Darkness Falls (Immortal Beloved Series #2)by Cate Tiernan
Nastasya has lived for hundreds of years, but for some reason, life never seems to get any better. She left her spoiled, rich girl life to find peace at River's Edge, a safe haven for wayward immortals. There, she learned to embrace River's Edge, despite som drama involving the sexy Reyn, who she wants but won't allow herself to have. But just as she's getting… See more details below
Nastasya has lived for hundreds of years, but for some reason, life never seems to get any better. She left her spoiled, rich girl life to find peace at River's Edge, a safe haven for wayward immortals. There, she learned to embrace River's Edge, despite som drama involving the sexy Reyn, who she wants but won't allow herself to have. But just as she's getting comfortable, her family's ties to dark magick force her to leave.
She falls back into her old, hard partying ways, but will her decision lead her into the hands of a dark immortal? Or will it be her first step to embracing the darkness within her?
Praise for Darkness Falls:"
This follow-up to Immortal Beloved amps up the romance. . . another successful blend of sarcasm, pathos and magick."
Highly charged events lead to an exciting climax. Tiernan has created a story filled with suspense, adventure, pathos, and compassion."SLJ
Praise for Immortal Beloved:
*"Tiernan gives Nastasya a strong, distinctive voice and wonderfully realized perspective on the joys and horrors of history."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Read an Excerpt
By Tiernan, Cate
PoppyCopyright © 2012 Tiernan, Cate
All right reserved.
I want you.” Reyn’s voice, low and insistent, seemed to come at me from all angles. And no wonder, because he was looming over me obnoxiously as I filled a big glass jar with basmati rice from the twenty-five-pound sack we keep in the pantry.
Look at me: “we.” I’m all about the “we-ness,” as if I belonged here at River’s Edge, rehab central for wayward immortals. Sort of a twelve-step program. Which in my case had more like a hundred and eleventy steps. I’d been a Riverite only two months and had no idea how long it would take to undo 450-plus years of bad behavior. At least several more weeks, for sure. Probably more like seven or eight years. Or longer. Ugh.
I shifted closer to the big wooden kitchen worktable and hoped I wouldn’t spill rice everywhere, because God knows that would be a pain in the ass to clean up.
“You want me, too.” I could practically hear his fists clenching and unclenching.
“No, I don’t. Go away.” Welcome to the freak-show circus of Nastasya’s romantic exploits. It isn’t for the faint of heart. Or the faint of stomach. Is that a phrase?
Nastasya: C’est moi. One of your friendly neighborhood immortals. Except for the friendly part. If I’m being honest. A couple months ago, I’d realized I’d good-timed myself into a wretched place of depraved indifference, and I’d sought help from River, an immortal I’d met back in 1929. Now I was here in rural Massachusetts, learning how to be one with nature, magick, peace, love, harmony, etc. Or at least trying not to feel like throwing myself headfirst into a wood chipper.
There were other immortals here: four teachers and currently eight students. Such as me. And Reyn, Viking wonderboy. For example.
Reyn: the thorn in my side, nightmare of my past, destroyer of my family, constant irritant of my now, and oh yeah, the hottest, hottest, most beautiful, stunning guy I had seen in 450 years. The one whose image haunted my brain as I shivered in my cold, narrow bed. The one whose fevered kisses I had relived over and over as I lay exhausted and unable to sleep.
What fevered kisses, you ask? Well, about ten days ago we’d had a mutual sudden brain attack and given in to the inexplicable, overwhelming chemistry that had been building between us since my arrival. This had been closely followed by the soul-destroying realizations that his family had killed everyone in my family, and my family had basically killed a lot of his family. That was our shared heritage. And we were on fire for each other. Fun, eh? I mean, when I hear about couples struggling because they’re different religions or one’s a vegan or something, I think they just need to get some perspective.
Anyway, since our make-out session/horrible realizations, Reyn had continued to pursue me with winter raider persistence and ruthlessness. And yet night after night, he—who has kicked down hundreds of doors, battered his way through hundreds of doors, set fire to hundreds of doors—had not brought himself to knock on mine.
Not that I wanted him to, or would know what to do if he did.
Are you dizzy from being flung into my world like this? I feel the same way every morning when I open my eyes to find I’m still me, still here.
Outside, the late December sunlight, as thin and gray as dishwater, had faded rapidly to a darkness seen nowadays only in rural areas. Which I was in.
“Why are you avoiding this?” In general, Reyn kept his emotions under very tight control. But I knew what he could be like—for the first hundred years of my existence, Reyn and his clan had terrorized my homeland of Iceland, as well as Russia and northern Scandinavia, earning himself the title Butcher of Winter. I hadn’t known it was him back then, of course. Just that the raiders were bloodthirsty savages responsible for looting, pillaging, raping, and burning dozens of villages to the ground.
Now the Butthead of Winter slept two rooms away from me! He did farm chores and set the table for dinner and a bunch of other homey things! It was positively creepy. And of course meltingly attractive. But I still found it impossible to believe that his current “civilized” status couldn’t just be ripped away like wet tissue paper, revealing the marauder I knew was still inside.
I filled up the glass jar, carefully tipped the bag back onto the worktable, and screwed the lid on the jar. A handful of snarky, sarcastic retorts hovered on my lips, and just two months ago, I would have been flinging them at him the way James Bond’s car spews nails. But I was trying to grow. To change. As nauseatingly clichéd as that was and as wretchedly painful and difficult as it was proving to be—still, I was here. And as long as I was here, I had to keep trying.
What a revolting notion.
“I prefer to avoid things,” I said truthfully while I tried to come up with something stronger.
“You can’t avoid this. You can’t avoid me.”
He was so close that I could sense the heat of his body through his flannel shirt. I knew beneath that shirt lay hard, smooth, tan skin, skin that I had touched and kissed. I felt an almost irresistible longing to press my face against his chest, to let my fingers trace the eternal burn scar I knew was there. The burn that matched the one I had on the back of my neck. The one I’d kept hidden for more than four centuries.
