Transfixed by the streams of color that flagged the market stalls, Lorelei watched them ripple against the white-cloud dappled sky. Bright strips of cloth in red, yellow and blue flickered and cracked against the chilly autumn wind. The display of her father’s standard made the market faire visible for miles to the hundreds of travelers arriving in Rivenn from all over Leithe. Those flags weren’t even half as colorful as the bodies pressing in all around them, everyone in the city dressed in their brightest and finest, their faces rosy and grins wide as they flitted through the faire trading happy greetings.
Beneath the stifling weight of her mask, Lorelei smelled the fresh cinnamon apple tarts and ginger squash custard, roasted lamb and spiced beef and her mouth watered. Spun sugar treats so puffy on their wooden sticks they looked like little pieces of tan cloud fallen straight from the heavens. She could almost feel it melting on her tongue, its sticky sweetness tightening on her cheeks as she buried her face in the entire cloud.
Almost without her awareness, Lorelei’s feet headed in the direction of the sugar spinner’s stall as if she were transfixed by some otherworldly spirit, and then a forceful hand clamped down on her shoulder.
“I will not tell you again, Princess. If you do not stay beside me I will march the three of us back home, and you can forget about taking any of those treats with you.” Pahjah’s tight fingers unclenched, slid down her arm and grasped Lorelei’s tiny fingers inside her hand. Squeezing them, she jerked her forward and the girl stumbled as she quickened her pace to keep up.
“I want a glass apple, Pahjah,” Mirien whined, tugging their nurse in the opposite direction. “You promised.”
“Don’t be such a baby, Miri. We’ve only just got here, haven’t we?” Lorelei leaned out to glare at her little sister. Their masks hid both their faces, but Mirien could see her eyes, and that glare was enough to make her wince and cling to their nurse’s skirt for protection.
“Oh for the love of the Ladies.” Pahjah’s large black eyes raised to the sky as if in pleading prayer. “Don’t the both of you dare start with your bickering or…”
“Or else you’ll march the three of us all the way home,” Lorelei finished for her. She’d heard that threat at least a hundred times on the walk from the castle, along with the promise of a switching if the two girls didn’t behave and do exactly as they were told. “And you’ll take the switch to our backsides too, we know. We know.”
“Well then,” she gasped, surprised by her seven-year-old charge’s sass. “If you’re so smart, little lady, you should have no trouble following my instructions to the letter.”
Lorelei was pushing their luck, and she knew it, but she also knew Pahjah was more talk than action, and she’d been looking forward to their outing almost as much as the princesses. The autumn market faire was the last hoorah in Leithe before the cold winter winds swarmed in from the northern seacoast and imprisoned the people within their homes for the duration of the winter months. All her life she’d only been permitted to watch the market faire from the palace tower, a distant array of color, laughter and light and the smells lingered in the air for weeks after the faire’s end.
She’d overheard Pahjah trying to convince their father to let them attend. At first she’d gone the route of using the princesses as a glimpse of hope and show of good faith to a struggling population growing firm in their belief that their king no longer cared for their well-being, whatever that meant. A host of guards could accompany them and keep them safe, but that was out of the question.
King Aelfric’s voice boomed through the palace, reaching all the way to the east wing, or so Lorelei heard, but she’d been huddling in the shadows outside the courtroom, listening with crossed fingers, and she’d overheard her father’s every word.
“I will not have my daughters paraded through the market square like little targets. Do you have any idea how much danger that would put them in?”
“It was merely a suggestion, Sire.” From her vantage point in the shadows, Lorelei watched as Pahjah lowered her already submissive head until her chin rested against her chest. “I really feel it would provide the girls with a bit of cultural education, allowing them to walk among the people their father govern. One day it will fall to one of them to take the reins, and it would do them some good…”
“While making them open targets for my enemies. Tell me, Pahjah, what requirements have you to provide me with council?”
“None, Sire, I simply thought…”
“You simply thought to remind me of the darkness looming over my land, as if I could ever forget. The tension in Rivenn, nay, all of Leithe, is so heavy one could carve through it with a blade, and you would ask permission to walk my children through the thick of it. I think not.”
