(rough draft, unpolished, unedited and subject to change)
Isabella leaned out the window in an attempt to get a better view of the traveler heading up the steep mountain trail. It had been some weeks since they had a visitor, but that was nothing unusual. In truth, they could go long periods before seeing another traveler approaching their remote villa. Once a month a trader came, and every so often he brought with him another client seeking her mother’s wisdom and magic. It was usually pertaining to some perfectly dull subject too, but that didn’t stop Isabella from eagerly awaiting their arrival.
Especially lately. All signs pointed to a momentous event coming following her sixteenth birthday that would take her far from these mountains. She couldn’t see much into what was set out ahead of her by the fickle fates, but she knew it was coming in the form of a shrouded stranger who’d haunted her dreams for weeks. With her birthday nigh, she’d waited patiently for the relentless march of hours until finally the day arrived. Today she turned sixteen, and today there was a stranger on the mountain.
Was it her stranger? She was fair certain. Or, at least, everything within her seemed to have become alert in anticipation of the arrival of the traveler drawing increasingly nearer. Her heart pulsed a quickening beat and her belly fluttered in agreement. Even her skin tingled with the fine hairs on her arms rising. Surely, it had to be him!
From her vantage point she could see the mules picking their way along the steep slopes. The trader was recognizable even at this distance, but the other was indistinct beneath the layer of furs they wore. The only thing she could discern was that it had to be a man of some substantial size. His size practically dominated that of the trader in front of him. He would doubtlessly dominate over her in every way. Her breath caught in her throat as she imagined the way he would lean over her and…
Jerking back guiltily, she spun around to face the source of the sharp, scolding voice. The woman filling her doorway was tall and graceful, her dark hair twisted elaborately away for her face. Wearing a long tunic of Tyrian purple and light mauve dress pulled over it, her mother could have passed for a noble woman save for her eyes which were such a pale shade of blue that they appeared nearly white. They were a sign of her mother’s inhuman lineage that marked her as a sorceress, one that was passed on to Isabella in a slightly bluer variance. She gave her mother a sheepish grin. “Hello mamma.”
Ivana Norveau strode in, her face set in cool lines of disapproval. Her eyes passed through the room almost casually before they focused on Isabella. A thin, dark eyebrow arched as Ivana scrutinized her. “What are you doing Isabella? You know I disapprove of having the windows open this time of the year. It is hard enough to keep the villa comfortably warm without you casting them wide enough to fall out of.”
Isabella could barely contain her excitement. She tried not to bounce in place, but she couldn’t help but to note that her steps had a decisive spring to them as she rushed forward to lightly pull her mother to the window.
“Yes, mamma, I apologize, but there is a traveler coming!”
Her mother glanced out the window, her lips down turning. “Yes. I was aware that we would have a visitor arriving with Gunthor. It is a bad omen so near the snowy season for a king to risk themselves so.”
Isabella glanced over at her mother eagerly. “Have you foreseen something of him?…The visitor I mean.”
Ivana’s eyes snapped up, sharpening on her. “Yes. I have. I came up here specifically to speak to you on this…”
Isabella felt hope swell in her chest. If her mother brought news of a vision, it could be more momentous than she thought. She clasped her hands in front of her eagerly.
“…You are to stay in your quarters for the duration of King Herald’s visit. I know you usually come down and trade news, but not this time. I want you nowhere near this visitor…do you understand?”
That quickly, her heart plummeted. “But, mamma…”
“Do you understand, Isabella?”
Swallowing back frustrated tears, she nodded miserably. “Yes mamma, I understand.”
Her mother’s forbidding expression relaxed into a sympathetic grimace as she lifted one hand to caress the side of Isabella’s head in a gentle, maternal caress. “I am sorry, daughter. I know you feel stifled here on the mountain but trust me…he will bring you much sorrow before you would know a moment of joy. You must trust me on this.”
“Yes, mamma,” Isabella choked out.
“I will return in the evening with your supper. When they leave tomorrow, everything will return to normal and we will take a stroll around the gardens…wouldn’t that be nice? I think we have a couple more nights before the hard frost comes. It has been a while since we have enjoyed such a leisurely activity, and you are progressing remarkably well with your spells and conjurations.”
Isabella forced a smile and nodded her head. “Yes mamma, that sounds wonderful. Thank you.”
“We deserve a small treat, I think,” Ivana agreed, her lips curving with affection for a moment before she straightened and drew her staff up beside her. “I best go down the courtyard and see to our visitors. I will be back with your supper as soon as I can get away.”
