New Shaper Leak – Shadow
Editors note: The world of Dawngate can, at times, be a dark place. Unravelled details the background of a Shaper who has seen such darkness. The following story contains mature language and content. Please read at your own discretion.
Junil 18, 1536
(Eight years before the Dawngate opened)
The sky overhead was deep blue, fading to white where it met the peaks across the valley. Dandelion-puff clouds drifted lazily on wind that smelled of earth and grass and growth. If you tilted back your head and twirled, it felt like you could spin off the world. She did so, the yellow wildflowers crushed under her boots releasing a sweet scent, and she knew he’d be watching the hem of her forest-green skirt rising from her ankles and rippling in the wind. She laughed against the back of her hand and bounced over to grab his hand.
“Come on,” she whispered, tugging him urgently towards the collapsing barn, eyes crinkling into a smile.
He looked over his shoulder across the shadow-speckled meadow, at the distant, cloud-crowned peaks. “Won’t we get in trouble?” The light caught in his unkempt hair, spun the gold into radiance.
She rolled her eyes and pivoted on a platform heel, wrapping his arm up around her as she turned. He grunted in surprise as her chest pressed hard up against his. She’d worn the burgundy bodice that did spectacular things. “But no one comes out here in summer,” she murmured up into his big blue eyes, “and I can keep a secret if you can,” Inspired, she craned her neck to nuzzle under his ear, and was satisfied by immediate results. “I can tell how interested you are,” she lilted, favoring him with the lopsided smile that she’d caught him sketching in the courtyard.
He reddened, grinned foolishly, looked down into her fine midnight hair, glittering iridescent violet where the sun hit. “Are you sure?”
She cocked her head at him, struggling to keep the tautness out of her voice. “You truly think I dressed like this to stroll in a meadow?” He swallowed. She watched the artery in his neck flicker and tremble with the force of his longing. “Be a man. Or,” she said, idly tracing an electric fingertip along the downy stubble of his jawline, “perhaps I could make you one?”
It was the end of his meager resistance. “All right.” He stood awkwardly, slightly hunched over, ineptly trying to make her effects on him less obvious.
She laughed and pressed her lips against his, slithered her tongue past his defenses in the way the older girls did. His shoulders stiffened. Young, strong arms encircled her waist, pressing the small of her back against him. “Hm!” she pulled away, discreetly wiping off her mouth; he was enthusiastic, but not particularly accurate. “Not out here, my squire.” She gestured to the barn with one fluid arm and made herself a signpost pointing into the shadows; hips tilted, one brow raised, shoulders set at an angle.
“I hope there aren’t any rats,” he said, laughing with nervous excitement. “I wouldn’t want you to get, um, upset.”
She laughed lightly. “Rats? It takes far more to upset me.” He bent over to duck under the sagging beam of the old door. She admired the line of his breeches, and waited until he turned before ducking under herself. As she expected, his eyes locked the fall of her bosom as she bent over. He couldn’t see her mouth; she allowed a smile of satisfaction.
The barn smelled of dry, clean hay, stacked under the remaining ceiling in anticipation of winter. She’d scouted it ahead of time, of course. It wouldn’t do for her first to be in mold and filth. He fiddled with his collar, unsure what he should be doing.
“Let me,” she said, hips swaying as she sashayed up to him. With quick, precise movements, she had his shirt unlaced and her hands sliding up his bare chest. Her lips and tongue moved lightly across his neck, his nervous gulps throbbing against her mouth.
“Have you – you’ve done this before?” he gaped at her.
“Oh my, no,” she smiled up at him from the shadows. In the finger of sunlight between them, motes of straw dust whirled and danced. “I’ve been waiting for some time. Working up my courage. Waiting for the right person.”
He flushed in the darkness, his deep blue eyes flickering over every part of her body but her eyes. “And – and you picked me?” He practically squeaked. “You barely know me.”
“Yes,” she hummed, “we must remedy that.” She slid the shirt off his shoulders and traced the sunlight on his summer-scalded biceps with her fingernails. Every part of him was alive and a-quiver, the fine, pale hair on his arms bristling. Within her, the carefully banked and stoked blaze remained untouched by his inexpert hands, restless with his apologies. But soon enough.
“Should I… would you like me to help you with your clothes?” he asked, meekly, his eyes scurrying across the pale flesh spilling over her bodice. Such a good purchase, that. He bit his lip as she slid his trousers off angular hips.
“Oh my,” she murmured, and he flushed literally from head to toe.
“I… should I – can I-?”
“No,” she said primly, poking the tip of his nose. “I do not give you permission to touch me. I am a Lady, after all.”
He swallowed loudly. “How will we, um..?”
She laughed throatily, senses afire, the pounding in her ears and chest steadily increasing in volume. She circled behind him, fingers lightly brushing as she passed. He shuddered at her touch. “Don’t worry, dear boy. Just… relax and let it happen.”
He laughed, high and hysterical, the sound bouncing back and forth off the faded wooden walls like a chimney-panicked swallow. “You’ve never done this? Seriously?”
