A Kingdom of Exiles – S.B. Nova

Rain clung to the earthen floor of the forest as a light mist and white petals from the Mourning Roses scattered the edges of the grave. My eyes fixed to the willow casket where Mama’s body now lived. Heavy grunts filled the air as several men from the village lowered her slowly into the ground. She was being laid to rest beneath the ancient elder tree—it was our place. Then the keening and whispered prayers started around me. I was six years old. Papa had explained it: death meant leaving and never coming back. But Mama had been the brightest of all flames, nothing could keep her from returning, so I didn’t cry as the casket hit the bottom of that deep dark hole. Papa squeezed my hand. I looked up to see tear tracks marking his face. My heart twisted. He never cried. Yet here he was, his hand shaking as my mother’s best friend, Viola, sobbed as she threw dirt atop Mama’s grave. Didn’t they understand? Didn’t they know she was coming back? Papa crouched so that his watery eyes were level with mine. “It’s time to go, Poppet.

Mama’s resting now.” He tucked a strand of loose black hair behind my ear. Only a few days ago, Mama had named a new color after it: raven’s wing. I shook my head and bit my lip. “I don’t want to leave her alone.” Papa grimaced and swept me up into his arms—his broad chest shuddering as he carried me away—leaving Mama in the barren, cold earth alone. My gaze closed on the grave and a raging beast awoke in my chest, clawing and fighting its way to the surface. I let out a strangled scream and beat against Papa’s shoulders with tiny fists. But he wouldn’t turn. He wouldn’t go back.

I had no other choice—I’d have to return and free her tonight. When Papa slept, I’d come back for her. I waited, impatient for the shadows to fall and the distant light of the stars to flicker to life. A bright, full moon shimmered above, one that would help illuminate the path through the trees. So, when I finally crept downstairs and out the front door I didn’t bother taking a lantern, knowing it would only draw the dark things that prowled the night. I did wrap up warm in knitted gloves, a scarf, and a hat. That was the first thing I learned out here in the remote parts of the Gauntlet—the winter could freeze me solid if I wasn’t careful. As soon as I was out in the open, I ran into the forest and that deadly cold. My breath came rushing out in large puffs of steam, my chest seized with icy air, but I didn’t slow down. Mama had been alone for too long.

The canopy thickened enough that the moon’s glow dimmed to a sullen light and I stumbled, scraping my knees against the gnarled roots. I bit down on my lip to stop a sob breaking free and pushed myself up. I had to keep moving. The grave site wasn’t far. Papa had broken with village tradition and laid Mama in her favorite hollow instead of the local boneyard. There. I spotted the ancient tree where Mama was buried; it had been blown free of snow and now lay bare and black. I’d know it anywhere. Skidding to a halt, I craned my head left and right. The hole wasn’t there.

Instead, there was just a mound of freshly turned dirt. I plunged toward it, clawing at the frigid ground. I made little progress, but I kept going until my cheeks were glazed over with frozen tears and my voice cracked with sob after sob. “Give her back,” I wailed. “Give her back!” I wept and pleaded and beat at the hard earth until I was numb and only stopped when I couldn’t hold my head up; my cheek found the unforgiving ground. If the old gods and the earth didn’t want to give her back, I’d stay until they realized I needed her more than they. A fresh snowfall whirred lazily overhead and kissed my face. No sound pitched the air. The whole sorry world seemed dead and still, and I didn’t fight when it faded from view. I awoke to the sound of someone shouting my name.

My eyes opened and dislodged the remnants of a snowmelt. A buttery shaft of sunlight had filled the hollow, warming me a little. “Serena!” I tried to cry out, but it came out as a hoarse whisper. “Papa?” I coughed. My lungs were on fire and my head pounded. Before I could riddle out what was wrong, I sank back into darkness. Raised voices snapped me from the dreamworld. I blinked and realized I was back in my bedroom. The door was open a crack, enough to hear the conversation happening downstairs. “What are you trying to tell me?” Papa sounded furious.

