Focus, Robyn. Focus. Breathe in, breathe out . . .
My eyes were pointed straight ahead, my heartbeat steady. Without moving an inch or taking my attention from my target, I opened up my senses and scrutinized my surroundings. Far above me, the sunlight trickled in between the newly unfurled beech tree leaves, warming my skin and hair. I took another deep breath, gathering in the scent of clean earth, fresh spring rain, and flower petals ready to burst free of their confines. The subtle sounds of birds and other forest creatures going about their daily chores only added to the magic of the Weald, and this mild bustle helped ease me into my trance.
Alright, it wasn’t really a trance. Just an exercise Enorah had taught me to help find my glamour and encourage it to work with me: to take note of everything around me, then set it off to the side so I didn’t have to worry about any outside distractions. I’d also discovered that it came in handy while zeroing in on a target some fifty yards away.
As I calmed my mind, the index finger of my right hand pressed gently against the trigger of the crossbow held up to my shoulder. I narrowed my gaze, focusing completely on the farthest target away, and released one final breath slowly through my nose. Just as I was about to increase the pressure on the trigger, something came to rest on my shoulder. I started a little, but didn’t let the bolt fly free. That was one of the earliest lessons Enorah and the other archers had taught me: fierce control. Never release an arrow unless you had full control of every step leading up to the exact moment it left the bowstring behind.
The tension at being surprised, however, remained. That is, until familiar fingers brushed against the side of my neck. The tightness in my muscles drained away and I brought the crossbow down to rest against my thigh. Even without turning around to see who it was, I recognized Devlin’s touch. I smiled softly and leaned into him, temporarily forgetting my practice and instead relishing the smooth caress of his hands over my skin. He bent and pressed his mouth to my neck, whispering endearments in the language of Eilé as he worked his way up to my ear.
“How are your exercises going this morning?”
Well, there went what tiny bit of concentration I’d been clinging onto for dear life. I released a small sigh and turned my head so that I could look up into his eyes. Then, grinning, I returned my focus to the target and took aim once again, pulling the trigger with confidence. The small bolt flew through the air, slamming into the painted target mere inches from the bull’s eye.
“My aim is getting better,” I chirped, patting the bow, which I had christened Venom.
The crossbow had been a gift from Devlin, as well as Enorah.
“I have a feeling you’ll take well to this,” the tall Faelorehn woman had said upon presenting me with the bow several weeks ago.
She’d been right. I was still struggling with knife and sword fighting, having only been in Eilé for a few months, but as soon as I picked up a crossbow and took aim, I knew I’d found my calling. And at least this way I could contribute something to the Wildren of the Weald.
I turned and laced my fingers together at the small of Devlin’s back. Pressing my cheek against his chest, I took long, deep breaths, listening to his heartbeat and finding comfort in his scent.
“Yes, this aspect of my training is going very well, but my glamour’s still being stubborn.”
“Much like its mistress?” he murmured against my hair.
I pulled away just enough to punch him lightly in the stomach. Ow. Certainly that hurt me more than him. Devlin chuckled and pulled me back into a comfortable embrace.
“I don’t appreciate your teasing,” I grumbled.
“But it is so much fun to rile you up.” He stepped away from me and gently took my face in his hands. “You are so adorable when you’re irritated.”
Adorable? Me?! I glowered at him. “How many times have I asked you not to use that word when describing me?”
Devlin shrugged. “I can’t remember. Would you prefer I use the term charming? Or cute? Or delectable?”
Ugh, could he get any sappier? He must have noticed the look of abject horror on my face because in the next second, Devlin ducked his head and nipped me on the nose.
“I’ll try to use more masculine words next time. How about robust, dashing, or gallant?”
And that just slapped the exasperation right out of me. My shoulders started to shake with withheld laughter. “Oh, that’s enough! Someone will hear you and report back to Enorah or Rhyne!”
