- The Parliament House
READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Marrow Charm by Kristin Jacques
The gap between the blacksmith and Morgan's Drink House was just wide enough for Azzy and her pickaxe to squeeze through. The soot-covered apprentices and hungover patrons paid little attention to the lone girl sneaking off between the buildings. None of them would snitch on her—they hated the Elder as much as she did.
The damp air outside the Heap belied the dangers of the dark. She kept a sharp ear out for the ever-present threat of grimwerms, trailing her fingers along the slick wall of the main tunnel to guide her. A light would be discovered by the watchers at the gate, and Azzy found her way better in the dark. Light made too many shadows, made her miss things. She would have missed this opening if she relied on so simple a sense as sight.
The chill caught her attention, that teasing hint of air so cold it nipped her trailing fingers. She crouched down, tentatively dipping her hand into the hole, holding her breath as she waited for another gust of air to reach her. There!
No guarantee that the crevice wouldn't peter out into a dead end or narrow too much for her to crawl through. The massive grimwerms constantly burrowed through, where their maggot-pale bulk upset and collapsed the earth into new configurations. The walls were snug against her shoulders as she crawled inside, but she pressed on, goaded by the whisper of icy air. She reached for a jut of rock to pull herself forward and stopped, marveling at the faint glow of her skin. There was light ahead, weak and gray, but pure—nothing like the filmy luminescence of the day lamps.
Eager, she scrambled forward, blinded by the sudden influx of light as she tumbled into wet, white powder. She gasped at the sensation and squeezed her eyes shut until the light didn't scald her closed lids. Blinking rapidly, she forced them to adjust, opening them wide at last. The numbness in her fingers and penetrating chill that seeped up from her knees were forgotten at the sight before her.
Azzy could count on one hand the number of times she'd ventured to the Above. Each time left her breathless. Stars sparked like trapped gems in a swirling mass of velvety purple and deep blue. Their light reflected off the white blanketing the ground, revealing snow, chips of diamond that covered every inch of the land. She rose to her feet, laughing as she spun, head flung back to the heavens.
The stars felt physically close, as if she could reach up and skim her fingers against the underbelly of that endless velvet dark. Her mama told her stories of how people once rode through the sky on metal wings. She wondered if they could touch the stars. Azzy stopped her spinning abruptly as she thought of her mother. Her reason for risking this little excursion weighed on her anew, draining away her elation. Time to get to work.
The moon hung low and full, either rising or setting over the horizon, she couldn't be sure. The solitary howl of some animal sounded in the distance, low and mournful and a firm reminder to be swift with her task. If the tunnels were dangerous, the Above was worse by a hundredfold. “Grab anything green, grab any plants you can find”—those were her goals.
Azzy unhooked the scraper blade strapped to her leg and knelt to peel the moss and lichen clinging to the rocks. “Moss for rashes, lichen to strengthen the body’s defenses.” She continued her mental recitation as she wrapped each individual sample in separating cloth. The necessity of speed and meticulous care sent a tremor through her arms. Biting the inside of her cheek, she ripped the bark from the surrounding trees. Strip, wrap, strip, wrap. She could hear the familiar lecture on cross-contamination droning on in her head, steadying her movements. This was too important to muck up. Azzy knelt and scraped back the snow to dig out the dried shoots of sleeping plants, anything and everything she could think of to restock the Apothecary's supplies. Someone had to; the Foragers had been gone for nearly two months. Their supplies were perilously low. She couldn't procure the more exotic ingredients to refill all that had run out but having nothing on hand was a dangerous position for an apothecary, especially after her brother’s episode last night...
Another howl cut through the air, much closer than before, choked at the end. Azzy looked up, staring through the dark columns of snow-covered trees. A high-pitched whine emanated from within, filled with pain and fear. The sound stroked her skin like the point of a blade, made the hair rise on her arms. Exchanging the scraper for her pickaxe, she moved forward, scanning her surroundings for the danger.
A rough-barked tree snagged on her clothing.
