Books

The House of Gaian

The House of Gaian

Book 3
Tir Alainn Trilogy

Roc
October 2003
ISBN-13:
978-0-451-45942-8


 
 
Cover:
Art by Duane Myers
Design by Ray Lundgren
Library Edition available as audio bookavailable as ebook
 





EXCERPT

Copyright © 2003 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.

Chapter 1
waning moon

Ashk, Bretonwood's Lady of the Woods, wandered the familiar woodland trails of her Clan's Old Place. Neall, distant kin to her despite his human face, walked beside her. She saw questions in his blue eyes, but he kept the silence she'd held since she came to his cottage early that morning and asked him to accompany her.

These trails knew her tread, both her human feet and the pads of the shadow hound that was her other form. And she knew the trails. She didn't want to leave Bretonwood, but she had to, had to keep her heart and mind on the task ahead. Whether or not she could do that depended on the young man who walked beside her.

At the end of the trail, she hesitated a moment before walking into the sunlit meadow. A favorite place. A special place where her grandfather had taken her to play and to learn to be a Lady of the Woods—and, later, although she wasn't aware of it at the time, to be the Green Lord...and the Hunter. He was buried in that meadow, right where he'd fallen after her arrow pierced his heart. A swift death that honored the old Lord of the Woods rather than the lingering, soul-wasting death that the nighthunter bites would have caused him. The Fae put up no markers like humans did, and Ari, Neall's wife and Bretonwood's witch, had worked her magic with care, so there was no mound of dirt, no disturbance in the grass and wildflowers. And yet, she could feel a lingering something when she was close to the spot, something she recognized as Kernos even though the Gatherer had taken his spirit to the Shadowed Veil so that he could go on to the Summerland.

What needs to be said and done today...it's fitting that it's done here, Ashk thought. I miss you, Kernos. I miss your laughter and your wisdom. And I hope with all that's in me that I have the strength and courage you believed me to have.

She walked to the center of the meadow before she set her bow, canteen, and quiver of arrows on the ground. Her woodland eyes, a brown-flecked green, scanned the trees as she ruffled her ash-brown hair with her fingers. The cropped hair felt strange after letting it flow down her back for so many years, but she couldn't afford to have anything interfere with the smooth, swift movement of drawing an arrow from the quiver and nocking it to the bow. Not where she was going. Not with the enemy she was heading out to meet. It would be better to die a swift death than to fall into the Inquisitors' hands.

Neall set his things beside hers as he, too, scanned the trees. “I don't see any sign of the nighthunters.”

“There are a few left, but not many,” Ashk replied. “There's still a feeling of wrongness in the woods, but it's fainter now.” She looked at Neall, who was still crouched beside their weapons. “You feel it, too.”

“Yes.”

Ashk nodded. He didn't understand yet what his being so attuned to the subtleties of the woods meant, but soon he would.

“Ashk.” Neall rose to his feet. He took a deep breath, puffing his cheeks as he exhaled. “With everything that needs to be done, do you really think we should take the time for a lesson?”

For this one, Ashk thought, stepping away from the weapons. Because of what needs to be done, it's time for this one.

Neall followed a few steps behind her, his eyes and attention still on the trees. The nighthunters didn't like sunlight, and she and Neall were in the center of the large, sunlit meadow; but even during the daylight hours, the creatures the Inquisitors had created by twisting magic were a threat in the shadows of the woods.

He wasn't paying attention to her because he trusted her.

She turned, said, “Change,” immediately shifted into her other form, and sprang at him, her fangs bared.

Even a month ago, he would have hesitated for that fatal moment that would have given her the advantage. Now he shifted in an instant, and the young stag leaped aside, pivoting as soon as he touched the ground, his head lowered, the tines of his antlers a weapon against her fangs.

She charged him again and again—and he met her, again and again, never giving her the opening to leap in and nip him in a place that, in a real attack, could disable him. He thought like a man, but he'd learned how to use that stag body that was his other form. Because he thought like a man, he didn't do the one thing a real stag would have done. He didn't run. There were times when she'd chased him around the meadow to build his endurance, to help him learn the stag body, but this lesson was a battle to confirm something for herself and to prove something to him.

