December! We've made it. 2018 was a roller-coaster year for me, with some very bright highlights, including the release of the final book in the Creatures of Light trilogy and big progress on my other manuscripts. At times this year felt like it detached from linear time altogether, and it was possibly the most stressed I've ever been by large-scale events outside my control, but here we are at the end. In celebration, and as a holiday thank-you to my readers and followers, this month features an illustrated short story set prior to the events of Woodwalker.
It's no secret that Mae, the protagonist and narrator of Woodwalker, is exiled from her home--that much is given away on the back cover of the book. But what did things look like on the night of her arrest? What furtive things were swirling around the palace, and who was slinking through the shadows before Mae was led away from the Silverwood? Take a glimpse into that fateful night through the eyes of a character readers might remember from the firefly slopes of Lampyrinae.
If you haven't read Woodwalker, not to worry--there are only a few spoilers included in this story, and none are major to the plot. Consider this a peek into the events leading up to chapter one. For those of you who have read the book, keep your eyes open for nods to some of the twists and turns you know and love...
Read it all after the jump!
SONGBIRD AND SHADOW
“Jenë. Jenë. Wake up--Jenë, you have to wake up.”
Jenë shifted on her bunk, wrapped in the warm cocoon of a dream. “Rrgg… go away, Senna.”
Jenë’s bunkmate grabbed the coverlet and stripped it away, letting in a wash of cold air. She swore and curled up, groping for the blanket. “Senna! Go away! It’s not wake up call yet!”
“No,” Senna said urgently. “It’s the middle of the night. But you have to get up—it’s your cousin.”
Jenë groaned. “It’s the day after midsummer. I’m not taking off on some clandestine mission—last time I did she had me felling pines for nine hours…”
“No.” Senna cut her off, and through the haze of sleep Jenë detected more than just mere irritation—Senna was frightened. “It’s not a mission. Something’s happened. I think… I think she’s in trouble.”
Jenë opened her eyes. The idea of Ellamae in trouble was nearly laughable—in every crisis she came across, she generally emerged victorious enough to win a medal. That is, if the king had ever thought her worthy of a medal. Jenë couldn’t fathom an outcome other than her cousin bolstering her already legendary status as the anarchic champion of the Silverwood.
Jenë sat up. “What’s happened?”
“Get up, put your boots on. Hurry, I don’t know how much time we have.” Senna threw her a pair of trousers to put on under her nightshirt and then tossed her a pair of civilian boots.
“Senna,” Jenë said, belting her trousers. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“I don’t know!” she said, anguished. She was in Ellamae’s squad, one of the scouts who served under her as Woodwalker. “But she’s in prison.”
Jenë’s fingers froze on her boots. “Prison?”
“They locked her up last night. I don’t think word was supposed to get out, but my brother’s a Palace Guard—he told me they brought her in.”
“Why is she there?”
“I don’t know. Something about the king. Something about treason. The prison guards won’t let anybody in, but they might make an exception for family.” She hauled on Jenë’s arm to set her upright, and then pushed her to the door. “Go on!”
Jenë stumbled into the barracks corridor. Still foggy with sleep, she gathered her wits and jogged toward the colonnade connecting the Guard Wing to the main palace. The hallways were dark and silent, but it wasn’t the serene silence that should have accompanied deep night. It was a tense silence, almost tangible, like the palace was holding it’s breath. As Jenë ran from the Guard Wing and into the adjoining foyer, she noticed lamps lit haphazardly, clustered particularly around the dispatch office, where all the scout records were kept. Doors were open where they shouldn’t be; murmuring came from behind others when the rooms beyond should have been empty.
In the greater palace, guards weren’t standing rigidly at their assigned posts—many were leaning around corners or bent over bannisters to whisper to others. She rushed by them. If they’d heard the news about Ellamae, and if they recognized her, they must have guessed where she was going. Jenë’s heart tightened in worry. The Wood Guard would riot for Ellamae, but she wasn’t sure about the Armed Guard, and the Palace Guard was another thing entirely—they were farther from the doings in the country and closer to the king’s inner circle. Jenë couldn’t be sure they would be sympathetic to her or her cousin. The prison landing was going to be the hardest. If the guards there wouldn’t let her in—and technically they shouldn’t— Jenë wasn’t sure what she was going to do.
