Where Trist’s people lived, above the great river, everyone caught a glimpse of the wild hunt from the corner of their eye on occasion, when walking alone. Trist grew up hearing it was composed of those who had died by suicide, now never to rest, never to be at peace. People said the wild hunt ran in the space before a turning point from one state into another. A turn from the best, the worst of something—or perhaps simply the most of something—to something else.
But life was change, and such turning points were perhaps numerous enough to make the hunt’s timing coincidental. For that reason or not, it was in the last twilight before the dark that the hunt’s mounts would flash, in the last dark before the dawn that their persons would gently glow. Always, they ran down where the wide road constructed by the pre-magic world was no more, where it had fallen into the river.
People said if someone conquered their fear of the wild hunt’s ferocity, stood above the river, and called out to the hunt, the hunt would slow, take the supplicant up, and lend them a mount. That if the supplicant rode to the very end of the chase, showed particular prowess—toughness, cleverness, tenacity—the wild hunt would remember what it was to live and return the supplicant unharmed, freed from whatever had kept them from living to the fullest, be it sadness, worry, or grief. If, however, they faltered and did not see the hunt through, the supplicant would slip from the borrowed mount into the river’s dark waters.
People said such a failure was a mercy all the same, for in seeing that failure, the spirits might remember what it was to despair and take pity on the supplicant. That the spirits might allow the supplicant to sink so deep that, despite having taken a risk that ended their own life, they would be at peace and not join the wild hunt’s endless run.
When Trist was a teen—the last childhood before a turn to adulthood—she sometimes watched the wild hunt from a safe distance, near her village at the top of the gorge, for as long as it was in sight, two, three nights in a row. She didn’t long to call it to her—she knew she had no particular prowess of any sort, could clearly imagine the spirits’ mocking laughter if she had the presumption to pretend she did. And she knew that however worrying life was, she didn’t want it to end yet.
But she wondered about the spirits. Knowing a self-inflicted ending to their life was no ending at all, why had they still done it?
In her subsequent few years of adulthood, she’d rarely had time to even look for the wild hunt. Her family didn’t understand how weak her magic was—not the way she understood, in her bones—and were forever pushing her to use it, to display it to all and sundry in the village. Easy enough for them; they wouldn’t have to endure the whispers behind hands as everyone judged her pitiful efforts. So Trist’s days were much taken up with every chore she could find that would take her out and away from home. There was no time left to stand on the apex of a ridge and watch shining mounts go by.
It was still light, one late summer day—the last of the heat before a turn to fall—that Trist found herself searching for something more than a mere chore to keep her away from the village until well after dark. All the village’s blood mages, no small proportion of them made up of relatives of hers, were gathering to raise a new house. That meant magic to lift the great roof beams, magic to ward it against danger and vermin, even magic to close small wounds from a slipped saw or poorly aimed hammer.
Trist’s blood magic, such as it was, lent itself best to illusions, and what could those add to the endeavor? Entertain the littlest children? No thanks.
And there was her older sister, Maris, right on time, visible farther along the trail to the village. Her black hair fought against its tie as she balanced her baby on her hip and lifted her arm in a summoning wave. Trist was out of time to hone her excuse. She knew she imagined too much and too often—the elders had told her so plenty of times—but even so, she could imagine all the holes her sister and parents might find in the story. She could imagine the fight that might provoke. But she could also imagine all the judging looks, all the painful silences as she said or did something wrong in the celebration that would eventually replace the work on the house, later tonight. Every decision was such a balancing of worry against worry, and—well, she was here now.
Trist pulled her working knife from her hip pocket, flicked it open. She nicked her bottom lip and spat the bright metal taste of the droplets outward, shaping them into an illusion of the sound of her voice in Maris’s ear. “One of the dogs is down on the terrace, I can hear her crying. I need to go and check she’s not hurt.” She exaggerated her own waving gesture to the largest terrace above the river. It was immediately below her, but the trail to arrive there had switchbacks aplenty, which could believably delay her return.
However dubious Maris might be, she was too far away for the expression to be visible. Instead, she lifted her arm once more in acknowledgment and turned back to the village. Trist tucked the knife away and healed the cut on her lip as she tied off the spell and released it. She considered that switchbacked path. Did she feel like going as far in selling her excuse as actually trekking all the way down there?