“Thank you,” Isabella whispered, her heart crushing under the weight of her disappointment as her mother spun away to exit the room and pulled the door firmly shut behind her.
Lingering by the window, slumping against the windowsill, her pale blond hair scattering around her shoulders and falling over the ledge as she dismally watched the men enter the courtyard. Eyes filling with tears, she blinked in surprise when the stranger drew up short. He looked to his left and right, and then looked straight up at her! Isabella’s breath caught in wonder at the dark green eyes that stared up at her.
A golden circlet around his brow, the king was the most handsome being Isabella set eyes on. His hair and beard were black as a raven’s wing except for where a few threads of gray were just barely visible. His heavy, dark eyebrows rose, and his lips quirked into a smile as he raised a thick, calloused hand in greeting. A hard look crossed his face…one of absolute determination. He was magnificent, a blend of grace and power. Isabella felt her heart tip with infatuation. This was the man who would take her away. Her stranger in her dreams. The look he threw her was one of such promise that she knew that her mother’s interference would not succeed. He would take her away with him. She could hardly wait.
It was still early the next morning when she was summoned to her mother’s reception room. Dressing in her best sapphire tunic with a dove-gray apron dress belted over it, Isabella contained her tresses beneath an ivory veil that she wore only when propriety demanded among more esteemed company. She descended the stairs, near giddy. She had taken great pains to make certain that she looked as mature and regal as possible for this meeting.
The master guard, her mother’s dearest lover and friend, was waiting for her just outside the closed doors of the room. She smiled at Emver as she approached. He’d been with her mother for as long as she could remember and had been almost a father figure to her in her youth despite being wholly another species. It was funny how few visitors could see it, though Emver took pains not to draw attention to his otherness. He once told her that it was the best way to protect Ivana and herself. No one expected anything from what they assumed to be a common guard.
No one seemed to notice the way his eyes were sharply tilted at an inhuman angle, nor did they comment on the strange hood he always wore that concealed much of his head. A hood that was necessary to hide the long, pointed ears and the strange scroll-like patterns that ran like moonbeams along his cheekbones, marking his race. Even his body was covered in a long surcoat that obscured more of such markings, much of his tunic and hose, as well as a bevy of weapons. He was dangerous and intensely private. Even the sharp edge of his teeth which he often concealed behind a tight-lipped glower bespoke of his predatory, lethal nature. Yet, he’d always had a warm smile for her in the mornings.
This morning was different. He did not smile. His expression was stressed, and a sadness lingered in the golden depths of his eyes as he peered at her. His only greeting was to lean forward and press his lips to the top of her head before drawing back abruptly. When she would have asked him the reason that he looked so forlorn, he turned away and pushed upon the door. With the attention of the occupants now upon her, Isabella was left with little choice but to follow Emver into the reception room.
Entering the room, Isabella stopped just inside the entrance, her hands folded in front of as Emver strode to his place at Ivana’s side. Her mother sat in her high-backed seat with her small table to her left containing a scrying bowl and a small brazier that was already lit, the flames snapping in the air. Her mother was scowling at the king, but at Isabella’s entrance he turned to face her, his face lighting up.
Flushing brightly, she tried to adopt an unaffected air of a sophisticated young woman. It was embarrassing to be blushing as if she were still a child. She was sixteen. She was a woman now. More than anything she wanted Harold to see her that way.
“You summoned me, mother?”
Ivana’s tumultuous gaze fell on her, seething with restrained anger. “Isabella,” she greeted tightly. “You haven’t met King Harold.”
Isabella inclined her head politely the king, unable to meet his eye for fear that she would start giggling nervously. “Your majesty.”
Smile widening, he bowed and greeted her, his foreign accent settled on her ears, making his voice seem all the gruffer and more exciting. “Isabella, I am delighted to meet you at last. Never have I lain eyes on a fairer face than yours. To think I came all this way to inquire of the sorceress where I might find the perfect bride to rule by my side only to catch sight of you like some spirit sent to haunt me. I decided that moment I saw you leaning out of the tower that I had to have you as mine.”
A small tremor of excitement spread through her at that husky promise. He desired her and wanted her for his wife. She would be a queen, loved and adored by her husband, and he would show her the world that she’d never seen from her isolated home on the mountain. She turned hopeful eyes to her mother, but Ivana wasn’t looking at her. She was glowering at King Harold, her spine stiff and her fingers clenching tightly around her staff. Emvor shifted with agitation beside her.
