A tenth of the gift
So that not all did
The whole garden enclose.
From the Maginogi
Patrick K. Ford translation
Rhuddin Villiage, Maine
IT CREPT FROM THE FOREST UNDER A BLANKET OF MORNING MIST. Elen felt its approach like a brush of poison ivy across her skin, smooth to the touch until its toxins seeped in. Clutching the north-facing gate, she stood her ground within the protected walls of her garden. Even so, morning glory vines withered as if kissed by frost.
An unnecessary warning, for she knew who mastered this boastful display. The mist thickened into fog, rolled and shifted and soon took form. Wings emerged to lift a serpentine body off the ground. It was a white dragon made of clouds. Conjured by magic, vapors and a powerful sorcerer; if the dragon were made of blood, scales and fire, it would be no less ominous.
Pendaran was flirting.
The apparition flew directly at her, over the grain fields and through her orchards—so close she could almost feel its breath. And as it arched toward the sky in that final moment before impact, soaring mere inches from her head, she lifted her arm and brushed the underbelly of the beast, refusing to cower.
Moisture clung to her hand; water and wind, no more—and nothing insidious other than its conjuror. But it seeped into her bones nonetheless, cold and empty as a winter night without stars. A chuckle echoed from afar, deep, sensuous and pleased. The dragon circled twice above her garden and then dissipated—but not without a parting gift.
A letter descended, weaving a path in the charged air to land by her feet. Her name, penned in black ink, bled into the moistened parchment.
Moments passed, and Elen continued to wait, making sure the apparition didn’t return. The sky turned hues of lavender and pink as the dawn chased shadows and warmed the earth. But the letter remained as a precarious reminder of the dangerous game she played.
“I need a cup of coffee,” Elen muttered to herself for no reason other than to break the silence of a too-quiet morning. Even the forest creatures had fled to the safety of their burrows. The start of this day required something more potent than her usual herbal tea.
In answer, a winter wren flitted from the protective branches of the hawthorn tree to land on the fence entangled with blackened vines. When Elen continued to ignore the letter, the wren issued a sharp impatient twerp.
“It’s a summons to Cymru,” Elen said without needing to open the envelope. She knew what message it contained, and why Pendaran, the leader of the Guardians and the most dangerous of them all, had chosen that particular form of delivery. Even in modern times, Wales heralded a dragon on its flag, because the beasts of ancient lore had once thrived in their homeland of Cymru. The last one had died in the year AD 331, a few months before Elen was born.
A shimmering disturbance ruffled the air around the auburn-and-white-striped bird.
Elen sighed, in no mood for a lecture but prepared for one as Ms. Hafwen revealed her true form. A woman the size of the wren, with coloring much the same, offered an indignant glare. Ms. Hafwen was a pixie. Elen had not expected an otherworldly creature to be so earthly plain, but as her tutor often stated, beauty came in many forms, and hers was knowledge.
Disappearing into the wilted vines, the pixie emerged wearing a silken navy dress cut low in the back to accommodate translucent dragonfly wings. She had clothing stashed in all corners of the cottage and gardens. Ms. Hafwen put as much value in preparedness as she did in knowledge. Only a trusted few people were allowed to see her true form; the others only saw a winter wren.
“Well,” Ms. Hafwen clipped, “open the wretched thing already.” Her voice shouldn’t carry as it did, but like the song of a wren, everything was amplified. “I need you alert for your next lesson, and not muddled with doubts about what that letter contains. Let us deal with it now and move on.”
“Fine.” As a grown woman, having someone issue her demands had required an adjustment, but the education she’d gained over the summer outweighed any inconveniences to her pride, not to mention her privacy. Elen bent and scooped up the letter. Still, knowing what needed to be done hardly made the process any more agreeable. With dread knotting her stomach, she broke the wax seal. Pendaran’s penmanship was bold and efficient, like the man.
Be ready this evening when the sun sets on your horizon. Wear the dress I sent you. It is time we had our first dance.
Heart thumping against her chest, Elen crumpled the letter into a ball. She wanted to tear the damn thing but kept her anger in check—to some degree. “He issues a summons under the pretense of a date.”
“And what did you expect?” With a soft hum, Ms. Hafwen lifted off her perch and flew back and forth; her version of pacing. “He has been courting you for months, and now he’s grown tired of correspondence alone. I am not surprised.”
