Who are you?
I pause, my comb pulled partway through a long snarl of hair. An inexplicable shudder ripples down my spine, and I turn in my seat, eyes widening, heart racing.
Strange. There’s no one there.
I could have sworn that voice—deep and dark as a moonless night—had whispered directly into my ear. Even now I feel the tickle of warm breath against my neck raising gooseflesh. But no. The room is empty. Bare and cold and empty save for the sagging rope-frame bed, the nearly empty wardrobe. My work gown is draped over the back of a cane chair, and though my prickling imagination tries to make it into a menacing gray phantom, the light from my candle swiftly transforms it back into nothing more than a few folds of limp gray muslin.
Cold seeps up through the floorboards, soaking through the soles of my bare feet and spreading through my bones. I shiver and pull my feet up under my thin nightdress, sitting cross-legged to warm my toes. The window seat cushions on which I sit, once plump and soft, are threadbare now, the rich red velvet worn away to a lusterless puce. The whole room gives off a sad sense of once upon a time . . .
Once upon a time, beauty dwelled here.
Once upon a time, this household rang with laughter, with joy.
Once upon a time, there was money enough to go around, to keep our bellies full and fires burning on our hearths, to clothe us in something other than thrice-turned castoffs.
Once upon a time feels so long ago now.
A tallow candle, smelly but economical, burns in a clay stand on the windowsill beside me. Its flame flickers and smokes, reflecting in the window. The world outside is dark and still, transforming the glass into a serviceable mirror. I go back to combing out my hair, unconsciously counting the strokes as Mama taught me to do when I was small. I have few vanities left to my name these days—no jewels, no trinkets, no silks or perfumes. But my hair is glossy, thick, and gently waved. If the idea ever occurs to him, Father will sell it in heartbeat; there are wigmakers in town who would give a good price for hair like mine. So far I’ve been spared that one indignity at least. If worst comes to worst, however . . .
I twine a lock through my fingers and sigh. We’re not facing such dire straits yet. Seven gods willing, I’ll be able to keep our heads above water.
Lifting my chin, I meet my own gaze in the makeshift window-mirror. My eyes look hollow in the murky glass, spiritless. I’m bone-weary. My head is sore, my hands cramping after many long hours of holding a needle. Mistress Petren kept all of us stitch-girls late trying to finish the new gown for Lady Leocan. I crept home well after sunset only to discover the house empty, both my father and sister gone and the last bit of oat bread in the larder reduced to nothing more than mouse-nibbled crumbs.
Oh well. I’ve gone to bed hungry often enough.
I set the comb on the windowsill beside my candle, then carefully separate my hair into three parts and begin plaiting. My tired eyes watch the flickering candle dully, not really seeing it as it dances about. Then my gaze sharpens, and I look again more closely. A frown pulls at my brow.
For a moment—just a moment, no more time than it took to blink twice in surprise—the candle flame had looked blue.
I pause, my fingers threaded through my unfinished plait. I stare hard at the candle. It . . . no. It must have been my imagination. I’m overtired. And hungry. That’s all.
Hastily I finish off the braid, picking up a little remnant of discarded ribbon leftover from Lady Leocan’s last beribboned gown to secure the end. My gaze lifts idly to look at my blurry reflection one last time.
The distinct silhouette of a man stands just behind my right shoulder.
Dropping the ribbon with a yelp, I turn in place. One bare foot slides out from under my nightdress, poised on the floor, bracing to leap up from my seat. My heart thuds, and my hand unconsciously fumbles for the wooden comb, the only thing remotely like a weapon in the room.
There’s no one there.
My breath tight in my chest, I force my gaze to travel slowly across the room. One of the wardrobe doors sags open slightly. My imagination plagues me, inventing all sorts ghouls and gremlins that might lurk within. Which is silliness, pure silliness! I won’t be prey to my own stupid fancies.
I rise and, knees trembling, step across the cold floor, brandishing my comb like a battle ax. I reach the wardrobe and, heart in my throat, fling the door wide.
Of course it is.
Shaking my head, forcing a wry chuckle from my throat, I step back from the wardrobe. Though I feel a little ridiculous, I drop to my knees and peer under my bed. Just in case. Then I kick at the folds of my work gown, checking underneath the cane chair. But my room is empty of all save shadows.