Her village was nestled among the topmost rocky teeth of the gorge wall, along one of a web of narrow pre-magic roads that, while its surface had long since cracked into oblivion, had bequeathed them the flat expanse of its bed. The terrace she had indicated, in contrast, was an uneven rumple of golden grass over gray scree and decomposing rock outcrops. It was studded with a few green pines leaning with the prevailing wind and many more of their horizontal, dead brethren, weathered down to gray-white bones like driftwood on a white-capped river formed by yellow grass. From above it looked flat, but Trist knew that it sloped, like the layers visible in the wall on the other side of the river.
From the terrace’s vantage, perhaps she’d catch a closer glimpse of the wild hunt along the river below. That decided Trist—it would be more pleasant to waste the time until the celebration wound down in climbing down and back, rather than finding a seat on a nearby rock to sit alone with her thoughts.
The trail downward ended eventually at the river’s edge, used by those in her village to access the canoe pull-outs and the dock downstream for the larger trading ships. There was no particular reason to visit the terrace with any such regularity, so Trist followed the switchbacks only halfway down before leaving the trail and forging her own path onto the narrow terrace. She leaned into the thrashing nature of her steps through the grass, making sure any rattlesnakes had plenty of warning. By this time of the evening the heat had pooled to something sticky, but the wind dashed it away as soon as the last of the sunlight tried to drape it over her skin.
And there they were, the wild hunt, arriving from the west, the mouth of the river. They formed a comet-trail like a bright lantern swung back and forth in front of the eyes in total darkness, a continuous stream of light and rolling movement in full flood. Before Trist understood what was happening, that stream of light rose to the level of the terrace, onto it, and curled around her until the light was one unbroken circle surrounding her. That was when she heard the hunt, a thunder that came up through the soles of the feet, not down from the clouds above.
No! She hadn’t meant to call the hunt—she would have thought her fear of the consequences was too great for that—she’d surely fail, she didn’t want to die—she couldn’t run from them now—should she try to explain that, would it do any good, would they let her go?—what if they dropped her into the river there and then, for attempting to flout the laws that governed them? Her thoughts felt like a violent current of wind, tearing up dust but never traveling more than a few meters.
The wild hunt finally slowed enough for Trist to pick out the riders and their metal mounts. Up here among the hills, the roads were rarely good enough for the villagers to use bicycles instead of horses, but she’d learned how to ride one, same as every child. Knowing that in pre-magic times, tiny engines had been attached to everything, she’d had a picture in her mind of an engine-bicycle. It could not have been farther from these grand things, all metal muscles around two huge wheels, catching every piece of the remaining light and dashing it directly into her eyes.
The thunder did not ease, precisely, but it grew banked as the metal mounts slowed to a stop and their riders climbed free. Young and old—but not too young, and not too old—with skin across a spectrum that began at something so light as to be hardly brown at all to something that had a beautiful depth to its darkness, more variety than Trist had seen even at the great market at the mouth of the river once a year. They were all of them a contradiction that was uncomfortable to look at. On the one hand, they wore clothing of glittering, sensual, no doubt ruinously expensive fabrics that hugged hips and shoulders and bared necks, all elegance and grace; on the other, they wore heavy black boots and heavy black leather coats that seemed to match their mounts instead.
Most settled their weight back to lean against their quiescent mounts; one came toward Trist, boots making of her steps a heavy march even as her legs shaped delicate movements. Trist glanced hurriedly around much of the circle, but with no other movement visible, she forced herself to face the woman straight-on. Her spinning thoughts had spun her heart up as well, squeezed her throat down to something that barely allowed air through. She knew that when she spoke, it would waver with tears. No surprise there—tears were ever-present for her, usually tears of frustration with her own weakness.
Oddly, however, as the moment narrowed, the tears receded. There was no decision to be made here: she would speak to this hunter, she would agree to ride, because that was her only chance to come away from this encounter with her life. The opportunity to avoid this situation had passed, and perhaps that was freeing. Ride and not falter—that sounded to her as if she had only to cling on to a mount for the length of whatever chase the hunt took her on. She could cling, couldn’t she? She would win no reward, but avoiding slipping into the river was reward enough.