Panting from the effort, she finally leaped away, putting some distance between them. Then she changed back to her human form.

“Enough,” she said, walking slowly toward their gear.

He remained in stag form, pivoting to watch her.

She bent to pick up her canteen, winced a little as her muscles protested. It had been awhile since she'd worked that hard in her shadow hound form. She glanced at him, could feel his confusion and anger pulsing over the meadow. “Enough, Neall.”

He hesitated a moment longer, then changed back to human form and strode toward her, his hands curled into fists.

“Mother's tits, Ashk! What was that about?”

“A lesson,” she replied quietly. She opened the canteen and filled her mouth with water, savoring the cool wetness before she swallowed. “Kernos did it differently with me, but the lesson was the same.”

He stared at her. As understanding filled his blue eyes, he shook his head in denial. “I'm not.”

“You are.”

“I can't become the Lord of the Woods. I'm not pure Fae. They would never accept it. Besides,” he added, sounding a bit desperate, “you're the Hunter now, and I'm not about to challenge you.”

Ashk took another sip of water before answering. “Do you accept that you are a Lord of the Woods?”

He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “That's not the same thing.”

“Do you accept what you are?”

“Yes,” he said reluctantly.

Ashk nodded. “Yes. You're Fae, Neall. Looks alone are not what determines who is and isn't Fae. It's the gift of the other form, and our command of the animals in our world, that separates us from the humans and the wiccanfae. And you, my young stag, cannot deny that you have that gift.”

“But—”

“Your mother was a witch, but she was born of a witch mother and a Fae father. And your father was born of human and Fae. Those matings made you what you are.”

“Ashk—”

“As the Hunter, I command you, young Lord. And as the Hunter, I am telling you what I require of you.”

Looking troubled, Neall stepped forward and fetched his own canteen.

Ashk took another mouthful of water, closed her canteen, and dropped it on the grass at her feet. She waited until he had slaked his thirst before speaking, keeping her eyes focused on the meadow, knowing intuitively that he'd listen with less protest if she wasn't looking directly at him.

“Padrick and I have talked,” she said quietly, “and we've decided some things that concern you. I've told the Clan bard, so he'll stand as witness, but Padrick needs to do things the human way because of his estate and because he's a baron, so he's having his man of business draw up the papers naming you the guardian of Evan and Caitlin.”

“Ashk—”

“It's necessary,” she said sharply, cutting him off. “If something happens to Padrick, Evan becomes the next Baron of Breton. But he's still a child, and he'll need someone who can teach him what it means to be a good baron. You lived in a baron's house when you were growing up. You understand how to run an estate and what the people need. You can teach him those things.” She took a deep breath to steady herself, feeling her stomach clench at the thought of having to say the next words. “And if something should happen to Evan, Padrick has named you his second heir.”

Ashk—

“It's proper,” she said, giving him a slashing look that silenced him. “It's customary for the title of baron to be passed from father to eldest son, but a baron can name anyone his heir, whether he has sons or not. Padrick has cousins, but none that he feels would rule Breton and this county the way it needs to be ruled, none who would understand the wants and needs of all the people who live here—the Fae, the humans, the wiccanfae, and the Small Folk, too.” Watching him, she smiled at his discomfort. “The Small Folk have always been wary of the Fae, even here where we live in the world and walk the same woods, but they do talk to the Green Lady, and I've heard quite a bit about the young Lord of the Woods and the witch who has taken him for her husband. 'Look here now, Lady Ashk'”—she lowered her voice to imitate one of the small men—“'It's a fine thing for Lady Ari to be giving us a bit of cream or butter that's more than she has use for, and it's a fine thing for the young Lord to offer us a bit of beef. It's a treat to have them, so it is, but we're a wee bit worried that they're leaving their own table too lean, if you see what we're saying.' And I lie with an honest heart and assure them that I've never known the stew to be thin of meat or that either of you did without butter or cream,” she finished in her own voice.

“We have enough,” Neall muttered.

“And it harms no one if the stew is a little thin on meat every now and again. The fact is, the Small Folk feel easy with you and Ari, and that's not something to dismiss.” Ashk hesitated, then sighed. “There's one other thing. If the fight comes to Breton, I want you to take Ari up to Tir Alainn. I want you to take Evan and Caitlin and the other children as well. And I want you to stay with them.”

