Lowen craned her neck to watch Aikana hanging in the sky above her, the moon’s light so bright the entire forest bloomed violet. She should have been celebrating the Changing of the Moons with her people but the night was crackling with beauty and there was only one person she wanted to share it with. If only for a little while. Sheltered beneath the fronds of a willow tree on the mossy banks of The Weeping River, Lowen kept a practised ear trained on the night sounds of the forest. The river rushed over stones and boulders, still swollen with the last snowmelt. Above her, the branches of the willow tree caught the breeze and rustled softly against her face. A family of wood pigeons called to each other across the treetops. Lowen became still when the sound she had been waiting for finally reached her, the clicking of hooves against stones and fallen branches. It was a quiet sound, almost imperceptible on the soft grass growing beside the river. Lowen pulled aside the curtain of willow branches and beheld her lover, magnificent against the moonlight. His thick curving horns and powerful satyr’s legs ending in great glossy hooves created an impressive silhouette in the violet dark.
“Good evening, my love,” he said. “Are we not taking a larger risk than usual, meeting tonight?”
“I don’t care,” Lowen replied. She stepped forward to embrace him, having to stand almost on tiptoe to press her lips to his. “I’ve missed you,” she whispered into his hair. She closed her eyes against his skin, breathing in his scent.
“I’ve missed you too, little firefly,” he said.
Lowen kissed him again, gently tugging at his waist until he relented and let her pull him down onto the grass beneath the willow tree.
They had met at a summit held between their peoples the previous spring. Although they were not close tribes, both the Wild Scrat and the Satyr Nation acknowledged they held a shared interest in the life of Nymed, the great forest at the heart of Joria. An official summit to discuss matters that affected both tribes was traditionally held once a year but this meeting had been called by the satyr unexpectedly. As she rushed about making herself ready, Talwyn, the Chieftain’s Second, had been only too happy to talk to Lowen of rumours and gossip.
“I hear that Pyros’s son is missing,” she said as she searched her untidy rooms for her boots. She eventually found them wedged beneath her bed and pulled them out with a triumphant grin. “Can you imagine?” she continued, turning back to Lowen who was waiting patiently beside the door. “Where could he possibly go and leave no trail behind? It’s all very mysterious.”
“It’s also hard to believe,” Lowen said. “There are very few places in the world where a satyr would be able to disappear. I’m sure they would have trouble blending into a crowd.”
“Hence the mystery,” Talwyn said.
The satyr had been unwelcome in much of Joria for a century, ever since their defeat in the Waste Wars. It didn’t help that their height and jutting horns made most people uneasy, even the warrior Scrat. Lowen had always found them fascinating though, devouring the stories her grandmother told her as a child about their peoples’ alliance during the Waste Wars. They had fought side by side, Scrat staff next to Satyr bow and the image of that, of the satyr stampeding towards the enemy beside their nimble Scrat counterparts filled Lowen’s dreams for years. She had begged her mother to let her attend the summit just so she could see them.
“I’m a chieftain’s daughter,” she had argued. “I should know what happens at a summit; I should meet our satyr neighbours.”
“You’ve never shown any interest in leadership matters before,” her mother said. “Besides, Jenifer is my heir. She will be accompanying me.”
Lowen knew better than to argue with her mother but fate obviously decided to intervene that day because Jenifer fell ill shortly before the summit was scheduled to begin.
“It seems you will have your wish,” her mother said once they had gathered for the trek through the forest. She studied her youngest daughter, her expression thoughtful. “Maybe this will be good for you after all.”
The summit started well enough. Lowen remained close to her mother as they approached the ring of felled logs placed around a clearing on the borders of their lands. This was an ancient meeting place they called The Weep, hidden as it was within a bend of the great Weeping River. The satyr had already arrived and were standing in the middle of the clearing. Lowen found it hard not to stare. They were truly magnificent, their thick horns etched with blue and black runes they dyed with ink. Some satyr wore their horns studded with silver rings while others had wound theirs with strings of tiny beads. The height of a satyr’s horns was seen as a mark of strength and power. Pyros, their leader, had the tallest and most heavily decorated horns of all. They curved upwards like two wicked scythes, the top halves painted red and orange to resemble flickering flames protruding from a thick mane of jet black hair he wore loose down his back. His only clothes were leather breeches, worn to the knee as was the custom of the satyr to display tightly muscled legs ending in immense hooves that rapped restlessly against the ground.
