“Do you see?” the Gray Lady whispered in Llewyn’s mind. He was riding toward Nyth Fran, a quiet place sheltered on three sides by craggy wooded hills and surrounded by fields thick with barley. Plague stalked the region, but the sky above Nyth Fran was blue and unmarred by the smoke of corpse-fires.
Llewyn twisted the ring of unforged silver on his thumb, the mark of his patroness and vehicle of her voice.
“Such wealth, and yet no one collecting taxes,” he thought, and knew that she would hear. “A haven from the plague, and yet so few children and so many crows.”
The crows watched, black eyes peering out from black-feathered faces. They perched on the branches that lined the narrow road, which was little more than a pair of wagon-ruts that led to the nearby town of Carin Nuan. At the Gray Lady’s prodding, Llewyn had visited there to meet with the baron who held title to Nyth Fran, but his questions had been answered with confusion and annoyance. The village’s name seemed to pass through the baron’s mind like water through a sieve.
That had convinced Llewyn. There was enchantment, here in Nyth Fran. A contorting of the natural order.
At the Gray Lady’s insistence, he had come to uncover it. To do his duty as her gwyddien and twist it back into proper shape, if he could.
Llewyn was not the only stranger to arrive in Nyth Fran that day. When he reached the inn, which was marked by a high roof forested with narrow chimneys, the ostler showed him to the stable, puffing his stubbly cheeks and pulling at his sweaty shirt. An ostler in a village so far from the main road, and shrouded by enchantment, ought not be so overworked.
“Busy day?” Llewyn asked, to mask his interest.
The ostler glanced up at him, his eyes fixing oddly on Llewyn for a moment. “Oh aye. A troupe arrived, stopping for an evening after playing Carin Nuan for a week. Three horses to stable and feed, plus a wagon to unload, but ‘twill be worth it. We don’t get entertainers here often.”
Which did little to ease the puzzlement Llewyn felt. Little chance for a healthy profit for performers in this place, and it could hardly be said to lie on the way to anywhere.
The wagon in question occupied the center of the stable, painted with a black sky full of silver stars. Llewyn touched his ring. “Is it enchanted? Bound spirits in the wagon?”
“Not that I can feel,” the Gray Lady replied.
“Then how did they find this place?” he wondered.
“There are ways of masking such things,” the Gray Lady said. “Known to all who survive long dabbling in sorcery.”
When his horse had been seen to, Llewyn returned to the inn. The common room bustled with activity while the troupers set up their portable stage by the hearth, unpacked instruments, strung up their banners. Llewyn took a seat with his back to a corner. The better to observe the room, to get a sense of the people of this odd place while he ate. The slightest observation might hold the key to unlocking an enchantment such as whatever was shrouding Nyth Fran. Subtle clues, and he could not afford to miss a single one.
His eye settled on a woman at the bar. She wore a cloak as black as the wagon, threaded with silver. Beneath, her jerkin and trousers were of too fine a cut for any traveling trouper. To his shock, she managed to lock eyes with him—to lock eyes with a gwyddien, One Born of Trees, who carries the shadows with him and draws no eye.
She smiled, stood, carried her pewter goblet of wine straight to his table.
“I see I’m not alone in chasing rumors to this bizarre backwater,” she said, sitting without asking for an invitation, and extended her hand like a lady waiting for Llewyn to kiss her rings. “Afanan ab Luned, more widely known as Lady Afanan of the Silver Lake. You may have heard of me.”
“I have not,” he said. “Is that my failing, or yours?”
“Sharp tongued, you are.” Her smile curled into an expression more cutting. “If you are what I suspect, then I should be glad to have slipped beneath your notice, and your Lady’s, I think.”
Llewyn, startled, brushed his thumb across his ring.
“Before you ask, I’ve not heard of her either,” the Gray Lady said.
“Is she dangerous?”
“To me? No. To you? Almost certainly. And we should know her purpose here.”
Afanan set her cup down daintily and blunted the hard edge of her expression. Once again she was the congenial trouper, just making conversation.
“I’ve given you my name, traveler,” she said. “What should I call you?”
“Lyn ab Phylip,” Llewyn said. One had to tread carefully with names around a sorceress. “Though if you’ve heard of me, it’ll be by the name wirrycowe, if you get your gossip in places like this, or by Infrator, if you prefer your rumors refined by court and clergy.”
“To be fair, the priests call all your kind by that name,” Afanan said. She sipped her wine, not taking her eyes from him, unimpeded by the Gray Lady’s shroud. When she spoke again, her voice took on a hostile edge. “They’ve names for my kind, too. Harlot. Devil’s bride. Fairy-daughter. Midwife of wraiths and fell spirits.”
“We’ve common enemies,” Llewyn said. “Do we have common cause?”
Afanan leaned toward him, the gray curls of her hair brushing the rim of her cup. She held like that, studying him once again. He fought the urge to squirm. Most people couldn’t look at him that way. Their gaze would slide right off him and from the ghostwood sword at his hip like a singed hand darting from a flame.
“We’ve a common quarry, I think,” Afanan said at last. She subtly glanced around them, as though wary of prying ears, and lowered her voice. “I’ll say this, gwyddien—you’re right about this place. There’s a spirit here. A powerful one. It protects these people. Throws its fae shadow over their lands to hide them from land-hungry lords. Chases disease from their water and air. Stirs their fields to flourishing.”
“And you’ve come to bind it, I suspect,” Llewyn said. “You think you can take all that away and bend the spirit’s power to your will.” He leaned toward her. “Tell me, sorceress, how many children have you seen since coming to Nyth Fran? I’ve seen no more than a handful. Which makes me think this thing—whatever it is—feeds on the young. Is that really a power you want to bargain with?”
“You’ve come to kill it,” Afanan said, ignoring his question. “As far as these people are concerned, there’s little difference.”
“If I fail, I’m the only one who will suffer,” Llewyn said. “If you fail, you might drive the spirit mad. Turn it more violent than it already is. These people will die, and my job will get a lot harder.”
“You do serve the Gray Lady, then,” Afanan said, and smiled at the surprise he’d failed to hide. “I know my gwyddien lore. Arbiters of balance. Defenders of humanity from the influence of the dead and the fae, whether that influence be fair or foul. Strange that one of the Fae Ladies goes to such lengths to prevent such interference, when all her sisters seem so dedicated to deepening it. But I suppose all fae seem insane to we ordinary folk.”
