The old, blind woman is standing with horses at her side, waiting for me. It’s impossible to say how long she has been here, but there is no doubt that she has been expecting me. When she hears the icy snow crunch beneath my feet just outside of the cave, she speaks to me.
“Granddaughter, you have decided to follow your mother even though she has told you to stay behind.”
It is not a question, and I know the horses are for Ronan and me.
She passes me their reins, taking my hand when I reach for them. She is warm, but the finger she runs along my palm is rough. “Your mother should never have gone, but she was right to leave you behind. Ravenwood is a dangerous place to be now.”
“I’m stronger than my mother knows, and I’m not afraid.” My intention of sounding strong and self-assured as I pull away from her is muddled by a mix of overconfidence and indignation. I am not a child anymore, and it’s time I stopped sounding like one. Shame immediately follows my realization of this, but I do my best to recover.
“Thank you, Leanora,” I say to her, not yet ready to call this woman I don’t know Grandmother. “Your concern is appreciated, and your warning will be taken into consideration. When I arrive at Ravenwood, I will approach Wilhelm with caution.”
“It is not Wilhelm you should fear the most, though he is dangerous enough. Another awaits your arrival at Ravenwood.” She holds up what is left of Thayna’s cloak and says, “I saw it in the ashes you left behind; your fire burned a story I could not see before. There was no time to warn your mother. Her blindness is greater than mine now. Ravenwood is a trap. You should not follow her there.”
“What do you mean it’s a trap? The coven planned to kill me only hours ago, and now there is someone waiting for me in Ravenwood? I think your powers of sight are failing you, old woman.”
“You would be wise to respect your elders, child.” Her sweet tone is gone, and in its place, one with thundering severity, surprising of one so seemingly frail. It is a warning, not unlike my mother has always given me, that I have gone too far. But her tone softens again when she says, “On the eve of the Wolf Moon, Thayna came to me for a Flower of Endral. I did not know her reason for it then, but I know now.” She digs into a pocket on Thayna’s cloak and pulls out a vile of clear fluid with white petals floating inside. “It is true that she had planned to kill my beautiful Clara, but she never had any intention of killing you. You were far too valuable to her. You were to be sacrificed, but not in death. Thayna had other plans for you.”
She rolls the small bottle in her hand, feeling the glass on her fingertips and continues, “Thayna was going to use the Endral to make it look like you were dead. You and your mother were going to be taken to Ravenwood under the guise that your bodies were to be displayed there as a warning to those who break coven law. Only after you had arrived would the coven know that you were still alive and that they had been deceived. Only then would your fate be known to all.”
“What would my fate have been?” I ask.
“I can see no more of what would have been or what might still be. That is why you should not go.”
“You say that I shouldn’t go, but you bring me horses to carry me there. I don’t understand your contradictions.”
“I said you shouldn’t go to Ravenwood, and my counsel is sincere,” she says. “But I know you must go, so I offer you two of our best horses, made even faster and stronger with a bit of farren root and an old spell. They will carry you to Ravenwood, and with any luck, you will get there in time to inform your mother.”
“But what if Clara’s horses were fed the same magic roots? Wouldn’t she be traveling too quickly for us to catch her?” Ronan asks with a hint of sarcasm as he approaches us. With his long black coat and dark wavy hair, he blends into the night’s shadows, even against the glistening snow under the round Wolf Moon.
Leanora smiles, her cloudy eyes looking in the direction of his voice. “Don’t make me regret recommending you to my granddaughter,” she responds, amused by his boyish humor, and then she turns to me, her eyes wide. Even though he can hear her, she speaks as though her words are secret. “His heart beats again. It beats for you, and it will not stop even after you break it. There is great power in that, and that kind of power should never be taken lightly.”
Her implication is that I will without a doubt break his heart, but I have no intention of breaking anyone’s heart. I’m simply not that invested, at least I don’t think I am. Certainly, Ronan isn’t either. Having lived for so many years must have dulled his expectations a little, especially of love.
I assume he will make light of what Leanora has said as we mount our horses, but he doesn’t. There is no sign of humor in him, and when he finally speaks, he is distant.
“We will ride with the moon at our backs, and if we don’t stop, we should reach Ravenwood in a little over a day on horseback,” he says. “With any luck, your mother and the others will make camp, allowing us to catch up to them before they reach the gates.”
