Autumnal Tithe
Hannah Parker

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

Chapter 1

Larken brought up the mound of dough and slammed it down with a thwap, flour billowing before her. She smacked her hand down again and again, air bubbles exploding beneath her palms. Each time she brought her hand down a single word echoed through her head: Today. Today. Today. Today.

She still couldn’t bring herself to believe it was real—the Choosing Ceremony was finally here. She licked her lips, tasting the flour that had settled there. It seemed like only yesterday that Brigid had been Chosen. It seemed like only yesterday Larken had lost her dearest friend, not four long years ago.

She tried to ignore the shaking of her fingers as she rolled out the dough, her stomach fluttering from nerves and exhaustion. She had spent those years trying to put the Choosing Ceremony behind her, trying to forget that her one friend in the world was gone. But it seemed like she could ignore it no longer.

“Hurry up, Larken!” Papa’s voice boomed, startling her. “Get that bread in the oven and come help me with these cookies.”

Larken groaned, but the edges of her mouth turned up. She stuck her tongue out at her hulking, bear-like father. He winked back, the gesture almost lost under his bushy brows. Had her father been anything but a baker, he would have been absolutely terrifying. Yet despite his broad shoulders and muscled arms, his huge hands frosted the cookies before him with astonishing delicacy. Larken wondered why he even needed her help, as good as he was. Everyone knew she was absolutely hopeless with a piping bag.

Larken wiped her hands on her stomach, glad she had put on an apron to protect her Ceremony dress. She had settled on a fine, heavy-linen gown of light blue with pink stitching, and she preferred that it not be covered in flour when she stood before her entire village. And the fey.

She drew three slits along the top of the dough, shoving it in the oven so hastily that she almost burned her hands on the tiles. She cursed, jerking her hands back.

“Careful, love.” Mama took Larken hands in her own, rubbing them gently. Larken calmed, savoring the feel of her mother’s soft hands surrounding her own. “Forget the cookies, your Papa can finish them. Help me take these down to the festival.” She gestured to one of the wicker baskets brimming with baked goods. “Wait! Get your cloak—you’ll need it.”

Larken nodded, hiding her smile. Mama was always so flustered on Ceremony day. With villagers from the furthest reaches of Ballamor pouring into town, there were more mouths to feed. They had been preparing for days to keep the bakery well-stocked, which meant many nights with little sleep. Hiding a yawn, Larken raced back up the stairs that connected the bakery to her family’s apartment on the upper level. Upon reaching the top she hurled herself up the ladder to her sleeping loft, grabbing her cloak where it laid sprawled out across her bed.

Larken was so eager to return to the bakery that she almost tripped. A smearing of half-completed maps of Ballamor stared up at her, the product of her insomnia the night before. It was a rare thing when charting out her little village couldn’t ease her agitated mind enough to sleep.

Her eyes involuntarily darted to the map nailed above her bed. Two tiny cottages sat next to each other, one labeled “Brigid” in tiny, precise letters and the other “Larken” in her own scrawl. She and Brigid had made it together—their plan for the future. Once they had found husbands, the most handsome men in the village, undoubtedly, they would build cottages next to each other. That way, their children could be as good of friends as they were.

It was Brigid who had found her all those years ago, alone in the woods. As one of the few only children in Ballamor, Larken was used to spending her days alone. Brigid had ventured into the woods that day to escape her family’s sweltering forge and had come across Larken mapping out the nearby pastures.

“What’re you doing?” Brigid had asked. Even then, Brigid had been beautiful. Her dark hair had made her huge blue eyes look even brighter. And even then, they had been opposites. Brigid willow-thin to Larken’s plump, black hair to Larken’s blonde.

“Making maps,” Larken had replied, eyes wary. The other children liked to tease her about it. While most of the children her age were playing Faery and Maiden, she was plotting how far away her family’s bakery was from the mill where they got their flour. Larken didn’t like pretending to be a faery or a princess. No, she preferred facts and knowing where things were in her world instead of daydreaming.

Brigid had peered over her shoulder, observing the grid where Larken had plotted their entire town. Larken had been toying with it for hours, unable to figure out what was wrong with it. She had counted her steps, seeing how many paces were between buildings and how wide the fields were. But something still didn’t fit.

“That tree there—” Brigid pointed to a tiny tree towards the left of the map. “It should be here.” She moved her hand an inch to the right. “It’s in front of Da’s forge—not to the side.” She frowned, noticing Larken’s scribbled label. “And ‘forge’ is spelled with a ‘g’ not a ‘j’.”

“It is a ‘g.’”

Brigid’s eyebrows knitted. “Doesn’t look like one.”

Larken had giggled. Brigid was more straightforward than any of the other village children she had met—but she wasn’t unkind about it.

“How come you can read and do your letters?” Brigid had asked.

“I help my Mama and Papa in the bakery, so I need to be able to follow recipes and record inventory,” Larken had replied. She was surprised that Brigid knew how to read and write. Very few of the village children could, as so much of Ballamor was farmland.

“I help my Da too!” Brigid had exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. “I keep numbers for him because I’m too small to do any of the lifting.” She had flexed her scrawny arms, her face scrunching up, making Larken laugh.

They had become fast friends after that. Larken made the maps, Brigid providing her with helpful insight and unwavering friendship.

Now Larken made maps by herself.

It was four years ago, why can’t you just forget? Larken asked herself bitterly. She stepped over the sketches, not allowing herself to look back at the drawing pinned above her bed.

She pushed open the door to the bakery, the smell of sugar and sweet cream enveloping her. Papa had already finished frosting the cookies and they lay cooling on the racks lining the walls. It seemed they had made even more this year. With Ballamor so near to the Bridge, it was a prime spot for the fey to perform the Choosing. Larken marveled at the sheer amount of baked goods she and her parents had churned out. If Mama and Papa chose to sell them they could have made more coin than they made in a half a year’s time. But they were unwavering on their decision: on Choosing Ceremony day, the goods were free. Other shops pitched in as well, and Papa said it was a time to give back, not to make profit.

