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Shadow silence, p.21
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       Shadow Silence, p.21

           Yasmine Galenorn
 
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  We all knew that was a compliment so we laughed. Gareth didn’t quite have the social niceties of most people, but he was honest, and he meant what he said.

  “What are we looking for, exactly? And where am I likely to find a witch’s bottle?” I realized that I had no clue what we were looking for. Oh, I knew the name—but I didn’t know what to expect.

  Ivy fumbled in her bag and pulled out a small journal. She opened it to a page midway through the volume and handed it to me. There was a drawing of a bottle filled with threads and what looked like broken nails and other items. It could have been a wine bottle or a beer bottle, I wasn’t sure which.

  “So it’s just a regular ordinary bottle? It looks like it’s filled with garbage.”

  “That garbage is magical, and the contents vary depending on the intent of the bottle itself. What you’re looking for will probably have snips of unexposed film, well—exposed to the light now, but it will be fresh film. I also suspect there will be charcoal, obsidian, possibly jet in the bottle. Maybe shards of broken dark glass. Possibly bone dust or bone chips. That sort of thing, and it will probably be in a wine bottle because I doubt Magda would use beer bottles. Or it may be a bottle that once contained vodka. The alcohol involved leaves an energy in the glass even after you wash it.”

  “What happens when we find one? Do we just pick it up and bring it over to you?” I wanted to make sure that I didn’t screw anything up. Magic was very touchy, as I had been finding out, and sometimes the oddest things could make it go awry. I had no desire to somehow bind one of the Ankou to myself out of carelessness or ignorance.

  She looked startled and shook her head, holding up her hands. “No, under no circumstances should you pick it up. Just plant a marker so that you can remember where it is and come get me. I brought several dozen flags.” She held up bright neon orange plastic flags. They looked like construction-grade material.

  Gareth frowned, staring at the markers. “Where do you think we will be most likely to find these bottles? Will they be just sitting on the ground somewhere?”

  “That’s going to be the harder part. I suspect she probably has hidden them in the nooks and crannies in trees, or behind boulders, maybe under nurse logs. You might also scan overhead; I can easily see her dangling them from a branch. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate her intelligence. Magda is smart and cunning. Combine that with dangerous? A volatile combination,” Ellia said.

  Ivy glanced over at Ellia, a melancholy look on her face. “She’s right. You should also be on the lookout for Sasquatch, the Gray Man, and bears. All in all, these are dangerous woods. I suggest we go in pairs. Ellia, why don’t you go with Gareth. Kerris, you go with your grandfather. And I will hunt with Oriel. Here’s a whistle for everyone,” she said, passing out whistles on chains to each of us. “If you find a bottle or get in trouble, blow loud and clear. We need to find as many of these as we can, so don’t get sidetracked, and try not to get lost. This isn’t the time to look at interesting mushrooms or stop to talk to the squirrels. And by that, I mean you, Oriel.” She grinned.

  Oriel rolled her eyes. “Now, how many times have you seen me stop to talk to a squirrel?”

  “More than I’d like to say. As soon as we get out of the car, I’ll see if I can summon up one of the forest Fae and ask them to help us. Gareth, if you can manage it, try to be as unthreatening as possible, please. Some of the Fae are very skittish creatures. Others can yank your head off.”

  Gareth grunted, but then let out a bark of laughter. “I’ll do my best.”

  We reached the campground and piled out into the snow. Up here, on the mountain, the snow was deeper. There must have been about eight inches. I imagined that up on Hurricane Ridge, there was a veritable deluge of the white stuff. I stamped, shivering as the cold infiltrated my jacket. I’d get used to it in a moment, but that first blast of chill air was a doozy.

  Ivy walked over to one of the picnic tables and brushed the snow off, sitting on the bench with her back to the table. She closed her eyes and held out her hands, then whispered, “Ellia, the Song of Summoning?”

