Enorian tent settlement, South Nordante, 1673 FTE (fairytale era)
The letter crumpled in my tightly clenched fist, and as I looked up at my companions, I realised I was shaking. Master and Missus Streeth were the leaders of our nomadic group. They wore the same dusty brown colour as I did; the same dusty brown as the tents we stood in. Master’s lined face was creased with worry, and Missus’s with anger. I’d known her long enough to see that her anger was worry – for me.
But the other person standing in the tent… He was young, and as pale in colour as were all the Nordante locals. Compared to our golden skin and black hair, his looked like he’d been left out in the rain until the dye ran out. His clothing was more cheerful though: green and yellow. He met my eyes with his own weird, light grey ones, and I struggled to hold that gaze for a moment before looking away.
“Well?” Master Streeth demanded. “What does it say, Claire? This boy wouldn’t let us look at it, said it had to go to one of Alden’s daughters.”
Alden being my father, and me being the oldest and most responsible of his three girls. “Um,” I began. I swallowed. Would the Veest emissary be offended at being called a ‘boy’ like that? He was tall and skinny, sort of half-grown in appearance, but he looked so serious. “It’s from Father. He says that he’s well.”
“Come on, Claire,” Missus Streeth prompted. “He wouldn’t have written just to say he was well, even though those Veest are keeping him hostage and of course we’d want to know. What do they want?”
“Peace,” the boy said, speaking for the first time since I’d answered the Streeths’ summons. I could feel his eyes on me. Was he judging me in contrast to the requirements outlined on the letter? “Peace between our people. A place for yours to settle, and so that ours may hunt and travel freely in our ancestral lands without fear of getting an arrow in the head.”
There was a moment where I could see the confusion in Master and Missus’s expressions, and the emissary wasn’t helping at all. That was such a vague answer.
“An arrow in the head?” Master Streeth said in a low voice. “That was only once. How many of ours have you killed or injured? We just want to live here, not fight! The war comes from your side!”
Oh, help. This was not the way to make lasting peace. I didn’t know about Father’s suggestion, either, but… “Marriage,” I blurted out. “They want to join our peoples by marriage. The son of their ruler, to the daughter of ours.”
The Streeths’ eyebrows shot up in identical startled expressions. “But we don’t have any girls,” Missus pointed out. “And we don’t have an official ruler. We just lead the meetings because…well, no one else does it.”
And that was pretty much how our people worked. About fifty of us had grown tired of the constant corruption, famine and drought in our tiny country of Enoria, and headed north. Two years later we’d made our way far into the mountains of the neighbouring kingdom, and were yet to find a decent place to settle that wasn’t already taken. This area in the south-east of Nordante was damp, green and wild in more ways than one. And the locals, who called themselves the Veest? Wilder still.
“Then the daughter of one of your high-ranking officials,” the Veest emissary said. Out the corner of my eye I could see he was studying me speculatively. “This one is too young, I think. Is there an older sister?”
I didn’t flinch, well accustomed to that kind of comment. As for the Streeths, they didn’t point out that we didn’t have any high-ranking officials. Father was respected by our people, and perhaps that was the next best thing.
“Too young for who or what, exactly?” Missus demanded stridently. “Claire here is seventeen, coming up eighteen, for all that she looks twelve. Her mother was the same. Besides, we’re not all as enormous as you lot.”
Did I look twelve? I’d argue for fourteen. Some people just grew short and round-cheeked. Especially me. “Peace,” I said again quickly. “That’s the goal, right? Father has found a lovely valley, a lush, uninhabited one on the edge of the Veest lands. And if we can all get on, then we can settle. Build houses, plant crops for the first time in years.”
“We know what our goals are,” Master cut in gruffly. “We’ve been planning this since you really were twelve, missy.” He turned to the emissary. “Look, whatever your name is-”
“Damon.” The Veest pronounced it like ‘Day-mon’.
“Damon. How long have we got before you folks start slicing and dicing our Alden?”
