Disclaimers: See Part 1
The mess in Kalwyn's house surprised me all over again on my next visit. She was standing in the same place where she waved goodbye to us a few days before.When she saw us, she said, "Ah, it is the new shaman and the young pup. Come in, but step careful. There are a few things on the floor." ‘A few things' was an understatement. Like last time, objects were piled and scattered around the room.
When I found a safe place to stand, I said, "Good morning, teacher. Am I going to visit the spirit world today?" My excitement broke through in my voice, embarrassing me.
Kalwyn smiled. Her face became a netted crosswork of brown wrinkles. In the center were her two black-button eyes. They glinted at me. "What did I say before? Yes, Acha, I will show if you will learn."
"I want to learn," I said, sounding breathless.
Larna squeezed my shoulder. "Of course you do." She dropped a kiss on my head. My face went bright red, and I knew that Kalwyn was watching. Larna and I shared simple touches, but neither of us knew what they meant. They just felt right. Our hugs, our small kisses, our linked hands... we were more than friends, but not quite lovers. We hung somewhere in between.
"Is there any heavy work for me, wise one?” Larna asked. “I am wanting something to do while you teach. Learning magic is for Ariada."
Kalwyn thought for a moment. "The roof is needing repairs. But I only be letting you fix it to keep you out of trouble! I am not too old for work."
"Of course not," Larna said soothingly. I felt the vibration of her voice against my side. "But too old for climbing about on roofs, to be sure."
Kalwyn went to show Larna where the damage was, and where to find her supplies. They left me alone in the cluttered house, looking around curiously. The first thing my eyes settled on was an hourglass. A long golden rope snaked around its glass body. Perched on top of the hourglass, a miniature golden dragon curled back, its wings stretching out. I realized that the golden rope was the dragon's tail. All of the sand was in the bottom half of the hourglass.
"Ah," said Kalwyn's voice behind me, "you found that, have you?" I jumped back, clutching my hand to my chest. My heartbeat seemed unnaturally loud.
"I was just looking at the hourglass," I explained.
"That is a very special hourglass." Kalwyn picked it up, turning it on its side. The grains of sand inside it did not move. When she flipped it upside down, they did not run back towards the top. I stared at it, confused. "My mother gave it to me, and her mother gave it to her."
"How much time does it measure?" I asked.
"It does not measure time. It knows when the dragons be returning."
Kalwyn set the hourglass back in its place. I reached out to touch it. She did not stop me. It felt warm in my hands. I picked it up. No matter which way I turned the hourglass, the sand did not leave the bottom half. "I thought all of the dragons were gone."
"Not gone, just sleeping," said Kalwyn. "When it is time, the sand in the hourglass will be flowing up to the top.”
"How soon?" I asked.
Kalwyn shook her old head. "I dinna have numbers, young shaman. Now, we are using the Deadeye." With her dark green folds flapping, Kalwyn shuffled over to a chest of drawers. She began rummaging around. I tried not to stare. After a lot of muttering, she pulled something out, holding her fist up. "Aah, here!"
In her hand was a glossy black stone. It was a round oval, about the size of an egg, but flat. There was a hole through the center. Kalwyn peered through the hole. I could see her tiny black eye glinting through the empty space. She was looking at me, but did not seem to see me. She took the stone from her eye, and held it out to me in her palm.
"The Deadeye is a charm. Dinna be looking through it yet," she scolded as I held it up to my eye. I lowered my hand and clutched it in my palm. The stone hummed with energy. It was warm against my skin, like the hourglass. Did all magical objects feel like this?
“There be many ways of talking to the spirits,” Kalwyn went on. “Most of them do not use voices. They are sending you feelings.”
“What is a spirit?” I asked. “Do we turn into ghosts after death?” I did not like the idea of lingering in the Forest of Amendyr for eternity. Perhaps it was foolish, but I had always pictured myself in Heaven.
“Only the Maker is knowing what happens to the soul after death. A Spirit is only magical energy left behind when a person passes.”
I tested the weight of the Deadeye in my palm. It was lighter than it looked. As I squeezed, the surface became warmer. The stone pulsed in my hand. “It feels like it's moving...” I whispered, amazed.
“Lift it. See.” I obeyed and lifted the black stone to my right eye.
Thousands of shimmering shapes flickered along the walls, under the chairs, around my legs. They were everywhere, like white water, faintly glowing. Some were just tiny dots in the air, floating alone. Some formed faces and the shapes of bending arms. Two or three looked like full people, with clothes, moving around.
“The stronger the magic was in life, the more is being left behind,” Kalwyn explained. “Powerful Ariada can gather their energy into shapes, even bodies. Weaker energies are only that – energy.”
I watched, fascinated. “Do they remember who they were?”
“In a way.”
“I want to talk to them,” I said, still peering through the Deadeye. The small sparks of light seemed to feel me watching. They swirled around my legs and arms, and I felt warmth and light crawl over my skin. I was filled with energy. It was not frightening or unpleasant.
“Not yet,” Kalwyn clucked. “Give me the stone, girl.”
Reluctantly, I lowered the stone. My skin was still warm as I placed the Deadeye back in Kalwyn's twisted old hand. She tucked it in her robes. “It is important to know where your power comes from as a Shaman. Someday, your energy will be added to what you saw.”
Perhaps this was true, I thought, but I knew where my soul would be. Whether I traveled to heaven, hell, or was reborn in some great circle, my half-soul would always find Larna's again.
“Now, we will be singing.”
My heartbeat hammered faster. Singing? In front of someone else? I could carry a tune, but the thought of anyone hearing my voice made me nervous. “I have to sing?” I asked, shifting my feet uncomfortably.
“You grew up in Amendyr. Sing the Winter song.”
A song I knew! That made me feel a little braver. All Amendyri children learned the old songs growing up, but I still did not want to sing.
“It is not Winter yet,” I protested weakly.
Kalwyn whacked my arm. I gripped it sulkily. “Sing!” she said. So I sang.
The high wind blows down from the mountains
The tall cliffs climb out of the sea
The sharp wind blows up from the ocean
Come sit by my fire with me
The cold wind blows over the moorland
A white blanket covers the Sweep
The stars in the sky have grown dimmer
So rest in my arms now and sleep
“You,” Kalwyn declared, “are a baby! Afraid of a song...” she rolled her eyes. It was not as nice as a ‘good job', but it did make me smile. “Now, I will be teaching you tone sets. Sing after me.”
After that, we did not sing words. Instead, I learned patterns, combinations of notes that would draw magic closer to me. They started simply. Each pattern only had three or four notes. Then the range got bigger.
Kalwyn made me hold the Deadeye and watch while she sang. The white sparks of magical energy gathered around her in a swirling, humming cloud. She sang a mournful half-step, and one of the human shapes came and took her hand. I wondered if she could feel its fingers lacing with hers.
“So, you will practice?” Kalwyn asked suspiciously. She could read my mind. I did not want to practice where other people could hear me, especially Larna.
“Yes,” I sighed. I resigned myself to my fate. “I will practice.”
“Good. Next, I will teach you dances.”
I almost fell over.
The leaves were tinged with red the next morning when I stepped outside. Winter was coming after all. The scent of pine and woodsmoke were strong in my nose. Even though I could feel autumn in the trees, I was only a little cold. Maybe my new Wyr blood kept me warm. It did many other remarkable things.
Larna was inside of our hut, sleeping. I let her rest, hoping that some distance would make me want her a little less. My hair tickled my neck as the wind blew it over my shoulders. The trunks of the forest trees blocked the worst of the gusts. I walked along the border of camp, not heading anywhere. I just wanted to be outside, where I could think.
A twig cracked behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder. I saw nothing. Lifting my nose, I tried smelling instead. The scent of Wyr was nearby, but that was not unusual. I was still near camp.
I had only taken six steps when I heard the sound again. This time, I knew someone was following me. I thought of turning around and returning to my hut, but whatever was stalking me stood in the way. “Come out,” I said, my voice shaking.
I stepped back when Hosta emerged from behind a tree. He was in his human form, but seeing him made me feel uneasy. “Did I frighten you?” he asked smoothly, as though concerned. But there was something hostile in his black eyes.
I avoided the question. “I was not expecting you.”
He took another step closer. I held my ground, refusing to let him back me farther into the woods. “I saw you walking alone. I wanted to make sure that you were all right.” Goosebumps rose over my skin, but I was not cold. I recognized the emotions on Hosta's face. Dislike, brewing anger, and lust. It reminded me of Luciana, and I felt sick. My chest tightened, and it was hard to breathe.
“Do you need a coat?” Hosta offered, reaching to take off his.
“No,” I shook my head, “thank you.” He reached out, perhaps to say something more, but I hurried past him, walking quickly back the way I had come.
I was so distracted that I slammed right in to something solid and warm. My legs buckled, and I fell backwards onto the grass. My heartbeat slowed down when I saw Yerta's concerned face peering down at me. It surprised me that he could look so different from his brother, even though their features were similar. Maybe it was their expressions.
He reached down to help me up. I bent to brush myself off. “Did I frighten you?” The words startled me. That was exactly what Hosta had asked.
“No,” I said. My voice was small. “I was... looking for Larna.” Suddenly, I did want to find Larna. I needed her warm smell, her comfort.
“I have not seen her. I thought you were staying with her.”
“I am. I apologize for running in to you. It was my fault.”
Yerta smiled. “Pretty girls running in to me every day? I should be so lucky.”
I started walking backward. He had embarrassed me, but I was not frightened. “Cate,” Yerta called after me. “Have you seen my brother?” I pointed into the trees, and Yerta headed in that direction, waving a hand to thank me.
I had a few moments to examine my feelings on the walk back to Larna's hut. Yerta and Hosta looked similar. They even said many of the same things. Why did Hosta frighten me so badly? Why did Yerta seem so kind? My thoughts were jumbled. Running in to Hosta had brought back unpleasant memories. I had flinched when he took off his coat. It reminded me of Luciana undressing.
“You are a fool,” I said to myself. My breath hung in the air, a silver cloud. It was colder than I thought. Stiffly, my fingers opened the door to the small cabin that had become my home. Larna was sitting up in bed, waiting for me.
“Cate?” she asked, immediately standing and walking to meet me.
“I am fine,” I tried to protest. Two strong arms pulled me against a warm chest. Some of the ice thawed from around my heart. For now, I was all right.
“Did something happen?”
“Nothing that matters. I – someone startled me outside. It reminded me of a bad time in the past.”
Gently, Larna pushed me away from her. I was sad, until I realized that she had done it so that she could see my face. Her brown eyes were soft and warm. I lost myself in them.
“Will you tell me about it?” When I did not offer an answer, she added, “when you feel ready?”
I was grateful that Larna did not push me. “Yes. When I am ready.”
“Tell me the card,” said Kalwyn. She had a deck of picture-cards that we were practicing with. It seemed like a silly child's game, but telling her what picture was on the card took concentration and effort.
I looked through my Other eye. The Deadeye was a shortcut, a link between two planes, but if I concentrated hard enough, I could see the white sparks of magic around me without it. They gathered at my fingers and around my eyes and mouth. I thought I saw the ghostly form of a man standing by Kalwyn's chair. It was an Imprint of someone who had lived here long ago. I had seen him twice before.
The man smiled and made wavy lines with his fingers. He began to fade. The sparks against my skin hummed. My mouth twitched into a smile as well. “Ocean,” I said.
Kalwyn nodded. “Good. You are better at cards. Have you practiced singing?”
I had, but only a little. Kalwyn insisted that all Shamans sang, but I was not so sure. I did not like the sound of my voice. I refused to sing in front of anyone but my teacher, especially Larna. I hoped she could not hear from outside...
Kalwyn noticed my glazed eyes. “You did not,” she guessed correctly. I blushed. “Were you studying your history, then?”
“Yes,” I said truthfully, “but there are too many names.”
“You must know history,” she insisted. “You must be learning of the High Ariada and Kalmarin. They are your past. You are their future.”
Those words triggered a memory. The High Ariada. There was something I needed to ask... Suddenly, I remembered. My long-ago conversation with Cieran, Prince Brendan's advisor, came back to me. “Kalwyn, what do you know about Umbra?”
Kalwyn looked surprised, but she composed herself. “Where were you hearing that name?” she asked, too casually.
“Cieran, the magical advisor in Seria... but you said it, too. I remember now. It was on the first day I met you.”
Kalwyn sighed. “He was the last of the High Ariada. Not a good man. No, not good. He was trying to steal dragon magic by draining a hatchling. When the magic was released, there was too much. He and his wizards could not be controlling it. Many died.”
The story sounded familiar. “I have heard that before,” I said, mostly to myself.
“It is a children's story. Well, what happened after is a children's story. The Prince of Amendyr went to Feradith the dragon, because she cursed the kingdom with a drought. He offered his life for his kingdom, and she lifted the curse. But she let him live. Instead, she went and ate all the wizards that were still living. That was the end of the High Ariada. ”
I knew that someone had told me that story as a child. Maybe my mother, or even my grandmother. I thought of something else. “A necklace,” I asked, “was there a necklace in the story? My friend Ellie – well, her stepsister had a necklace, and it looked like an eye, and –”
“Slow down, child! I am not understanding. You go too fast.”
I had to explain the entire story to Kalwyn, who listened intently. She seemed very interested when I described what the sorcerer's chain looked like. “Maybe it was once belonging to Umbra,” she said. “I do not remember anything about a chain in the story. But the burning magic in it could be some of the dragon's stolen power. Dragon magic lasts for centuries and stays bright and strong.”
I tried to remember everything that Kalwyn had told me about dragons. I would have to write everything to Ellie later. “The chain is destroyed. How could we know?” I asked her.
