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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Trapped in Silver Sneak Peak

 

Preview of –

 

Not the complete novel

Copyright © EMILY SOWDEN 2017

This edition published in 2017 by

O F T O M E S P U B L I S H I N G

UNITED KINGDOM

The right of EMILY SOWDEN to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in a retrieval system, in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

Cover design by KimG Design

Interior book design by Eight Little Pages

For mum and dad

who gave me the gift of Time

This is a preview of

“Trapped in Silver by Emily Sowden”

This fantasy novel debuts on February 7th 2017 and you can preorder it on Amazon and all other eBook sites for a lowered price of £/$ 1.99.

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CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

THERE WAS A time I was afraid of the dark.

Once the sun left the sky and the long shadows grew twisted and engulfed the world, I would leap under my parents’ bedcovers to find comfort in their warmth. But then my mother died, and Father and I were alone.

Those were lonely months filled with Father’s cries late into the night. Sometimes I hated them; sometimes I welcomed them; they were the only noises he made. Though it was overwhelming at the time it seemed I had two choices – break or bend – I guess in the end I did a little of both. My skirts were traded for practical trousers, my delicate shoes for hard-wearing boots, and I took up the duties of a son. I tended to the livestock, sowed and harvested crops, built fences and when I was old enough I traded at the market to compensate for my father’s absence. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why he took Roan under his roof six years ago, not only to help protect his land but to keep me from falling into the same despair that clearly suffocated him.

My feet moved automatically along the well-trod path on the farm’s perimeter. The moon was beautiful in its descent, so bright that it drowned out half of the stars in the sky and I looked into the black forest beside me. Yes, I was afraid of the dark once, but it was a fear I could no longer afford.

Something cracked in the woods and I stopped to listen, my fingers wrapping around the carved bone handle of my dagger sheathed at my hip. All was silent. I continued, my hand still resting on the blade gifted to me by Father when I was barely able to walk, let alone fight.

“She’s a girl, Richard,” Mother screamed that day, wresting the knife out of my hands. “We should be teaching her about the duties of a woman, readying her for the day she’ll be Matched-”

“She’ll never be Matched,” Father yelled. “Not here; not anywhere.”

That day – those words – still haunted me. Though I’m sure he meant no offence by them I couldn’t help but obsess over his meaning. In Wetherdon people couldn’t wait to Match their daughters with wealthy, eligible men but not my parents. I was an outlier; an oddity. Not that I minded don’t get me wrong. Barely seventeen, the last thing I wanted to do was be Matched to a narcissist who saw me as little more than a live-in cook and vessel for his seedlings. No thank you. I’d rather take a pitchfork to the eye.

Something tugged at the skin beneath my collar and I readjusted the delicate, silver locket around my neck tracing the design with my thumb. Who the locket had come from, I didn’t know. Where it could possibly have been made was the bigger mystery. Despite its delicacy it was easily as strong as a drawbridge chain, and both the blacksmiths and jewellers in Wetherdon were undoubtedly incapable of such skill. It was damn near close to witchcraft, if it existed. As I grew older though, I became curious. Even some of the wealthier girls in town couldn’t afford such things and for a farmer’s daughter to own something so fine…well, it seemed odd. In the end Father told me that it was a symbol, something that showed I was meant for better things. Though, on certain nights it felt different. It felt stiff and heavy, as if it had a body of its own.

What a ridiculous thought.

When the barn came into view I dropped my hand and picked up a spyglass from the bag I’d hung on the wall, before climbing the old, weathered ladder. Inside, the cows stirred at my footsteps but soon settled after I sat and stretched out my legs, waiting for the sheer monotony of night-watch to be over.

Seconds rolled into minutes, and minutes rolled into hours before something moved in the corner of my vision. It could easily have been a trick of the dark but I focussed on the shadow, pointing the spyglass in its direction. It moved in such a controlled manner that I had no doubt and was on my feet in seconds. Roan wouldn’t be awake; if he was home at all. The idea to watch the fields was mine, after all. A few drunken idiots outside the taverns spoke of thieving from the woods nearby. It didn’t take a genius to guess where the easier game lay. Times were getting hard and it made people desperate.

The figure was cautious in its approach, stopping every few paces to listen while making no noise of its own. But there was something about the way it moved that seemed almost inhuman – like a cat stalking its prey – and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Waves of goose-bumps broke across my skin and I brushed them away, unsure as to which of the night’s factors had caused them. I took a deep breath, cupped my hands together and blew into them, making a hoot I’d trained the dogs to respond to. They were out in a flash, looking up to where I crouched on the roof before I whistled, short and sharp, to set them in the direction of the lurker. By the time I heard the scuffling and snapping of the dogs I was already on the ground, sprinting toward them.

When I reached the field the man wasn’t fazed by my presence, nor by the dogs dutifully snapping at his legs and pinning him to the ground. In my time I’d seen many men wet their trousers under the jaws of my pups, but this one was strange: from the way he looked up at the sky to that way he stared back at me. I approached him carefully, making sure to leave enough room between us before I spoke.

“I warn you now, sir, if you’ve come to steal my sheep you’ll be returning to your hovel in pieces.”

The man chuckled. “You say that with such ferocity and yet I wonder,” he paused, “would you even raise a hand to me at all?”

It took half a second for him to rise from the grass, bypass the mutts and close the distance between us. His mouth twitched into a grin and faltered as he stopped abruptly. Most of his face was hidden by a large, dark hood but even in the dim light I could tell he wasn’t expecting my dagger to be pressed against his stomach.

“Do not underestimate me, sir.” I tried my best to keep my hand from trembling and to ignore the hammering in my chest. If I faltered, he would call my bluff and I’d be in serious trouble. “If you so much as breathe in a way I dislike I will slice you from top to tail.”

He raised his hands and stepped back, trying to hide what looked like a smirk. “I see you carry more on you than a silver tongue. That’s awfully bold behaviour for a girl.”

“What makes you believe that I’m a girl?”

“Call it intuition,” the man said.

“Your intuition is wrong.” My mouth was drier than a sack of sawdust as I fumbled for words. “And who exactly are you to come onto my land and insult me?”

“Forgive me, sir,” he mocked a low bow, “but I trade names: it’s the only fair way to play.”

Something white-hot rippled through me. Who was this stranger to mock me? “Cedar,” I said clearly. I had no trouble giving away that name; it was my shield.

“Mine’s Marcus.” He tipped his head.

Marcus was such a plain name for someone so extraordinary. It didn’t fit. I let my eyes travel across his shadowy form before settling on his eyes. They were such a strange, beautiful shade of grey. The irises swam as though filled with mercury. No, whoever he was he must have been-

“Lying,” I mumbled and cleared my throat. “You’re lying.”

“How do you know I am?”

“Call it intuition,” I glared.

He smirked. “So are you.” His eyes darkened. Yes, I was technically.

Father had nicknamed me Cedar the first time he’d taken to me to the Trading Post as a child. We’d passed girls my age that wore pretty dresses and played with dolls outside their houses and I whined at the shirt and trousers he’d shoved me into. Daeus above, the smack he’d given me when I tried to take off my hat and let my hair down was enough to silence me for a few days afterwards. He’d sat me down and explained to me that it was for my own protection but I didn’t fully understand. Not until a couple of months later, when a series of little girls went missing from beneath their guardians’ noses. The state they were found in made me wish they hadn’t been found at all. Even at such an age I’d quickly learnt the dangers of entering the Post as I was.

I sheathed my dagger and stepped away from the stranger. “Get off my land. I don’t care what your purpose is but you’re clearly not in it for livestock.” I whistled and the dogs circled him, their teeth bared.

“You’ve a way with animals.” He backed up but he was wholly relaxed, his voice steady. Whoever he was, he didn’t scare easily.

“It’s a gift,” I said as my lips pulled into a tight smile.

“Indeed it is,” he started. “-until we meet again, Cedar.”

With that he was gone. Whoever he was, the way my pseudonym dripped off his tongue like honey made my skin tingle and burn. The sound of my heart in my ears was deafening and I rested a hand on my chest as though it would stifle the noise. I shook my head clear and headed back to the farmhouse, grabbing the front porch lantern as I went.

No one outside of the farm knew I called myself Cedar when it was convenient. Even then, only a scattering of people knew that my true name was Ava. I didn’t dress up as me too often. Though I did enjoy the secrecy in some ways: throw on a pair of men’s trousers, tunic and a hat and the people who greeted me as Ava would pass me without a second glance. The townsfolk thought Cedar was my brother. It proved how unobservant the people of this town were.

The old, wooden door opened with a creak before the latch locked shut behind me. The house was dark but for a solitary candle, and I pulled one of the kitchen chairs out and sat down, suddenly feeling a hundred years older. Tiredness hit me like a brick to the face, and every bone and muscle groaned and ached as I sat there in silence, unmoving. Even the creaks and whines of the old beams seemed quieter than usual.

Odd.

The dogs retired to their basket beneath the stairs but quickly became restless, sensing something in the air. I could feel it too, and just like before I waited anxiously for what came next. The windows were glazed with a dark nothing that continued throughout the house. It was the same as always, night after night, just waiting. My guts twisted and beads of sweat began collecting on my brow and on the nape of my neck until, at last, it – it –

It started with a ringing, high-pitched and agonising; it pierced into my head like someone had stuck needles into my ears and an ache ran from one side to the other. The locket around my neck became heavy as it always did and pulled me to my knees violently, anchoring me to the floor. Everything in the room swam, contorted, and switched focus and colour, bringing up shadows and nausea. The dogs leapt from their basket and advanced slowly, nuzzling and nipping at my ears once they were close enough. They whined and licked my hands, bringing me back to the present, and the pain vanished like it always did.

There was never much warning but at least the one predictable element was that the episodes always came at night. At first, it was nothing but a migraine. Within a fortnight it had mutated and continued to do so. I caught my breath and lifted myself off the floor, grabbing the porch lantern with a shaky hand. The candle flame stuttered as I headed upstairs, winking out as I reached the landing. Finally, I threw open my bedroom door and barely had time to release the lantern before sprawling across the bed.

My head swam, twisting and spinning in the shallow darkness before my eyes fluttered open again. I took my time to sit up, no longer surprised that I wasn’t in my bedroom, and welcomed the sensation of the grass beneath my fingers. Even without the sun’s presence, the forest clearing was bright in the moonlight and stars filled every corner of the sky. I lay back again, disgruntled, and brought my hand across my eyes, watching the stars twinkle between my fingers as I wiggled them.

Beautiful.

A scream filled the air as something pricked against my fingers, making me wince. Sharp and violent like barbed wire, the scream wrapped around my chest and pressed against the inside of my skull. I clapped my hands over my ears and squeezed them tight, praying the noise would stop but it didn’t. Clouds drifted across the waning moon and darkness fell. Shadows of unknown creatures moved in the corner of my eyes and disappeared when I turned to look at them. Only the gentle swaying of the trees remained. When I could no longer bear the noise I sprang to my feet and sprinted wherever my instinct took me. The sound was everywhere, bouncing off the trees and reverberating around the clearing, like festival bells ringing out on opposite ends of the temple courtyards. I stayed my path, running until my legs and lungs burned with exhaustion while the once-placid trees turned into clawed hands tearing at me. I felt their wooden talons digging into my face and arms as I broke my way through the dense foliage until, finally, I was there.

The moment I burst through the last line of branches everything was silent. Above, the clouds moved on their way and the moonlight washed over the forest once more. In the centre of the clearing was a small lake; the stillness of its water unnatural like it was made of glass. In the middle of that stood a large stone tablet, easily double my height. On its two faces were intricate carvings that stood out on each glowing surface. Whispers swamped my mind and I shook my head to clear them. Before I could advance on the unusual artefact my heart sank as something moved at the edge of the lake. A shadow. A ghost.

“Hello?” I called out against my better judgement. No answer. I moved closer and called again, louder this time. “Hello!”

The second call sparked something in the shadow, its head tipped to the side and it turned in my direction. From the size and shape of the figure I could only guess it was a woman but the way her head rolled forward and back slowly – the jerky footsteps and moans that escaped her – unsettled me.

I swallowed, trying to will moisture back into my dry throat. “Do you need help?”

The woman shifted toward me, each step becoming more defined, more determined, and every nerve in my body screamed at me to run. I tried, Daeus-knows I did, but there was something familiar about the woman I couldn’t quite grasp. Her body was thin and worn, her clothes tattered and filthy, and as she came into view the top of her ruined dress was covered in blood. Too much of it. I stepped back, my body finally responding to the alarms going off inside my head, and the woman reached out, begging, pleading. Something tugged at me then, a sudden cord wrapped between us and I couldn’t bring myself to flee. Instead I caught the woman’s coarse hands in mine and felt every callous; every scar. Light touched us and I couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t just any woman I was staring at: it was…me. Within seconds the other Ava covered my eyes against the shame of her broken state. It was the last thing I recalled before the pressure lifted and I was alone again.

