Aiden studied her for a long moment. “You could stay here with Ari and Neall. You don’t have to go.”
“Of course I do. I’m the Gatherer. I’m Death’s Mistress. My place is on a battlefield.” Morag sighed. “I should have killed the Master Inquisitor when I had the chance. Maybe things would be different now if I had.”
“Maybe,” Aiden agreed. “And maybe if you had, the battle would have come sooner, before we had any chance to meet it.”
“I gave him a chance to leave, and to leave us be. I won’t give him a second chance. I won’t give any of them a second chance.”
Aiden shifted uncomfortably.
None of the Faeexcept Ashkwere comfortable with that aspect of her gift, but until last summer, it had been something that had been mentioned in old stories and songs. Unlike the other Fae whose gift made them Death’s Servants, she could gather a spirit from one who was dying, not just from one who was already dead. And she could gather a spirit from someone who was very much among the living. She could ride through a village and leave nothing but corpses in her wake. It was one thing to know that was an aspect of the Gatherer’s power; it was quite another to realize the person who wielded that gift was willing to use it.
And she would use it. Had used it. By the time she’d found the Witch’s Hammer last summer, she had killed all of the Inquisitors he’d brought with him to Sylvalan. She’d hoped that would convince him to leave Sylvalan and never come back, but that had been a foolish, futile hope. So the Gatherer would follow the Hunter into battle, and Death would be her weapon.
Morag brushed her black hair away from her face. Ashk and Neall were coming down the trail, both looking solemn. She turned away and walked to the large outdoor table where Padrick waitedand she wondered if the Gatherer or the Hunter would be Death’s true mistress in the days ahead.
Ashk studied the faces of the people sitting around the table. Padrick had asked to talk to just the Fae at this gathering since he would be meeting with the squires, magistrates, and captains of the guard at another time to plan the human defenses.
Good people, she thought as she studied them. Strong-willed people.
Aiden, the Bard, with his sharp mind and tongue and his passionate desire to protect the witches, the Daughters of the Great Mother. Lyrra, the Muse, whose gift nurtured the poets and storytellers. Morag, whose passion for life made her even more dangerous as Death’s Mistress. Morphia, the Lady of Dreams and Morag’s sister. Sheridan, the Clan’s Lord of the Hawks, who had recently become Morphia’s lover. Neall and Ari, who had changed the lives of many of the Fae around the table simply by being the people they were. And Padrick, Baron of Breton, gentry and Fae, Ashk’s friend, lover, and husband.
Combined with the humans, would they be able to hold on to the things they held dear and to keep them safe?
Padrick unrolled a map of Sylvalan and placed a stone on each corner to hold it down.
“I’ve heard from two of the western barons,” Padrick said. “Despite Baron Liam’s absence for the vote at the barons’ council a few weeks agoor, perhaps, because of his absence after his impassioned speechthe vote went against all the decrees the eastern barons were trying to get accepted so that they would apply to all of Sylvalan. But there was no vote to demand that the eastern barons restore the rights of the women who live in their counties. Which leaves the people in those eastern counties at the mercy of the men who rule them.”
“That is the human way, is it not?” Aiden asked.
Ashk could hear the effort he was making to keep his voice neutral.
“It is,” Padrick said. “A baron can rule as he pleases and do what he pleases. The decrees provide a standard we’re all expected to honor, but no one is naive enough to believe every man with power wields it in the same way. However, this has left the eastern barons who sold themselves to the Inquisitors twisting in the wind, especially after the news that an entire village of women chose death for themselves and their daughters rather than live with the constrictions that had been put on them. The fact that the news traveled so swiftly and couldn’t be contained has also changed things. Any eastern baron who had considered bringing in the Black Coats won’t do it now, at the risk of having his own people turn against him. Those men can’t be counted as allies, but they aren’t enemies. At least, not yet. That leaves the rest of Sylvalan standing against the eastern barons who are controlled by the Inquisitors.”
“Stalemate,” Aiden said.
Padrick shook his head. “I don’t think so. If the Inquisitors had been willing to let us live as we choose, they never would have crossed the Una River. So I don’t think a vote in the barons’ council is going to stop them; it will just change the way they attack.” He ran his finger down the eastern side of the map, from the north down to the southern coast. “They’ve been pushing steadily east and south, always pushing out from a place where a baron has reshaped his county to match the Inquisitors’ demands. From what I can tell, since their return this spring, they’ve concentrated on destroying the witches to eliminate the magic in the Old Places. Or they did until Liam gave them another enemy to focus on.”
“He wasn’t the only baron the Black Coats focused on,” Ashk said softly.
“No, he wasn’t,” Padrick replied grimly. “That was a mistake on their part. They may know of the Fae, but they don’t know the Fae.”
