One Month After the Earth Well Healed
She knew she was walking into a trap. She had seen their tracks twenty paces before, just beside that bend in the road, and she had sensed their Threads even sooner.
Maybe, if she had wanted to, she could have avoided them. But she didn’t want to. She was hungry. Winter’s cusp had left nothing to forage on this side of the Ohrins, and what little she had managed to gather she’d given to her tiny companion, now waiting in a hollowed-out beech with a weasel who wasn’t really a weasel.
When she reached fifteen steps from the closest soldier, she stopped and planted her staff into the mud. It was roughly hewn silver fir, taken off a corpse two days before. Silver fir, the hill folk said, was good for warding off nightmares. So far that had not been true.
The closest man’s Threads hovered green with concentration. He was poorly hidden behind an alpine rhododendron, and even if his Threads had not given him away, the footprints speckling the road would have. Muddy from yesterday’s rain, the road had grooved so deep from travel it was practically a ditch—giving all these men in the forest brush higher ground.
Not that it would help them.
“I know you’re there,” she called.
As one, bright alarm punched across eight sets of Threads, each poorly hidden.
“And I have nothing of value,” she continued. Her voice was rough with hunger and the world had been a sickening spin for days now. If not for their Threads, she would never have been able to focus on them.
Or on the one man, now stalking toward her down the path. A Hell-Bard. She didn’t need to see his scarlet uniform to know that. The shadowy twirl at the heart of his Threads gave him away.
“We were warned about you,” he declared, pausing at twenty paces. Near enough for her to spot the ruddied nose of a man who drank too much. He smiled. “You don’t look like a threat.”
“Oh, but I am.” She lifted her right hand and flipped it his way. “Do you know what this means?”
He didn’t answer, but fresh concern rippled across the hidden soldiers’ Threads. Few people bore a filled-in circle for a Witchmark.
“And do you,” the Hell-Bard countered, drawing a gold chain from beneath his collar, “know what this means?”
She laughed at that—a dry, starving chuckle. “I guess they didn’t tell you, did they?”
His eyes thinned. He took the bait. “Tell me what?”
“They tried to make me like you, Hell-Bard.” She let a dramatic beat pass. Then added, “It didn’t work.”
The Hell-Bard swallowed now, his weight shifting and his Threads flickering like a stormy sky. He would attack soon. So would the other soldiers in the woods. Bushes shifted; branches snapped. These men did not like feeling afraid. They would end her and be done with it.
She sighed. She was tired, she was hungry, but she was not weak.
“You have two choices,” she offered them. “I will cleave you or I will kill you. There is still a chance at life if you choose—”
“Nommie filth,” the Hell-Bard spat.
And inwardly, she smiled, grateful he’d revealed his true values. It would make this next part so much easier. Or rather, it would make the nightmares so much easier. After all, she had already decided to finish these men; now she simply had a good reason.
The man whispered his blade free. He attacked, charging with sword arm high. Foolish. Easily dodged. Men always did underestimate her.
When he reached her, she swept sideways, planting her heel on the path’s inclined side. She launched up, a brief boost of speed and air. Then she twirled past him with staff extended.
It cracked the back of his head, right where spine met skull. Not hard enough to kill, nor hard enough to knock him out. Just enough to drop him to his knees and buy her the time she needed.
She wasn’t done with him yet.
As seven more soldiers charged toward her—none of them Hell-Bards, none as well trained—she grabbed the closest man’s Threads. Just a simple reach, a simple grasp. They were slippery and electric. Like river eels made of lightning.
She brought them to her mouth and chomped down in a single movement that had become as natural to her as swinging her staff. All she had to do was yank and bite. Yank and bite.
The man began to cleave.
He was not a witch, so no wild winds or vicious flames ripped loose. But he didn’t need such powers to cleave. Magic dwelled in everyone in the Witchlands, and now that same magic burned through him. He was a pot boiling over.
He screamed, a sound of such agony it stopped every soldier in their tracks. It did not stop her, though. Instead, she wound her fingers more deeply into his shredded Threads, even as it sent fire through her veins. “Kill them.”