Temper flashed in Neall's eyes. “A baron's heir, when he's a grown man, doesn't run from a fight. Neither does a Lord of the Woods.”

“It would be easier to stay,” Ashk agreed. “I—and Padrick—need you to go.”

“There are enough elders who stay in Tir Alainn who could look after the children.”

“The Fae children, yes, but not the human ones. Tir Alainn will be strange to them, and they'll need someone they can look to who understands their way of looking at the world.”

Neall stared at her.

Ashk huffed in exasperation. “If the fight comes here, it's not just the Fae at risk.”

“You mean all the children, don't you?” Neall said slowly.

She nodded. “From the Clan, the village, the gentry homes, the tenant farms. Yes. All the children. And your horses.”

“You can't protect things just because they're mine.”

“I want Ari protected because she's a witch, one of the Mother's Daughters, and as she grows heavier with the babe, she won't be able to outrun an enemy if it comes to that. You have two of the finest Fae stallions anywhere in the west, not to mention the Fae mares that were bred by the Lord of the Horse himself. We can't count what has already been lost because of the Inquisitors coming to Sylvalan. We can't know what else will be lost before we're able to drive them out. But we can do our best to protect the people and things we'll need to rebuild our land and our lives. So you'll do what I need you to do. I can't look back, Neall. When I ride out of here, I need to go with an easy heart. And that is a burden I place on your shoulders.”

Neall looked away. When he looked at her again, his eyes were years older. “I'll do what you need.”

“Thank you.”

Neall sighed. “This is just talk anyway. Nothing is going to happen to Padrick, and nothing is going to happen to you. You'll still be the Hunter when you're a wrinkled great-grandmother.”

“No, I don't think so,” Ashk replied quietly. “Power waxes and wanes, Neall, and it doesn't always follow the years. There are some who have ascended to command their particular gift and remained strong for decades, and there are others who have burned brightly for a few years before their power faded and another's power blazed. I was twenty when I became the Hunter. In a few more years, you'll be a seasoned man in your prime, and I'll be quite content to be nothing more than a Lady of the Woods playing with my grandchildren.”

“You've got some years to go then,” Neall said. “Evan's only eleven years old.”

“And you're twenty-two and will soon be a father,” Ashk replied. “There's a river of living between where he is in his life and where you are, but in another ten years, that river won't be as wide as you seem to think.” She stepped up to him, cupped his face in her hands. “I hope you have a long Green Season. I hope when this is over, there will be years and years when you and Ari need to do nothing more than raise children and horses. I hope that with all my heart, for your sake and Ari's—and for my sake and Padrick's as well. But if that isn't to be, then know, here and now, that you're strong enough to be what you have to be.” She kissed him lightly, then stepped away. “You'll do, Neall. You'll do just fine. Come along now. The others are waiting. Padrick wants to talk with all of us.”

“If you're gone, how will I know how to be the Hunter?” Neall asked softly.

Ashk's hand froze over her gear for a moment. Then she settled her quiver comfortably on her back and picked up her bow and canteen. “The knowing is part of the gift. There are some things that aren't spoken of between the one whose power is fading and the one who ascends. But when that moment comes, the knowledge comes with it.” Including knowing why the Fae have good reason to be wary of the Hunter. But that's something you don't need to know until the time comes. That's something Kernos wouldn't tell me. If the Fae aren't careful, they'll discover they have a more vengeful enemy than the Inquisitors. The Inquisitors can only kill them. I can destroy them. I wonder if Aiden knew that when he came looking for the Hunter to help him convince the Fae to protect the witches and the Old Places against the Black Coats.

“Let's go, young Lord.”


*****

Morag, the Gatherer of Souls, leaned against a tree that gave her a clear view of one of the trails that led to the Bretonwood Clan house. Shivering, despite the warmth of the summer day, she wrapped her arms around herself. It didn't help.

“Are you cold?” Aiden asked quietly, coming to stand beside her.

In body and soul, she thought as she studied the black-haired, blue-eyed man who was the Bard, the Fae Lord of Song. “Why do bards and minstrels romanticize war? What is so glorious about men coming together at a certain place and time to die by the hundreds, by the thousands?”