Her smiled widened, like she’d made a joke. “Listen. It’s best if we don’t get in each other’s way. We both want to remove the spirit from this place. I could let you observe my binding ritual, ready to step in and kill it if things go even the slightest bit awry. There’s no reason for us to fight.”
He considered the idea. There was merit to it. The spirit here was powerful, and even if she only managed to distract it, she might buy him a precious opportunity to strike the killing blow. But how far could he trust a sorceress? Trust a mortal who reached into the realms of the fae and the dead for power, blurring the ancient and vital boundaries between worlds. Boundaries he had been created to defend, long ago, on a dark night buried in cold earth, with ghostwood and silver biting his flesh...
He twisted his ring, but he already knew what the Gray Lady would say.
“Thanks for the offer,” he said, finished his ale, and stood. “It’s been a long day. I should get some sleep.”
Afanan’s smile turned sad. “Well, I tried. I promise not to hurt you, unless I have to.” She reached out and patted his hand. “Don’t make me have to.”
“She’ll have a pixie under her geas watching you from now till you leave Nyth Fran,” the Gray Lady said as Llewyn ascended the stairs.
“If not a conjured wraith,” Llewyn replied. “I’ll be careful. And faster than her. No need for us to worry. Yet.”
He said this but wondered if the Gray Lady could sense the prickling on the back of his neck as he unlocked the door to his room. A powerful spirit present, and now a sorceress to contend with. One who could see right through the Gray Lady’s shroud. An obstacle he would need to prepare for.
He woke at dawn and checked the defenses he had put in place before sleeping. The sprig of holly he’d hung from the lintel of his door hadn’t withered. Afanan had sent no conjured dead skulking after him in the night. He checked the salt he’d laid at the threshold and on the windowsill. Undisturbed. No pixies, either.
Ordinary folk could resort to cold iron to repel the dead and fae. Horseshoes hung in doorways were a poor barrier; better a knife, forged at night beneath a new moon, buried under the threshold. Better still to use it properly, as a weapon.
All tools that were denied to the gwyddien. They were poor methods, anyway. Not nearly fatal enough. Likely to repel a fairy or a wraith only for it to slink away, hide itself in shadow, skulk back, and take its revenge.
His order had its own tools, and he prepared a few of them before he left his rooms. He planned only to investigate. Many spirits fed on the souls of the young, still bound loosely to their mortal bodies. Llewyn needed to know how many such deaths had occurred here, and for how long, to gauge the spirit’s power.
Not particularly dangerous work, but the spirit might sense the threat Llewyn posed and defend itself. Equally troubling, Afanan might try to interfere.
Into his pockets he tucked a small net woven of toadstool lamellae, for fouling the wings of pixies. A vial of powdered bonemeal, to ward against the dead. Lesser spirits of earth, fire, and air, trapped in faceted linarite, anatase, and quartz, ready to be freed and answer his command, should he have need of spellcraft. And of course his ghostwood blade, slung as always through the loop on his hip.
In the common room Afanan’s troupers were sleeping off their hangovers on the benches and floor. The sorceress herself was nowhere to be seen. Either still in her rooms, or already at work. Better to act than to speculate. Llewyn asked the maid wiping down the bar for directions to the alderman. He had to ask thrice before she answered. One of the many hassles—outweighed by the benefits—of being shrouded from unwelcome eyes.
The alderman’s house was on the far side of the village common, on the edge of the forested hills. Like all the houses in Nyth Fran it was small and squat, built of packed earth and thatched with straw. A goat grazed out front of the house. A murder of crows—their number growing—hopped about the roof, pecking for morsels among the thatch.
A fell omen, that. The crows were part of the enchantment, Llewyn was sure, and now they gathered as though to defend the alderman’s house.
The alderman answered at Llewyn’s knock. A healthy man, with fat on his cheeks and muscle on his bones. He blinked, his gaze uncertain, as though peering through fog.
“I need to talk to him,” Llewyn thought, touching the ring.
“Fine,” the Gray Lady replied. “Though you will be more vulnerable to Afanan’s spies.”
A startled expression crossed the alderman’s face as the Gray Lady weakened the enchantment that shrouded Llewyn.
“Ah... hello there,” the alderman said. “What brings you to Nyth Fran, and my doorstep?”
“Lord Gareth ab Eifion, Baron of Gwenallt, sent me to survey these lands,” Llewyn said, affecting the pleasant but mildly annoyed attitude of a nobleman’s courtier sent on an errand far afield. “They are his by right, but he has no record of births and deaths, nor harvests. I was bidden to collect this information and return to him. You are the alderman here, correct? You would have these records, if they exist.”
If the spirit of Nyth Fran fed on children, it would cause miscarriages or early deaths. If this alderman and his predecessors had been dutiful, either would be evident in the village annals.
An unlikely possibility, and one he preferred not to contemplate. One that conjured hard memories and harsh feelings of Llewyn’s own shortened boyhood, of a pale hand leading him away from his home, into the forest, to be buried and transformed.
Either way, he needed to know.
“Master...?” Llewyn said.
The alderman cleared his throat. “Master Ifan ab Trefor.”
“Master Ifan,” Llewyn went on. “Might I see your records?”
“Of course, of course,” the alderman said, ushering Llewyn through the doorway. Inside, the house was cramped, all a single room divided into smaller spaces by curtains hung from the ceiling. The largest space held the hearth, a pair of wooden chairs, a table, and shelves bearing foodstuffs, a few simple herbs, and dishware.
“Please, sit,” the alderman said, rummaging through the shelf, pushing aside wooden and pewter cups. “And some goat’s milk... ah... to wet your thirst. Here we are.” He selected a cup of cast iron and filled it from a pitcher on the table, then set it down in front of Llewyn.
Bloody-damned iron cups. Every superstitious villager had one. They seemed to think that any liquid poured into an iron vessel would turn to poison for the fae. A stupid notion. The iron itself, though, still hurt.
