1

 

TOUCHED BY Her own hand. Wil could feel it. Could feel Her. Almost overwhelming strength wrapped inside soft benevolence. Terrifying might and boundless love. Impassioned wisdom and fierce defense. All of it in his palm, striating all through him. He wanted desperately to hurl the thing away from him, and just as desperately to curl it so tight in his fist it melded with skin and tooth and blood and bone.

“Wil?”

Dallin was leaning close, eyeing Wil with concern, sandy brows drawn down over a thoughtful gaze.

Wil blinked. “Mm?”

Dallin’s eyebrow went up. By the small twitch of a wry smile at the corner of his mouth, Wil guessed Dallin had been trying to get his attention for a while now.

“I asked if you had any questions before we get into everything else.”

“I have lots of questions, but….” Wil frowned. “I’m not quite sure….”

He’d been asleep for four days, and then he’d spent the morning getting pummeled by pure and unfettered power—raw and crude, almost primitive, but ancient and sophisticated at the same time. For a while it had seemed as though he knew everything, every thought from every living thing. Knowledge, its threads too raw and too pure, and he’d nearly strangled himself in the weave. Everything else had lost its importance, until now. There’d been no real chance to talk, to find out how precarious their position might be, how much these people knew, and how much they should know.

Fortunately Wil didn’t need to explain it to Dallin. “They know all about you.” Dallin’s tone was steady, maybe even defiant. “What blanks Calder left, I filled in.” Dallin shot a pinched grimace over to the three Old Ones. “And then some.”

Marden shook his head at Dallin, light reprimand. “You must be more forgiving of our brother.” It was sad, but with a soft bit of pleading beneath it. “You have not yet received your Marks—you cannot know what it means to lose them.”

“He didn’t lose them. He cut them away so he could—”

“So he could step into the shoes of the lost Guardian.” Siddell’s hazel gaze was straight and unbending but not quite harsh. “So he could honor his son, lost to us now in some anonymous grave, buried without the graces or so much as a lock of hair from one of his kin so his ghost can remember who he was or that his death was an honorable one.”

“In the service of an Aisling he didn’t even know existed.”

Siddell frowned now. “You have much anger in you, Dallin Brayden.” He held up his hand when Dallin’s lip curled. “I do not reproach. I only observe. But I would ask that you try to think more kindly of Brother Calder. Within the space of a year, the man lost his wife and his only son, both of whom he loved more than life. His calling was all he had left, and his faith is strong, yet he consigned it all so that he might wipe away the Mother’s tears and restore Her lost one to Her.” His thin lips pinched, and he shook his head sadly. “You have seen and spoken to Her,” he went on quietly, shifting his sharp glance to Wil. “Can you now imagine the silence if you were to call to Her and She could no longer hear you?”

Wil swallowed. He’d guessed as much, but now the empathetic pain of the truth pierced him. “He didn’t just cut away his Marks,” he told Dallin softly. “He cut away his connection to Her—for Her.” He shook his head and frowned at Siddell. “It seems… very unfair.”

Siddell waved a bony hand. “Ours is not to question.” He flicked a sly glance at Dallin. “Others have taken up that task.”

Wil almost smirked as Dallin rolled his eyes with a low grumble. Instead he pointed a curious gaze at the old men. “He is very suspicious of me.”

Thorne shook his head, but it was Marden who spoke. “He fears for you, lad,” he offered in his gruff baritone, “but he shares the fears of all of us as well.”

“Fear of me.” Wil peered at every one of them closely. No one negated the statement. “I wouldn’t… I won’t—”

Except he would. He had. Almost destroyed a city, almost took Dallin’s head off, almost set half the Weardas on fire…. Why should they believe a word Wil said, or trust any good intention, when it was all too plain he hadn’t the strength or power to control himself, let alone… everything else?

“You do not know your own power,” Siddell put in as though reading Wil’s own thoughts. “You cannot control it. Bringing you here is like teasing a match over a mountain of gunpowder. Yet there was no other way. There is no other way. Yes, we fear for many things—ourselves, you, the very world.” Siddell shook his head. “You are not only dangerous to your enemies, lad. You must understand, we cannot—”

“Look.” Dallin’s teeth were clenched. “You cannot judge and accuse when you don’t even—”

“You would tell us truthfully, Dallin Brayden, that our fears are unjustified?” Siddell’s voice was challenging, colder than before.

