‘You cannot change my mind on this.’
The words were loud in the entrance hall of the castle—the tall ceilings allowed the words to spread further than the man had perhaps intended them to. Certainly, the man who leant against the wall in a nearby corridor heard them, and he winced.
‘I am set in this—my word is final.’
The speaker was a man of some forty years. He was tall and broad, though a recent illness had ravaged him and he was thin in an ill way, with dark circles ringing his brown eyes. Chin length mousy brown hair hung limp, framing a face made stern by the thickness of his features—a large nose, a square jaw—and by the heavy lines worry had carved into his forehead and around his mouth. Though he was not typically an imposing figure, the thunderous frown darkening his expression and the way he stood with hands on hips and legs solidly planted made him one.
Or, he would be thoroughly imposing save for the fact that opposite him, a girl—a full two feet or more shorter than him—mimicked his pose and glared right back.
She resembled him in expression alone. Aside from that, she was small and slender—though anyone who knew her would say that it was the most misleading thing about her, given that there wasn’t a thing in the world she couldn’t do if she wanted to, or if someone told her she couldn’t. Her long hair was a wild tangle where his was straight, her mouth full and expressive where his was thin-lipped and stern. Her green eyes flashed with determination and not a small amount of frustration.
‘You can’t stop me,’ she told him, voice as soft as it was certain.
The man threw his hands up into the air. ‘I shouldn’t have to! A daughter ought obey her father.’
‘And a father ought support his child!’
He ran a hand over his face, smeared a drop of ink he didn’t seem to know was there.
The girl stared at that smear intently. Anything to keep the trickle of despair from touching her, from making her eyes water or her lower lip tremble. She would not cry.
‘Give me a good reason,’ she demanded. ‘Just one.’ If he gave that…she’d have something to argue against. Or, if it were a very good reason, she thought, trying to be reasonable as she knew a leader and lady must be, then it would make the disappointment easier to bear.
He rubbed a hand over his mouth, its perpetual worried downturn hidden for a moment. Finally, he said, ‘You are too young.’
‘All pages are ten. I will be the same age.’ Though she didn’t say it, the unspoken Next hung as a challenge between them.
‘It is hard—’
‘I can handle it.’
‘You will be alone—’
‘Gus will be with me.’
‘In a city far from here—’
‘We have been to Cría, which is further by nearly a hundred miles.’
‘And I cannot bear to let you go,’ he said, simply and sadly.
She stared unblinkingly up at him for a very long moment. Then, her stubborn chin lowered, and her hands dropped from her hips to curl into tight fists. ‘That,’ she told him, voice flat, ‘is not a good enough reason.’
Turning sharply on her heel, she left him there in the hall. She paid no mind to the weight of his stare following her out; already, she was debating the possibilities left to her. Marching out the great door, she passed Mara and Corin where they were crouched beside it, clearly eavesdropping, and ignored them too as they quickly busied themselves polishing the doors and plucking at non-existent weeds in the path. Past them, past the men-at-arms that barred the entranceway, faster and faster until it could no longer be called a march. She hurried over the narrow bridge that covered the quick-running moat and fled into the orchards.
The trees dripped with fresh rain—the clouds must have dropped their burden, heavy and abrupt as they did high in the mountains here, while she was arguing with her father—and she brushed a droplet off her forehead. She flicked it away with a sharp gesture, the only sign she would allow herself of the deep turmoil that warred inside her. She would call it annoyance, irritation, but that was too shallow for the feeling. So she called it nothing at all, only acknowledged it for what it was not.
It was not peaceful with the life her father laid out in front of her. Meek, mild Alexandra. Courting by fourteen, married by eighteen, and standing aside when someone who knew nothing of her people, her land, came in and played at Lord? When she could do it? When she could bear the weight of her people’s dreams and hopes and future—she knew them, she worked with them, she had learned from them, they were her people and for the want of a prick she wasn’t good enough to rule them?
She snatched up her practice bow from the shed as she passed it. Stringing it, she drew it back to test the draw and nodded. Still limber from her morning practice.
Striding out to the range, she began to shoot, letting the strength of her fury draw the string back to her ear. It was a wild array that struck the range and she looked over them, disappointed but not surprised. Collecting the arrows, she returned to her place and began again. This time, she breathed in slow and deep; Lexa let her chest expand and held her breath until her lungs began to protest before letting the breath out. The jittering, clashing feelings soothed and faded as she did so again; she made them fade—her aim suffered from the lack of a clear mind. They were not gone, not forgotten, merely set aside for the moment. It was enough. That time, when she shot again, she noted each arrow punching into their targets with precision.