The hunter’s skin was dark, and her short curls had been set free around her face. And those curls! They were luxurious, rich, in a way that made Trist long to run her fingers through them to see if pre-magic lotion had made them feel as silky as they looked.
Another disquieting contradiction: up close, against the bronze sheen expert make-up had given her skin, dried white foam ringed the hunter’s mouth. She must have intuited the target of Trist’s horrified regard, because she touched the side of her mouth. “This?” She smiled, warmth and fear both similarly distant from the expression. “Yes, that was my death.” She closed her hands palm to palm. Then she cupped them open and little white... seeds? poured forth, endless, and yet never hitting the ground, like a sleight of hand trick. “Pills.”
Something of that long-gone pre-magic world, clearly, but that made no sense. “I thought the wild hunt didn’t exist before magic.” The moment Trist spoke the words, she regretted them. Now the hunters would all sneer at her for her ignorance.
The woman did not sneer, however; she was too distant for that, as if centuries had worn judgment entirely out of her. “It existed. It was simply that no one could see it.” She closed her hands up, then reached out as if to touch Trist. “Now. You called us, we came.”
Trist reared back. “No!” She might be trapped by the ancient rules of the hunt, but she would not have them say she had asked for it. “I didn’t call you. There’s nothing I’m so desperate to be free of that I’d take the chance of faltering during a ride.”
The hunter laughed, sound as distant as everything else about her. “So certain. Why not? You have the smell.” She withdrew her hand but balanced herself forward in its place, dipping her nose toward Trist’s neck. Trist wondered idly what the hunter herself smelled like and jerked back before she could show the merest hint of such an absurdly embarrassing impulse. It was her imagination that was warping innocent gestures, painting a picture of the hunter being attracted to her—it would be rude to display her own attraction to this stranger.
She was not, after all, the kind of person anyone would generally be attracted to without very careful preparation on her part to camouflage her weaknesses.
“Yes, that,” the hunter said, but Trist didn’t understand.
That didn’t matter now, though. The sooner she began this, the sooner it would end. “I’m ready to ride,” Trist said. “To the end of the hunt.”
“Ride with the wild hunt and conquer your fear,” the hunter said, as if she was agreeing, but no—that wasn’t what Trist had learned. The stories said, Conquer your fear and ride with the wild hunt—that was reversed. But the hunter was continuing, inexorably. “The hunt only ends in the kill. Are you ready for that?”
The situation was spinning away from her again—“No one said anything about a kill. Just that you have to prove your prowess to the wild hunt...”
The hunter took one heavy-booted step back. “We are not the ones you need to prove yourself to.” The other hunters parted, wheeling their mounts like the bicycles they weren’t, and through the gap they made, a monster appeared.
It was a snake, rearing all the way up from the river below. A snake with a mouth that could gape open to Trist’s full height, with fangs as long as her arm, poised to strike. The noise of its rattle was the punishing slam of wind-driven bursts of rain on a roof from a storm whose floodwaters would soon sweep her away. It hung, poised to strike for a moment, then closed its mouth and shouldered its way out of the river onto the terrace. Water sluiced from scales crusted with black like deadly mold over a rattler’s more usual brown.
It wasn’t climbing up onto the terrace—it was flying. Wings, raggedly black like a dead raven’s, spread from a quarter of the way down its body, lazily beating the air. Trist was standing frozen, tipping her head back as the monster rose up and up, and she should—run? But it was too late, the monster settled itself on the terrace, wrapping her round in a circle of coils within the circle the wild hunt had made.
She jerked out her working knife, pathetic as that was. She was one young woman with a metal blade hardly longer than one finger against a snake that rose up to dwarf her, fangs displayed once more, wings mantled wide. She was no good with offensive magic, but she had to try. Trist cut her opposite arm, shaped the droplets into a thrumming red blade as long as one of those fangs extending from her small real knife.
She slashed at the air in front of the snake’s mouth. Far from rearing back, it struck straight at her. Trist dodged, panting with fear, but she could only run half a dozen steps before her way was blocked by its body. Half a dozen steps in another direction, dodging the second strike, and she narrowly avoided having her legs knocked out from under her by a buffet of one of the wings.