“I would tell you that they are premature and pessimistic.” Dallin’s voice, on the other hand, was rising and heated. “He controls it better every day, and he’s stronger than you think he is. This place was crushing him, and yet here he sits, calm and sane and willing to talk reason, when—”

“Because you have set your shoulders beneath it,” Marden cut in.

“That isn’t true. Wil’s taking most of it. I just—” Dallin waved a hand, irritated and edgy. “I’ve channeled it.” His gaze hardened. “Isn’t that my job? Isn’t all of this my job?”

“And do you truly feel qualified to take up that ‘job’?” Thorne wanted to know. “You are as untested as the Aisling, and yet you—”

“Just stop it!” Until that very second, Wil had been unaware he intended to speak at all, but the bickering was making him more anxious than he would have thought possible. Pressure was building at the back of his throat, making his heart pound and his palms sweat. Panic was flittering at the bottom of his stomach, weighting his previously pleasant breakfast like a lump of cold lead in his gut. “Just… stop for a moment. Please.”

Amazingly they did, as Wil tried and failed to gather his scattered thoughts. They were all looking at him, Dallin too, waiting patiently while Wil’s mind stumbled and his hand fisted reflexively around the warm stone in his palm.

“I never meant to hurt anyone.” It sounded so inadequate, but it was all Wil could think to say. “I only wanted to be let to live.” His eyes were burning; he shut them tight for a moment until the heat receded. “What’s inside me… I don’t want it. I’ll give it back, if you want. I’ll let you have it if you’ll just show me how.” He turned to Dallin. “You can take it away, right? You know how—like what you did before.”

“I’m sorry, it doesn’t work like that.” There was sincere regret in the roughness of Dallin’s voice.

It didn’t make Wil feel any better. He turned back to the Old Ones. “Calder told Dallin he should kill me.” Bald and flat. Despite the panic welling in him, he lifted his chin, defiant. “Is that what this is about? Is this a tribunal?” He set his gaze on each of them, trying not to let the fear show. “Am I on trial?”

He hadn’t realized how close to the edge of hysteria he’d been until the warm weight of Dallin’s hand came to rest on his shoulder. A message. A reminder.

You’re not alone. Whatever happens, I won’t let you face it by yourself, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep them from hurting you.

Wil sagged beneath it, warmed and calmed by the simple touch.

Thorne had been silent, watching and listening. Now he laid a hand on Wil’s knee. “It is true that we have long feared what might have been happening to you, what you might have become.” He patted once, then drew back. “Now that you are here, we can see that your heart is astonishingly untouched by the darkness through which you have waded.”

Wil looked down. His heart didn’t feel untouched.

“You are a good man,” Thorne went on. “But even the best of men can have the worst effect if he possesses power he cannot control.”

Wil’s gaze went unwillingly to the healing burn on Dallin’s cheek, then quickly skimmed away, focusing instead on his own hand still fisted around the charm.

“My Guardian has been teaching me. I’m learning.”

“Certainly,” Marden agreed. “But your Guardian, while more powerful than we’d expected, is unschooled himself, and now we understand there is another consideration.” He paused when Wil shot a narrow glance up through his fringe. Marden shrugged. “There is a deeper connection between you than that which was meant.” His broad face pinched with mild worry. “Your Guardian owns the priorities of a lover, when he should—”

“Now wait just a damned minute,” Dallin cut in, his hand tightening on Wil’s shoulder so hard that Wil almost winced. “That’s no business of yours, and you’ve no right to—”

“I beg to differ.” Thorne’s tone was more stern than Wil had heard it yet. “It is not our business to sit in judgment upon either the Guardian or the Aisling, but you must think about it as the Shaman now. Here we are, presented with an Aisling who possesses more powers than any before him—some that even we do not understand, all of them raw and untamed—and a Guardian who loves him above all.”

Wil couldn’t help but blink at that one, then quickly snap his glance over to Dallin.

Dallin flushed, but he didn’t look at Wil.

“Our task, our calling, requires us to—” Thorne shook his head. “No, it demands that we do not unleash upon the world one who will loose that power unfettered. Chester is but one example, and a small one, of your destructive potential.”

“But—!” Wil couldn’t help the little flail. “But I wasn’t even conscious! I didn’t mean to… I wouldn’t—”

“And that is our concern.” Marden’s expression softened. “You are a good man, as Brother Thorne testified. We know it. You wear your heart like a crown upon your head, visible to all and shining bright through the darkness. But even a good man’s neck may bend beneath the weight of what you carry.” His mien went stern. “You nearly destroyed a city in your pain and anger. We are told the storms alone were violent enough to wash away small animals, the hailstones large enough to knock grown men unconscious in the streets. You moved the very earth, lad—uprooted structures from the bedrock as though you were plucking weeds. And all of that in your sleep.”

