Author's Note: Here it is, what all of you have been e-mailing me about: the sequel to The Second Sister. There is a third, final book in the making. It will wrap up this trilogy, but I am planning several other fairy-tale like books that take place in the kingdoms of Amendyr and Seria. Perhaps Ellie, Belle, Cate, and Larna (you'll meet her soon) will make cameo appearances in those. I also have many other unrelated projects in the works, including a very special one that I will be releasing next (in the works for almost a decade).
Dedication/Thanks: First, to my Mistress, the keeper of my heart. You make me feel so safe, loved, and confident. I can't wait to be your wife. Second, to everyone who personally e-mailed me and told me that they enjoyed the first story. This is for you guys.
Disclaimer: All mine. Ellie and Belladonna were created before I knew about XWP, and when I first discovered the show, I made a few small changes to make the two couples even more similar to each other. But this story is all about Cate, and she isn't based on anybody... so, Original? But just in case, XWP is not mine.
Warning: Contains gratuitous depictions of violence, mentions of past sexual abuse (but no actual descriptions), and a possibly obsessive amount of sexual content. The sexual content describes lovemaking between two adult, consenting soul-mates, who both happen to be women. Again, mild to moderate domination and BDSM themes, but nothing too heavy.
Feedback: Please, please, please e-mail praise, feedback, or criticism to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. I would love to hear from you. Thanks to all the people who wrote to me about my other work. You don't know how much your comments meant to me.
Clouds hung in dark bundles against a murky-gray sky. The brown dirt racetrack stretched out below us, and the crowd around it shifted and rumbled. There was a tiny moving dot of color for each figure. So many people! This was my first time in Ronin, the capital of Seria, and I was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd.
The Ronin Track was marvelous, even with the threat of rain. Horses with colored blankets on their backs tossed their heads, ears flicking and muscles twitching. Voices rose and fell in swells of sound, like rolling waves. Their energy passed through the stands and up into the private box where Belladonna, Ellie, Sarah, and I sat. Lady Kingsclere, the owner of the box, leaned over the railing.
“Isn't this exciting, Cate?” Sarah said breathlessly. Her hands were clasped in her lap. “We are actually at the Prince's Cup in a private box!”
“Not a very original name, is it? The Prince's Cup,” Belladonna commented. She was tall, even while sitting down. Her dark, glossy hair and pale blue eyes drew attention. A few months before, she had been a brooding and unhappy person. Now she was lighthearted, poetic, and a bit of a tease. That was my friend Ellie's doing.
“Look, Belle, I think I can see Brahms and Cor.” Ellie left her place beside Belladonna and joined Lady Kingsclere at the railing. She was much smaller, with fair hair and a pleasant freckled face. Ellie had a special bond with the horses. She was Ariada – a witch – like me, and her gift was speaking with animals.
I looked down. Corynne D'Reixa and Brahmsian Synng were being walked around the track, sporting Baxstresse's blue and white colors. Corynne was older and wiser than Brahms. She had won the Prince's Cup five times in three years, but strained her left foreleg in her last race. She was in good condition again, but getting older. She would have to retire soon.
Brahms was a full brother to Corynne. This was his first race. Competing against his sister would be difficult. He was inexperienced, but he was powerful and fast. Both of their odds were very good. I placed no bets, of course.
“Nervous, my love?” Belladonna called to Ellie, who was twisting the skirt of her dress in fidgeting hands.
Ellie gave her a cautioning look. “Careful, Belle, this box is open. People could hear...” She could not help glancing around to make sure that no one was looking at her, even though we were all in a private box.
Tongues started wagging over a year ago, when Lady Kingsclere married a wealthy merchant named Roland. Ellie was his daughter. When Roland died suddenly, Lady Kingsclere took to her bed. Some said she was ill, some said she had gone mad. Really, it had been magic. Luciana, the eldest Kingsclere child, was keeping her mother sick, and tried to cast a spell on Prince Brendan. When she was caught, the Kingsclere family became the subject of all the high-class gossip.
“Stop listening to it, then. Some of the rumors say that my mother was planning to run off with the Prince herself,” Belladonna reminded Ellie. “And do you remember the one where you tried to poison the King?”
“Yes, but those never actually happened.”
“Rejecting the Prince's marriage proposal made it worse, darling.” Ellie blushed bright red. That piece of information had sent the aristocracy into an uproar. None of them could figure out why Ellie had turned down a Prince. She offered no explanations, so they made up their own.
“And as far as they know,” Belladonna continued, “the rumor that we are lovers is just as unlikely as the rest of them. No one cares about my peccadilloes. If they do suspect, let them. Our family has always been labeled as eccentric...”
“But rich,” Sarah interrupted. “And powerful.”
“And close to the Prince.” I gave Sarah a meaningful glance. She blushed to the roots of her wind-tossed brown hair, but did not tease me back. That was unusual. Sarah was infatuated with Prince Brendan. We all knew. But perhaps it was more serious than I thought.
“Belladonna is rubbing off on you, Cate,” Ellie mumbled, fidgeting at the railing. Belladonna rose and put a hand on the back of her waist. They made a striking picture – Ellie with her white dress and soft, honey-colored hair, and Belladonna with her pale skin and blue eyes. They matched her dress, which was off the shoulder, and very lovely. Belladonna was tall, with sheets of muscle and a neat flair to her hips. Ellie fit snugly against her side, tucked under one arm.
Whenever I looked at the couple, I felt a strange emotion that I could not identify. It was not jealousy. More like... longing. I just knew that I wanted – something...
The racetrack suddenly grew more vivid around me. I could pick out different smells: sweat and warm bodies, overpowering perfume, and under that, fresh, sweet grass. Outside of our box, they would have been even stronger. My eyes glazed, like I wanted to sleep, but I did not feel tired. My throat knotted, and I found it hard to breathe. My heart hammered fast against my ribs.
I saw rippling bodies surge forward in a cloud of dust. Brown and gray horses drummed over the scraped smooth track. The edges of my sight were blurry, indistinct, as though I was looking in a smudged mirror or a murky pool. The white and blue colors of Baxstresse flickered, flaring bright like a candle flame and then stuttering back. Brahms had broken early, and was pulling away. A large black horse in red and gold, with a bright beaked eagle crest, heaved behind him. Corynne was a head behind that.
This was not the actual race. I Knew. It was something else.
The three leaders pulled left. Swerving sharply, the red horse jerked to the side. His shoulder caught the round part of Brahms' broad flank. I felt a scream rise in my throat, but could not release it. My breath came hard and sharp. I could hear Brahms' leg as the bone snapped, smell the sweat and blood. My chest ached from the harsh drumming of my heart.
“Cate! Can you hear me? Cate!” The voice was muffled, like sound traveling underwater. “Cate?”
There were different voices swimming in my head, different faces shifting in and out of focus before my eyes. Everything was blurry. I latched on to the first person that I recognized.
“Ellie, what happened?”
One of her hands was in my hair to hold my head steady. She said, “we should be asking you that question. You screamed ‘no' and fell over.” I realized that I was sprawled on the hard floor of the private box. “Are you all right?”
“Brahms,” I blurted out. My mouth was dry, and my tongue felt heavy and thick against my teeth. “Tell him – not to break early. Keep him away from the red horse!”
Ellie frowned, but stood up and left, taking the stairs that led down to the public stands. She was gone without a word. Ellie believed me. I wanted to cry with relief.
Belladonna offered a hand to help me to my feet. I took it, and she pulled me up. “You really are all right, aren't you? This is the second time...” She had not been present in the entrance hall when I fell in front of a bleeding, blind Luciana and warned her that the wolf would kill her. Ellie must have explained.
“Oh, Cate does this kind of thing all the time,” Sarah babbled nervously, plucking at the sleeves of her dress. Not satisfied, she reached out and tried to straighten mine.
I pulled away, shaking my head. I had always Known things, even as a child, but I did not usually collapse to the floor and shout out warnings. I had seer blood in me. That was a dangerous thing to admit in a country like Seria, where magic was perceived as a threat.
Underneath those worries, I was afraid for Brahms. I had no idea if my vision would come true, or only might come true. Most visions only showed a possible future, but some were destined to happen. The seer could usually tell the difference. I searched inside myself. I did not think it was Brahms' fate to die from a cheap shove in his first race. Ellie would do something to prevent it.
I noticed Lady Kingsclere pressing a cup of water into my hands. Belladonna helped me to sit, and I drank deeply. “Are you sure you are all right?” Lady Kingsclere asked. She sounded concerned, even though she did not know me well. “Maybe you should lie down.”
I wiped my lips with the back of my hand, swallowing. “No.”
Suddenly, a choir of trumpets above the track began blaring the opening theme. I looked down, watching the horses being loaded into the gates. Brahms was in gate thirteen, an unlucky draw. The red-blanketed horse was in gate six, and Corynne was to his right, in gate seven.
I pressed my lips together nervously, fighting the waves of nausea tossing in my stomach. My throat was knotted tight. I prayed that Ellie had done something – anything – to prevent the disaster that I had Seen.
“Here we go,” Sarah said, crossing her fingers for luck. Belladonna's knees jerked up and down in a very unladylike way as she bounced her legs. Only Lady Kingsclere seemed composed. The trumpets blasted again, the gates swung open, and the horses burst onto the track. The race had begun. Just as they started, the rain finally broke.
Corynne and the red-blanketed horse took an early lead, their feet drumming almost in rhythm. Corynne was a nose ahead. Brahms held back, trying to squeeze his way through the pack and find the edge of the rail.
It happened so fast that I almost missed it. The red horse collided with Corynne's side, almost upsetting her balance. Somehow, she oriented herself and charged forward again. The rest of the group was almost on top of them, but Corynne held her spot, stretching her neck out as far as it would go.
“A less experienced horse might have fallen over,” said Belladonna, sounding stunned. Falling on the racetrack usually meant death.
The rest of the race was not very exciting. Corynne held her lead by almost a body length, and then it was over. Brahms managed to pull forward somehow, and squeezed into third place. The red horse had fallen back to the middle of the group.
All around the track, blue and white flags were raised. The trumpeters belted out the winner's march as Corynne walked her customary lap. We ran from the box in an excited group, hurrying down the steps to meet up in the winner's circle.
“That could have turned out very badly,” Ellie confessed on the carriage ride to the palace. Prince Brendan had invited our party to stay there for the night. “I talked to Corynne afterward. She said it was a deliberate push.”
“If that had been Brahms...” my voice trailed off. “Do you think...?” If Brahms had broken early and taken the lead, he might have died. I left that thought unspoken.
“It looks like you are good at more than just housework,” said Sarah, trying to brighten the mood. “Well done.”
“And the only things you are good at are gossiping and snooping.”
“That's it, Cate, stand up for yourself,” Belladonna said supportively. I blushed. The comment had just slipped out. Maybe Ellie was right, and I really was gaining more confidence.
“Not true! You should be nicer to me, Cate. I was making you a present, but now I might not give it to you.”
“A present?” I asked. “Why?”
“For when you leave!”
It was true. I decided to leave Baxstresse several weeks ago. Even though my friends were there, and Luciana was gone, the manor was not my home. I needed to leave and seek my own fortune. “So, you really made me a present? What will you do with it if you don't give it to me?”
“Throw it away,” said Sarah.
Ellie patted my shoulder. “Don't listen to her. You know how Sarah is.”
Sarah pouted, and the tension between us broke. She struggled not to smile when Belladonna added, “cheer up, you get to see the Prince soon.” Sarah blushed as she endured a few more minutes of good-natured teasing.
“You did do well, Cate. That warning probably saved Brahms' life.” I did not know what to say. Ellie continued. “I know you were reluctant to put any bets on the race, but Belle and I put down a considerable sum of money on both Corynne and Brahms.”
“How much?” I asked.
“A lot,” she answered. “And, since we're discussing going-away presents, I think there is no better use for the winnings than sending you to Amendyr.”
I was struck dumb. “Amendyr?” I echoed. I had made up my mind to leave Baxstresse weeks ago, but I never thought about leaving the kingdom of Seria. Besides, crossing the border was almost impossible with the unrest between the two kingdoms.
“I know you have a Grandmother there,” Ellie said persuasively, “and I know you were born there. Whenever I asked, you never really knew where you wanted to go, so I thought...” Ellie studied my face, realizing that I did not look as happy as she expected. “Are you all right?”
“I wish people would stop asking me that,” I said, swallowing to loosen my throat. The more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me. Amendyr. My real home. Maybe my grandmother was still alive. Maybe I could find other members of my family, and learn more about my magical gifts. “Ellie, I think... I think you're right. I want to go. Thank you!”
There are many reasons that I need to leave Baxstresse, I thought to myself. My wandering feet had taken me out onto an ivy-laced balcony. Stars winked in the black fabric of the sky. Behind me, through a set of doors, the Prince's dinner party to was still going on. I could hear laughter and the scraping of silverware from outside. But I was not a part of that world.
Even though some of the richest, most powerful people in the Kingdom were my friends, I was still a servant. I was also a foreigner. Magic burned in my blood. Serians took one look at my curly red hair and freckles and knew that I was from Amendyr, even though I had no accent.
I was startled when a voice behind me said, “so, you decided to escape?”
My breath caught, my head snapped over my shoulder. “Oh... well, yes,” I said to the man standing there. He had a neat little black beard and very bright eyes. I felt warmth and energy coming from him. He was Ariada , like me. “I felt... stifled in there.”
The man smiled. I noticed that he was short, and thin as a whippet. He wore gloves, but he removed them and let them hang from his right pocket. Like his beard, the rest of his hair was tidy and well groomed. “The nobles can be tiring,” he said understandingly. “Sometimes, I sneak out of dinner parties, too.”
The stranger's clothes were made of fine material. His hands were soft, not calloused from work. He certainly looked like a noble. If he was a commoner, why was he here? He read the question in my face and said, “My name is Cieran. I am the King's magical advisor.”
That explained the energy I felt from him. Cieran and his wife, Cassandra, were the liaisons between the King of Seria and the magical community. They also protected his son, Prince Brendan, from any magical threats. Magic was not outlawed in Seria, but many non-magical people, especially nobles, were afraid of it. It was easier for them to pretend that the druids did not help their crops to thrive, and that wizards did not call the rain or repair the trading roads that held the kingdom together.
