Jenn Polish © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The night hangs over us, in us, and I shiver a little in the cold. Even in the safety of my disguise, I swallow loudly. Lerian shoots me a look, pawing snow away from the packed dirt of the Tread with her front hoof. We both stare at the ground ahead of us, our ears straining for the signal that will indicate that we can proceed with our plan. We only have until the moon starts setting to infiltrate and sabotage the monarchy’s weapons shipment. A small thumping ahead of us, in the clearing where the caravan has curled in on itself, gives us the sign we’re waiting for.
“No need to hang back anymore, you two,” Osley tells us through the beating of quer paws. “Sadie, the freeze spell worked. Come see.”
Lerian meets my eyes before I reach down to receive permission from the grass for us to move forward. Her hooves and my feet barely make a sound as we slip across the thick layer of snow past the first wagon and the first pair of magically frozen guards. I pause to pat one lightly on the shoulder. He won’t wake—not as long as my growns are holding their freeze spell on the encampment—but in this weather, the small dribble of drool on his chin will be stuck to his face when we’re done here.
Osley stamps quer feet impatiently, quer long rabbit ears twitching with irritation, as Lerian bends way down to move the other guard’s temporarily stiff fingers into a position that would for sure offend Mom.
“Do I seriously look like them?” I whisper.
“Yep. Spitting image. With your wings tucked away, Sadie, you look exactly like a non.” I arch an eyebrow at the way she so casually refers to humans as nons: non-faeries, non-centaurs. Non-Grovian. Not like us. Except, I kind of am like nons, too. Ler pauses to consider me, running her fingers through her reddish hair. “Except probably you’re uglier.”
I roll my eyes and suppress a grin, not bothering to remind her that the front half of centaurs’ bodies pretty much look like nons too.
Osley’s thumps grow more insistent. “Sadie, we’re on a mission. Get Lerian over here.”
“All right, all right, we’re coming.”
I give Lerian a sharp tug, and we follow Osley as que leaps toward the heart of the coiled wagons. The air itself is crystallized with particles of dirt and flakes of snow, all hanging suspended around us, like bubbles floating in the ocean. There’s a fire pit in the middle of the encampment, but it, too, is still, with flames frozen in midcaress of the tree flesh it consumes, still midspark, midcrackle. The closer we get, the harder it is to breathe. The freeze spell has the Energies so deeply entangled it feels like walking through nectar. I limp even deeper than I usually do when I’m forced to walk.
A sharp smack from behind the fire pit makes our cautious steps turn into an awkward run and a graceful gallop. We round a bend in the encampment’s wagons to see Mom and Mama, hovering over two chained faeriesand their frozen non guards.
The faerie prisoners look like they’re from the Samp, a marshy province a few days’ journey from the Forest. The Sampians don’t look much older than Lerian and me. They’re nears, like us, but their wings are hidden away inside metal clamps, their necks connected by a piercing necklace. Their ankles and wrists, too, are chained together, and they’ve been propped up back to back, to sleep outside on the snow while most of the guards are around the fire or tucked into the relative warmth of their wagons.
One of the Sampians is flailing around, the chains from his wrists and ankles tugging on his fellow prisoner, threatening to both topple her over and whip her with their force. Mama’s webbed hand is on her cheek. She looks like she’s just gotten smacked—with flesh or metal, I can’t tell. My stomach is as shaky as my bare fingers.
One of the prisoners is reaching out to Mama, apologizing for her partner-in-chains, crying softly, explaining that he can’t help it, that it’s not his fault.
Mama dodges another blow. Both of his eyelids are closed, relaxed, but his body is the opposite. Mom is trying to calm him, like she tries to calm me when I…My heart threatens to fall out of my throat. He’s sleeping, yet he’s moving about in his chains like…
I step closer, in a daze, my attention on nothing but the Sampian boy. His wings are in those clamps, so he can’t move them except by thrashing his entire back around. To compensate, he’s flapping his golden brown arms about, as much as his chains will let him, just like a sparrow does when she’s taking flight. Soon enough, the motion of his arms evens out, like they’re catching the wind underneath them, rising…
I don’t realize I’ve stopped breathing until all my breath bursts out of me in one massive, cloudy white exhale, staying in the freeze spell instead of dissipating like it normally would. I step through the cloud so my attention doesn’t have to leave the sight in front of me. My mouth is desert dry.