My frown deepens, pulling at the corners of my mouth. “Foolish,” I whisper, and force my fingers to loosen their hold on the comb, to set it on the little bedside table. I return to my window seat, fetching my ribbon from the floor. Sitting, I catch the loose ends of my braid, re-plaiting them swiftly, and tie off the end. I ought to go to bed. Blow out my candle, climb onto that moldy old mattress, pull the covers up over my head, and try to huddle into a little ball of warmth. I ought to, but . . .
A sound of footsteps on the stair. I recognize that tread, and my heart lifts at the sound. The footsteps continue all the way down the outer passage to my door and stop. There’s a light, perfunctory tap, and the door cracks open. A pale little face set with a pair of enormous green eyes peaks inside.
“Vali! What are you doing still up?”
“Come in, Brielle. And shut the door.” I beckon, picking up my candle from the sill as I cross to my bed. I set the candle down beside my comb on the three-legged table. “You’re late. Did the Trisdi children give you trouble at bedtime again?”
My sister obediently steps into the room, pulling the door shut behind her. She saunters across the room and climbs up to perch on the footboard of the bed rather than the sagging mattress. Two thin plaits of brilliant red hair frame her pixie face, which is much too hollow and pinched for a girl of her age. She clings to the footboard post like a squirrel and shrugs.
“Father’s out,” she says. “Probably won’t be back until morning.”
She didn’t answer my question. My eyes narrow slightly. “You did go to work at the Trisdi’s today, didn’t you?”
My sister shrugs again, adjusting her seat slightly, one foot swinging.
“We need the money, Brielle. How do you think we’re going to buy bread tomorrow, hmmm? We can’t afford to be shirking our—”
“Oh, don’t you ever stop scolding?” Brielle rolls her eyes and swings around the bedpost, her braids flapping like two red flags. “Yes, I watched the Trisdi brats today, yes I brought home three sprells, yes, I put them in the honey pot over the oven, and no, I don’t think Father found them yet. I went out again after work, that’s all.”
“Where did you go?”
“Just . . . somewhere.”
I sit on the bed and wrap a wool shawl around my shoulders. The frame ropes groan and the mattress dips, and I almost fall to the middle in an awkward tumble. I’m used to it, however, and catch my balance before leveling a glare at my sister.
“You went into Whispering Wood again.” It’s not a question. I know Brielle.
Her brow puckers slightly. “So what if I did?”
“It’s after sunset!” The words come out in a little cry, and I hastily drop my voice. There’s no one else in the house to hear, only shadows. But tonight the shadows feel . . . interested. “Do you have no idea how dangerous that is?”
Brielle has the grace to look ashamed at least. She’s drawn to the wood like a forest creature, a wild thing I can never tame. If she could, she would spend her days loping through those green-cast shadows, foraging for wild berries and mushrooms. She would probably have disappeared into the wood long ago—either carried away by the fae or run off on her own, it hardly mattered which—were it not for me. She loves me. She knows how it would devastate me if she were to disappear.
But someday love won’t be enough to keep her here. Someday I’ll lose Brielle to the wood.
“Nothing happened,” my sister growls. Her voice is petulant, but underscored by a slight quaver that indicates at least some remorse.
I sigh heavily, shaking my head. Then, patting the bed beside me, I hold out one arm, opening the drape of my shawl.
Brielle, swinging from the bedpost, pinches her lips in a pout. “I’m not a baby anymore.”
It’s my turn to shrug. And I keep my arm extended.
With a roll of her eyes and a huff through her lips, Brielle hops down from the footboard and joins me, tucking in close to my side. I wrap the shawl around her as her head rests comfortably on my shoulder. She’s not the small bundle she was even a year ago. Boney, yes, but at eleven years old, Brielle is already beginning to show signs of young womanhood. It won’t be long now before she’s too big to fit under my arm.
I close my eyes and press my cheek against the top of my sister’s head. Seven years older, I’ve been a surrogate mother for Brielle since she was a baby. It’s never been an easy task, and will only get harder as the years go by. For now I hug her close and try to pretend that I can still protect her. A little longer at least.
“Why are you up so late?” Brielle asks after a bit, her tone less belligerent.
“I was waiting for you. You know I can’t sleep until you’re safely home.”
“He was out before I got back from Mistress Petren’s.”
Brielle snorts. “Won’t be back till dawn I trust. Think the fae will carry him off one of these nights?”
One can only hope. But one must also set an example for one’s wayward little sister. I bite my tongue and merely plant a kiss on top of Brielle’s head. She looks up at me with a half-smile, giving me a clear view of her pinched face. My gaze fixes on a dark spot on her cheek, a little larger than the rest of her freckles. It’s faintly heart-shaped and has been with her since the morning of her birth. I remember Mother telling me that it’s a fairy kiss, that it means she’s marked for great things one day.
When I was small, I thought the idea charming, exciting even. Now when I look at that spot, I can’t help but feel a little quiver of dread.
“It’s cold,” I say, “Want to sleep here tonight?”
“On this ratty old mattress?” Brielle shakes her head, pulls out from under my arm, and hops to the floor. “It’ll fold up in the night and suffocate us both! No, I’ll take my chances freezing on my own, thank you.”
Yet another sign of my sister’s growing independence. I nod sadly. It was only in the last year that she stopped sharing the room with me and insisted on taking one of the other drafty, empty rooms in the Normas family home. There’s no use in fighting her, though. I’ve long since learned to pick my battles when it comes to Brielle.
“Good night then,” I say.
Brielle tosses me a quick grin and skips to the door. Opening it, she pauses and looks around the room once more. “There’s a funny smell in here.”
I frown. “Just the candle, I think.”
“No, it’s not tallow, it’s . . .” Brielle’s lips pinch a moment in thought. “Sweet,” she says at last. “And sort of spicy. Like . . . I don’t know. Exotic.”
“I don’t smell anything.
“Hmmmm.” She shrugs one shoulder and raises both eyebrows. “Oh well. Happy dreams, Vali.”
“Sleep well, Brielle.”
The door shuts behind my sister, and the room is once more very still and very full of shadows. I tuck my shawl tighter and pull my feet up onto the bed. For a few moments I sit there, looking around the room. But I’m not one to let my imagination rule me. One can get into a lot of trouble that way, especially living this close to Whispering Wood.
I blow out my candle, lie down, and pull my blanket up to my chin, closing my eyes firmly. Tomorrow will come all too soon. I’ll be up before dawn to scrape something together for Brielle’s breakfast, all the while trying not to wake father from wherever his drunken stupor has left him sleeping in the house. Then it will be off to Mistress Petren’s to put the finishing touches on Lady Leocan’s new gown. A day very much like today had been, and the day before that, and the day before that. So life goes on in its endless and inescapable rhythm.
I squeeze my eyes, fighting to force back the tears threatening to rise. I’ve long ago given up on crying. It’s an indulgence for fine ladies with time on their hands to feel sorry for themselves. I don’t have that luxury. I must be strong. For my sister.
I let out a long sigh that shudders just a little at the end. Lying quite still, I let weariness overwhelm me, draw me toward sleep. The air is cold on my face.
Then suddenly it’s warm. Warm like a breath.
My eyes flare open. For a moment, I have the distinct impression of a body bent over me, of a face hovering mere inches from mine. The impression is so strong, so unmistakable, I press back into my pillow, shoving my blanket into my mouth to stifle a scream.
Only there’s nothing there.
I blink hard, staring up at the plaster ceiling overhead. I count to ten then sit up and make myself look around the room. A thin band of moonlight creeps through the window, hardly enough to offer any illumination. The shadows are dense and dark, but . . . but empty. I’m sure they’re empty.
I swallow hard. “Foolish,” I whisper and, turning, tuck back into my pillow and pull the blankets up over my shoulders. I close my eyes firmly, but my heart is still beating too fast. It’s some while before sleep steels up on me once more. But I’m exhausted. Eventually I relax and slip into a half-dreaming state. My limbs are heavy, too heavy to move. Another few moments and I’ll be lost to dreams.
What is your name?
The whisper is there in my ear. Low, dark. More a feeling than a sound.
Will you tell me?
I frown. Then I open my lips and murmur, “Valera.”
The voice speaks slowly, as though tasting my name. Savoring.
I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Valera.
A jolt shoots through my heart, radiating out through every limb. My eyes open, and I bolt upright in bed. Morning sunlight pours through the grimy window, bathing the window seat in a golden glow. Outside, birds sing in joyful chorus not quite drowned out by the pounding on my door.
“Valera!” my father’s voice bellows. “Valera, you lazy slattern, do you intend to sleep all day? Get your sorry hide out of bed and fetch me my breakfast!”
Confidential. Unrevised and unpublished proof.
Please do not quote until verified with finished book.
This copy is not for distribution to the public.