The trampled snow coating the road into our village was speckled with brown and black from passing carts and horses. Elain and Nesta clicked their tongues and grimaced as we made our way along it, dodging the particularly disgusting parts. I knew why they’d come-they’d taken one look at the hides I’d folded into my satchel and grabbed their cloaks.
I didn’t bother talking to them, as they hadn’t deigned to speak to me after last night, though Nesta had awoken at dawn to chop wood.
Probably because she knew I’d be selling the hides at the market today and would go home with money in my pocket. They trailed me down the lone road wending through the snow-covered fields, all the way into our ramshackle village.
The stone houses of the village were ordinary and dull, made grimmer by the bleakness of winter. But it was market day, which meant the tiny square in the center of town would be full of whatever vendors had braved the brisk morning.
From a block away, the scent of hot food wafted by-spices that tugged on the edge of my memory, beckoning. Elain let out a low moan behind me. Spices, salt, sugar-rare commodities for most of our village, impossible for us to afford.
If I did well at the market, perhaps I’d have enough to buy us something delicious. I opened my mouth to suggest it, but we turned the corner and nearly stumbled into one another as we all halted.
“May the Immortal Light shine upon thee, sisters,” said the pale-robed young woman directly in our path.
Nesta and Elain clicked their tongues; I stifled a groan. Perfect. Exactly what I needed, to have the Children of the Blessed in town on market day, distracting and riling everyone. The village elders usually allowed them to stay for only a few hours, but the sheer presence of the fanatic fools who still worshipped the High Fae made people edgy. Made me edgy. Long ago, the High Fae had been our overlords-not gods. And they certainly hadn’t been kind.
The young woman extended her moon-white hands in a gesture of greeting, a bracelet of silver bells-real silver-tinkling at her wrist. “Have you a moment to spare so that you might hear the
Word of the Blessed?”
“No,” Nesta sneered, ignoring the girl’s hands and nudging Elain into a walk. “We don’t.”
The young woman’s unbound dark hair gleamed in the morning light, and her clean, fresh face glowed as she smiled prettily. There were five other acolytes behind her, young men and women both, their hair long, uncut-all scanning the market beyond for young folk to pester. “It would take but a minute,” the woman said, stepping into Nesta’s path.
It was impressive-truly impressive-to see Nesta go ramrod straight, to square her shoulders and look down her nose at the young acolyte, a queen without a throne. “Go spew your fanatic nonsense to some ninny. You’ll find no converts here.”
The girl shrank back, a shadow flickering in her brown eyes. I reined in my wince. Perhaps not the best way to deal with them, since they could
become a true nuisance if agitated-
Nesta lifted a hand, pushing down the sleeve of her coat to show the iron bracelet there. The same one Elain wore; they’d bought matching adornments years ago. The acolyte gasped, eyes wide. “You see this?” Nesta hissed, taking a step forward. The acolyte retreated a step. “This is what you should be wearing. Not some silver bells
to attract those faerie monsters.”
“How dare you wear that vile affront to our immortal friends-“
“Go preach in another town,” Nesta spat.
Two plump and pretty farmers’ wives strolled past on their way to the market, arm in arm. As they neared the acolytes, their faces twisted with identical expressions of disgust. “Faerie-loving whore,” one of them hurled at the young woman. I couldn’t disagree.
The acolytes kept silent. The other villager- wealthy enough to have a full necklace of braided iron around her throat-narrowed her eyes, her upper lip curling back from her teeth. “Don’t you idiots understand what those monsters did to us for all those centuries? What they still do for sport, when they can get away with it? You deserve the end you’ll meet at faerie hands. Fools and whores, all of you.”
Nesta nodded her agreement to the women as they continued on their way. We turned back to the young woman still lingering before us, and even Elain frowned in distaste.
But the young woman took a breath, her face again becoming serene, and said, “I lived in such ignorance, too, until I heard the Word of the
Blessed. I grew up in a village so similar to this- so bleak and grim. But not one month ago, a friend of my cousin went to the border as our offering to Prythian-and she has not been sent back. Now she dwells in riches and comfort as a High Fae’s bride, and so might you, if you were to take a moment to-“
“She was likely eaten,” Nesta said. “That’s why she hasn’t returned.”
Or worse, I thought, if a High Fae truly was involved in spiriting a human into Prythian. I’d never encountered the cruel, human-looking High Fae who ruled Prythian itself, or the faeries who occupied their lands, with their scales and wings and long, spindly arms that could drag you deep, deep beneath the surface of a forgotten pond. I didn’t know which would be worse to face.