“I could if you left me alone,” I pointed out irritably.
He was quiet for a moment, and I felt his golden eyes raking my face. “I’m not going to leave you alone.” Promise? Threat? You decide!
I was saved from having to come up with a more worthy defense by the sound of voices coming toward the kitchen from the dining room.
This house, River’s Edge, had once been a Quaker meetinghouse. The downstairs had a couple offices, a small workroom, a front parlor, a large, plain dining room, and this, a somewhat inadequate kitchen that had last been updated in the 1930s. Before this, my most recent living situation had been an expensive, much-in-demand flat in London with amazing views of Big Ben and the Thames. I’d had a doorman, maid service, and a catering kitchen right downstairs. But my life here was… better.
Like I said, everyone here is immortal, and a fun bunch we are, too. Actually, not really. Considering we were all here because our lives were grievously flawed in many unique ways. There is in fact a River, of River’s Edge. She’s the oldest person I’ve ever met—born in 718, in Genoa, Italy, back when it still had a king of its own. Even among immortals, we were like, Whoa. She owns this place, rehabs immortals who are wrestling with their darker inclinations, and is pretty much the only person in the world that I even halfway trust.
I myself am 459 years old, though I have the looks (and apparently the maturity) of a seventeen-year-old. Reyn is 470. He looks like a very hot twenty.
The swinging door pushed open and Anne, Brynne, and River came in, talking and laughing, their cheeks pink from the cold air outside. They were carrying bags of groceries, which they set down on various counters. We produced most of our own food, actually, but River still bought the occasional items from the one grocery store in town, Pitson’s.
“And I said, is that a mustache?” Anne said, and the others almost collapsed with laughter. “And if she could have killed me, she would.” River leaned against the kitchen counter and wiped tears out of her eyes.
Reyn muttered something and left through the outside kitchen door, going out into the black, freezing night without a jacket. Not that I cared. At all.
“Oh goddess, I haven’t laughed like that in…” River trailed off, as if trying to remember. I’m guessing she was thinking since before Nell (another student here, who tried to kill me, BTW) went schizo and had to be loaded up with magickal tranquilizers and carted away. Just a guess.
“Is he okay?” Brynne asked, gesturing at the door. She’d been here a couple of years, I think, and of all the students was the one I was closest to. Close being a relative term. “Did we interrupt something?” Her brown eyes widened with sudden interest and speculation. The night she had cracked, Nell had shrieked that she had seen Reyn and me kissing. I’d hoped people would chalk it up to the hysterical ravings of a nutcase, but there had been too many meaningful glances since then to really lie to myself effectively.
“No,” I said, scowling. I took the burlap sack of rice back into the pantry, then put the glass jar on the shelf.
“Well,” said Anne, apparently deciding to let the Reyn thing go, “the big news is that my sister is coming to visit!” Anne was one of our teachers and looked around twenty, with a dark, sleek pageboy and round blue eyes, but I knew she was 304. Despite being 150 years younger than I was, she seemed light-years ahead in knowledge, wisdom, magick—okay, everything.
“You have a sister?” For some reason I was still surprised when I met immortals who had siblings. I mean, of course many did. But in general I felt that most immortals were more solitary creatures—like, after seventy, eighty years, anyone would get sick of their family, no matter how nice. Three hundred years was a long time to keep doing everyone’s birthday parties, you know?
“Several. And two brothers,” said Anne. “But Amy is nearest to me in age. I haven’t seen her in almost three years.”
Immortal sisters who were close. I hadn’t run into too many of those. I was starting to feel like I had spent the last four centuries living with a kind of tunnel vision, a varied but narrow existence, choosing not to see, not to know so many things.
Finally, Anne and Brynne went out to set the long table for dinner. River unpacked the groceries, handing me a few things to put in the fridge.
“Everything okay?” River asked.
“In that sentence, does okay mean tortured, confused, sleepless, and worried?” I asked. “If so, then yes, I’m dandy.”
River smiled. She’s had a thousand years to develop the patience to deal with the likes of me.
“Am I the worst person you’ve ever had here?” I don’t know what made me ask that question. Just—one can make a lot of bad decisions in 450 years. A lot.
River looked surprised. “Worst in what way?” Then she shook her head. “Never mind. No matter how you define ‘worst,’ you aren’t it. By a long shot.”
I was dying to ask who had been worse, and how, but there was no way she would tell me. Then it occurred to me that of course Reyn, for one, was worse than me, probably worse than most immortals who had come here aching to be made whole. Reyn had slaughtered entire towns, enslaved countless people, plundered and pillaged and whatnot. I mean, I’m a total loser in many ways, but you can’t pin anything like that on me.
And yet Reyn was the one I wanted. Above all others. Karma had pretty much drop-kicked me into an unending universe of irony.
“So, Anne has a sister, huh?” I said, lamely changing the subject.
“Yes. She’s very nice. You’ll like her.”
“I know why I don’t have siblings,” I said, skirting by that thought quickly, “but I feel like I haven’t really met many other immortals who have siblings, either.” I didn’t weigh in on whether I would like Anne’s sister or not. I don’t really like most people. I can tolerate them pretty well, but like? Much harder.
“I think you’ll find that immortals who are less than about four hundred years old might have siblings,” River said, washing her hands at the farmhouse sink. “And those older than about four hundred rarely do.”
“Why?” I asked. “You have brothers still, right?”
“Four of them,” said River. She turned to me, her almost unlined face looking thoughtful. She brushed a strand of silver hair off her forehead and shrugged. “It’s kind of unusual for someone my age.”
“Why?” I asked again. Some weird immortal genetic thing?
“In the olden days,” she said slowly, “immortals made it a habit to kill other immortals around them, to take their power.”
My eyes widened. “What?”
“You know how we make Tähti magick, magick that doesn’t destroy other things?” she said. I nodded. “And you know how to make Terävä magick, where instead of channeling your own power, you just take power from something else, destroying it in the process.”