“Do boys never speak of such things?” she breathed into his spine, her fingers waltzing slowly, delicately in the hot, still air of the barn. “Not among yourselves? Stories and advice?” She heard the faint rustling of a mouse somewhere off in the straw.
“I, uh…” He seemed to be losing his ability to string words together. It was amusing to observe. “I think they mostly lie. Exaggerate.”
“Hm. The women at the Queen’s court share… useful details. In the interests of rulership and diplomacy, of course.” She smiled in the dark, where he couldn’t see. “How to lead. How to persuade. How to reward. You’re all rather easily influenced, you know.”
“Yeah,” he cracked, and shivered between her arms, unconsciously swaying with her.
A sudden firm grip stilled him with a gasp. She arched her neck and gently nipped the flesh between his shoulder blades. “You should lie down.”
“In the straw?” He shook his head, laughed shakily, raked a hand through his explosion of blond. “That’s kind of a cliché, isn’t it?”
She hummed in amusement, thunder rolling in her ears. “If you don’t lie down on the straw, you’ll collapse into it. And if we stay like this, what of me?” She put a mock pout into her voice. “Would you leave me unsatisfied?”
“No!” he shook his head, sun-dazed, and reluctantly pulled away from her hands. He picked out the thick pile of straw she’d built two days before, and lay on his back. Bashful and sheepish, he asked, “What now? Do you need me to-?”
She smiled through her hair. “Just be patient,” she said, and sat on his lap, demurely arranging the hem of her skirt over their knees.
She could feel him struggling to remain politely still. “We’re not going to, um-?”
“Not yet. That will be for me. I can… amuse you without going so far.” She began to sway gently, rocking like a boat on the warm southern seas. “Does that feel good?” she asked.
She ran her hands down the embroidery on her bodice, smoothing the fabric. On a whim, she loosened the laces slightly at the top. “Does it bother you that you… can’t see anything?”
“No, My Lady. You’re – you’re beautiful.”
She smothered a frown and tutted softly. “Don’t call me such a thing. And there’s a saying in Neissen; ‘There are no titles in the bedchamber.’” The thunder in her head was deafening. The furnace in her chest was blooming, waves of sparks and flame flowing up her spine and down to her toes. It was becoming a struggle to keep her voice even. He reached up and began to run his hands across her exposed skin, tracing the neckline of her bodice, running his fingers down her arms. “Mm, that’s lovely,” she lied, closing her eyes and tilting her head back.
“I – I think I’m-” He choked and shook.
His strong, calloused fingers grabbed and crushed her forearms. “Ah?” she gasped, eyes widening at the unexpected pain. It spiked up her arms, jetted straight to the smoldering core of her. The inferno blazed up, burst through her careful defenses, threatened to engulf her.
She screwed her eyes closed, shook her head. It wasn’t time yet. It wasn’t perfect. Blinking back stars and flame, she yanked her arms roughly free, grabbed his wrists, and slammed them deep into the hay. Breathing hard and gritting her teeth, she strained to tamp the blaze, avert the explosion.
“I’m s-sorry,” the words shivered free of him. His eyes were huge, a mirror of the sky outside. “Did I hurt your arms?”
Truthfully, he had lasted longer than she’d been told to expect.
She pasted on an indulgent smile and calmed her breathing. “I’m fine. Did you enjoy that?” She peeled her fingers off his bruised wrists, one by one.
“Very much,” he sighed. “Did you?”
“I got something out of it,” she said coyly, tracing lazy patterns on his chest with one fingertip. The thunder in her head reluctantly subsided to a distant mutter. “I’m looking forward to getting the rest.”
A blissful smile spread across his face. “What would you like me to do?”
“What you’ve been doing is just fine.” She paused, adjusted her weight for comfort, then adjusted it again for effect. “You are still… interested? Yes?”
Yes, of course he was. And now, his tension spent, it would be safer for her. Not completely – you were rarely completely safe. More useful details learned in the evening discussions.
He laughed wildly, irresponsibly, drunk on her. “If your mother knew about this, she’d have me tied to a pole and whipped.”
A glorious opportunity. A magnificent risk. Her heart tripped and hammered. She forced the languid calm back into her voice, applied a hint of dry humor; “Oh, I doubt it. If she found me in the hay with a knight’s son, she’d have you tied to a pole and executed.”
She paused as if the idea were just coming to her, as if she’d hadn’t carefully observed him for weeks, hadn’t seen his wide eyes and the angle of his neck around the higher-ranked noble daughters. Looking away to the door with a shy expression, she murmured, “Ah… could you perhaps want to be tied up by a Countess? Or… a someday-Countess?” She dropped her chin and glanced back at him sidelong, through her lashes, a look she’d seen Queen Sereyn inflict on a truculent Maridian diplomat. “We could try.”
If he got any redder, he’d begin to glow. “Uh… where would we get…”
“I’m sure there’s some rope left in here,” she said, hiding a smile behind both hands like the bashful girl she wasn’t, letting him see only the crinkle of her eyes. Queen Sereyn was a master of such little artifices. A season at her court had been terribly instructive.
He peered around into the darkness and dust. “Um, over there?” he suggested, pointing to the weather-blackened coil she’d left draped over one of the stalls, conveniently within arm’s length.