‘Playing it safe?’
She hesitated for a moment—dagger at my side, knife in boot—but the voice was familiar. Disapproving, too. Lexa twisted, spotting her friend and trainer looming in the shadows under low, gnarled branches. A bear of a man, with shaggy long hair he’d twisted into braids, and arms and legs the size of tree trunks, he somehow still managed to disappear into the wood and the dark when he wanted to.
One day, she thought, I will learn that trick.
‘Where would you have me shoot?’ she asked instead.
Gus pushed away from the trunk and joined her. He walked with great purpose, each stride measured and solid. Crouching next to her, he was nearly as tall as she was, even on his knees. Taking a moment to scan the range, he pointed to the furthest target. ‘Five in the smallest ring. Give you a present if you do it.’
Lexa’s eyes narrowed. She’d never consistently made that shot—her bow wasn’t made for those distances—but if he thought she could do it then she wasn’t about to prove him wrong.
It took most of the afternoon, plus another rain shower that Gus didn’t let her escape—’D’you think all your battles’ll be on a nice spring morning wi’ the birds cheepin away? Learn t’ shoot when ye can barely see a hand in front of ye!’—but she got the five clustered in the furthest target and lowered her bow, grinning. Her arms felt watery and empty and her legs burned from jogging to the target and back again, to dig out her arrowheads, but she’d done it.
‘Well?’ she demanded.
Gus squinted down at her. Then, he nodded. ‘Not bad.’
Lexa’s lips turned up very slightly, but her eyes shone. She hoarded the praise, tucked it away in a quiet corner of her mind where she could find it again.
‘Better than not bad.’
‘Don’t be pert. Your training master won’t allow it.’
The comment bore a surprising sting. Lexa turned away, fixed her scowl on the target. ‘Didn’t you hear?’ She tried not to sound bitter and failed; her words practically dripped with it. ‘I’m not going to Corus.’
‘Aye, I heard milord,’ Gus agreed.
Lexa shrugged. Squashed down the bitter disappointment. ‘I can join the Riders at fifteen. Or I could run away and be a pirate.’
‘Aye, piracy. That’ll help your people.’
Lexa sighed. ‘I was joking, Gustus.’
‘Never a good idea to joke about somethin’ that means so much to you.’
‘I don’t know what to do,’ she confessed after a moment. ‘I can’t disobey him. If I go without his permission, he’ll send his men to drag me home. If I do make it to the palace, the training master will send me back without my father’s permission.’ Gus nodded. ‘I don’t know how to prove to him that this is what I want. That this is the right move—he’s so smart,’ she bit out, the frown she had dismissed returning with a vengeance. ‘I don’t know how he can’t see it.’
‘You are his daughter.’
‘Then he should understand. That I love this place as much as he does, that I would do anything to protect it!’
Gus sat silently while Lexa stormed to the target and pulled out her five arrows, and the ones that hadn’t quite made it to the centre ring. She dumped them into the practice bin before Gus spoke again.
‘He’s gone through the knighthood himself, you know,’ he said. Lexa nods. ‘He’s given up many things for his family and for the fief. Perhaps he doesn’t want you to have to do the same.’
‘I don’t have to. But I will, if I must.’
‘I know it,’ he assured her. Lexa burned with satisfaction at that. ‘Give him time.’
‘He’s had time!’
‘That's true. But now is not the time to give up,’ he said so quietly she thought she must have misheard him. For a long moment, she stared up at his serious face and thought about what he had said. Gus returned the stare, met her solemn eyes squarely. Finally, he nodded. Laid a heavy, warm hand on her shoulder. Feeling how chilled she was, he stripped off his cloak and laid it doubled around her shoulders, though still it was too long for her and she held it up to keep it from the mud. ’Come on now, lass. Your present’s in your room.’
She allowed the distraction before something occurred to her and she turned on him, eyes narrowed to slits. ‘You mean I would have got it anyway? Without all that?’ She waved to the target.
‘Yes,’ Gus agreed, amiably enough. ‘But would you feel as pleased without earning it?’
She huffed and strode away from him. The indignant move was undercut when she slipped on the slick mud, but she continued, chin high, and pretended not to hear Gus hiding a laugh.
