Midnight Pleasures

Amanda Ashley, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Maggie Shayne and Ronda Thompson

St. Martin's Paperbacks

CHAPTER 1
A distant land before recorded time
IT was midnight on the Eve of First Harvest and he stood alone on a rocky pinnacle of his high mountain, watching the villagers far below as they danced around a fire blazing in the middle of the square.
No mere mortal could have discerned aught but the flames, but the wizard of Darkfest Keep could clearly see the face and form of each man, woman, and child, hear their songs of joy, their shouts of carefree laughter. He saw Adair, the cooper, flirting with a woman who was not his wife, saw young Muggins slip quietly into the shadows with the blacksmith’s daughter. Old Henrew was telling ribald stories to a handful of young men, while Alys the midwife sat apart from the others telling a young maid’s fortune.
Such foolishness, the wizard mused, singing and dancing during the dark of the moon. He could have told them that all the singing in the world would not protect their crops from weevils or drought, or ensure a bountiful harvest. Dancing barefoot in the dirt would not make their women fertile, but who was he to vanquish their hopes and dreams, foolish though they might be?
And when the crops failed and the clouds withheld their moisture, the villagers would take their courage in hand and climb the narrow rocky mountain path to his door. Cowering with fear, careful not to meet his gaze, they would plead for his help. They would bring him golden ears of corn and flasks of spiced wine, a lamb without blemish, the meager contents of the town’s treasury. They would grant him homage and beg for his mercy. And if it suited his mood, he would accept their offerings and grant their boon, and they would hurry away, never meeting his eyes, careful to keep him from seeing that they made the sign against evil behind his back.
Their fear amused him. He possessed many strange and wondrous powers, but, awesome as his talents might be, even he could not perform all the mystical feats of which they believed him capable.
The sound of lute and tambourine floated toward him, borne on the wings of a gentle east wind. And then he heard a voice, her voice, as light as morning dew, as clear as crystal ice. A lovely voice that threaded through the darkness and twined around his soul like a fine silken web.
Channa Leigh’s voice.
It tugged at him, pulling him nearer the edge of the precipice on which he stood, tantalizing him, calling to something deep within his soul as it did each time he heard it. He saw her clearly, sitting on the edge of the well in the center of the village square. Her father, Dugald of Brynn, stood near her side, proud and protective, but Darkfest had eyes only for the fair Channa Leigh. She wore a white apron over a simple blue dress. Her hair, as bright as the sun on a summer day, fell in rippling waves down her back and over her shoulders, glistening in the firelight like a river of molten gold.
This night, her voice beckoned him as never before. Unable to resist, eager to more closely behold the face of the one blessed with the voice of an angel, he gathered his power close around him. He felt it coalesce and he drew it close, feeling it surround him, and then he stepped out into the darkness of space, his body falling like a leaf from a tree, changing from wizard to wolf as he drifted downward to land, as light as dandelion down, on the ground.
“SING another, Channa Leigh.”
“Aye, lass, give us another!”
Channa Leigh smiled as the crowd gathered around her urged her to sing another song. Singing was her one true love, her sole reason for living. Locked in a world of darkness, she had only her music to light her days.
Hands clasped to her breast, she began to sing again, an ancient lullaby she had often heard her mother sing. A hush fell over the crowd, and even the rowdy young men near the tavern fell silent, until the only sound to be heard was her voice, the notes strong and true, blending with the whisper of the night wind and the faint crackle of the flames. The lullaby gave way to a ballad of love lost and found, the words sung with such feeling that many a woman wept silent tears, and many a man, too.
There was a moment of awed quiet as the last note fell away, and then Channa Leigh heard someone gasp, heard someone else softly exclaim, “Look at that!”
She felt the undercurrent of fear that ran through the crowd, heard their shuffling feet as they backed away from her.
“Hold still, lass,” her father called softly.
Accustomed to obeying her father’s every word, Channa Leigh did as she was told. And then, like a ray of brilliant sunshine penetrating a dark cloud, she felt a presence beside her.
“Dinna move, Daughter.” Her father’s voice trembled now. “Dinna move.”
She felt a pressure against her leg, the brush of thick, soft fur against her hand. “What is it?” she whispered.
“ ’Tis a mountain wolf, the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
She should have been afraid. Mountain wolves were huge beasts, some near as large as a draft pony. They were predators without equal.
She should have been afraid, yet she felt no fear at all as the big wolf circled her, his body pressing against her legs. She felt a stirring in the air, a whisper, like the mournful sighing of the wind before dawn. A tingling on her skin, like the touch of the sun after a cold winter. Before she had time to wonder what it meant, the chains of darkness fell away from her eyes. Too stunned to speak, she stared at the creature as he rubbed his huge head against her hand, blatantly begging for her touch. What magic was this? she wondered in awe. What witchery had fallen on her to restore her sight? Hesitantly, she scratched his ears, then ran her fingertips over his head and neck. She was rewarded with a low growl that rumbled like soft thunder. Startled, she drew her hand away, and darkness descended on her once more.
The wolf whined low in his throat, his muzzle pressing against her arm. She blinked and blinked again, and as she sat there, her hand resting lightly upon the wolf’s head, she realized that she was seeing the world through the wolf’s eyes. Her own eyes widened with surprise as she noticed the wolf’s eyes were blue. Who had ever heard of such a thing as a blue-eyed wolf?
“Be still, lass,” Dugald warned softly. “Ronin has gone for his bow.”
“Nay!” Channa Leigh cried. “Nay, Papa, you must not kill it!”
“Are you daft, girl? ’Tis a wild beastie, not a pet.”
Slowly, her hand resting firmly on the wolf’s head, she stood and turned toward the sound of her father’s voice. “Papa? Papa, I can see you.”
Dugald stared at his daughter in astonishment. “Channa Leigh, what are you saying?”
“I can see you.”
“Channa Leigh?” A woman stepped out of the crowd, her pale blue eyes shining with tears.
“Mama? Oh, Mama, I can see.”
Mara stared at her daughter. “But . . . but . . . how is that possible?”
“I dinna know.” Slowly, Channa Leigh glanced around, and she could see them all, the people she had lived with all her life, some whom she had never seen. “ ’Tis a miracle.”
A miracle that ended when Ronin ran forward, his long-bow clutched in his hand. Ronin, who was the best hunter in the village, who provided the village folk with meat summer and winter, who found game when no one else could.
She shouted, “Nay, you must not!” as he put arrow to string and sighted down the shaft.
With a graceful leap and a roar that seemed to shake the very pillars of the earth, the big black wolf disappeared into the night, leaving her in darkness once more.
HE stood once again on the pinnacle of the mountain, shaken to the very foundation of his soul. Her spirit, as pure and clean as the light of dawn, had brushed his, and as their souls collided, the fetters of blindness had melted away and she had seen the world through his eyes. He had felt her joy as she looked upon the faces of her father and mother for the first time since an illness in childhood had stolen her sight. In those few moments, he had felt all of her pain, her sense of being shut off from the rest of the world, her yearning for a home and a family of her own.
How was this possible? In three hundred years, he had performed countless miracles, healed the sick, coaxed rain from the heavens, but never had he plumbed the depths of another soul, nor had another see the world through his eyes.
He gazed down at the villagers. They stood subdued after the incident with the wolf. Had he willed it, he could have heard their voices, read their thoughts, but he closed his mind against them, his whole being focused on the young woman who gazed sightlessly into the distance, her heart silently beseeching the great black wolf to return to her side.