Training with Ira the following morning is exactly what Douglas had expected.
She’s usually cocky grins and vulgarity most of the time, but in the sparring ring in a gravel courtyard in another garden at the southern wing of the mansion, she’s truly a stone-cold killer.
And when those lethal instincts are turned on him . . .
Beneath the fighting leathers the coven acquired him – a reinforced jerkin over his shirt, and leather vambraces and shin guards – even with the brisk temperature, his skin is slick with sweat. Each breath ravages his throat, and his arms tremble so badly that any time he so much as tries to use his fingers, his pinkie will start shaking uncontrollably.
They’ve been going at it for an hour now, walking through the basic steps of hand-to-hand combat. When he found her yesterday on the deck and mentioned training, the Second only gave a smile that almost sent him running in the other direction. She had asked him what he knew from training on the guard, and once he finished explaining – almost grinning with pride – Ira simply laughed and told him to meet her tomorrow morning before breakfast. That she would show him how Witches trained.
He would’ve been more afraid, but apart from not giving her the satisfaction, he knew she wouldn’t put him too tightly through the wringer thanks to Keelie.
What did surprise him was that they started with combat than magic. When he asked why, Ira said it would help her understand his limits before he either collapses from exhaustion or vomits his guts up, and then collapses from exhaustion. Test his limits, as it can coincide with his magic.
She started off running him through the exercises he mentioned yesterday, as means to jog his memory. Then once they finished almost every routine he learned while on the guard, she began to run him through the basics of training the witches endured.
He says “endured” because the moment they started, she launched herself at him, whacking him in the legs, the ribs and the lower back. He was suddenly on his knees in three seconds. Ira said she could’ve done worse; she could’ve used an actual blade and actually have sliced him open. Their first lesson was blocking – learn as you go.
If you make it through the first lesson, you’re worthy enough to continue.
When they’ve finished running through their third spar of the day, Douglas heavily breathing, sweat gathering on every hollow of his body, Ira – whom has barely broken a sweat – lowers her hands gloved with sparring pads and jerks her chin behind him.
“Get a drink,” she says. “Then we’re working on your core. No point in learning to punch if you can’t even hold your stance.”
His knees wobble a bit as he strode to the stool where the curly, red-haired elf servant girl named Adria, had brought a pitcher of water and two glasses. He pours one for himself, his pinkie trembling uncontrollably again.
Douglas frowns towards the sound of clashing blades in the open sparring ring across from them.
Margret, apparently, has been training with the immortals longer than he assumed. She arrived later this morning with the rest of the coven in tow, Keelie having braided her hair and strapped a few belts to her waist and across her chest.
The girls gave him friendly smiles and hellos before launching into sparring, the courtesan’s face focused. They’d been at it now for an hour straight, their slender blades like flashes of quicksilver as they move around and around. Margret’s hair swings this way and that from where she has it gathered atop her head, deflated curls dangling down her back like a pony’s tail.
At some point since he last looked, despite the last of winter’s bite chilling the air, they’d removed their leather jackets and shirts.
Margret’s skin is still pale, but has gained a little color from the heavy sun from the past week. Her legs and arms have definition, but nowhere near as toned or hardened as Keelie’s.
Where Keelie can be rough around the edges, Margret is soft with a hidden bite. Margret’s skin is smooth, shining like freshly polished porcelain from the sweat. Keelie’s arms are tanner, more defined, but all along her arms and legs and even down to her stomach, scars of varying lengths and thickness pepper here and there.
He almost spews out his water when he finds that both of her arms are covered in a manner of intricate tattoos that curl and flow with harsh lines at some points, but then ebbing to soft tendrils, the ink flowing across her shoulders and over her full chest. Then they trail down her sides, all the way to her ankles.
“They receive the tattoos when they’re initiated as warriors, as heirs to the clan, or born as White Demons,” Ira says, following his stare. Douglas ignores her as he drinks in the rest of the image, though: the stomach muscles gleaming with sweat in the bright sun, the bunching of her powerful thighs, the rippling strength in her back all while sporting a glorious beauty that has led many men and women and witches to their doom.
Ira jerks her chin toward the women. “Keelie is out of shape and won’t admit it. If she were to go against anyone else, she would lose. But all of us are too polite to beat her into the dirt.”
Keelie looks anything but out of shape. By the Goddess, what the hell do they eat to look like that?
Ira fills a glass for herself and clinks it against his, so at odds from the brutal taskmaster who, moments ago, had Douglas walking through punches, hitting her sparring pads, and trying not to crumple on the ground to beg for death. So at odds from the female who was needlepointing in a hammock, rocking herself in the calm of the approaching-summer morning.
