racing around Liam, stood on its hind legs, and turned in a circle.

“Sit!”

The dog laid down, then rolled over twice.

“Did someone drop him on his head when he was a puppy?” Liam asked.

“It's possible,” the woman replied, her lips twitching with the effort not to grin. “He's either very dumb or very smart. We just can't tell which it is.” Then she really looked at him, and humor gave way to uncertainty. “You seem familiar, but...”

Taking a good look at her, Liam felt his heart jump into his throat for the second time in the past few minutes. The young woman standing before him looked more like his sister than Brooke did. She had dark brown hair like his, the same woodland eyes. Her face was a feminine variation of his own. He'd hadn't realized how much he'd wanted to be able to dismiss what Elinore had said — or at least think of this woman with the same emotional distance he managed with his father's other bastards. But he couldn't dismiss what had been said, couldn't maintain a distance. With her, the word sister hummed through him. A like mind. A like heart. Someone who saw the same world that he did and yet saw it differently. He felt as if one of them had been gone on a long journey and had finally come home, and they just had to get reacquainted all over again.

Except he'd never seen her before, had never spoken to her, had no idea if she really was of like mind where anything was concerned. And he didn't want to feel anything toward her. He hadn't come here to feel anything toward any of them.

She still seemed to puzzle over who he was — until she looked over his shoulder and noticed the stallion. Then her face became hard and cold. He knew that expression, too. His father had worn it often enough.

“So,” she said with icy courtesy. “The new baron has come to pay a call. Why?”

“Because I am the new Baron of Willowsbrook,” he replied quietly. Remembering the linen he still held, he took a step forward and offered it to her. “I hope it's not ruined.”

She reached for it slowly, as if reluctant to take anything from his hand. “It's nothing that washing it—again—won't fix.”

An awkward silence hung between them.

“Why are you here?” she said.

“Because —” Frustrated, Liam raked his hand through his hair. How was he supposed to explain this?

“You've paid your brave courtesy call to the witches,” she said, her voice vicious and sneering. “You can ride on now.”

“No, I can't.”

“Why not?”

“I don't want to lose my family!”

There were winter storms in her eyes now. “Not even the old bastard of a baron had had the balls to insult us like that on our own ground — although he certainly caused us other kinds of pain.”

“I meant no insult,” Liam said.

“Of course you didn't.” Her hands fisted. “You imply that we'll cause your family harm, without provocation, and you don't think that's an insult?”

“No. Yes.” He closed his eyes for a moment. There wasn't time to put his thoughts in order. If she walked away now, he knew instinctively that she would never listen to him again. “We're kin. Distant kin. On my mother's side.”

“I'm aware of that.”

“And we—you and I—are closer kin. Because of our father.”

Your father. He was never mine, thank the Mother, and for that I am grateful.”

“You should be,” Liam snapped. “At least you didn't grow up under his fist.”

They stared at each other.

“Baron — ” she began.

“Liam,” he said. “My name is Liam.”

She hesitated, her reluctance obvious, before she said, “I'm Breanna.” She took a breath, blew it out slowly. “What —?”

“What's he doing here?” another voice wailed.

Liam looked over at a woman clinging to one side of the arch. Her brown hair glinted with red where the sun touched it, and was cropped short, like a boy's. She just stared at him.

“Keely,” Breanna whispered, taking a step toward the woman.

Breanna's mother. Liam glanced at Breanna, not sure what he should say or do.

“He's dead,” Keely wailed. “You told me he was dead.” Then her face filled with a rage unlike anything Liam had ever seen. “Get away from her.” She moved toward him. “Get away from my girl!

“Keely, no!” Breanna shouted.

The land rolled beneath Liam's feet. Suddenly, clots of earth flew straight at him. He threw up his arms to protect his head and face, felt a clot hit his upper arm hard enough to bruise. Two others hit his ribs and thigh.

No!” Breanna shouted.

Wind tugged at his coat, lifted him off his feet, and shoved him to the ground. It roared in front of him. He heard the dog yelp, heard Oakdancer's neigh of fear.

“Keely, stop it!”

“I won't let him have my girl! He won't hurt my girl!”

“This is Liam, Keely. Liam.

Squinting to protect his eyes, Liam raised his head enough to peer over his arms. An arm's length in front of him, wind and earth swirled furiously, blocking the women from his view. He rose to his knees, unsure if it was safer to stay where he was or try to run.