Papa turned to a bowl of dough, mixing it with a practiced hand. As children, Larken and Brigid’s favorite pastime was mixing cupfuls of water and flour together, mashing the paste with their fingers. They would then hurl great globs each other, squealing like piglets. Larken’s heart twisted painfully.

“Ava, love, I’ve got another batch coming. Those will need to go down as soon as they cool,” Papa called to Mama, pointing to the racks of cookies. It always took them several trips to cart all the baked goods into town.

Outside, their cart-pony, Snowfoot, waited for them. He snorted excitedly when he saw them. He liked the festival as much as the rest of them—if only because he got extra sugar cubes.

Colorful flags waved at them from window sills as they made their way down the main road. The door to the village inn was swung wide, people spilling out into the streets. Wreaths of flowers decorated the doors of the local shops, a nod to the girls participating in the Choosing Ceremony and to welcome the fey.

The fey always brought gifts for the villagers, something that Larken, as well as the rest of the villagers, always looked forward to. Wine that would cause one to fall asleep to only good dreams. Candies for the children that once eaten caused them to feel invisible fingers tickling them. Better still were the special presents given to the families of the Chosen girls; necklaces that never went dull, tools that never had to be sharpened. Little pieces of the faery world that showed how dazzling it would be for their daughter.

Larken and Brigid had always enjoyed the gifts, but had no interest in being Chosen unless they could be Chosen together. Which they hadn’t been. They used to do everything together, and Brigid had left her behind.

She didn’t have a choice, Larken reminded herself. But it didn’t help rid the bitter taste in her mouth.

Larken helped Mama unload and arrange the pastries on one of the long, food-laden banquet tables. The Ceremony happened only once every four years—which meant the villagers had plenty of time for preparations. Already she could smell meat roasting on spits, glistening with honey and grease. The scent of horses and the clamor of a great many people swept in on the breeze, and children ran by with ribbon sticks, shrieking with delight.

The two wooden X’s standing in the center of the field were the crowning glory of the festival. Soon they would be set alight, symbolizing the Pope’s compliance with the Choosing Ceremony. Before the Order of the Twins had been established as the one true religion of Ellevere, the burning X had stood in every town converted by crusaders. There were no converters now. People were either part of the Holy Order, or they were killed. Though the Holy Order was a fairly young religion, only a century old, its claws had already sunk deep into the Empire.

A high-pitched scream made Larken freeze, her hand clutched on a cherry scone. Across from her, Brigid’s three older brothers led children around on ponies. Their large hands, roughed from long hours in the forge, were gentle as they steadied the ponies’ clumsy riders. Brigid’s parents were there as well—smiling and laughing with the rest. Still, their shoulders hung low, some invisible mantle draped across them.

Brigid’s parents told her they were happy for their daughter’s Choosing, inviting Larken over from time to time. Larken didn’t see it as anything more than a courtesy. When Brigid was Chosen, Larken didn’t just lose her friend; she lost her second family as well. She released her hand, realizing she had reduced the scone to crumbs.

The crowd increased as the day progressed, people from the outer towns arriving to join in the festivities. Wealthy townsfolk came in from their estates outside of town, bringing their splendid clothes and horses with them. Girls dressed in their finest breezed past, and Larken clenched the fabric of her gown self-consciously.

During the last Choosing Ceremony, a group of the village boys had teased her about her dress, saying she looked like a dressed-up pig. They claimed that the fey would never want a fat girl like her unless they wanted to eat her. Brigid had promptly put an end to their teasing by punching their leader right in the nose.

You just have to get through today, Larken reminded herself, trying to ignore the weight of missing her friend. She just had to get through today, and then she could go back to trying to move on. She needed to move on. She and Brigid were both women grown now—not the fourteen-year-olds they had been, giddy after their first blood and eager to attend the Choosing Ceremony as eligible girls for the first time.

Papa came up behind her, jostling her out of her thoughts. He squeezed her shoulders with his massive hands. Larken was convinced she had inherited her large frame from him, though she was all soft fat where he had hard muscle buried beneath. Still, they both shared round faces and cheeks, while her upturned nose, short stature and brown eyes had all come from her mother.

“Dance with me, little Lark.”

Larken took his hand and let him spin her around the grassy field, both of them trying their best to keep time with the stringed instruments and drums. Larken’s feet dragged at first, betraying her reluctance, but soon the music swept her into its rhythm and her mood lightened. The beat quickened and Larken laughed as she and Papa tried to keep pace. Her breath became labored, her lungs burning—but Larken was enjoying it far too much to stop. The smell of meat, ale, and sweets were dizzying, and Larken’s nerves slowly melted away into happiness.

A jarring weight hit her shoulder almost causing her to stumble. A tall, slender girl with black hair and a pale blue dress shuffled past. Larken whirled, straining to get a better look at her face.

Brigid. Except it was not Brigid. This girl had brown eyes, not blue, and she was a few inches too tall. The girl mumbled an apology, her eyes downcast. She quickly disappeared into the crowd.

Anger simmered up inside her. Could she have not one moment of happiness without being reminded of her friend? Larken frowned, but soon distracted by her and Papa’s dancing, Brigid and the girl disappeared from her mind. Evening slowly creeped in, darkness spreading across the field. Two men set the wooden X’s alight and cheers exploded. Larken closed her eyes, letting Papa twirl her around and around. The streaks of the bonfires flashed against her closed lids. Torches blazed, tiny stars against the night.

Once Larken thoroughly exhausted herself she collapsed next to Mama on one of the wooden benches.

“I have something for you.” Mama handed her a woven flower crown. Larken gasped.

It was stunning—white, yellow, and pink blossoms surrounded a base of rich brown twigs, looking as if they had grown into a crown instead of been woven into one.

