I usually come to the Forest of Weeping Willows whenever I need a moment of peace. Space would also be nice. Cyan—my adopted brother and Watchman—stands only a couple hundred yards away on the Eastern Road, pretending to give me time to myself before we go to the market. Apparently, my turning seventeen means nothing to him. I’m old enough to know how far away from the manor to go, which engine sounds to listen for. I’m not going to let one of the Contagion catch me off guard.
A chill runs through me at the thought.
All right. Cyan can stay.
Howbeit, if a vicious stray elk happens by, I can fight it myself. I look down at the pages of fighting techniques on the tree stump to my right. I’d committed the moves to memory months ago now and stolen enough time to myself to know how each move feels on my muscles. I focus on the three knotted ropes of willow switches in front of me. Crystal Soldiers were known for their graceful fighting techniques. As a Crystal Bearer, something in me must be graceful too.
I push the willow ropes in different directions so that they swing back and forth. Then I unsheathe the branch tucked into my sleeve, advance on the nearest rope as it swings back toward me, and thrust at the central knot. Its leaves rustle as it bounces against my makeshift sword. I push it again and pivot around the second rope swinging back at me from the right. I slash at its back, then spin around to perform what the pages say is an empty fade and attack—one leap back, guard, one larger leap forward, thrust—against the third rope. I’m certain Crystal Soldiers leapt higher. I’ll work on it.
Cyan’s deep voice moves on the air. “Jonnie?”
I kick the rope away. “Still here.”
The first switches are returning. I try the jump spin I’ve studied. Several leaves flutter off their switches with my overhand slash, and I land steadily on my feet. I hold in my shriek of excitement, but as I mime a cheer, the second group of switches bumps into my back. Damn it all.
“And now, I’m dead.”
“What?” Cyan calls.
I need to stop anyway. I return to the pages on the stump to tuck them back into the waistband of my wool skirt, then untie the willow switches. While I can easily tell Cyan my body aches from falling out of the trees he thinks I’m climbing, I can’t break too much of a sweat. I don’t want him to find out I practice fighting out here. He wouldn’t consider my learning to fight “a good use of my time.”
When he comes to get me, I’ve tied some of the blue switches into a seat and swing back and forth like the carefree princess he has always known me to be. He glances down at my dark brown feet, covered only by my cuffs. My nail beds are only slightly blue, but Cyan frowns. The Cold Season, ironically the warmer of the Isle Continent’s two seasons, never bothers me. Howbeit, my brother is a hulk-Troll, and the little time he spent on the reportedly hot and humid Trollic Continent permanently conditioned him against cold weather. He stands before me in a wool-lined, stag-skin jacket, a sweater, rough-spun pants, and most likely, long johns beneath all of that. A streak of redness across his sharp cheeks and broad nose adds color to his nearly snow-white face, and beneath his blond brow his slender, bright blue eyes glisten from the wind as he looks down at me.
“Where are your boots?” he asks.
I like feeling the slush-coated grass against my feet. The slippery ground also helps me practice balance while fighting, but I can’t tell him that.
“I left them with you.”
Cyan’s jaw clenches, and his nostrils flare. “So, you decided that losing your toes would be a good use of your time?”
I hold my tongue and hop off my swing. As I untie the switches once again, Cyan continues to nag.
“We need to get to the market if you plan on eating tomorrow—”
“—and now, we must find your boots first.”
“’Tis not a treasure hunt. I will find them.”
Cyan doesn’t talk back that time, only plucks blue and white willow leaves from his short spikes of straw-like hair. He never speaks much anyway, unless to complain about what I’m doing, so as we walk back through the trees, I decide to fill the silence.
“I had a strange dream last night. I was running through a palace. At least, I believe it was a palace—there were paintings of kings on the walls. The ceiling kept falling in little pieces all around me, and I kept hearing this noise in the background, like glass scraping against glass. It was a little scary, but I remember laughing.”
“That sounds like you.” Cyan quickly ducks beneath a branch. He stands just over seven heads high, so the lower limbs easily sneak up on him beneath the dense willow switches.
“Right before I awoke, I turned to look over my shoulder, but then I ran into someone. I never saw who it was, but it felt like I knew them. I can’t stop thinking of it.”
“Well, it was just a dream. No need to worry over it.”
“Hello?” the high tenor of a male Sprite’s voice calls on the Eastern Road. “Is anyone there?”
I know the voice well, so I run ahead. My late Commanding Watchman, Sir Aleksandyr, had asked Prince Laris of the Sprites to guide Cyan should anything happen to him. Laris stayed with us for a year following Sir Aleksandyr’s death, and he writes and visits whenever he can. He stands on the road with an empty sack in one hand, my stag-skin boots in the other. The setting sun causes his chin-length, red hair, emerald-green eyes, and the golden bay leaves down the left side of his royal green coat to glow.