It wouldn’t want to bite itself, would it? If she avoided the wings but pressed up against the body, wouldn’t that be the safest place? Trist ran for the nearest curve of scaled skin, blood blade extended. It skidded along a scale and found a join between two, but it had lost most of its momentum by then. Trist shoved, sawed desperately, but the red light of the blade sputtered and whined its way to disintegration.
Why couldn’t she be good at her magic? But there was no time for recriminations now, or for her thoughts to spin up. She had to act on instinct, and act again, not think.
The snake rolled that loop of its coil away from her and she was suddenly exposed, standing on an open patch of grass for a single breath before the next strike fell. She dropped the blade spell and put her energy into running instead. She couldn’t keep on like this. The snake would catch her soon enough when a rock turned under her feet or one of the dead tree trunks blocked her way.
The snake’s body was not so tall as to block her view of the hunters, of the beautiful young woman standing watching her with no sign of concern—or indeed any other emotion—on her features. Trist cut her lower lip and spat another illusion of her voice across the distance. “How? How do I defeat it?”
And the woman’s face—wavered? Yes, wavered, as if she were another illusion that the splash of Trist’s sound illusion had cut across, interfering with its smooth projection. Was a wild hunter, a spirit, not so different than an illusion, then?
And the monster was just another kind of spirit.
She had no time to logic it out, fretting at the idea; she simply had to try. Trist dodged for as much space and time as she could hoard, then slashed across rather than down her lower lip this time. The long cut gave her all the blood she needed and more, in the way of all but the most careful of facial wounds.
She brought up the bunched fingertips of one hand, wet them, and cast the illusion of a spear into flight. It didn’t need to be a weapon, if the interference of one illusion with another was what was going to save her, but she could craft the illusion tighter, swifter, if it was something she could imagine throwing in truth. She left her lip unhealed at the end of the spell, bleeding copiously ready for the next.
When the spear struck, the snake hissed like a rockfall that would bury her entire village and everyone in it, reared its head back, and flung the loop of body with the embedded spear illusion away from Trist. Its black-crusted scales more than wavered; they sizzled off into nothingness, like water cast on a hot pan. Beneath them was only blackness like smoke, which hemorrhaged from the wound, to be drawn away by the wind.
Yes! Trist wet most of her palm with blood this time, snapped her hand down in a great arc. An illusion of a great rust-clad metal beam, such as lingered buried beneath collapsed pre-magic bridges, smashed down on the place the spear had cut open and cleaved the snake’s body into two pieces. Smoke billowed from either side, faster and faster, consuming the snake in two directions.
And Trist should have known better than to watch the wound, not the head, but its last death-strike caught her completely off-guard. The fangs filled her vision and she could only flinch away—but the snake was getting smaller and smaller. When it bit into the left side of her throat, it was only normal size. Its impact felt commensurate to its original size, however, and Trist staggered like someone had smashed a club into the side of her neck.
Her hand came up automatically but encountered nothing. When she lifted it away, wreathed in rapidly dissipating black smoke, her fingertips were clean too. Even so, to be safe, she extended the healing spell she now used on her lip more widely.
“Well?” The beautiful hunter had to lift her voice, standing as she was in the very same place, halfway across the terrace from where the fight had taken Trist. “Did that prove your skills sufficiently?”
“Prove them to whom, if not you?” Trist twisted, but it was only her within the circle of impassively witnessing hunters.
What kind of question is that? You always say the wrong thing. A small, hissing voice in Trist’s left ear. She snapped her head to the side, not understanding where it was coming from. The hunter?
But the hunter was truly speaking now, voice clear and perhaps exasperated in its lack of inflection. “To yourself.”
What skills? said the voice in her ear.
Trist smacked her hand over her left ear, but the hunter shook her head. She touched the hollow beneath the corner of her own jaw. When she saw she had Trist’s full attention, she stepped aside and held out her hand in invitation to her mount. After a frozen moment of incomprehension—What are you, stupid?—Trist realized that the black paint on the side of the mount had such a slickness she could use it as a mirror. She approached, cautiously, and crouched.