All girls eligible for Choosing wore flower crowns, but Larken had never had one this beautiful. She and Brigid had made their crowns together, but this year, without Brigid, Larken had been unable to stomach making one alone.

“I love it, Mama,” Larken whispered. Wordlessly, her mother placed the crown atop her head.

Larken rested her head on Mama’s shoulder, sighing when her fingers began rubbing circles on her back. Her eyes fell to half-lidded slits, but she roused herself when she saw children beginning to cluster around a black hooded man. The story was about to begin.

She was glad to see that they had selected one of the younger members of the Guard to preform the storytelling this year—Pod, she thought his name was. At the previous Choosing Ceremony, one of the gruffer members had been chosen … and had frightened all the children. Parents had complained, of course, saying that the Choosing Ceremony was supposed to be a joyous event.

The Choosing Ceremony marked when the Bridge opened; when both fey and human alike could cross the Bridge into each other’s world. During the four days when the moon was full, the barrier remained open. On the fourth day, it sealed once more, only to be opened again on the next Choosing Ceremony. The Black Guard spent years training for that moment when the barriers between worlds opened. They patrolled the fields around the Bridge, making sure that none dared to cross—and they made sure that no fey entered the human realm except for the faery lord and his companions. It was mainly the humans they had to watch for. Too many girls over the years, jealous of the Chosen one, had attempted to enter the faery realm on their own. The Black Guard ensured that none succeeded. Hand picked and trained in one of the four Popes’ palaces, members of the Black Guard were some of the only humans alive educated in faery lore. It was tradition that a member of the Guard talk about the origin of the Choosing Ceremony.

“The fey need mortal girls to help them complete a special task. They cross the Bridge separating our two realms and choose one girl to go back with them to complete a task: one only she can complete.” Pod raised her hands theatrically, making the children’s eyes widen.

“What task?” a small girl piped up.

“That is only for the girl, the fey, and the Twins to know. We only know that after the task is complete, the girls want for nothing. They are showered with every luxury and waited on hand and foot by the fey.”

“But the girls don’t come back,” another child murmured.

“No, they don’t.” Pod nodded. “We miss them terribly. But we know our Twin Gods, blessed be their names, would never give them a fate they could not handle. The Chosen girls are doing their duty to the Twins. The Popes tell us so.”

Ballamor wasn’t the only village visited by the fey. A deep chasm separated the human and faery realms, with only a few Bridges connecting them. The three other towns close to the Bridges had Choosing Ceremonies similar to the one occurring today. Not everyone was able to attend the ceremonies, and the people outside of these three villages were expected to serve the Popes in different ways. The Popes, servants to the Twin Gods, claimed they would never allow the fey to cross the Bridge and take girls if they were being harmed. And whatever the Popes decided was law.

“But we have even more proof than that,” Pod continued. “After one of the very first Choosings, a sister of the Chosen girl, Laila, followed her sibling across the Bridge. Laila returned, her eyes glazed with happiness from all the wonders she had witnessed in the faery realm. She spoke of how kind the fey were and how they doted upon her sister. Laila arrived too late to see what special task her sister had completed, but she saw that afterwards, her sister was well taken care of. Laila begged her sister to return, but the girl refused. So Laila returned home, eager to tell us the joyous news.

“But it did not end well for Laila. By following her sister into the faery realm, she showed that she did not have faith without seeing things with her own eyes. The Popes were greatly saddened when they heard of her disobedience, for they knew she had to be punished. If not, how many others would venture into the faery realm, disrupting the task and angering the fey, perhaps preventing other girls from being Chosen? The Black Guard was formed to protect people from themselves.”

The children nodded. They knew it was taboo to follow the Chosen girls or to cross the Bridge. And that the Black Guard would stop them.

“The Guard burned out Laila’s eyes, forcing her forever more to have blind faith in the Twins. But Laila gave up her sight happily, for she had seen her sister and knew she was safe.”

And she serves as a reminder of what happens when you disobey the rules. Rumors had spread even as far north as Ballamor about the atrocities the Popes committed to non-believers in the Twins’ name. The Popes were conquerers, and they knew that in order to survive as such a young religion, and to rule, they had to control their people through fear. Larken and her family kept up all appearances of being believers, as did all others who wanted to keep their flesh from being burnt from their bodies on the Popes’ pyres.

Still, the story of Laila gave her hope. Though it had been passed down and had probably become muddled here or there, it proved the Chosen girls were safe.

Pod’s story ended, signaling that the Ceremony was about to begin. Despite her adamance that she not enjoy herself, tingles exploded across Larken’s skin, making her shiver. A nervous titter rose up as girls chatted to one another, shifting from one foot to another excitedly as they formed a line. Their mood was contagious.

A flash of dark hair next to her caught Larken’s eye. It was the girl who had bumped into her earlier—the one she had mistaken for Brigid. Larken finally remembered where she had seen her before: she was the butcher’s girl.

Something brushed against Larken’s skirts. The girl’s hand, shaking madly, had touched her. Larken blinked. Girls weren’t afraid of being Chosen. They wanted to be Chosen.

No, the girl couldn’t be afraid of the fey. The fey were kind and helped provide for Ballamor. It must have been something else that bothered her. Something that would make her reluctant to leave if Chosen.

Larken shifted uncomfortably. She didn’t have those ties to Ballamor. Though she enjoyed working at the bakery, she had no talent for it and desperately wanted to pursue her mapmaking. She loved Mama and Papa, but she had no other friends. She had always thought herself content here, but maybe that contentment had ended when Brigid left.

A thread tugged at her heart. She had avoided thinking about this day for so long, but now that it was here, Larken was unable to resit its draw. She and Brigid had spent almost every moment of their childhood together, and her friend had been ripped from her. They had made plans, they had thought about the future they would have together, and all of it was gone.

