Don’t do this, she said.
There’s nothing for it, lovely one. A shame you won’t be so lovely once we’re done.
Merav drifted between white hot pain and blissful shock until a voice lifted her to consciousness, its timbre akin to creek water rushing over rocks.
Her mouth burned as if she’d kissed a boiling kettle. The world smelled of blood and char. Branches partitioned the haze above her, dangling fruit with red, shivering skin.
“I can help you,” the voice said.
A slender man leaned over her, his shoulders too broad and too knotted with muscle for his tall frame. As she stared, dazed, through the mask of agony fused to her face, she pieced together that she still lay in the ruins of the cabin where Uethorn’s men had dragged her, deep in Dium Forest. Light shone through holes in the rotted ceiling.
The branches she perceived were in fact antlers, sprouting from the head of the man studying her. Four round, bloody objects hung in those antlers, spasms contorting their surfaces.
She remembered Uethorn’s armsmen in their reeking leather. The blade heated by the torch. She touched fingers to her mouth, cried out at the pain that touch triggered, made a thousandfold worse when she flexed her jaw.
When her vision unblurred, the shapes on the straw beside her resolved into a gruesome stack: four leather-armored bodies, the stumps of their necks seeping.
“They pay still for their transgression in Olderra’s wood,” the antlered man said.
Even through the pain, she knew that name, whispered in Calcharra with the tones of awe reserved for floods and earth tremors. The stories: that Olderra’s wrath once inflicted a year of saltwater rain on the ancient city. That she had rearranged stars to spell a message. That the last House to cross her, countless years ago, had been consumed in their manse by fire so hot it blinded all who witnessed it.
The man leaned close, and Merav discovered he had the face of a stag, long snout and tawny hide, though the dark beads of his eyes turned forward, human-like, beneath a blunt browridge. When he spoke he revealed incisors like ivory petals and two long rows of molars in his lower jaw. “I’ll take you to Olderra now.”
She started to scramble away and fell back with a croak.
“I understand your fear,” the creature said. “You’re hers now. You were hers when your blood touched the soil. There’s nothing for it.” Hearing him repeat the words of Uethorn’s men as his strong arms gathered her for a cradle carry, she screamed, only to faint from the pain.
Her sight fluttered through the fugue that followed, witnessing high shrubs, mottled leaves, a wolf pack scattering into shadows.
Sometime later her bearer paused and shivered, the tremors in his oak-solid muscle stirring her awake. A pale serpent drifted across the trees ahead—a ghostly banner winding between the trunks. A second one soon joined it, weaving closer in the same sinuous way.
The antlered man shouted, though Merav didn’t understand his fear. Was this not the witch Olderra come to claim his burden?
The long white limbs whipped in a frenzy above as he ran. The sudden jostle opened wounds clotted shut, driving her back from consciousness.
When she regained her senses she lay on a table. A dry husk of a face floated above her, brown as a chestnut, shriveled as a dried apple. Lips pursed in a starburst of wrinkles. You are almost mended. The mouth didn’t move to shape the words.
Ochre eyes flicked to one side. Help her up.
The antlered man leaned in, offered a thick-knuckled hand that Merav didn’t want to take.
She lifted her head. The pain was gone. She touched her jaw, jerked her fingers away from coarse, misshapen flesh.
Above her a vertical tunnel spiraled into darkness, its walls like the underside of peeled bark.
A wooden platform drifted into view, hovering in mid-air, no means of support visible. Startled, Merav scanned the chamber, discovered more shelves and trays of various sizes suspended all around the table, stacked with vials, jars, bottles, books and other objects not immediately identifiable.
She turned to the wrinkled face, named its owner. “Olderra.”
The witch’s smile creased her cheeks. “That is a name I use, yes.”
That this tiny woman stood at the heart of so many tales of woe and terror—Merav wanted to laugh, to wake safe in her bed and cackle at her own folly.
The deer-headed man’s hand remained extended. Merav told the witch, “I don’t want him touching me!”
His expression and posture didn’t change.
The witch reached up as one of the shelves floated toward her fingers. She snatched a small pouch from the shelf without looking, shook it between forefinger and thumb, rattling its contents.
Merav sat up. “What is that?”
“I’ve not quite finished you yet,” the witch said. She flicked the opened pouch at Merav’s face. A puff of darkness billowed into wrestling foxes made of smoke. Merav recoiled—
And blinked, the apparition gone. Olderra curled the pouch into her palm, shook her hand as if as she’d gotten it wet. The shelves started to retreat.
Merav touched her jaw again, felt skin and bone and hair where none should have been. “What have you done?”
“What I could,” Olderra said. “What had to be done.” She inclined her leathery face toward the antlered man. “Show her.”
The shelves were attaching themselves to the walls in a series of clicks and scrapes. “Show me what?” Merav demanded, but Olderra was gone.
