Authors: Arwen Elys Dayton
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright Â© 2015 by Arwen Elys Dayton
Cover art copyright Â© Cover photograph Â© Monica Quintana/Arcangel
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It was the warmest night of the year, and the moon, though only a quarter full, hung low and huge in the sky. It was yellow more than white, with an orange halo. The Young Dread stood atop a crumbling tower of the castleâhalf of which was still intact and occupied, and half of which lay in ruins. From her vantage point, she had a view of the forest on three sides and the wild Scottish countryside beyond the river on the fourth. The world was both beautiful and ominous in the yellow moonlight.
It was well past midnight, which made the date June the twenty-first. That was the Young Dread's birthdayâMaud's birthday, though no one called her Maud anymoreâand by her reckoning she must be about thirteen years old, though it was now 1748, nearly three hundred years since the year of her birth. Birthdays meant little when she spent so much of her life separate from the world. But still, June the twenty-first was a date that meant something to her.
The Dreads spent much of their lives
in that other place, outside the stream of time, where they were stretched asleep in the darkness. They were awake in the world for only short intervals, like this one, when they would train, brutally and constantly, and keep an eye on the new generation of Seekers.
The Young Dread wore only her shoes and her undergarments, but she'd long ago lost a sense of modesty when she trained. Maud stood apart from humanity, as all Dreads did. Such small personal details as bare legs were of no significance.
“Attend!” called the Middle Dread, her older companion and trainer.
He was concealed somewhere off to her right, outside the castle's courtyard, and she suspected he was armed with a bow and a plentiful supply of blunt arrows.
The Young Dread stood straighter, ready for his commands.
“Helm!” called the Middle Dread.
Maud held a simple helmet of smooth metal, with two slight ridges from crown to back of neck and otherwise unadorned. It crackled faintly in her hands, alive with energyâ
the Old Dread called it, stolen from the sun. She slipped it over her head.
It took all of her skill not to lose her balance and go down on one knee. She remained on her feet, just barely, though she swayed as the helmet settled to her scalp. The helmet's energy was now both sound and feel, a hiss and snap in her ears that traveled right through her skull. And there was a buzzing, as though she'd stuck her head up against a beehive and could hear the insects' intimate conversations all around her.
When she surveyed the night with the helm upon her head, many separate elements became joined in a unified whole: The breeze came from the forest and the river, and she understood how far that breeze had traveled to reach her, how much land and ocean it had crossed, how many other faces it had touched. She sensed the Seekers and their apprentices in this very castle and in cottages throughout the estate, all asleep now. There were crickets at the edge of the woods, mice in the undergrowth and owls deeper among the oak trees. She was aware of the hunters and the hunted, a perfect chain of life. To the south and the west was her favorite hunter of allâthe golden eagle she'd glimpsed a few times, in its aerie by the waterfall. She almost felt the night itself, crawling across the sphere of the world from east to west, darkening the land as it went.
Then she perceived it: something solid, disturbing the peace of the night, vibrating the tiny atmospheric particlesâ
the Old Dread, her master, who knew so many things others didn't, called them.
At the last moment she acted, pulling her body backward and sweeping her left arm up. She knocked the Middle's arrow out of the air, sent it clattering down the stones below her.
Another arrow was already comingâa black bolt in the dark, seeking her head this time. Maud ducked, and it grazed the crown of her helm with a high-pitched ring.
“Now run!” called the Middle.
From the direction of his voice, she knew he'd changed his position. He was on the move.
The Young Dread glided down the ruined tower, leaping from loose stone to loose stone so quickly nothing had time to dislodge and send her sprawling. A new arrow hit the dirt by her feet as she reached the ground, and she felt the sting in her calf where the shaft had burned her as it went by.
She was in the castle's courtyard, sprinting for the woods, a barrage of arrows coming now. If she turned to look, she would lose ground; she must rely on her other senses. The helm was aiding her, vaulting her into its higher realm of awareness. She swerved as an arrow flew past to lodge in the crumbling stone wall at the end of the yard. The next came immediately; she sensed it diving down and leapt from its path. It passed an inch from her shoulder and twanged as it stuck into the earth. She cleared the end of the courtyard as a third arrow struck only a few feet away.