She took the path slowly down, not wanting to slip, and when it diverted—one to the narrow path back to the keep and one down to the edge of the forest proper—Lexa hesitated before mucking on down the hill and away from her home. She couldn’t bear to be near her father yet; archery did some good but just the thought of him and his hypocrisy stirred those unhappy feelings in her again.
Instead, she stomped—carefully—down to the forest to check her traps.
Lexa waved to Corin. Five years older than her, he was a pretty boy with short light brown hair and brown eyes and a smattering of pimples over his jaw. He was also painfully shy around her so she knew that he wouldn’t follow. He would, however, run for Mara to let her follow Lexa as soon as she was gone past him.
Lexa sighed, the great safety net her father had cast over her chafing at every turn. Still, it wasn’t Mara’s fault and so she slowed just enough that the woman wouldn’t have trouble catching her. And she did, mere moments later, skirt tucked cleverly so it didn’t drag in the dirt. She clicked her tongue the moment she saw Lexa and touched the back of her fingers to her cheek.
‘You’re like ice, miss.’
Lexa shrugged a shoulder to the older woman, clutched Gus’s cloak and pulled it more tightly around her, and Mara allowed it without further comment.
They walked together to the forest and found each of the five traps Lexa had laid earlier in the week. She barely had to recall where she had laid them; their placement burned brightly in her mind and she trudged to them unerringly. Several had rabbits trembling in the snares. These, they put away in a bag Mara brought with her. The other two were empty and Lexa reset all five.
‘I don’t know what he were thinkin’,’ Mara said finally, sounding very much like she’d been wanting to say it for the past half hour.
‘Gus? He didn’t know I was cold.’ Lexa wrapped herself more purposefully in the heavy cloak, hoping that it would be enough to ease Mara’s worry and keep Gus out of trouble. Mara had a way of making even the biggest, strongest man quake in his boots if she’s mad enough. Lexa admired it, though she wouldn’t know where to begin to mimic that. It seemed much easier to be very good at fighting.
‘He oughta,’ Mara muttered, a little darkly. Her eyes darted back toward the path as though she were considering marching after the man right this second, but the moment passed. Looking to Lexa again, she clicked her tongue again. It reminded Lexa of the chickens they kept and she hid her smile behind the collar of the cloak.
Ducking to pick up a long stick, she swirled it in the air. Pretended that the pattern was one of the sword dances she dreamed of learning in the castle, in straight lines of pages with gleaming swords and gleaming armour, and at the head of the class—though she knew it would never happen—was a short red-haired knight who wielded her sword like she was born with one in her hand.
‘I was speaking,’ Mara continued, interrupting Lexa’s daydream, ‘Gods help me, of your father.’
‘My father?’ Lexa’s pretend sword faltered.
‘Aye. One glance is all any’un needs t’know you’re not suited for sittin’ still and keepin’ quiet.’ Mara lifted Lexa’s empty hand, turned it over to show a hand more calloused than a lady’s should be. Particularly a lady of ten. ‘He can’t see what’s in front of his nose.’
‘Gus says he can. He just doesn’t want to accept it.’
Mara sighed. Patted Lexa’s hand once and let it drop. ‘I hope that’s not th’ case, I truly do. The gods have ways of opening th’ eyes of them that chose to be blind. They tend to be painful. He oughta know that.’
‘I don’t want him hurt,’ Lexa said, frustrated. She knocked her stick-sword against the nearest tree, pouted moodily. ‘I just want…’
‘T’be a knight. We know. We’ve known since ye were a tiny thing.’
‘I’m still a tiny thing,’ she grumbled. ‘Mara?’
‘I think Gus hinted that I could change Father’s mind. Or that I should try.’
‘Did he now?’
‘Yes, but…’ Lexa dropped the stick and wiped the dirt off onto her pants leg. She stared down the forest path into the green dark—for a second she thought she could see something there, felt something flash quicksilver like a tiny minnow darting across her awareness. The sensation went as quickly as it came and she pulled herself back to the present, to Mara and their conversation with a shake of her head. Strange. ‘I feel like I've tried everything. Do you think there's still a chance? Only, the start of the training year is hardly a month away and if I want to be a page this year I would have to leave soon.’
