Legend tells of a sorceress, the Willow Woman, living within a white tower outside of the great city of Ethcabar, who owns a vast hoard of strange and curious items. If you bring her something precious to add to her collection, she may grant your wish—or curse you.
But when a vile lord from the Sixth Hell learns of the Willow Woman's powerful gifts, he sends his slave Barbarus to bribe her. By peering into her magical Moon Well, the Willow Woman glimpses an astonishing future—one that promises to bring her joy, though it could plunge the world into war and chaos.
A story of selfishness, friendship, betrayal, and hope, The Feather and the Moon Well is a magical tale built within the fringe of Irish mythology.
It is the first novel by Shean Pao in the epic series, The Brilliance of Sun.
Shean is an ambitious, imaginative new author, a writing student of bestselling author David Farland. Dave was so impressed with Shean's first novel, THE FEATHER AND THE MOON WELL, he suggested that we use it as the innaugural novel in his "David Farland Discoveries" line for WordFire. It fit right in with this bundle. – Kevin J. Anderson
A Knight's Tale
The wind gusted at Anarra's cloak with sudden fervor, causing her to press into a shielded alcove and yank up her fallen hood. Did anyone see me? She searched the crowded fair, her hand keeping her hood in check, but the nearby townsfolk were watching acrobats on a stage. No one seemed to have noticed the diminutive figure in gray.
She wondered why she had come to the city, but she couldn't recall. Painting supplies? Not smart to risk being caught over pigments and brushes. They might find me.
She didn't remember what "they" looked like, or their names. There was little of her past that she could bring to mind anymore, but the terror of it still haunted her.
You came to ease your loneliness.
Anarra winced at that thought, holding her hood fast while stepping into the causeway.
Someone grabbed her hand. She spun, alarmed.
An auburn-haired knight bent a knee in the mud before Anarra's small frame, gripping her fingers tighter when she tried to pull away. His helm rested in the crook of his other arm, plumed in an array of short, blue feathers. A surcoat emblazoned in teal and yellow lay over his gambeson. "I plead with you, milady." He spoke loudly. "Will you not wear my favor and grant me good fortune in the next tournament?"
The knight's brazen actions attracted a passing group of commoners. They moved to encircle Anarra and her suitor.
She stared hard at the knight, confused by the magical pull that emanated from him. He is just a man. No need to fear him.
"What are you doing?" she whispered close to his ear while he knelt. She noticed blue-gray eyes, full lips, and broad shoulders, but his handsome features stirred wariness within her rather than attraction.
"Asking for your Lady's favor," he whispered back. Their gazes met, and a sly smile tilted his lips.
He's using a Compelling! Anarra straightened, shocked that his meager spell had the ability to hold her. Irritation added to her fear as she perceived how the surrounding crowd unknowingly added their energy to his trap. He was drawing on their brí to strengthen the spell.
Circles held power, she knew, especially ones created by people who fixed their attention upon an object in its center. She saw it all flash within his devious eyes. That was why he'd made a scene of kneeling in the mud—to draw a crowd.
This obviously wasn't his first attempt at a Compelling; he was too skilled. How many other unfortunates has he forced into his will with his powers? She supposed his elevated station had resulted from witchery. Here was a knight with no honor.
He must have expected the anger in her thoughts, for he shook his head and said, "I would not do something you might regret." He glanced casually at the surrounding group, his expression calculating.
Anarra let go of her hood and clutched the small bag of fragrant wizard's purple hanging from her girdle. She crushed the delicate flowers, trying to control her rage. Was there a way to extract herself without alerting the crowd? I must handle this subtly. Once I am free of him I can vanish into the throng of people and cast a Scattering to obsure myself.
A tendril of fear curled in her mind. She'd already lingered too long in Ethcabar. The city was dangerous for so many reasons. She still had time—if she left now.
"Gracious knight," she said, "you appeal to a lady who is not worthy of your attention. I must decline." It was a polite refusal, one he did not deserve.