Indeed, Elen had four months of parcels piled in her orchard barn. She didn’t allow them within the protected walls of her garden. They had begun arriving after the first of May, when Pendaran had witnessed her abilities firsthand. Following the advice of someone who knew him well, she’d written him polite acknowledgments, as one would a strange uncle who’s suddenly shown interest in a banished niece. She’d wanted to return the gifts, but it had been agreed upon by her family that the least insulting response was a better solution to bide more time—until Pendaran made a more intrusive move.
Well, that move had been made. A dragon conjured by clouds demanded more than a generic thank-you card. It required her presence as requested, and if she refused . . .
Elen briefly closed her eyes. If she refused, the war her brothers had been preparing for, along with other rebels who rejected the Guardians’ sadistic leadership, would begin again.
“You are not ready for this, Elen.”
“No,” she wholeheartedly agreed. “I’m not.” Bitterness thickened her throat. She was a doctor not a soldier, and she despised violence. But the consequences of not acting may result in the deaths of people she loved, along with weaker members of their race who couldn’t call their wolves—like her. And that, she mustn’t allow. Not if she could help it, because unlike anyone else of their kind, she could call something much more powerful. Nature begged for her command. And she was learning how to answer its call.
“I’m stronger than I once was.” Elen cast her gaze toward the horizon, gaining confidence with her proclamation. Cool nights had painted the forest in rich hues of amber and red as summer’s final days came to a brilliant end. Autumn was her favorite time of year, and she inhaled the scent of crisp apples, pumpkins ready to be cut from their vines, and the promise of a bountiful harvest.
It made her smile, and smiles were such precious things, but not nearly as precious as family. “I’m going to Rhuddin Hall.” Elen lived a short walk from her brother’s home—less, if she took the trail through the woods. “I need to warn Dylan.”
Like all woman, she kept some secrets close to her heart, but not ones that endangered her brother’s territory and the people he protected. Dylan was the alpha and leader of Rhuddin Village—their Penteulu, when addressed in their old tongue. He must be informed about this latest development.
“Heal the vines before you go,” Ms. Hafwen ordered.
“They will die soon regardless.” Elen’s garden had a week, if that, before true frost arrived and earth’s winter slumber began.
“But that must be nature’s doing.”
Understanding her tutor’s concern, Elen stayed to complete the task. Nature needed to run its own course, unhindered by enchantment, dark or light. If one interfered, the other must right the imbalance. It was the first lesson Ms. Hafwen had taught her. The second had been how to nurture growth from within, and not steal it from another source. The latter still posed a challenge.
Elen reached for the entangled strands. The vine’s energy rose to greet her, sweet as its flower that opened each morning; it was weakened but not dead. As natural as breathing, she stroked it with her senses, like blowing on embers, allowing what was already there to ignite and grow. New leaves emerged as buds unraveled in brilliant cones of blue.
“Now ease its growth slowly,” Ms. Hafwen chimed in with a sharp warning. This was when things usually went astray. “Taming nature is like taming a horse. It is temperamental and stubborn, but if steered with a firm yet fair hand, it will honor you with obedience.”
“I’m trying,” Elen ground out. Control had always been her weakness. Even now, the energy wanted her to stay and feed it. More vines grew, buds began to burst, and that was when Elen received the first bite.
A pixie slap felt a whole lot like a hornet’s sting. Truly, one would never know the difference until they’d been stung several times. That had been her third lesson.
“That doesn’t help,” Elen snapped, and when the third sting bit into her hand—she stung back. It happened instinctively. A random thought to gather a small surge of energy and send it toward the hovering pixie.
Ms. Hafwen tumbled through the air before righting herself. She drifted a moment, and then settled once again on the nearest fence picket, appearing stunned.
Instantly , Elen rushed over, wincing when she broke contact with the vine. Even in that brief moment of separation she’d felt its shock—and its yearning for her to return. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Bee’s knees!” Ms. Hafwen exclaimed. “It is about time.” Shaking her wings, the pixie laughed. Not that Elen had ever heard such a sound, but if butterflies were to fly through strings of a harp, it might offer a pale comparison.
