Authors: Sophie Jordan
For Jared, because when I imagine a world
like this I want you by my side . . .
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
HE ECLIPSE SPANNED
all my life. It invaded everything. A deep, seeping blackness that poured into every crack and fissure like pooling blood. The darkness was especially dense outside my tower, sliding like ink to where I stood on the lighted balcony, listening to the hum of hungry insects and animals. And them.
Sighing, I rested both elbows on the balcony railing. Coals popped and crumbled in the stove behind me, emitting a cozy warmth that contrasted sharply with the damp cold nipping at my nose and cheeks. Heat and comfort lapped at my back while darkness stretched before me. And yet I wanted Outside with an anxious energy that buzzed along my nerves.
Longing pumped through me as thick as the chronic night. A small animal scurried in the forest far below my window. I dipped my chin in that direction and cocked my head, tracking it as though I could see through the gloom and treetops, as though the creature were visible at the base of the stone tower.
The animal snuffled at the outside wall, probably trying to decipher the obstacle in its path that wasn't part of the natural world. A tower didn't belong in these woods. No hint of civilization did. After a few moments nosing around, the animal returned to the woods. I followed its movements through the underbrush, envying its freedom.
From high in my perch, I listened. My hearing had long adapted to the darkness. From the quick thump of paws, I guessed it was a rabbit. They were bountiful in these woods. They bred quickly and were fast enough to escape the dwellers. Most of the time.
A distant sound emerged. I lifted my face to the sky as the droning chirps swelled from the east, building to a crescendo. I wasn't the only one who heard them. The rabbit tore through the undergrowth.
My fingers clenched the stone railing, knuckles aching, heart beating hard in my chest.
I dropped my chin again, urgency burning in my veins as I willed the rabbit to move faster, to live. Which was ridiculous. We ate plenty of rabbits, but somehow I identified myself with this one.
The army of bats drew closer in a great sweeping cloud, their giant, leathery wings slapping on the air. Bats were once pocket sized. Since the eclipse they had grown, now averaging four feet tall. No longer did they consume insects. They hunted bigger prey.
Go, go, go.
They buzzed all around the tower with high-pitched yips that made my skin jump.
“Luna, come,” Perla called. “The last thing we need is one of them getting inside.”
I couldn't move. Riveted, I stood in place, listening for my rabbit.
The bats spotted it and lunged for it as one giant beast. Leaves rustled and branches cracked as they dove through the treetops. Their song grew frenzied, excited as they closed in.
The rabbit screamed shrilly as its body was ripped apart, flesh and bones snapping like parchment and quill. I flung my hands over my ears against the terrible sound.
Perla was suddenly there, tugging me inside and shutting the door, drawing me into the warm glow of lantern light. She gathered me into her soft, yielding arms until I stopped shaking. I could still hear the bats. The rabbit's shriek echoed inside my head, taunting me even though it was long dead.
“There, now.” She patted my back as though I were still the little girl she used to read to at night. “You're safe.”
I sagged against her, accepting her comfort even though it troubled me that she thought I needed it. Because none of this
changed anything. I still wanted out there. I still had to learn to make that world my own.
I'd spent my entire life within these walls. I wouldn't spend the rest of it in here, too. I couldn't.
According to Sivo, life was supposed to be a balance of light and dark. Each time we cleaned our weapons after a hunt it was this bit of truth he shared with me.
Before, the moon reigned for only half the day. The sun occupied the sky for the other half, burning brightly enough to scorch your skin if you stayed outdoors too long. It was incredible to imagine such a thing, as illusory as the fairy tales that Perla told me as a girl.
I only knew this existenceâthe black eclipse and thick walls that kept us safe from an army of dark dwellers. I only knew Sivo and Perla and isolation. This life consisted of sporadic runs into the great maw of night with Sivo at my side trying to teach me survival in the shadow of our tower.
