“Ah, my beauty,” crooned the intruder. “It’s all right. I know, you were never meant to face
powers. I forget things now. I had forgotten that he could take the form of a wolf, or we would have been ready for him.” The shadow stroked against his legs like a cat, emitting squeaks and hisses as it did so. “Hold the Lyon fast, little one. We will force them to come to us.”
The chill wind weaved its way through Aralorn’s heavy woolen cloak with the ease of a skilled lover, and she shivered in spite of the layers of clothing she wore. Although the keep was barely out of sight, the bones of her hands ached from the bitter chill. It always took weeks for her to acclimate to the cold northern winter.
Wolf, warm under his thick pelt, observed her attempts to tame her cloak, and asked, “Why did you decide to walk? Sheen would be much faster, not to mention warmer.”
“The shapeshifters’ village is difficult to reach by horse—sometimes impossible—and that area of Lambshold is too dangerous to leave him tied for any length of time.” Aralorn winced at the sharpness of her voice. His question had been reasonable; there was no need to give him the edge of her tongue because she was disappointed.
Before first light, they had visited the bier room and attempted to use the sword to slay the creature. Neither she nor Wolf, who, plague take the man, was a much better swordsman, had been able to even touch the shadow-thing with Ambris. The shadow had melted away from the sword with laughable ease.
Wolf hadn’t been able to tell anything more about the spells that held her father than he had before. Black magic had been used, but the pattern of the spelling was too complex to decipher while distracted by the creature who lurked in the bier room.
The only good thing to come out of the visit was that, as far as Wolf could determine, her father was no worse off this morning than he’d been last night. Scant comfort when his condition was so close to death that most people could not tell he was alive.
Wolf gave the clear skies a skeptical glance. “No clouds—I suspect it will be colder than sin. Why don’t you shapechange? Your mouse and goose aren’t much good here, but the icelynx is adapted for this area.”
The wind gusted, blowing snow into Aralorn’s face.
“Good idea” said Aralorn. “Then the shepherds will attack me, too.” She took a deep breath and reined in her temper. Snapping at Wolf was not going to free her father any faster, and for all that Wolf appeared so impassive, she knew better than most how easy it was to wound him. “Sorry. It’s all right. I’ll warm up as we walk.”
“I would not fret much about a bunch of sheepherders.”
Aralorn slanted a glance at him, unable to tell if he was serious or teasing. “They are my father’s men. No use stirring them up unduly if we don’t have to—besides, I’d just as soon talk to anyone we see. You never know what kernels of information might prove useful.”
They followed one of the main paths for several miles; this close to the keep, it was usually well traveled even in the dead of winter. They didn’t meet anyone, but it surprised her how much livestock had been left in the high pastures. Usually, they’d have been brought down to the lower, warmer valleys before any snow fell.
The first few herds they passed were distant, but she could tell they were not sheep from their color. When she had lived in Lambshold, there had been few herds of cattle; they were better suited for more temperate climates.
By chance, they came upon a herd unexpectedly close, and she caught a good look at the short, stout animals with long red hair that would have done credit to one of the mountain bears.
She stopped where she was and frowned at them a moment. Softly, so the animals wouldn’t be alarmed and charge, she said, “Ryefox.”
“Crossbred, by those horns,” Wolf replied. “I saw a ryefox drive away a bear once. Good eating, though.”
“If they’re only half as nasty as their full-blooded relatives, I’d rather face a half dozen Uriah,” commented Aralorn. “Naked,” she added, as one of the animals took a step toward them.
“They’re almost as sweet-tempered as you are this morning,” observed Wolf.
“Hah,” she said, forgetting that she’d been trying to keep quiet so as not to arouse the ryefox crossbreeds. “Look who’s talking, old gloom and doom.”
Wolf wagged his tail to acknowledge the justice of her comment, but only said, “I wonder that he found a cow or bull willing to go near enough to a ryefox to breed.”
“This must be the livestock experiment that Correy was talking about last night. The one my uncle was helping my father with.”
She kept a wary eye on the herd as they walked, but the ryefox appeared to be satisfied that their territory wasn’t being threatened and stayed where they were.
A chest-high rock wall marked the boundary where the grazing ended and the northern croplands began. Aralorn caught the top of the wooden gate barring the path and swung over without bothering to open it. Wolf bounded lightly over the fence a few feet away and landed chest deep in a drift of snow. He eyed her narrowly as he climbed back onto the path. Aralorn kept her face scrupulously blank.
She cleared her throat. “Yes, uhm, I was just going to advise you that this area gets windy from time to time—the mountains, you see. And . . . uh, you might want to watch out for drifts.”
“Thank you.” replied Wolf gravely, then he shook, taking great care to get as much of the snow on Aralorn as he could.
As they continued their journey, the path began to branch off, and the one that they followed got narrower and less well-defined with each division.
“Why farm this?” asked Wolf, eyeing the rough terrain. “The land we just traveled through is better farmland.”
“Father doesn’t do anything with this land. His farms are along the southern border, several thousand feet lower in altitude, where the climate is milder. But there is good fertile soil here in the small valleys between the ridges—the largest maybe twenty acres or so. The crofters farm it and pay Father a tithe of their produce for the use of the land and protection from bandits. He could get more gold by running animals here instead—but this makes good defensive sense. The lower fields are easily burned and trampled by armies, but up here it’s too much trouble.”
“Speaking of burning,” said Wolf, “something has burned here recently. Can you smell it?”
She tried, but her nose caught nothing more than the dry-sweet smell of winter. “No, but Correy said that one of the crofts had been burned. Can you tell where the smell is coming from?”
“Somewhere a mile or so in that direction.” He motioned vaguely south of the trail they were following.