Something hit me then, something sharp that sent pain searing up and down my arm. Before I could react it started to rain. It made no sense; the sky was perfectly clear moments before yet there it was, cool and wet-

Wait, not cool; hot with a sickening smell.

I lifted one of my hands to see it dripping red as droplet after droplet of blood spattered my skin and carved a path downwards. I was right before, the sky was clear, but the stars above me ran red and wept onto the ground beneath. My other hand stung, drawing my attention back to it and I went cold. A deep laceration ran from my thumb to my forearm and I thought back: the warmth; the stars; when I’d lifted my hand to them before they’d reacted like broken glass, drinking in my blood as a quill takes ink. My lips trembled and a few dull moments passed before the shock subsided and I screamed as my skin began to peel and rot from the wound. The pale, flimsy rind melted into the earth before a new one formed underneath, smoother and stronger than the skin I had. My cries filtered into whimpers as the new layer bled clear: it was perfect. My awe was short-lived as a fresh scream ripped through my throat. The beautiful new skin glowed bright and steamed like a rod in a blacksmith’s fire, and it burned. It burned.

 

I CHOKED ON my own ragged breathing as I shot up from the clumsy straw mattress, my arms draped over my knees. Night after night it was the same thing. My dreams left me sick and fearful as I relived the feeling of burning flesh over and over. The healer in town said that recurring dreams were unnatural. ‘Mental uncertainty’, he’d suggested, ‘an imbalance in the purity of one’s soul’ or ‘a foretelling of things to come’. Even if magic still existed, what would the dream be suggesting? That I was crazy? Yes, I’d believe that.

The dusty light of morning had started snaking its way through the surrounding trees and I looked for the burnt-out lamp, huffing as I pulled it toward me. Bone dry. The oil jug was downstairs too. Straw rustled as I slipped my feet over the bed and onto the creaky, old floor. I shuffled toward my dresser, my slippers nowhere in sight, and cursed the icy floor. Even though the seasons changed, the cold still clung to the house most of the year, making it damp and musty. The shoddily-made drawer opened with a stutter and I rummaged for whatever candles lay within, until my fingers closed around one and a box of matches. The match sparked across the rough stone wall and I held it to the candle; its wick fizzled and cracked, and light bathed the room once again.

The muslin curtains hardly resisted as I drew them back to open the window. Compared to my room, the air outside was clean and biting against my skin, and I pulled on a pair of dark trousers, a plain work shirt and my usual boots before heading downstairs. The dogs greeted me in their own way; whining and licking my hands until I unbolted the door, throwing it open for them. Beneath the sink the wicker basket crackled as I pulled it out, letting the weave stretch after its lengthy rest. I was especially careful to avoid lighting it with the flickering candle. As for Roan, I’d given up checking on him for the morning chores. If he’d slept at all he’d definitely be hungry but it was difficult to predict since his loss. Some days he acted like himself, but most of the time he was a complete stranger to me.

A dizzying pressure erupted suddenly in my head and the candle slipped from my fingers, clattering to the floor and spraying the stone with melted wax. I pressed my hands into my skull as it started to split, the feel of it sending me to my knees.

No, this can’t be happening. Not two attacks so close together.

I reached out and pulled myself toward the sink. Water, I needed water to soothe my burning skin…but something moved outside the window: a shadow dark as the night sky in my dreams. It pressed its horrid, flat hand against the glass, and I watched in terror as its body became more solid and breath fogged the window.

This cannot be real. It can’t be-

A creature crashed into the kitchen and I shrieked, tearing my eyes away from the window. My heart beat erratically as a fat, ginger cat stretched out on the table.

“You stupid little-”

I stopped myself before the obscenities could rain out and grabbed the cat by its scruff, throwing it out the door. It landed with a thump and scarpered, hissing fiercely as it ran. I mumbled under my breath reaching for the fallen basket and splattered candle, glancing quickly at the window. Nothing was there.

Perhaps I was going mad after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

THE SUN HAD kissed most of the buildings in Wetherdon when I entered the kitchen again. Despite the disruption of the previous night, the chickens had produced a substantial batch of eggs, enough to sell at the Post and enough to sneak a few for breakfast. Roan, wherever he was, certainly couldn’t turn down the opportunity of a runny yolk even if he was in a foul mood. I placed the packed basket into the sink and rinsed them with water from the tank, cleaning off any feathers, dirt or straw that clung to them.

“I thought the saying went: ‘don’t put all of your eggs in one basket’,” a gruff voice sounded behind me. I jumped, for the life of me, and crushed an egg between my fingers. “But then, you never were one for old wives’ tales and warnings.” Roan skulked away from me and took a seat at the kitchen table.

“Good morning yourself,” I said, shaking egg from my hand. “I’ve got something that might wipe that frown off your face.” I held up one of the newly cleaned eggs.

“If you’re teasing, that’s really unfair.” He eyed the eggs hungrily.

“Honest truth.” I crossed my heart. “Minus the one you made me crush, we have enough.” I glared at him.

The kettle whistled beside me and I poured its boiling water into a pot on the stove. I slipped four eggs into the water and set it to boil. Silence stretched thin between us until I finally asked, “Do you reckon Father will be home soon? He said he’d be back before spring and now the season’s here. It’ll be winter again at this rate.” A tingle of fury rose up my throat like bile before I swallowed it back down, turning instead to slice the tough wheat bread I’d bought the previous day.

“Your father’s a man of his word, Ava.” Roan picked up the butter dish from our half-standing pantry. “Whether he’s a week late or not, I’ve no doubt he’ll be home soon enough.” He took the rough-cut slices of bread and buttered them as I rescued the eggs from the water.

We sat and ate in silence then. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to talk and Roan wasn’t most days, but perhaps a decent meal might help him feel more alive. I looked at him as I did every morning and he looked worse. The dark circles beneath his eyes had grown thicker by the day and his usually vibrant, green irises were dark and hollow. He pulled a hand through his scruffy auburn hair before returning to the last of his bread. To look at Roan broke my heart sometimes. He had always been handsome, but the features that made him him had been extinguished and buried beneath a mountain of grief.

It was only when we washed the dishes that he spoke to me again. “Daeus above, I almost forgot about breakfasts other than dry bread and field weeds,” he said, stretching out his arms and back. It was a lousy attempt at conversation but I bit.

“I’m sorry my skill in breakfast-making is so poor. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind a bit of dry bread if you take the day ploughing the eastern field. Otherwise I’ll let the baker know what you think of his work.” I smirked. “You know how he loves criticism.”

“Alright, alright.” He leapt to his feet and jumped into his work boots. “That was tactless, you devious creature.”

“Come now, get!” I thwacked him on the back of the legs with a dishrag. “Put your moping to something useful for a change.”

“Maybe you could bore the cows to death with your lecture – it’d save us some money in the long run and I won’t have to listen to it anymore,” he called back. My retaliation caught in my throat as I heard Roan’s laughter and I drank it in. It had been so long since I’d heard him laugh that I couldn’t help but laugh with him.

 

FOR AN EARLY spring day, the air was almost muggy by the time I’d finished the morning chores. The sun climbed higher overhead and as much as I tried, I couldn’t help but walk to the spot where I’d encountered the man the previous night. A dent stood out in the centre of the grass and my heart leapt into my throat. I stamped it out with my boot, removing any remaining evidence of the stranger before Roan came across it, and moved away in a hurry. He wouldn’t handle the news well.

On my way to the pen, I heard the sheep before I saw them; bleating and grunting, eager to be released. Apart from cleaning and organising, preparing the soil for sowing and watching over the animals during their birthing season, nothing much happened around the farm in spring. The gate’s hinges were long rusted, causing it to open in a jittery, squeaking fashion. I caught myself just in time as the sheep barged their way out into the field, bounding and kicking their legs out joyously.

Once the herd had calmed down and committed themselves to grazing, I shut the gate behind them and strolled along the paddock, stroking the wool of whatever sheep raised their heads to greet me. From the sheer size of the ewes it was easy to believe that they’d start birthing their lambs by the Equinox festival a week from then.

“Good morning, Thief.” My favourite ewe baaed up at me as I scratched her behind the ear. She had white wool but a dark face: a mask of fur, ideal for coin robbers and burglars. Her wool was soft as I pressed my hands around her large, swollen belly and lowered my voice. “I don’t think you’re having just one baby, you know.” She baaed and quickly scarpered in the opposite direction.

“Today’s the day of freedom then?” Roan said behind me. “That one never did like me.”

“None of them like you.” I wished I was joking about it. None of the animals liked him, not even the dogs. Though, when the hatred started I had no idea; it just happened. He chuckled and I changed the subject quickly. “It’ll be nice to see the farm bustling with life again. It’s been such a dull winter.”

He was silent for a breath too long and I scolded myself. Of course it hadn’t been dull for him. His grandmother and his father, the last of his blood relatives, had been murdered not three months before. After that he was a changed man, suddenly stern, serious and distant, just like my own father had become after Mother’s death. I cleared my throat and tugged on his shirt.

“I think the cows might enjoy a taste of freedom. Let’s not keep them waiting.”

It was when we came in sight of the barn that the air felt thicker. Choking. Though it didn’t look like it on the outside, something was wrong. My head throbbed and the locket around my neck grew heavier before the noise hit me. The cows were crying out and screaming, trapped behind wooden bars. I ran to the lock, unbolted it and threw it open, barely managing to lunge out of the way as the cows stampeded past in a frenzy. At the other end of the barn I saw why.

The first thing I saw was blood. Bits of fur and tissue painted the walls and I held my breath as I noticed a handful of skin and viscera hanging from a hole in the back. I’d strung and gutted animals before but this…this was different. A slaughter. A cold-blooded kill. I retreated and doubled over outside the doors, my head spinning.

“What in Gehn-?”

A large, red stain running behind the barn caught my attention. I spat, wiped my eyes and moved towards it. The stain continued, running down the back of the wall and onto the ground before it moved – dragged – away. The blood was sticky as I pressed my fingers into it. Not fresh but not old either. Nausea took over as I remembered the creature that morning and the way it pressed its hand on the glass–

Roan called after me, his face a mask of disbelief, but I was already running. I had to dig my feet into the rough dirt to stop myself from ploughing into the side of the house, and scuttled around the bushes to reach the kitchen window. Through the clouded windows, the countertop and sink were visible, and there, in the dirty glass, was a handprint. Slowly I brought my hand up to the windowsill and wiped my finger across the wooden frame. It was tacky.

Blood.

“What is going on?” The sound of Roan’s gruff tone made me jump.

I shook my head, tears stinging my eyes as I looked back at the handprint on the window. Four fingers, one thumb, a large palm – it was the print of a man but what kind? Months of exhaustion finally brought me to my limit and I fell to my knees, my legs buckling beneath me.

“Whatever it was that killed the cow,” I started, “I think I saw it this morning.” His face drained of colour. There was something odd about the look in his eyes that made me lose my composure. “I’m so f-f-frightened,” I stuttered, trying to contain myself.

He looked at me, no longer angry but resolute as he pulled me into his arms. The warmth cut its way down my cheek and soaked into Roan’s shirt. “I won’t let anything get to you,” he mumbled. “Not while I’m still breathing.”

 

IT WAS MID-afternoon when I’d reached the Trading Post. The life that bustled around me filled me with a sense of peace and security as it kept my mind from wandering. After my small breakdown earlier that day I could have died from embarrassment and could practically hear my father’s voice screaming at me. “No one will ever take a blubbering woman seriously, Ava. They will offer you pity, not respect.”

Before leaving the farmhouse I’d made sure to scrub every window until it shone. Roan had taken on the barn, ridding the floor of the bloodied hay and burning what remained of the cow. The others in the herd hadn’t moved from the far side of the field since the doors opened. I didn’t blame them.

Though a country life was wonderful I savoured the stagnant town air. Had I been the one to choose where we lived it would have been right in the centre. The smell of burning coal filled my nostrils and I waved a hand across my face as clouds of steam leaked from the pipes of the industrial district. The Trading Post was located just on the other side of the factory buildings, where they experimented and tested their ‘new generation’ inventions for better power sources. The majority of the townsfolk didn’t dally in that sort of nonsense though. Give them food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs and fuel for their fires and they were happy.

I shifted over a large, inoperative pipe and pulled my goods further up my shoulder as the first few stalls came into sight. Wooden benches heaved with old scrap, foreign wine and spices. Some dared to sell more exotic items, such as cloth from the far Western peninsula, perfumes distilled with flowers I’d never even heard of, and small, fanged beasts in cages. The smell of man sweat and fuel mated with the earthy cooking vapours of the slop stalls a couple of rows down, and there was a constant babble of voices that shouted and sang across the district. The working man’s prayer. It was dark. It was dirty. And I loved it.