Enorah, the fearless leader of the Wildren, would more than likely tease the both of us to no end about our mutual infatuation, and at the worst possible times, too. I could only imagine what would happen if she were to fling those very terms back at me in the middle of a sparring lesson just to throw me off my guard. I could picture her now, standing on the sidelines, her eyes gleaming with mischief, as she described my ‘delectable’ use of the sword, or the ‘robust’ way I moved around my opponent. Ugh. Back in the mortal world, I had been the one to embarrass my friends without the slightest hint of shame. Enorah had a talent of using my own medicine against me, and doing so with flying colors. And Rhyne would be just as bad.
The sudden thought of Devlin’s little brother quickly brought my mirth to an end. I had been nervous about meeting Rhyne, but he had been everything I’d expected him to be: a mischievous younger version of Devlin who not only ribbed his older brother every chance he got, but adored him above everyone else. To him, Devlin was the father he never had, his only family in the world. I had liked him immediately.
Although he had been very accepting of our relationship in the beginning, I had been getting a strange vibe from Rhyne of late, as if he was afraid I’d take his big brother away from him. After all, I was the reason Devlin failed to capture the Daramorr, and the reason the two of them had lost their chance at having their own home. Diarnan Castle was to be Devlin’s reward from the high queen Danua for capturing the Morrigan’s devotee, Mikael, but because of my interference, he had fallen short of his goal.
Biting my lip, I removed myself from Devlin’s embrace and stepped back. Sometimes I worried about Rhyne. I suspected that even though he was clearly happy for Devlin and me, something about seeing us together dampened a bit of his spark. There was a subtle sadness to the looks he cast our way when he thought I wasn’t paying attention, but I didn’t dare bring it up. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate his brother’s girlfriend asking him about the emotions he clearly wanted to keep to himself.
I couldn’t let any of it bother me now, however, and I really needn’t worry about him or Enorah. Both of them were gone from the Weald for the time being, anyway. Ten days ago, Enorah had received a summons from Queen Danua, and Rhyne had offered to go with her. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t because of me and Devlin, but I had a feeling that our relationship had something to do with it.
“Is your glamour at least showing itself to you?” Devlin asked, breaking into my thoughts.
I sighed heavily and gathered up Venom and my spare bolts. Devlin walked with me to the target to retrieve the rest, and I shrugged.
“In all honesty? I don’t know,” I admitted. “Sometimes I’ll get these strange tingling sensations, in my fingers and toes. But sometimes the prickling shows up in the most random places, like behind my knee or in the middle of my back. I think it’s my glamour trying to work itself free, but then it disappears as quickly as it arrives.”
Devlin pursed his lips and nodded. “Enorah told me that when Meghan first came to the Otherworld it was the same for her.”
I smiled at the mention of Meghan’s name. Meghan was my best friend from back home, and about four years ago, she discovered she was Faelorehn and the daughter of Eilé’s high queen. Now she was married to Cade MacRoich, a Faelorehn man who had been the hottest guy I’d ever seen (until I’d met Devlin, of course), and the two of them lived in a castle like a fairy prince and princess. Except this fairy princess wielded her wealth of magic like a great battle axe and had obliterated the Morrigan in a battle worthy of any Celtic legend.
We reached the moldering hay bale and Devlin and I started plucking the bolts free of the straw. They were fashioned of rowan, the most effective wood against the faelah, the reanimated nightmares the Morrigan liked to use as her minions. Fortunately, the goddess was no longer around to create more, but that didn’t mean some hadn’t been left behind after her demise.
“So I should stop worrying about my absent magic, then?” I asked Devlin as we headed back toward the trail that would lead us to the small village of the Wildren.
He nodded and the corner of his mouth quirked up in a half grin. He reached out an arm and pulled me closer to his side. I accepted his partial embrace and together we strolled along, soaking up the warmth of the late morning sun and breathing in the fresh, clean air of the Weald. It was early April and the green of the forest was finally starting to emerge after winter’s long visit. Small birds, chattering cheerfully and keeping busy with nest building, darted from one twig to another. The many brooks and streams of the forest flowed free, the icy edges of their banks beginning to thaw. And finally, the sun was beginning to cut through the constant chill that often lingered in the air. Despite the overall joy and peace of the bright, sunny day, and being nestled close to Devlin, I could feel my frustration building up again. My Lorehnin glamour was a mystery to all of us, and that fact alone had me on edge more often than not.
