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By Joy Nash
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2008 Joy Nash
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAD 132
A wolf could go where a woman could not.
Gwendolyn padded through night-shrouded mountains, her tracks disappearing like whispers of forgotten breath. Newly budded branches, colorless under the spring moon, sighed in her wake. Human thoughts tumbled behind gray lupine eyes. She risked much, venturing this close to the cavern where she'd once been a prisoner of Deep Magic. The heart-wrenching despair of that time clung to her paws like refuse from a dung heap.
The teasing scent of a hare wafted on the thin breeze. Her wolf's heart battered her ribs, urging her to the hunt. Panic flashed. The part of her mind that clung to humanity recoiled. She did not dare sink so far into the wolf's instincts, for fear of not finding her way out again.
Bounding up a rock-scrabbled path, she put temptation behind her. Dawn was not far off. She could not afford any distractions.
Her destination came into view. Lupine ears flattened. Delicate nostrils flared, plucking the odor of man from the mix of scents in the air. It was but a single Legionary, leaning on his spear, but like rats, more of his kind lurked nearby. Torchlight glinted on his armor, a harsh note in the dark melody of wilderness.
The man guarded an encampment the Roman army had recently constructed on a bluff overlooking the swamps surrounding Avalon. Gwen crept as close as she dared to the edge of the camp's encircling ditch. The excavated turf had been piled high and topped with wooden stakes to form a tight palisade around rows of tents. The structure had an air of permanence Gwen did not like.
She'd been watching the camp since the first day the soldiers had arrived, a moon ago. At least thirty men, far too many for comfort. Avalon had fewer than twenty Druids-and that was if one included the children. If soldiers discovered the illegal settlement, retribution would be swift and horrible.
So far, the Romans had not ventured into the swamps. Their days were spent exploring the warren of caves and abandoned mines below their camp. This did not reassure Gwen in the least. The soldiers could only be looking for silver. If they found it-and Gwen knew it was there-they would never leave.
Cyric, of course, had set powerful spells to hide the Druid mine. And Gwen knew her grandfather's Light was more than enough to deter a hundred inquisitive soldiers. But she could not seem to quench the acid panic that ate at her gut whenever she imagined the Romans somehow stumbling past his illusions. She wanted to add a spell of Deep Magic to Cyric's protections. But there was no sense in even suggesting such a thing.
Cyric forbade Deep Magic.
The fur on her neck bristled. Still crouching, she hid herself more fully behind an unruly clump of moor grass. A faint, rhythmic vibration shook the ground beneath her paws. A horseman, traveling toward the camp. A moment later, the sentry heard the traveler's approach. He unsheathed his sword and peered up the muddy track.
A huge black warhorse cantered into view. Gwen blinked. Dark light-deep blue eclipsed by fathomless black-surrounded the rider's helmeted head and armored shoulders. But surely, the aura was a trick of the moonlight. She rubbed a paw over her eyes. The light remained, streaming in black sparks along the newcomer's billowing red army cape. Her stomach lurched. She'd encountered magic of that color before. The Dark spell that had trapped her had carried that same blue-black aura.
"Who goes there?"
The man reined in his mount with a negligent motion. "Titus Opimius Strabo. At ease, soldier."
Gwen felt the guard's astonishment. His sword dropped; his spine snapped into a rigid line. "Legate Strabo! We had no advance word of your arrival." He shot a glance down the path in the direction from which Strabo had ridden. "Your escort ..."
"No escort. I travel alone."
"But sir, is that wise? There could be brigands about. Brittunculi-"
Strabo swung from his saddle, his booted feet striking the ground with a thud. He was a tall man, much taller than the sentry. When he spoke, his voice held a knife's edge of menace.
"You doubt my ability to best a barbarian, soldier?"
The smaller man backed up a pace, hastily sheathing his weapon. "No, sir. Of course not. My apologies, sir."
Strabo advanced toward the man. The shimmering aura trailed his movement. Gwen could not tear her eyes from it. Magic was rare among Romans, yet this man's magic surrounded him with a halo of Dark Magic no Druid dedicated to the Light possessed.
Deep Magic, bound by Darkness. A chill chased along her spine. Her tail lowered. Who was this soldier? Why was he here? His aura was strong, and unrestrained by Light. If his Deep Magic pierced Cyric's wards, it would mean disaster for Avalon.
Strabo's gaze swept the camp perimeter, lingering uncannily on Gwen's clump of grass. She went still as death. A Word sprung to mind. A not-there spell seeped into the space between them.
He looked away. She exhaled.
"Have you seen movement in the past hour, soldier?"
"Movement? No, sir. The night has been quiet."
Strabo stared out over the swamp to the mist beyond. "I'm in pursuit of a Celt male. A traveling minstrel."
Every muscle in Gwen's body went rigid. Rhys.
"He entered the swamp just below this camp. Within sight of your post."
The sentry shifted on his feet. "I saw nothing, sir."
"Difficult to see anything with eyes closed, I'll wager. Ten lashes for your slothfulness, soldier. Inform your centurion in the morning."
