“You told Old Man Conall what, now?”
Farryn rubbed one foot against the back of the opposite calf, feeling for all the world like a child once more, returned from a recent scrape to face her mother’s wrath. She twisted the staff in her hand and tried to bravely meet the ward witch’s eye. In that moment, she would much rather have been staring down the gaping throat of the mirada instead.
“I . . . I couldn’t very well ask for payment.”
“Like bullocks you couldn’t!” Mother Ulla tossed up her warty old hands, rolling her watery eyes to the heavens. “Why, oh why did the gods send me such a dullard for an apprentice? At my time of life? Is there even time to find a new one? One with two flints worth of wits about her enough to strike a spark of intelligence? Is this the best that can be had?”
Over the last four years, Farryn had grown used to Ulla’s verbal tirades and generally knew better than to take them seriously. But there was an edge to the old witch’s tone which made her nervous this time. She half expected the door to be slammed in her face, half expected to be sent back to her parents’ house in disgrace, her apprenticeship come to an abrupt end.
If only she dared protest! She had succeeded in the task at hand, after all, despite very little preparation and, to be honest, very little proper training. She’d faced a mirada and not only lived to tell the tale, but had also brought Ayda back from the brink. Surely that sort of success had to count for something.
And it might . . . if Kellam hadn’t inserted his nose where it wasn’t wanted and spoiled the whole thing. As far as Mother Ulla was concerned, the Miphato might as well have handled the entire calling on his own, and Farryn knew better than to press the issue. The more she defended herself, the more pathetic she would seem in the old witch’s eyes. So she simply stood there, twisting her staff slowly in the dirt, and let her mistress’s words hammer down on her.
At last, Ulla fixed one squinting eye on Farryn and pointed a quivering finger at her nose. “I can’t bear the sight of you just now. Get you to the south plot and put yourself to some good use. And don’t come knocking at this door again until it’s done and done right, do you hear me? None of your usual slacking.”
Farryn’s heart lifted. Was she not being turned out on her ear then? She looked up quickly, met the witch’s eye, and looked away again, bobbing a hasty curtsy. “Yes, Mother Ulla!” she murmured and turned about at once, making for the ramshackle garden shed at the back of the cottage. It was as a good an escape as any.
Minutes later found Farryn standing over the south garden plot, a trowel in one hand, a rake in the other, her witch’s staff propped against the fence behind her. She sighed heavily as she surveyed the plot. Over the winter, creeping dargin vines from Whispering Wood had invaded the soil, and they would have to be cleaned out before any proper planting could be done. Every year, Mother Ulla set Farryn to this task, and she’d grown to dread it each spring.
Crouching in the center of the plot, Farryn eyed a finger-thick twist of vine warily before driving her trowel into the dirt, tearing at the many, grasping rootlets clinging to the soil. The roots seemed to tighten their hold—she could almost see them, like so many tiny fingers tensing. She gritted her teeth and hacked with the edge of the trowel.
Something snapped against her ear from behind. Growling, Farryn whirled where she sat, not quite fast enough. From the tail of her eye, she thought she saw a length of vine settling back into place, but by the time she looked at it directly, it was so perfectly still, she might have imagined it.
“Blasted dargin vines,” she muttered and turned back to her work, hacking, digging, tearing, pulling. She caught great handholds of vines and heart-shaped leaves and ripped them up in long sections, but had to be certain she chopped them to bits and carried them out of the plot or they would re-root as soon as she wasn’t looking. It was back-breaking work, and she was soon covered in grime and sweat and swearing through her teeth with every other breath she took.
Still, at least it was a distraction. Battling dargin vines didn’t allow any extra room in her mind to dwell on things like . . . like sad blue eyes. Or know-it-all faces and superior voices and bright silver buttons all in a row.
So Farryn hacked and hauled and swore for an hour before finally pausing to catch her breath. She took a seat on the garden fence, wiped sweat from her brow, and surveyed her work. At least half the plot was done, and the dargin vines knew she meant business. She could almost, almost see them creeping away under the fence, fleeing to the trees. The rest of her job shouldn’t be as difficult now she had the vines on retreat.
She breathed a heavy sigh and stretched her tense shoulders. What a strange day it had been! No . . . what a strange two days. She frowned and shook her head at that thought, still not quite able to believe it. Had it really happened? Had she really somehow lost twenty-four hours while exploring that dangerous, silvery dream?
She hadn’t had a moment to think about the dream, not since Mother Ulla told her about Ayda and sent her on the calling. Now memory of it returned, memory of those strange, vibrating trees, full of music and magic, born from some unusual mind not quite like any other she’d ever explored. And that monster—that lurching, ridge-backed horror she had glimpsed through the shining boughs. What kind of creature was that? She’d never seen anything like it before, neither had she encountered something of that nature in her studies.
Kellam would probably know.
A growl rumbled in Farryn’s throat as that stray thought managed to sneak through. She hopped down from the fence, brandished her trowel once more, and stomped back into the plot. Better to deal with dargin vines than dwell on that thought one moment more than necessary. “Blasted Miphates,” she muttered, sinking to her knees and digging her trowel into the earth once more. “Blasted Miphates and all their blasted shiny buttons . . . .”
