No amount of distance felt safe. Not from the king’s men. His seers could see her anywhere she went in his lands. Unlike most villagers, she knew this to be fact rather than just rumor, because until she'd snuck into the stables and stole away on the old horse, she had been one of them. A novice seer, that is. A job she’d loved until she’d discovered the awful truth about the king. Until she’d made the fatal mistake of following her heart. And until the moment the king set his hounds on her with the order she be brought back, dead or alive.
Knowing what she did, Magda couldn’t decide which option was the better, and so she hoped she would face neither. Unfortunately, being able to see people on the king’s land, is not the same as being able to see the lay of it, and Magda had no idea how close she was to the border, or how to tell when she’d crossed to the other side. She was tempted to use her gift to search for a soul that might know it, but the risk of opening her mind to the sisters was too great. Opening up, even just a little, was enough to make her a shining beacon on the map. They’d be there in no time.
Even without the opening her mind, she stood out too much. She still wore the bright red robes of the consecration ceremony, where she looked into the golden bowl and saw the king’s true, monstrous, face upon the surface of the water. Whatever he was, he was not King Cadriel and as she stared with dawning horror, she saw that the sisters, and everyone in the court had fallen under his spell. She felt pinned to the spot, as though someone were holding her there and sending her this vision.
Amidst the flickering candles and the stone-faced sisters, Magda watched the thing-that-was-not-her-king’s plan spool out across the water in scene after horrific scene. He would turn the kingdom into a wasteland where other beasts like he could thrive, and then they would spread to other lands, until the whole of the world was swallowed, and those in it dead or worse, playthings. When the vision finally released her, she found that she had already planned her escape. Each step fixed inside her mind except this last – where to go.
Bastian trembled beneath her and his steps began to slow. Magda couldn’t remember the last time they’d had water. Only that it had been in the moonlight and now, the sun was slipping behind the hills that never seemed to get any closer. “There now,” she stroked Bastian’s neck, letting him know he could stop. “It’s alright.” They’d been running along the edge of the forest, where the land was flat, and she nudged him toward the trees. She doubted they could make it far enough to find water, but at least they would be sheltered, perhaps hidden from view.
This way, girl. The voice sounded inside her mind, Magda was sure of it, but Bastian’s ear pricked, and he turned in the direction from which it seemed to come. Only a few steps more. The voice was reassuring. It reminded Magda of her grandfather, not in the sound of it, but in the gentle tone. Magda was too tired to fight it, she felt her body go slack with relief. If this was a trick, she would meet her end. She couldn’t run anymore, nor could Bastian, who even now, stumbled as he slowly made his way over roots and fallen branches.
The scent of wood smoke lay heavy in the air, enveloping them. In the dim light of the fading dusk, Magda could just make out a cottage, and in its doorway, a man. No, she thought, as Bastian came to a stop with a soft whiny. Not a man, a boy. Not much older than she.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” he said, with a voice that was at once kind and calming, and decidedly not the voice she’d heard in her mind.
Magda let go of the reins, and slid off the fatigued horse. She managed one step toward the boy before exhaustion overtook her and she fainted into his waiting arms.
Over the weeks she’d been safeguarded, Magda had explored every square inch of what Mathias told her was protected by the shroud. A small stretch of forest, bordered by the thickets trees Magda had ever seen. Trees that wouldn’t naturally have grown in the kingdom, without a little magic. It was the trees, Mathias explained, that protected them from the King’s seers.
A small band of runaway servants and seers alike, Mathias and his companions knew the truth about King Cadriel. And like Magda, they’d tried to escape. But there was no escape from the far-reaching clutches of the demon king. He’d spread his seed far and wide among neighboring kingdoms, already ensnaring the people of the land with his spell. The only safe place was to hide in plain sight.
The morning air was brisk, sunlight seeping through the canopy of trees, as Magda lead Bastian from the stables. Mathias had gone into a nearby village, two days travel at best, with a former servant man by the name of Sazh. Though she’d only known Mathias a few weeks, when the boy was gone, Magda felt restlessness in her heart. The cottage walls seemed to press in on her, and the constant bustling of the other women, especially an elder seer named Celeste, made Magda long for open air and green pasture. Though she knew she couldn’t leave the safety of the shroud, she climbed onto Bastian’s back and led him into the forest.
The woods were silent and the air around her seemed thick and heavy. The shroud, she thought, for as she neared the border the weight began to lessen and her breath came easier. She peered through the thickest of trees, spotting something glinting in the distance. Water, she knew by the way the light bounced and moved in soft waves.
This way, Magda. The voice she’d heard just weeks before, when she came upon the cottage, was back again in that same soft lulling tone. Underneath her red robes, her skin prickled and she felt Bastian tense beneath her. The voice was familiar in a way that things sometimes are, without really being. Like a name long forgotten.
“Come, Bastian.” She clucked her tongue and nudged the horse’s sides with her calves. “This way.” But the horse refused to move, stomping his hoof in protest. She tried again, and Bastian locked his legs and jerked his neck, tugging the reins from her hands. She huffed, and jumped from his back, allowing the stubborn stallion to graze alone as she crept closer to the pool.
Magda. Her name was a whisper through the trees. From somewhere on the other side of the shroud, in the direction of the pool, she heard it again, and again. She glanced back the way she’d come, knowing the cottage to be near, but too far for her voice to be heard by the women. Mathias had travelled into the village many times before, and he’d never been detected by the king’s seers. They wouldn’t notice her. They’d probably long forgotten that she’d run away.
She turned back toward the pool, watching the peaceful waves drifting along it’s sunlit surface, reminding her so much of the pool back home, where she’d first learned to see, when times were better. Was it really better, to be naïve and believe her king was fair and just, and not the monster she now knew him to be? She couldn’t know, and decided it best not to wonder.
