Tag Archives: Irish Mythology

Love Talk

In the process of researching types of sidhe to play with in the Eight Kingdoms, I’ve encountered loads of interesting and obnoxious beings. Currently the ones I’m having the most fun with are the gancanagh – love talkers, it means, male fae who produce an irresistible attraction and addiction in mortals.

All it takes is one touch, and sometimes just to be in their presence for too long. Then a hapless human is infatuated, and doomed to be left heartbroken by their immortal lover when they grow bored and decide to move on to another mortal.

It’s difficult to find actual folklore about the gancanagh, as in legends with the specific names of people and places. When you look up faoladh, for instance, you’ll find dozens of references to the wolves of Ossory, the curse of Saint Patrick, and so on and so on (there will be so on, just wait ‘til I get ranting on in the next post).  Gancanagh, though….my grandmother used to warn me that if a boy was too good to be true, he probably was, and might be gancanagh – but she never had any stories to tell about them, the way she did about the Wild Hunt or the ways to escape the sidhe if you were trapped. (Eat no food, drink no drink, remember the charm of nine and pray!)

Having grown older and done the research, of course, I now wonder if maybe the stories just aren’t recorded or as well known because they’d have to be awfully raunchy. Let’s be honest here – what we’re talking about is a fae with all the cunning and beauty of the sidhe, but the intentions of an incubus (at least where it counts.) Not exactly bedtime-story-gee-thanks-grandma material!

The interesting part for me was the differences that make the gancanagh unique, rather than the things that are obviously similar, to other such seductive immortal beings. The gancanagh not only seek out mortals to seduce, but the ones they find have no choice but to give in. Touching one of them just once – a kiss, a caress, to hold their hand – is enough to invoke the ultimate addiction. Their skin secretes a substance described variously as a golden dust, or powder (pixie dust, anyone?), which completely ensnares any mortal unfortunate to come into contact with it.

Unfortunate, because while the gancanagh are supposedly fantastic lovers, the mythology suggests that any other kind of addiction would be nothing compared to this. Deprived of the gancanagh after the fae grows bored, the mortal who has been touched by a gancanagh will suffer the most terrible withdrawal.

They may go mad, accuse friends, family, or strangers of stealing their sidhe lover, attack those they’ve accused or even murder them. Those afflicted might also suffer from a less violent lovesickness, refuse to eat or drink, or wander the woods searching for their lost lover – but in the end, most simply die from the withdrawal itself.

If you want to know more about gancanagh, the best way is probably to see one in action. Check out Undone, and the exclusive excerpts at each stop of my Blog Tour!

Lost Bite

To celebrate the upcoming blog tour accompanying its full release, enjoy this exclusive Bite of Undone!

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Tighe wandered through Summer, and the wood wound a path to nowhere, because that was his desire. Nowhere was a lake he didn’t know, a quiet river and the warm sun on the green grass beckoning him forward. He lay there, drowsing by the water, and let the silence and the sun’s reflection soothe his new and not unexpected heartbreak.

It was his own fault. Maybe by now he should have learned to look away, close his eyes, not listen when someone said things he couldn’t bear. He should have learned to live with the lie, but it was the same every time. He couldn’t do it, and now here he was again.

He wasn’t focused on Nuala. She would fade fast enough from memory, just like the others who’d been in her place in the past. But the things he missed when he was alone—a warm companion, someone to hold and hold him, pleasure and teasing and conversation… His thoughts turned to those things one at a time, then all at once. Each one was its own small torment.

More than all other things, he hated to be alone, unless he was working. There were only so many hours he could spend in his workshop, and what then?

“What now?” He closed his eyes and sighed. Maybe because of the sun, maybe because of the silence that came to him on the breeze, Tighe fell asleep there by the water, and only woke to the sound of splashing and a sudden gasp. He jerked himself upright and blinked into wary wakefulness in an instant. There was a screen of brush between him and the water, and he peered between the leaves, still but for his stare.

He saw a stranger, shedding drops of water like shining scales, his hair dark with dampness and the silk of his trousers clinging to his skin as he came out of the deep water and into the shallows.

Upcoming Events!

With the recent release of The Burning Season and the upcoming release of Undone (June 9th! Woo!) I’ve started appearing all over the place!