I nodded. The whole good-versus-evil thing. Check. Starting to get a handle on it.
“You can get that power from plants, animals, crystals… people.” Her lips pressed together. “You can take someone else’s power and use it for your own. But it kills them, of course. Or worse.”
It should have occurred to me that such a thing could happen. It seemed stupid and embarrassingly naive not to have made that leap. But I hadn’t.
River saw the surprise on my face. “You know we can be killed,” she said gently.
A pain twisted inside me, a pain so familiar, so long a part of my life that it seemed natural to feel its sharp rasp with every breath. Yes, I knew. My parents had been killed in front of me. I’d seen my two brothers and two sisters also killed, beheaded. I’d walked across a carpet soaked with their blood. So, no siblings. I tried to swallow and felt a knot in my throat.
“If an immortal kills another immortal, they can take that person’s life force, add it to their own power,” River went on. “And then also—that’s one less person who might try to kill them.”
My breath was coming shallowly now, my quick descent into my family memory seeming to dull everything she was saying. “I see,” I said, my voice thin. “So that’s pretty much what Reyn’s father was trying to do when he killed my family. While Reyn kept watch in the hall.”
River was very solemn, and she let one hand glide along my cheek. “Yes.”
River had bought this property, with its several buildings and about sixty acres of land, in about 1904, I think. Like most immortals, she’d been one person, then pretended to die, then came back as her own long-lost daughter to claim the property again. All immortals have a bunch of different names, histories, passports, and so on. We tend to have networks of excellent forgers, hoarding the best ones the way some people hoard their favorite clothes designer or hairstylist. But I sure do miss the days before picture IDs and social security numbers. It’s so much more complicated nowadays to drift from country to country, incarnation to incarnation.
My bedroom, like all the others, was on the second floor. Each room is pretty sparse, with a bed, a sink, a few other items. I’d just finished throwing some clean laundry into my tiny wardrobe when I heard the dinner bell chime. Like animals responding to a feed call, all of us on this hallway left our rooms and headed downstairs. I said hi to fellow students Rachel, who was originally from Mexico and was, I think, about 320 years old, and Daisuke, from Japan, who was 245. Jess, who was only 173 but looked much, much older, nodded stiffly at Reyn, who was closing his door. I tried not to think about Reyn sleeping in there, lying on his bed—
In the large, plainly furnished dining room, the long table was set for twelve. An oak sideboard held steaming serving bowls, and a large gilded mirror reflected it on the other wall. As I lined up behind Charles, another student, I caught a glimpse of myself. Before coming here, I’d been stuck in a nineties goth vibe, with spiky black hair, heavy eye makeup, and a junkie’s skeletal pallor. With yet more irony, I now looked totally different from anything I had looked like for the last three hundred years—because I looked only like myself. My hair is its natural whitish-blondish color, common among my clan in Iceland. Both my gaunt face and too-skinny body had filled out and now looked healthier. With no contacts in, my eyes were their original dark, almost black color. Would I ever not be surprised about looking like myself?
I took a plate and went down the line. Another change in my life had been my diet. At first the simple food, mostly from our own gardens, had made me feel like I was choking. There’s only so much fiber a girl can get down. Now I was more used to it—used to picking it, digging it, preparing it, and eating it, whenever it was my turn to do any of those things. I would still give a lot for some champagne and a molten chocolate cake, but I no longer screamed silently when confronted with kale.
“Hello, all,” said a voice, and I looked up to see Solis (teacher) coming in from the kitchen. I’d heard he was originally from England, but like most of us he had an unplaceable neutral accent. Brynne had told me he was around 413, but he looked maybe in his mid-to-late twenties. Asher, down at the end of the table, was the fourth teacher and also River’s partner—I didn’t think they were married. He was originally Greek and was one of the older-looking people here—which meant that at 636, he looked like he was in his early thirties. The three of them, plus River, did their best to teach us about herbs and crystals, oils and essences, spellcraft and magick-making, stars, runes, sigils, metals, plants, animals, etc. Basically, every single freaking thing in the entire world. Because it was all connected, somehow—to us, to magick, to power. I’d been taking lessons for about five weeks, and my head already felt close to exploding. And I was still in, like, magickal preschool. I had a long slog ahead of me. I hated thinking about it.
“Solis!” said Brynne, waving her fork at him. As usual, she was wearing a colorful combination of head wrap, scarf, sweater, overalls, and work boots. The fact that she was lovely in a tall, slender, teenage-model kind of way somehow helped it all work. She was 204, the daughter (one of eleven children!) of an American former slave owner and a former slave.
I sat down at the table, stepping carefully over the long bench so I wouldn’t whack Lorenz with one of my high-top Converses. I hated these benches. Chairs. Chairs would be the way to go here. River should set up an “ideas” box somewhere so we could all make helpful suggestions. I could come up with a significant number, actually.
“You’re back!” said Anne, kissing Solis first on one cheek, then the other.
Solis smiled, looking more like a California surfer dude than ever. His dark blond hair curled around his head in an untidy halo, and somehow he always had just the right amount of scruffy beard—not too long or too short.
There was a chorus of hellos and welcomes, and River kissed him, too.
I kept my head down and started plowing through—Jesus, what was this? Squash casserole? Who would think of something like squash casserole? And why?
“Nastasya?” Solis’s voice made me look up, my mouth full of mush that I couldn’t bring myself to commit to, in the belief that my stomach would hate me forever and start rejecting even good food.
“Mmm,” I managed, then gave an almighty swallow. I’m sorry, stomach. “Hi.”
“How are you?”
Gosh, what a loaded question. When last he saw me, everyone had just heard Nell shriek that she’d seen Reyn and me making out.
Nell had loved Reyn. For years. Desperately. And he, being an oblivious moron, hadn’t noticed. And then Reyn and I sort of—exploded. And it made Nell crazy. Or, crazier. I had to believe she’d already had one arm in the straitjacket before I even got to River’s Edge.
