Morwen Navarre © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Gerry strode down the slate path beside the house, toward the familiar and rhythmic sound of Ghost chopping herbs. Ghost was absorbed in his work at his bench, so Gerry took the opportunity to stand in the doorway and admire Ghost from behind. His snowy white hair was tied in a messy tail hanging between his shoulder blades. His pert buttocks presented an enticing sight in his smooth leather breeches. Although he stood just a bit over sixteen hands in height, his lean muscles rippled under his shirt as he trimmed and tied the herbs to be dried. While Ghost finished hanging a bundle of greens by the stem, Gerry snuck up and wrapped his arms around Ghost’s middle. Ghost startled, then laughed and relaxed against Gerry.
“Do I smell scones?” Gerry asked into Ghost’s ear. Ghost turned to face him, and Gerry stole a playful kiss. His hip brushed against the curve of Ghost’s rear.
Ghost leaned back into the embrace. “I had the time this morning. The sole visitor I had was a woman with a deep cut. She slipped when she was chopping root vegetables and the knife went clean to the bone.” Ghost wriggled free from Gerry’s embrace. “Now, let me wash up and we’ll eat.”
Gerry patted Ghost’s rear as Ghost walked past him. Ghost ducked his head and smiled. Gerry followed him into the yard, enjoying the view as Ghost rinsed from the bucket by the well.
“I saw the godsman today.” Ghost stiffened enough for it to be perceptible before Gerry continued. “He says we can make it official at the full moon.”
Six moons had passed since the godsman had refused to perform the rite for them, claiming Gerry and Ghost had not had a proper courtship and could not be sure of their convictions in such a short time.
“If you still want to, of course. And if you can last another quarter moon.”
Ghost spun and launched himself into Gerry’s arms. Gerry laughed as Ghost buried his wet hands in Gerry’s hair and pulled Gerry down into a heated kiss.
When Ghost finally let Gerry up, Gerry gazed into Ghost’s ice-blue eyes and smiled. “I’ll take the kiss for a yes.” Ghost opened his mouth to speak, but Gerry touched his finger to Ghost’s lips to stop him. “And I’m also going to tell you I’m the happiest man in the village right now. I love you, Ghost. I’d lay down my life to protect you, and I won’t ever let you be harmed. You’ll always be safe right here in my arms if you accept my offer to be my mate and bind yourself to me.”
“Of course the kiss is a yes.” Ghost’s eyes glistened like ice melting in the sun, and his lips trembled through his smile. “I’ll bind myself to you gladly, Gerry. I trust you to keep me safe, even when I’m reckless, and I know you’ll protect me from whatever goes wrong. Your arms are my sanctuary when I’m ready to give up because I know you’ll be strong for me. And I love you. I’ll love you for as long as I live.”
The full moon finally arrived, and Ghost and Gerry dressed in their best clothing to appear in the gods’ house. Gerry brushed Ghost’s hair until his long tresses shone. Ghost’s nimble fingers danced along the line of bone buttons on Gerry’s shirt. The traditional gift to the gods, consisting of a fat runner and a cask of mead, had been accepted and left on the offering table.
Gerry listened to the godsman’s droning voice. Ghost stood beside him. Both of them faced the gods’ wall, decorated with carved masks for the Seven and a blank mask for the Eighth.
“As our gods themselves have done, you come to take an oath to bind yourselves together. Ghost, you will no longer be solely Gerry’s dependent. You will be Gerry’s mate, first in Gerry’s heart. Gerry, you will no longer be solely Ghost’s alpha. You will be Ghost’s mate, first in Ghost’s heart. You must give each other unconditional love and trust, setting the needs of the other above your own. Gerry, you must protect Ghost and guide him. Ghost, you must trust Gerry’s judgment and let him guide you. Above all, you must not forsake the oath you take today in the sight of the gods.”
