When it comes to the fantasy genre, the epic reads tend to get the most attention, with their clinking swords, garrulous monarchs, and unruly dragons. But some of the most compelling series are coming from the world of urban fantasy these days, with tough-talking, complex heroes and heroines, mix-and-match genre elements, and worlds at once both recognizable and innovative. Here […]
Includes the new stories...
“Roses in Winter”
…and reader favorites
“Alpha and Omega”
“The Star of David”
“In Red, with Pearls”
“One of the best urban fantasy anthologies I’ve ever read.”—The BiblioSanctum
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Read an Excerpt
Herein is the ill-fated romance between Ariana and Samuel, the first half of the story that continues in Silver Borne. This is also an origin story of sorts, because how he met Ariana is also tied up with the story of the witch, his grandmother, who held Samuel and his father for such a long time. I have to say that if it had not been for the constant requests for this story, I, usually a teller of happier tales, would have left this one alone.
As a historical note—and for those who need to know how old Samuel and Bran are—Christianity came to Wales very early, perhaps as early as the first or second century with the Romans. When exactly the events of this novella took place, neither Samuel nor Bran could tell me. Bran just smiled like a boy without cares—so I knew it hurt him to remember—and said, “We didn’t pay attention to time that way. Not then.” Samuel told me, “When you get just so old, those first days blur together.” I am not a werewolf, but I can, after all this time, tell when Samuel is lying to me.
I do know that the events in this story happen a long, long time before Moon Called.
Three weeks to the day after I buried my youngest child, and several days after I buried my oldest—a young woman who would never become older—someone knocked at my door.
I rolled off my sleeping mat to my feet but made no move to answer the knock. It was pitch-dark outside, and the only reason anyone knocked at my door in the middle of the night was because someone was ill. All of my knowledge of herb lore and healing had not been able to save my wife or my children. If someone was ill, they were better off without me.
“I can hear you,” said my da’s voice gruffly. “Let me in.”
Another day, before the death of my family, I would have been surprised. It had been a long time since I’d heard my father’s voice. But my da, he’d always known when I was in trouble. That insight had outlasted my childhood.
I was beyond caring about anything, expected or unexpected. Being used to doing what he asked, I opened the door and stepped back.
The man standing outside entered quickly, careful not to lose the heat of the evening’s fire. The hearth in the center of my home was banked and covered for the night, and I wouldn’t fuel it again until the morning. With the door shut, the room was too dark to see because the window openings were also covered against the cold night air.
I did not see how he did it because there was no sound of striking flint, but he lit the tallow candle. He had always kept a candle on the ledge, just inside the door, where one of the rocks that formed the walls of the house stuck out. After he had gone and left the hut to me, I found it practical to leave one there as well.
In that dim but useful light, he pulled down the hood of his tattered cloak, and I saw his lined face, which looked older and more weather-beaten than when I’d last seen him, a dozen or more seasons ago.
His hair was threaded through with hoary gray, and his beard was an unfamiliar snow-white. He moved with a limp that he hadn’t had the last time I’d seen him, but other than that he looked good for an old man. He set down the big pack he carried on his back and the leather bag that held his pipes. He shrugged off his outerwear and hung it up beside the door where my da had always hung such things.
“The crows told me that you needed me,” he said to my silence.
He seldom spoke of uncanny things, my da, and only to the family—which was down to just me, as my younger brother had died four years ago of a wasting sickness. But Da was better at predicting things and knowing things than the hedge witch who held sway in our village. He also had an easier time lighting fires or candles than any other person I knew, wet wood, poor tinder, or untrimmed wick—it didn’t matter to him.
“I don’t know how you can help,” I told him, my voice harsh from lack of use. “They are all dead. My wife, my children.”
He looked down, and I knew that it wasn’t news to him, that the crows—or whatever magic had spoken to him—had told him about their deaths.
“Well, then,” he said, “it was time for me to come.” He looked up and met my eyes, and I could see the worry in his face. “Though I thought that I ran ahead of trouble, not behind.”
The words should have sent a chill down my spine, but I foolishly believed that the worst thing that could happen to me already had.
“How long are you staying?” I asked.
He tilted his head as if he heard something that I did not. “For the winter,” he told me at last, and I tried not to feel relief that I would not be alone. I tried not to feel anything but grief. My family deserved my grief—and I, who had failed to save them, did not deserve to feel relief.
• • •
It was a harsh winter, as if nature herself mourned with me. My da, he didn’t get in the way of my grieving, but he did make sure I got up every morning and did the things that were needful to get through the day. He didn’t push, just watched me until I did the right thing. A man worked, and he tended those things that needed tending—I knew those lessons from my childhood. He wasn’t a man people gainsaid, and that was as true of me as it was the rest of the village.
People came by to greet him. Some of the attention was because he’d been respected and liked, but more was because he could be coaxed to play for them. Music wasn’t uncommon in our village, most folk sang and played a little drum or pipe. But most folk didn’t sing like my da. When my mother died, no one had been surprised when he’d taken back to traveling, singing for his room and board, as he’d been doing when he first met her.
People brought him a little of whatever they had to pay for his music, and between that and the medicine I traded in barter, we had enough for winter stores even though I hadn’t put things back as I usually did. I hadn’t been worried about whether there was enough food to eat or enough wood to burn.
I hadn’t worried about myself because I’d have as soon joined my little family in their cold graves. With my da here, that route now smacked of cowardice—and if I forgot that sometimes, my da’s cool gaze reminded me.
It felt odd, though, not to have someone to take care of; for so long I had been the head of the family. I was not in the habit of worrying about my da: he wasn’t the kind of person who needed anyone to fuss over him. He’d survived his childhood—not that he’d spoken of it to me beyond that it had been rough. But my ma, she’d known whatever it had been, and it had sparked fierce pride tinged with sorrow and tenderness. I knew only that he’d left his home while still a stripling boy. He had traveled and thrived in a world hostile to strangers.
He was tough, and it gave him confidence that had backed down my ma’s folk when they objected to her marrying a man from outside the village. He was smart—and more than that, he was wise. When he spoke on village matters, which he didn’t do often, the villagers listened to him.
He’d survived traveling the world after my mother’s death—and he was still lit with the joy that made my home warmer than the logs on the hearth, though the chill left by the death of my little ones and their ma was deep.
My da, he could survive anything, and his example forced me to do the same. Even when I didn’t want to.
On the shortest night of the year, when the full moon hung in the sky, my grandmother came to us. I’d returned to my duties as village healer, so I didn’t even think of not answering a knock in the dead of night. Da had gotten used to the middle-of-the-night summonses that were the lot of a healer. He didn’t stir, though I was certain he was awake.
I opened the door to a stranger. She was a wild-looking young woman with hair that flowed in unkempt, tangled tresses all the way to the back of her knees. Her face was uncanny and so beautiful that I didn’t pay much heed to the beast that crouched beside her, huge though he was.
“The son,” she said to me. The magic flows strongly in you. Her voice echoed in my head.
“No,” said my da, who had exploded to his feet the moment I opened the door. He stepped between us. “You will not have him.”
“You shouldn’t have run away,” she told him. “But I forgive you because you brought a gift with you.”
“I will never willingly serve you, Mother,” my da said in a voice I’d never heard from him before. “I told you we are done.”
“You speak as though I would give you a choice,” she said. She glanced down, and the beast I had taken for a dog lunged at my da.
I grabbed the cudgel I kept beside the door, but the beast was faster than I was. It had time to bury its fangs in my da’s gut and jerk him between us. The only reason I didn’t brain Da was because I dropped the cudgel midswing. And after that, there was no chance to fight.
• • •
She turned us into monsters—werewolves—though I didn’t hear that term for many years. She bound us to her service with witchcraft and more cruelly through her ability to break into our minds—in this she had more trouble with Da than with the rest of her wolves. Though she looked like a young woman to all of my senses, I think she was centuries old when she came knocking on my door.