Though she missed her home, her life had not been a terrible one. She’d found Mathias and the cottage after all. And she still had Bastian by her side. The horse lifted his head and snorted once at her, as if reminding her of his presence, before he went back to grazing on a patch of purple clover.
Still, she thought. It would be lovely to see her home again. If only for a moment. She slipped between the trees, tearing her red robe as she made her way beyond the boundary of the shroud, and to the pool just beyond.
Magda knelt at the water’s edge, leaning back on her heels, not yet ready to gaze into the water. She could just see Bastian’s ears pricked and pointed in her direction from where she’d left him inside the shroud. She should turn back. She felt it in her bones, the fervent need to run back inside the shroud. Back to safety, back where she was protected from King Cadriel’s seers. Back to Mathias.
Magda, we’ve missed you. The voice sounded more like her grandfather each time she heard it. It beckoned to her, like a watery finger from beneath the surface of the pool. Without looking down, Magda drew swirls, circles, and runes with a finger, lightly skimming the surface of the pool. Any pool, she knew, could be used to see. If you knew how to use the magic the water held onto so tightly.
“Show me my home,” she whispered, as she leaned forward and gazed at her reflection.
It was selfish, she knew, to risk so much for one glimpse ofhome. If the sisters turned their empty eyes this way, it wouldn’t only be her indanger, but Mathias and everyone else in these woods. But she would be quick,she assured herself. She could afford this one small comfort.
At first, the pool revealed nothing but her own face madepale by the darkness of the water.
Magda kept her breathing even and focused on the relaxingher thoughts until the only thing in her mind was a single, clear note.
It was different for all seers. For some, the note soundedloudly as though bellowed from a great height. For others, it was breathy andfaint, just a secret of a sound so difficult to discover it required the mostsolitary of rooms to develop. But for Magda the note was so simple to invoke ittook effort not to do so accidentally. In her mind, it sounded as clearly asany bell. Though she had never shared the note with another – it was consideredfolly to do so – she knew precisely what it would feel like humming through herchest and nose.
Once, her grandfather told her of a time when seers wouldjoin around a pool to combine their powers and see great distances. When thathappened, each of their unique notes had sounded together. “We are a choir,”he’d said. His eyes grew watery to remember it. He was not blessed with an overabundance of emotion and so when it surfaced, Magda took notice.
As she gazed over the pool, growing increasingly frustratedwith its placid surface, she wondered if Mathias and his seers might open theirminds to hers. Perhaps, if they could gather enough power, they might succeedin clearing the minds of King Caldriel’s seers and break his hold over thekingdom.
The water shimmered and the note in her mind became muted. Theimage that rose through the shallow pool was not that of her family home in thevalley of the Fold River, but that of her grandfather’s face.
Magda sat back on her heels, startled. It wasn’t unusual tosee something she hadn’t asked to see. Minds wander, after all, and sherecalled now that hers had done exactly that. But it was unusual to see someonewho had passed onto the next world. Grandfather Pim had left them long ago. Sheshouldn’t be able to see him, yet there he was, pushing a smile into his tiredface.
He didn’t speak. At least, not in the conventional sense.But in her mind, Magda again heard his voice answering questions she wasn’taware she’d asked. Quickly. For, they both knew there was no time to waste onreminiscing. The stone-faced sisters would be quick to find her now.
They had just enough time for Magda to understand one thingwith absolute clarity: she must kill the king.
* * *
She didn’t remember her walk back to the cabin in the woods.Bastian walked beside her, she knew, but it wasn’t until the smell of smoketeased her nose that she had any sense of where she was. The next hour – or wasit two? – passed with more raised voices than she’d ever heard at the cabin.
It wasn’t every day they discussed regicide.
It was Mathias who resisted the most, and he did so with suchfury that Magda nearly lost her nerve. But when he raised his hands and asked,“What power do we have that could possibly give us a fighting chance againstCaldriel’s army?” Magda saw the fear that caused his hands to tremble.
She didn’t back down. Instead, she raised her chin andlooked at each of the seers gathered around their rough-hewn kitchen table whenshe said, “We are what Caldriel fears. Why else would hepursue us so desperately? It is because he fears our power. All we need do isjoin our minds and free those of his seers. With their help, we’ll be able tochallenge his hold on this kingdom and the next.”
Mathias stilled with his eyes on Magda. “But what of thesisters? If we join our minds, we’ll be a hundred times brighter than any oneof us alone. The sisters are as sharp as Caldriel’s hounds. They would spot usand prevent us from reaching the others.”
From this, Magda knew he was no longer allowing fear todictate his thoughts. He was planning, which was nearly as good as if he’dproposed the idea himself.
She looked at the old and young faces at the table, atCeleste whose hands were pressed together at her unsmiling mouth. How could sheask them to risk the small, happy lives they’d managed to create here? Yet,they were here. Not a single person had left the room when she proposed theytake action.
“Yes, they would,” Magda said, confirming Mathias’ words.“That is why we must have someone in the palace. Someone who can join us frominside and overwhelm the sisters.”
This time it was the entire room that stilled.
Mathias broke the silence with a simple, but clear, “No.”
But Magda was tired of running. She was tired of hiding andwas not at all satisfied with a prison in any shape, even if it was one shefound agreeable. She could see in the press of his lips that Mathias knew this,too. He would let her go.
She stood and her red consecration robes swayed around herankles. Though she’d been offered other clothing, she’d never accepted. It wasas if part of her had always expected to return, though she never would haveguessed how and with what purpose.
“I’ll leave tomorrow,” she said, and though she was moreafraid than at any point during her flight, she discovered that fear was easierto carry when the path ahead was clear.
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