THE cliff elk’s shadow remained on Ora’s mind as she opened her eyes the next morning. She had never seen another living being in her dreams, and she thought the vision must hold meaning.
A soft knock interrupted her thoughts. She crept to the door, careful not to wake her uncle, who still lay snoring in his bed. When she cracked open the door and saw Hademar, she frowned. He held her coat and shoes in his hands.
“What does ma want this early?” she asked, slipping onto the porch. The morning light had begun to spread across the sky, and the breeze sweeping in from the sea smelled crisp and cool.
“Ora—” he began.
“I’m going whether or not you take me,” she said, crossing her arms.
“I know. That’s why I came to get you.”
Her face lit up. “You changed ma’s mind?”
“Not quite. She just knows you won’t change yours.” He offered no more explanation. “Hurry up and get ready.”
She gave him a quick hug and hurried back inside to shake Lupin awake. When she told him the news, he lifted himself from bed and gave her the sword in its leather sheath along with the belt. “Stay out of trouble,” he called after her as she rushed out the door.
On the porch, she set down the sword to pull on her coat and shoes. Hademar eyed it. “Where did that come from?”
“Uncle Lupin gave it to me,” she said as she tightened her shoelaces. “It’s silver!”
“Did he?” He looked up with narrowed eyes as their uncle opened the front door with his pipe in one hand.
“What?” Lupin asked.
“A sword? Why a sword?”
“She’s old enough for one.”
“You never gave me a sword when I came of age.”
Lupin sat down in his chair and shrugged. “I suppose I didn’t.”
Ora jumped to her feet and tugged at Hademar’s arm. “I’m ready. Let’s go!”
They said goodbye to Lupin one last time and walked along the muddy street. Once they were out of earshot, Hademar looked down at her and said, “Uncle spoils you too much. You don’t know how to use a sword.”
“Can’t be that hard. The edge is sharp, and I am quick,” she said and fastened the belt around her waist.
“We’re hunting for Tabas, not battling little hares in the woods. Are you going to duel with a turkey? Lead an affront against the raccoons for stealing offerings from the shrine house?”
She laughed. “They have been getting away with it for too long, haven’t they?”
When they passed by their own cabin, their mother stepped outside. “Go on,” Hademar muttered, giving Ora a gentle push. She sighed but left his side to trudge up to the steps.
“At least take some breakfast.” Nel held out a bun wrapped in a plain, yellow handkerchief. “I know your uncle didn’t make any.”
“Thank you, ma.” Ora’s heart softened. She almost apologized for the night before, but as she took the small bundle into her hands, her mother’s eyes slid down to the sword.
With a worried look, Nel drew her into a tight hug and whispered against her ear, “I hope your uncle taught you well.”
Ora winced. “You know about that?”
“I know more than you realize.” She held her daughter out at arm’s length. “May Farig protect you on this hunt and see to it that you return to me.”
“Ma,” Ora said, confused by her mother’s words. “I’ll be with Hademar. Please, don’t spend all Tabas worrying.”
“I can’t promise that.” Her mother’s expression became somber. “But I want you to promise me something, Ora.”
“What is it?”
“Guard your name. At all costs.”
Though Lupin often gave such warnings, her mother avoided talk of the fae. Still, Ora made the promise. “I won’t even whisper it,” she said.
Nel nodded as her daughter spoke and closed her eyes for a moment, holding back tears. “Very well.” She kissed Ora’s cheek. “Happy birthday, my dear girl. Stay close to your brother.”
“I will.” Ora backed away from her mother and tried to reassure her with a smile. “I love you, ma. We’ll bring back a whole cliff elk for Tabas. You’ll see!”
Before her mother could say anything more, she hurried back to Hademar and pushed him along. By the time they reached the main stretch of road, both were laughing. Bells and blessings reached their ears. Women, men, and children stood on their porches, leaned out of windows, and swirled on the sides of the road.
“May Farig protect you on your hunt!” they called out. “Tabas blessings upon you!”
The Widogast siblings were not the only ones to go out hunting for the Tabas feast. Other huntsmen marched ahead of them, waving at their neighbors and friends. Ora heard someone shout happy birthday to her, but when she turned, she could not decide who it came from. Hademar caught her searching the crowd and jabbed her with his elbow.
