Here’s the full prologue for Smyle. I posted the first half the other day, but this includes the back end of thing. Warning – contains a fairly big spoiler for Band of Fallen Princes, so if you intend on reading that, stop when you see the phrase “seven days.” Otherwise, enjoy!
As the last of the daylight flittered through the edges of an ancient, silent forest, young Radomil chased his sister around a tree. Her giggles were sweet music, always just out of reach, though he wasn’t trying too hard to catch her. It was an idle game, born of a need to ignore the gnawing in their stomachs. No meat had graced their cooking fire for days, and their last meal was little more than a few grubs and roots boiled in a pot to make a watery soup that did little to actually fill their bellies.
Fear had not yet invaded their hearts. After all, the children spent most their lives in hunger. Hunting in the forest hadn’t provided much their entire lives apart from gamey birds, deer starved from a lack of undergrowth and population explosions, and the very rarest of boars. Instead, most of their diet came from their mother’s garden. Tended to with grave, superstitious care, if the children set so much as a foot within its rough-hewn fence, their bottoms would be red and sore for days on end. One time, when Radomil dared pluck a thick, fat greenish-yellow carrot without permission – and they never had permission – his mother beat him until he blacked out from the pain.
Too tired for much more play, Radomil eventually stopped, coming to a panting halt as he leaned against the tree for balance. The trunk was massive, easily as wide around as their house. A species already nearly extinct even in those times, it wouldn’t last when the Romans chewed through the forest nearly a century and a half later. But in that moment, it guarded its little playthings with the same silent stoicism as it had mustered every day of their existence.
Yaro circled the tree one last time, and whapped her brother on the back of his leg with the butt of her spear. He grumbled at her, but it was good-natured. Together they rested under the tree for a while, her head leaning against his shoulder. There were no words. Very seldom were there any between them. Everything that needed to be said could be expressed in a few looks or gestures that the two of them knew like another language.
She fell asleep like that, and though Radomil knew he would catch a beating for their laziness, he was content to let her doze. The love he held for Yaroslava was almost worshipful. She was the lone kindness in his little universe. Every night, when his dreams weren’t haunted with dark and secret things he didn’t understand or want to comprehend, it was her he dreamed about, just the two of them, forever and ever.
Eventually, the itch of the forest under his bare thighs – he’d grown out of his hide leggings and usually just wore one of his father’s lengthier tunics to cover himself properly in the warmer months – grew too annoying to ignore and he woke her up with a shimmy of his shoulder. She snorted one last gob of drool onto him, herked, and came awake, blinking away the aftershocks of a deep dream.
Spears in hand, they walked together back to their cottage a few miles towards the nearly-extinguished sun. She sang for him, not with words, but with sounds imitated from the birds among the trees. His Yaro-bird, Radomil called her, and though he first meant it teasingly, she’d liked the nickname and it stuck. She would have never opened her mouth once if she knew the cost of her song to her brother that evening.
Their mother, her back humped from a lifetime of digging in the dirt and nearly non-existent straw bedding upon a simple wooden frame. Scabs and sores dotted her wiry frame, and two gaps in her front teeth gave her the appearance of a brawler. There was muscle hidden under her thick tunic, nearly surpassing those of the children’s father, who was scrappy and gaunt even by the standards of the time.
Radomil faltered when he saw the bitter, ugly smile upon Bilyana’s face. Stoic blandness or a frown were her usual looks. A smile only ever meant one thing – she was excited to tear into her children. Instinctively, Radomil moved in front of Yaro, shielding her from a danger that hadn’t even presented itself, but Yaro shoved right past him, not one to be protected by anyone.
Without so much as a word, Bilyana snatched at their ears, an old favorite. Neither of them were stupid enough to fight back, knowing the beating would only get far more severe if they did. She jerked them back to the sparse little cottage, neither of them crying, neither daring to say anything.
The cottage lacked any sort of niceties. A scarred table was flanked by a pair of rickety chairs and two thick logs the children sat on, the wood too green to be used for firewood. From a pit central to the single room drifted tendrils of smoke up through holes in two corners of the house. The victim of a lifelong disease leaving her eternally chilled, Bilyana liked to keep the cottage as warm as possible, and rarely was the fire ever truly out.
Their beds, such as they were, rimmed the fire roughly in a circle, with Bilyana and Dimo’s at the point furthest from the door – and thus the warmest – while the children slept with their toes and feet pointed towards the exterior. Apart from some rough tools for hunting, skinning, and tanning, there wasn’t much else in the house of note.