He never got like that. “She has a wicked fever—she may not make it. If you’d just let me bleed her …” It was Dr. Fagan. I recognized his voice from when he passed out sweeties to the other children in town. Mama hated him and called him more of a butcher than a doctor. “You’re not touching her,” Papa hissed. “My wife didn’t approve of your methods, and neither do I.” A loud, reedy sniff answered. “If your wife had listened to my advice, she might be alive and not tormenting that poor girl with her spirit.

” “Get out of my house before I do something I regret,” Papa demanded. I tried to climb out of bed to continue eavesdropping, but my body wouldn’t respond to my commands. I was still in the fever’s grip and too weak to even raise my slender arms. Dr. Fagan continued, “Let me bring someone who honors the old gods to the grave. He could drive out the evil spirits that linger.” A hot flush of anger flooded me. Mama was no evil spirit. “If you won’t walk out, I’ll throw you out.” I shivered when I recognized that warning tone.

Papa never used it on me, reserving it only for men in the village who’d leered at Mama or tried to cheat him at the forge. The front door slammed shut causing the glass in my window to rattle something fierce. I shut my eyes when I heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. The creaking of a door, a shuffling sound, and then a cool cloth bathing my forehead. I tried to be strong, but failed to stop a pitifully weak groan from escaping. “It’s just you and me now, Beansprout. Mama’s gone for good, and you freezing to death won’t bring her back, do you hear me?” Papa’s voice broke on the last word. Shame and grief churned; my chest ached so badly I thought I’d burst. “You must live, Sprout … for me.” I couldn’t hold it in anymore.

Two shuddering gasps, then the tears rolled. “We’ll be fine,” he breathed. Papa sat on the edge of the bed and touched his forehead gently against mine. He repeated those three words into the night, as if they were a spell that could put everything right. How could they, when there would be no more falling asleep on her lap while she knitted by the fire, or licking the bowl after she’d baked something yummy, or listening to her gossip with Viola? That was gone forever. And so, I now realized, was she. CHAPTER 1 E THE BLA CKSM ITH’ S DA U G HTE R very year on my birthday, I walked to her grave to kneel and remember. Always alone. Nearly everyone had forgotten my mother, my father included, but not me. My eighteenth birthday dawned bright and clear on the last day of winter.

Slipping out of Father’s cabin, I paused to pull my overcoat tighter. The worst of the cold season may have been over, but the forest still clung to its fearsome chill. Taking the crisp air into my lungs I set off, savoring the opportunity to stretch my legs. Not three paces on, an old insecurity checked my stride. My stepmother, Elain, often mocked me for strutting like a man. Ignoring the misery thundering in my veins, I walked the frost-gilded path toward the hollow. The ancient tree still stood with snow-heavy branches, stripped of leaf and bud. The mound of tilled earth that covered my mother was overgrown with grass that had frozen, hard as iron. I kneeled. The last year flowed out of me in cached whispers.

The bad stuff came first: the abuse from my stepmother, my father’s willful ignorance. Elain had stumbled into our lives seven years prior. The memory of that day was still fresh—it still stung. I’d been dragging my father toward the bakery, eager to eat my weight in pastries, when my world shifted irrevocably. It was my own fault. Born with the grace of an ox, I’d rammed into a doe-eyed woman selling flowers. A few flutters of her lashes and my father was flushing pink. Three months later, they married. I tried to love her, but the secret slaps, hateful stares, and sharp insults prevented me. My father had believed her excuses, and Elain soon shut me up by threatening to poison me.

On balance, this wasn’t even the worst of her viciousness. The years of insults left the deepest marks, chipping away at my soul one callous jibe after another. Death by a thousand cuts. Finally, sick of sadness, I breathed, “It’s not all bad, Mama. Father’s given me leave to spend the day with Viola—no chores.” I tried for a smile and failed. “Although he almost didn’t let me go. What with the children going missing … and the fae. I had to lie and say I was going straight to the village, but I couldn’t break with our tradition.” I put two fingers to my lips.