The first transformation from human to werewolf is harsh under the best of circumstances. I now know that most people attacked brutally enough to be Changed die. The witch had some way to interfere, to hold her victims to life until they became the beasts she desired. Even so, I would have died if my da had not anchored me. I heard his voice in my head, cool and demanding, and I had to obey him, had to live. That he was able to do this while undergoing a like fate to mine is a fair insight into the man my da is. That I lived was something that took me a very long time to forgive him for.
I do not know, nor do I wish to, how long I lived as a werewolf serving my grandmother. It could have been a decade or centuries, though I think it was closer to the latter than the former. It was long enough that I had time to forget my given name. I deliberately left it behind because I was no longer that person, but I had not thought to lose it altogether. My name was not the only memory I lost.
I no longer remembered my first wife’s face or the faces of my children. Though sometimes in dreams, even all these centuries later, I hear the cry of “Taid! Taid!” as a child calls for his father. The voice, I believe, is that of my firstborn son. In the dream, he is lost, and I cannot find him no matter where I look.
My da likes to say that sometimes forgetfulness is a gift. Perhaps had I remembered them clearly, remembered what I’d once had, I would not have survived my time serving the witch. I learned to live in the moment, and the wolf who shared my body and soul made it easy: a beast feels no remorse for the past nor hope for the future.
Once upon a time, there was a fair maiden of the faerie courts who rode away from a hunting party, chasing something she could glimpse just ahead of her. Eventually she came to a glade where a strange and handsome man awaited her with food and drink. She ate the food and drank his wine and stayed with the lord of the forest even when the rest of her people found her, sending them back to the court without her.
Time passed, and she gave birth to a girl child who grew up as talented as she was wise. In a human tale, this couple would have had a happily-ever-after ending. But the fae are not human, and they live a very, very long time. Happily-ever-after is seldom long enough for them, and that was true for these two lovers. But for a time they were as happy as any.
They called their daughter Ariana, which means silver, as she early on had an affinity for that metal. As she grew up, it became apparent that her power harked back to the height of fae glory. By the time she reached adulthood, her power outshone even the forest lord’s, and he was centuries old and steeped with the magic of the forest.
It is true that the high-court fae were notoriously fickle. It is also true that a forest lord has two aspects: the first is civilized and beautiful as any of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the second is wild as the forest he rules. The sidhe lady eventually grew bored, or perhaps her distaste for her lover’s wilder half became too strong. Whatever the reason, she left her grown daughter and her lover without a farewell or notice, to return to the court.
The forest lord mourned his lover only briefly, for his kind, too, are as light in their affections as they are terrible in their hatreds. For a while after she left, he still loved his daughter and took joy in her. But when her power eclipsed his own, he grew jealous and spiteful. When the other fae took notice of her gifts and came to her with gold and jewels to entice her to share her magic, his jealousy outgrew his love and made it as nothing.
The pack customarily bedded down in the woods behind the witch’s cottage. It was mountainous there, but not particularly cold, though winter still held snow and autumn a fine frost. Our coats were thick, and the interior of the cottage was smoky, too warm, and reeked unpleasantly of rotting things both physical and spiritual.
I don’t know about my da or the others, but I was happy to be out of the witch’s way as much as possible. She kept us hidden from those who sought her services, both as unseen protection—because she dealt with powerful and dread beings—and as a precaution because she only mostly controlled us. My da she never let too near her unless she had some of the other, more obedient wolves nearby.
• • •
My father, curled up by himself, raised his head as I came back from hunting. He stood and gave me a look before turning and trotting off into the woods where the leaves were ruddy and gold. I hesitated, but even then, the obedience was a part of our relationship. Instead of settling down to sleep until morning as I had planned, I stretched twice, then ran in his trail until I caught up. Though I didn’t look behind me, I knew that the others followed—as they always did.
At first I thought the other wolves followed us to spy for the witch, but time had proven that wrong. There were six of us werewolves, seven really, though we all knew that Adda was dying—he had trouble stumbling down the trail into the hollow, and I would have to help him up it when we returned.
I had the impression that my father had known some of the wolves from his childhood, but he never confirmed or denied it. He never spoke to them or of them when we were in human form—and they never left their wolf shape.
Da had found a small sheltered hollow in the lee of a downed oak shortly after the witch had brought us here. It served to keep us hidden and offered some protection from the weather for our naked bodies. Even though my human skin didn’t get cold as it had before the wolf entered my soul, skin was not as good as fur. It wasn’t winter yet, but the leaves had begun to change to autumn’s colors, and there was a bite to the air.
Da began his change as soon as we were in the oak’s protection, but instead of following his example as I usually did, I hesitated. Life was easier when I let the wolf rule the man. The wolf killed and killed, and it did not turn his stomach or make him mourn for the creature he used to be.
Da saw that I was hesitating and growled at me—a demand the wolf wouldn’t disobey even if I wanted to.
It hurt. I don’t know how my father even figured out that we could change back to human. I didn’t remember doing it the first time—if I thought about it too long, there were a frightening number of things I couldn’t remember very well. It had taken me a while before I realized that, when my grandmother chose to use my pain to feed her magic, she sometimes stole more than just blood or flesh.
Skin absorbing fur felt like bee stings. The crack of bone was no less painful than a real break. The witch didn’t want her wolves to turn human, but I didn’t understand that then. Didn’t understand how her magic fought the change to human—I just knew that it hurt. She must have known we changed into our human skins. I do not know why she didn’t interrupt. Perhaps she was more afraid of my father than she let on.
“Why are we still doing this?” I asked Da while I was still on hands and knees and sweating from the required effort. “What good does it do except to remind us of what we once were?”
He frowned at me. “I made a promise to your mother, boy. When I told her what my blood was, I promised that I would never allow you to stay in my mother’s hands. If you lose your humanity to the wolf—then my mother has won.”
I stood up, waited until I was steady on my feet, then raised my hands and turned around slowly so he could see all of me, naked and filthy. “There is more to being human than the resemblance I bear to a man, Da. I have left humanity so far behind . . .”
“No,” he growled. He jerked his chin toward the other wolves. “Not like they have. You know right from wrong. Good from evil.”
“It would be easier if I could forget.” I knew what he would say even before he said it; he was not fond of self-pity, my da.
“Easier doesn’t mean better.” He didn’t say anything more. We never talked much at times like these, when he required me to take on human form. What was there to say? Neither of us wanted to talk of people long dead, nor of the day just past, or the one to come.
He believed that his mother would grow complacent and make a mistake. I had believed him long past foolish hope, but years and decades, and then tens of decades had worn my faith away as a river wears away stone. But I loved my da, and I would not hurt him more with my disbelief—let him believe in a better end than I saw. The end would come whatever we believed, and he found comfort in that future he saw for us. I did not tell him that even if we broke free—we would still be the monsters she had made us. My da, he was a smart man, he knew that as well as I did.
The other wolves waited, their eyes trained on my da. But it was the soft whine from Adda that my da acquiesced to. He sat down on the ground, threw back his head, and sang. I settled with my back to the oak and listened.
His voice had lost the old man’s quaver I’d noticed in that last winter we’d spent together as humans, just as both of us had lost the silver hair and the aging skin. Made young again by my grandmother’s magic or the bite of the wolf, I had no reason to ask or care.
My father had no instrument but that with which he was born, but that was fine indeed. When he sang, the others gathered around closely, but he only looked at the dying wolf, who laid his muzzle on my father’s naked thigh and listened as his breath wheezed in and out. The music and the touch of my da’s hand seemed to comfort him.
Witches use the suffering of others for their power, and a werewolf could suffer a great deal before he died. The first sign that Adda was dying was when his ears never grew back quite right. Healthy, we could regrow bits and pieces we lost. Instead of leaving him be, letting him get stronger as she’d done a time or two to others, she’d taken his left front paw when she needed to harvest his pain for her power. We all did what we could for him. When he died, she would spend time with all of us again, until someone started to weaken. Then she would single him out and kill him by inches.
