The silhouette was little more than a shadowy blemish behind the protective shroud of linen. Stained as the sheet was with previous inhabitants of the room, it should have been difficult to see those little things that made her unique, but things that should be are not always so. The rogue curl that grazed the slope of her brow. The stern, sharp edge of her nose. Those elegant hands, tucked together. All bathed in moonlight as the rope creaked and the silhouette gently turned behind the curtain, as feral voices called for more blood.
Little steps, bandaged by a wiggle skirt. A bowl full of goodies, bristling with myriad sugar-induced comas.
Trick or treat!
A witch’s cackle. The laughter of children.
Thank you, but painted faces fall as little red boxes rattle into outstretched pillow cases.
The door shuts. The bowl sets down, awaiting the next gaggle of zombies, mummies, and black cats.
A thud. A crack. A splotch of yellow and white spilling down the windows.
Oh, those little savages!
A sigh. The rustle of newspaper. You shouldn’t have given them raisins, dear.
The timbers were stained black, weathered by years of peat fires filling the house with smoke. hey were the constant, the bones of the house. As children were born and lost, as minds were moulded and shaped, still they remained, unchanging. Hair greyed and skin sagged. Holes were dug and generations lost. Suns rose and set, and still the timbers watched over the family, a constant, silent guardian.
It had been many years since he last looked at the blanket.
Long and kite-shaped, with lace trim and one quilted side – it had been the blanket for his son. He was going to wrap that fragile, new body in the soft wool, cocooning, protective, and warm. He would watch those tiny grasping fingers curl around the corded lace and pull at loose threads; he would watch it get stained with mud and tears, blood and food – with the messes of childhood. He would treasure it long after his son was grown; he would perhaps even swaddle in it a grandson one day.
So many plans. So many ifs.
It had been twenty years. That blanket had never touched his son, and never would.
With a heavy heart, he folded it up and put it away.
It was the wire that saved my life.
It was the summer of my twenty-second year, and I was apprenticing as an electrician. A good job for a small town; even though my boss was a drunk, people still went to him because there was no one else.
It was the lamppost outside Macy Thompson’s house. It had been flickering for several weeks and when it finally died, she called me and Bob to come fix it. He was drunk; he was always drunk. But I knew enough to figure out the problem alone.
A hot day in summer, at high noon. After only ten minutes, I was sweltering. Macy saw and offered me lemonade. I would have been a fool not to accept.
It was light. Refreshing.
When I was finished, I thanked Macy for her hospitality and I went back outside.
The sky was dark. Curious, but only a cloud passing over the sun, I thought. I went back to my work, and saw what might have been the problem: an exposed wire dangling from the lamp. I got my ladder and set it up, and just as I was staring up at the wire, about to climb, the first feather fell.
Forty years have passed, and still we don’t know why the pheasants destroyed our town. For years, Bob’s screams haunted my dreams. But now I have made my peace. I was able to warn Macy Thompson and save our lives that day, because of the exposed wire.
They look weird.
What are they?
I dunno. Touch one.
Why me? You touch one. You’re the one who found them.
C’mon. You found ’em.
But they look like balls.
So? You can’t touch balls? Grow a pair and touch them.
Fine! Fine. If I die, tell my mother this was all your fault.
He had been following the trail for days.
It could have been longer. He lost track of time around the fourth pair.
Well, he was finding a pair a day, generally speaking, and he had how many now?
With a weary groan, he lowered himself to a mossy boulder by the stream and pulled his bag off his shoulder. Folded neatly atop his foraged food and camping gear were his finds – his curious treasures. One, two, five… eight… eleven. Eleven pairs altogether. So he had been on the move for eleven days, more or less.
He folded them back into his bag and hoisted it onto his shoulder with a grunt, then cupped his filthy hands and filled them with water from the stream he had been following all day. Refreshed, he reoriented himself and set off through the brambles and branches.
Sunset came, washing the valley in a burnished glow. He paused, panting softly, to admire it. One good thing about his strange quest, he supposed, was how he was subject to the intricate beauties of the wild.
He turned back to the deer paths he had been following – and froze when the glorious sunlight filtered through a jagged hole. His heart swelled and he raced over and snatched them off the branch from which they dangled. Another – and a new direction in which to search.
With a renewed sense of accomplishment, he set off into the woods, clutching the twelfth pair of ripped and ragged pants.
They came in a swarm.
One by one at first, a steady trickle of polished black, like the heartwood of ebony hacked at random. Then they came together. Gossiping back and forth—Did you hear? The news is out. It’s all anyone can talk about!
They came in a swarm.
Viscera and carnage lay untouched for mere moments, then word spread like wildfire and the gossiping biddies came calling.
They came in a swarm.