Harold turned and arched a dark brow at Ivana as he continued to speak. “Your mother, however, is quite reluctant to part with you, even though I offered to pay a very generous bride price. It is quite fortunate that she finally agreed to bring you down at last in the spirit of friendship between us. Cooperation is always better, especially given how superstitious many common people can be,” his eyes lingered thoughtfully on Emvor.
Isabella repressed a shudder. She knew very well from her mother’s stories just how fearful people could be. A sizeable enough mob could be a genuine threat to the lives of both Ivana and Emvor. Her mother they would either burn or hang, depending on their mood. As for Emvor…well there were plenty of cruel methods for dealing with the fae. She cast a worried glance toward them. An alliance with a powerful king would certainly keep her family safer, there was no doubt about that.
Emvor met her gaze, silently entreating her toward caution, but it was Ivana who spoke, her normally cool façade broken as she beseeched her. “Isabella, you do not have to do this, we can leave this place…”
“It is fine mamma,” she interrupted with a smile. If Harold was willing to protect her family and cared for her as much as he professed, she couldn’t think of finer man to join her life with. She met the king’s eyes and curtseyed briefly. “I would be most honored to join my life to yours.”
A triumphant smile broke over his face. “We leave with the merchant within the next hour. Hasten to ready your belongings. I will send him up shortly to collect them.”
She inclined her head in a manner which she hoped was regal enough before flashing her mother a wide smile and rushing back to her room to pack. She had so much to get ready!
It was in high spirits that Isabella flew through her room, seeking out her most prized belongings that she couldn’t bear to leave behind. She was just finishing when her mother entered. Ivana ran her hand along one empty shelf, her mouth tugging downward. At last she faced her and leaned back against the bookcase.
“I see you have gathered most of your belongings, but it worries me that you are not taking even one of your tools, or any of your supplies for your magic.”
Isabella laughed as she folded another tunic and set it in her trunk. That would do it for her clothes. Brushing her hands off she gave her mother a fond smile. “I doubt I will need it mamma. I am going to be a queen…what is the likelihood I will need sorcery? I shall have no worries for how to procure coin.”
“It is always best to be prepared,” her mother insisted. “Please, let me help you pack just a few essentials. You may be right, and you may never have an occasion to use them, but it doesn’t hurt to have them available just in case.
“Of course, mamma, you are right,” she agreed easily enough. If it would make her mother feel better, then it was worth hauling it. She doubted she would need it and was loath to add another two trunks to her load to carry the spell books her mother meticulously copied for her, rare herbs and various tools. It seemed so unnecessary for a soon to be queen. She would never be in the position to barter her magic for coin like her mother did. Still, she had to admit that it was possible that there could come a time when she might need…or her husband might need her powers to come to his aide. She’d been studying magic since she was five years old and was able to properly say her first incantation, that was more training than some apprentices saw.
“I know I cannot talk you out of this foolishness,” her mother said at last, her brow furrowing. She held up a hand when Isabella opened her mouth to protest. “No. I know what you will say…the same thing all girls say when they are smitten with an idea who comes walking through their front door. You will not listen to my council on that, but heed me on this at least, daughter…never relax your guard. Keep your heart protected. The things that come to pass will only be for a moment in your life, but I fear that there is great struggle that lies before you and that one that you love will cut your heart in two before you have aged even twenty-five years, bringing you nothing but great sorrow.” Her mother’s hands caressed the sides of her head, tucking in a stray lock of hair back into her wimple. “Be strong, Isabella, and above all, stay vigilant and see to your safety. Not everything is as Harold speaks,” Ivana whispered just before she pressed a kiss to her forehead.
Just that quickly the moment was gone, and with a sad smile, Ivana stepped back and set her simple black, cotton robe on top of everything else within the final trunk. The ritual blade just below it glinted in the candlelight just moments before Ivana pushed the lid shut and firmly latched it.
They did not share any further words. Even Emvor whispered lowly in her ear so that Harold would not hear the strange resonating, multi-tonal quality of his voice as he whispered for her to stay safe and speak his name or the name of his kin to the wind should she need their aide. With her own whispered assurances that she would, Isabella quickly made her way to Harold’s side where he waited by mule. Giving her an impatient look, he hoisted her up onto the creatures back. She wobbled with uncertainty, nearly pitching when he pulled himself behind her. His arms locked around her, the only thing keeping her from falling to the ground. She was held so firmly that she couldn’t even look behind them to get a last glimpse of her family before the mules descended the mountain.
