I grip her hand so tight my knuckles are white and my fingers are hot. My heart hammers in my chest as my mother pulls me along. My feet barely touch the floor. The house is quiet. The grey corridors are lit by a single flickering candle in my older sister's grip, the orange light jumps around the walls in a weak attempt to banish the night shadows. The chilled air has easy access to my skin, sliding frozen hands over bare collarbones and naked ankles.
My mother’s lips are tight and her eyes wide, scanning the corridor around us. No one says anything, the questions stuck as icy lumps in our throats. My older brother, Gais, looks tense. His eyes are bunched, his hand firmly attached to one of my sister’s. Yalina’s hair is a mess, streaky tears are slick on her face as we move. My oldest sibling, Greer, has a face made of stone, eyes cutting like blades as the skirts of her nightgown rustle about her long legs.
What’s going on? My spine is trembling. Fear strokes the back of my knees. One misstep and I feel like I’ll collapse.
The silence stretches, the only sound is my racing breath. I’m running to keep up with my mother’s long strides. We turn a corner, coming to the garden door. My mother’s private garden. She loves roses; she has bushes of all different kinds and colours in bloom all year round.
We spent all day in these gardens, underneath a gentle sun. Mother had been tending her roses while Yalina teased me about not being able to make daisy chains. I’d run off crying. Mother had come after me, and showed me how to link the small white flowers together. We’d spent all afternoon making strings of flowers, presenting the floral decor to my older siblings at dinner.
I still have a wilting chain of pearly flowers around my wrist, the delicate petals crushed beneath my mother’s fingers.
We hurry out of the door. There’s no more warm sunshine. The grass is cold, prickly and slick under my feet. The sky is grey and streaked with gauzy clouds. The moon hides behind velvet gloves of promised rain. There’s dampness in the air. The breeze is like snow pressed to the back of my neck.
We barely make it five paces to the other exit. Greer drops the candle to the ground with a loud clatter. My mother freezes and a strangled breath races as she pushes me firmly behind her.
There are three men coming through the gate we’re heading for. Three men dragging my father. He looks so different. There’s no crown, no finery. Nothing marks him as the King of Kerandis. Instead he’s battered, barely able to stand. His dark hair is slick with blood, his nose flat on his face, one eye swollen shut with purple bruising. He’s holding a crippled hand at completely the wrong angle and his breaths are sharp and laboured.
His mouth falls open in horror, his shoulders sag and pre-emptive tears brim in his one good eye.
“No!” he croaks. The man dragging him smashes my father over the head with the hilt of his sword. Father hits the floor, struggling to get up as he scrabbles amongst the grass.
“Go!” my mother gasps. She makes to move back the other way but stops short, her nails dig into my wrist in shock. Two men close the door behind us, blocking the way we came. The soft click of the metal latches rings louder than any punch. They’re circling us, trapping us against the walls of this house with nowhere to run. Mother is trembling. Her hand shakes in front of my eyes.
“Sorry, Ortanya,” says one of the men who’d been dragging my father by the scruff of his tunic. He walks forwards, a slight bounce in his toes. The other men are tense, eyes flickering to their leader. Waiting for a word or look. There is something in the air as he speaks, as he moves. Revelling in tonight’s events, mocking what’s to come.
The night casts a navy hue on his bronze hair. His dark eyes glint with satisfaction. That manic smirk makes me want to be sick.
“This is just business,” he says.
“They’re children,” argues my mother, her voice trembles over those last two syllables.
“They’re problems,” he pulls a sword from his belt, “You, on the other hand, are free to leave. Once your husband is dead, what power do you have?”
“They’re my children,” she repeats, acid in her voice. “You won’t hurt them.”
A cold snap rips through me. My heart batters against my ribs.
The leader walks forwards, putting a possessive hand on the side of her face. She jerks sideways at the touch, so he digs his fingers into her hair and yanks, pulling breaths of protests from her lips.
“Yes. I will,” his face inches from hers, “I’m going to kill them.”
“Please,” she whispers, the word quivering in the air. Such a quiet noise, yet it reaches every corner of this garden. I feel something inside my chest go hollow.
“Oh, you plead such a pretty case, Ortanya,” his voice is low, a mockery of velvet and kindness, lips so close to hers. “I’ll make it quick. Just for you. I won’t make you watch.”