The godsman placed Ghost’s hand in Gerry’s. As he wrapped a thin red cord around their wrists, he said, “The Father and the Lady. He protects and she guides. The Hunter and the Farmer. He culls and she nurtures. The Sea and the Moon. He sends dreams and she awakens love. The Seeker and he whose name shall remain unspoken. Let all the gods bear witness to your oath.”
Gerry turned to gaze into Ghost’s clear blue eyes, seeing joy and love reflected back. “I offer you my protection and my love. I will care for you and keep you from harm for all of my days. You will be first in my heart, Ghost. Before the gods, this is my oath to you.”
Ghost’s voice was strong. “I accept your protection and your love, and offer you my love for all of my days. I will trust in your care and find safety at your side. I will care for you, and you will be first in my heart, Gerry. Before the gods, this is my oath to you.”
The godsman tied a loose knot in the cord that joined their wrists. “May the gods smile upon you both and bless this mating.”
The cord around their wrists did nothing to dampen the ardor of the kiss Gerry bestowed on Ghost, a kiss Ghost returned with equal enthusiasm. They were mated now, and Gerry’s elation could not be contained as he claimed his beloved witch for his own.
Almost two moons had passed since Ghost and Gerry had taken their vows. Midsummer was approaching, and Gerry had decided to take advantage of the good weather to hunt with Mother, Gerry’s former alpha. Mother kept his word and allowed Gerry to continue to work with him as hunter and guard. Gerry had left for the hunt before the sun rose that morning.
Ghost had grown more popular with the villagers. The Witch had taken to sending people to Ghost rather than treating them herself. Ghost frowned at her, but he saw to the patients she referred, and his remedies were effective. The word spread quickly, helped in part because he did not demand a drop of blood from them as the Witch did for her Seeker’s box. Ghost simply examined the wound or sore limb and then set about remedying the complaint. He took what was offered in trade with gratitude, and if a patient had nothing to offer, he healed them anyway.
Ghost glanced up from his formulary, a journal of remedies and lore painstakingly copied by hand, his head aching after spending the morning squinting at the faded printing. He listened to the sound of the wind in the trees, and he smelled the heat of summer beneath the crisp morning air. He stood, stretched until his back creaked, and went into the back room he kept for villagers in need of monitoring.
The woman in the bed, her face pale and damp with sweat, did not seem to notice when Ghost walked into the room. He could not recall her name, but he knew the woman’s alpha, Moran, in passing, having patched the surly man up once or twice after an altercation at the mead house. Moran was one of the carpenters of the village. The family should have been comfortable enough with the goods and services their alpha earned in trade, but the lure of the mead house proved stronger to Moran than his duties to his partner and dependents.
Ghost had seen the marks on the woman’s upper arms. She had claimed the waters broke right before she came to Ghost, but the moment he had touched the woman’s belly, he had known exactly what had transpired. As a seer, he did not need a Seeker’s box to tell him. He saw the history of her bruises and the moment when her sac had ruptured.
Moran had been drunk, and he had come home late enough to ensure dinner was spoiled. Instead of admitting the fault lay with him, Moran lashed out, and when the woman fell, her water broke. This had been two days earlier, and had she come right away, Ghost might have given her an herbal infusion to bring on the birthing. But now, Ghost was not certain if the woman or her babe would survive. The child within her womb was close to being born, yet this fever wracking the woman troubled Ghost.
Ghost rested one hand on her rounded stomach, the peridot spiral on his forehead growing warmer as he pushed to see. He wondered if Moran realized his stroke of luck in having Ghost as the village’s witch. The Witch would have been far harsher in her response to those marks. But she was gone now, with no word as to when, if ever, she would return.
Ghost walked a finer line, though. He was the only male witch in far too many generations to be tallied, and the sisterhood was still divided over his status. A small but vocal number of the witchsisters thought Ghost was an abomination. Although the Witch’s voice had carried sufficient weight to ensure none of the dissenters would lash out at him for now, Ghost was aware it would take no more than a small error, and he would find himself hunted without mercy.