Luke is in another ring with the silver-haired male, Keith. While Keith opts for twin daggers, their make simple but the blades sharp, Luke has his claws out.
Placed between his knuckles, twin blades of iron glint brightly in the sunlight. Douglas is entranced to see the blades holding firm, half-expecting them to shatter or tear out, leaving the Third screaming in pain. But they hold firm, sparking every time they collide with Keith’s daggers.
“So,” Ira says, gulping down the water. Behind us, Keelie and Margret clash, separate, and clash again. “Are you going to stick with your decision of staying human? Immortality isn’t that bad.”
The question hit him so viciously that Douglas snipes, “I never said that I have anything against it, but while my family is here, I’d like to die with them.”
The beat of crunching steps and clashing blades behind them stumbles — then resumes.
Ira lets out a rough laugh. “We’re all going to die, Douglas. Once you accept that, you’d be surprised by how much life opens up to you.”
“It’s not about dying, and you know it. I don’t want my years to be prolonged when theirs will be so short. I don’t want to be alone.” He hitches as he finds himself repeating the same words he spoke to his company at dinner just yesterday.
“You’d have us.”
“Forgive me when I say that I don’t believe witches know the meaning of family.”
A casual shrug of her shoulders. “Most don’t. But we do.”
“It just wouldn’t be the same without them.”
Douglas casts a glance across the garden where he finds his friends sparring amongst themselves, keeping well away from the immortals, but within ear range for him should he call. It’s mostly Arin, Derrick and the siblings. He figured Deborah is in one of two locations: the stables, or the library with Enhard. As for his father, he doesn’t know.
Ira drains another glass before sighing. “Alright, get back in the ring,” Ira says, setting down her empty glass. “No core exercises, yet. Just fists.”
Douglas finishes his second glass, shaking his head as if to readjust his focus from Keelie. He meets Ira back in the middle as she raises her pads. He positions his legs at twelve and five and lifts his hands up toward his face.
“I mean, I have thought about it before. And I liked it, but for the simplest of reasons,” He says, stepping and jabbing with his left side. His fist slams into Ira’s sparring pad, snatching back as fast as a snake’s bite as he strikes with his right, shoulder and foot twisting.
“One,” Ira counts. Again, Douglas strikes, one-two. “Two. And you mean being young and beautiful forever and having higher senses — both of which are great.”
Again, again, again.
But there’s something about living longer when his family’s years may be so short. They can vouch for Keelie all they want; they’re not his family – even if he wants them to be. Keelie saved him because she loves him despite her deceit.
Again, again, again. One-two; one-two; one-two—
She hopes to mend things – and he does too – but he knew deep in his mortal heart that some part of him may not trust her fully, ever. Which hurts just as much as if she were to pierce his heart. He thought he could learn to love her, and he is trying, but the tension between them, no matter what she did for him and Marionette . . . it’s still awkward. He can’t get past that she lied, no matter how much he reasons with himself, no matter how much he can understand every reason why she did it; to protect herself and him.
Again, again, again, each pound of his fists on the sparring pads a question and an answer.
Perhaps if the shift wasn’t so permanent, he’d be more inclined to attempt it. To shift between his mortal and immortal form . . . Has such a thing been done before? If Luke can shift into any living thing of his choosing, maybe shifting between the curtain of immortality isn’t that far off. If elves can shift into a certain animal form, then who’s to say that he may be in his animal form already? Or that he may be learning how to shift into his animal form.
Even if he can find a way to shift between being a witch and a human, there’s still the longevity that will follow him. Even if the immortal eternity is halved by his human years, that will still leave him with so many unpredictable years to come without his family. He can’t imagine anything without them. They will be wrinkled and pale while he may still barely be breaking past his prime.
There are so many adjustments that have been forced upon his life. Staying human is the only connection he has left of that arrogant, but headstrong man of the castle guard. The one who would boast about beating his brother in sparring, who shamelessly flirted with a young woman he found in a bookstore; who looked at the world with wonder and excitement, instead of fearing for his life, and worrying about magic harming himself or others.
He assumed only a part of that man had died when Marionette’s head rolled off of the bascule of the guillotine.
But now, it would seem all of him died with Marionette. Maybe he was just living hollowly as means to cope with the pain; forcing smiles and laughter so that the black ache in his chest wouldn’t devour him and what he’d done.
And then he’s sobbing through his clenched teeth, the tears washing away that infected wound, and he doesn’t care that Ira is there, or Keelie or Luke.
The clashing steel stops.