Bilyana selected her favorite whipping instrument, a slender rod carved from a fallen branch. Radomil begged to know what they’d done wrong so they could do better, and she told them if they ever wanted to taste meat again, there would be no singing or noise whatsoever while they were out in the woods. Because Yaro had been doing the singing, she begged for her mother to punish her, not Radomil, but to drive home her point, that was precisely why Bilyana didn’t stop whipping Radomil until his back, butt, and hips were covered in angry black and purple welts.
Their father Dimo came in as Yaro was just about to receive her own punishment, three lashings because there was still no food on the table. Three became ten when Yaro questioned if her mother shouldn’t be getting lashed too for not being able to grow any vegetables. Dimo didn’t question his wife. She had driven the spirit out of him long ago, even before they had children, and he succumbed to her every demand with meek nods and grunts. Even now, with his boy lying on his straw bed, weeping silently so he wouldn’t get beat again, Dimo found no spine as his wife drew up his daughter’s jerkin.
The man tried to hide the hunger his daughter’s naked flesh brought out in him, but Bilyana knew. Bilyana knew everything. She used his lust for the child like a knife, goading him with it, taunting him. Dimo knew he deserved it. His daughter hadn’t even yet bled, and still he lusted.
He watched his wife beat Yaro, and did nothing to hide his hardness.
* * *
Another day passed without so much as a hint of a hare, deer, or even a bird. Something had spooked the animals away from the cottage, far, far away. Bilyana hissed that it was Dimo’s debaucherous mind. In one of those bizarre universal coincidences that have turned many of history’s mud puddles into roaring rivers of change, a rabbit shot out of the undergrowth, almost barreling straight for Dimo.
The superstition took root, and he began to believe it too.
* * *
The rabbit was only enough to stave off their hunger for a day, and none of them were satisfied.
As the children headed for the woods to hunt again, Dimo fitted his bow with a new hemp string. Down to his last few – and yet another thing to worry about. The only other tool he took with him was an ancestor’s knife. His father had regaled him with the story time after time – the blade had belonged to Dimo’s grandfather’s grandfather, a marker of his service as a tracker for the Roman Empire, where he served long and honorably before retreating to the wildlands. It was utter horseshit – their ancestor was an opportunistic bastard who found the knife in a field of the dead after a battle and forgot to sell it with the rest of what he stole away with. Both men believed the legend fervently, though now the knife was badly rusted and could barely hold an edge.
As Dimo ran a smooth stone over the knife’s edge, bemoaning the need for a new one when they could afford the trade, Bilyana made her move. She told him quietly, insistently, that the children were their curse. They were purposefully driving away the animals near the cabin, they frolicked when they should be working, and, almost as an afterthought, Bilyana pointed out the effect little Yaro was having on Dimo. Guiltily, Dimo tried to protest, but Bilyana, in a fit of uncharacteristic sweetness, told him it wasn’t his fault, but that the children were likely consumed by bogeys or dark spirits.
If they didn’t do something soon, Bilyana warned, they would both suffer the consequences. Quietly, Dimo asked what his wife thought needed to be done.
Kill them, she told her husband. Before they all starved. If he couldn’t do it, she would – and since she didn’t know as much about killing as her husband did, she would make it slow and agonizing for them. Knowing the hatred boiling just under her skin, her husband finally agreed.
Bring their bodies back, Bilyana told Dimo.
For what, he didn’t ask. He didn’t need to. There was one last source of meat that could feed Dimo and Bilyana for weeks.
* * *
The next morning, mad with hunger, Dimo told his children they would hunt together that day. Yaro and Radomil were ecstatic. They hadn’t hunted with their father since they were old enough to heft spears for themselves and hunt down a deer or smaller prey.
Dimo brought with him only the knife, and told the children they wouldn’t need their spears. Instead, they were going to check snares. His children, still too young to ever doubt their father, thought this sounded like great fun.
The game trail he led them down was as old as the cottage itself, and nearly overgrown with shrubbery and tall, reedy grass. At several points, if they looked back, the trail was hardly visible. Deeper and deeper still Dimo led them. The thought of killing them close to home made him nauseous. Every day, he would have to walk by the site where he murdered his own son and daughter. No, best to do it far, far away. Both the children were so light he could throw them over his shoulders and walk back easily once the deed was done. In his fractured, hunger-mad mind, this was somehow less horrifying than cutting their throats.
