A Sorrow Fierce and Falling – Jessica Cluess

The monster was expecting me. At least, that was how it seemed as I approached the edge of the barrier to SorrowFell, breaking through the mist to find the demon Molochoron. The thought that this creature anticipated me was nonsense, of course. He was only a ten-foot-tall blob of jelly with dark, sharp hairs protruding from his so-called flesh. He’d no capacity to think or to plot. Only to destroy. Yet as I stood before the Ancient, I couldn’t shake the idea that he knew me. The barrier was invisible, but its protection was absolute. These lands had been gifted to Blackwood’s family by a faerie lord, and as such could not be accessed without a Blackwood’s permission. I stood my ground and stared at Molochoron, the Pale Destroyer, studying the writhing shapes within the mass of pale jelly. Were they the monster’s latest victims, now being digested? The pain in my shoulder flared to think of it. “There are more today, Henrietta.” Maria had worn her peacock-blue cloak, providing a dab of color against the winter landscape. She pointed toward figures shambling out of the fog to stand beside Molochoron, their master. These creatures appeared human, but only vaguely.

Their faces had melted, the flesh on their hands and arms bubbling with sores. Familiars. Servants of the Seven Ancients. Molochoron roared, sounding like nothing so much as a lion trapped in a vat of jam. The sound shook snow from the trees, but we were safe behind the barrier. Maria was right; more creatures arrived every day. Ten this morning, I counted, scribbling the number in my journal. Blackwood had thought it odd that I’d volunteer to check the borders in the early morning. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous—or warm—job. But it was the only way that Maria and I could work in secret on her, well, her particular destiny.

Being the chosen one, she’d a great responsibility. “What’ve you got for me today?” Maria toed the very line of the barrier. She and Molochoron were a mere half foot from one another. I believed the ball of putrescence purred at having such a challenger near. I slid my pencil and notebook into my little reticule and tied the strings. “Can you manage an ice tunnel from back here?” Maria summoned a stinging cloud of needle-sharp snow, then flung it past the barrier to engulf Molochoron, who disappeared from view. The world before us turned a violent white for several minutes before Maria lowered her hands, settling the snow and ice. If we had anticipated a great, bellowing charge from the Ancient, we were disappointed. Molochoron had rolled a half foot to the left at most. Snow had settled on him like a dusting of sugar upon a cake.

“Er, perhaps not. Try something with the trees.” Maria took my advice readily, placing her hands on the earth. With a grunt, she dug her fingers into the snow. Molochoron was surrounded on either side by tall, ancient pines. At Maria’s order, they bent like graceful dancers in the midst of a plié. The branches sought to entrap the demon, who simply rolled a few yards back, completely out of harm’s way. “So far, I’ve a knack for moving Ancients slightly to the left,” Maria muttered. “Yes, but you do it so well.” As far as encouraging words went, mine left a lot to be desired.

Honestly, it felt like the bloody monster was humoring us. Maria put the trees back in their proper place. Huffing, she stood. Her face was flushed, and not merely with the cold. Disappointment painted her features. “Suppose that’s enough for now,” she grumbled, slipping her hands inside her cloak for warmth. “I think we’re making real progress.” Molochoron pulsed steadily, the noise coming from him a steady buzz; he appeared to have fallen asleep. Bother it all. Maria led our way down the snowy path.

I cast one look back at the barrier, at the rotting Familiars and Molochoron. Perhaps I was a dreadful teacher for the true chosen one. Why hadn’t the prophecy come with a nice instruction manual woven into its back? Soon we entered the forest’s embrace. The trees were so dense that the bright morning darkened to twilight. The bracing air was almost enough to make me forget the pain in my shoulder. Almost. It had been months since Rook, in his transformed state as an Ancient, had bit me. Still, the bite had made me Unclean, and the pain that went with such a status varied between aching and excruciating. Maria took her hands out of her cloak. Her left hand flexed, the fist opening and closing, a sure sign that her temper was nearing its limit.

“Remember how you bested Nemneris,” I said to cheer her. In October, when the Water Spider had destroyed our boat and been about to feast on the lot of us, Maria alone had risen up and dragged the beast back into the sea. “I was angry then. Besides, there wasn’t an entire country relying upon me.” We walked ten minutes through the trees before we came to the edge of the forest, looking toward the great estate beyond. She put her hand to a tree, running her fingers along the bark. “Once you know you’re chosen, it freezes the mind.” Well, that feeling I understood only too well. “All right. Maybe focusing only on your sorcerer abilities is a mistake.

