You’d think that when your sister gets kidnapped by the evil Beast who has terrorized your village for centuries, people would leave you alone. Give you some space. Respect your grief.
You’d think that, if you hadn’t met the people in my village.
The morning started with Foren the woodcutter pounding on the front door. When I finally stumbled downstairs, still dressed in my nightclothes, he explained that he wanted to know if he should reduce our winter order of firewood “now that you and your grandmother . . . er . . . won’t be needing as much . . .”
“As much warmth?” Grandma said crisply, having finally made it downstairs. She was also in her nightclothes, but somehow, she managed to look dignified. (It helped that her nightgown was made of white silk and lace and fell elegantly to her ankles, while mine was one of Darina’s old tunics that came down to just below my knees and was always falling off my shoulder.) “It’s my old bones that need the warmth, Foren, and our house hasn’t gotten any smaller.”
The truth was, the house did feel like it had gotten smaller in the few months since Darina had been taken. Smaller and darker and lonelier, without Darina there to dance as she set the table or to laugh at Grandma’s sharp tongue. I didn’t say so, though. I stomped upstairs to get dressed and let Grandma deal with Foren.
But she wasn’t there to deal with my sister’s most devoted admirer, Sederic, who accosted me when I was on my way to market that afternoon and brooded lengthily about how heartbroken he was. Or with the fruit-seller, who gave me an extra apple “to help with what you’re going through.” (How was an apple supposed to help? Especially since it was a yellow apple, blech.) Or the fishmonger, who leaned over the counter of his stall and said, “We all still miss her. But that’s the trouble with beauty, isn’t it? You can’t be sure whose attention it will attract.”
I left without buying any fish. Which meant we’d have vegetable pottage for dinner that night. Grandma wouldn’t be happy, but then again, what could make her happy these days?
It had been three months, two weeks, and four days since either of us had been happy. I could remember, in precise detail, the last moment when life had been good. I had woken up in bed with sunlight on my face, already excited because it was the day of the village soccer game. I’d yawned and stretched, then turned to start the torturous task of getting Darina to wake up.
And found myself staring at an empty bed.
With anyone else, I might have thought she’d gotten up early. But this was Darina. She’d once slept through someone dumping a pitcher of ice water on her head. (In my defense, she had promised to wake up early that day to build a snowman with me.) And her boots were gone.
My gut had twisted with a sick, clenching dread, even before I glanced out the window toward the outhouse and saw no sign of her.
I vaguely remembered screaming for Grandma, and leaping onto the floor, and getting my legs tangled in my blanket, and falling flat on my face. I’d had a bruise on the side of my forehead for days. Grandma hadn’t mentioned it--perhaps she hadn’t even noticed it--and Darina, of course, hadn’t been there to badger me about it.
We knew at once what had happened to her. Everyone knew. We had all been afraid of it our entire lives.
Since then, every morning, I kept my eyes closed for an extra half second before I woke. I opened my eyes and turned, and Darina’s empty bed hit me like a blow.
After storming away from the fishmonger’s shop, I couldn’t face the town square, where most of the other village children were playing. None of them had ever had much to say to me, except when their parents forced them to; now that everyone knew what had happened to Darina, all they had were nosy questions and pitying looks. So instead of going home that way, I crossed to the other side of the market and started down the forest path that bypassed the village. It would take longer, but unlike everyone else in the village, I liked being in the woods. And I was in no rush to get home, especially now that I’d finally managed to be alone. . . .
“Mera! There you are! Wait for meeee!”
My shoulder blades tightened. I considered picking up my pace. But I knew there was no point.
Darina’s friend Ressa fell into step beside me. That would have been enough to ruin what was left of my day, but when I glanced over my shoulder, her younger sister Talya was trudging reluctantly behind her. Talya met my eyes and gave me a look that made it clear she was no happier about this encounter than I was.
Ressa and Darina had been friends--were friends--and Talya and I were supposed to be friends because we were the same age and our sisters were friends. This was an expectation that both of us found burdensome.
Sure enough, as soon as Talya caught up to her sister, she said, “Can’t I go back? I was in the middle of a game of marbles. And I was winning.”
“Hush,” Ressa said. “You can play with your other friends later. Mera needs you now.”
“I really don’t,” I said, without much hope that Ressa would listen. Usually, Ressa avoided the woods even more zealously than the rest of the villagers, since she favored silly shoes that made walking on rough ground treacherous. She had clearly followed me on purpose. Which meant there was no chance of getting away from her.
“I saw you talking to Sederic earlier.” Ressa looked demure, with her long black hair always wound into neat braids, but she had a knack for being the first to know every bit of gossip in the village. Darina called it a talent. I had another word for it. “He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. Did he tell you how he’s feeling?”
He had. At length. But the subject of Sederic’s pining for my sister could go on forever, and I was not in the mood. I shrugged.
“I heard he wrote a new song about Darina.” Talya’s voice, as usual, had a sharp edge that could make even the most innocent comment sound like an insult. “Do you know if that’s true?”
He had written several songs. Sederic was in training to be a minstrel. Since there was no one in our village to actually train him, what that mostly meant was that he spent his time writing verses, singing them, and modestly accepting the villagers’ compliments about how talented he was.
His voice was excellent. His verse-writing skills, though, could have used some constructive criticism. And also, a little more variety in their subject matter. I loved my sister more than anyone, but there were only so many songs you could hear about her before they started getting repetitive.
“I heard he was going to try to rescue her,” Ressa said, sighing. “He swore that he would release her from the Beast’s clutches, even if he died in the attempt.”
Talya rolled her eyes--for once, not at me. Nobody in our village’s history had ever escaped the Beast’s castle.
