Originally written for Jolene Haley's Spooky Showcase blog tour in 2017. “It’s just a story, Cam. It’s not ...
Of Gods and Ravens
It was the simple tasks, sometimes, that were the hardest. Even after all these years, she still moved wrong, moved in ways that once were so easy. Tried to extend that arm further than the shoulder would allow, twist in a direction that it never would again. She’d learned better, learned to compensate, but it was still so easy to forget. At least, until the pain came, lightning quick, and all she could do was hold herself and try to breathe until it passed, and she could get on with whatever mundane task she’d gotten lost in and forgotten herself doing.
At least, that’s how it was supposed to go. Instead, she found her clutching hand and clenched-teeth-breathing interrupted by the sound of footsteps and a cleared throat, followed by a voice that spoke a name she thought she’d never hear again.
“Ser Rían Bloodwing?”
Rían took a deep, shuddering breath, and bent to pick up the axe she’d dropped. “No one here by that name.”
Carefully—she could still feel the fire burning in her shoulder—she lifted the axe and let the sharp edge of the head fall through the log she’d been trying to chop before. It split into satisfactory halves, with only a moderate twinge to her bad left shoulder. Quickly glancing up, she saw the two women exchange a look. They spoke again as she reached for another quarter.
“We were told we could find her here. Rían Bloodwing, the Raven Knight. If she’s not here, could you tell us—”
“She’s dead.” The words ground out through clenched teeth as Rían forced herself not to flinch. Her raven wing tattoo burned across the backs of her shoulders.
Another look exchanged, and Rían knew they wouldn’t let it go.
“We were told—”
“I don’t give the good Goddess’s tits what you were told. Rían Bloodwing died on the battlefield. All you’ll find here are ghosts.” Rían threw the axe with her good hand, lodging it in her chopping block with a satisfying thunk, and finally gave the intruders a good look.
They were young, young as she had been when she pledged everything to her Goddess. She knew them, knew the calluses on their hands, knew the way they stood, comfortable with the weight of their weapons, comfortable with the oaths they’d sworn. She had no idea what their names were, didn’t care, but she’d seen their like a hundred times. She’d been them.
That was all she needed to know.
The shorter, dark-haired one, took a step forward. “Please. We need your help.”
Rían glared at them. Her left side still burned, and she felt the weight and sting of every scar, every battle, every oath she’d uttered. She blinked slowly, fighting the memory of a different voice, a different black-haired woman.
“I can’t help you. I can’t help anyone anymore.” She turned, walking back to her hut. “Now leave.”
She felt them watch her, the weight of their gaze heavy on her back. But by the time her slow steps reached the door, they’d gone.
Rían hoped they wouldn’t be back.
* * *
“I need you to do this, Rían.”
The words crawled cold and aching to her bones. Rían squeezed her eyes shut, even as the surge of longing came. The Morrígan’s voice was deep and cool as a river, familiar as her own skin, and there was a time she had promised everything to that voice, and heard it as often as breathing.
Her own voice, in contrast, came broken and full of pain. “I can barely hold a sword, my Lady.” She didn’t turn, not yet. Just stared into the darkness of the night. “They want a warrior. All they’ll get is a broken ghost.”
A sigh, heavy as the breeze, and the soft step of feet. “Nevertheless. It must be you.”
A forlorn, despairing noise left her before she could stop it. Once, those words would have brought her joy. Once, she would have rejoiced to be needed. Now, she wanted to sop, tears pulling at her eyes even as she turned. “Why? Why me? I gave you everything, my Lady! Everything you ever asked, and more. And you left me nothing, not even the blessing of death.”
The Goddess stepped forward, pulling her into battle-hardened arms, held her as she mourned. “I know. I know all you have given me, my brave knight. I know all you have suffered for me. I know how cruel it is to ask this. But still, I must.” She stroked Rían’s short hair and held her close. “Do this last thing for me, and I will never ask more again. Do this, and I will bring you home.”
Rían stiffened. Home.
“She’s waiting for you.”
Rían fell to her knees with a cry. The Morrígan placed her hands on her head, stroking short hair that had gone ashen with silver, while Rían hugged the Goddess’s knees.
“Do you swear?”