It took them only a day to descend the mountain, but then many days afterward traveling by carriage through the countryside. They stopped only long enough to pass a night at an inn before they were continuing on again. Harold didn’t even wait a night before he took her innocence. The pleasure only briefly outweighed the pain, but then the encounter was over. That was the way it seemed to pass night after night. He indulged himself in her body only to sate his need before he drifted off to sleep snoring beside her. Almost worse was the fact that he practically ignored her while they were traveling unless he was proudly showing her off. Any attempts at starting conversation she made, he responded with only a handful of terse words. Isabella blamed it on the circumstances of traveling, certain that things would settle down and they would enjoy some privacy and time to get to know each other once they arrived in his kingdom.
That was until she met, Katerina, a precocious nine-year-old who also happened to be his daughter. The girl had been waiting in the courtyard for their arrival with her nanny and tutor, her brown eyes shining with happiness only to dull when Harold patted her dismissively on the head as he passed. Isabella gaped after her intended but didn’t follow after him. Instead, she crouched in front of the girl with a gentle smile and performed a simple illusion to coax a smile out of Katerina, though her own grasp of saxon was limited. Though she hadn’t realized that she was coming into a relationship with a ready-made family, she sought to make the best of it. The wedding ceremony itself was a grand affair, promising a long, happy life with her husband. Yet, as time passed and she grew closer to Katerina, her relationship with Harold fell apart.
He was cold and aloof at the best of times, only attempting to be charming when it suited his purpose. Even then it was insincere. She didn’t understand how she’d never noticed until then that his smile never reached his eyes. He rarely extended more than a glimmer of kindness, and when she’d failed to provide him with an heir in that first year, he quickly became disenchanted with her. He ceased to spend time in her company and only brought her out as one would show off a fine work of art before setting her aside again to pursue his interests elsewhere. She was embarrassed and spent more and more time in her own chambers, her sorrows slowly mounting as month to passed to month. Despite the charming company of her stepdaughter, nothing could ease the turmoil she was filling within.
It was in that state of mind that one night, as the winter storms were moving in, that Isabella open the trunks that had remained unopened in the corner of her room. The moment she threw them open, she could feel her magic leap in response and all the months of cowering like a wretched beaten beast sparked a rage inside of her. The winds howled and raged as her fury fed them. Raising her hands to the heavens, Isabella swore an oath that she would never bow to a man again…that none would rule her heart unless she willed it.
Less than a month later, well into their third wedded year, Harold suffered a fall during a riding accident. His body was recovered by his Paige who was tasked with accompanying him on the hunt. Though rumor flew threw the kingdom of the suspicious way the king met his end, Isabella rose to power. Despite what rumor claimed, she hadn’t disposed of her husband, she didn’t grieve for him either. Instead, she assumed the throne with Katerina at her side and ruled with an iron will that brought the kingdom into a new era of prosperity.
Though she’d hardened her heart to all save her stepdaughter, she was certain that her time of sorrows were over. Although her powers of sight failed to show anything beyond the misty veil that closed off her own future against her, Isabella settled into disciplined routine, confident in her power over her own fate and for those under her care.
Isabella adjusted the ornaments holding the blue dress strapped in place over her long mauve tunic and frowned at herself in the mirror. Her blonde hair was parted and flowed over her shoulders, nearly touching the floor. It was mostly concealed behind a long white veil set over the crown of her head, upon which her diadem rose from her brow. Jewelry hung from where it was pinned to her dress, concealed in some places by the fur-line surcoat she wore against the cool air. It seemed even after seven years she was unable to tolerate the cooler lands into which she’d been transplanted.
Picking up a goblet, she briefly studied the red contents before returning her gaze to her reflection. It had been five years since Harold’s passing. Five years of ruling an ungrateful kingdom whose subject whispered and gossiped about her. The witch-queen they called her. They followed her not out of any sense of love but out of fear. She had no doubt that many of the inhabitants hated her and would have ousted her from her rule long ago if they’d possessed sufficient courage.