A slaughtered rabbit was a casualty of the war being waged. I would not be such a casualty. I knew this because I knew the dark. I knew the taste of it in my mouth. The feel of it on my skin. It clung. Smothered. It carried death in its fold.
The dark should terrify me, but it did not. It never had.
The rabbit wasn't me. It was prey, and I would never be that.
Perla stepped back and lowered her arms from me. “Come now. These linens won't fold themselves.”
I glanced back at the closed balcony doors. “It's quiet again.”
My ears strained for the sound of bats, but they'd moved on, their cries lost in the distance. There was nothing beyond the normal noise of the forest now. The throb of blood-swollen insects on the air and the cawing of carrion birds. An occasional tree monkey scampered through branches.
The whisper of fabric told me that Perla had started folding.
“It won't last,” Perla replied in her usual perfunctory manner. “Never does.” She snapped a linen on the air.
I turned from the balcony and faced her. “How long before I can go out there? On my own?” I went out often enough, but only ever with Sivo. “I have to know how . . . I have to be able to live out there.”
It was a familiar argument. Sivo used it every time he took me with him. There was logic in it even she could not refute. But what I was asking for nowâto go aloneâhad never been permitted. And yet I had to try. How was I ever going to learn to cope in this world if Sivo did everything for me?
“You don't live out there. You live in here. And I don't care how good you think you are at handling yourself,” Perla said. “You're not stepping one foot outside these walls alone.”
“Let me go on a quick run for berries. It's his birthday,” I wheedled. “Let me do this for him.”
“No,” she replied, swift and emphatic.
Sighing, I sank down on the bed, the brocade coverlet stiff under me. I plucked at a loose thread. The coverlet was old, belonging to the first occupant of the towerâa purported witch who wrought havoc on this forest long before we came here. Long
before the eclipse. We had her to thank for the tower. Apparently she enjoyed luring travelers to her door and then making a soup out of them. It was the stuff of fairy tales, but I knew anything was possible. This life, the way the world was now, had taught me that.
Sivo and my father had explored the layout of the kingdom long ago. They knew every inch of it, including the Black Woods. The two of them discovered the tower in those years, before I was born, before the eclipse. Now only dark dwellers roamed the thick bramble of vines and towering trees. The world belonged to them.
The nearest village was over a week's walk, if it still stood. We didn't know anymore. We didn't know how many people were left at all. Our world was the tower and the surrounding forest.
Sivo had selected our tower for its remoteness and because the Black Woods were rumored to be cursed. The witch's fearful reputation lasted long after her death, keeping man, woman, and child from traveling into this forest. A fortuitous circumstance for people like us who didn't want to be found.
“If you're going to sit there, make yourself useful,” Perla prodded.
I plucked a linen from the basket, snapped it once on the air, and began folding. The linens smelled of the outdoors. We hung the wash to dry on a stretch of line on the balcony of Perla's room. I carefully added the folded towel to the stack, inching closer to the woman who had raised me as a mother would. Without her
I would have died alongside my mother the night of my birth, but that fact didn't stop resentment from bubbling up inside my chest.
“Perla, please.” I touched her arm. “Sivoâ”
“Sivo will understand, and we've prepared his favorite flatbread for the occasion. He will be satisfied with that.”
With a groan, I dropped back on the bed.
There was that word again. Being satisfied with our lives was enough for her. She didn't understand the need for more.
need for more. She thought I should be content with what I had. Sanctuary. A roof over my head and food in my belly. It was more than so many people had.
“Do you want to end up like that rabbit out there?” she asked.
“Bats don't attack humans,” I reminded her.
“I'm not talking about the bats and you well know that.”
I did know that. She was talking about dark dwellers.
Sitting up, I crossed my arms over my chest and tried another tactic. “Sivo thinks you should let me start going out alone.”
I could hear the faint grinding of her jaw. The habit had worsened lately, and I suppose I was to blame.
Sivo's heavy footsteps thudded outside my room, halting at the threshold. He brought with him the loamy aroma of the woods. “I'm back,” he announced unnecessarily.