When they came to a clearing miles from home, he finally stopped them. Radomil glanced around in the trees excitedly, and Yaro watched her father, excited, nervous, wanting to study his every move so she could emulate him in their own hunts. So young, he thought to himself. She would be so beautiful. Was already.
Panting and not even aware he was doing it, Dimo told Radomil to head on another mile and look for a three-branched tree with a black ichor on both sides. There was no such tree, but the hunt would keep his son occupied for at least an hour. Radomil obeyed, and with a dawning sense of wrongness, Yaro looked away from her father and asked if she couldn’t go with him.
Dimo didn’t answer. He barely waited long enough for Radomil to make the edge of the clearing before he snatched her up, ripping at her jerkin, her leggings, and not knowing why exactly, Yaro started screaming.
Her father dropped her to the ground, and she tried to scramble away from him. He pinned her in place with one foot, fumbling at the string holding his leggings up. Yaro stared up at him, her throat burning as she shrieked and shrieked.
Radomil hurtled out of the trees, racing for their father. He was shouting her name, understanding on some vague level that what he was seeing was not right. Dimo let off Yaro’s chest and turned, grinning like some feral beast just before his son hit him at speed, throwing all his scrawniness behind the tackle and managing nothing except a distraction.
Yaro scrambled to her feet as Radomil bounced off their father, landing on a zit-like anthill. He rolled and jumped upright, but Dimo was already turning, his blade in hand. He didn’t think of his daughter once as a threat, not once. All his anger had focused on Radomil, and he swiped at the boy, snarling something unintelligible. Radomil didn’t think to move away. He just raised his arm to deflect the blow, and the blade scraped along his skin, drawing a fat line of crimson.
As Dimo raised the knife again, Yaro jerked forward and sank her teeth into his exposed hip, coming away with a mouth full of flesh as he screamed and dropped the knife out of reflex. Quick as she could, Yaro dove on top of the knife, protecting it with her scrawny body and rolling, coming up with it between her palms. Beside her, Dimo rolled around on the ground, clutching his arm and moaning. She glanced down at him once, saw the trickle of blood spattering the ground under Radomil, and snarled as she advanced on her father.
In the last moments before his daughter plunged the blade into his gut the first time, Dimo’s fury and madness fell away just long enough to have a chance to be grateful it was them that lived, not him.
Yaro stabbed him, drew back the blade with all the might in her frail body, stabbed him again, and again, and again. When it was done, she didn’t drop the knife. She simply wiped it off in the high grass like she’d been taught, and tended to her brother as in the sky, a pair of sparrowhawks called to one another with their rapid-fire chirping.
* * *
On the surface, Radomil’s cut didn’t look bad, but it wouldn’t stop dripping blood. Without her mother’s knowledge of herbs, Yaro was at a loss as to how to treat it, and ended up chewing blades of grass into a fine pulp to pack the cut. That helped, at least a little, though as they started away from the clearing, their progress was marked by a fine trail of red droplets.
For the first hour, they ran. They were both familiar enough with the sun’s position in the sky and how to orient themselves that they knew they were running away from the direction of their home, but neither Radomil or Yaro could have said where exactly they were going or how far they made it before they both finally collapsed, sobbing and finding no solace in clinging to each other. Yaro’s tears fell away faster than her brother’s. On some level, she’d known her mother’s violence was leading to something. She just hadn’t expected it to poison her father so completely. She wept for the man that used to pluck her up and let her ride on his shoulders as he stalked deer. She wept for the man who once would sneak her and Radomil away to the lake to splash away a lazy afternoon. But when she thought of the naked madman who had tried to force himself on her, she stopped weeping, because that hadn’t been a madman at all. She’d seen the looks. She’d known what they meant, no stranger to the grunting lovemaking of their parents in the settling light of the evening. For that man, eventually, she would discover there was nothing but contempt in her heart. Dimo was a footnote in her soon-to-come centuries of suffering.
* * *
That night, they tried to sleep in the hollowed nook of a long-dead pine, but Radomil’s whimpering and eventual rapid panting kept Yaro awake. She tried to comfort her brother the best she could, but there was nothing she could do for his pain. Sometime in the night, a branch cracked somewhere nearby and he yowled as if he’d been struck again.
That was the only sign any animals were around or near them. The still forest seemed to be waiting to swallow them both up. Another couple of nights like that one and either the hunger would kill them or the cold. Yaro found herself wandering further and further from the idea of caring about her own mortality. Still, though, she had Radomil to look after, and in the morning, when the sun trailed streamers through the trees, she unpacked his wound and stared in horror.