A twinge of fear twisted my belly. That was my father they were talking about. My only surviving parent! He’d headed out a few weeks earlier to try to find us a better place to settle, and had been captured by the locals instead. I was glad they hadn’t hurt him – but I didn’t know how long that would last. I turned to stare at the emissary. “Well?”
“And bear in mind that we’ve got you here too,” Missus added quickly. “Your people hurt Alden, and you won’t be going home either.”
Oh, they looked so very fierce while they said it, even though they were both half a head shorter than him. But if he was a shapeshifter and could become a bear, a wolf, or an eagle, then what could we do?
But Damon’s pale eyebrows shot up. “Peace,” he said again, enunciating the word in his strange accent. We all spoke the same language, but even if we hadn’t looked so different, we would have known it by those tones. “That means no, er, slicing and dicing.”
“How long, boy?”
He shrugged. “I’m expected back within two days. We’d need a decision by sunset.”
It was midday now, and the sun was high in the sky, warming our already-warm plain to baking level. It wasn’t as bad as what I remembered from Enoria, because there was plenty of water here, but it wasn’t comfortable either.
But I thought of my father again, and of my two younger sisters. If Father was killed, then they’d be orphans. I’d be an orphan, and our people would have to leave…again. “I’d do it without hesitation to save my father’s life,” I said. “But I don’t think I fit the requirements.” I handed the letter over to Missus, and she and her husband leaned in to read it. I could see her squinting to make out the text, and his lips moving slightly. The problem wasn’t Father’s handwriting, which was quite tidy. It was the content.
After a minute Missus looked up at me frankly. “I see what you mean. Ah, well. It’s not like we’ve got single beauties to throw around, have we?”
I shrugged, but inside my heart was beating double-time. This wasn’t about me. It was about Father, and about everyone. We needed a home. We needed peace.
She sighed, then handed me back the letter. “Go see your sisters, Claire. We’ll talk a little more with this lad here.”
At least he’d graduated from just being ‘the Veest’.
I nodded, then left. I already knew what I was going to do, but it didn’t mean everyone else was going to like it.
“I don’t see why we can’t just stay here,” my sister Tabitha said staunchly. She folded her slender arms in front of her chest, pouting. At fifteen she was a mere eighteen months younger than me, but her temperament wasn’t nearly as relaxed. Hopefully she’d grow out of it. “There’s water here, and you wouldn’t have to marry anyone.”
I sighed, moving over to my side of the small tent to sort through my meagre belongings. “Water, yes, but the land is made of rocks. We can’t grow anything here, and the summers would be brutal. The place Father found – the others say it’s beautiful. Green, a little damp. Things would grow like crazy. We could build homes…”
“Ned says you shouldn’t marry an animal,” Tabitha cut in. “That would be disgusting. Your children would be hairy. Maybe some of them would have tails!”
Ned being her ‘betrothed’. He was fifteen too, and just as outspoken. Unlike her, he didn’t seem to have the kindness that made her bearable, and the rest of the family had been unhappy when they’d announced themselves betrothed last winter. They couldn’t marry until they were sixteen, of course, but I was hoping that either they changed their minds, or Ned fell off a cliff before then. (Ha, ha.) Except here was the upside of that betrothal – Tabitha, who was rather closer to the ‘beauty’ requirement, was already taken. I considered that a good thing. I’d bet that if my sister was in the Veest city for more than a day, she’d have started a war for real. And with us being outnumbered ten to one? We’d lose.
“They don’t have tails, Tab,” I said patiently. “They look human. They just turn into animals sometimes.”
“Disgusting!” she announced again.
I rolled my eyes, turning back to my clothing. Now what should I pack? Brown dress one, brown dress two, slightly lighter brown dress three…and my dowry, which was my late mother’s silver comb and matching mirror. I’d always figured that one day I’d take the ‘wealth’ to my new husband. And unless the emissary turned me down, that day would be tomorrow.
“I think it’s alright,” my youngest sister Amadine said from where she sat near my feet. She was only ten, and looked more like me than Tabitha: small and round-faced, with wide dark eyes. “Maybe they’d be like puppies. I like puppies.”