Lexa looked up at Mara and paused when she saw the woman’s eyes glazed over, staring not at Lexa but through her. Recognising the signs of someone in the grip of a vision, though she had never seen it for herself, Lexa swallowed hard before she reached over to touch cold fingers to the back of Mara’s hand.
Mara blinked. Once, and then a second time, before her eyes refocused on Lexa. The corners of her eyes were pinched. ‘I’m—I’m alright,’ she said.
‘What did you see?’
She hesitated. Lexa kept her gaze steady—something about her stare, she knew, let people trust that she could handle what they tell her.
‘I saw you,’ she told Lexa. ‘Older. With a scar right here.’ With a shaking finger, she traced a line from under Lexa’s ear almost to the middle of her throat. Lexa shivered; that would be a dangerous wound to get. ‘You looked very much the same. More care with braidin’ that hair of yours, though,’ Mara joked.
Lexa rolled her eyes at the familiar tease, though didn’t argue the point. ‘What else?’
‘That was all.’
‘That’s all?’ Lexa frowned. She didn’t speak the thought, but it seemed like a fairly useless vision to her. Mara twisted a lock of hair around her finger and gave it a fond tug—and then another, more sharply. ‘Ouch!’ Lexa pulled away, frowning up at the woman, only to find her eyes glazed over again. The Sight had never struck Mara twice in such quick succession, and it struck Lexa that something could be wrong.
She shifted, uncomfortable, and thought about taking a step back. Going to find someone.
Mara couldn’t read her mind, of course, but it felt as though she could when, as soon as the thought crossed Lexa’s mind, Mara refocused. Her eyes fixed on Lexa with burning intensity and her hand clamped onto her shoulder, holding her in place.
‘Another vision?’ she asked.
‘Something like that, little lamb,’ a voice that was not Mara’s said. The voice was full of power, power that felt, tasted, smelled, sounded like a bow strung tight, like bursting copper on her tongue, like loamy fresh-turned soil underfoot, like the crackle of dried leaves and twigs, like the shush of a dagger slipping free, like all of that and more. Not what voices should be made of. Lexa recoiled with a gasp, the sensations of the power battering at her, and Mara’s fingers tightened. ‘She’s seeing something, certainly.’
Lexa ignored the coiling hint. The voice wanted her to ask about the vision. She wasn’t interested. ‘You aren’t Mara. Release her.’
‘She’s fine,’ not-Mara snapped. The sharpness eased, turns sweet again—fresh-plucked berries bursting on her tongue, the playful river tugging at her ankles, at her breeches. ’Don’t you want to know about your grand future? Your knighthood?’
‘She isn’t yours to use,’ Lexa told not-Mara sternly. ‘As Lady of this land, I demand that you release her.’
Lexa considered what the voice seemed to want. ‘Or I won’t speak with you.’
For a moment, not-Mara was quiet, thinking over Lexa’s demand. Then, ‘I could make her scream instead,’ it offered, seeming pleased by the idea. Lexa knew that it was because the copper taste was back more strongly, along with the sensation of the hunt. ‘Or…I could leave her and step into your head.’
Lexa hesitated. ‘You won’t hurt her?’
Not-Mara grinned, too wide for her small mouth. ‘I swear it,’ not-Mara promised, and jerkily, like a macabre puppet with her friends face, not-Mara held out her hand.
Belly fluttering with panic, but knowing that she wanted its hold over Mara to fall—one of them needed to get help, after all, and the not-Mara seemed to only care about Lexa—she gritted her teeth and took the hand offered.
The presence slipped into her mind easily.
It didn’t have a shape or a face, not straight away, but its perusal of her mind reminded her of the aunt who had swept into their manor some months ago and had trailed her gloved finger over the mantle before inspecting it for dust.
‘Nice clean mind you’ve got here.’ Its voice was more contained within Lexa’s mind. Rough, hoarse with disuse, but warm. ‘Brain, determination. Oho—there’s my girl,’ it chuckled, ‘look at that bite. You’re going to be a beast with a weapon in your hands,’ it said approvingly.
‘Thank you,’ Lexa replied. ‘What do you want?’
‘Me? To help, of course.’
She could see it—her—more clearly now. She’d taken on a semblance of a tall, solidly-built woman with warm brown skin and slate grey eyes. Her black hair hung to just below her ears and, when she moved, the light caught flecks of colours within it—greens and reds, browns and golds. It refused to sit still, fluttering as though it were alive. Or like leaves in the wind, Lexa imagined, and as she thought it, she could have sworn she could make out the faint veining of leaves too. She blinked and the detail was gone, so turned her attention to the rest of the woman—short fingers were tipped in dark, curved nails and her teeth, when she spoke again, were sharp. When she moved, she involved her whole body—head first, questing the direction, and the rest of her body following in a restrained, bunching kind of way that seemed lazy but screamed danger.