The acolyte’s face tightened. “Our benevolent masters would never harm us. Prythian is a land of peace and plenty. Should they bless you with their
attention, you would be glad to live amongst them.”
Nesta rolled her eyes. Elain was shooting glances between us and the market ahead-to the villagers now watching, too. Time to go.
Nesta opened her mouth again, but I stepped between them and ran an eye along the girl’s pale blue robes, the silver jewelry on her, the utter cleanness of her skin. Not a mark or smudge to be found. “You’re fighting an uphill battle,” I said to her.
“A worthy cause.” The girl beamed beatifically.
I gave Nesta a gentle push to get her walking and said to the acolyte, “No, it’s not.”
I could feel the acolytes’ attention still fixed on us as we strode into the busy market square, but I didn’t look back. They’d be gone soon enough, off to preach in another town. We’d have to take the long way out of the village to avoid them. When we were far enough away, I glanced over a shoulder at my sisters. Elain’s face remained set in a wince, but Nesta’s eyes were stormy, her lips thin. I wondered if she’d stomp back to the girl and pick a fight.
Not my problem-not right now. “I’ll meet you here in an hour,” I said, and didn’t give them time to cling to me before slipping into the crowded square.
It took me ten minutes to contemplate my three options. There were my usual buyers: the weathered cobbler and the sharp-eyed clothier who came to our market from a nearby town. And then the unknown: a mountain of a woman sitting on the lip of our broken square fountain, without any cart or stall, but looking like she was holding court nonetheless. The scars and weapons on her marked her easily enough. A mercenary.
I could feel the eyes of the cobbler and clothier on me, sense their feigned disinterest as they took in the satchel I bore. Fine-it would be that sort of day, then.
I approached the mercenary, whose thick, dark hair was shorn to her chin. Her tan face seemed hewn of granite, and her black eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of me. Such interesting eyes- not just one shade of black, but … many, with hints of brown that glimmered amongst the shadows. I pushed against that useless part of my mind, the instincts that had me thinking about color and light and shape, and kept my shoulders back as she assessed me as a potential threat or employer. The weapons on her-gleaming and wicked-were enough to make me swallow. And stop a good two feet away.
“I don’t barter goods for my services,” she said, her voice clipped with an accent I’d never heard
before. “I only accept coin.”
A few passing villagers tried their best not to look too interested in our conversation, especially as I said, “Then you’ll be out of luck in this sort of place.”
She was massive even sitting down. “What is your business with me, girl?”
She could have been aged anywhere from
twenty-five to thirty, but I supposed I looked like a girl to her in my layers, gangly from hunger. “I have a wolf pelt and a doe hide for sale. I thought you might be interested in purchasing them.”
“You steal them?”
“No.” I held her stare. “I hunted them myself. I swear it.”
She ran those dark eyes down me again. “How.” Not a question-a command. Perhaps someone who had encountered others who did not see vows as sacred, words as bonds. And had punished them accordingly.
So I told her how I’d brought them down, and when I finished, she flicked a hand toward my satchel. “Let me see.” I pulled out both carefully folded hides. “You weren’t lying about the wolf’s size,” she murmured. “Doesn’t seem like a faerie, though.” She examined them with an expert eye, running her hands over and under. She named her price.
I blinked-but stifled the urge to blink a second time. She was overpaying-by a lot.
She looked beyond me-past me. “I’m assuming those two girls watching from across the square are your sisters. You all have that brassy hair- and that hungry look about you.” Indeed, they were still trying their best to eavesdrop without being spotted.
“I don’t need your pity.”
“No, but you need my money, and the other traders have been cheap all morning. Everyone’s too distracted by those calf-eyed zealots bleating across the square.” She jerked her chin toward the Children of the Blessed, still ringing their silver bells and jumping into the path of anyone who tried to walk by.
The mercenary was smiling faintly when I turned back to her. “Up to you, girl.”
She shrugged. “Someone once did the same for me and mine, at a time when we needed it most. Figure it’s time to repay what’s due.”
I watched her again, weighing. “My father has some wood carvings that I could give you as well -to make it more fair.”
“I travel light and have no need for them. These, however”-she patted the pelts in her hands -“save me the trouble of killing them myself.”
I nodded, my cheeks heating as she reached for the coin purse inside her heavy coat. It was full- and weighed down with at least silver, possibly gold, if the clinking was any indication. Mercenaries tended to be well paid in our territory.