“You told me he was dead!”

“The old bastard is dead,” Breanna said sharply. “His body was given to the Mother to feed the worms, and his spirit has gone to wherever spirits like his go when they pass through the Shadowed Veil.”

Liam saw movement at the edges of the swirl. Then Breanna dragged Keely around it to where they could all see each other clearly.

“This is Liam,” Breanna said. “Elinore's son.

Keely shook her head fiercely. “Liam is a boy. A nice boy. I've seen him riding on his pony.”

A bleak sadness filled Breanna's eyes for a moment. “He was a boy. He's grown up now.”

“He looks like the baron,” Keely whispered. Her eyes began to fill with blank rage again.

“He is the baron, but he's Liam.” Breanna grabbed Keely's shoulder and pivoted. “Look who he brought for a visit.”

The blank rage slowly faded as Keely stared at the stallion. A smile lit her face. “Oakdancer!” Then she frowned, leaned toward Breanna, and whispered, “Ididn't hit him with a clot of earth, did I?”

“Not likely,” Breanna replied dryly. “He's a horse. He knew enough to get out of the way.”

Sidling past Liam, Keely walked over to the stallion and began petting him.

“Are you all right?” Breanna asked, offering him a hand.

He slipped his hand into hers, not because he needed help getting to his feet but simply because she had actually offered it.

“A couple of bruises,” he said, trying to sound dismissive as he brushed dirt off his clothes. In truth, now that it was over, fear put a tremor in his hands. The power these women could wield — and what they could do with it — was something else he'd never given much thought to. He looked at the swirling wind and earth. “How...”

“Keely's branch of the Mother is earth. Mine is air. It was the fastest way to stop her from hurting you.” Breanna raised a hand. The swirling wind gradually slowed, depositing a pile of earth in front of her. She sighed. “Edgar is going to be annoyed about having the drive torn up like this.”

“Edgar?”

“The groundskeeper. We take care of the kitchen garden and our own flower beds, but he maintains the rest.” She hesitated, her gaze fixed on Keely and the stallion. “What did you mean about losing your family?”

“There's been trouble in the eastern part of Sylvalan. Bad trouble. My mother is worried about what might happen if that trouble comes here.”

“So what is it you want from us?”

“I don't want anything from you,” Liam said. It sounded harsh, so he went on quickly. “My mother wants me to use my position as the Baron of Willowsbrook to keep you and your family protected.”

“And if you don't?”

He swallowed hard. “She'll leave the family home, taking my young sister with her, and move in with her kin.”

“With her—” Breanna's eyes widened. “Here? She'll move in here?” Using both hands, she pushed her hair away from her face. “That would certainly be grist for the gossip mill, wouldn't it?”

“I don't give a damn about that,” he said sharply, but remembering to keep his voice low to avoid disturbing Keely. “They're my family. I love them. I don't want to lose them.”

Understanding softened Breanna's face. “I know how that feels.” She sighed. “I'll talk to Nuala. She'll be more persuasive where Elinore's concerned.”

“Thank you.”

Breanna hesitated, seemed to be arguing with herself. “Is that the only reason you came here?”

It seemed crude right now to admit that it was, so he said nothing.

She winced a little. “You see, I'd wondered if you'd also come to demand a stud fee.”

Liam felt his jaw start to drop. “A — a stud fee?”

Color suddenly blazed in her cheeks. A little defiant, she lifted her chin to indicate the stallion. “Well, that one comes visiting when he pleases, doesn't he? It wasn't as if we'd planned on...” She huffed.

“You had a mare in season on one of those visits,” Liam concluded.

“And him acting the ardent lover, and not a fence that can keep him out when he puts his mind to getting over it.”

Liam tucked his hands in his pockets — and firmly tucked his tongue in his cheek. He hoped it took her a little longer to fumble through this explanation. He was enjoying seeing her flustered.

“It wasn't like there was anything we could have done about it by the time Clay came running to tell us your horse was helping himself to our mare.”

Liam made little coughing noises to keep from laughing out loud. “So what did you get out of his helping himself to your mare?"

“A filly.”

“Can you afford to keep her?”

Breanna's eyes slashed at him. “We aren't paupers.” “I didn't think you were.” Especially after seeing the house and the well-kept grounds. “But that doesn'tmean you'd want an extra horse.”