“Ah, there you are,” Laris says, a wide smile in his closely-shaven beard as I run up to him.
“Laris!” I hug him, and he squeezes me. “We weren’t expecting you.”
“I thought it best to give your nursemaids a break and meet you before you reached home. And why are these”—he shakes my boots—“not on your feet?”
“You didn’t hear?” I ask as I take them to slip on. “I want to lose my toes.”
“Funny,” Cyan says.
Laris’s smile grows wider. “You mustn’t keep straining our brother’s nerves, my lady.”
“I don’t mean to,” I say back, “but he’s so stubborn.”
Cyan glares down at me, and Laris chuckles as we walk on. A cast iron lamp, an Oculus, stands at the end of the path, its crimson light tinting the greenery around it. A handcrafted sign with a poem carved onto it hangs from a small hook welded into the lamppost:
Crimson means the beasts are far
Gold, the beasts are near
If ever blue, do run and hide
For’t means the beasts are here
The Oculi grant us peace of mind from the metal army. The cast iron beasts we call Contagion have attacked at random for sixteen years. In the early months, all anyone had for warning were the sounds of engines and propellers seconds before the machines dropped down. Howbeit, once Watchmen managed to cut down a few, they learned each beast had a beacon inside. So, the engineers had found a use for the machines: to warn us of the next to come.
But as we’ve learned firsthand, even that isn’t enough to save everyone. People still need to fight the machines. ’Tis how we lost Sir Aleksandyr. After eight years, I still miss him as though he died yesterday.
I clear the lump from my throat, and Cyan squeezes my shoulders, pressing away those awful memories as we enter the market.
Aterholt’s merchants set it up in the courtyard each weekend. Vendors from nearby villages often come to town as well. Human and hill-Sprityn citizens walk down from their homes on the hills encircling the courtyard and roam the vendors’ carts and stations. Their children play together around the onyx fountain in the center of the courtyard. They’re close in age, but as with their parents, the Human children stand inches taller than the Sprityn ones. Had any hulk-Trollic children lived in Aterholt, they would tower over all the others. Cyan stood five heads high when he was just nine years of age, and in his later teenage years, he towered over Laris, though that is to be expected. Sprites are historically petite people. Laris stands just a few inches taller than me.
“Lieutenant Cyan, Prince Laris,” Mr. John, the butcher, greets my Watchmen. “’Tis not often we see you out, and with the little lady.” His thick, black beard rises as he smiles down at me. “How are you this evening?”
“I’m well, thank you.”
“I hear you’re the one who eats the most elk’s meat in the manor now, but that can’t be true.”
“It can, and it is.” Practicing fighting techniques makes me hungrier than usual, but I let Cyan think I’ve developed a bigger appetite.
Mr. John laughs and begins stacking packs for us. The moment Cyan takes the first stack and turns to Laris to set it in our sack, Mr. John slips me a strip of candied bacon in wax paper. He’s such a sweet old man. I mouth a “thank you” and slip away while my Watchmen finish the transaction.
A hill-Sprite has parked her cart two vendors down from Mr. John’s. The many onyx and whitestone statuettes standing around her cart catch my eye, so I walk over for a closer look. I’ve only seen statues like these in the Western Temple’s books about Crystal Bearers. To see rough whitestone carved so perfectly and tempered into the shape of a leonine makes me pet the stone creature’s tigerlike head to feel how smooth it is.
“There I was, cleaning out my cellar,” the hill-Sprite says to a Human couple. “I believed I was done. Howbeit, then I found a hidden door going further into the ground! ’Twas filled with these old valuables.”
The man scans the jewelry and odds and ends, but he purses his lips in distaste. “You live off the road to the old palace, right?”
“I do. It must be an old Crystal keep. The Bearers were strange. Who needs a cellar within a cellar?”
The man’s wife holds the jewelry hanging in front of her with just her pointer finger and thumb. “Haughty as they were, I’m not surprised.”
I glance at her from the corner of my eye, then move closer to the cart to stay out of sight. A tiny, blown glass, brown-skinned figurine in sleek, silver-painted armor holds a sword made to look like a crystal one on the shelf before me. Jet-black glass hair flows from beneath his half-helm. Tiny glass gems are built into his hands. A Crystal Soldier. I pick him up and look into his dark blue eyes. Had I any brothers by blood, I imagine they would look like him.
“Did you hear that?” I whisper to him. “We’re ‘haughty.’”
“At any rate, shall I sell you anything?” the Sprite asks, and her pointed ears perk back hopefully.
“I don’t want any of their things in our house,” the woman says, wiping her hands on her coat.