He smiled through his frustration and took the cup, ignoring the itching he felt even through his lambskin gloves, and put the rim to his lips. A single, quick sip. His lip burned like he had kissed a white-hot coal, but only for the moment of contact. It was not easy to keep that kind of pain from his face, but his teachers had made him master many, many difficult things. He swallowed, nodded to the alderman.
“My compliments to your goat,” Llewyn said.
The alderman’s smile tightened. “Pardon me, I’ll only be a moment.” He disappeared behind one of the curtains.
Llewyn twisted his ring. “He doesn’t know, but he tried to test me. That, alone, tells me something.”
“Here it is.” The alderman returned with a thick, leather-bound book. He placed it on the table in front of Llewyn, who opened it and began flipping through the pages.
Llewyn paused to make mental note of an oddity, subtly turning his ring with a brush of his forefinger. “Fewer births than you would expect, but not many fewer. The opposite for children dying young. More than in an ordinary village, but not as many as I would expect if they were making sacrifices to a spirit.”
“The records are false, then,” the Gray lady said, and Llewyn had to agree.
He made a point of slowly browsing through the entire book, moving his lips as he read, giving the impression of a surveyor committing lists and numbers to memory. When he felt he’d put on enough of a show he shut the book, stood, and thanked the alderman for his hospitality.
“Of course, Master... I’m afraid I never got your name,” the alderman said.
“Lyn ab Phylip,” Llewyn said.
“Master Lyn, do give my regards to the baron.”
“Naturally.” Llewyn bobbed his head and turned for the door.
“Papa!” A young girl sprang in through the door, a storm of swirling skirts and disheveled hair. “There’s tumblers at the inn! Joc says so, and he’s going with Wynn to see them! Can I go too, papa? Please?” She threw herself at her father, wrapping him in a pleading hug. The alderman patted her head.
“Siwan, dear, you’ve nearly knocked over my guest!” he said. “Apologize!”
The girl spun around, bobbed a hasty curtsy. “Sorry, master. Now, papa, please.”
She beamed up at him with pitiful desperation. His hard face, after a glance at Llewyn, softened into a doting smile. “Of course, darling,” he said.
She leaped into the air. “Really? Oh, really? Thank you, papa! Thank you!”
The alderman glanced at Llewyn, who felt conspicuous watching this moment between father and child. But this might be information, and important, even if the alderman was only putting on a performance of kindness for a stranger.
“We don’t get tumblers often, darling,” the alderman said. “Now off you go and be back before dark.”
Siwan squealed and darted through the doorway.
“A charming girl,” Llewyn said. “I’m heading that direction, too.”
Llewyn glanced back.
“I’m... simply curious, if you don’t mind. What is that you wear on your hip?”
Llewyn suppressed his astonishment. The ghostwood sword held an enchantment of its own, a product of the haunting that had made it. The alderman could not see it for what it was—it should appear to him as a cudgel, a sword, or a dagger. But if he knew that gwyddien carried such weapons, and that those weapons were so enchanted, this might be another test.
“A tool of my office,” Llewyn said simply. He did not know how the weapon disguised itself to the alderman’s eye. “Not all I deal with are as cooperative as you, Master Ifan.”
The alderman bobbed his head, and Llewyn left with fear sprouting in his chest. Who were these people?
Llewyn watched the alderman’s door from afar until, not an hour after they’d parted ways, the alderman emerged from the house dressed in a dark robe and set off into the forest. Llewyn, freshly shrouded in the Gray Lady’s enchantment, followed, careful nonetheless to hang back. There was no knowing how well the alderman could see through glamour. That he could see through it, to some extent, was certain.
Like everything in Nyth Fran, save its children, the trees of its forest grew thick and tall. It was autumn, and the forest floor was littered with leaves. The alderman kicked through them with abandon; Llewyn crept behind, each footstep careful lest sound give him away. Crows cawed down from the denuded branches, watching all the while.
The alderman had tested him with silver. That, coupled with the falsified records, was enough to confirm his suspicions of their involvement. The sudden appearance of a baron’s surveyor, when the village had so long been protected from strangers, would lead the alderman to believe the enchantment was failing. He would take action to restore it.
They came to a clearing. At its heart stood a flat-topped stone, as high as the alderman’s waist: an altar, or a place of power. The source of the enchantment, most likely. The alderman stood beside it, waiting, while Llewyn watched from behind a stand of trees. He was tempted to ask the Gray Lady to lift the veil over his eyes, so that he might see into the realms of the fae and the dead and identify whatever powers were bound to the flat-topped stone. But his concern, for now, was with the alderman and whatever purpose had brought him here.
Two more figures emerged from the other side of the clearing. One a man, the other a woman, both well advanced in years. Llewyn took the thin quartz crystal from his pocket and cracked it between two fingers, whispering a word of power. He felt a sudden breeze as the spirit of air he’d freed darted out to hover in the center of the clearing, where it heard and conveyed to him the whispered conversation.
“...so much as a pot-mender in all my years, and now all these strangers come at once,” the woman was saying. “The glamour is fading, Ifan, on your watch.”
“It might not be,” the alderman said. “At least, not as much as you fear.”
“How can you know?” the old man said.
“One of the strangers visited me,” the alderman went on. “He claimed to be working for the baron who owns these lands, but he was lying, I’m sure.”
“Then what is he?”
“Perhaps a druid or a sorcerer, come to bind the spirit,” the alderman said. “Perhaps a gwyddien.”
There was a pause. Llewyn swallowed a curse. The alderman knew. Which meant the work Llewyn had come to do was going to be significantly more treacherous, and more violent.
“And what of these tumblers?” The old woman broke the silence. “Are they a troupe of gwyddien as well?”
“I do not know,” the alderman said. “They may all be working together. I will get to the bottom of this, I swear it. They will be dealt with.”
“Ifan, we have been safe here,” the old man said. “Protected from all manners of evil. There has been a price, yes, but it is small when compared to the suffering of the wider world. It may be time to pay that price again.”
The alderman shook his head firmly, his hand reaching out to brush the surface of the flat-topped stone then pulling away. “There is time, yet, before payment should be needed. Let me deal with this.”
The old woman and the old man locked eyes.
“Fine,” the old woman said. “But remember—if you fail, you will be stripped of all blessings. Not only your daughter, but your long life, your health. All of it.”
