The thing I remembered above all else of Gregor Cole’s death was the foul stench of burning hair.
Encompassed in darkness, I had nothing to distract me from the things I might have dreamed, might have remembered. Cole’s spell book which in some versions had a bookmark of finger bones, in other versions a bookmark of a fleshy finger. The walls bled and cried, subjected to wearing the gouges of a dark Unwritten spell upon their wallpaper. I fancied what it was like to die, and to come back again. Every now and again there was a fight with the shadow dragon. It was odd, that I was being asked after the method of Cole’s death—a thing I had been very much awake and aware for—but I was being haunted instead by when he had killed me.
If he hadn’t fallen for my trick, I hated to think what he would be doing now. What other black arts he’d be practicing and hiding. So it was a good thing he was gone. After all, he’d killed me first, even if he had bungled the job. The courts didn’t need to know that particular tidbit, so I hadn’t mentioned it. My coven had been a huge boon, providing all kinds of support for the case known in the papers as Gregor Cole v. Feraline Swift.
It was things like this that I remembered and relived while doped up under the weight of the trial’s spells. Afterwards, I was restricted to my home, and while there I was either sluggish or put under by the Council’s seashell. Even frying an egg was impossible to do with that thing in the house, forget spell-casting. It was illegal to tamper with the seashell, but I’d tried anyway. So far, no luck. It had become a personal goal of mine, to interfere with its function in some manner. I hadn’t even managed to smash it. So I hadn’t been sleepy when I’d wrapped up in a blanket for the night and laid my head down on the pillow. My lower back ached from the cheap mattress, and I wondered what the start of bedsores looked like. It felt wrong they could strip me of my life like this, but they had told me—it was this or the dungeons.
The Coles were planning something, and whatever it was, it was going to happen before the verdict was passed tomorrow at 3:15 pm. I should have realized that without Mordon sleeping alongside me, I would be unprotected. After all, all the wards in the world mean nothing if there is no one at hand to mind them. But, then again, the wards were in place to keep me inside. Not to prevent visitors. Maybe I could blame the spells for muddling my thinking, but in truth, I’d felt safe. I’d become used to having my fiance fire drake hanging around to scare off the things I’d rather not outwit.
“Rrrrrrrrruuuuuuushhhhhh,” sounded the seashell, a constant reminder of why I’d never be able to poke around the wards myself. Perhaps the one advantage of so much sleeping and so little doing was that my house stayed clean.
And I could daydream of us.
Of Mordon and me, doing certain things together. It was safe to daydream, and it gave me other things to think about when an interrogator tried to dip into my mind for a juicy tidbit I might be keeping from the court. I smiled in bed, remembering how one woman had forgotten her argument, turned bright pink, and surrendered the floor to the defense attorney earlier today.
The house creaked, the exact source of the noise was impossible to track. It was windy outside, or it had been when I’d last looked at the trees, so I assumed the sound was from the storm. I snuggled a teddy bear up to my chest, its button eyes cold under my fingers. Who was it a gift from? I told myself it was from Mordon, but that might not be right. I heard voices in the hallway.
“What’s on the schedule today?” I tried to ask, but it came out all muffled and slurred together.
The voices stopped talking upon hearing my words. I licked my lips. It must be a random night-check, if they weren’t knocking. A light turned on in the hallway and I wondered if it was morning again, or if they’d gotten word and my wrongful death case had been resolved.
The thought made me feel nauseous, and all I wanted to do was hide under the covers and wish that it would all just go away and I would never have to find out if my life was officially over. The chicken and nettle soup I’d requested for dinner now seemed like a poor choice. I should have eaten nothing, just settled for a hot shower with Lilly’s assistance.
One of the truth spells gave me cottonmouth. Drinking water only gave me a sore throat. Spell burns healed beneath layers of salve and wrappings which covered more of my skin than my lightweight nightgown. Lilly said they wouldn’t scar, even so Mordon still winced in sympathy whenever he saw the bandages or the blistered skin beneath.