But what if … what if Larken could see her friend again? If she was Chosen, she and Brigid could be reunited. Four years ago, Larken had considered trying to cross the Bridge, thought about trying to go after her friend. But it seemed impossible. The Guard would stop her, and would punish her and her family. But if she was Chosen, everything would fall into place. Larken hadn’t dared let herself hope, but now that the opportunity was in front of her she wanted it so badly she could almost taste it. She had spent four years trying to forget her friend. Spent four years trying to move on.

But she didn’t want to. A life without Brigid was not one she wanted. She had her parents, yes, but they didn’t understand her as Brigid did. They didn’t understand the future she envisioned for herself—Brigid had.

She tried to still her racing heart, tried to tell herself that the fey wouldn’t pick someone like her. She couldn’t get her hopes up only to have them dashed. But hope and excitement coursed through her, nearly blinding her. She could see Brigid again.

A hush blanketed over the crowd, the air turning still. Larken bit her lip, glancing toward the tree line. An evening fog rolled down from the hills, twisting and turning through the woods.

The fey emerged from the trees like ghosts. Though their journey must have been arduous, not a speck of dirt touched them. One walked a little in front of the others, and Larken recognized him instantly. The faery lord. He was dressed casually enough; a white linen shirt tucked into dark pants and boots, but he walked like someone in power, smooth and confident. His auburn hair shone even in the darkness. He was beautiful; human enough despite his pointed ears, and yet not human at all.

Larken clenched her shaking hands into fists, reminding herself not to be afraid. Yes, the fey were stronger than humans and possessed magic, but they were here to help. They were here to work with the humans, not against them.

Larken’s eyes followed the fey, tracking the movements of their lithe, muscled bodies. If Twins were two sides of the same coin, then the lord and his companions were the points of a star. Each one completed and complimented the other.

They halted where the line of girls began. Larken squinted hard. She could make out general details and facial features in the dark, but she longed to study the fey in the light. She thought the lord’s companions looked familiar and had attended the last Choosing Ceremony, but she couldn’t be sure.

Grass rustled quietly in the wind and Larken tried not to shiver. A horse whinnied. Her blood pounded so loudly in her ears that she was sure the fey would hear it. The lord turned to his companions, his hair glinting in the moonlight. He murmured something quietly and two of them, one with russet hair and one with locks of black, stepped back. However, a tall, brown-skinned male argued with him. He looked like the warrior in all the old stories: plates of metal armor covered his shoulders, ending above his pectorals, and the rest of his torso was covered by a thick jerkin. He was tall, the tallest of his companions, with a mass of dark curls that drank the light. A command from his lord had him stepping back, but he clenched his teeth, the movement masked by the makings of a beard spreading from his jaw to chin.

Slowly, the faery lord made his way down the line. Her fingers twitched. All Larken heard was the faint rustle of his boots and the loud, frantic pounding of her own heart.

Choose me. Choose me. Choose me. Please. I’ll do anything.

She had spent four years trying to forget her friend and the fey who had took her. Now she was ready to fall before the faery lord and beg. She could no longer reason with herself. The only way she would be able to see her friend again was if he Chose her. He was only a few paces away from them now, and Larken’s lungs compressed. He examined each girl carefully, eyes drifting over her from head to toe, holding her gaze, studying her face—but he hadn’t stopped yet. He could still pick her. She still had a chance.

The butcher’s girl grabbed Larken’s hand and she started, having forgotten for a moment that the other girl was there. She was struck with the similarity of the moment when Brigid was Chosen. They had held hands then, four long years ago.

After what seemed like an eternity, yet also a split second, he stood before her. She was barely level with his chest. The lord was so close Larken could smell him. The scent of apples, fallen leaves, and a hint of spice that Larken couldn’t quite place washed over her. She was shocked she could have forgotten that smell, even over the span of four years.

Her mind grasped desperately for something to distract her. She couldn’t look at him. If she looked at him, she would fall to her knees and beg to be Chosen, beg to be reunited with her friend.

His eyes locked with hers, and Larken found she could not look away. They were as green as a summer forest, with flecks of brown and gold surrounding the iris. The light of the torches set the gold in his eyes on fire.

Larken forgot everything else as he slowly lifted a finger to point.

“Her.”

Chapter 2

A roar erupted from the crowd, muffled and far away. Larken had been Chosen. It was her, she had been Chosen. Oh Twins, she could barely breathe. Dizzying excitement swept over her, her arms trembling.

Brigid. I’m going to see her again.

“Me?” Larken breathed. Her knees were going to give out.

The faery dipped his head to look at her again, auburn curls falling across his forehead. “No, love,” he said. “Her.”

Larken looked slowly to her right. He hadn’t been pointing at her, but at the butcher’s girl. Larken’s world collapsed around her. She shook her head. No, no he had pointed at her—this couldn’t be happening. Everything she wanted had been clutched in her hands, and then it slipped away like smoke. The world turned quiet and dark, as if she were looking at everything from underwater. Black spots swam at the edges of her vision, the air hitching in her throat.

“N—no, please—” The butcher’s girl reached out one shaking hand towards the lord. “Not me. Take someone else.”

A gasp ran through the crowd, quiet at first, then louder. Larken stiffened, a flair of disgust sweeping over her before she could stop it. The girl didn’t deserve the honor. More murmurs from the other girls. Disbelief. Anger. How many others would want to go in her place? She was ungrateful. The fey were here to offer her a life of luxury. The Twins themselves had blessed her and this girl had the audacity to push her saviors away.

Envy twisted in Larken’s belly like a snake. She glanced down at their joined hands still locked together, anchoring them. Her gaze narrowed on the girl, red tingeing behind her eyelids. What Larken would give to be in her place.

The faery lord studied the butcher’s girl, his green eyes torn. For a second it looked as if he were an animal in a cage, trapped and unable to move, but when Larken blinked it was gone, replaced with calm.