There had been two other wolves who had died that slow death, but my father had not sung to them. Had not sung at all in all the years of our captivity until this wolf had appealed to him without words. I didn’t know why this wolf was different—and I would not ask him.
After a while, I joined in Da’s song. Our voices worked well together, as they always had. Music hurt more than the shift to human had because music recalled better days, days when I had loved and was loved in return, days when the turning of seasons had meaning. But it hurt worse not to sing. Moreover, when it brought my father some bits of joy, even in the darkest day, how could I not sing?
• • •
When change came, it snuck up on me. I did not recognize it for what it was when it began. Autumn ruled, still, but the nights were longer, and I could catch the acrid smell of snow in the air. Not today or the next day, but sometime in the next week there would be a storm.
I was not far from the cottage when I spied one of the fair folk coming to call on the witch. That was unusual because the fair folk, the Tylwyth Teg, had their own powers and usually would have no truck with witchcraft. He was, as they all were, beautiful: tall with eyes as deep blue as the winter sea under dark skies. His skin was silvery with cracks of darkness like the bark of the bedwyn.
Before my grandmother turned me into this beast I had never seen a fae, though I’d heard stories about them. They were still a rare enough sight to attract my interest. After a brief hesitation, I abandoned the rabbit’s trail I’d been following to ghost behind the fae instead.
Tromping through the remains of the autumn leaves in the witch’s woods with no weapon in his hand and looking neither left nor right, this one looked as though he would be easy prey.
I knew better.
The fae were tough, vicious, and deadly—especially the ones that strode through the forest as though they owned it. The lesser fae mostly stayed to the shadows and kept out of the way of things with big, sharp teeth. This one was not one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the high-court lords, who, above all else, my grandmother feared, so I was under no obligation of her magical chains to report his intrusion. But he was a power; I could feel the forest’s attention upon him.
I moved closer to let my nose get a better read on this one. His track smelled of bitterness and jealousy, small, sniveling emotions, though his body language and the forest alertness spoke of his power. I stayed out of his sight as he walked directly to the clearing where the witch made her home.
He rapped sharply on the door, and my grandmother opened it. She was dressed in a thin shift that left nothing to the imagination, and her thick sandy hair glimmered in the sun like honey pouring over her shoulders and hips. She raised her eyebrows when she got a good look, but she stepped back from the entry and let him in without protest.
Curiosity had me skulking to the side of the building and pressing my ear to the wall. She didn’t know we could hear what went on in the cottage, and we weren’t telling her.
“I am surprised,” my grandmother said coyly, “to see one of your ilk here calling on such as me.”
She was pretty, my grandmother, but not as beautiful as the fair folk; nor was she stupid. If she sounded coy, it was to make the fae believe her less than she was. Powerful things in his world didn’t bow and scrape or creep; they attacked from the front with plenty of warning.
“I am the lord of this forest,” he told her.
She believed the forest was hers; indeed, the locals called it the Witch’s Woods.
“I know, I know,” she said without hesitation, and her disdain was sly and hidden. “The birds whisper it to me, and the wind sings with your power. But two nights ago a pair of faery sight hounds came to me. They wore coats of white and rust, and in that way I knew them for fear hounds, the banehounds of old. So fearsome they were, as to stop the very heart in my chest. They came to my dreams and told me that they were gone away. That you could no more hold them obedient. They broke free of your leash. Such creatures do not make good slaves, so they told me.” Her voice was innocent and light—but I could feel the malice in her intent.
“Take care, witch,” he said.
“They left a promise and a warning for you,” she said, her voice softening. “They said that the power you threw away to pad your vanity will not return to you because the followers of the sacrificed god have reached our shores. Already, Underhill writhes under their cold iron and colder prayers. In a few centuries, they will bind the magic in this land, and all the fae will be powerless before them.”
I heard a noise, the sound of flat hand meeting cheek, and smirked inwardly because I cared not a smidgen for either of them. He had hit her, and he would pay dearly for it.
“You overstep yourself, witch,” he snarled. “You are here on my sufferance, your presence debases my forest with foulness, and you draw the mortals who seek you through my lands.”
There was a little silence.
I wondered if we would feast on a forest lord tonight. I licked my lips. Hunting had been lean within the area around the cottage where we could roam without leave from the witch, and she had not been inclined to allow us to forage farther afield.
“I meant no disrespect, sir,” she said in an obsequious voice that managed to convey fear and respect. Oh, yes, I thought, we would dine on this one. “I only relay information I have been given. I thought you came because you needed something from me. Did you come to drive me away?”
I could hear the rustle of fabric as he paced.
“I need to call my hounds again,” the fae lord said, his voice low and vicious. “I have a task to set them to. You will make it possible, or you will not need to worry about where you might live.”
“Yes, yes, of course. I understand, sir,” her voice was sweet and honey-soft. “Is your need life-and-death? Or simply desire?”
There was a long pause.
“I cannot help if you do not tell me,” she pled. “My magic responds to need. I must know what you want and how much you want it.” I wondered why the fae could not hear the lie as clearly as I could—but he did not know her, and she lied very well. The fae lied not at all, and so were not always good at seeing untruths when they were uttered.
“Yes,” his answer to her was reluctant. “Life-and-death. My word has been given to someone who will destroy me if I cannot keep it.”
“Then I can do something,” said my grandmother briskly, as if a servile tone had never touched her voice. “I can give you power to call hounds. But, as I am sure you know, my power works on sacrifice. For this, the cost will be dear.”
“Not just any hounds,” he said sharply, thinking he saw her trap. The fae didn’t lie, but deception was an art form to them. “The magical beasts.”
I didn’t need to see her smile to feel her satisfaction as he came to her trap without seeing it at all. He was prey, no matter how powerful he was. He was not clever enough to escape her—and she would forgive neither the slap nor the threat.
“Magical beasts in doglike form,” she clarified. He hadn’t listened to her. She’d told him that he wouldn’t be able to call the fae dogs again. But she was not fae. She could lie all the time—and she did so when it suited her. But I could tell that she had not lied about that. Magical beasts in doglike form—that would be us.
She meant to let him call wolves when he expected his own hounds. Maybe, maybe if he had controlled the fae banehounds, who were fearsome beasts, he could control us. For a while.
“Yes,” the forest lord said, not questioning her phrasing. After all, she was only responding to his request to clarify. He never thought to ask her what other magical doglike beasts there were nearby.
I didn’t know if he was truly stupid, or if he did not recognize the threat she represented. The fae were proud, worse back in those days, when they ruled, and the humans feared. They did not easily take notice of threats that were not fae in origin.
“I can do that,” she said slowly, as if after careful consideration. “You will pay me a pound of silver.”
“Fine,” he said easily, though it was more than she’d normally have seen in ten years of work.
“That is the cost you owe me,” she told him. “But the magic will cost your hand—all witchcraft magic has a price, and I cannot bear that for you. You can decide if it is the left or right.”
Silence enveloped the hut, and I left before that changed. If she realized I was there, she would make me do it—just because she knew it would hurt me. There was the faint possibility that she might do it herself; she enjoyed causing pain. But bones are hard to sever—and that one’s wrath would focus on the one who took his hand. Probably it would be Dafydd, who led our pack. Let Dafydd chew the fae’s hand off; he would enjoy it more than I.
Dafydd was not the name the leader of our wolf pack was born with, any more than my father was Selyf or I was Sawyl—David, Solomon, and Samuel. She changed our names each time she moved—which she did when the mood took her. Sometimes we moved every month for a year. Sometimes we stayed in a place, as we had here, for decades. This time in this place, it pleased my grandmother to use names found in the stories of the followers of the sacrificed god. I did not know why and did not care.
I had forgotten my own name. Sawyl or Samuel would do. Whatever name she called him by, though, my da, he was Bran—and she could not take that away from me.