The imprisoned Sampian can Dream. Like me.
No wonder he’s in chains.
Without even turning around, Mom calls back to me, “Sadie, don’t.” Don’t act as if I’ve just found my kin. Don’t act as if I’ve just seen, for the first time since I was a young one, another near, a nearly grown person, who sleeps as I do. Who hasn’t been Sliced.
I grind my teeth at the thoughts of Slicings—when they cut into the skull of newly born faeries, nons, and centaurs, and inject dragon blood into our brains. Sometimes, it kills us right then and there from so-called complications. Always, it stops us from ever Dreaming. From ever forming the connections we need to with our hatchling trees and dragons. From ever connecting with any of the lives across Lunav beyond our own.
I clear my throat and bend over to help Mama twist the Energies, already so stiff around us from the freeze spell, to unlock the chains around the Sampian who’s awake. When she notices me, she jolts back like she’s been burned, her thin golden eyes wide with terror.
Mama grimaces and holds up her own hands, showing the Sampian girl the webbing between her fingers, the way she flies horizontally with her stomach facing the ground, instead of upright, like Grovians.
“Look, it’s all right. I’m Sampian too. This is my daughter. She’s Grovian. Her wings are hidden under her cloak,” she says in Sampian faeric. The girl continues to stare at me. I look away. Lerian, shuffling behind us awkwardly, doesn’t even scoff. For once.
Osley hops between the girl and me, thumping out a message urgently. “Mara, these are the people I told you about on the Tread this sunup. These are the people the Grove has sent to help you sabotage the weapons shipment. To help you escape. It’ll be all right.”
The girl—Mara—sighs and glances toward her companion. Mom’s started to rouse him from his sleep, from his Dream. I wouldn’t wish a bad Dream on anyone, but I hope it wasn’t a great Dream, either. Waking from those is never exactly fun. Then again, it seems he was Dreaming some sort of bird, so compared to his chains… I look away and focus on Mara.
“Blame my moms. They made me tuck my wings away tonight so in case we got caught, I could pass as a non and maybe escape. I don’t usually look this—” I glance over my shoulder at Lerian and grin. “—ugly.”
Mara just bites the inside of her cheek. She turns to the boy and touches her webbed hands to the back of his neck, right above the chained collar. He jerks awake, eyes wide and pained. His breathing is ragged and shallow, and when his wild brown eyes find mine, he almost lets out a scream. Mama puts a gentle but urgent hand over his mouth.
“I’m sorry, so sorry, but you’re safe, and so is your secret. This is my daughter; she’s a faerie. We’re resistance, and we’re here to help.” He twists his neck and finds Mara’s eyes. She nods in the Sampian way, tilting her head all the way down to her right shoulder, confirming my mom’s words. He closes his eyes again, and even though I don’t know him, I can still tell what he’s doing. He’s willing himself back into the life of that bird. Willing himself to Dream again. But it won’t come back. They never do on command. Dreams only come when we’re in our deepest rest, when our Energies are most primed to be utterly synced with someone else, someone awake. After a moment, the boy sighs and opens his eyes again.
“You’re here to help us sabotage the weapons, right?” He turns his gaze down to Osley. Que shakes quer hind legs at him in confirmation, and Mom and Mama set about twisting the Energies to ease Mara and the boy out of the rest of their chains. They clank to the ground and force soft tufts of freshly fallen snow up into the air. The clumps of white just hang there, suspended.
“H-how’s it doing that?” the boy asks as he rubs his wrists, his neck, and sweeps his wings up eagerly, stretching them and sighing in relief.