“Maybe we will never be knowing,” Kalwyn said, but I could see unspoken thoughts behind her eyes. “Gather your things, Acha. Next time, we can look through some of my books. Maybe we will find something to tell your friend from Seria.”
My lessons with Kalwyn were postponed one day when the Farseer pack decided to take me on my first hunt. It was all very informal. Larna remembered that I had expressed an interest, and asked if I wanted to come. “You might only be watching this first time,” she said, “but it will be good for you to help the pack.”
“As long as I won't be in the way,” I said, a little nervous.
“Of course not, little sister,” said Jana Farseer. We were in a small group of twelve, gathered by the large fire pit. “Larna told us you were wanting to come. Now that you have been through your first half-shape, it is time.”
“Everyone must be having a first hunt,” added Kera, a thin female with a bright voice.
I regained some of my confidence. I was not sure if I could kill another animal, though. It was not the same as butchering a hog. I would be using my claws and teeth instead of a knife.
I did not feel nervous again until the hunting party started stripping. They were casual about it, chatting together as they unbuttoned shirts and kicked off pants. Larna noticed my burning cheeks and stepped in front of me, blocking my view. I cast my clothes away quickly, and started the change before anyone could look.
Shedding my human body and shaping into a wolf was not difficult. I thought about it, and it was. My fur stretched from the strip sewn into my hips and covered me like a warm glove. My muscles curled into a comfortable, four-legged shape, and I dropped to my hands and knees until they became paws.
The others around me quickly followed, changing their shapes like wind-blown clouds. It was smooth and easy. We all looked to Farseer, whose wolf form was large and brown, with silvery scars on his flanks. I felt Larna's dark shape to my right. She was panting, eager to find prey. Yerta was on my left. He gave me a friendly nudge, and I wagged my tail.
Then, as a unit, we felt a new presence, and turned our heads together.
A thirteenth member to our hunting party came from the southern edge of the camp. He was already in his wolf body, which was just as lean and angular as his human one. I recognized his scent, even though I had never seen him under the change's magic. It was Hosta. My muscles stiffened. Larna noticed, and placed herself between us automatically.
The other wolves greeted him politely, with open mouths and wagging tails. He and Farseer sniffed, but Hosta kept his tail low, not offering any challenge.Apparently deciding that Hosta could come, Farseer padded off into a clump of trees to the west. We followed him. I watched every movement of Larna's sleek black body, not wanting to miss any instructions. She had to teach me without words. I watched how she rolled her steps so that she did not make any noise, and tried to copy her. When she tested the grip of the earth with her claws, I did the same. We communicated silently, but effectively.
Soon, I felt a change ripple through the group. Farseer, who was in front of the others, lifted his head. He sniffed the air, turning his head right, and then left. Finally, he made a quarter circle and went on. Soon, I smelled it, too. A herd of deer had been here not long ago.
When Farseer began a brisk trot, we all followed, forming something a little like a triangle. Larna stayed near the front, at Farseer's right. I made sure to keep close behind her. It took us almost an hour to track the deer. They were moving through the forest slowly, grazing and stripping the bark from the trees. It was fall, and soon many of the trees would lose their leaves.
Suddenly, Farseer stopped. He held stiff, almost like a pointing dog. His head was thrust forward, his eyes locked on a target. An older stag with a limp was near the back of the herd. He was a giant beast with a majestic set of horns. In his prime, he must have been an impressive sight. Larna brushed by my shoulder, leading me off to the right. Hosta took another group off to the left. I knew, instinctively, that we needed to make a half-circle. Like two pincers, the right and left groups would close in once Farseer burst out of the trees from behind. I was not sure how I understood what was happening.
Larna showed me how to lower my shoulders and move silently so that the leaves did not catch against my fur. She showed me how to tell where I was by smelling the ground, judging our distance.
Everything happened in a blur. Farseer charged out at the back of the herd, sending the large brown bodies hurtling forward like a living river. Their hooves shook the ground. Leaves fell from the trees. Larna started running, and I followed a breath behind her. Our chests rose and fell, our hearts pounded together. I saw the second group closing in from the other side, cutting off the stag's path to escape. He reared on his hind legs and turned, only to find Larna's gleaming white teeth waiting for him. He tried to strike with his hoof, but with a neat clip of his jaws, Farseer moved the deer in the direction he wanted.
It was almost like a game. The stag kept surging forward, trying to break through the circle, and someone's teeth or claws would block him. Then, the mighty beast ran for me. I knew it was my turn, and peeled my lips back from my teeth. I caught his throat in my jaws, and felt sweet blood burst on my tongue. I did not know how to grip, though, and he shook his large, shaggy head free. Then Farseer ended it, grabbing hold of the stag's head and pulling his neck down until it snapped.
I watched, euphoric and tormented at the same time, as the creature's eyes glazed. White specks of foam came from its mouth, its eyes rolled in terror. Larna gave the creature mercy, and tore out its throat. Blood matted the black fur of her chest and stained her mouth.
While the meat was still fresh, we ate to regain our strength. I was worried that raw meat would make me ill when I changed back into a woman, but I knew that Larna would never let me do anything dangerous, so I ate with the rest of them.
Farseer took his portion first. Everyone seemed to know when to approach the steaming body, and which part to take. I thought that I would be last, but Larna nudged me forward after eleven of the rest had eaten. Yerta had not taken his portion yet. I looked at him for reassurance. With his tail hanging low, he settled on the ground, waiting. I realized that it was my turn.
The sweet taste of blood made me forget my confusion, and I ate until my stomach ached with fullness. I wanted to lie on the ground and sleep after gorging myself, but I only had time to rest while Yerta ate, and then we were moving again, trailing the herd and searching for another kill to bring back to camp.
“You did well today, Cate.” Larna and I were curled up together at the edge of the cook fire. Most of the camp was outside, even though the evening was cool. It was near dark, but the fire gave us some light. The smell of cooking meat was strong, and I felt myself growing hungry again, even though I had already eaten at the kill site.
I knew that Larna had more to say. “But?”
“But I was noticing that you became upset when Hosta was near you,” she said.
“He does not like you, Larna,” I said, keeping my voice low. We were sitting by ourselves, but there were other small groups near us. I did not want anyone to overhear. “I have seen him look at you with... hatred in his eyes.”
“He is jealous,” Larna explained. “Hosta and I are both respected by Farseer. We are Betas.”
“Betas?” I asked.
Larna raised her eyebrows. “I have not named the rankings for you? Farseer is Alpha. Hosta and I are Betas. We are young, strong. We are an example for the pack. If Farseer was injured, one of us would help lead.”
“Why is he jealous of you?”
Larna thought for a moment. “Well, I have only been here two years. He has been here for six. Also, I think that he is jealous of... ah... you.”
“Me?” That was not what I had expected to hear.
“You are young and beautiful. I think that he wants you. It makes him angry that you are showing an interest in me.” Instead of being flattered, I was disgusted. I did not want Hosta to notice me that way. I belonged to Larna.
“But his brother is so nice...” I tried, not knowing what else to say.
“Yerta is the Pekah . He has to be nice.”
That word, Pekah, triggered something in my memory. Where had I heard it before? My first night, by the fire. Goran had snapped it at Yerta, like an insult. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“Every pack has one member that is the lowest... he is the Omega. The last. Pekah are sometimes mistreated, but we need them. They keep the pack together.”
“That is why he is mistreated sometimes? It does not seem fair.”
“Living in a pack is not always fair. Yerta has a good life here. He is still one of us. We would never really hurt him. But someone has to be last, or there can be no first. Then we would have no leader.”
I did not like it, but the Wyr part of me understood. It was not easy to explain away, but there was nothing I could do to change it. “Is that why Yerta ate last at the kill?”
“Yes. And it is why Hosta and I ate after Farseer did.” Larna reached up to stroke my cheek with her knuckles. My skin grew warm, and I began to forget about Hosta. “If you become my mate, you can eat with me,” she said.
Her voice made my body quiver, but I was not thinking about eating food. I hungered for something else. “I want to be with you,” I whispered, burying my face in the curve of her throat. Her long arm hooked around my waist, pulling me close. “But I am not sure when the right time will be.”
“You will know,” Larna whispered back. I hoped that she was right, and that our time would come soon.
Kalwyn's ‘library' was not really a library at all. It was more like an explosion of paper and leather binding and ink. There were parts of books piled together, scrolls shoved in drawers, and nothing was organized. Maybe Belladonna would not have wanted to visit this library after all. It might have driven her mad.
“I still am not knowing what you are looking for,” Kalwyn called out. The large stack of books she was carrying muffled her voice.
“Neither do I,” I called back, “but I will know when I see it.”
We had already spent the morning browsing through some of the less-dusty magical texts. So far, there was nothing about Umbra. The High Ariada were only mentioned briefly. “It's like there is a missing chapter of history,” I mumbled to myself.
As I bent over the page of a yellow book, my quill fell out from behind my ear and clattered to the floor. I bent to pick it up. Under my chair, shoved there during our expedition, was a scroll. I pulled it out and opened it. It was a rough sketch with faded, blotchy text. Underneath it was the caption: “U__ra and t__ __gh Ariad_ _________ the Hatchling”. Not even a complete sentence, but it was enough. The picture did not need words.
There was a circle of thirteen people, all wearing hooded robes. Signs of power decorated the sides and base of a stone table. The corpse of a baby dragon lay on its flat surface. My stomach twisted when I figured out why the signs had been drawn in red ink. The wizards had probably used the Dragon's blood.
“I think I found something,” I said solemnly. The happy feeling of success had faded. I did not want to look at the picture any more. I handed it to Kalwyn. She held it close to her nose, studying it. Her black eyes squinted, and she craned her neck forward. Then, she gave it back.
“No, look at the one behind the table. Look at his chest, Acha.” I obeyed, and saw that one figure stood out from the rest. He was drawn in darker lines than the others. On his chest, above his heart, was a three-ringed circle. The all-seeing eye. The image was familiar and frightening.
“Put it away,” I said, not understanding why I felt so uncomfortable.
“You will take it with you when you go. It is only a drawing. It has no power over you, Cathelin.” Kalwyn rarely called me by name. I looked up in surprise. “You must be brave, like your Tuathe.”
My face grew warm. “I am not very brave,” I said shyly.
“You are braver than you think.”
“Are you sure that I can take this?” I asked, holding up the yellowed parchment. When I got back to camp, I would copy it into my journal. Then, Ellie could show it to Cieran. I was no artist, but it was the best idea I could think of.
“Yes,” Kalwyn insisted, fussing as she tried to put a piece of wrapped bread in my pack. “You will take it. And some food.” Kalwyn was forever trying to give me food when we were not studying. She said that I was too thin. “Some for the young pup, too. But she is not needing the energy!”
“Larna always has plenty of energy.” I blushed.
My thoughts snapped back into focus when Kalwyn said, “here, take this, too.” She handed me my pack, and then set something heavy in my hand. I shifted the weight of the pack so that I could carry it, the scroll, and look at the thing in my hand. It was the golden hourglass. The sand was gathered in the top half, hanging in suspension. The tiny dragon coiled around its curve possessively.
“Why are you giving this to me? I can't take it.”
“You will be needing it,” said Kalwyn. I tried to protest, but she frowned at me. “I am the teacher, you will listen to me!” I knew that I would get nowhere arguing with Kalwyn. It was easier to take the hourglass.
“Here, I have one more gift for you. Taking three things on a journey will be bringing you good luck.” I did not know what journey I was going on, but decided not to ask questions. Kalwyn held out the Deadeye. A string was threaded through the hole in the middle and tied in a knot at the back. She draped it over my head, tugging my hair out of the necklace.
“Won't you need this?” I asked, concerned.
“You will need it more, Acha. Now, go find that handsome woman of yours. Make sure she dinna get herself into any trouble!”
“Does it ever bother you, being the Pekah? ” Yerta and I were eating lunch together, since Larna was away from camp for two days. She and some of the others had taken a cart and gone to trade with a nearby village. The trip did explain where some of the items in the camp came from, like the salt used to store meat.
Yerta looked up at me, surprised. A flash of something – Distrust? Suspicion? – crossed his face. He hid it quickly. “There is always a Pekah . Without a last, there can be no first,” he said, choosing his words carefully.
“That is exactly what Larna told me,” I said, frowning a little. I missed her very much, and hoped she made it back tonight in time to fall asleep with me. Even though she still had not joined me in the bed, I enjoyed evenings with her.
“Sometimes it makes me upset, but it is not so bad. The pack likes me and needs me. I am making sure no one is too serious. It is like a job,” Yerta tried to explain.
“It still does not seem right.”
“My brother and I lived in a human village once,” Yerta said. His tone was guarded, but his words were revealing. “Outcasts are tormented there. Anyone who is different... I am part of a family here. I have a role.”
I smiled, feeling a little better. “I am only just learning what it means to be part of a family.” Larna had taught me so much in such a short time. She was becoming more than just a part of my life – she was my life.
“I am happy for you, little sister.” Yerta gave my leg a friendly pat. “I... am wanting to apologize. For my brother. He is self-centered and rude and intimidating, but he does not mean to frighten you. I am sorry that he was scaring you.”
“He does,” I admitted.
“I have told him to give you space. Tell me if he is making you uncomfortable again.”
“I will.” It seemed a better option than telling Larna. I knew that she would want to confront him. Hosta might take advantage of her anger. Maybe that was what he was after. What if he was trying to draw Larna into a fight? I did not know what his motivations were. I just wanted him to stay away from me.