“I don't know,” Aiden replied. “The courage, perhaps, and to acknowledge that the presence of a few determines the outcome for so many.”

“Will it, Aiden? If they have an army, and we have an army, will the battles between them really determine anything? If the eastern barons and Inquisitors lose, will they go away and let the rest of us go back to living the way we want to live? If we lose, will the people of Sylvalan just submit?”

“They submitted in the east. They watched the witches die. They watched the lives of their mothers and sisters and wives be torn apart. They stood aside and did nothing when the barons and Inquisitors ordered the...maiming...of all those women.”

“I don't think they'll stand aside here,” Morag said softly. “I think they'll fight on, village by village, until there's nothing and no one left to be crushed by the Witch's Hammer. If that's the case, will those thousands dying on a battlefield really matter?”

Aiden studied her for a long moment. “You could stay here with Ari and Neall. You don't have to go.”

“Of course I do. I'm the Gatherer. I'm Death's Mistress. My place is on a battlefield.” Morag sighed. “I should have killed the Master Inquisitor when I had the chance. Maybe things would be different now if I had.”

“Maybe,” Aiden agreed. “And maybe if you had, the battle would have come sooner, before we had any chance to meet it.”

“I gave him a chance to leave, and to leave us be. I won't give him a second chance. I won't give any of them a second chance.”

Aiden shifted uncomfortably.

None of the Fae—except Ashk—were comfortable with that aspect of her gift, but until last summer, it had been something that had been mentioned in old stories and songs. Unlike the other Fae whose gift made them Death's Servants, she could gather a spirit from one who was dying, not just from one who was already dead. And she could gather a spirit from someone who was very much among the living. She could ride through a village and leave nothing but corpses in her wake. It was one thing to know that was an aspect of the Gatherer's power; it was quite another to realize the person who wielded that gift was willing to use it.

And she would use it. Had used it. By the time she'd found the Witch's Hammer last summer, she had killed all of the Inquisitors he'd brought with him to Sylvalan. She'd hoped that would convince him to leave Sylvalan and never come back, but that had been a foolish, futile hope. So the Gatherer would follow the Hunter into battle, and Death would be her weapon.

Morag brushed her black hair away from her face. Ashk and Neall were coming down the trail, both looking solemn. She turned away and walked to the large outdoor table where Padrick waited—and she wondered if the Gatherer or the Hunter would be Death's true mistress in the days ahead.


*****

Ashk studied the faces of the people sitting around the table. Padrick had asked to talk to just the Fae at this gathering since he would be meeting with the squires, magistrates, and captains of the guard another time to plan the human defenses.

Good people, she thought as she studied them. Strong-willed people. Aiden, the Bard, with his sharp mind and tongue and his passionate desire to protect the witches, the Daughters of the Great Mother. Lyrra, the Muse, whose gift nurtured the poets and storytellers. Morag, whose passion for life made her even more dangerous as Death's Mistress. Morphia, the Lady of Dreams and Morag's sister. Sheridan, the Clan's Lord of the Hawks, who had recently become Morphia's lover. Neall and Ari, who had changed the lives of many of the Fae around the table simply by being the people they were. And Padrick, Baron of Breton, gentry and Fae, Ashk's friend, lover, and husband. Combined with the humans, would they be able to hold on to the things they held dear and to keep them safe?

Padrick unrolled a map of Sylvalan and placed a stone on each corner to hold it down.

“I've heard from two of the western barons,” Padrick said. “Despite Baron Liam's absence for the vote at the barons' council a few weeks ago—or, perhaps, because of his absence after his impassioned speech—the vote went against all the decrees the eastern barons were trying to get accepted so that they would apply to all of Sylvalan. But there was no vote to demand that the eastern barons restore the rights of the women who live in their counties. Which leaves the people in those eastern counties at the mercy of the men who rule them.”

“That is the human way, is it not?” Aiden asked.

Ashk could hear the effort he was making to keep his voice neutral.

