The haunting masculine voice that had drawn Moira into the night tickled at the edge of her hearing, rich and sweet as honey fresh from the hive, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere, but always just ahead in the heavy fog that swirled over the lands around Castle Clary.
Moira picked her way forward. Pine needles littered the carpet of moss, pricking her bare feet. Gray wisps of mist that had rolled in off the loch coiled around her, grasping and cold. Nothing moved in the darkness. No tiny paws skittering. No hooting owls.
Moira’s father, Lord Clary, forbade his children from leaving the castle at night, but this once, she had disobeyed, unable to ignore the voice that clung to her like a cobweb, familiar as her own skin, although she couldn’t remember ever hearing it before. The voice caressed her earlobe, her spine, sending shivers coursing down her limbs.
Her toes curled, reaching for the river of energy she could always feel surging beneath the rock and soil of her father’s domain, but it was so distant she could hardly sense it. How far had she wandered to be so lost? She who knew Clary’s every swell and valley, every hidden copse and badger sett? What spider would she find at the end of this sticky strand?
She bit the tip of her tongue and tried to think back, to retrace her steps, but all she found was the voice that turned her blood to mulled brandy. Nothing that would tell her the way back to Castle Clary with its warm fire and comfortable familiarity—the lord and his men drinking and singing until weariness dragged them to their bedrolls, hounds begging and picking at the scraps, her sisters plying their embroidery needles, giggling and tittering over whichever handsome man had caught their fickle eyes that day.
The voice vanished.
Moira shivered and pulled her woven shawl tight against the silence. Her fingers tingled, half numb, though she couldn’t say whether it was from cold or from fear.
A twig snapped.
She was not alone.
Moira raised her chin. A daughter of Clary feared nothing. “Who’s there?”
Something breathed close by, a wisp of sound that set Moira’s pulse thudding. Her mouth tasted like bitter sap.
“I am Corbet.”
The mist magnified his voice, so it felt as if it came from all sides at once. A strange lilt tinged his words, thick and round at the edges. Not from Clary, nor any of the adjoining territories. Moira’s fingers tightened in the fibers of her shawl. Dizziness hummed in her ears. She shouldn’t be here.
Pale blue light flared. Moira raised a hand to block the glare, peered through the spaces between her fingers, and stumbled back a step. A dark figure stood less than an arm’s length away, so tall she had to crane her neck to see his face.
Black hair, black eyes, and broad shoulders draped by a cloak of raven feathers stretching nearly to the ground. A long, beak-like nose dominated his face, framed with a shadow of dark stubble covering the pale skin of his strong jaw and narrow cheeks. Black feathers hung in his shoulder-length hair.
Moira’s heart thudded faster than a wren’s.
“Who are ye? What do ye want?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest. Her finger grazed the cool metal of the Clary ring she wore on a cord around her neck and she curled a knuckle through the wide band.
The man took a step closer, so close his warmth heated her chilled skin. He smelled of cedar and heather and rain. Bending down until his lips were a breath from her ear, he whispered, “Who do you want me to be?”
The deep voice thrummed down her spine and nestled in her belly like a hot stone. Moira knew the voice now. She’d heard it while she slumbered. She closed her eyes. This was a dream. Some manic, fevered dream sent to torment her for being so foolish to ignore her father’s edict. Desperate to ground herself, she reached again for the land’s energy, but it had receded so far it was nothing more than the brush of thistledown, tickling her soles.
Moira forced her eyes open. “I’ve no want for ye to be anyone.”
Corbet straightened, lips curving into a half-smile. “You are wise.”
“If I were wise, I wouldn’t be here speaking with ye. I’d be safe in my father’s house.”
“You think your father’s house so very safe?” The light pulsed. Belatedly, Moira wondered where it came from. It seemed to radiate from Corbet himself, shimmering in the air around him. “I would venture to disagree,” he continued, “given how easily I gained entry to lure you away.”
A breath full of mist coated Moira’s tongue. She swallowed. “Take me back.”
“Your only safety now is beyond the mist.” A sweep of his hand took in the fog that pressed in all around them. “You cannot go back.”
“Cannot?” Moira forced her gaze from Corbet’s long, tapered fingers and glared up at him, embracing the anger that flared in her breast. The gusting wind didn’t touch him. Not a hair stirred, not a feather. Dream or not, he was not of this world. He could not command her.
Turning her back on him, Moira walked blindly into the fog. Her feet shaped to the ground and she kept one hand raised protectively in front of her face. Step after step after step, with no aim other than away. Did Corbet follow?
Thunder crashed, echoing through Moira’s skull. Harsh wind raced before the storm, raising ominous creaks and groans among the unseen trees. Her skirt twisted around her legs, threatening to hobble her. The air tasted like damp linen.