She didn’t know whether to groan or smile with relief, and ended up doing a bit of both. “You really should stop referencing that dictionary of modern slang. Many of those terms aren’t used in regular conversation.”
The gateway between Faery and earth had been closed for several centuries, and much had changed during that time. A curious creature, Ms. Hafwen collected a full library, transcribed to her size, to learn modern customs and names. Her interpretations were interesting, if not entertaining.
“I will use the ones I like, and whenever I so choose.” Her tone refused argument.
Not that Elen intended to give one. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, but you could have.” Ms. Hafwen rarely offered praise, and her slight nod of approval had the same impact as a full applause. “You harnessed the exact amount of energy from the vine to repel me without causing true damage.”
“Can the same technique be applied to medicine?” Elen was a healer, and using this power for good was her true objective. The weaker members of their race, the ones who couldn’t shift and heal, were the reason she’d learned the medicinal uses of plants, and eventually human healing techniques. It had proven a valuable skill over the years, even if they only came to her when no other option was available. Her connection to nature frightened the villagers. Not that she blamed them. How could she, when it frightened her more?
“You must learn to protect yourself before helping others.” Ms. Hafwen gave an impatient wave. “Selflessness is useless if you’re not here to provide aide.” She paused in consideration. “I do believe you are ready for more intricate lessons. A gathering circle perhaps. I shall prepare the lesson while you speak with your brother.” Then she dismissed Elen with a wave and flew toward her tiny stone cottage, located in the shade garden, where she’d ordered it built upon her arrival six months prior. “Be nice to your Cormack when you visit Rhuddin Hall.”
“He isn’t my Cormack,” Elen called after her. “And I’m not the one who isn’t being nice.” Her brother had offered Cormack a place in his guard. Worse, the man had actually accepted. Cormack had once been her dearest friend, but in the week he’d been home he hadn’t spared her a visit, or even a word in passing.
Their estrangement was her fault, but regretting mistakes wouldn’t change them, and she had already apologized in pathetic proportions. If Cormack wanted to see her, he knew where she lived. Besides, she had enough to deal with at the moment—because while her friend wanted nothing to do with her, her enemy wanted to dance.
CORMACK WAS TIRED OF THE INCESSANT STARES. He had lived among these people for more than four hundred years as a wolf without notice, but now that he walked as a man they suddenly saw him—and for some bloody reason they couldn’t seem to look away. It didn’t help that his current post at the front gate offered an open view for their inspection. A group of villagers who worked in Rhuddin Hall had gathered along the stone balustrade, looking down on him with unabashed curiosity.
He ignored them all, easy enough to do—except when two of them actually approached through the kitchen gardens with determination in their feminine strides, holding a basket of what smelled like warm bread. They were sisters, Sulwen and Lydia; he knew their names, but he was in no mood for their giggles and flirtations, when they had never offered him even a parting glance before now. Enid, their mother, managed the kitchens of Rhuddin Hall.
Sarah, now the head of Dylan’s guard and Cormack’s direct supervisor, waved him toward the inner gatehouse, her office of sorts. The enclosed room protected the controls of the retracting iron gates and was large enough for a desk, two chairs, and a landline to the main house and outer posts. When he entered the small space, she tilted her head toward the sisters. “Give them some slack. No one could’ve guessed you’d turn out to be so pretty. The novelty will wear off soon.”
“Not soon enough,” he muttered. Had his expression warranted a warning? It must have, he realized, and he made a conscious effort to relax the muscles of his face.
Cormack had studied and trained for several months to master this new human form, and still had much to learn, but at least he was no longer a bumbling oaf. He’d lived for centuries as a wolf, but only six months as a man. Moreover, he’d had the mind of a human while trapped in a body he couldn’t change. He understood eight human languages, but knowing them and speaking them with an unfamiliar tongue had been a challenge—a challenge he’d conquered before returning home.
More important, he’d learned how to wield a sword, still the most efficient weapon used by his kind. Their immortality had two weaknesses: one’s head and heart must remain attached. Other less vital bits healed during a shift—if one had the ability to call their other half, which he now did. Thanks to Elen.
However, there were nuances of humanity that continued to elude him. Like facial expressions, and discerning when to hide them. Wolves had no use for such trivial deceptions. They took what they wanted and expressed what they felt.
Order Autumn Moon