It was an ill-fated day, rainclouds hugging the coast and each buffeting wind bringing with it the scent of an oncoming storm. Josselyn could see its warning flickers spreading out across the Waking Sea; each flare of lightning seemed to catch on white-crested waves, making them glow eerily before they were swallowed back into the ocean’s depths.
Eyes, she thought, wrapping skinny arms around herself with a shiver. This far out, they looked like eyes in the dark. A score of them, more, blinking slowly as they eased ever-closer.
Watching her. Why were they always, always watching her?
She turned with a start, one hand jerking to cover a barley stifled scream. Cassius was picking his way across the cliff face toward her, gripping the hilt of his practice blade where it rested in its loose scabbard. He was still wearing his leathers, the weathered breastplate etched with the Trevelyan family seal. It fit poorly, and even in the dim, she could see where its straps had been mended and re-mended several times.
He was scowling. Of course, with another brother or sister on the way, they both had good reason to be scowling.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” he said, vaulting up the last few rocks. He caught her arm, but Josselyn jerked away, long skirts swirling about her legs. His scowl deepened. “You know you’re not supposed to leave the manor after dark.”
“There’s no one to see me,” Josselyn pointed out. “Anyone who might care is already inside, anyway, tending to Mama.”
Cassius caught her arm again. “Which is why we should be there, in case anyone thinks to look for us. Come on,” he added, giving her a hard tug.
Josselyn let herself be pulled along a few steps before remembering. “Wait!” she cried, slipping free of his grasp again. For all that Cassius was big and strong for a boy of barely fifteen, she was fast. “I didn’t come out here to watch the sea. I was— Here.” She snagged the basket she had nestled between two jutting rocks. It was filled with leafy green fronds, the sharp stench of elfroot swirling around her as Josselyn settled it into the crook of her arm. “All right, now you can play disapproving Templar.”
The look he shot her almost made her regret the tart words. It wasn’t Cassius’s fault she was no good at following orders. “I’m sorry,” Josselyn added quietly, leaning in to buss his cheek. His scowl deepened, but he didn’t pull away. “I didn’t mean that.”
“Yes you did.” Cassius glanced back out toward the water, straight, serious brows twin slashes over his wary eyes. “Did you see anything this time?”
“No,” Josselyn lied, threading her arm through her twin’s and squeezing it gently. “There’s nothing to see. Come on; I suppose we really should be getting back.”
Together, they wended their way down the rocky slope toward the gentle moorland that led to the manor’s front door. Trevelyan House was an ancient thing, crouched unsteadily some ways back from the coast, as if considering a bounding leap off the nearest rocky cliff. In the growing dark, its slate-grey walls and crumbling roof were barely visible. Only the occasional candle-lit window was clear, blinking lazily as the two children made their way back into its shadow.
Eyes again, locked on her. And the sensation of being watched was just getting worse as the years went by, not better the way Tante Maria had promised it would.
You can’t see me, Josselyn thought, staring up at the brightest window, where Mama was giving birth to their latest sibling under Tante’s watchful gaze. I’m not strong enough to matter. And then, because no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching her, creeping ever-closer: Go away!
The wind howled in response.
Josselyn shivered and fought to smile away Cassius’ worried frown. “Cold,” she said, squeezing his arm before letting him go. “Come on—I’ll race you up to the house.”
Cassius couldn’t resist a challenge. They ran the rest of the way, Josselyn taking the lead before she deliberately began to slow, letting Cassius outpace her. The howling wind felt good as it streamed through her tangles of hair, and her long skirts snapped and furled behind her like she was a Rivaini skiff chasing the breeze. The first light patter of rain hit her upturned face, and Josselyn felt a sudden wildly defiant joy. Laughing, she could almost ignore the rumble of thunder on the horizon, or the way the storm windows were already rattling in their grooves as the two came tumbling into the house.
She slammed the door shut behind them and fell back against it, breathless. The main entrance hall—which used to be grand—was dark. Her hair was a tangle and her skirts were sodden; anyone who saw her would know where she had been.