Several days later, I woke to the smell of water. It had rained the night before. Even though I was inside the hut, dampness and earth were in my nose. I was still adjusting to my stronger senses. I opened the door and stepped out onto the wet grass. The scent of the storm hung somewhere over the treetops.It was overpowering. In their own huts, the rest of the pack did not stir. I felt strangely alone. It was a peaceful sort of isolation. I smiled to myself.
I squinted up at sky, trying to see through the leafy forest canopy. Gray patches of cloud blocked the morning sunlight that usually made dancing patterns on the forest floor. A lonely morning songbird called out twice, and then flew to another tree. When I turned to go back inside, I nearly ran into Larna. She was standing in the doorway. I took a breath to scream. She clamped a hand over my mouth faster than I had known a person could move, even a Wyr.
“Shhh...” she said, pulling me against her chest.
My heart beating at double speed, I relaxed against her body. I sighed into her neck. She smelled warm and clean and good. Her familiar scent reminded my body that it was not in danger. I looked up into her face, my cheek resting just above her small, high breasts. Close to her heart. “I frightened you,” she said, sounding disappointed.
I would have shaken my head, but did not want to move away from Larna. “It was nothing,” I lied.
“Why? Sometimes, when I touch you, or when you're startled...” Her forehead tightened, and her words trailed off. She did not want to finish the sentence. When I did not answer her, she added, “are you afraid of me?” Her voice did not break, but I could hear the tears in her throat.
“No,” I cried. I threw my arms around her, holding her as tight as I dared. It was a strange and wonderful surprise to feel tall, strong Larna melt in my embrace. “No, I promise. I could never be afraid of you...”
“Most people would be,” Larna said darkly. I wanted to kiss her cheeks and the corner of her mouth until she smiled and her heavy heart lifted. I held myself back.
“Not me. You would never hurt anyone unless you needed to.” Larna had already rescued me once. My brave defender. She was so different from Luciana, who hurt people because it brought her pleasure. It made me angry that she had such a hold on me, even in the forests of Amendyr.
Larna's dark eyes were so concerned that I had to tell her something. And I could never lie to her. I pulled away from her warmth and sat down in the doorway. Larna sat next to me. “There was someone...” I did not want to say her name. It was hard to even think it.
“She was the stepsister of my friend, Ellie.” Larna's eyes widened slightly with recognition. “She used to...”
“I can be after guessing,” Larna said. A shadow crossed her face. She frowned, her smooth cheeks tight and strained. “You don't have to-”
“I do have to...” This time, tears rose in my own eyes. Before I could swallow them back, they were rolling down my cheeks and chin. They left the line of hair that touched my face wet. “Larna... I'm not... innocent... If you don't want to be with me, I can leav-”
Larna had been stunned into silence when I started crying. This guilty admission shocked words back into her. “Of course I want to be with you! Oh, sweetling, here... Softly, Cathelin, softly...” She held me, rocking me in her strong arms like a child. I felt my heart tearing and stitching itself back together at the same time.
The tears passed quickly, a light storm. I was left trembling in her arms. She kissed the top of my head and murmured, “I never meant to make you cry, little bird...”
“The past made me cry,” I said. My voice was strained, close to cracking. “You make me happy and safe.”
And then she asked, “Cate... if I make you feel safe... tell me, did she hurt you?”
“Yes,” I blurted out before I could change my mind. Larna said nothing as she held me, only kissing my hair again and rocking me softly. Her loose white shirt was stained with wet patches. Neither of us cared. “I was fourteen... it lasted five years.”
“Five years?” I could not see her face, but I could tell from Larna's voice that she was shocked. “Five years...” she repeated.
“I am so ashamed. I wish I was a virgin for you,” I confessed in a low whisper. I was not sure that Larna heard me, even with her sharp ears. “You should have been the one...”
“But you are,” Larna said in a rush. She drew comforting circles over my thin back with her large hands. “You are a virgin, Cate.”
My face was hot with shame. My lips trembled. I could barely speak. “But she broke-”
“She forced you. Little bird, your virginity... your innocence... that's something that canna betaken against your wishes. Only given. Like your heart.”
I stared dumbly, still shaking. The truth of what she was saying slowly dawned on me. I started crying all over again, and buried my face back in the folds of Larna's damp shirt. “You – you think that I'm...”
“You are my moon and stars and sky. And if you choose to give that gift to me... I would be honored. But that is your choice. No one else can be making it for you.”
My Larna did not know it, but the choice had already been made. I was relieved that Larna did not hate me because of my past with Luciana. The idea that I could still be a virgin had never even occurred to me. It was too wonderful and frightening to consider all at once. I tucked it at the back of my heart to examine later, when I was alone. But deep inside of me, a small piece of my soul that I could hardly remember stirred to life again. Hoping... dreaming...
I woke with a strangled cry. My eyes darted about the small wooden cabin, searching for whatever movement or sound had disturbed my sleep. I sensed nothing unusual, and settled back down onto my blankets. However, my body refused to calm. My heartbeat was heavy and quick, as though I had been running in a short burst. My skin felt hot.
Then, I remembered the dream. Something stirred in my lower belly. Images and sounds flashed through my fevered brain, fresh and familiar at the same time. I was running, weaving through a cluster of pines with another wolf following my scent. The other wolf was still too far back to see me, but they could smell me and hear me.
I pushed myself faster. Roots and earth moved under the pads of my paws. I raced around a thick tree trunk, changing direction. The other wolf was closing the gap between us. I could hear a river ahead of me. I changed course, heading towards it, hoping that the water would hide my scent.
My strength was fading when I reached the bank of the river. Part of me wanted to stop running. But I knew that I could notstop, not yet. It was too soon. A lean silver body flashed through the trees. I leapt into the river, holding my nose above the water as I swam for the opposite bank. I heard a splash behind me asI hauled myself on to dry land. The other wolf was swimming after me.
The urge to stop running grew stronger, but I charged forwards into the trees, water flying from my fur. The other wolf had crossed the river. Within a few moments, it was on me, its teeth gripping my throat. The jaws did not close in a death bite. Instead, the wolf bent its head, forcing me to lower my body to the ground. Instinctively, I rolled onto my back, revealing my soft, vulnerable belly to the stranger...
A rippling heat consumed every inch of my skin. I howled, returning to my body. Returning to Cate. My lips parted in a silent scream. My body ached with emptiness and need. I stumbled to my feet. Something was wrong. Something was happening to me, and I had to find Larna. My muscles thrummed with energy, and I wanted to run again.
“Larna!” I called, not caring who heard me, “where are you?” There was no answer. I raised my chin, trying to pick up her scent. It was thicker than usual. Once I found it, I was off, out of our home and tracking her deep into the forest.
I found her with her back against a slender ash trunk, arching her spine and tossing her head back as she fought off half-shape. I did not understand. I thought half-shape only came out at the full moon, and that had been days ago. Her breath came in short gasps, and I felt my own breath quicken as I watched her, longing to hurry over to her and… and…
Another wave of heat crashed over me. I yelped, almost losing my balance. Larna looked up, seeing me for the first time. There was a mixed expression of fear and hunger on her face. “Don't run, Cate,” she ordered, her voice cracking. “Walk far away until it passes...” I did not move. Larna bared her fangs at me, her eyes clearly more wolfish than human. She growled low in her throat. “Fight it! I dinna want it to be happening like this...”
The desire to run swelled in me again, twice as powerful as before. My legs shook, and I turned to look at the trees. Run. All of my instincts were telling me to run. “Cate…” Larna started, but I was already off, shifting into my other body. I hurtled through the grove of pines from my dream.
Larna was close on my heels, panting seconds behind me. She was too close, closer than she had been in the dream – for I was sure that the wolf in my dream had been Larna. I summoned my strength, dodging away, trying to throw her off by circling a pine tree. It worked. I listened for the river, my paws drumming over the forest floor. At the bank, I launched myself into the water. My body crashed past the surface and I swam furiously for the other side.
Larna jumped in behind me as I scrambled onto the shore. I tried one last time to find cover in the trees. I was not fast enough. Larna's teeth closed around my neck, and she pressed me gently to the ground. I lifted my paws in the air, whimpering as Larna released my throat and nuzzled my exposed belly.
I changed back at the same instant that Larna did. Her nuzzle turned into a light butterfly kiss just above my navel. She looked up at me with familiar brown eyes, snaking up my body and brushing her breasts over mine. At last, she bent down to taste my lips. I sighed into her mouth, surrendering myself completely.
Instead of kissing me again, Larna jumped back as if she had been burned. She started clawing frantically at the tender skin of her own belly with nails that were too sharp to be human. She bit at her wrists until she drew blood. The red liquid spilled over her lips and rubbed itself across her cheeks. She whimpered as her body thrashed and contorted on the hard earth. I crawled over to her, horrified, but still desiring her.
“No, Larna, stop... love me instead… love me…” I tasted blood on her pretty mouth as I kissed her. I did not care. The taste quickly faded. My tongue traced the outline of her pointed teeth, but I did not kiss her too forcefully. Something deep and primal in me knew that I was not meant to be the aggressor in this dance.
“No,” Larna moaned, pulling her head away from mine. My heart and body ached when she scrambled away from the warmth of my body. “You need... better...”
“You are what I want,” I pleaded, not ashamed of begging. I needed her like sunlight and air. I wrapped my arms around the strong, chorded muscles of her torso. Locking my fingers behind her back, I pulled her tight against me, wanting to draw her in until she was a part of me. “I love you, I love you, I love you…” I told her over and over again in whispers, pressing kisses over her cheeks, her eyebrows, her forehead.
“I – canna…” she tried to say. I pulled her on top of me. The warmth I felt pressed against my thigh told me what she could not. Her lips covered every inch of me, sucking roughly at a vulnerable point on my throat, pressing light kisses to the soft undersides of my wrists, biting the tips of my breasts. She devoured me. I cried out into the open air, tossing my head back. I did not care what creature or person could hear.
“Larna.” Her name was the only word in my mind, the only word on my lips. Her trembling hands stroked my legs, her mouth tried to cover all of my skin at once. Everything was happening in a rush. But Larna was holding back. I could feel her shaking. “Larna. Take me...”
“No, no...” she whispered against my throat. She kissed a trail to my lips and tugged on the lower one with her teeth. The tips of her breasts, two hard, beaded points, were pressed against me.
“Take me now ,” I said again.
And at last, my noble lover gave up her fight and surrendered. “I'll be gentle,” she whispered along my cheek. And she did try to be careful as her fingers probed inside of me, her thumb resting against a swollen point of hardness. But she quickly forgot. There was a little pain, but not the kind of pain I knew. This was a long, steady ache. It stretched out like a ribbon and made me forget my name.
The thrusts of Larna's hips, which drove her hand inside of me, were unsteady at first. She squinted her eyes, the fine muscles of her face tightening, and concentrated. Gradually, the pumping motion grew smoother. The two of us moved as one, skin sliding together. My lover was a quick study. “Oh, Cate,” she gasped against my neck, nipping just beneath my ear. “You're so soft... warm... I've never felt... anything... so wonderful...”
Those words made me want to feel my lover, too. My fingers found her easily, and she sighed deep in her chest. The coating of wetness made her skin impossibly slick and smooth. My stomach twisted. She was right. I had never felt anything so wonderful. “Cate, inside,” she ordered, and I obeyed, surprised when her muscles trembled and pulsed around my fingers. I tried to move against her, but I was caught. After a few deep breaths, her grip relaxed. I could still feel Larna inside of me. Being inside of her at the same time was almost too much for my senses to handle.
With her hair brushing against my shoulders and cheek, she gave me quick, open-mouthed kisses with each thrust of her hand. She pushed herself against my fingers, sharing my pleasure. Her scent was in my hair, my skin, and all around us, driving me into a frenzy. Every touch, every sigh, every movement screamed of Larna. I could not forget who was loving me.
“Harder,” I heard myself gasp.
“I'll hurt you...” Larna mumbled, kissing a line of fire across myshoulder. Her left hand, which was not stroking between my legs, explored the strip of fur that still rested above my hips, where Mogra had sewn it in to my flesh. I could feel her touch on the wolfskin belt as though it was a part of me.
“Then hurt me.” But she could never really hurt me. Larna's Wyr blood made her stronger, but I was stronger, too, and I wanted all of her. And so Larna had me harder, our arms and legs tangled together. She had forgotten her promise to be gentle. Neither of us cared. My mate was finally claiming me as hers, and it was wonderful.
Larna was tireless, slabs of muscle rolling under her warm skin as she moved against me. My head was spinning; my blood was burning. Something terrifying and wonderful was happening to me, and I was afraid. “What... I don't – Oh, please...”
My lover stopped my words with a kiss. She whispered in my ear and along my neck. “Shh... My little bird. Let go for me.” Finally, our gazes locked, and I found paradise. My eyes rolled back. I lifted my head and howled. Waves of pleasure broke over me. My first release. I was never interested in achieving it on my own, and it was impossible with Luciana. Two seconds later, I felt Larna flutter wildly around my hand. She clutched my hips tight against hers.
Both of us collapsed in to each other, breathing shallowly. We were still pressed close, and I could feel her heartbeat thundering against my arm. Looking down our white bodies, illuminated by the moon, I saw a dark shadow on my leg. I forced myself to sit up and look at the skin of my thigh, checking for a bruise. Instead, I found blood. I rolled over and looked at Larna's wrists, but the cuts had already closed. Fighting exhaustion, Larna sat up, too, and watched me.
A sudden thought struck me, and I checked between my legs. No, Larna had not torn me, but I felt very tender. I hissed at the touch, even though it was my own. “Do you be hurting, Cate?” Larna asked, stroking the side of my face.