The constant breath of steam made the area so thick with fog that it clung to our clothes. In the summer the heat was stifling and made the air dense and unbearable, but on the days that bordered spring we felt luckier than most people in the city. Some men stood with their sleeves pulled up and some took their shirts off entirely. Not me, obviously. There were secrets beneath my clothes that would prove fatal for my business and my safety at a place such as the Post. On the good and bad days I could only sweat through the thin fabric and hope the steam clouds were too thick for people to notice when the shirt stuck to me in the wrong way.

I stopped in front of my usual stall and threw a heavy bag up on the table. The rest of my goods I left resting in a cart just on the other side of the warehouses. In the peak of trade, the vendors used to ridicule me for making two trips.

“Call me overly cautious,” I would say.

The men either side of me fiddled about with their remaining goods and daily takings before they noticed me setting up.

“Afternoon, Cedar. Bit late for you to be setting up, isn’t it?” said a man named Hol. He was gigantic against my small frame, with eyes like moss and hair as dark as river mud.

“There was an incident on the farm this morning.” My tone was sharper than I’d intended. “I came when I could.”

“It wasn’t that sister o’ yours, was it?” Another trader smirked. “After your da’ left I hear she’s been trying to find comfort in unsavoury ways…with unsavoury people. At least, that’s what’s said down at the Brew.”

“What right-minded man would want to stick that? He’d catch the crazy straight off her.” The men laughed and I smiled tightly.

“Must’a been bad if you’re not in the mood to talk,” Hol said. “You know, I never thought I’d see this day.” I pulled an onion from my bag and chucked it at him. He ducked and caught it on the tips of his fingers. “Cheers, lad, my missus’ll be happy.”

“If you watch my stall it’s on the house.” He chuckled. Hol was the type of man to agree without bribery but it didn’t hurt.

Ten minutes later I arrived on the back of the farm’s old plough horse. The other men laughed around me as I stopped in front of the stall. Hol looked to the beast and then to me, an eyebrow raised.

“What?” I shrugged. “This is the only horse we have.”

“Why’d you even need to bring a horse? Usually you’ve got nothing more than a handful of vegetables to sell this early in the year.”

“Well, not today,” I mumbled. Hol eyed the covered cart with interest and I walked the horse around the back of the stall. A few regulars in the market turned their attention to me as I unloaded cauliflowers and parsnips. People would buy them but they weren’t exactly worth stopping for. Then I pulled out a package that caught everyone’s attention. The crinkled paper binding was wet with blood and I scanned the arcade for unfamiliar faces before unwrapping it.

Then the market exploded into mutters and gasps.

“Meat?” Hol could hardly believe it.

“Beef, to be more precise,” I corrected him. “Money’s a bit tight so we culled one of our cows a fortnight back.”

It wasn’t a very good lie but nobody seemed to care. In reality I just needed time to increase the farm’s security. Not only had the previous night resulted in the death of one of my livestock but a trespasser – two trespassers, maybe – had sauntered onto my land without a whisper. Daeus-be-damned if I’d let it happen again.

“How much?” a thin woman asked, eyeing a medium cut.

“Four-and-two,” I said, ready to fight for my price but the woman threw the coins on the counter and the others in the crowd advanced onto my stall. Quickly the market turned into an auction as cuts were sold off, piece by piece. Despite some of the prices rising higher than I’d intended, it had still been cheaper than the butcher’s meat.

“He’ll kill you, you know,” Hol said to the side of me, dealing with customers at his stall as well.

“That lard cake will have to catch me first. Selling meat from my own cows isn’t technically illegal and it’s about time some of the people in town get to eat it this month.” I fished out a small parcel from the cart behind me, hesitating before holding it out to him. “Including you, Hol.” Inside was a small joint, just enough to feed his family for the next couple of nights if they portioned it well.

He paused and took the parcel quietly. “Thank you,” he said, and pulled out his coin pouch. My hand lifted immediately and pushed the pouch back down.

“Don’t insult us both,” I smirked. “You’ll embarrass yourself when you can’t afford my prices.”

He scoffed and looked at me through narrowed eyes. “I never know whether your presence is going to make it a good or a bad day for me.”

“What is it today?” I asked.

He smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

WHEN I RETURNED to the farm that evening my cart was empty and my earnings sat securely inside my pack. Usually I’d throw whatever coins I’d gathered from the Post in my saddlebag, but with ten times the regular amount earned, and with money like that jingling in your pockets…

“Roan,” I shouted. “Roan?”

No answer.

I’d love to say his absence was surprising. For the past few weeks he sat atop the taller trees in the evenings, watching the paths as if willing Father to return home. He seemed desperate. I struck a match and lit the scattered candles about the place, washing the room with a gentle, golden glow against the gloom. After one final look outside I shut the door and pulled the pack over my shoulder, emptying the contents on the table. It didn’t take long to count the coins and note the total down in Father’s record book, and by the time I was finished the door behind me opened.

“I didn’t realise you’d gone to the Post by yourself, Ava.” Roan’s heavy footsteps clomped across the stone floor.

“Someone needed to go and I made enough money for us to live on for the rest of the month easily,” I said. The anger etched across his face, and the lecture he was so desperate to give clung to the tip of his tongue. I held a few coins up to him, “We’ve even got some spare if you fancy dinner at the Shack. My treat…?”

If there was one place he couldn’t resist it was the Shack. He rolled his eyes and battled internally for the power to scold, but he cracked and couldn’t stop his smirk. The gold pieces in my hand, and the rumbling of his stomach, had won out.

“Fine,” he said, “but if you’re accompanying me you need to change into something else. I’d like people to think I keep good company, not good drinking partners.”

“You don’t think I could hold my own in a game of tankards?” I danced around the prospect of a challenge.

“On the contrary, you’d drink me under the table in a very, very dejecting fashion so I’d rather people saw Ava for once.” He smiled. “Wetherdon would do well to see her pretty face every so often.”

I sneered and headed to my room, sniffing at my clothes. “Very well, I’ll make myself presentable if you so wish it.” I mocked a curtsy, pinching the sides of my shirt.

“It’ll take a while.” He held back a snicker as I slammed the washroom door behind me.

It took longer than I’d anticipated but I’d almost forgotten the feeling of being truly clean and the freedom a dress could bring. No scratchy fabrics chafed my neck. No need to hide anything remotely feminine about myself. I even went so far as to let my long hair loose. For the first time in a while I looked like a woman. Evidently Roan thought the same thing as he stared on.

“I think I clean up pretty well.” The smugness in my voice crept through as I lifted my skirts to slip on a pair of very dainty shoes.

“You could have fooled me. Pad out that washboard where your breasts should be and you could almost pass as a genuine woman.”

He ducked and cackled as I swiped at him with a closed fist. He was joking, of course. I knew my breasts were fine, better than fine in my opinion, but the way he bent double as he laughed let me see my friend as he used to be, albeit for one fleeting moment. He noticed me staring and straightened up.

“What’s got you in a daze?”

I blinked and fumbled with the lacing on my jacket. “Nothing,” I said before heading out the door. “Just trying to think of what to eat; I’m starved.”

Once you got past the mile of dirt roads and winding paths it didn’t take too long to get into town. It was a straight shot down the hill and across the bridge. Roan blabbered on about what things he could eat and all I could think about was how my poor feet would fare in the shoes I’d chosen to wear. Even if I’d decided to change into my trusty day boots the dressmaker would use my skin as a doormat if he caught me walking past without matching attire. After one final run of the house we said goodbye to the dogs and headed off down the road.

 

THE SHACK WAS a suitable name. Barely standing in the centre of town, it was a dilapidated, old building made rich by its repeated patronage and drunks who looked for more than just a quick pint. Despite its leaky, broken-thatched roof, groaning beams and dry-rotted walls it was charming in a way. Even the woodlice were a bearable sacrifice when waiting on the keeper’s wife’s cooking. I thanked the room my dress allowed me as I rubbed my full belly and Roan sighed, mopping up the last lick of gravy with a scrap of buttered bread.

“If I could eat like this every day that I’d be a lucky man.” Roan swallowed the final piece and stretched out his arms.

“If you ate like that every day you’d be four times your size.” I chuckled. “Perhaps you could pair up with the keeper’s daughter. I’m sure she’d be thrilled to be Matched to a handsome man such as yourself.” I took the napkin from my lap and folded it carefully next to the empty plate. “Besides, with a husband like you they wouldn’t need to bother keeping pigs to feed the scraps to.”

“Well, well, what bitter words to come from a sweet face,” Roan clutched his chest and put his head in his free hand.

“Please forgive me, dear brother,” I feigned, clapping my hands together. “I didn’t mean to cause such offence. Here.” I slid two silver coins across the table. “will this ease your suffering?”

He dropped his act and pulled the two pieces towards him. “It’s a decent start.”

I laughed at that and slowly my quiet chuckle turned into a bellow as I was swept away by a fit of merriment. Whether the wine had finally made me giddy, I didn’t know, but it felt good to laugh like that. To my surprise Roan joined in.

“I haven’t seen you laugh like that since you were a child, Ava.”

“Excuse me, we’re the same age.” I wiggled my hand. “Give or take a month.”

“Try a couple of years.” Roan helped me into my coat.

“I’d believe that if you ever acted your age,” I teased, shrugging it on and in turn held Roan’s out for him.

People stared at us as he pulled it on and I remembered my error. It was uncommon for women to help men with their tasks, whether it was as important as keeping track of money or as menial as holding a door open. Father and I had changed our ways when Mother died. Roan and I had always been this way, as long as I could remember, but the townsfolk didn’t understand. That was why, when a man sniggered at the bar, I tensed. Roan wasn’t a man you wanted to fight, even before he lost his family.

“Is there something amusing, friend?” Roan asked, adjusting his collar.

“Not at all,” the man slurred. “Just didn’t realise women wore trousers.” I panicked albeit for a second before I realised he meant Roan, not my ‘other’ brother.

I felt his body shift toward the man at the bar. Quickly, I grasped his arm and lifted my chin, meeting his eyes with a soft, but firm, gaze.

Roan cleared his throat. “Yes, well, you should hear the things people say about my beard.” He gave a tight smile and people chuckled around us while Roan turned to leave. Relief flooded through me and I smiled at the man, dipping my head to him as he turned his attention to me. He finished the contents of his tankard and wiped his moustache with the back of his hand.

“At least you make a better woman than the harlot you came in with.”

I stopped. The man was either out for blood or just plain stupid. Either way, Roan stopped mid-stride and my heart went into a flutter. He could overlook things people said about him but not what people said about me.

“That’s not very polite, is it?” Something about Roan changed that instance. Whether it was his voice, his energy or the way he held himself, when he turned to face the man I could see something was off. His eyes had grown dark and by a sharp flinch I saw that his hands were bleeding. The man could sense it too as he recoiled sharply, but not quick enough as Roan pulled him out of his chair by the collar. “I’d like you to apologise.”

“I’m sorry.” The man trembled.

“Not to me – to her.” Roan leaned in closer as his words came out in a hiss.

“I apologise for being disgraceful,” he almost screamed.

“Good.” Roan dropped the man and walked back to the door, muttering an apology to the keeper’s wife as he passed her. He stumbled down the steps outside and I glanced back at the man before following. His face was red and sweaty as he weighed up whether to let it drop or continue.

“Don’t do it,” I muttered under my breath. “Don’t-”

BANG.

I’d only gotten a few steps down the street by the time I heard him. He was clearly not a smart man as his footsteps stomped across the Shack. The door burst open and he shouted, “Take your filthy kind elsewhere, you motherless cretins.” Roan had already walked the length of the street and I continued after him, ignoring the unstable tap-tap of the man’s shoes on the cobbles. “The whole neighbourhood celebrated when we heard about your family, Keller. Your father was a poor excuse for a man. Always making deals he couldn’t keep; always taking other people’s wives to bed. It’s no wonder your poor mother killed herself-”

His sentence was cut short as my patience snapped like a violin string. I drove my fist into his throat and a hot, white rage bubbled up inside me. He doubled over and coughed before he locked his fingers in my hair. I squealed short and sharp and people turned to look, all except Roan who continued storming away from us.

“Hey!” someone called from the crowd, and I took advantage of the distraction. I pulled out of his grasp, ignoring the sting as some of my hair came away with it, and ducked under his arm. For a drunken beast he was still fast enough to catch me across the cheek with an open hand and I stumbled to my knees. I waited for his advance, fingering one of the loose cobblestones at my feet, and brought it up to his head with an almighty CRACK. The stone collided with his skull and his eyes rolled back in their sockets before he hit the ground.

The stone dropped from my fingers and I waited for people to carry him back inside. It didn’t take long for the streets to clear after that. Had the man been sober my chances would have been less than favourable, but another couple of drinks would have done the same to him.

Who was he to Roan though?