At the moment, Ghost had no time to waste thinking about what could happen. He needed to act, or he would lose the woman and her babe. It might take the Seeker’s mercy as well as all of Ghost’s skill to save them both. The Witch had given him some rare herbs before she left, which were at the ready if Ghost had need for them. Ghost had prepared a serum of willow bark and plantain for the Seeker’s kiss, a tubular relic of gleaming metal used to administer the various extracts he prepared. The Seeker’s kiss stung at first, but the subsequent relief was well worth the momentary discomfort.
Ghost inserted the serum into a glass cylinder and placed it in the body of the Seeker’s kiss. As he closed the rounded end, the relic emitted a glowing light, indicating it was ready to use. Ghost murmured a small prayer to the Seeker herself before he applied it to the woman’s arm. He pressed the lighted dome and heard the familiar hiss as it worked, but the woman barely twitched. Her belly contracted, and Ghost laid his hand on it again to feel and see within.
The babe was ready. Doubt or indecision now would only get in the way of what needed to be done. Ghost took a deep breath to focus. Hot water waited by the hearth. He had more than enough clean linens and birthing blankets prepared. He had also ensured the witchglass on the roof had fed his gods’ light with sufficient energy gathered from sunlight. The gods’ light could cauterize any bleeding, should he encounter a problem.
“All right, little dam,” Ghost said in as soothing a tone as he could manage. “Your babe wants to come out into the world, so let’s get him born.”
Delivering a baby would be harder with the woman lying supine, but she was too feverish and weak to risk letting her sit on a birthing stool. Ghost had no apprentice to help him, and he dared not take a chance of her enduring another fall. It would be a challenge, but it could be done. He used rolled blankets to lift the woman’s head and shoulders as much as possible, and he coaxed her legs into bending, her feet flat on the bed.
Ghost checked and observed the crown of the head, dark and vivid as it pressed against reluctant flesh. There was no visible putrefaction, and he breathed a small prayer of thanks. If the gods were kind, this might yet end well. Ghost took another fortifying breath and went to work.
Gerry hefted the massive runner onto the hook in the meat house. Conn had tracked a fine herd of the long-legged herbivores for them, taking one down on his own with a well-placed arrow. Gerry had kept the fat buck and traded the rest of his share of the runners for a generous sum of tally sticks. To celebrate, Gerry intended to take Ghost to the market to select a few treats from the shipment of exotic goods that had arrived from the South.
A thin wail from the house interrupted Gerry’s thoughts. He sprinted up the path and into the house. “Ghost?” he called out, dashing through the kitchen and past the hearth fire.
“I’m here.” Ghost came out of the back bedroom, the one Gerry thought of as the sick room. “I was tending Moran’s dependent. She birthed today.”
Gerry saw the tension in Ghost’s face. “Not good?”
Ghost lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “She’s young to be a dam, and her waters broke sooner than she claims. The babe seems strong, and I think her fever’s coming down.”
“Wait, this isn’t his partner?” Gerry held out his arms to Ghost. “Don’t tell me this is the girl he took in last Harvesttide.”
Ghost walked into Gerry’s embrace and rested his head on Gerry’s shoulder. “The very one. Moran drinks too much mead, and then he behaves like an ass. Or in this case, a stiff cock without any regard for her welfare.”
Gerry bit back a choice curse, clearing his throat a little instead. “It’s not how an alpha is supposed to behave.”
“He hit her.” Ghost’s voice was muffled by Gerry’s shoulder. “He grabbed her by her upper arms, and he hit her because he was late and the dinner was spoiled. He was rough, and her water broke, but he wouldn’t let her come to me right away. I saw it.”