But to her utter shock, there was no one on the landing. The two corners where the Palace Guards usually stood were empty, and the heavy door was cracked open, leading into the darkness of the prison stairwell. Where had they gone? Were they just inside? Had someone else come to investigate? Jenë was Ellamae’s only family in the palace.
She didn’t wait to think on it. She threw open the door and ran down the stairs, the way lit by guttering cast-iron lanterns. She reached the bottom of the staircase, expecting to find another guard on patrol—but there was no one.
Had Ellamae escaped and dispatched the prison guards? As soon as the idea entered Jenë's head, she flicked it away. The thought of her cousin attacking a fellow Guard was absurd.
Jenë slowed her pace as she headed into the first cell block, steeling herself to peer through the barred doors. Some were empty, but many were not—poor, shivering fools who’d fallen behind on taxes, or mishandled classified information, or given a whisper of being disloyal to the king. Most were asleep, but a few were up, pacing or muttering, or simply staring into the corridor. Jenë swallowed and pressed forward, forcing herself to look in every cell.
Ellamae wasn’t in the first block, or the second. The third was the most remote, reserved for only the most egregious of criminals—murderers and traitors.
“Great Light, you all move louder than an elk caught in the courtyards.”
And her cousin.
She was lying on her back on the flagstones with her feet propped up against the wall. Her dark, curly hair was splayed out behind her, worked loose from its usual unruly knot. She was in uniform, the dark green fabric made black in the dim light, with only a few glints from the silver florets and Woodwalker pin.
She didn’t look at Jenë. Her gaze was fixed on the ceiling.
“Mae,” Jenë said, dropping to the floor by the bars.
“Excuse you, I’m in uniform—you address me by my office, Junco.”
“What happened?” Jenë asked, unwilling to let her cousin snark her into distraction. “What’s going on? Why are you here?”
“Because the damned nancy Palace Guards dragged me down here. Palace Guards, Jenë! The Guard of Last Resort, muscling a Woodwalker into a cell! It was probably the proudest day of their lives.” There was another flash of silver. Ellamae was turning something in her fingers—a scout compass. No, a fancier compass—one with an engraved lid. Jenë was surprised the guards hadn’t taken it from her upon her arrest, but she wasn’t going to waste time wondering about it.
She curled her fingers around the bars. “Mae, please—if you answer me, maybe I can help you.”
Ellamae gave a hollow laugh. “No, Jenë. You can’t help me. But, I do know how fast gossip spreads through the Guard, and I’d like to make sure the story’s the truth. So here it is: I shouted myself hoarse at the king and his council.”
The bottom dropped out of Jenë’s stomach. “You did what?”
“Accusations, insults, obscenities—good ones, too, I should probably write some of them down.”
“Why?” she whispered. The other prisoners she’d passed had been given life sentences for less. “Why would you do that?”
“The same reason I do anything, Jenë. Because our king is a raging, inflamed boil on this country.”
Jenë whipped her head to the side, terrified her words would carry. “Ellamae…”
“He’s just making stuff up now,” she continued evenly, as if holding a breakfast conversation and not spouting flagrant treason. “He’s dismantling the Guard, the office of Woodwalker—we, who are meant to protect the Silverwood—he’s destroying us because we’re in the way of his agenda. Lifting mining restrictions, easing pollution thresholds, keeping us busy with stupid stuff like border patrols… it’s all crap, Jenë. It’s always been crap. And I finally went too far for his liking.”
“What’s he going to do?” she asked. “What's your sentence?”
Ellamae was silent, her gaze on the ceiling and her fingers unmoving on the compass. Jenë mentally ticked through all the sentences she’d heard of—life in prison, servitude in the silver mines, even execution in the not-so-distant past, though it wasn’t a common practice for citizens anymore.
“Mae,” she pleaded.
“He’s kicking me out,” she said.
“Kicking you out of the Guard?” Jenë asked. She’d expected at least that, but if that was her only sentence…
“No,” she said. “He’s kicking me out of the Silverwood.”
Jenë’s blood went cold. “Exile?”
“Lifelong exile,” she confirmed. “Hey, I’ll get to see the ocean. Maybe I’ll become a sailor.”
