Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Cold wind bit at my cheeks, bearing the scent of fallen leaves in decay. I ducked my head and hunched my shoulders as I trudged along a path overgrown with wild grass, my feet aching with each step. My skin was chafing where my pack rested against the small of my back, and my boots pinched. We’d been walking for weeks—long enough for my resolve to wear thin, for my stomach to clench into an angry pit of hunger. Though we’d rationed the little food we’d brought with us, our provisions had run out yesterday morning.
Father looked over his shoulder, as if he sensed my dour mood. “We’re almost there,” he said.
I didn’t bother to reply. Instead, I pulled my scarf up over my chin as he turned and strode ahead of me through an empty field, his walking stick striking a steady beat upon the ground. He had been promising almost there for days now, as though our destination were something to look forward to. As though we hadn’t been forced to flee our last home because of what I’d done.
I supposed that an end to our journey was something to celebrate. We’d managed to outrun any rumors chasing us and avoid the notice of keepers of the peace. And most importantly, there were no signs that the witch had caught our scent. Still, part of me had welcomed the discomfort I’d endured during this flight. I deserved this pain. And at least my aching feet and empty stomach kept my thoughts from other, darker things. I didn’t know what I would do when the distraction went away.
In front of me, Father stopped walking. “Look, Lena.”
I lifted my gaze from the ground. We’d crested a small hill, and a valley lush with greenery lay before us, a huddle of houses at its base. There was a lake to the north that fed a stream running south through the village. And to the east, on the other side of the houses, was the Silence—a forest of trees so dense and dark they looked almost blue.
A prickling sensation skittered down my spine as I stared out at the trees. Even from a distance there was something unsettling about them. I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow they were watching me, too.
“What do you think is in there?” I asked.
Father shook his head. “We’re to keep people from going into the Silence. It’s not our duty to speculate on what might reside within.”
“But shouldn’t someone investigate—”
“No,” he said sharply. “The Onwey council sent very clear instructions. The Silence is deadly. No one who walks into those trees ever comes out again. You’re not to go near it, Lena.”
He started down the hill without waiting for my reply, leaving me no choice but to fall in line. It didn’t matter that I thought there had to be more to the Silence than what we’d been told. My father wouldn’t listen to me, and I had long ago learned it wasn’t worth challenging him—not on things like this.
The wind picked up, and I shivered, stuffing my gloved hands into my pockets. Maybe Father was right—maybe it didn’t matter what was in the Silence. He would have taken the job no matter what risks it entailed. Anything to get us away from—screams, the stench of blackened, burning skin—
Don’t think about that. I shook my head, as if I could shake the memory away. It was over. I was safe. I took a deep breath and followed my father down the hill.
The village houses were arranged in rough curves that gathered around a central square. It would have seemed quaint, were it not for the gloom that permeated the air. The streets were silent and empty, despite it being only midafternoon. Doors and windows were shuttered. The only sign of life was a thin plume of smoke rising from the chimney of a large building on the south side of the square, so we headed in that direction. The faded sign hanging above one window told us it was a tavern—the Midnight Song.
“Gloves?” Father asked, pausing on the stoop.
I held up my hands in answer. We were lucky to be traveling in autumn—no one would look askance at someone wearing gloves, even indoors.
He nodded curtly and pushed open the door.
My shoulders tensed as I stepped over the threshold, and I tucked my elbows in, trying to make myself as small as possible. But there were no drunken patrons veering clumsily in our direction, nor jovial groups brushing past us on their way out. In fact, it seemed unusually quiet. Only a few people bothered to look up from their glasses to take note of Father and me. I tried to force myself to relax.
As we moved farther into the tavern, my gaze fell on a small cluster of people on the other side of the room. At the center of the cluster was a single chair, which held a man with flushed cheeks and disheveled hair. His limbs were restrained by leather straps even though he was perfectly motionless, his head lolling to one side as though unsupported by his spine.
A charred corpse on the ground, unmoving—
Suddenly the man thrashed against his restraints, dragging me back to the present.
I drew a great, shuddering breath. That’s all in the past. This man is different. He’s alive. As if he could hear my thoughts, the man opened his mouth and began to sing in an eerie cadence that raised the hairs on the back of my neck and clawed against my skin.
