The man beneath the tree had returned. The cottage was dark. The night was dark with only a sliver of a moon, half-hidden by ragged clouds. But he needed no light. He fixed his eyes on the small upper window where Rose slept alone for the first time in her life. Or sat alone, he should say, though the window was tightly closed tonight. Funny, that she should finally listen to her grandmother now that poor woman was dead, but no matter, for his watch was ended. He’d kept his vow. Rachel Woodman had died in peace, over Rose at least.
And now, she was with Lillie now. And Aldam too. Strange and wonderful as that still seemed. Eedan would never forget the bliss on Aldam’s face as he’d felt his own hands growing cold, the peace in his voice as he’d slipped away. Eedan had heard that same peace in Rachel’s voice as she’d said her last words. He hadn’t heard it in Lillie’s, but Rachel’s pain had drowned out everything else that night. He’d heard nothing but her heart breaking with each wrenching sob.
And with no one to hear him but the Creator, he’d made his vow and he’d kept it, though he’d had no idea how long such a frail-seeming, broken-hearted, old woman could go on, once she had a baby to protect. But he’d made it work, and he still believed he’d done the right thing, despite…well, it was over now. It was time he fulfilled that other promise. He took a deep breath, gathering himself, for a running leap, when a cry shattered the stillness of the night.
He’d only paused for split second yet he could hear Rose already padding down the steps. She was at the bottom by the time the bedroom door creaked opened and someone shuffled out. “Here, Mary,” she whispered. “I’ll take Sara.”
“Thank you, sweetheart, but she’s cutting a big back tooth. She may be up for hours.” Eedan could hear the bone-deep fatigue in Mary’s voice.
“That’s all right,” Rose pressed. “I’m not sleepy and I love rocking them. Go on, please, before Uncle Ben wakes up. He’s so worn out.”
“Oh, you…wonderful….darling girl.” Mary’s voice sounded strangled. “To think there are those who say…oh, sweetheart, I…I really don’t know what we’d do without you.”
“That’s not something you’ll ever need to know, Mary.”
A chill ran down Eedan’s spine. It hardly seemed possible. She was so young, yet her words were gaining power, spoken with wisdom beyond her years. He stood stunned, as the snuffling baby was passed from mother to cousin. It was the shutting door that brought him back to attention. It was an omen he’d heard before.
And for a moment, it was fourteen years ago, he was standing beneath this very tree, listening to that awful labor, wondering how a tiny creature could wreck such havoc on its own mother, and then…
He pushed that memory away. Tonight was different. Even now the downstairs window was opening, practically an invitation, but he’d taken only one step when Rose spoke, “There now, my little love. Doesn’t the cool air make your poor, swollen jaw feel better?”
The baby. He’d forgotten about the baby. As he stood, indecisive, the rocking chair began its rhythmic creak and Rose’s clear, silver-toned voice sailed out the window and into the night.
Fly away, far away, fly a way. High away, my darling, fly.
Fly away, far away, far away, fly a way.
But come back to me one day. Oh, come back to me, some day.
The baby was silent. The entire farm was silent. Cattle, chickens, barn-cats, she’d even lulled the mice to sleep. No hunting bird called. No fox rustled among the bracken. There was no sound except the gentle creaking of the rocking chair. And for the first time, Eedan realized how truly tired he was. He leaned back against the old oak, borrowing its sturdy strength. The Council was right to be concerned, but in all the years, he’d never regretted his choice, never resented a single hour he spent here. No, he actually looked forward to them.
It was peaceful. The whispering of the trees. The distant murmur of the river. The old, weathered wood of cottage and barn shone like polished pewter in the starlight. The deep, rhythmic, sleeping breaths. Rachel, Ben, Mary. He wasn’t just fond of them. He admired them. He saw the strength Aldam had seen. And Rose…he hardly knew how to describe it, an absolute wonder, like he’d never known before. Just thinking of her brought a smile to his face. She was so resourceful and so unexpected. He could hardly wait to see what she would do or say next. She was so fierce, so courageous and yet so tender. He leaned his head back, listening to her humming as he breathed in the rich, full scent of ripe grain. Grain she’d sown herself. Grain she’d weeded and…
The grain. It was ready, had been for days, but the deathbed vigil, the digging of the grave, the loss. Ben Woodman was a strong, but Rose had not been wrong. Her uncle was weary. Would he be able to bring in his crop, on his own, cut and shocked before the frost came? The nights were already chill. He'd just decided to go, that a few more days wouldn’t make any difference, when a scent caused his skin to prickle. A movement caught the corner of his eye. Something was slinking out of the forest.
A shape like a huge, black wolf, but its scent caused Eedan’s blood to run cold. The creature headed straight for the open window, the one he himself had been so thrilled about only moments before. This creature, too, was delighted, grinning, in a horribly man-like manner. Three steps from the window, it rose onto its hind legs, shuddered, convulsed, and was stretching a gray, clawed hand toward the sill when it paused and turned toward him, gleaming teeth bared. But Eedan’s arrow hit true, sinking deep into the creature’s throat, silencing any cry but the soft gurgle of blood.