Leif and Lilly, as judges in Merlyn’s Market, couldn’t be sitting on my case but they knew how the Merlyn’s Market Court operated. Constable Barnes knew how to manipulate it, and he was sly with sneaking in nips of homemade brandy. Then there was Mordon. Should all else fail, I could go live in the drake Kragdomen Colony with him, but I had been raised human. The desire to be with other sorcerers was strong. And I shouldn’t fret about what the others called ‘going through the motions’. The very worst the Cole family could charge me with was wrongful death, which was what they had done, and the case they were losing.
Yet I still worried. That I’d be found guilty. That I’d go to the dungeons. Did they divide men and women there? What was a magical prison even like? I didn’t want to find out this way. But according to Barnes, the wards they’d put up on my house at the expense of the Council wasn’t enough for the Coles. And so the Cole family had paid for dungeon-level security to be put in place. So far it was impressive security. Not even the combined efforts of my coven could conjure up a way to break out.
A greater worry was the Cole family. Maybe they didn’t know what Gregor had done, what he’d become. Or maybe they were in it with him. In any case, they’d been too calm during proceedings. It felt wrong.
He’d been a monster, a grotesque distortion of what a man once was when he pursued my illusion over the sheer rock face and plunged to his death. Cannibal was too tame a word to call the likes of him; the sorcerers used the term wendigo. Gaunt skin stretched too tightly over a protruding skeleton, long claws, nearly impossible to kill, armed with money and power and magic.
That any of us had survived the encounter had been a miracle.
A loud scraping of keys in the doorknob roused me. It must not be anyone from my coven. They knew we kept the inner doors unlocked. A wedge of bright white light sliced through the blackness of my room, sweeping across the floor and one wall before finding my bed. Seized in the spotlight’s beam, my eyes burned with the intensity. I squeezed them shut and drew the covers up to my nose.
I gathered all of my strength together, and rolled onto my other side. I pried my eyes open. Would it be Council members this time, or was Mordon with them? And if he was with them, could I contrive a way to be alone with him for a short time? We’d only kissed the once and I felt guilty about pushing him away recently, even refusing to talk to him when I was upset. My life consisted of sleeping, food, court proceedings, more food and sleeping again. I just wanted an ounce of normalcy again, to sit across from him with a cup of brew and the Thaumaturgical Tribune discarded to the side as we talked about nothing.
“Get up.” The woman addressing me sounded accustomed to being obeyed. I squinted at her. Sleep interruption was forbidden, not on behalf of my well-being, but to prevent me from being able to take action. While I was still thinking this, the woman caught me by the wrist and hauled me to my feet. I stumbled forward, pain blazing through an unprepared ankle. As I took my first trembling steps in her wake, I dragged my blanket with me.
Eyes tearing, I flicked my gaze to the floor as the woman led me down my hall towards the dining room. She tripped over the fold in the runner carpet, but I didn’t laugh. It was hard enough to stand on my own two feet. The woman snared my elbow and half-carried me. Sluggish as I was, the air was growing thick and oppressively scented with honeysuckle. My magic trying to come to me, an unwieldy jumble of energy waiting to be told to do something, anything. It was as clumsy as when I’d first gotten it back, and I doubted I could have shaped it into a spell even if I’d had my wits about me. My feet touched the cool floor of the dining room.
Winded from the effort of essentially half-carrying me, the woman tossed me into the nearest chair. The mismatched shabby-chic décor which Lilly had largely picked out for me was an absurd contrast to what could only be an illegal interrogation or cold-blooded murder. When I had the thought, I didn’t panic. The knowledge was oddly disconnected to the experience. Was it the seashell at work, or had all my recent experiences with the court desensitized me?
As I remembered, my house was spotless. Very unusual. Also very pretty. It made me wonder where they’d put all my projects and if I would get all the pieces back in the end if this very pretty-cleanliness didn’t end up as a crime scene. Behind me the sun room overflowed with plants which were miraculously thriving despite my care. Piles of books rested on end tables and on the shelves Barnes had secured to the walls while watching the contractors put up the wards. Gas sconces hissed on the walls, turned up to what I now knew was mid-level, showing my mint-green fridge and stove.
