This was a world where the vilest creatures came to roost. Even her mother, Rowna, always so brave, wouldn’t dare utter its name. This was a world where the snow fell black. Fayne turned her ash covered face up toward the sky. Even though there were no clouds, and it wasn’t the season for the cursed black snow, there was still a perpetual haze leaving the sunlight weak and unable to warm the chill in the air.
Fayne shivered, but not because of the temperature. Her heavy, black, fur-lined leggings and coat with its hood up kept the cold at bay. They were the same color as the landscape to help her blend in, and everyone who ventured here wore the same outfit for that reason. No, it was something else in the air that left her mouth dry and sent her heart racing, like a sickness trying to settle in. She shook her head to clear it; this was not the time or place for nervousness. She was here as a full-fledged gatherer for the first time, and she couldn’t afford to screw this up.
Here, in this ugly, bleak world, was the only place the most powerful healing herb, ayerel, grew. One of her teachers liked to go on and on about how something so good and useful had to grow from something so evil and miserable. That such things can only thrive in opposition. Indeed—any attempt to grow the herb outside the dark world failed. In fact, a king once nearly bankrupted his kingdom in such an endeavor, stating that the gatherer’s fees were too outrageous to justify.
When he made a foray into the world and his soldiers came back mangled, if at all, he brought his fury down on their clan. Imprisoning, or outright killing men, women, and children alike. His rage was insatiable, and it was nearly the end for the already small clan. Rowna saved some of them. Though, she lamented, not nearly enough, or even the best. Worst of all, they lost their clan leader, Tyce, when he went as part of an envoy to negotiate peace and save the clan. Mother had begged father not to go, and mother was not the begging sort, but he insisted the king was a man of reason. As their answer, they killed him.
Then they came for their clansland. Dun Kiskeem, the last ancestral fort and land of her people, was razed. Then the Saewyth witches, in employ to the king, cast a salting curse on the surrounding croplands. There would be no going back for at least five generations. The blackened, tumbled stones were grave markers for their dead clans-mates and land.
The leather of Fayne’s gloves groaned in protest as she clenched her fists, the rage still as fresh a year later as though it happened yesterday. Her electric blue eyes, the same color as the flower of the ayerel, burned with unshed tears. There were none left in her, but even if there were, crying would only mean she’d have to reapply the protective ash covering her face, and the ash was time-consuming and costly to make. She could picture her mother’s cold gaze in response to explaining why she had to use more than was necessary. Tears were not an acceptable reason, especially not over something that was over and could not be changed, as her mother would point out.
But Fayne remembered the devastation her father’s death wrought in the clan. How her mother kept everything running as smooth as possible while the clan was on the run, living more in the dark world than Strathaven, their home kingdom. It was a dangerous gamble, keeping them more in the dark world. Of course, the chance of death was high no matter which side of the Waerdstone they were on. On one side were beasts of varying sizes, ready to rip them apart, and the other was a bloodthirsty king ready to run them through on pikes and swords.
Eventually, though, the king’s heir fell ill. It was rumored he tried everything across the land, and even hired healers from other lands for a cure. Nothing worked. He was told, by them all, that only one thing would be able to cure his son: ayerel. No one had any left, though, because he’d killed most of the gatherers and sent the rest into exile.
While crawling might be too strong of a word, King Darmad sought the clan’s help. In an effort to prevent future bloodshed, bolster the clan’s influence, and keep the clan from going extinct, Rowna, in a moment of pure reptilian pragmatism struck a deal: marriage. One heir to another.
Fayne spat on the charcoal colored rocks that were so jagged they could nearly slice flesh just by gazing at them. Even the terrain was deadly in this world.
“Fayne!” a gruff whisper broke through the anger, and she startled at the reprimand.
She looked over to find one of her teachers, Bryden, scowling at her. Thankfully, the ash covered her blush, but Bryden likely knew she’d done it. She’d been learning at what was left of his knee since she could walk. He was the clan’s lorekeeper, an honor he’d been ‘bestowed’ with after his forced retirement, when a creature with scythes for arms had removed his left leg at the knee. He grumbled about having to teach the ‘whelps’, but some part of him must have enjoyed it, since he never passed the mantle on as candidates for the position became available.