Tabitha opened her mouth to no doubt say something scathing, and I cut in. “Don’t you want to hear the letter?”
“Yes,” Amadine piped in. “Did Father send us a present with it? I asked for a jewel.” Meaning a pretty rock to add to her collection.
“And I asked for a new dress, not that I’m likely to get that,” Tabitha retorted. “What does it say, Claire?”
I unrolled the parchment once more, carefully setting aside the squashed yellow rose that was wrapped inside. Ironically, that had been what I’d asked for. A rose. This was worse-for-wear, but still fragrant.
“Dear girls,” I began to read. “I trust you are all well. I have good news. Rose Valley looks even better on closer inspection, and it will surely be a perfect location for our new village. Even better, the local Veest that I’ve met are very keen on making peace after the bloodshed of the last few months.” I paused, taking a breath. By now I’d read this over and over, and it was the next part that still made me twitch.
“Yes, we know that,” Tabitha prompted when the silence dragged on for too long. “What’s the next part?”
I continued, “As you’re by now aware, I’ve been taken into the care of the Veest. They say they’re tired of the skirmishes, and want to broker true peace between us. The ruler of the city, Kanut, thinks that if one of our girls marries his son, then we’ll not want to fight anymore, and I daresay he’s right. They’ve requested a high-born, sweet-natured, beautiful maiden as bride.”
There was a long pause as my sisters and I all looked at each other. Then Tabitha’s nose wrinkled. “Stars above, that’s a big ask. There are what, five girls of marriageable age? Three of those are already betrothed, including me. And then there’s you and Halley.”
Halley was sweet-natured, that was for sure. She was also simple – with the mind of a child – and no more ‘high-born’ than any of the rest of us. “So there’s really no choice,” I said again. I didn’t bother to read the rest of the letter aloud, for we already knew what it contained. “I might not be a beauty, but who else will do it?”
“I think you’re beautiful,” Amadine said staunchly. She set her arms around my waist. “But I don’t want you to go!”
“The Veest city isn’t that far from Rose Valley,” I replied calmly. I put my arms around her comfortingly, but inside I was as tense as a drawn spring. “I’ll see you all the time. It’ll be an adventure.”
“But would Father really want you to go?” Tabitha asked. “I mean, he wouldn’t want you to sacrifice yourself to a Veest. He wouldn’t make you do something that horrible.”
“That’s not true,” Amadine interrupted. “He makes me go to bed early every time there’s a feast, and he even made me eat a whole plate of horrible sprouts once, just because Missus Bloomer made them and he wanted to please her. Remember?”
“Nobody cares about your sprouts, Amadine,” Tabitha cut in tersely, pushing her hand over the younger girl’s mouth to silence her. “And Claire, he wouldn’t want you to do something that dangerous. The Veest aren’t even real people! For all we know, they’re cannibals! We could end up roasted on a spit!”
I didn’t point out that in order to be cannibals they’d need to eat their own kind, therefore saving us. Instead I sighed, my tone not betraying my twisting gut. I could see where this was going, and I didn’t like it. “Don’t be ridiculous, Tab. There’s no evidence that the Veest have ever eaten a human.”
“Only because no eaten human ever got a chance to tell anyone about it!”
There was a long, heavy silence interrupted by a scuffle as my youngest sister tried to shove my middle sister’s hand away from her face, and succeeded. She was a lot smaller, but she was determined, and there may have been some saliva involved.
“If they don’t eat people, I wouldn’t mind marrying one,” Amadine announced. “I could have chocolate cake and wear a white dress.”
Oh, what a lovely, innocent view of marriage. If only it was about chocolate cake rather than avoiding war. And as for white dresses – nobody wore white back home in Enoria; it was asking for trouble. We all wore boring, boring brown so the marks didn’t show when our skirts dragged through the dust. But here in this foreign kingdom, we’d actually started thinking about a better life…until the locals decided they didn’t want us living so close. These last few years had been precarious, and finally having peace would be a miracle. All we had to do was send a bride…
“They don’t want to eat us,” I pointed out as mildly as I could in the circumstances. “I believe the letter states that they want to marry one of us. And as I’m the only one who isn’t already taken – or far too young – I suppose that means me.”