So the man did, turning on two of his fellows—vicious, bloodied attacks with teeth and clawed hands—before a third man finally brought him down.
She was ready for that. Waiting for it. This was not her first fight, and it would not be her last. With a yank and a bite she cleaved a second man. Then a third, ignoring the raw power in their Threads that made her fingers shriek. Made power and pain judder into her soul.
The first time she’d done this—cleaved someone and held on—she’d fallen over. The second time, she’d been smart enough to lean against a tree. The third time, she’d had the staff.
Soon, her three Cleaved had burned to empty, blistered husks, framed by the tarry oil that their blood had become. Surrounding them were the brutalized bodies of their fellows.
Steam coiled in the air.
Slowly, her head still throbbing with power, but her fingers finally empty, she approached the only man left alive. He was pinned to the mud, his own gold-hilted blade stabbed deep into his stomach. It had been shoved there by one of her Cleaved.
He would die slowly from that wound, and contrary to what Hell-Bards wanted the world to believe, they were not truly dead men. There was still a final precipice from which they could never return.
She came to a stop before him and gazed down. She would take that blade once he was dead; it was too fine to leave behind.
“Nommie bitch,” he said.
“That’s not polite.” She knew what she must look like, towering over him with no expression and a teardrop scar beside her eye. She knew because she had seen that face in her dreams—in their dreams. They would not let her forget, no matter how fast she ran.
She knelt on the mud beside the Hell-Bard. Terror wefted through what remained of his Threads. He tried to pull back, but there was nowhere for him to go. He was a dead man in more ways than one. “How?” he rasped. “Did you…” He didn’t finish, but she knew what he meant.
“You know what I am,” she told him. “You just didn’t want to believe it.”
“Yes,” he said on a sigh.
“I did try to warn you.” She unsheathed a rusted cleaver at her hip.
“Yes,” he repeated, and this time resignation swept over his Threads. A beautiful rose red to match his blood. Which was good. There was no sense in fighting the inevitable. She knew that better than anyone.
“May Moon Mother light your path,” she told him in Nomatsi, pressing the blade against his throat. “And may Trickster never find you.” She sliced into his flesh.
Blood burbled. His Threads faded. She did not sit and watch—not as she had done before, back when she’d still cared about respecting the dead. Instead, she pushed to her feet and tossed her rusted, bloodied cleaver into the forest. It vanished into the wintry underbrush. Then with one foot on the Hell-Bard’s chest, she wrapped her fingers around his sword hilt and yanked the blade free.
A fine weapon, even with all that blood. She would clean it as soon as she had the chance.
She took the man’s sheath next, and after fastening it at her hip, she swept a final, disinterested glance around her. At the road, sunken like a frown into the mountain. At the eight corpses with steam clawing off their bodies. So much blood, so much Cleaved oil.
She had told herself at the last fight that she would find a cleaner way to do this. If not for her own eyes, then for whoever had to find the bodies. Perhaps at the next ambush she would finally succeed. Or at the ambush after that—because there would always be another. Just as eventually the Emperor’s army would catch up to her from behind, and she would kill, kill, kill.
Her stomach growled, an earthly reminder of why she had come here and why she had wanted to slay all these soldiers in the first place.
Even Puppeteers had to eat.
So after reclaiming her staff, she hauled herself off the muddy road, and Iseult det Midenzi entered the forest in search of food.
Safiya fon Hasstrel watched her hand, resting above the flames. It should have hurt. It should have burned and smoked and sent her howling.
Instead, she felt nothing. Wherever fire touched her palm, the flesh turned to shadows and the flames flickered through. She could see her skeleton, gray bones wrapped inside the darkness, disrupted only by a faint circle where a new Witchmark stained her skin.
“That’s enough, Empress.” An armored hand swatted Safi from the candle. “That’ll leave scars.”
“I know,” Safi replied. It was why she couldn’t stop doing it.
“Where are your attendants?”
“I sent them away.” Safi scrutinized the clot of pale crosshatching on her palm. It grew thicker each time she touched the Firewitched flame. Fascinating. Foul.
“Hell-pits, Safi, you can’t keep dismissing them.”
