I wrote this short story in 2018 because I wanted a small break from writing longer fiction, and I love myth and magic. It’s now become a complete series, Dragon Heir. Start reading with Dragon’s Call, a full-length contemporary fantasy with a dystopian twist.
Rowan huddled deeper into the luxuriant clump of gorse bushes and drew her hood over her head to hide her bright hair. Thorns were a problem but a small enough price for protection. She hasn’t been quick enough reaching the cave she called home before bugles from the Wild Hunt blared. Clanking chains, creaking saddle leather, and the whoops and cries of Odin and his contingent of long-dead fairies and warriors filled the air.
An invisibility spell was a crapshoot. The Hunt smelled magic like hunting dogs scented prey. Hard to do nothing, but safety lay in holding her position—at least until the Hunt had flown by.
Not that they couldn’t return in a flash, but--
“Ro?” Tansy’s terrified voice exploded into her mind.
Goddess blast it, so much for not drawing power. Telepathy didn’t take much, but still… “Hush.” She sharpened the single word, hoping it would shut Tansy up.
So few witches were left. Tansy would be the last of them. Barely thirteen, her moonblood had just begun to flow…
Ro sucked in a breath sharp as glass scrapings. The one thing the Hunt would zero in on faster than magic was blood. They soared right above her now, blotting out half a moon and all the stars. The pungent stink of horse sweat and drunken men wafted down, and she silently urged them to keep on flying. So far, so good. The horses’ hooves churned air, finding purchase somehow. Hunger streamed from the ghost army.
Hunger for warmth. For the living to feed on, so they could ride forever. As if to validate her thoughts, they broke into a rambling Norse drinking song, one she’d heard in the odd tavern or two back before the world broke.
Best not to go there. If she did she might cry. Once she began, the tears would never stop. She’d cry so much, she’d become one with rivers raging through the Scottish Highlands. Not such a horrible outcome. Better than ending up fodder for the Hunt.
Or the gargoyles or griffons or Harpies or Furies. Wicked things that had grown so brazen, they showed up in daylight. No times were safe to be about. Not anymore. She closed her teeth over her lower lip hard enough to hurt, stopping shy of piercing her skin. Blood was a bad idea with the Hunt overhead.
A misplaced Druidic casting had broken the balance point between bright and dark energy. At first, she’d been certain the witches could fix it, but she’d been wrong. They’d wasted a whole lot of time and magic, though, before they gave up. By then, survival hung by the barest of margins.
The Hunt wheeled in the night sky, forming a circle. A fist squeezed around her heart until pain filled her chest. Saliva departed, leaving her mouth sandpaper dry; everything slowed as she watched Tansy emerge from a magical shrouding.
And blood. Rowan pounded a fist into the damp dirt. No wonder the Hunt had stopped.
Tansy rose unsteadily to her feet. Dressed in the same motley collection of rags all of them wore, red hair streamed down her slight form, and her breath formed clouds of steam in the chill air. Since she’d already been discovered, she began to chant in a clear voice that only trembled a little. Ro knew the incantation. It was a witch’s last-ditch attempt to save herself from death. Her heart ached for Tansy, but she was proud of the young woman too.
The aerial ballet circled, coming closer to the ground with each pass. Ro could see them clearly now, skeletal fingers, eyes like burning coals. She smelled their charnel pit breath, and what little was in her stomach curdled into a sour knot.
If she was going to act, she had to do it now. Another few seconds, and the lead rider would latch onto Tansy. What they’d do to her would be worse than death.
Rowan bolted to her feet and raced toward the clearing fifty feet away, stumbling over tangled roots. “Take me, instead, you bastards,” she screeched, shaking a fist at the riders.
Tansy turned a startled expression her way, eyes rounded into small moons. “Aw crap, Rowan. You didn’t need to—”
“Yeah. I did.” She looped an arm around the younger woman’s shoulders, drawing her shuddering form close as she warded them. Her spell wouldn’t stand up to concerted battering from the Hunt, but it was the best she could do.
“I—I’m sorry,” Tansy stuttered.
“Be sorry later.” Ro narrowed her eyes. There had to be a way out of this.
Who am I kidding? I just offered myself. It gives them permission to take me.