“Nearly forgot to wish you a happy birthday myself,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “Some brother you are.”
Hademar laughed. They had reached the edge of town. “Stay close. I don’t care what age you are. Ma’ll never forgive me if something happens to you.”
“We sneak off all the time,” she reminded him. “Today is no different.”
In the woods, the other Tabas hunters spread out, each taking their own favored paths. Ora drew in a breath of crisp air. The rain held off, but thick fog rolled in from the coast. It drifted between the dark evergreens and swallowed sound. Hademar led them along a familiar trail at first. She unwrapped the bun her mother sent, ate it in a few bites, and stuffed the handkerchief in her pocket.
As they left the trail and descended a hillside, her excitement grew. “Hademar,” she said. “I dreamed of a cliff elk last night. Do you think it means anything?”
Much smaller than normal elk, the cliff elk of the Hy Borea were lean and as fluid as any fox. Bringing one down took an incredible amount of skill. He considered her dream and said, “It would be quite the offering for Tabas, but we’re more likely to catch a brush pig.”
They spent the day inching through the ferns and waiting. Hademar spoke little, content in his silence as they made their way deeper into the forest. Ora knew better than to strike up conversation, but she had hoped for a more thrilling adventure. The quiet day left her in a stupor.
They sat on the giant root of an old cedar for lunch and ate salted pork and hardtack. As Hademar finished his last bite, he nudged her with his elbow.
“You’re of age now. Is there anyone who has caught your eye?” he asked.
The question took her off guard. Ora did not often think of romance or marriage, and her brother had yet to find love himself, though she knew he once kissed Mathilde’s daughter. She felt her cheeks grow hot. “No,” she said. “I don’t think—well, I’m not very ladylike. I think the boys see me more like a sister.”
“It is difficult to imagine you settling down,” he admitted.
“I don’t think I want to.”
Ora swung her legs and stared at the mossy earth below. “It sounds boring, Hademar. And if I—if I did marry, I’d make a terrible wife. I can barely cook, no matter how hard ma tries to teach me.”
Her brother laughed and ruffled her already messy hair. “You are terrible at housework. I’ll give you that.”
She feigned insult but could not help but laugh along with him in the end. At the piping call of an eagle, Ora tilted her head back and caught a glimpse of the raptor soaring above the treetops. It was the first creature they had seen all day.
“Does hunting always take so long?” she asked.
Hademar smirked. “Have you grown bored?”
“No. I couldn’t ever be bored out here.”
“Ah, then you’re just impatient.” He lowered himself from the rock and held out his hand. She took hold of it and jumped down. “We may return empty-handed. Not all hunts are successful.”
“But it’s Tabas,” she insisted. “And I dreamed of a cliff elk.”
“Not all dreams are truthful.”
The afternoon stretched on much as the morning had. They crouched unmoving among ferns and watched a spring for a long time. Ora felt her eyes growing heavy as the trickling water lulled her.
Successful hunts called for festivities. Or at least drinking. Perhaps for that reason, she did not expect hunting to require so much patience. She imagined dramatic chases through the woods, meeting strange beings, and near-death experiences. As she thought about the many hunting stories she heard in her lifetime, she began to wonder if men enjoyed embellishment.
While her mind wandered, Hademar nocked an arrow with an elegant, practiced motion and pulled back the bowstring. Her eyes followed his, and she grinned. Beyond the spring, atop the crest of a hill, stood a cliff elk.
Unconsciously, she moved forward to see better.
Ora’s stomach twisted. Her brother lowered his bow, but his arms remained tense as the bull leapt away. The crash of brush lasted only a moment, and the elk vanished almost as soon as it moved.
She lifted her foot from the cursed branch she had trodden on. Hademar’s breath clouded the cold air. “A day wasted,” he said.
The sky was beginning to turn a brilliant red. The day was over. She knew the walk back to Fel would be a long, quiet one. Hademar would show up empty-handed and feeling foolish thanks to her.
“I don’t know how we would’ve carried it back anyway,” she said.