“You need not remind me,” the alderman said. He bowed. “Excuse me, there is much work to be done.”
The elders bowed in return, and all three departed. Llewyn hid until the sound of the alderman’s footsteps faded to silence, then stepped into the clearing, toward the flat-topped stone.
Perhaps it was the heightened hearing gifted by the spirit of air—as soon as he moved, he heard a whisper through the leaves behind him. A backward glance showed nothing in this mortal realm, only a few dry leaves swirling as though stirred by a phantom breeze.
He drew his ghostwood sword. He twisted his ring. “Gray Lady!”
At once, the world become full of light and color, normally invisible, shrouded from mortal eyes by glamour. A wraith crouched in the leaves, watching Llewyn, a churning mass of smoke and rage and the stink of an open grave. They locked eyes, and the wraith hissed and lurched backward in surprise.
Llewyn lunged. The wraith rolled away from the blow, dissolving like a cloud of dust and then reforming into clattering bones. It coiled, ready to pounce. It should have struck already—Llewyn had fought enough wraiths to know—but it hesitated. Its purpose, then, must have been to follow and watch but not to kill. A purpose imposed by sorcery that now held it back.
Afanan had sent a spy after all.
Llewyn reached into his pocket and broke a second stone. Linarite to release a spirit of the earth. He pointed the broken crystal at the ground beneath the wraith and shouted a command.
This time, he saw the spirit—a yellow ribbon of light, like an aurora, that lanced from his hand, through the crumpled leaves, into the soil. With a breath like the scent of fresh rain the ground flashed with color, and softened, and began to swallow the wraith. It wailed and gnashed its lipless teeth as it tried to pry its limbs from the sucking earth. Llewyn stepped forward and thrust ghostwood—glowing with its own white, infernal light—through the wraith’s skull. One final, bone-splintering shriek. The wraith dissipated like fog burned away by the noonday sun.
He felt a swell of satisfaction and imagined Afanan, peering into the stone that had bound the wraith, watching him, then yelping in surprise as the stone clouded and shattered in her hand.
As he returned his ghostwood blade to the loop on his belt, the cacophony of colors raged around him. Spirits flowing through every tree, every stone, every curl of breeze. Lesser fae—wild pixies and spriggans—peeking out from tufts of grass to watch him. Llewyn shut his eyes. The world was too alive.
“Not yet,” the Gray Lady said. “The stone.”
Llewyn did as he was told, opening his eyes to consider the flat-topped stone.
A spirit crouched there, atop it. Red and writhing, like a mass of living coiled muscle. It felt his gaze and turned its great beaked head his way. A thousand beady eyes as black as night fixed on him.
“A branellyll,” the Gray Lady said, her usually thunderous voice muted by awe—or fear. “A raven fiend. Old power, this. From a time before the fae.”
Visions flitted through Llewyn’s mind like terrible biting flies. Blood. Chains. The screams of children, their bodies contorting, pulling against their bonds as they changed, transformed into its servants. He thought of the crows. Hundreds of them, all watching him now. A waking nightmare that mingled with his own memories—a rough hand on his shoulder, pulling him away while his mother watched. Later, the taste of iron, the scrape of wood against his bleeding palms, the pinch of silver on his thumb.
He too had been given away, transformed, made servant...
“Enough!” Llewyn shut his eyes. When he opened them the veil returned, bathing the world again in mortal normalcy. He stared at the space above the altar, where he knew the raven fiend still crouched, hidden from him now. Still watching him. Old and powerful enough, he hoped, to consider him little threat.
“It gave you visions,” the Gray Lady said. “What did you see?”
Llewyn touched his ring and did his best to show her while he studied the stone the way it existed in the mortal world, if only to chase away the horrors of long-buried memory. It looked ordinary enough. Not stained with blood, as he felt it should have been.
“Can I kill this fiend?” Llewyn asked.
“It is possible, though will not be easy. Ghostwood cannot harm it until you bring it into the mortal realm. You must bind it before you can hope to so much as wound it, let alone deal a killing blow.”
“Afanan intends to bind it,” Llewyn thought. “I could pretend to help her. Kill it while she draws its attention and makes it weak.”
“You could,” the Gray Lady said. “But what if you fail? Worse, I think, for this power to be in the world and bound to the whim of a mortal woman.”
“Then I’ll need a binding prism.” He had a myriad of thinly cut faceted stones in his trunk. Good for trade in an emergency; better for binding lesser spirits, like the two he’d used that day. But nothing that could hold the Raven Fiend. “I don’t have anything near strong enough to hold it.”
“We’ll think of something,” the Gray Lady said. “For now, keep an eye on the sorceress.”
Llewyn swept his gaze once more across the stone and tried not to think of his own childhood. A gwyddien had come and demanded a child from his village. Their part in an old agreement, he had said. Llewyn’s parents had six children, and he—the youngest—was always sickly. They had given him, wailing and weeping till his voice was raw, to be buried in the roots of a ghostwood tree.
One of many similar transactions throughout the world, it seemed.
He had been too young to save himself from being traded away, his future given to protect those who were supposed to keep him safe. But he could stop any more payments being made here, in Nyth Fran, to that horror on the altar. And he would.
Dusk had begun to settle over the village as Llewyn returned to the inn. He took the arm of one of the troupers lingering at the bar and demanded Afanan, forcefully enough for the words to pierce his shroud and impel the man to dart up the stairs. Then he dropped into a seat in the corner of the room to wait, toying with the last faceted stone in his pocket, hoping Afanan had what he needed and would be willing to part with it.
The troupers began a show of pipe and drum and a pair of youths who spun cartwheels and tumbled across the makeshift stage. A gaggle of children squealed and clapped their hands and pointed at the antics—Siwan, the alderman’s daughter, most ebullient among them.
“Hello again, gwyddien,” Afanan said, gliding into the seat across from him. “Shouldn’t you be out the woods, tromping about, trying to find something to kill?”
Llewyn fixed Afanan with a long, judgmental stare.
“What?” she sputtered. “You didn’t expect me to sit around and do nothing all day, did you?”
He gestured to the troupers. “Are they all under your sway, like the wraith was? Bound to your geas?”
