Red Cloak Moon by Fiona Lawless

CHAPTER1

Once upon a time…

* * *

Thierry huddled beneath a thin blanket, listening to his parents argue. The farmhouse—a hovel, really—was never meant for a family of nine, so even hushed whispers carried to every ear. Other sounds carried too. You didn’t create seven children without passion. Thierry was the middle child. He’d come between his alpha brothers, Jean and Julien, and beta sister, Esme—and the three omegas: twins, Ophelia and Olive, and baby Alice. He shared his bed with Julien and Jean, and since they’d shot up and filled in, he barely had three inches of the outermost sleeping space to cling to at night.

“He’s unnatural.” Pa’s voice was low enough that it only carried when he raised it. Which was always. “This proves it.”

“It is what it is, isn’t it? People will forget all about it in time,” said Ma.

“No one will forget. Every time I’m in town, someone starts yapping about our omega boy. It’s not what they say to my face that bothers me, it’s what they say behind my back. They think we’re cursed.”

“Cursed, bah. With seven healthy children from six pregnancies? I’d say we’re Goddess blessed, may we be worthy.”

“You’re too soft, Amelie.”

Thierry had heard all this before. The argument was a nightly ritual of sorts. If his parents weren’t making children, they were fighting. More often than not, they fought about him.

“I won’t listen to you call any of my child cursed.” Ma shifted, probably turning her back on him.

I never said he was cursed. It’s what they think in town. What if they’re right?”

“Titou is a bit different.”

“Don’t listen to ’em,” Julien mumbled.

“He isn’t a bit different. He’s not right,” said Pa.

“You’re not right,” Ma muttered.

“Come on. Who ever heard of an omega son? Thierry’s thirteen. He should be growing into manhood, but he still looks like a child. He’ll be useless as paint on a pig if he doesn’t grow.”

“People bloom when they bloom.”

“I was shaving at his age. My voice had dropped. Thierry is neither/nor, and people are taking notice.”

“Well? What do you want me to do about it?” she asked.

“We should keep him home from now on.”

“What about school? He’s smart. His teachers always say so.”

“I need him here on the farm. And we can’t have him running about like he does. What if he ruins the girls’ chances?”

Thierry sat up and drew on his shirt.

“Where are you going?” Jean caught him by the wrist.

“Outside.”

“Don’t listen to them. She always gets the upper hand. It’ll blow over.”

Until the next time.“I have to piss.”

Jean shoved him. “Go then, cabbage. But don’t be so sensitive.”

“I’m no more sensitive than you.” Thierry left the house quietly. The last thing he wanted was for his brother to think he was upset.

After he took care of business, he looked up. The night was clear, the cloudless sky black as pitch. A half-moon frosted the tops of the trees in the forest beyond their shabby farm. Stars glittered like gems—thousands upon thousands of diamonds—winking and twinkling and even streaking across the vastness as he watched. He was nothing compared with nature. He was less than a speck of dust.

Jean was right: why should he be so sensitive? His problems wouldn’t matter in fifty or a hundred years. He’d be dead and long forgotten, but all of nature would still be there as wild and beautiful as ever.

A faint, out-of-place sound caught his attention—a mockingbird’s song—the little warble a most welcome intrusion into his black mood. His friend Charles appeared a second later.

“I hoped I’d find you awake.” Charles gave Thierry his dimpled, mischievous smile. “There’s a star shower tonight. It’s been going for an hour.”

“I saw one!” Thierry followed him behind the barn, where he watched the older boy pull out his pipe. The scratch of a match illuminated his familiar face: blue eyes, a slightly crooked nose, fair cheeks—once chubby—hollowed with a recent growth spurt and now featuring a spotty beard.

Charles’ family were their closest neighbors, and they’d gone to the same one-room school; at least they had until Charles found his magic and left to attend the local mage’s academy.

Charles was a year older, and Thierry had always been a little in awe of him.

Wherever Charles was, mischief and excitement were sure to follow.

“How come you’re out here? I thought I’d have to give our signal and wait for you to join me, like always,” Charles said.

“They were at it again.” Thierry rolled his eyes.

“They’re coupling?” Charles asked wickedly. “There’ll be another bundle of joy for you to look after five moons from now.”

“Nah, they’re fighting. It’s what they do now, mostly.”

“Oh, sorry.” All the cheer fled Charles’ features. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Since he’d confided in Charles, Thierry shouldn’t feel awkward about him knowing what his parents fought about, except that he did. Charles had been kind when Thierry’s omega status became apparent; he’d shown real empathy. Charles was well-favored, athletic, and skilled in rudimentary magic. His parents were proud of him. Thierry wished he knew what it felt like to have parents who only ever said good things about him.