Bile splashed the back of her throat. She swallowed it down. She would not puke in front of Odin and his ilk. She would not show distress. Not in front of those rotters.
“Let the girl go.” She squared her shoulders and looked the lead Huntsman right in the eye, no easy task since his fiery gaze seared her corneas until she wondered if she’d be blind afterward.
“Aye, and is this a bargain freely requested and freely given?” Odin boomed in heavily accented English.
Tansy clutched at her arm. “You don’t have to do this. I’ll go. I’m the one who was stupid. I’m who—”
Rowan rounded on her. “Shut up.” Tansy’s eyes filled with tears. Rowan wanted to drag her into her arms and comfort her, but comfort wasn’t part of the new world order. She switched to shielded telepathy, hoping Odin and his merry crew wouldn’t pick up on it.
“I may have a chance of returning, child. They’ll eat you up alive.”
Ro stood so straight her spine cracked in protest. “Yes. It’s a bargain freely requested and freely given.”
Whoops and cheers rose from the riders. Shudders wracked Ro’s body. What would they do to her? Would she have enough cunning to escape? Magic wouldn’t be enough. She’d need luck, timing, courage. And a plan.
One of the horsemen angled her way. She held up a hand, palm outward and strengthened the ward around herself and Tansy. “Not so fast. I said the girl goes free. I would see her safely out of here.”
“Ye’re a lying, conniving slut,” Odin sneered, his destrier pawing the air a few feet above her head.
“I resent that. I’m a witch, and I live and die by my word. I shall meet you back here in one hour, but you must leave between now and then. I do not want you privy to where we live.” She tossed her head, and her hood fell back. “Do we have a bargain or no?”
Breath steamed from Odin and he extended an arm, index finger pointing dead center at her chest. “I know that hair. Whose get are ye?”
“No one’s.” She slipped a knife from a sheath that hung from her waist and let the blade hover across her open palm. “Deal or no? I shall seal it with my blood.”
Tansy edged behind her and tugged her hood back into place. Good move on the girl’s part; any additional space between her and danger would help if Odin said he didn’t bargain with witches. If that happened, she’d scream at Tansy to run, and then she’d hold her ground offering what resistance she could as the Hunt swooped down on her.
Rowan expelled a tight breath. Too late to pull her own hood up. Her hair, spun silver with one black streak through the middle, fairly sang Ceridwen’s name, but she downplayed that part of her bloodlines.
More than downplayed. She hid everything but the hair and had done so long enough it was second nature. Turning her back on a hopelessly patriarchal pantheon, she’d blended in with witchdom. Her unusual locks hadn’t posed a problem since no one remembered what any of the Celtic pantheon looked like. No one living anyway, which counted Odin out.
He angled his head to one side, eying her speculatively through fog-colored eyes. His dark hair was braided close to his head. Bone showed through the lower part of his face, skeletal bits with whiskers still growing out of them.
Rowan waited, her mouth dry and chest so constricted she had to remind herself to breathe. Time dripped past. The other Huntsmen were growing restless, throwing taunts and graphic descriptions about what they’d do to her once she was in their clutches.
“Well?” She raised one brow, resisting the temptation to tap a foot. She had a handle on her fear now she’d picked a path. All that remained would be to see how it played out. Would Odin let her and Tansy leave? Or would they duke it out right here? Launch a fight certain to alert every magic wielder within a twenty-league radius. Not that the Hunt wasn’t likely to prevail, but it wouldn’t be the easy pickings she was offering, nor without losses to Odin’s skanky tribe.
He swung his extended arm downward and bellowed, “Go,” adding “Raus hier,” for good measure.
Outraged howls rose from the other Huntsman. Odin swung the mace and flail looped around one wrist, narrowly missing his steed. The spiked ball connected with the skull of one of his men, cleaving it amid the sickening sounds of rotten bones crunching as they splintered to dust. The unfortunate target cantered off into the night headless but still screeching. Odin took off after him with the rest of the hunt scattered behind.
Rowan hooked a hand beneath Tansy’s arm and dragged her into a shambling trot. “Hurry.”
“You can let go. Goddess’s tits, he beheaded his own man.” A trill signaling the beginnings of hysteria burst from Tansy.