What about your witchery? After all, I saw you heal yourself once by taking the life of a plant. That power could be useful.” Maria’s left hand tightened into a fist once more. She spoke in a lower, more womanly tone now: “Power, aye. And danger. Killing a living thing for magic puts one on the path to losing one’s soul.” The “friend” Maria called Willie was making an appearance. As a child, Maria had spent a great deal of time living off the land, all alone. She’d invented “Willie” as a companion. Sometimes, dear Willie seemed to have a mind of her own.

“Death can only ever master, not be mastered.” Right, we needed a cheerier topic. “You learned that in your grandmother’s coven, yes? What’s a coven like?” “Can barely recall. Elspeth—my gran—drove Mam away. She never forgave Mam for dallying with a sorcerer.” Maria turned her gaze to the ground. “Called me a bastard and wouldn’t take me back, even after my mother’s death.” “I’m so sorry,” I murmured. Apparently there were no cheery topics to be had today. We left the forest and walked down the sloping hill to Sorrow-Fell.

In the months since we’d come here, I sometimes thought of the house and its gardens as a constant flame that kept the encroaching dark of the Faerie wood at bay. The trees were heavy with Fae magic, their branches black and gnarled by it. But breaking through the dark forest and looking at the house below always felt like waking to a brilliant day after a nightmare. The green lawns now lay buried beneath snow, and the pond had frozen, but the white marble colonnade of the house, the great mansion’s mullioned windows with stained glass in the image of the Blackwood family crest, shone brightly. This was my home now. My permanent home after my wedding to Blackwood. Which, incidentally, was today. I tugged off my left glove for a glimpse of my engagement ring. Blackwood had gifted me with it on the day we’d arrived at Sorrow-Fell. A plain silver band set with a tiny pearl, it was less ostentatious and grand than one might have imagined receiving from a wealthy earl.

But that was Blackwood: a surprise all the way through. He was elegant where others were loud, careful where others were bold. And in a few hours, he would be mine. Perhaps that was one reason I’d insisted on patrolling the barriers today. I’d needed time to gather myself and focus upon something else. Now, as the great house grew closer with every step, the enormous weight of becoming Lady Blackwood bore down upon me, while growing excitement quickened my pulse. As we passed a squadron of sorcerers running drills by the frozen pond, I glimpsed Dee at his customary place in the lead. He bent his knees—even the bad one that had been smashed in our battle with Nemneris was doing well—and thrust out his stave. The other men followed his example. “Now!” He twirled his stave with expert grace, his skill all the more impressive when you noted the three-pronged claw he’d fastened to the stump of his right arm.

When Dee had lost the limb, Blackwood had been certain he would never handle a stave again. He’d underestimated Dee’s ability and determination. As one, the squadron performed their maneuver, and the surface of the frozen pond split in two with a momentous crack. The slabs of dripping ice rose into the air, then melded into a sharp-edged pyramid. With ease, the men returned the slab of ice to its original shape and laid it back over the water, so that it appeared the pond’s surface had never been disturbed. My spirits lifted to see them at work. When we drilled and I felt magic surging in my blood, I believed in my heart that R’hlem couldn’t possibly win. Dee looked up and noticed Maria and me. “Oi! Howel! Shouldn’t you be dressing?” The other sorcerers chuckled. I heard one or two faint whistles as well.

“I don’t see any of you fancying up,” I called, grinning. “Need an extra bridesmaid?” One of the fellows ushered a playful gust of snow to swirl around me. “I’m told pink’s my color.” Laughing, I sent a burst of fire in his direction. My flame rocketed from my hand, a bright blue…with threads of shadow. The laughter died. Cheeks burning, I killed the flame. No one said anything, but my new, shadowy powers—and my status as an Unclean—gave people pause. My shoulder, which bore Rook’s bite marks, ached when I thought of it. “Well.

I have to give my report.” I tugged at Maria’s sleeve. Our shoes crunched over the ground, and the men behind us returned to their training. Maria nudged me in the ribs. “They understand.” I puffed out my cheeks. “I know. I’ll just feel more accepted after the marriage.” “Aye.” Maria hooked her arm through mine.