My hands shook angrily as his hateful words spilled into my mind again. I knew enough about Roan’s past to understand the stain his father had left on the city, and his own family for that matter. When Father had brought him home six years ago his body was black and blue. The finger-shaped bruises around his arms and burns around his neck made it quite clear what sort of man his father was. With his mother gone, his father had no problem releasing Roan into my family’s care. It was one less mouth to feed, and as the years passed he only ever heard from his grandmother.

Then it happened.

Three months ago, just after the first snow, something tore his family home apart. An animal; a person; no one knew what it had been for certain. The following morning there wasn’t much left to go on, only that both his father’s and grandmother’s blood stained the snow as bits of them were recovered. All that could be heard were screams and snarls. Of course, no one ventured outside their homes to investigate. It wasn’t unusual for screaming to come from the house on a regular day.

When Roan had heard of the slaughter he didn’t sleep for days, maybe weeks. Father and I never saw him enough to judge it until he returned several weeks later a changed man. We didn’t ask where he’d gone; we only cared he was home, and I mirrored the grief he felt for his grandmother. I spared none for his father, the man who abused and abandoned him. I wasn’t sad to hear of his death.

My shoes echoed dully across the street as I followed after Roan, only, something stood out at the edge of my vision: a shadow. As I turned my head the shadow became a solid figure and beneath the figure’s cloaked hood was a flash of silver. My heart leapt into my throat. Marcus. Eyes like that were hard to forget. Whatever his business was, the way he stared after Roan made me pick up my pace and angle myself between them, ignoring the warmth in my back as I broke his line of sight. I had to get Roan home.

Once I’d finally caught up to him I stopped a few feet short as a hideous, heavy feeling blanketed me. The same as the Shack. The same as the kitchen last night and that morning. My locket pulled around my neck and made all the muscles in my upper body ache against its weight, dragging me down – down – down – but I wouldn’t let myself fall.

“Roan,” I said gently. He didn’t reply. I reached out my hand to touch his but the moment our skin touched my body twisted and burned, suddenly on fire. I let out a short cry before it was replaced with another, more unfamiliar pain. It took a few seconds to realise that Roan had his hand wrapped around my throat.

My lungs screamed for the air I couldn’t move past my tongue, and blood collected in my head while a rhythmic thrum-thrum-thrum pulsed louder in my ears. I clawed at his hand, trying to get out the words I needed to beg him to stop but the darkness possessed him at that moment. The beautiful, green eyes that once stood out under his tattered brown hair were suddenly black like a bottomless well. Even as he stared at me he showed no signs of recognition and the world around me began to fade. I pulled my hand up and placed it carefully on his cheek, stroking it with my thumb. His breathing came in rasps and for a moment I saw my name on his lips. Then something crashed into him and the night swallowed me up.

The need to breathe pulled me above the surface as I coughed and drank in the air around me hungrily. I blinked the dots from my vision and focussed on the silhouettes of houses above me. The cold stone pressed into my back and I sat up, rubbing my throbbing elbow as I took in my surroundings. The dull pain of it meant I hadn’t been out for long and when the world finally came back to me I saw that the street was empty, still and dark. My fingers found the tender area where Roan had almost squeezed the life out of me and I knew it would bruise…and he would never forgive himself.

As the distant sounds of running faded to silence I was all too aware I was alone. I had to get up. I had to walk away, back home, before the real monsters of the night came out to play. Like a newly-birthed calf I found my feet clumsily and shook some feeling back into them, looking for any recognisable markers.

The clumsy, burnt-out houses and decaying road told me that I was on the border of Old Town – a place I really didn’t want to be. Once the oldest part of Wetherdon, now it held only condemned houses and lost souls. Something moved to the side of me but I didn’t wait to see what it was as I bolted in the direction of the street lamps. My shoes scraped and clacked on the cobblestones, and after stumbling for the third time I promised myself that I was never leaving home without my boots on again. When I entered the safety of the centre I doubled over, catching my breath under one of the cold, metal lamps.

“Not exactly graceful in those shoes, are you?” a familiar voice said. The light made it easy to make out his face this time. This Marcus. He was not obviously handsome, but the longer I looked the more I noticed. A small scar scraped across a strong jaw and his nose was a little bit bent, broken years ago probably. A dark mess of hair made his eyes, the features that fascinated me most of all, stand out that much more. Though they were not entirely silver as I’d originally believed, but instead were flecked with gold like fire opal. My head screamed at me to run; that this man was no good; that trouble followed wherever he went, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.

“What happened to my brother?” I spoke with a raspy, steady voice.

“I’m surprised you can still call him that,” he said, leaning against the lamppost beside me. He eyed the slowly-bruising mark on my throat and raised his eyebrows.

“He has somewhat of an explosive temper but he’s still family.” I cleared my throat, trying to pull moisture back into it.

“You don’t look much alike.” He crossed his arms.

“Not everyone needs to be related by blood.” I stood straight and faced him. “My question, however, isover these past couple of days, wherever there’s trouble why have you not been far behind?”

“I find that question to be quite suspect,” he started, “considering today is the first time we’ve met, Miss.” His emphasis on the last word reminded me that the last time we’d met I was posing as Cedar. My words were lost. I closed my mouth, turned, and walked away. Though I’d only managed to walk a street or twoby the time I’d heard the clip-clop of hooves behind me.

“Alright, I won’t ask about it,” the man said. “However, as you’re not in such an appropriate disguise and your brother has had a bit of a tantrum I couldn’t call myself a gentleman if I let you walk home alone.” He pulled his horse up beside me and offered a hand.

I hesitated and considered him. “First tell me your name; your actual name. I’ll not travel with a complete stranger.”

The hint of a smile played on his lips. “Ethan. My real name is Ethan Tiviton.”

I hesitated a moment longer before raising my hand to meet his. “Alright then, Ethan.”

He pulled his hand back. “And you?”

“What?”

“I’ll not travel with a stranger either, Cedar.”

Cocky bastard. “Ava.” I fought back my own smile and placed my hand in his.

As soon as our skin touched something passed between us – a jolt of energy – and we recoiled sharply from each other.

“Sorry,” he said after a moment’s silence, “I – I must have charged up.”

His words were confident but the look on his face betrayed him. He was just as confused as I was. Ethan helped me onto the horse and started over the bridge towards the hill as I considered the tingle in my fingertips.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

THE WEIGHT OF my new skin was horrific, like my whole body was made of iron. Beneath me the ground shifted and I fell to my knees, crying out as I hit the grass. I felt raw, blistered and searing as a short breeze kissed my sores. My hoarse breathing came in rasps and I tried to catch my breath, though my body was fighting the urge to do so. It wanted me to die.

I was exhausted but my ears still managed to pick up the sound of something approaching. The moonlight caught two figures moving out of the tree line and slowly they walked toward me, their feet moving noiselessly across the open field. It didn’t take long to recognise them. They closed the distance between us, and Ethan and Roan refused to acknowledge each other like neither knew the other was there. When they reached me they both extended their hands and closed them around my wrists. Relief quickly turned to fear as the welcome sensation I’d anticipated turned into something vicious, reacting like salt rubbed into an open wound. My hands shook and my arms burned. I tried yelling; tried thrashing and crying and howling to let them know the pain I felt but only croaks moved past my lips.

“Please,” I finally managed.

Their heads snapped up from me then and they locked eyes with one another, as a primal, dominant rage tore through them. At once they both bared a full set of blade-like teeth, and strangled hisses resonated in their chests. They were not men, but beasts. Sharp, clawed hands dug into my pale flesh as they latched on to me. The pain was unbearable. So much so that the sounds I desperately wanted to release were paralysed and trapped in my throat.

It was only when they started to pull against each other, like children fighting over a new toy, that I found my voice. My joints crackled as they strained against the strength of the creatures and my continued pleas went unheard. My shoulder finally popped out of place and the world spun around me, my body draining of all warmth and colour. My skin stretched and seared beneath their ghastly claws and the individual snaps of my joints echoed in the silent clearing. But not even my screams could muffle the sickening sound of my body starting to rip-

I woke with a start and coughed, choking on the saliva I’d inhaled sharply. The dogs whined at the base of my bed as they usually did after a standard nightmare, but for the first time in six months my dreams had changed. The sound of my body being torn apart crept back into my ears and a cold feeling prickled up my spine. I hurled myself out of bed and into the washroom as I began to retch excessively.

After there was nothing but air to heave I pressed my head to the cold, wooden floor. Judging by the position of the moon outside it couldn’t have been far off dawn, maybe only a few hours, and slowly – so slowly – I picked myself off the ground and returned to bed, using every little fragment of my will to block out the resonating sounds from my dream.

 

THE DOGS WERE barking downstairs in the kitchen and scratching at the door. I blinked my eyes once, twice, and sat up in bed while the desperate hooks of sleep still clung to me. I’d slept far longer than I’d meant to and hurriedly clambered out of bed and down the stairs.

When I reached the bottom, however, I doubled back and crouched behind the wall. The dogs were up against the window and hadn’t even acknowledged my presence. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled when something knocked around outside. My thoughts travelled back to the shadow outside the window the previous morning and I fought the urge to vomit again.

Carefully, I moved back a few steps and thought. Upstairs; I’d left my knife upstairs on the dresser. Footsteps crunched. I moved toward the kitchen again and pulled a heavy, old frying pan from the stove. Locks clicked. There were spare keys under one of the broken plant pots outside. I ducked and moved over to the door noiselessly, grasping the metal between my fingers. Shadow or not, if it could open a door it could take a pan to the face. The handle turned and the door swung open with an elongated creak. The dogs barked and retreated, whimpering, and I swung the makeshift weapon over my head at the trespasser. He turned to face me and the pan dropped quickly from my hands, as a strangled noise freed itself from my throat.

“Roan!”

I was so relieved to see him that I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him. It was only when he hugged me back that I remembered why he’d been missing in the first place. A flash of anger ripped through me and I pulled back, shoving him away.

“What happened yesterday?”

He didn’t look at me, not directly anyway. There were new scuffs on his face and dried blood on his hands. Eventually his gaze travelled to the bruise on my neck and his eyes glassed over.

“I have to leave,” he said bluntly, shaking his head clear.

“What?”

“I have to go – to get away from here.”

“You’re talking nonsense. This is your home.”

“But I can’t-” his voice broke. “I can’t be here, with you, anymore. Not after what I’ve done.” He charged past me and stomped up the stairs. I followed.

“What do you mean? What you did was wrong, and I’m still angry at you for it, believe me, but it doesn’t mean you have to have to leave,” I yelled. “You lost control. Father and I know how unstable you’ve been since-”

“So what happens next time?” He rounded on me, his eyes burning. “What happens the next time I get angry? What if it happens again and again and no one is around to stop me?” He grasped my shoulders. “Whoever came between us last night – if I wasn’t stopped…” He paused. “I can’t live with myself, Ava. Not if I’m a danger to you.”

“Everyone is a danger to me-”

“Not like I am. Please, just understand. I can’t be around you. I have to go-”

“Go where?” I snapped. Bitterness bled through my voice like acid. “What happens when someone tries to break in? When there’s another incident on the farm like yesterday morning? What happens when word spreads to town that I’m alone; unguarded. People will talk and men will decide that without anyone significant around to stop them they can take me and my land however they like.”

“Don’t,” he yelled, covering his ears.

I ripped his hands away. “This is the fear you’ll leave me with. No father; no friends; only a false identity that won’t protect me for long.”

“You can handle yourself-”

“Against a drunken fool, yes,” I said, my rage washing over me. “What happens when they come in twos or threes? Cedar isn’t real, Roan. He can’t protect me when they see past my lies.”

Roan deflated. He seemed to age several years at that point, and though I tried to look past it there was something about his expression that I really didn’t like.

“I’ll wait until your father returns.” He picked himself up. “But the moment he sets foot in this house I’ll be gone and you won’t hear from me again.”

 

A COUPLE OF days later there was a knock at the door. On the other side was Kaela, a semi-wealthy young woman from the western city district, and one of my dearest friends. Instinctively I looked myself over, making sure I was posing as the right person before opening the door.

Dress – check –

“Kaela,” I said cheerfully to the smiling girl. “Daeus, it’s been ages since I saw you last. How have you been?”

“Afternoon, Ava. Fine, fine as usual,” she said, flipping her golden hair over her shoulder and closing her silk fan with a snap. “My sister’s becoming a bit too intense about her Matching plans so I thought I’d come up to see you. May I?” She gestured inside.

“Of course, sorry, come in.” I held the door wider for her to pass through and set about making tea while Kaela settled in one of the kitchen chairs. Despite her upbringing and eye for finery she never once turned her nose up at my background or way of life. Sometimes I even thought I saw a sliver of jealousy when she dropped her walls. “How did you get up here?”