Lines of deep, angry purple and red stretched from the gaping cavity of the wound. Though the bleeding had stopped, the flesh around the cut was not normal. Even with her child’s mind, Yaro understood that. Radomil’s skin was hot to the touch, and twice he moaned her name questioningly, looking around slowly as if she wasn’t right there in front of him.
They had to move, she realized. Even as sick as her brother was, there was nothing she knew how to do that could save him. They had to find a village, or her brother would die.
Their pace through the woods was gratingly sluggish. Yaro had to lead Radomil by the hand, or else he’d fall and trip over anything and everything. When she told him to lift his feet up and over something, he did so with mute obedience. When she told him to stop and drink from a stream, he dropped like a stone and drank and drank until he was vomiting it all back up again, grinning up at her like he’d performed some great trick and she should be proud of him.
He’s dying, he’s dying, he’s dying, her mind chanted over and over again.
In a strange way, her brother’s plight helped to keep her mind off the other horrors. Her father, trying to rape her. Her young mind didn’t quite comprehend the full magnitude of her father’s intent on dragging them to the clearing, but she was not a stupid child and knew at least beneath the surface that her father had meant to kill them and their mother must have known about it.
Those were thoughts she would have plenty of time to address later, locked away in her cage for months and months.
* * *
Radomil could barely stand anymore as the gloom of the second day settled in. Yaro walked with his arm over her shoulder, propping him up as they crept along a deer trail. “Just a little further,” she gasped. Her own energy, brought on by fear and necessity, was waxing fast. There had been a handful of mushrooms that morning, but that had been all she could find to eat. The bulk of those she had pressed upon Radomil, who had to be coaxed both to chew and swallow. If they didn’t find something to eat before dark, there would be no getting up in the morning for either of them. She was done. Instinctually she knew that.
His head jostling and bobbing against his chest, Radomil mumbled that he smelled pheasant. It was the most he’d said all day, and at first, Yaro thought he was hallucinating at the edge of death, like the elder of the village closest to their home when her father had insisted they go and pay their respects to him in his last few weeks. That elder spoke of little that made sense, and she just assumed Radomil was doing the same.
Except… he wasn’t. She could smell food now too. Boar fat crackling. A sweet roll. They had only eaten those twice, both times in the village and snuck to her and Radomil by the lord’s cook. And something light and earthy, almost like her mother’s herbs when she stewed them for poultices. To her in that moment, it smelled like a feast, and she wept as she and her brother staggered towards the scent, pulled in by its tendrils.
In a cottage just a quarter of a mile away, a magician woke from his slumber.
* * *
The charms in the trees created a ward in a rough circle around the cottage. They created a simple magnet in the mind of whoever breached their boundaries. Whatever the person desired most – food, love, warmth – they would imagine in their minds. In one young lustful hunter’s mind, the charms created a whisper of a woman’s song on the wind, tickling his ears and drawing him to Kyrilu’s cottage. One lost little one imagined it was his parents she heard. A drunk thought he heard a stone pitcher pouring into a pair of mugs.
All of them came willingly to Kyrilu, rabbits creeping towards the poacher’s priest. Some of them lived for months. None of them left alive.
* * *
The cottage was sprawling by the era’s standards. It could have swallowed a dozen homes the size of the ones Radomil and Yaro came from, easily. Several smoke-holes poured out smoke from fires inside, and the scent of food intensified the closer they drew to its slightly ajar door.
If Yaro stared straight at the cottage, it seemed to blur before her eyes, almost making her head hurt. The smells dissipated too, just for a moment, replaced with something foul and rotten she didn’t so much as smell as sense. It rankled her skin, her mind, her very soul. But the blurring in her mind lost out to her crazed need to find help for her brother and food for her own stomach, and though she knew on some very primal level something was wrong here, terribly wrong, she staggered forward anyways, crying for help with what little strength she had left as her brother finally collapsed, unable to move another inch.
Yaro fell beside him, grunting his name. The marks on his arm extended all the way to his shoulder. His eyes fluttered like a bug’s wings and his breathing was slowing. Hoarsely, she shouted for help, for anyone to help, and as if he’d been waiting for that precise moment, a man appeared in the doorway. There was only enough time for her to make out a shock of black hair tied loosely and kept long for some reason – she had never seen any hairstyle other than cropped nearly to the skull to help keep away bugs – and a closely-shorn beard before he was striding towards them both.