The antlered man stood by an exit, a crude arch bitten out of the spongy bark walls. He bowed his head and stepped through. Merav looked for another way out of the roughly cylindrical room; found none, other than a forbidding climb up the detachable shelves and into darkness.
Her bare feet touched warm earth. She no longer wore the skirt, corset, or undergarments she’d had on when Uethorn’s men abducted her from Rosepike Market. Her clothes had been replaced with a tunic and breeches of identical brown. She shuddered as she stood, wondering who had done that.
Beyond the arch lay a chamber shaped exactly like the one she’d just left, with an identical bark-tunnel ceiling—except there were no shelves on the walls. The air changed from dry to dank. A pool in the center of the floor brushed the room in wavering light.
Across from her, the antlered man pointed at the water. “Best you look.”
The reflective surface permitted no glimpse of the pool’s depths. The creature staring back at her possessed her eyes but wore the rust-pelt mask of a fox.
She opened her mouth, and the fox mirrored her, exposing a narrow tongue, incisors like curved needles. She curled her lip. The fox’s muzzle wrinkled in a snarl.
“What...?” She couldn’t finish the question. Her voice sounded no different.
The antlered man’s mouth curled. “Milady healed you.”
“What have you done?” she shouted. The fox-woman in the pool flashed her fangs. “Change me back!”
Behind her, Olderra spoke. “You were already changed. This healing is the best I can offer.”
So often her father had shouted her down and worse, when anger moved her to speak. She had a swift, sharp tongue that resisted all containment and had learned to counter his physical savagery with verbal jabs that left scars of their own, she was certain. Yet at this moment, though the rage came, words did not. The brute snarl that issued from her throat shamed her.
The old woman peered up at her, impassive. “Hitch your cart to that anger, you’re about to have need of it. Hundeil?”
The antlered man sighed. “I feel them, milady.”
Behind Merav’s eyes a searing urge took hold, an itch deep in her skull that craved scratching. Though nothing about the chamber altered, she noticed shadows moving around her, noises seeping through the walls, harsh male voices and a girl weeping, a stench of heated copper.
“Again, our peace is broken,” Olderra growled.
Hundeil flared his nostrils, clenched and unclenched his fists. “Open the way.”
“You’ll have company this time,” she said, and laughed at his snort of protest. “You have no more choice than she does.”
Merav found that she lusted to open a belly with claws, to crush a throat between her teeth.
“So be it,” Hundeil said. “The way.”
The arch no longer led to the chamber of shelves but out into the night. Rain spattered at the threshold but didn’t cross.
As Hundeil’s form blocked the muted moonlight, panic rose in Merav. She could not have said why, but she craved first blood. She had to reach the prey before Hundeil.
She plunged into the drizzle after him.
They emerged by the ancient cottage where Uethorn’s thugs had marred her face. Even through the storm, rot fouled the air. She registered fleetingly that Olderra’s home was nowhere to be seen.
Three horses stood outside the cottage threshold, eyes flaring to expose the whites as they fixed on her and Hundeil. A lump of flesh lay crumpled by the front hooves of the closest horse. Blood drained into the soil from the fallen body. Through the soles of her feet Merav sensed how the earth thrummed with the transfer of precious energy.
Torchlight flickered inside the cottage. A man raised his voice in alarm—prey giving away its place.
Merav didn’t understand the covenants of Olderra’s forest, but she knew they had been broken, the offenders’ lives forfeit. Hundeil circled to a side window and reached through the way a bear grabs fish from a river. A man screamed. The window was wide enough to pull the screeching prey’s head through but not his shoulders. Hundeil gripped the man by the hair, bending his neck backward over the sill.
The horses bolted as Merav leapt over the bleeding body and through the front door. With a shout, a bull of a man charged toward her, swinging his torch like a club. Her response took no thought. She caught his wrist and dragged him off balance. He stumbled into the wall. The leather and chainmail he wore gave her easy purchase as she sprang onto his back and bit at the base of his neck. He howled as her teeth hooked his spine. She clamped and twisted, thrilled at the sensation of cartilage separating, bone breaking.
Iron seared her side.
She tore loose from her prey. Another armsman faced her, and though the torch had guttered out she could still perceive his scarred and bearded face. The knife he had stabbed her with glinted, no blood on its blade. The burning stripe across her flank faded. Behind the armsman lay the stack of headless bodies Hundeil had left when he had retrieved her for Olderra. Their soft parts teemed with insects.
Merav yearned to lunge, but the man kept the knife before him. That iron blade had burned where it touched her.
The man gagged. Merav shrank back, not comprehending—it looked as if a tree had reached through the cottage door and snagged him around the neck. Then Hundeil stepped fully inside and straightened. The armsman lifted from the floor, neck hooked in the upper reaches of Hundeil’s antlers.
