Juno Books

An Excerpt From Master of Shadows by Janet Lorimer

[ Information on Master of Shadows ]

Once upon a time
toward the end of
the 20th Century...

Chapter One

A light dusting of frost iced the street. It crackled beneath Ariel's ashoes, the brittle noise echoing in the empty midnight silence. She winced at the sound, darting into the shadows to avoid being seen.

The full moon hung like a beacon over the shadowed tangle of woods luring her on. She walked as quickly as she could, following the back streets of the village, praying that no one would hear the sound of footsteps and look out a window to investigate.

You must never go into the woods at night, especially if the moon is full.

Old Robena's warning, hissed years ago in Ariel's ear, came back tonight to haunt her. The frightening images the old woman's words conjured had sent delicious shivers down the child's spine but tonight no safe-haven warm bed protected the woman.

They say there's a beast that lives in those woods. A horrible creature that tears out men's hearts and eats them while they're still warm and beating.

Have you ever seen the beast, Robena?

No, but I knew a farmer who lost a sheep in those woods. When he found it, the poor animal was torn to shreds, the blood drained from its body.

I don't believe in beasts. Daddy says--

They say a child wandered into the woods and was lost. When they found her, she told them about a beast that walked and talked like a man.

As Ariel grew older, she tried to pin down the identity of the nebulous "they" but Robena neatly sidestepped the issue. Finally Ariel stopped believing most of what Robena told her. Ariel's mother did not.

"Robena says there's a spring in those woods. She says the water has healing powers," Ada had whispered earlier that evening. Her eyes were bright with fever, her skin slick with sweat. "I must have some of that water. Ariel, be a darling . . . ."

"Mother, it's practically the middle of the night. Tomorrow--"

Ada raised herself on one elbow. "Ariel, I'll die if don't have some of that water. Please."

Ariel groaned, silently damning Robena's crazy notions that fed Ada's fantasies. The village doctor had told Ariel that Ada's illness was in her mind. It stemmed from shock, he said, and a refusal to face the truth of what Ariel's father had done. He prescribed medicines to deal with the symptoms--pills to make Ada sleep, pills to wake her up, pills to kill her imagined pain, while admitting he could not cure her. He told Ariel to take Ada to a psychiatrist.

Ariel felt angry and frustrated. As if she could afford a psychiatrist, she thought bitterly. Easy for the doctor to reel off his prescription; he didn't have her bills to pay.

As the moon reached its highest point, Ariel gave in. "This is your fault," she hissed at Robena as she shrugged on her heavy coat. "Why did you tell her all that superstitious nonsense? Magic water, my foot."

"They do say the water has healing powers," Robena muttered defensively, staring at the floor.

"They say, they say," Ariel exclaimed. "Only they aren't the ones who have to go wandering around in the woods in the middle of the night on this fool's errand, now are they?"

Robena didn't answer.

Ariel grabbed the empty bottle the old woman held and stamped out the door. As she started down the front walk, Robena called softly, "Be careful. Keep your coat buttoned, missy, so you don't catch cold."

Ariel stopped in her tracks and whirled around. "I'm twenty-six years old," she snapped. "Not six. If you don't mind sending me into the woods at midnight, don't remind me to button my coat."

Before Robena could say more, Ariel stalked down the street. She was not a superstitious person; she knew there were no ogres in the woods. At the very worst she might turn an ankle on the trail, but she didn't think she'd lose her way. The full moon would light the path.

On the other hand, she'd be lucky if she didn't get sick, despite what she'd said to Robena. Sleepless nights spent sitting by her mother's bed and worry-filled days wondering about her father's fate and how she and her mother were going to survive had done nothing to build up her resistance.

The moment she set foot on the path, the woods wrapped their evil charms around her like a wizard's black cloak. The dark, the silence almost smothered her. No matter how rational she wanted to be, she had to admit that there was something frightening about these woods at night. She paused, listening, and silence pressed against her ears.

That was what was wrong, she realized. The silence was unnatural. There should have been some sound--the rustle of small animals in the bushes near the path, the rattle of dead leaves falling, the crack of a branch snapping under its burden of ice. Not this velvet nothing. It was almost as if the forest waited, holding its breath.

Suddenly a sharp, high-pitched howl pierced the silence. The moment she heard the unearthly cry, Ariel froze, clapping her hand over her mouth to muffle her exclamation of fear. It was not a wolf's howl, not exactly. There was a human quality to that sound, which was what made it so unnerving. Even though she wanted to bolt back the way she'd come, she forced herself to remain still and listen. The howling sounded again in the distance, sending shudders through her.

