Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Whispers in the Waves

by Dawn Elliot

“Marra!” The voice of an exasperated mother rose over the sound of the waves and the ever-present hiss of the sea wind. “Marra, come home now! It’s dinner time. Marra!”

Alyn walked up the sandbar, boots crunching on gravel and worn sea shells. Her attention was entirely on the small figure crouched next to a deep tide pool; she paid no mind to the child’s mother further up the beach. The child didn’t stir, arm sunk elbow-deep into the water. She didn’t move until Alyn’s shadow fell across the pool, and its resident shrimp and crabs fled under rocks and into crevices. The dark-haired girl looked up with a frown: “You scared the fish.”

“They’ll manage well enough, child,” Alyn smiled, gold pilot’s ring glinting in her nose and green eyes bright in her tanned and weathered face. She crouched down beside the girl, worn oilskins rustling against the sand. “What have you found there?”

“She’s tickling me,” the child giggled. Alyn peered past the reflections dancing across the pool’s surface. The waves had whispered to her, speaking of the great whales traveling south for the winter and the storm rising in the west. The whispers drew her here, to this small village on the edge of the kingdom, filling her dreams with images of tangled black hair and–Alyn saw the iridescent gleam of a abalone shell in the water–blue shell. She’d had this dream for years, as she’d searched for her heir.

The girl had her hand under the abalone. No doubt the mollusk was scraping harmlessly at her skin, tasting her. Alyn reached into the pool as well, tickling an anemone. Because of Alyn’s skills as an adept, the creature neither stung her nor withdrew but allowed her to stroke it lightly, fronds waving in the gentle current.

“They always curl up when I touch them,” the girl said, watching in fascination. “I don’t mean to scare them.”

“There’s a trick to it, Marra. It is Marra, is it not?” Alyn smiled again as the girl nodded, clearly impatient to learn the trick of tickling anemones. Behind Alyn, her small sailboat bobbed on the water. A flag with a quartered circle on it flapped from the top, marking her as an adept offering her services to those in need. “Can you feel the stir of the water?” she asked. “Breathe it in. Let your hand drift like kelp in the current. Then the anemone will not fear you, and neither will the shrimp or the little fishes.” She paused, studying the girl’s expression.

“Can you understand the voice of the water, Marra?” Alyn asked gently, hope ill hidden in her voice. “Does the wind speak to you?”

Marra lifted her gray eyes to meet Alyn’s and nodded solemnly. “The wind told me you would come. I’ve been waiting for you.”

Alyn stood and smiled, her old knees creaking. She held out her hand, and without hesitation, Marra took it, as if grasping the hand of her mother, and stood as well. “And I have been waiting for you, child,” Alyn said. “For a very long time.”

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Final Blow

by Dawn Elliot

The sorcerer’s unliving army seemed endless, wearing down the Queen’s defenders. Jen knew every death was simply fodder for the sorcerer’s dark arts. She could almost feel the evil feeding on the pain, death, fear, and rage around her. But to refuse to fight was to bow to the enemy’s advances.

Jen had been battling her way through the press most of the day, and there were few who could face her skill with a blade, her training, or Kili, the rhy-cat bonded with her heart. She heard Kili wail behind her and shared his frustration as they were stalled by a wall of shambling corpses. Then the great rhy-cat bounded over Jen’s head to fall on them, lashing out with razor-sharp claws to drive the zombies back. Jen pushed through the gap, and the two of them raced up the shallow slope towards the sorcerer’s command post.

Arrows rained down on them, but they danced out of the way, steps light despite the wearying battle. Kili and Jen moved as if they were two parts of a single warrior, striking through the scattered enemy. Behind her, Jen heard the shouts of her companions as they saw the brilliant gleam of her sword. Battle noises rose again as the Queen’s army was encouraged by the rhy-bonded’s glorious, and insanely risky, charge.

Risky yes, but not insane. Jen knew if they couldn’t find a way to shatter the sorcerer’s control over the unliving, the army would fall. Morale was already fraying. Even the bravest warriors tasted terror as they faced their former shieldmates, still bearing their death wounds. Jen prayed for just one chance against the sorcerer who had raised such evil.

The sorcerer clearly placed little trust in the living. Kili made short work of the zombie guards at the command post. Jen drove ahead, quick blows disabling or destroying those who faced her. A black tent stood at the center of the camp and was surrounded by blood-filled runes cut in the ground. The stink, magnified through Kili’s senses, made Jen’s stomach lurch. Horrified and enraged, she slashed at the tent, slicing a great hole in it.