As the stranger lifted her brother effortlessly off the ground, Yaro was sure there was no life left in Radomil. She wailed for her brother, but the stranger seemed unperturbed and swept back towards the cottage. Yaro could do nothing but follow in his wake.
* * *
Kyrilu settled the boy on his worktable. There was plenty of room – the station was meant for men many times his size. The child was on the cusp of death – the girl too, though she was drawing on reserves no doubt brought about by her bond to her brother. That, Kyrilu could manipulate. Otherwise he’d have been happy to let the crows have the boy’s flesh. It did him no good. He’d dissected and examined many dead and dying children and there was nothing new he could learn from the boy.
But the girl… yes, he could feel it. She had been feeding the boy a strength she didn’t know she had or was giving up. A catalyst. Gifted. Kyrilu could guide her. Mold her into whatever he wanted. That was an opportunity that only came along rarely.
“I can help,” Kyrilu said, his voice creaky from disuse. He cleared his throat, and added, “But I need something in return.”
“Anything,” the girl responded, and took her brother’s limp hand in her own.
“Your service. I will demand it until such time as I see fit.”
Kyrilu’s hand shot out and gripped her scrawny wrist. His grip was iron, his hands etched with scars and burns. He gave her no warning what the service would mean, or what it would entail. He had what he needed from her to make the magic work.
Her strength was not a finite thing. Oh, certainly, it could exhaust her physically and mentally to use it, but that was just her body’s ineptitude. The magic she could draw upon, the same as him, was as vast as the night sky. It would never fade, never diminish. Someone like Kyrilu, with her assent, could draw upon her access to it, nearly doubling his own power. He’d need it all for what he was about to do.
“Take food. Water. Then sleep,” he said, jerking his head towards a narrow room to his right. “You will hear things. Nightmarish things. Whatever happens, do not interrupt me or I will throw you into my fire and roast you like a pig. Understood?”
She nodded, trying to mask the twin fear of losing her brother and his threats, and slunk away, watching Kyrilu warily as he laid his hands upon the boy.
Never once did he ask their names. It would take two years before he bothered calling her anything but “girl.”
* * *
Radomil screamed as Yaro greedily scooped out a handful of barley porridge from a clay bowl.
And screamed as Yaro slurped down another bowl full of murky water, ignoring the dirt and the grit.
And screamed as she stumbled towards the cage where Kyrilu had indicated she should sleep, not caring that it smelled of refuse as she laid her head upon the hay.
And screamed as she snored, her nightmares unable to rouse her for a full day.
* * *
When she woke, there were no more screams. Radomil never uttered another word ever again. Instead, he sat beside her in the cage, unblinking, unmoving. Yaro spoke his name wondrously, He turned his head to face her, a small hint of a smile locked firmly in place.
Radomil’s eyes weren’t so much bloodshot as blood themselves, the whites now a dark, angry red, the sweet browns now pools of black. Still, he was alive, and she flung herself at him as best she could in the narrow confines of the cage. He did not return the gesture.
In fact, she wasn’t even sure she could feel the rise and fall of his chest when she clung to him.
“Radomil?” she asked, tentatively, then louder, until finally she screamed his name, but still that strange little was his only response.
* * *
The man who took them in was nowhere to be seen for two hours after she woke, but finally he stomped into the cottage, fingers flicking a strange motion at the door before he shut it slowly and carefully, as if he expected something to rush at him from the darkening evening.
Wordlessly, he let the children out of the cage. After relieving herself outside under her brother’s silent watch, Yaro came back in as Kyrilu tended to a pot bubbling above his fire.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Kyrilu grunted irritably, stood up, and backhanded her so hard she twirled and fell at her brother’s feet. “Pick her up,” he ordered Radomil. The boy did so – not just helping Yaro to her feet, but literally picking her up off the ground in his scrawny arms, his face and muscles showing no sign of weakness. Yaro gasped and jerked out of his arms, falling to her feet gracefully before she studied Radomil. “How… you….”
This time, the man waved a hand at Radomil. “Every time she speaks without being told to do so, hit her.”
Radomil responded instantly, doubling her over with a shot to her stomach just as hard as any their mother had ever dished out. Yaro cried out, but said nothing, and Radomil’s fist fell to his side.
“Learn, child. Eat. Shit. Clean. Sleep. That is your life now.” The man turned to Yaro, and studied her. “My name is Kyrilu. You are mine.”
* * *
The first lesson he taught her, and the one that stayed with Yaro the longest, was pain.
Kyrilu taught her new and agonizing ways for her to hurt. There was no joy in the lesson – in none, really. Kyrilu rarely let his emotions show, save for his displeasure in her failings.