“It is,” Padrick said. “A baron can rule as he pleases and do what he pleases. The decrees provide a standard we're all expected to honor, but no one is naive enough to believe every man with power wields it in the same way. However, this has left the eastern barons who sold themselves to the Inquisitors twisting in the wind, especially after the news that an entire village of women chose death for themselves and their daughters rather than live with the constrictions that had been put on them. The fact that the news traveled so swiftly and couldn't be contained has also changed things. Any eastern baron who had considered bringing in the Black Coats won't do it now, at the risk of having his own people turn against him. Those men can't be counted as allies, but they aren't enemies. At least, not yet. That leaves the rest of Sylvalan standing against the eastern barons who are controlled by the Inquisitors.”

“Stalemate,” Aiden said.

Padrick shook his head. “I don't think so. If the Inquisitors had been willing to let us live as we choose, they never would have crossed the Una River. So I don't think a vote in the barons' council is going to stop them; it will just change the way they attack.” He ran his finger down the eastern side of the map, from the north down to the southern coast. “They've been pushing steadily east and south, always pushing out from a place where a baron has reshaped his county to match the Inquisitors' demands. From what I can tell, since their return this spring, they've concentrated on destroying the witches to eliminate the magic in the Old Places. Or they did until Liam gave them another enemy to focus on.”

“He wasn't the only baron the Black Coats focused on,” Ashk said softly.

“No, he wasn't,” Padrick replied grimly. “That was a mistake on their part. They may know of the Fae, but they don't know the Fae.”

Ashk met Padrick's eyes for a long moment, then focused on the map. He was right. If the Black Coats had realized what kind of enemy they would awaken by attacking Breton and Bretonwood, they would have kept their distance.

“You think they're going to attack the baron you helped?” she asked.

Padrick hesitated. “I think if this Master Inquisitor is as intelligent and powerful as he seems, what he's going to focus on destroying is this.” His finger landed heavily on the map.

“The Mother's Hills,” Ashk whispered, feeling a chill go through her.

“As long as the House of Gaian rules the Mother's Hills, there will be witches. As long as there are witches, there will be vessels to embrace and channel the Great Mother's power and breathe magic into the world. As long as there is magic in Sylvalan, there will be the Small Folk—and the Fae. So, yes, once he realizes those hills are the wellspring of magic in Sylvalan because of who rules there, he'll throw everything he can at those witches until he destroys them—or until he and those who follow him are destroyed. And Liam, and the people of Willowsbrook, are standing squarely in his path.”

Neall leaned closer to the map. “Those hills cover a lot of land, and I doubt the eastern barons can gather enough men to form an army big enough to take them.”

“If the Inquisitors control the barons of Wolfram and Arktos, and it seems likely they do, they can gather an army that's strong enough to be a real threat,” Padrick said.

“If they divide the army and have half swing below the hills to come up on the other side, they'll be attacking from both directions,” Neall said.

“So we block the way,” Ashk said. “Follow the curve of the hills to the south and north. If the barons who rule the counties there will stand against the Inquisitors with the help of the Clans in those areas, there would be no threat to the midlands or the western side of the hills, so the midland barons could send warriors to defend the gaps.”

“Assuming you can get enough of the Fae to help,” Aiden said with a trace of bitterness.

“If they want to spend time in the world, they can help defend the world,” Ashk said coldly.

An uneasy silence settled around the table until Padrick finally cleared his throat. “There might be another problem with the Fae's presence in those southern counties. I've gathered that their...manners...haven't made the humans think well of them. The barons may not accept the Fae being among their people.”

“They'd better accept it if they don't want to be outnumbered and crushed in a battle,” Ashk snapped. Then she relented. She'd heard enough over the years about how the Fae dealt with humans in other parts of Sylvalan to understand why the humans wouldn't trust the Fae, even to fight a common enemy. “All right. We'll head for the southern end of the Mother's Hills first to convince the barons there to accept us as allies. Letters from you might ease things.”

“You'll have them.”

They talked for another hour, but it was more to confirm the things she and Padrick had already decided. A meeting of all the western barons would take place in Breton in a few days. Ashk had sent out the call to all the western Clans to have some of the huntsmen from each Clan join her. Now she'd divide those men, sending some to the northern end of the Mother's Hills and some to the south—and some would go to Willowsbrook. She hoped Baron Liam was as open-minded as Padrick thought. Based on what she knew about the Fae beyond the west, Liam and his people were about to meet something they hadn't seen before.