“Breathe,” Ro suggested. “Nice deep breaths and don’t think about this. Any of it.”
“But we won. You don’t have to go. He didn’t take your blood oath.” Relief laced through Tansy’s words.
Ro tucked the knife still clutched in one hand back into its sheath. “Oath or no, I gave my word.”
“Pfft. To a thief, a murderer, a soul-stealer. None of the—”
Rowan didn’t slow until they were within the entrance to the first cavern. She stepped in front of Tansy, blocking her way and draped a ward around them, so no one would overhear. “You owe me for tonight, yet the boon I request is small.”
Tansy’s green-eyed gaze skittered away. “You’re going back—to that monster.”
“What I’m doing—or not doing—is none of your affair. You will go to your pallet and prepare for bed. If anyone asks why you were so late returning, tell them you lost track of time. Apologize for your carelessness. Assure them it will never happen again.”
Tansy bobbed her head once in acquiescence. “What if they ask about you?”
“You never saw me. Got it?” She dropped her hands onto Tansy’s shoulders, wincing at how the young woman’s bones almost poked through her skin.
“Got it.” Tansy scraped her gaze from off the floor, eyes widening. “Your eyes. They’re silver. Why did I never—?”
“Because I employ a glamor. Now go.”
Tansy hesitated. Her eyes filled with tears and she threw her arms around Rowan, hugging her hard. “You saved my life. How can I go on knowing you gave yours in return?”
Rowan pried the child loose. “You will keep going. Anything less than your best efforts will squander my gift. Besides, no one knows the outcome of anything until the game is done. Don’t count me out yet.” Adopting a jaunty expression she was far from feeling she watched Tansy hurry the length of the cavern and vanish from sight. While she waited, she untangled the rest of the spell she’d hid behind to mute her high forehead, stark cheekbones, and tall, regal bearing. Borrowing from the remains of magic powering the glamor, she teleported to the small side cavern she’d claimed as hers.
She didn’t have either the time or inclination for questions, so she muted her presence—and sealed her door. They’d all been existing on the ragged edge of annihilation for years. Dodging evil day and night made it impossible to grow food. They’d raided stores vacated by scores of dead humans, but that resource wasn’t limitless. Beyond that, they hunted. Rabbit. Deer. Racoons. Rats. Meat was meat, and they had to survive.
No one knew whose side anyone was on, so they distrusted other magic-wielders. Annoyed by how they’d painted themselves into a fatal corner, she lifted the spell that concealed a plain wooden box. Not just any wood, though. Hawthorn. Her mother had fashioned the box, and Ro hated to leave it behind. The wood warmed beneath her touch, almost as if the tree were still alive.
Who knew? Perhaps it flourished on some borderworld where her mother and the other Celts had sequestered themselves after the misshapen spell broke all that was pure and good on Earth. Scents she associated with Ceridwen—mint, vanilla, amber—soothed her as she removed an onyx amulet on a golden chain and placed it around her neck. She slid a ring with a matching stone over her index finger. Lastly, she draped a small, golden circlet around her forehead.
She took her time letting go of the box. It reminded her of love and warmth and home. What a fool she’d been to walk out on the pantheon. Ro settled her mouth into a resolute line and tucked the box into a dark corner. Absent her magic, its glow would fade. Ready as she’d ever be, she kindled a spell and visualized the spot on the moors where she’d last seen Odin.
Maybe because she’d held it at bay for so long, Celtic power jumped to her command. The earthen walls of her grotto fell away, replaced by open moorland. So far, the sky was empty, but it hadn’t yet been an hour.
What would she do if Odin didn’t come back? Pick up the tatters of her glamor and go on as if nothing had happened, while they all slowly died of starvation? Rowan shook her head, filled with sadness and determination.
Someone had to do something. She’d known it for over a year. The someone had to be her, and maybe tonight’s confrontation was the beginning--
“Yeah, but of what?” she mumbled. Before she launched into a buck-up-buttercup lecture, the distant sound of horse hooves reached her. She stood tall, proud, every inch her mother’s daughter. Hood back, her hair gleamed in light from Arianrhod’s moon. Seeing her without her glamor would give Odin grist for his mill. She might be a lot of things, but she would never become one of his lackeys.