Azzy looked down, puzzled by the translucent threads trailing from her sleeve, catching on the bark. She pulled away. The threads went taut. The bark ripped away, so suddenly that Azzy rocked on her heels. She froze, her breath caught in her throat, following the threads to denser strands of gauzy white that laced through the higher branches. Not threads—web. The sparse canopy of trees was interconnected with swaths of webs, twisting in the wind with a soft clicking sound. They were entangled with bones, hung like macabre wind chimes. Broken skulls leered down at her.
She swallowed hard. Screams were for fools and food; Azzy refused to be either. Of course, she was a fool for blithely wandering into a winnowrook's web. A grotesque melding of crow and spider far larger than either, winnowrooks were an all too common predator. Every time she ventured to the Above, their infestation of the area seemed to spread. but she wasn’t caught, not yet. She took a step back. Movement thrashed in the corner of her eye. She bit her tongue bloody to keep from crying out. A pitiful whine reached her ears, wrapping around her better judgment as her traitorous gaze followed the sound to its source.
A massive wolf dangled a foot off the ground from the thick gray cords, his twisted position giving her an eyeful of his anatomy. He wrenched against the web, painting it red. The threads were so tight around his body they cut through the thick pelt of mottled black and gray fur. He was killing himself. The more he fought, the tighter the web would constrict until it cut off his air or he bled to death. He jerked into a halting spin, half facing her. His pale yellow eyes were sightless and wild, so panicked he didn't see her standing there.
His dying movements would draw them out, and soon, with the delectable promise of fresh meat. Azzy had to flee, run for the safety of the caves before the winnowrooks descended from the treetops like spidery angels of death. She holstered her axe and bent her knees, prepared to run away. The wolf's choking whimper made her pause. Her breath shuddered with her hesitation, her body vibrating on the edge of indecision. Her thoughts bordered on madness.
Don't be stupid, Azzy, he's already dead, he just can’t accept it yet.
She chewed on her lip, listening hard for the telltale skitter-skatter of claws on silk as she tapped the scraper knife strapped to her thigh. It went against every instinct, every inner voice that screamed at her to run except one—one tiny niggling voice that made her spin around in the snow. She palmed her blade as she rushed for the wolf.
Death smelled sweet, of warm sucrose against the clean wet snow.
A devious weapon—the cloying scent of the winnowrooks, evoking memories of hearth and home, and the sweet treats of childhood. It teased her nostrils as her blade snagged against the strands binding the wolf's rear flank. She gritted her teeth and sawed, the blade not made for this sort of cut. She would leave his jaw for last—sensible, as he lashed out blindly at her presence, brushing against her hard enough she nearly lost her footing. She spread her legs to ground herself and hewed at the webs. There was no room for error, not when the bones began to click and rattle overhead.
Snap. One hind leg free, the severed web released enough weight to drop the wolf back to the ground. The beast startled and lunged forward. A thread nearly sliced off his ear. Azzy grabbed his entrapped jaw, breathing hard as she tried to hold him steady, mentally begging for him to calm. She sawed at the next thick strand. The bones sang their click clack warning song from the high branches, reaching a desperate crescendo that ended with eerie silence. She shuddered and kept sawing.
The smell enveloped her, curling around her like cooling sweet cakes fresh from the fire at first light strike. Azzy didn't dare turn around. She knew what crept toward her, watching for its shadow out of the corner of her eye. Snap, another thread cut. She doubled her efforts, hacking at the last stubborn mass of webbing. The wolf went still, his yellow eyes focused, settling on her briefly before shifting over her shoulder. A low growl rumbled from his chest as a spindly shadow stretched across the snow at her feet. Her muscles tensed. Azzy changed her grip on the blade.