The only person inside was a withered old woman, rocking back and forth and muttering to herself as if mad. Jen hesitated, and it was only Kili’s warning cry, echoing in her mind and ears, that saved her life. The seemingly decrepit crone suddenly lashed out with her staff and hissed curses at Jen, who dodged aside at the last moment. Taking a spinning kick-step, Jen struck the staff away and then gathered her focus, and the white hot Light burning within her, and struck. The sorcerer shrieked, curses cut off as the blade impaled her, a blow to smite the strongest of shadows. Jen felt the evil in the air instantly dissipate, washed away by the Light she’d called to her aid. There was a great rush of noise, as a thousand spirits were set free, and then a clatter of armor and weapons as the entire army of the unliving slumped to the ground, dead once more.

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy


by Dawn Elliot

Something was wrong. Haril could smell it–literally–and he knew no one else could. For some odd reason, he always caught a whiff of a bad odor whenever there was trouble, and he’d been smelling a stink all day. Sighing, Haril checked the set of his sword and sat a little straighter in the saddle. He couldn’t see anything ahead, but he trusted his nose over his eyes.

He didn’t have long to wait. He drew his sword a split second before the three mounted bandits thundered down on him, yelling to spook his horse. Of course, his horse was from the royal stables and was neither spooked nor amused. Her ears back, she raised her tail in challenge. That was the bandits’ first surprise. When Haril threw back his cloak and his envoy’s badge flashed in the sunlight, that was their second.

“Exarchs’ blood!” the lead bandit cursed. Then Haril skewered him. That was the last surprise he had for them. In the frantic mess, they took his horse down. Cursing, Haril dodged the hooves of his own beast as she shrieked in agony.

“Damn you all!” he shouted, angered at the poor horse’s agony. He punched the nose of the nearest bandit’s horse with the pommel of his sword, and the animal reared, throwing its rider off. None of the bandits were true horsemen. Dodging a deadly blow from the remaining rider, Haril spun, grabbed the man’s boot, and dragged him from his horse.

“Now we’re all on the same level, boyos,” he panted, glaring at his unhorsed opponents. They didn’t answer, rushing him in tandem. Haril twisted nimbly out of the way, using a clever little maneuver he’d learned as a child in the Kernish court. Hooking a heel under the first man’s boot, he dumped him to the ground, with a kick to his temple put him out, hopefully not permanently.

That left him with the leader, a cunning fighter with burning eyes, speaking of some Shadowspawn blood in his veins. The two swordsmen danced back and forth among the fallen bandits and the pooling blood of Haril’s horse. The scout found himself at a disadvantage; he was trying to disable, not kill, his opponent, while the other fighter had no such restraint.

Pressed back, Haril realized he didn’t have the skill to take the bandit down without killing him. The robber’s blade suddenly slipped past Haril’s guard to stab his upper arm. He hissed, eyes widening in sudden agony. The blade had poison on it. Groaning, Haril struggled to kill the bandit now, before it could take effect.

It was more luck than anything, a tiny slip of the bandit’s boot, but it was enough. Haril’s blade sank home, and he watched as those burning eyes dimmed in death.

“Ah!” Haril sank to his knees, shuddering. He could feel the heat of the poison working its way through his body. He wondered if there’d be any victors in this battle. “And what surprise do you have for me now, eh?”

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

The Sea’s Tithe

by Dawn Elliot

Under the howl of the storm, Chi could hear the bones of his ship breaking, and the tears he shed for it were swept away by the torrent. The storm had risen over them suddenly, tossing the fishing vessel like a child’s toy. The Mother Sea was taking her tithe in blood tonight.

There was nothing to do for it. Chi had lashed himself to the rudder, the crew had taken what refuge they could, and little Wif had already been swept under. Barely audible amid the howl of the storm, Chi’s wife sang songs to calm it. The storm seemed only to scream louder. They wouldn’t last much longer and were too far out to hope for rescue.

“Gods!” Chi chanted and worked with weather-worn hands to undo the ropes binding him to the broken rudder of his ship. “Sweet gods have mercy and take your due from the captain, and be satisfied.”

The rope slipped free, and for a moment the weather seemed to hold its breath as Chi stood tall at the stern, face turned to the wind-lashed waves.

“Chi!” his wife’s voice rose fearfully above the wail of the wind. And the water came crashing down.