At first, he used no magics, save for resetting his charms now and then when larger animals were attracted to the cottage. Their minds might have been simple, but they had needs too, and Kyrilu’s magic worked on them just as well as it had on Yaro and Radomil. Though she was subjected to a thousand different tortures of the flesh, Yaro never ate so well in her young life as she did those days. Radomil only took food when instructed to by Kyrilu, and he remained largely wooden and indifferent to Yaro’s screams.
Only once was his reverie broken, when Kyrilu ordered him to take the handle of a long, curved bone and carve a pattern into his sister’s back. One blink. That was all Radomil was capable of, how little of his soul was left to him. Then he set to work.
Even through the blinding agony, Yaro learned something important, something she would cling to. Kyrilu’s magic, while strong, was not perfect.
* * *
The days blended together into a long trail of suffering and misery. Yaro had no idea what the season was when Kyrilu finally tired of that lesson, but one day, when she was let out of her cage – thanks to the tight confines, her back was now permanently stooped, much like her mother’s had been – the wizard finally gestured for her to stand beside him at the door.
“You’ve been taught to endure,” he said calmly. “Now you learn to inflict.”
Radomil, his hair now down to his shoulders, led a sobbing woman through the woods. This stranger gasped a name over and over again, her hands outstretched to take Radomil up. Kyrilu’s deception spells, doing its work. Yaro vowed to learn those secrets, and more importantly, how to rework them to her own purposes, perhaps drawing in woodsmen to fight for her. A child’s fantasy, but Yaro was not given to many fancies those days.
“Esu?” the woman called. “Come to your mother.”
Radomil, that creepy smile eternally plastered on his face, kept walking backwards, right into the cottage. The woman followed, wrinkling her nose and rubbing at the scratches and open sores on her arms. Yaro had never seen the illness before, but in a great many of the local villagers, she would, given enough time.
Within the confines of the cottage, Kyrilu swung the door shut behind the woman. She jumped and turned, questions on her lips. From a pouch on his hip, Kyrilu withdrew a fine powder and blew it in her face. She sneezed, once, twice, and stumbled sideways into the wall, rebounding off it before crashing to the ground, dazed and blinking against the fading illusions of her mind.
The powder temporarily addled her mind, and Kyrilu guided her to the work table where he’d healed – well, depending on your interpretation of the term – Radomil and so very often tortured Yaro. Using long, tight straps made from tanned leather, he bound the woman in place and nodded at Yaro.
“I will not.”
Surprising her, Kyrilu permitted himself a small smile. It vanished as he turned for one of his bone knives. Yaro thought he meant to use it on her for coercion, which just simply wasn’t going to happen. Her back, breasts, belly, hips, and legs were covered in thick, ropy scar tissue, marks of what had been done to her. There was little left Kyrilu could do to her that would make her turn the tools on the innocent woman.
But there was someone else he could hurt instead. Kyrilu turned and began idly carving right into Radomil’s forehead. The boy gave no indication he could even feel it, but Yaro snapped almost immediately and took up one of the other knives. The memory of stabbing her father over and over and over again swept through her mind, consumed it, and she snarled as she sank the blade into innocent flesh.
* * *
Kyrilu only began to teach her magic when she first bled. Something to do with maturing triggered a change in her, he said, adding that it was much the same for boys when their balls fell.
The ancient man favored alchemy and enchantment. With the proper preparation any magician could come out ahead in even the most impossible fight, Kyrilu told Yaro as he traced intricate patterns on the side of a stone cup with his bone chalk. It wasn’t really chalk, and there was far more body parts ground down to make it than bone, but that was a rough approximation of the word Kyrilu used.
Magic came from patterns and rituals, he explained to her. Some catalysts were born with unique, singular gifts – powerful talents that magicians could only emulate, not duplicate. Power like their own, he continued, had to be accessed in a studious way. When Yaro asked where Kyrilu had learned all this, he permitted himself a small smile and just told her it was something he picked up a very long time ago.
Yaro did well with neither, but found better success with drawing on nature’s energies, drawing animals to her, soothing them, enraging them. Spiders, bugs, and birds in particular were remarkably easy for her to commune with. As the years sloughed away, she also found a talent for illusion. At first, it started small – with the right pattern drawn in the air, she could create a shimmering surface, like the reflection off a pond dappled by a little breeze. That slowly turned into a talent for creating people out of thin air. They would burst apart into motes when touched, but it shocked her how easy it was.
