Two small pairs of boots echoed on the afternoon cobblestones—one pair in a sprint, the other in a stumble and slide. A blond girl, no older than five, dragged a raven-haired girl an inch taller and a year older down the sea lane toward a small cottage.
The dark-haired girl’s lungs were sputtering, each inhale a failure.
She was drowning on dry land.
As the house came into view, the blond girl opened her mouth to scream for help but before any sound could come out, the other girl’s mother burst through the door. Like she knew what had happened—she always seemed to know what they’d done.
“Evie!” the mother cried, cradling her daughter in a heap at her chest and running toward the cottage. “Anna,” she said to the little blonde, who was panting from carrying her friend so far, “fetch the royal physician—”
The girl didn’t protest again, fine boots clacking against the cobblestones as she regained speed.
When her mother shut the cottage door tightly behind them, the raven-headed girl knew the physician’s medicine wouldn’t heal her.
Only one thing would.
“Gianni!” The mother called, and the girl’s father poked his head out of the bedroom, his face slack with the sleep he wasn’t allowed on his latest whaling trip.
“Evie . . . what—”
“A broken rib. Maybe a punctured lung.” She laid the girl in her bed and ripped the girl’s bodice to her navel. Blood under the skin showed black across the expanse of the little girl’s ribs, fissures like spiderwebs crossed from spine to sternum. The mother tried to read her daughter’s dark eyes. “What happened?”
The girl licked her lips before inhaling just enough air to speak.
“I saved Nik.”
That was true. And the little girl was proud. Daring to smile despite the pain.
They’d spent the morning together—the blonde, the raven-haired girl, and their boy—running through the waves, climbing rocks, dancing in the sand. But then the afternoon came and it was time for them to part. The boy sent back to his castle, the little girls home—the younger one to her mansion, ten times the size of the other girl’s tiny cottage.
Mischievous and sunburnt, they ran in protest, the boy leading the way, holding the girls’ hands as they raced across the stepping-stone rocks that led into the cove. They giggled and shrieked as they hopped from rock to rock, the boy’s minder chiding them from the shore.
But one rock was slick with moss. The boy slipped—falling backward, the base of his skull aimed directly at a crook of solid stone.
In a blink, the little girl made her choice.
She threw her body between the boy and the jagged edge of the rock. Her back took the hit with a huge crack. Her head snapped back, her skull missing impact by a hair. Just as she hit, the boy’s head bounced onto the pilled cotton of her bodice rather than smashing into the rock.
It was a thing of magic that she’d made it in time.
They were caught then. The boy’s minder yanked them back onto the beach and told them in stern tones to never do that again. Then the old woman hauled the boy away without a good-bye, leaving the girls on the sand.
As they turned for home, the little raven-haired girl stumbled, the shock wearing off and the pain beginning. It radiated up her back, around her rib cage, to the front of her dress. She couldn’t catch her breath, each inhale stopping short. The little blonde said she’d walk her friend home but by the time they made it to the sea lane, the raven-headed girl couldn’t stand, all her weight on the blonde’s shoulders.
“Oh, Evie . . . ,” the girl’s mother said. As if she’d seen it all. Immediately, she sent her husband for her bottles. Her inks. Not that one. This one. She laid the girl in her bed and lit a fire with a snap of her fingers.
And tried every healing spell she knew.
It only took seconds to know none of them would work. The girl’s breath withered until it was almost nothing at all.
The mother wept, wishing for her sister—the strongest witch. Healer of Kings, reviving those in power who turn a blind eye to magic when their lives depend on it, but banish it when it doesn’t. She was the reason the physician might come at all—though he would be too late. As would Hansa, a day away, healing yet another noble.
The girl’s father pressed his hand into his wife’s shoulder and wiped away her tears. Then he squeezed his daughter’s hand, already growing cold, her circulation failing.
“I’ll go fetch the minister—”
“Not yet,” the mother said, determination ringing in her voice. The girl’s mother stood at the edge of the bed, her shoulders now pin straight, her voice calm and direct. “There is one more spell I can try.”
With gentle fingers, she painted octopus ink across the little girl’s cheeks, down her neck, and across her chest. Then her mother laid her hands gently over the girl’s chest.
“Don’t you worry, Evie.”
The words she said next were old and dark, and the little girl didn’t understand them. They made her blood crackle like the fire across the room. Stole the air from the cottage. Made her mother shake, violently, as she held her hands to her daughter’s skin.
The little girl couldn’t do anything but watch her mother, her veins singing. Soon, her mother’s palms on her skin became more than damp. They began to burn.
And then the pain stopped. Air rushed into the little girl’s lungs, and her chest rose. She exhaled, long and deep.
At that the girl’s mother smiled—just before her own body began to seize, her eyes rolling back in her head.
It was too much. The mother’s chest compressed, a long breath pushing out—but no inhale following.
“Greta! Greta!” The girl’s father placed his hands on his wife’s face, his palms burning and flying away, suddenly red.
The prickle in the little girl’s blood spiked with fear. She struggled to pull herself to sit, her mother’s hands sliding away as her form slumped over and her pale cheek smashed into the bedsheet. The little girl didn’t hesitate, reaching for her mother’s potions. She turned her mother’s head to face upward before smearing ink across those pale cheeks, her little fingers blistering with the touch. Her own skin was pink and warm and full of life as her mother’s skin turned as white as snow, as hot as ash.
The girl was smart, though. She’d watched her mother enough. She knew how these spells worked. Magic was barter—the right words, actions, potions for the right result.
She put her hands on her mother’s face and began repeating those strange words.
Words of life.
“Evelyn, no!” Her father didn’t move, just screamed, fear freezing him to his spot at the foot of the bed.
But the little girl had fumbled her way through the words enough that her own skin began to grow hot. The pain returned. Her breath became shallow. Then her mother’s eyes flew open, showing beautiful hazel instead of the whites.
It was working.
Her father looked from his wife to his daughter. Those words were dark. Old. Powerful. He knew this as much as he knew his native tongue.
Her mother’s lips began moving. She took a deep breath. “Gefa!” With this single command, she stole the words right from the little girl’s mouth. Dark words and dark magic and all sound gone from the girl’s powerful tongue.
Still, the child kept going, chest heaving—she was yelling but could not be heard. Tears as dark as night flowed down her little cheeks. Black coating her vision, the girl began to wail without sound, her whole body shaking.
And, with her last wisp of energy, the girl’s mother looked to her father.
“Bring Hansa home. Tell her. Promise.”
As he nodded, her mother whispered one last spell, and the little girl’s screams filled the air, black tears dripping onto her ruined dress.
“No, Mama, no!”
The little girl grabbed her mother’s hand, still burning to the touch, and saw the light flee from her hazel eyes.