Book 2 of the Rowankind Trilogy
by Jacey Bedford
(Published by DAW, USA)
Happy Ever Afters
Deep in the Old Maizy Forest, Somewhere near Chard, Somerset
Early Spring 1801
A large silver-gray shape trotted out of the trees, a grizzled brown hare dangling dead in the creature’s jaws. In wolf form, Corwen was almost the height of a small pony, but he had to hold up his head to prevent the hare’s legs from dragging on the ground. He dropped it to the side of the path and in one smooth movement changed from wolf to naked man.
Corwen was a superb wolf, but I also appreciated his human form. His mane of silver-gray hair, that color since childhood, made him look older and more distinguished from a distance, but close up he was a young man in his prime, tall and well-muscled with long lean flanks, a flat belly, and all the attributes a man needs.
“Good hunting by the looks of it.” My voice caught in my throat.
Corwen flashed a smile in my direction before drawing a bucket of water from the barrel and dipping his face and hands into it. Damn him, he knew exactly what effect he had on me. I wanted to reach out and stroke his firm back, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Instead, I bent, grasped a dandelion rosette, and pulled. The soft earth from last night’s rainfall, allowed the whole thing—root and leaves—to come up in my hand, so rather than toss it on the growing pile of weeds, I dropped it into my basket of edibles.
“Yes, very good,” he said, straightening from the bucket and shaking off excess water. “I brought a hare for the pot. There may have been a rabbit involved as well.” He grinned, white teeth with a hint of the canines showing. “Just a small snack.”
“A snack? You still don’t trust my cooking?” I dusted off my hands on the seat of my canvas slops, wide-legged trousers left over from my sailing days, and picked up the basket.
“Let’s say it’s a good job your Aunt Rosie’s notebooks included some recipes. Shall I clean the hare and joint it?”
“Now?” I made a wide-eyed face at him.
“You have something else in mind?”
“I might have.”
“You’re a wicked woman, Ross Tremayne. Come here.”
“Uh, get used to calling me Sumner. I need to leave the name of Tremayne on the quayside.”
“Sumner rather than your maiden name?”
“Yes. There’s a warrant for Rossalinde Goodliffe in Plymouth. I’ll reclaim my mother’s family name, I think.”
“I don’t mind what I’m to call you as long as you come here right now.”
I dropped the basket, walked into his nakedness, and held him tight, feeling the heat of his body through the linen of my shirt. I licked the cool water from his lips and pulled his head down to mine.
As he raised his head from the lingering kiss, I wriggled out of his embrace.
“Going so soon?” he asked.
“You want to eat raw hare for supper?”
I stepped in close again and pressed against him, a promise for later.
He said something inarticulate like, “Mmmmnnngg,” and kissed me again thoroughly. I was tempted to stay where I was, possibly forever, but the makings of dinner awaited. I pushed one hand against his chest, feeling his heart thumping.
“So—you were saying—about my cooking . . .”
“You haven’t killed me with it yet.”
“Such kind words. Careful, or you’ll turn my head.”
To be honest, that was probably as much of a compliment as my cooking deserved.
When I was a girl in Plymouth, I’d watched our rowankind in the kitchen. Ruth and Evy had even let me chop vegetables on occasions, but cooking was largely a mystery to me. When I’d run away to sea with my late husband, Will, Lazy Billy had been ship’s cook and we’d eaten with the crew. Now Corwen and I were on our own, and I’d learned more about cooking than I thought possible.
I wondered how households across the country were managing without their rowankind bondservants, and decided it wasn’t my problem. I liked the quiet life, undisturbed by visitors, magical creatures, or government agents bent on our destruction. I wanted to put the past behind me.
Corwen grinned and turned away. I watched his naked buttocks as he bent to retrieve the hare and take it round to the back of the cottage.
Sighing, I found the last few winter cabbages hiding behind the skeletons of last autumn’s woody weeds, cleared around them, and yanked out one for the pot. Satisfied with my afternoon’s labors, I washed my hands and face in the icy water, retrieved the basket, and went indoors.
