They say that those who covet power are wicked. That all dreams of scepters and crowns are selfish. Little sins, that you must keep in your pocket, you must hold them behind the flesh of your skin, and mustn’t voice them, not ever. If you have ever seen yourself standing atop the world, with the bones of the dead crunching beneath you. If your mouth was full of thorns, and you smiled, because you came, you saw, and you conquered. If you have done these things, if you have even imagined them, you are tainted. You must wash yourself clean. You can think cruel things, but you must atone for them, and you must never say them out loud.
Don’t we all want to be cruel, just a little? Just like when you stand at the edge of a cliff, and some small part of you cries that you should jump, that you should fling yourself from the precipice, just to see what it’s like to fall.
If it is a sin to be the predator, to be the lion and not the lamb, to be dangerous, to slither in the dark with markings upon our backs, then let us be sinful. Let us be wicked. Let us never atone.
You don’t understand, do you, child? I can see in your eyes that you despise me, that you are frightened. All you have ever known is the frosting of a cake, the patterns of fallen flowers, and the light of the sun. You are soft inside, molded by the hands of those who held you, those who cherished you, and built you as you are now. That won’t last, it never does, I can already see the claws bristling in your spine. I have a knife, I can cut them out, I can free them for you.
Now you must listen. You must hear my words, and let them engrave themselves within you. You must remember these words, let them haunt you. Because one day, you’re going to be strong enough to kill me, just as I have killed those laying before you. These forms that you have shed needless tears over. Why waste grief on corpses? They can’t hear you anymore. Yes, child, I know. You weep not for them, but for yourself.
Like you, I was a weak-willed child, and in the window of the past, you can see me crouching, afraid. You see that, yes?
It begins with Mislav, of course, all good stories do.
“Don’t waste your time on her. She’s one of those Shacktown brats. Your time would be better spent stepping on cockroaches.”
It is a rule of nature that those who are weak must be eliminated. They slow down the others, they spread diseases, and they breed more weak offspring. Did the Danes not leave deformed children out in the snow to die of exposure? Wolves understand this too, it is not unheard of them to eat their young, or to simply shun a weakling from the pack.
Not that I was any sort of wolf. I was just a stupid child, too slow to dodge kicks, and too weak to kick back.
Mislav seemed to ignore Dmitrei at first, but he left me alone after a while, though not before he made sure to level another kick in my direction.
Once I was sure Mislav was gone, I lifted myself up and brushed the dirt from my clothes, not that it did much good, my clothes were already threadbare and stained. Dmitrei hung back, and the look he gave me was pitying.
“You’d do well to stay out of our way.”
“Don’t I know it,” I glared at him, and scrubbed the blood from my face with the back of my hand. Mislav usually avoided my face, but sometimes a stray kick landed on my jaw anyway.
Dmitrei shrugged. I knew he felt bad for me, but not enough that he’d sacrifice his place at Mislav’s side. I think Dmitrei was a little in love with Mislav even then, and who can blame him? Mislav was beautiful, in a way that made others breathless and their sentences waver uncertainly, and it seems likely that he had some Other-folk blood running through his veins. Not only that, but he was talented, intelligent, and clever with instruments. The fact that he’d taken up kicking strays as a hobby wasn’t going to cancel out the rest.
You may think that Mislav came from some prestigious family, but the fact is, no one in this school could claim to be wealthy. When you live in Vinter, everyone is deep in debt to someone, and even the constables are catering to the sharks. They say the sharks eat their own children, and while this is likely untrue, I’ve never seen any of their offspring in school. As for who the sharks cater to, no one knows. It wasn’t something I thought about much, being a ragged starveling, whose first thought was always how to get food or to steal some shoes that didn’t make my feet hurt.
It may surprise you to know that I didn’t resent Mislav. I had been brought up to understand that hierarchy is natural, that if you don’t struggle to the top, you’ll be crushed heedlessly. Mislav was simply doing what he had to do to survive, and when you live among the wolves, showing kindness is only giving them a place to sink in their teeth. I respected Mislav, and thought Dmitrei was a little stupid, for showing me any kindness at all.
I shed no tears when I limped back to my classes. I felt no pity for myself, perhaps I even felt a little proud. The worst thing Mislav could’ve done was ignored me, but instead he had beat me down, and in doing so, he’d shown that I was a part of the pack, scruffy underdog that I was. And when you’re a part of the pack, you have a chance to climb the ranks.
