On the Subject of Griffons
Kera Montgomery is still mourning the sudden death of her husband, Morpheus, when her youngest son falls victim to a mysterious plague. With no medicinal cure, Kera must travel to the Long Lakes, where magical griffons capable of healing any ailment reside.
As an heiress unused to grueling travel, Kera struggles with the immense emotional and physical strain of her journey—one made more complex when she crosses paths with her husband’s former mistress, Aurora. Aurora’s daughter is afflicted with the same plague as Kera’s son, so despite their incendiary history, the two women agree to set aside their differences and travel together.
The road is fraught with dangers, both living and dead. Each night, old battlegrounds reanimate with ghosts who don’t know they’ve died, and murderous wraiths hunt for stray travelers caught out after dark. If Kera, Aurora, and their children are going to survive, they’ll need to confront the past that’s been haunting them since their journey began. And perhaps in the process, discover that old friends may not be as trustworthy as they once thought—and old enemies may become so much more.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Dubious Consent (backstory)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abuse, angst, atonement, bisexuality, cheating, colonialism, death / the afterlife, depression, divorce, domestic violence, duty, enemies to lovers, epistolary, family, feminism, financial gap / class disparity, first love, first time, found family, friends to lovers, gender roles, ghosts, grief, heritage, history, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, kids, legends, marriage, misogyny, mysticism, natural disaster, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, PTSD, recovery, religion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, the power of stories, trust issues
Kera sat with her hands folded in her lap. Her father, on her left, negotiated with the bankers, while her sister, Ciara, silently offered support from Kera’s right. Kera would have preferred to have this conversation without them, but the bankers had come by no less than four times this week. They weren’t interested in speaking to her, and listening to them spin the same horrid story as they waited for her to find proper representation grew more exhausting by the hour.
Each morning she woke to them knocking on her door, refusing to leave until she let them in. She’d tried ignoring them. She’d made every effort to block them from her mind. But her children had started to look nervous whenever there was a knock on the door, a trend she had no interest in continuing or encouraging if she could help it.
So she let the bankers in. She was talked at. And at some point, she’d memorized their spiel enough to recite it by heart. They always started with their shows of sympathy: “You must understand . . . a lady such as yourself is just not equipped to manage such things.” And they always concluded by asking her to sell her home.
Ciara had been incensed when Kera described the meetings, insisting that they call their father to intervene. It took two weeks before Kera managed to overcome the guilt and despair of not being able to handle the bankers herself. Giving in felt like giving up, and Kera loathed how despondent it made her.
Still, her father had conducted business between the banks of Ship’s Landing and Alexandria for years, advising the Travers banking institution from the comfort of his home at Crystal Point. He wasn’t quite the legend that Kera’s husband, Morpheus, had been, but he was respected enough to mean more to these men than her.
The bankers always came in pairs. Their hair was held back with dark ribbons, black tricorn hats tucked low over their eyes, and their pocket watches clicked far too loud for her liking. Even though there were different representatives each day, they were always from the same bank, with the same pocket watches, always clipped to the same button on their waistcoats.
Her father barely batted an eye at their pocket watches or their coats. He seemed impervious to the nuisance presented before her eyes. He told the bankers in small, simple words that the Ivory Gate was his daughter’s home. Kera and her children would not be moved from it. The debts would be paid, but considering her husband’s death . . . she needed time to restructure them. In any case, she hadn’t missed a single payment yet, so their concern, while appreciated, was unnecessary.
Appreciated. Kera squeezed her fingers in her lap. She could not imagine something she appreciated less.
“We’re concerned for Widow Montgomery,” one of the bankers insisted. “Being a widow of a trait—”
“My husband was not a traitor,” Kera said. Ciara’s fingers snatched at Kera’s palm and squeezed tight. Pain blossomed around fragile bones not used to such strength. The bankers nodded their heads, placating and somber; one even reached out to pat her knee.
“We understand it’s been a trying time for you, madam. But your husband’s attempt on our esteemed Overseer Wild’s life was quite apparent . . . I imagine discovering you were wed to an assassin must be rather difficult.”
“And yet it’s my husband who’s dead and not the overseer.”
Ciara’s grip was near bruising. Even Father sighed and shook his head.
“You must forgive my daughter. As you said, it’s been a trying time.” He cut her a sharp glance from the corner of his eye. He’d been terrifying in her youth. One look could send demons into her heart and mind, promising a lifetime of torment should she not obey. Even so far into her maturity, with children well on their way to adulthood of their own, he could cow her with a frown. Kera’s limbs turned loose and awkward beneath his expression. She tilted her head toward her chest and she squeezed her sister’s fingers in return. “Though I will say, the reasons for Montgomery’s actions were never understood. As assassination carries a more political lean . . . It’s entirely possible that he acted from more personal strife.”
Heat rushed to Kera’s cheeks. She could feel the men casting looks about themselves, nodding and smiling and nudging their elbows in a way that made her skin crawl. Her tongue affixed itself firmly to the bottom of her mouth even as one of the bankers dared to say, “Ah yes, the Aurora Sinclair affair. Wasn’t too long ago now was it? Such burdens the gentleman placed on his family.”
“Perhaps we should move on?” Ciara suggested airily, fingers still tight around Kera’s palm.
The bankers cleared their throats. “Yes, ah, of course. Ahem. Well, you see we’ve calculated her income. As we said, from our understanding the Widow Montgomery will not be able to continue payments for much longer. Agreeing to this sale will be a preemptive measure to ensure she will not be taken advantage of in the future.”
The other banker reached for the tea that Kera had served them twenty minutes ago. It had cooled, but he didn’t appear to mind. “And with the plague in the city and all these children . . . holding on to this house may not be in the widow’s best interest.”
Father hummed low, running a hand over his chin as he inspected the documents the bankers were quick to offer. Each one showed line item after line item of projected expenses and return on investments. Kera had looked them over each time they came calling, and they always seemed the same.
Her shoulders sagged, falling out of their forced posture. After two hours of negotiations, through most of which she had been ignored, Kera was finished. She could not fathom why her presence would be required any longer. “Excuse me, gentlemen.” She pushed from the pale green couch her husband had purchased during her first pregnancy and strode from the room.
Ciara followed behind, keeping careful pace with her. Not so close as to risk stepping on the hem of her dress, but still close enough that Kera could feel her walking through the slight tremble of the floor. “They’re not trying to be disrespectful,” Ciara informed Kera, each word clipped and pointed.
Kera nodded. She knew that all too well. In fact, when they came tomorrow, she could hear them tell it to her face again. “We’re just concerned for you, Widow Montgomery.” And then they would request that she sell her home and all her belongings once more. Just yesterday, they’d taken it upon themselves to instill their opinions on her current state of being. “A woman such as yourself, widowed so . . . unfortunately, should be taken care of by a proper gentleman. One who will not act so brashly.”
“You realize they hate me only because my husband put their patriarch in jail. Henry Travers was guilty on all charges, but that bank has been nothing but horrid to our family ever since.”
