A Documented Prophecy . . .
Their course, their bearing,
Their permitted way,
And their fate I know,
Unto the end.
Oh! what misery,
Through extreme of woe,
Prophecy will show . . .
From The Mabinogion
Lady Charlotte Guest translation
An Undocumented Prophecy, Until Now . . .
This union, I shall not revile,
For their fear I know,
And their gift.
To bear in silence,
Four secrets hidden,
In circles of raindrops,
Alas, false forfeit gains no vantage.
From deadened earth,
Fevers rise, of lust,
Thence they plan,
Upon Ceridwen’s last fertile daughter,
Eight forsaken warriors
For barren not,
Under summer’s first moon,
Comes the prophecy
They most seek.
A drunken toast from Math and Rosa’s wedding feast
CASTELL AVON, HIDDEN WITHIN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS
AVON, NEW HAMPSHIRE, U.S.A.
THREE DAYS AFTER HER HUSBAND’S EXECUTION, Rosa Alban became a traitor to the Guardians of her race.
Oh, she had committed tiny crimes against her late husband—and her keepers before him—throughout the last three hundred years of her life. But none this final or this openly subversive.
If her plan proved fruitful, there would be no explanations needed, nor accepted. To openly defy the Guardians, the self-appointed protectors of her dying lineage, was utter madness—and yet necessary for her battered conscience. She would rather live as a traitor than bear witness to one more act of cruelty in silence.
A cool breeze brushed through the muddied courtyard where she stood. Rosa tugged her jacket closed and scanned the area for anyone who might question her morning excursion. Nothing seemed amiss, but she understood more than most that appearances and reality were often quite different.
Regardless, she mustn’t linger.
The shadow of Castell Avon darkened her path, her wedding gift from the Guardians, a sad comfort for a false marriage. As its name implied, her home was indeed a castle surrounded by rivers, built of stone, mortar and iron laced with gold; her gilded prison on a foundation of sorrow. The tallest turret heralded the Guardian banner, marking her husband’s realm like a medieval hound pissing on this modern age.
Math had not adjusted well to forced anonymity among humans, or to their proclivity for procreation. He had considered himself a god, after all, having walked this earth as both man and wolf for more than two thousand years. Obviously, he’d been wrong—given that the separated portions of his body lay rotting in a casket awaiting shipment to their homeland for burial.
Perhaps she was a tad pitiless, but Rosa felt no remorse over her husband’s death; Math had been a vile creature and his execution well deserved. It had, however, expedited her plan to join the very rebels who had so graciously made her a widow.
As Rosa skirted around outer buildings that housed generators, laundry facilities and other modern amenities kept outside the castle walls, she pretended to ignore a female servant hanging bedsheets on a clothesline. Without pause, Tesni pinned three white pillowcases in a row, signaling that all three Guardians who had come to escort Math’s body back to Wales were still abed. Not necessarily sleeping, just otherwise occupied.
A bibbed skirt made of wool purposely concealed Tesni’s feminine curves. She was of mixed blood, human and Guardian, and bore a combination of her father’s soft features and mother’s fair coloring. Sadly, Tesni was too human to call her wolf. She was also the most attractive of all the female servants and therefore the one who suffered most.
Tesni’s gaze flicked to Rosa with a wordless plea to make haste. Her usually straight posture remained hunched, pronouncing stiffness and misuse from the previous night.
Sorrow-ridden, Rosa knew that Cadan must be in a similar state, and was very likely the reason why the Guardians remained distracted. His room had been empty this morning. She knew because she had checked, even though Cadan had told her not to.
And with that thought in mind, Rosa quickened her pace without looking back.
The surrounding forest was quiet and empty of song. No birds or wildlife inhabited her island, as they recognized death and danger, and the musk of unholy wolves in human skin. Tall trees stood as withered sentries in her path, their roots eroded by water, time and secrets too vile to speak of openly.
