(Verse 1, Line 11) Power or Prison
"Flee, flee, flee, conservator girl
And weep tears of blood
As I run, run, run
And snap at your heels.
"Stop, stop, stop, conservator girl
And pray to dead gods
As I bark, bark, bark
And snap at your hair.
"Fall, fall, fall, conservator girl
And lay ever still
For my white wolf teeth
Have killed you."
Excerpt from ’A Wolf of Blood.’
A Different Time, A Different Place, In The World of a Dream.
On a wooden platform straddling one tributary of the Porthpyreen river, Mara watched a long strand of crimson silk slither in the currents, a bloodied serpent trying to slither to freedom. She washed and wrung it out repeatedly until the last drops of dye escaped into the undercurrents of the water. Then she began the laborious task of gathering the heavy fabric and inviting it to land in wet folds at her feet. It shone a deep crimson and sucked away the remaining colour from the land, leaving the river grey and the hills beyond an inky black.
She worked for a further two hours until her fingers ached from the cold and her scab-encrusted palms stung. Still, she fought on, knowing that the income from her silks was the only thing between her family and starvation.
Once finished, she wiped the sweat from her brow and carefully rinsed off her chapped hands. Mara watched the blood flow freely from the open sores and float down water in rivulets of red. The marks of her suffering were far more vivid than the dye in the Gardaran Noble’s silk.
The only colour of this land, Mara thought, looking beside her at the dozens of piles of silk she’d dyed and rinsed that morning. I bleed for their luxury. She held her bloodied hands high in the air to dry as the chapel bells tolled.
The orphaned labour girls Mara employed loaded the soggy piles onto a cart to take them to the drying racks. The whispering of their damp skirts sounded like a chant. Mara was too tired to move, so she rocked back on her heels and listened, closing her heavy eyes. All light and feeling disappeared, leaving her floating in a void of distant, tinny sounds and sadness. I’m so young, she thought, yet the fates saw fit to burden me with feeding my family, and a few orphans too. If she hadn’t been lucky enough to catch the attention of the silk master who apprenticed her the previous year, her family would have starved or forced to sell themselves on the filthy, crowded streets of Porthpyre.
The chanting grew louder and consumed her.
Two men bartered by the riverside, arguing in hushed tones beside the large racks of drying silk. One led a skittish horse who shied at the slightest movement.
Am I dreaming? she thought, before becoming submerged again.
The drying silk stirred as it caught the breeze. The horse snorted and tried to flee.
“Control that animal!”
The horse’s handler tugged on the reins, and the horse tossed its head in the air. The men continued bartering until a gust of wind whipped the drying silk into a frenzy. The horse leapt aside, kicking gravel into the water as it galloped down the river towards a group of children laughing and playing.
“Tommy!” screamed a familiar woman. A boy let out a started cry that was cut short by the sound of the horse’s hooves on gravel and flesh. The boy tumbled into the water with a splash, and all was silent.
A strangled cry escaped her, and Mara covered her ears. She threw up into the water until she was empty.
“Mara? Come on, girl! Food is ready,” a woman yelled. “It ain’t long ’til the mist comes in.”
With the mist came monsters, as they all knew. They needed to eat, secure the fabrics in the reinforced sheds, then retreat behind Porthpyre’s wall.
Mara rose, unsteady on her feet. After rubbing her head, she looked up the river and froze.
Two men stood on the riverside, arguing in hushed tones. One led a horse that shied away from the flapping silk. Downriver, a boy played by the water, skipping stones.
Fresh nausea overcame her, and Mara almost tumbled into the river. She recognised the boy - it was her brother.
“Tommy,” she gurgled. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Tommy!”
The boy looked up. Seeing Mara, he waved, then went back to his playing. Mara glanced upstream. A breeze was stirring, and the horse had locked its eyes on swaying the silk…
“Tommy!” she screamed, running down the platform. “Run! The horse will kill you!”
People looked up at her claim, their gazes fixing on a horse that appeared perfectly controlled by her master. Moments later, a large gust of wind unsettled the silk. The horse whirled and fled.
Mara ran as fast as she could on the rickety platform. But the horse was faster.
Tommy’s eyes, wide in fear, locked on her as the horse crashed over him, striking him in the head with its hooves. His limp little body tumbled into the river, and the currents claimed him.
People screamed. Mara collapsed onto her knees by the river bank. She was too cold and numb to cry, so she looked down at her hands. They were still bleeding.
A group of men took off downriver, chasing Tommy’s body. The merchant who had been in control of the horse fled. The women around Mara mumbled.
“Tommy is dead!”
“How could she know?”
“She saw the future!”
“Do you think she might-”
“Nonsense! Surely not!”
“It was a hymn…”
“A blood hymn! She’s a blood mage!”