Hundeil shook his head once. The armsman’s spine snapped. Though his body went limp, his mouth continued to move.
Merav’s attention whipped back to her own kill. She clawed at his head until she tore it from his shoulders. As he stared up at her, terrified, his mouth working silently, she recognized him. Jintien. A sergeant of House Lohmar, leader of her father’s personal guard. She had enjoyed Jintien’s company. He had a broad, kind face, stretched often by a gap-toothed grin.
Without understanding why, she hooked Jintien’s head to her belt. The head disappeared, but she still felt its weight against her hip. It felt right. It felt just.
“We tend to the wounded one now,” Hundeil rumbled. Two new heads had joined the ghastly fruit suspended in his antlers. “She still has blood left.”
“As I did,” Merav said. With this prey—the men, her father’s men—vanquished, her hunger for blood slid away.
“Yes,” said Hundeil. “This is the way of the forest. If it’s her fate to live, Olderra will heal her.”
“As she did for me,” Merav said. Then made a leap. “And for you.”
He left the cottage without acknowledging her words.
Outside, the rain had thinned to mist. Hundeil scooped the dying girl from the muck, and as her head lolled, Merav recognized her, too. Kaediya. Two years younger than Merav, one of Uethorn’s grandnieces. They had crossed paths at three of the four harvest banquets Merav’s father had made her attend the previous fall. Scions of rival houses, she and Kaediya had exchanged no more than diffident pleasantries at each occasion.
Mud plastered Kaediya’s raven-black hair across her long face. Her already pale skin had been bled to white. Her wide mouth hung open. Her wound wasn’t visible, but the flow of her life rolled out like a tide.
Questions swirled in Merav’s mind—why had she and Kaediya been brought to this place, marked for slow murder?
A moan rose over the patter of the storm and the rustling of the leaves. Hundeil’s scent soured with fear.
He ran, Kaediya clenched in his arms. Merav followed his lead without knowing why, but she soon enough spied the cause of his flight.
She remembered a serpentine length of white cloth, seen in delirium as Hundeil bore her to Olderra’s lair. She now learned what the object was: a sleeve.
The hooded figure flowed toward them from the shadows, the white robe shrouding its emaciated form bright against the overcast night. It floated with arms outstretched, the sleeves of its raiment outstretched to either side, longer than human arms could possibly be.
When Merav was only five she had traveled with her mother and father and eldest sister to the keep of Dreygim, far to the south of Calcharra—one of the few memories Merav had of her full family, before they lost Mother and Sister both to the yellow pox. The prince of Dreygim kept reptiles in immense cages, their scaly visages a fixture in Merav’s nightmares for months afterward, serpents who could swallow a man whole. These sleeves were longer than those serpents, waving slowly as if trailed through water.
The figure lifted its hood and moaned again, as a grave exhaling rage.
Hundeil quickened his sprint. Merav hesitated, and without appearing to gather speed, the figure halved the distance between them. The sleeves extended between the tree trunks like slow chameleon tongues, sinuous white arms curving together to embrace her.
Merav tore her gaze from the fluttering white and bolted.
Never before had she run with such speed or such fear, caroming off trees, tearing through brush, ripping loose the roots that hooked her feet, stumbling again and again until she caught up to Hundeil. Both were wheezing with exhaustion when they reached the gnarled behemoth of a tree that proved to be Olderra’s dwelling. Its bark parted like curtains to admit them.
Merav doubled over, gasping, pulse pounding in her chest and sinuses. Inside the hollowed-out tree trunk, the interior had changed yet again, a hearth improbably embedded in the wood opposite the entrance. In the chamber’s center stood a round table ringed by benches, set with three bowls.
Olderra pointed through the arch behind them, now opening into the room of floating shelves. Hundeil carried Kaediya there. “Put her on the table,” Merav heard Olderra say from the other room, even though the witch was still hunched by the hearth fire, dipping a ladle into a kettle hung from a spit. Merav peered through to see a second Olderra at Hundeil’s elbow as he placed the girl’s body on the medicine table and shelves detached from the walls.
Hundeil returned to the dining hall and the arch behind him stretched shut. He sat as Olderra used the ladle to fill the bowl before him. A smell of mutton and spicy roots overwhelmed Merav. Her stomach growled.
Hundeil took up a spoon and supped. “Wonderful, milady,” he said, as if he hadn’t just run miles carrying a body while a long-sleeved specter pursued.
The witch filled Merav’s bowl. Merav remained standing, despite her hunger. A slight frown made not-so-slight creases on Olderra’s brow. “Have some. You’ve earned it.”
The more Merav became aware of it, the more the invisible weight at her hip disturbed her. The weight of Jintien’s head. A new part of her, a piece of her psyche that hadn’t existed before she woke up on Olderra’s table, insisted that this new accessory provided comfort, that its presence was right and just, but that part did not rule her, no matter how persistently it snapped its jaws.