Lexa shivered. The woman wasn’t human, not even one with a powerful Gift. That, Lexa knew immediately. She swallowed hard.
‘Don’t be frightened, little lamb,’ the woman soothed, eyes glinting like sun off a blade. ‘I won’t hurt you.’
‘I’m not frightened.’
The woman smirked.
Lexa glared. If she can tell I’m frightened, let her deal with this too. She began to recite all the foulest curses and threats she’d learned from Gus and whatever seasonal workers and soldiers who had moved through her land. Promises of all the vicious things she would do if Mara weren’t perfectly okay.
After a moment, the woman’s smirk grew into something more genuine. Still dangerous, though.
‘Brave girl,’ the woman said with a laugh.
If she meant it to sound genuine, she was doing a bad job of it. There was a slithering, fanged undertone to her words that read as mocking. Steel shot up Lexa’s spine. She narrowed her eyes.
‘I am brave,’ she agreed. ‘I’m also smart. Smart enough to know that gods don’t steal children without a reason.’ The woman looked surprised and then pleased and then thoughtful. For a god, Lexa thought, she’s not very mysterious. Lexa didn’t bother to question how she knew what the woman was—for what else would sound like a forest hunt whenever she spoke? What else would blaze in her mind like a pillar of light?
‘Do you know who I am?’
‘No. But I’d like my mind back, if it’s all the same.’ After a long moment, she tacked on a barely polite, ‘Please.’
‘Hmm. You’re not even the slightest bit curious about why I’m here?’
Lexa was curious.
‘Liar,’ the woman threw back cheerfully. She rolled out her shoulders lazily, strolled—barefoot, Lexa saw—through her mind. It was taking on the shape of her bedroom up in the castle. The woman flexed her fingers in front of the roaring fireplace. ‘It’s alright,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you anyway. Don’t bother bending that pride for little old me.’ She crouched there in front of the fire, shook her hands through her hair as though she were drying out after the heavy rain.
She took her time and Lexa was starting to think the woman was buying time for herself—for what purpose, though, Lexa didn’t know—when she began to speak, a knowing look that made Lexa flush. Right. She could hear Lexa’s thoughts.
‘I know you, kid. You want to be a knight. You want to hunt down nasty monsters.’ She nodded to the wall to Lexa’s left.
Lexa didn’t want to look but something flickered in the corner of her vision and she turned and walked, astounded, as the wall disappeared and hills rolled out from the edge of the stone floor. It was as though a doorway had opened into a real place and, despite telling herself it wasn’t, she could smell the grass and the bright tang of polish, feel the heat of the sun, hear horses snort and chains jangle as they tossed their heads.
She could not help but stare. She knew this vision. Daydream, really.
It was one of hers.
Lexa was sitting astride her horse, the mare Alraed, and clad in gleaming chainmail. She was tall and muscled and she had a rather dashing scar—faint and thin—beneath her left eye. Foot soldiers trotted beside her and several other knights rode at her back, and when she pointed her sword—a beautiful weapon that she just knew was perfectly weighted—they followed her without a hint of doubt. Alraed leaped down the hill into a powerful gallop, so fast did she run that it felt like Lexa was flying over the hills. The hot sun and mighty Mithros’s blessing burned down onto her, the enemy fell apart beneath the charge like a hot knife into butter,
‘It’s a pretty picture,’ the woman commented. Lexa flushed. ‘But not quite right.’ With a wave of her shining hand, the vision began again.
Lexa was sitting astride her horse, the mare Alraed, and her chainmail glinted here and there under rips in the dull brown tunic she wore to cover it.
She was still tall, Lexa saw with some relief, even if she wasn’t that obviously muscled, and there was no scar. That’s alright, she thought. She’d seen it once, two summers ago, on a sailor she was fairly sure, in retrospect, was a pirate. Lexa had thought then that it was quite dashing, but maybe it had been the lady’s sea-blue eyes that had caught her attention. Movement in the vision recalled her attention.