Anyway, Solis had accompanied Nell to what I assumed was some kind of asylum for immortals who were completely bananas. Now he was back. And his being back made that whole disturbing, mortifying tableau spring to vivid life again.
“I’m fine,” I managed, then drank some water. Did I know enough magick to turn it into wine, I wondered. Or, better, gin? Probably not.
“Good,” he said easily, and unfolded his napkin.
“Solis,” Charles said. It was hard for Charles to look solemn, with his bright red hair, green eyes, freckles, and round, cheerful face, but he was doing a good imitation. “How is Nell?”
Yep, just put it out there, Chuck. Go on. We face things here. We aren’t afraid of emotion—
“She’s not good,” said Solis, pouring himself some water. “Pretty raving mad, actually. But in Louisette’s capable hands, and with the healers there, I think she’ll be okay. One day.”
Charles shook his head—it was a shame, such a nice girl—and then went back to his meal.
“My aunt Louisette has been able to create deep healing in people who were far more troubled than Nell,” said River. “Nell knows that we’ll be sending her our good thoughts and wishes.”
I couldn’t help glancing at Reyn quickly. His face was still, his jaw set, as he pushed food around on his plate without eating it. I wondered if he felt responsible in any way, because he hadn’t noticed that Nell was pining for him. I didn’t know.
“Oh, everyone, I’m sure you’ve realized this,” River went on, “but tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. It seems incredible that this year is almost over! We’ll be having a special circle tomorrow night, as we do each year. I hope you’ll all be there—I would love for us to welcome the new year together.”
There went my plans to head down to New York and get plastered in Times Square.
Not really. It was an amazing notion for me, but I actually had no desire to leave here, go drinking with strangers, be around lights and noise and chaos. Lights, noise, and chaos had been my companions of choice for the last century—they were probably feeling pretty left out.
Or maybe they hadn’t noticed I was gone. Maybe my pals Innocencio, Boz, Katy, Cicely, and Stratton were still giving them plenty of playtime. I’d hung out with the same friends for so long that I hadn’t noticed how useless we were all getting. I hadn’t noticed Innocencio learning magick, working on developing the power that all immortals have, in varying degrees. Then one night Incy had used his magick to break the spine of a cabbie who’d been rude to us. Actually broke his spine, paralyzing him for life. And even though he was a regular person and “the rest of his life” wouldn’t be that long, comparatively, still his world was destroyed in an instant, on a whim. And that had been a real eye-opening moment for me. To put it mildly.
I sighed and pushed my plate away, wishing I had a cheesecake stashed in my room. Individual minifridges. Another valid suggestion for River.
After dinner I checked the chore chart and amazingly had no classes, no chores, nothing to do tonight. It happened once or twice a week. Whoopee! So I headed upstairs, took a hot bath, and then curled up on my narrow bed with a book about Irish herbal cures. I know, I couldn’t help it: I would always be a madcap, frivolous party girl.
Soon I was deep into the wonder and delight of eyebright, feverfew, cowslips, and dandelions. Of course I’d been born long before there was any kind of chemical medicine, and plants had been the prime component of every household’s remedies, along with dried deer blood, spiderwebs, etc. But the addition of magickal intent changed these plants’ properties and uses. So. Much. To. Learn.
It was riveting stuff, and I’d drifted off only two or three times before I gave up and let my eyes stay closed. I wasn’t totally asleep—I still sensed the bright reading light through my eyelids, still felt semiaware of my small room and the black night outside. But I was drifting, dreaming, and then I found myself waking up in a forest. Hundreds of years ago, forests were everywhere, and to get from point A to point Anywhere Else almost always entailed going through a forest. I’m not a huge fan. The occasional tree, sure. A very small grove that I can see through to the other side, fine. But not forests. They’re dark, seem unending, are incredibly easy to get lost or confused in, and are full of noises and fluttering things and sticks cracking behind you. In my experience, they’re best avoided.
But here I was. I felt like me but could also somehow see myself, the way you can in dreams. I appeared to be pre-River, with black hair, heavy eye makeup, superskinny and pale. That had been normal for me for years. Now, in hindsight, I thought I looked like Edward Scissorhands but without the handy blades. I was immediately aware of feeling anxious and lost, making my way through the trees, pushing through thick underbrush that slowed me down. My face and arms were scratched and stinging. The ground was thickly covered with years of fallen leaves, and it felt like walking on the moon.
I was upset, getting more upset, searching for something. I didn’t know what. I just knew I had to find this thing somehow and that I would know when I found it and that time was running out. I hated being in this forest and tried to go faster, which only meant that I got more scratched. I’d long ago lost any hope of finding my way back to where I’d come from. I’d even given up on ever trying to find my way out but instead pressed on, looking, looking, feeling more tense and afraid with every step.
The light was fading, time was passing, and dread filled me as night fell. I was close to tears, hysteria—I desperately wanted a fire, a friend, help. But I couldn’t stop—something bad would happen to me if I stopped. Then—over to my left! It looked like—it was—a fire! I turned quickly and headed toward the light, the comforting scent of woodsmoke finding its way to me through the trees. I heard a voice. Was it… singing? It was singing. I pushed my way through some stabbing holly branches and then I was in a tiny clearing, and there was a fire flickering wildly inside a circle of rocks.
“Nas.” My head jerked at the voice. I looked over to see Innocencio, my best friend for a hundred years, stepping out of the darkness of the woods.
“Incy! What are you doing here?”
He smiled, looking unearthly beautiful. His eyes were so dark that I saw tiny fires reflected in them. I stared at him, feeling alarmed even as I held my hands out to the fire’s warmth.
“I’ve been waiting for you, darling,” Incy said in a voice as sweet and seductive as wine. “Come, sit down, be warm.” He gestured to a big fallen log at the edge of the clearing. I didn’t want to—everything in me was screaming, Run! But my feet took me over to the log and I sat on it. I didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be with him, but then again, the fire was so comforting, so cozy.
“You’ve been gone too long, Nasty,” Incy said. “I’ve missed you so much. We all have.” Still smiling, he gestured around, and I scanned the place for my old gang. No one was there except me and Incy, and I started to ask why.
Then I saw. The fire… there was a skull in the fire, the flames blackening and devouring bits of its peeling flesh. My mouth opened in a horrified gasp. The fire was full of bones, made of bones. I knew in a split second that this was Boz and Katy—maybe Stratton and Cicely, too. Incy had killed them all and was burning their bodies. I jumped to my feet, only to have Incy smile at me again; he had me. There was no escape. Suddenly the wretched, acrid stench of burning hair and flesh filled my nose and mouth, gagging me, making me retch. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to scream, but no sound came out. I tried to run, but my feet were literally rooted to the ground—thick, dark, vining roots covered my feet, locking me into place, and started to climb my legs.
I gagged again and in the next instant bolted straight up and opened my eyes. I was gasping, wild-eyed, covered with icy sweat—in my room at River’s Edge.
My hands were clenched into claws, my breathing ragged. I tried to collect myself. I felt Reyn’s energy outside my door, and within a second I was on my feet.
I took some gulping breaths, trying to calm down. “What do you want?” I asked through the door, trying to make my voice normal. I felt like I’d just jumped off a bridge, and I leaned against the door, shaking. I glanced at my bedside clock—it was almost ten. Most people would be in their rooms by now and many of them already asleep. Our days started ungodly early.
“Open the door,” came Reyn’s low voice.
“Just open it.” He already sounded exasperated. I was getting better.
I wasn’t afraid of him, and to convince myself of this I opened my door and stood with my arms crossed. And it was right about then that I had the blessedly normal insight that I hadn’t combed or untangled my hair after my bath and then had fallen asleep on it wet. It was probably sticking out on one side of my head in a snarled clump. Coupled with the no makeup, the pillow creases on one cheek, and the feminine, come-hither getup of fuzzy socks, long johns, scarf, and cardigan, I was pretty sure I had never presented a more compelling picture.
Reyn titled his head slightly, looking at me. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You look—”
“Is that why you woke me up?” I said. “To comment on my appearance?” It was such a relief to be doing this, sparring pointlessly with the Viking god. As opposed to, say, seeing your former best friend burning all of your other friends in the forest.
“Come with me,” Reyn said. “I want to show you something.”
Frankly, I had expected something more original. “Really?” I asked. “That’s it? That’s what you came up with?”
He frowned and of course looked even better. Reyn wasn’t a pretty boy; his features were angular, his jawline sharp, his mouth hard. His nose was a little crooked and had a bump in it from being broken who knows how many times. And he had dressed up to impress me the same way I had for him: jeans that still had bits of hay stuck to them, his beat-up work boots, a flannel shirt so frayed that the collar was about to fall off.
I wanted to eat him alive.
Forget I said that. Delayed shock.
“I’m serious,” he said, looking about as serious as someone could look. “There’s something you should see. In the barn.”
My eyes widened. “Are you kidding?”
He sighed impatiently. “This isn’t a trick. I thought you’d like to see this. It happens to be in the barn.”
The barn was where we’d had our first, searing kiss, where his mouth and hands had woken up nerve endings that I’d thought were long dead. Every time I remembered it, his hard muscles, his urgency, I had to suppress an audible whimper.
The barn was also where we’d had the sickening realization of our shared history: his father, the clan leader of rapacious raiders, had stormed my father’s castle. They’d killed everyone except me—I’d been hidden beneath my mother’s dead body. But my mother had flayed Reyn’s brother with magick, and my older brother had hacked his brother’s head off. Later, when his father and some others tried to use my mother’s amulet, they’d been incinerated. Reyn had stood there as they turned to ashes in front of him, next to him.
Anne had told me he’d been working on his anti-marauder goal for almost three hundred years. I suspected there had been more involved than writing I will not sack villages one hundred times on a chalkboard.
And he and I had made out like crazed high schoolers.
See my comment re: karma, above.
He sighed again: I was such a pain. Then he said, “Please.”
Oh, he was going to fight dirty.
I gave a heavy, obvious sigh myself and pulled jeans on over my long johns. I didn’t bother trying the laces on my sneakers, and tucked my scarf tighter around my neck as I followed Reyn down the quiet hall. I was actually thrilled to get out of my room for a while, imagining that I could still smell the slightest hint of charred skin.
Outside the air was damp and cold, turning my nose to ice. I hated how dark it got here. Ever since I could get to a city, I’d lived in cities. Thirty feet away from the house we were encased in velvet darkness that felt like a suffocating shroud. I edged closer to Reyn, somehow knowing that despite everything he would absolutely protect me from trolls or land sharks or deadly best friends or other things that went ka-chonk in the night. When we reached the barn, I practically leaped through the door into the relative warmth of the hay-scented air.
It was dim and quiet inside, with only the occasional whuffing of a horse. There were ten stalls, though only six were occupied by River’s horses. Grooming the horses and mucking out the stables were some of my least favorite chores. For various reasons.
At the end of the barn, Reyn stopped. The stall door was open, and he gestured to me to go inside. I hesitated—was this just a straightforward plan to throw me down into some hay? I hated the fact that I felt a split second of intense longing so strong that my fingers tingled, that I felt unsure of what my response would be.
Then I heard tiny noises.
One eyebrow raised, I poked my head around the stall door… and saw River sitting in the hay. She looked up at me, smiled, and put a finger to her lips.
Curled up in the hay, one of the farm dogs, Molly, growled slightly. River said something soothing to her.
I saw one, two—six tiny squirming things nuzzling up to Molly. Puppies. I knelt next to River. I’m not a dog person. Or a cat person. Or a pet person. Pets take care, require you to think about something other than yourself, and I’d quit doing that ages ago.
Still. Even I was hardwired to melt a little when confronted by fat puppies, eyes and ears closed, tiny muzzles covered with fine fuzz.
“Molly did such a good job,” said River, stroking the dog’s head. Molly closed her eyes; the bulk of her work was over.
“Good-looking dogs,” said Reyn. I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“Yes,” said River. “We mated her with another German pointer. But—I can’t explain this one.” She pointed to the smallest puppy, struggling to get out from under a larger, more vigorous sibling. River gently extracted it and arranged it at the end of the milk bar, where it wouldn’t be smushed.
Five of the puppies looked like miniature Mollys—solid brown heads, light gray bodies with just a hint of the liver-colored spots they’d develop later. But the little one seemed to be from a completely different litter. Possibly another species. It was thin and long-legged instead of cute and chunky, and maybe half the size of the biggest puppy. It was almost solid white except for large red blotches in an uneven pattern, as if someone had spilled a glass of wine on it.
“It’s the runt,” said Reyn. “Anything wrong with it? Cleft palate?”
“Not that I can see,” said River. “Poor little girl. Looks like everyone else got the groceries in the womb.” She stroked a light finger down the puppy’s side. “Isn’t it a miracle?” she murmured. “I’m always awed, always in wonder at the miracle of life.” She seemed dreamy, almost wistful, an unexpected change from her usual brisk good humor.
Then she seemed to come back to herself and rose with smooth grace. “Such a good job, Molly,” she said again, and Molly’s tail thumped twice. “I’ll be back to check on you in a bit. Get some rest.” Thump.
I stood up and the three of us headed back out into the cold. River stayed in the kitchen to fix some broth for Molly, and Reyn and I headed back upstairs. Seeing the puppies had put me in a strange mood—I almost wished I hadn’t seen them.
“I always had battle dogs.” Reyn’s voice was quiet as we climbed the stairs. “Half wolf, or mastiffs. Kept them hungry, so they’d always be ready to attack. Send a pack of those ahead of me, then sweep in and clean up what’s left.”
He was deliberately reminding me of his savage beginnings, and anger heated my blood. I opened my mouth to say something biting, full of disdain—but then I stopped. Why would he say that? Was he trying to show me how far he had come?
“Do you miss it?” I asked. “Battle? War? Conquest?” I wasn’t being snide. For once.
We paused outside my door. The hall was barely lit by a few small nightlights low to the ground. It was still, silent—I could feel the quiet patterns of people sleeping.
The barest hints of emotions passed over Reyn’s face, with its high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes the color of old gold. I wondered if he would lie to me.
He looked away, as if ashamed. “Yes.” He spoke so quietly that I had to lean closer to hear him. “It’s what I was taught. It’s what I do well.” He didn’t look at me.
My high horse of judgment lowered a notch.
“How long has it been?” I asked.
A quick glance, meeting my eyes, and then just as quickly slanting away. “Since I gave up leadership over my clan, three hundred and eight years. No marauding, raiding since then. But war? Battle? World War Two.”
My surprise must have shown on my face because Reyn turned away again and a flush stained his cheeks. “Anyway. I thought you’d like to see the puppies.”
“Do I really seem like a puppy kind of gal to you?” Having changed so much over the past couple months, I had no idea how I came off to people now.
Reyn rubbed a hand over the day’s stubble on his chin. “No,” he said finally. “No. Not puppies, not bunnies, not babies. But—you don’t have to give that up, you know.”
Okay, time for me to leave this conversation. I reached for my doorknob. Reyn’s hard, warm hand stopped me. “Most of us are reluctant to have that,” he said, his voice low in the half-lit hallway. “Reluctant to have lovers, children, horses. Homes. Because we’ve lost so many. But to give all that up means time has beaten you down—that time has won. I think… I might be ready to battle time again. Might be strong enough to take a chance.”
Reyn was a man of few, terse words. That had been almost a whole paragraph. And it had been so self-revealing. Had he been drinking? I couldn’t detect it.
My brain processed thoughts rapidly, skirting around all the possible meanings of his words. I was terrified of what he might be saying.
“So… you’re going to get a puppy, then?” I asked, choosing the least scary interpretation.
He looked tired. Meeting his eyes was almost physically painful, but I refused to be the one who blinked first. His hand came up, and I kept myself from flinching. With one finger he traced a line down my face from temple to chin, the same way River had touched the runt puppy.
“Good night,” he said.
The people in the town of West Lowing (population 5,031) think that River’s Edge is a small, family-run organic farm. Which is even true, to a point. The fact that we’re all immortals and most of us are trying to get over meaningless lives of dark endlessness, or endless darkness, is something we don’t advertise to outsiders. In fact, we hide it. But if someone were to drop by, they would just see regular-looking people weeding gardens, tilling fields, feeding chickens, chopping wood, and mucking stables.
You would think all that wholesome outdoor living would be enough for anyone, but some of us (mostly me) were required to have jobs out in the real world as well. Asher had explained the whole reasoning behind it, but my mind had blanked after a few key words like job and minimum wage. After he suggested something like shelving books at the local library, I had started to cry inside.
Much to everyone’s surprise, however, I’d been gainfully employed for almost six weeks at MacIntyre’s Drugs on Main Street in West Lowing. The “downtown” part of Main Street was four blocks long and included five empty, abandoned stores, a shut-down gas station, a feed store, a grocery, a diner, a hot-dog shop (literally nothing but hot dogs), and in West Lowing’s nod to international cuisine, a combo falafel/Chinese food joint.
So… stocking shelves at a CVS in Manhattan would be bad enough. I was stocking shelves at MacIntyre’s Drugs in freaking West Lowing, Massachusetts. And to improve this rosy picture, my boss was an angry, bitter old guy. He was hateful to me and constantly screamed at my coworker, his daughter. I couldn’t even think about what he might be like to her at home.
But it was all part of my rehab: learning to work and play well with others.
When I pushed through the front door of the store one minute before my shift started, Meriwether MacIntyre was already cleaning the front counter with spray and a rag.
“Are you still on Christmas break?” I asked, walking past her to hang up my coat.
“Yeah. Two more days,” she said. Meriwether was a senior in the town’s only high school. She was at least five inches taller than me, maybe five foot eight, and was one of the most colorless people I’d ever met. Her hair, skin, and eyes were all basically the same pale shade of ash brown, and her whole persona was that of an abused rabbit. I blamed her horrible dad.
Old Mac, as I called him, glared balefully at me as I skipped to the time clock and punched my card in with fifteen seconds to spare. I gave him a blithe smile and headed out front, where Meriwether and I had been trying to yank the store into at least the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first.
“Okay, so, we’ve got a couple of bins to put out,” she said, pointing to the blue plastic bins full of products that needed shelving. We’d been slowly reorganizing the store, grouping stuff together in a more logical way instead of the way it had made sense to Old Mac’s grandfather back in 1924. It was funny to think that if I had been through here in 1924, which I hadn’t, I could have seen Old Mac’s grandfather and his shiny new store.
“And look.” Meriwether knelt and showed me several new boxes: homeopathic medicines. I’d been after the old man to stock some of these because people had kept asking me for them.
I clasped my hands together and pretended to swoon, and Meriwether grinned.
“If you gals wouldn’t mind getting some work done instead of just gabbing, you might be worth your wages!” Mr. MacIntyre shouted at us from down the aisle.
I picked up a box of homeopathic echinacea gels and gave him a huge smile and a thumbs-up. He narrowed his eyes at me and stomped into the back pharmacy area, where he filled people’s prescriptions.
“How do you do that?” Meriwether whispered a few minutes later as we shifted some Ace bandages to make room for the new stuff.
“What?” I whispered back. “Hey, we should probably do this alphabetically, right?”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “You know, not freak out when my dad yells at you.”
Well, over the years I’d been at the mercy of northern raiders, not to mention Viking berserkers and Cossacks. As long as Old Mac wasn’t splitting my neighbor’s head open with an axe right in front of me, I could handle what he dished out.
But I couldn’t say that.
“Maybe ’cause he’s not my dad,” I said quietly. “It’s always worse when it’s your own dad.” I’d lost my dad when I was ten, so I was guessing here. But it seemed like it would be true. “So, got big plans for New Year’s Eve?”
Meriwether smiled, and I blinked, taken aback at how it transformed her. She nodded. “There’s a school dance,” she murmured. “And my dad actually said I could go. For once. I’m going to my friend’s house and we’ll get dressed up together.”
That sounded like fingernails down a chalkboard to me, but she looked happy and I was glad she was escaping her dad for a while.
“No boyfriend?” I asked.
She made a face. “No one will ask me out. They’re too scared of my dad. But I’m hoping this guy named Lowell is there.” She let out a deep breath. “What about you?” she asked. “Do you have plans?”
I nodded. “Nothing too big.” Just a special magick circle with a bunch of immortals. Same old, same old. “Just some friends getting together. I’ll try to make it to midnight.” Since I got up before dawn these days, my head usually hit the pillow before ten. It was… embarrassing. I used to feel so much cooler. But, of course, that coolness had gone hand in hand with feeling half crazy and worthless. So I guess I didn’t miss it that much.
Someone came in and Meriwether left me to go wait on them. She was back in a few minutes, carrying some poster-board signs that she and I had made to advertise our new products. I have zero artistic talent, but Meriwether had done a great job, drawing little figures finding things with happy expressions. I left what I was doing and together she and I started hanging the signs with heavy double-sided tape. “What’s your dad like?” Meriwether asked suddenly as I held up a corner so she could tape it.
I hesitated. No one had asked me that in… ages. A really long time. I quickly compared my dad, who had been a dark, power-hungry king in medieval Iceland, with Old Mac. Not too much in common.
“Well, he’s dead,” I said, and Meriwether winced.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s okay. It was a long time ago.” Ha ha, you have no idea. Anyhoo, I let out a deep breath, allowing myself to think about my father, remember him for a few moments. Something I don’t usually do. “I… remember him as being kind of forbidding,” I said slowly. “My mother was with us more. He seemed like a stern character.”
“Did he travel, for work?” She pressed a strip of tape into place, then stepped back to admire our colorful sign, my carefully lettered words arching over the stick figures’ heads.
Why yes, it’s hard to loot and raid and subjugate other villages from one’s armchair. My father had been a king in the way that powerful men were kings over smaller territories, a long time ago. He’d increased lands under his rule by four times during the first ten years of my life. I nodded. “He taught us stuff sometimes,” I went on, not even knowing why I was bothering. “He was, um, in the military. He wanted us all to be brave and tough. My older brother adored him.” Sigmundur had tried to be just like Faðir in every way. He’d been sixteen when he died, but already hardened and skilled with weapons.
“Did your father yell?” Meriwether picked up the last sign and looked around for a good place to put it. I pointed to the front of the checkout counter, and she nodded. We headed over there and knelt to stick the sign up.
“When he yelled, it seemed like the whole… house shook,” I said. “People who worked for him were afraid of him.” I hadn’t even realized that until just now.
“Like my dad.” Meriwether carefully peeled off a piece of tape and stuck it in place.
“Yeah.” In a bizarre, completely inexplicable way.
“My dad’s always worse during the winter holidays,” Meriwether said. We heard Old Mac leave his pharmacy and come our way, and we quickly shut up and separated, busily concentrating on our different tasks. Slowly we drifted back toward each other and continued putting boxes and bottles on shelves.
“You said it was around this time that your mom…” I’m not a delicate or sensitive person, and stomping on other people’s feelings is usually not a problem for me. But I liked Meriwether, and Lord knew she’d been through enough without me making it worse.
“Yeah.” Meriwether concentrated on aligning each small box just so. “We were on our way back from a Christmas party and it was icy. My dad wasn’t with us.”
“You were in the same car?” Oh, jeez. That had happened to me, too; in fact, it was how I had first met River back in 1929, in France. But the person who had died had been practically a stranger, and her death had barely made a ripple in my consciousness. Things like that hadn’t really affected me—until the cabbie, two months ago. Part of what they were teaching me at River’s Edge was how to actually feel things with appropriate weight.