Yet for the first time in centuries, Rosa felt exhilaration as she marched toward the only bridge that granted access to modern civilization. Winter’s thaw had just ended in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Melting snow had fed the rivers and cleansed the forest. She sensed vitality in the land beyond, of budding trees and the emergence of life; it called to her inner wolf like moonbeams to a night creature’s soul, luring her with promises of power.
On the opposite side of the river, a carriage house secured the entrance to the bridge, constructed of the same stone and iron as Castell Avon, watched at all times by Math’s guards. The heels of her boots echoed over wooden planks as she crossed, announcing her approach, even above the thunderous sound of rushing water below. If the guards did not allow her to pass, she would be forced to go upriver, but prudence had prompted her to attempt this route first.
There were six of them watching as she drew near. Four men and two women, with resentful eyes filled with lust—or hatred; Rosa preferred the latter. All but one were loyal to her late husband, but even Gareth shifted his stance as if uncomfortable in her presence. Normally only two guards tended the carriage house, but having their eldest Guardian beheaded within his own home had made the others in residence somewhat paranoid.
She stopped before the gated door, the barrier to her freedom, and nodded to each of the guards in turn. She must acknowledge them all equally but not with flirtation. Furthermore, she must never snub them, never encourage unwanted advances, and never dally—or the repercussions were quite unpleasant.
“Rosa,” Gareth greeted her with a slight bow, his voice deceivingly calm. As her secret ally against the Guardians, he had been informed of her plan last evening. Gareth had wanted to accompany her. Judging from his current stance, he still wasn’t pleased about her insistence to go alone.
He had yet to realize that her days of submission were over, even toward the precious few she considered her friends.
The morning sun did little to soften Gareth’s deformed features. Scars knotted his face and neck, weaving a tale of torture and unbendable will. Math had destroyed Gareth’s beauty in a fit of rage over an affair with a mortal. Her late husband had believed that mating with humans weakened their race.
Gareth’s favored jeweled patch covered a deadened left eye, burned to blindness with ice and rock salt. He kept his brown hair shorn to his scalp. Math had preferred it long.
“I’m feeling a bit weak,” Rosa announced as rehearsed, adding weariness to her voice that wasn’t altogether feigned. “I need to get off the island for a few hours. I need to go for a run.”
“I’ll escort you,” Gareth informed her, loud enough for the others to hear.
She had expected a different response but hid her surprise. Gareth, it seemed, had elected to veer from her instructions. With a slight shake of her head, she met his single-eyed gaze to warn him not to test her resolve. “I think it’s best if I go alone.” She added for emphasis, “As usual.”
If he challenged her now it might raise suspicion. A scowl turned his misshapen features into a grotesque mask, a rare show of emotion from a man who’d mastered the art of indifference, even under the most dire of circumstances.
Arnallt, one of the more observant of Math’s guards, shot Gareth a curious glance.
Panic tightened her chest. Thankfully, if naught else, her marriage had schooled her on the art of false composure. One must be duplicitous and enduring to survive under Guardian rule, and she was both.
Rosa continued as if oblivious. “I’ve been ordered to go with the Guardians tomorrow morning. We are to accompany Math’s body back to Wales for burial. I am to stay there through Beltane.” A few crude snickers reached her ears, alerting her that they’d been told of the events awaiting her in their homeland. “My wolf is demanding a run before I climb on that plane.”
The Guardians in residence might question her request but Math’s guards were familiar with her routine. Running as a wolf had been the only freedom Math had allowed her without escort, because when she shifted, many of their kind desired her—and that had angered him.
It was a concession he had allowed after the summer of her seventeenth year. They had married the winter before, and Math had hosted a grand feast the following Solstice. When the hour had drawn late, and the hunt had teased their wolves, Math had brought all his guests outside to witness his new wife transform. It had been a treasured feat, for unmated females of their kind were rare, especially ones who could shift. And Math had always enjoyed flaunting his valued possessions. Like a little caged animal, she had performed, for to do otherwise resulted in the punishment of servants in her stead. She was considered too precious to harm. Even Math had feared the consequences, so he had found other ways.
