CHAPTER ONE. THE MIRACLE OF THE BRIDGE
Let me state one thing up front: I wasn’t TRYING to start a cult.
I know that may be hard to buy. Especially given that I’m currently squinting into a tin mirror and painting stark red diamonds onto my face, robed head to toe in equally stark red, and hurrying to finish before the last dregs of sunset swirl down the drain.
And given that the minute I exit my little half hut, I’ll see pilgrims and penitents and devotees all decked in red, chanting around the shabby wooden bridge now festooned in garlands of anything that blooms crimson.
And given that, when they see me, everyone in Hagendorn will hail me as the Scarlet Maiden’s prophet.
But the important thing is that I didn’t do any of that on purpose, so technically none of it’s my fault.
It’s been a strange two months since the Miracle of the Bridge. (That’s what they’re calling it now.) And you have to understand, I stayed only because they asked.
At first, Udo Ros just wanted to make sure I had somewhere safe and dry to spend the night before I went on my way. But the next morning, Leni’s little girl toddled off while Leni was boiling ashes for lye. There were two sets of footprints in the snow: Leni’s daughter’s and those of a waldskrot, one of the nastier Mossfolk of the forest. When waldskrotchen lead a child away, the child rarely makes it back. Well … not in one piece.
Yet Leni’s girl was found safe and sound at the edge of the woods, giggling under a rare holly thicket. Waldskrot blood was splashed new-leaf green on the snow and on the spiked fronds; its trail vanished under the hedge. Just above, dangling like a bribe, hung plump clusters of shockingly scarlet berries.
After that, the villagers of Hagendorn would not hear of my leaving. Not when I’d brought the blessing of a prodigal Low God, and not when there was a chance it might follow me out. Never mind that we all know waldskrotchen are stupid enough to run right into a holly bush, or that the red berries were in season.
What mattered wasn’t whether the Scarlet Maiden was real, but only that they didn’t lose her favor.
And … I’ll admit, it was nice to be wanted again. To know I could still be wanted. Even if it was for a lie.
So Udo Ros and his grumpy weaverwitch brother, Jakob, made over the lean-to behind their house for me, putting up rough timber walls and laying straw over the hard-packed dirt. Their chimney runs up the wall I share with the house, and if the chimney stones themselves don’t warm my teeny half hut enough, there’s a little iron door I can crack open to let in heat.
It was no Castle Reigenbach. It wasn’t even mine, not really. But it was made for me, and for a time, that was enough.
Slowly, it filled. Leni collected cloth scraps from around town, enough to make me a warm quilt to spread over my pallet, then a pillow stuffed with dried clover. The pallet was traded for a straw tick. Sonja periodically brought me fresh milk from her cow that had twins. The Ros brothers called me in for breakfast each morning, and in turn I helped Udo with the sheep or Jakob with his witch-work.
And, day by day, each welcome coincidence was chalked up to the Scarlet Maiden’s hand.
I was asked to bless crops, flocks, babies. To choose which lamb teeth to bind into a protection charm. To read ash and bone and speak for the Scarlet Maiden. As you can guess, I made up literally all of it. And that’s when my conscience, fragile in its infancy though it was, started wailing in my ear.
I tried to get out at the end of February, after a crudely hammered iron statue was erected in the town square and the first pilgrims started filling the small inn. I staged a maudlin miracle involving a bonfire, more flash powders, and a goat. (Don’t ask.) Suffice to say it didn’t work (I blame the goat), and instead of vanishing in a pillar of flame, by all accounts, Hagendorn saw me call on the Scarlet Maiden, then walk through fire unscathed.
The town got an uncomfortable number of pilgrims after that.
Which is why I’m embracing this whole prophet thing, at least for one more month. Tonight’s the Vigil of the Weeping Saint, which needs a modest miracle, and then, by the time we get to the May-Saint Feast, Hagendorn and all its pilgrims will be primed for something big. I figure I’ll spend the month hinting about being called to the Scarlet Maiden’s side while rigging more bombastic miracles—you can apply red dye to an astonishing number of uses—and then, after the grand finale of the May-Saint Feast, I’ll vanish into the wind once again.
And it all starts after sundown. The Vigil of the Weeping Saint is an old custom in these hills, always a week after the spring equinox. Most families get ready for bed within the hour after sundown, but we’re all wide-awake tonight. It’s typical for a house to have rough-carved idols of Low Gods and saints for protection. For the vigil, you’re supposed to put them by your doorstep, then stay up with them. If any shed tears, it’s supposed to be a sign of divine favor.
Which is why I’ve hidden balls of red wax behind the eyes of the Scarlet Maiden statues. (Yeah, that’s statues, plural, now.) And why I said she appeared to me wearing a wreath of burning roses; wrought iron roses are above the Hagendorn smith’s pay grade, but a crude iron head with a basin in the crown is not. On festival days, the basin is filled with oil and set alight. It won’t take too long for the wax to melt and run from her eyes, and since it’s a nightlong vigil, by the time the fires go cold, all traces of wax will have burned off.
Minor miracles: easier than you think.
I finish my face paint just as it gets too dark to continue without a candle, and not a moment too soon. There’s a knock at the door.
“Prophet?” Leni’s voice chisels through the oak, pointed in a way that means something’s amiss.
I stand with a dull tin drizzle from the bells around my wrists, then open the door. “I had a vision there might be trouble,” I say. (All right, maybe I’m embracing the prophet thing a little more than necessary.) “What’s wrong?”
“A heretic,” she breathes, wide-eyed, clutching the end of her flaxen braid. “Followed the pilgrims in, asking questions. He said the Scarlet Maiden isn’t a real god. What if she heard and turns her face from the Red Blesséd?”
