My name is Queen Kaeleen the Fury. I stand at the Crossroads, bathed in the glory of Hecate’s fire, overseeing a field of ash and bone.
Eight years ago, I married my love—Lord Tam, the King of UnderBarrow. In the time since the second World Shift, we have healed a great many wounds and are focused on rebuilding our world.
Willow Wood has become our new home and we’ve done our best to help our people grow and thrive. Life has been good the past few years. But there are dangers everywhere in this new world, and even as we strive to keep the peace, there are times when I can sense dark forces waiting just over the horizon. I may be a queen now, but I haven’t been able to hang up my whip and sword. And the fire still burns within me.
I STOOD AT the top of the hill, shading my eyes as I stared over the barren fields below. I wasn’t sure what I was searching for, but I had been somehow prompted to ride out here, and I wanted to know what had called to me. But there was nothing to see. The crops had been harvested and there was little going on below, except for some gleaners gathering stray bits of wheat and corn.
I turned my gaze toward the horizon.
There was a tang in the air, one that was growing more familiar with each year. We had long passed the first descent into autumn, and were approaching the storm season as the rains began to pour and the chill in the air left our breath visible.
To my right, from beyond the hills behind Reflection Lake, clouds gathered, dark and heavy with moisture. They wouldn’t be here for another few hours, but when they hit, the rains promised to drench the Wild Wood and everything in it. Grateful we had brought in the last of the harvest a week ago, I shivered as a gust swept past, whipping at my legs. Rain and hail could bring famine if they hit while the crops were still in the fields, and we struggled each year to let the crops grow long enough to ripen, but not long enough to be pummeled by rain and hail.
Once again, the sense of uneasiness hit me. There was something different about this storm, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, a sensation that reminded me of when an Abomination was near. But my Trace screen showed no sign of any Aboms, and truth was, they had been coming fewer and farther between over the past couple years. Hecate said they were still arriving via the World Tree, but the creatures wandered off in different directions, and seldom made their way up here to Willow Wood.
“Your Majesty?” Zed had been standing back, leaving me to my thoughts, but now the guard stepped forward. Dressed in the official colors of UnderBarrow—indigo, plum, and silver—he was loyal to a fault. In the years he had been attending me, I had grown to like and understand the Bonny Fae. Zed had a good mind, and more than once I thought his talents had been wasted in the Guard, but he loved his job so I kept my thoughts to myself.
“Yes?” I turned, giving one last glance to the fields below, where the gleaners hurried to finish before the weather hit. Tam and I gave them permission to pick through the fields once they were harvested. It was foolish to waste food, and some families had more children than others, so we encouraged them to forage in order to add to the allotment they received every month.
“We should get back to UnderBarrow. The light is going and the sun will set before long,” he said, glancing around.
Absently, I nodded, my thoughts still on the approaching storm. Yes, there was something off about it, and if Hecate had taught me one thing, it was to pay attention to my intuition. But unable to suss out what was amiss, I finally let out a sigh and shook my head.
“Right. Let’s head back, then.” I turned to follow him back to the horses. Captain, my horse, was a Theosian as well. Only he was trapped in his horse form when he was on land. I had met him in his form as Captain Varga, when he had owned a ship. He was bound to Poseidon, as I was to Hecate, and when he was on a boat, he could take human form. But the moment he touched solid ground, he turned into a beautiful white stallion.
After the second World Shift, Varga had opted to live in his horse form rather than risk life on the open ocean with so many unknowns. We had become good friends, and at least once every couple of weeks we ventured out on Reflection Lake on a raft specifically made to hold a horse, where he would shift into human form and we would talk about everything and anything.
I swung my leg over his back, settling into the saddle, and Captain turned to follow Zed as we rode east along the trail to Willow Wood. The trails were navigable for the most part, and we did our best to keep them that way. But even though we had done our best to clear out the dangerous plants, it was best to stick to the paths when traveling. Wandering Ivy and Honey Sickles grew thick around here. Carnivorous plants were well-adapted to this area, and it was all too easy to wander into a patch, not realizing it until it was too late and you became so much plant food.
As we approached the village, we arrived just in time to witness the early evening bustle. Shoppers hurried from one store to another to finish their tasks before the shops closed, and the Market Faire was shutting down for the day, the vendors packing it in to go home for supper. The lights marking the street intersections were coming on. Generally, the illumination would last until midnight, powered by the spells of UnderBarrow’s techno-mages. While we couldn’t produce power for the entire village, we had managed to generate enough to provide lighting on the main streets and lights for the Healers Hall.