She was shielded now among trees. She heard the Middle's soft, inexorable tread upon the gravelly surface not far behind her. The vast stretches spent
changed the way the Dreads experienced time, the way they moved and spoke. As Maud ran, she felt her body gliding over the earth, steady, rhythmic, silent.
She veered from the path of a new arrow and didn't bother to watch where it went. There was something else that drew her attention: a cloaked figure was running parallel to her in the woods, small, like a child. This figure was moving as fast as she was. She imagined for a moment it was her reflection, keeping pace with her among the trees. It was like seeing another Young Dreadâan even younger Dread.
A new arrow came. She jumped left, then slipped through a stand of elms to chase after her mysterious companion. The figure saw her intention and ran faster. When it passed through a clearing, moonlight illuminated, for the briefest of seconds, a face that had turned back to look at Maud.
It was a boy, younger than she by at least a year or two. He was the right age to be one of the younger Seeker apprentices training on the estate, but she didn't recognize him, and his clothes were all wrongâtoo coarse and much too dirty. Was he a peasant, then, from a nearby village? He looked exhilarated and terrified by this chase. His face said that she scared him but also that he would love to fight with her.
Maud kept herself only a few yards behind him, both of them jumping over brambles, pushing themselves off trees to correct their wild course through the dense woods. She could catch the boy if she wished, but she didn't want to; she wanted to see where he would lead her.
The boy was tiring. He leaped obstacles more recklessly and landed without much poise or balance. Surely he would stop soon and speak to her, or fight her, or surrender. Otherwise, Maud thought, he would fall.
And he did. She watched him land badly after jumping over a streamlet, tumble forward, and roll across the forest floor to a rough stop against the roots of an enormous tree.
The boy was breathing hard as she approached, his dirty face once again visible in the moonlight. He had drawn a knife and was clutching it in front of his chest in a threatening manner.
“He's training a girl, then, is he?” the boy said, his accent uneducated and his tone rather more arrogant than Maud would have expected, given the circumstances.
She opened her mouth to ask him who he wasâ
The word had come from the Middle Dread. He stood only a few yards away, looking at her with fury, his bow across his shoulder and three arrows held between the fingers of his right hand. He was broad and thick and very strong, and in the shadows among the trees, with his dark cloak around him, he looked like nothing so much as an angry bull waiting to charge her.
At the sight of the Middle Dread, the cloaked boy was back up on his feet and running, and when Maud turned to watch him go, the Middle grabbed her shoulder and spun her around.
“I did not order you to chase after peasants in the woods,” he told her. His voice came in a deadly flat tone, flowing as slowly and smoothly as a chant.
“I wanted to know who he was,” she said. If someone other than a Seeker had wandered onto the estate, they should be concerned. “Don't you?”
In a quick motion, the Middle reached out to strike her, Maud thought, as he often did. But he was grasping for the helmet on her head. She'd forgotten she was still wearing it. She took a step out of reach, and in that moment the helm's peculiar faculties allowed her a swift glimpse into the Middle Dread's mind. This was not uncommon among Dreads; she and her master, the Old Dread, could touch each other's thoughts with no effort at allâthey trained themselves in this skillâbut the Middle's head had always been closed to her. Until now.
She stared into his angry face, but she was seeing, instead, the contents of his mind, laid out for her as clearly as a puppet show in a town fair. There were plans in thereâno, not plans,
âand there were players in those plots, some of them knowing participants, some of them helpless pawns. That boy with the cloakâdid she see him in the Middle's mind? There was a quantity of small, dangerous, boyish figures, circling about the Middle Dread himself like wasps aroundâ
The Young Dread was jerked back to the woods with a hard thump as the Middle batted the helmet off her head. Then he struck her sharply across the face. She found herself on the ground, the left half of her head bright with pain. Blood filled her nose and trickled down her chin.