Our territory was too small and poor to maintain a standing army to monitor the wall with Prythian, and we villagers could rely only on the strength of the Treaty forged five hundred years ago. But the upper class could afford hired swords, like this woman, to guard their lands bordering the immortal realm. It was an illusion of comfort, just as the markings on our threshold were. We all knew, deep down, that there was nothing to be done against the faeries. We’d all been told it, regardless of class or rank, from the moment we were born, the warnings sung to us while we rocked in cradles, the rhymes chanted in schoolyards. One of the High Fae could turn your bones to dust from a hundred yards away. Not that my sisters or I had ever seen it.
But we still tried to believe that something- anything-might work against them, if we ever were to encounter them. There were two stalls in the market catering to those fears, offering up charms and baubles and incantations and bits of iron. I couldn’t afford them-and if they did indeed work, they would buy us only a few minutes to prepare ourselves. Running was futile; so was fighting. But Nesta and Elain still wore their iron bracelets whenever they left the cottage. Even Isaac had an iron cuff around one wrist, always tucked under his sleeve. He’d once offered to buy me one, but I’d refused. It had felt too personal, too much like payment, too … permanent a reminder of whatever we were and weren’t to each other.
The mercenary transferred the coins to my waiting palm, and I tucked them into my pocket, their weight as heavy as a millstone. There was no possible chance that my sisters hadn’t spotted the money-no chance they weren’t already wondering how they might persuade me to give them some.
“Thank you,” I said to the mercenary, trying and failing to keep the bite from my voice as I felt my sisters sweep closer, like vultures circling a carcass.
The mercenary stroked the wolf pelt. “A word of advice, from one hunter to another.” I lifted my brows.
“Don’t go far into the woods. I wouldn’t even get close to where you were yesterday. A wolf this size would be the least of your problems. More and more, I’ve been hearing stories about those
things slipping through the wall.”
A chill spider-walked down my spine. “Are they-are they going to attack?” If it were true, I’d find a way to get my family off our miserable, damp territory and head south-head far from the invisible wall that bisected our world before they could cross it.
Once-long ago and for millennia before that- we had been slaves to High Fae overlords. Once, we had built them glorious, sprawling civilizations from our blood and sweat, built them temples to their feral gods. Once, we had rebelled, across every land and territory. The War had been so bloody, so destructive, that it took six mortal queens crafting the Treaty for the slaughter to cease on both sides and for the wall to be constructed: the North of our world conceded to the High Fae and faeries, who took their magic with them; the South to we cowering mortals, forever forced to scratch out a living from the earth.
“No one knows what the Fae are planning,” the mercenary said, her face like stone. “We don’t know if the High Lords’ leash on their beasts is
slipping, or if these are targeted attacks. I guarded for an old nobleman who claimed it had been getting worse these past fifty years. He got on a boat south two weeks ago and told me I should leave if I was smart. Before he sailed off, he admitted that he’d had word from one of his friends that in the dead of night, a pack of martax crossed the wall and tore half his village apart.” “Martax?” I breathed. I knew there were different types of faeries, that they varied as much as any other species of animal, but I knew only a few by name.
The mercenary’s night-dark eyes flickered. “Body big as a bear’s, head something like a lion’s
-and three rows of teeth sharper than a shark’s. And mean-meaner than all three put together. They left the villagers in literal ribbons, the nobleman said.”
My stomach turned. Behind us, my sisters seemed so fragile-their pale skin so infinitely delicate and shredable. Against something like the martax, we’d never stand a chance. Those Children of the Blessed were fools-fanatic fools.
“So we don’t know what all these attacks mean,” the mercenary went on, “other than more hires for me, and you keeping well away from the wall. Especially if the High Fae start turning up- or worse, one of the High Lords. They would make the martax seem like dogs.”
I studied her scarred hands, chapped from the cold. “Have you ever faced another type of faerie?”
Her eyes shuttered. “You don’t want to know, girl-not unless you want to be hurling up your breakfast.”
I was indeed feeling ill-ill and jumpy. “Was it deadlier than the martax?” I dared ask.
The woman pulled back the sleeve of her heavy jacket, revealing a tanned, muscled forearm flecked with gruesome, twisted scars. The arc of them so similar to-“Didn’t have the brute force or size of a martax,” she said, “but its bite was full of poison. Two months-that’s how long I was down; four months until I had the strength to walk again.” She pulled up the leg of her trousers. Beautiful, I thought, even as the horror of it writhed in my gut. Against her tanned skin, the veins were black- solid black, spiderwebbed, and creeping like frost. “Healer said there was nothing to be done for it- that I’m lucky to be walking with the poison still in my legs. Maybe it’ll kill me one day, maybe it’ll cripple me. But at least I’ll go knowing I killed it first.”
