I stood by myself on the playground, pretending to be interested in the rocks I dug the toes of my sneakers in. The group of girls was just far enough away I couldn’t turn their whispered sounds into words, but their glances and louder giggles convinced me of what I already knew. They were laughing at me.
I kicked at the rocks. I wanted to pick the rocks up and throw them at the girls. I imagined the weight in my hand. Let my eyes follow the arc the rock would make till they settled on the head of the tallest girl. Our eyes met and she shifted uneasily. Her voice was louder now. “Come on girls. We’re being watched.” She spoke with the authority of one used to being obeyed. But even as she turned her back on me her eyes were wide and wary. I dropped my head and stared at the rocks. I didn’t want them to be afraid of me.
I glanced up at the sound of my name. His too long hair fell partially over his eyes and he looked at me through this fringe, his mouth turned up ever so slightly at the corners in a soft smile of encouragement. His outstretched hand held a flower – a weed actually – small and white. It was beautiful in its simplicity and everything else melted away. There was no laughter, no fearful faces and I smiled back at him as I reached for the flower.
I was transported from the dream to waking with a suddenness that left me gasping for breath, as if someone had pressed violently on my chest while I lay sleeping. There was no one there of course. It was the same every time and had been since I was a small girl. Before I could say his name I would always wake up. Who was he?
But I knew who he was. It was the one I was spoken for – the one stolen from our village in infancy. The one whose name my soul seemed to know but my mind did not. My missing groom. I shook myself and the blanket slipped from my shoulders and fell in a soft heap around my waist. No thank you. Let them keep him. Marriage was not on my to-do list.
“Get out of my head,” she said aloud, then looked around quickly. The room was empty. Keira stood up and stretched, rolling her shoulders and shaking out her arms and legs. This mystery man she was supposed to be fated for was the last person she wanted to think about. Unfortunately, her 18th birthday was in three days and the meant-to-be union seemed to be all anyone wanted to talk about. Not with her directly, of course. But the villagers whispered and stared when they thought she wasn’t looking. It had really begun to annoy her. But he was gone, spirited away by her aunt and cousin, be-spelled for life. “Hah,” she said aloud and splashed water on her face. That settled the matter. If he was lost, and she was fated for him, then she would never have to marry.
She felt another consciousness in the room with her. It came slowly sliding across the floor and crept over Keira, like a blanket being pulled up around her. She stood still, pretending to survey her face in the mirror, drying her hands on the towel and waited for it to connect fully with her. It was her younger sister, Haven. Keira turned on her heel and threw open the bathroom door. She could move faster than anyone else in the coven when she wanted to. Haven stood in the open space of the bedroom. “How do you always catch me?” she pouted. Keira opened her mouth to speak, but she hesitated. Haven really had been working so hard on her studies lately. The girl was just no good at cloaking.
“Don’t worry about it, Haven,” she said instead. “We’re sisters. I couldn’t miss you if I tried.” Haven smiled up at her. The twelve-year-old was as blonde as Keira was dark and when she smiled like this she really did look just like you’d expect a haven to. Like around her no evil thing would dare to linger for fear of being struck blind by her light and rendered impotent by her calm grace. And it was mostly true. Just a few minutes in Haven’s presence and one couldn’t help feeling at peace with whatever may have been bothering them. And it didn’t hurt that Haven thought Keira was the most awesome witch she knew. Keira laughed and hugged Haven. Haven’s smooth brow wrinkled slightly as she pulled away from Keira.
“You’re missing Shamus though. He wants to see you in the yard. There’s already a group gathered,” Haven told her. That must have been what woke her, Keira thought. She really didn’t want to go. There was only one thing he would be giving a speech about today. But maybe Shamus would declare the obvious. Maybe that was why he was insistent on her being there. He wanted to be sure everyone knew that Keira would be excluded from this year’s marriage games. She sighed. Whatever he had to say, she had to go. No one ignored a summons from Shamus. He was their head, both over the coven and the village, which was really one and the same. Shamus was also her uncle. Keira felt a sudden sense of urgency, an outside push that was not her own. She groaned out loud and shared a look with her little sister.
“Mom,” they said in unison. Giggling they ran outside and through the streets to the village center, or the yard, as it was known. Keira kept pace with Haven, who couldn’t move near as fast as she could. The ‘yard’ was really a stone amphitheater surrounded on all sides by green grass. Because of their mother’s status as healer their house was near the village center. It wasn’t the largest house and nearly every inch of it was taken up with various bottles and vials, hanging herbs and potted plants. But it was one of the oldest and most beautiful with woodwork inside and out lovingly hand carved decades before any of them ever set foot inside of it. Every carving had a purpose. At an early age the girls had learned that each carved notch represented a different spell, mostly protection and peace spells to keep those who inhabited the house safe from harm. A home built for a healer and it served their mother well in her work. Some said it was really the house that protected Keira, then a swaddled infant tucked deep in its center-most room, when her aunt rebelled all those years ago.
