Inkmistress – Audrey Coulthurst

WHEN OUR STORY BEGAN, I THOUGHT I KNEW LOVE. Love was a mind that moved quickly from one thought to the next, eyes an inimitable blue that lay somewhere between morning glories and glaciers, and a hand that tugged me along as we raced laughing through the woods. Love was the way she buried her hands in my hair and I lost mine in the dark waves of hers, and how she kissed me until we fell in a hot tangle atop the blankets in the back of the cave I called home. Love was the warmth kindled by her touch, lingering in me long after the first snow fell and she had gone for the winter. Love was what would bring her back to me in spring—and spring had finally begun to wake. I braided my hair and wound it into a coiled knot, then pulled on my heavy fur-lined boots studded with nails for traction. My satchel hung on a hook beside the door, already packed with supplies to collect ingredients for my tinctures. A gentle wind nudged at the mouth of my cave, no longer carrying the weighty smell of ice and snow, but that of the earth beneath it. My heart quickened with the promise it held, not just of spring, but of her. Invasya. My Ina. The long nights of winter had left me forlorn, but soon Ina and other mortals from the village at the base of my mountain would visit with goods to exchange for the potions I brewed to heal them or help their sorrows slip away. The frozen waterfall that had left the bridge slick with ice would dissolve into a muddy rush of snowmelt. Winds strong enough to blow even the most seasoned climbers off the narrow path would ease, gusting from the west instead of the north, pushing away the clouds banked up against the peaks. Even if the villagers were wary of me and my gifts, I looked forward to having others to talk to, instead of singing to myself as I cooked or crafted, or whispering questions only to have them snatched away by the wind, unanswered.

Visits from the villagers eased the constant ache left by the death of Miriel, the mortal herbalist who had been my mentor. “May your death be free of life’s sorrows,” I murmured. Grumpy and exacting as Miriel had been, three years after she’d died, I still missed her. Her absence made me long even more fiercely for things I’d never had, like feasts of summer’s bounty shared with family and friends, or the intimacy of stories told to children in whispers beside the hearth before bed. Now that she was gone, I often had to remind myself that I belonged on the mountain, alone. Anytime I’d spoken of wanting a family, or living in the village, Miriel had reiterated why I couldn’t. Miriel claimed that when my father, the wind god, had abandoned me to her as a baby, she claimed the earth god spoke to her and gave very clear instructions that I was never to leave. We could go to the village only under the most necessary circumstances, like helping with births or tending wounded livestock. If mortals found out about the magic that could be performed with my blood, they’d hunt me like an animal. Amalska needed an herbalist, I needed training in potion making to understand the magic in my blood, and the gods had chosen this place for me.

Truth had been one of the pillars of Miriel’s vows to the earth god, so I knew she’d been honest. As I grew up, I discovered why it was best I’d mostly been kept apart from others. When mortal children scraped their knees, red flowers didn’t bloom where they bled into the earth. They didn’t have magic Sight that revealed the glow of life in everything alive on the mountain. When the wind whispered through the trees, they didn’t hear music that could be made into melodies sung for the gods. Their blood couldn’t be enchanted to bestow powers on people. And those were just incidental side effects of my true gift—the one I’d been told never to use or reveal. Secrecy made it a burden, yet another thing that isolated me. I fastened my wool cloak beneath my throat and tossed the satchel across my shoulder, picking up the lightweight staff I’d need for stability as I traversed the mountain. Outside, sunlight filtered through snowy pine branches overhead to dapple the ground in shifting patterns.

The snow dripdropping from the trees had the quality of thousands of muted bells, a song of welcome for the sun. A breeze nipped at my cheeks. The gusts were a gift from my father—his promise of warmer weather soon to come. “Thank you,” I whispered to the wind, smiling as it caressed my face. Though we had never spoken directly, sometimes the wind god’s touch and the reminders of his presence were all that kept me from being paralyzed by my own loneliness. I sketched his symbol in the air and walked out into the bright morning, following a trail around the side of the mountain. Along my path, clusters of crocus buds pushed out of patches of fresh brown earth that had finally surfaced from beneath the snow. Halfway up the trail, a white wing flashed over the edge of a bluff high above—the dragon who lived on my mountain had awakened. After a few more flaps and stretches, her wings steadied and she settled into position to sun herself. A shiver passed through me despite the warmth of my cloak.

The dragon and I had an uneasy coexistence. We stayed out of each other’s way, though I sometimes left the unusable parts of my kills in places I knew she’d find them. Feeding her was better than feeding the vultures, especially if it increased the chances that she’d leave me and the villagers alone. Eventually the trail cut to the north near a cliff where snow lay banked in drifts and a frozen stream had created layered icicles down the side. Water now carved through the ice, slowly beginning to open the creek’s spring path down the mountain. With the help of my staff, I stepped carefully over the trickle of water, walking alongside the snowdrifts until they grew smaller—a subtle indication that secrets lay hidden nearby. I pushed through the snow to follow the face of the cliff, tracing my hand along the stone until it grew hot under my palm, and then I blew on the warmest spot until a crevice opened in the wake of my breath. Heat enveloped me as I sidestepped through the fissure into a hidden cave. A spring gurgled in the back, filling the air with haze. Weak light filtered in from holes and cracks high above, and all around me, fire flowers grew thick and wild in every color, alive with magic, the heart of every blossom a spark in the dim.