“My name is Cate,” I said, offering him my hand. To my surprise, he stepped forward and touched my forehead with two fingers instead. I felt a shiver start at the base of my spine, rippling along my back. My bones began to hum, and I felt warm.
“Ellie tells me that you are going to Amendyr,” he said, stepping back.
Impulsively, I touched my forehead where his fingers had been. Nothing seemed different. I wondered what Cieran had done. I decided not to ask. “Yes,” I said.
“Good. I must confess, Miss Cate, that I had a motive for following you out here besides escaping the dinner party.”
Other questions pushed the strange touch that he had given me to the back of my mind. “What do you mean?”
“Your friend Ellie confided in me today. She told me that you See things before they happen.”
For some reason, I was not afraid of admitting this. Maybe it was because Cieran was also Ariada . “Yes,” I said.
“That is one of my abilities, too. I have Seen something of your journey to Amendyr, and I want to give you a task, a warning, and a blessing.” My mind was spinning. A task, a warning, and a blessing? I did not realize that I had said the words aloud until Cieran said, “yes.”
“What is the task?” I asked.
“You will ask any powerful Ariada that you meet to tell you about Umbra, the last of the High Ariada . Do you remember the chain that Luciana Kingsclere wore?”
I shivered again. This time, it was unpleasant. I did not know which subject disturbed me more: Luciana, or the strange necklace that she wore around her neck. It had been a simple piece of jewelry, with three circles – a golden coin with a silver ring in the middle, and a golden dot in the very center. It almost looked like the iris and pupil of a metallic eye.
Cieran went on. “I believe that it was made for Umbra centuries ago. I would like to find out more, but information on the magical history of Amendyr is scarce in Seria.”
A thought struck me. “How will I let you know if I learn anything?”
“I will speak to Ellie about that,” Cieran said. “So, will you ask, if you meet a magical scholar in Amendyr?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I will.” Asking a history question did not seem dangerous or difficult to do.
Cieran smiled at me, making his face look much younger. “Thank you. I know that I have not explained very much, but I only see glimpses...” I understood. It was difficult to describe things you Knew, or things you had Seen, to other people. Sometimes, it even sounded foolish.
“Now, I will give you the warning. It may seem like common sense, but when you go into the Forest, do not talk to strangers or leave the path.” I looked at him curiously. My mother had told me the same thing over and over again as a child. Hearing it over ten years later felt very strange.
“All right. I know what sort of creatures live in the Forest. I grew up there.”
“I grew up in Amendyr, too.” I studied Cieran closely, trying to see if I could detect any Amendyri in his appearance. He looked like a pureblooded Serian. “My parents knew that I was magical from a young age, and had no idea what to do with me. They sent me to some acquaintances in Kalmarin. That is where I met my wife, Cassandra.”
I smiled, glad that we had more in common. “I have always wanted to see Kalmarin. What is it like?” The great walled city on the cliffs was the capital of Amendyr, and the most magical human city in the world. It rested along the southern coast, watching the sea from its high perch.
“I have not been there for many years. It is hard to travel to Amendyr these days. But I have a feeling that you will see it for yourself someday, Miss Cate. Now, I need to give you my blessing. Let me be the first to wish you every happiness and joy for what you will find.”
I was surprised. “Happiness and joy for what?” I asked, hoping that he would tell me more.
Cieran's eyes were half-lowered. He would not explain, and he knew more than he was telling. “I cannot read every detail of your future, Cate. You have to live it yourself.”
I would have asked him more, but a silhouette appeared in the doorway behind Cieran's head, and I saw Ellie motioning me over. “Cate, are you out here? Come look!” she said in a loud, excited whisper. Then, she noticed Cieran. “Oh, hello, Cieran. I just wanted to show Cate something. Do you mind if I – ”
“Of course not, my dear,” said Cieran, stroking his small black beard. “Take her inside. Your friend Cate and I were just discussing her journey to Amendyr.”
Cieran took my arm and passed me over to Ellie, who hurried me back inside with a gentle but insistent hand. “There, Cate, see?” she said, pointing to the crowded dance floor. As a fat man with a monocle moved to the right, I saw Prince Brendan with a girl in his arms.
I turned back to Ellie. “What did you want me to see?”
“No, look closer.” I tried to reclaim my sleeve from Ellie's persistent tugging. Prince Brendan twirled his partner, and I recognized Sarah's face. With her hair up and a beautiful dress, I had not recognized her until I saw her from the front. I was speechless.
Ellie was not. “She looks beautiful!” she cooed. Because she could not tug my sleeve, she squeezed my hand instead. I let her. “Sarah always said she wanted to dance with the Prince.”
She did seem to be having a wonderful time. Her face was glowing as she looked up at him, and her eyes were filled with stars. I knew that look. Another impossible romance... although Ellie and Belladonna somehow managed it.
I noticed the scandalized faces of the noblewomen surrounding them. A few started whispering to each other. They looked like a group of fat hens, clucking and bobbing their heads. “Which is more offensive?” I asked in a soft voice, so that only Ellie could hear, “a servant falling in love with a Prince, or two noblewomen who happen to be stepsisters falling in love with each other?”
“The stepsisters,” Ellie whispered back. “Besides, I was a commoner before my father married Lady Kingsclere.”
“But you were a rich commoner,” I argued. “You were almost a noble.”
“Blood means a lot to these people.”
“You grew up on your own estate, with your own horses and parties and family heirlooms, and even a pianoforte.”
Ellie tossed her hair. “Fine, but Sarah is in love with a man, at least.” A shadow crossed Ellie's face that I almost missed. I studied her thoughtfully. I knew that Sarah had shared Belladonna's bed before. Ellie seemed very pleased that Sarah was interested in someone else. She could be very possessive about her wife.
“Belladonna is in love with you,” I said. The name felt strange in my mouth without putting a ‘Miss' in front of it. Technically, I was still her servant, even though I was their guest at a fancy dinner party. “Besides, Sarah would never try and steal her friend's lover.”
Ellie sighed, brushing aside a strand of golden hair that spilled across her cheek. “I know. Sarah is harmless, except when she gossips and snoops.” I snorted, remembered that I was at a party, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed. No one seemed to be paying attention to us. I was relieved.
“You know,” I suggested, looking around the room for Belladonna, “maybe you two could go out on that balcony. You can still hear the music out there.” I spotted her on the other side of the room, talking to a tall man with gray hair. She had an unpleasant expression on her face, and I gave Ellie a little shove. “Go.”
Smiling again, Ellie took my advice and went over to Belladonna without any more encouragement. They spoke for a moment, leaving the gray-haired man alone as Ellie led Belladonna out onto the balcony that I had just left. Both of their faces were slightly flushed.
Slowly, I made my way over to the double doors. Making sure that no one was watching, I peered through the crack. Ellie was tucked in Belladonna's arms, and her cheek was resting on her dark-haired lover's shoulder. Belladonna's hands were on Ellie's waist. The music struck up again inside, and they started dancing. I backed away and turned back to the crowd inside, not wanting to intrude on their privacy.
The image of the lovely couple lingered with me as I stood in front of the door to make sure that no one disturbed them. Ellie always said Belladonna was an excellent dancer, and that she wished they could be partners when they received invitations to balls and parties. A piece of me felt lighter when I realized that I was giving them that special moment. Ellie and Belladonna were very lucky. I could only hope that Sarah's ill-fated romance escaped disaster, too.
Breakfast was delicious, but the trip home was miserable. Long carriage rides made Sarah sick. She had been ill on the way here, but was determined to see the race. On the way back, heartbroken after leaving the Prince and with nothing to look forward to, she felt even worse.
Since we were so many, Sarah, Ellie, Belladonna, and I were squeezed together in the back of the carriage. Belladonna sat on the far right. Ellie was practically on Belladonna's lap, but she did not seem to mind. Sarah was near the left door, so that she could make a quick exit if she needed to. I was in between her and Ellie.
Lady Kingsclere volunteered to sit up front with Matthew. It was a little undignified, and certainly unconventional, but Lady Kingsclere had been much more relaxed lately. I was glad for her. I was also glad that I did not have to sit up front. Sarah's stomach would not handle it, and Ellie and Belladonna hated to sit apart.
Something else good happened while we were passing Whitechapel. Ellie started looking secretive, pressing her lips together and shifting in her seat. Since I was on her left, this made me shift as well. “Ellie, what is it?” I asked, nudging her leg with mine.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said.
I looked at her hands stupidly, like a magical box would appear in them. “A surprise? What kind of surprise?”
Ellie smiled. She had a sweet smile, and a pretty pink mouth that made her look charming and innocent. Ellie had a touch of farm girl in her, even though she was a Kingsclere now. “A helpful surprise.” Ellie paused for effect. I let her have her moment. “I talked to Prince Brendan today.”
Hearing the Prince's name, Sarah looked up from the small metal bucket that she had been staring into. Thinking ahead, Ellie borrowed one from the palace for the journey home. “What about Prince Brendan?” she said loudly.
Belladonna, who had fallen asleep against the carriage window, opened her eyes. “Why are you all yelling?” she asked sleepily.
“Go back to sleep, dear heart,” Ellie said, stroking Belladonna's dark hair and kissing her forehead. Belladonna's mouth twitched into a smile, and she rested her head back on the seat.
“I still want to know what my surprise is.”
“What were you saying about the Prince?”
Ellie was busy stroking Belladonna's face with her soft hand. She drew a finger over one thin eyebrow. “Mm, what?”
“The surprise,” I said.
“Oh, I asked Prince Brendan to grant you official Serian citizenship papers before your trip. I know that any you might have had were lost long ago. And I got a copy of your Amendyri citizenship papers. They were in the old records, so that probably means your mother applied for citizenship years ago. Her death might have stopped the process.”
Sarah tried to look pleased, even though her face was green. “That's good news, Cate. So, you're really going to do it? Go to Amendyr?”
I nodded. “Yes. I am.”
“Isn't it dange-” Sarah started. But the carriage hit a bump, and she had to stick her head back in the bucket. Ellie and I winced at the choking and groaning noises.
“I also got you a personal letter from the Prince,” she said to distract us both. Sarah surfaced again, looking very pale. Her lips were wet, and her eyes were dull. “That should help you cross any border.”
“It was nice of you to ask,” I told Ellie. “Thank you.”
“Prince Brendan was glad to do it,” she said modestly.
Sarah looked back at us. Her face was a little brighter. “He is very kind, isn't he?” she said. “Not the kind of person who would ignore other people's feelings.” She seemed to be saying this last part to herself. Ellie caught my eye, seeming confused. I realized that she did not know how serious Sarah's feelings were.
“She's in love,” I mouthed with my head turned away from Sarah.
Ellie looked excited, horrified, and then concerned over three seconds. Finally, her expression settled on hopeful. “No, Prince Brendan is a very honest person,” Ellie said. “He seems to say what he means whenever I speak with him.”
That made Sarah even more cheerful. I lowered my head. Ellie knew the Prince better than I did. I had only said a few words to him. He interviewed me after Luciana's plot was uncovered, I offered him tea once, and we said quick hellos when we saw each other after that. My hellos included a curtsey and a “Your Majesty,” but he had not been conceited about it.
“He does seem nice,” I admitted. “Just...”
“From a different world,” Sarah finished my thought. “I know.”
“All of us are from different worlds,” said Ellie. “Fate has a curious way of twisting people's lives together.”
It certainly did. A year ago, I never would have imagined having friends, let alone meeting a Prince and visiting the royal palace. A relationship between Belladonna and Ellie was too far-fetched even for a dream. But here they were, sitting next to each other. Ellie's hand was resting in Belladonna's lap. Maybe in another year, I would look back and wonder why I ever doubted that Sarah could capture the heart of a Prince.
I tried to remember what the Prince's face had looked like when they danced. I could only recall that he was smiling. Maybe I should worry less about Sarah, I thought. She was more experienced with relationships than I was. Ellie would know just what to say to her, no matter what the result of the disastrous romance turned out to be. I decided to let her make her own choices. I just hoped those choices would not turn in to mistakes.
That night, I dreamed. The dream was of running, running through the tall grass. The forest was alive with sunlight, pale golden beams of it. They danced over the dead brown leaves and the dust in the road. But I did not follow the road. I wove through trees, and a twin shadow wove beside me, and everything was right and good.
I left the dream slowly. First the sunlight went away, then the trees, and finally the twin shadow. I strained to see closer, but the two dark eyes of the face – it was not a human face – were already beginning to disappear. I was left alone, curled into a ball on my new mattress. It was too soft, but I would never tell Ellie. She had spent so much time trying to make my room comfortable. Compensation for the miserable broom closet we were forced to shared as servants.
The air was cold, but I did not want to relight the fire. Baxstresse was always cold at night. Cold lived in the stone walls and the gray floors. Sometimes, I wondered if the cold was really there, or only in my heart.
Remembering the dream, I thought of Ellie. We were both Ariada . She would understand when I explained that the road and the trees and those eyes were waiting. They were real.
My Sight did not come every day, or even every week. Sometimes, I would forget about my magical blood and pretend that I was like everyone else. Not every member of my family was cursed with the Sight, although my mother had Seen, and so had my grandmother. But my mother was dead, and my grandmother, as far as I knew, was still in Amendyr. She was one of the reasons I wanted to go back.
I pulled my thin arms through the sleeves of my nightgown, sitting up in bed and searching for my slippers with my feet. When I was dressed, I left the lonely bedroom and the unlit fireplace behind, going up the servants' stairway to the second floor of the manor to find Ellie.
Because I had gone to bed after supper, I did not expect Ellie to be asleep. She was probably writing by candlelight, scratching things in her journal. Belladonna became her lover because of a journal, Ellie told me, and so she wanted to write one herself.
I passed the stained glass windows that lined the second floor hallway. St. Eugiers stared down his nose at me, his golden sword raised to behead a great, coiling black dragon. The Serians were obsessed with their Saints and their rules. What to do and not to do was chiseled in stone. In Amendyr, we worshipped the Maker – the Serians called him God – in much simpler ways.
