An abnormal quiet hung in the air, as Saig followed her mother through an otherwise familiar part of her city. The recurring clang of metal from the distant smithy, the scuffle of her mother’s dog trotting beside her, the rustle of their skirts as they walked—only those sounds managed to punctuate the stillness. On a normal day, these would have been drowned out by the murmur of conversation, by the bustle of people working and laughing.
But there wasn’t any murmur or bustle, not today. Citizens hurried through the streets, ducking inside of buildings instead of lingering to talk with their neighbors. They refused to make eye contact. They wouldn’t greet each other.
This wasn’t how this place was supposed to feel. It should’ve been cheerful, and loud, and invasively familiar.
Almost involuntarily, Saig’s eyes darted up to city walls, where the cause of the disquiet perched–an unusually large owl, a distinct patch of white feathers on one of its ear-tufts. The bird had fluttered around the city for the past week, dampening the mood wherever it went. Everyone knew it was a sign from the gods, a warning of tragedy. And no one wanted to imagine that the warning was for them.
It troubled Saig, how often she’d run across the bird. Whenever she went to fetch sacks of grain from the warehouse, it flew past. If she stepped outside to bring in wood for the cookpot, it perched nearby. The few times she’d snuck into a group of boys leaving for a hunt–already self-conscious about her transgression–it’d followed them until they reached the woods.
Even now, its head swiveled while she and her mother passed, those eyes staying on her. And she was very much afraid she knew why.
Touching her hand to her shoulder in a gesture of respect–she wouldn’t risk being rude to an omen of death–Saig picked up her pace to draw even with her mother. They passed the city walls together, with Wata, the dog, bounding ahead. A wide expanse of fields and crops opened up before them, farmhouses interspersed between them.
As they reached the first farm along the road, Saig couldn’t resist tossing back one glance towards the city wall, towards the symbol of everything that disturbed her city’s peace. The owl wasn’t in sight anymore. No doubt, it was appeased that Saig and her mother would investigate the source of its warning. Saig let out the breath she’d been holding, the knowledge that the bird hadn’t followed her loosening one coil of worry inside her.
But only one.
Wata sniffed at the ground, occasionally veering away when something captured her interest. The farmers and their children stopped working to watch the three of them pass. The attention made Saig uneasy, especially when they eyed her father’s sword, secured around her waist. Or when someone stared a bit too intently at her face, searching for signs of her heritage in her features.
For the most part, she could pass for a Clydian with mixed Gerosian blood–common enough, in the Clydian province of a Gerosian kingdom. Anyone looking at her father would know immediately that he hailed from the far southeast, a foreigner through and through, but all Saig had inherited from him was deep tan skin and straight black hair. None of those were traditional Clydian features, but they were common for anyone with the blood of their dark-skinned Gerosian neighbors–excepting the straight hair.
The city of Running Water, however, was not populated by strangers meeting her for the first time. These people already knew her complexion didn’t come from Gerosian blood. They knew her mother had married a foreign man. Feeling their scrutiny, seeing the eyes dart between mother and daughter, made Saig want to disappear.
“Straighten up,” her mother told her, obviously seeing something else. “They want you to look confident. They’re looking for us to reassure them.”
Saig hid her doubts somewhere deep within herself, and tried to do what her mother asked. Though she doubted she inspired confidence in anyone. These people wanted answers, and the head family had failed to find any three times already.
The dirt road that Saig and her mother followed wove through the farmlands, stretching into the distance between the forest and the mountains. The families living here, in the outskirts, dispersed themselves for the work day. Some were in the fields, some were in pens with livestock. Others stood by the side of the road–Saig watched those more closely, wondering which of them she and her mother were looking for.
Her mother didn’t wonder. Her mother headed straight towards one farmer, a woman clutching a nearby post tightly with her fingers. There was an intense desperation in the woman’s eyes when she looked at them, but she wasn’t the only one. Everyone was afraid. So how did Saig’s mother know this was the person they were here for?
Saig’s eyes flickered over this farmer’s figure, her gaze snagging on a bundle of fabric tucked under the woman’s arm. There was that, something for Wata to get a scent from. And the clothes the woman wore–an ordinary skirt with a tunic over it, but a bit less frayed than the clothing of the other farmers. With a touch of embroidery at the cuffs, even. It made sense she’d wear her best-made, newest clothes if she expected to meet with the head family of the city.