“It’s just… you so enjoyed the market faire when you were a boy, Sire. Do you remember? The two of us would walk amongst the people, unnoticed in your mask and costume.”
“My father’s time was not so complicated as mine, and you know that. There were no uprisings then.”
“But if the girls are in costume, no one would ever even know who they are, Aelfric.” The sound of that voice intervening surprised Lorelei. Her mother rarely spoke at all, especially not to disagree with her husband. Leaning out and around the corner to catch a glimpse of her father’s face, view of him was blocked by guards. She saw only his old hand perched upon the armrest of his throne, fingers twitching as if resisting the urge to drum impatiently upon the wood. “I think Pahjah is right about one thing. It would be a good education for the children, a firsthand look at the people who love and support their father.”
“Ygritte, now even you seek to conspire against me?”
“Of course not, my king. I would never… but is it truly too much to ask for our daughters to have a bit of fun before they’re forced to remain indoors for the winter months? The isolation drove poor Lorelei into fits last winter, making her nearly impossible to control.”
“Because Pahjah spares the rod and spoils that child. A good lashing would no doubt keep her in line this winter, were she to get out of hand.”
“Beatings, Aelfric? Is that really your answer to a restless child’s boredom? Did your father ever insist that Pahjah beat you to keep you in line? Honestly, you surprise me.” The scolding tone of her voice was enough to abash him, and for a fleeting second Lorelei actually caught a glimpse of her father’s face. He was frowning beneath the neatly trimmed hairs of his silver beard, his dark eyes downcast in shame. “An outing such as the market faire will give her just enough adventure to sate her wandering spirit, perhaps even provide both girls with imaginative games to keep them occupied when they’ve grown bored with their lessons this winter.”
Lorelei never got to hear her father relent to their conjoined efforts to change his mind. She leaned too far out of her shadowed nook and Nilsa the chamber maid caught her spying. She’d marched her straight back to the east wing of the palace, where she spent the next two hours crying because she’d have no dessert after supper. She didn’t hear it happen, but in the end Pahjah and her mother claimed victory over the king, and just a few seemingly never ending days later they would have all the sweeties they could stuff into their faces, and then some.
“Just think of it, Miri. Pahjah says people from all over Vennakrand come to the market faire in Leithe. The free elves and orc traders. Even the shape-shifters come, the U’lfer from the Edgelands, the Kivtaryn… Imagine if we got to see a real live cat person, or a werewolf. Real werewolves walking around our very own market faire. I wonder what they look like.”
“I don’t want to see any cat people.” Mirien shuddered beneath their heavy quilt and snuggled closer to her sister. “And don’t werewolves eat people? Pahjah says…”
“I bet they don’t eat people at all. Pahjah doesn’t know everything, you know.”
“Yes she does.”
“She does not. I want to wear a wolf costume to the faire. Maybe the U’lfer will think I’m one of them and carry me home to the Edgelands with them. Wouldn’t that be an adventure?”
She almost regretted that adventurous notion as beads of sweat trickled down her forehead beneath the heavy wolf mask perched upon her shoulders. It turned out to be an unseasonably warm, autumn afternoon and inside that heavy fur costume, Lorelei felt like she was suffocating. When a woosh of warmth followed a rising cheer of the crowd up ahead, Mirien’s squeals of excitement drew them toward the entertainment unraveling in the market square.
“Look, Pahjah, look!” she squeaked. “They’re throwing balls of fire into the air and catching them in their mouths.”
Following the point of her tiny hand before Pahjah could lower it and mutter about how rude it was to point, Lorelei grew equally mesmerized. A barrage of colorful, patchwork costumes swarmed into the square on stilts and shoes with wooden wheels that made the jesters glide. Juggling fire, blasting trumpets, the bells on their vibrant costumes tinkled and jangled with every movement.
“I’m going to learn to juggle fire.” Lorelei gasped.
“Is there no end to your restless spirit, girl?” The rare sound of her nurse’s laughter lightened her spirit, and the tight hand clasping hers loosened a little. “Fire-juggling is a dangerous business, my little lady, and it takes years and years of practice to get it right. Why, imagine if you set your clothes aflame?”