They watched a few shooting stars curve across the sky in silence.

“We haven’t heard much about male omegas,” said Charles, “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any others.”

“I know.”

“I mean, imagine you were one of those farmers who go to sleep when the sun sets and wake when the sun rises. You’d miss all this, wouldn’t you?” He motioned toward the sky. “If someone then told you that stars blaze across the sky like fiery boulders launched from a trebuchet, you’d have trouble imagining it. That doesn’t make it any less true.”

“You think there are more omegas like me?” Thierry asked.

“Well, it stands to reason. You exist, and only a handful of people know about you. There’s a whole huge world out there, Titou! Why not imagine there are other male omegas, equally hidden and wondering about the same thing?”

Thierry’s breath caught when their gazes met. By day, Charles’ eyes were so blue they were like cornflowers. At night, in the moonlight, they appeared silver. Some emotion powered Charles’ earnest expression, some excitement.

“But I don’t believe there’s anyone quite as perfect.” Charles’s gaze held his.

Heart beating faster, Thierry wasn’t sure how to put a name to what he saw. Very deliberately, Charles knocked out his pipe and put it back in his pocket.

“I like you, Titou.” Charles’ throat worked. “You’re unique, not weird.”

“Thanks for that.” Thierry knew Charles meant the words kindly.

“No, I mean I like you.” Charles wrapped his hand around the back of Thierry’s neck and pressed their lips together, shocking him and at the same time claiming a kiss that felt so utterly natural he wondered why they’d never done it before.

Thierry’s body went all fluttery and hot.

Thiswas the best thing ever to happen to him.

It was as if the stars they’d been watching fell on him, sank into his skin, and fizzled over his cock.

“Charles.” He gasped and pulled away. Charles’ eyes widened with horror.

“You didn’t like that. Oh, blast. Oh, blast, oh, blast.” Charles darted away, muttering the words over and over. “Blast, blast, blast!”

“Wait, Charles. Wait!” Thierry chased him down and pressed a kiss to Charles’ cheek. He didn’t need to see the fiery flush to know it was there. He could feel the heat against his lips.

“It’s all right. I liked it. You just surprised me.”

“I never meant to—” Charles took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You liked it?”

“Of course, I liked it.” Thierry let his hands slide down Charles’ arm to clasp his wrist. “Let’s do more.”

“All right. I liked it too. I want to do it again. But—” Charles’ eyes widened, and he tugged Thierry toward the trees. “That’s not why I came. I have something to show you. You’ll never believe—”

“Hey.” Thierry resisted. “Slow down. My mind’s in pieces right now.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Charles gave a pleased grin.

“What does it mean? Why did you kiss me?”

“I told you. Because I like you.”

“But—”

“Have you never heard of courting, Ti?” His eyes danced with mischief.

Thierry’s mouth dropped open. “You’re—”

“It’ll be ages until I finish school, and until then I have to rely on my parents. But we’ve been best friends forever, and lately, I’ve realized”—he swallowed hard—“it’s more than that for me.”

“But I’m a boy,” Thierry argued.

“You’re a good person. You work hard. You’ll be an omega fit for any alpha, and I’ll be a mage. No one tells an alpha mage what to do.”

“Your parents will murder—”

“Psht.” Charles shrugged it off. “My parents want me to be happy. I’ll be happiest with you, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know.” Thierry had loved his kiss. “Maybe you should kiss me again so I can—”

Charles mouth crashed into his, and the tip of his tongue ran over the seam of Thierry’s lips seeking … what? Entrance? Hesitant and somehow eager for more at the same time, Thierry opened to him.

If that first kiss felt like star showers, this one was a bonfire. Thierry’s whole body seemed to go up in flames. If he had any doubts about his manhood, Charles vanquished them. Sudden, helpless desire drove him to kiss Charles with primal urgency that was wholly new to him but old as the earth beneath his feet.

“Oh, Goddess.” Charles whimpered as they broke apart. “I thought we were going to have to practice a bit before we got good at things.”

“You’re a natural, I think.” Thierry staggered into him.

“You, too.” Charles wrapped both arms around him and kissed his forehead.

“You wanted to show me something? I’m all yours.”

“Goddess, you’re going to kill me.” Charles chuckled. “I do want to show you something but not that.”

“Oh, fiddle.” That was disappointing.

“At least not while we’re young and penniless, and we don’t know whether you can have children or not.”

“Wait. What?” Thierry shoved him away. “Shut up!”

“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’ve never wondered whether a male omega can bear a child.”