“Perfect,” she smiled, and stretched to reach it. “I’m not particularly good at knots. I only know how to tie up stallions.” As planned, he snorted with laughter at her choice of words.
She leaned forward, allowing her chest to press distractingly against his face as she looped the hemp around his wrists and the nearby support beam, then pulled tight.
“Sorry.” She sat up, splaying her fingers across his bare chest, resumed the little hip motions that had proven so effective a few minutes before. “How is that… peasant?” she said, selecting an imperious tone shot with a thread of self-deprecation. She imagined most girls her age would be uncomfortable playing roles. She tilted her nose up in the air a bit for good measure.
He moved with her eagerly. “That’s wonderful, My La—Er,” he stopped himself and visibly hunted for another word to use.
She smiled impishly. “Titles in the bedchamber are appropriate for this fantasy, I should think.”
“Thank you, My Lady,” he said, looking up at her with wide, adoring cow-eyes. “You’re so lovely.”
The flames snapped. A flock of sparks whirled up her spine, tightened her jaw. She forced calm into her voice. “I told you, don’t call me such things.” Then she reapplied her smile and said, “It’s my turn now. Be still a moment.”
She raised herself off his lap, adjusted carefully. “Ah. There we are.” Satisfied with her own condition, she slowly nestled herself back down, wincing slightly. “My goodness,” she breathed. “Isn’t that a wonder.” She could feel the tension in him, the primal urge to move.
He blushed and looked modestly off towards the door. She reached forward and grabbed his jaw, curtly turning him to face her as she began to move. “I didn’t give you permission to look away,” she told him. “I want your eyes on me.” She leaned down and sought his lips, teasing them with the tip of her tongue. “You’re only to look at me.”
“Yes, My Lady,” he breathed, and forgot his determination to remain still.
“You’re mine,” she said, her motions growing quicker, more tremulous. She moved her lips across the pulsing in his neck, absently marveled at the quickness of his desire. The fires in her chest bloomed and unfurled. The distant mutter of thunder in her head rolled forth, drowning out the sound of his breathing.
“All yours,” he echoed. A cooling breeze blew across from the door. Her hair glittered violet where the sun skipped off it.
The furnace in her chest roared, shaking her body with its intensity. “Mine forever,” she said over the roar of blood, gritting her teeth to contain the curtains of flame coursing through her. It was time. She braced herself with one hand, and used the other to hike her skirt up to her garter.
“Whatever you wish,” he gasped, “you’re so beautiful.”
The inferno broke through her walls, consumed her belly, raged down her limbs. She made no effort to tamp it. “Don’t call me that!” she snarled.
The dagger was out of her garter and slashing his throat before she could even think. She’d spent weeks whetting the blade. It passed through him as if he were a curiously undercooked roast.
His sky-colored cow-eyes bulged as the life burst from him. His body jerked and spasmed, throwing her upwards. “Uh-ah!” she squeaked as he bucked and hot rain sprayed her. The blackened rope creaked as he uselessly threw his arms from side to side, bubbling and hissing. He heaved beneath her a final time, and she gasped as the aftershock shivered through her. They were both left limp and breathless.
The burning in her chest dissipated.
The pounding in her head fell silent.
She floated, eyes closed, swaying limply as she panted in the summer silence. A rustle of feathers and a twittering came from the loft overhead. A warm wind whistled through the knotholes and cracks in the walls, mingling the whisper-fine smells of late blossoms and sweet grass with the heavy stench of raw meat. Absently, she pawed at her damp bodice, loosening the laces.
She opened her eyes, and wondered if things looked as different from the other side of them. The women at court had claimed they could always tell.
“That was perfection, sweetling,” she told the corpse. She staggered up, legs trembling, stretching the cramps out of her thighs. Her lips tasted of slick metal. “That – I actually felt that. How marvelous.” She laughed shortly, and released a long, shuddering sigh. She raked clotting strands of sticky hair back away from her face.
She frowned down at the body. One finger twitched, reflexively, seeming to beckon her back.
“But it ended so quickly. I shall have to enjoy the next boy for longer.”
Janviar 14, 1532
Eleven years before the Dawngate opened
They crunched through the drifts, winding between trees stripped of bark by hungry elk. Above the quiet roar of the winter air, cracks of shifting ice and thumps of falling snow echoed through the woods. The branches of the pines, muffled and numb from a thick coating of snow, glittered where red-gold fingers of light filtered through the branches.
Just ahead of the three children, a weight of snow dropped free, leaving a curl of gold-tinted glitter hanging in the cold, still air. The boy sniffled, wiped his nose on his mitten, and clung to his sister’s sleeve. “Is it much further, Raina?” He was small for his age, lifting his knees high to clear the deep snow. His coat was wool, dyed a deep red. His favorite color, as he never stopped telling anyone.
“Not much farther, Zalgus,” Raina said, patting him on the head. Her words trickled out in clouds.
He pushed his glasses up his nose. They immediately slid down again. “My nose hairs are froze,” he muttered. “And my toes sting.”