“The chapel’s a sight in itself. His Lordship’s made it a pretty place.” Pretty was an understatement. I’d seen the chapel yesterday evening. The walls had been festooned with holly and wintergreen branches, faerie lights twinkling among them. Blue snow-sorrows filled the space with a delicate fragrance. They were a magical flower unique to Fae lands, a riot of pale blue petals with a scent both fresh and forgotten, like a shuttered room in which a lady’s perfume still lingers. Snow-sorrows grew out of the snow in winter and remained dewy and fresh for weeks after being plucked. When spring arrived, they were said to melt like the frost. With the light filtering through the stained-glass windows, the chapel looked heavenly.

The idea of marrying Blackwood there filled me with a potent mix of emotions: excitement, fear, hopefulness, and something dark and intimate that I didn’t dare name. While celebrating my seventeenth birthday two weeks ago, we’d agreed that the time had come. The war was going to end, one way or another, and we wanted to face it together. But before I could meet Blackwood at that beautiful altar, there was one more job to do. Prior to marrying the lord of Sorrow-Fell, it was customary that the bride meet the lady of Sorrow-Fell—his mother—and receive…something. No one had told me exactly what. Blackwood’s mother always kept to her rooms. Only her maid—a silent, older woman who moved like a shadow—was regularly allowed inside. I had seen Eliza enter her mother’s quarters several times, but only once had Blackwood gone in. He’d returned a scant three minutes later, shutting the door with more force than was strictly necessary.

The one time I glimpsed Lady Blackwood had been the day she and her daughter had fled London. She’d been shrouded in black from head to foot as she climbed into the carriage. Her face could not be seen behind a thick, dark veil. Speaking with my future mother-inlaw would be nerve-racking under the best of circumstances, but I had never even seen this lady’s face. It was doubly frightening. Whatever she planned to give me was part of an unbreakable tradition going back generations. Maria and I entered the house through a front door fifteen feet tall. Sorrow-Fell had been designed for grandeur, not comfort. The ceiling of the front hall was thirty feet high, turning the faintest whisper into a sharp echo. Gothic-arched windows displayed scenes of Blackwood and Faerie history.

One window showcased a tall woman wearing a crown of stars as she stamped a fanged, wriggling serpent into the earth. Flowers of ruby and obsidian flourished around the creature. The floor beneath our feet was tiled, creamy marble with veins of pure gold. On the right side of the hall, a staircase with an elaborately carved wooden banister led up to the second floor. Every alcove was filled with portraits and busts of hook-nosed ancestors. Shields and banners displaying the Blackwood seal—a pair of clasped hands entwined with ivy—hung upon every wall. At the back of the great, echoing hall, someone had installed a fireplace large enough to house a small family. Maria and I went to warm ourselves before the fire. “I wish we could just bloody tell them you’re the chosen one,” I murmured to Maria. She turned her back to the hearth and tossed her red curls over one shoulder.

“Not yet.” She’d always watched the sorcerers with trepidation. Then again, she had no reason to trust our kind. Maria was a witch. Well, a half witch. Her half-sorcerer blood would not save her if she was discovered. When you’re the lady of Sorrow-Fell, you can change so many things. “There you are, Henrietta! Mamma’s waiting.” Eliza clattered down the stairs to snatch my hands and drag me after her. I glanced back at Maria and she shrugged, content to remain where she was.

Eliza’s usually sleek black hair tumbled about her shoulders, and she wore a simple muslin gown. When we’d first met, everything she’d worn had been velvet or silk. Now, with the war at our doorstep, she’d forgone glamour entirely. “You look nice today.” I smiled, but she shook her head. “Don’t worry, I’m straight off to change while you’re with Mamma. You need a bridesmaid in pink taffeta, after all. One of the worst parts of the war was losing Madame Voltiana as my seamstress. I’ve had to make do with gowns from two years ago. Can you imagine the sacrifice?” She gave a playful wink.