The meeting concluded, they'd all risen to stretch their legs and get something to eat when Ashk noticed the woman standing far enough away not to intrude on their discussion, but just as obviously waiting for her attention.

As Ashk walked over to meet her guest, tension tightened her shoulders.

“Blessings of the day to you, Lady Ashk,” the woman said.

“Blessings of the day, Gwynith,” Ashk replied. “Forgive my being blunt, but I've a long journey ahead of me and much to do before I go. What brings you here?”

“I'll be heading for the midlands myself come morning,” Gwynith said. “I came down this way to tell you.”

Ashk frowned. “A Lady of the Moon doesn't need to tell me her plans to travel.”

“That's why I had to tell you. All the western Clans have heard the Hunter's call, and we've heard about the Black Coats, so I had to tell you because I don't know how this might change what you need to do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Dianna's power is waning.” Gwynith frowned. “No, not waning, exactly, but there's a...challenger...and those of us who share the gift of the moon are being drawn together to find out who will ascend to become the new Lady of the Moon—and the Huntress.”

Ashk said nothing for a moment. She didn't approve of Dianna or the Huntress's refusal to do anything to protect the witches and the Old Places, but at least she was a familiar adversary. A new Huntress... Gwynith was right. For good or ill, this could change things. “Then I wish you well.”

Gwynith shook her head. “I'm not the one. I feel the call, so I go to bear witness, and to offer my pledge of loyalty to the one who commands my gift. But I wanted you to know, if I have to choose between the Huntress and the Hunter... You need only ask, and I'll do whatever you need.”

Knowing Gwynith could be stripped of her power if she defied whoever became the Lady of the Moon, Ashk said, “Let's hope you don't have to make that choice.”


Chapter Two
waning moon

“You don't have to do this.”

Selena stopped packing the toiletries she'd set out on the dressing table to take with her on the journey, looked into the mirror, and met her younger sister's woodland eyes. “Yes, I do.”

“You don't owe them anything.”

Selena struggled not to smile. So fierce, so protective. Rhyann had always been that way, willing to hurl insults—or sticks and clods of dirt when words weren't sufficient—in defense of a sister who was different, who wasn't even a real sister by birth.

What she wouldn't tell this sister of the heart was that it was Rhyann's loyalty and love that was as much a spur to making this journey as her own needs.

“No, I don't owe them anything.” Selena turned to face the young woman who had been a touchstone during the storms in her life. “I'm not doing this for the Fae, Rhyann. I'm doing it for myself. The moon calls. I can't escape its pull any more than the sea can. There's a power in me waiting to be released, filling me until it's become everything. I could celebrate that rising alone, but I think I need to do this by the Fae's customs. This time I need to stand among them.”

“Why?” Rhyann asked, her voice worried and a little plaintive.

Selena sat on the dressing table stool, then waited for Rhyann to settle on the corner of the bed. “Do you believe what the storyteller, Skelly, told us when he came traveling this way? Do you believe there are men called Inquisitors who have made it their work to kill witches and destroy the magic in the Old Places?”

Rhyann nodded reluctantly. “It's hard to deny what he said when the wind tells the same tale. Every puff of air that comes from the east brings sorrow and anger and fear—and a feeling of malevolence that rejoices in the sorrow...and especially in the fear.”

“Do you believe it was the Fae Lord of Song, the Bard himself, who brought that news and the warnings to Skelly's village?”

Rhyann shrugged. “That makes no difference.”

“Yes, it does.” Selena leaned forward. “It means there are some Fae who haven't forgotten who and what the House of Gaian is. It means there are some Fae who care about more than themselves. If they have finally been stirred to care, can we sit in our villages here in the Mother's Hills and do nothing?”

“No one has said we'll do nothing!” Rhyann snapped.