Wil was mute. He hadn’t known the destruction had gone so far.

“Countless were injured,” Siddell put in. “We have no word yet if any were killed. Besides Síofra, of course.”

Wil flinched—he couldn’t help it.

That,” Dallin said slowly, quietly enraged, “is extraordinarily unfair. Síofra—”

“Síofra,” Thorne interjected grimly, “was an evil little man who has done unfathomable damage—not only to our countries and our world, but to Wil himself.” He looked at Wil steadily, his gaze just this side of hard. “Do you even know what you did to him, lad?”

Wil held the gaze for as long as he could, then tore his own away, pointing it unseeing to his curled fist. He nodded.

“What does it matter what he did to that… man?” Dallin seethed. “If you’re going to sit here and tell me that he didn’t deserve every damned—”

“I crushed his mind.” Wil opened his hand and stared at the charm. It was almost pulsing in the wavering light of the fire, as though it had twined with the beat of his own heart. He let his fingers curl over it loosely. “I held everything he was in my hand, and then I closed my fingers.” He paused, looking first to the three old men and then to Dallin. “I found his thread, and I tore it out. Father….” Shame he hadn’t even considered before took hold of him. He felt his cheeks flush with it. He looked right at Dallin, ignoring the others. “We’re not meant to meddle and change. Before you knew me, the very thought horrified you. Now you condone it.”

A flash of hurt skittered over Dallin’s features, a harsh flicker of betrayal. “That’s hardly what—”

“No, I’m not criticizing you—in fact, I’m grateful.” Wil set his hand on Dallin’s knee. “But they’re right. You’re here for me, not the Aisling. You said it yourself. They should be afraid of me. I’m afraid of me.” He jerked his head toward the Old Ones. “They’ve a right to be concerned. But they don’t know you.” He sucked in a shaky breath. “You’ll do what’s right, even if it means I don’t live through it. I know that.” Dallin looked away. Wil leaned in, relentless. “Swallow your pride and tell it to them.”

Dallin was staring out the mouth of the cave, his jaw set—just as angry with Wil as he was with the three old men. Slowly Dallin turned his head and set a wrathful gaze on Wil.

“Should it come to it,” he said through his teeth, dark eyes nearly black but steady and burning into Wil’s, “I claim the right—no one else.”

Wil was a little ashamed that he was yet again forcing something from Dallin that Dallin was so profoundly and morally against. Still he pushed it, reluctantly ruthless.

“Tell them what you claim. Say the words.”

Impossibly, Dallin’s jaw set even harder, so tight Wil could hear his teeth grinding. Dallin stood abruptly, knocking Wil’s hand from off his knee, stalked over to the cave’s opening, and looked out.

“I claim the right of murder.” He ground it out coldly. “Execution. Slaughter. How many more ways d’you want me to say it?” He turned his burning glance to the Old Ones. “I’ll kill him. Is that what you want to hear? If he proves too dangerous, I’ll snuff him out. Snap his neck, he said to me once, handed me a bloody knife and demanded the promise. You’re a little late with your concerns, y’see—he’s already beat you to it. So, if we’re done with this, I suggest we move on. Because this is not, even remotely, what I was told you wanted to discuss.”

The Old Ones—three men heavy with years, skilled in magic, and rich in wisdom—sat shamefaced before their Shaman, heads bowed beneath his wrath.

Wil’s cheeks tingled with his own bit of contrition, but beneath it there was the confidence of necessity mixed with a selfish warmth blooming from the core of Dallin’s fury. It confirmed Wil’s faith, not only in Dallin and the emotion from which the anger sprang, but in the promise itself.

Wil waited until Dallin’s dark, furious gaze clashed with his. “I’m sorry, I—”

Dallin gave a sharp shake of his head, teeth still clenched tight. Slowly he paced back over, then just as slowly lowered himself beside Wil again.

Fuck your apologies.” It was a growl, low and dangerous. Dallin glared at the Old Ones. “You’ve three seconds to start talking, or we’re done.”

It was very telling, this slip of self-possession. Wil didn’t often think about how events affected Dallin—he so often didn’t allow them to affect him at all. The pressure must be getting harder and harder to contain, right along with his temper.