Few were those who would force a Goddess to swear. But the Morrígan only continued softly stroking her head. “I swear, daughter. Your home is prepared. Your sisters wait to welcome you. Your wife, likewise.”
Rían took a shaky breath. “What must I do, my Lady?”
* * *
They returned the next day, as Rían knew they would. This time, a fire welcomed them. This time, Rían was waiting. Her bags were packed, her old armor oiled, her horse saddled. And if the two women were surprised, they hid it well. Veterans perhaps, or perhaps not. Their Goddess was never one to suffer fools.
There were no words between them. Rían simply stood, tossed the dregs of her coffee on the fire, and put it out.
* * *
Half a day on horseback had her deeply regretting her decision. But her Goddess had asked, and how could she refuse? Still, her doubts only grew when her two guides led them to a camp that was far larger and busier than she had anticipated. Looking around, Rían tried to ignore the ache that had long since settled in her bones. She felt old, and tired, and out of place.
Even if the camp also felt a little like home. A full company of Raven Knights was not a sight she had ever thought to see again.
As they began to be noticed, and movement in the camp ground to a halt, her guides dismounted, together stepping forward to greet a woman who was clearly their commander. Rían sighed and moved to follow. She’d long ago perfected the handless side-slide that had become her dismount, but she could see it raised more than a few eyebrows. The lack of weapons, as well—just her war hammer, a hand axe, and a few knives—clearly gave the surrounding knights pause. But the two-handed sword she’d always carried was long gone, shattered on the same battlefield that she’d lost everything else on, and with no way to wield it (damaged as her shoulder was), there had been no need to replace it.
Nor had there been any desire to.
Once again, Rían wondered why her Goddess had sent her here. But here she was, and going back was no option at all. And then the commander was stepping forward, gripping her forearm like a long-lost comrade, and maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t, but she felt the sharp pinch of heartache at the familiarity of it all.
“Isa Nightwing, company commander. It’s an honor, Ser Bloodwing.”
She flinched, shaking her head. “Just Rían, anymore.”
The commander squeezed her arm and offered a sad smile. “Once a Raven, always a Raven.”
“Until we fly to Mag Cíuin.”
The reply came on instinct, and unbidden, but earned her a round of murmured agreement from those nearest to hear.
It felt…good. Almost.
She took a slow breath and shook her head again. “I’m not… The Raven you’re expecting, that’s not me anymore.” She reached for the shoulder of her heavy feathered cloak and tugged it off with a small wince. “You should know what you’re getting into.”
Her cloak fell to the ground, followed by the loose woolen shirt she’d worn, and then there was only her, stood silent in breeches and bindings in the cold winter air, scars revealed for all to see. Some were faded white lines, others more noticeable. The puckered wound in her abdomen that had almost killed her in her first real battle. The deep slash across her face that had narrowly missed blinding her—and had still turned one stormy eye oddly pale.
But it was her shoulder that drew the eye. The gnarled mass of scar tissue where the sword had pierced through almost to the hilt, then twisted this way and that. The deep lightning-like scars that radiated from it in the front, and more so across her back, and down the arm. The matching lightning strike scars across her palm where she’d grabbed the blade and pulled the cursed sword from her flesh.
She stood in silence, letting them all look their fill, letting them see the broken, useless thing she’d become. Letting them understand how much she no longer belonged here, and how little she could help them. Better that she had lost the arm entirely, instead of carrying it like so much dead weight.
But Isa Nightwing bent low in the silence and picked her shirt and cloak off the ground. With a reverence that baffled Rían, the commander gently shook them off, and passed them back to her. Rían redressed—carefuly—and followed Isa to the main fire.
“How did it happen?”
Rían took the cup she was offered and stared into the flames. She watched them dance, listened to the slow crackle and the winter silence that surrounded her, and took a sip.
“We were sent to kill a king.”
* * *
Rían felt the drum of hooves in her bones. In the pre-dawn light, the company’s charge was like the thunder of an approaching storm. She turned her head to glance at the others and saw her own ferocious smile mirrored on the faces of Brena and the other Ravens.
Four flights had come together for this. An entire company of Raven Knights, charged with one duty—to slay the false king Conad.
The four flights hit the army encampment with perfect timing, each at a different point, from a different direction, all before the sun breached the horizon.
The army was unprepared.
