What Lies Beyond the Veil (Of Flesh & Bone #1) First 3 Chapter Preview
One The icy winds of the North whipped through the gardens at the edge of the boundary, blowing toward the shimmering Veil marking where the world ended. It curved and rippled in the breeze—a thin, white barrier that extended as far as the eye could see until it faded into the sparkling sun of autumn. Blood slid over my skin as I brushed a stray hair away from my face with frozen, aching fingers, and tried to ignore the slick, viscous feeling of it as it coated the skin at my temple. My hand trembled as I reached back into the twilight berry bush once more, grasping the round, periwinkle berry and carefully maneuvering it through the thorny branches to place it in the basket that hung from my other forearm. Shifting my body to relieve my aching back from the hours spent in the same hunched over position, day in and day out for weeks, I looked through the branches for the distinct coloring of the berries that were large enough for a single one to fill my palm. "Faster, Barlowe," one of the members of the royal guard snapped at me, making his rounds as he supervised the harvest. One could never be too careful with the food that grew in the King's Gardens. With the food that Lord Byron would send to the capitol, Ineburn City, to feed the court through the harsh winter season. While those of us who remained in Mistfell year round were left to suffer and starve, with only our meager personal gardens to sustain us. I jolted, expecting the crack of his whip to follow, as I shoved my hand into the bush with a wince. The thorns caught the edges of my palm, tearing the skin on the pads of my fingers until the moment when I finally wrapped them around the soft flesh of the berry. I pulled it back, depositing it gently into the basket and grimacing at the way the ruby of my blood stained the light purple fruit. Lord Byron would make me wash them myself before he sat me on his lap and fed them to me, as if I should be thankful for the gift of his attention and food that was otherwise forbidden to me. The thin white scars that covered my hand shone like the web of the arachne when it caught the sunlight, too pale against my skin that was tanned from working under the sun year after year. I had spent far too many harvests tending the twilight berries when I displeased Lord Byron. Too many summers harvesting the crops of berries that were considered a delicacy because of the pain the plant wrought on those who sought to pluck them. The last day of the year-end harvest was always the hardest, the most important to the thriving of the royals at court, and it drew us to the edge of the Veil like moths to the flame. Driven there by the Royal Guard who supervised the garden and worked in tandem with the league of elite Mist Guard who guarded the Veil, there was no other choice for people like my brother and I. We worked in mostly silence for the long, arduous hours every day, not daring to risk the wrath of the Royal Guard who wanted to return to court before the first frost. No one could blame them for their urgency in escaping the village of Mistfell, of getting away from the magical boundary that separated us from them. The Fae of Alfheimr. Everyone who had any sense hated being so close to the Veil and what it represented, crafted from the magic of the ancient witches who'd made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us from the nightmares beyond. It was like the thinnest of fabrics blowing in the wind, shimmering with the light of a thousand stars trapped within it. Somehow transparent and not, all at once, the mist of the lands beyond provided us with the illusion of being alone in this world. Even when we were very much not. Even when we'd never been alone. Despite our fear of the Veil and the Fae beyond it, there was a part of the land of faerie that drew us back here. It made some of us live in this hellhole of a village where it snowed for over half the year and the winter plunged the world into a darkness that seemed never-ending to those who craved the sunlight. The gardens closest to the Veil at Mistfell were the lushest, most bountiful crops every year, with berries as big as my palm and vegetables massive enough to feed an entire family. That was the reason we braved the proximity to the Veil and the cursed magic of faerie. It was the richest soil in the land. The life of Alfheimr itself coursing through the dirt beneath the Veil and bleeding into ours in a way that the human realm could never compare. The Veil shuddered and grumbled, thunder and lightning streaking through it, as so often happened with no explanation, as if the magic itself was made of storms. Yet it was not made of the sky, but of pure, unpredictable wild magic. The shards of light that illuminated from within were quite possibly the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, leaving the barrier to glimmer like spun moonlight. The people who were forced to work in the King's Garden were the poorest of Mistfell and the neighboring villages, the ones who were the most expendable to Lord Byron. He needed our labor to supply the King with his favorite crops for winter, but that didn't mean he couldn't play favorites in the jobs he assigned to each of us. That was how my brother and I had gotten assigned to the twilight berries at the rear of the gardens. The bushes were furthest from the Veil and the magic held there, as well as closer for the Lord of Mistfell to watch over me from the balcony of his library when he desired. We were among the poorest families, people who should have been working against the Veil, suffering from the pervasive magic that tried to reach across the barrier. Our mother should have been at our sides, doing the backbreaking labor that she was unable to accomplish. It wouldn't have mattered that she was all but crippled after her difficult pregnancy and delivery with me, and that the work itself would likely kill her. Duty was duty, even in death. Instead, she worked inside the manor, helping to pickle and preserve the produce that wouldn't be used before it could expire. But that kindness came at a price, and I swallowed when I thought of paying it later that night—Lord Byron's manicured, soft hands feeding me twilight berries and other delicacies as the hard length of him pressed against me. He couldn't take from me, not with our laws and the Gods’ demand for purity until marriage; not without condemning us both to eternal suffering. But that didn't mean he couldn't touch. It didn't mean he couldn't hurt. The Mist Guard moved on, tormenting another harvester as he finally turned his attention away from me. I heaved a sigh of relief, drawing a small measure of comfort in the fact that I hadn't been whipped for moving too slowly. On the last day of the harvest, all of us were bone-tired and exhausted, ready to drop and sleep for a week. The end of the day couldn't come soon enough. "Brann," I hissed at my brother, whispering under my breath as he shoved two of the twilight berries into his pocket. He was lucky they hadn't torn yet with all the times he’d stolen the fruits from the King's Garden, risking his hand for a few bites of the luxury he would have never tasted otherwise. "They'll catch you one of these days." "Relax, baby sister," he said with a hushed laugh, seeming entirely unconcerned about the watchful eyes of the Mist Guard as they worked through the paths in the garden. "No one will notice two missing