“I’m sorry, truly. But it must be you.” He bowed to the girl, offering her his hand. She flinched like he was about to strike her and the faery quickly pulled away. No cries, no tears; the girl simply stood there, shaking, still clutching Larken’s hand.

Slowly, she let go and stepped away. Cold enveloped Larken’s fingers, their bond breaking as their hands released.

One of the girl’s sisters threw herself into the butcher’s girl’s arms. Another little sister came running up. The butcher’s girl hugged each of them in turn, then untangled herself from their skinny arms. She didn’t say anything, but tears poured down her cheeks.

They tried clinging to her again, begging her not to go, but she pushed them roughly off, sending them stumbling back to their parents. Larken looked away, her resentment for the girl melting away into guilt.

The butcher’s girl wiped her cheeks, turning with her head held high towards the faery lord.

“It is time.” He held an arm out again and this time, she grasped it tightly.

“Murderer.”

The hiss rose from someone in the crowd. Larken twisted, eyes wide. The fey weren’t murderers, they came to take the girls to a better life, one where they could experience magic and things beyond belief. Many would die for that honor. A man pushed himself through the throng. His grey hair fell in greasy tangles, an unkempt beard framing the scowl on his lips. An empty tankard hung loosely in his grip. He stumbled to a halt, using the man next to him to steady himself. “Murderers. The lot of you.” The man sneered at the fey, brandishing his flask at the onlookers. “And you … handing over your girls like lambs for the slaughter.”

A chill ran through Larken.

She knew this man—Castor, a disgraced member of the Black Guard. The Guard had stripped him of his position eight years ago but they hadn’t given a reason as to why. Castor himself hadn’t been present at the announcement, he had disappeared into the woods near the Bridge and hadn’t been seen since. Until today.

“Why do you think your girls never come back? It’s because they’re dead,” he spat. Shocked murmurs rose from the crowd. “And the Popes, our beloved rulers, do nothing to stop it. In fact, they encourage it.”

An uneasy murmur rose from the crowd. One of the faery lord’s guards, the one with the russet hair, put a hand on his sword, but the lord raised his hand, motioning for him to stop.

“I know the Choosing Ceremony can be a difficult time,” the lord began, “but we cherish your girls, and your sacrifice, deeply. We cannot reveal to you our reasons, but know that your girls help save us. Do not allow this man to put fear into your hearts.” He turned and gestured to the crowd. “Is he not a disgraced member of the Guard? Do you think he truly means a warning, or does he simply seek revenge by striking fear into those who have wronged him?”

Nods and cries of assent swept through the crowd. Two men grabbed Castor’s shoulders, trying to pull him back, but he shrugged them off.

“I’ll be in a room above the Horse’s Mane Tavern. If anyone wants the truth, the real truth, come find me.” He turned and pushed his way into the crowd.

Larken frowned, unnerved by the encounter. It wasn’t as though opposers of the Choosing Ceremony didn’t exist, but they met in secret, and had never dared to speak out openly against the fey.

A memory pulled at her: Papa telling Mama about a group of dissenters he’d seen meeting on the outskirts of town.

“What good does it to terrify one’s children with a false ideas about evil fey?” Mama had replied angrily. “It’s not as if the girls can choose not to participate.”

It was true; the Black Guard warned that the fey could smell a girl after her first blood, and demanded that all eligible girls be presented, else they risk offending the fey. There would be no more gifts, no more coin, nothing to help Ballamor survive the winter. No one wanted to upset the fey, but no one dared risk the wrath of the Popes, either.

The butcher’s girl said nothing. A signal from the lord had the black-haired faery stepping forward. He wore a dark green jerkin and dark pants, and slung across his back was a large pack. He pulled a small wooden chest from within and approached the butcher, silently handing the box to him. The faery quickly averted his gaze. The man thanked him, shaking fingers moving to unhook the latch. Dozens of jewels of every color filled the interior; rubies, sapphires, pearls, and stones Larken could not name. They would never want for anything ever again.

The faery removed another chest from his pack, giving it to the High-Reeve of Ballamor. Larken hadn’t noticed Reeve Hammond before, as his family and personal guard were clustered around him, but he was still a hard man to miss. He was a huge man with flapping jowls and a bulging stomach, and a ring with a different colored gemstone sparkled on every one of his fingers. He thanked the fey and quickly gave the chest to his guards, who swept it away. If the need arose, then Reeve Hammond would use it to buy food from further south. And if the need didn’t arise … well, then his holdfast would gain another spectacular pice of furniture. The town had suffered through many harsh winters in the past, and only once had Hammond ever bothered to buy grain to feed them. Larken suspected things weren’t about to change.

The black-haired faery pulled the remaining chest from his pack, offering it to a woman standing near him. Other villagers drifted closer, eager to see what the fey had brought them. Children swarmed, their chubby hands reaching for the box.

The butcher’s girl and the faery walked side by side until they met the rest of the lord’s companions. The black-haired faery lingered behind, watching as a little girl struggled against the crowd to get to the gifts. She couldn’t have been older than three years old. The faery snagged a music box from the chest and handed it to her. A shy smile spread across her lips and she wrapped her arms around the faery’s legs. Larken watched, transfixed, as his eyes turned distant. The look was gone a moment later as he gently untangled himself, turning to join his companions. They met at the edge of the field, then continued on into the darkness. Larken watched until they faded into the trees.

Mama appeared in a rush, squeezing her into a rib-crushing hug.

“I thought it was you,” Mama breathed. “I thought he was going to choose you. Oh, Larken … I’m so glad we didn’t have to lose you.”

Larken was in a dream, a terrible dream that she would wake up from at any second. But she didn’t wake.

She stared down blankly at her hands. She hadn’t been Chosen. She would never see Brigid again. Girls were only allowed to participate in the Choosing until they were twenty-one, and by the next Ceremony, Larken would be too old.

“Come.” Mama squeezed Larken’s shoulders. “Let’s go home.”