The swoosh of wings, beating fast made her head swing around. Wings had no place here… She gave herself a brisk mental slap. Valkyries rode with the Hunt. Valkyries who decided who lived and who died in battle.
The thought had no sooner formed than a pair of the winged warriors, fair hair streaming behind them, bore down on her, landing a few feet away. “We propose a test,” the one with silver armor angled a speculative gaze Ro’s way.
“What kind of test?”
The other Valkyrie brayed laughter, displaying a mouthful of half rotted teeth. “What other kind is there?”
Ro took a measured breath. “Are you proposing I fight both of you?”
The Hunt roared into view and formed a rough circle in the air above them, the men jockeying for prime positions where they could have the best view.
“Never mind.” Rowana muttered. “I withdraw the question. Will I have a weapon? Both of you have spears. And armor.” While she talked, she began weaving an illusion, one that would create two more of her.
Might be enough to even the playing field.
“Aye, the wench catches on fast,” the first Valkyrie said.
The one with bad teeth made a face. “I thought this was stupid when Odin ordered us to do it. Should take less than five seconds start to finish.” She dusted hands with cracked, dirty nails together.
“You’re absolutely right,” Ro crooned as she put the finishing touches on her working and readied herself to fight. “I thought Odin wanted me to ride with him.”
“He has us,” one of the duo hissed.
“Aye, he has no need of you,” the other chimed in.
Ro was ready. She whistled once, the cascade of notes s linchpin. Air shimmered and swirled, forming an opaque curtain amid guttural curses from the Valkyries as they tried to figure out what she was up to.
She didn’t wait but jumped on her small advantage. Spinning to one side, she set the wheels in motion that animated her doppelgängers and gripped the amulet to concentrate her power.
“What the bloody fucking hell?” One of the Valkyries bellowed and charged, spear extended.
“Not that one,” Odin shrieked from his aerial perch. “She’s on the left, stupid.”
Ro gritted out a string of Gaelic curses. Of course he’d be able to see through her ruse. Of the bunch, his was the only magic strong enough.
Keep going. Ignore him. Maybe he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.
She nimbly traded forms with the twin he’d fingered. She could do this for a while—and fight too—but not for very long. The dual castings pigged up power like mad. She sidestepped the charging Valkyrie and aimed a blast of magic at the back of her neck.
It bounced off the creature’s helmet. With a roar, the woman twisted and charged, her face screwed into a mask of hate. Ro switched places with one of her twins right before the Valkyrie drove a spear through the illusion. It reformed a few feet away, grinning merrily.
“Fuck!” The other Valkyrie twirled in a circle, spear extended in front of her. “Which one is her?”
“They’re all me,” Ro skinned her teeth back from her lips and took careful aim. The armor must be spelled, or her magic would have penetrated it. She jumped to one of the doppelgängers, sighted, and let a lethal blast fly from her outstretched fingertips.
Her aim was true. She hit the small, exposed spot beneath the Valkyrie’s chin and she crumpled to the ground. “Now that’s more like it,” she muttered and jumped to the doppelgänger nearest the other Valkyrie. Driven by fury, bloodlust in her eyes, the woman ran full tilt toward the place Ro had just been, driving her spear through illusion—again.
The Valkyrie raised a fist skyward. “I’m done. That’s no witch.”
“Hold. I did not release you.” Odin flew lower.
“I don’t care. If I remain, that bitch will kill me.”
“Truer words were never spoken. The next piece of magic is all yours.” Ro tightened her grip on the amulet.
The Valkyrie threw down her spear. “I surrender. You killed my sister. I’m the last of my line, and—”
Rowan lowered her hands and cut the flow of magic powering her likenesses until just one of her remained. “Go. I understand about being the last.” No longer worried about the winged warrior, she raised her gaze to where Odin hovered in the air above. The Valkyrie may have been an enemy, but she’d given her word, and Ro heard truth in it.
Odin circled lower and lower until his steed’s feet touched the earth, and then he jumped down and strode to where she stood.
“Ye’re Ceridwen’s get. Do not deny it,” he growled.
Rowan inclined her head. “True enough. Why is it important to you?”
