Prologue: One Year Ago
“There are too many ghouls in the forest. We need you,” said Kolya.
The poor kid was exhausted and pale. Silvie gave him a second fruit bun, figuring there was no harm in a little petty crime. The buns weren’t selling; besides, it was depressingly likely that she’d have to resign from the bakery before the day was over.
“I’m not due back at the barracks for another week,” she said.
“Bd hr d—” Kolya paused, swallowing his mouthful before trying again. “But you’re the best, and we need you.”
“I’m not the best, I’m just the closest. The others went further away. Don’t try to play to my ego.”
“I’m not! You’re the best. And you have to help. Please? It’s going to be dark soon. The ghouls get hungrier then.”
“No, they don’t. That’s superstition.” Silvie didn’t bother to correct him on ‘ghouls’. Sentries weren’t allowed to use ‘upir’, like the villagers did, and although she used the official ‘cadaveri’ readily enough while working, she baulked at adopting it into her own vocabulary.
She argued with Kolya for another few minutes, but they both already knew how the debate would end. After saying good-bye and thank-you to the owner of the bakery, Silvie went upstairs to collect the mustard-yellow sentry cloak she’d stored away out of sight weeks earlier.
She was used to the weight of the wool on her shoulders now. When she’d first worn it, the hem had reached her ankles, anyway. Now it was high on her calves. As far as sentries went, Silvie was tall.
“I hate being in the village,” Kolya complained as they walked through the outskirts of the little town towards the barracks. “On my way to see you, some boys threw snowballs soaked in piss at me. Yellow snow for the yellowcloak.”
Silvie gave herself a few uncharitable seconds imagining how helpless and terrified those boys would be if ghouls overran their safe little world. But she was older than Kolya, so she had to set a good example.
“I feel sorry for them,” she told him. “They’ll never be anything other than human, after all.”
No matter how much she resented having her leave cut short, Silvie still felt the familiar thrill as she settled into her seat in the sentry-house, drawing in a deep breath and sending herself out into the wolf waiting at the forest’s edge.
There was a scent that came when the snow melted into the dark soil that made her wolf-mouth water as much as the quicksilver living aroma of small prey between the trees did. To the wolf’s keen senses, that cold-smell was the language of home, nuanced and subtle as a poem.
The twigs and bracken were cold and rough under her wolf-paw. Magic crackled wild and weird in the air all around, another symptom of whatever imbalance was stirring up more ghouls than usual.
Silvie could sense one already, the stench of death like a falling ribbon in the dark, bright and twisting in the air. The whole forest pulsed with life, making the un-life she was tracking stand out even more.
But she didn’t hear the one on her left. It didn’t have the pungent reek of the one she tracked, it was too old – more desiccated bone and sinew than corpse. After the skull-crushing snap of its upper jaw, there was no time for comprehension – or pain – to dawn. It was as instant and simple as the breaking of a twig: one moment, she lived and the next
A window was wide open, letting in the heavy rain and a din of bells. The air stirred in the deluge and carried with it the stench of decay, a dank rot thicker than the prey-scent she chased when she rode in the wolf’s mind.
She’d died just about exactly as she’d always expected to. Most sentries didn’t live long enough for their yellow cloaks to look as short on them as hers had by the end, so she thought that probably meant she should consider herself lucky. She’d grown old enough to be considered tall: a small victory.
So what now? Was she a ghost? If so, why was she haunting this unfamiliar place?
Beneath the window, two girls huddled together, oblivious to the rain. The older girl, who was about Silvie’s age, was comforting the younger. There were other people — a lot of other people — in this sumptuous room as well, but they were a blur to Silvie; the two girls had her full attention.
Silvie moved closer. At least, that was the only way she could think to describe it, even as she understood that direction and dimension didn’t mean much to her anymore. Her wolf was gone, like a thousand wolves before, and like a thousand other sentries Silvie had gone with it, like a sailor caught in the rigging of a sinking ship and drowned as it descends. This strange scene was some final flare of magic before she vanished, her story over forever.
The older girl raised her head. Unlike the girl in her arms, she wasn’t crying, and her face had an unnerving beauty to it: wide, seafoam-green eyes, lashes as black and bold as stitches. Heavy dark curls made her grief-drained face seem shocking in its paleness.
“What’s going to happen to Michele?” the beautiful girl asked, arms squeezing tighter around the sobbing figure beside her.
The younger girl was probably no older than Kolya. Her face was buried in her hands and her form was swallowed by the heavy pink velvet of her skirt, making her seem more like a series of impressions than a distinct figure. She had long black hair, glossy with health. The little of her skin that was visible was lightened to the wheatish tone that Silvie had seen darker-skinned women use magic to attain, but this girl was far too young for that, at least from any legal source.
“What’s going to happen to her?” the beautiful girl asked again, her voice sharper and more demanding.
Silvie shifted focus, turning the world to see who was being addressed. A handsome, middle-aged man lay in the middle of a huge bed, his form still and diminished in the particular way that told Silvie he was dead. Distantly, she realised that her own body must look that way now, as well.
Another man, this one in his thirties and very much alive, cast a brief and contemptuous glance in the direction of the demand. “She can stay in that ridiculous tower of hers forever, for all I care,” he said, every word an icicle.
“Your Majesty, you must see to the crystals immediately; the ‘cadaveri’ are rising throughout the city,” one of the other people said to him, and he turned away from the girls without another word.
The beautiful girl’s shoulders dropped with relief, her face softening from fear to calm. Silvie felt a pang of regret that she’d never know anything more about this girl, about her fearless, protective rage.
As if on cue the world gave a sudden, sickening lurch, and Silvie thought ‘I wish—’
and everything went black.
The first sensation of her new life was vertigo, reeling and spinning, an endless moment of falling that didn’t stop despite the feel of a bed beneath her.
The second was the bells, ringing and ringing, barely quieter than they’d been in that other place she’d gone to.
The third was voices, a dozen of them all layered on top of one another like a deck of shuffled cards, no single thread of conversation distinct from any other. Her senses all felt dull and clumsy, like when she’d been a child and first learning how to ride a wolf’s mind. Nothing was quite as vivid as it should have been. Everything just a little too slow.
It was like she was trying to ride her own mind, but she didn’t know the trick of it. Her alignment was off with the body she was in.
“Silvie! Silvie, can you hear me?”
“Kolya?” she managed to reply, opening her eyes for a moment and then slamming them shut again immediately. Everything was much too bright, like the world was made from the light that danced on water. Her head throbbed, still spinning and spinning. “How am I alive?”
“We saved you. We…” He trailed off. Silvie thought he might be crying. “Anyway. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it worked.”
If he thought she was going to fall for an obvious deflection like that, she had a harsh word or two to say to him.
But maybe that could wait. Just for a little while. Just until the spinning stopped.
Another peal of bells made her wince. Everything was so loud, like the whole world was happening right beside her pillow.
“Why are the church bells ringing?” she asked.
“We know why there were so many extra ghouls now.” Kolya squeezed her hand again, as if to reassure himself that she was warm and present. “The beacons caught fire an hour ago.”
“The beacons?” In her muddled state, his words didn’t seem to make much sense at all.
“The signal beacons, from Arteria,” he told her. “The old King must be dead.”
About Mary Borsellino
Mary is a 2017 Write-ability Fellow: https://writersvictoria.org.au/node/285 She has used her fellowship to have her YA manuscript, The Heir and a Spare, assessed by acclaimed YA writer Shivaun Plozza: https://writersvictoria.org.au/node/528 Mary says about herself:
I’ve never quite managed to be motivated by “write what you know”, even at those times when I’m drawing on my own lived experiences. Instead, my drive to create has always been much more bound up in a “write what you wish your younger self had been able to read about” feeling. I want to fill the shelves with books about angry kids, physically disabled kids, mentally ill kids, queer kids, sad kids, wild weird strange kids, kids who are fighters and kids who feel helpless. My characters aren’t always likeable, but I love them all.
This commission was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.
The Write-ability program is a partnership between Writers Victoria and Arts Access Victoria made possible by the generous support of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and Grace Marion Wilson Trust.