She struggled for a while before she was able to discern the pulses and rhythms of his life; more difficult still was finding the underlying organization that was at the heart of all life. Just as she thought she found the Lyon’s pattern, something dark bled through. She sought it, but it faded before her searching, as if it had never been. Deciding it might have been a fluke of her inexperience, Aralorn returned to her original search. As soon as her concentration was elsewhere, the darkness returned.
This time it caught at her magic as if it were a living thing. Startled but not alarmed, Aralorn stopped singing. But the connection between her magic and the shadow didn’t dissolve. Creeping up through her magic, the darkness touched her. As it did, pain swept through her, raking her with acid claws.
“Wolf,” she croaked, meaning to call out, but her voice was only a hoarse whisper as she fell to her knees.
Lying just outside the curtained alcove, Wolf listened to Aralorn’s singing and wished he couldn’t feel the stirring of green magic at her call. He didn’t know what she was doing, but he sent a thread of silence around the curtain, hiding the sound of her music from everyone except him.
No one needed to know that she called magic, not when so many here disapproved of her. He’d seen the looks that Aralorn had ignored. She chose to believe that they did not hurt her, but he knew better.
The pads of his feet tingled, and the air thickened with the sharp, clear presence of Aralorn’s magic. He shifted irritably but stilled when the singing stopped. Abruptly, Wolf surged to his feet, trying to put a name to the change he sensed. Then, faintly, he heard her call his name.
He bolted under the curtain to find Aralorn curled on her side, and the magic in the air so strong it almost choked him—not Aralorn’s magic; hers never stank of evil.
“Eavakin nua Sovanish ven,”
he spat, straddling Aralorn as if his physical presence could ward off the attack of magic. At the end of his speaking, the dark magic reluctantly faded back from Aralorn. He shaped himself into his human form: He could work magic whatever shape he took, but there were some spells that he needed his hands for.
he commanded as he gestured. Rage twisted his voice as it could not touch his fire-scored face. “She is mine. You will not have her.”
As suddenly as it had come, all trace of the magic that had attacked her disappeared. The chamber should have retained a residue of it—he could detect the traces of his own spellwork—but the shadow magic was gone as if it had never been.
Wolf moved aside as Aralorn began to push herself up.
“Wolf,” she said urgently, “look at him. Look at my father and tell me what you see.”
“Are you all right?” he asked, crouching down beside her.
“Fine,” she said dismissively, though at the moment she seemed to be having trouble sitting up. He helped her. “Please, Wolf. Look at my father.”
With a curt nod, Wolf turned and approached the bier.
Aralorn wrapped her arms around herself and waited for his answer. When Wolf stiffened in surprise, she clenched her hands into fists. He set his right hand over the Lyon’s chest as he made a delicate motion with his left.
Remembering what had happened to her when she had used magic, Aralorn said, “Careful.”
It was too late. Even without her magic, she saw the unnatural shadow slipping from under the Lyon’s still form to touch Wolf’s hand.
“Plague it!” Wolf exclaimed, using Aralorn’s favorite oath as he stumbled back from the bier, shaking his hand as if it hurt.
The shadow vanished from sight as quickly as it had come.
“Are you all right?” asked Aralorn, staggering to her feet. “What is it?”
Wolf walked slowly around the stone pedestal, careful not to touch it. He frowned in frustration. “I don’t know. I can see it, though, when it moves. It seems to have a limited range.”
“Is it a spell of some sort?”
Almost reluctantly, Wolf shook his head.
“It’s alive then,” said Aralorn. “I thought it might be.” The hope she’d been clinging to left her. The life that she’d sensed had been the shadow-creature and not her father at all.
Of course the Lyon was dead. She sucked in a deep breath as if air could assuage the hurt of departing hope.
The sound brought Wolf’s gaze to her, his amber eyes glittering oddly in the flickering light. “So is your father.”
“Wolf?” she whispered.
The rattle of the brass rings that held the heavy curtain over the door gave brief warning before both Correy and Irrenna burst in. Wolf dropped his human form for the wolf more swiftly than thought. If one of the intruders had looked sharp, they would have caught the final touches of his transformation, but their attention was on Aralorn, still sitting on the floor.
“Are you all right?” asked Irrenna anxiously, surveying the dust on Aralorn’s dress and the dazed expression on her face.
“Actually, yes,” replied Aralorn, still absorbing the certainty that Wolf had given her. “Much better than I was.” Then she smiled, accepting the improbable. She might have been mistaken, but Wolf would not have been.
“I apologize then,” said Correy, clearly taken aback at her cheerfulness. “I saw your wolf scramble under the drapery, and I thought something might be wrong. That door”—he gestured to the oaken door that led to a small courtyard—“is usually kept barred, but I could have sworn I just heard a man’s voice.” Though his words were an explanation for the discourtesy of interrupting a mourner, his voice held a dozen questions.
Aralorn shook her head. “No one came in from the courtyard. I have noticed this room can distort sound—it might be the high ceiling and the narrowness of the room.”
Wolf gave her a glance filled with amusement at her storytelling. She patted him on the head and climbed laboriously to her feet.
“You look as if your visit with Henrick did you some good,” commented Irrenna after a moment. “I’m glad you are more at peace.”