For the first time, her bluster didn’t hit home. Jenë’s fingers shook on the bars as comprehension sunk in—the sentence was the most devastating one she could think of. Wood-folk didn’t travel beyond their own borders. It wasn’t done—it hadn’t been done in generations, not since diplomacy collapsed with Lumen Lake and the monarchy began trading with Alcoro. Wood-folk didn’t need outside trade to supplement their resources in the forest. And Ellamae was a Woodwalker—the youngest in decades, and the fiercest one in history, at least, to the younger scouts. Jenë had a feeling that if someone were to cut her cousin open, soil and leaf litter would spill out instead of blood.
After another heartbeat, Jenë jumped to her feet. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?”
“To find a prison guard. To find a key. I’ll get you out of here.”
“Oh, please.” At the last second, Ellamae realized her cousin was serious, and she lashed her hand through the bars to snatch a handful of fringe on her boot. “Jenë, stop. Cut it out. You can’t do that.”
“Don’t be stupid. I know you’ve got more sense. Do you think a prison guard will just give you their key?”
“I’ll… I’ll bribe one of them, or…”
“Or what? Knock one out? You haven’t even got your target stripes yet, let alone hand-to-hand combat.”
Jenë flushed in the darkness. “I’ll steal a key.”
“And wind up in the next cell over. Jenë, listen. If you break me out, what happens? Do you think I’ll go free? Do you think I can head on back to our family on Beegum Bald and live quietly? No—Vandalen will set the Guard after me as soon as he conjures up the capacity to string two words together. There will be nowhere I can hide in the Silverwood.”
“But…” Jenë searched for rationale. “But our family… your ma and pa, your brothers… Sera, Mae, Sera’s baby is due…”
“I know,” she said, her voice quieter. “I know. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. But it’s too late, Jenë. It’s too late for me.”
Jenë stood silently next to her door, her cousin’s fingers still tangled in her boot fringe. Her eyes began to prickle. Earth and sky. She didn’t want to cry in front of Ellamae—she’d never once seen her cousin shed a tear. But Jenë’s sniffle gave her away, magnified by the cold stone walls.
“I’m going to get you out,” she said, dashing her hand over her eyes.
“No, you’re not. You can’t, and I won’t let you. If you get a key and unlock my door, I’m just going to sit here.”
“How can you say that?” she asked, her voice rising in the darkness, her fists balled by her sides. “How can you just give up? How can you let him win? How can you be okay with leaving us?”
Ellamae’s grip grew tighter on Jenë’s boot. “Sit down.”
“Jenë Junco, I am in uniform and you are under my command--sit down!”
Her knees buckled of their own accord, and she dropped to the cold stone. This despite the fact that with Jenë in civilian clothes and Ellamae in prison, the hierarchy of command seemed a bit scrambled.
Ellamae’s fingers went from Jenë’s boot to her knee, her eyes piercing through the darkness. “Jenë, listen. I screwed up. I know I did. If I’d kept my temper, maybe I wouldn’t be here. But for how much longer? Vandalen was going to make an example out of one of us sooner or later, and I’m sure my name was first on his list. And here’s the thing—he’ll think he’s won. You understand that? By getting rid of me, he’ll think he’s cowed the other Woodwalkers, and the rest of the Wood Guard, into submission. He’ll think the whispers and the accusations of corruption will shrivel up. You want that to happen? Do you want my defeat to be the Guard’s defeat?”
“No,” Jenë whispered.
“No,” Ellamae agreed. “If you care about me at all, if you care about the Guard, if you care about the Silverwood—then you keep fighting. Got that? Whether I’m here or not, you keep doing what’s right.”
“We’ll never be able to manage it without you.”
“That’s crap. Do you know what a hawkmoth is?” she asked, referencing her epithet.
Jenë ran her sleeve over her nose. “It’s a moth,” she said. “A moth that’s yellow like a bee, and flies like a hummingbird.”
“Right. Sneaky little creature, able to pretend to be something it’s not. But you know what? It’s still just a moth. Not a bee. Not a bird. If an animal sees through it’s disguise, it’s nothing but a snack. Now.” She shook her cousin’s knee. “What’s a junco?”
“A bird,” Jenë said dully. “A little gray bird.” She’d picked it as her epithet because she liked how they flocked around her childhood window, stormy gray, energetic, chittering. But if they were looking for deep personal meaning, Jenë considered it a stretch. Juncos were birds of no importance. No flashy plumage, no sweet song. A background bird.
“And what’s the king?” Ellamae asked.