She looked uncomfortable again. “There's good bloodlines on both sides, and she is a sweet little thing. I would like to keep her.”

“Then let's just consider the filly a peace offering,” Liam said quietly.

“Thank you.”

“Well.” He scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt. “I'd better collect my horse and get back to my work.” He watched the dog trot up to Breanna, dragging the linen that must have blown away while Breanna had dealt with Keely's wrath. The dog sat at her feet, looking up at her until she took the offering and gave the expected praise. “And I'd better let you get back to your own work.”

Breanna studied the dog. Then she looked at him, the light in her eyes making him want to check to make sure his purse hadn't been stolen. “How old is your sister?”

“Ten,” he replied cautiously.

“Wouldn't she like a dog?”

“I'm not taking him.”

“He'd be a fine companion for a young girl.”

“He'd be a domestic disaster.”

She drew in a breath to say something else, then simply grinned. “He is that. But you could consider him a peace offering.”

He grinned back at her. “Your keeping him here is a much better peace offering.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Come along then. I'll walk you over to your horse.” He fell into step with her, keenly aware of how easily their strides matched.

“Keely,” Breanna said quietly. “Oakdancer has to go home now.”

Keely pouted, reminding Liam of Brooke. “Arthur hasn't come to fetch him yet.”

“He's not going home with Arthur,” Breanna said firmly. “He's going home with Liam.” She gave the stallion a pat as she slipped an arm around Keely's shoulders and moved her away from the horse.

Liam mounted. “Ladies.”

“Blessings of the day to you, Liam,” Breanna said.

How much had it cost her to say those words? Liam wondered as he held Oakdancer to an easy canter all the way home. How hard had it been to grow up with a mother who had never grown beyond childhood emotionally? That had been his father's doing, the scars Elinore said time hadn't healed. And yet...

Breanna was his sister. She was a witch. She had power that frightened him now that he'd seen a small demonstration of it. And yet she was a woman like any other.

A sister.

A witch.

He wasn't sure how he felt about that, how he felt about her. But he knew he'd find another reason, before too many days had passed, to cross that bridge again for another visit.



Chapter Three

Morag, the Gatherer of Souls, sat back on her heels and stared with dismay at the profusion of little green plants before her.

“It's easy, he says.” She almost snarled as she said the words. “Just pull up anything small and green that doesn't belong in that patch of the garden, he says. Mother's tits, Neall, how am I supposed to know what doesn't belong here?”

“That doesn't belong,” a voice said. A slim stick came over the waist-high kitchen garden wall and pointed to a spike of green. “That's grass trying to find a home for itself in well-turned earth.”

Morag looked up. Ashk, Bretonwood's Lady of the Woods, stood on the other side of the garden wall, smiling at her.

Pushing at the strands of black hair that had escaped from the ribbon she'd used to tie it back, Morag gave Ashk a sour smile in return. “Are you certain? If I pull up the wrong thing, Ari will be upset and Neall will spend the rest of the year teasing me about it. 'We're having grass soup tonight because Morag weeded out the peas.' Or the beans. Or whatever it is that's supposed to be growing here.”

“The rest of the year?” Ashk said, her voice full of laughter. “You're Clan now, darling Morag. You'd be lucky if he didn't mention it for the next ten years.” She leaned farther over the wall and studied the little green plants. “But you may be right. Those might be the beans. Or the peas.”

“In other words, you don't know either.”

“I can tell you what grows in the woods, but in the kitchen garden...” Ashk shrugged. “But I am certain that that—” She pointed again with her stick. “—is grass and doesn't belong there.”

Morag leaned forward, grasped the shoot of grass firmly between thumb and forefinger — and couldn't bring herself to pluck it from the soil, to tear its roots out of the Great Mother. Last summer, she'd been steeped in death — cruel, vicious death — while she discovered the presence of the Inquisitors and uncovered why their destruction of the witches also meant the destruction of Tir Alainn. She had gathered so many spirits and taken them up the road to the Shadowed Veil so that they could pass through to the Summerland beyond. But here, staying in this Old Place with Ari and Neall, she was almost overwhelmed by the heady feel of life. So much of it, all around her. She didn't want to hear Death's whisper, not even for a weed.

“Day and night,” Ashk said softly. “Shadows and light. Life and death. They're all part of the turning of the days, Morag. All pieces of the world. Life can choke out life. Weeds can leave no room for other plants to grow. Some harvesting must be done.”