Yet their numbers were so few now, Bryden had to come out of retirement. Not that he’d ever complain, but the man was nearing seventy, and as part of her training as a gatherer she was taught to identify weakness in her clan-mates. Bryden’s arthritis was tempered by a devil’s claw salve, and he kept a jar on his person at all times. It wasn’t the best solution, but it was the only one without a strong odor that might attract the creatures. As Bryden had said, “It will have to do.”
Though the clan was best known for gathering ayerel, it wasn’t all they gathered. It was one of the reasons losing their clansland was so devastating. Hundreds of years of sowing magic and blood into the land made it perfect for all variety of herbs for the herb witches of the clan: the Coven of the Silver Garden. Fayne had been tested, as they were all tested at the age of five, and she had no inclination for the fine and fickle healing magic. She was meant for gathering, but even after losing everything—father, family, friends, and land—that would be taken from her, too.
Despite Bryden’s admonishment to focus, she scowled and clenched her teeth as bitterness clutched at her heart like a winter’s chill on the cold stone of an unlit hearth. This was her first and last foray into the dark world as a full-fledged gatherer. Tomorrow would see her whisked off to Strathaven to be married off to some pansy prince. Maybe she’d get lucky and something would eat her today.
She smiled, though it wasn’t a happy one, and Bryden’s scowl deepened.
“Get yer head out of yer arse, girl,” he said, his brogue thick, with his speech a mixture of lowland and highland clans. It was uniquely Bryden. “Today isn’t only yer day, and I’ll be damned if yer gonna—“
“I know, Bryden,” Fayne interrupted, and scanned the area, identifying everyone else in their party at the mention of the others.
One of her friends, Sanne, a fledgling herb witch, was paired with a defender—someone trained to protect everyone as they went about gathering. Though everyone learned each aspect—gathering, defending, and herb witchery—to gain a well-rounded understanding of the inner-workings of the clans, everyone went on to specialize in one particular branch. If none were chosen, they ended up as general laborers and workers for the clan.
Seeing Sanne made her seek out Sitas, Sanne’s twin, who was training to become a defender. Where Fayne’s hair was wavy, and the black of the void between the stars, (an oddity, but not unheard of in her lineage), the twins had the wild, curly, fire red hair that was typical in the lowland clans. Sitas kept his hair cut in the traditional style of the defenders: shaved on the sides and back, and longer on top. Having just become a defender he didn’t have the warriors’ braid of the veterans, but his quiet determination and unwavering commitment to his calling would see him with one soon enough.
Sanne was the opposite of her brother in personality. He was a quiet field in winter on a moonless night, and she was the bustle of the town in the morning during the middle of summer. A perfect balance. Their identical, jewel-bright green eyes strayed across the barren, rocky field, met, shared some moment of understanding they could never explain to Fayne, and then went back to their respective tasks.
Fayne was paired with Bryden, likely because her mother caught some hint of her fool thoughts this morning. Or maybe he was the only one she trusted with Fayne’s life. Either way, she wasn’t exactly disappointed, but if she were honest she had wished for a pairing with Sitas. She wasn’t the only one, as most of the new witches and gatherers had hoped to be paired with him, and it was likely the new defenders would have liked that as well, but that wasn’t how the pairings worked. Not only was this a training exercise, but they were trying to find the right pairings for everyone. Who would work best together, and so on.
It was a passing fancy for everyone, as Sitas had never expressed much interest in anyone or anything beyond his training. She’d come to terms with that, but was it too much to hope her only gather would be pleasant and she be paired with him?
This wasn’t the first time any of them had been in the dark world, of course, but it was their first time away from the Waerdstone location. As they made their way toward the forest, as quietly as they could with such a large group, Fayne’s attention zeroed back in. In a normal situation, being in the barren between the stone and the forest would seem like the most dangerous area, but that wasn’t the case here. At least here the creatures had nowhere to hide. In the forest that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t much chatter beforehand, but the closer they got to the forest, the quieter it became.