Saig let out a sigh of satisfaction. Maybe she hadn’t identified the woman herself, but she’d figured out what she should’ve been looking for. Next time, or the time after that, she’d see it as naturally as her mother did. This was something she could improve on, something she could be good at. The one thing in the world she was better at than her cousin.
Or, well. The one appropriate thing she was better at than her cousin.
“Great lady,” the farmer said, once her mother had reached them. A touch of awe entered her voice, which happened sometimes–Saig’s mother was the lady Deanis, headwoman of the city, after all.
“Sister,” Deanis replied. The farmer handed the bundle over with trembling hands. Saig felt a sense of foreboding. She doubted they’d find any good news for this woman, not with the owl still warning them about something terrible.
Not with the precedent of the two boys and one girl who’d gone missing in the past week. There wasn’t any evidence that they were dead–Wata had lost their trails in the mountains, and the searches conducted by the prince’s men turned up nothing. But the chances of them surviving dwindled with each passing day.
And now, someone else was missing, the fourth in a matter of days. A full-grown man, this time. Children might stray too far into the woods or mountains while playing, and get lost. It happened a few times a year, though they were usually found by either Wata or a search party. But three disappearances happening separately, each of them so close to each other? That was unheard of. An adult disappearing in the middle of a workday didn’t make any sense. All of them happening in such a short period of time, without a single reasonable explanation–that was worrying.
Between this and the owl, people were becoming afraid. The head family needed to take a stronger course of action soon. But they didn’t even know what was wrong.
Wata sniffed at the bundle, then took off. Saig followed close behind, eyes trained on the dog’s movements. She didn’t even notice her mother dawdling, sparing a few more words for the farmer, until Wata stopped and waited. Then Deanis caught up and Wata dashed for the woods, a heavy rustling of leaves following in her wake. Saig tracked the dog’s passage by the noise she made. She and her mother followed along on the trails, sweeping aside branches and pebbles with their skirts, every step bringing them deeper into the woods.
Saig knew this forest. Normally, everything about it comforted her. She’d feel all of her troubles melt away as soon her hands touched bark, the moment the leaves crunched beneath her feet. But today, that didn’t happen. She was filled with too much apprehension, worrying about what they’d find.
She felt a sudden sting of loss, realizing that the woods couldn’t make her feel better this time. That this place, which should’ve been her escape, couldn’t always make her problems disappear. Because for the first time in her life, her problems came into the woods with her.
Mindful of her responsibilities, Saig tuned her ears to the sounds around her, scanned through the foliage with her eyes. There was plenty to see–bits of animal tracks sprinkled across the trail, a few blackberry bushes that hadn’t been picked clean, some large stones that served as landmarks. None of it was relevant to their search, but that wasn’t surprising.
Saig took note of where they were so she could retrace Wata’s steps later if need be. So she could lead a search party to wherever Wata would lose the trail. It was only as the thought crossed her mind, that she realized she didn’t expect Wata to find the missing man. That she expected another failure, another day of fruitless searching.
Another day of not understanding why this had happened, of fearing the unknown danger that had cost their community four people. Discovering that it had been a series of accidents would set their people’s minds at ease, but this? This lack of information, while a strange owl lurked about the city? It gnawed at her.
“Take a deep breath,” her mother said from behind her, panting a bit between the words. Saig startled, her concentration broken, and turned. Her mother’s hair clung to a sheen of sweat on her skin. Her feet dragged along the ground. “Remember not to worry yet, cubling. The children probably got lost, and that’s terrible. But if they’re lucky, our people might still find them. Their disappearance doesn’t mean that some other terrible thing will happen.”
Her mother was barely keeping up with her, clearly tired, and Saig hadn’t even noticed. Meanwhile, Deanis still managed to prioritize her daughter’s feelings. “Do you need to slow down?” Saig asked, with a sudden sense of guilt.
Her mother raised an eyebrow, a glint of amusement crossing her features. “Darling, if I wanted to slow down, I wouldn’t wait for your permission, would I? A little extra walking won’t hurt me.” She shook her head, continuing with a levity that was too deliberate to be real. “I swear, you and your father prance through the woodlands like deer, making the rest of us look bad by comparison.”
She’d dodged the real reason Saig was concerned, even if they both knew what it was–her premature aging, caused by the life bond she shared with Wata. It was hard to know what her mother was still capable of, because of that bond. It made Saig–and even her father, though he tried to be subtle about it–a little paranoid about her health.
“Don’t worry about me,” Deanis continued, more serious. “There’s nothing unusual or wrong about what’s happening to me, and I still have plenty of time left. I didn’t mean to replace one unreasonable worry with a different one, by speaking up. Just remember what I told you before.”