Voices drifted from the second landing.
Cassius placed a hand over his lips and quickly slipped through the left-hand door even as the voices went quiet. Josselyn covered a giggle with one hand, slipping out of sight at the first tred of heels on the cold stone.
“Hello?” one of her older sisters called, but she and Cassius were already threading through the back halls and toward the servants’ stair. There were only two servants left now—elves who were old enough they didn’t really have anywhere else to go—but neither was anywhere to be seen.
“Come on,” Cassius whispered, thundering up the stairs. “The attic!”
“Okay!” she whispered back. Josselyn sped after her twin, woven basket banging merrily against her thigh in time to her drumming heels. A floorboard creaked loudly just past the next landing and she cursed as she struggled to keep the damp weight of her long skirts out of the way of her feet. She probably would have made it if she hadn’t had to pause long enough to yank the trailing ends out of the way. In the half-second it took to reorient herself, the door flung open and Tante Maria stepped straight into her path.
Josselyn abruptly skidded back a step, startled. She could feel her heel teetering over the lip of the topmost stair, but Tante grabbed her flailing arm before she could fall, yanking her through the doorway and onto the main landing.
“You are late,” the Orlesian woman hissed as she sailed down the dim and dingy halls, Josselyn caught like flotsam in her wake. “Your poor Mama has been left to suffer on her own, and your Papa has been asking after you. You know you were to be back before he thought to notice.”
“I’m sorry,” Josselyn said. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder, spotting Cassius peeking around the doorway. She forced herself to smile reassuringly at him before turning her attention back to Tante. “I had trouble finding enough elfroot.”
Her old nursemaid sniffed down at her. “Lies. I can scent the wildness on you.”
Josselyn flushed. There was no hiding anything from Tante, no matter how hard she tried. Years ago, when the dreams had first come, she’d tried to hide those from everyone…well, after confessing the strange things she saw to her father.
That had not gone well. They’d lost a sister to the Circle years before, and the Trevelyans—already clinging to the fringes of Marcher society, backwards and poor and too big for their own good in the ramshackle manor on the moors—couldn’t afford to be known as a family given to magic.
So she hid the whispers, and she hid from sight, and only Tante and Father and Cassius knew that eyes sometimes watched her from the shadows.
“I’m sorry,” she said, voice dropping low. She hated disappointing Tante almost as much as she hated being cooped up inside. “I’ll do better. The next time you send me out on an errand, I won’t stray.”
“Oh child,” her Tante murmured, pausing outside Mama’s door. She turned, grip on Josselyn’s arm going gentle, and cupped her jaw. Those dark, often stern eyes were warm enough to stir a breathless sort of love inside Josselyn’s young breast. “How you lie. Now smile pretty for your mama and stay out of sight unless we need you. You remember what I taught you?”
“I do,” she whispered, afraid.
“Good.” Tante brushed the pad of her thumb along Josselyn’s cheek, then turned and pushed open the doors. Mama’s bedroom was dark, only a single candle in the window casting light. The air felt heavy and thick, filled with anticipation. Two of Josselyn’s older sisters moved quietly about the room, one helping Mama walk across the creaking floorboards, another changing the bed linens. There was a dark stain spreading across the sheets she bundled up and dropped to the floor, and when Josselyn sucked in a breath, her lungs were filled with the scent of copper.
Father was by the window. He turned when they entered, eyes going straight to Josselyn, dark brows drawn fierce.
“I brought elfroot,” Josselyn blurted before he could say anything. “Tante sent me for it.”
“The child can help,” Tante added in a quiet undertone, one hand falling to the curve of her spine.
The physician—older and frailer than any man Josselyn had ever seen, soft drifts of hair as white as any cloud—looked up from his bag. “Yes, good,” he said in his thin voice. “Good, good, more elfroot never hurt anyone. Would you be so kind as to…”
His words trailed off when Mama gave a low moan.