“I would be very careful, and practice outside in the snow, of course.”
“You are never very careful, child. Everything you do, you do with reckless abandon. No, I think not. Leave the fire juggling to the entertainers, I say. Mirien, what do you think you are you doing? Don’t wander off, or I will march the three of us straight home! Do you hear me?”
Pahjah’s fingers slipped from Lorelei’s as she darted off after her sister, and for a fleeting moment she stood alone amid the chaos of shuffling bodies. A round man whose belly hung over his belt bumped into her without notice, pushing her deeper into the crowd until body by body it swallowed her whole. She could hear Pahjah calling out to her, her name rising frantically above the chatter, but moving against the mass was like trying to swim upstream. They shuffled and maneuvered her among them like a calf stuck in the herd, and soon even the desperate holler of her nurse’s voice began to collide with the melee, swallowed almost completely by a host of vendors calling out their wares on her left.
“Glass apples, tart and sweet!”
“Fill your belly before the winter storms with a feast fit for a king!”
“Taste the clouds with Filtri’s Fluffy Spun Sugar wisps!”
“Candied wafers here! Get your candied wafers here!”
“Sweet breads! Sweet breads!”
A heavy foot tromped down on her shoe, wrenching it from her foot without notice, but the crowd moved so swiftly she couldn’t drop to pick it up. She hobbled backward, trying desperately to reach for it, but another boot kicked at her hand when she bent to retrieve her shoe. It shuffled further from reach, an army of muddy feet trampling it through the dirt, kicking it further and further away with every body.
“My shoe,” she cried, but no one heard her. They only kept kicking it along the road until Lorelei found herself edging along the outer rim of bustling bodies, hopping on one foot like a performer and hoping someone would at least kick it toward the ditch so she could retrieve it, but instead they only seemed to push it further and further away.
Soon she couldn’t see it at all, and hobbling toward the nearest stall, she balanced on one foot and tried to listen for the sound of Pahjah’s frantic voice.
“Are you lost little one?” A feminine, but smoky voice reached her only moments before the gentle hand of its owner fell upon her shoulder. “Where’s your shoe?”
“Someone stepped on it and I couldn’t catch it. I tried, but now it’s lost and I can’t find my nurse. She’s lost too, and I’m going to get a lashing when I find her. I just know it.”
All of those words left her before she had a chance to raise her eyes to the stranger over her shoulder, but even after she lifted her head the dense mask she wore slipped down her sweaty face. Reaching with trembling hands, she nudged it upward again and lifted her eyes to the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.
A cloud of brilliant red hair framed her milk-white face, and the eyes staring back at her were the most vibrant shade of citrine flecked with bursts of bright orange and black.
Those eyes—they were savage and raw, filled with something Lorelei couldn’t quite wrap her mind around, and she knew she should have been afraid, but there was something soft and compelling about the woman that assuaged her fears before they could even rise to the surface.
She felt like… a kindred spirit. Yes, she felt like someone Lorelei already knew. Maybe because she hadn’t known many people in her short lifetime with hair like hers, hair the color of fire, her mother always said.
“I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.” She dropped her hand from Lorelei’s shoulder and scanned the crowd of faces milling by. “But I get the feeling your shoe is as good as gone.”
Staring down at her exposed toes, she wiggled them and then sighed. Pahjah was going to do more than whip her; she would probably kill her. The terror of that realization must have been plain on her face because the the beautiful woman offered her a smile.
“You will be easier to find if you stay in one place. Come,” she gestured with her head toward the green striped tent-stall behind her. There was an eye painted into the center of an open palm on the sign swaying from the post out front; the seer’s sign. As if she recognized the child’s revelation, the woman smiled at her and said, “I don’t have any sweeties, but I can read your future, Princess.”
Swallowing hard against the rising ache of fear tightening in her throat, Lorelei raised a wary glance to the woman. She’d called her princess; that meant she knew who she was. No one at the market faire was to know who they were. It was too dangerous, her father said. His enemies would go after his children to get to him.