“Are we talking about small green plants, Ashk?” Morag asked. The understanding in Ashk's woodland eyes was as compelling as it was disturbing.

“We're talking about life,” Ashk replied. She looked up, her gaze focused on the woods that bordered the meadow where Ari and Neall's cottage stood. “This is the growing season. This is the time when the Lord of the Woods is called the Green Lord, the time when life is bursting into the world. But no one forgets that when the Green Lord walks, you can see the shadow of the Hunter, which is his other name.”

Morag rested her hands on her thighs. “My sister pointed out that there are no forests in Tir Alainn. I told her it was because life and death walk hand in hand there, that it was because forests have shadows and they're too alive to be perfect.”

Ashk's gaze returned to Morag. “Then you do understand. Pluck the weeds while they can still be plucked. The grass has its own place to grow. Let it grow there. But keep it out of the soil where it doesn't belong.”

As they watched each other, a tension grew between them. Then a happy bark made Ashk turn, and the moment was broken.

“Ah,” Ashk said. “Here comes the person who can tell you what is weed and what is not.”

Getting to her feet, Morag saw Ari walking toward them while Merle ran exuberant circles around her. The big animal, half shadow hound, was still young enough to be puppyish in his behavior and had been acting even more so since being reunited with Ari.

When Ari reached one of the gates that opened into the big kitchen garden, she rested a hand on Merle's head. “Go run and play in the meadow,” she said. “I'll be right here with Morag and Ashk.”

Merle just looked at her and whined.

“It's all right,” Ari said. She leaned toward him. “Go chase a bunny.”

With another happy bark, Merle turned and raced across the meadow, a black-streaked, gray shape. Only the tan forelegs gave away the fact that he wasn't pure shadow hound.

Looking at the two women, Ari smiled ruefully. “When I closed him out of the bathing room last night, he sat at the door and howled.”

“We heard him,” Ashk said dryly. She laughed when Ari's eyes widened.

“You may not have really heard him, Morag grumbled, “but Neall and I certainly did.” And no command or scold could move the animal away from the bathing room door. She had taken the puppy when she left Ahern's farm last summer, but Merle had never forgotten Ari, the first person who had loved him without reservation.

“Give him time,” Ashk said. “He's only been with you a few days. He doesn't trust yet that a closed door doesn't mean you'll go away.”

“I know,” Ari said, opening the garden gate. “At least Neall has convinced him that he can't sleep in the bed with us.”

Ashk smiled. “The next step will be convincing him that he can't always spend the night in your bedroom.”

Ari blushed. Then she frowned at the empty basket at Morag's feet. “I came out to help you weed.”

“You're supposed to be resting,” Morag said as Ari sank to her knees, braced one hand on the ground in order to lean over, and neatly plucked the shoot of grass out of the soil.

“I rested,” Ari said, sounding a bit defensive. She tossed the grass into the basket and busily continued to weed that patch of the garden.

Life can choke out life, Morag thought as she sank to her knees beside Ari and reached to pluck a small plant from the soil.

Ari grabbed Morag's hand. “That's a bean plant.” She pointed to a sprout right beside it. “That's a weed.”

“How can you tell?” Morag muttered. “They look the same.”

“No, they don't. Their leaves look different.”

Maybe those leaves looked different to Ari, since witches were the Daughters of the Great Mother and drew their power from Her four branches — earth, air, water, and fire — but to Morag, they were all just sprouts of green that made the ground look soft and fuzzy.

“Besides,” Ari said, “I want to do the work now, before I get so fat with the babe I can't get up off the ground by myself.” She sighed. “Our first harvest here, and I won't be able to do more than waddle around while others do the work.”

“It was quite thoughtless of Neall to have his way with you after the Winter Solstice feast and not take into account you might be waddling by the harvest season,” Ashk said dryly.

Morag looked up at Ashk. There was something sharp behind the words that were teasingly said.

Ari didn't seem to notice. She blushed fiercely, then laughed. “All right. We enjoyed each other, and neither of us was interested in counting on our fingers that night to see when a babe might come.”

Wanting to turn the conversation to something else, Morag said, “You planted a lot of beans. You must like them.”

Ari wrinkled her nose. “I like peas better, but Neall likes beans. I want to be sure enough plants grow so that he can eat all the beans he wants fresh and still give me enough to can so that he'll have some over the turning of the seasons.”