Willow Wood had expanded from the tight little knot of survivors who had founded it and was now a thriving community of over eight hundred people, not counting the five or six hundred living in UnderBarrow itself.
The first year, we had started with a population of about two hundred who had managed to make their way out of the devastation that had been Seattle. Where the rest of the survivors went, we had no clue, but we had settled in here, on the shores of Reflection Lake. Tam moved UnderBarrow here, and we did our best to create a welcoming but orderly community. Over the years, others had found their way through the sprawling wilderness to join us.
There had been plenty of rubble with which to build new houses, and plenty of groundwater to establish the wells we needed. The first few years, we had sent raiding parties to Seattle to plunder whatever we could find in order to strengthen our position, but now we seldom went to the dead city. There were too many zombies, too many ghosts haunting the ruins, and the dangers outweighed the prospect of what we might gain. Most of the agroline was gone, and with its demise, the cars we had once used were nothing more than rusted heaps of metal, abandoned on what was left of the roadways.
As Zed and I passed the school, the children began to file out. During the late spring and summer, they helped out in the fields like everyone else. But during late autumn and winter, they spent full days in school as the teachers crammed all the knowledge they could into them.
As soon as they saw me, the children stopped, coming to attention along with their teachers. In a wave, they knelt as I passed by.
I had gotten used to the attention, and had finally, at Tam’s urging, accepted it as my right.
“You’ll never be a proper queen unless you willingly take on the mantle of leadership, my love,” he had said when I protested that it felt odd and uncomfortable. “You accepted marriage into the Court of UnderBarrow. Now, you must accept the responsibilities that go with it.”
And I had come to terms with those duties and responsibilities, as I realized that he was correct—I had married not just my lover, but a throne and a crown.
One of the littlest girls looked up, her eyes wide, and she broke formation by waving at me. As her teacher reached for her shoulder, I lifted my hand and waved back. The teacher hesitated, then simply nodded at me with a smile.
Zed and I passed through the rest of the village and then turned south onto the path leading toward UnderBarrow proper. Another fifteen minutes saw us to the walls of UnderBarrow just as the clouds broke and rain began to pound down. I slipped off Captain and patted his muzzle, and my private stable hand took him away.
Zed opened the door for me. We were home.
“DID YOU FIGURE out what’s been troubling you?” Tam asked as I stripped off my wet clothes, trading them for a pair of dry leather shorts, a V-neck long-sleeved tank, and a sweater that Patrice, my lady’s maid, brought me. She gathered up my wet clothes and dropped them into the laundry basket, then held up my brush and waited silently by my vanity.
I slid on my shorts and the tank, tucking the hem into the shorts before I threaded a leather belt through the loops. Not quite the costume of a queen, but then again, we didn’t live in a story-book world where the queens sat like china dolls on their thrones while the brave knights went out to slay dragons.
“No, though I could feel the uneasiness even stronger while I was out there. Whatever’s on the horizon seems to be coming in with the storms, but I couldn’t get a good bead on it. I’ll talk to Hecate tomorrow about it. I’m supposed to meet her after breakfast.” I paused. “By the way, the gleaners have almost picked the fields clean. I think in a couple days we should be able to turn them under for the year.”
I pulled the sweater over my head, welcoming the warmth. UnderBarrow was always on the cool side, especially as summer moved into autumn when the temperature of the days still fluctuated. But it was nearly time to start lighting the hearthfire in our quarters.
Tam came up behind me, circling my waist with his arms as he leaned down to nuzzle my neck. He was King of UnderBarrow, and king of my heart, as well. Tall and lithe, he moved in a sinuous dance, his gestures as graceful and smooth as his voice. His hair fell in a tangle of curls to his waist, and he held it smoothed back from his face with a silver barrette. His eyes were silver, ringed with black, and he was muscled but taut and firm. His lips bowed in a way that made me want to kiss him every time I looked at him. We had been together almost nine years, and each day, I thanked the gods he was in my life.
He kissed my ear, then whispered, “I want you.”
“I want you, too,” I said. “But I want to take my time with you, and we’re supposed to meet the others in less than twenty minutes.”
I glanced at the clock. It was set to run on out-world time, not UnderBarrow time. It helped me keep track of my days better. The Bonny Fae had a natural affinity for knowing how much time had passed—both outside their realm and within it. But I was Theosian—a minor goddess—and I didn’t have that internal sensor.