Rían’s flight cut through the false king’s army with little resistance. Even awake and prepared, they’d have stood little chance against the otherworldly strength of Morrígan’s Own. Half asleep and caught off guard, they put up all the resistance of practice dummies. She felt almost feral, her war hammer an unrelenting blur of death over a field of red.
All of that changed when the flights reached the center of the camp. Conad’s army may have been more numbers than substance or skill, but the false king’s personal guard were another matter. From all sides, the Raven Knight’s progress faltered like waves against a cliff face. These were not mere humans, thrown like grist to the war machine. God or demon, whatever patron Conad the False had found, had given favor to his guard as well. They fought like the possessed, merciless and unfeeling, and as their numbers dwindled, so too did the company of Ravens.
Rían soon abandoned her mount, and her war hammer as well, turning instead to the familiar butchery of her two-handed blade. Her forward momentum slowed, but with Brena at her side, they continued a steady progress, a trail of corpses in their wake. Until the guard thinned, and there before them stood their target.
They were not the first to reach him. Bodies littered the ground, his own guard and black armored Ravens alike. As Rían slew another guardian, she saw the false king run one of his own men through just to kill the Raven on the other side. His sword glowed a sickly yellow, carved through armor like butter, and Rían could taste the foul, tainted magic it bled from where she stood. And then there was another guard in her path, this one not so easily dispatched, and her attention focused back on the immediate business of killing and staying alive.
Until a scream she knew too well pierced the roaring noise of the battlefield, and her heart ran colder than a mountain stream. Her opponent, distracted by the cry, was easily dispatched, falling in time for her to see Brena go down, the false king’s blade red with her blood.
Rage permeated every fiber of Rían’s being. She drove forward, pushing Conad back with every relentless blow of her sword, again and again, rage and loss and looming death in each strike.
But the false king matched her blow for blow, and once shock and surprise were no longer on her side, she slowly ceased to drive him back.
Soon, it became he that drove her back. Step upon agonizing step. Rían wasn’t sure how she’d ended up on the defensive, but she found herself struggling to keep up. As though every strike of the false king’s cursed sword took something from her.
Until finally, he struck home.
Rían’s sword shattered with the force of the blow. The sickly yellow blade cut a path across her face, narrowly missing her eye, and ripping the winged helm from her head.
And then further agony.
The blade drove deep into her shoulder, pushed clean through almost to the hilt as Conad bore down with all his weight, forcing the sword so deep she could feel his putrid breath on her face.
“Look around, little carrion crow. You’re the last of your company. Skewered on my sword and awaiting death. Was that the best your goddess could send against me?” He spat in her face and twisted the sword, inching it deeper. “Pitiful.”
He wrenched the sword harder, nearly lifting Rían off her feet with the force and the pain, and opened his mouth to continue gloating. But no sound came, and his face contorted in agony and shock. Rían forced the knife she’d slipped between his armor deeper, then dragged it laterally as far as she could below the edge of his breastplate.
Conad stumbled, releasing his weapon to fumble futilely at the gaping wound in his abdomen, clutching at his guts as they spilled from him. Rían yanked her knife free, and as he pitched forward from the force, she drove it straight up through his jaw. He made a small noise, twitched involuntarily, and then the false king tumbled down.
Rían eyed him as he convulsed in the mud and the blood. After a steadying breath, she looked away and reached for the cursed sword still embedded in her shoulder. The blade cut into her palm, crackling with tainted, burning lightning as she pulled it from her, until finally it was free, and she felt shattered, like a tree in a storm, struck and split and burning from the inside.
Her sisters had fallen, all of them, and Rían knew she would not be long in joining them. The false king breathed his last as she watched, and then only one task remained.
Dropping the cursed sword to the ground, Rían pulled the war hammer from her belt. A single blow with the spiked end, and it shattered, the shards mixing on the battlefield with the remains of her own sword.
Steps away, Conad’s body withered.
The false king was dead.
Rían stumbled past desiccated flesh to where Brena lay. Green eyes fluttered open as she sank to her knees by her dying wife. The ghost of a smile brushed Brena’s features, and then, as though she had been waiting just for Rían, the last breath left her.
A sob broke from Rían, the first sound she’d made since launching herself at Conad. Bloodied fingers reached up to trace the face she’d kissed a hundred times, the features now expressionless in death.