There were four people with her, all on horses, though she couldn’t see their faces. They clutched swords, not gleaming things but deadly sharp. Hilts didn’t glint with gold or jewels but were wrapped in dark cloth. Lexa’s was covered too and lay bare across her thighs. One of the other riders held a map open on their thigh. Blood stained the corner of the map under their thumb—bright red and fresh. Lexa pointed to a spot on the map that she couldn’t read and they rode on, shoulders hunched and heads swiveling about, wary of the dense forest surrounding them.
Lexa watched herself in the vision, intently. The other vision had smelled real, had looked and sounded as vibrant as life. But this one… It felt real in a way that she couldn’t explain. She didn’t recognise the woods they rode in, but her eyes lingered on a broken bough and a mossed, fallen trunk and knew she would remember these every day of her life.
Her eyes were tight at the corners and she shifted her grip on her sword, stretching her fingers out from their tight grip. Turning her head, Lexa looked up from the surrounds into the canopy above.
Lexa's eyes widened. Across her throat, from a point underneath her right ear, was a silvered scar just as Mara had described. She didn't have time to think about what that meant before the vision continued.
A wordless, shout from behind her—she twisted, cuts a piece of webbing as it shot toward her. She was too late to stop it from sticking her arm to her side but quick enough to stop the spidren from dragging her from her saddle. She switched her sword to her other hand and struck out, distaste flickering over her expression at the spurt of dark blood from the monster's wound. She dodged away from it, nudging Alraed out of the way—
Lexa watched, heart rising into her throat. From her studies, she knew that if the blood were to touch her skin it would burn like acid.
—she twisted, cutting down the spidren. One of her four companions had struck it in the eye with a grim arrow but the thing had barely halted in its attack. Lexa turned to see what other enemies remained when—her eyes widened in surprise and she wavered on Alraed before slipping down to the ground, mouth slack. An arrow, bristling with menace, stood up out of her chest—
The vision ended there, the fourth stone wall returning to her bedroom with a resounding thump Lexa distantly considered to be quite unnecessary. For a long moment, Lexa stared at that wall unblinking, precisely where she had seen herself—her vision self—fallen.
From her place by the fire, Lexa’s sharp-toothed guest stood and turned toward her, body following.
‘What was that?’ Lexa asked.
‘The truth. A truth.’ She scratched at her ear. ‘If you follow this path, your knighthood, you will reach this point.’
Lexa felt something coming, sweeping around her legs. When she looked down, she saw nothing there but the feeling of being caught remained. With a sickening lurch, she thought of the struggling rabbits in her snares.
‘You will reach this point,’ the woman said again, pacing toward her, ‘…and that will be the day you die.’
The woman stopped in front of her—they were the same height, somehow, though Lexa knew that she was a short ten-year-old and the woman was a not-as-short goddess. It’s my mind, she reminded herself. I’m whatever I want to be. She was ignoring something, pushing away something she doesn’t want to think about. What was it? She opened her mouth.
‘How old am I? In that vision. When I die.’ Oh yes. I’m going to die. Her words didn’t feel like her own, too removed from the mind that just wanted to scream. Too young! Too young! I don’t want to die!
‘Eighteen.’ The woman began her pacing again. She seemed capable of standing still for only so long. ‘Only weeks before earning your shield. Just a cub.’
She sounds…sad, Lexa noted. It was strange but she had more important questions than that. Lexa considered the vision again—the arrow in her chest—and found herself glad they were in her mind. The cold sweat that trickled down her spine didn’t show here unless she willed it. With three careful breaths, she pushed aside her panic and the less sharp yet bitter disappointment.
‘Are you telling me not to be a knight?’
The pacing woman stilled. She tilted her head to the side. With her long, hooked nose, she looked like a hawk. Her eyes were sharp enough for one. ‘Do you want to be?’
Lexa looked down at her muddied boots, mulling over the question. A page for four years, a squire for almost another four. Then dead. No fanfare, no glory. Dead in the mud.
Or a life as a lady—all sitting and curtsying and dancing and never saying what she really thinks and having to marry some boy and—
‘Yes,’ she said, and she felt her answer settle something inside of her she hadn’t known wasn’t settled. She had dreamt of being a knight since she was young but today, for the first time, she knew what it would—what it might mean—and she knew that eight years would be enough. It would be worth it. ‘I do.’
‘I can help.’
‘I don’t want your help.’