She was a beast now. A monster, like the thugs from Uethorn House who had mutilated her, like this murderous antlered man and the awful witch who was his master. And her master now. The death of gentle Jintien was on all of their hands.
Gentle Jintien, who had spilled a harmless girl’s blood. Merav couldn’t fathom why he would do that. Had her father ordered it?
The question gave strength to her repulsion. “Take it from me,” she said. “His head. Take it, I don’t want it.”
Olderra regarded her with bushy eyebrows raised. “The price is paid. The bounty rightfully belongs to you.”
“I don’t understand any of this and I refuse. Jintien was kind to me.”
“Not to the child on my table.”
“Then give what’s left of him to her, once she’s half-monster like me.”
Hundeil flinched. Olderra’s glower intensified. “You cannot make a gift of your trophy, especially not to her,” she said as the arch in the wall reopened. “But I will do as you wish. I will take it from you.”
Merav followed her into a chamber that shared the same tunnel-ceiling they all did, filled with rows of freestanding wooden racks not unlike the bookcases in the library at Garthand Palace. Tall glass jars crowded the racks.
The room was silent, yet full of subtle movement. Each time she blinked, the jars altered their configuration, as if the racks were switching places the instant her lids closed.
At last Olderra snatched a jar and opened it. The weight vanished from Merav’s belt. Something spun in the jar, a tiny man formed of pale smoke, the gray circles of his eyes huge with horror. Then Olderra closed the lid, and the effigy of Jintien faded. She replaced the jar, immediately indistinguishable from its brethren as they shifted places. Merav could not have found it again on threat of death.
“Now will you eat?” Olderra asked.
Merav would never before have enjoyed such a gristly, fat-filled soup, but it proved ambrosia on her tongue. Her joints twinged, finally admitting aches from her exertions.
Olderra sent her to the moss-lined chamber that would be her new bedroom. It too had the same tunnel-ceiling. Contemplating its shadows, Merav drifted to sleep, and dreamed of bringing down a stag with her tiny teeth and dragging the corpse home to her kits.
Days and nights coursed past with little to distinguish them, their hours marked off by meals before the hearth, slumbering in soft moss, chores of cleaning or retrieval carried out through the dozens of rooms confined within the tree, most of which served no obvious purpose. In one, dried leaves spun forever in a slow cyclone. In another, glass windows honeycombed the walls, but Merav could make no sense of the roiling chaos of color outside the panes. In another, slabs of wood grew together into stairs that rose to the trunk’s upper reaches, but a immovable trapdoor at their apex barred further exploration.
At first Merav and Hundeil spoke little at their shared suppers, but gradually he proffered carefully measured tidbits. “All milady’s chambers exist in one place,” he said. “Beneath this same roof. But they never merge. Only milady can move between them freely.”
Merav asked him to explain. He tried: he and Merav could go only where their host allowed, he said. Yet in his experience, once permitted access to a room, he needed only to think of it to summon an arch that led there, until Olderra chose to once more bar his access.
After learning this, Merav tried repeatedly, without luck, to summon the chamber of floating shelves. She wanted to know what had become of Kaediya, who had not reappeared. Olderra, too, eluded her.
Hundeil talked of the workings of their home but would not discuss its history. He did confirm with nods and strategic silences some of Merav’s suspicions: that Olderra never left the tree and yet could travel far beyond Dium Forest. That the tree held so many rooms within its unnatural dimensions that it was possible for many to live inside it and never cross paths.
He talked least about himself, until Merav finally asked him, “Who were you, before?”
In the middle of serving her soup, he dropped the ladle, slopping red sauce across the tabletop. As he cleaned with head bowed he muttered, “Milady prefers we not speak of such things.”
Merav spread her hands. “I don’t see her.”
He snorted. “You believe she can’t hear us?”
“I’m sure she can, but does she always listen?”
“Not a gamble I will make.”
She couldn’t stop herself from laughing. “What could you possibly say that would worry her? We are both trapped. Helpless as kittens in a sack.”
His narrow jaw flexed, cords bulging in his neck. “We are not trapped. We are saved.”
The rage her father so often inspired, that spurred her to call him coward and monster, reared its head. In retaliation for that rage, her father had more than once pinned her down and beat her, careful not to leave visible bruises—but that never stopped her. Hundeil was a sheep by comparison.
“You?” she mocked. “Saved from what? The arrow of some hunter who spied your horns through the trees?”
“The first time, an assassin’s garrote, ” he said evenly, “when I commanded merchant ships for House Leursind.”
Merav stared. House Leursind was only a story, attached to a burnt-black ruin of a demesne in Steermast Quarter, uninhabited for centuries.
His deep voice quavered. “Longsleeves, the second time—” His eyes widened in surprise at his own indiscretion, and he turned from her, head tilted in shame.
