Late summer hung over Loralin Forest with a fading sigh. Aradia moved with her younger sister Ana through the mountain wood, her heart skipping a beat as the air closed its eyes and withdrew like a bird hiding its head beneath a wing.
"Here they are!" Ana said, grasping her skirt as she knelt beside a tumble of mossy boulders in the shadow of a hemlock tree. She set aside her basket and leaned over, her slender fingers caressing a patch of dark green leaves.
Wind swelled from the north. It passed through the forest like the breath of a wolf catching a scent, mingled with the whispers of a nearby stream, and then passed away, leaving the trees too still.
"...never seen periwinkle so fine," Ana continued. "And blooming, too!" She pulled a short, curved knife from her basket and began to mutter an incantation.
Aradia sighed. The Mother's own, periwinkle surrounded its votaries with a powerful cloak of love and protection. But it was a dangerous herb, a channel for lust and death, a scythe that reaped payment for the sweetest passions. Since her man left her, Ana had taken to tinkering with things like that. Foolish girl.
"Periwinkle blooms in spring," Aradia grumbled.
Ana turned around with a smile. "I think it's a sign."
"Hurry up. Evening's coming on."
Ana rose slowly, a clump of shiny evergreen cuttings dangling from her hand. "Why are you acting so? You've been off all day." She glanced skyward. "We've hours yet."
When the wind rose again, Aradia flared her nostrils and caught her breath.
He came from the trees in a ghostly storm of male force that sent every creature within his pale blue gaze shrieking for shelter. He landed in the shallows on the river's edge, a flawless man in the height of strength and desire, his ivory skin covered in silken wisps of moss green and his black hair flowing. The late afternoon sun glistened on his raven wings, high as two men standing.
Aradia screamed like a wildcat to break her sister from the clutches of the immortal's thrall. As the crowharrow vanished, Ana's face bled frost on the steps of the otherworld. She did not waste energy screaming; she dropped her periwinkle and ran. But nothing escaped the oldest predator of these mountains, his flesh burning with the breath of gods. The women in their grandfather's bloodline belonged to him, and today he had set his sights on Ana. Her flight did not last long.
Aradia spoke a word that drew her down into the roots, stones, and silently flowing springs. With tiny claws, she burrowed out of sight. The crowharrow's footfalls shook the earth around her. With a voice of grating stones, he spoke something in a language lost to the world.
Just then, Aradia's attention settled on a strange object: a stone in the shape of a fang driven beneath the fertile decay of the forest floor. It emanated a sensation of darkness known only to a woman in the softness of her sex or the hollow of her womb. She spoke another word. As a snake, she stretched open her mouth, came down with a graceful jerk and grabbed the stone. In pulsing, rhythmic waves, she swallowed it.
Her sensitive skin rippled with a bellow, as if the forest itself had roared. She nosed down into the ground as the crowharrow plunged his fist into the soil and began tearing it up with his claws.
As a pheasant, Aradia exploded from the brush and flapped into the air. The crowharrow came after her like a midwinter gale.
She bounded into the forest as a ruddy gold streak, a hind fleeing the predator at her heels. You can become anything, her grandmother had once said. Alter the words to change the essence. She ran to the river, stumbling to her elegant knees as rough knives raked over her back with breathless precision. She fell into the water and spoke a different kind of word.
Remember the elements. Each has its way. Honor it.
She flowed downstream, first as a fish, then a frog, a tendril of bright green algae, and then as the water itself, cool and swirling along the pebbly course. Water was the only element she had learned to become, but she favored it above all else. She flowed over grasses, drooping branches, fallen trees, and boulders. She flowed until time stopped and the crowharrow faded to dreams. Finally, she recognized the slats of a millwheel striking the water's surface.
With a gasp, Aradia awoke face down on the shore of the stream by her cottage. Her back howled with pain where the crowharrow had torn into it. For a moment, she could not move. Drenched and stricken with grief and cold, she doubled over as water closed a fist around her gut and flooded from her mouth, gagging her. On the other side of the cottage, goats bleated softly.