Mara wanted to fight back, but the sight of her father stopped her. He strode towards her, propelled by the current of accusations, his face ragged with grief and fury.
“You did this,” he murmured, his eyes and voice empty.
“Papa,” she whispered. “No. Never-” He hit her on the back of the head, and she cried.
“Witch! Blood mage! You killed my son!” Mara screamed in terror as her father picked her up by the arm. She fought as hard as she could, flailing her arms and legs.
“Please, no!” she whimpered. He dragged her forwards towards the river. “No!” she screamed louder, digging her feet into the earth. “Gods, save me!” she pleaded. Her feet slid across the gravel as her father dragged her towards the rolling grey water. It tumbled over itself in anticipation, whispering a bloody welcome.
“Think about this,” a woman cried. “If she drowns, how will your other children eat?”
“Sympathiser!” someone spat in response. Mara didn’t see it, but she heard a mob grapple the woman and drag her, screaming and sobbing, towards the water.
“Kill the witches! Kill the blood mages!” the people chanted as one. “Save our souls! Gods forgive us! May the blood force be satisfied with our sacrifice!”
“Tommy, I’m sorry…”
Mara’s haunted screams echoed across the bleak hills until her father pushed her under the water.
When Esther regained consciousness, water burned her nose and throat, a thin sheen of sweat coated her skin, and her head swam in lethargic confusion. The nightmare had been so real she’d felt like she was there.
She sat up, careful not to move too quickly. To her surprise, she didn’t awake on the street, but on the wooden bench in Vera’s office.
“How do you feel, girl,” Vera said as she left her desk and hovered over Esther. The sight and smell of her set Esther at ease.
How did she feel? While she rubbed some life back into her hands, Esther mentally probed her body. The pain was gone, and while her head felt slightly airy and empty, the storm had passed. After the burst of uncontrollable energy, her sight had fallen into an exhausted slumber. It had passed quickly, but Esther didn’t know why or how.
While she gathered her thoughts, she unbuckled her two swords and rested them against the wall.
“For now, I am doing well. But earlier… Skies, how do I even describe it? My sight was on fire. I had no control over it. It’s been difficult all day, but it got worse when I received… unexpected news.” It was putting it mildly, but Esther didn’t want to talk about the royal visit for Lord Nazari’s inauguration. “It grew more unruly, which made me angry. And I was in so much damn pain I couldn’t think. I came here as fast as I could, but Kessi slowed me down. When we finally got here, I… Skies, this is embarrassing, but I lost control completely. I was an inch away from capturing her mind like I do my quarry.”
Vera seemed to bite back a rebuke. “When did it all start?”
“Today? By truth, I’m not sure. If I was to say for certain, perhaps it began when I escorted Lord Nazari through the deadlands this morning.”
Vera’s face darkened. “He went into the deadlands after the sacanda moon? That fool.” She fell into the seat beside Esther. “He’s always had plenty of heart, but none too many brains. I take it he brought the bird with him?”
“Tsk, yes.” Vera pinched her eyes shut. “Why did he need to go?”
“He said he wanted his reign to mean something. He wants to build a university, and to attract professors he wants to open the ruins of Al Karesh for study.”
Vera spat on the floor. “An evil place! A vile, abhorrent place of dark worship.” She thumped the armrest a few times until she was able to calm herself. “Your sight reacted with his magery, didn’t it? When he flew the bird?”
Esther sat more upright in her seat. “How do you know?”
She smiled softly. “Ysim and I have a long history, child. That also means it won’t be treason when I storm into his office, slap him on the cheek, and call him an arse! Do you understand the risk he took, and the danger he put you in?”
Esther instinctively opened her mouth to defend him, and then immediately realised Vera’s point. “Shit,” she cursed instead. “I was slightly hungover, so it never even crossed my mind.” She’d forgotten that mages received a power boost when the sacanda moon occurred on the equinox. Lord Nazari knew his magery wouldn’t be stable, yet he had dragged Edyta and Esther along for the ride. “In his defence, he asked us to step away while he flew Hethshaw.”
Vera silenced her with a stony look. “That is not good enough. He’s an usually skilled mage, so I don’t doubt his ability to control himself exceptionally. But he knows about your conservator’s sight because he was once our Overmaster, and during that time I trusted him enough to tell him. He should have refused you as an escort on the chance your sight reacted with his magery. That three-buttoned fool! Once he has a goal in mind, he’ll go to any ends to achieve it. I never once dreamed he’d put you in danger in such a way!”
Esther wanted to explain that Lord Nazari had no other choice thanks to Edyta’s schemes. But why should her first thought be to defend the man? If Vera challenged him, he’d be wary of approaching Esther again. That was what she wanted. It was what she needed to stay out of Sassin’s line of sight.