I hide a wince. I forget who came up with that name, which is for the best, as I’d make them feel a lot less blessed otherwise. But the newly minted devotees of the Scarlet Maiden wanted to call themselves something, and for lack of other options (turns out red tends to be popular in melodramatic names) the absolutely dismal “Red Blessed” caught on. The worst part is, no one can agree if it’s Blessed or Blesséd, and neither party will concede.
“I’ll handle it,” I say firmly, pulling up my robe’s hood as I step outside. Hagendorn is in a hilly part of the Haarzlands, and when night falls, the cold is no joke. “Where is he now?”
“We shut him in Udo’s barn. He kept saying he needs to speak to the head of Hagendorn, but…”
There is no head of Hagendorn. None but the Scarlet Maiden. I stifle a groan. “I’ll speak some sense into him.”
If you’ve been wondering how an entire town could so easily tumble under the sway of a seventeen-year-old girl, the answer is depressingly simple: The headwoman died around midwinter, and Hagendorn’s been waiting for the Imperial Abbey of Welkenrode, the principality’s administrative center, to appoint a new one. They have no authority figure, no one to mediate squabbles or make decisions for the town. People are accustomed to off-loading certain choices on someone else, so when those choices suddenly become their responsibility, they get jittery.
Then, one day, in walks a girl, and a god that speaks through her, and that’s all the authority they need.
Jump ahead two months, and that girl is striding across the farmyard to Udo’s barn through the settling twilight, bells chiming, robes billowing, waving to the flock of chanting pilgrims. The Imperial Abbey still hasn’t appointed a new village head, and this isn’t the first “heretic” I’ve rescued from overzealous Red Bless(é)d and gently shooed out the back door. I do wish they’d have shut this one up somewhere a bit farther from the pilgrims’ earshot, though I suspect Udo’s sheep will help in that regard.
“Make sure everyone stays well clear of the barn,” I say ominously nonetheless. Leni nods and retreats to the crowd of people draped in prickle-poppy, viper’s head, spur valerian, wild roses—all red flowers they would swear bloomed early. Drums start punctuating the pilgrims’ chants. I make a show of gathering myself before the doors of the barn; really I’m making sure my boot knife is ready if I need it.
Then I push the doors open and step inside.
Immediately there’s a chorus of bleats from ewes and their lambs, punctuated by a bone-chilling scream from a goat. The doors swing shut behind me.
“Hello?” I call out, pushing through the huddled sheep as my eyes grudgingly adjust to the thicker dark inside the barn. A glut of hay, dung, and unwashed wool sticks in my nose. There’s no answer. I try again. “Hello?”
A soft rustle, then silence.
I let out a sigh and lower my voice. “Look, whoever you are, don’t make this harder than it needs to be. All we have to do is walk out together and talk up how amazing you think the Scarlet Maiden is, and then you can sneak off once we start the vigil—”
Cold, colorless light blooms behind me. And hot on its heels follows the last thing I want to hear:
It feels like someone just dropped a stack of books on my heart.
Nope. I refuse. This can’t be happening.
See, it’s not that someone in Hagendorn knows my name—unlike in Minkja, they all know me as Vanja here. I hadn’t planned on sticking around long enough to need another identity.
It’s that I know this voice, I know this light, and, if I look back, I know exactly who I’ll find.
Still I turn, because there’s no running now. Not from the boy I asked to catch me.
(Junior?) Prefect Emeric Conrad stands near the barn doors, a pewter coin shining in his hand like a pale beacon, looking almost exactly the same as when I last saw him nearly three months ago. Well, not quite the same. His dark hair’s as close-trimmed and tidily combed as the day he left Minkja, his round spectacles just as ludicrously large on his narrow face, and he still looks like a soothsayer stood over his crib and heralded the birth of an accounting ledger made flesh. But instead of watching me wistfully as his carriage rolled away, now he looks just about as floored as I feel.
I was really hoping that when I saw Emeric again, I could lead the conversation with something like Hello, dear, thank you for your patience; while I was on my journey of self-discovery, I solved poverty. Or I discovered a cure for a plague. Or I invented something so incredible, the printing press was embarrassed for itself.
But you know that feeling? The one where your entire brain melts out through your earholes because your head is on fire, and the rest of your body overcompensates by freezing on the spot, and the only thing left in your skull is a ghost marching in a circle and banging two pots together? That’s about where I’m at.
So the best I can muster is an utterly clotheslined “Scheit.”
Somewhere behind me, another goats lets out a scream, I can only imagine in solidarity.
“You—” Emeric’s voice falters as his eyes rove over me, taking in the robes, the paint, the tinny chimes. A full opera of emotions plays out over his face, overture to curtains in record time. His next words come out strangled: “You started a cult?”
“No! I mean … a little?” My hands ball up in my billowing sleeves. “It’s cult-adjacent? Cult-ish?”
“Cult-ish,” he repeats, like each syllable is a personal grievance. Then Emeric carefully removes his spectacles, places them just above his hairline, and runs his free hand down his face so hard, he’s in danger of crumpling his own nose. “Cult-ish. Cult-ish.”
“Hi to you too,” I say peevishly. “I’m doing all right, thank you for asking—”
“I gathered that, since it appears you’ve spent the past three months starting a cult, and furthermore, cultish is already a word,” he seethes. “One that specifically means ‘emblematic of a cult,’ Vanja, such as the one congregating outside! This! Barn! Vanja!”
I mutter, “I’m going to make you put a sjilling in a jar every time you say cult.”
“Ååååååå,” seconds a goat.
“Fine, yes, I may have been creative with a local legend and things got weird,” I continue in a hideously ungainly pivot, “but that’s enough about me, what have you been up to?”
Emeric stares at me with the kind of wordless, whiplashed outrage of someone presented with a buffet of indignities and overwhelmed by their options.
Copyright © 2023 by Margaret Owen