However, the demonstration had not gone as Math had expected, because his guests had been unable to hide their desire for her.
After that night she’d been allowed to run unaccompanied.
It was, perhaps, the single reason why she had stayed sane. Still, she risked it only when her wolf demanded release, and not nearly as often as she would like. Because, unlike her dead husband, she didn’t particularly care for unnecessary physical attention.
Gareth’s one good eye, dark gray and direct, searched her face. For what, she wasn’t sure, but he must have sensed her determination. “How long will you be?”
“No more than three hours.” She kept her tone subdued, her face downcast, masking her relief. “I’m going to White Birch Reserve and will follow the river.”
It was a lie, of course. If all went well, she wouldn’t return until morning—and with reinforcements by her side as she took control of Castell Avon in her first open act of defiance against the Guardians.
Her neighbors to the north owed her a favor and she fully intended to collect on their debt. Moreover, she knew better than to challenge the Guardians alone. Other than Gareth and Cadan, her only allies in this forsaken place were servants, the Hen Was who could not shift.
She needed more wolves.
She needed an alliance the Guardians would fear.
“Fine.” Gareth lifted his arm for her to pass.
Her back tingled as she entered the recently restored carriage house where horses once slept. The guards watched her until the outer door closed to block their view. She was greeted with darkness, a place she knew well. Stalls had been removed to afford more space for vehicles, all neatly lined up in soundless mechanical rows. It disturbed her senses. She hated the smell of gas that lingered in the air. She missed the soft breaths of beasts, when the sweetness of hay had mingled with the pungent scent of manure.
As expected, the whisper of a door and a brief flash of light warned of a visitor, followed by the smooth cadence of familiar footsteps. The man who resembled a monster moved like a shade, silent and creeping. It didn’t take long for Gareth to find her.
“What has come over you?” she hissed quietly as he drew near. “Go back, or you will ruin our only chance of success.”
“I should be with you.” He sounded sullen even while refusing to heed her warning.
“I told Dylan’s mate I would arrive alone, and I will not go back on my promise!” She barely breathed the words, fearful of detection. Even so, her anger bled through.
“Dylan will forgive an escort. You risked much when you helped his woman escape.”
Rosa scoffed. “Guardians under my husband’s command infiltrated Dylan’s territory and imprisoned his mate. And then, during his mate’s capture, had her mother and several others under his protection tortured and killed. And you think Dylan is going to be forgiving toward the widow of the man responsible? Truly?”
Gareth ignored her sarcasm. “Dylan took his revenge on Math. Had he wanted more deaths, he would have claimed them.”
“Perhaps,” Rosa admitted. “But he is not a leader who tolerates dishonor, or deceit. I must stay faithful to my word.”
He gave a reluctant sigh of agreement. “Don’t mistake Dylan as our ally just because our enemies are the same, nor his brother, Luc. They are not to be trusted.”
“You think I don’t know this?” She found it strange that he hadn’t included the sister in his warning. If rumors were to be believed, Elen was more powerful than both brothers combined. “That is why I need you here to protect the others if I fail.”
“You’re too stubborn to fail.” He gave a crude snort. “That’s not my concern.”
Her vision, always keen in the darkness, saw his marred features in clear detail. Striations of green and gold bled into his one good eye, revealing a wolf that had dwelled too long under the surface of human scars.
“Then what is it?” She shook her head, suddenly confused. “What has you so troubled that you would detain me here at this time?”
His voice thickened with an emotion she chose not to acknowledge. “I fear that in my absence you’ll offer them more than what’s already been given.”
“I’ve nothing to offer them other than an alliance with their closest neighbor.”
“You’re not so naïve.” A bitter laugh fell from his withered lips. “And I’m not one of your idiots to be duped by your guile. You’re the last pure-blooded, unmated shifter of our kind. You’re more precious than any alliance, or parcel of land infested with our vile leaders.”
“I’ll be no man’s breeder,” she sneered, “Guardian or otherwise.”
Unless she chose to be—but that was her decision to make and hergift to give.