“No,” I said, “but–”
I had another thought, and this time, I glanced between Larna's legs. There was more blood. Not enough to be alarming. I realized what had happened. “Larna, why didn't you tell me?” I whispered, lying back down beside my lover.
Larna tucked her chin over my head and closed her eyes. “Wolves mate for life,” she said. She was blushing just a little, and I smiled. My lover was shy about her inexperience.
My throat hardened, and I fought off tears. My heart felt too big for my chest. “I didn't feel – I wasn't thinking... Did I hurt you?”
Larna gave an embarrassed laugh. “No, little bird. I was worried I would be hurting you.” I looked up into her brown eyes, and saw the moon shining in them. I fell in love with her all over again.
“I wanted you to hurt me. But just a little. Not really.”
“Not really,” Larna agreed. There was a nervous, hopeful expression on her sharp-planed face. Instead of a sleek, powerful hunter, she reminded me of a half-grown puppy, still unsteady on her long legs. “Did I... please you, Cate?” She made such an adorable picture that I had to take her in my arms and hold her tight.
“It was the most amazing thing I have ever felt,” I said truthfully. “Larna... you were beautiful. I'm so glad I was your first lover.” I could tell that Larna was embarrassed, but she squeezed me harder. My brave warrior was not used to being vulnerable, even around me.
“Me too. Cate,” she said, the words coming out in a rush, “stay with me. Be my mate. Please.”
I closed my eyes and rested my head against her arm. “Forever? You promise?”
“Forever. I promise.”
There was nothing I wanted more.
The next morning was almost as wonderful as the night before. I was alone when I opened my eyes, but I saw that Larna had left me a young deer for my breakfast. I was flattered that Larna had given her kill to me. For any animal, even Wyr, food meant survival. Placing someone else's survival above your own was the greatest token of affection in their world. It was much more than just breakfast in bed, or in our case, on the forest floor. I was glad that no one had disturbed us. The rest of the pack probably knew what had happened, and avoided this area on purpose.
I slipped effortlessly into wolf form to eat my breakfast. Once the meal began digesting, I could change back without getting sick, but human teeth were not good for tearing through fur and crunching bones. I ate quickly and crept towards the river on my paws. Larna's scent went in that general direction, and I could guess where she had gone.
I watched Larna without moving, content to observe her from behind the shadows of the trees. I stared, totally captured, as she stripped off her leggings and lifted her vest and undershirt over her head. I wondered when she had found the time to dress.
Guiltily, I let my eyes wander along the pale curve of Larna's naked torso and dip into the shadows under her ribs, stopping just above her small breasts. Fluidly, Larna lifted her head and looked into the trees. “You could probably be seeing better if you came closer,” she said.
Ashamed that I had been spotted so easily, I pushed aside the branches of a sapling with my nose and padded out onto the grass beside the river. She was in the water now, and her wet hair clung to her cheeks and the side of her neck. It had grown longer, but was still well above her shoulders. I changed back to match my lover and sat on the bank of the stream, waiting for her to acknowledge me.
When she turned to look over her bare shoulder again, the desire in her eyes made me forget to breathe. I trembled, and she stalked towards me. Before I knew it, I was running to meet her. I slid into her arms as if I had done it for a thousand lifetimes. A perfect fit.
She tucked her chin over my head and rocked me for a few moments. Our naked bellies pressed together, our heartbeats thudded against each other's skin. She was wet, but not cool. Larna always seemed unnaturally warm to me, and since I had become Wyr, I rarely noticed the cold. My forehead and cheeks felt hot, and I almost jerked back when Larna's hand began stroking my bottom. Her touch burned. “Do you trust me?”
Impulsively, I stood up on my toes and pressed my lips against Larna's. We both stayed perfectly still for a long second. I did not open my eyes until Larna broke the kiss. Our second kiss was longer, deeper. Larna wrapped an arm around my waist, pressing our hips together.
“Do you want to...?” Larna whispered into my lips.
Larna kissed my cheeks, my eyelids, my forehead. “Last night was too fast. This time, we will be learning together.”
Without thinking, my lips wandered over her wet skin, tasting a warm shoulder and bending my head to kiss the outline of a breast. Larna pulled us deeper into the river until the current tugged at our legs and we had to cling tighter to each other. Smooth river rocks slid beneath our feet.
I cupped water in my hands and poured it over Larna's broad back, watching it roll down her spine and return to its source. I saw her skin prickle. I pressed my face into Larna's neck and felt the throb of my dark-haired lover's heartbeat against my lips. Shyly, I pressed my mouth over Larna's pulse point and suckled on the pale skin there, smiling inwardly as I felt the muscles along her back tense under my hands.
Before Larna, I had never understood how much trust a kiss like that could hold. For a Wyr to offer their throat or belly, they needed to feel very safe. I was glad that I was the one who made Larna feel that way. When she turned, I gave her my own throat, and she latched on and tugged lightly with her teeth. Her large hands stroked circles over my stomach, and I let her and the water carry my weight.
Larna sighed contentedly, tiltingmy chin up for another kiss. She pulled away for air after what seemed like an eternity, flicking the tip of her tongue across my bottom lip. I giggled and trailed my hand down my new lover's side, marveling in the softness of her skin.
“Do you trust me?” she asked again. I realized that I had not answered her question the first time.
“Mmhmm, I want this, I promise.” I kissed my way along the pale curve of Larna's neck again, wanting to explore more of my lover. My line ended at Larna's soft earlobe, and I took it between my lips, kissing it gently. Larna smiled, shifting her weight and sliding her thigh between my legs. I closed my eyes and made a satisfied sound in the back of my throat. “Harder,” I whimpered, pressing myself down above Larna's knee.
“We are having time,” Larna reminded me.
I rested my cheek against the warm skin of Larna's shoulder, pulling myself against my lover's lean body.
“I love you,” Larna said, planting a soft kiss on my forehead.
“I love you, too.” My hips jerked as Larna's fingers climbed higher. My legs started to shake and I whimpered, trying to push myself against Larna's hand. Larna fluttered kisses over my cheeks and face, slowly stretching me with the tips of her fingers and brushing the pad of her thumb over the hard, swollen bud above.
“Relax,” she whispered, kissing along my shoulder. “Let me take care of you.”
“Open for me,” Larna said against my neck, urging my legs farther apart with her hands. I went limp in her arms and let her have what already belonged to her. She was very careful with me, because we were in the water, and I was still swollen-red from last night. With her fingers still inside of me and my legs wrapped tight around her waist, she carried me to a shallower spot.
“What are you doing, lover?” I nipped her arm at the end of the question, and pressed a long kiss on her cheekbone. Since her lips were so close, I had to taste them, too.
“The water canna be stealing all of your wetness away,” she explained in the middle of the kiss. When Larna began moving within me, I was grateful that we had found a shallower spot. Underwater, her quick, short strokes would have been dry and painful. Soon, I forgot all about water and the river, even though I was in the middle of it.
The steady thrusts between my legs became uneven as both of us flew higher. The sounds that Larna was making were driving me mad. Shallow panting, desperate whimpers, the occasional low growl. All of them sent a tingling rush of heat over my skin. It came from somewhere deep inside of me, near the base of my spine.
I angled my hips up, my hands opening and closing, occasionally clutching Larna's shoulders, sometimes tugging at her hair as she kissed me. The feeling of Larna inside me sent heavy jolts of pain and pleasure across my hips and along my stomach. It hurt wonderfully, and I wanted more.
"I'm close, lover,” I murmured, not really aware of what I was saying. "Please. Finish me.” The soft words, half of them lost in our breathing, made Larna take me even harder. I spasmed around her fingers with short, sharp pulses. My body arched violently into hers for several timeless seconds, and I was nearly carried away by the river. Larna clung to me, anchoring my weight as my muscles clenched with aftershocks.
I felt pleasantly sore and drained, and I barely felt Larna's fingertips still stroking me, calming me down. As my misfiring senses started to sort themselves out, my lover's gentle touches became painful. "Please... it hurts..." I groaned. Larna removed her hand and held it to her lips, sucking her wet fingers clean.
“I don't think I can stand on my own,” I said, my voice hoarse. “My insides came apart.”Larna's other arm was firmly anchored around my waist, and she held me until I found my balance.
“Larna?” I asked afterward, “what happened last night?” We were stretched on the green grass, snug in each other's arms. Everything around us was still and peaceful. Even the river moved more slowly, and the birds' voices were subdued.
My eyes were closed, with my face resting on Larna's shoulder, but I could sense her thoughtful expression. She was choosing her words carefully. “You came into your heat,” said Larna. “All Wyr are needing to mate. Your instincts told you to run. I had to be catching you to prove that I was strong enough to give you pups.”
“Will we have children?” I asked, a little frightened. Larna's big hand caressed my belly. I imagined a tiny Larna growing inside. The fear receded, and I felt warm and safe.
“Not yet, little bird. Two females canna have a litter without a bit of magic.” I was a little relieved. The idea of children – a litter? – was appealing, but I wanted Larna to myself for a little while longer.
“So, you want... with me...?” My cheeks turned pink, and I was unexpectedly pleased.
Larna kissed my hair, and I opened my eyes, wanting to see her face. “Yes. You are my mate. But most of all, I want what you want.”
“I want what you want, too...” I sighed and closed my eyes again, cuddling closer to Larna's warm side. She was the perfect shape to rest against, and her arms fit just right around my waist. “Will you go into heat, too?”
“Eventually. In a few months. I did not know yours would be happening this soon, or I would have been telling you earlier.” I felt Larna's frown, even though my eyes stayed shut. I was completely in-tune with her expressions, with every thought and emotion that flitted across her mind. “I am sorry, dear heart.”
“I was with you. I was not afraid,” I said in a tired whisper. The heat spreading from Larna's skin to mine was making me sleepy. I wanted to drift off beside her. But I had another question. “If a Wyr has no mate, what do they do when they go into heat?”
“They run. Some do mate with a lone wolf or temporary partner, but not many. They go off on their own, frustrated, waiting. It is unpleasant.” I realized that Larna was referring to her own experiences. “Some relieve the ache themselves. I was after trying that once or twice, but stopped. There was no point. I couldna... finish... It was you I needed so horribly.”
“You have me to take care of that now,” I said, stroking her thigh. The muscles flexed against my palm. I suddenly realized that I had not really taken care of Larna. She had given me release over and over again, but I hardly paid attention to her. That needed to change.
I kissed the pulse-point in Larna's throat, and then along her collarbone, smiling as she shifted beside me. Her skin felt warm. I took in a deep breath, enjoying her special scent. “Catie?” she asked, looking down at me with large brown eyes. “Catie?” she repeated as I stroked the tips of her breasts to hardness with my thumbs. “Are you...”
But there was no stopping me. I wanted Larna to feel all of the pleasure that she gave me. I found every mark on her body, kissing each freckle, stroking every small scar. I wanted to learn which spots made her skin tingle and her breath quicken. Soon she was breathing hard, and my head was at her hips, just above a neat triangle of dark curls.
“Please? Let me?” I pleaded. Larna let her legs fall open, her stomach rising and falling in short, sharp gasps. Feeling more confident than I expected, I gazed hungrily at the treasure before me. I let Larna weave her fingers through my hair and pull me closer.
My hand glided through warm silk. I found her, tugging the base of the small, sensitive shaft. She gasped, and hardened for me. I felt everything, the stiff little point between my fingers, the quivering muscles of her belly. My hand was covered in wetness past the wrist.
“My brave one,” I cooed, feeling her shaking breaths. “I love you, forever-mine. You're safe with me. Let go...”
I looked up into her eyes, seeing the strain in her face. She was beyond words, lost in pleasure. I toyed with her, rubbing the swollen bundle forward and back with two fingers. She was quaking all over. Her skin burned where it touched mine. My lover looked so overwhelmed that I wondered if she would cry or scream. Secretly, I hoped for both. I wanted my Larna to shake apart and dissolve. I wanted her to find paradise.
I started light flicks over the very tip of her as two fingers probed lower. A whimper came from between her closed lips, and her eyes rolled back. “Give me all of you,” I coaxed as her tender muscles swallowed my fingers, squeezing them in a warm glove.
As Larna shuddered above me, I scattered kisses across her thighs and outer lips. She blossomed open for me in a soft pink line. Her wetness made the skin impossibly soft and velvety. Part of me wanted to just stroke her and see what happened, but I found my face drawing closer and closer. Her hips jerked at the first swipe of my tongue, and she almost pulled away. I held still, waiting, until she settled back against my mouth.
I learned every inch of her with wet, open kisses and gentle bites. Larna's breathing was shallow and uneven. Her legs flexed, and her head tossed from left to right. I gripped her hips and pulled her down to me. She fit perfectly, swelling to match the shape of my round lips. My head swam, and my senses were flooded with Larna. Her warmth, her taste, her smell. And I wanted her.
I was so proud, so filled with love and joy, when my tender warrior arched her back and screamed my name. She was beautiful. Her voice broke, and the warm glove of muscle trembled and fluttered.
I kept stroking, even after she collapsed, jerking with aftershocks. I wanted to draw another peak out of her. I could not get enough of the slick, clinging heat. I kissed up her stomach, and her strong arms wrapped around my neck. Her gentle hands toyed with my hair. She seemed relaxed, but I knew that I could build her up again. “Catie,” she murmured, trying to push herself harder against my fingers.
“That's it, love. Come in my hand this time...”
I was too excited to hold her on the edge. One brush of my thumb over her straining pearl, and Larna was lost. I pressed a kiss to her handsome mouth, sharing her taste, as she released a second time. The kiss did not break until I had fondled the last sharp pulse out of her.
“Ah, how I love you,” Larna murmured weakly, pressing her damp cheek to mine. I kissed her again.