“There’s no need to insult me,” Afanan said. “They and I have a mutually beneficial arrangement. They provide me with a tale for any priests or witch-hunters who come snooping around, and reason to go traipsing about the countryside, gathering spirits as we go. I, in return, provide them with protection. And besides, I’ve always loved the theater.”
Llewyn glanced at the tumblers, who had grabbed each other’s ankles, tucked themselves into an absurd ball, and were now rolling around the stage.
“So... are you going to tell me what you found out there?” Afanan said. “Wraiths aren’t pleasant, but they’re sneakier than pixies, and they have long, very precise memories. I don’t fault you for banishing it—the undead can’t really be killed, after all, only forced to dissipate—but I am upset that you did so just when things were getting interesting.”
“I would tell you, if I thought it might dissuade you,” Llewyn said, pausing while the barmaid delivered him a drink. “But I think it would only make you salivate.”
“Again, the insults! I am not a slavering dog, hungry for power,” Afanan said.
“Oh?” Llewyn sipped his ale. It was bitter. Ashen-tasting. After what he had seen in the forest, it would be some time before any pleasure would be quite as sharp as it ought to be. “Then why are you here, sorceress?”
“Because that thing is dangerous, yes,” she said, the mirth gone from her expression. “But it deserves to live, gwyddien. Just as you and I deserve to live. As even the wraith I sent after you does. As all things deserve to live, for their own sake.”
“And you would give it a life in bondage.”
“A life under guard,” Afanan said. “A life kept safe, both from those like your Gray Lady, who would destroy it, and from the harm it would do if allowed its freedom.”
“You want to know what I found out there? What I saw?” Llewyn said, his voice hard and biting as iron. “It gave me visions of what it does to the children it takes. You noticed their absence, but did you notice the crows, Afanan? Why do so many flock here, did you wonder?”
He saw pity in her eyes. Pity she seemed to extend to all creatures—mortal, fae, and undead alike—no matter how monstrous.
“I can see why that would outrage you,” she said. “I know some gwyddien lore. But—”
“It does not deserve to live,” Llewyn said. “You have prisms, and I need one. Will you let me kill it, or will you stand in my way?”
“Lyn, we can work together. There’s no reason—” Afanan began to say, but she bit off the last of her words when Siwan, the alderman’s daughter, bounded over.
“Hello again, mister!” Siwan said. “Did you see the tumblers? Weren’t they silly!”
Llewyn stared back at her, astonished. He touched his ring. “I am shrouded, yes?”
“Then how is this child speaking to me?”
“You made my papa nervous,” Siwan said. “That’s why he let me come see the tumblers.” Then more quietly, cupping a hand around her mouth. “What were you talking to him about? Maybe if I talk about it next time he won’t let me go off to something fun, he’ll get nervous again and change his mind.” She giggled and grinned mischievously.
“Perhaps she is sensitive. A budding sorceress,” the Gray Lady said.
“Sensitive, and bold.”
A shout sounded from outside the inn.
“Gwyddien!” the alderman’s voice cried, muted by walls and windows. “Lyn ab Phylip, fell wirrycowe! We call you by name and cast you from Nyth Fran!”
Afanan straightened in her seat, her hands twitching up her sleeves, seeking gemstones likely hidden there. The tumblers rolled to an awkward halt. The joviality in the room died into an agitated quiet. Most of the inn’s patrons looked about, confused, whispering to one another, eyes darting toward Llewyn but never settling, always deflected by the Gray Lady’s shroud. Siwan stepped back a pace from the table, all the mirth gone from her face.
“Gwyddien!” the alderman called again. “Come out, we command you by your name! Lyn ab Phylip! Lyn ab Phylip!”
“Does that actually work?” Afanan whispered.
“It might,” Llewyn said. “But I’m careful about names.”
Afanan grinned. “Naturally. But are you just going to let him stand out there and yell himself hoarse?”
Llewyn sighed, drank the rest of his ale in a long swallow, and stood. This wasn’t the first time his fae nature had been found out by an astute villager. It always made things more annoying. Particularly given his distaste for unnecessary violence.
In this case, considering the village’s complicity, he had yet to make up his mind about what was or was not necessary. At the very least, he would not slaughter anyone in front of children. They’d clearly known enough horror, growing up here.
Llewyn stood from his table, crossed the floor—followed by dozens of curious, frightened eyes that kept drifting away and back again—and stepped outside. The alderman had positioned himself in the commons in front of the inn. He held a staff adorned with a half-dozen horseshoes. Behind him stood the two elders Llewyn had seen at the haunted stone. Each held their own iron—the woman a skillet, the man an old rust-bitten sword. A dozen more villagers crowded behind them, watching, murmuring, clutching rakes and pitchforks and torches that sputtered in the deepening dark.
Llewyn bade the Gray Lady drop her shroud, and every villager’s eye fixed on him at once. They recoiled, their murmurs rising into astonished yelps. To them, he would have been a vague, uncertain silhouette that their minds struggled to remember from one moment to the next, now replaced by a scarecrow of a man with a long sword of pale, sharpened wood at his belt, framed by the doorway and the light of the inn.
“Gwyddien!” the alderman said, his voice catching in his throat, then growing steadier as he spoke. “Be gone from Nyth Fran! We are simple folk. We keep to ourselves. We’ve no interest in the long, twisting games of you fae folk!”
“I’m as human as you, Ifan,” Llewyn said. “And no more embroiled with the games of the fae.”
The alderman ignored him and began swaying his horseshoe-laden pole from side to side. “Be gone, wirrycowe! Be gone!”
“Enough,” Llewyn said. “I saw what lives in the woods. I know what it takes from you. You think it protects you, but protection at such a cost is just another kind of violence. I’m here to get rid of it. To free you.”
The alderman shut his eyes and began to make a low droning sound, deep in his throat. The elders behind him did likewise, each holding up their iron.
“This is absurd.” Llewyn crossed the dozen paces and drew his ghostwood blade. Its haunt made it dull or sharp, rigid or supple, at the motion of his will. In a single swipe he cut the alderman’s staff in two. The horseshoe-laden top fell to the earth with a thud. The crowd gasped and backed away, and Llywen grabbed the alderman by the front of his shirt.