“That’s good,” she interrupted the siblings. “That means you don’t have the frost-bites. If they stop stinging, let us know.” She could feel Raina glare at her.
“She’s right,” Raina told him. “If your feet hurt, that means they’re all right.” To her, more quietly, Raina said, “We should have gone back earlier.” The sunset light burned gold highlights into her copper hair. She pulled her heavy bear fur cloak closer around herself. She liked to brag that her mother had slain the bear herself. It was more likely her mother had ordered the Mistress of the Guard kill it for her.
She tucked a violet-black strand behind her ear and shrugged at the other girl. “We’re fine. An hour or two, if the weather holds. Stop worrying.”
“Zalgus is complaining,” Raina complained.
“He always complains.”
“Well, that’s true,” Raina allowed. “But that’s ‘cause he’s still little.”
“I am not!” Zalgus pouted.
“I showed you the falls,” she said impatiently, not slacking her pace, always placing one rag-stuffed boot ahead of the next. “I told you both that it was a long way up the mountain.”
Raina frowned. It was her habitual expression. “It was pretty, but… I didn’t think we’d be getting back this late.” It had been Raina’s idea to start after lunch, as soon as she’d heard of the great waterfall that iced over into a castle of white pillars in the deep of winter.
“You know as well as I that the light dies early this time of year.”
“Why do you always say it that way?” Zalgus’ reedy voice piped.
“You don’t just say ‘sunset’ like ev’rybody else. You always say ‘the light dies.’ Light doesn’t die, it’s just there. Except when it’s not. People die. An’ animals.”
“Zalgus, don’t be… tedious,” Raina said, testing a new word. She glanced at her and mouthed, “Did I use it right?”
She shrugged. To Zalgus, she said, “Everything dies. Even the days. And some are taken younger than others,” she added, significantly.
“Thass not funny,” Zalgus sniffled, and wiped his runny nose on the back of his mitten again.
A distant howl sounded from behind them, further up the slopes.
The three children paused, turned. “You didn’t say there were wolves out here,” Raina said, nervously.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be foolish. There are wolves everywhere. Especially in winter, when the elk are thin. Don’t you two ever leave your mother’s castle?”
“I go out riding every day!” Raina flared. “In the summer. Because I have lessons.”
“Is it much farther?” Zalgus quavered, pulling closer to his sister.
The wind shifted, driving her fine black hair across her eyes. Auroral wisps of powder snaked and swirled away from them across the evening-blue mounds of snow. She studied the patterns dispassionately, turned her numbing ears side to side to feel the source, and decided the wind carried their scent towards the howling. She tucked her hair back behind her ear and said, “Move.” She increased her pace, crunching heavily through the rime of ice atop the drifts.
“What? Hey!” Raina was outraged. “Who said you could be in charge?”
“You did,” she replied, “when you didn’t take charge yourself.”
“Come on Zalgus,” Raina said, grabbing his hand. “We have to walk a little faster, all right?”
“But the snow’s all deep,” he complained, stomping gamely into the drifts, throwing up curtains of snow with every giant step. “You got taller legs.”
Another unearthly wail floated through the trees, a single voice that seemed to come from all directions. “Here,” Raina put her hands under his shoulders and lifted Zalgus up ahead of her. “Walk in her footsteps, it will be easier.” She gave him a little push, glanced behind them, and hurried after. “Keep moving, little brother,” she whispered.
“We’re in trouble?” he said.
“What? Why do you say that?” Raina pasted a smile on her face.
“When you call me little brother, it means we’re in trouble.”
“You are entirely too bright for your age,” Raina said crossly.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Keep moving,” she told the siblings, grimly pressing forward against the wind, snow sticking in her sable hair.
The sun fell, then the temperature. The ghostly wail stayed with them, sometimes behind, sometimes to either side, sometimes answered by other voices echoing out from the grey haze of the woods. She ignored the hunting-cries and plowed on, relentless, barely feeling the razor wind that slashed past her cheeks or the snow falling into the tops of her boots. Behind her, Zalgus tired, even following in her footsteps. Raina knelt to let him climb on her back. She struggled on, her arms locked behind his knees, his arms around her neck, his face buried in the sweet-smelling copper of her hair.
They continued, climbing over fallen logs and cracked rocks. The purple sky blackened. The handful of clear-burning stars swarmed into a multitude. “Are you sure we’re still going the right direction?” Raina puffed, after a time.
She glanced up through the snow-coated branches. The moon hadn’t yet risen over the white peaks on the far side of the valley. To the north – she assumed – rippling green curtains of Spirit-light hissed faintly down from the sky. “Mostly,” she allowed.
“What does that mean?”
“It means until moonrise, I’m… guessing.” She fluffed her own dark hair, sending the accumulated snow spiraling off in the wind between the trees.
“What?” Raina panted, wiping the sweat off her brow. “Don’t you know – I don’t know, how to navigate by the stars or something?”
“No. I never needed to know before tonight.” She locked her jaw before more could slip out.
Raina halted. “This is our fault? That’s what you’re saying?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she muttered. “Keep moving.”
“No. Look at me.”
