‘Vengeance Sewn with Fey Cord’, Christine Lucas

Illustrations © 2016 Pear Nuallak



 [ Threads, © 2016 Pear Nuallak ] They bring the boy to Saysa just after nightfall. His father kicks her door open and places him on the mat, bleeding and breathless—a little sacrificial lamb before her seamstress’ tools.

“Cast your magic. Stitch him up.” Not a request, but a command.

“My Lord Commander, I—”

“I said, stitch him up.”

His voice hasn’t changed, nor has his tone, since she first saw him—almost twenty years ago. Now his hair is gray and his face wrinkled, but he still barks orders around. This war-hound’s bites are worse than his bark. Saysa learned that lesson well, in another lifetime, one he has clearly forgotten but she has not; she will not. Lord Commander Jehran won’t take no for an answer, nor will he accept failure. If the boy dies, so will she. The queen’s favor won’t save her from the commander’s wrath and his many thugs.

“I’ll do my best.” She puts Queen Thelda’s white silken vest aside—away from the blood—and reaches into her workstation’s drawer for another set of tools: thin bone needles, threads of purified silk, pairs of gold-plated scissors—her tools for flesh.

The boy’s left side is badly mauled, the flesh torn open and the bone exposed in his forearm, and so are several of his ribs. He doesn’t scream or cry, only looks up at her in silence, with eyes huge and unblinking.

She threads the smallest of the bone needles with triple silk. “What did this? My stitching won’t be enough.”

“Does it matter?” He towers over her, his hands balled to fists at his sides. “A mountain lion, if you should know. Its head will make a fine wedding gift for the queen.”

Saysa kneels by the boy, her left hand brushing his intact skin, her right holding the needle tight. Mountain lions rarely come so south, so close to the marshes and human settlements; has famine plagued their territory too?

Or is it a sign from the blind fate-shepherd god?

“Hold him.” Before he can bark at her, she adds, “Please, my Lord Commander. All stitches need to be where they must for the spell to work.”

Jehran scoffs. “He won’t move. He knows better than that.”

And the boy doesn’t move, only trembles. Saysa presses the edges of the torn flesh together and starts her stitching, weaving in with every cycle of her needle secrets of herbs and flowers to numb the wound.

Lavender, mimosa, pennyroyal, thyme, make your roots a shield for this child of mine…”

Muscle and sinew tremble under her touch, the skin welcoming the needle, rejoicing at every stitch. Silver silk on pale flesh, patterns within patterns, long threaded chains stronger than any steel the commander keeps in his dungeons. With every word, she breathes down the blessings of the forest and the moon upon the unfortunate boy. It’s not his fault his father is a black-hearted murderer.

“… Morning dew and summer breeze, weave a rainbow path through these…”

The boy loses consciousness halfway through the stitching of his forearm. Better this way. Those huge eyes burned holes through Saysa’s face, almost melting the serene façade, and she feared that her work would be faulty. But it’s not; it never is. Once she cuts off the final thread, the boy shudders, and his eyes move behind closed lids. He’s dreaming.

Good.

She sits up, wiping blood and sweat on her apron. “I’ve done everything within my power. He needs a healer’s skills now.”

“He’ll have the best.” Jehran kneels beside her, their shoulders almost touching, to pick his son up.

At this moment of leveling, Saysa dares the unthinkable: she lightly touches his forearm. “My lord…”

His hand jerks up as if to slap her, but stops mid-air when the boy whimpers in his sleep. He glances askance at her. “What?”

She bows her head and crosses bloody hands on her chest; his son’s blood, a reminder of debt to deter his anger. “Forgive my insolence, my Lord Commander… but that lion’s corpse?”

“What of it?”

“Could I have its forepaws?”

“Its forepaws?” Not a glance this time, but a glare, like those the rich reserve for muck-covered beggars. “What on earth for?”

“I can use its claws and fur to embroider an enchanted handkerchief, to keep the fever away.” A good lie—but is it a perfect lie?

“I’ll see that you get them.” He picks up his son and leaves, without one glance back, without one word of gratitude.

Once alone, Saysa can weep. She can curse. She can scream out the rage that has been choking her since that accursed night when, hidden in the forest, she watched Jehran and his thugs ride away with her twin brother’s head. But she’s not twelve anymore. So she cleans her hands and picks up the unfinished silk vest. Every stitch becomes a silent scream, every thread a curse that will undo Queen Thelda’s bloodthirsty hide at the seams.


“You’re ripping me off, Mistress Saysa. I can’t give you this—” the tanner holds up the crocodile’s hide “—for less than ten silvers.”

Saysa doesn’t lose her smile. Perhaps it’s the desperation lingering beneath the tanner’s bombastic haggle, or the nine silvers in her pouch that keep her voice controlled and soft.

“Come now, Master Tanner. I only want the tail. Surely you can do better than that?”

Or perhaps it’s the shadows of the hanged men on the gallows outside. What did those poor slobs do? Whisper the queen’s name in an unfavorable tone? The tanner behaves casually, but avoids stepping too close to the spots where the dead men’s shadows dance.

“Fine! You can have it for nine.”

“I’ll give you seven.” She silently counts her savings in her head. If only she could get it for that price, she’d have enough for sewing supplies and food for the next week. But she needs the hide more than food. She’s already acquired a wolf’s head, a stag’s antlers and a bear’s skin. Without the crocodile’s tail and the lion’s forepaws the mantle will be incomplete. It’s been a week since the commander told her she’ll get the forepaws; hopefully, he’ll keep his word.

He’s a sadistic bastard, but a straightforward one. He wouldn’t lie.

She gets the tail for eight and a spelled undershirt for his wife. The tanner won’t go any lower, and she doesn’t press him further. She’s used to sleeping on an empty stomach, but his scrawny child of a wife, barely over sixteen, expects her first child. Perhaps those silver coins and her craft will help the poor lass survive winter and childbirth.

Saysa doubts that, but she can do nothing more—no one can, when crops rot at the roots, livestock drop dead in their pens and children are born with pus-crusted eyes and covered in boils. With her shawl tight around her face, she steps out into the chilly morning, her valuable parcel clutched at her chest, keeping her eyes low. She has shoes and a sturdy shack and an old stove to keep warm. People get killed for less.

The river spat silt and corpses during the night; Saysa takes the dry main street home, where the poor don’t fight over bloated carcasses of mountain goats. Her face remains blank outside the temple of the priests that preach justice but practice deceit. So easily have they spewed ill-conceived prophecies to deranged monarchs…

A band of five, they told her, will join and rise against you, each born under a different celestial sign: Wolf and Bear, Stag and Crocodile, and the Great Lioness that prowls the winter skies. Kill them now, and save your rule.

Their soft hands wield no blades, but their poison-dripping tongues made headless corpses out of boys and prostitutes out of girls. They didn’t tell the queen how the blood of the innocent would plague the land, nor how the untimely dead would curse her.

The palace stands adjoined to the temple, and Saysa pulls her shawl tighter, covering as much of her face as possible. She doesn’t trust herself to keep the hatred from slithering through every wrinkle on her face, through every hair turned grey early. Not now that the mantle is close to completion. Queen Thelda murdered Saysa’s brother in his bed. She killed the lion, but missed the lioness. And now, the time of reckoning is at hand.

Once safely home, with her door locked and bolted, she places the crocodile tail alongside the rest in her back room. Upon a wooden skeleton big as a bull, her chimeral mantle awaits: the head of a wolf, the antlers of a great stag and the body and hind legs of a black bear. From racks around the walls hang the threads she’ll use to sew her vengeance: silk, linen and her own hair, thrice-braided, thrice-anointed with her urine, tears and blood.

If only she had fey hair to strengthen her threads… but, if spells to summon those pesky fates exist, she never learned them.

Queen Thelda is far from defenseless, even from magic; her chief adviser and court sorcerer is a powerful man. But he’s not a smart man; he looks down on women’s magic, and knows little about a seamstress’ arts. He can conjure up the spirits of the dead, but he won’t be able to undo this spellwork. He won’t know how.

A kick on her front door and Saysa shoves everything aside before securing her back room. The chain that keeps it locked is threaded with enchanted cord; lockpicks, hammers, even axes are useless here. She hurries to her doorstep, and finds Jehran there.

He barges in, almost knocking her down. “A locked door? Only people with secrets lock their doors.”

“And people with valuables in these difficult times, my lord. I use pearls and gold leaves for the queen’s vest, may the gods keep her safe.” Until my mantle is done. Just until then. She dares a glance and he shows no more suspicion, although he’s inspecting her shack. Has he believed her? He has to. It can’t end now, when she’s so close…

“Here.” He shoves a long, narrow parcel in her hands. He won’t look at her, only past her and around her, at the ragged mat, her straw bed and her quilt riddled by mended moth holes.

She unwraps one end of the parcel: the lion’s forepaws. She manages a mousy voice. “Thank you, my lord. I’ll get to work right away. The handkerchief will be ready tomorrow. I hope that the boy is healing well?”

“He’s running a fever the healers can’t cure.” One last look around, at her wicker baskets and clay mugs, and he turns to leave. Two steps before the threshold, he tosses a couple of silvers at her.

She doesn’t move a muscle and they fall on the mat. His step slightly falters as he exits; did he expect her to scuttle down on all fours to get them? She leaves them there overnight, while she works on the handkerchief—a flimsy little thing of silk left from the queen’s vest, embroidered with a simple charm of protection. Come dawn, she picks the coins up, barely touching them with her thumb and index finger, as though they’re covered in manure, and wraps them in a rag. She slips them into the palm of the first beggar she meets.

She won’t take Jehran’s blood money, but people are starving. That one won’t—not today.

The commander doesn’t return for the handkerchief, but sends one of his thugs. Saysa rarely sleeps now, working on the queen’s vest during the day and on her mantle at night. What the commander brought her are the forepaws of a lioness; they have to be. Male lions grow bigger than that. Is it another sign?

He returns three days later, two weeks before the night of the Union, when the stars of the Five Divines form a perfect circle in the night sky—two weeks before the queen’s wedding. This time, he doesn’t kick the door open, but simply knocks.

“My son is better. The handkerchief helped him.” He doesn’t wait for an invitation inside, but his steps are easier this time—almost normal. He shoves another parcel in her hands. “Thank you.”

How could those two words not choke him? Saysa gulps down her rage and checks the parcel: bread, and raisins, and dried figs from the coast. Her heart screams to throw them on the floor and stomp them to a pulp. But her mind is weary and her stomach aches, and she needs nourishment to stay alert and awake—to stay alive and cast her magic. So she keeps them and bows her head.

“Thank you, my lord. You’re too kind.” She’ll kill him anyway.

He nods and sits down on an old stool that creaks under his weight. She slides behind her seamstress’ workstation, and her heart rejoices in this small shift of balance. There lies her power, there stands her throne, and he knows it.

“The queen has expressed some concern whether her vest will be ready for the wedding.” He leans forward, rests his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together. “If there is anything you need to complete your task, I can get it.”

“The queen should not concern herself with such matters. The spells of youthful beauty and seduction need time to settle, but the vest will be ready on time.” She lies, and it tastes sweeter than any fruit he could gift her. Such superficial spells settle overnight. The other—the darker, venomous magic of undoing at the seams… that needs careful placement where it won’t be detected. She keeps her back straight and her hands at each side of her station. “And thank you, my lord, but I have everything I need.”

He glances around, then straight at her. “You don’t look like you do.”

Doesn’t he know that people are starving and have nothing to spare, even for her talents? Doesn’t he know that the queen herself has never paid her one coin? The peasants always return with a few eggs or vegetables or even housework as payment—but not their queen, may her days be numbered and her death slow.

“I don’t need much. The simpler my life, the more focused my spells.”

“But someone born with your talents…”

“I wasn’t born a seamstress. I was made one.”


In the days that remain until the wedding, the commander visits her often, and he always brings her little gifts: fruits and nuts and colorful ribbons and threads for her craft. She accepts his tokens with cold graciousness and slips them to the beggars once he’s well away.

Mistress Lalinda, her mentor and the city’s previous seamstress, may her soul fly upon the winds, had warned her about those pesky seduction charms, like those she’s stitched upon the queen’s vest; whimsical little pests that won’t stay threaded on their fabric. They grow vines and entangle anyone that comes close with a weak heart—like Jehran, who lost his wife years ago. Rumor has it that she died by his hand. Now, caught in a spelled net of silk and ribbons, perhaps he’s planning the same fate for Saysa: first a wedding, then a chokehold and a grave.

The final deadly stitches inside the queen’s vest are hurried and uneven, not out of haste, but out of anguish. Saysa has been hungry and cold since her childhood died alongside her family, since that long march from her father’s burned-down farm to the capital. She forgot how to walk straight; always hunched, clutching tightly upon her chest whatever she’s carrying, so it won’t be ripped away. That bastard was right; she could do better.

She cuts the last thread and holds up the vest. Knee-long, of the whitest silk, with embroidered patterns of leaves, life-like birds and flowers, it’s spelled to bind the queen’s new husband. Saysa knows little of him; some rich, spoiled princeling from the southern archipelago, whose family promised to bring the kingdom out of famine and debt.

A debt of blood cannot be paid with all of the world’s gold. In Saysa’s back room, vengeance awaits for every untimely death at the queen’s command.

Jehran comes to escort her to the queen; he comes bearing no gifts but temptation, if only for a moment. Beside him, she wouldn’t have to walk with her eyes low. Then a tiny creature darts before her, attempting to trip her in her moment of weakness. Small like a cat, agile like a squirrel, one of the trickster fates has escaped their blind guardian to test her resolve. Saysa clenches her fists and walks on. The fey snarls at her and runs off, unseen by those unfamiliar with the hidden lore of the land.

There’s no turning back now.

Entering the queen’s private chambers forces all other thoughts to the back of her mind. Suddenly self-conscious of her peasant clothes, she brushes back stray locks of hair and straightens her petticoat. Even the dark-skinned midget who lounges at the queen’s feet, leashed like a lapdog, is better dressed than she. Saysa drops on one knee; her eyes count the knots on the carpet to keep her mind focused. Not now. Tomorrow. It will all end tomorrow, one way or another.

Queen Thelda sits on a recliner of polished wood, furnished with thick cushions, heavy drapes all around her to hide her thugs and assassins. She keeps her back straight, one arm resting on the recliner’s back, the other absently waving a small fan. White powder covers her face, her lips a thin crimson line, her eyes kohl-traced slits under carefully plucked brows. Dark curls fall around an ascetic face, so angular it could belong to a corpse. She was a great ruler once, and the land prospered under her rule. Not any more.

All the perfumes, all the powder and kohl of the kingdom cannot mask the stench of lingering death. Queen Thelda is old, older than Saysa’s mother would be today.

And she’s cursed.

How can no one see the blood crusted upon those bony hands? They wave at Saysa, and her mind snaps back to reality.

“Have you brought it?” A bored, low voice. “Show me.”

“Yes, your majesty.” Saysa rises and unfolds the vest, holding it high, so the pearls and gold leaves reflect the candlelight.

Queen Thelda leans forward to feel the patterns. “I suppose it will do.” She snaps her fingers, and an old man steps forward from behind one of the heavy curtains at her right. “Ezana, what do you think of this?”

Ezana, the court sorcerer. With his simple grey robes, his white hair and goatee, he looks like an old shepherd. But this man knows the ways of the wyrms and has powers that come from a host of undead, their voices stolen and their wills chained—or so the rumors say. Saysa’s hands tremble as he approaches. He doesn’t even look twice at her; in his presence, everyone trembles.

He lifts the hem of the vest close to his face, examining every stitch inside and out. Saysa wishes she could still her heart and silence the throbbing in her ears. He finally lets go of the cloth and turns to the queen.

“A simple charm, your majesty, but an effective one. It will achieve its purpose.”

Ah, those whimsical, obvious charms of seduction! Saysa bites her tongue to stifle her grin. The court sorcerer, outwitted by a seamstress with holes in her shoes.

Queen Thelda dismisses her with a wave of her fan. “You can go now. Leave the vest with our maid.” A long sigh, a half-hearted glance. “We are pleased with your work, Seamstress. You may attend our wedding banquet tomorrow, if you can make yourself presentable.”

She bows her head. “As my queen commands.”

And she’ll bring a gift the kingdom will never forget.


After delivering the queen’s vest, Saysa returns to a fate-infested home.

The damned tricksters are everywhere: perched upon the shelves, rolling on her straw mattress, messing up her workstation, picking threads off her worn mat. No bigger than alley cats, they have humanoid bodies with short torsos and long, spider-like limbs.

They wear their mousy-brown hair in a single braid that falls over their eyes down to their chests, an invitation and a challenge: Catch me, if you can—if you dare!

Their mouths are at the back of their heads, twisted in a permanent smirk to mock those who fail, as they’re running away: Hah! Missed me! So there!

They giggle and cackle and chipper in their careless way. One hunches over her workstation’s drawer and tosses around threads and ribbons. Saysa forces her breathing to remain slow and her eyes unblinking until. . .

… any moment now. . .

Her hand darts out and grips its braid. A collective gasp and a long sigh, before the others resume their chirping of fey nonsense. They scatter out the door, through the window, through corners, shadows and angles only their kind can cross. The captured one settles in Saysa’s arms, and doesn’t try to escape; it has fulfilled its purpose. When Saysa curls up by her mantle to sleep, it curls up with her in silence, the burden of a promise that hangs loose.

Saysa doesn’t understand the ways of the gods, nor of the dead. In her dreams, the dead and the divine stroll in like long-lost relatives. They come through the smell of cinnamon and apples in crisp winter mornings, Mother combing her hair, her brother’s incessant poking and teasing. Lost voices in time, forms with no faces, whispers without bodies, they swirl and spiral until a single scene settles.

Mistress Lalinda, her teacher and second mother, clad in her mantle of many feathers, feeds the pigeons at the temple steps. Seed by seed, crumb by crumb, they morph from feathered pests to trickster fates. Then those too shift and grow fur and antlers and scales: the Wolf and the Stag, the Bear and the Crocodile lounge at the feet of the long-dead seamstress. Mistress Lalinda changes too, her face more leonine than human now: the Lioness, her left forepaw Wrath and her right one Vengeance.

She roars and, in the midst of the five divines, something clings and rolls out of the dream until it stops at Saysa’s feet: a long needle, as long as her forearm, made of bone—from a human thigh. Mistress Lalinda always kept it hidden, and never told her what it’s for.

Saysa knows; she has known for some time now.

Shoved out of sleep and dream, she sits up and finds her captive dead, as it happens when they’re caught. They leave no corpse behind, only their braids, ashes, and their essence in a message through dreams and visions.

She dusts off her clothes and weaves the fate’s hair into a single thread that will complete the mantle.


 [ Costume, © 2016 Pear Nuallak ] “I come as ordered, Queen Thelda. Is my attire to your liking?”

An anguished susurration fills the great hall that hosts the wedding banquet. Nobles and rich merchants, emissaries and high ranking-clerics, they whisper and point and shake their heads at the oddity that just stepped in. Only the servants, pale and silent, slowly back away against the walls and close to the exits. They know their seamstress and her magic.

Across the vast hall, upon the dais, the royals and their lackeys remain quiet behind their table overflowing with food and wine. At one end, Commander Jehran sits with his lips a bloodless line. Ezana cocks his head, studying Saysa’s chimeral mantle.

“What is… that?” A bored glance from the queen’s new husband. “Is this part of the festivities?” He yawns, half-heartedly covering his mouth with a hand heavy with rings. He can’t be older than twenty, with a clean-shaven head in the island fashion; they’re crawling with lice over there. “About time. And what is it supposed to be?”

“I’m so glad it entertains you, your highness.” Saysa curtseys. “Since it’s the night of the Union, I’ve put together this…” she waves up and down, showcasing her work “… little demonstration to introduce you to our history and lore.”

She wears the mantle like a costume, the crocodile’s tail heavy behind her. The antlers are her crown, the bear’s hind legs her boots, the wolf’s head her hood and the lion’s forepaws are tied to her wrists with fey-woven cord, leaving her hands free. With the same cord she has sewn the bear’s skin up to her chest. From the last loose thread hangs the great bone needle, awaiting the final stitch.

Queen Thelda, in her white vest over a flowing blue dress, waves at her sorcerer, who walks up behind her and leans in to hear her command. Her husband sits up, his eyes awake.

“Tonight we celebrate the Great Union.” Blood thunders in her ears, but she keeps her voice controlled. “Tonight, the celestial manifestations of the Four Divines—Wolf and Stag, Bear and Crocodile—assemble in a perfect circle with the fifth, the Lioness. A night of great power.” She raises her left hand—her forepaw, Wrath, and points right at the queen. “A night of great grief and bloodshed.” She raises her right—Vengeance—and points at Jehran. “A night of murder.”

“Enough!” Queen Thelda slaps the table. “Seize her!”

“But I want to hear more,” whines the boy-husband.

“My queen, this poor woman is confused from exhaustion.” Jehran, his face drawn and pale, stands. The fool, still in the clutches of the seduction charms. “Let me try and reason with her.”

“Like you reasoned with my family, murderer?” Saysa’s right hand balls to a fist. “Twenty years ago, you burned down my home, slaughtered my parents, and rode away with my brother’s head, because she sent you to kill children in their beds! Because of prophecies about five heroes who’d end her reign! And behold, the Five stand before you. You killed the Lion, you bastard, but not the Lioness!”

“B-but…” Still enchanted, Jehran moves as if to draw his sword, but his hand stops in mid-air.

“Get her!” Queen Thelda screeches, abandoning all pretenses. “Kill her!”

The guards close in, spears extended and blades drawn, but no one charges at the monstrous form, confused and hesitant, awaiting Jehran to confirm the queen’s command; they fear him more than her. Saysa raises both arms, holding out an arm-long thread—the same thread she used for the spells in the vest, thrice-braided and thrice-anointed. With a single, steady move, she pulls it apart.

The sorcerer pales. Queen Thelda screams.

Her face twists and she tears at the vest, struggling to get it off. She cannot; silk and body merge. The seams tear open, one by one, and so does the queen. Her bones snap, joints pop out of their sockets, her skull can’t hold its shape. Its sutures open, her eyes fall out, her jaw dismantles and hangs loose. Ezana shouts spells in half a dozen tongues that fail one after another until the queen collapses on the floor, still screaming, still alive, a writhing mass of silk and flesh.

Saysa throws the thread aside; it has served its purpose—not to kill, but to torture.

Ezana’s eyes burn, his brow furrowed. Jehran curses, the charms finally broken by the undoing of the vest. He draws his sword and waves at the guards. “Get her!”

The guards don’t move; they just gawk at the thing that used to be their queen in horror. Saysa doesn’t give Jehran the time to reach her from across the hall over the panicked guests who flee. She shoves the long bone needle into her chest, up to its eye, with a single push. Her vision blurs. Her pierced heart pumps faster and faster—or is it the fey thread that sucks out her blood and carries it throughout the mantle? Her body spasms, and she throws back her head and screams—no, she howls, wolf and woman becoming one. She no longer wears the beast.

She is the beast.

Kill. Avenge. Gnaw the bone. Slurp the marrow.

The guards flee with the guests. A stampede of shrieking bodies. Soiled silks. Sweat and urine. Delicious terror. Saysa charges. Her tail knocks over tables and seats, bear paws stomp on goblets and carafes.

Behind her. Clanking metal.

A swift turn. A swing of the great tail. The commander swept off his feet.

At her left, spellwork. Ezana mumbles in the wyrm-tongue. Dragonfire splinters against her fur and scales. As long as the seams hold, she cannot die. So there, the fey cord mocks him. Undo the seams, if you can. If you dare.

The writhing bundle that was the queen still screams. Saysa lowers her head and charges. One final high-pitched scream cut short. The weight of an empty husk upon her antlers. She doesn’t shake the corpse off. Her pride. Her banner.

Her crown.

Spells of fire. Singed fur. Spells of ice. Dew on her antlers. Hah! Missed me! Again! A cry of rage. Jehran lunges at her, brandishing his longsword with both hands. A slice through the wolf’s muzzle. It does not hurt. It does not bleed. It does not die. The fey cord holds. He hacks and slashes away fur and scales. The lioness’s claws cut deeper.

Kill. Maim. Tear the muscle, chew on sinew.

A hex of weariness clouds her vision for one moment, then the cord pumps out more blood and her strength returns. One swift swing of her left forepaw severs the tendons of Jehran’s left heel. He drops on his knees, sword still in hand. Her tail sends him on his back. The antlers pry the sword off his hands. She leaps on him, pins him on the floor and forces her jaws to stretch open wider than any normal wolf’s. One mouthful, and he has no face—bitter blood, crunchy bones upon her tongue. She spits it out, but he still breathes and squirms under her weight, his cries gurgling rosy froth. A second mouthful tears the throat open and dyes the world red.

Avenged. The murderers now bloody carcasses no one will mourn.

Saysa rises on her hind legs, roaring her triumph. No more cold and hunger. Under her paws, the ground trembles, the land acknowledging the offering of blood. Fur and claws tingle, aware of the change below and beyond: seeds spurt life, buds blossom, hens settle in their nest to lay their eggs. Spring returns before the winter starts.

The curse has been lifted.

She looks around, sniffs the air. Is she done? Can she rest now?

Under the royal table, the boy-husband whimpers. She won’t kill boys.

At the far end of the dais, Ezana stands rigid, staff in both hands. He keeps his face blank but every wrinkle screams for his inadequacy—his failure. She has no blood debt to settle there. He can go in peace, as long as he—

A fool can only choose foolishness.

He closes his eyes, lowers his head until his forehead touches his staff’s figurehead. Green glow spreads around, tendrils of emerald that slither through cracks and crevices, reaching into the unseen and the hidden. He speaks in a low, guttural tongue words not meant for mortals’ ears.

Saysa recoils. He’s summoning the dead.

She cannot fight the dead. She doesn’t know how.

Shadows float around, fragments of bone and dried skin, spirits tied upon the land: the drowned, the hanged, the starved and the murdered, those of untimely deaths and unfinished business. They gather beside and behind him, his own spectral army, mute and obedient, their voices stolen so they cannot have any power of their own. He mumbles commands and spits out orders, his face drawn to a terrible grin.

The dead float in the air, fluid manifestations of former lives. She doesn’t know of words to address them, but knows them: the beggars frozen at the temple steps, the women dead from childbirth, the children that starved and the men that died on the gallows. What if her murdered family doesn’t stand beside them? Through every stitch of her needles, through every night in hunger and cold during twenty desolate years, they all became family and kin. They stand still, their gaze fixed at where a ghostly child’s hand points: at the dangling remains of the queen upon Saysa’s antlers.

And the dead laugh.

They reclaim their lost voices not with screams but with mirth: first smirks, then chuckles, then a choir of laughter, joy and relief. Against all the commands Ezana screams now, their earthly bindings are broken. With their deaths avenged they can depart, slowly dissolving in the celestial breeze that flows between and betwixt, whispering their gratitude. But not before they bid the sorcerer goodbye.

Countless kisses of ghostly lips, myriad caresses of ethereal fingers break Ezana apart. Not his body, but his magic; piece by piece, spell by spell, incantations and charms woven by the voices of the dead are torn away, until all that’s left is the husk of an old man holding a useless staff.

Lightheaded and panting, Saysa turns to leave, but her knees bend. She hunches on her hind legs, in a pool of blood—her own blood. The fey cord keeps pumping more than the mantle can drink, draining her human body within. Should she draw the needle out and pull the cord to undo the mantle, whatever little blood remains will spurt out.

Not yet. It’s not time yet—not at this place of carnage and death. Not alongside murderers. Not there—at home, amidst the tools of her craft, her charms and her power. She struggles to pull her body forward, but her hind legs lay limp.

Footsteps. Yells. The clank of metal upon metal.

A crowd storms in. Peasants with torches and pitchforks. Words Saysa no longer understands. Is this how she’ll die? Like a monster? Trapped inside her mantle, her corpse paraded through the streets? She whimpers; she has no voice to make them understand.

Silence.

A woman in a grey dress steps forth—one of the queen’s maids—and kneels. A man beside her removes his hat and joins her. Clothes shuffle, tools are discarded. The townsfolk bow down before her. Through blurry eyes, Saysa watches.

Saysa understands. Here lies her power, here stands her throne, and her voice is the voice of her people who will sing of this night until the world’s breaking.

She reaches down with her muzzle and pulls the needle out.


© 2016, Christine Lucas

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