Her voice trailed off. A strange, creeping sensation crawled over her awareness, like the cold chill of a shadow shrouding the sun. She sat up onto her heels. Her brow tightened into an uneasy frown.
Someone was watching her.
She couldn’t say how she knew. It was more like an instinct than real conscious thought. But it was as real as anything, utterly undeniable and impossible to ignore.
Farryn looked back over her shoulder, scowling at the vines, which immediately froze under her gaze. But no, they weren’t the source of this sensation. She’d battled dargin vines for years now, and they’d never made her feel watched like this. She lifted her gaze to the cottage instead, searching the windows for some sign of Mother Ulla. Could the old ward witch be observing her at her work, making certain she didn’t slack off? But the windows were empty and the back door was firmly shut.
Maybe she was imagining it. She was very tired after all, worn out after the morning’s exertions. Perhaps her mind was playing tricks on her. That’s all.
“That’s all,” she whispered firmly and turned back to the garden.
That was when she saw him.
He stood across the plot from her, just on the other side of the garden fence. He was so still, so perfectly silent, it would be all too easy to look right through him and never realize he was there. Not unless he wanted to be seen.
He must want to be seen now, however. For there was no way that anyone could miss his absolute unmistakable presence. It fairly hummed in the air around him, distorting perspective so that the rest of the world faded away to nothing. The very light from the sun above seemed to concentrate in a pulsating aura around him.
He was extremely tall—taller than any man Farryn had ever seen, seven feet high at least. His hair was long and flowing and strangely green, dark as pine needles, and stood out starkly against his reddish-brown skin. He was naked to the waist, his torso perfectly sculpted and muscular, like an artist’s idealized rendering of a god. A thick gold belt intricately plaited wrapped his waist, and beneath that, a silken sarong hung to his knees. His feet were clad in golden sandals, the long thin straps of which wrapped up his calves.
A fae. Farryn had never seen one, but she didn’t need to be told. This must be a fae, one of the lords of Eledria. They were known to walk in Whispering Wood, which stood on the border between the mortal world and Fairyland. But they were an elusive folk and ordinarily kept to their own world, only venturing over the borders on certain magical nights of the year when the boundaries between worlds were easily blurred.
Golden, catlike eyes watched her with a concentrated focus that made her knees tremble. And, though she couldn’t say way, they seemed strangely . . . familiar . . . .
Farryn realized that she wasn’t breathing. She inhaled a ragged gasp, held it, then let it out slowly. She opened her mouth, but her throat was too dry to form any words. What could she possibly say to such a man—such a being—in any case? And what in the names of all the seven gods was he doing here?
The fae man blinked. It was a slow, deliberate motion, but in that brief lowering of his lids, Farryn felt as though a paralyzing spell had broken. She rallied herself and, darting a quick glance to one side, leapt and grabbed witch’s staff from where it leaned against the fence close by. The moment it was clasped in her hands she felt better, stronger. She planted it in front of her, digging the end into the dirt, ready to draw up a rune if necessary.
But she dared not act too hastily. After all, the fae had made no threatening gesture. She couldn’t assume he meant her harm. And it was never wise to insult one of the Elfin Folk. Still, she adjusted her grip on the staff and pulled her shoulders back, her eyes wide her jaw firm as she faced the strange being.
“Who are you?” she asked. The words blurted out more rudely than she intended. She winced at the sound, but it was too late now, so she pressed on. “This is Mother Ulla’s land, and we are warded.”
“Yes. I feel the magic in the air. In the soil under my feet.”
Farryn’s eyes widened. That voice . . . why did she know that voice? Deep as night, rich as cream, sweet as honey. And poisonous as a spider’s bite. She’d heard it before. She knew she had. But where? When?
The fae took a step. A single, graceful, long-legged step right over the low garden fence and into the garden plot. Farryn twisted her staff into the dirt, but still hesitated to write a rune. The being had still offered no threat, after all.
“What do you want?” she asked, hoping her voice didn’t sound as thin and frightened as she thought it did.
He tilted his to one side. The long, shining locks of his hair shifted, revealing sharply pointed ears which, combined with those golden eyes, gave him a strangely catlike aspect. He regarded her for a long, silent moment. Then his full lips twitched, revealing a flash of white teeth in something that might have been a smile but struck Farryn more like a snarl.
“It’s you,” he said.
“I, uh . . . I beg your pardon?” Farryn stammered, refusing to let her traitorous feet take frightened step back.
“I thought it was the old woman’s magic,” that creamy poisonous voice continued. The other half of his mouth tilted upward, revealing more teeth. They were sharp and predatory, but somehow he only looked more beautiful. “But no. It’s yours. I recognize it. It hovers around you like perfume.”
Her heart hammered wildly in her throat and fear that she didn’t fully comprehend spiked up her spine. “I . . . I don’t know what . . . .”