“All right. But later, you’re mine and all mine,” Tam said, spinning me in his arms. He pressed his lips to mine, and all thoughts of time and Abominations and dinner went out the window as I melted into his kiss. His lips were warm, sensuous against mine, and it felt like he was trying to drink me up, dive deep into my soul and become one with me.
As he let go, I came up for air, gasping. “Damn, you don’t give a girl a chance, do you?”
He smiled, the corners of his lips tilting up. “When it comes to you, no. I don’t ever want you to regret marrying me, Fury.”
I sat down at the vanity. Patrice was smiling, but she said nothing. The ideal lady’s maid, she knew how to keep from intruding on private moments, all the time being there whenever I needed her. Now, she began to brush out my hair, toweling it dry and then braiding it back.
I watched in the mirror as she smoothed the wayward curls. My hair was black, with crimson flames running through it. My eyes were dark brown—coffee straight up, please. I touched up my makeup when she finished braiding my hair, then she carefully placed my circlet around my head, affixing it snuggly. I wore it when I wasn’t in the throne room, saving my “fancy” crown for official gatherings and functions.
I sat back, eyeing myself. “Thanks, Patrice.”
“What shoes do you want, milady?”
“I think the Umbiargo ankle boots. They’re comfortable and warm.” I waited till she brought them, then held out my feet for her to put them on me. I had learned to accept her help, because it was her job and she was glad to have it, so I quit fidgeting a long time back.
Tam was ready to go by the time Patrice finished. He had a valet, but usually dismissed him and fared for himself.
I stood. “Thank you. Go get yourself some dinner. We’ll probably be a couple hours at least. I’ll ring for you when I return.”
She curtseyed, then hurried to the door to open it for us. “As you will, milady.”
As Tam and I exited our chambers, Zed and Sig—another one of our personal guards—were there, waiting to escort us to our private dining hall.
WHEN WE ENTERED the room, we found Elan and Jason already there. We gathered around the intimate dining table, taking our seats.
“Are Hans and Greta making it tonight?” I asked.
Elan nodded. “Yes, though I think they’ll be a little late. Hans had his sword-mastery class tonight at New Valhalla, and on the nights he teaches, he always runs a little late.” Elan was one of my personal guards, but she was also one of my best friends, and the wife of yet another best friend.
Jason yawned and stretched. He looked tired. “What a day. I cannot believe how busy the store is. When we were in Seattle, I made okay money, but here, business is booming with a fraction of the population. Dream Wardens is doing a good business.” He paused. “I’ve had a lot of folks coming in offering to barter, though. How long before you think the new currency will catch on?”
Tam shrugged. “I don’t know. But people have to accept it sooner or later. We have to have an equitable system of commerce if we’re going to grow. I’ll address it at the next community meeting.” While we seldom scheduled mandatory meetings for the town, we did require at least one member of the household in attendance for our monthly meetings. That brought it down to a manageable size. And households could be considered roommates living together, or family groupings.
“How’s Aila doing?” Usually Elan and Jason brought their daughter with them, but tonight she was conspicuously absent.
“She’s studying for a big test tomorrow.” Elan grinned. “She’s determined to pass with honors this year. I promised if she maintains a B average, she can return to taking lessons with Rika.”
Rika was the head of training for the UnderBarrow Guard, and she taught martial arts classes for children on the side. Aila showed a remarkable aptitude for just about anything requiring bodywork, but she also had a tendency to let her schoolwork slide. Elan yanked her out of Rika’s training class as a last resort to get her to pay attention to her studies.
Jason snorted. “If anything lights a fire under her, this will. She moped all summer because she knew we weren’t going to let her go back to training until she brings home a full B average for an entire semester.” He smiled more often now, something I was grateful to see. It had been eight years since he had been trapped in the realm of Chaos, and he had finally cracked through most of the shellshock and learned to enjoy life again.
We chatted about this and that, and within twenty minutes, Greta and Hans hustled in. Both looked like they could use a good shower. Even Greta’s wings looked droopy. They joined us, apologizing for being late, and dinner got under way.
We were halfway through the meal when Zed approached the table, looking apologetic. “Your Majesties, we have a problem.”
Tam glanced up at him, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s been an attack off the road leading north, just outside the gates that mark UnderBarrow’s territory.”
I set down my bread. “What kind of attack?”
