Swift Magic by Nicolette Jinks

The Coles were planning something, and whatever it was, it was going to happen before the verdict was passed tomorrow at 3:15 pm. I should have realized that without Mordon sleeping alongside me, I would be unprotected.
Swift Magic
Swift Magic by Nicolette Jinks
The house creaked, the exact source of the noise impossible to track. Wind howled outside, causing rustling from cracks around the windows. I snuggled a teddy bear up to my chest, its button eyes cold under my fingers. Who was it a gift from? I told myself it was from Mordon, but that might not be right. I heard voices in the hallway. I licked my lips. It must be a random night-check, if they weren't knocking. “What's on the schedule today?” I tried to ask, but it came out all muffled and slurred together. The voices stopped. “Rrrrrrrrruuuuuuushhhhhh,” sounded the seashell, a constant reminder of why I'd never be able to poke around the wards myself. Perhaps the one advantage of so much sleeping and so little doing was that my house stayed clean. A light turned on in the hallway. I wondered if it was morning again, or if they'd gotten word and my wrongful death case had been resolved. The thought made me feel nauseous, and all I wanted to do was hide under the covers and wish that it would all just go away and I would never have to find out if my life was officially over. The chicken and nettle soup I'd requested for dinner now seemed like a poor choice. I should have eaten nothing, just settled for a hot shower with Lilly's assistance. One of the truth spells, Veridad, gave me cottonmouth. Drinking water only gave me a sore throat. Spell burns healed beneath layers of salve and wrappings which covered more of my skin than my lightweight nightgown. Lilly said they wouldn't scar, even so Mordon still winced in sympathy whenever he saw the bandages or the blistered skin beneath. A loud scraping of keys in the doorknob roused me. It must not be anyone from my coven. They knew we kept the inner doors unlocked. A wedge of bright white light sliced through the blackness of my room, sweeping across the floor and one wall before finding my bed. Seized in the spotlight's beam, my eyes burned with the intensity. I squeezed them shut and drew the covers up to my nose. I gathered all of my strength together and rolled onto my other side. I pried my eyes open. Would it be Council members this time, or was Mordon with them? I just wanted an ounce of normalcy again, to sit across from him with a cup of brew and the Thaumaturgical Tribune discarded to the side as we talked about nothing. “Get up.” The woman addressing me sounded accustomed to being obeyed. I squinted at her. Sleep interruption was forbidden, not on behalf of my well-being, but to prevent me from being able to take action. While I was still thinking this, the woman caught me by the wrist and hauled me to my feet. I stumbled forward, pain blazing through an unprepared ankle. As I took my first trembling steps in her wake, I dragged my blanket with me. Eyes tearing, I flicked my gaze to the floor as the woman led me down my hall towards the dining room. She tripped over the fold in the runner carpet. I didn't laugh. It was hard enough to stand on my own two feet. The woman snared my elbow, dragging me. Sluggish as I was, the air was growing thick and oppressively scented with honeysuckle. My magic trying to come to me, an unwieldy jumble of energy waiting to be told to do something, anything. It was as clumsy as when I'd first gotten it back. I doubted I could have shaped it into a spell even if I'd had my wits about me. My feet touched the cool floor of the dining room. Winded from the effort of essentially half-carrying me, the woman tossed me into the nearest chair. The mismatched shabby-chic décor which Lilly had largely picked out for me was an absurd contrast to what could only be an illegal interrogation or cold-blooded murder. When I had the thought, I didn't panic. The knowledge was oddly disconnected to the experience. Was it the seashell at work, or had all my recent experiences with the court desensitized me? As I remembered, my house was spotless. Very unusual. Also very pretty. It made me wonder where they'd put all my projects and if I would get all the pieces back in the end if this very pretty-cleanliness didn't end up as a crime scene. Behind me the sun room overflowed with plants which were miraculously thriving despite my care. Piles of books rested on end tables and on the shelves Barnes had secured to the walls while watching the contractors put up wards. Gas sconces hissed on the walls, turned up to what I now knew was mid-level, showing my mint-green fridge and stove. The woman kept staring at the appliances as if they might spontaneously explode. Which meant she wasn't used to electrical appliances, which meant she came from the upper-end of the sorcering community who believed that unless inventions were made by fellow sorcerers, and that it was not acceptable to own any of those inventions. It was probable that the man sitting across from me came from the same sort of people. I shivered, causing my chair to rattle against the table. Sleep still clung to me like the aftermath of a disease. I wrapped my legs in the blanket and realized that I clutched the teddy bear. Who it was in front of me, I couldn't tell. He and the woman both had disguise spells on them, so I couldn't look at their faces without glancing right on by. What I could gather was that he might have been a bit on the short side. They both wore dark clothes, either black or very dark blue, maybe uniforms. The woman was heavier and stronger than the man. I had the impression she was the brawn behind the operation and he was the brains. “So, you are the famous Feraline of the Swift Clan,” the man said. Hearing my name only made the hair stand up on my arms and my entire body start trembling. I was conscious of my nightgown. The way it wasn't opaque, so darker skin showed through. I positioned my teddy bear strategically across my chest. Scraggly hair hung in strands down my back. He folded his hands in front of himself and said, “I have been looking forward to meeting you for some time.” I focused on keeping my teeth pressed together. Being silent would force him to do the talking. He didn't speak for quite a while, choosing to just look at me instead. At last he said, “You're not what I expected.” I raised my eyes to his, but that obscuring spell got in the way, and my gaze came to rest on the table again. The table showed signs of life. It was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder that I wasn't stuck in some dreamworld where I picked up after myself. Used coffee mugs, tea cups, and even a beer bottle riddled its surface. Then there was the conch shell. Stupid thing. The only other item on the table was a small glass vase filled up with irises and sweet peas. Those I knew Mordon had brought me. Red and orange and various hues of blue. They scented the entire room. “You are to be tried for the wrongful death of Gregor Cole,” the man continued, his finger tapping on the back of his hand. “Do you know why it is that I am here?” “I do not know. Would you tell me?” What I'd learned in court could be summed up in two short words: plausible deniability. “You mean to tell me that you have no idea what has brought me to your home where I have to be subjected to this infernal noisemaker?” His jab at the seashell was the first sign I'd seen of his irritation. “No.” He straightened his back and tapped his finger against the table. “Then make a supposition. Why do you think it is that I have been sent here?” I tugged my blanket closer to my shoulders, hiding a reach for my necklace with the trinkets I still wore to bed out of habit. “The only reason I can think, after enduring the Merlyn Market Council's wrongful death trial, and being in anticipation of a resolution in my favor which would displease the Coles very much, is that you have been sent under their authority to do what the Council surely will not. By which, I mean you could only have been sent to kill me.” The man stopped tapping his fingers and the woman sucked in a quick breath. I'd surprised them. I kept from using my trinkets. “Then,” he said. “What reason would I have for this interview?” “Perhaps you intend to torture or torment me.” “Is that what you would expect of me?” “It is what I would expect of certain members of the Cole family.” “You do not hold their name in high esteem.” “Gregor Cole was a wendigo. A cannibal with insatiable hunger for flesh and power. I would be very surprised to find that the apple had fallen far from the tree.” “You hunted him.” I spoke calmly, just like I did before the court. “It was not I who did the hunting. As a predator, he should have been wiser about his prey.” The man resumed his finger taps. “If all this happened as you say, then why have you ignored the summons?” I frowned, hiding my surprise. He had to be taunting me, confusing me with conversation and redirections, a way to get me to contradict myself. “You do realize that anything I say here holds no sway in Merlyn's Court when it next convenes. Besides, arguments are concluded. I have nothing more to do other than wait.” “Feraline of the Swift Clan, has it ever occurred to you that there may be other parties who have taken an interest in your actions?” “Since the thing you call an infernal noisemaker has entered this house, not much has occurred to me. Even now,” I yawned, “even now it's putting me to sleep.” “Is that what it does?” The man paused, evaluating me. Having decided that I did look ready to fall asleep in the chair, the man raised his staff and brought it crashing down on the seashell. The silence following its destruction felt perversely incomplete and eerie. The man sat down again. “There. Does that improve the situation?” “As much as I want to hug you and call you a friend for life, the Council won't be happy.” “I do not take the sorcerer's council into consideration with regards to my actions. But now tell me, can you think of no others who would be interested in your guilt or innocence? Have you had no correspondence?” Now that my head was clearing, I was beginning to wonder. “If you want to see all my letters since moving here, they are in the top drawer at the end of the kitchen.” The woman immediately found them and began to shuffle through the envelopes. “The Council has been regulating my mail. It is possible that things have been sent to me which I did not receive.” “You still wonder if I was sent to assassinate you?” “It would be odd of you to ask after my mail if that were the case,” I admitted. “But I cannot think of who else you might represent. The drakes have expressed no desire to pursue a sorcerer's problem. The sorcering community itself I have addressed and am enduring their rules. I cannot think …” “Does the title Vanguard of the Battalion mean anything to you?” My brow furrowed. “I haven't heard reference to the Vanguard in years.” The woman glanced our way. “It's clear,” she said. Then she made her way to where I always did my structured spells on the floor of the sun room. She seemed to be starting on a portal, but how she intended to break out of this place, I had no idea. “Well,” the man said. “This would be why we never received confirmation.” “You're feys. From the Verdant Wildwoods.” I looked between them, very puzzled. “I didn't think they wanted to have anything to do with me.” “It was wise they sent us first, instead of the Hunters,” the woman said. “Though it was a courtesy in respect to your family, and not routine. I am glad we will not have to force you to return with us.” “I cannot leave with you now. If I go before the sorcerer's council has given their verdict, I will be a fugitive. Can my arrival before the feys be postponed until tomorrow afternoon?” The man balled his hand into a fist. “We have our orders. I