Before she could form anything like a coherent phrase, the back door of the cottage slammed suddenly open. Mother Ulla burst forth in a storm of faded old skirts and wild gray hair. She brandished her own witch’s staff, and for a moment her bleary old eyes were strangely bright and flashing. They fixed on Farryn first then swiveled, blinked, and fastened with redoubled force on the fae standing in her garden. Moving with a spryness Farryn would not have expected from her old mistress, she leaped into the space between Farryn and the strange being and held up her staff, pointing the end of it at the fae as though she would send it hurtling like a spear straight for his heart.
“Be off with you!” she cried. “It ain’t Glorandal Night and it ain’t Winter Solstice. You ain’t got no business with me nor mine!”
The fae’s strangely beautiful face tilted the opposite direction as he turned a lazy gaze upon the old woman. “This mortal has broken the Pledge,” he said calmly.
“What?” Farryn gasped.
“Nonsense!” Mother Ulla snarled and took an aggressive step toward the huge man. She looked so small and gnarled and ugly compared to him, but Farryn could sense the power bristling in her. She might not be a match for a Lord of Eledria, but if it came to a fight, she would go down scratching and snarling for all she was worth. “We ain’t none of us Pledge-breakers around here. You’re just looking to stir up trouble. I know your wicked ways, Yhendorn!”
“Indeed?” The fae’s smooth voice took on the barest hint of an edge, and his smile sharpened into something more dangerous. “Then perhaps you can explain to me how and why my mind was invaded by a mortal presence no more than a day ago? A mortal presence I now recognize in the lovely young creature standing behind you.”
With those words, Farryn recognized the stranger at last. The little pixie features she’d seen gazing out from behind a tree trunk had matured, hardened into the severely beautiful plains of a majestic face. But the eyes were the same. Golden, dangerous. And, unexpectedly . . . frightened.
This was the dreamer. The mind behind that golden forest.
Farryn watched the stiffening of Mother Ulla’s spine, the way her shoulders tensed, the way her whole body seemed to draw together into a tight knot. She couldn’t see the old woman’s face from this angle, but she could easily imagine the sudden, eye-widening realization that passed over it in that moment.
The old ward witch kept her staff still pointed at the fae, but turned her head and swiveled her eyes to look back at Farryn over her shoulder. “Tell me the truth, girl,” she said, her voice quavering more than it had a moment before. “Was you dream-walking without my say so?”
Farryn mouth was dry as a desert. She couldn’t have spoken if she wished to, and managed only a single short nod.
“And you went stepping into a dream you didn’t know?”
Was there any point in attempting to defend her actions? Any point in trying to describe the beautiful, alluring dream? Any point in apologies, in promising never to make such a bungling error again? Shifting her gaze from Mother Ulla’s stricken face to the preternaturally calm visage of the fae, Farryn knew the answer too well. She gripped her staff so hard her knuckles stood out white.
Mother Ulla read the answer in her apprentice’s silence. “Oh,” she breathed and closed her eyes. “Oh, you stupid, stupid girl.”
The fae took a step, his long legs covering a large chunk of the garden and closing the distance between him and the ward witch. Ulla whipped around to face him once more, but now her hands trembled, and the end of her staff wavered.
“You know the law,” the fae said, looming enormous and terrible over the old woman. Against his vibrant beauty, she looked small and so very earthy. “Will you deny me my rights?”
The fight had gone out of her. Ulla lowered her staff and bowed her head, sagging heavily. All the lumpy rolls of her fleshy body seemed to deflate somehow. Then she stepped to one side and swung an arm in a gesture of defeat. “Do as you must,” she said. With a last flash of defiance she added, “But mind you, I’ll do everything in my power to bring her back!”
The fae gazed down his long nose at her, and his smile flashed once more. “I would expect nothing less, my Lady Ullavita,” he said.
Suddenly he was there, standing in front of Farryn with no barrier between her and him. Up close, the vibrancy of his being was so tremendous, Farryn felt as though the very air around him radiated with heat, with energy. She lifted her chin, gaped up into his too beautiful, too perfect face, framed by that strange, dark green hair.
“Greetings, mortal maid,” he said. His eyes traveled up and down her figure, studying her slowly, thoroughly, and finally rested on her face. “Charming,” he pronounced at last, sounding satisfied. “Tell me, what is your name?”
“I . . . I, um . . . .” Some faint warning bell sounded in the back of her brain, jarring Farryn’s stricken senses. At the very last moment, she gasped, “None of your business!”
His smile grew, showing more brilliant white, pointed teeth. “The kitten spits. But you have fight in you. That is good. You will need all the fight and spirit you possess for the purpose I have in mind.”
Blood pounded in Farryn’s head. She tried to look around the fae, tried to catch her mistress’s eye. “Mother Ulla?” she cried, desperate and confused.
But the fae bent his head, bringing his face into her line of sight. “No,” he said. “Don’t look to her. You’re mine now.”
Before Farryn could react, before she could even take a last gasping breath, he stretched out one long finger and touched her between the eyes. Darkness closed in hard and fast. Farryn felt her knees give out, felt her body falling, but did not feel herself hit the ground before unconsciousness claimed her.