Saig did. She remembered the calmness of her mother’s voice when she’d explained that everything was still normal. The children had gotten lost. The man made a misguided decision. Something unfortunate could have happened to any of them–like falling off a precipice, or starving, or becoming prey to some hungry animal. But there wasn’t any reason to assume the man wouldn’t be found. There wasn’t any reason to think anyone else would get hurt, if they didn’t wander off on their own. Things hadn’t spun out of control.
Saig tried to believe that, she really did. It would’ve been a reasonable explanation, if it wasn’t for the owl.
A drawn-out bay sounded through the woods, catching Saig’s attention. It was Wata, signaling that she’d found something. That hadn’t happened while they’d searched for any of the children. Saig’s pulse quickened as she hurried over, her mother following behind.
The air carried a whiff of something odd, something that grew steadily stronger as she approached. It smelled like blood and rot and magnolias, strangely, mixing together into a nauseatingly sweet odor. Dismayed, Saig pulled on her cloak to cover her mouth and nose. So much for believing the man would be alright.
Shifting her position so she wasn’t quite downwind, she braced herself to find a body. A smattering of red drew her eye, between the trees and leaves in her path. Then she could make out flesh, then a hand. Then the whole body, covered in gashes. The moment she caught sight of protruding ribs, she tore her gaze away, refusing to look again.
Behind her, her mother gagged. Wata whined softly. Saig held her breath for a moment, arms wrapped around herself. The silence was suddenly too much, and she found herself needing to say something, anything.
“Is it him?” she finally asked. It was a pointless question. Wata had led them to this body by scent. But she needed to hear the response, to hear someone confirm that this was real.
“It is,” her mother’s voice replied. “Let’s step away from him, for a moment. Are you alright?”
No. Neither of them were. But that was the last conversation Saig wanted to have right then, next to the body of someone she’d been hoping to find alive. She just wanted to leave, to put this scene behind her. Fortunately, leaving was the sensible thing to do anyway.
“We should head back to Running Water and report to the prince,” she said, struggling to keep her tone level. Her mother gave her a long look, before nodding. They set out in silence.
Saig couldn’t get the image of the dead man out of her mind. The body of one of her own people, a neighbor of sorts, who was now–suddenly–gone. Who’d obviously met some sort of violent end. Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising. But it felt so wrong. What had happened to him? What had done this? That single glimpse she’d caught of him didn’t look like any animal kill she’d ever seen.
The woods seemed like a less familiar place on the journey back. Monsters or murderers could be hiding behind every rock formation, any tree. Saig clutched the hilt of her father’s sword the entire way. If there’d been any suspicion of actual danger, the prince would’ve sent better protection for her mother than a sixteen-year-old girl who’d never been in a real fight, but there hadn’t been. At least Saig had some training–her father and aunt had made sure of that. If they ran into danger, she and Wata would have to handle it.
She glanced down dubiously at the white-tan dog scampering alongside them, only reaching as far as her knee in height. Wata’s ears were down, her tail tucked low, her eyes frightened.
Alright. If they ran into danger, Saig would have to handle it.
I do have training, she reminded herself. And every warrior experiences their first battle eventually. She’d just never expected to have hers alone, without her father or aunt looking out for her. Aided only by a small dog who was even more afraid than she was.
They made better time on the way back, fear quickening their steps. Saig finally relaxed once the tree line receded, revealing fields and rectangular farmhouses. They hadn’t been attacked on the way. Now that she had a moment to think, she realized that made sense–the forest was huge, teeming with other prey to choose from. She hadn’t needed to be so afraid.
But as soon as she let herself relax, the hoot of an owl sounded. A nervous muttering rose from the surrounding farmers, fingers pointing towards the top of one of the farmhouses. It was still here.
A part of Saig had truly hoped it’d be gone when she returned. If it was warning them about the farmer, it wouldn’t have a reason to stay after his body had been found. But here it was, in broad daylight, drawing everyone’s attention to itself. Behaving like a message instead of a normal owl.
It could only mean one thing. This wasn’t over.
Saig briefly closed her eyes, a sense of resignation settling over her. She didn’t know what would happen, or what they should be afraid of. But this problem wouldn’t disappear on its own. And that made it her family’s responsibility–her responsibility–to take care of it.
She just wished she had any idea what to do.
Auris ran her fingers over the spindles, counting them for the last time. The girls were arriving, and this would have to do. They’d have one corner of the house to themselves–Auris’ older relatives had moved to the other, so they could grind malt in peace—and she had sufficient wool to keep her guests busy.