The little hobgoblin did her best to follow orders no matter how her heart hurt. Haida cleaned the shivering, scared thing that used to be her lady, paying no attention to the way it flinched or gibbered or cried—just as she had been instructed. She also ignored the way the magic swirled around it, volatile and miserable and . . . deadly.
Haida covered the open wounds in salves that she had made herself this morning from plants she had gathered Outside. Neither she nor her lady trusted anything in their home: it was unstable, reflecting the madness of its lord. In an older time, this would not have been dangerous: Underhill was vast and had been robust, healing itself of spiritual wounds. But Underhill was losing its connection to the mundane world and becoming capricious. For those who dwelt in the forest lord’s home in Underhill, the wise ate and drank nothing that had been in the cupboards overnight nor anything that had dwelt in the home as long as a day.
When the hobgoblin had done what she could for the wounds with her salves, she covered the shivering form with clothing and jewels strung on silver chains, then began the process of helping the creature to a stool where it could sit and eat.
“Don’t think of me as a person when I’m like that,” her lady had told her. “I know I look like myself, but it is not me. It is a beast. A dangerous beast. Be cautious and careful. You alone can help me defeat him.”
Her lady was clever, much more clever than Haida, so she followed her rules to the letter. Food.
“Eat,” the hobgoblin urged the thing that used to be her lady. Would be again. It had worked before, it had to work this time, too. “It’s only a bit of bread and honeycomb. It will do you good.”
Haida took a bite, to show the thing both that it was edible and that if it didn’t eat soon, Haida might eat all the food. Whatever logic it used, the scarred and broken thing ate as soon as Haida swallowed. As it ate, the outwardly broken parts of it, bones and sinew, knit together and smoothed out into a more pleasing form, until the beast started to look more like Haida’s lady again—outwardly at least.
Haida’s lady, Ariana, was strong with magic from both sides of her bloodline. The magic allowed her to heal from things that would have killed a hobgoblin. Her father was a forest lord, an independent but powerful fae, her mother one of the high ladies of the highest courts—and would that she were here. But it had been years since she left, and not a word of reply to any message or plea sent by the hobgoblin who had once served her faithfully and now served her daughter.
Even as Haida thought about her grievance with her lady’s mother, the building around them groaned and shifted. Disturbed by her fretting or, more likely, by the beast’s turmoil. So much power in the hands of the angry and traumatized beast that wore Ariana’s body was not a happy thing, and Haida’s anger was making their home worse. She could do something about both matters, and hopefully their place in Underhill would settle a little.
Haida focused her thoughts on her task and brought another tray of food to the table, food stolen this morning from three different villages to keep humans from taking too much notice. The food served the dual purpose of distracting the beast from whatever had the floor uneasy under her feet and further strengthening her lady.
The beast ate everything Haida could provide, then looked up at her with eyes that were solid black. In all other aspects, the beast looked like her lady now, though bruised and battered, but the eyes were always deep, fathomless, black.
“There is one more necessary thing,” it told her in a voice made hoarse by screaming and slow from terror and exhaustion. That it spoke meant that her lady was near.
“Yes,” Haida agreed, and prepared to pull a fog over the beast’s recent memories.
Like most of the lesser fae, Haida had a few things she did very well. But hers was a wilder magic, not easily directed in small spells or bindings. Fogging the beast’s memory was difficult for her, and if it fought her, she would not be able to do it at all. But she didn’t need to keep the memories at bay for long, just for long enough.
Haida touched the beast’s forehead, and the beast grabbed Haida’s hand and growled. “Sawyl. Samuel. Samuel Whitewolf,” the beast said.
Haida waited. The beast’s magic was thick, and it flowed by the hobgoblin like a winter wind, biting and uncomfortable.
“Samuel,” the beast murmured more gently, sounding too much like her lady. It released Haida and rubbed at its eyes as it whispered, “They come, the wolves. Death comes with them. Remember.”
The beast had powers that her lady did not, powers more akin to Haida’s own, though much more powerful. The hobgoblin had no doubt that the words meant something. It would probably be bad because nothing good could come out of the ugliness that was the beast—so her lady had told Haida, and so Haida believed.
When the beast did not seem inclined to say anything more, the hobgoblin touched the creature gently and continued with the task the talk of wolves had interrupted. When she had the proper shape of the magic within her, she settled her magic on the beast. She petted its forehead, and said, “Forget. Let the mists hide the worst and leave only the best.”
Her magic snuck in and clothed the beast’s memories in kindness, a thing possible only because the beast allowed it. The change was immediate—the terrible beast faded.
Instead of the horrible wounded thing, her lady blinked at Haida, the blackness shrinking down until it was pupil only and her eyes were wide and jewel green. Open wounds were absorbed by deep brown skin, scars hidden by glamour until she looked no different than she ever had.
“Hobgoblin?” she said, sounding a little confused but not distressed.
Her lady looked around the kitchen, Haida’s domain. It was neat and tidy as always, if not so grand as the rest of the house. The hobgoblin felt the moss-covered walls of the kitchen, which had pulled back in distress at the beast’s presence, ease back into place—but the stillness had a waiting feeling rather than that of a home at peace, and she worried.
“Yes, my lady,” said the hobgoblin sadly, because the confusion in her lady’s face was being replaced by worse things as the magic Haida had worked was dispelled, and memory resettled properly. Her lady only needed to forget for that breath of time, so that she would have courage to take back her power and body from the beast.
Her father the forest lord was dual-natured. He had the form of the sidhe, and another of a forest fae. Ariana’s beast was born of that heritage, but had her father not brutalized her with pain and the terror of the hounds he commanded, it would never have materialized. The beast, a creature of the forest, unlike Ariana, could not disobey a direct order from the forest lord—what had started out as a punishment had borne useful fruit for Ariana’s father.
Haida’s lady sucked in a breath and looked at her hands, moving the fingers gently, then clenching them into fists.
“I don’t remember everything the beast did this time,” she said, her voice tight. “Did it do what he wanted us to do?”
Haida shook her head. “I don’t know, Mistress. Your magic is beyond me. You will have to look at what it created yourself.”
• • •
The little hobgoblin, green-gray and covered with wiry hair from head to feet, was closer to the Heart of Magic than the Tylwyth Teg, the greater fae like Ariana. Haida was like a shepherd who cared for the flocks and Ariana a weaver who worked tapestries with their yarn. One was not inherently more skilled or powerful than the other but differently able. Other fae did not see it as Ariana did, including Haida. To them, lesser fae were weak, but for her father, their home shivered and groaned, while only Haida could bring it comfort. If it had not been for Haida, Ariana knew she would have long ago been lost to the beast.
Ariana shed the last of the hobgoblin’s veil of shadows, ready to face the results of her father’s bidding and the beast’s obedience. The first few times she’d been able to remember what she’d done after her father reduced her to that other aspect. But eventually, her memories had not been so clear. This time, like the time before, she could remember nothing after she’d broken under the wave of terror that was the banehounds’ magic.
Her father would succeed in destroying her. All she could hope for was to ensure that he got no gain by it. She was so afraid that she would fail even in that.
She stood up carefully, but although she was dizzy and weak, the pain of her injuries was fading quickly.
“How long this time?” she asked Haida as Ariana walked out of the kitchen and down the hall with the poise her mother had drilled into her before she left. The advantage of moving with grace was that it kept her centered, so she didn’t fall on her face. Every time her bare feet touched the floor, she drew magic from the earth to strengthen herself just as the food she’d eaten had strengthened her.
“Four days,” Haida told her. “He left as soon as the dogs finished.”
That was unusual. He liked to supervise her work, though what she did was so far outside of his forest-bound magic that he could not follow it. There was something she should remember about the dogs . . .
The color of old blood and snow, with fangs that tore, the hounds delivered pain and terror to freeze her forever. That was the gift of the white and red hounds of the forest lord, terror that stopped the breath and heart.