“Stars above!” Tabitha exclaimed, tossing her long black hair over one shoulder. “You sound as if you don’t even care that you might be marrying some sort of big, hairy beast within a month. Do you even have emotions, Claire?”
“I didn’t say I don’t care,” I replied. “Besides, speaking of marrying big hairy beasts, you’re betrothed to one and you don’t seem to mind. It can’t be that bad.”
“Ned does need a haircut,” Amadine agreed. “His hair covers his eyes sometimes.”
“I can’t believe you’re comparing my betrothed to one of those- those monsters!” Tabitha spat, then as usual at this point in the argument, her face crumpled. “Oh stars, they’re going to kill and eat Father unless you go and marry one of them. But how can you?”
How could I not? “I’m pretty sure they don’t eat people,” I said once again, hearing the terseness in my tone. “I was reading the reports that were written when we first arrived, and it said that a few of them are shapeshifters, but not cannibals.”
“Always with the reading! Do you trust everything you read?”
“When it’s a well-written, logical report by someone with actual experience, yes,” I retorted. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going back to talk to the Streeths.”
I made my way back to our meeting tent to find there was now quite a crowd. The Veest emissary stood quietly off to one side, watching us with a seeming lack of interest, but our people had already got into hot debate.
“Oh, let the girl do it!” someone said. “This is what we all need, isn’t it? This is what we’ve been working towards.”
“But will she be safe?” someone else cut in. “We don’t know what those creatures are capable of!”
I coughed quietly. No one heard me, so I nudged the closest person, one of the younger, married girls. “Are they talking about me?”
“Claire!” She turned to the others, raising her voice. “Claire’s here!”
Suddenly I was the centre of attention.
“Look at her,” I heard one of the older ladies say. “She’s so cute. Who would hurt her?”
I glanced across to where Damon stood. His expression hadn’t changed. “My father wouldn’t have written that letter if he thought it was dangerous,” I said loudly. “He knew I was one of the only options, and he wouldn’t have me put into a situation like that.”
“Are you sure he wrote the letter?” the boy nearest me queried. His name was Alec, and he was seventeen like me, with typical Enorian black hair and eyes, and golden skin. He was also very handsome, and one of the few who weren’t already wed or betrothed. Unfortunately his tastes didn’t run to ‘cute’ – so my feelings weren’t reciprocated. I felt my cheeks heat.
“Yeah, it’s his,” Missus Streeth said, saving me from answering. “He always smudges the ink.”
“But what if he was forced to write it?” Alec challenged. He stared at the emissary. “Was he?”
Damon lifted his chin, apparently unconcerned. “He was told that he could not leave until this bargain is completely fulfilled,” he replied calmly. “And I have been instructed to give the same information. I will leave first thing tomorrow. If you wish to send one of your girls with me – a sweet-natured beauty, of course – then Master Alden will be free to go, and your people free to move into the valley unchallenged. If you do not wish to send one, then I will leave alone, and your Master Alden will stay with our people until our ruler decides otherwise.”
I felt my cheeks redden a little more at the request for a ‘sweet-natured beauty’ being announced so loudly. “Can I talk to him in private, please?”
No one was keen on that idea, but Damon and I managed to move about ten feet away from the rest of the crowd. “Look,” I said quietly. “We all know that we need your goodwill more than you need ours. And I’m quite fond of my father, and would also like him back. But really, honestly, would I do? Because we don’t have anyone else.”
Damon looked up, and I saw his eyes settle on Tabitha where she stood at the edge of the crowd, watching us. “Anyone else available,” I cut in. “You said you needed a maiden.”
Oh, Tab would hate me for saying such a thing since I was pretty sure she and Hairy Ned had never gone there, but I was saving her. Hopefully she’d never find out.
The Veest turned back to me, looking me up and down. Then he shrugged. “Why not.”
And that was that. I turned to move back to the others, but he set his hand on my arm. “Wait. Who was that boy you were talking to? The handsome one.”