Ashk met Padrick’s eyes for a long moment, then focused on the map. He was right. If the Black Coats had realized what kind of enemy they would awaken by attacking Breton and Bretonwood, they would have kept their distance.
“You think they’re going to attack the baron you helped?” she asked.
Padrick hesitated. “I think if this Master Inquisitor is as intelligent and powerful as he seems, what he’s going to focus on destroying is this.” His finger landed heavily on the map.
“The Mother’s Hills,” Ashk whispered, feeling a chill go through her.
“As long as the House of Gaian rules the Mother’s Hills, there will be witches. As long as there are witches, there will be vessels to embrace and channel the Great Mother’s power and breathe magic into the world. As long as there is magic in Sylvalan, there will be the Small Folkand the Fae. So, yes, once he realizes those hills are the wellspring of magic in Sylvalan because of who rules there, he’ll throw everything he can at those witches until he destroys themor until he and those who follow him are destroyed. And Liam, and the people of Willowsbrook, are standing squarely in his path.”
Neall leaned closer to the map. “Those hills cover a lot of land, and I doubt the eastern barons can gather enough men to form an army big enough to take them.”
“If the Inquisitors control the barons of Wolfram and Arktos, and it seems likely they do, they can gather an army that’s strong enough to be a real threat,” Padrick said.
“If they divide the army and have half swing below the hills to come up on the other side, they’ll be attacking from both directions,” Neall said.
“So we block the way,” Ashk said. “Follow the curve of the hills to the south and north. If the barons who rule the counties there will stand against the Inquisitors with the help of the Clans in those areas, there would be no threat to the midlands or the western side of the hills, so the midland barons could send warriors to defend the gaps.”
“Assuming you can get enough of the Fae to help,” Aiden said with a trace of bitterness.
“If they want to spend time in the world, they can help defend the world,” Ashk said coldly.
An uneasy silence settled around the table until Padrick finally cleared his throat. “There might be another problem with the Fae’s presence in those southern counties. I’ve gathered that their . . . manners . . . haven’t made the humans think well of them. The barons may not accept the Fae being among their people.”
“They’d better accept it if they don’t want to be outnumbered and crushed in a battle,” Ashk snapped. Then she relented. She’d heard enough over the years about how the Fae dealt with humans in other parts of Sylvalan to understand why the humans wouldn’t trust the Fae, even to fight a common enemy. “All right. We’ll head for the southern end of the Mother’s Hills first to convince the barons there to accept us as allies. Letters from you might ease things.”
“You’ll have them.”
They talked for another hour, but it was more to confirm the things she and Padrick had already decided. A meeting of all the western barons would take place in Breton in a few days. Ashk had sent out the call to all the western Clans to have some of the huntsmen from each Clan join her. Now she’d divide those men, sending some to the northern end of the Mother’s Hills and some to the southand some would go to Willowsbrook. She hoped Baron Liam was as open-minded as Padrick thought. Based on what she knew about the Fae beyond the west, Liam and his people were about to meet something they hadn’t seen before.
The meeting concluded, they’d all risen to stretch their legs and get something to eat when Ashk noticed the woman standing far enough away not to intrude on their discussion, but just as obviously waiting for her attention.
As Ashk walked over to meet her guest, tension tightened her shoulders.
“Blessings of the day to you, Lady Ashk,” the woman said.
“Blessings of the day, Gwynith,” Ashk replied. “Forgive my being blunt, but I’ve a long journey ahead of me and much to do before I go. What brings you here?”
“I’ll be heading for the midlands myself come morning,” Gwynith said. “I came down this way to tell you.”
Ashk frowned. “A Lady of the Moon doesn’t need to tell me her plans to travel.”
“That’s why I had to tell you. All the western Clans have heard the Hunter’s call, and we’ve heard about the Black Coats, so I had to tell you because I don’t know how this might change what you need to do.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dianna’s power is waning.” Gwynith frowned. “No, not waning, exactly, but there’s a . . . challenger . . . and those of us who share the gift of the moon are being drawn together to find out who will ascend to become the new Lady of the Moonand the Huntress.”
Ashk said nothing for a moment. She didn’t approve of Dianna or the Huntress’s refusal to do anything to protect the witches and the Old Places, but at least she was a familiar adversary. A new Huntress . . . Gwynith was right. For good or ill, this could change things. “Then I wish you well.”
Gwynith shook her head. “I’m not the one. I feel the call, so I go to bear witness, and to offer my pledge of loyalty to the one who commands my gift. But I wanted you to know, if I have to choose between the Huntress and the Hunter . . . You need only ask, and I’ll do whatever you need.”
Knowing Gwynith could be stripped of her power if she defied whoever became the Lady of the Moon, Ashk said, “Let’s hope you don’t have to make that choice.”