I was hungry. And tired. And cold. More hungry and tired and cold than I had ever been before.
When I lived in Silver Hollow, in the cottage I shared with Mother, I thought I understood. I was cold when I spent a night or two with the north wind blowing, when snow drifted up to my knees as I stepped outside our cottage door. I was tired when I spent a full day in the fields gathering herbs, when I helped out in the vineyard harvesting ripe grapes. I was hungry when Mother took too long to stir honey into porridge, to ladle hearty stew into my smooth wooden bowl.
But now, as I trudged down a narrow path in nameless woods in the far reaches of the primacy of Duodecia, I knew I’d been
wrong. I had understood nothing. Life with Mother had been a game, a frolic. I had never wanted for anything when I lived with Mother, when I enjoyed the safety and the comfort and the security of my tiny village. Mother had loved me and protected me. She kept me safe from every harm.
“Feeling a bit sorry for ourselves, Keara?” Caw’s voice cut into my litany of woes. Some part of me must have been aware that my darkbeast was hovering near; I did not startle as he flew out of the swirling snow and sank his talons into the pad on my shoulder.
“Don’t start with me.” I slurred the words. My lips felt numb as they slid over my teeth. Caw was the reason I’d left the simple perfection of Silver Hollow. By tradition in my village—in all of Duodecia—I should have killed my darkbeast at the full moon following my twelfth birthday.
I hadn’t been able to kill Caw though. He was my best friend. He knew everything about me—everything I thought, everything I believed. He had been magically bonded to me when I was an infant, and I truly could not imagine a life without him.
“A deep first snow is a good thing,” Caw remonstrated. “The redfruit will grow larger next summer.”
“If we’re even alive next summer,” I said. My sullen voice caught on the last word as my boot slipped on a particularly icy patch in the snow. I gasped as I regained my balance, and then I sniffed loudly, to emphasize my frozen nose.
Caw shifted his weight as if he’d never considered falling. He cocked his head at a sly angle. “I know your problem. Your pack is too heavy. You’d have a much easier time walking if you shed a little weight. Say, maybe an apple cake?”
I glared at him and picked up my pace. I didn’t want him to fall off my shoulder—not exactly—but I took a little pleasure in the way he needed to tighten his talons. “The apple cakes are long gone. We finished them two nights ago. Just before we left the main road.” My stomach growled at the memory of the sweet treat.
“Then I’ll have to settle for seedcake,” Caw said matter-of-factly.
Fool. We’d finished the seedcake well before the apple. Even so, my mouth flooded at the memory of the honeyed sweetmeat. I swung my arms as I lengthened my stride, shrugging elaborately.
Caw merely flapped his wings, keeping his perch by digging still deeper with his claws. “You are vicious when you’re cranky. I take your hunger. Forget it. It is mine.”
If only things were that simple. If only I could offer up my hunger as I had my darkest emotions, my most evil deeds, throughout all my childhood. Caw was responsible for taking those, for absorbing them, for freeing me to live a life of goodness and light, like every child of Duodecia.
Except his taking didn’t always work with me. Despite my darkbeast’s best effort, I was usually left with my dark impulses intact, with the same old urges to think bad thoughts and do dark
deeds. Even now my belly twisted, yielding an enormous gurgle that might have been heard all the way back in Lutecia.
Caw looked so startled that I had to laugh. The sound echoed through the woods, and for the first time since dawn, for the first time since we’d set out on this narrow path through this uncharted forest, my human companions turned to look at me. “Sorry,” I said to Goran and Taggart. And then, by way of explanation for the two Travelers, I nodded toward my darkbeast and said, “Caw.”
Goran and Taggart had to be used to my sometimes-strange behavior by then. After all, we had journeyed together since the summer, since I left my home village of Silver Hollow for the excitement of crossing Duodecia with the Travelers. I had originally been drawn to the actors for the magic of their revels, the plays that they performed along the Great Road. I had stayed when I discovered true friendship, from humans and darkbeasts alike.
Now, Taggart merely shrugged in the face of my inappropriate laughter, turning back to the trail he was forging. His breathing was ragged in the cold night air. Snow had crusted in his beard, making it seem as if he wore a blanket woven out of clouds. By the glint of moonlight the night before, I’d seen him tuck his ornate iron neckpiece beneath his tunic. His darkbeast, Flick, lived on that iron ornament.
