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"Six days to the ball."

I had slept in the cook’s quarters, barely. She snored like she cooked—loudly and without stopping.

While not sleeping, I had combed through my memories and questioned Avery’s, but nothing changed. I wanted to believe in Kiva. She was a natural performer, like Jaiden was a natural storyteller. It was possible that she had found herself in an impossible situation: married to a monster under her sister’s name. He might have taunted her with the beautiful story of my wedding, and she made it her own. With everyone having witnessed what must have been our engagement party the year before, he could hardly publicly marry my sister. She probably hadn’t even gotten a wedding.

But if I thought about it more, the pieces did not fit well, and my arguments fell short of logical. How had the Count convinced her to claim the name Avery? It meant nothing to her. Or if he had forced it upon her, why hide it now? She did not know Niare's laws. There was no reason to lie about her age, no reason not to explain about her name. Except that it was less pathetic, less pitiable. Except that it was too incredible, too illogical.

"Child, what are you doing still here?" the cook clucked at me as she passed through on her way to the bigger kitchens.

I needed a distraction.

I went to the library, but the words in the books were blurry and too small to read.

Feeling listless, I found myself outside the Captain’s office. Afraid he might be inside, I walked on. Remembering the padfoots’ map, I wove my way to the palace baths, avoiding the noise of servants preparing for the celebration to come.

Half the town must have been there.

When I ran into the fool, I was mindlessly, aimlessly wandering the halls. I smiled and took a breath to greet him, but he threw himself into me and into the wall.

“Shhhhh!” he hissed. “I’ve run away.” He stepped away and looked around, as though my breath might have attracted more attention than the thump of the wall declaring abuse.

‘Hi,’ I mouthed.

“Hi,” he whispered, grinning. He was in a much better mood than the day before. “Going somewhere?”

“A mirror. I’m looking for a mirror.” Was I?

“The baths.”

“Busy,” I shook my head.

“The clothcrafters’.”

“Ah!” I remembered Mirelle’s full mirrors.

He waved, “Have fun!” and ran away.

My laughter and momentary cheer ran with him.

Mirelle had pins in her mouth, but she waved me into her office. The outer room was bustling with activity, but her room was empty. I stopped in front of the floor-length mirrors and looked at my reflection.

A young woman looked back at me. She was pretty, except for her empty eyes. Some of her features were quite similar to the portrait, to Kiva, but not much. Not enough.

But it did not matter what any of us looked like. It mattered whose blood was on the paper.

Mirelle noticed my expression and dropped her work to walk me to the kitchens. Cook was there, and the three of us ate together. They tried to cheer and distract me, but I was immune to both. When they returned to their responsibilities, I haunted the quieter hallways.

I could hardly return to my room, and there was no use in going back to the library. With nothing to do, I took myself outside for a thoughtful walk.

When it started to rain, I would have returned indoors immediately. But as I turned back toward the entrance, I saw a familiar glowing figure—which regularly haunted my dreams—standing in the courtyard near the entrance I had recently passed through.
Zaphar, King’s Mage. He wasn’t looking, yet.

Avery squeaked, and we ran for a small side gate, blindly following the road clear to the Forgotten Woods. It was a poor choice—no choice at all, really.

 

The forest was spooky even during the day, and especially so on such a gloomy day. The dense leaves seemed to block out both natural light and fresh air, and we were quickly lost due to our headlong sprint.

It began to pour, and we crossed what felt like the same paths in search of an exit, or at least a tree for cover. The trees that blocked out all hope and happiness could not stop the slightest drop of rain. They would not even speak to me, the miserable brutes.

At last we saw a house.

We dashed out from the trees to it, already soaked through. The structure looked familiar, as a place I might have nightmared about. It had a falling apart and haunted look to it, the only sort of place a person could expect to find in a similar situation.

The stairs were rotting away from the foundation and groaned as I stumbled up them. The porch was missing planks, leaving large gaps that I nearly fell through. The roof over it was leaking, and the paint was peeling away from the wooden walls in large chunks.

That crime against life and decency—the painting of good wood—angered me into sensibility until I saw the grotesque monster-face that passed for a door knocker. It looked like an artifact straight from the temples’ stories of hell-demons.

But it was cold, I was finally sheltered from the rain, and the board behind me started to give when I stepped away. So I moved close and faced the knocker.

I was of two minds about touching it. Avery was against it, as she hated rain and wanted to enter directly. I thought it might be dangerous to be rude. While I was hesitating Avery pushed me to knock on the door directly. The door probably activates a portal to hell if you use the knocker.

The door was open, so it creaked inward slowly when my fist hit it. “Now look what you’ve done!” I muttered as we ducked down and peered into the gloom as far as we could without widening the space.

“Found light and warmth. Stop complaining.” Avery entered without hesitation.

As the one who could feel pain, I had a much stronger natural fear of dangerous situations.

“Empty.”

Relieved and annoyed, I stepped into the room and shut the door behind me, crossing to sit on the hearth of a real warm fire.

There was a sagging bed in the corner past the fire covered in a homespun, patchwork quilt, and the furniture appeared to have been made by an animal, or a child, with its rough surfaces and broken edges. The firelight flickering made everything spookier and I said dourly, “Here is where Princesses Aevlin and Avery ended their lives, eaten by the pitiless grove witch. No one missed them.”

Eventually my heart calmed and my eyes widened enough to see a friendly little kitchen on the side nearest the door, and a small reading nook in the other corner near the fire. There was also a door leading to a second room that gave Avery a distinctly uneasy feeling. She was not so brave then, and stepped right into the fire.

We waited for the witch to return while baking ourselves in and in front of the fire. The wait was between short and long. I was only a little damp and Avery came out to explore the house when we heard someone muttering angrily on the porch. She leapt back into the flames and I stood, firmly facing danger. We held our breath as the knob turned. And then—

Nothing. The door shook and rattled, and our unwilling host could be heard kicking it and complaining in a gruff voice.

“Go look,” I whispered to Avery.

“You look!” She hissed back, not moving from where she crouched in the fire.

“I have a body, she might kill me! You go look.”

“I suffered an early tragic death.”

“I will suffer—!”

“Not if you look.”

Neither of us did, and the house owner worked open the wooden window to reach in and open the door.

“It’s a manwitch hand. It looks young.”

He stepped through the door and pulled off his wet cloak.

“Middle aged, but well groomed. He doesn’t look like he eats people.”

He glanced at the fire and said, “You might have been helpful and let me in.” He draped his cloak over a wooden contraption designed for the purpose and pulled off his boots. “What did you do to my fire?”

“He’s handsome,” Avery recovered from her shock, “not that old at all.”

I, being chained to a physical form, did not feel so at ease.

He looked at me, and the fire played on his face. “If I come to warm myself by the fire, are you going to fall in it?”

I moved delicately away from the fire until I backed into the bookshelf.

He pretended not to notice while I picked up and straightened fallen books, moving to warm himself by the fire. “Mind if I put another log on?” He was looking into the fire curiously. It had burned hotter and faster than was strictly natural.

Avery came out to avoid the wood. She hated seeing the world pass through her, and claimed she could feel it crushing her. “He doesn’t really seem like a witch.”

Our host smiled as some thought occurred to him. “You are Captain Winter’s assistant,” he told me, tending to his natural fire. “Is the position to your liking?”

“Have you—do you know the Captain?”

“He sends his assistants, now and again.” He stood. “You could sit. I will put a kettle over the fire.”

“Then, appearances never tell the whole story. His house is very witch-like, and so is tea.”

I ignored her and walked to the table, keeping our host in sight and myself closer to the door.

Following his own advice, the man hung a kettle to boil and pretended to watch it.

“He must be between thirty-five and forty-five years. He carries himself like…noble, but humble.” She moved closer.

“With what can I help you? I assume you are come after Captain Winter’s business? Unless it is personal?”

Well built! Maybe only 30-35 years.”

I glared at her, causing him to raise his eyebrows at me when he looked up. “Are you unwell?”

“No. That is, not very.” I was cold, and my sister-ghost was annoying, and my living sister was worse, and the Captain hated me, and I was lost, and in a strange man’s house.

Avery came to stand beside me, giving me an airy hug.

The stranger watched silently, waiting.

“I am cold,” I said.

He brought the boiling water over, not acknowledging that the pot should have been hot. “Tea will do you good.” He poured us each a cup and sat across from me. “What brought you here today? It must have been important, to brave the forest alone in a storm.”

“Here’s the plan. Tell him a sob story about your life—just pick any old one—one with Kivalya will do nicely—and then faint beautifully. I’ll take it from there.”

“It is nothing personal,” I said, ignoring Avery. I could not tell tales like Kiva, and I hesitated to lie outright, but I could hardly tell this stranger the truth, either. “Do you know the answers the Captain seeks?”

“I believe I do. A whole campful of them have taken up residence in my woods. It is terribly unusual this time of year.”

“Is it common at other times?”

“No, never,” his lips twitched, and I decided I liked him. “It is troublesome. They are hunting birds for sport and scaring the forestlife.”

That explained the trees, at least a little. They hated changes, especially abnormal ones. “How long and how many?” I asked.

“It began almost a moon ago with the odd forester. It has been about two phases now that they’ve been collecting and settling in enough to be considered an army.”

The Silent Woods was the only way into the city without passing through the gates. I had attempted it and only succeeded in getting very lost and wasting half a moon before I found my way out and went around to the southern gate. “I must ask a foolish question. Is there a reason that the Cap—that Saliz does not fear an ambush from the forest?”

“Don’t ask the witch that, he’ll curse us for eternity twice over.”

Even in Willow Falls, we had heard of the curse of the Silent Woods. It was famously the most haunted place in all Niare, leaking chaos corruption capable of turning people into ghosts and ghosts into ghouls.

“It is exceedingly difficult to navigate, as there are no paths, and every tree and rock looks the same. However, there is nothing to prevent a person from learning its ways. They set and made many marks to guide them through it.”

“It extends to the palace walls.”

“Yes.”

“That is bad.”

“Yes.”

“He never said how many,” Aevlin sat at the table, daintily sipping her tea vapor from a ghostly cup.

I felt the stirrings of a headache coming to haunt me. “Do you know how many soldiers there are?”

He shook his head. “Too many to be harmless, not enough to be planning to take over the country. The right amount for their purposes.”

“I do not suppose they wore their colors?”

“Do they need to?” His eyes were uncomfortably knowledgeable.

I half-sighed, half-groaned. “Is there anything else?”

“Like that’s not enough.”

He seemed to be thinking of something else, but said, “They have sentries, but there is no need to scout their camp to know their intentions and when they will carry them out.”

I had to agree.

“Since we’re all doomed anyway…”

“I think I may go crazy,” I said, to drown out the sound of Avery’s madness.

The man caught and held my gaze, looking very kindly, and said, “Would you like to be free from her? Is that why you are come on such a day as this?”

I blinked, unable to grasp his meaning and yet uncapable of misunderstanding.

“It is not uncommon. Spirits often attach themselves to the living. It makes them feel alive.”

“Do they?” I leaned forward, intrigued. “How does it happen?”

Avery tilted her head. “Strange. I have never seen any. It cannot be that often.”

“There are many ways. In cases of traumatic death, spirits can cling unintentionally to the nearest living being. Also when there are strong feelings, negative or positive, this can create a bond between a spirit and a person. There are other ways as well, but these are more common.” He refilled my teacup. “But regardless of how, it is a parasitic relationship. The spirit craves life, and it will do whatever it can to hold onto it. Some spirits may seem kind, others are clearly malicious. But no spirit is healthy for the living,” he looked directly at Avery. “More tea?”

She vanished into me, losing her concentration to hold her own form.

He knew she was there! Several times he had acknowledged her words and her presence. There was even a third cup of tea on the table.

“What—are you? Are you—a mage?” But he was not using any magic that I could see.

He looked at me curiously, and asked, “If you do not know who—or what—I am, how did you come to be here?”

“I was lost,” I admitted. “It was cold, and your door was open.”

“So that is how it was.”

“How did you know who I was?” I was certain I had never seen him at the palace.

He smiled kindly, “This is not our first meeting. Of course, you would not remember it. You were lost in the forest, and I showed you the way out.”

“How could I not remember that?”

“I believe you were not feeling well, though I am surprised you do not recall anything.” He did not look surprised.

“How did you know I was the Captain’s assistant?” I was not the Captain’s assistant when I was lost in the forest

“I listen,” he smiled, “and see. News of Captain Winter’s assistant traveled far.” His eyes grew distant. “You remind me of a friend from long ago. He was the captain of the guard before Winter. Another one who refused leadership in favor of support.”

“Father.” Avery floated back to the table.

“I wonder how much you will follow him?” He smiled.

“But, who are you?”

“I am Reuben,” he held out his hand.

“Aevlin,” I smiled and shook it.

“Miss Aevlin, do you wish to be free of the spirit that haunts you?”

“I am not ‘the spirit that haunts her’! Listen and see that. I-”

“She isn’t too troublesome,” I interrupted, “but thank you for your concern.”

“Miss Aevlin, please understand. You are alive. She is not. She cannot exist without you, and in order to exist, she is stealing your life force. Your strength is all that keeps her close to the living.”

“No! No, she gives me strength, she helps me.” He didn’t understand.

“Miss Aevlin, no matter what she may do, please believe me that you are supporting her, not the other way. Her strength all comes from you.”

“Can you see her?” I asked curiously.

“I can see where she is,” he looked embarrassed enough that I did not ask if he could hear her. “She is the most present spirit I have ever encountered.”

“She is my sister,” I whispered, giving up another secret.

Understanding filled his face, too much.

“Did you,” I spoke softly, “was there anyone else you might have helped? A young man, perhaps, lost in the wood? Not a soldier.”

Reuben glanced at the door I had noticed, and I nearly went to it. He moved gracefully in front of me, blocking the way and yet not. He took my tea cup and continued walking. “If I had, I should certainly do as much for the young man as I did for the young woman.”

“Is he sick?”

“Not sick, not as such.”

“Is he..hurt?”

“It is best if you do not know. If you are asked, you heard nothing, saw nothing. If you must know, let her do it.”

Avery shook her head, staying close behind me. “Feels like a trap.”

“Do not fear.”

I looked around the little house again, and another mystery unraveled. “Are you..a Holy Man?” It matched the way he spoke, the way he cared for strangers. That he lived alone in the woods, in a house that was rough on the outside, but warm on the inside. That he seemed to know everything.

“Yes, that is so.”

I had never seen one before. Of course, there were priests in Willow Falls, and many people were religious in the North. But Holy Men and Women were different. They were rumored to be as powerful as mages, and had mystical abilities. They could heal people and see the future, or look into a person’s past, it was believed. They also generally lived apart from others and remained celibate their entire lives.

Though his situation matched, the man did not look like my image of a Holy Man. He was well-groomed, well-dressed, well-muscled… “How did you become a Holy Man?”

“I take it you do not attend Temple often,” he smiled wryly. Holy Men were supposed to be strict and serious.

“I did not have any reason to go.” Mother would never have allowed it in any case, but there was nothing in my childhood that had compelled me to have faith.

“Your view is not uncommon. One is called to this life. I accepted my calling when I was seventeen, half my life ago. Your Father helped me make that choice.”

“That’s how long I’ve been alive,” I said incredulously.

“Didn’t I guess 35?” Avery was triumphant, despite her many other guesses.

“Yeah, and a witch. But he’s a Holy Man.” It was a relief to acknowledge her openly.

“I heard.” She deflated.

He can also hear you.

She made a face, having noticed.

“When the rain stops I will lead you home, but I am afraid that will not be for some time. Are you hungry? Shall I prepare lunch?” He was polite enough to not mention that we could all hear my stomach announcing that it was that time.

“Yes, thank you.”

“There is a Temple just opposite the palace grounds,” Reuben rummaged through his cupboards.

“I am not terribly—that is, I don’t have time.”

“I suppose you think everyone ought to go?”

“Naturally,” he smiled, “I think it would do everyone a great deal of good. Do you like soup? Soup also does a great deal of good.” Still facing the cupboard, he paused to say, "I imagine you need extra sustenance to carry her."

I suddenly felt like my grave had just been walked over. The Captain had discovered my absence from the palace, I was sure of it. “I need to leave.”

“My pantry is quite limited, with all the overcrowding in the forest.”

For a little while, I had forgotten my troubles. Was it the tea? “I really must be getting back.”

“Then, no to soup?” He looked doubtfully at his foodstuffs. “I confess I am no great chef, but even a great one would have difficulty to produce a miracle out of this.”

“Oh, no, I do like soup. It is only that I really must return to the Captain soon.” I looked nervously at the door. “He needs to be informed.” At least partially.

“The Captain will keep, as will the telling. The story will still be the same when the rain has passed.” He started chopping roots. “I have only a single knife. More, that’s four found. I suppose one lost is enough.”

Was it divinity or cleverness that enabled him to listen so well and see so clearly? Though, he was wrong about the Captain.

“Do not lose yourself,” he said seriously, looking at me with eyes of compassion and wisdom. “This tale will have a happy ending yet.” He glanced at Avery, “And then, perhaps, another. Lingering here is not the only way to live.” Brightening, he said, “Would you like to hear a story? Rainy days like this are perfect for stories.”

He entertained us with incredible tales, which he claimed were all true. His soup tasted of warmth and family, as rich as a holiday dinner. When the rain had ceased, he led me to the forest’s edge just beside the castle gate and encouraged me to return anytime. I felt so light that I entered the Captain's office with a serene smile for the Captain.

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About the author

Moonweave

Bio: I dream, I travel, I read, I write, and then I start over again.

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