Aralorn smiled even wider at that. Trust Irrenna to be too polite for bluntness.
“Well”—Aralorn paused, almost bouncing with excitement—“I’m not certain ‘peace’ is quite the right word. I would say joyous, exuberant, and maybe exultant—though that might be pushing it a bit. I wouldn’t be too hasty about burying Father tomorrow—he might not be best pleased.”
Her brother stiffened, drawing himself up indignantly, but Irrenna, who knew her better, caught his arm before he could say anything.
“What do you know?” Irrena’s voice was hushed but taut with eagerness for all that.
Aralorn spread her arms wide. “He’s not dead.”
“What?” said Correy, his voice betraying his shock.
Irrenna took a step forward and peered closely into Aralorn’s face. “What magic have you wrought?” she asked hoarsely.
At the same time, Correy shook his head with obvious anger. “Father is dead. His flesh is cold, and there is no pulse. I don’t remember that your humor lent you toward cruelty.”
The smile dropped from Aralorn’s face as if it had never been. “You’ve been listening to Nevyn.”
Irrenna stepped between them, shaking her head. “Don’t be absurd, Correy. If Aralorn says that he lives, then he lives. She wouldn’t make up a story about this.” She drew in a tremulous breath and turned back to Aralorn. “If he is not dead, why does he lie so still?”
Aralorn shook her head. “I’m not certain exactly, except that there’s magic involved. Has Father annoyed any wizards lately?”
Irrenna looked thoughtful for a moment. “None that I know of.”
“You think Father’s ensorcelled? Who do you think did it? Nevyn?” asked Correy. “I know death when I see it, Aralorn. Father is dead.”
Aralorn looked at him, but she couldn’t read his face. “I don’t know Nevyn anymore. But the man I knew would never have put everyone through all of this.”
“You are certain it was a human mage?” asked Irrenna. She’d reached out to touch the Lyon’s hand.
“Have you been having difficulty with the shapeshifters?” asked Aralorn.
“Father’s been working with them to improve the livestock.” Correy was still stiff with distrust. “But last month, something burned out a crofter’s farms on the northern borders of the estate, one of the places where they’d been conducting their experiments. All that’s left are the stone walls of the cottage, not even the timbers of the barn. Father said he didn’t think it was the shapeshifters, but I know that they’ve been nervous about dealing with humans.”
Aralorn nodded her understanding. “I haven’t had time to look very closely at the spell holding the Lyon. I can check if it was a shapeshifter’s doing or a human mage’s.”
She took a step forward to do just that, but Wolf placed himself foursquare before her.
“I can do it without using magic,” Aralorn said, exasperated. She’d momentarily forgotten, in her excitement, that her family would think it odd that she explained herself to her wolf. Ah well, she could hope that they would chalk it up to the stress of the moment. She needed to see the Lyon. “All I want to do is
. The shadow-thing only came out before when magic was being patterned.”
“What shadow-thing?” asked Correy.
“I don’t know,” Aralorn said. “Something odd happened when I was using magic.”
Reluctantly, Wolf stepped aside. Aralorn managed another half step before Wolf again stepped between her and the bier; this time his attention was all for the shadows under the silent form laid out on the stone table. He growled a soft warning.
“What is it?” asked Irrenna.
Aralorn narrowed her eyes, catching a flicker of movement in the shadow under the Lyon’s still form. She moved around Wolf and reached out, watching the shadow stretch away from her father’s fingertips and slide toward hers.
Wolf took a mouthful of the hem of her dress and jerked his head. If she’d been wearing her normal clothes, Aralorn would have caught her balance. As it was, the narrow skirt kept her legs too close together, and she fell backward on the cold floor again. This time she bruised her elbow.
“Plague it, Wolf—” she started, then she heard Correy’s exclamation.
Irrenna gasped soundlessly, and Aralorn turned to look. The shadow was back, rising over the top of the bier as if it had form and substance. Wolf crouched between her and the thing, his muzzle curled in a soundless snarl.
Aralorn pushed herself away from the shadow to give him more room. As she distanced herself, the shadow shrank, until it was nothing more than a small area under her father where the torchlight could not reach.
“I think,” said Aralorn thoughtfully, getting to her feet, “that we need to seal this room so no one comes in. There must be some plausible explanation we can give them. It’s a little late to start talking about quarantine for an unknown disease, but ...”
“Why didn’t that happen before?” asked Correy. “There have been any number of people who have been around Father’s ...” He hesitated a moment, staring at the bier, then he smiled, a great joyous smile. “... around Father after he was ensorcelled.”
“That’s a good question,” said Aralorn briskly, with a nod that acknowledged his capitulation without gloating over it. “It was dormant until I worked some magic when I first noticed Father wasn’t as dead as he appeared. The magic might have triggered it. Regardless of what it is and why it didn’t act sooner, it certainly seems to be active now.”
“I propose that we tell everyone as much as we know,” suggested Correy in a reasonable tone of voice. “We’re not Darranians to be frightened of a little magic—but wariness comes with the territory.”
Aralorn was nonplussed for an instant, then a slow smile lit her face. “I’ve gotten used to fabricating stories for everything—I’d forgotten that sometimes it is possible to tell everyone what’s really going on—it
good to be home.”