Rain sluiced down, drenching her through, turning her skin to ice, but did nothing to clear the unending fog. Teeth chattering and sodden, Moira walked on, not knowing whether Castle Clary was ahead or behind, but too cold now and too afraid to stop moving.
Somewhere nearby a wolf bayed, hollow and hungry. Answering howls rose up on all sides. She was going to die. Lord Clary’s headstrong youngest daughter, too wild to know her place. Out of doors as often as she could manage, barefoot and bareheaded, more a wisp than a woman. So different from her sisters. Would they mourn when she was gone?
Moira broke into a run, but stumbled and crashed to the ground. No air. Her chest spasmed, and her mouth opened and closed like a beached fish. She staggered to her feet and leaned on her knees, gasping for breath.
The mist took on a harsh amber glow, revealing a circle of wolves, their muzzles low to the ground, fur bristling at their necks. Rumbling growls shivered through the air. Moira froze, her mouth tasting as if she’d bitten cold steel.
“My children will not harm you,” said a husky feminine voice. “Not without my command.”
Moira spun toward the voice. Two wolves pressed themselves apart, leaving a narrow pathway between their gray- and silver-streaked pelts.
The amber light brightened and a woman stepped between them. Glimmering motes like smoldering embers drifted around her.
Where Corbet was dark, this woman was deathly fair. Luxuriant pale curls draped down her back. Ash-white hair covered her bare arms and neck, thinning almost into nothingness on her face, but a dusting grew even there. Her long nose hinted at a wolf’s snout. A narrow, draping gown of gray fur hung from her shoulders, split halfway up one thigh, revealing a muscular limb, also coated with white hair, and ending in a foot that was an amalgam of human and wolf. Sharp, bony ridges protruded toward the skin’s surface and dangerous-looking claws dug into the ground below.
“Poor child,” the woman murmured, “you are lost and frightened.”
Not more than an hour ago, Moira would have denied it. Now, she said nothing, only hugged herself close and tried to still the trembling. The subtle rush of Clary’s energy stream was nothing more than a memory. She had never felt more alone.
The woman reached one claw-tipped finger toward Moira’s cheek. A musky, animal smell with undertones of rot emanated from her skin.
Moira jerked away, a sick feeling working its way up the back of her throat. The wolves’ growls intensified.
“You’ve not asked me who I am.” When she spoke, the wolf-woman’s lips parted to reveal long, sharp canines. Blood red gleamed from her eyes.
Moira found her voice. “I do not care to know. All I want to know is how to get back to Castle Clary.”
The woman chuckled like a grouse’s thrum. The sound ricocheted through the mist. A vein throbbed at the base of her throat.
Moira stood stiffly, her shoulders back, trying to maintain as much of her dignity as she could dredge together.
When the woman stopped laughing her smile shifted, leaving only a predatory glint of teeth. “I am Yndris, the Reaper. I cut the threads of the unwanted and unclaimed. The left-behind ones who’ve not been called back beyond the veil.”
“I don’t know who ye think I am, but I’m not unwanted, nor unclaimed. My father is Lord Clary and this is his land.”
“And your mother?”
Moira glanced at her hands. “She died in childbirth.”
“Is that what they told you?” Yndris tipped her head to the side and ran the tip of her tongue over her lips. “Pity. But so like mortals. Easier to say she died giving you life than to say she never wanted you at all. Yes, you are Lord Clary’s child, but your mother belonged to my world. She exiled you beyond the mists before you’d suckled your first milk.”
The wolf-woman stalked forward, circling Moira, tracing a claw over the soft skin of Moira’s neck. “Your time is ended, abandoned girl.”
A shudder rocked Moira from crown to toes. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.
It was a lie. A foul, evil lie. Her mother had loved her—enough to risk her life to bring her into the world. Hadn’t she?
“Don’t fear,” Yndris said, caressing Moira’s throat, encircling her neck with her long, powerful hands. Her voice dropped to a sickly-sweet whisper. “This won’t hurt.”
The wolf-woman’s claws pierced Moira’s skin.
Too late, Moira’s paralysis broke. Too late, she tried to struggle. Too late, and cold, seductive lethargy slipped through her veins. No air. No strength. Her vision tunneled until all she could see was the wolf-woman’s blood-touched eyes.
The wolves sidled close, nipping at her legs.
“Don’t be greedy, children. Wait until she’s dead before you feast.” Yndris’s voice sounded as if she were speaking through uncarded wool.
A raven shrieked and plummeted from above, black wings flapping at Yndris’s face, talons outstretched, scratching, clawing. The wolf-woman released Moira, pulling her hands over her head to protect herself from the onslaught.