Selena stared at her sister, no longer really seeing her. “I've been having dreams since the Solstice. They've been getting stronger and stronger. I'm standing in a meadow I've never seen before, and there, in the center of it, the grass is greener, richer. Somehow, I float above it, and I can make out the shape of a stag. When I float back down, my bare feet touch that spot, and I feel the vibration of thousands of feet marching in step. I breathe in and choke on the stench of blood and death. I walk a little ways away and drink from a pool of clear water—and gag on the thick taste of gore that chokes the stream that feeds the pool. And I hear a heartbeat, slow and big, and I know that the woods has come alive. It hears. It sees. And it's coming toward the Mother's Hills. Then I'm surrounded by moonlight, filled with moonlight, and I know I can't stop whatever is in the woods from coming here, can't change its coming. But I can become strong enough to meet it.”

Rhyann tipped her head to one side. “What happens then?”

“What?”

“In the dream. What happens?”

“I—” Selena pressed her lips together. Two shadow hound bitches racing through moon-bathed woods, racing toward a common enemy—a shadowy male figure standing in the center of a high, wide circle of female corpses. “I don't remember.” She rubbed her hands over her face. Mother's mercy, she was tired. “I have to go, Rhyann. Succeed or fail, I have to try. This power inside me won't let me be unless I try.”

“I'm going with you.”

Selena let her hands fall into her lap. “No, you are not. I've already had this discussion with Father. I don't need an escort. It's better if I go alone.”

“It's better if we travel together for a while. Father won't worry as much.”

A chill ran through her, making her voice sharp. “What are you talking about? You're not going anywhere.”

“I've reached my majority,” Rhyann replied, equally sharp. “I can do whatever I want without asking anyone's permission.” She sighed. “If we're willing to believe that the Bard cares for more than the Fae, isn't it possible that the Lady of Dreams also cares?”

“What do my dreams have to do with your leaving?” Rhyann couldn't leave. She couldn't. Father was simply going to have to do something about it. He'd always been the more successful parent when it came to dealing with Rhyann.

“Not because of your dreams,” Rhyann said reluctantly. “Because of mine.” After a long hesitation, she continued. “I dream of fire. Angry fire. Dreadful fire. I feel the heat of it, the pain of it. And then music is...silenced. Lost. Devoured by flame.” She rested her head against the bedpost. “That's why I have to go. I don't think I can stop the fire, but I can prevent the music from being silenced.”

Rhyann closed her right hand into a loose fist. When she opened her hand, a small ball of golden light filled her palm. “Dreams and will,” she said softly. “Once upon a time, we made a whole world out of nothing more than dreams and will.”

“And earth, water, fire, and air,” Selena said, just as softly.

“Sunlight and moonbeams as the path between worlds. Do you remember the Crone Mother took us to see eight years ago, the summer I turned thirteen and was given my pentagram?”

Selena reached up and brushed her fingers across her own pentagram. She'd also gone through a ceremony that formally acknowledged the start of a girl's journey toward becoming a woman of power, a woman of the House of Gaian. And she remembered, at seventeen, standing with her mother and father while the Crones performed the ritual and presented the girls with the pentagrams that symbolized their bond to the Great Mother, that identified them as witches, as the Mother's Daughters. She couldn't say then, and couldn't say now, if she'd been prouder on the day when she'd received her pentagram or on the day when she'd watched Rhyann receive hers.

“I remember her,” Selena said. “I remember what she taught us that summer.”

“So do I.”

Selena sighed. “Promise me you won't travel east of the Mother's Hills by yourself. Promise me that much.”

“Will you promise the same?”

Her temper flashed, and she felt the heat of it under her skin, but she held back the scalding reply she wanted to make. Rhyann's temper could match hers any day, so what was the point of hot tempers now and hotter tears later when it was love holding the torch to the kindling?

“I promise the same.”

Rhyann stared at her in surprise. Then she exhaled gustily and stood up. “Let's finish packing your saddlebags so I can take care of mine. We'll need to get an early start tomorrow.”


*****

Selena stared at the ceiling, seeing nothing in the night-dark room, her heart pounding too hard, too fast.

Just a dream, she thought as she crawled out of bed and stumbled toward the wash basin. Her hands shook as she poured water from the pitcher into the basin. Just a dream, brought on because I know Rhyann isn't going to stay home where it's safe. Or as safe as any place can be these days.

She stripped off her sweat-soaked nightgown, then twisted her hair to hold it back long enough to splash some water on her face. She dunked a washcloth in the basin, rung it out, and rubbed it over her body. The water didn't make her feel as chilly as the sweat drying on her skin, and she imagined washing off the scum of the dream along with the sweat.