He had to mean the entity in the woods, its sleeves ever seeking prey to strangle.
“Is it a ghost?” she asked. “Longsleeves?”
He summoned an arch and left before she finished the final syllable.
He successfully avoided her for several days, until Olderra called her into the apothecary chamber with its hovering shelves, to reacquaint her with Kaediya.
“You friend returns to us from a far distance,” the witch said. Behind her, Hundeil loomed, impassive.
A thorn-studded heap of vines sprawled atop the table, its foliage adorned with violet flowers. Their sickly-sweet scent flooded the room. Olderra opened her fingers, trickling powder into the heap.
The botanical mass coughed. Leaves and petals arranged themselves into a face. Kaediya’s gray eyes stared out from it.
Merav burned with questions: why had her father’s men brought Kaediya to the woods, why had Kaediya’s house abducted Merav, why were House Uethorn’s men ordered to mutilate her face? But Kaediya’s expression held no recognition, no acknowledgment of her surroundings. Merav’s hopes drained away.
Kaediya sat up, her form winding tighter into human shape. Olderra demanded, “Tell me your name.”
Mute, the flower-woman regarded the witch.
Deprived of one set of answers, Merav aimed for another. “What is Longsleeves?”
Olderra seemed unsurprised. “Longsleeves is what it chose to be.”
Some part of Merav, the same part that had enjoyed the weight of the ghost hanging from her belt, tried to keep her jaws closed, but it could no more stop her than her father could. “Milady, that’s not an answer to my question. What is that creature?”
The floating shelves began returning to their places. “Your enemy,” Olderra said.
“Why? Because it’s your enemy?”
The witch addressed Kaediya. “You at least will be more docile. Can you use a broom? Did your family ever require you to wash your own things?”
“Good, then I don’t have to teach you. Help her up.” Hundeil extended a hand and Kaediya took it, her new flesh rustling as she stood. Yet another door when none had been before opened into a room filled with huge, gnarled roots. A black substance crusted every visible surface. “Go in, listen for my instructions,” Olderra said.
Kaediya shuffled uncertainly toward the root-room. The arch folded closed behind her.
“Such a shame,” Olderra said. “One mercy, at least. She won’t understand she’s scouring her own blood from the heart of the forest.”
Merav and Kaediya had never been friends in Calcharra. Still, witnessing the girl’s existence as a listless automaton angered Merav more. “What have you preserved her for? She’d have been better off left for dead.”
“You say that because you despise Uethorn House.”
“Not true.” The vicious rivalry between the houses Uethorn and Lohmar had been a fact of her life from birth, but she had always assumed it resulted from their competing spice and fabric trades, and thus a war of markets, not weapons. Blood had been shed in centuries past, so she was told, because the Uethorns had resorted to murder to undermine Lohmar’s influence with Calcharra nobility.
As she had grown older, Merav came to loathe her quick-fisted father far more than any nebulous feud. She had expected no danger whatsoever when Uethorn’s men approached her outside Rosepike Market.
She pointed at the wall where Kaediya had departed. “I don’t understand any part of what’s happened to her, or to me, any more than I understand that creature in the forest that your strongman runs from. But I am certain you understand everything.”
Hundeil and Olderra both eyed her. At last the antlered man grimaced at the witch. “It does no good to spurn the questions of the curious, milady.”
“You would know that well, wouldn’t you?” Olderra said.
The antlered man’s face stayed inscrutable.
Olderra sighed. “We’ll see where your curiosity leads me, then. The one called Longsleeves arrived as you did, a wounded bird brought to me when the covenant had been broken.”
“Someone harmed her?”
“Yes.” Olderra fell silent, her mouth working as if her next words resisted uttering. Her demeanor grew strange, lips peeling back, eyes squeezing tight, arms shaking as hands curled into fists.
At last she took a breath, then spoke rapidly, in pained syllables. “There are men of Calcharra who—who mistake their wealth for a... a license to defy the OnesI serve, the Ones Who Dwell Between, the masters of the forest. The brutes from Calcharra seek—seek to curry favor from ancient things, forces... order sacrifices that—that the Ones cannot abide. I am charged with righting the wrong, as best I can.” She sighed as if she’d just set down a sack full of bricks, gasped for breath and resumed. “When those I savefrom death spill... spill blood unsanctioned, they... they reject the gift the Ones give them. They will never, never again be right with the forest.”
Merav twitched her ears.The talk of sacrifice and seeking favor from ancient things and defying Ones that rule the forest made little sense to her, but she believed she understood one implication. “Longsleeves lived here?”
Another deep breath. “Once. Now it has no home.”
This is not my home, Merav thought. She pointed a clawed finger at Hundeil. “What grudge does Longsleeves have with him?”
“Its grudge is with me,” the witch said. “For that, Hundeil suffered.”