Keira became aware of Haven’s labored breath. “Slow down, Keira,” she panted. “You know I can’t go that fast. Besides, we’re here.” Keira skidded to a stop. Haven was right. The green grass of the yard stretched before them, its sweet scent floating up to them on the breeze. The whole population was gathered into the amphitheater and people spilled up the steps into the park. Her stomach felt like she had eaten a rock. It had to be about the marriage games. Haven slipped her hand inside Keira’s and her stomach lightened a little. “That’s right,” she whispered. “I’m just here as a formality.” Haven gave her hand a last squeeze then slipped off to a group of friends nearby. So much for the calming presence, thought Keira. She moved through the crowds slowly, staying hidden among the throng of people. The outside push was gone now. Her mother and Shamus knew she was here and that was enough. Keira preferred to observe unnoticed.
Shamus stood up on the stage and a wave of quiet washed over the yard. “My friends, my family – well met on this day.”
“Well met,” the crowd chorused back. It was the traditional greeting among them.
“As you all know, the spring is here. A time of new beginnings for all of nature, including us,” began Shamus. It was the marriage games speech. All of them had heard it many times. Keira let Shamus’ voice trail away as she moved from group to group. Her eyes settled on one particular group who were plainly more excited than the rest. The 18-year-olds. These were girls and boys from her own class. Keira had no desire to stand with them now as they giggled and jostled each other, and sent blushing glances between them. “But this year is different, because this year we are reminded not only of beginnings but of ends as well. My niece’s birthday has just passed,” he said.
Every face in the crowd turned to Shamus. Keira drew back and took a few steps to the left, then paused, helpless. She wanted to melt into the crowd but was afraid to move. “A very special birthday it is. The first year she is eligible for the marriage games,” Shamus continued. The crowd was silent. There was none of the customary applause. “But of course, she was never meant for the games, not truly. My niece has a different path laid before her. One, though it has assumed twists and turns unforeseen, has remained hers. And soon that path will take her to unfamiliar territory.”
Keira narrowed her eyes. What was Shamus talking about? This was the part he was supposed to announce her exemption from the games.
“Keira,” he said. Shamus looked directly at her when he said her name. So much for her attempted invisibility. She had thought herself unnoticed by the crowd, but at Shamus’ summons a path opened for her to the stage as though they had all known just where she was. Of course they hadn’t. It was just the present connection with Shamus that allowed them to work together so well.
“My dear Keira,” he said, extending a hand to help her to the stage. “For so long we thought your path was taken from us. But I have seen the next leg of your journey, child.” He turned away from her and back to the crowd. Keira looked at her mother standing on the right side of the platform, but there was nothing to read there. She looked out over the crowd, her face a complacent mask.
“Connor,” Shamus’s voice boomed out. “Killian.” “Bryn.” Keira watched her friends approach the stage. What was going on? “Keira will not travel her path alone,” Shamus said and paused. Then in a matter-of-fact tone that seemed to knock all the dramatics he’d worked up to this point flat on the ground, he delivered his real announcement.
“Two sunrises,” he said holding up two fingers. “You three will accompany Keira to meet her aunt and cousin, and negotiate for Collin’s return.”
A gasp came from the crowd. Killian, Connor, and Bryn all widened their eyes in surprise. Keira could feel her mouth hanging open. Shamus turned back to her. He placed his hand under her chin. It was gentle as he lifted her chin and left his hand to rest on her cheek. His eyes burned with light as he spoke, the amber color glowing bright.
“And when you return he will be at your side. This I have seen, child.” Shamus turned again to the crowd. “As it is written, we shall see the great beginning of a mighty pairing and reap prosperity and power for our people.”
His voice had risen during the last and the crowd went up in shouts and celebration. Finally Shamus lifted his arm and the people quieted again. Keira’s eyes strayed to her group of classmates. It was clear from their expectant faces they were waiting to hear how this would affect their own immediate future and the marriage games. “And on their return, the marriage games will begin. Well met and well met again,” Shamus turned and left the stage, giving no heed to the disappointment on her classmates’ faces, the three shocked faces near the stage, Keira, or the thunder of voice answering his parting.