She huffed impatiently and turned. Raina’s lake-blue eyes glittered in starlight reflected off the snow. Her strange, flame-colored hair was stringy and curled with sweat, heavy with ice. On her back, Zalgus muttered and nestled in fitful sleep. She’d borne his weight for nearly an hour now, uncomplaining, tireless. Idly, randomly, the thought came that that in ten years, pretty Raina could be the bear-slayer her mother claimed to be. Silent, emerald hate jetted through her.
“Is this my fault?” Raina asked her, quietly.
She looked off into the woods, and was chilled to see a pair of yellow eyes pass in the distant dark. “It’s as much mine,” she said.
“I should have told you we wouldn’t get back by sunset. I should have told you to wait until tomorrow.”
Raina shook her head and trudged two weary steps closer. Zalgus’ snores puffed out over her shoulder. “Why didn’t you? I would have listened… Zalgus wouldn’t have, but who cares?”
She crossed her arms and looked at anything but Raina. “I didn’t want to disappoint you.” The copper-haired girl shook her head, baffled, uncomprehending. Raina was always surrounded by smiling crowds. “Have you ever wondered,” she asked the snow, black hair dangling over her eyes, “what the night would be like if there were just one star in it?”
Raina’s face scrunched up. “…What?”
From the trees close at hand came a long, loud, mournful cry. It was taken up by a pair of voices opposite. As she watched, the baleful yellow eyes reappeared from behind one of the black trees.
“We’re in trouble, Raina,” she said.
“Zalgus. Zalgus!” Raina hissed. “Wake up, little brother.” He murmured sleepy somethings into the back of her neck.
She straightened her aching shoulders and studied the ground. “There, Raina. The rock with the overhang. We can get underneath.”
“How will we get back out?” Raina asked, plunging through the snow beside her.
“Worry about it later.”
She dropped behind Raina, pushed her ahead. The howls grew closer. Any moment, snarling, slavering jaws would saw into the back of her knee.
Her back was hot with a hungry gaze. Any moment, his claws would fall on her back, shove her screaming face into the pillows of snow. Panting, eager breath on her shoulders, in her ears. She shuddered, retched, swallowed back dirty water. Her stomach burned.
They were there.
“You all right?” Raina panted, pushing Zalgus into the furthest corner.
“Fine,” she said shortly, fingers flexing. She glared out at three sets of yellow eyes, three sets of long white teeth. They paced sideways, growling, grinning. Her breath came in raggedy gasps, feeding the flicker inside.
“Raina?” Zalgus said, high and frightened.
“Stay behind me, Zal,” his sister said. “How far are we from town?”
“Still a mile, I think.” Her lips pulled back from her teeth. “Find me a rock back there. Something I can hold in one hand. Preferably with a point.”
Raina sounded sick. “No. You can’t be–”
The spark blazed up. “Get me a damned rock, Raina!” she snarled. Her head began to pound. The wolves’ ears went back, their heads went down. The pitch of their growling changed, became a constant undertone. Their circling halted, all three focused on her. They began to surround her, trying to cut her away from the siblings crouched beneath the rock. Step, step. The flame blossomed, unfurling in hot red colors. Feeding her limbs by consuming her weakness.
“Raina?” Zalgus whimpered.
The hollow clunk of stone on stone, the skitter of gravel. “Here. Here.”
She held her right hand out behind her, palm up, not taking her eyes of the wolves. A cold weight dropped in. Raina’s trembling fingers lingered on her hand for a moment. “Please be careful,” she said. “Please.” Her touch withdrew.
She hefted the rock, held it up before her, rotated the point away from the palm.
“Stay away from them,” she said, flicking ice-caked hair, black like a raven’s feathers, out of her eyes. “I’m the one you want.” She glided toward the closest, the largest, glared into his tawny eyes. He was a giant; five feet of muscle and fangs. “Don’t I smell delicious?” she rasped, running her empty, sweaty palm down the curve of her hip. “Don’t I look so…” she drew in a jagged mouthful of frozen air. “Don’t I look sweet? Come on,” she stoked the flames, willing them to blaze higher. “Come take me. I can tell you want to. You disgusting little f**ker.”
“Raina,” Zalgus whispered, nearly in tears, “I have to pee.”
The Alpha lunged at her throat, snarling. She swung the rock, grazed his shoulder as he dodged.
A grey blur from the right, a cannon shot in her shoulder, and she spun into the snow.
The glitter of starlight on teeth. Hot breath.
She slammed the rock into the side of the smaller wolf’s head. Its wet, final yelp met the rising moon.
Rolling, scrambling for purchase in the snow and mud. Jaws from the left, ripping into her forearm.
She screamed in agony and rage, planted her feet, got the leverage, and yanked with all her strength. The furnace in her chest sent out roaring waves, burning away the pain. Fangs sank deeper into her arm, paws left the ground.
The blaring, thundering flame in her chest propelled the wolf up, arcing over and into the sheltering stone. A sickening crack when its back hit.
The jaws went limp. It fell to the ground with a comical deflating sound of disbelief.
She slammed her boot into its gut, teeth bared. Whirled.