berries in the rush to complete the harvest." "And yet that will not stop them from taking your hand if they catch you stealing," I snapped, irritated with his recklessness. He judged me for my propensity for going on midnight walks in the woods, yet he risked everything for a few bites of fruit. Not only would he lose his hand, but he would lose all the favor I'd curried for him over the years with Lord Byron. Favor that had come at a great expense to me personally. Horrifyingly enough, no matter what the price might be, or how unimaginable it seemed in the nights when my body slicked with sweat and I couldn't sleep, for fear of what memories would haunt my dreams, working at the edge of the Veil was a far more terrifying prospect. I'd heard rumors of the plants that grew just before the shimmering curtain itself—that they were nearly as likely to eat you as you were them. If you survived those, there was the magic-induced sickness that stole the youth from a person's flesh, and reduced them to little more than skin-covered bones. "Fine. Then I guess I won't need to share with you later, will I?" he asked with a smug grin, knowing very well that the twilight berries had once been my favorite as a girl. That I'd adored the hint of luxury during the first days when Lord Byron summoned me to his library to have the Priestess tutor me privately after my father's death. Had it not been for the way the Lord of Mistfell had ruined their sweetness, turning it sour with his bad intentions, they would have still been my favorite. Brann's eyes darkened as my skin went cold, watching as I reached into the bush and wrapped my hand around another berry. A thorn caught in the skin on the back of my hand, pulling free from the branch and embedding itself more fully into me when I jolted back and hissed. I pulled my hand out of the bush slowly, careful not to drop the berry clutched in my fingers as I shoved away the memory of whispered promises against my skin about the life I could have if only I was patient. If only I could overlook the details that made a relationship between us both impossible and disgusting. Like his wife, his age being twice mine, and the fact that he'd forced me to watch as the High Priest slit my father's throat and sacrificed his life to the Veil. Those little details. I winced as I caught sight of my hand, depositing the berry into the basket and setting the entire thing on the ground as gently as I could. The thorn buried in my skin went deeper than I'd hoped, the skin moving around it as I spread my fingers. More blood welled from around the edges of the thorn, staining my skin as I touched a tentative finger to the wound. "You really must be more careful, Lady Estrella," a male voice said from behind me. My body stilled as dread sank inside my heart, and I watched from the corner of my eye as Brann turned his attention back to the twilight berries with renewed energy. I turned slowly, dropping my gaze to the ground respectfully as my knees dipped into a curtsy, and dirty, bloodstained hands clutched at the edges of my worn and torn pea-green dress. "With all respect, my Lord, we both know that I am no Lady," I said, rising to full height but keeping my eyes averted in an attempt to show him the respect he believed he deserved. "Patience," he murmured, taking a few steps closer to me and taking my hand in his. He pinched the thorn between his thumb and forefinger, pulling it free slowly as my lips twisted in a pained grimace. He watched the hole it left fill with blood, transfixed, enjoying the sight of my suffering and knowing it would give him a reason to tend to my injuries in the privacy of his library later tonight. "Will you allow me to clean this for you later?" he asked, raising his brow. He might have phrased it like a question, but it was really nothing less than a demand for my company that night. "I apologize, my Lord, but I must admit I am exhausted after the harvest," I said. He studied my face, undoubtedly reading the truth in the circles under my eyes. "Very well. Tomorrow then," he said, smiling lightly as he bent forward to touch his mouth to the wound on the back of my hand. His lips were stained with my blood by the time he pulled away, his tongue sliding out to lick them clean. "Tomorrow," I agreed, hating the words the moment they left my mouth. I wanted nothing more than to tell him to tend to his wife's health instead of spending his time with me, but I kept my mouth shut and turned back to the twilight berry bushes. Because duty came first.
Two The near luminescence of the Veil came with the setting of the sun, and with it came my inability to sleep. Gleaming in the moonlight, it drew me toward the window of my small, cramped bedroom until my breath fogged the glass. I curled my threadbare quilt tighter around my shoulders, attempting to chase away the chill as the late autumn air filtered through the gaps at the edges of the window. I’d stuffed scraps of old cloth from outgrown dresses into the holes with my father many winters ago in a pathetic attempt to keep the coldest of winter nights from entering my protection from the elements. In the fall, I could almost convince myself that it was enough. But once winter well and truly arrived, I would join my brother on the floor in front of the fire while my mother slept nearby in the wheeled chair Lord Byron had fashioned for her after my father’s sacrifice. My bedroom was mostly empty, my meager belongings taking up precious little space in the room that was barely more than a closet. My bed had been carved by my father’s hand, the wood of my floor patched repeatedly by my brother every time it rotted out beneath my feet. I touched my fingers to the cool, cracked glass, drifting over the circle I’d rubbed clean with my sleeve more times than I cared to count over the years. When those trembling fingers finally touched the latch in the middle, I only glanced over my shoulder once to make sure my brother hadn’t appeared in my doorway to catch me sneaking out yet again. Then I tugged them open, the wind nearly blowing them wide as it entered the ramshackle cottage so suddenly the shock of cool air stole the breath from my lungs. I caught them, but only barely, saving myself from the humiliation of waking the house. The tendrils of loose, dark hair that had fallen free from my braid blew away from my face. I lifted myself onto the windowsill and pivoted my legs out—my skin prickling as moonlight kissed my bare hands. I couldn’t suffer through another moment of my nighttime imprisonment, of being trapped inside the structure that was too broken down to truly be a home. Not when the night sky called my name and the fresh scent of pine in autumn flooded my senses from the other side of that windowsill. There was something deeply therapeutic about my little rebellious walks in the woods. Something appealing in the way they went against the strictures placed on me by a corrupt society that was so often determined to keep women pure and virtuous for the husbands who hadn’t even been decided yet. Good men were few and far between in Mistfell, a rarity rather than the norm. I didn’t dare to hope for a marriage like my parents had shared, a life filled with happiness and affection. Dropping the blanket to the floor of my room behind me, I lowered myself down to the grassy ground and fumbled around in the dark while my eyes adjusted, searching for my stick. I dug my fingers into the dirt below me, encrusting myself in the