Home > Everless (Untitled #1)

Everless (Untitled #1)
Author: Sara Holland

1

 


Most people find the forest frightening, believing the old tales of fairies who will freeze the time in your blood, or witches who can spill your years out over the snow with only a whisper. Even the spirit of the Alchemist himself is said to wander these woods, trapping whole eternities in a breath.

I know better than to be afraid of stories. The forest holds real danger—thieves who lie in wait, crude knives and alchemic powder on their belts, to steal time from anyone venturing outside the safety of the village. We call them bleeders. They’re why Papa doesn’t like me hunting, but we have no choice. Luckily, in the winter, there’s no undergrowth to hide the thieves from sight, no birdsong to muffle their footsteps.

Besides, I know these woods better than anyone else. I’ve always loved it here, the way the tangled branches overhead shutter out the sun and block the bitter wind. I could stay out here all day, or just keep walking through trees glittering with webs of fine ice, through the sunlight sifted into daggers. Good-bye.

Fantasy. I would never leave my father alone, especially not if he’s—

“He’s not,” I tell myself.

The lie freezes in the winter air, falls to the ground like snow. I kick at it with the toe of my boot.

Papa says some of the trees in the forest are a thousand years old. They were here before anyone alive now was born, even the Queen, even before the Alchemist and the Sorceress bound time to blood and metal—if there ever was such a time. These trees will be standing tall long after we’re gone. Yet they aren’t predators like wolves or people. The roots beneath my feet don’t live for centuries by causing other plants to shrivel and turn gray. And their time cannot be bled from them.

If only we were more like trees.

Papa’s old musket weighs heavy on my back, useless. There’s been no game for miles, and in just a few hours it will be dark and the market stalls will draw their shades, one by one. Soon I’ll have to go into town and face the time lender. I’d hoped hunting would calm my nerves, prepare me for what I must do. But now I only feel more afraid.

Rent is due tomorrow for Crofton. Like every month, the Gerling family will replenish its coffers with our blood-iron, claiming we owe them for their protection. Their land. Last month, when we couldn’t pay, the collector let us off with a warning—Papa looked so sickly, and I so young—but it was not a kindness. This month, he’ll ask for double, maybe more. Now that I’m seventeen, legally allowed to bleed my years, I know what I have to do.

Papa will be furious, if he has his wits.

Just one more try, I tell myself as I come across a small creek running through the trees. Its trickle has gone silent, frozen over—but underneath, there’s a quick flicker of green and brown and gold: a trout, wriggling alone, along some invisible current. Alive under all that ice.

I kneel quickly and smash the skein of ice with the butt of the gun. I wait for the water to settle, for the flash of scales, sending up a silent plea to the Sorceress out of desperation. The blood-iron this trout would fetch wouldn’t make a dent in the rent Papa owes, but I don’t want to enter the market empty-handed. I won’t.

I focus, willing my racing heart to calm.

And then—as sometimes happens—the world seems to slow. No, not seems. The branches really do stop whispering in the wind. Even the almost inaudible crackle of the snow melting on the ground stops, like the world is holding its breath.

I look down, at a pale glimmer in the muddy water—it too is caught in the breath of time. Before the moment can lapse, I strike, plunging my bare hand into the creek.

The shock of the cold travels up my wrist, dulling sensation in my fingers. The fish remains still—stunned—as I reach toward it, as though it wants to be caught.

When I close my hand around its slick body, time speeds up again. The fish flails in my grip, pure muscle, and I gasp, almost losing it. Before it can fling itself to freedom, I yank it from the water and dump it into my bag in one practiced motion. For a second I watch, a little nauseated, as the fish flops around inside, making the burlap twitch.

Then, the bag is still.

I don’t know why time sometimes slows like that, completely at random. Heeding Papa, I keep it to myself—he once saw a man bled twenty years for simply claiming he could make an hour flow backward with a wave of his hand. Hedge witches, like Calla in our village, are tolerated as an amusement for the superstitious—as long as they pay rent. I used to go and listen to her stories about time rippling, slowing, sometimes even causing rifts or quakes in the earth, until Papa forbade me from visiting her shop, leery of drawing attention to us. I still remember its perfume—spice mingled with the blood of ancient rites. But if Papa has taught me anything, it’s that keeping my head down means staying safe.

I stick my hands in my underarms to warm them and crouch over the river again, trying to slip back into focus. But no more fish come, and slowly the sun lowers its arms through the trees.

Anxiety knots my stomach.

I can’t put off the marketplace any longer.

I’ve known for years it would eventually come to this, but still I curse under my breath. Turning back toward town, I sling my dripping satchel over my shoulder. I’ve gone farther out than usual, and I regret it now with the snow soaking through my worn-out boots, the trees intercepting what remains of the day’s warmth.

Eventually the woods thin out and give way to the dirt road leading into town, which has been churned into frozen mud by hundreds of wagon wheels. I trudge along its side, steeling myself for the marketplace. I’m haunted by thoughts of the time lender’s blade, the vials waiting to be filled with blood. And then the blood waiting to be turned to iron, the wave of exhaustion I’ve heard follows as he leeches time from one’s veins.

Worse, though, is the thought of listening through the thin walls of the cottage as Papa tosses and turns on his straw mattress. Sorceress knows he needs the rest. This last month, I saw him waning before my eyes, like a winter moon.

I swear his eyes are graying—a sign that one’s time is running out.

If only there weren’t such a simple explanation for this morning, when he forgot my birthday.

Papa has never forgotten my birthday before, not once. If only he would just admit that he’s been selling time, despite my begging him not to, and let me give him a few years. If only the Sorceress and Alchemist were real and I could lock them up, demand that they find a way to give him lasting life.

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