A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 3, Line 1) Fireside History

"When blood and death are in the air
And fate casts out her evil snare
Listen close to fate’s cruel whim
To bring silence to death’s great hymn."

- Conservator prayer

A Different Time, A Different Place, In The World of a Dream.

Chin resting on folded arms, Taniya watched a small bug crawl across her desk. It was bright yellow, and it had five glistening spots on its back. Taniya knew because she’d counted them five times.

The bug walked in aimless circles until it reached the crack running down the centre of her desk. It was too wide to crawl over, so with a vigour reserved for athletes, the small bug poised itself to jump. Taniya held her breath, her mind overflowing with focused enthusiasm.

One, two, three… She counted.

“Taniya, are you listening to me?”

The little girl’s head snapped up. “Yes, ma’am!” she rehearsed.

“Then could you tell me what the answer is?”

The sun worked its way out from behind a cloud, throwing sunlight into the eyes of the young children. Taniya could see dancing dust motes in the air and a smear on the window, but she did not know the answer.

“Yellow?” she guessed. Her classmates laughed.

“That’s the third time today you’ve not been paying attention, Taniya. I’m sorry to have to do this, but I’m sending you to see the headmaster.”

Her stomach dropped. All at once, she felt sick and dizzy as the familiar course of dread worked its way through her body. The teaching aid came to escort her from the classroom. Taniya’s legs were weak as she followed the man from the room.

“Again, Taniya,” the teaching aid muttered as they reached the office. “I’m afraid the headmaster will need to talk to your parents.”

The man left her on a bench outside the headmaster’s office to await punishment. Taniya had to hold back tears. Her parents would be mad. They would be very, very mad.

The headmaster left Taniya waiting for a very long time.

After five minutes, sitting still had become painful. After ten, it was unbearable. Her mind rolled in circles, imagining the punishments her parents would give her. Each one was worse than the last.

A repetitive, high-pitched sound came from the headmaster’s office, like the ringing of bells. Curious, the girl rose and crept towards the door. Something in her mind wiggled loose and Taniya swayed to the side.

She reached for the door, but the world was shaking, and she couldn’t reach the handle…

With a lunge, she clutched it, the metal cold and smooth beneath her skin. She pulled the door open and a rush of grief, desolation, and emptiness spilt over her. Taniya crept into the room, wondering why she felt that way with nothing to make her sad. She knew entering was against the rules and made her a spy, but somehow she knew the headmaster needed help. Somehow, she understood the grief and emptiness had come from him.

Taniya screamed as the full room came into view. The headmaster’s head was purple and red. Frozen on his face was a look Taniya knew well, for she’d worn it every time her father beat her: it was of pain and terror.

But the rope around his neck suspending him from the rafters was novel. There was a gallows in the centre of town, but her mother forbade her from watching the hangings. Even so, Taniya knew what it meant when a man had a noose around his neck.

It meant he was dead.

Taniya jumped back from the unopened door and her back hit the wall. Before she could wail, the headmaster’s assistant, a woman the children called Matron, ran to her.

“What happened, girl?” she asked.

“He… He’s dead,” Taniya whispered. “I opened the door, I did, and he was hanging from the rafters!”

Matron’s eyes narrowed. “Taniya, you didn’t open the door. I watched it all, I did.” She backed away from Taniya like the stray cats did when she tried to play with them. “What… what trick is this you’re playing?”

“No trick! I swear it.”

Matron inched towards the door and grasped the handle. They were both silent as it creaked open. Taniya shuddered as she felt the same mix of darkened feelings spill out.

Matron screamed and backed away.

“Heather! Heather, stop!” a man said. Taniya cried out when she saw the headmaster standing on a chair and fixing a rope to the rafters.

He jumped down and grabbed the Matron by the arm. “What you saw… Heather, prithee understand - it was a moment of weakness!”

Matron yanked herself away, but his grip was too strong. “But the girl- The girl said you’d be hanging-”

The headmaster’s face twisted with rage. Taniya ran, but he soon captured her with a firm hand. “Did you hear bells, girl?” he snarled.