I passed the colored window with a glance, staying far to the right side of the wall so that I would not walk near the library door. Ellie loved it, but the library had never been one of my favorite places to visit. It held bad memories. That was where Luciana... I forced the old pain down and passed the doors quickly.
When I reached Ellie and Belladonna's room, I paused, listening. I could hear soft cries beyond the doorway, and hushed voices. Wondering why my friend was crying, I pushed the door open and looked inside. What I saw made me gasp and step back, nearly losing my balance. Ellie was crying, but in ecstasy. Her head was thrown back, with her golden hair tossed over the pillows. She was sobbing openly as Belladonna, whose body covered most of Ellie's nakedness, touched her. A long, thin hand worked between her legs with steady, rocking thrusts.
My face grew hot. I tried to turn away, but I was entranced. My only sexual experiences had been forced on me. Thinking aboutLuciana still made me dizzy and sick with fear. But the intense connectionI was watchingfelt so differentthan what I had endured. I was not sure what I expected lovemaking to look like, but it was not this. I could plainly see the need in Ellie's flushed face, and in the strained muscles of Belladonna's shoulders.
They were speaking to each other, sometimes barely breathing the words, sometimes nearly screaming them. Belle called Ellie her rose, her sweet girl. “Let me have you,” she coaxed.
Ellie whispered, “I love you.” Those three words brought the end crashing down.
With twin cries, they shuddered and collapsed into each other, still joined, breathing heavily. The sheets were wrapped around their legs, binding them together. Two halves of one soul. I backed out of the doorway as fast as I could and ran, too embarrassed and awestruck to remember why I had come. The dream was pushed to the back of my mind, but only for the moment. I was consumed with what I had seen.
Back in my room, I could not un-see the private moment. A small part of me felt guilty for witnessing something so personal. I was ashamed and fascinated. They looked beautiful. I raised a hand to my face, and my fingers came away wet. I had not realized that I was crying.
And then I had a startling thought. I wanted that, too. Not with Belle or Ellie, but with someone else. Someone of my own. Someone who was waiting for me. For the first time in my life, I dared to imagine a lover.
Now I could begin to dream again. Maybe even hope for something more in my life. Something like what I had just witnessed. Once, many months ago, I told Ellie that I could never bear to let anyone else touch me. Now, I was not sure. She had been a servant then. I remembered how she took me in her arms and told me that I was not abnormal or damaged. She held me until I fell back asleep that night. But only now, sitting on my bed after watching my best friend and her lover, did I start to believe her words.
Tuathe. Two-souls. Really, just one soul in two parts, two bodies. I had not believed in that since I was a child, listening to fairy-stories. With my parents gone, and Luciana tormenting me, how could I think about another half? Now, I had seen Tuathe for myself. Ellie and Belle were something more than ordinary lovers.
And I craved. I hungered for that connection. I longed to be whole.
But I was afraid. What if I had no other half? What if I found my other-heart, and then lost her? I thought that it would be a ‘her', but how would I know? I had so many questions. I wanted to talk to Ellie, but just thinking about her made me feel embarrassed. I had seen her naked. Emotionally naked, not just physically bare. I had witnessed something so private, intimate, beautiful. I did not want to intrude even more.
Leaving Baxstresse was not as heartbreaking as I expected. My friends woke before first light to see me off. The morning was cold, but the sun was rising quickly, and soon a golden blanket would cover the grass and drive away the chill. Summer had not left yet, and the fields were still tall. I realized, a little sadly, that I would not be here to see the harvest.
With a pouch of Amendyri coins and paper Serian notes stuffed in the right pocket of my traveling dress, and a heavy pack over one shoulder, I stood before the carriage. Soon, we would be on our way to the border. Matthew sat on the driver's box. His faithful horse, Sir Thom, was hitched at the front. Ellie had offered to let me use the matching pair of grand carriage horses, but I refused.
My friends stood side by side in a solemn line, not sure whether they were happy for me or worried about me. Secretly, I was worried, too, but I would never tell. They would try and convince me to stay.
Ellie was the first to say goodbye. “Oh, Cate, I'm going to miss you!” she whispered fiercely, flinging her arms around me and squeezing tight. I endured the hug, but gasped for breath beside her head. “Write to me as soon as you stop for the night. Do you promise?”
I gave my friend a confused frown, although she could not see it. My head was still tucked over her shoulder. “How could we send letters? I would be gone days before yours got to wherever I was staying.”
Ellie pulled away and gave me a secret smile, the kind she reserved for very clever thoughts. “Oh no, we aren't going to send each other letters. You and I are going to keep a journal.” Belladonna, standing silently beside her blonde haired lover, placed a small, leather-bound book in her outstretched hand. It was small enough to fit in a pocket or bag. Easy to carry from place to place.
“This was a gift from Cieran,” Ellie explained. “It is a two-way journal. I have an identical one in our room, and everything you write in your journal will appear in mine. Instant letter delivery.” The words ‘our room' made me blush.
“Thank you!” I said, eager to end my train of thought.
Ellie passed the journal from her hands to mine, and then leaned against Belladonna's side. “Do you have your citizenship papers, Cate?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “You gave them to me last night. I haven't lost them since then.”
Ellie rolled her eyes back and opened her mouth to scold me, but Belladonna smiled and dropped a kiss on the crown of Ellie's golden hair. “Stop fussing, Mine.” I could actually see Ellie's muscles shiver, and I was a little embarrassed. I was still glancing shyly at the pair when Sarah swooped in from one side and gripped my hand tight. Her other was held behind her back. “I have a present for you, too!”
“Well, Loren helped me with it.” The old washerwoman and seamstress had lived at Baxstresse since Lady Kingsclere was a small girl, and was a permanent fixture of the manor. From behind her back, Sarah produced a blood red cape. “To keep you warm,” she explained, almost bashfully. “Ellie said it will be colder in Amendyr.”
The cape was beautiful, and I hurried to put it on, still trying to hold the journal in my right hand. As I reached behind to un-tuck my hair from the neck of the cape, I discovered a hood. “Oh, this is beautiful!” I said, doing a quick twirl to show off my new present. Ellie and Belladonna smiled, and Mam clicked her tongue in a motherly way.
“So beautiful you're looking, Cate,” she said, resting a large hand on my shoulder. Mam was Amendyri, like me, and her old face looked concerned. When my parents died, she had taken charge of me. She knew that Amendyr was a wild, dangerous place, especially lately. It was not a magical storybook kingdom. Ellie and Belladonna were too well read to be deceived, but some things needed to be experienced before they could be understood.
As I leaned in to hug Mam, I realized that she was carrying a basket. I lowered my chin to study it. “I've got some sweetcakes and bread here for you. Good for traveling, they are. You never know what they'll be serving at them inns along the road, ‘specially across the border!”
“Oh, thank you, Mam!” I said, my eyesight blurring. The generosity of all my friends was touching. Warm tears rolled down my cheeks. “Thank you all...”
The rest of the goodbyes were a blur as Belladonna, chivalrous as ever, helped me into the carriage. “Best of luck,” she said, and closed the door behind me.
“Ready?” Matthew called over his shoulder, looking back at the carriage even though he could not see inside.
He could hear, though, as I said, “yes.” Sir Thom began plodding down the road. Staring out of the back window, I could see the four smiling faces of my friends as we pulled out of the gravel drive and began the journey.
The five days I spent traveling west to the Amendyri border were uneventful. By the time we reached an inn (or, on one night, simply a farmhouse) I was too tired to do anything but sleep. We passed Southwood and Felbrook, and finally reached the long stretch of trees that marked the border between Seria and Amendyr.
We met our first patrol of Rangers an hour after we started on the sixth day They were dressed in Serian uniforms: I could just make out the sword and plumes coat-of-arms on their shields through the frosted glass of the carriage window. Their armor was lightweight, mostly leather, easy for maneuvering in the forest. One of the three men, the tallest, stepped from the side of the road and blocked the path.
The cry of “Halt!” was a little too forceful. I flinched at the noise.
I heard Matthew hop down from the driver's box. I imagined him tipping his straw hat. He was not in my line of sight. “Mornin' to ye, sirs.”
“Ah, well...” said the tallest Ranger. I opened the carriage door a crack to watch what was happening. “I'm sorry, sir. No carriages are allowed to cross.”
Matthew looked surprised. I opened the carriage door wider, reaching for my traveling pack. “Excuse me,” I said, “I have some papers here, just a moment...” The three men watched me open my bag and begin digging. All of them looked young. They were probably fresh out of training. Finally, I found the papers that Ellie had given me.
“Here,” I said, holding up my prize. “Serian citizenship papers, Amendyri citizenship papers, and a special note of permission from the Royal Court...”
Looking surprised, the tallest Ranger stepped forward. He took the papers, flipping through them. Then, he stepped back, whispering to the others. After thirty seconds of quiet discussion, the tall Ranger turned back to me, tugging on his forelock.
“We've got orders not to let any horses or vehicles through... but, seeing as you have your papers, and... Well, I suppose we could escort you through with the carriage, and then make sure it comes back to our side. We're mostly trying to keep people from coming in to Seria, not from leaving it...”
I had heard rumors about tightened security at the border, but this was more than I expected. “What am I supposed to do when I get to the other side?”
The ranger to the left kicked his boot in the dirt of the road. “You could hire a cart, Miss. But honestly, I would turn around and go home. Amendyr is not the safest place to be right now.”
“The Queen-” one Ranger started.
Another interrupted him. “There is a lot of unrest right now. It just isn't safe. Are you sure you want to cross?”
“I need to go.” I was surprised how firm and confident my voice sounded. I Knew that I needed to go to Amendyr. It was where my future awaited me. “Thank you for offering to escort us.”
Matthew glanced at me questioningly. A shadow clouded his cheerful brown face. He did not like the idea of leaving me on the other side of the border without a carriage. However, he did not protest. He hopped back up onto the driver's box and urged Sir Thom into a slow walk. The Rangers followed us.
A few minutes later, the carriage stopped. Our three Rangers talked with a second group. Their faces were distorted through the frosted window-glass, but I could see their mouths moving, shifting dark holes against their pale skin. The first three rangers left, and the new group escorted the carriage. Our carriage was passed from one group to the next for two or three hours, moving slowly so that the Rangers could keep up on foot.
I was just dozing off, lulled by the rocking motion of the carriage and the steady tapping of Sir Thom's hooves, when I heard a loud crack. I nearly tumbled from my seat. The smell of burning meat seeped through the edges of the door, filling my nose. I started coughing. “What is that? Saints save us...” I pressed my nose against the glass, trying to see out. Beside the carriage was a huge fire, just a few hundred yards to the side of the road.
Large, twisted black lumps were piled on top of each other in the center of the blaze. Thick black smoke swirled up from the leaping flames, drifting off into the gray afternoon sky. I realized that the black lumps were bodies. Twenty or thirty bodies piled on top of each other, being devoured by the hungry flames. I threw the door of the carriage open, which, thankfully, pulled to a stop. I fell to the ground, catching myself on my hands and retching violently. I had not eaten breakfast, and there was nothing in my stomach to throw up.
I felt Matthew's hand on my back, holding me steady as I shivered. One of the Rangers hurried over and gathered my hair at the nape of my neck. I took six shaky breaths, keeping my eyes closed. “What – is that ... ?” I panted.
“Refugees, Lass,” said a rough voice behind me. “They've been tryin' ta cross fer months now.” I balanced myself on my knees and looked at the Ranger who was holding my hair. He was an old, grizzled soldier with a scar across one eye. Long gray hair was pulled back behind his head. He looked more experienced than the three youngsters we had seen before.
“But... they're being burned? Why? I don't – ”
“Oh, the fire ain't what killed ‘em. The Forest did... We just find the bodies. Gotta get rid of ‘em somehow. Too many to bury.”
“Cate,” Matthew whispered in my ear, “we should turn ‘round and go home! It ain't safe here.”
“No.” The word cracked, and I cleared my throat and tried again. “No. I need to get to the other side. Take me through.”
“Take me through!” The old soldier looked surprised, and so did his companions. “Matthew, if things are this bad... if there are refugees dying when they try to cross... I need to find my family on the other side and make sure they're all right.”
With new understanding, Matthew helped me to my feet. “Right, Miss. I'll help ye back to the carriage.” The middle-aged man straightened his back and held his shoulders proud. Matthew had no children of his own, but he felt a deep commitment for family. My journey was no longer a young girl's whim to him. I realized, suddenly, that he had called me Miss. Maybe he meant it as a term of respect. It had not been said unkindly.
The Rangers watched as I returned to the carriage. The thick, biting smell of cooked flesh stung in my nose. I closed my eyes against it and prayed that my grandmother, who had always been stubborn, had not left her old house and tried to cross the border. Or, a darker part of my mind thought, met an even worse fate.
It was past sunset when we drew up to an old army post. It was not much more than a pile of crumbling stones. There were three tilted towers. They looked unsteady, but at least we would be out of the elements. The soldiers there offered us food and drink. Matthew accepted their hospitality. I ate a bit of traveling bread from Mam's basket. After that, I scratched a quick message to Ellie and went to sleep on my small cot.
I dreamed of the brown eyes again. They were so familiar, hovering over me without a face. I reached out to touch them. They backed away. I sat up. I was not resting on a cot, but on young spring grass. I was in a forest.
Stars were scattered across the sky, like salt sprinkled on a black velvet tablecloth. They were everywhere. I could even smell in the dream. Sweet grass. All of the night-smells. And hear! The whirring of flying insects, the chirping of hidden frogs. They were unbelievably clear. Water ran somewhere nearby.
“Close your eyes.” It was a woman's voice, low and coaxing.
Soft, invisible fingers pressed my eyes closed. Somewhere, a wolf sang to the moon. My muscles twitched at the call.
I opened my eyes. No one was there. My hand reached out on its own, clutching at the air. I was back in my cot, alone. Cold air made my shoulders shake. My blanket had fallen onto the floor beside me. I groped for the edge and pulled it up to my chin. What did these dreams mean?