“Fly on swift wings to Mag Cíuin, my love. Morrígan willing, I’ll join you soon.”
With those trembling words, Rían pitched forward into blackness, knowing that death would soon claim her.
* * *
The telling left her raw, buffeted by emotion she could not avoid. In her mind, she saw Brena, always Brena. Her wife’s pure, unrelenting joy. The strength of her arms and her spirit. The smile that she gave so readily with all of her. The day of their handfasting before their Goddess, the company in attendance. Her eyes as the light faded. Rían had woken to loss and despair, stripped of everything. The wise women who had tended to her had done so out of the kindness of their Goddess Brigid, doing their best to heal her body, but had not known how to heal the sorrow in her heart. She had felt truly alone, abandoned, denied even the solace of a warrior’s death. Everything—her wife, her flight, her company, her sisters—everyone she had cared for was gone.
At first she had hoped to at least return to her oath-sworn duties. But it was soon clear that even that was denied her. While the hand that had torn the cursed and tainted blade from her healed, there had been too much damage done to the shoulder. Her left side was all but useless. The hand could still grip somewhat, but the arm could bear no weight. And movement, well, the muscles had been severed, and the scar tissue that replaced them only bound it tighter.
Rían had spent months begging her Goddess—for answers, for healing, for death. But the Morrígan denied all, only promising there was a reason.
Eventually, she stopped asking.
Yet now, the Goddess had come again, asking her to bear a sword she could no longer lift, with a new company, new flights, new sisters she did not know and could not help.
Shaking aside the ghosts that haunted her, Rían turned to Isa Nightwing. “Why have you been gathered?”
And having heard her tale, Isa Nightwing could not look her in the eye as she answered. “The false king Conad has risen again. We have been called to return him to Arawn.”
Rían felt the blood drain from her face before the rage flooded her. Her heavy, feathered cloak fell to her feet as she stood, but she felt no cold. Only fury.
She didn’t realize she’d screamed her Goddess’s name until the Morrígan stood before her, sorrow in her eyes, and an apology on her lips. Rían’s rage left her as swiftly as it had come, replaced by despair as she fell to her knees.
“I am sorry, my daughter. Truly.”
“Why?” The word was a croak of anguish, and Rían sobbed as her good hand clung to soft black fabric unmatched by anything human hands could create.
“You defeated him once before, daughter.”
“I was whole!” The words tore from her, shouted at the Goddess’s knees, as she had no strength or will to rise. “And it took everything I had, and more!”
“I know.” The heartbreak was audible in the words whispered by the Morrígan. “But it must be you. This Fate cannot be commended or consigned, or we are all lost. He has stolen the Crown of Horns from Cernunnos, and with it, power over the dead and command of the souls bound to the Wild Hunt. You, my daughter, my bravest knight, my true paladin, you straddle the realms of life and death like no other. You defeated him before, and you must once again.”
Rían barked out a sour laugh that was nothing but despair. “My Lady, I am no warrior knight any longer. I can barely swing an axe, let alone a sword. My left side is all but useless. I can barely even dress myself, never mind put on my own armor. Whatever hope you have in me is in vain.” She shook her head, burying it deeper in the Goddess’s robes. “I would kill the false king a thousand times over for what he did to my sisters, and a thousand times again simply because you asked. But I am old and broken, and I fear you ask the impossible.”
Impossible it was, and yet Rían knew she would break herself again and again against this rocky shore because her Goddess asked. She had nothing left to lose but her life, and even that had been lost these many years past.
And the Morrígan knew it. Knew the depth of her devotion, even after all these years. Knew that even with nothing, Rían would take that and somehow transmute it into everything again, and give it all again willingly.
“You have done the impossible before, daughter.”
Rían choked out a ragged breath that everyone watching understood. “Then I will find a way to do the impossible once more. For you, and for the sisters I failed.”
Long, strong, otherworldly fingers combed through her hair. “You did not fail them, Rían. And you will not fail this time, either.” The Goddess of Fate and Strife and Rebirth paused, her fingers continuing to trail through short, silvering brown hair. “I cannot heal you, cannot make you whole. You will have to do this as you are, impossible as it seems. But I know you can, and at the least, I can make your burdens lighter.”