“Let’s head that way then,” she said. “I’d like to take a look.”
They broke with the main path to follow a trail that twisted here and there, up and down, through the stone ridges. It had been well traveled lately, more so than the other such trails they had passed, although a thin layer of snow covered even the most recent tracks. As they neared the farm, Aralorn could smell the sourness of old char, but it didn’t prepare her for the sight that met her eyes.
Scorched earth followed the shape of the fields exactly, stopping just inside the fence line. The wooden fence itself was unmarked by the blaze, which had burned the house so thoroughly that only the base stones allowed Aralorn to see where the house had been. All around the croft, the fields lay pristine under the snow.
Wolf slipped through the fence and examined the narrow line that marked the end of the burn.
“Magic,” he said. He hesitated briefly, his nostrils flaring as he tested the air. “Black magic with the same odd flavor of the spells holding the Lyon. Look here, on the stone by the corner of the fence.”
She stepped over the fence and knelt on the blackened ground. Just inside the corner post, there was a fist-sized gray rock smudged with a rust-colored substance.
“Is it human blood?” she asked.
Wolf shook his head. “I can’t tell. Someone used this fire and the deaths here to gather power.”
“Enough power to set a spell on my father?”
Before he could answer, the wind shifted a little, and he stiffened and twisted until he could look back down their path.
Aralorn followed his gaze to see a man coming up the trail they had taken here. By his gray beard, she judged him to be an older man, though his steps were quick and firm. In ten years a child might become a man, but a man only grayed a bit more: She matched his features with a memory and smiled a welcome.
“Whatcha be doing there, missy?” he asked as soon as he was near enough to speak, oblivious to Aralorn’s smile.
“I’m trying to discover what kind of magic has been at work, Kurmun. What are you doing here? I thought your farm was some distance away.”
He frowned at her, then a smile broke over his face, breaking the craggy planes as if it were not something he did often. “Aralorn, as I live and breathe. I’d not thought to see tha face again. I told old Jervon that I’d have a look at his place, he’s still that shook. Commet tha then for tha father’s passing?”
She smiled. “Yes, I did. But as it turns out, Father’s not dead—only ensorcelled.”
Kurmun grunted, showing no hint of surprise. “Is what happens when tha lives in a place consecrated to the Lady. Bad thing, that.”
She shook her head. “Now, that was taken care of long since. You know the family’s not been cursed by the Lady since the new temple was built. This is something quite different, and it may take a few days to discover what. I thought the burning of the farm might have something to do with it.”
The old man nodded slowly. “Hadn’t thought there was a connection, but there might, there might at that. Have a care here, then. Tha father, he took ill here.”
“I didn’t know that.” But she could have guessed.
Black magic had long carried a death penalty. A mage would avoid it as much as possible. It only made sense that the black magic Wolf felt here would belong to the spell on the Lyon.
“Aye, he come here tha day after it burned. Walked the fence line, he did. Got to the twisted pole over there and collapsed.”
“Now, that’s interesting,” said Aralorn thoughtfully. “Why didn’t anyone at the hold mention it?”
“Well,” replied Kurmun, though she hadn’t expected him to answer her question, “reckon they didn’t know. Just he and I here, and I tossed him on his horse and took him to the hold. They was in such a state that no one asked where it’d happened. Only asked what, so that’s all I told they. This is some young men’s mischief, thought I then.” He made a sweeping gesture that encompassed the burnt farm. “Tha father was felled by magic. Didn’t rightly think one had much to do with t’other myself. But if tha thinks it so, then so think I now.”
“I think it does,” she said. “Thank you. Did we lose any people?”
He shook his head. “Nary a one. Jervon’s oldest daughter come into her time. The missus and Jervon gathered they children and went up to attend the birth. Lost a brace of oxen, but they sheep was in lower pastures.”
“Lucky,” said Aralorn. “Or someone knew that they were gone.”
Kurmun grunted and scratched his nose. “The Lady’s new temple ha’ been cleaned and set to rights. Word is that there’s a priestess there now; I be thinking tha might want to be stopping in and talking to her. Happens she may help tha father. Happens not.” He shrugged.
“Ridane’s temple is being used?” There had been a lot more activity in the gods’ temples lately. She didn’t see how that could have any bearing on the Lyon’s condition, but she intended to check out anything unusual that had happened recently. “I’ll make certain to visit.”
“I’ll be on my way then,” he said, tipping his head. “Told my son’s wife I’d find a bit of salt for her out of the hold stores.” As he turned to go, his gaze met Wolf’s eyes. “By the Lady,” he exclaimed. “Tha beast’s a wolf.”
“Yes,” agreed Aralorn, adding hastily, “He doesn’t eat sheep.”
“Well,” said the old man, frowning, “see that he don’t. I’d keep him near tha so some shepherd doesn’t get too quick with his sling afore he has a chance to garner that tha wolf doesna eat sheep.”
“I intend to.”
“Right.” Kurmun nodded, and, with a last suspicious look at Wolf, he was on his way.
As soon as he was out of sight, Wolf said, “He called the death goddess the Lady?”
Aralorn smiled briefly. “Lest speaking her name call her attention to him, yes. The new temple is nearly five centuries old. ‘New,’ you understand, differentiates it from the ‘old’ temple that my long-dead ancestor had razed to build a hold. There wasn’t much left of the new temple when I last saw it; it’s been deserted for centuries. I wouldn’t think it would be possible to resurrect anything from the piles of stones. In any case, the temple is on the other side of the estate, so we’ll have to go there another day.”
She tapped her finger on a fence post. “This burned down before my father came here. Wouldn’t it have to happen at the same time?”