The flowers reached for me as I paced through the cave. I trod carefully so as not to crush any blossoms beneath my boots and ran my fingers gently over their petals, feeling the life pulsing in each one. My Sight allowed me as a demigod to sense the life force and magic in everything on the mountain when I chose to look. The red blossoms burned my fingers a little, and the orange and yellow blooms tickled like summer sunlight. The blue was cool to the touch as the snow outside. But I always harvested the purple first. There were the fewest of them, all clustered at the edge of the spring. I knelt before a purple flower in full bloom and whispered a request of it, telling it of the tincture it would become if it sacrificed itself to me. I took out my silver knife and asked permission to cut it free, but it turned its sparkling face away. I nodded in respect and turned to the next, and when I asked, it bent its stem into my hand.

The touch of the purple petals against my arm made my head spin a little, helping me temporarily forget the hollow ache of loneliness deep in my stomach. “Thank you,” I said, and sliced the stem. As soon as the stalk was cut, the spark in the center of the flower fizzled out. Even without the flame at its heart, the blossom remained more vibrant than anything that bloomed outside the cave—the purple as rich as the indigo sky just after a summer sunset. I tucked the flower into my basket and smeared a bit of balm over the severed stem. I asked for a few blossoms of each color, harvesting them and then tucking them into the narrow wooden boxes in my satchel. I took my time, making sure all the plants were healthy and strong. A soft peace came over me with the ritual. Sometimes I felt more kinship with the fire flowers than people. Like me, these flowers lived in seclusion, hidden away from the world.

To help mortals, their lives ended sooner—as would mine if I used my true gift. After emerging from the cave, I shivered in the cooler air and whispered the crack in the mountain closed again. I should have taken advantage of the warmer weather to go to the lake for the water I needed to complete my tinctures, but I still had time. Waiting a few more days or even a week would ensure that the ice had begun to melt. Instead, I hiked back to the south. I couldn’t resist checking for signs that the path to the village had begun to clear. Farther down the mountain, the trees grew closer together and the snow deeper in the shadows beneath them. I slogged through until I reached the vista, a rocky outcropping that ended in a cliff. Thin clouds hung in the trees like veils on either side of the valley. I froze at the tree line, caught between hope and fear.

A person stood with their back to me, looking down at the valley, waiting. CHAPTER 2 NO ONE SHOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO MAKE IT UP THE mountain so early. Last time I checked, the path had been buried in snow so thick as to make it invisible, the bridge near the waterfall still encased in ice. But one sole person might have tried to reach me, and this was where I’d told her to meet me when spring came. “Ina?” I asked. She turned as I emerged from the trees, pulling down the hood of an indigo cloak that fluttered around her boots in the breeze. “Asra,” she said, her face lighting up. Feelings that had lain dormant in me all winter rose as though they had wings. “You’re back!” I rushed over to throw my arms around her. We hugged and laughed breathlessly for a few moments, and when we pulled apart, I finally let myself look at her.

Ina had changed since last summer. She was taller and a little more chiseled in the cheekbones, even more beautiful. The memories of her I’d held close for moons didn’t do justice to the sight of her straight nose, long flat eyebrows, and the barest hint of a cleft in her chin—the place I used to sometimes put my thumb before I pulled her in for a kiss. Her eyes were the same bottomless blue I remembered, and I never wanted to come up for air. “Hello, you,” she said. The gentle tone of her voice made a flush rise into my cheeks. Before I could speak, she pressed a kiss to my lips. Suddenly my insides were in my toes and my head was lost among the stars, all the words I’d saved for her through the dark nights of winter forgotten. “I came as soon as I could,” she said. “I’ve hardly been able to think of anything else.

” “Me either,” I said, and fell into her arms again. My stomach fluttered like the wings of a butterfly. With the way she made me feel, sometimes I thought she was as magical as the fire flowers. All winter I’d been incomplete, and now I was whole. She gave me hope that I didn’t have to be alone forever, that maybe I could have a place in the community by her side now that Miriel was no longer here to forbid it. “Why did you come so early? It can’t have been safe.” I examined her for any signs of harm, but she looked as radiant as ever. “It was a hard winter.” She gestured to the valley. Far below us, dozens of snow-covered A-frame rooftops poked up on either side of the river, barely visible but for the wisps of smoke rising from their chimneys.

On the opposite side of the valley, where the hills were gentler than the sheer cliffs we stood upon, spots of scorched earth dotted the hillside like a disease.

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