Her fingers tightened around the stem of her goblet. For a moment she considered throwing it against the mirror, its reflection betraying her inhuman eyes for the world to see. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that Harold had used her eerie beauty to his advantage. Having a sorceress wife put his rivals and the populace into the palm of his hand and he was lauded for possessing that which any other mortal man would fear to have in his bed. She snorted humorlessly. Within the three years prior to this death, he’d devised such a reputation for her that even after his passing she’d been unable to undo the damage. No amount of charity or just ruling could mend how everyone saw her.
The endless whispers—she couldn’t endure it much longer!
Though no one outright spoke out against her, she could feel them in the shadows, like vermin, eagerly waiting for an advantageous opportunity to attack. Her only saving grace was that the new religion with all of it fervor hadn’t yet pushed too far yet into dark forests where her kingdom lay. Though the people feared the power of sorcery for the misfortune that the superstitious said they brought to their communities—and would attempt to seal her in a bog if they had the opportunity—they were far less likely to act on it without an external power backing them. All they needed was the right spark to strike to inflame the fear of the people.
It would have been a far easier thing if she’d married one of the many noble suitors who’d attended her after her husband’s passing. The people would have been reassured by a powerful male controlling the kingdom…and her. She was advised to take a husband many times, but every time a man approached her, she refused. She couldn’t bare to be under the power of another man again—besides, she’d already come the decision that Katerina would inherit the kingdom. She just awaited the day when she could safely turn the kingdom over to her.
She certainly wouldn’t be sad to see the last of the castle. Even in the summer, its gray, drafty halls and narrow windows that didn’t let enough light for even a shade-loving plant to survive were the definition of misery to Isabella. The Apennine mountains where she’d spent much of her life were cold in the winter and plentiful with snow, but never had she felt so starved for sunlight as she’d been for the last seven years. Even the woods around the castle and neighboring fields surrounding the village were a dark testimony to the land itself, and the sky frequently gray with the clouds throughout much of the year. Her chambers had become her solace. Shortly after arriving she’d made it her task to drape her room in the brightest of fabrics. Harold had scoffed, and after his death it was with no little satisfaction that she moved all of her beautiful things into the somber master chamber of the king. If her room had to be the only splash of real color in her kingdom, then it would be the shining jewel of Naples itself. Yet, even that didn’t stop the march of time from weighing heavier on her spirit with each year that passed.
Likewise, with each annum, Isabella felt like she was dancing closer to the edge of precipice. It was ironic that through much of her youth she’d longed to leave her mother’s villa to find a new adventure, and now she wanted nothing more than to retire in peace somewhere. She wondered if her mother had once felt that way and that was what finally took her, with her only family in tow, into the mountains. She supposed she could always ask her. Sorceresses were notoriously long-lived, especially those bonded with fae and other spirits that abounded in the world unseen around them. Her mother would always be there waiting, for Ivana never seemed to age and would likely outlive Isabella herself. The thought was both comforting and mildly depressing.
She took a long drink of the honey-sweetened wine from her goblet and wondered if her mother had received her letter yet. A lot of it depended on if her messenger arrived in time to make the trip up the mountain with the merchant. If things timed right, he could nearly be back with correspondence for Isabella. She looked forward to news from home.
A sharp rap at the door of her chambers alerted her to the presence of a servant waiting outside. With a sigh she set her cup down. “Enter.”
Her personal serving woman appeared, her face ruddy from the cold morning air. Cynewise had tended on her from the very day she arrived and had quickly become one of few people in the castle she trusted, and at nearly twice Isabella’s age, a surrogate mother figure when she’d needed one. The serving woman bobbed a bow. “Good morning your majesty.”
“Good morning, Cynewise,” Isabella returned, the clipped tones of the saxon language falling effortlessly from her tongue though it was still strange to her ears.
The older, matronly woman smiled warmly and set a tray containing a simple morning meal on the small, fabric-draped wooden table. The toasted bread lay in a dish soaked in wine, a simple but luxurious repast for her morning. Isabella nodded her thanks and sat on the pillow laden bench beside the table and picked up her eating utensil.
“Has the messenger returned?” she inquired as she tore off a small chunk of the bread and popped it into her mouth.
Cynewise nodded. “Yes, he arrived just this morn. He was accompanied by a young man from the southern lands, driving a wagon laden with goods from Naples, as you requested. There was also a massive, well-wrapped parcel that he claims is from your mother.”
Isabella’s brows winged up. “My mother sent something?” That was entirely unheard of. The most she and her mother had ever exchanged were lengthy letters. Never had she received a parcel from Ivana in all the years they’d been apart. “Please send him up with it immediately.”