neglected soil that never seemed to flourish. Dry and sandy grains slipped through my fingers as I rose to my feet and tugged the window panes closed. I slipped the twig into the gap in the windowsill beneath them and turned it until the branch caught on the other side, holding it closed until I could return to sneak back inside before my brother discovered that I was missing. The mix of wooden planks and wattle and daub that made up the outer structure had warped and cracked over years of neglect, the thatched roof was in need of repair in the spots where rain water leaked in over time. There were only two glass windows in the building, cracked and broken things my father and brother had been given as a gift after they’d helped one of the wealthier families replace them. Leaving the house behind me, I made my way toward the copse of trees that hovered just beyond the outskirts of my village. In the distance, something howled at the moon, calling me into the darkness where creatures roamed beneath the stars and the people of the village of Mistfell feared for their lives. But instead of the dread that should have pulsed through my body, there was only the sensation of what I could never find during waking hours when people roamed the streets. Freedom. It was a temporary illusion in my world, a deception I granted myself to ease the stinging reality that the privilege of making my own choices was not mine to have. For the time being, my life was determined by the Lord of Mistfell and the elite force of Mist Guards who had strayed from their original purpose and grown into a twisted army that did whatever he demanded. My brother’s opinion came only after that, his choices dictating my life in the absence of the father Lord Byron and the High Priest had sacrificed to the Veil. One day, sooner than I cared to acknowledge, my fate and my activities would be decided by my husband, and that was when the true horrors of my life would begin. I dragged a hand over the bark of the first tree as I came to the edge of the woods, not bothering to glance behind me as I drifted around it and into the treeline. Darkness quickly swallowed me whole, wrapping me in a steady embrace that beckoned me forward and called to the part of me that was different from those who feared the night that I craved. Even the sounds of small creatures slithering through the underbrush at my feet couldn’t force me to flee the forest. Even the chill air on my skin that brought a pink stain to my cheeks couldn’t force me to turn back. All that mattered to me was the darkness surrounding me, the privacy afforded in the dead of night when I didn’t have to tolerate the prying eyes of Lord Byron’s men watching me for signs I might be acting out once again. I slipped further into the woods, navigating my way as far from the village as I dared to go. The Cave Beasts didn’t often stray too far from their homes, instead choosing the prey that willingly walked right into their habitat to shelter from the elements, but that didn’t mean I wanted to tempt fate and wander too close. My moment of freedom would mean nothing if I spent it trapped within the jowls of a beast three times my size, my flesh torn to ribbons while what remained of me bled out on the ground. I stayed away from the paths that the Mist Guard would undoubtedly patrol, dragging my fingers over the trees as if I could memorize each and every one to find my way back home. I’d come this way before, navigated with only the moon and stars to light my way more times than I could count. A scattering of lights twinkled in the distance, moving through the trees in a circular pattern that drew my attention straight to it. I paused, my progress halting as I glanced back over my shoulder for any sign that I might have been followed. That Lord Byron or his Mist Guard might have waited to trap me like a curious housecat wandering where she didn’t belong. There was nothing behind me but the woods I’d already traveled, and after a single moment considering turning back, I ducked low and crept forward to approach the strange lights. They reminded me of the faerie lights my parents had told stories of when I’d been a girl, of the twinkling wisps that tempted human children away to be replaced by the changelings in the time before the Veil. In the centuries where the Fae had run rampant in the human realm, taking what they wanted and leaving the rest to rot and suffer the consequences of their thefts. I couldn’t turn away from the faint lights that moved through the clearing up ahead. When I got close enough, my breath caught in my chest at the sight of the people dressed all in white. A single candle rested atop the gleaming beige bone of a skull at the center of the clearing, with figures walking around that centerpiece as they spoke in secretive murmurs to avoid being heard. I crouched low at the edge of an evergreen tree, pressing my cheek against the rough bark as I watched them moving rhythmically. Curiosity warred with fear within me, sending my heart pounding until I felt certain they would hear it. They walked in a circle, murmuring softly as they moved within the boundary they’d drawn in twigs lined up end-to-end. With the skull at the center like a bullseye, the outer boundary was perhaps a dozen steps out from it. Every so often, one of them would turn their face my way, the white of their teeth glimmering in the flickering light as they raised and lowered the candles held tightly in front of them. My eyes couldn’t seem to stop wandering to that skull on the ground and the way everything centered around it; I wondered what person could be so unfortunate to have their bones used in some sort of ritual. I had no idea what I was witnessing, but there was no doubt it was anything but the worship of The Father and The Mother that had been sanctioned by the Crown. Centuries had passed since King Bellham the First had liberated us from the Old Gods who’d kept us entrenched in lives of sin and depravity, then led us toward the virtue we found with the New Gods. One of the robed figures stopped walking, her body twisting to the side and revealing the curves of a woman. Her head turned toward me, her gaze landing on me so pointedly that she left me with no doubt I’d been spotted. Where I might have expected animosity and fear, for the worship of the Old Gods was strictly forbidden by the Crown and the Mist Guard, she leveled a kind smile at me and sighed as she tipped her head to the side. She broke from their pattern, stepping over the circle they’d drawn with sticks and branches around them. Everyone within the circle paused as she made her way toward me, my legs seeming unwilling to move even though it would have been the smart thing to do. My own curiosity would get me killed if these people decided leaving me alive came with too great a risk; my ability to report them to the Mist Guard something could see them burned at the stake for heresy. The breath shuddered in my lungs, the faint fog it caused floating in front of my face before dispersing into the night air. She approached, that smile never leaving her face as she moved slowly, treating me like a frightened animal. As she came closer, I knew without a doubt she was not from Mistfell. That wherever they came from, they didn’t belong to the village I called home. “You are safe here,” she said finally, her voice a soft murmur that hung in the air between us. She shifted her candle into one hand, stretching out with the other to entice