Not wanting to get beaten, Taniya told the truth. “Yes.”

He dragged Taniya and Matron down the hallway. Matron wept and begged until they reached a doorway that led to the basement. The headmaster kicked the door open and took them down the stairs. The walls were thick stone; the stairs deep. When they reached the bottom, all was silent.

The headmaster threw onto the floor. Matron howled when he flew back up the stairs to lock the door.

“You know what this means, Heather,” he said. He picked up a metal rod from a table and gawked at it. “She’s infected. She heard a blood hymn.” He swallowed and squeaked his fingers around the rod. When he turned around to face them, his eyes were hollow.

“Please, don’t hurt me,” Matron pleaded. “I won’t tell-” But headmaster’s eyes were distant, in another world.

“I’ll protect you,” Taniya said, stepping in front of the trembling Matron. She was scared too. But fear and bravery were different things, and Taniya could be brave enough for both of them.

“Please understand, it was a moment of weakness,” the headmaster said. “I… I never would have done it, but… but people will think I would have.” He squared his shoulders and grimaced. “It will ruin me if you tell anyone, which is why… Why I have to do this…”

Taniya gathered all her strength and raised her tiny fists. “You’ll never hurt us!” she yelled, but the headmaster was faster. The bludgeon found its mark and everything went dark. Taniya was no more.

Esther woke up with a yelp. Her head throbbed and a fuzzy image of a small girl was burned into the back of her mind. But when she tried to call it forwards, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Two days had passed since the Dark Woods hunt and Esther’s fight with Edyta. During the hunt, Yarvier officially closed the Kareshian Plateau for the winter, and the time between had felt like a dream.

With nothing to occupy their time, Esther and Esvian trained for the trials. They trained Esther’s body in the training quarters and her mind in the Library.

But as many noticed, they would often disappear for hours. They disappeared with scandalous intentions, but not the type Reeve suspected. With half of Yarvier’s deal complete, they planned their reconnaissance mission to Al Karesh in earnest. The trip broke the Plateau’s winter closure, which would get them and Yarvier in trouble. So they planned their heist out of sight, either in Yarvier’s hut or in the city.

As per Edyta’s parting threat, Esther avoided Reeve. That, combined with her and Esvian’s withdrawal from their usual routine, didn’t sit well with him. Esther knew what their behaviour looked like from his perspective; she could see the rift it caused. But what could she do? She couldn’t talk to him, and Esvian clammed up whenever she brought up the vexing affair.

So she removed herself from the situation as much as possible. When she wasn’t training or planning, Esther buried herself in the archives of the conservator’s guild. She was desperate to solve the mystery of Edyta’s hymn and to do that, she needed to understand its symbology.

With a weary sigh, Esther extricated herself from the bedsheets tangled around her legs like snakes. It was dark outside, but her heart raced too quickly to fall asleep. With no other choice, Esther decided to walk it off.

Apart from the muffled snoring coming from the uneven gaps between the doors and their frames, the Lodge adopted an airy silence. Esther followed a warm draft towards the common room on the bottom floor. It was a cosy room overlooking the night drenched courtyard. A fire roared in the hearth, casting a warm silhouette on two men talking in subdued tones. As Esther got deeper into the room, she realised it was Esvian and Reeve.

Esther almost turned and fled. Then she recalled Edyta’s poor treatment of Reeve when they’d returned from the hunt. She held something over his head, Esther was sure of it. And despite Edyta’s threat, Reeve was still Esther’s friend. She wanted him to know that she still supported him.

She slipped through the open door. The men formed a tableau of tranquillity with sleep tousled hair and serene faces, but an underlying tension was clear to the eye. Esvian scrutinised Reeve with pursed lips. Reeve had deep purple smudges below his eyes, which refused to settle on one thing for too long.

“What are you both doing up so early?” Esther asked. It was a neutral opener. It was safe.