“My brother dropped me.” She smiled. “I thought he would protest but it gave him a chance to get out of the house too. My sister was releasing most of her frustration on me and I think he sympathised.” She chuckled, pointing out the window. I followed her finger and saw a tall, blond-haired man patting his horse. “I think he’s thankful for a breath of country air.”

“They always say planning a Matching is the most stressful time for a woman. Too much is expected of her-”

“Especially if they’re unhappy with their partner.”

“She’s not-”

“She doesn’t feel it either way. He’s a nice man and he’ll treat her well, we all know that. I just hope my Matching is different,” she said, sadness ringing in her voice.

In Wetherdon a Matching ceremony was held twice a year, once in the spring after the Equinox and once in the autumn following the Harvest. When women came of age they were eligible to put themselves forward for the biddings, or rather, their parents put them forward. Daughters weren’t particularly valued in the city…even the wealthiest.

“I’m sure it will be,” I reassured her. “Remember, you’re prettier than all of the women this side of the ocean. I bet you’ll have the largest collection of suitors to choose from.”

“You’ve never even travelled outside the city,” she laughed.

“I don’t need to. I just know, okay?” I stuck my chin out firmly.

“I believe you’d also get a handsome suitor,” Kaela poked.

Even if I wanted to be Matched, I couldn’t. Father had always said that my destiny was never to be stuck with someone in town. He said I was different. I had duties; potential…and yet he never let me leave.

“So,” I changed the subject quickly, “what brings you up to see me? Other than escaping your sister, I mean.”

“Oh, right. I was coming to see you about the Equinox tomorrow. I thought that since your brother’s been trading it meant your father is still away, and you might be able to come with me this time.” Kaela twiddled her fingers playfully.

I mirrored her smile. For years I’d wanted to go to the celebration but Father had always said no: there were too many people, it was dangerous to go, blah, blah, blah. Excitement flooded through me. Kaela was right. I could go this year. Just as I’d opened my mouth to respond a voice cut across the room and footsteps stomped into the kitchen.

“She’ll not be going this year either,” Roan interrupted.

“What?” I piped. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re not going. Richard may not be here but I’m watching over you and your brother until he gets back. This is what we talked about.”

“Then come with me. We’ll celebrate it together,” I snapped.

“There’ll be too many people.”

“But-”

“That’s enough, Ava,” he said gruffly. “My word is final and I’ll hear no more of it.”

I released a frustrated cry and slammed my hands down on the table. “The old Roan would have let me go. He would have come with me to drink and dance until dawn.” I knew I was being childish but I said it anyway. “I should have let you leave.”

My words hurt him. That was clear as he sneered. “The old Roan isn’t here anymore. Get used to it,” he said sharply.

My tears threatened to spill over when Kaela cleared her throat. “I think I’ll take my leave. My sister will probably need someone to yell at.” Her face was strewn with pity and frustration and it made me do something utterly out of character.

I ran and hugged her close, bringing my mouth close to her ear. “I’ll meet you tomorrow afternoon,” I whispered, barely loud enough for her to hear. Kaela hid her smile and continued her act of melancholy.

“Perhaps next year if your keepers finally set you free,” she said, shooting Roan a dirty look. “Such a shame, the tailor’s wares are quite spectacular this time of year too.” She batted her eyelashes and snapped her fan open again. “I’ll see you soon.” Kaela flashed me a toothy grin and walked back out to her brother.

A bitter silence then fell between Roan and me as I tried to keep a cap on my anger. “Happy now?” I managed. The bitterness in my voice returned quickly and before he could respond I was running upstairs.

He tried to follow but I slammed the bedroom door behind me. He knocked and tried to explain himself as I changed into a shirt and trousers. My pack was under the bed; the dagger on the dresser I sheathed at my thigh, and there was wire in the kitchen. Even though I was planning on going to the celebration, the fury still bubbled beneath my skin and I had to do something useful: to move; to trap; to hunt. Roan babbled behind me as I brushed past him in the hall, shouldering a thick cloak as we passed the pile of them. Down the stairs, I grabbed the wire from under the sink. Bread and cheese in the pack, and I all but ran out of the door. Roan called after me.

“Where are you going?”

“To do something useful,” I bit back.

Off I went, into the deep, dark woods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

MY ANGER EVAPORATED once I’d reached the deep forest. The fresh bite of wind and whisper of the trees filled me with a sense of peace that I could find nowhere else. Sometimes I used to believe that I belonged here, amongst the greenery and wilderness, but people didn’t belong there. Above me the sun glittered through the mess of branches, and mud squelched beneath my feet. The usual path was worn and familiar to me, each step throwing me back to relive hundreds of the same journey. Familiarity, repetition, routine; I was sick of it.

Perhaps that was the reason I strayed from the path.

An hour passed, maybe two, by the time I stopped recognising anything around me. That alone should have made me anxious beyond belief but it didn’t, it felt refreshing. For once in my life I was lost. The close clutter of trees and bushes suggested that it was not a place that had been explored by many. Rabbits skittered through my legs and birds swooped close to my head, singing sweet songs as they flew past. I whistled one or two of them. Then things started to feel different.

The deeper I walked, the darker the forest got. The canopy of branches and leaves above had remained constant, neither growing nor depleting in quantity. As though the light itself was afraid to enter. It wasn’t long until I was stumbling over roots and catching my clothes on large bramble bushes. I cursed whatever part of me thought it was a good idea to venture into the woods without a box of matches or a lantern. Then again, I hardly thought I’d be out long enough to need such things.

Finally, the uneasy feeling lifted as I fell into a small clearing – or, what I thought to be a clearing – a circular area free of brambles and, well, anything. Eleven or twelve trees ran the perimeter of the circle and their branches had woven together over the years to form a roof. The ground beneath my feet heaved and knotted with so many roots and vines that the soil was entirely non-existent. A fine mist danced across the floor and for a moment it felt like time stood still, petrified of what lurked in the shadows.

Something rustled to my right and I dropped to the floor, unsheathing my dagger. A moment of silence passed before a large stag strode into the open. The mist rippled around his feet and his breath turned foggy as he tasted the cool air. All I could think about were the two sharp antlers that sat gallantly upon his head and how terrible it would be to spend my final minutes impaled atop them. Come on, Ava, I thought, one step after the other. My knife clanged against a stone as I began my retreat and he snapped toward me, startled. He moved to face me head on, flashing his beautiful, deadly antlers in warning. That was it. That was how it was going to end for me.

A breeze tickled my cheek and the stag caught my scent. Strangely, he stopped his display and stood tall, tasting again and again. He stared for a moment longer, all the while listening out for oncoming danger, and in that moment we shared I could see he was unlike any other deer. His pelt was a pristine shade of white and as he approached me I could see that his eyes were not black as I’d originally thought but blue, like the first ice of winter. He was so close to me that I could feel the warmth of his breath on my skin, and only then did I fully note the size of him. Compared to the bucks I’d taken down in the past, he must have been twice the size, and more. Noticing that, my dagger felt quite insignificant.

One antler alone was the length of my body and the prongs curled and twisted, forming a crown above him. He was a king in the forest and had probably lived many more years than I had. Slowly, I sheathed my dagger and bowed my head to avert my gaze, but he did nothing but stand in front of me. Something broke outside in the surrounding thicket and I reached out to him, startled, placing my hand on his soft fur. The stag tensed beneath my fingers but my eyes were on the forest around us. I was afraid, but why? I’d spent the majority of my younger years in the forest, tracking rabbits, chasing off the occasional lone wolf, and getting stuck up trees. That day, however, there was something ominous that clung to it like a disease.

The stag’s head shot up, his ears rigid and focussed in one direction. He looked over his shoulder and I followed his line of sight, still clinging to him as a man ran out into the circle, mumbling to himself. It took a moment for him to notice us and the stag brushed me aside, standing strong, though I recognised who he shielded me from.

“What?” Ethan started, “How did you-?” The questions came in fragmented bursts but his voice softened quickly as the stag became more aggravated upon his advance. “Don’t worry, Ethelred. I won’t hurt her.”

The stag, Ethelred, relaxed a little as if he’d understood but I didn’t have time to dwell. Ethelred veered his head violently to the left and grunted and whined. Now, he was afraid. Hurriedly, he nudged me in Ethan’s direction and snorted.

“Run!” Ethan shouted. I heard the noises then: deep hums and growls. It couldn’t have been wolves-

My foot caught and I fell to my knees, cursing the uneven ground. Ethelred had fled and before I had time to right myself, Ethan had grasped the top of my arm and started dragging me away. His face was awash with irritation, but if he’d given me a few seconds to compose myself and find my own two feet we could have travelled faster. I snarled, losing my patience.

“Would you just give me a damned second-?” My sentence was cut short as I fell again. A short pain shot up my leg and Ethan stopped, searching the forest. Neither of us breathed for that moment. No broken branches. No growling. Nothing. But rather than feeling relieved at the silence, I felt sick. A moment longer and Ethan’s eyes widened.

He pulled me into his arms despite my protests. “Hey, wait-” No one had held me in such a way, not since Father held me as a child. I tried to wriggle out of his grip but to no avail as he started to run. It wasn’t long until I heard the sounds that had startled him and stopped struggling; instead I held on tighter.

The rustling behind us became more desperate as whatever chased us ran faster and faster in the gloom, gaining on us inch-by-inch. Hot, heavy breathing sent chills through me but out of the darkness, a thin trail of light blinked through a slip in the dense foliage. Ethan grunted as he drove his feet into the ground and ran as fast as his body would let him until, at last, we burst through the prison of trees.

Ethan continued to hold me close as he slowed his pace and tried to stay his breathing. Whatever chased us hadn’t broken through but my chest turned to stone as I caught sight of something – a flash of red in the green.

 

BY THE TIME we’d reached the farm’s perimeter fence the sun had receded below the tree line. Ethan lifted me over and placed me down a little harsher than I’d expected him to. I didn’t know what to say so I nodded to him and thanked him before turning to leave, still processing what had happened.

He threw his hand out and grasped my arm. “Don’t try and go back there.” His face was suddenly white with anger. “Next time I’m not going to help you.”

“I didn’t ask for your help this time.” I stared him down. “If it bothered you so much you shouldn’t have aided me. I would have been fine.”

“What were you doing there in the first place?” It seemed as though he was trying to keep the fury in his voice at a minimum. “Did you follow me there?”

“Considering I was there before you were, I’d be more entitled to believe you had followed me, Mister Tiviton.” When he failed to answer I rolled my eyes and continued. “I went for a walk. I’d intended to hunt rabbits but decided to explore deeper terrain for better game,” I half-lied.

“The forest is dangerous, especially at this time. There are all sorts of creatures waiting for thick-skulled people like you to come along believing you’re invincible.”

I pulled my arm out of his fingers, “Yes, the deer looked absolutely savage.”

“That’s not what I was referring to.”

“Well, enlighten me then. What was chasing us that you were so afraid of?”

“What made you think we were being chased?”

I answered his question with another question. “Why would you run if nothing was chasing after you?”

“The wilds are full of beasts, things a toothpick will do nothing against,” he said, motioning to my dagger.

“Yes the wolves, the bears, the feral mutts and blood-lusting insects – Father has already taught me about being vigilant and prepared.”

“Were you?” Ethan asked. “Were you vigilant or prepared? Because from where I was standing you were about as prepared to fight as a lamb is against a mountain lion.”

“I don’t like to kill the beasts unless I have to. I could have climbed a tree if it was out of my skill to handle.”

“And then what?” he scoffed.

“-Waited until it had lost interest.” I felt stupid and frustrated by his sea of endless questions. “You still haven’t answered me.”

“About what?”

“Why did you run if nothing was chasing us?”

“I just felt like running.”

A silence fell between us as I looked at him and laughed at his pitiful attempt to lie. “You just felt like running,” I let the words swirl around my mouth as I thought them through. “I don’t know what’s going on with you but if you felt like taking a leisurely jog you’d have left me behind.”

“You’re right,” he nodded, before leaning closer to me, “you don’t know what’s going on with me so stop sticking your nose into my business.”

“Is the real answer so horrifying?” I asked, trying not to laugh again at the insanity of our conversation, “afraid it’ll give me nightmares?” I turned my back to him then. “Fine, I’ve no interest in your business but you’re not my husband. You can’t tell me what to do or where to go – even if you were.” I walked away, my strides matching the beat of my hammering heart.

“Ava-”

“See you at the next troublesome event.” I waved without looking back.

The front door slammed behind me. Outside, the weather had clouded over and, from what I could hear, Roan wasn’t home. Big surprise. I went to the sitting room, lit the candles and fell back against the chair thinking back to what I saw in the forest: a splash of red against the green. I shivered.

