YA Fantasy from Bold Strokes Books. Buy Now. Magic | class struggle | queer MCs.
Annika dreaded market days. She preferred staying near her cottage, safe and alone. But she tapped her staff on the ground, driving the gaggle of geese onward as she and her father, Steffen, approached Byetown. Lord Cederic’s flock produced a record number of goslings, and now fattened, twenty of the best ones were ready to sell at market. They had walked half a day to arrive in time to sell the birds.
On the edge of town, two men cleaned muck from a cart, dumping the filth into a stream. Their tunics shabby and stained, they stood ankle-deep in shite and offal. As Annika and her father passed, both men stopped their work and watched her. The taller one rested his arm on his shovel and eyed her. There was nothing kind in his expression.
Now that she was seventeen and with her hair uncovered, signifying her unmarried status, men leered at her. Her pale skin and fair hair, rare for Valmorans, always made her something of an oddity, but now the stares were filled with the sin of lust. She touched the Maiden hanging at her neck, hoping for protection from the men’s evil thoughts. She reached back and pulled her hood over her head, shielding herself from their prying eyes.
In town, the houses along the street were mud brick and wood structures, some with thatched roofs, others with wooden shingles. None seemed to be square; some had a unique angle or a crooked doorway. Others had second floors jutting out over the street, nearly touching the buildings across from them. The road felt restricting. The smells of rotten vegetation and human shite hung in the air, overwhelming Annika’s senses.
On a typical market day, people moved in a flurry of activity. Women and men carried large rolls of rough fabric on their backs or yokes with clay jars of butter or loads of hay, wool, and wood, much of it bound for the Royal Court in Tarburg. Today, there were fewer people, and Annika was thankful. She hated being in a town—any town—with a crowd.
When she and her father stayed home in their cottage outside their tiny village of Marsendale, she felt safe. As soon as she left the familiar sights and sounds of the open fields and the wide horizon, she withdrew into herself. She felt it now. She hunched her shoulders to make herself smaller. And the discomfort didn’t take into account her deepest fear, the one even her father didn’t speak aloud. She couldn’t return home soon enough.
The main street was empty except for a lone man-at-arms sitting precariously on a stoop outside a tavern. As they passed, he kicked at a goose that came close to him and leaned forward and honked loudly. His cup of ale spilled over its sides. Annika’s father moved closer to the man and worked the gaggle. He always put himself between trouble and her. It was his way. He nodded at the man, and a sort of recognition in the man’s eyes seemed to calm him. Did men who had been in battle always recognize each other? Annika wondered if her father could have ended up drunk on a stoop had he not met her mother, Hella.
The closer to the town center they traveled, the more uncomfortable Annika felt by the emptiness of the streets. Something wasn’t right. “Where is everyone?” she asked.
Her father hobbled along, his stiff leg more apparent on the uneven, rutted street. “The square.” He gestured ahead of them. “Hear the crowds?”
She was paying more attention to her thoughts and the honking geese, but now she listened carefully. She could hear an undulating noise from loud to soft. She looked at her father for reassurance. This wasn’t a high holy day or any other day of celebration. His pinched face and furrowed brow told her he was concerned as well.
The sound grew deafening as they entered the large market square. Sales tables and wheeled carts were pushed against the surrounding buildings, and a raised platform sat under the watchful tower of the guildhall. Annika’s heart raced. Everyone in town seemed packed in the space, yelling and throwing rotten vegetables at someone on the dais.
She drove the flock along the edge, close to the buildings, trying to navigate the crowds. Her fear bubbled to the surface. She didn’t want to see what was happening, but she turned toward the dais anyway. She mostly saw the backs of heads, raised arms, and heard yelling.
When she reached the far side of the square, she pushed the geese into a large pen while her father engaged with the merchant to negotiate the sale. She moved out of the way of the crowd craning their necks for a view and willed her father to finish quickly. Something wasn’t right. She felt it. She grasped her necklace and murmured a prayer.
A woman approached with a basket on her hip. “Maiden bless you, sir,” she said to a man next to Annika. “What has the girl done?”
“A Talent,” he replied, his face an angry red. “Her family hid her from the temple. Said she didn’t want to serve. A heretic, I say. Heretic,” he yelled at the platform and hurled something.
Annika felt cold. Maiden help her, it was a rogue Talent on the platform, and everyone around her was screaming and throwing things. How had they found her? Had she given herself away somehow? Or could the hunters sense her? Could they sense Annika? Fear gripped her. She glanced at her father. He continued to haggle with the distracted merchant.
When she turned her view back to the dais, the crowd in front of her parted enough that she could see the girl tied by the wrists to a tall post. She looked wealthy, her tunic embroidered, her hair in loose braids in large circles around her ears, her metal belt glinting in the sunlight. A tradesman or noble’s daughter, maybe seventeen or eighteen, no older than Annika. And she looked terrified.
Annika felt nauseated. That terror was all she could see. Everyone was yelling profanity and curses. All she could think was it could be her tied to that pole. With all these people hating her for something she couldn’t control. Something she never asked to be. Her father should have turned her over to the temple when she’d first showed her gift, as was the rule. Now she lived in constant fear of this moment. When someone found them out and tied her to a pole in the center of their village.
A man in a blue tunic appeared next to the girl. Annika could feel him, even at this distance. She’d never felt the presence of another Talent before, but his warmth spread out, touching her like a fire. He said something, but Annika couldn’t hear him. The crowds in front went silent, and only a few of the townsfolk around her continued their barrage of insults. The lull seemed oddly respectful for a frenzied mob. The man in blue gestured at the girl, and an executioner opposite him raised a torch. As one, the entire crowd roared with a fearsome agreement, and the torch touched the girl’s clothes.