Safi. The Hell-Bard rarely forgot Safi’s new title. It was that misstep more than anything that sent Safi’s gaze to Lev. One of only three people she trusted in this entire wretched palace. This entire wretched land.
The sturdy woman was in full Hell-Bard regalia today, as she had been every day since her appointment as Safi’s private guard. Crimson and gold, the chain mail should have shone. The leather should have gleamed.
Instead, the uniform was dull. Drained of dimension and color like everything else in the world. The four-poster bed was no longer scarlet, the thick Hasstrel rugs were no longer blue, and the palace spires outside the wide windows—the city rooftops spreading on and on and on until the white-capped mountains beyond … the mountains Iseult had run to with Hell-Bards in pursuit …
It was all gray and flat. A painting left too long in the sun.
“You need to get dressed.” Lev laid a hand on Safi’s shoulder. “His Imperial Majesty is expecting you.”
“Good for him.”
There it was again: her real name and not the title. This time, Lev offered it as a warning. Her grip dropped and her weight shifted, a subtle clink of armor. “I know you have a fancy title now, but it doesn’t make any difference if you’re wearing that noose.”
Safi almost laughed at those words: if you’re wearing that noose. Like wearing the gold chain around her neck was an option. Like she could remove it at any time and have her magic once more bound inside her.
“Let the Emperor command me,” she declared with false lightness, returning her attention to the candle, Firewitched and always flickering atop a hexagonal golden base.
“It is not you,” Lev began, “he will command.”
As if to demonstrate this—as if the Emperor knew exactly what words Lev had just uttered—the Hell-Bard doubled over with coughing. It took Safi a moment to understand what was happening. A moment to spot the tainted lines swirling over Lev’s skin. But as soon as she saw and understood, horror yawned inside her lungs. She lurched at Lev and yanked off her helmet. The Hell-Bard didn’t resist.
And there they were: more shadows writhing across her face, wriggling in her eyes. Emperor Henrick fon Cartorra was commanding Lev to deliver Safi, and Lev was failing to obey.
For the first time in fourteen days, heat ignited in Safi’s veins. Rage that tasted so thick, so good.
In ten long strides, she reached her bedroom door and burst into the hallway, where five Hell-Bards leaped into formation around her. Lev did not join, so the knights closed the gap where she usually stood. They were accustomed to comrades felled by punishment.
Without any verbal command from Safi, the Hell-Bards aimed for the imperial wing on the western side of the sprawling palace. Through the Gentleladies’ Gallery they strode with Safi in their midst, the wood gleaming beneath crystal chandeliers, the various seating areas covered in enough gold to sustain a small nation. A nation like Nubrevna. Safi hated this room, not merely because of the waste, but because once upon a time, she had thought all that glittering beautiful.
Now it was just a washed-out reminder of what her world had become.
Gods below, how had everything gone so thrice-damned wrong? How had Safi done so much damage in so little time? She had left Mathew and Habim in a world of flames a month ago—two men she loved as fathers—and then she had lost Vaness somewhere inside a mountain.
She’d found Merik, only to lose him as well. And then, after two glorious weeks with Iseult, she had lost her too. And for what? Safi had come here to save Uncle Eron from execution, but she was no closer to achieving that than she had been in Marstok.
Everything she’d ever fought for, everything she had ever loved had been scorched away. She was trapped here, inside this palace. Inside herself.
The Hell-Bards’ footsteps changed from clack-clack to echoing hammers as they crossed into the oldest part of the palace. Then Safi’s footsteps changed too, and harsh drafts swept against her.
Everything felt colder here. Larger too, each stone in the wall as tall as she was, each banner stretching long as a sea fox. It reduced her to tiny insignificance—as no doubt the Emperor wanted. And no doubt why he kept his personal quarters here, despite greater comfort in the newer additions.
Safi followed the Hell-Bards through the King’s Gallery, then the First Receiving Room, the Second Receiving Room, and, at last, the former empress’s sitting room, where Henrick’s mother had once entertained. Safi stalked past the door to what should have been her bedroom, and stoutly avoided looking at it.
Copyright © 2021 by Susan Dennard