It feels like he’s healing, but he is keeping himself from progressing. Keelie did him the honor of seeing and speaking to Marionette when he thought she was beyond his reach. But some dark corner of his mind refuses to let him move on, to let him . . . be happy; to fall in love again; to forgive himself for taking her life.
And then his fists connect with bare skin, and he realizes he has punched through the sparring pads — no, burned through them, and —
And he stops, too.
The wrappings around my hands were now mere smudges of soot. Ira’s upraised palms remained before him — ready to take the blow, if he needs to make it. “I’m all right,” she says quietly. Gently.
And maybe he is exhausted and broken, but he breathes, “I killed her.”
He hadn’t said the words aloud since it had happened.
Ira’s lips tighten. “I know.” Not condemnation, not praise. But grim understanding.
His hands slacken as another shuddering sob works its way through him. He closes his eyes as tears stream down his heated cheeks. “I’ll never forgive myself.”
And there it is.
The confession he’s been looking for; the reason why he’s been keeping himself from being happy, from finding other love . . . There it is.
It’s just as Marionette had said, he keeps beating himself up for killing her, when he believes he still could’ve saved her despite even Marionette saying there was no other way.
Then a shadow crawls up to him, enveloping his feet, then his legs, and a sweat-slick female body halts before him. Gentle fingers caress his cheek, and he opens his eyes to see . . . Keelie’s face.
Around them, in another world, maybe, the sounds of steel on steel — Ira and Luke sparring — begins.
“You’re going to feel that way, every day for the rest of your life,” Keelie says. This close he can smell the sweat on her, the freesia and melon scent beneath it. Her eyes are soft. He squeezes his eyes shut, turning to his head away, but her other hand gently holds his other cheek and she holds his face firm. “I know this because I have felt that way every day since my family was slaughtered and I couldn’t even bury them, and now I don’t even think retribution can fix it.” She wipes away the tears on his one cheek, the another. “You can either let is wreck you, let it get you killed, or you can learn to live with it.”
For a long moment, Douglas just stares at her open, calm face – maybe her true face, the one beneath the masks she wears to keep her coven safe. “I’m so sorry – about your family.” He rasps.
“I’m sorry I didn’t find a way to spare you from what happened with Marionette,” Keelie says with equal quiet. “I was one my way there when . . . when I felt that rift in the world, when you killed her. I felt her soul leave her body. And then she was safe. There was no more pain, except . . . except for you. I felt you, and the trouble you were in. The terror in your blood.”
Perhaps she felt it through the blood bond he now shares with her. It may explain why they can get a brief sense what the other is feeling. The heaviness of his heart, the strength within her own . . .
He doesn’t have a response to that. So he examines the strands of hair sticking to her neck and cheekbones, the way her skin still seems to glow even with the scars and tattoos.
He stops when he reaches the curve of her breasts and the lines of muscles along her abdomen. Instead, he flexes his hands in front of him, his skin warm from the heat that had burned through those pads. “Is there something that I’m thwarting if I don’t become an immortal? Am I screwing up some hidden agenda that you won’t tell me?”
She lowers her hands from his face. His cheeks become oddly cold in their absence. “Yes. But we can work with it. And I’m not telling you about it only because I don’t even believe in it much. I don’t have enough facts to back it up.”
“But what is it?”
Keelie folds in her lips, looking around at her other members. Still sparring, some of them are trying their best not to look like they are eavesdropping. “I’m trying to trace back your bloodline to the beginning, to find the source of your magic. I have a theory I’m hoping to prove, and not prove to be true. As for immortality, that is your own choice, as I have said. I want you to be immortal because you could live in Tamarak with us, safely since your mortal scent won’t exist; and because you’ll have more . . . room for your magic to grow and fill.”
“Is there any way for me to possibly shift between the two forms?” Douglas asks.
Keelie blinks before her eyes flick to the right, and she puts a hand to her chin. Debating. Considering. She hums, “I haven’t heard much of that happening before . . . but it’s definitely something we can look at.”
“You mean, there’s enough possibility to consider it?”
“Maybe. There have been a couple of accounts, I’m sure of that. But I don’t know the specific circumstances.” Keelie begins to tap her chin with her knuckle as she paces the space in front of him. “I know the elves have the potential, but whether or not their blood can mix with witchblood I don’t know.”
“No one has ever tried to . . . breed the two?”
“There have been – slim from what I was told. The demons wanted to attempt the breeding, but the elven magic and witch magic can be very . . . divergent with one another. Either they’re a perfect match, or a disastrous one. The magic itself would clash or collide, the child erupting within itself shortly after birth. Humans were the easiest to break. Their blood simpler.”
Keelie starts to leave, her many blades glinting in the sunlight.
“What could be the difference?” Douglas asks as he follows her out of the sparring ring.