“Listen to me, you asinine fool. I’m going to kill that thing, for your sake, and the sake of your children. The cost of trying to stop me will be a dozen deep, purple bruises that will ache for weeks. Now send these people back to their fucking homes and let me do my—”
“Papa?” Siwan’s voice, tight and panicked. Llewyn turned toward her, his grip relaxed. The alderman twisted and pulled away, and the old woman brought her frying pan down.
The blow sent Llewyn sprawling, the bare nape of his neck screaming like it had been scraped with a hot coal. He rolled, panic rising, lashing out half-blind with his ghostwood sword. The weapon met flesh with a meaty thwak and a judder down his arm.
The old man howled. Llewyn found his feet to see him doubled over, clutching his ribs, his rusted sword fallen to the mud. The ghostwood had been dull but the blow hard to enough to crack bone.
“You see?” the alderman shrieked, gathering Siwan to him, putting his body between Llewyn and his daughter. “He assaults our elders! Come, good folk of Nyth Fran! Bring your iron to bear!”
The crowd drove him backwards, advancing, slowly pressing toward the inn. Llewyn reached for the anatase in his pocket and willed his sword to be blunt but flexible. Imbeciles. He had fought crowds like this before.
“What’s this, now?” Afanan cried from the doorway behind Llewyn. “Is this how Nyth Fran greets its guests?”
Seven of the troupers emerged from the inn and formed an arc behind Llewyn, led by Afanan, who toyed with a white jewel pinned to her cuff. The troupers’ hands rested on cudgels or knives at their belts. Not yet openly hostile but demonstrating the capacity for self-defense.
“Be rid of them all!” the bruised elder croaked. “They stand with the gwyddien!”
“That is quite the accusation you bandy there,” Afanan said.
“It is true!” the alderman said. “He burns at the touch of iron!”
“She bludgeoned him with a frying pan!” Afanan said. “Who here wouldn’t be a mite rattled by that?”
“And what if it is true?” Afanan went on. “Gwyddien are benevolent fae. Guardians of the border between our worlds. If he is a gwyddien, then there must be something that drew him here. You’d be better afraid of what he has come to hunt than of the hunter.”
“How came you by that lore?” the old woman snapped. “You’re a witch! In league with the gwyddien!”
Afanan’s fingers played on her cuff, twisting the gem. She smiled. “Only a humble actress, well past her prime. Now will you leave this man in peace? We see that we are not welcome, but it is dark, now. To send us away would be to offer us up to bandits and beasts upon the road. We’ll all be gone at first light.”
Llewyn wondered if the alderman would throw his people against a gwyddien, a sorceress, and a troupe of tumblers who toyed with the hilts of their weapons with a threatening casualness. It would be suicide—not that the alderman had shown a shred of common sense.
“We tried your way, alderman,” the old woman muttered.
The alderman tensed, his hands tightening on Siwan’s shoulders. She squirmed, looked up at him, already trembling with fright after all this talk of witches and gwyddiens and violence. A storm passed over the alderman’s face.
“Come, Ifan,” the old man said, bending to gather up his sword, eyes locked with Llewyn all the while. “We’re through here.”
The alderman clutched his daughter tight. “You will be gone by sunrise, whether by your own volition or no,” he said, with a quaver in his voice.
The crowd dispersed, returning to their homes with muttered curses and backward glances. Afanan watched them go, fingers finally retreating from the gemstones on her cuffs.
“Are you alright?” she said.
“Why did you help me?” Llewyn asked. “If they did away with me, that would leave the way clear for you to take what you want from this place and go.”
Afanan shook her head. “I told you—everything deserves to live.”
The troupers had retreated into the inn. Musicians returned to the pipe, drum, and lute, drawing the remaining bystanders —now subdued and quiet—to follow.
“I’ve an idea,” the Gray Lady said.
Llewyn touched his ring. “Where were you? The alderman came for my head.”
“You’re capable of protecting yourself,” the Gray Lady said. “And I’d a task of my own. One I’ve completed. Is there a blacksmith in Nyth Fran?”
He recalled the chimney of a forge rising not far from where he’d stabled his horse.
“Excellent. You will need a hammer. Sharp and heavy.”
“To what end?”
“To crack the altar stone, gwyddien. To make a facet in its surface and bind the raven fiend within.”
Llewyn paused. “That stone can’t hold a flicker of candle-flame. The minute the ritual ends, the raven fiend will free itself. That would be like trying to tie a man up with cobwebs.”
“True, but we don’t need the binding to hold long. We just need something big enough and craggy enough to seem like a threatening prison. Ravens might be clever, but raven fiends are not. It will turn its power to resisting the ritual, and venture into the mortal realm to do so, never knowing that the magic we weave to bind it might as well have been forged of paper. And when it does, you can kill it.”
“I see you there, gwyddien,” Afanan said. She had lingered in the doorway, watching him. “Speaking to your lady, are you?”
Night was falling, and something in the way the alderman had clutched his daughter set Llewyn’s teeth on edge. He needed to work quickly.
“Thank you for the help,” Llewyn said, and set off toward the forge.
The lock of the blacksmith’s shop endured one kick before it shattered. Iron-laced smoke lingered in the air and scratched Llewyn’s face with burning fingers. The handle of the smith’s hammer was wrapped in leather. He held it far to his side, like a white-hot brand, and made for the altar stone.
Crows dogged him on his way through the woods, calling down, watching with yellow-tinted eyes.
“I will open your eyes,” the Gray Lady said.
“Now?” Llewyn looked back the way he had come, wondering if Afanan had sent another wraith after him.
“You should see.”
The world filled with color. Brightest of all, like a sunrise on the horizon, was a burning cloud of blood-red light emanating from the clearing. He ran, the visions that the raven fiend had shown him flickering behind his eyes. The crows followed, glowing with their own hideous crimson light.
A graveyard stink had filled the clearing. The raven fiend loomed over the stone, its rippling distended mass balanced on bone-thin legs whose taloned feet gripped the edges of the flat surface. Three sets of desiccated wings reached for the girl who lay upon the stone. Around them stood the two elders and the alderman, all with arms outstretched, their voices raised in an inhuman susurrus.