“I have never wondered about that.” Thierry folded his arms. “Not once. Not ever.”

Charles let out an exasperated sigh. “The world is made up of—”

“Charles, I have a penis. I’m familiar with where babies come from and—”

“Ti, since you’ve matured, you smell like every other omega.” Charles caught Thierry’s hand before he could shove him again. “I’ll bet you’re even feeling slick now. You smell delicious, like something ripe and tasty.”

Thierry froze. He squirmed. Was that … Did he feel something? Oh Goddess. His head swam.

“I think I’m going to be sick.” Thierry bent over, bracing his hands on his knees just in case.

“Oh, Titou. I’m sorry.” Charles rubbed circles on his back. “I assumed you’d know.”

“How would I?”

“You’re only a year behind me. Haven’t you ever”—Charles swallowed—“experimented a little?”

“Where? Our house is so small you can hear every fart. We sleep three to a bed.”

“Well, now you know,” Charles offered. “That’s why we need to take things slow. I won’t even graduate from the academy until I’m eighteen, and we’ll have to wait a year after that before you’re of age. There is plenty of time for you to learn about your body.”

Thierry almost felt betrayed. Charles had known this … this crucial thing about him, and he’d never considered mentioning it? Not once?

“Glad you finally let me in on things.”

“Don’t be like that, sweetling. You’re only thirteen. With your status, I thought surely your mother might have told you.” Charles slid his hands around Thierry’s waist and kissed his nose, stilling him. “Can I call you sweetling?”

“Not where anyone can hear you.”

“But you don’t mind?” Charles asked gently. “Now that we’re courting, I can call you my sweetling?”

“All right.” Thierry felt naked beneath Charles’ intense gaze. He lowered his eyes. Tilted his chin up. Realized he’d given Charles, an alpha, his submission.

Goddess, this is real.

I’m an omega, and Charles is an alpha, and … this is real.

When we grow up, we might be mates.

“Now will you come with me?” Charles wrapped an arm over Thierry’s shoulder and drew him toward the woods. “I hope we haven’t missed the show.”

“What show? What are you talking about?”

“You’ll see.” Charles was now alive with excitement of a different kind. “Only, when we get there, you must stay behind me and be as quiet as you can.”

Even on a clear night with a half-moon shining, parts of Hemlock Forest made Thierry uneasy. It was dense with trees and thick undergrowth. Locals still hunted there, and woodcutters eked out a living, but in these times, only hermits, outlaws, and those made destitute by the king’s high taxes attempted to make their homes within the forest.

As boys, Thierry and Charles had explored the forest together many times, but something about this night felt different.

Instead of entering the woods behind Thierry’s farm like usual, Charles lead him to the trader’s road and into the village of Amivienne, where they passed taverns and shops and fine houses.

“Where are we going?” whispered Thierry.

“To a place where Hemlock Forest is steeped in magical tradition.” Charles’ eyes sparked with deviltry as he lifted a tiny glass sphere, lit it with some kind of golden magic, and held it beneath his chin. “The shadows are deeper, and the unknown is more unknowable there.”

“Right.” Thierry gave an eyeroll.

Mages.They spoke in Old Rheilaise, wielded their intellect like fine steel, and loved nothing more than scaring the nonmagical. Thierry adored Charles the person, he truly did, but the older boy was going to be an unbearable mage. He’ll be harmless, though. Probably.

When they reached the Temple of the Sisters of the Merciful Moon, Charles stepped off the rutted dirt road and into the virgin woods. The path they used was little more than a matted, brown battle of contention between the human feet that used it and the forest that wanted to reclaim it.

Did Charles know what he was doing?

The woods north of Amivienne could be extremely dangerous.

Thierry had never been there before. Except for the sisters, who were known to go about with lanterns at all hours to aid the sick and deliver babies, few stepped off the road used by merchants and travelers. If Charles had a reason for going farther into the trees, Thierry didn’t know what it could be.

Charles had also kissed Thierry.

Charles had caressed him, given him a pet name, and practically planned out their whole future.

Until that moment, Thierry had been ignorant about … everything. Thierry would take his memories of this night and put them in an imaginary keepsake box, to take out and think about another time, because now, it took all of Thierry’s attention to move soundlessly over years’ worth of rotting vegetation. They made their way as silently as hunters.

Suddenly, Charles flung his arm around Thierry’s waist. The action sent a shockwave of pleasure racing through him, even as it stopped him from taking another step.

“Look there.” Charles pointed ahead.

Some distance away, an unexpected light glowed over the treetops. It was cold and almost green so not a campfire. There was no hint of smoke, no aroma of roasting meat. Just odd light unlike anything Thierry had ever seen before.