Air raced into Moira’s lungs and vertigo slammed through her. Her knees gave out and she crumpled, but before she hit the ground, strong arms swept her close, wrapped in the scent of cedar, rain, and heather. Vast wings stretched wide, glimmering with pale blue light, and then she was rising, up and up through the mist, leaving behind the baying wolves and the Reaper, shrieking curses after her.
Moira twisted in Corbet’s arms, wrapping her own around his neck and burying her face in the soft feathers that bloomed over his chest. Safe. Protected. With each powerful flap of his wings the muscles against her cheek flexed.
“I told you that you could not go back,” he said, his voice edged with strain.
“I don’t understand,” Moira whispered, her mouth filling with down. The wind whipped her words away, and she wondered whether he could even hear them. “I want to go home.”
Corbet did not reply. His labored breathing rasped in his chest. Soon, they circled downward. With one final sweep of his wings, he landed, Moira still clasped close.
As soon as she realized they were down, she released her grasp and slithered to the ground, pressing away to give herself some distance—space to think, to breathe. She grasped the Clary ring at the base of her throat in a tight fist, feeling the embossed stag’s head press into her palm.
The mist was thinner here, letting in slivers of light from the gibbous moon. Water lapped against a shrouded shoreline. A chorus of frogs creaked and croaked in the darkness. Best of all, the rush of energy flowing underfoot throbbed near the surface, vital and pure.
While Corbet caught his breath, Moira peered into the distance. A low slope showed through the mist, nothing more than a dark silhouette, but combined with the sound of the loch, it was enough. She knew where Castle Clary lay. Just on the far side of the rise, nestled up against the shore. She wondered if the guards would hear her if she screamed.
Corbet touched the small of her back. “I know you want to return, but you must understand it is impossible. Yndris is relentless. She will find you. She’ll set her wolves on your family, until none remain to guard you, and when you stand alone amidst their corpses, she will kill you. It is who she is, Moira. Her nature. You cannot outrun her, nor can you protect those you love.”
“So it’s true? My mother wasn’t of this world? She’s… what then?”
“Fae,” he said, pulling back his shoulders, the sharp prow of his nose proud in silhouette against the moon. “Like me. Like Yndris. With no desire to be bound to a half-mortal child.”
Moira regarded him. His wings were gone, replaced once again by the cloak of feathers. She touched his hair with tentative fingers, tracing one quill that hung there to where it grew from his scalp.
His thin lips parted on a soft exhale.
“And what of you?” she asked, pulling her hand slowly away. “What do ye want of me?”
“To see you safe. To bring you through the mists to the Otherworld.”
He looked away, black eyes glinting. “My father was the one who brought you here. The Lady bound his word to bring you beyond the mists. She meant for you to die, but he could not bring himself to abandon you. He stole the ring you wear around your neck, which she had kept as a talisman of her conquest. It marked you, so your father would know you were the fruit of the dalliance he used to try to fill the emptiness where your sisters’ mother would have been had she not gone to an early grave.”
Corbet glanced at his hands. “The Lady learned of my father’s treachery and banished him and all his kin from her realm. I was only a boy.” He raised his eyes, his gaze tracing over Moira’s face. “We had no home to return to, and he felt responsible for your fate, so he remained near, your unknown guardian.
“Outside the boundaries of the Lady’s land, the long years of my father’s life waylaid him. He who had once been strong and vigorous faded, becoming bent and feeble. At first, I resented you, but as the years passed and I grew to manhood, I came to understand his feelings—and to share them. When he grew too weak to watch over you, I took his place, both of us hoping your mother would change her mind and claim you before maturity drew Yndris to cut your life threads.”
Moira blinked. “But I’ve never seen ye before today.”
“I do not always wear this form. I can travel as a raven, and I have walked your dreams. If you listen with your soul, you will find me within.” His fingers coiled with hers. “Come away with me. Leave this world behind before it’s too late.”
Moira hesitated, glancing back toward Castle Clary. Torchlight danced over the rise. Shouts filtered through the mist. “Moira! Moira, where are ye?”
Tears leaped to her eyes, but did not fall. She stared back at Corbet. “Not wanted, Yndris said? Do they sound as if they don’t want me?”
The dark arches of his brows drew close, etching a long furrow between them. “They are mortal.”
“And aren’t I half mortal? Why would ye care what happens to a mongrel like me?”
Corbet released her hands and cradled her head, pulling her so close his scent filled her, his resonant voice vibrant and penetrating. “Because I love you. Let me claim you and Yndris will have no power over you.”
Moira forced her arms between them, fighting the lure of his words. “How can I leave them? They’re my family.” She turned toward the castle and shouted, “I’m here!”
“Moira?” The torches drew toward them, the shapes of the bearers beginning to solidify through the fog.