am sorry. If the Wildwoods finds you innocent, you will be granted asylum there.” Leaving everything I had worked so hard to build here was not an option, but arguing with these two would be bad. So I shuffled over to their spells on my sun room floor, examining them, buying time. “You can't just portal out. The wards are the same as the ones on the dungeons.” The woman said, “We would not have come if we did not first have a way out.” Wordless, I stood behind her, reading what she put down on the bricks. Seeing that I wasn't fighting or running—not that I had anywhere to run to—the man joined her and worked in synch. There was a portal, but there was also an area attack spell, and a modification which would direct the full force of the attack in one direction. The portal contained the same directions and a slight delay. “You mean to pierce through the wards and follow after with the portal?” I asked. “It has worked before,” the man said. “If you would remain quiet, please. The details are important to be correct.” I nodded and watched as they became involved in their calculations and mathematics. When they spoke to one another, I slid my fingers down my necklace, found the invisibility ring, and I put it on. Trinkets had been my link to the sorcering world when I hadn't been able to use magic of my own, now they supplemented my limited strength and control. I stepped out of the blanket and stood in the corner of the room. Something made my hair stand on end, but it was just a feeling, a premonition. I'd never go so far as to call myself a Seer, but I had a pretty good knack for knowing when things weren't adding up right. While I was looking at the feys and trying to understand what was wrong, the door the watchmen used opened. People entered. They weren't the watchmen. Their uniforms weren't made of cloth, but of some pliant plate armor which reflected like dark hide yet shifted like metal. Five people wearing full black fatigues entered my home. They froze upon seeing the fey Vanguards, and the Vanguards froze upon seeing them. “Ah, Blackwings,” said the fey man. “Always a minute too late and over-encumbered with weapons. Tell me, what honor is there in slaying a sleeping girl?” The Blackwings had a reputation as being the hired thugs for the sorcerer's ruling class members, but I knew little else about them. They were perhaps like a privatized SWAT team. Ah, here were my assassins. “Lyall Limber,” said the first Blackwing, easing a wand out of his uniform. “This night has already improved when I can add your head to my trophies.” Lyall lost his disguise spell and he smiled. “I share your enthusiasm. Run along while you still can.” I decided to take that as my cue. I made for the french doors which would portal out into the commons lounge. “Give us the girl. We haven't come for her head,” a different Blackwing said. I hesitated, then decided to keep moving. The man stepped forward as if to start a fight, nearly bumping straight into me as I cut across his path. Heat skimmed through my veins. Trust me to get between two feuding forces. I relaxed fractionally when I was on the french door side of the room. The wind stirred the gauzy curtains. I tried to quiet my magic, but it wasn't happening. They'd notice it soon. I reached for the door, planning on wrenching it open and flinging myself through the opening. And I'd just hope against hope that my coven was still awake on the other side, that the room wouldn't be empty, that they'd be able to fend off the unexpected arrival of the Blackwings and maybe the Vanguard. Lyall had told me to run, right? “Halt!” A bolt of electricity singed through the air. It struck the door I was about to touch. I jumped, but instead of withdrawing, I pushed myself forward. The doors opened as there came the scuff of boots. I felt my feet lift from the floor as there was a grunt and other spells showered me. The glass panels cracked. Something hit my back, propelling me forward. Chaos exploded behind me. I knew they would fight each other, but they would prefer to lay hands on me first. The portal itched as it passed over my skin, as if it were an elastic barrier considering not letting me through. “Come on!” I didn't know if I said it or just thought it. Had someone modified the portal so it wouldn't let me through? The Blackwings had entered through the usual official entrance, they'd been let in by someone. Had cutting off my escape route also been part of the plan? “Lyall!” I didn't know why I called to him, I didn't even know how much time had lapsed, just that I didn't seem to be going forward and I couldn't turn my head to look back. If it was another prison spell, I wouldn't be at all surprised. There was a muttered word right behind me. I felt a groping hand snatch the thin fabric of my night gown. A bit of teal green collided with the portal. With a jolt of white-hot energy, I yanked myself out of my pursuer's grasp. The portal enfolded me, suffocating in its presence, utterly unlike anything I'd experienced before. Chapter Two I stepped through into my coven's commons lounge, breathing a sigh of relief. The urge to rush to the others and tell them everything hit me at once, but I wasn't sure if that was a great idea. If my coven went and got in the middle of a fight between the Vanguard and the Blackwings, I'd be hard-pressed to get any answers ahead of time. Still, how long could I ignore the idea that my house was a battle site? So long as no one followed me here, I was relatively safe. I shook my head and took a couple steps into the commons lounge. It was a living, dining, and cooking space which linked to everyone else's homes using portals like mine. I felt the rooms with my magic: no one in the couches or armchairs, everyone except Lilly Frey was around the table. She was in the kitchen. She was younger than I was, but better filled out, her hair dark auburn and ever gracefully put up. Seldom did she show true happiness, and I thought it was because she hadn't found it within herself yet. Today she didn't wear the gray judge's cowl, it was hanging up on its hook. Lilly had taken to using a pink willow teapot but used it with her sachets instead of the sencha I'd contributed to the cupboards along with a massive cache of food which was now whittling down to nothing without my presence to maintain it. I'd been so quiet no one had noticed me yet. And they were so calm, I had to assume that no one had come to check on my house yet this morning. It must be very early, then. Mordon Meadows said, “We need to tell her before these Hunters come. Before was understandable, but this is a serious matter.” My breathing halted. Alarm and the urge to demand an explanation hit me first, then fury. But I was too stunned to say anything. And Mordon looked so worn down. Oh he'd showered recently and his hair was puffed up, its red curls combed out into a disorder which made the darker and lighter stripes stand out even more than usual. But his hazel eyes didn't have the gleam that I was accustomed to. Across from him sat Leif Frey, a slender man with a head that never grew hair so his nearly-pointy ears stood out. Lilly's hair at least hid her ears. Nevertheless, the two were distinctly siblings. Leif was a bit older than me. We'd spent the days together while we were children. No matter how often I saw him, his crystalline blue eyes always startled me. Leif said, “It's not so simple as that. There are ways to handle delicate situations such as these.” “Put her brother on the case.” “Conflict of interest. My words, not his, but no less valid. They couldn't take him seriously.” Leazer had been a few years older than me, and we'd drifted apart as we'd gotten older. Still, he was the family member I talked to the most. Now that Leazar had been mentioned, I had to find my way to the bottom of this. Fury gave way to a sort of calculating vengefulness which I shouldn't let get the better of me, yet I couldn't stop myself. Still mindful of my thinly-clothed body, I snatched a coat off the hook and drew it tight. Then I popped my invisibility ring off. “Good morning, Coven,” I said, even fooling myself into sounding like there was nothing wrong. Mordon folded the Thaumaturgical Tribune when I entered the dining nook where Leif and Constable Barnes were huddled in a muted conversation. Biting the inside corner of my lip, I glanced at where Lilly was pouring herself tea, missing the cup as she tried to act normal. “Fera! Wow, you're up early. Like, you're never up … I thought you'd sleep in after yesterday. You should, you know, all those spells thrown on you at once disrupts the system, so what do you need? I've got something for a headache.” Her hands flew to the cabinet above her, reaching for some sort of potion. I had no doubt that whatever was in the glass vial she was digging for would put me to sleep instead of dousing my headache and the other various pains I'd recently acquired. Just the very thought of what it might taste like made my stomach roll and twist. Then there was a part of me that didn't believe what had just happened, that that was a delusion and this was reality. “You're spilling on the counter,” I said as I sat down on the edge of the bench, avoiding looking at the others. What I wanted to do was yell that I'd almost been kidnapped by two different parties, but I couldn't get the words out. Plus, there was a perverse part of me which took pleasure in the thought of leading them on like normal before dropping the “oh-by-the-way-I-had-two-home-invasions-just-now” bomb. What conversation there had been was now as dead as it would have been if I'd tossed it into the lava pit after Cole. Rubbing my temples, I asked, “Who leaked to the paper, and what's it say today?” Barnes shifted. Was he shorter than I was? If so he would be the shortest one amongst us, but that didn't make him small. He was built like a caboose and had the power of a freight train equipped with a handlebar mustache that he liked to twitch. He was Lilly's guardian, to keep the less-nobly-minded males from packing her off to wife in the middle of the night. Officially, Mordon was my guardian; we'd caused a bit of a stir by deciding to get together. Barnes answered, and it took me a couple of sentences to get past the accent and focus on his words. “…another case fer the ruling class to push for revoking the creature immunity clause. But others like ye too much ta let you hang, so it's a duel of words in the paper.” Not much new. There had been a great deal of commotion over the death of a prominent pure-blood human, no matter how generally disliked he had been, but that had tapered off gradually to old news. I thought about dropping the bomb now, but couldn't quite voice it. I used the mug that Lilly put in front of me as a finger warmer, and tried not to so much as inhale the fumes. “Leif, I thought the hearing went over as well as it could. There isn't something you're holding back from me?” Bright blue eyes lit on mine, and he ran a hand over the blonde stubble of his skull as he stared at me, calculating something in his head. “It did. And the Drake Colony sees no reason to hold any formal event, but…there's the fey. Your use of illusions lead to the death of a man, and they like their powers to be used with though of the consequences. To them, you killed Gregor, and that must be accounted for.” I'd helped the Hunters every now and again when I was younger. Many of the members knew me, but I hadn't been involved in their politics beyond being largely excluded from them. Mordon let out a grumbled mutter that only Barnes and I could recognize as a drake swear word. Leif continued, “The fey demand that their kin leave to see the assembly immediately upon receiving a summons … and if you're awake, you'll get it soon. Now will you go back to sleep?” I eyed Mordon's drink, wishing for my own cup or three of the thick, salty breakfast that was