Reeve startled as she entered and clenched his fists. When he realised it was Esther, he lowered his head and released his hands, his nose reddening in shame. Esvian tilted his head absently chewed on his bottom lip. Esther knew that focused expression: Esvian was on the hunt, and very little would distract him from his prey. In that case, his prey was the truth.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Reeve mumbled. Esvian remained silent.

Esther wanted to make him talk about Edyta. But he looked so vulnerable in that instance, she couldn’t bear to bring it up directly. “There’s a lot of that going around,” she said. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable if you stopped sleeping in Edyta’s room?”

She sat down nearby and raised her eyebrows, inviting him to talk. He tilted his head from side to side, a minuscule gesture designed with deception in mind. Unfortunately for him, Esvian’s perception was as sharp as a huntsman’s sword.

“I know something is wrong,” Esvian said. “There’s no need to hide it.”

Reeve gaped at him before pulling on a cocky mask. “Nothing is wrong,” he said with a low purr.

Esvian snorted. “Bullshit. You’re keeping secrets. Tell me because you know I’ll find out sooner, not later.”

Reeve’s face pinched. “Why does everybody want to know my damn secrets? They’re my business. No one has any right to pry.”

Esvian showed no outward reaction to Reeve’s outburst. His head remained resting against the back of the chair, and his breathing remained slow and deep.

If anything, Esvian’s reticence distressed Reeve more. “Let’s talk about something else so you can stop judging me,” Reeve snarled. “If you’re so interested in my dirty secrets, why don’t I share my glorious origins?” He raised his mug in a mock toast, took a gulp, and slammed it down on the table.

“Reeve-” Esther said.

“Stop. I’m not ready to talk about what you both want me to talk about, so stop pushing me and listen to what I do want to talk about.”

Esvian straightened in his seat, still looking at Reeve with the single-minded attention of a wild cat on the prowl. “You will tell me in the end,” he said flatly. “You know it will make you feel better.”

“That’s for me to decide,” Reeve hissed. “Until then, let’s make this juicier. I know a little about Esvian’s origins, but I know almost nothing about yours,” he said, looking at Esther. “So I propose a deal: we’ll share our stories. If you consider them worthy enough, you’ll share yours. Don’t you think that’s a worthy trade, Esvian?”

Esvian sighed and sunk deeper into his chair. “Why not?”

Normally, Esther would have refused. With her aunt’s death threat and the impending royal visit hanging over her head, she needed to double down on secret-keeping. But she was sleep-deprived, and the nightmare addled her mind. She longed to hear about their origins, which were the only stories huntsmen rarely told. ‘Huntsman’ wasn’t a desirable career choice because of the blood-curse, so most came from impoverished or shameful backgrounds. As close as she was to Esvian and Reeve, she only knew bits and pieces of their past.

Without thinking, Esther said: “I’ll consider it.”

Reeve grinned and leaned forward to pick up his mug. “My story begins on the streets of Karst, way up north.” He spoke with grandeur, but Esther’s stomach constricted in disquiet. Karst and Porthpyre, the duchy her family ruled, were neighbours. “Younger me might not have been as strong as I am now, but by Dealth’s third teet, I was still a handsome devil.”

Esther resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She’d missed the carefree, self-assured version of Reeve.

“My mother was a courtesan or a whore, I can’t remember which. Either way, she wasn’t the maternal sort. She left me to raise myself while she fucked herself into an early grave.” His tone was still theatrical, but the subject made his face look gaunt and haunted.

“I spent my days by the docks, scraping barnacles off the bottom of ships. There was an art to choosing which captains to approach, you see, else you risked a beating for busking.” His eyes glassed over. “You could only approach the captains too cheap to rent a dry harbour or the pirates in too much of a hurry to find somewhere to careen their ship.

“I was miserable, eternally hungry, and dirt poor. I was a street urchin with no future. I grew up knowing I’d die on those docks.” He pursed his lips and stared into the fire. Despite the misery embedded in the tale, Reeve showed no signs of stopping to pull away from the pain.