He sought Charles’ eyes, now just shadows in the outline of his face.

“What is it?” he whispered.

“Mage light,” Charles answered. “From now on, be silent, and if we’re discovered, run like a lion is chasing you. We’ll split up and meet back at the road.”

“That’s not ominous at all.”

“Shh.”White teeth flashed, and Thierry felt a kiss on his cheek. “Just do as I say, and we’ll be fine. This is going to be amazing. You’ll see.”

They crept forward together, sticking close to the shadows. The going became more difficult as they got closer to the strange light.

When Thierry could finally see what Charles was looking for, things made a little more sense. There was a man in the clearing, dressed in mage’s robes. He was crafting circles and symbols using fat bags of colored chalk and lit candles. The green glow came from a series of orbs floating ten feet off the ground.

A lump in the center of the circles suddenly rose with a piteous yowl. Someone had chained a huge dog and drawn the circles around him. The animal was muscled—the kind used in blood sports like bearbaiting.

“Oh no,” said Thierry. Nothing good ever came from being chained in a mage circle.

“What’s he up to?” Charles mused aloud.

“Charles—”

“Hush, I want to see,” Charles hissed.

Thierry didn’t like to see animals hurt, but he swallowed his protests. Maybe this mage wasn’t planning to harm the animal. Maybe he would be helping it somehow.

The mage added more symbols that Thierry couldn’t make out.

“Look, see?” Charles pointed at the chalk drawing. “It’s like a compass, with the candles glowing at cardinal points. That’s routine, but the symbols he’s drawing now are ones I haven’t seen.” Thierry supposed any magic user would be interested. Magic required a whole lifetime of learning, and Charles had taken to his lessons like bread sopping up milk.

Uneducated, low-level magic users worked small charms in the marketplace, mostly love spells or illusions. Whatever this was, it went far beyond rudimentary. This mage must be one of Charles’ older classmates—or even a teacher—working a spell in private for some reason of his own.

Secret magic practice was lost on a poor rustic like Thierry. He watched without much interest, noting Charles’ obvious delight by the way his gaze followed the fellow’s every move.

Charles had ambition.

Thierry did admire the graceful way the mage moved, the way he sprinkled his powdered chalks, the certainty with which he spoke his incantations. But there was a predatory fierceness to the man that frightened Thierry’s omega. The mage was obviously alpha and more dominant than most Thierry had met. He was clearly a perfectionist. He seemed driven. Thierry couldn’t help but wonder if he was up to no good.

“What’s he want with that dog?” Thierry asked.

Charles didn’t answer. Thierry assumed he hadn’t heard, or maybe he was too mesmerized to reply. Thierry let it go. They didn’t always share the same interests, but watching Charles enjoy himself could be rewarding enough on its own.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Charles whispered after a few minutes. “I know those symbols, but he’s drawn them oddly. I wonder if they teach the upperclassmen to deviate according to their instincts?”

“Maybe so,” Thierry agreed, just to be polite. To him it was like trying to read answers from clouds.

Whatever the mage had planned, he’d set things up to his satisfaction. Dusting chalk off his hands, he stood back and surveyed his work. His brute of a dog whined. He lay with his massive paws out in front, cheeks puffing with each outgoing breath, and shrank back when the mage joined him in the innermost circle.

Thierry looked to Charles with some unease. Charles’ gaze stayed riveted on the mage.

The mage pushed his sleeves to his elbows and raised his arms before beginning an incantation of some sort. Thierry tried to make out the words, but he didn’t understand Old Rheilaise. It was almost like some kind of play until Thierry noticed fingers of oily mist creeping around his feet as if being drawn to the clearing by some central force.

He nudged Charles and pointed down. Charles’ eyes widened with surprise and excitement, especially when the viscous black fog began boiling up from the earth clearing on all sides. Whatever it was, it must be heavier than air. It stayed low, billowing around the magic circle but not entering it.

“Goddess. It’s working.”

“What is it? It stinks.”

“It’s a magnificent display of power.” Charles breathed the words with awe.

Thierry wished he had Charles’ confidence. Instead, he had his mother’s pragmatism. If something had to be done in the forest away from prying eyes, it probably wasn’t something he should see. His shoulders felt the touch of strong, unfamiliar magic, and his instincts took over.

“I think we should go, Charles.”

Charles gripped his hand tighter. “No.”

Fear gripped Thierry. He knew he should leave. But Charles was the mage. He was older. Thierry didn’t want to look like a coward.

He looked back toward the clearing. He stayed where he was.