She pivoted, jumping back as the winnowrook's claw-tipped leg descended. It wasn't far enough. Hooked claws sliced through her layers of clothing to draw a long burning line between her breasts. She yelped and slashed wildly in return. It was pure luck she caught the winnowrook across one of its eyes, distracting it with pain. It reared with a screech, limbs flailing. Its feathery lower body slammed into her and pinned her against the wolf. The winnowrook’s blood smoked on her skin, not hot but cold, ice searing her flesh. She had no breath to gasp, her lungs pinched between her ribs. Her grip was slicked by blood, both from the wolf and the winnowrook, but she managed to twist her arm back and cut the last knot of web with a desperate yank.
Azzy and the wolf tumbled away from the scrabbling winnowrook. The consequence was the loss of her knife, flung away into the snow. She rolled to her knees, pulling her pickaxe from the holster on her back as the winnowrook shook off its injury and set its remaining seven eyes on her. Its beak opened to emit a crackling hiss, dead leaves over stone. The pinfeather ruff that crowned its head stood on end. It lifted the upper half of its segmented body, legs splayed in a gesture of pure aggression.
Azzy braced herself and clenched her pickaxe tight in front of her. No time for regrets and thoughts of unkept promises—she’d go down fighting. The wolf flew over her head, a streak of gray and red. He latched his bloodied jaws on the monster's exposed underbelly and tore into it. The winnowrook was massive, but it was no match for the injured beast. With a snarl, the wolf whipped his head, taking a chunk of the monster with it. Dark blood spilled over the muddied snow, sending plumes of sweet-smelling smoke into the air. Its rattling scream numbed her ears and made her molars ache. She watched—terrified, transfixed—as the wolf tore into it, again and again, ripping away a piece each time until the winnowrook collapsed to the ground in a pool of black fluid. Its eyes paled, milky at the moment of its death.
She released a shaky breath. The cut between her breasts throbbed. The wolf cleaned his muzzle in a snowdrift, wiping off the winnowrook's icy blood. Azzy attempted to stand, but her legs were too wobbly to support her weight. She needed to leave, to clear the area before the wolf's attention fell to her.
His head snapped up at her movement. She froze, calling herself all kinds of stupid for freeing the damn thing. What was she thinking? Of course, he was going to turn on her, he was a wild creature, half-mad from the winnowrook’s death trap. Her knuckles turned white on the axe handle. Had she freed the wolf only to kill him now? It felt wrong. Her palms itched. Wrong, this was wrong.
The wolf's lip curled in a sneer, lowering into a hunter's crouch. Azzy's senses fizzed with awareness. The axe slipped from her hands, landing with a thud at her feet. There it was, the same niggling voice, a whisper at the back of her thoughts. She listened, reaching through the torn layers of her shirt to dip a hand in her own blood. The wolf's ears swiveled forward as she lifted her red painted fingertips for him to see.
He padded toward her with hesitant steps, his head tilted. He towered over her kneeling form. His torn nose drew closer, inhaling her scent. Azzy closed the distance, and gently swabbed her blood across his muzzle. Her thumb swept down, through his red slicked fur. She pulled back, drawing her thumb across her forehead, like a ritual, a binding gesture. The wolf drew back with a huff, shaking himself. He leaned in to sniff her again, closer, his great head nuzzling the cut across her chest. A pink tongue darted out, leaving a trail of warmth as he lapped her wound clean. Azzy kept perfectly still until he finished and drew back to stare at her with stunning mead-colored eyes. For a moment, she saw something flicker like lightning in his pupils, before the wolf turned and slunk away.
Azzy remained where she was, too shocked by her survival and her odd impulsive actions to move. Her knees were numb in the snow, the cut between her breasts tingled, and her blood-stained fingers kept curling open and closed. When the cold wet crept up her thighs, she finally forced herself to stand, her legs steady at last. Surveying the carcass of the winnowrook, she gave a strained laugh. She was alive. Azzy retrieved her weapons, thinking of grisly necessities as she cleaned her knife. Her foot nudged one of the winnowrook’s severed legs. This was a treasure trove of exotic ingredients to take home.