Rían felt herself pulled to her feet. Quicksilver eyes stared deep into her mismatched ones, overwhelming her with the briefest glimpse of the Goddess’s power. The Morrígan cupped her cheek with one long-fingered hand, as Brena might have a lifetime ago. And then the power of her gaze was gone, and Rían felt empty twice over.
The company commander’s name reminded Rían that they weren’t alone. That she wasn’t alone. She had been for so long that it came almost as a shock to her. Not, however, as much of a shock as the sight of the fledgling who stepped forward with the commander.
The girl was young still, not quite old enough to be in a Raven’s war camp. But only by a little. Rían could see already the resolute stillness in the girl’s eyes. Only a few more years, and she would leave the fledglings behind for good, trading her simple woolen cloak for a heavy feathered one, ready to serve their Goddess of Fate and Strife and Rebirth.
But it wasn’t the girl’s presence that shocked her. It was that in another life, the girl could so easily have been Brena’s daughter. The same blue-black hair, the same lanky but powerful build. Already she was almost the height Brena had been. But when the girl stepped closer, it was the storm-dark eyes. Rían’s, not the bright green of Brena’s. Even her age. If the battle with the false king had gone differently, if Brena had lived…
They had talked of having a daughter.
Rían looked away, struggling to swallow the wave of emotion that threatened to drown her.
“Maurin.” There was warmth in the Morrígan’s voice as she addressed the girl. Maurin, for her part, dressed in a fledgling’s black wool, dropped to one knee.
Rían turned to the Goddess with a question in her eyes, and the Morrígan lifted the girl up and answered.
“Maurin will act as your second, assisting with your horse, your armor, your weapons—whatever you require. She will be your left arm off the battlefield.” She looked to Maurin again, and nodded past her. “Bring her horse, please?”
As Maurin fetched her old mare, Rían watched with a frown. It wasn’t entirely unheard of for a Raven to take a fledgling as a second, though it was most often a teaching position, a last step before initiation. But Rían also knew she would never be able to put her armor on, one handed and by herself, so she grudgingly accepted this was the best way forward.
Whether she liked it or not.
“Rían, you cannot ride this horse into battle.”
She turned to face the Goddess, whose lips were turned down in a frown, and then back to her tired old mare, and could not find it in herself to disagree. Rían stroked the mare’s forehead gently and shrugged. “She is old and stolid, a workhorse. Like me. We have spent the years together, all the other had. And I have no other.”
The Morrígan’s frown deepened and she gave her arm a gentle squeeze. “Maurin will ride her so far as she goes with you, and when the battle is reached, she will return with her to the fledgling nest.”
Rían lifted a scar-crossed brow. “Shall I walk to war, then?”
Her Goddess mirrored the brow raise and nodded for her to turn, just as a horse nudged her from behind. And what a horse. Grey as a storm cloud, strong and fierce. The Morrígan herself would not have looked out of place on her back. There was a sense of the otherworldly about the mare, a hint that perhaps she was not necessarily just a horse. Something fae.
Indeed, there were whispers of “Mari llewd,” from the Ravens around them, and Rían would not dispute that claim upon her life.
The Morrígan simply smiled. “My sister and Arawn offer their blessing.”
Rían took a steadying breath and nodded. There would be no saddle or reins, then. Not for one of Rhiannon’s mari llewd.
“My sister Brigid offers this in blessing.” The armor the Goddess held out was like nothing Rían had ever seen—on a mortal, anyway. A black metal breastplate scaled with raven feathers. A matching pauldron, bracers, and greaves. Rían hesitated, but when she finally reached for them, they weighed nothing. Even on her bad side, they weighed nothing.
A tear escaped, defiantly pushing its way down her cheek. Rían had wondered, in truth, if she would be able to bear the weight of her leather breastplate, and, knowing she would be unable to put it on herself anyway, had secretly resigned herself to going without. But this… She could feel the blessing of both sister warrior Goddesses in it, the power.
Silently, Maurin reached for the armor, her own eyes widening at the lack of weight, while Rían forced back more tears. Such gifts of the Gods, even to their chosen ranks, were uncommon. She felt stunned, and unworthy.