He did not answer. Instead, he stared at the hillside the bull ran up. The evergreens and shadows swallowed any trace of the creature.
She rubbed at her cold nose with the edge of her sleeve and waited. He had an unreadable expression, and the sudden and urgent sound of his voice made her jump. “Go back to Fel. I might stand a chance without you tagging along.”
This stung. She wasn’t about to go back alone. “Hademar, I—it was only one twig. One twig! All day! I’ve hardly breathed or farted since we left this morning.”
The corners of his lips flickered at her outburst. Instead of letting a laugh sneak out, he made a threat. “One more twig and I’ll leave you out here tonight.”
“You wouldn’t. Ma would never forgive you,” she said. Though lighthearted enough, the threat made a fearful energy creep up her back. She shivered. Satisfied at the instilled fear, he waved for her to follow. He had not given up on the bull yet.
As they crept up the hillside, she tried not to fear what could be in the shadows or crouched behind a boulder. Such thoughts could cause her to misstep. She reminded herself that every movement must be measured.
Just as time began to stretch again, Hademar paused. Little daylight remained. She grew still and searched the trees. At first, she did not see the bull. Its body, striped by branches, looked like a part of the thicket. As soon as its form came together in her mind, the slicing of air filled her ears.
The arrow sank into the spot above the bull’s shoulder. She expected its heart to burst, for it to collapse into death. It turned instead. Its cold, glassy eyes fixed on her brother. “You fool!”
They froze. The voice came from the bull but not from the bull. It filled her ears, feminine and secretive. The sensation of an old force crackled in the air, and the hairs on the back of Ora’s neck rose. She reached one shaking hand down to her sword.
Hademar had another arrow ready as the bull stepped out of the thicket. “Get back,” he said. His eyes did not move from the elk.
Ora did as she was told and stepped behind a tree. Her blood felt like cold water. Her heart raced. Every sensation was amplified. She wanted to run. She wanted to return home.
“Don’t be a coward, Ora,” she whispered and forced herself to look around the tree.
Despite his steady voice, Hademar’s hands shook. “What are you?”
The bull’s hide shifted. Thin, white hands parted its chest. Then, the head tilted back and melted into a silky, chestnut fabric. The cloak draped over a fierce, human-like frame. The antlers vanished as the hood fell and revealed a head of thick, black hair. A narrow-faced woman with eyes bluer than summer skies peered at Hademar. She reached one hand up and touched the arrow protruding from her shoulder.
“A dren,” Ora breathed, recognizing the elk shapeshifter from her uncle’s stories about the fae.
All grew still. Even the wind settled.
Ora had imagined dren as monstrous, fearsome creatures, but the woman possessed an eerie beauty. The delicate curves of her face were not quite human. Nor were her pointed ears. Black tattoos swirled on her ash white skin, and her hair curled in a way that Ora could not help but envy over her own frizzled, dark locks.
The wonderment broke when Ora became aware of several sets of eyes gleaming in the brush. Before Hademar spoke, she knew what he would say. She began to shake her head.
“Ora, you must run.”
The thought of him putting her life before his own made her feel sick with guilt. She could not will her feet to move from the spot. She stared hard at her brother. She feared she would never see him again.
“No,” she said, her hand still wrapped around the hilt of her sword. “I can’t.”
“Run!” He let loose the second arrow. It lodged into the dren’s chest, and she bared her teeth as she fell to her knees. The air felt like a lightning bolt had struck. The branches and ferns began to shift. A voice rose up from the thick brush, and the bow flew from her brother’s hand.
He drew his hunting knife. “Ora! Go!”
But she couldn’t. She watched as three more cliff elk shed their skins and stepped out into the open. Hademar charged at the nearest, a female dren almost identical to the first but with tightly braided hair. She sneered and caught hold of his wrist before the knife could pierce her. A fluid stream of words fell from her lips. The knife lit up with a fiery glow, and he cried out, dropping it to the forest floor. The skin on his palm and fingers was scorched red.
One of the others rushed at Ora. Her hand fumbled for her sword. As the dren rounded the thick, old spruce, she drew it from the sheath. He was much taller than her and had the broad, muscular build of a warrior. His square jaw was clean-shaven, and his dark hair, though cropped short, sat in thick curls. He stepped toward her with a self-assured smirk.