Once, I had managed to get my magic to crackle invisibly along my skin, but that was only when Devlin had fed some of his own glamour to me. When I had made the decision to overturn my life and give up everything I’d worked for in the mortal world in exchange for a new beginning in the Otherworld, I was counting on my glamour being there for me in case any more Daramorr decided to carve me up like a pumpkin.
I shuddered as memories I would just as soon forget surfaced to my mind. At the very beginning of the year, I had been kidnapped by a devotee to the Morrigan and brought to Eilé. The Daramorr, Mikael, and his sister Moira had tried to kill me and steal my magic. They had been very close to succeeding, but Devlin had arrived just in time to thwart them. Too bad they managed to scurry off with a rather sizeable portion of my Lorehnin magic. Now I was starting to wonder if they’d taken all of it and left nothing behind.
“Don’t fret,” Devlin told me, rubbing his hand up my side. “Your magic just needs time to heal, and time to get used to being back in Eilé.”
Oh. I must have been thinking out loud again. Or he had grown far too good at reading my emotions.
Devlin took my hand and lifted it to his mouth to press a kiss there. His unwavering support and affection was a balm to my tattered soul. Not only had I discovered I was Lorehnin (someone of mortal and Faelorehn blood) in the worst possible way, but four months ago my foster parents had severed the last connection I’d had with them, making me an orphan once again. Okay, technically I was an adult, but it still hurt to have the only parents I’d ever known declare they couldn’t accept me for who I was. And this had happened before they knew I was Lorehnin. All in all, it had been a very trying year and having Devlin, and now Enorah, Rhyne, and all the Wildren of the Weald, willing to welcome me into their home had been a blessing.
And tomorrow morning, I reminded myself, you will be leaving to go to the Amsihr Mountains where you may or may not find your blood relatives.
I was incredibly nervous about the prospect of tracking down my family, but Devlin had promised we would stop by Luathara Castle on the way and visit with Meghan and Cade. I could not wait see Meghan again. I had written her a letter about a month after moving to the Weald with Devlin, and her response had been such fun to read. She’d stated enthusiastically that she didn’t believe me, and that she would murder me if I was playing a prank on her. The rest of the letter was a long list of questions: how could I be half Faelorehn? What was Devlin like? Where was I living? How did I like Eilé? And, most importantly of all, she wanted to know why I hadn’t come to visit her yet. The letter I’d sent out after that one assured her that Devlin and I would be making a trip to Luathara very soon. And that day had finally come.
Shaking my head, I returned my thoughts to the conversation Devlin and I had been having earlier.
“I can feel my glamour, I just can’t picture it too well,” I admitted with a shrug. “It’s almost as if the magic in me is trapped inside an egg. I can detect it inside its shell, but I have no idea what it looks like.”
Devlin nodded and pursed his lips, his hands resting casually on his hips. “Glamour can be like that, especially with someone who grew up in the mortal world.”
I narrowed my eyes and released a sharp breath through my nose. If my glamour was as stubborn as I was, it might be a century before it graced us with its presence. Or, a less optimistic part of me whispered into my mind, your suspicions could be right after all and Mikael and his horrid sister are now basking in the glow of magic that was once yours.
An image of the two of them, in all their resplendent Faelorehn beauty, dancing around in a cave as my electric violet magic rained down on them, flashed through my mind. Fierce anger pierced my heart and I gritted my teeth. The stupid scene lingered, so I used my skills of imagination to envision a giant scorpion emerging from the depths of the cave to slice them in half with its pincers. As horrific as the image was, it made me feel a little bit better.
Devlin caught sight of my face and gave me one of his disarming smiles and said, “Don’t give up on it just yet.”
He reached out a hand and I accepted it, reveling in the feel of his warm, long fingers lacing with mine. I shut my eyes and took a deep breath, the worry melting away under the warmth of the early spring sunlight. We walked in silence the rest of the way back to the small village of the Wildren, neither one of us needing to talk as we let the natural beauty of Eilé occupy our senses.