Flick was a lizard. Even though the magic of Bestius, god of
all the darkbeasts, would keep Flick from hibernating through the winter, the tiny creature could not help but grow sluggish with the cold.
Goran’s toad, Wart, wasn’t much better off. He kept her in his pocket, doing his best to warm her with his own chilled fingers. I wasn’t sure who hated the snowfall most—man, boy, lizard, or toad. Or me. Caw wasn’t in the running—his spirits never seemed to dim.
Caw was utterly oblivious to the danger we faced on the road. All three of us humans had passed the age of twelve—Goran and me just a few months earlier, Taggart many decades before. Each of us had sworn to execute our darkbeasts in the dark ritual mandated by Bestius and all the Twelve. And yet each of us had chosen to spare our closest companions, to brave the wrath of all the gods and their all-too-human Inquisitors.
The six of us—humans and unlawful darkbeasts—believed in the ancient stories, believed in the secret tales. Taggart had woven the stories for us every night since we had fled the safety and security of the Primate’s capital, Lutecia.
The old man had spoken with the magic of the Travelers, his voice strong as he chanted about free darkbeasts, about humans called Darkers who dared to defy the ancient order of the Twelve. Taggart had spent a lifetime performing before crowds, and he had honed his ability to weave images, to share a vision. He had
made me believe in—made me long for—a society where our darkbeasts would be free to live out their lives in peace.
Now Taggart turned toward me, his heavy eyebrows knit into an angry line. “Keep up, Keara. We won’t come back for you if you slip into a ditch.” His voice sounded raw, scraped across the back of his throat.
I started to retort—there weren’t any ditches on this narrow passage through the woods—but the soles of my leather shoes chose that moment to lose their purchase on the icy road. My knee slammed hard against the frozen earth, and my teeth snapped shut so hard that my ears rang. Caw squawked and flew off my shoulder, one jet-black wing buffeting my cheek as he swept past.
Without a word, Goran turned back to help me. His fingers were rough as he clutched my biceps, as he tugged me back to my feet. His teeth chattered as he stared into my eyes, silently asking if I was able to continue. I nodded once, squaring my shoulders. He stayed beside me as I took a tentative step.
I could put my weight on my right knee, but it hurt. A lot. Immediately I thought of the herbs that Mother used for bone bruises. The best was snowlap, but we’d be hard-pressed to find any of that. The deep-rooted plant grew high in the mountains of central Duodecia, far from this stretch of northern woods.
I grimaced and took another half dozen steps, Goran’s hand on my arm the entire time. There. The pain was easing. Or maybe my
leg was simply freezing, now that I had dipped my knee into the slushy snow. With any luck, we’d find a stream when we stopped for the evening, find a willow tree. Fresh bark would not work as well as dried, but a willow tea would help ease the pain in my knee.
Assuming that we ever did stop for the night. “Tell me again why we’re doing this?” I muttered, pitching my voice low enough that only Goran could hear. Truth be told, I was still a little afraid of Taggart, despite the fact that he had spared his own darkbeast. Despite the fact that we had been on the road together for nearly a month.
“You know as well as I do. Taggart says we’re close to the Darkers now. They’ll never come close to the main road, to the Inquisitors.”
“If there even are any Darkers,” I complained. I didn’t keep my voice low enough, though, because Taggart turned round to face me.
“Doubting again, are you?” His grey eyes flashed in the moonlight. As he filled his lungs, I could hear him wheeze. The rattle sounded like dried leaves of sheepleaf. “Have I misled you yet?”
Taggart had saved us from the Inquisitors in Lutecia, guiding us out of the city and into the marshes. He had given up a lifetime of secrecy, of balancing his hidden darkbeast against the Traveler troupe that he loved, all so that he could help Goran and me. He had led the way when the Autumn Meet was over, showing us
how to melt into the crowds of merchants heading south, journeying toward home. He had made sure that all of us had food, even the darkbeasts.