Now I really felt my cheeks heat. Generally I was hard to embarrass, but any mention of Alec would make me blush. “Alec is just another settler.”
“We’re not really friends,” I muttered, sparing a glance at Alec from the corner of my eye. He seemed to be arguing with Tabitha, something he did with enthusiasm. “But we know each other, as does everyone. There’s nothing else to it.”
“Hmm,” Damon said. And that was all.
“You’re a bold one,” Missus Streeth declared that evening in the privacy of the main tent. “You might look small and sweet, but you’ve got a spine of steel. Providing they’re not the beasts that people claim them to be, then you’ll do well.” She exchanged a glance with her husband, and her lips tightened unhappily. “But I don’t like this. Your mother was my friend, and I don’t think she would have liked it either, us sending you off to the Veest caves to have half-animal babies.”
Then seeing my appalled expression, she sighed. She wasn’t at her best in this chaos, but I knew she was a kind woman. “Oh, it might not be as bad as all that, Claire, but it’s a big ask. Marrying a Veest? I hear they spend half their time as animals! Some of them might not even be able to change back, and they want us to send you into that?”
“It might not be true,” I murmured half-heartedly, but even I didn’t believe that. So I lifted my chin and said, “If I go, it will be by choice. I know you’d never make me. It’s just…”
“You’re afraid of a horrible death?”
“No!” No matter what anyone said, I was sure they weren’t cannibals, and perhaps not even violent. Mostly sure. Just look at that boy with his too-pale colouring and calm manner. He looked too mild to ever devour anyone… “I was thinking about what Damon had said, about what sort of girl they were expecting. They might be disappointed if they end up with me.”
“Fishing for compliments, are we?”
My cheeks heated. “Of course not. I just meant that they seem to be expecting a beauty, and I’m…”
“Short, cute rather than pretty, and with no dress sense?”
Ouch. “I was going to say ordinary, but that’s one way of putting it. And I can’t see that my dress sense is any worse than anyone else’s here.” All our dresses turned the same shade of sun-bleached brown within a few months, and the sun had turned my skin to almost the same colour, and had put hints of brown in my curly black hair. Not a match with my name that meant ‘pale’, but that couldn’t be avoided.
“That boy didn’t seem to mind,” Master Streeth pointed out. “Besides, how do you know what they’d find beautiful? Probably a girl with a face like a pig and hair like a wild dog. You’ll be gorgeous in contrast.”
I didn’t point out that the Veest boy was hardly ugly, just pale. Instead I said, “It seems like we’ve got more to gain than lose here. I think I should go.”
This time Missus Streeth didn’t contradict me. Instead she looked across at her husband. “Well?”
“Let her go. Who knows, maybe we will be able to settle here. Sounds a good sight better than going back to that dust bowl we came from in Enoria.”
Missus sighed. “Fine. But if they cause you trouble, Claire, you don’t hold back, alright?” She made a fist to demonstrate, her thumb tucked outside her fingers, then jabbed at the air. “Just like we showed you. Nose, throat, gut or lower. Understood?”
“Understood,” I replied a little dryly. They’d taught all of us girls – and boys – to defend ourselves, but up ’til now I’d never needed to use those skills. I hoped I could still say that in three months’ time.
The news spread like wildfire – Claire’s going to marry a Veest! – and I had more conversations that evening with some settlers than I’d had in a year. Everybody had to hear it for themselves, and repeating it over and over should have made it feel more real to me. But it didn’t. It just felt like one of those articles I liked to read, the sort which would make me think ‘isn’t that interesting’, and then would be forgotten about.
Of course my sisters cared that I was leaving, but they were more concerned about Father coming home, and that maybe we could all stay in this area after all and not have to pack up our lives once more in search of somewhere liveable. We’d – they’d – have to move a few hours north into Rose Valley, but it was nothing compared to the travel we’d already done from Enoria.
I didn’t have much I could take with me. We weren’t rich, and all I had was just that silver comb and mirror from my mother. Pretty, but you couldn’t exactly live off them. But then neither the letter nor the emissary had said anything about needing a dowry – just a bride.