He began to protest but was silenced when a side door flung open and a shaft of light streamed into the garage, followed by the lewd voice of a curious guard.
“How long does it take to unlock a door, Gareth?” His lanky silhouette identified him as Briog, one of Math’s favored guards, not for sexual sport but for his creativity toward torture. “I wonder if there is another task to be done, one I might be inclined to assist you with.”
“The woman wants to take the Porsche,” Gareth shot back with convincing annoyance. “It’s mud season. She’s bound to get stuck and I’m in no mood to haul her out.”
“Figures,” Briog said.
Gareth grabbed Rosa’s hand. It took some effort for her not to cringe, more from displeasure than true aversion. She simply didn’t care to be touched. It was her bane of existence that most unmated males felt compelled to fondle her in some way, while her reactions to them were altogether opposite.
“Take my truck.” He pressed a key into her palm. “And I expect you to bring her back unharmed.” His voice left little doubt that it was not his vehicle he spoke of. “There’s a winch under the seat if needed.”
“I will do my best.” She wrapped her hand around the key, grateful Gareth had finally conceded without exposing her mission.
She climbed into the truck and quickly started the engine. The sound was not unpleasant because it always preceded a run, and like Pavlov’s dog, she had found her own peculiar bell. The outer carriage door began to open, filtering in natural light; Gareth must have entered the security code and hit the inner remote.
Electricity had been added to the building during its restoration, a convenience the Guardians hadn’t dared bring across the river. Her island held secrets, powerful forces that even the Guardians feared, contained only by a moving circle of water. Connections inland were unsafe, especially one as volatile as lightning in a wire.
Tendrils of doubt skittered across her spine, made worse by Gareth’s final warning. Was she prepared for the aftermath of what she was about to do? Probably not, and before she had further second thoughts, Rosa adjusted the seat and rearview mirror to her smaller frame and pulled onto the cobbled drive.
As miles separated her from Avon, her tension began to ease. She half expected to be followed, but why would the Guardians suspect her of wrongdoing? Over the last three hundred years, she had given them no cause to doubt her. She had assumed a lifetime of obedience for this singular act of defiance.
When she crossed the New Hampshire border into Maine, sunlight hit her windshield and blinded her with warmth. It was a beautiful spring morning. Aught not the weather show some sign when one turned traitor? Or perhaps this was a sign.
A giggle escaped, an absurdly childish sound for a woman who’d lived as long as she had. Is this what hope feels like? she wondered. If so, this emotion could be quite addictive. With each hour that passed, burdens fell from her shoulders like seeds from a dandelion, wishes floating on the wind wrought with possibilities.
I can drive away, straight into Canada and beyond. I can be free, truly free, if I choose . . .
The selfish thought lasted only a moment, chased away by the image of Tesni hanging pillowcases on the line—with her back hunched because Guardians had violated her the night before. And Rosa mustn’t forget Cadan, as if she ever could, who continued to offer himself, even after Math’s death—for this mission.
And there were others who waited for Rosa’s return. More than thirty Hen Was resided in Castell Avon, forced to be servants because of their inability to shift, and more in the woods. They counted on her to succeed.
At the very least, they trusted her to try. Running away was not an option. She had endured too much—kept silent for too long—to abandon the people who needed her protection at this crucial time.
A war had begun between the Guardians and the rebels who refused to follow their demented ideals, and in times of war it was the innocents who suffered most. She would not leave them stranded, regardless of summer’s rapid approach.
Even so, the mental reminder of the upcoming holiday made her stomach churn with dread. For many of their kind, the first of May brought happy celebrations—but never for her. Her husband was gone from this world, and still he had found a way to punish her.
In four weeks hence, the Guardians and their Council were preparing a grand festival. They meant to reenact an old fertility ritual, suggested by Math before his death, to include Rosa and eight unmated Guardians. Contrary to what they assumed, she had no intention of being a willing participant in their desperate plan.
But, if all went well, her neighbors to the north would be a willing participant in hers, bribery notwithstanding.