There must always be one whose magic can ease the passage of the people of Asermos to the Other Side. But to be the guide her people require, to truly know the depth of her gift—her curse—Rhia must surrender herself to the wisdom of the Great Forest and drink deeply of Death itself. And though two powerful men stand ready to aid her, even to love her, the Aspect of Crow demands unthinkable sacrifices from one who walks its path.
About the Author
Jeri Smith-Ready has been writing fiction since the night she had her first double espresso. She holds a master's degree in environmental policy and lives in Maryland with her husband, two cats and the world's goofiest greyhound.
Her hobbies include cooking and animals--though not at the same time, unless you count the cat's culinary supervision, which looks remarkably like sitting on the floor waiting for food to drop. Jeri fosters shelter dogs with the Tails of Hope Sanctuary. As of this writing, she has hosted thirteen dogs at her home, all of whom have found loving adopters. Visit Jeri at www.jerismithready.com or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an Excerpt
The dog would not die.
Surely he was ill, and had been a puppy before the dawn of Rhia's earliest memory, more than five winters ago. He lay before the fire with his thick gray head in her lap, staring dully into the flames. She stroked the wiry hair along his side. His flesh felt cold, and she could fit her fingers between the ridges his ribs made in his skin. Even his halting breath smelled stale, like a half-open grave.
All her senses told Rhia that Boreas would not see tomorrow's sun. And yet...
Her mother Mayra turned from the table and crossed the room, feet whispering over the wolfskin rug. Holding an earthen bowl and a pale green cloth, she knelt beside Rhia.
"This will take away his pain and help him on his journey home." She showed Rhia the bowl's contents—a tiny amount of liquid, no more than what the child could cup in her palm. It wasn't enough.
Mayra covered the bowl with the cloth and began to chant, low and soft, calling upon her Otter Guardian Spirit to augment the medicine. Rhia closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind of fear and grief. The Spirits worked best when those present stayed out of their way.
Through her eyelids Rhia saw a golden light flare, the color of the sun on an autumn afternoon. A swish of liquid and Mayra's whispered gratitude told her that Otter had hearkened to the plea for help. When the light faded, Rhia opened her eyes and locked her gaze onto the dog's. Two tears, then another, plopped onto his muzzle.
Mayra dipped the cloth in the half-full bowl to let it soak. They sat listening to the only two sounds in the room—the dog's labored puffing and the snapping of sparks in the stone fireplace.
Rhia heard the cloth drip into the bowl as her mother squeezed it. The drops must not be wasted, but enough medicine needed to reach the dog's throat to give him release. Even in his withered old age, Boreas was much larger than Rhia—on his hind legs he could rest his paws on her head. A year ago, while Rhia was recovering from a muscle-wasting illness that sapped all strength from her limbs, Boreas had lent her his sturdy back and legs as a crutch. Now on cold nights like this one, when the wind and the wolves howled in harmony outside these log walls, she would curl up within his furry frame, one forepaw over her shoulder, and sleep warm and safe.
"Hold his head, dear."
Rhia reached under Boreas's snout and tilted it up. All at once he exhaled hard, almost a cough, and a weight lifted from him. In the back of her head she heard a sound like the hurried flapping of heavy wings. Her breath caught, and she craned her neck to peer behind her.
"What is it?" her mother asked.
Rhia turned to the worn face reddened by the wind and the firelight.
"It's not time," she said.
"Time for what?"
"For him to go."
Mayra cast a tender glance over her daughter's face. "I know you wish it were not his time, but—"
"He's not ready." She swallowed a sob and steadied her voice. "The world's not ready."
Mayra's gentle eyes narrowed. "Why do you speak of this?" Rhia tilted her head to the northwest, from where the wind blew. "He'll take a wolf with him when he goes."
Her mother's whisper shook. "How do you know?"
"I just know." She blinked, and her last tear fell, this time on her own wrist. To stop now would be to waste her mother's magic—magic she herself hoped to carry one day. But something not entirely inside her begged for the dog's life. "Please don't make him die, Mama. Wait until morning, and you'll see. I promise."
Mayra's eyes glistened in the firelight as she gazed at Rhia with something more complicated than sympathy. The look held more pain than her mother's face had shown since Rhia's sickness—which, the girl now realized, was the first time she had heard those wings rush over the landscape of her mind.
Finally Mayra reached out and retucked one of her daughter's red-brown curls behind her ear, then brushed the back of her hand against Rhia's cheek. Without a word she stood and placed the cloth and bowl on the table, then shuffled over to climb the ladder to the sleeping loft she shared with her husband, Tereus.
Rhia dragged a thick log across the hearth and heaved it into the flames. It spit and hissed like a cornered wildcat. She blinked at it with near-pleasure as she remembered how even a few months ago she could no more have lifted the log than raise the house itself. Though her limbs would never regain normal strength, they no longer betrayed her, no longer pretended not to hear what her mind ordered them to do. They obeyed grudgingly, with the reluctance of sullen children.
She turned away from the fire and lay on the floor behind Boreas, her front to his back. Reaching around him, she pulled the wolf skin rug over both their bodies. The hound groaned deep in his throat.
"Go to sleep," she murmured into the knobby ridge on the back of his head. "You'll wake tomorrow."
The dog would not die, not for another two and a half years, when Rhia was nearly eleven. A wolf pack tried to drive the ponies from her family's farm into the surrounding forest. Though far into old age, Boreas was the first of the dogs to attack, killing the lead wolf. Moments later, his body crumpled from the effort. Because the summer soil was too dry and hard to dig a grave, Rhia and her family made a cairn of rocks for the dog and wolf together, then said a prayer to Crow to guide them safely home.