The sound was deafening. Keira stood in the same spot. Some part of her brain realized that the voices had turned into applause. Did they not realize what this meant? Had they not heard Shamus? What were they applauding? It was a death sentence.
“You,” came her mother’s voice. Keira looked up into her mother’s cool blue eyes. “They are applauding you.” Just as smoothly, away her mother went down the steps after Shamus. Keira was alone on the stage. She shifted on her feet and looked out at all of them. The crowd had formed a semicircle around her three companions. They clapped and smiled, beamed with encouragement and hope. There were her classmates looking up at her with awe, Quinn from the meat market bobbing her head up and down, one of her instructors eyeing her as he clapped steadily. All of their faces, at this moment merged into one giant being – the crowd. Their applause slowed until silence reigned once more in the yard. She knew they were waiting for her to say something. She opened her mouth. Keira wanted to scream, to pinch herself and wake from this horrid dream. Hysterical giggles threatened to escape from her. She shut her eyes, opened them. A moment passed, then a moment more and Keira found her feet. She turned and bolted down the stone steps and away from the yard at full speed, knowing none could catch her.
Did she pass Shamus? Was that her mother who called out to her? Haven running pointlessly after her? Keira didn’t know and she didn’t care. She only wanted to be free from this place, this nightmare laid at her feet. She wanted to fly from this place and she could.
The air streamed past her face, whipped her hair behind her. It flowed over her bare arms, cooling her flushed skin. When she finally came to a stop Keira felt somewhat calmer. No not calmer, but more like herself. She rested her hand on the tree trunk and took deep breaths, gulping in the morning air. Not because she was winded, but because she needed as much oxygen as possible for her brain to process what she’d just heard. In two days she would leave, accompanied by three of her classmates, to meet her cousin and Aunt. One had been raised to hate her and the other had once tried to kill her. And when that hadn’t worked, had stolen the other half of what was supposed to be a fated match – foretold as the most powerful union in Coven history. She was supposed to negotiate with a woman so power happy she had split an entire coven in two and tried to kill her own blood. For the release of the boy she knew so well from her dreams – the man she wanted nothing to do with.
Questions flooded her mind. If her aunt was so hungry for power why had she left Keira alone all these years? Why block the union so completely instead of attempting to use it? But maybe her Aunt had known this time would come, known her brother, Shamus, would send Keira after Collin. There was no way to know what she knew of the prophecy, after all. Perhaps she still planned to try to control the union. But why try to kill Keira, then?
Keira kicked the dirt. “Who knows? The woman is crazy,” she said aloud.
“I’m thinking the same thing, but about Shamus,” Bryn said. Kiera jumped and whirled around at the voice. Bryn laughed. “Yeah, I’m getting pretty good at cloaking,” she said.
“How long have you been there?” Keira asked.
“About five minutes,” Bryn answered. Kiera cocked her head to the side. Bryn was maybe the third fastest in their coven. It was a tossup between her and Killian on any given day. “Maybe three,” Bryn amended. Kiera turned away and looked off over the valley where their village was nestled. She could see the mountains on the far side from this high point. It was through those mountains where they would find her aunt and cousin. And Collin. She ignored the thought of him and focused on Bryn instead.
She was probably as close to a best friend as Kiera had ever had and that was saying a lot. Keira had always been a closed book. She was friendly enough to people, but whether because of her unique status or if it was just her nature, she always kept others at arm’s length. But Bryn was one of two people that could almost keep up with Keira and ever since they were kids she had followed Keira everywhere. no matter how far or how fast Keira ran, Bryn would always show up a few minutes later, breathing hard and sometimes, if it was hot, with sweat glistening on her forehead. She’d stop right next to her as though Keira expected her to. And after a while, Keira did come to expect it. Most of the time she even welcomed it. Bryn’s recent improvement in cloaking was unsettling, though. It was one thing when she knew Bryn was there, but maybe this was a good thing. Keira’s brain switched gears. Three minutes was good. A lot could happen in three minutes. “Dang good,” she said aloud.
“What?” Bryn asked. She sat on the grass at the top of the hill.
“You’re cloaking,” Keira answered. “We might need that.”
“I’ve been working on it. I didn’t think I’d be using it for real, though,” Bryn said. She picked at the frayed hem of her pants. “You really think it will come to that?” she asked, squinting out at the hills. Keira didn’t answer and Bryn finally looked up at her.
“She’s crazy,” Keira muttered. A thick wave of commotion washed over the hilltop. Keira rolled her eyes and turned back to the horizon. She might have to find a new spot. A brief second later Connor and Killian emerged. They dropped down on the ground beside Bryn.