I did not fall back asleep that night. The long hours were too quiet, and I was restless. I was relieved when Matthew came in to wake me. After a quick breakfast (Sir Thom and I both had an apple), we set off again with an escort of three more Rangers. These were hardy, experienced men, the core of Seria's military force. I was amazed that they would take such an interest in me. It made me wonder what the letter from the Prince said.
When thinking about a border, the mind pictures a thin line on a map. In real life, borders are large spaces of land where both militaries are stationed. There are watchhouses and small stone fortresses hidden among the trees. There are tiny wooden relief huts. And through it all, a narrow, lumpy road with large, winding curves.
Finally, we reached the farthest outpost. There were no Amendyri guards, which surprised me, only the Serian rangers. When one of them knocked on the carriage door, motioning for me to step out, I asked about it. “Where are the Amendyri guards?”
“In the south, quelling the uprisings,” one of the Rangers answered abruptly. “Lots of scuffles and town-burnings goin' on, there are.”
“They know we take care of things here,” added another. “Don't want nothing coming in to Seria ‘bout now, by t'Saints.”
The third guard glared at the other two. He did not approve of talking. The first, looking chastened, said, “well, fair travels, Miss.”
I thanked him, and the others, and turned to Matthew. In a fit of emotion, I rushed into his arms. Matthew had always been kind to me. When I felt a tear on my nose, I knew that I was not just crying for Matthew, but for Ellie, Sarah, Mam, Belladonna, and all of my friends. Baxstresse was not my home, but the people in it were. I would never forget.
“Ah, there now, lass,” Matthew said awkwardly, patting my head. “There now.”
“Thank you so much,” I whispered tightly. “Tell them I give my love. I will be back.”
“A'course you will, Miss Cate. Now, off with you. Go find that Gran'mum a'yours.” I kissed his whiskery chin and watched as he climbed back into the carriage. I stood looking back down the road long after the Rangers, Sir Thom, and Matthew had disappeared into the trees. Then, I turned the other way and started off.
My steps were light and easy as I walked along the road. The air was cool on my skin, and I could smell autumn coming. The seasons arrived early in Amendyr, rolling from west to east. My traveling pack bounced against my shoulders as I gazed up at the familiar tall trees. Mam's basket was in my right hand. Once I got to the next village, I could hire a cart to take me where I wanted to go.
I was born near the border, and I had seen Amendyri's Forest before. Of course, only Serians called it the Amendyri Forest. Here, we just called it the Forest. I knew that if I chose a tall tree and climbed to the top, I would be able to see the purple-blue shadows of the Rengast Mountains against the skyline.
Not many people traveled the Forest roads at this time of year, and so I was surprised to see a dark, hunched figure come out of the trees. It stepped onto the road. I stared curiously, narrowing my eyes and squinting to see the figure better. As the dark outline became a human shape, I realized that it was an old woman. If she was going to the relief hut I had just left, she would not get there before nightfall. Perhaps she was lost.
“Arim dei,” I called out, raising my hand in greeting. In Amendyri, Arim dei actually meant ‘Pleasant Sun', but it was like the Serian ‘Hello'.
“Arim dei,” said the old woman. She had a knotted wooden stick in her twisted right hand. Long silver hair spilled out of her black hood. Her pale eyes were bright, and I was surprised and a little frightened by them. Her left hand was hidden in her cloak. She looked friendly enough, but I knew that people, and things, in the Forest, were not always what they seemed.
I checked her fingers quickly, making sure that she had five on her hand, and not six. I counted the correct number, and sighed with relief. At least, I thought, I had not discovered a Rijak. The malicious forest dwellers sometimes took human form to lure people from the road.
“Thank you kindly,” I said pleasantly. The language that I had grown up with came easily to me. “Traveling to the relief post? You won't be getting there before sundown. They are not letting anyone through.”
The old woman took a step closer, examining me with great interest. I shivered under the scrutiny. “Ah, well, aren't you a pretty one? No, I live here. Perhaps I should be warning you about what happens to young girls that travel in the Forest near dark.”
I smiled. “You're right. It would be foolish to stay on the road after sundown.”
“And where are you goingin such a hurry?” she asked, gesturing with her stick. I was not surprised at her questions. Amendyri could ask and answer questions until the daylight was gone.
“To find my Grandmother,” I said.
“And what have you got in your basket?”
“Traveling cakes and some wine,” I told her. “A friend made them for me.” I thought of Mam, and felt a wave of homesickness, but it quickly passed.
“Where does your grandmother live, girl?”
“Oh, several villages over, on the edge of the forest, beneath three large oak trees.” At least, she used to live there. For all I knew, she had died or moved away. I hoped that my stubborn grandmother had dug her heels in and stayed. Nothing short of physical force would have moved her from her tiny cottage at one time.
I noticed the old woman studying me, and allowed myself to be inspected, making sure that my hands were in plain view. She had probably already counted my fingers, but it was good to be sure. “And what a beautiful red cape,” she complimented, eyeing the fine material. “Someone must have been hard at work making that for you.”
My smile grew wider. “Yes,” I said, adjusting the cape, “another friend.” I glanced nervously at the sky, even though it was still blocked by the leaves.
“Oh, you will be having a while yet before dark,” said the old woman, reading my mind. “You walk like a child off to school, so serious minded you are! Travel easy. See the flowers, listen to the birds. Leave the road for a while. There is still light left.”
“I should–” I tried to say, but she interrupted me.
“Absorb all that life has to offer you. Enjoy the moment.”
Deciding that this strange woman was probably a little touched in the head, I smiled and nodded. What would it hurt to stop and watch the birds for a moment, anyway? As I looked up into the branches of a slender ash tree, watching the jerking hops of a red-breasted robin, she threw her left hand out of her dark cloak. A sharp smelling powder flew from her fingers, covering my face. I sneezed, blinked my eyes three times, and collapsed into the dust.
I came to my senses in a dark, wet place. Goosebumps rose on my arms. The slow, steady sound of dripping water rang in my ears. My abdomen ached terribly, as though someone had sliced through the muscle with a knife. My throat was sore and dry, and my tongue was heavy in my mouth.
Suddenly, I realized that my sight was gone. My senses of touch, sound, and smell had returned, but I could not see. I tried moving my hands to my eyes, but the muscles held stiff. I felt like a marble statue.
“Arim dei,” said a voice, coldly echoing its earlier greeting. It was the old woman. Her voice was unnaturally loud, and I felt stone at my back. Were we in a cave?
Where am I? I thought, willing the words to leave my mouth. Help me. But I could not make a sound.
“No one will help you,” said the old woman, as though she could read my thoughts. Maybe she could. “Soon, pretty one.” A cold, dry hand stroked my cheek, but I could not flinch away.
Soon what? my mind screamed. And then: Who are you? What are you?
The old woman laughed. “I am Mogra. I control nature and twist its laws. You are needed, pretty one. Soon, you will be a part of the greatest army of monsters ever created in Amendyr!”
I knew the name. Mogra was a sorceress that lived in the Forest. When she was younger, she had been fond of kidnapping children to eat. Many mothers used Mogra to threaten disobedient boys and girls. But nothing had been heard of her in Seria since she had almost taken the son of a visiting noble six years ago.
Mogra's hand drifted lower on my body. There was nothing sexual in the touch, but thoughts of Luciana's unwelcome hands made my stomach twist anyway. She stroked a strip of skin that was especially sore, just above my hipbones. The pain made me cry out in my head. She heard, and laughed. “That spot will be painful for a long time, girl. I had to sew the wolfskin into you with my magic thread.”
That was the first time I realized what I had become.
“You are an animal. You will forget your name, your friends, your whole identity. Your thirst for blood will consume you. No part of you will remember what it means to be human.”
I wanted to deny her words, but there was the strip of flesh around my belly that burned with pain. I did not feel any different. I did not crave blood and death, I had not sprouted hair all over my body, and my teeth had not become daggers. I was only a small, frightened girl propped against a cave wall. Perhaps Mogra had not finished casting her spell. For now, I was still human.
It could have been minutes, hours, or even days later when I stirred again. This time, I could see. In fact, my sight was painfully clear, even though it was dark. I was right – we were in a cave. It was furnished with shelves, tables, and cruel metal cages. I was in one of them. The stone of the cave itself made up the fourth wall. The other cages were empty, but a set of clothes remained in one of them.
I was not the first prisoner here. But how did I know? The smells, I thought. Strange smells, smells belonging to other people. The scent of their fear lingered. I saw, smelled, and heard the witch coming from a dark hole near the left wall. “Ah, my new pet. Are you feeling the change yet?”
The change. So, it had not been a nightmare. Mogra had turned me into a Wyr.
Since the beginning of time, there had been stories of men that could become wolves. When the full moon rose, they went mad and tore through any humans or animals that they found in their lust for blood. Shapers, disgusting Ariada that warped human flesh like clay, created the monsters.
“No,” I whispered. The word caught in my dry throat. Mogra had not given me anything to eat or drink, and I was weak from hunger and thirst.
Mogra peered at me through the metal bars. I smelled and felt the hum of burning magic, and my muscles became lead. My body seized up, froze. I could not move. Knowing that I could not run, the witch opened the door to her cage with a bright key. For an old woman, she was surprisingly strong as she lifted my rigid figure off of the floor and carried me out.
She began examining me. She checked my eyes, peeling back the lids. Her twisted fingers probed my palms, feeling my hands and fingers. She combed through my hair, pushed back my gums to look at my teeth. I felt so violated, so vulnerable. I emptied my mind, trying to surrender to white, cold nothingness. Numbing myself. Luciana taught me that skill.
But it did not work this time. You are a monster , my mind screamed. My head pounded. I could not think anything else. You are a monster. You are a monster. I would be cursed for the rest of my life... I wanted to die.
A strange scent began filling the dark cave. It was heavy and unfamiliar, but alive. Was it some kind of animal? I was not sure. Then again, before today, I had not known that people or stone had strong smells.
There was a scrape off to the right. It was a quiet noise, but I heard it distinctly. So did the witch. Mogra's hands stopped feeling the muscles in my arms. She turned to look.
A dark shadow hurtled forward, leaping onto the sorceress. With a hoarse scream, she fell to the cave floor. Her magical binding loosened. Blood flowed through my muscles again. I cried out, joyfully realizing that I could scream. It felt wonderful to move again.
Rough hands grabbed my limp arms and dragged me over the ground. I could hear Mogra screaming, “an attack! Help me!” Gray bodies flew everywhere, all thick fur and white teeth. They were wolves. An entire cave full of wolves, tearing and snapping at each other.
Whoever was holding my arms kept dragging me forward. I felt fresh air, and saw a bright circle of light. We were near the entrance. I did my best to stumble towards it.Together, my rescuer and I made it outside. I was blinded by the sun, and could not see who, or what, had found me. My head spun from the sudden brightness. Heavy breathing and pounding footsteps echoed behind us in the cave. I felt warm bodies beside me.
“Come,” said a hoarse voice from somewhere ahead. “Faster!” And so I tripped along faster, urged by the pulling hands. I tripped several more times, but they set me on my feet again and kept moving.
As we ran, my sight returned. There were at least three, maybe four people in heavy leather and fur helping me along. I was herded through tall trees that reached up, up, up into the sky, my bare feet crunching over leaves and grass and stones. We had left Mogra's cave far behind.
After several minutes of running, I was staggering and gasping for air. The strangers did not seem to be tired. I forced myself to keep going for as long as I could, but when I finally fell to my knees and begged them to let me stop, a pair of strong arms lifted me from the ground and carried me. With my cheek pressed against a warm chest – a woman's chest – I felt the air slide over my bare skin as we ran faster than I had known a person could run. If this woman was a person at all.
The rest of our journey was a blur. When my surprise and fear began to fade, I realized that I was wrapped in a rough blanket. A wooden cup was pressed against my lips. I drank deeply, sighing gratefully. The cup was pulled away, and I looked into the face of my rescuer. She was a tall, strong woman, broad-shouldered and lean as a branch. Her dark, shaggy hair hung around her thin face, and her large brown eyes seemed impossibly familiar.
She lifted the cup again, and I took another sip. “Better?” she asked in Amendyri. I nodded my head gratefully.
“Thank you,” I said, and then I could not help but ask, “who are you?”
“My name is Larna. You are safe here.”
Larna set the cup on the ground. Her shoes and outer garments were made of stitched fur and leather, obviously handmade. However, as she leaned forward to adjust the blanket around my shoulders, her woolen undershirt lifted, and I noticed a thin strip of fur around her waist that was not a part of her clothing.
I reached out to touch, but reclaimed my hand before it made contact. “Did she capture you, too?”
“All of us,” Larna answered. I looked around me and realized that I was in a camp, surrounded by other men and women. We were not alone. They were dressed like Larna. Many of them were watching me with sad expressions on their faces. “We are the Farseer Pack. All of us are Wyr, little sister.”
“Am I...?” I asked, so afraid of the answer that I began to tremble. “I can't be... I never want to hurt anyone... I...” I panicked. My breathing became fast and shallow.
“Hold still,” Larna interrupted. Her firm hand settled on my shoulder. My heartbeat slowed down a little.“You are a Wyr now, but you do not need to become a murderer. You must understand. You are having a choice. If you learn to control your other body, you will not kill anyone. The pack can help you.”
I collapsed against Larna's shoulder, sobbing with relief. My humanity was not gone. I could reclaim it. I was still afraid, uncertain about the future, but this strange, beautiful woman had offered me a sliver of hope.
“Come,” said Larna's warm voice. She held most of my weight, helping me to stand up. I did not notice where we were going until I felt the grass beneath my feet change to smooth wood. I realized that I was on a pair of steps. Numbly, I looked up to see the door of a small cabin. Shelter.
Relieved, I allowed her to lead me inside. It was small, but dark and cool, and much more comfortable than a cave. Larna showed me to medium-sized pallet in the corner. My muscles screamed as soon as she lowered me on to it. I was already weak from lack of food, and our frantic escape had drained the last of my energy.
“Here, rest,” Larna said. Her warm hand rested on my forehead, and I closed my eyes. For the moment, at least, I was safe.
