Withdrawn and with a reputation for her strange, eccentric ways, young Lady Moira Rochmond is old to be unwed. Rumors say, she has been seen barefoot in the orchard, is awake all night in moon-struck rambles and sleeps all day. Some will even claim her ghostly pallor and aloof manner are signs of illness, of a curse or insanity.
The hopes of the peaceful succession to her father’s fief lie in an advantageous marriage. When a suitor does show interest, her family pushes for a decision. Almost resigned to the fact that she has no choice but to play the part she has been given in life, Moira is faced with Owain. A member of the mysterious Blaidyn creatures and a new guard in her father’s castle, he is specifically tasked to keep her safe. He is different from other people she knows and when one night under the full moon, she makes the acquaintance of the wolf who shares Owain’s soul, her life starts to change and to unravel.
The castle was dark but she knew every loose stone, every carpet and she carefully set one foot before the other, toes first and then—light as a feather—she let the rest of her foot follow. Everything was still; she checked every few steps, stopping and holding her breath. Not a sound anywhere.
The stairs were trickier, but she knew the ones that squeaked and how to squeeze herself against the wall and walk so close to where the boards where fixed in the stone that they had no place to bend and creak. Even Blaidyn had to sleep; they were alive, weren’t they? Every creature alive slept and all she had to do was creep quietly enough not to rouse him.
She clung to the wall, fingertips hooked into the narrow gaps between the stones, carefully setting one foot onto the landing. She wouldn’t make it past the portcullis but there were other ways, smaller, secret ways in and out of the castle and the wolf wasn’t likely to know any of them. She just had to reach the closest one, down by the kitchens. It wasn’t that far, just a little further and she would be able to breathe deeply, to run, to scream if she felt like it.
“My lady.” The voice suddenly came out of the darkness and Moira uttered an involuntary squeak. She slapped her hand over her mouth, then furtively looked into the direction it had come from. For a moment, she was sure she saw two eyes glowing eerily silver in the dark. She shrunk back against the wall, her heart hammering rapidly in her chest.
Then she heard the soft rasp of a match and a moment later, a tiny flame erupted at the end of a sliver of wood held in large hands, which brought it to a candle.
“There’s no need to be alarmed, milady,” the voice said again and now that he lifted the candle to his face, she recognized the Blaidyn. She should have known. She wanted to scold herself, scaring like a little girl; of course it was the wolf, her own personal prison guard.
“How long have you been standing there?” she demanded, trying to sound like his social superior ought to sound. Her voice was croaky and still shaking, though, and she wrapped her arms protectively around her torso. He didn’t look cruel, but the candlelight cast a strange glow on his features that wasn’t inspiring trust or safety, either.
“A few minutes, milady,” he answered truthfully. “Since you entered the corridor.”
Her mouth opened and then she closed it again. She wanted to be angry and indignant but in grasping for that emotion through the fog of fright, she came up with embarrassment, of all things. He had heard her slowly, carefully creeping down the long carpeted hallway, holding her breath almost the entire time, taking minutes for a distance usually crossed in less than one. And he had stood there, waiting, knowing exactly what she was up to. The very idea made her neck itch enough to press her hand against it as she tried to make out his features again from lowered lashes.
“Are you going to stop me?” she finally asked into the silence.
“That depends, milady.”
She looked at him again. He was too tall to easily remember her social status when he eyed her from so far above, but she composed herself and pushed up her chin in shy defiance. She turned around and then made to cross the hall. Each step, she pushed herself a little faster, fearing he’d grab her and pull her back and she didn’t know how she’d cope with another person touching her that day, least of all that stranger: Owain, the man with no family name, the man who wasn’t even human.
It didn’t come. No word, no hand out of the dark to yank back her shoulder. She didn’t try the large entry door. It was heavily bolted and there was little else behind it but the empty square where the guards trained, and around which their barracks and servant’s quarters were arranged. It led to the main gatehouse, the portcullis and the drawbridge and none of those places were any good for a fast escape.
The next corridor was even darker and she blinked heavily, slowing down as she paused to look around.
“Would you like my candle, milady?” The voice was suddenly next to her again and Moira jumped once more.
She didn’t reply and kept walking until she reached the door at the end, then she opened it and stepped into the circular garden. At the other end, there was a small door that led down into the kitchens and to that side, the earth yielded herbs and aromatic flowers, but most of the garden was filled with neatly trimmed and shaped bushes and flowerbeds, and a low gnarly tree built as the focal point, just off the center. It blossomed pink in spring but now, at the very end of summer, its leaves were beginning to yellow.
The moon, a slim crescent as it was, offered only just enough illumination to outline the bright stone path that wound through the flowerbeds. Moira followed it slowly, shivering and soaking up the air and the moonlight and the freshness of the plants around her: no stale curtains, no wood long cut and dead, no lifeless cotton long ripped from its stems.