And just like that, she left. She was gone from the Great Forest and Calypso knew she would never come back.
Calypso perched high on a thick bough of the evergreen tree, but he felt watched. He peered down between the snow-laden branches to see Timur. The mountain cat’s glossy green eyes made Calypso wish he could turn into something small and inconsequential, like a grub that could burrow into the moss and be forgotten. But Calypso was already forgotten, at least by those who mattered. Eva had not even looked back.
“You can’t follow her,” Timur said, his voice no less of a growl even though he shifted into the form of a man, standing in the snow, naked. The Forest provided for its children. Calypso would never feel the cold just as Timur would never feel the ice under his bare feet.
Calypso shuffled his feathers stubbornly. He didn’t want to talk to Timur. To talk to Timur, he would have to change his form, and that was the last thing he wanted to do. Other forms felt tight, unnatural. He preferred a raven. He didn’t like being a boy, all smooth skin and spindly arms and feet and fingers. And as a raven, he could fly.
Timur growled again. Calypso knew the old man had no patience for his brooding, but Calypso didn’t really care.
“You have spent too much time outside the Forest.” Timur shook his head. “Too much time inside that bird body,” Timur muttered as he shifted once more and disappeared into the trees.
Calypso wasn’t sure if Timur had intended for him to hear the comment, but he had, and he couldn’t unhear it. Probably it was true. He had been raised outside the Great Forest as a raven. He always knew he didn’t really belong at the Keep, but he never felt like he belonged in the Great Forest either. He was a foundling. An outsider. Nothing had changed when he realized he was a velidar.
Child, come to usss.
Calypso shivered. The voices were on the wind, in the trees, casting both light and shadow. He was compelled to follow the call, but his wings felt stiff, and his feet stuck with trepidation.
Calypso went. The trees whispered the path to him. He flew between tree and branch, over ravine and creek.
He landed on the moss, feeling the magic of the Forest wrap around him, assisting his change. Calypso imagined being embraced by strong arms would be similar to the feeling of the magic surrounding him, but he had never had the experience. One cannot properly hug a raven.
Before him was a ring of trees. Big, big trees. Taller and wider than any others—and that was saying something because the Great Forest was home to many ancient and immense trees. Even the air felt ancient. The insignificance of his fourteen years was an eye-blink in that space.
He walked between a gap in the trees into the clearing beyond. His fear was replaced by curiosity. Magic shifted around him and he was in a field of tall yellow grass. The bright sun absorbed into his dark hair first. He marveled at the sensation; a velidar couldn’t feel the cold of winter, but he could always feel the warmth of the sun. He trailed his fingers through the grass—maybe the appendages were good for something.
Where the grass parted, Calypso met a perfectly circular pool, dark as the night sky and smoother than the most pristine glass. He knelt and looked into the water because he could not not look into it.
He saw a boy.
“Rhyl,” Calypso said out loud. His voice was strange. He had never spoken with his human tongue before. It was a wormy, squiggly sort of sound. He moved his lips, feeling them with his fingers. He was supposed to be looking into the pool, the most magical thing he had ever encountered, and here he was, getting distracted by his human body.
Little Rhyl was still in the pool before him, happy, smiling, playing with a Kitarran child. Calypso’s chest hurt.
Then the pool showed him something else. His human fingers dug grooves into the dark sand around the pool’s edge. Tears leaked down his face. He rubbed them, leaving wet drops on the back of his hand. He had never cried before.
“Can it be stopped?” he asked the Allmakers when the pool had gone dark and empty once more. He could feel the old spirits with him, watching him. His nose was wet and sticky. He drew a deep breath through his mouth, but it caught on all his new emotions.
Yes. Maybe. Nooo. It depends on the boy. And you.
Yes, raven child. You must be ready.
“What must I do?”
One year later.
The Wanderling Mountains did have a certain beauty to them. The rocky outcrops, sweeping and intense. The plateaus of green. The ice fields that never saw enough of summer’s warmth to melt fully. The vast expanse of rock and air was both calming and exhilarating. And quiet.
The landscape contrasted with the ferocity of the wind howling in Tayeh’s ears even if he couldn’t feel it rake his fur down to his skin—the advantage of being a spirit. The wind did not bite into Tayeh’s skin. Nor did it move a feather on the great wings of the other Guardian.
Attin stood on the edge of a cliff. The cliff might have been a thousand feet tall, or only ten; the clouds below were too thick to tell. Attin’s pure white wings were outstretched as if to catch the wind.
Honestly, Tayeh was shocked to find Attin in such a rugged, raw place. The Guardian was too … fanciful. In life, Attin had been a king, surrounded by riches, women, power. His hubris had imbued the culture of Allati with a greed that was Attin’s legacy. Surely there was no place as opposite and stark and humble as the mountaintop. Attin had named his city after himself, after all. It didn’t fit.
But perhaps even a Guardian could change. Not a reassuring thought.