“You looked into my thoughts,” he said. The words were quiet, but Maud heard the anger running through them. “You trespassed into my mind.”
His thoughts were closed to her now, but hatred erupted from him and flooded over her. He'd been living with her, training her, since she was a child, but he longed to get rid of her. For the first time she understood this with perfect clarity.
She stared up at the Middle Dread, who loomed over her, a wild, unpredictable bull who could kill her anytime he decided to do so. All that kept him in check was his own fear of the Old Dread. And how long would that last? The Old had been gone from them for decades, asleep
for who knew how much longer.
Maud was shaking, and not from the physical blow he'd dealt her. For the space of three breaths, she lay on the ground and he stood over her, and she thought he would attack. She was in undergarments and was unarmed, and she was tiny compared to the Middle Dread, yet she braced herself to fight him.
Then, as though a lamp wick had been blown out, the Middle Dread's face changed. The fury disappeared; his features relaxed into the expression of disinterest he usually wore. He extended a hand to help her to her feet.
Cautiously, the Young Dread gave him her hand, prepared to dodge another blow. But he merely pulled her upright. When she stood in front of him, he did something he'd never done before: he put a hand on her shoulder. This was so out of character, Maud couldn't imagine what was going to happen next.
He spoke and his voice was calmânot friendly, but it was never friendly.
“When you glimpse another's mind unexpectedly,” he told her, “you must beware what you see. A mind is a messy thing.”
He waited, and the Young Dread realized he expected an answer from her. She nodded, a brief, reluctant gesture. Her long hair had been tied at the base of her neck, but now it was coming loose and long strands fell across her face, as though she were trying to hide from him. She felt small and young as he peered at her. Her nose was still bleeding.
“A mind is a messy thing,” he said again. “It is full of many thoughts, some real, most not. There are dreams in there, and angry imaginings, and false moments of victory.” He paused, weighing the effect of his words upon her. “Every mind has such things, does it not?”
Again the Young Dread nodded. His heavy hand remained on her shoulder. She put the back of a wrist to her nose to stop the blood.
“There might be truth visible in another's mind,” he went on, “but it is a fine thread, wound around the daydreams and the nightmares.”
He continued to look at her intently, his face calm, his eyes hard and unfriendly.
“I saw nothing but a jumble,” Maud said. “Unformed thoughts and images.”
Was that true? She'd seen things that should cause her alarm, hadn't she? The Dreads' purpose was to stand apartâ¦.But the glimpse had been so brief, her own memory of what she saw was already going dim.
“Dreams and fantasy,” he prompted. Maud sensed him using great effort to keep his voice steady as he said, “Caught at a moment when I was angry with you for disobeying me and running off.”
She nodded a third time. The impression left upon her now by the Middle's mind was of plansâthe plans of a dangerous man, who took his time and waited to strike. Butâ¦didn't all people make such plans in moments of anger? Hadn't she herself dreamt of killing the Middle Dread many timesâfor his viciousness, his cruelty when they trained? What if someone had peered into her mind in those moments? What would that spy have thought of her?
“You don't know that boy, then?” she asked at last.
His eyes stayed hard, but then they were always hard.
“I do not. But I shall be making sure no more peasant children wander the estate.”
Maud glanced at the spot where the cloaked boy had fallen. He's training a girl, then, is he? the boy had said. It had sounded like he was referring to the Middle Dread in a familiar wayâ
The Middle Dread squeezed her shoulder firmly, bringing her eyes back to his.
“You are the Young Dread, and I am the Middle,” he told her. “We have a role to play in judging Seekers. But you and I are not equals. If we are to exist together, you must respect my position, and I do not invite you into my mind.”
The last few minutes had brought the longest, calmest speech she'd ever heard from him. He had every right to the privacy of his own mind, she reflected, and Maud told herself that she'd seen only dark fantasy, and one's fantasy, surely, was one's own business.