The Alpha was in midair, a blurred ghost in the bone-light of the moon.
The bloody rock barely met his jaw.
He hit her like a side of beef. They tumbled.
Whining deadweight. Blood washing into her eyes. She moaned, heart beating frantically, the sustaining flame guttering under a wash of limb-shaking panic. Too heavy. No air. Smothering darkness. Hot liquid sliding down her throat, gagging her. A night-terror shriek coiled in her tongue.
He rolled off her, staggering, limping, shaking his head. She spat out the wolf’s blood, retched and panted into the snow as she pawed for the rock.
Her left eye didn’t seem to be working. Everything to that side was a red smear. Turning this way and that, she spotted him. He tottered a few steps before his legs collapsed under him. His whines were garbled, confused.
She staggered over, muttered, “f**k you,” and brought the point of the rock down on the back of his head with all the force she could muster.
She stared down at the splatter on the snow with her one working eye, adjusting the weight of the rock in her hands. Her lips pulled back, showed her fangs. And she slammed the rock into the ruin of his skull again and again and again.
There were words in the air, somewhere. Familiar voices.
“What?” she said, remotely. Her throat felt savaged. Had she been yelling? Maybe it was from the wolf blood pouring down her throat.
Trembling hands on hers. Raina’s tear-stained face. In the distance, Zalgus’ wail.
“Oh,” she said. The sticky rock tumbled loose from her stained fingers. Raina’s lips were moving, but the sound was distorted, the words a mystery. “You’re all right? You’re both all right?”
The other girl nodded, sucking in her lower lip as fresh tears spilled over. Raina pressed her forehead against hers, folded her arms around her bloody shoulders, and gently rocked her until the shaking passed.
Heptaver 3, 1528
Fifteen years before the Dawngate opened
Warm light spilled over the snow-crested peaks, lighting up the tips of the trees. She scrunched through piles of leaves, kicking crimson-gold-brown explosions into the air. But her fingertips, sticking out of her overlarge woolen sleeves, were starting to feel pinched and tingly. In the shadows along the valley floor, mist was rising.
“It’s time to head in,” Lady Rosimone said, pale eyes squinting into the light. She was a tall, serious woman, weak-chinned and strong-limbed, with a dirty-straw braid that fell to the small of her back. The knight rested a hand on the pommel of her sword, an unconscious habit; she never actually drew it except to spill blood.
Her mother frequently sharpened her own sword, which was brighter, lighter, its hilt covered with golden runes and silver wolves. When she asked Rosimone if she drew blood even when whetting the blade, the woman had pulled up her sleeve and let the girl run her fingers across the ranges of bright, raised mountain-scars on her forearm.
“All right, Rosee,” she said, dawdling over the closest pile of leaves, squatting to look more closely.
“I meant now,” Rosimone added.
“Need to find it,” she said, distracted eyes flickering over layers of wet leaves, overlapping configurations of tone and texture; color, shadow; raised veins and ragged edges.
The thump and jangle of the knight’s mail came up behind her. “Find what? Did you lose something?”
“Looking for the best leaf. Has to be yellow. An’ no spots.”
Rosimone knelt beside her, plated knees crushing the layer of foliage. “For your father?” she asked softly, running a calloused hand over her wild tangle of black hair, stopping to rub warm little circles into her back. Rosimone’s voice always got sweeter when she talked about her parents.
“Let me help.” Rosimone began sliding the leaves around with her, revealing the full surfaces and examining them closely. The light cooled and faded. Stars and breath came out.
“Found it,” she said, and held up a perfect, pale gold leaf, its edges painting-perfect, its surface unmarred by the brown of rot.
“That’s a lovely one,” Rosimone said. “I think he’ll like it.” She looked around. “But we have to get back to the manor, mistress. Your mother will be furious.”
“All right.” She put one hand in Rosimone’s, and carefully pinched the golden leaf between the fingers of the other. It fluttered and whined in the rising wind down the valley. They walked across the dying grass towards the flickering light of the manor. The whickering of horses echoed out of the low stone walls and across the violet air between the mountains. The facing peaks were dotted with fires – the camps of hunters among the dark strands of trees, the bonfires of peasants working late on the harvest along the flatter slopes. Shouts and labor-songs carried faintly on the wind.
“Are you chilly, mistress? Would you like to wear my cloak?”
“Uh-uh.” Rosimone’s hand was rough but warm, cupping her own small fingers within a cozy nest.
The pale-eyed woman gave a little snort of laughter. “You’re always so quiet.” After a moment she added, “You talked more when you were little.”
She looked up at Rosimone quizzically, saying nothing, not sure why it mattered. The knight gave her a wistful smile, and rubbed her scalp with the side of her thumb, brushing across the scar beneath her dark hair.
The gate had been held open just for them. It creaked shut behind them, stuttering on the uneven ground and broken stones, the guards kicking and cursing the rusting, broken hinges. The liveryman was rubbing down the thin old horses for the night, carefully measuring out oats from half-empty barrels. Among the mares were a pair of fat, sleek guests, one dappled brown and white, one pure, glossy sable, like her hair. She tugged on Rosimone’s hand and pointed.