But her Goddess wasn’t finished. As soon as the armor left her hands, Rían found them filled again. A gleaming silver sword that thrummed with power old as the earth and light as the armor. A large, round, silver shield, also feather light, also bleeding power so strongly it took her breath away. They resonated together, clearly a match set. Carefully, she slipped the shield on her off hand. Even without the weight, she honestly expected to drop it. But her grip stayed firm, comfortable against the leathers, and it didn’t pull at all, and while she’d never be able to lift it above her head—or move it much at all beyond her waist, really—it would serve. Likewise, the sword fit like an extension of her arm, comfortable in her hand like it wanted to be used. And while a single-hand sword had never been her preference, she felt confident she would get on well with this one.
And for the first time since two still nameless Raven Knights had interrupted her years-long solitude the day before, Rían felt like she might have the right to call herself a Raven, Chosen of Morrígan, once again.
As though what her Goddess asked might not be entirely impossible, after all.
“I have one more gift for you, my Paladin.”
Overwhelmed by everything so far, it took a moment for the words to settle in, and moments more for Rían to understand. My true Paladin, the Morrígan had said before. She had thought it nothing. But hearing it again, she finally understood. The gifts, the blessings, the true depth of the Goddess’s request.
Paladins were called once in an age, in only the darkest and most desperate times. They were the hands of the Gods, blessed as the receptacle of their power, and no longer strictly mortal. Legends, never seen or heard from again once their appointed tasks were ended.
The Morrígan’s lips were cool against her forehead, like the power that washed over her at the touch. And in a voice she instinctively knew was for her, and her alone, Rían heard the Goddess continue.
“You will not understand fully, now, and for that, daughter, I am sorry. But you will know when the time is right, and I hope when that time does come, you will forgive us for this burden we have placed on you. It is not one we ever wished to bestow, especially not on one who has already given so much.”
The cold ache of power settled in her bones as the Morrígan’s voice faded. Rían simply breathed for a moment, eyes closed to steady herself. She felt different, with the blessing thrumming in her veins, but not in any way she could grasp beyond that. But Rían had faith in the Morrígan’s whispered words—she would understand when she needed to.
Rían Bloodwing, Raven Knight, Chosen of the Morrígan, and Paladin of the Gods, took one last slow breath, and opened her eyes.
* * *
In the pre-dawn light, moments before their charge, Rían almost felt as though she’d been transported to the past. Four flights of Ravens, a full company, ready to charge. And in the valley below, a pretender’s army.
But the similarities ended there. Brena did not ride at her side, and the fledgling that, in another life could have been their daughter, had been sent back to the nest. The army below was comprised of the dead, not the sometimes barely able-bodied conscripts she’d faced the last time. An army they’d spent the better part of a month chasing, watching, and learning about.
And they had learned.
The dead could be beaten. Take their head, or crush them entirely. Anything less, and they kept coming, even when ineffectively. And there were always more. For every one defeated, ten more rose up. The false king had ransacked every battlefield, every graveyard in his path. The horned crown he’d stolen gave him power to call the dead—but also the power to Call the souls of the living, to bind them to the Hunt. And the Wild Hunt were his to command. Those bound by the Horned God Cernunnos to do penance now served Conad as his elite guard.
And any Raven who got close enough risked joining them.
Rían took a deep breath, savoring the cold purity of the air. It did her injuries no favors, the cold, but the ache was one she’d long grown used to. And today was Solstice, the Longest Night. Fitting, then, that they should be here today. Fitting, and necessary. His stolen power would only grow if not returned by dusk.
“On your word, Paladin.”
Rían looked to her left, where Isa Nightwing waited. “Whenever you’re ready, Commander. Remember, leave the false king to me.”
She would not risk another Brena. Nor would she risk good Ravens to the Pretender’s Hunt.
Isa nodded, and gave the signal.
Across the valley, the charge began. Rían pushed the winged, black helmet onto her head, drew her war hammer, and then they were off.
The dead were unprepared. But unlike the living, they had no need to be. As the flights crashed into them, they gave way, trampled under hoof and crushed by blows—and then resurged, like a wave in the ocean. The deeper the Ravens drove, the more their momentum slowed, until only Rían, and Isa to her left, managed to continue forward.
And then the endless waves of the dead were behind them, and only the Hunt remained.
The dead, while plentiful, had little will of their own, and no intelligence. The Hunt were souls intact—damned to ride, but as intelligent and capable as they had been in life. They broke the last of their momentum against the rocky shores of the Hunt, and again Rían fought the feeling of another time, and another battle.