“Are those boots dirty?” Perla demanded, adjusting her weight onto her back foot and cocking out her hip.
“What, these?” He scuffed his boots, lifting first one and then the other, examining beneath them.
“Yes . . . those things on your feet,” she snapped. “You know I spent all day yesterday mopping.”
“No. No mud,” he assured her.
Perla grunted, clearly unconvinced. I fought a smile, accustomed to their bickering.
“I don't know why you insist on dumping refuse when it's dark,” she grumbled.
Perla didn't approve of unnecessary risks, and as far as she was concerned Sivo took far too many of those.
“Midlight doesn't last long enough to do all the things that need to be done in a day.” He didn't sound annoyed as he uttered this. A remarkable fact considering he uttered it almost daily. Midlight lasted no more than an hour, but it was the only time a semblance of light emerged to push out the night. “Besides, root truffles don't bloom in midlight.”
Perla gasped with delight. I smelled their pungent aroma as soon as Sivo pulled some from his pocket and held them out for her to see.
“Make a fine dinner,” he murmured. “Especially if you cook them with some of those potatoes the way you do.”
She cleared her throat and tried to sound gruff as she said, “Put them in the kitchen. We'll have them on the morrow for your birthday. Still not worth the risk.” She had to add that last bit.
“I look forward to it.” Sivo's voice rang out cheerfully. In the grimmest hour, he was forever optimistic. “Well, I'm off to bed. See you girls in the morning.”
“Good night, Sivo,” I called. Normally he would hug me, but he hastened away. Probably to remove his boots and clean up any trail of mud he'd left.
Alone in my chamber with Perla again, I moistened my lips. “I could have helped Sivo pick more.” Silence. “Four hands can gather more than two. . . .”
“I've said all I'm going to say on the matter.” She lifted a stack of towels and moved to the armoire. Her joints popped as she bent to store the linens inside. She slammed the doors shut with decided force. “Don't bring it up again tomorrow and ruin Sivo's day. Can you promise me that?”
I exhaled, nodding. “I won't bring it up tomorrow.”
She snorted, not missing that I promised for only tomorrow. Stopping before me, she cupped my cheek with her work-roughened palm. “I've only ever wanted you safe. Protected.”
I squeezed her hand and appealed one more time. “What will keeping me locked up inside this tower ever accomplish?”
“You'll live.” Frustration rang in her voice.
“Not forever,” I argued. “We all die, Perla.”
“Some sooner than others.” Her voice hardened. “Your parents met their deaths too early. I won't have the same fate befall you. You're the queen of Relhok.”
The words never ceased to startle me. I didn't feel like a queen. “A queen stuck in a tower. What good is that to the people of Relhok? How is that a better fate?”
“What good will you be dead?” she countered. “Someday the eclipse will end and the dwellers will go awayâ”
She stopped at my choked snort. No one knew when it would end. If it ever would. The pressure of her hand stopped me from commenting further.
“Someday it will all end,” she repeated. “And then you'll be free of this tower. Until then, you'll stay inside and be safe.”
Her hand dropped from my face. Her steady tread moved away, and she lifted the remaining stack of linens from the bed. I felt her gaze linger on me. “That is your fate.”
She departed the room then, the soft leather soles of her shoes whispering over the stone floor.
Alone in my chamber, I opened the balcony doors again and stepped back outside. My chest burned with an uncomfortable tightness and my face flushed hotly as my conversation with Perla tracked through my mind. Suddenly I couldn't draw enough air into my starving lungs.
Frustration wasn't a new sensation, but tonight was the first night I felt anger bubble up inside me. I clasped the cold stone railing until the blood ceased to flow through my fingers and my knuckles ached. Perla couldn't determine my fate. Only I could. If I decided to do something, even she couldn't stop me.
“This tower isn't my fate.” The words flew out over the deep mist, a pledge to myself.