They looked like eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

WETHERDON WAS BUSTLING with life as I crossed the bridge into the city. I couldn’t believe that it was the first time I’d ever been to town on this day. The Equinox celebration was a legendary event and brought people from lands as far as the great seas. Some people rode for days, even weeks, just to attend the celebration. After learning that, I felt somewhat selfish that in seventeen years I’d never even ventured into town. I’d always done as Father instructed and ignored the festivities. Around the Equinox was when we had the most intrusions on the farm: people knocked at the door for shelter for the night or pitched tents on the fields without permission. Of course, Father had always sent them away or chased them off.

I’d managed to sneak away just after midday. Roan was patrolling the perimeter when I gathered my things and left the house. If he returned before midnight, which I doubted, he would find my note on the kitchen table telling him where to go. I smirked at that. It had been a busy morning on the farm as the ewes began lambing. My favourite ones were Thief’s twins without a doubt, as they shared the same patterning as their mother. I smiled at the thought and felt guilty about leaving them alone.

No, I can’t feel guilty about wanting to go. I’ll be back before midnight.

The streets pulsed as I pushed my way through the crowds and found the tailor’s shop. Outside was a small collection of people and Kaela was waiting among them, a smile on her face. “Daeus above, Ava, I can’t believe you actually came,” she laughed, and hugged me tightly.

“I need to rebel a little bit in my life, even if my father’s not here to get the brunt of it.” I smiled beside her.

“Well said.” A mischievous glint sparked in Kaela’s eyes and my suspicions suddenly started hammering. “What’s that look for?”

“I can’t help but think you’re up to something.” I raised an eyebrow.

“Not so much up to something as doing a little rebelling myself,” Kaela chuckled, and pushed me into the shop.

The next hour consisted of inspecting, feeling and trying on different dresses for the main event that evening. Eventually, to the tailor’s joy, Kaela had chosen a beautiful, pale pink gown, its bodice adorned with lines of pearlescent beading and a gentle, white lace lined the interior, peeking out against her breasts and ankles. I was completely alien to this world of silks and chiffons. The only dresses I owned were plain, simple things I didn’t mind getting dirty.

After complaining for the third time that I didn’t need a fancy dress, Kaela forced me into a dark green gown…and I was in love, begrudgingly. The top of the dress sat wide on my shoulders, exposing the peak of my breasts in a way that was still decent. Its bodice was embroidered with different sparkling beads and threads that made it look like my waist was wrapped by silver vines. Its skirts fell from the waist in layers-upon-layers of different greens and the material was light enough that it flowed freely as I walked.

“Alright,” I said, “this is the one.”

Kaela cheered and waited patiently as her dress was pinned and tailored to her fit. “It’s about time you had a good dress on hand.”

“I’ve never needed one.” I lifted my arms as people began pinning and fitting my own gown. “Life on the farm doesn’t exactly cry out for sparkly things and chiffon.”

“Even so, your brothers are perfectly capable of running things up there. It’s always useful to have one just in case,” Kaela said, spinning around so the back could be fixed.

“It’ll make a nice burial dress when Roan murders me later for disobeying him,” I half-joked.

“Not funny,” she sing-songed.

“And when exactly are you going to tell me about why you’re trying so hard for the festival?”

Kaela thought for a second before answering. “I’ve met someone.” She smiled. “I want his attention to stay on me, selfish as that may be. Though maybe I shouldn’t have helped you pick out something that would make you look so beautiful,” she joked.

I laughed. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ve no doubt you’ll be a diamond in a room full of coal tonight.”

“We’ll find you someone eligible, even if your father doesn’t want you to be Matched.”

“You can try.” I stepped out of the dress and handed it to the tailor. “Perhaps it’s not just him being stubborn.”

Kaela mirrored my motions and turned to me, the mischief was back in her eyes. “You can still have fun with someone. Most of the people here will be travellers so no fuss, no commitments…” she turned away and turned back with two masks in her hands, “just a night of romance and mystery. It’s every girl’s dream, right?”

I’d never thought about it before. My entire life I’d fought so hard to keep a lid on anything even remotely feminine but what about tonight? For the first time in my life I’d be allowed to feel hands on me, to feel goose-bumps rising as men grazed my skin with their fingers. It was a bit frightening.

“I…I think I might be sick,” I said, suddenly overwhelmed. The seamstresses looked about ready to throw me out the door.

“Don’t worry.” Kaela handed me a mask of silver and green. “I’ve got something that’ll help.”

 

AFTER AN AFTERNOON of exploring the festivities we picked up our gowns and returned to Kaela’s house to dress. I didn’t have much in the way of cosmetics but Kaela had the lot: face powders, charcoal, dusts and pastes of all colours to paint on our eyelids and pink creams to dot lightly on our cheeks. Once she’d sorted herself, Kaela helped me, and in return I did her hair, braiding it and curling it into a half-up/half-down style that framed her face beautifully.

“Must you wear this ugly thing?” Kaela prodded the silver locket around my neck and it made my body throb.

“Unfortunately, yes. Otherwise I might lose it,” I said.

It was a partial truth, as most of my truths were. The main reason was that I physically couldn’t take it off. I’d tried once as a child when the chain was still loose enough to slip over my head, only to choke on nothing until it sat on my throat again. Father had told me it was all in my head. Mother said it was magic, but that was absurd. There was no such thing.

“It isn’t a complete tragedy I suppose. At least it goes with your dress,” Kaela said, slipping on her half-mask.

“Lucky me,” I mumbled, securing my own mask in place atop my cheekbones. I was just glad Kaela hadn’t noticed the boots I wore or the dagger strapped to my thigh while we changed. It was illegal for women to carry weapons of any sort in the city. Even wearing some grades of hairpin was considered a crime.

“Just like a butterfly.” Kaela looked me up and down and I fought the urge to cross my arms over my chest. The ample curve of my breasts was far more visible than I’d originally noticed. Kaela passed me a small glass of green liquid. “To new life,” she said, raising her glass.

I raised mine and they clinked together. “And to new adventures.” We drank and almost choked on the bitter, burning tang that resided on our tongues. “Holy – what is that?”

“Absinthe.” She flexed her jaw and poured us another glass from an already prepared vial. “I wish I could say you get used to the taste.”

We drank the second down with a similar effort to the first, only this time it settled, warming my chest wonderfully on its way down into my stomach. The taste wasn’t any easier as its highly-anise flavour clung to every section of my mouth, but the way it shot to my head was something rather delightful.

“If you can’t tell already, it’s not a drink to be had in high quantities and it’s excellent for the nerves,” Kaela said, putting her glass back on the counter. “Oh, and it’s also magnificently illegal.” A thrum of silence followed before I burst into laughter. Kaela joined me and together we gathered our things, headed out the door and into the night.

 

WE ARRIVED ON the far side of town just after sunset and the festivities were in full swing. There were so many people singing, drinking and dancing in the city’s central parks and halls that it made my head hum with excitement. People passed around glasses filled with all colours of liquid and drank them down before pouring someone else another. Around the fire pits the townsfolk shared their pipes with nomads and traded stories of adventures and old loves, teaching the small crowds of people ditties they’d picked up on their travels. From wooden stalls the traders sold wildmeats and hair adornments made up of bloodroot and lilacs, while passing musicians led people of all backgrounds in the songs of spring. We walked through the crowds, allowing ourselves to be danced between women and men alike, until we reached the Lords’ buildings. I took a step back from the entrance.

“Don’t worry, I have a personal invitation,” Kaela said, walking up the steps of the grand complex.

I took a breath and followed as Kaela stopped in front of the stationed guards. From the sheer number of them I could see it was not an event for common folk. The guards inspected our invitation and nodded, allowing us to pass by, and I stopped a few feet short of the main arch. I was in total awe of the building; even Kaela seemed to be taken aback as she linked her arm through mine.

“Ready?” she asked.

“As I’ll ever be.” I adjusted my mask and took a breath.

We gracefully descended the first set of stairs and I continued praying to whoever was listening that I wouldn’t fall, not there in front of everyone. For the first of many times that evening I was happy everyone was masked. When we’d landed on flat stone I accepted the wine offered by a finely decorated servant and drank it down quickly before grabbing another. I’d never seen anything like it.

“Well,” Kaela stated, “it makes you feel small, doesn’t it?” She stared up at the painted ceiling and I followed her lead, almost unsure how to feel about the majesty of it all. It was beautiful and also unnecessary.

“Let’s actually join the celebrations, shall we?” I laughed, tilting Kaela’s head back down to the present.

Whether it was the wine or the excitement that made me feel giddy, I didn’t know, but I was actually enjoying myself as we moved further into the ballroom. When the first man approached me I wasn’t even nervous about talking to him. Soon the room was bustling with conversation as people talked and laughed and sampled the fine food from the tables lining the edges of the grand hall. I’d lost count of how many people had entered since our arrival but looking at the sea of bodies there had to be a few hundred or so. Kaela quickly grabbed my attention and motioned to a tall, light-haired man chatting politely with a few others on the far side of the room.

“Well? What are you waiting for?” I said, “Go on.”

Kaela turned red at the idea. “I can’t just approach him,” she whispered, fiddling with her skirts. “He has to come over here. Those are the rules of courtship.” I laughed at my friend’s blatant shyness and quickly found it was hard to stop. “Ava, what’s so damn funny?” she whispered fiercely.

I couldn’t help it. Kaela had always been so unruffled and at ease that to see her so utterly shy had tickled me. In the background of my vision I saw the man shift to face our direction; whether he’d noticed us yet or not I did the first thing that came to my mind and dropped the glass I was holding. It shattered into a thousand pieces around my feet and I clapped my hand apologetically.

“I’m sorry,” I said loudly enough for my voice to cut through the crowd. “I’m so sorry. What an absolute scatterbrain. Honestly, I don’t know why I’m allowed out in public.” I fumbled around picking up the shards of glass as one of the servants swept the remnants up.

“What was that?” Kaela asked, utterly mortified.

“Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything more graceful.” I kicked the remainder of the glass under the buffet table. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“For what?”

I stepped away as the man approached Kaela, a large smile plastered on his face.

“Kaela,” he started. She jumped at the sound of her name. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come. You look beautiful.”

“Good evening, Mr. Sidler.” She gave the smallest of curtsies. “How did you know it was me?”

“I’d recognise your golden hair anywhere,” he said, letting a piece of it slip gently through his fingers. “Would you like to dance?”

He led her away and Kaela looked back at me with a face like thunder, miming something as they walked toward the music. I couldn’t quite tell if it was ‘thank you’ or ‘I’m going to kill you’, but either way I waved lightly after her and chuckled.

“Quite the attention seeker, aren’t you?” said the man beside me.

“Only when the attention I seek is for another’s benefit,” I said without turning to him. “Moments like that are as rare as a Blood Moon, however. I much prefer to blend into the background.”

“That must be quite difficult for you to achieve tonight since beautiful women always stand out from a crowd,” he started. “From what I saw, many eyes have been set upon you since the moment you walked in the room.” His voice was barely a whisper as he leaned closer.

I flicked my eyes up at him, a flush of heat rising in my cheeks. As with Ethan, the first thing I noticed about him was his eyes. Under the navy-blue mask he wore his eyes were the richest blue I’d ever seen, like lapis. I turned to face him and looked at them closer, noting that toward the centre his irises were ringed with a striking, deep shade of lilac.

“You have very unusual eyes, sir,” I said. “They’re terribly pretty though.”

He waited a moment before replying, “My name’s Ric, if you’re interested in knowing it.”

“I can’t see why people wouldn’t be interested in knowing your name. Do you have a surname?”

“Not one that I can remember.” His smile was etched with a sort of sadness. “Please, skip past the formalities and call me Ric. Where I come from we call each other by the names given to us, not by those we inherited.”

“And where is this barbaric place?” I joked.

He smirked, “Quite far away I’m afraid. I can’t say I’ve gotten used to your customs yet. I think I’ve insulted almost everyone I’ve come across.”

“You just have to choose the right person to talk to.”

“Oh? And where do you stand?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” I fiddled with a loose thread in my dress. “You’re not doing too badly so far, but then again, I am different from the others in town.”

“How so?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you, even if you are a foreigner.”

“Will you give me a hint if I get you another drink?”

“It depends how delicious the drink is.”

Ric left quickly and returned after a few minutes, a glass in hand. The liquid inside was clear and sparkling.

“I have it on good authority that champagne is quite delicious,” he said, handing me a glass. The bottom fizzed and bubbled and the sparkles tickled my nose as I took a sip.

“I accept your offering.” I nodded my head and took another sip as Ric smiled.

“I believe you owe me a hint,” he started, “if I’ve pleased you, milady.” He mocked a deep bow.

“Yes, as you’ve kept your word I suppose I’ll have to keep mine.” I dabbed sweat from the back of my neck as I thought. “I walk this world as both the sun and the moon. People know me as each and both my brother and I share the same name.”

Ric waited for me to continue. “Is that it?” he asked.

“You said you wanted a hint.”

“You gave me a riddle.” He emptied his glass and placed it on the table. “I’m terrible at riddles.”