“They don’t hate you, Kera; they’re conducting a good faith service for their business. It’s in their interest for you to sell. It isn’t personal.”
“Of course it’s personal,” she murmured, letting her eyes travel over the dusty webs on her ceiling. “Everything is personal.” Dust had accumulated on all the surfaces, and though she’d known she had to clean for a while, she hadn’t managed to quite bring herself to do it. The servants had been sent away not long after Mori’s death. She hadn’t been reckless with her finances; she did know they were finite.
But now the house was unwashed. There was a faint smell of something rotting in the floor, lurking in the cellar, and she hadn’t yet mustered the energy to find it. It was one thing too many, and she wasn’t interested in tracking down every flaw in the world. There were too many to number.
Ciara had started herding Kera’s children into industriousness not long ago. Kera had heard them singing songs as they cleaned their rooms and tidied the kitchen. The older ones had been helpful, minding their siblings even as they attempted to put things right.
“It’s been a year,” Ciara reminded her.
“Has it?” That couldn’t be true. There had been no celebrations for the start and end of winter. No feast days. She couldn’t recall the name-day gatherings. They hadn’t celebrated her union day. She folded her hands together and rubbed at the ring she still wore: two bands folded together in an endless loop.
“I don’t suppose you have a destination in mind?” Ciara asked.
Kera stopped short, feet skidding to a halt. They had been walking in circles, looping up and around the Ivory Gate’s second floor without so much as a pause to float between rooms. Dropping her hands back to her sides, she pressed her lips together.
Ciara sighed. She stepped closer to Kera and said in her kindest voice: “It’s all right to grieve.”
No, it wasn’t.
She hadn’t been permitted the luxury of grieving without condemnation since the day following Mori’s funeral. She was reminded that she had eight—seven children, and that it was her responsibility to find them a father who would raise them properly. Whatever that meant. Some people were kind enough not to mention how Mori’s influence had already led one of her children down the path of dueling and debauchery. Some were not. She had heard the whispers in the streets, the vile things said at the market. “At least the young one won’t have any of his influence.” As if little Aiden not knowing his father were a good thing.
“Can you imagine what Mori would have said to our guests downstairs?” she asked Ciara instead.
Ciara allowed the change of topic, stepping closer to loop her arm around Kera’s. “I imagine Morpheus would have given them quite the lecture on proper banking and financing while they sat upon the couch taking notes the whole time, charmed by his nature and awed by his genius.”
Kera could envision how he would look. His slight body dressed in his favorite green coat, arguing with words she doubted even ten percent of the population knew the definition of. She smiled at the thought of it.
“Kera?” Ciara asked, gently. Always gently. Kera’s smile slipped away. Ciara was waiting for an actual response, but words shriveled and died on Kera’s tongue.
She clawed desperately at the folds of her brain and managed to say, “He’d have been furious with the plague.”
Her sister was not impressed. “If only he’d managed to put his temper toward something productive before he passed.”
Something wet pricked at Kera’s eyes. She turned her head so her sister couldn’t see, feigning an adjustment to trail her sleeve across her lashes and catch tears before they fell. Ciara, however, was not so easily convinced. She pressed on, determined. “Would it be so bad to sell the Gate? There haven’t always been . . . the best memories here.”
The words were a betrayal—wrapping around her throat with a cloying hand that strangled even as it pretended to help. “And which memories would those be?” Kera asked so quietly she wasn’t even sure her sister would hear her.
But she had. She touched Kera’s shoulder, saying her name in full like it would somehow ease the blow. “Kerryn—”
“No.” Kera shook her head. “No. This is my home, Ciara. And I’m not going to leave it just because . . . I’m not going to leave it.”
“I couldn’t live in a house where my husband died,” Ciara said. “Where my son died.”
Kera twisted back, away from her sister. She shook her head, brought one hand to her mouth.
“Kera, even before that, with Mori’s affair and the blackmail—”
“He never brought her here,” she snapped. “He promised. He never brought her here.”
Ciara said nothing. Her fingers fiddled with a loose hair ribbon at her front. She wrapped it around her palm forward and backward, tightening and loosening as she gave Kera what must have been the most pitying look in her arsenal.
“It doesn’t matter either way. Good or bad, Ciara . . . This is our home.” Kera swallowed hard. “Mori promised me forever in this home, and I’ll not lose it just so some bankers can add it to their collection.”
One of her hands slipped to the locket she’d worn since the day she was married. Her husband had presented it to her when no one was around to see, shy even though they’d already exchanged their vows. He was scheduled to return to the war in the morning, but they’d made no mention of it that night. He’d placed the locket in her palm and requested that she keep him in her heart. He had whispered, “My beloved Kera, I wish you all the happiness in the world,” in her ear, and she’d held it close always. She ran her fingers over the locket’s sides and edges, thumbed at the clasp with a nail in need of snipping.
Ciara bit her lip, then started talking, even as Kera’s thumb found the clasp. “There is a lot of debt that is in need of . . . restructuring.”
Her concern was sisterly and fond, but Kera would not be swayed. She popped the locket open, then snapped it shut without even looking at it, repeating the action a few more times as she replied. “I will not take my children from the home their father built for them.”
Ciara folded her hands in front of her, a delicate gesture of calm. She nodded her head, even bent her knees a little—the slightest curtsy Kera had ever seen—serving as an apology and polite acceptance in one. “I am worried for you, my Kerryn.”
“Well you need not be.” Kera’s hand fell back to her side. Even if her father ceased his support, even if her sister refused to give her aid, she would not be moved from this house. She would not leave her home. The gods themselves couldn’t move her from this building, so let the bankers try.
Tipping her head toward her sister, she asked for a few moments of privacy. Ciara didn’t seem surprised by the request. It was one that Kera had asked for countless times over the past few months. Ciara did seem resigned, however—resigned and despondent even as she smiled and kissed Kera’s cheek. She told Kera that she would attend to the children, wherever they might be, and departed without another word.
Kera stumbled to her room, closing the door behind her. She slid down the hard wood surface, and drew her knees up to her chest. Her dress pooled around her, fabric bunching along the boards. Then, with no one around to see her and her brow resting on her knees, Kera let herself cry.
She tried to overcome the swell of hysteria, but the tears came without consideration to her efforts. The damnable headache that always came in tandem with her tears arrived in prompt fashion, as if to say well you’re already in pain, what’s a bit more? You can take it!
As foolish and as ignorant as the bankers might think her, Kera was aware of her predicament. For all his wonderful talents, Mori had borrowed too much in order to see this house built. He had promised her the world, and ignored the cost, desperate to give her a life she thought she wanted.
But she had never wanted this.
She had just wanted him with her. She had wanted him when he was a penniless soldier fighting in the revolution against Trent, when he’d been desperate and eager to please. She wished she could turn back the clocks. She wished she had asked him to leave the war behind for her. Or, barring that, she wished she had asked him not to follow General Zakaria into politics. He could have worked as a lawyer, and they could have had a quiet and comfortable life.
There would have been no dreams of Ivory Gates or glory, but neither would there have been pistols at dawn and death that ruined everything they had ever planned.