“You never heard of a freeze spell?” Lerian asks as she tugs him to his feet, the boy’s thick sunset-red wings still crumpled from the clamps.
He stares around at the still guards blankly expanding the gill flaps on his neck. “Wish we could do ourselves a freeze spell,” he mutters to Mara. “How long will it last?”
Mom hovers in closer, seeming relieved that we can get started and do what we came here to do. “Long enough. But we’re gonna have to get going. Can you conjure any magic?”
“We can’t do anything like that freeze thing you did, but we can put some impurities into these weapons for sure,” Mara says before grabbing the boy and pulling him in for a deep, hands-everywhere kiss.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I study my feet intently. Lerian bends down to pack some snow into her fist, and Osley’s long ears press down into quer gray-speckled white fur. Mom bows her head, touches her forehead to Mama’s, and flies off toward one of the transport wagons, letting out a deep whistle into the disturbed Energies. That’ll be the signal for the others surrounding the enclosure to come and help her sabotage her chosen wagon, full of palace weapons.
Mama gestures for the rest of us to accompany her into another wagon. She peeks inside its Izlanian buffalo-skin covering before nodding at us—no nons are sleeping in this wagon. It’s just for weapons. Perfect.
I wiggle my fingers, preparing them to twist the already tensed Energies, which will work imperfections into the weapons they’re shipping to the Samp. My stomach churns as the buffalo skin brushes my shoulders when we crowd into the wagon, swords and arrows and axes scattered around in skin bags, hanging from the skin walls. I catch eyes with the Sampian boy, who’s slipped into the wagon behind me, still flexing his wings like he can’t quite believe they’re free of their clamps. I wonder if he’s ever Dreamed an Izlanian buffalo.
I look away quickly so he won’t see the question in my eyes. I know his secret. That doesn’t mean he has to know mine.
“Know what to do, all?” Mama asks as she tenses her arms, conjuring a fire out of the freeze. It hovers in midair in front of her. Ler and I nod, and Os stamps quer feet on the dead tree floor. The Sampian boy just tilts his head and grabs a sword off the skin wall. He sticks it into the fire, warming it so we can magick invisible impurities into it.
I follow suit, tossing arrows from their quivers onto the floor for Osley. Que starts chewing away, making slight adjustments in the arrows that will make them snap under tension, downing them on release from their bows. A genius at this sort of thing, que is. Quer black eyes are steely as que works. I wonder if que’s thinking of the non hunters who shot quer family with arrows like these.
“So name what yours is?” Lerian asks my fellow Dreamer in terrible Sampian faeric. She never was great at language learning pods.
“Leece,” he tells us quietly. Lerian puts her forehead to Mama’s before grabbing two swords at a time from the racks on the skin walls. I yank at the Energies to make a fire of my own, and Leece sticks a metal axe into it. We work in silence except for the crackling of the floating fires and the steady clicking of Osley’s teeth on wooden arrows.
“So,” Leece starts after a while, his attention carefully fixed on the axes he’s holding, now one in each hand. They’re glowing as red as his wings, and I’m sweating with the effort of pulling the Energies to magick impurities into the slightly melted parts. They’ll still look sharp, but they’ll be blunt and brittle in a battle. Or another massacre.
“You’re half non, huh?”
I nod in the Sampian way, not taking my focus off the axes or the swirls of purple and blue haze flowing from my fingertips into the reddened metal. Lerian nudges me, gesturing for me to pass her another sword. I grab one off the rack next to me.
“Ever gotten with a non with your wings tucked away like that?” he asks.
I drop the sword. Lerian swears and reaches for it, but Mama stills it magically, yanking the Energies hard enough so the blade stops just above my thigh.
“Thanks,” I breathe in relief, picking it up and passing it to Lerian. I look up at Leece, and the ghost of a playful grin is on his thin lips. I glance down at Osley with an arched eyebrow. Lerian’s glowering at the Sampian boy, but Osley contents querself with a twitch of quer ears.
