Illusions: Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance (The Seekers Book 1), page 8
Rohan smelled the sleek creature before he turned and confirmed what he already knew: Serafina’s Familiar was in his space.
He saw its shining eyes staring up at him, he knew that she must be close by. This could be an opportunity to see her again.
As the ferret bounded off, Rohan altered into a similar creature: a grey weasel, pursuing the Familiar through the woods. He would remain hidden and observe for a minute, assessing Sera’s mood.
It didn’t take long to discover them walking back in the direction of her village. Whether she knew that he was now residing in the cabin was a mystery, but it seemed likely. That small creature of hers, he thought, had something magical about it; at the very least it was more clever than most rodents. But surely Serafina hadn’t seen him in all his nude glory; only the ferret had.
Rohan sprang forward on small paws, keeping track of their whereabouts as they went and admiring the young woman from behind. There was a lightness in her step that told him that perhaps she was more content than she’d been during their first meeting; perhaps she’d received good news since then. Sera walked past a few of the small houses that made up the outskirts of the Sisterhood’s village, all but skipping towards her own as Rohan managed to remain unseen.
But as the young woman hiked, she froze in her tracks.
* * *
Sera heard the far-off sound of Ealdor’s bell, ringing once: a call for help. Then came another. And then silence. She proceeded to walk, knowing that two rings meant a meeting and not a warning. So there was no emergency, at least. It was still a mile or so to home, and unless a third ring came, she knew that she wouldn’t need to rush.
But no more rings sounded. No danger. Sera picked up her pace a little in hopes of making it home before the meeting had ended. After several minutes she found herself at the forest’s edge. In the distance she could see women milling about the centre of town, chatting with one another, no doubt still waiting for the meeting to start.
When Sera reached them, she saw Guilana, one of the Crones. “What’s going on?” she said. Guilana shrugged. “I’m not sure. I assumed that Hedy had rung for us, but I haven’t seen her yet. She—” Guilana’s voice caught in her throat as she turned towards the house that Sera and Circe shared. Sera’s eyes followed, horror striking her gut immediately. The door was sitting at a sickening angle in its frame, as though it had been ripped aside violently. Someone had broken in.
And she’d left Circe there, alone.
She began to sprint, Nyx still around her neck as she darted for the house. She called Hedy’s name as she went, and the older woman poked her head out of her own front door; she’d been wrapping a shawl around her shoulders, prepared to attend whatever meeting had been called to order. Clearly, the old woman hadn’t foreseen whatever ill had befallen Circe.
Rohan could only stand and watch, helpless for the moment. He wanted to shift, to offer his immediate aid and to help in any way that he could. But to appear naked in the centre of town would be a quick way to alienate a lot of women at once.
He sniffed the air, detecting the scent of a man. Damn it. A shifter had been here.
“What is it, child?” asked Hedy as she jogged over, Rohan slinking slowly through the tall grass towards them.
Sera rushed into the house, clomping around inside for a moment before re-emerging.
“She’s gone,” she said. “They’ve taken her.”
* * *
“I told the Sorceress that this wasn’t a great plan,” said Paxx as he helped to guide the young woman into her cell, his hands grasping her as gently as possible. She wasn’t fighting Mace’s grip, which made his life and conscience easier; either she wasn’t terribly strong or she’d simply given in easily, knowing better than to take on a giant, threatening man.
Over her head was a black sack, meant to prevent her from seeing the location of the Guild’s headquarters. Paxx had seen a raven flying in circles overhead, apparently keeping a watchful eye on her. The creature would know the location and everything else, but Paxx said nothing about it. He’d heard of the Familiars of these women; animal companions that stayed close at all times, and he felt for both the raven and the woman. It seemed wrong to pull them apart like this, and it would be even worse to harm the bird.
Though he hadn’t seen Serafina’s Familiar, he’d smelled it when he’d spoken to her in Salem’s town square. He knew that leaving it behind would have been out of the question; their bond was too great. It would have been like leaving one’s lungs on the kitchen table while going out for a walk. Impossible.
And he hated that now he was doing this: helping the bastards in the Guild to take her sister. Why couldn’t he simply punch Mace in the nose and set her free? Oh, right: because for now he was nothing more than a human male, weak in comparison to a grizzly.
“If you don’t think it’s a good plan, take it up with the boss again,” Mace replied. “I may be considered a higher-up around here, but you know full well that I’m not the leader. We do what we’re told. This one isn’t exactly who we wanted, anyhow; she’s just a pawn. Her sister is said to possess the true gifts.”
“Well, why didn’t we take her then?” Paxx almost smiled at the idea of trying to grab the feisty woman he’d met at the town meeting.
“She wouldn’t simply come have with us. This way we lure her, catch two birds with one stone, eh?”
Paxx had never seen how “catching” women was a way to win their hearts, but then these men seemed to see indentured servitude as akin to love. The latter was of little importance to them; they wished to mate and then discard the women quickly, shamed, ruined.