My guard woman kept staring at them as if they might spontaneously explode. Which meant she wasn’t used to electrical appliances, which meant she came from the upper-end of the sorcering community who believed that unless inventions were made by fellow sorcerers, it was not acceptable to own any of those inventions. It was probable that the man sitting across from me came from the same sort of people as she did as well.
I shivered, causing my chair to rattle against the table. Sleep still clung to me like the aftermath of a disease. I wrapped my legs in the blanket and realized that I clutched the teddy bear. Who it was in front of me, I couldn’t tell. He and the woman both had disguise spells on them, so I couldn’t look at their faces without glancing right on by.
What I could gather was that he might have been a bit on the short side. They both wore dark clothes, either black or very dark blue, maybe uniforms. The woman was heavier and stronger than the man, and I had the impression she was the brawn behind the operation and he was the brains. The implication perhaps should have terrified me, but I was beyond caring.
I was conscious of my nightgown. The way it wasn’t opaque, so darker skin showed through. I positioned my teddy bear strategically across my chest. Scraggly hair hung in strands down my back. And I shuddered so much my teeth chattered and my heart started to skip beats.
“So, you are the famous Feraline of the Swift Clan,” the man said, his voice surprisingly welcoming. Hearing my name only made the hair stand up on my arms and my entire body start trembling. He folded his hands in front of himself and said, “I have been looking forward to meeting you for some time.”
I focused on keeping my teeth pressed together. If I did that, I found I wasn’t tempted to volunteer comments when it wasn’t needed. Being silent would force him to do the talking.
He didn’t speak for quite a while, choosing to just look at me instead. Despite that I was shaking, I was also starting cold sweats. He said, “You’re not what I expected.”
I raised my eyes to his, but that obscuring spell got in the way, and my gaze came to rest on the table again. Despite the cleanliness of the rest of the house, the table showed signs of life. It was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder that I wasn’t stuck in some dreamworld where I picked up after myself. Used coffee mugs, tea cups, and even a beer bottle riddled its surface. Then there was the conch shell. Stupid thing. The only other item on the table was a small glass vase filled up with irises and sweet peas. Those I knew Mordon had brought me. Red and orange and various hues of blue. They scented the entire room.
“You are to be tried for the wrongful death of Gregor Cole,” the man continued, his finger tapping on the back of his hand. “Do you know why it is that I am here?”
Voicing my suspicions would either backfire or cut short the time I would have from letting him explain, so I drew on what I’d learned from listening in to the others. “I do not know. Would you tell me?”
And what I’d learned could be summed up in two short words: plausible deniability.
Many people didn’t believe that I could have ever defeated Cole, no matter if I tricked him with an illusion or not. It was arrogance which I was willing to embrace.
“You mean to tell me that you have no idea what has brought me to your home where I have to be subjected to this infernal noisemaker?” His jab at the seashell was the first sign I’d seen of his irritation.
He straightened his back and tapped his finger against the table. “Then make a supposition. Why do you think it is that I have been sent here?”
I tugged my blanket closer to my shoulders, hiding a reach for my necklace with the trinkets I still wore to bed out of habit. “The only reason I can think, after enduring the Merlyn Market Council’s wrongful death trial, and being in anticipation of a resolution in my favor which would displease the Coles very much, is that you have been sent under their authority to do what the Council surely will not. By which, I mean you could only have been sent to kill me.”
The man stopped tapping his fingers and the woman sucked in a quick breath. I’d surprised them. I kept from using my trinkets.
“Then,” he said,. “What reason would I have for this interview?”
“Perhaps you intend to torture or torment me.”
“Is that what you would expect of me?”
“It is what I would expect of certain members of the Cole family.”
The man’s voice was musing. “You do not hold their name in high esteem.”
“Gregor Cole was a wendigo. A cannibal with insatiable hunger for flesh and power. I would be very surprised to find that the apple had fallen far from the tree.”
“You hunted him.”