me forward. “The Gods welcome all who wish to know about them and their customs.” “The Father and The Mother would never condone this,” I said, shaking my head as I stared at that hand. Something in the gesture called to me, pulling me forward until I felt the brush of her fingertips against mine and realized it hadn’t been her who’d moved. My cheek stung where the cool air touched the skin that had brushed against the tree bark; while my left hand dragged over the rough edge as I moved further from the illusion of safety it provided. “I do not speak of the Gods they worship indoors, begging for clemency on their knees before an entity that promises salvation only to those who do as they are told,” she said, something in her voice sounding wistful and sad. As if it pained her that I didn’t know about the alternatives to the faith that had been shoved down my throat for as long as I could remember. “Worship of the Old Gods is against the law. If they catch you…” I trailed off when her knowing gaze held mine without fear. “We know the consequences of discovery, and still we choose to worship anyway. Some faiths are greater than life,” she said, sliding her hand against mine until she could grasp me more firmly. She pulled gently, tugging me away from the tree and my safe haven and drawing me toward the circle at the center of the clearing. “At least leave Mistfell. The guards aren’t far from here,” I said, grimacing at the smile she gave in return. “And yet here you are, risking punishment by being out this time of night. I think you understand better than most why we must take the chance. There is beauty in knowing who you are, and in embracing that in spite of the potential consequences. We come here to be closer to the Gods, to feel the energy coming from the Veil itself,” she told me, nodding her head toward the boundary that separated Nothrek from Alfheimr. It twisted, twining through the air as we watched through the gaps in the trees, the shimmering light continually beckoning me toward it, despite the dangers. Rumor had it that those who touched the magic of the Veil itself gave their life to it, fed the power that kept it strong. It was forbidden, tampering with the single entity that kept us safe from the Fae of Alfheimr considered the worst of all our trespasses against humanity. But in the interest of preserving the Veil and feeding the energy that sustained it, the High Priest chose one person to give to it every year, one person to sacrifice at the edge of the Veil, laying their blood upon the soil on the last day of the fall harvest in thanks for another year of safety. Just as they had done to my father. “This is wrong,” I said, pausing at the circle of sticks they’d laid upon the ground. I couldn’t seem to convince myself to walk away, but stepping into the inner circle where they worshiped felt wrong. It felt like a betrayal of everything I’d had beaten into me, of the virtues that were supposed to matter to me but had never appealed. It wouldn’t just be the act of a curious girl observing something she’d stumbled upon. Somehow, I knew if I stepped over that line, I would be an active participant in something I didn’t understand. “You should not judge something that you’ve never experienced,” the woman said, stepping over the boundary while she watched me. She still entwined her fingers with mine, our clasped hands hovering over the sticks while she waited. “And no matter what you believe now, there is no harm in experiencing a faith other than your own. You can explore other beliefs without converting. If you still think of us as heathens by morning, tell the Mist Guard what you’ve seen and absolve yourself from sin.” Heaving back a deep lungful of air, I lifted my foot and stepped into the circle, unable to ignore the pull any longer. Like diving underwater, everything from outside the clearing seemed to fade away. She grabbed a candle off the ground, lighting it with hers and handing it to me as the dozen people still waiting in a line within the circle made room for me to join them. “Who was he?” I asked, glancing down at the skull at the center. “Jonab,” she said, looking down at the skull on the ground. “During his lifetime, he was the God of Changing Seasons. Killed during the First Fae War between the Seelie and Unseelie courts, when Mab fought against her brother Rheaghan.” “How did you come to have his skull?” I asked, not even able to begin to wrap my head around how long ago the First Fae War must have occured. “The same way we have these traditions. Passed down quietly through generations and protected,” she said, finally turning her back on me and beginning to walk forward. With only a step or two between each of us, the circle of human figures walked around the skull, immediately inside the stick-drawn barrier. The others followed, sweeping me up into the path around the skull that mimicked the circle drawn by sticks. If the skull was the bullseye at the center, we moved fluidly around it and within that border of sticks. I swallowed, raising and lowering the candle in my hands as the others did, copying the motions that I had no clue the purpose of but couldn’t help but mimic. If I was going to earn an eternity of suffering for participating in a forbidden ritual, I might as well commit. I knew I didn’t agree with the beliefs of the New Gods, that there was something lacking in their promises for me. Minutes passed, fading into hazy hours of walking in that circle. My legs tired long before we stopped, the soft chants falling from my lips in unison with theirs as I fell into a dreamlike state. With only the changing of the night sky above to demonstrate just how much time had passed, the words felt written on my soul, like they’d become a part of me in a way I didn’t understand. From death to birth. From Winter to Spring. Life renews in time, from ashes and dust. When the footfalls eventually stopped, the woman in front of me turned back, bending down and pulling a stone from the pocket of her robe. She placed it on the ground as the others followed suit, forming another circle. Setting her candle atop the stone, she reached into her other pocket and handed me a stone to do the same. “If a candle falls in the night, it is a warning that the person will not survive the winter,” she said, making me pause and take care to center my candle on the stone perfectly. I didn’t know that I believed in fortune or prophecy or the Old Gods, but I would do everything I could not to tempt fate. She chuckled under her breath, watching me fuss over my candle as I stood straight and followed the group as they stepped over the sticks forming the outer circle. They gathered at the edge of the clearing, sitting on the ground with smiles on their faces. “Is this something you do regularly?” I asked, taking my place next to the woman who had invited me to join them. “Once a year,” she said, lowering herself gracefully. “Only on Samhain. The day we welcome the long Winter.” “The end of the harvest celebration isn’t for two more days yet,” I said, staring at the sky in the distance. In just two days, we’d be forced to watch the High Priest slit the throat of whatever sacrifice he chose. In just two days, I’d be out of a job for the cold season and need to find random work around the village just to help feed my family. “According to the Lord of Mistfell,” one of the men said. “The worshipers of the New Gods hate anything to do with the Fae, and delayed the celebration out of spite centuries