Usually, gathers happened with four pairings, and they traveled in a wedge formation. Two defenders with bows and/or crossbows as their primary weapon in the back-outside positions to cover everyone. The back-middle had a spear, while the lead had a sword and shield. The ranged fighters would provide cover, the defender with the sword would battle in the front, moving in and out of combat so the spearman could skewer the creature. Sitas was a swordsman in one of the four gathers they had, and Bryden was an archer.
Each group had two gatherers and two witches. Gatherers were trained with short swords and daggers, oftentimes dual-wielding, to help protect the ranged fighters in close combat. As for the witches, some coated rocks in poison, aiming them at eyes or gaping maws and launching them with slingshots. Others wielded living whips of smilax, a sticky, hooked-thorn vine. The weapons of the witches were as varied as the witches themselves. However, each of the witches had a ball, roughly the size of their palm, which was saved for the worst of the creatures: the Dreamwings.
The dreadpaws, vexvines, mourncats, sorrowlings, cinderserpents, and dreadtooths were all fearsome, to name a few. But it was the dreamwings that brought certain death with them. No one in recent memory had seen one, as they were, luckily, rare. However, the texts handed down through the clan lorekeepers were detailed in their descriptions. Mostly humanoid, they were sexless, and their faces were made of nothing but over-large, jagged teeth. Their tongues were that of serpents, their tails like that of the scorpions hailing from the faraway deserts, and their four wings were blacker than the pits of the underworld. They were called dreamwings, because they circle you with their wings, making you think you’d suddenly fallen asleep when the light is blocked out. Then they scoop you into their mouths.
Fayne shuddered. The pictures were…graphic.
They were now within an easy stone’s throw away from the forest, and something reached up through the soles of her feet and rooted her to the spot. Her heart was in her throat, and the blood rushed in her ears, but there was nothing to indicate why she stopped. Bryden, having taken a couple steps without her, stopped too, and let out a low whistle, almost an exact imitation of the way the wind whistled in the castle at Dun Kiskeem. The other gathers stopped.
“Fayne?” he questioned.
Fayne moved her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. She turned her face to look at Bryden, her eyes wide. He frowned, scanned the area carefully, lingering on the forest, before he turned his sky blue eyes back to her.
“Talk to me, girl,” he whispered.
“What’s wrong?” a voice asked, concerned. It was Sitas. Of course it was Sitas, Fayne groaned in her mind.
“The little princess has first gather jitters,” the other archer, Cian said, his tone as grating as his nasally voice.
Bryden bared his teeth, but ignored the man.
“We can’t stay here. We’re vulnerable,” Sitas said, not unsympathetic.
Something withered inside of Fayne as though all her insides dried up at once. Embarrassment, some distant corner of her mind noted. In addition to not being able to talk, her breathing was difficult. The edges of her vision were starting to grow dark and her legs were getting weak. Bryden saw Fayne’s eyes start to go glassy, and he pulled his arm back to give her a good slap.
When his hand reached the pinnacle to swing down, whatever had hold of Fayne snapped. Air slammed back into her lungs with an involuntary gasp and she staggered, collapsing into a heap on the ground. Even with the protective spells woven into the leather, the jagged rocks bit through the material from the force of hitting them. She’d have bruises there later. The glove on her right hand slipped a little, exposing the skin on the bottom of her palm, and the rocks sliced the flesh as easily as a hot knife through butter. Blood flowed, and the ground drank it in like a man dying of thirst drank water.
It doesn’t even hurt, Fayne idly noted.
Someone’s hand gripped her shoulders, while the other hand took a firm hold on her chin and, gently, tilted it back to look at them. She was looking into Sitas’ eyes, and though it was silly, the concern there caused a warmth to spread through her chest.
Then, like an arrow loosed from a bow, an alien thought shot through her mind, and her mouth formed the words:
Then the sky was filled by dark wings.