Siwan’s voice joined theirs. A bubbling, muted scream. She twisted on the stone, beneath the outstretched wings, joints contorting, eyes wide but unseeing. Her hair rippled, then turned from mouse-brown to black, as though it had been dipped in ink. Her skull seemed to stretch and twist beneath her skin.
“Gwyddien!” the alderman cried at the sight of Llewyn, a sob in his throat. “You have brought this upon her! Forced our hand!”
“Step away,” Llewyn replied, hammer in one hand, ghostwood blade in the other. “She’s your daughter.”
“If you interrupt the ritual, she will die!” the old man shouted, his arms shaking. “We must finish, Ifan! The old agreement holds! The God of the Wood will defend us!”
Llewyn threw the hammer. It smashed into the old man’s skull with a meaty whump. The alderman and the old woman stared, disbelieving, as he fell dead.
The raven fiend shuddered, crouching lower, the feathers on the tips of its half-dozen wings nearly brushing Siwan. It threw back its malformed head and opened wide its jagged beak. The cawing of countless crows sounded from the trees, and as one they descended upon Llewyn.
Beaks and claws tore for his eyes. Tucking his head, he ran toward the altar, scrabbling for the anatase in his pocket. He crushed the black crystal and hurled it at the mass of crows. Light and heat burst from his hand as the spirit of flame reveled in its freedom. The crows retreated, singed and terrified.
The raven fiend howled and turned its ravenous eyes back to Siwan, reached for her.
Was this ritual a binding of some kind? Was the raven fiend vulnerable?
He struck at it. The white light of ghostwood met roiling, devouring red. One of the raven fiend’s countless eyes swiveled toward him. It swept its wings outward, and the blood-red light of its power followed, buffeting Llewyn with a wind that hurled him away. He struck the ground at the edge of the clearing, heard something crack and pop in his ribcage. He staggered to his feet, gasping against pain that shot down his right flank. Overhead, the crows wheeled and gathered for another assault.
“Kill the alderman. Kill the woman, before the crows attack again,” the Gray Lady urged. “Break the stone, gwyddien! It will work!”
“But the girl—”
“Forget the girl! The raven fiend has already bent her from her mortal shape.”
“Destroy it!” the Gray Lady’s command echoed in his mind. “You were made to be a weapon, not a savior.”
And for what purpose, he wondered, was Siwan being made?
But there was no choice. No way he could see to save her. Better to end her misery, and to avenge her—upon the raven fiend, upon her father, upon the village that had chosen to consume her. He reached for the hammer, pried it from the elder’s skull.
“Be gone, gwyddien!” the alderman screamed, voice gummed by tears and terror. “She is my daughter! Do you think I would do this if it was not necessary? If it would not cast you out? This is how we protect ourselves!”
“Yourselves?” Llewyn said, pain seizing his side, his pulse pounding behind his eyes. He remembered his mother watching him—silently, without so much as a tear—as he was taken away to the taste of iron and smell of wet earth. “Who, then, will protect your daughter?”
The alderman dropped his arms, backed away, cast about for some means to defend himself. But Llewyn, with ghostwood sharp in hand, ran him through.
The old woman gasped and buckled, the full weight of the ritual falling upon her. Siwan’s voice rose in turn. The raven fiend extended its malformed wings, beat the air. Siwan rose with it, hovering above the stone, back arched, black hair wild as feathers in the wind.
“You fool!” the old woman screamed at Llewyn. “It will have her, not as a servant but as a puppet, and it will escape wearing her twisted skin!”
The raven fiend squeezed itself at Siwan, its massive, distended body spasming and shrinking, bit by bit, as it began to crush itself into the narrow frame of her bones. Her eyes rolled, black pupils in yellow sclera. Her screams grew hoarse as they rose, until they hardly sounded human.
“Kill them all! The woman, the girl, and the fiend with them! All are corruptions! All bleeding wounds in the veil between mortal and fae!”
The crows gathered and dove. Beaks open, talons out.
“Strike now, gwyddien!”
“You are too late!” the old woman said, voice contorted by grief and horror. “You have brought this upon the world, gwyddien! You have unleashed a devil more wicked even than—”
Her last word was swallowed by a burst of pressure and rush of wind. Leaves crackled and spun. The crows scattered. Afanan strode into the clearing, a cracked gemstone in her hand. With a flick of her hand she cracked another. Green light settled on the old woman, bore her down, bound her and gagged her with vines.
“You should have waited for me, gwyddien,” Afanan called. With a turn of her wrist she produced another gem, black as the depths of the sea. She shouted a word like splitting earth, and with a scream, the raven fiend bucked. The bulk of its body, not yet vanished into Siwan, stretched taut, as though invisible hands dragged it toward Afanan and the gem she held outstretched.
“She is worst of them all! She tries to bind it!”
“You wanted me to do the same! She is giving me a chance to kill it.”
“Yes,” the Gray Lady said, voice thick with hatred. “And then kill her.”
There was no time for dispute. He readied his sword and moved to strike.
“If you kill it, the girl will die!” Afanan shouted, straining against the effort of her ritual. “I can draw the fiend out of her. She’ll live, if you let me do this.”
“No mortal has power enough to draw a fiend from its host,” the Gray Lady roared. “It is a trick!”
Llewyn hesitated. Siwan’s cries had deepened to a croak.
“You were made, weren’t you, gwyddien?” Afanan said. “Buried in the roots of a dying tree. Their coin on your tongue. Her ring on your finger. Reborn with a sword in hand.”
Memory assaulted him, like the buffeting wings of crows. Pale figures leading him away from home. Days of isolation buried in the roots of a ghostwood tree, his empty stomach knotting. The bite of silver on his finger. The rasp of wood against his skin. The cold, acrid taste of iron—turning to fire while he lay, awake, his nose full of wet earth, his blood surging with panic until his heart slowed as starvation carried him down into death, his mind swirling with visions of the fae.
Then the Gray Lady, calling him back to the mortal world, condemning him to a life skulking in shadows confronting nightmare after nightmare.
“Who traded your life?” Afanan said, voice raw. “And for what?”
“This sorceress is wicked as the rest!” All reason was gone from her voice. “Self-serving! Callous! Deserving of death! Kill her, gwyddien! That is your purpose!”