ago. But they all know as well as any that the harvest should have been celebrated today.” “How could you not hate the Fae? After everything they’ve done throughout history?” “One should always remember that history is written by the victor. We may not have won the war, but we’ve had our lands free from the Fae for centuries with no one left but the people who fought against them to pass down stories. What do you think the Fae would say about us and the part we played in the war? If they could share their side, I doubt it would be so black and white,” another woman said. She rummaged through her pack, pulling out a bundle of cloth that she unwound on the ground. The parcel was filled with some sort of cake, and she cut it into slices. “I think Adelphia should explain the cake before you eat it. Having seen you mess with that candle for an eternity, I think you may want to pass on this,” she said, glancing toward the woman who had drawn me into the circle in the first place, Adelphia. “There are objects baked into the cake,” Adelphia explained with a chuckle. “According to tradition, if you choose a piece and find one of those objects, it symbolizes what will happen to you before the next Samhain.” One of the men nearest the cake leaned forward, snatching a piece off the fabric. He lifted a chunk to his mouth, chewing thoughtfully before he spit a hand-carved tiny baby into his open palm. “Fuck’s sake. Just what I needed. Another mouth to feed.” “Keep your dick in your pants then,” another man said, slapping him on the back. I jolted, my body going rigid at the harsh language. It wasn’t often that men spoke so freely in front of women, who were supposed to be pious and virtuous. I knew what a dick was, had even seen one and experienced one in the dead of night when watchful eyes were sleeping. But nobody, aside from Byron and his conquests in the privacy of the library, had ever spoken of one in front of me, aside from private lessons with my tutor so I knew what to expect come my wedding night. She’d been entirely unaware of how uselessly late that lesson had been for me. Adelphia took the next piece, and the others followed suit. Making a choice without conscious thought, I leaned forward and snatched a piece of cake off the cloth before logic could stop me. Adelphia chuckled at my side, her piece free of omens for the future as she wiped her hands on the grass to rid herself of any crumbs. I lifted the first bite of cake to my mouth, flavors of vanilla and cinnamon touching my tongue as I chewed. There was nothing hidden within it, just the sweetness of the cake itself as I watched the others around me chew theirs. I was through my second bite before something struck my tooth and I raised a hand to my mouth to pull it out. The ring glimmered in bronze against my palm, a sign of the shackle I’d spent my entire life knowing was coming. Death or prosititution were the only escapes from marriage in the Kingdom of Nothrek. Still, the clear symbol in my palm felt like a noose around my neck, like a death all its own. “Congratulations are in order, I see?” Adelphia said, her voice tentative. There was no joy on my face at the prospect of my pending nuptials. It didn’t matter that I had no knowledge of who my husband might be. Men were almost all the same, in the end. Looking for a warm place to stick their cock and a trophy to sow their seed. “It would seem so,” I said, smiling with a shrug and trying to brush off the dread coursing through my veins. I’d never believed in the fortune tellers that worked at the market every week, predicting which of the thirteen lives a person found themself on in the cycle of reincarnation before the true death. I’d never put any stock in the magical items a person could purchase if they knew the right words to speak at the right stands. I wouldn’t start believing in prophecy just because it predicted something I’d always known was coming anyway. There was a soft thump behind us, the group going still as they looked over my shoulder at the circle. I turned slowly, following their gazes to where a single candle had fallen off its stone and extinguished the moment it touched the grass, as if by an unseen force. I swallowed, working out the positioning for a moment before I turned back to the group with a shaky breath. The silence between them as they watched me rise to my feet spoke volumes about their belief in their Samhain traditions and the clairvoyance they brought. “I should get home,” I said, looking at the sun just cresting over the horizon through the trees. Adelphia nodded, not even bothering to argue with me. There was nothing left to say. Because the only candle that had fallen was mine.
Three “You’re awfully quiet this morning,” my brother, Brann, quietly observed, nudging me with his shoulder as we walked along the path toward the village center later that morning. Evergreens and oak trees lined the way, stretching to either side of the road. I couldn’t force myself to walk past the gallows and see what remained of the last body they’d hung for crimes against Lord Byron. It forced us to take the long route, unlike the other villagers who didn’t seem bothered by the macabre of it all. “Did your walk in the woods not settle you last night?” I glanced his way, smiling despite my better instincts when I saw the exasperated smile on his face. His blond hair was cut short, his skin golden from all his time spent working under the hot sun of the harvest season. His brown eyes that were normally filled with mischief felt heavy on my face, as though he wanted nothing more than to punish me for continuing to risk my reputation. He’d long since given up trying to discipline me, knowing that if my lessons with Lord Byron and the Priestess hadn’t successfully made me an obedient woman, he stood little chance of making a difference when he wasn’t willing to hurt me. It was a miracle he hadn’t nailed my window shut at this point, for all the times he’d caught me sneaking out. He’d been in my room waiting for me when I returned home this morning, hauling myself up and into my window in a daze as the sun rose behind me. “It was an interesting night,” I said, evading telling him about the ritual I’d stumbled across. While I didn’t think he would condemn others for practicing a faith different from ours, I couldn't see him being supportive of my risking the gallows for mere curiosity's sake. Especially not when the ritual the night before had predicted my death before the next Samhain. “You really must stop sneaking out in the dead of night, Estrella,” my mother said, her voice turning scolding as she twisted to look at me over her shoulder. Brann pushed her wheeled chair in front of him, his fingers gripping the wooden handles tightly. “What will the men of the village think if they find you? No one wants to marry a woman if they have any reason to believe she is not virtuous.” “That’s hardly a motivation to stay inside. We both know Estrella doesn’t care much for the idea of marriage,” Brann said with a laugh, earning a scoff and chuckle from our mother. She wasn’t exactly supportive of my hatred for marriage and the way women were treated as if we were nothing more than broodmares, but she didn’t condemn me for it in the same way I suspected most would, either. I loved her all the more for it. Her tolerance for letting me be who I was in the privacy of our own home was something that had enabled me to survive the past two years, since coming of age, of being poked