And Paxx, who hadn’t yet come into his powers, hated all of it.
He and his younger brother Phist had been granted their names based by the Guild, which based them on their personalities; Paxx’s was inspired by his love of peace and tranquility; he was a pacifist to the core, except in cases where someone was being wronged. His younger brother, whom they’d named Phist for the love of fights that he’d displayed as a young boy, was also a Guild member, and Paxx felt a duty to watch over him. The Guild considered desertion a capital offense and would happily kill any guilty parties.
Paxx had read a good deal as a young man and knew of the old stories; the ones of dragons, dire wolves and gryphons, of the clans who had ruled over England, of the Averted War in Scotland which had led to a Golden Age for their kind. All of it had been born of love and faith, and a desire for peace. None of it was sullied by the ugly possessiveness that ran rampant among his kind.
It seemed that the journey across the Atlantic had bred a new sort of shifter: one who was cruel, controlling and who had no respect for the old ways. And Paxx, retaining whatever romanticism that he could, remained fixed on the notion that the Ritual should be the product of love, desire and need. Not of violence. These men—the ones who took greedily and without remorse—were among the Útlenda to him; hostile and foreign to the old ways. They were not welcome in his world, and when he came to his powers, when he was a full-fledged shifter, things around here would change.
And so, as he helped to guide the young woman along, he held her arm gently, letting her know through his touch that he meant her no harm.
But she remained silent, brave. She didn’t fight. It was as though she’d known that she might be taken at some point.
“I’m sorry,” he wanted to tell her. “If I could, I would take all of the men on and help you and your Sisterhood. But I cannot…yet.”
It seemed ironic that he would need a Ritual to come into his full powers. He would need a woman such as this in order to protect others like her. But he would never take any woman by force. He would never want any woman who didn’t feel for him or want him as much as he wanted her.
As much as he wanted Serafina.
Rohan perched on his small rodent’s haunches around the corn
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Hedy said. “I’m so sorry. I seem to be going stone deaf in my old age—not to mention that I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it coming. My powers are not what they once were, as I’ve said.”
“It’s not your fault. I should never have left her,” replied Sera, her voice filled with remorse, self-hatred and every negative element that could be contained in such a lovely woman’s words.
“We’ll get her back, Sera,” said Hedy. “We’ll find a way.”
“Yes. We have to. But I want to kill those men, Hedy. I want them dead for this.”
Rohan watched as Hedy took Sera’s hands in hers. “You know that you’ll be stronger if you bond,” she said. “We’ll have a better chance of dealing with them. No woman has yet taken on the Guild and succeeded, but if you come into your full powers you may just be able to fight them off…”
Sera collapsed onto the ground, her face in her hands. “I know,” she said. “You’re right.” She looked up. “All right, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes. I’ll perform the Bonding, if it will save Circe. I’ve put it off long enough. Maybe if I hadn’t been so stubborn, this would never have happened.”
Hedy laid a hand on her head and stroked her hair. “Good girl,” she said. “But don’t blame yourself; you could not have prevented this. And I promise—it won’t be the awful ordeal that you think. It’s actually quite pleasant.”
“I can’t imagine anything being pleasant right now. Please, Hedy. Speak to the Crones. I need to do this as soon as possible. I need Circe back.”
“I’ll speak to them right now; they’re all waiting in the middle of town anyhow. Meanwhile, you and Nyx need to come stay at my place. You’ll be safe there; I’ve cast a few spells on the entry points. There will be no tearing off of my doors in the near future.”
“Thank you,” said Sera, whose voice betrayed her defeat.
Over the next half hour or so, Rohan found himself pondering a great number of things as he watched Serafina pack up her things. This Bonding that she and Hedy had spoken about. Was it anything like the Ritual?
In the meantime, perhaps it was time he located this Guild, this group of bastards, and paid them a quiet visit. If he could liberate Serafina’s sister, maybe he’d find a way into her good graces before she’d bonded with another man. He wanted every chance that he could get to be with her. And the more he was exposed to her scent, her face, her everything, the more he was certain that they were to be together.
He bounded off, shifting into his wolf form as he sprinted back towards his cabin in order to gather some food and clothing. He would likely end up going on a reconnaissance mission; overlooking the territory to uncover this organization of kidnapping men.
But when he arrived at the small house in the woods, he found a group of old women waiting for him.
They were congregated just inside the house, in a circle, their faces showing signs of age and wisdom, reminiscent of Hedy’s own.
Their eyes fixed on the animal who stood on the doorstep, apparently unfazed by his presence.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” said one of them. “Rohan of Dundurn.”
* * *
When she’d finished packing her things, Sera made her way to Hedy’s with Nyx sitting on her shoulders. She’d always liked her neighbour’s house with its white-painted, wooden interior, which made its inside seem brighter than its outside. And as Nyx sprinted around the small living area, Sera nearly managed a laugh, his quick dark form in such stark contrast to the walls.