Child, I see that you still don’t understand. You think the world should be just and fair. That those who are unkind to others should get their due, and that those who are beaten down should rise up as heroes. There is no fairness, pup, there is rarely even justice. There is only the surviving, the fighting, and the thrill of the hunt. If you want something, you have to take it for yourself, and those who get beaten down, will only rise up crueler than those who beat them in the first place, or they won’t rise at all. You are confused, still…ah, no matter. You will understand, one day, wether you want to or not.
I was almost ten, that first time, and it was a full year before Mislav kicked me down again.
I fell hard, and when the gravel bit into my palms, I couldn’t help but cry out. Then Mislav had me by the collar, and he was flinging me against the wall, and that is when I noticed that we were alone. He looked at me, really looked at me, and I held my breath, waiting for the kick. Waiting for the pain.
“Do you know why I do this?”
His question caught me off-guard, so I didn’t say anything. I just stared up at him through my lank hair.
“To give you a chance.” He whispered. “Because otherwise they’re going to kill you, they’re going to snuff out your life like a flame, and then you won’t be anything anymore. You don’t want that, do you? So you’re going to learn. I’m going to make your skin leather, and one day you’ll be strong enough to kill me.”
“Why do you care? Why don’t you just ignore me, like the rest?”
“Because I know potential when I see it.”
Mislav let me go, and I slid painfully to the ground. I could feel his gaze pinning me, daring me to give up, and daring me to fight back. This time, I rolled out of the way when he moved in to kick me. This time I bashed his knee with a rock when he reached for my hair. And when he limped away, bleeding from the gouge in his kneecap, he was laughing. I think that’s when I realized that Mislav was a little mad.
I did grow stronger, I stopped waiting for them to hurt me, and I learned how to hurt them back. Still, it was at least four years before Mislav would accept me into the ranks. It was worth it though, they were so proud of me. Mislav even insisted on an official initiation, he made me a crown of thorns and let me drink expensive vodka.
“I told you, Elena, I know potential when I see it.”
It was the first time Mislav had used my real name, and I flushed with pleasure.
The other girls gave me their kohl to use, and we held a party that didn’t end until the dawn. Dmitrei was jealous, but I could’ve told him he’d have no competition from me. To Mislav I was a protégée, a foundling, and he never looked at me the way the other boys did once I started looking less like a child and more like a woman. Mislav was in love with Dmitrei anyway, and sometimes it exasperated me, the way they danced blind circles around each other.
Dmitrei and Mislav were three years older than me, and they were to graduate that Winter. So I dropped out. I didn’t care about the schooling. They never taught me anything I really needed to know, and I had no patience for my textbooks, as was evident by the numerous torn out pages and unintelligible scribbles. I was a part of the pack now, and nothing else really mattered.
“You’re throwing your life away,” that’s what my mother told me when she found out. She was originally from Drevach, which meant that she was still stupid enough to believe that life could be lived virtuously.
“I’m saving my life before it’s too late. Before I become a bitter husk, like you.”
She just looked at me like I’d hit her. While my father, who was born and raised in Vinter, appeared resigned. I knew he wasn’t pleased, but my father was never really pleased about anything. He was in debt to everyone, and still couldn’t make ends meet. This was all because of my mother, of course. Had she understood the ways of Vinter, had she let my father do what needed to be done, we might’ve had something to eat besides gruel and scavenged food.
I left the next morning, packed my bags and went out the door. I did it in broad daylight, it wasn’t like my parents could do anything. My mother might call the constables, but they wouldn’t waste their precious time tracking down some runaway. Runaways in Vinter were as common as pebbles on the beach. It was a fact of life, and while my mother might harass the constables into half-heartedly searching, they wouldn’t try all that hard. They might even tell her I was dead, just to make her leave them alone.
My father stopped me at the door, and I actually thought he might try to stop me. Instead, he wrapped my fingers around the hilt of his best hunting knife.
“You’re a true daughter of Vinter, Elena.” he said, and I could see the pain in his eyes. I didn’t know what to say, I’ve never been good at goodbyes. I couldn’t tell him I loved him, because that would be a lie. I couldn’t say I’d miss him, because that wasn’t strictly true either.
“Thank you,” I said it quietly, while looking him in the eye, so he knew I meant it.
I met Mislav and the others at the abandoned building that we always hung out at. Autumn was coming on, and I was cold. Shivering in my old army coat, with the knife still clutched in my hand. Mislav wasn’t there, but his sister was, along with Dmitrei and a few others. Mislav’s sister must’ve missed out on that other-folk blood Mislav had running through his veins. Milista was pretty, but that was it. It was a flat kind of prettiness. It didn’t stop people in the streets or make them shiver at the marrow of their bones. She had his dark hair, his golden eyes, those sharp cheekbones and thin lips, but none of the glow, none of the charisma.