“Yep,” said Connor. “We’re doomed.” Killian pushed him hard, and then grabbed his arm as he started to slide down the hill.
Keira wasn’t surprised that Connor had picked up the thread of conversation, though there was no way he could have physically heard her. Connor excelled in telepathy. It was his gift. They were all telepathic to an extent. Everyone was trained to read auras, could sense when others were near, and communicate with the mind. And all of them could feel Shamus’s pull when he called for a gathering. But some were better than others. Keira could almost always tell who was near, with a couple exceptions. Like if someone was using a strong cloaking spell, like Bryn had used. She could talk telepathically in both words and pictures, but only if the other’s mind was open to her. Connor though, he could break through anyone’s barrier whenever he wanted. When he was younger he used this skill indiscriminately and without shame. It cost him friends. Eventually he had learned that people liked their privacy and now Connor was one of the most popular guys in their class. Keira suspected he had just learned to spy unnoticed, but if anyone else thought the same thing, they chose to ignore it. Connor was athletic, funny, and always quick to help another out. You couldn’t not like him. His all-American good looks didn’t hurt either. Not that Keira noticed Connor more than she noticed any of the other guys in their class. But the other girls noticed him. Connor wore his light brown hair just long enough to give it a bit of a bushy look and she had heard plenty of girls talk about how soft it was. To Keira it always looked like he had forgot to comb it. But it worked for him and paired with his warm brown eyes and full lips, he didn’t lack in admirers.
Connor and Keira had the kind of bond formed when two strangers share a tragic experience. Their fathers had been close, boyhood friends. Keira’s father had gone after her aunt when she fled the village. Connor’s father went with him. Neither one ever returned. Everyone knew they were dead. Keira and Connor were the only children in the village who had grown up without a father.
The cause of death in their village was usually old age. There was little her mother could not cure and longevity ran among them. Once in a while someone got to her mother too late or too injured, but it was rare. Anyway, whenever an activity involved fathers Keira and Connor had drawn together with their mothers, trying to pretend like that was good enough for them. Like they didn’t notice the pitying looks sent their way or the remarks of “what a shame” or “poor child” or “should we ask Keira/Connor to join us?” Over time they had learned to ignore the others for real and the bond between them had kept. Even after Keira had once thrown rocks at Connor on one particular Father’s day. He’d made some bad jokes and Keira had been in a worse than normal mood for the day. Connor had made an excellent target. But he’d forgiven her as only he could. She hadn’t even had to speak a word, which was good because Keira didn’t say ‘I’m sorry’ easily. But that was the thing about Connor. He knew what you thought and what you felt without you having to say it.
So that was them. Bryn was her best friend because she’d refused to be otherwise. Events not in their control had pushed Keira and Connor together. And Killian was Connor’s best friend. Keira looked at Bryn again.
“Do you think you can cloak them?” she asked. The sudden guilty looks on their faces, the seriousness of the situation was too much all at once. Keira and Bryn burst out laughing and the guys joined in. They were still laughing hard, Keira leaning against her tree, Connor laying on the ground, when Shamus’s voice surprised them into silence.
“Glad to see everyone in such good spirits. It will help if you can keep them over the next couple days. You’ll join me for a meeting now.” Shamus turned and walked down the hill. It wasn’t a question – he knew they would follow.
One by one they all got up, Bryn first with a shrug and hard glance for Keira. She was trying to be nonchalant about it, but the hard edge in her eyes let Keira know she was taking her comment about the cloaking seriously. Connor went next, rolling and leaping to his feet in the same enthusiastic manner he did everything. Killian was more deliberate in his manner. He stood looking at the distant hills for a moment more. And though he avoided her eyes when he turned away, Keira caught a glint of anger in them. Anger at what, she thought. Shamus for choosing him? Her for being the cause of it? Keira couldn’t know. Connor was the only one who could occasionally crack open Killian’s mind and see the mazed world inside. Killian might not be able to cloak his presence, but his mind was like the smoothest, most impenetrable metal. One could go around and around, feeling over every inch and never find the door. When you knew someone was there, but couldn’t feel who, it was usually Killian.
Keira lingered with her hand on her tree. She called it hers because it had broken through the earth on the same day she was born. It had always been her place of peace.
“You coming?” Connor asked, his voice cutting through her thoughts with abrupt clarity. Connor could communicate telepathically as well as he could read others thoughts. It was annoying.
“Don’t worry,” she shot back silently. “I’ll catch up.” Connor was the slowest of the four of them and he hated it. She felt him leave her at once and almost smiled imagining the scowl on his face. Almost. She patted the tree. Yes, she was going to have to find a new spot.