While I’d been finishing my tasks outside, Corwen had dressed. He’d skinned, cleaned, and jointed the hare, and was now setting a pot over the fire with herbs and onions from Aunt Rosie’s store. He hummed while he worked, a rich, warm sound in a low register that made me shiver. Since we’d relaxed into a life of domesticity, Corwen had found his voice and I loved listening to him.
Will, had not been able to hold a tune in a bucket, though he’d been able to shout out a shanty over the howl of the gale when he’d needed to keep the men working in rhythm aboard the Heart of Oak. His crew had always responded as if he were the sweetest singer in the world. I could just about sing, but I’d never had the vocal power for shanties when I’d captained the Heart. I left that to a sailor called Windward, who had lungs on him like bellows and a store of dubious verses.
I’d expected to miss life at sea, but I didn’t regret leaving it behind for a moment. This was our happy-ever-after—Corwen’s and mine—a well-earned interlude after the freeing of the rowankind, a time to heal and reflect. Aunt Rosie’s cottage, empty since Rosie had married Leo, was our safe place, protected by a glamour. The Old Maizy Forest itself was one of those liminal places, half in the real world, but only a few steps away from Iaru, the magical home of the Fae.
We’d found a deep sense of peace here, and time to get to know each other properly: one ex-privateer captain and self-confessed witch, and one wolf shapechanger formerly in the employ of the Lady of the Forests. We knew it couldn’t last forever and soon we’d have to think about our place in the real world, but for now it was all we wanted.
I peeled three large potatoes from Aunt Rosie’s store and sliced them into the pot with the neatly jointed hare. As I cleaned and chopped the cabbage and set it aside to be added later, I sensed Corwen behind me. He put his arms around me, his right hand sliding along my arm until he stretched to clasp my knife hand.
“I make it a rule never to touch a woman in intimate places while she has a knife in her hand, especially when she knows how to use it.” His voice was husky and soft.
I let the knife clatter to the table as Corwen’s lips touched the side of my neck, his breath coming in puffs of warmth on my skin.
He pulled up the long-tailed shirt I had tucked inside my slops. There was a lot of shirt, and it gave up its secrets slowly, seeming to take hours until his big warm hand met with the tender skin of my belly. I sank backward into him. He held me steady with one hand while the other joined it beneath the fabric and explored upward. I gave a low moan as it reached my breast and then another of deprivation when it continued upward past the ticklish skin of my underarm, into the folds of my sleeve, to my elbow and thence to my wrist. I pulled my arm through the shirt cuff and freed it.
My other arm followed, and he drew the folds of linen over my head, letting the garment pool at our feet. Undoing a couple of buttons loosed my slops to fall to the floor with the shirt, and I stepped out of them. The warmth from the fire flickered across my naked skin as our supper bubbled in the pot.
I spun to face him.
“Ah, Ross,” he murmured, running his hands down my back as I tugged on the open neck of his shirt, kissing the hollow at the base of his throat. I unfastened the two neat rows of buttons on the front of his breeches, and our articles of clothing cuddled together in front of the fire.
He picked me up bodily and carried me to the wide bed. The cool quilt was a shock to my naked back, but it warmed quickly.
Impatiently I ran my hands over his warm flesh, feeling the taut muscles beneath silken skin. Unlike my body, Corwen’s is remarkably scar-free, since changing from wolf to human and back again heals all but mortal wounds.
I felt shabby in comparison. I have a scar across my ribs, and another on my arm, but the worst is my ear. I lost the top edge of it in an explosion that almost killed me. I felt his fingers trace the line of the scar across my ribs, and I reached down.
“Will stitched that one. He wasn’t so good with a needle.”
“He did his best.”
“It puckers at the end. It’s ugly.”
“Nothing about you is ugly.”
“Even this?” I touched the top of my ear.
“Especially not that. Your hair covers it from the world, and there’s no need to cover it from me, ever.”