I hold the little soldier closer with one hand, glad for the gloves hiding my own crystals as I pull my dark curls closer to my face with the other hand. If the three even notice me at all, they just see a small, brown-skinned Human girl whose features may be a bit long and hazel eyes a little too vivid but not strange enough to cause alarm. I wonder what the wife would think of the Crystalline Princess hiding in plain sight four feet away from her.
“Well, all right,” the husband says, albeit reluctantly. “Sorry we got your hopes up.”
“’Tis no trouble.” The hill-Sprite waves as they walk away. Then she turns toward me and jumps. “Oh, I didn’t see you, my lady. Do you like the little soldier? I believe there are a few more here.”
She climbs into her cart and returns a few seconds later, two fair-brown soldiers and another dark brown one in her hands. “They look to be a set. Which men are they?” She brings one soldier close to her face and looks at his shield. There is a tiny arrow facing the northwest on the shield of the soldier I’m holding.
“Ah, of course,” the hill-Sprite continues. “They are of Prince Deleon’s battalion. I say the Bearers were strange; howbeit, I love learning little things about them. This isle was Prince Deleon’s before his death. Did you know that?”
I nod. ’Tis my history, after all.
The hill-Sprite tilts her head. “You are very quiet. ’Tis why I didn’t notice you.”
“’Tis a rarity, trust me,” Cyan says from behind me. “We’ll take the set, thank you.”
The hill-Sprite hands Cyan her payment book for the Watch and then takes the soldier from me to wrap with the others. Cyan glances down at me as he signs his name.
“Are you all right?”
I can only ever enjoy the market for a few minutes before hearing the townspeople insult the Crystal Bearers. ’Tis why I hardly come out here. I answer my brother with a shrug. Cyan gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze and thanks the hill-Sprite as he trades the book for my soldiers. He hands the bag to me and guides me away.
“Let’s go home. Laris should be done hoarding.”
“I heard that, my brother.” Laris approaches us with our sack, now bulging with foods, and a small net filled with three milk bags.
We walk northward up the path, back to the Forest of Weeping Willows.
“Does anyone on Teorre speak well of my people?” I ask once we’re far enough away.
“Did someone say something to you?” Cyan asks.
“Don’t fret about it, Princess,” Laris says softly. “Those who can only speak ill of the dead will have the same words lain over their graves. ’Tis what my father says.”
My people had shut themselves away on the Northern Crystal Continent shortly after the end of the Crystal War, a civil war which left the Southern Crystal Continent uninhabitable and the Eastern Crystal Isle a tower of rocks and fog no one dares go near unless they want to crash their ships. I think of the little soldiers I hold. Perhaps they represent men who fought in the Crystal War. Perhaps one is Prince Deleon himself, one of the Twin Princes who started the war in the first place.
“Do we have a book on the Crystal War?” I ask Cyan.
“Somewhere. I’ll find it for you.”
Aterholt Manor grows over the horizon as we near it. The manor was once the Western Crystal Palace, home of the strange. When Cyan and I moved here, the manor had seemed so tall because of the hill beneath it. Yet, it still feels welcoming with its white walls and red clay roof instead of towers, domes, or crenellations. It has been our haven for eight years now. Counting each step to the front door helps me clear my head.
Once inside, I hand Cyan my bag of soldiers and coat before I walk through the northern doors to meet my nursemaid, Rienne, in the bathhouse. She looks at me with a smile as she prepares the wash bin for my clothes. She is one of five Sprityn nursemaids from the Isle Continent who have helped take care of me since I was a baby. If not for them, I would always forget that I am a Crystal Bearer. An evening at the market always reminds me that I’m different.
I peel away my knit sweater and skirt, and a small plop on the floor brings the fighting pages to my memory. I snatch them up and tuck them into my boot before Rienne sees. She takes my clothes, gloves, and foot cuffs as I climb into the water. The heat soothes my skin, and for a time, I simply rest while Rienne washes my clothes on the other side of the bathhouse.
As she hums Sprityn tunes to herself, my thoughts creep back to the couple at the market. I lift my hands out of the water. Droplets warp the refracted light as they slide down the large, round crystals embedded in my palms. With my gloves and cuffs on, I pass for Human, so understandably, the Humans and Sprites on this isle freely express their disdain of me around me. Many speak of the devastation caused by Crystal Soldiers during the Sprityn-Trollic Wars, how they used their volatile magics to destroy whole towns and villages, then disappeared to have their own war and get themselves killed. Reports say the Crystal War cut the population of the Crystal Bearers by three-quarters. And then the metal army came to finish the job.
And even knowing that, my people receive no sympathy.
I can no longer think about it. I take a deep breath and dip my head beneath the water to drown my thoughts. Only seconds pass, if not moments, but unease prickles my skin. Something is wrong. When I try to sit back up, a hand crushes my mouth and nose, pushing me back down. Shock overcomes me, and my lungs scream for air. My unease blossoms into a panic that makes the pain worse. I need to breathe, but I keep my lips tight against my instincts and swing at my attacker.