But Anarra had forgotten about her voice. It held a blend of the ocean and delicate chimes within its tone, thrumming with an ethereal cadence.
Whispers exploded among the intimate group, like sprites from a dandelion bursting in the wind.
"Let us see the lady!" a bold man called, jerking down the hood from her head.
A collective sigh and murmur rose from the revelers. They drank in her white-blonde hair, falling unusually short to her collarbone. They supped upon her childlike features, her crimson, gentle mouth. Their gazes softened on pale, perfect skin and lingered on eyes so dark they seemed black.
Fear exploded inside Anarra like shards of light. How dare they! I will be seen! She tried to lift the hood over her face, but the knight had risen to his feet, and he drew it down again.
The crowd had grown still around them.
Do they recognize me?
No. None of them were old enough to remember the Willow Woman. A decade had passed since anyone had brought her a token or received a blessing for their offering. They have forgotten me.
Earlier that morning, rain clouds had drizzled over the fields, then fled while the sun rose. The Festival of Lights would be held at twilight, luring country folk into the city from miles around. The promise of the tournaments, the king's gifting ceremony, the merchant rows, and the feasting tables energized the air.
She had wanted so much to be a part of it, to feel warm bodies jostling about her, to join in their laughter.
Those were false promises, Anarra, she told herself. Loneliness drove you here.
Self-recrimination splashed crimson across her cheeks. The fair had spoiled in her eyes, like fruit grown rotten on the branch, swarming with flies.
She had arrived under the guise of an artist, bringing slender sticks of charcoal for sketching and new paintbrushes of fine sable. She should have left earlier, content with her trinkets and her little outing.
Fear, anger, and sadness swirled in a whirlwind within her. If not for the crowd, she would have vented her wrath upon the knight without hesitation. Boils should have erupted like magma on his arrogant face for daring to work his craft on her, an Aes Sidhe.
But the townsfolk's presence demanded restraint. Pushed the wrong way, they could transform into a mob. Better to manipulate them to her advantage, use them to waken old tales long forgotten. Let them remember the Woman of the White Tower so they would bring her gifts again. That thought brought her some satisfaction.
The knight's grip had tightened as he stood, his eyes widening as he heard her voice and gazed full upon her features. Anarra saw what he desired. He believed he could draw upon her power to galvanize his tourney skill this day. Named Champion, he would lead the Brilliance Walk to the king's throne. The winner's purse would be his.
Anarra offered a hard smile. He did not understand who she was; he saw but a glimmer of the power he sought to exploit.
Fool! He is not worthy of my blessing.
She started to draw on the Threads within the Void to speak her curse upon him. Perhaps she would delay the spell a while, let it fester beneath his flesh.
But he interrupted her. "'Tis I who am not worthy," he announced loudly. Before she could pull away, the knight slipped a ribbon around her wrist.
From the slender fabric dangled a rectangle of double-sided brocade, embroidered with a blue feather to represent his house. Woven into its symbol was a hand-stitched rune of binding meant to force Anarra to his will. He pulled the slip noose tight, though she had not given him consent.
Anarra's breath hitched as the cord sealed the Compelling upon her with more brí than she'd suspected he possessed.
The townsfolk's merry chatter darkened when they saw the Ladies' Custom broken by unuttered acknowledgement. It was the woman who should offer a strand of ornamental ribbon first—the Lady's Favor—and the lady who should speak the traditional words. But the knight paid no heed to the crowd's disapproval.
The noose had fettered her before witnesses. Had they been alone, she would have struck his face. Anarra was unable to deny him with so many eyes upon her and the ribbon binding her in a Compelling.
She seethed with fury, though she maintained outward calm. Now he was detaining her, exposing her to public view. Her enemies might see her. Every minute she spent outside of her tower threatened her life.
