I wonder who will be chosen as the next bride?” Bri muses idly, leaning forward on her elbows to survey the market square before us. Its cobblestone streets are emptying rapidly as sunset stretches its fiery fingers across the sky.
“I don’t know,” I reply, my tone clipped. I straighten an already-straightened tomato in my display. A breeze blows through and I close my eyes with a contented sigh. The heat of the day has been suffocating.
“But don’t you want to?” Bri presses. I look into her eyes, wide and excited, and shrug.
“No,” I answer. “I don’t.”
Despite my veneer of disinterest, the truth is that I’m scared. My unmarried status marks me as an eligible bride for the Vampire King, but it may as well mark me as a lamb to be slaughtered. Every day I wake up and look toward the castle overlooking my village, wondering if this will be the day I see the White Raven taking flight:the sign that the Vampire King is ready to take a new bride.
But I can’t tell Bri this. Though she is just as unmarried as I am, she somehow finds excitement in all this. I have never understood her excitement. Maybe she is desperate to leave the village? If this is so, there are safer ways of going about it.
“Why?” Bri gasps. I sigh and shrug again. Perhaps I should be just as curious as her—impatient, even—but I just don’t have it in me to feel either. All I can bring myself to feel is dread. Dread, and denial, as if not thinking about the fate one girl in my village will eventually, inevitably face will make it go away.
“Because I have more important things to think about than some pampered king,” I grit out. Bri just laughs and shakes her head.
“This is important, Alissa,” Bri insists, swiping a tomato before I can stop her. “This is our future.”
She takes a bite of stolen tomato. Juice dribbles down her chin as she chews, and I finally nod.
“So it is,” I concede. It’s all I can bring myself to say.
With the market square empty, Bri and I pack up our wares, then part ways to begin our journeys home. Even when her back is turned, I take a moment to watch her depart. She has been my dearest friend for my entire life, and if I am to be chosen, I know I will never see her again—none of the past brides have ever returned. And so, I must savor my surroundings and all that I hold dear.
As I step up into the driver’s seat, I try to remind myself that it won’t be me. There are many eligible daughters in the village—it is much more likely to be one of them. Yet, as time goes on without any sign of the White Raven, the creeping dread that I once kept at bay sinks its fingers deeper into me. I just want to see that damned raven already. I just want to see this year’s bride being led away in the red carriage that my aunts had always hesitated to talk about. Guilt and shame always laced their words when they spoke of their relief. I wonder if I, too, will feel the same when I see the bride being led away.
As the shadows lengthen, I find myself squinting through the dark to see my path. Caprona’s steps become careful, even hesitant, the darker it gets. Eventually I am forced to stop and light my lantern.
Just as I manage to light the wick, I catch movement at the edge of the dark. I whirl around, hand gripping the knife at my hip. Bandits stalk these roads; I am under no illusion that I could best them in a fight, but I sure as hell won’t go down without trying.
A figure steps out of the dusky gloom. He is clothed in black, with the hood of his black cloak drawn over his face. Even with my wariness of the stranger, I still find myself marveling at his choice of garb. Surely the heat must be too much for him in that cloak? But why would a bandit care? Slowly, I step back toward the cart, scanning every tree and shadow for signs of others. Bandits never travel alone.
“I am no bandit.” His voice is so soft, I almost don’t hear him at first.
“Isn’t that what a bandit would say?” I retort. My other hand grips the reins now.
“I am just a traveler, unfamiliar with these roads—”
“—and for that you have my sympathy.” My heel is on the step. It is an effort to keep the tremor from my voice.
“I assure you,” the stranger says, a note of desperation to his voice, “I mean you no harm. You have my word.” He raises his hands and draws back his hood to reveal a beautiful, moon-pale face framed by hair as black as a raven’s wing. “I am simply looking for a place to rest my head for the night.”
I frown. No bandit has ever been known to reveal their face so willingly to a traveler before. “Fine, then. Come on. These woods are dangerous after dark.”
The stranger smiles with relief and joins me in the cart. I trust he means me no harm, yet I can’t shake the unease that squeezes my heart. Just having him near sets my teeth on edge; even the knife at my hip provides me no comfort. Despite this, I force a smile to my face and snap the reins. The mule’s hoofbeats and the gentle rocking of the cart starts to lull me enough to forget the stranger at my side. The spell is broken by his thigh brushing up against mine. I stiffen at the contact.