A shrug of her shoulders, “The intention of the magic? The nature with which it originates? Who’s to say? All I know is that the blood isn’t that compatible, so our ancestors decided to switch to a . . . weaker species.”
“There were never any couples that were together when your mother was in rule?”
“If there were, it was only because they were mates. So their magic actually did pair well.”
“Wait,” Douglas reaches out to grab her shoulder and turn her towards him. She allows him to do so, eyebrows raised. “Mates?”
“A Mate is, theoretically, a term used to describe a special bond between two people. But it’s also a term used for specially paired souls. It is higher than that between two regular married people. It goes deeper than the heart, stretches farther than the soul. Most witches are able to sense their mates, no matter the species. If their mate is mortal, then this sense will be dulled. It happens enough, which could trail back to those tales of witches whisking men away to Tamarak.”
“A Bewitching,” Ira chimes, earning a few chuckles and coughing fits of those around.
Keelie finishes her exiting of the sparring ring and Douglas follows her to one of the white, iron-wrought chairs shaded by a large patio umbrella.
A wooden deck houses comfortable, outdoor furniture for days such as this: spent training in the warm sun, accommodating refreshments if needed. Flanking the deck are tall weeping willows, their vines wafting in the breeze, enveloping some of the wooden railing bordering the deck.
“So wait, do you really think there’s a way for me to, shift between my two forms?”
“Maybe, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up. Chances are further from slim-to-none.”
“I’m willing to try it.”
Keelie folds in her lips while she pours herself some lemonade. “I know about what happened with you and Palore, and that fire.” Douglas frowns, but she continues, “I wonder if it was you shifting into your immortal skin, or if it was just trying to rip free.”
“I can’t say that I know either.”
“I guess I can get Eartha to research it. Maybe she can come up with something, and I’ll look into it myself.” She takes a long sip of her lemonade, downing half the glass before she comes up for air.
She stares ahead at the rings where her coven spares. By now Luke has quit with Ira to teach Margret more about shifting. Each of the witches move with such grace and brutality, almost knowing the other’s move before it is made. Over in a ring at the far right, Douglas can see Arabella and Raven sparring in mid-flight. They bank and duck and roll and block, only their moves seem more, nimble without the hard earth to abruptly stop them.
Keelie smiles with pride as she taps her glass against the table. She leans her head back, sunning her face.
It may be because he doesn’t want to get back to training with Ira, or because he’s actually enjoying this conversation with Keelie, that Douglas asks, “Is it difficult to get used to?” Keelie opens her eyes, brows raising in question. “The immortality, I mean. Is there any downside to it?”
A soft nod. “There are some things that require adjusting, especially the sounds. When being born immortal, it’s easy to ignore; it’s the norm. But for half-breeds, hybrids, it’s not the same. When you’re older, the fears, the mental blocks . . . it’s different. Sometimes it drives them mad.”
“What about you?”
“I was born with an immortal body and a human heart. My senses had already snapped into place. And I had my mother and teachers to train me at a young age.” She then smiles lazily at him. “I could show you a glimpse of it. See my world – hear it, smell it.” His breathing becomes shallow as she rises from her seat and walks to stand in front of him. “Taste it.” Her eyes flick to his lips.
“How?” Douglas asks, grateful for the sun to blame the heat blooming on his cheeks.
“Magic.” Keelie giggles as he makes a face. “But I’m here to offer a trade.” He can’t help the feeling that boils in his stomach at her feline grin. “A kiss.”
He snorts. “That’s it?”
Keelie leans forward, hands to her knees, allowing him a glimpse down her cleavage. “Would you rather I ask for more?” She asks with a lover’s gentleness.
To his own surprise, he purrs, “I’m willing to bargain.”
When she giggles, he feels his heart fluttering so quickly it feels like a hummingbird is inside his chest.
“Close your eyes,” she says, and he obeys, clenching his hands on his knees to keep from touching her. The birds chatter, and the willow branches sigh. He braces himself at the brush of her fingers caressing his face, then her lips as they kiss one of his eyelids, then on the other. She pulls away, and Douglas is left breathless, the kisses still lingering on his skin.
The sighing of the birds becomes an orchestra – a symphony of gossip and mirth. He’s never heard so many layers of music, never heard variations and themes that weave between their arpeggios. Gods, no wonder Keelie adores music so much – what does that sound like to her? And beyond that bird’s song, there’s an ethereal melody – a woman, melancholy and weary . . . the willow.
Gasping, Douglas opens his eyes.
He takes in the world with stunning clarity. Smells it and tastes it and breathes it like the finest wine.