Not that. She couldn’t remember that, or she wouldn’t stay in control. If she were reduced to her other aspect, the one who could only follow the orders of the power that gave a forest lord dominion over the beasts in his forest, all would be lost.
There was nothing left, now, of the father who had loved her. The one who had taken her on long walks in the woods and taught her to speak to the deep-voiced oaks and the quivering willow. No more than there was anything left of the daughter who had loved him and believed that he could do no wrong.
He’d told her that he had a commission for which he’d been well paid in favors and power—the power was what he craved, almost as much as he wanted to see her reduced to something that could only obey him, something he had no reason to be jealous of. She was to make a weapon that could be used to siphon the magic from any fae, sidhe, hobgoblin, and anything in between.
Her father couldn’t or wouldn’t see beyond his immediate goals to what such an artifact meant.
He was not the only fae who had lost power beneath the growing tide of iron, nor was he the most corrupt. The Tuatha Dé Danann who commissioned the work was powerful—but there were others yet stronger. By the artifact’s very existence, it would cause a war that would not end until there was no one left who desired it. Ultimately it would bring an end to the fae and everything they would destroy in their wake.
Her father, blinded by need, was determined to force her to use her magic to make the artifact. She was more determined that she would not.
Ariana turned into her workroom and looked at the fist-sized lump of silver that lay on the table. As soon as she picked it up, she understood that she had failed.
“The main spell is set,” she told Haida, her voice raw. She held the destruction of the world in her hand. “We are undone.”
“Can you use it to destroy him?” asked the hobgoblin, ever practical.
“When the sight of him turns my knees to water?” Ariana said bitterly. “He has changed me. Made me a frightened and powerless creature who is as obedient to his command as any of his hounds ever were. I cannot move against him in his presence.” Once, she’d been strong-willed and powerful, but now she was nothing, a shadow of what she had been—broken to her father’s will except in these stolen moments.
But there was something about her father’s hounds, something she should remember.
“Then we are undone,” said Haida practically, licking delicately at her hand, then smoothing it over the hair on her cheeks. “If you have finished what he wanted, we should leave. He will follow—he cannot be what he is and not give chase. But he will play with his new toy first. It will give us a chance to lose ourselves in the world. I can keep us hidden from his hounds for many days. My magic is not powerful, but it is subtle.”
Courageous hobgoblin. Haida always examined a problem and found the best path from where she found herself to somewhere she might survive.
Ariana drew upon her example and examined what had already been done and sealed within the silver. Until this time of awakening when her father was gone, she’d been able to destroy the work she’d done before he noticed. Once a spell was sealed into the silver, she could not unwork it—any more than anyone else could. She held her hand near and watched as the silver called her magic.
“As I said,” she told Haida slowly, “this will eat the magic of any fae.” She paused, examining the flow of the magic in the silver because there was something unexpected that she had to work out. “Maybe I can squeeze the flow until it is only a bare trickle. If it can only pull a little, how much harm can it do?”
The hobgoblin sank down on her haunches and smiled, revealing sharp green teeth. “I told you. Told you that you would outsmart him.”
“When all he has to do to keep me stupefied with terror, obedient to his command, is call on his hounds?” Ariana asked. “You are overly optimistic. As long as he has the hounds . . .” And for an instant she knew why he’d left, knew that it was important, but she couldn’t get past the thoughts of his hounds, and the reason for his departure trickled out of her grasp like water.
Survival meant that she pay attention to the embryonic artifact in her hands—and not pull the beast inside her back to the forefront by fretting about the hounds. She turned to Haida. “Even if I slow the draw to little more than nothing, eventually it will amass power. I can make it take years, centuries maybe, but eventually it will hold enough to be valuable.”
“What it holds someone can take,” the hobgoblin agreed. “Can you stop that?”
“No.” She was powerful but not as powerful as some. To lay such locks on the artifact that no one could break it open was beyond her. And it would be unwise, even if she could. If it did nothing but sit in the cottage and steal magic from the fae that passed near it—eventually it would eat all magic and concentrate it in the lump of silver that fit into her hand. She didn’t know how much the metal could hold—but an explosive release when the silver could hold nothing more would be destructive on a scale she could almost not comprehend. Not as horrible as what would happen if it was able to hold all of the magic indefinitely—without magic, all life would cease.
“But I can make it so the magic it collects dissipates back to the Heart of Magic.” The Heart of Magic was the center of the world. Magic held in the Heart did not come readily to anyone’s hand but caused the wind to blow and the rain to fall. Ariana smiled fiercely at her little friend. “And—thus fulfilling the geas and thwarting my father.” She considered how to do that. “I need you for this, Haida, and it will probably not be easy.”
Haida bowed low. “It is my joy to aid you in any manner I might. But himself will be back soon—it is unlike him to be absent for long. Is there time?”
“Yes,” said the beast that now dwelled within Ariana. “The hounds have fled, and he seeks the means to recall them.”
Ariana closed her eyes and took in a shaky breath, waiting for the beast to subside. That was what she had needed to remember. His hounds were gone.
She should have felt relief but could not shake the feeling that her father was more dangerous than ever. Could not quiet her fear of him, and that fear made the beast stir again. She could not afford to let her beast take control, not with such delicate magic to embroider. She collected herself and looked at the hobgoblin, who was watching her warily.
“Haida, we can do this,” she said with more confidence than she actually felt. “The hounds have been chaffing under his leash, and they have left him. That’s where he has gone—to reclaim the hounds. We might have enough time to do this thing.”
• • •
Using Haida’s sense for the wild magic that lingered in the smallest thing and was closest to the Heart of Magic, Ariana worked until the hobgoblin made her stop and eat. Then she worked some more, the constant drain from the emerging artifact only a slight handicap.
The very slowness of its working was evidence that her other self was fully engaged in the attempt to mitigate the harm the artifact could cause, something she had not known for certain. The beast had seen the way to render this artifact mostly innocuous, just as Ariana had, and had shown itself to be an ally of sorts.
A fae of average power would have to keep the artifact the beast had crafted for weeks before it had an appreciable effect on his magic. So much the beast had managed.
She lost track of time, so tired she did not realize that it meant the beast had come to help. When she came to herself, she held a silver bird in her hand and just enough magic in her body to tell that it was an artifact, sealed and done. But she could not tell if she had accomplished her purpose or not.
She cupped the little silver bird in her hands, trembling with fatigue, as the walls trembled around her. This was her father’s house, and it did not take joy in those who would work against him.
“It is done,” she told Haida, who was hovering nearby. “Can you tell if it is for good or ill? I have burnt out my magic in its making.”
“Leave the silver bird,” said Haida. “It will distract him, and much good may it do him. I am not such as you to read an artifact. You have done what you could. Come, let us leave this place before it collapses apurpose. Underhill is no longer stable, and it is angry with us.”
“Underhill is angry with the sidhe and not your kind,” corrected Ariana tiredly, though she staggered to her feet. “Though my father’s home is not best pleased with the two of us, that is also true.”
Underhill had been necessary for her work. Magic did not lend itself to complicated things in the Outside, the land that now belonged to the short-lived, magic-blind folk.
“Underhill does not concern itself with sidhe or not,” grumbled Haida, steadying Ariana when she would have fallen. “Only fae and not fae. And the fae are failing it, allowing the humans to bind what was not meant to be bound.”
The hobgoblin was a great deal stronger than she looked, which was useful under the circumstances. But she was tired, too, so their travel was slow. If they could get out of her father’s lands before he returned with his hounds, they might have a chance at eluding him for a short while.
But Ariana knew there would be no real escape. Artifact or no, it was her destruction that her father craved. So when the ground warned her, the trees whispering his name as flowers trembled—and then his horn sounded, summoning his hounds—she was not overcome with dismay. She would have had to have some hope to feel dismayed.
“We are finished,” she told Haida, feeling fear rise like bile even without the magic of his hounds touching her. That he called to them meant that he must have found a way to win them back. “You need to flee.”