Before long, the trail broke away from the crowded trees and blooming underbrush, and spilled out into a spacious meadow of sorts with a few large beech trees standing here and there like living watch towers. The village of the Wildren itself was composed of several rustic cabins consisting of natural stone or logs topped with tightly-woven, thatched roofs. Many of the roofs were dotted with green patches of sod or moss. Some of the houses were single-storied units, a few others standing a bit taller, suggesting a lofted bedroom above the first floor. They all sported chimneys, for the Otherworld grew very cold in the winter. I hadn’t lived in the Weald for very long, but since arriving in mid-February, I had woken to find the ground dusted with snow at least three times.
Today, although still somewhat chilly with winter’s remnants, held a brightness to it that promised warmer days ahead. Devlin and I made our way between the clusters of cabins, pausing every now and then to make space for those moving a lot quicker than us. A variety of children, ranging in age from early toddler years to late teens, scurried about doing their daily chores or hurrying off to their mid-morning lessons. I smiled, despite the nagging worry about my magic. One thing I’d learned for certain in the past several weeks was that Enorah was a gift from the Celtic gods. Not only did she take all these stray children in, no questions asked, but she insisted on giving each child that came into her care an education in both academics and defense. The Otherworld was a dangerous place and she wanted to make sure they were prepared should they choose to leave the Weald when they reached adulthood.
Some of the youngest ones, not much older than five if that, sat around in a circle as an adult read to them from an ancient, leather-bound book. In one open patch of land, the leaves had been swept clean and some more children, these ones a little older, were busily scratching numbers into the dirt as their teacher called out instructions. Around the communal fire pit a great cauldron hung suspended over a pile of dry wood. An older woman, probably Lorehnin like Devlin and me, was showing five teenagers how to properly prepare the midday meal, while two others worked diligently to get the fire lit. Down by the creek, another group was casting lines into the rushing water in the hopes of catching a fish or two. Beyond the edge of the village, where a large clearing stretched beyond the other side of the stream, several older children were trying their luck with archery.
I grimaced when I watched one misfire and receive a rope burn on his arm. I knew how he felt. The longbow and I were not on good terms. I had received my fair share of rope burns, and being as short as I was, the longbow wasn’t the best weapon for me. After my fifth attempt at the sport, Enorah had taken pity on me and given me the crossbow to try out. It had been love at first sight, and anytime I wasn’t studying about the history and social structure of Eilé, or learning how to defend myself against the magical beasts and beings of the Otherworld, I was over at one of the archery ranges, practicing with Venom.
“Are you all packed for tomorrow?” I asked Devlin as we took a left and headed toward our own cabin, leaving the activity in the village center behind.
There were only a handful of cottages that weren’t clustered together with the others. Enorah and a few of the other adults had their own, private lodges, and when Devlin had returned with me, she had been kind enough to gift us our own place. Nestled against the small, rocky hillside that sat on the other side of a shallow creek, and spaced a comfortable distance from its neighbors, the cottage I shared with Devlin was a step up from my apartment in San Luis Obispo. The floor plan was an open one, with the common room, kitchen, pantry, and a small bathroom downstairs. The bathroom was tiny, but functioned almost the same as those in the mortal world did, so I couldn’t complain. A lofted bedroom upstairs completed our cozy space, and the many windows let in plenty of outside light. The furnishings were simple as well, and even though it wasn’t the best place for entertaining, I absolutely loved it.
“Yes, but I noticed you still haven’t packed.”
Devlin’s voice interrupted my thoughts once again, and I smiled with sweet wickedness up at him, fluttering my eyelashes demurely. I was by no means a damsel in distress, but it was fun to play with Devlin. To my slight dismay, however, he knew better than to fall for my attempts at innocent seduction. Curse him.
“Are my charms not working on you?” I queried meekly when he studied me with an unaffected air.
“Not in the least,” he quipped, the brightness in his blue eyes suggesting otherwise.