The strange woman blinked her gleaming eyes. Her skin rippled, taking on the patched tone of fur, of feather, and finally gleaming scale before reverting. The change had come and gone so quickly Lexa found it hard to remember if it had ever happened.
‘Very well,’ she agreed pleasantly. Lexa narrowed her eyes. Pleasant didn’t sound like it came naturally to her. ‘Convince him on your own, then. And next year when you return… Come and see me.’
‘…There’s a danger stirring in the city of kings, little lamb. Knight or not, you are involved. You’ll have questions, come summer, and I can answer them.’
It was an empty response that Lexa didn’t trust, but the woman hadn’t asked her to swear or promise or anything—in fact, the woman was fading fast from her mind, in a bright way that Lexa knew meant that she was truly leaving, that it wasn’t a trick.
‘What is your name?’ Lexa called, loudly, before the woman could disappear. ‘What danger?’
‘You can call me Tari,’ she said with her sharp grin. ‘When you’re ready to talk to me again, all you need to do is say my name here, by the trees. I’ll do the rest.’
Of Lexa’s second question, she said nothing.
Lexa woke coughing.
Her throat was so dry it felt as though the air was scraping through it, clawing up it. She coughed again, nose scrunched up in pain, and a big, warm hand curled around the back of her neck. Something cold pressed against her lips; she couldn’t get her eyes to open—they felt so heavy, her whole body did—but when she flicked her tongue over her lips it tasted of metal and, blessedly, of water.
‘Just water, lass,’ Gus’s voice confirmed for her, and she let him bring the cup back to her lips. She drank greedily until he pulled it away.
When she had drunk enough, she tried again to open her eyes and succeeded. Gus helped her sit up against her pillows and she looked about herself. In her desk chair sat Gus, though the chair was far too small for him. His knees were nearly up around his ears. Her desk chair… Lexa frowned, shook the exhaustion out of her mind. There was something about being in her room that didn’t make sense—the shutters on the windows were open, the sky past them an inky black and dotted with stars. The moon hung heavy over the trees. How did it get so late? Cold air marched briskly in through that open window, whirled into the corners, and marched out again. Lexa shivered. She tried to remember all that had happened, and why it felts so strange to find that she’s in her room. It took a moment to recall that she had been in the forest. Someone must have carried her up to the castle.
A flash of colour grabbed her attention. A figure in a dark orange robe stood by the door—they bowed to her, deeply, and she inclined her head, which was the best she can manage with her whole body a single ache. Then they were gone.
‘One of the Mithran priests. They stayed to make sure you’d wake,’ Gus told her in a low voice, pitched quiet so as not to disturb the others. And there were others—Mara was curled on a pallet by the fire and—Lexa’s eyes widened—her father was sitting in his favourite chair at the end of her bed.
She couldn’t remember the last time he had been in her room. Not since before his illness, she thought. And then, He looks different asleep.
Sallow and clearly exhausted, the skin around his eyes that had already looked purple now appeared bruised, thoroughly blackened by a fist-fight the exceedingly proper man would never participate in. His long limbs were far from regal—legs crossed at the ankles, one hand was cast over the arm of his chair and his fingers brushed the stone floor every time he took a breath. His head was tilted toward her; he had fallen asleep watching her, Lexa realised.
Lexa tore her eyes away from him, back to Gus who watched them all with his black eyes.
‘He’s been sitting here since Mara brought you up from the trees.’
Lexa swallowed. They needed to talk. ‘Will you wake him?’
Gus nodded. Reached over and laid his hand on his master’s shoulder. ‘Milord,’ he called softly. ‘Titus, wake up.’
Her father woke slowly, blinking over to Lexa. He grabbed Gus’s arm, gripped him bruisingly tight. ‘My girl,’ he whispered, voice hoarse. ‘Am I dreaming?’
‘No, milord. She’s awake.’
‘Gods be blessed,’ he cried, and threw himself out of his chair toward her. He knelt next to her, scooped up one of her hands in his own. ‘Lexa, Lexa, Lexa,’ he muttered, lifted her hand to his forehead. Over his shoulder, Lexa saw Mara awake and stand, hands pressed to her chest and a worried breath finally leaving her.
‘I’m alright, Da,’ she said, as she hadn’t for almost a year. They had been fighting and she’d hoped that calling him Father in that cold tone would tell him how displeased she was but he never seemed to notice. But he must have, Lexa realised, because the moment she said it, his face collapsed into new grief and he cupped her face. ‘I’m alright.’
