Seeing the bodies of them girls hanging outside the town’s gates made me think coming here was a bad idea, but it was too late to go back now. The driver, Finnas, didn’t seem the type to turn these horses around no matter what I said, and Maw would send me right back even if he did. The kitties dangling alongside the girls made me feel worse. I didn’t know if the girls did anything bad to anybody, but I knew for sure those kitties never hurt anyone. Witches, that told me, but who knew if it was true. Town folk tend to blame natural things they don’t understand on witches.
Finnas shoved my head back between the haystacks and told me to keep my mouth shut. Just as well. I didn’t want to see any more.
Snapping the reins, he drove the cart through the gates. Since it was almost nighttime, the town was quiet. All I heard was the rumble of the wheels until we came to a stop. He hopped down quick, and I heard him heave and grunt as some big doors groaned open. He jumped back up and drove the cart a little ways more before stopping for good. Somebody said something and he got down again.
I stuck out my head and saw a tall, fancy-dressed lady standing in a dusty courtyard surrounded by a fence taller than two men. Just beyond was a wide house, bigger than any I’d ever seen. Finnas tried to give her a hug and a kiss, but she pushed him off and cocked her head at me. I sucked in air and ducked down, but it was too late. The woman had spotted me.
“You girl, come down here.”
My face burning like a kid caught stealing a pie, I climbed down from the cart to show myself.
“Are you Leusa Wrothburn?”
“Yes’m.” I ducked my head down like Maw said I should, but I couldn’t bring myself to curtsy. Just ain’t something I’m much good at. I didn’t see what the big deal was anyway. This woman had no reason to make me feel bad for being who I was. From the look of her, she was a tough bird, but I hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of.
“Do you know where you are?”
“Yes’m. I reckon we’re in the town of Stonefeld.”
“Correct. And do you know who I am?”
I gave her another look without trying to be nosy. “No, ma’am, but I reckon you’re somebody important by your fancy dress and the size of this here house.”
“Good. Maybe you’re not as simple as they said you were. I’m Ulna Fustable. The Magistrate of Stonefeld is my husband. I don’t know if you’ve heard way out in the woods where your folk are from, but he’s been having some problems with witches.” She said the word like it was something too nasty to say out loud but she had to anyway. All I could think about when she said it was those poor kitties strung up with the girls at the town’s gate. “We need another serving girl around here after the last one was found to be lacking, and my husband doesn’t trust any of the girls from town. The birth register said you have a sister. That true?”
“Yes’m. Tessa’s working for a family over in Brasston now.” Daft cow got herself seeded by one of the lord’s manservants, but the Magistrate’s wife didn’t need to know that.
“Your mama all alone now?”
I nodded. This lady was sharp.
“I’ll make sure she gets your pay then. Nothing you can spend it on around here anyway.”
I wanted to say that Maw didn’t deserve anything from me on account of the way she treats me, but just this once I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t happy about it but complaining never solved anything.
“You’ll do anything you’re asked—laundry, sweep, help prepare food. I expect you to be the first one up in the morning and the last one to sleep. Don’t talk to any of the other serving girls unless spoken to, and stay out of my husband’s way. Understand that you are not allowed beyond these walls. The last thing my husband needs is gossiping townsfolk.” She looked me up and down to make sure I’d been listening. “All that sit okay with you?”
“Good. You can stay in the room next to the stable for now. Supper’s in the kitchen but it’s cold. Finnas will show you.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. Seemed the right thing to say.
“And get that straw out of your hair, girl. Try to look proper.”
Finnas unhitched the horses from the cart, and I followed him.
“Over there,” he said, pointing at a door.
The room was nothing but a closet under the stairs that led to Finnas’ loft. Maw told me I had to sleep inside if the Fustables told me to. Town folk look down on them who sleep outside, like we were some kind of animal. Maybe I was an animal. Didn’t bother me none. Animals never did wrong to nobody who didn’t deserve it.