Yalina screams as the man shoves a sword through our mother’s chest. I look up, and see the other side of the bloody blade wedged through my mother’s back, barely inches over my head. I hear a ringing in my ears. My limbs go numb. Her body staggers as blood drips off the weapon into my eyes.
“Mama!” my brother’s screams cut through everything.
The sword is yanked free, and the man throws her to the ground. I’m still clutching her hand, my grip so vice like I can’t feel my hands. I’m dragged down. My knees slam into the hard stone; my palms splay over the cold floor. The skin on my knees stings like it’s been rubbed raw.
I look at her face. Her beautiful face. The face that soothes my nightmares, that kisses my fevered forehead, that smiles when I bring her flowers. It’s blank. Emotionless. Mouth ajar, blood slicked, blond hair cast across her mouth and nose. Her crystal blue eyes open and unblinking. Staring endlessly.
A shadow crosses her porcelain skin. I look up in time to see the arcing flash of bloody metal against a starless sky. I throw up a hand, the strike comes down, cutting through my shoulder.
Pain explodes over me as I fall to the ground, collapsing next to my mother. My head is thrown to see my family. Pain robs my ability to move, I can barely breathe. A ringing starts in my ears. My sight remains, tinted red with agony and blood.
The murderer swings to my brother. Yalina’s screams ricochet around us, almost drowning out my brother’s defiant roar as the sword is driven through his stomach. Hot tears are leaking down my face, the chilled wind leaves them stinging across my cheeks. Our killer kicks my brother’s body back against the wall with a soggy thump and drives the sword through his heart. Our murderer’s laugh is cold and mirthful as he pulls his weapon free. He twists to face Yalina, cowering on the floor with bloody blond hair strewn around her contorted face. Her shrill cries stop in a jarring second, and silence reigns over the garden.
Our murderer steps back from her body. Our blood pools over his fingers, spraying over his orange tunic, dripping like scarlet rain from the metal of his sword.
My heart crumples in my chest. Something cold snaps inside me, it runs through my veins like a toxin. My throat feels strangled.
I feel something soothing, small like ribbons of silk wrapping around my shoulder. They bite into my skin, teeth like pinpricks. The ringing in my ears starts to fade. I can pick out the voices again.
Our murderer’s laugh echoes through the garden, bouncing off the huge stone walls boxing us in. Walls that were built for our family privacy are now our cage.
“No! No!” sobs my father as this monster turns to Greer. My older sister.
Her white blond hair flies in the wind. Her face is blank and free of a single tear. Her feet pad softly against the stone as she takes one step back. I can’t tell if it’s the gruesome homicides or the wind making the plants shiver, their leaves rustling is now the loudest thing in this garden. She holds up her hands. They shake ever so slightly and she swallows. Her eyes dart about the group before resting on our murderer.
“I’m useful to you.” She gracefully lowers herself to the floor, hands raised. She kneels in a puddle of our brother’s blood without hesitation or even blinking in revulsion. She doesn’t care as she keeps eye contact with our murderer.
“Useful?” repeats the man in mirth walking forwards, sword twitching in anticipation, “Useful for what exactly?”
“Peace,” she answers, cold and clear, “You’re a smart, educated man. Killing us off like this will stir resentment. The people will know what you did.”
“The people will fall in line.”
“What of the nobles?” Greer’s voice is soft but growing stronger. “The nobles will know what you did.”
“They will fear me.”
A stray breeze ripples across my skin, dragging my mother’s perfume with it. Roses. Always roses. My tongue is coated with blood, the metallic taste makes me want to gag but I can’t summon the energy.
“Perhaps,” Greer continues, “Or they’ll plot against you. Killing children and entire swaths of well-armed nobles are very different things. Those who believe the Old Stories will say you doomed the Kingdom - a narrative that could destroy your reign before it begins. Dead, my family will haunt your rule.”
“Alive you’ll raise armies-”
The words are so loud, I can’t possibly have mistaken them. My heart stops. Every nerve in my body lights up like they’re being scalded.
She wouldn’t. She couldn’t!
“Marry me,” she repeats softly, knowing she has his undivided attention, “You’ll have not only a throne but also a way to quiet the voices of dissent and end a poisonous narrative before it starts.”
“Marriage?” he laughs. Greer flashes him a pretty smile, an inviting smile. His eyes linger on her face, feet shifting and shoulders tense. She’s gotten under his skin.