Kera allowed herself a moment to laugh, holding the locket tight, tears staining her knees. She laughed. Mori would never have settled for anything less than what he had done. He had never been capable of sitting still. Such a quiet life would have brought him unimaginable misery. He would have become something wicked and cruel: a chained beast that snarled and snapped at any who passed. Their marriage would no longer have been a thing he treasured, but a thing he endured.
He’d had one affair during a time when their relationship was already filled with bliss. She couldn’t imagine what would have happened if he’d been miserable at home.
Something shattered downstairs. The echoes of glass hitting the floor reverberated through the house even as Kera heard her sister scream. Lifting her head, Kera pushed herself to her feet. Ciara shouted, “Aiden!” over and over, and each recitation of her son’s name drove Kera’s heart faster and faster.
She rushed out, tripping on her skirt hem in her haste. She jerked at the fabric to pull it up and out of the way. When she reached the ground floor, she saw them all together. The bankers, her father, Ciara, her children—all seven—assembled in the parlor, door to the cellar cracked open just a little. The children liked to play down there from time to time, but their play had been interrupted. Aiden was on the floor, shaking, limbs thrashing. His dark eyes were rolled back in his head and his mouth was frothing.
Kera pressed her hand to her lips, and she leaned against the doorway. No. Not little Aiden . . .
But it was too late. The plague had come to the Ivory Gate, and for the second time in as many years, she felt helpless.
As Kera stood immobile, her father ordered her children to collect their things and leave the Ivory Gate. Ciara rushed out to find a physician as Kera knelt on the floor with her four-year-old son nestled in her arms and stroked her fingers through his hair. The bankers fled. They covered their mouths and rushed out without concluding their negotiations. Kera couldn’t be bothered to find out where the talks had left off. It didn’t matter.
Her son was dying.
Kera listened as her father made plans. He spoke and made decisions. He determined the safest place for her other children would be up north in Alexandria, nestled in the Leona family estate of Crystal Point. He told her she should go too, and she had stared at him until he backed down. A strategy that worked well on parents, but did nothing at all to assuage the fears of children as they were ordered toward the door.
Cirri, Kera’s eldest, had the good sense to wait until her grandfather had left the room before approaching. She was already bundled in her traveling cloak, her hair pulled back in a tight braid at the nape of her neck. Everyone always said she looked like Kera, but when Cirri asked, “Is Aiden going to die?” Kera could only see her husband in her daughter’s face.
“I don’t know.”
Cirri’s jaw set. She peered over Kera’s shoulder toward the closed door her brother lay behind. “Can I see him before we go?”
“No.” Kera shook her head before Cirri could argue. “You know that if you . . . if you contract his illness. You know you won’t be allowed past the quarantine. Even as it is, your grandfather is going to have to sneak you out of the city. There’s enough risk at the moment, we can’t add more to it.”
One of the kids dropped something, and there was an argument starting in the parlour. Junior snapped at all of them until the shouts stopped.
“Will you look after them for me? Until we can return?”
“I’d rather stay here.”
“At the Gate?”
“If you’re taking Aiden away, then there’s no contagion here. I can finish my classes and—”
“Cirri. Are you honestly arguing to stay behind in an empty home, abandoning your siblings to the care of your aging grandfather for the sole purpose of attending university?”
“She wants to stay behind because she’s convinced she’s found her one,” Junior announced, entering the room.
Cirri let out a noise—half screech, half howl—and thrust a furious elbow at her younger brother, but he sidestepped it deftly, dancing out of its way. She blushed furiously, stumbling around her words as she babbled another excuse.
Pressure built behind Kera’s eyes. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, mind whirling and stalling whenever she felt close to finding an appropriate response. Cirri and Junior had started bickering, though, and it quickly drowned out any calm reaction she could have maintained. “Enough.”
“Your brother is dying of a plague, Cirri.” Her hand dropped to her side. “I need you to take care of your siblings. I need Junior to escort you all, and my father, safely to the Point. And I need to trust you both can manage this maturely without purposefully instigating one another. If you’ve found someone, then they will be here for you when this is over.”
They both had the good grace to look chastised. “Auggie and John are old enough to understand,” Junior said quietly, “but Marcus and Kerryn . . . what are we supposed to tell them? They don’t even really remember when our older brother died . . .”
“They’re scared,” Cirri muttered, as though she hadn’t wanted to admit it. As though, if she’d ignored it long enough, it wouldn’t actually be true. It wouldn’t actually be something she’d need to face.
“I am too.” Kera placed her hands on their cheeks, cradling them as gently as she could. “And Aiden . . . he’s scared as well. But, we can’t let fear keep us from moving forward. Or from protecting the ones we love. I’m going to be there for him, but I can’t be there for you or them. I need to know I can depend on you both.”
“You can . . .” they said, worry still firmly affixed on their faces.
“But . . .” Junior glanced toward the door once more. “Will . . . will he survive?”
The papers had written about little else in the past few months except for the plague. They’d described it as an all-encompassing illness, though one that acted erratically with no known explanation. Some victims fell ill and died within the day. Others held on to life for weeks before giving up the ghost. Kera couldn’t tell her children which version Aiden would have. She couldn’t even assuage their fears by telling them it didn’t seem so bad. She, like the physicians and healers with their useless tinctures and equally worthless advice, could not even begin to predict how this would continue to manifest.
“I hope so,” she whispered to them both. Then, kissing their brows, she drew them into fierce hugs. “Please, please look after your siblings.”
They promised, and then they were gone. They left with one brother or sister held in each hand, walking tall as they climbed into a carriage heading north. Kera waited until they’d left for good, and took a moment to pray for their safe travels.
Then she turned and opened the door to her youngest son’s room.
Ciara was there with a physician she’d summoned. He was still examining Aiden. The man wasn’t anyone Kera recognized, but he moved Aiden’s limbs this way and that, applying his concoctions with practiced ease that spoke of experience. Yet despite various liquids being poured down Aiden’s throat, her son did not wake.
“Is there truly no cure?” Ciara asked. She wrapped an arm around Kera’s shoulders as the physician finished drawing a blanket up to Aiden’s chin.
The man straightened himself up to his full height and peered down his nose at them. “You are . . . the Widow Montgomery, correct?” he asked in return, as though he didn’t already know the answer to his question. As though this house hadn’t been marred and mocked, praised and held up as the pinnacle of town gossip.
Kera entertained the idea of climbing to the top of a table, glaring down at the physician and asking why her name or status should mean a thing. Her son lay ill on her bed while he wished to exchange pleasantries. Or more likely, he wished to see what he could extort from her. Instead, she dipped her head. “I am,” she replied, finding her voice because of necessity alone. She could serve as a proper widow for his inspection, just as she could serve as a proper wife and mother.
The man rubbed his beard. “There is no cure.”
Kera’s breath stuttered twice in her throat before finding egress. She turned her back on the scene, ignoring how Ciara kept whispering soft prayers at the boy still lying in an unmoving heap in the same place her firstborn and her husband had died. Maybe Ciara was right. Maybe this house did have too many bad memories.