more akin to gravy than to coffee. “You need to teach me how to make drake's brew.” Lilly sighed and whisked the potion out from my hands, knowing better than to try to force me to drink it. Leif was too tired to object, same with Mordon. Barnes said, “The fey assembly isn't the sole challenge. Half of it is getting there. The Verdant Wildwoods aren't tame. They're the woods that you hear of in all those old stories. The ones that have trees with eyes and an occasional ent. The ones with wolves the height of a draft horse. The ones that will lead you astray with will-o-the-wisps. See, the feys don't believe in dealing out punishment. They believe the woods and the land will do it for them. They scatter their ashes over it, hold daily rituals to encourage the woods to have its own heart and laws. It is them and they are it. If you're guilty of your crimes, you won't arrive to the assembly. If you do arrive, I'm not certain what will occur, but it won't be easy on you.” My throat tightened. It was physically painful to play this oblivious, but they'd know something was wrong if I didn't act contrary. “If I choose to not obey the summons and convince the Hunters to leave me alone?” “Your innate fey abilities will fade away. Supposedly this will happen anyway if you do not visit your ancestral home to recharge.” Upon thinking about it, Mother always had gone on a yearly vacation, never telling me her destination. I'd always suspected where she'd gone, but it didn't feel better for me to confirm it. Tiredness swept my body. I was both unwilling to forfeit my heritage and concerned that the loss of half of my powers would leave me very vulnerable. Even in my dragon form, I was rather pathetic. Children just out of their single digits were much stronger than I was, in large part due to my late-in-life ability to shift, but nevertheless I needed every edge I had. I rolled my head back to stare at the ceiling. Perhaps this fey-forest-visitation was in part why I was feeling a fatigue which would not go away. I checked the stack of mail on the table. No summons was present. “How do you know I'm going to receive a summons soon?” Leif leaned back and ran his fingers over his scalp, closing his blue eyes. “The feys have been working on correcting their reputation as mean-spirited tricksters and villains.” “Come clean, Leif.” He darted blue eyes to Mordon and twitched a half-formed smile. Leif said, “I tried.” Then he reached into his pocket and brandished a letter, holding it out for me. Absently, I rubbed life into my fingers. Then tugged the letter out of his fingers. A stinging jolt, not very strong but enough to notice, twinged through my fingers and up my arms. The basking warmth of a camp fire washed over me, for an instant driving the weariness of days prior away. There was a faint whistle like a flute or a bird, and the sound of distant laughter. "Activation trap. She's committed now," Barnes said. "So now the sender know I have handled the letter?" Barnes nodded. I opened the letter and read, “'Feraline Swift, on the honor and prestige of your clan, past, present, and future, you are called to answer for your actions. Please enter the Verdant Wildwoods upon receiving this summons. You may take with you one other living being. Choose wisely. Failure to respond to this letter will result in exile and a place on the Hunter's List.'” My brow narrowed. “It is signed by thirteen members of the Wildwoods Council. I'm lucky I have a relationship with the Hunters, or they would be here by now. In force.” I thought of Lyall Limber and the woman. Good thing they'd come. If they hadn't, I'd have been easy prey for Blackwings. "Doesn't that mean they should have given you more leniency?" asked Lilly. "Thirteen names is leniency, usually they call it good at one or two," I said, rubbing my forehead. What else had my mother talked about with the feys? The scattered snatches of conversations I could recall weren't doing me any favors. Chief among my concerns were what happened next. A nagging voice trembled through the air, invisible lips mouthed on my ear, Go now. I paused at the feel of the paper and the raised surface of the ink. I smelled it. “Cottonwood fluff? And is that sap?” Barnes said, “Yes, that is cottonwood. The paper also has spider silk, nettle, and dandelion seeds. It is pressed with other seeds, too, which sprout after you bury the letter in your garden. What comes up depends on how well they like you.” I raised a brow at him. How did Barnes know all of this? Not that it mattered right now. I'd always thought that Mother had been a mother-earth-style hippie, the way she planted letters. When I looked up at Leif, I studied his face for signs of guilt as I said, “My uncles take names off the Hunter's List. It's not a first-time offense that gets someone listed there. How many other letters have there been?” Leif stared at me, straight-faced. “You needed to answer to the sorcering community first. It was one of their members who died. I wrote to the Wildwoods Council explaining the situation.” I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Leif?” “This is the third.” The third letter? It was a miracle they weren't pouring in through the windows! The two Vanguards had been a polite invitation compared to what I'd earned. I tapped the letter in my hand, trying to not be angry. The others watched me. At last, I said, “I have no time to lose, then.” “Fera, you aren't supposed to have that. I can't say that I gave it to you, and neither can Lilly, nor Barnes,” Leif said, implying that the Judicial Division had not approved of me receiving even this letter. “I could claim it,” Barnes grumbled. “And you'd be reassigned,” I said, my thoughts clear and calm even while my blood simmered and my gut twisted. “No, you three must deny all knowledge of this. It also means you can't come with me.” Not that they'd want to volunteer. Barnes had once ventured that he would rather walk a mile over hot coals without magic than spend ten minutes in the Wildwoods, and the rest were even less inclined. “I'll go with you,” said Mordon. His words surprised me, in large part because his other form was a fire drake, and that particular combination was heavily disliked by the feys. I eyed him, frowning. Was it wise to take him with me? Would I be better off arriving by myself? Mordon took my hand in his, rough callouses scraping over my knuckles. I closed my eyes and let out a breath. How could I tell him no? Mordon's voice held a smile in it when he said, “I haven't met your parents yet, after all.” Then he cocked his head to the side. “Fera?” “Hmm?” “Might I ask why you're wearing Barnes' constable coat?” I glanced down at the blue sleeves wrinkled up about my forearms so the cuffs wouldn't flap off the ends of my fingers. “Oh, it's because I didn't have time to get dressed between the Fey Vanguard rousing me and the Blackwing mercenaries attacking them while they started their plan to whisk me away to the Wildwoods.” There was absolute, perfect silence while they tried to decide if I was serious. Was my humor that dry? They seemed to think so. I said simply, “I thought it was best if we let the two of them duke it out. That way we'd just have to take care of the victors.” Barnes got to his feet and crossed the living room. He opened my french doors. There was the creak of the benches as the other coven members craned to watch. Without flinching, Barnes let out a terrible growl and flung the doors wide. We joined him. Beyond his shoulders, my house was trashed, no sign of the intruders. All I could think was my poor plants. My friends turned one by one to stare at me accusingly. I shrugged. “I hope Lyall is alright. Guess we'll see when we enter the Wildwoods.” Chapter Three Chalk scratched against rough bricks laid out in diagonals in my sunroom where the houseplants had been re-potted and had their broken limbs trimmed back. When I shuffled sideways, careful to not disrupt the circular pattern with my knees, I instead smudged symbols with my toes. Already my hands boasted a white coating, and the thighs of my jeans wore finger streaks. Not far away, my spell book and tutor, Skills of the Thaumaturge, lay open to a spread depicting an even ring with neat runes inside and two concentric circles within. Even with the best I could do, my circles tended to look more like eggs than rounds. Today, the circle bore a striking resemblance to a six-pointed star. Probably because, in an attempt to not be oblong, I had marked out three times the ends of a meter stick, thinking it would be a simple matter to join those marks in one smooth curve. Laughably mistaken in my basic art skills. I stared blankly at the floor. I rubbed my forehead. It was that stupid letter combined with this hang-over-thing. Magic hangovers. Who knew? Mordon sunk his thumbs into the knotted muscles of my shoulders, a thing which would have startled me if the fuzzy cloud of feeling blah wasn't thick around me. He rolled his knuckles over my shoulders, then moved my hair, loose for once, to the sides, and stroked my neck. It was the first time he had ever been so casual about touching, and it sent warm tendrils through my body. The brood ring on my finger tightened her tail in a gentle squeeze and began a tiny vibrating purr. We should kiss more. It was my fault we didn't. Of course, the court proceedings and all the stress of questioning hadn't set up a mood to invite such things, but still…I shivered. The man knew how to use his fingers. Before I could get mentally carried away on the topic, aforementioned fingers left my neck and seized hold of my chalk. His breath, smelling of spearmint and chamomile, warmed my ear. "Like this." Mordon rubbed at my lines until they were faded blurs, then re-drew the same circle, but fifteen times better. Watching him helped me to learn which strokes to put down first and how to calculate angles. Between the two of us, I drew portraits better, but he could sew thirty stitches a minute using just one hand. I brewed potions, he enchanted nicknacks. And he was convinced that one day, I would write the spells, not only use them. That day would be a long time coming. He moved quickly, nudging Skills around the circle as he went, comparing it to what he had on the floor. When he was back to me again, I was so lost in admiring the deft flicks of his hands and the bright gleam to his red-green hazel eyes that I blurted, "I love you." Embarrassment scorched my cheeks. What had made me choose this very moment to say that? A smile split through his concentration and he took my hand and squeezed it. "And I love you." Mordon finished the last symbol left-handed, holding my hand with his right. We pressed on with the procedure, taking our time to be sure of the right symbols and angles, finding appropriate power sources for it. Not many people went to the Wildwoods, and those who did had a permanent portal already. This was semi-permanent, or it would be when we got it going. Eventually, we stood in front of an open portal. In the air was the mingled scents of our spells, my own honeysuckle and his nutmeg and black pepper. It had been an hour that we struggled with it; most portals took half that time, but it depended on how often a particular point was being used. Ideal was moderate traffic activity, and few people felt the need to go into the Wildwoods, therefore we had to make a fresh path. Portals, I decided, were like roads. Best if used and maintained, but not to the point of being jammed. “Ready?” Mordon asked, frowning as he conjured a knife up out of a bag he had around his waist. He tucked the knife into his boot as he waited for me to reply. Never had I seen him so jumpy and fidgety before. I fingered the necklace with various trinkets that dangled about my chest, hoping that none of them would be morphed by fey magic and wondering if I should leave them or take them with me. I