  Ellia began to sing what sounded like a Celtic ballad, old and haunting. It sent a shiver up my spine and I moved closer to my grandfather, who wrapped his arm around my waist. Gareth stood back, keeping an eye over the campground. A few moments later there was a rustle in the brush and a stag slowly emerged. He was stately, gigantic with a rack that had to have at least seven tines per side. He bellowed so loud that it practically knocked the snow off the branches.

  I caught my breath. He was beautiful, incredibly powerful, and there was a look in his eye that told me he was more than just an elk. He snorted, his breath coalescing into white mist.

  Aidan stepped forward, motioning for me to stay where I was. He walked up to stand three yards away from the elk, then knelt and bowed his head. Ivy opened her eyes and her hand fluttered to her throat. She stood and joined Aidan, kneeling on the ground. The elk moved forward until he was standing right above them.

  It was then that I could see, superimposed over the giant beast, the figure of a man rising like a ghost over the elk. He was tall, dressed in skins, and the same rack the elk bore on his head was mirrored on the man’s brow. I wasn’t sure who it was, but I had the same feeling that I had when the Morrígan had greeted me at Ivy’s house. Then I understood. Ivy hadn’t summoned one of the forest Fae at all. No, we were facing one of the gods.

  * * *

  Oriel stepped forward between Aidan and Ivy. She laughed, holding out her hands. The image of the god vanished as the elk nuzzled her fingers.

  “Herne, my old friend! It’s been far too long since we’ve met. Welcome to Timber Peak, although I’m sure you’ve been here for some time.”

  The stag bobbed his head, rubbing his nose against her cheek.

  “Thank you for that. We need your help. We need the help of the forest Fae. We’re searching for a series of witch bottles that the old crone has hidden throughout the forest. She’s the one bringing dark shadows to the mountain. She has summoned the Ankou without permission from Arawn. We’re seeking to break her spell, and to do so we need to find all fifteen bottles. I realized that the forest Fae may be skittish, but if they could help us even a little, we would be ever grateful.”

  Herne!

  Now I knew who the elk was. Even though I wasn’t as conversant with the Celtic gods as Ivy or Ellia, even I knew who Herne was. He was Lord of the Forest, the Woodland incarnate, the Wild God. I felt a surge of fear, mingled with awe and respect.

  The elk slowly turned and loped back into the forest, but three crows flew out of the trees and landed in front of us. One took wing and landed on Ivy’s shoulder. The second flew over to land on Oriel’s shoulder. And the third flew toward Aidan and me. Before I knew what was happening, it landed on my shoulder. I felt a surge of energy, dark wild magic, and I could hear the Crow Man laughing in the distance. We had our guides, thanks to the Forest Lord. I wasn’t sure how they would help us, but I knew that they were on our side.

  CHAPTER 14

  There was something rather surreal about hunting for witch bottles with a crow sitting on my shoulder. I was worried at first, thinking its talons might dig in too deep, but it seemed to do a pretty good job of balancing. As Aidan and I split off and headed north, toward the Screaming Tree, the crow kept silent. We’d been walking about five minutes when it suddenly set up a caw caw cawing in my ear. I stopped immediately.

  “There’s something around here that it wants me to know about. I think we’re near a witch bottle. Start looking around.”

  Aidan and I began hunting, looking in every nook and cranny we could find. I suddenly spotted a tree that had a gap between the roots in the ground. The snow covered most of the opening, but I could see a dark hole with a buildup of detritus in front of it.

  I cautiously moved into position and lowered myself to my k
nees, grateful that I had my gloves with me. Sticking my hand into a dark hole under a tree didn’t strike me as the safest of activities, but we had no choice. I pulled out the miniature flashlight that I kept in the pocket of my jacket and shone it into the darkness. There were generally no poisonous snakes west of the Cascades, but you never knew what wildlife would make its home under a tree. I could be reaching into a bobcat’s lair or a badger’s den.

  As I peeked into the hole and shuffled away some of the debris and snow, I saw the glint of a reflection. Sure enough, there was a glass bottle sitting in the beam of my flashlight.