“However,” the physician continued, flicking his eyes toward Ciara, as if he knew the next words he spoke would be foul and wrong. “A woman of your . . . financial security”—Kera longed to laugh at that—“may find other ways to alleviate your son’s ailments.”
“You charlatan hack!” Ciara hissed. She strode across the room with one hand rising in fury. Sensing his imminent doom, the man stepped back, bowing his head to avoid the blow.
“I mean no offense, my lady, but money does have influence in the world.”
“You would hold my sister’s child hostage? His health a prisoner to your greed? You would rule yourself through avarice, you disgrace?” Ciara never had shied away from speaking her mind, nor flinched from high society and all its imperfections. Kera envied her strength of will, her fortitude.
Little Aiden let out a mewling sound, and Kera faltered. She tore her eyes from the physician and Ciara so she could sit at his side. Her fingers touched his damp hair. It’s too much. Please. It’s too much.
The physician was making excuses. Spit left his mouth as he sputtered and attempted to explain, but Ciara refused to listen. She badgered him onward, insulting him and threatening him with legal action when his protests continued. “As you said, she is the Widow Montgomery, and if you believe that we will not take this to the overseer himself . . .” Ciara trailed off. Ciara clearly had far more faith in their overseer than Kera did. The mere thought that Overseer Wild would grant Kera an audience after everything with Mori was absurd. Any chance he’d had at executing some form of professionalism had vanished when he’d refused to respond to her letters regarding her husband’s missing pension payments. A clerk had needed to write to her eventually, saying that she was lucky she hadn’t been evicted from her home and all assets seized under suspicion of treason. No. There’d be no help there.
The physician looked between the sisters with clear uncertainty before clearing his throat. “I meant only that the cost for such medicine is high, not that I would defraud the good lady.”
Kera wanted to speak up and ask him to state his intentions, but her throat seemed to swell closed. Words refused to leave her mouth. Her sister needed to intercede on her behalf, mustering her fury in Kera’s stead.
“You will inform us forthwith, or I will call for the soldiers to come.”
“Griffons, my lady,” the physician squeaked. “Griffons are said to shed feathers that can cure blindness, grow talons that can cure any illness. Should the lady have the funds for such an expedition, these tokens could save the boy’s life.”
Aiden’s brown eyes moved beneath his lids. His lashes opened just enough for her to see them. They were wet and tragic, glistening and fever sick. Kera tried to smile for her boy. She tried to encourage him, and tell him that he was going to be all right. However, Aiden’s eyes closed too quick for that, and his breathing sounded more ragged by the moment.
Acting as Kera’s spokesperson, Ciara was undaunted and undeterred. She plowed forward, snarling, “Griffons haven’t lived in these parts for hundreds of years. The closest we’ve had are tourist trinkets sold in the streets.”
The physician swallowed, looking too disquieted to continue. But as he squirmed, Kera thought back to what she knew of the creatures . . . “Mori rode into one during the war,” Kera whispered aloud, recalling how he used to pace the house during thunderstorms, rubbing at three deep scars that ran from shoulder to elbow on his left arm. “He said they migrate north from time to time . . .”
Seemingly emboldened, the physician nodded briskly. “There aren’t usually any in the north . . . but there are nests in the south. And there are permanent nests near the Long Lakes.”
Ciara scoffed loudly, snapping that “The Long Lakes are hundreds of miles away!” while Kera envisioned the journey. A map formed in her mind, plotting the most strategic course even as the physician continued to argue with her sister.
“It is the only possible cure that I can imagine for this ailment, madam!”
“Yes, and the fact you could turn quite the profit on griffon talons means nothing to you,” Ciara hissed in reply, sharp as a viper. “You are free to leave, good sir. We shan’t trouble you any longer. Be gone!” The man had the audacity to huff as he walked from Kera’s home. He slammed the doors to the Ivory Gate so violently that a stern rebuke was given to him by someone on the road. Kera could hear the chastisement through the bedroom window.
Holding her son’s hand, Kera looked down at his well-loved face. She traced her thumb along the back of his knuckles. She tried to think, but her thoughts kept circling. They kept returning to a question that had haunted her since her husband’s death: What would Mori do?
He was gone now, and she was the leader of this household. She was the Widow Montgomery, and she needed to make this decision. The world expected her to behave as her husband would, and she couldn’t fathom how that might be.
Her sister sat on the other side of Aiden, bed dipping beneath her. Although her presence was calming, Kera couldn’t help but consider the fact that Ciara should not be here. Ciara had children of her own, and a husband besides. A family that needed her and would be devastated by her loss. Aiden only had Kera. There was no one else for him but her. “You should be wary not to catch it as well,” Kera warned. Ciara ignored her.
She stroked her fingers through her nephew’s black hair, watching as he coughed. Kera met her sister’s eyes. Decision already made. Ciara knew it too, her face twisting into a scowl that looked so close to their mother’s it was eerie. “I can have John go,” Ciara said.
“Your husband deferred from the war effort and can barely ride a steed.” Kera said, slow and kind. In all the time Kera had known him, John Barker had simpered and quaked in the face of his far more boisterous and well-spoken wife. Ciara managed him like Mori managed politics: sometimes with skillful words and temperance, and most other times with raging fits of passion that forced his opponents to behave. The idea of him serving as a brave champion riding south to do battle with the griffons was laughable in its own right.
And in any case . . . even if her brother-by-law managed to acquire the goods, he would not be able to return in time to save Aiden. Her son would have expired, and the trip would have been for naught. John would need to take Aiden with him, and Kera would never be able to see her son go and not attend as well. She had to be there with him, so that if he took his last breath, she could be there to give him one last moment of love. She had sat at her husband’s and firstborn’s sides when they died, she would do the same for her youngest.
She would not allow him to die without knowing he was loved. “It should be me,” she said. “I’m his mother. It will be me.”
Ciara stared at her. She looked frozen in time, watching as Kera walked to her closet and retrieved a satchel. Kera knew she would need food and water to start her journey, as well as riding clothes for both her and Aiden, warm blankets, and money to replenish their supplies with.
Her mind whirled. Is this what Mori felt? she wondered as she collected her things. When his brain conjured notions all else considered strange? When he saw the path to his future, and took it? Kera begged his forgiveness. A year after his death and she was understanding parts of the man she loved that she had never understood before.
“You cannot mean to travel to this nest on your own?” Ciara asked. The clarification did nothing but bolster Kera’s intentions. She lifted her arms and unbuttoned her dress, letting it slide from her body and onto the floor, while she secured a pair of rarely worn leggings from her bureau. One of Mori’s blouses and a wool coat went next. By now, Ciara was on her feet. “Kerryn, my dear sister, you—”
“I will save my son’s life,” Kera said. She turned, drawing her back up straight. She was a Montgomery. She would always be a Montgomery, and she would not bend. “I will save my son’s life, and I will secure my home, and my children and I will live here as we are meant to live here, and no one else is going to die.” Not so long as her chest drew air.