“Proud of yourself?”
I blushed, but smiled at her. Our faces were touching, so she could not see it, but I know she felt it. “Well, maybe a little.”
Returning to camp was awkward and embarrassing for both of us, because we had no clothes. It was only a few hundred yards to Larna's house from the edge of the trees, but it seemed like a thousand miles. Even though we walked the short distance in wolf form, I still felt naked as several members of the Pack watched us with grins and knowing looks on their faces.
“I hoped no one would notice we were gone,” I said when we changed back inside of Larna's cabin.
Larna kissed my hair, running a hand up and down my bare back. Reluctantly, she pulled away to find some clothes. “They would have smelled you coming in to your heat anyway,” she said.
I sniffed the air around me, trying to notice if my scent was different. Larna smiled and shook her head, watching me over one shoulder. She was bent at the waist, looking for a shirt. I enjoyed the view. “Your nose is used to your own smell, you wouldna be noticing it.”
“That must be why ladies at formal parties never notice when they have on too much perfume,” I muttered to myself.
“Perhaps,” Larna said. “I have never been to a formal party.”
“You are lucky, then.” Larna handed me one of her long shirts and a pair of my leggings to change into. I held the shirt to my nose and inhaled before putting it on. It smelled just like Larna, and made me feel safe and warm inside.
“Dinna be surprised if people are congratulating you,” Larna warned me before I
went back outside. “You are my mate now.”
I realized that, in the eyes of the Farseer Pack, Larna and I were in something like a marriage. That thought excited and frightened me at the same time. Mostly, I was happy. Maybe someday, I thought, Larna and I could have a ceremony, too. That way, Ellie could see my wedding. For now, I was just glad that I had Larna.
Thinking about Ellie, I remembered my journal. I wanted to write in it, but was not sure what to say. Could I put something so personal on paper, even if the person reading it was my best friend? I decided to save the letter for that evening.
“You are glowing, little sister,” said Aria when I stepped out of the door. “I thought I was seeing you creep back in here.” She pulled me in a warm hug. I blushed.
“I hoped no one saw,” I mumbled. There was a small crowd of five or six, and all of them offered congratulations. I was even more embarrassed. Part of me wanted to go back and hide in the cabin with Larna.
“Let her breathe,” said Aria, gripping my arm gently.
“We canna tease her?” Goran said, grinning.
“In my village,” said Yerta, “friends sang under the windows when a couple was joined. Should we sing under your window tonight, Cate?”
“No singing, at least not from you!”
Everyone laughed, and I felt a little better now that the teasing was shifting away from me. “My blessing on you, Cate,” said Aria, kissing my forehead. The next few minutes were a blur. There were hugs and handshakes and cheerful comments. Before I knew it, people were preparing a large meal. Larna came out of hiding to join me, and I felt much better holding on to her arm.
“This will turn in to a party,” she warned me, whispering in my ear, “I was worried about this.”
“A wedding banquet?” I teased. I was uncomfortable with all the attention, but everyone was trying to be nice to us. Maybe Larna and I would have a good time.
It started with a smell. One moment, everyone was laughing and eating and telling jokes. The next moment, with one body, everyone around the fire pit looked to the south. Beside me, Larna's muscles trembled. She set down her mug. Goosebumps spread over my skin. “What is it?” I asked.
The smell was heavy and coppery, like blood, thick with musk and fear. There was a twisted, humming energy in it, too. Magic.
“Shadowkin,” said Larna. “Maybe Kerak with them.”
My forehead puckered. “Shadowkin? Kerak?”
“They are demons, made from bad magic. The Queen uses them.”
“Canna be,” said Hosta, who was listening. “They are not real. Only a story.”
“They are real,” Larna insisted. “I have seen them.” The entire camp was listening now. “They came to my village... they slaughtered everything. The town burned while the people tried to stop them. It smelled just like this.”
Hosta tried to object, but Farseer silenced him with a look. “You are sure, Larna?”
Their eyes locked. “Yes.”
There was a six second pause. “Then we need to fight,” Farseer decided. “How do you kill a demon?”
Larna knew the answer. “Fire, lots of it. They are afraid of fire and light.”
Without being told, all of us stood up. The few youngsters and the very old bolted themselves inside their huts, stacking chairs and tables in front of the doors. The rest of us started bringing firewood. A few gathered kindling, leaves, and twigs from the ground. We piled them in the fire pit, building it into a small blaze, then an unsteady, stretching tower. Sparks leapt, licking the dry wood into a flaming frenzy. It was the biggest fire I had ever seen.
The shadows beneath the trees lengthened, and still we worked. “Are they coming?” I whispered to Larna from the corner of my mouth.
“The smell is heavy. They will be here.”
Her eyes were slits, and her jaw was a sharp, tense line. She looked wary. “Why didn't we run?” I asked.
Larna was shocked. Her forehead lifted in surprise. “Leave our territory? Never. We will defend it with our lives.”
For the first time, I realized that some of us might die. Even Larna. The thought left me cold. I was not afraid for myself. Larna would protect me. But who would protect her?
I clung to my lover, drawing her close and soaking in her warmth, her heartbeat, the rising and falling of her chest. All the things that meant she was alive. “Be careful, my warrior,” I murmured in her ear.
There was no time for Larna to answer. A noise came from our left. Something rotting and sickly-sweet moved into the camp. “Kerak!” someone shouted. The thing was brown and dried-up looking. Its body was vaguely human, but twisted and stretched like clay. Its arms and legs were too long, and its nails were curved hooks.
The thing stalked forward on all fours like a prowling cat. I realized that it had no eyes. I watched the thing for less than a second, but its image was seared behind my eyes. Larna was the first to react. She reached and grabbed a stick from the edge of the fire. As the Kerak lifted its head, she charged.
The demon raised its hooks to slash down and rend. Larna was faster. As soon as the fire touched its skin, it let out a high, keening cry. As if it had been a signal, the forest erupted with shapes. There were more Kerak, and big, blue-black shadows that looked like hulking dogs. They were the Shadowkin. Their mouths were filled with black teeth, and their muscles bulged under their tough hides.
There were Wyr among them, but not our kind. They smelled of magic and moved jerkily, like puppets on strings. Of course, that was all they were. Mogra was controlling them. With torches and skinning knives, the Farseer pack defended themselves. We changed into our half-shapes. Our forepaws could clutch crude weapons, with a little practice, but I preferred to use my claws instead of a torch or a dagger.
Soon, the ground ran wet with black blood. I did not know what I was doing. I was only reacting. When one of Mogra's pets rushed me from the left, I met it with my fangs and tore out its throat. With the great fire at my back, and the limp, twitching body in front of my paws, I felt sick with fear. There was blood in my mouth, but I could not taste it.
To my right were three or four others, trying to bring down a bulky Shadowkin. My body felt cold and heavy, but I clipped at the thing's leg when it stepped close enough. It kicked me several yards back.
As my head swam with lights, I saw a lean brown Kerak above me. I tried to curl into a ball to protect my belly, waiting for the hooks to rip me. Before it could touch me, its skin erupted with fire. It screamed and fell, thrashing on the ground.
Farseer was standing over me. His torch was in his left hand. The skinning knife in his right was covered with blood. He turned to use the torch on another demon. My eyes scanned the battlefield for Larna. It was dark and hard to see, but she was unmistakable.
Larna was wild with battlerage, tearing through everything she saw. Surrounded by enemies, she somehow held them all back, swinging her torch in one hand and slicing with her knife. When a Shadowkin tried to crush her in its jaws, she actually shoved her torch down its throat. Smoke poured from its drooling mouth, and it fell, almost crushing Goran, who was standing beside it.
Because I was not a skilled fighter, I joined many small groups, landing a few blows on the huge demon dogs that they struggled to bring down. I learned to dodge their legs and slit their bellies from underneath. Soon, my fur was covered with slippery, foul black meat. The smell burned my nose and eyes.
Although she was old, Aria was with the rest of us, looking unsteady on her feet and with a torn ear. I was surprised to see her. She should have been in one of the huts. I loped closer to her, hoping that I could help. She shook her tail at me, asking me to leave, but I glued myself to her side. I would feel guilty if anything happened to her.
We were only forty, but when I looked around the battlefield, there were more of us than them. Mogra's puppet-Wyr had been taken down quickly. They were not very good fighters. Most of the Kerak had been burned. A few baked corpses had actually fallen into the fire pit.
There were only a few lumbering Shadowkin left, fighting with slow, crushing blows. Farseer was fighting one, wearing his wolf skin. He dodged its teeth while Hosta tried to burn it with a torch. Suddenly, the monster lunged, swiping at Hosta with its massive paw. Farseer saw the hit coming, and tried to block it with his body. The hit connected, stunning him.
From across the camp, Larna saw and started running. But there was no way she could get to him in time. The Shadowkin picked Farseer up in its huge jaws and shook him like a doll, tossing him carelessly to the ground. He did not get up again.
With three enemies attacking him, and Larna on his back, the giant beast fell. I realized with an aching heart that it was the last one to die.
The bodies were counted. There were twenty-six of them, and six of ours. It had seemed like more while we were fighting. Bleeding from several places and breathing hard, Larna found me. I was all right except for a few bruises and cuts, which I was cleaning with a wet cloth.
“Here, use this, little bird.” Larna handed me a small pouch. I opened it, and fine white powder spilled into my palm. “Put it on the open wounds. It will be stinging-”
“Ouch!” I shouted as I shook some of the loose powder onto my torn arm. It bubbled and hissed like boiling water. The sting made my eyes water.
The pain faded quickly. I loosened my tight throat and unclenched my teeth. “Dinna use it all,” Larna cautioned. “I am needing some.”
Carefully, Larna and I dusted each other with the powder. I ran my hands over every inch of Larna's body, reassuring myself that she was safe and whole. I did not even care that we were naked this time.
“I am fine,” she insisted while I cleaned three claw marks on her thigh. She could not hide a sharp breath of pain when I used the powder. “Do you know if Farseer is all right?”
“How would I know? I have been here with you the whole time.” But I wondered, too. Both of us remembered his torn, limp body spilling from the jaws of the Shadowkin. Neither of us knew what to say.
After I was sure that my warrior was all right, we went to Farseer's hut. The rest of the pack was there, too. We waited, silently, through most of the night, pressing close together for warmth through the long, black hours.
Jana Farseer was dead. We did not need to be told. The expression on Aria's face spoke for him as she came out of Farseer's hut. It was bleak, resigned. “Go in,” she told us. The entire pack had taken turns waiting outside his hut, as if our presence would guard his soul from death.
Larna put her arm around me, and a group of twelve went in. We were the first two inside. With Jana's corpse, we numbered thirteen. He lay still on the bed, and it looked like he was only resting. But the smell of death was there. His tough brown face had not been damaged in the attack, and it looked the same as always, as if he might open his eyes and see us.
“Travel safe in the next world.” Yerta's voice shook as he broke the silence that blanketed us.
It seemed like I should bow my head. I did, lowering my eyes to my feet. Others around me were doing the same. In the stillness, Larna's hand found mine. We both clutched tightly, sharing our sadness and strength.
Aria opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. There was nothing to say. The pain was still too fresh, too new.
The warmth and gentle pressure of Larna's hand made a small part of my heart feel still and safe, even while my mind was spinning. Her lips were pressed, and her neck was tall and stiff. I noticed that she was watching Hosta. I had not noticed him in our group of twelve, but he had come into the hut with the rest of us.
“He will be missed,” said Hosta, who was on my left. But I Knew he did not mean it. I Knew, even though his face was sad and his eyes were dark.
“He is not gone,” Larna said. “He has not vanished completely.” In the light of day, faced with life's painful realities, it might have been a silly thing to say. In the dark hut, it did not seem silly at all.
“No, of course not,” Hosta corrected himself.
We all stood in silence for another minute.
I turned to my right. “Larna,” I whispered in her ear, unsure.
“Cate,” she whispered back.
“Come outside.” We walked out into the light. I wanted to tell her how I felt lost and found at the same time, frightened and safe. She was all of the good and right things in my life. We walked into the trees, hearing morning birds and smelling running water. Larna held my hand. The grass was cold under our feet.
“It is bad to be around Hosta,” I said suddenly. “He is dangerous.” My feelings about him had been preying on my mind, and I had to speak of them to someone. Larna looked at me doubtfully. “He is not respectful of Farseer's memory.”
“I canna think so,” said Larna. “Hosta respected Jana Farseer, to be sure. We all did. But I am not wanting you around him for other reasons.” The jealousy on Larna's face was easy to read.
“His brother seems all right,” I said, trying for peace.
“Yes, Yerta has been here as long as Hosta. Six years. I have only been here for two.”
“Two is a long time,” I said, putting my hand on Larna's arm. She leaned in to my touch. “I am glad you had that time with Farseer.” Tears brimmed in my lover's eyes, but she did not let them fall. Perhaps she needed time. “Larna, would you take me to see Kalwyn? We could stay for a few days... to get away from here...”
“I will go if you are wanting to, little bird,” Larna said, sounding puzzled. “Are you really that frightened of Hosta?”
I nodded. Larna noticed my frown, and balled her fists so tightly that the blood drained from her knuckles. The gray sky peeking through the treetops sucked the color from her face. “I will never be letting him touch you, little bird. Has he done anything to... hurt you?” she asked, her voice strained, wanting to break.
I shook my head. “Of course not, no... I just have a feeling...”
“I see how he watches you. It will be good to go away. I am not wanting you to be upset.”
I touched her cheek with my fingertips, almost feeling her black hair. “No one but you will have me, I promise.”