Annika turned away in horror. She pressed her hands to her ears, blocking out the bloodthirsty roar, and looked desperately for her father. The crowd had filled in around her, and she couldn’t see him. If she could feel the man on the dais, he might feel her. If so, she’d be burning beside the girl soon enough. She pushed frantically against people, trying to squirm through to find her father. A man blocked her way and grabbed her shoulders.
“You should watch this, missy.” The veins in his neck bulged, and spittle rolled from his lips. “Wealthy bastard got his. Hiding her.”
Tears welled in her eyes. She beat upon his chest. “Let go of me!”
“Afraid to watch?” He pushed his face closer. She could smell the ale on his breath. “Did you know the girl? A friend?” He twisted her around to face the platform.
Flames engulfed the girl, gray smoke curling into the sky. Annika tore her gaze away and twisted in his grip. “Let me go.”
“She caused the spring crops to fail. And brought the plague last winter.” He looked past Annika at the spectacle. “She’s got hers now.”
His grip loosened. She escaped him and rushed to a building at the back of the crowd, pushing people out of her way. She turned her back to the wall and scanned the crowd for her father. If the townspeople could do this to the wealthy daughter of one of their own, surely, they would do worse to Annika: a peasant, half-outsider, child of a Weyan. She reached for the hilt of the dagger on her belt. If they tried to take her, she’d fight.
The tight grasp of a firm hand on her wrist alarmed her. She turned to see a beggar woman squatted against the wall, her cloak ratty, full of patches and frayed edges. Hunched as if she were old, her hand was strong and youthful. Her dark ebony skin stood out against Annika’s fair complexion.
Annika yanked her arm, but the woman held tight. “Let me go.”
“Be still, young one. I know of what you fear.” The woman’s head was half covered by a hood, but Annika could see her mouth was not moving, and yet, Annika could clearly hear her. She looked around to see if anyone else noticed, but they were all focused on the platform.
Another Talent? Was she with the man in blue? Was this the end? Annika pulled again, but the woman held tight. No, no. This was not the way she wanted to die. She wanted to go home. Damn the gift. Damn her mother for giving it to her and leaving her alone. She looked around again for her father. Where was he?
“Stop. You’ll bring attention to us.” The woman’s voice was strained, but her lips still did not move. Was she afraid too? Annika stilled. “You are special, young one. More powerful than you know.”
“How do you trick me, old woman?” Annika asked.
“No less and no more a trick than one you could do yourself if you tried.”
Fear overtook her. She would never try. Never use her gift on purpose. The smell of burning flesh was filling the square. Sweet and sickly. That could be her flesh if she used her gift. She turned side to side, looking for her father. “I know nothing of what you speak,” she replied, this time in a harsh whisper. She could grab the dagger with her free hand and cut the woman to make her let go, but if she did, they might both burn.
“I knew your mother,” came the reply.
Annika whipped her head around. She stared more carefully at the beggar woman’s face. A shimmer changed the visage of a crone to that of a beautiful woman and back.
“The time has come,” the woman said. “You need to know who you truly are.”
“You’ve made a mistake. You think me someone else.”
The woman smiled. “Annika.”
“If you need me, think of me. Concentrate your thoughts, and you will find me. I am Zuri.”
Annika felt a tingling warmth on her forearm. She reached to touch the spot, afraid a cinder had fallen on her. The fear of burning gave her the strength to yank her arm free. She felt nothing, but even so, her skin tingled. She took a few steps toward the animal stalls, and when she glanced over her shoulder, the woman was gone. A large hand took hold of her shoulder. She shrugged it off and turned to flee.
She grabbed him in a hug. He took her hand and guided her from the square, pushing people aside like he handled the geese.
“Don’t look back,” he said as they hurried down the street. His unease showed on his face, the same look in his eyes as when he spoke of battle or when he knew wolves were hunting the geese. Rushing, he limped more severely. “I’ve got the coin from the sale.”
“I’m scared, Da.”
“And right to be. We’ll head home now.”
“I can kill what’s in the dark.” He looked side to side, watching for threats. “I can’t kill what’s in this town.”
Did he mean the ones who’d hunted down the girl? The girl who was no longer a girl but a burned shell of bones? She shivered. “Da, there was a beggar woman. Her name was Zuri.”
He stiffened and looked behind them. “What did she say?”
“She said she knew Mother.” How much could she tell him? He never wanted to talk about her gift.
He dragged her at a faster pace. She ran next to him to keep up.
“Do you know her?” she asked.
“She worked at the castle for Lord Cederic…for a time.”
She stumbled on the uneven lane, but her father didn’t slow his stride. “She’s a—”
“I know what she is.” He spat the words. “Stay clear of her. Stay away from all of them. And don’t talk about it.” They took a few more steps in silence before he spoke again. “I can’t lose you.”
Annika’s arm still tingled. The burning sensation was still there. “Da, I don’t want to die.” Not yet. Not here. She knew nothing about the world. Nothing about herself. What was she really? A girl with visions. A Talent, hidden from the temple. She didn’t even know why she was a Talent, and there was no one to ask.
He paused, placed a firm hand on her shoulder, and looked her in the eyes. “I’m here with you. Nothing will happen to you.”
He couldn’t always be with her. Hadn’t her mother made the same promise?
“Da, where will I go when I die?”
“You’ll be with your mother, m’love. I’m certain. Now come, we must go.”
Annika’s heart rate didn’t slow until they were through the town walls and well on the way back to Marsendale. And her dread didn’t subside at all.