It was only after we turned west that things became difficult. Taggart insisted that he had good sources, that there was excellent reason to believe that Darkers were hiding in the nearby woods. Nevertheless, it was hard to believe him as our packs grew lighter. And it was almost impossible to have faith now that our supplies had run completely dry.
For the past two days Taggart had chivied us on with promises instead of facts. I took little satisfaction that he had tired even more than Goran and I had. Now the old man’s eyes glowed strangely. His lips had grown chapped, and I suspected that he was running a fever.
“No, Taggart,” I said, finally responding to his peevish question.
As if in response, the old man veered from the path we were following, choosing an even narrower way through the woods. At least the snow was shallower there. More of it had caught on the broad pine branches that loomed above us. I wanted to ask Taggart how he got his information, how he knew that Darkers were hidden close by. I could only imagine, though, how the old man would react to that challenge to his authority.
Caw landed back on my shoulder. “There should be pinecones beneath the snow,” he said. “Pinecones mean pine nuts. You could roast
them by tonight’s fire. Mix them with a bit of lard and flour, a touch of honey, and fry it all up for a snack.”
“That would be a grand idea,” I said, rolling my eyes. “If we had lard and flour. Or honey. Or oil for frying.”
“Then you agree! Let’s dig for pinecones now!”
Caw’s optimism made me smile—as he had surely meant me to do—and I stumbled farther down the path. I tried to ignore the clutch of pine needles, the looming presence of snowbound trees, the occasional shift of branches as Taggart or Goran brushed free a dollop of snow that landed on my head.
Lard and flour would be lovely. Honey, too. I closed my eyes and imagined the finest treat I’d ever had—toffee bread from the village of Rivermeet. I could remember the hot steam rising from the baked loaf, the rich, buttery aroma as I tore mine into bite-size pieces.
We were leagues from Rivermeet, though. Leagues and months away from that simple time in my past, from that easy passage along the Great Road.
Taggart coughed, a deep rumbling that was anchored in his chest rather than his throat. My mind leaped back to Mother’s herbs, immediately searching for a cure. Marrin berries would do the trick—roasted over a slow fire. Taggart could chew them, one by one, until the phlegm broke loose in his lungs.
There were no marrin berries in the winter woods, though.
And none stored in our packs. Taggart coughed again, as if a dam had been breached and he could no longer hold back the sticky sound of grippe.
Worry sparked within me at the sound. If we had been back in Silver Hollow, Taggart could have gone to sleep in the Men’s Hall. He could have been surrounded by eager youths, by young men who would tend to his needs until he was well again.
But here there was no Men’s Hall. No Men’s Hall, no Women’s Hall. No supportive community like the one I had always known in the village of my childhood. We were alone, destined to live or die beneath the winter trees.
The Frost Moon glared, icy and unforgiving as its light filtered through the tree branches. Frost. That sounded so benign. Nothing at all like the frozen, slippery mess I fought through. Who had named the Moons, anyway? Who had decided the endless cycle—Frost to Wolf to Snow, and on through the rest of the year?
I would have given the Moons different names. I would have tied them to darkbeasts I had known. Caw could take the place of the Frost Moon, standing in for unpredictable weather, for unexpected change. Wart could be the Egg Moon, heavy and waiting in the middle of spring. Flick could stand in for the Flower Moon, for the busy industry of midsummer.
What other darkbeasts could I name? None that were alive—all
the other shadow creatures I had ever known had been slain by their owners in a timely rite. All the other darkbeasts were gone, dead, cold.
So very, very cold. I stumbled forward, suddenly freed from a pine tree’s clinging fingers. For one terrible moment I thought I was going to fall again, was going to jam my knee another time.
Goran’s fingers closed around my arm. He held me upright, gripped me tightly until I caught my breath. “Must rest,” I whispered, surprised to find that my lips were chapped, raw, and swollen from the wind.
“No,” he said.
I shook my head. “Jus’ a second.” The words slurred, frozen as they left my mouth.
“We can’t stop, Keara.” Goran looked exasperated. Exhausted. And something else. Something I could not read. Something I should understand. Something . . . And then it came to me. Goran was afraid.
I took another step and slipped on the ice that had frozen in Taggart’s footsteps. I sat down hard in the snow. I was too weary to cry out. I started to shiver, great racking waves that shook me from my chin to my toes.
“Keara,” Goran pleaded. “Stand up. I know you can. Come on.”
I shook my head. The motion freed my jaw enough that my teeth began to chatter.
Goran knelt beside me, gritting his own teeth in frustration. I watched through slitted eyes as he fumbled in his pocket. I could see his fingers close around something, and I watched indecision swirl across his face.
What? What was he holding?
Goran caught his breath and drew his hand from his pocket. Despite my fatigue, despite the bitter cold that shook my body, despite the clatter of my teeth in my aching jaws, I craned my neck to see what he held.
It was a bracelet. A fine black bracelet, spun out of delicate fibers. Careful, ornate knots marked the circumference at regular intervals.
“Wha’ is it?” I asked. My curiosity was piqued, even if I found it even harder to form words.
“It belonged to my mother,” Goran said. I understood the importance of that simple statement. Goran never spoke about his mother. His mother. Taggart’s daughter. “She gave it to me when she . . . left.”
Left? Where had she gone? I peered closer at the treasure. I had a dozen questions I wanted to ask.
Goran seemed to understand the most important one. “It’s
from her darkbeast, a ferret. She spun the fur after she killed Streak. Tied the knots to make it stay on her wrist. To remember the lessons she took to her darkbeast.”
I’d seen such things before. My mother had stuffed her rat darkbeast and kept him by our hearth. My sister had turned her snake into a belt. But this bracelet was finer than those tributes. It was beautiful. Precious.
“It’s yours,” Goran said. “But you have to get up, Keara.” He dangled it in front of me.
I shook my head. He asked too much.
“Keara. I’ll give it to you. But you must walk.”
I heard the tears in his voice. The desperation. The terror.
And I looked at the darkbeast bracelet again. He had never shown it to me before. It must be precious to him, perhaps the most valuable thing he owned. I caught my tongue between my teeth. I flexed my toes within my soaked boots. I caught my breath. And I stood.
Goran nodded, taking a few steps down the path. Jerkily, I followed. One step. Two. Three.
Goran slipped the bracelet around my blue-veined wrist, covering the tax tattoo that showed I was a loyal citizen of Duodecia. He tightened the knots carefully, cinching the jewelry so that I could not lose it in the snow.
And we continued down the forest trail.
I could not say how long we stumbled. I could not say how many times I fell. I could not say how many hours we trudged through the snow. But finally, when I thought I would never take another step—precious darkbeast bracelet or no precious darkbeast bracelet—I caught myself against the edge of a gigantic black stone.
Dazed, I looked around. We stood in the middle of a clearing. I had grown up in the woods near Silver Hollow; I knew my way around a forest. I immediately realized that something was different about this space.
The line of trees behind me had been groomed. Nothing obvious, nothing that any casual traveler would notice. But the more I stared, the more I could see that the clearing had been shaped into a definite square.
The black stone only drove home what my mind had already started to accept. It wasn’t perfectly smooth beneath its cap of snow. There were indentations on the two sides visible to me, and I could see a groove in the top, along one long edge.
The clearing was shaped to resemble a godhouse, a building sacred to Bestius. I tilted my head back to gaze at the lowering sky, almost as if I were a toddler trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue. The clouds loomed over the forest, closing in the space, making the clearing feel even more like the holy home of the god of darkbeasts.
A shiver quaked down my spine.
I had not been in Bestius’s godhouse since the Thunder Moon. I had not been in the presence of the god of darkbeasts since I had been instructed to take Caw from his iron cage, ordered to wring his neck and take my place among the adults of Silver Hollow.
My raven chose that moment to alight on my shoulder, startling me so badly that a wordless cry burst from my lips. “Hush,” he said. “All will be well. They might even have a few treats to share.”
“Th-they?” I stammered, fighting the urge to turn my back on the black stone and Taggart and Goran, to push my way back into the safety of the forest.
Before Caw could answer, though, before I could flee, the meaning of his words became clear. Two dozen shadows detached themselves from the trees. Two dozen dark figures glided toward the altar in the center of the clearing. Two dozen people surrounded Taggart and Goran and me.
I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out.