“Isn’t it late for you to be out, pup?” Her voice was raspy, like she’d smoked a lot of cigarettes within a very short period of time.
“I left home.”
I don’t think Milista believed me, she just raised her eyebrows.
“Go fetch me some vodka from the backroom, pup. I’m thirsty.”
I may have had Mislav’s respect at that point, but the others didn’t care. I was the new initiate. The youngster who didn’t really know which was up. I could have gone along with Milista’s orders, but I hadn’t been accepted into the pack just to be pushed around. I moved swiftly, enough so that she didn’t see me coming. Years of being beaten by her brother had taught me how important it is to never hesitate, how vital it is, to be faster than your opponent, to catch them by surprise. Then my blade was biting her throat, and she was trying to scramble away from me, her golden eyes wide and terrified.
“Don’t think you can order me about, little girl. I’m no pup, my name is Elena, and I can kill you, I can end you so fast that you’ll forget you ever knew how to breathe.”
I called her little, though in reality, she was a year my senior, but to me she was, at least in that moment. She was at my mercy, and I could see her pulse beating frantically against her skin. I left her there for a while, long enough for her to bleed, long enough for her to think I wouldn’t let her go. Maybe I should’ve killed her, but I didn’t see the point of killing Mislav’s sister, and I could feel Dmitrei’s eyes boring into the back of my neck, though he made no move to interfere. He hated Milista.
I may have been Mislav’s protégée, but there was no doubt in my mind that he would have to avenge her, whether he wanted to or not, and I wasn’t ready to kill him. Wasn’t sure if I’d ever be. Or if I even wanted to. Perhaps I did once, when I was a scruffy nine year old with his boot in my ribs, but that was before I knew. Before I knew that he was saving my life.
So I let her go, and now she at least knew the risk of double-crossing me. Milista had a lot of things I didn’t, including being pretty. I had never been pretty. I was scowl-faced and lean, and I had been mistaken for a boy enough times for me to know that I wasn’t desirable in the way that most of the curvy Vinter girls were. Milista had influence, a beautiful brother who would always protect her, she had enough food to fill out her cheeks, and enough money to buy herself new shoes. But none of that mattered, because I had the treasures that are the most important of all; ruthlessness, the ability to think on my feet, speed, a meanness that ran far beneath the surface until I was more that than blood or bone.
The years, how they dance past us, child. How they swirl and shimmer, blinding us with their colors, until we open our eyes to find how much time has passed us by. Time is the one thing I’ve never been able to catch. So it was that I found myself at twenty two, and by that time, my name carried weight in Vinter. It carried enough weight to outdo a pouch of gold coin. My parents were dead by that time. Oh yes, child, just like yours are now. Someone came in the night, just as I did. Unlike you, I was not there to witness the crime, and only heard about it after the constables did their investigation and evacuated the house.
I went there, and padded through the house on silent feet. I know from the look in your eyes that you expect to hear that I felt nothing at all. I wept, my child, I wept until there wasn’t much else I could do but make raw gasping noises, until my eyes were dry, and still the spasms came. I can’t give you a reason for why I wept. No good reason at all. But I buried my father’s hunting knife in some forgotten copse and said a silent prayer for them both. I had nothing of my mother’s, not even her love, but I wished her peace in the next life. I buried my hate with the knife, I let all of that go. They were now nothing more than corpses moldering in the soil, and there was no reason for hate to live on when there was nothing to direct it towards.
You think me cruel and merciless. You think that perhaps I have no heart at all. I will tell you this, child. I am far kinder than most mortals you will know in your lifetime. Perhaps I am not always kind, but I am never cruel without reason. I give death quickly, and never has a victim suffered at my hands. I don’t do things out of the malevolence of my heart, I do them because they must be done. I do not allow anger to guide my actions. I am simply surviving, just as the wolf does when he makes his kill. Should the lion not devour his prey? Should the fox not outwit the hare? Is nature itself cruel? Surely no more than I. We survive because we must, because that is the way of things. Life and death are two halves of the one, and death is the kinder of the two.
Not to say that I have never acted on my emotions, otherwise I would not have wept so at the death of my parents. Even the wolf must mourn the loss of his kin. It was afterwards that I returned to my pack, where Dmitrei and Mislav embraced me. They knew I was in pain, and they did their best to soothe it. Dmitrei had long since given up any jealousy he harbored towards me. He and Mislav were a happy couple, and they were better parents to me than my family ever was.