“Oh,” she said, dismayed. “Marquess Camoine is visiting. And… her brother.” She bit her lip and blew out a frustrated cloud. “All right. Let’s hurry and get washed. Your mother will be entertaining. You’ll need to act like a young lady tonight, all right?”
“Uh-huh.” Being a young lady meant Rosimone would brush out and braid her hair like she did her own. She trotted ahead, pulling the knight along. They crossed the small, muddy courtyard, dodging chickens and retainers, entering the white-daubed manor house through west wing, near Rosimone’s room. They placed her father’s leaf carefully on the scuffed dark wood dresser.
They picked one of her best gowns, burgundy velvet with silver stitching along the hem and wide cuffs. The buttons were a bit tight, and the elbows thin, but Rosimone had long thought the color looked good with her hair. “And it puts a bit of color in these cheeks,” she said, dimpling as she pinched them. They found a pair of hose with only a single hole, which the knight quickly and clumsily stitched while she soaked in a basin of perfumed water, long dark hair fanning out around her like a crown of shadows.
Rosimone lifted her naked and dripping from the basin, wrapped her up in warm arms and furs, and sat her on the edge of her bed. She sat quietly, fidgeting with excitement as the knight hummed a slow, pretty tune and teased the tangles from her hair with a tarnished silver brush.
“That song have words?”
“What? Oh.” Rosimone sounded embarrassed. “It’s a lullaby. My mother used to sing it for me.”
“Oh.” She scrunched up her eyes while the knight tugged on a particularly bad knot. “Sing it to me tonight?”
“If you’d like.”
When she was finished dressing, Rosimone stood her in front of the cracked mirror to see. “What do you think?”
She looked at the girl in the mirror, pale and slender in her lovely dress, dark hair in a long, thick, lustrous braid hanging down her back. Dark-eyed like one of the old, grim paintings in the hall. “Got to be brighter,” she said, judiciously. “Like how your armor sparkles.”
Rosimone laughed. “Your mother does not approve of armor at the dinner table. I have some experience with that.” She tapped a fingertip on her lips, squinting critically. “How about this, then?” She went to the peg where she’d hung her cloak and unpinned its silver clasp. After polishing it on the tail of her shirt, Rosimone knelt to fasten it at the throat of her dress. “What do you think?” she pointed at the mirror.
She turned to face herself. Ran her fingers over the vague, smoothed shapes of leaping elk and crossed swords. It was blinding; she had to wipe the light away from her eyes.
She turned back to the knight, straightening her shoulders the way her mother always insisted. “I’m all right, Rosee?”
“You look beautiful, dear-heart,” Rosimone said, with a proud smile. “I wish you–” She fell silent, shaking her head.
“Never mind, mistress. I’m being silly,” she said, though she looked serious. “Let’s get you to the great hall.”
“The leaf,” she said, trotting over to the dresser.
Rosimone sucked in her lower lip. “I don’t think – let’s leave that here. Your mother wouldn’t want it on the table.”
Her fingers hovered over the golden leaf. “Oh.” She touched it lightly, assuring herself it would stay, and turned away.
They walked briskly through the halls, towards the clatter of flatware, the shouts and laughter accompanying a rare turning out of the larder, and the faint plucking of an off-tune lute. The smell of roast pheasant wound down the hall to meet them, and her belly gurgled. It had been a long time since they’d had pheasant.
Just outside the entrance to the great hall, they paused so Rosimone could fuss over her dress a final time. She reached behind her back to play with the tail of her new, damp braid, carefully running her fingers over it to ensure it wasn’t coming undone. The knight leaned in close to her ear, “I need to get myself presentable. Go sit with your mother, I’ll join you when I can. And don’t sit near the Marquess’ brother. Promise me. All right?” She nodded, perplexed. Rosimone gave her a gentle push, propelling her through the tapestries. “Don’t forget to curtsey!” she whispered.
She wove her way to the large table at the far side, raised above the rest on a platform. The servants made way for her, the adults ignored her. At the center, her mother sat in a deep blue gown that shimmered like stars in the ocean. She had the vague impression she’d seen it before, a long time ago, but couldn’t join the feeling to an image or smell. Her father’s seat was empty, cold food and warm wine lying untouched before it.
“Fair evening, mother,” she said carefully. And then remembered to curtsey, doing so hurriedly.
The Countess twitched and turned her pale, pinched face to her, “Please excuse my daughter’s interruption, Lady Camoine… Lord Jowin,” she said impatiently. “She has yet to learn her manners.”
Marquess Camoine was lean as a winter elk, and couldn’t move without one piece of jewelry clattering into another. She wore a dress of deep forest green. Rosimone had told her that meant someone important, though she couldn’t remember why. “Quite all right, my dear,” the lady said, brushing an autumnal-brown strand of hair behind her ear. “At least she bothered to show up.” A thread of her mother’s white-shot hair broke loose of her bun as she forced a polite laugh.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Lord Jowin said, standing to return her curtsey with a bow. He was the tallest man she’d ever seen, with a vast beard and arms like tree-trunks. “You look very pretty tonight.”