Setting her jaw, Azzy crouched down and used her axe to dismantle the pieces she needed. Her brother’s face slipped into her thoughts, his skin pale and bruised, and the voice—that terrible voice that drove her into the tunnels this morning. That voice she’d risk the dangers of Above and the wrath of the Elder to never hear again. Even now, as the adrenaline of her encounter drained away, she felt the return of urgency, the impulse to run home with everything she’d so painstakingly gathered. The words chased one another in her mind, nagging her faster and faster.
The Rot is coming.
Azzy tied up as much as she could carry in the thin dropcloth she used to gather supplies, tucking the scraps of vegetation into her belt to avoid cross-contamination.
It was a tense flight from clearing to cave, digging her heels into the snow to throw herself forward with each step. The very parts she’d fought for might still get her killed. Any blood that leaked through the cloth left a trail of smoke, a flare for predators to follow. By the time she hit the mouth of the tunnel, it clouded around her, pricked at her eyes, and left an acrid taste at the back of her throat.
The tunnel was hell to maneuver. She held onto the memory of Armin shuddering in her arms. The terrible voice echoed in her ears. She kept going, falling into the pattern of her labor, stopping every few inches to pull and push the bulky pieces she collected through the narrowest gaps. The carcass seared her skin white and numb through the cloth. It was a relief to finally stagger into the main tunnels and the warm welcoming dark that caressed her frost-nipped skin.
Bone-weary, she made her way to the Heap. There was no way she could squeeze herself through the alehouse alley. She pushed her exhausted mind to concoct a lie. Luck was on her side as she approached the gates. Cale was on guard, and he was wonderfully drunk.
He blinked at her bloodied appearance, pursing his lips and squinting his eyes in the dim light like a cave mole.
"Azzy? Wha'r'ya doin' out thar?" Judging by the slur in his voice, Cale was already three flasks in for his shift on watch. She smiled and bowed her head. He still stood between her and the safety of the Heap. Best to play respectfully.
"Cale, would you open the gate for me?"
His long nose twitched at her. "What ya got thar?" he nodded at the oozing bundle at her feet. "Smells like bad pipe weed."
She shrugged. "Found a rook cobbled up in an offshoot tunnel. Pretty fresh, too, though I had trouble digging it out," she said as she gestured to her bloody clothing. "Scraped myself up pretty good."
Cale shuddered. The winnowrooks hunted and bred in the Above, but they came into the caves to die, entombing themselves in small hollows. Usually, their bodies made a meal for the scavenger grimwerms, who would knock them loose, though the Foragers would bring Brixby the leftover dregs. It made sense for her to find some, especially when they hadn’t seen a hint of Windham and his crew in the tunnels for weeks. Nothing so fresh as what Azzy had bundled with her. Azzy shuffled nervously, wishing Cale would let her in before someone with sober eyes and nose came by.
The guard shook his head, hawking a lob of spit in the dirt. "Right mess you’ar. Get your arse in here, before Prast's men see ya."
Her smile turned genuine. Cale wedged open the gate long enough for her to drag her haul in, watching the streets instead of the tunnels. Azzy nodded to him, lifting the saturated cloth off the ground. She couldn't afford to leave a trail through the crumbling stone paths of the Heap to Brixby's door. Prast would throw a fit, probably have her in a cell before the lamps went out for the night. The streets were quiet, well past the morning grind; her scavenging must have lasted long past light strike. Armin was going to throttle her.
She made a hobbling dash for Brixby's shop, wincing each time the package slapped her thigh. Her leg was numb by the time she clambered up the stone steps of the Apothecary, easing through the doorway in case there were any patrons inside.
Two hands clamped down on her shoulders. Azzy yipped as they hauled her around to face fuming gray eyes. She groaned inwardly. She'd hoped to avoid a confrontation with Armin until after she’d cleaned up.
"Where have you been?" Her younger brother hissed. Despite the anger in his voice, his hands flitted down her arms, checking her over. His eyes darkened at the sight of her bloody torn shirt. "You're hurt.&qu