“I’m sorry,” the stranger rushes out. I hold up a hand.
“Please, there is nothing to apologize for,” I say. The stranger shifts, and I assume he’s leaning back in his seat. I can’t help but smirk to myself. A crate of vegetables is hardly ideal for rest. “Where are you going?” I ask.
“Up the mountain, once I depart tomorrow,” he says. I bite my lip.
“Carry silver, then. And a weapon.” It’s a warning that all travelers from abroad are given when they pass through. Some dismiss the warnings as peasant superstitions. They’re the ones who don’t return. “A branch of hawthorn will serve you well.”
The stranger shifts in his seat. “I have traversed the mountains hundreds of times. I will be fine.”
“Good. But just in case—” I dig in my pocket and draw out a sprig of holly.
“I have my own protection,” he says, an edge to his voice.
I curl my fingers around the holly, squeezing tight until it pierces my skin as the mountains come into view. The sight of them alone is enough to make me shiver.
There is another reason Father has me carry a weapon at my hip and a holly sprig in my pocket:vampires. It is said that they are corpses of the accursed dead, men and women who committed grave sin against the Old Faith and the New, and that they crawl from their graves to steal away innocents in the night. Fangs and claws tear out the throats of human victims, blood is their only source of sustenance, and, if the vampire so chooses, they might mesmerize an unsuspecting human to make them their slave. Graven images of the Goddesses they forsake are agony to look upon. A stake of hawthorn to their heart is lethal. Silver burns their skin. I’ve heard also that to burn the vampire’s heart and drinking a potion made of its ash is a cure for those who have been bitten, but the source of this knowledge is lost to time. I hope to never get close to a vampire to test this theory.
The arrangement between my village and the vampire king has left me trying to parse out truth from fiction on more than one occasion—after all, why send a girl to be the bride of one of these monsters? None of it has ever made sense, though; perhaps the origin of this arrangement is also lost to time. I have my doubts, but it’s the explanation I’ve come to settle on, for the sake of my sanity.
“What awaits you over the mountains?” I ask. The last thing I want to think of is anything having to do with these mountains, and yet they have an undeniable draw.
It’s only one word, but it echoes between us all the same, vibrating down into my very bones and sending a chill slithering through me. A lump forms in my throat, and I gulp it down.
“Home,” I echo on a whispered breath. My gaze slides back up the jagged rock face, tracing the outline that always reminded me of teeth tearing at the sky above.
“And where is home for you?” The stranger’s voice is like silk, melodic, lulling me back to a comfortable place.
“Over the next hill,” I hear myself say.
How long have we been traveling together? Normally I can count the passing minutes of my journey well enough, but now, I’m not so sure. Something about his presence alone is enough to draw my mind away from such mundane matters.
Or maybe, I try to reason with myself, it’s that I so rarely have company of these roads, save for Caprona. She’s a good mule, and it was impossible not to bond with her after pulling her hind-legs-first from her mother. But I must admit, it’s nice speaking to someone who can respond in kind.
I glance at the stranger from the corner of my eye. His cheekbones are high, sharp enough to cut glass, and his full lips are the color of berries. But it’s his eyes that capture my attention. They’re the color of molten gold, bright enough to outshine the moon, if given the opportunity. I snap my gaze back to the road before me.
“How can you navigate the dark so easily?” the stranger asks. I can’t help but chuckle.
“Caprona. She memorized the way home a long time ago.”
“The intelligence of livestock never ceases to amaze me,” he says, half to himself. I look over at him with a frown. Shaking my head, I turn back to the road.
“Caprona has always been too smart for her own good.” A wistful smile crosses my face. “She only listens to me. Father has threatened to turn her into glue more than once.”
The mule snorts, and the stranger laughs. The rich sound spreads warmth through my stomach. I lick my lips.
The canopy parts overhead, revealing a dark sky sprayed with stars. At the center is a slice of moon, like a grin hung in midair. I point at a house nestled in the valley down below.
“There. That is my home.”