“The horror!” I laughed. “Where’s George?” I had to resist the urge to call him Blackwood. As an engaged couple, we could use our Christian names with each other. I’d have kept calling him Blackwood, but he’d insisted. “On the other end of the house, naturally. He won’t see you until the ceremony. Bad luck, don’t you know?” Eliza plucked my notebook from my hand and scoffed as she flipped through it. “Really, did you need to make another study of those things on your wedding day?” We came to the second level of the house. The coffered ceilings were lower here, the walls papered with dark green silk. Sorrow-Fell was comprised of two sections: the more modern west wing, where everyone lived, and the ancient Fae grounds in the east.

People claimed those rooms were haunted. I disagreed. Hauntings were reserved for the dead. Whatever was on the Faerie grounds felt watchful and alive. “Once you’re the countess, you’ll have others to do these nasty jobs for you,” Eliza said, snapping me back to reality. “What about the countess’s sister?” I squeezed her hand. “She’ll have to be your most trusted advisor.” We arrived outside Lady Blackwood’s stately door. Eliza kissed my cheek and swept down the hall to ready herself for the ceremony. Evidently, she wasn’t worried about this meeting.

And why should she be? After all, a future mother-in-law was not nearly as terrible as an Ancient. Then again, for all I knew, she could be worse. Shrugging off that alarming sentiment, I forced my shoulders back and opened the door. Candles burned on tabletops, providing dim illumination to this gloomy space. Lady Blackwood’s bed lurked in the center of the room like a monolith, its curtains drawn. Deep shadows capered about the walls. A thin sliver of daylight broke through the damask curtains to cut across the floor. “Miss Howel? Come here,” a woman said from the bed. I approached and tentatively pulled back the curtain. The lady lay beneath the blankets, her face hidden in shadow.

Something about the way she worried her thin, gloved hands made me nervous. Why was she wearing gloves in bed? “My lady.” I curtsied to her. “As the current countess, it is my duty to instruct you.” Every word she spoke sounded odd—juicy—as though her mouth was filled with saliva she could not spit. “Thank you,” I said. “And to warn you.” There was a rustle of silk. She drew closer—it was all I could do not to leap away. “You still have a choice, child.

You can still run.” The wound at my shoulder exploded in sharp pain. I gritted my teeth. Just once in my life, could I meet someone who didn’t have a warning to impart? Just once, I’d like for someone to give me a warm hug and a pat on the cheek. “Why should I run?” Silence. I summoned a ball of whispering flame into the palm of my hand and examined the woman more closely. Even in bed, her face was veiled. Low panic cramped my gut; something was wrong with this lady. Her nightdress, designed to be fashionable, had yellowed, and stained lace decorated the sleeves. The scent of camphor and sweat met me.

Her gloved hands felt for mine, and I resisted the urge to pull away. “You are not one of us.” She said it flatly. Ah, so she was a snob, then? Was I not high-blooded enough for her family? “No, my lady.” I bristled. “I’m a solicitor’s daughter. My parents died when I was quite young. I was born a magician, as well.” “All this I know.” She tsked, and her tongue sounded clumsy.

“Do you think I care a jot, girl? I was the daughter of a minor sorcerer house myself. My father sold me in marriage for the prestige of the Blackwood name. What a fool he was. Only stupid people fuss about blood. What they should care about is power, and you possess a great deal of that. “Marriage is a contract.” She changed the topic with a strange ease. “When you become a Blackwood, you take on a debt.” My blood chilled. Did she know, then, what her late husband had done? How he had been partly responsible for the fate of this country? More than that, how he had placed the blame upon magicians and witches and spared his family from the punishment? “A debt?” I repeated.

“Have you ever wondered why my son is Lord Blackwood, but his estate is SorrowFell?” I had wondered. In a traditional house, the earl would title himself after his estate. Blackwood should really be Lord Sorrow-Fell. “Sorrow-Fell is more than a name; it is a living part of Faerie,” the lady continued. “To call oneself lord of this place would be akin to calling oneself God.” “That’s…interesting,” I said. Her grip tightened; her hands were sharp and bony. “The Blackwoods are not like other sorcerer families. Our bloodline does not stretch back a thousand years. We are a new house, a mere three hundred years old.

The first earl stole this estate from a Fae lord.” “He won it, I thought.” “Stole.” The s sound in her mouth was particularly wet. “The first Blackwood was a nameless blacksmith, a common man with a sorcerer’s ability—likely the bastard of a well-placed sorcerer father. This nameless commoner took his family name from the dark forests that surround the estate. The whole history is smoke and mirrors. The family is cursed, my dear.” “Excuse me?” Next she was going to tell me Blackwood had buried the corpses of his previous wives beneath the floorboards. “Cursed by the faerie queen Titania.