The rocking chair paused, but he was there, catching the body before it hit the ground, holding it tightly against his chest, too close to allow any thrashing though it took all his strength to hold them both still. When the life had waned and the rhythmic creaking of the chair resumed, he lifted the corpse quietly over his shoulder and carried it back to the dark line of trees.
He chose an especially old and gnarled oak and set the body beside it. He didn’t recognize the face, but it was still half-covered with fur. He shuddered remembering Merlyn’s warning. Certainly, Eedan, it’s not so difficult for a man to become a beast. It’s the turning back that gets harder ever time.
He knelt, closed the bulging, green eyes and pulled out the arrow. As blood ran down, onto the dry, old roots of the tree, they twitched and twisted, rising up, out of the earth, like grasping fingers, wrapping around the body, and dragging it down, down, deep into the earth. The tree stilled, the dirt settled, and the tiny root hairs soaked up every last, glistening drop of blood. The only signs of the shifter were the little piles of loose earth round the roots of the tree and the dark smear across Eedan’s shoulder.
He glanced back toward the house. Gradie hadn’t even growled. But now that he thought of it, he hadn’t heard the dog’s toenails clicking on the wooden floors. The wolfhound had grown old. As Aldam’s enchantments obviously had.
His blood ran cold, far colder than before. He felt sick, as if he’d been punched in the gut. If he hadn’t been here, this night, this hour…no, he couldn’t think on that. His vow was done. It was time, past time. He was sorry for Ben Woodman, but he was stout of heart, he would find a way. Eedan had taken only one swift step when the baby whimpered.
“Hush, hush, sweet Sara.” Rose’s voice was anxious, more anxious than he’d ever heard her. There was a sharp, desperate edge to it. “Oh, please, let your mama sleep. There are deep, dark shadows beneath her eyes. Let her sleep, sweet Sara. Sleep. Sleep.”
The baby went still, but not as still as Eedan. It was true. He’d seen Mary today. Seen the shadows Rose spoke of. He was no stranger to death. He’d been the cause of many, but…Mary Woodman’s? His heart squeezed painfully.
He’d seen how Rose had seemed to give Rachel new life, seen how Ben and Mary loved her as their own. He’d simply wanted to give them a child to ease the coming loss. How could he have known the potency of his fertility charm? Or how hard birth would be on Mary? It was a cruel twist of human nature that such a brave soul was in so frail a body. And now, without Rose’s help, what would Mary do?
The words echoed in his head, so deliberate, so sure. It’s something you’ll never need to know, Mary. Never was a long time, but what was another year or two? Couldn’t he give Mary Woodman that, to gain her strength back?
He sighed. The Council would not be pleased. And he had to tell them about the shifter. He couldn’t search every corner of the forest, every village on the island, himself, but as for Rose, well, hadn’t Aldam passed this task to him for a reason?
He turned and pressed his palm against the gnarled oak. He spoke softly, his voice like the wind ruffling through the leaves. The rough bark shivered beneath his hand, the tremor going up, and out, into every wide-spreading limb, every twisting branch and tiny twig, and passing into those they swayed against. It went down into the old twisted roots and the dark network beneath the ground. He kept murmuring, kept his palm flat against the tree until the spell had gone through every one of the ancient oaks that bordered Woodman farm. When the last leaf ceased trembling, Eedan turned and leaned back against the trunk, waiting for his chest to stop heaving.
Ben Woodman wouldn’t allow Rose to step one foot off this farm and his spell had just ensured that no Fae, of any kind, would be stepping on to it, not for years to come. Well, no Fae but himself, of course, but now, he, and Mary, would have time to rest. It was better this way. He’d come too often. Careful as he’d been, he’d left some trace. He needed to stay away for a while, let himself be seen far to the east, act as decoy, before joining the hunt for more shifters.
He sighed and looked around the farm, soaking in the peaceful, starlit sight, listening to their gentle sleeping breaths, the constant, creaking of the chair, her clear, sweet singing. How could one so young have such feeling in her voice? He breathed in filling his lungs with her powerful, wonderful, mixed-blood scent and closed his eyes for a moment.
He imagined her, holding that baby to her heart, pouring her love and strength into it, and his own heart leapt, tugging at its chords as if wanting to break free of his body. He kept his eyes closed another moment, searing this scene into his mind before lifting his chin and calling softly.
One owl answered from the barn, another from the tree above, a third from those near the river. He cocked his head and listened, lifted his head and scented. All was well. Except he didn’t have the strength to summon the fog. He bowed his head. Bless this house, from site to stay, from beam to wall. Keep it close within your power, barring evil every hour. Every night and every day, you’ll be close as I’m away.
He reached out, carefully catching up his own scent before raising his hand and whirling away, in a rush of wind and swirling leaves. But what Eedan hadn’t been able to see was how pale his own, lean face had become and how deep the shadows were now beneath his own blue eyes.