It was that very same night, that I awoke in a cold sweat, and I knew, immediately, that something, or someone, was coming for me. I dressed, shaking, and I left the place the gang and I were currently staying at. I walked the streets restlessly, and though I hesitated when I came to the edge of the wood, the pull was too strong to resist. Every instinct within me was telling me to turn back, and to turn back now, but my body wouldn’t listen to me. For once, my instincts refused to align with my actions, and I was filled with an overwhelming sense of dread.
He was waiting for me in the very same copse of trees that I had buried my father’s knife in. He had his back to me, and I swear, it was as if his cloak was made of mist, and it was impossible to know where his cloak ended and where the ground began. I just stood there and shivered. I had my derringer, my knife in my boot, and all my powdered poisons. I had my army coat and my big thick boots. I’d put some considerable weight on in these past years, and was no longer such a ragged little pup. I knew I could pack a punch if deprived of my weapons. But still I shivered, because I knew, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do if this thing decided to hurt me.
“Hello, Elena.” Said the man in the cloak of mist, and when he turned to face me, my blood turned to ice in my veins.
For his face was my face, and my mind had lost all ability to draw the lines between real and not-real. His eyes reflected my own, that same hazel, that same brown edged by green. His brown hair was mine, and not a shade darker. His face, so hard-edged and untouched by softness, with that ridged nose and those lips that you know weren’t made for kissing, but for saying cutting things. He was taller than I, his face paler, and the wide-brimmed hat he wore cast dark shadows over his face. Still, the resemblance was uncanny, and that was just it, he was uncanny.
I knew he was one of the other-folk, and that shouldn’t have unsettled me as much as it did. I had had dealings with them in the past, after all. Perhaps it was how alike we looked, and how I suddenly felt uncomfortable in my own skin. Something I’d never felt before.
Perhaps you’ve already guessed it, child, perhaps I don’t even need to say the words. I will say them anyway, because they must be said.
He was my father, just as I am your mother. No, don’t run from me, not just yet. I have done much to find you, and I would have you listen.
Once, there was an angry and jealous Queen, and who can blame her for being jealous, or angry? For her husband had slept with another, though he claimed to be only faithful to the Queen. This woman he had slept with, this mortal, she bore a child. And so the Queen cursed her husband, declaring that he would lose his child at the time of its birth, that it would be whisked away to some unknown place, where it would be raised by mortals. That he could only retrieve his child as his own once he had tracked it down, and killed the mortals who had fostered it. Likely, the child would then despise him, and perhaps he should’ve left the child to live in ignorance, in peace.
Of course he did not, the other-folk are drawn by impulse to fulfill their own self-imposed prophecies, no matter how tragic they may be, and what parent can deny the desire to hold their own child?
Not only did she curse him, she cursed all future generations, and here we are, my child. Here we are. I have killed those who fostered you, just as my father did before, and his ancestors before him. Now my task is done, and you may choose to stay, or you may come with me, and which case I will teach you all there is to know.
I will be honest, because I cannot do otherwise. I am not a good person, I have committed many little sins, all building up over one another. All tumbling forth, creating something tall and dark and terrible. I will not apologize for being terrible, for that is who I am, and there is something glorious in being so terrible that all must shield their eyes when they see your silhouette on the horizon.
I never wished to have a child, and I am no mother, I have no patience for the squalling of babies or the complaints of children. Yet here you are, and I have found you much quicker than my father ever did me. I am very good at finding things, at catching them and sometimes even keeping them.
Save, perhaps, time. I have never been fast enough to catch time.
But thanks to my speediness in finding you, perhaps we will have some time left after all. Perhaps one day I will tell you the tale of how you came to be, perhaps I will tell you of what I said to my father that night, and all the other pockets of this tale that I have left empty. For the time being, you have a choice to make, and best make haste, for the winds are coming, the ship has unfurled its sails, and I must be off. My crew is not known for their patience, not even for their own Captain.
The girl stood up, and she looked at all the sticky blood coating her hands. At the dust, covering her gown. She looked at the corpses on the floor. At this woman whose face was her own, whose skin was her own, whose blood was her own, and who, at the marrow of her bones, she knew to be just like her. Had she not dreamt of scepters and crowns, of blood and shadow? Had she not thought herself sinful? How many times had she felt like a viper in a nest of rabbits?
“Teach me how to hunt,” she said to the woman kneeling before her, “and I will go with you.”
Elena laughed. “That, I can do.”