Hair tangled but untouched. Clothes smeared and stained. Bones picked clean and hollow, just waiting to be bleached by the sun. Bit by bit they feast. Bit by bit they heave their roasts home. Devourers of death. Decomposers of life.
They came in a swarm.
The reek of black powder stung her nose and clung to the back of her throat. The cough jerked out of her, and she clapped a hand to her mouth as if she could stifle it after the fact.
With a thud muffled by padding, the gun lowered. A face appeared through layers of wool and linen, brows arched in question.
She choked back another cough, eyes burning, and shook her head. She was fine. It was nothing.
Fathomless brown eyes gazed at her for another long heartbeat, then he nodded and turned back to his work.
Standing on her toes, she peered over his head. It was as much to do her job as it was to escape the sharp odour of gun powder.
The snowy expanse was untouched save for the delicate tracks of the creatures they stalked. He hadn’t hit anything.
Fine black grains streamed from the tip of the horn into the waiting maw of the barrel. She watched it disappear, like the tiny wriggling worms frantically consumed by the baby robins in their tree. Ugly bald heads poking up over the rim of the makeshift nest—she had watched them for hours.
A grunt to get her attention, then they stood from their hideout and crunched through the snow, to follow the tracks of their prey.
Jain was furious.
There was no other word for it. The rage building up inside her, pressure building in her chest, was primordial and black, threatening to overcome her. Shortening her breath, darkening her vision; she clenched her fists in her silk skirts and shut her eyes, slowly counting in her head to help calm down.
“Do not speak to me right now,” she snapped. Opening her eyes, she saw her scholar and steward, and two guards who were sworn to protect her and follow her every move, all gawking at her in stunned silence. “Ye can’t just go and—and—”
“Lady Jain.” The steward’s voice was oddly comforting, and she fixed him with a dark stare. He didn’t even flinch, but kept smiling cordially. Behind him, the ill-fated messenger was looking at his feet, visibly trembling as he turned his crushed hat in his hands. “’Tis the will o’ yer father, the king. Ye can’t go against it.”
“Why?” She flung her arms out, making the soft silk of her dress rustle and whisper. “This is all mine, no? And he’s got a mind to just steal it all from under me?” Tearing her heated gaze from the steward, she looked at the room they stood in. It was Castle Hailstone’s vast library, with oak shelves and leather-bound books from all ages and regions, and cherry wood desks, plush armchairs, and velvet curtains. Oil portraits of the Wastes’ past counts decorated the papered walls, gilded on the edges. “What does my mother think o’ all this?”
“’Tis the word of the king, milady,” the steward said again. Jain’s eyes narrowed into sharp slits as his falsely cheery smile flickered, then faded out and his lips pressed into a humourless line. “Ye can’t go against it, nay matter what ye wish, and neither can your mother. Your brother is the new heir—”
“But I was born first!” she shrieked. The rage poured through her veins like white-hot fire, erupting beneath her pores to make her itch and writhe. Her corset was too restricting; her breath was laboured, and her jaw trembled with the effort to keep from screaming herself hoarse. “I am the heir! He can’t just take it from me just because Mother spawned something with a prick!”
Beside her, her scholar’s eyes bugged. “Lady Jain, I never—”
“No,” she interrupted, holding up one perfectly manicured hand to keep them from talking. “Ye’ll listen to me. I am your future queen! Father will see the error o’ his ways, and he’ll fix. He always does.”
A thin silence fell over the library as her final words left her lips. Biting her tongue to keep from further lashing out, she glared down her subjects—men who were sworn to protect her, because she was the Nation’s rightful heir—visually daring them to speak out and defend her father’s foolish actions.
After a pregnant pause, the messenger cleared his throat. Jain’s scowl darkened, upsetting what could have been pretty features, and he quickly looked away from her gaze.
“Just so ye know, milady,” he whispered, gripping his hat so tightly that his knuckles turned white, “yer brother’s name is Gideon.”
Jain watched with blind eyes in heavy silence as the steward saw the messenger out of the library and castle, thanking him quietly for his information, and he was serving his king so well. The hate and anger was receding, bubbling back to the depths deep inside her where it usually hid, rarely to be provoked so heinously. She blinked several times to clear her vision, then slowly sat back on her velvet, cushioned armchair and set her hands on the cherry desk in front of her.
She waited with demure patience until the steward returned. He bowed deeply, folding his hands behind him, and said, “Yer father, His Majesty the king, wishes ye to finish your studies here in Hailstone, milady, and then he will have ye sent to the City to meet your new prince.”
Jain swallowed something hard that had formed in her throat. “Get out,” she hissed, and the rest of the men in the room bowed respectfully, then backed from the room, leaving her in solitude. The deafening silence of being alone pressed in on her from all sides, forcing her to ponder what her father did to her and to the kingdom. Staring blankly at the smooth lines of the cherry desk, Jain sat, and she waited.