“They will not stop. I know my mother, and her determination is fierce. She will not stop until she reaches her destination, no matter how weary she might be.”
“Then we must ride fast. Have you ever ridden a horse before?”
“Yes. We haven’t had once since I was younger, but I should be fine. I was a good rider then, and it still feels natural to me now.”
“The witches of Ravenwood are born riders,” Leanora chimes in, patting my horse on the shoulder. “My granddaughter is no exception.”
She reaches until her hand finds and clasps my arm, and her pale eyes widen from a new awareness - something she sees. “When the time comes, you must choose wisely.”
There is no time to ask what she means. She slaps my horse on the rear and sends us racing into the night, darting around trees, and leaping over fallen branches.
The moon gleams through the shadows at times, allowing me to catch sight of Ronan riding nearby. Our pace is too fast for conversation, and we are navigating our horses on parallel paths with different obstacles. I have never been on a horse that can run this fast before, and it feels as though we are flying. The air is cold on my skin, and my hair beats wildly around me. If I were surrounded by stars with clouds beneath my feet, it would be like riding a great winged horse through the sky. I read about them once and imagined what it must be like to ride one. This had to be as close as I would ever get.
I am lost in the moment, forgetful of my purpose. I fail to hear Ronan shouting a warning of imminent danger until it is too late.
It feels like I’ve been kicked in the back and a shudder of pain reverberates throughout my body. I am no longer flying; I am falling.
The horse is now running without me. The sound of his hooves beating the soft ground fades into the distance. My ears are ringing, and my chest burns. I feel icy snow on my face and taste blood on my lips before a numbness takes over, and I slip into darkness.
“She awakens,” a man says.
Another man answers him, “Tell His Eminence this news and let him know that we will prepare her according to his command. When he gives the word, she will be presented as he wishes.”
I don’t recognize their voices. My head is spinning, and everything is blurry. My mouth is dry, and when I lick my lips, I can still taste blood on them, only now the blood is dry. Something feels damp and rough beneath me, and when my vision finally returns, the first thing I see clearly is a dirty gray stone floor that I struggle to lift myself from. A black, slick rope binds my hands together. When I try to free myself, it slithers like a snake up my arms and tightens its grip on me. I do my best to force the heat beneath my skin to the surface. The red and orange burns a labyrinth down my arms but fades into blue before vanishing completely. Several attempts yield nothing. It’s no use. Whatever magic has been used to constrain me is powerful and dark. It thins my blood and weakens my spirit.
I manage to stand, but I’m still dizzy and my legs feel weak. The only window is too high up to allow a view of the outside, but I can feel the cool air blowing through it. There is just enough light to see that I am in an empty room made of stone. The door is wood and iron with a small opening from which a man stares at me from the other side.
“Where am I?” I ask him, but he doesn’t answer. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
Clearly, he has no intention of providing answers or acknowledging me, but keys jostle and the door swings open. The man stands aside, and two women enter, dressed in dull gray wool that covers their heads and disguises their figures. I can’t tell if they are young or old. They keep their heads down and faces hidden. In their arms, they carry a garment of black silk with delicate silver embroidery.
“Who is that for?” I ask, and I jolt when the door slams shut behind them.
No one speaks, not to me nor to each other. With one touch of a woman’s finger, the black, slick rope releases my hands, and for a moment, I am relieved into thinking they have come to free me, but they have not. The rope separates into two and remains tightly wound around each of my arms, continuing to suppress my powers.
The women begin to undress me, and another enters with a large bowl of water and several strips of cloth. I can see the man at the door peering in at me, but the woman shuts the door after she enters and closes the small opening in it.
“Will you not help me?” I ask them. I know they are witches because they released the rope with one touch. They have magic. Certainly, they would not allow anyone to harm another witch - unless they are prisoners themselves. This thought seems most likely because they are too quiet, too diligent in their task. There is no joy in them. They must be here against their will as well.
“Free me,” I say to them with as much confidence as I can muster. “Free me, and I will return with a coven strong enough to save you from this place.”
Still, they say nothing. They work silently, rinsing my hair and rubbing my skin clean. The water is cold, and with no power to warm it, I shiver beneath their touch.