Ora held the blade before her and tried not to shake. “It’s silver,” she threatened.
The dren laughed, golden eyes flashing as he drew his own sword. He took a mighty swipe and knocked Ora’s blade from her hands. With a cry, she bolted into the ferns.
Branches and briars clawed at her clothes. She did not stop to look back. She did not stop to think. As she splashed across a creek, a loud buzz filled her ears, and then, a searing force struck her square in the back. She jolted and tumbled hard against the rocks. Pain shot through her head, down her spine. Cold water sank into her clothes. A wild chill coursed through her, and darkness sprang across her vision.
Ora could hear herself panting like a dog, and her pulse thrummed in her ears. She tasted the bitter, metallic zing of blood in her mouth. As she regained focus, she saw the dren crouching over her.
He said something in his own language, and the pain subsided. With a gasp of relief, she sat up. As she did, he grabbed hold of her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. “Aren’t you resilient? That spell should’ve knocked you out cold.” To her surprise, he spoke the common tongue, but the words were mangled by an unrecognizable accent that bit at his words.
She glared. Already, she could feel her strength returning and a burning anger rising within her. “What do you want?” she asked.
A short laugh flew from his lips, and he let his hand drop away. “Your fate will be less terrible than your friend’s.”
Hademar. What had they done to him? She scrambled backward, unable to gain her footing in the mud. A stone slid beneath her hand, and she curled her fingers around it. It was no silver sword, but a rock would do. With a furious cry, she flung it at the dren.
As the stone cracked against his forehead, she twisted around. Half crawling and half stumbling, she at last made it to her feet and rushed back through the woods, back to Hademar. She would not abandon her brother.
But she was too late.
He lay motionless on the forest floor. The other dren were nowhere in sight. She dropped to her knees beside him. There was no blood that she could see. She pressed her ear closer to his lips. To her relief, breath tickled her ear. It was not until she straightened that she noticed the wiry hairs growing from his skin. In disbelief, she gingerly touched the new hair on his arm.
Then, Ora felt him shift. She teetered backward, her breath coming in short, frightened bursts as her brother began to change.
His limbs twitched, and his back twisted up into a grotesque arch. As his bones rearranged themselves with sickening pops, his body jerked at odd angles. His limbs became shorter, his face longer, his nose broad and flat, his ears bigger and bushier. His fingers fused together; his boots fell from his feet—now hooves. More dark hairs grew from his thickening skin. His body swelled into a new shape, and his clothes became shreds.
Though she had heard of the fae changing people into animals, her mind could not accept what she witnessed. She reached out a shaking hand and laid it upon Hademar’s back. The coarse fur tickled her palm. His spotted hide rose and fell with a gentle, slumbering breath beneath her hand. It couldn’t be real. She had to be imagining it. It had to be some kind of trick, some kind of illusion.
Numbed by the impossibility, she did not hear the footsteps behind her. Her body felt cold with the shock of what had become of Hademar. The words drifted out of reach at first.
He was … a brush pig.
“We do love irony, we dren. The hunter becomes the hunted and all that.” Before she could turn her head, she felt fingers dig into her hair, scrape her scalp, and wrench her back. It was the golden-eyed dren. Blood and dirt streaked his face. “How fitting it will be for your own people to hunt him down like the stupid beast that he is.”
She tore at the dren’s hand as she tried to escape his grip, but he only wound her hair tighter into his fist.
“My brother’s not a stupid beast! Change him back!” she shouted with indignation, twisting and clawing as she tried to pry away his fingers. “Let go of me!”
“Don’t be foolish, Ora. That’s what he called you, isn’t it?” He crouched down behind her and sang in his own language.
His words filled Ora’s mind, warm and sweet. Though she could not understand them, her thoughts filled with the sound of the dren’s voice. Her heart danced as if she was gazing on something beautiful for the first time.
A frost-covered field in the morning light.
Fog rising in the mountains.
Clear, turquoise water.
A laugh trickled from her smiling lips, and she mumbled something about how nice he sounded. Then, her body grew heavy and a peaceful sleep stole her away.