“If by ‘gotten with’ you mean gotten information out of them for the resistance, yeah. The one good thing my non looks have done for me,” I tell him.
I change the subject. “So are you and Mara…a thing?”
Leece’s wings flutter happily above him, and Mama sucks her teeth as she pushes his wings away from the sword racks. The gill flaps on his neck close, like Mama’s do whenever Mom makes her blush.
“Mmhmm! I spent growing time in the Highlands, near the palace. I got sold away from my family, yes?”
Mama flinches. I know she’s thinking about Mom. She glances at me. I dodge her gaze.
“Mara’s growns are negotiators. They took her on one of their trips. An extended stay. A whole season. She spent most of her time in the kitchens with me.” He’s grinning, his eyes wide.
“But she how did end up… well… you with?” Lerian asks, balancing an axe in the flames for Mama to magick. Mangled grammar aside, we all know what she means. Captive.
I elbow her in the flank.
“What? It’s the obvious question,” she mutters to me in Forest faeric.
Leece’s smile evaporates and Osley, below us, stops chewing at the arrows. “Her parents kept catching us together. At first, they thought she’d get over it. Move on. She didn’t.” His voice stays moss soft the whole time through, but it’s injected with bitterness as he goes on. “They disowned her. Left her to be bought by the same nons that bought me. At least we’ve gotten to spend time together. But then the nons needed someone who knew the land, to ship these weapons. Sampians who’ve lived in servitude are apparently the best guides through the Grove, so…here we are.”
I glance at Osley, who’s gnawing away at the arrows again, but apologetically. I don’t know what to say.
Mama clears her throat. “Faye—Sadie’s other mother—was taken from the Grove when she was very young. Worked for a non man. He treated her like he owned her.”
Lerian and I both freeze, but our immobility has nothing to do with my growns’ Energy-twisting spell. I only ever hear this kind of hardness in my mother’s voice when she talks about the non whose tree-flesh home I was born in. But I’ve never heard her be so direct about it.
I gulp uncomfortably. Lerian scrapes one of her hooves onto the wagon’s dead-tree floor. Osley hops closer to me and lingers right near my feet, arrow between quer teeth. Quer body heat slows my heart rate.
Leece’s eyes darken. His wings tense reflexively and his neck gills expand, refusing to blend into his skin, looking like the scales they are.
Mama touches his left wing with her blue one softly; their tips curl around each other eagerly, with a dexterity Forest faerie wings usually don’t have. A look passes between them that’s so intense I lower my eyes. Faeries tend to be big on nonverbal communication, but I can’t tell what they’re telling each other with their movements, their Energies. I don’t think I want to know.
We all continue working, sweat beading on my forehead with the contained heat of the magicked fires, with the intensity of the twisting of the Energies needed to maintain both the fires and the freeze.
Purple, blue, and silver jets thread from my and Mama’s russet-brown fingers to bleed themselves into the metals Lerian and Leece are holding, rendering the palace weapons useless. The strong silence is only broken by the sounds we make. The consistent chatter of Osley’s teeth interacting with the dead-tree bits of the arrow shafts fills the wagon. The pauses as que artfully contemplates quer next maneuver ring out loudly. We whisper to each other without speech, passing deadly weapons between us as we transform them into props.
I lose track of time, focusing only on the axes Leece burns in front of me and melting them just enough for me to magick impurities into them. They will not work in battle, but they’ll look and feel just fine.
I wonder which of the king’s soldiers, his Hands, will use these weapons. Will they be killed when their swords inexplicably crack, when their arrows snap and collapse? If yes, are we different than the nons who kill us? Than the nons who planned the dragon massacres?
Am I a killer now too?
Sweat drops from my forehead into the fire and sizzles.
I yank at the Energies to pour impurities into the axes so hard that Leece stops rotating them to stare at me.
“Sorry,” I mutter. I want to ask him about Dreaming. I don’t.