“I’m off to rendezvous with the Crones, but I’ll be back,” Hedy told her, her face contorted in sympathy. “Courage, sweetheart. Your sister is wise beyond her years. She won’t get herself killed.”
“I know,” said Sera, a weak smile the most that she could muster. “I’ll be waiting for your return.”
She sat down on the surprisingly comfortable little couch which seemed to be the featured point of Hedy’s small main room. Never had Sera encountered such a piece of furniture; its fabric and structure seemed to welcome her weary bones into its clutches, soothing her and forcing her into a state of relaxation.
Hedy was right, of course; it would do no good to try and enter the Guild’s domain unarmed. She needed to give herself the best chance at saving Circe, and at letting them know that their practice of stealing away women was beyond unacceptable. In her mind she would rise up before them and frighten those men into submission; teach them the meaning of a strong woman.
But none of that could occur until she came into her own. It was one thing to cast little spells of healing, or even to see through Nyx’s eyes. But she would need more than that.
Her mind drifted to the memory of her last moment of transference, of seeing the world through Nyx’s eyes; that vantage point which had allowed her the sight of the tall, naked man in the woods. The stranger who’d been friendly, unlike most other men. Something about him was so…different.
Well, he was enormous. He was muscular. And he was strikingly handsome, of course. She wondered if those aspects coloured her overall impression of him—perhaps she was putting too much stock in his looks, and assuming that because he looked good, he was good.
Perhaps he’d been to her house in order to assess it and to tell his friends in the Guild what he knew: that its doors were weak, that its only inhabitants were two women.
It seemed unlikely, somehow. Sera was no mind-reader, but she trusted her instincts. And while he was perhaps a strange man, he didn’t strike her as evil. If anything, he’d struck her as lost.
And then there was the man Paxx, the one she’d met at the meeting: he was in the Guild. But he didn’t seem cruel, either. If someone had forced her, Sera would even have confessed that he rivalled Rohan on the attractiveness front, minus his membership in the Guild itself. But she had believed Paxx when he’d indicated that he wanted to help. Perhaps there was good among those men, after all. And perhaps an alliance with those who weren’t loyal to the Guild would be a boon for the Sisterhood.
“Nyx,” she said softly. The ferret dashed towards the couch, leaping up and onto her lap, where he curled up into a long, black spiral. She stroked his head as his eyes closed, his sides puffing in and out. He was in a state of stress, she could see. His moods reflected hers, always.
She wondered how Obsidian and Circe were faring, and if the Guild was allowing them to remain close to one another. She hoped so.
Circe sat on a crooked stump inside the small prison cell, the world revealed to her only when one of the men had pulled the hood from her head. In the distance a raven called out. Obsidian. Good. At least he wasn’t dead.
She’d been sitting casually at the table in their small house when its door had been torn off its hinges, eliciting a loud caw from Obsidian and a small scream from Circe herself. Her gifts of intuition had failed her as the man had come at her, and she’d only managed to ring the village’s bell twice before he’d pinned her arms behind her back.
He was large and had advanced rapidly, grabbing her by the arms with one enormous hand and throwing a cloth hood over her head with the other. And then he had walked her over what seemed like miles of terrain, to a strange building in the woods where he’d handed her off to someone else.
The other man had seemed to take her arm reluctantly. Though she couldn’t see him, she could feel that he exuded kindness, and Circe found herself wondering how such a person would end up in a group of thugs.
When at last he’d removed the hood she saw that she was alone in her cell, though she knew that other women inhabited the prison. To think that this structure had been built solely for their capture was odious. But Circe had never been one to fume, to hold grudges. She
Sera knew more about the Guild than she did, and Circe supposed that because her sister was older, she’d kept the ugly details to herself. And perhaps it was for the best—she didn’t entirely want to know if she was about to have her head sliced off. There was no rune of healing sufficient to cure decapitation.
A small, barred window allowed light to flow in, creating a small, square patch of glowing sunlight on the floor made of worn-down wooden slats. In it Circe managed to see beauty; warmth. And also hope. Serafina would find a way to get to her, just as she’d found a way to break her fever. Never once had her sister failed her.
The sound of shuffling feet distracted her and she turned to the cell’s door, her dark eyes set as she resolved to remain calm, regardless of what might be in store for her.
The door opened, revealing three men: the one who had taken her, she supposed, then the kind young man with light hair and blue eyes, and a third, older man, dressed in a dark robe which trailed on the ground. His hair was grey and matted, sitting about his shoulders. His eyes were bright yellow, which made his skin look grey, haggard.
The light-haired man who had removed her hood still looked apologetic now, as though he wished himself anywhere but this place. The other two remained expressionless.
“Do you know why you’re here?” asked the older man as he stepped inside the cell.
Circe remained perched on her stump. “I’m afraid I don’t,” she said calmly. “But I suspect that you’ll tell me.”
“You are one of the Sisterhood,” the man said. “You have the Old Magic in you.”
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