Made for a purpose, in the roots of a dying tree. As Siwan had been given a purpose, upon the altar stone.
He reached for his ring. Slowly, as in a dream.
“WHAT ARE YOU—”
Silence, as silver left his skin.
Broken by Afanan’s scream.
She buckled, fell to one knee; strained to keep the gem aloft, to pull the rest of the raven fiend out of the child and into the gem’s faceted depths. The fiend’s bulk stretched and distended, pulled tight between two vessels.
Llewyn stumbled to her side, clutching his aching ribs. “What can I do?”
“Weaken it,” Afanan gasped. “In whatever way you can.”
He had only his ghostwood sword. A part of him, made by the loosening of his spirit’s bond with his body. Responsive to his will. As sharp and deadly as he desired.
One blow meant to wound and not to kill. White light flared against red and cut through the fiend’s defenses, left softened by its inattention, and pierced the stretched flesh of its body.
It howled with a voice to shatter eardrums. The red light of its power flared. A sound like ripping leather, and the reek of ancient rot poured from the wound he had rent, and the raven fiend came apart in a gout of blood as black as the grave.
Afanan reeled backward as the greater mass of it disappeared, screaming, into her crystal. The other remnant of the fiend, no longer gripped by any ritual, snapped back into Siwan’s body. She clawed at herself, screaming without voice, yellow-black eyes bulging.
“Afanan!” Llewyn cried. “Help her!”
Afanan tucked her gemstone up her sleeve and produced another. She held this over Siwan’s snarling face, said a word of binding, and recoiled.
“I can’t disentangle them,” she said. “The ritual to draw out what remains of the fiend will pull her own spirit with it.”
Just as starvation and ritual and roots of ghostwood had drawn out Llewyn’s spirit, when he was not much younger than Siwan.
“Do it,” he said.
“She’ll die,” Afanan said. “Worse than die. We’ll make her a wraith.”
“We’ll make her a gwyddien.”
He met Afanan’s startled gaze.
“But there is no ghostwood tree here,” she said.
His sword became brittle at a motion of his will. The blunted tip broke easily.
“This...” Afanan said. “I don’t know if this will work.”
“She deserves to live,” Llewyn said. “This is her only chance.”
Afanan took a deep, steadying breath. She held out the gemstone and said her word of power.
Siwan’s scream was deep and bone-shaking. Pinkish sickly light wafted out of her, drifted toward the gem Afanan held.
Llewyn closed Siwan’s hands around the shard of ghostwood haunted with a sliver of his soul. “Siwan,” he whispered. “Listen to my voice. Remember who you are.”
For a panicked moment he wondered if he ought to slip the Gray Lady’s ring around Siwan’s finger. If this attempt at mercy might fail unless bolstered by cruel, self-serving power. Until the sickly light began to separate. Wine-dark red drifting toward the crystal; the rest—pink as milk tinted by a drop of blood—filtering into the thirsty wood.
Her eyelids fluttered, then drifted shut. She fell back to the stone and lay still, her breath settling, hands still clutching the shard of ghostwood in her sleep.
Llewyn released a long-held breath and slumped forward onto the altar. Afanan caught him, kept him from collapsing.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I... I think she will live.”
But he had failed to protect her. Made her like him—outcast, inhuman—in order to save her life.
No. She had already been cast out. Given up to ancient powers in payment for her village’s independence and protection. Llewyn understood this, yet guilt ate away at him.
“I will take her with me,” he said, lifting his head, meeting Afanan’s gaze. “To help her understand what she has become.” “Of course,” Afanan said without hesitation. “But a vagabond wandering the roads with a girl child will hardly slip beneath suspicion.”
Llewyn opened his mouth to protest, but Afanan pressed on, smiling her sharp smile.
“My troupe always has room,” she said. “You deserve to live too, gwyddien.”
A shudder shook Llewyn. His vision became clouded, as though by mist.
When last, he wondered, had he wept?
Nyth Fran began to change that very day. Only a single crow watched the wagon and its troupers depart. The rest, it seemed, had vanished with the binding of the raven fiend.
“How long will you stay with us?” Afanan asked Llewyn as they rode alongside the troupe’s wagon.
“As long as you will have us,” he answered. “It will be good for her to grow up among you. With people who care and are kind.”
Afanan frowned in mock confusion. “I thought I was a power-hungry sorceress?”
Llewyn shrugged. “I’m a wirrycowe, come to turn milk sour and murder babies in their cribs.”
“Fair point,” Afanan said. “Well, if you’re to stay with us, you’ll need a role in the troupe. Can you play any instruments? The girl seems to have taken to the notion.”
Siwan sat beside the driver, plucking at a lute, staring up at the drifting clouds with her mortal eye. The other, still yellow-black, was covered by a cloth Afanan had made to shroud her vision from the world of the fae.
A world Llewyn saw always, now, without the protection of the Gray Lady.
The girl’s eye and ink-dark hair were the only remnants of the awful night she had spent upon the altar. These, and the ghostwood shard she wore around her neck. She was much quieter now. Subdued, where she had been bursting with energy before. There were deeper, harder wounds she had suffered.
Llewyn would do what he could to help her recover, and to protect her—as he should have been protected—until she could protect herself.
“Or an actor, maybe?” Afanan went on. “You’ve sharp features. Eye-catching at a distance, now that you aren’t shrouded.”
He still carried the Gray Lady’s ring, wrapped in cloth at the bottom of his saddlebag. He might put it on again, someday. On his own terms.
For now, he would endure the loss of the shroud and the veil. The dancing hallucinatory lights of fae powers and glimpses of the unhallowed dead. And, in seeing and being seen, perhaps find a new purpose, not chosen by those in power over him.
“It is Llewyn, by the way,” he said, interrupting Afanan. “Llewyn ab Arnall.”
“Well then, Llewyn ab Arnall of the Silver Lake Troupe—actor, musician, or something else... what would you like to be?”
Her question caught him off guard. He could not remember a time when he’d been given such a choice.
“I’ve done some acting,” he said. “If lying about my name and purpose counts.”
Afanan laughed. “Well, there’s no need to commit now. Take your time. Try things out. You’ll find your place.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Llewyn said. For the first time since his childhood, his purpose and path were his own.