Flaming torches lined the shops and houses, lighting the way. Larken’s nose dripped and she wiped it away with numb fingers. Her heart thudded dully in her chest. Her limbs felt too heavy, too cumbersome. She could focus on nothing but the cold and placing one foot in front of the other.

But nothing could stop the ringing of the word clanging through her head.

Murderer.

Murderer.

Murderer.

#

The word plagued her.

Larken tossed and turned, trying in vain to get comfortable. The butcher’s girl … She still didn’t know her name. Her dark hair, her tall frame. It could have been Brigid. It was as if they had been together today, standing there side by side.

It was like she had lost her friend all over again. Larken swallowed hard, her throat achingly dry. The butcher’s girl had been so scared. Had Brigid been that terrified on her Choosing day? Had Larken simply been too blind to see it? No, Brigid had been overjoyed to be Chosen. Her eyes had glistened with tears when she realized she would have to leave Larken behind, but she had still been delighted by the faery’s choice. Larken pulled the sleeping furs up to her throat, then threw them off of her as sweat began to coat her lower back and legs.

The logs in the dying fire below hissed as the moisture on them turned into steam.

It sounded like they were screaming.

What if—what if everything about the Choosing Ceremony was wrong? What if the girls never returned, not just because they were chosen for some special purpose, but because they were dead?

No, no it couldn’t be true. The Black Guard couldn’t be trained in all things involving the fey and not know the girls had been harmed. They were proof. Proof that the fey were good. Safe.

But Castor had been a member of the Guard too. And he said the girls were dead.

Larken rubbed at her lips, worrying at her cheek. It wasn’t as though the villagers hadn’t thought about it, but it just didn’t seem possible. The sister of one of the first Chosen girls—Laila—had come back. Yes, the story had taken place ages ago, but it was still proof. How could the fey have gotten away with murder for years? Someone would have figured it out by now.

But what if they were all wrong? Larken turned and buried her face in her pillow, trying not to cry.

Murderer.

The word echoed through Larken’s mind, a whisper that built up to a scream. “No,” she moaned. “Brigid …”

And what of Brigid? All this time she had imagined her friend in a better place. A better world. A world that Larken could not even begin to comprehend.

Flickering images of Castor’s outburst danced through her mind. He claimed to know the truth about fey, and he would know more than most due to his time in the Guard. But what if it was as the faery lord said, that Castor was just trying to get revenge on the position he had been banished from?

Murderer. If the fey were murderers, it meant Brigid was already dead. An idea that Larken would not, and could not wrap her mind around. But the girl that was Chosen … She was still alive. The butcher’s girl’s face lingered behind her eyelids, the image blurring into Brigid’s. Larken shook her head. The girl wasn’t Brigid. And yet, the resemblance was too striking.

Perhaps all of it was just a nasty rumor. Maybe some of the girls got injured during their task for the fey, but weren’t truly dead. Brigid was smart, she could handle herself. Larken tried to steady her breathing. This was all probably just a mistake, a misunderstanding.

Do not go asking questions you do not want to find the answers to, a voice in the back of her mind warned. But Larken couldn’t shake the feeling that if she did nothing, if she tried to forget about the Chosen girls, then she would be doing what the rest of the villagers had been doing time and time again.

She could talk to Castor. Simply see what he had to say. If he sounded like the village lunatic, well, she could go back to sleep knowing that Brigid was in a better world, and Larken could begin moving on without her in full. After all, how likely was it that one man was right when hundreds of others were against him? Could the fey and the Popes really have fooled the entire Empire of Ellevere?

But Larken knew that whatever the odds stacked against Castor, she would not rest easy until she’d spoken with him. Her mind resolute, she threw back the furs and touched her bare feet to the icy floor.

#

Two men guarded the tavern. They stood nonchalantly enough below the sign for the Horse’s Mane Tavern, but even in the darkness Larken could make out the sigil stitched above their hearts: a red “X” wreathed in flames.

The sigil of the Black Guard.

Their presence was warning enough: stay away from Castor. It seemed to be working, for two villagers that approached, upon noticing the guards, quickly hurried in the opposite direction. It was clear that Larken wasn’t the only one seeking the truth.

Hitching Snowfoot to a post, Larken made her way around to the back of the tavern, knocking twice on the door. Even from outside Larken could smell kegs of sweet cider and frothy ale, along with roast chicken and rosemary potatoes. The smell was almost as comforting as that of the bakery. The door swung open and in the doorway stood Helen, the tavern’s owner. She towered over Larken, her muscled arms crossed and glistening with sweat. Helen was a kind woman, but knew how to sort out a room of bawling drunks in a matter of heartbeats. She and Larken’s father had grown up together, and Larken had known Helen her entire life.

“Larken! Didn’t expect to see you here so late. Does your father need something?”

Larken kept her voice low, even though din from the crowd inside was enough to hide it. “I’m here to see Castor.”

Helen scanned the ally before pulling Larken inside. “Don’t go around saying that, ya hear?” She shut the door quickly behind them. “The Guard told me they’d be standin’ watch outside, and if anyone was to try an’ get upstairs who wasn’t a guest that I was to tell ’em straight away.”

“It’s important, Helen,” Larken pleaded. “He might know something about Brigid.”

The crease between Helen’s brows softened. “Ah. I know you’ve been missing your friend, but Castor’s not right in the head.”

“I need to hear it for myself.” She took one of Helen’s hands in her own. “I’m not a little girl anymore, Helen. I won’t be frightened by him. But he might know something that can put my mind at ease.”

Helen stroked her cheek. “Aye, you’re no little girl. Oh, alright. But be quick about it. First door on the left.”

Larken nodded and hurried up the stairs, making sure not to draw the attention of the Guard.

Her hand hovered above Castor’s door, her heart thundering in her chest. Whatever she was about to hear, she wouldn’t be able to unhear it. But this was her chance, if she let him get away she might not be able to speak with him again. He might disappear into the woods, or, by the looks of it, other members of the Guard would try to stop him. But if the Guard was so desperate to keep people away from Castor, then they must have something they were trying to hide.