When they are done, they dress me in the beautiful silk gown and fasten the silver threads at the sleeves. One moves closer to tie the ribbons down the front. At first, she smells of burning applewood, but it’s just her robe. Beneath it, a wave of rotting flesh burns through my nostrils. My stomach turns and I try to hold my breath, but it’s too potent. I gasp and pull my hand away from the witch working to tie the silver threads. The need to cover my nose and mouth is powerful and instinctive, but then it occurs to me that this foul-smelling witch is close enough to grab. I reach out and pull the gray hood away from her face. The shocking sight of her stuns me, and the scream that emanates from her mouth in protest pierces my ears.
The other witches join her, gathering near her and raising their faces to meet mine. The sound from them is so shrill it feels as if the air is sucked out of the room. I see them all clearly now. Their skin is as gray as their robes, and their eyes are gone – nothing but dark emptiness behind old scars. Withered and parched, their lips curl back over their rotted teeth as their screams turn to hisses. One of them lunges at me but is swiftly thrown back by the man from behind the door.
“Get these old crones out of here!” another man shouts. “Put them back where they belong.”
His anger sends the men who followed him into the room scrambling. He is more important than the rest of them; it is evident in the way he commands those around him. He stands taller and looks stronger. Thick leather bands lace around his wrists and arms, and he wears armor over his chest embossed with the crest of a bear claw at the center.
As the women are escorted out, he hovers over them and growls, “His Eminence will hear of what you have done. And have no doubt, you will pay for it.”
The witches cower beneath him, not one attempting to hex him, to bind him in place and sew his mouth shut. I know this is possible. My mother has always been more fearful of witches than warlocks. And there are three of them! Yet, they do nothing. I am ashamed for them.
The man who stood behind the door approaches. “Lord Warrick, shall I take the girl to see His Eminence now?”
The large man in the bear armor shakes his head. “You will do no such thing. You will stay here and look after the others. I will take her. Unless you are notified otherwise, she is no longer of your concern.”
Years of reading books have exposed me to titles of rank and nobility, but I thought only humans used them. And Lord Warrick is no human. With one wave of his finger, my hands are forced back together, and the black, slick rope unites again to restrict my freedom of movement.
“Come with me,” he says to me. The change in his tone is surprising. He is gentle and patient as he coaxes me out the door, and it gives me hope that he may have answers to my questions.
I ask him, “Where am I? What will you do with me?”
He smiles down at me and says with a smirk, “You, daughter of the great Clara of Ravenwood and Silas, son of Lilith, are in Ravenwood, and you have been brought here to marry the heir to the Borthen Clan.”
I’m confused and stammer incoherently, trying to make sense of it all, but the rope feels like ice on my arms, and my head feels light again. The corridor is long and dark. I trip and stumble, but Lord Warrick catches me. His eyes are kind, and his touch is gentle.
“Help me to escape,” I blurt out. “Free my hands and allow me to get away, or at least allow me to defend myself. Help me do this, I beg of you.”
I hate that I’m begging, but I see no other way. Witches and warlocks don’t marry. They don’t have titles. They don’t behave this way at all. What has happened to our kind in my mother’s absence?
When he pauses and sighs heavily, a sense of relief runs through me. I’ve been successful in convincing him to let me go. Now, I just need to find out what happened to Ronan and where I can find my mother.
“Thank you,” I say, but before I have a chance to say another word, he grabs me by the hair and forces his mouth on mine. His lips are cold and his tongue too wet.
“Stupid girl,” he says, still holding me within inches of his face. “I’m not going to forfeit my own life by letting you go. If you weren’t promised to my future king, I would have already had you for myself, many times over. Now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your mouth shut. Before this day is done, you’ll belong to Malin.”
I feel betrayed. I decide to return his threat. “And if Malin, this so-called future King of Ravenwood, finds out you have kissed his future queen; you will certainly die for it.”
“Aye, that is the case. But trust me, keeping me alive might be the only chance your mother and the others have. And one day, I just might be your only chance as well.”
I hate everything about him, from the way he swaggers beside me to how he shifts so rapidly from kindness to cruelty. Even though he gives me hope that my mother is alive and claims to hold her fate in his hands, I can think of nothing I’d like more than to kill him.