The knight has tempted fate, wanting to leech my power for his own. But he will pay. He has stoked my wrath. Unwittingly, he had given a token to the Willow Woman and asked for a boon. He had appointed her the director of his destiny.
Anarra focused on the Thread that now linked them, following her power as it flared along the Strand, and the knight's life opened before her, like scenes drawn on paper. She saw his deeds, how he wielded his power—the atrocities he had committed, the murders. She released the link, not needing to see more.
Forcing a smile, she allowed a tiny silver ribbon to dangle teasingly from her fingers. He seized it eagerly and pinned it to his surcoat. Later, when he took time to look, he would find that no symbol of her house adorned his Lady's Favor.
By custom, she now had to witness his duels upon the field and represent his luck in battle. The Compelling left her no choice. If he won, she would have to present him with a kiss before the whole ensemble. Anarra had no intention of allowing him such fortune.
She turned to enter the crowd in the common field, seeking to hide within their multitudes. She thought she still might be able to disappear among them and avert the disaster ahead. But the townsfolk restrained her. They insisted that she join the other women in the knights' box, elevated beside the king's dais. From that area the ladies were to watch their champions charge at one another with swords, bludgeons, and axes. She was fated to witness blood spray and bones shatter.
Several women led her to the knights' box as the tournaments commenced. She shone like a flame in the darkness among them, though she wore no headdress like the noblewomen accompanying her. No veil of pearls or towering mantle of braids or ornamental latticework of gold. Not even a stiff, beaded high collar to proclaim her station. She was plain, displayed like a simple peasant among nobility, when she should have been more highly esteemed than a queen. There was no space left on the benches for her to be seated. She gripped the rail, her body stiff with fury, while she stood beside a handful of other latecomers.
Anarra suffered the townsfolk's attentions while she waited for her knight's turn. Two hundred peasants crowded into the field to watch the battles.
Most of their stares speared her instead.
She trembled in indignation, mortified to endure the scrutiny of others. But the murmurs surrounding her were worse. Ladies and lords seated within the stands whispered behind their fingertips, gazes pinning her soul. Centuries before, she had withstood such embarrassment. She shied away from the fragment of that memory.
How could I forget the stink of their bodies, their simple-mindedness? I am Aes Sidhe. Immortal. I do not need their companionship.
Even more terrifying, she had forgotten things she should remember. The danger of leaving her tower was one of them. She had painted to erase her past, but her memories had frayed like a tapestry, as if someone was ripping the threads, cutting them apart.
During the hour that followed, a variety of warriors pranced and fought in the tourney field before her. Steel and skill wove a dance of limbs and sweat, and though they battled hard, injuries were few.
Every moment that she stood upon the platform seemed harsher to endure than the last. Each second increased her dread that she had stayed too long in Ethcabar.
Those fears were not unfounded.
A quiet sensation seeped into her awareness, a trembling on the Threads like the exploring touch of a predator. A dark presence watched her from afar, she realized. They had found her.
Anarra tried to leave the knights' box, but the press of bodies trapped her within it. Her only recourse would be to divert the crowd, but how? Any hand gestures or words of magic she performed would be witnessed by all.
Wrath and fear climbed like twists of fiáin fire in her spirit, and blood pounded in her ears.
That knight has ruined everything.
There he was, arriving on the field, riding a magnificent black stallion. Her knight and his opponent approached the knights' box. Cheers rose while they saluted their ladies, then prepared for the joust.
It was hard for Anarra to cast her more subtle weaves in full daylight, though not impossible. Her true craft drew on the moon and stars and their sinuous Strands of force. But such enchantment was not her only skill. She possessed darker sorceries as well, learned in books and scrolls during the long centuries secluded in her tower—magic that did not rely upon the brí of the heavens.
Anarra didn't need to break the knight's hold on her to kill him. She whispered a spell beneath her breath, then traced a fingernail over his token within her hand.