Was that woman an enemy? She didn’t look like one. She was beautiful and mysterious, enchanting and brilliant. Her red hair wild and free and her golden hazel eyes shimmered with mischief, briefly flashing a feral hint at what lurked beneath her skin.
She was U’lfer—a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and for a flicker of a moment Lorelei was once again afraid. That was how Pahjah referred to the shape-shifting humanoids that walked among them, practically indeterminable from humans, there were no distinct attributes that made them stand for what they were: wolves.
The wolf in front of her seemed to grin as she realized Lorelei guessed her secret, and then reaching out to touch her cheek, she whispered, “Yes, little one, I know who you are.” Chills trembled through the child’s body, making her feel cold and dizzy inside the costume she wore. “But have no fear. I’ve no intention of harming you. Your secret identity is safe with me, Lorelei.”
Lifting a skeptical eye to the woman urging her into the colorful tent, she wasn’t sure how she even knew she was a wolf. Lorelei had no way of actually knowing what a werewolf was supposed to look like. She’d never seen one save for crass pictures sketched into the books in the palace library, and in her dreams from time to time, but with little else to go on she’d always assumed they were more beast than man. There was nothing savage about the kindly woman who offered to read her future, except, perhaps, for her eyes, and that was what had given her away.
The adventurous part of her wanted to dash into that tent and hear her future, but there was a little voice inside her that sounded very much like Pahjah, and it warned her to run away, to slip back into the safety of the crowd and let them carry her away from that tent, that woman who wasn’t really a woman at all, but a wolf.
“I am not going to hurt you,” the seer said. “I promise.”
“But… you… are you a monster?”
Her sharp, intense stare shimmered with amusement, and Lorelei swore she saw the beast within rise once more to the surface to confirm her fears.
“No,” she shook her head and chuckled. “Not a monster. I’m just a woman who used to walk the world on all fours, and I was blessed enough to hear the voice of the gods. Are you afraid to hear what the gods have to say, Princess?”
Lorelei gulped again. She tried to distract herself from the thumping drum of her own heart, which was suddenly the only thing she could hear. Even the vast voice of the crowd at her back disappeared beneath that drumming. All her life she’d listened to what the gods had to say, but only through the voices of the priests and priestesses at the palace temple. The priesthood did not commune directly with the gods, only passed on what was written in the tomes, and they called women like the one in front of her savage blasphemers for daring to suggest the gods actually spoke to them.
“No.” She shook her head almost furiously, hoping the movement would dislodge the pounding from her ears. “I’m not afraid.”
“I didn’t think you would be.” The woman grinned, the feral reality rising once more in her eyes. “Come inside, and I will tell you not only what the gods want you to hear, but what your people need for you to hear.”
The air within the seer’s tent was heavy with the smell of burning charcoal and incense, and though the overwhelming scent immediately reminded her of temple, the perfume was vastly different. It made her eyes sting and tear and her nose felt as stuffy as if she had a winter cold. Tendrils of smoke billowed from the censers, spiraling toward the ceiling and joining with the thick cloud already mingling overhead.
There was a small, round table with two chairs facing each other, and in the center of that table was a blue velvet bag. A worn set of painted cards fanned out across the space beneath that bag in a dark but colorful display of images the likes of which Lorelei had never seen.
“What’s inside that bag?” she asked.
“The bones of Llorveth.” The woman circled around the edge of the table and gripped the back of the chair before tugging it out and sitting down. “Do you know of Llorveth?”
“He is the Lord of the Wild Hunt.”
“Yes, Llorveth is the father of my people, our people.” She nodded, and then with a graceful hand she gestured toward the empty chair opposite her. “The spirit of Llorveth guides and speaks to the U’lfer, and I, Rhiorna, am his listener. For many years he has whispered of you, his lost wolf among the restless sheep. Do you wish to hear what he has to say to you, Lorelei of Leithe, Daughter of Rognar and Ygritte?”
“My… my father’s name is Aelfric,” she insisted, still lingering at the edge of the chair. “He is the king.”