So she changed the subject before Vera grew too mad to think. “Please tell me what actually happened, because I don’t understand a thing.”
Vera sighed and squeezed her hands in her lap. “Have you ever heard the idiom, ‘power begets power?’ ” Esther hadn’t heard the exact one, but she nodded to appease her. “Child, don’t lie, it isn’t becoming of a lady. Anyway, the idiom also applies to any type of sorcery. Just as an excited horse induces excitement in its companions, so too does magery use excite other mages.
“But while an experienced horseman can reign in their horse and an experienced mage can hold back their power, you will struggle. Why? Two reasons: first, the sight is only a stub of power, small enough it can slip through the cracks of your control unnoticed, and second, the sacanda equinox most likely affected you just as it did Ysim. While it was to a much lesser extent, it was significant enough to overwhelm your control.”
Esther rubbed her eyelids. “I suppose I felt a little funny yesterday evening, but I attributed it to my drunken state.” She puffed out a long stream of air, letting her eyes focus on nothing in particular. “Does that mean the effects will fade?”
“Yes,” she answered quickly. “The celestial alignment and exposure to Ysim’s power has created more stress than you’ve ever had to deal with. I have no doubt you’ll be back to normal by the new moon.
“But Esther,” she said hesitantly, “mayhap… mayhap it’s for the best we keep a closer eye on it over the coming weeks. The conservator’s sight is so rare, it’s hard to know what to expect.”
An uncomfortable theory nudged Esther’s consciousness, one she’d tried for so long to hold at bay. “Vera, do you-” she stopped herself and swallowed, trying to gather the courage to ask what she could barely admit to herself. “Do you think my sight is related to why I’ve been hearing the hymns for longer than the others?”
Vera straightened and softened her voice. “I do not know, child. While I can say with certainty that your abilities match the conservators of old, we know very little about them because the information has been destroyed. In my lifetime, I’ve only met one person with the sight, and even they didn’t understand why they had it or how it worked.
“My personal theory is only those with a unique attunement to the distress of others can use the sight. If true, it could explain why you’re also more in tune to whatever causes the blood hymns.” She shrugged helplessly. “But maybe it is just your lot to have these abilities. I wish I could help you further, but we have such few resources at our disposal. Any writings our ancestors didn’t burn, they hid away and are now too ashamed to admit they own it. And I cannot ask the other guildhalls to borrow their records, because it may cause suspicion. I am sorry.” She covered Esther’s hands with her own.
“I know.” It was all there was to say.
In the conversational lull, Esther wondered if she should tell Vera about what Edyta knew. Her initial response was a resounding yes - she wanted Vera to rescue her like the knights in the fairytales so she could live happily and peacefully. But it was a childish fantasy. Rationally, Esther knew telling Vera would be counterproductive. She loved the woman, but she didn’t trust her to handle the situation with the sensibility and delicacy it required. If Esvian was right, Edyta only kept Esther’s secret because she hoped to profit from it one day. Setting Vera on her wouldn’t keep Esther in her good graces.
Vera eventually stirred and shifted her weight on the uncomfortable bench. “I want to know how you’re coping with… recent events.” She said it delicately as if Esther were a startled cat ready to strike. Somehow that made her take more offence.
“It’s just a name, Vera,” she said, fighting to keep her voice loud enough to be heard.
“Are you certain? I am here if you need to talk-”
“It’s just a name!” she hissed. “I’ll get over it.” Something creaked and scurried in the room’s corner — a mouse, perhaps? — but Esther kept her eyes locked on her boots. She was afraid that if she looked up, she’d see another vision of Guardian Kessila, walls weeping blood, or Sassin whispering from the shadows.
She dug her knuckle into her knee, not hard enough to hurt, but firmly enough that it somewhat grounded her. She didn’t doubt for a second that such flashbacks would multiply the closer it came to Lord Nazari’s inauguration and the royal visit.
Outside the office, a group of serving girls jostled past, locked in a heated conversation. Esther could hardly hear through the stone walls and thick door, but the few words she caught drove all of Vera’s heat away.
“They’re coming here-”
“Can you believe it-”
She stiffened, reminded of the felklein’s feelings she’d accessed the day before. The moment the animal realised she was caught in the huntsmen’s crosshairs, a frenzied urge to flee had overtaken her.
At that moment, Esther felt the same desire. It was one she’d fostered since Sassin had delivered her threat. While Esther’s indentured service as a conservator had trapped her in Koryn City, she hadn’t minded until that moment. Koryn, with its anti-monarchy sentiments, had been the safest place in the country for her.
But with the upcoming royal visit and Lord Nazari’s desire to reconnect with the rest of the realm, her sanctuary had transformed into a snare around her neck. Her indentured service as a conservator would hold her in place until someone from her former life recognised her, giving Sassin an excuse to strike.