Larna's muscles smoothed, and she let a slow breath out through her nose. “We should be leaving quickly, this afternoon.”
A wonderful blanket of heat spread through me, driving out the chill of death. I knew that Larna loved me. “My warrior,” I sighed, taking Larna in my arms and smiling softly.
“Little bird,” she whispered into my hair. My anchor in this tossing ocean of a world.
We prepared to leave in under an hour. We brought little food, mostly fruit and bread, and some clean shirts and leggings. I wore my cape, and packed Ellie's journal, not wanting to sever that link. When we had everything we needed, we left quickly and quietly, while everyone was distracted.
“I hope you do not feel like I am forcing you to leave,” I said. Larna did not understand about Hosta, and I did not want to force her into a journey so soon after Farseer's death unless she truly wanted to go.
“Of course not.” Larna sounded almost offended. “I am fond of Kalwyn. And if you are not feeling safe around Hosta, I will be taking you away from him.”
“Larna,” I called, and she turned to face me, stopping. “You remind me of him,” I finished. She knew that I meant Farseer, not Hosta. Her face was unreadable for a moment, and then she looked strangely pleased. She did not answer, but her smile stayed for a long time afterward.
The smell of camp fell farther and farther behind. Larna was careful to watch my steps and listen to my breathing. She wanted to move faster, but her concern for me prevented her from driving us too hard. I was grateful. Long distance travel was easier for Larna than for me.
After three hours of walking over roots and rocks, a raven swooped in front of our path. I flinched. Larna snapped at it, but the dark feathered bird perched on a branch above our heads, staring down its black beak at us. It did not seem to be afraid.
“I am not liking that deathbird,” Larna mumbled. “Let's be going on.”
Less than six minutes later, we found what had interested the raven. We smelled it first. The bitter scent burned in our noses, and I squinted my eyes. Soon, it hung so heavy in the air that even a full human would have noticed.
“Larna, is that...?”
“Shadowkin have been here.”
The smell was almost as bad as it had been after the attack on our camp. Shadowkin smelled of blood and fear and raw meat. I gagged, twisting my face at the horrible sight that we came upon.
Six and ten humans had been massacred. That was my guess, at any rate. I could not count them, because they were in pieces. I almost stumbled over a foot as I picked my way through the body parts. Larna was ahead of me. Both of us were in shock.
The bloody head of a child, probably five or six, stared at me with dead eyes. That was too much, and I collapsed onto the leaves, slippery with blood, and vomited. Larna hurried over to me and held my hair at my nape. I dry-heaved for several seconds afterward, even when my stomach was empty. My muscles were trembling so badly that I almost lost my balance when I tried to stand up.
Larna helped support my weight until my balance returned. I saw tears, glistening beads that clung to her cheeks. “Refugees,” she whispered, staring at the child. “Refugees trying to get out.”
Both of us left that awful place as quickly as we could. When we were several minutes away, and the smell had faded, Larna said, “we have to be doing something, Cate. The Kerak and Shadowkin are slaughtering innocents now. They are not only one group, sent by the witch to kill the Farseer pack...”
“Could it be the same group that attacked our camp?” I asked hopefully. I did not want to imagine a second group of monsters in the forest.
Larna shook her head. “We killed most of that group.”
“Why would the witch make more Shadowkin? Could the Kerak with them mean that the Queen...”
“I do not know. I am hoping not. But we must tell the Rebellion. After we stop at Kalwyn's to make sure she is safe, we will be going to the Rengast. I am thinking that Hosta will take over as Alpha now that Farseer is...” there was pause. “Gone.” She could not say the word dead. “I will suggest our going to him when we get back. That will keep us away from him for even longer, and he will not be bothering you.”
Larna looked at me for a long moment. “And then, we fight.”
We made our way to Kalwyn's as fast as we could. After the attack on our camp, and the butchered refugees, we did not know what we would find. Outside, the house looked unchanged. I let a little of my breath spill out. Maybe the Shadowkin and the Kerak had missed Kalwyn's house.
Larna, braver than I was, opened the door. We knew that something was wrong as soon as we stepped inside. Kalwyn's house was always untidy, but it looked like a hurricane had torn through the front room. Larna and I shared twin gasps. Papers were scattered over the floor. A cracked wooden bowl had fallen from the table. Two of the chairs were overturned.
“What happened?” Larna asked, looking around at the mess. She bent down to straighten one of the tipped chairs.
“Kalwyn?” I called out, walking toward the kitchen. I peered up at the mask above the door. Its open mouth was twisted in surprise; its eyes were wide. I held my breath and stepped forward. Pots were tossed around the room. There were five deep gauges in the table. Claw marks. Next to them was a knife.
I reached to grasp the handle and lifted it. A thick black sludge dripped from the blade. It smelled of fear and death and tainted magic. Shadowkin blood. The corrupted magical energy in its scent made my throat burn and my stomach toss.
“Larna,” I called out. She came running into the room, panting lightly. Her eyes caught the knife.
“Shadowkin,” she said. “I smelled them, but I was thinking it was the stink from the clearing...”
“They were here,” I muttered, hurrying for the bedroom. “We need to find Kalwyn.” My blood was frozen with fear. I swallowed nervously. With Larna behind me, I stopped in front of the bedroom door. There was no noise from inside.
As the door creaked open, a figure moved in the darkness. It sat up in the four-posted bed. “Kalwyn!” I cried. I moved forward to wrap her in a hug, but Larna held my wrist from behind.
“Don't,” was her soft command. The figure in the bed did not say anything.
“Grandmother?” I whispered.
“Come closer,” croaked a feeble voice from the bed, “so I can see you.” Twin points of light flashed from the headboard, piercing the dim and dark. Were those her eyes?
I stepped forward, shaking my wrist free from Larna's grip. She followed me. “Grandmother?” I said again.
“Come closer,” murmured the voice, “so I can hear you.”
“Cate, stop, dinna-” Larna started, but I went forward, not listening.
For the first time, I saw Kalwyn's face. It was her, but it was not her. Her eyes were too bright. The angles of her face were too sharp. Her thin lips peeled back, showing pointed, gleaming teeth.
The mouth became a gaping hole of black. I was frozen. The jaw stretched wide, wider than I imagined a mouth could open. It took up half of her face.
“Her mouth,” I choked, stumbling back against Larna's chest.
“COME CLOSER, SO I CAN EAT YOU.” The booming voice shook the walls of the house.
There was a tearing sound as Larna shifted in to half shape, ripping her clothes. With scraps of fabric clinging to her fur, she charged. Her muscles bunched and she leaped, teeth flashing.
There was a thud and a high screech as Larna's fangs sank in to the creature's neck. The monster rolled out of the bed, flinging its arms and still screaming. It clawed and raked at muscle and fur. Larna's ragdoll body swung wildly in the air, flung from side to side as the creature writhed. But she did not let go.
Before I knew it, I was taking half-shape, too. I could not watch my lover fight this thing alone. The fabric of my torn leggings and shirt twisted around my paws, but I did not care. I clamped my teeth down on the thing's leg. It howled, swiping at me with five hooked claws. The point of the creature's shoulder snapped down, cracking against Larna's skull. She went limp. Her eyes closed and her muscles loosened, but her jaws were still locked around the monster's throat.
With the sharp, coppery taste of blood on my tongue, I felt my gut burn. I sliced at muscles, crushed bone. While Larna kept her death-grip on its neck, I rended the thing, snapping its legs with neat clips of my teeth and tearing the flesh from its bones with my claws. Its abdomen split, and I was drenched with dying, twisted pieces of the thing. It reeked of foul magic.
Finally, with a violent shudder and another high wail, the monster fell. The creature was a torn mess, and my fur was matted and stained red. I stepped back, but Larna did not join me. Her jaw was still clamped hard around the enemy's neck.
Heart still pounding, I pressed my nose to her flank, nudging gently. She did not respond. I did not want to change back to my human form. My human heart would not be able to handle the deed I had just done. My linked wolf-heart could barely comprehend it. Larna? I asked with my body, pressing against her, sniffing, whimpering.
She was breathing, but shakily. Her whole body trembled. Her heartbeat pounded strong and fast. Too fast. Larna?
Slowly, she opened her eyes. She realized that the creature was dead. It took her almost a minute to relax her jaw completely and let the disgusting thing's head fall back to the floor. Its neck was almost completely severed. The bright red stain around her mouth matched mine. She stumbled back, dazed. She had taken several blows to the head, and I curled up next to her as she carefully lowered herself to the floor. I had several open wounds on my shoulders and side. They bled freely. Larna did not seem to have as many tears in her hide, but her bright brown eyes were dull.
We lay curled up together, ignoring the strong smell of magic and blood and death and fear. The shared heat helped us to breathe more easily. My heartbeat was slow again. The sharp, slicing pain from my wounds had faded to a dull throb. The pain flared up again when I tried to move. Then, I felt what I had been waiting for. My flesh began tingling, and then itching. It felt like there were living things crawling under my skin. There was warmth, then blistering heat. My body was trying to heal itself.
I looked at Larna's body. Her smaller injuries were bursting with new, red skin. The dark blood was already beginning to dry in her fur. When she looked back at me, her eyes were brighter. Then, both of us started as something moving against the floorboards.
Larna staggered to her feet, putting her nose to the ground. Her ears were lifted, listening. Soon, we realized that the sound was coming from under the bed. Larna and I limped over and peered beneath the frame.
Kalwyn's body was shriveled and small, but she was still breathing as we dragged her out from her hiding place. “It bit me,” she said, her voice shaking. Her arm was torn, and there was more blood. Not knowing why, I began cleaning it with my tongue. It seemed like the right thing to do. I was amazed as the wound started to close like my own had. It began bleeding again, but the blood smelled wrong. Poisoned.
I Knew that Kalwyn was going to die, but the Knowledge did not come as a surprise. I could only rest my head on her belly and curl up beside her as Larna watched over us and howled like the stars had fallen. She was my teacher and friend. She still had so much to share with me, with the world...
“The soul be – going some... where... after dea-th,” she said haltingly. Her light was fading. But she had the strength to reach for Larna with one old hand. “Lar-na... eat...” Larna bent her head closer to hear her whisper. “Eat... my heart... willna be a –
They were her last words. She passed while I stayed pressed against her side. Her death was not a huge shock. I was still reeling from what she had said. Eat my heart?
Larna looked down at me with brimming eyes. There was so much pain and grief in them. My heart ached for her as she bent over Kalwyn's chest with her large, shaggy head. Carefully, cleanly, she sliced Kalwyn's stomach open with one forepaw. I was shocked when blood did not pour out. Then I remembered that she was dead, and her heart had stopped. Trying not to completely destroy Kalwyn's body, she used her teeth and claws to go under the yellow ribcage and find her heart. I looked away.
A few moments later, I heard a very human cry of pain. Larna was naked and sobbing, on her hands and knees, shaking violently. She gritted her teeth, smiling grotesquely to keep from vomiting. I changed too and rushed to hold her, my naked breasts pressing against her back. Both of us were still covered in blood. The horrible smell of the fight and the magic was everywhere. Our skin prickled with the chill of death.
“Why did you do that?” I rasped, my throat burning. Because I was human again, tears were streaming down my cheeks in a river.
Larna groaned and did not answer at first. She clutched her head in her hands, pulling at her hair. I stroked her back, trying to calm her down. “I had to, I had to,” she mumbled to herself, her fingernails tearing at her scalp. I tried to pull her hands into mine, but she jerked them away. “They would have burned it... burned the heart and used its ashes to create a Kerak.”
I remembered the slinking, bony brown creatures that moved like hunting cats. They had black eyes and yellow teeth and dagger claws. “You could have burned the heart.”
“Would have... found the ashes... magic.”
I knew that I needed to get Larna out of this room. I did not want to leave Kalwyn's body, but my lover was more important. She was trembling worse now. Her body was covered with cold sweat, even though she burned where I touched her. She was still covered in blood, but clear patches of her skin were turning a sickly yellow color.
“Hurry,” I said, helping Larna to her feet. She stumbled, and I had to support her weight. There was no way I could get her to the camp by myself. I needed help.
I clutched at the space above my neck, holding the Deadeye in my palm. I felt its warmth pulse through my skin. I lifted it up to my eye and peered through. “Please,” I whispered. The white energy swarmed around me like thousands of fireflies. If I could find a hunting party that had gone out today, maybe... My bones hummed with magic. “Please, where are they?”
They are to the north, near the river. The Knowing happened suddenly. With the strange magic buzzing in my head with white static, I put the Deadeye down. The warmth remained as I propped Larna's body up with my shoulder.
“Cate,” she said, her throat scratching.
“It's all right,” I soothed, helping her out of the door. “It's going to be all right.” I hoped that what I said was true.
By the grace of the Maker, or fate, we found them quickly. As soon as the five hunters came into view, Larna collapsed, shuddering violently, her muscles spasming. Her skin was yellow and covered with cold sweat. Somehow, she managed to keep from vomiting.
When they saw us, the hunting party ran forward to help Larna. “What happened?” asked Goran, who was among them. As I remembered, my heart and stomach twisted. The memories were terrible.
“There are more Shadowkin. We found a group of rebels massacred... we went to check on Kalwyn... there was a monster in her place. We killed it, and found Kalwyn under the bed. She was dying. She asked Larna to eat her heart...”
Goran stepped back, dropping Larna as if she had been burned. He stared at Larna's mouth, which was covered with blood. My lips were stained with it, too, but he did not seem to notice. “She ate – h-her heart...?” he stammered.
“She is cursed,” said Kera, her thin face paling.
“What do you mean?” I asked, bending down to stroke Larna's head. “Why did you drop her? You could have hurt her!”