The hobgoblin snarled at her.
“Do not make me make it an order,” Ariana said—but it was already too late, for either of them.
“Ariana,” purred her father’s voice.
She turned around and faced him. He wore his wild aspect, stag horns reaching upward and tangling in the lower branches of the tree he stood under.
A shiver slid through her, a feeling of inevitability, as if this moment had been fated since her birth. That other part of her, the one she’d warned Haida to be careful of, stirred restlessly, ready to shield her from her father. The thought of the hobgoblin reminded her that Ariana was not the only one her father had reason to be angry at.
“Father.” She stepped squarely in front of her little, faithful friend.
He looked around the woods, at Haida, at the grass at Ariana’s feet—at everywhere other than Ariana herself—and smiled gently. “Did you think to flee me with the artifact still undone?”
“No, Father,” she said staunchly. He would kill her. When he knew it all, he would kill her. “It is finished.”
He held the little silver bird out to her. She hadn’t realized that he’d been holding it.
“This?” He tossed it on the ground, and in a voice that carried the low rumble of distant thunder, he said, “This is garbage. You have broken your promise, your sworn word. To do so is death for the fae.”
She raised her chin as triumph rushed through her. Whatever she and her beast had managed, it had thwarted her father’s will. She might die, but he could not use her to destroy the world. “It does what I promised you it would. What the thing you turned me into by the tender care of your hounds promised you that the artifact would do. It eats the magic of any fae the wielder desires and allows it to be consumed again. Finished and sealed, so it cannot again be altered.”
She could not lie and did not need to. The first part had been done when she and Haida had sought to deflect the artifact’s purpose. The last she knew as well. However else the artifact functioned, she had not broken the word given by the beast.
He narrowed his eyes at her and snarled. The glimpse of the fangs in his mouth tightened her stomach and left her light-headed.
“You knew what I wanted,” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed, finding that the light-headedness had brought with it a sort of sereneness—or maybe that had come from the earlier feeling that this meeting had been fated for them. He would kill her. Hopefully, it would not hurt too much, but there was nothing she could do to prevent it. “You knew that I did not want to build what you wanted. The strictures you gave me were loose enough that I could slide around them.” Her father was powerful but not clever, not like her mother had been or Haida.
“You will make me another artifact, then,” he said. “Or fix this one.”
She shook her head. “The bird is finished. It is an artifact sealed and immutable. And I?” She smiled at him. “Artifacts demand a price. I do not have enough magic left in me.”
Artificers were rare, even among the most powerful of the fae. He would not find another he could bend to his will before the terms of his agreement with one more powerful than he would come due. She closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun; she didn’t expect to live long enough to see another day. Her only satisfaction was that he had not won: her magic would not destroy the fae—and her father would not outlive her by long.
Her father picked the bird up off the ground and rolled it around in his hand—and she saw that his right arm ended in a rough and bloody lump of bandaging.
“Father,” she said before she considered the wisdom of it, “what did you do to your hand?”
My father ran his fingers through Adda’s unhealthy brown coat, and growled, “I thought you said she demanded the forest lord’s hand to power the spell.”
The witch had called Adda as soon as the forest lord—one arm wrapped in bandages—had left. She kept him until late in the afternoon, then dumped him outside when she was finished with him. As soon as he fell, my father and I had changed back to human. Adda needed help no wolf could render.
I brought the bowl of water to the weakened wolf and fed the water to him, one handful at a time. I made no answer to my da’s accusation. His anger wasn’t directed at me, and there was no way to answer the anguish in his eyes. Words didn’t come to me as they once had, anyway.
Instead, I crooned to the suffering beast as he swallowed. Da patted my shoulder in mute apology for his sharpness, and I nodded an acknowledgment.
She’d mutilated Adda again.
His left front paw had not regrown from the last time; moreover, it was festering despite all I could do. I’d noticed that the wounds she made to feed her magic were more likely to rot than other, naturally acquired wounds, more difficult even for werewolves to heal.
To work the spell for the fae, tonight she’d taken Adda’s right front paw, too. He could not walk in wolf form and he had not the strength to try to take on a human form, even if he knew how, which I was not certain of.
The wolf in my father’s arms whined at him, and Da bent his head. “It will be well,” he murmured. He looked at the cottage and the corners of his mouth whitened.
My mother’s voice whispered in my ears. Look now to your da. If you’ve never seen rage on his face, you have now. Those old fools won’t know what hit them.
I couldn’t remember what long-ago conflict she’d been talking about, but I knew that she’d been right. Then. But this was a fight he could not win, and we all knew it. I began changing back to wolf. There was nothing more to do for Adda that my da wouldn’t do, and I would be more use to him in my wolf form than as a weak human.
Dafydd made a soft sound, as gentle as I’d ever heard out of his mouth. The rest of the wolves hovered uncertainly.
“And a fat lot of help you have been,” snarled my father at Dafydd. “He is your son, and you watch as she kills him.”
Though Dafydd had always been quick to punish any sign of disrespect before, this time he didn’t take any action at all. I couldn’t read his emotions—of all the wolves, Dafydd was the most difficult to read. It was as though the only thing he ever felt was anger or fear of the witch, nothing else.
Adda woofed, catching Da’s attention.
“I,” my father said, “am through watching.” He kissed Adda on the forehead, then broke the wolf’s neck with a quick jerk of his hands.
It was so fast. One moment Adda had been panting in pain and the next he was gone.
That was when Dafydd finally growled, and the heat of his anger swept through the air.
Da stood up, let the dead wolf roll off his lap and onto the ground. He started the change that would turn him back to wolf. Dafydd and my da had disagreed before, even fought a time or two—and Da had always backed down before matters grew serious. But in my da’s eyes, I could tell that he’d reached his breaking point. He was done.
I stepped between them, so Dafydd could not attack Da until Da was fully wolf. I didn’t think it would happen, Dafydd was usually fair. But I stepped in anyway, just in case I was wrong.
A horn blew in the distance, a clear soft note that wrapped itself around my throat and tugged. The forest lord’s call was more than any of us could resist, and I found myself running beside Dafydd, shoulder to shoulder. Da finished his change while we ran.
We would answer the fae’s call and do his bidding if he could control us, and kill him if he couldn’t—and I didn’t much care which. When we were finished, there would be a reckoning either for my father’s defiance or for Dafydd’s complicity. The battle had only been delayed, not halted. Dafydd was huge and violent—only a little smaller than I was. My da was a little less than three-quarters of Dafydd’s weight, but he was canny, my da. I did not know who would win.
I’d expected a short run to the fae, but it turned out to be a fair distance and I revised my estimates of his power—the chances of avoiding doing whatever he asked of us went down with each mile. It didn’t bother me much. What could he ask that we had not already done for my grandmother? Any pretense of goodness that I ever claimed was spent long ago. The only thing that mattered to me was Da.
We topped a rise, and there was a small clearing laid out before our eyes. The fae lord was there, the bandage on his right arm red with his blood. He was less human-seeming out here in his woods. Antlers rose from his head and spread the width of his shoulders and more—and he was huge. He blew on his horn again, and it called songs from our throats.
We half slid, half ran down the backside of the rise and leaped over the creek on the bottom. Once across the water, Dafydd slowed to a cautious dogtrot, and the rest of us followed his lead into the meadow where the forest lord waited.
“My hand?” the forest lord said, raising the stump of his arm. “This is the price I paid for what you have done to me.” He threw the artifact Haida’s lady had made at a tree. It hit and tore bark from the trunk, leaving a weeping wound. The little silver bird dropped to the ground out of sight.
He waited, but her lady was not such a fool as to say anything with her father in a towering rage. Not that her silence was likely to buy her safety in the long run. Haida understood that the lady had known that, really, since she made the decision to make sure that her little bird would never serve his purposes.