“She has unpaid debts.” He slitted his eyes.
“They’d be hers, not mine. I walked out on the Celts eons ago.”
“Aye, but ye know where she is.” His expression turned shrewd. “I propose a bargain.”
Ro had no idea where her mother was, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. “What kind of bargain? I’m not generally the bargaining kind.”
“Ye’ll like this one well enough. I shall release ye from your blood-sworn oath to join the Hunt.”
She pursed her lips, not bothering to mention there’d been no blood-swearing anything. “What do I have to do?”
“Get what your mother has that’s mine and return it to me.”
“Care to offer up a clue as to what it is?” She angled her gaze his way. “Mom can be cagey when she wants to hang onto something.”
“She’ll know. Ye have until this time tomorrow night.” He turned toward his stamping black destrier.
“I don’t think so.” Rowana planted herself between him and the horse, ignoring the animal’s angry whinnies and hoping to hell it didn’t take a chunk out of her shoulder. “I need at least a week.”
Odin pushed around her and jumped astride his horse. “Two days. Final offer. Take it or leave it.”
“Deal,” she shouted after his retreating form, and then kicked herself. Bound by her word, she had to comply. If she’d refused, maybe he’d have let her go.
Yeah and maybe he’d have taken me hostage—until Mom ponies up whatever she stole from him.
The Hunt circled where she stood before flying north. The Valkyrie must have taken her fallen sister because the moor around Rowana was empty.
She sank into a crouch and dropped her hands onto the damp, rocky earth seeking answers. The Celts were on a borderworld, but which one? There were hundreds, most sporting unbreathable atmospheres. If she guessed wrong, she might be on the hunt for two years, not two days.
Never mind it was needle-in-haystack territory, she needed to get moving. Ro straightened and gripped the amulet, letting magic boil around her. She’d start with the only borderworld she knew. The minute the airless void between worlds surrounded her, she remembered how much she hated travel away from Earth.
Breathe through the amulet.
Easier said than done. Ducking her face into the folds of her cloak, she willed oxygen molecules to jump from the fabric to her lungs. It helped—a little. The choking sensation lessened as she rolled out onto rocky ground. Standing creakily, she gulped air and crossed beneath the rune-carved arches of her first choice. The world had gone dark, but at least she could breathe. It didn’t take long for her to determine no one was here. Not even shades.
She visited three more borderworlds in quick succession finding exactly nothing. Hunger nagged, but thirst dogged her. She’d been a real dumbass not to bring a water bottle. This world was inhabited, so she set off in search of a stream. Besides she needed a better plan than random guessing.
She was crouched by a small brook, drinking from her cupped hands, when a flaxen-haired elven youth joined her. “Who are ye?” he asked in archaic Gaelic.
She swiped a hand across her mouth. “Ceridwen’s daughter. Do you know which borderworld the Celts occupy?”
“Left at the first star and straight on till morning.” He giggled, pleased by his own joke.
She rolled her eyes. “I know The Little Prince too, but I need to find my mother.”
“They’re on the next world southeast of us,” he told her.
“Thank you.” Ro tossed her arms around him and hugged the elf hard. His startled expression was priceless and made her laugh as she loped to an open area to launch her next spell.
This trip was shortest of all, the elven world fading as the next formed around her. She’d no sooner cleared the borderworld’s lintels when Celtic magic blasted her. The sensation brought her to her knees, and waves of emotion swept through her. These were her people. This was where she belonged.
Have I come this far to turn into a maudlin fool?
She straightened, determined to locate her mother with magic. Ceridwen saved her the trouble. “There ye are, daughter. I knew ye’d come. I saw it in my cauldron.”
Ro wanted to throw herself into her mother’s arms, but Ceridwen wasn’t the huggy type. Never had been. “Good to see you, Mother.”
“Aye, ye as well, lass.”
“If you foresaw my coming, do you also know why I’m here.”
Ceridwen nodded. “I did an ill-advised thing. Earth has paid for my folly, but ’tis finally time to set old wrongs—”
Understanding slammed into Rowan. “What? You’re who broke the world?” She stared at her goddess mother, unbelieving.