“You know what to do, child,” Tante hissed, giving her a little push toward the old writing desk. It had been shoved into the corner to make room for all of Mama’s attendants. Josselyn glanced toward her mother—a strange, hunched shape in the dark—as she set the basket down and began methodically stripping leaves.
“How much longer will this be?” Father asked.
Mama looked up, face drawn tight, as if her skin didn’t quite fit anymore. The sudden flare of firelight caught in her dark eyes. “The girls and I will handle this,” she said tightly. “You may go.”
He frowned. “I should be here.” It’s what’s expected, he didn’t add. He didn’t have to.
But Mama shook her head, eyes closing against a pain. “I do not want you here.” She leaned more heavily against Josselyn’s older sister, silver-streaked dark hair falling in a curtain over her face. “Go.”
Father drew himself up, tension radiating around him like a thunderclap, and Josselyn shrank back into herself in sudden fear. She could feel the electricity in the air like a real, living thing. It danced over her skin; it made her fingertips itch. She swore, for a moment, she almost saw its spark.
But then he let out his breath and gave a sharp, too-polite incline of his head before stalking past his wife and daughters and out of the dark room.
The door clicked shut behind him.
“Quickly, Ara,” Tante said, springing into action. “Get the window. Cora, we need more light. Josselyn…?”
“I’m ready,” she said, her voice suspiciously quavery. Josselyn swallowed and clenched her hands into fists, bright sparks dying. Or no, no, they had never been. She had to remember that.
Mama gave an unsteady laugh. “I want this over with,” she said, gripping Tante’s shoulders hard as she was pressed into the older woman’s tender grip. “I want to be done. No more. I can’t bear it again. Tante, I will come at him with a blade if he tries to—”
“Hush,” Tante murmured into her mother’s hair, supporting her the way she had done so many times. Several feet away, the useless old physician cleared his throat and busied himself with his tinctures. “Three of your beautiful children are here, and they do not need to listen to the words buzzing in your skull. Just focus on bringing your babe to the world, and the future will take care of itself.”
But Mama was too far gone. “No more,” she said, tears on her cheeks. Her fingers dug into Tante’s shoulder and she gave a whuffing breath, other hand dropping to her straining belly. “I don’t want it. I don’t want him. Tante…”
Josselyn startled, horrified gaze dragging from her mother to Tante. Her sisters were silent and pale, watching the scene unfold like the bitter stirrings of a gothic novel. “Tante,” she whispered. The newly opened windows rattled against the wind, rain soaking the sill. Thunder cracked, and lightning lit the small room.
She could feel the demons pressing against her mind.
“Be ready.” Tante didn’t see them; Tante didn’t know they were there. Tante didn’t realize that if Josselyn called on her small bit of secret magic to fumblingly heal…whatever needed to be healed…they might come swooping out of the night to drag her away.
Her small fingers curled around the vines of elfroot—her meager excuse for the wonders she might be called on to perform. Cora moved to join her, trying to catch her eye and smile, and over her shoulder, Josselyn saw Ara echoing the gesture. They didn’t know; they couldn’t know. No one could know, and oh Maker, Maker…
Mama cried out just as another crack of thunder shook the old house. Tante and the surgeon leapt to assist as the final stages began; Josselyn could feel it thick in the air, could feel a sharp tugging begin deep in her breast as if… As if her heart were beating in time with her mother’s. As if against her will and against what fumbling, limited training Tante could give her, her magic were responding to her newest sibling’s birth.
Her breath came in quick, harsh pants. She wanted, all at once, to turn on her heel and fly out into the storm. Cora dropped a hand to her shoulder and squeezed. Ara moved to Mama’s side. “I was five when you were born,” Cora murmured, helping Josselyn with the last of the elfroot. “I couldn’t understand what was happening, but the next morning, you and Cassius were brought down to the breakfast table—ugly little things, like speckled beans wrapped in swaddling.”