Glancing at Ashk, Morag was surprised to see pleasure and pain in equal measure on the other woman's face.

“Are you feeling well?” Ashk asked quietly. “Neall mentioned that you've nodded off a few times almost before you've finished eating the evening meal. You shouldn't be that tired after sleeping during the day.”

“I—” Ari looked around, as if checking to make sure it was still just the three of them. “I don't really sleep during the day.”

“Oh?”

“When Neall and I went to Breton last month, I traded a few of the weavings I'd done over the winter for fabric to make clothes for the babe, and something for me to wear while the babe's still growing in me. And I got a fine piece of linen to make Neall a shirt for the Summer Solstice. I hid the linen among the rest of the fabric because he would have dug in his heels about me getting something for him that cost so dear.” Ari hesitated, took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “All those years when Neall lived with Baron Felston, he never had anything new, anything fine. All his clothes were Royce's cast-offs. But this is Neall's home; this is his mother's land. He's gentry here, and a Lord in his own right. So I want him to have something new and fine. And I want it to be a surprise, so I can work on it only when I'm supposed to be resting because that's the only time when Neall takes care of chores that aren't close to the cottage and I can be sure he won't walk in before I can hide the shirt.”

What's going on in your head and heart, Ashk? Morag wondered as that mixture of pain and pleasure filled Ashk's face again before the woman looked away.

“Fair warning,” Ashk murmured. “The young Lord approaches.”

Ari started weeding vigorously.

Morag rose to her feet, feeling oddly protective but uncertain why that was so.

Neall strode toward the kitchen garden. He frowned when he reached the wall and saw Ari.

“You're supposed to be resting,” he said.

Ari looked over her shoulder. “I rested. Now I'm teaching Morag how to weed the garden.”

“I already told her how to do that.”

“And now I'm showing her how to do it.”

Before Neall could say anything more, Ashk said briskly, “Come, young Lord. While Morag has her lesson, it's time for yours.”

Morag watched Ashk and Neall walk toward the woods. Neall looked human, but his father had been half Fae and his mother had been a witch, a Daughter of the House of Gaian. Ever since their arrival here last summer, after he and Ari had fled from Ridgeley and the Inquisitors who had come there to destroy Ari because she was a witch, Ashk had been teaching him how to nurture the power that had lain dormant within him, how to be a Lord of the Woods.

That much Morag had learned from Neall in the handful of days since they had welcomed her as friend and family and invited her to stay with them. But there were things she sensed weren't being said when she spent time with the Fae who lived in this Old Place. More often than not, when she asked a question, the answer was, “That is for Ashk to answer.” And Ashk, who could be quite forthright about many things, turned away far more questions than she answered.

Who are you, Ashk? I've never seen a Lord or Lady of the Woods rule over a Clan the way you rule this one. Who are you that you can command this kind of obedience? That's the real question no one will answer. Not even you.

“The weeds are down here,” Ari said.

“What do you do with the weeds after you've pulled them from the soil?” Morag asked, putting aside the questions that had no answers.

“They go in the compost piles at the end of the garden,” Ari replied. “The heat of the sun, the rain, and the wind all help turn them into a rich food for the earth.”

Earth, air, water, and fire. The four branches of the Great Mother. The four branches of power that were the heritage of witches.

Life and death. Shadows and light. Witches understood those things too.

Morag sank to her knees beside Ari. “All right. Show me what to weed.”

*****

Ashk wandered the forest trails with Neall, her thoughts and feelings too scattered to remain focused on the intended lesson. Neall wasn't paying much attention either. There were times in the woods when one could drift peacefully with one's thoughts turned elsewhere. And there were times when a moment's inattention could be fatal. A snapped twig, a subtly different scent in the wind were enough warning for her, but Neall was still learning to use the gifts that had come from his father and couldn't afford to be careless.

Although, Ashk thought, when the teacher's mind wanders, it's hard to fault the student for the same thing.

“Since it's only your body that trails along with me, should we end the day's lesson?” Ashk asked mildly.

“What?” Neall looked puzzled; then he smiled an apology. “Sorry. My mind was elsewhere.”

“When you're in the woods, young Lord, keep your mind with you.”

“Yes, Lady.” He hesitated. “There's nothing wrong, is there? With Ari or the babe?”

“Why would you think there was?”

“You all seemed so serious when I approached the kitchen garden, so I wondered if Ari had mentioned something to you and Morag that she wouldn't have told me.”

