The gods' fire crashed and burned in the forest below. Incandescent it illuminated a lone figure perched precariously on a stone outcropping thrust from the face of the Guardian’s Hill like a jagged chin. Razor sharp talons honed to precision by previous kills served as her anchor. Powerful leg muscles sheathed in yellow ochre fur assured her she would not fall. Her eyes, violet as the night’s shadows and filled with threat like the clouds that rode the approaching storm, were trained on the common road beneath her; a road that lead to the depths of what the locals had brazenly named the Lesser Forest – as if that title gave consent to kinship with the gods who walked the Greater.
H’Wira tossed her thick copper mane back over her broad shoulders and lifted a strong boned face to the sky. The Nightbearer was risen and her sister-stars attended. The argent orb claimed dominance over the day and spread her cloak wide, covering the ancient trees in shadow and masking the hidden pathways below. A short time before a steady rain had begun to fall. As it struck H'Wira's tensed form, the all too familiar scent of her own inhumanity rose to assault her senses – the dry dust of a bird’s wings, the heady musk of the cat, and the rank perfume of moist fur. The foul odor reminded her of a fouler day – the one when the worm had turned.
The day she had betrayed her people.
H’Wira wet her lips in anticipation of the kill. No longer mortal, the nature of the immortal beast she had become cried out for blood. Unlike other nights, her prey had proved elusive. The few who had passed beneath her roost had in no way resembled the description her master had given her of the one she was to dispatch. A woman. Slight of build and nimble of foot. With hair the color of the Daystar at dawn. The tall hahrp’ya shifted with impatience and leaned forward, restless. Sniffing. Searching. Seeking. Several hours passed, but still there was no sign. Finally, utterly weary, H’Wira folded her great wings with a disgusted snap and leaned back against the rock and closed her eyes.
Once she had been the sovereign of a great land, and had ruled her subjects with the blessing of the light. Such a realm had not been seen since the Age of the Ascendants. Then, others had performed such wearisome tasks as she did this day – watching and waiting, seeking and executing the kill. In truth, the men and women who followed her had fought for the privilege of doing so. Twelve hundred years ago they had died instead of her. Twelve hundred years. H'Wira's pain escaped through her lips as a sigh.
It seemed but a day.
At the time she had thought there was no other choice. Those she loved were dead. The last of the Thousand had fallen. Her realm with its gorgeous palaces and lush gardens, its vast fields of grain and endless seas of stock, its impressive cities with their gleaming towers punching like triumphant fists into a clear blue sky, was gone; destroyed as surely as the dream that had been New E'adon. Wiped out in a single moment. Scorched and melted beyond recognition.
Buried in a silent fall of ash comprised of her people’s flesh and bones.
Those who came after named it ‘The Conflagration’.
H’Wira knew it as the end of everything.
When first the forces of the Black Hand laid siege to her realm, she had not given in. She had championed her people and ridden to war with her consort at her side. Weeks before the final contest, after finding comfort in each other's arms, they had parted – he, to martial the northern forces; she to a secret meeting with the one she served.
She could not know it would be the last time St'fahn would hold her.
She could not know their plans had been betrayed.
And yet in spite of all – in spite of this betrayal and the brutal murder of her life’s mate, and in spite of the fact that she had made her last stand thigh-deep in the savaged bodies of her army, she had held on to her faith. She stood on the battlefield and lifted her arms and her voice in prayer and called on her Lady to come, just as Jaaz a’ Naioth had called on her as a child to come to be high priestess of her Order. As the sovereign ruler of the realm of New E’adon, she had cried out to her Lady for justice, for vengeance. For hope.
Oh yes, she had held onto her faith – until her Lady failed to appear and he came instead. Maaz, the Black Hand of Ashreth. Maaz, who offered not only justice and vengeance, but the hope of eternal life as well.
The tall hahrp’ya snorted. The Black Hand did not lie. She had walked with his gifts each and every day for the last twelve hundred years.
The vengeance of memory.
The eternal damnation of the soul.
H’Wira's fingers trembled as she caught a stray lock of coppery hair that troubled her eyes and thrust it away. The rain hammered the land and her strong form now, wetting her cheeks as the tears she would not shed. As she lowered her hand, she stared at it and noted its alien nature. When mortal, her flesh had been soft and supple. Now it was tough as tanned leather. And though her fingers had been long and slender before, now they were unnaturally so. Her knuckles had become bony ridges rocklike as the G’Wyllon Mountains she now called home. The hahrp'ya snorted as she flexed her fingers, retracting and extending the talons that tipped them. Once her handmaidens had spent hours polishing and painting her nails to perfection. Now they were serrated and crusted with blood.
Fit weapons for the baneful master who had wrought them for the sole purpose of dealing death.
As the gods' fire flashed again H’Wira rose wearily to her feet and returned to the edge of her rocky perch. She crouched and locked the talons of one hand in the rock as she rested the other on one shaggy thigh. Drawing a breath against the remorse such unwelcome thoughts brought with them – a remorse that bid her let go, that held the empty promise of a swift plunge and sudden end – the enthralled creature returned to her baleful duty scanning the forest below for a sign.
And found it.
A lone figure passed beneath. A slight form, cloaked and hooded. H’Wira pitched forward and sniffed the air, catching her quarry’s scent. Female. Mortal, but not. Living, breathing. Alive but once dead. Young.
Biting back a cry of triumph the hahrp’ya slipped silently off the edge of the rocky precipice and began her descent – a great winged shadow falling without sound into the deeper pool of night. At the bottom H’Wira noiselessly folded her great wings and turned in the direction of her prey. As she hesitated, seeking to reconcile the aerial view of the forest with her present reality, raindrops struck the ground beneath her feet, stirring the scent of leaf and life.