and prodded at Temple. My face repeatedly turned from side to side and studied, my manners dictated by the Priestesses of the Mother who sought to train me to be a dutiful, obedient wife one day. The weekly passage of Temple was something I dreaded with every fiber of my being, threatening to consume me in the hours of night when I should be sleeping safely in my bed. It was on those nights that I wandered the most—sleep evading me—giving myself deep circles beneath my eyes for the Priestesses to disapprove of. The large stone building loomed as we approached the western side of the village, the sight of it drawing my nerves tighter. The tower jutted out, the sole room at the top the place where the High Priest went to convene with The Father, but though the otherwise square building was well-built, there was nothing spectacular about it. It served a purpose, and that purpose wasn’t a life of excess. If the ritual the night before had felt natural, everything about walking into the home of the Priests and Priestesses felt obscene. We stepped into the line of villagers making their way into the temple, murmuring happily amongst themselves like they were truly oblivious to the reasons I hated it. “Mrs. Barlowe,” Lord Byron greeted, stopping to greet my mother as we wheeled her up to the doors. My mother smiled back at the man who’d paid for her wheeled chair out of his own pocket and given her working accommodations that we would never have hoped for. There’d been many days when I went to Temple and my prayers were filled with pleas for her to never discover the price I’d paid for it in the privacy of his library. Where I prayed she’d never learn the truth of the cost for his kindness. “My Lord,” my mother said, accepting the hand he outstretched and touching her lips to his ring dutifully. My brother bowed his head respectfully when Lord Byron turned his attention his way while glancing at me out the side of his eye as I dropped into my well-practiced version of a curtsy. I could still feel the impact of my teacher’s cane against my skin when I hadn’t held my posture properly. Could still recall the way Lord Byron had watched my face twist with pain as the blow struck, even years after I’d long since memorized the motions. Tilting my face toward the ground at his feet, I waited for the moment that his hand appeared in front of me, knowing he would never miss an opportunity to force me to kiss his ring and remind me of the power he exerted over everyone and everything. I grasped his hand in mine gently, leaning forward to touch my lips to his ring as I counted. One. I wanted to gut him while he slept. Two. He was the worst of humanity. Three. From the corner of my eye, I watched Lady Jaclen glare at me as she saw the exchange for what it was—her husband’s version of flirting. One of these days, she’d kill me herself. I released his hand smoothly, letting it drop to his side while I waited for his command that I could end the torment of prostrating myself before him. Villagers passed us by as I held my position—as Lord Byron forced me to show just how long I could maintain the stance that was never meant to be anything more than a few moments of respect. My body didn’t twitch even as my muscles strained. To twitch was to disappoint my Lord and to disappoint him was to suffer. “Estrella,” he greeted finally, freeing me from the pain consuming my body. I rose slowly, keeping my face a blank mask in an attempt not to show him how much it had cost me. “My Lord,” I murmured. Peering at him through my lashes with my head angled down the way he liked, I sank my teeth into the inside of my cheek to suppress the words I wanted to scream. The ones I wanted to throw in his face to wound him as much as he had wounded me. “Lady Jaclen,” I said, greeting the woman who stood at his side. She glared at me in return, her eyes heavy on the side of my face. She didn’t offer me her hand in the way our customs demanded, deeming me so far beneath her, she didn’t want to taint herself with the press of my skin against hers. The message was clear to anyone who passed, observing the interaction. I may have been how her husband chose to occupy his evenings more and more often, forgoing her bed altogether as her health declined, but I had less worth than the dirt beneath her jewel-studded silk slippers. “Still no husband, I see?” she asked, humming thoughtfully as she looked over my shoulder for the man she knew did not exist. “No, my Lady,” I agreed, shaking my head subtly. Every month that passed without a formal declaration for my hand came as another blow to my family’s already low status. What good was a daughter you couldn’t successfully marry off? “Perhaps one day soon,” Lord Byron said, offering his wife his arm. She leaned into him, allowing him to absorb her weight as she struggled to stay on her feet. With every day that passed, she grew sicker. With every day that passed, villagers whispered of what illness might have consumed her for so many years, and of who might follow to replace her after she finally passed. Byron was a Lord without an heir, and the women of Mistfell postured and hoped for the death of his wife for the very same reason many of them barely tolerated me. While I had his favor, even if I didn’t want it. He and Lady Jaclen moved into the Temple, leaving me to shove my dread down into the deepest part of me that no one could see. He’d said as much in vague words repeatedly over the years, but until the day his wife died, there was nothing to be done. He was permitted mistresses, so long as they were not deemed virginal, and thus appropriate for marriage to other suitors. My most recent virginity test should have condemned me to a life as a mistress or Lady of the Night, but the doctor had deemed me pure. I knew it was a lie, and I suspected he did as well. I just didn’t know why he’d hidden my secret, why he’d protected me against the harsh consequences for the things I did in the night when my body seemed to come alive and hum with energy that I couldn’t restrain. Perhaps he’d protected the son of his friend, the only boy I’d trusted enough to be intimate with, when Lord Byron would benefit from the loss of my virginity. Perhaps the doctor had acted out of nefarious purposes. I hoped I’d never learn the truth either way. My brother and I leaned down, grasping my mother’s chair by the wheels and lifting it up over the step into the Temple. Moving inside, I took control of steering my mother to the right of the cavernous space and the rows of women who knelt on the cold, stone floor with their heads bowed as the Priests and Priestesses waited at the front of the Temple. Stopping her chair in the aisle next to the space the other women had left for her, I moved around to her front. Taking each of her hands in mine, I guided her up and out of the chair as her legs trembled beneath her weight. Pulling her closer and hugging her tightly to my chest, I used my entire body to shift her to the side and around her chair, shuffling her nearly limp legs over as I lowered her to her knees slowly. I’d learned long ago that, even though she couldn’t feel the impact when she fell, I felt the stain of those bruises on my heart if I failed to move carefully enough. When her knees touched the floor beneath her, I lowered her until she sat on her heels and she lifted her palms to rest on top of her thighs. Leaving her there, I took her chair to the back of the Temple where it wouldn’t be in the way of the Priests