There were plenty of things Ari had said, none of which she wanted to discuss with the young man standing nearby.

“Ashk—”

“If you must know, we were comparing the cocks of the lovers we've known.” She spoke without thinking, answering him the same way she answered Padrick whenever he prodded her about something that she didn't want to talk about. Padrick always laughed and held up his hands in surrender, knowing she'd talk to him when she was ready — or wouldn't talk if whatever was on her mind wasn't hers to tell.

She wasn't prepared for the stricken look Neall gave her before he turned away.

Fool, she thought. You not only stepped off the trail, but you also landed in a tangle of thorns.

“So,” Neall said quietly. “How do I compare?”

Ashk stared at him. “Neall. I was teasing.”

The uncertainty in his eyes revealed things he'd kept well hidden until now.

“Ari chose you, Neall.”

“There wasn't much choice,” he replied. “Not after the Inquisitors showed up in Ridgeley.”

“She made her choice before they came,” Ashk replied sharply. “That's what you told me. Was it a lie?”

Neall shook his head. “But I can't help wonder if... I wonder if I disappoint her as a lover, if she feels with me as much as she felt with...” His voice trailed off. He wouldn't meet her eyes.

“If she feels as much with you as she felt with the Lightbringer,” Ashk finished. Her emotions soared, as ferocious as they were protective. “Ari chose you, not Lucian. You. He's not the one who's been warming her bed all these months. It's not his child she carries. Has she ever given any indication that what you share in bed doesn't please her as much as it pleases you?”

“Of course not,” Neall replied hotly. “She'd never say anything even if—”

“If what?” Ashk said, just as hotly. “If you think she doesn't enjoy your lovemaking, you should pay more attention. The two of you—” She broke off, trying to hold back feelings that had been building inside her for months. “You're more like your father than you know.”

“What do you mean?” Neall asked.

Ashk laughed softly, a pained sound. “Kief used to worry over whether or not he was good enough for Nora, whether or not he pleased her as a lover. Your grandmother didn't approve of him, you know, because he wasn't a witch's son or even pure Fae. But he loved Nora, and she loved him in that quiet, deep way she had. She planted beans that first summer. Lots of beans. Because they were his favorite. He didn't understand it was a declaration of love, didn't understand that passion doesn't always burn hot and bright on the surface, not when it's deeply rooted in the heart.”

“I remember them,” Neall protested. “I remember their laughter, how they looked at each other. I was a child when they died, and maybe I didn't understand what those looks meant, except that I always felt warm and safe, but I would have known if they were unhappy with each other. I would have felt it.”

Ashk leaned against the nearest tree. “You can't see how you and Ari look at each other. For me, it's like seeing Nora and Kief again. The way you work together, laugh together, squabble about chores. The way you both look on some mornings, it's obvious you spent a long night in bed and didn't spend much of that time sleeping.” She sighed, closed her eyes. “There are times when I've come here and seen this dark-haired woman hanging out the wash. I almost call out Nora's name before she turns and I know it's Ari.” She opened her eyes and fixed her gaze on Neall. “It's easy for passion to blaze for a short time when you don't have to consider all the small day-to-day things that make up the rest of a person's life. It flares hot and burns out quick, unless it's nourished. When it came down to a choice, Lucian couldn't offer enough to give her a reason to stay. Consider that the next time you doubt, young Lord of the Woods. A Daughter of the House of Gaian chose you over the Lightbringer, the Lord of the Sun.”

Neall picked up a small dead branch and idly broke it into pieces. “I don't remember my grandmother. When did she die?”

“She hasn't yet.” Ashk saw his eyes widen. “She lives on Ronat Isle with her Lord of the Sea, her selky man.”

“But—”

“Cordell's gift is water, but it's the wildness of the sea that calls to her, not the quieter songs of rivers and streams. This Old Place is too far away from the sea for someone like her. By the time I came to live here, she had left for good, leaving Nora and the land in her own mother's care.”

Neall snapped to attention. “Came to live here? This wasn't your Clan?”

No matter how she turned, she was still caught in those emotional thorns. “No. But I needed...a different place...so my grandfather brought me here where I would still have kin. That's why—” She bit her lip.

“Why what?” Neall asked quietly.

“I didn't know.” The words burst out of her. “I was nineteen when Nora and Kief died. My path wasn't something I could change, so I couldn't keep you here with me.”