Footsteps pound closer and closer until Rienne’s hands grab mine, and she jerks me upright. Her large eyes are even larger now, their emerald hue glowing brighter as she prepares to heal me if needed.
“Princess, are you all right?”
I wipe the hair from my eyes and scan the bathhouse. We’re alone. Perhaps I’ve imagined it, but . . . I don’t know what just happened.
“I must have slipped.” ’Tis the only explanation if no one were here to push me down. “Thank you, Rienne. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Rienne puts a hand on her chest and nods before returning to the wash bin. I look around the bathhouse one more time and then wash up as quickly as possible.
I had to have imagined it.
Cyan drops off the book on the Crystal War and my package of soldiers as I prepare for bed. Nights like these, I console myself with the white willow parchment in my hands, the perfectly aligned handwriting of my father. Although I can recite the words from memory, I still read his short, cryptic words:
To the Western Scholar,
Please protect our daughter and keep her crystals covered. She needs the best chance outside of our borders. Ensure her protection no matter what.
Mataiu, Prince of the Crystal Bearers
He sent me here with this letter just before my first birthday. The previous Western Scholar of the Watch, tasked with maintaining and recording Crystalline history, had requested more information; howbeit, by then, my people were already dead.
I place the letter back in its worn envelope and return it to my drawer. Then I pull the little soldiers from the bag and stand them at the head of my desk, turning them toward the window to fight off imaginary monsters.
“We’re not strange,” I tell them. Then I pause. I’m talking to figurines, after all. “Well, not that strange.”
I climb into bed with the book on the Crystal War. The pure white walls of the Southern Crystal Palace stretch across the cover. According to rumors, the metal army rests on those grounds. I suppose the Contagion must be somewhere when they aren’t tearing down cities. I glance at the Oculus beside my door—“Crimson means the beasts are far”—then open the book.
The soft click of the Oculus wakes me after midnight. Its bulb brightens and flushes my room in gold. My heart pounds as I sit up. The low buzz of engines thrums in the air, but I try to will myself calm. Gold means Contagion are near, only near. The Oculus will change back. It has to.
That is what I tell myself. But it doesn’t have to at all. It remains gold as the engines come closer. I throw my covers off and scramble out of bed. I’m not waiting to see what the Oculus will tell me next.
As I run from my bedroom, blue light floods my peripheral, and a cold terror threatens to paralyze me.
Cyan scoops me into his arms before I even see him. He races toward the West Parlor, Laris only paces behind. Windows rush past us as the roof creaks and snaps beneath the weight landing on it. Plaster, clay, and beams fall with a heavy crash, and with them, a black mass that shakes the floor beneath us. I bite my lip to keep from screaming. Its back is to us, but it turns just as we enter the parlor.
Cyan dashes across the room to the wicker closet and sets me on my feet. The machine’s footsteps draw closer. Laris is already crouched and opening the trapdoor in the floor. He waves for me to climb down, and I eagerly obey.
“Laris, hurry,” I whisper once Cyan and I are both on the ground.
Laris pulls the door closed as he steps inside, his hand immediately moving to the latch to secure our hiding place. Before he can, heavy footsteps jar him from the ladder. I leap forward as he crumbles to the ground, and though Cyan pulls me back, I lurch out of his grasp and scramble back up the ladder. Air brushes my face from the unlatched door, lifted just high enough to be noticed.
Just as I pull it tight, silence replaces the thunderous footsteps above us. My entire body freezes. I grip the door so tightly my knuckles ache. I stare at it, hold my breath. Cyan and Laris must be doing the same; the silence is absolute.
It won’t find us. There is only a closet now. It can’t find us. It can’t.
I can’t stay there forever waiting for it to leave. I reach up with my other hand, slowly push the bolt into its cleats. I fear the machine may hear the scraping of metal on metal, which is all my terrified ears can hear now. Howbeit, as Cyan pulls me from the ladder, the footsteps above us resume and move farther away from us.
I exhale as Cyan sets me back on my feet, then guides me down the tunnel. My nursemaids, having escaped through the secret passage in the Eastern Parlor, are huddled together in the center of the cellar. Laris crosses the room in quick, silent strides to quiet their shaky whimpers and sniffles. I drop down on the edge of a cot and close my eyes.
This isn’t happening.
Fear, adrenaline, and dread form a lump in my throat that refuses to be swallowed. The layers of stone and plaster above us mute the blasts of the machines’ steam exhausts, but dust rains down on us with each tremor of something crashing or collapsing. The Contagion are destroying our home, and there is nothing we can do to stop them. I cry into my hands. The cot dips, and Laris’s arm comes around my shoulders.
We’re going to have to run again.
(C) 2020 Debra Renée Byrd. All rights reserved.