Gerry tightened his hold on Ghost. Ghost spoke again, voice still muffled. “His partner pretends not to notice. I can’t understand it. Well, I can understand her not minding Moran taking to the girl’s bed, but the rough treatment? Moran is lucky the Witch is gone. She wouldn’t be debating what to do.”
“I don’t think I want to know, do I?” Gerry said, stroking Ghost’s back to soothe him.
“Let’s just say there’s a reason witches are feared as well as revered.” Ghost looked up and gave Gerry a tentative smile. “Go wash up. I’ve got some fresh-laid eggs for you, and sausages too. I’ll start those cooking.”
Gerry hummed into Ghost’s silky, white hair. “I hung a runner in the meat house. I’ll gut and dress it after we eat. And I’ll bring you the liver when I’m done washing.”
Ghost and Gerry ate together in companionable silence. Ghost had set the liver to simmer by the hearth fire, intending to make a paste of it to be mixed with rendered fat, hard-cooked eggs, sweet onion, spices, and herbs. He would shape the mix into a loaf and seal it with a thick layer of meat jelly. Sliced and served on bread, it was a tasty meal.
As Gerry went out to dress the runner, Ghost heard the woman wake and went to check on her. She was pale, and her cheeks were flushed with fever, but her forehead felt cooler under Ghost’s hand. He smiled at her. “You’re awake. Do you remember where you are?”
“You’re the witch,” the woman said. “Did Moran bring me?”
Ghost managed to bite back the words he wanted to say. “You came alone, little dam. You were feverish, and your babe wanted to be born.”
The woman struggled to sit up, and Ghost reached out to help her, his arm around her frail shoulders. “The baby,” she whispered, and her eyes welled with tears.
“He’s fine.” Ghost pointed to the small cradle by the bed where the babe slept peacefully. “A strong boy, who’ll be hungry when he wakes. This means we need to feed you, little dam.”
“Can I hold him?” The woman dared to peer up at Ghost, and he could see the shadow of the pretty child she had been not so long before.
“I don’t see why not,” Ghost said. He lifted the swaddled infant and placed him in the woman’s arms, watching her face light up as she touched a downy cheek. “I’m going to get some broth and bread for you, and fennel to help your milk come in strong.”
Ghost went into the kitchen and ladled out a bowl of broth from the small kettle he had set to heat earlier. He cut a few thick slices of bread and went over to his workbench to make up the infusion for the young woman. He added a pinch of willow bark for the last of the fever, and plenty of honey to make it sweet.
The woman looked up when Ghost returned, and her smile was stronger. “He’s so beautiful,” she whispered.
Ghost set the tray on the small table beside the bed. “He is.” Ghost held out his arms for the infant. “I’ll hold him while you eat. Make sure you finish everything. He looks like he’ll have a good appetite, and you need to eat enough to feed you both until he’s weaned.”
The woman dipped some bread in the broth, and to Ghost’s eyes, she was forcing herself to eat slowly.
“I wasn’t very hungry, with the babe coming,” the woman said, reaching for a second slice. She looked down, tearing off a piece to wet in the broth.
“I don’t imagine you were,” Ghost said, and he did his best to be gentle. “But now you’ll try to eat, for his sake. You need to be strong for him. If you need me to speak to your alpha, I can do so.”
“No!” The young woman looked up, and Ghost wondered if it was fear he saw in her eyes. “Please don’t, good witch, you don’t need to.” She swallowed hard and looked down again. “I’ll make sure I eat enough. I promise. Moran will be happy I have a boy.”
Ghost managed a smile for the woman, but heat bloomed in the peridot spiral on his forehead. He was not entirely sure being in Moran’s favor was the best thing for this woman, but her choice of alpha was not a matter he could control. Gerry could bring a case before the elders if action was needed.
Ghost heard footsteps in the house and called out, “I’m in here!” Gerry appeared in the doorway, strong and solid, and Ghost smiled at his alpha and mate, his heart lifting at the sight of Gerry.