On the field, the knights saluted their king, then each other. Their squires lifted their lances to settle into their cups. The flag snapped, and their mounts thundered down the path along the railing, gaining speed.
Anarra blew softly across her palm, directing her breath at his horse. Just as the lances crossed, her knight's charger shied, its eyes rolling within their sockets, then began a wild bucking.
Lances struck and wood exploded. The knight's body was thrust into the air, then spun backward over the saddle. His visor flew up, revealing a stunned and wretched expression of surprise as bright blood spewed from his lips. Sunlight tilted off his armor, and then he hit the ground with a crunch of crumpled metal.
The crowd's gasp resounded over the field like cloth tearing.
But Anarra was hardly finished. The charger cavorted upon the knight's body in a rampage of pounding hooves until someone dared to grab the reins and drag him away.
Anarra's silver ribbon, pinned to the knight's surcoat, bled crimson and shriveled into a ball, soaked in his blood.
Four squires carried the knight's shattered body from the field. Shards of wood had splintered through his throat; his limbs had been broken into strange angles, trampled by his crazed warhorse. A violent death, even by Anarra's standards, though she had shortened his suffering, if only to flee the box sooner.
The crowd surged and dispersed like ants panicked into confusion. Released from the knight's meager spell, Anarra drew up her hood and vanished into their midst.
As she left the town, the sun sank below the horizon, and the Lighting Ceremony commenced. Poles were lifted and set into sheaths driven into the cobblestones along the streets. Lanterns swung from their ornamental curved tips, illuminated by scores of starflurries trapped within. The insects spun and struck at their glass prisons like sparks from a smith's forge, a multitude of tiny, clinking suns vainly seeking freedom.
The Willow Woman escaped the city of Ethcabar. But she kept the knight's token dangling from her wrist—a trophy she would add to her collection. Though its spell was spent, it would be forever branded with the memory of his lifeless gaze.
* * *
Barbarus crouched like a gargoyle atop the stables to watch the tournament, his presence cloaked from wandering eyes by magic. The suarachán sank the long, black claws of his feet into the lip of the eave and settled his chin on his knees. The fingers of one hand trailed over the withered muscles in his right leg, gnarled from injury. It often ached in damp weather; here in the warmth of the sun, his leg felt gloriously free of pain.
Barbarus studied the knight's bloodied body while the stretcher bore him away. Focusing his powers of Eastóscán sight, he viewed the blue Strands of the Willow Woman's magic twisting around the corpse, then fading like spirits teasing out a soul.
For months he had searched for a sign with little hope of finding her. When he'd learned of the fair, he had arrived with the goal of discovering someone who would set him on the trail of the Willow Woman.
But he had struck closer than he had dared dream when he saw her on display high above the tourney fields. Witnessing her fearsome enchantment upon the knight, he knew this was the woman he had seen displayed in his master's magical flames.
Barbarus tracked the departure of Anarra's cloaked figure as it vanished into the crowd. He leaped down into the throng, desperate to follow, but the hundreds of bodies packed into the streets swallowed her.
Her Thread fluttered, spiderweb thin, a fading scent on the air. Barbarus cursed, panic twisting his gut. He raced through the crowds, moving surprisingly fast despite the limp caused by his twisted leg.
No! I cannot have lost her! He sagged against the whitewashed building of a cloth merchant while the festival grew more excited. He rubbed fretfully at his shorn horn.
Colorfully masked men appeared among the spectators, swirling bright ribbons or long burning reeds. The laughter grew more riotous, disturbing his concentration.
Barbarus trembled at the thought of returning to Rash'na'Kul without knowing where to find the Willow Woman. His master's patience had been wearing thin for weeks.
Think of something! He cast his Sight into the crowd but failed to find her. Until … he heard whispers rustling among the townsfolk like wind through a field of wheat.
"Tuatha Dé Danann."
"The Willow Woman."
"The Woman of the White Tower"
Barbarus followed their Threads, moving quickly before their murmurs faded.