The curve of the painted plate compressed everything above her brows too much to parse, but when she lined her jaw up with the flattest expanse, she could see the blackness that had settled indelibly into her skin, tattoo-like. It was a snake whose stylized body segments began at her left collarbone, wrapped around her neck, and ended with the snake’s head tucked poisonously into that hollow under the corner of her jaw. Its ragged wings, wide spread, covered those parts of her neck the body had left untouched. She made a hell of a picture, marked with darkness, the blood that hadn’t been used up in her spells drying all down her chin.
Now when everyone looks at you, they’ll know something’s wrong with you.
Trist tried to rise and fell back on her ass instead, because she had her hand clapped over the mark. It didn’t stop the hissing voice. Why did you think you could do even something this important without screwing it up?
“You see something more? Hear something?” the hunter prompted, as if she didn’t know. Or perhaps everyone’s journey was so personal, so different, that she truly didn’t.
“It’s—there’s a voice.” Trist couldn’t find the right words to explain, so she poured out whatever ones she could find. “It’s like it’s my thoughts, but they aren’t my thoughts anymore. It’s some other voice, not my voice.”
But she’d heard an explanation very like that before. Or perhaps exactly that one, but she hadn’t understood.
“The elders, when they were telling me not to worry so much. They said something like that, only I forgot it because it didn’t make sense.” Trist looked up to the sky, the soft twilight blanket of stars. It offered an empty space to spread her memory open on, examine it properly. “But now it does. It never was my voice. Or at least it didn’t come from the core of me. It just made me think it did.” She focused back on the hunter. “How did you... split that voice away?”
The hunter raised her brows and touched fingertips over her heart, a theatrical version of who me? “You did it to yourself. I daresay you could do it to others, if they wished.”
Absolutely not. You’d only make things worse for others when you failed. Trist flicked her left hand near her ear, a gesture she could already tell was going to become habitual. And yet—it was concrete, physical dismissal, and with the snake’s voice split away and dismissed, she could find her real answer in a quieter, kinder mind. “I... of course I’ll try.” She laughed, awkward. “It’s a strange feeling, to think of my weak magic as useful for something.”
The hunter’s face didn’t show surprise, nor did her tone. And yet. “Weak in what context? How big was that illusion you dropped on the monster? And from how far away? Then you wove a spell on your mind—and the mind is not an easy thing to heal.”
What use is any of that? The snake had an answer for everything, it seemed.
And what of the rest of the hunt? Trist remembered all the other hunters suddenly. She twisted to reassure herself they had not moved from their circle, lounging against their mounts, watching with opaque eyes. “Have I fulfilled the terms, then? I called you—all unknowing—and faced my fear to the end? Now I’m... freed of it?”
The beautiful hunter leveled her chin, formal. “Say instead, you have the tools to free yourself. Which is all we ever offered, whatever retelling may have made of our promise over time.” She turned to climb onto her mount. Trist couldn’t see her expression, but her tone softened slightly.
“I have always wished that no one else would end their own life and join us. That wish will never be wholly granted, but if you could seek a few out and use your magic to give them tools of their own, I would be obliged.”
And she was astride and the mounts were uncurling into their single line and rushing away. Without their light Trist suddenly realized it was full night, with the moon the merest sliver.
Everything was too much for several breaths, and Trist curled over her belly, arms hugged tight. The snake seemed hardly to know what weak point to attack first and spoke in disconnected phrases. She’d fail in freeing herself from fear. She’d fail in finding others. She’d fail in helping them.
“But I didn’t fail when I defeated that monster.” She said it aloud to the emptiness of the night, and when the snake was momentarily silenced, she said it again, louder. Easier to say than to believe—but with the snake’s voice pushing her, at least she’d said it. She would... work on the believing part. Later.
She could barely see the bluff she needed to climb to get home, never mind the switchbacked trail up it, until she pricked a finger and flicked a blood droplet upward into a simple moonlight-white ball of light. She’d used too much blood today to make it larger than her fist, but that was enough to pick her way through the grass toward the trail back. Which made her magic extremely useful in this context as well, now she thought about it.
“I didn’t fail, my magic is useful,” she told the snake. “You lie.”
She waited for it to say she was wrong, but it seemed even the snake couldn’t argue with that.