She would not lose one more thing she cherished. She refused.
“You have other children,” Ciara reminded her, as if she didn’t already know that. The words slapped across her face with the same brutal force as a physical blow, and Kera clenched her teeth against them. She glared at her sister until Ciara recoiled. Ciara stammered an apology, saying, “I meant only that you have other children under your care. Ones who equally need their mother.”
“Ones,” Kera reminded right back, “who will survive quite well under their beloved aunt’s care.” She was a tree. Unbent. Unbroken. Unmovable. “Ones who even now are traveling north to Crystal Point to escape illness. I shan’t see them even if I stay here with Aiden. And . . . should I stay with Aiden, I am not long for this world either. I will catch the plague same as he. I can either die here in this home having done nothing, or I can find the griffons and save my son.”
Ciara didn’t seem to know what to say to that, so Kera said it for her. “So long as there is breath in my body, I will not allow another to dictate my life story.” Then, drawing herself up as high as she could go, Kera said, “I am the Widow Montgomery, and I will not allow tragedy to rule my life. Aiden will not die.”
For the first time in her life, Kera had rendered Ciara speechless.
It was the only good part of the day.
Kera attacked the issues surrounding her departure with clinical precision. She drew up two lists, cataloging each item she would need for her journey, and then sent her sister to collect the materials. Food, medicinal herbs, and additional clothing were placed on the table in the drawing room for future organization. Kera found her husband’s old saddlebags and readied them for packing, all the while thinking about the most important means she had for the journey: her horse. Or rather, her husband’s old warhorse, a tall chestnut mare named Holly.
Holly was calm and dedicated, with a fearless demeanor. She’d carried Mori into battle after battle, from camp to camp, without faltering or questioning his resolve. Raised in a warzone, Holly never flinched at the sound of gunfire. Kera had heard stories from multiple sources that said Holly was an anomaly in the field. She never reared up or misbehaved, and she followed Mori around like a lost dog.
For his part, Mori used to treat her with all the tender care of a family member. He’d rubbed her down each night, checked and cleaned her saddle, addressed any and all sore spots, and rested her when she went lame. He’d written letters to Kera whenever he had a moment during the war. In each, he would include a passage about Holly. They’d never failed to make Kera smile, and she’d found herself wishing both Holly and him well as they continued to fight for their country’s liberation from Trent.
Mori had introduced them after the war. He’d been rather giddy about it. He’d taken Kera by the hand and babbled as he brought her to the stable. He’d told stories as Kera stroked Holly’s dark mane, and Kera nodded her head as she listened to each one. When her husband had fallen silent, Kera’d taken Holly’s face between her hands and thanked her for her service. She knew full well that her husband would have died without a dependable mount, and Holly had saved his life more than once. Scars lined Holly’s flanks. Mori’d rarely spoken about how they happened, but Kera knew that each one served as a record of her husband’s tenuous grasp on life.
The horse, unaware of Kera’s heartfelt gratitude, had spread her lips and whinnied in Kera’s face until she produced a sugar loaf for consumption. She was, and always had been, a spoiled beast.
After the first war had ended, someone in the Overwatch had commissioned a portrait series for war heroes to be displayed in the new capital. General Zakaria had insisted Mori submit himself for the production, and he (grudgingly) did as he was commanded. The painter had expressed interest in creating a masterpiece displaying Morpheus Montgomery the Great and Triumphant War Hero Returning From Battle. Mori brought Holly to the studio; he was informed that a stallion could be provided for the final product.
Mori responded the way he always did when he took offense: He refused. Unless Holly was in the painting, he would not take part in the commission. “She’s the best horse you will ever know,” Mori insisted. “I shan’t dismiss her merely because she’s turned old. We all age, and I’d have accomplished nothing without her by my side.” The general had to intercede on his behalf, and the painting was completed in due time. Holly had been the only horse to have her portrait done for the capital series. But as far as Kera and Mori were concerned, she’d more than earned her place in their nation’s history.
Holly was old now. She’d fought through two wars and outlived her brave soldier in the end. She deserved to live out her retirement in peace as a proud member of an elite rank of equine. She didn’t deserve a final journey in her twilight years.
But she was the last horse in Kera’s possession. The children’s ponies and her own mare had been sold long ago. All of their tack and riding apparel had been traded for food and supplies, leaving only Mori’s old war things. Despite her impressive résumé, Holly would never have fetched a good price at market; she was too old for that. But that hadn’t been what stayed Kera’s hand in the end. Holly was family. She was one of the last remaining parts of Mori’s life that Kera had left.
She would never be sold.
The mare huffed when Kera entered the stable. She walked toward her with slow, measured steps. “Hello, my dear,” Kera greeted as she rested her hand on Holly’s muzzle. Holly lowered her head for a scratch along her nose. She was as mild-mannered and steady on her feet as she always had been. She didn’t sway or shift about. She stood still and awaited her inspection.
There was a comfortable routine for this. Mori taught Kera it long ago, and she fell into the pattern with great ease. She checked Holly’s legs and back; she pressed her hands along Holly’s spine. Holly twisted her head to watch Kera, but didn’t complain even when Kera came to rest by the scars on Holly’s flank. “Morpheus tore his arm beating that griffon from you,” she murmured, tracing her hand along Holly’s rump.
Holly whinnied at her and puffed hot air from her nostrils. Her hooves stomped against the ground, forcing Kera to smile. Petting the mare’s neck with a firm hand, Kera took a deep breath. She trailed her fingers along Holly’s throat until she could cup Holly’s face between her palms. The stomping stopped. Holly lowered her head so she could look into Kera’s eyes. “My son is ill,” Kera informed the mare. “I know you are old, and you deserve your retirement. I know I am not Morpheus, but I need your help. You’re all I have . . . all I can afford . . . and I need to get to the Long Lakes. There’s a griffon nest that may have the cure to Aiden’s illness. Will you help me?”
Holly puffed air into Kera’s face. Her bangs ruffled from their place above her eyes. Kera blinked as Holly whinnied. Then, she smiled.
Kera reached for a halter and secured it on Holly’s head, then she attached the lead rope and led her out to the crossties at the center of the stable. Mori always brushed Holly down before a long ride, and so Kera started now. Considering how empty the stable was, it took longer than necessary to find the appropriate tools, but Kera was dedicated to doing it right. She found everything, then set to rubbing her hand in small circles to knock the dirt off with a currycomb.
Holly’s head hung low, and she dozed while Kera worked, too geriatric and content to bother being alert. Kera didn’t mind. She used the time to consider her plan and reject the errant thoughts that kept telling her how foolish she was being.
Ciara had spent the better portion of the past hour attempting to talk her out of this. She’d suggested that they hire a team, perhaps someone with military training, or expertise, or anyone else. But Kera held fast. She consulted Mori’s Bestiary and committed herself to her argument.
Griffons would attack any party of more than five who entered the outskirts of their territory. Soldiers and hunters alike were torn down by exhibiting the intent to kill or disrupt their territory. They scented fear and they were brutal against those who bothered them. Mori only managed to survive his encounter because he’d stumbled upon them. They hadn’t known he was there, and he hadn’t known he was there, until they were all on top of each other in a panicked mess.