“Tayeh. You came.” Attin turned to Tayeh, his golden eyes filled with a decent amount of condemnation.
“I would not ignore the summons of another Guardian.”
Tayeh spread his hands. His presence was proof of his testament. Attin nodded, and his face softened, or at least appeared less angry. He sauntered over to Tayeh and sat upon a semi flat rock, his wings folded behind him.
“You took something of mine, Tayeh.”
“She was never yours.”
“Evangeline is of my blood. My people need her. You kept her from me, mentored her in the ways of the sanarii—my magic. How dare you? You and that fox-woman know only a scrap of my magic—of Eva’s magic. The audacity …” Attin let his annoyance fall between them to be snatched up by the wind.
“Her mother fled in anguish from your people. Your people would never have taught her about magic. They would see only a woman, useless, except for the children she could bear. And for that, they would have taken her soul, and her will, and for what? More pretty, fair-haired daughters to exploit? More sons to make into spoiled or embittered lords?”
Attin sighed in acknowledgment. “I have made mistakes. I have ignored my people at times. I have grown absent and lenient. The Shadow Guard is almost non-existent. I am accountable for that. But still, Eva should not have gone to Kitarra.”
“You would still have healed her, knowing she would leave Allati?”
“Of course.” The answer was instant. And reassuring. “You speak as if you have not asked sacrifices of her,” Attin said. “Yes, Tayeh. I know what you have done. The simul rami has shown me, and I have seen the pain you have caused her. Taking her husband and son from her? For what? So she could save a man hardly worth the effort? And fail? What game are you playing?”
“It is not a game. And if it is, I do not know the rules.” The Allmakers had insisted Arrain be saved, and Tayeh could not ignore the Old Ones. “Eva is in Kitarra now, with her son. You know as well as I that magic is stirring throughout the realms—and across the sea. Is it a coincidence that after searching this whole age, the vercuri are making their way to Kitarra once again? You know the legends as well as anyone. The rift is growing.”
Attin looked out over the lonely landscape. “The vercuri must not fall into the wrong hands.”
Tayeh grunted his agreement. “Eva has the power of the Old Ones.”
“So, all these years, you have kept the truth about her magic from her?”
Tayeh nodded, feeling the doubt of it in his heart. “I taught her what I could, but there is so much she does not know.” He had kept much from Evangeline—to protect her. If she knew the truth about her magic, it would destroy her. And she was so fragile. He needed her to be strong.
“Let me teach her everything,” Attin suggested. “The world will need it, in the end.”
Tayeh felt a war within him. He had caused her enough pain and anguish. Could he ask more of her? Did he have a choice?
“If I teach the mother, then she will teach her son,” Attin continued, “and don’t you dare pretend that is not the reason you are here.”
Tayeh grimaced. “The boy will need a tutor, someone more than you or I.”
“Yes. But until then, there is much he can learn from his mother.”
“Fine. Teach Eva, if she will let you.”
“Why so confident?” Tayeh asked.
“Because the dark is coming, and she is my warrior daughter.”
“Kaile brought a body back with him.”
“What did you say?” Mila was not sure she had heard Simirri right.
Mila stared at Simirri. “Whose body?”
“He didn’t say. Where are you going?”
“To find Kaile.”
The War Commander was not in the habit of bringing dead people home with him. It was beyond strange, but then, there were strange sightings and stirrings in the lands around the Keep. People from Barrowsby had gone missing. There were stories from other towns close to the Great Forest that made most huff in disbelief, but the stories made Mila’s heart thrum with unease.
Mila found Kaile in the courtyard talking to Will. She paused; Kaile was a mess. His clothes were caked in dark brown blood. His face looked like he’d aged ten years in the four weeks he’d been gone, his handsome features sharp and creased. He waved Will away when he noticed her approaching.
“Kaile, what happened?” Mila asked, fingering his ruined tunic. The fabric was beyond resurrecting. The little stags she had embroidered along his cuff were drowning in the dried blood.
Kaile rubbed his hand down his face. “I need a drink and clean clothes. Come with me?”
It was a long walk up to the Lord of the Keep’s chambers. Mila followed Kaile in silence. She didn’t feel right asking courtesy questions about his time in Caer Andri, or teasing him about Simirri—not when his disturbing story hung between them untold.
Inside his chambers, Kaile poured them each a drink from his bottle of potent fire-wine. He took a long swig with an appreciative grimace before pulling off his blood-encrusted tunic.
“For the love of little green apples …” He sighed, looking at the blood from a new angle. “What a mess.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Mila took a sip of her drink. It warmed her throat and belly.
“Darryl and I rode ahead as scouts. We were attacked.”
“Is he all right?”
Kaile nodded, sitting down in the chair opposite her with the grace of an ox. “Do you remember, long ago, when Tarran and Murryn were kids, they were attacked in the forest? I wasn’t at the Keep then, but Eva told me about it.”