” The woman’s voice rose to a frenzied pitch. “She claimed she’d free the family once they paid a blood debt, a sacrifice on the part of a young Blackwood bride. Then, only then, would she lift her curse.” “I don’t understand. You’re a wealthy, powerful family.” It all sounded like something out of a novel, frankly. But I knew better than to dismiss something because it sounded radical. “There was never a Blackwood heir whose end was not untimely, and never a Blackwood consort who did not waste and wither. As you see.” She released me and made a vague gesture toward herself.

I suppressed a shudder. “My Eliza may be spared all this pain.” The woman’s voice gentled a bit. “If she married, she would no longer be a Blackwood. She would be safe.” Unfortunately, Blackwood’s previous hopes for Eliza’s marriage had been dashed. “Girl, take my warning in the kind spirit in which it’s meant. You can still be free of the Blackwood bane.” The Blackwood bane? My temples throbbed. I was an hour from the altar, and she shared this now? I studied her and my heart softened; clearly, the woman had been a recluse for years.

She was not in her right mind. “Thank you for the advice, my lady.” I curtsied once more. “You’re determined to stay.” She sounded resigned. “Very well. I offered you this chance. Should you choose to be the countess, you must follow tradition. I said that the future lady of Sorrow-Fell must pay a debt of blood. You must do what generations of Blackwood brides have done.

Take this.” She offered a cruel-looking dagger with a sweeping silver blade, slipping the thing out from the bedclothes beside her. Did she sleep with this dagger? An ivory design had been laid into the handle: a curl of ivy, Blackwood’s symbol. “Do you know the old druid lands?” I did. They ran to the northernmost reach of the estate, through the blackest heart of the forest. I didn’t relish the idea of a trip there. “With that knife, make a sacrifice of blood on the border.” She wiped at her mouth with a handkerchief, stealing up under her veil. “I cut myself?” “Heavens, no. Something else.

” Blast. Would I need to truly kill something? “What happens then?” “Nothing. It is merely the custom. Once you’ve offered the blood, turn around and come home to your prince.” I did not like the mocking way she said that. “Thank you.” I curtsied one last time to the lady, then hurried away. The cloying, rotten perfume of the air dispersed as soon as I’d left. My back to the closed door, I tried to think. Curses.

Family rituals. Mad old ladies. Honestly, it was as though I’d stepped into a Gothic tale by Mrs. Radcliffe. At that moment, I wanted to see Blackwood desperately. I wanted to feel his hands upon me, his arms around me, his lips tracing mine. A hot, heavy feeling settled low in my body at the thought of him. With him, I would find peace and security. This was it. One more mere hurdle to overcome, and then the chapel.

First, I needed a sacrifice. — THE WORLD WAS SMOOTH WITH FRESH snow, the air so cold that tears at the corner of one’s eye froze, needle-sharp. I’d worn my warmest cloak, a dense gray with white fur trimming, and even that wasn’t enough. As I trod ahead, I winced to think of the fine blue satin of my wedding gown being demolished: it was custom for the bride to make this journey wearing her gown. I’d set off in a sled, buried under blankets, but when we’d approached the border of the wood the driver was required to let me out. The final leg of the journey must be made on foot, alone. The trees towered over me, their black branches entwining to create an arched ceiling. In one hand, I held the knife. In the other, a red pomegranate. That had been Maria’s suggestion when I’d consulted her on the offering and suggested a dove.

“Don’t you dare! What did I tell you about the danger of dark magic?” She’d dragged me down to the kitchen to find what we could. “If the juice is thick and red enough, and from the seed, that’ll do.” She’d passed me the pomegranate, its flesh rough and deep red like heart’s blood. Since I didn’t actually want to kill anything, it suited me just fine. I wandered farther into the wood, until the world around me grew silent as snowfall. I listened carefully for the sound of hoofbeats. That could signal the approach of a wild man. They said he’d the body of a stag in the front, a bear in the back, and a cruelly beautiful face with three mouths. And to think, this was one of the light Fae’s creatures. But as Blackwood had told me, the light Fae were as dangerous as the dark.

More so, in fact. There was nothing gentle in magic

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