“Looks like I won’t have to worry about you blurting out my secret.” I flashed him a devious smile and finished my drink as well. He sighed and furrowed his brow, tapping on his chin as he thought. Music floated in from the opposite ballroom and pulled me toward its upbeat melody. “While you try to decipher it, shall we have a look at the other festivities?” I added quickly, “Unless you have a lady waiting for you, of course.”

“Even if I had a lady waiting I’d be honoured to escort you,” Ric said, extending his arm.

I had danced before but not for a long time. I used to dance on Father’s feet as he twirled us around the sitting room. My gaze dropped to the gentleman’s feet. His shoes were far too expensive to dance on. “I’ll warn you ahead of time, however, if you insist on dancing I hope you aren’t too attached to your feet.”

“We’re joined at the ankle but I’m sure they’ll forgive me.” Ric placed his hand over mine as I took his arm and we walked toward the beautiful music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

 

THE MAIN BALLROOM was incredible. Several crystal chandeliers hung from grand, illustrated ceilings while all around the room’s perimeter, long pieces of silk hung in greens and pinks and yellows. There were decorated tables situated here and there along the border of the dance floor and a large band played on a stage against the far wall. Suddenly the sight was overwhelming. Images of couples dancing simultaneously flooded my vision and the sounds of laughter and chatter swam in my ears. My life had always been small: small at the farm; small at the market; small with the amount of people I kept dear to me.

“Would you like to dance?” I forced down a cry of surprise as Ric spoke next to me. For a moment I’d forgotten he was even there.

“I can try,” I said, suddenly nervous.

He smiled, held out his hand, and I took it without question, letting him lead me onto the floor for the next song. In the sea of white around us, his copper skin stood out like blood on fresh snow. Whether it was a hue from birth or gained from a laborious life like mine, I couldn’t tell from a first glance. Past his reserved exterior I thought I saw something else in him: something secret and unusual. Easily a head taller than most men in the room with a good, strong form, he’d attracted no other woman’s attention. Even with half his face hidden I could tell he was attractive. He had the same air about him as Ethan in that sense. It was shameful, especially considering the ending of our last encounter, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that he wasn’t here.

Instead I turned back to Ric and focussed on enjoying my first, and most likely final, evening of rebellion. His hands were large and rough as one slipped around my waist and the other picked up my free hand. When I leaned into him he smelt damp like dew-soaked grass after a spring shower. Quite fitting for welcoming the new season this night, I thought. I quickly lifted my other hand to place it on his shoulder.

“This is right, isn’t it?” I asked.

His hands tightened, pulling me closer as the previous rhythm finished. “Perfect,” he said, flashing a daring smile at me and I looked away, embarrassed by our closeness.

Before the first note struck I caught sight of Kaela who waved to me and readied herself for the dance ahead of us. This sort of thing was as easy as breathing for her. She’d been taught every dance in tradition since an early age. I just waited and thanked the Daeus that I could conceal my day boots underneath my dress – at least there was one thing I was comfortable with that evening. The first beat struck. It was a slow, beautiful tune that complemented the majesty of the environment and without another word, Ric led me in the first of many dances.

 

AFTER THE BAND broke to refresh themselves, the violinist started up a fresh, far more upbeat tune and people filtered back to the dancefloor as the other musicians joined in, excited by the new tempo. The music sent my mood soaring and Ric grabbed my hand and pulled me to dance. Even though his actions were eager I couldn’t help but feel that there was something beneath Ric’s cool exterior that he was either hiding or afraid of. I felt it in the slight stiffness of his movements, his constant, watchful eyes on the room around us, and the way he hesitated before he spoke to me.

“You needn’t worry, you know,” I said before he twirled me away.

“About what?” he asked. I stared at him carefully, reading anything and everything I could: the way he shifted his gaze and refused to meet my eyes; his limited touch and carefully constructed smile.

“About what anyone else thinks of you.” He dipped me low and pulled me up again.

“What are you-?”

“I’ve seen it all before: in me; in other people, but you’ve got nothing to fear.” I pulled myself back and drifted along in a rough circle. “I don’t know what it is you’re afraid of but you don’t have to worry with me.”

“What makes you think I care about how people see me?”

“You’re afraid to talk to other people in case they see something they don’t like. People in Wetherdon can’t comprehend those different from them, regardless of whether they look different or come from a different place.” I stared at the blur of faces around us. “Sometimes people are cruel.”

“Do you think I’m different?” We stopped just off centre and I stared at him.

“Yes,” I didn’t hesitate, “but different is better than ordinary in my opinion.”

Ric laughed, throaty and heart-filled, like it’d been years since he’d last felt the urge to. People turned to stare but neither of us cared as Ric picked me up and hugged me.

“I’ll curse the very ground these people walk if they’ve ever treated a gentle soul like you in the way I’ve been treated the past couple of days,” he said, releasing me. “How is it that you’ve managed to avoid this wretched town’s corruption?”

“Well, technically I don’t live in town.” I stepped out of his arms and continued to dance, desperate to shake off the eyes that continued to watch us after Ric’s outburst. “My father owns a farm at the top of the hill. I shouldn’t even be here tonight.”

“Your father’s a wise man,” he said.

“Yes, he is.” I smiled and moved along with the crowd, dancing, spinning and laughing. “Unfortunately I think I’ll have rather upset my brother.”

“Oh? Is he older or younger?”

“Older by a few years – though, we’re not actually related by blood. His father was a vile man so we took him in years ago.” The words spilled out of me. “The remainder of his family died only a few months ago, actually.” Ric swept me along in silence and when I snuck a look at him, the expression he wore was…odd. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to go into such detail.”

“Not at all.” He shook his head clear. “I just remember hearing something similar, is all.”

I didn’t push, instead steering the conversation back to something more present. “You’re a wonderful dancer.” I could have slapped myself. You’re a wonderful dancer – that was the best I could come up with?

“Just years of practice from another life.” He smiled before picking me up off the floor and spinning me again. The song ended and the room erupted into applause. Kaela looked at me from the other side of the room and gave me a thumbs-up, the heat of the last dance still burning in her face. Ric excused himself and I started toward her.

The music started up again as I skirted the edge of the dance floor when my path was blocked by another man. “Pardon me, Miss. I was hoping you would grant me the pleasure of this dance.”

The man bowed in front of me with his hand outstretched; his face was hidden by a night-black mask, yet there was nothing unseemly about him that would’ve caused me to say no. I looked at Kaela behind him who ushered me to accept and I took his hand. Immediately I felt a strong, unpleasant intensity as it shot through his fingertips. He lifted his head from the bow and I was frightened to look at him as his piercing gaze cut into me. After a few moments I succumbed to his stare and regretted it instantly. His eyes were darker than the mask he wore and they danced with flecks of red like dying embers. It must have been the light, surely.

His unkempt hair sat wildly atop his head as he grasped my hand tighter. The feel of him was making me dizzy, and the hairs on my arms stood on end as goose-bumps rose. He pulled me close, too close for my liking, and coiled his hand around my waist. I prayed for time to fly past so that the song would end and I could escape the man’s clutches. The minutes went by like hours. He traced a finger down my spine and left a freezing trail of skin in its wake.

He studied me with those damned eyes. “Have we met elsewhere?”

I shook my head, refusing to meet his gaze again. “I’ve never left the city.” He pressed his hand harder into my back as I tried pulling away. “Please, don’t hold me so close,” I insisted as his hands pressed me closer still.

He drew in a long, steady breath as he held me, savouring my smell. His strong fingers dug into the soft flesh around my waist, causing me to wince and struggle harder. The music ended to my relief, welcoming an array of applause around us, but he still refused to let me go.

“I’ll ask again,” I stated, patience wearing thin, “please release me.”

“Your scent is so unusual,” he growled beside my ear. “It reminds me of something I can’t place.”

His closeness, his suffocating presence, all of it became too much and I snapped. “I said, let go.” I wrestled in his arms and kicked him in the shin. He cried out, loosening his hold on me briefly, and I twisted out of his grip. A moment passed for him to register what had happened before he moved for me, lunging forward to grab my arm. I jerked back and Ric found him instead, clamping a strong hand over the man’s extended arm.

“Stephan, that’s enough.” He pulled him away and escorted him out of the room.

My heart fluttered as Kaela wrapped her fingers over my shoulder and I steadied my breathing, bathing in the comfort her presence brought me.

“What a beastly man.” She was barely audible over the general chatter of the room and I stared at the empty archway. When Ric returned a few minutes later he apologised for the man – Stephan’s, behaviour.

“Here.” Ric passed me a glass of water. “Again, I’m sorry he rattled you. Stephan doesn’t have much contact with the outside world so sometimes he can be a bit too excitable.”

Though I brushed off the apology like excess flour, my hands still shook behind my back and I downed the water in one go. The glass clinked delicately as I placed it on a nearby table and glanced at the grand clock on the wall.

“I think I’ve been out long enough,” I spoke eventually. “The night is quite cold and I need to get back to look for any new residents.”

“Is it that time of year already?” Kaela asked.

“The past year’s flown by, hasn’t it? Now the ewes think they own the farm,” I laughed.

“Why?” Ric asked with sincerity.

Kaela and I exchanged looks. “Ever dealt with a pregnant woman before? Pregnant sheep aren’t quite the same, but thirty of them can be a handful.”

“Oh-”

Kaela smiled but her concern crept back onto her face. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”

“Of course, I’ve made the trip hundreds of times.” I almost choked on my words. Yes, I’d made the trips hundreds of times – as Cedar.

“There’s a station just out of the building and around the corner where you can hire a cab. Send the payment request to Roan for being such a stick-in-the-mud,” Kaela huffed.

“Even if I needed a cab, I’m the one who handles the intake so he’d have to check with me for the money anyway.”

“I would’ve thought your brother handled that sort of stuff?” Kaela frowned.

I cursed myself silently for letting my guard down and thought quickly. “My father gave us both excellent education but I took to writing and arithmetic better than Cedar. Therefore, the books were left to me and the trade and physical labour was left to him and Roan.”

“You’ll make a wonderful business partner for someone someday, you lucky thing.” She gripped my hand as another figure joined our small group.

“Not exactly the kind of wife a man would want, however,” Kaela’s gentleman friend, Mr. Sidler, said. I met his gaze and saw the distaste in it. After such a remarkable evening I’d almost forgotten how the city folk saw me. Kaela’s eyes were fiery and hurt by his disregard.

I straightened up and held my head high as I spoke. “If I ever want to take a husband it won’t be from this town.” I smiled falsely. “All of the good men are taken already.” I shot the man a distasteful look back and revelled in the insult he took. “Goodnight, Kaela.” I hugged her close and whispered in her ear, “Don’t settle for second best. You deserve the love of a king.”

As I strode from the grand hall I heard hurried footsteps behind me that soon took their place beside mine.

“Now I see why you’re unclaimed,” Ric said.

“Yes, I’m one of the more troublesome cattle on the market. More likely to be culled than possessed,” I said, pressing on.

Ric laughed. “The way I see it the problem lies in the suitors.”

I glanced down as Ric opened and closed his hand. “You didn’t-”

“I wasn’t the first one,” he chuckled. “You pick your friends well.”

“She’ll get in trouble for that.” I groaned and stopped in my tracks.

“I don’t think she’ll care.”

“I should go back and make sure she gets home okay-”

“There’s no need. After I finished talking with her she joined another group of women. She’ll be fine.” Ric squeezed my shoulder gently and let go.

“Right-” Of course, she has friends in town. “Where are you headed now?”

“I’ll escort you home,” Ric said plainly. “After that I’ll go wherever the wind takes me.”

“You really needn’t bother. As I’d said I’ve made this journey more times than I can recall.” I walked on but quickly stuttered as the world around me tilted and swayed.

“I know, but I can at least use this time to enjoy your company for a few moments longer.” He looked around us. “What’s the fastest way home?”

I shook my head again and again, trying to clear the fog that slowly settled across my vision. “From this side of the city it’ll be easier to skirt the western district, near the markets, but-”

“Let’s go then. You don’t look too well,” Ric said, leading the way.

“You don’t know where the districts are,” I said. I did feel sick. Perhaps I’d had one too many glasses of wine.

“I can read the street signs,” he started. “Do you need to hold on to me?” I shook my head but found that my balance was waning.

“You have to mind Old Town,” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes. “That’s not somewhere you want to find yourself at this time.”

“Don’t worry,” he said leading me onward at the first street sign. “I’ll keep a close eye out.”

Eventually the mass of drunken celebrators whittled down from their hundreds to tens and then into nothing. Steam poured out of the nearby warehouse vents and burst pipes made the air thick with wet fog. I came to my senses as a beam collapsed beside us, making me shriek.

“Wait, Ric.”

Dilapidated shacks and empty shells where full houses used to be stood around us, burnt-black bricks paved the mud and rotten wood creaked and moaned in the night. We’d ventured so far into Old Town that I couldn’t see the safety of the street lamps past the pressing darkness. I couldn’t believe I’d been so unobservant.