Haida said, her voice stinging with contempt, trying to draw his attention away from her lady, “You went to the crone by the white spring. To a witch. A human.”
The forest lord hissed, his deerlike ears flattening with ire. He flung a hand out toward Haida, and the little hobgoblin stiffened her spine and prepared to accept the poison she’d spun.
But her lady stepped to the side and took the blow of magic herself. Haida wailed and started forward as the pain dropped her lady to her knees. The hobgoblin touched her lady’s shoulder, trying to dilute the effect of the forest lord’s anger.
“Go,” said her lady with power in her voice. “Leave me. Hide.” And such was the strength of the lady, even diminished as she was, that Haida could only follow her orders.
The forest lord, rage forcing a bellow like one of the great deer in rut out of his throat, threw another bolt of pain into his daughter. Hating herself for her inability to defend Ariana, Haida found a place under some bushes, where she could at least bear witness and give what aid she could.
The lord took the horn he wore on a thong around his chest and blew again, summoning his hounds.
The sound did what the pain had not. When Ariana raised her head, it was the beast who looked out of her eyes. The beast’s lips curled back from white teeth, and it started to get to its feet. Haida felt a breathless instant of hope. The beast was more powerful in its way than her lady was. Haida could feel the power of the beast’s magic, full and strong. Proof, if she’d needed it, that the beast and her lady were truly different from each other. Had the beast had more time, even a moment, it might have destroyed the forest lord—but the howls that answered the great horn caused the beast to freeze, and fear robbed it of its power. The beast rolled into a ball on the ground and waited for what would come.
The animals responding to the forest lord didn’t sound like his hounds. Evidently the fae lord felt the same, for he paused, taking his attention off his daughter for a moment. If only her lady hadn’t sent her away, Haida might have managed to make use of the momentary lapse, but she was too far away to do anything but watch.
There was a moment when we were free of thrall, after the forest lord blew his horn the second time, after we topped the rise, so he could plainly see that what had come to his call was not his hounds. While he stood in shock, we were free. I had not realized until then that the witch had given up her hold upon us when he summoned us with his horn.
I was of free will for the first time since she’d knocked upon my door and turned my father and me into monsters. We stopped, looking down upon them. Dafydd whined, and the others shuffled around, but my father and I stood frozen.
The forest lord’s face twisted with anger, and he looked at us and closed his single fist. I felt his determination, his magic, roll over me. I snarled in protest, but we were his.
The forest lord turned his attention to the girl curled up on the ground in front of him. “You are of no further use to me.” Next to his bulk, she looked frail and helpless. I could not see her face, only a long fall of pale silver hair touched with lavender that could not have belonged to a human. He looked at us then, smiled savagely, and said, “Direwolves. I had heard the witch had such to serve her. You are not my hounds, but you will suffice for this. Hurt this woman for me. She is meant to die today, but I want her to suffer first.”
Slaved to his purpose, the pack ran to do his bidding. All except my father and I. Tantalized by that breath of freedom, I fought him, fought the magic that tried to hold me. And I failed. All I could do was slow my obedience so that the rest of them were already attacking the defenseless fae woman by the time I reached her, conscious that my father’s pace was just a little slower than mine.
I closed my fangs on the fae woman’s shoulder, biting deep, teeth scraping against bone. I had meant to crush her throat, and so to rebel against the fae lord’s command—and save her from her suffering as my da had saved Adda. But the fae lord’s magic was too strong for me.
Dafydd snarled at me and snapped his teeth in my direction. Maybe I was in his way, maybe he had seen what I tried to do. Dafydd believed in obedience. I released my grip and snarled back at him.
Which was why I saw Da attack the forest lord. Such a fae in his other form is a huge thing, heavier and taller than the biggest horse I’d ever seen. My father ran up the fae lord’s side, digging in with claws like a cat climbing a tree. His fangs sank deep into the fae lord’s neck—and the leash controlling us was no more.
I leaped away from the dying fae woman and dove to my father’s aid. Dafydd hesitated. His prey was bleeding and helpless—but there was no longer anything forcing him to continue to hurt the woman.
For a moment, it was only Da and I. The forest lord broke my father’s grip and tossed him to the ground. I leaped and got lucky, biting deep into the tendon behind his knee. The fae roared—and the forest answered. Magic, wild and painful, seared over my back like a swarm of angry bees.
But Da harried him from the other side, and the magic scattered as the forest lord lost concentration. He drew a bronze knife from his belt and swiped it at Da, who flowed away like water. Then he brought the blade back, so quickly I could tell it was an intentional strike, and I was the target he’d intended in the first place.
I could have dropped my hold, but I was close to crippling him. I wasn’t afraid of death, had been waiting for it since my wife and children had died. To die as Adda had would be a release. I hung on grimly, feeling the tendon start to tear, but it would not give way before his knife found me.
Before it could connect, Dafydd’s jaws closed on the fae lord’s wrist and dragged the knife off course. The forest lord staggered, pulled off balance by Dafydd’s unexpected weight and further off balance by the leg I’d damaged.
With a high-pitched scream that hurt my ears, he dropped the knife and grabbed Dafydd—and impaled him upon his sharp, pale ivory horns. One tine pierced Dafydd’s throat and came out his eye. As I saw him die, I felt it, too. Like a tear in my chest that opened me to the pain he’d felt as he died.
For a moment, my eyes quit working, blinded by Dafydd’s trauma. When I could see again, Pedr was dead. His head pulled off his body, and my own body convulsed as I felt that, too.
Adda had been my pack mate. But it had been his dying that had dwelt in us all, not his death, which had been a release. Dafydd’s death, Pedr’s death was no release. They had been vital and healthy, then dead, and their deaths rippled through bonds I had not realized were there until they hurt so.
This morning there had been seven of us—and now we were four—and our pack had no leader.
That last bothered my wolf, and if he had been in charge of our body, as he was during most battles I had engaged in since I was Changed, he would have disengaged and run. But neither witch, nor forest lord, nor wolf held my leash. I would not abandon my da to this creature.
My fangs severed the tendon, and I dropped to the ground, unable to keep hold where the fae’s flesh had given way. The forest lord’s leg collapsed, toppling him like a woodsman toppled an oak. Unlike an oak, he did not lie still when he landed. He rolled, grabbed his knife, and stuck it into a wolf too distracted by the other wolves’ deaths to get out of the way of the clumsy strike. Ieuan’s belly ripped upward, spilling intestines and soft organs on the ground. Though the initial strike had been luck, the fae lord adjusted his grip and pulled the knife in a twisted path that ended in a thrust into the wolf’s spinal column. So fast, Ieuan was dead, too.
This time, my pack mate’s death didn’t slow me down. It didn’t hurt any less—but the shock of it was gone. I knew what it felt like now when one of our pack died.
From first impact to death was less than a breath’s time. Ieuan was older than I and only a moment ago he was alive and unhurt. There had been times that I would have killed him myself if it had not been for the witch’s hold upon me. I would not have thought I would mourn his death.
The fae lord was quick. So quick. Even half-crippled and one-handed, he dealt out painful wounds and the three of us who were left, Da, Deiniol, and I, learned to be swift and wary, to hit and move. If my first attack had not been from behind him, I’d already have joined Dafydd and the others in death. But the fae lord was too wary to let any of us behind him so easily again.
I suppose that time lasted no more than a few minutes, but it seemed like a long time that we fought with none of us gaining advantage. Then he stuck the knife deep in my da’s hip. It caught there and he had to jerk to get it out. Deiniol dove to help Da—and I jumped and caught onto his mutilated right arm and ripped and tore with ferocity born of fear. He swung his arm, and I flew loose, my head hitting a tree like a smith hit an anvil. When I staggered to my feet, the forest lord was dead.
My father had torn out his throat.
Deiniol was dying, impaled, as Dafydd had been, on the forest lord’s tines. The light dimmed in his eyes, and they fogged over with death’s touch. His presence fell from my senses. My father howled in grief, and I echoed the sound.