A team of reckless soldiers would no doubt be destroyed by the griffons, and she could not allow her own terror to obscure her intentions. She didn’t need to kill the griffon. She just needed to get close enough to collect a few feathers or find some talon shavings near its scratching trees. She could use both castoffs to help Aiden.
“I won’t even be in any danger,” she reminded herself for the twelfth time that day. Perhaps she wouldn’t even see the beast. Perhaps she would find the nest while it was out hunting.
Holly snorted herself awake, shaking all over as she decided if consciousness was right for her. Dust rose through the air, causing Kera to cough and lament her poor care of this horse. When Holly glanced at Kera, her expression seemed almost wry.
“You’re right,” Kera sighed, resting her head on Holly’s flank. “I didn’t think it would be that easy either.” Luck, she had learned, was rarely on her side.
Fetching her husband’s saddle, Kera attempted to hoist it from its rack. Her arms quaked under the great weight, pushing her down into the earth. She heaved, hoisting with all her strength. “I’ve,” she gritted out, “carried . . . eight children . . . you . . . terrible . . . thing.” Up it went, dislodging from its peg and sending her stumbling a few steps backward. Regaining her footing, she approached Holly. “And I—” she lifted as high as her arms could lift, Mori’s saddle hanging awful and heavy from her fingers “—can carry you.”
She grunted and struggled to get it up. Just a little more . . . just a little—
Holly’s hooves danced, irritation flickering in her expressive brown eyes as she twisted her head toward Kera. The saddle was on Holly’s back, but so was a stirrup. It had gotten caught on the throw and now lay on Holly’s spine beneath the weight of the obscene saddle. “Just stay still,” Kera ordered the mare, walking around her and fixing it on the other side.
No. Wait. She had missed a step. With the stirrup in place, the whole image came complete, leaving Kera blinking at the saddle sitting on Holly’s naked back. She’d forgotten the saddle blanket. Kera ran a hand across her brow and took a deep breath. “Right,” she mumbled. “All right.”
Reaching up, she pulled the saddle off Holly’s body. She grunted loudly as it slipped from her fingers and struck the ground. Dirt splattered the leather paneling, and Kera glared at it. She fought the temptation to yell at the awful thing or kick it out of spite. Marching back to the sparse tack room, she snatched the blanket meant to protect Holly’s back from the rough rubbing of the saddle.
Laying it along Holly’s body, she almost felt Holly’s approval. The horse was all but snickering at her as she went to retrieve the saddle from the ground. “You laugh, but you must bear it,” Kera warned. Holly was impervious to her threats, pretending as she was to be invested in Kera’s ministrations.
Bending her knees, Kera drew in a deep breath. She got her hands into position, this time ensuring that the far stirrup was hooked over the pommel for when it went over the horse’s back, and lifted. Her thighs burned as she hoisted the saddle upward, but she carried the momentum with her. Gasping as she lifted the saddle up, up, up—and it was over. The horrible contraption settled onto Holly’s back, looking far too innocent considering the trouble she’d had getting it in place.
Sweat slipped down her nose. She rubbed her face on her sleeve. It was impolite and indecent, but she knew full well that there was no time for propriety while they were on the road.
As quick as she could, she buckled the saddle into position and looped the leather lines where they should be. When she went to cinch the strap beneath Holly’s belly she tugged up, waited several moments for Holly to exhale, then tugged again. The horse had mastered the art of expanding its chest until the cinching was over, and then releasing its breath so the saddle was far too loose. Even if Kera hadn’t ridden in some time, she remembered Holly’s trickery. Holly let out an unamused huff as Kera cinched the saddle tight.
“Foiled again,” Kera informed her without the slightest bit of remorse. Holly’s tail flicked in annoyance, and Kera rolled her eyes. She pat her neck a few times, soothing the horse with some broad strokes along Holly’s throat. She needed to leave soon. Ciara was working on getting her traveling gear prepared, and Kera needed to go in to check on her.
But just for a moment, with no one around to see, Kera rested her head on Holly’s shoulder. She wrapped one arm around Holly’s wide neck. “I don’t know how to do this,” she whispered.
Holly’s head dropped. It was almost an embrace. Kera leaned into it, pulling back only when she felt Holly’s lips mouthing at the pockets of her clothes, searching for the treats she always used to keep on hand.
“Priorities, eh old girl?” She nudged the mare’s head back so she could step away safely. “Just have to keep my priorities straight.”
Then she turned, and walked back inside.
Ciara was pacing when Kera stepped in through the front door. Kera’s bags were already packed. They just needed to loop it over Holly’s rump and they would be ready to travel. Aiden could settle in front of Kera as they rode. His small body would fit with Kera’s in Mori’s saddle. It would be a tight squeeze, but it would work.
“Don’t do this,” Ciara requested again. “Please, there are other ways. This is a rash decision, and you have no idea what’s out there.”
“I’ll be bringing TheAbsalonian Bestiary and Herbalism with me.” She lifted both books as evidence, then slid them into the top of her satchel.
Ciara scowled at her, her lips pressed together. “You will die, you understand that, don’t you?”
“I will die no matter what. And when I do, I shall join my Morpheus.” Kera knew the words would break her sister’s heart. She knew that they hurt Ciara in a way that was unfair and unkind. Ciara lifted her fingers to her mouth and took half a step back. But Kera held fast. It was the only excuse that would work with Ciara. “Kiss me goodbye, sister. For either I will die here with Aiden from plague, or I will die trying to save him. But I will not survive this illness unless he does.”
Ciara rushed forward. She wrapped her arms around Kera’s body and held her close. She pressed a hand to the back of Kera’s head and sobbed loud and un-ladylike. “I have just lost my dear brother-by-law, and now you shall rid me of you as well? You horrible child!”
Kera eyes started to burn, but it did nothing to weaken her resolve. Her mind was already made up. “Will you pray for me, Ciara?” she asked instead. Ciara promised she would. “And the childr—”
“Shall want for nothing. You must promise to send me updates when you can. Post them to Crystal Point, we’ll stay there until the worst of this is over.”
“I promise.” If Mori could manage to pen letters in the midst of two wars, Kera could manage on a safe (she kept reminding herself that it was safe) ride to the Long Lakes. The threats were the various types of nightwalkers that haunted the nights and a griffon she likely wouldn’t see. The former was resolved by staying in a town at night, the latter was irrelevant. She was going regardless of whether she’d encounter a griffon or not.
Food and lodging were Kera’s key concerns. Aiden’s health was fragile, and who knew who else he could infect on their journey. No one could know that he was ill. The governor had already put a ban on travel for the infirm. Some cities had even locked their doors to travelers in hopes of keeping the plague at bay. She needed to stay in a city to avoid a night outside, but the logistics . . . were complicated.
Kera would manage, though. Somehow, some way, she would manage. “Do not sell my home.”