I spoke calmly, just like I did before the court. “It was not I who did the hunting. As a predator, he should have been wiser about his prey.”
The man resumed his finger taps. “If all this happened as you say, then why have you ignored the summons?”
I frowned, hiding my surprise. He had to be taunting me, confusing me with conversation and redirections, a way to get me to contradict myself. “You do realize that anything I say here holds no sway in Merlyn’s Court when it next convenes. Besides, arguments are concluded. I have nothing more to do other than wait.”
“Feraline of the Swift Clan, has it ever occurred to you that there may be other parties who have taken an interest in your actions?”
“I fear that ever since the thing you call an infernal noisemaker has entered this house, not much has occurred to me. Even now,” I yawned, “even now it’s putting me to sleep.”
“Is that what it does?” The man paused, evaluating me. Having decided that I did look ready to fall asleep in the chair, the man raised his staff and brought it crashing down on the seashell. The silence following its destruction felt perversely incomplete and eerie. The man sat down again. “There. Does that improve the situation?”
“As much as I want to hug you and call you a friend for life, the Council won’t be happy about it,” I said.
“I do not take the sorcerer’s council into consideration with regards to my actions. But now tell me, can you think of no others who would be interested in your guilt or innocence? Have you had no correspondence?”
Now that my head was clearing, I was beginning to wonder. “If you want to see all my letters since moving here, they are in the top drawer at the end of the kitchen.” The woman immediately found them and began to shuffle through the envelopes. “The Council has been regulating my mail. It is possible that things have been sent to me which I did not receive.”
“You still wonder if I was sent to assassinate you?”
“It would be odd of you to ask after my mail if that were the case,” I admitted. “But I cannot think of who else you might represent. The drakes have expressed no desire to pursue a sorcerer’s problem. The sorcering community itself I have addressed and am enduring their rules. I cannot think …”
“Does the title Vanguard of the Battalion mean anything to you?”
My brow furrowed. “I haven’t heard reference to the Vanguard in years.”
The woman glanced our way.
“It’s clear,” she said. Then she made her way to where I always did my structured spells on the floor of the sun room. She seemed to be starting on a portal, but how she intended to break out of this place, I had no idea.
“Well,” the man said. “This would be why we never received confirmation.”
“You’re feys. From the Verdant Wildwoods.” I looked between them, very puzzled. “I didn’t think they wanted to have anything to do with me.”
“It was wise they sent us first, instead of the Hunters,” the woman said. “Though it was a courtesy in respect to your family, and not routine. I am glad we will not have to force you to return with us.”
“I cannot leave with you now. If I go before the sorcerer’s council has given their verdict, I will be a fugitive. Can my arrival before the Feys be postponed until tomorrow afternoon?”
The man balled his hand into a fist. “We have our orders. I am sorry. If the Wildwoods finds you innocent, you will be granted asylum there.”
Leaving everything I had worked so hard to build here was not an option, but arguing with these two would likely result in my incapacitation. So I shuffled to their spells. “You can’t just portal out. The wards are the same as the ones on the dungeons.”
The woman replied, “We would not have come if we did not first have a way out.”
Wordless, I got to my feet and stood behind her, reading what she put down on the bricks. Seeing that I wasn’t fighting or running—not that I had anywhere to run to—the man joined her and worked in synch. There was a portal, but there was also an area attack spell, and a modification which would direct the full force of the attack in one direction. The portal contained the same directions and a slight delay.
“You mean to pierce through the wards and follow after with the portal?” I asked.
“It has worked before,” the man said. “If you would remain quiet, please. The details are important to be correct.”
I nodded and watched as they became involved in their calculations and mathematics. And when they spoke to one another, I slid my fingers down my necklace, found the invisibility ring, and I put it on, glad that I’d argued that there would be no harm in allowing me to keep a few of my trinkets. They had been my link to the sorcering world when I hadn’t been able to use magic of my own, and now they supplemented my limited strength and control. I stepped out of the blanket and stood in the corner of the room.