Through the wall, I heard them horses hassling Finnas because he didn’t understand them. He thought sugar cubes and a switch was the answer to everything. When they finally gave up and quieted, he trudged up the stairs to his room. His boots boomed when they hit the floor. He never did show me where they kept the leftovers. Didn’t matter. I wasn’t hungry.
I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Rooms and I never got along, and this one felt like as much of a jail as any other. The stillness and the quiet suffocated me. At least I could smell the horses through the walls. That was some comfort, anyway.
In the middle of the night, a door from the house sighed open, feet scuffed the courtyard and then someone stalked the stairs above my room. Finnas’ bed creaked for a while overhead, and then that someone came back down. Wasn’t my business who, though I had a guess.
I waited another hour or two before getting up to take a look around the courtyard and see what I could do to stay busy. First thing I noticed was a measly stack of logs next to the kitchen. Place this size always needs firewood. Problem was, I didn’t see an ax anywhere and I wasn’t about to go rattling the stable doors and get Finnas after me at this hour.
Since no one else was around, I wandered around the back of the stables, out of sight of the main house. The property went only a little farther before the fence hemmed it in. Clusters of hospras grew here, stiff and unhappy. I felt bad for them trees, trapped here while others grew free on the other side of the fence, where there weren’t no folks to tame them into lesser versions of themselves.
I dropped a seed and sprouted a taccab leaf from it with a few quiet words. I dried it with a hush and rolled it into a smoke, which helped me think about what to do with what I been dealt. Something itched my scalp as I stood there sucking that taccab, telling me I found what I forgot I was looking for. I pinched the cherry off the taccab and kicked around in the scrub until I felt that unsettled thing. There.
Trapped under a bush thick with long grass and vines, a dull throbbing ax head stuck atop a shriveled handle. Rusted and forgotten, I knew how to make it feel better. Metal was dangerous to whisper, but I could see this poor tool needed my help. I reminded the blade of when it was properly seasoned and sharp and full o’ glory, and it responded in kind. I told the shrunken handle how it used to be stout and firm, fit to be swinging. At first ashamed at its fallen state, it soon remembered its bold peak and found its shape again. Now I could do my job.
A bunch of the hospras weren’t tended proper, and leaned over as if all their life had dripped out already. I listened for the right ones calling for mercy. Taking care since people was sleeping, I asked the sound to turn inside-out so no one would hear. Half a dozen hospras came down that way. I chopped and split and stacked them next to the logs outside the kitchen and then continued the pile around the corner when I ran out of room. That should last them a few weeks or a month if they were frugal. The tightness in Miss Ulna’s mouth made me think squandering resources was not something she tolerated.
I didn’t know where the ax should rightly go, so I stuck it back under the same bush and thanked it for letting me borrow it. I asked the bush to hold the ax in its branches tight like a babe, to blanket it with leaves. Any stranger who stumbled upon it would have a hard time convincing the bush to let go.
Figuring I’d done enough for now, I climbed a thick hospra to watch the sun rise. I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew, the cock jumped up and told everybody what was on his mind.
I heard scuffling from the kitchen and jumped down to wait outside the door. With a mop of grey curls and a long-faded apron, the cook looked like she’d been sampling her own creations for years. Which was a good sign, since nobody trusted skinny cooks anyway. Yawning, she grabbed a couple of logs for morningfire, saw the new stacks I’d made and stood in shock. She jumped like she saw a ghost when she noticed me hovering.
“You must be the new girl. Miss Ulna told me to look out for you.” She followed the stack of wood around the corner. “You see who did this?”
“I chopped the wood, ma’am.”
She looked me up and down, suspicious. “You? In one night? In the dark?”
“Yes, ma’am. The moon was plenty bright.”
She narrowed her eyes like she didn’t believe me. “How come nobody woke up?”
Maw told me not to do my whispers in town ‘cause people will think I’m a witch or such. I been called worse by Maw herself in one of her moods, but I seen how this town treated girls they didn’t like, and their cats, so I figured Maw’s advice made as much sense as any.
I shrugged. “I did it quiet.”
She looked at me like I was trying to be smart with her, but I didn’t smile or nothing and she let it go. Looking again at the woodpile, she stepped close to me, wide-eyed and whispering so no one would overhear. “Did you use an ax?”
I chuckled at this. “How else do you chop wood?”
Her voice grew stern. “This ain’t a laughing matter, country girl. Didn’t you see what the menfolk did to those poor girls when you came here?”
I started to worry a little. “Hard to miss.”
“No woman in town is allowed to use a metal blade or anything with a sharp edge.”
Stonefeld was even worse than I imagined. “That’s crazy talk.”
The cook huffed. “You don’t know the half of it. But things are gonna change real soon.”
Didn’t seem likely, but no point arguing.
She took another look at me and must have noticed the simple way I dressed in clothes I’d sown myself, with hair I cut without so much as looking in a river for a reflection. “I don’t suppose you get much news about Stonefeld where you’re from.”
“Nothing that happened in this town was any of my business before today.”
“Well, you best make it your business now. Yet I can’t lie, we needed that wood. So, thanks for that. Play dumb around Finnas and Miss Ulna if they ask you about it. I get the feeling you’re smarter than they think.”
“I don’t know about that, ma’am.” I smiled despite myself.
“Save that ‘ma’am’ business for Miss Ulna. Call me Makzeet.”
She stuck out her hand, and I gave it the customary one-shake like men do. “Leusa.”
“Don’t wander too far in case I need you later, but steer clear of the menfolk. They’re no good. Us women got to stick together.”
I found a broom and swept up the courtyard some until Makzeet had me fetch eggs from the coop. I felt a little bad telling them hens I was gonna treat their eggs nice, but they had to believe that so they wouldn’t peck me when I swiped their unborn babies. The eggs were pretty blues and browns, sometimes a swirl of both, and I gathered them in the dopey apron Maw insisted I wear when Finnas drove me off from her place. Funny that the thing was useful after all.
I brought my bounty into the kitchen and felt someone’s eyes sticking to me. I didn’t dare peek who until Makzeet took the last egg from the bundle and shooed me back outside. When I ducked out the door, I looked back and saw a serving girl around my age, wearing clothes no better than mine. Her eyes said she didn’t know what kind of creature I was; not scared or disgusted, only curious.
After lunch, I spied the Magistrate for the first time when Finnas helped him lurch into the wagon. Bloated and crabby, fella like that gave me the shivers just thinking about him. He and Finnas left the compound in a cloud of dust, flapping like a couple of pompous geese kicked out of a pond. I almost felt bad for the horses pulling them, though really they were happy just to get out of the stables. Being stuck in small places ain’t good for nobody.
The whole place grew real quiet once their cart rumbled away. Even Makzeet knocked off somewhere, her big copper pot drying outside. Nobody was coming or going or asking for me, so I slipped around the back of the stables and found me a wide hospra I could lean against and watch the sky over the fence, dreaming of the forest where I wished I was.
Bored and homesick, I dropped another taccab seed and encouraged a tendril from it, one I sweet-talked into sprouting and bursting enough for me to pull off a few leaves. With a word, they shriveled in my hand and rolled themselves tight. I dared one to ignite and spent its length basking in the smoke of home. The home I made, not the one I came from. A couple of footsteps behind me made me pinch the roll dead, tuck it and the fresh ones under my skirt.
“Don’t stop on my account.” The serving girl from before sat across from me, both of us hidden from anyone who might be looking our way from the back of the house. “I was hoping you’d share.”
I smiled at that and handed her a fresh one while plucking out my leftover for myself. She looked around then back at me, wondering how to light it. I’d forgotten town folk don’t know the name of the flame or the proper way to talk to it.
“Is that the best you can do?” I asked. Nothing motivates fire like antagonism.
The serving girl looked at me funny, thinking I was talking to her and almost scared about it, until her roll started smoldering on its own.
“Oh,” she said, nodding like she understood all along. She took a greedy drag and yakked like a badger. She smiled once she caught her breath and shook her head. “Been so long, I forgot how it was. I’m Trixa.”
“Nice to meet you.”
She took a more practiced drag this time and grimaced only a little. “I don’t know what it’s like where you’re from, but women are forbidden to smoke in Stonefeld.”
“Between all the things women ain’t supposed to do and those hangings, I got to wonder why any women live here at all.”
Trixa scrunched her eyes and looked upset. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. “Where are we supposed to go?”
She had a point. Not everyone is cut out to live by themselves in the woods like me or Maw. Just ask my sister. And even Maw insisted on a proper home with four walls and a roof. I was different than most, I guess.
“What did those dead girls do?”
Trixa scowled at me until she realized I really didn’t know. Looking over my shoulder back toward the house, she whispered that the girls were found together in the woods, naked, their cats nearby. She leaned back, drifting away like the smoke from her dwindling roll.
I rolled my eyes. If these people could only see me on a warm day with nobody but the bugs, birds, and beasts watching me, they’d think me just as wicked. I couldn’t say that to Trixa, though.
“Before they were hung, they said Miss Sangela put them up to it.”
Trixa’s jaw dropped though her smile was genuine. “You really are from the middle of nowhere, aren’t you?”
I never told her that, but it was true. I’d still be there but for having to do my daughterly duty so as not to dishonor our family name or our progeny. Maw and I both knew I’d never have progeny, so I figured she meant my sister’s bastard.
“Miss Sangela was our schoolteacher, but now she’s going to be tried as a witch day after tomorrow. We won’t let the same thing happen to her.”
In a place where a girl couldn’t smoke or hold a knife and had to wear clothes like a dress-up dolly, a place where being natural got you killed, I didn’t see any way out of it. People who would hang cats would hang anybody for anything. No point saying that to Trixa, though. Let her have hope, if only for another day.
A door slapped against a frame, and we both jumped to our feet.
“Stay away from the Magistrate and Finnas,” Trixa whispered. She ran to the kitchen before Makzeet could call her name.
I hung back, because I didn’t like the way the wind stirred in the courtyard. Not much later, Finnas ran his horses through the gate, trotting them to a halt outside the Magistrate’s residence. Part of me wanted to disappear among the hospras, but curiosity got the better of me. I wanted another look at the man who ran a town like this.
Heaving, corpulent, the Magistrate needed Finnas to help him down from the carriage. To his credit, Finnas spared his boss the curses he used to guide his stable. The Magistrate waddled toward his home without looking backward until he stiffened like a hound catching the stink of a fox. Me, had to be. But Finnas led him on inside, and the Magistrate never saw me. Next time I had to stay out of sight.
That night, Makzeet let me finish what was left in the pot after everyone had their fill. I didn’t mind going last. The bits at the bottom had the most taste anyhow, soaking in all them flavors all day long. I even used a spoon, which woulda made Maw proud. Felt good not to have to make my own fire, cook my own food. Had to admit it tasted better than mine too.
I washed the dish I messed and went to my room. Any fresh bed I could make myself in the forest would be softer and cleaner than the lifeless flop they gave me here. I made do, though, as Maw said I had to, and fell asleep after wondering how that would ever happen in this dank box. I don’t think I’d been sleeping long when the soft thump of bare feet padding up the stairs over my head woke me. The door to Finnas’ quarters creaked in the stillness, and pretty soon the sound of two people trying to be quiet kept me from falling back asleep. I used their escalating rutting to hide the creak of my own door, and slipped out back. I lay tucked away between a pair of bushes I softened with flattery and flowers, and dozed off before I knew it.
Something soft and ticklish ran under my nose, waking me while the swollen moon reigned over everything. I started awake, suddenly alert, and saw a cat. The creature came back for another pass, and I reached out a hand, welcoming, accepting. I knew she was a she as soon as I touched her. She leaned into my touch, receptive, and we were friends. She swiped past me one more time and then sauntered away. Curious, I watched her go. She sensed I wasn’t following her and swiveled her head over her shoulder, looking for my eyes. Smirking at the boldness of this creature I stood up and shadowed her.
This cat didn’t know any better and headed for the house, which made me nervous. I knew cats were mysterious to the point of sacred, but I was pretty sure these town folk didn’t feel the same way. The closer she got to the building, the faster I chased after her, until it became some kind of game. She stopped at the kitchen door and skirted aside when I caught up to her. Rubbing up against my leg and looking up at me, her mouth stretched as if mewing, but made no sound. I didn’t know what she wanted until she clawed the bottom of the door and attempted to pull it open. By the marks on the wood, this wasn’t the first time. This cat obviously lived here, and I was the only one who didn’t know it. Should have expected the Magistrate to be a hypocrite.
“Here, girl,” I said, guiding a stick through a gap in the door to unlatch it and holding the door open long enough for her to disappear inside. I couldn’t latch it back, but didn’t expect anyone would know the difference. Too tired to go back where I’d been, I gave my room another try. That might have been the thing that spared my life.
Some time later, I heard a muffled scream from within the house. Someone wailed at some offence, and everything stilled that heard it. Even Finnas startled in his bed above me, his snorts stifled unexpectedly aware, waiting for another shout from the dark. An erratic wail keened from the house in stops and stutters until concerned murmuring blanketed it into silence. Whatever happened in there, best I didn’t know. After that, it was quiet so long that I figured the worst was over. Even Finnas fell back asleep, by the sawing breath above me.
Yells from the house cut that short. The Magistrate opened a second floor window and shouted for us to present ourselves in the courtyard immediately. He sniffed and slammed the window shut.
Finnas came down the steps faster than I could get out of the closet underneath. Makzeet, Trixa, and half a dozen other servants filed from the house, everybody but me in their sleeping clothes. Groggy, disheveled, and confused, we lined up as asked. I looked toward the two I knew, but couldn’t read their faces. We waited, nervous, but nothing happened for a long time. I wanted to go back to bed, even the pathetic one that was mine, rather than stand here.
The Magistrate finally hobbled into the courtyard to confront us. With his wife at his side, he resumed yelling for us to present ourselves as if we were the tardy ones and not his sorry self. He stabbed the air with his cane as he accosted us with a bizarre tantrum about his importance to Stonefeld and the sanctity of his lineage. He referred a couple of times to scratches and stitches and the demonic nature of felines, and I slowly pieced together what made him rave. That cat had gouged him deep and true, and he knew someone had let it in.
“That sort of vermin isn’t allowed in town, let alone these premises! Do any of you understand how serious this is? I could have you all flogged—or worse!”
None of us looked him in the eye. Whenever I tried to sneak a peek, Miss Ulna stared me down. She knew. Maybe she didn’t know exactly what she knew, but she knew it had something to do with me. I knew all along it wasn’t right for me to live in town. I tried telling Maw and Finnas too, but no one listened, and here I was stuck where I didn’t belong.
“Maybe one of you is a witch,” the Magistrate spewed at last, as if confirming to himself aloud his gut instinct.
Miss Ulna reacted sharp and cross to that. “You think I’d let a witch slip past me, Harmon? I’m the one who runs this place while you’re besotting yourself at the public house.”
The Magistrate glowered but had no answer, looking embarrassed. His grip on his cane wobbled like he wasn’t sure what to do next. He looked me up and down, seeing me for the first time. “What about that one?”
“She’s nothing but a shivering little field mouse. Look at her.”
I didn’t agree, but played along. What her game was, I didn’t know. But it worked.
“If it happens again, I’ll blame you,” her husband finally gruffed at her, limping away without looking back.
Miss Ulna spared us the dramatics, but not the sparks. She seethed like she was about to jump right out of her skull. “I expect you all know that felines are not welcome here. Any exceptions to this will be dealt with next time by the town council, and they will not be so forgiving as me. Is that understood?”
We said yes, almost under our breaths, but audible enough to qualify as a response.
“Good. Now leave my sight.”
The moon fell before I ventured outside of my closet again. I wanted a taccab roll real bad, but couldn’t risk Miss Ulna’s anger if she caught a whiff. With the fear of witches in the air, now wasn’t the time to take chances on little things. After last night’s fiasco, I could tell the Magistrate was the type of man who looked for excuses to make people feel lesser than him. But damnation did I want a smoke.
I hid among the hospras when I heard Finnas come down for morning meal. The Magistrate’s bellowing chased him from the kitchen before long. Finnas scrambled into the stables and returned with the horses and carriage. After grunts, groaning, and complaints from both him and the horses, he helped the Magistrate clamber aboard. Only when I heard the clopping hooves and strike of reins fading away did I dare venture out. Shy, I peered into the kitchen without a word until Makzeet noticed me poking around. She wiped her hands on her apron, looked over her shoulder, and waved me in.
“Quick, eat before she comes down.”
Makzeet pushed a bowl of grain meal at me before I could object and sat across from me, watching me pitch it in. The look in her eye worried me some, and I swallowed without hardly chewing.
“She’s in a fit this morning. You’d best make yourself scarce.”
I nodded, gulping down my last mouthful. I stood and went toward the wash bucket, but Makzeet took the bowl from me and shooed me out the door.
Apologizing to a hospra for my rudeness, I climbed its low branches and asked nicely if it would turn its coarse bark smooth for a little while. Now soft, its branches snugged together to cradle me like a babe. In return, I promised it would grow tall and strong and with a few words made it safe from blade and fire. Anything less would be rude.
I was almost asleep when the back door clapped shut with a bang. From my perch, I saw Trixa carrying a basket of laundry piled as high as her head. I climbed down to help. Trixa acted like she didn’t want to see me. She changed direction when she saw me coming and tried to again when I grabbed the basket. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes, and I didn’t know why until I remembered about the cat. Why anyone hated cats still made no sense to me, but I guess I did get everybody yelled at.
“He could have hung us all because of you,” she growled at last.
“Let me help,” I said. “I can do that much.”
Trixa acted like she hadn’t heard, but she couldn’t get away if I didn’t let go. She looked over her shoulder to make sure no one watched us before dropping the basket. She said nothing more while we hung the clothes and linens to dry. After a while I got tired of her silence and tried acting silly to make her laugh so she’d remember we were friends, but she didn’t budge. After we hung the last sheets, I noticed we had corridors of cloth hiding us from the house. I spun around to spark a roll and turned back to Trixa with it lit only to find Miss Ulna instead. Her anger still boiled with a fury that could end me right quick.
“Did you scratch my husband?” The sheets whipped behind her like a curse.
I yelped and dropped the roll. “I never hurt nothing or nobody.”
By the cooling of her face, she believed me. She nodded as if knowing my mind, acknowledging the truth of it. “You’re not a shapeshifter, are you? You prefer the company of animals to people, but most of your powers lie with plants. The chopped wood, the extra flowers, the taccab. I get it.” She waved her hand as if it were beneath her.
I shook my head, denying everything.
“Really, Leusa Wrothburn. Do you really think I would have hired you without knowing who you were and what you could do? That would have been irresponsible.”
“None of your business. But you don’t have to worry about me. What you do isn’t like that witch stuff. Your talent is natural.”
The sheets stopped flapping behind her, my heart slowed to normal, and I calmed my breathing.
“Those girls hanging—”
“Those girls hanging are lucky. The forces they were fooling with were about to tear them apart. They are none of your concern.”
The kitties were what really concerned me, but she didn’t need to know that.
Miss Ulna bent toward me to speak quietly even though the drying laundry sheltered us plenty. “Trixa told you there’s a trial tomorrow. Between you and me, my husband fears for his life, and wants every man in town to carry a freshly sharpened blade to the trial. Problem is, the smith can’t handle it all by himself and could use some help. What do you think?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never done anything like that.”
“That ax doesn’t count?”
“It’s not the same. I can’t do something that might hurt somebody.”
Miss Ulna leaned closer and whispered mean. “How do you think my husband will react when I tell him you were the one who put that cat in our house? Does he seem like a forgiving man to you?”
Thinking of Maw, I bowed my head. She probably wouldn’t approve even if she knew I had no choice. “I don’t know if I can do it, but I’ll try.”
Miss Ulna picked up the empty laundry basket and straightened. “Wonderful. Finnas will bring the blades to your room. Finish what you can, and he’ll get them in the morning. Don’t speak of this to anyone.”
She left without looking back, and I climbed a tree.
Sure enough, later that afternoon, Finnas clattered into the courtyard with a loaded wagon. I didn’t have to guess where he was gonna drop his cargo. No point in watching. I didn’t have time to get down before he rode off and returned with another load. I wondered if there’d be a third one, but heard him putting the horses to bed. Not until he clomped up the stairs after dinner did I dare peek inside what they called my room.
I caught them preening when I walked in, their squeaks like hungry chicks. They rattled in their boxes, following me with their glittery crescent smiles topped with motley handles of different makes, different ages, and different life experiences. Maw always said never to walk with metal, said it so much I couldn’t tell if it was her powers of insistence or a motherly warning. But I saw them now and understood how easy it was to fall in love.
I didn’t know how I knew their language until I heard it. Stepping inside and closing the door behind me, I knelt to be near them. Yearning so close to their true selves, wanting to be their best versions—that I understood. But they weren’t like the ax, which was a necessary tool for survival. These blades wanted death and power. This was wrong, profane, but I couldn’t help myself.
The proper way to sharpen metal is to tell it stories. They have to be the kind metal likes, stories about bravery and love and sacrifice. As I whispered some faerie tales I knew, they grew, matured, sparkled. Their glass promises became crystalline realities. The closer I realized their vision, they less they needed me until they didn’t need me at all. I’d shown them the way, and now I was spent. Helpless, I watched them swell and glisten, elongate and narrow to the finest edge forever, fulfilling their destiny of harm. Their screeches grew so loud it hurt my ears, terrified me.
I ran from the room to the farthest hospra on the Magistrate’s property, ripping up that foolish apron Maw made me wear, leaving it in shreds on the ground. How that false sense of purpose had filled me and drained me just as quick left me sick. I never wanted to come here, to live among town folk, to sharpen knives for a bunch of men to make themselves feel stronger in a world they already controlled. I was half-tempted to climb the fence and disappear into the woods, but thought them town folk would brand me a witch for sure if I did. I fell asleep in the hospra pondering what to do next about those blades I had made my children.
The faded sweet perfume of a parfenia blossom clung to the air when I woke up. That surprised me, since it wasn’t spring. Nor did I see any petals, but they usually withered when the sun come up anyhow. The dumb cock had long since spoken. Groggy from parfenia-induced sleep, I climbed down from my hospra bed resolved. The knives had to listen to reason. They had to go back to what they had been. Then I’d tell Miss Ulna that it was beyond my powers to do what she wanted.
Finnas and his horses were already gone, and the rest of the estate was silent as an eclipse. Nor were there any sounds from my room. The knives were gone.
There would be no peace with my children loose like this. The compound gates were open, and I ran outside. The distant roar of a crowd told me why the streets were empty and where everybody was. Huffing, I made it to the edge of the crowd. The square was packed, and the Magistrate’s cart was nowhere to be found. Slipping between people who never knew I existed, I could only get so far before people congealed around me. I heard the tiny chattering of the overeager knives, but couldn’t figure where they were coming from.
On a platform in the middle of the square stood a tall, dark-haired woman with a rope draped around her neck and hands tied behind her back. Underneath the platform was a pile of firewood, as if hanging weren’t permanent enough. Whatever she was accused of doing, it must have been so bad they wanted to kill her twice.
The crowd shushed, and I pushed forward looking for my unnatural creations. I didn’t want my whispers to hurt anybody. Some folks were put off by my boldness and put up enough of a grumble that it caught Miss Ulna’s attention from where she stood at the front of the mob. Rather than get mad, she gave me half a smile and put a finger to her lips. Makzeet and Trixa stood on either side of her, nodding when they saw me. In Trixa’s hair was a pink parfenia blossom, impossibly preserved.
The Magistrate gimped the short distance to front of the platform. Townsmen crowded around him, shouting their support while hoisting axes and wheat scythes, bows and spears. None of their weapons talked to me, though I still heard the knives’ faint voices.
Clearing his throat, the Magistrate puffed liked a bullfrog. “Sangela Terns of Stonefeld, you stand accused of foulness against the Maker. You have brought animality, wanton sensuality, and unnatural congress to our town. How do you plead before your fellow townsfolk?”
“I don’t have to answer to anybody here.”
The Magistrate harrumphed like this sort of outrageous response was beneath him. “Then I have no choice but to pronounce you guilty.”
Sangela spit at the Magistrate, though she was too far away to reach him. She laughed when his puss soured and even more at the crowd’s gasps and curses. Her hair collected itself into a ponytail, slunk across her shoulder and twitched like a cat’s tail. Not just any cat, I saw now. Black and silky like it would glow in the moonlight, like it would waltz through the courtyard, like it would rub up against you and make you its friend.
“By official decree of the township of Stonefeld, I condemn you to death by hanging and burning.” He made it sound more like a condition than a judgment.
Sangela only laughed louder. “Hanging and burning? Is that all?”
Some in the crowd guffed despite themselves. The Magistrate stumbled backward as if the words had been physical blows. He called his supporters to him. The knives hushed completely, like they were preparing to strike, and that scared me most.
“Enough. Men, ignite the pyre and drop the ropes by the common decree of Stonefeld and the Maker we serve.”
As the men of Stonefeld came forward with their weapons and torches, I heard the voices of my children begin to sing as, one by one, the women of Stonefeld withdrew blades from under their aprons, the folds of their skirts, the hems of their gowns.
Miss Ulna unveiled one of largest and most violent of my pupils as she approached her husband, speaking so everyone could hear. “Harmon Fustable, your authority means no more to us than the fortunes told in the smatterings of pigeon droppings.”
Before he could close his gaping mouth, she stabbed her husband in the belly. Overwhelmed and dumbstruck, his men had no immediate reaction. The other women didn’t hesitate, and soon all I could hear was the screams of men, the shrieking laughter of women and the harmonic voices of my babies in their bloody glory. The Magistrate climbed the scaffolding behind the platform but was hunted by both Miss Ulna and Sangela. I couldn’t watch them carve him up.
Some of the men put up their hands in surrender, and they were spared. Those who fought back didn’t last long. There were too many women and too many knives. Whether or not anybody deserved this, I didn’t know anymore. I hated bloodshed, killing, death, and felt sick that I had helped this happen. Miss Ulna, Makzeet, and Trixa had made me their fool. Maybe even Maw. None of them cared about me any more than the knives had at the end.
I hated tears but they came anyway as I ran from the massacre toward the town’s gates. Howls followed me like accusations, pushing me forward through the panicking masses. Wiping my eyes, I headed toward those morbid city gates. They burst open as I approached, and I didn’t dare look up.
Beyond a small gulley lay the forest, wild and lush. Maybe there I could find a way to forgive myself. I left the road as fast as my legs would take me, disappearing into the woods. The air chased me like a zephyr, batting me like a toy, lashing my back like a hiss.