“Well,” Ressa amended, “he wrote a song about his determination to rescue her, and what would happen when he tried.”
“What would happen?” I asked, before I could think better of it.
Ressa’s eyes shone. “He would die horribly with her name upon his lips.”
“And would she be rescued?
“No.” Ressa clasped her hands together over her heart. “She would never know of his sacrifice. With his dying breath, he would call her name, and she would hear it from her dark, dank prison cell beneath the castle--”
“Never mind,” I said.
“No one can rescue her,” Talya snapped. “The Beast has surely turned her into one of his hounds by now.”
I bit my lip on a protest. Everyone in the village knew that was what the Beast did to the people he took: he turned them into hounds and forced them into his pack, to run with him on the Wild Hunt and terrify the people who had once been their friends and neighbors.
“It’s just a song,” Ressa said. “The castle doesn’t even have a basement. So the cell wouldn’t be beneath it. She was held in one of the towers.” She bit her lower lip. “Probably.”
We all turned and looked at the Beast’s castle, with its high, jagged tower on the north side and its stubby round tower rising from the south walls. It looked deceptively close, even though it actually took hours to reach it by foot. Its silhouette was so familiar that staring at it felt unnecessary. But like everyone else in the village, I stole glances at it anyhow, constantly. How could I not?
For as long as anyone could remember, the lord in the castle had been an inhuman, monstrous creature, hated and feared. A Beast who led his pack of hounds on the Wild Hunt, to chase down and kill anything that caught their fancy. Not just wild animals, but people’s cattle, and pets, and sometimes the people themselves.
We all knew how to stay safe from the Hunt. We kept out of the woods at night, and we retreated into our homes at the first sign of howling. It was easier to avoid than storms or flood or fire.
But sometimes the Beast came alone, stealthy and unseen, and we only knew about it when someone disappeared. Not killed, but stolen. Not ripped apart, but changed.
The Beast took only one or two people every generation, but everyone had an ancestor or distant relative who had been stolen by the Beast and turned into one of his hounds, bound to his will and to the Hunt.
Ressa prattled on, but I stopped paying attention. She was saying something about time and courage and hope; it was as if she’d taken a bunch of inspirational words and shaken them carelessly together. Talya, meanwhile, was giving me her usual contemptuous look, like she wasn’t sure how I dared breathe the same air as her.
An ache rose in my chest, so thick and heavy that I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want to be here with them. I wanted to go home and complain to Darina, then roll my eyes when she told me that I should really try harder to be friends with Talya. I wanted to return to a home that had my sister in it and be annoyed because she was taking too long with the hairbrush or wearing impractical clothes. Most of all, I wanted the life I was now living to not be my life. I wanted that so badly it hurt.
But Darina wouldn’t be home. Only Grandma would be there, sweeping up the kitchen and grinding her herbs and, soon, making a fuss about the lack of fish. Going through the motions of life, just like I was, and pretending it was bearable.
I knew of only one way to escape the feelings slamming together inside me. I thrust my basket at Ressa.
“I forgot to get fish,” I said. “Would you take my basket to my grandmother, please? She needs the eggs immediately.”
“Oh, of course!” Ressa said, oozing kindness.
“Actually--” Talya began, but Ressa gave her a sharp look and she fell silent. She shot me a glare as Ressa pulled her down the path.
I rolled my eyes. If Ressa thought she was going to extract gossip from my grandmother, she was a fool.
Then again, she was a fool. So that was probably exactly what she was hoping for.
Not that I was one to talk about foolishness. Not given what I was planning to do.
I looked again at the castle and clenched my fists. Everyone else might have given up on Darina, but I had not. I never would. I was just waiting for my chance.
And when it came, I was going to go to that castle and get my sister out.
I hadn’t told anyone about my plan to save Darina. Not even Grandma--especially not Grandma. I knew what they would all say, which meant I didn’t need to hear it.
So instead of wasting my strength on fruitless arguing, I reserved my energy for spying on the castle. I had snuck away a dozen times since my sister disappeared, prowling the area around the castle and watching for any hint that the Beast was getting ready to lead his hounds on the Wild Hunt.
When he did, Darina would be in the castle alone. Unguarded. At least, I hoped so.
The Beast has surely turned her into one of his hounds by now.
Talya had a way of making statements so confidently that all denials sounded pathetic. But that didn’t mean she was actually right. After all, I knew things that Talya did not. It was impossible to imagine Darina--sweet, gentle Darina, who coaxed spiders out of the house instead of smashing them--running with the Hunt.
My sister was still human. She had never been anything but human. I knew it deep in my bones.
I tore my eyes from the castle and glanced in the other direction, to make sure Talya and Ressa were out of sight. Then I turned off the wide path onto one of the many narrow trails that led deeper into the forest.
The trail was well trodden and littered with crushed leaves. After a few yards, I turned again and made my way straight through the underbrush, pushing between low-hanging trees and hopping over a muddy, trickling stream. Branches cracked under my feet and thorns caught at my skirt. I ducked under a fallen tree, straightened, and walked right into a dangling spiderweb. I brushed its sticky film off my face, spat into the mud, and decided that I had gone far enough. I could see nothing around me but mostly bare branches.
It wasn’t wise to be so deep in the woods on my own. It was, to be precise, forbidden. My mother’s body had been found in the woods, back when I was just a baby, and Grandma had always told us to stay away from the forest.
But I had been cautious for so long, and it felt like fighting my own self. I wanted to be reckless. I wanted to be wild. I wanted to be the thing that was feared, not the thing that was afraid.
The problem with you, Darina had said to me once, is that you can know something is stupid and do it anyhow. It would be less frustrating if you were just plain stupid.
Copyright © 2023 by Leah Cypess. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.