couldn't stand to be parted with them, so I kept them on. I took a deep breath, and let my magic flow into the portal. My connection was not as good as it could have been, but the portal desination felt calm enough, with lots of low foliage and then nothing until it reached the treetops quite the ways up. “It's safe,” I said, though I wasn't sure why I thought it would be anything else. Mordon raised an eyebrow at me. “I mean, there isn't anything waiting for us there but a bunch of plants,” I said again. He shrugged, as though he expected nothing else, then held out his arm. The others chose this instant to come say good-bye. Lilly was all forced smiles and too many hugs. She almost made me want to cry. Barnes gave me a handshake and the advice, “Don't trust your sight, feyling.” I smiled at him. “You don't think they can pull the wool over my eyes, do you?” He shook his head. “I don't.” My chest swelled with a little pride. Then Leif, who had hung back, gave me a one-armed hug. It reminded me of what my brother would do, and when I pulled back there were tears in my eyes. I looked at the three of them, wondering how long I would be gone for and if they would bear any resemblance to themselves when I did return. I refused to think that years would pass while I was in the Wildwoods. I wouldn't think it. Mordon guided me to the mouth of the portal, the swirling glassy surface which rippled when I stepped towards it. With one last breath, I pushed my hand through the portal and walked forward through it. It tickled over my skin, then was cool and wet as though water were running over my body. I nearly relaxed, thinking that this wasn't so bad, then it transformed into something more forceful, a little more painful. Then something slapped my thigh, and biting pain spread through my leg. Panic spread through me. I fell forward and tumbled every which way, side to side, head over heels, feeling stings and bites in a constant rotation about my body. I stretched my arms out, and discovered I was rolling down a hill; I grabbed for anything at all, but the roots and tender branches gave way beneath my weight. A scream reached my lips as I neared a ravine. “Fera!” the voice was distant, but I felt a jerk on my arms. “Fera!” The voice was closer this time, and I focused on it, the falling sensation abandoning me as though it were a dream I was waking up from. I gasped, my eyes springing open to see the leaves of a fern waving in front of me, too close to focus on it. “Feraline!” Mordon shook me, jarring my head against my shoulders. I winced, blinked, and stared at him. My shoulders were in his lap, my feet soaking in a creek bed, and all about us were ferns and moss that coated every inch of exposed ground. Focusing on Mordon, I took one shaking breath after another, noticing that my eyes had been watering. I pulled myself into a sitting position, wiped my eyes on my shirt. “What was that?” I asked. Had that been as bad or worse than when my compass trinket had failed? “A defense mechanism. Or a test. It's hard to be sure,” Mordon said, his hands not leaving my shoulders. I leaned against him, cradled my head, and let out a groan. “What now?” I asked. He rubbed my shoulder. “It doesn't get much better from here.” “How long did you spend in the Wildwoods last time?” “A day, a week, an hour. It's difficult to tell unless someone outside is timing you, but even so, there's a distortion in effect. I came in search of a boy who was lost in the edge of the woods, and I found him as a young man. He agreed to go with me back to his parents. Not certain what he did after that,” Mordon said, his fingers finding and working on a knot in my muscle. I gasped in pain, then wondered aloud, “What do we do now? Where do we go? I don't see any trails.” “The Wildwoods don't have roads.” Shaking my head, I said, “No, I mean there aren't any game trails. Is there nothing living on the ground here?” Mordon was too quiet in response. I looked over my shoulder at him, and he gave me a tight smile that ended up looking more like a grimace. “If that is what you see, it is more than I do.” “What do you mean?” My fingers brushed his face and he jerked, turning and squinting his eyes as though he were trying to see what had touched him. “It's me,” I said, and laid my hand on his arm firmly. He reached up and took hold, patting down my arm until he came to my shoulder, then to my neck. A finger brushed my lips as I spoke again, “What do you see?” “It's dark. Darker than night. I see well in low light, so this is disconcerting. But if you see things, know that it may not be as you think it is.” “I will mind that,” I said, feeling my trousers and shoes and finding that they were soaked through, so perhaps the creek I was in was real. “We can't stay here.” A slow nod from Mordon. He was unwilling to let me go, so I did not press him to release my shoulder. “We can't wander, either.” We were in a place with no orientation, just a nudging feeling I got that we needed to move. It could be paranoia from a spell. Nothing was certain here, and what Mordon had been trying to tell me before sank in: the rules that applied everywhere else did not apply here, and if anyone had a hunch about what the rules here were, it would be me. I swallowed hard, and stood, helping Mordon up. If there was one thing we could not rely on, it was our sight. Maybe mine was fine, maybe it wasn't. I put one foot into the muddy bank, and guided Mordon with me. “Pretty sure this is a stream. We'll follow it downhill, and hope it goes somewhere.” Mordon shrugged, and held on to my elbow. “Sounds like a better plan than trying to walk in a straight line.” Unwilling to fully trust my sight, I sent my magic in front of us, and while what I saw proved to be fairly accurate, there were times that an illusion covered up a pitfall or a large boulder. I was grateful that I could feel around with the wind and sense these things, but the longer we traveled, the shorter the distance became that I could sense in front of us, until ten feet grew to six, and from six to two. I made us sit down to rest. The drain on my body felt like it had been an all-day excursion, but Mordon thought it had been more like a few hours, and neither one of us could guess the distance we had traveled. After a quick experiment with my trinkets, I found that none of them worked. While disappointing, it was a relief that they had not been changed by my bringing them here. Chapter Four I sent my magic out into the woods: no one in the bushes or behind trees, everyone absent from the immediate area. I relaxed a fraction, let my head droop back, a sharpish rock poking at my skull until I sat upright. Perhaps I wasn't in immediate danger, but I was in the Wildwoods and the Vanguard would not waste time to seek me out. While I was still reeling, the ground angling beneath my feet as I stood, trying to think of what to do, I heard a faint voice whisper on the wind, “Feraline.” Goosebumps spread up my arms. I looked left and right, sent my magic in a slow swirl to encompass the nearby trees. Nothing. No one. I rubbed my arms and started for a deer trail, hoping to follow it to a spot with enough level ground that I could do a portal home. “Feraline, Swift Clan.” The leaves rustled in a light susurrus. My nails bit shallowly into the bark of the tree I'd grabbed to steady myself. “Daughter of the skies, child of my kin.” I'd heard talk of the ways the woods would play with its visitors, but I hadn't expected the experience to be so tactile, so real. Panicking was the very last thing I should do. Unease robbed me of any enjoyment of the woods in twilight, every rustle making me pause midstep, looking over my shoulder, wishing Mordon was here. Though I set a brisk walk, it was still hampered by the fatigue of the previous days and I was a little distracted by folding and unfolding the fingers on my right hand, willing them to heal and cooperate. I was able to curl and uncurl my fingers into a fist soon enough, and I had my story in line for the obvious questions which were going to be asked by my coven and others. That was when I paused to look around again, and I saw a good clearing not far off. I made for it. Leaves from last fall crunched underfoot, the woods lightened as the moon peeked out from behind curtains of clouds and shed silvery strands down through ashen trees. The illuminated trail made me hasty. A blur of motion caught my eye. Before I could jerk away, an arm bolted for me, grappling me against a body and covering my mouth. “Stay quiet and still and I'll let you go,” said the man who held me. Even with my heart thudding and flashes of hot and cold zipping through my veins, I could think enough to recognize Lyall's voice. He didn't seem to have a blade pressed against me and I didn't feel the threat of a spell pressing against my skin. There was a low key of concern in his voice, though, a warning of danger. Silent, I nodded. Lyall released me, his hands not far at first, then they left me completely when he was reassured that I wasn't going to scream or bolt. In the darkness, I saw that he had a swollen eye and at his temple was a trickle of slow-seeping blood. “I'm looking for my companion,” I said. He frowned, then said, “You'll find them. Not now, though. There are more important matters now.” A thought struck me. “Did the Blackwings come through with us?” I asked, speaking softly the way he had done. Lyall's eyes brightened and dimmed with the waving of a branch overshadowing and revealing his face, so it was hard to read his expression. He pointed to the clearing and said, “A few, yes. We have tended to the intruders as needed, but there was one who kept himself occupied while we were distracted.” Before us was a clearing, a meadow which smelled faintly of stagnant water and was dotted with blue larkspur and yellow toadflax. Not far from us there was a man in a black hood, bearing a knife. “Think he's fey?” I asked, but Lyall didn't reply. I thought I knew the reason. That reason was, it was impossible to tell. He might have been a hair tall, average frame, no distinct deformities in his hands or legs. In the right clothes he could blend into any crowd anywhere—the difference was in the way he felt. Like an intruder. But what was he doing here? Lyall advanced, glancing about the clearing. I followed. Off to the other side, I caught a glimpse of Lyall's female companion, but then she was gone. One day, I aspired to move like this pair, a flicker of sight then disappearance, like the bob of seaweed in a muddy lake. Here one instant, gone the next, only to appear again in another place. A crow cawed, startling me, his black wings shining as he flew through the air. He landed in the tree above the man and ruffled his feathers, staring down at the hooded figure below. A threat or a challenge? The crow's appearance warmed me from the inside, not a good sort of heat, the sort which turned into claws and wound themselves around intestines in sickened anticipation. The man dragged his knife across the bark of the tree then stepped back and looked up at the bird. I knew what was going to happen, and the bird knew it, too, but he was in the line of duty. Lyall pressed his finger to his lips, telling me that we were not to interfere. Not just yet. As the man lifted his hand there was a shout which seemed to come from a hundred voices from all sides. The crow cried out, he fell backwards, and the bushes rustled as he fell through them. Leaves shuffled with tiny convulsions. Then all was quiet. The man who had killed the bird reached for his knife again. I watched, wordless, as the man sized up the tree. As his knife scraped shallowly across the thick bark, I wondered what he was making. The symbol was a faint trace, standing out enough for me to see it, yet I did not recognize it. The man changed his grip, and when he dug into the tree next the bark fell away and