“Ashk.” Neall reached out to touch her arm in comfort.

She stepped away from him. “I thought it would be for you the way it had been for me. People who were kin who would become family. I thought they would take care of you.”

“They did take care of me.”

Tears stung her eyes. “No, they didn't. 'Poor relation.' I know what that means among the gentry in the human world. They had no right to say that to you. They had no right.”

Neall sighed. “Ari cares about me. I think she's colored things blacker than they were.”

“And I think you try to heap flowers over a pile of shit to cut down the stink. It doesn't make it any less a pile of shit.”

He said nothing for a long moment. “You told me I had to leave in order to learn the ways of my father's people. And I did. And now I've come home. If I'd never gone to live with Baron Felston, I never would have known Ari. Shadows and light. Isn't that what you keep showing me during these walks through the woods? She's my light, Ashk.”

“If I hadn't left my family and gone wandering, I wouldn't have ended up here in the western part of Sylvalan,” Kief had said. “I wouldn't have ended up with Nora.”

“Come on,” Neall said quietly when she didn't respond. “I'll walk you back to the Clan house.”

A subtle change in the woods instantly commanded her attention. The power was old and waning, but it still called to her.

“No,” Ashk said. “I have other business. You go home.”

He studied her a moment, then bowed and turned to leave.

“Neall.” She hesitated, then decided she could tell him this much. “Ari planted beans this year. Lots of beans. Because they're your favorite.”

She watched him absorb the message. Even after he left, she remained where she was, sensing his presence in the woods. When she was certain that he wouldn't come back, she turned and followed the trails that led to the oldest part of the woods.

She walked for several minutes, listening to the chirping of birds and the chattering of squirrels. Finally, she saw the stag, standing so still beside the girth of an old oak tree. If he'd been a true deer, his antlers would have been young and velvet-covered in this season instead of a full, mature rack. But he was one of the Fae in his other form.

“Kernos,” she whispered. It had been many years since he'd been the Green Lord, since he'd been the Lord of the Woods. That didn't matter. Not to her, anyway.

She approached him slowly, bowed when she stood before him. “You honor me with your presence, Grandfather.”

He didn't move. Just watched her with those dark eyes.

“There are shadows gathering in other parts of Sylvalan,” she said quietly. “If they aren't stopped, they'll creep into our part of the land, too.”

He turned and walked up the trail, his left hind leg dragging a little, just as it did in his human form ever since the brain seizure three years ago. He'd regained most of his strength, but his left leg still dragged a little and his speech was a bit slurred.

Obeying the silent command, Ashk followed him.

The Clan where he lived was a day's journey from here. He shouldn't be traveling so far alone. Not anymore. Not that there was anything that would dare touch him while he was in her home woods.

He had been there for her. Always. He had taught her to be a Lady of the Woods, and he'd trained her to be so much more.

He was the one who had knelt beside her the first time she'd made the transformation to her other form. He was the one who had petted her, soothed her, encouraged her while the rest of her family recoiled from what she'd become. A rare form. Dangerous. Nothing was safe from her in her other form.

She followed him until they came to a meadow deep in the heart of the woods. He bounded forward into the sunlight. She remained at the edge of the woods, in the shadows, pained by the knowledge that he was no longer fast enough to outrun a predator, no longer strong enough to stand and fight and win.

He looked back at her, waiting.

He used to bring her to this meadow to play. He'd change into the stag and let her chase him. When she was young, he ran just fast enough to let her almost catch him, just fast enough not to bruise her pride. When she got a little older, he ran faster, making her work to keep up with him.

She remembered the day when she caught up to him, ran side by side with him. She remembered the day when she realized she could outrun him — and still ran beside him.

And she remembered the day when he stopped suddenly and she ran past him. They'd stared at each other in that sunlit meadow, and she'd felt his silent, final command.

Taking a slow, deep breath, Ashk stepped into the meadow, changed into a shadow hound.

The stag bounded away.

Her gray, black-streaked coat stood out against the sunlit green, but in the shadows of the woods, or in the moonlight, she would blend in, a predator who wouldn't be seen until her fangs sank into a throat. There was nothing in the woods — not stag, not wolf, not wild boar — that could stand against her in this form.

The shadow hound raced after the stag, snarling and snapping at his heels, running just fast enough to give him the thrill of the chase but not fast enough to bruise his pride.





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