“Twice milady has saved me from death,” the antlered man said. “I am grateful for it.”
“Grateful for what?” Merav’s hackles rose. “Are you grateful that the forest gifts you with slaves?”
The witch had recovered her composure. “The forest requires it.”
“What are you to the forest?”
Olderra scowled. “I should have left your mouth unmended.”
“If you don’t want these questions asked, surely you can stop me!”
“I understand why the Ones chose this shape for you, with its snapping jaws,” Olderra said. “Longsleeves resented the forest’s price as much as you do, broke the bargain, and incurred a debt that can never be paid.”
A new arch had appeared behind the witch, leading into a unfamiliar room where thick shoots grew from the floor to form pedestals supporting heavy books. “If you desire knowledge so strongly, seek it there.”
Merav peered into the odd library. The closest tome was illuminated in letters she didn’t recognize. When she turned, brimming with more questions, the witch had vanished.
“She’s indulging you,” Hundeil said. “She allows your insolence because she’s fond of you. Don’t squander that.”
“Fond of me!” Merav spat. “Then why did she refuse me answers? If she indulges me, it’s because I’m nothing but a child’s toy to her. One insignificant slave in a line of many. Just as you are.”
Hundeil went rigid. They stood in silence, eyes locked, for a long, tense time, before Hundeil summoned an exit.
“She’s a monster,” Merav said, watching him go.
The next day Kaediya joined them in the dining hall. Her leafy brow crinkled above a puzzled stare as Merav tried to remind her of the dinners and dances they’d attended in Calcharra. Hundeil glared over his shoulder as he stirred the soup, silently entreating Merav to stop.
Throughout the meal Kaediya shook her head in response to every question Merav asked. At last Merav accepted then that she had to find a different path for answers.
She regarded the heavy antlers branching from Hundeil’s crown.
In tales, ghosts spoke. They warned the living. Exposed the wicked. Revealed things only the dead could know. “Your prisoners,” she asked him. “Can you talk to them?”
“The heads that hang in your antlers. Can you speak with them?”
His scent grew acrid with outrage. “Their voices do not deserve to be heard.”
“Our voices do,” she said.
He let his silence express his disagreement.
Merav again accepted a door forever closed. He would never be her ally.
Days passed without a glimpse of Olderra’s cowl. Merav spent as much time as she could polishing jars in the room of shifting racks, which she privately named the Chamber of Spirits. She had discovered that sometimes, when she laid her palm on one of the jars, the ghost sealed inside would stir. Usually this produced a faint twist of smoke and little more, but sometimes she could make out a face.
Jintien could explain why her father had ordered Kaediya’s killing. Perhaps he even knew why House Uethorn had targeted Merav. She spent days searching among the jars for his ghost, until the morning her frustration peaked. She started removing jars from the shelves two or three at a time and rubbing them with her paws. Perhaps in every dozenth jar a face congealed, but never Jintien’s. She pulled a dozen more from the shelf, intent on testing them all.
Abruptly she awoke amidst her cushions of moss. From then on, whenever she focused her mind on the Chamber of Spirits, the arch she summoned always led somewhere else.
Merav crouched by the reflecting pool. Her vulpine features bared fangs in synchronicity with a soft, bitter laugh. Behind her Kaediya used a broom of thick straw to smooth the floor. At the noise she glanced Merav’s way, face colorful, expression blank.
As Merav watched in the watery mirror, Kaediya finished her work and turned to leave. An arch opened before her—
Into the Chamber of Spirits.
Merav sprang, tackling the other woman and falling through with her as the entrance closed. Kaediya shrieked as they hit the floor. The sound wrenched at Merav, but she bounded upright and dashed between the racks, determined to resume her hunt. She might have only seconds before Olderra intervened.
She picked up a jar, clutched it between her palms, watched for smoke to stir. A face appeared, not the one she wanted. She slammed the jar back, grabbed another. Nothing. Next one, a face appeared—the same one as the first time. The racks had tricked her. It was her turn to shriek.
Kaediya shuffled close, leaning on her broom like a cane, her fright apparently forgotten. She watched Merav snatch and curse, the leaves of her brow crinkling. In a jar by her flowering shoulder a figure coalesced, its mouth and eyes stretching in fury, its fists flailing.
Merav swiped the jar holding Jintien’s ghost before the racks could steal it away. Kaediya stumbled back, her body emitting a hiss of leaves disturbed.
Merav shook the jar. “Jintien! Hear me!”
Her old friend’s face filled the vessel, his silent howl vibrating the glass. She tried to pry off the lid but it wouldn’t budge. She applied her fox body’s full strength to it. Muscles tore in her forearm, her shoulder. In her elbow, the sensation and sound of a cord snapping.
The lid broke free.
The ambient light dimmed. Jintien surged out, paying Merav no heed.