Something made my hair stand on end, but it was just a feeling, a premonition. I’d never go so far as to call myself a Seer, but I had a pretty good knack for knowing when things weren’t adding up right. While I was looking at the feys and trying to understand what was wrong, the door the watchmen used opened. But it wasn’t the watchmen. Their uniforms weren’t made of cloth, but of some pliant plate armor which reflected like dark hide yet shifted like metal. Five people wearing full black fatigues entered my home. They froze upon seeing the Fey Vanguards, and the Vanguards froze upon seeing them.
“Ah, Blackwings,” said the fey man. “Always a minute too late and over-encumbered with weapons. Tell me, what honor is there in slaying a sleeping girl?”
The Blackwings had a reputation as being the hired thugs for the sorcerer’s ruling class members, but I knew little else about them. They were perhaps like a privatized SWAT team. I had no doubt at all that they had been hired by the Coles.
“Lyall Limber,” said the first Blackwing, easing a wand out of his uniform. “This night has already improved when I can add your head to my trophies.”
Lyall lost his disguise spell and he smiled. “I share your enthusiasm. Run along while you still can.”
I decided to take that as my cue. I made for the french doors which would portal out into the commons lounge which I technically had permission to enter in case of emergencies. If this didn’t classify as an emergency, I didn’t know what did.
“Give us the girl. We haven’t come for her head,” a different Blackwing said. I hesitated, then decided to keep moving.
The man stepped forward as if to start a fight, nearly bumping straight into me as I cut across his path. Heat skimmed through my veins. Trust me to get between two feuding forces. Then I relaxed fractionally when I was on the french door side of the room.
The wind stirred the gauzy curtains on the door. I tried to quiet my magic, but it wasn’t happening. They’d notice it soon. I reached for the door, planning on wrenching it open and flinging myself through the opening. And I’d just hope against hope that my coven was still awake on the other side, that the room wouldn’t be empty, that they’d be able to fend off the unexpected arrival of the Blackwings and maybe the Vanguard. Lyall had told me to run, right?
A bolt of electricity singed through the air and struck the door I was about to touch. I jumped, but instead of withdrawing, I pushed myself forward. The doors opened as there came the scuff of boots behind me. I felt my feet lift from the floor as there was a grunt and other spells showered me. The glass panels cracked. Something hit my back, propelling me forward.
Chaos exploded behind me.
I knew they would fight each other to get to me, but they would prefer to lay hands on me first. The portal itched as it passed over my skin, and I felt it against me as I never had felt a portal before, as if it were an elastic barrier considering not letting me through. Sentient spells were strange to me, I’d heard of them once or twice but never before seen evidence of them being real.
“Come on!” I didn’t know if I said it or just thought it. Had someone modified the portal so it wouldn’t let me through? The Blackwings had entered through the usual official entrance, they’d been let in by someone. Had cutting off my escape route also been part of the plan?
“Lyall!” I didn’t know why I called to him, I didn’t even know how much time had lapsed, just that I didn’t seem to be going forward and I couldn’t turn my head to look back. If it was another prison spell, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
There was a muttered word right behind me. I felt a groping hand snatch the thin fabric of my night gown. A bit of teal green collided with the portal.
With a jolt of white-hot energy, I yanked myself out of my pursuer’s grasp. The portal enfolded me, suffocating in its presence, utterly unlike anything I’d experienced before. But I was going somewhere. And now I found myself wondering if that somewhere would be a place I wanted to be. Would it take me to my coven, the way it should, or had someone changed it?
Who had sent the Blackwings?
Why did the Wildwoods want me?
And how was I going to keep from watching my life fall apart again?
I felt a hand on my arm, but there was something between us. Soon I slipped away and I was being dragged through space even as the portal rocked with another spell and my hand seared with the after-pain of an incapacitation spell. What made my heart lurch, though, was that I saw to the end of the portal—and it wasn’t the commons lounge with its beige and blush interior.
It was a dark place with thick trees and filtered moonlight, a place at once breathtaking and ominous, a place that could be nothing other than the Verdant Wildwoods.