The dark wave hit like a hammer, cold as the grave, and washed him from the deck. He kicked his boots free, striving for the surface but couldn’t tell up from down in the wild current. In the gloom of the stinging salt water were the shapes of splintered wood. His breath was knocked from him in a cloud of bubbles as lumber slammed into his side. Choking, Chi kicked weakly, knowing the struggle was useless, but unable to surrender to the sea he’d fought all his life.

Rising from the dark depths like a ghost, a face loomed in his drowning vision. He clawed at it with the last of his strength, fearing the spirits of the drowned had come to drag him down. Strong hands gripped his arms and dragged him up instead. They broke the surface, and Chi dragged in a desperate breath, letting it go in a terrified shout. He thrashed in the grip of long hands and blue arms.

“What?” Chi shouted. “What?”

Around him, other faces bobbed to the surface, pale green or sea blue. One of the people cradled Wif’s coughing form in her arms.

“Ai!” shouted the blue-skinned man holding Chi, voice thick with a south bay accent. “Settle down, friend. That’s no way to treat them what come to rescue you!”

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Shadows and Dust

by Dawn Elliot

Reyna froze, one hand hovering over the small silver and ebony chest. To breach the sorcerer’s tower, she’d crept through sewage tunnels and servants’ passages and struggled up the narrow chimney that vented heat into the evil mage’s private chambers. Now, sticky with sweat and ash, her hands scraped raw from gripping the rough brickwork of the vent, Reyna was within the sorcerer’s most hidden, warded chamber.

At her throat, she could feel the peculiar buzz of the ward-stone. It was a device of the Old Kingdom. Though she loathed the dull reddish stone and its price–it must be bathed in a cup of blood every full moon–it enabled her to pass through the wards set to foil thieves like her.

Her blades had been blackened with soot and grease, as had the buckles on her dull gray garb and the grappling hook she’d used to scale the walls of the keep’s bailey. Her pale skin was darkened as well, and now a layer of chimney ash left her nothing more than a slender shadow in the darkness.

She was strong and swift and, thanks to the Queen’s Finest, better trained than she had ever been in her life. All for this one moment, this one task she had willingly taken, knowing the price of failure was a fate worse than death.

Reyna stood still, not touching the small chest for which she’d been sent. Instead she turned her head from side to side, trying to catch the elusive something she’d heard a moment ago. Though her dark hair was hidden under a gray cap, her delicate ears were bare, and it was those that gave her warning now. She tipped her head–such a small thing she’d heard. A noise so faint and fragile that she was not sure she had heard it. Still, she listened and did not move.

After a moment, she crouched down, peering at the chest and the ornate pillar upon which it rested. She shifted her weight, and again, there was that sound. A faint scrape where there should be none. The pillar was supposed to be black granite, and the tiny chest atop it filled with such evil it would take great effort to move it, yet the noise was the sound of something light, something far different from what Reyna’s eyes told her. It was clear the pillar was rocking, ever so slightly, and that should not be. She remained there for a long moment, searching with her eyes, but could see nothing amiss. Everything appeared as she had been told it would, but her ears told her different.

Finally, Reyna slipped back, away from the pillar and the chest she’d risked so much to steal. She eased the grate open again and began the long climb back down the vent. Whatever her eyes might say, her ears and her instincts were always true. That tempting little chest was nothing more than a trap.

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

First Steps

by Dawn Elliot

Svel was hungry and that’s why he was there, standing in the rain and waiting. This time of year it rained a lot, and he’d been wet a lot. And hungry a lot. He wasn’t the only one waiting; there were others, some very young, some older.

Svel’s attention snapped back to the wide wooden gate as it creaked open, and silence fell among the little crowd gathered in front of the Dancer’s Hall. Stepping out into the mud, an old man smiled beneficently at them and said, “So, the first day of spring has brought you all to Dance?”

He looked them over, rich and poor, young and old, and there was something in his gaze that made Svel’s nervousness evaporate. Poor and orphaned he might be, but no one in that place would mock him for it.

“Candidates only, if you please,” the old man said and dragged the gate wider as they filed in.

This was only a regional Hall, small in size and quiet in ambition. Inside, was a complex of low buildings, eaves dripping rain, and a shallow porch crowded with students. Svel sighed, flushing. Not only would he have to take some mysterious test, but he’d have to do it under the watchful eyes of the entire Hall.

In the courtyard was a collection of stumps set into the ground. Svel stared blankly at them. It wasn’t long before the stumps’ purpose became clear. The old man hopped nimbly up onto the first stump, smiling cheerfully.