‘My strong girl,’ he nodded. ‘I know, of course you are, the strongest of all of us,’ he whispered, and stroked trembling fingers over her hair.
‘How long was I asleep?’ His thin mouth crumpled inwards, pursing in thought. His hesitance told her he was considering a lie; Lexa gripped his hand and squeezed. ‘Da, tell me.’
‘Only a day.’ He paused. ‘I don’t suppose—Mara said—she said there was something in the trees.’
There was something sharp about the way he said it that let Lexa know what he’d ordered since he saw her unconscious.
‘Call your men off, Da,’ she told him, sinking back into her pillows. She felt ancient, suddenly, instead of ten. ‘It’s nothing you can hunt.’
‘She was a tree-god, I think,’ Lexa said, feeling very silly saying it out loud. Remembering faintly, like an echo of a call, how it had felt to stand in front of her—in front of a god—made it not silly. Just dangerous. ‘Or…a god among the trees. She had claws. And her name was Tari.’
Her father went still. ‘A god.’ She nodded. ‘And she kept you for half a day.’ His eyes burned with sudden fury, but his voice was cold. Lexa shivered. One day, she would face someone and she would burn with that cold fire. ‘What did she tell you?’
Lexa broke the hold his eyes had over her, looking away. She could lie. Tell him that the gods demanded she become a knight—but this wasn’t about them. This was her life, even if it was to be a short one.
‘Surprisingly little,’ she told him, frowning.
It made her father laugh, though it had a grim edge to it. ‘That’s gods for you. Nothing they do or say makes sense until it’s too late.’
Lexa nodded slowly. She talked him through their conversation. When it came to the vision of her death, she hesitated and then stopped, withholding the last moments of it. Next to her, Gus shifted in his seat and, when she glanced to him, his black eyes glinted back at her, though whether it was with the knowledge of her omission or anger at what had befallen her, she couldn’t be sure.
Her father settled back in his chair when she was done talking and sighed. For a long time, he didn’t speak. Just stared out the window at the half moon and over the tops of the trees that grew tall and wild around their home and the village. The shadowed heights never seemed more dangerous than they did on this long night.
He stroked the amulet that hung around his neck with an idle finger, deep in thought. Finally, he spoke.
‘I owe you an explanation,’ he said, voice grave. ‘Or an apology. After your mother…’ He paused. ‘I wanted to keep you with me for as long as I could. Keep you safe.’ Pulling his eyes back from whatever pretty future he imagined, he focused on his small daughter in her bed. His eyes were brighter than they’d been for years. Intent. ‘Danger will find us anywhere, Lexa. You should be prepared for it.’
Lexa held her breath, hardly daring to think on what he might be saying to her.
‘If this is what you wish, then… The day after tomorrow we will make the journey to Corus. Gustus will go with us. He was offered the position of a trainer at the palace, which he is now free to take. He will act as your manservant while you are a page. You will follow all of his instructions to the letter. I will present myself to the King and court and judgement…’ He stopped and frowned. Quietly, he said, ‘It has been too long since my last appearance.’
Mara and Gus both bowed their heads solemnly. Titus continued.
‘You will present yourself to the training master and give him my letter of intent.’
With each of the instructions, Lexa nodded. Her hands—her heart—trembled.
It was happening, it was happening. She was going to be a page, and then a squire, and then a knight.
And die before I make it there, a voice within her mind—her own familiar voice—reminded her, but with her father’s warm hand wrapped around hers and Gus watching over them protectively, and Mara smiling at her from the end of her bed, she could push that aside and forget about it. She was going to be a knight.
Her father turned, picked up something heavy from the floor. He set the box—rough but polished lovingly—on her lap. Lexa opened it, beaming when she saw the bow that lay inside. It was nothing like her practice bow—this one gleamed with polish and, though it looked harder to string and draw, she knew it would shoot like a dream.
‘The perfect bow,’ Titus said, voice heavy with resignation, ‘for a page.’
She didn’t enter the forest again before they left.
When they rode out, it was in silent agreement that they took the path down the clear gravelled banks of the river. The heavily forested land had never felt so ominous to her as it did now but Lexa hunched her shoulders and put aside the unsettling sensation of being watched from somewhere deep within the trees. She wouldn’t be back until the next summer—plenty of time, she thought, for the god to move on and give someone else their dire warnings.