by Jennifer Julander
Once, the land was ruled by Seven Patrons, who each governed the primary element of their land.
Three Lords, one for each Forsaken Land:
Ketses, the Desert Prince, absorbed the anger of summer. With feet of leather, he united Earth and Fire.
Daitel, the Ice Baron, withstood the despair of winter. With hands of iron, he united Earth and Wind.
Yama, the Swamp Lord, balanced the discrepancies of drought and flood. With skin of moss, he united Earth and Water.
Four Ladies, one for each Benevolent Realm:
Blodwyn, the Wind Empress, life’s very breath.
Talnar, the Fire Lady, heart of the world.
Ronelle, the Water Duchess, nature’s rushing blood.
And Marian, the Green Lady, the soul of the earth who made them one.
A century ago, in the midst of a great conflict with Darkness, the Green Lady disappeared. The Lords were entombed in a curse, and the unity of the Seven was lost. The remaining three Ladies went into hiding, dissolving into myth.
Though many believe the Seven are only folklore, some say the Green Lady will return to heal the forest. Some even say that if you’re in the right place in the forest, on a full moon, you’ll spot the Green Lady running with the wolves.
A white wolf stalked a party of travelers in the woods, eyes trained on a young lady with red autumn hair. The air hung thick with the riders’ unease, all but tangible on the wind. The wolf knew what sort of things these travelers believed.
Vengeful spirits live in the trees.
Red-eyed ghosts roam the woods.
Dryads eat men whole.
A broken holly branch will sap your life force.
The men gripped their sword hilts and searched the trees, innate suspicion in their eyes. He stayed far enough away to keep their horses from spooking. They weren’t wrong to be suspicious. Even now, he stalked them in the shelter of shadows. He could wait until they camped at night, then move in with such muted steps, no one would know the girl was missing until morning.
But he hadn’t decided what to do with her yet. He’d wait a little while longer until her motives became clear. For now, he just watched, creeping through the brush, as she whirled around in her saddle and stared through the trees in his direction. He sank low to the ground, and though she couldn’t see him, his heart beat faster as he recognized those emerald eyes, eyes he almost knew…
~ ~ ~
Nymuë had been raised in the woods, but she’d never been in a forest like this one. Next to these regal giants the road, the trees of her homeland were windblown waifs, pitiful imitations of the real thing. Now she saw what had been kept from her—this was where she belonged.
The forest was full of sunlight. She reveled in the tall pine columns and oak shade. How could anyone feel ill at ease in the living wood, under the star-speckle shade of leaves? It was early summer, hot but breezy.
The trees’ breath carried the sounds of tapping leaves and birdsong. She sat atop a chestnut mare in the midst of a party of riders, her escort, on the way toward a new home. She’d resisted at first; betrothal to a king, a stranger, seemed abrasive and stifling. But her uncle, Lord Drey Mechanian, was too proud of the arrangement, and in the end, she’d had little choice. In fact, Nymuë knew her uncle had never been happy about his responsibility toward her. After her mother had been killed, it had fallen on him to look after her. But he was afraid of her, the same way other people were, as if she’d inherited her mother’s witchcraft. Mechanian doubtless was eager to be rid of her before she brought more mishap upon his family.
Well, she was eager to be gone, too. Her mother hadn’t been a witch, and he knew it as well as she did. She hated him for never standing up for his sister, for letting her die, for letting people mistreat her and her mother. They stopped to water the horses, and Nymuë’s escorts were ready to leave before the horses even touched their noses to the river. They shifted and checked the trees often, grown men who twitched at the rustle of leaves. Their trepidation made the horses stamp their feet. Nymuë shook her head, unable to understand their fear. To her, a shadow was just a shadow.
She dismounted and drank from the cool stream with her hands. The water was fresh and crisp. A guard scoffed under his breath at her impropriety.
“We’re leaving,” Lord Mechanian announced, pretending not to notice her.
She told herself she didn’t care what he thought, or anyone else. She was on the road to a better chance, a place to start over, where superstitions about red hair meant nothing. Stars! It was good to leave, to get away from all the scrutiny. Though, she didn’t understand all the fuss over marriage. What did she care if some king wanted to marry her? She’d rather sit out here alone, nestled on a mossy root-throne, with a book and river song to lull her to sleep.
Just then, her sharp ears picked up a new sound, an easy melody cutting through the air. She craned her neck, searching for the source. There—a slight, young woman, barefoot and skipping. Her voice was bird flight through the trees, its tune weaving around the gurgle of steam water and the brush of leaves. Nymuë’s breath caught; indeed, the entire party held its breath. It was the reaction of those beholding an otherworldly sight.
“Oh,” the strange woman said, pausing her song at the height of a phrase. She eyed the party and stilled her gait, motionless save for a pair of small, leather shoes just swaying in her hand. Her toes were buried deep in the grass. A patch of sunlight illuminated her golden hair. She spotted Nymuë, giving her a long glance.
There it was again, the dreaded scrutiny.
“Nymph!” Lord Mechanian exclaimed. “We seek passage to King Friedrich’s castle.”
Her eyes laughed. “What business have you at my brother’s castle?”
Silence filled the clearing. Nymuë took in the woman’s golden halo of clover-bedecked hair, her bare feet and travel dress, her light form and careless stance. Was this woman a princess? More like an unkempt peasant, dirt-smudged and simple. What in the Seven Plains was she doing out here? Look at her messy, flower-filled braids—and were there actual bits of moss scattered in her hair?
Lord Mechanian dropped to one knee. “My Lady Cleandra, please forgive the confusion. I didn’t expect—”
“Please, it’s fine. Rise, and I’ll take you to the castle.”
~ ~ ~
Inside the castle, a man paced the battlements, sighing, studying the treetops. He’d been there since morning, and now it was mid-afternoon. Where’s Cleandra? Is she safe? He’d ensure it. He must. Treetops wavered under gallops of wind. Their heads nodded to him, great, bobbing, sentinel flowers. Below was a returning scout, a little speck of a man growing nearer as his horse pounded along the road.
Without pause, Friedrich bounded down the rampart stairs. The crowd in the courtyard was a company of anticipation. He almost beat the scout to the castle gate, so great was his desire for good news, or any news…
“They crossed the border not half an hour hence,” the man reported, scarce of breath. “It won’t be long now.”
“And my sister?”
“Your Majesty…forgive me. She doesn’t want to be found.”
Friedrich nodded. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. Did Cleandra know what she did to people, what it felt like to think of her out there, alone in the very wilderness that had killed their parents? Oh, he still burned inside to think of it—their bodies mangled, unrecognizable. Whatever killed them had taken more than their lives. It had taken the very image of who they were, had taken their peace and love, had even taken a bit of his sanity.
He knew it was wildly ridiculous to send scouts into the woods in search of the smallest dangers. His hunters eliminated predators and petty vagrants alike until they were all but extinct. Yes, he was half mad with obsession. He knew this, as he knew in his soul that life wasn’t done with him, that one day this near-madness might save them all.
Such actions went against everything Cleandra believed in. “Any idiot can kill a creature,” she told him once, “but it takes great strength to nurture life.” How he wished he could maintain such innocent optimism. But all her adamant convictions, all the years she spent safe under the forest’s vaulted ceilings, couldn’t stop him from seeing his parents’ horrid, mangled deaths every time he closed his eyes.
“You’re making that face again.” A warm hand fell on his shoulder. Friedrich turned, already knowing he’d see the rugged face of his closest friend, Wulfram. A broad smile greeted him, spreading slow and lazy on a face that hadn’t been shaved in days. His friend had dark brown hair and amber eyes. Wulfram put a confidential arm around Friedrich’s shoulders, steering him away from the gates and away from the crowd.
“Frowning will age you,” Wulfram said. “Remember, a woman arrives exactly when she means to, never a moment before.”
“Is that what you tell yourself when you stare out the window every morning? I’m not blind; we grew up together. I think I knew you loved her before you knew it yourself.”
Wulfram tensed, frowning.
“And for what? Have you asked her to stay? She won’t listen to family. But perhaps, if you ask her.”
“I can’t ask her to change who she is. You know that.”
“But what sort of marriage could you hope for? And you do intend to marry her, don’t you?”
Of course he did. But their conversation was cut short by a commotion at the gates. Friedrich took a deep breath and paused to adjust his shirt and cloak before heading back to the gate; this gesture elicited a facetious snicker from his friend.
Searching the gathered crowd, Friedrich spotted a surprising mess of red curls. Yes, this must be her, the girl whose face was porcelain, her lips soft and pink; her green eyes fell on him, vibrant, honest. Ah, she was lovely. She reminded him somewhat of his sister—forest eyes, hair untamed—a spirit that simply wished to bolt. Were all the women he loved destined to be wild things? He wasn’t certain he could handle another forest girl.
From the corner of his eye, Friedrich saw a familiar wave of blond hair, and he forgot everything else.
~ ~ ~
Cleandra was everything remarkable in Wulfram’s life. What extraordinary disregard she had for expectations; what an amazing ability to exude fullness and happiness. It wasn’t that she was untouched by tragedy—gods knew, she’d never been the same after her parents’ deaths—but rather, she let the forest fill her with presence and life.
Wulfram had never learned how to do this. He’d grown up in a plain chateau, with predictable wealth, funded by peasant taxes; his predictable parents had sent him to foster with the king, as tradition dictated. He earned himself an education and just the kind of skill with a sword that was anticipated for a man of his station. The very thought that he’d fallen in love with a princess was laughable; of course she’d marry a prince. No matter her rebellious nature or her strange habits. People assumed such habits would cease when she was no longer a girl.
Well, Wulfram could see she was no longer a girl. He gazed at her from across the courtyard and caught her eye. She was a forest maiden, dressed in simple linen. She filled him with evening breath, a fresh, secret breeze on his cheek. Her hair gleamed golden in the fading sunlight, and she smiled at him with nymph eyes and a tiny mischief nick at the corner of her mouth. She was still for a moment, caught in his stare, and then she broke through the crowd to meet him.
“Welcome home, love!” He held out his arms, and when she embraced him, he spun her in a wide circle.
“I missed you, Wulf.” She kissed him on the forehead, but as soon as her feet touched the ground, she raced off to greet Friedrich. Wulfram was left with a mouthful of words he couldn’t say. He watched her disappear into the fold of her brother’s strong embrace.
Now they moved, the crowd walking as a single entity, drawn by the prospect of food and eminence. It wasn’t often they saw the princess anymore. Wulfram allowed the bustle of satin to shepherd him down the paved path and through the keep’s large doors. He listened to the clack of heels on cobblestone, the chafe of billow-skirts pressing together, and hundreds of voices—every voice but hers.
A small hand surprised his shoulder. “Don’t disappear on me. Why, it wouldn’t be a feast without you.”
A slow smile spread across his lips as her small fingers slipped into his hand. His heart turned into a hummingbird within his rib cage—frantic, beating against its confines— And if I ask her to marry me, what will she say?
Friedrich walked ahead of them as they entered the dining hall. The place was dressed in lush tablecloth and extravagant lights, dancing with the trick of candle and glass, a dozen chandeliers in the ceiling, goblets glimmering at every place setting, and wildflowers donning tables and chairs. All the walls were lined in tapestry, depicting warm murals of their ancestry and the Great Hunts of legend. The air hummed with anticipation.
Lord Mechanian approached the head of the table, kneeling before the king. “Your Majesty. Let me present my niece, Nymuë, daughter of Vienne of the House of Lamlay.”
“Your Majesty.” Nymuë gave a deep curtsy, her eyes trained on the tablecloth.
“My Lady, you’re as beautiful as a spring lily. Welcome to Elodria.” Wulfram saw that despite himself, Friedrich was already taken with her. “Please, if you’ll honor me with your company tonight?”
As they were about to sit, a hen-faced woman darted forward and whispered in Cleandra’s ear. The princess stepped back in feigned shock. “Do I really need to dress up for this sort of thing? Of course—I’m a princess, after all.” There it was again, that mischievous smile. She picked up a garland of flowers from a high chair back and, with deft fingers, wound it around her brow. “Now I’m wearing a crown. No? Still not enough? Wulfram, give me your cloak.”
He waved her away, but she unhooked the clasp herself.
“Now I look just like Friedrich!”
“My Lady!” The woman fanned herself, wide-eyed. “Please, you’re making a scene in front of our guests!”
Wulfram excused himself and became immersed in studying a tapestry, where no one would notice his expression. Friedrich wandered over and told the woman to leave Cleandra alone, reprimanding his sister for harassing the poor woman.
Cleandra laughed aloud when he said this. “Give me your cloak. Then I really will look just like you!” When Wulfram returned to take his place next to Cleandra, it was to discover his own cloak draped over a chair; somehow, she’d won the fight, because Friedrich was now short one velvet cloak. No one else attempted to address the state of her attire.
Cleandra devoured her food; it was clear she enjoyed every moment of the feast. Despite her appearance, she was still the most beautiful woman in the room. Her face shone radiant, as if she carried her own warm candle glow inside. If she so enjoys herself, why not stay in the castle? But he kept the thought silent; he knew the look he’d receive if he brought it up. But still, he burned with the idea, with the need for her to stay, to see her, feel her, touch and love her, hold her near and safe and lingering.
Once, Cleandra leaned close to Wulfram and fed him a dessert cake. The pad of her delicate fingertip brushed his lower lip, and the breath caught in his lungs. She smiled, stuffing copious amounts of the same cake in her mouth, unable to close her lips around it. Her heat and sway were keen on his senses. His skin burned, so hot he feared she would notice; but he couldn’t pull away, nor would he. He remembered Friedrich’s words just then: What kind of marriage could you hope for? Their eyes locked across the table; Friedrich’s blue gaze was imperative, pleading. Yes, Wulfram could see—there was no time for this conversation between the two siblings.
The king inclined his ear toward Nymuë. Tomorrow, the castle would buzz with assurances that the king was smitten with his bride-to-be. They’d say he was the perfect image of adoration; but this picture could well be a tapestry, Wulfram thought. It was masterfully woven, yet behind its colorful thread was a cold, bare wall, a thick layer of stone between Nymuë and his warmth. His devotion was mere fantasy, fabrication.
Wulfram glanced at Cleandra, wondering if the same was true of her. She was laughing, making some jibe at Friedrich. Was this all a farce? To stave off her brother’s entreaties? To prevent him from seeking her out with dogs and hunters, or holding her there by force? He glanced at her smiling face, that summer radiance he coveted. His stomach twisted, and he thought of each time they’d parted and how his soul turned gray in her absence. His heart burned, fluttering too fast. He took a deep breath and sat taller, willing himself to eat something.
Cleandra nudged him. “Try the duck, it’s astounding.”
Agreeing and obliging, he tried it without tasting. In the back of his mind, he ran through scenarios in which he asked her to stay. But when he imagined her cooped up in the castle, he cringed—no, she’d lose something of herself in here. And despite Friedrich’s repeated, silent supplications, Wulfram wouldn’t breathe a word to convince her.
Yes, Wulfram. What could you really hope for? You should’ve known better. When the feast slowed and people grew sleepy and over-stuffed, Cleandra excused herself from the table. He followed her, of course, a logical extension of her movement. The sky was rippling velvet and layered pearls, thick, generous drapes of stars, scattered and blinking.
Cleandra raised her face to the jewel lights and spun, laughing, and they shimmered in time with her intricate footfalls as her ankles crisscrossed, barefoot, leaving nimble toe-prints in the dirt. As she grew dizzy, she allowed Wulfram to catch her. She held onto him to steady herself, peering at him with deep aloe eyes.
He paused, watching the way the corner of her lips curled in content. “Friedrich worries about you.”
She deflated with a little sigh. “He shouldn’t. I’d be more at hazard here, where my boredom would get the better of me.”
Wulfram chuckled, but he knew she heard the sad thrum in his throat, which he couldn’t hide, the catch in his breath when he thought of her leaving again.
“I suppose no one understands. But just look around you, look at this orchard. Perfect rows of trees, perfect fruit, perfect little chosen flowers. But that’s why it isn’t perfect. People think it’s forest-like simply because it has trees? They have no idea what a forest is like. Where’s the life? If we chase out birds and nests because they might ruin the fruit, we also take away half the tree’s purpose. And is that our choice to make? If we wanted the forest inside our walls, we’d really let it in, wouldn’t we?”
Wulfram let himself drift closer to her. She didn’t seem to mind. “When you look at something, you never see what I’d expect you to.”
“Well, how can I? Do you see what I mean? There—the flower bed’s trampled, and there—some lovestruck fool’s carved names into a trunk. And benches! Has anyone ever tried sitting in a tree, or on the ground, sensing the earth’s breath, or actually feeling the world with their bare skin, without gloves or shoes guarding them from experience?”
As if in response to her question, Wulfram brushed his fingers down her bare arm. Her skin was warm despite the night breeze. He couldn’t help but glance at her bare toes. The way she stood, ankles and tender calves exposed, her feet sure and strong on the naked earth. It was all very beautiful and stirring.
“Wulfram, why is it so important to Friedrich that I remain here?”
He was dispirited now, knowing he’d ruined the evening. And yet, how could they avoid speaking of this? “He loves you, my dear. And most of all, he misses you.”
She studied his face, seeming to understand it wasn’t Friedrich he spoke of, but himself. “And you?” she whispered. “Do you wish to keep me here?”
He hesitated, watching her eyes flash in the tinsel, moonlight beams. He whispered her name, sacred, heart, the only thing that matched his spirit.
“Don’t.” She peered at him through her eyelashes. “I’m sorry. I had a lovely evening, and that’s where I’ll leave it.” Her lips dragged against the scruff of his cheek.
And she was gone.
In the morning, the great hall bustled with guests and curious servants. Cleandra eyed Wulfram as they engaged in meaningless conversation, wondering how her departure had affected him last night. She hadn’t meant to be brusque, but how was she supposed to respond? How could she tell him the forest was everything to her, without wounding him?
“It’s a beautiful morning,” he commented as they exited the great hall.
“Yes,” Cleandra agreed. “Perfect. Will you join me for a walk?” She directed him to the east side of the castle, into the bright sunshine.
“Are you certain you wouldn’t rather be in the forest?” he questioned. “Even within the castle walls, you can’t stay away from the trees.” He indicated the orchard, and heat rose in her chest as she remembered her tirade under the starlight. What useless things words could be when they fell unguarded from the human tongue.
“You’re right. Let’s go!” She tugged on his sleeve, and a grin twitched at the corner of his mouth.
Allowing her to pull him along, he said, “You know, this is the first time you’ve asked me to go with you.”
She stopped walking. “I never knew you wanted to.”
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m curious about how you spend your time.”
But her focus was on a huge footprint on the ground. It looked like a dog’s, except it was at least two handbreadths wide. She frowned, her skin prickling.
Wulfram followed her gaze and spotted it, too. “Did the party from Lamlay bring hunting dogs?”
She smeared the tracks with her foot and grasped his hand, pulling him deeper into the trees. “They must have.”
They had to, she told herself. Because it couldn’t be a wolf track; they never ventured this close to the castle. She breathed deep of the fresh pine air, trying to calm herself. Wolves meant trouble, even death. It had been years since they were last sighted in Elodria.
“Cleandra? Where are we going?”
Had he noticed her unease? She whirled around and smiled for him. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!” Provoking him to follow, she dashed into the trees. Wulfram chuckled when she took her shoes off, tying the laces together and carrying them over one shoulder. The ground was rough underfoot, but her feet were used to it.
“So.” She turned around to face him, skipping backward. “You said you were curious. Ask me anything.”
He shrugged, hands in his pockets. “Why does this place fascinate you so?”
“Just look at the treetops, that mottled green! The air is clean, and the forest is honest. Wulfram, I can never be this free inside the castle.”
“Am I not as honest as the forest?” There it was, the way his eyes darted away from hers when she peered too close.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m asking…do you prefer being in the forest to being with me?”
Mid-skip, she lost her footing and stumbled. “Oh, Wulf, don’t be ridiculous. You know you’re dear to me.”
“I know. But you always come back to this place. I hardly see you anymore.”
She stared at him. True, she was gone most of the time, but she thought Wulfram was the one person who accepted this quirk. Perhaps she had to show him her love of the forest if she wanted him to understand? “Would I bring you here if I didn’t trust you?”
She grabbed his hand again and pulled him through the woods, chattering about everything she knew: when the robins nested and where; why the sparrow sang; why flowers bloomed at the base of trees…He matched her gait, their fingers locked together. His hand was warm, its pressure gentle. They stopped at the edge of a clearing, where the sky bloomed with clouds. Before she knew what had happened, Cleandra found herself in Wulfram’s embrace, his firm lips planted on hers. Her hands fell to her sides and she sank into his kiss, heart swelling as she realized how long it’d been since they were together last.
Eyelids fluttering shut, she let him sweep her away on a current of warmth. He pulled her closer, arms strong, chest firm. Something stirred inside her, a connection she’d underestimated.
Later, they settled on top of a grassy hillside, lying on their backs, little purple asters waving at them from above. Wulfram propped his head up on one arm and looked down at her. “Where do you go, when you disappear for months at a time?”
“Nowhere. Everywhere. It’s not about going, Wulfram. It’s about living.”
“And if I said I want to live with you?”
She looked up at his scruff-lined face and answered, “Then I’d say you have a lot to learn.”
~ ~ ~
A few days later, Friedrich caught Cleandra by the elbow, and though he tried to hide it, she noticed the tension in his grip. She stared at him, watching his forced smile, the way he debated what he was about to say.
“What is it?” she prodded.
“Nymuë hasn’t been here long. What do you think of her?”
Cleandra issued a short laugh. “If you want to know what she thinks of you, why don’t you ask her yourself?”
Friedrich’s eyes had all the depth of the sky as he stared at her; her breath paused.
“My Lord!” called a servant from across the hall. “The Council convenes momentarily.”
Friedrich sighed. “I don’t know how a woman could be happy being married to a king. I don’t even have time to speak to her. I have to ask my sister do it for me.” Hands clamped behind his back, he said, “Just…talk to her. Be her friend? I’ll speak with her myself when I have more time.” He stalked away, following the servant down the hall and out of sight. What was that all about? She stared down the empty hallway. What must it be like for Friedrich, knowing he had to marry a stranger, carrying the weight of responsibilities their father had left behind?
What was that all about? She stared down the empty hallway. What must it be like for Friedrich, knowing he had to marry a stranger, carrying the weight of responsibilities their father had left behind?
Cleandra was the wrong woman for this task. She didn’t spend enough time in the castle to be Nymuë’s friend—but she was here now, and Friedrich wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t think it was important. Wandering outside, Cleandra found her under an apple tree, watching the birds. As Cleandra approached, Nymuë’s gaze flickered toward Cleandra and her brow creased.
“Hello,” Cleandra said, nearing the base of the tree. Her arms felt awkward hanging at her sides; she crossed them over her chest instead. “May I sit with you?”
Nymuë nodded, mouth open as if she couldn’t think of anything to say. The garden was silent save for the coo of doves. Sitting on the grass, Cleandra stared at the apple blossoms overhead. Why am I doing this, again? She sighed. Only for you, Friedrich.
Nymuë stared at the sky, too, lips pressed together. After a long, silent moment, Cleandra stood, pulling fistfuls of flowers from the tree.
“What are you doing?”
“Passing the time.” Handing a cluster to Nymuë, Cleandra sat back down and braided the stems together; soon, she had a chain long enough to tie around Nymuë’s wrist. The fair-skinned lady let her do it, leaning in to watch as Cleandra made chain after chain, braiding them into her hair and winding belts around their waists. “What was it like growing up in Lamlay?” Cleandra broke the silence.
Nymuë examined the bracelet, brushing the apple blossoms with her fingertips. “It was wonderful. You don’t know this, but I didn’t grow up in the castle. Lamlay’s small, and our keeps only house a few people.” She tried tying a chain, too, her fingertips fumbling with the flowers. “Though my mother was a noblewoman, we lived in the forest outside the village, in one of my uncle’s lodges.”
Cleandra leaned in and wound a long stem through her braid, using it as support for the more delicate filaments.
Nymuë smiled. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure. Go on.”
“Well, my mother was well educated in many things, but her greatest talent was healing. We went out together every day to gather herbs, and a few times a week she visited the village to help people and buy food. We didn’t need much; Mother knew what was good to eat in the forest, and my uncle often brought us meat.” She paused, as if unsure how to continue. “We had such fun together, Mother and I. Sometimes at night, if the moon was full and we were restless, we’d leave the lodge and run through the trees all night long. We’d just run without stopping. We were so free!”
With the girl’s description, Cleandra’s heart raced and her breath quickened. She could almost feel herself running alongside them in the crisp night. Then, her vision stilted… She saw a huge, auburn-coated wolf, its eyes reflecting pale green in the moonlight. Its snout was messy with the blood of men, breath ripe with the stench of slaughter…
Cleandra gasped aloud and scrambled upright. Dizziness threatened to overwhelm her.
“What is it?”
“Nothing…It’s just, I’ve remembered something. Please excuse me—”
Pray Nymuë didn’t notice the vacancy in her eyes. She dashed off, leaving her alone in the garden. It had been a long time since she’d seen things like that, scenes coming out of nowhere, pieces of things she shouldn’t know but somehow did anyway. Her heart pounded and her stomach rebelled, twisting in her gut. A flush rose to the surface of her skin, and Cleandra paused by the castle gate, focusing on even breaths.
What an impression I must’ve made… But she couldn’t stay with Nymuë. She refused to sit with this feeling, with the terror of a vision she didn’t want to see. But though she craved the forest and the way it eased her mind, she heard Wulfram’s earnest question in her mind: “Do you prefer being in the forest to being with me?” If she left, what would he think?
Panting, she turned around and headed back inside. What am I doing? She knew she didn’t belong here. Staying would just prolong the inevitable. Wulfram would realize she couldn’t live the life he wanted, and things would never be the same again. Why’d he question her feelings? Why couldn’t their lives stay the same as they’d always been?
Her hands shook as she opened her bedroom door. She couldn’t afford to worry about Wulfram right now—she was haunted, try as she might to forget those wolf eyes, the beast she’d dreamed of a hundred times, the same creature that had killed her parents.
She watched the ceiling, the floor, the cool walls, remembering…
Day faded into the delicate brush of evening. Sitting near the window, Cleandra watched the hum of castle life die down as the sun disappeared behind the tree line. The fire crackled in the hearth, her room warm and fragrant of pine-smoke. She knew she should sleep, but instead she sat up until the moon cast a crystal glimmer across the night.
Sometimes, the moonlight made Cleandra shiver. It was a reminder, and she forced herself to sit with the feeling: eerie, hair-raising, and a little cold. She basked in the moonlight as if it’d give immunity, as if one day she could look to its face and laugh. But she never did. For in the moonlight, Cleandra saw things. In the whisper of nighttime wind, the bristle of oak leaves told her stories she did and did not want to hear.
Once, when she was a young girl, the moon grew in her sight until it was too bright to see. When she could no longer stand its blinding haze, the light abated and she gazed down upon a party of travelers. She saw her parents, shooting nervous glances around the trees. Her mother leaned close to her father, consulting; he reassured her, thinly veiled fear in his eyes. Her mother’s lips were drawn and her eyes wild: the look of a cornered doe. Her neck elongated. Her back was a tall pine, and her knuckles turned white on the reins.
Her father’s face was much the same, but for all his worry, he held a soldier’s calm. His eyes were calculated cerulean, identical to Friedrich’s. Cleandra saw one hand ready at his sword hip. In some part of her mind, she was conscious of her corporeal self. She knew her body was in the castle in Elodria, but her spirit lived within the moonlight now, and she could turn her sight anywhere. Her physical self was aware of a light breeze, and rustling leaves on the wind. Through her bedroom window, the wind carried sounds she wished she never heard—
A long howl reverberated through the company’s breadth. Her father drew his sword, and Cleandra was assaulted by the clash of metal and the screams of men.
The party scattered. One by one, men were ripped from their saddles, letting out terrible cries. Her blood froze, her limbs numbed, and her heart beat painfully in her chest. She wanted to crawl right out of her skin, except she wasn’t in her own skin; she was suspended, helpless on a moonbeam, watching aghast as the entire company disappeared. Her parents and a dozen guards hurtled down a forest path on horseback.
“We have to split up,” her father ordered. “It’s our only chance. We can’t outrun it.”
Distantly, Cleandra heard herself sobbing. But the sound was lost amid the horrid sounds of crunching, shrieking, an awful slurping and gnashing. She heard ripping, wet and slick, like an animal being skinned, only much louder. Marian’s Mercy! It was so loud. The clang of metal against—what? These men were most certainly dying some horrible death—Oh! She wished the wind would stop.
And then it did, but the images went on. The moonlight found its way down between the gaps in the trees, and Cleandra saw the rip of teeth in flesh; the slick, too-fast flow of blood, muscle tearing from bone, men’s terrified eyes as they beheld the beast devouring them. And then, Cleandra saw the beast, too. It was a huge, auburn-coated wolf, its eyes reflecting pale green in the moonlight. Its snout was messy with the blood of men, its breath ripe with the stench of slaughter.
Stench? It was on the wind, that terrible wind, carrying all these awful, deafening sounds into her room. It was too much. Swift paws running over the forest floor. Horrible, blood-wet breath heaving through the wolf’s jowls. Her mother’s voice now, begging her father to answer. Her mother yelled at the beast, threatening it with suicidal rage.
Cleandra perceived her own body, kneeling on the floor and covering her ears, but the sounds did not cease. Her own screams echoed her mother’s pulse for pulse until they finally ceased. Friedrich was by her side now, rocking her in his arms and murmuring in her ear. But she couldn’t hear his words over the sounds of the wolf feasting. All she could see was her mother’s disembodied hand, covered in blood, with a single, bright emerald ring glimmering in a moonbeam.
Shuddering and gagging, Cleandra forced herself to return to the present. She drew the curtains shut in a hurry and settled in front of the fireplace instead.
Friedrich had tried to obtain an explanation for her momentary bout of insanity. But she never told him what she’d seen that night. By Marian, he’d experienced enough trauma when he insisted on seeing his parents’ recovered bodies. The moment he’d seen their corpses, he’d stared at her with vague understanding and fear. Eventually, though she tried to hide it, he realized she experienced visions on occasion. They never spoke of it, but Cleandra knew his desperate desire to keep her out of the forest was also a denial of how unordinary his sister was.
His reaction had been torture. But she couldn’t stay away from the forest. She knew, somewhere, the trees held answers. There was power and life in those woods, and she felt an irresistible draw, a lasso around her soul. A single, tangible wish kept her there: she wouldn’t be imprisoned in her own castle, limited to linen-craft and mediocrity. And she wouldn’t die helpless in the end. No, she’d grapple the beast with her very hands; she’d stare it in the eye and dare it to eat her. And she would never taint the trees with the tremors of terror her mother had left behind. The distant woods were haunted with the dying screams of the men and women slaughtered that night.
For all Friedrich’s worry, one fact should have stayed his mind: there are no wolves in Elodria. Hunters flushed out every kind of predatory beast from the forest; despite his efforts to hide it, she knew her brother had made certain of that long ago.
~ ~ ~
Nymuë sighed and laid her head on her pillow. She was going to live in Elodria. She could have everything she’d ever dreamed of; no one mocked her red hair or accused her of witchcraft. Friedrich was a dream. With his golden locks, captivating sapphire eyes, and perfect courtesy, he was more than she could’ve hoped for in a husband. Any woman would count herself lucky to spend her life with him. She pictured herself at his side: her rich hair dressed in gems, her fair skin complemented by a lush gown, and his strong arm around her shoulders. He’d show her off to the people of Elodria like a rare butterfly, and all the ladies would mimic her.
She thought of Melinda, her mentor of many years. On her deathbed, the old woman had made her promise she wouldn’t settle for the kind of life her mother had led, a solitary existence, followed by an abrupt and meaningless death.
“There’s a place, in the heart of Elodria Forest,” Melinda had said, her breath rattling with the effort of clinging to her waning life, “where the trees grow thick, and the dryads dance at Midsummer. There, you’ll find your heart’s desire. There, you’ll find the secrets of life revealed to you, the true source of power.”
She sighed, dreaming of it—the birthplace of the Green Lady. If she could tap into that power, she could do anything. She’d rise as the Goddess of Life and guide the people of Elodria into a world where everyone belonged, in which no one would ever be executed because of a superstition about red hair.
Eyes squeezed shut tight, she refused to cry. Tears won’t bring her back. She should be grateful to be alive, to be given the opportunity to change the world.
“Who are you?” asked a man’s voice from the dark.
Nymuë started, clutching her bedcovers. A scream caught in her throat, for next to her, a pair of red eyes stared out from the dark. She attempted to stammer out an answer, but her voice thwarted her. As her eyes adjusted, she made out a ghostly, white form standing near her bed. The glowing, crimson eyes held her, and she was unable to look away.
The figure drew closer and asked again, “Woman, who are you?”
This time, she was able to whisper, “Nymuë of Lamlay.”
Melinda had once cautioned her about a strange, phantom man with red eyes. As she stared at him, she realized she’d seen his face in the woods while traveling. Hands kneading the sheets, she asked, “What are you doing here?”
The phantom was silent for a moment, and Nymuë heard nothing but her own breath.
“I’m Amnar of Nydirn. Your father.”
~ ~ ~
Cleandra woke in the middle of the night. She rolled over and buried her face in the pillows, enveloped in delicious warmth, trying to convince herself she was still asleep.
But the bed was too soft. In fact, the whole room was wrong—no sky, no leaf-crisp whisper on the night. Moonbeams pinpricked through the curtains.
She kicked off the covers and thrust open the curtains. She couldn’t stand the stifled light; even through the glass window, it was muffled, foggy. The trees whispered, the shim and aah of secret branches, the forest tantalizing with snapping fingers.
That was all it took.
She was gone, donning some thin silk wrap, clutching it around her shoulders as she darted out the bedroom door. Down the corridor, past her mother’s old bedchambers—Nymuë’s rooms now—a chill passed over her skin as she darted by.
She paused in front of the queen’s chamber doors.
Was that sobbing she heard, the quick hiccup of panic? The door was cracked, and she inched forward to peer into the room. The sound of crying grew more distinct, but there was something else, a presence, an undertone she couldn’t quite place. Cleandra felt it before she heard it. A pair of glowing eyes appeared before her in the dark—ghost eyes, blood eyes—they stared her down.
The door creaked open of its own volition, and there she stood, face-to-face with a white wolf. Her limbs went numb.
A snarl rose in the wolf’s throat and its lips curled back. Cleandra swallowed hard and took a small step backward. The wolf’s fur rose in shackles; she stooped to the ground and held her breath. Its growl deepened, and she sensed it prepare to dart forward. Fully aware of her peril, she closed her eyes, waiting.
Receding footsteps padded on the floor behind her. Cleandra whipped around to watch the wolf run down the hall. She let out her breath and relaxed a little, but her mind raced. Wolves in Elodria?
She’d thought they were hunted to extinction long ago, chased from the borders of her home by superstition. How is this possible?
Rising, she ran after the wolf without missing a beat. She had to know more.
Her nightdress whipped around her ankles; gathering the excess of fabric into one fist, she made a sharp turn toward a stone-spiral staircase. Keen ear picking up the wolf’s heavy breath, she knew she wasn’t far behind; but when the staircase ended, the wolf tore out into the open with a sudden, swelling burst of speed.
Cleandra veered off to the east side of the castle and took an improvised shortcut. She rushed toward a side gate, flinging it open, knowing there was no other way for the wolf to leave the castle. As he came bounding toward the exit, she found herself standing in the way. Yet, instead of rushing the gate, the wolf halted and stared at her. She stepped aside, looking away from the glowering, crimson eyes. Still, the wolf didn’t move. Then, something changed—a shift in the air, a change in mood—that made her raise her eyes.
There, before her, she saw not a wolf, but a man. His chalky skin was the same color as the wolf’s fur, and his long, silver hair reflected the moonlight in a hazy halo around his head. His ruby eyes glowed still, like an animal’s, and while Cleandra knew he was no specter, she also knew he wasn’t entirely human.
“You’re the wolf.”
“I am.” His voice was deep, rumbling out from his chest.
She laughed. “But you’re no ghost.”
Hint of a smile on those bloodless lips. “So say you. Others would disagree.”
Entranced, she stepped toward him and brushed her hand along his cheek. Though pale, his skin was warm, his cheek rough to the touch, perhaps unshaved for a day or two. Oddity, that. She couldn’t make out the shadow of his scruff, for the hair was spider-silk, invisible in the dark. “You feel alive to me,” she whispered.
A shock of wonder reverberated in his eyes. He tore away from her and ducked toward the gate.
“Wait!” she called, and he paused a moment but didn’t turn around. The breadth of his back was a wall, sinews of muscle taught under his cotton shirt.
Chin just turned, he spoke over his shoulder. “You’ll be better off if you forget me.”
He bolted headlong into the forest.
Cleandra rushed to the gate in time to see a white tail disappear into the brush.