“At the time, Guardian Kessila was trying to build a chain of orphanages in Karst. It gave us all hope of a brighter future, knowing that there was at least one person who gave a damn. But the majority of the land barons in my district profited from exploiting us, so they refused to sell land. Thanks to Guardian Kessila’s predecessor, she nor House Alden could do fuck all to reclaim the land.”

He spoke faster, forcing the words out. He was so wrapped up in his painful tale, he seemed to forget he had an audience. Esvian and Esther glanced at each other, but Reeve didn’t notice.

“And then I got caught up with one of them. The Barron said he wanted to help me, and I was stupid enough to believe him. He always knew when I couldn’t find a ship captain to swindle and when I couldn’t afford to eat. On those days, he’d always ask me the same thing: ‘If you’re desperate for food, I have a job for you.’ ” Reeve shivered and his shoulders hunched. “Those bastard aristocrats will make you do anything if they know you’re desperate.”

“How did you end up here?” Esvian hummed. His tone was the complete opposite to Reeve’s; calm, measured, warm. Reeve looked at him for a few heartbeats and then dropped his gaze, collapsing into his chair and losing his rigid posture. The spell that had overtaken him broke, and he was able to speak with control.

“I almost died,” he breathed. “The baron who loved to help me so damn-fucking-much went out into the deadlands with his friends and his hunting dogs. The harvel was too cheap to hire a huntsman escort. One of his dogs got infected, but they didn’t realise. When it became infectious, it escaped from the kennels. It went on a rampage, killing seven civilians before it cornered me on the docks.

“All I had was the knife I used to pry barnacles off hulls.” He twined his hands together. “It was so blunt it couldn’t cut bread, but when that dog jumped on me, I was so terrified I found the strength to break its ribs and rip into its heart.” He took a deep breath and forced a smile to return to his face, but there were cracks at the edges. “Yarvier saw the whole thing and offered me a job on the spot. I left with him the next day, and I’ve not looked back since.”

Esvian chewed on his lip before speaking. “I’m glad you ended up here.” It was an odd thing, witnessing Esvian express such sincere gratitude in an emotionally tense moment.

“So am I,” he mumbled. “Although from time to time, I wonder what happened to street kids who didn’t escape as I did. Guardian Kessila’s orphanages were never built because some low-life assassinated her while House Varson stood by, twiddling their fucking thumbs.”

In the heavy silence that descended upon them, Esther spiralled into guilt. Someone from House Varson could have saved her. If only she’d been brave enough to embrace her duty as a conservator, those orphanages could have existed. Esther’s mistake might have cost hundreds of people like Reeve their lives.

She needed to pull herself out of the spiral before it caught their attention. To break the tension, Esther cleared her throat and said: “Well, that wasn’t very embarrassing. Nor was it glorious.”

Reeve chuckled. “I guess it wasn’t. But now I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain, so it’s Esvian’s turn.” Reeve looked at Esvian with a sly smile.

“Fine,” Esvian grumbled, rubbing his hand through his long hair, making it look wilder than usual. “I was born beyond the Pavarian Wall, as property of the Radkoven Tribe.” As far as Gardara was concerned, the Pavarian Wall was the end of the world. The matriarchal tribes were never conquered, not even by the Blood Queen. Instead of repairing the roads and cities damaged by the Tears of Dealth, she’d built the Paravian Wall to stop poisonous notions such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ from invading her new Queendom. Because of her negligence, the remains of dozens of cities littered Gardara.

“Why did you leave?” Esther asked.

He shrugged. “The wilds got wilder. My mother got crazier.” He furrowed his brow. “That’s a lie. All the women in the tribe were crazy. Their only concern was the myths of the immortal Sage Mother who would unite the tribes and destroy the Paravian Wall. Because of that mythical figurehead and because the Blood Queen released hundreds of blood-cursed men over the wall, the matriarchy considered men inferior. I don’t remember much, because I was young. But I think Yarvier wanted to leave because they terrified him.”

Reeve scoffed. “Are you sure you weren’t scared of them too? I’ve never seen you with a woman.”

