Chapter 1

 

‘We’ve never had this issue before,’ Jason Block said, frowning into the bright fire that cast shadows dancing over the walls of Blackthorn House’s sitting room.

‘Not ever?’ Morghan asked. ‘Surely, in all our long history, something like this must have happened?’

‘A Lady leaving the Grove?’ Jason shook his head. ‘Not as far as I have records to tell me.’ He looked over at Morghan who stood staring out the window at the snowbound trees, her back straight.

‘She is still part of the Grove,’ Morghan said, following with her gaze the tracks of some small animal. A fox perhaps, she thought.

She turned around. ‘She’s still a Lady of the Grove.’ Morghan shook her head. ‘And as such, she needs support. Financial support. Don’t you agree?’

‘I do, yes,’ Jason said.

Morghan nodded. ‘A house, a generous income.’ She blinked. ‘The same for her there as she had here. We can afford that, can’t we?’

‘Yes.’ And that was good, Jason thought. There was no question of not being able to afford it. Wilde Grove had always been judicious in its financial dealings. ‘It seems strange, though,’ he said. ‘That we won’t see her again.’

‘She will visit, I’m sure,’ Morghan answered. ‘Though I agree with you – it does feel strange.’

‘For you, particularly, I imagine.’

Morghan looked down at her hands, at the rings she wore. One for her handfasting to Grainne, one for her commitment to the Grove. Her dedication to both was unswerving.

‘My duties will not change too much,’ Morghan said. ‘I just keep things running, I expect.’

‘A little more than that, I think,’ Jason said, looking more intently at Morghan’s face.

‘I lead the rituals to honour the turning of the Wheel, and I keep the wisdom.’ Morghan blinked. ‘And pass on the wisdom, when it comes time.’

There. Jason laughed. ‘And that’s a small task, is it? It’s like choosing a life of a nun – except you have Grainne – but other than that, it’s all Grove all the time.’

‘I chose that when I was seventeen,’ Morghan reminded him. ‘And this day was always coming, just not expected this soon.’

Jason let himself sit down in one of the armchairs. ‘It’s the winter of change,’ he said. ‘Can’t you feel it?’

‘You’re retiring too, aren’t you?’ Morghan said softly. ‘Things won’t be the same without you.’

‘Henry is a good lad,’ Jason said. ‘Not that he’s much of a lad, being thirty years of age. But I’ve made sure he’s familiar with all Grove business, so there will be a smooth transition.’

‘We’ll still see you for Yule?’

‘I expect so,’ Jason said. ‘And I’ll take care of everything for Selena before I remove my name from the door. It shouldn’t be difficult. Good exchange rate, between there and here. And house prices are only just beginning to see substantial rises there; I’ll write and let her know to begin looking straight away.’ He shook his head. ‘Who could have guessed at this course of events?’

‘Not me,’ Morghan said, and she looked back out the window, swallowing softly.

 

Chapter 2

 

Grainne came into the room after Jason had left. ‘So, it’s all sorted out, then?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ Morghan said. ‘All official, a done deal.’

‘Selena isn’t coming back.’

Morghan shook her head. ‘She can’t unless she leaves the children behind.’

‘And she won’t.’

‘No. They’re the reason she went there.’ Morghan went and sat by the fire.

‘The only reason?’ Grainne asked.

Morghan looked at her in surprise. ‘Why do you ask that?’

‘I’m not sure,’ Grainne said, coming and perching on the arm of the chair next to Morghan. She laid her hand on Morghan’s shoulder. ‘It just makes me think, is all – the travelling you did to the Fair Lands, back when this started.’

‘What about it?’

‘You saw all those beacons, and understandably, both you and Selena thought they signified individuals.’ Grainne paused for a moment, gazing down at Morghan’s dark hair twisted back in a tight knot at the nape of her neck.

Morghan looked up at her.

Grainne shrugged lightly. ‘What if they didn’t?’ she asked. ‘What if each was not a person, an individual, but a group – more Groves similar to ours, perhaps?’

Morghan touched Grainne’s fingers lying lightly on her shoulder. ‘She has already gathered people around her there. Selena, I mean.’

‘The world struggles against darkness,’ Grainne said. ‘It has for a very long time, unfortunately. I think the more Groves there are, the better to keep it at bay, don’t you?’

‘You think this isn’t only about the children?’ Morghan asked.

Grainne laughed. ‘Darling,’ she said. ‘Nothing is ever about only one thing. You and I both know that.’

Morghan smiled, although there was little humour in it. ‘Too true. No dream has one meaning, no travelling, no word, no action.’

‘Things ripple,’ Grainne said. ‘We all know that.’ She smoothed a strand of dark hair that was threatening to escape the knot. ‘I think it is time to begin new Groves.’ Grainne blinked, the firelight catching her own flame-coloured hair and making it burn brightly in the dim light of the December day. ‘Open this one up a little.’

Morghan’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Open this one up a little?’

‘Well.’ Grainne shifted on her perch. ‘What do you think you can really achieve – in a wider scheme of things – if you stay sitting here in your cosy, privileged little corner?’