I had not liked them, any of them. But they had been my pack, my family in spirit. Dafydd had led the others to our aid and given his life to save mine. I mourned them properly.
The fae lord’s body moved, and I turned with a snarl to face another attack. He was still dead, but as ice melts into water, his body melted into the soil, leaving clothing and accouterments behind. In only a few moments, the only bodies left to rot on the forest floor belonged to my pack.
Da tried to stand up, but the fae lord’s knife was still embedded in his hip. I nudged him ungently, telling him to quit moving.
Then I began my change to human. It should have been harder as I had changed earlier that day, but it wasn’t. The pain was still there, but not so much of it, and the actual change felt . . . natural. Good.
In human skin again, I knelt beside my father. It had taken too long to change, and he’d already begun healing around the knife blade—just the flesh so far and not the bone, which would have been more complicated and more painful to fix.
“Quick, then,” I told him, and held him down with one hand and jerked the blade free with the other.
He panted with the pain but made no other sound. He would heal now—and he wouldn’t thank me for hovering. He didn’t like being watched while he was in pain. None of my medical knowledge had ever done the werewolves much good—they either lived or they died. My experience told me that my father would live. Probably.
A crow had landed on Dafydd, and I drove it off. In response to my growl, the fae woman made a faint, pained noise.
I’d forgotten about her. I knew nothing of her but the taste of her blood in my mouth. I had not seen her face or heard her voice. She was nothing to me.
Nothing but my victim.
I did not know how long my freedom from the witch would last. Maybe if Da and I ran fast enough, we’d escape her entirely. I didn’t believe that, but it was a faint possibility. But Da had to heal—and maybe in the meantime I could be of use to someone.
There was a fae creature of a kind I’d never seen beside the woman’s body. She was maybe half the size of a human woman, no taller than my waist. Where her dress, which was silvery blue of a fine weave, did not cover, her body was covered with a coarse green-and-gray hair that thickened on the top of her head. She should have looked grotesque, but there was a rightness, a naturalness to her form that made her oddly beautiful. She smelled female with a strong hint of power and growing things.
Her face was human enough for me to find expression on it, but it reminded me more of a fox’s than a woman’s, an impression not dispelled by triangular ears, now half-flattened along her skull. Her eyes were overly large, and she squinted like a being more used to shadows than light, wrinkling her nose and panting half in fear and half in desperation as I approached.
She hissed and bared sharp, weasel-like teeth and put herself between the wounded woman and me.
“I mean no harm, little one,” I told her. “I have some training. Let me help.”
“You would help my lady? You who hurt her?” The words were clear, if oddly accented.
“Before I was a monster, I was a healer,” I told her. “This hurt I and my—” My what? Fellow monsters? It had been a long, long time since I’d talked to anyone but my da. It felt odd to put my thoughts into words, especially as I was distracted. “My pack. We were under duress and would not have hurt her otherwise.” A lie. I did not lie. Once, it had been a matter of pride to me. So I amended my statement to make it truth. “I would not have hurt her otherwise.”
She looked at me. Glanced over at my da, whose hip was scabbed over. I noticed that he was changing to human himself, and I stepped a little sideways, between her and Da. He was less able to protect himself effectively when changing.
She settled a little, as if my action had reassured her, and stepped aside.
I stripped the fae woman’s body free of the rags of clothing our attack had left her. Her skin was darker than anything I’d seen on a human, a warm shade like a doe’s summer coat. But the ridged scars that crossed and recrossed themselves like a macabre braid were white. Some looked as though they were put on her body with a whip, but more were the result of wounds very similar to the freshly open ones we’d given her.
In addition to the wounds from this day, there were a number of healing wounds. Bite wounds. Doubtless from the hounds that the forest lord had lost control of.
“Will she live?” The little creature crouched beside me and reached out to pet the wounded woman’s arm.
“I don’t know fae,” I told her. “But she’s lived through worse.”
“She should be healing faster than this,” the little creature said. “She always has before.”
I thought of Adda and his festering wounds, and said nothing. The forest lord’s body had gone to earth, but his clothing remained. I went to where he had died and appropriated his fine cloak, a bronze eating knife, and a flask filled with bracata—wort fermented with honey. I had found such alcohol good for cleaning wounds.
Returning to the woman, I cut the cloak into strips and used them to bind up the worst of the wounds.
“These should properly be stitched,” I told the little creature. “But I don’t have needles or thread. Without that, they will leave scars behind—like the other wounds have.” I frowned at a nasty mass of scars on her ribs. “Why did he do this?” I asked.
She bowed her head. “She is two-natured, like you and her father, though not two-formed. This aspect, her sidhe aspect, is impervious to her father’s commands. But her other self is closer to the natural world and must obey him. It rises to protect her from danger or harm. Her father needed her obedience to build a thing—a powerful and bad thing. She would not do it, so he tortured her with fear and pain until the other part of her rose.”
“He was her father?” I asked.
The fae woman looked fragile and broken on the forest floor. But to resist such treatment, to have risen again, over and over—such a one was tougher than she looked.
“I can’t do much,” I told the fae creature. “I don’t have the supplies. I can clean the wounds and stop the bleeding and give her the chance to heal. She needs to be somewhere out of the weather. There is snow coming.”
“There is shelter.” She bobbed her head. “And we have needles and thread. What else do you need?”
“Honey,” I told her. “Willow bark. Water. How far away is the shelter?”
“Shelter is not far,” she said. “Twenty minutes’ walk. If you can bring her, I can take you. And also there might other items you mention be found, an Underhill wills it to be so.” She sounded doubtful. “What is not there I can steal.”
Promise of a shelter and supplies changed my to-do list. I finished stanching the bleeding. If the little creature could run, we could turn her twenty minutes to half that.
“Samuel.” My da sounded tired. I looked at him, and his face was drawn and gray. The mark on his hip was still an angry red. “I’ll find you after I dispose of the bodies.”
I nodded and wrapped the remnants of the forest lord’s cloak around myself, using the fabric to secure the flask of bracata and the knife and sheath. I picked up the woman. She was light in my arms, lighter than my wife had been, though she was taller.
I could remember the feel of my wife’s weight in my arms, but I could not see her face. I staggered a step as my mind went blank in panic because I couldn’t remember. Couldn’t remember her face or her name, just glimpses of a lifetime. My breath caught in my throat with the terrible grief of loss. It had mattered a lot less while my grandmother had me on her leash. I’d lost more than my humanity while in my grandmother’s hands—I’d lost my wife and my children and I had not recognized how terrible the loss was. I could not remember them, not their faces or their names.
“You are hurt?” asked the little fae creature tentatively.
“Yes,” I said because I would not lie. “But not in the way that you mean.”
My father said a name that slid off my ears. He waited a moment, then said, “Samuel?”
I must have looked a little wild-eyed when I turned to him. “She stole my memories. Stole my name.”
He nodded once. “There will be a reckoning.”
“Do you remember them? My wife and children?” I asked. When he nodded again, my panic eased. “As long as someone does, they aren’t lost.”
“They are not lost as long as I live,” my father agreed. “I’ll remember them for you. Go ahead, Samuel. I’ll come by and by.”
I nodded. I turned to the little fae creature. “I can run with her. Lead me as quickly as you can, and I will follow.”
What People are Saying About This
“One of the best urban fantasy anthologies I’ve ever read.”—The BiblioSanctum
“These intriguing, suspenseful, and occasionally heartwarming stories will thrill and delight fans of Mercy and her friends.”—Publishers Weekly
“Shifting Shadows is beautifully compiled, and all of the tales engaged me making this a total win for Briggs’ fans. I walked away with a smile and new books in my TBR pile.”—Caffeinated Book Reviewer
“Shifting Shadows is everything fans of Patricia Briggs will like…there is no disputing that Ms. Briggs is a superb storyteller.”—Fiction Vixen Book Reviews