“The Farseer pack never eats human flesh. It can make you go mad.”
“Larna isn't mad,” I insisted. “She is just very sick. Help her!”
The hunting party looked torn. I was afraid, but I had to be strong for Larna. “Now!” I yelled. Grasping for authority, any authority, they obeyed me. None of them wanted to touch Larna, but Goran and another short male picked her up, trying to support her head. She groaned, and her arms fell limp and dangled as they carried her.
“Be careful,” I urged, walking beside her, needing to be close.
Somehow, we managed to get back to camp without any more trouble. Larna was not any worse, but her skin was still yellow and cold, and her breathing was bad. The rest of the pack, with Hosta in front, came out to meet us as soon as they smelled us. Someone found a cot, and set Larna on it while everyone surrounded her.
“What happened?” Hosta asked.
“She ate human flesh!” Kera said, her eyes round and fearful.
Hosta did not step back like Goran, but his face was shocked. “What?” he breathed sharply.
“A monster was at Kalwyn's house,” I explained. “She was dying, and asked Larna to eat her heart...”
“She ate Kalwyn's heart?”
“Kalwyn asked her to.” I said, defending my lover.
A clear, calm voice cut through the confusion. “Dinna matter now, someone get some charcoal, willow bark, and St. Eugier's Star. And some Foxglove, her heart is beating too fast.” I was relieved to see Aria by my side. I clung to her, crying into her dress. She held me loosely, rubbing my back. No one else moved. “Well? Do it! Kera, you go.”
Hearing her name, the thin female ran off to get the charcoal. “No,” I said, “Kalwyn said that someone might burn...”
“The crazy old woman. Your mate has to get it out.”
“No.” Larna's voice was heavy and dry. Her eyelids fluttered. I tore away from Aria and knelt by her side. “No,” she said again.
I squeezed her hand tight. “Larna... please... let them make you better.”
“She should be thrown out,” said Hosta. I looked up with a start. My fear must have shown on my face, because he added, “a Wyr that tastes human flesh must be banished. It is the law.”
I squeezed Larna's right hand tighter. She gave a weak squeeze back. “I never heard of such a stupid law.”
“You canna throw her out when she is sick,” Aria said. “Show some sense, Hosta.”
Kera came back with everything Kalwyn had asked for. “The charcoal first,” Aria instructed. “We need to get it out of her stomach.” When I tried to open her mouth, Larna held her lips together and clenched her teeth.
“Won't,” she gritted out, squeezing her eyes shut as her body twitched with pain.
“Please, take it,” I begged her.
“No, dinna fight her, keep her calm. Just give her the Willow bark while I crush the Foxglove and St. Eugier's Star.” Larna allowed me to give her the powdered Willow bark with water. A few minutes later, Aria gave her the rest of the crushed leaves.
The minutes passed. Larna still trembled, and her yellow skin was hot and cold together. Her heart was beating slower now, but her color was worse. Her breathing was still labored. If only Kalwyn had taught me about healing... if only we had more time together...
I held the Deadeye in my hand and closed my eyes. The warmth seeped into my body again like water. I had to try something. I was a Shaman. I opened my eyes and looked through the Deadeye. There were the white sparks, and a figure I had not seen before. A familiar face flickered in and out of sight, fading into the bark of a tree. Kalwyn?
I looked back down at Larna's body. Under her ribs, where her stomach was supposed to be, I saw an ugly, rotting blackness. It was evil magic, Shadowkin magic. The blackness was leaking into her blood, spreading through her arms and legs, and the rest of her body. Coils of it squeezed her heart.
An idea came to me. If her blood was bad, I would give her mine. I had Wyr blood now, healing blood. I did not need Shaman magic to help Larna. I searched for the knife that Larna always carried at her hip. Aria watched, but did not say anything to stop me. I found the handle of the knife and tugged it from her belt. I held up my right palm and pressed the edge of the blade down until red-black blood burst out.
Larna stirred, smelling the fresh blood in her fever-sleep. Her eyes rolled beneath the lids. I put my hand against her lips and let the blood fall into her mouth. The cut was deep, and it ran fast. Soon, I started getting dizzy. Larna swallowed. Dried blood from the fight with the monster was flaking off of her cheeks, but my blood on her lips was wet and fresh.
Stars swam in front of my eyes. I blinked to clear my head, but that made my muscles shake with fatigue. I fell over, paralyzed. I could not even close my eyes. Somehow, I kept breathing as the darkness blanketed me.
Slowly, warmth returned to my muscles. They tingled as I tried to move them. I was on a cot, and there was a warm body beside me. Larna. She smelled healthier. We were not alone in the room. Dark figures moved beside us.
“We need to get them out,” I heard Hosta say. “Larna will be going mad soon, she needs to be taken far away so that she willna be a danger.”
“That law is old and stupid,” Aria argued from somewhere above me. “The law is kept so that no Wyr kills a human. But Larna dinna kill a human, she was trying to save Kalwyn. Larna fought well for the Farseers. Jana Farseer would keep her.”
“Jana Farseer is dead, old woman.” The venom in Hosta's words surprised me. Lying on the ground, I could not see his face. I could imagine it, though, twisted with rage. He was trying to give his first order as the new Alpha, and Aria was challenging him. My arms were getting stronger. I managed to turn my head so that I could see Larna. Her skin looked pinker, and her eyes were closed. Had I helped her?
“Larna will die if you throw her out,” came Aria's voice.
“Will you disobey me?” Hosta roared. I felt the group flinch. Beside me, Larna's breathing got faster. Her eyes stayed closed. There was no answer.
“Jana Farseer is dead. I am the Alpha. I am saying that she goes. The law says that any Wyr eating human flesh must be banished.”
“Let me heal them first,” Aria said, sounding defeated.
Hosta moved, standing over us. I could see him looking down, judging our fates. “Cate is allowed to stay,” he said. “She did not eat human flesh.”
Aria shook her head. “She will be going with Larna.”
Angrily, Hosta brought his fist down on the table. I felt it shake from the bed. He stomped heavily to the door and slammed it shut behind him. When he left, I felt some of the tiredness and worry dissolve in my chest.
I tried to lift my head, and Aria noticed that I was awake. “Here, little sister. Some water.” She held a cup to my lips. I drank deeply. The cold water tossed in my empty stomach. I breathed in through my nose to calm down. Then, I turned to Larna.
“She is doing well,” Aria said, noticing where I was looking. I stroked Larna's hair, pressing kisses to the side of her face. She stirred, but did not wake up. She did not feel too warm, or too cold. I was satisfied.
“We have to leave,” I said. It was not a question.
“Hosta is not listening to reason. I tried...”
“He will let you stay one more day. Rest. You will be needing all of your strength.”
When I opened my eyes the next morning, I had a visitor. Yerta was peering down at me with warm gray eyes. I gave him a weak smile, clutching at Larna's warm body next to me. She was still alive, still breathing. The ice around my heart began to thaw. My lover would not leave me so easily.
“I came to see you,” Yerta explained quickly. He looked nervous, but I did not know why. Maybe he was afraid that Larna would wake up and tear him apart in a mad rage. Maybe Hosta had forbidden him from visiting us, and he was worried about getting caught.
“Yerta...” I tried to speak, but my throat was dry. Yerta stood and went to get me a glass of water. While he did, I studied Larna's face, brushing the damp hair that clung to her cheeks. Her color was much better, and her breathing was slow and steady. I could feel her heartbeat thumping loud against my chest. My eyes stung. I almost lost her...
“Here,” said Yerta, offering me the cup. The water was cool and sweet as it slid down my throat. I felt much better.
“Thank you,” I said. My voice was clearer.
“I tried to talk to Hosta... he will not change his mind. He is Alpha now, and Larna is in no shape to challenge him. You must take her away, at least for a while.” Yerta looked guilty, as if he could have done something more to help.
I tried to reassure him. “None of this is your fault, my friend.”
“It is frustrating. Do you know where you will go?”
I could not go back to Baxstresse. That place was so far away, so completely alien to me now. My life was different. I was different. Too different to exist in that world anymore. Larna had no home to go to, either. We would be on our own.
“Larna wanted to join the Rebellion,” I said, thinking out loud. “She wanted to warn them about the Shadowkin and the Kerak in the forest. If they are with Mogra's puppet-wyr, maybe the witch has joined forces with the Queen. Someone has to be told.”
Yerta was shocked. “You are going to make Larna climb the Rengast, as sick as she is?”
“Well, not until she is better. We will find somewhere to rest...” I tried to sound confident, but secretly, I was not sure where we would find food and shelter. Usually, Larna took care of me. Now, I needed to take care of her.
“Will you come back?” I caught a note of panic and hopefulness in Yerta's question. “After that?”
“Maybe. The Farseer pack has been Larna's home for a long time. Maybe in a few months, we can come back... by then, it will be clear that she is not mad.”
Yerta sighed. “Hosta will still be here. Your problems will not disappear.”
“We will be fine.”
A scratching noise outside the door startled both of us. Yerta's head jerked sharply as he looked over his shoulder. The door opened, and Hosta came in. He did not shout or grow angry. He only stared at the three of us. The hatred in his eyes froze my blood. “Yerta. Come here.” It was clearly an order.
Reluctantly, the younger brother stood, holding his shoulders low. Even though he was in human form, I could picture Yerta with his tail tucked between his legs. I was not angry with him for leaving. Her was Pekah, and Hosta was his brother, and his Alpha.
Both of them left the room without speaking to me, but when the door to Larna's hut closed, the shouting started. “What were you thinking? You will never be visiting those two again!”
“Dinna think that because you are my brother, I will not punish you. I have been forgiving so far, but I know everything... One more mistake, and...” The voices grew fainter as Hosta and Yerta moved away from the door. I was left alone. Well, not alone, I corrected myself. Larna was still with me.
“Why does Hosta want to keep Yerta away from us?” I asked Larna, stroking her dark hair back from her face. I knew that face so well. Her nose, just a little crooked. Her warm smile. Her eyes were closed now, but I had memorized their color.
Of course, Larna did not answer. She stayed fast asleep, leaving me alone with my worries.
Larna opened her eyes later that day, and was able to take some food. Aria came in to check on us several times, puttering the house like a doting grandmother. She probably felt just as helpless as I did, I realized.
As a human, I would have questioned why none of my new friends challenged Hosta's decision. As a Wyr, I understood. It was extremely difficult to go against the decision of an Alpha, especially in a time of crisis. After the Shadowkin attack and Jana Farseer's death, now was definitely a time of crisis.
My own instincts screamed for a leader, any leader, to give me direction and comfort. If he had not banished my lover, I would have accepted Hosta as my Alpha, even though I did not like him. But my love for Larna was stronger. His attack was unforgivable.
“You have a worry line,” said a hoarse voice beside my ear. I flinched, startled. Larna's warm breath tickled my cheek. I sighed, leaning back against her chest.
“I wasn't expecting you to talk,” I explained when she frowned at me.
“I didna mean to be frightening you. I was only wanting to know what you were thinking about,” said Larna. She sounded hurt. I touched my lips to hers twice, softly.
“I startle easily. I was only thinking about Hosta. I don't understand why he hates you so much.”
Reassured, Larna smiled. “That is because you love me so much. You dinna understand hate.” That smile made my skin warm. Being with Larna made so many new feelings – love and wonder and desire – grow in me. They broke through my anger and grief and fear like sunlight through a cloud. When I was focused on my lover, and she was truly my lover now, in every sense of the word, none of the bad things could touch me.
“I wish we had more time, time for us.” I was surprised to feel wetness on my cheeks. It took me several moments to understand that I was crying. “It isn't fair. I only got one night with you... and then everything went wrong.”
Larna stroked my arm with the tips of her fingers. “Shh. Dinna cry, my little bird. You are my mate now. We will have more nights and days. Now is a bad time, but it will not last forever.”
The tears were slow and hot. Even though I was only crying softly, I could not stop. “Why do you have to be so reasonable?” I snapped. I was angry, but not at Larna.
My mate chose her answer carefully. “I am too tired to be upset,” Larna admitted. I was touched. I knew that it was difficult for my mate to admit any kind of weakness, even to me. Larna's healing body had sucked up all of her energy.
“You take such good care of me,” I whispered. “For a few days, just let me take care of you. Then you can go back to your job, all right?”
Larna smiled, closing her eyes. My tears were gone now, but my face was still wet. “All right. I will be holding you to that.”
We left the next morning, before first light. Larna and I did not say goodbye to anyone in camp. We knew that it would only be awkward and painful. Aria, Yerta, and the rest of our friends did not want to see us go, but they did not want to defy their Alpha. Larna and I held no grudge against them. We did not want them to feel guilty.
“So, where are we going?” Larna asked, keeping her voice cheerful. I was leading us toward the river so that we could fill our waterskins and decide which direction to go. She had healed well over the last twenty-four hours, and was almost at full strength. I was relieved that she was well enough to travel.
“You tell me. I don't know the way to the rebellion,” I said, shifting the weight of my traveling pack on my shoulder. There was one for each of us, packed with food, waterskins, some clothes, and my journal with Ellie. I wore Sarah's red cloak around my shoulders, glad for its protection against the cold. Even deep in the forest, with the trees to protect us from the worst of the wind's bite, the temperature was lowering as winter approached.
Larna did not look surprised. I tried to read her expression, but could only describe it as cautious. “Are you sure you want to be going there?” she asked, sounding doubtful. “It is a dangerous place unless you are a fighter.”
“I am a fighter,” I said, “or did you not see me attack Shadowkin, Keraks, and the demon that disguised itself as Kalwyn?”