and Priestesses as they made their way around the room. At the front of the room, one of the servants helped Lady Jaclen to her knees as well. Everyone knelt for Temple—gave themselves to The Father and The Mother—even the Lady of Mistfell. I returned to my mother, lowering to my knees beside her. Everything in her body trembled, the difficulty in maintaining her position evident in the strained lines on her face. My palms rested on my thighs, facing up and opened to The Mother as my head tipped down to look at the floor in front of me. Across the room, the men knelt on embroidered cushions the Priestesses had stitched for them by hand, as the Priest spoke to them in low tones that faded into the space between us. I stared at the spot on the stone floor that was lighter than the area surrounding it, fixating on it as the Priestesses moved between the rows of women. They touched some as they passed, correcting posture with firm hands. “Hmm,” Bernice, the High Priestess who had once been my tutor, murmured as she passed by me. She didn’t touch me, knowing she had long since beaten my slacking shoulders and lazy elbows out of existence. But just the thoughtful sound of her voice in the air sent my heart pounding. It took everything in me not to flinch away from the blow to my shoulders that she’d conditioned me to expect. “Look upon The Mother,” Bernice said, stepping to the front of the room and taking her place next to the stone statue that sat beside the statue of The Father. The Mother’s head was bowed as she knelt at The Father’s feet, her palms opened to the sky to accept the gifts he bestowed upon her for her obedience and dutifulness as his wife. His love. His protection. His seed that she would take and use to create children. “The harvest season ends tomorrow,” Bernice said, a smile on her face as she glanced around the group of women gathered. “The Father has communicated his wishes with the Head Priest, and one of our own will give their life to the continued protection of the Veil. It is our turn to give one of our own after the sacrifice of Mr. Daugherty last year.” “Yes, Priestess,” I murmured, the sound of my voice echoed by those around me with the well-practiced words. “It would be our honor.” The words burned down my throat like acid, stinging with the noise of my betrayal. That honor had left me without a father, my mother without a husband and alone with two children. It was no honor at all, but a twisted promise of obedience that proved we would walk willingly to our death if so demanded by those who claimed to speak for the New Gods. “We are women. Our duty is to our home and our husband, to our sons and daughters so that the next generation may be even stronger. Now we bow our heads and pray for forgiveness for our wicked thoughts, for our sinful desires that tempt us away from the absolution only The Mother can provide.” I bowed my head once again, studying that same spot on the stone floor as the men across the space rose to their feet. Bernice spoke to the High Priest and Lord Byron as they joined her on the women’s side, while my gaze refused to leave that light speck in the limestone. “The married may depart,” the Head Priest said from the front of the room. At my side, Brann helped my mother to her feet as another of the men brought her chair. They navigated her into it as I waited for the part of Temple that I had even less tolerance for than kneeling for a Goddess I didn’t even think I believed in. This life couldn’t be all there was. It couldn’t be the point. When the married men and women had vacated the space, the sounds of footsteps sounded throughout the room as the unattached men walked through our rows. “Will Miss Ead have a bigger dowry this year after her father’s deal with the Lord of Copstage?” one asked. “Yes, her dowry has doubled since last year,” the Priest announced happily. I sat still, hoping to avoid notice. The dirt and grime on my old, stained clothes turned away most men, and I could only hope it would continue to do so. Only a peasant would be interested in marrying another peasant, and with the coming winter, none could afford another mouth to feed. “And what of Miss Barlowe?” another man asked, stepping up beside me and dropping his hand to my shoulder. His fingers toyed with the end of my tangled braid, pulling the tie free and working my hair loose until it hung about my shoulders. I froze solid, my bottom lip twitching as I fought for the composure to remain still. This was what I was supposed to want. “She continues to have no dowry to offer,” the Priest said, something in his voice sounding tight and reserved. “That is unlikely to change given her situation,” he added, referencing the fact that I was fatherless, and that we had long since spent the meager compensation they provided when they’d killed him in the name of protection. “I inquired about her hand last year, though nothing ever came of it. The dowry matters little to me, but she kneels so prettily, I think I should like to see it elsewhere,”the man at my side said with a chuckle. I sank my teeth into my cheek so sharply that the coppery tang of blood covered my tongue. “I’m afraid The Father has plans for Miss Barlowe now,” the High Priest said, making my breath halt in my lungs. I glanced up at the High Priest at the front of the room, at the look of confusion written onto Lord Byron’s face as he snapped his attention to the robed man beside him. The cane cracked against the back of my neck, toppling me forward from the force of it. I barely had time to catch myself, my cheek just glancing off the stone floor rather than cracking against it with all my weight. My back throbbed, the pain radiating down my neck as I stayed bowed in submission. I squeezed my eyes closed, waiting for the next strike, which never came. “Enough, Bernice. I think Miss Barlowe has remembered her manners, haven’t you, my dear?” Lord Byron asked, the slime of his voice sliding between us. “Yes, my Lord,” I murmured, my cheek rubbing against the stone as I turned my head to the side and nodded. Bernice’s glare met mine, her hatred of what she believed was an ungrateful swine who didn’t deserve Lord Byron’s kindness glimmering in her eyes. She claimed I hadn’t deserved his wandering hands or care after her canings. Hadn’t deserved his attention or the lessons he gave me out of pity for the loss of my father and my crippled mother who couldn’t care for me properly. I’d have given it all away in a heartbeat to never have known what his hands felt like when they pressed into the welts she left on my skin, so perhaps I was ungrateful. I would remain that way until I returned every moment of suffering they’d caused me. Lord Byron stepped forward, moving through the rows of women that remained. The men who browsed their potential wives moved out of the way as he closed the distance between us, drawing a ragged gasp from my lungs when he stopped in front of me. His shoes filled my vision, the brown leather of them far too clean and shiny when I considered how worn and filthy mine were.My eyes shifted to Brann where he stood at the edge of the women, his hands clenched into fists and his jaw tight. There was nothing he could do to save me from the coming storm, from the wrath I’d incur from Beatrice if I so much as twitched a muscle. I held perfectly still as I shifted my eyes up to meet Lord Byron’s where he stood over me, watching as something passed over his face. He lifted his hand from his side, laying it