She rapped lightly on the door, and immediately it swung open.

Castor’s scowling face greeted her. “Took you long enough.”

#

Larken stepped inside. “You knew I was coming?”

“I knew someone had to after my fit during the Ceremony. And anyone who did had to be smarter than that lot—” Castor gestured to the window where the Black Guard stood a story below, “or they didn’t deserve to know the truth.”

“You know about Brigid.”

Castor didn’t answer. He lit a candle, casting the room in flickering hues. “Be warned, child. I do not tell you this lightly. It might be easier if you go back to bed, and forget any of this ever happened. I want everyone to know the truth—I don’t think my mind can take it much longer if they don’t.” He tapped the side of his skull. “But it will be hard. And it will change your view of the world forever.”

Larken swallowed. Castor had named almost all of her fears in a single statement. But she knew she would never forgive herself if she turned away from the truth, no matter how difficult. “Tell me,” she murmured.

Castor scrubbed a hand across his face. “It was the Choosing Ceremony before Brigid was taken. My companion and I were nearest to the Bridge that night, and a fey woman came to us. We were wary at first, as she seemed … agitated,” Castor continued. “She told us that an evil had spread through the land, both human and fey. She said that we both needed to be wary of our rulers, and that their power flowed from the Choosing Ceremony. She told us the girls weren’t safe in her realm.” Castor sighed. “It was as though she was telling parts of the truth, but not all of it. When we pushed her to tell us more, but she said she couldn’t break her promise.

“None of the other members of the Guard heard or saw the fey woman. My companion wanted to report the incident to the Popes straight away, but I told him he couldn’t.” Castor’s face paled. “I told him that the girls could be in danger. That everything we worked for as the Guard could be a lie. I told him we had to warn the other villagers. He attacked me, accusing me of treason.”

Larken’s hand flew to her mouth.

“I killed him. I pushed him into the chasm next to the Bridge and told the others he had jumped. They believed me, of course. Many members of the Guard have committed suicide. The training we endured by the Popes was … unpleasant.”

“Why didn’t you just go see for yourself?” Larken asked.

“You think the Guard hasn’t thought of that?” Castor said bitterly. “Because the Popes trained us to be loyal to them. You cannot believe the torture we endured. Out of all who enter their palaces trying to become members, only a few survive. The rest are killed. The secrets the Popes and the fey deal in is no small thing.” Castor’s eyes darkened. “We fear them more than we fear the fey. And we fear them more than the idea of a perfect life. We fear the Popes’ punishment should they discover that we doubted them, or that we were disloyal.

“But it’s more than that. Why do you think the Black Guard even exists, Larken? It’s not to keep people from crossing and upsetting the fey. It’s to keep people from finding out the truth.”

Cold seeped into her bones. Castor’s words made sense. If the faery realm was as good as the Popes and the fey claimed, then why were the humans forbidden from seeing it?

Unless they were hiding something. Larken rubbed her eyes, feeling as though a hazy veil of wool had been placed over her mind—put there by the fey and the Popes and even the Guard.

“But I do know of a few Guards who have snuck through and somehow kept their treason from reaching the ears of the Popes,” Castor continued. “They were never gone for long, only staying a few hours at most. And when they returned, they only spoke of the beauty they saw. None of them saw the girls, but couldn’t imagine them being in danger. But something wasn’t right … when they returned they were different.” Castor leaned forward. “Believe me or don’t believe me girl. I don’t know exactly what happened to your friend or the other girls, but I do know that they are in danger. And I know that they don’t come back.

“I was banished from the Guard because I went sniffing around for answers. That’s where I’ve been all these years—but the only ones who know the truth are the Popes and the fey. I fed pieces of the story to the dissenters who believe the fey are evil, but I’ve never told anyone what the fey woman told me, not until today. But I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t watch another girl get taken knowing—knowing,” he paused, shuddering. “But I know if I tell the villagers the whole truth of what the fey women told me, then the Guard will kill me. And I don’t even know if they’ll believe me.”

“I have to go after her.”

Castor shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do for her now. You can only live with the truth and try to spread it, as I have. There’s nothing you or I can do to stop the fey and the Popes, girl.”

Castor was right. If the fey were murdering the girls, then Larken would stand no chance. If they weren’t and she returned, she would lose her sight and she would never create another map. Or worse. And that was if she got across the Bridge at all.

But she had to try. She could follow the butcher’s girl into the faery realm. And if the girl was in danger, she could help her. Find out if Brigid was all right as well.

“I have to try,” Larken said. Her mind tore down a darkened path, imagining Brigid hurt during whatever trial the fey asked of her. “And you have to help me.”

Castor scoffed. “No. I already told you they’ll kill me.”

“I can’t do it without you,” Larken pleaded. “If they see me they’ll come after me and could hurt my family … please. I just need you to provide some kind of distraction while I cross.”

Castor narrowed his eyes.

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” Larken murmured. “That’s the reason you told me all of this, isn’t it? Because you feel guilty. Because you’ve known all this time that the girls are in danger, maybe even dying, and you’ve done nothing.”

“Watch yourself,” Castor growled.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do anything. I might even die.” Larken sucked in a breath, trying not to dwell on the fact. “But I’m going to try. And I can’t do it without you. So please, Castor. Help me. And know that you’re helping those girls, too.”

Castor stared at her for several uncomfortable moments. “Fine. I’m not saying it isn’t a fools’ errand, but I’m not gonna be responsible for you and your family’s punishment at the hands of the Guard. So I’ll help you.” He stood. “You only have four days until the Bridge seals and then you’ll be trapped there for another four years, if you even live that long. So best hurry, now.”

“Let me go pack a few things—”

“No,” Castor hissed. “Take nothing. We leave at once or not at all. I’m being watched. We won’t have another chance.”