The blood in my own veins seemed to chill as she lowered the cuff of her pants. If anyone in the square had seen, no one dared speak about it-or to come closer. And I’d had enough for one day. So I took a step back, steadying myself against what she’d told me and shown me. “Thanks for the warnings,” I said.
Her attention flicked behind me, and she gave a faintly amused smile. “Good luck.”
Then a slender hand clamped onto my forearm, dragging me away. I knew it was Nesta before I even looked at her.
“They’re dangerous,” Nesta hissed, her fingers digging into my arm as she continued to pull me from the mercenary. “Don’t go near them again.”
I stared at her for a moment, then at Elain, whose face had gone pale and tight. “Is there something I need to know?” I asked quietly. I couldn’t remember the last time Nesta had tried to warn me about anything; Elain was the only one she bothered to really look after.
“They’re brutes, and will take any copper they can get, even if it’s by force.”
I glanced at the mercenary, who was still examining her new pelts. “She robbed you?”
“Not her,” Elain murmured. “Some other one who passed through. We had only a few coins, and he got mad, but-“
“Why didn’t you report him-or tell me?”
“What could you have done?” Nesta sneered. “Challenged him to a fight with your bow and arrows? And who in this sewer of a town would
even care if we reported anything?”
“What about your Tomas Mandray?” I said coolly.
Nesta’s eyes flashed, but a movement behind me caught her eye, and she gave me what I supposed was her attempt at a sweet smile-probably as she
remembered the money I now carried. “Your
friend is waiting for you.”
I turned. Indeed, Isaac was watching from across the square, arms crossed as he leaned against a building. Though the eldest son of the only well-off farmer in our village, he was still lean from the winter, and his brown hair had turned shaggy. Relatively handsome, soft-spoken, and reserved, but with a sort of darkness running beneath it all that had drawn us to each other, that shared understanding of how wretched our lives were and would always be.
We’d vaguely known each other for years- since my family had moved to the village-but I had never thought much about him until we’d wound up walking down the main road together one afternoon. We’d only talked about the eggs he was bringing to market-and I’d admired the variation in colors within the basket he bore- browns and tans and the palest blues and greens. Simple, easy, perhaps a bit awkward, but he’d left me at my cottage feeling not quite so … alone. A week later, I pulled him into that decrepit barn.
He’d been my first and only lover in the two years since. Sometimes we’d meet every night for a week, others we’d go a month without setting eyes on each other. But every time was the same: a rush of shedding clothes and shared breaths and tongues and teeth. Occasionally we’d talk-or, rather, he’d talk about the pressures and burdens his father placed on him. Often, we wouldn’t say a word the entire time. I couldn’t say our lovemaking was particularly skilled, but it was still a release, a reprieve, a bit of selfishness.
There was no love between us, and never had been-at least what I assumed people meant when they talked about love-yet part of me had sunk when he’d said he would soon be married. I wasn’t yet desperate enough to ask him to see me after he was wed.
Isaac inclined his head in a familiar gesture and then ambled off down the street-out of town and to the ancient barn, where he would be waiting. We were never inconspicuous about our dealings with each other, but we did take measures to keep it from being too obvious.
Nesta clicked her tongue, crossing her arms. “I do hope you two are taking precautions.”
“It’s a bit late to pretend to care,” I said. But we were careful. Since I couldn’t afford it, Isaac himself took the contraceptive brew. He knew I wouldn’t have touched him otherwise. I reached into my pocket, drawing out a twenty-mark copper. Elain sucked in a breath, and I didn’t bother to look at either of my sisters as I pushed it into her palm and said, “I’ll see you at home.”
Later, after another dinner of venison, when we were all gathered around the fire for the quiet hour before bed, I watched my sisters whispering and laughing together. They’d spent every copper I’d given them-on what, I didn’t know, though Elain had brought back a new chisel for our father’s wood carving. The cloak and boots they’d whined about the night before had been too expensive. But I hadn’t scolded them for it, not when Nesta went out a second time to chop more wood without my asking. Mercifully, they’d avoided another confrontation with the Children of the Blessed.
My father was dozing in his chair, his cane laid across his gnarled knee. As good a time as any to broach the subject of Tomas Mandray with Nesta. I turned to her, opening my mouth.
But there was a roar that half deafened me, and my sisters screamed as snow burst into the room and an enormous, growling shape appeared in the doorway.