I drifted in and out of sleep for several moments, almost floating. Who was this woman who kissed and cradled my head so sweetly? The soft voice that whispered in my hair, who did it belong to? I felt precious, treasured. My eyes fluttered, and I saw Larna above me, smiling down. The recognition made my heart warm. “You fainted, little bird,” she said softly.
“My name is Cate,” I tried to say, but my voice was weak and hoarse.
Larna's striking eyebrows lifted in her surprise. “Cate? You wouldn't be having an Amendyri name as well, would you?”
“Cathelin,” I managed to croak. My throat was filled with rings of fire. It hurt to speak.
“You are my little bird, nonetheless.” Her strange, almost possessive attitude towards me was a little frightening. There was something achingly familiar about her, but I could not remember what it was, even though I desperately wanted to.
But then the pounding ache in my head distracted me. I was tempted to fall back asleep. The last thing I remembered from those precious moments was a warm pair of brown eyes watching me. My own eyes closed, and my breathing slowed.
When I woke again, Larna was still beside me. This time, she seemed almost nervous as she paced beside my pallet. When she saw that I was awake, she knelt beside the bed and looked at me, worry clouding those smooth brown eyes.
“You have been asleep for a long time,” she informed me. I could feel her presence close to me, but she did not reach out to touch my face. Part of me wanted to press myself against her hand. I dismissed that thought.
“Was I?” I asked sleepily. My throat was feeling much better, and speaking was easier.
“Yes. Worried as anything, I was.” And then, my rescuer stood up and went to the other side of the room. I did not question why Larna was so concerned about me, a stranger that she had rescued. Perhaps she was just a caring person, even if she was a Wyr. Or perhaps she simply did not want to see her efforts to rescue me wasted.
Hunger pains in my stomach interrupted my thoughts. My face twisted. My muscles were trembling, weak. Larna came back beside the pallet. She held something out to me. “Here, try this. Eat it slowly.”
It was only some salted bread, but nothing had ever tasted as good. Despite Larna's advice, I finished it in a few seconds. “Thank you. Is there any water?”
After the bread and water stayed down for a few minutes, Larna allowed me to have some fresh cheese. It was gone in a flash. I sank back on the pallet and let my strength come back.
“Do you feel well enough to stand?” asked Larna. “If you are, I will be taking you outside.”
I flexed the muscles of my legs experimentally. “Yes, I think so.” Without being asked, Larna offered me her hand. I took it, and little burning sparks leapt over my skin. My cheeks burned hot. And suddenly I noticed that I could smell her. She smelled of the woods and smoke and warmth. A dark scent. It was clean and good.
Larna held still as I leaned forwards and breathed her in, forgetting that it was strange. It was almost as though she expected it. And then she wrapped a careful hand around my waist and sniffed lightly at my hair. I was surprised, but only because the action did not feel strange. It was almost like a greeting.
After we had learned each other's scents, both of us felt more comfortable. I was too surprised to wonder why. When our short getting-to-know-you moment ended, Larna helped me to my feet and walked beside me towards the door.
When we stepped outside, I saw clusters of small huts in all directions. We were in a little village. There was a clearing in the middle of the huts, with a good-sized fire and cooking pit. Several people were seated around it with bowls in their hands. The light of the fire was dim and the sky was dark, but somehow, I could see their faces clearly. In fact, every detail was sharp and focused.
There was a well-muscled man with thick shoulders and wild white hair braided down his back. Around his wrist was a bracelet made from small animal bones. He lifted the hand with the bracelet and waved to us. Larna waved back, and she sat down beside him. They repeated the smelling ritual that we had shared a few minutes ago.
As I stepped closer, I noticed that the man's face was beginning to show age. His body looked sturdy and strong, but his eyes and skin gave him away.For an old man, he was powerfully built. I hung back, intimidated by this group of strangers. “Come here, little bird,” Larna called, waving me over.
I tripped forward, wide-eyed and hesitant. I could not forget that all of these people were Wyr. They could probably tear me in half. But Larna did not seem dangerous. In my short time with her, Larna had been gentle and kind. What had she told me? You must understand. You have a choice.
Somethingmade me approach the fire in a curved half-circle instead of a straight line. I obeyed without question. It was a little like Knowing, but there was no magic here. Maybe it had something to do with the change.
When my feet took me to Larna and the old man, I lowered my head. Some strange instinct was whispering to me, explaining what I needed to do. This man was the leader. I could see it in the set of his muscles and the way he held his chin. I needed to look respectful.
“Welcome, little sister,” said the old man. His voice was strong, too. “I am Jana Farseer. I am Alpha here.” He moved closer to me, to catch my scent, and I did not move. I could smell him, too. He was different from Larna. Jana Farseer was like rocks and moving water. I had never paid so much attention to my nose before.
“Thank you. Alpha?” I repeated as a question.
“I am the leader. You will be staying with us until you have recovered from the sorceress' magic. Then, we will be teaching you how to run with your new blood.”
Everyone around the fire was watching me, and I shifted uncomfortably. The stares made me nervous, but they were not unfriendly. “You forgot to ask her name, Farseer,” said one of the company.
“Cate. I mean – my name is Cate...”
“Arim Dei, Cate. My name is Yerta.” Yerta was medium height, with wiry muscles and soft gray eyes. His face was thin, but not sharp. He and I scented each other, and then he shook my hand. That simple human custom made me relax a little. “You are welcome here.”
Larna noticed my muscles loosen, and touched my hand. I looked up into her eyes, and grew dizzy all over again. “It is overwhelming at first, I know. Soon, you will be knowing everyone and feel at home with the pack.”
“I need to stay here?” I asked, a little frightened. I was grateful that the Farseer pack had rescued me, but I did not want to stay here for the rest of my life. I needed to find my Grandmother, and eventually return to Baxstresse.
“We will not keep you prisoner,” said Jana Farseer, “but it would be wise to stay. We will teach you to run with your new blood, and help you when you go in to your half-shape. If you leave, you might be hurting someone by mistake.”
I pressed my lips together. That had been my first thought after the change. I did not want to hurt anyone. “Larna said something to me about half shape. What is it?”
“Half-shape is between man and beast,” said Jana Farseer. “It is the shape a Wyr takes to fight great pain, and at the full moon.”
A terrible thought came to me. “Will I kill in half-shape?”
“You might, if you needed to defend yourself,” he answered honestly. “But not because you are in that shape. Humans kill without it. Your conscience will not be leaving you.” I was relieved. I was still confused and overwhelmed, but not as frightened now that I knew I would not lose my mind.
“Our wolf bodies and half-shape are not curses. If you train your mind and body to use them, they are becoming tools.” Larna looked at me with large brown eyes. Her short, messy black hair made her look very dashing. “Do you understand?”
“Yes.” And I did understand, but not about half-shape or tools. I understood that there was a special connection between Larna and me, and I wanted to see where it would lead us.
For the next hour, I sat with the Wyr around the fire. A few strangers came and left the conversation, but Farseer, Larna, Yerta, and most of the group stayed. They did not introduce themselves by name, but I could separate their scents, and I tried to remember them. Perhaps names were not as important to Wyr. I did manage to match a few names to faces, and repeated them to myself so I would not forget.
They told me a little about their lives. Farseer explained that Mogra had been collecting travelers in the Forest for almost six years. Jana Farseer had been one of her first pets, but he managed to escape. As the years passed, he tried to free others. The pack was over forty strong, with a few children among them.
“Sometimes, the witch sends her dogs to hunt us, but we are faster, stronger, and smarter. They are rarely finding us,” said Goran, a Wyr with a dark beard and a heavy forehead.
“The Wyr she puts under her control,” Yerta explained. “Her magic is strong, but they are mindless. She has to command them. We can think for ourselves.”
“Be quiet, Pekah ,” said Goran, who looked angry. He had wanted to answer my question himself.
“But aren't they still dangerous?” I asked quickly, trying to smooth the situation.
“They would be, but we are clever, and we know the forests,” said Jana Farseer with the wild white hair. “It is sad that you call your brothers dogs, Goran. You were nearly becoming one of them yourself. The witch clouds their minds.”
Goran, the dark-bearded one, looked shamefully at the ground. I was surprised that Farseer did not scold him for snapping at Yerta. He seemed nice.
“Is that all she does?” I asked. “Send the other Wyr after you? You are a threat.”
“She has an army to build. People are going missing in the forest all too often.” I agreed. As a child, I heard stories of young, strong men and women disappearing without a trace.
“They say,” said a thin female beside me, “that she might be working with the Queen.”
The rest of the small circle frowned at her, and the unfortunate speaker also lowered her head. “Kera,” Jana said, warning her to be silent with his eyes.
“The Queen?” I asked.
Kera did not answer. She glanced guiltily at the ground instead.
“I think I should be taking you to bed, Cate. You are tired.” I recognized Larna's change of subject for what it was, but did not feel comfortable enough to insist on an answer.
With my belly full of cooked meat and dry fruit, and my head filled with more questions, Larna showed me back to her small hut. My body was drained, but my mind was racing. So much had changed so quickly... Ellie would never believe what had happened to me. I gasped, suddenly remembering my journal. I had not written in it for several days. Ellie would be worried about me.
“Cate?” Larna asked, making my name a question. “Is something wrong?” The concern on her face took me by surprise. It was... touching. My cheeks grew warm.
“My friend,” I explained. “She will be worried about me.”
“You are a Wyr now. Friends might not be your friends any longer. Family will not understand. I know.” She sounded sad when she said this. My heart clenched in my chest. Was Larna right? Would Ellie, Sarah, and Mam reject me?
“No,” I said confidently. “My friends love me.”
Larna frowned. Even her frown was beautiful, I thought. “Send her a message, if you must. But do not be telling her where we are. Wyr are hated by many humans.”
Normally, I would have said no. But I thought about it, and some deep part of me knew that I needed to stay with Larna. Ellie would try and bring me back to Baxstresse if I told her where I was. Now that I thought about it, I had no idea what part of the Forest I was in anyway.
“Fine,” I said. Larna's face brightened. I wondered if my staying pleased her because she wanted to protect the pack, or because she was drawn to me.
That night, in Larna's small room, I thought about what to write to Ellie. I was not afraid of rejection. I was worried that Ellie would come to fetch me. And so I decided on a pleasant slant of the truth. My letter started: “Oh, Ellie, I have met the most amazing woman.” I told her everything. I described Larna's eyes, the way she moved, the way she spoke. Maybe I was sensitive to these things because I had become a Wyr, but I think that they were tied to her core – protective and silent. She spoke in longer, Amendyri-structured sentences, but she was quieter than most.
I poured my thoughts, hopes, and dreams into the letter, but I kept my fears to myself. I told her about Mogra and the cave, but I focused on Larna's bravery, not on how terrified I had been. I hoped that Ellie would become distracted by thoughts of Belle, her own hero. Then, she would be far too busy to worry about me.
Reading over the letter before I signed it, and thinking about Ellie and Belle, I realized that I sounded like I was in love with the strange, dark warrior. I had only known her a little more than a day, but I wondered. Impulsively, I added a line to the end of my letter. “How long did it take you to fall in love? When did you know?”
I closed the journal.
Larna was not in her hut the next morning, so I ventured out on my own to wander the camp. The early morning sun warmed my face and hair, making shining, moving patterns over the leaves like light on water. The grass felt strange under the soles of my bare feet.
Others were moving about outside, carrying empty sacks or small stone knives. For the Wyr, daytime meant working to find food. Perhaps Larna was already out hunting. A small group was working to raise another hut off to my left, but she was not among them.
Near the fire pit, which was still black from the night before, a silver-haired woman with strong bones in her face was mending a pile of clothes. Her thin fingers moved quickly with the flashing silver needle. Finally, something normal and calming in my unsteady world! I never would have imagined that something as simple as sewing could make me so happy.
I approached the woman cautiously, in the non-threatening half circle from the night before. “Arim dei,” I said, keeping my eyes a little lower than her face. I had no idea where these new silent rules came from. I was a new member of this pack, and I did not want to offend anyone.
The woman's face broke into a smile as she saw me. “Arim dei, Cate. You are feeling better, little sister?” I blushed. Did the entire camp know about me? I answered my own question. A new face in a pack of forty was hard to miss.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. “May I help you?”
I spent the next few hours helping with the pile of clothes. The woman's name was Aria, and she told me a little more about life in the Farseer pack. “I felt trapped at first. I did not want to be staying away from my village, my family. But Wyr need the pack. It is in our blood. Pack is family.”
I was not afraid of staying with the pack for now. I wanted to be near Larna. Even while she was away, she dominated my thoughts.
After we worked our way through the pile of clothes, Aria and I shared a meal of salted meat and bread. I wondered where the Wyr got the salt, but did not ask. It was a simple meal, but I was grateful for it. As I swallowed my last mouthful, I saw another Wyr to my left. He was tall and reedy, with sharp shoulders and dark eyes. His nose was slightly hooked. When he saw me, he changed direction and headed for us in a straight line. I wanted to take a step back.
“Hosta,” said Aria, who looked a little uncomfortable. The male nodded to her, but did not speak. Instead he – Hosta, I reminded myself – turned and looked at me. There was something familiar about his eyes. Maybe I had seen him briefly last night?
“So, you are the new female,” he said, studying my face.
“Hello, my name is Cate.” I brushed my hair off of my neck and stood with my feet apart. I did not like being referred to as a ‘female'. It made me feel like breeding stock. I was careful not to challenge Hosta with my body language, but I did not go out of my way to be submissive, either. I had to carve out my place in the Farseer pack sometime, I thought. So far, they had been receptive, and I was beginning to feel more confident.
“Cate,” said Hosta, tasting the word in his mouth. His smile was very wolfish, even on his human face. He seemed to realize that I was uncomfortable, and said, sounding much more polite, “are you from Seria, Cate?”
I answered him uneasily. “I lived there for almost ten years, but I was born in Amendyr.”
“It is not good to be a Wyr in Seria. Most of us come here.” I did not know how to answer that.
“We are not in Seria,” Aria interrupted.