But she and Isa had agreed. The commander would fight with her to this point, and no further. She would not be another Brena, nor would she venture far enough to be conscripted into the Hunt. She would fight. They would part the waves for Rían.
And then the Paladin would face the Pretender alone.
That was the plan, at least. But as soon as the two crashed against the Hunt, they were torn apart. The commander was forced back, and Rían was drawn in, caught in a riptide of damned souls. Her war hammer rose and fell until her arm felt numb, while her ethereal mari llewd struck out with hoof and teeth, dancing this way and that.
It was not enough.
The overwhelming tide of souls eventually pulled her from her fae mount. Rían cast her war hammer aside and drew the silver sword she had been gifted.
The Hunt hesitated.
Rían braced, sword high to strike or defend.
The Hunt stepped back.
And then Rían understood. The sword and shield together resonated with the power of the Horned God, the same power that had bound the souls of the Hunt, and they would not fight their bearer. So while Conad played the Pretend Horned King, he had only taken a portion of Cernunnos’ power, and none of his protection.
The Hunt parted, and Rían passed.
Beyond them, waiting, stood Conad.
Rían had caught glimpses of him as they’d followed the army of the dead. Always, like now, the Crown of Horns overwhelmed everything. Beneath it, the false king looked diminished and weak.
But looks, she knew, were often deceiving.
“Didn’t I kill you once already?”
Brena had warned her, long ago, that snark rarely helped any situation. But watching Conad’s face at the reminder of his death certainly made her feel better. He snarled at her, and she lunged. Behind them, the Hunt formed a silent wall.
Paladin and Pretender fought with the fury of a winter storm. Their swords clashed like thunder, silver against bone. They circled, struck, each driving the other back, both searching for a weakness. They fought until the sun reached its midwinter peak, and on as it began its descent. They fought until the thrum of power in Rían’s bones turned to the ache of exhaustion, and then to numbness, until the numbness spread to her hands, and even with the enchanted silver swallowing the force of every blow, the grip on her gifted shield faltered. The ridges of Conad’s bone sword caught the edge of the rim, and Rían’s weak left hand could not keep hold.
The silver shield was ripped away, and the false king howled in triumph.
Rían gritted her teeth, drew a knife in her weak off-hand, and pressed her attack.
But Conad had gained the advantage, and he knew it. His blows rained down with all the force of his stolen power, and tired, without her shield, Rían couldn’t gain an advantage.
Eventually, he drove her to her knees.
Having apparently learned from the last time to be wary of her knives, he kept his distance, even as he crowed over her. Exhausted, Rían simply watched, and waited for an opening.
“Killing you is too kind a fate, I think.” Conad circled her, just out of reach. “You will make the perfect addition to my Hunt. Bound to my will forever.” Power surged from the horned crown, but Rían felt nothing beyond its presence. Conad frowned, and the power rose again. Scowling, he kicked the silver sword from her hand, and the weight of the crown bore down until around them, the Hunt groaned and sank to their knees.
This, then, was what the Morrígan had meant when she said Rían straddled the realms of life and death. She was not dead, for the crown to raise, but neither was her soul intact, to be given over to the Hunt. She was claimed already, by Brena, by the Morrígan, by her Paladin’s Oath, and by the death she should have had before. Alive, but not. Dead, but not.
The false king raged, and Rían laughed.
In his anger, Conad attacked, but the bone sword only shattered against the Goddesses-blessed armor. He reached for the silver sword he’d kicked from Rían’s grasp, and finally, she struck.
Her hand grasped his wrist in a bruising grip. The paladin’s power buried within her swelled to life, forcing him to his knees even as she rose to her feet. She felt her back and shoulders tear, power burning through her. She felt the dead behind her, felt the Hunt around her. Felt the shadows lengthen and time slow—and saw the shadow she cast over Conad, the false king, the Pretender, grow, as behind her, great black wings sprouted. She swept them, stretching, and saw feathers tipped red like blood. The left side was stiff, scattered with white, and missing a fair few.
Fitting, she thought, even as her left arm hung weakly beside her. But then, that hand still gripped a knife, and a simple knife had undone the false king once before.