“That is the first truth Llorveth would have you hear. The name of your father,” she paused a moment, the dainty nostrils flaring wide as she drew breath in through her slightly upturned nose. “Your true father was slain by the silver sword of the king who’s claimed you as his own daughter, and his name was Rognar and he was my brother.”
“I don’t understand.” The words felt strange and cold inside, her child’s mind grappling desperately with a truth she was too young to understand. She could feel the world around her spinning and spinning, and when she shook her head she nearly lost her footing because she felt so dizzy and strange. “Aelfric is my father.”
“No,” she shook her head, the furious waves of her brilliant hair whipping around her face like fire. “But you must go on believing that lie until the time is right. It is Llorveth’s wish, so when you leave this place you will forget my face, my voice, the silent burden of truth our god has given you to carry. Inside, you will know that you are more than this,” she held her hands out to the tent, but her fingers wavered, and Lorelei’s eyes felt blurry, her head strange. “Know that truth must remain buried deep until the three moons rise over the Edgelands and the hounds of deceit chase you home to your people, for one day you will lead them to salvation.”
Lorelei couldn’t breathe, and her head felt like it was floating away from her, drifting off her shoulders and into the clouds of smoke that hovered near the shadowy crest of the tent. She felt like she was spinning in a field of cotton flowers, arms out as the clouds in the sky above her swirled and swirled into a gaping vortex. She was going to be fly away if she didn’t find her feet, soar into the infinite blue, into the warmth of the sun where she would swim in its fire forever. Somewhere in the distance she heard a familiar voice calling out her name. Frantic with worry, the pitch rang in Lorelei’s ears, making her feel sick in her stomach.
“You must go now, little wolf, but know that we will meet again. I will be waiting for you to come home.”
“Lorelei!” The terrified sound of Pahjah’s voice stirred her from the trance-like state that held her swaying on her feet within the crowd.
She felt cold, as if her very blood had turned to ice inside her veins, and the colorful swarm of eager bodies that pressed in around her didn’t even seem to notice she was there. There… where was there? A heavy hip shoved her backward, and it was all she could do to keep her legs from giving out beneath her. If she fell they would trample her into the mud, never even look down as their feet pounded her tiny body into the earth until it was broken. The panic of being lost gripped her so tight she could barely breathe.
“Lorelei, where are you, child? Answer me!”
“Pahjah.” Her own voice sounded so small and helpless as she croaked out that single word in a desperate plea to be found.
“There you are!” The hand that grabbed her was not unkind, but it squeezed into her shoulder like a desperate claw, jerking her back to the safety of the moment. “Where were you? I was worried sick, girl! I’ve been looking everywhere. And where’s you shoe? I swear, you children will be the death of me.”
She threw her arms around her nurse and squeezed so tight it hurt her chest and arms, but she didn’t care. She didn’t know why, but she never wanted to leave the comfort of Pahjah’s loving embrace again.
“Oh Pahjah,” she whimpered. Tears flooded her cheeks beneath the stifling mask she wore. “I was so lost,” she cried, burying her face deeper into Pahjah’s skirt, “so afraid.”
“I’ve got you now, little one. You’ve been found, and there’s nothing to fear.”
Her sister hugged them too, and for a moment the three of them just stood there among the bustling crowd clinging to one another as if for dear life.
“I think Lorelei needs a glass apple to make her feel better, Pahjah.” Mirien began to withdraw, and though Lorelei couldn’t see anything but her eyes peering back from behind the masks that hid the royal children from the world, she knew her sister was smiling. “Could we get glass apples, now, Pahjah? Please?”
“Of course we can.” Pahjah laughed, the sound catching in her throat as if she were choking back tears. She stepped back and lowered a hand to each of them.
Lorelei gripped tight, squeezing Pahjah’s fingers and swearing to herself she would never let go again.
As they slipped back into the crowd, she lifted her eyes toward the tent, toward a beautiful woman with hair like fire and the most wild eyes she’d ever seen. The woman smiled at her, nodded her head once, and then she slipped back inside her tent.
Edgelanders is coming to print in paperback and electronic formats in February 2014! Stay tuned to the site for details.
Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Melzer
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