Gerry’s dark-brown hair was longer now, like a proper alpha’s hair, and his mud-green eyes lit up when he saw Ghost. “I’m rendering the fat now. Did you need me for anything while you’re tending to your healing?” Gerry looked at the young girl. “Lady smile on you, little dam. I’m Gerry. What are you called?”
The woman looked nervous, her fingers plucking at the sheet covering her. “I’m Sari, good alpha, and thank you for asking.”
“Gerry is fine. You’re welcome in this house,” Gerry said. He looked back over at Ghost, waiting for his answer.
“I could use more jelly, so some good stock bones would be nice, love.” Ghost could see confusion in the woman’s eyes. “Oh, and stir the big pot on your way back out?”
Gerry assented. “I’ll see you in a little while, then, once I’ve got the meat all sorted.”
Ghost waited until Gerry was gone. He was still unsure about many aspects of dealing with people, and so he resorted to being fairly direct. He knew being a witch did allow for certain eccentricities.
“Gerry is my alpha, and my vowed mate. We don’t stand on a lot of ceremony between us.” Ghost shrugged one shoulder. “Most witches are alphas in their own right, so maybe he respects my opinions. Gerry’s alpha, the one who raised him, wasn’t much for ceremony either. You aren’t an alpha solely because you like to make rules. There’s more, like caring about what happens to your dependents.” Ghost gestured at the rest of the broth and bread. “For now, eat up, and then let’s see if this little one wants to eat. But you’ll stay here until you’re strong enough to care for him, on my word as a witch. Your alpha can say what he will, but I’ll not budge.”
The babe woke and nursed, Sari marveling at her son the entire while. Ghost waited until the babe was asleep again before examining the woman, relieved to see no signs of infection. She was cool to the touch, her fever abating well. Ghost tucked her in to let her rest and offered a silent prayer of thanks to the Seeker.
The rest of the afternoon passed in the usual fashion. Gerry hummed as he sat by the hearth in the main room, carving needles from the long bones of a runner. The late day sun warmed the room, and a delicious smell of herbs permeated the house from Ghost’s sausages. As was custom, their olive-green door stood partially open to let anyone passing know they were at home and welcomed visitors. In the sick room, Sari and her baby slept in peace.
Gerry barely looked up as a shadow filled the doorway. “Lady smile on you,” Gerry said, the greeting automatic. He paused in his carving as Ghost walked in from the kitchen, stopping at the edge of the main room.
“You’ve got my dependent here.” Moran folded his arms over his chest, a glower on his face. The smell of mead surrounded him.
Ghost did not give Gerry a chance to speak. He crossed the room and blocked Moran with a small frown, the peridot spiral on his forehead catching the sun in a sudden flare of green. “Sari birthed this morning. She had a fever when she arrived, and she was hardly able to stand. She needs watching.”
“I was speaking to your alpha,” Moran said and turned his back on Ghost.
Gerry watched Ghost reach out and grab Moran’s arm to get the man’s attention. Gerry set his carving aside, prepared to defend Ghost if need be.
“You’ll speak with me. I’m this village’s witch, and matters of healing are mine to decide.” Ghost’s frown deepened. “Her fever didn’t start today. How long was she ill?”
“She was fine, and I’ll have her back now.” Moran moved a step closer to Ghost, and Gerry stood. A strange, cold calm swept through Gerry. He had felt the same inner chill when he had killed a rogue ranger in the ruins of an ancient city to protect Ghost and Conn, Mother’s dependent.
“You’re not fit to have her back.” Ghost did not move. He glared up at Moran without wavering, and Gerry felt a surge of pride underneath his apprehension. “I saw the bruises on her. Will you invite a witch’s judgment, or will you abide by my decision as a healer?”
“Don’t threaten me, you Norther whelp,” Moran growled.
Gerry hitched a breath as Ghost’s spiral brightened, and Moran fell back a step.
