Witchshadow Page 1


The Rook watches from an oak branch.

His feathers rustle. His beak clacks. It has been a long time since he saw the Sun and the Moon come together.

It has been even longer since he saw them heal a Well.

A hundred people attend, arranged in stiff rows around the wide pond. Some have weapons, most have uniforms, and all have bored scowls. Behind them, long-dormant beech trees stand sentry. Six—always six.

Snow fell in the night, a light dusting that has turned the pine forest to fragile white. But it never touches the Well, nor the mossy flagstones surrounding it, nor the beech trees waiting to come alive.

The people call the Sun “Domna.” They call the Moon nothing at all. Both girls wear matching brown shifts that come to their knees, but this is where their likeness ends. The Sun, with her golden hair, is annoyed and does not try to hide it; the Moon, with her black hair, is impassive, all her feelings and thoughts kept tucked away behind lucent nothing.

They remind the Rook of someone he knew long ago. Someone who broke the world just to make it new again.

Both girls are clearly cold. Both shiver and bounce, breaths fogging. A stone overhang lurches above the Well, blocking what little light the true sun gleans at this early hour. The girls are trapped in shadow.

When at last a round man with furs nods for them to begin, they do not hesitate. A single glance passes between them, a hint of a smile on the Sun’s face, then, hand in hand, the Sun and Moon dive into the cold, dark Well.

Soon, all that is visible are their legs, flashes of pale skin that wink beneath fresh-churned froth. A flicker of pale hands, a shimmer of toes. Then they vanish entirely, swallowed by the Well.

Several moments pass before a graceful man with hair the color of sunrise begins to prowl along the Well’s southern edge. Back and forth, back and forth, always staring into the depths with an intensity no one can match, not even the Rook. The rotund man snaps at him to stop; the graceful man ignores him.

That one has never been good at listening.

Then it happens: a gentle boom, so subtle one might think it a trick of the mind. A heartbeat that has pulsed too long. A tremor in the muscles, not the earth.

But the Rook has seen this before. He has felt it before and watched as ripples tore out across a pond. Perfect, concentric rings to lap against a Well’s rim.

The graceful man smiles.

Then a second boom breaks loose—strong enough to shake snow off the trees. Strong enough to rattle in the Rook’s hollow bones. Suddenly, none of the people surrounding the Well are bored.

The graceful man cries out, a whoop of joy, and his arms fling wide. Triumphant. He twirls to face the other man. Yet as he turns, his eyes briefly catch on the Rook’s. If he is surprised to see the bird, he does not show it.

“It is done,” he declares, advancing on the round man. “The Well is healed.”

The round man smiles. A slow thing that makes his dark eyes gleam—for as the Rook well knows, there are no creatures in the Witchlands as hungry as men.

“His Majesty will be pleased,” the round man begins, but a splash steals the rest of his words. The girls have returned.

The Sun appears first. Initiate. The Moon follows next. Complete.

They both gasp for air, paddling clumsily for the Well’s edge. Cold has leached color from their skin, save for a painful pink along their noses. Two uniformed guards await them with thick blankets. The Sun reaches the rim first, and after the guards haul her free, she turns back to help the Moon. Not because there aren’t men to aid her too, but because this is who she is. Who they both are: inseparable and true.

And the Rook nods at that. Clacks his beak too, just for good measure. Everything has happened as it ought, and now it is time for him to leave. He has orders to follow and this detour here wasn’t one of them.

But the Rook feels that he deserved to see the Sun and Moon united. A reward for all his centuries of devoted focus. After all, there are still pieces of humanity twinkling inside him. Tiny slivers that like chocolate and sweet jams.

And tiny slivers that like rewards for a job well done too.

With a flap of his glossy wings, the Rook bursts off the oak tree. The branch shakes, snow flutters, and soon the discussions of two men accustomed to power fade from the Rook’s hearing.




One Month After the Earth Well Healed

She knew she was walking into a trap. She had seen their tracks twenty paces before, just beside that bend in the road, and she had sensed their Threads even sooner.

Maybe, if she had wanted to, she could have avoided them. But she didn’t want to. She was hungry. Winter’s cusp had left nothing to forage on this side of the Ohrins, and what little she had managed to gather she’d given to her tiny companion, now waiting in a hollowed-out beech with a weasel who wasn’t really a weasel.

When she reached fifteen steps from the closest soldier, she stopped and planted her staff into the mud. It was roughly hewn silver fir, taken off a corpse two days before. Silver fir, the hill folk said, was good for warding off nightmares. So far that had not been true.

The closest man’s Threads hovered green with concentration. He was poorly hidden behind an alpine rhododendron, and even if his Threads had not given him away, the footprints speckling the road would have. Muddy from yesterday’s rain, the road had grooved so deep from travel it was practically a ditch—giving all these men in the forest brush higher ground.

Not that it would help them.

“I know you’re there,” she called.

As one, bright alarm punched across eight sets of Threads, each poorly hidden.

“And I have nothing of value,” she continued. Her voice was rough with hunger and the world had been a sickening spin for days now. If not for their Threads, she would never have been able to focus on them.

Or on the one man, now stalking toward her down the path. A Hell-Bard. She didn’t need to see his scarlet uniform to know that. The shadowy twirl at the heart of his Threads gave him away.

“We were warned about you,” he declared, pausing at twenty paces. Near enough for her to spot the ruddied nose of a man who drank too much. He smiled. “You don’t look like a threat.”

“Oh, but I am.” She lifted her right hand and flipped it his way. “Do you know what this means?”

He didn’t answer, but fresh concern rippled across the hidden soldiers’ Threads. Few people bore a filled-in circle for a Witchmark.

“And do you,” the Hell-Bard countered, drawing a gold chain from beneath his collar, “know what this means?”

She laughed at that—a dry, starving chuckle. “I guess they didn’t tell you, did they?”

His eyes thinned. He took the bait. “Tell me what?”

“They tried to make me like you, Hell-Bard.” She let a dramatic beat pass. Then added, “It didn’t work.”

The Hell-Bard swallowed now, his weight shifting and his Threads flickering like a stormy sky. He would attack soon. So would the other soldiers in the woods. Bushes shifted; branches snapped. These men did not like feeling afraid. They would end her and be done with it.

She sighed. She was tired, she was hungry, but she was not weak.

“You have two choices,” she offered them. “I will cleave you or I will kill you. There is still a chance at life if you choose—”