Slowly, the beginnings of a means of escape began to form in her head.
* * *
Sometimes Kyrilu would go days without teaching her a lesson, absorbed in his own work and research into his own power. As months stretched into years, Yaro learned it was practically his only care in the world. Kyrilu had power, but he wanted more. Wanted to control the fabric of the universe. The thought of her master having that much power scared Yaro on a fundamental level. Stopping him, however, was never on her mind. Not then. Escape with Radomil was the one thought that consumed her.
Yaro was determined though to learn everything she could. If she failed in their escape, she had little doubt Kyrilu would do to her what he’d done to Radomil, or worse, whatever “worse” might be. Slowly, her heart hardened against the screams of their victims as she trained and trained and trained. She learned ways to shred a man apart from the inside. She learned how to invade a woman and shatter her body and her mind over and over again as she created orgasmic highs and infernal lows within their bodies, often within the same minute.
At some point, access to the energies she commanded began to change her body and slow her aging. With no frame of reference, she didn’t notice this until she realized one day Radomil now sported a full, lice-infected beard while she herself still had a frame only had a frame a little larger than when she first came through Kyrilu’s door. That didn’t mean her body wasn’t changing. Following menstruation came desires, dark ones. A thick-bodied woodsman was her first as she climbed on his lap and took him while he screamed. He might have enjoyed it Yaro hadn’t flayed away the flesh around his ribs and slowed the hemorrhaging with an alchemical powder. There were others after that, many others. Pleasure offered as much of a fascinating study as pain, and she soon learned how to masterfully coax both from her victims.
* * *
One of the objects Kyrilu was most fascinated by was the knife they had brought with them from home, the same one Yaro used to kill her father. There was nothing special about it. It was not an inherently magical object, Kyrilu said, and Yaro came to agree with him. But it still held something for her master. In their first week, he carefully shaved away the blood from it, saving the flecks in a sealed bowl she never could learn to break. Sometimes, when Kyrilu believed her to be asleep, Yaro would watch him try to enchant the knife, or the blood, or a combination of the two. Some of his magic, he would not teach her, and this was one of those times. He, in turn, was immensely frustrated at her natural gifts with her illusive arts, and watched her carefully for hours on end as she would practice. It wasn’t that he couldn’t perform the same spells, but it was the difference between two gifted warriors chopping down a foe, one in just moments, the other only after a long and protracted battle. The results were the same, but the effort required was wildly different.
Though Yaro had no inkling what a calendar was, twenty years passed before she finally figured out how her master stored the knife away every night. He created a slice in the air, a glimmering line much like the one she used to cast aspersions, and simply reached in and dropped the blade or picked it up.
The spell was simple for Yaro, but she was afraid it was a trap. Kyrilu was nasty like that. Perhaps she’d reach her hand in and something would snap it off. She practiced accessing her own, sliding in a thin handful of hay and squeezing her eyes shut before she ddared pull it back out again.
There was no trap. Nothing bit her hand. It tingled a little, but that was it.
Still, Yaro was learning the value of patience. She waited another five years. Five years of killing more innocents, learning more magic. Five years of tending to Radomil, of listening to Kyrilu’s mutterings about his studies. Five years of delicious anticipation.
Five years to figure out how to escape.
* * *
Their opportunity came with the trapper.
He was a brutish man, squat and thick-skulled, with no neck to speak of. Another time, and Yaro might have taken him for her own pleasure. Instead, Kyrilu wanted him for his own devices, a form of torture he was developing involving turning the spine to a fine powder slowly, letting the vertebrae grind itself away.
As her master worked, Yaro led Radomil outside. “When it is time, sweet brother,” she whispered to him, “and if you can understand this, run. Run as far away as you can. Think nothing of me. I will find you.”
Radomil registered nothing, but Yaro hadn’t really expected him to. If this went badly, she had a vague hope that maybe she could at least jam her father’s blade into Radomil’s heart and end his walking nothingness.
She crept back inside. Waiting for Kyrilu to elicit screams from the victim wasn’t difficult – he was very, very good at it. When Kyrilu had to push down on the trapper’s stomach to get him to stop arching his back so high in the air, Yaro snapped the little pocket into existence, reaching in and drawing as Kyrilu started to turn, frowning.
As her fingers skittered across the blade, Kyrilu cocked his head at her. “I wondered when you might try this,” he said simply, and smiled as if he were her father, doting upon her.