Larna smiled, seeming proud of me. “You are not a fighter, little bird, you are a brave defender. You will protect your home, your family, and innocents, but you do not like fighting. I am a warrior. I look for fights to test myself.”
“I am not a fighter, but I can fight,” I protested, not willing to back down. “I know you want to go to the rebellion. We will find the leader and tell him about the Queen's monsters in the forest.”
My dark lover thought for a moment. “You will not leave me,” she said. It was not a question. “If I was telling you to go and stay with your friends in Seria, you would not listen.”
I could not help it. I reached up and stroked her cheek, brushing it with my knuckles. “Yes, I would stay with you.”
Larna's eyebrows lifted higher on her forehead. “What if I snuck away?”
“I would track you.”
She laughed, showing even teeth. Small lines formed around her eyes, which were much clearer now. I was so happy that my lover was better, even though we were banished from our pack. “To your left more,” said Larna, gently correcting me. “If you are squinting through the treetops, you can see the Rengast's peaks.” She pointed up.
Doubtfully, I followed her lifted hand. “It is so high,” I said, a little intimidated. “Are the rebels all the way at the top?”
“Jett Bahari's camp is near the top, but not in the snow. He is not wanting the Queen to find him.” We were silent for a while. I allowed Larna to lead the way, since she knew the Forest better than I did. I realized that we were going in the direction of Kalwyn's house, and hoped that we would not pass too close.
“No one talks very much about the Queen. They say her name – sometimes – but they never tell me who she is.”
“That is because they dinna know what is true and what is legend. Few have seen the Queen. We only know that she controls horrible beasts, and kills many. She lives in the castle of Kalmarin, along the white cliffs in the south. The capital is now a place of evil.”
Larna looked regretful, almost ashamed. To my surprise, I shared her feelings. Even though I had only returned to Amendyr recently, Kalmarin was a noble city. I grew up with stories of its white cliffs and ancient heroes. I hated the thought that an evil ruler sat in the royal palace and used the great lion shield and banner. It was an insult to our country, our history. “It hurts your stomach, too,” said Larna, reading me instantly. “It is wrong. So many innocents... that is why we fight.”
“Even the defenders like me need to fight now,” I said.
Larna looked at me with deep, worried brown eyes. The depth of them took my breath away for a moment, but we did not stop walking. “Learn to fight with magic. I think it will be suiting you better than tearing things with your claws.”
“I am sure you will take care of anything that comes too close to me,” I said, squeezing Larna's hand. She was startled at the touch, but quickly relaxed in to it, lacing her fingers with mine. The warmth made both of us smile a little.
I squinted my eyes, just making out the dark shapes of the village huts a few hundred yards away in the last of the daylight. “Something is wrong with the silhouette,” said Larna's voice beside me. She glanced ahead, worried. "It doesna look right. It's not the same as it was the last time I came this way."
"How can you tell from so far away?" I asked.
Larna frowned and kept staring ahead at the village. "I have been here before. There are not many villages this close to the forest. I have stayed here." Larna started walking again, faster than before. I hurried behind her, trying to keep up with the new pace.
The closer that we got to the village, the more concerned Larna's face became. I started to say something when I noticed a strong smell hanging in the air. I recognized it at once.
"It smells like... like..." The words stuck in my throat.
"Burning flesh," Larna finished for me. "We dinna want to go there." Larna stopped, turned to her left, and started walking away from the village. I stood still for a few seconds, and then followed.
"Larna, what happened?" I asked in a frightened whisper.
"The Queen burned it," she answered coldly. "What did you think happened?"
I grabbed Larna's shoulder and did not let go until she looked me straight in the eye. "Don't snap at me," I said. “Put your anger in its place.”
Larna's expression softened. She pulled me into a tight hug. I was surprised, and took a few seconds to gather myself. "What was that for?" I asked awkwardly once Larna let go.
"I am sorry," Larna said. "I keep forgetting that you havebeen in Seria. You have not heard much about the things happening in Amendyr.”
“I forgive you.”
“We will go deeper into the forest,” Larnadecided, changing the subject. “Away from the paths. Anyone that survived will be long gone by now. The village was probably burned three days ago. I dinna want my last memory of this place to be of burned corpses and ashes.”
“If it was burned three days ago, why is the smell still here?” I asked.
Larna sighed and looked back sadly at the village. It was smaller now. The hunched black shapes of its remains looked sad and broken, even from a distance. “The dead bodies are probably still burning,” she said. “The smell willna go away for a long time.”
We did not talk for several minutes.Both of us were wrapped up in our worries. The sun had set, and the forest was dark, but there was just enough light to travel by. Finally, Larna broke the silence. “Here, I am thinking I see a house.”
I looked where Larna was pointing. “I think it is,” I said hopefully.
“Should we go and see?”
I shrugged. “Why not? Maybe we can stay for the night.”We headed right, in the direction of the house. It was small, Inoticed when I took a closer look. It only had one floor, but it looked tidy from the outside. The walls were made out of dark, sturdy wood.
While I was studying the house, Larna walked up to the front door. She reached up into the left corner, feeling for something. After a moment, she nodded me forward.
“We are in luck,” she said. “It has the sign.”
“This house is a friend to the rebellion. There is a carving in the corner of the door.”
“Why can't the Queen tell which houses are part of the rebellion if there is a sign right on their door?”
“It's a tricky bit of magic,” Larna said. “Unless you are looking for it, you canna find it.”
I was interested. “Who came up with that idea?”
“Oh.” Larnagrinned. “His name is Doran. He is old and paranoid and thinks everyone is trying to steal his signs. He was reluctant to give it to the rest of us, but Jett Bahari, the leader of the rebellion, convinced him that we needed it.”
I started to ask another question, but I remembered where we were.“We should probably knock,” I said, slightly embarrassed. If anyone was watching us from inside, our behavior would seem strange.
Larna looked confused for a moment, and then she realized what I meant. “Oh! Of course. I will knock.” Larna lifted her hand and tapped on the door. A few seconds later, it opened part way. A middle aged woman peered out at us from behind the door.
“Who are you?” she asked, but her voice did not sound rude or demanding.
“Travelers,” Larna said. “I am Larna, and this is Cate. We are heading for the Rengast, and we were wondering if we could stay for the night.”
The woman relaxed and opened the door the rest of the way, standing to the side. Larna and I passed her. She was wearing a loose, simple dress, and it looked home-made. “Of course, come in. Where are you from?”
“Katar,” Larna said. I was surprised to hear the name of Larna's old village, but it made sense. We could not tell her that we had been living in the forest with a pack of Wyr. Most humans were afraid of them.
“My son Paetir is there doing some business for his father,” the woman told us cheerfully. “Actually, I am expecting him back tonight.” Larna's expression held.
“He will be in for a surprise on his way back, then,” Larna said. “We were passing a little villageon our way, and it was burned to the ground.”
“I saw the flames,” the woman said. She frowned and lowered her eyes to the floor. Hurrying past us, she closed the door. “I wanted to go and see if I could be of any use, but I dinna think there was anything I could do. I hope all of those poor souls find rest.”
“There was nothing to be done,” Larna said comfortingly. “Maybe some escaped. Thank you for letting us stay, by the way.”
I remembered my manners. “Yes, thanks,” I echoed. “I was hoping we would find somewhere to spend the night.”
The woman looked at me strangely, as if trying to remember something. “You are coming from a good distance away, yes?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Er, not exactly. I come from… well…”
“She spent a few years in Seria,” Larna interrupted.
“You dinna have a Serian accent, but no Amendyri one either. You speak like a classical book.” It was an interesting way to describe my speech, but accurate. I shrugged.
“I read in Amendyri to keep the language alive when I left.”
“Well, both of you must have had a long journey,” she woman said sympathetically. “My name is Kila.”
My ears picked up some scuffling around behind me. I turned to see what it was. Hiding near the edge of the room was a little blonde-haired boy. His shirt that was far too big for him. He ran up to Kila and latched on to her leg. She smiled down at him and patted his head. “Say hello, Kai,” she said, trying to detach him. The little boy would not budge. He shook his head and buried his face in her stomach.
“Arim dei,” I said softly, crouching down to the floor so that she was eye-level with the child. “My name is Cathelin.” Slowly, the boy pulled away from his mother's leg. He stared up at me with wide blue eyes. He waved his pudgy fingers shyly, and I waved back. When I stood back up, Kila was absolutely beaming.
“Come, let me get you something to eat,” she offered kindly. Larna and I accepted right away. Both of us were starving.
Kila spent most of dinner tellingus about the absent members of her family. Her husband and her oldest son went tojoin the rebellion. She had not been able to go because of Kai. Paetir, who was not quite old enough to fight, had stayed behind. She asked us questions about ourselves. Larna deflected them with vague answers. Kila was kind enough not to pry.
Kai did not pay attention to the conversation. He was too preoccupied with his dinner of milk, sweet bread, a few slices of fruit, and meat with a spicy sauce. Although it tasted good, there was no polite way to explain that we usually preferred ours raw.
I took a big bite of her bread, chewed, and gave Kila a big smile. The motherly woman was a good hostess. I wished that Larna and I could stay another day, but knew we could not. It would be wrong to stretch Kila's resources while her husband and oldest son were away.
“We will be leaving after breakfast tomorrow,” Larna said, reading my mind.
“You can stay as long as you like,” Kila offered.
“We dinna want to impose. We still have a long way to go.”
Before Kila could protest, the front door opened. A voice somewhere between a boy's and a man's called out, “Maman! I'm back!”
Kila smiled broadly. She stood up from the table to embrace a tall, gangly boy only a few years younger than us. They embraced for several long seconds. When Paetir pulled away, he noticed us. The boy offered Larna, then me, his hand to shake.
“I am Paetir,” he said, “but you probably already know that. Maman has been putting you to sleep with tales about me already, surely.”
“Your name did come up,” I admitted. “It is nice to meet you.”
“The same,” Larna said.
“I am glad you were here,” Paetir said. “I dinna like leaving Maman alone with Kai unless I have to. It's good for her to be having some company.”
“You dinna have to worry about me.”I could tell that Kila was pleased by her son's concern. “I would have been just fine on my own.”
“Actually, she was the one who took care of us,” Larna told Paetir.
“Of course she did. She probably fed you enough to last you the rest of the week.”
“And I will be giving you the leftovers from dinner to take with you when you leave tomorrow,” Kila insisted.
“So, where are you traveling from?” Paetir asked.
“Katar,” Larna told him.
Paetir's face darkened. “Ah… I was… I was just there…” he stuttered.
“Kila told us.” Larna raised her eyebrows. “Was everything well there?”
“It was burned to the ground when I got there,” he whispered. “All of it. The Prince's men have been moving...”
Larna stared at him blankly. Her face was tight, but otherwise unreadable. I wanted to wrap her in my arms. I held back, knowing that Larna would be angry.
“Larna,” I whispered, not knowing how to comfort her.
“I am fine,” she said thickly. “I… excuse me.” Without saying anything else, Larna turned around. She went into the spare bedroom that Kila had offered us for the night.
“I'm sorry,” Paetir mumbled apologetically.
“It was not your fault,” I told him. I shook my head and hurried after my lover.
Larna was stretched out on the bed, looking vulnerable. Her shirt was loose, and her hair was spread over her pillow. The color of her face was pale. Cautiously, I climbed in to bed next to her. My lover's body curled around mine, and both of us sighed.
“Will you talk to me?” I asked softly. Larna pressed her face in the crook of my neck. I rested my chin over her forehead.
With her head tucked against my shoulder, my strong lover surrendered her secrets. “I grew up on the coast, in a small village. But it was big enough to have a name. Katar. My father was the apothecary there. I remember, in the afternoon, the sun would strike the colored bottles... blue and green and amber-yellow-brown.”
“It sounds beautiful,” I whispered.
Larna smiled against my neck. “Only bits of glass. You are beautiful.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. “I had a younger brother, and a mother. I was closer to my father, though. Sometimes, I wondered if my Maman resented it. Maybe she was wanting more of his attention. Or mine.”
Larna tried to hide it, but I could hear the strain in her voice. She held me tighter. “Papan and I were going to join the rebellion. This was two years ago, before the Queen was really in control. The very beginning. Mogra caught us. My father, he did not live.” Her voice broke.
I could only kiss Larna's hair and wait for her to calm. Her tears ran hot against the naked skin of my shoulder. “Farseer found me. He was good to me, offered me a place. I went home instead, to tell my mother. When I was explaining, she threw me out... she said it was my fault my father was dead, and I was a monster.”
This time, I cried with Larna. Our tears mixed together and left our cheeks damp and slick. “Why did she hate me? She was my Maman. Why did she make me go?”
“I don't know, my warrior,” I said honestly. Larna's innocent question broke my heart. “But I love you. I will always love you.”
We held each other for a long time, even after our faces were dry. “I still am missing her,” Larna said softly. “I dinna want her to be dead, even after all that.”
“Of course you don't,” I cooed, cupping her chin in my hands and kissing her dry lips. “You have a big heart. I am sure she was just sad and frightened when she sent you away. I don't think anyone could really hate you, lover.”
“I canna find her now to ask. Paetir said that Katar was burned.”
I was not certain that Larna's mother had been killed. Maybe she left Katar. Maybe she was not there during the attack. She could have escaped, even if she was there. Someday, I will look for her, I thought, but tucked that idea away for the future. Larna was not ready to hear it yet. Now, my Tuathe needed me.
“I love you,” I told her, trying to heal all of her pain, all the old scars. “I will be here when you need me. I will never leave you.”
Finally, Larna fell asleep in my arms. Her breathing was smooth and deep. There were no dreams. I stayed awake, watching her, thinking about everything she had said.
To Be Continued in Part 3
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