Pyros approached the small band of Scrat as they emerged from the trees and bowed before Lowen’s mother. “It is good to see you, Kerra,” he said.
Kerra bowed in return. “It is good to see you, too.”
“Shall we sit?” the satyr offered.
As the leaders perched themselves on two logs and began to talk, Lowen stood obediently behind her mother. The meeting was tedious. While the two leaders calmly discussed news from Armoria and the significance of the current moon phase, Lowen felt her mind wandering. She kept stealing glances at the satyr standing around the clearing. The two female satyrs she could see were no less intimidating than the males. They stood together with arms crossed over their chests, their otherworldly beauty made threatening by the steely challenge in their eyes.
Lowen took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. She attempted to tune back into her mother’s conversation but a sudden prickling sensation made it hard to concentrate. Someone was staring at her. She looked up and locked eyes with a satyr standing on the far side of the clearing. This satyr didn’t wear the same gruff expression as the others. His eyes were kind. Lowen started when he nodded at her, not sure how to react. She looked down at the ground, swallowing hard. The sensation of being watched remained and after a few minutes, Lowen risked another glance. This time, the satyr smiled and Lowen found herself smiling back before she knew what she was doing.
For thirty minutes they gazed at each other until eventually, the satyr inclined his head towards the tree line, indicating that Lowen follow him there. Lowen’s first response was to shake her head ‘no’. She couldn’t leave her mother’s side and besides, the other Scrat would want to know what she was doing sneaking around the clearing. This didn’t deter the satyr. He simply smiled once more, whispered something to a satyr beside him and disappeared into the trees. Lowen stared after him in disbelief. She told herself she wouldn’t follow him. She couldn’t follow him. But a yearning deep in the pit of her stomach was urging her to attempt the unthinkable.
Lowen turned to Talwyn who was standing at her shoulder. “Take my place,” she told her quietly. “I’ll return shortly.”
Talwyn nodded and stepped forward without questioning her. Flushed with relief, Lowen smiled her thanks before slipping quietly from the clearing and out into the night.
It was only as she edged deeper into the trees, her breathing shallow and her palms sweaty, that she suddenly wondered at what she was doing. This was reckless and mad. What, exactly, did she believe was going to happen? The spell broken, Lowen turned, determined to head back to The Weep and try to forget this foolishness had ever happened. She almost stumbled when the satyr suddenly loomed from the dark before her. He looked concerned as she took an instinctive step back.
“Did I scare you?” he asked her. “I did not mean to.”
Lowen stared up at him. He seemed so tall now he was this close to her. His horns were curled more tightly to his head than those of his companions, curving back against his dark brown hair.
“I’m not scared,” Lowen lied. “I am Scrat, we don’t feel fear.”
“Then why are you shaking?”
“It is a cold evening.” She paused, taking in his long legs, marvelling at the monstrous size of his hooves. They didn’t look like the hooves of a typical beast. They were polished to a high shine and glinted in the moonlight.
The satyr looked down at himself, following her gaze. Lowen wondered if the short dark hair covering his legs, stretching from beneath his navel to the tops of his hooves where it sprang back in loose curls, was soft or course to the touch. She reached out a trembling hand, stopping herself just in time.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said. “I should return to my mother.”
“Kerra is your mother? You must be Jenifer, then. My name is Nicanor and I’m afraid my family has no such noble heritage.”
“Jenifer was taken ill this afternoon,” Lowen said. “My name is Lowen, I’m her younger sister.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lowen.” When Lowen didn’t reply the satyr’s smile disappeared. “You really don’t have anything to fear from me. I just wanted to meet you.”
“Why did you want to meet me?” Nicanor countered.
To her horror, Lowen felt herself blush. “Fascination, I suppose,” she said. “I’ve never seen your kind before.”
“We tend not to stray from our lands,” Nicanor said.
The conversation could have ended naturally at that point. Lowen would have politely thanked him for talking to her and slipped back into the clearing, happy in the knowledge she had finally met a satyr. That was until Nicanor spoke again.
“By the gods, you’re beautiful.”
They reached for each other simultaneously, Nicanor bending low to reach her while Lowen raised herself onto her toes. He cupped his hands around her face, bringing her lips to his with a tenderness that both surprised and thrilled her. Lowen lost herself in that kiss. She lost all sense of time and place and when she finally remembered she was supposed to be back at The Weep, acting the dutiful daughter, she forcefully pushed Nicanor away.