Without warning, my mom gasps, her breath rattled and forced.
Then I feel it too, and from the way Leece doubles over and almost singes his eyebrows on the magicked fire, I can tell it’s having the same effect on him. The unwinding of the Energies is beginning.
Lerian and Osley look at the three of us, concern and confusion written all over their centaur and rabbit features. “I think the freeze spell is wearing off. We have to hurry,” I tell them, and Mama tilts her head in a Sampian nod.
In a flurry of limbs and muttered apologies, we get the swords and axes back onto their racks and the arrows into their quivers. The buffalo-skin flap of a door bursts forward just as we’re finishing, and a flurry of orange wings and pale sand skin tangles around Leece’s body. His normal stance—his body hanging horizontally under his wings, facing the ground—is pushed upright as Mara yanks him into a deep embrace.
“Come on, you two,” Mom’s voice comes from behind them. Her Sampian accent is so perfect it reminds me how important it must have been to her to learn the language Mama grew up speaking. “You’ll have plenty of time for this when we get you out of here.”
She tugs them out of the wagon, looking askance at the enclosure’s perimeter to make sure the soldiers guarding it aren’t slipping out of the freeze yet.
“We’re not going with you,” Mara tells Mom, her face still pressed into Leece’s bony shoulder.
“What?” Four voices ring out at once in as many languages.
Osley hops forward, slamming quer feet into the snow. “We agreed that we would sabotage the weapons with you and then set you free. We agreed, and we will, we must. We can get you passage out of the Grove, we can—”
Leece untangles himself from Mara’s arms and hovers down low to the ground so he can run his hands over Osley’s quivering fur.
“We have to stay, don’t you get it? You have to lock us back up. If we escape, they’ll know their weapons are compromised. We’re so close to the Forest, they’ll blame you and the Underlanders.” He gestures up at Lerian. “They wanted guides to lead them to the Samp. We’re going to lead them through our murkiest parts. Slow them down as much we can.”
“Sadie.” Leece flies up to my level now, which isn’t that high since I’m grounded, my wings still hidden under my cloak. My left foot throbs beneath me, and my throat swells. “You can too, can’t you?” He doesn’t say it, but I know. We both do.
I blink, my heart slamming hard. Is it that obvious?
“I saw the way you were looking at me when I woke. Like you knew. So you understand, don’t you? Why we have to stay?”
Lerian steps forward, and I hold out a hand to stop her without breaking eye contact with Leece. Since I told her about my Dreaming in the aftermath of the attack that killed Jax’s joiner, she’s guarded the secret fiercely. But now’s not the time.
I grind my teeth and glare up at Leece. He’s right—of course I know. I’ve Dreamed the consequences of people being caught by the palace for lesser crimes than fleeing captivity. So has Leece. I nod and turn away.
The snowflakes floating statically in front of my foggy eyes move again. The guards will be waking soon.
I don’t watch as Mom and Mama move forward to help Leece and Mara back into their chains. Mama whispers that she’s magicked the chains so they won’t hurt as much; Mom embraces Mara and cries. Even Lerian turns away at the sound of Mara and Leece kissing one more time before their wing clamps force them to face away from each other.
I can’t take it. I can’t.
He’s like me, and he’s locked up for it. He’s like me, and he’s probably going to get caught, to die. I start running.
“Sadie!” Lerian whisper-shouts, but she doesn’t gallop after me.
Mama restrains her. “Let her run it off. She’ll be safe enough with her wings tucked away.”
I’m grateful for them letting me alone, and I relish the sprint up the Tread, toward the Lunavic River. The snowfall burns my exposed face like small, cold needle pricks. Even the burning in my foot is starting to feel good. Anything to get away from Leece and Mara letting themselves be locked back up so we don’t get found out.
Anything to get away from a fellow Dreamer, in chains and in love.
I’m grateful for the space, for the air, for the pain.
Until the scream rents a hole into my chest and threatens to snap my bones into pieces. Until the scream that will change everything.