He kissed me on the ear, and then his tongue drew a hot line down my neck to my throat. I stroked his flanks and across the ticklish spot between hip and groin, drawing a gasp from him, or maybe it was a curse.
“Steady, woman, or you’ll undo me.”
“Undo, indeed.” I wriggled my hips beneath him and dragged my nails lightly across his flank, then wrapped my legs around him and ran the soles of my feet down his legs. He groaned and reached between us, at which point I turned to jelly. “Now, Corwen.”
“Yes, now, damn you.”
He laughed delightedly as I rose to meet him.
“Corwen!” A loud shout and a heavy thump on the door sent a shock through both of us. “Corwen!”
My love pulled away suddenly, leaving me bereft and panting as if I’d run a mile.
“Corwen!” Another thump on the door.
Corwen swore like one of my common sailors. It was my turn to say something like, “Nnnngggrrrh.”
With my hearing and Corwen’s nose, it’s hard for anyone to sneak up on us, but preoccupied as we were, someone had.
“Someone’s here.” I stared hard at the door as if it would reveal what lay beyond.
“That much is obvious.” Corwen sniffed. “It’s all right. It’s Hartington.”
“It’s not all right. Tell him to go away.”
Hartington was Corwen’s long-time friend and one-time mentor, the stag shapechanger from the Lady’s retinue.
Corwen rolled off me and lurched toward his breeches.
“A social call?” I asked.
He sighed and tossed my shirt on to the bed. “I doubt it.”
“Corwen, are you in there?”
“Hartington, one moment.”
I fought my sense of loss and dragged on my shirt and slops.
“Have I caught you at a bad time?” Hartington sounded amused on the other side of the door.
Corwen swore again. “His hearing is as keen as mine. He bloody knows he caught us at a bad time.”
“In that case, can’t he hear what you just said?”
Corwen grinned. “Of course he can. Are you decent?”
“Well, I’m clothed . . .”
* * *
By the time Corwen opened the door, I hoped the flush was fading from my face although I suspected it wasn’t. Hartington stood on the doorstep, his features schooled into a neutral expression as if this were a casual morning call from a polite society acquaintance.
I wondered if he’d traveled on horseback or in stag form. If the latter, he’d managed to clothe himself since changing to human. Like Corwen, he probably had one of the magical packs that held so much more than they seemed to have room for and then seemed to melt into his shape when he changed. A little forethought generally meant shapechangers arrived at their destination with clothing to change into. Mistakes could be embarrassing.
Hartington ignored Corwen’s meaningful glare and greeted him warmly. He bowed to me more formally, his sandy hair, gray-streaked at the temples, escaping from its loosely tied ribbon. He had a thin, fine-boned face, an upright, almost haughty carriage, and unexpectedly gentle brown eyes. If I hadn’t known he was a stag in his animal form, I might have guessed it anyway from his looks. I wondered at his firm friendship with Corwen: wolf and stag, predator and prey. Lucky that shapechangers retained a measure of their rational humanity when in their animal forms.
I wasn’t sure whether to bow or curtsy since I was hardly dressed to receive polite company. Corwen had his shirt open at the neck, long tails hanging outside his breeches, and bare feet.
I settled for holding out my hand and Hartington took it, smiling.
“You both look well. You’ve had time to heal.”
Some scars were invisible, but the physical ones had healed as much as they were going to.
“We have,” Corwen said.
“Well rested, I trust.”
His voice was light. It might have been a polite inquiry, but to me the words sounded ominous. It wasn’t simply a casual question.
Corwen obviously thought the same. “Why would we need to be well rested? What’s happened? Does the Lady of the Forests need us?”
“There is a matter she would like your help with.”
“A matter she can’t deal with herself?”
“She rules the forests. This concerns the sea.”
“The sea?” My stomach lurched. “It’s not the Heart, is it?”
“We have no news of your ship.”
“That’s good, I expect.” I breathed easy again. My old friend Hookey Garrity and his crew of barely reformed pirates were cruising French waters in my lovely tops’l schooner under letters of marque from Mad King George for prizes of fat merchantmen.