I sighed dramatically and took several steps forward, moving closer to our cabin. Over my shoulder I said, “I guess I’ll have to practice some more on Keirney and Donnel, then. They seemed very eager to help me the last time.”
The smug look on Devlin’s face disappeared in a flash. Without warning, he struck, his hand shooting out to grab me. Fortunately, I had put enough distance between us to dart out of reach just in time. Laughing, I bolted for the door to our cabin, throwing it open and sprinting inside before Devlin could stop me.
I placed Venom and the extra crossbow bolts in the corner as gently as possible, but that moment of pause gave Devlin enough time to catch up. The air whooshed from my lungs in a startled gasp as he wrapped both arms around me, scooping me up against his chest. I kicked my feet, not intending to hurt him but hoping to encourage him to put me down. I squealed in horrified surprise as the two of us began falling backward. Expecting Devlin to hit the floor, I shut my eyes and waited for the impact. Instead, I felt him bounce against something soft. I stilled when I realized he had collapsed into the love seat. His grip, which had been as unyielding as a vice, melted slowly into a fierce embrace. Both of us were breathing harder than we should have been, and soon Devlin’s hands were seeking out the skin beneath my shirt. Oh no. None of that.
I squirmed away and Devlin let me go. I ended up sitting across his lap, my hands pressed against his chest. I wasn’t trying to escape, not really, but I couldn’t have him taking advantage of my momentary weakness, either. Not if I wanted to keep my wits about me. I made myself comfortable, sinking further into his essence and pressing my cheek against his chest so that his chin rested on the top of my head. There. Hopefully sitting here for a while would cool both of us down.
“Now, are you satisfied? Or do I have to have words with Keirney and Donnel?” he asked, his voice rumbling in his chest.
I smiled, and even though he couldn’t see it, I was certain it rang clear in my voice. “Oh, no. You don’t have to worry about them.”
Tilting my head so that I could get a better look at him, I continued, “You do realize that Donnel is ten, and Keirney is eight, don’t you?”
Devlin’s eyes narrowed, but the humor remained. “They may be young now, but in ten years or so it will be an entirely different story.”
I sat up and shoved a hand against Devlin’s shoulder. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I snorted.
“They’re like my little adopted cousins. And besides, I’ve got you. Why would I want anybody else?”
The look Devlin gave me made my heart melt. Biting my bottom lip, I snuggled up against him once again. Although I had always portrayed myself as being rough around the edges and wholly independent, it wasn’t entirely true. My relationship with my foster parents had always been touch and go, and when my father had written to me in college to inform me that he and my mother no longer wanted anything to do with me, I had kind of let that fierce façade crumble a little. I didn’t want to admit it, but part of me was still pretty emotionally disturbed from their rejection, and Devlin had been there to fill that hole. I didn’t know what terrified me more: knowing that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was, or wondering if maybe the reason I loved Devlin so much was because he had been there, in the right place at the right time, when I really needed a friend.
I gritted my teeth at that last thought. What I felt for Devlin was genuine. He was fierce and passionate in his own right, and even if my life hadn’t taken such a rocky turn; even if my foster parents had loved me as much as any parent should, I still would have fallen for him. And I was strong, despite my weaknesses. I had survived a botched sacrifice, and despite my fears and misgivings, I had embraced my feelings toward Devlin and had come to live in Eilé with him. Every day that passed, I grew stronger and better at being a young Lorehnin woman in the Otherworld, despite my mortal world upbringing. And I could have done it with or without Devlin by my side. But it was oh-so-nice to have his love and support.
“Hey now,” Devlin murmured, shifting me on his lap so that he could look into my eyes. “No dark thoughts.”
My smile was weaker this time, but I shook my head. The fact that he could read me so well was proof we made a great team. Time to snap out of my melancholy.
“Dark thoughts gone,” I promised, holding up my right hand.
“Good,” he said. “We don’t want Meghan and Cade to think you hate it here.”
That made me laugh and reminded me that I still had to finish packing. Groaning, I reluctantly pushed away from Devlin and headed toward the stairs to our bedroom.