“It will stay with the Montgomerys until they choose for it to leave their hands,” Ciara agreed.
Kera tried to think of what else needed to be done. Mori had made her promise to update her will after his death, and she’d done so not long after the funeral. She’d sat in front of a solicitor and had spelled out her affairs. She’d used Mori’s old paperwork as a template and divided the estate as best she could. Aside from the limited financial sums each of the children would receive, she’d ensured there were dresses for Cirri and Kerri, Mori’s war uniform would go to Junior, and all of them would have equal ownership of their vast library.
Kera’s affairs were, fortuitously, already in order. She had nothing more to fear.
Kissing Ciara’s cheek, she walked to the couch and lifted her young son into her arms. His fevered brow pressed against her chest. He nuzzled her in his sleep as she listened to Ciara collecting the saddlebags. There was a brief passing game as Ciara finished with the saddlebags, took Aiden from Kera, waited for Kera to mount Holly, then passed Aiden back. All the while, Ciara kept her comments brief and perfunctory. Her displeasure was a tangible thing clawing at Kera’s back, but Kera distracted herself with wrapping her arms tight around her son and adjusting her position in Mori’s saddle. Her feet felt awkward in the stirrups, but it was manageable. She breathed deep. I can do this. I am the leader of my household. I can do this.
Kera memorized her sister’s jawline, her eyes, her dark skin, and black curly hair. Ciara was a beautiful woman. She hoped she’d see her again.
“We will see each other again,” Ciara said, as though reading Kera’s mind. Her wise eyes sternly focused on Kera’s face. “Even if it’s in the next life, we will see each other again, my wonderful sister.”
The temptation to stay threatened to rear up again, so Kera tore her eyes from her sister’s face. She took a deep breath clicked her tongue.
Mori’s great warhorse gave a mighty fart, tail lifting as she passed gas, and then slowly walked out of the stable.
Holly was a smooth walker. She kept her head down and moved her legs one right after another. Kera held one arm around Aiden’s body and kept him steady as she guided Holly with her other hand. He was still asleep, but his limbs continued twitching despite that.
The plague had haunted the streets of Ship’s Landing for over a year, starting just before Morpheus’s death and increasing in strength afterward. No one knew how the ill were infected, but once they succumbed, it was already too late. Kera remembered seeing the wailers in the street. Friends she’d had for ages, screaming in mourning as their loved ones were carted away.
Initially, physicians had flocked to Ship’s Landing in an effort to help the victims. But as the plague spread, more medical professionals began to contract it as well. Fewer and fewer new arrivals came, and those that did bickered for months as they tried to find the cause of the sickness. But for all their efforts, no one understood why some lives ended like a shattered glass of wine, while others were barrels with a crack at their base, slowly letting one drop of life slip out a moment at a time.
Kera tried to remember what Aiden had been doing the last time she’d seen him well. Playing with his siblings. Cirri and Junior had helped the little ones dress for the day. Then they’d taken them down to lessons. When she was home from university, Cirri had been leading “classes” on needlepoint in the drawing room. Kera remembered seeing Aiden sitting on Cirri’s lap once. His little hands latched around Cirri’s as she made fine stitches in the shape of flowers and letters. When the bankers came, the children had left to occupy themselves elsewhere, Aiden skipping after the others. Perhaps they’d been searching for monsters in the cellar. They all loved to play pretend.
He’d been in perfect health . . . and then he hadn’t been.
Kera bent her head and kissed her son’s hair. She urged Holly onward. They lived almost eight hundred miles from the Long Lakes. To get there, first she would need to cross the river to Tymber. They would need to travel along the ocean for almost two weeks past Doleystown and Kytesberg until they were well into the deep south.
Holly’s slow steps plodded along. “You must think me mad,” Kera murmured. Holly’s ears flicked back to listen to her. One swiveled so it faced her while the other returned to the front, Holly’s attention divided between the road and Kera’s voice. “I’m not mad.” She was talking to a horse while riding with her dying child to a griffon’s nest on the off chance that they would survive the journey and not be killed by a plague in the meantime, but she was not mad.
Holly continued walking, immune to Kera’s growing anxiety. “You’ve probably seen enough to know I’m not mad.” Holly had seen more wondrous things than she ever had. Kera used to be enamored with the war stories Mori would tell. He and his soldiers sounded gallant and brave as they rode about with their guns firing and swords raised in the air. Mori’s friend, a True Lord from Ruug named Amit, had told Kera that her husband had been the bravest of them all for facing the nightwalkers.
“Was the griffon large?” Kera asked Holly. Holly huffed in response, taking a long stride as if to present her rump for evidence. The scars were hidden by the saddlebags, but Kera knew them well enough. She’d seen paintings of griffons in city hall next to images of salamanders, sirens, and vipers. But unlike the sirens, renowned for pulling sad sailors to their graves, or selkies making off with hapless children, the griffons had merely been celestial creatures flying high above the rest of them.
“You know, considering the likelihood of encountering a griffon in the first place, I have to admit I’m amazed you even met one. There are hundreds of different nightwalkers you could have run into that night.” Holly huffed loudly, throwing her head up and down just enough so the reins didn’t pull too much in Kera’s hands. “But you didn’t run into a wraith or a specter or even a death march, no you ran into a griffon. I saw a death march once, did you know that?”
Holly did not respond. Her ears wiggled to and fro, but despite being told since she was a child that meant the horse was listening, Kera strongly suspected Holly was more interested in the food in her saddlebags than the words coming from Kera’s mouth.
“My father took my siblings and me out to see one. They’re horrifying, did you know that? All the spirits rise up and reenact their final moments leading up to their death, and I’m sure you know just how many battlefields there are now after the war.” Battlefields that Kera would be unable to completely avoid on her ride to the Long Lakes. She shivered atop Holly, hugging Aiden closer and adjusting her seat.
Holly pushed forward, heedless of Kera’s diatribe. They made good time crossing the river. The road wasn’t busy, and the lack of traffic encouraged her to move a touch faster than Holly would have preferred. Even at their accelerated pace, though, some travelers paused to watch her ride by. They seemed incredulous as their eyes wandered across her clothes and overall appearance.
Kera didn’t give herself permission to feel embarrassed. She knew how she appeared with all her adornments and baubles left behind her: ragged and plain. She’d spent each day of the past year wearing a mourning dress. Plain though it had been, her show of grief was far more acceptable than trousers and a traveling coat. She hated how that made her feel. She guided Holly off the main road and kept to the quiet trails leading south, doing what she could to avoid the dumbfounded stares of the casual civilian traveler.
Her brain felt like an ouroboros, endless and cannibalistic. It chewed on its own tail in a desire to sustain its own quest for knowledge. Her thoughts circled, each one hurting worse than the one that came before.
Clouds began to turn the sky overcast, when Aiden woke. He mewled at her chest. His dark-brown eyes opened and stared up at her, fevered and delirious.
“It’s all right, Aiden,” she cooed. “It’s all right.”
He cried out, though. Limbs shaking as he thrashed in her arms.
