I am called by many names: Destiny, Fate, Fortune; however, I prefer Moira, for it sounds as if I have a heart.
I do not.
I oversee human destinies, and all things happen exactly as I intend. Some try to deceive me, but I am Moira. I will not be cheated.
OUTSKIRTS OF PUCK’S GULCH, NORTH PROVINCE
On the eve of the New Year, Zander hiked beneath a crescent moon. Tomorrow his life would change, but today he hunted.
The crunch of his leather boots against fresh snow quieted the evening call of the birds until silence surrounded him. He stopped to inhale the crisp air and check the snow for tracks. Rabbit prints led him to a pile of twisted fur and blood. Perfect. The leftover carcass, likely from a hawk kill, would draw the prey he sought. He leaned against the rough bark of a Scots pine, his hemp pants and leather tunic blending with the dried winter thicket, making him nearly invisible—just as he liked it.
A single white feather hung down the side of the ebony hair Zander tucked behind his ear. He closed his eyes to listen for sounds of Elder Terrec, upon whose land he poached. He tamped down the anger that rose. The elders had no right to control the land when so many in the village hungered.
He willed his energy into the earth, connecting himself to the quiet of the forest. An owl hooted behind him. Although the feathers would fetch a nice price in the market, tonight the owl would live. Father wanted a pelt.
The comfort of the woods tugged him into his center, where his thoughts split between the hunt and the time of magic that would begin the next day. Along with the other sixteen-year-olds in his village, he’d have six months to gain tokens before the five-day quest; six months to win the favor of Moira; six long months to avoid earning omens.
A crunch in the snow caught his attention. He lifted his bow, pulled back the arrow, aimed, and released. His arrow flew true. A coyote twitched and lay still, dead before it could yelp. Father would be pleased if he wasn’t drunk when Zander returned. He strode to the carcass and tied the legs. As he worked, a yip from the dense brush startled him.
“Stars!” He wouldn’t have shot if he’d known she had a pup. It was the wrong season for pups. A tiny amber body trembled in the bush. Zander knelt in the snow and dug in his pocket to offer a sliver of deer jerky. “Come here, boy,” he whispered.
A tiny, black nose appeared and sniffed at Zander’s hand. The pup inched closer and grabbed the meat before pulling it back in the brush. It would be a mercy to kill it. A pup that young wouldn’t survive on its own.
Zander rubbed the back of its neck. It was his fault the pup was motherless. And Zander knew how that felt. He had to care for it or it would die. He could train the coyote to hunt, and Zander could use a friend. Even if it was a scraggly, four-legged one that didn’t talk. Maybe better it didn’t talk.
The pup popped his head out, and his ears twitched forward. His alert blue eyes matched Zander’s. It didn’t make sense unless it was an early patron from Moira.
Zander tensed. He felt a tremor before he heard the three-beat drumming of horses as they cantered across the frozen forest floor—lots of horses. Trying hard to keep from panicking, Zander scooped the pup into his pack, grabbed the dead mother by her legs, and ran. As he fled the land only the elders and Protectors legally hunted, he glanced back.
Zander sped up, the panic rising in earnest. Terrec was the one elder who wouldn’t hesitate to chop off Zander’s hand for poaching.
He smirked. Good thing he could run where a horse could not. He zigzagged through a maze of dried, tangled weeds and disappeared over the edge of the gulch. His feet scrabbled against the rocks as he slid down the steep slopes. After leaping over a fallen log, Zander skidded across a patch of ice and dropped the dead coyote. He scrambled to grab the tied feet and sprinted for the largest oak in the gulch. He followed a small stream, mostly covered in a thin crust of ice, that wound past the tree’s gnarled roots. Once he knew he wasn’t followed, Zander slackened his pace and caught his breath. As he walked eastward down the gulch, Zander heard his name floating from the treetops and winding along the stream.
“Zander,” it whispered.
“Leave me alone, Puck,” Zander hissed. It was a hazard of hiking in the gulch. The founder’s ghost liked to tease him.
“Unite the tribes and save the village,” the tortured voice murmured.
“Tell it to someone else,” Zander muttered. “It’s not my job.”
At the elm tree, he turned and hiked up the steep wall of the gulch. He grunted as he reached the top edge and bent over to catch his breath. No matter how many times he climbed the steep sides, it winded him, but he was safe. No one could prove he’d hunted the coyote on private land. As if a coyote was dumb enough to venture to the fringes where every boy with a bow stomped around. No matter. Elder Terrec hadn’t seen him.
Another successful hunt. Another escape. Another day to keep his hand.