Then, just as abruptly as it had started, it stopped. Ariel waited, straining to hear, yet dreading it, but knowing that the cry would tell her how far away the creature was. Nothing broke the silence.

She found herself listening for other noises--the sinister crackle of an animal's feet on the dead leaves, the scratch and click of claws on rock, the soft panting of the hunter on a scent. Her nerves screamed for release and she made herself move on.

The trail, mottled by shadow, was clearly marked because enough people walked it each day--young lovers out for a stroll, children playing Robin Hood, poetic souls seeking inspiration. It wound for nearly half a mile through the trees, until the point where it was bisected by a stout barbed wire fence posted with No Trespassing signs.

Beyond the fence the trail was not so well defined. It was carpeted with dead leaves, overgrown with bushes. Whoever owned these woods apparently did not travel often in this direction.

Ariel reached the barbed wire and stopped for a moment to catch her breath. The fence was no problem; in a few moments she crossed the barrier and stood on the other side.

It was as if she had passed into another world. She shivered, remembering the unearthly howling, more reluctant than ever to go on. She had no sooner thought about it, than it began again, in the distance to her right. She was quite certain this time that it was not the cry of an animal; at the same time it was not fully human.

. . . a man-beast . . .

Ariel took a deep breath and forced herself to think rationally. There were no wolves in these woods; hunters, the ultimate beasts, had destroyed them years ago. Maybe it was a wild dog. That thought didn't reassure her either. The last thing she wanted to meet on the trail was a crazed animal of any kind.

The second cry had come from a distance, as if whatever made the sound was moving away from her. She moved forward cautiously, with no idea how close to the spring she was, but determined to find it, fill the jug and get out of these woods as quickly as possible. Hysteria played tag at the edge of her mind. If she stopped, even for a second, if she let herself think about the howling, she knew she'd run screaming back the way she'd come.

The trees and bushes grew more thickly the further she went. Even the moon had trouble sending its pale rays down through the foliage to light the path. Step by slow step, holding one hand before her, blindly groping, she walked on.

Suddenly the path ended at the edge of a large clearing, a dozen feet in diameter. Bubbling up from the base of a high rock at the edge of the clearing was the spring. The water rose from the earth, filling a natural rock basin, then overflowed into a small stream that disappeared into the depths of the forest.

Ariel dropped to her knees beside the basin. The water was incredibly clear; even now, with only the light of the moon falling over her shoulder, she could see to the bottom. On the surface, her reflection floated, a dark silhouette against the silver globe. She gazed at it for a moment, although she needed no mirror to tell her how awful she looked. Her long hair, so dark a red it was nearly the color of wine, was carelessly plaited, the single braid hanging over one shoulder. Strands had come loose, to float about her face and down her neck. She knew her features bore the mark of worry and despair. Her grey eyes, normally one of her better features, were now ringed with bruise-colored shadows. Her mouth was pinched at the corners, her cheeks hollow. Twenty-six, she thought wryly. More like a hundred and twenty-six, or at least that's how she felt.

A dead leaf from an overhanging branch dropped into the pool, rippling her image, reminding her of why she was here. In her hurry to unscrew the lid of the water bottle, fingers became thumbs and thumbs an impediment. She moaned with frustration, wanting to be done with this nightmare. Then the lid came loose and she thrust the bottle into the water.

In a moment it was full. She fastened on the lid and started to rise. As she straightened, an ominous shadow blocked the pale light and a powerful hand clamped down on her shoulder.

"Do not move. Do not turn around."

The voice was male, deep and harsh in the silence. At the sound of it, Ariel uttered a startled cry. He tightened his grip and she winced, her cry cut off abruptly in her throat.

"Be quiet," he hissed, his breath hot against the back of her neck. She did as she was told. "Who are you? Why are you trespassing on my land?"

"I'm sorry," she gasped. "I know I'm trespassing, but--"

"You did not answer my first question. Who are you?"

"Ariel McPherson. I--"

"Where do you live? The village?"

"No. Yes."

"Make up your mind, Ariel McPherson." She wondered if she only imagined the note of humor in his voice.

She swallowed the lump of fear that threatened to choke her. "Yes, in the village," she said, "but I haven't always lived there. Until two months ago we lived in the city. That's why--"


"My mother and I."

"You are not just a visitor?"

"Not any more."