Kaediya screamed as smoke whipped around her. Vines tore loose from her body.
An itch to murder had possessed Merav when Kaediya’s blood first had been spilled in the forest. As Jintien’s ghost strove to complete his final mission,rend Kaediya leaf from limb, that itch returned a thousandfold. Taking life unsanctioned abused the goodwill of the Ones, defiled the forest.
The knowledge that a killer had broken the forest covenant consumed Merav. Bloodlust coursed through her limbs. Jintien’s head was forfeit. But the ghost had no head to claim, no blood she could spill, no flesh she could rend. She staggered, her rage deprived of focus.
Leaves and petals burst from the smoke that twisted about Kaediya’s body. Kaediya’s screams stopped. Her gray eyes fluttered to the ground, petals plucked and discarded. A new pair of eyes took their place, their familiar gaze dark and cruel in a manner that Merav had never before recognized.
As Jintien’s spirit filled the emptied vessel of his victim, energies drew taut through Merav’s flesh. The desire to kill poured a river through her, drowning out the voice within her that wept for Kaediya’s murder. Before his new form could even draw breath she leapt, the wet roots and stems vile in her mouth as she tore head from shoulders.
The head unraveled, leaving her no trophy.
All about her an icy wind blew, and that wind carried Olderra’s voice. “You impudent little fox, what have you done?”
Hundeil’s forest of antlers charged into view. Merav, ruled by her thwarted craving, pounced on him without thinking, her tail sweeping dozens of jars to thefloor as she attacked.
His blow knocked her aside as if the earth itself struck her, but her reflexes recovered faster. She grabbed his arm and vaulted forward to claw his face. A long strip of hide tore loose from his muzzle. He bellowed. The heads dangling in his antlers emitted ear-splitting wails.
“To spill blood unsanctioned is to reject the gift of Ones.” Olderra’s voice rose like a river cresting its banks. “You are expelled from this sacred place! Join our enemy in exile!”
The jars and walls vanished. Merav stood among withered trees in a part of Dium Forest she’d never seen. Light blared through skeletal branches, the noonday sun a merciless witness. Three cart-lengths away, white fluttered. Longsleeves drifted toward her, uncoiling its tapering arms, face veiled under its long hood.
Merav’s urge to attack warred with her fear, leaving her paralyzed as the long sleeves slithered either side of her.
She only found the will to move when the rough cloth brushed her skin. She clawed at the fabric, and it tangled her wrists. She savaged a sleeve with her teeth but it looped around her head. She thrashed and bit. The cloth stretched and ripped, but more replaced it. In moments she was completely cocooned.
She kept struggling as the wrappings tightened. Something forcibly caught her chin and lifted it, like her father whenever she had tried to avoid and ignore him. The fabric over her eyes parted to grant her a view of Longsleeves’ cowl as it lifted, opening into raw, roiling hunger.
The folds of cloth hadn’t covered her mouth. They were avoiding her mouth, the place where Uethorn’s men had wounded her and Olderra had healed her.
She demanded, “Who are you?”
The wrappings tightened, as smothering serpents.
“Why are you doing this?” Merav gasped.
And the creature answered.
Tableaux came to life in Merav’s mind, flat and faded like aged paintings, and yet they moved. The same nightmare that Merav had lived since Uethorn’s men took her to the cottage played out again, with a different cast.
A girl bound and slung over the back of a horse, armsmen laughing as they bore her into the forest, to the same cottage. The merciless bite of an axe; her arms chopped away, leaving agony behind.
Heads dangling from antlers.
A ceiling like a tunnel. A second girl brought to the forest, the thrill of killing the killers, puncturing them with poisonous fangs and crushing them with the snake-like arms the forest gave her to replace the ones the armsmen had hewn off.
Those same arms, transformed to white sleeves, squeezed her now. Merav fought back not with claws and teeth but with will. “Tell me your name,” she wheezed.
The creature stilled, as if startled. The tableau of violence subsided.
Merav heard a word. Maelina.
She knew that name. A great-great aunt, she would have been; vanished long ago. Merav’s father had spoken of her murder as the worst of the long-simmering grievances with House Uethorn.
More memories poured from Longsleeves. The other girl enmeshed in the tragedy, the one Maelina had helped save, given fish scales for skin, a long mouth filled with needle teeth, water seeping from her hair. A Uethorn woman, dragged to the Dium Forest cottage to be slaughtered, flayed alive by men from Merav and Maelina’s own house. She and Maelina had hated one another even before their reunion inside Olderra’s tree. They did not recognize, as Merav did now, that they were the victims of a ritual.
They had fought. Hundeil had tried and failed to intervene. Maelina, victorious, was banished...
Maelina and her enemy, Merav and Kaediya; their misfortunes followed a baffling but undeniable pattern. Had it gone on even before them? How far into the past did these ritual murders go?