Rían extended her left arm as far as it would go, placing the knife’s tip to his throat.
Conad snarled. “That won’t work twice.”
Rían’s lips twitched. “And yet, still you shrink from it.”
“Whatever dark power you wield, you cannot kill the wearer of the Crown of Horns!”
His voice was sharp and shrill, heavily tinged with panic. But Rían knew who she was, now. Understood the Morrígan’s gift, and her last whispered words. Her paladin’s power was in dominion over death, one no stolen crown could defeat.
She smiled slowly, and slipped the knife’s long blade home. And as Conad choked on blood and steel, Rían released his wrist, and plucked the Horned God’s crown from his head.
The false king collapsed, convulsing, to the ground.
Rían beat her wings, and the responding wind blew the army of the dead to dust and ash and bone.
To her left, a figure appeared. Cloaked and hooded in black and adorned with bones, they rode a pale grey horse and were flanked by white hounds with red-tipped ears.
To the right, a white stag approached. His rider wore a plain deer skull and mismatched furs, a large hunting horn at their belt, and surrounded by giant, red-eyed, white wolves. In one hand, they held the shield that had been ripped from Rían’s grasp, and she could see now the embossing of a Green Man in the center.
Around her, she could feel the Wild Hunt collectively take a breath.
Rían folded her wings and bowed to each. Turning to her right, she extended the crown.
Cernunnos inclined his skull-clad head, and in the blink of an eye the crown in her hand vanished, and a towering rack of horns regrew themselves atop the god’s head. They draped themselves in moss and small bones and webs and vines, and Rían felt the true power of the Horned God, then. She bowed again as she returned his sword, and in return, he inclined his head.
“Rían Bloodwing, Raven-Souled. The Wild Hunt salutes you.”
Cernunnos’ voice sounded of thunder and the subtle creaking of trees in a breeze, both loud and impossibly delicate. She bowed a third time, dropping to one knee, and when she lifted her head, he was gone, and the Hunt with him.
Rising to her feet, she turned left, bowing her head to Arawn. Their white hounds had already claimed the body of the false king, and she watched as it faded to insubstantiality. Arawn inclined their head, then extended a hand to their wife as Rhiannon appeared, clad in a silver gown, and riding the same mari llewd that had carried Rían this last month and into battle. Together, the coupled Gods acknowledged her.
“Rían Bloodwing, Favored of the Morrígan. The Realm of the Dead honors you.”
Dropping low to one knee again, Rían bowed, and as before, when she rose, they were gone.
Around her, the battlefield stood empty of all except the remaining Raven Knights. Fewer than the company with which they’d started, but more had survived than she’d dared hope. Standing, Rían pulled the helm from her head. It tumbled to her feet as she felt the bone-deep exhaustion roll over her. A cold breeze ruffled through her sweat-soaked hair that was more silver than brown, and pulled at the blood-tipped feathers of her wings. Swaying on her feet, Rían closed her eyes, and turned her face to it.
“Well done, daughter.”
The Morrígan’s long, delicate fingers caressed her cheek, and Rían felt herself leaning into the touch. When she finally opened her eyes, her Goddess extended her hand with a soft smile.
Rían stared first at the hand, then at the Morrígan, who simply nodded.
With a sigh that was almost a sob of relief, Rían took the outstretched hand.
* * *
From across the battlefield, Isa Nightwing slowly gathered her remaining Ravens. All of them stood and watched the parade of Gods and Goddesses, as one by one they came and went, each paying obeisance to the Paladin who had sprouted wings and twice defeated a man who had thought to become a god.
And then they were gone, the Paladin with them.
Isa turned back to her Ravens then, counting survivors and tending the wounded. But when she was done, her remaining captains capably handling the rest, she found her feet carrying her to where the Gods and their Paladin had stood. Snow had begun to fall, gently dusting the blood and bones of battle. The sun hung low, and she thought they would do well to set a bonfire here, soon. To light the long night, and lay to rest the souls that had been lost. And at her feet, lying amongst the remains of the battle, Isa found a black helmet much like her own.
Black as night, but the wings that graced the sides shone the deepest red in the light of the setting sun.
Isa ran her thumb over one wing and smiled. Then she turned back to her captains. They would need wood, and a flint.
And she knew a fledgling who would soon need a helmet.