“I should say it’s a matter of the seashore,” Hartington said. “A water horse, a kelpie, has carried off two children.”
I felt slightly sick. It was my fault wild magic had returned Britain. I didn’t know much about kelpies, other than the basics. They were shapechanging demons who looked like ponies. They lured unsuspecting people onto their backs, then galloped into the water and drowned and ate their victims. I shuddered. Did I need to know much else? If a kelpie had taken two children, the poor little mites weren’t coming back.
“Where?” Corwen asked.
“South Devon, Bigbury on Sea, not far from Bur Island.”
“Aren’t kelpies normally associated with Scotland?” Corwen frowned. “It’s way out of its own territory.”
“I know it.” I interrupted. “Bur Island, I mean, not the kelpie.” Raised in Plymouth, I’d visited the area as a child with my father during one of his homecomings between voyages. “Bur Island is barely a few hundred yards off the coast. You can walk across at low water, but it’s cut off from the mainland at high tide. There’s an old inn, I forget its name, and tales of smuggling.”
“What about the Mysterium?” Corwen asked. “Are they investigating the disappearances?”
“There’s a Mysterium office at Kingsbridge,” Hartington said. “It’s not as big or as busy as the one in Plymouth, but it’s still substantial. At the moment no one is treating this as a magical problem, so neither the Mysterium nor the Kingsmen are involved. We should be safe from them—as safe as anyone ever is—though it’s always wise to be vigilant, of course.”
“So if they’re not treating it as a magical problem, what are they treating it as?” Corwen asked.
“The children were taken on two separate occasions. The first was a farmer’s son, taken from the bank of the River Aven. The locals thought he might have run away as he’s a troublesome lad. Then the second, the daughter of Reverend Purdy’s rowankind housekeeper, disappeared from close to the parsonage. They’re taking that more seriously as the child is generally obedient and not much given to pranks.”
“The reverend has a rowankind housekeeper? Still?” I asked.
“She’s not there under duress, but employed. I suspect the missing child to be only half-rowankind.”
“The reverend’s bastard?”
“His son’s more likely.” Hartington sighed. “We don’t know the full details. It’s sometimes better not to ask. The real problem is the kelpie.”
“Of course.” I frowned. “What does the Lady want us to do? Capture it? Kill it? Can kelpies even be killed?”
“Oh, yes. They can be killed, but they’re devilish tricky, have teeth like a tiger, and their hide is tough. It takes silver to kill them, or hot iron, or possibly fire. You can capture them, but only if you find them without a bridle and put on a halter embossed with a cross.” He cleared his throat. “At least that’s what the legends say. No one knows for sure, except perhaps the kelpie, and she’s not saying.”
Corwen set his mouth in a line. “Is one wolf enough to deal with a kelpie?”
“Possibly not, but a summoner, a wolf, and a marksman should be enough.”
“You’re coming, too?”
Hartington nodded. “While you’ve been lazing about here, I’ve been chasing ’round the country after a number of minor magical eruptions: an infestation of pixies in Cornwall; a hob in Coventry; and a headless horseman riding across Wimbleton Common.”
“That’s one of the things I was worried about.” I frowned. “Wild magic released into the world.” I turned to Corwen. “Walsingham was right.”
“He’s dead now. He can’t hurt us.”
“They’ll appoint another one. There’s always a Walsingham working against magic. He’s as much a danger to us as the Mysterium—maybe more so because he works in secret. He might be on our trail even now. If I hadn’t—”
“It’s not your fault.” Corwen turned to me.
“Whose fault is it, then? I freed the rowankind.”
“We knew there was a possibility—”
“Yes, and we considered it worth the risk. I considered it worth the risk. And now two children are dead because of me.”
“And thousands of rowankind are free.”
I breathed deeply and swallowed hard. “It’s still a damned difficult equation to balance.”
“Then let’s away to Devon while it’s still only two children.”
<<End of Chapter One>>