“Down below the briars and the vines, let me down, until roses come to claim me, set me free, let me down…”
What was wrong with him? I glanced over at Father. His face was grim as he watched the man sing.
“Can I help you?” a woman’s voice called out, cutting through the song like a knife.
Father and I turned to see an older woman with neat gray hair standing behind the bar, eyeing us suspiciously.
Father cleared his throat. “Yes. I’m Joren, the new watcher. This is my daughter, Lena.” He nudged me with an elbow. I raised my hand in greeting, trying to avoid meeting the woman’s eyes. “But it seems we’ve arrived at an inopportune moment.”
She sighed, her expression turning resigned. “We were expecting you tomorrow, but you may as well stay. I’m Olinta, one of the council members.”
The man in the chair thrashed harder, catching my attention once more. His song had dissolved into incoherent mutters, and as I watched, he began to weep.
“What’s wrong with him?” The words burst out of me, unbidden and louder than I’d intended.
All eyes turned toward me. I felt my cheeks grow warm and saw Father’s jaw tighten before I looked down at my feet. I shouldn’t have said anything—Father would have the answers soon enough. There was no need to call attention to myself.
“Melor has been infected by the Silence, child. There’s no hope for him now,” Olinta replied.
I dared another glance at the man—Melor. A slight woman approached him now, a bowl of water in her hand. She dabbed at his brow with a cloth, then looked up at the others in the room. “It’s time,” she said.
The men standing next to her moved woodenly as they loosened the straps that held Melor down, then grabbed his arms and pulled him upright. He struggled and began to scream, and I stepped quickly aside as the men wrestled him toward the tavern door.
The unnerving cries cut through the air even after the door closed behind them. But those who remained in the tavern made no move to follow Melor and his escorts. Instead, a quiet hum of conversation picked up as they returned to their tables and plates of food. I looked around the room, surprised. Was it so easy for the residents of Onwey to ignore the sounds of such suffering?
“I’m sorry you had to see that, but it is the reason you are here,” Olinta said, addressing Father as she came out from behind the bar. “Would you mind stepping outside with me?”
Father moved to follow her but put out a hand to stop me as I started after him. He leaned in, whispering in my ear. “Go talk to someone.”
“What?” All my life he’d taught me to avoid close contact with others—why was he reversing course now?
“You’re new here. It’s only natural that you would be curious. That’s what they expect. Be careful and you’ll be fine.”
And then he followed Olinta outside, leaving me standing by myself.
I wanted to press my back against the wall and will myself into invisibility. My palms were sweating inside my gloves. But Father was right—it was imperative that I appear as normal as possible. The illusion of normalcy might be the only thing that would save me if anyone ever came searching for us here.
Most of the people in the tavern looked at least as old as my father, but there was a group of three around my age sitting at a table in the corner. I took a deep breath, steeling myself. Then I walked over to them, stopping a safe distance away.
It was a few moments before they noticed me. “Come closer,” said a girl with kind brown eyes and long dark hair. “We don’t bite.”
Ah, but I did.
I took a tiny step forward. “Hello,” I said, trying not to let my voice quiver.
The dark-haired girl smiled at me. “That’s quite a cloak you have.”
I couldn’t tell whether she was teasing or sincere. Years ago the cloak had belonged to my mother, and as such it was too long on me, falling almost to the ground. It had been mended over so many times that it was difficult to tell it had once been brown; now it was a patchwork of colors snatched from whatever scraps of cloth were handy.
“Thank you,” I said uncertainly.
“You must be with the new watcher,” said one of the others, a boy with a contemplative air about him.
They must have seen us arrive. “He’s my father,” I said. “I’m Lena.”
“I’m Wren,” said the first girl. She nodded to her companions in turn. “That’s Jasper, and this is my sibling Corina.”
Corina had the same dark hair as Wren, though it was cut shorter. They looked a little younger than their sister—or maybe that was because of the way they were nervously interlacing their fingers again and again.
“So, Lena,” Jasper said, “where are you from?”
I shrugged. “Lots of places. Minos, for a few years.” It wasn’t quite a lie. We had lived in Minos, though not recently. But I couldn’t risk naming a city tainted by my curse.
“Minos,” Wren said, her eyes gleaming with interest. “What’s it like, living in a city like that? You must know so many people!”