She snarled and jumped, not at him, but sideways, calling her mirrorkin into existence. They surrounded her, dancing, diving, jumping, creating a nuisance and hiding her in their ranks. Kyrilu swiped at them, annoyed. At his smallest touch, they burst apart into more of their ranks.
“A nice trick,” Kyrilu said mildly.
But Yaro said nothing, stalking the edge of the room, waiting for her opportunity. But she underestimated Kyrilu’s natural senses, and when she finally drew near enough to slice his throat with the blade, he caught her earthy, sweaty scent and whirled away. Not quite fast enough, though – the blade cut a nasty curved gash along his throat, and he clutched at the wound, now himself snarling too, staring right at her and flicking his fingers in an indefinable pattern.
Something sizzled and popped – the fire, come to life. Sparks shot out of the blackened husk of last night’s firewood, and swirled straight for her in a helix-like pattern. Instead of running for the door, she dove right at Smyle again, drawing the blade across his throat one more time. He snatched it from her, gripping the blade and uncaring about the damage it did to his palm. With his other hand, Kyrilu snatched her hair and yanked her head back.
“A little fire will teach you,” he croaked. A flap of flesh from Yaro’s first cut bobbed up and down on his throat with every word. He dragged her towards the waiting embers floating in midair, dancing through the mirrorkin illusions.
Desperately, Yaro tried to think of anything to stop him, but she had nothing left. Most magic took hours to prepare, sometimes longer. The little tricks they were using on each other were just that – tricks, not serious spells. Even so, the fire would cook her flesh just as if it had been started with flint.
The door crashed open. Both wizard and apprentice stared at Radomil, heaving breath for the first time since they’d come to that accursed cottage. He stared at them both as Kyrilu demanded he wait, that he do nothing but watch.
Instead of begging for Radomil’s help, Yaro let herself fall towards the fire. Kyrilu lost his grip on her hair, coming away with a handful of bloody roots and bits of her scalp. He stalked across the room, ignoring Yaro, and plunged the blade into Radomil’s heart.
Without any hesitation, Yaro grabbed the merrily burning log, grateful somewhat that Kyrilu taught her to ignore pain, and whirled on her back with it, watching her brother fall,, watching the last hint of her humanity die, and she closed her eyes and wept as she breathed the words to one of the earliest, easiest spells Kyrilu taught her – creating a blush of a breeze with her own breath.
The sparks from the fire fanned out, and Kyrilu shrieked as they lit the cottage up. Straw and rough blankets burst into flames, followed shortly by the walls, the roof, the entire building.
Kyrilu shot towards her, the blade cutting down at her, but where he thought she was, there was only a mirrorkin. He fumbled to his feet again, swiping at decoy after decoy as she opened another pocket portal, this one right behind Kyrilu. As he spun from mirrorkin to mirrorkin, knife in hand, Yaro sprinted for him, screaming, and shoved him backwards into it. He tried to grab at her as he fell, but his fingers gripped nothing but embers.
Coughing with the rising smoke, Yaro fell and crawled towards her brother, finding his corpse with her fingertips. With the last of her strength, she gripped him under his armpits and dragged him out of there.
Beyond the call of Kyrilu’s charms still hanging in the trees, Yaro softened the earth and dug away at it. Using just her hands, she dug well past dark, only stopping to curl up next to her brother’s still form when exhaustion overtook her. Graves were not a common tradition to her family or her people, but Kyrilu taught her to bury the bodies. It drew less attention, he said, but for her, it had always been a sign of respect for their dead. In the earth, neither she or Kyrilu could experiment on them anymore. In the earth was safety. Darkness. Nothingness.
At noon the next day, having healed her fingers time after time after time of the cuts and scrapes from digging, she was finally satisfied she had a hole deep enough that scavengers wouldn’t dig out the bones again.
There was one last preparation she had to make. She vomited twice in the process, and the horror of it would keep her awake randomly for a millennium and a half to come. But when it was done, Yaro knelt, kissed Radomil’s forehead one last time, and rolled her brother’s body into the grave. Covering him with a blanket of dirt seemed almost unfairly easy.
* * *
Seven days, Kyrilu fell.
Seven days, Kyrilu cursed the girl.
Seven days, Kyrilu contemplated her success with grudging admiration.
When he ripped open a portal back into their world, he fell face first into the blackened remains of his cottage. No fire remained. No life remained.
The cottage was lost to him. And somewhere out in the world, the little Sparrowhawk ran free.
Kyrilu looked down upon the blade, the same one he would plunge into Chloe Iver’s stomach a millennium and a half later, and smiled.