Hasuk towered over her and Morana blinked into consciousness. Her makeshift pallet shifted as she moved the furs aside and stood, stretching. The assassin winced as her spine realigned and cracked into shape and crumpled white fabric fell to the floor, as the assassin's nightgown seem to expand with the standing of its occupant. Charisse was a tangle of curls and white cotton and looked at Morana sleepily.
A bucket clanged harshly down the slowly lightening walkway, as
Aala spilt milk on the dusty floorboards. "Mama," she whispered,
much more alert than the night before and shredding her mother's
just-woken reverie, "A full pail, and more! Have you got the
second bucket? There's so much, mama!"
Charisse smiled at the grin spreading across her daughter's face. "Here, little one," she whispered as she wrenched a dented bucket from next to the pump, "Run along."
"Breakfast!" Charisse exclaimed, scooping up some of the fresh milk and pouring it into a wooden tumbler, "Fruits and grains are all I have to offer, I'm sorry." Dried apricots and slices of apple filled a wooden bowl, and Morana sat down. She stopped. "You're not eating?"
"Better my guests eat than me, Morana. Go on." Charisse smiled.
"I cannot," Morana said, "Besides I should move. I must get to Rowle, and then home. The Selection rites start soon."
Charisse started to protest, but Morana thanked her and stood, leaving the bowl and milk on the table. "My clothes, please."
The assassin once more ducked behind the divider as Charisse tossed her clothes over it. She stepped out again, and the older woman hung Morana's cloak over the assassin's shoulders. "Thank you again, Charisse. Your hospitality outweighs the combined efforts of the city's inns." Charisse's cheeks blossomed pink, and she bowed meekly.
The air seemed cleaner for the previous day's rain, grass glistening in its full verdancy. Morana breathed the cleanliness and stepped out of the door. The sun was jumping impishly over tiny puddles, and the trees whispered amongst themselves as water fell to the ground. The air caught in Morana's throat as she walked and she swallowed gently. Hasuk bounded ahead, and in her refreshed state, the assassin decided against cat form for now.
Travel was once more peaceful. The threat of Dewin's squalid hut
and shroud of pipe smoke no longer loomed before her; only the
idea of home and the presence of her sister and a doting Pennie
plagued her now. Hasuk laughed at her thoughts, and she chased
"Shut up, hound. It isn't right for you to laugh."
"I'll be sure not to laugh while you suffer a woman's plight, for fear of your already quick temper and claws, cat. But for now, I am free to laugh at whom I choose."
The assassin scowled at him, and they walked together, into the glistening greenery.
* * *
Finian prowled the streets of Rowle, seeking the presence of familiars. His blood magic didn't allow him to sense power, but another animal presence was a possibility. He slunk around corners, masking his face behind his cowl's shadow. A mouse skittered around a puddle, and the Sappanth snarled at it, but the creature was not ethereal. Damn these witches, Finian thought, they're leaving no trace but this damned misery that seems to have taken over. Rowle smelled of the damp, miserable shadow that whispered like icy breath around the stone walls.
A passer-by nodded at Finian's cloaked figure, and his hood
billowed as he responded in kind. It was frustrating, the
inconsequence of everything. His concluding season as Abidan
Oracle would have ended superbly with the mounting of a coven's
heads on steel pikes as his final official act. But alas, there
was no sign of the witches. Two boys were roughhousing at the end
of the street, and the Oracle watched as one tumbled, gashing his
face on a protruding rock.
"You wounded me! I'm telling mama!"
"You tried to injure me first, and missed! You tripped yourself, Kibron."
"I tripped over you!" Kibron retorted.
"Well… you're… you're…" the child's voice reduced to a whisper, "… a witchson!"
Finian's ears pricked. A witchson, the Oracle mused,
that boy knows the coven. He spun on his heels and
hurried his way along the musty streets. The same mouse squeaked
in terror, and scurried down a drain. The Oracle was too rushed
to notice the little figure that trailed him. At the great doors
of the holy house, he turned to check his surroundings, and each
person merged into one another in a busy, everyday way. Nodding,
Finian burst once more through the heavy doors, and left all
poise and grace on the doorstep. He took the stairs three at a
time, leaping, his lion side bearing him to his destination as
fast as was possible.
"Master?" Roisin's voice questioned after him, but her query was lost in beastly speed. Exploding through the high priest's door, Finian stumbled, breathless. The lion side of him receded once more and he growled as his claws were velveted. Emma raised her eyebrows. Jace looked slightly perplexed, and Raphael's cheeks went white as snow.
"Explain." Emma demanded, eyebrows still a fair way above their usual position.
"Yes, explain." Jace said, although he was more curious than challenging.
"The children," Finian coughed, "the children… they know the shadow. Citizens of Rowle are…" he spat the next word "… involved in the coven."
* * *
The sun rose gleefully into the crisp air, and Morana soaked up the almost warmth it offered. Hasuk's mottled coat left him almost perfectly hidden amongst the dappled shadows of the whispering trees. Birds twittered cheerfully as the sun meandered across the sky, but otherwise nature made little noise.
"It's too quiet," Hasuk noted, "Do you feel that,
"I feel it."
The quiet was shattered as a scream punctuated the morning. Assassin and boarhound shared the same thought, wheeling around. Hasuk bounded ahead, and turned to look at Morana. "Assassin, take feline form. I'll carry you."
Morana nodded agreement, and together they bounded back along the street.
The little house was smouldering. The scene reeked of burnt hair
and dark magic, and Morana fell to her knees, having taken human
form when Hasuk placed her down. A body was slumped over the
remains of the table and blood pooled on the ground, dribbling
grotesquely from Charisse' limp mouth; Morana turned away,
swallowing bile. Hasuk padded towards the corpse, flipping it
over and exposing her face and torso. Broken ribs hung from
strands of muscle and Charisse' chest cavity lay open… and
"They exploded her heart." Morana said simply.
"Who?" Hasuk asked, "There was no one here to have done such damage."
"This is shadowcraft, Hasuk. Witches have many means of travelling."
"Shadowcraft? But, huntress, the covens were eliminated years ago. Finian stamped them out."
"And Finian is about to return to life as it was fifteen years ago, Hasuk. The Selection is fast approaching, and they're seizing their chance. No potential Oracle has the experience that Finian had; there has been no true battle since Dolan."
Morana looked at Charisse' wilted body and shook her head, sorrow
filling her heart. Hasuk sighed.
"Where is Aala!?" the assassin exclaimed, bursting to life after her saddened silence. Hasuk looked at her and hope once more filled their faces. The boarhound howled. Morana called the child's name, met only by her own echo. The surrounding hills seemed to mourn with them, hollow emptiness settling over the rolling vales. Hope began to fade once more, and the panic dimmed as quickly as it swelled. "It's hopeless," Morana sighed, "the child is gone, if not hanging by her entrails in some nearby tree. We arrived too late, hound."
"Why are you so affected by this, huntress? Neither were close to your heart."
"No child deserves to be taken by shadow, nor a kind soul like Charisse. When I bring death, I bring it honestly, not hiding behind the shimmering façade of sorcery that these shadow… vermin do."
Falling to all fours, and feeling the fur glide back along her body, Morana arched her back and hissed.