A rumor of Rhia's vision must have escaped, for the villagers began to invite the girl to observe their sick hounds or lame ponies. She wanted to help, but the animals' suffering saddened her, and their journeys toward the Other Side reminded her of the one she had almost taken as a child.
The bitterest blow came when Mayra, a village healer, no longer brought her along to patients' homes. During Rhia's childhood, they had both hoped that the sweet, playful Otter would touch her, too. A different Spirit had chosen her—one that courted not life but its dreaded opposite.
One day, after Rhia had just turned fifteen, Galen the village Council leader came to her family's horse and dog farm with his son Arcas. It was a brisk late afternoon in early spring, when the leaf buds were still only in the trees' imagination. Rhia was cleaning the hounds' pens when she saw the man and boy trudge up the steep hill to her home. She hurried to smooth her long hair and wipe the sweat from below her eyes. Mustn't look slovenly for Galen, she told herself, then smiled at her feeble attempt at self-deception. It was the sight of Arcas, not his imposing father, that made her pulse jump and her hands twitch and wonder what to do with themselves.
She couldn't put a pin in the moment when she first saw Arcas as something other than a childhood playmate. Most likely it happened either an instant before or an instant after he had kissed her behind the stables the month before. Since then, the smell of manure made her swoon with joy.
Rhia trotted toward the house to call her parents, then stopped to regard the two men again, for something was different about them today. Their steps were heavy, tan faces set in unusual grimness, heads bowed so that the sunlight glinted off their hair, the color of freshly tilled soil. Arcas's hair fell halfway down his back, but Galen's swept the top of his shoulders; it had been cut short last year to mourn the death of his mother.
As always, a single brown hawk feather, black-streaked and red-tipped, hung around Galen's neck. Everyone she knew who possessed animal magic—which was every adult she'd ever met—wore some fetish of their Guardian Spirit to signal their powers. It was not to boast but rather a courtesy to let others know what they were dealing with. For instance, no one could be tricked into trying to deceive Owl people, who saw through a lie as if it were made of air.
When they were about ten steps away, Galen's sharp gaze finally found Rhia. Something in it made her want to draw a thick cloak around herself, both for warmth and concealment. She sensed he knew more about her than she cared to confront on this til-now-tranquil day.
Rhia greeted them with a bow, which they returned. "Welcome," she said, then looked at Galen. "How is your brother's health?"
"Not good, Rhia. Thank you for asking." He managed a slight smile, tempering her unease. "May I speak with your parents?"
She nodded and reached for the front door, which opened before she touched it.
"Galen, greetings." Her father was dressed for company, in clean shoes and a russet shirt that matched his hair, which looked freshly combed and plaited into a long braid down his back. A single white Swan feather, dust-fringed from long days on the farm, swung from a leather cord around his neck as he bowed. "We've been expecting you."
Mayra appeared at Tereus's side and took his arm. Her thin lips trembled as she glanced between Rhia and the Council leader. "Please, come in."
Galen crossed the threshold, turned and held out his palm in an unambiguous gesture that told Rhia and Arcas, "stay outside."
The door closed, and Rhia turned to her friend. "Why didn't they tell me you and your father were coming?" They could have at least given her the chance to wash her face and comb the hay out of her hair. But she realized now that all day Mayra and Tereus had behaved as if they were both monitoring and avoiding her. "And why can't we hear?"
Arcas hunched his shoulders. "My uncle's very sick. Father probably wants some of your mother's healing wisdom."
"But he didn't ask for my mother. He asked for my parents. Don't you think that's mysterious?"
A slow smile spread across Arcas's face. "When you've lived with my father for sixteen years, you get used to mysteries."
She turned away at the sight of his grin, which warmed her toes. "I have to water the dogs."
Arcas followed her into the hounds' pen. The tall gray beasts swarmed him as if he were dinner itself. He patted his broad chest with both hands, and two of the dogs propped their paws against him and licked his face. Rhia noticed that for the first time, he was taller than they were.
"It's hard on their backs to stand like that." She picked up the two dirty pails of water. "Sorry. Off!" he told the hounds in a tone too playful for them to heed.
They left the pen and headed for Mayra's herb garden, where Rhia splashed the leftover water from the pails.
"Besides," Arcas said, "I shouldn't teach your dogs bad manners. If they ever jumped on you that way, your little bones would be crushed to a fine powder."
Rhia tried to glare at him, though she preferred being taunted rather than pitied for her lack of physical prowess. Arcas was one of the few people who didn't treat her like she was made of eggshells.
"For that remark, you get to pump." She tossed him one of the buckets.
"You're a big girl now, you can do it."
"I can, but I'd rather watch you." Arcas actually blushed as he knelt beside the well pump next to the garden. The lever squeaked in protest when he lifted it.
"Before you know it," he said in a teasing voice, turning the attention back on her, "you'll head into the forest for your Bestowing."
She suppressed a shudder at the thought of entering the dark woods. "I'm too busy. If my Guardian Spirit wants to bestow my Aspect, It can bring it here."
"Spirits don't grant powers to those who hide from them." He pumped water into the bucket with a slow, steady rhythm. "Except maybe for Mouse."
"I'm not a Mouse!" Rhia almost slung the other pail at Arcas's head.
He raised a defensive arm in front of his face and laughed, but then his voice sobered. "Everyone knows what you are."