“Well, this place might not be what you are used to. We are still after building it, you see.” The camp was very different from Baxstresse, certainly, but I did not say anything. “And besides, there are strange things happening in Amendyr.” I had heard the same from Ellie. Even Sarah and Mam had heard. The tight border security was proof that something was happening. “It never is hurting to be sure of your friends in times like these.”
“The pack is your friend,” said Aria.
“Of course,” Hosta said smoothly. “Of course. But trust is hard to come by. Arim dei, Cate. Aria.” And then he walked away. It was sudden, and left Aria and I feeling threatened.
“Hosta has been here for six years, almost as long as Farseer,” she said.
“That long?” I asked, not really listening. I was still watching Hosta's retreating back. Soon, he had melted out of sight.
“He has a brother, Yerta. They were captured together.” I realized why Hosta's gray eyes had seemed familiar. They reminded me of his brother's. Now that I thought about it, their bodylines were similar, although Hosta was taller.
“They do look like brothers,” I said, mostly to myself.
“Yerta is friendlier with strangers. Then again, that is his place.”
“What do you mean, his place?”
“That is his role,” Aria said, as if that explained everything. “But Hosta... he can be off-putting. Farseer trusts him.” So I needed to trust him, too. That was the unspoken message. I looked at Aria, telling her that I understood without words.
Larna returned to camp just before nightfall. I was inside of her hut, waiting for her. She smiled when she came in and saw me. We came together cautiously, unsure of our boundaries, but wanting to touch each other. She put a hand softly on my shoulder, and I pressed my side against hers, just slightly. “Hello, little bird,” she said.
“Hello.” I smiled back at her.
“There is a Singing tonight. Would you be wanting to go?”
“What is a Singing?” I asked.
“All of us meet outside and sing to the sky. You will need to be changing.”
My eyes went wide. Changing? I was not sure I wanted to. Changing would prove that I was a Wyr, not a human. If I stayed in human shape, I could pretend that I was still the same.
“You should not be afraid.” Larna's thumb stroked my lip, and her brown eyes looked down at mine. Her touch was familiar.
“I will try.” And part of me wanted to try. I wanted to please Larna.
“Good,” Larna said. She did look pleased. “The wolf is a part of you now. It is a bad thing to be hiding it inside yourself. It could be coming out and hurting someone later.”
“How do I change?” I asked.
“First, take off your clothes.” My mouth fell open, and I blushed terribly. I felt each freckle on my cheeks burning like a small spark.
“But – why...?” I stammered.
Larna stroked my cheek. “I will be doing the same, little bird. You canna be a wolf in human clothes. They do not fit. For Wyr, bodies are not hidden. No one will be bothering you when they see you with no clothes. We are still inside. I am the only one here.”
I felt a little better. I was still frightened, but interested to see what Larna looked like without her clothes. Backing away a few steps to give me space, Larna began pulling her shirt over her head. She kept her eyes directly on mine as she tossed it onto the floor. Her breasts were small and high, the tips curled. Was she cold? Excited? My eyes moved down. Smooth brown skin stretched tight over slabs of muscle. I turned away as she began tugging at her pants.
With my back to her, I undid my own shirt, pants, and underthings, and left them in a pile on the floor. I crossed my arms over my breasts, almost wanting to cup one hand between my legs and hide myself. I felt Larna's burning eyes on my back, but did not turn around. “You may be staying like that, if you want,” she said. I thought that was best. I knew that if I turned and saw Larna completely bare, the sight would haunt me forever. And this way, she would not see all of me.
“Close your eyes.” Larna's voice covered me in a blanket of warmth. I felt safe with her. My arms fell to my sides, relaxing. “Pull skin into muscles. Pull muscles into bones.” My skin felt alive and tingling.
“Think of your breathing. Breathe slow and deep. Now, imagine running. Running through tall grass, through trees. Think of smelling. Think of chasing.” My muscles curled and stretched and rippled. Even my bones ached. Every part of my body seemed to be waking up. There was warm, humming magic in my blood. I wanted to move, wanted to stretch out my legs and run. I could smell Larna beside me, and felt her energy touch mine. We would run together.
“Think of the moon. Think of the snow. Think of the forest. Your home.” All of these thoughts should have crowded my head. Instead, they wove together into a picture that I could touch and smell and taste.
I was running through the high grass, brushing the earth with my paws. My paws? There was a sleek gray body beside me, covered in dark, bristling fur. I knew that it was Larna, even though I had never seen her in this shape. The smell was the same.
I was a wolf. It felt like a dream. I was a wolf. And I was still Cate.
There were more of us. I could sense them, but could not see them. I could smell their bodies, too. When I reached them, they surrounded me. I found myself in the center of a tight circle. Black, twitching noses and warm breaths pressed in on all sides. They were learning my scent. It did not make me feel strange or uncomfortable. This felt as natural as shaking hands.
One of the wolves tilted their chin, opened their throat, and howled. The cry poured out of two mouths, then four, then all. Everyone was singing together. I lifted my head and sang to the sky with them. I was a small part of something large and powerful and old. With Larna beside me, and the pack around me, I felt connected.
My life began to fall in to a routine. During the next week, Larna left early in the morning to go hunting. When I woke up after her, I went outside to find Aria, Yerta, or one of the other Wyr. They would find somewhere for me to work for a few hours. Many members of the pack came to say hello to me or worked with me. Most of them were very friendly. I was quick to remember faces and smells, but names came more slowly.
Many of us ate lunch together. Sometimes, Larna got back in time to join us. Other days, she did not get back until late in the evening. I always greeted her with a hug. Every day, I found myself growing more and more attached to Larna. When she left to hunt, or patrol the Farseer territory, I felt a strange, gnawing restlessness that I could not explain. My hands twitched, because I wanted to touch her skin. My mouth ached. My eyes stung bitterly. My chest felt like it was weighed down with metal.
I could not talk about this with Larna. It would have been too much, too soon. Our friendship was still so new, so fragile and vulnerable. I did not want to upset the balance. When she did come home, I ran into her arms and hugged her. She would stroke my back and murmur in my ear. "See? I told you I would be coming back to you safe, Catie." And then I would smile, and both of us held tight.
On the second day, Ellie wrote back to me in my journal. The first paragraph demanded to know exactly where I was. In the second paragraph, she threatened me with bodily harm. “If I find out that you really are hurt, and you have been lying to me, I will make sure you hurt even worse when I finish with you. I am sick with worry.”
I realized that maybe telling Ellie the whole truth was a bad idea. Luckily, she still did not know where I was. Larna had been right. If I gave her directions, Ellie would be here in less than a week (if she could find the place). I hoped that she would calm down once I wrote her back.
As I read the rest of the letter, my eyes stuck on a few sentences. “You asked me when I knew I was in love. The deepest part of my heart knew the moment I saw Belladonna's face. The rest of me did not catch up until I read her diary. It took me a week to realize that I could not live without her. I knew it was love, because every moment I spent with her was better than the moment before, and I wanted to share every single moment of my future with her. Forever.”
That answer struck a chord in me. It described exactly how I felt. Tuathe. Two-souls. That was what Ellie and Belladonna were. The more familiar I got with Larna, the more I wanted to know. It was like a craving. I just wanted more of her time, more of her attention, more of her. But was I really in love with her? I was afraid of the answer. What if I was too shy, too damaged, for love? What if Larna did not want me?
“I have no idea if you are in love with Larna or not,” Ellie wrote, “but you sound like an infatuated schoolgirl. That is very unlike you, Cate. If someone has finally turned your head, it must mean they are extraordinarily special.”
Ellie's letter also had lots of questions. Most of them were about Wyr. I still did not know very much about them myself. “When I told her, Belladonna's first instinct was to go to the library. By the Saints, I think she would live there if I did not make her come to bed.” I blushed at that part. “She read all about Wyr and tried to explain the different ways they were made. I did not understand most of it. What I want to ask you is how it feels. How do you change? Are your senses stronger? Do you feel different? Does it hurt?”
I wrote Ellie a long letter back. I told her about Jana Farseer, and Aria, and about Changing. Larna had been practicing it with me on nights when she got back earlier. It was not hard to change into my wolf form. I had to think of things that a wolf would think of. Running and hunting and smells that a wolf knew. Then, I pictured myself turning, and I did. It was easier if I was running.
It was harder to change back into a human. I had to think of human things. On my third time, I discovered a trick that helped a little. I thought about kissing Larna. I needed human lips to do that. When I pictured it, I had lips again.
The Change did not hurt my body, but sometimes the wolfskin belt fused to my waist ached. I wanted to pull it off. The skin around it was swollen and puffy, but Larna had checked it for me and said it did not look infected.
Larna came in just as I signed my letter and closed the book. “Writing to your friend again, Catie?”
“Yes,” I said. I got up to give her a big hug. We held on longer than usual, but neither of us wanted to let go.
“Be you writing about me to this Ellie of yours?” she teased. I pulled out of her arms, and but not before she gave me another squeeze.
“Yes,” I told her, a little embarrassed. “After all, you saved my life.”
Larna gave a small smile. “I am glad you were all right.”
“Ellie and her wife are glad, too,” I said.
Larna's eyebrows shot up. She looked very surprised. “Her wife? I thought they were not allowing things like that in Seria.”
I grinned. “They don't. But they are very much in love. They keep it a secret.”
Larna was quiet for a moment. I noticed that she was studying me thoughtfully. I could not read her brown eyes, but I loved looking at them and trying. She opened her mouth to speak. There was something vulnerable in her face as she said, “if I... were after looking for a mate... it would be another female.” The last few words were almost a whisper, but I heard them clearly. My heart flew up into my throat.
“Me too,” I whispered back.
Larna rocked from one foot to the other, her hands buried in the pockets of her leggings. I chewed on one corner of my lip. She looked adorable, like a nervous child. I had never seen this side of her. The strong, silent warrior was sensitive, too. “I am glad you told me about your friend. I was not knowing if a Serian would judge me.”
“I am not a Serian,” I reminded her. “I was born here. I would never judge you for that.” I could only hope that Larna would not judge me when she found out that I was Ariada . Although I was back in Amendyr now, some of my Serian habits lingered. I did not consciously decide to hide my Seeing from Larna and the rest of the Farseer pack, but I did not tell them, either. In Seria, such things brought only trouble.
Larna glanced at the journal. It was still in my right hand. She took it from me and put it back on the table, making sure it was in a safe place. “Would you be telling your friend Arim Dei for me, Catie?” she asked.
“I will,” I promised. “I already told her all about you.”
“Not everything, I hope.” Larna watched me, considering something. Then, she opened her arms for another hug. I gladly gave it to her. Hugs from Larna were my new favorite thing. Her body was tall and strong and just right against mine. “Someday, I would like to meet your friend Ellie,” Larna said.
The corners of my lips curled up. I always seemed to smile around Larna. “I think both of you would like that.” I would like it, too.
Not surprisingly, my secret – or my curse – was discovered anyway. It was not dramatic, like the vision at the Prince's Cup. I did not see pictures and collapse to the ground. It started when Larna told me that she needed to chop wood. She was tall and strong, with a smooth coat of muscle, and often did heavier work even though she was female. The bad feelings came immediately.
“Do it another day,” I suggested, not wanting to get into a long discussion. “It will probably rain later today anyway.”
Larna looked at me strangely. “Little bird, there be no clouds in the entire sky. It is a good day to be working outside.” I walked over to the door of our cabin and looked out, disappointed to see that the sky was a clear, pale blue. There was no sign of rain.
I tried something else. “I wanted to spend the day with you. I want to practice Changing. We were both busy yesterday.”
Larna nodded. “That is a good idea. After I bring in the wood, we can be doing whatever you like.” She gave me a beautiful smile, but it did not soothe me.
“I have a strange feeling,” I tried to explain. “A feeling that you should not go out.”
“I have those feelings every morning when I am needing to work,” Larna teased. I realized that she was not going to take me seriously, and dropped the subject. Perhaps it was only a feeling. People had feelings all the time. Not every emotion I had was connected to my gift. Besides, there had been no bright, blinding vision. I was still sitting upright in my chair. But this did feel curiously like Knowing.
The unpleasant feelings lingered for the next few hours. I distracted myself by cleaning everything – the bed, the table, the floors, even just outside the door. I helped cook lunch with some of the others, and read a new letter from Ellie in our journal. Apparently, Sarah and the Prince were also writing letters. I was amazed. That strange piece of news was enough to distract me until I heard a pounding on the door.
“Who is it?” I called out as I got up from my chair.
“Aria. Let me in, Cate.” Surprised, I hurried to the door and let her in.
“Is Larna all right? What happened to her?”
“There was an accident,” she explained. “A tree was rotted inside, and the wind pushed it over. It almost fell on Larna and Goran. They moved away in time, but it could have been crushing them both!”
My stomach sank, and I Knew that this was what my feelings had been trying to tell me. Aria's eyes focused on me like hot beams of light. “You Knew... how did you know that I came here about Larna? You were asking before I even mentioned her name.”
I bit down nervously on one corner of my mouth. Confronted directly, I could not lie about my gift. “I Knew this morning that something would happen if Larna went out today. I hoped that I was wrong.”
“You Knew?” Aria asked. She was surprised, but not skeptical. “Are you Ariada ?”
“Yes, I am.” Strangely, I was relieved to admit this to her.
I was even more relieved when Aria took my hand, but that feeling quickly vanished when she said, “we will go and tell Farseer. He should know about all these things.” She took my hand and led me, reluctantly, through the door.
“Why were you not telling us that you Saw?” Aria asked as she pulled me along. I dragged behind her, a little nervous about telling my story to Jana Farseer.
“I tried, but Larna did not listen when I told her to stay.”
Aria rolled her eyes. “She would have, if you explained that you had the Sight. You are in Amendyr again, Cate. We are understanding magic here.” She was right, of course. Living in Seria for so many years had changed me – I kept my Knowing a secret. But now, I could be myself again. “Your family has Seer blood?” she asked as we walked. I tripped behind her, dragged by the wrist, stumbling every few steps.
“Yes...” I admitted.
“Can you heal? Be you a Shaman, then?”