“Of course, I remember.” Mila would never forget the marks on her sister’s hands, and the nightmares that followed. Or Tarran’s remarkable recovery, thanks to Eva’s magic. Mila had an idea where Kaile was going with his tale, and why he had wanted to discuss it with her in private with a strong drink to take off the edge. “This attack—you think magic was involved.” There, Mila said it.
“The thing that attacked us was not entirely human.”
Mila recalled Simirri had said “body,” not man.
“I am hoping you can have a look at—at the body. You could tell me if it is one of—”
Don’t say it, Kaile.
He said it. Mila’s gut squirmed like a thousand maggots had hatched inside her.
“I will look. But I can’t imagine I will have answers for you.”
Kaile nodded. “I know. Thank you.”
The silence between them felt like the inside of a storm. There was more. She could see it in Kaile’s drawn expression. His anger and fear greeted her nose like a perfume.
“I am sending Irri with a team to investigate the towns along the Great Forest,” he said.
“No, not Tarran.” Kaile met her eyes, hearing her unspoken question. “I cannot trust Tarran.”
Mila’s drink was suddenly heavy in her hand. “What happened?”
Kaile shook his head. “Nothing in particular. I just don’t feel like I can trust him. He and Caeris are—I don’t know what I am trying to say.” He glanced at the closed door. “I am sorry. I know he and Murryn are … involved.” The word fell short of what Murryn and Tarran were. “Mostly it’s just a feeling. But—” Kaile faltered.
“I know. Tarran has a good heart. But he is … lost.”
Kaile’s face twisted in agreement. His brow pinched.
“What else is the matter, Kaile?”
“Serac is here, Mila.”
Mila’s heart jumped into a cold, dark cave.
“Don’t worry. He can’t hurt you. I won’t let him hurt you.” Kaile’s steady gaze begged her to believe him.
“Thank you for that, Kaile.”
Once, she had been the master of her secrets. She had kept them all hidden and locked away. From Murryn. From Eva. From everyone—Kaile being the single exception. Now, Mila felt like the deeper and thicker her secrets became, the harder it was to keep them tidy and contained. Perhaps someday her secrets would spill out, and the people of the Keep would chase her into the Great Forest with pitchforks. The Great Forest was a place of hidden things and forbidden magic—where else would a shape-shifter belong?
“Did you show Serac this?” Mila asked. The room was dim; one of the torches had guttered. She could see perfectly fine—a gift from her oldest secret.
The body was laid on a shroud, naked, bruised. There was a puncture on his sternum where Kaile had landed the killing blow. Mila covered her mouth with her hand. “He looks like a man,” she said.
“When he died, the otherness left him. And no, I have not shown Serac.”
“You know the Goddess requires any hint of magic reported to her Temple Master.”
“How could I forget?” Kaile drawled. “I would have thought the strangeness was a figment of my imagination, but for Eva’s tale—and yours.” Kaile couldn’t keep a slight smile from curling his lip.
“Is something amusing, Kaile?”
“No. Of course not. Just remembering fairer times …” But his smile grew even with the dead body before them and death creeping in from the shadows. Kaile’s reckless good humor was what endeared him to Mila. She smacked his shoulder.
Fairer times indeed. Kaile had been an enjoyable lover, and he made her laugh, but that had never been enough for her. And Kaile didn’t want a wife, or even a partner; he just wanted to have fun. Maybe it had been the wine or Kaile’s good heart, but really, she had just wanted to tell someone. So she told him all her secrets. Secret one: her past as a rent girl. Secret two: Serac, her patron, had left her for dead. Secret three: Eva had rescued her and saved her life with magic. Secret four: that Mila was descended from the velidar. Secret five: she could turn into a wolf.
“Show me,” Kaile had asked with that charming smile of his.
“I can’t,” Mila had replied. “My magic is … broken—you don’t believe me.”
“I do. I do believe you. You are magic, Mila. You don’t have to prove it to me.”
Kaile was such a flirt. But he had believed her. And he had kept her secrets.
Mila inhaled. She could smell old blood. Death. Violence. Fear. And, yes, magic, but not her kind of magic. The trace was faint. Kaile put his hand on her shoulder. His touch was reassuring, as he intended.
“I don’t know what this is, Kaile. It does not smell like the magic of the Great Forest.”
Kaile nodded, looking down at his feet.
“Are you going to keep this from Serac?” she asked.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“I wish I could be of more help.”
“Mila, without you, the Keep would fall to pieces.”
“You know what I mean, War Commander.”
Those who were strong are now weak,
With healing hands, the babes will speak
Those who were defenders are lost
With stalwart heart, the coward's last accost,
Watch for the child of two thrones,
Born with magic in his bones,
A child lit by the stars,
Watch for him, for he shall be ours
~ Tayeh's Prophecy
Copyright 2020 Andrea Gibb / All Rights Reserved