“Fewer than you’d think,” I replied. I’d spent most of my time indoors or in our garden, hidden away. But there had still been things to love about the cities I’d seen only from a safe distance—the different foods Father had brought home, the books from the city libraries, the people from so many places I’d made a habit of watching from my window…
Now all that was gone, traded away for this beleaguered village and its wan and weary inhabitants.
I blinked and realized they were watching me—waiting for me to say something more. “It was fine,” I said. “Crowded. Too noisy sometimes.”
Wren sighed. “Sounds wonderful.”
“I… suppose you don’t get many visitors here?”
Jasper snorted with contemptuous laughter. “Do you think anyone’s yearning to visit Onwey when we have that hanging over our heads every day?” He tipped his head in the direction of the door.
I smoothed the edges of my gloves, making sure my skin was completely covered. “I thought the Silence took people. But he’s…”
“Still here?” Wren said.
“People don’t just walk into the forest by accident. Something calls to them if they get too close. Bewitches them.”
“And they just go?”
Wren and Jasper nodded in unison.
“You saw Melor. They caught him before he crossed the border into the forest, but he’s not there anymore,” Jasper said, tapping a finger to his temple for emphasis.
I glanced back at the chair that Melor had been strapped to. “Will he recover?”
Corina shook their head. “He’s gone,” they said, their voice cracking. They stood up from the table without another word. I shied away as they ran past me and out of the tavern.
I looked at Wren, who bit her lip. “Corina was sweet on him,” she said.
“Well, there’s no cure for what ails him now,” Jasper said. “Once a person’s bewitched, they rave about the Silence until they can’t speak anymore. They stop eating and drinking—eventually they die. That, or find their way into the forest, never to be seen again.”
Jasper’s flat tone took me aback almost as much as his words. Dead? And these would be his last days, strapped down and delirious as his loved ones watched him waste away?
“So where did the men take him?” I said.
Jasper and Wren glanced at each other. “Sometimes the families elect to let them go into the Silence,” Wren offered. “But Melor’s family has chosen to…”
“Put him out of his misery,” Jasper finished.
“You mean kill him?” My voice cracked. If this was what happened to victims of ensorcellment, what might they do to me, if they found out what I was capable of?
“He’s already as good as dead,” Jasper said. “It’s better this way.”
Wren grimaced but didn’t argue.
A shiver ran down my spine. It was a horrific choice. Now that I was beginning to understand the extent to which the Silence preyed upon this village, it was shocking to me that anyone still lived here. “Has it always been like this?”
Wren shook her head. “The Silence has always been unearthly, but my grandmother said people used to go inside safely. She doesn’t remember exactly when it changed, but I think something happened—turned it vicious.”
“The forest itself does this?” What could a forest possibly want with befuddled humans? How could a forest possibly want anything?
Jasper shrugged. “No one who goes in ever comes out, so who knows?”
I took a breath to ask another question but was stopped by an inconsolable wail that rattled me to the core. That sound—his piercing scream—
“I—I have to go,” I stammered, backing away from the table.
“Don’t,” Wren said. “It’s better not to see.”
But the roaring in my ears told me I had to flee—for anything was better than letting my legs fold beneath me here, where they might jump up to help. Might reach out and—
I turned and ran.
I yanked the tavern door open and stumbled outside. The sudden light was blinding, and I threw up a hand to block it as I crossed the square and saw the men from the tavern, solemn and still; my father, his hands clasped behind his back; a wailing woman, on her knees beside—the body.
From this vantage point I couldn’t tell how they had killed him, only that it had been bloody. It was everywhere, on the stones, on their shirts, their hands. And I could smell it now, the warm, metallic tang causing my throat to seize. They’d killed him, they’d truly killed him, it had been a slaughter, and they would do the same to me—
The roaring in my ears returned, and I sank to the ground. I was sweating despite the cold, and my heart raced—there was the stench of burning skin again, the stench I’d tried so hard to wash off—
“Lena!” Father’s voice came from far away as my vision blurred.
Flames crawling up the boy’s skin but I cannot help him. The falling rain does nothing, he is already dead—
Hands under my arms lifted me up. I leaned against Father as he put an arm around my waist, taking my weight and leading me away from the grisly scene.
“You’re all right,” he murmured under his breath. “You’re all right, it’s going to be all right.”
But I didn’t see how it could. Not here and not anywhere, not after what I had done. And there was nothing he could say that would make it so.