It was time to start spinning.
She distributed the materials to her age-mates, trying to present herself as approachable–smiling, meeting their eyes, giving them nods of approval here or there. She wanted them relaxed and talkative. Each girl received her allotment, then moved to sit on the wool-covered benches winding around the house’s perimeter.
Everything was almost handed out when the door creaked open. Daylight poured inside, then disappeared with another creak as the door shut. Auris glanced absently in that direction to see who’d come, blinking at the sudden change in lighting. It could’ve been any of the women, moving between their work. Or one of the boys, hoping a snack had been left on the table. Or even her father or aunt, meaning to take a break from managing the city.
Instead, it was her cousin, Saig. Who, as one of Auris’ age-mates, was also supposed to join this gathering. She was late, and she was probably late on purpose, even though she should have been helping Auris play hostess.
This dampened Auris’ good mood somewhat, but it was a familiar kind of frustration. She frowned at her cousin on principle. Saig, with her head down and her eyes directed towards the ground, didn’t even notice. Her hunched figure scurried to pick up her spindle and distaff, sitting as far away from the other girls as she could while still remaining in earshot.
Auris sighed. As her closest female relative of their generation, Saig should’ve been an ally and partner for her. Instead, her cousin caused an endless stream of problems. Usually not on purpose, but what difference did that make? Either way, Auris was always stuck making up for her cousin’s deficiencies.
With a shake of her head, Auris picked up her own share of the materials and moved to join her age-mates, bunched up in the corner. She only made it a few steps before a growing sense of doubt forced her to stop. She glanced at Saig, sitting in her self-imposed isolation. Even though this was all Saig’s fault, Auris still felt reluctant to leave her there.
Kiths and goblins, Auris cursed in her mind, how silly can I be?
Because she’d been here before. She’d spent far too much time on her cousin already. Even after Saig gave up, Auris kept trying for the both of them, kept fighting to salvage something of her cousin’s life. Experience had taught her that trying to help Saig would only embarrass them both.
But she still felt some residual guilt when she moved to sit with the other girls. Some tiny part of her still screamed that she was being disloyal, that she didn’t have the right to give up on her own family. Auris stifled it as best as she could. This situation had grown out of her control long ago, and she could only make the best of it now.
She settled in, pushing away her worries, and waited for one of the other girls to start the conversation. Knowing that her topic of interest would inevitably come up.
Ginis, a simple yet productive worker, soon obliged. “Auris,” she said. “The head family has to have an idea of what’s happening with the farmers. Do you know anything?” She flicked back her blond hair, only a shade lighter than Auris’ own.
Auris suppressed a smile, trusting her hands to keep working as she turned her attention to the conversation. “What have you heard?”
“That some creature had eaten them.”
“No,” a different girl, Raidi, interjected. “My uncle says they must have gotten lost in the woods.” She didn’t specify which uncle, but Auris assumed she meant the head of her family, a diligent man who never let fear override his sense. It didn’t hurt that the family in question mainly worked in navigation, lending them credibility. If Raidi was listening to him, she might do a lot of Auris’ work for her.
“But what about the farmer’s body?” a third girl asked.
“No,” Raidi repeated, her brown eyes still intent on her work, her dark skin contrasting against the wool in her hands. “He had some accident, perhaps fell off a cliff. Was probably already dead when scavengers started in on him. Animals are not so very likely to attack a large adult instead of running away.”
Many of the girls seemed satisfied by that, nodding and murmuring their assent. Ginis, however, wasn’t dissuaded so easily. “But it does happen,” she insisted, as she sent her spindle spinning with a sharp twist.
“Certainly, it’s possible. I suppose he could have happened on a bear that felt threatened by him. An accident. But all of them, eaten by a creature? Not likely.”
And so the conversation continued, the group of young women bandying theories about. Raidi and Auris managed to deflect many of the more outlandish ideas, preventing too much fear-mongering from taking root. No one mentioned the sorts of monstrous creatures that preyed on men, not even hesitantly. That was good. That meant it was a distant fear, something they didn’t want to be laughed at for believing. It meant the worry in the city hadn’t dipped into panic yet.
“Saig,” Ginis said. Saig froze at the sound of her name. “You found the farmer’s body with your mother, didn’t you? What do you think it was?”
Auris gave her cousin a steady look, hoping to convey the need to keep everyone calm. To prevent baseless theorizing from taking hold in the city.