“Thanks. Thank you. Sir,” she stammered, not sure why she was suddenly flustered. “You’re… really big?”
He pealed out a deep, rich belly-laugh, a surprised grin splitting his beard, eyebrows shooting up. “Why thank you, my dear.”
Ducking her head and blushing, she scrambled around the table in the opposite direction, taking a place at the bench beside her father’s lonely meal. A servant discreetly slid in to place a tray of spiced pheasant and potatoes before her. Her mother frowned and snatched the braid hanging from the back of her head. “How many times must I tell that woman not to tie up your hair?”
Her heart stuck. “Why?”
“It’s not ladylike,” he mother said, as if that explained it all. “And mind your tone.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled to her plate, as the Countess returned to her conversation. She pushed the pheasant around, but ate nothing.
Conversation at the table turned to a woman whose status had fallen at court in Risenne. At hearing the name, her mother fixed a smile on and discreetly twisted the table-cloth into corkscrews.
There was a tapestry of Risenne in one of the halls. The white towers of the queen’s castle pierced the clouds and changed the sun into rainbows. Rosimone had lived there before swearing to her mother; she said the towers were tall, but didn’t make rainbows.
She put her chin in her hands and wished Rosimone would hurry. The room was full of noise and smoke, people laughing too loud and too smelly from the ale cask that had been opened. A steady stream of staff flowed between the kitchen, the buttery, and the tables. In a corner half-hidden by tapestries, one of the manservants took the hand of Lasenne the seneschal. The woman glanced back at the Countess before knocking back the rest of her drink and dropping the battered wooden mug on the nearest table. Kissing the servant hungrily, Lasenne pressed him to the wall and slid her hand someplace she couldn’t see. A few moments later, she felt her face growing unaccountably hot, and looked away quickly.
She found herself looking past her mother’s stiff shoulders and her guest’s arched eyebrows, at Lord Jowin. He was observing Lasenne with an indulgent smile, chin on his fist.
With a rush of air, the knight was beside her on the bench. Her shining armor had been replaced by a somewhat dusty dress of western cut, robin’s egg blue with off-white trim. “You’ve barely touched your dinner. Well,” she amended, eyeing the splintered pheasant and smashed potatoes on her plate, “you touched it. But I don’t think much went in your stomach. Are you sick?”
She snuggled up under Rosimone’s arm; beneath a veneer of nose-tickling floral perfume, she still smelled comfortably of exercise and horses. “Wanted you here,” she said.
“I’m here,” Rosimone smiled, rubbing her arm reassuringly. “Are you going to eat that? Or should we ask for a less battered plate?”
“It’s fine.” She broke off a piece from the table-bread to scoop up some of the mush, shoveled it into her mouth. Long-used to oatmeal, cheese, and bread, the southern spices on the pheasant set fire to her tongue. She huffed air out of her mouth and reached for a cup of water.
“Careful not to eat with your mouth open,” Rosimone slid the cup into her reach. “Did your mother like your dress?”
She gulped down a mouthful, came up long enough to reply, “Din’t say.”
Rosimone frowned at the Countess’ back. “What are they discussing?”
She grabbed more bread. “Court. Somebody fell.”
The knight looked startled. “What, off a tower? Oh – in standing?” At her blank look, Rosimone laughed and said, “Sorry. I know that stuff isn’t interesting to you.” She paused, eyes flickering down the length of the table, then leaned close to ask, “Did Lord Jowin say anything to you before I got here?”
“Said I looked pretty.”
Rosimone stiffened, her sword hand drifting unconsciously to her waist. “But that’s all?”
“All right.” The knight laid her hand on her far shoulder, encircling her.
The feast lasted late into the night. Her mother and Lady Camoine remained in heated, murmured discussion, surrounded by expanding stacks of books and paper, scribes going to and fro as many cups of wine were drained. Lord Jowin looked bored, and retired to the guest chambers early.
Her father’s food and wine were eventually collected by the servants. In other days, the scraps would be thrown to the livestock. She saw the kitchen staff gather around the plate, sharing bites of cold, congealed meat. They laughed, complimented the fruit of each other’s labors. After all was cleared, they stood clustered in the doorway, arms and hands joined, looking out at the stars and sharing dreams of older, happier days.
She yawned against the back of her hand. Careful not to jostle the bench, she edged closer to Rosimone, laid her head on her chest, and let the room go swimmy and muffled.
“Come on,” the knight said softly, gathering her in strong, warm arms. “Let’s get you to bed.”
“Not tired,” she yawned, folding over Rosimone’s shoulder, looking at her mother’s back through heavy eyelids.
“I know.” A calloused hand lightly caressed her forehead, easing away the light and noise.
She woke in fog, jumbled, swaying on her feet as Rosimone helped her pull on a nightshift. Then she was on her on her side, a thick wool quilt tucked under her chin. By the bleary light of a freshly-stoked fire, she watched the knight change out of her dress and slide under the quilt beside her. She murmured wordlessly and snuggled up against her chest. Rosimone whispered something small – just a few words, too quiet to hear – and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. She let the shadows grow over her eyes.