Thorne gathered himself first, lifting his head and turning his gaze to Wil. “You sit now in the Mother’s Cradle, the place from which all life sprang. You have felt the power here.”

It had been more like being pounded relentlessly by an invisible sledgehammer, but Wil nodded acknowledgment.

“I venture to say you feel it more keenly than any other,” Thorne went on. “It knows you and calls to its own.”

“Tell him what that means.” Dallin was keeping his hard gaze on Thorne and deliberately away from Wil.

All three of the old men were shaking their heads.

“We are not sure what it means to you, lad,” Marden answered. “We have meditated, asking, and always the answer to any one of us has been The heart of the world is born in Fæðme, nothing more.” He peered at Wil, hopeful. “Do you know what that means?”

Wil blinked and turned to Dallin. No help there—Dallin was still brooding and avoiding Wil’s gaze. Wil turned back to Marden with a frown.

“No. Should I?”

Marden sighed, disappointed, and sat back with a shake of his head. “We do not know.”

“It means that you are more than you were meant to be.” Dallin turned his gaze slowly to Wil, the concern beneath it crowding out the anger. “Ordinarily the Aisling is brought here when his Guardian receives the call. He is taught and tutored, and when he is deemed ready, he is taken to Fæðme—to the Mother.” His gaze softened further when he saw Wil’s unintentional flinch. “You’re different. The power here is vast—it almost staggers the mind. No one could take it all and keep their sanity. No one but you.” Dallin held up a hand when Wil opened his mouth. “It gathers at you—it isn’t just asking you to take it, it’s begging, demanding. I could feel it when you pushed the pain at me. Eventually, if you stay here for much longer, you’re either going to have to let it in or it’s going to crush you.” He tapped at Wil’s chest, setting the little crystal bobbing and knocking against Wil’s breastbone. “You are the heart of the world. Or you will be, once you take what’s being offered.”

Wil was… staggered. “I—” He turned to the Old Ones, but they were staring at Dallin with a mix of enlightenment and chagrin on each wrinkled face and no help at all. “Offered?”

“Ahhh.” Sudden illumination was blossoming over Thorne’s weathered face. He offered Dallin a small sad smile. “Power to power. Blood to blood.”

Wil snapped his glance at Thorne. “What does that mean?”

“Blood kin to the Father.” Siddell’s expression was also moving toward sorrow, sympathy. “And so, therefore, blood kin to His own.”

Wil’s stomach dropped all the way down to the floor. “Æledfýres.”

Thorne nodded slowly. “Your Guardian tells us he stood right at the very edge of you and felt Æledfýres emerge from a mere memory.”

Wil’s dazed glance went slowly to Dallin’s, hung there.

Dallin merely looked back, steady as ever, supportive and encouraging despite his genuine rage of a few moments ago.

“If a mere memory was that powerful…”

“…then imagine what the reality must be,” Wil supplied hoarsely.

Pulling and tugging and twisting, laughing and whispering….

Blood to blood.

Wil shut his eyes tight and only opened them when he felt Dallin’s hand settle back on his shoulder. “A minor god.”

Dallin nodded, mouth twisting. “This place—it’s handing itself to you. She’s handing it to you.”

“She wants me to fight for Him.” A cold shudder worked through Wil.

“And She’s giving you the tools.”

“How d’you know all this?” Wil slid Dallin a sideways glance, hoping for… something. Confusion. Reservation. Doubt. He found none of those things. “Did She…? Have you…?”

Dallin shook his head, rueful but not doubtful. “No. I’ve not seen either one of Them since that time by the river.”

“And yet…?”

“Yes. Yeah. I’m sorry, but I’m sure.”

Sure. Just like all the other times when Dallin had been sure for no reason and turned out to be entirely right. And yet if anyone dared suggest it was anything other than reasoning and logic, Dallin would likely give them the same disgusted roll of his eyes he’d been directing at Calder since they’d met him.

Dallin didn’t need to talk to the Mother. He really did know. Because he really was the Mother’s creature. And he didn’t even know how much She’d given him.

What more did Dallin know that he didn’t even know he knew? And what would it mean for them when he finally let himself see the end?

Did he really think the Mother was doing any of this for Wil?

Dallin was looking at Wil sharply. “What are you thinking?”

“A lot of things.” Wil looked away. “But not what you probably think I’m thinking.”