She had vomited up the stone. She grabbed it and shoved it into her pocket, then crept on all fours through the deepening twilight to her cottage door. Once inside, she managed to build a fire. Tears streamed down her face. First, get warm. Clean the wounds on her back. Make tea. Stay alive.
She started as something thumped on the floor above her. After a moment, a scruffy orange cat with gold-green eyes trotted down the narrow stairs. "Nasturtium!" the witch breathed, holding a hand to her breast. Trembling with relief, she fed the cat from a pot of stew she had left covered on a shelf that morning. She made tea and got some dry clothes. Then she pulled down a jar of rosemary salve and a second jar she had not touched since the day her grandmother had pressed it into her hand and said, Never, ever use this unless you're able to relinquish all expectation.
Aradia returned to the fire and set down her things. She drew off her dress and hung it up to dry, shuddering as she saw the long, ragged gashes in the back. She fumbled around in the pockets and retrieved the stone. As she put it on the hearth, its blackish green, polished surface absorbed the firelight.
The cat drew near and rubbed its face against her thigh, then dropped onto the hearth and started to clean. Aradia sat down and reached around as best she could to smear the healing cream on her naked back. She gasped as the cold salve touched her wounds. When she had finished, she dressed and pulled a wool blanket around her body.
Her hand shook as she reached for the second jar. She opened it, plucked forth a clump of tangled, pale red roots and set the jar aside. A strange, pungent smell assaulted her nose. She tossed the roots onto the fire, took the fang-shaped stone in both hands, rocked back and forth, and spoke a word unlike any other word she knew, a word few mortals knew. She had learned it from the water.
She sat with her eyes closed until the air around her changed. It felt like the heart of the stone, the fertile, aching emptiness of incipient creation. The room whirled around her, pulling down and inward, gripping her in vertigo. Her ears roared and stars rushed by in a sparkling array that rose and fell on a warm spring tide.
Aradia opened her eyes. The center of the hearth had gone dark; a shadow hovered in the flames. From the hollow spoke an inhuman voice as ancient as blood and time. It was so gentle, full of love and at the same time so vast and utterly dark, Aradia's tears returned.
What do you wish of me? the Old One said.
Somehow, Aradia understood her. "Maern," she said, using the wizard's word for "mother." "I need your help. My life is forfeit and for this I don't ask. It is my fate. But Tansel is only a child and now lives alone in the forest. I ask that you protect her."
Cold wind pushed up the streambed and whispered in the chimney top.
I shall grant your request, came the Old One's eerie, beautiful voice from the fire; but for this, I require two things.
Aradia waited, sick with fear as the fire whispered and the wind blew. After a pause, the Old One's voice came forth again:
First, you must give the voidstone to the girl when she comes to you.
Voidstone. Aradia opened her hands and stared at the black fang glistening in the firelight. A strange request. Relinquish all expectation, her grandmother had said. A powerful wizard, she would never have said a thing like that offhand, especially regarding the Old One. Aradia lowered her head, her heart pounding wildly.
"I shall do as you ask, Maern."
Next, the darkness said, you must give me her innocence.
Aradia's chest tightened. Aside from invoking horror, this request had all the tangible substance of a breath, a thought. Clinging to her last nerve, she said, "How?"
When the time comes, you will know.
Wind tore the fire, drawing the stars and the darkness into it. The room returned to shape and the fire crackled merrily.
Aradia pulled her blanket close and lay down with the voidstone clutched against her breast. For a long time, she thought of innocence, how to capture innocence. Periwinkle knew. In the dappled light beneath the hemlock tree, Ana smiled. I think it's a sign.
A sign of what? Aradia wondered, closing her eyes to rain.
Under a heavy cloak of grief and exhaustion, she spoke a word and curled up next to the other cat sleeping by the fire.