For now, you can check out Once Upon A Time, a short piece about inspiration, fairy tales, and what they’re doing in our world. (Though for some reason they posted Undone’s cover with The Burning Season’s blurb. Don’t be confused!)

A new Bite that is actually from Undone will be out later today, in anticipation of my upcoming Blog Tour!

Speaking of which, take note! On June 9th,  visit with me at Scattered Thoughts and Rogue words. On the 10th, I’ll be with The Novel Approach. The 11th sees me with Love Bytes Reviews, and finally, on the 12th, I’ll be finishing up at Crystal’s Many Reviews! I’ve been hard at work on guest posts covering everything from where gancanagh come from to LGBT characters in modern fairy tales, and each stop on the tour comes with it’s own exclusive excerpt from Undone!

Accompanying this lovely little tour are a couple of interviews (fates preserve me), which will be wild in the world on Tuesday the 9th and Friday the 12th…and, finally, to wrap it all up, keep an eye out for an upcoming giveaway of signed copies of The Burning Season, Eight Kingdoms book three!

Broken Bite

The first Tale of the Eight Kingdoms, Undone, is now on early release through Totally Bound! As such, it seems like a good time to give you all a taste of Tighe’s story – enjoy!

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Chapter One

“It’s over between us, whatever it was that we had.”

The Summer air was bright, but the beauty of the day did nothing to soften the words that Tighe had come to say to his lover. Blinking, shaken, Nuala stared back at him with something shimmering in her eyes, maybe almost-tears, not quite. “Tighe, you don’t mean it. You can’t!”

“I do.”

“But I love you!”

“You don’t.” He watched her for a long moment, daring her to speak. She said nothing, and he shrugged, almost smiling. They always say nothing. He reached out to the curve of her cheek. “You might want to or wish you did. You don’t. Why would you say you do when you don’t?” He pulled back his hand and shrugged again. “Goodbye, Nuala.”

“Tighe!”

He walked away and didn’t turn back to face her. She would be watching for him to do just that, for any sign that he would give in and return to her. But I won’t, Nuala. Over between us, he’d said, and he’d meant it. She had come to him years ago seeking the secrets and the strangeness of the son of her mistress, her queen. She had been so sure of her own beauty, her own charm, that she had been laughing and unafraid, at least at first. There had been no worry in her when she’d met his eyes.

She had been unafraid until she had learned the truth. Until she knew what it was he was really seeing, the secret heart of her, essence and echo. Fear had grown from that seed, had hidden a no behind every yes. I saw everything you are, Nuala. Ever since you have been pulling away, and now—

The lie had been in her voice. He hadn’t even needed to look at her to see the truth, but it was right there, right in front of him. The only lie he couldn’t forgive. So now it’s over, and in a day or a month or a year of Summer time, she’ll be healed of me, while I go on forgetting how to forget.

He could keep no one. He would be alone without her, as he had been alone before. I knew it would happen. Already he was missing her. If only there was someone else…but who would bother? He had grown famous in Summer, and for a while it had seemed as if he’d never have a shortage of partners. There were so many eager to try their luck. But luck wasn’t with him—or them.

It occurred to him that it might be time to leave Summer again, wander out of the hidden kingdoms of the west and travel into the gray, to seek some other secret world—the silk lands, the dream lands, the Yaksha kingdom or the ships of the middle sea. But that was running away, and he knew it.

Instead, he walked around the front of the palace, entered the great gates and strode through the gleam of the entrance hall looking for his mother. She was in her throne room, alone in her high seat and smiling. Even when she looked up and saw him she was smiling, not a flicker of distress. It was disturbing.

Not since the first time he had met her, a boy of twelve, had she failed to react to the peering curse of his glance. Now all he saw in her was softness and a loving glow. “I thought you should know. Nuala won’t be happy for a while.”

“You left her? Tighe.” She sighed.

…And Three is the Number You Shall Count To! (Unless You’re Insane)

I have a terrible dilemma. It’s a daily doom that follows me around like some kind of creeping shadow – only it’s not. If it was, I would just blame it on Merlin. He’s well known for creeping shadows, almost as much so as Peter Pan.