“I’m a witch as well as a Norther whelp, and you’d do well to remember it, Moran,” Ghost said. “Sari stays until her fever is gone and she can care for the babe. When she returns to your house, she’ll need proper meals and rest for her sake and her son’s. Will you hear my fee?”
“She has a son?” Moran’s voice changed timbre. “Can I see her? And him? Can I see our boy?”
Ghost looked thoughtful for a moment. He relented after a long pause and led Moran to the sick room as Gerry followed close behind them. Moran peered in at the sleeping woman and her baby. When Moran turned away from the sick room, the man’s cheeks were wet with tears.
“Name your fee, healer.” Moran wiped at his cheeks with the backs of his hands.
Ghost picked up a small pottery jar. “A cabinet with compartments for jars this size, and drawers below for bandage linen and whatever else I might need to store.”
“Done. I’ll start in the morning.” Moran hesitated. “A son.” He shook his head and rubbed his face with his hand. He turned and looked straight into Ghost’s eyes. “I’ll do better for them, healer.”
“You can start by staying out of the mead house,” Ghost retorted. “Come by tomorrow to see her. I’ll know more about when she can go home.”
Gerry watched Moran leave. He walked up behind Ghost and embraced Ghost’s smaller frame. “I thought I was going to have to throw him out,” Gerry admitted. He buried his face in the fragrant silk of Ghost’s hair. “If he’d laid a hand on you, I’d have been hard-pressed not to beat him fucking senseless.”
“He’s a bully,” Ghost said, leaning back into Gerry. “They don’t know how to react when you’re not afraid of them. Let’s see if he can keep his word about the mead house, though. If he doesn’t, he’ll have to deal with me again, and I won’t be so nice.”
Gerry chuckled. “You’re getting fierce. I was waiting for you to curse him on the spot. Some terrible witch’s curse. His eyeballs rolling back or some other dire thing.”
Ghost turned, and his forehead wrinkled in a frown. “We don’t actually do those things,” he said as he backed out of Gerry’s hold. “Witches don’t cast spells or curse people. Maybe in the stories sung in the mead house, but not in real life. We use the old lore to heal people. We read the ancient language so we can learn how to use the relics the rangers scavenge. Like my Seeker’s kiss, or the gods’ light. The relics are tools the ancient healers used.”
Ghost gave Gerry a mischievous grin, his expression lightening again. “The Witch told me stories of places she called ‘libraries,’ filled with books. People could come and borrow books to read, and they’d return those books so they could borrow still more books. I fell in love with the notion, and I was so disappointed to learn there were no such places anymore. People don’t learn to read the ancient words unless they’re a witch or a ranger. According to the Witch, the godsmen discourage reading, blaming the knowledge of words for the fall of the cities and the humbling of the people.
“What you’d call magic is more about the way we can hear each other in our heads. ‘Telepathy’ was the old word for it. And a scant few of us have dreams and visions. We see things that happened, and what might happen too. But Moran didn’t know any of this, and so my threat worked. Besides, I’d just have given Sari a tincture to add to his meals to give him a bad case of limp cock for a moon or so. And then I’d have asked him for another fee to cure him.”
Gerry laughed in earnest. “Is this what you learned from the Witch? Extorting fees?”
Ghost wrapped his arms around Gerry’s waist. “Don’t be silly. Besides, the Witch was much better at this sort of thing. She got a new drying shed for not cursing someone once.”
“Wicked.” Gerry leaned in to kiss Ghost, lingering over Ghost’s full lips. “Did the Witch play this game often?”
“Only when someone was simply too big an ass to understand anything else,” Ghost replied and stretched up for another kiss.
The wail of the baby interrupted them, and Gerry looked at Ghost with a sigh.
“Sometimes I’m truly glad we can’t make a babe,” Gerry admitted. “Do you need to go help?”
“Sari’s still weak enough, so I should,” Ghost replied. “Don’t go anywhere. I’m not quite finished with what you started.”