Jenë gave another involuntary glance down the corridor. “Warbird. An eagle.”
“Right. And you know what a junco will do to an eagle?”
“Probably get eaten.”
“Probably. You know what a flock of juncos will do to an eagle? They’ll tear the bastard apart.”
Jenë was silent.
“I’m not a flock, though,” she whispered.
“So raise one,” Ellamae said. “Raise a flock of songbirds. Sparrows and towhees and chickadees. Raise a damned maelstrom of little gray birds, and fight back.”
Jenë pressed her palms to either side of her face, as if she could block out her cousin’s words. She heaved a thick sigh, her nose stuffy. “It won’t help, though. It won’t help you. Even if… the king…” Jenë couldn’t bring herself to say the words aloud, so dangerously treasonous. She drew in a breath. “Prince Valien is next in line. And for all we know, he’ll be even worse.”
It was hard to imagine the prince being a worse king than Vandalen. He’d joined the Guard a few years before, training as diligently as any of the new recruits, but making few friends. If stories from the older scouts could be believed, most were wary of him at best. He was quiet and calculating, always watching, rarely speaking, frequently turning up in places he hadn’t been expected, sometimes with odd bruises or scrapes that couldn’t be explained. If he needed to use Guard materials or gear, he always came at night or the early morning and melted away soon after. Awkward silences persisted around him—many speculated that he was studying the inner workings of the Guard so he could continue the king’s crusade to dismantle it. But he didn’t have his father’s obsession with power—at least, not yet. Where the king was brash and iron-fisted, the prince was a shadow.
He was a mystery.
It took Jenë a moment to realize Ellamae had been silent. Her cousin turned the silver compass slowly in her fingers.
“Jenë,” she said, and then she stopped herself. She pursed her mouth, as if she was thinking.
“What?” she asked.
“I think you can trust the prince,” she finally said.
Jenë lifted her head. “You do?”
“At least, I don’t think you need to worry about him. Not right now, anyway. Vandalen isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The main thing is to stick together, and keep upholding the purpose of the Wood Guard. Listen to Reuel, and the other Woodwalkers. They’re just as angry as me, and twice as smart. Don’t let Vandalen divide you. Keep each other strong.”
In the adjoining cell block, something banged against a bar, and Jenë jumped at the echo. Distantly, she heard the creaking of heavy metal hinges from the prison landing. Dread flooded Jenë’s stomach.
“Go,” Ellamae said. “Don’t get caught here.”
“I don’t want to go.” Jenë gripped the bars separating her from her cousin. “What if he sends you away soon? What if he sends you away before we can do anything about it?”
“Jenë, I don’t think there’s any doubt of that.” Her voice was low and sad, and it startled Jenë to hear her so resigned, so devoid of the snarly fire she usually carried inside her. Ellamae snaked her hand through the bars and squeezed Jenë’s wrist gently, and then she started prying her cousin’s fingers off the bars. “Explain things to my ma and pa, all right? And Sera and the others. Watch out for them—don’t let them get in trouble with the king.”
“But—” Jenë protested. Another tap filtered down the corridor. Ellamae pushed her again, waving for her to stand up. Slowly, automatically, Jenë rose to her feet, but she couldn’t make herself leave yet. Her cousin had been a presence in her life from her first breath— Jenë had never stopped wishing she could be like her. Tough like her, brave like her, smart like her. Ellamae wasn’t supposed to leave the Silverwood.
Ellamae wasn’t supposed to leave her.
“But,” Jenë tried again, and her eyes burned with tears she couldn’t keep back anymore. “What if… what if I don’t see you again?”
Ellamae sighed and settled back on the cold floor, resting her hands on her chest with the silver compass underneath.
“Unfortunately,” she said wearily, “I think you probably will.” Jenë could hear the grimace in her voice. “You’d better go get your class A’s on. The king... he's going to want to make this a show.”
You can purchase Woodwalker, Ashes to Fire, and Creatures of Light from any book retailer, including:
Thanks for reading, and for all your love and support this year and always. I hope this holiday season is full of warmth and peace for all of you, and that we all roll into 2019 with fresh intention and passion.
What blog topics would you like to see from me this coming year? Leave your ideas in the comments!
December Art Roundup
I finally did a colored piece for The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee, plus a personal piece and a slew of Queen's Thief art for totally legitimate Reasons.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator