MILLA EASED HER BLADE into its sheath, strapped it to her hip, and tiptoed toward the door, squeaky sandals safely in hand. She had at least two hours before her father would surface from his morning incantations and she wasn’t about to waste them indoors. A trace of guilt nudged her, but she recovered and turned the knob. With a deliberate heart-stopping blast, her Quodex fanned its pages like a maniac, and she spun, both bracing herself and glaring at that snitch of a book. But her father—gifted with the concentration of a desert vole—was still pacing the study area, levitating candlesticks, vases, and canisters around him. Milla sank at the sight of him stooped in a question mark, beaten by the harshness of life. No, the harshness of being born a conjurer. She’d do anything to hex him happy, but even her Quodex didn’t offer that spell.
Speaking of, she pinched that no-good, loud-mouthed compendium of nonsense tighter than her brow. “Rat me out again and I’ll dog-ear your chapters, beast.”
Her Quodex had the nerve to exaggerate a shudder so she whacked it off the table. She had no choice. The book flew across the room, intentionally knocking every jug—potions and brews, elixirs and tonics—off the rickety shelves before slamming into the dirt floor melodramatically.
“Milla Saofia Joviana Langstromer!” Her father was in her face instantly, giving her no time to come up with an excuse. Worse, his wafting bric-a-brac crowded her.
“I was framed,” she said, swatting at the chorus of candlesticks, vases, and canisters.
“When will you learn to get along with your tome?”
“When it gets along with me.”
He folded his arms, waiting, and when she feigned ignorance, he said, “Come now. You’re sixteen and seven moons. Surely you can mend the pottery?”
“Surely.” Not. “But Father . . . Really? Do we need another jug of archaic potion?”
“Potions are not archaic.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "When was the last time you used one?”
“You fail to see the point.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
He shook his head in a way that made her feel worse than any spell of remorse, and reconstituted the pottery with the swipe of his hand while keeping his objects afloat. “I worry about you, Milla. You squander too much time outside and devote none to studying.”
“I studied all morning.”
“And what did you accomplish?”
“You didn’t say I had to accomplish anything.”
“Oh, Milla,” he groaned, adding to the worry lines that had appropriated his youth years ago.
“It’s not my fault I have the attention span of a bush possum.”
“You don’t apply yourself.”
“Blasted, I’m tired of hearing that.”
“Mind your language, or I’ll lock away your earth books.”
She grumbled apologetically. “It’s the stuffy air in here. It affects my manners.”
Her father sighed and his floating objects dipped—a sign of defeat. Or victory, as she preferred to think of it.
“You may take a brief respite,” he said. “But you’ll study when you return.”
“You’ll learn a new spell which you must enchant without the aid of your Quodex.”
“And you’ll return posthaste should you sense an inkling of danger.”
“I insist,” she said, propping up one of his candlesticks before it hit the dusty ground.
He retrieved her Quodex and handed her “the compilation of every verse every conjurer should know.” If she had a spell for each time she heard that, she’d be more powerful than the queen.
“Until you’ve studied them all, you must never travel without your lessons.”
“My thoughts exactly.” She tucked the velvet-covered text inside the waistband of her pants and her father noticed a tear.
“Did you unravel your stitching again?”
I’m innocent! she wanted to plead, but how could she tell him it unraveled itself now that he was using such thin burlap or that his sewing these days was on par with her sorcery? “I’ll mend them tonight.”
As she turned to run out, he took her hand, stopping her, and held it sentimentally. The shimmer of his marking between his thumb and forefinger drew her eye; the three moons—one crescent, one half, and one full circle—signifying him a sorcerer. He wore his lineage proudly. Another difference between them. She kissed his cheek and positioned his lips in a smile with her fingers.
“Worry not. That’s an order,” she said and rushed out before he could change his mind.
She bee-lined to the stone wall that served as a prep area next to the fire pit and retrieved a wooden figurine hidden inside one of the cauldrons and dashed into the forest. When she was far enough away that her father couldn’t possibly call her back in, she stole a moment to admire their home. Coddled in a cluster of towering pines with low-hanging, thick-needled branches, the shack of mud and grass melded organically with its surrounds. If she didn’t know better, she’d suspect he had conjured an invisibility spell on it, but even he hadn’t mastered that skill.
Milla sat cross-legged near the edge of the pond, shaded by her favorite tree; the one with boughs that meandered here and there, nearly touching the ground, and flourished with citrus flower blossoms. She sucked in the fragrance of the blooms, the grass, the lilies on the water, and wondered why no potions ever required the nice-smelling stuff, only roots and stalks and bulbs.
She unsheathed her knife. Straight-edged on one side, serrated on the other, the white-metal blade—as long as her hand from wrist to fingertip—came to an extended point. Aside from the twine and burlap around the handle for gripping, which could use replacing, it was as pristine as when her father had handed it down to her.
Milla wiped the blade clean on the hem of her pants, careful not to slice the cheap material, and got to work on the details of the figurine. She barely shaved a layer off the cheekbone when a rush of shadowy movement jolted her to her feet. On instinct, she fled behind the tree for cover (instead of returning posthaste, as promised), and a hand clutched her calf, fast and hard, from out of nowhere. She shrieked in a panic, kicking to free herself while lamenting how her father would take the final disappointment of her demise because she didn’t listen to him once again . . . until she realized who was squeezing her leg. His color and texture matched the environment, making him mostly imperceptible, but she could see him now that he bobbed and fidgeted right in front of her. She stomped her foot.
“Tobly, you scared me!”
Waist-high to her, the craggy-skinned boy smiled from ear to ear, which was always a spectacle since his ears lay near the back of his head.
Derg. That was the idea, he communicated telepathically.
“You’re lucky I didn’t use my sorcery.”
“I could if I wanted.”
Go ahead. Start with your burlap.
Milla grumbled and stretched her top down to cover her tattered pants. “Don’t tempt me. Besides, I have other talents.”
Tobly held his hand to his forehead and searched the land for them.
“Oh, har har,” she said, not the least bit amused, and showed him the carving. “Look.”
You have some kindling. Congratulations.
“It’s not kindling, it’s a gift I created for my father. With my own hands, no sorcery necessary, thank you.”
He took it and inspected it this way and that, right-side up and upside down, and scrunched his nose as if catching a whiff of the Hinterland Marsh. She snatched it back.
“You don’t have to like it. It’s merely an object he can levitate during his incantations.” She sighed. “Oh, Tobly, I can’t bear the thought of his loneliness. He spends his time indoors; studying, preparing, and fearing. He’s wasting his life.”
With the sensitivity of a log, the little imp burst into laughter and snorts, spraying her with his spittle.
“Honestly.” She wiped her face.
I just noticed. He gestured to the carving, recognizing that the features resembled his.
“So now you see the mastery of my work?”
But I’m more pleasing to the eye.
“Provided we overlook your personality.”
At least I have one.
Milla gasped in alarm, pointing behind him. “Tobly, duck!”
He spun on the aggressive, kicking up sod, and she stuffed the carving in her pocket, laughing as she clambered up her favorite tree.
He scrambled up, hopping over her like a jungle squirrel, and won the race to the top, no surprise. He always did and he always had to make a deal of it, too, pretending to be asleep or act shocked to see her. Some silly commentary, and today was no different as she pulled herself onto the branch, taking a perch next to him.
What a relief. I thought you got lost.
“I did but then I caught the stench of your feet and followed that.”
Tobly raised his foot to his nose, like an animal would, no hands, and sniffed it. Smells fine to—ooh, grub.
He picked a fleshy larva from between his toes and popped it in his mouth.
Tobly stuck his tongue out, the larva still on it. My blunder. Did you want some?
She laughed and shoved him. “Ew. Swallow it.”
Tobly ate the insect and forced a wet burp afterward.
Milla leaned back, looking out to admire the view, and instead spotted the eccentric bald man in his usual baggy cloak, roaming below, just beyond the shrubs of Lost Creek. She elbowed Tobly in the gut. “There he is again, that man with his silly white bird.”
“How do you know?”
Derg. I can hear him.
“Why does he wander so? And always by the Creek.”
You don’t own the Creek. ‘Sides, he has no family anymore. What would you like him to do?
“It’s odd, that’s all. And have you ever seen a white crow before?”
No. Looks delicious.
Goodness, Squeeds had a one track mind.
When the dense flora devoured every trace of the bald man and his white bird, Milla settled back against Tobly’s shoulder and watched villagers on the outskirts go about their lives, oblivious to the plight of sorcerers, the scourge of the army. She guessed most of them had probably never seen a soldier in person. Or a Squeed for that matter. Blissful ignorance, how wonderful. No cares, just living to live. Oh, her father would be disheartened—dedicating his life to educating her and here she sat begrudging her knowledge. Her lineage.
Like a scratch in the fabric of time, repeating over and over again.
“No eavesdropping, Tobly.”
Oh, was that private, Mill? Many sorries, he offered, insincerely.
“I’ll remember to keep my thoughts quiet in your company.”
You? You can hold your thoughts about as well as you hold your tongue, meaning—
“I know what you mean. So what? I speak my mind. It’s a virtue.”
Then I guess you told your father about me? Being proud of your candor and all.
“Soon, Tobly. I promise.”
He frowned. ‘Soon’ is your favorite word.
“It’s my least favorite word. I feel everything terrible lies within the realm of ‘soon.’ Besides, he doesn’t know I visit the Creek.”
Tobly almost fell from the tree, flabbergasted.
“Oh, as if you tell your mother about your escapades.”
If you visited, you would see.
“Right. Me, in a Squeed habitat. I hardly think Father would approve.”
Apparently, he needn’t know since you keep many secrets.
“Why I ever befriended a pushy, little—” She stopped mid-barb when a silver-coated bear cub hobbled out of the brush below with an arrow lodged in its haunch.
Tobly jumped to a predatory crouch, salivating and ready to pounce, but Milla plucked him back by the scruff.
“You promised, no hunting when we’re together.”
What hunt? It’s waiting to be eaten.
Milla hurried down the tree, ignoring him.
I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I make for you.
I do, she assured him silently. She landed as softly as she could, hoping not to frighten the cub but it growled—more whimper than ferociousness. She squatted to its height and held out her palm to gain its trust, and after it sniffed her open hand (without baring its teeth), she examined the wound. The head of the arrow was buried in the meaty part of its haunch, impossible to remove without ripping the inside out with it.
Tobly leaned over her, unnoticed by the animal. If you have to keep this perfectly suitable meal from me, at least do it fast, and with the help of your Quodex.
“Not everything requires a verse.” Milla retrieved her knife and wiped it on her sleeve to clean it, cutting some of the burlap in her haste. She separated the cub’s flesh, ready to operate, and discovered the arrow had penetrated deeper than she’d thought, halfway into the bone. The young bear yelped and Milla let go.
“Please, Tobly, you’re distracting me.”
Yes. I’m the problem.
“I can hear you slobber.”
He wiped his mouth but his stomach gurgled. She glared at him.
My stomach speaks for itself.
“Oh, very well.” She sheathed her blade and thumbed through her Quodex, finding the verse she needed in Chapter Three. Three. A child could do such an early spell from memory.
Stop exaggerating and do it already. I’ve yet to win an argument with my appetite.
Milla let out a growl and Tobly took the hint, stepping back two paces. She hovered her hand over the arrow. “Boga abugan fram eower ofslean. Lif ge-laestan se foldweg.”
A pale shimmer emitted from the nock, moved past the fletching, down the shaft, and into the haunch of the cub. Following in the path of the shimmer, the nock then fletching then shaft disintegrated into particles and drifted off in the stock-still air.
Milla stood inert, in momentary disbelief. Tobly gawped openmouthed, which only accentuated his disgruntled stomach. The cub bounded to its feet and stumbled backward, seemingly as shocked as they. It licked the gash in its leg and burrowed through the thick brush, disappearing from view. Milla bounced with joy.
“Ha!” She held up the carving. “Two feats in one day.” Her smile flat-lined, killed by a sharp hollowness in the air.
The Squeed was gone. The soil rumbled softly at first. Then louder. Closer. The clang of armor punched her eardrums. She dropped the figurine and ran. Through the brush, the forest, the trees, the streams, through nature’s maze, she sprinted as fast as hunted prey, pounding with terror.
Milla raced out of the leafy canopy, shocked breathless by the sea of black, sinuous armor surrounding her home. A wave of heat rushed through her, triggering those horrifying images in her mind’s eye: cages, beasts, swords, soldiers. Her legs weakened and she fell to one knee.
“No, not now, not now.” She pushed her way out of the haunting visions and ran toward the barricade of sickening metal. Soldiers encased from head to toe in their impenetrable membrane of armor had aligned their horses, equally-shielded, in tight formation but Milla shoved her way through, breaking free on the other side, inside the circle of evil. She raced toward her shack, calling for her father, but a hulking figure whose vileness seeped from his armor, exited before she got there. The sight of him stopped her as effectively as an immobilization spell. The captain of the army—the only soldier with a crest of the queen’s castle on his chestplate—grinned, his dull, matte metal moving like skin.
Lightheaded with fear, everything warped in front of her, but Milla had to get inside her home; she had to see her father. She stumbled out of her daze, toward the doorway, and the captain grabbed her by the throat, hoisting her up against the wall with her feet high off the ground.
“Where’s my father?!” She swung her arms and legs but they rebounded off his armor.
“Where is the scroll?” His voice echoed from the helmet and Milla spat through his open eyeshield.
“Pig,” he said, smashing her head against the wall.
The crack rang louder than the pain, spiking her ears with a shrill buzzing. She riffled through her foggy mind for a spell. Anything. “Faran o’ onweald fracod . . .”
“Do you attempt sorcery on me?” He laughed. “The queen will be charmed.”
“Geanlaecan eall seo god . . . seo god . . .” The captain squeezed her larynx to the back of her neck, cutting off her vocal chords, but she couldn’t recall the rest of the spell anyway.
“Last chance,” he said, squeezing harder.
A thousand pins pricked her face, lighting it on fire, and her eyes were sure to pop from their sockets, but if she was to achieve only one thing in life to make her father proud, it would be protecting the scroll. A blistering whorl of electricity struck the captain, sparking his metal, and Milla fell from his grasp.
“Run, Milla!” Her father levitated behind the throng of soldiers, shooting another sizzling whorl, but the captain dove for cover this time. A soldier leaped off his horse and tackled her father midair, slamming him to the ground. “Run!” he yelled again and the soldier stomped on his chest, silencing him.
Milla panicked with indecision then ran into the forest behind her. She broke through curtains of ferns and leaped over thorny bushes that shredded her pants up to her thighs, scratching her legs bloody. Galloping hooves closed in on her and she about-faced, and spun again, darting into an area populated with thick scrubs and lost her bearings. The clatter and clang and gallop. Deafening. She scrabbled out of the scrub and her shoulder pinched in agony, nearly jerked out of its socket, as the captain yanked her off her feet. He dragged her by the wrist, letting her legs slam into branches and rocks, and her head bang against his horse’s metaled flank, all the way back to her shack.
Her father, face-down in the dirt and kept there by the boot of a soldier, had surrendered the fight. Milla struggled to free herself but the captain threw her into a barbed shrub and heaved her father to his feet.
“Where’s the scroll, Filimore?” the captain said.
Her father didn’t answer and the captain backhanded him with a blow to the face that sent him back to the ground. Milla scrambled over but the captain whipped his sword to her father’s throat, stopping her short.
“My patience wears thin,” the captain said, his blade drawing blood from the crease in her father’s neck. Milla couldn’t steady her legs, and her eyes burned with the rise of tears, but her father remained stoic. Another trait she didn’t inherit.
“You may present me to Lucrecia for interrogation,” her father said.
“Present you to the queen?” The captain smirked and turned to his soldiers. “He wishes to be presented to the queen.”
The soldiers laughed.
“You have two options, Filimore, neither of which is an audience with the queen. If I ask again, I’ll be talking to a corpse.”
When her father didn’t respond, the captain swung his sword up high to strike and in a haze of nausea, Milla grabbed his arm.
“I’ll give you the scroll,” she said, not recognizing her own spineless voice. “I’ll give it to you, just don’t kill him.” She released her grip on the captain’s arm and looked into her father’s woeful eyes. “Forgive me, Father. I meant to be strong. I did.”
“Forgive me for not protecting you.”
The captain propelled Milla toward the shack. “A count of ten and then his head will join you in there.”
Milla raced inside. The cots were flung across the room and the mattresses were sliced open, straw spilling out. The table was flipped on its side and the chairs were torn apart, like firewood. The shelves were knocked off the walls, broken pottery everywhere, and the canisters, candlesticks and vases in the study area were chopped, smashed, or flattened. Milla traced her hand along the crooked seam on the wall where the cots used to be, releasing a concealed door. She bolted into the secret passageway, running the interminable distance to their hiding place, snatched up the wooden box, and sprinted back. She ran out of the shack breathless but in time, holding out the box for the captain as she went to her father’s side.
The captain motioned to a young soldier, no older than Milla, and said, “Open it.”
The young soldier obliged. Inside the box, rolled up and bundled with lace woven of gold strands, the iridescent piece of parchment swelled then settled. “It’s here,” he said.
“You have it, now go. Go!” Milla screamed.
The captain thrust his blade at her so fast she hadn’t time to react but the shiny steel passed her neck by the width of a hair and pierced her father’s chest, so powerfully, so viciously, it emerged clean, blood-free, out the back. Milla froze, everything inside her stopped. Time stopped. The distorted mutter of shock and confusion filtered through the soldiers and pounded her ears incomprehensibly. Time shot back and her father gasped and wheezed for air. The captain withdrew his sword, now bloodied, and placed it to her heart.
“Beg me, you pathetic witch. Beg me to die.”
She wanted nothing more than to end her anguish but the young soldier intercepted the captain’s blade with his own.
“Our orders,” he said. The captain’s sword was gone in a flash, faster than wizard speed, and he was mounting his horse, his soldiers following. Except the young one, who stayed a moment longer and said, “Find a new place to hide,” before riding off.
Milla turned to her father, wiping the sweat from his brow. The threads of his cloak went from brown to red, as if dyed from lingonberries, but it was his blood. So much blood. She pressed on his wound to stop the flow, drowning her hands in the stickiness.
“Forgive me, Father. I had premonitions I didn’t share with you. Visions too horrible to speak but I’ll never keep secrets again. We’ll heed their warnings and—”
“Milla,” her father said weakly. “Take this. Go.” He held a folded piece of parchment in his shaky hand.
Milla fought her tears. “Yes, we’ll go.”
A stream of blood seeped from the corner of his lips and Milla’s tears broke free. She wiped her face, and took out her Quodex. “I’ll heal you.”
He struggled to speak and nothing came out but labored wheezes.
“Save your strength, Father. Please. Let me find a spell.” She rushed through the pages of her Quodex, the verses blurred by tears. “Help me,” she said in a whisper but the book wilted in grief, giving her nothing.
Her father coughed up a mouthful of blood and Milla cried out in horror.
“Go,” he pleaded, his last breath strangling hers. His head fell limp and his eyes dimmed, the light, the life, gone. The three moons on his hand faded from existence. Gone. Milla’s world, gone. She lost all feeling and felt everything in the same moment. Ice-cold and burning up. Dead as stone, and alive, so alive, every fiber of her being ached. She gasped a breath and grabbed her father’s cloak, pulling him to her.
“Father, don’t leave me, please. I need you. I’ll be a better study, I’ll do as you say. Please!” She shook him frantically but he didn’t respond. “Father, please!”
His lifeless body hung heavy, like he was nothing more than a sack of grain. She fell onto his chest and sobbed, she sobbed until her eyes dried of tears, and then she wept with her soul, until that, too, emptied. When she was a shell of a frame, when she had nothing left to give, she lied there, his blood caked on her palm. She wasn’t paralyzed with pain exactly but she couldn’t move a muscle, not even to blink. And that was fine. The sun broiled down, a comforting blanket, and she waited for death to take her as well. She had no will to live, nothing to live for.
But then a fire ignited in the pit of her abdomen—so foreign a feeling—she thought she had just inherited her father’s spirit. Her veins boiled, her heart raced, an electricity shot through her, sparking her back to life. She wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. She pocketed the parchment he held, kissed his cold cheek, and got to her feet. She had one thing to do first. Kill the queen.