No, this doom is something different. It is…ideas. Called by some plot bunnies, by others death (I call them death) I am overwhelmed by impossible possibilities! This is not so bad, when, like now, I have just submitted a novel and a novella and have no real deadlines looming over my head.

On the other hand, I’m simultaneously researching Assyrian gods and sacrifices, Zoroastrianism, 17th and 18th century France,  the city of San Xing Dui and China circa 1500 BC…and, of course, doing continued work into the mythologies of Ireland, Britain, and King Arthur which is necessary for the Eight Kingdoms series.

The first and second are connected to Holy, which is the work in progress most likely to be finished next. Ahura Mazda and the yazata are an interesting study – and Matti is now Sraosha, which is Obedience. Bwaha.

France…well…I’ve a long term, slow building WIP about a somewhat deranged wizard named Loup de Moreau, and he wants to live, so I’ve been reading up for him.

Anyone who’s read the doom of my LAST author rant, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Doom,  knows that San Xing Dui and most ancient China go together with Earthbound – you can find a tiny excerpt of the prologue of  that here.

So here’s my question to you – what do YOU do when the universe decides to send the flood of forty days and forty nights into your brain?

I tend to wildly waffle between writing one scene and another, until I have four scrivener files open at once and two half finished cups of coffee, neither of which I can find.

Anyone got a better plan – or some holy hand grenades for when I’m back in the trenches with the plot bunnies?

Lick of Fire Teaser

This  Lick is a teaser from The Burning Season, currently available for pre-order here! Remember, Licks are NSFW excerpts, so read carefully – and look forward to the rest of this excerpt on the smutty seventeenth!

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Bran let his head drop back against the bed, cried out and bucked into Macsen’s touch. There was nowhere to go, no escape from those hands, that mouth sucking against his flesh, but escape wasn’t what he wanted.

He wanted more, and more. More than the languid stroking of Macsen’s thumb against the head of his cock, more even than the rush that was the sharing of Macsen’s deepest nature. The dark of it came over him like he thought his own heat must come over Macsen, sudden, full, undeniable.

“Macsen, more, please, I need more.”

The words came aching from his mouth, and Macsen pulled away, licked his teeth and looked up with blood on his lips still. The sight made Bran tighten his grasp against the bedclothes. The fingers pulled out of him, and warm hands spread Bran’s thighs apart farther, left him empty, needing, feeling his pulse in the hundred marks Macsen had left on his body. He felt a soft tongue on the wound Macsen’s teeth had left in his thigh, soothing, reminding…still not enough.

Not nearly enough.

Burning Bite

Pre-order for The Burning Season  starts Friday! As promised,  I thus deliver to you this second Bite, which continues from where Summer Bite left off!  And of course, keep an eye out for a tiny, exclusive preview of this month’s Lick, to be posted tomorrow!

Winter’s love is blood and chaos…but fire isn’t all that smolders at Summer’s heart.
Winter’s love is blood and chaos…but fire isn’t all that smolders at Summer’s heart.

 

From Chapter One

Macsen opened his eyes and stared up at the golden ceiling of Bran’s room for only a moment before he was blinded by dazzling reflections. He covered his face with his arm again. There would be time enough for those thoughts. For now…he would have to think of a proper good-bye. Bran wouldn’t like it, but he had responsibilities… And Summer isn’t good to me.

He knew the first thing Bran would suggest, but Macsen couldn’t bring Bran with him, not this time—not so soon, and not when his intentions were to make a point that couldn’t be questioned. “It will be sharp and deadly…at least for you, Elenn.” His smile gained teeth. I promised you pain. I always keep my promises, always.

“Macsen, you can’t kill my mother.”

He turned and caught Bran looking at him, wide-awake and a smirk on his face to match the tone of his words.

“How long have you been up, Bran?”

“Long enough.”

“Summer’s made you sneaky.”

Bran snickered at him. ”Like that means anything coming from you. What are you thinking? I thought you said you’d be good.”

It was Macsen’s turn to laugh. “Good? Me? Never.” He turned and took Bran into his arms. “I wasn’t really thinking about your mother, I was thinking about you. About courting you, and what her face will look like when she’s forced to acknowledge me as yours.”

Bran blinked at him. “Don’t you mean acknowledge me as yours?”