Larken’s heart picked up a frantic rhythm. Was she truly doing this? With no supplies and not even a note for Mama and Papa? Guilt stabbed at her. She had no other family, no friends—her parents were all she had. She desperately hoped that when she returned they would forgive her. She would be back, she had to come back. Hopefully with the two other girls in tow.

Larken pictured Brigid’s face, her tiny splattering of freckles. Her blue eyes, always filled with such kindness. She had been there for Larken through every hardship, every triumph.

Larken had waited for her friend long enough.

“Let’s go.”

#

She and Castor stood hidden in the tree line. Before them stretched a grassy plain, and beyond, the chasm. Larken had only heard about it from village stories, the deep divide that separated the human and faery lands. Fog billowed from the chasm like smoke from the mouth of a drake. The moonlight shimmed through the mist, turning it silver.

They had left the safety of her village—the pastures, trees and the familiar were all behind her. She had never been this far from home. Had Brigid felt this way, four long years ago? Had she been afraid to leave behind all she had ever known, as Larken was now? A cool wind pressed against her face, soothing her. The smell of the grass and wet earth reached her, stilling her pounding heart.

She would come back. For this, she would come back.

Ahead, swirling in mist, stood the Bridge. Larken’s breath left her body in a whoosh. Of all the stories she had heard, of all the legends—nothing could have prepared her for seeing the Bridge for the first time.

Jutting from the human realm’s side of the chasm and spanning all the way to the faery lands was a narrow stone bridge. It rose in a graceful arc, like a half moon, the stones strong and sturdy despite their centuries-long existence. Two stone archways loomed on either side, marking the entrance to each world. The villagers all knew it, either from stories or from seeing it themselves. She and Brigid had received countless dares from other children to go see the Bridge for themselves. They never had, though now Larken wished she had seen it before. Perhaps it would have made this moment less terrifying.

Scattered across the grassy plain and near the Bridge itself stood the Guard. Their black capes fluttered gently in the wind, their bodies obscured by the fog.

Castor shifted next to her on his brown mare. He told her he had a plan, but he hadn’t elaborated on what it was.

Only a small stretch of grass and trees separated them from the ancient stones. Whatever this plan was, if it was to succeed, they had to time it just right. Make sure that she and Snowfoot had a clear shot to the Bridge.

“Get ready,” Castor muttered. He jammed his heels into his mare’s sides and took off across the field.

“I’ve waited long enough!” Castor screamed. The Guard’s figures in the mist stirred. “The fey are killing our girls.” Castor jabbed a finger across the Bridge. “And you’re letting them. The Popes aren’t our just rulers, they’re tyrants.” Castor wheeled his horse around as shouts from the Guard rose. “They let the fey give them, and us, gifts infused with magic in exchange for girls from our village. Money in exchange for human lives,” he snarled.

What is he doing? Larken tightened her grip on the reigns.

The Guard swung onto their horses.

“I will stay silent no longer. And you’ll no longer be able to pass me off as the village drunk—the village madman. I won’t stop until all of Ballamor, no, all of Ellevere knows. I’ve spent the last eight years searching for answers, and now I’m going to tell the Empire.” Castor whooped, circling once more before the Guard, then he took off towards the woods. The Guard tore after him.

Now. She had to act now.

She kicked Snowfoot into a gallop. Dirt flew beneath his hooves as he flew across the open plain. Shouts rang out. Horses whinnied. Faster, Snowfoot had to go faster. Before the Guard realized that they couldn’t all abandon their posts.

The chasm loomed before them, the rocks dropping away into sheer nothingness. Wind whipped around her, tugging Snowfoot’s mane towards the drop, trying to suck him in. The thought of the drop alone was enough to make Larken’s mouth sour with fear. If something spooked her mount they would plunge over the side together. Larken clung to the reigns, his mane, and pressed low into the saddle.

Time slowed. The pounding of Snowfoot’s hooves matched the wild pounding of her heart. Her breath gasped loud in her ears. Larken clung desperately to the saddle, her muscles nearly paralyzed with fear. This was wrong. Only Chosen girls crossed the Bridge. She was nothing, no one—

You wanted to be with Brigid, and this is the only way. There’s no going back, the Guard is coming.

“Go, Snowfoot,” she cried, and the pony’s hooves clattered upon the stones. More shouts from behind her, but they sounded far away. Castor had done his job well. Fear enveloped her as she thought about what they would do to him but no, she couldn’t think about that now.

She made Snowfoot slow as they crossed the Bridge, worried that anything faster than a walk would get them killed. Nothing but air kept them from tumbling into the abyss. Unable to help herself, looked down past Snowfoot’s shoulder and into the chasm below. Vertigo hit her and she jerked her gaze up, making sure to keep it focused on the archway at the end of the Bridge beyond.

Black nothingness. That was what was beneath the stones of the Bridge. Barely a foot on either side separated Snowfoot from the drop, and had Larken been on a larger mount, it would have been much less than that. Larken heard no sounds of rushing water beneath them. Somehow the thought of nothing below was even more terrifying. The idea that there was no beginning or ending to the abyss. That it cut straight to the center of the world, or straight to the Twin’s Hell.

She glanced behind her, but nothing but mist greeted her. The Guard’s shouts faded away into nothingness, sucked into the chasm below.

They made it to the second archway, the one marking the entrance to the faery realm, and Larken pulled Snowfoot to a stop. One more step and she would enter the land of the fey. Her fear churned inside her, a living, breathing beast that clawed at her. Home had never felt so far away. But she had made it. Made it all the way here, and she would make it a little farther. She would find Brigid.

Breathing in, she urged Snowfoot on one last time.

Hannah Parker is a senior English major at Oklahoma State University. When not writing YA fantasy novels, she can be found riding her horse, drinking unhealthy amounts of Starbucks coffee or learning new signs in ASL. Hannah currently lives in Edmond, OK, with her cat and two dogs.