Holly slowed to a stop. Her head turning to look back at them. Air huffed from her nostrils and she shifted restlessly. She didn’t know what to do, and Kera didn’t either. She knotted her reins as best she could, and woahed Holly unconsciously as she adjusted her hold on Aiden. Aiden’s limbs didn’t flail so much as stiffen and seize in place. She wasn’t sure if she’d have preferred the alternative or not.
General Zakaria’s wife, Najah Zakaria, had once spoken to Kera about the shaking illness. Her daughter Amani had suffered from tremors, and they worried Amani would bite her tongue and drown in her own blood. If Kera remembered, they used to put a cloth in her mouth to stop the fear. Kera fetched one now, pulling a stretch of fabric from her pocket to slide between her son’s teeth. He gurgled and choked as he shook, but she could hear him breathing through his nose. “You’re going to be all right,” she repeated to him. “You’re going to be all right.”
Holly shifted, unhappy with the wriggling weight upon her back. Through it all, Aiden continued to cry. He lifted his tiny hands to his mouth, and Kera held them back to keep them from his face. “Hush . . . hush . . . baby . . . hush . . . it’s all right. It’s all right,” Kera whispered. She tried to keep calm, to not sound desperate or frantic. She wasn’t sure she was succeeding.
It felt as though Kera were trying to juggle and cook all at once. Keeping Holly content and Aiden safe seemed like an insurmountable task. Panic blossomed in her chest as she realized that she had no idea what she was doing in the first place.
I shouldn’t have left. The thought circled about on repeat. It wrapped around her brain and slid down her back, taking root deep in her body until she recoiled in order to free herself from the self-defeating madness. “It’s barely been ten miles,” she hissed out loud. “I’ve hardly started.” She squeezed her son. “I can’t stop now.”
The shaking stopped, and Kera sobbed in relief.
She rested her head against his small shoulder and breathed against his back. She retook her reins and urged Holly onward. Aiden was asleep again, and showed no signs of waking. My son is going to die. She knew then and there. “It’s either here or at home,” she spoke out loud. Giving the terror a voice felt almost like signing his death warrant, but she let spite motivate her anyway.
She would not let Aiden die without a fight, and if that meant she forced herself through an eight-hundred-mile journey on her own, she would do it. Kera urged Holly to walk on.
The sun started to dip beyond the horizon as Kera reached a small tavern. She stopped Holly before they approached the stable. Aiden was warm against her chest. His head lolled against her shoulder, little legs jerking very subtly every now and then, almost as if he were simply kicking in his sleep. Holly turned her head. One big brown eye stared up at Kera, as if to say, Are you ready?
“They could get sick,” Kera whispered. Holly’s eye kept watching her. Waiting. Her son jerked a little more. “They could all get sick and die.” It would be her fault, too.
Risking a glance over her shoulder, Kera stared out into the dark. Already, it felt as though the shadows were moving. Nightwalkers seeping backward into existence. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Her breath felt chill in her breast. A shadow, or a black cloak, flickered on the edge of her vision, and her heels kicked on impulse. Holly’s head swiveled around and her great hooves clacked on the stones beneath them.
A boy approached as they neared the stable. Turning Aiden so his face wasn’t directed at the child, Kera cleared her throat. “Please . . . and how much for board for the horse?”
“A copper piece, miss,” the stable boy told her as he rested a hand on the reins just under Holly’s chin. Fishing a coin from her pocket, Kera handed it to the boy. Adjusting her hold on Aiden, she leaned forward and then swung a leg over the saddle and Holly’s rump. Her knees almost crumpled beneath her as she half fell, half stumbled off the horse. The boy caught her back with a startled yelp, bracing her so she didn’t fall to the ground.
She clung tight to Aiden, anxiety sparking along her senses. It’s all right, she reminded herself. It’s all going to be all right. Then she caught sight of her saddlebags, and realized that between her son and her things—she could only carry one.
“If . . . you don’t mind waiting, miss,” the stable boy offered. “I can help assist you with your bags?”
Some of the anxiety lessened at that, and she nodded. “Please.” She tried not to think about how she was risking this poor boy’s health by letting him interact with them. Still, the boy was quick about his work. He hurried to move Holly into a stall and saw to her care. Kera even had a moment where she could stroke Holly’s muzzle and remove a stray leaf from her mane. “Thank you,” she whispered as Holly snuggled into her touch. They wouldn’t have made it this far without her.
Once finished, the boy retrieved Kera’s bags and led her into the tavern. He called for the owner to come meet them, and a portly man did just that. The gentleman wiped his hands on a small towel as he approached, eyeing Kera up and down. “What can I do you for, missus?”
“Just a room for the night, and lodging for my horse. I’ll be gone by morning.”
The man nodded, still rubbing at his hands. “Don’t have any free rooms, missus, but there’s a couple open beds if you don’t mind sharing. One’s . . . with a gentleman, and another’s with a lady and her young lass.”
Kera hesitated. Logic dictated the safer option was, of course, the room with the woman. However, with Aiden’s illness . . . she would be horrified if he infected a child and mother.
The innkeep jutted his chin toward the man in the corner. “There’s one boarder.” Following his gaze, Kera tried to hold back her distaste. The man in question was leering her way, licking his lips. Food and drink had tangled his beard, coating it in a greasy finish. Flinching away from the mere thought of spending a night in close quarters with such a man, she forced a smile, anxiety swimming through her as she imagined someone else coughing and writhing in the throes of a fit that no one could stop. Her voice sounded far stronger than she felt when she managed to say, “The lady, if you please,” at long last.
Without even batting an eye, the innkeeper nodded and barked at the stable boy to lead her to the room she requested. The sun disappeared behind the hills, and the night howls of the dead began to start. Aiden didn’t wake. He remained unconscious against her shoulder, looking to all the world like any other child made tired from a long journey.
The stable boy chattered as he led her up a staircase to a room with a well-worn door. He needed to adjust the saddlebags in order to free a hand to knock, but he did so with surprising grace. Two raps, then a pause earned them a reply. “Come in,” they were beckoned, and the boy pushed the door open for Kera to enter.
“Begging your pardon, miss,” the boy announced for the present occupant, “but you’ve a roommate for tonight. S’another lady ’n’ her bairn.”
“That’s . . . fine,” the woman in question intoned. With that acceptance, Kera rounded the bend and entered the room. Aiden slipped a little, but she managed to catch him in time. She kept him from falling from her bloodless fingers. The boy didn’t notice. He shuffled in and placed her things on the ground before bidding them a good evening. He shut the door behind himself as he left.
For her part, Kera was struggling to understand how her life had come to this. She stared at the woman sitting across from her on one of the two beds. Horror painted Kera’s skin, her soul, with a thick miasmic lacquer.
This, she thought as she tried not to cry, is a joke. A cruel joke.
Perhaps their family really was cursed.
For there, sitting across from her, resting with her back against the headboard of the farthest bed in the room, was her husband’s mistress, Aurora Sinclair.
Word Count: 105,000
Page Count: 316
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 05/27/2019
Release Date: 05/27/2019