"Yes, sir," the man all but choked out.
Strabo eyed the man, frowning. "I'll give you another chance to be useful. Is there a barbarian settlement nearby?"
"No, sir. There's the odd band of brigands, but permanent settlements were cleared from this area decades ago."
"Then where, I ask you, might the minstrel have gone?"
"I'm sure I don't know, sir."
Strabo gave a derisive snort. "Of course you d-"
He stopped abruptly, pivoting, his gaze once again veering to Gwen's clump of moor grass. The night sky was retreating before a pink glow. The dawn wind shifted. Strabo's warhorse, which had been tearing at a clump of mud-spattered turf, lifted its head, nostrils flaring. It tossed its head and pawed the ground.
At Strabo's sharp order, the sentry caught the animal's reins. Strabo himself did not look away from Gwen's hiding place. A heartbeat passed ... two, three ...
The Roman's Dark aura deepened. Swirled. Sparked. The display was plain to Gwen's eyes, though the mundane-witted sentry, occupied with soothing Strabo's mount, took no notice.
Deep Magic sought her with tendrils of Darkness. Gwen gathered her Light and bolstered her protection. Her magic was strong, almost as strong as Cyric's. It would hold. It had to.
Look away. There's nothing here.
But Strabo did not look away. He paced to the edge of the camp's encircling ditch, his gaze narrowing dangerously. Gwen shrank back, paws slipping on the mud.
The sentry's head jerked. "A wolf, sir? Where?"
"There. Behind that clump of grass."
"I don't see it, sir."
"Nevertheless, it is there."
Strabo snatched the sentry's spear, his eyes burning with a predator's fire Gwen understood only too well. But when the weapon flew, she was already gone.
Gwen's paws scrabbled for purchase on the muddy slope, her heart pummeling her ribs. The startled shout of the sentry scattered into the wind behind her. Strabo had seen through her illusion. He'd trailed Rhys from Isca. Why? Had her brother known he was being followed? Thank the Great Mother he'd disappeared into the mist before this Roman sorcerer caught him.
She bolted deeper into the hills, praying she could reach her secret sanctuary undetected. She circled it once, scouting behind to be sure she'd outrun any pursuit. Slipping under the outcrop of rock and into the narrow crevice, she turned to keep the dawn light in view as her pulse slowed and her wits calmed.
She crouched, silent, her ears slanted forward. Nothing. A sniff of the air revealed only the scent of spring. Mud and moss. A young clump of goosefoot.
She nosed to the cave's entrance and peered down the slope into the deserted ravine. The sky was awash with color; the sun would soon break over the ridge. Another slice of panic cut, one that had nothing to do with Roman soldiers. If she were missing from the village at dawn, she would suffer Cyric's disapproval. And Rhys, if he were on Avalon, was surely looking for her. He would not be pleased to find her gone-again. And if he guessed what she'd been doing ...
Gwen's guilt, never far from the surface, rose. She scuttled backward into the shadow of the cave until her tail struck stone. She wished Ardra were beside her; the she-wolf never failed to calm her. But Ardra had given birth to six mewling cubs just the night before. Gwen's companion wouldn't run in the far hills for some weeks yet.
She drew a centering breath and summoned the Words to mind. Words of Light to chase the Deep Magic of the wolf into the recesses of her consciousness.
The wolf refused to go.
Nauseating terror bled through Gwen's veins. A year had passed since the time she's spent trapped as a wolf, but the effects had not faded. If anything, they'd grown worse. Her mastery of her Deep Magic had slipped dangerously. She could not always control the wolf's emergence, and that was bad enough. But her greater fear was that the time would come when she could no longer banish it.
With desperate effort, she quieted her terror. The Words rang again in her mind, like bells inside her skull. They were sounds in the language of the ancients who had raised the mysterious sacred stones across Britain. Words of Light, taught to her by Cyric. But Cyric did not know of the wolf-the spell she'd crafted to banish it was her own. A chain for the beast's Deep Magic. So far, it had not broken.
After a fierce hesitation, the wolf inside her bowed before the Light. Relief flooded Gwen's veins, even as the change ripped through her body. Her lungs constricted, her guts twisted. Bone, muscle, and sinew burned. With a shudder, she surrendered.
The agony tore at her with wolf's teeth. Clamping her jaws shut, she willed herself not to cry out. There were spells she could use to mute the pain, spells she had crafted for others, but she did not use them for herself. She deserved the pain. She was weak. Too weak. She could not resist the lure of the magic Cyric had forbidden her.
Searing heat spread, melting her bones. Her limbs stretched; her body elongated. Her face contorted, skull and skin shifting. If she could hover above her own body, what would the change look like? Horrible, surely. Evil. A perversion of nature. Anyone watching would surely avert his eyes.
But Marcus Aquila had not.
The thought shone like a beacon in her mind as fur smoothed into skin. Flesh tingled. The worst of the pain passed, lingering only as an uncomfortable vibration in her bones, a dim buzzing in her ears. Gwen lay on the damp earth, panting, too tired even to curl in upon her naked human body.