“Would that be so bad? I’m of age, I’m pretty and, more importantly for your reign, I hold the right family name. Think about how much easier the next steps will be with me at your side.”
“We don’t know what will come next. This dissent might never happen,” scowls one of the men behind. He walks forwards, marching through a pool of my blood. I don’t have the strength to lift my head, but the blistering pain is beginning to fade. Whatever has wrapped itself around my shoulder is sucking the pain from my wound. Energy slowly drips into my bones, a hot itching spreads in my muscles. My flesh is being tugged back together.
Everything is getting sharper. My ears. My sight.
“But there is a good chance of it,” says someone else.
The ringleader sizes up my sister. She stares back at him, white hair outlined in an onyx glow.
“Could you do it?” He walks through the red puddle on the floor, each step accompanied by a splash before crouching down in front of her, “Could you really lie with a man that murdered your family? Would you be a wife or a viper lying in wait?”
“I would be a Queen lying with a King,” she answers without hesitating.
He laughs, filling the darkness with a malicious echo.
“Oh the ambition in you!” he grabs her chin with bloody fingers, “Alright little snake, but you have to do one thing for me first. Prove it.”
“How?” snaps one of the men.
“Easy,” Greer’s words ring with confident malice, “I’ll kill my father.”
The laugh their leader makes is cold. He pushes his crimson sword into her fingers, pulling her face close to his. He yanks her to her feet, spinning her around, forcing her back against his front.
“You want to be my Queen, then secure my reign,” he whispers in her ear, running scarlet fingers across her throat.
Greer’s knuckles turn white. She grips the sword tighter.
My heart gallops. I want to move but I can barely shuffle my fingers. I want to scream but the noise dies in my throat. Fresh tears well in my eyes.
Greer doesn’t hesitate. She doesn’t even try suggesting alternatives.
Father. The only other one of us still alive. He’s buckled on the ground, completely broken. He doesn’t raise his head to look at his daughter.
My heart thunders. My silent sobs choke me. Greer raises the sword high. Our family blood runs down the weapon to snake around her wrists.
“No,” No one hears me. My pain is lost to the breeze.
Greer brings down the blade with a sickening smack and crack. There’s a wet ripping as it severs bone and flesh.
Anything that’s left of my heart is shattered. Grief robs me of breath.
Silence reigns. She pulls the weapon free and hands the sword back to her fellow murderer.
“My little viper.” He grips her throat. He brings her lips to his.
I am not dead.
I should be. The sword should have taken me. I should be with them.
But I’m not.
I manage the strength to turn my head sideways. Something had grown out of the grass, crawled across the ground. My mother’s roses, following a path of her blood. They’ve reached for me. They wrap around my shoulder, thorns digging into my flesh, pulling the wound together. A rush of life floods my body, skin knits and flesh fuses held in place by thorny stitches.
A surge runs through my blood. The memory of my mother’s strength grabs hold of my bones and floods power into my limbs.
I’m the last of us. And I refuse to die here.
“Did that just move?” frowns one of the men.
Everything races into overdrive. I throw myself to my feet, and even though my whole body is burning I sprint for the gate.
I race out of my mother’s garden. The damp dirt clings to my toes as they dig into the soggy mess. The chilled breeze is behind me, icy fingers running up and down my spine.
Men are chasing. Yelling. Closing in. Their boots are heavy on the stones of the path. There’s no pain in my feet or shoulder. There’s no chill in the night air or the rain starting to drop from the sky.
I am consumed with dread.
Panic fuels my limbs, pushing me faster and further. I throw a look over my shoulder. Two men are in pursuit. One I recognise. My father’s friend. Lord Wentis.
I need to get away. Lungs rushing with air, pain numbed through fear. That one idea burned into my brain.
Get away. Get away. Get away.
I see the river. Dark and smooth like taut black satin. It almost growls as it licks the bank. My steps falter. It’s too fast. Too cold. I’ll die.
I throw another look behind me. Those men are closing fast. I have no choice. At least with the river I have a chance.
I hit the water and I’m robbed of breath. Cold knives attack my flesh from every angle. It digs into my skin, my eyes, my nose. It rips through my muscles, freezes my bones. Lost in the darkness and desperate for breath my heart crashes like rolling thunder in my ears. My lungs burn, my limbs are screaming.
I throw my head above the water, only to be dragged under again.