Saig looked from Ginis to Auris, and back. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “The prince’s men should have a better idea.”
“But you saw it,” Ginis insisted.
“Ginis, please,” Auris intervened. “My poor cousin is a hunter. Rabbits and foxes, maybe she could tell you something about, but this is beyond her. The prince’s best men are examining the body, and they’ll know what to make of it.”
That seemed to quiet her for a moment. “I’ve heard the prince will mobilize more patrols outside the city. Is that true?”
Auris nodded. “It’s only sensible. Whatever may have happened, the patrols will keep an eye out for the farmers. No threat should get past them.”
“Ah,” Ginis said. “That’s good. They should be safe.” And she settled back into her work. Auris remembered that one of her male relatives had married in from a farmer’s family. Perhaps she maintained ties. That would explain her investment in the conversation.
Then a sudden thud made most of the young women jump, even managing to attract the attention of Auris’ older relatives.
Auris snapped her head towards the sound to find Kyr on the benches, strolling over to them as if the attention was his due, before curling up behind Auris and licking his paws clean.
“Oh,” Ginis squeaked. “Guardian.” She inclined her head towards the cat. Auris rolled her eyes. Her family had a tendency to attract uncanny animals, such as her Kyr, or her aunt Deanis’ Wata. It was what marked them as chosen for leadership. But Kyr wasn’t divine, and it was strange when people acted like he was.
Auris glanced over her shoulder at him. He stopped mid-lick, and turned his face towards her, yellow eyes gleaming. There was some sort of substance on his fur, glistening off his black paws, matting the grizzled pattern of white hairs by his chin red.
Blood, probably. Whenever Kyr came home with bits of red in his fur, it was usually blood. He must have been hunting.
Breathing in, Auris noticed a hint of something in the air, something sweet. Only for an instant, and then it was gone. Glancing at the nearest table, she wondered if some fruit or flowers had been left out, something to explain the scent. Nothing. She’d probably imagined it.
Turning back to her age-mates, she realized they’d gone silent after Kyr’s appearance. The murmur of the distant group of older women carried over from the other end of the house, where they’d already turned back to grinding their malt for ale. But Auris’ age-mates turned their full attention to the spindles twirling at their feet, even though they hadn’t had a problem chatting while working before. It was like they thought Kyr was judging them, determining whether or not they were productive citizens. Gauging whether or not they were appropriately respectful to the head family’s authority.
Which was silly, because of course he didn’t care about any of that. He was a cat. Auris was the one who cared.
Even after she managed to prod the conversation back to life, the talk did not return to the matter at hand. Instead, it turned to pointless rumor. Like the absence of the kingdom’s heir. Her age-mates speculated eagerly about why the king kept the prince’s whereabouts hidden, only insisting that he’d return soon. Was the heir traveling? On a mission? Renouncing his title and eloping with a commoner?
Auris stifled a groan at the fanciful notion that led to that theory.
The Clydian province was so far removed from the rest of the Gerosian kingdom’s politics, that there wasn’t any reason to care about what happened in the capital city. That was probably why her age-mates spent so much time on the topic, going over every agonizing detail. It was safely distant. So Auris gritted her teeth through the gossip surrounding the prince, itching to draw the conversation towards something important, but knowing she’d give her interest away if she did.
It was irritating, but the only thing she could do was trust that she’d done her job already. That she’d reassured her age-mates that the head family had the situation handled. If she was lucky, they’d bring that reassurance home with them and spread it to their own families. But she couldn’t control that.
She cast a final glance in her cousin’s direction. Saig remained quiet except when spoken to, resolutely focused on her spinning. If Auris had been that absorbed in her work, she would’ve fallen into the rhythm of the task, soothed by the constant whirl of the spindle. That wasn’t true for Saig. The frustration in her movements was obvious, as she fumbled to get the wool to the right thickness. It was on the tip of Auris’ tongue to tell her cousin to relax, to have patience with herself. But that was another conversation it was better not to have.
Thinking past Saig’s struggles, Auris took a moment to wonder what her cousin really thought of Ginis’ earlier question. What would she have said, if she could’ve answered it honestly? Saig was so quiet about her opinions, it was sometimes hard to tell what she was thinking.
But no, it didn’t matter. Even if Saig knew anything important, the prince’s men would see the same thing. And probably more. Auris would rather hear reports from experienced hunters than from her cousin and age-mate–a woman who was still too young, and who tried too hard at all the wrong things. Then the family would decide the next course of action, well-informed of the situation.
She didn’t need Saig’s perspective at all. No one did.