Longsleeves—Maelina—trembled even as she tightened her grip. Merav could no longer speak. She hoped her thoughts spoke for her, that her words could break through the monster’s mindless bloodlust. You and I are bound by family and bloodshed. The pressure built in her lungs, her brain. She tried to share her own memories, scenes of Hundeil waking her in the cabin, of Kaediya bleeding into the mud. Look what I’m showing you. Our fates are bound to this horror.To this atrocity inflicted on us by the me of our Houses! We must defy it!
Her head went light as the blood stopped flowing to her brain. Then she collapsed to the forest floor.
Longsleeves had released her.
Wind breathed against them as the entire forest seemed to sigh, in sadness, in relief.
“I am sorry,” Olderra said.
Merav craned her aching neck to stare at the witch, who stood among the withered trees. Longsleeves slumped to a kneeling position. Its shoulders hitched in silent sobs.
Eying Olderra warily, Merav croaked, “What curse will you bring on us now?”
“You are within your rights to despise me,” the witch said. “The rules of the Ones I serve are complex and exacting, inscrutable to mortals, and more than one has found them as intolerable as you do. But I am not responsible for the pact between your houses that has been a source of screams and spilled blood for four cold centuries.”
Merav’s voice, still little more than a whisper. “Pact?”
“The sacrifice of daughters, made to curry favor with things more ancient than this forest. Made inside that cabin, long ago.The greedy men who first swore themselves to this arrangement did not want the blood of their own daughters on their hands. But to kill a daughter from the other house, that was acceptable, that absolved them of what little guilt they might have entertained. They tailor the manner of death to harm what each girl values most. In your case, your words.”
Merav found herself bereft of them.
“They might believe this approach curries more favor, but in truth it’s a sadistic flourish to no purpose. All that matters to the creatures they propitiate is the bloodletting. They care not how it happens, or who is killed. Those ancient things despise the Ones I serve and savor any act that defiles the forest.”
For all the hate Merav harbored for her father, its seething core still revolved around the notion that he had chosen to teach her, shelter her, prepare her for her life amid the merchants and nobles despite her defiant tantrums because he loved her, stupidly, imperfectly, brutally, but nonetheless as sincerely as his malformed soul could manage. As her grip on that notion loosened, that faith drained from her heart, her anger pouring in to fill the hollow that remained.
“Why,” Merav rasped, “didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I couldn’t. I tried,” the witch said, eyes lowered. “The pact made by your bloodlines in that cabin defies the forest law. It bound my tongue. Even the half-truth I managed to utter brought pain with each syllable.” She anticipated the question at the tip of Merav’s tongue. “When you spared each other, just now—” she nodded at Longsleeves, who still trembled— “that freed me to speak.”
“How do I know you speak truth?” But even as Merav asked, she sensed the answer she had for so long sought: the filament of blood magic stitched through her, connected to the quivering figure beside her, to the scattered leaves of Kaediya’s corpse, to Maelina’s twice-dead rival, back into the darkness of memory and time; dead women hanging from its string like the ghostly heads that hung from Hundeil’s antlers.
Hundeil. He loomed at the edge of the copse, watching Longsleeves, his muzzle still bloody from Merav’s claws.
“This must end,” Merav said. “How do we stop it?”
Longsleeves raised her head.
“It can be done,” Olderra said. “But it cannot be done in Dium Forest. Once you leave, you cannot come back. And I will no longer know what can or will happen to you, or how long the body gifted to you by the forest will last.”
“I am willing to go beyond your knowledge, Olderra. Tell me what it will take to end this.”
Though at one time she could never have imagined it possible, when Olderra finished speaking, Merav offeredthe witch her thanks.
Don’t do this, he said.
There’s nothing for it, honored one. A shame, father, that your honor was never real.
That night, in the great hall of Lohmar, two daughters thought lost by some, and disposed of for good by others, reappeared, one with sleeves as long as dragon’s tails, one with claws and the visage of a fox. Lohmar was only the first manse they would visit that night, but it was fitting they called first at their birthhome.
The guards were unable to raise any alarms as white cloth tightened around their throats.
The sun would rise to find the Manse Lohmar and Manse Uethorn eerily silent. All the men of both houses, every husband, brother and son, beheaded in the night. Daughters, mothers and wives submerged in unnatural sleep would awaken to bewilderment and weeping, never to know why they’d been spared.
For a moment, once the most urgent deed of all was done, once her father’s head hung from her belt, Merav’s heart shrilled with grief. But given what he’d hidden from her all her life, the plans he’d made for her fate, her sorrow died just as fast, a candle flame snuffed out.
She and Longsleeves left Calcharra, moving south ahead of the dawn. Tales of their exploits would live on centuries hence, in nightmares, in fantasies of vengeance, in fever dreams.