Mist-Torn Witches 02: Witches in Red - Barb Hendee

Prologue

SETTLEMENT NEAR THE RYAZAN SILVER MINES, NORTHWEST DROEVINKA

I am called Mariah.

In the mid of one night, I slipped away from the Móndyalítko encampment where I lived and made my way into the trees. I left my perpetually angry sister and my other relatives behind—at least for a little while.

I would not let myself think on any of them tonight. I was going to meet my love.

It still amazed me that he’d been living right under my nose for nearly four months, and we’d never noticed each other. How was that possible? But of course we both had obligations and duties, mine even less pleasant than his. Then . . . only a few weeks ago, we had spoken, and his hand had brushed mine, and I had known.

He was kind, not like the other soldiers posted here to oversee the silver mines. He whispered to me softly and touched me as if I were made of glass, and he listened when I spoke. I’d never known how starved I’d been for someone to listen until he filled that empty space.

He was handsome as well, tall and slender, with thick hair and gray eyes.

I couldn’t wait to see him.

Once I was far enough from the encampment, I began to move faster, hurrying toward the place where we always met. I longed to touch his face and curl up with him beneath a blanket so we could whisper to each other and keep warm. Even when I’d barely eaten all day, those moments fed me more than the richest venison stew with fresh bread.

Though I knew most men looked at me with hunger—a wild slip of a dark-haired girl—I still could not believe this was happening, that a lieutenant of Prince Lieven’s soldiers, connected to the House of Pählen, loved me . . . wanted to marry me.

But he said we must keep our love a secret for now, until he could arrange for a transfer to a new post. I knew he was right, for I was the plaything of his captain, and if the truth came out, neither I nor my lieutenant might ever leave this place, so I guarded our midnight meetings like sacred treasures.

Still moving through the trees, I spotted the small clearing ahead, beside a stream, where we so often met, and I wondered if he was already here.

“Sullian?” I called quietly.

To my surprise, I was answered by a groan—that sounded like someone in pain.

“Sullian?” I repeated, this time in confusion, and I stepped into the clearing.

He was there, in his chain armor and his brown tabard, but he was bent over, holding his stomach. I ran to him. Vomit pooled on the ground before him, and saliva ran from his mouth.

“What is it?” I asked. “You are ill?”

Instead of answering, he stared at his own hand, and when I followed his gaze, my heart nearly stopped.

“No . . . ,” I whispered. This could not be happening to him. Not to him.

He gagged, trying to spit the saliva from his mouth.

“Mariah, go!” he choked out. “Run!”

I didn’t move.

He managed to stumble a few steps away from me, and I stood, rooted. Fur began sprouting from the exposed skin on his face and hands. He fell to the ground, writhing in pain. His hands continued to change, with his nails growing into claws, and then his chest began to expand. He was crying out in agony, and there was nothing I could do to help him.

I am Móndyalítko, and I have watched the shifters among my people change forms many times. It looked nothing like this. A true shift happened quickly, effortlessly . . . painlessly, from human form into animal form. It was as simple as breathing.

What was happening to Sullian was something else, something ugly and unnatural.

His cries of pain were so loud that he must have alerted the night watch, and I heard shouting.

“Where’s it coming from?” someone called.

“Over there!” someone else answered.

If they saw him, they would kill him.

“Get up,” I begged without moving any closer. “You must hide!”

He didn’t seem to hear me.

His dark brown tabard ripped into several pieces as his body continued to expand. His face elongated, and still I stood staring. A row of fangs grew in his mouth. I knew I should run, that within moments, he would no longer be himself . . . although this, too, was different from the way of my people’s shifters, who always remained themselves in either form.

But again, what was happening to