Perhaps he sensed the bitterness in her voice because he said more gently, "Why do you want the water?"

"For my mother. She's ill. Robena told her--"

"Robena." He spat out the name in disgust.

"You know her?"

"I know of her. She is a wall-eyed old witch who spreads ugly rumors." It was an accurate description, but a little unfair, Ariel thought. The old woman had been her nanny. When she and her mother desperately needed help, only Robena had come to them.

"What did Robena tell your mother?" The man's question broke through Ariel's thoughts.

"That there was a spring in the woods and the water would cure her," Ariel said.

"Humph." Ariel couldn't tell if the sound he made was one of disgust or amusement.

"My mother believes the story," Ariel said. "She begged me to get some. I didn't think anyone would--"

"If your mother is ill, should you not call a doctor?"

Ariel took a deep breath. "Her illness is the result of a shock she had recently. The doctor can't really cure her. He said--" She broke off, drawing in her breath raggedly. Talking about her father's crimes and his subsequent disappearance was too painful.

The stranger's grip loosened a little. He seized her left arm with his left hand, although his right hand remained firmly clamped on her shoulder; he was taking no chance that she might try to escape. He lifted her arm so that the ring on her third finger caught the moonlight and gleamed, as cold and bright as frost.

"Now there is a pretty bauble." Bauble? It had cost Michael a small fortune. "You are engaged to be married?" He didn't wait for an answer. "To one of those louts in the village?"

"Yes. No. I mean--"

His laughter cut across her confusion. "What do you mean, Ariel McPherson?"

"He's not from the village. We were engaged."


She drew a deep breath. This stranger had an incredibly painful way of making her face truths she didn't like. "He--we broke the engagement recently. I meant to take the ring off and send it back, but--"

He moved his hand down her arm, until her hand rested in his, and he turned her fingers so that the light sparked and danced in the ring. She gazed at the hand that held hers. It was encased in a black leather glove and twice the size of her hand; it possessed the strength to crush her bones as easily as she could crush an eggshell. She shivered.

"Are you cold?"

"No." She was surprised by his concern.


"Yes. A little."

"You should be frightened," he rasped. "These woods are dangerous, especially at night, particularly when the moon is full."

Never go into the woods at night, especially if the moon is full.

. . . a beast that walked and talked like a man . . . .

Robena's warnings echoed in her mind and Ariel felt her skin prickle. Was he--?

"What is this?" His hand released hers and she felt the leather-clad fingers part the loose strands of hair at the nape of her neck. He fingered the chain she wore.

"A locket but it isn't worth anything," she said quickly. "The value is purely sentimental. Please, I--"

She felt the chain fall from her neck as he unfastened the clasp and heard the tiny 'click' as he opened the locket. He let go of her to do this and she thought, if I run now . . . . Then she realized that he probably knew these woods better than she knew her own name. She stood no chance of outwitting or outdistancing him.

"Who are these people?"

She realized he was studying the pictures in the locket. The moonlight was bright enough to read by.

"My parents."

"You did not mention your father."

"He-- vanished several months ago." Tears filled her eyes and a sharp ache in her throat constricted further speech.

"His disappearance is the reason for your mother's illness?"


"You are welcome to the water, Ariel McPherson. I hope it cures your mother as she imagines it will. Belief is a powerful charm."

Questions crowded Ariel's mind, but as she started to speak, he pressed the locket into her hand and turned her so that she faced the way she had come, maneuvering her in such a way that he stayed directly behind her.

"Go home," he said, "and do not look back."

At the first turn in the trail, she couldn't resist a backward glance. The clearing was empty, as if he had magically vanished. She knew this was just her imagination; the encounter was so real she could still feel the heat of his breath on her neck and the powerful fingers digging into her shoulder.

At the same time the whole episode had been surreal, fantastic, as if he had indeed appeared out of thin air and then vanished back into it. She could not shake the feeling that he was watching her. She bolted down the trail toward the fence. Branches slapped her face, pulled her hair, and tore at her clothing.

When she reached the barrier, she managed to get through the wire without ripping her clothes or flesh on the barbs. Only when she was on the other side did she pause to catch her breath.

I didn't imagine him, did I, she wondered. The locket was still clutched in her hand and it had not come loose by itself.

Where had he come from? Where had he gone? Who or what was he?

There came a whisper from the darkness. "Good night, Ariel McPherson."

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Copyright © 2007, Janet Lorimer. All Rights Reserved.

Juno Books
copyright ©2007