Pressing them to the earth, I added, “I should go—don’t want to be late. Sorry I didn’t come with happier news.” I rose and took a shortcut through the forest, one that would take me to the village of Tunnock. Despite the abductions, I wasn’t afraid. It was too much of a relief to be free of the cabin. I’d spent years distancing myself from that house, walking the forest trails for endless hours, swimming in the river bordering our village. But my feet often turned toward John and Viola’s. Thank the stars for them. The local baker and his wife had been my mother’s only confidants in the village, and when she died, they’d become mine. Gods, I’d tried to make more friends, but my mother’s reputation for being unusual lived on, and I’d inherited the mantle—lucky me.

When I turned a corner on the trail, an icy blast of air slammed into me, snapping me from my melancholy. I pulled the collar of my coat tighter against the cold once again, and quickened my pace at the promise of hot tea. Maybe there would be muffins or cubes of heaven, otherwise known as chocolate. The breeze also carried smells of wood smoke and animal waste, clear signs I was fast approaching the village. Telltale wooden huts and cabins appeared on the horizon; spotting the lingering snow covering the rooftops, I was reminded of the gingerbread houses John made every Yuletide. My mouth watered, and I jogged the rest of the way. I came upon the village border—a spiked wooden fence acting as flimsy fortification. There was a gate of sorts, but it was rarely barred. The village was too far north to interest pillagers or highwaymen, and our greatest danger came from the predators of the forest: roaming wolf packs, a stray bear, and of course, the fae, and if the tales were true, there was no wall high enough or barricade strong enough that could keep those winged devils out. As I passed through the open gate, the frost-glaze underfoot transformed into mud, squelching up the sides of my boots.

I strode on through the village, and seeing Father’s forge on the right, I veered left. My father wasn’t there yet, but Gus, his apprentice, would be. Father had hired Gus in my fourteenth year. At first glance, we’d appeared to be two sides of the same coin—all elbows and angles. But whereas I could eat for days, he came to us malnourished. Father took pity on him. So did I. For months afterward, I’d visit him in the forge. Far too often he’d come in with an ugly bruise and his temper would turn evil; I’d have to stay away. Things only got worse after his own father died.

Whenever I saw him then, his gaze, laced with violence, latched on to mine and his fists clenched as if he wanted to strangle me. Viola told me he carried a poison in him, that he needed to dull the edge of his pain like a knife needing a whetstone. My aversion to Gus didn’t go unnoticed. I felt my stepmother’s eyes watching, calculating. Given her hatred for me, her sudden sly hints about advantageous marriages made me assume she’d heard the women gossiping about Gus’s growing notoriety— seducing girls with marital promises, and when their reputation lay in tatters, tossing them aside. Those rumors were why I’d altered my appearance. At sixteen, he’d stared too long at my long hair so I’d cut it short. Then, his eyes roamed down to my budding breasts. Baggy dresses were my answer. Today, I’d gotten lucky: Gus wasn’t in sight.

The muted sounds of a hammer striking metal assured me he was in the back of the forge. I relaxed as I was greeted by a painted white door, with framed glass windows misted over from the heat brewing inside. Viola and John’s cottage was small—just a few rooms added onto the side of the bakery—but it felt like home. I knocked and gave my shoes a swift tap on the mat while I waited. A moment later, the door swung open. Viola’s round face, crinkling blue eyes, and wiry gray hair welcomed me. She quickly waved me into a combined living and dining space, of which I knew every inch. The ceiling was supported by dark beams, hung heavy with sweet and mallow-scented bushels of herbs. Faded rugs covered the floor, and the paneled cherry-wood walls gleamed as the winter sun poured in. A fire already crackled and roared in the hearth, and a bottle-green couch and armchair had been artfully arranged beside it.

The door on the right led to the bakery, but it was the large breakfast table in the center of the room that held my attention. Breathing in deeply, I savored the smells of cake and the fresh pot of tea waiting on a checkered tablecloth. “Boots off, young lady,” Viola demanded, scowling down at the mud I was tracking in. Kicking them off and placing them by the door, my stare locked onto the table again. I failed to hide a look of piggish delight, and Viola chuckled. “Darling, I’ve never known someone so in love with food.”

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