Esther expected Esvian to get defensive or embarrassed. Instead, his expression became grave. “If you met my mother, you would be terrified of her too.” He shuddered. “The closest city to the Wall was Pague City, so we ran there with our tails between our legs. Except they wouldn’t let us in, because of our heritage.” He clenched his mug. “The bastard Lord would only let us in if we sold him secrets about our tribe and our people.”

“Did you do it?” Esther asked.

Esvian grimaced. “Yes. The wall isn’t as impenetrable as people believe, and my mother followed us. She was honour-bound to kill us because we were ‘her men’ and we were deserters. If we didn’t get into that city, she would have succeeded while the guards on the walls watched. We had no choice but to betray our family and our people so we could survive.

“But even after we earned our place by selling them our soul, the people didn’t trust us. We needed to leave, but we didn’t want to live in a place ruled by people like that. As Reeve said, the only good one was Guardian Kessila. She tried to prohibit House Farley from forcing wilding refugees to trade secrets for sanctuary. As soon as we heard that Koryn had a history of rebelling against the crown, we came here. And when we heard the Guardian got assassinated, we realised it was a good choice. The entire noble institution is corrupt. You know what they say in Pague? ‘Deadlands and walls are the swords and shields of the nobility.’ They’ll kill anyone who fights to change that.”

Reeve downed the last of his drink. “Hear, hear! But despite your troubles, I am grateful you made those sacrifices. Without your father, I would be dead or dying.” First light cracked over the horizon, lighting up the room. “Well, was that a suitable downpayment on your tale, Esther?” he asked, readjusting the blanket over his shoulders.

Esther pressed her lips together and hugged her knees to her chest. Both of their stories had an element of tragedy caused by the nobility Esther was born into. And both of them worshipped Guardian Kessila. Esther couldn’t tell the truth without them hating her, but she didn’t want to dodge the question since they’d trusted her with their pasts.

“My parents were travellers, and I was born abroad.” She spoke slowly, buying herself time to craft a half-truth. “They raised me on the road, travelling up and down the Natyran Archipelago, never settling in one place.” A fuzzy feeling rose in Esther’s chest. She smiled at the fond memories, but they soon faded. “They disappeared when I was seven. I was sent to live with my uncle, his wife, and my cousin in Porthpyre.

“My aunt was atrocious. I hated that miserable woman, but I loved my cousin. She was the one thing that made living under my aunt’s roof bearable.” Esther intertwined her fingers, squeezing until her knuckles turned white. “My family had money, so I was comfortable. But I didn’t belong in that house. I was never happy.”

“What made you give up your rich lifestyle to be a huntsman?” Reeve asked.

Esther shrugged. What to say?

“My aunt was a social climber. I did something that could have ruined her reputation.” Esvian looked down, knowing what that ‘something’ was. “I had to run away, as far away as possible, because my aunt promised me she’d have me killed if she ever saw me again.” Esther’s breath shortened. The air shimmered by the hearth, revealing the ghostly image of a woman dressed in black.

She closed her eyes. Now now.

“The guild was my salvation. Esvian and Yarvier were visiting Porthpyre by chance, and we ran into each other. I guess Yarvier liked my self-preservation instincts because he invited me to join the guild as an apprentice. His offer... it’s saved me in more ways than one.”

They fell into silence. Esther hadn’t shared many details, but the act of sharing was enough to placate them.

And it had been easier than she’d thought. If she could do that, why not gather the courage to tell Vera the truth? They had a lot to discuss, from her nightmares, her misbehaving sight, and Edyta’s hymn. Unlike Esvian and Reeve, they wouldn’t wait years until she felt comfortable sharing them.

“I should go,” she said, unfolding herself from the chair.

Reeve half rose from his seat. “Esther, I’m sorry this took a morbid turn-”

Esther waved him off. “Don’t be. I’m over it.” She smiled at them both. “I… I have somewhere else to be.”

Up Next: Esther and Vera share a heart to heart.

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