Zed glanced at Elan, Jason, Hans, and Greta. He knew they were safe to talk around, unless we told him otherwise, so he took a deep breath and spread a map on the table as we made space. He pointed to the northern gates, then traced a line a little off to the left, by the side of the lake.
“Here. Two of our villagers were returning from hunting when they came across the scene. It took them an hour to make it back to Willow Wood through the rain. Why they didn’t tell the guards at the gate, I don’t know, but apparently they decided that they should tell us directly.”
“Yes, yes, go on.” I sighed. We were still trying to get the villagers to accept the town guard as authority figures. They were falling in line, but most everybody had been used to living in a big city, where talking to the authorities could get you locked up, or worse.
“They found the remains of a group of campers at a campsite. There’s a makeshift cart, though it looks like they were pulling it by hand. And the remains of whoever was making camp, as well.”
“How many dead?” Tam asked.
“That’s the thing. They don’t know.” He paused, the expression on his face shifting. “Your Majesty, when I say ‘remains’…I mean remains. It looks like an entire camping party was ravaged. There were bits and pieces of bodies everywhere. There’s no telling how many victims there were. The hunters were afraid to stay in case whatever destroyed the camp should return. They hurried as fast as they could back to Willow Wood and then here, to UnderBarrow.”
I dabbed my lips with my napkin and then pushed back my plate. Spaghetti didn’t seem like such a good idea after all. “Did they recognize…anyone?”
Zed shook his head. “No, there wasn’t enough light left to discern anything more than the attack had been wholesale carnage. But the scent of blood was heavy in the air. We’ve dispatched a group of guards to check it out. They’re fully armed, of course. It sounds a nasty piece of business.”
I sat back, toying with my napkin. The energy leapt and crackled around me, and I could feel the same unease that I had felt during the afternoon as I watched over the fields. I wanted to go out there with the guards, to look around to see if I could sense anything. I thought of asking Tam, but I knew what he’d say. There had been times over the past few years when I had disobeyed his wishes. Hecate’s orders came first, and he accepted that. But he wouldn’t want me going out without her blessing, given the danger involved.
As I looked up, he was staring at me. “You want to go along.”
I blushed. “It’s not that I want to, but…” I turned to the others. “You might as well know. I woke up with the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong. It bothered me most of the morning until I finally took Zed and we went out to the lake, overlooking the wheat fields.”
“Did you figure out what it was?” Elan asked. She, like the others, took my premonitions seriously. “Was it an Abom?”
I shook my head. “No, actually, it wasn’t. I don’t know what caused the sensation, but once we were there, the certainty that something is wrong grew. I couldn’t shake it off. The moment Zed began talking about the attack, that feeling returned full force. I think that whatever I was sensing earlier is connected to this attack.”
Tam pressed his lips together for a moment. Then, he shrugged. “You’re probably right. You usually are. But it’s late, and there’s a storm at hand. The campground is an hour’s ride there and back, at the very least. I think, given there’s someone skulking around who has the ability to destroy a campground filled with people, it’s not in our best interests to check it out in the dark.”
“You’re letting the guards go,” I said, but immediately knew that was a mistake.
“They’re trained for it.”
“So am I.”
“Be that as it may, you’re not expendable. Let’s wait till we know what we’re dealing with before we take action. We would just be in the way and the guards would be torn between looking for whoever did this and protecting us.” Tam reached out to take my hand. He gazed at me long and hard, and the weight of his years of experience and life washed through me.
I let out a sigh. “Very well. I’ll wait. But tomorrow, we go look. And tonight, we stay up until the guards have a report for us. Deal?”
“Deal.” Tam turned to Zed. “Update us with whatever you find out, no matter how important or unimportant the information seems to be. And keep an eye on the remains. Zombies have made their way over to the Wild Wood from old Seattle. You never can tell what’s going to happen when you’re dealing with the undead.”
With that, he dismissed Zed and turned back to dinner.
Tam gestured. “Please, finish your meal.”
We all returned to our food but my heart wasn’t in it. Instead, alarms were ringing loud and clear that—whatever this was—we weren’t done with it yet, and we weren’t even remotely prepared for what was behind it.
BY MIDNIGHT, ELAN and Jason had gone home, but Greta and Hans hung around to find out what the guards had to report. We were curled up in our private chambers, talking while we waited for the men to check in. I was leaning against Tam’s chest, while Hans was rubbing Greta’s feet. I treasured these moments when we could just be ourselves with our closest friends, without having to put on a face for the public.