Disbelief etched itself over Corbet’s sharp features. “You’ve killed them, Moira. Yndris won’t hesitate.” He cocked his head, listening. “She’s coming. I cannot protect them.”
“But I can.” Moira closed her eyes and concentrated on the rush of energy surging below. Now she knew why none of her family could feel the magic in the foundations of Clary. She was half fae. She sensed power beyond their capabilities. And what she could feel, she could wield. “I will not live in fear.”
Moira knelt and laid her hands flat on the grassy earth. Pouring all her will into her palms, she opened herself to the deep part of her that had always remained hidden, waiting to be set free. Energy raced toward the surface and up through her hands, filling her heart, her chest, her lungs—permeating every inch of her, until she thought her skin would burst with its cool, swift-rushing power.
“Moira, girl!” Her father’s voice. Her father’s arms, pulling her upright, engulfing her in a bone-crushing embrace, his thick auburn beard scratchy against her forehead. “You’re safe.”
The wolves’ howls pierced the mist, far too close. Moira wriggled free of her father’s arms and pressed him behind her, toward the huddle of guardsmen who had come in his wake. He stumbled, unprepared for her magic-fueled strength.
Corbet stood at Moira’s side, tense as bent yew wood, his fingers curling and uncurling, knuckles the color of midwinter frost. Her father’s eyes passed over him as if he were invisible.
The wolves burst into view.
Moira sank her feet toward the source of her power, rooting herself to the earth. She raised her arms and shouted wordlessly. Silver light burst from her hands, forming a shield around her small band of men.
The first wolf leaped toward them, hit the shield, and fell back with a pained whine. Moira forced the shield outward. The searing silver touched the wolf’s hide and it leaped backward, yipping and nipping at the singed patch on its shoulder.
The remaining wolves stalked the edge of the shield, ears pulled back, teeth bared, quivering with blood hunger.
“Impressive.” Yndris stepped out of remnants of mist and inclined her head. “But you won’t be able to hold your shield forever.”
“As long as I stand on Clary land, I can hold this shield until the seas run dry.” Moira’s voice did not tremble. The wellspring below surged through her. In that moment, she felt invincible.
The wolf-woman’s nostrils flared. Her lips curled back to reveal her fangs. Fierce and dangerous in her unworldly beauty.
“Moira wields the deep magic, Yndris,” Corbet said, resting his hand on her shoulder. “By the laws of our folk, she now has the right to claim herself.”
Yndris’s eyes narrowed to ruby slits. “She’s the whelp of a mortal.”
Moira bristled. Power radiated through her, lifting the hairs on her arms, tingling in her fingertips. “Unwanted, ye said. Unclaimed. Well, I have been claimed. By my father and by the deep roots of this land. You have no right to me.”
Yndris looked between Corbet and Moira. Moira returned her stare without flinching, drawing strength from both the land and Corbet’s silent presence.
Yndris pressed her lips together and beckoned her wolves with a flick of her hand. “The Lady will hear of this. She will not be pleased.”
The mist rushed forward, enveloping Yndris and her wolves, and then it was gone, leaving nothing but brilliant stars dancing overhead and the croaking of frogs. Moira released the magic, sagging against Corbet when it fled from her limbs.
The world felt as if it inhaled, caught in a frozen moment. “It’s over,” Corbet whispered. “Well done.”
“What happens now?”
He brushed his fingers against her cheek. “Now you go home. When you are ready to learn what lies beyond the mists, I’ll be waiting.”
The world exhaled a rush of heather-tinged breath, and Corbet was gone, leaving Moira cold and unbalanced.
Lord Clary blinked and rubbed his eyes, looking around him in confusion. “Moira? What are ye doing out here? We’ve been searching for ye.”
She sighed. “Nothing, Father. I’m sorry I worried ye. I’m ready to go home.”
Moira let her father wrap an arm around her shoulders and lead her toward Castle Clary. Energy pulsed through her with each footstep, clear and fresh as rainwater.
A raven’s call broke through the night. Moira looked up and found its dark shape perched on the castle’s battlements, black eyes glinting.
Sending a trace of magic from her toes down through the earth and up along the stone wall, she brushed the raven with a soft touch. An answering tingle fluttered in her belly, ripe with promise.
Moira smiled and stepped into the warmth of Castle Clary, surrendering herself to the fluttering care of her sisters. They shepherded her to her sleeping pallet and tucked her under layers of woolen blankets, urging her to rest.
She laid her head on the pillow and waited for sleep to claim her. Would Corbet walk her dreams this night? She found she hoped so.
The foundations of her world had shifted. Clary was still home, but there was a new world now that she could claim, and claim it she would, beneath the raven’s wing.
© 2015 by Rebecca Birch
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