Shaming her on her mission of death.
“So you have come for me,” a woman said softly. Her voice came from the behind an ancient Napla tree. “Greetings, H'Wira.”
She knew her, though it had been many long years since they had spoken. “Fiahnn,” the hahrp’ya snarled. “I greet you. Though it is with orders for your death.”
Fiahnn's delicate form parted from the shadows. She held a lantern in one hand, which she opened to shed light onto the night. The petite woman was dressed much as she remembered; simply, in a deep brown cloak under which she wore a creamy gown. As she drew closer, she lowered her hood to reveal a mass of spiraling curls red-gold as the hoard of the Duke of Wold’s End. Fiahnn’s skin was pale, her face round with a pointed chin. Her eyes wide as a child’s and brown as the earth beneath her bare feet.
”And do you always do as your master commands?” Fiahnn inquired, amusement sparking in those eyes.
H’Wira moved forward until she towered over her prey and in a threatening gesture opened her great golden wings wide. This agent of her master’s brother was little more than five foot tall. Fiahnn was thin as the blades of grass that bowed beneath the storm's out-riding winds and appeared no stronger. Crushing her should prove effortless.
Looks were deceiving. Twelve hundred years ago this diminutive woman had faced the same choice as her. She had chosen not to betray her people. She had, instead, chosen death in order that she might serve the one whom she called ‘master’ as a Solid Soul.
Fiahnn’s master. Maaz’s half-brother. The childlike son of Tobias.
Fiahnn walked with the gods.
H’Wira tilted her head and fixed the other woman with slanted eyes. “Do I always obey my master’s commands? You know my answer, but I would have yours. Do you?”
Fiahnn did not hesitate. “To the death.”
“And that is what you will find here.” The hahrp’ya raised a hand and extended her razor-sharp talons. “Now. Now, agent of Mai, you will die again.”
“May I ask a question before I do, oh, mighty H’Wira?”
Maaz’s creature frowned. “What trick is this?”
Her violet eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Ask, and you will know.”
“The question I ask is this – what were Maaz’s exact words to you? What is this command that you must obey?”
H’Wira’s frown deepened. “That is an odd request.”
Fiahnn’s rose petal lips quirked at the edge. “Humor me.”
The hahrp’ya cast her mind back to the moment when she knelt before the Black Hand's throne. She saw Maaz’s ebon-swathed figure and heard his silken tones. “‘Find her. Stop her.’ That is all he said.”
“So,” the other woman spread her arms wide, “you have already fulfilled your duty. I am stopped. I am found. I hear no pronouncement of death in your master's words.” Fiahnn looked up to meet her skeptic's stare. “Of long acquaintance are we – you and I. Our lives parted and we have walked very different paths since then. Twelve hundred years, great W’Hira. Is it not time for this to end?”
That name was as a knife thrust to the heart. It was the name of the mortal woman she had been.
“W’Hira died long ago,” the transformed creature replied, biting the words off as their touch soured on her tongue. “I am H’Wira now. And it will never end, you know that. Not so long as Maaz lives.” The hahrp’ya turned and raised her banded arms toward the sky in preparation for flight. As she crouched, ready to leap, Fiahnn spoke eight words that stopped her and caused her to pivot sharply.
“No. You are wrong,” she said. “The end is here.”
Three long strides took her back to the other woman’s side where she demanded, “Why are you here, agent of Mai? What are these words that taunt me?”
“Maaz did not send you to kill me, but to find me so he would know.”
“I am not his pawn!”
“Yes. You are.” There was sorrow in her gaze, but also an impossible hope. “Maaz does not want me dead. I am unimportant to him. It is the one I seek that he wants. The woman of the Wood. Morgan.”
H’Wira knew the name. It had been in the sighs on her master’s lips often enough. And she had seen her. A pretty girl but nothing special – chestnut haired, with pale skin and wide grey eyes. No great beauty or outstanding intellect. And yet this mortal woman fascinated her master – Maaz, who could have had any woman he wanted. Any woman who walked one of his father’s worlds.
Fiahnn shuttered the lantern returning them to darkness. “Go back, H’Wira. Go back to your master and tell him the time has come. Tell Maaz it has begun.”
Hours later H'Wira stood on the pinnacle of the Guardian’s Hill, her strong-boned face turned toward the horizon and the land that lay beyond – the land known as the Greater Forest where even now the gods of her mothers walked. Like the storm Fiahnn had come and gone, leaving in her wake the first faint flicker of the dawn.
Of a renewed hope.
H’Wira lifted her banded arms toward the sky and opened her mighty wings wide and did something she had not done in more than a century. She brought the golden bracelets together and raised her husky voice in an ancient song of praise. Then with a great bound she took to the sky. It would take the better part of the day to fly to Ashreth. Once there she did not know if she would face her master’s disapproval – or merely his displeasure once he understood that she had grown wise to the game he played. Whichever, she would tell Maaz the truth, that she had done the best she could.
One could not kill something that would not die.
BOOK ONE OF THE CHRONICLES OF THE CHOSEN
BEYOND THE LAST TREE
Other books by Marla Fair & M. Cummins Fair
Available at www.marlafair.com
Morning through the Shadows
Copperhead: Book One of the Son of the Silver Fox
In the Midst of Danger: Book One of the Johnston Chronicles
Goodnight Robinson: A Tale of Love Across Time
My French Rebel: Book One of the General’s Daughter