Morghan stared at her.

Grainne shrugged. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘You and I came together and achieved amazing things, such as most can’t even begin to imagine.’ She stroked Morghan’s cheek. ‘We healed wounds that were centuries old. Lifetime’s old. You helped me heal the wounds of this one. We won.’ She blinked and a small smile curved her lips. ‘So, what now?’ she asked. ‘What do we do now?’

‘I would have thought we carry on, as we have done here for generations.’

But Grainne was already shaking her head. ‘The tide of humanity turns, and I think we’re turning back towards a dark phase again. I think the vision the Queen of the Fae showed you bears me out.’ She drew breath. ‘So,’ she said. ‘I repeat my question. What are you going to do?’

‘First you said we,’ Morghan said. ‘And now you’re asking what I am going to do.’

Grainne just smiled. Morghan looked at her. She had a way of smiling that told Morghan she knew exactly what she’d said, and she’d said it deliberately.

Morghan shook her head slightly, leaned back against the armchair and closed her eyes.

‘You’re not Selena,’ Grainne said, deciding she needed to try again. ‘You cannot keep the Grove the way Selena did.’

‘Can’t I?’

‘No. So you must give some thought as to how Morghan Wilde will be Lady of the Grove.’ Grainne bent down and dropped a kiss on Morghan’s pale forehead. ‘I’m sure, given a little time, you’ll come up with something.’

‘Considering I hadn’t thought of it until now, I have my doubts,’ Morghan grumbled.

Grainne, who had gotten up and gone to the door, turned and grinned at her wife. She shook her head.

‘You’ll think of something,’ she said.

Morghan watched Grainne slip out of the room, then sighed and turned her gaze to the fire. The flames leapt and crouched in a dance amongst the logs. She watched and listened, then got up, touching the silver oak leaf and acorn that were a pair with the ones Selena wore.

Or had worn. She might have taken them off by now. Morghan didn’t know. Selena was a long way away.

She left the room and stood in the passageway listening to the peace of Blackthorn House for a long moment, a peace that settled around her like a mantle. She listened to the sighing of the wind outside, and somewhere in the house, Grainne was singing, her voice lilting to a tune that wove in and out of the wind.

The wind. Selena had listened to the voice of the wind, and it had taken her thousands of miles away over oceans Morghan had never seen in this lifetime.

What had she said, before making her preparations to leave? That Morghan was more attuned to water, perhaps.

Or earth, maybe, for she felt as a tree did, rooted deeply where she stood, unable to move.

But that was not the truth of a tree, was it? Not the whole truth. Morghan closed her eyes, looked at the darkness behind her lids, then opened them and went to find her boots and her warm cloak.

 

Chapter 3

 

Outside, she stamped her feet in the thin covering of snow and ducked between the trees who stood tall and dark around the house. Somewhere within the grove, a drum thudded a quickened pulse, and Morghan smiled. Ambrose was out there in the black and white day, practicing his drumming. Well, she thought, that would only make it easier to step between the worlds.

She set out upon the path that wove from Blackthorn House in and about the woods, head down, watching her steps, listening to the drumbeat, listening to her own breathing, the beating of her own heart, slower than Ambrose’s drum, but keeping time.

She touched the trunk of a tree as she passed, felt its wet bark rough under her bare fingertips.

‘Blessed are the trees of this world, for they straddle all worlds,’ she whispered.

She concentrated on her footsteps, feeling the soil beneath her boots, the roots threading through it, the hidden burrows of small animals within it, energy that hummed and thrummed through it.

‘I walk the path,’ she murmured. ‘I follow your path from world to world to world. I follow your path through the deepening of the forest, the desert, the mountain, and the valley. I am of this world, and I am of every world.’

She walked between the trees, knowing she was now in both Wilde Grove and the Wildwood. She walked and walked and as she walked, Snake came to her, followed the path with her. She lifted her face to the canopy and caught a flash of a wing. Hawk travelled with her.

‘My kin,’ she murmured, then felt with the tightening of her chest, another presence behind her. She breathed out.

‘Catrin,’ she said, and the aspect of herself that shared the same soul, but a different life, inclined her head in greeting, her fingers wrapped around her staff, her sword hanging at her side.

Morghan tucked her head down, walking barely knowing where she was going, letting her mind drift, her senses flow. She felt both as dense as soil, as light as air. Her breath came in slow white puffs from her lips. She reached the stone circle and stepped lightly to its middle.

Here they’d stood, the members of the Grove, on Samhain, their lanterns lighting the cold night. She’d stood here with Selena, both in their usual places, both uttering their usual words, in practiced harmony with each other.

She looked around, at Grandmother Oak, leaning slightly to one side, her branches reaching out over the stones. She looked at the stones themselves, neither particularly large, not particularly impressive, but each humming with the low, slow song of rock. She looked down at the snow that crusted over the winter grass in the centre of the circle.