A sweet-natured, beautiful, unmarried girl. Argh…at least I could claim the last requirement, pretend the second didn’t matter, and fake the first.
I made my way back to my ‘room’, which was actually half of the tent I shared with my sisters. My space was cut off by a sheet hanging from the ceiling, and I was finally alone. Just me, my bedroll, and my few bundles of clothing. I unfolded the largest bundle to expose the aforementioned silver dowry, then picked up the mirror and idly studied my reflection.
Round brown cheeks, round dark eyes, curly black hair sticking to my forehead from the heat. Yep, all normal…except for those downturned lips. That wasn’t normal, because I was starting to feel quite sorry for myself. Did anyone even care that I was leaving? Or was I just a convenient sacrifice?
Realising how that sounded, I twisted my lips in a half-amused, half-annoyed pout. “Don’t be a martyr,” I told my reflection. “You’re choosing this, and you know what’s at stake.”
Peace with the Veest, everyone being able to settle somewhere safe and beautiful…and my father’s freedom, unless they’d been joking about that. I didn’t think they had been. So with that in mind, I could handle marrying a stranger who might also turn into a hairy beast on occasion. Maybe I could arrange to have him stay outside during those times, just like you wouldn’t come inside with dirty boots.
I was still musing on exactly what waited for me when a light cough sounded from just outside. “Claire? Are you alone? It’s Alec.”
I’d recognised his voice immediately, and felt my heartrate pick up. “Um, yes. Just…talking to myself.” Damn. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
There was a pause. “Can I come in?”
Of course he could! He was one of the few boys my age, and he was also one of the few I’d really miss. “Just a moment.” I quickly checked my hair again in the mirror, decided that it wasn’t going to get any better, then smoothed my hands over my plain brown skirts. “Come in.”
There he was in all his tall, dark, handsome glory, right down to the thick-lashed dark eyes. He pushed aside the sheet/door, taking care to leave it hooked so that it was ‘open’. It wouldn’t do to have any rumours about the two of us alone in a bedroom right before I went off to get married – that would likely wreck the entire point of going, and for nothing. Alec wasn’t interested in me that way. He’d made it more than clear in the past.
“Everyone’s saying that you’re leaving with that pasty-faced Veest,” he said.
“Then everybody would be right,” I replied, turning away to fold one of my better dresses, the one I used for celebrations. Perhaps it would be my wedding dress, white or not. “I go first thing in the morning.”
“Just like that.”
“Just like that,” I repeated calmly.
“Were you even going to say goodbye?”
I looked up at him in surprise. Yes, he really did look annoyed, and that made me a little annoyed right back. “I wouldn’t have thought it would make any difference to you. You never cared before.”
“I cared, I just always thought…that you’d be here. I didn’t think you’d just run off to marry some monster! Stars above, Claire! Do you think your life is worth this…this peace they say we’ll get?”
“I am ninety-nine percent sure that I won’t be killed, eaten or even maimed,” I said lightly. “So yes, I think it is worth it. And we don’t even know if my betrothed will be a shapeshifter. Maybe I can think of it as an adventure.”
Alec stared at me intently. “I wish you wouldn’t go.”
Now a spike of irritation shot through me. His timing was terrible! “Oh, shall I tell them I have a previous commitment? Shall I stay and marry you, Alec, and we can find some other way to rescue my father and somewhere else to live that the Veest haven’t already claimed? Or maybe we should just go back to Enoria, and make the hard work of the last few years for nothing.”
I’d been sarcastic, but there was a part of me that was honest, too. I’d given him this chance to speak up about how he felt about me, but his silence gave the answer I’d expected. I turned away, regaining control of my temper and pretending to straighten the embroidered sheets I was adding to my bag. “Never mind. When it all works out and you lot can all finally build permanent homes in Rose Valley, then you’ll see I did the right thing.”
“And do you really think you’ll be happy, married to one of those animals?”
“Well, he won’t be an animal all the time,” I retorted. “Now if you don’t mind, I have some packing to do.”