Meriwether nodded without looking at me. Instantly I got it: She felt guilty for surviving. And her dad couldn’t look at her without remembering that his wife and only son had died. And she hadn’t.
“I’m really sorry,” I said—maybe the second time in my life those words had ever come out of my mouth. But I did feel sorry for her—there was no way for her to win in this situation.
I remembered when I’d lived in a small village outside Naples, in Italy, in the 1650s. One of the last waves of the plague came through, and bodies were piling up. Later I read that half the people of Naples had died in that one outbreak. Half the people of a whole city. Half of them.
My little village was hard-hit. My neighbors died; their children died; the local priest died. People who had been genuinely good and kind, to me and to one another, all died within a matter of days. On Tuesday your neighbor would be working in her garden, and on Friday you’d walk past her body piled on top of other bodies in the street.
Not me. So many people, so much better than me, had died, and I was left standing to go on my merry way, because, hey, that town had become a big bummer. I kept surviving. Over and over and over.
Next to me, Meriwether sighed, then glanced back at the pharmacy.
“It just—should have been me, you know? It would have been so much better for everyone.” She got up and took the empty cartons out to throw them into the recycle bin.
I sat back on my heels, struck by that. Not a new thought—I’d seen it in countless movies, read it in books. Now I knew that Meriwether felt that way, for real, in her real life.
What about me? Had I ever felt that I should have died that night, 450 years ago? That maybe my older brother should have lived? He wouldn’t have run away, like I had. He might have seized the family’s power, found some followers, and gone after Reyn and his father to avenge our family.
Or one of my sisters? My oldest sister, Tinna, had been so smart and brave. My father’s face had lit up when she came into a room. I remembered her and my mother working in the kitchen—we had cooks and servants, but every Oestara—Easter—my mother would make her special egg bread. She and Tinna would knead the dough side by side, laughing and talking.
My next-oldest sister, Eydís, had been the family beauty and my most constant companion. Her hair was long, wavy, and a brilliant strawberry blond, like the sun when it first peeks over the horizon. Her eyes were clear and gray. Even as an eleven-year-old, she’d been known for her beauty, and basically everyone was waiting for her to be four years older so they could see how really beautiful she would be as an adult. She and I had done everything together, made up all kinds of games, studied together, slept in the same room.
Then there was my little brother, Háakon. He’d been thin and pale, almost delicate. I’d seen my father looking at him sometimes with a bemused expression, as if wondering how this boy had come from the same union that produced all the rest of us. But Háakon had been sweet, not a tattler, and a faithful follower of me and Eydís as we marched around with sticks on our shoulders or practiced our rock throwing.
When the raiders broke down the door to my father’s study, where we’d been barricaded in, I was clinging to my mother’s skirts in terror. Reyn’s father—the aptly named Erik the Bloodletter—had lunged forward with a roar, and I’d felt the swift jerk of my mother’s body as he’d severed her head. She’d fallen backward right on top of me, and I’d lain, covered by the wide skirts of her wool robe, until it was all silent less than five minutes later.
Should I have died that night? Yes. Reyn’s father had shouted that none should be left alive. My siblings had all had swords or daggers in their hands, children standing up to an unbeatable foe. I’d been cowering behind my mother. Which had saved me.
Why? I’d accepted the stunning reality that I was still alive, that my family was dead. I’d never questioned why that was or if it should be that way. Until now.
“I don’t pay you to sit around!” Old Mac’s roar startled me and I was yanked back to the present day, where my boss was standing in the aisle, cheeks red with anger. Behind him Meriwether made an unhappy face. “And what’s all this junk?” He gestured angrily to a couple of our new signs. “No one said you could put this crap up!”
Meriwether’s face flushed, and then Old Mac ripped down our signs and threw them to the floor. I clenched my teeth shut so I wouldn’t start shrieking in fury.
“Dad!” Meriwether said, her face crumpling. “We worked hard on those!”
He whirled on her as if she were a grass snake and he was a mongoose. “Nobody asked you to! I don’t need your stupid, ugly posters around!”
Meriwether’s eyes flashed. “They aren’t stupid—” she began, but suddenly Old Mac grabbed a small plastic jar of vitamin-C capsules and hurled it. It all happened so fast—her eyes went wide, her voice choked, and before I knew what was happening, my hand snapped up, I hissed something, and the jar took a small, crazy zigzag away from Meriwether at the last second. It hit the wall beside her and cracked, then dropped to the ground. The lid popped off and gelcaps rolled everywhere.
We all stood still in the shocking silence. Old Mac looked stunned—more than stunned. He looked kind of gray and he leaned to one side, unsteady on his feet.
“I… I didn’t mean—” he said in a shaking voice.
Then I realized: I had made magick quickly, without thinking. Something in me had reached deep into my ancient subconscious and come up with goddess-knew-what spell to deflect the jar.
But I wasn’t skilled at white magick. I didn’t know enough. So the magick that had come out had been the magick a Terävä would make, which I was: I’d taken energy from Old Mac to do it.
If I said anything, I would no doubt make this situation much, much worse. So Meriwether and I watched as Old Mac shook his head, as if in disbelief that he had done such a thing. Then he turned awkwardly and made his way down the aisle to the back room, trailing a hand along a shelf to help himself balance.
What had I done? Oh God. But what had my options been? Let Meriwether get hit by that jar? It was plastic and not that big, but it still would have really hurt.
Meriwether stood silently, tears running down her face.
“Does he do stuff like this? Throw stuff? Does he hit you?” Because I’d have to go kill him, if he did.
Meriwether shook her head. “He’s never done anything like this before.”
“He looked pretty sorry,” I admitted. “You said he’s just—super unhappy right now. Plus, you know, he’s a butt.” Inside I was shrieking about the harm I might have done with my spell.
Excerpted from Darkness Falls by Tiernan, Cate Copyright © 2012 by Tiernan, Cate. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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