Josselyn gave a breathless laugh, looking up. Cora smiled down at her, reaching to brush back the wild tangle of Josselyn’s hair. “But you grew on me. And then two years later, Ellen, and a year after that, Claire, and a year after that Nerida, then Thea…”
“And then ten years,” Josselyn said, not looking at their mother. Not letting herself look. “Mama doesn’t want this baby. She’s too old for it. She’ll—”
Cora shot a quick look toward their mother as a sharp cry filled the room. “Hush,” she said, not unkindly. “She’ll bear it. And this baby will grow up big and strong like all the rest of us have…and someday he or she will be old enough to flee this place like all the rest of us will. Even you, little bird.”
“Promise?” Josselyn whispered, feeling a stirring deep inside her.
Cora’s smile was so incredibly sad. “I promise,” she said—and then a tiny, tremulous wail filled the air, and there was no more time in which to be afraid. They all sprang into action, Cora hurrying to Mama’s side, the surgeon bracing her body against his own. Mama was lost beneath the flurry and Josselyn took an anxious step toward her, magic humming in her blood—only to stop at the hard look Tante shot her.
Tante stood, arms filled with a tiny, sluggishly wriggling form wrapped in a dark shawl. She strode to Josselyn and pressed the bundle into her arms. “See that he’s healthy,” she murmured. “We will see to your Mama.”
“But I don’t want—” Josselyn began. If she were to use this power building up inside her, she wanted it to be on her mother, not this unwanted creature.
But Tante shot her a furious look and Josselyn swallowed back her protests, nodding. “Yes ma’am,” she murmured, falling back to the small writing table again. She turned her back on the bustle of activity, sensing the heavy tug of her mother’s need even as she forced herself to ignore it. Hands trembling, Josselyn laid the baby on the table and tried to focus on him instead.
He was little. So pathetically, terribly little—too small, surely, to survive. He was flushed purple-red, still slick, his face scrunched up and tremulous, kittenish wails falling from his tiny mouth. Impotent fists flailed, and she could feel the weakness in him. Little heart pounding too hard, strained and irregular in its beats and…
And something was wrong.
Pressing closer, Josselyn strained to hear. She laid her fingers across his weak chest, hand easily spanning him from neck to thigh. Premature, Tante had said. It wasn’t until now that Josselyn truly understood what that could mean.
“Shh, shh,” she murmured, closing her eyes as she tried to sense the fragile workings of his flesh and blood and bone. She heard the whooshing of his blood, the way his lungs filled with each breath, the constricting of his veins…the whistling in his heart, a tiny hole where there should be none.
Josselyn pulled back, horrified—and in that moment, somehow, those scrunched up eyes opened and she didn’t see another useless baby born into the Trevelyan family a good ten years too late. Instead, she saw her brother, tiny, in pain. Dying.
She had to do something.
“It’s all right,” she said, as soothing as she could. She gathered him up into her arms again, cradling his head, shocked at how light he was. How fragile. “Shh, shh, it’s all right. I’ll help you.” And then, because she needed a name to attach to the tiny, dwindling life in her arms: “You’ll be Taran. From the story books. From my very favorite story. I’ll tell it to you someday,” Josselyn promised, reaching for the threads of magic—deeper than Tante had ever allowed her to go, because her heart was pounding in time with Taran’s, and she would not let him die. “I promise, I’ll tell you so many stories if you just grow strong.”
Outside the crumbling manor, the wind howled. Josselyn swore she heard voices on the wind, like rat’s nails over glass, but she was too focused on tearing open the barriers she kept around her magic and feeding it into Taran’s little body. He needed more than the little magic she’d dared used before; he needed so much.
Just across the room, collapsing back into the arms of her daughters, Eleanor Trevelyan sucked in a breath…and went still. Cradled within his big sister’s arms, filled to bursting with the magic Josselyn was never supposed to yield so strongly, Taran Trevelyan sucked in a breath…and let it out on a gusty, healthy wail.
The wind howled across the moor in warning. The eyes watched the little tableau in the darkness.
Taran lived the night his mother died…and the demons came to haunt Trevelyan House for good.