exposed the pale wood beneath. With a hushed voice, I asked Lyall, “Do you know what he's doing?” Squinting, Lyall tried to make out the symbol. From his expression, the answer was no, he didn't know. Before he said anything, I realized that we weren't anonymous any longer—the hooded man had seen me. The expected chill did not fall over my skin, just a zing that stiffened my spine and made me stand upright. Lyall stayed crouched in his hiding place, and I was careful to not look at him and draw attention towards him. The wind stirred the grasses at the edge of the clearing, bringing up puffs of pollen which looked like glistening clouds whisking this way and that in the empty air between us. Gradually the man lowered his knife. A dreaded unease turned my stomach over. We said nothing to each other. Though I was new to the woods and a stranger myself, I was fey—and I knew now this person was not. Whatever he was doing, the Wildwoods didn't like it. He was a criminal and I was a voyeur, and this was that pause which would determine if I would become a fellow criminal or a victim. We both knew it. My heart started to race. “What are you doing?” The sound was from my own throat, but I didn't feel connected to the question. He held his knife as though he wasn't sure if he wanted to sheath it or turn it on me. In the end he just traced his thumb over the handle, contemplating my question. “Would you like to see?” To refuse would be to shatter this game we were playing, to break the pretense that he was innocent and I was a passer-by. We both knew the gilding would rub off soon, but to do so now would be to not allow a chance for the alchemy between us to change lead into gold. Slowly, I felt my feet lift and cross over ground, leaving waving heads of tall grasses to close behind my hips. Mud sucked at my feet as I went from one clump of sod to the next, until at long last I stood before him. His was a face often seen and soon forgotten, an indistinct mesh of features which would look perfectly normal everywhere. His hair was darkish, but that was all the moonlight allowed me to see. As he invited me nearer to his work, I wobbled. He reached for me. I grasped his arm and balanced, then our eyes met and we realized what we were doing. It made no sense. None of it made sense. But instead of questioning it, I stood tall and faced the tree the way a critic faces streaks of paint on a canvas. That the slices were surgically precise was not lost on me, but to admire the pattern would be to admire lashes drawn across skin. The meadow was perfectly still, no wind wove through branches, not a thing issued a single sound, yet I could scarcely draw a breath as though I were drowning within the quiescence. I closed the gap between me and the tree, let tentative fingers stroke down the rough bark and dip into the smooth crease where the cut had exposed her pale flesh. Behind me, he took in a breath and held it, waiting. My nail scraped a droplet of sticky sap. Who was she? I'd thought at first it was the tree, but that wasn't right. The tree was a thing connected to her. The more I tried to understand, the less I succeeded. Awareness of the man behind me, of his magic and of this spell, of the hearing and Gregor Cole's death, collided with this moment. All at once it all became a tangle of phrases and symbols crisscrossed and knotted so that to pick up one thing was to grab them all. I shut my eyes and pushed the mess out of my mind. I was posed in front of the tree, my fingers were numb and my right hand had seized into a painful fist. My feet were caked in mud and a stick scraped my ankle. Behind me a dangerous man was awaiting my response, waiting to see what I'd do when I realized he was unleashing another Unwritten into the world. Another spell so wrong it upset the very existence of being alive. The ground seemed to pass beneath me. My eyes locked on the knife in his hand, suddenly not so far from me. Old instincts kicked in, the ones from facing a beast with nothing to use against him. The man just looked at me and angled his head to the side. “Be gone from here,” I said. The man said nothing, just wiped the bark chips and tree sap off his cuff, and slid his knife back into the sheath. I wondered how I'd ever gotten into this spot. Life resting on the mood of a forest. The man standing before me, out to achieve his own mysterious ends. I froze in place as long as I could—then it all happened at once. Everything had stopped in the woods and animals were standing at the edge of their perches to see. There wasn't a sound. The man's cloak whipped in the breeze, thrashing loud in the silence, and a spell appeared in his hand. A death spell. Frantically I reached for my magic and found it all around. I organized it, just as the man took a step forward and extended a finger at me. I yanked my magic to the side, striking him across the side with all the force I could muster. He buckled under the force, his spell still in hand. A root tripped him. He landed on the sharp branch of a weather-worn log. The spell went awry. Something struck me a glancing blow, casting me against the trunk of the tree. The man cried out in pain, the branch impaling him like a stake, a burst of crimson splattering the white as bone log beneath him. The forest echoed his scream, a softer cry which tore into my very chest and made me stagger. I heard something move at the far end of the clearing. I squinted through tears, but the man did not even bother to look up. Hand against the tree, I narrowed my eyes against the unsteady shimmer of tears in the starlight. I bit my lip. The Unwritten couldn't have possibly been activated. His spell had missed and hit me, hadn't it? A drifting darkness rose up from the shadows, preceding a black shape that was forming from empty air, then the thing itself entered the clearing. At first it was impossible to know if it was tall and intimidating or not, until it paused beside a boulder. It was short, but too gaunt. Too dead. Inhuman. Then there were more of them, this time accompanied by distant, discordant sounds which couldn't decide if it wanted to fall together to form a rhythm or fall apart to a dissonant tumult. It seemed to come down from the trees and moon and stars themselves, to whirl in around on the faintly drifting fog, to rise up from the steaming mire of the meadow. One of them swung down from the tree, a shrunken head grinning. White-hot energy bolting through my body, I backfisted it before I even realized what I was doing. The woods erupted with these things, swarming forward. Spells rolled from my left hand, easy defensive things, just as easily knocked aside as I escaped the meadow and reached the trail. The Vanguards were retreating, outnumbered, spells cutting through the fog and breaking the monsters into inky blackness, but one was replaced by three almost instantly. The dark shapes cut me off from joining the feys. Remembering my illusion lessons, I duplicated the fog around me so it was so dense that the only way I could see was by feeling my way with magic. But my own movement must have triggered their senses because they were traveling with me. I wanted to stop, to feel the bruise on my chest, but I knew I couldn't. I reached for my magic. And I took every wisp of fog and transformed it, gave it a steady beat of flashing wings, then darting flight. My pursuers came nearer. At last, I released the fog in a flurry of white moths, giving the illusions razor-tipped wings and long stingers, intended to terrify rather than damage. It worked. I made it to Lyall, and we knew: my interference was done—we had to go. There was a scream, a very human scream. Female. Cut off too fast for any hope of rescuing her. “This way,” I said. Lyall didn't object. I snared him by the hand and raced through the woods without slowing when branches whipped us. They bent aside and scarcely touched us with their leaves. Then we were well out of the clearing and still running. “We are followed,” Lyall said. When we looked back, there was an animal of some sort bearing down on us. High up in the trees, something the vague shape of a monkey moved about the branches, coming closer. Then another and another, the moon back lighting them so I could not see any details. The closer the husks in the trees got to me, the more convinced I was that there was something very, very wrong with them. It started with the empty pits of their eye sockets and ended with the tufts of hair they left behind in the branches. “What are they?” “Husks,” Lyall said and there was no time for any more explanation than that. As the husks darted forwards, I felt a whisper on the wind. It was the same tone that I'd listened to my whole life. A faint nagging breathed words into my ear. I grabbed Lyall and forced him to hold still, drawing up every last dredge of energy that I had. Disguising us to look like the surrounding foliage, I remembered the way that Lyall's late partner had looked as she flitted through the woods like a shadow chasing tree leaves. I made an illusion just like that some thirty or so feet away. The husks screamed shrilly and clenched their roosts. I made it happen again, even farther. And again. When I opened my eyes again, they were just gone, as though the wind had caught them and blown them away. Lyall was several feet from where I stood when he turned to face me. “I'm going hunting,” he said. Then he, too, was gone. With the spell over, I clenched my fists tight, drained. The forest had known that it would happen. It was alive, sentient. I felt it there at the edge of my mind now, just a presence. Something waiting and watching. But what was it waiting for? It wouldn't say. As I let my mind go, I knew that I was signing my fate over to the whim of the Verdant Wildwoods. “Fera!” the voice was distant, but I felt a jerk on my arms. “Fera!” The voice was closer this time, and I focused on it, the falling sensation abandoning me as though it were a dream I was waking up from. I gasped, my eyes springing open to see the leaves of a fern waving in front of me, too close to focus on it. “Feraline!” Mordon shook me, jarring my head against my shoulders. I winced, blinked, and stared at him. My shoulders were in his lap, my feet soaking in a creek bed, and all about us were ferns and moss that coated every inch of exposed ground. Focusing on Mordon, I took one shaking breath after another, noticing that my eyes had been watering. I pulled myself into a sitting position, wiped my eyes on my shirt. “What was that?” I asked. Had that been as bad or worse than when my compass trinket had failed? “A defense mechanism. Or a test. It's hard to be sure,” Mordon said, his hands not leaving my shoulders. I leaned against him, cradled my head, and let out a groan. “What now?” I asked. He rubbed my shoulder. “It doesn't get much better from here.” “How long did you spend in the Wildwoods last time?” “A day, a week, an hour. It's difficult to tell unless someone outside is timing you, but even so, there's a distortion in effect. I came in search of a boy who was lost in the edge of the woods, and I found him as a young man. He agreed to go with me back to his parents. Not certain what he did after that,” Mordon said, his fingers finding and working on a knot in my muscle. I gasped in pain, then wondered aloud, “What do we do now? Where do we go? I don't see any trails.” “The Wildwoods don't have roads.” Shaking my head, I said, “No, I mean there aren't any game trails. Is there nothing living on the ground here?” Mordon was too quiet in response. I looked over my shoulder at him, and he gave me a tight smile that ended up looking more like a grimace. “If that is what you see, it is more than I do.” “What do you mean?” My fingers brushed his face and he jerked, turning and squinting his eyes as though he were trying to see what had touched him. “It's me,” I said, and laid my hand on his arm firmly. He