  “I found one!” Minding Ivy’s warning, I did not touch it. Instead I just poked my head in a little further, hoping to get a better description of the bottle. From what I could tell, there appeared to be pieces of broken glass inside, and some dark liquid that had frozen. I didn’t want to know what it was.

  Aidan joined me, a frown on his face. After a moment we both sat back on our knees, and he pulled out one of the neon orange flags and stuck it in the ground next to the hole.

  “One down, fourteen to go. You should blow your whistle.” He winked at me, but behind the smile I could tell he was worried.

  “Is something wrong?”

  With a shrug, he glanced around the area. “I can’t help but feel that they’re watching us. I don’t know how long they’ll let us go on with this before they seek to interfere.”

  “They being the Ankou? Or the Hounds?”

  He extended his hand to me and I took it, using him to balance as I stood. “Either. Both. I am concerned about the fact that Magda has the power to summon the Shadow People. I know she’s a powerful witch, but it takes an enormous amount of skill to drive the Ankou from Arawn’s grasp. The Lord of the Dead can’t be happy about this, either. I would hate to see him send his own emissaries to find out what’s going on. There’s no telling who he might blame for this, and I would hate to be on the receiving end of his wrath.”

  I hadn’t thought about that aspect. “Do you really think that Arawn will notice?”

  Aidan stared at me for a moment, as though he were trying to figure out how to answer. “You really don’t have much clue about all of this, do you?”

  I wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about. “There’s so much that I missed out on, and with Grandma Lila dying before I could return, there’s been no one to teach me. I’ve been relying on her journals but they can only go so far.”

  “I don’t think you realize the scope of our world. You lived outside of Whisper Hollow for fifteen years. During that time, had you stayed here, you would have been trained not only in your duties as a spirit shaman, but in the vast heritage you come from. You’ve seen the Morrígan, you know you’re her daughter. And you’ve now encountered Herne. You talk about Arawn and you know he’s the Lord of the Dead. But I don’t think you realize just how incredibly powerful these entities are. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg of our history. We are the descendants of the Tuatha de Dannan. All of this—the spirit shamans, the Crow Man, the Irish shifters, we are all part of the same magical heritage. We are the children of the gods.”

  I frowned, mulling over what he had said. “What about Ellia? She’s my lament singer but she’s of Russian descent and her mother is priestess to a different goddess.”

  Aidan bobbed his head with a smile. “The gods don’t always just claim those who have the direct bloodline. If she were still in her homeland, Ellia would have probably been claimed by Baba Volkov’s enemy, the goddess Morena. Remember, she’s very much the Russian version of the Morrígan. And Baba Volkov hates her.”

  I thought crossed my mind. “Then, are Morena and the Morrígan actually the same being? The same goddess?”

  Aidan laughed. “No, my dear granddaughter. They are not, but they are of similar stature and energy. The gods are finite, but make no mistake about the strength of their power. Which is why you can be sure that Arawn knows someone is summoning his Ankou away from his shadowy realm. And I don’t think he’s going to be very happy about that.”

  I glanced back at the tree with the witch bottle in it. Ever slowly, the scope of the world I had entered when I returned to Whisper Hollow was broadening, and even as Aidan spoke, I had the feeling I was on the outskirts of something very big and very powerful. I raised my whistle to my lips and blew loud and clear. A few minutes later Ivy appeared, Oriel trailing behind her.

  “We found one, beneath that tree there.” I moved back to give them room.

  “That makes three. Oriel and I found two already.” Ivy inched toward the hole on her hands and knees, and then—using what looked like a pair of silver tongs—fished the bottle out from the hole. Oriel held out a large padded bag, and Ivy cautiously placed the bottle inside.

  “This is going to take a while, isn’t it?” I asked.

  Oriel rolled her eyes. “It would take far longer if we didn’t have our little guides here. I think, from what we’ve found so far, that they’re in a ring—a circle. So we have some idea of the pattern.” She nodded to Ivy and their crow. “Let’s get back to it.”

  They headed back in the direction from which they had come, as Aidan and I returned to our hunting. Ten minutes later we were standing at the Screaming Tree. It was silent, but I could feel the awareness emanating from it. The tree had eyes—both literally, with the dark socketed openings—and energetically. The Matriarchs’ spell had held and whatever had dampened the tree’s awareness hadn’t returned.

  I wanted to walk up to it and press my hands against the gnarled bark, but something stopped me. Perhaps it was Aidan’s comments about being watched, or perhaps something more instinctual was prompting my caution, but either way I decided to hang back. I wasn’t a child, still learning that the stove was hot. I was coming to trust myself and my instincts more and more, and if my intuition whispered that I’d get my fingers burned, I tried to listen.

  Aidan joined me, staring at the tree. “Nobody really knows who woke this tree up at the beginning. Maybe it’s just always been a sentinel. Whatever the case, Oriel is as tuned in to it as anybody in this neck of the woods could be.”

  “Tell me about the Heart of Whisper Hollow. How was she selected? Is it always a woman?”

  Aidan motioned for me to follow him as we moved past the tree. “I imagine the Morrígan chooses the Heart as well, considering how intricately tied to the spirit shamans the Heart of the town has to be. Or perhaps another god or goddess the Morrígan works with is in charge of that. I really don’t know much about the post, except there has to be a Heart. Whisper Hollow would wither and fold without her. And yes, as far as I know it is always a woman. I lived in Ireland you know, for several hundred years. I’m far older than your beau, as you might have guessed. All of the magical villages there have a Heart.”

  We skirted the tree, winding through the woodland. The snow made for difficult going, not because it was so deep but because it was slick and new and powdery. My breath came in little puffs and my nose ran from the chill. The flakes had lessened but they were still falling lightly around us. I closed my eyes for a moment, looking up into the sky as the snow drifted against my face. Even though I knew about the witch bottles and the Gray Man and Sasquatch, I still felt like I could melt right into the background, snuggle up under a tree with a blanket, and drift off secure in the cradle of the forest.

  “It’s in your blood,” Aidan said, startling me into opening my eyes. “The forest, the very core of nature. Spirit shamans are in tune with the elements around them as much as any witch.”

  I smiled faintly, realizing that for the first time in a while, I didn’t have a headache. It was as though the clear air and the cool chill had washed it away, along with some of the stress that I had been feeling. I held out my hand, watching as the snowflakes fell on my glove.

  “Fifteen years living in the city didn’t do me any favors, that’s for ce
rtain. It wasn’t bad, but lonely. And I took up having to chase ghosts out of houses in order to keep my powers from imploding on myself.” I looked at my grandfather. “I think sometimes I almost believed that Whisper Hollow and everything magical here was a dream. It’s not that there isn’t magic in the city, and I often felt the Crow Man around me—crows are everywhere. But it’s hard when you’re surrounded by so many people who don’t believe that things like this exist. And when they find out the truth, they get afraid and back away. I guess I was really lonely there.”

  He wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Trust me, I understand. When I exiled myself—or rather, your grandmother exiled me to keep me safe—I felt like I had stepped into someone else’s life. The years went by, I worked, I made friends, but very few people knew who I was. I changed jobs every few years, given that I don’t age the same way that humans do. It’s a fine line to walk, straddling two worlds. I guess I understand you more than a lot of people would.”

  “I suppose large cities can’t have a Heart like Whisper Hollow, or someone like me to guard the ghosts.”

  “Some do. You’d be surprised.”

  We continued searching. Every now and then a whistle would blow, and Aidan and I found two more witch bottles ourselves. By three P.M. I was freezing. Ivy called off the search. We had discovered twelve of the witch bottles, which left three that eluded us.

  Oriel stared at the bag filled with dark magic. “This will be enough to disrupt her spell. I still want to find those other three, but this should send most of the Ankou back to Arawn. We need to be prepared, though. Magda is going to be seriously pissed and out for revenge. Watch your backs. She’s going to know who did this. She has enough spies in the forest to tell her.”

 
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