“Of course, mistress” Cynewise agreed and bustled out of the room at a swift pace. She’d been one of the castle housekeepers before Isabella had arrived. She hadn’t been the first to be assigned to Isabella’s comfort but had quickly gained that position on the first day when she’d made more effort of kindness toward a new, homesick and bewildered queen. Ever since then, Cynewise had not only been a faithful servant and close confidant but had also taken to her new duties with a passion that had surprised Isabella. For not the first time, as she consumed her meal, she considered taking her south with her when the time came.
She’d finished her meal and poured some cider from a jug left earlier that morning by the maid when the messenger arrived, followed by two stable boys who struggled with what turned out to be a very large parcel. Cynewise had not exaggerated. It stood easily eight feet tall, and though clearly padded with swatches of fabric, it was of a particular narrow shape. At her gesture, they sat it down against wall while the messenger bowed and handed her a sealed letter. Murmuring her thanks, she accepted the letter, her gaze still mostly on the large object leaning against the wall as the messenger quickly departed. The sound of the door closing brought her back to herself and she turned away from it. She turned the letter over in her hands and broke the wax sealed with her mother’s crest.
The letter was unusually brief, only a few lines scrolled in her mother’s precise pen. She read the contents aloud, a puzzled frown marring her brow. “Isabella, seven years you have been away and for seven years I have been locked by fate from interceding. Nigh is your time, promised since your birth to arrive with the dawn of your twenty-fifth year. Unlock the portal to your future and forgive your mamma for meddling.”
She turned the letter to see if there was anything else on the reverse of the creased parchment, but there was nothing more. How strange.
Setting the letter on the tray she went to her writing table and picked up a jeweled blade and approached the parcel. She eyed it for a long moment before she brought the edge of the blade up to the ropes binding it and quickly cut them free. The outer wrapping immediately fell free with the ropes, but she was left facing what she knew was many more layers between herself and whatever her mother had sent. Working tirelessly, she felt the sweat build up on her brow and the nape of her neck even as sweat dampened her skin beneath her clothes from the exertion of her labor. Loose strands of hair stuck to her skin in many places by the time she came to a finely woven dark fabric tightly swathing whatever it concealed. She didn’t need to touch to feel her mother’s magic in the weave. The magic paired with her mother’s odd missive gave her a pause. Stepping back, she regarded it, steepling her fingers in front of her lips thoughtfully.
Although it was doubtlessly an item of magic, she was at a loss as to what it could be at such size and shape. Most tools she’d used under her mother’s tutelage had been easily held, the largest she’d ever seen was her mother’s staff with which she conducted her greater magics. It was a mystery, and that sent a shiver of apprehension through her.
Even as she was contemplating it, that fabric suddenly punched outward, straining though it didn’t rip or part beneath the internal pressure. Whatever was fighting against the shroud, her mother’s ensorcelled weave was containing it. She didn’t want to open it.
“Release me,” a deep, resonating voice filled the air. The hairs which were stuck so resolutely to her rose at the power contained within that simple command. It was a good thing that she had gained a level of mastery. She had no doubt that such a voice could easily command those of weaker wills.
“I think, not yet,” she returned. “I am not so foolish as to endanger myself at the bidding of one unknown to me.”
“Did you not already bring that misfortune to yourself,” the voice demanded. “You have nothing to fear against one contained such as myself. I only wish to look upon my new abode and be released from this infernal shroud.”
“If that were the case, why would my mother shroud you?”
A bitter laugh came from behind the cloth. “Your mother trapped me in here by her own error in her youth, and unable to free me, she shrouded me so that she would not have to look upon my anger and the consequences of her own failing. So I have lived in this darkness for thirty cycles of the sun, my only comfort was the promise of her daughter. Now let me look upon the child of the sorceress,” the voice growled.
“Speak truthfully…can you harm me?”
A silence fell, and the words when they came were gruff and begrudgingly spoken. “Because I am compelled by the spell of this mirror, I shall answer you truthfully. I can do naught to you, not even touch you unless you touch the mirror. Only a fragment of my power can extend a short distance from the mirror itself.”
Easing closer to the mirror, for she had no doubt that her mother would place such a spell if intending to capture a being within a mirror, she asked, “What are you?”
“Remove the shroud and you shall see me well enough of eyes of your own.”