Things stayed the same, she thought, upon the turning of the seasons, of the Wheel. And things also changed, one person stepped away, another stepped forward.

‘Open things up a little,’ she said, her voice low against the distant beat of Ambrose’s drum. Morghan shook her head, a small smile on her lips.

Could they? Could they – could she – step out into a wider world, be a bridge between them? Find a way to play a part, no matter how small, in the flow of the world outside the Grove? Morghan wet her lips with her tongue and the air was icy upon them. She breathed deeply, then took a hesitant step forward, spun slowly, and danced to the sound of the drum and the whorl of her own thoughts.

She danced, her boots crunching against the ice, her hands cutting the cold air. Her cloak hood fell from her face and another strand of hair escaped the knotted bun. 

She danced, and fell deeper into the Wildwood, searching for the path, for the answer, for a glimpse of knowledge.

Snake came winding out from between the trees.

Morghan smelt the scent of sweet smoke, and stepped a path through the forest, Snake at her feet. She lifted her face to sniff the air and it was there, the smell of smoke from some sweet herbal blend. She followed the trace of its fragrance upon the air and moved deeper into the Wildwood, that border between her world, the Fair Lands, and the Otherworld. The place where she walked for at least part of every day.

Her boots sank into the deep ground and the trees crowded closer, then spread out, and Morghan stepped into a clearing she’d not seen before. It was circular, the trees growing in a curtain around it, and slightly off centre was a boulder the size of a small car.

Upon the boulder sat a man, smoking.

He looked over at her, raised his eyebrows, and held out the smoke to her.

Morghan was still for a moment, then followed Snake forward to the rock upon which the faerie man sat, his long limbs at ease, his dark hair shaggy around his handsome, ageless face. She put her hand out and accepted the offered sacred smoke, bowed her head slightly to him, then took a breath of the sweet herbs and offered it back to the world as she exhaled.

‘I greet you, Lady of the Grove,’ the strange man said, taking his smoke back with a smile. ‘Morghan of the Forest, Lady of the Grove.’

Morghan closed her eyes briefly, trying not to flinch against the name. She smiled slightly and shook her head. ‘The title is unfamiliar to me yet,’ she said. ‘And who am I having the pleasure of meeting today?’

The Fae man flicked a nub of ash and slipped down from his perch on the rock to bow to her. ‘I am Maxen, of our lady Queen’s realm and I am pleased to meet the new Lady of the Grove.’

‘Maxen,’ Morghan repeated. ‘I am honoured to make your acquaintance.’

He gave her a quick grin then leapt back up to take his place again on the rock. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Why do you flinch when I greet you by your new title?’

Morghan shook her head. ‘It is unexpected,’ she said.

‘To be so greeted, or to be so designated?’ Maxen pinched the end of the smoke and tucked it away in a pocket.

Morghan looked around the clearing, surprised that she’d never come across it before. But then, she supposed, there was still much she hadn’t seen.

Hadn’t done.

She cleared her throat. ‘Both,’ she answered.

Maxen laughed, the sound like silver bells echoing amongst the trees. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘At least you are honest.’

‘I would think all women of the Grove are and were.’

‘I’m sure they all tried,’ Maxen said, unperturbed by Morghan’s abrupt and slightly stiff answer.

Morghan paused a moment, looking at the man. She shook her head slightly. ‘How many have you known?’ The Fae lived longer than many generations of humans, she knew. Longer even than most trees.

‘Ah,’ Maxen said, reaching into another pocket and pulling out a whistle to turn over in his long-fingered hands. ‘I am neither particularly young, nor yet old,’ he said. ‘So, I’ve not had the pleasure of the meeting of all the Ladies of the Grove.’ He cocked his head to the side. ‘Perhaps a quarter?’

‘A quarter?’ Morghan repeated. ‘Of all, since the Grove began?’

Maxen shrugged lightly. He smoothed a finger over the carving in the whistle, glanced at Morghan from under his thick lashes. ‘I’ve met you, my Lady,’ he said.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Morghan shook her head. ‘We’ve not had the pleasure,’ she said. ‘I would remember distinctly.’

Her wry tone made Maxen throw back his head and laugh again. ‘I shall take that as a complement, Morghan of the Grove.’ He stilled, looked upon her, head tilted slightly. ‘But it is true. When I was significantly younger, and you significantly older.’

‘This is some sort of riddle?’ Morghan asked. She drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders.

Maxen shook his head. ‘No riddle, but intriguing. I have been interested in meeting you for some time.’

‘Then why have we not?’ Morghan said and gestured at the trees of the Wildwood. ‘I walk this way often.’

‘Yes,’ Maxen agreed. ‘But interesting things are best during interesting times, do you not agree?’

Morghan wasn’t sure if she did or did not, or even if she understood him. ‘These are interesting times?’ she asked at last.

‘Indeed,’ Maxen said, and put his whistle to his mouth and played a short tune that seemed to dance in the breeze between them. He lowered it and smiled at Morghan. ‘So,’ he asked.

‘What plans do you have for Wilde Grove, then?’

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