“Freya has set me in charge of harvesting. It’s daunting,” Greta said. She was a Valkyrie, still a relatively new one, and lately she had been working nonstop for her goddess. Freya was a tough boss. I was grateful I was bound to Hecate and not the Norse bombshell.
“What’s the difference between harvesting souls and escorting them to Valhalla?” I was still fuzzy on the whole “gather the souls” bit. I dispatched Aboms and sent them back to Pandoriam, their plane. I had little to do with spirits except for Queet, my spirit guide, who was currently taking a much-needed vacation. Queet had been testy lately to the point where I begged Hecate to give him some time off.
“Escorting souls to Valhalla means welcoming them to their afterlife and guiding them so they don’t lose their way. Harvesting souls comes on the behest of Odin and is a lot trickier.” She cupped her goblet of mead and shivered. “When Odin orders us to harvest a soul, we have to take them. Meaning…they aren’t dead yet.”
“Meaning you have to kill them?” I asked, lowering my voice.
She nodded, staring starkly at the fire. “There’s always a good reason, but it’s not like fighting a battle against someone trying to kill you. Or like taking out a monster. These are people who, for whatever reason, need to die. The Norns tell Odin, and he tells us. It’s part of the job I never really thought about much before I went through the ritual. We aren’t taught about it in our training. We only come to learn it after our flying-up ceremonies.”
I glanced over at Hans. He took her hand. It was difficult for him to put his arm around her shoulders, given she had massively beautiful raven’s wings, but he held tight to her fingers, bringing them to his lips for a kiss.
“Tell them, honey,” he said.
Greta closed her eyes for a moment, then hiccupped and took a deep breath. “Today I had to take the soul of a mother of five. She has five children under the age of ten, and they were there. I had to take her soul and watch as her body fell right in the midst of those children. The Norns insist it’s necessary—her thread came to an end, and for whatever reason, it was time to cut her free. But that didn’t make it any easier. Even though they didn’t see me, I could see the faces of her kids, and it just tore my heart up. Sometimes I wonder if I’m tough enough for this job.”
“What does Freya say about it?” These were tricky waters. There were times I’d had to do things I didn’t feel good about, but Hecate had bade me to do them. And there were memories that I did my best to leave in the past, where they belonged.
“Just that I’ll develop the ability to be unbiased in the future. Detached, she called it. But I’m not certain I want to be detached to something like that. I guess what I want doesn’t matter, though. There’s no going back. There’s no walking out.” She rubbed her head, then let out another sigh. “Thanks for listening. It helps to talk about it where I know I’m not going to be attacked for either being too weak, or being a murderer.”
And that was something I understood even more. Anyone not bound to the gods had no clue of what it meant when they required you to do something that went against your nature. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it made for all sorts of inner conflict.
I was about to offer her another drink when someone knocked on the door. We were drinking mead made by the UnderBarrow brewers. It was stronger than most hard liquors I had tasted. I put down the bottle as Dara—our housekeeper—answered.
She led Zed into the living room and I instantly set the bottle back down.
“You have news?” I asked.
He looked shaken. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
Tam slowly straightened, brushing his hair back from his face. “What did you find out?”
Zed looked so pale that I motioned to the ottoman near the sofa. “Sit. Dara, please get a glass for him. I think he needs a drink.”
Zed shook his head. “No, thank you, Your Majesty, although I could use a cup of tea and something to eat.”
“Tea and a sandwich, please.” I motioned to the housekeeper and she vanished without a word. “Zed, what’s wrong?”
“My men figured out just how many were at the camp. We know that there were at least six adults and five children in the camp. That’s as much as we could put together from what…remained. There may be more in the undergrowth and forest around the campsite. The guards will look again in the morning.”
Zed looked queasy and I didn’t blame him. It was bad enough dealing with the remains of adults, but children? Far more difficult.
“Could it have been a pack of zombies?” Hans asked.
Zed shrugged. “We’re not certain. There’s very little we actually know except that right now, something big enough to destroy an entire camping party is out there, and it looks like whatever it is was hungry. The remains were gnawed on,” he added.
Tam sat very still for a moment, then glanced at me. “Come. We should sleep. We’ll get dressed and go out there at first light with the guards.”
I nodded, thinking that whatever it was I had been feeling, it had struck. And it wasn’t done. That much I knew to the very core of my gut.