“No. It will be far worse for her to know that you have chosen me. After all, she already knows you are precious.” Macsen drew his fingers across Bran’s chest, up past his throat and tangled them into his hair. “Just like I know it.” Macsen kissed him, pressed closer. Bran was heat and eagerness in his hands, and Macsen took full advantage of his willingness to deepen the kiss, nip at his lips.

“Too soon I’ll miss you, Bran…”

Summer Bite

As the pre-order date for The Burning Season draws closer (April 10th!) snippets and bits – and thus bites! – shall begin to appear. This first one comes from the very beginning, which is always the best place to start! 

To claim Bran forever, Macsen has begun the ancient ritual of sidhe courtship—but such a rite is a trial in more ways than one. Tradition requires that Macsen seek Bran’s favor in his own country, and a Summer courtship is teasing and promising. More than that, Summer’s Queen will come between Macsen and her son however she can. But despite his mother’s disapproval, Bran’s will is bent to the same purpose as his Macsen’s—the achievement of four proofs of love, proofs that only Bran can determine or acknowledge. One step at a time, they come closer to a day when nothing will be able to separate them—but a familiar foe is more than willing to try. In the mortal world, the year has continued to pass without a hint of green. The Green King has prevented the spring, and thus all seasons but winter…but it’s Macsen whom Dealla blames, and all her plans for violent retribution are directed at him. Failure may cost her everything, but that is a price she has long been willing to pay.  In the wake of her invasion, Macsen is left with a dilemma that might not be easy to solve. Love, or vengeance—which should he choose? Can they live together in the same heart?
This is that shiny, shiny cover I was bragging about – Beautiful, Bran!

 

Chapter One

Macsen lay unmoving, not sleeping, a hand over his eyes to block out the damned and brilliant sun. He was as the wolf in his winter coat, oppressed by the Summer swelter, but he endured for Bran’s sake. He had made a promise to stay, despite his discomfort in a place ruled by the sun. He had kept it, would keep it, but the time had come to go back to his own place. To return to the Red Kingdom, even if only for a little while.

He smiled to himself. Yes, only a little while. Then I will return for you, Bran. The last time Macsen had come here had been for him, too. For the oath that almost shattered us…but nothing will come between us now. He bared his teeth. Despite himself, he knew that nothing wore the shape of the Summer Queen. Your mother does not want me to have you, lover.

Privately, he considered that she might have good reason for her fear and suspicions. The last few times he had come here had been for Bran, love on his mind, but long before, he had come here in response to a challenge. He closed his eyes, and the memories were there within him, waiting. Winter chill superimposed over the green of the leaves. The great lake frozen and red with blood, and all the blossoms fallen under the weight of snow.

If there was one thing that was the same, it was that even then, he had come for a son of the Summer Queen…

Lick Him Up

Welcome to our first Lick, an excerpt from Dark Side of the Sun, posted today in celebration of book three’s cover reveal! (You can see it here!) Why is this excerpt not in Bites, you ask? Because Licks are NSFW excerpts, and it’s only polite to keep them separate! Look forward to a new Lick on the smutty seventeenth of every month!

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…Bran flushed, and Macsen reached out and drew him close again, nuzzled his cheek and kissed his jaw, the curve of his ear, then down again toward his mouth. This kiss was rougher, deeper, and Bran tasted blood without knowing whose lip he had bitten. One of Macsen’s hands ran through his hair, dragged sharp nails against his scalp, held his head still. Despite himself, Bran groaned and gave in to his own desire. The soft lips opened to Bran’s tongue. He felt cool, tingling hands reach up to touch his cheeks, felt them running through his hair, slip down around his shoulders.

Bran turned his head under the pressure of a nudge and another kiss, and Macsen pulled him into a closer embrace. Bran opened his eyes and the movement felt lazy. Was the Red King’s kiss a drug?

No. It’s just desire.

Bran licked his lips, a quick darting of his tongue. He felt Macsen’s eyes on the motion and knew then the inevitable end of this confrontation.

“You’re trying to distract me, but I want—”

“I don’t want to talk about your mother right now, Bran Fionnan. I don’t want to talk at all. Not now. Ask me anything you want, but later. Not now.

He leaned close, breathed deeply. Bran felt Macsen’s breath against his lips and tried once more, but he was pressing up against Macsen even as he spoke, even as his words became a murmur that washed against Macsen’s lips.

“You’re sure no one—”

“No one will see us tonight. Not unless it’s someone with more power than me.” Macsen’s voice was breathless, his eyes shining and dark, the pupils dilated with lust. “Now, don’t struggle. I’d never hurt you, beautiful Bran—”

Macsen licked Bran’s lips, so soft, so teasing. Bran knew what was about to happen the moment before it did, but in that moment he found that he didn’t care. He had accepted Macsen’s nature for what it was—he enjoyed it, darkness and all. It was proof that Macsen was like him, proof that he was sidhe. Bran’s want flowed hot in him, spurring him onward, and beside his lust was the same welling of inexplicable trust that he had felt the night before. Trust. It was a promise with no words that was reinforced by Macsen’s aura, Macsen’s presence.

Macsen smirked, his lips stretching over white teeth, then bent to Bran’s throat. Bran felt Macsen’s tongue against his skin. Sharp teeth penetrated deep. A tickle like the brush of a feather became twin needles of sensation and fluttering heat. Bran gasped. The feeling was nothing like what he had imagined.

The theft of his blood was a delicate seduction that gave him promises instead of pain. For a moment it let him feel the rich, dark core of Macsen’s being—but that moment was very short. Macsen had taken barely a mouthful from Bran’s veins, but he was already stepping back.

“Delicious.”

Macsen’s hands roamed Bran’s skin through untied, unlaced clothes. Dazed, Bran wondered when that had happened. Macsen’s touch aroused, stimulated, tempted. His fingers teased Bran’s nipples into hard points and his other hand slipped between the tight press of their bodies and grasped the straining stiffness of Bran’s erection. Macsen lifted his lips from Bran’s throat and soothed the shallow wound there with his tongue. For a moment a haze hung across Macsen’s eyes. Bran saw it, heard Macsen’s voice thicken and slow and soften into a murmur that brushed heat against the tender place on his throat.

“Be my lover, beautiful Bran, my lover…”

Bran didn’t know why Macsen had stopped to ask. It felt like he had wanted this touch, this moment, forever. It didn’t matter that need and desire weren’t really the same thing, not right now. He surprised himself with the force of his answer. “Yes.”

That one word seemed like it was enough to awaken the bestial promise that slept in the Red King. Bran felt the shift in the hands that pulled his clothes from his body, hands that grasped his throbbing erection and pulled pleasure from his loins with smooth, slow strokes.

They stumbled together, and came up against the wall of Bran’s house. Macsen held Bran pinned there with the weight of his body, and Bran slipped his fingers against Macsen’s chest and down, down—he needed no encouragement to return the pleasure that Macsen’s stroking fingers gave him.

He could feel Macsen’s pulse beating in the heavy hardness that slid back and forth across his palm—then their gasps were equal and they panted together, gasping, moaning. Bran’s head fell forward against Macsen’s chest. He heard his own voice calling out, strangled and broken.

“Macsen…Macsen…Macsen…”

Macsen was quieter, but his whisper, “Bran,” was tender and sharp enough to send a new shudder rolling over Bran’s skin.

Wolf Bite

This excerpt comes from Wolf of the West, my newest release. Let me know what you think! 

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Marcas stared upward at the sound of an imperative caw, and knew he must move faster. Four legs paced under him, swift as the wind, but he could see even from a distance that what had been a battlefield had now become a scavenger’s rout. Above him, black crows crossed the sky, first in twos and threes, then a streaming murder.

It is coming.

The twilight darkened into premature night under the shadow of their wings, and from the gore that littered the field came crawling shadows, stick-figures unbending against the light.

Darkness made flesh.

Once, twice, Marcas howled, but the moon was not yet risen and he could summon no light into his service. From the top of a low rise, he could only look down and watch more carnage in the making. Warriors, bloodstained, wounded—waylaid in victory or defeat, they had survived the battle only to suffer something more terrible.

His gaze focused on their widened eyes, the glaring darkness in each overburdened pupil, teeth visible behind lips thinned with fear in each face—yet in none of them did he see what he had come for. A spark of light—the mark of brightness that told him the one so marked was meant to survive. That one, he would protect. But where was he?

