The mercenary transferred the coins to my waiting palm, and I tucked them into my pocket, their weight as heavy as a millstone. There was no possible chance that my sisters hadn’t spotted the money—no chance they weren’t already wondering how they might persuade me to give them some.
“Thank you,” I said to the mercenary, trying and failing to keep the bite from my voice as I felt my sisters sweep closer, like vultures circling a carcass.
The mercenary stroked the wolf pelt. “A word of advice, from one hunter to another.”
I lifted my brows.
“Don’t go far into the woods. I wouldn’t even get close to where you were yesterday. A wolf this size would be the least of your problems. More and more, I’ve been hearing stories about those things slipping through the wall.”
A chill spider-walked down my spine. “Are they—are they going to attack?” If it were true, I’d find a way to get my family off our miserable, damp territory and head south—head far from the invisible wall that bisected our world before they could cross it.
Once—long ago and for millennia before that—we had been slaves to High Fae overlords. Once, we had built them glorious, sprawling civilizations from our blood and sweat, built them temples to their feral gods. Once, we had rebelled, across every land and territory. The War had been so bloody, so destructive, that it took six mortal queens crafting the Treaty for the slaughter to cease on both sides and for the wall to be constructed: the North of our world conceded to the High Fae and faeries, who took their magic with them; the South to we cowering mortals, forever forced to scratch out a living from the earth.
“No one knows what the Fae are planning,” the mercenary said, her face like stone. “We don’t know if the High Lords’ leash on their beasts is slipping, or if these are targeted attacks. I guarded for an old nobleman who claimed it had been getting worse these past fifty years. He got on a boat south two weeks ago and told me I should leave if I was smart. Before he sailed off, he admitted that he’d had word from one of his friends that in the dead of night, a pack of martax crossed the wall and tore half his village apart.”
“Martax?” I breathed. I knew there were different types of faeries, that they varied as much as any other species of animal, but I knew only a few by name.
The mercenary’s night-dark eyes flickered. “Body big as a bear’s, head something like a lion’s—and three rows of teeth sharper than a shark’s. And mean—meaner than all three put together. They left the villagers in literal ribbons, the nobleman said.”
My stomach turned. Behind us, my sisters seemed so fragile—their pale skin so infinitely delicate and shredable. Against something like the martax, we’d never stand a chance. Those Children of the Blessed were fools—fanatic fools.
“So we don’t know what all these attacks mean,” the mercenary went on, “other than more hires for me, and you keeping well away from the wall. Especially if the High Fae start turning up—or worse, one of the High Lords. They would make the martax seem like dogs.”
I studied her scarred hands, chapped from the cold. “Have you ever faced another type of faerie?”
Her eyes shuttered. “You don’t want to know, girl—not unless you want to be hurling up your breakfast.”
I was indeed feeling ill—ill and jumpy. “Was it deadlier than the martax?” I dared ask.
The woman pulled back the sleeve of her heavy jacket, revealing a tanned, muscled forearm flecked with gruesome, twisted scars. The arc of them so similar to—“Didn’t have the brute force or size of a martax,” she said, “but its bite was full of poison. Two months—that’s how long I was down; four months until I had the strength to walk again.” She pulled up the leg of her trousers. Beautiful, I thought, even as the horror of it writhed in my gut. Against her tanned skin, the veins were black—solid black, spiderwebbed, and creeping like frost. “Healer said there was nothing to be done for it—that I’m lucky to be walking with the poison still in my legs. Maybe it’ll kill me one day, maybe it’ll cripple me. But at least I’ll go knowing I killed it first.”
The blood in my own veins seemed to chill as she lowered the cuff of her pants. If anyone in the square had seen, no one dared speak about it—or to come closer. And I’d had enough for one day. So I took a step back, steadying myself against what she’d told me and shown me. “Thanks for the warnings,” I said.
Her attention flicked behind me, and she gave a faintly amused smile. “Good luck.”
Then a slender hand clamped onto my forearm, dragging me away. I knew it was Nesta before I even looked at her.
“They’re dangerous,” Nesta hissed, her fingers digging into my arm as she continued to pull me from the mercenary. “Don’t go near them again.”
I stared at her for a moment, then at Elain, whose face had gone pale and tight. “Is there something I need to know?” I asked quietly. I couldn’t remember the last time Nesta had tried to warn me about anything; Elain was the only one she bothered to really look after.
“They’re brutes, and will take any copper they can get, even if it’s by force.”
I glanced at the mercenary, who was still examining her new pelts. “She robbed you?”
“Not her,” Elain murmured. “Some other one who passed through. We had only a few coins, and he got mad, but—”
“Why didn’t you report him—or tell me?”
“What could you have done?” Nesta sneered. “Challenged him to a fight with your bow and arrows? And who in this sewer of a town would even care if we reported anything?”
“What about your Tomas Mandray?” I said coolly.
Nesta’s eyes flashed, but a movement behind me caught her eye, and she gave me what I supposed was her attempt at a sweet smile—probably as she remembered the money I now carried. “Your friend is waiting for you.”
I turned. Indeed, Isaac was watching from across the square, arms crossed as he leaned against a building. Though the eldest son of the only well-off farmer in our village, he was still lean from the winter, and his brown hair had turned shaggy. Relatively handsome, soft-spoken, and reserved, but with a sort of darkness running beneath it all that had drawn us to each other, that shared understanding of how wretched our lives were and would always be.
We’d vaguely known each other for years—since my family had moved to the village—but I had never thought much about him until we’d wound up walking down the main road together one afternoon. We’d only talked about the eggs he was bringing to market—and I’d admired the variation in colors within the basket he bore—browns and tans and the palest blues and greens. Simple, easy, perhaps a bit awkward, but he’d left me at my cottage feeling not quite so … alone. A week later, I pulled him into that decrepit barn.