Marcus Aquila had seen the change, and he had not looked away.
She closed her eyes. The heat blossoming in her cheeks had nothing to do with magic. A man's face appeared in her mind-familiar, because even though she'd only seen him once, he'd lived in her dreams ever since. He was exotic and beautiful, with eyes and hair the color of freshly tilled earth. His golden skin was so unlike the ruddy complexions of the men who lived on Avalon. His clear brow, firm jaw, and straight nose were engraved upon her memory.
Marcus Aquila, a Roman, was-improbably so-her brother's closest friend. When Gwen had been trapped in darkness, Marcus had been the only man Rhys had trusted to help free her. As such, Marcus was the only person apart from her twin brother who knew the secret of the wolf.
But only Marcus had seen her change.
While Rhys had worked feverishly to dismantle their cousin's Dark spell, Marcus had entered the twisted bowels of the cavern. The wolf had wanted to kill him. If Gwen hadn't been wounded, weak to the point of exhaustion, Marcus Aquila would now be dead.
She'd collapsed and he'd scooped her into his arms. His touch, surprisingly, had comforted the wolf. Just when she thought her humanity had completely vanished, Marcus had called her back. He'd watched as she'd reclaimed her woman's body. His woolen shirt had been rough against her bare skin, his breath warm on her temple. Some unfathomable emotion flickered in his eyes. His arms flexed around her, his muscles banding like iron. Vaguely, she remembered emerging from the cave. But afterward ...
Days later, when she woke from her fevered sleep, Marcus had been gone.
Now, she pushed herself upright, trying to shake off the memories. Like burrs, they clung to her soul. Her chest felt strange, as if the past bound her ribs too tightly for breath. There was no use dwelling on such things, no use allowing her thoughts to drift so often to Marcus Aquila. He was Roman, and had no magic. Gwen was Druid, chosen to be the next Guardian of Avalon. They were as far apart as the earth and the moon.
Woodenly, she groped for her tunic, slipped on her shoes. She lifted her mother's pendant from its niche, and placed it around her neck. The silver was old and powerful, imbued with the protection of the Light. The wolf did not like it. The triple spiral of the Great Mother rested in the center of the pattern. A four-armed circle woven with vines encircled it. Gwen passed her hand over the pendant's face, straining to feel a spark of its Light. She could not. This was the price her treacherous Deep Magic demanded. Her powers were gone; they would not return before sunset.
A basket lay nearby, half-filled with the herbs she'd gathered as an excuse for crossing the swamps. She grasped the handle and eased into the burgeoning daylight. Fortunately, not a soul was in sight. Out of habit, she cast out her senses, searching for hidden dangers. She came up against a wall of deadness before she remembered her power was gone. The sun hadn't yet appeared over the high ridge of hills. Perhaps, if she hurried, she could reach Avalon before Mared awakened. She was in no mood to endure the old healer's scolding.
She hurried downhill, intent on reaching the cove where she'd left her raft. It was cloaked in illusion-she hoped it would not take long to find. In the aftermath of shifting, she was as much at the mercy of her own spells as a stranger.
She skidded down the steep slope to the muddy shore bordering the swamp, searching the bank for nonmagical landmarks. A clump of willows, an oak sapling. The lair of a fox. A large hazel shrub stood between her and the raft's mooring place. As she rounded the newly budded branches, she swallowed a cry of shock.
Strabo stood examining her raft.
He'd removed his helmet. His complexion was swarthy; his black hair was clipped short in the Roman style. Mud spattered his muscular legs, and his boots had sunk into the silt at the edge of the swamp. He was not a young man, but far from softened by age. His body looked as if it were hewn from rock.
With her magic muted, Gwen couldn't see his aura. Often, she could anticipate a person's magical intent by noting subtle changes in the color encircling head and shoulders. To be deprived of this talent now, when she desperately needed it, was like walking with her eyes covered.
She started to ease away. The Roman's head came around sharply, his heavy brows slanting downward as he focused on the hazel shrub. Great Mother, what should she do? Run? Remain motionless and hope that by some miracle she escaped his notice? She couldn't fight him, not without her magic.
Flat, dark eyes locked with hers. His eyes widened slightly. His lips parted, revealing even, white teeth. For several long heartbeats, time was suspended. Then he lifted one hand, with fingers spread. The gesture seemed almost like an entreaty. Or preparation for a spell.
Gwen's wits abruptly returned. She turned and fled, scrabbling up the steep trail with all the desperation of a hunted beast. Deprived of her own magic, her only hope of escape was to reach the shelter of Avalon's mists before Strabo's spell caught her.
Basket thudding against her thigh, she swerved onto the trail that afforded the thickest cover. It skirted the swamp, disappearing into a heavy fog. No ordinary morning mist, but part of the spells of protection Cyric had woven around Avalon. She prayed her grandfather's magic would hold.
Excerpted from Deep Magic by Joy Nash Copyright © 2008 by Joy Nash. Excerpted by permission.
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