Wraiths absent of flesh unfolded across the carnage, seeking their prey. The survivors who could move stumbled away from them with all the speed their broken limbs could muster. Marcas’ gaze caught on three that moved together, two older, one younger, perhaps a son or nephew of one of the others. The elder two held him back, their hands across his chest at what they must have believed was a final moment of fear—and yet that youth stood forward, his face all confrontation, nothing of terror in the glare of his eyes.

The shadow moved to confront him, the youth painted with blazing light in the dark field of Marcas’ mind, and the truth flamed in him, sudden and precise.

This one! This one—now, now!

In a flash, Marcas leaped down the hillside, crossed the blooded grass and buried his teeth in the shadow nearest the youth. Black blood spurted around his fangs, and he felt dark fingers clutching at the fur of his back. Marcas whipped around and lunged at them. He caught sight of the three men behind him, their eyes wider now, if that was possible—watching him, wondering—but there was no way for him to explain.

Like many men before them, they would have to come to their own conclusions.

Growling, spitting, pacing back and forth, Marcas marked a circle with his steps, with his body, with his flashing fangs. He leaped across to threaten any reaching hand, any open mouth, rattle-breathed, foaming.

Three of them, but I can’t protect just that one. The boy. The boy wouldn’t let me, and it wouldn’t be right.

But three men were two more than he had expected. A battle like this one, wounds like theirs—the older men should probably be dead, but there was no accounting for the strength of a heart, a spirit or a warrior. Marcas’ quick eyes took in the wound on the younger one—the thigh, wrapped tight, blood soaked but older blood now, not fresh flowing… Not so bad, boy. It would be easier to protect him than the other two—closer to death, closer to the enemy.

The crawling multitude of bloodthirsty spirits reached out first for the men, not the boy. For a moment he felt a vain desire to take the boy and leave these fools to their fate. One wounded young man was no match for a wolf of the faoladh, no matter what his desires.

But across his mind’s eye flashed that first glimpse again—blazing light and eyes with no terror in them at all.

Black energies tore at his back again, gripped his tail and pulled him. He whirled, ears laid back, snapping, tasted darkness and congealed death, but it was neither blood nor anything real. Shadow screeched, a sound like the caw of the crows, but deepened, twisted, broken. He sought the matte jet throats, tore open wounds that spilled nothing, but it was nothing with the taste of ash. Marcas pushed them back with the weight of his body, with his claws and fangs that snapped with supernatural swiftness. Tireless, intent, he fought against the circling foes that increased in number even as he engaged them. They flowed back and receded, then returned to wash around him, a new and stronger tide—

Until the moon rose. The moonlight fell on Marcas’ back and his fur shone with a pale light, every hair illuminated. He lifted his head and those of his foes closest to him took a step back. His mouth opened, and out of his throat came an illuminated noise, more than a howl—the true song of the night, safety from all shadow in that one note, even as it was many.

The wolf song shattered the shadow, broke it apart into bits as the moonlight spread and painted the black of the hills and the gore of the field with light. Panting now, feeling the pain of many wounds, Marcas fell silent and stepped back, looked around with wary eyes to see if the night might choose to rebirth its horrors.

There was only silence and stillness. The natural shadows of the night, death in coherent slumber. What the violence had awakened was restful now. Quiet.

Satisfied, Marcas turned to face the trio of men he had protected. They, too, were silent, all but unmoving, until he turned to leave.

“Wait.”

It was a young voice, the voice of the one he’d been called to protect, but Marcas didn’t look back. He turned away despite that call, and vanished into the cloak of the night.

 

* * * *

 

The dawn came early, yellow and heavy, sunlight spreading like spilled yolk across the horizon. It was welcome light, which scattered shadow and imprisoned the fears of the night behind walls of memory. The shapes of dark and crooked power that had spilled from what had once been the bodies of friends and foe—the tide of dark within the night—those things were faded, but the memory of that which had conquered them was not.

The wolf.

“Still well, Connor?”

Startled from the thoughts that had distracted him, the throbbing of the wound in Connor’s thigh returned full force at the sound of his father’s voice. He almost brought up the image that lingered in his mind’s eye. Moonstruck wolf. But he hesitated, and only answered the question his father had asked.