palm up and turning his focus to Beatrice. She smirked as she glowered at me, setting the wood of the cane in his open palm. “I need a few moments with Miss Barlowe,” he said, curling his fingers around the instrument of my pain. “But my Lord, Temple is still—” the Priestess interjected as the people around us paused, waiting with bated breath to see who would be the victor in the power struggle that might follow. The High Priest was an extension of The Father himself. “In honor of the coming celebration, The Father releases you all from Temple early so that you may have more time to enjoy the weekly market,” the High Priest said, a chill spreading through my body with the words. My fingers grappled for purchase along the stone as I turned my face to it, the cool press of it against my forehead grounding me against the dread rising within me. Against my slowing heartbeat as I drew in deep breaths of air to prevent the trembling in my limbs. I didn’t watch as the women around me rose to their feet, fleeing the uncomfortable scene without so much as a moment’s hesitation. They left me alone to the married man who shouldn’t have even known my name; such was the way of a lowly harvester who was so far beneath the Lord of Mistfell. I braced against the coming pain, against the blow that I expected to land across my back or the tops of my thighs at any moment. My throat closed, saliva filling my mouth when I couldn’t seem to swallow. He made me wait, his torment of me well-rehearsed. He understood that the pain itself was only one of the tools he wielded against me, and the dread of what was yet to come was an even greater motivator. “Kneel,” he ordered, his words sliding over my skin like an insidious menace, tangible and grimy as I rose to my knees slowly. Keeping my head bowed in submission, I fought back the burning in my nose and the threat of tears at the back of my throat. Time seemed to slow as I waited for the next instruction, narrowing down to the rhythmic sound of his breathing. The cane touched the front of my throat, pressing firmly as I bit the inside of my cheek to quell the urge to flinch. He slid it over the delicate skin at the front of my neck, hooking it under my chin and lifting until I raised my eyes to his finally. “You didn’t come to the Manor last night, and yet you look as though you haven’t slept a wink. Do I need to worry that you’ve found companionship elsewhere?” he asked, quirking his brow as I swallowed. Everything in me felt heavy, the bone-weary exhaustion of the harvest and the coming struggles of winter weighing me down. “Of course not, my Lord,” I protested. I didn’t tell him that I’d found that months prior, sneaking around on the occasions when Byron didn’t demand my company. His knowledge of that would be disastrous for me. My purity was all that protected me from him taking everything. There were many ways to touch a person, many ways for him to torment me that didn’t rob me of the virginity he believed existed, but it meant that one part of me remained mine. That one part of me was safe. “Do you think I did not know about the Mist Guard? What was his name—Loris?” Lord Byron asked, arching the cane through the air with precision. It didn’t touch me, but it was enough to make me feel like my eternal soul would jump out of my skin at any moment. Combined with his words and the confession of what he knew, it was enough to make my body go slack and slump as dizziness consumed me. His cane cracked against my ribs just below my breasts, a hot trail of fire bringing my body back to life as I forced myself to sit up straight. The mark he left burned with the sensation of a thousand needles stabbing me. I barely resisted the urge to cover myself, to cower away from the pain. Only the knowledge that it would cause more kept me still. I fumbled for words, unable to find the right ones to say. I’d been so certain that he’d have progressed our relationship if he’d known the truth—that he wouldn’t have hesitated to make me into another one of his conquests. “I don’t understand,” I said finally, stumbling over my words. Instinct had driven me to apologize, as if he had some Gods-given right to my body and it wasn’t truly my own. I shoved that down, focusing on the lack of understanding. Focusing on the why. Lord Byron dropped the cane to the ground beside me, tilting his head to the side as if it hadn’t occurred to him that I might not have realized he knew the truth. He took my chin between two fingers, the intimacy of the touch sending my nerves racing. Surely he couldn’t mean to touch me in the Temple? “You have no secrets from me, Estrella,” he said, releasing my chin slowly. That hand came down on the side of my neck as he bent at the waist, leaning forward until his forehead touched mine. “But remember what happens to men who take what is not theirs. It would be a shame if the Mist Guard learned what he’s done.” “No, please. You can’t—” Lord Byron pulled back, glaring at me as if to remind me of who he was. He could—he would, and there was no one to stop him—condemn a man to death just because he’d stuck his cock where it didn’t belong. I hesitated, sinking my teeth into my bottom lip. “I just wanted something that was mine. A choice I-I could make for once,” I explained, stuttering over the words. Confessing my sin in the Temple felt like the greatest crime, an apology for something I couldn’t force myself to regret. Not when it meant that whatever husband they chose for me would be sorely disappointed in the wife he ended up with. “I know exactly what you wanted. You are rebellious, reckless, and most often foolish. If you were so determined to ruin yourself for marriage and make yourself into a common whore, the least you could have done was allow me to be the one to do it,” he snapped, the words striking against my skin like a physical thing. “You would know, my Lord,” I said mockingly, my voice curling into something high-pitched. It resembled the well-practiced moans of the women I’d watched him with. Of the women he’d tried to throw in my face over the past two years, when he’d needed to fuck because of the frustration he said I built in him. Because I’d been off limits—but I hadn’t, and he’d known it all along. The back of his hand cracked against my cheek, the sound of it echoing through the empty Temple. My face snapped to the side with the force of it, my cheekbone throbbing from where his ring struck. “You will remember your place,” he said, grabbing me by my face. His thumb pressed into my cheek on one side, his fingers on the other as he leaned over me with his lips twisted in fury. “Yes, my Lord,” I mumbled, my voice restricted by the harsh grip. “You will come to the library tonight. There are things we need to discuss immediately, and I need to calm down from your insolence or I’ll cane you until you bleed. Thank me for my kindness, Estrella.” “Thank you, my Lord,” I said, wincing as he released my face suddenly. “Tonight. Do not disappoint me again,” he reminded me harshly. He straightened his clothing, donning the persona he wanted everyone else to see. His lips tipped up into an appeasing and kind half-smile. Only I seemed to see the truth of who he really was. He made his way toward the doors, the sound of their creaking echoing through the Temple as he shoved them open. Leaving me to pick my beaten body up off the cold stone floor for what seemed like the millionth time in two years, knowing that whatever was coming that night would be far worse.