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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

First, Become Ashes

K.M. Szpara; read by Graham Halstead, Aaron Landon, Avi Roque, and Briggon Snow

Macmillan Audio




The fence that surrounds Druid Hill is ten feet tall and made from wrought iron. It encloses the 745 acres the Fellowship of the Anointed calls home. Along the east side of the hill, at the foot of the bridge, resides the only gate. In my twenty-four years, nine months, and three days, I have never known an Anointed One to pass through it. Until today. Until Kane.

I stand with him and the other Anointed. The toes of our boots overlap a red line painted across the road, exactly fifty feet inward from the gate—the fence’s weakest spot. Across it, Fellows gather to see Kane off. They’re allowed to cross the line. They have nothing to lose. My fingertips tingle, head feels light. We shouldn’t even be this close. And Kane is going to cross the line, going to cross the threshold of the fence.

The backs of our hands bump. When I feel his fingers slide between mine, I grip them hard. I know it’s an honor to go out into the world. We’ve trained our whole lives to slay the monsters that have corrupted and influenced those beyond the fence for generations. Kane for twenty-five years; I for twenty-four years, nine months, and three days. Isn’t that close enough to go with him? He shouldn’t be alone out there. Maybe Nova will allow it. We can be each other’s strength.

“Coming through.” A body bumps between ours, head turning. Deryn looks over their shoulder at Kane as they walk toward the gate, as if it were his fault. Their lips purse as they toss their long, loose hair over their shoulders; it falls across their wool shawl and soft, flowing dress.

I run my fingers over one of the three French braids that holds mine back. Deryn doesn’t wear their hair back—they don’t need to. Despite their insistence that we are siblings, Deryn and I look nothing alike, not least because they are a Fellow and I’m Anointed. They don’t wear denim and long sleeves to protect their limbs from sparring in the woods. Don’t require a leather harness to carry weapons and potions. Don’t spend hours every day running around the lake, strengthening their muscles so they can fight a literal monster.

Their days are spent mending and making clothes. Mine are filled with training and the intimacy of the Anointed. With fire and sweat and scholarship. With ritual and righteous discipline.

The Anointed are my real family and Nova is our leader. She raised us—the Fellows who conceived us mean nothing. I don’t even like knowing their names. I wish Deryn had never told me.

“Don’t,” Kane says. “You can’t let them fluster you, it—”

“—dilutes my magic, I know.” I press my pierced tongue against the roof of my mouth, comforted by the pressure of the warm metal barbell that makes my words more powerful.

He deflates. Looks at his feet and purses his lips, as if to keep himself from saying more. I squeeze Kane’s hand. His fingers are hot and sweaty between mine; is he nervous?

“Before I go…” He turns to look me in the eye. His are so dark brown, they’re almost black. They shine in the moonlight, just like his hair. I release my hold, reach up and run my hands down its length one last time. Rest my palms flat on his chest.

I’m not sure I can say goodbye again—especially not in public. “We did this last night.” I try to blink away the tears before they can erupt.

“I know.” Kane covers my hand with his, curling his fingers around mine. We slide naturally together, his arms circling my back, mine his waist. We hold each other so tight, my body begins to tingle. “Just remember what I said.” He kisses my hairline, the few strands that freed themselves during the day.

I was mostly asleep, but won’t ever forget his words. To them, I add, “You love me—I love you. Don’t forget that either.”

Kane tips my chin up, and then his lips are on mine, strong and sure. As we kiss, all I can focus on is the soft stroke of his thumb over my cheek. When he pulls back, I feel the memory of his touch against my face, though my lips are cold and alone.

The murmur of voices surrounding us drops to whispers, then silence, as several Anointed step aside. Nova walks forward, resting her hand on the shoulders of those nearby, greeting them one by one until she stops in front of us. I need to ask her if I can go with him. I’ve earned her favor. Maybe she’ll—

“Meadowlark.” Nova places her hand on my right shoulder, and I do the same to her. We greet each other with a brief exchange of power. An openness. Vulnerability. For a moment, we both close our eyes, and I feel her energy probing mine, like fingers digging between the tight strands of my braids. “Good, very good,” she says as we gaze upon each another.

I take a breath, open my mouth to ask—please, I’m ready—but her words outpace mine.

“I know it’s not easy for you to say goodbye to Kane.” She pauses, staring at me with such depth that I swear I can feel her inside my mind. “But your time draws near. Until then, you must remain disciplined.”

I release my held breath. Nod. She’s right; it was wrong of me to doubt her.

“You’ll join him soon. In the meantime, I’d like you to mentor a pair of promising Anointed Ones. You have much insight to offer.”

“Absolutely.” I bow my head slightly to her, think of the opportunity she’s giving me—and the compliment. Kane is moving on and so am I. “Thank you for your wisdom.”

She squeezes my shoulder, looking down the long, pale ridge of her nose at me. A sudden wind lifts her waist-length hair up around her in a spindly brown web as we stand holding on to each other. Nova doesn’t need to braid her hair or commit to chastity in order to discipline her magic. She is the original—the strongest of us. I shudder, overcome with warmth and love, reminded of why I believe in her. Of the person she’s helped me become.

When her hand slips away, I know this is right. I’ll leave when it’s my time. Now, it is Kane’s. Nova holds out her hand to him. He doesn’t look at me or anyone else before taking it. He believes in his destiny—in all of our destinies. He’s the best of us, and he can manage without me. I can wait two months and twenty-seven days.

Nova leads Kane across the red line—the closest any Anointed has ever been to the gate—through the throngs of our Fellows, those who’ve birthed and supported us. They gather around him, the youngest giving him flowers they picked during their Fellowship class, the eldest laying hands on his shoulder like Nova did. I crane my neck to follow him as he disappears into their mass.

An elbow jams into my side as I feel Maeve step into Kane’s place. She brushes soft baby hairs from her face, the ones that never keep, even in Zadie’s meticulous braiding. “What do you think it’s like out there?”

On my left, Zadie squeezes up to the line. Instinctively, I look down at our feet, making sure none of us have crossed accidentally. I shiver to imagine the atonement such a transgression would require.

Copyright © 2021 by Kellan Szpara