Whistling as he hiked along a worn path, Zander soon came in sight of his home. His cheerful mood evaporated as he watched his father stumble through the door. The jug of mead he carried warned Zander to keep his new pet a secret. He darted to the back of the mud-covered, twig-and-straw hut. Another chunk of clay had fallen off the side, and Father hadn’t seemed inclined to fix it. Zander was the one who slept on the other side of the wall, shivering when the wind blew through.
The stink of lye drifted from the tanning pit and burnt his nostrils. How Father stood it day after day was a mystery. He cleared out a corner in the pelting shed and moved the skins to a higher shelf, where the coyote wouldn’t be tempted to chew them. That would be a sure way for Father to turn the pup into a pelt to match its mother.
He knelt and opened his pack. The pup whimpered as Zander lifted him out. He held out another piece of dried venison. The coyote snatched it and scampered to a corner with the strip hanging out his mouth. A pang of guilt ran through Zander. He’d made the pup an orphan.
“Don’t worry, boy. I’ll come for you after Father passes out.” It never took long. Zander set a bowl of water in the corner and latched the door. He’d be back soon enough.
Zander stepped into the single-room and blinked to adjust to the dark, wondering what mood Father’d be in. He shared his father’s Kharok tribal traits of straight black hair and brown skin, but not his black eyes. After two-hundred years in Puck’s Gulch, most of the tribes had intermingled. It showed in Zander’s blue eyes.
Father slumped over a cup of mead. A loaf of raisin bread and a carrot cake sat on the lone table. Even as the sweet aroma made his mouth water, anger burned in his gut. Father shouldn’t be wasting what little coin they had on treats meant for the rich.
He breathed in and held it, pushing down the fire. Showing emotion had no place in his life. Father had taught him that. Zander felt a perverse satisfaction that he hadn’t cried since he was five. Controlling his anger was taking longer.
“Good hunt?” Father slurred.
“Coyote. I hung it from the post to bleed. I’ll skin it tomorrow.”
Bloodshot eyes glared at Zander. “Only one?”
Zander crossed his arms over his chest. Seconds ticked by as he sifted through a dozen replies. He settled for the one least likely to bring his father’s contempt. It also happened to be the one that was true. “I was lucky to shoot one. Elder Terrec rode through and made enough commotion to scare the prey for miles.”
“The stupidity of the elders knows no end,” Father grumbled. “Were the useless Protectors with him?”
“I’m not sure. I ran.” Most of the elders were arrogant, but the Protectors were different. Zander had a gift with the bow. He dreamed of training with the men who protected their village, rather than apprentice as a furrier with his father.
“Fancy dandies, all they are.” Father stumbled to his feet and punched his fist in the air. “Parading around protecting us from what? Our own people aren’t allowed out at night or to hunt the forests that should belong to all of us. The elders are idiots if they think anyone would invade a piss hole like this.”
Father cared about others? Zander turned to hide his grin. But his ranting about the elders meant Father wasn’t yelling at Zander.
Glassy-eyed, Father teetered in the sparse light of a single lantern. “This came for you today.” He held out a package wrapped in purple cloth and tied with a gold cord. “New year, new group of questers,” he muttered. “Moira loves her drama.”
Zander accepted the parcel. He unfolded the cloth, and rubbed his hand across the white journal. The scent of lavender drifted from the pages. He stilled himself by breathing slowly as he’d learned from hunting. He wouldn’t give away his excitement to Father.
He’d first learned of the time of magic as a ten-year-old. His dream of becoming a Protector had risen the day he’d heard the fortune-teller talk of Moira choosing your destiny.
“Moira’s a foul mistress.” Father rubbed at his eyes. “We raise our kids for sixteen years, and Fate decides who lives and who dies.”
We? The villagers? What did Father mean? Zander had vague memories of a mother rocking him, but Father wouldn’t speak of her. Zander wanted to ask, but he wouldn’t interrupt now. This was more talking than Father had done for a long while.
“You’re prepared for the quest in the gulch. You’ll survive.” Father scratched his forehead. “And then maybe our lives will be good again.”
Zander nodded, but couldn’t remember a time he’d called his life good. After the quest, life would be good if he could move away from Father’s drinking and lying.
Father said, “Tomorrow, you’ll join the other questers in the dedication ceremony. Tonight we’ll roast outside, and let the scent go as it pleases.”
Living so far outside the village had its advantages. Zander snorted. Many times they’d broken the law requiring abstinence of meat before a holiday.
With the quest in his future, three things stood between Zander and his dream. First, he had to prove himself to Moira. His shoulders relaxed. He could do it.
He ran his tongue over a chipped front tooth, a constant reminder of the second. He also had to overcome his terror of riding a horse.
And of course, he had to survive the quest itself.