“This is Old Town. We shouldn’t be here.” I moved to grab his arm and stumbled.

“Careful.” He caught hold of my arm and propped me up beside him. “And don’t worry about it. You’re with me, remember?”

That wasn’t a comfort. I’d only known the man for one evening so how was I supposed to know what was going on in his head? I’d made assumptions of his nature, but now we were alone…I tried to pull my arm away but couldn’t. There was no strength left; no lick of defiance. The moon was swallowed by thick clouds, stealing away the last shred of light we navigated by. He led us further and further into Old Town and all I did was amble alongside him half conscious; half dreaming. Something had poisoned my mind.

Our footsteps clacked on the broken stone paving and the steam continuously swirled around us, engulfing and revealing our figures like breaking waves. “Ric.” I tugged again. “This isn’t the way home.” Only silence greeted me. I reached out to the arm that propped me up only to find it was cold and slippery. Jerking backwards I stumbled again and saw it was nothing but the old, broken beam of a shop front. My breath came in rasps and panic started to set in when the moon peeked back from behind the dark wall, confirming my fears.

Ric was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

AVA!” RIC CRIED out in the night. “Ava, run – there’s something here!”

A base scream was carried on the air followed by a sickening snap. “Ric?” There was no reply. I wiped cold sweat from my forehead and neck as the relief of his voice was snatched away, mutating into renewed fear. The world spun around me and I took shallow, panicked breaths while I plotted my next move. If Ric was dead there was little point bumbling into a mess that could kill me as well.

“Ava,” a weak voice called as I started my retreat. “Ava, where are you?”

My head snapped in its direction and instinct took over. “I’m here,” my voice echoed. “I’m coming.” I lurched over the long material of my dress and pushed on.

“Help me, please!” The voice changed direction, “Ava-”

It was impossible to pin the sound down and I ran on again and again, willing my vision to return to normal. Quickly, I found myself in the centre of the old warehouses, shrouded in steam so thick I could barely tell one side of the street from the other, but it cleared my head and I remembered: I’d never told Ric my name.

“A…va,” the voice twisted and deepened, mocking me.

At barely a whisper it made my blood curdle as my name kept twisting and cutting through the fog, poking and prodding at my mind. I moved along another alley, trying to get my bearings, as all the while only the sharp clack-clack of my boots could be heard against the stone paving. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I neared the open mouth of the alley. Something was close, I could feel it. The wall was icy on my back but I crushed myself against it, waiting for whatever it was to pass, only, it didn’t. There was a scuffle, a growl, a cry of pain, and the sound of something heavy dropping to the floor before being rhythmically dragged away. The sound of it left me shaking. I steadied myself, pulled away from the safety of the shadows and peered around the mouth of the alley.

It took all of my strength to supress the scream caught in my throat as I looked at the trail of red. The clearly defined handprints had slapped down only a few feet from my alley before they faded into a man-sized smear which disappeared into the clouds of thick steam. I blinked away the tears that formed in my eyes and tried again to catch my breath. My fear engulfed me, filling me up to the point of drowning and all I wanted to do was huddle on the floor and cry out for Father and Roan like a child – but I would not be selfish.

“I’m sorry, Father.” My voice was little more than a whisper as I made my prayer. “You were right.”

Without a second thought I tore the mask from my face and let it clatter against the damp floor before following the trail. As it rounded the corner into another alley I paused just beyond, listening for anything that could suggest he was still breathing. I continued on, traversing the dark path carefully as I pressed my hand to my nose, trying to stifle the foul smell. Despite being deprived of light I found a shred of comfort to feel the dagger against my thigh, and pressed on until the darkness was at its thickest.

At the end of the passage the smell was almost unbearable and my boots became tacky against the floor. I crouched and brushed my fingers against the dirty paving and they came away wet. I stretched my arms out further and flinched as they fell on a solid form splayed on the ground. The body was still warm as I crouched over it, listening for any signs of life, but his chest didn’t rise. I moved my hands upwards over his neck to feel for a pulse and gasped, tearing them away instantly. It was wrong. The shape of it was wrong. The way his head twisted backwards was wrong. The man was dead.

The alley was too enclosed. I had to get out. I moved to look over the body one more time and stopped. That cold, crippling terror choked me again as I felt someone else’s presence bent over the body on its other side. Our faces couldn’t have been more than a foot apart as wretched breath washed over my skin. Instinct took over and I was running. I fled from the tunnel and veered left, sprinting back the way I came-

“Hello again.” A pair of dark eyes stared at me from beneath a night-black mask. I skidded to a halt and my body went rigid as he approached me, brushing his deep chestnut hair away from his face. Stephan was older than I’d originally thought, perhaps thirty or forty-something. The unpleasant intensity I felt was stronger than before and as I turned to run I was corralled by another man.

“Thomas, I was afraid you were going to leave this lovely lady in my hands alone.”

Thomas opened his arms, “She’s certainly everything you described.” He ran his tongue along his large, tattered lips and bounced on his heels.

“Personally.” A set of footsteps came from the alley behind me. “I can’t see the feistiness you were talking about.”

I turned to face the man and took a step back as I stared straight into a mouthful of very dangerous teeth. His presence was different to that of the other men, far more animalistic, the blood coating his face and hands didn’t help either. I didn’t dare stare at him for longer than a few heartbeats as his red eyes chilled me to the core. Somehow I thought I’d seen those eyes before.

“Gabriel, it’s nice of you to join us,” Stephan said, smiling. “I do hope you enjoyed your snack?” The one called Gabriel growled and licked his bloody hand before a crimson drop could fall.

Cannibals-?

I backed away from the three men, only managing a few steps before I felt the wall behind me. I was trapped. It was fight or flight but I didn’t much like my odds. Whether it was boldness or insanity that drove me to it, I turned to face Stephan head on.

“So?” My anger rose. “Get on with it then. End me like you ended Ric.” The men laughed, exchanging looks between them but didn’t answer me straight. They didn’t need to as another figure emerged from the fog.

“They haven’t ended me yet.” I looked up as Ric strode to Thomas’s side, standing beside them with neither shoes nor shirt, his red hair tousled messily across his head. He looked no saner than the rest of them.

“I thought they’d killed you.” My voice was quiet.

“I thought we’d scared you off.” Stephan walked up to him and slapped a hand across his shoulders. At the ball, when Stephan held me too close, it was Ric that pulled him away.

Silly girl, Ava.

“Were you planning on starting without me? This worthless little town seems ideal for this sort of sport,” he laughed, a throaty, malevolent laugh.

I couldn’t help but stare at him then. The purple ring around his pupils had doubled in size and dominated most of the blue. It was clear then how the man I’d danced with all night could be self-conscious as his razor teeth caught the moonlight. He was terrifying. My vision swayed again and something else came to light. Not long after we left the Lords’ buildings I’d started feeling off. The glass of water Ric brought me was the last thing I remembered drinking.

“Did you poison me?” I asked, bracing myself against the wall.

“Don’t worry, you won’t die…from that anyway,” he sneered. “I knew you’d be troublesome to get to this side of town without a little sedative persuasion.”

“You could have knocked me out,” I said bluntly.

“That’s a little brutish for my taste.” He picked at his nails.

“Tell that to the man with the broken neck.” I nodded to the alley behind Gabriel.

“That was Gabriel’s doing. He isn’t the most patient person when he’s hungry.” Gabriel growled beside him. “You did have me worried though. I watched you hesitate before and was convinced you would run away. That would have been the smart decision.”

“I should’ve listened to my gut, but I’m not a coward like some,” I spat.

“I’d rather be smart and live, than brave and die,” he leered.

“If you ask me there was no need for this mystery,” Thomas said. “We could’ve just taken her the moment she stepped foot in this place.” His energy made me nervous, like he would pounce at any moment.

“And you still wonder why we don’t ask you about much?” Ric mocked. Thomas swung his head around and snarled.

“Now, now, gentlemen, you must remember that regardless of the circumstances we are in the presence of a lady,” Stephan said. His voice was too gentle.

“Lady or not, she’ll be a corpse by the time the night’s out, just like everyone else,” Thomas scoffed.

“Who knew murderers were so charming?” I said to him sarcastically.

“There’s little need for charm when you control people through other means.” I swallowed my retaliation as I was shoved against the wall and pinned in place by his knee. He held a very sharp nail atop the bruise on my throat and I squirmed beneath him, praying he didn’t feel my dagger. “Fear is a better motivator.”

“Yes, yes, we all know.” Stephan clapped his hands together. “So what shall we do now? We have our prey.”

“It was Ric’s idea to toy with her first. Let him choose,” Thomas said, releasing me.

“We were lucky enough to get this far. Stephan almost blew it earlier with his impatience,” Ric scowled.

“I was growing tired of your rather convincing charade.” Stephan paced around him. “It was worrying seeing you together. Judging by the way you looked at her you might not have gone through with the plan after all.”

“I’m a good actor,” Ric spat.

“Yes, you are.” There was something curious about the way Stephan looked at him that made Ric sweat.

“Come now, you can’t blame a man for his desires,” Gabriel cut across them. “I can never resist the smell of fear on a woman.” He brushed his dirty fingers across my shoulder and his bloody, cracked finger nails scratched my skin. “You reek of it.” I tried not to shake under his hand.

“Restrain yourself. You can do whatever you want with her after we’ve all had our fun,” Stephan snapped. “What are our terms for this evening’s entertainment?”

“Long legs: she should be a good runner.”

“The look she’s giving us says she won’t go down without a fight.”

“It’ll be hard for her to run in a dress like this though.” Gabriel looked lazily over the layers of fabric covering my legs and motioned to Thomas, who grabbed my arms from behind. I struggled against him until my arms bent in horribly painful ways. Please don’t see the dagger. Please. Gabriel took the fabric in his hands and with one swift motion he tore it to my thigh. I let out an irrepressible gasp as he brushed his hand over my leg and smiled…and I snapped. Snarling, and before my brain could register what was happening, I used Thomas as a foundation and kicked Gabriel in the face as hard as I could. A moment of silence passed before the group burst into laughter.

“I take back what I said,” Gabriel said as he wiped the dirt from his cheek, “there’s definitely spirit there.”

“Shall we give her a five-minute head-start?” Stephan asked.

The others nodded, cracking their knuckles as they psyched themselves up for the chase. In no time they’d changed from being somewhat civilised to nothing more than dogs on a leash, snapping at one another if they ventured too close together. Adrenaline pumped through me. If it was a fox hunt they wanted I sure wasn’t going down without maiming a few dogs.

“Before I die, enlighten me,” I started, stamping my foot further into my boot. “Why me? Wrong place, wrong time?”

Stephan shook his head. “You made friends with the wrong person.”

“We told him the consequences if he ignored our warnings but the fool thought he could protect you.” Thomas shied under Stephan’s glare.

“You needn’t bore her to death,” he snapped before turning back to me. “We aren’t the kind of men who make empty threats. His ignorance has led to your death. Remember that when you see each other again in Gehn.”

Were they talking about Ethan?

“What difference does it make whether she knows or not? Let’s begin already.” Thomas’s rekindled energy was practically burning.

“Alright, on the count of three-”

Run.

“One-”

Fight.

“Two-”

Survive.

“Three,” I finished. This was my home, regardless of how disoriented I was, and I had the upper hand. Without a backward glance I ran as fast as I could back to the safety of the city.

Find out what happens to Ava on February 7th 2017.

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Thank you for reading… and we are sorry for cutting it off there!


Trapped in Silver Sneak Peak

Here is a sneak peak at our February 7th 2017 debut, Trapped in Silver. Courage comes from a shadowed place in our hearts; a blurred line that straddles love and sheer stupidity. To seventeen-year-old Ava, wild woodcats, hungry stragglers, and simple-minded townsfolk are the evils she’s grown accustomed to. But when Ethan, an unusual man with eyes of smoke and fire opal, enters her world she quickly understands that there are worse things out there than drunken men and carnivorous forest creatures. She’s a specialised liar and a hell of a fighter, but against a group of animalistic men called Berserkers she struggles to survive the encounter as the desperate swing of a dagger is all it takes to change her life for good. Half-dead and hunted by the Berserker’s leader when he forms a monstrous obsession with her, Ava escapes his pursuit in an unfamiliar land full of impossible creatures, unlikely allies, and the man she doesn’t know whether to kiss or kill. But after dreadful news of her missing brother surfaces, Ava becomes more involved in the centuries-long war and begins to unravel the reasons behind her relentless nightmares, discovering truths long-buried in a violent history of love, loss and betrayal.

  • Author: Oftomes Publishing
  • Published: 2016-12-12 10:05:14
  • Words: 22609
Trapped in Silver Sneak Peak Trapped in Silver Sneak Peak