“But what? If you knew, why didn’t you return Odin’s bauble long before this? Christ on a crutch. Do you have any idea--?”
“Silence! I will not have ye speak thusly to me.”
Rowan ground her teeth. “Give me whatever it is, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Nay. ’Tis a task we must do together.”
Suddenly suspicious, Rowan asked, “Why?”
“I’m ready to depart.” Ceridwen offered a smile with a lot of teeth and zero warmth. “Coming?”
Too angry to trust what came out of her mouth, Ro nodded once and felt Ceridwen’s familiar power settle around her, soft, nurturing. A velvet-lined trap with steel jaws and the reason she’d left so long ago. Ceridwen ceded power to no one. Not then, and not now, either.
They emerged in the ruins of Inverlochy Castle, the site of the Celts’ erstwhile council hall. Other than smelling musty, it hadn’t changed in four centuries. Carpets and wall hangings depicting various Celtic victories lined the floor and walls.
Ceridwen breathed deep, spreading her arms. “Och, I’ve missed this place.”
“When do I get the full story?” Rowan crossed her arms beneath her breasts and stared at the woman who looked just like her.
“When did ye grow so ill-tempered?”
Rowan shrugged. “Watching half the world die has that effect.”
“Are ye finally done with your ridiculous witch fixation?”
Eyes widening in realization, Ro gasped out, “You’re jealous.”
Ceridwen strode close and jabbed Rowan’s chest with her index finger. “Ye are mine. Mine. Do ye understand me? I allowed ye to leave thinking ye’d get over your fascination with witches once ye saw how weak they were, but it never happened.”
Rowan’s temper erupted. She jabbed Ceridwen back. “I am no one’s woman but my own. You’re why I left.”
“That’s impossible. Ye were young, full of hubris—”
Ro chopped a hand through the air between them as the whole, unbelievable picture took shape. Her autocratic bitch of a goddess mother had engineered breaking the world to force Rowan back to her side. When it hadn’t worked, Ceridwen herded the Celts to safety and left everyone else to do the best they could.
“I’m ashamed to be related to you.”
“I offer you one chance to take those words back, daughter.” Her silver eyes caught fire. “Do. It. Now.”
Ceridwen’s features turned menacing, any beauty long gone. “Or the banishment shall become permanent.”
A painful arrow lodged beneath Ro’s breastbone, but how could she lose something she’d never had? “Fine. Give me Odin’s trinket, and I’ll never darken your door again.” She paused for a beat. “You didn’t banish me, Mother. I left of my own free will.”
For scant moments, Ceridwen’s mask slipped. If Ro hadn’t been looking right at her, she’d have missed the shock—and the hurt. The goddess tilted her chin at a defiant angle Ro remembered only too well.
Before she could say anything, the big doors at the end of the hall slammed against their stops and Odin strode in, chains clanking and leather chaps creaking as they brushed against each other.
“Well met, goddess.”
Ceridwen barely glanced his way. “As usual, your timing couldn’t be worse.”
He shrugged and trotted to where they stood. “Fine. I see ye’ve been reunited with the errant spawn. Pay up, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Pay up? What the holy hell? This whole thing was nothing but a trick?” Rowan shrieked and launched herself at her mother tugging her hair and punching her wherever her fists landed.
Odin rubbed his hands together. “Och, and I do love a good cat fight. Get cracking, wenches.”
Ro’s next punch landed square in the middle of her mother’s nose, but the one after that blasted through empty air. Ceridwen was gone. Rowan wrapped her arms around herself. Sobs wracked her. Loss. Relief. Who knew?
Odin grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Where’d she go? Poxy slut never paid me.”
Rowan drew magic. Enough to make him let go fast. “That would be your problem. Watch who you bargain with.” She stood tall, focused her power, and let it take her back to the witches.
A harsh smile forced its way out. Before, she hadn’t known what kind of spell to look for. Now she did. She could neutralize Ceridwen’s damage, no matter how many ways her mother had reinforced the casting.
She was certain of it. After all, they held the same magic.
Ann Gimpel is a USA Today bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in many webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients. Now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she’s not writing, she’s in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She’s published over 100 books to date, with several more planned for 2022 and beyond. Find out more about Ann and her books at
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”