Upstairs, several articles of clothing, both from home and from Eilé, lay strewn across the bed like discarded corn husks. The wooden steps creaked and soon I felt Devlin’s presence behind me. My arms were crossed loosely over my chest and I turned to glance back at him.
“I’m still not sure what to bring. Will it be cold at Luathara?”
The nights in the Weald had been exceptionally chilly, and winter still hung in the air for most days, but I had no idea if Meghan’s castle would be the same.
“It shouldn’t be too different from the climate here in the Weald, but the mountains will most likely be snowcapped and cold,” he admitted as he stepped forward to help me pick out the appropriate attire.
The two of us were only bringing one pack each, since we planned on walking for most of the trip. The idea was both thrilling and horrifying to me. It felt like we were going on some grand adventure found only in the epic fantasy novels I’d read over the years. Part of me couldn’t wait to discover the Otherworld in this way, but another part was extremely cautious. I had seen what monstrosities Eilé could produce, and knowing that I’d be traipsing around in the land of faelah and evil wizards who employed the Morrigan’s dark magic made me want to curl up in a ball and hide under our bed for a week or two.
But I couldn’t let myself dwell on that. The world I lived in now was dangerous, and although I was still very much a novice with regards to my crossbow and self-defense lessons, I’d picked up a lot of new skills since leaving my old life behind. The visit with Meghan and Cade would be well worth the risk of a possible faelah encounter, and the anticipation of seeing my best friend again, in her new home in Eilé, was enough to burn away the last of my apprehension.
“Well in that case, I’ll pack a few pairs of jeans, some T-shirts and a few sweatshirts.”
I gently shoved Devlin out of the way and started picking from my pile of clothes. I was able to fit five T-shirts, two of them with long sleeves, three pairs of jeans and a pair of shorts, along with a set of pajamas, into the pack with my spare underwear and socks underneath. On the very top I placed a heavy hooded sweatshirt, just barely getting the straps buckled to keep it all in place.
When I turned around I found Devlin grinning.
“Will you ever wear any of our clothing?” he wondered aloud.
I crossed my arms and wrinkled my nose at him. “I do wear your clothing. But my old clothes will take up less room in my bag.”
He only shook his head, his lips curving into that lopsided grin I loved so much, then stepped forward and pulled me into his arms again. This time I tilted my head up to his, silently asking for his kiss. He didn’t disappoint me and I responded back just as enthusiastically.
“We’ll never be ready to leave in the morning if you keep this up,” he murmured, his voice rough and low. The very sound of it sent shivers down my spine.
“Oh, what’s the rush anyway?” I returned, kissing him again, this time much more thoroughly.
Somehow, Devlin was able to escape my attempts at seduction and slipped away to help the others with some chores he’d promised to attend to before our departure in the morning.
Once alone, I got back to the dismal task of filling all the pockets on my pack with the little things we’d need for our journey. Just to please Devlin, I added a skirt, blouse, and the bodice Enorah had given me when I had first arrived in Eilé to the lot, squeezing it into the large pocket on the front of the pack. After checking, and double-checking that I had everything I would need, I carefully folded the remaining clothes and returned them to the large chest on my side of the bed.
Downstairs, the cabin was empty and growing brighter as the sun crested the sky. Since Devlin would be busy the rest of the day helping with patching roofs, mending fences, and other such chores, I decided to make use of the time by tidying the cabin and getting dinner started. We would be gone for the gods knew how long, and I didn’t want to tempt any vermin into breaking in while we were away.
Once the kitchen and living room were free of crumbs and clutter, and the stew was bubbling on a pot suspended over the small fire place in the kitchen, I curled up in one of the stuffed chairs beside the window and picked up the book I had started reading a few days before. The tome was a collection of children’s tales of Eilé, miraculously written in English, and despite their simple plots, I found myself enjoying them. As my eyes traveled over the pages, reading about fantastical creatures, both evil and benign, I wondered how many of them were real and living in this magical world I had been introduced to. Perhaps tomorrow, and the days to come, I’d get to see some of these dangerous and benevolent things. To my delight, the thought left me smiling and eager to begin our journey.