Pinching her lips together against the elusive non-answer that was truthful even if vague, she resisted scowling at the dark cloth knowing full well that at current it would be wasted on whatever was on the other side of the shroud separating them. Careful to not get too close, she gripped a loose corner of fabric, the soft weave filling her hand, and tugged.
The cloth fell free with little effort at her touch, but her gaze was transfixed on that which was glaring impatiently at the other side of an ornately framed mirror.
A pair of cat-like eyes the shifting hue of embers regarded her from a sharply masculine face of darkest indigo. Black brows arched in a high slant toward long, pointed ears that extended far pass his skull. Dark hair fell in cascades over his shoulders and down his back, interrupted with thin, strategically placed, braids decorated with small gems and fragment of what appeared to be bone. His chest was bare and broad, and his limbs lean and defined with muscle. He wore little except some golden and silver chains around his neck, and highly ornate bands on his arms and ankles. What little clothing he wore was confined to a pair of high boots and a knee length band of cloth intricately around his hips in a manner not unlike what she imagined may have been an ancient style. The fabric itself was of an excellent weave and highly detailed in its design as it flowed with hues of purples and blues churning to golds and ambers set it artful patterns.
She pulled back a little when she realized that he was also returning her scrutiny, his bright eyes sliding over her in a lingering, far too-familiar way. She fought a blush that threatened to steal over her cheeks. She had fallen victim to blushes since the second year after Harold claim her innocence in all manner of things. She’d thought she could no longer be uncomfortable or embarrassed, nor aroused if truth be told after some of his more distressful ideas for bed-play before he’d tired of her—but this male suddenly threatened to bring all of those sensations flooding back.
Suddenly a tail, long and thick, though tapered to a delicate point at the end, rose from behind his legs almost carelessly. Isabella jerked back in surprise, her eyes widening.
“What are you?”
His dark lips curved into a sneer. “I am a silvanus. Though I expect you to at least know the difference between the fae. For my part, there is no mistaking what you are, sorceress.”
Isabella regarded him speculatively. “Where are your horns, then?”
His expression turned more mocking. “I suppose you consider all of mine kind nothing more than hapless fauns roaming the woods. We all look quite distinct I assure you.”
“I see,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Will you tell me why my mother would trap a silvanus in the mirror? What use could she have of you there?”
The feline eyes narrowed on her briefly and his smile dropped away, replaced with a scowl. “Ivana was foolish,” he retorted. At her look of surprise his smile returned, sharp and predatory. “Oh yes, I know your mother’s name. I have plenty of time to know her well even behind the cursed veil. I know she mated another of my kind who rules the forest around the mountain where she dwells. I spent many nights listening to them rut while I’ve been helplessly contained.”
Isabella grimaced. She’d heard enough of her mother’s passions through the halls of the villa in her youth. She didn’t need any more information on the matter from the silvanus watching her so closely.
“But you asked as to my imprisonment, didn’t you,” he purred menacingly. “She sought to harness a spirit to aid her with her magic. She desired one of wind and smoke that would be able to move between the worlds by use of the mirror. One misspoken word of her enchantment ripped me from my wood near where she’d been settled at the time with her first lover, your father I assume. Since silvani are closely bonded with this world, it did not act as it should have for its intended target, but captured me within it, unable to operate outside of the mirror except by request from my ‘mistress,’” he hissed furiously.
“And my mother just covered you upon discovering that she had the wrong spirit?” that did not sound like her mother. Ivana was one who would at least attempt to make best use of what she had. She rarely easily abandoned anything.
His bark of laughter was unkind. “She thought to engage me to her bidding, even though I was trapped within this glass prison. We were able to learn that I could send parts of myself in certain limited forms at her behest, but she was unable to discover the means of freeing me from the mirror. I became angry and out of fear she silenced me the only way she knew how, though not before promising me that one day the offspring growing within her womb would be mine even as much as I would be hers. It would seem that she kept her end of the bargain. For I see in truth the daughter of Ivana before me.”
His eyes glinted mercilessly, and Isabella felt faint under the weight of his gaze. It promised all kind of retribution to be visited upon her. That even as she was compelled now by her mother’s spell knitting them together beneath her skin, she could feel the effect of it even now, she would never be free of the creature that watched her with a mixture of loathing and desire. A shiver raced over her body and her breath parted from her in a nervous puff. She was close enough to the mirror that she knew when her breath fanned over the glass, slightly fogging it. The silvanus within shuddered, and his eyes brightened, promising more than she believed herself capable of imagining.