“I don't know!” I said, frustrated. Aria was asking too many questions too fast, and I could not keep them straight. I thought about it. “I can clean wounds. They heal well.”
“Anyone can clean wounds,” she said. This time, Aria was the one who sounded irritated. “So, you are having no idea what kind of magic you use?”
“None.” Aria stopped, and I stopped behind her, almost falling on top of her. She whirled around to face me. “We will be asking Farseer if you can study with our Shaman.”
My eyes grew wide. “You have a Shaman?” I had heard of Shamans, of course. They used powerful magic to do all kinds of things, but I did not know very much about how they were chosen, or what sorts of things they studied.
“Aye, a good one. She's getting on, could use an apprentice. She could be helping you, even if you are only an Oracle of some kind.”
“Well, what's the difference?”
“Between an Oracle and a Shaman? A Shaman can be talking with Spirits to know the future, to heal the sick, to control nature. They know the magic of the Soul. An Oracle uses Signs to ask questions of the future. They read the stars, the leaves, even the lines in your hand. Both can be using visions. Have you ever had visions?”
A thought struck me. “Wait... How do you know so much about magic?”
Aria smiled. With her thin face and her narrowed eyes, she looked strangely like a wolf, even though she was in her human skin. “Many of us in Amendyr use magic. I make things.” So, that explained how Aria got through her work so quickly. It also explained where some of the enchanted clothing and armor in the camp had come from. Well, it was certainly a practical skill. “Now, stop staring at me like a gaping fish and go in!”
I realized that I was gaping at her, and that we were standing in front of Farseer's tent. Two firm hands pushed between my shoulder blades and sent me stumbling in. I staggered forward. My pupils grew larger in the dark. Jana Farseer was sitting inside, and Yerta was with him. Both smiled at me.
“Arim dei, little sister,” said Farseer. “Was that Aria outside I was hearing?”
“Yes,” I said. The entire story spilled out of me. The tree that had almost fallen on Larna and Goran, how I had Known about it, and several other things that Aria was not aware of, like my vision of Brahms at the Prince's Cup. I explained that my family had always been different, but when we moved to Seria, I decided to hide my gifts.
My voice trailed off into the dark tent, leaving me feeling emptied and nervous. Farseer shifted in his seat. He stood up from the three-legged wooden stool that he had been using, resting his arm on the table. With curious eyes, he studied me, examining my face carefully. I clenched and unclenched my hands.
“Well, Cathelin, I think you had better be after paying a visit to Kalwyn.”
The name was ancient Amendyri, and it meant, appropriately, ‘one who knows'. “Kalwyn?” I asked. “Is she a Shamaness?”
“Aye. I canna say how old she is, but she has lived longer than my father, and perhaps his father before him.”
“If she is older than Farseer, she must be a thousand!” Yerta said cheerfully.
Farseer growled at him, but did not seem angry. “Quiet, young pup. I can still pin you in less than three seconds.”
“He could, too,” Yerta whispered loudly, winking at me. My nervousness started to go away.
“Anyway, Kalwyn makes her home in the Forest. She is not Wyr, but she hates Mogra, and the witch willna come near her. She will know what to do with you.”
“When will I go? How will I get there?”
I had so many more questions to ask, but Farseer said, “I will be sending Larna with you. You and she are friends, yes? I canna be sending you out alone, you do not know the Forest. Go and tell Larna to come see me. I will be writing a letter for you to give to Kalwyn.” I stood in place, still smiling because Larna would be going with me. “Cate? Go...” Farseer prodded, not unkindly. I had to stop myself from running out of the tent at a full sprint.
Larna was surprised, and then pleased, when I told her. I was glad, because I had been worried that she would not want to go with me to see Kalwyn. “You, a Shaman? I canna – ” she started, still absorbing what I had said. “Well, I thought you were having a magical look about you. I mean, not magical... well...” It was the first time that I had seen Larna at a loss for words, and it made me feel more comfortable around her. “I am glad for you, little bird.” I was beginning to like that special-name more and more.
“I am glad, too. So, you will take me?”
“Aye, I will be taking you. I have not been after seeing Kalwyn in three years. I was hurt out on the hunt, and she healed me. It is a noble art to be learning, surely.”
The thought of Larna being hurt unsettled me, but I was glad that she did not mind walking me to my first lesson, and possibly some of the others. I would be glad of her company. Perhaps more than I wanted to admit.
Kalwyn's small house was crammed with so many things that it took several moments for me to notice her at all. It is normal to examine a new place when you first walk in, but Kalwyn's living quarters were so eclectic that I could not help staring. Bottles and books and baubles of all sorts were crammed into cupboards, tossed carelessly across tables, and covered the furniture, including the three chairs around a wooden table.
There was a finely carved hourglass on a table next to the entrance, and my hand almost knocked it over as I reached to close the door behind me. There were detailed anatomy sketches of Liarre – half man, half beast tribes that lived in the west - tacked on the walls in one corner, and a cage of brightly colored lizards in another. Whoever this Kalwyn was, she certainly enjoyed collecting things! I stepped forward into the room and began to look around.
“She knew you were coming,” Larna said, glancing around. “This place is cleaner than I have ever been seeing on a visit.”
I moved aside a tiny chest with my foot, and a strange humming noise buzzed reproachfully from inside. I did not open it. Over the fire was a simmering brown pot that spat and fizzed and steamed. No smell came from whatever was inside, but the smell of the rest of the place was overpowering. There was dust and paper and old wood, with lots of oil. It reminded me of a library, and made me feel a little sleepy. But underneath that, there was the familiar, almost warm smell of magical energy.
The smell of magic grew stronger very quickly, and I looked up to see an old woman in a dull green coat step out of the maze of stacked books and tables and curious contraptions. She carried a walking stick with one hand, nearly knocking over a very tall, thin wire that spiraled in the shape of a corkscrew. “Well then, let's be having a look at you,” she said, not bothering to introduce herself or ask my name. She grabbed my chin in a wrinkled but firm hand, and pulled it closer to her face. Her grip was surprisingly strong. “Of course, I should have guessed. I knew your grandmother.”
I was surprised. “My grandmother? I mean, I am Cathelin Raybrook, and I –”
“Yes, yes, I know all that. You should be knowing that your grandmother fell asleep two years ago, child.” My mouth went dry, and a stinging tightness built in my throat. I thought I had prepared myself for the possibility, but her loss was still a blow, even after so many years. “She passed comfortably.”
“Thank you,” I said scratchily, “for telling me. I...” Kalwyn produced a cloth from somewhere in her robe and passed it to me. As I wiped at the soft tears that rolled from my eyes, Larna wrapped a strong arm around my shoulder.
When my tears slowed down, I handed the cloth back to Kalwyn. “Thank you,” I said again. “I am sorry.”
“It is wise to grieve, but you came here for a reason. I will be dealing with you more in a moment.” She turned to Larna. “Now you, young pup, be after taking that pot off the fireplace, if you please.”
“Surely, Grandmother,” Larna said politely. She seemed to respect Kalwyn. I watched her back as she walked towards the fire, but Kalwyn tapped my hand with her stick sharply. I pulled my hand back in surprise, almost wanting to suck on my fingers like a scolded child.
“Stop making cow eyes!” she said loudly. I blushed fiercely, and my face was still a little red from crying. “Go to the kitchen and get a bowl.”
“But where is the kitchen?” I managed to ask, trying to push thoughts of my grandmother and Larna out of my head.
“Over there,” she said, gesturing with an old, twisted hand to her right. I saw a doorway with a strange tribal mask perched above it, and wrinkled my nose at its twisted eyes and mouth. “Oh, don't you be minding him, he always looks unpleasant,” Kalwyn said lightly. “Good for warning me about guests, though.”
I felt magical energy coming from the mask, but decided to save my questions about it – and the rest of the house – for later. My mind was too full already. I went to the kitchen, which turned out to be just as crowded as the first room. There were no dirty dishes or crumbs on the floor, but clean dishes were shoved haphazardly into wobbly stacks, and cleaning rags and empty sacks lay scattered around the room. I found a bowl near the sink, and carried it back into the first room.
“Ah, good. Give it here, girl,” said Kalwyn when I returned. I handed it to her, and she took it with both hands, shuffling over with a hop-step to the pot. She looked rather silly for a powerful magic-worker, I thought. She did not look like a shaman at all, more like an eccentric old collector. She certainly did have a lot of things in her house. Involuntarily, I reached out to touch a strange crystal shaped into three pronged spikes. “Leave it be, child. Now, come to the fire.”
I joined Kalwyn and Larna at the fire. Cupping the bowl with two hands, she dipped it in the pot and scooped some liquid. She held the bowl out to me. The liquid inside looked like clear water. “Dip two fingers in, your second and third. Then be after stirring the bowl seven times to the right.”
While she held the bowl, I dipped my second and middle finger. The potion felt ordinary, almost like warm water. But when I started stirring to the right, the water began to shimmer and glow with golden ripples. I made seven circles, and took my fingers out. “Ah yes,” Kalwyn said, mostly to herself, “she is having the touch.” I rubbed my two fingers and thumb together, bringing the potion near my nose. It had no smell, but now that I could feel it, the texture was more like oil than water.
“You have come here to be trained, yes?” Kalwyn said suddenly. I looked up, startled.
“Jana Farseer sent me,” I said.
“I had a vision. I Know and See things before they happen.”
A rapid burst of questions followed. “Are you after seeing pictures, or can you read the sky and stars? Or do you just have feelings you cannot explain?”
“I see pictures. I smell and hear them, too. Sometimes I have feelings.”
“Are you often right?”
I thought about that. “Yes. If what I see does not happen, it still – almost happens... if you understand...”
Kalwyn nodded. “Are you skilled at healing wounds?”
“I have never tried,” I answered honestly.
“Do you often remember what you see?”
“Not always. Sometimes I do not know that anything happened to me, and one of my friends has to tell me what I said.”
“Common in the young ones. We can be solving that problem.” Kalwyn tapped her fingers on the jacket of a book that rested on the wooden table with its three chairs. “Learning magic and the ways of a shaman is not easy, child,” she said, not unkindly. I noticed that her eyes, which were a pale blue, seemed to grow brighter. Her white hair fell about her shoulders in thick, spilling strands. She was an impressive sight, I realized. “Magic is a responsibility. You have to choose what to tell, when to interfere. You are having power over others that most do not even realize. Magic can do great good, but it can also do great harm.”
“Please,” I said, surprising myself with my eagerness, “I want to learn.”
Kalwyn nodded, took a seat on one of the three legged stools, and gestured at Larna with her stick. “I will start with her, young pup. Off with you, there is food in the kitchen.”
Her eyes brightening at that idea, Larna wandered towards the kitchen door that I had already passed through. I could not help staring after her as she went. “Sit,” Kalwyn said, interrupting my silent pleasure. I sat in the chair across from her. “Listen.”
“Long ago in the Western Lands, where the World began, there lived seven brothers. The Maker gave them gifts at birth, and as they grew, each one proved to be different than the others.
“The first son was a Wizard. He used writings and incantations to call water from the sky and sea, cause the earth to shake, and make fire and wind from nothing. And so it was that he controlled the elements, and even man, because man is made from the elements. And so it was that many followed him. Some made crops grow and villages thrive, and some burned these villages to the ground. For magic is only as good as its user.
“The second son was a Shaper. He could take flesh in his hands and twist it, breathe life into stone, and create creatures beautiful and terrible to behold. And so it was that he controlled magical beasts. And so it was that many followed him. Some made the gentle stone giants and the mermaids in the sea, and some made the demons of black fire and the goblins under the earth. For magic is only as good as its user.
“The third son was an Enchanter. He could forge armor and mirrors and instruments with strong enchantments on them, and make all manner of magical objects. And so it was that he controlled the many things of power in the world. And so it was that many followed him. Some made magical swords to aid the light and flutes and harps to soothe the animals, and some made evil weapons and mirrors and rings to kill or curse or maim. For magic is only as good as its user.
“The fourth son was an Oracle. He could read the stars and know what had been and would be, and watch the leaves and the movements of beasts to understand the secrets of the world. And so it was that he had great knowledge of patterns and signs. And so it was that many followed him. Some used their knowledge to help good kings and warn of disaster, and some used their knowledge to cloud men's minds and create chaos throughout the land. For magic is only as good as its user.
“The fifth son was a Druid. He could speak with the animals and trees, and lived with the mountains and streams and valleys, and could call on them all for aid. And so it was that, like his eldest brother, he knew of nature and its many secrets. And so it was that many followed him. Some used the secrets of the earth to make the forests bloom and care for the beasts and the land, and some used them to poison and kill and destroy. For magic is only as good as its user.
“The sixth son was a Necromancer. He could see ghosts, speak with the dead, and even bring them back to life. And so it was that he could call men back from the brink of death, and even beyond its gate. And so it was that many followed him. Some used their powers to heal those almost gone, or put the walking dead to rest and destroy magical beasts, and some used their dark energy to raise corpses and spread chaos and destruction. For magic is only as good as its user.
“The seventh son was a Shaman. He – or, as some say, she – could travel into the spirit world to talk with the ancient spirits of people and animals, and channel their powers. And so it was that the seventh child learned all they could, and sailed far away from the Western Lands, to Amendyr. And so it was that many followed that child. Some healed suffering and brought wisdom to their kingdoms and villages, some used their powers to control the minds of others with their mysteries. For magic is only as good as its user.
“You are a daughter of the seventh child. You have been called, Cathelin Raybrook, to be a Shaman. Your grandmother was a shaman, though not fully trained. Magic is in your blood, but it will only do as much good – or as much harm – as you command it to do.”
And then there was silence. As I re-examined the story that Kalwyn had told me in my mind, I discovered that I could remember, word for word, what she had said. Perhaps it was magic, or perhaps the story was just enthralling, but I knew that I would be able to repeat it exactly if asked.
“Teach me,” I said. “Teach me to be a Shaman. I want to Know, like my grandmother.”
“That is where the word Shaman comes from, Acha. To Know.” I flushed pink when I realized that she had called me ‘Acha' – student. Kalwyn had accepted me.
