Neoma crouched in the twilight shadows, the breeze bringing her tantalizing threads of scent. Owl, deer, rabbit… no trace of Kieran’s, he was too canny to let the wind betray him in a hunt. He knew exactly where she was, though. She only needed to wait for either his howl to announce a kill, or for him to drive his chosen prey in her direction if his initial lunge failed. Their strategy meant quick hunts, minimal suffering for prey, and minimal disruption to the rest of the wildlife.
Now some five years old and fully mature, Kieran still refused to leave her, though Hickory and the rest had made it very clear to him that they would be delighted if he settled in Valeyan’s domain with a mate and started a pack. Neoma had given up on trying to encourage him to go, although she wasn’t sure how much of that was selfishness on her part, since he’d become so much a part of her life that she wasn’t sure how she’d existed so long here without him.
Today, though, the forest felt restless, distracting her from the clean pure simplicity of the hunt. There was something subtly wrong in the sound of the wind, the song of the birds, even the feel of the ground beneath her. She hoped this finished soon, so she could find Hickory or one of the others and find out what was going on. Decades living here had given her some sensitivity, but she would never be a part of the land the way the spirits were.
Some distance away, she heard a startled bark from Kieran, which ended in a shrill yip.
Before the sound even died away, the earth shuddered and groaned, a bass note so deep she felt it vibrate through her more than she even heard it. Birds exploded from the trees, squirrels shrieked, rabbits drummed, all adding to the chaos.
“Neoma!” Chipmunk appeared, her green hair tousled, her eyes deeply shadowed and wild. “They got past us, past Valeyan, they have Kieran, Valeyan wants you to come. Follow!” She fled into the forest, and Neoma bolted after her, barely keeping up, lunging over obstacles or zigzagging around them, nearly losing her footing more than once as the ground continued to quiver and agitated animals charged madly through the underbrush.
At the edge of a clearing, filled with the light of three bright moons—violet Lirit, silver-blue Meyar, greengold Sanur—Chipmunk stopped in the shadow of an old maple. Within the clearing, Kieran lay limp on the ground, though her nose insisted that he lived still; perched over him, wings mantled, deadly beak poised gripping Kieran’s spine without taking the final step of severing it, was an enormous bald eagle with luminous pale aquamarine eyes. Briefly, she saw Valeyan’s outline overlapping that of the maple, then he was there, expressionless, but the world around them betrayed his mood clearly enough.
With difficulty and not a little discomfort, with Talir only a thin crescent, Neoma changed to human form. “Earth-lord…”
“I promised you safety,” he said flatly. “I failed. The eagle stayed too high for me to be aware of her presence. She dove on Kieran. She can kill him before I can save him. The wolverine who pursued you has now crossed into my domain and comes this way, and I dare not stop him, for your son’s life. He demands to speak to you.”
Neoma closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. So long she’d been able to hide, so long she’d lived in peace. Now they’d found her again, and she knew with utter certainty that they’d have no hesitation about using her loved ones to reach her.
“Can you… will you bring him here? It isn’t Kieran he wants. I don’t want him to hurt Kieran or anyone else.”
“Are you sure what you’re doing, daughter of Talir? If you bargain with him, and he keeps his side of it, I cannot intervene.”
Valeyan nodded. “Honeysuckle escorts him here. Since I cannot simply banish them from my domain without consequences, this matter lies in your hands.”
“Thank you,” Neoma whispered, opening her eyes. She looked up at him and smiled. “Earth-lord, whatever comes, you have my thanks for decades of wonderful life. I’ve been very happy here, for longer than many humans ever live.”
Valeyan touched her cheek, diamond eyes grave. “I have been very pleased to have you here, and you have made my domain better for your presence.” He let his hand fall, stepped back towards the old maple, and was gone.
Neoma waited, her gaze fixed on Kieran.
“I’m here, traitor,” growled a voice she had hoped never to hear again. “Need I tell you what I want?”
Neoma took a deep breath and stepped into the moonlight. “You want me,” she said simply. “And if you can’t get me, you’ll make others suffer.”
The Master, who had changed not at all that she could see, nodded. “This animal you appear so fond of, for one. I’m told that you have a weakness for the local healer, for another. Perhaps we cannot touch the land or its spirits directly, but can your earth-lord keep all humans from contact with the world outside? We can work through them. And there are ways to hurt even woods spirits.”
“You do not need to,” Neoma said quietly. “Swear to me that you and all who follow your path will leave this domain without harm to anyone or anything, including that amarog, and will never return, and I am yours. This is my territory. If you won’t swear, I can escape you here and you will not find me.” Poor Kieran, he would have such difficulty adjusting to life without her, but maybe he would finally find a mate and establish a pack here, one Hickory and the others could watch over.
“You’re weak, traitor,” the Master said scornfully. “Throwing away your life for an animal, for humans with their short lives. Swear you will submit to your proper punishment for what you’ve done, and I will agree to your terms. There is nothing else in this domain of any interest to me.”
“I swear it on Talir and the golden blood in my veins that is hers,” Neoma said steadily.
“I swear it on Lirit and the power and wisdom she has granted me,” the Master said, and glanced at the eagle. “Let it go.”
The eagle withdrew that sharp tearing beak and hopped a few feet aside, before turning into a young-looking petite brunette woman with the aquamarine light of Sahen spilling around her, the light of the others shying away. She was naked, which suggested to Neoma that they hadn’t learned about making fabric from the moonlight that changed along with them, made from the same substance as their own bodies.
Hickory darted out of the trees and dropped to her knees beside Kieran, murmuring urgently to him, but his only response was a thin whine of confusion. Honeysuckle joined her, and together they gathered him up and took him into the forest, Hickory pausing to give Neoma one last look, her expression full of pain. Neoma was sure she saw the bright track of tears on her friend’s cheeks. She hadn’t known that forest-spirits could weep.
They bound her, unresisting, with her hands over her head, to a low branch of the old maple—an insult to Valeyan, a smug certainty that by the Laws he could not rescue her from a bargain she had agreed to.
“You were given the gift of rebirth,” the Master said, drawing a pale knife that she knew was flint. “We shared with you the blood of the moons, the greatest of gifts. You became one with us via the proper initiation, in pain and in loss and in sorrow. You betrayed us, rejected our ways, and abandoned us. What we gave, we will take.”
Neoma closed her eyes as the Master cut free her clothing, concentrating on the faint thread of golden light, drawing what strength she could from it to endure what was coming.
“Neoma,” the wind in the tree branches above her murmured. “Have faith. Nothing of earth shall do you lasting harm. You are not alone.”
Then the knife’s edge touched her skin for the first time.