The trees are clothed in a faint shimmer that radiates from their centers and dances along the edges of their leaves. The grass is a green ocean that ripples and weaves to the song of the willow, as invitingly smooth as silk. Where there was the metallic tang of the magic, now has become a scent of jasmine, lilac, and roses.
Gods this place, this home . . . it smells divine.
This – this is what Keelie and the others see. Everyday.
Looking to the coven members in the sparring rings, their beauty breaks his heart. Ira’s hair shines like the surface of water, but flows like the delicious red-wine it represents. Her skin glowing with a pink undertone, her eyes as texturally rough as the cold stone.
Luke’s eyes have turned him into a snake living beneath a skin of flesh and bone. His high cheekbones sharp enough to cut convince, a beauty that is devastating enough to wring tears.
Raven’s eyes have become molten gold, every variation and hue that can be imagined; her hair like liquid midnight, capturing the sunlight and hoarding it for herself. Her full breasts heavy, nipples hardened from the breeze.
Douglas looks to Keelie, and his heart cracks entirely.
It is Keelie, but not. Rather, it is the Keelie he dreamed of. Her skin gleams with a luminescent sheen, and around her hear glows a circlet of stardust. And her eyes –
Not merely green and gold, but the gold glittering with stolen stardust, the green looking as though every leaf in the forest has bled into one shade.
This is an Heir of Tamarak’s Witch Clan – devastatingly beautiful, captivating, powerful beyond belief.
His breath catches in his throat as he touches the contours of her face. Her skin feels as smooth as satin, her eyelashes dark and heavy, drops of her sweat slip onto is fingertips. He lifts his other hand and gently grasps the ends of her hair, gathering it over one shoulder. She stands perfectly still as he runs his fingers through it again, the feeling similar to if he were to hold water itself. It flows from his palm and drips between his fingers and feels smooth.
He gathers it all in his hand until he reaches the back of her head. Fisting his hands, he fingers the handful of hair, Keelie angling her neck ever so slightly. A simple dip of his neck, and his lips will be at that soft spot just beneath her ear . . .
And what is that, tugging he feels . . .? That urge to just grab her and throw her against a wall; to pin her hips there while she wraps her legs around his own while his lips rove around that slim throat –
Instantly, the silver glowing Keelie vanishes, and the one he knows returns. He can still hear the singing of the willow and the birds, but . . .
“Why can’t I see you anymore?”
“Because I willed the glamour back into place.”
“Glamour of what?”
“To look normal. Or as normal as we can look.”
Douglas looks around, disappointed to find her words were true. Everything has been dulled. Even the sunlight has darkened – Douglas looking to the sky to see if there are any clouds blocking it, but the sky is clear.
“What about your part of our deal?”
Keelie leans closer, her smile turning wicked. “What about my kiss?”
Douglas takes her fingers. “Here,” he says, and places his mouth against the back of her hand. “There’s your kiss.”
Keelie roars with laughter. “You cruel, naughty thing.” She looks over towards where Ira and Luke are now chatting amongst one another. “Perhaps I can convince Ira to end your training for today.”
Though he wouldn’t be completely against it, he asks, “Will she be okay with it?”
“She’ll have to be. It’s my word.”
“What an abusive way to use your authority, My Lady.” Douglas says with a fiendish grin.
Another step towards him. “I’m sure you’d like to see other ways I can abuse my authority.”
“And how would you know that?” He grins, the tenor of his voice – smooth, and inviting. The voice of someone he doesn’t even know.
“Because I can read you like a book.”
Douglas can’t stop his eyes from raking over her body, lingering in some areas. Keelie seems happy to oblige him as she arcs herself so her abdomen flexes, her breasts pert, the tattoos twining down her shoulders. “And what am I saying?”
Her eyes then rake over him, and that ravenous hunger that flickers within them tears him between running for his rooms, or pinning her against the wall.
“You want to get down on your hands and knees for me. Maybe strap a collar to your neck so that I may train you into mastering your missing manners.” Her voice drops to a seductive whisper. “Maybe teach you some discipline with a firm slap to your ass? Or I could torture you with my tongue instead.”
Gods, her lips are just a breath away from him. She smells like sweat and steel but he doesn’t give a shit.
Douglas opens his mouth to say something – at least, he thinks he does, but no words come out.
It’s when the back doors open that he jolts and Adria comes out with a fresh tray of empty glasses and two more pitchers of iced water.
He turns around to say something, but Keelie is already stepping around him and swaggering towards the door, her hips swaying. She only casts him a glance over her shoulder before disappearing into the shadowy interior.
Left alone, with a tightening feeling in his pants, Douglas returns to his rooms and doesn’t emerge for an hour.