My first lessons were not in Shamanism, but in History. For the rest of the day, Kalwyn told me more about Amendyri's past than I had ever read in any book. She spoke of the great magical people of the past. There were the High Wizards of the king's court, who had fallen and allowed half of Amendyr to be seized by the Serians. Umbra had been the last of their leaders.
She told me of Lyr, the powerful Shaper, who had been corrupted by his own creations, and had begun to make more and more monstrous creatures until his own monsters killed him. He had been the first to call demons like the Shadowkin and the Kerak. He had made the Liarre (named for him) in a bizarre magical accident, trying to fuse animals and humans together. Interestingly, he had also been the first to create a Wyr. It was his path that Mogra was following.
I learned of the great Enchanter, Grath, who had made the Red Lion Shield that the Kings and Queens of Amendyr had carried into battle for centuries. Grath had invented Sorcerer's Chains for his wizard brethren, and had made many objects of power, like the pipes of Nemoth and the Silverglass Mirror.
I also asked Kalwyn about Ellie, who could speak to animals. She told me that, from my description, it seemed like she had some druidic powers. I was eager to write to Ellie about this, and saw no reason to keep what I had learned from her. I blurted out so many questions that my head began to swim. There was just so much to take in!
By the time Kalwyn reached a pause in the lesson, the sun had already set. Larna, who must have been listening at the door, entered during the break in our conversation and said, “Cate and I should be after getting home.” Her tone was polite and respectful.
Kalwyn, who obviously knew Larna, smiled. “Take this one home, then, young pup. Make sure she sleeps. Tomorrow, we will be learning about the Spirit World.” My head spun. The spirit world? I had so much to learn...
I must have mumbled a goodbye to Kalwyn, because Larna led me from the small cabin by the hand and out into the night. I was grateful for my Wyr blood, because it made traveling in the dark much easier. I did not find myself stumbling, and I always seemed to know which direction we were going in. Larna did not let go of my hand, and this sent a pulse of warmth through me that kept my face hot for several minutes. This time, I did let her carry my pack, and she carried both over one shoulder by the straps.
“Did Kalwyn teach you many things, little bird?” she asked, seeming genuinely interested, and not just polite. I did not blame her – magic was fascinating. I had sensed no magical energy from Larna, but I was not an expert in the subject. Maybe she practiced it herself and I had no idea. If she did have any powers, she must have used them to read my mind, because she said, “I am knowing almost nothing about magic, but I find it interesting. I find you interesting.”
That sentence made my face even hotter. I was glad that it was dark, and my blush was not too noticeable. Night-seeing is different than day-seeing. You are less aware of color, and more aware of movement.
“It is interesting. Magic, I mean,” I stuttered. “It – it feels like a great weight has lifted. I can talk about it now. Are you sure you do not mind coming with me?”
Larna squeezed my hand. She must have heard the insecurity in my voice. “No. But how are you feeling about your grandmother?”
I frowned, a little of my good mood leaving. “I miss her,” I admitted. “I have not seen her for several years, but I have good memories of her. I am glad that Kalwyn told me what happened, though. It is better than not knowing.”
“I lost my family, too,” Larna said. “They still live, but I be not welcome with them. Someday, I will tell you about them.”
I was too shy to say anything else to her as we walked back that night, and camp was not very far away. We traveled as humans, because we did not want to leave our clothes and packs, but I could tell that we moved faster than I had been able to a few weeks ago. My body had changed.
Although my thoughts never completely left the subject of Larna, I began thinking about Kalwyn's parting words. She would be showing me the spirit world tomorrow. I needed to rest well that night. But I knew that I would probably dream of Larna's eyes.
Through my heavy sleep, I felt a strange tingling. I was blossoming outward, swelling inside my skin, stretching to the low ceiling of the dark hut. My muscles burned. Flesh rippled and crawled around my bones. I started scratching, trying to gouge out whatever was inside of me.
A large, square hand caught my wrists, stopping me. I noticed warm, wet blood leaking from the cuts on my skin, but as soon as they opened, I felt warm fire knitting them back together. I could not see it, but I could feel it in the dark. Squinting up, I could only make out a black shape above me. It was Larna. I knew her scent. But something about her smelled... different. There was a heavy musk, a primal smell sharp with magic.
There was a flash of silver, and I could see two eyes above me. They were like, and unlike, Larna's eyes. I imagined that I could see a reflection of the moon in them. It was a heavy gray moon. My heart felt the pull.
Larna helped me up from the bed. I followed her, naked, out of the front door. There was no one else outside, but the strange smell was everywhere. I realized what was happening.
“Half shape?” I asked quietly.
“It is time.”
So we were alone. I was glad, because no one but Larna would see me naked and afraid. Together, we looked up to the sky. The moon was a flashing white disc, almost painful to watch. My heart beat heavily in my ears. I imagined that I could hear Larna's heartbeat, too. She held my hand.
My shoulders broadened. My back rippled with muscle. My arms became like tough, knotted ropes, and my legs were tree trunks. Everything swelled and ached and burned. I lifted my heavy head to the sky and howled. My voice was not my own. It was deep and resonating. Beside me, Larna howled too. From around the forest, there were answering calls. Some were close by, some were miles away.
I turned my head to see Larna. Beside me was the most beautiful and terrifying creature that I had ever seen. She had coal black fur and familiar brown eyes. Her coat had a wiry layer on top, and a downy soft layer underneath. Her body was long and tight, the sheets of muscle were sleek like a hunting dog's. She stood on two legs, and her small black nose was dainty against the rest of her long head.
My claws shifted in the dirt. My legs twitched. I wanted to run. I wanted to feel my blood rushing. I wanted the warmth of Larna's body against mine. I wanted Larna inside of me, taking me. These thoughts excited and frightened me. Larna's ears perked up. She pushed her head forward, asking Play? There was something in her face that reminded me of a puppy. I could not mate with Larna yet, I was not ready. Play seemed like a good idea.
I realized, with a fierce joy, that my mind had not left with my human body. I could still reason and analyze and make decisions. The urges were just... stronger. The last of my fear dissolved.
I nipped Larna's ear and crouched down as she swiped at me with a large paw. She chased me all the way through the camp and we crashed through the forest trees together, heading for the river. We ran until we were so tired that our bodies crumpled back into their human shapes, resting on the ground.
The evening was calm and still beneath the full moon. Silver threads of light from the stars wove to the ground in soft beams. It was a beautiful night, but Larna was even more wondrous to me. She looked lean and powerful in the white light. I felt warm and safe as I walked close beside her, our arms just touching. I was still exhausted from changing into my half-shape, but my heart was happy and full.
We wandered beneath the treetops together, not following a set path on our way back to camp. Instead, we made our own, drawing close to save heat even though it was not too cold. “Cate,” she said, as if she wanted to ask a question. Her voice was like a deep river; it had many currents. Hearing her speak made me shiver. She noticed, and wrapped her arm around me. That simple gesture touched me. Belladonna was always doing that sort of thing for Ellie, and Ellie always found little ways to surprise her, too.
When I first discovered their secret, I thought Ellie was half-mad to start a relationship with her stepsister. Now, I understood. Inconvenience meant nothing to love, that deep-rooted need. Larna was a fighter, a warrior. If I gave her my feelings, she might reject them. Worse still, she might accept them, and then die fighting some great injustice. But it seemed worse to be without Larna forever than to lose her after having her. I had to try.
“What is it, Larna?”
“Nothing.” We smiled at each other, and she blushed. Dancing around our feelings was silly. We both knew it. Her brown eyes reflected the moon like dark glass, almost glowing. “Little bird.” Her face drew closer. My heartbeat doubled. I melted as she wrapped her arms around my waist and bent her head. I forgot to breathe. Finally, she kissed me. My lips twitched, smiled, and relaxed against hers. My eyes stayed shut. I knew that hers were closed, too. For the first time, I realized that we were both naked. Strangely, I was not embarrassed.
It was my first kiss. Luciana had not been interested, I had not wanted to. Not knowing what to do, I just held still, feeling her mouth over mine. It was warm and soft like the rest of her. Larna did not move either. We stayed like that for a long second, not moving an inch.
We pulled apart, only a breath between us, and kissed again. “That was my first kiss,” I whispered against her mouth. Larna looked surprised, then pleased. Her dark eyebrows lifted on the pale curve of her forehead. “I never loved anyone enough to kiss them before.”
“Is that meaning what I think?” Larna whispered back. Her pale cheekbones were dusted with twin spots of pink, barely visible in the silvery light. My warrior was so tender sometimes.
“That I love you? Yes.” I felt brave. Larna's kiss had given me strength. I wanted another one, I thought to myself, but I was not sure if I could be that brave right away. But Larna gave me a kiss instead, and it was just as good as the first one. That is the wonderful thing about being with someone you love. Every moment is better than the one before.
She did not have to tell me that she loved me back with words. The hand on my side, her thudding heartbeat, and her warm lips said everything.
“How can you love me when you hardly know me?”
It amazed me that Larna could think of such a deep question so early. The sun did not shine through the open windows yet, but it smelled like morning. Larna's voice did not sound hesitant or afraid. She seemed curious, almost hopeful.
I reached across the small table where we sat and rested my hand on top of hers. She let me keep it there. “But I do know you,” I said. Larna looked at me with thrilling brown eyes. She waited for an explanation. It took me a moment to find the words. “I know that you are honest. I know that you are brave. I know that you care for me. You are interesting, and smart. And I also think you are very handsome.” That made her eyebrows lift, but she accepted the compliment. “The rest of it – your favorite color and that sort of thing... it will come later. But I do want to know.”
Larna smiled, teasing a lock of my hair with her left hand, the one that I was not covering. Her fingers toyed with it gently. “My favorite color is red.” My face turned exactly that color. Larna's hand moved down to stroke my cheek. My heart pounded harder. Her fingers were so soft.
“Have you ever felt,” I asked, “that two people can fit? Maybe as friends. But maybe as something else? They are tied together by something invisible, something...”
“Tuathe.” Larna guessed the word that I was afraid to speak. “Yes, I have been thinking of things like that before. From stories...” Both of us were too shy to say more, but the thoughts hung heavy between us. We could sense them.
“My grandmother told stories,” I broke the silence. “I wish I could see her again,” I added regretfully.
“I know you will see her again,” Larna said firmly. “Tell me more about her.”
“I will, but only if you tell me something about your past.” Larna frowned. This was not a surprise. Larna always seemed uncomfortable discussing her life before she joined the Farseer pack. If she needed time, I would give it to her. “Or something about you, things you like,” I suggested instead.
“I like you.” Larna's frown became a charming smile, and my heartbeat got faster. She really was good looking. “I like swimming. I like to be making things with my hands. I was after watching the tradespeople in the town I grew up in, the basketweavers and the blacksmiths and the woodcarvers. I enjoy making any sort of thing.” And she was strong enough for the work, too, I thought. I admired her broad shoulders and the long muscles of her arms.
“Did you build this hut?” I asked.
“I helped,” Larna said modestly. “A group of us put up most of them together. What do you enjoy, Cate?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I can mend and sew, but I do not enjoy it much. I can cook and clean, too... You know, I worked as a servant for so long, that I have no idea what I like to do.” I had never thought about it before. Suddenly, I realized how much I was missing in my life. It was time to start forging my own identity. The most important thing missing from my life at Baxstresse, though, was Larna.
“Will you show me what you do?” I asked. “I want to find things I enjoy.”
“I will show you whatever you wish. Be you not enjoying your magic lessons?”
“They are very interesting,” I said. “I meant some sort of hobby or work. Magic is more like... a part of me.” A thought struck me. “Are you disappointed? That I am Ariada ?” Larna's face did not twist at the word. I remembered that Ariada was not a curse in Amendyr, only an adjective.
“Why would I be? I am not understanding magic, but it is useful and interesting. You are interesting. If it is a part of you, I like it.”
I smiled, reassured. “You are a part of me, too, Larna.” I blinked, surprised at what I had said. For a moment, I regretted it, until Larna smiled back, showing a row of neat white teeth.
“And you are a part of me.” That made me smile, too.
In fairy stories, the suffering, the longing, ends when the two lovers find each other at last. But that is only in stories. At Baxstresse, I ached for someone to complete my soul. Now that I had found Larna, I discovered the sharp, persistent pain of waiting. The hardest part was just beginning.
Our touches were cautious. Even our kisses were careful. Knowing she was just across the room, but so far away, left me cold at night. I wanted Larna to return to her bed, where she belonged. With me. But I did not know how to ask.
I knew that Larna was waiting for me. At any moment, I could ask her to make love to me, to take what belonged to her. She would accept. But could I give her what she wanted? What she deserved?
I warred with my fears constantly. What if I disappointed her? What if it was too soon? What if I made a mistake? I did not think that Larna would hurt me, but sometimes, thoughts of Luciana rose to the surface. I worked hard to shove them down.
Perhaps some of it was guilt. Wanting a quiet, tender lover would have been easier on my conscience. But that was not the lover that haunted my dreams. I wanted Larna to have me roughly. I needed her to consume me. Mark me. Claim me. Lose herself in her own need and hurt me a little. Then, I would remember how Luciana had hurt me. That was not what I wanted with Larna at all.
Other times, I thought about Ellie and Belladonna. I remembered the scene I stumbled upon months ago. How tender Belladonna had been with my friend. The whispered words. The joy and sweetness in their kisses. Would it be like that with Larna?
She had no idea, of course. To her, I was something gentle and precious, to be handled delicately. I was not ready, and she would wait. Larna was interesting, but her thoughts and feelings were not complex or hard to interpret. She was wonderfully simple. My thoughts and feelings were a jumbled mess. I was ready and not ready at the same time, and ached with wanting.
I hated myself for holding back. My heart urged me to take Larna in my arms and forget everything but her. Knowing that the decision was mine made me sick. Sometimes, I cried myself to sleep, hiding my face in my pillow so that Larna would not wake up and see. Just as often, I woke in the middle of the night, pulsing and close to release, with my hand clutching between my legs, waiting for my dark, handsome lover to make me hers while she slept on the other side of the room.
To Be Continued in Part 2
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