reached up and took hold, patting down my arm until he came to my shoulder, then to my neck. A finger brushed my lips as I spoke again, “What do you see?” “It's dark. Darker than night. I see well in low light, so this is disconcerting. But if you see things, know that it may not be as you think it is.” “I will mind that,” I said, feeling my trousers and shoes and finding that they were soaked through, so perhaps the creek I was in was real. “We can't stay here.” A slow nod from Mordon. He was unwilling to let me go, so I did not press him to release my shoulder. “We can't wander, either.” We were in a place with no orientation, just a nudging feeling I got that we needed to move. It could be paranoia from a spell. Nothing was certain here, and what Mordon had been trying to tell me before sank in: the rules that applied everywhere else did not apply here, and if anyone had a hunch about what the rules here were, it would be me. I swallowed hard, and stood, helping Mordon up. If there was one thing we could not rely on, it was our sight. Maybe mine was fine, maybe it wasn't. I put one foot into the muddy bank, and guided Mordon with me. “Pretty sure this is a stream. We'll follow it downhill, and hope it goes somewhere.” Mordon shrugged, and held on to my elbow. “Sounds like a better plan than trying to walk in a straight line.” Unwilling to fully trust my sight, I sent my magic in front of us, and while what I saw proved to be fairly accurate, there were times that an illusion covered up a pitfall or a large boulder. After a quick experiment with my trinkets, I found that none of them worked. While disappointing, it was a relief that they had not been changed by my bringing them here. Chapter Six By the time we stopped again, the sky had darkened and crickets chirped in the foliage nearby our makeshift camp. Like Barnes said, it did seem that the trees had eyes and were watching us, but I never saw any literal sign of this being the case. Still, I shivered. Mordon had a fire crackling at his fingertips, but wet wood made it a smoke signal rather than a source of heat. The feel of eyes on my back persisted, and I had no doubt Lyall would find us when he was ready. The husks hadn't bothered us today, but I sensed their presence. Not nearby, but not far away, either. While we huddled close to the fire for relief from biting insects, namely mosquitoes and smaller bugs, I wondered what I could do for the husks. What would release them. What caused them. And if I was intended to do something for them. All day Mordon and I scarcely let go of one another for fear of being parted by way of the Wildwoods, though if it wanted us to separate it would find a way to do it. That wasn't a comforting thought, nor was it comfortable to have such an empty stomach. We had stopped at a berry bush at about midday, but that had not been nearly enough to satisfy me for long. Mordon lasted better, and was less cranky. Mordon's body was suffocatingly hot, but I didn't want to put a gap between us. “Rough day,” Mordon said. “Yeah.” His body pressed against mine a little firmer. “Can you sleep?” “Not a chance.” Mordon's rough fingers moved a strand of hair off my neck, then he kissed me below the lobe of my ear. Nerves tingling, I let out a slow breath. This explains the questions. I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to the new topic. He kissed me again, and I closed my eyes. It felt a little like electric shocks searing my skin with every press of his lips. It was very … intense. Excitement stirred through my stomach, I tried to decide if I liked the sensation or not. How far did he intend to go tonight? I couldn't imagine he had energy for anything besides a good-night kiss. His lips were chapped. I could feel the warmth of his mouth and the abrasion of stubble which I couldn't see. My heart couldn't pick a pace, one beat stopped, the next in rapid-fire succession of several beats. It was all so much, the heat of his body, the pressure of an arm around my side, the musky scent of him, all overpowering and overwhelming, too much. Not enough. I wanted his hands to be all over me, skin against skin, to be overwhelmed by his heat and pressure and scent and body. The thought made me dizzy and made my chest feel constricted, but a part of me also recoiled from it. Saying, Hold on, just a minute here, think about this. But I wanted the voice to shut up, we were just kissing. He nuzzled my jaw, then rubbed his stubble across the tender skin of my throat; and I groaned and tipped my head against his shoulder, giving him permission to continue. Teeth nipped my flesh. Don't be easy, the little voice hissed. We're engaged, I wanted to argue back at the voice. For now. His mouth was on mine, and I kissed him back. The woods drifted out of my attention and all that mattered was this, the way the line dividing him from me blurred until we formed a single entity. Then I was gasping for air I couldn't get enough of and he was tracing a slow path down my throat. His hand slid about my waist, a thumb touching my bare belly, and I felt warmth spread down my spine. My mind dimmed, shutting out any thoughts of right or wrong. “You smell wonderful like this,” he said. His words across my flesh sent thrills down my back. I arched into him. My lips felt clumsy and my voice hardly worked when I asked,“Like what?” Mordon took a deep inhalation which made my cheeks glow. “Tree sap, earth, open air, sweat, life.” He nibbled on my jawbone. “Arousal.” He could smell that? The comment made me keenly aware of our position, how we weren't just kissing. What was I doing? I flushed scarlet and hid my face in my arms. Mordon's chuckle washed over me. “Someone's feeling shy. Here I was anticipating being taunted and toyed with, but I'm the one with the honors.” He resumed weaving kisses across my neck, dipping down to my neckline, eliciting pure forbidden thrill. “Mordon.” He looked up, his eyes merry. “Oh, no, I'm enjoying this. You are stunning with rosy cheeks. If I'd known it was this easy to fluster you…” His teasing wasn't helping. It was bad enough having to shut out the nagging voice in the back of my conscience. I crossed my arms, feeling embarrassed and shocked at what I'd been willing to let him do. “Stop, not tonight.” He propped himself up onto one elbow, smiling. “Are you serious or playing?” I sighed. Don't make me explain, I wanted to say, but didn't have the guts to voice. And … I did fear upsetting him, I didn't want to cause an argument. Instead, he looked both intrigued and resigned. Mordon squeezed my hand. “Not tonight.” Was there a bit of disappointment in his tone, or was that my imagination? My throat felt tense. “It's just been such a busy day. I'm feeling strained.” “I could help with that,” he said, his voice husky, an invitation should I change my mind. I didn't answer him. He wrapped a hand around my waist and drew me into him. “You're so calm and composed through everything. I admire you, and I was thinking of the things I would love doing with you.” My heart—and resolve—was melting, and he knew it. I said, half-charmed, half-accusing, “You were thinking of crossing a few new things off your to-do list.” He kissed me lightly, softly, on the lips. “I did have the thought, yes, if you were up for it. But prolonged teasing is a very heady thing to enjoy.” I felt him smile against the skin of my throat. “And it is fun to toe the limits a little.” The tension in my stomach eased, and his words sent a fresh heat through me. “Is it now?” “Mmm-hmm. I'm never sure what's 'yes' and what's 'no' on you, so I listen to the speed of your breathing, notice if you're pushing into my touch or pulling away. There was a little of both earlier, but now …” I kissed him deeper, a kiss which turned my blood ablaze and made me want him to be bolder with his hands. When our lips came apart, I said in a breathy voice which I didn't recognize, “You could ask.” “And you could say.” His finger toyed with the hem of my shirt. I took in a shallow, gasping breath. I kissed him again. When his nails brushed my belly, I groaned. He kissed harder, a fierce kiss while the tips of his fingers barely touched my abdomen, tracing soft circles below my belly button. I grabbed him by the back of his head, grasping his hair. We stayed like that until I felt frustrated at the lack of something. No sooner had I let go than he kissed me once more, chastely, and smoothed my shirt back out. “That will be enough for now, I think.” I growled, not sure what I wanted to say, disappointed and relieved at the modest pace he'd decided to call it quits at. “Shh, let's find some sleep,” Mordon said. Wanting yet reassured, I rested my neck on his arm, let him wrap his body around mine, and listened to his steady breathing as he fell asleep before I did. “Breakfast,” said a voice towering over me. I rolled to my other side, but couldn't escape Mordon. “It's a brace of hares, charbroiled. You will forgive the lack of seasoning, but I didn't think it wise to pick any plants without you.” I opened my eyes. Daylight came over the eastern ridge, through aspens and firs, dappling the grass around me green and shadow-blue. Breakfast smelled like burned fur foremost and grilled meat secondly. A leathery carcass dangled in front of me. “I have already eaten my share,” said Mordon. “Best hurry and eat it while it's still hot.” I rubbed my eyes, then reached out and poked the offering with a forefinger. It had a thick shell on it. Wondering if it was raw inside, I accepted the first hare and made a scene of tearing into it. It was bleeding some against the bone but the rest was cooked. Thoroughly. I didn't see a new attempt at a campfire. When I swallowed my next bite, I asked, “How did you cook these?” Mordon stared at me a few seconds, then glanced about the clearing to where there were his-sized dragon footprints. “I put them on my tongue and breathed on them for a while.” “I hope you gutted them first.” He shook his head. “Already done.” I swallowed the next bite hard. “You can't mean you woke up and they were laying there for us to find.” “I mean I woke up and there were six hanging from a branch for us.” “And you left me two. How sweet of you.” He watched me eat until I was half-done with the first hare, then snatched up the second one and set to wolfing that down. In the end, I also gave him the back quarter of the hare I was eating, as well. “Hungry as a teenager.” He grinned. “You haven't been around colony adolescents.” I scoffed but decided not to press the point. Within a few more minutes, I found myself smiling at Mordon, admiring him. I'd grown used to seeing him in his antiquities shop and around Merlyn's Market. Now that he was dropped into a new environment, in a place where we fought not with money and customers and law, but for our very survival, I saw him afresh. My impression of him had changed since I first barged into his shop. Then he'd seemed intimidating and mercurial, but now I saw the way his red-green hazel eyes darted to the clearing, saw the way he moved sure and confident. He was strong, handsome in an unconventional heavy-nosed way. Mordon smiled at me. “Don't you be getting any thoughts into that head of yours.” “What thoughts?” “I know that smile, and if you don't stop it soon, I might be tempted to accept your invitation.” I giggled. “You wouldn't dare.” “I wouldn't? You know I can't pass up a challenge like that.” I got to my feet, grinning, mirroring his crouch. He faked a lunge, I slapped his forearm and dodged back. A huge smile was on his face as he swiped for me and I avoided it. I didn't know what game we were playing, but I didn't care. He made for me again. I skipped back. “I got you last,” I taunted. “Did you?” “Yep. What sort of a future drake lord are you if you can't keep your little wifey in line?” Mordon rushed me and I narrowly ducked beneath his arm, slapping his back on the way out. He spun before I could tap him twice in a row. “Little wifey? I like the ring of that.” “Do you?” I struck a pose. “Oh but I don't know if you can keep up with me, you're an old man.” He looked older than I was, and he spoke of events which happened before I'd learned to care about them. I liked the ambiguity. He growled, but he was smiling. “I'll show you the advantage of experience, you young whelp.” “And how do—” I shrieked as he caught me in one swift snatch, casting me up over his shoulder. He grunted. “You've gained weight.” “Jerk!” I slapped his rump. He returned the slap, softer than the one I'd given him, but I still yelped in surprise. He laughed. “Let me down!” “I don't think so, not until I know what I'm going to do to keep you in line.” I tried to see his face, but the best I could do was not scrape my head on low hanging branches while he toted me off through the trail. My cheeks burned. “I'll think of something to do to you, Meadows, you mark my words.” “Gladly. I hope it's something exotic.” “Ah! Wait, my hair's caught,” I said when a branch snagged my braid. Once I worked it free, I asked, “Where are we going?” “No idea. The creek we were following is gone.” “I take it you can see your way around.” “Yes. But you are mistaken if you think that you're distracting me from a more enticing topic.” I wrapped an arm around his face, blocking his eyes with the crook of my elbow. “Can't see to take me anywhere, so put me down.” “As you wish.” Then we were falling. I braced myself, surprised when my back touched ground, Mordon pinning my shoulders to the grass, grinning at me with a glint that spoke of trouble I didn't want to deny him. I cuffed his shoulder. “This wasn't what I meant.” “How about this?” He bent down and kissed me, smothering my reply. It was pure heaven and I wanted everything from last night to happen again, and for it to happen now. I didn't even have my hand in his hair before we heard, “Unhand her, fire drake!” We stared at each other, unbelieving for a second, giving each other the 'did you hear that, too' expression. Then his brows knit together in a very cross way. I was beginning to feel like that, too, when Mordon slid off my body into a crouching position. “Who is there?” I yelled, getting my own feet under me. Mordon laid a hand on my shoulder while he stood. No one answered. I rose alongside Mordon, standing back to back with him. There was nothing in the trees that I could see, though the leaves made it difficult to say for certain. Nor did I see anyone peering over the short shrubs and bushes. The trail was a dirt path, and I could observe it wrapping out of sight in the trees. Here the plants weren't as thick as they had been at the entrance. Mordon started forward. I stopped him. The wind hit something solid in the shadows below a snowberry bush. I pointed, and after a moment, I saw the flash of the whites of eyes. Then the outline of a man became clear. “We see you,” Mordon said. “State your name and purpose.” The man got up. He was lanky, slender, and had slanted tips on his ears. His clothes looked homespun, naturally dyed greens and browns. He wore knee-length trousers, a pale brown shirt, and a green vest. He bowed, a long-stemmed watchman pipe in one hand. “They call me Lyall Limber. I watch this area of the woods, and now I'm going to rescue my fair cousin from your amorous overtures.” So this was what Lyall looked like when he wasn't disguised under a spell? He seemed like an entirely different man. I stepped in front of Mordon, though I made for a very small shield. “Hear me out, Lyall of the Limber Clan. I have no desire to be rescued from my husband.” It seemed wiser to say husband than fiance in a world which believed engagements to be a human invention to excuse indecision. “Husband?” Lyall looked stunned, then he smiled. “You overstate your relationship. The bond between you two is far from complete.” Heat seared my cheeks as the meaning set in. “I won't be your amusement. Be off with you if you have nothing better to do.” “I would be sadly neglecting my duties if I were to leave an unmated woman to the advances of a rake such as this. I will accompany you as your chaperone. The Swift Clan would expect no less of me, and I'm certain they would be very intrigued by your reason for bringing him along with you on your summons. Is he a safety policy? I assure you, any fey kin have nothing to fear here except for their own actions. Hasten to answer me, now, or I will think even less of your pursuer than before. What is he doing here?” “He is here because I want him here.” “But why do you wish his presence? Is it to hide behind his name and strength?” “I never told you his name. I told you mine, and I'm not hiding behind him. He may be anyone. And he's not my pursuer, he's my friend and companion, and he's here despite his race and station in life.” “Are you certain he's not here for other reasons?” “I know why he's here. What I don't know is why you are.” Lyall bowed again. “That you do not. I will leave your friend in peace. I have no wish to quarrel with you. I felt the need to interfere before I witnessed any more this morning. I forgot that you haven't lived in the woods before, so you don't understand our ways.” Mordon put a hand around my waist, drawing a scowl from Lyall. Mordon said, “You were the one who left the hares for us this morning.” “I did,” Lyall said. “But the day is passing, and we must make progress before darker things awaken.” I watched him move off down the trail. “Think we are better off following him than striking out on our own?” Mordon shrugged. “I don't know if it matters one way or the other. The woods will take us where it will.” Chapter Six Branches swung in Lyall's wake. One whipped me straight across the face. Mouth still stinging, I was sure to catch the next branch and release it slowly so Mordon could grab it. With its halo of tree moss, and the springy compost-laden ground, this part of the woods made me think we had moved to a new area altogether. It reminded me of the place my parents had moved to right after I'd lost my magic. Mother had shushed any talk of potions or spells. There is plenty to do in life. Giving, for instance. Being giving will secure your well-being. A very familiar path made me freeze. “Where are we going?” I asked. With every step I was becoming convinced that I did recognize this place. “The Offering Tree. You've been in the Wildwoods long enough to see it now. It's where we got to ask for a new beginning, to seek our fates, and to ask for guidance.” “Should I be along?” Mordon asked. The crashing noise which marked Lyall's progress quieted for a few seconds. “Yes, I believe so.” We came to a path lined with thick branches and paved with pea gravel glinting with small quartz crystals. It struck me as waste from an old-style mine. Curious, I asked, “Was there a silver mine in the area?” Lyall turned his head to see me, bemused by my question. He pointed up the far mountainside, where a narrow road led to a hole in the mountain's face. “Wildwoods Silver Mine, been in operation since the very beginning. We extract enough for our needs and no more. Jewellery and other silverware is granted for special occasions so that it maintains its value and does not deplete our resources. Pialtir is our master silversmith, but he prefers to remain on his own when at all possible.” Lyall stopped, tapping his walking stick absently against the ground as he studied me. “How did you know?” “The gravelled walk has a lot of quartz in it, and I always remember finding plenty of quartz at historic silver mines when Father took us hiking. I thought whoever put the gravel here wouldn't want to pack it in from too far away.” That, and I had definitely been here before. The thought that my parents had taken me into the Wildwoods without my knowledge was disorienting. Lyall cocked his head, displaying a stripe of tree sap on his jawline. “You do have a unique way of seeing things. It's no wonder the Hunters talk about you.” “Talk about me?” Lyall started back down the trail, walking with deliberate slowness. “Not ever day, you understand, but every now and again they talk about how you tricked that wraith. It's a legend.” I blushed and was immediately annoyed at myself for being pleased. The air was still, humid, and thereby hot in the sunny trek. “I didn't do anything spectacular. Simple little illusion is all.” “Just the same thing which killed Cole, a simple little illusion.” Lyall's boots scuffed on the timber stairs descending a rocky drop off too steep for a trail yet far too short to call a cliff. Seep springs trickled under the staircase, yellow-spotted monkeyflowers poked their heads over the boards around my ankles. I thought we'd finished on the topic. Lyall stopped at the bottom and added, “Know that illusions, delusions, lies, and ignorance have great power. It is possibly the most wicked weapon of all, the ability to deceive. Think about that before you approach the Offering Tree.” Lyall continued the final distance to a cluster of leaning river birches. I waited until Mordon stopped on the grassy glen beside me. “What do you think?” Mordon plucked a yellow and purple monkeyflower. “I wonder why people are scorned for their lies yet celebrated for their ignorance when it is all a form of deception. In a lie, one knows more than they say; in ignorance, one says more than they know. He has me pondering which of the two is a greater evil.” Lyall whistled impatiently. “You coming?” I smiled and soon ducked under the low branches of the first river birch, encountering a tiny stream. I hopped over it, noting that it may have been deep enough for a large toad to wallow in, and arrived in a nest of rocks and red-tinged columbines as tall as my waist. Tied to the most upright trunk of three trees all grouped together were a lot of scrolls. Crimson wax sealed each scroll, the edges tattered by the weather. This hadn't been here when I was on my hike with my parents. “What are these?” I asked. “It's like a fortune tree,” Mordon said. “Don't you know? The colony has one, we maintain it for the children and New Year's. People write encouragements, prompts, and dares. They leave it tied to the tree. Our rule is to compose a message you would like to receive. If you tie a bad note to the tree it will take that note away and give you one of the scrolls previously confiscated.” He laughed, making me think he'd done this intentionally as a child. “Speaking from experience?” “I learned a few choice words that way. Agnes was not happy to hear me repeat them.” Lyall patted the trunk affectionately. “Our tree does the same. Feraline of the Swift Clan, all you two need to do to officially be welcomed to the Verdant Wildwoods is to take a scroll. Mordon Meadows, Drake Lord of the Kragdomen Colony, same goes for you.” I reached forward and took one that was wrinkled from rain and brown from dust. Mordon grabbed the nearest one at hand. He got his seal open first. “When in doubt, have faith and believe.” Lyall shrugged. “I wonder how many there are that say that.” Mordon's may have been common, but I could tell there was something weird with mine. The underside of the scroll was black as I uncurled it, its writing revealed in flashes as the light reflected off it the way a feather gleams. It took me a minute to be able to read it. Miss Swift, You face a foe who is one step ahead of you. These people need you more and more as the day becomes dark. Remember, on a cold night keep a warm hearth. -Death My brow furrowed. I wanted to show the message to Mordon, but before I could, I felt the page lighten. It broke into five chunks which became crow feathers in my palm, its words the glint of light. “Incredible,” Mordon said. Lyall wordlessly reached for them. A honeysuckle scented breeze snatched the feathers and swirled them out into the canopy of leaves. “What was that?” Lyall