“Here for the Dance? Perhaps drawn by fame? Fear? Simple hunger? Perhaps a more complex hunger than you know.” The old man seemed to be looking right at Svel. “Well, then Dance,” the old man said, taking a step to the next stump, a quick spin and a hop to the third and fourth, and then he was dancing, his feet barely touching the stumps. He spun and swayed gracefully despite his age, surefooted despite the rain.

Svel watched as others tried the Dance. None made it past the seventh step. He realized, watching, it wasn’t the number of steps that mattered; it was how you took them. Some of the candidates who’d made it all the way to the seventh step were turned away, while others who’d not gone as far were accepted. Standing there in the drizzle, Svel didn’t know what the Dance Master was looking for and realized, if he couldn’t predict the master’s mind, he’d best pay attention to his own steps.

Svel sighed, stepped onto the first stump, and then hopped to the next. He immediately realized there was a rhythm to the steps, and he was out of rhythm. He struggled to find it but was at the wrong angle for the fourth and had to twist mid-air to reach it. He could feel his balance sliding away and desperately leapt for the fifth. He spun again and found the sixth, then kept right on spinning, off the stumps and into the mud. Sitting there, he laughed because he could feel the rhythm now, in the beating of his heart, in the rise of his breath. The Dance was there; all he had to do was feel it, and follow it.

He looked up into the old spirit dancer’s eyes. They were warm with amusement and welcome and he held out a hand to help Svel up. “You might want to get out of those wet clothes,” the old man said, “and get yourself some soup–apprentice.”

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Lovers of the Dawn

by Jeremy Crawford

“Please tell us about the birth of Lord Hiathas,” the twin girls implored their mother, Loreena. She shook her head and chuckled, having told them many times how the Dawn Prince came to be. It was their favorite story, not only because it included the first unicorn, but also because they giggled at how their older brother, Phaedryl, blushed at its telling. About to shoo her daughters out into the garden, Loreena spotted why the girls were asking for the tale now; Phaedryl, a willowy and handsome teenager, was on his way up the hill to their open kitchen door. Loreena smiled to herself and asked the twins, “Where should I begin?”

“With the unicorn!”

“Of course,” she laughed. “With the unicorn.” She sat down and began, “After Lord Braniel caught Lady Maurenna’s tears in his chalice, he lovingly sang the Eternal Song over it, and waited for what would happen next. At first there was a great quiet, and the water rippled in the Twilight. But then a light began to emanate from the chalice, and Lord Braniel knew something wondrous was about to take place.

“Soon the light was brighter than anything in the world. Not wishing to confine it to his chalice, Lord Braniel poured the illuminated water out, and wondered and waited. Freed into the open, the light grew brighter still, until not even Lord Braniel could see into it. He could tell there was a figure within, a young man perhaps, but the light would reveal no features. Drops of life-giving water fell from the figure, and as one hit the surface of the pool, there was a neigh, and from the water emerged the first unicorn. Its horn breached the surface first, followed by its serene face and pearly white body. Lord Braniel laughed in joy and welcome, as the unicorn whinnied and shook its luminous mane.” Loreena’s daughters were so transfixed they didn’t notice Phaedryl, until their mother looked up at him. He leaned against the doorjamb, a spring breeze blowing in past him, carrying aromas of honeysuckle and approaching rain. He smiled, somewhat shyly at his mother, waiting for her to continue.

She obliged: “What could be more beautiful than this?” Lord Braniel pondered aloud. In answer, the light grew smaller, but no less bright. It shrank until it was a halo behind the head of the most beautiful youth Lord Braniel had seen. The first unicorn bowed its head before the new god, who gently laid his hand on its mane. Newly born but fully grown, the youth said, “I am Hiathas,” and Lord Braniel’s heart ached at the loveliness of his voice. They gazed into each other’s eyes and knew, with joy and longing, they would be one for all the ages.” Loreena watched her son, as his cheeks flushed at the ending. The twins noticed and giggled.

Just then a whistle came from out in the garden, and the tailor’s son poked his head through the open window. “Coming, Phaedryl?” he asked with a grin. Phaedryl flushed even more, nodded, and laughed. Looking to his mother for her consent, she said, “Have a wonderful time at the fair.” Her eyes followed the boys as they walked down the lane and saw Phaedryl shyly slip his hand into the other boy’s. With happiness in her heart, she prayed, “Lord Hiathas, watch over these lovers of the dawn….”

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Key to the Kingdom

by Dawn Elliot

Tallow smoke hung low in the small room, hazing the air. The Lich King Jarek leaned on the edge of the map table, ignoring the smoke and the uneasy shifting of his generals. Jarek no longer breathed, nor cared about the feelings of the living. They would do as he wished and that was what mattered.

“There.” He pointed, black painted nail sharpened to a deadly point and dipped in venom. “Our victory. There.”

Jarek’s black fingernail traced a path from the guardian Ice-Binder Mountains, through a narrow pass, into the Pavin Weald—and on into the heart of accursed Aldis. There was a long, shallow valley running towards the heart of the kingdom. The trees of the Weald were thinest there, and the mountains dipped low.

Aldis was a fertile and gentle land, of gentle, weak people. The winters were soft there, the farmlands generous with their bounty, the forests full of hardwoods and rare herbs. The west opened onto the sea, giving Aldis access to lands beyond the waters, a strength they refused to exploit. The soft and foolish citizens of that kingdom did not deserve the riches they possessed, yet they continued to defy the strength and uncanny power of the Kingdom of Kern.

They had warred with Aldis before, throwing the strength of ancient sorcery against the weak powers of the arcane arts. Jarek scowled at the memories. He had lost more than one army in battle with the kingdom of the Blue Rose. At first, young and foolish, he had been certain pure might would overcome their enemy. Now, older and wiser, Jarek knew that guile was also a strategy of war. With a new queen on the throne of Aldis, treachery and deception might win him what brute force could not.

“My lord…,” Jarek’s favored general—the only one who dared to question him—spoke up uncertainly. The long valley had been tried before, and their enemy guarded that weakness well. Jarek could see the thoughts pass in her mind, and smiled. Here was one who could be nurtured, a general who could be trained in guile and, properly managed, taught loyalty.

“Indeed. Obvious, is it not? Oft tried and oft failed.” Jarek’s burning red gaze shifted to the silent guest at the other end of the map table. The stranger stood, throwing back his hood to reveal the dark, elegant looks of the Western seafarers. A long scar traveled across his face, the mark of a traitor. He also wore a nose ring signifying his membership in the pilot’s guild. Hatred burned in his black eyes and shadowed his face.

The generals stirred, faces lit with sudden excitement. The sea passages to Aldis were protected by nature in the form of deadly shoals and treacherous currents; only trained pilots knew the secrets of passage. And here, for the first time in the history of landlocked Kern, a pilot stood in the council chambers of the last of the Sorcerer Kings.

“And here is our key to the kingdom,” Jarek said softly with a dry chuckle.

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Wolf Song

by Dawn Elliot

Kerin was no expert at forest travel, and the deep, green secrets of the Pavin Weald were likely to remain secret from him, though not from his hosts, who lived there and treated the forest as a holy place. His hosts thought him amusing as he stumbled and crunched his way along the trails. He accepted the laughter with good humor. Humor was certainly better than hostility. When the Queen sent him into the forests to act as her envoy, hostility from the forest people had been a real concern.

Now though, they teased him and fussed over his scrapes and bumps. They’d fed him and offered their terrible fermented herb beer, and he ate and drank it all. He was an envoy, after all, and it was his calling to find a place wherever he traveled, whether palace or wattle-and-daub hut.

Now the firelight flickered on the pale faces and golden hair of the suspicious forest folk, and Kerin could see, farther back in the shadows, the silvery gleam of inhuman eyes. The rhy-wolves, come to see the stranger amid their human kinfolk.

“Tell us a story,” someone said beyond the light. Other voices took up the request. Kerin could feel the seriousness below the light coaxing. The people here had no written language; they passed on knowledge and wisdom through story and song.

Kerin sat up and set aside his clay mug–secretly grateful to be distracted from the greenish, foamy drink–and smiled at his hosts. He scanned the small crowd: elders and little children, men and women, and the great, intelligent wolves circling in the shadows of the fires.

Though he had not met one, Kerin knew the rhy-wolves were as much a part of the village as the elders who’d come to greet him. As he looked around, he could begin to get a sense of the pattern here, the connections and tensions among the group, a web spun of love, envy, fears, dreams, and hopes. Kerin could feel how this place held together, and what he saw with his empathic talent was the rhydan were woven into the fabric of this place as tightly as any human.

He had been sent by the Queen to strengthen the ties between Aldis and its most secretive citizens. Kerin realized if he was to do his job and fulfill his duties as one of the Queen’s Finest, he must draw the rhy-wolves in as well. He knew just the story, with a few alterations, of course.

“Once upon a time, long ago, there was a young girl. Beloved of her family and town, she wore a red hood–a gift from her grandmother,” Kerin began. “One day, she decided to visit her grandmother, who lived deep in the holy forest. So she set out with a basket of food, with her beloved wolf companion at her side….”

Blue Rose: The RPG of Romantic Fantasy

Cat’s Eye, Part II

by Dawn Elliot

Running…. She was running for her life, sides heaving, body aching. Behind her she could hear the voices of hounds and feel the drag and agony of her wounded side. She wore no skirts, but ran on silver hooves and knew the twists and turns of the ancient, cursed marsh like she knew her sad fate had arrived.

Weary, she finally turned to see the shadow-touched who hunted her. She ignored the hounds circling her, baying but not daring to attack, and she glared proudly at the twisted face of the fool who’d led his people into this tragedy. Only one, terribly young, remained free of the taint consuming the travelers who’d trespassed the marsh. One fragile hope. Then the hunter’s bolt sought her heart….

Zhira woke with a choked scream, hands pressed to her chest to staunch the life blood flowing from her. Her hands clutched at wool and cotton, not white fur. Not her blood but that of the strange creature her uncle had killed. Not her life lost but a wise and precious life, one more worthy than she, Zhira was sure.

She panted in the close dark of the wagon and realized, remembering the coldness in her mother’s voice and the subtle changes in her uncle’s face, that they would never let her out. Not until she ate. Ate, filled her belly, and let the shadows into her heart. Shadow had already fallen over the spirits of her kinsmen, a darkness she’d been too fearful to recognize. Now, with the fragments of the terrible dream in her thoughts, her eyes were opened and Zhira could not pretend any longer.

She had a choice now: the darkness or the light. The darkness would be easier, comfortable, warm with the welcome of her mother’s arms. Her kin to shelter her, cousins to tease her — truly things would go on much as they always had. They’d travel the endless roads, dance and gamble for coin. Zhira could see it in her mind’s eye, as she’d seen the dream. There’d be little difference, and if sometimes her kin stole from honest men, or sold poisonous herbs instead of folk cures, well, that was something many did. It would be a lifetime of small sins, dragging down her spirit until darkness finally claimed her.

The light … here Zhira’s vision failed her. The light would have its price, a hard road and a strange one. All she was sure of was she would not travel it alone.

And those two roads were before her now, in this moment. She had to choose.

Still trembling from the dream, Zhira pulled herself to her feet. She shook out her skirts and fumbled for the tiny lantern hanging from the curved and painted ceiling. She ignored the cold bowl of stew and searched in the cabinets and chests holding everything her family owned. She changed her skirts and colorful vest for her brother’s hunting clothes. They were big, except at the hips and breasts, but not uncomfortable. She packed a travel bag and braided her hair to keep it from her face, moving without thought because she was afraid, if she paused, her courage would fail her. Her hands were already shaking as she finished binding her hair.

Finally, she pulled aside the rugs on the floor. She had one of the wagon-wheel tools in hand and struggled to wedge it into the floorboards. Her father made this wagon when he’d married her mother, and Zhira’s eyes watered with grief as she fought now to tear a hole in it.

Sweating and praying to Goia for artifice, Zhira finally pried up one of the narrow boards. Soon there was a hole large enough for her to crawl through. She sat for a time, staring at the mud beneath the wagon. She’d never left the safety of her clan, the circle of familiar faces. Zhira could hardly believe she was planning on leaving the only home she’d ever known. It seemed strange, unnatural, to abandon her life all for the sake of a marsh deer. Above her, the lantern light flickered, dimming as the shadows crept close.

An unearthly, agonized wail rose above the quiet sounds of the swamp. Zhira jumped, shuddering at the pain in it. Outside one of the dogs barked, and the others joined in, baying a challenge to whatever had made terrible sound.

“Shaduup!” someone yelled, voice muffled from inside a wagon, and the dogs quieted with uneasy whines. Zhira remained where she was, heart pounding in her chest, waiting for her mother to walk in and discover her. But the camp grew silent again, and the soft chirps and clucks from the swamp were the only sounds in the night. Frightened to go but more frightened to remain, Zhira slipped through the hole, forced to creep on her belly like a newt as she crawled under her mother’s wagon. The dogs outside only wagged their tails at her from under their masters’ wagons, familiar with her scent.

Zhira slung the travel bag over her shoulder and slipped out of the camp. As the faint firelight was lost behind her, she knew there was no going back. If they had been willing to lock her in a wagon until she starved, surely the punishment for running away would be worse. It wasn’t long before Zhira also realized that even if she wanted to go back she couldn’t. She was lost.

If the so-called track they had been following through the marsh had been treacherous, the lands around it were more than treacherous; they were deadly. Zhira had a small hand lamp, but it did little good, revealing nothing but rotting tree stumps, the gleam of murky water, and the everpresent, cloying mists. Roots seemed to reach up for her booted feet — she’d measured her length in the mud more than once — and branches snared her hair and clawed at her face. The eerie wail, full of pain and despair, rose several more times from the darkness, so close Zhira was sure she would soon stumble on the poor creature making it. Once, face down in a foul puddle, she’d lifted her face to see a swamp serpent hissing and rattling sarcely an inch from her outstretched hand. Zhira did the only thing she could think of, lying frozen in the stinking mud until the agitated snake slithered off into the dark. When the cold dark gave way to a gray and chill morning, Zhira was slumped on a damp hillock under a dead tree, too exhausted to go on.

Zhira knew she’d not traveled far enough and needed to go on. But she was so tired, too tired to lift her hand, let alone stand and crawl through more endless muck and filth. She stared dully at her clotted boots as the light grew, though she could not actually see the sun. The daylight did not seem to quiet the creature, whatever it was, that had been crying in the night, for Zhira heard it again as she rested, even louder now.

She blinked. Beside her left boot, filled with water, was an enormous footprint. In shape it was the same as the small, dainty tracks of the cats the townsmen kept as pets. Zhira could even pick out the prick of claw tips. Dainty perhaps, but not small — the footprint was larger than her own hand. Zhira’s head filled with the child’s tales, of ghost cats, the spirits of lost travelers that returned to haunt the living. Wide eyed, she stared into the growing morning. The beast that made that track had to be as large as she was.

That wail came again and the pain in it was clear. Swallowing hard, Zhira scrambled to her feet. She couldn’t go back, she knew. She might as well go forward. Looking around her in the dim morning, Zhira stopped running away.

She had not stopped her brother or Eharan when they’d slaughtered the beautiful white deer, but perhaps she could ease the suffering she was hearing now and try to somehow balance the scales.

The Veran Marsh was not appreciative of her newfound determination. Zhira stumbled, tripped, and crawled toward the cries. Fighting her way through a bramble, the ground suddenly gave way beneath her, and she slid down a muddy slope, clutching at wet grasses and thorny vines. Ending in a heap in a mud puddle, she pushed her filthy hair back, raised her head, and met wide, wild eyes like sapphires.

Gasping, she froze. Those eyes were set in a furred face, full of frustration and pain. She was barely arm’s length away from an enormous ivory-furred cat with paws as large as her hands and fangs as long as her fingers. Its cinnamon-colored tail lashed angrily in the mud. Even as Zhira sat there stunned, the cat’s fanged mouth opened wide and that eerie wail rose again.

The cat was beautiful, but covered in muck and filth. As it thrashed, Zhira scrambled away from it with a yelp of fear. The cat lay there, writhing in the mud at the bottom of the gully, but even filthy and trapped, it lost none of its nobility, its great pride, the hint of glory surrounding it. The shadows could not touch its luminous blue eyes, and tendrils of fog seemed to draw away from it. Even the endless chill of the swamp somehow seemed less persistent near it, and Zhira found herself drawn closer, despite the danger of the wicked claws and gleaming fangs the cat revealed as it panted in frustration.

Zhira peered at it, searching for what trapped the cat. It was easy to pick out the snared front paw, and Zhira pressed a muddy hand to her mouth in shock. She recognized the clever snare — two sturdy roots anchored in the ground and pinched hard around the cat’s paw — as her brother’s work.

Truly, she had not gone far. Here was more of her responsibility: the snares and traps set by her family to fill again the pot she spilled the night before.

“I’m sorry,” Zhira whispered, while the cat let out another wail of frustration and then began to wrench and drag at its trapped paw. She flinched at the noise, pushing herself back from the trapped animal’s struggles but somehow unable to simply turn and flee. Zhira knew, if she left, the beautiful creature would be killed. The memory of the slaughtered deer came to her, as well as the dream of the previous night. Her own brother might murder this creature, staining his hands with more blood. Her eyes flicked up to where the mists were turning pale silver as the sun rose higher. There wasn’t much time before the camp woke. Soon they would find her gone and the hunters would check their snares and traps. If Eharan found this cat, all he’d see was the glorious pelt and the gold it would bring. The thought of another bloody skin — this one all cream and cinnamon — tacked to the side of a Roamer wagon turned Zhira’s stomach. She had to do something.

Zhira slid a closer to the wild cat, squishing through the rank mud of the marsh. The cat turned its great head toward her, and she froze, staring at those long white fangs. Terror hammered at her, and her heart leapt into her throat. She could hardly breathe. All she wanted to do was run — run and run until she was home and safe and the marsh was nothing but a dream. But she didn’t run, and the cold, damp, and fear making her hands shake were no dream. She pushed herself another arm’s length closer.

“Don’t eat me,” she breathed, trying to soothe the cat as she did the friendly Roamer ponies. Her voice shook. The cat could kill her with a single blow from those huge paws or rip her in two with those teeth. She was close enough now that she could feel the cat’s hot breath stirring the muddy curls of her hair. “Please … I’m sorry … don’t eat me. I’ll … I’ll help you, I swear it. Just do not eat me.”

Zhira crouched in the mud beside the cat. Perhaps, she hoped, her soft voice was soothing, for the beast didn’t move. It simply stared at her, panting. She kept on talking, whispering promises of freedom, as she reached out with shaking hands for the snare pinning the cat’s front paw. Wrapping muddy fingers around it, Zhira pulled. It would not budge. Whimpering in fear and frustration, she pulled harder, yanking and twisting at the strong roots and rawhide straps.

With a sob, Zhira slumped down, tears making clean trails on her mud-smeared face. The cat lay quietly, only the restless flick of its tail revealing its impatience. She could not free it. She bit her lip, holding back a curse of frustration — of course she couldn’t simply pull the snare off! If she could have, the cat would have long ago broken free on its own and wouldn’t need her at all.

The cat shifted, and its wide cinnamon-tipped ears pricked up. Zhira lifted her head, shuddering as she heard the distant baying of dogs. The camp was awake.

She glanced around frantically. She’d done her best. If her clan caught her now, she knew her punishment would be worse than being locked up in her mother’s wagon. She needed to run, now, if she wanted to live. She scrambled frantically up the slope, hearing the cat shift and snarl behind her. Her hand closed on a short, thick branch, and she slid back down to where the cat lay. She could hear the hounds. They had triumph in their voices. They had her scent, or the cat’s, she didn’t know which.

“Easy, easy,” she panted, glancing nervously to the cat. She wedged one end of the branch in next to the cat’s bloody and swollen paw, prayed breathlessly to Felisar, god of travelers, patron of the Roamers, and to any of his brethren who’d care to help, then leaned her weight on the free end of the branch. She could feel it creaking in her hands. The roots were creaking and twisting, too. She scrabbled in the mud for more leverage, splinters biting into her skin, and the calls of the hounds growing louder with every breath. The branch snapped, one end stabbing her hand, and she cried — triumph and pain both, as the rawhide broke.

The great cat growled, pulled free, and rose to its feet, while Zhira crouched in the mud, clutching her bloodied hand. She stared at it, shaking. Now that the cat was free, surely its instincts would return and the odd moment of truce they’d had would pass. It was free, wild, and powerful, as it was meant to be, and Zhira knew her clan would not have this creature’s blood on their hearts, at least. She lifted her eyes to the cat’s face, seeing again how beautiful it was. If she had to die, at least it would be by an animal’s simple instincts and not the hands of her own tainted people.

The cat stood over her, tail lashing, and stared down at her, proud as any king on his throne. Blue as a summer sky, those eyes met her dark Roamer ones, and like a clean wind through the stifling Veran mists, her heart and mind opened to the rhy-cat.

Love poured into her, like cool, clean water, cleansing her of the creeping shadow of the tainted marsh. Purpose filled her, flowing from the pure heart of the great cat, strengthening her limbs, and setting her heart beating proudly in her chest. Zhira felt the touch of wisdom and knowledge, great power tempered by a noble spirit, and knew this creature was no mere animal, no matter the shape it wore. Though it — though he — walked on four legs and she on two, the spirit behind those sapphire eyes was, as intelligent her own.

“I am here. I will not leave you.” The voice, purring velvet over steel, filled Zhira’s mind and heart.

“Yanar,” she whispered. “Your name is Yanar…” and she knew it was true, as if she’d heard it every night of her life. She pulled herself to her feet and put her arm around Yanar’s neck, feeling the warmth of his soft, silky coat under her sore hands. Suddenly, she was crying, sore and hungry, covered in mud, and so tired. But not alone. Hearing the hounds drawing close, she caught a glimpse of that road, the hard road she’d chosen when she’d fled her mother’s wagon. She was on that road now, but not alone.

“I’m here. I will not leave you,” she whispered into the pointed ears tipped back to catch her words.

Whatever happened, they were not alone. They were bonded and would never be alone again.