Then she focused her thoughts and sent a flicker of the Mother's branch of fire to the candle sitting on the dressing table. The wick lit, and the single flame softened the dark into varying shades of gray.

Moving slowly, she went to the dressing table, sank down on the stool, and stared into the mirror.

The face that stared back at her wasn't human. Had never looked human. Her hair was a pure black, not the dark brown that was common, and her eyes were a gray-green instead of the brown-flecked green that was the dominant color among the people who came from the House of Gaian. Neither of those things would have drawn much attention to her, but the face... People looked at her and saw one of the Fae. And she was. May the Mother help her, she was as much Fae as she was witch, the product of an affair between a Fae lady and a feckless young man. The Fae lady hadn't wanted a child with a mixed heritage, and the feckless young man had turned to his married older brother for help with the babe the lady had left with him before disappearing from all of their lives. Just like the young man, who asked his brother's wife to watch the babe one afternoon and never came back. A year later, he sent a brief letter, letting his brother know he was well. He didn't ask about or mention the child, and they never heard from him again.

There had been times when other children had teased her unkindly about her pointed ears or the shape of her face, when she'd wanted to see the two people whose mating had produced her—to shout and rage and scream at them for being so careless and uncaring. In the end, it hadn't mattered. Not because of the man, her uncle by blood and father by heart, who had taught her to ride as well as to dance. Not because of the woman he'd married, who had shown her with hugs and scolds that she was a beloved daughter—and taught her what it meant to be a witch. In the end, it hadn't mattered because of Rhyann, the little sister who adored her. Rhyann, who had proudly come into her room one day to show her the triangle caps she'd made out of scraps of material and sewed together with clumsy, childish stitches so that she could have pointy ears, too. Rhyann who, the first time Selena had inadvertently changed into her other form, had carried her terrified, furry sister home—and then stayed with Selena for all the hours it had taken their parents to calm her down enough to find the key inside herself that changed her back into a child. And it was Rhyann, when needs seemed to tangle her up until she wasn't sure anymore who she was, who would always tell her fiercely, “You're a witch. You're always a witch, one of the Mother's Daughters.”

Always, forever a witch. A rare and powerful witch, who could wield the power of the Mother's branches—earth, air, water, and fire—in equal measure. There were many in the Mother's Hills who were gifted with all four branches, but most of them had one primary branch and a lesser ability with the other three. But for her, all four were primary and flowed from her as easily as she breathed. In that, she and Rhyann were true sisters.

But she was also a Lady of the Moon, something she hadn't known until eight years ago. The Crone who had taught her and Rhyann some of the oldest magic known to the House of Gaian had recognized that part of her. The old woman had refused to say how she knew what she did about the Fae—and the Ladies of the Moon and the Lady of the Moon in particular—but that knowledge helped Selena understand the part of herself that had felt like a stranger living inside her skin.

Now that part of her heritage was rising, calling, commanding her to answer. So she would follow the call to the place where the other Ladies of the Moon would gather, and she would stand as a challenger to find out if she was strong enough to ascend and become the Lady of the Moon—and the Huntress.

She stood up, stepped away from the dressing table, and shifted into her other form. Then she put her front paws on the stool in order to look into the mirror again.

Shadow hound. A deadly predator the Ladies of the Moon used for their Wild Hunts.

Selena shifted again, stared into the mirror, her hands braced on the stool.

Two shadow hound bitches racing through moon-bathed woods, racing toward a common enemy.

Who was the second bitch? Was one of the Sleep Sisters just playing with her, haunting her with dreams to weaken her for the challenge ahead, or was this a gift from the Lady of Dreams herself, showing her an ally against a common foe? She would need an ally, especially if she won this challenge. Who was the second bitch?

Cold again, despite the warm summer night, Selena blew out the candle and returned to bed to huddle under the covers.

A shadowy male figure standing in the center of a high, wide circle of female corpses.

Yes, she needed an ally, because tonight, in that circle of corpses, she'd seen her mother—and Rhyann.

 

Marked in FleshMarked in Flesh, in paperback February 2017