asked. “A correspondence from Death,” I said, setting my shoulders. “There's work to be done.” Lyall gazed westwardly, checking the path of the sun. “It will have to wait until tomorrow. Tonight, we camp. The intruders mean that I need to check upon the health of the wards within this area. Stay at camp. The last thing I want to do is rescue you two.” Chapter Seven … The gray-coated Hunter gripped my arm and hauled me into the shadowy recesses of shrubs. Behind us were thin woods. Ahead of us, the place a wraith held my father captive. Indignation tightened my throat. My parents would expect me to use the small door in the quietest part of the house, it was what we'd discussed many times before. I relaxed in the Hunter's grasp before quickly jerking free. The man snatched my jacket. “Get down! If they see you, we're caught. And I never wanted you in this.” His name was Desmond and he was one of three Hunters who had decided to join us on the wraith hunt. It had started off with my parents being contacted about a supposed possession of a woman. It turned out to be much, much more. A low-grade demon wasn't too terrifying but was still serious, so my parent's hadn't been concerned until I discovered that we were deal with a wraith. Finding a wraith was like finding smallpox in a children's daycare. A wraith was fast, deadly, and quick to leave bodies in its wake. For one thing, wraiths could and would change bodies as often as desired, becoming crazier with each change. No one to my knowledge had survived being possessed by a wraith. For another thing, wraiths could mist when agitated. This made them enter a kinetic state of being which rendered them very hard to kill. So when we found out that we had a wraith on our hands, I'd supported getting back-up. Right until I met Desmond, that is. The Hunters in general treated me fine in front of my parents but when it was just me they acted as if I were some cock-sure arrogant kid. I was newly out of my teens, but I lacked the confidence I seemed to display as I followed to the letter exactly what I'd been taught. Desmond had been sure that, considering our respective experience, he could do no wrong and I could do no right. As a result, I wasn't where I should have been and it wasn't me who paid the price. Our trouble was the Hunters were treating this wraith as if he were a demon. Demons could be overcome, would fight and wane, then run. Wraiths gained strength through confrontation, yet their weakness was they loved to swing a deal. You just had to be particular about what bargain you were making. The wraith, half-mad in soul lust, now had Father in a shack perched at the edge of a cliff. Guess who was the scapegoat for that blunder? “We can't sneak up on her. If she's old, she already knows we're here. If she's young, she won't like being startled.” “She will not let your father go. I know. Follow my lead or stay here,” he said. Without waiting for a response, he scurried through the shadowed hedges along the house. Lately I'd been wondering if I was in too deep. The cases were spiraling ever closer and closer to sorcerers, and being near one made me feel jealous. Having the Hunters give me the cold shoulder was yet another reminder that I would not be one of them, no matter what my parents thought. I could not bring myself to follow Desmond as he navigated gracefully through defensive wards, avoiding them with the aid of a spell at the tips of his fingers. It was a sore reminder of the magic I hadn't regained. Around these people, my parents began to use spells freely. When they were alone with me, my parents were conservative with their spells as a consideration. Now, though, they'd taken on a different attitude. It was expected now that I'd be over losing my magic. That I'd accept my position as a scint worker, something to be shown off as a mark of courage yet also pitied and secretly sheltered. That was what the Hunters expected of me: to be a crippled mascot cheering from the sidelines. Once the crunch of Desmond's feet faded, I stood up in the night. I had a choice. To do as I was told, or to be on my own. A sharp spell pierced through the midnight air. I heard the cry of alarm. I ran. I came awake under the sweeping boughs of a droopy evergreen. Mordon nestled against me, chest rising and falling with slow breaths. His arm was slung over my shoulder, flexing when I wriggled. A honeysuckle breeze tickled my skin. Tiny little hairs stood up on my neck. Slowly, I pried his hand off me. “No.” Mordon's muscles hardened. He pulled me snug to his chest. “Mine.” He nosed my neck as if to affirm I was there. “Mordon,” I whispered and tried to shrug him off with the same results. “I want to sit up.” He tightened his grip, ant then a growl slipped from his throat. I prepared to push my way out of his arms. Teeth closed about my ear lobe, firm enough to make me freeze. “Mine.” I sighed and went limp in his grasp. “Yes, yours.” Suddenly content, his body softened and he licked the ear he'd been biting. I scrubbed at the saliva, deciding that licking wasn't really my thing. I tried to make my neck comfortable by using his bicep as a pillow. It sort of worked. “What was your dream about?” Mordon asked. “How long have you been awake?” “Since you woke me with all your tossing and turning.” “Maybe I wouldn't toss and turn if you'd let me be comfortable.” “If I do not hold you, I get a knee in my gut or heel in my throat.” “Whatever.” “I do. You are a very mobile sleeper.” Distantly, I recalled that I used to fall asleep with my legs propped up against the wall. It seemed that Mordon had taken the wall's place in my sleeping arrangement. “Sorry.” “You apologize too often for no solid reason. I am considering banning the word 'sorry' so you learn when to use it.” I rolled my eyes. “I didn't think I said it that much.” “You say it when you are not at fault, thereby making it too often. Next time you apologize, you had best know what it is for.” Quieter, he added, “It's not good to hold yourself accountable when the consequences were not a direct result of your decision.” “Fine.” We were there in silence. Quick little darts of bats sliced through the air. At times I thought I could hear a faint click from their wings. “The dream?” Mordon asked. I shrugged. “Nothing too bad. Well, not yet. It was about one of the Hunters who was with my parents and me. Father was caught. I was trying to help free him, but the Hunters didn't want to listen to me.” “The reason being?” “I had the least credibility.” “Oh?” “Yeah. Who would you listen to, three seasoned Hunters or a barely twenty-year-old without magic?” “Hmm.” “One of them went and got himself killed.” Mordon stroked the hair out of my face. “That seems to happen to your companions.” I stiffened. “Not funny.” “That makes it no less of a valid observation. What killed him?” “Ambushing a wraith.” “I do not believe I have ever met a wraith.” “Probably not. They prefer to hang with the non-magical crowd, but even so they don't stand out unless they're mad. And by mad, I mean insane not angry. It isn't common to see them at all.” “Was it this wraith who had your father?” “Yes, but it wasn't what you think. She didn't have him tied up and gagged or anything. When I walked into the room, the fiasco with the 'intruder' had calmed. They were playing cards.” “Cards? Why do I sense there was something important to keep him at the table?” “Because there was. It was Mother's life. That's how you tango with a wraith: deals and swindles. If Father won, he'd walk away free. If he lost, the wraith would get a new—younger and prettier—body.” Mordon raised himself onto his elbows. “Your mother's? Not yours?” “A magic wielding fey who will look in the prime of her life for ages, or a scint girl with acne?” I shook my head. “It was a no-brainer.” Mordon frowned, obviously in disagreement with my assessment. “Did your father win? I assume he did.” “Win against a wraith? Doesn't happen.” “So your mother...” “Is fine. Father postponed ending the card game until I appeared. He had an alright hand, but not enough to win unless her hand was absolutely horrid.” “What did you do?” “Joined the game. Used one of my trinkets to make it look like I had a strong hand when I really had a so-so one. Then I shuffled the deck before she could examine it, said goodnight, and left with Father.” “And that was that? What happened to the wraith?” I paused, wondering how he'd take the last bit. “Mother was waiting outside the door for us. She threw gasoline on the wraith and lit it. Wraiths can take a lot of things but they can't take fire.” Unlike demons. Mordon tapped his finger against my arm, thinking. “And why didn't your father do this earlier?” “Wraiths can see or sense two things in their territory but not three. She was watching Father and me, but she couldn't see Mother as she approached.” “Why does this memory haunt you?” I remembered. My insides went cold. “When they all wanted to know why I let Desmond try his ambush when I knew how to handle the situation. They wouldn't believe that Desmond wouldn't listen to me.” “I see.” Mordon was quiet for a minute. “I pretty well quit after that. Started doing my own thing. Just busting household bogies and practicing potions. Safe things, you know? Or that's what I thought.” Mordon kissed my cheek. “You sound finished with talking.” “I'm so tired.” He cradled me close. “Leothuwaceh, my love. Leothuwaceh.” The worries melted as the spell soothed over me. I relaxed. At the edge of sleep, I mumbled, “Thanks.” “Anything, love.” Chapter Eight Some kind of bark-based tisane simmered over the fire in a pot blackened with smoke. Thick, goopey oatmeal rested on hot stones lining the fire pit. Inside the oatmeal were bits of dried fruit, now plump and tender, to sweeten the otherwise bland mush. I was the last one up. Though I blamed the dreams, laziness was the real culprit. When the sun first peeked over the horizon, I couldn't be bothered to awaken with the men. Goopy oatmeal and oversteeped bark tisane was my reward, and I enjoyed it with relish. Mordon and Lyall were both absent. An inspection of the camp hinted they wouldn't be gone for long. A stick in the ground cast a shadow which was at a slight angle to another stick radiating from the base. I guessed that it marked the sun's shadows at the time of their departure. Lyall's bedroll was folded up, not snugly secured to his pack with its top open. The open pack piqued my curiousity. It would be wrong to nose through Lyall's possessions, particularly given they seemed to be all he had. That little fact also made a quick browse irresistible. I gathered my feet under me. “Morning.” It was Lyall. I tried not to look guilty. “Morning. Where did the two of you go?” “Your fire drake is sunbathing.” The image of Mordon mostly naked at the side of a pool filled my mind. “What?” “His wings are massive in a place like this. He's meant for high-altitude gliding. It's inconvenient, but I will say he has a fancy color pattern.” I thought of his red scales, the black cross down his back, the stripes on his legs. “I didn't realize it was considered fancy.” Lyall whistled. “Any female would love to have his pattern. Wouldn't surprise me if he got teased a lot as a youngster for being so flashy.” “He hasn't mentioned anything.” Lyall shrugged, obviously dismissing the topic in favor of another one. “About the Blackwings who interrupted us?” “I was kind of expecting an act of retribution. The hitman was a bit direct, but not completely out of the blue.” “Your father would not be happy to hear of it.” “And so he shouldn't,” I said slowly, pointedly. “Fine. It is in the past, isn't it?” “Right.” “Consider one little thing. Consider that you may be safer here with people who understand you than with those who are ignorant and afraid.” I resisted rolling my eyes. “I will consider it.”

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