It didn’t matter. Any of it. Wil had known when he’d touched Síofra’s memories, slammed face-first into that cold, bitter presence, that this was his—that it was his place to stand for the Father, put back the balance somehow. And if She was going to hand him what he needed to do it, childish resentments and grudges had no place in it.

Except it didn’t even feel like resentment anymore. Embarrassment. A strange humiliation that Wil had allowed himself to be so tricked, and by someone like Síofra, someone so small and weak. Síofra had kept Her from Wil just by convincing him he wasn’t loved, that Wil was weak and didn’t deserve to be loved. A fear of standing before Her and feeling rebuke, of being measured and found lacking. A bone-deep wish for that unconditional love only a mother could bestow, and the terror of not finding it when he finally got the courage to go looking for it.

Childish. Oh, indeed.

Time to grow up, Aisling. If not for Her, then for Him.

“It doesn’t matter what Her intentions are toward me.” Wil lifted his chin. “Well, it matters, but not… not with this.” He eyed the Old Ones, one by one, then looked again to Dallin. “What do I have to do?”

Thorne was shaking his head, dismal. “It is not that simple, young Wil. This is… even we do not understand what all of this means.”

“He wants my name. And once he has it, he can push me away, send me out into the dark.” Wil looked squarely at the three shamans. “I’d rather not let him have it.”

“The risk is far too great,” Marden put in. “Brother Calder was right, in this at least. We cannot allow it, not without the Mother’s blessing, and we cannot know yet if She will give it.”

“It is not your place to ‘allow’ it at all,” Dallin put in with quiet authority. “But I will concede that it would be unwise to proceed without Her endorsement.” He tipped his head at Wil. “Tell him what that means.”

The Old Ones went silent for a moment, brooding quietly to themselves, a subvocal conversation flitting between them by way of long looks and twitches of eyebrows. Wil kept from writhing through it only by virtue of the numbness that had seeped in with his realization that, whatever it turned out to be, it couldn’t be worse than facing that cold, hungry presence again—real this time, no weakness of mere memory—and on purpose.

“Fæðme,” Thorne finally said softly. “You must empty yourself to the Mother and accept what She gives back to you.”

Wil couldn’t help the bit of a shudder.

He will empty you at the feet of his whore-goddess….

It was almost as though Dallin heard the echo of it too.

“We go to Fæðme to settle things with Her once and for all,” he told Wil steadily. “Or we don’t go at all—we take our chances with the Brethren and everyone else on our own. I’ve been assured of safe passage out of Lind, if that’s what you want. We show this place our backs and never look back. It’s your choice.”

Wil drew up his knees, noticing his hand was clenched around the stone again, so tight it was making his fingers tingle numb. He pressed his knuckles against the crystal at his breastbone. Several long, deep breaths weren’t nearly enough to calm him, but they helped. He locked his gaze with Dallin’s.

“What do you think I should do?”

Dallin’s mouth went tight. “Don’t ask me that unless you want me to tell you.”

With that, Wil knew exactly what Dallin thought he should do. He wanted to hear it anyway. “What do you think I should do?”

Dallin scrubbed at his hair. “I felt him in there with you.” He kept his eyes steady on Wil, open and honest. “All he needs is your name, and the Brethren have it. It’s only a matter of time.” He shook his head sadly, as though he wished he could say something other than what they both knew was coming. “I know what the damned prophecies said, and I know what all this must sound like to you, but—” He sucked in a long breath, girding himself. “—I think you should do it. If you’ve ever trusted me in anything, trust me in this. She loves you. It isn’t all some trick, it isn’t a cage, and even if that’s what it turns out to be, I’ll keep my promise.” There was still anger and resentment beneath that last, but it made the sincerity all the more real and… touching. “And you won’t be doing it alone. If it means anything, if it helps, I’ll be there right behind you.”

Even through the sick fear, the grieved dismay, Wil managed a small smile before he dipped his head down to his knees and closed his eyes. Could Dallin really not know what it meant? Had Wil been that stingy with confirmation and validation? He’d have to work on that.

“It means everything. And it helps.”

Wil opened his eyes. Slowly he uncurled his fist and stared down at the little charm. It must have been a trick of the eye—it still seemed to glow in light that wasn’t there, thrumming against his skin in rhythm to his own heart. He shut his eyes again, accepting the cadence of it, letting the sensation of Mother seep into his skin, wind inside him, touch his heart.

“All right.” Wil sighed and lifted his head to look at Thorne. “What next?”