Esther couldn’t live with it any longer. She loved Vera. Serving as a huntsman under Yarvier alongside her friends gave her the purpose and freedom she craved. But to stay in Koryn City was a death sentence. She needed to gather enough funds to escape from the country and start a new life where her aunt and her army of assassins couldn’t hurt her. But with autumn promising to cripple her paycheck, there was only one way to gather the funds to leave.
“Vera, yesterday Yarvier announced that we’re hosting the huntsman’s trials...”
Vera’s hands tightened on Esther’s for a fraction before she let go. Coldness rushed back in, and Esther folded her hands into my lap. “I know what you’re asking,” she said coldly, seeming to sink into herself. “You want my blessing to enter them.”
Esther didn’t need her blessing to enter, but she wanted it all the same.
“You know I cannot do it,” Vera said. She flexed her shoulders, and for a moment, the light hit her bodice at the right angle for me to distinguish the outline of a bird drinking from the pool of liquid embroidered on her chest.
“It would be an excellent opportunity for my career-”
“For your escape, you mean.” Vera stood abruptly. “Do not lie to me, Esther. You’re not motivated to enter for your career, you’re doing so because you know of Ysim’s inauguration in two months’ time and who’ll be visiting to witness it.”
Esther clenched her fists. Vera knew her history. Conservators had few legal grounds to leave their service early, but some existed. Esther had asked before, and even though she qualified, Vera denied her. Esther should have known Vera would see through her excuse so quickly.
“I know it will be dangerous to leave the safety of the conservators guild, but I’ve thought it through, and, well…” Esther tried to gather herself but found it very hard to sit straight and even more impossible to look at her. “I think it’s worth the risk.”
Vera stood up and stood in front of the tiny window that overlooked the city. It had no shutter, so the open-air gushed in and rippled the skirt of her ebony gown.
“I know about the trials from Yarvier, and I know the prize is large enough for you to smuggle yourself out of the country.” Vera scratched the chipped stone at the base of the frame. “But you’re safe here under my protection and that of the conservator’s guild. Here we do not punish those who hear and heed the blood’s call. In Crematia or even Vivintia, both of which are run by mages who don’t take well to outsiders, you have-” Her voice broke off and her head dropped. “You do not know the danger you’ll be in if someone discovers your power.”
Esther stood up slowly.
“My power?” she asked sharply. “I think you mean my prison.”
Vera turned around and her eyes hardened. “By refusing to stand your ground and face your past, you’re condemning yourself to a life of misery and danger,” she scolded. “Guardian Kessila’s death and your families prejudice won’t disappear just because you run away.”
It hurt Esther because it was partially true. Her failure to save Guardian Kessila haunted her, even though she did a good job at ignoring it. And she didn’t want to see her family again, even though she deeply yearned for it, because she didn’t want to face their rejection. And running from her past meant she’d given up many things, such as the chance to find love and have a family. With Sassin lurking around every corner, Esther couldn’t become too attached to anyone because she put them in danger.
But Vera didn’t know about Sassin stalking her every move, ready to end her life if she stopped running from who she had once been. Telling Vera would go no good either. Esther had no evidence against Sassin, but even if she got rid of her, her aunt would send another in her wake, one whose identity Esther wouldn’t know.
Vera continued: “I cannot support your application, child. It is too dangerous, both to enter the trials and to leave Gardara.” She sounded so broken and defeated that it took every ounce of willpower Esther had left not to come clean and explain why she really needed to leave. Even so, Vera’s refusal to support her goal of building herself a safer life turned something inside her to ice.
“Then it’s a good thing I don’t need your blessing to enter,” she said flatly.
Vera looked desolate. “Esther, please think about this-”
“I already have.”
A shadow of defeat fell across Vera’s face. “Then we have nothing else to discuss.” She looked wounded, and as much as Esther tried to deny it, it cut her in half with guilt and shame. Vera was one of the few people in the world who unconditionally had Esther’s best interests at heart. And how did Esther repay her? By keeping secrets that caused her pain. But secrets had the power to destroy, and Esther didn’t want to be destroyed.
“I’m sorry,” she choked.
Vera’s arm twitched as if she was going to reach out, but she let it hang limp. “You can show you’re sorry by abandoning your notions of competing.”
They both knew it was futile, so Esther collected swords and left without a word. Unbeknown to both, more than one door closed between them that day.
Up Next in Verse Two: Things get more complicated as Esther and Edyta become entwined in a way no one expected. Edyta steps up her game and gives Esther an ultimatum. Escape becomes more important for Esther, but in order to put her new plan in motion, she must join her most dangerous hunt yet. The Dark Wood’s are waiting, and they’re calling her name...