“I must return,” she said.
She began to walk back towards the clearing, her heart heavy, her thoughts confused. When Nicanor reached for her hand she yanked it away.
“Don’t leave yet,” he implored. “I have to see you again.”
Lowen stopped and turned to face him. “But that’s impossible.”
Lowen found herself trembling again. She was afraid of disobeying her tribe, of disappointing her mother. Yet it wasn’t fear flooding her body with shaky adrenaline. With a surge of unfamiliar rebellion, Lowen realised she wanted to see him again too.
“Give me a strand of your hair,” she said, speaking quickly before she lost her nerve.
Nicanor looked confused but he didn’t question her. Lowen took the long brown hair he pulled from his head and wrapped it carefully around a small twig before slipping it into her pocket.
“I have a companion,” she explained. “A magpie. He’s quick and clever and he can find anyone alive if I wrap a strand of their hair around his leg. My grandmother says he is moon-blessed.” She paused. “He could deliver messages for me. If I asked him to.”
“How full of wonder you are,” Nicanor said.
“Did you get lost?” Talwyn whispered when Lowen half-stumbled back into the clearing.
The night had deepened and torches had been lit, the sudden brightness making her squint. “I did,” she said. Then, thinking quickly, “Thank goddess the torches were lit to guide me or I may have found myself waist-deep in the river.”
“That would have been a sight to see,” Talwyn said. “While you were groping about in the dark you missed all the excitement. I was right about Pyros’s son. He finally told Kerra the real reason for calling us to The Weep. He wants to know if we’ll aid him in searching Nymed for his wayward brat.”
Before Lowen could reply they were silenced by a harsh look from her mother. Talwyn moved to retake her place with the other Scrat and Lowen was left alone once more. Except she wasn’t alone. Through the dancing firelight of the torches on the other side of the clearing, Nicanor was watching her with a secret smile.
In the year since that night, Lowen and Nicanor had been meeting in secret, snatching precious moments beneath the trees before their other lives called them away once more.
Lowen lay in Nicanor’s arms on the spring grass, listening to the bright splashing of the river as she fought sleep. She knew they had stayed away long enough but she didn’t want to leave.
“We should run away together,” she said suddenly. The statement hung in the air for an alarming second. It was something neither of them had dared to voice before.
“You know that’s impossible,” Nicanor eventually said. He stroked her hair but Lowen brushed his hand aside and pushed herself up on her elbows.
“Surely any obstacle is surmountable if you want something badly enough?” she said.
“How would I move about the world beyond these lands? Satyr are feared everywhere they go. I would be hunted like an animal.”
“I’ve heard of satyr using glamour magicks to disguise themselves,” Lowen argued. “If we could only find a witch willing to—”
“Why should I change my appearance?” Nicanor interrupted her. “I’m proud to be a member of the Satyr Nation, I shouldn’t have to disguise myself.”
“No, you shouldn’t have to,” Lowen agreed. “But this is the way of the world, we can’t change that. What we can change are our own destinies, if we only find the courage.”
“It’s not a question of courage,” Nicanor said. “It’s a question of pride.”
“Sod your pride!” Lowen blasted. She rose to her feet and started casting about for her discarded clothes. Pulling them on quickly she turned back to face him. He looked shocked. He’d never seen her fly into a temper before.
“Don’t you ever think about what will happen in the future? We will never be allowed to be together. We’ll probably end up married to other people and what shall we do then?” She looked away, fighting tears. “Don’t you want to be with me?”
Nicanor stood and reached for her, resting her head against his chest. “Of course I want to be with you,” he said. “My heart belongs to you, didn’t I swear it so when I gave you this ring?” He pulled out the ring hanging on a chain around Lowen’s neck and held it up for her to see. “But this situation is very complicated. I don’t think it can be solved by simply running away.”
Lowen stepped away from him, tears still shining in her eyes. “The situation, as you call it, is about to become far more complicated,” she said. “For now a child blooms in my belly.”
She watched Nicanor’s eyes widen, flinching at his deep intake of breath. She waited for him to speak while the forest itself seemed to fall silent. Even the breeze had dropped. Lowen studied her lover’s face, searching for consolation or support. His expression was dark and distant.
“Do you have nothing to say to me?” she finally cried. Nicanor couldn’t even raise his gaze to look at her. Biting back her tears, Lowen turned and bolted into the forest, disappearing beneath the thick canopy of trees.