“Well enough. I’ll make it.”

They lapsed into silence after that. As Connor limped forward beside the single horse they’d found wandering at the edge of the battlefield, he drew himself out of his thoughts and watched his father over the horse’s neck. Silent, craggy, a mountain in motion, he stomped forward as if nothing could—or would—stop him, as if he felt neither the pain of his wounds nor the pain of their journey. How far now? Since the wolf had left them in the blazing moonlight—since they’d found the horse and his father had forced Lord Aran to mount? Too long.

There had been an apology on his father’s face, as he’d shoved Aran up on the beast, but despite the agony of this stumble through the dark, there’d been no other way to keep Aran moving.

Again, Connor looked into his father’s face. His dark eyes were crowded under the clenching of his brow and the poor bandage that was bound there. His father nodded once, approval or encouragement, and Connor set his eyes on the road again, a dusty band that cinched the green hills before them like a poorly tightened belt.

It was good that he hadn’t said anything, hadn’t brought up the questions that burned in him. When he had asked in the dark after the wolf had left them, his father had shushed him right away, warned of bad luck and spurned blessings. Some things we should not speak of, even amongst ourselves. He heard the echo of his father’s voice, the only answer he’d gotten, and knew that now wasn’t a time to add to his worries—but despite his outer silence, the questions remained inside him, loud and urgent.

What had those things been? Shadow had risen from their comrades and from the enemy warriors both. Was it the power of their foe? But then, what of the wolf? Where had he come from? He had never seen anyone fight the way that wolf fought. Focusing on those moments, those memories, he shuddered, stumbled, caught himself and forced himself not to look at his father again. Some things weren’t meant to be faced by mortal men. He had seen training injuries enough and the wounds on returning warriors—he’d thought he’d known what there was to know of battle and death.

He knew better now.

Battle was not wounds and weapons and warriors. Battle was blood-smoke, a mist of red in the air, so fine the taste of it was in every breath. Battle was stepping forward and slipping and not looking down to see if what was under your boots was mud or the blood-slick guts of someone who didn’t know he was dead yet. Connor had learned that the arm could grow so tired it couldn’t stop swinging, that a blade new-sharpened could clot in a glut of flesh, chip on a sternum and still shatter a skull. Battle was heaving breath, every muscle burning and nerves dead ended or on fire—no in-between, no pause, no breathing space… And in the lulls, everything too quiet. Every crow’s cawing, every breath of wind became a thing that stirred alertness out of impossible fatigue.

He’d thought the end was just another one of those lulls. That there would be another charge, another rush—something else, because it couldn’t be over. It would never be over… But it was.

Until night came.

His leg had been long-bound by then and he had done what he could for his father, limping, reaching across the broad shoulders to bind a wound that streamed new flow over the rusty stains of old blood. But it had been Aran who was the worst wounded, by the loss of his sons. Connor had found him, bent over the bodies. Perhaps it had been Aran’s cries that had woken shadows out of the dead. They were loud enough. They went on forever.

Not that he could blame him. There would be no honored burial, no pyre for those boys, not after this battle. Not when no one survived, no one but them—who would carry the bodies? Who would return to this plain and bring away the crow’s feast that remained? They had come to the very edge of his father’s kingdom to fight, two hundred warriors seeking to spill blood in the name of an ancient feud long abated. Fifty years of the High King’s peace had been broken there, and for what?

Nothing had been won, nothing gained, nothing threatened—a field in the middle of pastureland, and no herds in sight, and now his father’s men and the men who had rebelled both were dead.

Connor sighed, licked dry lips and looked up across the endless rolling of the hills and into the sunlight. How much farther? He took another step, and another, and another…

“Connor? Stop, Connor.”

He heard his father’s voice, but it seemed to come from a distance. Why would that be? His father was…right there. He turned his head to the left, and the motion unbalanced some precarious state he hadn’t even been aware of. His head was light, and his leg was numb. Thigh to foot, he couldn’t feel a thing.

“That isn’t right…”

“Connor!”

Darkness.

It reached out to envelop him, and for an instant, his heart sped up in fear.

But no.

No worries.

The thought came to him of itself, soothing, silken.

Wolf will protect me.

There was no need to fear the night.